By Max Lane
On December 16, 2022, Josa Maria Sison, a central leader of the National Democratic Front (NDF) of the Philippines passed away at age 83. As well as sending my condolences to his family, comrades and friends, I would like to put down a brief reflection.
I first met Joma Sison, and his wife Juliet, shortly after his release from a long stint in prison under the US-Marcos dictatorship. I met him for a general discussion but also for an interview for the newspaper Direct Action, published by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Australia.
I had been visiting the Philippines regularly through the 1980s as an activist with the Campaign Against Repression in the Pacific and Asia (CARPA) in the city of Canberra. CARPA campaigned for solidarity with the movement against the Marcos dictatorship, as did other groups such as the Philippines Action Support Group (PASG). In Canberra, CARPA and the PASG often worked together.
The SWP itself was politically closer to the Union for Advancement of Socialist Thought and Action (BISIG), whose central figure was Dodong Nemenzo – who himself had been imprisoned for some time under Marcos – rather than the NDF, that included the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Joma Sison was Chairperson and founder of the CPP. More on Joma Sison and the NDF below.
In 1988 or 1989, I wrote a letter on behalf of the SWP inviting Sison to do a speaking tour of Australia. He accepted and an organising committee comprising myself and two members of the PASG was formed to organise his tour. He spoke in Sydney and Melbourne to large crowds in a successful tour. He then travelled to Europe to do more speaking, and where he eventually established a base from where he continued to work as a leader of his party in the Philippines and the international current to which he belonged until his passing this year. Soon after that visit to Australia, Joma also helped organise another trip for me to the Philippines where I was able to do more interviews.
In the early 1990s, the CPP underwent some splits. I found myself closer ideologically to one of the new formations that had split off from the CPP, based out of a major section of the Manila branch of the CPP. BISIG, with which I had been traditionally closer, had merged into a broader formation. The splits on the Left between “re-affirmists”, led by Joma Sison and the various currents of “rejectionists” were bitter. Having become closer to the Manila rejectionists unfortunately meant an end to my connection with Joma Sison. So, I had no contact with him since the early 1990s.
There have been many debates and polemics both in the Philippines and internationally over Joma Sison’s leadership. I have not played any role in these, while also trying to maintain some familiarity with developments there. Those more familiar with the situation on the ground have the real right to debate that, not myself far away from the Philippines. On questions of theory and strategy, I am sure debates will also continue.
There is, however, a historical fact that cannot be denied and indeed must be acknowledged and respected. In the long and painful struggle to overthrow the US-Marcos dictatorship, many elements across a broad political spectrum participated. These were forces and individuals on the Left, including those outside the NDF, as well as consistent and courageous liberal democrats.
However, without the organisation, commitment and the many sacrifices – including of many lives – of the forces and members of NDF, the movement to get rid of Marcos would have never grown large and strong enough to prepare the conditions and atmosphere that meant that Marcos could be overthrown in the way he was in 1986. Joma Sison founded this force. His writings and ideas provided its theoretical base. He was imprisoned because of his role in these organisations, as were many others.
People may debate the aptness, impact or legitimacy of strategic decisions, even very major ones, or of specific tactical decisions. But the fact is that without the NDF, it is impossible to imagine the growth of the anti-dictatorship movement that grew during the late 1970s and 1980s.
It is this massive and undeniable fact which must ultimately frame any assessment of comrade Joma Sison’s political life. It is a contribution to the struggle for freedom not to be disrespected, but rather to be always remembered.
Below are three statements from within the Philippines movement on the passing of Joma Sison. The first was published on the website of the National Democratic Front and the Communist Party of the Philippines. The second is that issued by the Partido ng Manggagawang Pilipino (PMP – Filipino Workers Party), a socialist party formed after exiting from the CPP in the early 1990s, whose first leader was Popoy Lagman. The third is from Laban Ng Masa, a socialist party whose initial leadership comprised both former activists and leaders of the NDF as well as independent socialists.
Of course, all three of these parties have recruited new people since the 1980s movement against the Marcos dictatorship. There are other socialist groups in the Philippines, but I have not yet seen their statements. These are the three largest and most visible groups.
The highest revolutionary salute to the Great Proletariat, Teacher, & Poet, Comrade Jose Maria Sison!
Statement by Kabataang Makabayan-Rinconada | NDF-Bicol | National Democratic Front of the Philippines. December 26, 2022
It is with utmost sadness that the news of the passing of the founding chairman of the re-established Communist Party of the Philippines, Jose Maria Sison, or as he is widely called, “Ka Joma”—has come to us. Joma has passed away last December 16, 2022 at 8:40 pm due to pressing ailments and old age. Up until his last breath, Ka Joma has only shown revolutionary determination, strength, and fervor–always responding to the needs of the revolution and its eventual victory.
We applaud his dedication to the life of revolutionary struggle–from his early days at the Ateneo, Letran, and UP Diliman until his exile at the Netherlands. Together with other revolutionary youth, Ka Joma led the First Quarter Storm of the 1970s–which led to one of the most significant and gargantuan mass movements of the decade. He also initiated the study circles in the University of the Philippines–Diliman and eventually established SCAUP and Kabataang Makabayan, which significantly helped pave the way to the re-establishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines. As a cadre of the first-established CPP-1930, Ka Joma decisively struggled against the destructive revisionist ideals of the then CPP cadres. He then reconfigured the studies of the Philippine Society and Revolution and brought back to life the Party into action. We honor this, most especially in the celebration of our 54th year being the longest-running revolution in the world.
