Alex de Jong has again attacked the national democratic and Communist Left in the Philippines, and again, Jacobin Magazine served as his platform. There is something new, though. In “Muddying the Revolution” the Dutch activist, who often writes about the Left in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, was triggered by an interview with Jose Maria Sison, founding chair of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). The interview “The Fate of the People’s War” was published in – surprise, surprise! – Jacobin itself.
Comrades who were more prompt than this author in responding to de Jong have criticized Jacobin for publishing his article. This is understandable, because the magazine had come out with a string of articles negative and largely unsupportive of the Philippine Left, and even refused to publish this author’s response to one of them, another de Jong article. For a moment, however, let us give Jacobin the benefit of the doubt. One may choose to see it as a publication that is at least open to publishing views from various strands of the international Left, or is honestly trying to arrive at the correct socialist stand on various issues, and say: it is a good thing that it published the interview with Sison. This is a step in the right direction for the magazine and one hopes that it continues to give space to the Philippine Left – or, if that label is imprecise for the publication’s taste, the biggest and strongest formation in the broad Philippine Left – for the benefit of its many left and liberal readers.
Now, knowing Jacobin’s record of criticizing the Philippine Left, it is not surprising – rather, it is to be expected – that the Sison interview would elicit critical responses in the same website. Sison may be “the most influential living Marxist-Leninist,” as Joe Iosbaker claims, but even the greatest Marxist-Leninists – heck, even Marx and Lenin themselves – are roundly criticized by those who seek to learn from them, more so by those who are better off seeking to learn from them. Can one criticize Sison and the Philippine Left? Of course. Filipino activists and revolutionaries take pride in the fact that their movement has not resorted to, and has no need to resort to, anything resembling a cult of personality.
The problem, however, is that de Jong’s criticism of Sison and the Philippine Left is simplistic to the point of being malicious. De Jong tries to narrow down his target to Sison, but the so-called crimes for which he blames Sison necessarily implicate the Philippine Left. Getting desperate in preventing Jacobin readers from knowing and supporting the Philippine Left, he depicts the Philippine Left as synonymous with killings and death. First, he reinforces the anti-Communist black propaganda that the Communist Left in the Philippines has a policy of killing leaders and members of other leftist formations on the basis of their political beliefs. Second, he ignores the historical context of the Philippine Left’s previous statements favorable to Rodrigo Duterte, and assigns the movement a share of the blame for the extra-judicial killings carried out by the Philippine president.
It can be inferred that de Jong wants either the removal of Sison from the leading position which he thinks continues to be occupied by the CPP founding chairperson, or perhaps no less than the Philippine Left’s destruction. From our standpoint, it is the more the latter than the former. His writings – and through Jacobin, the broad dissemination thereof – work hard to discredit the Philippine Left before international audiences. In this, de Jong objectively sides with the imperialists and the ruling classes in the Philippines and even Duterte’s authoritarian regime. One can make the case that writings such as de Jong’s do not deserve to be in the pages of any magazine that claims to be socialist.
There is also the issue of bad timing, as Sarah Raymundo states in a perceptive Facebook post. In fighting the Duterte regime, the national-democratic Left has recently forged a tactical political unity with the leftist grouplets that de Jong champions. In the midst of this important recognition of common ground, de Jong brings up an issue divisive among the broad Philippine Left; responses to the ill-timed article emphasize the taking of sides – fostering disunity, not unity. Moreover, responding to de Jong’s critique of the Philippine Left’s support of Duterte’s earlier statements necessitates bringing up what was once perceived as good in Duterte. With regard to the first, it can be argued perhaps that there can still be struggle despite the tactical political unity. With regard to the second, it is hoped that with sufficient explanation, readers will move closer to understanding the Philippine Left’s approach to Duterte.
