Anti-Thesis: Why Revolution will not succeed in the Philippines

A year ago, the radical group Magdalo sought to oust the government again, by way of “ultimate acts of disobedience”. The fatal flaw of their actions was that they centered on a general, idealistic view of a revolution…

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In a similar vein, this reference studies the socio-political consequences of Revolution from three countries: Iran, Nicaragua, and the Philippines.

 A year ago, the radical group Magdalo sought to oust the government again, by way of“ultimate acts of disobedience”.The fatal flaw of their actions was that they centered their efforts on a general, idealistic view of a revolution. They believed that the present government had overstepped its bounds and violated its own precepts of social responsibility.They believed that it was the obligation of the masses to rise in their support, and, by virtue of a revolution, overthrow this present “dictatorship”, and with its momentum possibly overhaul the system.

The keyword, obligation, should have tipped them off.

The Magdalo and its Bonifacio, Antonio Trillanes IV, cannot be blamed for its ignorance of state of affairs. Indeed, they were merely electrified by the miraculous deliverance of the 1986 People Power, and the notorious EDSA Dos. The world was awed at the overthrow of a dictator through the alliance of leaders of the Church, the masses, and elements of the military. They rested false hopes on the prospect of reawakening this “spirit of EDSA”. They were wrong.

Since the French Revolution, the concept of the “popular rising”, and the successful destruction of the old order in favor of a new one, has captured the imagination of thinkers and idealists throughout the centuries. Indeed, a Revolution is considered a “God-given right” of the people against a tyrannical oppressor. In fact, some argue that it is even enshrined in our Constitution that when the State acts independently of the will of the People, the latter could wrest sovereignty through them through “mass action”. Thus, “democracy” checks the oppressive State.

The errors in this reasoning are not immediately apparent. We can see them only in the context of history.

For one thing, a revolution does not spring out of or emerge from a “tyrannical, absolutely despotic State”. Authors supporting the French Revolution, as well as others supporting any revolution would have us think so, but an absolute dictatorship would police the exercise of expression and individual thought. Any act against the State, even indirectly, would be expunged. The very concept of liberty, then, would be almost inexistent, much less the idea of a revolution. Paradoxically, a revolution thrives in a liberal or newly-liberalized State. The target of the French Revolution, for example, Louis XVI, detested the aristocracy and embraced the precepts of liberalism. In fact, many of the supposedly absolutist kings of that era supported reforms that would give more power to the masses.

This is a consistent character in Revolutions: Czar Nicholas was a liberal autocrat who vested some autocratic power in a Russian parliament, the Duma.Prior to the February and the bloodier October revolutions of 1917, he advocated for greater freedom of government.Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its Communist hold on Eastern Europe, the Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev had instituted reforms giving the people more freedoms of expression.

A revolution succeeds only with an implicit acquiescence of the State, at least at its outset. If Czar Nicholas had the same tyrannical character as his predecessor Ivan III, dubbed The Terrible, not only would the Bolsheviks have not won, but liberty would be almost inexistent. And if Ramon Blanco, the Governor-General of the Philippines acted swiftly and surgically when the revolution erupted, as did his successor Camilo Polavieja, then history would have been written differently, and Bonifacio would have merely graced the list of leaders of failed rebellions.

The masses do not have power in revolutionary movements. They are oftentimes led by the middle class or even the aristocracy (who parrot the ideologies in fashion without really comprehending it). The masses rallied to the French Revolution, but it was the intellectuals, hailing primarily from the lower middle class or bourgeoisie, who led them against the aristocracy, the Church and the King. The middle class intellectuals are the ones who have both the time and the energy to divest in the ideologies of liberty and rights of men. There are but few exceptions to this, and there the revolution succeeded only because the State was significantly weak in the first place (the Chinese Revolution, in fact, could be better classified as a “civil war”).

