Recently, two groups in the Philippine Left — the the national-democratic or ND Left, the biggest in the formation, and the democratic socialist Left — have become friendlier, after decades of being cold towards each other. In response to the tyrannical regime of Rodrigo Duterte, the worst in the country’s recent history, the two groups have forged unity and cooperation on various campaigns and made statements favorable to each other.
In the 2019 mid-term elections, people’s lawyer Neri Colmenares, candidate of the ND Left’s electoral alliance Makabayang Koalisyon ng Mamamayan (Makabayan), and labor leader Leody de Guzman, candidate of the democratic socialist Left’s Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM), ran together for the Senate under the Labor Win coalition. PLM and national labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), part of the ND Left, held parallel campaigns on wages, contractualization, and other pressing workers’ issues.
For the current 2022 elections, de Guzman, who is running for president, has repeatedly said that he is supporting the senatorial bids of Colmenares and of labor leader and KMU chair Elmer “Ka Bong” Labog, also of Makabayan. Foremost ND Left intellectual Jose Maria Sison has praised the progressive political stands taken by renowned Left intellectual Walden Bello, de Guzman’s running mate, as well as their progressive electoral platform. In a presidential debate, de Guzman said that Sison is a revolutionary and not a terrorist, contrary to the Philippine government’s accusation. In response, Sison said that de Guzman is the best presidential candidate in the 2022 elections, on the basis of his platform.
In their essay “The Philippine Left Has an Opportunity to Break the Country’s Political Mold,” however, Maria Khristine Alvarez, Joshua Makalintal, and Herbert Docena are using the de Guzman-Bello campaign to criticize the ND Left, in the course of presenting the justification for the campaign to readers of international Left publication Jacobin.
The authors argue that the de Guzman-Bello campaign diverges from the ND Left’s “lesser evil” tactic in elections that select the president and other officials of the ruling-class government. They trace this tactic to the alleged weakening of the broad Philippine Left after the ouster of the US-backed dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. They then show how this tactic has resulted in some unsavory alliances and situations for the ND Left and another Left formation in the country — the social-democratic Akbayan. Afterwards, they offer a critique of opposition presidential candidate and current vice-president Leni Robredo’s economic platform, calling her a “progressive neoliberal.”
They conclude by asserting the necessity and importance of the de Guzman-Bello candidacy which, by “bringing a revolutionary perspective to public attention and building the political and organizational infrastructure that will be needed to make such initiatives sustainable,” is salutary for the engagement of the Filipino working classes and the Philippine Left with the dominant elite politics in the country.
Only the first sentence in that summary can be stated without reservation. In all their major assertions, the authors miss the essentials and miss the point.
Attentive and discerning readers will be able to identify in the essay the main coordinates of the 2022 Philippine elections, some of which the authors got right but failed to bring together and thoroughly analyze.
First, the six-year term of incumbent president Duterte will end on June 30, 2022. Authoritarian-fascist in politics and neoliberal but also cronyist in economics, Duterte has consolidated his faction of the ruling classes, provided unprecedented gains to China while keeping the US happy and complacent, and has tightened control over the entire government — from the military and police to the courts and legislature. He has attacked in various forms all voices in the country that are independent and critical of his regime, from the media to the Catholic church, from civil society to the elite opposition — all in the context of non-stop killings of suspected drug addicts and pushers under the “war on drugs” and of left-wing activists and revolutionaries, as well as the hyper-active justification for these killings by government agencies using traditional and new media.
The strength of the Duterte faction of the ruling classes and the weakness of the elite opposition and other political forces critical of the government are favorable to the said faction actually prolonging itself in power beyond 2022. That faction has every motive to do so: from maintaining the wealth and power of politicians, military officers and businessmen who are close to it to shielding Duterte from accountability for his numerous and grave crimes to the Filipino people. Thanks to the initiative of the ND Left and various groups, the International Criminal Court could work to hold Duterte accountable for the killing of tens of thousands under his “war on drugs.”
Second, the frontrunner in the presidential race is Bongbong Marcos, Jr, former senator, son of dictator Ferdinand, and clearly Duterte’s anointed one. Since many months ago, he has enjoyed a wide lead over Robredo in the top opinion surveys. The Marcoses have been Duterte’s allies since the 2016 elections, he has repeatedly professed admiration for Marcos Jr’s father, his daughter Sara is running as Marcos Jr’s vice-president, and Marcos Jr has said that he will continue the current president’s programs.
