How can radical political traditions be captured through fiction? Do literary injunctions against wordiness and didacticism preclude leftwing writing can both excite and educate? A new novel from the natdem political tradition may point to some answers.
By Edberto Villegas.
Popular Bookstore, 2013.
The author of the novel, Edberto Villegas, is a retired University of the Philippines-Manila professor of development studies and political economy. He has authored several books and essays in his field of expertise but has also written some literary works on the side. Barikada is actually his second novel; the first, entitled Sebyo (1990), dealing with the early years of the national democratic (or natdem) revolutionary movement, was written under the nom de guerre Carlos Humberto. (The hero of the first novel, Sebyo, even has a short cameo in Barikada.) In keeping with its focus on telling the later history of the natdem movement, no individual plays the role of central character in Barikada. Nevertheless, the shifts between different characters coming from disparate social backgrounds in various settings are accomplished quite seamlessly by the author. There are characters of varying narrative significance representing urban armed partisans, the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), student and teacher activists, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Movement (MILF). Most of the workers and white-collar employees depicted in the novel are employed at the quaintly named Blommingdale Steel Plant. Among these are: Ramon, a charismatic worker leader who reads Marx, Lenin, Mao, Trotsky, Dostoevsky, Stendhal, Buddha, etc.; Blas, who joined the movement due to its recognition of gay rights despite himself remaining indefinitely in the closet; and Ceasar, a labor leader who falls in love with Marita, a fomer beauty queen from a wealthy family who turned activist. Another major subplot takes place at UP Manila where a professor of political science, David, and a student named Rosa from the League of Filipino Students (LFS) develop a political and romantic relationship. The novel builds up to an imaginary revolutionary conjuncture during the time of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, consciously evoking the previous internal debates within the natdem movement on the issue of urban armed insurrection.
The lengthy discussions in Barikada on political economy, class analysis and the repressive nature of the state machinery are reminiscent of Lope K. Santos’ Banaag at Sikat (1906). These passages are quite refreshing since, for the most part, literary works coming from the natdem tradition of the past few decades seem to have eschewed this kind of literary device. Writers from later generations of activists, who perhaps have received most of their literary education in the universities, may have been taught by their teachers to shun “wordiness” in literary texts. Moreover, it can also be observed quite clearly, in the meantime, that the languages and discourses on “protracted people’s war” have quite drastically displaced discussions on “political economy” in radical literary works since the seventies. This kind of educational device embedded in literary prose has therefore fallen into relative disuse. Villegas does a service by resurrecting it. One interesting example of this is a discussion by Ramon of Marx’s notion of “internal contradictions” of capitalism according to his own understanding:
After having eaten, Ramon began, “We will now discuss the internal contradictions of capitalism. In a capitalist society, there are a lot of excess products and food, but there are also many beggars and people who go hungry. This is the first contradiction.” … “The second contradiction of capitalism is that even though capitalists desire that all of their goods shall be bought so that they will have a large profit, they do not pay their workers enough so that these can buy their products.” (23-24)
(“Ang tatalakayin natin ngayon ay ang kontradiksyon sa loob ng kapitalismo,” umpisa ni Ramon pagkatapos kumain. “Sa isang kapitalistang lipunan, maraming sobrang pagkain at produkto ngunit marami naman ang nagugutom at mga pulubi. Ito ang unang kontradiksyon,” patuloy ni Ramon… “Ang pangalawang kontradiksyon naman sa loob ng kapitalismo ay, bagaman gusto ng mga kapitalista na mabili ang lahat ng kanilang produkto upang kumita sila ng malaki, hindi naman nila binabayaran ng sapat ang kanilang manggagawa upang makabili ng kanilang mga produkto.”)
One of the workers in the audience asked Ramon if these contradictions would disappear in a socialist society. Ramon answered, “Under socialism, production for the whole society will be planned. If there will be any private capitalists in some sectors of the economy, their production will be in line with the plan for the whole economy” (25) (Sa sosyalismo, ang produksyon para sa buong lipunan ay planado. Kung may papayagan mang magkaroon na mga pribadong kapitalista sa ilang sektor ng ekonomya ay aayun ang produksyon nila sa kabuuang plano para sa ekonomya).
There are frank discussions in the novel on the issue of lesbian and gay relationships in the natdem movement. One of the main characters, Helen, a student who was forced to become a dancer and prostitute to support herself and her family after her father’s death, incredulously asked Blas, a gay worker activist, “You mean that gays like you will be allowed to marry or become partners with other men like you in a socialist society?” (Ang ibig mong sabihin, papayagan kayong mga bakla na pakasal o sumama sa kapwa ninyong lalaki sa sosyalistang lipunan?). Blas answered, “Yes, because this society will be humane and does not condemn what an individual is. Instead, society will develop each human individuality, as long as no other person is harmed… This is the reason why I joined the movement. I believe that what we are fighting for can lead the way to genuine freedom and justice for all people, poor or rich, gays or prostitutes” (20) (“Oo, sapagkat makatao ang lipunang ito at hindi nagkokondenda ng pagkatao ng isang indibidwal. Imbis, pinapaunlad pa ito, basta hindi makakapinsala sa ibang tao. ” … “Ito ang dahilan kung bakit ako sumali sa kilusan. Naniniwala ako na ang ipinaglalaban namin ay siyang makapagbibigay ng tunay na kalayaan at katarungan sa lahat ng tao, mahirap man o mayaman, bakla man o hostess.”).
