30 October 2006
Philippines:- The Left and the Military - a debate amongst socialists
In February of this year, crowds gathered on the streets of Manila to commemorate the 'People Power' revolution of twenty years.
They were also demanding the resignation of the country's president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Support for the demonstration was expressed by rebellious officers and soldiers within the army.
Socialistworld.net carried material on the events at the time, with comments directly from one of its participants - the socialist activist, Sonny Melencio. Sonny has since written an analysis of this and previous army revolts in which he particularly examines the relationship between the army and the workers' movement.
"The February 'Coup d'Etat' and the Left's Alliance with the Military" carries extremely interesting material and raises important issues which have relevance in a number of other countries. Not all the views that Sonny expresses would coincide with those of the CWI, but are well worth debating and discussing.
With this in mind, Peter Taaffe secretary of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales) and member of the International Secretariat of the Committee for a Workers' International has written a commentary on the main points. He quotes extensively from Sonny's document (see above).
Sonny is preparing further points in response to the position of the CWI which will be carried in full on this web-site.
Sonny is a long time socialist activist in the Philippines. He is currently a Central Council member of the Laban ng Masa left coalition, an editor of the workers' newspaper Obrero and host of the radio programmes Radyo ng Masa and Radyo Obrero.
He wrote in an e-mail last week that: "Rebellion charges have been filed against 49 political opposition leaders, including Dodong Nemenzo, the head of Laban ng Masa. The others are mostly from the rebel soldiers' groups and also from the Maoists (main target of government's propaganda on the so-called Left-Right alliance). The Rebellion charge here is a non-bailable offence, so we are preparing for escalated protests to stave off possibilities of mass arrests." The CWI will offer whatever help it can give in solidarity with this struggle in the Philippines for basic democratic rights.
Comments on Sonny Melencio's document "The February 'Coup d'état' and the Left's alliance with the Military"
Many thanks for your document, which we have only been able to study recently, because of the pressure of events. We found your recounting of the events leading up to and on 24 February, with an aborted 'coup d'état' launched by rebel military forces against the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Philippines president, extremely interesting. The historical résumé you provided on the historical background to the numerous outbreaks of discontent within the military, some of them leading to attempted coups, in the history of the Philippines, we also found very informative. The importance of your document has been underlined by the coup in Thailand, which poses sharply the attitude of the working class to the army, and how to win over the rank-and-file troops in particular.
In the neo-colonial world in particular, with an extreme polarization of wealth and an intensified suffering, consequently, of the masses, such outbursts of discontent within the military is predictable, particularly where there are dictatorships or semi-dictatorships. All armies are ultimately a copy of the society from which they originate. This is clearest and most clearly indicated when the military is involved in a war and is overwhelmingly made up of conscripts, even in highly developed industrialized societies, as the example of the near-disintegration of the US army in Vietnam shows. The military in the industrialised countries will be composed overwhelmingly of workers. Moreover, the road to the working class within the military varies between the different branches of the 'armed forces'. In the navy, for instance, in which ships are often 'floating factories', the class divisions are very hierarchical from the top deck to the lower decks - the engine room - and is most clearly expressed. It is not an accident that both in the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Revolution the sailors were to the fore and were initially the most revolutionary sections of the armed forces. Even in the Portuguese Revolution, the navy played a crucial role, including the radicalized officer caste, symbolised by the 'Red Admiral' Coutinho. In the US army in Vietnam, because it was overwhelmingly composed of conscripts, the disintegration of this force was stark and led to class conflict within the military, some of it taking a violent form, such as 'fragging' of officers, etc. (see, amongst others, my book on the Vietnamese revolution).
If divisions of this character can take place in advanced industrial societies, their likelihood is magnified in the neo-colonial world, marked by extreme poverty, not just amongst workers but amongst small farmers and peasants as well. The Philippines army, by your very full account, expresses in an extreme form the class divisions within Philippines society as a whole. The crisis of Philippines landlordism and capitalism is reflected in violent eruptions within the military at each stage. However, from a Marxist, socialist point of view there is a world of difference between 'rebellions' or 'coups', what were called 'pronunciamentos' in Spain, of discontented groups of bourgeois or petty bourgeois officers, and a genuine movement from below of the soldier mass, workers and peasants, who form the lower ranks of the army. The former aims in general to replace one privileged group with another, while the latter can help to carry through a serious social overturn.
