Susan de Silva: Feminist Rebel and Pioneer Leftist

Wes Ervin

Courtesy of author & Sunday Island, 3 October 2010

Women played a significant role in the progressive movements that emerged in colonial Ceylon in the early twentieth century. Susan de Silva was one of those pioneers who defied the conservative status quo, raised her voice against injustice, and worked for the betterment of society. She was active in the nationalist movement in the ‘twenties, spearheaded the Youth Leagues, participated in the Suriya Mal protests of the early ‘thirties, and was a founding member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the country’s first socialist party.

Yet, for all her involvements over many years, she faded into obscurity. She never wrote memoirs, nor has she attracted the attention of historians. Curious, I sought to find out more about this intriguing shadowy figure.A Liberated Woman

Everyone who knew Susan remembers her as a very Westernized woman. She wore her hair short, used cosmetics, wore slacks, and was very outspoken. One of her comrades in the LSSP later recalled in his memoirs that Susan “had the marks of a liberated woman, wearing short hair and smoking.” 1 Indeed, she was more “Westernized” than many English women in Ceylon in that era.

She evidently came from an elite family, perhaps with Goan or Burgher roots. 2 The Burghers were descendants from Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonialists who intermarried with the Sinhalese. They tended to be the most Westernized minority in Ceylon and were entrenched in the business community and certain professions, notably law.

Susan married George Caldera, a Proctor (attorney-at-law), who may have been a Burgher. She had at least one child, a son.

Susan and George Caldera were involved in the nascent nationalist movement that emerged in Ceylon in the ‘twenties. The dominant figure in that period was A.E. Goonesinha, the dynamic Sinhalese patriot who founded the Young Lanka League in 1915, edited several nationalist journals, and formed the Ceylon Labour Union in 1922 and the Ceylon Labour Party in 1928. Susan and George were members of the Labour Party; George was in the executive committee. 

In the context of that time, the Labour Party was quite radical. It stood for political independence, universal suffrage, equal rights for women, and reforms to better the condition of the working class. Nearly half of the executive committee was women. Susan had the opportunity to work with progressive women such as Agnes de Silva, an active suffragette and founder of the Women’s Franchise Union, and Annie Eliza Preston, a Theosophist who taught at Musaeus College and founded the first Montessori school in Ceylon.

In 1927 the British government deputed a parliamentary delegation to Ceylon to look into the state of constitutional affairs (the Donoughmore Commission). The Labour Party demanded universal suffrage and self-government. The British government eventually agreed to replace the Legislative Council with a State Council elected on the basis of universal adult franchise. While that satisfied Goonesinha, Susan shared the view of the more radical nationalists, notably the Jaffna Youth Congress, who called for the formation of Youth Leagues to fight for independence.

In 1931 Susan helped to launch the Youth League movement in Colombo. “Among the live wires in Youth League politics,” recalled Reggie Perera, a fellow activist from those days, “were Mrs. Susan Caldera, a pioneer woman politician and a confirmed matriarchist.”3 Her husband George was co-secretary of the Youth League.

The Youth Leagues became the outlet for English-educated middle class youth to express their nationalist feelings. “At this stage,” Kumari Jayawardena notes, “the focus was on political and economic freedom, although several members, such as Terence de Zylva and Susan de Silva, had shown interest in socialist ideas.”4

Suriya Mal Movement

Every year the British establishment commemorated Armistice Day (the end of WWI) by selling poppies and donating the proceeds to veterans. The Youth Congress president, Aelian Pereira, who was also a member of the committee that organized the Poppy Day activities, complained that Ceylonese veterans weren’t getting their fair share of the funds. In 1931 he formed his own committee to sell a local sunflower, the Suriya Mal, and donate the proceeds to Ceylonese veterans. But he had no following. Susan and some others in the Youth League provided the personnel that he needed.

The first campaign made quite a splash. Worried by this rival, the official Poppy Day committee came to terms with Aelian Pereira, who then withdrew from his own committee. The Suriya Mal organization, in the words of Vernon Gunasekera, “just fell into our laps.” 5

The Youth League activists carried out the next campaign on their own with bolder slogans. The principals and teachers in Buddhist schools around Colombo provided the backbone for the new organization. The president of the Suriya Mal committee, Doreen Young, the English principal of Ananda Balika Vidyalaya, recruited many of her teachers and students to the cause.

