by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

Though in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie…  The workingmen have no country. We cannot take from them what they have no got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself as the nation, it is so far itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.

–KARL MARX & FRIEDRICH ENGELS, “Manifesto of the Communist Party” (1848) (1971, 101,109)

Recent political events mark the beginning of a phase in which insurrection has become the sole means for the masses to express their political will.”

–ANTONIO GRAMSCI, letter dated Feb. 1925 (1971, lxxviii)

Except for the somewhat opportunist misreading (or misprision) of “subaltern” by Spivak and the thousand-and-one-nights of reinterpreting “hegemony” as pluralist consensus, Gramsci’s thought seems useless for postmodernists, including postcolonialists.  Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School successfully popularized Gramsci as cultural theorist and founded the academic discipline of mainstream Cultural Studies. It was Gramsci’s resurrection in advanced capitalist formations. This followed the Eurocommunist/Togliati view of Gramsci’s “revolution against Capital”–to quote his famous article of 1917–in which the Italian road to socialism (classless society, abolition of private property) would be won not through revoluti onary violence but through cultural reform–through education and moral/ethical persuasion. Hegemony is defined as domination by consent. Presented as ideals to be aspired for, and naturalized as “common sense,” the belief system of bourgeois society does not require armies or police; only a finely tuned art, schools  and mass media, ideological apparatuses that would do the job.  Maurice Finnochiaro views the Italian road as the conquest of social institutions whose “control would yield the desired economic and political changes”–a Western Marxist reconstruction that ignores the influence of Croce, Mosca, Machiavelli and Hegel and dialectics primarily as a way of thinking (1995, 304). From this prophylactic perspective , Gramsci is now seen as a precocious neoliberal before his time, committed to “rational persuasion, political realism, methodological fallibilism, democracy, and pluralism.

Clearly, history–or, better yet, neoliberal historicism exacted a vengeance on Gramsci’s historicist “good sense.” While reborn as a theoretician of the superstructures, civil society, rule by consent, and non-economistic humanist Marxism, Gramsci became irrelevant to socialist revolution as they are occurring in the “third world.” He had nothing to say to peoples struggling against imperialism, old-style colonialism, or neocolonialism ruled by brute force, or force masquerading as latter-day “mission civilizatrice,” humanitarian intervention. For postcolonial studies, in particular, the obsession with Eurocentrism (the fallacious subsumption of capitalism into an abstract Western modernity) in the case of Edward Said, as Neil Lazarus (2002) has shown, led soon to the speechless subalterns of Spivak and epigones. Meanwhile, the logocentric discourse of poststructuralism wrought its dire effects on the critique of the nation/nationalism launched by Homi Bhabha and the Australian “high priests” Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin before and after the fall the of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of “actually existing socialism.” With nations and nation-states abolished or rendered defunct by the “New World Order” and later by triumphalist neoliberal globalization, we are on the way to the heady disjunctures of Arjun Appadurai and the transcendental nomadic multitudes of Hardt and Negri’s

Empire. Until September 11, 2001 overtook these missionary gospels.

We owe it to Benita Parry’s survey of the historical-political contexts surrounding the disciplinary formation of postcolonial studies that we can begin to appreciate Gramsci’s relevance to “third world” social transformations. Parry’s argument on the centrality of Marxist principles (internationalism, permanet revolution) in liberation theory actualized in anticolonial revolutions, is salutary. The erasure of socialism and an anti-capitalist modernity in postcolonial theory coincides with the refusal of a national-democratic stage in anti-colonial revolutions led by a historic bloc of anticapitalist forces.  The pseudo-Althusserian idiom of Bhabha is revealing when he problematizes the “ambivalent temporalities of the nation space.” Bhabha puzzles himself over the “disjunctive representation of the social, in this double-time of the nation” which is hidden by homogeneity, literacy and anonymity. Nation as narration, for Bhabha, testifies to the “teleology of progress tipping over into the ‘timeless’ discourse of irrationality,” which in turn leads to “the archaic body of the despotic or totalitarian mass” (177). Based on the experience of racial violence of nationalism in Europe, Bhabha  sees only the “archaic ambivalence” undermining the progressive modernity of existing nation-states. Ultimately, the culprit is “that progressive metaphor of modern social cohesion–the many as one–“ and so, Marxist theories of culture and community, of nations, as holistic, expressive social totalities should be repudiated. Following Partha Chatterjee, Bhabha believes national sovereignty is impossible, given “the contingency and arbitrary signs and symbols that signify the effective life of the national culture.” Hypostatizing the dynamic process of signification–of making meaning and sense– in everyday life, Bhabha thus creates for his discourse the untenable modernity of the unified nation, of national belonging. For her part, Spivak rejects anticolonial revolutions as hopelessly controlled and manipulated by a native bourgeoisie. The colonized subaltern is made not only speechless but immune to experience. Parry’s comment applies a Gramscian optic to this subalternist self-erasure: “[I]t dismisses the experiential transformation of the ‘subalterns’ through their participation, and disregards situations where an organic relationship was forged between masses and leaders sharing the same class interests and revolutionary goals–there is after all no essential and invariable correlation between objective class position and ideological belief or political stance” (2002, 144). In short, history as a dialectic of subject-object is denied.

