The Totalitarianisms of the Marcos Era

Leloy Claudio

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The past year—the fortieth anniversary of Ferdinand Marcos’s declaration of martial law—saw the release of three joint memoirs by former anti-Marcos activists.  Their publication occurs amid a political rehabilitation of the once disreputable Marcos family. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos is now a senator of the Republic, Imelda Marcos occupies a seat in the lower house, and Imee Marcos is the governor of Ilocos Norte.

Anecdotal stories and poll data reveal that an increasing number of youths have become Marcos apologists, prompting a panoply of talks and op-eds from torture victims, ex-detainees, human rights workers, and activists. The center-left party Akbayan has even filed a congressional resolution to mandate the teaching of Marcos-era atrocities in schools and universities.

No doubt, baby-boomers are alarmed by the turn of events and feel obligated to rectify historical distortions occurring under “their watch.” Despite their dominance over broadsheet opinion pages, NGOs, and leftwing civil society, time and the antinomies of contemporary democracy appear to have eroded “their” version of the past.

But the seemingly black and white simplicity of the pro vs. anti Marcos diptych has allowed martial law memoirists to indulge in, at best, didacticism and, at worst, cliché. The most egregious cases of this are found in the volume Not on Our Watch, a series of essays by former journalists and editors of the Marcos-era College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP). Witness the astounding lack of variability in these interchangeable and equally leaden quotations:

We should never forget who and what brought us to that situation. At the same time, we should always remember the verity that if we forget the past, then we shall be condemned to repeat it. (Vic Wenceslao in “A Dead Toenail”)

When we of this generation go, our memories should not leave the world with us. No, we must never forget. (Roberto Verzola in the “Lest We Forget”)

Time and the Marcoses have embarked on the Great Forgetting. It is things like this that should jolt us into a Great Remembering. (Conrado de Quiros in “The Hollow Years, the Full Years”)

And it is our hope that these individual accounts of our members’ lives contain bright gems that readers, especially the young, will pick up, to be used to illuminate their own sometimes dark paths. (Vic Wenceslao & Elso Cabangon in “Why this Book?”)

One wonders whether this repetitive prose, ostensibly directed at the youth, will connect with its target audience, especially since Marcos apologia takes the form of well-produced YouTube videos.

The didacticism is a pity, because there are stories in the collection worth our attention. Roberto Verzola’s essay stands out not only for its lurid descriptions of military torture, but also its allegations of hypocrisy and corruption directed at the top brass of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). This, as I explain below, is a bold way to write about the Marcos period.

Tibak Rising: Activism in the Days of Martial Law is less concerned with pontificating from the parental pulpit or the endless rephrasing of George Santayana. It is anchored on narrative, containing stories from some of the most independent minds in the anti-Marcos movement (see, in particular, the Behn Cervantes’s recollections about activist filmmaker Lino Brocka and Joel Rocamora’s essay on Camp Crame as a microcosm of Philippine society). Ostensibly, the book also departs from the simple “us vs. Marcos” dichotomy of Not on Our Watch.

The “vernacular” memories represented in the book, according to editor Ferdinand Llanes, are a contrast to “State-plotted narratives about the nation” represented in textbooks and public monuments. In setting the memories of the Tibak in opposition to both Marcos apologia and official historiography, Llanes alludes to suppressed subaltern histories of martial law.

But to what extent are the memories of the Tibak peripheral? The common Tibak adage “learn from the masses” is telling; it belies the fact that Tibaks were never of the masses. Most were student activists, who returned to bourgeois life as soon as they exchanged the red flag for the yellow ribbon.

Alas, a people’s history of martial law—representing the truly vernacular memories of workers and peasants—has yet to be written.  What has been written is a history of activists propelled by organization that identified the interests of the peasants and proletariat as its own: the Maoist CPP.

Who is the “we” that remembers in various recollections in these books? And did they merely oppose a dictatorship, or did they dream of a utopia that would emerge after the demise of the lupus-ridden pseudo-cadavers of Marcos’s body and body-politic? After Marcos was overthrown, the Maoist Communism that many martial law-era radicals espoused withered amid the dubiety of post-authoritarian politics. Despite being the main opposition force to the Marcos regime, the CPP and its affiliate organizations retreated to relative obscurity after the bloodless People Power “revolution” of 1986. Thus, the recent memoirs of Marcos-era radicals are not just mnemonic devices but elegies for a revolution.

Armed Struggle,” notes anthropologist and newspaper columnist Michael Tan in his foreword to Tibak Rising, “is a theme that runs through the narratives” of the book, serving as an unacknowledged “undercurrent that can sometimes make people uneasy.” It apparently makes Tan uneasy as well, for he uses “Armed Struggle” as a euphemism for the CPP’s protracted peasant war from the countryside.