Conversion to Revolutionary Politics

At that point Susan came under the powerful influence of Philip Gunawardena, who is rightly remembered as “the father of Marxism” in Sri Lanka. Returning home from Britain in late 1932, Philip joined the South Colombo Youth League. He was heads and shoulders above all the others in terms of his political experience and learning. He had become a Marxist during his university days in the USA and then spent four years working full-time for the British Communist Party, before he was booted out for supporting Leon Trotsky against Stalin. While in London, he had mentored three Ceylonese students who became his followers – Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, and N.M. Perera. Upon their return, they too joined the South Colombo Youth League. By 1933 Philip had formed the nucleus of a socialist party within the Youth League.6

Meeting behind the scenes, this group drafted a manifesto for the 1933 campaign that was openly anti-imperialist. Susan supported the radical tone. Her husband, who was president of the South Colombo Youth League, refused to endorse the manifesto. He stated that he would veto any propaganda that would bring the government of the day into contempt. No doubt he was keenly aware that such anti-imperialist propaganda could result in severe repression. In India the government had just handed down harsh sentences to 27 leaders of the Communist Party for conspiring “to deprive the King of the sovereignty of British India.”

The political fight led to a split in the Suriya Mal organization.7 It also split Susan’s marriage. Susan left her husband and went with the revolutionaries.

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party

In 1935, as elections to the second State Council approached, the Suriya Mal activists decided that the time was opportune to form an openly socialist party. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party was launched on December 18, 1935. Susan was a founding member.

In simple language, free of alien jargon, the LSSP’s manifesto called for complete independence, nationalization of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and political equality regardless of race, caste, creed, or gender. In order to bring their new message of socialism to the people, the LSSP fielded four candidates for the State Council. Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera won. They used the State Council to broadcast their socialist politics to a wider audience.

As the LSSP grew by leaps and bounds over the next several years, Susan played a role in training the recruits. She taught Marxism to student sympathizers at the University College in Colombo. The LSSP group on the campus included Trevor Drieberg, a student from an elite Burgher family, and Doric de Souza, a lecturer in English literature who had returned from his studies in Britain in 1937. Susan owned a café, “The Red Lion,” in Bambalapitiya, where students and leftists gathered for a smoke and snack.

Exposure to Indian Nationalist Politics

From the start the LSSP had established fraternal relations with the Congress Socialist Party in India, which had been formed in 1934. Every year the LSSP sent delegates to the annual sessions of the Indian National Congress. In 1939 Susan was selected to be part of the seven-person LSSP delegation to the Congress session, held that year at Tripura.

The LSSP delegation had an appointment to meet with Jawaharlal Nehru. However, Susan missed her chance. Her fellow delegate, Reggie Perera, recounted later in his memoirs, “As several of our delegates were sick with malaria, and some others were busy otherwise, it ultimately transpired that W.S. de Silva and I were the only two to keep the appointment with the great Indian leader.”8 After the session ended, Susan returned home via Calcutta, where she witnessed a mammoth demonstration against the British.

The Underground Period

With the onset of the Second World War, the colonial government jailed the top leadership of the LSSP, confiscated the party’s printing press, and banned public meetings. Susan was not deterred. She continued her political activities. The LSSP group at the University College issued leaflets with blistering attacks on the “imperialist war” and painted the hammer and sickle in red on the walls of the campus.9

With the police breathing down her neck, Susan moved the student meetings to the home of a Burgher friend, Elmer de Haan, who was not connected to the LSSP. One of her young recruits recalled these meetings: “Those were the heady days, in 1940, in World War II, during the underground days of the Party, when as young romantic revolutionaries, several of us would go for study classes in Sinsappa Lane in Wellawatte to Elmer’s, to listen to Trevor, Doric de Souza and Susan de Silva.”10

Despite the restrictions on labor action, Susan organized a strike of gas workers in Colombo in 1941. She used a pseudonym, “Martins,” in an effort to conceal her identity.

These heady days didn’t last long. During 1941-42, political tensions developed within the LSSP. With the senior party leaders in jail, Doric de Souza became the lynchpin of the remaining party organization. He started to reorganize the party along what he called “Bolshevik” lines. According to Susan, Doric was very critical of the pre-war LSSP. He said it “lacked form, was not run on Bolshevik principles, and was a hotbed of bureaucratism.”11 That criticism put Doric on a collision course with Philip Gunawardena, the undisputed lion of the LSSP.

