Charles Wesley Ervin

Philip Gunawardena

The Making of a Revolutionary

Our third example of revolutionaries breaking with the Comintern has left his stamp on the political culture of Ceylon to this day, so it is hardly surprising that this account of Philip Gunawardena has also been published as a separate brochure by the Social Scientists Association in Colombo.

Regular readers of our journal will require no introduction to the work of Wes Ervin, examples of which have already appeared in two of our previous issues (Volumes 1, no 4, Winter 1988-89, pp22-34, and 6, no 4, 1997, pp218-41). And since a full bibliography was provided there, we need only add that Philip’s career has also been touched upon by Stanley E Abeynayake, ‘Philip Gunawardena — Father of Socialism in Sri Lanka’ (Daily News, 28 March 1987), and Ajith Samaranayake, ‘At the Cross Roads of Socialism and Nationalism: Philip Gunawardena, A Centenary Assessment’ (Sunday Observer, 14 January 2001). To supplement our previous documentation, mention should also be made of the recent appearance of Pulsara Liyanage’s Vivi: A Biography of Vivienne Goonewardene (Women’s Education and Research Centre, 58 Dharmarama Road, Colombo 6), and Percy Piyasena’s ‘Ramalingam (Baggy), A Pioneer of the LSSP (1927-1987)’ (Daily Mirror, 15 January 2001).

Although he was shortly to return to Ceylon, it might be added that whilst Philip was writing articles for Palme Dutt’s Labour Monthly, Reg Groves clearly remembers him as joining the Communist League, for the orientation of the British Trotskyists was at that time towards work within the Communist Party. In any case, they were probably well acquainted with each other already through the Reverend Groser (cf below, p128).



HILIP Gunawardena, who died in 1972, is rightly remembered as ‘the father of Socialism’ in Sri Lanka. Philip was the driving force behind the country’s first Socialist movement, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which became one of the most successful Trotskyist parties in the world. Philip became a legend in his own time. He was a towering political personality — a fiery, charismatic, energetic visionary whose brilliant mind often raced far ahead of his comrades. As Regi Siriwardena emphasised in his recent memoirs: ‘Philip was the dominant figure in the LSSP, the Marxist of longest standing, greatest political experience and deepest theoretical learning, and I had realised that all the other leading figures of the party recognised him in that character.’[1] In his eulogy to Philip, LSSP leader NM Perera acknowledged that in the early LSSP ‘we were only too conscious of the fact that Philip was the leader of the movement’.[2]

Philip had become a Socialist during his student days in America during 1922-28. He went to England, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), and devoted his life to the revolutionary movement. Those were the tumultuous days when titanic political struggles raged within the world Communist movement. Philip sided with Leon Trotsky against Stalin. Philip had the vision to see that Stalin was leading the USSR down the path to ruin — a view that in hindsight seems painfully obvious today. But in those days, ‘Trotskyism’ was hardly fashionable. Stalin waged a global campaign of slander, persecution and murder of his opponents. When Philip returned to Ceylon in 1932, he developed a group of Trotskyists within the LSSP. On the eve of the Second World War, Philip forced the famous break with the pro-Moscow wing of the party, and during the war he and his comrades helped build the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, the Indian section of the Fourth International. So in a sense, Philip was the pioneer Trotskyist of South Asia.

It is ironic that so little is known about Philip’s formative years in America and England. Philip himself never wrote memoirs, and despite his flamboyant public personality, he was reticent to talk about himself. Even Philip’s children were curious about their father’s revolutionary past. A few years ago his daughter, Lakmali Gunawardena, filled this gap somewhat with an anecdotal account, Philip: The Early Years, which draws upon Philip’s letters in the family’s possession.[3]

I had a hunch that there might be documentary information about Philip in the British police files from the 1920s and 1930s. In the days of the Raj, the British government was obsessed with nipping Indian Communism in the bud. The Indian Political Intelligence (IPI) was the department responsible for keeping close tabs on leftists and nationalists in England who might stir up trouble in India. The IPI files, however, had been kept under wraps in the India Office Library until 1997, when the British government finally opened them to the public. I went digging and found a treasure trove — a British intelligence dossier on Philip Gunawardena during 1930-32.[4] It turns out that Scotland Yard had Philip under a microscope. The IPI files document Philip’s deep involvement with Indian nationalists in London as well as with the CPGB. The files also reveal how he became involved with Trotsky’s supporters in England, and in 1932 definitively broke with the Communist Party.

I want to acknowledge gratefully Hector Abhayavardhana in Sri Lanka, who has been my guide on this exploration. Hector goes back to the early LSSP, and worked closely with Philip in the underground party during the Second World War. His 81 years have not dulled his memory. Hector has become the historian emeritus of the Samasamajist movement. I could not have pieced together the puzzles inside the IPI files were it not for Al Richardson and Ted Crawford, who are on the editorial board of Revolutionary History, a British journal devoted to the study of the Trotskyist movement. Al Richardson, a recognised authority on early British Trotskyism, has answered my questions about unfamiliar names which crop up in the IPI files. Ted Crawford, who is an expert in British military and political intelligence, helped me read between the lines of the police reports.

Philip Gunawardena was a complex, contradictory figure. In his prime, he was a trailblazing revolutionary who created from scratch a vigorous left-wing party in an insular country where left-wing politics barely existed before. He turned his back on a life of privilege in order to fight for his vision of a Socialist future. But in 1950 he broke with the LSSP, renounced Trotskyism, and mended his fences with the very Stalinists he had booted out of the LSSP a decade earlier. His Marxism metamorphosed into a kind of radical Sinhalese populism. In 1956, he joined Bandaranaike’s first coalition government, and in 1965 he became a minister in Dudley Senanayake’s UNP government. Many doubted that he could be considered a Socialist anymore. Yet when he died, his coffin was draped with a red flag, and inscribed on his gravestone is the hammer and sickle.

Many legends have grown up over the years around the LSSP’s leaders. In Philip’s case, most of the legends turn out to be true. It is unfortunate that his later career tarnished his earlier achievements. Based on my research, I believe that were it not for Philip, Trotskyism would never have taken root in Ceylon, nor would the LSSP have played such an important rôle in the Trotskyist movement of India.[5]

Student Days in America

Philip Gunawardena was born and raised in the lush rural hamlet of Boralugoda, the middle son of well-to-do gentry. His father was an enlightened patriarch, whose strong Sinhalese patriotism nearly cost him his life during the British repression of the so-called Riots of 1915. Given his family’s antipathy to the English, it is not surprising that Philip was sent to America to pursue his higher education. In 1922, he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a sleepy agricultural college deep in the American Midwest.

A Convert to Socialism

After two years, Philip transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where his political awakening as a leftist really began. Though idyllic, Madison was a progressive campus, reflecting the Socialist traditions of the German and Scandinavian immigrants who settled in Wisconsin. Philip would write home to his elder brother Harry and younger brother Robert about Marxism. ‘Philip was studying political science’, recalled Robert, ‘and in these studies he necessarily had to delve deep into Marxism.’[6] Philip became close friends with an Indian chemistry student, Jayaprakash Narayan, who would later become famous as a Socialist leader in India. ‘I remember discussing with Jayaprakash Narayan, and several others, far into the night, in the campus at Madison’, recalled Philip, ‘and by 1925 these discussions made both of us convinced of Socialism.’[7] The two young Asian students were very influenced by their encounters with Professor Scott Nearing, a well-known Socialist author and debater.

