Home News features From Manila to Mindanao with Marx and Mao: Talking With : José María Sison

From Manila to Mindanao with Marx and Mao: Talking With : José María Sison

From Manila to Mindanao with Marx and Mao: Talking With :  José María Sison

by Quincy Saul
September 25, 2015

José María Sison, the founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines (described by the New York Times as “the world’s longest running communist insurgency”) goes into detail with Counterpunch about the theories of liberation which guide him and millions of others toward the horizon of a more just and sustainable world. From Marxism to Maoism, from today’s environmental crisis to the ancestral traditions of indigenous peoples, from peace to protracted war, “one of the last real revolutionaries standing,” as Jeffrey St. Clair calls him, weighs in, – with clarity, history, vision and humor – bringing us burning answers to the burning questions of our times.

This is the second part of an interview which appeared earlier this month in Counterpunch. Read part one here: Burning Questions: Talking With José María Sison About Climate Change, Capitalism and Revolution.

Mao once referenced the legend of “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains” (1947): about a man who refused to believe that it was impossible to remove two mountains, and set about with his sons to dig them up by hand over generations. Today, this story reads like a parable of ecological catastrophe in China. The ecological costs of industrial development in China have been well documented by many. What are the lessons to be learned from this? If socialism must be based on further development of the productive forces, then must socialism also be so toxic? Or must we think about the development of the productive forces in a new and different way? What went wrong? What is to be done?

JMS: The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains is a parable, which is an allegory and should be understood as such. It has a precise meaning and purpose. It refers to the removal of the mountains of imperialist and feudal domination. Imperialism and feudalism are man-made social phenomena which are exploitative and oppressive to the people. They are not natural objects to be preserved as a matter of ecological wisdom. They are plunderers of both human and natural resources.

The efforts of the foolish old man and his sons to level or combat the anti-people mountains of imperialism and feudalism are presumed to be wise, even if puny and insufficient, because the mountains can no longer be as high as before, and best of all, the angels (i.e. the people) take pity and come to help themselves and really level the said mountains. Now, do not proceed to accuse Mao of becoming a theologian and transgressing materialist philosophy.

In another famous piece of Mao, he uses the mountains in a simile which you might consider literally and literarily environment-friendly. He considers that the martyrdom of heroes is as heavy as a mountain, while the death of traitors is as light as a feather. There should be no overstretch beyond the clear literary intent and no argument that Mao is against poultry projects.

The socialist revolution and construction under the leadership of Mao should not be conflated or confused with the unbridled plundering and ravaging of the environment in the rapid restoration of capitalism by the Dengist anti-socialists. In this regard, the anti-Mao bureaucratic and private capitalists have satirized Mao as a “feudal socialist”, building socialism self-reliantly and in a sustainable way but on the stagnant feudal conditions of natural self-sufficiency.

Of course, the other more raucous attack on Mao is the caricature of the Great Leap Forward as nothing but the mobilization of the people to kill the birds and let the worms destroy the crops or waste the labor power in making flimsy uneconomic backyard iron furnaces. The Great Leap Forward was in fact a comprehensive social and economic plan to develop China self-reliantly in industry and agriculture, build the communes through social organization ahead of mechanization and defeat the imperialist blockade, the Soviet revisionist abandonment of mutually agreed projects and the natural calamities.

China’s economic growth during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution averaged 10 per cent annually despite the obviously falsified data for certain years by the anti-Mao anti-socialists. The economic plan was to develop agriculture as the basis of the economy, heavy industry as the lead factor and light industry as the bridge of the two aforesaid sectors. Up to the end of socialism in China, the metabolic relationship between nature and society was well-managed and well-conditioned by the absence of the pernicious collaboration of bureaucrat monopoly capitalism, a rising private industrial bourgeoisie and the imperialist monopoly firms.

To be brief, I recall that the Chinese comrades whom I met were proud of the forest belts created to protect Beijing from sandstorms blowing in from deserts. Now, Beijing has become the emblem of China’s ecological catastrophe in the concrete forms of runaway industrial pollution of the air and water and the destruction of the forest belts by private and public construction and industrial activity without taking into account social and ecological costs.

We can sing paeans to primitive communal life and pristine nature and impute an admirable balance between nature and the nomadic clans and more settled tribes. We can actually learn much from the communal and cooperative relations developed in primitive communal society and in extant pre-capitalist indigenous communities. But we are now faced with larger populations on a national scale, the availability of science and higher technology and socialism as the shining alternative to capitalism. Socialism must be based on the further development of both the social relations and the forces of production. We must take a proletarian revolutionary stand, mobilize the masses and use science and higher technology for this purpose.

We must avail of science and technology to solve the contradictions between industrial development and the environment, between physical and mental work, between cities and countryside and between industry and agriculture. We must move away from the model of monster cities. We must prefer small and medium cities, embed them with natural parks and encircled by forests and agricultural fields. We must locate industries properly, promote rural industries reduce or eliminate altogether fossil fuel, recycle waste and filter and properly dispose of toxic waste.

Toward the end of his life, Marx devoted much study to the Iriquois/Haudenosaunee people of North America, and to the Russian peasant communes. Marx wrote that “we must not be afraid of the word archaic,” and said about the Russian peasant commune that “it may thus become the direct starting point of the economic system towards which modern society is tending; it may open a new chapter that does not begin with its own suicide.” He valued the contributions of indigenous peoples and their relations of production, on the grounds that they could be a foundation for socialism. A bit less than a century later, in his essay “Reform our Study” (1941), Mao ridiculed the Marxist-Leninist scholars “who cannot open their mouths without citing Ancient Greece; but as for their own ancestors – sorry they have forgotten… They have become gramophones and forget their duty to understand and create new things…” All this leads me to ask you to elaborate on the many indigenous practices in the Philippines which could be the foundations for building socialism. In particular, I think of bayanihan – “communal solidarity” – (not to be confused with its opposite — Oplan Bayanihan!). We can still see its results today in the ancient rice terraces of Ifugao, where sustainable production has been practiced since before the colonizers came. Also, I think of the self-sufficient farming communities which were base areas for the rebel Dagohoy republic from 1744-1829, which also practiced a form of agro-ecological bayanihan, supporting 10s of 1000s of remontados for over 80 years. Also, I think we should not ignore the spiritual traditions of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines, who revere the nonos [spirits] from which they ask permission before removing anything – plant, animal or mineral – from its place in the ecosystem. Finally, the agrarian communities living on the slopes of Mt. Banahaw, which live in some degree of peace and cooperation in a fusion of indigenous, nationalist and European spiritual traditions… and there are surely others… Do you believe that some of these ancestral indigenous forces and relations of production can be a launching off point for socialism/communism in the Philippines, “a new chapter which does not begin with its own suicide”?

JMS: Marx once referred to the “idiocy of rural life”, criticized the French rich peasant as a remnant of barbarism and contrasted the proletariat as the leading revolutionary class, for being the most progressive political and productive force, to the peasantry as representing a backward system of production and as a class that can join the p revolution for a reactionary reason, like owning individual pieces ofland, against the monopoly of land by the landlords.

By way of giving a complete picture of Marx, instead of a fragmentary one, it is good that you refer to Marx devoting much study to the Iriquois/Haudenosaunee people of North America, and to the Russian peasant communes. He appreciated how much we can learn from the communal and cooperative relations in primitive societies. In fact, communists adhere to the principle that socialism is based on the non-exploitative communal and cooperative life, with the aid of science and technology and higher forms of social organization that reject capitalist control for private profiteering.

In the Preface to the Russian Editions of the Communist Manifesto in 1882, Marx and Engels wrote the following:

“But in Russia we find face to face with the rapidly developing capitalist swindle and bourgeois landed property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is : Can the Russian obshchina (village community), though greatly undermined, yet a form of the primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher of Communist common ownership? Or on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution as constitutes the historical evolution of the West? The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletariat revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a Communist development.”

Before and during the vigorous implementation of collectivization, the peasant communes supported the advance of socialist revolution and construction. It became necessary at a certain point for the greater mass of poor peasants to do away with the profiteering by the rich peasants (kulaks) during the period of the New Economic Policy that sought to revive the Russian economy from the devastation wrought by war and to overcome the scarcities.

