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Sunday, 9 October 2005    
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The Young Philip - Part 1 :

A revolutionary at large in New York and London

Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake

Don Philip Rupasinghe Gunawardena

W. T. A. Leslie Fernando's 'Viplavavadiyakuge Hedagasma' is the Sinhala translation of 'Philip Gunawardena - Making of a Revolutionary' by Charles Wesley Ervin, a young American academic fascinated by the early Philip Gunawardena.

If the young Marx as against the older prophet has exerted a fascinating spell on his devotees Ervin here provides enough evidence for the charismatic and indeed heroic early Philip Gunawardena as against the grey battle-hardened politician fallen among unlikely comrades and friends.

Philip died in 1972, out of Parliament and without ministerial office, an apparently disillusioned man but Ervin quotes Dr. N. M. Perera, sometime comrade and sometime adversary, who said, 'History will without doubt accord him his due place in Sri Lanka's political firmament. While we mere mortals would have faded away and been forgotten after having done what we could a grateful socialist Sri Lanka will remember him honourably and place him on that high plane he deserves'.

That this was no mere ritual obituary gesture is borne out by Ervin's book. Philip who became a Marxist in America spent his apprenticeship as a revolutionary in the labour and Communist movements of Britain, then the hub of the British Empire, before returning to colonial Ceylon via Spain which he reached crossing the Pyrenees on the eve of the civil war.

In the eyes of the British authorities he was a dangerous agitator and was only given a passport on the condition that he would furnish a one-way ticket by steamer to colonial Ceylon.

Don Philip Rupasinghe Gunawardena was, of course, the son of the legendary Boralugoda Ralahamy, a sturdy Sinhala nationalist who had been incarcerated during the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915. Educated at Ananda College Colombo, Philip was exhilarated by the Indian independence struggle when he left for the USA to study agriculture.

That he chose the US and not Britain, the seat of the Empire unlike most of the Ceylonese upper middle classes and that he chose to study agriculture and not law or economics like his peers in the later LSSP, demonstrated his nationalism and practical approach. The US had not then become branded with the stigma of the Ugly American and Ceylon (as it was then) was an agricultural country. He studied at Wisconsin University.

However he and another Indian student Jayaprakash Narayan, later the spiritual mentor of the anti-Indira Gandhi movement of the late 1970s, were soon embracing marxism under the tutelage of a charismatic Marxist academic Scott Nearing. Later he shifted to New York where he studied at Columbia University, the epicentre of the student revolt of the 1960s.

Here he was arrested for demonstrating against Katherine Mayo, an arch anti-Indian propagandist and author of the infamous and mischievously-worded, tract 'Mother India'. During this time he travelled extensively in South America and Spain and became a master of Spanish.

However it was London, the proud capital of the British Empire over which the sun was never supposed to set, which was the true seat of Philip's revolutionary early years. Here he joined the India League and the British Communist Party and excelled himself as a firebrand orator and organiser. He was co-opted to the editorial board of the party organ the 'Daily Worker'.

Since there was a strong segment of the Communist Party within the British branch of the Indian National Congress Philip was able to actively participate in its affairs.

In India itself Gandhi had launched the civil disobedience campaign while there was also an upsurge of individual terrorism. Philip himself was critical of Gandhi's pacifism which he saw as a fetter on the growing upsurge against British rule and the peasant revolts in Bengal, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh in particular.

Philip also took a leading part in agitational activity and was assigned the task of establishing contact with Indian merchant shipmen docked in the East End. This experience formed the basis for his organising the port workers of Colombo who formed his trade union and working class base during his entire political career.

It was during this time in the 1930s that Philip came into contact with the quartet of S. A. Wickramasinghe, N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva and Leslie Gunawardena who formed the original leadership of the LSSP although parting from them finally after all the tumultuous ups and downs and theoretical splits and schisms to which Sri Lanka's left movement was notoriously prone.

Dr. Wickramasinghe had been Philip's percusor but both in London as well as in the LSSP later Philip was their acknowledged leader to whose intellect and theoretical knowledge they deferred. Colvin had been the youngest to obtain a PhD from King's College and had travelled in the Soviet Union in 1931.

Leslie obtained his degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science while N. M. who had obtained two doctorates from the same seat of learning was a leading protege of Harold Laski, the chief theoretical guru of the British Labour Party.

Another Ceylonese student Vernon Gunasekera was later to become the first General Secretary of the LSSP and played a leading role both in the Bracegirdle affair as well as the LSSP leaders' daring breakout from the Bogambara jail during the Second World War.

(Next week: The Origins of Trotskyism)

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