It has been the ’conference season’ in Colombo over the past few weeks. That of the United Socialist Party, which started on 16 September - a public holiday, followed those of the prime minister’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the president’s United National Party. These two major parties are long time rivals in the service of local and world capitalism.
Unlike those mass events without genuine membership participation or genuine decision-making, the congress of the USP was one of real debate and discussion. The most active members returned to their areas with renewed zeal to build the only genuine socialist party in the country.
Assembled in the hall on the first day of the proceedings were fifty five delegates and visitors, all wearing the traditional red shirts for special occasions. Among them were five members from a group called ’Akshaya’ which is discussing with the USP and the CWI about working together. Two TV channels covered the proceedings.
After formalities and welcomes, I was asked to present, on behalf of the CWI International Secretariat, an outline of some of the major features of the world situation - economic, social and political. A long period of economic stagnation, with wars, terror attacks and far right forces rising, has seen many expressions of deep dissatisfaction and anger by workers and poor people in many countries and opportunities for a revival of the ideas of socalism are definitely in evidence.
A rapid succession of questions and contributions followed the introduction, showing a keen interest in developments in a number of countries where the CWI is present. Jaco from the CWI in Hong Kong/ China/Taiwan gave important insights into developments that can have a big effect in Sri Lanka, as can the new situation opening up in India. (A road accident had unfortunately prevented a visitor from the CWI section in India from attending the USP congress.)
In the afternoon, the document dealing with world and Sri lankan perspectives (and approved by the Central Committee for discussion at the congress) was moved by Srinath Perera for the Executive. He underlined that much in Sri Lanka has changed and is changing under the new government. Support is waning for the traditional leaders of the Tamils in the North, the Muslims (especially in the East) and the estate workers of the Hill country. There is a feeling of relief that the old Rajapakse regime has gone, even if the former dictatorial ruler is waiting in the wings for a come-back. There has been a spate of protests on a number of issues around the country on economic issues like the withdrawal of subsidies to farmers and increases in VAT. But other issues like water provision and the destruction of forests etc. have seen villagers make their voices heard.
A number of isolated, but sometimes victorious, strikes have taken place. A key task for the USP and its allies is to coordinate the struggles, for example, against privatisation in the workplaces as well as in the colleges. The agitation around constitutional changes is another field for the USP to make its voice heard.
Several USP members and visitors to the congress pointed to the important lessons of past betrayals and others raised the need to agitate and organise in the very large informal sector and amongst, for example, the three-wheeler taxi drivers. The document points out that there are now one and a half million of them and they are easy prey for reactionary ideas, partly because of the isolated nature of their work and the special efforts of nationalists to recruit them.
During the session in the afternoon, Najith from the Akshaya goup made some points and expressed appreciation for the valiant work of the USP and approval of the document under discussion. A special intervention from Jaco on how to raise finance came just before Nimal Vitama made a magnificent appeal for donations to support the work of the party. Some of the USP branches had already collected together sums which went over their target figures. The marvellous total came to just under 70,000 rupees.
End of first day
At the end of the first day, the USP’s much-respected general secretary, Siritunga Jayasuriya, summed up the dicussion, filmed continuously as he did so by a TV reporter! He pointed to the party’s correct analysis and prognoses, pointing out how vital they are for correct party-building. The Russian Revolution being celebrated next year shows that a revolutionary party can be created very rapidly from small forces when the situation matures.
All acredited USP members present approved of the party’s perspectives document. At the end of this session two visitors to the congress joined the party. They signed up and paid their first dues to the assistant party secretary, Dhammika da Silva.
The following day, the congress discussed in some detail the finance and building reports given by Dhammika. She spoke of a new upturn of sales of the Red Star monthly newspaper of the USP and of the successful launch meetings of the party’s unique book on the 1980 general strike. She stressed the importance of the work amongst workers and young people and spoke of the need for special attention and initiatives to encourage women to join the fight.
There had been big achievements on finance and a record collection of funds for the traditional May Day rally. But the needs of the party were still huge. A number of comrades would be urged to double their contributions immediately. A target for membership was to be set at the first meeting of the new National Committee and broken down for the branches.
Various members and one or two potential members expressed their ideas for extending the influence and membership of the party. They included representatives of the predominantly Tamil-speaking north, of the central ’Hill Country’ (a new branch of working-class members in Nuraya Eliya) and of the ’Deep South’ - the Galle area. Jaco again spoke from the experience of his section of the CWI in building its membership and influence.
A vote was taken to approve the report and the Central Committee for the coming two years was elected. It includes some new members and all have been extremely enthused about taking responsibility for leading the party.
One of the final items on the congress agenda was a ’summing up’ from me in which I was able to convey some of the words of greeting sent from CWI sections around the world. The whole congress had been extremely encouraging and it felt as if a new period of important opportunities was opening up for the building of the USP. Siritunga echoed this sentiment with a powerful closing speech.
The very special Sri Lankan version of the Internationale was sung at the close of the congress followed by a beautiful traditional dance performed by a school student - one of the two new members from the day before. All the congress participants left for their home towns happy and confident that they are ready to carry out the tasks demanded of them by the new situation in their country.