Wednesday, June 01, 2016



by E. San Juan, Jr.
Polytechnic University of the Philippines

We did what we ourselves had decided upon—as free people, and power resides in the people.  What we did was our heritage…We decided to rebel,  to rise up and strike down the sources of power. I said, “We are Sakdals…No uprising fails. Each one is a step in the right direction.  

—Salud Algabre, a leader of the Sakdalista Uprising, 1935

Writers are, by the nature of their chosen task, the spearhead of progress. They voice the grievances as well as the aspirations of a nation; they document its achievements; they treasure for posterity the worthwhile efforts of man.  They are the critics of things as they are; they are the dreamers of things as they should be; they cannot escape a large part of the responsibiility for the shape of things to come.

—Resolution of the First Filipino Writers Conference, 25 February 1940; Philippine Writers League

Of all theoretical concepts dominating global exchanges, nationalism has proved the most contentious and intractable. A wise commentator from Cambridge UK, John Dunn, has probably seized the twin horns of the dilemma underlying the phenomenon. He diagnosed contemporary nationalism as “a moral scandal because the official ethical culture of almost the entire world is a universalist ethical culture.” Despite this, he locates its efficacy in its paradoxical situation: “If democracy is the resolved mystery of all constitutions, nationalism is perhaps the resolved mystery of all boundaries in a world which is densely practically related across boundaries—a world of international exchange and drastically unequal power and enjoyment” (1979, 62). Precisely this international linkages would be inconceivable without the persistence of nations, or nation-states, sanctified in Woodrow Wilson’s proposal to affirm the right of self-determination for all nations, at least those already extant, but not for peoples under colonial rule or about to be annexed.  

Dunn’s Eurocentric view seems unconscionable in light of the emergence of socialist nation-states such as China, Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam. We understand that Dunn was addressing the excesses of Nazi racial nationalism, while ignoring the British Empire’s claim to moral superiority and Europe’s ascendancy over people of color in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We need to be reminded that Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” was a triumphallist apology for US troops marching into the islands and civilizing those uncouth, sullen Filipinos. Since the Filipino-American War of 1899-1913, the yet “uncivilized” masses of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Islands, to cite just one instance, have begun to build their nation on the ruins of the Portuguese empire in 1974, a year before the victory of the Vietnamese over the US empire and its surrogates (Davis 1978).

President Wilson’s “14 Points” proposal came with the breaking-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. It offered breathing space for tribal groups in Africa, as well as a motive or rationale to discover a self, a political medium or state, which can undergo a “recognizable process of self-determination”. Such aspiration is supposed to be a political reaction to the Napoleonic conquest of Europe, but surely it preceded Napoleon. Nations such as France or England had long realized such aspiration “grounded in some existing sentiment of national or racial identity associated with common territory, language or religion—to form its own sovereign state and to govern itself” (Scruton 1982, 421). Following this model, the break-up of the Spanish Empire in the 19th century led to the formation of Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, and Mexico in the South American wars of independence. Led by creoles disillusioned with theocratic colonialism, the various nationalities or ethnic communities revolted not so much in the name of national self-determination but with the ideals of the Frencn revolution—“liberty, equality, fraternity”—in mind. 

Transitional Passages

Clearly, as Lenin once put it, we need to distinguish the “nationalism” of the oppressed peoples against the jingoist/chauvinist “nationalism” of the oppressor nation (Lenin 1968; San Juan 2002). This is due to the geopolitical law of unequal and uneven development between metropolitan powers and subordinate, peripheral formations (for a succinct formulation, see Harvey 1977). In this context, it might be heuristic to pose the following inquiry. Was the Spanish colony in 1899, about to be annexed by the United States, just “an imagined community,” as Benedict Anderson  (1983) would label it?  Was it an artifice simply generated by print capitalism and commercial exchange which triggered consent from the letrado minority? Or was it, in Eric Hosbawm’s  (1994) phrase, an “invented tradition”? Or was the Filipino “nation” a process of active genesis with plural components, not ethnic purity, as the active catalyzer for the national-popular patria? This “nation” seems to be still undergoing neocolonial metamorphosis today.

Arguably we find elements of all these in analyzing nation-formation as a collective, heterogeneous process. Print culture certainly displaced orature and ritualized speech-acts when the galleon trade ended in 1815 and the country was opened to international trade. But it was not books or printed manifestoes that marked the advent of integral if syncretic consciousness; it was a rebellion. The consensus is that the Cavite Mutiny of 1872, the sacrifice of three priests involved in the secularization movement ushered a widespread consciousness of shared identity.  Rizal, Mabini, and others confirm this view. Renato Constantino sums up this conjuncture: “Where the concept of Filipino used to have a racial and later a cultural limitation, the repression that followed the Cavite mutiny made the three racial groups—creoles, mestizos and natives—join hands and become conscious of their growing development as a Filipino nation” (1975, 143). Thus, it was the experience of a “common historical fate” or destiny (Bauer, quoted in Lowy 1998, 46; see also Davis 1978) and the constellation of responses that midwived Filipino nationalism, not print technology and its bourgeois mediators that spelled the difference.

