Burning Questions: Talking With José María Sison About Climate Change, Capitalism and Revolution

José María Sison is a living legend. Born in 1939 in Cabugao, on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, to a wealthy and connected family, his education and compassion led him to become a revolutionary activist by the age of 20. Today he remains, at the age of 76, a leader of what has been called by the New York Times “the world’s longest running communist insurgency.”

1969 he founded the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) with 12 delegates, representing only a few scores of party members, and he has stayed the course through thick and thin – today it has 10s of 1000s of members. And at no easy price: his revolutionary works earned him nine years in prison, including a year and a half in solitary confinement. Released in 1986, he has lived in exile ever since, and remains on the US terrorist watch list. While no longer involved in operational decisions, he remains a chief consultant for the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, and chairperson of the International League of Peoples’ Sruggle. Not just a politician, Sison was also a professor of English literature, is an esteemed poet, and a winner of the Southeast Asia WRITE book ward.

Some have recently alleged that the CPP has stagnated intellectually. However, the party’s ideological leadership seems to be effective, as even the detractors admit. As previously reported on Counterpunch, the New Peoples Army operates throughout 20% of the countryside of the Philippines, on 100 fronts, across 70 provinces, 800 municipalities, 9000 barrios and 8000 villages. Is this 21st century Maoism a blast from the past, or is it the only promise of a future for a country with the highest income disparity in Asia, where a quarter of the population lives on less than $1 a day? Benedict Anderson has written of the “historical vertigo” of the Philippines: as visionary forerunner of anti-colonial movements in the region, today it is home to arguably the strongest Left in Southeast Asia. Here we learn from Sison about how he translates vertigo to victory, as he responds the burning questions of 21st century politics and revolution.

How have ecological crises, and particularly the catastrophe of Haiyan, effected the ideology and practices of revolutionaries working above and underground in the Philippines?

JMS: The revolutionaries in the Philippines who work in both the urban and rural areas have always been conscious of the necessary relationship of nature and society or that of the environment and the people who produce new things of use and exchange value from the objects, means and conditions provided by the environment. The ecological crises and particularly the catastrophe of Haiyan serve to raise and sharpen the consciousness of the revolutionaries about the environmental issue and the urgent need to act on it.

The monopoly capitalist firms have been responsible for the wanton use of fossil fuel and carbon dioxide emissions in the Philippines, for the rapid deforestation – which has removed the shield to typhoons, caused soil erosion, prolonged droughts and floods together with landslides – and for the rapid expansion of mining and plantations, which use chemicals that poison the streams and kill marine life. Due to global warming, the surface of the Pacific Ocean has warmed and become the speedway for more frequent and stronger typhoons hitting the Philippines.

As a revolutionary strategist, what advice do you offer to those who are dedicating themselves to the global struggle for climate justice?

JMS: I wish to advise all those who dedicate themselves to the global struggle for climate justice to stand for it militantly as a distinct cause, and at the same time, to seek solidarity and cooperation with those who dedicate themselves to the struggle for social justice. They face a common enemy in monopoly capitalism and the imperialist powers which are the cause of climate and social injustice.

The global struggle for climate justice is interconnected with the global struggle of the people for social justice. The environmental crisis and the threat to the very existence of humankind are coming to the fore, concurrently with the recurrent and ever worsening economic, financial and social crises of the world capitalist system. The constant attempts of monopoly capitalism to seek superprofits and accumulate capital by increasing the organic composition of their capital – adopting higher technology, disemploying so many workers everywhere and using cheap labor and buying dirt cheap raw materials from the underdeveloped countries – have wrought havoc on the people and the environment.

The grave abuses and injustices inflicted by monopoly capitalism and by its local agents are driving the broad masses of the people to revolt against their exploiters and oppressors and to fight for a fundamentally new and better world. Thus, the forces of anti-imperialism, democracy and socialism are resurgent. Within this context, the exponents of climate justice must unite with those of social justice. In this regard, I invite them to participate in the 5th International Assembly of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle, because this league pursues the struggle for both climate and social justice.

What are your perspectives on ecosocialism as an emerging ideological orientation at the intersection of social and environmental crisis and struggle? (For instance, The Ecosocialist Manifesto / Belem Declaration of 2009, The Enemy of Nature, by Joel Kovel, or The Plan Patria 2013-2019 of the Venezuelan government.)

