The Philippines left today

In mid-March, Max Lane, a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and author of Unfinished Nation: Indonesia Before and After Suharto (Verso, 2008), visited Manila at the invitation of the Asian Centre at the University of the Philippines to speak on this year’s Indonesian legislative and presidential elections. During his visit, he also met a range of left-wing Filipino political activists. Noting that he “not been to the Philippines for six years and given also that there is no left press in the country, it was very easy to feel that one’s knowledge of what was happening in the Philippines was lagging greatly”, he provided the following interview to Direct Action editor Doug Lorimer.

What had been your links with the Filipino left in the past?
I had been involved in the Philippines solidarity movement in Australia in the 1980s and had, in that context, travelled to the Philippines a few times. I was active in the Philippines Action Solidarity Group and the Committee Against Repression in Pacific and Asia. In 1983, I joined the Socialist Workers’ Party, which now calls itself the Democratic Socialist Perspective, and from which I was expelled last May for being a member of a minority faction that sought to build campus clubs in solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, I was also involved in trying to build links with the Filipino left organisations. The main contact in the 1980s was with BISIG, the Unity of Socialist Ideas and Action group, then led by Francisco Nemenzo. As the Communist Party of the Philippines, the CPP, was the main force in the opposition against the Marcos dictatorship, we often had contact with them also, but felt ideologically closer to BISIG, which put more emphasis on mass movement politics and on democratic methods of operation. The CPP, while also deeply involved in mass movement politics, emphasised the guerilla struggle in the countryside, and had strong tendencies towards a militarised method of organising.

In the 1990s, the DSP developed close cooperation with the Manila-Rizal organisation of the CPP after it broke away from the CPP. In 1991 the CPP had reaffirmed the strategy of a prolonged guerilla war as the main line of march of the revolutionary movement. They expelled all those who were rejecting this — who became known as the “rejectionists” or “RJs”. The CPP classified anyone on the left with a different strategy as “pseudo-revolutionaries”. The expelled units of the CPP broken up into several groups, some of which formed new parties, others NGOs and specific-issue campaign groups.

The Manila-Rizal forces launched a new trade union-based socialist centre, an organisation aimed at uniting different sectoral forces (workers, urban poor, youth and so on) that was called San Lakas (One Power), and later an electoral party, the Partido ng Manggagawa — PM, the Party of Labour. We oriented most closely toward them through the 1990s, especially the early 1990s.

So they are the main group on the Philippines left now?
My impression is that 18 years after the splits of the 1990s, the “reaffirmists” of the CPP is still the largest organised group on the Filipino left. In the Philippines almost all of the radical left organises “underground”. None feel that the level of state repression, which was vicious during the Marcos years, has been weakened sufficiently to safely operate non-clandestinely. Some still operate armed groups. During the last few years there have been a long string of assassinations of left activists, which are widely attributed by the left to the state security agencies. But you can still get a sense of the strength of different radical left groups because they all have “above-ground” organisations associated with them.

The CPP’s electoral party, Bayan Muna, its student group, the League of Filipino Students (LFS), and other CPP-aligned public organisations are all clearly the biggest. On the main campus of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Manila, the rival left groups admitted that the LFS was five times bigger than any other left group on that campus. The LFS is a militant and well-organised group. However, CPP-aligned groups still refuse to work together with any other left groups.

Is the CPP current growing?
The CPP-aligned organisations still recruit a lot of young people, angry at the poverty and injustice in society. They also have the biggest number of supporters among academics and journalists, but they do not seem to have grown over the last 20 years. They shrunk in size and influence in the later 1980s, before which they had several tens of thousands of members. They have remained the largest radical left current, but have not been able to lead a revival of the mass movement as a whole. They retain their primary focus on the rural areas.

What about the San Lakas-PM current and the other rejectionists?
There has been a very positive regroupment of many of the rejectionist groups into a united front, the Laban ng Masa, Power of the Masses. This was formed in 2005 and brought together the San Lakas-PM forces, other rejectionist elements that came out of the CPP as well as non-CPP groups such as BISIG, which was in turn part of the broad left electoral formation Akbayan. The rejectionists were able to organise several joint mobilisations over the last few years. Many of these were in response to major developments in bourgeois politics, especially the maneouvres by former vice-president Gloria Arroyo to dislodge then-president Joseph Estrada, as well as various attempts, sometimes involving protest mutinies by army officers, to oust Arroyo’s government.

