This month marks the fifty-first anniversary of the famed Diliman Commune. From February 1 to 9, 1971, students of the University of the Philippines erected barricades at the entrances to the Diliman campus, fought off repeated military and police incursions, and occupied campus facilities.
Joseph Scalice, A Planned and Coordinated Anarchy: The Barricades of 1971 and the ‘Diliman Commune.’,” Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 66, no. 4, 481–516. In 2018 I published an article in Philippine Studies situating the events of the Diliman Commune in their broader historical context and demonstrating for the first time how they were part of a campaign of barricades in downtown Manila and on the UP Los Baños campus. Both the construction of these barricades and their lifting nine days later were carried out in a simultaneous and coordinated fashion. While all prior attention was focused on the events at the flagship campus of Diliman, the conflict was sharper in downtown Manila where six students and youths were killed in confrontations with the police.
I published an essay in Rappler in February 2021, examining the political lessons of the Diliman Commune on the basis of this new, broader historical understanding. The essay struck a nerve.
Boni Ilagan, chair of the UP Diliman chapter of the youth organization, Kabataang Makabayan (Nationalist Youth, KM), at the time of the events in question, published a response entitled, “Against Historical Distortions About the Diliman Commune,” in which he lumped my scholarship together with accounts that “reek of historical inventions, distortions, or ill-intentions.” A week later, Teo Marasigan published a longer critique of my argument.
I have engaged with Marasigan before. In September 2020, Marasigan wrote an extended critique of a lecture I delivered that August at Nanyang Technological University, First as Tragedy, Second as Farce: Marcos, Duterte, and the Communist Parties of the Philippines. Marasigan labeled my scholarship “trivia” and stated that it would be “welcomed in military indoctrination seminars.” In October 2020 I wrote a response in which I argued, “In the final analysis, Marasigan’s argument amounts to the claim that Joseph Stalin was right, and the CPP [Communist Party of the Philippines] is correct in continuing his political legacy.”
Marasigan is not operating in an honest fashion. His second critique of my work did not acknowledge my response or address any of the points that I raised. It is not possible to pursue a public debate with Marasigan. He has demonstrated no interest in the mutual clarification of our arguments for the benefit of the reading public. He repeats, unaltered, many of the claims to which I have already responded, and in particular he recycles the pernicious lie that my scholarship serves the interests of the Duterte administration.
The majority of Marasigan’s new article is dedicated to a rather tedious cribbing of the anti-Trotskyist straw-man arguments of Joshua Moufawad-Paul, a lecturer in philosophy at York University. Moufawad-Paul is best known for his bizarre claim that Maoism did not really exist anywhere in the world before 1988, when it acquired its full expression in the Shining Path movement of Peru. He is a strange-bedfellow for Marasigan, as I do not doubt that Jose Ma. Sison, founder and ideological leader of the CPP, would find Moufawad-Paul’s claims personally offensive. Marasigan seems, however, unable to articulate independently a coherent criticism of Trotskyism and so he relies, chapter-and-verse, on Moufawad-Paul.
The results are predictable. The borrowed lies on display in Marasigan’s account are fossilized. They predate the Stalinist show-trials of the 1930s: Trotsky advocated skipping the democratic tasks of the revolution and he instructed workers in countries of belated capitalist development to wait for simultaneous world revolution before attempting to seize power. Marasigan goes so far as to claim that this is, in fact, the meaning of Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution,” that Trotsky told workers to put revolution on “permanent hold.” Readers should be insulted at the stupidities that Marasigan is attempting to palm off on them.
I do not intend to respond here to these shopworn falsehoods. They have been addressed countless times. Having nothing of his own to say, Marasigan dug out the breviary of Moufawad-Paul and used it to recite the Stalinist creed. For a recent refutation of these lies, I would recommend an article on the World Socialist Web Site, The Philippines: Political descendants of Popoy Lagman recycle Stalinist lies.
My interest is elsewhere. Taken in conjunction, the articles of Ilagan and Marasigan provide me with an opportunity to constructively address the nature of history and its relationship to revolutionary politics. At the heart of both of their critiques is an impressionistic approach to history. Ilagan writes
I don’t know if he [Scalice] was there when it happened, or where he got his account and so-called evidence. But I was there. I was at that time the chair of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) chapter in Diliman that included the University of the Philippines (UP) campus and the adjoining urban poor communities. I was a member of the Diliman Commune Directorate. So what I will say here is firsthand experience, not deduced from any theoretical extrapolation to suit some predetermined, and obviously unhistorical, bias.
