The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 81/No. 21      May 29, 2017

(special feature)

‘We want to be part of struggles for socialism’

Students in Manila discuss world politics with communists from US, Australia, New Zealand

MANILA, Philippines — “Reading your book Feminism and the Marxist Movement was like a breath of fresh air. I stayed up until 3 in the morning to finish it,” Shaira Mae Embate told Mary-Alice Waters, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States. Embate, a student at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, had just bought the book and then met Waters while taking part in the Asia-Pacific Regional Conference of Solidarity with Cuba, held here April 8-9.

“It was so clear,” Embate said. “Unlike every other book on the women’s rights struggle I’ve read, I didn’t need a dictionary to try to figure out what it was saying. We’ll be discussing it in our women’s organization because it was incredibly informative.”

Embate and Dhel Pulanco, a recent graduate from Polytechnic University, invited Waters and other members of the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Leagues in Australia and New Zealand, who were participating in the Cuba solidarity conference, to the university for a meeting with members of their campus group. Some 25 students attended the April 12 meeting, eager to meet and discuss politics with communist workers from other countries.

Many students at Polytechnic University are from working-class or rural farm families. Tuition is more affordable there than at other universities, they told us.

They said their organization, called SPEAK (Students Party for Equality and Advancement of Knowledge), was formed in 2015 out of a successful campaign to remove a university dean accused of corruption. The group won last year’s student council elections, displacing the Maoist campus organization that had held office for three decades.

Struggles in the Philippines

While SPEAK is focused on campus issues, many of the youth have been involved in broader struggles. They joined nationwide protests against the decision last November by President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration to rebury the remains of longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos in Manila’s “Cemetery of Heroes.” Marcos was toppled by mass popular mobilizations in 1986 and died in exile in the United States.

Some SPEAK members said they were involved in struggles for women’s rights, others to protect the environment. Some are active in opposing discrimination against Muslims, Methodists and other religious minorities in a majority Catholic country where the church hierarchy wields strong political influence.

Also participating in the meeting were a campus professor, a lawyer involved in defending workers’ rights, and a leader of Alab Katipunan (Blazing Brotherhood), a left-wing group some SPEAK leaders belong to.

Embate explained that she is from a peasant family on Mindoro Island. She described a struggle by coconut farmers in Quezon province last year who organized a 75-mile march to demand the government give them title to their land.

“When we graduate many of us will become workers,” she said. “We want to be part of something bigger, part of struggles to transform society and fight for socialism.” She said she was especially pleased that members of the international communist movement were there to bring “political problems on an international scale” into the meeting, because she wanted to get more of a world perspective.

“How can we involve students in labor issues?” asked Jonald Bagasina. “Some students are afraid of joining protests, others aren’t interested.”

Waters replied, “What we’re facing everywhere is a global capitalist crisis such as none of us have lived through.” The capitalist ruling classes in every country, from the U.S. to the Philippines, have been making working people pay for this crisis, she said. These conditions are pushing more youth and working people everywhere to search for answers, and sharper struggles are inevitable.

Waters noted that as the class struggle intensifies, many students will move beyond campus politics and join struggles by workers and farmers, not as well-meaning outsiders “serving the people,” but as part of the working class.

Janet Roth, a member of the Communist League in New Zealand who works in a dairy plant and is a member of the Dairy Workers Union, described how, as a student many years ago, her involvement in the fight for women’s rights and other political struggles led her to the communist movement. “The party I joined rooted itself in the working class,” she said.

Part of working class, not outsiders

Ron Poulsen, from Sydney, Australia, explained that communism is not an ideology or a set of ideas dreamed up in an ivory tower, but a line of march for the working class. “It’s based on the generalized lessons of more than a century and a half of the workers’ movement. We need to study these lessons, but Marxism can only be learned as part of the struggles of the working class,” said Poulsen, a member of the Communist League in Australia.

He pointed to the example of Cuba’s socialist revolution, which shows the capacity of workers and farmers to organize a successful fight for state power and begin transforming society, transforming themselves in the process.

A broad range of questions and opinions were talked through in the nearly three hours of discussion, from how to oppose the bosses’ contracting out of jobs to questions about trade pacts and “globalization.” One question was on the challenge of organizing workers in call centers — a rapidly expanding business in the Philippines — where U.S., Australian and other companies take advantage of superexploited labor and an English-speaking workforce.

Baskaran Appu, from Auckland, New Zealand, spoke about the work of building the Communist League there. “As we go door to door in working-class neighborhoods, we are finding an unprecedented openness among workers to discuss a class perspective,” he said.

Several of us explained how in every country the employers push down wages and working conditions in their drive for profits. They try to divide and weaken the working class, introducing contract jobs and using racist demagogy or scapegoating immigrants, women and others. But the unfolding capitalist crisis pushes workers to fight back. And in the process working people grow in confidence and understanding.

Martín Koppel, from New York, described how SWP members have been part of protests against deportations of immigrants. “These actions have won widespread solidarity among native- and foreign-born workers alike,” he said.

In reply to a question about how to respond to capitalist “tax reform” plans that increase the burden on the working class — like one being proposed by the Philippine government today — Linda Harris from the Communist League in Australia pointed to the example of socialist Cuba. At the initiative of the revolutionary leadership there, hundreds of thousands had participated in “workers’ parliaments” in the mid-1990s, discussing and rejecting proposed taxation of workers’ wages.

One youth said many of his fellow students were worried about their future careers if they got involved in broader politics.

Waters replied that education, like all social relations under capitalism, is designed to train students to see themselves as individuals. “You’re taught you should strive to rise out of your class, not fight to rise with your class,” she said. “Ours is a political struggle to raise consciousness that workers need to organize as a class to take political power. Until we do that, no gains are permanent.”

The heart of this political battle, Waters said, was captured well by Malcolm X, “a revolutionary leader of the working class in the United States. When he was asked, ‘Are you trying to wake people to their own exploitation?’ Malcolm said, ‘No, to their humanity, to their own worth.’”

The fight for political space

A couple of students pointed to dangers they face when taking part in protest rallies with the possibility of arrests and becoming targets of police and vigilante squads.

“How to protect yourselves from government repression and murderous attacks by political opponents is not something those of us from outside the Philippines can answer for you,” Waters said. “But we do know from our own experiences and the lessons of history that the answer must flow from a broader strategy to mobilize working people along the road to political power.”

That strategy, she said, means fighting to unify and organize the working class and transform the unions into instruments of revolutionary struggle. It means rejecting the subordination of the interests of working people to electoral and governmental alliances with “progressive” bourgeois forces, the course that is followed by the Communist Party of the Philippines, a Mao-Stalinist organization, and its various split-offs. For the CPP, “protracted rural warfare” is part of this class-collaborationist course, aimed not at taking power but winning concessions from one bourgeois government or another.

Waters pointed to the lessons learned by the Communist Party in the United States, founded in 1919 by workers determined to emulate the example of the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution. V.I. Lenin and other leaders of the Communist International helped convince the young party to come out from underground and fight for the political space to operate openly.

Following this back-and-forth exchange, and a tour of the campus, the members of SPEAK put on a “boodle fight” — a traditional Philippine meal — for us. Then the students swarmed the literature table to browse the issues of the Militant and books on revolutionary politics we were leaving them, thirsty to learn more about workers’ struggles and a way forward worth fighting for.  
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