People’s War for the 21st Century

By Prof. Sarah Raymundo

Book review of Jose Maria Sison’s “Resist Neoliberalism, Fascism, and Wars of Aggression: Selected Writings, 2019”, edited by Juliet de Lima and published by the International Network for Philippine Studies (2021)

Jose Maria Sison’s “Resist Neoliberalism, Fascism and Wars of Aggression” is a massive collection of essays, solidarity messages and interviews produced in the span of a year (2019). The volume speaks to a particular moment characterized by Sison himself as a year “when the peoples in the Philippines and abroad rose up to resist imperialism and all reaction on a scale and with intensity not seen before in decades.” (1)

Sison’s huge following worldwide recognizes him as the putative pillar of the Philippine national democratic revolution with a socialist perspective, which continue to enjoy the admiration and support of progressives and revolutionary forces worldwide. It is a mass movement that began in the late 50s and expanded into a full blown organization that continues to challenge imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism for over five decades. Sison’s work for the national democratic movement in the Philippines and proletarian internationalism for the global anti-imperialist peoples struggle has demonstrated a foundational function for the same movements. 

In this latest collection Sison’s writings prove that his is a voice that lifts up and enriches the praxis of people’s war—a counter-hegemonic feature in Philippine social life that has consistently exposed the inherent weakness of semi-feudalism domestically and the deep crisis of of global capitalism and imperialism.

In this book review, I focus on a praxis that the current volume crystallizes with astounding intellectual firepower, the kind devoted to vanguard initiatives aimed at building new revolutionary capacities and solidarities necessary for the defeat of fascism which will make way for winning democracy and building a bright socialist future. This is none other than the praxis of people’s war happening in two parallel spheres, the urban legal mass movement and the armed revolution. I submit that the themes encapsulated in the book title “Resistance to Neoliberalism, Fascism and Wars of Aggression” is a mode of resistance that can very well be recognized as Sison’s vital contribution to revolutionary theory and proletarian internationalism. Sison theorizes resistance as praxis of people’s war from the latter part of the 20th and onward into the 21st century. It is a daunting task that the author had and continues to accomplish as we speak. 

People’s war as both theory and an organized expression of revolution acquired the praxiological robustness it deserves in the works of Mao Zedong during the victory of the proletarian revolution in China from 1949 to its defeat by counter-revolutionary saboteurs from within the Communist Party in the late 70s. The defeat, however, is not absolute as evidenced by the re-establishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in 1968, a vanguard of the proletariat that follows the revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM).

It is well known that the founding Chairperson of the CPP is none other than Jose Maria Sison. Indubitably, Sison has been at the helm of this revolutionary tradition in-the-making. His political leadership and writings show that he has embarked on this project by embracing and developing MLM as a microscope and telescope for both the Philippine Revolution and the project of World Proletarian Revolution, among other crucial contributions. It is within these two-fold project that he enriches political economy for the people, the kind that largely and rightly locates itself within historical materialism and the powerful dance of the dialectic. 

Concretized in our age by the confrontation between reaction and revolution, the dialectic unfolds as labor clashes with capital. The latter has been a worldwide phenomenon especially analyzed and articulated by Sison in his vital studies of value, particularly its movement from semi-colonial and semi-feudal peripheries to the imperialist core and the attendant struggle that rages in the Philippines in the name of agrarian revolution, mass base building and armed proletarian revolution. Sison’s “Specific Characteristics of Our People’s War” (1974) makes him the key figure in the founding, flourishing and persistence of the Philippine Revolution from one generation to the next in the course of the Cold War and the US-Marcos dictatorship, and all throughout the neoliberal retooling of global capitalism and its current political expression in the tyrannical US-Duterte regime. 

Here, I reflect on Sison’s theorizing of the people’s war in relation to the following ideological currents, problems for political organizing and fascist offensives on our people:

First, how does this book draw a relationship between people’s war and student activism from the late 50s (Sison’s time in the University of the Philippines) up to the present? How does this praxis of peoples war speak to the current assaults on activists such as red tagging and the criminalization of dissent? 

Second, what modes of relationship does Sison draw between people’s war and the basic sectors in Philippine society? How do these relationships find their expressions in organizations both in the sphere of the urban-based legal mass movement and the underground armed revolutionary struggle?

Third, how does the people’s war—commonly and narrowly approached as a strategy of war from the peoples of the Third World—gain revolutionary flexibility and an internationalist character in Sison’s theorizing? 

Having laid down the main points in this discussion, let me add that the book definitely contains a broader scope than what is outlined above. I leave it to the discipline and prudence of comrades and anyone interested in revolutions and alternatives to tease out related themes and problemtatiques, and subsequently share their learnings with the rest of us. 

People’s War and Student Activism 

This book is launched at the height of the University of the Philippines’ campaign against military encroachment and the overall red tagging and red bashing of the Duterte regime. By now it is abundantly clear how red tagging is directly related to the criminalization of dissent and political killings. These themes are addressed in this volume quite substantively and with reference to Duterte’s use of anti-communism and anti-terrorism for the fascist suppression of the Filipino struggle. In August 2019, Sison already lays down the Duterte regime’s scheme of mass intimidation and murder of its critics and opponents. 

