When Left is Not Right

Mr. Galang, a  governance and development specialist, is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph). This piece was published in the May 9, 2011 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

 

The Russian October Revolution happened in November, not October. Our own EDSA Revolution covered practically the whole of Metro Manila, not just EDSA.  What makes names like these stick, defying reason?  Convention.

By tacit general agreement, those series of student protest actions and surrounding events that began in the first quarter of 1970 and unfolded far beyond have come to be known as the “First Quarter Storm.”

Socialist leader Cesar “Sonny” Melencio insists on logic: the actions didn’t just happen in one quarter but throughout the few years that followed, so the name is a “misnomer of sorts.” Thus the title of his book is Full Quarter Storms: Memoirs and Writings on the Philippines Left (1970 -2010). “Full” not “First”, he suggests—apparently failing to notice that his substitute word only makes the name and, ergo, the book’s title, contrived and confusing.

But Melencio offers far more than a substitute for a “misnomer.”  His, in fact, is an ambitious project, as the subtitle of his book suggests: a mix of memoirs and accounts of surrounding events, essays, individual tributes to fallen comrades, and thrilling tales here and there about his “best friend”—in a time setting of 40 years. And still more. The book intends mainly “to draw some lessons” from his leftist experiences “that will be useful for the Philippine Left in particular.” All these are zipped into a slim volume of 230 pages.

What do you hope to get? A close-up look at the life and times of a Filipino communist, from age 15 to 50 and up to now, unwavering in his commitment to the cause like a true believer.  It’s a checkered life as Melencio tells it; like a dangerous stunt shown on TV, it warrants the forewarning—“Don’t try this at home!” Full Quarter Storm narrates real-life scenes of military surveillance, arrest, torture, and daring escapes; acrimonious intraparty struggles; paranoid mass purges; debilitating political debacle; party fragmentation; deaths and assassinations.

It’s the classic revolution as you’ve known it—rough, brutal and bloody, devouring even its own children. If you think a revolution is cool, like sporting a shirt with a Che Guevarra print on it, you must read Melencio’s book.

Just bear in mind that Full Quarter Storm is a collection of political and personal memoirs whose key protagonist is the author himself. He has big ideas to sell and tales to tell in the way his memory serves. Of course, memoirs are not expected to be unbiased.  Melencio’s pitches for the “socialist agenda” without telling you what these are in detail. What it does tell you are the means—the strategy and tactics—to achieve them.

The means are “oriented toward an uprising on the one hand and electoral intervention on the other.” This orientation has taken a bumpy ride in the leftist movement, with Melencio and his like-minded comrades aboard. It has posed a challenge against the dominant “protracted people’s war” strategy of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

The contention stems from the very base: the uprising-cum-elections strategy presupposes a predominantly capitalist society, while the protracted people’s war strategy assumes a “semi-colonial, semi-feudal” one. How one assumption necessarily gives rise to a strategy peculiar to it and opposed to the other remains to be seen. I’m not sure if any tracing out is offered at all elsewhere by any of the debating parties.

You wonder: how do Filipino communists settle idea differences among themselves?   A good part of Melencio’s memoirs gives insider accounts of instances showing the CPP conducting inner Party “struggles.” I’m drawing a few insights in broad sweep.  Parties enter into a discussion on the hardly contested premise, implicit or otherwise, that they all want to find the truth or agree on what is right.  “Right is might,” as an old saw puts it.

Depending on a host of varying factors, debate turns acrimonious, debaters form into factions (assuming none yet exists), and either one group is stripped of power and meted “disciplinary actions” or the whole organization breaks into autonomous formations (party, coalition, group, etc.). Yes, “might is right.”

Arguments may draw strength from logic, the manner of presentation, the presenter’s personality, or relevant facts and information. Most written positions are fortified by invoking theoretical authority, notably Mao and Lenin.  The right quotation may end an argument in your favor. So it is not unusual to see Mao clashing with Lenin, or in worse instances, Mao vs. Mao, Lenin vs. Lenin. I once heard a former priest describing the polemical device as “scriptural.”

Melencio’s “friend and mentor,” the late Filemon Lagman, a.k.a. “Popoy”, who figures prominently in his memoirs, wielded it expertly.  Lagman, he said, “was very fond of Lenin,” taking with him “the 45 volumes” of his collected works “every time we moved from one underground house to another. Popoy’s writings would be liberally sprinkled with Lenin quotes. Every time we had a break from our political work, Popoy would be reading Lenin’s volumes, looking for appropriate articles that could enlighten us in our particular endeavor.” In the hands of Lagman who came from a family of lawyers, the tool would take on a new name, “statutorial.”

What do you not get from the book? Insights like this one that says dogmas do not a revolution make.

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