Marcos faced-off with Robredo in the 2016 vice-presidential election and lost by more than 250,000 votes, only a small margin as they both received more than 14 million votes. Robredo is currently the leader of the elite opposition, which has increasingly been critical of the Duterte regime from a liberal-democratic viewpoint. While faring second in the opinion polls, she is getting the support of politicians, businessmen, leaders of the Catholic church, universities, and other groups.
Third, the Philippine Left has through the years been a minor player in the elections for the elite government in the Philippines. This is the result of the nature of such elections, which are dominated by “guns, goons, and gold,” to cite a classic description, owned by a few political dynasties. One avenue that various groupings in the Philippine Left have explored is the partylist system for the House of Representatives, which was designed as a corrective to the elitism of the elections and government and as a means to give voice to marginalized sectors of society. They have also fielded candidates for the Senate.
The partylist groups under Makabayan received 4.6 million votes in the 2019 elections, down from the 6.5 million in the 2016 elections — most probably a result of the Duterte regime’s various attacks. They won seven seats in Congress in 2016, and six seats in 2019. Colmenares, their senatorial candidate, garnered 6.5 million votes in 2016, and 4.7 million votes in 2019 — ranking 20th and 24th respectively, losing the race for 12 seats in the Senate in both instances. Believing that the main enemy of the Filipino people in the 2022 elections is the Marcos-Duterte faction of the ruling classes, Makabayan is supporting Robredo and her running mate senator Kiko Pangilinan.
Akbayan, meanwhile, received 608 thousand votes in 2016, getting one seat through the partylist system, and 172 thousand votes in 2019, failing to win a seat. Its senatorial candidate, social-democratic activist Risa Hontiveros, got 15.9 million votes in 2016, securing the ninth spot in the Senate race. Continuing its enduring alliance with the Liberal Party, Akbayan is also supporting the Robredo-Pangilinan tandem.
The democratic socialist formation which currently backs de Guzman and Bello also ran in previous elections. PLM got 29 thousand votes in 2019, failing to win a single Congressional seat. In his 2019 senatorial run, de Guzman received 894 thousand votes and landed in the 38th slot. Saying that it wants to fight the Duterte-Marcos tandem but also the ruling system in the country, change the Philippine Left’s tactics in dealing with bourgeois elections, and offer a progressive alternative to the electorate, PLM has fielded de Guzman and Bello as presidential and vice-presidential candidates, respectively.
Partido ng Manggagawa (PM) counted itself as part of the democratic socialist Left but has in recent years gravitated towards Akbayan. It received 43 thousand votes in 2016 and 28 thousand votes in 2019, failing to win a Congressional seat in both elections.
It is telling that the authors are putting forward a tactic but are not engaging in this kind of analysis of the political forces involved in the 2022 elections. One reason is that they seem to see the tactic of Leftists running as independent for president and vice-president as being useful not only for the present elections but also for future ones. Another reason is that a simple rundown like the one presented above can easily show that the de Guzman-Bello ticket is not strong enough to win.
Alvarez, Makalintal and Docena complain that the “lesser evil” tactic has been dominant in the Philippine Left. One of the reasons for this is that the bearers of that line, the ND Left, is the strongest group in that formation. It leads the biggest mass protests and mobilizations across the country, despite the Duterte regime and previous regimes’ violent attacks, and can, on its own, set the agenda of the Philippine Left.
The authors are speaking as outsiders to the ND movement, but instead of studying its many statements on the topic of Left engagement with the elections of the ruling classes — Sison’s writings on the topic are voluminous — they ascribe an explanation for the tactic from without: the Philippine Left’s weakness. They do not critique, and instead caricatures, the best justifications for the tactic that they criticize.
The ND Left considers the elections as a field dominated by the ruling classes in the Philippines — the big comprador capitalists and landlords subservient to US imperialism. These elections cannot, as such, be the main arena of the revolutionary struggle. They are only a secondary form of struggle to the year-long efforts to arouse, organize and mobilize the masses for national freedom and democracy. Even the number of votes stated above gives only a partial view of the Left’s strength in grassroots mobilization, the parliament of the streets, and many political spheres beyond the elections.