The scheme, as Sison, details involves “criminal methods of labelling and then killing drug suspects extrajudicially by using death squads [which] are now being increasingly used against critics and opponents of the regime in the countryside and even in urban areas.” (147) In the same article, Sison already warns the public of the Anti-Terrorism Law that in his view was being hatched “in order to facilitate [Duterte’s] political and military agents in labelling his critics and opponents as “terrorists,” allow his armed agents a period of two months to make anyone disappear temporarily or permanently and remove any liability of his armed minions for the arbitrary detention of people.” (147-148)

In the midst of a heightened climate of impunity, this current volume locates the place of the people’s war as a revolutionary process in which alternatives are approached in terms of tactical and strategic objectives. In doing so, resistance is foregrounded as both an actual reality and a goal of people’s war taking place in two different and parallel spheres, namely, organized and legal street protest and the underground revolutionary armed struggle. 

At this point, it is crucial to name the ideology that seeks to absolutely eliminate its enemy with the use of the state’s violent force. In the case of the Philippines, this is the Philippine National Police (PNP), the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and its para-military, covert operatives and intelligence network, the US military troops in the country, and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) that served as trainers of top Philippine military and police officers. This ideology is fascism reaching peak evil in Hitler’s Nazism and continues in the conduct of United States fascism and the Zionist Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Red Army of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin defeated Nazism. Sison identifies the armed revolutionary organizations in Palestine that developed out of the Palestinian resistance against occupation as one of those that “provide good examples of conscious discipline, skillfulness, resourcefulness and durability due to mass support of entire communities opposing an occupying force.” (88)

The people’s war is a mass struggle waged by popular classes on all fronts, may it be underground or under the auspices of transformative legal organizations and institutions. In both spheres, Sison makes it clear that the goal is the defeat of fascism in order to “win the battle for democracy.” (87) This is why our current fight for human rights against Duterte’s tyranny is a struggle of a people who have nothing else left but the capacity to restore humanity through struggle. 

Under the Anti-Terror Law and the untamed menace of COVID-19, the Filipino people have experienced the worst kind of fascist attacks and dispossession. In this volume, Sison describes Duterte as a “counterrevolutionary agent of foreign monopoly capitalists, big compradors and big landlords. He is a bureaucrat capitalist of the worst kind… He is a tyrant, traitor, plunderer and mass murderer hell-bent on imposing a fascist dictatorship on the Filipino people through charter change to a bogus kind of federalism (155).”

This book also provides a thorough account of the peoples war waged against US Imperialism and a Duterte-like tyrant in the person of the dictator, Marcos. In a sense, the Soviet defeat of Nazism has left a legacy to the young activists of the late 1950s who established the Student Cultural Association of the University of the Philippines (SCAUP) and, in the words of Sison, “were soon assailed by the anti-communist witch hunt instigated by the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA)”. (410)

Asked by a younger comrade whether red tagging plagued the political organizing of Sison and his comrades, he wits:

“We the student activists then were not cowed or silenced by the red-tagging and anti-communist tirade, which invoked the 1957 Anti- Subversion Law. But we became more inspired to fight back and to assert and exercise our democratic rights. We stood for the national and democratic rights of the student masses and the Filipino people. The Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities (CAFA) headed by Rep. Leonardo Perez tried to witch-hunt, frighten and silence the progressive faculty members and students of the UP as a result of their progressive publications. I was one of those targeted for organizing the SCAUP and for writing “Requiem for Lumumba” in praise of the Congolese leader and in condemnation of the CIA which instigated his murder.The anti-communist witch hunt by the CAFA failed to intimidate us but it merely succeeded in rousing the students and faculty members to rise up in protest” (411).”

Such accounts of sectoral mass uprising emanating from the academic field expanding to workers picketlines and peasant organizing in the rural areas are abundantly cited in this volume. As we commemorate the 50th year of the Diliman Commune, a movement largely inspired and organized by the same program of national democracy, it is expedient to derive lessons from the revolutionary history of people’s war in the Philippines as it confronted fascist attacks in the past and established a legacy of proletarian solidarity and defiance, academic freedom and a straight-up anti-fascist and anti-imperialist politics.

An informed and enlightened understanding of the people’s war in relation to student activism would logically condemn the criminalization of protest at the height of state tyranny. Red tagging and all forms of anti-communist threats are an erstwhile fascist scheme of casting the net wider by identifying the revolutionary armed group as a network. Sison makes it very clear that armed revolution is not a mere network, as I will elucidate in the next section. The armed revolution in the Philippines and in other parts of the world does not only seek to realize an alternative. More importantly, the very same entity with its parallel organizations in the legal arena have historically been a sanctuary for all oppressed and violated peoples where they defend and protect each other, forge solidarity, produce food and use their labors to sustain organized and politicized communities. 