In 1925, Philip moved to New York City to continue his studies at Columbia University. Philip roomed at Columbia’s International House, where he mingled with other foreign students and radicals. Philip must have been right in his element in the frantic pace of New York City in the Roaring Twenties. One of his characteristic traits was his incredible energy and can-do attitude. For example, while pursuing his studies at Columbia, Philip set up a business in Manhattan to import rubber from his father’s plantations — an impressive achievement for a youth of 24. One of the secrets of his success, in business as in politics, was his sincerity and magnetic personality; as he wrote home, ‘people have an absolute faith in my sincerity and speech’.[8]

The IPI dossier contains very little information about Philip’s activities in the USA. He attracted attention in January 1928 when he signed a ‘memorandum on the establishment of a Permanent Committee on India Affairs in America, which emanated from International House’.[9] The files link Philip to NB Parulekar, who was associated with the New York Chapter of the Hindustan Association of America, an offshoot of the Hindustan Ghadr Association. One interesting coincidence is that the Hindustan Association published The Hindusthanee Student from Urbana, Illinois, in the period when Philip studied there. Philip mingled with other nationalists in New York. The Hindustan Association operated out of the same office on Broadway as the Young India Association and the Indian Information Bureau. [10] Both of these organisations, in turn, were linked to the New Orient Society, which had been formed by Syed Hussain, a flamboyant Bengali Muslim journalist who published New Orient magazine. The British considered New Orient to be ‘a dangerous organization’.[11] Syed Hussain was a gifted public speaker, and he would give talks as a way to make money. Philip became associated with Hussain, as well as the left nationalist JC Coomarappa.[12] In 1928, Hussain went on tour in the USA to rebut Katherine Mayo’s controversial new book, Mother India. As the story goes, Philip set fire to Mayo’s book on a public street in a protest, and was arrested. Taken to court, the judge came down from the bench and congratulated Philip for acting on his convictions.

The League Against Imperialism

In New York, Philip got involved with the US branch of the League Against Imperialism. In its day, the League was very influential, and it played a significant rôle in Philip’s political development. The League was a Communist-inspired organisation. It grew out of the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities, which the Communist International (or Comintern) had organised in Brussels in 1927. The Comintern was actively pursuing alliances with nationalists in the colonial world. The centrepiece of the Kremlin’s policy was optimistic support for the Chinese nationalist party, the Guomindang, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, who was then closely collaborating with Soviet Russia and the Chinese Communist Party. Flushed with their success in China, the Comintern launched the League Against Imperialism to be a grand coalition of progressive nationalists. The League attracted to its Executive such prominent names as Albert Einstein, the Guomindang’s Madame Sun Yat Sen, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the rising star of the Socialist wing of the Indian National Congress. After the Brussels Congress, Nehru visited Soviet Russia, and, glowing with enthusiasm, convinced the Indian National Congress to affiliate with the League.

Philip was drawn into the League by the distinguished Mexican nationalist, José Vasconcelos, who was then in New York. Columbia University had one of the strongest Spanish departments in the US, headed by Federico de Onis, who founded the Hispanic Institute as a centre for Spanish culture. Prior to the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17, Vasconcelos was associated with a leftish cultural group, Ateneo de la Juventud. After the Revolution, he headed the Secretariat of Public Education, created a public primary school system, and presided over the National University. In the early 1920s, he patronised famous left-wing artists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who created murals of heroic workers and peasants with hammers and sickles.[13] Since Philip had learned Spanish, he assisted Vasconcelos in translating League pamphlets, and even went with him to Mexico. According to the legends, Philip spoke at rallies in New York’s Union Square, and was involved with a hotel workers’ strike.[14] Philip fondly recalled this period as ‘the precious years of my life in America where I became convinced of Socialism’.[15]

The Communist Firebrand in London

When Philip arrived in London in 1928, he intended to stay only a short while, but he soon plunged into politics and remained for four very eventful years. These were heady times. The Labour Party came to power in 1929 with a popular mandate for radical change. The CPGB was breathing fire. The Depression was grim proof of the crisis of capitalism. Socialism was in the air.

Well-to-do students from the British colonies came to Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics, where left-wing ideas of every hue flourished. Prominent Socialists like Harold Laski at the LSE and James Maxton of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) championed the cause of Indian independence. With the Labour government carrying out the same colonial policies as its Conservative predecessor, young Indian nationalists gravitated to more radical alternatives. The CPGB had prominent Indian spokesmen, notably Shapurji Saklatvala, the Communist MP for Battersea, and the Dutt brothers, Clemens and Rajani. The CPGB had the added prestige of being big brother to the Communist Party of India. Moreover, momentous events were taking place in India at this time. In 1930, Gandhi launched the first Civil Disobedience campaign, which roused millions across the vast subcontinent. The Indian National Congress was becoming a mass movement that would ultimately force the British to relinquish India.

Attraction to Communism

When Philip arrived in England, the Communist movement world-wide was in the throes of a wrenching change in line. This was the beginning of the Comintern’s headlong plunge into ultra-left extremism, which was initiated at the Comintern’s Sixth World Congress in 1928. The Comintern saw revolution just around the corner, everywhere in the world. Anyone who disagreed was denounced as some kind of collaborator with the class enemy. The Socialists were vilified as ‘Social Fascists,’ more dangerous than the Nazis. The German Communist Party fought the German Social Democrats harder than it fought the Nazis — sometimes even collaborating with the Nazis against them. This disorganised and disoriented the powerful German labour movement, enabling Hitler to seize power in 1933 and crush the entire German left. In England, the CPGB denounced the British Labour leaders as ‘social imperialists’. In India, the Communists attacked former Congress friends like Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose as ‘the best friends of British imperialism’. As a result the tiny, persecuted Indian Communist Party stood on the sidelines shouting militant slogans as Gandhi mobilised millions in the first great Civil Disobedience campaign.

The IPI files do not indicate exactly when Philip began working with the CPGB. He first came to Scotland Yard’s attention in connection with the India Freedom League, a nationalist group led by Krishna Datta Kumria. Philip took up residence with Kumria, and in March 1929 he was elected to the League’s Committee. The League put up a speaker’s stand in Hyde Park on Sundays, and Philip became one of its regular speakers.

Philip was a soft-spoken person, but when he mounted a platform he was transformed. NM Perera remembered how ‘Hyde Park Corner used to reverberate with his thunderous voice’.[16] In years to come, his roaring speeches would earn him the nickname of ‘The Lion of Boralugoda’. Scotland Yard noted that Philip’s Hyde Park speeches were strongly Communistic in tone and jargon. In January 1930, the IPI described Philip as ‘an avowed Communist’ who ‘is not only well-versed in the doctrines of that persuasion but is in touch with many leading Communists here and in America’.[17]

Philip joined the CPGB and worked on the staff of the Colonial Commission, which was responsible for directing work among Indians in England. He joined the staff of the party’s newspaper, the Daily Worker. For the next two years he worked closely with Saklatvala, and had dealings with the top echelon of the CPGB, including Harry Pollitt, Clemens Dutt, Rajani Palme Dutt, Percy Glading, Robin Page Arnot and William Rust.

The CPGB put Philip to work in the League Against Imperialism, under Saklatvala’s direction. His comrades included a number of young Indians who would later make their mark in the Indian Communist movement, notably Niharendu Datta Mazumdar and Kiran Basak. Mazumdar was a law student who became Secretary of the League Against Imperialism’s Eastern Section. The British described him as ‘one of the ablest Indian Communists in London’.[18] Kiran Basak was associated with the group of Indian Communists at Cambridge who put out a journal, Bharat (India), which was edited by Saiyed Saijad Zaheer, ‘a prominent member of the Secret Communist Group of young Indians’.[19] Philip joined Bharat’s editorial board and collaborated closely with Zaheer. Another comrade from this period was K Ramayya, who came over from America, stayed with Philip for a time, and then went off to Moscow.

Philip rose rapidly in the League. He was a red-hot Communist. Beginning in 1930, he spoke at League meetings all over England, and was elected to represent Ceylon on the League’s National Executive. By August 1931, the IPI had concluded that Philip was ‘a more or less secret agent on its behalf for Indian affairs, which explains his frequent trips to Paris and Germany’.

Berlin was a very important Communist centre in those days. The Communist Party of Germany was the largest outside of Russia. The League Against Imperialism’s headquarters were in Berlin, as were several groups of Indian nationalists and Communists. The German government had been aiding and arming Indian revolutionaries even before the First World War, in an effort to make trouble for its rival, Britain. The most prominent of these Indians, the Bengali terrorist-turned-Communist, MN Roy, had been directing propaganda and agents at India from Berlin since the early 1920s. Roy had his rivals in Berlin, notably Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and Saumyendranath Tagore. Chattopadhyaya became the Secretary of the League Against Imperialism in 1928. Saumyendranath Tagore, the aristocratic grandson of the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, had attended the Lenin School in Moscow, and was a delegate to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928. Tagore subsequently became a critical Communist, after witnessing the disastrous results of the German Communist Party’s refusal to form a united front with the Socialists against the Nazis.[20] The IPI files note that Philip ‘fraternised with all the Indian revolutionaries’ in Berlin.

