Addressing himself in 1923 to the students of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow, Trotsky tried to make them aware of the dangers that Marxism ran in the colonial and semicolonial countries. National movements for independence, argued Trotsky, constitute a highly progressive phenomenon in world history. At the same time, the struggle for national self-determination is a struggle for strictly limited national-bourgeois aims. ‘Marxism preached the inevitability of capitalism, and those bourgeois-progressive elements which wanted capitalism for its own sake and not for the sake of socialism accepted Marxism, having previously deprived it of its revolutionary sting.’ (My italics.) Further: ‘Such is the case in all the countries . . . in which the national struggle for liberation from colonial slavery is going on. The young proletariat . . . [there] must rely on this progressive movement for support. But it is clear as daylight, that the young Marxists of the East run the risk of . . . becoming permeated with nationalist ideology.’
Separated from India by only a 20 mile stretch of water, Ceylon has none of those pressing and depressing problems which bedevil Indian life and politics. By comparison with India there is no starvation, no malnutrition; no maharajas, no untouchables to speak of; no fearsome religious taboos; little military expenditure and no neighbours with whom to dispute frontiers. The ‘Pearl of the East,’ or if one prefers the nickname given to it by the nation of shopkeepers ‘The Clapham Junction’ of East and West, is an extremely fertile island, half the size of England, blessed with a variety of climates and scenery and vegetation. While the low lying maritime provinces swelter in tropical heat, in the central highlands the temperature may be as low as 70 degrees; and in January and February the highest peaks—6,000 to 7,000 feet—may be decked with white frosty mist. Although by West European standards there is no lack of dismal poverty, the free measure of rice provided by the State, the abundance of banana and coco-nut palms, the shoals of fish in the quiet bays, help to keep body and soul together.
Expectation of life at birth has jumped from some 30 years in the 1920’s to over 62 years in the 1960’s. There is a free health service and the village streets are dotted with a multitude of People’s Dispensaries which, in conjunction with the Ayurveda clinics practising traditional Eastern medicine, more or less provide the population with some amount of medical care. The astonishingly high expectation of life for a South-East Asian country is matched in Ceylon by a high degree of literacy: at least 85 per cent of the population can read and write. There is obligatory schooling up to the age of 14, and although it can hardly be enforced—especially in the countryside, where the youngest member of the family is often entrusted with minding the village herd of buffaloes—no traveller can miss the first day of a new term: on all roads impeccably dressed and cleanly scrubbed children make their way to school. All grades of education are free, from the primary school to the University. Studies abroad, particularly of medicine and science, are also subsidized or paid by the State.
Ethnically, Ceylon—with 11,000,000 inhabitants—is like a melting pot where the races never quite ‘melted’. The Statistical Yearbook lists Lowcountry Sinhalese and Kandyan Sinhalese, Ceylon Tamils and Indian Tamils, Ceylon Moors and Indian Moors, Burghers footnote1 and Eurasians, Malays, and others. To try and disentangle the primary causes of the survival of ‘race consciousness’ would lead us too far back: the fact is that racial tensions, mainly between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, still persist dangerously near the political surface. The savage anti-Tamil pogroms of 1958 should not be forgotten. The accounts of eye-witnesses may seem hardly credible to the casual visitor today, struck by the extraordinary serenity, calmness, and apparent composure of Ceylonese crowds on festive as well as on political occasions. But this impression may be misleading. There is no certainty that 1958 will not repeat itself, unless and until the heightened raceconsciousness is replaced by the developed class-consciousness of the proletariat.
Racial distinctions are much more in evidence than caste divisions, which have never been as rigid as those in India. The curious circumstance that in Ceylon the highest caste, the farmers, were also the most numerous and that therefore the social pyramid was, in a sense, upside down, may have made it more vulnerable to winds of change. Caste barriers, which in the subsistence economy were rooted in men’s occupations naturally began to give way under the onset of capitalism. It is specifically with the ills of capitalism that modern Ceylon has now to contend.