Remembering how to fight

November 10, 2006

When history is denigrated, such as in these times, Renato Redentor Constantino's book of essays, which brings together an array of little-known facts about the history of imperialism — from the Philippine-American war, World War II, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — is a welcome and refreshing read. The sharp analysis is delivered with passion, humour and style. Underlying his writing is the commitment of an activist involved in the struggle for social change.

Constantino, known as Red Constantino to his comrades, comes from a family of nationalist activists and writers. His most powerful political essays are those linking the history of the anti-imperialist struggle in the Philippines to the resistance to the empire in more recent times.

"'I want no prisoners, I wish you to kill and burn: The more you kill and burn the better you will please me', was the order [US] Gen. Jacob Smith issued a century ago as his troops slaughtered civilians and Filipino revolutionaries alike defending the first republic in Asia and the freedom they had just wrested from Spain … Foreshadowing the fate of Lt. William Calley, who was found guilty of leading US soldiers in perpetrating horrors in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai and who served only four and a half months of his life sentence behind bars … Gen. Smith was court-martialled for issuing his barbaric order, found guilty, and sentenced to — an admonition."

"As early as 1901, the number of Filipinos who had been killed or had died of disease … was pegged by a US general at a 'mere' 600,000 …

"Before Afghanistan, before Nicaragua, Indonesia and Vietnam; before all these and much more — it was the Philippines. And what a start it was," he writes.

In his essay titled "Progress and Regression", Red Constantino takes up the cudgel of his pen against elite rule in the Philippines. "Of extraordinary exploits, Filipinos have had plenty recently to speak of. Three insurrections in the last two decades. Two toppled governments, one failed.

"We are reminded by the highest officials of the land … that it is time to unite so that the reform program of the government is not derailed. Reform is such a noble purpose. Reform the government. Re-form the oligarchy. Re-form the gangster economy. Reinvent elite rule.

"Each rumour [of popular bedlam] is chewed to pieces by the wealthy, fearful … that the wretched this time will realize there should be more to popular power than just changing the faces of those who rule."

Red Constantino's politics, however, go beyond an anti-imperialist nationalism. The book contains an essay on Cuba, entitled "Antidote to Despair", which highlights the tremendous gains made by the Cuban Revolution in building socialism and the importance of solidarity. An essay on "Lessons from Venezuela" describes favourably the path taken by the government of socialist President Hugo Chavez. Red Constantino, the political activist, sums up the tasks for our times in the slogan: Remember (history), refuse (to collaborate with oppression) and resist!

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