You correctly point out that the movement of 24 February was an alliance of 'Magdalo officers' - involved in previous military rebellions and representatives of the Communist Party of the Philippines - and the National Peoples' Army. It seems that its aim was to 'solicit' the support of the hierarchy of the Armed Forces of the Philippines for a 'withdrawal of support' from the Arroyo government. It was "reminiscent of the Edsa II withdrawal of support by the entire AFP command to then president Joseph Estrada". As you point out: "This tactic was blithely called 'walk in the park' by the military rebels since it would not entail the firing of even a single shot." However, negotiations broke down with the hierarchy of the AFP who decided to stick by Arroyo.
This same 'walk in the park' tactic was applied by another group of military rebels on Sunday, 26 February, which was supposed to be a 'sequel' to Friday's (24 February) aborted coup. On this occasion, the leaders of the movement called for people's power support while other marine units arrived in army tanks to repel them. In the face of this, the leaders of this movement capitulated and returned to barracks.
Most important in your document is the statement: "There is something inherently flawed in the tactic of securing the support of the military hierarchy to institute even a regime change, especially if the military rebels pursuing this tactic have been calling for a radical system change, and not a mere change in the presidency." Again, as you point out, it is unlikely that the top brass will support another military rebellion to oust Arroyo because they are "beholden to a president who has showered them with so much cash and privileges in lieu of their support".
Most crucial is the statement you make: "Any revolutionary would know that the reactionary state institution cannot be reformed, and the only revolutionary perspective applicable to an elite army organization lies in breaking up its ranks and in winning over the progressive sections to the side of the masses." This absolutely correct statement, however, is not applied consistently by you, it seems to me, in the conclusions which arise from your document as we will seek to explain later. The description and characterization of the different movements that have taken place within the military in the 20-year period from 1986-2006 are excellent, and we learnt a considerable amount from the material which you provide. I will not detail everything which you mention here but will point out only the most significant developments.
The military uprisings which preceded the collapse of the Marcos regime, which broke the "AFP monolith", were reflected in the formation of the 'Reform the Armed Forces Movement' (RAM) in the second half of the 1980s. However, to complete the analysis which you have made, it would be necessary to add that the social eruptions which were being prepared below the surface were bound to be reflected in the intermediate layers in society, which in turn could exercise a profound effect on the army in opposition to the Marcos regime. This movement, RAM, "played a crucial role in the mutiny that spurred the first Edsa people's power uprising in the Philippines". It degenerated, however, following the collapse of the Marcos regime because it was used by the anti-Aquino factions of the elite for their own ends, in order to stage successive coups against the Aquino administration in the bid for power.
This was superseded in August by the new organization of young officers called 'Young Officers Union' (YOU). "YOU was considered more radical than RAM. Instead of merely relating with rebel military forces, YOU sought dialogues and an alliance with the revolutionary left." Most interesting is the information you provide of lectures by the Communist Party of the Philippines on radical thinking to this organization. This led to the movement of December 1989, which was defeated and the "final disciplinary actions against most of the rebels - 30 push-ups"! However, some of the rebel officers and leaders of the revolutionary left captured by the military at that time were jailed. This, of course, led to fraternization between the left who represented radical sections of the military. This in turn led to the formation of the Revolutionary Nationalist Alliance, of radicalized officers, which called for the implementation of genuine land reform, the dismantling of the US military bases in the Philippines, and the legalization of the communist party of the Philippines. You claim that this was significant in the sense that "a military fraction" transformed itself into "a movement for social revolution".
The 1990s were a relatively quiescent period with no coup attempts. A period of 13 years elapsed before the July 2003 military intervention erupted. This rebellion, as you pointed out, was characterised by the participation of a new radicalised generation within the military, usually the most talented officers, with many coming from "poor families who managed to send them to the military academy because of government scholarships". At the same time, the point that you add is crucial: "The mutiny showcased the emergence of an independent and conscious force that pursues the interests of the middle and lower ranks of the military establishment. The demands put forward by the Oakwood mutineers consisted mostly of better pay and treatment of rank-and-file soldiers." In other words, they were not merely the tail of a movement aiming to replace one elite by another.
