For many people, the standard reply often focuses on the personal. The frivolous might say, “I had a grand time of partying, getting drunk, having many boyfriends or girlfriends, wasting my parent’s money.” The more serious ones might state with pride that they spent quality time with the best teachers, at the library, or preparing to join the job market.
The answers are usually concerned largely with personal development. After all, 16 to 30, is when youth are discovering themselves, becoming adults. If a crisis occurs, it usually challenges one’s ambitions, either to transcend (and hence improve oneself) or, if one fails, to accept a setback.
My experience was somewhat different. To the question of what I was doing at 16 or 17, I answer, “I became part of a communist-led underground network at the University of the Philippines, whose main goal was to revive student activism as part of the national resistance against the dictatorship.”
To the more specific query on activities I pursued as a young Filipino, my reply – which only now do I feel comfortable saying openly – is that I was printing agit-prop documents, passing underground newspapers to comrades and potential recruits and, at one point, studying the mechanics of the pillbox (a homemade bomb) as a defensive weapon.
I also learned how to perfect the craft of concocting fake family histories, complete with aliases and forgetting names of people and places. (I still have a hard time remembering names, not so much because of a creeping senility, but because that was how I was trained).
What were we aspiring to? Some of us declared—with misplaced confidence—that we were preparing for the day when our political officer would ask us to move to the countryside or work full-time for the urban underground. We had to get ready to turn our backs on our family and friends, our despised petit-bourgeois old life, and become wholly proletarian.
And yes, we were ready to die for the cause.
It was this preparation that guided the academic courses we studied: lots of politics and history; only the minimum of math and the sciences. It also directed the books and novels we read: Marx, The Communist Manifesto; Lenin, What is to be Done; and, of course Jose Ma. Sison’s Philippine Society and Revolution. American texts were shunned because they were, by nature, peddling “imperialist culture.” But there were exceptions, Carlos Bulosan and the occasional Chomsky article. Hollywood movies were a definite no-no, as was going to discos to imitate the wonderful gyrations of John Travolta ala “Saturday Night Fever.”
To my apolitical friends, this course was not only bizarre (“You want to become a worker? But you’ve never worked in your life! You look forward to dying?”), it was also completely dull (“You just read books and spend your nights discussing Mao?”). But we believed History was on our side; we were doing this for “the people” and all the sacrifices we made would benefit “our children.”
We reacted to opposing opinions with derision. These were petty minds that did not understand our higher calling. And so we kept old friends at a distance, to be sought out only when there was need for some donation or a house to meet in. We were instrumentalists, but it was an instrumentalism in the name of the people.
Our resolve toughened when we received news of “successes” in the countryside and cities outside Manila. We mourned slain comrades and showed our solidarity for those detained. Through Church groups we brought to public attention the torture inflicted upon those who had been arrested. As the decade of the 1970s closed, we began to believe that our revolution had a strong chance of succeeding. We just had to keep our proletarian resolve firm.
And it paid off. In December 1975 we held our first protest march at the University of the Philippines (UP) only to be attacked with truncheons by the campus security officers. Bolder forms of student protests followed this mass action the next year, to express solidarity with the workers and urban poor. Then in 1977 a hasty decision by the Marcos regime to raise tuition fees sparked widespread, spontaneous as well as organized, protests. When UP classes were suspended, professors and even administrators joined students massing in the college lobbies.
To take advantage of the collective anger over the tuition spike, some of my comrades were assigned to set up the first national student organization since martial law was declared. This was it, we told each other: Our patience and commitment was finally paying off.
But no matter how dedicated and fanatical we had become, we were still very much teenagers and not immune to youthful whims. Our petit bourgeois habits persisted or were resurrected. Some of us sneaked off to American movies, found illicit delight at the newly opened Dunkin’ Donuts franchise and savored those dollar-dreadfuls sold as bargain books by National Bookstore. One friend who joined the maquis even showed up one afternoon just to grab a chance to watch “The Godfather,” my favorite.
Hormones and hearts were similarly difficult to police. The cadres issued a set of do’s and don’ts to regulate youthful libido, but this did not prevent us from dating non-activists, or going steady with one another without our officer’s blessings and, most (or best) of all, having and enjoying sex. Pretty soon activists and cadres alike were being charged with their “sexual opportunism” in violation of the Party’s sexual regulations. Many accepted the disciplinary actions meted out to them; others got away with their infractions because they held senior positions in the movement.
By our mid-twenties political resolve got tempered a bit, not least by what was happening around us. First, there was a decreasing need for students in the “basic sectors.” Workers and peasant associations were now producing their own committed members and no longer had much need for petty bourgeois intellectuals. We had outlived our usefulness.
For myself, disillusionment bred disaffection: My comrades’ persistent uncritical adulation of the brutal slaughters by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot repelled me, eventually driving me out of the movement. As a budding historian, I could not accept that certain actions were simply “necessary evils” undertaken to preserve socialism. By 1978 I became content with simply being a fellow traveler.
Other now aging communists grew discouraged after realizing that their grim-and-determined commitment was not rubbing off on the new generation. Those raised under martial law knew little about the turbulent '60s. Given their depoliticized reality, young students were becoming more drawn to disciplines that assured good incomes at home or abroad. Nor was it easy for communists to reach out to these martial law babies, with the police ever vigilant and constantly bearing down.
Instead of making adjustments, some took a hard line, excoriating the Martial Law babies for their apathy. Once the polarized politics reached a breaking point, they would be forced to choose sides, my friends declared. Crisis would lead to quick politicization and radicalization, and students and all others would surely join the ranks.
But it did not happen. Instead, the 1983 Aquino assassination only complicated matters as our mass base, the students, flocked to groups outside the revolution’s domain. And for the first time we, who had considered ourselves the designated spokesmen and women of the great unwashed, stood alongside the pretty bourgeoisie of Manila’s golden ghettoes and agreed with a colonel with a dubious human rights record that Marcos’ time had come.
It was surreal as it was new, but the “new politics” presaged the eventual breakdown of a belief system anchored on dogma and an ideology that was increasingly unable to explain a complex and changing political reality. Then, the world of the Pinoy Left fell apart in 1986, after a merry, disorganized bunch of anti-Marcos politicos, military renegades, clergy, the middle class and yes, the masa, rallied behind a politician’s widow and overthrew the dictator without the radicals’ participation.
It was around that time that my cohort group turned 30, and many of us realized on February 26, 1986, that there were options other than the factories or the kanayunan (countryside) where principles could be fought for. How we went about figuring out these alternatives and acting on them is another long story worth writing about in the near future.
Looking back to 1972 and the subsequent 14 years of growing up under an authoritarian order, I have this odd mix of feelings. On the one hand an intense pride that I belonged to a generation that fought for the nation and the poor, with idealist hopes of changing our world for the better. Having been in the barricades is, as it were, a badge of courage one proudly displayed. On the other hand, intimately intertwined with that pride is this sense of sadness that what we thought started quite well fell apart, ironically at a point when justice had the edge over tyranny.
Entering my senior years, I have come to terms with this bittersweet denouement and need to start writing about how it came to be.
Patricio N. Abinales belongs to the University of the Philippines-Diliman freshman class of 1972, the year Marcos declared martial law, and was sitting in the middle of EDSA in 1986, sobbing with friends and comrades upon hearing the news that the dictator had fled the country. He now teaches at the School of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Hawaii-Manoa.