Network and Vanguard: Reflections on the Philippine Left

This essay would not have been possible if not for the invitation extended to me by Ms. Tina Ebro of the Institute for Popular Democracy (IPD) to be a discussant in the Study-Seminar held at the Balay Kalinaw in the University of the Philippines last December 1 and 2, 2009. Aptly entitled “Rebuilding the Philippine Left,” this two-day event was a small gathering of senior and upcoming leaders of the Filipino radical movement, which generated a lot of spirited debates (and occasional heated exchanges) among the kasamas present. The occasion was also used to review the ideas presented in Marta Harnecker’s book Rebuilding the Left, which the participants had used as a starting-point through most of the discussions. 

At a cursory glance, most Filipino readers would easily detect the sheer distinction between the circumstances here in the Philippines and the situation in Latin America that Harnecker was trying to describe. For one, the Latin American Left has long made significant headway in local politics, while Filipino radicals have yet to win even a mayoralty post in any of the major cities of the Philippines. 

Second, Left forces in Latin America have already gained political power in a number of countries such as Bolivia, Uruguay, and Venezuela; while having a Filipino Leftist candidate in the 2016 presidential race remains highly unlikely at this point in time. 

But despite these differences, Harnecker’s book is still very much useful in analyzing the situation of the Philippine Left—particularly the conundrum that it is now in. For the past several years, the Filipino Leftist movement has had difficulty recruiting young leaders into its fold and in fostering greater unity among its ranks. This decline, I reckon, can be attributed to the “uncritical copying of the Bolshevik model of the party” (Harnecker; p. 46) which, according to Harnecker, was also a dilemma that they themselves had to face in rebuilding the radical movement in Latin America. 

Like their orthodox counterparts, most Filipino Marxists still consider Lenin’s notion of the vanguard party as an organizational model with profound universal application, rather than as a product of specific historical circumstances peculiar to Russia during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Such simplistic application of Lenin’s party model eventually led some comrades to adopt a Manichean view of politics, wherein those outside of the radical movement are either seen as allies to be won over or as enemies to be completely neutralized. 

This attitude, ironically, is quite reminiscent of the policy stance of former US President George W. Bush who once asserted that, “those who are not with us are against us.” And it is this kind of thinking that has seriously hampered any long-term unity within the Left, whose topography has greatly been altered by the “Great Schism” of 1993. 

Throughout most of the Marcos era, the Left (led by the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed component dubbed as the New People’s Army) acted as the most dominant opposition to the Martial Law regime—recruiting hundreds of Red fighters in the countryside and mobilizing countless numbers of warm bodies for the nascent mass movement in the urban areas. But by the early 1990s, the CPP began to implode as several splinter groups left the Party due to its failure to resolve questions concerning strategy and tactics and its inability to develop mechanisms for resolving intra-party dynamics. 

The split was so severe that by the beginning of the 21st century, Australian academic Ben Reid had already listed at least three (3) major political groupings in the Left. These are the Sison-aligned Reaffirmist forces (RAs) on the one hand, and the two major Rejectionist (RJ) blocs composed of the Manila-Rizal Regional Committee (MRRC) under the late Filemon “Ka Popoy” Lagman and the Third Force of “miscellaneous elements primarily drawn from former staff units of the CPP” (Reid; 2000; p. 51). 

The situation became even more complex in 2004, when the Communist Party’s official organ Ang Bayan presented a very complicated diagram identifying six (6) other political blocs, which they then accused of being “petty-bourgeois reformist and pseudo-revolutionary” formations with links to either Trotskyite or Social Democratic groups based in Western Europe (December 7, 2004; p. 8). 

With most of these groups claiming to be the “real” vanguard of the proletariat, Left unity has become extremely problematic since no organization is willing to concede its preeminent position in any future revolutionary coalition. This, however, is hardly surprising for in the Leninist tradition, vanguardship is seen as an exclusive franchise that cannot be shared with any other political bloc. And by emphasizing the guiding role that the vanguard party is supposed to play, the Left has been dismissive of ordinary people’s capacity to achieve “class consciousness” on their own. 

The origins of this mindset can in fact be found in the writings Vladimir Lenin who, in his book What is to be Done?, asserted that the working class can only achieve trade-union consciousness and that socialist ideology will have to be imported from without through the pedagogical efforts of the radical intelligentsia. Indeed, as he himself remarks: 

The “spontaneous element”, in essence, represents nothing more nor less than consciousness in embryonic form…We have said that there could not have been Social Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought about from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts is able to develop only trade-union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. (1988; pp. 31-32) 

This, unsurprisingly, has created a cultural tendency within the Left to be both paternalistic and authoritarian—prompting some cadres to assert that since the party is the primary repository of proletarian consciousness, the workers’ sole responsibility is to simply follow the directives of the communist nomenklatura. 

