Marxist Interventions

Over the hills and far away

Left politics in the Philippines

by DAVID GLANZ [email protected]

For 70 years, the guerilla has been the symbol of revolution in Asia. Mao Zedong argued that power came from the barrel of the gun and his army's role in uniting China in 1949 vindicated his position for millions across the region. The United States' defeat in Vietnam in 1975 seemed to seal the matter. In Europe, the road to socialism had passed through the cities. In the underdeveloped East, it was argued, the potential for socialism lay with peasant armies.

Yet as the Asian economies move into their greatest period of collective crisis since colonial times, the forces that stood for revolution through armed struggle are in disarray. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening to the world market of China and Vietnam has produced a crisis of ideology. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Philippines, where the Communist Party (CPP) and its New People's Army (NPA) have been wracked by splits. The CPP--once capable of mobilising 30,000 under arms and controlling wide swathes of the country--has moved to the margins of events.

At the core of the CPP's crisis are two interlinked political failings. First, the party is committed to a perspective of national democratic revolution rather than a fight for socialism. The party has therefore spent the 30 years of its existence (fruitlessly) hunting for allies among the "national bourgeoisie", the Filipino capitalists. Class collaboration and nationalism are built into the heart of the party's project. Second, its perspective relegates the Filipino working class to a minor role in the revolutionary process.

The strategy has failed to deliver, most dramatically in 1986 when millions took to the streets against dictatorship while the party looked on, marginalised. Yet most leftwing activists across the region still look to nationalism and "people power" (involving alliances with "progressive" bosses) rather than to a fight for socialism led by the working class. This article examines the CPP's failure and argues for a different strategy--a working class solution to the crisis that blights the lives of billions.

Stalin's heritage

The foundations of the CPP's politics were laid 70 years ago by Stalin. By 1928 he had won control of the Soviet Union. In place of the idea of international revolution advanced by Lenin and Trotsky, he put forward the notion of "socialism in one country", a formulation which matched the conservative needs of the new, state capitalist ruling class that he headed. The Sixth Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) that year adopted "Theses on the Revolutionary Movement in the Colonies and Semi-Colonies". The theses incorporated for the first time the concept of a two-stage revolutionary strategy in colonial countries.

Communists were no longer to argue for an immediate fight for socialism. The best that was on offer in the colonies was a struggle for national liberation conducted on the basis of uniting workers, peasants, intellectuals and the "national bourgeoisie"--those bosses who wanted to develop the local economy rather than get rich trading with imperialists. Socialism would come later.

Hitler's rise to power in 1933 pushed the Comintern even further to the right. Stalin feared international isolation would leave the country open to German attack. In 1935, the Comintern declared the Popular Front policy. Communists in the West were to form alliances with "progressive" pro-capitalist forces. Stalin hoped to demonstrate to Britain and France in particular that the Soviet Union could be a reliable ally against German expansion. In the colonial countries communists, too, had to soften their position. In 1936 the Comintern sent James S. Allen from the US party to the Philippines--then a US colony--to push communists into line. He succeeded, although not without resistance.

The activists...could not be easily convinced...The party had always stood for full and immediate national independence, including withdrawal of all U.S. military and naval forces, repudiation of the debt to the United States, and confiscation of all big foreign enterprises...As leaders of the mass labor and peasant movements they fought the very classes that leaned upon and supported U.S. imperialism. They challenged the privileged position of these classes by demanding the confiscation of the big estates...Now they were being asked to hold in abeyance the demand for immediate independence from the United States and to adjust aspects of their domestic program to favor a democratic front policy directed against Japanese imperialism and its internal supporters.(1)

Philippine communism decisively changed character. Although communists continued to organise among workers and peasants, they now argued for restraint when dealing with "anti-fascist" employers and landlords. With the outbreak of the Pacific war in 1941, communist-led guerillas pledged their loyalty to the Philippine and US governments. On at least one occasion they raised the Stars and Stripes over a town liberated from the Japanese.

In the late 1950s the first Philippine CP went into decline. It was superceded in 1968 by the CPP, founded on Mao Zedong's birthday. Party founder Jose Maria Sison said: "Mao...was unbeatable on the subject of a people's war. And then by 1964, the line between the USSR and Mao was very clear. [Russian leader] Krushchev to me meant cooperation with imperialism and China was the leader against him." (2) But while the new party captured the mood of anti-imperialist militancy fostered by the Vietnam War and its international role model had changed, it inherited, unquestioned, the core Stalinist politics of revolution by stages and class collaboration.

