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.

First part: Philippine Politics 1969-2009

If power grab is the yardstick of political victory, then it must be concluded that the Philippine Left had failed in the past century. But it wasn’t a complete failure since it was able to achieve varying degrees of hegemony in the country especially in the peripheries of the archipelago. Predictably, bourgeois academics dismiss and deride the impact of the Left on mainstream politics but the modern history of the Philippines can’t be written without mentioning the Left.

It can’t be denied that the introduction of Marxist doctrines agitated the working classes in the early 1900s; the Left guided the radical peasant uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s; it constituted the formidable liberation army during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s; and its Central Luzon base camps terrorized the ruling classes in the early 1950s. It suffered huge losses in the succeeding years but the mass movement, to the surprise of everybody, rebounded in the 1960s.

A new generation of revolutionaries inspired by the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China re-established the Communist Party in 1968 and the Red Army the following year. The impact of this event (two sequences in a single momentous event) was immediately felt throughout the country. Suddenly, the Left appeared to be genuinely capable of overthrowing the old system dominated by oligarchs, puppets, and closet fascists. Its socialist alternative was seen by many young people as superior to the capitalist machine.

The rise of the new Left changed the political landscape. The legal Left and the urban mass movement welcomed the revival of the underground Communist Party. Meanwhile, Marcos warned against an evil conspiracy to destroy democracy and used the exaggerated communist threat to impose military dictatorship. Some opposition parties rejected Martial Law but they shared Marcos’ deep animosity towards the Left’s egalitarian vision.

The surge in protests in the first three months of 1970, which came to be known as the First Quarter Storm, heralded the emergence of a broad political movement under the leadership of the militant Left. The FQS is historic not simply because of the massive rallies (post-Ninoy rallies were bigger) but also because of the radical promise it unleashed. It was a propaganda movement which popularized the national democratic political program. Its cadres were young intellectuals who sought to transform the workers and landless peasants from passive victims of oppression into a strong liberation army of natdem activists.

But the FQS was more than just rallies in Plaza Miranda and Mendiola. It actually brought into open the battle plan of the Left: People’s War, not elections; and Revolution, not reformism.

Fear immediately gripped the snobbish classes. The rich can tolerate violent rallies since they can always protect themselves by building higher gates but they instinctively knew that their ilk don’t stand a chance in a revolution. Their wealth is no match to the power of the organized poor, the collectivized poor. In many ways, the FQS was the political Ondoy, the ‘storm’ which swept through the Metropolis and inundated the imperial capital with its radical message.

It was Marcos who unintentionally triggered the expansion of the Left in the rural provinces. Martial Law forced urban-based activists to seek refuge in the countryside where they joined the underground, became Red Fighters, and assumed leadership in the Communist Party. Martial Law hastened the maturity of an entire generation of student and youth activists.

The Maoist theory of encircling the cities from the countryside was affirmed. It proved to be a wise strategy since the Left was able to preserve itself and even expand its ranks while Marcos was spreading all-out terror in the country. More importantly, the Left was able to reach the remotest parts of the country. The revolution arrived in the enchanted forests and the magical 7,100 islands of the Pacific. The islands of calm turned into isles of fire.

The Left achieved nationwide reach and phenomenal growth in just a few years despite the existence of Martial Law. It’s unique for being a movement whose members are ready to sacrifice everything, including their lives, in the struggle for genuine emancipation and democracy. Unlike bourgeois parties whose leaders are mostly elite professionals, lawyers, and politicians, the Left has consciously molded itself as a party of proletarian intellectuals.

It earned prestige and widespread support for consistently defying Marcos and delivering fatal blows to the Martial Law regime. It became the most credible opposition political force after the old vanguards of the Left collaborated with Marcos while mainstream politicians turned silent, left the country, or reluctantly supported the New Society. Meanwhile, the prominent anti-Marcos politicians entered into a tactical alliance with the Left.

Indeed, Marcos the dictator consolidated his power in the 1970s but the cracks in the administration that initially appeared in the same decade and eventually led to its downfall were formed courtesy of the Left’s relentless efforts to expose and isolate Marcos through painstaking mass work and mobilization of the masses.

The flame of democracy was kept alive during the dark days of open dictatorship because of the people’s heroic struggle to end the fascist government. And the Left played a crucial and leading role in this historic fight.

The Left continued to achieve substantial victories in the political battlefield in the early 1980s. It was a respected and unifying voice in the broad united front against the dictatorship. The armed opposition in the provinces grew steadily while the urban mass struggles intensified. Sectoral demands were aggressively articulated and asserted in the streets. Even anti-Marcos politicians became active street parliamentarians.