Ilagan’s claim that he understands the Commune because he was a leading participant in it is the dominant conception underpinning his essay; “As an actual participant, I say this,” he writes. Marasigan follows suit, claiming that I am trying to make Philippine history “conform to Trotskyism,” and states that “[Scalice] imposes his interpretation on historical facts.” Both Ilagan and Marasigan give primacy to personal experience and to the “facts” derived from it; theory, on the other hand, they depict as something external to and imposed upon these “facts” of experience. I am guilty, they argue, of mutilating the “facts” of the Diliman Commune in order to make them conform to the procrustean bed of Trotskyism.
Their arguments are representative of those made by broad layers of older radicals and ex-radicals who have displayed a proprietary sensibility over the storm of events of 1970-72. We hear a similar rhetoric from the supporters of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who rebut historical presentations on the brutal character of the martial regime with the same line as Ilagan, “were you there?” Both the ex-radicals and the martial law apologists assert that their experiences are the criterion of the truth of any historical account and use them to ward off political criticisms.
History and theory
Ilagan’s impressions and experiences, like those of his compatriots, were undeniably vivid. He writes of how his “checkered yellow polo jacket” was spattered with the blood of a student who was shot on the barricades. I do not doubt that he relives the emotions and trauma of those days.
History, however, is not the composite of individual impressions and experiences. To live through an event is not to understand it. Impressions, for all their seeming concreteness, are abstractions isolated from their historical context. The facts of experience only become concrete through careful study, guided by a theoretical understanding, of the complex interrelations and historical processes that determined these experiences. This is the task of the historian.
I am routinely asked by critics of my conclusions why it is that I chose not to conduct interviews with participants. The answer is that I found that interviews are not what is lacking at present from our scholarly understanding of the period leading up to martial law. We are in fact awash in accounts based on personal experiences. Books of memoirs, compilations of individual narratives, and historical accounts based on interviews comprise the majority of immediately available evidence. The past two decades have seen the emergence of what may be termed a nostalgia industry churning out these published recollections.
I worked through every bit of this material. It is of mixed quality. What is markedly absent from even the best accounts is a genuine understanding of the historical and social context. The result is a stream of images, often vivid but nonetheless lacking coherence.
Ilagan’s own essay demonstrates the limited scope of his impressions. He writes “I vaguely recall the barricades that fellow activists erected elsewhere in downtown Manila and in the UP Los Baños campus in the province of Laguna. I got so enmeshed in what was happening in the Diliman Campus.” He adds “And hey, first time I learned that six were killed in the barricades in downtown Manila during the Commune days in Diliman!” This is an admission of precisely how narrow and abstract Ilagan’s understanding of these events is, despite his having lived through them.
Certainly Ilagan can tell a powerful story about the events of the commune, but he cannot, on the basis of his experiences, write its history. To do so is a complex task that requires the painstaking reconstruction of the social context and thrust of historical development, including the global crisis of capitalism, the nature of the Sino-Soviet split, the rival tendencies in the ruling elite in the Philippines, the nature of Stalinism, how two Stalinist parties aligned with opposed factions of the elite, and the complex trade union politics of the time and its relations to the recurring strikes of jeepney drivers.
Writing this history requires locating documentary evidence, working through the pages of the major daily papers, reading all of the literature of the underground press, locating the leaflets and fliers issued at the time. The memory of these events of fifty years ago can aid in the sorting of evidence, the establishing of interconnections, and the reconstruction of the mood of the times. It is at best, however, unreliable evidence. Impressionism, such as that exhibited by Ilagan, lends itself to nostalgia and forgetfulness, but not to historical clarity.
While impressionism might appear to be merely the commonsense approach to our past experiences, it has philosophical underpinnings and political ramifications. It is, in the final analysis, rooted in the conceptions of empiricism and the outlook of pragmatism.
Empiricism asserts that for any truth-claim to be meaningful it must be based on data that is the direct result of observation or measurement. Abstract thought, in this conception, is at best meaningless, and at worst an impediment to our engagement with “concrete” facts. Theory, the coherent elaboration of a set of higher abstractions into an interpretive framework, is, in the conception of empiricism, a falsification of reality rather than the inescapable means of understanding it.
Ilagan and Marasigan, along with the theoreticians of the Communist Party of the Philippines, share an empiricist outlook. This is why Ilagan denounced my scholarship as “deduced from any theoretical extrapolation to suit some predetermined, and obviously unhistorical, bias.” Marasigan similarly wrote, “It is the Trotskyist dogmas in his mind, not the facts on the ground, that are speaking.” Marco Valbuena, Chief Information Officer of the CPP, wrote of my work, “We do not know what kind of historian Scalice was trained to be, but certainly, not one who practices discipline of drawing conclusions only from irrefutable facts.”