Sison followed Mao in arguing that power in the cities had to be seized from the countryside; that the peasantry formed the backbone of the movement; that the working class became just one factor in the struggle; that "national development" rather than socialism was the political glue which holds the project together. To preserve a figleaf of Marxist decency, Sison talked of the working class as the leading force. But how would it lead?

Being a minority class in Philippine society, the working class can muster a bigger force by forming a basic alliance with the peasantry...But how is the basic alliance realised? It is by deploying and developing CPP cadres and members in the countryside to build the New People's Army, the peasant and other mass organizations, and the organs of political power. (3)

In other words, Sison and the CPP had reduced the proletariat from a concrete, living category of human beings, bound together by a mutual relationship to the means of production and a mutual antagonism to the controllers of capital, to a cypher, a symbol around which other class forces could organise. Any individual (in practice mostly middle class students) who adhered to Marxism ("proletarian ideology") and who belonged to the CPP (the "proletarian party") could lead the peasants in the name of the working class. For the CPP, the party substituted for the self-emancipation of the working class which is at the heart of Marx's project.

While the CPP did valuable work in organising genuine unions, often in harsh and dangerous circumstances, urban workers could, according to its theory, be no more than a cheer squad for the real struggle in the countryside, a reservoir of legal support for front organisations and a potential source of recruitment to the NPA. The result of this orientation was that, over and over again, the CPP missed major opportunities to lead decisive struggles in the urban areas.

The First Quarter Storm

CPP supporters often cite the dangers of the martial law period that began in 1972 under President Ferdinand Marcos in support of a strategy of heading "sa bundok"--to the hills. But the party was already encouraging supporters to leave the capital Manila in 1970, in the midst of the biggest upheaval the Philippines had seen since World War Two. In what became known as the First Quarter Storm (FQS), opposition to poverty, repression and the Vietnam War exploded.

On January 26, the National Union of Students of the Philippines organised a demonstration outside the opening of Congress. It became the focus for a general discontent. Fifty thousand students and workers turned up. The police went wild, trying to clear a way for President Marcos's limousine.

About seven times the cops attacked; about seven times they retreated, often on the run, an army routed by a band of children. Each time they attacked, the cops grew more frenzied, maddened and bewildered by a defiance they had not expected and could not understand. (4)

This was the curtain-raiser to three months of rebellion involving actions in Manila of 50,000 to 100,000 people. On January 30, in what became known as the Battle of Mendiola Bridge, CPP-influenced students stormed Malacanang, the presidential palace, at one point breaking into the grounds and hurling molotov cocktails. The battle raged through Manila all that night, four students dying from gunshot wounds. When another rally was called for February 26, the city authorities prohibited it, setting the scene for another night of rioting. March 3 saw a "people's march" accompanied by a partial public transport strike. On March 17, another people's march took a route through poorer areas to highlight the question of poverty.

The CPP and its supporters played an important role throughout these events. Thousands of youth were exposed to its slogans and shifted in its direction. But instead of pushing the struggle forward and connecting it to the grievances of workers in the Metro Manila region, the party looked elsewhere.

The party journal Ang Bayan (The Nation) argued in the light of the deaths at the Battle of Mendiola Bridge that only armed struggle could beat Marcos. Its slogan over the coming period (and before martial law was declared) was to be "People's War--the answer to martial law". When Marcos used the battle to raise the spectre of Maoist revolt, an Ang Bayan press release rejected a seizure of power on the back of the unrest:

For the general information of Marcos and his cowardly ilk, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People's Army are now engaged in a protracted people's war which is at this moment in the initial stage of strategic defensive. The Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People's Army are not putschists. (5)

The logic of such a position was that the main purpose of the rebellion was not to destabilise the Marcos regime in the capital, but to expose it as "fascist" and use that radicalisation as a recruiting tool for the armed struggle. Students started to percolate through the countryside to join the NPA squads. The CPP's politics meant it had turned its back on the best opportunity for pushing towards revolution in two decades.

Workers defy martial law

The party might have been looking to a protracted guerilla war but workers in the cities could not afford that luxury. In the face of anti-union laws and martial law the first breakthrough came in October 1975 with a strike by 5000 workers at the La Tondena Company in Manila. "The La Tondena strike had broken the climate of fear. Before the year ended, workers in 26 companies followed suit with a spate of `illegal' strikes. The following year, the militant Left-led labor unions staged the first big May 1 rally." (6)

The level of strike activity picked up into the 1980s. (See the interview below.) It was particularly intense on the southern island of Mindanao.