The London Branch of the Indian National Congress

The Indian National Congress had a London Branch, which was headed by VJ Patel, a former member of the Legislature in India and a supporter of Gandhi. Philip became part of the CPGB’s strong fraction working in the Branch. In June 1930, Clemens Dutt nominated Philip for the Executive Committee, and he was subsequently elected. In December 1930, the party decided to make him the link between the Congress and the Daily Worker. The Communist fraction clamoured for a more militant policy. At the First Annual Indian Political Conference held in July 1930, the Communist fraction called on Congress to extend Gandhi’s new Civil Disobedience campaign, launch a no-rent/no-tax campaign, and prepare for a general strike in India. The Communists won a majority in the branch Executive elected in August. The London Branch for all practical purposes was under the control of the CPGB.

Saklatvala and his band of hotheads went on the offensive. Few were as extremist as Philip. When the issue of participation in the British government’s Round Table Conference came up, Philip argued that Congress should boycott it. When Gandhi decided to attend, Philip vehemently opposed suggestions for organising a reception for him. Philip’s intemperate attacks on Gandhi antagonised many. In May 1931, the Branch decided ‘for tactical reasons Gunawardena and certain other extremists’ should retire from the Executive Committee and dissociate himself from any welcome that might be arranged for Gandhi. A few weeks later, Philip and two of his close comrades, Kiran Basak and AP Petigura, went to a branch meeting ‘with the intention of creating a disturbance for VJ Patel, but weren’t strong enough to do so’.

The conflict came to a head at the Second Annual Indian Political Conference in 1931. Philip, Datta Mazumdar and others shouted down speakers who were not in favour of their extreme policy in India. Philip took the floor and began to criticise the methods adopted by the Congress in India. According the IPI report, ‘The chairman [Patel] told him either to sit down or speak relevantly to the question. Hereupon Gunawardena became very insolent and boisterous, remarking that he was “not in the Legislative Assembly in Delhi” following this up with an attempt to strike him.’[21] Pandemonium followed, and there was ‘a free fight in the hall’. Patel fled with his supporters. About a week later, the Communists, including Philip, showed up at a special branch meeting called to consider their attitude to Gandhi, and ‘the meeting ended in an uproar’. Saklatvala let it be known that his group of toughs, including Philip, planned to ‘create disturbances’ at both the Round Table Conference and the reception for Gandhi. The strong-arm tactics of the Communist fraction split the branch.

As a person Philip was said to be very gentle. However, he had a volcanic temper, and when threatened or provoked he would lash out and attack. (His brother Robert had an even more explosive temper.) With his black belt in karate from his student days in America, Philip could do a lot of damage. In years to come Philip would bravely fight thugs sent to disrupt LSSP meetings. But in London the Stalinists brought out the worst in Philip. Violence against political opponents on the left was a symptom of the degenerate nature of Stalinism. As a result of his violent tactics, Philip was reported to be ‘very unpopular with Indians in London’, and he was removed as head of the Indian Communist student group.

The Congress moderates around Patel regrouped as the League for the Independence of India (Swadhin Bharat Sabha). The Communists renamed their rump group the Anti-Imperialist Group. Philip was its Secretary. The group staged two outdoor demonstrations against the Round Table Conference. In an unsuccessful manoeuvre to make a comeback, the group changed its name to the Young India Society (Naujawan Bharat Sabha). Isolated by their sectarianism, the Communists made overtures to rejoin the official Congress group. Told to keep a low profile while fences were being mended, Philip eventually rejoined the group, forming the new left wing.

Philip earned a reputation for disrupting meetings. In one incident noted by the IPI, Philip helped Mazumdar ‘create a disturbance’ at a meeting of the Commonwealth of India League. One of his contemporaries remembers how Philip once stormed the stage in the Albert Hall to rebut a Tory speaker, firing words ‘like a continuous string of bullets coming out of an automatic weapon’.[22]

Forming a Communist Party of India

On a winter evening in 1931, Philip convened a secret meeting in his room at 6 Howland Street. This was the ‘inaugural meeting of an “Indian Communist Party”’. A week later, Philip and his comrades visited the British Museum to study the Indian Penal Code. Despite the fact that the group was pledged to ‘great secrecy’, Scotland Yard seemed to know all the details. The ringleaders were Philip, Kiran Basak, SG Amin, and AP Petigura. Why would Philip form an Indian Communist Party in London? We don’t know for sure, but the answer probably has something to do with the state of the movement in India at the time. In 1929, the British government had flattened the Indian Communist movement by arresting virtually its entire leadership. The British put them on trial in the dusty provincial town of Meerut on charges of conspiring to deprive the king-emperor of his sovereignty over India. The Meerut Conspiracy Trial was to drag on for nearly four years, crippling the Communist movement in India. Meanwhile, the remaining Communists scattered around India in little groups were isolating themselves even more by their vitriolic attacks on Gandhi, Nehru and Bose as ‘imperialist stooges’. By 1932, the Indian Communists were in such disarray that the Comintern suspended the party’s affiliation. Therefore, the CPGB had to redouble its efforts to rebuild the movement in India.

Philip and his comrades were studying the Indian Penal Code because they were obviously planning to head off to India. Scotland Yard even knew that Philip, SG Amin, AP Petigura, and Datta Mazumdar had told the CPGB that they would provide ‘“safe” addresses on their return to India’. Not much seems to have come out of this clandestine party. As we shall see, most of this group did return to India, starting about this time.

Contacting Dockworkers

The CPGB’s Colonial Commission assigned Philip the task of developing contacts among Indian seamen who put ashore in London, particularly at the docks in the East End. Philip was to take over from NJ Upadhyaya, who had been organising Indian seamen in London for the CPGB for several years, and had relocated to Berlin. This was a very important assignment, and reflects just how much the CPGB trusted Philip and valued his abilities. The Comintern desperately needed couriers who could penetrate British censorship and their surveillance of the Indian Communist Party. In 1928, the Comintern called for developing connections with ‘Lascars’ (Indian sailors) who could be used as couriers between Britain and India.[23]

On the docks, Philip linked up with Father John Groser, who ran a mission for Lascars. Philip already knew Groser from the League Against Imperialism. Groser was quite a character. He was known as the ‘Red Vicar’ of Poplar, and flew the red flag from the steeple of his church. He was associated with the Catholic Crusade, which included a couple young railway clerks who would later become Trotskyists. In addition, Philip worked in the Workers Welfare League of India, an organisation founded in 1916 for helping Indian seamen in London. Saklatvala had taken over the WWLI. Philip attended many WWLI meetings and its 1931 conference.

The IPI reports note that Philip was ‘very active recently’ in the East End of London ‘among the Indian crews of ships, organising them, as he terms it’. By December 1931, he had developed ‘five shipping “contacts”’. This work led to connections with the seamen’s union, the International of Seamen and Harbourworkers, based in Hamburg. The union invited Philip to attend its conference in May 1932, and proposed sending him to Moscow to represent India at the May Day celebrations there. The union wrote to the CPGB’s Seamen’s Minority Movement in England asking them to contact Philip as a ‘likely worker’. In fact, he was already associated with Fred Thompson, of the Seamen’s Minority Movement (who befriended Philip, and loaned him money when he was desperate). It is clear that Philip gained a lot of practical experience, which he would use back in Ceylon when he organised the Colombo dockworkers, who would become his strongest lifelong trade union base.

Ceylon Students Association

Many of the future leaders of the LSSP were associated with the Ceylon Students Association in London (although none of their names ever appear in the IPI files). In 1930, recalled NM Perera, the Ceylonese students began ‘meeting in dingy digs’ to discuss politics.[24] This was a group of serious overachievers. Colvin R de Silva was a wunderkind, ‘possessed of undoubted high ambition, overweening self-confidence, powerful intellect and an incredible addiction to hard work’.[25] He was one of the youngest ever to receive a PhD from King’s College, and then went on to gain a law degree, because he thought it would give him the greatest freedom to do what he wanted with his life. Colvin visited the USSR and was very impressed.[26] Leslie Goonewardene completed his degree at the LSE, and was also studying for the bar. Leslie was tall, handsome, sincere and rich. He was said to have joined the British Young Communist League.[27] Vernon Gunasekera was a law student, too. NM Perera was studying economics at the LSE under Harold Laski, the famous Fabian Socialist, who became his guru. NM Perera was athletic and a charmer. At one point he shared rooms with Leslie Goonewardene. NM Perera remembers meeting Philip for the first time in the British Library’s Reading Room.