I will set aside Valbuena’s doubly confused formulation about “irrefutable” facts – the persuasive force of historical argument rests on the weight and thrust of the totality of evidence and not on the incontrovertible character of each individual datum – and will focus on what I regard as the more instructive, larger point. Each of these thinkers asserts that by proceeding from a prior theoretical conception – Trotskyism – to the appraisal of the “facts,” rather than by beginning with the facts themselves, I am falsifying history.
We stand upon the shore of a measureless ocean of “facts.” At five pm on February 3 1971, Senator Ninoy Aquino brought bags of food to the students manning the barricades at Diliman. The precise content of those bags, if it was savory, if it was hot or cold, how much was leftover, or if some students remained hungry – these are all facts of the past. They are not, however, historical facts. History is a process that can only be cognized by abstraction and interpretation. These facts have no historical significance precisely because in our cognition of the past and interpretation of it as history we impart no significance to them. We are forever engaged in a process of selection and interpretation.
The selection of facts occurs not after all the facts have been carefully laid out and examined by the historian, but rather, to a large extent, beforehand. The selection of historical facts occurs as a result of our prior theoretical understanding and the particular methodological tools that are best adapted to the questions that we are posing of the past.
E.H. Carr, What is History? (New York: Vintage Books, 1961, p. 7, 26). E.H. Carr in his What is History? ably described this process, “not all facts of the past are historical facts, or are treated as such by the historian.” He expounded on this conception with a metaphor. “The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch.”
Our selection of facts thus inescapably flows from a set of a priori conceptions. The historian necessarily brings multiple tiers of theory, each of increasingly higher levels of abstraction and complexity, to bear on the past in their selection of facts.
Theories of a moderate level of complexity could involve, for example, our understanding of the nature of the archive. A historian, prior to selecting a single fact, has formed an awareness of a particular archives’ historical origin and how this shaped its material content, has studied how to read an archive “against the grain” and arrive at unintended results, is cognizant of the lacunae in official categorizations, and so on. Before a single box has been requested – and this of course is an act of selection – a great deal of theory has already shaped the historian’s conceptions and approach to the material.
The study of history requires as well a high-level theorization of key events and processes that traces their interconnections and significance. One cannot write a serious history of the Diliman Commune without addressing the ending of the Bretton Woods agreement in August of the same year and the changing world order of which this event was the culminating expression. Similarly, pingpong diplomacy opened less than two months after the barricades were lifted. An understanding of the events at Diliman requires a grasp on the origins and changing character of the Sino-Soviet dispute as it was manifested in the opening of relations between Beijing and Washington, and the impact this had on the political parties in the Philippines.
These are aspects of the necessary context of the events of February 1 to 9. By context I do not mean the gaudy but somewhat superfluous backdrop against which the historian sets their particular narrative. I mean rather the determining historical processes without which the Commune would not have occurred and only within which does it have significance.
It is this highest level of theoretical understanding that Ilagan, Marasigan, and Valbuena decry, and, in particular, it is my Trotskyist interpretation of history. The influence of Trotsky’s historical and political conceptions on my scholarship is not something I have attempted to hide. In the introduction to my forthcoming book, The Drama of Dictatorship: Martial law and the Communist Parties of the Philippines, I write
I argue in this book that the decisive subjective factor in Marcos’ successful declaration of martial law was the Stalinist leadership of the Communist Parties of the Philippines. If I am correct in this, a question must be raised: could alternative leadership – not simply different men and women, but a different political program – have resulted in a different outcome? To be credible this alternative program cannot be a utopian scheme concocted in the author’s brain after the fact, or the product of a speculative flight of historical fancy. It must be the genuine historical rival of Stalinism, fighting on a global scale at this historical juncture for a programmatic alternative: Trotskyism. Where Stalinism sought to transform Marxism into a program of nationalism and class collaboration, Trotskyism fought for an internationalist perspective based on the independence of the working class. Throughout this work, at key inflection points in the development of the political struggle in the Philippines, I will examine the rival perspectives of Stalinism and Trotskyism as a means of exploring the possibilities latent within each political juncture.
The Trotskyist understanding of Stalinism is, I argue, the only scientific appraisal of this political phenomenon. By this I mean that Trotsky provided a causal explanation that coherently accounted for both its origins and subsequent development. Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism explained its rise to power in the degenerated workers state of the Soviet Union, ably connected each of its subsequent iterations and permutations to the internal logic of historical development, and anticipated its culmination in the bureaucracy’s liquidation of the Soviet Union.