De Jong accuses the CPP, which leads the armed revolutionary group New People’s Army (NPA), of having a “policy of assassinating other leftists and former members.” He links to websites that are also making the same accusation, never the actual statements of the CPP and the NPA. He claims that “dozens” have been killed, but implies that the number could be bigger because “information is difficult to gather, and people are afraid to come forward.” Audacious as de Jong’s claims are, however, he cannot say that the deaths exceed a hundred, or even fifty. This makes one wonder whether “other leftists and former members” are so few throughout the country, or if the NPA is merely so inept at carrying out its policy.
The truth is simple: there is no such policy. True, the phrases “counter-revolutionary” and “pseudo-progressive” are often thrown around in Left discourse in the Philippines, but they are political categories and not death sentences, used in analyses and not ambushes. De Jong refuses to pay attention to the reasons cited by the CPP and NPA for the death sentences meted out to “other leftists and former members”: their actual crimes, especially those that result in deaths, undertaken individually or in cahoots with the Philippine military. These reasons were enumerated by Fidel V. Agcaoili of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the umbrella revolutionary organization to which the CPP and NPA belong. There is a civil war raging in the Philippines, and these things do happen. One may agree or disagree with these reasons, but to say that the CPP and NPA kills people for their “pseudo-progressive” or “counter-revolutionary” beliefs, and not their crimes, is false and sheer calumny.
De Jong then cites Pierre Rousset, another Trotskyist hater of the Philippine Left, in trying to explain the alleged policy: “the will of the CPP-NPA-NDF to impose its monopoly of power above the people’s movement.” For Marxists, it is more reasonable to believe that “monopoly of power above the people’s movement,” especially one that is long-standing, hardly uncontested, and universally recognized, would stem from a superior ideological, political and organizational line, not from the use of force. If the CPP-NPA-NDF’s alleged use of force is the reason being cited by de Jong’s and Rousset’s allies in the Philippines for remaining weak and politically marginal despite the funding they receive abroad, then their lies should be put to right, not perpetuated, by their foreign comrades.
Indeed, there has never been a need for the Philippine Left to resort to a policy of killing “other leftists and former members” in order to weaken the latter’s organizations or maintain its dominance. It has always led the armed and unarmed struggles of the Filipino people. The leftist grouplets that de Jong supports never got anywhere near the Philippine Left’s strength, not even before they split among themselves, or before the electoral party Akbayan – the biggest among the grouplets – gladly surrendered all progressive pretenses to the regime of Noynoy Aquino as an adjunct to the Liberal Party.
And one reason for this is the Philippine Left’s focus on what it considers as the main enemies – imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism. It surpasses other leftist groups not by trying to surpass them, but in the process of trying to match and surpass the strength of the national and class enemies. It may engage in political and ideological struggle with other leftist groups, but its main efforts – including its guns – are directed at the reactionaries. It may sound like boasting about its strength and victories when it tries to differentiate itself from these groups, but it is humble in studying problems, new situations and challenges in seeking to move the revolution closer to victory.
De Jong claims Sison helped “to bring about” Duterte’s presidency and “carries part of the responsibility” for the death of thousands of people under Duterte’s “war on drugs.” Sadly, de Jong is not the first to make this grand accusation; some anti-communists in the Philippines who also happen to be critical of Duterte are also saying the same, blaming the so-called “totalitarian Left” and the “totalitarian Right” – embodied by the family of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos which is allied with Duterte – for the rise of Duterte and the so-called “sabotage” of what passes for Philippine democracy. One can make this case only if one oversimplifies the socio-economic realities that underlie Duterte’s rise to power, and the Philippine Left’s complex approach to Duterte as presidential candidate and new president.
Indeed, how did Duterte win the 2016 elections? We know now that he had a solid, but small and much-hated, ruling-class base: he counted on the support of the Marcoses, former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and, one can reasonably surmise, China. He played up his alliance with the Marcoses to get the support of their base and prop up Bongbong Marcos’s campaign for the vice-presidency, making a fool of his own running mate, while he downplayed his connection with Arroyo and China. Duterte also highlighted his “peace and order” platform to get support from the police and the military as well as sections of the populace who have grown wary of rampant criminality. In comparison, other factions of the ruling classes and their respective support bases were fragmented and weaker; their messaging, more of the same, business as usual.