The Laban ng Masa was a very important step forward for the Filipino left after almost a decade of the rejectionists being unable to form any lasting alliance for political work. When the DSP began closer collaboration with the San Lakas-PM forces in the early 1990s, there was nothing like the Laban ng Masa.

Does it still operate as a pole for united left action?
I spoke to Laban ng Masa convener Francisco Nemenzo, as well as several other leaders in the coalition, including Sonny Melencio from the newly formed Partido Lakas ng Masa, Wilson Fortaleza from the PM and Ronald Llamas from BISIG and the consensus seemed to be that Laban ng Masa had, for the time being at least, hit a brick wall. There have been splits in some groups, causing tensions and making it difficult for the coalition to meet. However, no groups have left the Laban ng Masa at this point. It may revive.

So there has been a setback to collaboration among the rejectionists?
I don’t know whether “setback” is quite the right word, although it is clear that there are some difficulties. There have been some splits among the member groups of the Laban and from what everybody said and from what I could observe, there are clearly difficulties in the objective situation. Everybody told me that the left-wing trade unions had collapsed, mainly due to factory closures since the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis and also with employers willing to close and move factories that become unionised. Outsourcing had also weakened many unionised workplaces.

Some groups had shifted to concentrating on organising the urban poor semi-proletarians; others were still concentrating on organising employed workers, but in the neighbourhoods where these workers live rather than in the factories themselves. Almost everybody I spoke to admitted that the several years of attempting to stimulate large-scale mobilisations as part of various attempts to oust the Arroyo government had resulted in a neglect of base organising. It was also clear that, unlike in Indonesia for example, there is little spontaneous protest activity of any kind. Everybody I spoke to confirmed this. They also said that it was increasingly difficult to mobilise people for the traditional left mobilising days, such as May Day.

There seems to be different views on how desperate President Arroyo is to stay in power and what response there would be among the masses to a political crisis provoked by some extreme move on her part, such as declaration of martial law or ending direct presidential elections and shifting them to the parliament. However, the divisions among the bourgeois political elite seem to be more at the level of clique rivalry rather than any deep cleavage of sectional interests within the capitalist class.

Are any of the splits in the Laban groups particularly significant?
The largest group to undergo a split is San Lakas–PM. It has divided into two separate organised currents. One of these includes among its leaders, Sonny Melencio, who is fairly well-known in Australia, and it has just recently formed the Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM). The other organised current, which includes the San Lakas president, Wilson Fortaleza, organises through the PM and it retains the allegiance of the PM representative in the Philippines Congress. Most people on the left with whom I spoke said the two sides of the split have about equal numbers of activists.

The lack of publications on the Philippines left makes it difficult, especially in just one short trip, to get a clear understanding of the political differences between those aligned with the PM and those aligned with the PLM. They seem to range across issues such as how to manage the relationship between party and mass organisations, the objective political situation (whether or not conditions exist to launch a struggle to oust the Arroyo government), whether the left’s strategy should be oriented to seeking regime overthrow in the near future or toward basic party-building; whether socialist or working people’s government slogans could be used as agitational slogans or whether priority had to be given to advancing single-issue struggles at the grassroots level. Issues of internal regime were also raised.

While both sides told me they want to do more base organising, those in the PLM said that a military mutiny plus mass mobilisations is a near-term prospect. Those in the PM argue that the conditions are not yet present for launching a struggle to oust the Arroyo government and that winning people to a mass action approach and to party building must primarily proceed through the experience of grassroots struggles to improve working people’s living standards. However, from what each side told me it was not clear to me how significant this difference was in the split or in the actual practice of each group.

Both inside these groups and in all the other groups as well, there is also a debate starting over whether or not electoral collaboration is “permissible” with elite politicians, both at local and national level, and if so, upon what basis should this collaboration be undertaken. The Filipino electoral system is designed in such a way that there is no party on the left with enough popular support to win a seat without having some elite politicians directing their supporters to also vote for the left candidate. This is generally arranged by the left party concerned, and it has enabled both the “reaffirmists” and the “rejectionist” left parties to win one or two seats each in all the parliaments elected since the fall of Marcos. A part of the emerging discussion is not only around whether or not such a tactic helps advance the spread of left politics among the masses, but also whether those left leaders who have been able to win a seat in parliament have been able to do useful political work or not.

There seems to be agreement that some of the mutinous army officers are moving in a left-wing direction, but there are different assessments of what they are able or are likely to do. I simply do not know enough about the situation in the Philippines to have any opinion on these issues.