Home News features On art, culture, science, and ecology: An interview with Jose Maria Sison

On art, culture, science, and ecology: An interview with Jose Maria Sison

On art, culture, science, and ecology: An interview with Jose Maria Sison

Contributors May 16, 2017
Prof. Jose Ma. Sison

(Artwork by Renan Ortiz)

“Without propaganda by the revolutionary forces and people, the propaganda of the imperialists and reactionaries would prevail without any challenge.”


This is an edited transcript of interview with Prof. Jose Maria Sison held on January 24, 2015 in Utrecht. The interview covers various topics, ranging from art, cultural and propaganda work within the national democratic movement as well as the role of science, technology and environmental protection in the vision of the mass movement for social change.

LISA ITO (LI): Can you tell us more how you have been actively collaborating with artists on various cultural projects? How did you first get involved and how do you view these collaborations and projects?

JOSE MA. SISON (JMS): Since my high school days, I have collaborated with artists on various cultural initiatives and projects because I have developed an interest in these as a creative writer, particularly as a poet. I have trained in and done some painting and have taken part in dramatic presentations. In the university, I acted in a number of stage productions and have associated with actors who would become movie directors and actors. I attend art exhibits because of my previous interest in painting and my humanities courses in the UP. I have participated in poetry readings up to the time I was on a global university tour.

LI: Who are your favourite poets and writers? Were there any particular figures who influenced your work as a poet? Whose work are you reading now?

JMS: My favorite poets include Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Pablo Neruda, Amado Hernandez and Chairil Anwar (whose Indonesian poems I translated in 1962). Other favorite writers are Maxim Gorky, John Steinbeck, Carlos Bulosan and Bertolt Brecht. I am not reading a creative work at the moment. I am reading lots of analysis of the Philippine and global situation.

LI: You mentioned an interest in painting. Do you have any favourite visual artists or artworks? What or whose practices do you find interesting?

JMS: Among my favorite visual artists are the contemporary social realist painters in the Philippines. I look intently at their works whenever these are published.

LI: Are there any songs that you are particularly fond of? Can you give us a timeline of songs that also defined the different stages of your life as a revolutionary?

JMS: The Communist Internationale since the early 1960s, Awit ng Kabataang Makabayan and Gumising Ka, Kabataan since 1964, Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa and Bayan Ko since the 1980s, Awit ng Proletaryo since 1990s and Ang Gerilya’y Tulad ng Makata since the first decade of the 21st century.

On the SCAUP, Kabataang Makabayan and cultural work

LI: Tell us more about the days when the Student Cultural Association of the University of the Philippines (SCAUP) and Kabataang Makabayan (KM) were being established in the 1960s. How did you as organisers relate to other artists or artistically-inclined people? How were they mobilised and how important was their work?

JMS: We in SCAUP were able to relate first to some creative writers—such as essayists, poets and playwrights—especially because we came to know them as colleagues in the school publications and the little magazines where they were editors and feature writers. The Kabataang Makabayan also began with creative writers and a few visual artists. However, as the KM grew, we were able to recruit the youth in the performing arts and in the schools of fine arts and architecture.

The KM had its Cultural Bureau for the purpose of organizing and directing the creative writers in Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan (PAKSA), the central cultural performing group Panday Sining and its subsidiaries under various names in various schools, factories and localities and the Nagkakaisang Progresibong Artista-Arkitekto (NPAA).

In the years of 1969 to 1972, the PAKSA was responsible for essays, poems, skits and plays; Panday Sining for indoor and outdoor performances including vocal and instrumental music, dance, poem recitations; and NPAA for topical cartoons, comics, thematic illustrations, effigies, paintings on canvas murals and some sculptural works. Various art forms were displayed and orchestrated during the street mass actions, especially the First Quarter Storm of 1970.

LI: What was SCAUP’s role in terms of building a movement against the dominant culture then?

JMS: The organizing of the SCAUP was of crucial importance. It challenged the dominant anti-national, anti-scientific and anti-working people culture bred by colonial and feudal history and by the current semi-colonial and semi-feudal conditions. It opposed colonial and medieval mentality and advocated a national, scientific and mass culture. It put forward the national democratic line at the open mass level and undertook Marxist-Leninist studies as the discreet level. It vigorously opposed the Anti-Subversion Law and the anti-communist witchhunt against faculty members and students who had published progressive articles. It was a time of rabid anti-communism due to the Cold War, McCarthyism and a very reactionary kind of Catholic student action.

