This article originally appeared in the Bulletin, the weekly newspaper of the Workers League in the United States, on January 1, 1988.
The Workers League Central Committee joins the Revolutionary Communist League of Sri Lanka and the International Committee of the Fourth International in mourning the sudden death of Comrade Keerthi Balasuriya at the age of 39.
With the death of Comrade Keerthi, the international working class has lost a heroic and selfless revolutionary, a brilliant Marxist theoretician, an outstanding polemicist and orator, and an uncompromising fighter for the cause of world socialism.
There is no question but that Keerthi Balasuriya will live forever in the history of the international workers’ movement as one of the greatest disciples of Leon Trotsky. His writings over the last 20 years profoundly enriched the theory of permanent revolution and represent an imperishable contribution to the perspective of world socialist revolution.
Throughout his political life, Comrade Keerthi was an implacable opponent of the various “independence” schemes implemented by imperialism with the aid of the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy and the national bourgeoisie in the backward countries. He rejected all claims, whether by the Stalinists, Pabloite revisionists and bourgeois nationalists, that such schemes represented viable, or at least partial, solutions to the problem of self-determination and democratic development of nations historically oppressed by imperialism.
Comrade Keerthi indefatigably maintained that the democratic revolution in the backward countries could be completed only through the conquest of power by the working class and the destruction of the existing bourgeois state.
Utterly devoted to the cause of the proletariat and determined to establish its political independence from all other class forces, Comrade Keerthi produced deva-stating critiques of theories which sought to tie the working class to one or another section of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie.
In 1971, at the age of 23, Comrade Keerthi wrote a brilliant analysis of the JVP, which exposed the organic incompatibility of petty-bourgeois radicalism with the historic interests of the working class.
In that same year, Keerthi challenged the support given by the then British section of the International Committee, the Socialist Labour League (which became the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1973), to the Indian bourgeoisie’s military intervention into what was then known as East Pakistan. He argued that Michael Banda’s positions represented a craven capitulation to the Indian bourgeoisie and a betrayal of Marxism.
Comrade Keerthi’s intervention outraged the British organization, which was then moving rapidly to the right and abandoning its past adherence to Trotskyist principles. During the next decade, the leaders of the WRP—Banda, Gerry Healy and Cliff Slaughter—did everything in their power to politically disorient and physically destroy the Revolutionary Communist League. There is every reason to believe that Comrade Keerthi’s health was gravely undermined by intolerable conditions created by the treachery of the WRP. Not only did the WRP refuse to provide the slightest material assistance to the RCL, it conspired with the most reactionary forces inside Sri Lanka, including open anti-Tamil racists, to slander Comrade Keerthi. But despite everything, Comrade Keerthi refused to retreat an inch on questions of principle.
Under the leadership of Comrade Keerthi, the RCL was able to provide the proletariat with a revolutionary line in relation to the struggle of the Tamil nation for self-determination that was a shining example of political courage. Even in the face of bloody anti-Tamil pogroms in the streets of Colombo, the RCL waged a fearless campaign against Sinhalese chauvinism and defended the right of Tamils to form their own state. However, in the finest traditions of Trotskyism, the RCL refused to subordinate the class independence of the proletariat to the political line of the Tamil bourgeois nationalists, including the LTTE.
Comrade Keerthi’s greatest contribution to the struggle for Trotskyism came during the final two years of his life. In October 1985, upon learning for the first time of criticisms which had been made by the Workers League of the WRP’s abandonment of the theory of permanent revolution, Comrade Keerthi immediately declared his support for these criticisms. In the weeks and months that followed, he threw himself into the struggle to restore to the International Committee its Trotskyist foundations.
Recognizing the historical significance of the fight against the opportunism of the Workers Revolutionary Party, Comrade Keerthi utilized to the full his theoretical capacities and prodigious knowledge in order to defeat the renegades from the International Committee. He personally wrote or directly collaborated in the writing of documents totaling hundreds of pages.
Despite all the immense political pressures confronting the Revolutionary Communist League in Sri Lanka, Comrade Keerthi would not be deterred from his international responsibilities as a leader of the International Committee of the Fourth International. The great political ideal which inspired all his work was the cause of proletarian internationalism, which, for Comrade Keerthi, found its supreme expression in the struggle to build the world party of socialist revolution.
Less than a month before his death, Comrade Keerthi attended the fifth plenum of the International Committee, where, as usual, he played a leading role in its deliberations and in the drafting of documents. At the conclusion of the plenum, he addressed several meetings of Tamils living in Europe, and his penetrating analysis of the reactionary Indo-Lanka Accord and of the LTTE’s adaptation to it made an immense impression upon his audiences.
According to his closest comrades in the leadership of the RCL, the last two years were the most satisfying of Keerthi’s life. After years of isolation, Comrade Keerthi enthusiastically welcomed the reforging of the political bonds with his comrades in the International Committee.
Corresponding to his political ideals, Comrade Keerthi was blessed with a nobility of character and intellect that made a deep and lasting impression upon all who knew him. An intellectual prodigy, he first drew attention to his immense gifts with the publication, at the age of 15, of a book of poetry that was widely praised. Though revolutionary politics eventually triumphed over his love of art in his selection of a vocation, Comrade Keerthi continued throughout his life to expand his knowledge and appreciation of the most diverse cultures.
In his native Sri Lanka, not even his most bitter political enemies dared to call into question his great moral stature or impugn his political integrity. That Keerthi Balasuriya was generally acknowledged to be a passionate and implacable defender of the ideals of Trotskyism was even admitted in the pages of the bourgeois press where his death was reported.
In the days following his death, posters bearing his likeness could be seen throughout the working-class districts of Colombo. As Keerthi’s body lay in state, first at the headquarters of the RCL and then at the home of his family, hundreds of comrades, supporters, sympathizers and even political opponents came to pay their last respects to this great and modest man.
On Wednesday afternoon, December 23, several hundred workers and youth marched with dignity through the streets of Colombo behind the hearse which carried Keerthi to the cemetery at which his body was to be cremated. At the cemetery, more than 1,000 people gathered to hear leaders of the RCL and the International Committee deliver their final tributes to Comrade Balasuriya.
The death of Comrade Keerthi removes from the scene a proletarian revolutionist who made within the space of just 39 years an immense and everlasting contribution to the struggle for world socialism.
We cannot help but feel a deep personal grief at the loss of a man from whom we expected many more years of invaluable service to the Fourth International. But we can, at the same time, draw renewed inspiration from the knowledge that his example and his teachings will become an ever more powerful material force in the struggle for world socialist revolution.