Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International
Globalization and the International Working Class

Sri Lanka and the Tamil question

Finally, there is the question of Sri Lanka and the development of the Tamil national separatist movement under the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Here the evolution of the national question is intimately bound up with the historical development of the Trotskyist movement itself. Today the Sri Lankan section of the International Committee of the Fourth International, the Socialist Equality Party of Sri Lanka, has the task of uniting the working class, both of the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority, in a common struggle for socialism. It is the only party in Sri Lanka which from its origins has waged an intransigent defense of the Tamil minority against national oppression and the racist war waged by the Sinhala bourgeoisie.

The demand for an independent Tamil nation did not arise from some eternal desire of the Tamil people for separation and self-determination. It is the product of the imperialist settlement which granted formal independence to Sri Lanka and, most decisively, the adaptation of the leadership of the working class to that settlement.

In the years immediately following independence, the fight against anti-Tamil discrimination was associated directly with the struggles of the working class and its leadership, the then-Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). The LSSP posed a proletarian internationalist and socialist alternative to the ethnic chauvinism whipped up by the Sinhala bourgeoisie in an attempt to solidify its position and divert the Sinhalese workers and oppressed.

The nationalist degeneration of the LSSP fundamentally altered this relation between the Tamil question and the workers’ movement. The LSSP adapted itself to the nationalist project of the Sinhala bourgeoisie and consequently to Sinhala chauvinism. This turn was consummated in the LSSP’s entry into the bourgeois coalition government of 1964 and its support for a chauvinist constitution in 1972.

Tamil national separatism and ultimately the armed struggle of the LTTE were the result. It was a movement of the Tamil petty bourgeoisie based on discouragement in the prospect of a united struggle of the workers and oppressed of Sri Lanka providing a solution to the problems of ethnic and language discrimination.

The character of the Tamil separatist movement led by the LTTE has emerged clearly over the past decade. It is not a movement directed against imperialism, but rather—as both its support for the Indian intervention in 1987 and its more recent appeals to the Clinton administration demonstrate—it seeks imperialist intervention in order to further its own particularist demands.

It is not a movement which embodies democratic goals, but is rather ethnic exclusivist in its outlook, waging war on the Sinhalese and Moslem oppressed for the purpose of creating an ethnically homogeneous territory in the North and East of the island. Its terrorist actions in the South have been directed against the Sinhala working class, most notoriously in the 1996 bomb attack on the Central Bank building in Colombo. At the same time it uses armed violence and assassination to suppress any political opposition among the Tamils.

To advance the slogan of “self-determination for the Tamil people” in Sri Lanka today has, from a practical political standpoint, only one meaning. It is to support the national separatist project of the LTTE and to tell the Tamil workers and oppressed that the creation of a state by this movement will somehow create more favorable conditions for the masses and for the development of the struggle for socialism in Sri Lanka.

The International Committee and its Sri Lankan section categorically reject this perspective. It warns the Tamil people that the establishment of a Tamil Eelam state will not solve any of their problems. Any regime formed by the LTTE will be completely subordinate to imperialism and will impose dictatorial and exploitative conditions which are as bad, or worse, than what presently exists under the Sinhalese bourgeoisie. The realization of the LTTE’s aims would represent not “independence” or “liberation” for the masses, but rather the carving out of a new free trade zone in the North to enrich transnational capital and a thin layer of the Tamil bourgeoisie.

The Sri Lankan Socialist Equality Party maintains a standpoint of unconditional defeatism in relation to the war of the Sinhalese state against the Tamils. It has stood alone in opposing all use of military violence to maintain the authority of this regime in the North and East.

The Sri Lankan Trotskyists, however, reject the attempt by middle class leftists to subordinate this struggle to support for the national separatist project of the LTTE. Instead it fights to unite the Sinhalese and Tamil workers and oppressed on a socialist and internationalist program. In opposition to both the Sri Lankan state and to the perspective of establishing a Tamil capitalist statelet in the North and East, it fights for a Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and Tamil Eelam.

The fundamental issue which arises in regard to the national question is this: on what basis will the great questions facing mankind—oppression, social inequality, the threat of war—be resolved? More than 80 years ago Trotsky warned that none of these problems could be solved within the national framework, or on the basis of carving out new national states. The First World War already demonstrated that the productive forces themselves were in irreconcilable conflict with that framework. How much more true is this warning today, with the advent of globally-coordinated production and the export of productive capital all over the world?

Spartacist asserts that “Trotsky and the Fourth International he founded regarded the struggle for national independence in backward countries as an integral and important component of the world socialist revolution. The Northites now maintain that in the supposedly new era of ‘globalized’ capitalist production, national independence has become impossible and, indeed, reactionary...” [1]

Trotsky was never, as Spartacist portrays him, an unwavering enthusiast of petty-bourgeois national movements, nor an unconditional defender of national sovereignty. He rejected any fetishistic attitude toward national struggles, and insisted that “national independence” was a political chimera in the imperialist epoch.

In the 1934 manifesto War and the Fourth International, he wrote: “It must be clearly understood beforehand that the belated revolutions in Asia and Africa are incapable of opening up a new epoch of renaissance for the national state. The liberation of the colonies will merely be a gigantic episode in the world socialist revolution, just as the belated democratic overturn in Russia, which was also a semi-colonial country, was only the introduction to the socialist revolution... The national problem merges everywhere with the social. Only the conquest of power by the world proletariat can assure a real and lasting freedom of development for all the nations of our planet.” [2]

And, in 1940, while declaring its support for the struggles of India, China and the other colonial countries for independence, the Fourth International warned that in these oppressed countries: “belated national states can no longer count upon an independent democratic development. Surrounded by decaying capitalism and enmeshed in the imperialist contradictions, the independence of a backward state inevitably will be semi-fictitious and the political regime, under the influence of internal class contradictions and external pressure, will unavoidably fall into dictatorship against the people.” [3]

In another statement Trotsky again stressed that there was no possibility for an end to imperialist domination outside of the world socialist revolution: “The hopes of liberation of the colonial peoples are therefore bound up even more decisively than before with the emancipation of the workers of the whole world. The colonies shall be freed politically, economically and culturally, only when the workers of the advanced countries put an end to capitalist rule and set out together with the backward peoples to reorganize world economy on a new level, gearing it to social needs and not monopoly profits.” [4]


Workers Vanguard, March 21, 1997


Leon Trotsky, The Writings of Leon Trotsky 1934-35, New York, Pathfinder, p. 306


Leon Trotsky, The Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, New York, Pathfinder, p. 202


Documents of the Fourth International: The Formative Years 1933-40, New York, Pathfinder, p. 394