From Polarization to Pluralism: The Turn in Mojares’s Scholarship and Politics

Prof. Resil Mojares during a PostScript Interview, 1 August 2018

Prof. Resil Mojares, the Visayan Titan of Letters, is lauded for his contributions to history writing and Cebuano literature. His works reflect a deep investment in the intellectual and cultural development of the Filipino, evinced by his studies of regional history and his essays interrogating Philippine nationalism and how it has marginalized certain sectors in the country. But in his early days as a professor at the University of San Carlos (USC) and a journalist for the Cebu daily The Freeman, Mojares’s writings revolved around militant activism and Marxist anti-imperialism.

Karlo Mikhail I. Mongaya, instructor at the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature at the University of the Philippines Diliman, explores Mojares’s intellectual history and scholarship. In the process, Mongaya illumines the place of nationalism in Philippine academia and how it has evolved in the last three decades of the twentieth century. His article titled, “Militant Struggles and Anti-Imperialism in Resil Mojares’s The Freeman Columns during the Early 1970s,” published in our September–December 2019 double issue—a festschrift in Mojares’s honor—centers on Mojares’s militant writings and coverage of protest actions in his Sticks and Stones column in The Freeman. Mongaya employs as his main sources old copies of the newspaper, which he accessed at the USC Cebuano Studies Center. Out of the 591 Sticks and Stones columns published from 1 September 1970 to 23 September 1972, Mongaya focuses his analysis on seventy-three. He also uses as a source an email interview he conducted with Mojares in 2017.

The 1960s and the 1970s were politically turbulent decades in the Philippines. After the implementation of treaties greatly skewed in favor of the United States after the Second World War, the country suffered from various economic problems while foreign and local capitalists profited from the Philippines’s domestic market, cheap labor, and natural resources. Between 1965, the start of Ferdinand Marcos’s administration, and 1972, the year martial law began, the annual inflation rate rocketed from 4.8 to 12.2 percent, and foreign debt ballooned from US$599.5 million to US$2,210.4 million. Corruption ran rampant, evinced by the controversial and bloody 1969 elections in which Marcos won a second term. Protest actions, which were met with violent reprisals from the police and the military, kicked off 1970, a year that Mojares rightfully called “the year of protests.”

Resentment against US influence and the Marcos administration ran parallel with escalating communist influence worldwide. New radical formations and antirevisionist Marxist–Leninist movements conflated leftist ideas with decolonization, national liberation, and anti-imperialism. This campaign attracted activists and intellectuals frustrated with the inequality and oppression wrought by US imperialism. Many of them joined the broad Left, hoping to “serve the people” and “change the world.” In the Philippines Jose Maria Sison founded in 1964 the Kabataang Makabayan (KM), a militant youth organization previously linked to the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) of the 1950s. The KM pushed for the nationalist discourse of “continuing Katipunan leader Andres Bonifacio’s ‘unfinished revolution,’” inspired by escalating anti-US and anti-imperialist sentiments. This aggressive approach alarmed their conservative predecessors in the PKP, and conflicting views caused the younger generation to break away from the extant Communist Party.

Mojares himself was not a member of any of the militant groups of the time, only covering their activities in his column. As he felt educators should, he enlightened students about the unfolding tension between “the reformists-revolutionaries” and “the so-called Establishment.” For him, educators helped pupils reach a “full and honest assessment of the issues and the situation,” posing the challenge to “decide for themselves.” Mongaya asserts, however, that Mojares’s Sticks and Stones columns would “go on to promote the Marxist-inspired categories and militant nationalist discourses then in vogue and the social movements they embodied.”

Mojares adhered to “left-wing nationalism,” which manifested in the Marxist notion of the oppressed people worldwide uniting to overthrow “US-led capitalist imperialism,” and rejected the “official” version of nationalism that the Marcos administration pushed. In particular, he lauded what he called “Maoism,” a shorthand for antirevisionist Marxism–Leninism in the Philippines. While covering protest actions during the decade, Mojares offered his reflections on the state of the country. Aside from calling protests an “educative force,” he also praised young activists for opposing “systemic violence” through “liberating violence” to substantiate the ideas of freedom and justice for the oppressed masses. “If there are many young men who taunt and shout, and bare breasts to bullets, it’s because we have not listened,” he opined in response to the death of a student during a demonstration. In sum, Sticks and Stones served as a platform for the cause of national liberation and expressed support for activist groups. “Such tacit support for the cause of national liberation,” Mongaya argues, “was consistent with Mojares’s calls for the press to take sides because by remaining uninvolved it only gave implicit backing for the status quo.”