Trotsky’s analysis proceeded from the political character of the bureaucracy in the isolated and economically backwards workers’ state. Stalin’s rise to power expressed the growing dominance of the nationalist economic interests of the bureaucracy as a result of the increasing isolation of the Soviet Union in the face of the failure and betrayal of revolutionary struggles of the working class in the 1920s, above all in Western Europe and China. The privileged self-interest of the bureaucracy was given programmatic form in the core conception of Stalinism: the theory of building Socialism in One Country. In service to this anti-Marxist program, the Stalinists rehabilitated the Menshevik theory of a two-stage revolution and elaborated this with a conception of a “bloc of four classes.” This program of class collaborationism allowed the bureaucracy to arrange economic and diplomatic ties with sections of the ruling class around the world using the support of the working class, wielded by local Communist Parties, as political capital.
All of the outgrowths and epiphenomena associated with Stalinism – purges, the cult of the great leader, historical falsification on an industrial scale – emerge organically from this, the political essence of the matter. The Sino-Soviet split did not express programmatic differences between Stalin and Mao, but rather the manner in which the shared program of Socialism in One Country was refracted through rival sets of national interests.
Seen through the theoretical conceptions of Trotsky, Stalinism is not an eclectic amalgam of unpleasant political traits, it is a coherent historical phenomenon.
Just as a botanist studying a newly discovered species of flower does not attempt to reconstruct the theory of evolution by natural selection, or pretend that its laws may not apply in this particular instance, so too I do not reconstruct the nature of Stalinism on the basis of the facts of the Diliman Commune. Rather, I bring the entire weight of historical understanding, the product of the careful collective study of a century of political betrayals around the globe, to bear on this particular manifestation. Only in this manner can the facts of the Commune become concrete and take on their historical meaning and significance.
The historian’s task is thus a complex one. We set about to reconstruct the logic of the past using the material of the past, but this material must itself be historically comprehended. Our work is thus a series of approximations: the careful selection and examination of evidence on the basis of prior historical insight, the sharpening and concretizing of our understanding in the light of the evidence, and so on, again and again. It is intensely difficult labor and requires patience and dedication. It is never merely a matter of “facts” and recollections.
The conditioned character of spontaneity
Citing his experience as head of UP KM, Ilagan doubles down on the claim that the Diliman Commune was unplanned and spontaneous. The absence of planning is something of an insistent refrain in his brief article. He writes, “There was no plan to establish a commune. … There was no plan, no plan at all. If we could be accused of anything, it was that: We didn’t plan. We played it by ear.” That the behavior of the students at Diliman was largely spontaneous is self-evident. No one is claiming otherwise. Every mass movement is comprised of collectively coordinated spontaneous individual activity. The critical historical questions are the manner in which coordination, that is to say direction and leadership, was effected and the prior political conceptions that gave shape to the mass spontaneity.
I wrote in my Philippine Studies article that
Joseph Scalice, A Planned and Coordinated Anarchy: The Barricades of 1971 and the ‘Diliman Commune.’,” Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 66, no. 4, 482. A good deal of the conduct of the students and individual members of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and the Samahan ng Demokratikong Kabataan (SDK) throughout this affair was, of course, spontaneous. The barricades were launched, however, by a political leadership with a conscious orientation, which shaped the boundaries and channeled the direction of the spontaneous social anger that was finding expression in their erection. This leadership secured its own ends through the students in a planned and coordinated fashion …
Spontaneity originates out of a complex amalgam of partially digested political conceptions and prejudices. Individual spontaneism bears within it elements of both social and individual psychology. Spontaneous mass activity expresses the historically developed consciousness, psychology, and mood of classes. It is, to an extent, a conditioned reflex. In both its conscious and unconscious aspects spontaneism is the expression of a long prior political training.
Here we are again brought back to the role of Stalinism. Stalinism, through the political leadership which it exercised over the working class and peasantry in the Philippines, shaped both their historical experiences and the manner in which they subsequently assimilated and processed those experiences. The Stalinist PKP, of which Sison was at the time a central leader, instructed workers and youths to back Marcos in the 1965 election in the name of national democracy. Sison subsequently buried this support, cultivating a sense of political amnesia and disorientation. This is one of countless examples. By the early 1970s, the nationalist and class collaborationist program of Stalinism had an incalculably diffusive effect on Philippine society, and above all on the radicalism of youth.
The task of the historian is to locate the politics behind spontaneism. It is to bring to the surface the machinations of leadership and the partially conscious class tendencies which they cultivated and directed. To conclude that the events at Diliman were spontaneous and leave matters there is the historical equivalent of a shrug. I wrote in Rappler, “As is always the case, the glorification of spontaneity serves to cover up the historical betrayals of leadership.” Ilagan and Marasigan’s refusal to dig beneath the surface of spontaneity serves to hide the role that political leadership played in shaping this spontaneity and manner in which they profited from it.
