“The personal is the political” is a favorite saying of activists and revolutionaries. When they cite this saying, they mean that their personal lives cannot be divorced from the march of history in which they have chosen to play an active part.
Scheduled for a series of book launching in the Philippines starting this week, Jose Maria Sison: At Home in the World – Portrait of a Revolutionary (Conversations with Ninotchka Rosca) provides a concretization of that maxim. The book is at once biography of Jose Maria Sison – a revolutionary intellectual touted as one of the most influential Filipinos of the 20th century and one of the most significant Marxist thinkers since 1848 – and history and analysis of the Philippine national-democratic movement and the world proletarian revolutionary movement.
The exile’s tale
Sison was charged by the Corazon Aquino government with subversion on Sept. 14, 1988, while he was on a lecture tour in Europe. The lecture tour was part of a long series of trips arranged for him by the movement as part of its international work after his release in 1986 from almost nine years of detention.
Says Sison in one of the interviews: “The lectures in the Philippines and abroad had their own importance apart from the armed struggle... It was important to speak about the Philippine revolution and seek international support for it in various countries. People took special interest in me then because of my record as a revolutionary leader and because of the significance of the Philippine revolutionary movement.”
In fact the series of trips were only temporary, since he had definite plans of rejoining the underground. He had gone underground in 1969, the year the New People’s Army was established. Sison recounts that after his release from detention, “interest was high” in his “public meetings, university lectures, seminars, press interviews and other legal activities.” He adds: “Comrades advised me to stay aboveground for a year or so, in order to take advantage of opportunities for open activities in propagating the ideas and policies of the national-democratic movement.”
But then came the subversion charge, and two days later his passport was cancelled. Upon the advice of comrades, he applied for political asylum in The Netherlands. He continues activist work there as chief political consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) panel in the peace negotiations with the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), as well as general consultant of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS).
But Sison also allows Rosca to ask hard questions about himself and the national-democratic movement. The question-and-answer format of the book lets Sison’s words flow freely, context and all: there is no danger of being misinterpreted or deliberately misquoted as usually happens to him in mainstream media.
Many of the hard questions deal with his having been placed by the U.S. government, together with the CPP-NPA, in its list of “foreign terrorists” in late 2002 – which has increased the risks he faces as a hunted man.
“A revolutionary is not a terrorist,” Rosca says in her introduction to the book. The last part consists of two appendices: one the full text of a statement by Sison condemning the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001 while at the same time discoursing on the brand of terrorism committed by the U.S. government, and an article by Rosca assailing the U.S. listing of Sison as a “foreign terrorist.”
In his 9-11 statement, Sison defines terrorism as “the willful and malicious infliction and threat of death and other physical harm on innocent civilians.” While noting that the 9-11 attack was committed in retaliation for U.S. intervention and atrocities, he explains that it is to be condemned like all other terrorist acts, at the same time that he acknowledges that the U.S. imperialism has been guilty of a far more unforgivable brand of terrorism.
“I am sad that ordinary civilians take the main brunt of terrorist acts done in obvious retaliation against the long history and current acts of terrorism of U.S. imperialism,” Sison says in the statement.
“The U.S. no doubt has been a notorious perpetrator of terrorism on a scale far larger than what is now being alleged against the private group of Osama bin Laden,” he adds. “But the people in the U.S. should not be targeted for mass slaughter for the terrorist crimes of the U.S. imperialists.”
In one of the interviews, Rosca asks Sison: “Can one counterpoise revolution to terrorism? How can you achieve a just and lasting peace when the U.S. can terrorize the whole world?”
“Certainly you can and should counterpoise revolution to terrorism,” he replies, “whether this is the state terrorism of the imperialist powers and the puppet states or the nongovernmental terrorism of the likes of Al Qaeda or the Abu Sayyaf. The U.S. has practised the most reprehensible kinds of terrorism, wars of aggression, production of weapons of mass destruction, the atom bombing of civilian populations, the use of chemical warfare and instigation of puppet regimes of open terror that engage in massacres and all kinds of human rights violations.”
Supposed to have been published in 2002, the book was temporarily swept into the sidelines by other pressing concerns. But as the authors state in their preface, “The delay in finishing the book has been beneficial. The time gained allowed us to enrich the book, with questions pertaining to the ‘terrorist’ listing initiated by the U.S. and carried on further by the Dutch government and the European Council against the subject of this book.” That the introduction and the last parts of the book heavily deal with the “terror” tag indicates that the book, since the delay in its publication, had made the debunking – even ridiculing – of the “terrorist” listing among its main goals. And all the interviews seem to fit neatly into the pattern, never mind that it was originally unintended.
Life and thoughts
To reveal a more human aspect of the man who always makes news, Rosca asks some decidedly personal questions: ones that deal with the way he chooses to have fun, how he kicked his smoking habit, and whether he would be rather writing more poetry than prose or the other way around. And Sison gamely obliges.
At the same time there is an extensive discourse on Sison’s way of looking at the world – its past, present, and future. The interviews showing Sison’s views on the national-democratic revolution in the Philippines and the world proletarian revolution are meant to unearth the comprehensive ideology behind Sison’s advocacy of people’s war, backed up by other forms of struggle, as means of changing the way things are – with the ultimate goal of contributing toward bringing about a life fit for humans the world over.
On the question of whether a just and lasting peace can be achieved through the GRP-NDFP peace talks and whether these can replace the revolutionary armed struggle, Sison has this to say: “There are peace negotiations because there is an armed struggle between the revolutionary forces of the people and the counterrevolutionary forces of the ruling classes. The contending sides have agreed to negotiate in order to address the roots of the armed conflict, make reforms beneficial to the people and thus pave the way for a just and lasting peace.
“The Filipino people and the NDFP know what they want to achieve from the peace negotiations. They have no illusions that genuine peace cannot be achieved through negotiations alone. It is clear that the line of struggle for a just and lasting peace is the same as the line of struggle for national liberation and democracy.
“The revolutionary armed struggle is the sure process of empowering the people and satisfying their demands. The peace negotiations conducted by the most competent negotiators cannot go beyond what the people’s armed revolution can achieve and therefore cannot replace it.”
At home in the world
In the March 30, 1994 poem “Sometimes, the Heart Yearns for Mangoes,” one of the several Sison poems that bridge the gaps between chapters, the interviewee says: “The well-purposed exile continues/To fight for his motherland/Against those who banished him,/The unwelcome exploiters of his people,/And he is certain that he is at home/In his own country and the world.”
The poem captures the essence of Jose Maria Sison’s life, and is fit to be what the book makes it: one of the closing pieces to a chronicle of the life, thoughts and works of a prominent, definitely well-purposed exile. Bulatlat