JMS:   Monopoly capitalism is the plunderer of both the labor power of the working class and the natural resources used in the process of production. It is driven by the profit motive to exploit, pollute and destroy the environment without minding the lethal consequences to the very existence of humankind. As the social and environmental crisis worsens, it is necessary for the working class and the rest of the people to struggle against monopoly capitalism, to establish the power of the working class, to protect the environment and fight for socialism.

The International League of Peoples’ Struggle, which I chair, studies the various perspectives, like those in publications that you have mentioned, to adopt points for strengthening our own perspective. We advocate the most effective line and measures for stopping and rolling back global warming, and we strive to arouse, organize and mobilize the working class and the people for the anti-imperialist and socialist cause against monopoly capitalism, which is clearly the biggest culprit responsible for the social and environmental catastrophe that we face.

What should the ideological orientation of the revolutionary movement be to mining in the Philippines? Many indigenous peoples and environmentalists oppose mining altogether, in favor of an ancestral mode of production in harmony with the ecosystem, a perspective which found internationalist expression this year around the International People’s Conference on Mining 2015. Others in the revolutionary movement see mining not only as an indispensable source of revenue, but as prerequisite for passing through the necessary “stages” toward socialism (primitive accumulation, industrialization, formation of proletariat, etc). This is also a burning issue from India to Ecuador, where indigenous cosmovision confronts proletarian developmentalism over what course the revolutionary movement should take. As Arundhati Roy asks about the future of revolution in India, “can we leave the bauxite in the mountain?”

JMS: The given situation in the Philippines under the hegemony of the US and other imperialist powers and the local exploiting classes of big compradors and landlords, is that mining firms can be owned totally by foreign monopoly firms. Limitless truckloads of raw mineral ores from so many parts of the country are being shipped out at a rapid rate to China, Japan and other countries for processing. Some mining firms specializing in precious metals like gold, silver, platinum and palladium fly them out by helicopter to ships waiting at sea.

Under the present circumstances, it is just for the indigenous peoples and for environmentalists to oppose totally the unrestricted mining by the imperialist and local reactionaries for their own narrow benefit at great damage to the entire people, economy and environment. But it is wrong to glorify underdevelopment and condone the social environment of widespread poverty, malarial swamps, malnutrition and disease in the name of a romantic, idylicized communalism. The new democratic or socialist system, shall guarantee the wise utilization of natural resources, protection of the environment and the free and prior informed consent of the indigenous communities as well as the prior provision of benefits and sharing of prospective benefits.

There would be wiser utilization of natural resources and a higher level of environmental protection and conservation of the national patrimony if the Filipino people themselves, under a people’s democratic or socialist government, process the raw materials from the primary stage to the secondary and tertiary stages. It is sheer nonsense to reduce the Filipino people to a choice of underdevelopment under Filipinos who merely keep their rich natural resources in the ground or foreign monopoly capitalists who take away the nonreplaceable raw mineral ores. Socialism entails a further development of the forces and relations of production.

Under present conditions of big comprador-landlord rule in the Philippines, the foreign monopoly capitalists freely get large areas of mining concessions from the national government. And in collusion with corrupt government officials, they often use traditional chieftains of indigenous communities to circumvent the requirement of free and prior informed consent of the entire community, and get a series of small mining permits to escape formal environmental regulations by the national government and cover large areas to mine. But when the revolutionary forces are around to arouse, organize and mobilize the people against the mining companies, then the indigenous peoples, their revolutionary kinsmen and even the traditional leaders unite against the mining companies.

What are your perspectives on the left-wing governments of South America? Is it just state capitalism and bourgeois democracy, or do you see genuine revolutionary potential and promise in the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, etc?

JMS: I see a certain measure of what is revolutionary in the left-wing governments in South America. They are assertive of national independence against imperialist impositions and they carry out feasible measures of social justice and social welfare. But the Left in power co-exist with the exploiting classes in society and these also have representatives in government who are in active opposition. No revolution has yet brought down the exploiting classes definitively. Such exploiters make trouble against the Bolivarian government in Venezuela, especially because the oil income has decreased. They also do so against the other progressive governments.