The barricades were planned; their lifting was externally coordinated; their relations with the bourgeois opposition to Marcos was externally facilitated. The internal conduct of the Diliman Commune was largely the spontaneous activity of the leadership of the KM and SDK at UP. Ilagan himself figured very prominently in this. Ilagan’s assertion that they had “no plan, no plan at all,” does not alter one iota the Stalinist character of their politics.
Maoism as a school of empiricism and pragmatism
Whether or not Ilagan and Marasigan are conscious of it, their impressionist approach, like all spontaneous responses to historical events, was conditioned and developed in a definite school of political thought. The political philosophy of Maoism, the Chinese variant of Stalinism adapted to the Philippines by Jose Ma. Sison, is one of empiricism and pragmatism.
In Jose Ma. Sison, Struggle for National Democracy (Quezon City: Progressive Publishers, 1967, 129). In a speech delivered on October 12 1966, shortly after his return from a secret sojourn to China, Sison explained this perspective. He argued that everyone looking to adopt a revolutionary approach to politics, those whom at this point he termed “activists of the Second Propaganda Movement,” “have no alternative but to take the mass line, merge with the masses and learn from the masses.”
Sison told his audience of young people that “what the masses experience they can immediately grasp. They can also easily grasp the correct solutions based on the correct analysis of their problems … Only they themselves can understand their problems most profoundly. The activists of the Second Propaganda Movement can only generalize and formulate solutions from the experience of the masses.” (130) Following Mao, Sison made the experience of the masses the criterion of truth and depicted this as the genuinely scientific approach to reality, declaring “reliance on the masses and rejection of bourgeois and egotistic education can be understood only if one has a scientific and democratic world outlook.” (130) Sison claimed that a “scientific” perspective was based on the rejection of “bourgeois education” and reliance on the “experience” of “the masses.”
By Sison’s rationale, the victim of cancer, by dint of the pain wracking their body, directly apprehends the disease and thus cognizes it more correctly than the scientist, who approaches it through book learning and theory. The peasant, as a result of their malnutrition, backbreaking labor and exploitation, “immediately” apprehends the causes of this predicament and can “easily grasp” the remedy. History and theory as the foundations of political program were irrelevant before the empiricism of the peasant.
In 1902, Lenin wrote his seminal work on the role of the revolutionary party as vanguard of the working class, What Is To Be Done?, and the conclusions which he drew stand in direct and fundamental opposition to the mass line of Mao and Sison. Marx and Engels, in The Holy Family, famously argued that classes have objective interests regardless of whether the members of that class are conscious of those interests –
MECW, vol. 4, p. 37. It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action are visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organization of bourgeois society today.
Following this analysis, Lenin argued that the task of the revolutionary party was to patiently explain, to make workers conscious of their historically determined tasks, but the comprehension and articulation of these tasks entailed a profound scientific labor incorporating the study of history and every facet of contemporary society. Workers would not spontaneously arrive at an understanding of these processes and tasks through their struggles. It was not sufficient to “go to to the masses” and generalize from their experiences.
LCW, vol. 5, p. 422, emphasis in original. Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relations of all classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes. For that reason, the reply to the question as to what must be done to bring political knowledge to the workers cannot be merely … “To go among the workers.” To bring political knowledge to the workers the Social-Democrats must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions.
The mass line, far from a scientific approach to reality, was a mechanism for cultivating the spontaneous consciousness of the peasantry and limiting them to their existing understanding. Sison argued that “the masses who constitute our biggest audience can only appreciate our literature and art if our writers and artists make use of the life and struggles of our masses as raw material.” One sees in this formulation the narrow elitism that lurked just beneath the surface of the “mass line.” The masses could appreciate art only if it directly dealt with their lives and struggles. Sison treated the masses as if they had not broken free from the solipsism of young children. Art which honestly depicted the lives of others – of a Filipino landlord, or an American autoworker, or a cross-section of Tsarist Russian society – such art would be incomprehensible to the Filipino masses in this conception, and therefore, “decadent” and “bourgeois.”
LCW, vol 5, pp. 416-17, emphasis in original. In contrast, Lenin – adopting the voice of a worker – wrote, “we are not children to be fed on the thin gruel of ‘economic’ politics alone; we want to know everything that others know, we want to learn the details of all aspects of political life and to take part actively in every single political event. In order that we may do this, the intellectuals must talk to us less of what we already know and tell us more about what we do not yet know and what we can never learn from the factory and economic experience, namely, political knowledge. You intellectuals can acquire this knowledge, and it is your duty to bring it to us in a hundred- and a thousand-fold greater measure than you have done up to now.”