Philip attended meetings of the Association and would urge the students to ‘identify themselves with Indian nationalism’. He was already convinced that India was where the decisive battle with British imperialism would occur. Philip cast his spell over Colvin, Leslie, Vernon, and NM Perera. Some have claimed that were it not for Philip, these future leaders of the LSSP would not have been drawn into the radical movement at all. [28]

Connection with Burmese Communism

Philip was actively involved with Burmese student radicals in London, in particular Oo Kyaw, whom the British regarded as ‘the father of Burmese Communism’.[29] Oo Kyaw came to London in 1927 to study law, and one year later was one of the founders of the Burma Students Union, which soon became a Communist group ‘under the evil influence of SD Saklatvala and his associates of the League Against Imperialism and CPGB’.[30] One of Oo Kyaw’s recruits, Thein Maung, described by the British as ‘a rabid Communist’, went back to Burma in 1930 and helped launch a movement that presented ‘a real danger’. Philip addressed meetings of the union, and worked with both Oo Kyaw and Thein Maung. In his activities on the docks, Philip developed contacts with Burmese seamen.

Philip thus learned a great deal about Burma. Perhaps as a result of this involvement, Philip viewed Socialist revolution in terms of all of South Asia — India, Burma and Ceylon. It is worth noting that when the BLPI was launched in 1942, the official name of the party was ‘Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma’. In fact, the party never had a Burmese branch, but the name was significant as a declaration of the party’s subcontinental ambitions and perspective.

Attempt to Return to Ceylon

Philip keenly followed events in Ceylon. In 1931, big changes were in the offing. A Parliamentary Commission chaired by the Earl of Donoughmore gave Ceylon a new constitution that provided for a representative State Council, elected on the basis of the adult franchise. Philip wrote an article exposing the Donoughmore reforms as a ‘camouflage’ for continued imperialist rule. But he recognised the opportunity presented by the country’s first popular election, scheduled for late 1931. Philip wanted to return home in time for the elections. However, Philip had already made a name for himself in Ceylon, and the Colonial authorities refused to let him return.

Philip had to be satisfied with helping from afar. His elder brother, Harry Gunawardena, decided to contest the Avissawella constituency with the help of younger brother Robert. Harry Gunawardena was associated with a nationalist group known as the ‘Cosmopolitan Crew’ which agitated for the adult franchise before the Donoughmore Commission.[31] Philip wrote a string of articles which he sent to Harry to help his candidacy.[32] In his memoirs, Robert Gunawardena described how Harry’s candidacy drove his opponent, a man of vast power and wealth, into a frenzy.[33] Philip kept in touch with Dr SA Wickremasinghe, who was also contesting the election. Wickremasinghe was in a sense the pioneer of the Samasamajist movement. He had gone to medical school in London, and had returned to Ceylon in 1928. He was involved with the Youth Leagues, then the main outlet for nationalist agitation. Philip used the pseudonym ‘Gamaralla’ in his letters to Wickremasinghe, which didn’t fool the IPI a bit. Philip urged Wickremasinghe to pursue a more militant policy. Although he considered himself a Socialist, Wickremasinghe joined the Liberal League, which elicited a sharp rebuke from Philip.

One of the stories that has circulated on the Sri Lankan left for years is that Philip married, or at least became closely involved with, a fellow student from Madison. It has been said that she went to England with him. It should be noted that in all the detail about Philip in the IPI files, there is no mention whatsoever of such a person.


In her booklet Philip: The Early Years, Lakmali Gunawardena states that ‘in 1930 Philip Gunawardena broke off openly from the Stalinist groups of the Communist Party’. This is not entirely accurate. As we shall see, the break with the CPGB did not come until 1932. However, Philip did encounter supporters of Trotsky in Britain as early as 1930, and he was very aware of the factional struggles raging in the Comintern. Some context may be useful in this regard.

Stalinism versus Trotskyism

After Lenin’s death in 1924, a power struggle erupted in the Bolshevik Party. Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev formed a Troika to block Trotsky, who had tremendous prestige as co-leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and creator of the victorious Red Army. The Bolsheviks had come to power expecting their victory to spark revolution in Europe, in particular Germany, which would then come to the aid of the beleaguered Soviet regime. But as one uprising after another went down in defeat, the USSR remained isolated, bled white, exhausted and impoverished. Bolshevik power teetered on a narrow social base. A defensive, bunker mentality gradually took hold. Basically, what Stalin said to the party cadres was: ‘Don’t listen to Trotsky, with his wild schemes for promoting revolution everywhere. We can and must build Socialism right here in Russia!’ The Troika orchestrated a campaign in the Comintern to discredit Trotsky and the Left Opposition, which was fighting to pull the party back onto its Bolshevik moorings.

Starting in 1925, China took centre stage in the Comintern. China was in revolutionary turmoil as Chiang Kai-Shek’s Guomindang marched from victory to victory against the warlords. In Moscow, Stalin and Bukharin, who were then in control of the Comintern, decided to gamble everything on the Chinese Communist Party’s alliance with the Guomindang, which was portrayed as a reliable anti-imperialist ally. The Soviets made sure that the Chinese Communists didn’t provoke ‘Comrade Chiang’. Trotsky sounded the alarm, calling for the Chinese party to extricate itself before it was too late. The Left Opposition urged the Chinese Communists to ‘march separately but strike together’, in Lenin’s phrase. Stalin ridiculed the Opposition, boasting that the Communists would use Chiang for their own purposes, and when the time came toss him aside ‘like a squeezed lemon’.

In contrast, Trotsky applied to China his perspective of ‘Permanent Revolution’ first formulated in 1905 for Russia. According to Trotsky, in a backward country like China, where the indigenous capitalist classes were weak and tied to foreign overlords, only the working class, supported by the poor peasants, could carry out a bourgeois democratic revolution — winning national independence, giving land to the tillers, setting up a democratic republic, and so forth. Such an upheaval, concluded Trotsky, would quickly pit the revolutionary workers against their ‘anti-imperialist’ bourgeois allies, just as it had in the Russian revolution. The Chinese revolution would be ‘permanent’ in the sense that it could not be artificially compartmentalised into arbitrary stages. And in fact, as the Guomindang armies marched north in 1927, the Communist-led workers of Shanghai started to form soviets. Chiang Kai-Shek saw the spectre of Communist revolution, and instead of being tossed aside, he crushed the Communist Party, butchering the revolutionaries in the streets like dogs.

The First Trotskyist Group in England

Given his deep involvement with the CPGB and his travels to such important Comintern centres as Berlin and Paris, Philip certainly knew all about the official campaign against Trotsky and the Left Opposition. In 1929, he encountered two left-wing critics of Stalin who were to have a tremendous impact on his life — Francis Ambrose Ridley and Hans Raj Aggarwala. Ridley was a well-known, brilliant Marxist intellectual in the Independent Labour Party, and like some other ILPers, he was active in the League Against Imperialism. He was a regular speaker in Hyde Park on Sundays. In the late 1920s, Ridley began circulating articles by Trotsky in the Clapham ILP.[34] Ridley had greatly impressed an Indian law student, Hans Raj Aggarwala, who was on the Executive Committee of the London Branch of the Indian National Congress. Aggarwala joined the India Freedom League at about the same time as Philip, and he, too, became a regular speaker for the League in Hyde Park.

In 1930, Ridley and Aggarwala formed the Marxian Propaganda League in order to promote debate on the critical issues of the day.[35] Both Ridley and Aggarwala were very sympathetic to Trotskyism, to the extent that they understood it. League members sold the American Trotskyist newspaper The Militant, as well as pamphlets by Trotsky. The League sponsored lectures, debates and open-air meetings on various topics, including India. According to the IPI files, Philip began attending League events in October 1930, and continued to participate for at least a year. In early 1931, the IPI noted that Philip was reading Trotsky’s works in the British Museum.[36] On at least two occasions Philip was a featured speaker at League events. Ridley remembered Philip in those days as a ‘small, active fellow who was a very good talker’.[37]

Aggarwalla was known to clash in public with CPGB leaders, in particular Harry Pollitt.[38] The CPGB gave Aggarwala the cold shoulder, but it had to tolerate him, as he was still very active in the League Against Imperialism and the Indian National Congress.[39] The Daily Worker rejected an advertisement submitted by the League. Philip tried to use his connections to get the Daily Worker to reconsider.