With the formalization of canonical postcolonial studies as a postmodernist discipline, a reconciliatory attitude has emerged. Stuart Hall’s inflection of this fetishism of ambivalence or difference is only prophylactic: anti-imperialist opposition, for Hall, must be conceived iin terms of “transculturation” or cultural translation “destined to trouble the here/there cultural binaries for ever” (1996, 247). This postmodernist bias against binarism, telos and hierarchy, as we have seen, returns us to the question of agency and the role of the subaltern in a revolutionary disruption of the colonial predicament. But, as Parry notes, this impulse to find a middle ground between domination and oppression, to describe colonialism as “generically ambivalent,” the site of dialogue and cultural assimilation, is both historically mendacious and “morally vacant” (2002, 144).  This applies to the tendentious genealogy of nation/nationalism offered by Ashcroft, Griffith and Tiffin (1998). In effect, the nation (and its attendant set of beliefs called “nationalism”) is a foul ideological invention, a dangerous myth of exclusivism, homogeneity, and naturalness. It refuses internal heterogeneities and differences.  It informs the violence of the nation-state (such as the Stalinist Soviet Union, as well as European imperialism as “an extension of the ideology of a ‘national’ formation) against those who are different, thus making the cause of national liberation for oppressed colonies suspect if not hopelessly tainted. Throughout their account, however, Ashcroft, Griffith and Tiffin are silent on the capitalist foundation of these nations/nation-states, mixing capitalism, socialism and other alternatives, thus upholding themselves a utopian fiction of plurality and multiculturalism that exists neither here nor there, except of course in an idealized global capitalism which nullifies boundaries and identities.

When it came to discussing the notion of the “subaltern,” Ashcroft et al cannot but invoke Gramsci’s terminology but not the political project that motivates it.  They elide the whole issue of hegemony and replaces Gramsci’s framework with the entirely disparate paradigm of the Indian historians’ Subaltern Group (with which Spivak is affiliated). This Group’s primary intent was to focus on elites and elite culture in India, severely condemning the nationalism of the elite.  Consequently, they criticize Marxist class analysis which to them ignore the “politics of the people,” and by implication Gramsci’s notion of hegemony as a crystallization of the diverse interests/sectors constituting the nation. Their concern with power and authority, with governability, displaces the question of sovereignty vis-à-vis the alien occupying colonial power. While Gramsci envisioned the “national popular” as a process of alliance, for the Subaltern Studies Group, an implacable fissure exists between the nation represented by the native elite and the people, specifically the peasantry. Gramsci is accused of essentialism, though it is unclear how the Indian historians can do so when they themselves postulate a clear distinction between the elite and the subaltern, subjects themselves constituted by converging and diverging lines of differences.  Again, difference becomes fetishized or reified when Spivak claims to establish a fixed incommensurability between elite and subaltern, even canceling the at least relational category of dominant/subordinate groups in mainstream structural-functionalist sociology.

The habitual imposition of a monolithic discourse/grid of difference in canonical postcolonial studies distinguishes it from a historical-materialist analysis such as Gramsci’s “Notes on Italian History” (1934-35) in the  Prison Notebooks. It accords with a nihilistic and even cynical skepticism toward any materialist project of socialist revolution.  For those desiring to change the impoverished and exploited condition of what is now called “the South,” except for the approach of Robert Young and a few others, it is better to forego Establishment postcolonial studies and go straight to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.

Again, I am not interested in deriving axiomatic truths or formulas from Gramsci’s texts. Nor try to determine which text represent the “real” Gramsci among the multiple Gramscis now available, including the rightist use of Gramsci. My task is limited: to see how we can mobilize certain modes of analysis illustrated first in Gramsci’s historical studies. I would locate Gramsci’s usefulness today in the application of precisely the speculative tools he devised earlier in his vocation as a radical activist. The key concept is the national-popular.  Following Richard Bellamy’s contention that Gramsci’s most seminal ideas were formed in his analysis of Italian social history, I would argue that Gramsci’s application of concrete analysis of historical process, especially the stratified divisions of epochal and conjunctural sequences, would prove most useful in elucidating what is involved in the theory of combined and uneven development first initiated by Lenin and developed by Trotsky and others in the Marxist tradition.

