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Introspection in Exile
A Book Review of Jose Maria Sison: At Home in the World
Conversations with Ninotchka Rosca
Published in the U.S. by Open Hand Publishing House, 2004

By Bobby Tuazon
Exclusive to Philippine Graphic
16 August 2004

Forced by the Philippine government to live in exile in The Netherlands 17 years ago, Jose Maria Sison today ponders over the prospects of the national democratic revolution which he helped father some four decades past. Asked by novelist and journalist Ninotchka Rosca whether “the new-democratic revolution can win” and the socialist construction can begin in the Philippines “within his lifetime,” Sison says it “is probable, but it is not certain. It is probable because of the continuing revolutionary efforts of the people in the Philippines and elsewhere. But I do not know exactly how long I shall live…”

“What matters to me,” Sison continues, “is my striving to contribute the most and the best that I am capable of.”

Modest words for a man whose ideological leadership helped make the national democratic revolution in the Philippines the longest surviving national liberation struggle in Asia today. Not even the full armed machinery of the government backed by the world’s lone superpower – the United States – could crush this home-grown and self-reliant revolutionary movement over the past 30 years. After suffering some setbacks in the late 1980s-early 1990s, often attributed to erroneous lines and leadership ambitions of a few leading cadres, the liberation struggle today stands – as far as the Armed Forces of the Philippines is concerned – as the main “security threat.”

When he was defense minister during the Marcos dictatorship, Juan Ponce Enrile once said that in order for government to defeat the armed movement it must be able to deploy full-time functionaries who are as dedicated as the revolutionaries. He had in his Camp Aguinaldo office collections of the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao Zeodung and other communist thinkers – he was studying the enemy. He also thought that in order to defeat the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), government needed more powerful ideas.

Failed approach
To the extent that one must offer a more powerful ideology in order to defeat a revolution that is driven by theory, Enrile must have been right. But of course, his own superior’s “New Society Ideology” was designed to legitimize the dictatorship and its state apparatus. And it was not “winning the hearts and minds” campaigns or socio-economic solutions that Marcos – and his successors – tried to resort to but rather military force that became the main instrument used for breaking the backbone of the revolution. So far, this approach has failed.

Ninotchka Rosca’s new book, Jose Maria Sison: At Home in the World, Portrait of a Revolutionary, takes the reader to the Marxist-Leninist ideology that continues to sustain the Philippines’ national democratic revolution. The book is a window to understanding the reasons why the armed revolutionary movement rages; it shares the theoretical perspective and the world view that enable one to grasp the concrete conditions of the Philippines that fuel the revolution and the prospects of a socialist surge throughout the world.

Before At Home in the World, Rosca, who is based in New York, has had five published books including the novel State of War and some 400 by-lined articles. Acclaimed internationally, she has received several press and literary awards, including the American Book Award for the novel, Twice Blessed. She is now in the Philippines to promote the book.

The book is written in collaboration with Sison whose contribution is drawn largely from a series of conversations with Rosca in The Netherlands from 2001-2003. At Home in the World could have been published earlier had not the collaborative work been stalled by the inclusion of Sison in 2002 in the “foreign terrorist list” of the United States and some European Union countries. Now, according to Sison, as a result of the renewal of the U.S. “terrorist” listing of himself and the CPP-NPA this early August, initial royalties from the publication of the book have been frozen.

Sison’s poetry
Sison, who is now 65, has written books including the Struggle for National Democracy, Philippine Struggle and Revolution, Philippine Economy and Politics and several others. In the late 1986 or months after his release from nearly 10 years of Marcos imprisonment, he received the Southeast Asia WRITE Award for Poetry in Thailand.

Sison the writer and poet is also Sison the revolutionary practitioner. In one of his conversations with Rosca, he talks about his legacy to the Filipino people as one of “integrating Marxism-Leninism with the concrete conditions and practice of the Philippine revolution.” That includes, among others, defining the character of the Philippine revolution as national democratic based on a semi-feudal and semi-colonial society.

In one way or the other, he has also been a political fugitive from the time he was at the center of the rebuilding of the CPP and then the formation of the NPA in the late 1960s, during the First Quarter Storm that led to the imposition of martial law and his arrest in 1977 as Marcos’s “most wanted person.” He continues to face danger even in exile in the form of assassination plots and now, his being included in the “FTO” list.

More determined
But, as he reveals to Rosca, he is not somebody who runs away from danger. The risks that Sison continues to face are not as greater as the suffering Filipino masses face everyday, he says, but these also somehow make him more determined as ever to keep his political faith.

At Home in the World appears to be a heavy stuff though when one goes through the six chapters of conversations between the two authors about Sison’s early years as a young revolutionary, the twists and turns of the revolutionary movement and on the Philippine and global situation.

But, as publisher Richard A. Koritz explains, this is one way of giving full play to the two writers’ literary strengths. Rosca provides the biographical sketch and the human side of the revolutionary while Sison through the interviews synthesizes the thoughts that allow the reader to understand him as a political thinker and why he remains influential not only among activists and revolutionaries at home but also throughout the world.

One may disagree with Sison and swear on him as your enemy (he has been demonized as a “terrorist” since Marcos) - as do countless politicians, so-called Rejectionists, social democrats, the AFP and the U.S. Embassy. Yet he is, as American political science Prof. Robert Gorham notes, among the most important 210 Marxists since the 1848 publication of the Communist Manifesto. At home, he is said to be among three Filipinos who changed the contours of Philippine politics: the other two are Marcos and Benigno Aquino, Jr. Former radical and now anti-communist Rigoberto Tiglao said in a weekly magazine two years ago that had Sison’s historical destiny been rerouted, he could have been a good presidential material.

In the book, Rosca profiles Sison up close so that one gets to know the person as your own average guy, a smoker who quits the vice after a hard struggle, for instance, or who dances and sings during small social gatherings.

“By giving up a life of comfort, by electing to go underground, by involving himself not only in leading but also immersing himself in revolutionary armed struggle,” Rosca says of her colleague, “Prof. Sison hammered home the ideal of praxis: as you say life should be lived, so should your own life be lived…Armchair of cappuccino political theorists have not been held in any kind of respect in the Philippines ever since.”

After years of living and writing in New York, Rosca reveals herself – in her own way – as being also “at home in the world” by the sharpness of her inquiries that bring out the gems in Sison’s political convictions. This makes At Home in the World not only as a collaborative but also a perfect collective work in the revolutionary tradition. #


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