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Thoughts on Duterte, the Maoist Philippine left, and prospects for the peace process


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This post originally appeared here.

The article below emerged out of a conversation between Teddy Casino, Alex de Jong, and Herbert Docena,  who has written an article debunking some of Duterte’s (and Teddy’s) claims that he is opening up space for  ‘progressive’ political possibilities   in the Philippines . This touches on a broader debate (?) within the Philippine left on the prospects for it under the Duterte administration, particularly in light of the Communist Party of the Philippines’ (CPP) alliance with it. The CPP’s sympathizers are known as the national democrats, whose mass organisations spanning different social sectors account for some of the largest in the country, operating under the flagship of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

I revisit some of the paradoxes behind the CPP’s current approach to the Duterte administration – namely the weaknesses of a Maoist armed/guerrilla/protracted peoples war strategy (PPW), as a factor behind its long-time ‘alliance’ with strongman figures like Duterte, in the Davao region in particular. I argue that this has made it difficult for the party to break away from him. In the context of the failures – recognised or not – of their armed strategy spearheaded by the New Peoples Army (NPA), it seems Duterte has become something of a last resort for their ‘revolution’.

The CPP is now entering into peace negotiations with a man (certainly not “a man of the left” as he claims) whose intentions for assimilating the left within his cabinet are at best difficult to make out this early on. Given the current political landscape of the Philippines, the prospects for an independent democratic socialist, or indeed social democratic, political force that would stand as an alternative remain uncertain.

I try to explore some of these themes in an interview with Doug Henwood, as well as acouple of articles on Jacobin.  Please give them a listen or read, should you find the time (sorry for this shameless bit of self-promotion, but it is difficult to find other spaces where these views can be expressed):

The article that follows takes the form of a letter addressed to Teddy.

On the CPP’s alliance with Duterte

All I can say is that the essence of principled progressive politics is to take a genuinely independent stand on Duterte – one that you, above all, should have learned from, considering the experiences of Akbayan.

All of the progressive things that you mentioned about Duterte are promises and slogans he’s proved repeatedly willing to turn his back on. What he’s done in Davao are things othertrapos (traditional politicans) have done in other cities, so nothing revolutionary there. Once you are in his game, there is no get-out-of-jail-free card, should your ‘ally’ prove himself incapable of delivering the reforms that you hope he will.

My sense – and Herbert’s, and many others – is that he will not. His personal preferences are irrelevant. He will not, because he *cannot*, given the nature of the state and the dynamics of Philippine politics, which the left, through its actions, seems to be playing into. Big business/ruling elites are similarly banking on Duterte’s commitments in their favour.

He cannot juggle both left and right, and eventually he will come out in favour of the latter.

Whether that is a cause for personal optimism or pessimism is beside the point, but it is the task of progressives to err on the side of the latter.

Para lang tayo nagasawa ng taong alam nating nangangaliwa. Pero wala tayong magawa kundi sabayan ang ilusyon, kung ayaw nating mapagiwanan. Puwes, hindi lahat sa atin kayang masikmura na sabayan ang isang reaksyunaryo.

With regard to the experiences of Latin America, Duterte is clearly not organic to a social movement that has carried him to power, as was the case with Lula da Silva or Hugo Chavez. For the most part he won on a platform that had nothing to do with progressive politics. Duterte’s rise is a product of mass frustrations at both our political class, but also the vacuum presented by the left’s impotence, which it refuses to admit to itself.

Rather than raising the level of political discourse at the crucial moment of crisis among our beloved elites, the left is instead hitching on his popularity. You are sowing illusions in, and rushing into, the hands of a man that many – even you – would agree is a reactionary, Machiavellian trapo. Whether this is driven by desperation or a coherent strategy, it’s hard to tell.

What is clear is that this is not our Hugo Chavez or Bernie Sanders moment. This is akin to Bernie Sanders’ supporters riding into the White House on the wings of Trump.

Duterte has presented you with a poisoned chalice. Your party appears to be taking it in hook, line, and sinker. You would call us sour-graping. Our argument is that the wine has been sour for a long time and Duterte’s words empty. It is unlikely that you will find it easy to burn your bridges with this man, even if you wanted to. You have been consorting with him for as long as he was mayor of Davao.

He’s a dangerous figure, after all. Jump ship and he will turn even further to the right. Or call in the death squads (or have we forgotten that he’s openly associated himself with death squads responsible for the extrajudicial killings of over a thousand civilians — including the urban poor, farmers, indigenous peoples, and journalists — in the Davao region and beyond? But I digress: only the lives of ‘the Comrades’ matter).