“As soon as the leaders broke jail and went into hiding,” according to Susan, “Doric took over leadership of the Party. His first official act was to come into the open against Philip. He maligned Philip to the rank and file with the object of ousting him.”12

Conspiracy Theory

But the plot thickens even more. Susan didn’t just oppose Doric’s politics — she questioned his integrity and motives. She suspected that he was a government agent who had joined the LSSP to spy and wreck the party from within. She speculated that Robert Marrs, the principal of University College, had recruited Doric while he was a student in the mid-‘thirties and rewarded him with a scholarship to the London University:

“He was to qualify for a post in the University. Within a short time he returned in mysterious circumstances without having completed the course contemplated. Nevertheless he was appointed to the post earmarked for him…The question must then be asked – what qualified Doric in Marrs’ imperial eye despite the fact that Doric had not got through the course prescribed in England and that he was to work with the LSSP? Doric’s endearment to Marrs, the Intelligence Agent, must have some other basis.”13

Susan built her case against Doric entirely on circumstantial evidence. To take one example: “Doric’s meetings were held at his residence which was directly opposite the Bambalapitiya Police Station…It must be remembered that Doric was a Government servant – the University being then a State institution – at the time he openly carried on the banned party’s activities. Why was Doric, a State employee, not arrested for these activities?”14

Why did Susan accuse him of being a Judas? That is an enigma. There was certainly an atmosphere of extreme paranoia in the LSSP at that time. We now know from declassified British intelligence reports that the LSSP went into a “state of alarm” upon learning in November 1940 that the police had detailed knowledge of the supposedly clandestine party organization. In fact, a police spy in the party was subsequently unmasked. 15

However, almost all of her comrades considered her accusation against Doric to be preposterous.16 Doric knew so much about the inner workings of the organization that if he wanted to betray the party, the government could have already smashed it completely. And, I must add, the LSSP itself later investigated these charges and dismissed them as baseless.17

Philip Gunawardena, however, had his own misgivings and shortly after his escape from jail in 1942, he accused Doric of being a police spy. That unleashed a destructive factional struggle within the LSSP that divided and damaged the party during the remainder of the underground period. In 1945, when the war ended, the two factions surfaced as separate, rival parties. Susan remained with Philip.

A “Persona Non Grata”

Though she still believed that Doric de Souza was a spy, Susan wanted to see the split healed. The rivalries between the two competing Trotskyist groups were damaging their credibility and hindering their ability to capitalize on the post-war upsurge in labor militancy and nationalist feeling.

Susan went to England, taking her teenage son with her, apparently to seek the support of the British Trotskyists for her proposal to settle the differences between the two parties. Returning home in 1947, after the two Trotskyist groups had won 15 seats in the new parliament, she reported:

“We entered Parliament as an offensive force. Today we have surrendered that role to the Government. The main reason being the squabbling between our groups which the government has capitalized within Parliament to strengthen its position. Even so there is the possibility of our climbing back if we can only close our ranks.”18

By this time she had become something of an outcast, standing between the two parties. “I am not persona grata with any group though officially I stand with Philip. I am something like the Wandering Jew but my sin is not that I raise my hand against the Holy of Holies, but that persons mean nothing to me; only the proper functioning of our groups wherever geographically situated.”

Perhaps for respite, Susan went up to the hill station of Nuwara Eliya, where she stayed at “The Priory.” Interestingly, that house had previously been the home of the English Christian missionary, William Edward Rowlands, who devoted his life to converting the Tamil plantation workers.

A Political Reorientation

At this point Susan’s political thinking was changing rapidly. With the onset of the Cold war, Susan believed that the Stalinist regime in Russia would be forced to return to the revolutionary path. She concluded that the Trotskyist movement, in Ceylon and internationally, needed to mend fences with the Communist movement and close ranks.

In a letter to the leadership of the Fourth International, she wrote: “Russia has at last taken the Road to Permanent Revolution with the result that Fascism is openly and feverishly arraying itself on a world scale against her… I believe the conditions have been fulfilled for the entry of the Trotskyists into the ranks of the Parties standing with Russia.”19

Four days later Susan resigned from the LSSP. She applied for membership in the Ceylon Communist Party (CP) but was refused. Perhaps the CP leaders were suspicious of a Trotskyist who had such a sudden change of heart. She was known in political circles as a follower of Philip Gunawardena. The last thing the CP wanted was an agent of Philip in their ranks. Susan was left isolated.

But after several years politics took an unexpected twist. In 1950 Philip split from the LSSP and formed the Viplavakari LSSP. He abandoned his Trotskyism and took up a position on the USSR and Communist movement that was very similar to Susan’s. In 1951 he entered into a tight united front with the CP. That paved the way for Susan to enter the CP in 1952.

Susan doesn’t seem to have played a prominent role in the CP. I haven’t been able to determine if she was active at all. Her rosy prognosis had proven to be false. Neither the Kremlin nor any of the pro-Moscow Communist parties had taken the road back to revolution.