Despite his asseverations, Sison’s political program was at no point derived from the mass line. He told his audience that a scientific outlook revealed that “the class struggle is objectively going on in the Philippines but it has taken the form of a national struggle with patriotic classes – the working class, peasantry, intelligentsia and the national bourgeoisie aligned against the imperialists, compradors and landlords. The working class is the leading class, with the peasantry as its most reliable ally, and it conducts its struggle against the American monopoly-capitalists and the local comprador bourgeoisie.” (131) These were but the long-established conceptions of Stalinism; ‘relying on the masses’ and ‘generalizing their experiences’ did not alter the party’s nationalism and class collaboration even slightly. The mass line was a demagogic tactic of re-articulating to the peasantry their preexisting conceptions in order to line them up behind the capitalist class in the name of nationalism.
Sison’s October 12 speech became a key reading in the book Struggle for National Democracy, which was published less than a year later. This book was the core reading of the KM at the time. The CPP has updated (and redacted) the text repeatedly and kept it in print as a key work for the political education of young people. Ilagan himself doubtless taught numerous classes to incoming recruits at UP using this essay. The pragmatic and empiricist conceptions of Maoism are what give shape to his historical impressionism.
This political line – Stalinist nationalism and class collaboration clothed in the empiricist pragmatism of the “mass line” – is what conditioned and shaped the spontaneous behavior of the Diliman Commune and what informs the historical impressionism of Ilagan and Marasigan.
Impressionism and political amnesia
It is precisely this impressionism that makes the use of recollections in the reconstruction of history so problematic. Impressionism lends itself to historical falsification and forgetfulness. Leon Trotsky wrote in his 1939 article, “A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party,”
Correct method not only facilitates the attainment of a correct conclusion, but, connecting every new conclusion with the preceding conclusions in a consecutive chain, fixes the conclusions in one’s memory. If political conclusions are made empirically, if inconsistency is proclaimed as a kind of advantage, then the Marxian system of politics is invariably replaced by impressionism – in so many ways characteristic of petty-bourgeois intellectuals. Every new turn of events catches the empiricist-impressionist unawares, compels him to forget what he himself wrote yesterday, and produces a consuming desire for new formulas before new ideas have appeared in his head.
All memory is rewritten, especially the political memories of a political person. In the process of our development we revisit our memories, accentuating certain elements that come to be seen as particularly relevant or useful, ignoring and gradually forgetting those details which, while they are facts of the past, are no longer seen as historically or personally significant. Memory and forgetfulness, which shape our personal recollections, are thus the product of subsequent assessment, an appraisal of our experiences in the light of our political trajectory.
The incremental and interconnected logic of Marxism, the conscious reflection of the dynamic of historical development, provides a framework for memory. Impressionism, on the other hand, fragments experience into a series of largely disconnected episodes, often recounted as morally inspiring stories of revolutionary courage but not understood as determinate moments of a larger objective process. It is impossible to write history on this basis.
The amnesia of impressionism, its eclecticism of recollection, is compounded by Stalinism which has an extensive record of deliberately falsifying history. There is not a single event in their history that Sison and the CPP have not lied about in some way. This was demonstrated in a truly spectacular fashion in recent years in the party’s outpouring of lies to cover up its very public support for President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. Sison has repeatedly stated that the CPP never supported Duterte, despite copious evidence to the contrary. As I stated in an interview in 2020, “Sison is attempting to bludgeon the population into the belief that what they themselves witnessed never in fact occurred.”
Ilagan was himself party to this behavior. The KM, which was the youth wing of the CPP, repeatedly lied to its membership and distorted its own past. One of the founding principles of the KM was the potentially progressive character of the ROTC. In the documents of the 1964 and 1967 congresses of the KM, they called on all youth to go through mandatory “military training.” By September 1970, they were raising the slogan of the “boycott” of the ROTC, a “leading fascist training ground.” They were tail-ending the radicalization of youth, but never mentioned that they had been founded on a program of support for the very institution they now denounced.
