Posted on April 7th, 2021


Philip Gunawardene returned to Sri Lanka in 1932 after ten hectic years abroad. Of all the socialist politicians in the island, Philip Gunawardene is the only politician to have had close contact with socialist movements abroad, observed Ananda Meegama.   He had met with revolutionaries and freedom fighters in four continents. Philip said he has associated with socialists of different brands from pale pink to dark red in various parts of the world. 

His father got to know something of his son’s activities when Queen’s Counsel R.L. Pereira returned from New York. Pereira had watched a massive demonstration by the Hotel Workers Union in New York.  The hotel staff had told him that the leader was Philip Gunewardene from your country.”  On his return, Pereira    reported the matter to my grandfather, recalled Dinesh Gunawardena.

Philip Gunawardene claimed that he was the first informed socialist to arrive in Sri Lanka. There was not a single socialist when I returned. I had to teach most of them the elements of Socialism and Marxism.” he said.

Philip was the first to disseminate the idea of socialism in Sri Lanka said analysts. Philip was the most powerful exponent of Marxist ideas in the country, said Wiswa Warnapala. People were attracted by his firebrand speeches that mesmerized the audience. Philip   wanted to adjust and adapt Marxism to suit the political culture of the country, said Wiswa.

Philip on his return home immediately joined the South Colombo Youth League  started by   by AE Goonesinha, in the 1920s. NM recalled that Philip split the   Youth movement into a Left and a Right and while the Right decayed, the left developed in his hand.

Philip then   launched on his fiery political career which   spanned 1932-1972.  Philip was selected to lead the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills strike in 1932.   The strike failed but Philip and his party got an important base of support in the Mills. They published a paper, ‘Kamkaruwa’, opened reading rooms for the workers, and started a Workers education League. Erwin observed,’ the experience Philip had got in London was paying off.’

Philip opposed Goonesinha on the matter of the settlement of for the workers at Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills  In 1933, at a meeting at St. Peters College, Philip and Lesley Goonewardene were physically attacked by harbor workers attached to Goonesinghe’s union. They were saved by the arrival of the police. Philip oozing blood had got on the platform and defended the attackers saying they were not to blame, it was Goonesinghe. He urged the police to release those arrested. He was cheered and had won over the workers, said Meegama.

The Goonesinghe unions were slowly supplanted by the LSSP workers unions. A series of Goonesinghe strikes failed.  His unions were less militant, and tried to come to terms with the employers. Goonesinghe was pushed out as a leader and his historical role forgotten.

This was the start of the most enduring, nevertheless ugly characteristic of the Left movement in Sri Lanka. Its readiness to engage in power struggles among themselves, forgetting workers and capitalists alike.  Most of the time they were busy setting the workers against each other in their rival unions. The rest of the time, they were splintering into rival Marxist parties, to the delight of the watching public. The Left movement eventually   splintered itself out of existence.

But before any of this happened, Philip together with other leading Leftists started the Lanka Sama Samaja Pakshaya, LSSP. During his idealist communist days, Philip had envisioned forming a Leninist party in Sri Lanka with an iron discipline and a crystal clear ideology, said Ervin  But after he returned home, he realized that the conditions for this did not exist.

The LSSP started as a radical populist party based on a network of local branches, youth leagues, Suriya mal organizations, and other groups. The work of Leftist leaders, including Philip, in social welfare and humanitarian activities during the depression and the Malaria epidemic which followed brought them rewards. With Philip at the helm the LSSP sharpened its programme and tightened its organization over the years, concluded Ervin.  

Philip pushed Colvin R de Silva to be first president of LSSP, but all were aware that the real leader was Philip, said WTA Leslie Fernando. Colvin was the president but ‘Philip was the undisputed leader’, said CW Ervin. 

The LSSP made its debut in Parliamentary politics in the 1936 State Council elections. Philip was elected to Avissawella defeating the sitting member Forrester Obeyesekera. NM Perera was elected from Ruwanwella and this was a turning point in the country’s politics, said Bandu de Silva.

NM said in a moving tribute to Philip on the day of Philip’s funeral said that he contested only because of Philip and Philip was the leader of the movement.  If not for Philip he would not have contested and if not for Philip he would not have won.  At this time NM took his lead from Philip whom he admired, said WTA Leslie Fernando.

In State Council Philip had the consistent support of several progressives, the chief being DM Rajapakse of Hambantota who was from a leading family in Giruwa Pattu and was known as the Lion of Ruhuna. DM formed a front of peasant and parties consisting of viridhu singers and raban players for the   1936 elections. He had come to fore as a radical and a peasant leader. He worked in the Suriya mal campaign and was a firm friend of the two LSSP leaders.  His brother DA Rajapakse, father of Mahinda, crossed with SWRD when he left the UNP in 1951 to form the SLFP. 

Philip and NM made their presence felt in the State Council.  They were relentless in their criticism of British rule and commented on a wide range of subjects.  They studied a subject thoroughly before they spoke. They raised the standard of debate to a high level.  They commented on health, unemployment, labor legislation, flood control etc, said Meegama.

Both Philip and NM introduced high debating principles and skill into the State Council and Parliamentary debate, said Bandu de Silva. Philip and NM had always come fully prepared for State Council debates. They studied in-depth any subject they spoke on.  They had also gained much valuable practical knowledge through their journeys to every nook and corner of the country and by their association with the common people. They spoke on a range of subjects and over five years the State Council received a comprehensive education in the problems facing the country, concluded Bandu de Silva.    There was far reaching legislation in the State Council, in health, education, land settlements, banking and welfare of workers, said Meegama.