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), armed rebel group New People’s Army or NPA and other underground member-organizations of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines — which all share the ND Left’s analysis of Philippine society — consider the armed revolution as the primary form of struggle. They do not participate in elections for the neocolonial ruling class government: they work underground in order to evade government repression and are building their own government. The distinction between legal progressive organizations and underground ones are crucial, and Alvarez, Makalintal and Docena are being irresponsible in describing the ND Left as “an alliance of parties, trade unions, and other groups associated with” the CPP. They are contributing to the regime’s redtagging of Makabayan and other legal progressive organizations.
In all its endeavors, the ND Left is guided by its class analysis of Philippine society, and it seeks to build a broad united front whereever possible. It aims to create the broadest unity against the narrowest target — at the national level, the ruling regime that represents and serves the imperialists and local ruling classes. Such a unity is a major way of weakening what it calls the semi-colonial, semi-feudal system in the country. Availing of existing conditions for creating a united front is especially useful in engaging in an electoral system that is dominated by the ruling classes — but where contradictions among them also play themselves out. Creating a united front is not an matter of strength or weakness for the ND Left, but a matter of principle.
Contrary to Alvarez, Makalintal and Docena’s claim, however, the ND Left does not consider Robredo a “dependable progressive ally.” It reserves such a category for other political entities and the Jacobin article authors will find it hard to pinpoint a categorical statement that would support this caricature of the ND Left’s classification of Robredo.
Again contrary to the authors’ claim, forging alliances with factions of the ruling classes, with Robredo’s faction in this case, does not mean that the Philippine Left is putting itself “in a vulnerable position that leaves [it] incapable of adequately opposing her inclination to compromise with the different parts of a regressive establishment, whether… big business or the military.” A key principle in building the united front that is cherished by the ND Left is “independence and initiative,” which justifies and even calls for criticisms of allies when they make statements or policies that run counter to the interests of the Filipino working classes and people.
So when, in the 2010 elections, businessman and senator Manny Villar, then the ally of Makabayan, forged an alliance with Marcos Jr, Makabayan criticized this move and campaigned most doggedly against the dictator’s son. When, after one year in power, Duterte showed that he would not really carry out his progressive promises to the Filipino people, the ND Left broke with him — and even led the protests against him that Alvarez, Makalintal and Docena attribute to the entire Philippine Left. The authors also exaggerate the problems with the ND Left’s alliances with Villar and Duterte, and minimize those with Akbayan’s alliance with the Noynoy Aquino regime — when the latter actually continued despite the regime’s crimes and anti-people policies, and resulted in the complete cooptation and weakening of Akbayan.
The tactic of building a broad united front against the narrowest target is even more correct in the 2022 elections. The Duterte regime is the worst ruling clique in the country’s history since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 — in terms of puppetry to imperialist masters, service to its faction of the ruling class, corruption, economic policies harmful to the people especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, human rights violations, among others. It is most cunning in using its machinery of deception and repression. Now, it wants to enthrone the son of Marcos himself to continue its rule and even Marcos’ rule. Building a united front is necessary for the task of fighting and defeating the Marcos-Duterte tandem in the polls — which can be done effectively only by supporting the candidates that have a fighting chance to beat them, the Robredo-Pangilinan tandem.
The Jacobin article authors cite the following as reasons for the “weakening” of the Philippine Left: the “decimation of the country’s garment industry and other labor-intensive sectors,” “anti-labor legislation,” and “intensified… military offensives against communist guerillas.” They recognize the destruction of what used to be passed off as the country’s “industries” but refuse to look beyond the labor sector, part of their insistence that the country, despite their statement, is not semi-feudal anymore. It is odd that in citing these attacks launched by the ruling classes through the neocolonial state, they omit the massacres, extra-judicial killings, arrests on the basis of trumped-up charges, harassment, and militarization that unarmed activists and civilian communities experience.
