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The Students and the Masses: A Historic Juncture

February 19, 2010

By Renato Constantino

First published in his column, Viewpoint, in Graphic, March 18, 1970, p. 8-10

A single event or a series of interrelated events can constitute either a historic turning point or merely a wasted opportunity depending on the leadership of the forces directly involved. The level of consciousness and the quality of leadership during such crucial moments can be decisive in pushing history in the right direction or in allowing events to pass unutilized. This leadership can seize the opportunity provided by certain events to define, to accentuate, and to accelerate the processes at work in society or it can allow the situation to recede from the agenda of action into the memories of individual participants. As a memorable personal experience, involvement in an event does little to transform the event into a historic milestone. It is the collective and unified handling of a situation that not only tests the adequacy of leadership but also insures that collective action will result in a historic leap from the past to the future.

A New Chapter

The student action of January and February marks the beginning of a new chapter in our history of struggle for national independence and national democracy. It is a new chapter and a turning point precisely because the progressive student movement demonstrated a high quality of leadership which confronted the events, displayed a creative appreciation and utilization of these events, and manifested a consciousness correctly based on objective conditions.

The events of January were the result of qualitative accretions of events and actions which resulted in a qualitative change both in the consciousness of the people involved as well as in the objective factors which gave birth to this consciousness. The students emerged as a force despite their transitory nature as a group precisely because they were products of material reality as well as agents for the changing of that reality due to their ability to accelerate and ripen the situation through informed practice.

The advanced position of the progressive student leadership was proved when the more dynamic sectors of the studentry elected to join them, leaving behind the reformist pressure groups that had attempted to preempt the student movement. The dynamism of this leadership arises basically from its valid and relevant analysis and its concrete appreciation of the historic objective factors that have made Philippine society what it is today. Consequently, after the brutal slate actions on January 26 and 30 they were able to transform the demonstration of protest into a strong movement that dramatized the nature of the system, polarized the issues, and galvanized many more of the student population into active involvement in the pursuit of change.

A New Maturity

For  this reason we may say that the students have ushered in the beginning of a new chapter in our history. Its importance warrants a serious inquiry into its nature and its prospects. We must start by asking: What qualitative changes in thinking, action and forms of struggle mark this new historical stage?

One such qualitative change is a new maturity. The dimensions of this maturity are evident in the fact that the conglomeration of student groups did not allow their inter-organizational differences to rule out united action. This time they did not succumb to the divisive tactics obviously employed by their enemies. On the contrary, they were able to transcend their differences, for the moment at least, and recognize the broad goals which they held in common. This impressive unity, this willingness to underplay differences in the pursuit of what is in essence a common commitment has been an important source of strength.

Another qualitative change that is easily noted is the activists’ changed attitude toward our educational system. Previous generations regarded traditional education as a boon that must be sought at all costs. Education means Americanization. Mastery of the English language was the parents’ principal desire for their children. The young considered the attainment of this education as a badge of honor, as their entry card into the elite groups.

Realization of Miseducation

Today, many of the young have become acutely aware of their miseducation. Hard reality has taught them the falsity of much of what they have learned. They are no longer the victims of propaganda and miseducation; they are the products of the pressure of objective reality and events which cannot permanently be screened from them by the devices of subtle deception. Many students have realized that there is a lot to unlearn in order to really learn; they are tired of an irrelevant teaching that divorces them from society and real life. The rallies that have occurred demonstrate their realization that wisdom certainly does not reside in those charged with justifying the status quo.

Whereas in the past the school was considered as an entity esolsentially apart from the state, pursuing its noble mission of dispensing so-called “objective” truths, the students now see the education system as an agency of the state and therefore as part of the apparatus of control and deception. They also see clearly that the private school is, in addition a lucrative business like any other. Mention must be made of the salutary effect of the seemingly short-range and self-oriented demands of various student reform movements last year in focusing the attention of students on the commercial aspect of education.

The students’ acuteness of perception which they owe to their practical exposure to reality and to the theoretical awareness of some advanced youth leaders has placed the educational system in correct perspective.

Student activism, therefore, is not the salutary result of the educational system, but its very antithesis. It is a sign of the failure of a colonial device to hold for long an actively thinking sector that is a witness to the reality being camouflaged by this apparatus of colonial control. The events of January and February established the students no longer as the passive victims of the educational system but as the agents for the education of their avowed educators and the articulators of the needs and aspirations of the masses.

