Oh Mao…Where Art Thou?

Patricio N. Abinales

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Leftists like to reflect on history, theory, and the future of Marxism. But theorizing radical ideas in today’s Philippines may prove difficult.

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Marxism in the Philippines: Continuing Engagements
By Teresa S. Encarnacion-Tadem and Laura L. Samson, ed.
Anvil Publishing Inc., and the University of the Philippines, 2010.

A major reason why communist chieftain Jose Maria Sison and his fellow Maoists were able to successfully reclaim the leadership of the Partido was that his summation, “Reaffirm our Basic (Maoist) Principles and Carry the Revolution Forward,” was the only narrative that sought to explain why, after over a decade of remarkable growth, the Communist Party of the Philippines suddenly collapsed and fell into violent factional infighting.  The “summation” was singular for insisting it was the sole correct interpretation of the Fall, and its simplistic comprehensiveness forestalled any attempt by Sison’s rivals to present an alternative (it helped that Party leaders had some of them—the ones who were as ideologically keen as the Filipino Ayatollah—killed).

But for scholars working or affiliated with the University of the Philippines Third World Studies Center (TWSC) the issues surrounding the left-wing crisis of the last century are far from resolved. Marxism in the Philippines: Continuing Engagements thus sees itself as a bridge between the “good old days of the Diliman Republic” and the politics of the new century, even as it seeks to reanimate a publication series on Marxism in the Philippines that the Center was known for.  The book has multiple audiences, ranging from ageing veterans to new activists whose political exposure was under the 10-year regime of Gloria Arroyo, and who live in the era of the OFW, Google, Facebook, gender politics, religion, ethnicities and many others attachments. (A disclosure here: TWSC also came out with a compilation of some of the best pieces of the earlier books where I wrote the introduction).

The essays, according to Armando Malay, “address the same thematic” (Marxism) and ‘speak’ to each other.”  (The editors prevailed on Malay, a contributor, to also write an introduction; a bizarre side story because one would expect the editors to pen the intro). These articles are attempts by Marxists—active and retired—to deal with a new and bewildering Philippine setting, where the population has reached crisis level (100 million population), where 10 percent of that population live and work abroad, where the economy is now mainly service-oriented, and where a politics continue to dominated by the burgis, by gangsters, drug lords, movie stars, dregs from the Marcos era, military men, and Imelda, but with some leftist sprinklings on the side.

And how did the authors fare? The older ones end up imploring reader-comrades to return to the ABCs of Marxism in its clunky Stalinist version or the exhortatory moralizing of Mao. Alice Guillermo’s essay brings one back to those overnight meetings where a political officer gave wide-eyed young cadres overviews of the tenets of “the correct political line.” The political education is expansive as it is simplistic, and the piece ambitiously tries to compress the history and pitfalls of bourgeois literature in one setting, thus sacrificing historical complexity. Guillermo repeatedly reminds readers of that Marxist edict that the ruling ideas of the day being that of the ruling class. This prompted a complaint from Malay who wrote: “This is so commonsensical from a Marxist viewpoint that it’s surprising why some otherwise thoughtful Marxists don’t seem to get it. Not rub it in, but I used the same passage as the epigraph of my lecture…”

Eduardo Tadem wants to restore the centrality of political economy in a Marxist discourse that has taken over by post-modernist and post-colonial incoherence. He shares the major findings from his field-based dissertation on how peasant mentalities are framed by their political economic settings. The peasants, it turns out, were not exactly red-bloodied fans of the “people’s armies” as argued by a lot of Leftists. Tadem shows wide variations in rural opinions towards the maquis. In a number of cases, supporting for the NPA was more out of fear than fidelity. NPA instrumentalist politics and its lack of concern for “development” and economic programs are no help (Tadem points out that of the 75,000 hectares of land expropriated by peasant supporters of the CPP in 1986-87, only 10 percent remained productive). We are not sure therefore that the rise in numerical supporters in the countryside for the maquis of late really means real approval of the national democratic struggle.

Aida Santos resurrects an “old” discussion: the contradictions between a Filipino Left that is thoroughly permeated with class politics and the attempt of radical women like her to give gender the same standing as class. She goes over the Partido’s creation of the women’s group Makikbaka in the 1960s and GABRIELA in the 1980s, which apparently did very little to resolve the dilemma. The split then aggravated the discord. From there, Santos’ recollection moves to Kalayaan, the group that she and feminist comrades set up to try to find a way out of this fundamental bind. Did Kalayaan succeed in marrying socialism and feminism? Alas, no and the group never gained that nationwide traction that it hoped to achieve.

Kalayaan failed to bring in new and younger members, and its original core unraveled as many were co-opted into the becoming part of the new regimes or joining civil society (read: reformist) forces. Santos wrote that the ageing leaders of the circle see “Marxist ideology [today] as only one among many contending worldviews [with its] monolithic days…long over.” The rigors of everyday life sealed the feminist coffin. The poignant dilemma of a “woman leader who has been involved as a Marxist since 1970” with raising children, managing household expenses, etc., as Santos describes in page 119 is worth some serious reflection on our part.