Mojares also believed in the ability of “powerful” events like war and revolution to “charge certain words with potency”; hence, the militancy and use of Marxist-inspired concepts in his writings, deeming the “bourgeoisie press” a greater danger than Marcos’s threats to press freedom. For Mojares, not only did it the press prioritize state and corporate interests, but it also “[disconnected] its audience’s everyday reality from the larger social structure.” He asserted, for instance, that at the root of widespread decadent films was not obscenity in society per se but the systematic exploitation of the masses for profit’s sake. He also lambasted the local press as “crisis merchants” with a proclivity for sensationalism, like its counterparts in the West.

In contrast to his rebuke of mainstream media, Mojares praised the intellectual and cultural contributions of the activist movement, including the “the rebel papers,” referring to alternative newspapers that encompassed the left-wing organs of the 1960s and 1970s as well as campus papers. These rebel papers were akin to the Katipunan’s Kalayaan during the Spanish colonial era and the guerrilla periodicals under the Japanese occupation. Aside from signifying an “implicit criticism of the dominant press,” these oppositional papers “[analyzed] contemporary issues and [urged] for the formation of new political perspectives.” Thus, they enabled “wide intellectual debate” and “integration with the masses.” Mojares also promoted the Kalinangang Anak Pawis, an organization that expressed revolutionary sentiments through song recordings and performances in theaters. While “bourgeois theater” merely focused on entertainment and profit, “guerrilla theater” was committed to “[drawing] audiences toward the national liberation struggle.”

Mojares’s radicalism shifted after his detention on 23 September 1970. Following his release, top USC officials took him in as a student in postgraduate anthropology courses. Mojares would no longer promote militant activism, turning instead toward studying regional culture. He produced books that reflected this altered perspective, such as Cebuano Literature: A Survey and Bio-Bibliography with Finding List (University of San Carlos, 1975) and Origins and Rise of the Filipino Novel: A Generic Study of the Novel until 1940 (University of the Philippines Press, 1983). Nonetheless, Marxism still had an influence on his writings, as Mongaya notes in an essay that Mojares published in Philippine Studies, which analyzes the Linambay theater tradition of Valladolid. (Read Mojares’s “Folk Drama and Social Organization” here.) Mojares himself perceived a growing interest in local history and literature among scholars during the late 1970s. He attributed this general interest in local culture to the militant nationalism of the 1960s and the 1970s, which he thought was rooted in the hope for a “more inclusive, people-centered, and broadly-based” nation.

The highly polarizing Marcos era ended after the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986, leading to a considerable decline in militant nationalism, leftist influence, and—Mojares felt—the “engaged” and “partisan” academic in Philippine scholarship. Various Western discourses that were disengaged with the practical movement of marginalized sectors replaced Marxism–Leninism. In this “pluralist environment,” Philippine academia veered away from left-wing mass movements toward more politically moderate topics. The post–EDSA shift in Mojares’s scholarship, Mongaya argues, can be seen in how he points to the inadequacy of nationalism, which tends to overlook social divisions and to marginalize cultures in the peripheries of the nation-state; nationalism had become an obstructive “straitjacket,” instead of a progressive force. Mongaya, however, is wary of the other extreme, an expeditious acceptance of cosmopolitan and international scholarship, which could lead to uncritically dismissing nationalism and neglecting the consequences that capitalist-driven globalization has wrought, such as underdevelopment, inequality, and poverty.

Although Mojares’s voluminous and masterful writings in the post–EDSA period are markedly different from those he produced prior to that era, Mongaya opines that the legacy of this earlier phase cannot be totally removed when talking about the stellar career of this National Artist. Resil Mojares, is after all, “a child of the militant sixties.”

Read the full article of Karlo Mikhail I. Mongaya in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, volume 67, number 3–4, 2019.

Prof. Resil Mojares is a member of the editorial board of Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints. Watch our PostScript interview with Resil Mojares here.

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