On this week’s episode, Jacob Goldberg speaks to Professor Jose Maria Sison, who goes by the nickname Joma. Joma is the founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which has been waging a revolutionary guerilla war against the Philippine government since 1968. He is a controversial figure to many and a beloved comrade to others. The United States and the Philippine governments have designated him as a terrorist, while he lives in the Netherlands as a recognised political refugee. In 1977, he was imprisoned for more than eight years for organising against the Marcos dictatorship.
Today, he continues to advise the CPP and its network of allied revolutionary organisations that make up the National Democratic Front, always pushing for the introduction of what he calls National Democracy—a democracy for the toiling masses of the Philippines, distinct from the “semi-colonial and semi-feudal society” that exists there today.
In this interview, Jacob and Joma discuss the meaning of National Democracy and how to achieve it.
In the process, there are some acronyms not every listener might be familiar with. There’s the CPP—the Communist Party of the Philippines; the NPA—the New People’s Army, which is the armed wing of the CPP, waging a guerilla war in the countryside. Joma refers to the GRP, which is the Government of the Republic of the Philippines, and to the SGRM—the Second Great Rectification Movement, which was an effort by the CPP in 1992 to correct its political course and identify counterrevolutionaries. Critics of the CPP say this process led to several assassinations, while Joma denies this.
Communist Democracy in the Philippines
Interview with Joma Sison
Founding Chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines
By Jacob Goldberg, New Naratif
December 20, 2021
Hi everyone, I’m Jacob Goldberg, New Naratif’s editor-in-chief.
On this episode of Southeast Asia Dispatches, I speak to Professor Jose Maria Sison. He also goes by the nickname Joma.
Joma is the founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines, which has been fighting a revolutionary guerilla war against the Philippine government since 1968. He is a controversial figure to many and a respected comrade to others. The United States and the Philippines consider him a terrorist, though he lives in the Netherlands as a recognised political refugee. In 1977, he was arrested for organising against the Marcos dictatorship and imprisoned for more than eight years.
Today, he’s an adviser to the National Democratic Front, which is a network of revolutionary organisations allied with the CPP. His goal is to build a National Democracy—a democracy for the toiling masses of the Philippines, distinct from what he sees as a “semi-colonial and semi-feudal society” in the country today.
In this interview, we discuss the meaning of National Democracy and how to achieve it. In the process, we use some acronyms not every listener might be familiar with. There’s the CPP—the Communist Party of the Philippines, and the NPA—the New People’s Army, which is the armed wing of the CPP. Joma refers to the GRP, which is the Government of the Republic of the Philippines, and to the SGRM—the Second Great Rectification Movement, which was an effort by the CPP in 1992 to correct its political course and identify counterrevolutionaries. Critics of the CPP say this process led to several assassinations, while Joma denies this.
The history of the CPP is dense, but unlike most communist movements in Southeast Asia, it is still a major political force. If you’re interested in an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist view of democracy, I hope you’ll read up on them. I know I will.
Finally, if you enjoy what New Naratif is doing, please support our work by becoming a member at newnaratif.com/join. Memberships start at 52 US dollars a year—that’s just a dollar a week. Or you can donate at newnaratif.com/donate. And check out our website at NewNaratif.com for more stories from Southeast Asia.
And now, here’s the interview.
Thank you for being with us today, Joma—Professor Sison,
At New Naratif, we cover democracy movements in Southeast Asia, and after hearing your interview on Guerilla History, which is another podcast I enjoy, I thought our readers would benefit from learning more about your movement and your interpretation of democracy.
And I wanted to start off with a bit of personal family history to let you know how I first learned of the communist movement in the Philippines: My great-great-grandfather was born into slavery in Mississippi and was emancipated as a young boy, and went to the Philippines during the Spanish American War, during the during the conquest of the Philippines, as a US Army medic. He stayed in the Philippines after the war and settled in Laguna, where my family is from. We have a story about his son, my great-grandfather, being abducted by “communists”, who I presume were Huks, and he held for one night, until a neighbour vouched for him, saying he was a “neutral guy”, and the communists released him, but they took away all his clothes, and he came back in his underwear.
My grandfather also says he remembers hearing gunshots at night and keeping the lights off to avoid the fighting. He says the bodies of slain communists were displayed in San Pablo City, and “their bodies were torn up by bullets”.
So all my life, I’ve learned about communists in the Philippines from people who grew up in fear of them, but in recent years, after living in Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand and working as a journalist at New Naratif, I’ve developed an appreciation for the achievements of the Communist Party of the Philippines and for the National Democracy movement.