The SCAUP supported the faculty members and student writers who were progressive liberals in opposition to the state anti-communist line and the religio-sectarianism of the UPSCA (UP Student Catholic Action) and the Catholic hierarchy. It had an alliance with the bourgeois liberals in general. At the same time, it was critical of the conservative pro-imperialist liberalism of the University of the Philippines and criticized most the faculty members who were outspokenly pro-imperialist, anti-communist and religio-sectarian as well as the US scholarship and travel grants that had spawned them.

LI: What lessons from the experience of SCAUP are important to the activists now?

JMS: We recruited into the SCAUP students with academic grades who could run for position in the student government, those who could write well so that they could become Collegian editors and staffers and those who were leading fraternities, sororities and other student organizations. To be able to engage in big student mass actions, like the anti-CAFA demonstration in 1961, the SCAUP forged an alliance with other campus organizations. From this account of SCAUP experience, students of the current generation can learn some lessons on how to build a movement to counter the dominant culture.

On the call for a Second Propaganda Movement

LI: Your earliest essays in the 1960s emphasized the need for a Second Propaganda Movement. How can we respond to this call for a counter-cultural movement against the dominant culture at present?

JMS: The Second Propaganda Movement perseveres as a cultural movement to inspire, promote and invigorate the continuation of the Philippine revolution at a new and higher level of people’s struggle, under the leadership of the working class against modern imperialism and local reaction. The general line of the people’s democratic revolution and the demand for national, scientific and mass culture remains valid against persistent adversities.

LI: What are the new conditions that the movement faces?

JMS: The adoption of new and higher technology has at first been favorable to imperialism. But it has led to the faster and worse recurrence of the crisis of overproduction and financial speculation and financial crisis. The revolution in information technology has at first favored production, consumerism and imperialist propaganda. But digital communications have also facilitated the spread of revolutionary ideas and propaganda and the calls for mass resistance.

After revisionism destroyed the big socialist societies, neocolonialism prevailed over nearly the entire third world and neoliberalism held sway over nearly the entire world, the US seemed to last long as the sole superpower and the cause of national independence and socialism would be frustrated forever. But all major contradictions in the world are worsening and favoring the resurgence of the revolutionary movement. The inter-imperialist contradictions have becoming more intense as result of China and Russia becoming major capitalist powers. So the potential for the world proletarian revolution is high.

LI: How important is propaganda work in this time of intensified crisis and modern revisionism in former socialist states?

JMS: Propaganda is exceedingly important. It is necessary to arouse and educate people to wage social revolution. Without propaganda by the revolutionary forces and people, the propaganda of the imperialists and reactionaries would prevail without any challenge.

Since the revisionist-ruled countries became fully capitalist in the 1989-1991 period, the imperialists have spread the propaganda that the socialist cause is dead and even the cause of national liberation and democracy is dead. They also try to obscure in vain the total bankruptcy of the neoliberal economic policy, the economic crisis as the fuel to the wars of aggression and the resurgence of the anti-imperialist and socialist movements.

LI: What does it mean to be an effective propagandist?

JMS: To be a propagandist, you must write down your piece. Before writing, you must get enough information and ideas by reading or discussing with others. You must know your subject and analyze the issue or issues involved. Your purpose is to inform and educate your readers. Get them to join a certain action or campaign and have a lasting interest in the national democratic movement of the people.

On the propagation of Mao Zedong’s talks on art and literature

LI: You were able to attend the 25th anniversary of the Yenan Talks on Literature and Art in back 1967. Can you tell us more about this? What happened and what relevant lessons did you get from this engagement?

JMS: Yes, I attended the seminar in Beijing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Comrade Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art. I was one of the speakers. The Afro-Asian Writers’ Bureau sponsored the seminar and published my speech in its publication, The Call. The seminar was attended by high Chinese officials. At the end of the seminar Comrade Mao Zedong met us.

Many important progressive writers of the third world attended the seminar. The wide influence of Mao’s talks on literature and art was manifested. After coming from the seminar, I encouraged other Filipino writers and artists to read and study Mao’s talks. Thus, his thinking on the subject gained influence in the Philippines.

