The passionate socialist
Following article was published in the Daily
News on March 28, 1972
‘Socialism is a positive constructive
movement and socialists who wish to contribute to the movement should
abandon hatred and be positive and constructive
Everything about Philip Gunawardena when he first burst into politics
had the quality of legend. He was the new prophet who brought the gospel
of socialism to Ceylon. Hewagam Korale where he was born was the land of
the Sinhala soldier.
His father, Boralugoda Ralahamy, shared with his Kandyan contemporary
Maduwanwala the reputation of having halted the inroads roads of British
vested interests who were then acquiring all the possible land beginning
from the hills of Uva right down to the lowlands bordering the Kelani.
No other master was acknowledged in their territories.
This spirit of independence burned fiercely in the young socialist's
soul, later to be fanned by a wealth of experience in the international
socialist movement that most of his contemporaries could only dream of.
It has been said of Philip that he fired the blood of men and clashed
with the police in more cities of the world than the average politician
can name that he had more colleagues scattered around in foreign
political prisons than the total number of an average man's
In later years, he came to count both among the rulers of resurgent
Asia and Africa and the forgotten exiles of the socialist movement in
the West many who remembered the daring of his exploits and
affectionately acknowledged his teaching.
He was a complete stranger to fear. He had the passion and fire of
the convinced socialist.
He had lost none of it when he first entered the State Council.
Witness the scene in that august and hopeful assembly: the year 1936. A
fiery young speaker is on his feet attacking the headman system. The
fossilised remains of a decadent feudalism, he calls it. The barbs are
deadly and well directed, but they hit a target the orator could hardly
A dignified old world figure in a dark coat and cloth abruptly rises
from his seat in the gallery at the end of that tirade against the very
system he represented. He goes straight to the Kachcheri. Where he
borrows a sheet of paper from a clerk and writes out his resignation.
This is none other than the legendary Boralugoda Ralahamy and the
speaker is his second son Philip. Few sons are gifted to evoke such
respect from a father of the Ralahamy's calibre.
Philip's political thinking began at the age of 14, when his father
was condemned to death by a Court Martial in the dark riot-torn days of
1915 for the offence of being on the side of the people whether as it is
believed to this day in Boralugoda, he was the determined child who
accompanied his mother on a desperate mission to present a last minute
petition at Queen's House, the fact remains that the Ralahamy was
ultimately reprieved and lived long enough to take great pride in his
Not even the doubts of elderly cronies who approached the old man in
later years with rumours that his sons were spreading a dangerous
doctrine of hate could shake the Ralahamy's confidence in his second
son. He confessed that he knew nothing at all about 'this Samasamajism'
but he did know his son, Philip, and he was quite sure he would do
nothing wrong. Philip was to inspire this kind of faith among his close
associates. For an essentially political figure, this was extraordinary.
As a schoolboy at Ananda, Philip began attending the first political
meetings of the incipient national movement in 1918, but in 1920 he
preferred to join the extremist ‘Young Lanka League’ of Victor Corea. A.
E. Goonesinha and C. H. Z. Fernando instead of the National Congress
founded by F. R. Senanayake.
But it was really to the pioneer American socialist Dr Scott-Nearing
that he owed the inspiration for what was to become the sustaining
philosophy of his life. At the end of three years reading in political
science, law, labour problems and philosophy, both Philip and his campus
friend at the university of Wisconsin, the celebrated Jayaprakash Narain
attended a political lecture by Dr Scott-Nearing which was to mark the
beginning of their socialist outlook.
Scott-Nearing, who visited his pupil in Ceylon on his last journey to
the east once wrote: “Socialism is a positive constructive movement and
socialists who wish to contribute to the movement should abandon hatred
and be positive and constructive.”
Philip's guru was not one of your wild eyed revolutionaries. Neither
did Philip come to socialism as one would imagine slaves are driven to
He came to it out of an abundance of moral scruples, a sense of
outrage against injustice, out of a belief in the brotherhood of man.
His love of humanity was an integral part of a truly sensitive
nature. When he spoke to massed audiences at Galle Face or at election
meetings, he seemed to magnetise them with his sincerity and it was a
tremendous striking force that his words generated. In personal life
unassuming and retiring to the point of shyness, yet entirely without
inhibition in his public utterances there was no contradiction between
theory and practice, the ideal and reality, the thought and the deed in
He never took a rickshaw ride because the degradation of another
human being revolted him. The man who suffered the most for his politics
carried the least bitterness in his breast. To him revolution was not a
matter of personal hatreds but the creating and guiding of social
Philip’s role as a political thinker would have to be the subject of
a special study. He was a political catalyst of our time as even the
briefest recapitulation of his career will substantiate. Never a
believer in party politics or parliamentary rules he sought to change
the course of events by foresight and strategy. He had an uncanny knack
of sizing up situations.
A single move of his would often leave his rivals gasping for breath.
If not actually running for life. This was never truer than of his
troubled relations with the Left movement. It is a moot point whether
the daring of his mind exceeded even his physical intrepidity, but it is
in the nature of things that courage of the kind that makes history and
challenges destiny must combine the two. In later years, he was called
unpredictable and changeable by rule-of-thumb thinkers of the Left. “I
am not hag-ridden by books” was his answer. “Nor do I see Ceylon in the
mirror of foreign writing.”
Unlike the scissors-and-paste philosophers that the Left movement
produced in abundance, he did not make the mistake of elevating every
quirk of foreign revolutionary history into arid dogma. He followed the
spirit rather than the letter of Marxism. Thus, he was the first among
the new leaders to thrill the resurgent spirit of the people with
slogans they could all understand.
Those who expected the promised social revolution to follow the path
laid down in the textbooks called him a chauvinist. Ten years or so
later, they would be busy eating their words - and using his. Parity,
for instance, has been submerged in a Sinhala policy for which he was
reviled in 1956.
Though books had not cluttered his mind, Philip remained a student
all his life, a student of human affairs. There was scarcely a more
widely read parliamentarian in the House. Always in his seat even
through the dreariest debates; Philip would often be seen relieving the
tedium with a new book of remarkable topicality. He never really stopped
learning and it was this habit which taught him to think out ever fresh
paths of action.
The background is worth recalling. After completing his secondary
education at Prince of Wales, Moratuwa and at Ananda College under P. de
S. Kularatne, he followed a year's course in economics at the University
College, Colombo, before he went to America. There he read further in
political science and philosophy, with two years at Illinois University
and three at Wisconsin.
Moving to New York Philip threw himself from 1925 to 1928 into the
thick of the socialist movement and the anti-imperialist organization of
American colonials. He thrilled crowds by his oratory not only in Union
Square but in many cities of Central and South America. Dr Jose Vas
Gonsalos, the Mexican revolutionary, later to be a minister in the first
Revolutionary Government of Mexico, was in this period his close friend
Doctors Seyed Hoosein and J. C. Coomarappa, the left wing Indian
nationalist, were among those who collaborated with Philip.
To be continued