Right now, the Philippines is in the news and in the awareness of the American left mostly because of a particularly awful Trump-backed president and government that’s descending into fascist dictatorship. But as the left in the US heeds the calls from Filipinos of many different political hues for solidarity, we have to develop an awareness of the communist-led civil war, the people’s war, going on in the country.
After Filipinos overthrew over 300 years of Spanish military rule in 1898, Spain sold the Philippines to the US for $20 million. Armed Filipino revolutionaries continued the fight for their freedom for the next sixteen years. 120,000 US troops were sent to the Philippines and up to 1.5 million Filipinos were killed to secure the islands as a US colony — The Commonwealth of the Philippines. The US has had an extensive presence ever since. The Philippines has abundant natural resources, a cheap, English speaking labor force, a large market for American products and is strategically located in Southeast Asia near China. After WWII, the US granted the Philippines independence but has maintained control through military and economic agreements that prevent the country’s economy from developing. In the countryside, most of the peasants1 work on is owned by landlord dynasties (many of the same families that ruled during Spanish times) and US aligned multinational corporations. In the cities, jobs are scarce and unstable.
In the 1960s, a time when enormous American military bases in the Philippines and even soldiers from the Philippine army were used to attack Vietnam, students began organizing with workers and peasants to revive what they considered the unfinished Philippine revolution, now with a socialist perspective. By the end of the decade, there were underground revolutionary forces to carry this out — including a new communist party, the Communist Party of the Philippines, and an armed mass organization under its leadership, the New People’s Army.
In response to massive protests and civil unrest, on September 21st 1972, President Marcos declared a state of martial law that lasted for 14 years. Even after the dictatorship was overthrown by the people, corrupt landlord families and allies of foreign business interests controlled the government.2 In the 1980s, the armed revolution reached its highest level of prominence, but at the same time serious mistakes and abuses accumulated, up to and including war crimes on the part of certain elements. The response from the majority force of the revolutionary movement is what was called the “second great rectification movement” in the 1990s. Many (though not most) did not reaffirm previous principles and the revolution lost quite a bit of its following. It has been able to recover its strength over the ensuing years. It isn’t yet strong enough to the point where it can match the strength of the government’s military, however it has not faded into irrelevance.
Founder Jose Maria Sison says, and I paraphrase, that if the NPA were a military force, it would have been defeated long ago. The NPA is tasked with assisting peasant communities to self-organize (in other words, building organs of political power) and wage political and economic campaigns for land and livelihood (i.e. wage an agrarian revolution). The revolutionary armed struggle has the support of the peasant farmers because it is a tool of their own class struggle for land, self-determination, and socialism. The revolution isn’t about winning a war for its own sake; it’s about leading the masses to those goals, and the revolutionaries in the Philippines believe an armed struggle is required to reach that point.
The CPP declared itself to have 70,000 members at its 50th anniversary celebration in 2016, and the NPA likely has rifles and Red Fighters somewhere in the low tens of thousands. You would think that these numbers would point to isolation in a country of over 100 million (more if you count Filipinos living overseas). In fact the opposite is true: they’re well integrated. In one of their few internal documents made publicly available, the CPP state: “The effective leadership of a proletarian party can be gleaned from the effectiveness of its mass work.”3 The revolution has over 50 years of successful, systematic mass work under its belt.
In the “base areas” of the revolution, encompassing a decent amount of the rural area of the mountainous archipelago, the presence and influence of the NPA is a multigenerational fact of life. People in these areas have different experiences and opinions about the revolution, but it’s a fact of daily life that there is an alternative to the corrupt and abusive government and its forces. This is particularly significant where indigenous communities are being driven off of their land by the armed forces of the Philippines and paramilitaries in order for their land to be sold to mining companies.4
The revolution’s work can also be seen in the strength of the political movement it influences. “National democratic” groups also have a socialist perspective and study many of the same texts as those in underground formations.5 There, people are organized in the hundreds of thousands and millions– particularly workers6, urban poor7, and peasant farmers. Electorally, this movement holds half a dozen seats in congress (representing a bit less than five million votes and 10% of the electorate in the 2019 election), making them the strongest electoral left force.8
When activists and journalists talk about the Philippines being one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activists, peasant and indigenous land defenders, trade union organizers, and others, those being targeted, in many if not most cases, are involved with or around the national democratic movement. It’s not in the scope of this essay to do more than touch on the sheer breadth of violence that is directed at the activists and peasants in the Philippines. Briefly, it encompasses assassinations, threats, bombings of civilian communities, unlawful attacks on NPA, the practice of fake surrenders, fake encounters, false and trumped up charges, red-tagging and terror-tagging, indoctrination in schools, psyops, and a growing McCarthyist infrastructure.9
As one example, in 2018 the Armed Forces of the Philippines massacred the “Antique 7,” communists who were just sleeping in a house, under circumstances that echo the murder of Fred Hampton in the US. One of those killed was Maya Daniels, a writer of beautiful revolutionary poetry.10 Many left-leaning Filipinos would point out that these kinds of action by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police violate principles of international humanitarian law that legally regulates armed conflicts. For nearly as long as there’s been civil war in the Philippines, there’s been attempts to de-escalate the government’s abuses and work to address the roots of the armed conflict through peace negotiations. As much as reactionaries see peace negotiations (when they choose to or are forced to participate at all) as a way to try to force the capitulation of the Left and its integration into the ruling system, progressives see a way of advancing the cause of peace and social justice. They have pushed for agreements on the protection of negotiators, joint monitoring of committees to address human rights complaints addressed to either side, international humanitarian law, and social and economic reforms.
CONCLUSION AND NEXT STEPS
Many of us heard all the criticisms and the stories from the bad times. We’re quite aware that the leaders of the Philippine revolution, unlike DSA, take sides in ideological debates – favoring Marxism-Leninism and Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, for dual power and state power, for national liberation, and against US imperialism as the main but not only imperialist power. However, we are persuaded to engage and support it not because of ideological affinity but because of its multigenerational and enduring praxis. We believe this movement is serving the people, is principled, and is going to accomplish what it aims to do.
The Philippine revolution is something people are already talking about worldwide. There’s a mass movement arguably bigger than any socialist movement that has existed in the US. Are there lessons for us, good and bad, to be taken from this movement? I think so. One thing is certain: the revolution and the questions it poses are already part of the broad Philippines solidarity movement today. Duterte’s empty promises amid the worsening conditions of Philippine society are uniting people against him. Filipinos in the US are getting involved in the politics of their motherland and interpreting their family’s histories through the lens of forced migration, the labor export policy, and US imperialism. Debates around the Philippine revolution are happening here and now on social media, in socialist circles, and even in traditional media. As individual communists and groups of communists, who are already involved in work around things like the Philippine Human Rights Act, we should join the conversations with our perspectives.
- While the word “peasant” may seem strange to American readers, it is recognized as a class in the Philippines and is their translation of the word “magsasaka.”
- This very short history taken from youtube.com/watch?v=3eD_1g7P0gE
- See the book Wars of Extinction: Discrimination and the Lumad Struggle in Mindanao by Arnold P Alamon, or an article by the author
- For instance, bannedthought.net/Philippines/CPP/1970s/PhilippineSocietyAndRevolution-4ed.pdf
- The union federation Kilusang Mayo Uno, or May First Movement, has somewhere in the neighborhood of a million members.
- A notable urban poor struggle lead by the organization Kadamay was an occupation by tens of thousands of people of idle government-built housing.
- In summer 2019, the National Democratic movement participated in house party-list elections as the Makabayan Bloc, and in the senate it lead the Labor Win, a coalition including most other labor and left-leaning electoral movements.