The November 1984 "Welga ng Bayan" [people's strike] had a 90% paralyzing effect on business establishments in the island's six cities and six town centers when it involved workers, urban poor, peasants, employees, students and out-of-school youth, women, small businessmen, church people, teachers and other professionals and in some cities and towns, the transport sector...

On February 7, 1985, the Minda-wide coordinated workers strike was launched which was participated in by more than 80,000 workers from 150 factories/plantations/companies...On May 1, [striking] workers together with the urban poor [etc]...launched the most paralyzing WB, manning human barricades and courageously confronting the enemy. In some cities this lasted for 3 to 4 days... (7)

Sections of the CPP participated in and led some of these struggles. But the key party activity continued to be armed struggle, whether on the city streets or in the hills. Just as the movement hit its highest point, the Mindanao section of the CPP was paralysed by a bloody purge, triggered by fears that its army had been penetrated by government agents. Operating in a militarised way, the party responded to the danger in militarised fashion, killing between 600 and 900 of its own. The bloodshed was still under way when the anti-Marcos struggle reached its peak in 1986. Now the party's strategic mistake of focusing on peasant guerilla war was to rebound on it with a vengeance.

1986 -- caught on the hop

The Marcos regime fell in February 1986 when its attempt at blatant ballot-rigging to block the rival candidature of Corazon Aquino fell through. A section of the military rebelled to head off a popular uprising. Millions took to the streets to defend the rebels and Marcos fled on a US helicopter. The episode was dubbed a victory for People Power. Where was the CPP in all this?

Workers were certainly present on the mass demonstrations, but they were mobilised primarily by the Catholic radio station, Radio Veritas. One academic, talking of residents of a Manila squatter community (many of whom would have been in waged work), recorded a high level of participation:

I estimate that the majority of the youth in the community and a high proportion of the men joined the crowds that flocked to EDSA [the highway passing the rebels' camp]. Some said they responded directly to the call of Cardinal Sin, head of the Catholic Church, and a great many said they would not have gone had it not been for this directive and the large presence of nuns and priests. This was not, however, the sole reason for participating. Many said they went out of curiosity, or because their friends or relatives were going, or simply because "everyone was there". (8)

Even party leader Sison claims only marginal involvement by CPP-influenced organisations. "There can be no denying that more than 90 percent of the people who surrounded Malacanang Palace and the Malacanang Park came from the member-organizations of [CPP-influenced] BAYAN...It was also more than 500 members of the Quezon City chapter of BAYAN who stormed Channel 4 [the government radio-TV station] at a crucial moment." (9) But this was very small beer indeed compared to the millions on the streets participating in facing down government tanks on the EDSA highway.

Essentially, the CPP was marginal to the events which signalled the end of Marcos. After more than 17 years of struggle, both legal and illegal, the party saw its principal enemy toppled by means quite different from those for which it had argued. The marginalisation contributed to bitter disagreement and losses. Some members, brought up on a simple politics that equated Marcos with fascism, not surprisingly assumed that the introduction of parliamentary democracy meant the end of the armed struggle. They returned to their families.

Casting around for explanations, other party members blamed the leadership for ordering a boycott of the election that had precipitated the upheaval. This quickly became the accepted orthodoxy of the entire party. But the argument missed the point. If the CPP had not called for an electoral boycott it would have been left tailing Corazon Aquino--the rich daughter of a major landowning family.

The party had been right to boycott an election between two privileged ruling class figures. Aquino was no more a friend of workers and peasants than Marcos. Real change was not going to come from an election. But the party had left it there--it combined calls for a boycott with abstention from the struggle.

It got worse. The party, stung by its failure and growing criticism from its members, changed tack. Originally it believed Aquino was just another puppet of US imperialism--a continuation of the fascist regime. As she released political prisoners and fired Marcos-appointed local officials, the party moved to a stance of "critical support". Its commitment to national democratic revolution left the party theoretically ill-equipped to respond to the Aquino phenomenon.