Still, this was not enough for Duterte to win. And he did not start out to be a strong candidate; he started weak but became strong in the process, topping surveys only one month before election day. What tipped the balance in his favor? To win over various constituencies, he used the skill which Sison ascribes to him: Duterte “is quite capable of saying anything: left, middle or right, whichever serves him at the given moment.” Add to this his personal style – he comes out as compassionate and respectful towards the people he wants to appeal to; he appears honest and sincere in speaking; he makes audacious promises; and he projects the resolve to put his thoughts into action – and you have the perfect “political swindler,” in Sison’s words, which he turned out to be.
In his campaign and immediately after he won the presidency, he tried to woo and wow the masses – and yes, the Philippine Left – through promises of “genuine change” against “the oligarchs”: ending contractualization for workers, stopping land-use conversion for farmers, halting large-scale mining operations for indigenous peoples, preventing the demolition of urban poor homes if relocation sites are not available, among others. To the Philippine Left, he promised to release all political prisoners and resume peace talks with the NDFP – which, given his own promises to the people, implied an opening to the radical reforms being proposed by the Philippine Left. Duterte made promises both to the people and the Philippine Left as a political force; it is dishonest for de Jong to ignore the first and highlight the second. Duterte made important economic promises to the people; this is often ignored because of the shock-effect of his promise to “kill, kill, kill” through the war on drugs and his attacks on the tenets of liberal democracy. And Duterte’s promises resonated among the Filipino people, who have seen regime changes but not a real change in the economy and their daily lives.
(What is being described here is similar to, but at a lower level of abstraction, the “populism of the dominant classes” depicted in the early work of political theorist Ernesto Laclau: “When the dominant bloc experiences a profound crisis because a new fraction seeks to impose its hegemony but is unable to do so within the existing structure of the power bloc, one solution can be a direct appeal by this fraction to the masses to develop their antagonism towards the State.” Laclau talked about a populism that “had to appeal to a set of ideological distortions – racism, for example – to avoid the revolutionary potential of popular interpellations from being reoriented towards their true objectives.” In Duterte’s case, such “distortions” came in the form of open endorsement of fascist violence in the guise of ending a drug menace that is spiraling out of control, rhetoric against drug addicts that keeled over into anti-poor rhetoric, misogyny, among others – not because of conscious design, but as a result of his reactionary nature and the many constituencies he sought to appeal to.)
Duterte became, in effect, the first major politician and presidential candidate to speak against the economic policies that are central to the neoliberal consensus of successive post-Edsa governments and post-Edsa politics in general – opportunistically, it turns out, of course. This is another novelty of his candidacy and early presidency, even as talk is cheap in Philippine politics especially during electoral campaigns. Fed up with the “more of the same, business as usual” being promised by other factions of the ruling classes, the Filipino people gave Duterte a try. While it is undeniable that many applauded and welcomed his boasts of carrying out authoritarian measures, there are also many among his voters and supporters who merely turned a blind eye to these. The 1986 Edsa “People Power” uprising, by ushering in the intensified implementation of neoliberal policies, laid down the economic situation that undermined the democracy it promised.
The regime of Noynoy Aquino, who presented himself as heir and champion of that uprising in his own campaign for the presidency and his entire term, further showed the people that even at its best, the “democracy” won at Edsa is ineffective in bringing about an improvement in their economic situation and their lives. It was known for boasting about “economic growth,” which critics often derided as “non-inclusive” and which ordinary people described as “not felt.” It is by riding the wave of discontent with neoliberal policies and their effects that Duterte’s authoritarianism entered Malacañang, bringing with it to power the targets of 1986, the Marcoses and their ilk. It is neoliberalism, implemented by imperialists and the ruling classes in the Philippines, and not the Philippine Left, which brought forth Duterte’s anti-democratic regime and further eroded the country’s bourgeois democracy.
