UP will forge through Risk-filled Neoliberal Terrain; so will Militant Activism Persist

An Outsider’s View of the University of the Philippines delivered as part of the UP Centennial Lecture Series on July 10, 2008 at the NISMED, UP Diliman

“…the University can maintain its social relevance only by continuously taking part in the dynamics of the larger society. It must do this not only through the militant participation of the UP community in political questions of the moment, but also through the concerns that guide its teaching and research activities – among the most important of which, today, are the delineation and affirmation of our Filipino identity in the midst of globalization, and speeding up the broad democratization process.”

Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 23, July 13-19,2008

Before we begin, may I invite everyone to stand up for three minutes of silence in honor of the former students of the University of the Philippines who gave up their lives in the continuing struggle for national liberation, economic emancipation, social justice, equitable development and genuine and lasting peace for the Filipino people.

Thank you. I also thank you for inviting me, through President Emerlinda R. Roman, to be one of the speakers in this Centennial Lecture Series. I hope that my sincere and humble efforts to cope with your expectations will be met with relative satisfaction. If not, I’ll ask for another chance, but please not in the next Centennial.

Your first speaker representing an “Outsider’s View,” the businessman and civic leader Ramon R. del Rosario Jr., banteringly attested to his being “truly an outsider” as a “true-and-through Green Archer” whose encounters with UP to this day have been to root for the De La Salle team against the UP Maroons during UAAP basketball games. Then he delighted you with his proud declaration that his two daughters graduated from UP with academic distinctions.

I am an “outsider” not in the sense that Mr. del Rosario is, he having freely chosen not to study in UP but acquiring his education here and abroad in his field of choice. On my part, I dreamed of studying in UP as early as my high school days in the early 1950s in my hometown of Sta. Rita, Pampanga. For reasons I’ll explain, I never got to do so. My college education was rough-edged, and I never got a college diploma. I am proud to say, however, that the alumni association of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (formerly the PCC or Philippine College of Commerce) chose to consider me an outstanding PCC alumnus in 1999 for pursuing my political advocacy.

My boyhood dream of studying in UP began when my father’s cousin happened to bring a copy of The Philippinensian to our home. I leafed avidly through its pages. Gazing at the photographs of student leaders at that time, I thought I could also be like them in UP. I soon realized that it was an impossible dream. Still, some years later, enrolled at the Lyceum of the Philippines, the influence of UP intellectuals there — notably Sotero H. Laurel, who was the president of the Lyceum, and Dean Jose A. Lansang of the school of journalism — reinforced my nationalist orientation and honed my analytical skills. Yes, you could have that experience outside of UP – just as today our young people continue to be taught by UP products in many of our institutions of learning, at least those UP graduates who have chosen to commit themselves to this country (and they are many).

The youthful hope of being able to enter UP fired me up to study hard even as I continued to help my parents and siblings with the work on the farm. Thus, finishing high school as class salutatorian was a cruel blow, because being valedictorian would have entitled me to a UP scholarship. That was one of my earliest frustrations in life and I remember it with pain to this day.  But then again, my parents would not have been able to afford the other expenses entailed by having a son in UP, even on a scholarship. (Let us note that more than half a century later since then, the new UP Charter now explicitly mandates the University to take affirmative action to enhance the access of disadvantaged students to its programs and services.)

There are thousands upon thousands of poor boys and girls for whom the doors of the state university failed to open in the last 100 years. Former Chief Justice Artemio V. Panganiban was one of them in the early 1950s, who although he had been granted a UP scholarship had to enroll instead at the Far Eastern University. As the head of the FEU student council, he recently reminisced, he “specially prized” the friendship of fellow student leaders from UP because they were trained to think and behave independently and upheld student rights at the risk of their own studies and careers. In my own encounters with UP student leaders at the time, I held most of them in high regard for their intellectual keenness and boldness in taking the initiative. I also encountered some who annoyed others by their intellectual arrogance and hubris, and yes, frivolousness.

My first experience of student life in Manila was at PCC – the quintessential college for the poor, with its overcrowded classrooms in cramped wooden buildings. It was at various student conferences, held annually, that the budding politicians and fledgling writers among us met each other. At a YMCA conference held in Baguio, I was put in charge of the daily newsletter, one issue of which came out with two steamy poems by UP’s Sonny San Juan (now a staid but unrepentant academic in America). This earned me an upbraiding by the conference adviser, a well-known guardian of conservative politics.

