The Philippines: Duterte shifts blame, but what is the way forward for revolutionaries?

The Filipino masses have truly suffered this year amidst the global pandemic, economic downturn and unprecedented natural disasters. Rather than aiding the people, the Duterte government has been shifting all the blame onto the Communists. What is the way forward for the Filipino masses and what are the tasks of revolutionaries today?

Triple Disaster

Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippines has the second worst outbreak in all of Southeast Asia. Cumulative cases have reached 407,838 and over 7,832 people have died. This scale of calamity was not unavoidable. In the first place, it was because the Duterte government decided to lift lockdown measures too early to restart the economy, before adequate track and trace measures could be set in place. The latter of course requires time owing to the chronically neglected healthcare system that the government never spent more than 1.6% of the GDP on since the mid-1990’s.

The pandemic then triggered an economic slump for the already struggling economy. The GDP is projected to contract by 5.5 percent, the biggest annual drop in 35 years. Unemployment is at record high. Domestic hiring dropped by 50 percent. Those who were fortunate enough to remain employed also suffered 30-50 percent pay cuts.

As if all that was not enough, the country was ravaged by five storms in just the last three weeks. An estimated 1.6 million people were affected by the strongest among the storms, the menacingly named Super Typhoon Goni. More than 240,000 people have lost their homes, and their makeshift dwellings may be devastated by new storms.

More than 240,000 people have lost their homes, and their makeshift dwellings may be devastated by new storms / Image: Judgefloro

“Red-Tagging” and Blame-shifting

Yet, if you ask the Duterte government, they would claim this catastrophic devastation of humanity does not measure up to the real threat to the country: the communists. Specifically, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed militia the New People’s Army (NPA) that has been waging guerrilla wars against the central government for decades. In April, amidst the first lockdown, President Duterte threatened to declare martial law over the entire country, claiming that the NPA is disrupting the government’s aid efforts. In July an anti-terrorism law was passed that greatly expanded the state’s power to accuse and persecute people branded as “terrorists.”

The Duterte regime is more interested in “red-tagging” than helping the devastated population / Image: Philippines Presidential Communications Operations Office

The need to fight against terrorists and Communists then provided an excuse for an enormous shift of funds towards the security forces. The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Insurgency (NTF-ELCAC) suddenly received a budget of P19 billion (393 million USD) where the generals in charge were given large discretion for usage of the fund. This is bigger than the P11.4 billion that is budgeted for health infrastructure for the entire year of 2021. Rights groups have called on this fund to the NTF-ELCAC to be used for storm relief instead, and even some lawmakers decry that this budget is “pork barrel for the retired generals”.

Along with these measures came the government’s campaign of “red-tagging”, a McCarthyite witch hunt that accuses any and all critics of the state as associates of the CPP, especially in the past months. Of course, Duterte and the Filipino ruling class isn’t actually fearful of the CPP-NPA, which are isolated in the far reaches of the countryside. The “red-tagging” campaign is mainly used to silence any voices of dissent that may rile up the masses while the capitalist establishment continues its plunder of society. Government and military officials have accused and persecuted social activists for being associated with the CPP. Duterte personally accused The University of the Philippines of recruiting for the Communist Party without any evidence. Even celebrities and CNN Philippines were “exposed” as vanguards of the proletariat.

Inevitable Radicalization

This baseless witchhunt that barely veils the ruling class’ attempt to plunder the poor amidst a disaster could very well have the opposite effect, even driving many new young people towards, rather than away from, the communist insurgents. This has happened in the Philippines’ own history, as academics Patricio Abinales and Lisandro Claudio pointed out:

“...With laws like the Human Security Act, it has been easy for the government to argue that membership in the Party makes one an accessory to rebellion. Such laws, therefore, drive Communism further underground and make it difficult for the state to moderate the party through electoral politics. The problem will only become worse with an anti-terrorism law.

We already know that repression doesn’t work. Marcos tried it, and he earned himself the moniker of “the NPA’s best recruiter,” as the Communist army swelled from roughly 2,500 troops in the late 60s to over 20,000 in the early 80s.”