Ninoy’s murder in 1983 aggravated the political crisis. It emboldened the mainstream opposition to be more daring against Marcos and it contributed to the appeal of the Left as a democratic alternative to the fascist regime. Academics believe the Left reached the peak of its political strength during this period. Indeed, the Left seemed to be an omnipresent political force since it was everywhere – from the boondocks to street plazas, in schools, factories, and rural villages – building red organs of political power or establishing the anti-Marcos alliance.

But the Left’s reputation exceeded its actual strength. Based on the available official documents of the underground movement, it rejected the claim of academics that the Left could have emerged victorious and dominated the state machinery in 1986 if not for the boycott decision in the February snap elections. Aside from the boycott blunder, it pointed out the other glaring policy errors of the leading organs of the Left which ultimately weakened the fighting power of the movement.

Despite its failure to grab power after the downfall of Marcos, the Left was still seen as a major threat to the status quo. In fact, it continued to expose the bankruptness of the system while presenting the revolution as a superior alternative.

Cory Aquino may be a religious person but like Marcos, she was a reactionary and conservative landlord politician. She feared and abhorred the fighting masses, especially poor farmers who are demanding land reform. The Left responded by unleashing its accumulated strength against the new government through Welgang Bayan and urban insurrection actions. The 1980s was actually the most strike-prone decade of the 20th century.

But by this time the Left had been weakened already by internal disputes. Some of its members and supporters opted to try the so-called democratic space offered by the Cory administration. Left-leaning NGOs mushroomed in the country which turned radical activism into a 9am-5pm office affair. Some rejected revolutionary violence and embraced the graveyard pacifism of the liberals.

Another section of the movement advocated urban insurrection tactics and the regularization of the Red Army in the provinces. This meant cadres spending less attention towards mass work since they devoted more time preparing for premature street battles and tactical military offensives. The result was immensely disastrous. The Left lost popular support from wide segments of the population who felt frustrated and disillusioned with the mounting setbacks suffered by the movement. Some of its loyal and committed members became victims of bloody internal purges.

It didn’t help that the fall of the Berlin Wall hurt the image of the local revolution. Commentators insisted that it permanently affected the winning chances of the revolution. But fortunately, the Left used this debacle as an opportunity to review its mistakes and reaffirm its basic principles. An ideological campaign was initiated to combat the pernicious influence of ‘modern revisionism’ inside the movement.

Perhaps the last great battle of the united Left was the campaign for the removal of the US Bases in 1991. It was a concrete achievement of the anti-imperialist movement which was revived by the new Left in the 1960s. It also proved that the natdem propaganda had become part of the national consciousness already.

But soon after this victory, the Left was wracked by warring factions. The Rectification Movement, the second attempt in the past half century, created two blocs: Rejectionists and Reaffirmists.

To be a Reaffirmist in the 1990s was to validate the radical politics of the FQS. A Reaffirmist was a militant activist who has remained faithful to the revolutionary promise of the FQS.

Meanwhile, most Rejectionists were those who abandoned the revolution in favor of conformism and compromise. They pretended to be in favor of activism but they emptied it of its radical essence. They wanted activism minus the hardships of mass struggles. They preferred to redirect the energies of the mass movement into a mere lobby group seeking token legal remedies from the bourgeois state. They were proud to be known as respectable, law-abiding, and non-violent civil society members whose idea of serving the masses was to transform militant struggle into a table battle negotiation.

When Ramos assumed the presidency, he expected that the Left would self-destruct soon since the communists were embroiled in a bitter internal war. In fact, he transferred the anti-insurgency mandate from the military to the police which reflected the confident thinking of the government that the revolution had been practically defeated already.

The weakening of the Left inspired its class enemies to introduce more conservative reforms in the political and economic spheres. For example, the bourgeois state was able to deregulate the downstream oil industry, legalize mining exploitation, expand the VAT, and approve the country’s GATT-WTO membership in the years when the Left was distracted with the Rectification debates. The Left was too deeply divided to even challenge the propaganda spin of Ramos who succeeded in presenting his anti-labor and anti-poor globalization policies as innovative economic reform measures. Lesson: The absence of a strong and genuine Leftist opposition in mainstream politics produces more hardships for the people.

After several years of thorough ideological work, the Left has already reversed its decline in the late 1990s. Near the end of his term, Ramos in fact restored the anti-insurgency drive as the principal national security concern. The quiet resurgence of the revolution surprised many politicians and analysts who didn’t expect the Rectification campaign to immediately revive the strength of the movement. Perhaps the bourgeois apologists were too busy proclaiming the ‘end of history’ that they overlooked the emergence of a new generation of Rectification activists who were trained in the Maoist school of thought and guided by the accumulated experience and wisdom of the mass movement. Indeed, the Rectification exposed the Left’s self-inflicted defeats but its greatest achievement was to highlight the humility of a political movement which bravely and readily admitted its errors and excesses. The Left’s apology to the victims of its past blunders was unprecedented in Philippine politics.