So my first question is:
1. What would you say to a working-class Filipino who grew up in fear of communist insurgents?
JMS: In my personal experience, I met in the late 1950s and 1960s many good communists who were workers and peasants who had participated in the Huk rebellion in Santa Cruz, San Pablo City and other towns of Laguna.
In answer to your first question, I state that my first task is to learn from the Filipino worker that you have cited why he has a fear of communist revolutionaries. Most likely, he would refer to certain personal conditions and experiences how his fear arose. He might not even mention the constant anti-communist campaign generated by the the US and the current ruling system in the Philippines as a major cause of his anti-communist fear.
Then I would try to understand and analyse the concrete circumstances and the fear. Further, I would explain to him why he feels beholden to his capitalist employer. I would certainly explain in simple terms how he is exploited, how surplus value is extracted from the total value that he creates with his labor power. If you were to do mass work among the exploited people, you would discover that they are often grateful to be employed by their exploiters and thereafter become preoccupied with hard work to earn a living.
It takes a communist or a revolutionary mass activist to make the social investigation first in order to be able to explain class exploitation to an exploited class in easily understood terms. It took a Rizal to dispel the false illusions of the colonised indios that Spanish colonialism was a divinely-ordained paradise as the Spanish friars had preached. The moment you can explain how exploitation is carried out, the exploited masses begin to understand their plight and dislike their exploiters.
2. What is National Democracy, and how does it differ from the Philippines’ current form of government?
JMS: National democracy means a social and political system with full national independence from imperialist powers and real democracy for the people, especially for the toiling masses of workers and peasants. The current Government of the Republic of the Philippines is dominated by US imperialism and other foreign powers through unequal treaties, agreements and arrangements, and is run by the local exploiting classes of the comprador big bourgeoisie, the landlord class and the bureaucrat capitalists.
3. The CPP’s mass base has fluctuated widely over the years. Why is that? How would you characterise the mass base today?
JMS: The current mass base of the CPP runs into millions today. It is several times bigger than the 3.5–7 million voters estimated by bourgeois politicians as the voting potential of the CPP mass base. The actual mass base is a far cry from the 1968–69 mass base of the CPP, which included 30,000 workers, 80,000 peasants, mainly from Tarlac, and 20,000 youth. From 1968 to the current year, there have been fluctuations or even zigzags in the growth of the CPP mass base. But the general course is growth and advance.
It is impossible to have a straight line of advance from year to year due to the tremendous odds and the active efforts of the reactionaries to suppress the revolutionary movement. But the ever-worsening crisis of the ruling system and escalating conditions of oppression and exploitation favor the continuity and advance of the revolutionary forces. The mass base of the CPP includes its own local branches, the revolutionary mass organisations of workers, peasants, youth, women and so on, the local units of the people’s army, militia and self-defense units and the local organs of political power.
4. Can you describe the material conditions in the Philippines that make Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought the most appropriate approach to socialist revolution there?
JMS: The political and socioeconomic conditions of the Philippines are semicolonial and semifeudal. They require a new national democratic revolution under the class leadership of the working class in consonance with the era of modern imperialism and the world proletarian revolution. Thus, Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought is the correct and most appropriate guide and approach to the current state of people’s democratic revolution as well as to the consequent stage of socialist revolution.
5. You continue to weigh in on Philippine electoral politics and have expressed support for Bayan Muna candidates. Do you believe there is a parliamentary road to socialism?
JMS: I take the revolutionary viewpoint with regard to Philippine electoral politics under the current ruling system. The electoral process is controlled and manipulated by the local exploiting classes of big compradors, landlords and bureaucrat capitalists, with decisive and often covert intervention by imperialist powers—currently the US and China are most active behind the scenes. It is only with regard to the legal united front—distinct from the united front for armed struggle—that I would be encouraging parties and candidates of the toiling masses, middle forces and anti-fascist reactionaries to expose and oppose the Marcos-Duterte alliance. This is in the revolutionary context of trying to isolate, weaken and destroy the current enemy, which is the Duterte regime.
So far, only a few patriotic and progressive candidates have been elected through the party list system but even this has been hijacked by the reactionary political dynasties. At the current price, you need 450 million pesos for TV and radio ads to have a chance of being elected as senator on the false premise that Duterte would not rig the 2022 elections. There is no parliamentary road to socialism in the Philippines. Socialism is impossible here without the basic completion of the people’s democratic revolution through protracted people’s war. You cannot leap to socialism while US imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism persist and a traitorous, tyrannical, mass murdering, plundering and swindling regime is ruling the Philippines.