The League was not strictly speaking a Trotskyist group. Its members were just beginning to grasp the ideas behind Trotsky’s Left Opposition. The group’s ideologues, Ridley and Aggarwala, actually differed with Trotsky on a number of key issues. In October 1931, they set forth their positions in a document which came to be known as the ‘Ridley-Ram Theses’, since Aggarwala sometimes used the pseudonym ‘Chandu Ram’.[40] They sent their theses to the International Secretariat of the Left Opposition in Paris and to Trotsky in Prinkipo. The document stated that in England ‘Fascism will develop before Communism’, because of the lack of a revolutionary leadership. But the document rejected the powerful British trade unions as a vehicle to fight this impending catastrophe, calling the unions ‘Imperialistic organisations’. Trotsky, in contrast, had been hammering away in his writings on the need for a Communist-Socialist united front in the trade unions of Germany. In a similar vein, the document rejected Trotsky’s whole perspective of trying to reform the Comintern as ‘confused, contradictory and, at bottom, anti-Marxist’, calling instead for a new, Fourth International. It is not surprising that Trotsky himself sharply criticised the theses, concluding: ‘It would be very sad if the critical members of the official British Communist Party would imagine that the opinions of Ridley and Ram represent the opinions of the Left Opposition.’[41]

The arguments of Trotsky had an impact on a number of Marxian League members. The group began to polarise. We do not know exactly where Philip stood. On the one hand, he must have differed with some of Ridley’s ideas, because the IPI dossier mentions that Philip was scheduled to debate with Ridley at a League meeting in January 1931. On the other hand, Philip himself said later that he had signed an appeal calling on Trotsky to form a new International.[42] Philip was so serious about pursuing the dialogue with Trotsky that he tried to visit him on the Turkish island of Prinkipo.[43] He took the Orient Express as far as the Bulgarian capital, where he was nabbed by the police and sent back to England.

A Secret Trotskyist

Philip was careful not to antagonise his Communist patrons by revealing the extent of his growing Trotskyist convictions. He continued to write articles that supported the general line of the Comintern. Trotsky wanted his followers to remain within the Communist parties and fight for their opposition views as long as possible. Moreover, Philip had become financially dependent upon the CPGB. When he decided not to return to Ceylon as planned in 1929, his anxious parents cut off his allowance in an attempt to force him to come home. The IPI reports frequently mention his lack of money. He would sleep in attics, boarding houses and at one point at the back of a Communist bookshop. An IPI report noted that he ‘does not receive a penny from home in Ceylon’ and ‘is being definitely maintained by the League Against Imperialism’. The IPI reported that it was widely believed in Indian circles that Philip was being financed by the CPGB.

Philip was asking for trouble by associating with the Marxian League. In May 1931, he was reported to have ‘severed his connection with the Marxian League’. This was probably just a ruse to deflect suspicion; five months later he attended a Marxian League meeting where Aggarwala was the featured speaker. Why did the CPGB tolerate his association with Trotskyists like Aggarwala? Philip’s patrons had their own agenda. Rajani Palme Dutt, who was based in Brussels, was waging his own factional campaign within the CPGB, and promoted young hotheads like Philip, Datta Mazumdar, Reg Groves and Stewart Purkis. Philip still carried out the official Communist line in public, as demonstrated by the article on India he wrote for Dutt’s journal, Labour Monthly, in 1932.[44]

Moreover, the Marxian Propaganda League was not much of a threat to the CPGB. It operated on the fringes of the party and the labour movement. By late 1932, it was already breaking up. Aggarwala returned to India with a scheme to foment revolution in the Princely States, but was killed in an auto accident.

The CPGB was more concerned about the so-called ‘Right Opposition’, which was aligned with Bukharin’s faction in the Russian party. In 1928, Stalin broke his alliance with Bukharin, who was made the scapegoat for the débâcle in China. Bukharin opposed Stalin’s new zigzag to the left. Although Bukharin was routed at the Sixth Comintern Congress, his ‘Right Opposition’ was strong in Germany, France and the USA. One of his prominent supporters was the Indian Communist MN Roy, who had followers in Berlin as well as in London. The Royists became a significant faction within the CPGB’s group in the London Branch of the Congress. According to Philip: ‘Prolonged and bitter controversies were carried on, mostly in private.’[45] The Royists argued that the Indian Communist Party could capture Gandhi’s Congress and turn it into a revolutionary instrument. Philip strongly opposed the Royists. He continued to vilify Nehru and the Congress Socialists as ‘the best allies of British imperialism in India’. Philip ridiculed the view that Congress was a vital force, calling Gandhism ‘the dying horse’ at the very time that Gandhi was rousing millions in the first Civil Disobedience movement. In other words, in this struggle Philip sided with the Stalinist majority in the CPGB.

In 1931, Clemens Dutt proposed that Philip should go to study at the Lenin School in Moscow, and arrangements were made by William Rust. Philip’s friend K Ramayya, who was already there, found accommodation. This might seem like a tremendous vote of confidence. However, the opposite was sometimes the case. At this time of upheaval in the Comintern, the local parties often sent their ‘troublemakers’ to Moscow to get ‘straightened out’.

Arthur Glyn-Evans

In his work for the Trotskyist cause, Philip collaborated closely with one Arthur Glyn-Evans. According to the IPI files, Arthur Glyn-Evans worked at the CPGB’s Labour Research Department in the late 1920s. He was part of Philip’s fraction in the League Against Imperialism and the London Branch of the Indian National Congress.[46] He must have been very involved with the CPGB’s clandestine operations directed at India, because his name was on the list of 51 ‘conspirators’ cited during the famous Meerut Conspiracy Trial.[47] Glyn-Evans had a connection with Ireland; at one point the IPI noted that Philip was being paid by Glyn-Evans to write for Workers Voice, an Irish revolutionary newspaper in London. Philip was reported to have visited Dublin in early 1932.

In 1932, Philip moved into Arthur Glyn-Evan’s house at 22 Adelaide Road, which was something of a Trotskyist headquarters. As the IPI noted: ‘It is known that Indians, Ceylonese, etc, favouring Trotskyism have met at his last known address’, and ‘literature dealing with that subject has been issued therefrom.’ Specific names are not mentioned, but the Ceylonese probably included Leslie Goonewardene and Colvin R de Silva.

The Showdown with the Communist Party

In April 1932, however, the party began to question Philip’s political loyalty. Evidently, he must have criticised the official Comintern line on China, as Clemens Dutt wrote from Berlin asking Philip ‘to set out in writing the interesting views he was said to hold on China and to elaborate his statement that the KMT government was acting as an agent of US imperialism’. When a cynical Stalinist like Dutt talks about ‘interesting views’, you know he isn’t thinking about a friendly chat.

During the following month there was a showdown at the Second Annual Conference of the British Section of the League Against Imperialism. CPGB leader Harry Pollitt introduced the main resolutions on war, China, colonial struggles and the rôle of the Social Democracy. According to the IPI report, this ‘caused some lively discussion and heated protests from various comrades, including Comrades Mazumdar and Gunawardena’.[48] Then, when Saklatvala moved the resolution on India, Philip unexpectedly countered with an alternate resolution. ‘The discussion which followed showed that there was something much deeper in the minds of some comrades than a mere argument over words.’

The cat was now out of the bag. One of the last IPI reports, dated 9 November 1932, stated that the CPGB ‘has now decided to dispense with his services owing to indolence, unreliability, and the discovery that he was secretly a Trotskyist’. It noted that ‘at the moment Evans is himself not absolutely clear of suspicion by the CPGB in this direction’. The report concluded: ‘It is considered as very unlikely that Gunawardena will again be found in Communist Party and League Against Imperialism circles, owing to the very unfavourable atmosphere created by him before his departure from England.’