At another conference, I met other UP students among them the writer Pete Daroy, who invited me to a  colloquium in Diliman which I was too intimidated to attend. Then Jose Ma. Sison invited me to join several small group discussions with members of the Student Cultural Association of the University of the Philippines (SCAUP). Being unfamiliar with the UP Diliman campus, I would meet somewhere else with the poet Jun Tera and he would lead me to Little Quiapo and other nooks. In the group were Luis V. Teodoro, Vivencio Jose, Ferdinand Tinio and Reynato S. Puno, now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who was the group’s authority on issues surrounding the RP-US military bases agreement. From those SCAUP discussions emerged the publication of the Progressive Review, a radical quarterly, and subsequently the Kabataang Makabayan which was organized in 1964.

So much for the musings of a frustrated UP alumnus. Allow me now to begin my main discussion by paying the highest tribute to those who gave their best efforts and sacrificed their lives – most of them in the prime of their youth – to the revolutionary cause. While many of these heroes had studied in UP there were others, more numerous in fact, from other schools and from all walks of life, who contributed to the national-democratic revolutionary movement since the mid-1960s and early 1970s.

Similarly, let me salute the thousands of activists today, the older and the young, from UP and elsewhere who, with commitment, enthusiasm and hope, carry on the revolutionary struggle shoulder to shoulder with the masses — through its multifarious ramifications, means and methods and up to its highest form.

Regardless of how some people, or perhaps a good number of people, may view its continuing relevance to our national life, or its prospects of succeeding in its avowed goals, the national-democratic revolutionary movement is undeniably alive. It is persevering to advance and to win. In the process of waging life-and-death struggle against the forces seeking to destroy it, the movement is endeavoring to establish a genuine state of the people from its basic units in the countryside communities. It has had its ups and down, its ebbs and flows. It has suffered setbacks from serious errors committed at various levels of its leadership, the most serious of which took place in the 1980s. A painful campaign was launched to rectify the errors, which has been largely successful, although some manifestations do appear now and then indicating that lessons from the past have yet to be completely comprehended and assiduously applied.

There are those who believe that armed struggle has become passé in this day and age. They include some who used to be involved in it and who still yearn for revolutionary change in our society but have opted to contribute towards that end only through peaceful and legal means. Certainly that is a positive, worthy undertaking. Having been part of the legal democratic mass movement all these years, I have found rich meaning in my own work in the parliamentary arena despite its numerous pitfalls and limitations. But let us listen to the insight of Angel Baking, editor of the Philippine Collegian in 1940-41, twice jailed for political offenses. In a university convocation at the Abelardo Hall on January 23, 1970, shortly after being released from prison the first time, the grizzled revolutionary said:

“Not all those who desire revolutionary change in the existing order subscribe to armed struggle, and the majority perhaps to this day, believe they are contributing their share to the over-all revolutionary struggle through peaceful and legal means. But this does not negate the reality of the armed struggle going on in our midst, and whatever settlements might be arrived as resolutions to the basic conflicts in our society can no longer be said to have been resolved independent of this armed struggle. This is an important aspect of our concrete historical situation which renders theoretical discussion of means academic.”

Sometimes, indeed, it has been necessary to set aside the consideration and discussion of theoretical or academic issues due to the urgency of continually defending one’s life and fundamental rights against vicious, murderous attacks. But through it all the movement lives on.  As the Macapagal-Arroyo regime itself acknowledges, it remains the most formidable and most consistent challenge to the sense of security and the survival not only of the current government but of the entire ruling system that continues to rot and decay.

What was UP’s role in the beginning of this movement – or rather, its self-renewal in the 1960s and 1970s, for the present revolutionary struggle stretches back to the 1930s — and how can it continue to be a relevant part of this great collective effort towards radical transformation? I need not go through many details of how the national-democratic mass movement spread nationwide after the formation of the Kabataang Makabayan in 1964, with key founding leaders mostly coming from UP, and the consequent flowering of national-democratic oriented youth and student organizations in secondary and tertiary level schools and in communities of the urban poor across the country on the heels of the First Quarter Storm of 1970.