Very important are the points that you mention about the class divisions within the military and, in particular, the following comments: "Finally, the 'working class' within the AFP consists of the enlisted personnel - the privates, corporals and sergeants 'that form the workhorse of the armed forces'... they are essentially 'economic soldiers' who only depend on their salaries for income… they are more worried about day to day survival. Military records have shown that for almost two decades now, the rank and file soldiers are receiving P60 (a little more than a US dollar) daily subsistence allowance and P240 ($5) as combat pay a month. This amounts to something like P9,000 ($175) or less per month, almost similar with the workers' minimum pay in Metro Manila."
All of this material is very informative for us and provides an understanding as to how the situation in the Philippines has developed up to now. But then you go on to deal with the Venezuelan experience, which, of course, is currently of crucial importance for the Latin American masses and the world working class and labour movement. It is not possible, either here or in your short comments on Venezuela, to give a finished picture of the history and evolution of Chavez and the chavistas (see CWI pamphlets on Venezuela). Also, for us as Marxists, we support all the progressive actions taken by Chavez on behalf of the workers and the poor. We are on the side of Chavez and the chavistas against the various attempts of counter-revolution, whether they take an electoral or an extra-parliamentary/electoral form, and further attempts in this direction are inevitable in the future.
But one of the striking features of Venezuela is the lack of a broad socialist and working class tradition, both of an independent movement of the working class and of the kind of socialist consciousness which has existed, for instance, in Chile, Bolivia and other parts of Latin America. It is true that in the decade preceding the victory of Chavez in the presidential poll of 1998, there was a constant atmosphere of demonstrations and street protests, which you mentioned. At the same time, the experience of Chavez and the radical officers surrounding him, of the blind alley of Venezuelan society, undoubtedly radicalised Chavez and many officers from this strata. But this had not led them, until after Chavez took power, in a radical, socialist direction, never mind a Marxist one. Moreover, as you comment, quoting Walden Bello, the military in Venezuela have had an "ambivalent relationship with the political Left". Yet unless they have a clear, Marxist, rounded-out approach, even the most radicalized army officers would tend towards a 'top-down' approach, they see the mass movements of workers and peasants as appendages, 'as support', for their more military 'decisive' actions. They have a certain suspicion, in particular, of an independent movement of the working class, which they think and feel should come under their 'control', instead of the vice versa; the working class acts, splits the army and draws the most revolutionary sections to its side.
Winning over the majority of the soldiers, including sections of the army officers, if not the majority, is crucial in a revolution. The winning over of the majority of officers did not take place in the Russian Revolution or in the German Revolution in the events between 1918 and 1923, and again it did not happen in the Spanish Revolution of 1931-37. The ranks of the army were with the revolution but the overwhelming majority of the officer corps was on the other side of the barricades. On the other hand, in Portugal a significant layer of officers in the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) was enormously radicalized in the period prior to the overthrow of the Caetano dictatorship in April 1974. Furthermore, 'conservative' officers, including, astonishingly, the paratroopers who usually stand on the right of any movement, were radicalized by the events that unfolded after the overthrow of Caetano. This reached its height in the defeat of the Spinola attempted coup in March 1975, when paratroopers, the special forces that initially supported Spinola, were won over by the independent action of the masses who defeated the coup and were, in turn, radicalized by this.
Moreover, there are clear parallels between the situation in Venezuela and Portugal where, as Walden Bello points out, Chavez and others like him were initially compelled to fight left-wing guerrillas. They were undoubtedly affected by this and were forced to re-examine their ideas. This subsequently pushed them in a radical, if not in a clear socialist or Marxist direction at that stage. Something similar developed in the Portuguese Revolution, where the officer corps, many uniquely drawn from conscripts, was deployed to fight against the guerrillas in Angola and Mozambique. They failed and, under the hammer blows of events, some moved in a radical direction while others drew Marxist conclusions.