Ka Joma has not once faltered for the continuation of our revolutionary path. As the leading organization for the revolutionary Filipino youth of today, particularly in Bicol-Rinconada, we take inspiration from the example of Ka Joma, who spent his youth not making an individual career in the private, bourgeois academe–nor in the high-paying offices of neoliberal institutions–but in the streets and in the countryside, learning from the masses, and genuinely serving the people. Despite the comforts he could have chosen, coming from the family of well-off landlords, Ka Joma decisively fought alongside the struggle of the masses, most especially that of the workers and the peasants and their call for Agrarian Reform.
As the whole revolutionary movement grieves and deep sorrow ensues, we continue to give the highest tribute and show our ever-blazing pride for the life and legacy of Ka Joma. Our great teacher might have passed on but the determination to forward the revolution only persists!
Much like the great poet, the death of Ka Joma shall only serve as seeds, planted in the rich history of the society and the revolution of the peoples–only to further bloom and for more revolutionaries to sprout and scatter–until we reach our eventual victory. We are not weakened, nor are we disheartened! His passing is only a firmer, and stronger commitment from the revolutionary youth to forward the people’s war for the liberation of all the oppressed and downtrodden classes! His life and legacy shall only inspire and ignite the fires of more of the youth to serve the revolution as well.
As we inherit the harshness of this Semi-Colonial and Semi-Feudal society, we also inherit the legacy and teachings of such proletariat, Comrade Jose Maria Sison to forward on, struggle, and win!
Long Live CPP-NPA-NDF! Long Live the Filipino masses!
Statement on the death and legacy of Joma Sison by Partido ng Manggagawang Pilipino (PMP)
The Partido ng Manggagawang Pilipino (PMP) extends its condolences to the family and comrades of Joma Sison. We offer our sympathies out of solidarity to a fellow revolutionary despite the fundamental differences that the PMP has with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). This is the time for Joma Sison’s family and comrades to grieve. But it is also a chance for Filipino activists and the class-conscious workers to re-examine the legacy that Joma Sison has left behind. Particularly since Joma Sison’s death is in a sense the end of an era. Joma Sison’s enduring legacy as founder and ideologue of the CPP which led the movement to oust the Marcos dictatorship through its most difficult period cannot be erased from history.
Still, the robustness of that ideological legacy and validity of Joma Sison’s founding principles was put to the test in the crucible of the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship which ended in the liberal elite snatching leadership of the insurrectionary masses in 1986. Since the transition from military dictatorship to trapo democracy, the powerful mass movement built by the CPP amidst the terror of martial law has declined due to the disconnect between the primacy of armed struggle and the openings—however token and precarious—for political participation provided by the EDSA republic. That the mass movement has survived and persists is, on the one hand, an indictment of the rotten EDSA democracy, but on the other hand, an outcome of innovative revolutionary tactics.
Key among these “heretical” innovations was the parliamentary struggle and inroads by the different left and revolutionary groups, including the CPP itself. The role of parliamentary struggle within the revolutionary struggle was one of the central propositions of Popoy Lagman, even when he was in the CPP during the 1970s which resulted in his being disciplined. When the CPP split in the 1990’s, Popoy Lagman developed his mature critique of the CPP’s protracted war as an inappropriate strategy for victory, of the national democratic line that derogates the socialist alternative, and the semi-feudal thesis of a Philippine society whose dynamics is unquestionably capitalist.
Both Popoy Lagman and Joma Sison are now dead. The former fell from an assassin’s bullet, the latter succumbed to sickness and old age. The different brand of revolutions that both imagined is still far from the victory that all revolutionaries dream of. It is up to a younger generation of revolutionaries to continue the struggle and renew it under the concrete conditions that exist today.
Long live the Philippine revolution! Onward with the socialist struggle!
Executive Committee of the Central Committee Partido ng Manggagawang Pilipino
Laban Ng Masa Party on The Passing of Jose Maria Sison
Laban ng Masa extends its deepest condolences to the comrades, family, and friends of Jose Maria Sison.
Many of us had differences with Sison, and on important issues. However, this is not the time to dwell on these. Sison was a giant of the Philippine Left. He played a key role, if not the most decisive one, in the rebirth of the Philippine Left in the mid-1960’s. He was a Marxist who sought to translate theory into practice, to apply Marxism to the Philippine context, as a method not only for understanding it but changing it.
His was a great mind, but even the greatest of minds are not infallible. Revolutionary theory must evolve to meet new realities, and it was in grappling with these realities that different sections of the movement he was central in founding went in divergent ways. Despite their differences, however, there was always that deeper unity in bringing about a revolutionary transformation of Philippine society.
History’s judgment on Sison will only become clearer many years from now. But of one thing we in Laban ng Masa are certain: he was, from beginning, to end a true revolutionary.