In the new democratic stage of the Chinese revolution, the Chinese communists gave full play to rudimentary forms of cooperation in agricultural production and sideline occupations in conjunction with land reform. Building the communes in socialist China meant rising from a certain level of cooperation to a higher one in three stages. Mao emphasized cooperative social organization ahead of mechanization, which was not yet possible. He opposed the Soviet revisionist line of Khruschov that agricultural cooperation was not possible ahead of mechanization.

You are correct in saying that Dagohoy and his followers in the southern Philippines and the highland tribes and remontados (lowland communities that took refuge in the mountains) in northern Luzon could effectively fight the Spanish colonizers because of their self-reliant communal and cooperative relations in agricultural production and otherwise. The same situation holds true among the Lumads (indigenous non-Muslim tribes) of Mindanao. The massive rice terraces in the mountains of Ifugao as well as other marvels of productive and social life among the indigenous peoples have been possible because of communal and cooperative relations. Like bayanihan in Tagalog, all ethno linguistic communities in the Philippines have a term for communal solidarity.

As in the new democratic revolution in China, the Filipino communists give full play to rudimentary cooperation in agricultural production and in sideline occupations in conjunction with land reform. The rudimentary forms of cooperation are already being undertaken by the communities even before land reform. But they are promoted and enhanced more vigorously in order to set the peasants free from exploitation by the landlords and the merchant-usurers. The armed revolutionaries and the people can carry a protracted people’s war because of a well-diversified agricultural economy made more efficient and productive through forms of cooperation, even if still simple and rudimentary.

Right now, the communal and cooperative relations still exemplified by the indigenous people and extant in the peasant communities of the majority Filipinos or Malays are being put to effective use in the current new democratic stage of the Philippine revolution. Filipino communists respect the belief systems attached by the local communities to their productive and social cooperation. They let the masses act in the furtherance of their rights and interests and learn from social practice.

They do educate and recruit to the Communist Party the most advanced elements among the masses. But the Filipino communists take the mass line. They must learn from the masses what is their situation, their needs and aspirations. On the basis of social investigation, they learn how to arouse, organize and mobilize the people. The people may pray hard to anitos, gods, God and the saints for a better crop or good health. But they never oppose the demonstrated efficacy of an agriculturist or health worker among the revolutionaries who come to work among them.

Mao writes: “Unless the problem of method is solved, talk about the task is useless.” And elsewhere: “To become both wise and courageous one must acquire a method, a method to be employed in learning as well as in applying what has been learned.” Tell us about the method of the New People’s Army. They are armed, but moreover they do a great deal of economic, social, and political work; more like community organizers with guns than most people’s typical idea of a guerrilla. What is their method? How was this method developed?

JMS: You can assume that the cadres and members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) have a certain amount of knowledge in the theory and practice of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, in understanding a great deal more about the general line of people’s democratic revolution with a socialist perspective and how to recruit communists from the mass movement.

The New People’s Army (NPA) is the main political and armed instrument of the CPP and the Filipino in defeating the enemy and seizing political power. To make sure that the NPA remain a revolutionary force of the people and is not carried away by its armed power, the CPP exercises political leadership over the NPA through the Central Committee, Military Commission and the Party organs and organizations within the NPA. The NPA unit commander has command over administration and military operations but the political officer makes sure that the Party and the political line are in command over the military.

The main task of the NPA is to undertake politico-military training and carry out offensives against the enemy. A combat unit of the NPA may be ordered to carry out battles with short rest periods for a certain period of the year, say six months. But for the rest of the year, it is required to carry out mass work which includes doing social investigation in new and old areas, carrying out propaganda and grievance meetings, helping to build mass organizations and organs of political power and participating in campaigns to carry out out land reform, raise production, engage in educational work, deliver health services, train the militia and self-defense units, stage cultural performances and resolve disputes among the people.

How do you navigate practically and ideologically between “not taking a needle or piece of thread from the masses,” and revolutionary taxation?

JMS: Taxes are not collected from the toiling masses of workers and peasants. But voluntary contributions are collected from them as a small percentage from gains made from land reform or from wage increases as a result of trade union work. While the percentage of the gains is set, the peasant or worker can negotiate a smaller contribution or none at all when the large size of the family or a major illness in the family or a natural disaster is taken into account. In such cases, the people’s government can extend relief to those in need.

Taxation is a function of the people’s government and is enforced by the people’s army on entities enjoying the privilege of operating a business enterprise. It is usually 4 per cent of the gross revenues of the enterprise and is merely a tiny fraction of what the reactionary government collects. Like the people’s contributions, taxes are used to support the cadres , the Red fighters and mass organizers, the administrative work of the organs of political power, social programs of health care and education, cooperative production projects, disaster relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The Chinese revolution was fought and won by the peasantry. But following the victory of the revolution, the peasantry was sacrificed for the cities: Mao wrote in 1949: “From now on, the formula followed in the past twenty years, ‘First the rural areas, then the cities,’ will be reversed and changed to the formula, ‘First the cities, then the rural areas.’” In today’s planet of slums, with urbanization continuing to accelerate, would you advocate a similar strategy? Or have times changed, calling for a different method and mode of economic development?

JMS: The claims against Mao are wrong. In the period of socialist revolution and construction, Mao´s leadership took into account a balanced relationship between the cities and the countryside at every given time. It deliberately prevented vagabondage, greatly improved agriculture, restricted city-bound migration and thus did not generate slums. It is the anti-socialist counterrevolution started by Deng Xiaoping that put imperialist, big comprador and bureaucrat capitalist profit at the head of China’s economic development and generated the big slums of migrant and low-paid workers in China. The migrant workers gravitated towards the sweatshops on the eastern coast of China.

As you acknowledge, Mao carried out the strategic line of protracted people’s war, which involved encircling the cities from the countryside where the most numerous exploited class, the peasantry, resided and where there was a wide area of maneuver for the people’s army against the initially far superior enemy force. The proletariat and its revolutionary party had to go to the peasants who were the main force of the revolution and who served as the basis for the growth of the people’s from small to big and from weak to strong.

In completing the victory of the people’s war , the largely peasant people’s army under the leadership of the proletariat seized the cities nationwide and took over the camps and vantage points of the enemy army in order to enable the revolutionary party and the people to take over the industrial plants and other economic resources concentrated in the cities. This was the reason for the shift in emphasis from the countryside to the cities in terms of running the national government and leading the economy of the entire country. The Chinese Communist Party led by Mao paid back its debt of gratitude to the peasant masses and the countryside in so many ways.

Land reform was completed nationwide for the benefit of the peasant masses through the cooperation of state power and mass mobilization. The imperialist and big comprador firms that used to ravage the peasant masses and natural resources were nationalized under the socialist system. Learning from the pioneering experience of the Soviet Union in socialist industrialization, China maintained agriculture as the basis of the Chinese economy in order to ensure self-reliance in food and some raw materials. The development of light industry was accelerated in order to provide basic consumer and producer goods to the peasant masses and to lighten the burden of providing food and raw materials for the workers in heavy and basic industries.

Mao wrote famously that “The Aim of War is to Eliminate War… We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.” Please tell us your perspective about the peace talks, mediated by the Norwegians, which are still underway. What are your hopes for the resolution of the war and/or for the revolutionary war?

JMS: From the viewpoint of the revolutionary forces and the Filipino people, the civil war raging in the Philippines for more than 46 years can be ended by a clear victory of the new democratic revolution through a protracted people’s war or by a negotiated just peace addressing the roots of the civil war and based on comprehensive agreements on social, economic and political reforms. The National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) has demonstrated that it can make with the Manila government an agreement, like the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law.

But the Manila government is so bound up with the US-dictated neoliberal economic policy that it has refused to make a Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms, with national industrialization and land reform as the core program. Under US advice, the Manila government has boasted so often that it can destroy or render the armed revolutionary movement irrelevant and that it has no use for negotiations except to obtain the surrender of the people’s army.

The revolutionary forces and the Filipino people represented by the NDFP expect that while their revolutionary strength keeps on growing and the crisis of the world capitalist system and the domestic ruling system keeps on worsening, the reactionary rulers will find it necessary to engage in sincere and serious peace negotiations. The NDFP continues to cooperate with the Norwegian government third-party facilitator and a broad range of peace advocates in trying to bring the Manila government to the negotiating table.