The 1896 revolution against Spain was initially a product of Filipino creolized ilustrados, foremost of whom were Jose Rizal, Graciano Lopez Jaena, and Marcelo del Pilar. In Barcelona and Madrid, the propagandists collaborated on the newspaper La Solidaridad in 1889. Using Spanish, their declared aspirations were universalistic, not particularistic, namely: “to combat reaction, to stop all retrogressive steps, to extol and adopt liberal ideas, to defend progress; in a word, to be a propagandist, above all, of democratic ideas in order to make these supreme in all nations here and across the seas” (Agoncillo and Guerrero 1970, 143). There was no mention of a common language, distinct territory, cohesive economic unit—the prime characteristics of a nation, not of a tribal or racial assemblage. 

The Spanish colony then was an assemblage of feudal-managed haciendas, scattered ethnolinguistic communities dominated by the Church. The secularist reformers espoused democratic, libertarian principles. If we follow the classic Marxist formula, they should have demanded the creation of a national market for a homogeneous population. Even when Rizal initiated La Liga Filipina to replace the periodical, the focus transcended the cultural or ethnic qualities of “peoples without a history” (to use Engel’s phrase) destined to extinction or incorporation by a larger superior group. The Liga aimed to “unite the whole archipelago into one compact, vigorous and homogeneous body,” provide “mutual protection” and “defense against all violence and injustice” (Agoncillo and Guerrero 1970, 156). In effect, Rizal expressed a revolutionary aim by envisaging the creation of a separate, independent social order, overthrowing the colonial polity. 

Andres Bonifacio was one of the original members of the Liga. With the Liga proscribed, Bonifacio and others organized the Katipunan.  Using Tagalog—the native tongue of the central provinces of Luzon—they articulated the political goal of separation from Spain, the moral objective of individual rational autonomy, and the civic ideal of defending the poor and oppressed. Following the credo of mutual aid and reciprocity, the Katipunan vowed to pay the funeral expenses of it members to undercut the exorbitant fees of the Church. It demonstrated the dialectic of universal ideals and concrete action in the process of fashioning a new nation.

One Divides Into Two

Given the anticolonial thrust of the 1896 revolution led by the Katipunan, Filipino nationalism from its beginning was forged from a national-popular matrix. It was national in ascribing to the subjugated Indios, the native inhabitants, a cluster of singular qualities: fraternal sharing of goods, commitment to promises, faith in the enslaved subalterns’ wisdom and power to create a prosperous, free future. This is the message of Bonifacio’s manifesto, “Ang Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog”: “Panahun na ngayong dapat na lumitaw and liwanag ng katotohanan, panahon na dapat nating ipakilala na tayo’y may sariling pagdaramdam, may puri, may hiya at pagdadamayan….Kaya o mga kababayan! ating idilat and bulag na kaisipan at kusang igugol sa kagalingan ang ating lakas sa tunay at lubos na pag-asa na mag tagumpay sa nilalayong kaguinhawahan ng bayang tinubuan” (Agoncillo 1963, 69). From this perspective, one can infer that the nation being formed will be rooted in the dynamic relations of oppressed, toiling subjects who have become conscious of their collective plight and, in forging solidarity, begun to to fashion a liberated future. 

Despite the defeat of the Ilustrado-compromised Malolos Republic, and the capture of the Katipunan-inspired General Sakay, I would argue that Filipino nationalism preserved its national-popular kernel up to the outbreak of World War II. This implies an organic connection between intellectuals, the pedagogical agents of knowledge, and the the affective-feeling sensibility of the masses that can be mobilized for structural change. The peasant majority and its offshoot, the middle stratum of craftworkers and pettybourgois traders, supplied the organic intellectuals of the nascent body politic.

The revolution of 1896 survived in underground and legal struggles. Bonifacio and the inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition—Isabelo de los Reyes, Tagalog writers Faustino Aguilar, Jose Corazon de Jesus, and Benigno Ramos, as well as the partisans of the Philippine Writers League—continued to define the parameters of national becoming. The anti-imperialist intelligentsia  endeavored to synthesize universal knowledge and local sentiments into a “structure of feeling” (Williams 1961) capable of mobilizing the masses. The Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci conceived of the reciprocal interaction between understanding (intellectual) and feeling (the grassroots constituency) as the foundation of the emergent nation. Writers using the vernacular proved to be the most effective builders of this shared, communicated “structure of feeling.”