If you ask me to sum up the lesson I have learned about academic freedom and student activism from reading Sison, I will give you a very simple answer: No decent person should enjoy learning under the conditions we are facing today. We must learn to resist. 

People’s War and the Basic Sectors 

In Sison’s article on “The Role of the Communist International in the Formation of the Communist Party of the Philippine Islands (1930)” he lays down the basis for celebrating the centennial of the establishment of the Third International or the Communist International (Comintern): 

“The Comintern succeeded in encouraging the formation and development of Communist Parties in many countries and in advancing the world proletarian revolution. It has had far-reaching revolutionary influence and consequences beyond its 1943 dissolution. 

The Comintern was the logical and necessary outcome of the vic- tory of the Great October Socialist Revolution, which made Russia the center of the world proletarian revolution. It was in clear repudiation of the bankrupt opportunist and revisionist line of the Second International, which had turned the social democrats into social- chauvinist and social-pacifist subalterns of imperialism in capitalist exploitation, colonialism and waging aggressive war.” (21)

Sison draws from the same Leninist legacy the necessity of people’s war in the Global South or among “the underdeveloped countries, where there is still a significant proportion of peasant masses:

“the people’s war can arise and develop in stages in the countryside in concert with the urban-based mass movements. And in the industrial capitalist countries, armed insurrection can break out of general strikes of workers and the general populace. “

It builds various types of mass organizations of the workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, women, youth, professionals and other people. To invigorate and make them effective, they are mobilized in campaigns to inform, protest and make demands or to carry out constructive programs and projects.” (136)

The task of rising up from underdevelopment inflicted by the long history of colonialism and imperialism on the oppressed classes is immense. If you ask me to state Sison’s thorough discussion of the functions of the CPP, NPA and NDF in the revolutionary process of the people’s war in Philippine society in my own words, let me say that Sison delivers a clear and simple message: If we do not organize as a class the ruling class will monopolize the organizing.

Thus, at the heart of the people’s war and the coming together of the basic sectors along with the progressive forces in Philippine society, is a revolutionary process involving the building and sustaining of a high quality organization consisting of the popular classes who constitute themselves into a class that can and will eliminate oppression and exploitation while seizing every opportunity to build power and solidarity. 

This is far from what Duterte and his junta paint as a mere network engaged in deceitful and treacherous activities. We are talking about an organization that remains undefeated despite countless counterinsurgency programs undertaken by the Marcos dictatorship and what Sison calls as “a series of pseudo-democratic regimes with their respective US-designed strategic plans to destroy the revolutionary movement of the people.” (155)

People’s War in Industrial Countries and Proletarian Internationalism 

Proletarian internationalism is made possible by worsening global conditions. Sison describes the current international situation tracing it “[in the aftermath of the full restoration of capitalism and collapse of the Soviet Union [during which] US imperialism enjoyed the status of the sole superpower in a unipolar world and proceeded to carry out in a reckless and aggressive way its neoliberal economic policy and neoconservative military policy…” (89)

Citing the strategic decline of the US in economic and financial terms since the crisis of 2008, Sison notes the rise of China and Russia as rivals of US Imperialism. He further notes that “imperialist states are becoming more repressive and are also unleashing fascist movements.” (90) Sison sees the possibility of proletarian revolutionaries and masses rising up in an armed revolution in industrial countries. But he adds that 

“[r]ight now, while proletarian revolutionaries are not yet immediately faced with the need to launch an armed revolution in any capitalist country, they can also consider in the spirit of proletarian internationalism and anti-imperialist solidarity to share their revolutionary ideas, experience and capabilities, including arms and their skills in making these, with the proletariat and people who are preparing for armed revolution or are already engaged in it in the underdeveloped countries. 

The spread and development of people’s war in the underdeveloped countries or in the countryside of the world can be helpful to the rise of armed revolution in the capitalist countries. At present, the imperialist powers headed by the USA are carrying out military intervention and wars of aggression on a wide scale in the underdeveloped countries. Thus, all concrete acts of proletarian internationalism and anti-imperialist solidarity are urgently needed.” (90)

It is in this volume in which Sison, in quite a novel and timely fashion, proposes to use the term people’s war with flexibility “to mean the necessary armed revolution by the people to overthrow the bourgeois state in an industrial capitalist country.” (86) Sison clarifies further, “what ought to be protracted is the preparation for the armed revolution with the overwhelming participation of the people.” (86)

Sison presciently reminds as of an important lesson from Lenin: “the revolution cannot win unless the capitalist system has been so gravely stricken by crisis that the ruling class can no longer rule in the old way, the people are desirous of revolutionary change and the revolutionary party of the proletariat is strong enough to lead the revolution.” (86)

Let me end with this reflection: Places in the world where peoples were or are being successful in eliminating the system of private property and collective misery are the same places where there is a revolutionary organization of the proletariat being embraced by the masses. Such is the face of resistance, such is people’s war.