Ramos was also responsible for the renewed appeal of the revolution. His economic reforms were exposed as ‘shallow, hollow, and narrow’ during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and they were blamed for the worsening poverty and high income inequality in the country. The Ramos brand was discarded in 1998 when the people voted Joseph Estrada who blinded the masa with his pro-poor rhetoric. But Estrada quickly betrayed his supporters when he clinged to the neoliberal dogma of his predecessor instead of rethinking these World Bank-dictated economic prescriptions. Estrada was also always too drunk to notice the rising dissatisfaction of the masa.

Estrada’s attitude towards the Left may have been influenced by ex-Leftists who formed part of his midnight cabinet. He abandoned the peace talks initiated by Ramos with communist rebels; he launched an all-out war against Moro rebels; and he flatly ignored the sectoral demands of the Left from wage hikes, price controls, independent foreign policy, and respect for civil liberties and media freedom. When Estrada’s corrupt lifestyle was exposed in 2000, there was already a multisectoral effort opposed to his administration; and the Left was a leading voice in this coalition.

The Left’s solid and consistent showing in the anti-Estrada rallies which culminated in the January 16-20 uprising in Edsa and Mendiola was attributed to the Rectification movement which proved effective in consolidating the members of the Left’s various mass organizations. The impressive victory of Bayan Muna Partylist in the 2001 elections further confirmed the nationwide reach and popularity of the Left.

Before 2001, the Left could only prove its popular support through the number of people it can gather in the streets. But after 2001, its core constituency already included the millions of voters who continued to support Left-leaning partylist groups despite the black propaganda and harassment threats of rabid anti-communist and reactionary forces.

The Left’s entry in parliamentary politics was hailed as a welcome development in Philippine politics. As expected, the far right denounced it as a conspiracy to infiltrate the bureaucracy. For the Left, it was a challenge and opportunity to introduce the movement’s progressive agenda inside a reactionary institution. The Left’s sincerity to pursue and expand its parliamentary work was proven when it decided to field senatorial candidates in the 2010 elections.

Despite its electoral successes, the Left didn’t register significant political victories in the past decade. It even failed to overthrow the unpopular Gloria Arroyo although it was instrumental in isolating her government. It has effectively combined mass struggles and parliamentary advocacy but the street protests, though sustained and fairly respectable in size, are not commensurate to the poverty, suffering, and anger of the masses.

Meanwhile, the revolution is neither winning nor losing. It survived the war of terror unleashed by Arroyo and it embarrassed the military top brass who vowed to crush the insurgency before 2010 but the political impact of its armed threat has waned in imperial Manila. Based on media reports, it seems the armed struggle is intensifying in Mindanao and some parts of Visayas.

After four decades of grassroots organizing, the new Left already has hundreds of thousands of members, ex-members, and millions of sympathizers in various public and private institutions who are still directly or indirectly advocating the goals of the movement.

Like Estrada, Noynoy Aquino has been ignoring the Left. He ridicules the Left from time to time and even tried to link activism with dictatorship. The aim of his propagandists and the pseudo-Leftists around him is to obscure the legacy of the Left in the anti-Marcos struggle and to demonize radical politics.

Like Arroyo, Aquino is not interested in peace negotiations that seek to address the roots of the armed rebellion.

Aquino shouldn’t underestimate its class enemy. The Left survived several presidents, including a dictator who imposed Martial Law. It’s a movement whose death had been predicted several times but it has always managed to stage a resurrection. The Left can’t be defeated by spreading inaccurate stereotypes about the politics it espouses.

Aquino is just the latest (amateurish) figurehead of the puppet republic. His daang matuwid is merely an expanded version of Arroyo’s road to hell. The national democratic struggle remains the only political movement that offers a genuine, radical, and comprehensive critique and alternative to the current semi-feudal and semi-colonial system ruled by pro-imperialist apologists, corrupt warlord politicians, and arrogant landlords. The alternative to the natdem revolution is to accept the perpetual cycle of slavery and inequality in society.

Despite Aquino and his deceptive populism, the struggle continues. The mass movement is gearing for a decisive confrontation in the next five years. There is a new decade to conquer.

Related articles:

The Philippines 20th Century: Imperialism and Revolution
The Philippine Left: 1986 and 2001
1848 and 1970
The Other Radicals

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