Villegas’s novel is also probably the first one in Filipino to feature a discussion of workers’ councils. This is something that distinguishes it from Banaag at Sikat. For example, the labor leader Ramon explained that:
In every factory, a workers’ council must be established like our organization, so that upon winning the revolution, the working class can immediately run the national economy. This council will concern itself with everything that has to do with production, from management to the allocation of funds to the production of goods. However, above all, the worker’s councils will espouse and study the ideology of scientific socialism. This ideology will be our guide in establishing the new political and economic system. (56)
(Sa bawat pagawaan ay kinakailangan magtayo ng konseho ng mga manggagawa kagaya ng samahang ito upang sa pagwawagi ng rebolusyon, kaagad mapapatakbo ng uring manggagawa ang ekonomya ng bayan. Ang konsehong ito ay aalamin ang lahat ng bagay-bagay sa produksyon, mula sa pangangasiwa hanggang sa paglaan ng pondo at pagawa ng mga produkto. Ngunit, higit sa lahat ang mga konseho ng uring manggagawa ay magdadala at pagaaralan ang ideolohiyang siyentipikong sosyalismo. Itong ideolohiyang ito ang gagabay sa atin sa pagtatag ng bagong sistemang pulitikal at ekonomya.)
It should be noted here that Villegas served in the 90s as a consultant of the National Democratic Front (NDF) in drafting the proposed Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms (CASER). This was the next agreement which was scheduled for discussion before the peace talks with the government got stalled indefinitely due to the Philippine government’s unrelenting demand for unconditional surrender. Article 6 and 7 of this document contained the following on workers’ councils:
Article 6. All industrial enterprises and mechanized farms shall have workers’ councils whose representatives shall sit in the board of directors or trustees and participate in policy making and management. The policy and decision-making authority of the workers’ councils shall cover production, marketing, and overall organizational management. Workers’ participation in running industry shall be further strengthened through encouragement of and incentives for collective ownership and control of enterprises.
Article 7. Where there are unions in an enterprise, the workers shall have the option to organize the workers’ council through the union or to directly organize a separate workers’ council alongside the union.
The fact that one of the leaders who dies heroically in the failed insurrection depicted in Barikada was named “Rosa” cannot fail to bring to mind the Polish-German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg who was a prominent advocate of the tendency known as “workers’ council communism” before she was murdered in the aftermath of the brutally suppressed Spartacus revolt in Germany in 1919.
The apparent fullness of the characters sketched in the novel does not so much spring from the verbal substance of the text itself as derive from a kind of “high context culture” which had been generated out of the collective stories and narratives of people from all walks of life whose paths have crossed in the movement. For instance, some of the characters in Barikada are based unmistakably on real individuals who would immediately be identifiable for readers with some knowledge of natdem lore. However, some characters are rather implausible and clichéd, like Helen, the “prostitute with a golden heart.” (Villegas seems to have quite cleverly based Helen on Rosanna Roces’ character in the Chito Roño film, penned by Ricky Lee, entitled Curacha, ang Babeng Walang Pahinga [Curacha, the woman who Has No Rest],1998.) But such faults can easily be forgiven, as long as one takes them with some good humor. The parodic depiction of the individual embodiments of state power, complete with farcical names, temporarily breaks the realistic façade of the novel. For instance, there is the 29th chapter of Barikada showing Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo conferring with a cabinet composed of the likes of Heneral Tenga, Heneral Kapalpakan, Secretary Serbetes, and Heneral Lumigaw. This is the same predilection we encounter in Amado V. Hernandez’s Mga Ibong Mandaragit (Birds of Prey) (1969), where the ruling class representatives are named rather coarsely as Huwes Pilato, Gobernador Doblado, Heneral Bayoneta, and Senador Botin. Although Villegas, as much as Hernandez, could not resist the temptation of a parodic treatment of the ruling classes, the result is, on the balance, negative for the novel as a whole. Writers from the left must eventually learn to develop more realistic depictions of the ruling classes rather than resort to such simple shortcuts.
The rather abrupt deus ex machina ending in the fifth to the last paragraph of the novel where it turns out that the uprising had not been approved by the Central Committee is also quite unsatisfactory from a literary and political point of view. However, in the action-packed final three chapters, Villegas was able to execute with panache vivid and plausible descriptions of street fighting in the area of Malacañang and Makati. Whatever minor faults the novel may have, Barikada is a novel that can be used for educational purposes, above all, due to the very interesting extended discussions it contains on revolutionary and socialist theory. For posterity, it can also serve as a very useful and quite accurate historical source on the internal culture of the natdem movement in its mature phase.