These words are a warning to the ruling class, that in looking for short term repression to stabilise its rule, the Duterte government could risk destabilising the system far more, further down the line. But what these academics don’t understand is that Duterte’s repression is a reflection of the dead end of capitalism itself. The history of extreme poverty, brutality, imperialist domination, and toil that the Filippino masses suffer under, is radicalising huge layers of the working class and the youth. This is the result of the global capitalist system that fabulously enriches the capitalist few at the expense of the working class majority. On top of that there are the disasters which are hitting Filipino society, and to which Filipino capitalism has not answered. That is what Duterte is trying to divert the attention of the masses away from. However, while this might temporarily work on some parts of the working class, his actions are also accelerating the process of radicalisation amongst others, the most conscious elements towards the ideas of communism and proletarian revolution.

As the CPP-NPA remains one of the best known self-proclaimed communist organizations in the country, and in view of the extreme degree of the Philippines’ plight, some young people will choose to give their lives to the insurgency as “gerilyeros” to fight for the liberation of their people. Marxists applaud and admire this valiant spirit of courage and self-sacrifice. There can be no doubt that we oppose any and all attacks by the state on the Communist movements. The real terrorists are the Duterte regime and the capitalist system, which murders countless people every year either by direct repression or by condemning them to a life of poverty and misery.

However, we must also raise a friendly word of caution. Unfortunately, the enormous spirit of sacrifice shown by the “gerilyeros” alone is not enough to overthrow this oppressive system of capitalism. The ideas of Marx and Lenin concern not just how to struggle against the capitalist class, but how to successfully overthrow them and have the working class come to power.

The Role of Armed Struggles

The CPP-NPA’s insurgency was launched in 1969, making it the longest running armed uprising in Asia. The CPP follows the theory of “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” as their guide to action. In the party’s constitution, they’ve outlined their path to victory thusly:

“The Party firmly applies the strategic lines of encircling the cities from the countryside over a protracted period of time until conditions are ripe for seizing the cities in the strategic offensive. The people’s army relies on a wide and deep rural mass base, builds sustainable fighting units, lures in the enemy forces deep and finishes them off in a series of death traps...Whenever possible, it delivers hard blows on enemy weak points in urban areas. In the main, it launches battles and campaigns of annihilation and accumulates strength in the countryside until it is capable of carrying out strategic offensive against the enemy in the cities and in final holdouts.”


“Short of strategic victories, the revolutionary movement must wage armed struggle in the countryside. Here the people’s army can have the most initiative in launching successful tactical offensives and the widest room for preserving itself and growing its strength…”

These measures may appear to be practical ways to fight against the murderous state machine of the Filipino ruling class and Duterte’s death squads, yet it fundamentally misunderstands how the revolutionary movements take political power.

Armed guerilla struggle can only play an auxiliary role in the overall class struggle / Image: CPP official website

Firstly, it is not the party or the party’s armed wing that takes power, it is the masses that take the power. The party can only serve as the leadership that guides the masses to do so. For this to happen, the party must gain the voluntary support of the masses. Without it, there is no way for a small group of revolutionaries to overthrow the ruling class apart from the toiling masses, even if such a revolutionary group is armed.

Secondly, we should also understand which class within the masses has the ability to lead the revolutionary movement to take power and transform society. In capitalist societies, especially in our time, this class is indisputably the working class in the cities who truly operate society as a whole. They alone hold the ability to shut down society and end the profits of the capitalist and imperialists, who are concentrated in the cities. They also have the power in their hands to expropriate the property of the ruling class and use it for the actual need of society according to a democratic economic plan.

The peasantry, on the other hand, may have very revolutionary elements among them, especially the poor peasants. However, as Marx explained, the peasantry is not an independent class, and cannot lead themselves to solve their problems. Economically, they are dependent on the cities, which hold the levers of the entire society. Whatever pressure one tries to exert on the city remotely from the countryside, through “encirclement” or not, is going to have very minimal effect on the ruling class by itself. The peasantry can certainly play an important auxiliary role in pushing forward the revolution, but they cannot do so separate from the struggles of the workers in the cities.

Therefore, it is among workers that Marxists need to do the patient work in sinking their roots and gaining support, and the strategy that the CPP proposed, a combination of guerilla wars and occasional terrorist attacks on urban areas, will never succeed in gaining support from the workers. Armed struggle and guerilla wars separate rather than combine the revolutionaries with the workers, and acts of individual terrors or offensives against the state would not be understood by the broader working class, but instead would lead them to perceive revolutionaries as threats to their safety. Revolutionaries, instead of risking their precious lives in dangerous operations that would only scare away the workers, should instead devote themselves to the patient work in building ties with them.

