Jose Maria Sison: a flawed revolutionary

The founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, Jose Maria “Joma” Sison, died in exile in the Netherlands on 16 December, aged 83.

Sison established the CPP at the end of 1968 with the aim of launching guerrilla warfare to achieve “national-democratic revolution, a revolution seeking the liberation of the Filipino people from foreign and feudal oppression and exploitation”.

Three months later he founded the New People’s Army (NPA), which at its peak was thought to have 25,000 fighters under arms. In 1973, the National Democratic Front (NDF) was formed, bringing together mass, legal organisations of workers, women, peasants and youth.

The NDF remembered Sison as a “great proletarian internationalist, patriot, communist, revolutionary leader, teacher and poet”.

But in reality, Sison was never a revolutionary socialist. The Stalinist politics of the CPP led successive generations of young Filipinos into a dead-end strategy which attempted vainly to mimic Mao Zedong’s victory in China in 1949.

Early days

Sison’s politics were formed by the intersection of three factors, the first of which was nationalism.

The Philippines had been ruled as a Spanish colony from 1542 to 1899 before passing into the control of the US, which imposed its rule with the utmost brutality. In 1946, the US granted the Philippines independence but maintained significant economic and political influence, as well as having access to huge military bases.

US domination was bitterly resented by many Filipinos. In 1959, Sison, his future wife Julie, and friends founded a discreet Marxist study circle, which eventually became known as the Student Cultural Association of the University of the Philippines (SCAUP). Five years later, Sison launched the Kabataang Makabayan (KM or Patriotic Youth), which laid the basis for later NDF formations (CPP front groups).

The second factor was the rising tide of radicalisation around the world. Sison founded the CPP at the end of the year which had seen the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the student revolt in France which triggered a mass strike by 10 million workers, the continuing rise of the black liberation movement in the US, and much more.

Young people in the Philippines were part of that radicalisation. War in Vietnam was the fuel which powered the movement. The Philippines was involved in two ways—by sanctioning the use of US bases in the archipelago for the war effort, and by the dispatch of the Philippine Contingent.

On 25 January 1965, KM co-ordinated an anti-American demonstration of “20,000 workers, peasants, students, and patriotic businessmen” in front of the presidential palace, the Philippine Congress and the US Embassy. The rising tide of revolt culminated in huge mass protests led by radical students in 1970 and 1971.

The third factor was the Cultural Revolution in China. In reality it was a chaotic faction fight, unleashed by Mao to consolidate his control. But to many outside observers it seemed to reflect a burning revolutionary spirit that contrasted with the grey, conservative stodginess of Stalinism in Moscow.

In 1987, Sison said: “I was already a Marxist when I first read Mao. Then and now I consider him the greatest thinker on colonialism and imperialism and feudalism … And he was unbeatable on the subject of a people’s war.

“And then by 1964, the line between the USSR and Mao was very clear. Krushchev to me meant cooperation with imperialism and China was the leader against him. China was a big force and was encouraging revolution of all colonial countries. China looked to me like the Philippines of today.”

For Sison and many in his generation, China was an inspiration—an Asian country that had stood up to imperialism and won. The CPP was established in the hope of following its example, with its founding meeting timed for 26 December, Mao’s birthday.

Stalinism, Mao-style

The CPP inherited from Stalinism the idea that workers in the Global South should not challenge for state power. Instead the revolution has to proceed through stages, the first of which was to win national independence, which would lay the basis for substantial capitalist development and a future, distant bid for working class power.

The working class needed to seek broad alliances, above all with the peasantry but also with so-called “progressive” nationalist capitalists. That meant workers had to restrain their demands.

But inspired by Mao’s success, the CPP adopted two further ideas—that the Philippines was “semi-feudal” and that the path to victory lay through “people’s war”, a guerrilla war that would lay the basis for seizing the cities on the path to the victory of the national democratic revolution.

Semi-feudalism meant that the Philippines economy was impacted by, but not yet integrated into, capitalist relations. The analysis underpinned the party’s position that the fight for socialist revolution could take place only in the distant future, when Filipino capitalism was fully developed. It gave pride of place to a rural struggle based on the numerical strength of the peasantry and reduced the working class to a subsidiary role in events.

Yet there is an industrial working class in the millions in Metro Manila and elsewhere. Industrial waged workers comprise some 15 per cent of the workforce and there is a substantial number of service workers and agricultural workers.

Sison talked about the leading role of the “working class” in the abstract but substituted the party and guerrilla warfare in place of the living, breathing reality of workers’ struggles. He wrote: “The working class is the most progressive productive and political force in the Philippines … 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 realized? It is by deploying and developing CPP cadres and members in the countryside to build the New People’s Army.”

The emphasis on building the NPA and on people’s war marginalised the CPP and its leadership when mass struggles emerged in the cities. It also militarised politics. When faction fights broke out in the 1990s, the authoritarian party regime that Sison had created set the scene for the mass murder of opponents and supposed spies in the party. Sison admitted that one such incident in Mindanao alone cost the lives of 950 party and NPA members.

There was an alternative. The success of the October 1917 revolution in Russia showed that the working class in an underdeveloped country, backed by the peasantry, could go beyond overthrowing a landlord dictatorship to take control of industry and create a workers’ state, triggering the potential for international revolution.