Armando Malay wants “to subject the Philippine civil society movement to a critical second look after twenty years after its ‘shining moment’” to answer the question the changes it has been pushing had ended up  “sidetracked by the consequences of these same reforms.” This is because at its core, “civil society” is bourgeois. As such, it will, in the last instance, be hard put in fundamentally changing a political economy that is its own lifeblood. The most civil society can do is “counter-balance” the State by acting as the populist corrective to the State’s coercive and even authoritarian impulses. It cannot, in the Marxist view, ever imagine itself “smashing” the State, for the bourgeoisie never destroys its own.

Why have Marxists encountered difficulties in dealing with these bourgeois (but popular) associations? One  of the culprits were the EDSAs that have made it difficult for the Left to navigate a context where there is “restoration of formal institutions of democratic representation, a vigorous press largely left alone, a multiplicity of anesthetizing forms of popular and mass culture, increased integration into the hegemonic economic system.” Local communists therefore should just forget about a “Bolshevik-style revolution” and instead keep their hopes for another martial law to happen, for it is in the black-and-white options of polarized politics where they function rather well. Or they also could wait for the system to break down as civil society’s tremendous growth outpaces “government performance” and worsen a now “permanent disequilibrium.” To which Malay declares: “In which case, why does one need a State for, and why pay taxes at all?” Do I smell a whiff of anarchism in the air?

The younger ones have more appealing take to the topics assigned them. Caroline Hau’s history of Chinese involvement with Filipino communism is a welcome addition to as the Leftist chroniclers to date have given minimal attention to how minorities joined the cause. She notes that more than any other left-wing faction, it was the Partido that has been the most “progressive” in recognizing the Chinese’s role in the politics and in repudiating anti-Chinese racism. But these reflections have problems too. As internationalists Marxists, in principle, carry with them “the potential to interrogate some of the basic assumptions of nationalist discourse and open the nation to revaluation and reinvention [and] provide a cogent critique of contemporary state, academic, and popular reliance on cultural-essentialist and ahistorical explanations in accounting for the place of the ‘Chinese’ in Philippine society.” Would this affect Filipino Marxists too, who, after all, also see themselves as the best interpreters of the “nationalist discourse”? Hau is not sure about the answer.

Ramon Guillermo takes Zeus Salazar to task for arguing the limited relevance of Marxist concepts to Philippine history, pointing out the inconsistencies in the Marcos ghost-historian’s arguments, his simplistic take on Marxist theory, and his misunderstanding of European scholars he cites (e.g., Marc Bloch). But what political value can one really gain from linguistic skirmishes with a reactionary, politically compromised academic (after showing Salazar that he read—and read more carefully— the very same German sources the former used to try to delegitimize the Manifesto, it was quite easy for Guillermo to defend the Old Man Karl)?  Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to direct one’s critical eye instead on translations of this Marxist classic by local communists? One remembers the many attempts by communists operating at the industrial zones to turn out translations of the Manifesto for the political education of their constituents. Looking back on these transliterations and improving on them could come a long way in promoting proletarian radicalization. Perhaps this can be Guillermo’s next project?

Finally there are the fraternal observers coming from the outside. Kathleen Weekley warns local leftists to remain alert of the basic divergence between nationalism and socialism. She writes that “nationalism’s progressive moment has passed,” replaced by its most regressive façade that promotes ethnic cleansing and other forms of mass violence. Moreover, the Left’s “anti-dictatorship struggle was… rarely nationalist beyond the national democratic slogans,” and its “economic determinist position” prevented meaningful discussion of “how a healthy nation-state might be built in the Philippines.” For the Left to remain relevant it must be able to combine the pursuit of democratic politics with forging “supranational ties and make use of supra-, intra-, and transnational ideals and structures.” Is Weekley proposing a new Internationale? But what would it be founded on: a confederation of diverse forces with no leader? If this is the idea(l), then the CPP will opt out of it unless it is recognized as the vanguard.

The book ends with Joseph Scalice revisiting liberation theology long after it has been defeated and marginalized in the Philippines and Latin America by the counter-attacks of Church conservatives and the hierarchy on radical clerics and nuns. The essay reads like a literature review of liberation theology’s leading theorists, but there is very minuscule connect with the Philippine experience. It is thus the least interesting of the pieces in this volume.

I am not sure whether this book deserves to be treated as the legatee of the earlier two volumes. For one neither the editors nor any of the authors appear to be aware of an already hefty collection of academic studies, memoirs and policy-focused narratives on Filipino Marxism, the majority of which are actually published in the Philippines. Malay did an admirable attempt to find a common theme, but in the end the incongruence is just too glaring to ignore. But perhaps this is too much to ask of colleagues who have been brave enough to recognize that they are promoting a radical treatise under the most difficult of circumstances. And for this effort alone, one raises one’s hat to its editors and authors.