The failure of the 1896 revolution sharpened the social division of labor, with the US occupation destroying the productive linkages of family, village and kindred institutions. The crisis widened the division between city and countryside.  Filipino nationalists tried to resolve their historical predicament by “feeling the elementary passions of the people, understanding them and therefore explaining and justifying them in the particular historical situation and connecting them dialectically to the laws of history and to a superior conception of the world, scientifically and coherently elaborated-i.e. knowledge” (Gramsci 1971, 418). Thus the revolutionary artists’ project of historicizing emotional patterns was translated into the task of constructing the hegemonic (moral-intellectual) leadership of the working class, in alliance with the peasantry, as the foundation of the emerging Filipino nation (San Juan 2015).

Folk and Proletarian Synergesis 

The intellectual practice of Isabelo de los Reyes exemplifies an early attempt to bridge thought and feeling in quest of a hypothetical nation. Only a sketch of his complex career can be given here to indicate one example of a nation-building project (see Mojares 2006; Scott 1982; Anderson 2005).

In 1889 Reyes launched the first vernacular newspaper in the Philippines, El Ilocano. Pursuing the historiographic recovery embodied in Rizal’s annotations on Morga’s Sucesos and his recuperation of native poetics, Reyes’ ethnographic researches—El Folklore Filipino (1889) and Historia de Ilocos (1890) strove to articulate an identity rooted in specific localities across temporal divides. But, for our purposes, it was his prison memoirs in Spanish, La Sensacional Memoria sobre la Revolucion Filipina (1899), and his attack on American imperialism, Independencia y Revolution (1900), that reinscribed the Katipunan tradition in the annals of labor organizing. In February 1902, Reyes founded the first labor union under American occupation, Union Obrera Democratica Filipina; he also edited the first labor-union newspaper, La Redencion del Obrero. Engaged in the debate on class and national concerns, Reyes also operated in the ethico-ideological domain of struggle. He collaborated with Father Gregorio Aglipay in launching the nationalist-oriented Philippine Independent Church with trade-union members as core followers.  Reyes distinguished himself at this time by spearheading a general strike of factory workers and farm tenants against American business firms and friar-owned haciendas for which then governor William Taft had to call the U.S. cavalry to disperse the crowd (Zaide 1970, 461). 

Class struggle nourished the national-popular organism in insurrectionary praxis,  a synthesis of economic and political activities in civic society. By deploying flexible organizing modes, Reyes’ actualized an inchoate theory of radical nationalism that coalesced national, class, and religious sentiments. His links with rural and urban agitation provided the catharsis of the economic to the political, the strategic and tactical requirements, of the campaign against colonial rule. He fused dialectically the particular nativist elements of culture with universal notions of proletarian emancipation derived from the socialist and arnarchist movements of Europe. It was Reyes’ activism that re-located the emergent nation in the arena of the class war against the landlord-comprador bloc and its American sponsors. In vindicating the ideals of the Katipunan (in his book Religion of the Katipunan), Reyes suggested that their ultimate goal was really a “communist republic” (Werning 2011, 88). 

Reyes was a political realist, not a doctrinaire syndicalist, so that he participated in electoral-parliamentary struggles from 1922 to 1928.  While his belief in the value of popular knowledge and other indigenous practices cannot be over-emphasized, or made polysemous to erase the gap between the universal and particular, it would be disingenous to overlook his dependence on the virtues of conceptual elaboration inspired by Proudhon, Bakunin, Marx, and others in the socialist archive. Such a “problematic indigenism’ “ (Mojares 2006, 363) needs to be dialectically configured with his intimate associations with versatile intellectuals such as Hermenegildo Cruz who aided Reyes in founding the first labor federation and who played a crucial role in connecting the intelligentsia with grassroots insurgency.

Vernacular Speech-Acts

It was in this milieu that the first consistent articulation of class hopes and nationalist sentiments received symbolic prefiguration in Lope K. Santos’ novel, Banaag at Sikat (1906). Rendered through allegorical manipulation of typical characters, the novel focused on the antagonism between capital and labor, with the “national question” subsumed in the atmosphere of repressive police action and looming treacheries. 
Unlike Reyes or the ilustrado Dr. Dominador Gomez, Santos was a soldier in the revolutionary army in the forests of Laguna and Batangas. He admired Zola, Gorki, Eliseo Reclus, and other radical thinkers. Together with Cruz, Santos edited the paper of the printworkers’ union which carried on its masthead the Marxist slogan, “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself” (Richardson 2011, 21). But Santos did not succumb to sectarian workerism (unlike the US-tutored communists) since his idea of socialism emphasized chiefly moral and legal egalitarianism. He favored a broad united front of all democratic sectors. The hero of his novel Delfin, for example, found the U.S. Constitution filled with “socialist aspirations” informing government policies (Santos 1959, 236). This might explain why Santos’ book was not prohibited (on this issue, see Torres Reyes 2010; on his refusal to commodify his novel, see his autobiography Santos 1972, 70-71.). Was Santos trying to include the ilustrado elite in a hegemonic project of building consensus, even confounding bourgeois liberal reforms with Marxian socialism? 