6. There are two vanguard parties—two communist parties—governing countries in Southeast Asia today, in Vietnam and Laos. Neither appear to be successfully transitioning from socialism to communism. If the CPP were to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, how would you learn from those cases in order to complete the transition to a classless society?
JMS: Lenin pointed out that it would take a whole historical epoch to build socialism and transition to communism after the overthrow of the state of the bourgeoisie. And in the experience of the Soviet Union, the socialist revolution and construction carried out by Stalin became subject to attack by the modern revisionism and capitalist restoration started by Khrushchev in 1956. Mao pointed out that classes and class struggle continued in socialist society, and the danger of modern revisionism and capitalist restoration persisted. After only five years of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the capitalist roaders regained ground in China and would be able to overthrow the proletariat in October 1976.
I presume that the ruling communist parties in Vietnam and Laos have been heavily influenced by the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and later on in China, especially in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The collaboration of China with the US in promoting the neoliberal policy of imperialist globalisation in four decades has had a heavy impact on Indochina. Now, after the decoupling of the US and China, these two imperialist powers are competing with each other to become dominant in Indochina.
The CPP has already learned a lot of lessons from the revolutionary experience as well as from the setbacks of the working class and the socialist cause due to modern revisionism and capitalist restoration in former socialist countries, which took some decades coincident with the imperialist policies of anti-communism, neocolonialism, neoliberalism, neofascism and wars of aggression. But the need and hope for the resurgence of the world proletarian revolution and the socialist cause are becoming more and more obvious as the addition of Russia and China to the ranks of imperialist powers has only served to intensify all major contradictions in the world capitalist system.
7. You spent time in Indonesia in the 1960s. How did the Communist Party of Indonesia and its demise influence your political development?
JMS: I learned that if the Communist Party does not build a people’s army together with a rural mass base that party would be vulnerable to mass slaughter by the reactionary army anytime. It is not enough to develop a strong legal united front like NASAKOM and depend on the open electoral struggle and recruiting members of the PKI and mass organisations for legal struggles. I agree with the 1966 Self-Criticism of the PKI Politburo which concluded that the Indonesian revolution could not be successfully undertaken without the coordinated building of the Communist Party, the people’s army and the national united front. The lack of a people’s army led the PKI away from the Chinese road of revolution and from the dictum of Comrade Mao that without a people’s army, the people have nothing.
8. There are many socialists today who disavow Marxism-Leninism because of its proponents’ tendency to carry out deadly purges. Mass graves and testimonies by former NPA members indicate that the CPP is no exception. Is this a blemish on the CPP’s record?
JMS: In the case of the CPP under the guidance of Marxism-Leninism, it was the handful of anti-Marxist and anti-Leninist renegades who were responsible for the deadly witch hunts from 1985 to 1991. After carrying out timely rectification movements from one region to another, the CPP undertook the Second Great Rectification Movement (SGRM) nationwide as an educational movement from 1992 to 1996 to identify the subjective errors that led principally to “Left” opportunist errors, and secondarily to Right opportunist errors, and to expose thoroughly how the “Left” opportunists committed self-defeating errors like military adventurism and building too many unsustainable companies at the expense of mass work and then launching campaigns like Kampanyang Ahos to generate hysteria and blame “deep penetration agents” for military setbacks and drastic reduction of the mass base.
The SGRM, or Second Great Rectification Movement, was successful in ideological, political and organisational terms. Marxist-Leninist principles were upheld and propagated at every level of the CPP and the NPA. The correct principles and methods of investigation, evaluation of evidence, prosecution and trial of suspects were taught to everyone by the CPP. The CPP made sure that the errors were understood and rectified. The NPA was retrained and redeployed for guerrilla warfare and mass work. From year to year, the mass base that had been lost due to “Left” opportunism were recovered and expanded. Recruitment of mass activists and CPP members expanded rapidly. Without the SGRM, the CPP would have disintegrated and would not have lasted this long. But because of the SGRM, the CPP and the entire people’s democratic revolution have been advancing and winning significant victories until now.
9. Leftist politicians in the Philippines today seem to have more to gain by denouncing the CPP than by supporting it. How can you fix that?
JMS: So-called Leftist politicians, including renegades and dropouts from the revolutionary organisations and from the legal national democratic movement are so few in comparison to those tens of thousands of CPP members and millions of people who persevere in the struggle. Indeed, the few rascals gain more for themselves privately by denouncing the CPP and then collaborating with the authorities of the reactionary government and taking employment in the bureaucracy or even in the intelligence services. There will always be a few careerists and speculators joining any part of the revolutionary movement for a while. The solution to this problematic phenomenon is to be alert and be discerning, keep up the educational work to raise revolutionary morale and ensure the recruitment and training of revolutionaries who are unquestionably dedicated to the revolution.
