Ferment in the Philippine left

August 28, 1991

Interview by Andrew Nette

Significant realignments are taking place among the left in the Philippines, long since the centre of the largest and most active popular struggle in the Asia Pacific.
Since its establishment in the late '60s, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its allied organisation, the National Democratic Front, have played the dominant role in the Filipino left. This is despite being outlawed since the early seventies, and the subject of an intense political and military campaign under President Marcos, and since 1986, Cory Aquino.
Facing a military and political stalemate, and the collapse of stalinism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the CPP is experiencing considerable crisis. It is also facing challenges from a number of new left groups which have sprung up in the last five years. One of the most significant of these new groups is BISIG, the Union for Socialist Ideas and Action. FRANCISCO NEMENZO, one of the founders of BISIG, was interviewed by ANDREW NETTE at last month's Socialist Scholars Conference in Melbourne.

What is BISIG and how did it originate?

BISIG is essentially an attempt to unify a number of maverick Marxists and other left groups. There is a faction, of which I am part, which came out of the old pro-Moscow Communist Party, there are ex-national democrats who have left the Communist Party of the Philippines, left-wing Social Democrats and liberation theologists.

Most of the organisations that converged to establish BISIG existed during the period of martial law under Marcos. We first began to get together in 1985 around the effort to establish the broad patriotic front, now known as Bayan. In the early stages of Bayan, there were a number of different caucuses: the national democrats, the Social Democrats and we were the independent caucus. When Bayan eventually became dominated by the national democrats, the independent caucus disaffiliated and established BISIG.

Compared to the national democrats, BISIG is small, mainly centred in Central Luzon and Cebu, but we are growing. We now have peasant and labour organisations affiliated to us. Other members are active in the debt campaign and the struggle against US bases.

How would you characterise BISIG's political differences with the National Democratic Front?

Our diversity is the first major difference. We believe ideological differences should not hinder unified political activity.

The crucial difference is that BISIG rejects the concept of

the vanguard party. This is in part a reaction to the overly centralised nature of the CPP. But our experience of the February 1986 Edsa uprising [which overthrew Marcos] vindicated to some extent our position that an overly centralised party was bad. Edsa came and went, but the CPP remained isolated from the entire process.

Our anti-centralism is also a reflection of our size. We don't pretend to be capable of acting alone; we have to be in coalitions with other left-wing forces.

What replaces the vanguard party?

That is a question which is causing considerable debate within BISIG at present. We believe spontaneity plays a role in change, and that the role of the party is merely to encourage the masses to take action.

We allow each organisation affiliated to BISIG to develop a momentum of its own. We do not put political officers in them, who in turn take their orders from the centre. Our cadres in the mass organisations are merely a link between the masses and the leadership. Similarly, if a member disagrees with BISIG policy, they are not expelled, as has been the tendency of vanguard parties like the CPP.

At the same time, I should say that whilst Edsa discredited the notion of the vanguard party, the period since has proved that we cannot discard Leninist organisation completely. We brought down a dictator, but the left as a whole was unable to push the process further; instead we were marginalised. The left needs some direction and discipline.

What is "the mode of production debate"?

Another major difference is how we categorise the mode of production in the Philippines. We believe the Philippines is dominated by capitalist relations of production, while the CPP and the national democratic movement still characterise the country as semi-feudal. In terms of overall strategy, this is obviously a vital debate. It determines whether you organise on a mass level in the urban centres, or adopt strategies like protracted people's war, which is the policy of the CPP.

What is BISIG's relationship like with the national democrats?

It is a love-hate relationship. We are together in many coalitions, and of all the non-national democrat groups, the national democrats feel most comfortable with us.

Would it be fair to say that the CPP is going through a profound crisis as a result of the collapse of Stalinism?

There is certainly an enormous ferment inside the CPP at present, which has much to do with events in Eastern Europe, China and the Soviet Union.

The upheaval in the CPP expresses itself through five main debates currently raging in the party.

The first is on the international situation. One group is arguing that the "socialist states" were advancing very well until the capitalist roaders opened the doors to Western infiltration. The other position, with which I am in complete agreement, is that something was wrong within these states themselves, and therefore that we should study the experiences so as to avoid these problems ourselves.

The second is the question of what revolutionary strategy should be adopted. One position is to continue the protracted people's war, another is saying this takes too long, and that what we need is an urban insurrection. Other factions say the party needs to develop more mass support among the urban population, particularly in the working class.

Third is the issue of how to relate to other mass organisations. There are those within the CPP who feel that the mass organisations should be allowed a certain degree of autonomy, that they cannot simply be dictated to from above. Other sections say the vanguard party should give strong direction to the mass organisations.

This is bound up very closely with the fourth debate, about intra-party democracy. Finally, there is the mode of production debate.

In many ways, the crisis of the CPP is also an opportunity. The party is opening up, and previously taboo subjects are now being examined. I have some optimism that the CPP can reform itself. They have much baggage to discard — Stalinism, authoritarianism etc. But they are still the largest left force in the country, and they have some excellent people. If any group can reform itself, it is the CPP.

What future do you see for the protracted guerilla war in the countryside?

It will drag on. The New People's Army cannot win, but neither can it be totally destroyed. Other armed rebel groups will no doubt emerge, and what you will see happening will be a process of "Lebanonisation" of the Philippines. This has already happened to some extent on many islands, particularly on Mindanao, and large parts of the country are no longer under the control of the central government in Manila.

In this regard, despite outwardly optimistic pronouncements by the CPP that the popular struggle in on the rise, the left will not make much progress until after the elections next year. Then the economy will be worse, and the change of national leadership may realign the situation somewhat.

The popular movements in Latin America, particularly the FSLN in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador, have been looked to by much of the Filipino left to provide a model of action. What has been the reaction to recent events in Latin America such as the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas?

They have been very demoralising, especially for BISIG, which has been the most Latin American-oriented group of the Filipino left. However, we now see that it is not correct to identify government with power, as the Sandinistas did. What is important is mass popular support. This is what the left in the Philippines has to build.

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