Their disenchantment has guided many of them to study for themselves, for their critical attitude toward traditional education has impelled them to seek alternatives. Their active minds have led them to a counter-education that is relevant to life and society.

The exclusive use of Pilipino during the rallies is an indication of their revolt against the foreign medium of instruction — a medium which is an integral part of the status quo. They use the language of the masses because they see in the masses the basis of a counter-culture, the basis of a new, meaningful life.

The students’ attempts to study what they cannot learn in their classrooms have given them a critical awareness of the ills of society. They see that the basic causes of these ills are imperialism and feudalism. In the past, these concepts were clear only to the most aware. Many still pinned their hopes on changes of leadership, election of the other party, moral exhortations against graft and corruption, etc. The educational work of the most advanced leaders was difficult, but objective conditions helped decisively. Intensifying social contradictions were making the students move, many still acting confusedly and perhaps without direction, but certainly against a situation which was becoming impossible to their idealistic young minds. Then came January 26 and January 30. The students came face to face with reality. The theories they had learned found confirmation in an experience that they can never forget.

Apparatus of Coercion

THE police brutality and state action of January unmasked the state and the appratus of coercion and repression. The battle of Mendiola Bridge exposed the myth that the state is an impartial arbiter of class conflicts, the dispenser of justice for all, and the protector of people’s rights. The indecent haste with which the military assured protection to the frightened aristocracy of wealth in their suburban enclaves further confirmed to the young the partisan nature of the state.

The students realized by actual physical involvement the repression that the peasants and the workers had suffered. They felt in a few intense moments the brutality that the masses have been suffering all their lives. The treatment of the student captives in the jails and the military camps exposed them further to the hostile attitude of the defenders of the law. With the deaths of their comrades and the disappearance of others, the students realized that if this could be done to them in the city, worse brutalities had been inflicted and would continue to be inflicted on the peasants and the workers.

Unmasking Marcos

The unmasking of the state and its military arm was accompanied by a similar unmasking of President Marcos who epitomizes a colonial leadership desperately maneuvering to preserve the status quo. His withhunting tactics, his attempts to play off one student group against another by appealing for the support of each against the others, his reactionary cabinet appointments and, finally, his advocacy of the formation of provincial strike forces and his “secret instructions” to the army have confirmed the students’ accusation of fascist puppetry. From heroic leader, an image he has tried to project, he became a beleaguered president afraid of the millions of voters who were supposed to have made political history by giving him a second mandate. From a government ostensibly democratic, the Marcos Administration emerged as an anti-popular institution of deception and repression.

But, beyond a recognition of the real nature of the Marcos leadership, there is a more fundamental awareness that many students have arrived at. It is an awareness of the impossibility of attaining an honest and popular leadership under a colonial system, as well as a conviction that no basic change can be effected within the present system. Even the reformist student activists who are asking for limited, specific changes will, if they are honest, soon come to realize that their demands even if met fully will not change anything. It is not unlikely that many of the will sooner or later grasp the truths that are now the source of revolutionary student strength.

These insights into the nature of the state and the true role of the Marcos Administration are certainly not new to the more advanced student leaders. What constitutes a qualitative change is the acceptance of these insights, if only in their generality, by the progressive protest movement as a whole. This acceptance has in turn strengthened the students’ adherence to the three basic demands against imperialism, feudalism and fascism. That the leadership regards these demands as cornerstones in the building of a new society is evident in their refusal to be swept along in the wake of an avalanche of specific projects, proposals and demands of traditionalist student groups. They correctly regard such stop-gap reforms as inconsequential and diversionary, if not altogether impractical and meaningless. In contrast, to the peripheral demands of the reformists, the basic demands of the progressive students show maturity. The 13 demands presented to Marcos by the Movement for a Democratic Philippines exhibit a skillful blending of the general and the particular, the long-term and the short-term goals without falling into the trap of reformism and thus losing the movement’s revolutionary character.

Unity with the Masses

The advanced level of consciousness that enabled the student left to abstract from the myriad ills of our society the fundamental sources of all our problems is the same consciousness that has recognized that the basic restructuring of society that is their goal will require from them and their allies many years of hard work. They have therefore adopted the concept of the protracted struggle and in so doing have given a true reflection of their dedication.