They also mention “bloody purges and doctrinal debates” as reasons for the Left’s weakness. The bloody purges, the underground movement’s self-inflicted wounds, indeed brought about a weakening of the Left. But these have been assessed, lessons have been drawn, and some regions where purges were carried out have bounced back to strength at one point in time. Doctrinal debates, on the other hand, are necessary and fundamental, made imperative by Lenin’s famous dictum about revolutionary theory and movement, among others.
Alvarez, Makalintal and Docena want to present the causes of the supposed weakness of the Philippine Left but provide reasons affecting only the biggest and strongest formation in that grouping. Why have the other Left formations remained weak? Instead of self-reflection and self-criticism, they present an attack on the ND Left. In fact, the period from 1986 to the present is not characterized by a steady decline for the ND Left, unlike other Left formations in the Philippines. The ND movement has had advances in many fields, especially as a result of the Second Great Rectification Movement launched in 1992.
Even more oddly, the authors trace the government policies that they claim weakened the Left to the “restoration of democracy following the ‘People Power Revolution’ that removed Marcos” in 1986 which they say “simply reinforced the neoliberal restructuring of the Philippine economy.” That the successors of Marcos implemented neoliberal and repressive policies does not make the ouster of the US-backed Marcos fascist dictatorship — a feat achieved by more than two million Filipinos pouring into the streets for days — any less necessary and momentous.
The Edsa People Power uprising is less than a revolution, but still a weapon that the Filipino working classes and people have used and and can use to oust despotic, corrupt and anti-people presidents. It may not win Filipinos their long-term interests — national freedom, democracy, socialism — but it can win them their immediate interest of gaining relief from ruling regimes. It would be infinitely better if Filipinos do not have to fight to again replace a fascist dictatorial president with just a liberal-democratic one, but install a people’s democratic government. Yes, a genuine revolution is necessary and desirable — but this not possible in the 2022 elections. In fact, it may not be possible in any reactionary elections.
Alvarez, Makalintal and Docena criticize Robredo’s campaign program as offering, in essence, neoliberalism in the economy and liberal democracy in politics. They label her a “progressive neoliberal,” someone who “is opposed to authoritarianism but merely seeks to soften the neoliberal economic model rather than abolish it.”
A major issue that the authors fail to mention is that while Robredo favors resuming peace talks with the NDFP, she also said that she will retain the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict or NTF-Elcac, which has been dubbed as Duterte’s military junta and main coordinator of repression, despite widespread calls for its abolition. While this puts into question the authors’ claim that Robredo is “opposed to authoritarianism,” she on the whole mouths liberal-democratic principles. And underlying Alvarez, Makalintal and Docena’s essay is the failure to appreciate the difference between fascist and liberal-democratic leaders.
For Marxism, capitalist societies are ruled by the dictatorship of the capitalist class. In the Philippines, this translates to the dictatorship of big compradors and landlords that are subservient to US imperialism. Within this class dictatorship, there is a distinction between outright dictatorship by one faction of the ruling class on the one hand, and situations where factions of the ruling class pretend to uphold liberal democracy, on the other — where they can “peacefully” compete for power and there is respect, however limited, for human rights and rule of law.
In his Marxism and Politics , political theorist Ralph Miliband says that Marx, Engels and Lenin, all made a distinction between “dictatorships” and “bourgeois democratic regimes” — even as they are clear that these are all forms of capitalist class rule that must be overthrown. While critical of bourgeois democratic regimes, Marx criticized “Bonapartist” or dictatorial rule more heavily, and Engels recognized that the bourgeois democratic regimes provide the working class with various weapons, including suffrage, to advance its revolutionary struggle. Lenin, meanwhile, at first pinned his hope on a bourgeois revolution against Tsarist rule in Russia and recognized the emergence of bourgeois democratic regimes in other countries. He even said in one instance that “We are in favor of a democratic republic as the best form of state for the proletariat under capitalism.”
Miliband, in summary, says that “In Marxist thought, bourgeois democracy, for all its class limitations, remained a vastly superior form of state to any existing alternative.” He considers the failure to make a distinction between bourgeois democratic regimes and dictatorships as an instance of “ultra-left deviation,” which of course objectively strengthens the class enemy. He calls for understanding, as opposed to simply dismissing, this deviation. He calls attention to “an attitude of mind to which Marxists have been prone” — “the belief that because A and B are not totally different, they are not really different at all.”
