Philip: Trotskyite-turned social reformer



52nd Death Anniversary of Philip Gunawardena falls today

by Dr. W. A. Abeysinghe

The legendary revolutionary and pioneer of the Sri Lankan Marxist movement, Don Philip Rupasinghe Gunawardena, was born on 11 January 1901 in the rural village of Boralugoda in the Hevagam Korale. His father was Don Jakolis Rupasinghe Gunawardena, popularly known as Boralugoda Ralahamy. He was a local landowner who served as the village headman and Vidane Arachchi until he was imprisoned and sentenced to death under martial law during the 1915 Sinhala- Muslim riots. This sentence was later reprieved by the Governor following a petition by his wife.

Philip was the third child of a family of three boys and seven girls.

Having attended the local Boralugoda Temple and the village school Siddhartha Vidyalaya, Kaluaggala for his primary education, he later received his secondary education at the Prince of Wales’ College, Moratuwa and Ananda Vidyalaya, Colombo. After getting through the London matriculation examination, he entered the University College, Colombo to study economics. It was during this time that he joined the Ceylon National Congress. However, he was drawn towards the activities of the Young Lanka League.

His father wanted him to study in the United Kingdom to make him a barrister. Instead, at the age of 21, Philip travelled to the United States where he studied economics at the University of Illinois. There, he was radicalized and got caught up in the declining labour movement during the Great Depression days. Two years later, he moved to the more radical University of Wisconsin where he met Jayaprakash Narayan and a few other radical young men.

In Wisconsin, he completed Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in agricultural economics. In 1925, he joined Columbia University for his postgraduate doctoral studies.

In 1927 Philip Gunawardena joined the League Against Imperialism in New York, where he worked with José Vasconcelos of Mexico, gaining a working knowledge of Spanish. In 1929 he went to London, and participated in anti-colonial mass agitations. excelling as a brilliant orator, trade unionist, and even a political columnist. Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon of India, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Tan Malaka of Indonesia, and Ramgoolam of Mauritius were some of his contemporary colleagues who later became prominent figures in their respective countries.

In the midst of his anti-colonial enthusiasm, Philip joined the staff of the new Daily Worker and took over the Indian Workers’ Welfare League , an organisation founded by Shapurji Saklatvala. He later crossed the Channel to Europe and worked alongside socialist groups in France and Germany.

In the midst of the Comintern’s ‘Left Turn’, Philip surreptitiously joined the Marxian Propaganda League of FA Ridley and Hansraj Aggarwala, who opposed the Stalinists’ characterisation of the Social Democratic parties. When Ridley and Aggarwala broke with Leon Trotsky, Philip Gunawardena sided with the latter. In 1932 he travelled on the Orient Express to meet Trotsky at Prinkipo, but was stopped at Sofia by the police.

At the British conference of the League Against Imperialism, in May 1932, Philip introduced a counter-resolution on India against those moved by Harry Pollitt. As a result, the Communist Party of Great Britain expelled him on charges of Trotskyism.

However, he had gathered around him several like-minded Ceylonese, including N. M. Perera, Colvin R de Silva and Leslie Goonewardene. They came to be known as the ‘T-Group’ – later forming the nucleus of the Trotskyite faction of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party.

Scotland Yard, under orders from the India Office, foiled his intention of going to India to build a new Communist Party there. He set out for the continent, meeting members of the Left Opposition in Paris. He then hiked over the Pyrenees to Barcelona, where he had a rare opportunity to meet the Trotskyites of Spain – who were soon to undergo a civil war. His passport was impounded by the British authorities and on the urging of D. B. Jayatilaka at the request of his father he was allowed to return to Ceylon.

Soon after his return to Ceylon in November 1932, he plunged into active politics organising rural peasants, plantation workers and urban workers. He pioneered the founding of Lanka Sama Samaja Party in 1935. The following year, he was elected to the State Council from his home town of Avissawella where he continued his struggle for the welfare of workers and peasants.

When World War II broke out in the Far East in 1941, the LSSP openly opposed the British war effort and the members of LSSP had to go underground. On the Governor’s orders, Philip Gunawardena was arrested and imprisoned owing to his open opposition to the British war effort. On 5 April 1942, during the Japanese air raid on Colombo, LSSP leaders including Philip were able to escape from prison. Going by the name “Gurusamy,” in July 1942 he escaped to India and participated in the independence struggle there. As a result, his seat in the State Council fell vacant in July 1942 and was filled by Bernard Jayasuriya in the by-election that followed. In 1943 he was rearrested and detained in Mumbai, and after many months deported to Ceylon where he was given a six-month sentence for escaping and was imprisoned till the end of war.