It began to talk of a democratic space and set up a legal party to contest elections. Its trade union federation made Aquino guest of honour at its giant 1986 May Day rally in Manila, where a vast crowd of workers and peasants regaled her with the Internationale. The CPP agreed a ceasefire and began peace negotiations. All the signals to its members and supporters were that Aquino was a progressive leader.

But Aquino was under pressure from the rich and the military to stabilise the situation. Rather than work with the Left, she pushed social democratic ministers out of the government, placed impossible demands on the CPP's peace negotiators, stalled on land reform, tolerated her troops opening fire on peaceful peasant protesters at the "Mendiola Massacre" of January 22, 1987, and finally "unsheathed the sword of war" against the CPP.

The CPP and its supporters were on the back foot. The party's lurch from abstention to concession had produced confusion and demobilisation. Yet none of this was necessary. If the party was in disarray, it was because its core politics determined that an alliance with a "progressive" like Aquino was necessary and desirable. Rather than look to working class self-activity, the party ended up trying to ride the coat-tails of one of the richest women in the country.

What was the alternative? A genuine Marxist party would have argued for workers to take events into their own hands, to strike, demonstrate and occupy, to insist that whoever won the election, workers and their families were going to fight for higher wages, better conditions and democracy not just in broader society but in the workplace. Indeed, Marcos's fall was greeted by a rash of strikes and pickets.

Such a party could also have called on the landless farm labourers and tenant farmers to seize the plantations and begin sharing the land or running it collectively. But the CPP could not do that because it was stuck within a Stalinist framework that dictated that victory was military and rural. The biggest urban political crisis in the post-independence history of the country passed it by.

The search for alternatives

The episode took its toll. As the CPP central committee recognised in 1992, the party's mass base fell by almost 60 per cent between 1987 and 1990, the number of townships covered by guerilla fronts by 16 per cent, and party membership by 15 per cent. The fall of the Berlin Wall and of "actually existing socialism" in Eastern Europe added to the intellectual crisis. By 1993 the party had split. The old guard continues to insist on tight adherence to the heritage of Stalin and Mao and on protracted people's war as the way forward. Such an orientation virtually guarantees the party's slide into further irrelevancy.

Those who split away were temporarily united by little more than their rejection of Stalinism. But by Stalinism they meant an authoritarian internal party regime, no more. There has not, as yet, been a thorough-going rejection of the political elements that make up the Stalinist political program: socialism in one country, revolution by stages, class collaboration, defence of the nation state.

Some former CPP members have since rejected revolutionary politics and have headed off in search of electoral politics or activity in the non-governmental organisation sector. The best, those who emerged still in control of the former Manila-Rizal section of the CPP, are attempting to rebuild on a revolutionary basis, challenging Maoist and Stalinist ideas on a healthy rereading of Marx and Lenin. But even this grouping is hamstrung by its insistence that the revolution will be national democratic. The confusion is compounded by the continuing broad acceptance of the CPP's categorisation of revolution as rural, armed struggle and reformism as legal and urban.

The alternative to this, the case for socialist revolution, is on the margins. Yet it was a minority working class employed by multinational companies in a backward, agrarian country that was the first to seize state power--in Russia in October 1917. Both Lenin and Trotsky argued that Russian workers could hold on to that power if, and only if, socialist revolution then spread to the advanced industrial countries, whose resources could then raise the living standards of the Russian peasantry whose support for the revolution was vital.

Trotsky later generalised his theory of permanent revolution to all developing and colonial countries. The local capitalists would be too cowardly to confront imperialism. The working class could lead the revolt, bring the peasantry in behind it, and in overthrowing imperial domination open the way for the revolution to become "permanent" in two senses--for it to intensify domestically as workers refused to hand power back to their bosses, and for it to intensify internationally as one workers' revolution detonated others.

Some argue that, in the Asian context, this is no more than a Eurocentric imposition. This misses an important point. Marxism may have developed in Europe because that was the continent with the first capitalist working class. But the kernel of Marxism--that class struggle between workers and employers emerges over the division of the surplus value generated in production--is an objective truth, not a culturally determined view. Workers in Asia moved into struggle before they read Marx, just as their European brothers and sisters did before them.

There is an alternative history of Asia over the past 70 years--one which includes the possibility of workers' revolution. In China between 1925 and 1927, workers led the peasantry in a revolutionary upheaval that temporarily threatened not just their colonial masters but the control of Chinese bosses and landlords. In Vietnam, Trotskyists gained considerable support among workers in Saigon during and after World War Two. In the Philippines, there was mass radicalisation among workers and peasants both before and after the war. In Japan, workers emerged from the wartime rubble to launch a mass movement that temporarily gained control of much of production.