We should never forget that the MFA came out at one stage in the Portuguese Revolution with a document in favour of a 'workers' state' in Portugal as a result of their experiences under Caetano, the revolution of 1974 and the colossal revolutionary events which unfolded after this. Unfortunately, the majority of the officers never fully developed towards a clear Marxist position, largely because of the influence of the Portuguese 'Communist' Party (PCP), which had significant influence amongst this layer at a certain stage. The PCP, still under the sway of Stalinist ideas, was pushing in the direction, it seems, of a break with capitalism but largely 'from the top'. They did not base themselves on an independent movement of the working class, did not fight for the creation of workers' organizations such as councils or soviets, with full democracy for all parties that accepted the March 1975 social overturn and the ideas of socialism, Marxism and a workers' state in Portugal.
This top-down, not to say authoritarian approach, gave the excuse for the counter-revolution to mobilize, initially behind Mario Soares and the Portuguese Socialist Party (PSP), which in the aftermath of April 1974 had stood, in words at least, on a full-blooded 'Marxist' programme. The curve of the revolution stalled and then declined because of the misguided policies of the PCP and the lack of clarity amongst the radicalized revolutionary officers in the MFA, who could have been potentially an additional powerful factor alongside the working class in carrying through the Portuguese Revolution to a successful, democratic socialist conclusion. The lessons of the Portuguese Revolution are very rich and, although the conditions are not exactly the same, there are analogies, both for the events in Venezuela and, as your document shows, for the current situation developing in the Philippines.
Before proceeding, it is worthwhile quoting from Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution on the approach of both the Bolsheviks and the ordinary soldiers towards the officer corps:
"There is no doubt that the fate of every revolution at a certain point is decided by a break in the disposition of the disposition of the army. Against a numerous, disciplined, well-armed and ably led military force, unarmed or almost unarmed masses of the people cannot possibly gain a victory. But no deep national crisis can fail to affect the army to some extent. Thus along with the conditions of a truly popular revolution there develops a possibility-not, of course, a guarantee-of its victory. However, the going over of the army to the insurrection does not happen of itself, nor as a result of mere agitation. The army is heterogeneous, and its antagonistic elements are held together by the terror of discipline. On the very eve of the decisive hour, the revolutionary soldiers do not know how much power they have, or what influence they can exert. The working masses, of course, are also heterogeneous. But they have immeasurably more opportunity for testing their ranks in the process of preparation for the decisive encounter. Strikes, meetings, demonstrations, are not only acts in the struggle, but also measures of its force. The whole mass does not participate in the strike. Not all the strikers are ready to fight. In the sharpest moments the most daring appear in the streets. The hesitant, the tired, the conservative, sit at home. Here a revolutionary selection takes place of itself; people are sifted through the sieve of events. It is otherwise with the army. The revolutionary soldiers-sympathetic, wavering or antagonistic-are all tied together by a compulsory discipline whose threads are held, up to the last moment, in the officer's fist. The soldiers are told off daily into first and second files, but how are they to be divided into rebellious and obedient?
"The psychological moment when the soldiers go over to the revolution is prepared by a long molecular process, which, like other processes of nature, has its point of climax. But how determine this point? A military unit may be wholly prepared to join the people, but may not receive the needed stimulus. The revolutionary leadership does not yet believe in the possibility of having the army on its side, and lets slip the victory. After this ripened but unrealised mutiny, a reaction may seize the army. The soldiers lose the hope which flared in their breasts; they bend their necks again to the yoke of discipline, and in a new encounter with the workers, especially at a distance, will stand opposed to the insurrection. In this process there are many elements imponderable or difficult to weigh, many crosscurrents, collective suggestions and autosuggestions. But out of this complicated web of material and psychic forces one conclusion emerges with irrefutable clarity: the more the soldiers in their mass are convinced that the rebels are really rebelling-that this is not a demonstration after which they will have to go back to the barracks and report, that this is a struggle to the death, that the people may win if they join them, and that this winning will not only guarantee impunity, but alleviate the lot of all-the more they realise this, the more willing they are to turn aside their bayonets, or go over with them to the people. In other words, the revolutionists can create a break in the soldiers' mood only if they themselves are actually ready to seize the victory at any price whatever, even the price of blood. And the highest determination never can, or will, remain unarmed."
"The February uprising did not create the split between soldiers and officers but merely brought it to the surface. In the minds of the soldiers the insurrection against the monarchy was primarily an insurrection against the commanding staff. 'From the morning of the 28th of February,' says the Kadet Nabokov, then wearing an officer's uniform, 'it was dangerous to go out, because they had begun to rip off the officers' epaulets.' That is how the first day of the new régime looked in the garrison.
