How I survived anti-Left academics and became an activist

QUESTION EVERYTHING
Mong Palatino

Yes, I studied Marxism at the university. But all things considered, I believe I spent more time learning about postmodernism and its numerous variations inside classrooms and libraries. I got introduced to the politics of the Left through the writings of anti-Left academics.

No ‘mad Marxist’ indoctrinated me to become an activist. In fact, it took me some time before I was able to identify, resist, and unlearn the conservative bent of my postmodern albeit progressive education.

In the 1970s, Marxism became a popular theme in the academe. It was applied in conducting researches, developing the curriculum, and extending the role of the university in social affairs. In the Philippines, this coincided with the rise of the communist-led resistance to the Martial Law regime.

Marxism was formalized as a proper field of study but its reach went beyond the university through the work of ‘organic intellectuals’ and other cadres of the Maoist-inspired national democratic movement. Popular Marxism was linked to the anti-dictatorship struggle. A Marxist was someone who fought oppressors personified by super evil politicians like Marcos.

Meanwhile, academic Marxism bloomed into various schools of thought which some scholars welcomed as the emergence of the so-called New Left. Unfortunately, one consequence of this was the dismissal of the basic tenets of Marxist ideas and practices under the pretext of either upholding classical Marxism or updating it to the conditions of the modern world.

The Left faced an existential crisis after 1986. It mirrored the global decline of the Soviet bloc until its disintegration in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This was the same time when postmodernist studies flourished and Marxist philosophy was viciously attacked and blamed for the failure of the socialist experiment.

The 1990s was the heyday of neoliberal thinking. It accommodated various ‘isms’ that negated Marxism. Resources were provided to institutions propagating the ‘end of history’ and the blunder of communists everywhere.

This was the popular political perspective when I entered the university in the mid-1990s. Marxism was taught through the lens of academics who were ridiculing the experience of the Philippine Left. Books, journals, magazines, and reading materials celebrated postmodern approaches while dismissing the purported obsolete framework of Marxism. Pluralism was affirmed and all views were declared to be valid except the grand narratives of the Left.

Looking back, it seemed impossible to study Marxism and end up being a Marxist. The required readings in social sciences were mostly slanted against a Marxist interpretation of history and economy. The legacy of the Philippine Left was reduced into a boycott error in 1986. We were exposed to a set of writings lampooning the doctrines and practices of the revolutionary movement. Curiously, there was little reference to the foundational documents of the Left because these were treated as propaganda materials unfit for academic discussion. Instead, we were required to read ‘Leftist’ scholars who specialize in attacking the Left.

We devoured essays and researches highlighting the supposed glaring errors, inconsistencies, and deviations in the documents of the Communist Party and the seminal writings of Joma Sison. The vitriolic attacks waged by the military and other state ideologues against the Left found resonance in the academe.

This was not unusual if we consider the critical appraisal of the Left as an expression of academic freedom. Perhaps the freedom to engage in partisan politics and misidentify anti-Left ranting as objective scholarship. The freedom to fetishize against an entire national liberation movement, nitpick on minor doctrinal arguments, decontextualize criticism, and echo the ethos of the state in evaluating the Left.

Studying under these conditions, we acquired a distorted sense of the Left’s holistic impact on politics; instead, we only saw its fundamental weaknesses and its doomed prospects.

It was thus awkward to read about the misguided Leftists and then bumping into them in hallways and classrooms. The vocabulary I absorbed was patently biased against them and so their presence seemed strange and even a nuisance.

But they were persistent propagandists and after several encounters I found myself joining one of their activities. It’s only later I realized that the Left was undergoing a rectification movement. For some academics, it was an internal purge that divided the Left. But what I saw was an intense political education campaign that mobilized young people to study the classics of Marxism, the history of the unfinished Philippine revolution, and the relevance of Mao’s cultural revolution in understanding the triumph of capitalism in erstwhile communist societies.

Before the era of free downloads and file sharing, we got hold of the collected works of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Our reading was complemented by collective discussions which also became a venue to debunk the arguments of anti-Left scholars.

Lenin’s ‘Imperialism’ became a useful guide to rethink the concept of globalization and dissect the roots of the Asian Financial Crisis. Sison’s ‘Specific Characteristics of our People’s War’ clarified the uniqueness and general phases of the Maoist revolution in the archipelagic Philippines.

But I was not easily persuaded despite the creative approach of activists in offering alternative courses on philosophy, political economy, and people’s war. Despite my fascination with my new ‘study group’, I was more drawn to my academic classes where I started to feel more confident articulating Marxist terminologies.

I still had my doubts, though. I felt playing an amateurish language game wherein I could cherry pick concepts from various strands of philosophy and flaunt them in debates and essays.

But alas, the Left was not in the game for simply interpreting things and events, and getting involved in politics from a distance. It was consistently in the thick of battle, initiating local and sectoral struggles, and pursuing the national democratic line for social transformation.

As a student of politics and a young citizen wanting to do more in society, the NatDem Left offered something concrete, comprehensive, and radical. There were other Leftist movements as well but I was not impressed by their appeal for peaceful activism (as if this should be the aim of progressive politics). Meanwhile, I couldn’t fathom what anti-Left academics wanted really to achieve in politics aside from making a sinister prognosis about the Natdem movement. They were focusing on the failures of the NatDem Left yet they were quiet about the other factions of the Left.

I was prepared to be disappointed with NatDem politics but instead, I became more immersed in their mass campaigns. I was overwhelmed with several political realizations: Here was a movement making democracy work through collective leadership, here was a political force whose strength is linked to the empowerment of its members in the grassroots, here was history claiming the present to build a new future.

And I was genuinely surprised to learn that anti-Left academics were wrong on many things about the practices of the NatDem Left. Contrary to what I read about them, the NatDem Left acknowledged its mistakes and the excesses it committed. This was one of the early resolutions of the rectification movement. Again, against what I expected, there were nonstop debates within the Left about tactics, strategies, campaign demands, alliances, and analysis of the political situation. There were always new lessons in organizing, victories and defeats in mass struggles, and the constant vigilance over state reprisals. The Left can’t survive, thrive, and surge in many places if it were a dogmatic political force.

It is sad to see anti-Left academics parroting the state rhetoric about the irrelevance of the Left. If the Left is already too weak and isolated, then why build a career ridiculing a supposedly dead and dying movement? Two decades later, the NatDem Left is still a major political force in the country. But the anti-Left academics are still trying their pathetic best to give hope to state apologists and the conservative Establishment about the looming defeat of the revolutionary mass movement. Dream on.

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