LI: What, for you, were the aspects of Mao’s thinking on art, culture and propaganda that were particularly relevant to the Philippine struggle?

JMS: We appreciate and accept as relevant and useful to the Philippine struggle. Mao’s thinking on the relationship of the socio-economic, political and cultural aspects of society, culture as the finest product of social activity and as the reflection of the economy and politics, literature and art as being reflective of the ruling system and ruling class and therefore the need for art, culture and propaganda reflective of the rights, interests and aspirations of the revolutionary forces and people. The heroes and role models should no longer be the outstanding figures of the exploiting classes but the revolutionary workers, peasants and the Red cadres and fighters.

Artwork by Dee Ayroso

On Building a People’s Culture

LI: What do you think are current threats towards building a “people’s culture” in the Philippines, in light of contexts and challenges such as the ASEAN integration?

JMS: In the first place, US imperialism and the local exploiting classes of big compradors and landlords are responsible for the dominance of a pro-imperialist bourgeois and feudal culture in the Philippines. They generate threats to the people’s culture that has been developing as national, scientific and mass in character. They are trying to suppress history from a patriotic Filipino viewpoint and are discouraging the use of the national language at the university level. The courses of study in the social sciences and textbooks are prepared by pro-imperialist academics. The framework of ASEAN integration, for instance, is being used to favor English and the pro-imperialist orientation.

It is really the national democratic movement and its corps of patriotic educators, writers and artists who are
promoting a national, scientific and mass culture. The national language may not be depreciated in the mass media and movies as much as in the schools. But in both mass media and schools, language is used to carry and promote anti-national, feudal and anti-democratic ideas.

LI: A project spearheaded by the New World Summit, the Artist Organizations International (AOI) in January 2015, tried to explore the question of solidarity among artist organizations. How important to the people’s struggle is unity among artists and developing a cultural mass movement?

JMS: International solidarity of artists’ organizations is important and necessary because it must confront and struggle against such global forces of monopoly capitalism, which exploits and oppresses the people of the world. Imperialism deploys multinational firms and banks, agencies of surveillance and subversion and military forces for intervention and wars of aggression.

The artists’ organizations must learn together and know what issues to take up and how to take them up against imperialist forces and their local agents. They must present their programs of action and artistic products, hold conferences and festivals, inspire each other, learn from each other and strive for higher levels of achievements in the struggle against imperialism and its local reactionary agents.

LI: You spoke of the role of language, history, and theory in building a people’s culture. Are there any other aspects that we should also consider?

JMS: We should take into account and call for the propagation and application of science and technology as an instrument of development in the economy and other aspects of society. We should give full play to the knowledge and abilities of our scientists, technologists and engineers in the development of the country, the improvement of the quality of life and protection of the environment. We should also avail of the advances of science and technology on a global scale to serve our national needs.

LI: How should one view the fast paced discoveries in nearly all fields of science?

JMS: The fast paced discoveries in nearly all fields of science should be used to benefit humankind, serve social needs and the cause of national and social liberation, promote economic productivity, political freedom and cultural creativity and improve the qualify of life.

It should not to serve the profit motive and greed of the few that belong to the monopoly bourgeoisie and financial oligarchy and not to generate the weapons of mass destruction and not to unleash state terrorism and wars of aggression.

LI: What do you think is the role of science and industry in the Filipino people’s struggle for national liberation and democracy?

JMS: Science and industry have a vital role in the people’s struggle for national liberation and democracy. Even while the revolutionary movement is not yet in power in the urban areas, there are certain policy and practical needs for knowledge and skills in science and technology in the countryside.

That is why scientists and technologists are always being encouraged to join the revolutionary movement. When the revolutionary movement takes power over the cities and the entire country, science and technology will be used to carry out national industrialization, protection of the environment and other tasks in an all-sided social development.

Steel bar production (Photo from Steel Asia video, 2016)

On national industrialization

LI: What is national industrialization?

JMS: National industrialization has a foundation in heavy and basic industries and is capable of producing capital goods and processing the rich natural resources of the Philippines from the primary stage through the secondary stage to the tertiary stage. National industrialization may be carried out by the Philippine state and the Filipino private sector. It is not dependent on foreign ownership.

The neoliberal policy of imperialist globalization amounts to denationalization of the Philippine economy by violating and selling out economic sovereignty and the national patrimony and letting foreign firms take full advantage of investment and trade liberalization, privatization of public assets and the anti-social and anti-environmental deregulation.