"The first care of the Executive Committee was to reconcile soldiers with officers. That meant nothing but to subordinate the troops to their former command. The return of the officers to their regiments was supposed, according to Sukhanov, to protect the army against 'universal anarchy or the dictators of the dark and disintegrated rank-and-file.' These revolutionists, just like the liberals, were afraid of the soldiers, not of the officers. The workers on the other hand, along with the 'dark' rank-and-file, saw every possible danger exactly in the ranks of those brilliant officers. The reconciliation therefore proved temporary.
"Stankevich describes in these words the mental attitude of the soldiers to the officers who returned to them after the uprising: 'The soldiers, breaking discipline and leaving their barracks, not only without officers, but in many cases against their officers and even after killing them at their posts, had achieved, it turned out, a great deed of liberation. If it was a great deed, and if the officers themselves now affirm this, then why didn't they lead the soldiers into the streets? That would have been easier and less dangerous. Now, after the victory, they associate themselves with this deed. But how sincerely and for how long?' These words are the more instructive that the author himself was one of those 'left' officers to whom it did not occur to lead his soldiers into the streets."
What is clear from this is that, while the Bolsheviks based themselves on the independent movement of the working class, they did not rule out the winning over of radicalized officers. But neither they nor the masses closed their eyes to the verbal radicalism which the majority of officers themselves were forced to display once the revolution was successful in February at least, disguising in the process their long-term class aims. It is a question as far as the army is concerned from a Marxist point of view, to paraphrase Lenin, "who is leading who?" Is it the radicalised army officers, with the working class in 'support' or the other way round, an independent movement of the working class led by a revolutionary party, which draws behind it sections, if not a majority, of radicalized officers?
It is absolutely correct to point to the different traditions of the Philippines army and that which developed over time in Venezuela. I do not know whether it is correct to say that "Marxist ideas… circulated among a number of officers in the Venezuelan army". Certainly, from a rounded-out Marxist point of view, this was not the case with Chavez and the group around him either in the period leading up to 1998 or afterwards. His main philosophy at first was one of 'humanitarian capitalism' and it was only events, and in particular the defeat of the coup, which initially overthrew him, which exercised a profound effect on him. We should also understand that Chavez and the group around him did not defeat this coup. He was already reconciled to going into exile, if not meeting an even worse fate, but was saved by a spontaneous movement of the masses from below, initiated by a soldier, his guard in detention, which paralysed the government and led to the release of Chavez. These events have been well recorded in our journals and were touched on, at least in outline; in the TV documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
You point out that a Marxist ideology is "unheard of even among the radicals in the AFP today". I was particularly struck by your statement: "Unlike Venezuela, the radicalization of the young officers within the AFP developed almost on its own, i.e., without an infusion of Marxist or socialist philosophy from the outside. It's a radicalization that has sprung up as a reaction to the rotten system and a product of a disintegrating institution." Equally important is your comment that radical groups now among the officers in the AFP are "already allying themselves with the Left forces".
However, we cannot hide the fact of our disquiet at your seeming acceptance that this could lead to the establishment of "transitional revolutionary government that will implement a program of radical reforms in society". The idea of a 'transitional revolutionary government' is a concession to the theory of 'stages', which historically has had a colossal retrogressive effect on revolutionary prospects. It is true that Lenin, at one stage in a rather loose formulation prior to the 1905 revolution, did entertain the notion that the workers' organizations could participate under certain conditions in a 'transitional government'. This went hand in hand with his idea of the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry', which he said was an "algebraic formula". However, in his April Theses of 1917 he in fact rejected this position (also in his Letters from Afar) which implacably opposed the workers' organizations serving in the 'transitional' provisional government set up after the February revolution of 1917. Moreover, the mass of the working class of Petrograd and elsewhere were instinctively hostile to such an idea. Because of the stand of Lenin and on the basis of events, the Bolsheviks won over the majority of the working class in the soviets and the workers and peasants in the army.