At the beginning of this year, Pope Francis came to the Philippines. The whole world watched when 12 year old Glyzelle Palomar asked the Pope: “Many children get involved in drugs and prostitution. Why does God allow these things to happen to us? The children are not guilty of anything.” The Pope called it “a question for which there is no answer.” How would you respond to Glyzelle?

JMS: I would respond to Glyzelle in the following manner: The biggest criminals in the Philippines are the big compradors, landlords and corrupt bureaucrats who assist the US and other imperialist powers in plundering the human and natural resources of the country, taking out superprofits and making the Filipino suffer underdevelopment, mass unemployment and widepread poverty. Under these conditions, the anti-social crimes of drug trafficking, prostitution and abuse of children are thriving, with the complicity of corrupt government officials and the military and police forces.

The Filipino people and their revolutionary forces can undertake certain measures to punish both the upscale and street criminals. And they are in the best position to eliminate criminal activities upon the complete victory of the new democratic revolution. This revolution realizes full national independence, democracy, social justice, development through national industrialization and land reform, a patiotic and progressive culture, protection of the environment and promotion of international solidarity of peoples for peace and development.

On the theme of culture, in our previous interview, you recommended Mao’s lectures at Yenan. In those lectures, Mao said that one central goal in cultural work is to seek a unity between higher standards and popularization… can you give us some recommendations of cultural work which lives up to this ideal? “A dull witted army cannot defeat the enemy,” as Mao said. So also, please tell us about the cultural work of the NPA/NDFP/CPP.

JMS: Mao states in Talks at Yenan Forum on Literature and Art: “What is meant by popularizing and by raising standards in works of literature and art? What is the relationship between these two tasks? Popular works are simpler and plainer, and therefore more readily accepted by the broad masses of the people today. Works of a higher quality, being more polished, are more difficult to produce and in general do not circulate so easily and quickly among the masses at present.”

In the above quotation, Mao assumes what he states earlier that revolutionary literature and art are for the workers, peasants and soldiers (Red Fighters). Then, he proceeds to distinguish popular works and works of a higher quality. He uses popularization through popular works as the ground level for raising the level of literature and art in various forms.

We can cite as popular works, those which are simpler and plainer and more readily accepted by the broad masses of the people, liker the declamatory poems and songs, drawings on posters, the graffiti on walls, effigies, short stories, skits and one-act plays, flag dances and short films that have been staged during mass protests, workers’ strikes and peasant grievance meetings. We can cite as works of higher quality, those which are more polished and more difficult to produce and circulate, such as novels, epics or whole volumes of poetry, opera, long plays, oil paintings, sculptures and feature films.

The popular works are in great abundance in both the legal mass movement and in the armed revolutionary movement in the countryside. In the latter case, units of the New People’s Army sharpen their fighting will with their own cultural works. Like the mass organizations, they entertain, enlighten and inspire their rural audiences with songs, dances, poetic recitations, skits and film shows. The popular works are effective for propaganda and agitation because they are addressed to the toiling masses, take up the burning issues and call on the masses to rise up. The works of higher quality are also of significant number. They are appreciated by the cadres and masses with a higher level of formal education and by allies who are highly educated in art and social issues,

There are popular works which are of high quality like the poems of Mao. Let me mention the poems of National Artists Amado V. Hernandez, Bienvenido Lumbrera and many other poets. Revolutionary poems, which are considered masterpieces by teachers of literature, have been popularized by recitations or as songs with rousing music. I am fortunate to have some poems of mine become songs with excellent music. There are also revolutionary works of high quality which are popular and difficult to create. These include musicals like Ang Mandirigma Ay Makata (The Guerrila Is a Poet), oil paintings of the social realists and feature films which are shown in movie houses or are already available on DVD.


The History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos, by Luis H. Francia, Overlook Press, 2010

Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and the Peripheries of Capitalism, by Teodor Shanin, Monthly Review Press, 1983

Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, abridged by Bruno Shaw, Harper, 1970