Leon Trotsky sums up the theoretical and practical defects of individual terrorism, which the CPP-NPA characterizes as “delivering hard blows on enemy weak points in urban areas,” very comprehensively in his 1911 article “Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism”:

“In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission. The anarchist prophets of the ‘propaganda of the deed’ can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the masses. Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise. The more ‘effective’ the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organisation and self-education. But the smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen. And as a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement comes disillusionment and apathy.”

The CPP’s combination of individual terror and guerilla war is not unique. It has been tried by many different revolutionary groups in South America, none have succeeded. Commenting on this experience at the time, British Marxist theoretician Ted Grant explained this strategy’s problem:

“Desperate duels and kidnappings, bank raids etc., will only result in the extermination of young brave and sincere forces without avail. It is not for these elements to fight in a combat alone with the forces of the ruling class, of the army and the secret police, without reference to the real struggle for the overthrow of the corrupt cliques of the oligarchy and of the police.

It might seem harder, and in a sense is harder, but only by organising the working class, above all, in the struggle for national and social liberation can a socialist revolution be achieved, which would develop on healthy lines...

It is not urban guerrillaism, but the mass force of the working class, armed and organised, which must be counter-posed to the capitalist state. As against military police dictatorship, the battering ram of the organised working class must be counter-posed. Once convinced of the necessity, the proletariat will acquire the necessary arms. The army, which is pitted against them, composed in the main of peasants, would split in the face of the mass movement and come over to the side of the revolution. The peasant army could be won with the programme of the agrarian revolution and the national revolution against imperialism which is emblazoned on the banner of the proletariat.”

What Has Been Achieved?

The above perspective is not held by the CPP leadership, at the head of which is Jose Maria Sison. On the one hand, Sison advocates the strategy of guerilla warfare in the countryside, but on the other, Sison and the CPP believe that in the cities, workers should win over the national bourgeoisie, whom they consider to be a “positive force of the national united front.” What has been the result so far?

Rather than building mass support in the countryside through the NPA as they had hoped, the NPA itself has shrunk tremendously, from its height of 20,000 in the 1980’s to around 5,000 today. Aside from being the scapegoat of Duterte’s cynical “red-tagging” campaign, the CPP is nowhere close to taking power or even having a significant influence among the masses.

The shrink in size and impact is the inevitable result of being isolated in the countryside, but the communists’ credibility have been further harmed by Sison and others’ insistence on collaborating with some kind of a “progressive national bourgeois” force. Such a kind of class is impossible to exist in countries like the Philippines where all of the national bourgeoisie are tied to the interests of imperialism and therefore are fundamentally hostile to, rather than cooperative with, a revolution. Therefore, a national revolution that seeks to expel imperialism must be one that is led by the working class and overthrows capitalism within the country altogether, instead of having some sort of a more “progressive” version of national capitalism where the bourgeoisie remains the ruling class. This is explained by Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution and has been proven true everywhere in the world.

As the “progressive national bourgeoisie” does not exist in the Philippines, the Sison leadership supported bourgeois politicians that they deem to be relatively more progressive, among them none other than former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1965 and, yes, the current regime of Duterte! Prior to Duterte’s election in 2016, Sison actively promoted Duterte’s image as a “peace maker” while the latter baited the CPP with cabinet positions. Although Sison didn’t officially endorse Duterte, he showered the latter with praise, affectionately recounted his time as Duterte’s former teacher, and admired Duterte’s “strength of character in standing up to the US”. At that time, Duterte already built a reputation as a vicious reactionary thug nationwide. Now, many rank and file CPP-NPA members are losing their lives to the regime that Sison claimed to be “good for national unity” four years ago.

Where to Begin

A genuine Marxist party would have foreseen Duterte’s inevitable attack against the Left and the working class as the candidate that ultimately defends the interests of the Filipino capitalists. Instead of sowing illusions in this or that bourgeois politics and the system as Sison and CPP leaders did many times, Marxists would warn the working class to not trust any one of them and organise themselves to fight. That is the only way to advance rather than confuse the movement and rank-and-file party members.

This kind of revolutionary leadership needs to be built from the ground up in the Philippines. It can only be built upon the theories of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. Sison and the CPP leadership are incapable of doing this, but the IMT is building a revolutionary organization with these ideas in over 30 countries. We welcome any sincere revolutionaries in the Philippines to join our work, because genuine Marxist theory is what the Filipino masses need to defeat Duterte and the rotten system that he represents.

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