10.There have been several widely publicised instances of prominent Philippine revolutionaries becoming counter-revolutionaries. How do you interpret this phenomenon?
JMS: Life in the revolutionary movement is a life of difficult and risky struggle against tremendous odds. That is a well-known fact. Those who join the revolutionary movement know the difficulties and risks to limb, life and liberty and are commendable for rising up to the challenges. But when captured by the enemy, some revolutionaries can weaken in revolutionary spirit and become vulnerable to offers of an easy way out of prison. There can be offers of jobs and other material rewards in exchange for denouncing the revolutionary movement. Remember that in so short a time after his capture in Palanan, Aguinaldo agreed with the US imperialists to issue a peace manifesto and call for the surrender of all revolutionaries.
11. You seek to transform the Philippines’ semicolonial and semifeudal ruling system. Walden Bello (whom I previously worked for and has put me on a path toward radical politics) seeks to combat US imperialism and corporate-driven globalisation. Don’t you have more to gain by collaborating than by undermining each other?
JMS: There is something more to gain for the revolutionary movement if Walden Bello would become an ally rather than an adversary. It is up to him. For instance, every time he delivers a blow against the Marcos-Duterte alliance, every time that he criticises neoliberalism and the whole range of imperialist globalisation, and every time he speaks up against the violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity by China in the West Philippine Sea, he is well-appreciated by the legal national democratic forces as well as by the revolutionary movement. He has gained points among the patriotic and progressive forces. He is appreciated for proposing that a new administration of the [government] should resume peace negotiations with the NDFP and for teaming up with the Makabayan senatorial candidates on a number of issues. There are issues that can be easily and immediately resolved. And there are issues that can be resolved consequently.
12. What is your response to the recent removals of NDFP books from university libraries? Is freedom of expression a tenet of your political philosophy?
JMS: The recent removals of NDFP books from university libraries amount to fascist book-burning by the Duterte tyranny. The military minions of Duterte in National Task Force [to End Local Communist Armed Conflict] (ELCAC) think that these removals of NDFP books would intimidate faculty members and students. On the contrary, these intelligent people would assert the freedom of thought and belief and the freedom of expression and would demand the return of the NDFP books and also laugh at the military for stupidly forgetting that in this digital age it is difficult to stop the circulation of digital copies.
Like Hugo Chavez who became an anti-imperialist and democratic leader, the military officers of GRP should read the CPP and NDFP publications, learn how to work for a just peace and stop obeying the self-defeating bloodthirsty orders of Duterte. In the history of the old democratic revolution and in the new democratic revolution, officers have transferred from the reactionary side to the revolutionary side. General [Raymundo] Jarque, and other outstanding military officers like Colonel Dante Simbulan, Navy Captain Dan Vizmanos and Army Captain Crispin Tagamolila have openly repudiated US imperialism and the oppressive ruling system.
Freedom of expression is a tenet of my political philosophy. I adhere to the basic democratic rights and fundamental freedoms at the levels of the individual, organisation, class and nation. As materialist-scientific philosophy, critique of political economy and social science putting scientific socialism forward, Marxism-Leninism-Maoism is on the high road of modern civilisation and comes as the latest peak after the advances from humanism and science in the Renaissance, reason in the Enlightenment and the principle of sovereign will of the people and democratic rights in the French revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and rise of the proletariat as gravedigger of capitalism.
13.Your involvement in the CPP’s two great rectification movements has been described by others as a sign of humility and a willingness to admit past mistakes. Can you describe any mistakes that have been especially educational to you?
JMS: Thank you for the compliment. A communist party cannot grow in strength and advance if it does not know how to identify mistakes within its scope and rectify them through the timely and periodic sessions of criticism and self-criticism or through rectification movements of a wider scale and longer duration in the case of big mistakes that have resulted in grave damage. Like everyone, I have my own share of mistakes. The biggest and most educational to me was my capture on 10 November 1977. I paid for that mistake by being tortured in solitary confinement for more than five years and being imprisoned for more than eight years and three months.