Internationally, because of the retreat of consciousness - a consequence of the collapse of Stalinism and the shift towards the right ideologically worldwide - ideas such as the 'transitional revolutionary government' or the theory of the 'lesser evil' have gained some ground. Surely, however, Comrade Sonny, it is necessary for the revolutionary forces to stand out against such ideas, to educate the advanced workers and also radicalized army officers who have the potential to become socialists or Marxists against the idea of 'stages' and the limiting of the programme to this. This approach has played such a baleful role, in Indonesia, in China between 1925 and 1927, and elsewhere.
You state: "The advance of the revolution and the seizure of political power from the elite class by the working masses have become ominous today through a combination of intense mass struggles and a military uprising. The transition government that will be set up can be founded on the alliance of the revolutionary forces and the military rebels. Until now, the idea of a transition government is based on a sharing of power among groups and classes that would bring about Arroyo's downfall. It is bound to include even opposition figures belonging to the elite. But the concrete character and composition of the transition government will vary depending on the strength and capacity of the major alliance between the revolutionary Left and the military rebels."
This clearly implies that you support the idea of a government with representatives of different 'classes', not just representatives of the workers and peasants but also those from the 'elite'. What is this other than the kind of government which has led to the disasters mentioned earlier? We heard similar arguments from revolutionary groups in relation to Megawati, in the period leading up to the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship. Once in power she proved to be a firm stalwart and defender of the propertied classes. We think it is misleading to foster illusions in radical bourgeois or petty-bourgeois figures, 'democrats', or the idea that they can play a progressive role, especially in a proposed 'transitional revolutionary government'. The Bolsheviks systematically unmasked these "false friends" of the people and developed amongst the working class a distrustful attitude towards them.
You are right to stress that there is an "historic opportunity and a historic challenge for the Left today". It is necessary - indeed vital - to forge alliances between the revolutionary forces and the ranks of the army. We have no differences in general with the points that you make on this. You refer, for instance, to the Russian Revolution, where, as we sought to point out earlier, the mechanics of such an alliance were different to that which is implied in your approach.
You correctly say, at the end of the document: "We should not fall into the framework that the mass movement is a mere prop or support to the military rebellion. We should ensure that the two components develop and assist each other in a combined manner." You further state: "We should not also tie ourselves down with the idea that we merely wait for the military action as the trigger to a mass uprising." This is absolutely correct, we believe, but it contradicts the demand for an all-class alliance for a 'transitional revolutionary government'. Only by encouraging the independent organization, mobilisation and action of the masses, through the development of a genuine mass revolutionary party, can the pitfalls that you identify be avoided.
In Venezuela, up to now, the masses have not been prepared by an independent mobilization and revolutionary overturn. The Communist Party is incapable of doing this, directing the gaze of the working class towards 'liberators' from the radicalised military circles in the form of figures like Chavez. This lowers the consciousness of the working class, does not instil into them the sense of their own power as the most important social force which can change society, with the potential to draw behind them intermediary strata into which falls the officer layer in the army. It was the movement of the working class in February and October which broke the Russian army on class lines and won over the majority of the ranks to the revolution. The Bolsheviks took power in October 1917 on the idea of the socialist revolution and in opposition to all the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces, including the majority of the officer caste.
Where this policy is not adopted, even where a break with capitalism is posed, it puts its stamp on the movement as Venezuela shows. While there are radicalized army officers in Venezuela, there are not as yet independent working-class committees, councils or soviets, if you like, which organises the soldiers independently and are linked to the working class in similar independent class organizations outside the army. To break from capitalism requires a high degree of consciousness and organization by the working class and the poor masses, including a conscious policy of appealing to the ordinary soldiers and winning them over to the side of the revolution.
In most countries, in most cases, this will mean coming up against the officer caste, including the 'radical' layers, who are prepared to engage in a 'coup' or a 'pronunciamento' but not a serious revolutionary attempt to abolish landlordism and capitalism. However, where the working class is sufficiently mobilized, is determined and strong, draws behind it the poor and the peasantry, it can split the officers and even a significant section or even a majority of them can come over to the side of the revolution. But, we repeat, it is a question of 'who is leading whom'. There are many other questions raised by your document but we believe that the events in the Philippines are crucial to the world working class and, particularly, for the masses of Asia. We would like to open up a dialogue on these issues with you in the hope of advancing the revolutionary struggles of the masses in Asia and elsewhere.