The new level of maturity, the united action, the sharper insights into education, the state, and colonial politicians, the firm commitment to fight imperialism, feudalism and fascism — all these are impressive gains. But, the most significant, the most deeply revolutionary development of the events of January and February is the awareness among the students of the need for unity with the working class and the peasants. Where before reformists thought in terms of alliances with traditionally powerful groups, now the students realize who the real agents of change are. Moreover, this alliance is not based on the elitist idea of uplifting the masses as a matter of Christian charity but on a recognition that they are the leading class and that student strength will amount to nothing in the end if it does not become part of the strength of the masses.

The enthusiasm which greeted the worker and peasant speakers during the Congress at Plaza Miranda shows the friendly solidarity between the students and the masses. This student action has undoubtedly raised the morale of the peasants and the workers for they  now realize that there are sectors of the population who are fighting with them. Those who articulate the mass goals are not hypocritical windbags like those in Congress, but idealistic youth who have now contributed martyrs to their cause. This desire for unity with the masses should be viewed in the perspective of the unity of theory and practice which will guarantee the success of the struggle for national democracy.

Two Dangers

That  victory will come is not in question. Whether it will come sooner or later will depend to some extent on the qualities of leadership displayed by the progressive forces. The success of student action has suddenly thrust upon the student leaders a grave responsibility. Events have happened so fast, the movements itself has grown so large that there now exists a two-fold danger: objectively, that the swiftness of developments may find the leaders unprepared to cope with the situation, and subjectively, that instant success may infect them with a dangerous euphoria. This can develop into arrogance and an exaggerated sense of power. More seriously, euphoria can lead to an over-estimation both of the gains made and of the resources immediately available to the movement. The leadership must not be beguiled by the big crowds, by the respect and even the fear accorded the movement, by the public attention and the publicity.

Above all, the students must never forget that the decision to institute revolutionary change ultimately rests on the people.

The leadership of the student activists must be equal to its swiftly expanded responsibilities. For this, a rapid rise in theoretical level is required. Something in the nature of an intensive study program must be launched so that theory will be equal to the practical demands of the situation. The student leaders must learn to study even in the midst of action. After each development, they must pause to analyze the import and direction of their acts lest the swiftness of events prod them to untheorized action or to blind reaction. A high degree of theoretical mastery is required to gauge accurately the ebb and flow of social movement. Appropriate actions must be devised to take advantage of a developing situation just as appropriate steps must be taken to minimize the effects of a temporary recession.

Learning and Teaching

Concretely, the students are confronted with serious tasks of great magnitude. Their present role is to expose, to explain, to teach incessantly and untiringly and therefore also to study just as incessantly and untiringly, ever aware of their own deficiencies. Initial successes must not breed in them attitudes of complacency. A revolutionary teacher once described the problem in these words:

Complacency is the enemy of study. We cannot really learn anything until we rid ourselves of complacency. Our attitude toward ourselves should be “to be insatiable in learning” and toward others “to be tireless in teaching.”

The object of this learning and teaching process is to involve more students and later, wider sectors of the population in the revolutionary movement for change. The creativity, patience and dedication of the young people will find its most stringent test in the less dramatic but more arduous task of politicalization.

Subsidiary Tasks

Four subsidiary tasks are demanded by this primary duty to politicalize. First, there is the duty of the new educators to deepen their own grasp of our reality. Second, there is the need to be more creative in devising fresh types of protest action and new educative situations so that the learning process is sustained in a dynamic way. Internally, within each participating progressive organization, there is the task of developing a larger corps of leaders: self-disciplined, dedicated, and of high theoretical competence. And lastly, for all revolutionary youth, there is the duty to intensify their unity with the peasants and the workers.

These are heavy burdens to shoulder, especially because they must be borne, not for a month or two, not only during the exciting hours of demonstrations, pickets and People’s Congresses but for many years of protracted struggle, day after day without fanfare and publicity, individually or collectively, even under conditions of harassment and persecution. If our young people are equal to the task, and I trust they will be, our nation will be rich in heroes. Their dedication to the cause of the exploited and the dispossessed will hasten the coming of that day when our people will at last attain freedom and live in justice and dignity in a country that will be their own and under a social structure that is the result of their collective choice.#

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