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The passionate socialist

Continued from yesterday

Following article was published in the Daily News on March 28, 1972

Philip Gunawardena addressing a public rally. File photo

Feeling equipped now to fight for his own country's emancipation, he began the trek home in 1928 via England. There he was received with open arms by the Communists and became the colleague of Shapurji Saklatvala, the vitriolic MP for Battersea, as well as, Harry Pollit and the Dutt brothers all theorists of the party in Britain. For them he executed many missions in the capitals of Europe as an emissary of the CP.

Philip had his passport impounded by the British government for these activities and he was unable to return to Ceylon. This treatment only helped develop in this born orator a talent for vituperation which rivalled the legendary fame of Saklatvala for invective. But the Ceylonese comrade was no mere master of words. He began to make use of his enforced stay to give theoretical guidance to Indian and other Marxist groups.

Together with Krishna Menon, later to become one of India's ace diplomats, he worked at the India League, then a dingy little room in London. It was at this stage that he realised that official socialism could never be the instrument of colonial emancipation, and began to address his mind to integrating the socialist and national freedom movements. In 1930, he openly broke with Stalinism and adopted Trotskyism which he sought to promote for the rest of his stay in Europe.

In 1932, through the intervention of Sir Baron Jayatilaka, he got his passport to return to Ceylon, but on his way he had a mission to perform for Trotskyist comrades in Spain. It was just after the overthrow of King Alfonso by the first republicans. Held up at the frontier without a passport to enter Spain, he crossed the Pyrennes by night to enter the country Illegally. Characteristically, his only equipment for this risky journey was his courage - and just enough French and Spanish to talk himself out of trouble.

New trade union

Back in Ceylon, he joined the newly formed Youth Congress and began to build a new trade union to oust A. E. Goonesinha from the field, which eventually he did but not before a bitter struggle which occupied him for the better part of seven years. Philip really showed the stuff he was made of at a public meeting at St Peter's College in 1933 to publicise a ministerial mission to Whitehall for reforms, when he and his then Comrade Leslie Goonewardene (Minister of Communications) were set upon by harbour labourers belonging to the Goonesinha union.

Philip, trying to defend himself with his bare hands against a murderous assault would probably have succumbed but for the arrival of the police.

When the melee was cleared, Philip lay bleeding from several cracks on his head. Some arrests were made. Shouted Goonesinha from the platform, pointing to the fallen Philip: “Arrest that man... he is a communist!” Philip, oozing blood from head and clothes, walked up to the platform to make one of his most moving speeches.

Good listener

“I want you to release those men,” he said turning to the Police Inspector. “They are not responsible for what they did.”

Then rounding on Goonesinha, he roared: “You are the one... and I can tell you these same men will drive you out of politics before long.” While cheering broke out at this and ended the meeting, Philip had won his place in the hearts of the working class.

No one could fail to be thrilled by the sincerity and fury of Philip's speeches. Off the platform he was mild and soft-spoken, and a very good listener; on it, he was transformed into a roaring lion. One might have heard him a hundred times earlier, but one tingled again as if it were the first time for what he said was charged with persuasive passion. Effortlessly he turned every radical he met into a socialist.

The merest contact with him split the youth movement into a Left and a Right. While the Right-wing decayed and disappeared, the Left developed at his hand through the anti-Poppy Day Suriya Mal campaign into furnishing the cadres and leaders of the Sama Samaja movement. Exciting new ideas were quickly lapped up by the growing audiences who flocked to hear these new prophets.

In 1936, in a trial of strength Philip contested Forester Obeysekera, Speaker of the first State Council, for the Avissawella seat on the first LSSP ticket. Obeysekera had beaten brother Harry Gunawardena at the previous contest. But this was a different proposition. Crowds surged at Philip's meetings. Here was a man who matched the manhood of their forefathers, they said.

In the State Council, together with the Finance Minister (Dr. N. M. Perera), Philip piloted a number of motions which have provided much of the welfare and social legislation of later years. But the outbreak of World War II saw him imprisoned once again under the Defence Regulations. In 1942, he broke jail with his fellow detainees. Arrested the following year in India, he was made to serve six months rigorous imprisonment for breaking jail and sent back to detention. It was only at the end of hostilities that he was finally freed.

From then on he tried to weld together the Sama Samaja movement which had been weakened by acute doctrinaire indigestion, split by personal squabbles and fragmented at the hands of 'parlour bolsheviks' (as Philip dubbed them). “I have made you”, he thundered at them “and I know how to unmake you.” He began to build the (V)LSSP. He was one of the leaders of the 1947 General Strike and was imprisoned for three months for picketing the South Western Bus Co's garage. This jail term disqualified him from Parliament for a further period of seven years. He continued to work behind the scenes as the chief political catalyst of the Left.

Ministerial office

He even visited Russia in 1952 without apology for his earlier Trotskyist associations: but on his return he pulled out of an alliance with the CP taking with him a good part of its following of harbour worker unionists.

With the approach of the 1956 general election, he began working hard for the formation of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna with the late S W R D Bandaranaike. “The fact must be faced”, he declared, “that no opposition party can singly oust the UNP.” Once again he was right and a jump ahead of his rivals.

A landslide victory gave him the first chance to assume ministerial office. From the time of the Paddy Lands bill, he tried to move forward rapidly to achieve the economic emancipation of the rural masses with the support of the astute S W R D Bandaranaike. But soon the forces of reaction in that uneasy coalition began a campaign of obstruction and sabotage.

Left movement

By 1959, with the introduction of the Co-operative Development Bank bill, the issues were clear. Philip railed against the reactionaries and the 'buddy racketeers’ who were closing in. He had to hand in his portfolio. Then tragedy struck: the life of Bandaranaike was the ultimate price demanded by reaction.

In the wilderness, Philip once again assumed his familiar role as a political thinker and catalyst. He continued to come up with new ideas challenging the drift of inexorable events. He was one of the first advocates of a national government: it was shouted down as the desperate solution of an old and incorrigible power-hunter, but even today its echoes have not died away.

But his analytical mind was as clear as ever. In a remarkably prophetic speech he made in the House of Representatives in October 1960, the originator of the Left movement thus described the existing situation.

Political career

“The growing divorce between words and their meaning is a major tragedy of our times. Socialism, democracy, peace, freedom are used in a manner that makes them not only meaningless but topsyturvy. The fluidity in the meaning of words creates a crisis in communication. Words, instead of clarifying and crystallising thought, confuse it. Today counterfeiters have seized the temple of Sarasvathi. As false coins bring about the breakdown of an economy and society, so counterfeiters in language destroy popular confidence. Dull indifference is the only response when not the goblet alone but the grapes are without wine.”

It was in that same memorable speech that he also said that “nationalisation of modern knowledge is the sine qua non of effective democracy and socialism in this country.” It was on such human and considerate ideas that Philip Gunawardena raised himself to a stature in the eyes of our people that few of his contemporaries have equalled.

Sadness marked the end of Philip Gunawardena's political career. After serving in the National Government formed by Dudley Senanayake for five years as Minister of Industries, he suffered a crushing defeat in the 1970 general election and lost his own seat at Avissawella. This finally brought about his retirement from active politics.



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