At every step, these movements from below have faced enormous repression by both local and imperialist forces. But just as tragically, they have more often than not also been derailed by Stalinist politics that insisted on keeping the struggle within restricted, artificial bounds. If the crisis this time is to lead to different outcomes for more than a third of humanity, then the building of revolutionary parties that look to the self-activity of the working class, not to a progressive boss or a hero with a machinegun, will be a vital ingredient.

(The footnotes are at the end)


Women workers on the front line

By 1981, strikes were relatively common, weakening Marcos's rule. Loida Lentoco was then a new worker from the countryside. In 1991 she told the story of one of the victories:

Anson's is a department store in Makati, the finance and commercial centre of Manila. Our union was organised when oppression and harassment could no longer be borne. Workers were forced to say "good morning" in front of a customer--if you were caught not saying it you had to repeat it ten times. You couldn't sit or lean even if you were pregnant, and you would be sent out of the selling area if you had no make-up.

The dining rooms were unclean and very crowded. It was prohibited to go outside to buy cheaper food. The comfort rooms [toilets] were unclean, causing urinary tract infection among some female workers. The company did not give benefits like sick leave or vacation leave and you had to pay for your own uniform.

To beat company security the women hid union forms in their bras and then passed them round the selling area. Ninety nine per cent of the workers signed up--the union's first success. On February 15, 1981, we had our certification election [a government-supervised workplace vote]. Management organised their own union but we won by a landslide.

Our collective bargaining agreement took eight months of struggle to achieve. Our major demands were a wage increase, free uniforms, 15 days sick leave and 15 days vacation leave. We did different kinds of mass actions such as wearing red ribbons at work to show our solidarity, wearing white ribbons as a sign of mourning, and clapping, all together and continuously.

The management did not give in and on November 7 we went on strike. We had filed our notice of strike to the Department of Labor but we did not wait 30 days as the law demands. We went on strike even though they called it "illegal".

We were intimidated and harassed by goons and the military but we never left the picketline and the women workers, especially the pregnant ones, were always on the front line. On November 19 our union president and secretary were detained in Camp Crame [police headquarters]. But we stayed on the picket line.

During the strike we learnt more about genuine trade unionism. We got support from different sectors, including students, hotel and factory workers and transport workers. We composed progressive songs. After 12 days of our strike, eating, marching and sleeping on the cold pavement outside the store, we finally won. The company, afraid of losing millions of pesos during peak season, granted all our demands.

This was the first strike by female workers ever in the Makati area and the first to break the anti-strike and anti-picketing laws. Our struggle did not end just inside our shop. Our union does not only involve itself in local issues but also in national ones, ones affecting the working class.

Since 1981 we have improved our union agreement. We have a closed shop. We get paid time off for 60 workers to go on the May Day march. We have maternity leave that also covers women who have miscarried or had an abortion.

The history of struggle remains in our hearts, and we are determined to continue our struggle to uplift the rights of Filipino workers to live a just and decent life.


1. James S. Allen, The Radical Left on the Eve of War: A Political Memoir, Quezon City 1985, pp 45-46.

2. William Chapman, Inside the Philippine Revolution: The New People's Army and Its Struggle for Power, New York 1987, p 75.

3. Jose Maria Sison with Rainer Werning, The Philippine Revolution: The Leader's View, New York 1989, p 52.

4. Jose F. Lacaba, Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage: The First Quarter Storm and Related Events, Manila 1986, p 16.

5. Quoted in Lacaba, p 20.

6. Rigoberto D. Tiglao, "The Consolidation of the Dictatorship", in Aurora Javate-De Dios, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, Lorna Kalaw-Tirol (eds), Dictatorship and Revolution: Roots of People's Power, Manila 1988, p 62.

7. Anonymous, "Additional Clarifications on the Mindanao Experience (Feedbacks from some Mindanao Cadres)", in The Big Red Book, an undated underground publication, p 170.

8. Michael Pinches, "The Working Class Experience of Shame, Inequality, and People Power in Tatalon, Manila", in Benedict J. Kerkvliet and Resil B. Mojares (eds), From Marcos to Aquino: Local Perspectives on Political Transition in the Philippines, Manila 1991, p 172.

9. Sison and Werning, p 122.

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