Tragically, the triumph of Stalinism, which aimed to build a strong nation state at the cost of massive repression, obliterated that alternative. Leon Trotsky and his followers, who defended the idea of permanent revolution—of international socialism from below—were marginalised. Sison could not make his contempt for Trotsky clearer. In February 2021, he issued a media release entitled “Trotskyitis is a virulent type of psychopathic anti-communism”.

Missed opportunities

The logic of Sison’s position meant that political struggle was subordinated to the need to build the guerrilla army, the NPA. Many student and worker activists in the cities who were won to the CPP position were told to abandon work in the urban areas and to move to the mountains to join or form guerrilla squads.

Yet over and again, despite Sison’s focus on the centrality of “people’s war” in the countryside, the struggle erupted in the cities.

In 1970 and into 1971, the Philippines experienced its “1968” moment. On 26 January 1970, the National Union of Students of the Philippines organised a demonstration outside the opening of Congress. Fifty thousand students and workers turned up and were attacked by the police, turning the demonstration into a battlefield. It was the initial event of what was to be dubbed the First Quarter Storm.

This was the curtain-raiser to three months of rebellion involving actions in Manila of 50,000 to 100,000 people. On 30 January, in what became known as the Battle of Mendiola Bridge, national democratic students stormed Malacanang, the presidential palace, at one point breaking into the grounds and hurling molotov cocktails.

On 12 February, the newly formed Movement for a Democratic Philippines, a coalition of national democratic groups, held a massive educational rally at the Plaza Miranda. A further mass rally on the 18th was followed by an assault on the US embassy by 5000 youths.

A year later, students, faculty members and residents of the University of the Philippines Diliman campus, together with transport workers, led an uprising against an increase to the price of fuel that became known as the Diliman Commune.

The CPP was active in these events, not least through the KM, which grew rapidly. But the party saw the urban struggle primarily as a source of recruitment to the NPA. It publicly rejected the idea of urban insurrection against the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos, writing: “The demonstrations have served as a rich source of activists for the national democratic revolution and therefore, of prospective members and fighters of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army … Ideological, political and organisational preparations are continuously being made for intensified revolutionary armed struggle in the countryside …”

Millions on the streets

If Sison’s party missed the significance of the stormy events of 1970-71, it was even more blindsided by the urban uprising that broke the Marcos regime in 1986.

The CPP was at its peak. A report to the US Senate in 1985 noted that the NPA has grown to probably more than 15,000 regulars and a somewhat larger number of part-time irregulars, fighting on 60 fronts around the country. CPP membership was about 30,000, with the party and its guerrillas controlling or contesting control over settlements inhabited by at least 10 million people.

Yet just months later, the CPP was pushed to the margins of politics as the urban masses took to the streets against President Marcos, who had rigged an election in February 1986 against Corazon “Cory” Aquino. Aquino called a rally in central Manila that attracted between one and two million. When a faction within the armed forces plotted a coup to bring down Marcos (and head off the threat from the left), the Church appealed on radio for people to help the mutineers. Up to two million heeded the call. Marcos fled to Hawaii.

This moment presented a serious chance for revolutionary transformation. There was a real need for a non-Stalinist socialist workers party that could have seized the revolutionary moment and built on the struggle against martial law by agitating for workers to take events into their own hands, to strike, demonstrate and occupy, to insist that real democracy would not come by voting for Aquino; that workers and their families would fight for higher wages, better conditions, and democracy not just in broader society but in the workplace.

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, and merely, in any case, a stage in which workers and peasants would have to continue to subordinate their interests to those of their exploiters. The biggest urban political crisis in the post-independence history of the country, the People Power Revolution, had passed it by.

Sison fled to the Netherlands, where he gained political asylum. He watched and wrote and in later years made multiple videos to try to direct events. But the CPP never recovered from its 1986 failure. When mass demonstrations again erupted in 2001 and toppled President Joseph Estrada, the CPP was again irrelevant. Today it is a fraction of its former size and the NPA has shrunk to irrelevance. The rest of the left, however, has failed to occupy the space left by the CPP’s decline and so it still maintains some influence through its legal NDF formations.

Perhaps the most shameful footnote to this story is the CPP’s reaction to the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president in 2016. Duterte had been a KM member in the 1970s. He was prepared to be outstandingly rude to the US. He even admitted CPP sympathisers to his first cabinet. The CPP thought it had finally found a genuine representative of the “progressive, nationalist bourgeoisie”.

Sison issued a statement that praised Duterte as “the first Left President of the Philippines who is determined to uphold national independence, expand democracy for the people, carry out national industrialization and genuine land reform, and realize an independent foreign policy”.

But Duterte was not only corrupt and unpredictable but bloodthirsty. He unleashed a war on drugs that was effectively open season on the poor. By some estimates, up to 20,000 people were gunned down in their homes or on the streets. Initially, the CPP supported the government’s offensive, offering the NPA to help arrest (but not kill) drug warlords. Only as the death toll grew did the party finally keep its distance from a president who was deservedly called the “Trump of Asia”.

Sison dedicated his life to fighting colonialism and imperialism. But his devotion to a version of Stalinist politics that valued rural guerrilla warfare over class struggle at the heart of the system means that, ultimately, his was a deeply flawed revolutionary project that has left a deep scar on Filipino politics.

The time is ripe for the emergence of a non-Stalinist revolutionary left. The future of a free, socialist Philippines is still to be written by the workers, in the factories, on the land, in the service sector, in alliance with the landless poor.

By David Glanz

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