The “Southern Question” epitomized by Gramsci the problem of uneven, disarticulated, non-synchronous development carried out by the bourgeois liberal State. Before Gramsci became a socialist around 1913, he was a Sardinian nationalist, alienated as he was by the industrial North’s subjugation of the predominantly rural South. Even when Gramsci became an active socialist intent on constructing a proletarian-led State within the fabric of civil society, he never stopped insisting on the need to concentrate on the specificity of the Italian situation, its “particular, national characteristics,” compelling the party to assume “a specific function, a particular responsibility in Italian life” (1994, 4). What this implied is an active program to counter the transformist politics of the liberal State which maintained the fragmented social reality of Italy characterized by divergent regional traditions, polarized classes and economic disparities. The material inequalities were reflected, and in turn sustained by, the ideological/cultural incompatibilities between a popular culture of the quasi-feudal, rural areas and the elite culture of the cosmopolitan intellectuals. To mobilize the masses, a whole program of education and organization of the entire populace was needed led by a political party of the proletariat and its organic intellectuals. New values and ideals were needed to generate a critical consciousness of the social situation together with the moral imperative for collective action.

What was needed is a mass movement to emancipate the proletariat, together with the peasantry, and the establishment of a communist society, the precondition for the full liberation of the individual. This fundamental Marxist belief Gramsci enunciated in his articles of 1914 and 1916, “An Active and Functional Neutrality,” and “Socialism and Culture.” It was in the 1917 article “The Revolution Against Capital” that Gramsci expressed his distinctive Marxist conviction that without organized political will and social consciousness of the people, even the most favorable objective-structural conditions of crisis will not lead to revolutionary change. This is not voluntarism. Change requires the right structural situation, but the opportunities it offers have to be seized and worked on by the masses who have the capacity to know, analyze, and exploit the potential offered by ongoing historical processes/events. Economic statistics do not mechanically determine politics; it was necessary for people “to understand…and to assess them, and to control them with their will, until this collective will becomes the driving force of the economy, the force which shapes reality itself” (1994, 40).  The centrality of organic intellectuals and the pedagogical strategy of mobilizing the masses is immediately relevant to peripheral societies where bureaucratic and authoritarian institutions support and are reproduced by patronage, clientelist politics, reinforced by police-military coercion and para-military gangsterism and warlordism.

We owe it to David Forgac’s review of its historical context  that Gramsci’s concept of the “national popular” has acquired a degree of resonance. While textually faithful in his reconstruction of its genealogy, Forgac’s own political revisionism is limited due to the British/European political and ideological milieu of the eighties–the rise of neoconservatism in the UK, North America and the industrialized nation-states. Like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (against the background of the Althusser/Poulantzas/Foucault influence). Forgac’s main interest lies in using Gramsci’s term to transcend economistic Marxism and assert that there is no necessary correlation or link between class and ideology. Forgacs is correct in appraising Gramsci’s concept as integral, fusing the political and cultural, but at the expense of the economic–a term misconstrued as a separate, independent sphere usually isolated to the “base” in the misleading couplet “base-superstructure.” Removing “popular-national” from the underlying historically specific relations of production in any given society, Forgacs concludes: “It recognizes the specificity of national conditions and traditions. It valorizes civil society as a key site of struggle. It emphasizes the role of ideological reorganization and struggle. It identifies struggles common to more than one social class, fraction or group which can be strategically linked together. It recognizes that different social elements can, and do, act in terms not only of economic or ideological self-interest but also in terms of shared interests” (1993, 219). In effect, Forgacs has re-inscribed Gramsci’s idea in the process of “passive revolution,” transformism. By detaching the “national-popular” from its Gramscian framework of socialist transformation, its link with the abolition of private property and class inequality, in short, an expansive proletarian hegemony, Forgacs mystifies himself and others in wondering how a class alliance can contain a collective will, and how such an alliance can become reorganized by bourgeois hegemony. Well, of course, once a national-popular alliance no longer operates as a method or guide for socialist transformation, it will be a tool for Thatcherite-Reaganite agendas for resolving capitalist crisis.

Once a collective will is defined as non-class (in the functionalist sense) since it has transcended narrow corporatist class interests, then it is impossible to fashion a national-popular collective will lacking goals that are defined as simultaneously national and popular. Nation and people are both class-stratified and acquire coherence by articulation into a hegemonized nation-people.

Why this is so from Gramsci’s perspective, can be explained by his own singular understanding of “collective will.”

Two earlier texts may illuminate the semantic-political condition of possibility for the theory of “national-popular” will. The first is the 1916 article “Socialism and Culture.” Here Gramsci defines culture as a creation of humans as products of history, not natural evolution. Culture is “the organization, the disciplining of one’s inner self; the mastery of one’s personality; the attainment of a higher awarness, through which we can come to understand our bvalue and place within history, our proper function  in life, our rights and duties.”  Change occurred gradually, through “intelligent reflection” of a few, then of a whole class. “Which means that every revolution has been preceded by a long process of intense critical activity, of new cultural insight and the spread of ideas through groups of men initially resistant to them, wrapped up in the process of solving their own immediate economic and political problems, and lacking any bonds of solidarity with others in the same position.” Revolutionary change comes about through critical reflection and enlargement of one’s awareness via solidarity or collective mobilization of the people constituted as national.

