The intransigence of Joma Sison

After his arrest in 1977, Philippine communist leader Joma Sison was presented to the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. He could have negotiated his release with his fellow Ilocano by pledging loyalty to the ‘New Society’. He could have altered the course of history by agreeing to surrender his beliefs and disowning the national democratic resistance. But his will to survive and fight for his beliefs kept him in jail for nine years. He was tortured and placed under solitary confinement.

His detractors today deliberately understate Sison’s incarceration as if this was a sacrifice and punishment he deserved to endure as a communist ideologue. They would appear inconsistent and lose credibility in vilifying Sison’s integrity as a person and revolutionary if it’s emphasized that he bravely defied the tyrant as a writer, activist, guerilla, and prisoner.

After his release in 1986, Sison could have been one of the celebrated ‘progressive’ preachers of the so-called democratic space in the new government. But the radical Sison chose to describe things for what they really were. Why obfuscate analysis if the semi-feudal and semi-colonial situation of the country persists. Why glamorize token reformism if the revolutionary demand can be advanced. He was on a lecture tour in Europe exposing the country’s sham democracy when his passport was canceled by the Cory Aquino government.

It was a challenging era for Sison and comrades residing in the West as Maoist exiles. This was during the fall of Berlin, the denigration of Stalin and Mao, and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. Back in the homeland, a rectification campaign had painfully divided the communist movement.

In the eyes of the ruling classes, the Left was imploding. President Fidel Ramos even repealed the anti-Subversion Law and offered reconciliation to entice the surrender of the remaining communist rebels.

Against these odds, Sison worked hard with other socialists in defending the legacy of Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism. They were consistent in pointing out that it was modern revisionism, not socialism, which got discredited in Russia and China. They espoused the continued propagation of Marxist teachings at a time when the academe and mainstream book publishing was vigorously embracing postmodernism and free market globalization.

Photo from Joma Sison Facebook page.

Meanwhile, Sison also became actively engaged in the peace process in the 1990s. Looking back, Sison could have lobbied for a profitable deal with the Ramos government like what Moro leader Nur Misuari did by accepting a diluted autonomy in response to the demand for self-determination. But what Sison and the National Democratic Front clinched was the passage of a landmark human rights agreement and the drafting of a comprehensive agenda on how to pursue the peace process.

After being tagged as a terrorist in 2002, Sison said he was thinking of retirement to lead a contemplative life. Despite his asylum status, he was detained in The Netherlands in 2007.

He has repeatedly asserted that the revolutionary movement in the Philippines has its own leadership.

But despite his avowal, his senior age, and his obvious distance from the homeland, he is still widely regarded as the leading figure of the Left. He has been living outside the country for three decades yet the military continues to accuse him of giving combat directives to the NPA.

Because he remains an eminent icon of the revolution, he is prone to troll attacks and vitriolic comments from ideological rivals.

He could have stayed silent and retire like what many of his contemporaries are doing now but he remains an active voice in Philippine politics.

His writings became more accessible in the Internet age and he often interacts with the young through social media. He republished his bestselling books on Philippine revolution aside from releasing his new collection of essays and poems. He is the leader of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle while performing a vital role in the local peace process.

As political science professor to President Rodrigo Duterte during the latter’s university days, he could have negotiated a quieter and comfortable position in the new government. But he didn’t’ acquiesce to Duterte’s fentanyl-driven demands of capitulation and loyalty; and because of this, he became a constant target of the president’s incoherent rants.

At 79, Sison is still seen as a top security threat. Duterte wanted Sison’s cooperation in resolving the armed conflict. Sison responded by explaining the significance of resuming the peace talks. We expected this but few failed to recognize the radicalness of this gesture. He was offered a chance to assume an exalted place in mainstream history but he chose the long-term vision and interest of the national democratic movement. Rather than negotiating peace for the surrender of the NPA, Sison and the NDF didn’t back down and instead, they pursued the prioritization of the comprehensive agenda for substantial reforms in the economy and governance.

The enemy was prepared to deal with political actors who can be easily distracted by perks and other spoils of the bureaucracy but they seemed unprepared, perplexed and annoyed by Sison’s notorious indefatigability in pushing for land reform, national industrialization, and amnesty for political prisoners.

Some of Sison’s critics mock him by insisting that he ceased to be politically-relevant after 1986. But three decades later, Sison is still at it; exchanging unpleasantries with no less than the country’s president, a prolific analyst of the global political economy, and an unrepentant militant of the unrelenting national democratic movement.

It seems he has not yet done creating his history.

But despite being a public figure, Sison doesn’t represent his generation. He doesn’t share the life story of most of his friends and relatives who may be nonconformists at one point but never a full-time radical throughout their lives.

His writings have always been unique. Even in his younger days, when his Marxist-inspired writings first shook Philippine politics, many found his prose to be peculiar because of the concepts he introduced (which would later gain popular understanding), the piercing sharpness of his polemics, the unbelievable intelligibility of his political analysis (compared to the unbearable complexity of some academic writing), and the committed partisanship to the cause of the working class.

Sison embodied the life of a revolutionary. Even his detractors must acknowledge how he diligently worked for the realization of his theoretical vision whether he was inside the university, a guerrilla zone, prison cell, or living in exile.

Since he laid down the framework that jumpstarted the national democratic struggle, the ruling classes and their apologists are fanatically demonizing him in a bid to ridicule the activists of the movement.

One of their accusations against Sison is his refusal to compromise his principles. Sison is actually known for advocating different tactics for different situations but he is unyielding when it comes to propositions that would undermine the movement.

Perhaps he is intransigent. But applied to revolutionaries like Sison, this term loses its negative connotation. And if Sison’s credentials as a revolutionary would serve as a benchmark for other revolutionaries, then it behooves us to remember the significance of staying true to our fighting tasks. An insurgent and intransigent in a resurgent resistance. (

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email:

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