(The analysis above was provoked by political theorist Wendy Brown’s depiction of neoliberalism as part of the “constellation of late modern forces and phenomena [that] have eviscerated the substance of even democracy’s limited modern form.” Rereading her essay, however, it appears that what I wrote is a muddy, earthly, more material rendering of her ideas: “neoliberalism as a political rationality has launched a frontal assault on the fundaments of liberal democracy, displacing its basic principles of constitutionalism, legal equality, political and civil liberty, political autonomy, and universal inclusion with market criteria of cost/benefit ratios, efficiency, profitability, and efficacy. It is through a neoliberal rationality that… the state is fortrightly reconfigured from an embodiment of popular rule to an operation of business management” [“We are all democrats now…,” in Giorgio Agamben, et. al., Democracy in What State? 2011].)
And what political force led the opposition to neoliberal economic policies, the mass campaigns carrying the demands that Duterte took up as his promises? The Philippine Left. For its part, the Philippine Left hailed Duterte’s pro-people promises and called on him to realize these and more, even as it criticized the dominant anti-people aspects of his platform. He claims to be the Philippines’ first leftist president? Then he should try to become a Hugo Chavez! Because the Philippine Left’s statements on Duterte are based on pro-people principles, these were double-edged for him: he got nods from the Left, but he was also being set up to be exposed and opposed should he renege on these promises. More importantly, involvement in the bourgeois elections is a form of struggle that is considered secondary, very secondary, by the Philippine Left; at no point did it stop in the more important effort to arouse, organize and mobilize the Filipino people for national freedom, democracy and socialism.
The Philippine Left is at present only a secondary actor in the country’s elections. It also considers the “reactionary elections” as only a secondary arena of struggle. What then enabled it to play an important role in Duterte’s electoral victory? What happened to the elections’ main players, the factions of the ruling classes? The question can be sharpened further: Since Duterte’s electoral win is a great advance in the Marcoses’ drive to return to power and the presidency, what happened to the factions of the ruling classes that were united in Edsa 1986? Despite recent efforts to relive the Edsa 1986 spirit, they were divided and were locked in a struggle for power. Each of them was obsessed with winning the presidency, attacks of the more powerful faction further deepened divisions among them, and they failed to unite – or even hold up the prospect of uniting – against the Marcoses’ return to power, let alone the authoritarian threat embodied by Duterte. This is another reason why they should be held accountable for Duterte’s and the Marcoses’ recent rise to power.
Not even Noynoy Aquino’s 2010 presidential campaign, which sought to revive the Edsa 1986 spirit in fighting the Marcosian and pro-Marcos Macapagal-Arroyo, succeeded in uniting them all. After winning that election, Aquino presided over the demolition job against a long-time local politician personally close to his mother and who happened to be elected his vice-president, Jejomar Binay – to prevent the latter from politically challenging or ousting him, and to pave the way for what was intended to be the 2016 presidential victory of his 2010 running-mate and fellow haciendero Mar Roxas. This demolition job, which was carried out for many years and sucessfully unseated Binay from the top of opinion polls on the presidency but failed to give Roxas the lead, is a major flashpoint in the conflict among factions of the ruling classes identified with Edsa 1986. The divisions were so deep that even when alarms about the Marcoses’ formidable drive to return to power were already being sounded – mainly by the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses to Malacañang or CARMMA, a coalition led by leftist activists – the factions of the ruling classes identified with Edsa 1986 could not be brought back together again.