The formation of a socialist collective will thus results from “a critique of capitalist civilization.” Gramsci emphasizes the growth of a collective will  through critique, the discovery of the self as an inventory of traces inscribed by history.  Gramsci focuses on the objective or goal pursued through discipline and order: “Discovery of the self as it measures itself against others, as it differentiates itself from others and, having once created an objective for itself, comes to judge facts and events not only for what they signify in themselves, but also according to whether or not they bring that objective nearer. To know oneself means to be oneself, to be master of oneself, to assert one’s own identity, to emerge from chaos and become an agent of order, but of one’s own order, one’s own disciplined dedication to an ideal. And one cannot achieve this without knowing others, knowing their history, the succession of efforts they have made to be what they are, to create the civilization they have  created, and which we are seeking to replace with our own.”  Learning has an ultimate aim guided by the dialectics of self and other in history: “If it is true that history is a chain of efforts man has made to free himself from privileges, prejudice and idolatry, then there is no reason why the proletariat, as it seeks to add one more link to that chain, should not know how and why and by whom it has been preceded, and how useful that knowledge can prove” (1994, 11-12).

The second text is the  1917 article, “The Revolution Against Capital,” where Gramsci spells out the flexible, dynamic nature of historical materialism, “the real, undying Marxist thought” purged of positivist, naturalist incrustations. This Marxism upholds, as the most important factor in history “not crude, economic facts but rather men themselves, and the societies they create, as they learn to live with one another and understand one another; as, out of these contacts (civilization), they forge a social, collective will.” This collective will understands and controls facts, becoming “the driving force of the economy, the force which shapes reality itself, so that objective reality becomes a living, breathing force, like a current of molten lava, which can be channeled wherevber and however the will directs” (1994, 40).

In Russia, Gramsci states, the “popular collective will” was forged by socialist propaganda. It emerged slowly, fusing a vast range of class experiences, “in the normal course of events,” in which humans are organized “first externally, into corporations and leagues; then internally, in their thought, in their will, in an endless continuity and multiplicity of external stimuli.” Amid the turmoil and chaos of class struggles, the Russian people experienced “in thought” the entire history followed by capitalist society going through crisis, determined to establish the necessary pre-condition for the collectivism Marx considered a requirement for the transition to socialism. For Gramsci, “The revolutionaries will themselves create the conditions needed to realize their ideal fully and completely” (1994, 42). The transition to socialism in Russia, bypassing the stage of industrial capitalism, is not a voluntarist accomplishment but rather a dialectical leap of political action–the war of maneuver succeeding a long complex process of ideological-political struggles–demanded by the conditions, both subjective and objective, in which the Russian revolutionaries found themselves. The national-popular collective will constructed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks responded not only to the readiness of the masses to change the system but also to their knowledge and experience of “the experiences of other proletariats–in short, to a solidarity with international revolutionary movements.

Beyond being a united front tactic, the project of a national-popular alliance is the project of the proletarian party constructing hegemony–moral-intellectual leadership–as it confronts “the problems of national life.” Gramsci’s collective will arising from historically determined “popular forces” is premised on “the great mass of peasant farmers” bursting “into political life” (1971, 132). This event will materialize through a Jacobinist strategy: when the working class overcomes its “narrow economic-corporative” outlook and incorporates the interests of the peasantry and urban artisans into its own program and praxis. In the “Notes on the Southern Problem,” Gramsci predicates on the capacity of the proletariat to govern as a class on its success in shedding “every residue of corporatism, every syndicalist prejudice or incrustation” (1995, 27). While this may be described as an educative, universalizing and expansive alliance, the strategy does not abandon class–does not break the connection between ideology and class, as Forgacs insists. Rather, the class ideology used to dominate the peasantry and other intermediate strata is thoroughly analyzed (as witness the diagnosis of traditional, pettybougeois intellectuals, their ethos and world-views). Gramsci thus asserts that aside from getting rid of inherited prejudices and sectarian egoism, they have to take one more step forward: they have to think like workers who are members of a class that aims to lead the peasants and intellectuals. Of a class which can win and build socialism only if it is helped and followed by the large majority of these social strata” (1995, 28)–the majority–whose subordination to bourgeois leadership serves as the chief obstacle to socialist reconstruction. This process of a developing leadership through organic intellectuals who will synthesize the cultural traditions of the whole people is a process not only of education but of organization. What indeed is the purpose of a national-popular alliance? What is the goal of constructing a national-popular will?

Given the situation of the South as “a social disintegration,” and the peasants “unable to give a centralized  expression to their aspirations  and needs,” Gramsci notes, the landlords and their intellectuals (Croce, for example) dominate the political and ideological field. Likewise, the proletariat as a class “lacks in organizing elements,” lacks its own stratum of intellectuals with a left tendency or “oriented toward the revolutionary proletariat.” With the mediation of intellectuals as organizers will facilitate the alliance between peasant masses and the workers which is needed to “destroy the Southern agrarian bloc. The proletarian party needs to organize the masses of poor peasants “into autonomous and independent formations” free from the stranglehold of the “intellectual bloc that is the flexible but very resistant armature of the agrarian bloc” (1995, 47). Thus the people, not the bourgeoisie nor the Church and its cosmopolitan intelligentsia, will be made to constitute the nation.

While the educational-pedagogical task seems a pre-requisite, Gramsci does not envision an ideological-moral reform as an end in itself, a continuous “war of position.”

Nor does it have anything to do with the numerical weakness of the proletariat nor of the fascist monopoly of military reserves and logistics. Rather, the problem Gramsci faced then was historically dictated by the hegemony of the fascist bloc enabled by the continuing political and economic subordination of the peasantry and the failure of the workers led by the Italian Communist Party in mobilizing them. For Gramsci, one of the ways (specific to Italy but not to all social formations) in building a counter-hegemonic bloc is the cultivation of organic intellectuals that can help shape a genuinely democratic national unity (the Italian nation as a legal, formal entity had no real cultural unity rooted in the people’s lives) on the basis of a unified struggle with the populart forces (peasantry, middle elements).

Before applying Gramsci’s theory of the national-popular strategy, the necessity of a collective will based on a knowledge of total social relationships, to the Philippines as a model neocolonial formation, I want to summarize its fundamental elements:

1) A national life and field of action is needed for the proletariat to settle first with its bourgeoisie, as Marx and Engels stipulated in the ‘Manifesto,” and a synthesizing historical program based on commonalty of experiences will be used to unify, activate and lead the majority of the population;

2) For socialist revolutionaries to defeat the capitalist bloc, the party of the proletariat needs to move beyond corporatist/syndicalist tendencies and win the consent of the peasantry and middle elements by including their interests/demands in a common program/platform of action through concessions/compromises without abandoning their humanist, secular principles and the goal of a classless society;

3) To build such an alliance or historic bloc of subaltern masses under the leadership of the party of the working class, organic intellectuals  are needed for organizing and inculcation of discipline in thinking and action;

4) The field of political mobilization involves civil society and the state institutions, without any predetermined approach (whether through frontal assault in a war of maneuver, or normal political-legal actions in a war of position); the tactics of mass actions will depend on the concrete situation and the alignment and balance of political forces in any specific conjuncture.

5) The national-popular has a socialist orientation based on internationalist solidarity, aimed at utilizing the scientific and progressive achievements of all of humanity to improve the material and spiritual well-being of all communities and national formations.

I will now summarize briefly the political history of the Philippines and sketch the most crucial problems of neocolonial development in the epoch of globalized capitalism and the U.S.-led “war on terror” gripping the whole planet. While Italy and the Philippines belong to sharply disparate temporal and spatial regions and scales, with incommensurable singularities, one can discern rough similarities. The principal difference, of course, is that the Philippines was colonized by theocratic feudal Spain for three hundred years and by the industrialized capitalist United States for nearly a century.

The parameters of revolutionary socialist change in the Philippines are clearly drawn by the  legacy of its colonial history, first by Spain and then by the United States. This resulted in the continuing fragmentation of the country in terms of class, language, and to some extent religion. Spain used the Philippines primarily as a trading post for the galleon trade with China, using natural and human resources it found, until the mercantilism took over in the nineteenth century. The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was killed in the Philippines as a result of tribal conflicts which the Spanish civil authority resolved by mainly by force and partly by concessions to the local chieftains. Unable to occupy the Muslim territories with its limited resources and personnel, the Spanish colonial administration relied mainly on the friars to extract tribute from the Christianized inhabitants reduced to serfhood. The encomienda system generated a stratum of Spanish landlords who, together with the Catholic Church, maintained a tributary system in which only a few selected natives functioned as petty administrators and bureaucrats. So Spanish hegemony was tenuous, obtained through religious practices and institutions. When the children of Chinese and Filipino creoles or mestizos succeeded in acquiring formal education in schools administered by the religious orders, and also in Europe, they absorbed liberal ideas that formed the basis for the nationalist movement that began in the 1870s and ripened in the 1898 revolution. But this conscioiusness of Filipino nationality was confined mainly to the artisans and professions led by the ilustrado or gentry class, not to the peasantry, who were mobilized in the revolution in terms of kinship or traditional loyalty to their village elders. In time, because of the organizing efforts of the Propagandists and the recruitment of the petty landlords-merchants, a hegemonic group of nationalist emerged: the Malolos Republic led by General Emilio Aguinaldo.