A Suspicious Note

It turns out that Arthur Glynn-Evans may not have been what he seemed. Evans is not mentioned in any of the accounts of early British Trotskyism. This by itself proves nothing. However, his name does pop up quite unexpectedly in another context — an IPI file on the Russian Oil Products (ROP) company.[49] The ROP had been formed by the Bolshevik government to sell oil for badly-needed foreign currency. Russians and some British Communists were employed in the London office. No doubt, the ROP was a hotbed of espionage and counter-espionage. In the IPI file on the ROP, mixed in with rather mundane reports, is a single piece of paper with the following marginal note dated 26 July 1932: ‘There has been talk that Glyn Evans might be given a billet in the new ROP concern which is being planned for India.’[50]

As we have just seen, the CPGB was suspicious of Glyn-Evans, so it is very unlikely that the Comintern would be considering him for a sensitive assignment in India. Was the ‘talk’ then coming from the other side — British intelligence? As Ted Crawford points out, the language used is a tip-off. ‘Billet’ is an army phrase. In the military, when someone is given a billet, it often implies a plum assignment or a reward. What had Evans done to earn a reward? Glyn-Evans knew all the young Indian and Ceylonese Communists who were returning home — Philip, Datta Mazumdar, Aggarwala, Kiran Basak and others. The British would have keenly wanted to keep very close tabs on them. Someone like Glyn-Evans would be very valuable to the British in India. However, there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other.

Return to Ceylon

Harry Gunawardena finally got Sir Baron Jayatilleke, the Minister of Home Affairs, to intervene on Philip’s behalf, and the ban on his return was lifted. Philip left London at the beginning of September 1932. He contacted the French Left Opposition in Paris, and then headed south for Spain. He abandoned the books he was carrying, slipped across the border, and hiked over the Pyrennes mountains, making his way to Barcelona, which was then in ferment. The king had abdicated in 1931, and left-wing Republicans and Socialists dominated the new Republic. He evidently contacted the Spanish Trotskyist group, the Izquierda Comunista Española, led by Andrés Nin, who had been a founding member of the Spanish Communist Party. After a week in Barcelona, he travelled in various parts of southern Europe. On 14 October, he boarded the SS Explorateur Grandidier at Marseilles, and arrived home on 1 November, a very different man than the callow youth who had gone to America 10 years earlier.

Architect of the LSSP

When Philip stepped ashore in Colombo, he already had a head full of plans for developing a left-wing movement on the island. In late 1930, he had prepared a lengthy memorandum on Ceylon which he was to present to the League Against Imperialism in Berlin. In it Philip argued that unless a Communist Party were developed in Ceylon, a branch of the League there would not be very effective. And to that end, he suggested that a European comrade be sent to Ceylon.[51]

In early 1931, Philip completed a Marxist analysis of Ceylon in a book, Whither Ceylon, which was eventually accepted for publication in Moscow. Philip maintained contact with Dr SA Wickremasinghe, who had been elected to the State Council in 1931. The IPI intercepted these letters, and provided summaries that are very revealing. In 1931, Philip stated that ‘he hopes to form Marxist Study Groups there, by correspondence, before his return, taking over personal control in due course’. In another he proposed the building up of the Youth Leagues in Ceylon as a revolutionary organisation with ‘an iron discipline and a crystal-clear ideology’.

But that was easier said than done. There was no mass nationalist movement in which to work. The Ceylon Congress was so conservative and élitist that it had opposed the franchise granted under the Donoughmore Reforms! The impact of the depression knocked the wind out of the urban labour movement which had been inspired and led by AE Goonesinghe in the 1920s. The Youth Leagues were in disarray, or were moribund. As Kumari Jayawardena has described: ‘The situation was an unusual one, for almost simultaneously, in the early 1930s, there was a collapse of the nationalist and the labour organisations which had been active in the political and economic struggles of the 1920s.’[52]

As we have seen, at this point in time Trotsky defined his Left Opposition as an integral part of the Communist movement, even if it was expelled and functioning outside the Communist parties. It would have been pretty meaningless for Philip to try to form a Left Opposition in Ceylon, where there was no Communist Party and the issues of Stalinism versus Trotskyism were so remote. Philip faced a daunting task — ‘forming a single political party which could give leadership to both the anti-imperialist struggle and the working-class movement’.[53]

Philip pursued his strategy of using the Youth Leagues to gather and develop cadres for the future party. With boundless energy, he convened meetings, revived moribund Youth Leagues, and enlisted support from all quarters. As NM Perera recalled, Philip ‘split the youth movement into a Left and a Right’, and while the Right decayed, ‘the Left developed at his hand’.[54] In 1932-33, he gathered a core cadre consisting of Robert Gunawardena, Vernon Gunasekera, Leslie Goonewardene, Colvin R de Silva, NM Perera, Dr SA Wickremasinghe and BJ Fernando. This group in turn recruited a following into the Youth Leagues, including several young women who would make their mark in the movement, such as Susan de Silva, Vivienne Goonewardene and Selina Perera.[55] The exploits of this early group around Philip during 1933-35 became legendary — the Suriya Mal protest, the anti-malaria relief campaign, the strike at Wellawatte Mills, all of which have been recounted many times.[56]

The launching of the LSSP was dictated not so much by the organic development of Philip’s group as by the impending elections for a second State Council. The LSSP was founded in December 1935 to field candidates. As NM Perera later revealed, ‘were it not for Philip I would never have contested the Ruwanwella seat’.[57] Both Philip and NM Perera were elected to the State Council as Samasamajists, beginning a period of close collaboration and personal friendship that lasted until the rupture in 1950.

The LSSP was set up to be a broad, progressive movement, open to anyone who agreed with its list of specific demands and paid a nominal pledge. The new party espoused Socialism in vague terms, evading controversial issues like Stalinism. Philip ‘pushed forward Colvin as the President’.[58] In many ways, Colvin was the perfect president for this kind of party. He was charismatic and eloquent, and he argued the case for Socialism with the same persuasive skills that he used in court as a brilliant young criminal lawyer. Philip probably wouldn’t have been as effective as Colvin in that rôle. Philip was notoriously impulsive, confrontational and domineering, and he was widely regarded as a hard-core Communist, despite his public statements to the contrary.[59]

In a sense, the early LSSP resembled a front group, like the League Against Imperialism, in which a small inner circle of dedicated, disciplined Communists controlled a larger, more amorphous organisation. As we have seen, Philip’s formative years were spent entirely in just such organisations. Had he been trained in a healthy Leninist party or Trotskyist opposition group, he might have gone about creating the LSSP in a different way.

Although Philip was the dominant figure, he was not the sole leader, and he could not impose his Trotskyist ideas on the LSSP as a whole. Dr SA Wickremasinghe, for one, certainly didn’t agree with his critique of Stalin. As a result, the LSSP showed no outward signs of Trotskyism. The Trotskyists formed a distinct, though apparently covert, group within the LSSP leadership, referring to themselves as the ‘T’ Group. As Hector Abhayavardhana tells it:

The group was small and did not consist of well-rounded Trotskyists in its entirety, but all of them had rejected the international policies of Stalinism and the harsh bureaucratic methods by which Stalin ruled in the Soviet Union. Philip Gunawardena was generally regarded as the leading influence in the party, but there were important other influences also, for example, Leslie Goonewardene with a first-hand report on the Spanish Civil War and Doric de Souza who returned to the Island in 1937.[60]

Hector is quite right to emphasise the uneven nature of the ‘T’ Group. Leslie Goonewardene and Vernon Gunasekera had a strong theoretical bent, and delved deeply into Marxist theory. Leslie Goonewardene was the only leader who taught himself to write in the Sinhala language so he could translate Marxist writings into the language of the workers. Another important Trotskyist influence was Terence de Zylva, a teacher and the founder of Kolonnawa Vidyala, who turned many of his students into earnest young Trotskyists. In contrast, Colvin R de Silva was in his element as a public speaker and populariser of the party’s politics. Colvin was not yet a fully-formed Trotskyist. In fact, as Hector Abhayavardhana has pointed out, it was not until Colvin was jailed in 1940 that ‘he found the opportunity to get down to serious study of the basic ideological questions that were being fiercely debated in the contemporary world’.[61] NM Perera, as many have said, was more a Keynesian than a Marxist. But he took his lead from Philip, whom he admired to the point of hero worship.