While the resurgent revolutionary movement will always be associated with the student activists, it is important to remember that even earlier, UP was already a seedbed of new ideas, where nationalists and freethinkers like Teodoro Agoncillo, Cesar Adib Majul, Ricardo Pascual, Leopoldo Yabes, Renato Constantino and others did research, published their books, engaged in intellectual combat, and took promising young people under their wings. Books written by Agoncillo, notably “The Revolt of the Masses”, and Constantino’s “Dissent and Counter-consciousness” and “A Past Revisited” were among the staple readings of the activists.    Academic freedom, so strenuously defended, ensured that acrimonious debates nevertheless produced good fruit on all sides.  Even we who did not enjoy the luxury of these sharp discussions vicariously benefited from it.

Student activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s thrived on any and all issues: foreign monopoly of the oil industry and oil price hikes, the US war of aggression against Vietnam, the presence of US military bases, graft and corruption, foreign domination of the economy, police brutality and fascism,  even beauty pageants. In 1971 UP experienced its own Diliman Commune – spurred by the students’ support of jeepney drivers striking against the increased cost of fuel and police intrusion into the campus — when for nine days the campus was barricaded with classroom tables and chairs and activists operated DZUP round the clock. Students dropped out of school to go fulltime into mass organizing, supporting labor strikes and other revolutionary work.  The movement very soon spread to other schools, then to the provinces.

And when Ferdinand Marcos attempted to solve the political crisis by imposing martial law in 1972, UP students and faculty alike were put to the test. Would they resist, putting theory into practice, or would they search their books anew to justify compliance if not subservience?  Historic choices were made, the nation moved forward, while some were left behind.

Armed only with their theories and a few unreliable weapons to defend themselves, the students who fanned out to the countryside found that they would be learning their own lessons from the peasant masses, much more than they would be teaching.  At the same time, the sincerity and dedication of these youth, almost all in their teens, inspired the people, who then found their own ways of supporting and undertaking the struggle for change, and making it their own.

It has become commonplace to point out that the issues that spurred student unrest and militant protests forty years ago are still burning issues today, but they have become part of the landscape, so to speak. We remember how three-centavo increases in the price of diesel would spark strikes in protest; today gasoline is still rising from sixty pesos per liter but many now simply resign themselves to walking or taking the train.  The US war of aggression billed as a “war on terror”, domination of the Philippine economy, its renewed military presence since 2002 – it’s the same, and yet not quite the same. If in the past hackles were raised by the “Americanization” of UP, today it’s about “commercialization of education” and “privatization” of the University that critics within and outside UP say are some disturbing aspects of the new UP charter.

Under RA 9500, aside from its usual academic, research and service duties, the UP as the National University will have an enhanced fund-generating corporate structure, orientation and operation. It is also mandated to “regularly study the state of the nation in relation to its quest for national development in the primary areas of politics and economics, among others”, identify key concerns and formulate responsive policies on these and give advice and recommendations to Congress and the President of the Philippines. Is this not the responsibility of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), to which many UP economic professors have been seconded or named to head it over the years?  Can the UP give advice and recommendations that would be counter to established policies or programs of the government?

What to do with this charter now will be a big challenge to the UP community. How will it maintain the highest possible level of academic excellence and academic freedom, and without impairing these roles ensure the financial viability of the corporate entity that it will now become?  I share the apprehension of many of you that the reorientation and expanded roles of the UP will surely align it to serve the requirements of global capital via neo-liberalism or globalization with its three prescriptions: liberalization, privatization and deregulation. The destructive impact of unbridled globalization over the last 18 years in every part of the world has been widely acknowledged: first among the poorest countries, such as those in Africa, then among the less-developed countries including the Philippines, and now in the heartland of capitalism itself, the United States. What then is the sense in proceeding along this perilous path?

The UP is thus forewarned of the risks it faces as it sets out to forge its path through the neo-liberal terrain. For now the adherents of neo-liberalism are dominant both in the Macapagal-Arroyo government and within UP itself, and they are much more optimistic than me. Still we all know that the road will not be easy to traverse. The militant activism that underwent the ups and downs of ideological and organizational struggles in the last decade, even as it was able to mobilize a significant part of the UP community to oppose tuition fee increases and commercialization of education, can build up strong opposition. The debates, the struggles over policies and programs will play out in the UP, as they have in the long tradition of the University, with the “iskolar ng bayan” and their supporters in the UP community vigorously asserting their right to have a bigger say in how the university will be run.