A sense of Filipino nationhood founded by the revolutionary pettybourgeoisie with allies in the merchant and small landlord class was aborted when the United States suppressed the young Republic in the 1899-1903 Filipino-American War. The formal republican institutions built on the ruins of Spanish theocracy collapsed when the ilustrado leadership surrendered to the U.S. colonial authority. While the Spaniard used violence armoured by Christian evangelization, the United States occupied the islands with brutal force on the face of formidable resistance by an organized army. Using scorched earth-tactics and concentration-camp tactics, the U.S. killed 1.4 million Filipinos, ten percent of the population. Unable to defeat the Moros (Filipino Muslims) despite a series of massacres, the U.S. deployed a combination of diplomacy and “bribery.” Up to the present, U.S. Special Forces are still battling the Moros in the guise of the “Abu Sayyaf” terrorist bandit group, a proxy for the larger Moro insurgency forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

One can summarize the fifty years of direct U.S. colonial rule as an illustration of hegemony won through military power and stabilized through the twin methods of coercion and cooptation. When the Philippines was granted formal-nominal independence in 1946, the U.S. had set in place an Americanized privileged minority, an oligarchy of landlords, bureaucrat-capitalists, and compradors that would fulfill U.S. economic needs and global foreign policy. Consensus on elite democracy and the formal trappings of representative government was obtained through decades of violence, cooptation, moral persuasion, and a whole range of pedagogical-disciplinary methods–with the aid of the Church. Hence the Philippines today is a nation whose form is characterized by the presence of liberal democratic institutions administered by a tiny group of oligarchic families, reinforced by the Church, and a vast military-police apparatus chiefly dependent on U.S. aid (economic, military, political, etc.) rationalized by the U.S.-led “war on terror.”

Gramsci did not directly engage with process of Western colonization of a “third world” country even though one can consider the Philippines as the “southern region” vis-à-vis the U.S. metropolis. Contrary to orthodox Marxism (Rosenthal and Yudin 1967, 304), which considered the capitalist national market as the basis for nationhood, the sense of a Filipino nation was born in armed struggle against Spanish theocratic rule and U.S. military aggression. However, the emergent national identity was cancelled outright when Filipinos were excluded in the  1898 Treaty of Paris when Spain ceded the islands to the U.S. for twenty million dollars. Laws were immediately promulgated to criminalize anticolonial dissent: the 1901 Sedition Law and 1902 Brigandage Act punished anyone advocating independence or separation from the U.S. The 1903 Reconcentration Act relocated entire rural communities into towns to deny refuge to rebels; the Flag Law. which prohibited displays of the revolutionary flag of the Filipino Republic, was enacted in 1907, the same year when the last revolutionary Filipino general, Macario Sakay, was hanged in public. Nationalist discourse and symbols were proscribed, thus destroying the material practices sustaining the collective spirit of resistance and will to independence.

U.S. colonialism applied “transformism” by supplementing coercive tactics with a long-range strategy of ethnocentric, opportunistic extraction of consent from the new subjects.  After Filipino guerilla resistance waned in the first decade of the 20th century, the U.S. established the Philippine Assembly as an auxiliary lawmaking body under the U.S.-dominated Philippine Commission appointed by the U.S. President to manage the colony. It was one way of implementing the slogan of “Benevolent Assimilation” of the natives proclaimed by President William McKinley in the midst of the violent pacification of the islands. This assembly served to coopt the native elite (elected by at most three percent of the population) and defuse the popular agitation for “immediate independence.” A neocolony was born from the destruction of the insurgent nation and the systematic deepening of divisions and differences among the people (Schirmer 1987). The principal instruments for winning consent were the school system of universal public education, and the enforcement of English as the official medium of instruction, government communication, and mass media. Among progressive intellectuals, Renato Constantino (1978; see also Martin 2001) was the first to stress the crucial role of the pedagogical apparatus and the modes of the production and transmission of knowledge, specifically through the English language, in enforcing the subalternity of the “nation-people.” Thus, Americanization of the Filipino through education and cultural domination was a “passive revolution” aimed chiefly to suppress nationalist impulses in the peasantry and working class, and re-channel the energies of the middle strata of intellectuals-professionals to serve the interests of U.S. policy in Asia especially in a time when Japan was rising as an imperial power and revolutionary ferment in China and other countries was in the horizon.

In the process of revolutionizing the political and cultural institutions “from above,” the U.S. colonial regime also cultivated its own bureaucratic intelligentsia. Politics imitated the prevailing patronage system binding landlord and tenant. Filipino ilustrados serving the defeated Republic–the educated genry–were enticed to join the colonial administration as teachers, clerks, technical help in the bureaucracy, judges and municipal legislators. One example of a traditional intellectual who participated in the alliance of native elite and colonial rulers was Trinidad Pardo de Tavera. In 1901, Tavera wrote to General Arthur MacArthur, one of administrators of the military occupation: “After peace is established, all our efforts will be directed to Americanizing ourselves, to cause a knowledge of the English language to be extended and generalized in the Philippines, in order that through its agency the American spirit may take possession of us, and that we may so adopt its principles, its political customs, and its peculiar civilization that our redemption may be complete and radical” (quoted in Constantino 1978, 67). This stratum of necolonized intellectuals cemented the tie between the oligarchic elite  and the colonial rulers, performing a necessary role in disintegrating the popular memory of past revolutionary struggle and alienating this elite from the everyday lives of the masses.