Similarly, the KM announced in 1967 its intention to participate in the Constitutional Convention of 1971. They would ensure, they declared, that the “voice of youth and the masses” were heard in the convention. “The Constitutional Convention of 1971 shall provide the Kabataang Makabayan the first major opportunity to show its political strength on a national scale.” The social unrest of the coming years were to provide a far larger role for the KM than the parliamentary politics of the Convention. The KM found itself at the head of a mass movement by early 1970. It abruptly denounced the convention as reactionary and called for a boycott. Sison declared that “the key task of all proletarian revolutionaries and all those who adhere to the people’s democratic revolution is to expose and oppose the 1971 constitutional convention as a farce.” The convention was “a swindle,” he claimed. Neither the KM nor Sison made any mention of their earlier stance, which the KM had publicly maintained through the middle of 1969. In the latter half of 1970, while maintaining their call for a boycott, the front organizations of the CPP actively campaigned for a number of Constitutional Convention candidates, including Alejandro Lichauco and E. Voltaire Garcia, who was a member of the KM. Ilagan stood at the center of an apparatus of political lies.
We are left with impressionism and Stalinism, with selective recollection compounded by dishonesty. What emerges on examination is that the participants did not understand the history they themselves were engaged in making. Interviews and recollections can serve as a useful aid in the larger project of reconstructing the events of the past, provided they are approached with caution and critical distance. They do not, however, allow us to immediately grasp what “actually happened,” for Ilagan and his associates do not actually know.
History and revolutionary politics
These are not merely academic questions, they are the life-and-death concerns of revolutionary politics.
A serious assessment of the Diliman Commune – that is to say one that situates it in its historical context and grasps its origin, class function, and trajectory – is compelled to deal with the fact that it ended in defeat. I wrote in Rappler, “the fundamental task confronting workers and youth in 1971 was to prevent the imposition of dictatorship. To hail the Commune as a victory when the writ of habeas corpus was suspended within months and martial law imposed the next year is to ignore the realities of history.”
It is my characterization of the Commune as a defeat that Ilagan and Marasigan find particularly upsetting. Ilagan wrote, “Did we imagine that such an action, bold as it was, would be designed to stem the tide of the creeping fascism of the Marcos regime? That it would dissuade Marcos and his military clique from suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or declaring martial law? Of course not! How foolish of Scalice to say that the Commune was a failure because it failed to accomplish those!”
Marasigan writes in similar vein, “Was preventing the imposition of dictatorship really in the hands of the KM-SDK, the CPP, and even the entire mass movement? Were they to blame, wholly or even partly, for Marcos’ declaration of martial law?”
The task was not to “dissuade” Marcos, as Ilagan writes. It was, however, to prevent the dictatorship. This required the building of a revolutionary mass movement on the basis of a socialist program oriented to the seizure of power. Marasigan is explicit in his assessment: this was impossible. “The only way that the Left could have prevented the imposition of Martial Law was making the revolution win — but that was out of the question at the time, even in its most optimistic reading of the situation.”
Marasigan surveys the years 1969-72, a period in the country’s history marked by the most heated social struggles of the last half-century, and asserts that revolution was “out of the question.” He reveals in this assessment just how alien the thinking of the CPP is to genuine Marxism. The CPP does not measure the possibility of revolution in either the crises of capitalism or the mass opposition of the working class. Rather, seeking to establish a coalition government with bourgeois forces, they see the prerequisites for “revolution” in the weight of the armed wing that they can then bring to the bargaining table and in the openness of a section of the capitalist class to the establishment of political ties. Using the logic of Stalinism, Marasigan judges the possibility of revolution, not on the basis of the objective development of the class struggle, but on the organizational apparatus of the party.
The very imposition of dictatorship was an admission by the bourgeoisie that they were confronting a revolutionary situation that they could not suppress by constitutional means. Martial law was not an expression of Marcos’ personal will to power, but of a consensus within the entirety of the Philippine bourgeoisie that dictatorial means of rule were necessary to stabilize capitalism in the country. The dispute within the capitalist class was not between democratic and dictatorial forces, but between rival aspirants for authoritarian rule.
Ilagan and Marasigan argue that the Marcos’ dictatorship was historically inevitable. They claim that the Commune was a victory for a more limited reason. In the words of Ilagan, “We may not have prevented the full-scale imposition of a fascist dictatorship as Scalice had wished, but the Diliman Commune steeled us to face up to martial law when it arrived.”
Even this limited claim is false. The leadership of the CPP, through its political program of Stalinism, insured that the militant energy of the barricades and of the mass social unrest in general was not steeled, but diffused. It instructed youths and workers that martial law was good for revolution, that repression bred resistance, and that a section of the capitalist class was their ally.
The core argument of my forthcoming book is that Stalinism, embodied in two rival parties, the PKP and the CPP, was the decisive subjective factor in the successful imposition of dictatorship in the Philippines. The PKP supported Marcos’ candidacy for president, staged bombings in conjunction with the military to serve as pretexts for the imposition of dictatorship, endorsed the martial law regime, and entered its cabinet.