Undoubtedly, all these issues provide a legitimate basis for militant activism to persist and spread throughout society and specially within the campuses of colleges and universities, including the UP. On the other hand, the University can maintain its social relevance only by continuously taking part in the dynamics of the larger society. It must do this not only through the militant participation of the UP community in political questions of the moment, but also through the concerns that guide its teaching and research activities – among the most important of which, today, are the delineation and affirmation of our Filipino identity in the midst of globalization, and speeding up the broad democratization process.

In this regard, there have been criticisms that the present-day national-democratic activists tend to sound outdated in their political sloganeering. One such criticism from the UP, way back in 1993, referred to the activists as “a dwindling breed who isolate themselves by ranting obsolete slogans and re-enacting the First Quarter Storm.” The old slogans of the 1970s, for instance “Imperyalismo, Ibagsak!”, may grate on the ears of many people, but this cannot negate the continuing validity of the slogan’s message. Even if US imperialism now sports a new name, its essential exploitative character has not changed – in the era of neo-liberal globalization this has only worsened. It is true, however, that more creativity on the part of the new generation of activists would be highly appreciated. I have personally witnessed the emergence of new cultural forms or themes of protest in street marches, rallies and cultural presentations all over the country. It seems to me that the cultural activists are now becoming more adept at comprehending the social and economic conditions and the struggles of the people and are expressing these in various ways that appeal to a broad audience.

Another criticism raised against present-day activists is actually an old, recurring complaint — that they tend to be arrogant and self-righteous, a weakness that turns off many people (especially from UP!) who would otherwise be more open to the movement’s analyses and proposals. Already in 1970, Angel Baking pointed this out in his lecture at Abelardo Hall, and he suggested that “the recognition that the masses are really the most powerful controlling elements in a revolution, the most stable base and the profoundest source of revolutionary wisdom” should be an effective antidote to such self-importance.  “All too often,” Baking observed, “intellectuals without firm links with and faith in the masses tend to go astray, unable to maintain the clarity of their vision and the steadfastness of their affiliations.”

Apparently, Baking was aware that the “diverse distractions and preoccupations of students” and the periods of lull in their activities might make it difficult for them to maintain their revolutionary ardor and momentum.  “To solve this difficulty,” he counselled, “it would be necessary to relate in a sustained manner the activities of students to the problems and struggles of the masses especially of the organized and revolutionary masses. This would dissolve the psychological barrier which makes student activists think there is no value in their work if it is not dramatic enough to attract wide attention.”  In effect, Baking was saying, and I concur, that a sustained relation between the activism of the youth and students and the work of the revolutionary masses would make the former more relevant and enhance the latter.

In that same speech Baking paid rhapsodic tribute to the masses of the people that he pledged to serve even as he endured bitter disappointments and crushing failures.  “In the most difficult of times,” he said, “it is the revolutionary masses that never lose sight of the revolutionary goals and keep intact the hard core of unity and organization. It is their ardor which keeps aflame the fires of revolution even when everything seems lost. The reassuring warm hand one feels on the shoulders during darkest moments of temporary defeat is often the hand of a peasant worker. This is a tested lesson derived from revolutionary experience….” It was this lesson that he wanted to get off his chest, as soon as he could, to the young people who were eagerly listening to his every word.

As I come to the end of this talk I think of Ka Angel Baking, UP engineer, intellectually gifted, who gave up a promising career in the foreign service to serve the Filipino people through revolutionary struggle, enduring imprisonment for almost two decades, and lending his brilliant mind and experienced hand in the movement’s self-renewal. If during his time they were but a handful to take the difficult path of revolution, the two succeeding generations have produced a bountiful harvest of capable, intensely motivated patriots who have taken up the challenge to carry on.   I am now nearly the same age as Ka Angel was in the early 1990s when I used to visit him and ask for his advice. I am proud to have marched along the same road with him, and I can say to him now with confidence, “Tumula ka, Abe. Be glad, comrade, because the youth will not fail us.” Posted by (Bulatlat.com)

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