Closer to home, Mao Zedong theorized new democracy as the basic completion of the the bourgeois-democratic revolution under the class leadership of the proletariat and in the direction of the socialist revolution, asserting that conditions in China do not allow the establishment of a bourgeois democracy. This is a recognition that some elements of bourgeois democracy, especially agrarian revolution, can be compatible with a socialist politics under the leadership of the working class. In the Philippines, the difference between Marcos’ open fascist rule and successive regimes’ pretention to liberal democracy is reflected in concrete terms in the existence of institutions from the media to the legislature, in the open functioning of progressive organizations and NGOs, and in at least the regimes’ lip service to human rights and rule of law.
The distinction, ironically, was also sharply presented in Bello’s influential essay “Rodrigo Duterte: A Fascist Original”  in which he says that Duterte satisfies the four criteria of a fascist leader that he laid down. One particularity of Duterte, however, is that “he is not waging a counterrevolution against the left or socialism,” which is debatable, but against “liberal democracy, the dominant ideology and system of our time,” which is beyond dispute.
So ultimately, an elite politician who champions liberal democracy is better than a politician who is a fascist and champions dictatorship — especially an incumbent who rules like a fascist dictator. Even “softer neoliberalism” is better than a “hardcore” one. One certainly hopes that, if elected, Robredo won’t become another Duterte — but her election would at the very least disrupt the functioning of the Duterte regime’s machinery of anti-people governance.
For leftists who train their sights on a radical change and alternative, these distinctions may seem minor, and making them like scraping the bottom of the barrel. But these differences matter to the working classes and people who will find themselves living, working and struggling within fundamentally the same socio-economic conditions after the elections. They also matter in an arena of struggle — the elections — where only little can be done to advance the interests of the working classes and people. Herein lies the moment of truth of the much-reviled “lesser evil” electoral tactic.
Somewhere in their essay, Alvarez, Makalintal and Docena claim that the reason for the ND Left’s support for Robredo is that “she will at least provide the country’s progressives with some breathing space to rebuild their strength in the years ahead.” They make it appear that the ND movement supports factions of the ruling elite during elections primarily because of its possible gains as a political force. Reading the ND Left’s statements on elections will show that it builds such alliances on the basis of the immediate interests of the Filipino working classes and people. This groundedness in the masses and their interest is one of the sources of the said movement’s inexhaustible hope that it can strengthen itself whether the ruling regime is dictatorial or pretends to be liberal-democratic.
For the ND Left, the benefits of the de Guzman-Bello campaign cited by Alvarez, Makalintal and Docena — offering “a revolutionary perspective” and creating “political and organizational infrastructure” — can be attained more effectively in the context of immediate and urgent struggles. Without a connection to such struggles, all talk about the “ruling system” and “radical alternative” can become talking over the heads of the masses — even as it excites some “woke” middle-class youths on social media.
The immediate and urgent struggle in the 2022 elections is ending the dictatorial rule of the Marcoses and Dutertes; it is the starting point for raising the consciousness of the working classes and people. The Robredo-Pangilinan campaign, on its own and with the help of Makabayan, has attracted the active support of many socially-conscious Filipinos, as seen in the tens of thousands who have recently flocked to its campaign rallies.
In contrast to the ND Left’s approach of building the broadest unity against the narrowest target and using the contradictions among factions of the ruling class to the Filipino people’s advantage, Alvarez, Makalintal and Docena — as well as some writers and organizations in the broad Philippine Left — advocate not taking sides in these contradictions, and instead forwarding a criticism of the dominant socio-economic system and a program of a progressive alternative, in what could be seen as an interpretation of the principle of working class independence from the ruling classes.
Alvarez, Makalintal and Docena say that the de Guzman-Bello campaign is “claim[ing] and tak[ing] up space outside the constraints of the permissible and set[ting] its own frames of reference, instead of capitulating to the terms of others.”
One is reminded of the famous quote from Marxist cultural theorist Fredric Jameson: “History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its ‘ruses’ turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention.… History as ground and untranscendable horizon needs no particular theoretical justification: we may be sure that its alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them [The Political Unconscious, 1981].”
Readers can draw their readings and conclusions.