When the Philippine Commonwealth was formed in 1935, the Filipino intellectuals who came from the peasantry and working class gathered around President Manuel Quezon and his program of “social justice.” This populist rhetoric channeled nationalist impulses toward gradualist ameliorative schemes won as concessions from Washington. The social bloc of landlords-bureaucrats-compradors funded cultural programs with nationalist tendencies. While writers in the vernacular gravitated toward more activist nationalist circles and on the fringes of the Communist Party of the Philippines (formed in August 1930), the writers using English remained “cosmopolitan,” as can be gleaned from this reflection of a left-leaning critic, Salvador P. Lopez (written during the Japanese occupation circa 1942-44): “For culture is fluid, volatile, impossible to confine in an air-tight compartment; and nothing is truer than that real culture is universal, the exclusive property of no particular nation but of all nations that have intelligence to harness it to their own uses” (1945, 61).

Unlike Italy, then, the Philippines was distinguished as an undeveloped rural-agricultural economy without any heavy industry, under U.S. hegemony. This hegemony stands on the consent of the oligarchic bloc of landlords, comprador merchants, and bureaucratic intelligentsia-complemented by overt and covert modes of violence and bribery applied to the masses of landless peasants, workers, and artisans. Challenged by numerous peasant insurrections, US hegemony continues under the façade of nominal independence. “Cacique” democracy is built on the parasitic dependency of the local clients on U.S. military, economic and political assistance, formally identified as “national” (since the Philippines is recognized by the United Nations as a “nation-state”) without genuine sovereignty, but only “popular” on the basis of periodic elections. This is concealed by John Gershman who describe the Marcos dictatorship as a hybrid of personalistic caudillo rule, aided by technocrats and regional alliances of governors, without any mention of U.S. dependency of the whole structure cemented by bilateral treaties and strictures (1993, 162).

From 1899 up to 1946, the U.S. utilized the Philippines as a source of cheap raw materials and labor (the country began to supply the Hawaii plantations with contract workers), as well as a military-naval outpost. The semi-feudal system of land tenure, especially in the sugar plantations, maintained landlord power which shared neocolonial rule with the comprador merchants in the cities. Clientelism and patronage regulated class friction. More impoverished than before, the peasant masses staged regular revolts culminating in the Sakdal uprising of 1930s and the Communist-led Hukbahalap rebellion of the 1940s. After WW2, the neocolonial government re-located landless peasants to the southern island of Mindanao, temporarily relieving population pressure in the North. The question of land and the demands of the peasantry eluded the founders of the Communist Party of the Philippines because they gave priority to the issue of independence, thus subordinating them to elite politicians like Quezon and other representatives of the oligarchy.  Based on the small urban industries (printing, cigar-making, etc.), Crisanto Evangelista and other set up the Party with six thousand members, some from the peasant sector. Within less than one year, however, the leaders were in jail and the party criminalized.

James Allen, a leading Communist Party USA functionary, visited the Philippines in 1936-38 and allegedly helped merge the urban-based Communist Party with the peasant-based Socialist Party led by Pedro Abad Santos. In his memoir of his visit, Allen criticized the limitations of the Filipino Marxists, inspired by anarchism and syndicalism absorbed from Spanish progressive intellectuals rather than from “liberal and radical ideas emanating from the United States” (1993, 27)–for example, the Popular Front perspective. Allen also describes the peasant leaders Juan Feleo, Mateo del Castillo, and Pedro Abad Santos who, in contrast to the Communist Party leaders, emphasized the need for unifying the peasant and proletarian movements. With the merger in 1938 of the Communist and Socialists in the Communist Party of the Philippines, the theme of national independence was eclipsed by a “democratic front policy” to oppose the rise of fascism in Europe and Japan. The mediation of Allen as representative of the U.S. party displaced the “national-popular” agenda with an international one, thus legitimizing the continuing authority of the neocolonial cacique, Quezon, who had terrorized the party, arrested and persecuted its members, and only grudgingly tolerated their 1938 convention. Proletarian and socialist principles were displaced by the virtues of neocolonial democracy and U.S.-style capitalism.

From Gramsci’s point of view, confronting the rise of Italian fascism in the twenties, a shift of policy from the national to the international sacrificed the interests of its mass base. It subordinated the party to the oligarchy whose defense of elite/cacique democracy would downplay their subservience to U.S. domination. The outcome was disastrous. When the U.S. forces returned in 1945, the axiomatics of U.S. imperialism, which disappeared in the struggle against Japanese Occupation, had to be re-learned in the arrest and killing of anti-Japanese Huk guerillas. This same occurred thirty or so years later when former leftists made a fetish of “civil society” against the State, following U.S. Cold War strategy against the Soviet state. They glamorized  the “democratic space” and electoral democracy without any land reform or even social-democratic improvements during Corazon Aquino’s presidency. Meanwhile, Aquino welcomed U.S. advisers to supervise terrorist and fascist measures against the left in the nineties. Again, Gramsci’s lesson here is clear: replacing the need for a “national-popular” bloc–for the attainment of genuine national sovereignty, and the democratization of social property to abolish class privileges meant abandoning the socialist project.