Harnecker, however, opposes this mode of thinking, arguing instead that, “it is only through the process of experimentation undertaken by the masses that the move is made from the economic to the political through circumstances and people themselves being changed simultaneously” (2004; p. 59). In other words, it is the workers’ actual experience of bourgeois intransigence which enables the former to make the necessary leap from simple economic demands to that of social revolution. 

As Harnecker clearly points out, “class consciousness arises in the struggle, and that it is the transformation produced by the struggle and not necessarily the assimilation of the science of history that changes bourgeois consciousness to proletarian consciousness;” further contending that, “we must not identify class consciousness with the scientific theory of socialism” (Ibid.; p. 62). 

And if we situate her arguments in the context of contemporary social theory, one can conclude that Harnecker’s ideas are probably the most appropriate in a world that is largely characterized by social reflexivity—wherein individual social agents are now able to identify the forces of socialization and are therefore capable of altering their position in a given social structure. Brought about the advent of late modernity, individuals are now becoming “used to filtering all sorts of information relevant to their life situations” and routinely acting “on the basis of that filtering process” (Giddens; 1994; p. 6). 

Such a situation eventually enables ordinary individuals to recognize the multiple sources of social oppression—whether economic, political, or gender-based—which then prompts them to cultivate spaces of creativity and resistance. This then creates a network of spaces with no coherent center but where resistance simultaneously occurs at various points in that system. 

French philosophers Gilles Delueze and Felix Guattari were thus able to provide a fairly accurate picture of contemporary social reality when they described it as a “rhizome” that is “composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion,” which “has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle from which it grows and which it overspills” (1987; p. 21). And it is this vision of late modernity that has prompted American academic Todd May, in his commentary on Delueze, to assert that: 

individuals and groups are the intersection and development of three different kinds of ‘lines”: 1) segmentary lines, like those of a person’s life cycle (e.g., family—school—army—job—retirement); 2) molecular lines, which are the invisible forces, coming from disparate directions in the social field and acting more subtly than the “molar” segmentary lines; and 3) lines of flight, which are other molecular lines we draw to escape our determination by the specific molar and molecular lines that constitute us. (1994; pp. 79-80) 

However, while acts of resistance do occur simultaneously at various points of the social system, these actions (to be truly effective) require various instruments of resistance—such as local associations, civic organizations, social movements and even political parties. But a party is just one among a variety instruments that would have to be used in the struggle for democracy and socialism. This is so since the party must not be allowed to permeate all aspects of a person’s life, nor can it be seen as the most appropriate vehicle in addressing issues concerning “life politics.” 

Such a situation would therefore have a profound impact on our understanding of a political party, for it would no longer have to be viewed as the vanguard of the masses and pivot of revolution, but as mere participant in a still on-going global discourse. 

And this, I think, is a step in the right direction—for the project of emancipation can only be realized, not by following the dictates of the party apparatchik but by gaining greater control over our own personal lives. 


Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus. Brian Massumi (trans.). University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis. 

Giddens, Anthony. 1994. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Stanford University Press: Stanford, California. 

Harnecker, Marta. 2007. Rebuilding the Left. Zed Books: London and New York. 

International Department, Communist Party of the Philippines. 2004. “Links of Counterrevolutionary Groups with Trotskyites and Social Democrats,” in Ang Bayan. December 7, 2004. 

Lenin, Vladimir. 1988. What is to be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. International Publishers: New York. 

May, Todd. 1994. The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism. The Pennsylvania State University Press: Pennsylvania. 

Reid, Ben. 2000. Philippine Left: Political Crisis and Social Change. Journal of Contemporary Asia Publishers: Manila and Sydney. 

Rocamora, Joel. 1994. Breaking Through: The Struggle Within the Communist Party of the Philippines. Anvil Publishing Inc., Pasig City. 

Rorty, Richard. 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope. Penguin Books: London. 

Rorty, Richard. 2006. Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself: Interviews with Richard Rorty. Eduardo Mendieta (ed.). Stanford University Press: Stanford, California. 

Weekley, Kathleen. 2001. The Communist Party of the Philippines 1968-1993: A Story of Its Theory and Practice.