Sugeeswara Senadhira, in Daily News, 26 March 2021, where the title reads “The Relevance of Philip Gunawardena’s social nationalism”
Philip Gunawardena was a born leader who instinctively understood the hopes and aspirations of the people, a man close to the heartbeat of the nation. Today ( 26) is the 49th death anniversary of Philip Gunawardena, who earned the sobriquet ‘Lion of Boralugoda’.
Although Philip was known as the ‘Father of Marxism in Ceylon’ in his radical days when he launched the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) together with N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva and other pioneers of the Left movement, he realized soon that the foreign doctrine will have to be transformed to meet the people’s aspirations. Hence, he launched the new vision of ‘National Socialism’ loosely translated as ‘Jathika Samajavadaya’.
As a Trotskyite, Philip focused his vision of Trotskyism blending it with Nationalism, rather than totally devoting his vision to Marxist theories. The new-found ‘Social Nationalism’ could easily blend with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s middle path and the new pancha maha balawegaya of the Buddhist clergy, indigenous physicians, teachers, peasants and labourers brought the new-found Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) to power in 1956 defeating the pro-West ruling party, the United National Party (UNP).
As eminent administrator and academic-turned politician Dr. Sarath Amunugama said, on Socialism itself Philip had a different perspective from the red-shirted comrade shouting himself hoarse on May Day: “You talk of Socialism. You cannot socialise poverty. You can only socialise plenty. And if people cannot work, if they cannot produce, you cannot have Socialism.” This was probably an admonition to the government of the day which was claiming to be Socialist.
Philip was largely instrumental in disseminating the idea of Socialism in Sri Lanka. He did so in his unique way by de-Europeanizing Socialist thought and by connecting it to the wellsprings of indigenous culture and investing it with local resonances. He was able to speak in the cultural idiom of the people regarding issues that mattered most to them. Looking back on his efforts, one has to conclude that this was indeed the correct strategy, Dr. Amunugama said. The idea of social justice was at the heart of it. Philip valued equality not as an end point but rather the point of departure for social transformation.
Professor A.V.D.S. Indraratne, the prominent economist, taking a look at Philip’s achievements, stated that he brought Marxism to the rural peasants through his Jathika Samajavadaya.
Speaking in the course of the Budget debate on October 11, 1960, Philip, then a member of the Opposition, said, “In our country with its accent on political illiteracy, there is the danger of a class struggle between the ignorant and the educated. The modern world is a complex world; its technological problems need a cultivated understanding. The fact that new ideas and learning mostly come to our country through a foreign language creates new barriers between the educated elite and the unsophisticated people. The new ideas and learning do not naturally seep down, fail to become a part of the heritage and the consciousness of the people and they remain a monopoly of the new Nationalisation of modern knowledge which is the sine qua non of effective democracy and Socialism in our country.”
The student of politics gleans from these speeches not only what agitated the Left and the Nationalists at different times, but also the stance taken on those issues at those times by the other side – the lackeys of imperialism, Dr. Amunugama, referring to Philip’s speeches, said.
The capitalist exploiters and the de-nationalised decadent ‘thuppahis’ in Philip’s own colourful choice of vocabulary. And what he will get will not be just a rambling of petty slogans and cheap invective – although the language and the style will be never dull – but well-crafted. Political, economic and social analysis supported by a wealth of facts, coming from a highly intelligent, well-read and acutely observant master of the trade.
Philip Gunawardena belonged to an age of giants that included the likes of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, N.M. Perera, Dudley Senanayake, G.G. Ponnambalam, Colvin R. de Silva, Pieter Keuneman, J.R. Jayewardene and latterly, Felix Dias Bandaranaike. Each of them left their distinct mark in the annals of our Legislature. Philip’s was among the brightest of the lot, Dr. Amunugama opinioned.
At the launch of Philip’s Parliamentary speeches, many analysts commented that the speeches reflected the multi-faceted personality. Here, Philip the thinker, the modernist and the percipient observer of the social scene clearly comes out. Going beyond the classic Marxian perception of classes based on the ownership of economic assets, he saw the growing emergence of a different class struggle. A class struggle between different sets of haves and have-nots, that is to say, the haves and have-nots of modern knowledge. Was it not this lack of understanding of the modern technological world and its dynamics that the tragedy of such a knowledge not becoming “part of the heritage and the consciousness of the people” that was at least partly responsible for the youth rebellions of a later date taking the form they did? Philip seems to have been prescient. He was far from being a slave to moth-eaten texts – a favourite phrase of his, a dig aimed at his erstwhile Marxist colleagues.
The relevance of Philip’s vision is evident from the fact that Philip was a modernist, and was acutely conscious of the fact that the path to progress in Sri Lanka lay through modern technology and not through a mere change of property relations through violent revolution or otherwise.
Philip’s foresight is evident from the 21st Century’s vision encapsulated in ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour,’ which outlines President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s vision: “The 21st Century is known as the knowledge-centric century. In order to remain competitive globally, it is imperative that technology be integrated with every sector of the economy, be it agriculture, industry or the service sector. It is imperative that we invest strategically in new technologies and integrate such innovations with our education system, and economy. In order to enhance the quality of life of our people, we must launch a massive social transformation and create a Culture of Technological Innovation.”
While Philip stressed the importance of modern knowledge and technology he did not belittle the value of culture. During the course of a speech, he said: “A Spanish proverb says that there is a constant quarrel between beauty and chastity. Let there not be a similar quarrel between socialism and culture. The socialist is an heir to the varied cultures of the past; to abandon the heritage is to make socialism as unreal as the shell grit sea.”
“The future belongs to the trained and the technocrats, not to the foreman,” Philip once said in Parliament. At the same time he stressed the importance and dignity of labour. “A world to the middle classes – the educated and enlightened sections of our population. Your developing hostility to the working people is not only shortsighted but self-destructive. May I respectfully appeal Mr. Speaker, to the middle classes to stop turning the single beads of irritation into a rosary of despair.”
The relevance of Philip’s vision can be encapsulated in another segment of his speech. “The growing divorce between words and their meaning is a major tragedy of our times. Socialism, Democracy, Peace, Freedom are used in a manner that makes them not only meaningless but topsy-turvy. The fluidity in the meaning of words creates crisis in communication. Words instead of clarifying and crystallising thoughts confuse it. Today counterfeiters have seized the temple of Saraswathi. As false coins bring about the breakdown of an economy and society, so counterfeiters in language destroy popular confidence. Dull indifference is the only response when not the goblet alone but the grapes are without wine.”
standing among other LSSP leaders during the Bracegirdle Incident in the late 1930s
A tape-recorded interview with Philip Gunawardena was conducted by Michael Roberts on 29 May 1967 and followed up with another interview involving both Philip and his wife Kusuma on the 31st May 1967. The interviews on spool was converted into cassette and then digitalised by the Special Collections Unit at the Barr Smith Library Adelaide University. The digital route to the Roberts Oral History Project now lies with the library as well as the National Library Services Board in Colombo.