The CPP, meanwhile, allied with the bourgeois opposition. They tied the political fate of the mass movement to an elite leadership that was not opposed to dictatorship, but was looking to take power itself prior to its imposition. The CPP fundamentally misled and betrayed the working class, subordinating their interests to those of the sugar baron allies of the party. When martial law was imposed the CPP abandoned the working class in the cities to suffer the brunt of the brutality of the dictatorship.
There was mass opposition to dictatorship. A protest rally of over fifty thousand people was held the day before martial law was imposed. It had no independent leadership. The bourgeoisie acquiesced to dictatorship and the CPP headed to the hills. The KM and SDK disappeared and by 1975 the party dissolved these organizations. Protesting youths were left to tie political slogans to the backs of chickens that they released in the marketplace, or tap their plates in the campus cafeteria to the tune of an oppositional chant. The party instructed them to spread opposition by writing chain letters and called on those looking to protest martial law to join the Lions’ Club or the ROTC as a means of establishing ties with the so-called “middle forces.”
Sison celebrated the imposition of dictatorship. On October 1, less than two weeks after the declaration of martial law, he wrote in Ang Bayan
The more the fascist dictator madly goes after all kinds of workers’ organizations, the more it will aggravate its already isolated position. The more the workers’ rights are suppressed, the more will the workers become fearless of the US-Marcos dictatorship.
The celebration of repression as the instrument for galvanizing the masses into struggle remains the unchanged center of Sison’s worldview. On February 28 2021, Sison told the young people organized in Anakbayan who look to him for political leadership, “The best thing that can happen for the benefit of the Philippine revolution is for Duterte to impose a fascist dictatorship on the people. He will be finished in one or two years after that.”
Whether the revolutionary seizure of power by the Filipino working class was possible or not in 1972 is something we cannot know. The party rejected the very possibility of this and continues to do so. It did not educate the working class in Marxism nor did it organize them independently on the basis of a socialist program. It subordinated them to the interests of the party’s bourgeois allies, lied to them about their own history, and then welcomed the onset of dictatorship.
The most important political preparation for conditions of repression is the historical and theoretical education of the revolutionary cadre. It is this education that allows them to work as leaders not activists.
It is for this reason that the Diliman Commune must be understood as a defeat. It systematically miseducated students, youths, and workers. It oriented them to the idea that repression spontaneously bred resistance and trained them to channel that resistance behind the interests of the CPP’s bourgeois allies.
Allow me to conclude by tying together the themes of this essay with a quote from my book
On this point hinges the entirety of the failure of the CPP: they had not educated the working class in its political tasks and as a result the social layers around the party did not know how to fight dictatorship. The political and theoretical education of the most advanced layers of the working class and youth must be the paramount concern of a revolutionary party when preparing for repression.
What education had the CPP provided to the rank-and-file members of its front organizations and its broader periphery? Martial law will hasten revolution; a section of the bourgeoisie is our ally; it is not yet time for socialism, we must limit ourselves to national and democratic ends. It is impossible to educate a politically independent cadre on this basis. The program of Stalinism requires that the membership and periphery be dependent upon the leadership of the party, for at its core is an alliance with a section of the bourgeoisie and how could anyone independently anticipate the vicissitudes of the party’s alliances? The political imperative, as Sison had repeatedly stressed, was to be prepared to zig and zag as ties with different sections of the bourgeoisie ebbed and flowed.
Accepting these alternating alliances required cultivating amnesia within the cadre, who received a systematic political miseducation which justified every abrupt turn in occluded and dishonest language. Training in the history and program of the revolutionary movement is the strongest preparation of the cadre for conditions of repression, because it allows each of them to act as a disciplined leader of political struggle. The shifting alliances of the party, however, were not the product of principles, but of haggling opportunism, serving interests alien to the revolutionary struggle against dictatorship. Macapagal is progressive, they cried; no, wait, he’s reactionary. Marcos is progressive, they declared; no, wait, he’s reactionary as well. Aquino is progressive, they claimed… No political education could prepare the cadre to adjudicate the progressive or reactionary character of sections of the bourgeoisie on their own, for this was assessed not on the basis of program, but on the pragmatic conjunctural ends mutually agreed upon by the leadership of the party and the bourgeoisie. The political education of the cadre was thus not to judge for themselves, but to accept thoughtlessly, to swallow whatever new alliance had been formed.
The CPP’s lack of preparation for martial law, so fundamental to Marcos’ successful imposition of dictatorship, was thus intrinsic to the program of Stalinism.