Why Filipinos need to read Joma

Jose Maria Sison (Photo by Jon Bustamante)


The death of Jose Maria Sison leaves a valuable question: why should we continue reading the extensive body of work he has left behind? Could Sison’s writings still bear relevance in this day and age and hold up in the test for revolutionary potential?

Answering these questions brings us back to discussions on the framework of revolutionary aesthetics, which concerns the potential of prose or any form of art to arouse and eventually mobilize people. Coming from this lens, we need to be reminded that beyond form and language, a body of work must be put into context and analyzed with its historical background in mind. Beyond the rhythm and flow of words, criticism should concern itself with the political consciousness that the work portrays, on how class contradictions are represented or made utterly invisible.

In Sison’s extensive body of work, including the book “Crisis Generates Resistance,” the first volume in the series entitled “Peoples’ Struggles against Oppression and Exploitation, Selected Writings, 2009-2015,” one need not dissect the choice of words and the turns of phrase to find nuggets of revolution. In unequivocal terms, his writings shout about the need to continue arousing, organizing, and mobilizing among various sectors of society to attain genuine social change. He speaks of the need for revolution, not in the subdued tones typical of the contemporary art scene – but in a loud, explicit, and unmistakable manner.

Tool for analysis

There is a resurging need, especially in the youth’s ranks, for such a progressive, critical, and direct writing style.

Without fully generalizing, the present crop of up-and-coming writers and artists, even the progressive ones, are choosing to ride on the tide of contemporary culture. Though many contemporary writings and artworks have revolutionary potential –even branded as progressive and thought-provoking – most stop short of maximizing their progressive themes. In the strained pursuit of being “hip” and “in” in the eyes of popular culture, there permeates an attempt to seemingly gloss over the grittiness of the revolutionary message, diluting the underlying militancy.

This wave of tamed resistance has even crept into the ranks of progressives. One relevant and recent example is how the subdued patina of modernity seemingly glossed the calls attempting to combat red-tagging. “Activism is not terrorism,” for one, falls directly into the trap of state propagandists that want to normalize equating activism and the continuing revolution in the countryside with terrorism. This slogan is a vivid example of how it is easy to fall victim to the turn of phrases bereft of necessary contexts and analysis. These muted attempts at cornering progressives to a corner is something that Sison has continued to warn against and battled in the over 30 volumes of essays and poems that he has written.

This is why, more than ever, people – especially the youth – should read Sison again. While the late revolutionary’s body of work can seem intimidating, it is a valuable treasure trove that he has carefully collated to serve as a reference and an essential tool for analysis.

With the dominant culture systematically cutting short even the reader’s attention span, it might not seem easy to return to reading Sison. Unadorned, simple, and grounded, his words weave no fantasy but the truth of the heightening global crisis of capitalism. Yet his message is so fundamental to the people’s struggle for national democracy that it should be an unwritten task of the current generation of young activists to learn how to read his works again.

Sison’s style of writing – clear, point-blank, and agitating – a style of writing also reflected in the revolutionary paper Ang Bayan – is a style that many now aspire to. As millennials and Gen Z are generations raised in the age of the Internet, generations constantly subjected to the aspirations of popular culture – the culture of instant gratification, the cult of consumerism, there is an urgent need to turn to revolutionary writings like that of Sison not only as a way to counteract the dominant consumerist culture, but to regain a sense of radicalism unsullied by the passing fads and distractions of the present digital age. At a time when the voices of dissent continue to be cornered and pushed farther to the margins of political space, we need to regain that militant and assertive writing style, both in form and substance. At a time when political writings are considered trite and lackluster by the dominant culture, we must rise above the momentary distractions and see the importance of asserting the need for agitating political discussions.

Joma lives

Sison’s essays are not mere musings – they are, in fact, clear instructions for advancing the people’s struggle for genuine social change. For example, the series Crisis Generates Resistance’ contains essential reading material. Essays such as “What the People Can and Must Do about the Financial and Economic Crisis” and “Salient Points of the International Situation” and their many variations were widely discussed in the wake of the 2008 US financial crisis. When the youth struggled to comprehend the subprime mortgage crisis, Sison’s analyses were instrumental in forging sharp critiques that flowed into discussions in university corridors and writings published in campus papers.

In his frequent messages to the Filipino youth, he captures the fundamental problem besieging our sector. In his message to the League of Filipino Students in 2009, he said, “The Filipino student youth are victims not only to the rising costs of living and study but also to the reactionary content of education or miseducation. They are systematically diverted from the consciousness that is patriotic, scientific, and people-oriented. Those who control the educational system, the mass media, and other institutions seek to alienate them from the people’s demand for national independence, democracy, social justice, development and international solidarity and peace against imperialism and all reaction.”

In Sison’s large body of work, one can find several essays and interviews instructing how the progressive movement should tackle and handle national elections. We need to review his work, especially as the nation enters a new Marcos era, and review how elections can be a platform for change but how it is also not the end-all and be-all in pursuing genuine social change.

For example, in his message to the founding assembly of the Makabayan Coalition entitled “Consolidate the People’s Gains in the Electoral Struggle,” he said, “To be truly a political force advancing the politics of change and reforms, Makabayan should always be close to the people, especially to the toiling masses of workers and peasants, learning from them, trusting them and relying on them. By following such mass line, you can learn how best to engage in political education, increase your organized strength and mobilize the masses for denouncing the oppressive and exploitative character and policies of the reactionary government and demanding immediate basic social, economic, political, and cultural reforms in the direction of fundamental social transformation.”

The series of interviews granted to alternative media outfits Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly also provides a concrete guide on handling alliances with dominant parties and what to expect in the aftermath of the reactionary electoral exercise. Sison grimly reminds us of the illusion of change brought about by the reactionary elections: “Without a strong mass movement to advance their national and democratic interests, the Filipino people will continue to be oppressed and exploited with impunity by the foreign monopolies, the big compradors-landlords, and the corrupt bureaucrats. The socioeconomic and political crisis of the ruling system will continue to worsen. The ruling clique and the ruling classes of big compradors and landlords will become more incapable of ruling in the old way.”

Sison may have passed on, but the monumental body of work he has left reminds us, in clear and uncompromising words, why the Philippine revolution is continuing and why no shallow cosmetic “reforms” can extricate Philippine society from falling further into the chasm opened by global capitalism. Sison lives on, through his body of work, that would undoubtedly serve as a wellspring and compass for Filipinos, young and old, in the ensuing years. (https://www.bulatlat.org)

Editor’s note: The original version of this article was first delivered as a speech by the author in the launch of Jose Maria Sison’s book ‘Crisis Generates Resistance,’ Volume 1 of the series ‘Peoples’ Struggles against Oppression and Exploitation, Selected Writings, 2009-2015’ in Manila in December 2015.

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