In the interregnum before English became widespread and Spanish as the language of public exchange declined, the Tagalog novel blossomed in the midst of  intense mobilization of urban workers. This affected also the pettybourgeois sector of  white-collar workers whose affairs were intimately bound with their worker friends and relatives in city and countryside. This is reflected in the uniquely psychologized dramatization of individual, family, and racial conflicts in Faustino Aguilar’s Pinaglahuan (1907). The “national question” is evoked right at the outset of the plot, giving way to the plight of the lovers and the imprisonment of the worker-intellectual Luis Gatbuhay by the collusion of the American factory-owner Mr. Kilsberg and the cunning merchant Rojalde (Reyes 1982, 45). Rojalde traps the heroine’s father in a scheme that leads to Rojalde’s possession of her body, already pregnant by Luis—an emblem of the commodified object of desire, the motherland, caged by the comprador usurper. Focusing on the hero’s agony in prison, Aguilar’s novel registers obliquely the shock of Sakay’s execution and the suppression of the last guerilla resistance even as echoes of the massive May Day 1903 march still resound in the cries of protest from the impoverished victims of the market system and the decadent feudal patriarchy.

Traditionally, the novel form in the West often dramatized the individualist quest for a cosmic purpose and meaning in life. This quest is refracted by Santos and Aguilar in a social-realist direction, via a mimesis of the dialectical interaction of the collective whole and its parts. In both Santos and Aguilar’s style, we encounter a realism diverging from the raw slice-of-life, sensational naturalism of Zola and Norris. Their models were Rizal, Tolstoy, Hugo, and Balzac.  Tagalog realism, often didactic or homiletic, sought to  “lay bare society’s causal network” (Brecht 1975, 424) in delineating the countours of the country’s development, pointing out where the broadest solutions to the most serious problems afflicting the majority may be found. It is an elaborate refinement of the melodramatic historicizing realism found in Rizal’s inflammatory  Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

The year 1907 also marked the dissolution of the Union del Trabajo de Filipinas headed by Lope K. Santos. While engaged in union militancy, he edited the daily newspaper, Muling Pagsilang, which serialized his polemical novel which sold three thousand copies within the first few weeks—a sign of popular acclaim for a dangerously provocative act for American censors (Saulo 1990, 7).  These two novels deployed the conventional romantic plot of unrequited or frustrated love as a symptomatic testimony of how the 1896 revolution (Filipinas figures as adored paramour-cum-mother) was lost due to betrayal, inherited inadequacies, or fatal convergence of forces beyond the lovers’ control.

Traversing Metropolitan Boundaries

          We need to contextualize these authors in the local-global-regional cross-currents of the time. Reyes, Aguilar and Santos were all influenced by developments in Europe at this period, from the Boer Wars (1902), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and the outbreak of the first Russian revolution (1905-06). In March 1906, the most horrendous massacre of Moros occurred in the battle of Bud Bagsak, Jolo, where 600 men, women and children were slaughtered by troops commanded by Gen. Leonard Wood (Tan 2002, 176}. Such non-Christian victims were not yet fully accounted for in the maturing conscience of nationalists. But workers in Manila in the first two decades of American rule were clamoring for Philippine independence, perhaps not having yet heard that the “working men have no nation,” as the Communist Manifesto proclaimed (Kiernan  1983, 344).  But they inhabit a place and time that determined their identities whose physiognomy was actualized in the manifold contradictions of sociopolitical forces that shaped the rhythm and texture of their everyday lives.  

From a synoptic angle, it was the old bondsman’s struggle for recognition by the aristocratic lord, as Hegel described it.. The ilustrado class (epitomized by T. Pardo de Tavera and Pedro Paterno) sought modernization via assimilation to the U.S. nation; they spoke English and joined the bureaucracy. But given the power of feudal oligarchic instutions and practices that the US colonial regime utilized to control the dissident population, the democratic ideals purportedly legitimizing it proved ironically discordant. This created the space for a limited public sphere in which the intellectuals close to the productive majority can articulate their collective passions by positing an antagonistic image of the Filipino identity. The utopian promise of independence was translated into a pretext for crisis that manifested in public discourse. Questions were posed: why and how can Quezon, Osmena or Roxas speak for the exploited, impoverished nation when they represent particularistic landlord-comprador interests? Which class can truly represent the productive populace as “the Filipino nation”? 