EDSA is a revolution in both senses. It could not have been possible at any other time during the Martial Law era; in fact the assassination of the primary opponent of Marcos had almost nothing to do with the rising. If it did, why had it taken three years for the people to actively take up arms? There were several crucial factors in the success of EDSA: Marcos refused to end the rebellion bloodily, even when so encouraged by his loyal general Fabian Ver; the Americans hinted at their “displeasure” if the demonstration was touched; Marcos had, before that time, in his act of holding a snap election, granted liberties to the people. The Church, members of the middle class, and elements of the military led the EDSA masses.

The pragmatic way to subvert revolution is simply to crush it at its offing. Never has “the spirit of EDSA” faced so great an enemy as it has under Gloria Arroyo. For EDSA is the lightning rod for uprisings. Indeed, it inspired the less-than-perfect rebellion of the middle classes in 2001. Necessarily, the State has seen fit to crushing EDSA from the hearts and minds of the people. The pardon of the alleged assassins of Senator Aquino is a slap in the face of “the spirit of EDSA”. The brutal crushing of the mass movement dubbed EDSA Tres, the denouncing of Church leaders opposing the State (as well as subsequent countrywide executions of them together with activists and journalists), the branding of the Magdalo as well as other revolutionary leaders as “destabilizers”, “political adventurers”, and more potently “terrorists”, are clear evidence of this. The State under Gloria Arroyo, through the brutal suppressions of risings against it, peaceful or otherwise, has given notice that revolution will not be tolerated.The State, in fact, has kept up an air of “controlled democracy”.

Under these conditions a revolution cannot exist. Trillanes would have been better off if he had run to Mindanao or the less-controlled provinces, and rallied military as well as civilian support there, or in short, if he had made the Magdalo rising an out-and-out military rebellion. He might not have been immediately successful, but at least he would have had a fighting chance.

We cannot and must not hope for an idealistic revolution. There have been rare occasions when a despotic State gave in to the demands of the people (as in the fall of Suharto or Cuba’s Batista), but were the exceptions to the rule, and they succeeded only after years and years of long struggle, and after surrendering to the inevitability of bloody rebellion or insurrection. Ironically, the ideal revolution can erupt only at the discretion of the State.


COMMENTARY 05-03-2017:  This post, written in 2008, contains dated reference to figures and events that were sensational at the time.  The early 2000s was a struggle against what many saw as a “creeping autocracy” in the Philippines.   Yet the reality posited by the article still rings true now.

Revolutions have not been successful, without acquiescence of the State, in part or in whole.  We take for example the Revolutions that erupted in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring.  The Libyan rising was assisted in part by American aerial and land support, and Tripoli fell only through what some attribute as special ops paving its way.   Otherwise, Revolutions fighting on its own would end up in a stalemate with the State, as did the Syrian rebellion.    The case of Egypt, meanwhile, was a victory for the military rather than the Revolution, though the generals expressed support to the rebels’ aims.

Further complicating any Revolution is opposition to a populist/factionalist government.   Assad has ethnic/factional support, which is why he was able to retain a power base in the west.    In the case of the current Venezuela rising (in this year, 2017), Nicolas Maduro retains some popular support, therefore his confidence in a constituent assembly.   This is the same for other populists that social or political revolutions want to topple: Erdogan consolidated his power because half the country voted him to a stronger autocracy.   And while everyone says that the populist Donald Trump lost the popular vote to the “American liberal revolution”, one cannot deny the vote of half of that country.  So we can add an additional aspect the State can employ to defeat a Revolution: divide the masses.

That is not to say that there have not been successful on-their-own Revolutions.   The Cuban Revolution, despite the support to Batista by the Americans, gained traction and won the country.   And we cannot also ignore the earlier American Revolution, which expelled the British through a series of victories.    The latter, however, is not a “pure” victory: the British received pressure from the French, so additional armies could not be fielded.    This is similar to the Chinese Maoist Revolution which capitalized on a Nationalist China weakened by war with the Japanese and a strategically problematic war with the rebels on rebel ground.   This was also the case, if one thought about it, with the Cuban revolution, where the State could not dislodge the Cuban rebels from rebel terrain and so weakened their authority.

A victorious Revolution, then, comes from a weakened State/State apparatus.   And it builds in momentum.  If that momentum is stopped, and the State regains some control, then the country will be plunged into the vicious stalemate of civil war.