In his essay from Not on Our Watch, veteran journalist Jaime FlorCruz narrates how a “a three-week tour” of China with fellow student radicals in 1971 “had turned into an open-ended period of exile” after the deterioration of the political situation in the Philippines. It is a testament to FlorCruz’s skills that he is able to write a coherent narrative, while avoiding discussion of what he was doing in Communist China and what he had hoped to learn from that experience. It is no secret that the CPP was attempting to obtain financial and military support from the Chinese regime at that time. How was FlorCruz involved in these operations?

The reasons for these authors’ reticence to discuss their Communist past are varied and require a separate essay. Here it is sufficient to note that clandestine movements beget euphemistic language.

But euphemism is an enemy of accuracy, and the subgenre of the martial law memoir has been retarded by a generation’s uncomfortable relationship with the “C word.” In books like Not on our Watch and Tibak Rising, we are told what radicals fought against (the Marcos regime), but not what a majority of them fought for (Communism). For Llanes, martial law activists were victims, those who “bore the brunt of killings, detention, torture, and forced disappearances instigated by the State’s military and police forces.” Indeed, they were victims, but victims for what cause?

This year, one memoir distinguishes itself from previous works. Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years, a joint endeavor of the Quimpo family, provides the most detailed account of the nexus between legal front organizations and the underground Communist Party. Nathan Quimpo narrates his journey from campus radical, to underground insurrectionist in Mindanao, to exiled revolutionary leader in Europe. Ryan Quimpo reveals how the Party smuggled him, his wife, and his children from the Philippines to France. And Susan Quimpo explains the difference between a “National Democratic” activist within the penumbra of the Party and a full-fledged member of the CPP.

These siblings’ willingness to stare their former ideology in the face gives them the clear-sightedness of ex-Communist apostates. Like the memoirs of Hungarian intellectual Arthur Koestler, their book also constitutes an anti-totalitarian critique of centralized Leninism and the cult of personality surrounding Communist leaders.

“I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water, and I left Communism as one clambers out of a poisoned river strewn with the wreckage of flooded cities and the corpses of the drowned,” Koestler wrote in his autobiography The Invisible Writing. The same sentiment penetrates the pages of Subversive Lives.

In June 1992, as CPP Chairman Jose Maria Sison was about to release a document forcing CPP cadres either to “reaffirm” basic Maoist principles or leave the Party, Ryan Quimpo tendered his resignation. It was, he notes, “the first protest inside in the from of ‘voting with one’s feet.’” In September of that same year, Nathan, who was the primary critic of Sison’s doctrinaire Maoism, was expelled from the Party.

By that time, the CPP had not only lost the post-authoritarian struggle for power, it had also devoured hundreds of its own in a series of internal purges aimed to rid Party ranks of military Deep Penetration Agents (DPAs).

From the disillusionment of the siblings emerge some of the most biting criticisms of the once glorious Communist movement.

“Our political officers, who represented the party, were always too sure of their analysis of the political situation,” recalls Susan. Like her Catholic high school, the Party was “absolute and difficult to question.” And with clarity of hindsight, Nathan concludes: “Thank goodness, we didn’t win in 1986. If we had, the Philippines would have ended up with a regime worse than Marcos’s—a totalitarian dictatorship.”

Emilie Quimpo Wicket is one of the few Quimpos who did not affiliate with the movement, joining instead the extremist Catholic sect Opus Dei. Yet her juxtaposition of her life experiences with those of her siblings provides the most trenchant insight into a life offered before the altar of totalitarianism:

I was recruited into the organization at a susceptible age, by appeals to higher principles, though not political but rather religious ones. It required total commitment, putting aside family and friends, just as the movement did. Fraternal chats and fraternal corrections were the Opus Dei equivalent of self-criticism sessions. And when the authoritarianism and self-regard at the core of the organization, as well as the disdain for normal human ties, became plain, it was time for me to leave.

The analogue between fundamentalist religiosity and Communism is an old one, best articulated in British socialist intellectual Richard Crossman’s 1949 edited volume The God that Failed. But it is only now that we begin to see this insight applied to the Philippines. Anti-anti-Communism, which mistakenly equates all repudiations of the Leninist Left with fascism, has given the CPP a historical absolution. The boldness of authors like the Quimpos and Verzola may reverse this.

Subversive Lives is a long overdue book. After the defeat of European fascism, authors like Koestler and Crossman articulated an anti-totalitarian politics that simultaneously condemned rightwing fascism and Communism. Books like Not on Our Watch and Tibak Rising can only confront the memory of the Filipino Hitlerism. Subversive Lives stares into the bloodied abyss of Filipino Stalinism.