We can diagram the narrative of this conflict between the national-popular protagonist versus the elitist politicians of the English-speaking landlord-comprador bloc by concentrating on a few revealing instances when Filipino artists confronted the imperative of choosing sides, specifically moments when personalistic aesthetics clashed with ethico-political demands, precipitating a crisis of the whole body politic.

It began even before Aguinaldo surrendered to General Funston. When the capitulationist ilustrado class defected to the U.S. colonial masters, a significant group of intransigent intellectuals, represented by Apolinario Mabini (1969), remained faithful to the principles of the Katipunan. They articulated the cause of the peasant-worker alliance kept alive up to Sakay’s capture in 1907. The Moros continued their resistance up to 1913. Dramatists like Aurelio Tolentino, Juan Abad, and others resorted to allegorical modes using Tagalog for wider appeal, defying the Sedition Law of 1901 prohibiting “scurrilous libels against the Government of the United States.” Though persecuted and censored, they conducted guerilla underground polemics. Periodicals like the Spanish El Renacimiento and the Tagalog Muling Pagsilang opposed colonial impositions such as the use of English as the medium of instruction in public schools. In 1908, El Renacimiento published a scathing attack on Dean Worcester, then Secretary of the Interior, for using his office to enrich himself. Charged for libel, Teodoro Kalaw, editor, and Martin Ocampo, the publisher, were sentenced to a jail term and fined. In 1909, Kalaw ran for delegate to the Philippine Assembly and won, testifying to the support of a community larger than the Spanish-speaking citizens (Agoncillo and Guerrero 1970, 298-300).

Bardic Interventions

It was only during the administration of Francis Burton Harrison and his Filipinization of the bureaucracy that the function of articulating the popular content of nationalism passed on to Quezon and the Nacionalista Party. In the fight against Leonard Wood, the famous scourge of the Moros, Quezon seized the opportunity of symbolizing the struggle for independence. 

Read symptomatically,  the intramural “Cabinet Crisis” 0f 1923-27 staged a battle for hegemony in the realm of the state apparatus and its agencies. Quezon lost but gained moral high ground when he asserted: “I would rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by Americans” (Agoncillo 1974, 31). But this did not alleviate the worsening plight of the majority. In particular, the peasant majority, severely exploited by rapacious landlords, suffered quietly until 1935. This predatory caciquism originated from the inquitous land-tenure system that the American administators preserved, thus keeping the economy underdeveloped and their oligarchic parasites in power. Various quasi-religious, nativist uprisings occurred throughout the islands, the most serious of which were led by Ruperto Rios (Tayabas), Felipe Salvador (Central Luzon), Dionisio Magbuelas or  Papa Isio (Negros), the Pulajanes in Leyte, the Colorums during the 1920s, followed by the Tangulan movement, the Tayug Uprising, and the Sakdalista in the thirties (Constantino 1975, 270-74)..

We need to remember that metropolitan Manila was only a narrow island in a larger archipelago of manifold sociopolitical tensions. Aside from the synergistic worker-intellectual collaboration in the first decades of US colonial rule when novelists, dramatists and poets played central roles, the crisis in the twenties and thirties witnessed the shift of hegemonic struggle to the countryside. The first significant novel dealing with the tenancy problem is Lazaro Francisco’s Ama (1929), among others. Meanwhile, the ideological struggle to assert the popular dimension of culture as embodied in the vernacular continued with the most celebrated practitioner of the balagtasan nationwide ritual, Jose Corazon de Jesus, sacrificing his job as columnist in Taliba. It seemed a deja-vu scenario. On Feb 21, 1930, students at the Manila North High School boycotted their classes to protest Miss Mabel Brummit’s racist conduct. This was a repeat of the desecration of the Filipino flag by another American teacher in March 1921 which de Jesus used to attack imperial arrogance by denouncing uncouth behavior: “Bago ka magturo, /dapat mong makuro, / na bawat bandila ay mahal sa puso / ng bumabandilang sa lupa ko tubo,/ Kung ang isipan ninyo’y baluktot at liko, / dapat kang itapon sa banging malayo./Ikaw’y isang guro / na salat sa turo” (Atienza 1995, 194). 

Nine years after, De Jesus felt compelled to intervene again.  He asserted national pride by defending the students who were expelled: “Kung ang ituturo natin naman dito. / panay na pagyuko sa Wika ng amo, / panay na sumision at lambot ng ulo, / ay gagawa kayo ng lupaing hilo” (quoted in Almario 1984, 35). This form of political engagement via “secondary orality” (e.g., the balagtasan) witnessed in de Jesus’s intervention, evokes an aura of authority and charisma that surrounds the letrado as a political leader found in Latin America. The Philippines shares a similar tradition in which the practice of the spoken word “conjures together the presence of the communal and the sacred” (Beverley and Zimmerman 1990, 16), the unlettered voice of the people finding resonance in a nation-oriented discourse opposed to the official culture of the educated English-speaking elite. By the end of the thirties, however, the writers using English had become politicized by circumstances following the insurgencies in the countryside, the post-1929 Depression, and the rise of fascism in Spain, Italy and Germany, as well as in militarizedJapan. 