14. Joma, can you give our listeners a summary of how you ended up in prison, in solitary confinement, and why?
JMS: My capture in 1977 involved a cluster of mistakes, like for instance, I could have avoided riding on a motorcycle between 10 in the evening and midnight, when the motorcycle traffic was so scarce during that period, and I could be easily spotted wearing my white eyeglasses. I could use dark glasses. Comrades told me not to move, and to stay overnight [in Pangasinan], but I overruled them because I was in a hurry to get to another appointment in La Union. So the enemy spotted me when I crossed a certain gasoline station, and so I was captured. And naturally in my position, I would be subjected to either death or imprisonment. I was expecting I could be killed, but I think that the political animal Marcos thought that he could use me as a trophy—at the least as a trophy. But anyway, there was no evading the torture, the physical torture, to which I was immediately subjected, starting from the day of my arrest.
I underwent the famous American-style water cure. The cleverness of that kind of torture is it leaves no mark. For six hours, I was subjected to water cure. I also had a session of fist blows on the body, but I noticed that they were not hitting me on the face, so I thought that they were not out to kill me. But anyway, the worst kind of torture was the solitary confinement—it’s the worst kind of torture, much worse than those hours of torture during my early weeks in prison. I was in solitary confinement for so long. The physical and psychological torture is built into the circumstances—you don’t talk to anyone, except occasionally with the guards who deal with you. So I can sympathise with Julian Assange for being kept in solitary confinement, especially because he is not actually guilty of any crime, except for performing his role as a journalist and exposing the crimes of US imperialism. So I believe that for being subjected to that kind of torture, solitary confinement, he should be released immediately.
Why was I tortured? The purpose of torture is to break your political will, and the way is to make you betray persons and places where other important persons in the revolutionary movement would be. So the questions that were addressed to me were meant to break me, break my will and betray my comrades. I did not submit to the will of the enemy, and I knew when they were outrightly and subtly trying to pick my brains and to extort information from me. I had already rehearsed so many times that kind of situation. I had rehearsed so many times getting killed in a NPA camp because of enemy attack or when marching from one point to another, and also I had rehearsed so many times how I would react to enemy tricks and torture if captured.
15. What are the CPP’s greatest achievements to date? What do you aim to achieve within the next 10 years?
JMS: The greatest ideological achievement of the CPP is the application of the universal theory of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism on the concrete conditions of the Philippines and in the concrete practice of the Philippine revolution. In the process, the CPP thinkers and leaders have contributed to the development of said theory. The CPP has been able to propagate dialectical and historical materialism among tens of thousands of party members and hundreds of thousands of revolutionary mass activists through basic, intermediate and advanced study courses to enable them to study and analyse domestic and international conditions and issues and adopt the correct strategy and tactics for waging revolution.
The greatest political achievement of the CPP is the adoption of the program of people’s democratic revolution through protracted people’s war and the successful implementation of this general line of action. Thus, the CPP has proven itself as the leading force of the proletariat and entire people in the revolution. It has aroused, organised and mobilised millions of the Filipino people and successfully wielded and developed the revolutionary armed struggle and national united front as weapons of the people against the enemy. It leads the NPA, the revolutionary mass organisations, alliances and the local organs of political power, which constitute the people’s democratic government. This government is responsible for mass education, production, health and other services, internal security and self-defense, arbitration of disputes, environmental protection and disaster relief.
The greatest organisational achievement of the CPP is upholding the principle of democratic centralism and growing in strength nationwide. From its small beginnings in 1968 to tens of thousands of party cadres and members, the CPP has expanded nationwide and is deeply rooted among the toiling masses of workers and peasants. It has branches and groups in the urban and rural areas in 74 out of the 81 provinces of the Philippines. It operates as the leading core at all levels of the people’s democratic government, local communities, guerrilla fronts, organisations and institutions of various types.
In the next 10 years, I expect to see greater victories in the people’s democratic revolution in the Philippines. The counterrevolutionary currents like anti-communism, neocolonialism, modern revisionism and neoliberalism have run long courses and have proven to be bankrupt. It is high time for the revolutionary movements in the Philippines and abroad to demonstrate their strength and score new brilliant victories in the struggle for national liberation, democracy and socialism.
As regards to what I can do personally, I will continue to comment on Philippine and global issues. I will ensure that my written works are systematically collected and preserved for study by the current and further generations of revolutionaries in the Philippines and abroad. My books have been published chronologically by various publishers since the 1960s. But the International Network for Philippines Studies is also publishing the Sison Reader Series, with volumes on at least 35 general topics and themes.
Thank you Joma.
That was Joma Sison, founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
That’s all we have for this week’s episode of Southeast Asia Dispatches.
If you enjoyed this interview, please be sure to check out New Naratif’s other podcast, Political Agenda, for current affairs in Singapore.
This is Jacob Goldberg, signing off. Have a good weekend.