Well that is the decision you have made. But it is one that is dragging the rest of ‘the left’ with it, and makes it hard for the left to disassociate itself from Duterte, who openly calls himself a leftist and a socialist, thus working against the possibility of uniting on the basis of real, independent political alternatives.

Alternatives that stand for genuine democracy and human rights – not their antitheses –  and not for a man we are supposed to ‘trust’ just because he mouths ‘anti-imperialist’ slogans, and says nice things about the CPP.

‘Imperiyalismo’ is in fact rejoicing, because it believes it’s duped major armed opposition groups – from the CPP to the MILF – at the cost of a few cabinet positions and progressive statements that have been, at best, contradictory. For all his rhetoric, he is a gift for national unity and regional stability. Whether that stability means justice for the majority, or an end to the social frustrations for which your revolution is (or poses as) an expression, is a different matter.

Our people have dealt with devils, demagogues, and delusionals in the past, and by far this one seems the worst – if only the most unwieldy and untrustworthy.

He is a populist face to a reactionary regime that will carry over from the Aquino administration.

We ‘trusted’ Estrada, we ‘trusted’ Arroyo, we ‘trusted’ Aquino (parts I and II). You’d expect that after all these decades, we’d realise that it isn’t worth trusting our elites, even the reformist ones, to make change that is only possible with a real push from below from, as you ritually declare, the ‘masa’ whom your organs claim they represent.

That said, remember that he does not have the mandate of the majority of the voting population nor the full trust of the working class. The people are not the Party.

On the peace process: many questions

There’s no doubt that a peace process will open up space for progressive political alternatives (perhaps beyond the CPP), but again it will be difficult to rid ourselves of the association between Duterte and ‘the left’.

The irony of it all is that this ‘progressive’ space that you speak of is opening up under Duterte. So after ridiculing all past presidents for being ‘fascists’, here comes the real deal, and we fawn over him like he’s our Castro. I’d rather this peace process be done under Leni. Even the MILF is now uncertain as to the prospects of their peace process with the Duterte administration:

What makes the CPP so special?

So in comes Duterte and he allows selected ‘left’ individuals into his cabinet, in the same way that Aquino let in Akbayan. Suddenly a miracle happens and space is opened for progressive politics, which the ‘movement’ or Party is supposed to embody, despite Duterte’s platform to the contrary. And despite the fact that there is more *right* than left in this whole picture. And voila – there goes the revolution.

The problem is that you believe the mass movement is already there. You are the movement. And so the movement thinks it can out-manouvre Duterte. Which is unlikely. Duterte has already created facts on the ground to which the CPP must adjust itself, and is adjusting itself.

So there is a peace process: what now?
You would call this a shift in tactics, but what the situation calls for is essentially a shift in strategy. The Maoist left will either take the peace process seriously and honestly, or use it as yet another tool to prolong the PPW — like the CPP has done in the past. You cannot have both. And this will require admitting to yourselves that the PPW has failed.

And still the larger questions remain unanswered: how do the national democrats intend to “engage” the state without legitimising the Duterte administration in the process? Because at the moment you look more like apologists than principled critics, even volunteering to become part of the state’s security apparatus in the name of Duterte’s war on drugs.

Is the peace process, for the CPP-NDFP-NPA, a real political strategy in itself, in the process of transitioning your ‘movement’ from a military struggle (the PPW) to a political one? In the context of a Maoist strategy which, I would argue, has failed to raise the level of mass political consciousness, to the extent that figures like Duterte no longer appear as viable alternatives? Or is the peace process simply another means to the same means without a clear end (or democratic alternative) in sight?

Will the party, and other factions of the left, allow themselves to evolve and build bridges, where unities can be built, to stand for that alternative?

I think that is what it means “to get our act together” .
My hope is that this mass movement is truly what you say it is – and not an excuse to restore or defend the party’s political relevance, or the last resort in lieu of an armed struggle that you refuse to admit is not working as well as you expected it to.

Indeed if it has not, let the facts on the ground speak to a different strategy: one that genuinely places faith in ‘the masses’ so that we can build a real political alternative, and unite on the basis of principle, not opportunism.

One would support the peace negotiations per se if one could, if only to get one big bag off the back of the Philippine left once and for all. What reforms are possible in that context? How is this to be done without sowing further illusions in change coming from one man or the system he represents? And when even the most meager reforms don’t work out, what then?

While Teddy can spin a better narrative, I do not trust that the rest of the CPP’s organs would. I think that’s the task of others beyond the CPP [But who am I to prescribe what is to be done? I am only a young, naïve, pseudo-intellectual Trostkyite with CIA/MI6/China-Iran links (make up your damn minds. I cannot be all of the above)]

Perhaps that is for the people to decide. Good bye.


This article first appeared in C.J. Chanco’s blog, EarthReWrite.