Art for Whom?

Mark Twain’s satiric anti-imperialist blast, “To A Person Sitting in Darkness,” was unknown throughout the first two decades. But the Genteel Age was ending. Filipinos had become aware of works by John Steinbeck, Langston Hughes,  Lillian Hellman, Richard Wright, Thomas Mann, among others (Lopez 1976,9). The establishment of the Philippine Writers League in 1939, twelve years after the 1927 founding of the Writers Club at the University of the Philippines which fostered the school of “art for art’s sake” led by Jose Garcia Villa, marked the convergence of the nationalist and the popular tendencies in the discursive arena. Salvador P. Lopez’s award-winning collection of essays, Llterature and Society (1940). may be considered the model of the praxis of the dialectical synthesis of the national-popular posited by Gramsci for societies in transition.  Between the death of the old feudal system and the aborted birth of capitalism, we encounter morbid cultural symptoms of the passage. The manifesto of the League envisioned writers as “workers in the building up of culture” whose values reject “economic injustice and political oppression”; they are urged to organize to benefit the community (Lopez 1940, 117-18). Several members, prominent of whom was Manuel Arguilla, sacrificed their lives fighting Japanese aggression.

In his book, Lopez cited the case of Teodoro Kalaw who quickly moved from the Ivory Tower to the civic arena as editor of El Renacimiento. In the  confrontation with Governor Wood. Kalaw discovered that “the only true basis of lasting beauty in literature is—power,” by which Lopez means the ”power” to speak the truth on behalf of improving man’s condition and the defense of human freedom everywhere (2004, 297, 303).  Contrary to Herbert Schneider’s notion that the Filipino writers succeeded in capturing “the Malayan Spirit” (1967, 587) under the twin guidance of Villa’s craftminded teaching and Lopez’s warning against propaganda, we can argue that the nation projected by both writers in English (such as Arguilla and Rotor) and in the vernacular reflected the urgent demands of the peasantry and working class that constituted the nation from the founding of the Socialist Party by Pedro Abad Santos in 1929 and the Communist Party of the Philippines in 1930 (a year after which it was outlawed and its officers jailed). In any case, the “Malayan Spirit” found its incarnation in a poignant story of Narciso Reyes, “Tinubuang Lupa,” published on the eve of World War II: mourning a dead relative, the young protagonist listens to his grandfather’s recollection of his father’s courtship days, memory fusing with anxiety and dreams, instilling in him a profound cathexis of love for the ancestral home, a sense of national belonging (Reyes 1954, 148).

Before the outbreak of World War II, the struggle for hegemony of the national-popular concept began to engage with the problem of emancipating the “productive forces” in the countryside. The peasantry constituted the largest mass base of the nationalist struggle before and after the inauguration of the Commonwealth, a transitional period before the grant of formal independence in 1946. With the Communist Party suppressed and union activism controlled, intellectuals were forced to pay attention to the public sphere and reconstruct the strategy of the united front of peasant-workers. The mediation of organic intellectuals became the necessary agency to effect the catharsis of the economic nexus to the political realm. This was carried out in Carlos Bulosan’s stories and essays between 1933 and 1940 (San Juan 2009), in stories by Hernando Ocampo and Brigido Batungbakal, among others(Lumbera 1982, 116).

Radicalization of the intelligentsia deepened after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the global Depression after the 1929 Wall Street crash, Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1932, the Nazi victory in 1933, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939.  Of the many versatile intellectuals who performed that mediating role was the poet-orator, Benigno Ramos (after him, the most illustrious was Amado V. Hernandez whose activism in the fifties and sixties is beyond the scope of this paper; for Ramos’ influence on Hernandez, see Almario 1984).  What significance did Ramos’ poetic praxis hold for understanding the possibilities and limits of artistic intervention in radically transforming colonial society at that specific conjuncture?
Storm over Arcadia

The stage was set for the inauguration of the Philippine Commonwealth on Nov. 15, 1935.  It is now public knowledge that the Tydings-McDuffie Law sealed the abject dependent nature of the country as source of raw materials and dumping ground for finished, industrial goods.  With the economy and state apparatus (legal system, foreign affairs, military, currency) controlled by the corporate interests in Washington, the groundwork was set for stabilizing a neocolony. An oppositional movement was needed to expose the Commonwealth fraud. Conceived by Ramos, the Sakdal party had been campaigning against maldistribution of wealth, excessive taxes, and for the confiscation of large landholdings for redistribution to the landless. Luis Taruc, the leading figure of the Huk rebellion in the forties and fifties, connected that historical specificity (land hungry peasantry) and the global actuality of that time in his memoir, Born of the People:  
It had been that way under the Spanish regime for centuries. When the Americans came, they made boasts about having brought democracy to the Philippines but the feudal agrarian system was preserved intact.
On the haciendas there were laborers who were paid less than ten centavos a day. Thousands more earned less than twice that much.  From ten thousand miles away the Spreckles sugar interests in California reached into the sugar centrals of Pampanga and took their fortune from the sweat of Filipino labor.  (de la Costa 1965, 268).