Despite his overtures to it, Duterte did not relent in attacking the Left. And the Left never stopped attacking Duterte – initially on the basis of his anti-poor statements and measures and increasingly on the basis of what was revealed to be anti-poor nature of his regime. It is the Philippine Left that is most outstanding in fighting Duterte – not only in the armed struggle, in which it has a monopoly, but also in the parliament of the streets. Not even the bourgeois opposition in the country can compare. This despite the fact that the Philippine Left’s members and supporters are the targets of extra-judicial killings, illegal arrest and detention on the basis of trumped-up charges, and harassment, while communities supportive of it have experienced militarization, bombing, hamletting, among others. This is the Philippine Left that de Jong does not want international activists and progressives to support. He could only make Duterte very happy.
(Laclau also says that the populism of the dominant classes “is always highly repressive because it attempts a more dangerous experience than the existing parliamentary regime. Whilst the second simply neutralises the revolutionary potential of popular interpellations, the first tries to develop that antagonism but to keep it within certain limits.” While this is also true in Duterte’s case – as witnessed by workers who seized upon his promise, fought the contractualization of labor in their workplaces, and were met with fascist violence in the picketlines; and by the Philippine Left as a whole, which suffered non-stop attacks – another set of dynamics is at work. To keep himself in power, given his limited ruling-class support base and the growing disillusionment of people who backed him, he had to solidify control over the military and the police through various measures. For one, he consistently mobilized them against real and imagined enemies, guaranteeing them nothing less than impunity. [“Towards a Theory of Populism,” Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, 1979].)
Complexity is a theme that runs throughout this essay – in its approach to criticisms directed at de Jong and Jacobin as his amplifier, criticisms directed at Sison and the Philippine Left, the reality of accusations of crimes directed at counter-revolutionaries, Duterte’s rise to power, and the Philippine Left’s approach to Duterte as candidate and new president. The international Left can only follow de Jong’s simplistic thinking – reiterating anti-communist black propaganda, demonization by flimsy association with a bloody regime – at its peril.
De Jong attributes the title of his latest article to a putative statement of a CPP spokesperson. Opening the link embedded in his essay, however, one finds out that the word used was “muddling,” not “muddying” – to muddle, not to muddy. This is quite symptomatic: de Jong’s accusation of “muddying the revolution” is a feeble rhetorical attempt to position him and his supported Left grouplets as “clean.” More importantly, it is a refusal to engage in the dirty, messy complexity of the revolution in favor of simplistic preaching and anti-communist demonization from a safe distance. Indeed, waging a revolution is a complex affair. Need we rehearse the favorite Mao Zedong quote about revolutions and dinner parties? The revolution, to conflate the title of a pop song and de Jong’s title, is truly muddy, deeply.
In the end, I think I can speak for many Filipino activists in saying this: We fervently believe in the capacity for critical thinking among activists and progressives around the world. Reading about the revolution in the Philippines through the writings of Filipino revolutionaries themselves is good. A better way to know the truth about the Philippine revolution and test de Jong’s claims, however, is to come to the Philippines, and feel, nay, live the revolution. The Filipino people is not just a suffering people, but a fighting people – a people that also loves to smile, laugh, dance, sing, create, love, and do all sorts of wonderful things in the struggle. The fight against the Duterte regime is intensifying. Joining a recent protest action in Manila, American labor activist Kim Scipes says he remembered how it felt joining the mobilizations in the last days of the Marcos dictatorship. These are interesting and exciting times to be in the Philippines!
We invite you to approach our organizations and come to the Philippines, even as we would also inform you that the Duterte regime is attacking international activists and progressives supporting the Philippine Left. The regime is working to deport an Australian activist nun, it recently kept out an Australian professor, and has issued a list of international activists whom it bans from entering the country. It wants to stop foreigners from supporting the Philippine Left – the same thing that de Jong is trying to do in his latest piece.
We trust that the imperialists, the ruling classes, and the Duterte regime, along with their campaign against the Philippine Left, will fail. Long live the activists and revolutionaries who muddy their feet, slippers, shoes and rubber boots in being with the Filipino masses in fighting for freedom, democracy and socialism!