National industrialization in combination with land reform has never been done in the Philippines. Thus, the underdevelopment. What is passed off as industrialization in the Philippines is dependent on imported equipment or on components in semi-manufacturing or low value-added processing.

LI: Science, technology and IT are important to an industrial base. How can we transform our economy into a modern and diverse economy?

JMS: We have a more than adequate number of scientists and technologists to start with. And we can accelerate the education and training of these as we carry out national industrialization.
Filipino scientists and technologists can be encouraged to return home permanently or to carry out specific projects and programs. Foreign scientists and technologists can also be encouraged to help on the basis of international solidarity aside from those foreign experts that temporarily accompany initially imported equipment.

According to an old study which remains valid, Philippines is fortunate is to have 14 out of the 16 minerals needed for industrial development. We have the natural resources on which our scientists and technologists can work on. Taiwan and South Korea were agrarian and underdeveloped and had less scientists and technologists than we have when they started to industrialize.

LI: Some say that industrialization will only worsen global warming, so why should the Philippines pursue such a trajectory of industrialization?

JMS: National industrialization can be carried out with the use of non-fossil fuel or with the greatly reduced use of fossil fuel while increasingly using non-fossil fuel. Such kind of industrialization will make the Philippines a model of development. With the appropriate program of national industrialization, we can wisely conserve and use our natural resources, instead of the wanton mining and export of mineral resources.

With continuing underdevelopment due to lack of national industrialization, we suffer the consequences of the plunder of the natural resources and destruction of the environment by foreign monopoly interests. We suffer more severe typhoons, floods, landslides, soil erosion, droughts, poisoning of the land and water resources. Underdevelopment also involves widespread poverty and want, malarial swamps and greater proneness to diseases and even epidemics.

NPA guerillas marching during their 48th Anniversary celebration somewhere in Southern Tagalog Region. (Photo by bulatlat.com)

On environmental protection and defense

LI: How important is defending the environment to this overall vision of building the vision of a democratic, equitable Philippine society? Was this view also present during the incipient years of the CPP, NPA and NDF?

JMS: Defending the environment is of crucial importance to the overall vision of building a democratic and equitable society. It is a necessary part of the anti-imperialist and class struggle to fight and defeat the imperialist firms, the big compradors and corrupt bureaucrats who collaborate in plundering the natural resources and grievously damaging the environment.

Since the incipient years, the CPP, NPA and NDFP have recognized the problem of environmental destruction. They have opposed the logging and mining firms for giving low wages, for exporting the primary products and causing serious damage to the environment and agriculture and certain forms of fishing were also causing serious damage to marine life. What I am saying is documented in Philippine Society and Revolution and Preliminary Investigation of Northern Luzon.

LI: Can you share more about how this attitude or framework later developed within the context of the Philippine revolutionary movement, particularly in the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER)?

JMS: In the economic program of the revolutionary movement and in our draft of the CASER, we want economic development to be in the hands of the people and its patriotic leaders and economists so that we can carry out land reform and national industrialization effectively and use our rich natural resources efficiently and wisely, protecting the environment and ensuring that it recovers from the ravages already done by the export-oriented logging, mining and plantation companies owned by foreign investors and big compradors.

LI: What are your thoughts on different environmental issues? A large threat to the Philippines at the presence of transnational mining corporations. How important is the struggle against mining by TNCs in the Philippines and what is at stake here?

JMS: The struggle against the TNC mining in the Philippines is extremely important. It must stop the digging up of mineral resources for export. These are nonrenewable. Their export means a permanent loss to the country and runs counter to our aspirations for national industrialization. The mining which is being done all over the country destroys the environment. It is aggravating deforestation and soil erosion. It causes floods and landslides during the rainy season and droughts during the dry season. It is poisoning the streams, the fish and the farms.

LI: How about natural disasters? In 2013, you collaborated with the New World Academy on an Open Source Tribunal on the idea of Typhoon Haiyan as an unnatural disaster. What are your thoughts on the almost annual disasters, usually related to typhoons and floods, that hit the country?