Hector is also right to emphasise the important rôle played by Doric de Souza and the ‘second generation’ of Ceylonese who returned from London in the later 1930s. This cohort, which included V Karalasingham, DWJ Perera, V Satchithanandam and SCC Anthonipillai, had been involved with the London Marxist Group in 1936, one of the three Trotskyist groups in Britain at that time. Doric de Souza, the brilliant son of a nationalist editor of Goan descent, benefited from his association with the British Trotskyist movement, which had really taken shape and developed only after Philip left in 1932.

One of the enigmas of the LSSP is why the Trotskyists kept their views behind closed doors. As Regi Siriwardena recalls:

It was not only us fledging Marxists in the university who were unclear about the issue of Trotskyism vs Stalinism but many members of the party as well. Even my ideological mentor of that time, Hector, had only a few months earlier hotly defended in conversation the Hitler-Stalin pact, and among the books he had lent me was the verbatim report of the Bukharin trial.[62]

This fully squares with Hector Abhayavardhana’s account:

I had been greatly surprised by a criticism of the Popular Front line of the Communist Parties which I heard for the first time at a study class in early 1939, as far as I can remember. The study class was conducted by Colvin. But it was not until several months later that I was introduced to Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed by a fellow member of the study group, who borrowed the copy for me.[63]

No doubt, Philip placed a high value on party unity. However, when the onset of the war forced his hand, the sudden expulsion of the pro-Moscow members of the LSSP took the party’s membership and periphery by complete surprise.

This raises another, perhaps even more important issue — Philip’s connection with Trotsky’s international movement, or lack thereof. Philip seems to have carried out his party-building work in Ceylon in isolation from the international Trotskyist movement. One must remember, however, that when Philip was in London, there was no British Trotskyist movement. The Marxian Propaganda League was marginal, embryonic at best. Moreover, the first international gathering of Trotskyists did not take place until April 1930. The next meeting of the International Left Opposition did not take place until February 1933, after Philip returned to Ceylon.

The first reference to the LSSP that I have been able to find is not until 1938, when a British Trotskyist Group, the Revolutionary Socialist League, announced in an internal document:

For practically the first time in the history of the Trotskyist movement in this country, the RSL has established and maintained connections with India and Ceylon. We are in contact with the only revolutionary party in Ceylon [the LSSP] which numbers more than 800 members.[64]

I believe that this link with the LSSP was probably the result of the ‘second generation’ of Ceylonese students who were in London at this time. Trotsky himself did not know he had followers in Ceylon until 1939, when Selina Perera, NM Perera’s wife and an LSSP militant in her own right, visited the American Trotskyist party en route home from London in 1939. Like Philip years before, she tried to visit Trotsky, but was stopped at the border. Why did Philip not establish contact with Trotsky’s International Secretariat, or with other Trotskyists abroad, before 1938? Or did he?

There is another factor about Philip which may help explain the political character of the early LSSP. We now know that Philip did not fully agree with the Leninist model for the vanguard party. As is well known, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party had split in two in 1903 over the issue of party organisation, with Lenin’s Bolsheviks insisting on a tightly centralised cadre party, while the Mensheviks favoured a more open, democratic organisation. Lenin’s position found few supporters outside Russia. In fact, many prominent Social Democrats, in particular Rosa Luxemburg, sharply criticised Lenin’s recipe for a closed party, tightly controlled by the centre. As Regi Siriwardena testifies in his memoirs, Philip ‘believed that Rosa had been right on this question against Lenin. It was a mark of Philip’s independence of mind that he should have made this judgement in the face of the towering authority of Lenin.’[65] So this might explain why a Trotskyist like Philip created a party that was basically Menshevik in character.


Philip has often been called ‘the Marx, Lenin and Trotsky of Ceylon’. This is not entirely an exaggeration. He returned to Ceylon a mature political personality, well-versed in the Marxist classics, and with invaluable practical experience in revolutionary politics in several countries. In just a few frenetic years, he cohered the nucleus of a Marxist party, launched the LSSP, successfully contested the 1936 elections, represented the party in parliament, jousted with Goonesinghe for leadership of the organised working class in Colombo, and built a strong trade union base for the party. No doubt his grasp of Trotskyism was partial, as it could only be given the fact that he never had the opportunity to work in a true section of Trotsky’s movement. But it was Philip who nonetheless took the bold, decisive actions that propelled the LSSP in the direction of the Fourth International. Philip grasped the importance of revolution in India, and he was the moving force behind the party’s decision to link up with the Trotskyists in India to form the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India in 1942.

In hindsight, I think Philip might be compared with Plekhanov, who was the ‘father of Socialism in Russia’. Plekhanov brought Marxism to backward Russia and developed the Social Democratic Party. But Plekhanov fathered a movement which ultimately went farther than he wanted. Philip built the LSSP as a loose, non-doctrinaire movement. With the onset of the war, however, the party was forced to go underground and adopt new forms and methods of work. The LSSP was formally subsumed in the new Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India that had been launched in 1942. The party adopted orthodox Leninist methods of organisation (known as ‘democratic centralism’), as did all Trotskyist groups. Philip evidently was not comfortable with the ‘Bolshevisation’ of his party, which was being carried out by Leslie Goonewardene and Doric de Souza while Philip and other leaders were in jail. When Philip escaped in 1942, the trouble began. Philip immediately clashed with Doric de Souza, instigating a period of destructive factionalism which only subsided somewhat after Philip was rearrested in India in 1943.

I believe that Philip’s moment of truth came in 1945, when he and NM Perera were released from jail and the party could resume open work. Philip stunned his comrades by reviving the LSSP in competition with the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India. Together with NM Perera, he reconstituted the ‘old LSSP’. Like Plekhanov, he could not, or would not, make the leap to the new level — a democratic centralist, cadre party based on the full Trotskyist programme. That Philip was already in flight from Trotskyism is suggested by one very telling but little-known incident. On the eve of the 1947 elections, Philip offered to support SWRD Bandaranaike for Premier in opposition to DS Senanayake.[66] This behind-the-scenes overture indicated that Philip was already willing to discard one of the pillars of Trotskyism — opposition in principle to Popular Fronts, coalitions with representatives of the bourgeoisie. It was not until after his break with the LSSP in 1950 that Philip actually consummated this coalition with Bandaranaike, as he did in 1956.

In this article I have quoted several times from NM Perera’s eulogy to Philip. Even though the two became bitter political enemies after Philip’s break with the LSSP 20 years earlier, NM Perera paid a heartfelt tribute to his former mentor and friend:

History will no doubt accord to him his rightful place in the political life of this country. In the years to come when lesser mortals like us have played their evanescent part and vanished into the limbo of the forgotten, a grateful Socialist Ceylon will remember him with pride and place him on the worthy pedestal due to him.

Such was the power and the legacy of Don Philip Rupasinghe Gunawardena.



[1].      Regi Siriwardena, Working Underground: The LSSP in Wartime: A Memoir of Happenings and Personalities, Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 1999, p48.

[2].      NM Perera, ‘Philip Gunawardena: The Father of Socialism in Ceylon’, reprinted in Daily News (Colombo), 13 January 1999, p7.

[3].      Lakmali Gunawardena, Philip: The Early Years, Boralugoda: Philip Gunawardena Foundation, 1996. During my last visit to Sri Lanka in 1997, I met four of Philip’s five children: Lakmali, Prasanna, Githajana and Dinesh.

[4].      The India Office Library is part of the new British Library on Euston Road in London. The IPI reports are part of the IOL’s Public and Judicial Department (Separate) Files, abbreviated as L/P&J. The Philip Gunawardena dossier is L/P&J/12/409, and consists of 41 documents, a total of 63 pages. Unless otherwise indicated, all the quotes in this essay are from documents in this folder.

[5].      For accounts of Philip’s rôle in the Indian movement, see my articles, ‘Trotskyism in India: Origins through World War II (1935-45)’, Revolutionary History, Volume 1, no 4, Winter 1988-89, pp22-34, and ‘Trotskyism in India, 1942-48’, in Al Richardson (ed), Blows Against the Empire: Trotskyism in Ceylon, London: Porcupine Press, 1997.

[6].      Robert Gunawardena, ‘My First Lesson in Electioneering’, Daily Mirror, 9 November 1971. His memoirs were serialised in the Daily Mirror, November-December 1971.

[7].      Quoted in L Gunawardena, Philip: The Early Years, p7.

[8].      Quoted in op cit, pp10-11.

[9].      British surveillance operations were based in the British Library of Information at 5 East 45th Street in New York.

[10].     L/P&J/12/33. Report dated 17 June 1926. The India Society of America was represented in New York by Hari Govind Govil, and the Young India Association by THK Rezmie.

[11].     L/P&J/12/33. Report dated 17 June 1926.

[12].     ‘The Passionate Socialist’, Ceylon Daily News, 28 March 1972, p4.

[13].     See James D Cockcroft, Mexico: Class Formation, Capital Accumulation, and the State, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983, p119.

[14].     ‘The Passionate Socialist’, op cit, p4.

[15].     Quoted in L Gunawardena, op cit, p13.

[16].     NM Perera, ‘Philip Gunawardena: The Father of Socialism in Ceylon’, op cit, p7.

[17].     In October 1929, NB Parulekar, Philip’s comrade from the Hindustan Association of America, wrote to the CPGB letting them know that Philip would contact the party in London.

[18].     Subodh Roy, Communism in India: Unpublished Documents, 1925-1934, Calcutta: Ganasahitya Prakash, 1972, p417.

[19].     L/P&J/12/429. Copy Extract from New Scotland Yard Report, dated 18 February 1931. The Comintern wanted the CPGB to get control over Bharat. The decoded Comintern cables to the CPGB are in the Public Records Office (London). See file HW17/69 CA 239 and HW17/70 CB 64.

[20].     After the triumph of Hitler, Tagore criticised the ‘fatal’ error of the Comintern in Germany, leading some to brand him a ‘Trotskyite’, although in fact he did not identify himself with Trotsky’s faction. See Saumyendranath Tagore, Hitlerism: The Aryan Rule in Germany, Calcutta: Ganashakti, 1934.

[21].     L/P&J/12/364. Extract from New Scotland Yard Report, dated 8 July 1931.

[22].     Arjuna, Pilip Gunavardhana caritaya [The Life of Philip Gunawardena], Moratuwa: Sarat Gunasena, 1969, pp20-1.

[23].     Roy, Communism in India, op cit, p224.

[24].     Quoted in EP de Silva, A Short Biography of Dr NM Perera, Colombo: Times of Ceylon, 1975, p40.

[25].     Hector Abhayavardhana, ‘The War: Its Importance in Colvin’s Development as a Marxist Leader’, Lanka Guardian, 15 June 1982, p12.

[26].     Ibid.

[27].     Kumari Jayawardena, ‘Origins of the Left Movement in Sri Lanka’, Social Scientist, Volume 2, no 6/7, January/February 1974, p12.

[28].     See V Karalasingham, The Politics of Coalition, Colombo: International Publishers, 1964, p67. According to Karalasingham, the Ceylonese students ‘did not come into the revolutionary Socialist movement — they drifted into it, drawn by the force exerted by Mr Philip Gunawardena’. It should be noted that this is a polemic, not an historical work. Karalasingham was a leader of the left faction in the LSSP that opposed the party’s decision to enter a coalition government with Bandaranaike in 1964.

[29].     Information on Oo Kyaw and his network in Burma in the early 1930s is provided in a British police report dated 17 March 1934, reproduced in Roy, Communism in India, op cit, pp169-80.

[30].     Op cit, p170.

[31].     An early IPI report on Philip states that he was a member of the Cosmopolitan Crew in 1926. The police obviously got Philip and Harry mixed up.

[32].     Articles cited in the IPI files include ‘The Donoughmore Commission’s Camouflage of Imperialism in Ceylon’, ‘Is Ceylon Different?’, ‘Whither Ceylon?’, and ‘The Hoover Plan.’

[33].     Robert Gunawardena, ‘My First Lesson in Electioneering’, Daily Mirror, 9 November 1971.

[34].     Al Richardson, ‘FA Ridley (1897-1994): An Appreciation’, Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 3, 1994, pp209-10.

[35].     Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1924-38, London: Socialist Platform, 1986, pp50-60.

[36].     The IPI cites Trotsky’s ‘Essays on the Working Classes and International Revolution’.

[37].     Letter from Ellis Hillman, Revolutionary History, Summer 1988, p56.

[38].     L/P&J/12/42. Extract from New Scotland Yard Report, dated 13 May 1931.

[39].     L/P&J/12/363. Report dated 28 October 1930. The report says that Aggarwala was now ‘out of sympathies’ with his Communist connections.

[40].     FA Ridley and HR Aggarwala, ‘Theses on the British Situation, the Left Opposition, and the Comintern’, dated 23 October 1931. A copy is in the Trotsky Papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library, document number 15845. See also FA Ridley, ‘Marxism, History and a Fourth International’, reprinted in Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 3, 1994, pp211-16.

[41].     Leon Trotsky, ‘The Tasks of the Left Opposition in Britain and India’, Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1930-31, New York: Pathfinder, 1973, p337.

[42].     George Jan Lerski, Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon, Stanford: Hoover Institution, 1968, p26, n55.

[43].     L Gunawardena, Philip: The Early Years, op cit, pp16-17. It is surprising that this incident was not recorded in the IPI dossier.

[44].     DPR Gunawardena, ‘The Indian Masses Move Forward’, Labour Monthly, February 1932, pp87-92.

[45].     Philip Gunawardena, ‘The Indian Anti-Imperialist Group (London)’, included in the IPI file, L/P&J/12/441.

[46].     L/P&J/12/167. Report dated 27 July 1928.

[47].     Roy, Communism in India, op cit, p142. His name is given as ‘A Clyn Evans’.

[48].     L/P&J/12/272.

[49].     I am indebted to Ted Crawford, a member of the Revolutionary History editorial board in London, for this piece of detective work.

[50].     L/P&J/12/355. Note dated 26 July 1932.

[51].     The memorandum is dated 13 November 1930. The League meeting in Berlin had to be cancelled, due to police raids.

[52].     Jayawardena, op cit, p9.

[53].     Ibid.

[54].     ‘The Passionate Socialist’, op cit, p4.

[55].     For biographical details see Hector Abhayavardhana, ‘Selina Perera — The Forgotten Socialist Militant’, Pravada, Volume 4, no 10-11, 1997, pp19-20; Kumari Jayawardena, ‘Vivienne Goonewardene — “La Pasionaria” of Sri Lanka’, Pravada, Volume 4, no 10-11, 1997, pp16-18; Pulsara Liyanage, Vivi: A Biography of Vivienne Goonewardene, Colombo: Women’s Education and Research Centre, nd; Chitra Wijesekera, Women in Our Legislature: A Sri Lankan Study, Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha, 1995.

[56].     See Y Ranjith Amarasinghe, Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics: A Study of Trotskyism in Sri Lanka, Colombo: Social Scientists Association: 1998. Also Al Richardson (ed), Blows Against the Empire: Trotskyism in Ceylon, London: Porcupine Press, 1997.

[57].     NM Perera, ‘Philip Gunawardena: The Father of Socialism in Ceylon’, op cit, p7.

[58].     Ibid.

[59].     The trade union boss AE Goonesinghe used to red-bait Philip as a Communist. In a speech in the State Council, Philip stated that his party ‘is much less militant and less demanding than the Communist or Third International’. Quoted in Lerski, op cit, p26.

[60].     Hector Abhayavardhana, ‘How the LSSP Turned Trotskyist’, Lanka Guardian, 15 July 1982, p23.

[61].     Hector Abhayavardhana, ‘The War: Its Importance in Colvin’s Development as a Marxist Leader’, op cit, p13.

[62].     Siriwardena, op cit, p10.

[63].     H Abhayavardhana, ‘How the LSSP Turned Trotskyist’, op cit, p23.

[64].     ‘On the Necessity for an Independent Bolshevik-Leninist Organisation in Britain’, submitted by the Revolutionary Socialist League, 24 July 1938, in National Bulletin, prepared for the National Conference of the Bolshevik Leninist Organisations in Britain, p4.

[65].     Siriwardena, op cit, p50.

[66].     As NM Perera revealed in 1975: ‘We decided to offer the Premiership in 1947 to Mr Bandaranaike because we realised that he could with our help command a majority in the Parliament.’ (NM Perera, NM Explains — Statement on Removal from Government, Sama Samaja Publications, 1975, p18)