Susan retired to a family plantation on the Thalawathugoda Road in Talangama, a quiet rural area far from the political beehive in Colombo. And then, in 1959, she resumed her personal vendetta against Doric de Souza, who remained an influential ideologue in the LSSP as well as a respectable professor of English in the Ceylon University. She published The Wrecking of the LSSP, in which she venomously rehashed all of her old accusations against Doric de Souza and added a few new ones to bring her conspiracy theory up to date.

At this point probably no one else took these accusations seriously. Even Philip Gunawardena had backed off a bit from his earlier allegations.20 After this pamphlet was published, Susan seems to have withdrawn for good. Unfortunately, this pamphlet became her legacy.

Susan de Silva, for all her faults and mistakes, deserves recognition for being a bold and brave pioneer of the Left. I hope others who know more about Susan will step forward and give us more pieces to round out the picture of this colorful and controversial woman.


Charles Wesley Ervin is the author of Tomorrow is Ours: The Trotskyist Movement in India and Sri Lanka, 1935-48 and Philip Gunawardena: The Making of a Revolutionary (both published by the Social Scientists’ Association). Email:


1 Regi Siriwardena, Working Underground: The LSSP in Wartime (1999), p. 29.

2 In a pamphlet she wrote late in her life, Susan mentioned that she was related to Doric de Souza, a son of the famous nationalist intellectual, Armand de Souza, the founding editor of the Ceylon Morning Leader. Susan de Silva, The Wrecking of the LSSP [1959], p.1. The de Souzas were originally from the Portuguese colony of Goa in India, descendents from the Camotim family, who converted to Catholicism in 1537. Armand’s uncle, Dr. P.M. Lisboa Pinto, had also emigrated to Ceylon. He had been secretary of one of the first unions in Ceylon, the printers’ union, and was a co-founder of the schismatic Independent Catholic Church of Ceylon Goa and India in 1888. One of her close personal and political associates, Vernon Gunasekera, said that she was Doric de Sousa’s aunt. Vernon Gunasekera, unpublished interview with Michael Roberts, 7 July 1966. The tape is part of the Roberts Oral History Project, University of Adelaide Library. I thank Michael Roberts, adjunct associate professor of anthropology at the University of Adelaide, for providing an audio copy of this interview.

3 Reggie Perera, “Journey into Politics,” The Ceylon Observer, August 12, 1962.

4 Kumari Jayawardena, “Doreen Wickremasinghe – A Western Radical in Sri Lanka,” in Wesley Muthiah, Selvy Thiruchandran, and Sydney Wanasinghe (eds.), Socialist Women of Sri Lanka (2006), p. 18.

5 Vernon Gunasekera, interview with Michael Roberts, 7 July 1966.

6 Robert Gunawardena, “My Political Life,” Daily Mirror, November 4, 1971.

7 Vernon Gunasekera, Pilip: ohuge jivitaya ha desapalana satan (1960), p. 10.

8 Reggie Perera, “Journey into Politics,” The Ceylon Observer.

9 Wesley S. Muthiah and Sydney Wanasinghe, Britain, World War 2 and the Samasamajists (1996), pp. 145-50 and 169.

10 Amaradasa Fernando, “Elmer de Haan-Eccentric, godless, musical genius,” Sunday Times, June 20, 2004.

11 Wrecking of the LSSP, p. 17.

12 Wrecking of the LSSP, pp. 2-3.

13 Wrecking of the LSSP, p. 1.

14 Wrecking of the LSSP, pp. 4 and 5.

15 W. Muthiah and S. Wanasinghe, Britain, World War 2 and the Samasamajists, pp. 11, 190-91.

16 Regi Siriwardena, Working Underground, p. 53.

17 In 1947, the LSSP held an internal inquiry into the charges against Doric de Souza and concluded that there was “not an iota of evidence” to support them. See Charles Wesley Ervin, Tomorrow is Ours: The Trotskyist Movement in India and Ceylon, 1935-48 (2006), p. 196.

18 Susan de Silva, letter to E. (Ted) Grant, February 12, 1948, reprinted in Wrecking of the LSSP, p. 22.

19 Susan de Silva, letter to Secretary of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International, June 20, 1948, reprinted in Wrecking of the LSSP, p. 24.

20 In the interviews he gave to his biographer two years before he died, Philip said the split in the party in 1945 was “the result of over three years of rancor resulting from numerous misunderstandings. Political as well as personal factors were responsible for this breakup.” In a section subtitled “Police Spy,” he intimated that the actions of his opponents in the party “gave rise to a certain amount of reasonable misgiving in the mind of Philip Gunawardena.” Arjuna, Pilip gunavardhana caritaya (1969), pp. 85, 88.


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