But while these left-wing governments stand and fight for the interests of their people, they have our solidarity and support. We cannot give them up, especially because the imperialist powers are now being buffeted by a new crisis that is worse than the one that started in 2008. The revolutionary potential of workers and the rest of the people is growing and can become a real force on an unprecedented scale. The neoliberal policy has been so extremely exploitative and so destructive that social upheavals and revolutions can burst out soon enough on an unprecedented scale.

What are your perspectives on the recent ideological transformation of Kurdish revolutionaries (in particular the YPG) in Rojava and other parts of Turkey, towards a feminist, ecological and anti-nationalist ideological orientation?

JMS: Even if the Kurdish revolutionaries speak of stateless democracy and repudiation of the nation-state and nationalism under their concept of democratic confederalism, I would still say that they have what amounts to organs of political power at various levels. Otherwise there would be anarchy and no sufficient level of political unity, government and command over armed personnel in order to fight powerful enemies. In fact, I am hoping that the Kurds in Iraq, Syria and North Kurdistan will compose a confederation of states someday. The very prospect of that should be terrifying to Erdogan and the Turkish reactionaries. As regards feminism, gender equality and concern for ecology, these can be adopted as guiding principles and as active factors in any coherent and effective system of governance or administration.

Many credit the Zapatista uprising of 1994, and subsequent international gatherings hosted by them, as game-changers in the world of radical politics, from repudiating traditional vanguardist parties to affirming the revolutionary subjectivity of indigenous peoples. How was the Zapatista uprising received and understood by the movement in the Philippines?

JMS: The revolutionary movement in the Philippines welcomed the Zapatista uprising of 1994 and was impressed for a number of years by the ability of the Zapatistas to receive so many foreign visitors and even host international gatherings. But subsequently we also became concerned that the leadership of the Zapatistas was assuring the Mexican central government that they had ceased to extend or encourage armed struggle beyond Chiapas and were already receiving big amounts of NGO funding from abroad.

It can suffice to have a broad united front to bring about a successful popular uprising against the local authority in Chiapas, or even against an authoritarian government like that of Somoza, Duvalier, Marcos, Mobutu or Suharto. But there is yet no proof of a fullsome socialist revolution without the leadership of a revolutionary party of the proletariat. The party form of political organization is still the favored way of concentrating the revolutionary will of the proletariat for socialism. And of course, there is yet no class other than the proletariat that is most determined to wage a socialist revolution against the bourgeoisie.

In the fields of art, culture, and literature, what do you believe are the most important and inspiring works which help us to comprehend and confront the challenges of 21st century?

JMS: I am sure that there are already important and inspiring works in the fields of art, culture and literature which help us to comprehend and confront the challenges of the 21st century. These works are being created as a reflection of and in conjunction with the suffering, sacrifices, struggles, successes and aspirations of peoples, such as those in the Philippines and India, who are waging new democratic revolutions, with a socialist perspective. Such creative works are waiting to be recognized and appreciated on a global scale.

I am most acquainted with revolutionary literary and artistic works in the Philippines. These are imbued with the spirit of serving the people. They expose the forces of oppression and exploitation and inspire the workers, peasants and the rest of the people to wage revolutionary struggle against imperialism and reaction, and for a fundamentally new and better world of greater freedom, democracy, social justice, development, cultural progress and international solidarity. There are many excellent writers, artists and cultural workers. They are well organized and join the protest mass actions as well as the people’s war in the countryside.

They are guided by Marxist aesthetics and by Mao’s Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art and his other works on cultural work and propaganda. They have studied the works created under the guidance of socialist realism when the Soviet Union was still socialist, the creative works of Left American writers in the 1930s and the revolutionary works in socialist China up to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. At the same time, they break new paths in adopting and developing subjects and styles in the various literary and art forms.

It is not surprising that the most important and inspiring works are being done in countries where the revolutionary struggles are most intense. In this regard, I am optimistic that as the social and ecological crises worsen, more people will rise up in both underdeveloped and developed countries. Their revolutionary struggles will generate the impetus for literary and artistic creations by the people and for the people through various forms and means – real and digital. The writers, artists and cultural workers are a growing major component of the revolutionary movement on a global scale.