Ramos’ mobilizing organ was the weekly newspaper Sakdal, using Tagalog as the medium of communication. It began as a vehicle of Ramos’ criticism of the Quezon regime as composed of lackeys of American imperialism, the landlord-comprador bloc, the Church hierarchy, and the Philippine Constabulary whose brutal treatment of peasants sparked violent resistance. The self-righteous Stanley Karnow echoes the Establishment dismissal of the rebel: “Filipinos thrive on abusive polemics, and Ramos’ vitriolic genius made him an instant celebrity” (1989, 273).   Other groups like the Tanggulan, a patriotic secret society founded by writer Patricio Dionisio, a former member of the Communist-led Congreso Obrero, voiced their grievances in Sakdal, making it a national-popular tribune of the disenfranchised masses. 

In effect, the Sakdal movement replaced the official political parties as the articulator of mass sentiments and aspirations, the grassroot “structure of feeling.” The Sakdal program targetted  the educational system glorifying American culture, the American military bases, and the U.S. stranglehold on the economy. Their leaders advocated “complete and absolute independence” by December 1936. In the 1934 election, several Sakdal party’s parliamentary strategy proved effective in electing three representatives, a provincial governor and several municipal posts in provinces adjacent to the metropoitan center of power.  Ignored by Quezon and the oligarchic clique, the Sakdalista movement mounted an uprising that spread through the provinces of Laguna, Rizal, Cavite, Tayabas and Bulacan which the Philippine Constabulary crushed in one day before its fire spread throughout the islands.

A few days before the plebiscite on the Constitution designed to legitimize the Commonwealth, the peasantry staged a bloody uprising on May 2, 1935 involving at least sixty thousand armed partisans in nineteen towns. Earlier their peaceful demonstrations were harassed and permits for assemblies revoked. In the three towns where the rebellion centered, fifty-seven peasants were killed, hundreds wounded, and over five hundred jailed (Agoncillo 1970, 418). Ramos was then in Japan, negotiating for support; eventually he was extradited and jailed. His admiration for the Japanese ethos and achievement failed to be critical of the reactionary, racist patriotism of its leaders then gearing up for brutal imperial conquest of his homeland (see Moore 1966).

The Sakdal leadership’s opportunist stance  abandoned its mass base by devoting itself to the propagation of the Japanese-sponsored program of “Asiatic Monroeism” (Constantino 1975, 370). Notwithstanding its inadequacies, the Sakdal movement performed a decisive and necessary pedagogical function: it raised the level of political consciousness in a nationalist-radical democratic direction by connecting the poverty of the people with the colonial system and its ideological state apparatuses (education, media, diplomacy). Renato Constantino’s judgment assays the positive impact of Ramos’ praxis: “The Sakdalista movement, despite its opportunist and fascist-inclined leadership, was a genuine expression of protest, and a milestone in the politicization of the people” (1975, 370).

Unacknowledged Legislator?

Long before his Sakdal engagement, in 1912 Ramos reacted to the Westernization of the literary tastes and standards of his milieu: “…it is not pleasing to be told that on sounds like Victor Hugo, Zamacois, Blasco Ibanez, or any other foreign writer. We have started to demonstrate that in our country, we have our own literary masters” (quoted in Lumbera 1967, 311). The imposition of English has been regarded as the most powerful instrument to commodify culture since the valorization of exchange-value (profit) over use-value (need) transforms art and literature into saleable goods no different from copra, sugar and hemp, the bulk of the dollar-earning export crops. Enforced American English also fragmented the polity, dividing the educated elite from the plebeian subalterns. Given his pettybourgeois background, Ramos as a key translator in the Philippine Senate could have easily switched to writing in English.  He did not. In the marketplace of social media, he chose the down-to-earth idiom of the productive forces, the working class and peasantry, and transformed himself into their organic intellectual voice.

Earlier we noted how the orator-poet Jose Corazon de Jesus was fired from his job for criticizing an American teacher, Miss Brummit, for insulting Filiinos. Ramos joined his fellow writer and lambasted Quezon’s shameless public subservience to the American colonizers, for which he was immediately fired. Ten days after, Ramos set up the periodical Sakdal, followed by the founding of the Sakdalista political party in October 1933.  Language became again, as in the first decade, the crucial arena of ethical and ideological struggle. Given the fact that “all poetry is in origin a social act, in which poet and people commune” (Thomson 1946, 58), Ramos’ use of the vernacular—essentially magical and emotive—was a wager of affirming the communicative praxis of his art. His verses reflect constellations of feeling directed and controlled by the social ego, by necessities of his particular time and place, in order not only to interpret but to change the entire social order (Caudwell 19370.  

From his youth, Ramos depended on his audience for realizing the value of his declamatory talent. Without the crowd of listeners and their responses, he is not an artist; with them he became poeta revolucionario (Almario 1984, 17). He forfeited the individualist hubris of Villa and chose the task of actualizing the popular virtues inherent in the tradition of revolutionary Tagalog writing. Under the aegis of winning hegemony for the plebeian citizenry, “popular” art means (in Brecht’s aphoristic lexicon) “intelligible to the broad masses, taking over their own forms of expression and enriching them/ adopting and consolidating their standpoint / representing the most progressive section of the people in such a way that it can take over the leadership: thus intelligible to other sections too / linking with tradition and carrying it further / handing on the achievements of the section of the people that is struggling for the lead” (1975, 423). I quote Ramos ”Filipinas” composed in the transitional years 1929-30 before he was expelled from the colonial bureaucracy and committed himself to the redemption of its victims:

Kay-rami ng layak nitong aking Bayan!
Kay-rami ng dumi, kay-rami ng sukal!
Pati na ang hanging aking pagkabuhay
kung aking langhapin ay may amoy-bangkay!

Nasaan ang aking mga iniibig,
ang mga anak kong may pusong malinis?
Nahan ang panulat na namimilansik
upang ang kadimla’y mawala sa langit?

Nahan ang matapang na mga makatang
tutula ng aking puhunang dalita?
Nahan ang maraming anak na nanumpang
tutubusin ako sa aking pagluha?

Kung kahapon ako’y inapi ng Dasal
ngayon ay lalo pang kaapi-apihan.
Namatay ang aking Magiting na Rizal
at patuloy pa rin ang kanyang kaaway.

Ang mga lupa kong kinuha’t ginaga,
nahan, o anak ko, nangabalik na ba?
At kung hangga ngayo’y di mo nakukuha
ano’t natitiis na ululin ka pa?

(Ramos  1998, 180)

Unlike the typical didactic and moralizing poems that were commodified in the mass periodicals, Ramos’ poem departs by ascribing this lament of sorrows to the maternal figure of the nation. This follows a long allegorical tradition from Hermenegildo Flores’ “Hibik ng Filipinas sa Ynang Espana” (Ileto 1998, 11) to “Joselynang Baliwag” and Bonifacio’s “Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa” (Maceda 1995, 209-212). The imagistic cluster of pollution, abandonment, mourning, and dispossession suggests a miserable predicament that cries for  urgent remedy, so antithetical to the utopian pastorals of Fernando Amorsolo and his counterparts in literature (see examples in Abueg 1973). The tone is simultaneously elegiac and hortatory. Not only does the poem advance the popular tradition, enriching and transmitting to the next generation the standpoint of the masses, but it also challenges the “children” to assume leadership. The mother’s exhortation  to reclaim the stolen homeland and to stop enduring such privations invokes Rizal, the national icon and martyr. 

We observe in the structure of Ramos’ poem the dialectic between land/blood and the ideals of sovereignty and sacrifice for collective liberation. Abstract, rhetorical notions of patriotism and autonomy are concretized in intelligible terms (more vividly nuanced in many poems collected by Delfin Tolentino Jr. in Gumising Ka, Aking Bayan). The poet’s fidelity to the struggle for liberation is unequivocal and uncompromising. While Ramos’ is generally censured for being a “traitor” by sympathizing with the Japanese anti-US imperialism during the war—a still contentious issue that defies stereotypical reductionism (Steinberg 1967)—there is no doubt that, on the whole, Ramos’ poetic achievement may be taken as the most eloquent, innovative expression of the national-democratic imagination in the first three decades of American domination. Not even the eloquent “social justice” slogan of Quezon could distract from the Sakdal’s collective dream of emancipation, as passionately voiced by Salud Algabre (quoted as epigraph) in the vernacular. Ramos’ speech-acts effectively communicated to a people yearning for dignity and self-determination,  at a conjuncture where the commodification of the slogan of “independence” seduced the more privileged stratum of the citiznery whose preferred language (English) detached them from the pain, joy, anguish, and dreams of the majority of Filipinos. This situation of subalternity has worsened today in the neoliberal intensification of commodity-fetishism against which progressive Filipino artists are uniting with cultural activists in other countries, just as Rizal, De Los Reyes, Ramos, and the Philippine Writers League did in the last turbulent century.


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