Communism & Socialism

History from Below in the Philippines

In 1969, Amado Guerrero, nom de guerre of Communist Party of the Philippines founder Jose Maria Sison, wrote Philippine Society and Revolution (PSR). Guerrero published them as a series of articles in the University of the Philippines’ student newspaper, The Philippine Collegian. Since then, PSR has been republished in at least six editions and continues to serve as a “revolutionary roadmap” for generations of activists and community organizers in the Philippine mass movement.

Today, the mass movement in the Philippines is a collection of political colors and ideas, united in a common goal of advancing the rights of the country’s marginalized. Of these forces, the most consolidated and motivated force remains the National Democratic movement – activists and organizations that trace their line of tradition to the militancy of the 1960s.

Illustration by Ken Khan (Instagram: @khenyoudraw). This artwork is a creative response to Justin’s article. It forms part of HWO’s collaboration with BA Illustration students at the University of Northampton in 2021-22, which aims to make history more visually accessible, democratic and engaging.

PSR is also a product of the 1960s: overt influence of the United States in economics, politics, and culture resulted in a pushback from students, intellectuals, and the nationalist middle class. Senator Claro Mayo Recto called for a “Second Propaganda Movement” – referencing the first wave of nationalist sentiment against Spanish colonialism led by ilustrados like Jose Rizal and Graciano Lopez Jaena in the nineteenth century. The student movement, then led by Sison, took Recto’s call to heart and launched a campaign against the “three problems” of Philippine society: US imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism.

Thus the National Democratic movement was born. PSR is both a guide to the movement and a codification of its concrete experience, taking both theory and practice into account. PSR is not an academic text, nor does it claim to be. It shares the same tradition as Mao Zedong’s The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party, and D.N. Aidit’s Indonesian Society and Indonesian Revolution. PSR is equal parts a synthesis of Philippine history, an analysis of class contradictions within it, and an argument for national democratic revolution.

Within the academy, there has been a crop of nationalist historians who have also subverted the “Big Tradition” of Philippine history and instead write it “from below.” PSR was preceded by works like Teodoro Agoncillo’s History of the Filipino People and Renato Constantino’s The Miseducation of the Filipino, which broke new ground in Filipino historiography. It was followed by contemporaries like Pasyon and Revolution by Reynaldo Ileto and Luzon at War by Milagros Guerrero, which recall the 1896 Philippine revolution against Spain from the perspective of the farmers and revolutionaries who fought in it, instead of centering on its generals and leaders.

Illustration by Ken Khan (Instagram: @khenyoudraw)

More than a book, PSR and the lessons contained within become key components in grassroots organizing. Our job, as activists, is not to dictate to the community what should be done, but to understand their demands, frame it in the context of the wider struggle, and guide them towards proper action. This is true for any sector, whether it is peasant communities facing land disputes, or workers suffering from unfair labor practices.

Why does PSR remain relevant for these marginalized sectors? Because it holds a mirror to the realities of marginalized communities across the nation, and it allows these communities to better understand their predicament. When workers sit down and think about how transnational corporations reap billions while they make below minimum wage, they do not think of imperialism and neoliberal economics. Likewise, when farmers talk of unfair rent and the low market price of their products, they do not think of centuries-old feudalism. More importantly, they often think nothing can be done about it. PSR helps them realize that their predicament is part of something greater; that they have an active place in the current historical development. 

In my experience, and in our efforts of organizing communities around common struggles, the first step is always to understand their current issues and link it to the greater historical narrative. Sitio Buntog is one farming community that I took an active part in organizing. Last January 2021, developers from Ayala Land, Inc. sought to forcibly evict the farmers to make way for a residential project. Through a mix of community solidarity and engaging the courts, the farmers of Sitio Buntog have managed to stay on their land to this day.

That wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t rooted in a deep understanding of the land problem in the Philippines. Sitio Buntog is part of Hacienda Yulo, a 7,100 hectare landed estate owned by the Yulo family, one of the nation’s biggest sugar barons. For decades, the Yulos have owned the land surrounding Sitio Buntog and have made huge profits running their sugar plantation, despite calls for land reform from both the farmers and the plantation workers. Since the 1970s, and the looming sugar market crash, the Yulos shifted from the sugar business to real estate development, resulting in places like Sitio Buntog: an agricultural island surrounded by a sea of commercial, industrial, and residential development.

A proper understanding of historical narrative and historical placement led the farmers of Sitio Buntog to realize that their predicament was the result of decades of landlords exploiting loopholes and weaknesses in the Philippine system. That gave them the sort of clarity they needed in assessing what action they should take, while making sure to balance their reliance on the legal process and mass action.

Sitio Buntog is simply one example. In the rich history of the Philippine mass movement, there is no shortage of stories of farmers rising to fight their oppressive landlords, or workers unionizing for their rights, or students linking up with the poor and marginalized in landmark protest actions. There are multiple threads: parliamentary struggle, massive protests, strikes, protest camps and walkouts, and armed struggle. All of these are informed by an acute understanding of our colonial past and our present under global imperialism.

Illustration by Ken Khan (Instagram: @khenyoudraw). The kalabaw is often being seen as the Philippine national animal.

In time, communities rich in struggle learn to create their own histories; of decisive moments in the clash of class interests, of heroes and martyrs to their cause, of small defeats and large victories. These stories form a new corpus for future struggles. They become active participants in changing their own society and are no longer divorced from their past.

Achieving that level of appreciation is as much a process of education as it is a process of reframing our narratives. Though it is important for us to shift away from dealing in facts and figures and focus on impacts and implications, it is also equally important to actively engage students in the study of history. History is not a static account of the past but a continuous tapestry we weave each day.

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