LSSP had links with the Congress Socialist Party in India started by Jayaprakash Narayan. In 1936 the LSSP sent delegates to the CSP annual session. These visits helped the Sri Lanka group establish links with the Indian group. 

S Piyasena, who was a student at Calcutta University, recalled that Philip went on a whirlwind of meetings at the Indian National Congress meeting at Ramgarh, in 1940. He met Aung San and Subhas Chandra Bose there.

Philip made it clear that LSSP did not take orders from Moscow.  He steered the LSSP on an independent course said Ervin.  LSSP took note of the Spanish Civil War of 1936. Philip visited Spain in 1937 and returned with an eye witness report.

The Leftists in Sri Lanka now had to decide between Stalin and Trotsky. The Stalinists formed a party which later became the Ceylon Communist Party in 1943.  LSSP was for Trotsky.  LSSP was one of the few Trotskyite parties to  achieve a mass following that lasted for a long period of time, said Ervin.

On June 18, 1940, the LSSP was banned and its four leaders, Philip Gunawardena, N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva and Edmund Samarakkody, were arrested and jailed in Kandy. My father, Dr.S.D. de Silva, had formal access to them as their doctor. He had known Colvin and NM in London. I think he knew what this lot were up to, including the jail break, but we never asked. D.M. Rajapakse moved a motion in State Council to get give leave of absence from SC for Philip and NM.    

In May 1940, the LSSP, which continued to function in Sri Lanka throughout the war, sent members to India to contact Trotskyite sympathizers and lay the groundwork for an all-India party. The LSSP convened two secret meetings in Kandy in December 1940 and March 1941 to lay the basis for a single Trotskyite party of India, Burma and Ceylon. Both meetings were attended by the jailed LSSP leaders. The second was attended by delegates from India. Philip and NM   authored a document ‘The India struggle, the next phase ‘and smuggled it out to India.

On April 7 1942, the four LSSP leaders including Philip, broke jail and escaped to India. Philip went to Bombay.  In May 1942 these Ceylonese set up a new party in Bombay, the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India.

They arranged for funds to come in to Madras from their assets in Sri Lanka, said Vernon Botejue. They had taken money for the purpose hidden in their sarongs, said Ervin.. Philip had valuable contacts in India, in Congress, Socialist and Communist circles, many going back to his days in London, Ervin added.

Philip played a significant role in the Indian Trotskyite movement. This is not widely known, commented Ervin. When he was arrested and brought before the Magistrate’s court of Kandy in 1944 Philip said, We timed our escape to be in India at a critical time, to help the   Fourth International in India to build a party.

When the BLPI was being formed in Bombay, some wanted to form a committee of young people with no trade union experience to carry out mass work. The Ceylonese who actually had experience in mass work recommended, not committees but smaller branch executive to direct the work, said Ervin.

Philip was impatient and contemptuous. At a time when we needed to find a base in Bombay, these people are discussing the organization best suited to twenty odd members, he said. He fell out with  Chandravadan Shukla , the Bombay leader of the BLPI.  He grabbed Shukla by the shoulders and shook him. He had apologized later. Shukla was furious, reported Ervin.

Philip and NM thought that the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, BLPI alone could not manufacture a revolution in India and wanted a broad force created with the other revolutionary groups in India. Philip urged the BLPI in India to join the Socialist party without delay. Leslie Goonewardene said that the problem with Philip’s various proposals for regrouping was that he was the master of the big bold move, but  he never spelled out how the BLPI should execute these  risky maneuvers.

The Bolshevik–Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma” was a revolutionary Trotskyite party which campaigned for independence and socialism in South Asia. The party was formed as a unification of two Indian groups, with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party of Ceylon.  The BLPI had groups in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, but it did not last long.

Philip and Co did not last long in India either.  The Communist Party of India was only too ready to track them down and hand them over.  They had a spy in Bombay, a student named Kulkarni. Philip and Co were arrested and jailed, said Vernon Botejue.  The others hated the jail, where they were 14 were packed into a cell 18 feet by 15, with lepers, TB patients, and VD victims.  The cell was crawling with bugs. But Philip took it in his stride. He fraternized with the pimps, taunted the guards and remained feisty, said Vernon.

Philip and Co were sent back to Ceylon and put in prison again and kept there from 1944-45. They were sentenced to six months rigorous imprisonment. Philip had husked coconut and learned to rattan chairs in prison.

In 1945 the British government transferred them to jail at Badulla. The LSSP staged a huge show and they went via Colombo in a motorcade, passing crowd after crowd of waving villagers, who had been mobilized for the event. In Colombo thousands turned out to wildly cheer the two leaders, Philip and NM.  When war ended they were unconditionally released.

The partnership between the two founders of the LSSP, Philip and NM broke up in 1950, when the party split on various theoretical issues. However NM had a great affection and regard for Philip, and wrote a moving and generous tribute when Philip died in1972. 

In 1950 Philip left the LSSP with his supporters, who were mainly harbor workers, peasants and Swabhasha teachers, and started a new party, Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Pakshaya, VLSSP.  The VLSSP  was a  component of the MEP, which won the 1956 election .

Philip was forced to resign from the MEP coalition in 1959 and the MEP alliance fell apart. Philip  took   the name of the coalition,  Mahajana Eksath Peramuna  with him and founded a new political party called Mahajana Eksath Peramuna in 1959 .  He  probably did so hoping to continue the 1956 momentum. Otherwise why take the name of  another party.

In 1963  this MEP formed the United Left front with the LSSP and CP but this did not last long.  Philip joined the Dudley Senanayake  government in 1965 and was Minister for Industries in the 1965-70 cabinet.  He  set up the Plywood factory as Avissawella.  ( continued)

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