JMS: Global warming has increased to such an extent that the warming of the surface of the Pacific Ocean has turned it into a speedway for generating and intensifying more typhoons that hit the Philippines. Every year the people are several times subjected to typhoons, floods and landslides. The natural disasters are aggravated by the social disasters in the form of continuing anti-environment policy, absence of risk minimization and, when disaster strikes, the lack of timely relief and rehabilitation.

LI: Another large issue is the impact of climate change on the peoples of the world. It’s interesting that you are rooted in the Philippines and the Netherlands, two different countries which are both very vulnerable to different impacts of climate change. What can the people’s movement do to further address the question of climate change?

JMS: The people’s movement should demand immediate strategic withdrawal from the use of fossil fuel and shift to non-fossil energy like solar, wind and tidal wave and thus reduce carbon dioxide emissions or greenhouses gases, which are causing global warming. The imperialist powers and oil giants must be compelled somehow to give up their profit-making interest in fossil fuel.

Otherwise, the Philippines and The Netherlands will be among the first countries to sink when the level of the sea rises to a certain point. According to scientists, the global average surface temperature is now about 0.8 degree Celsius and is rising at a rate of 0.2.degree per decade. At this rate, the global warming at the end of the century shall be 3 degrees, which is enough to destroy the Amazon rainforest, turn large parts of the world into desert, raise the sea level by 25 meters and submerge coastal settlements. The global warming starts to gallop towards 6 degrees, at which point mankind can become extinct.

On the role of mass media and social media

LI: Let us talk about your thoughts on mass media, which is a crucial vehicle for the dissemination of ideas. You worked with prominent journalists turned revolutionaries, such as Antonio Zumel and Satur Ocampo. Can you tell us more about the role of mass media and journalists in bringing about social change?

JMS: The revolutionary journalists and the revolutionary mass media are necessary for making revolutionary change. They propagate the line and make known the position and what action to take on every important issue. Their role is indispensable and is of crucial importance. Without revolutionary propaganda, there can be no revolutionary movement.

LI: What are your thoughts on the internet and its role in the mass movement? How has the situation, in terms of technologies for propaganda, changed from the 1960s and what are the prospects for the use of the internet as a tool for social change?

JMS: The internet is at the first instance a powerful tool of the US imperialists and the local reactionaries. But at the second instance, it is a powerful tool for propaganda, even for organizing and calling people to action. Certainly the internet is a far more powerful tool for communications than the telegraph and railways during the time of Lenin and of course the typewriter and mimeographing machine in the 1960s and 70s.

Even if the internet is under the control of the big bourgeoisie and uses it for counterrevolution, whatever information or message the revolutionaries can transmit through the internet at so great a speed is amplified by the crisis far beyond the ability of the enemy to fill up the internet with his own propaganda and far beyond the ability of the enemy to deploy troops for suppressing the prairie fire of revolution.

LI: You are very active on Facebook. What is your attitude towards the use of social media? What do you find interesting or useful about Facebook? On the other hand, what should we be cautioned against, or be careful of?

JMS: I like to post in Facebook my speeches, articles, photos and videos by way of informing comrades, friends and relatives. I also like being informed by them in this way. I come into contact with friends and relatives I have not seen for a long time. And I make new friends. The postings of other people are also interesting and enjoyable. Something you post may be misused or targeted by trolls. You have to estimate what you can safely post and be ready to counter any misuse or abuse by trolls. You do not avoid the highway just because there are dangers in using it.

LI: Are you also working on any projects now? A book of your poems was published in 2014.

JMS: I would like to make a video-recording of some of my poems and pursue a previous project to do videos on the various aspect of my work. I would also like some of our cultural workers to make karaokes out of our revolutionary songs for faster propagation. At the moment, much of my time is devoted to writing a book concerning the current contradictions in the world capitalist system and the prospects of socialism and communism.

1 The AOI, a project initiated by was initiated by Jonas Staal, Florian Malzacher and Joanna Warsza was held from January 9-11, 2015 at the Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) Theater, Berlin.
2 The Open Source Tribunal (National Democratic Movement of the Philippines Versus Those Responsible for the Unnatural Disaster related to Super typhoon Haiyan) was held on November 23, 2013 at the Nicolai Church in Utrecht, Netherlands. Prof. Sison delivered his opening statement through a prose poem, The People’s Cry for Justice. The event resulted from a collaboration with the New World Academy’s Towards a People’s Culture that took place from 15-17 November, 2013 at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht.