Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Do not underestimate the power of historians (repeat, but this time mimic the voice of Darth Vader). And speaking of influential historians, the first name that comes to my mind is Teodoro Agoncillo. It was his fault why the ‘Cry’ of the Katipunan is called the ‘Cry of Pugadlawin’ and why it is celebrated on August 23. Historians are still debating whether it happened in Pugadlawin, Caloocan, or Balintawak and there is still no consensus on the exact date of the ‘cry’. But Agoncillo used his considerable influence to force the government to proclaim that the historic event took place somewhere in Pugadlawin on August 23. Thanks to Agoncillo’s successful lobbying, what was a vague historical moment instantly became a precise historical fact through an official state decree.

But Agoncillo’s persuasive power did not only apply to government officials. He was popular because he championed the study and writing of history that adopts the Filipino point of view which was considered a radical type of historiography in the 1950s and 1960s. The other main proponent of this school of thought was Renato Constantino. Both of them advocated the recognition of history from ‘below.’ They asserted that the history of the ‘inarticulate’, the story of the masses deserve special attention. That universities continue to require students to read the books of Agoncillo-Constantino is proof of the enduring appeal and relevance of the ideas popularized by these two great Filipino historians of the 20th century.

The works of the two scholars may have also helped in reviving the student and mass movement in the 1960s. The thesis of Agoncillo-Constantino which identified the 1896 revolution as the defining moment in Philippine history complements the Marxist analysis of class struggles in society. Their books inspired a generation of students to link the unfinished revolution of the Katipunan with the declared commitment of youth activists to serve the people and rebel against an unjust social order.

Joma Sison, the country’s most famous communist theoretician, echoed the nationalist viewpoints of Agoncillo-Constantino in his writings. The foreword of his book, Struggle for National Democracy, was written by Agoncillo himself. The first part of Philippine Society and Revolution, regarded as the country’s red book, subscribed to the outline/paradigm proposed by Agoncillo-Constantino in narrating the history of Philippine society.

Reynaldo Ileto, another popular historian, observed that those who read the books of Agoncillo-Constantino became the primemovers of the radical movement in the late 1960s. He wrote that a new historical consciousness was necessary in order to ditch the reformist Rizal and embrace the revolutionary Bonifacio.

Ileto further wrote: “By the 1980s, the Agoncillo/Constantino/Amado Guerrero historical construct had become fully established among a generation of students and intellecutals…sons and daughters of well-off families, having been fed a healthy dose of the Agoncillo/Constantino variant of history, did throw down their books and man the barricades in 1970-1971; quite a number of them even went to the hills after martial law was declared, and some have been killed by the military.”

Agoncillo himself acknowledged the impact of his writings on how rallies are conducted in the country. Asked about his major contribution to Philippine historiography, he mentioned that Bonifacio was only one of the obscure heroes of the Philippine revolution but the Katipunan founder eventually gained the recognition he deserves as a national hero because of Agoncillo’s writings. “Kapag may rally, sa Liwasang Bonifacio pumupunta ang mga tao; hindi sa Rizal Shrine sa Luneta,” Agoncillo casually remarked during an interview.

“Sentimentalists of the status quo”

Nationalist historians are still visible in the academe but their influence has been dwindling over the years and their researches are seldom reviewed in the mainstream press. Government institutions and politicians no longer seek their opinion. Today’s popular historians are gossip mongers, socialite writers, and speechwriters of politicians. They are fanatical defenders of the conservative tradition, obsessive-compulsive record keepers of the activities of their elite ancestors, and hostile critics of forces that seek to create history. In short, they are ‘sentimentalists of the status quo’ (Badiou). What is alarming is that they are able to hide their real political intent by renouncing partisanship to any ideology. They claim to be historians who believe in objectivity but this is far from the truth. Their version of history is dangerous because it overemphasizes the role of superegoistic individuals while ignoring the political activities of the masses and other anonymous collectives.

The rise of conservative popular historians coincided with the intensifying suppression of leftist opposition movements. As the political left gains strength, conservative popular historians become more malicious and wicked in their anti-left rant; and their sophistication in hiding their political bias gives way to an open categorical attack against leftist forces.

We need popular historians who are respectful of the historical struggles of the poor. It is not wrong for popular historians to work in government as salaried underlings but they should at least recognize that the course of history is not only dictated by the actions of their masters but also by the persuasive actions of ordinary people.

Agoncillo and Constantino were popular historians who respected the right of the masses to create history. They were not communists but at least they were intelligent scholars who understood that revolutions and social struggles are serious and legitimate topics that should not be trivialized

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