On his release in 1945, he resumed his political and trade union activities. During the war, the LSSP split into factions and Philip Gunawardena with N. M. Perera formed the Workers’ Opposition. Thus, the reformed LSSP contested the 1947 general election emerging as the main opposition party with 10 seats in the first Parliament. Philip Gunawardena who contested from the Avissawella electorate defeating Bernard Jayasuriya was elected to Parliament. His brother Robert Gunawardena too was elected to parliament from the LSSP representing Kotte. However, Philip soon lost his seat when he was convicted by the district court and sentenced to three months rigorous imprisonment for leading employees of the South Western Transport Company of Sir Cyril de Zoysa, the bus tycoon, in the general strike in 1947. As a result of the conviction he lost his civic rights for seven years. In the by-election that followed, his wife Kusuma Gunawardena won the Avissawella seat.

A process of reunification was initiated between the LSSP and the Bolshevik Samasamaja Party (BSP) in 1950. It was opposed by Philip as a result of which he left the LSSP and formed a new party. That was how Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party was formed in 1951. The VLSSP entered into an electoral alliance with the Communist Party and contested the 1952 general election, in which his wife Kusuma Gunawardena was returned to parliament from Avissawella as the only candidate to be elected from the VLSSP.

Since 1951, Philip led the Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party and as a constituent party formed the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna under the leadership of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. At the election in 1956, he won the Avissawella seat with a large majority and was appointed a key member of the Bandaranaike’s cabinet – as the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Co-operatives.

Philip Gunawardena is remembered as the architect of the Paddy Lands Act which brought relief to the tenant cultivator and he spearheaded the Port and Bus nationalization, introduction of the Multi-purpose Co-operative movement. He was instrumental in establishing the Co-operative Development Bank (now known as the People’s Bank). At the 1959 May Day rally, Philip made a public statement claiming that the government was threatened by a conspiracy within. On 18 May 1959, he resigned from his ministerial positions with other VLSSP members citing differences with the right-wing factions of the Bandaranaike’s cabinet.

On 26 September 1959, Bandaranaike was assassinated.

Then he reformed the VLSSP into the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) which was a leftist in ideology, but was not Trotskyist in political character.

Before this metamorphosis took place in Philp, writing a very shrewd column to the Daily News, in early sixties, D.B. Dhanapala, the veteran journalist aptly detected his” originality of approach to the masses” in the following words:

“The Leftists in this country have been bereft of any sense of originality in the preaching of their doctrines, speaking an idiom the people do not understand, referring to musty books that the people have no belief in.

“Philip is the only man who has shown originality of approach to the masses in the adaptation of his theories to the background and needs of the country ….”

(Vide – Page 143 – Among Those Present – D.B. Dhanapala – Second Edition)

MEP contested the March 1960 general election winning ten parliamentary seats! However, this number was reduced to three in the July 1960 general election. Philip Gunawardena retained his seat in parliament on both occasions and later the MEP joined with the LSSP and the Communist Party to form the United Left Front, so far, the strongest socio – political movement in the country.

This writer is of the firm belief that the ULF of 1964 headed by Philip, N.M. and S. A. Wickramasinghe was “the most precious lost opportunity” in the history of Sri Lankan politics in post post-independence era. If that “Leftist Trio” could have sustained their will power and determination for another few more years, the destiny of Sri Lanka would have been wonderfully different .

By the time Sri Lankan politics reached the year 1965, just a little more than five years after the assassination of Bandaranaike, the ultra Trotskite Philip Gunawardane had undergone an ideological transformation of colossal nature. It resulted in a political metamorphosis of rare nature in him, which enabled the fire brand Marxist revolutionary to come to terms with the affable Dudley Senanayake to form a national government. It was the only option left for the well experienced and matured veteran Marxist and political activist of formidable character Philip, during his ripe years was to join the National Government. Thereby, he was able to render his final contribution to the people of the motherland, he immensely loved.

Philip’s historic words as the Minister of Industries and Fisheries, addressing the Parliament on 18th July, 1967, at the debate of the Governor General’s speech, are worthy of reiteration:

“I have always said that I will work with any group of people who are ready to develop this country, who are ready to defend the independence of this country, who are ready to serve the people of this country. Let it be any group of people – Yes, not only with the devil, but with the devil’s grandmother.”

In 1964, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party government of Sirima Bandaranaike lost its majority in parliament on its move to nationalize Lake house Newspapers where the defection of the senior minister C. P. de Silva played a big role. In the election that followed in 1965, only Philip Gunawardena was elected to parliament from the MEP and he joined the national government led by Dudley Senanayake. He was appointed as the Cabinet Minister of Industries and Fisheries and he served till 1970.

He established the Industrial Development Board, strengthened and expanded state industrial corporations and national private sector industries, and planned the development of the fisheries sector with the formation of the Fisheries Corporation. With Soviet aid he developed the Tire Corporations and Steel Corporation.

He transformed and activated, in a formidable manner, already existing industrial ventures in the country. The rejuvenation he ushered in as well as the farsighted transformation with which he fashioned the industrial sector in Ceylon from 1965 to 1970, I believe, is an integral part of our national development which the present-day students of politics should carefully study.