During the Marcos dictatorship (1972-86), the revolutionary project of building socialism through a worker-peasant alliance took the form of a united front–the National Democratic Front (NDF) agenda initiated by the party. Established in April 1973, the NDF sought to fight Marcos’ authoritarian-martial rule through the united front of the proletariat, peasantry, urban petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie in a national-democratic revolution–a people’s war aiming to form a democratic coalition government (on the postwar elite, see Aoncillo and Guerrero 1970, 670-71). According to the 1985 draft program, the NDF “provides a framework and channel for the unity and coordination of all groups and individuals adhering to, and advancing, the general line of fighting for national liberation and genuine democracy. It wages armed struggle–specifically a people’s war–as the principal form of struggle at this stage of the Philippine revolution; but it also recognizes the importance of other forms of struggle, and in fact combines and coordinates the armed struggle with all types of clandestine and open, non-legal and legal struggles” (1985, 5). The first item in the 12-point general program reads: “Unite the Filipino people to overthrow the tyrannical rule of US imperialism and the local reactionaries.”

Clearly, the NDF may have sidetracked for now the primacy of the armed struggle in favor of peace negotiations with the government since the 1990s. But the drive for winning hegemony (through both frontal assault and positional warfare) seems premised on a mechanical reading of the social production relations (not just the economic base, in the conventional sense). For example, there is a recurrent stress on the developing crisis as engendering the collapse of the regime. Conversely, a spontaneous burst of mass action may precipitate revolutionary victory, as suggested by the following statement of two closely identified with the NDF: “Insurrection can be undertaken only when the ruling system is in a rapid state of disintegration without any prompt and sufficient intervention of the U.S. and the revolutionary forces can be at the core of the spontaneously rising masses and have sufficient strength not only to seize power but also to keep it” (Sison and De Lima 1998, 152). Whereas Gramsci proposed that moral-intellectual leadership of the historic bloc of social forces that is decisive.

The problem of the national-democratic transition to socialism in the Philippines has been surrounded with the endless debate on the mode of production, in particular, whether feudalism or capitalist social relations obtain. Numerous volumes have appeared contradicting Sison and De Lima’s thesis of semi-colonial and semi-feudal order. For example, Ben Reid (2000) argues that the Philippines is now determined by rent capitalism more vulnerable to urban insurrections, therefore a peasant-based insurgency is no longer valid or tenable as a revolutionary strategy. This kind of empiricist-mechanical thinking is what Gramsci warns us to reject when he states: “[I]t is not the economic structure which directly determines the political action, but it is the interpretation of it and of the so-called laws which rule its development” (Bobbio 1979, 33). And for Gramsci, such laws in Marxism are tendential laws which are historical, not methodological. “Economic contradiction becomes a political contradiction” and economic law passes into political strategy (Bensaid 2002, 283). Gramsci’s strategy of striving for a national-popular bloc is premised on the notion of catharsis, the dialectic of the war of position in civil society and the war of maneuver that connects the two:  “The term ‘catharsis’ can be employed to indicate the passage from the purely economic (or egoistic-passional) to the ethico-political moment, that is the superior elaboration of the structure into superstructure in the minds of men. This also means the passage from ‘objective’ to ‘subjective’ and from ‘necessity’ to ‘freedom” (1971, 366). All these have been prefigured in the emphasis Gramsci laid on the need for self-inventory, order, knowledge of social relations, and collective will in essays I have cited earlier.

Failure to heed this dialectical analysis of the dynamics of political forces, which is essentially a symptom of positivistic or metaphysical thinking, has led to catastrophes in the past. Most notable is the prediction by the leadership of the Huks in the Fifties that the neocolonial regime would collapse because of the sharpened crisis of international capitalism. The other lesson in ignoring the problematic of achieving hegemony may be found in the CPP/NDF’s boycott of the “snap elections” of February 1986, an error due (to quote the official explanation) the mechanical class analysis in terms of class standpoint and subjective intentions, without taking into account “the objective positioning of each of the political forces in motion and in interaction with others” (Schirmer and Shalom 1987, 384)–which doesn’t really say much.

I now turn to an attempt to apply Gramsci’s framework or paradigm to the crisis of left-oriented political forces in the Nineties, an exercise in extrapolation at the tail of the Cold War when democracy-promotion via civil-society NGOs was the mania. This is of course a prelude to the postmodernist anti-globalization movement embodied in the World Social Forum.


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About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.


  1. philcsc says:

    This is an earlier version of an essay that was eventually published in PERSPECTIVES ON GRAMSCI, edited by Joseph Francese (New York: Routledge, 2009): 163-185.–E. San Juan, Jr.

  2. Pingback: Gramsci and National Democratic Revolution in The Philippines « Kasama

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