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Rizal and the literature of the Left

By Elmer A. Ordońez
The Other View
The Manila Times
Saturday, December 29, 2007

JOSE RIZAL’s place in the pantheon of national heroes is a secure one—despite efforts to “downgrade” him by pitting him against Andres Bonifacio.

Sen. Claro M. Recto in his 1958 Rizal lecture called him a “realist,” which in the context of the times could mean “cautious” and therefore not yet prone to act. He also called Bonifacio an “idealist,” who saw the need to act against all odds. Hence, the 1896 Revolution.

Certainly Recto was not “downgrading” Rizal; rather he was impatient at the slowness of Filipinos to resist US hegemony at the time. Since 1951 when he delivered what may well be the first post-war salvo against US imperialism in a U.P. commencement address called, “The Roots of Our Mendicancy,” he had not seen any effort to counter US meddling in Philippine affairs. Instead he saw a populist president installed under the aegis of the CIA.

Anyway, Recto persevered in his nationalist drive, calling for a Second Propaganda Movement, which was picked up by the young activists of the late fifties. They derived their observation from Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino that the Filipinos venerated Rizal as the national hero without really understanding why. Bonifaco became the icon of the young activists and it was on his birthday that Kabataang Makabayan was founded.

Yet, on closer look at the writings of the activists, we see another picture. Included in Jose Maria Sison”s Struggle for National Democracy (1967) is a piece titled, “Rizal the ‘Subversive.’” Sison sees Rizal as a leading representative of the “left wing” of the middle class, developing his own “nationalist sentiment and consciousness.”

But what, according to Sison, made Rizal a “progressive and a radical of his own time was his ultimate recognition that the liberties of the individual could be realized only if the nation as a whole, particularly the masses, would be uplifted and enjoy more freedom from an overwhelming system of clerical authoritarians and antiliberals who represented what was long considered backward in the northern parts of Europe.”

Sison says that Rizal’s novels “explored the possibility of reform first” and later “the possibility of revolution.” Ibarra is frustrated in his reformist efforts but the other forces represented by Elias are struggling to fight the oppressors. Pilosopong Tasyo tells Ibarra that “change will ultimately come with the coming in of fresh ideas from abroad.”

In the second novel, the frustrated reformist Ibarra returns in the guise of Simoun the jeweler—what Sison calls the “liberal reformer who becomes an “anarchist” or “putschist.” The concept of a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary was not developed yet.

Rizal’s readings, as those of the ilustrados at the time, included Zola’s Germinal and other anarchist texts. The self-taught Bonifacio himself had the American and French revolutions as his models and the bourgeois Enlightenment (liberty, equality, fraternity) as a source of his nationalist ideology.

Hence, the national democratic activists today call the anti-colonial revolution led by Bonifacio as the first stage of the Philippine revolution and theirs the second. Both activists and politicians were using the term “unfinished revolution” from differing perspectives.

From Rizal’s novels Sison cites Elias and Cabesang Tales as conforming to the classic victims of feudal oppression who would be transformed into “peasant rebels with a mass following waging guerrilla warfare.”

Among other writers from the left who derive material from Rizal are Amado Hernandez who pursued the story of the jewels of Simoun in his Mga Ibong Mandaragit (Birds of Prey). In this anti-imperialist novel, the character Mando Plaridel, a socialist leader, recovers Simoun’s jewels on information provided by Tata Matyas, an old Katipunero, and uses the treasure to set up a school for workers and revolutionaries.

Hernandez’s poems also allude to Rizal’s characters, as in “Kung Tuyo na ang Luha Mo, Aking Bayan” (If your tears have dried up, my country) with the lines “katulad mo ay si Huli, naaliping bayad utang /katulad mo ay si Sisa, binaliw ng kahirapan” (you are like Huli enslaved by usury or like Sisa crazed by suffering); or in “Katipunan,” with the lines “Dati’y Maria Clarang himala ng dilag/naging isang Sisang baliw at gulilat” (once a Maria Clara, a miracle of beauty, turned to a Sisa, insane and frightened). In “Maka-Rizal” Hernandez criticizes the hypocrisy of those who celebrate June 19 (Rizal’s birthday) and December 30.

Epifanio San Juan’s essays attempt to recuperate Rizal (appropriated by US colonialists and ilustrado collaborators in search of a national hero for their Filipino wards) from his perceived apostasy, the Dec. 15 manifesto, where he abjures the armed revolution. San Juan recalls Recto’s “landmark synthesizing of both revolutionaries’ (Rizal and Bonifacio’s) ‘parallel lives’” in 1958. For San Juan, Recto points to a “fatal and unbridgeable dualism which, today, our wide-ranging endeavors to integrate theory and practice are trying mightily to resolve.”

San Juan says: “Not that the Dec. 15 manifesto does not reflect Rizal’s ambivalent attitude to a revolution . . . but to single out this document, as well as to endorse passages from Padre Florentino’s sermons, is to fall into the imperialist trap set by Taft, Roosevelt and their oligarchic flunkies whose thinking and practice exemplify that which Rizal . . . considered utterly anathema: the glorification of slavish egotism, contempt for the laboring masses, and subservience to the elite and its imperialist masters.”



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