Communism comes to the Philippines,1

In the Philippines, not a single ripple was felt when the Bolshevik Revolution or the Great October Socialist Revolution ripped Russia asunder in 1917.   A communist party was established in 1918 and   the year after, the first Communist International (Comintern or CI) was convened in March. The CI invited other revolutionary movements to send representatives to its founding congress as it aimed to cultivate close relations with countries in the process of decolonization and national liberation.  From the Comintern’s perspectitve, the First World War had pushed the imperialist system to the brink, the planet was in chaos, it was time to harness forces for an international revolution.  Vladimir Lenin, head of the Bolsheviks, said    communist parties should not only support each other but also the revolutionary elements of bourgeois-democratic movements struggling for independence and the right of   self-determination.

At the second Comintern (CI) in July 1920, Lenin issued his “Theses on the National and Colonial Question” which stated that the CI’s policy must be founded on bringing together the proletariat, workers and peasants of all nations for a common revolutionary struggle to overthrow landlord and the bourgeois classes.  Only united action can abolish imperialism, national oppression and inequality of rights. (Kuusinen, I. 1963) In the Comintern of 1928, communist parties of the Metropolis were enjoined to support their counterparts in the colonies, especially those waging agrarian revolutions to confiscate big landholdings of the bourgeosie and the Church (Burns, 1935).

In our part of the world, Southeast Asia, there were anti-colonial movements, like the Philippine Revolution, that predated the Bolsheviks.  The Comintern called these “bourgeois emancipation movements” to which it pledged support. The first communist party of the region emerged in Indonesia, established by members of the Islamic Traders’ Association (Serikat Dagang Islam) founded in 1911, as a result of intense competition with Chinese commercial interests. In 1914, the East Indian Social Democratic League was formed upon the initiative of Henricus Sneevliet, a Dutch socialist who believed in linking socialist movements in his country to those in Indonesia, way before Lenin issued his “Theses”.

The second communist party was formed in China by Li Ta-chao and Ch’en Tu-hsiu, academics of the University of Peking who were observing the Russian revolution from a distance and set up Marxist study groups.  Chinese intellectuals were disheartened with Western democracy and were ready to absorb new political ideas.  There were two foreigners involved, Grigori Voitnsky and the very same Hendricus Sneevliet who was in Indonesia. Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam formed the Workers Party, but let us leave his inspiring story for another occasion.

According to some sources, a communist organization was established by some Chinese residents of Manila in 1926 and the following year, Chinese workers formed a labor union, the Hue Chino Chong Kong Hue, with communist leadership.  However, this was dissolved due to violent clashes with local Kuomintang (KMT) elements.   Gen. Chiangkai Shek, head of the KMT, was persecuting communists in the mainland , apparently that had repercussion in Manila.   There were no indications that the local Chinese communists formed alliances with Filipino trade unions. However, in 1930 after a communist party was formed, the Chinese Labor Federation associated itself very loosely with left-wing Filipino labor unions.

The first known contact between the Comintern and the Philippines occurred in May 1924, through William Janequette, an American trade unionist and communist who wrote for newspapers with a pseudonym, Harrison George.  He came to invite Filipino trade unionists, all expenses paid, to the Conference of Transport Workers of the Pacific held in Canton (now Guangdong), China. Evidently, he abided by Lenin’s “Theses” of the second CI in 1920.  Janequette’s visit was no secret.  He used official government channels to contact Filipino trade unionists. He had letters of recommendation from Pedro Guevara, the Philippine Resident Commissioner in the USA. As soon as he arrived, Jeanquette called on Director Hermenegildo Cruz of the Bureau of Labor and Secretary of the Interior, Teodoro M. Kalaw, both of whom arranged meetings with trade union leaders. He must have been happy to see Crisanto Evangelista again whom he had met in the USA, in 1919 when he   was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.  Jeanquette did not stay long enough to have influenced the growth of communism in the Philippines; in fact, he spent most of his time with the rather conservative Domingo Ponce, member of the Legionarios del Trabajo, instead of the more progressive Crisanto Evangelista.

Curiously enough Domingo Ponce confessed that he and the other delegates to had no inkling that the conference in Canton was arranged by the communists, Jeanquette must have taken it for granted that they knew. They became aware only when the other delegates began to make laudatory speeches about the Russian Revolution.  Unfazed, the Philippine delegation grabbed the opportunity and presented a resolution strongly demanding immediate independence for the Philippines. There were cheers and resounding applause for their resolution. The Governor and Mayor of Canton encouraged the Filipinos to be relentless in their demands for independence; they also urged them not to be scabs when Chinese workers on British ships go on strike.

Exhilarated by the revolutionary air of the Canton conference, Ponce and his co-delegates formed a “Bolshevik secretariat” as soon as they returned. Canton was an eye-opener; they seem to have lost their faith in the USA’s promise to   grant the Philippines independence; they had to take radical measures.  Ponce said: “Philippine independence was still our primary goal. If America will not grant independence to the Philippines, Russian help would be sought.”  As for Jeanquette, he made another visit sometime between 1925 and 1928 and wrote an article about the Philippines in the “International Press Correspondence (Imprecor)” referring to a new revolutionary movement against the USA composed of a labor party formed in 1922 and “poor tenant farmers awakening and showing an increasing activity.”

In 1925, probably the most notorious (to the Dutch colonists) communist in southeast Asia visited the Philippines—Tan Malaka. He had spent time in jail and was exiled by the Dutch colonial government in Indonesia for his subversive political activities, the most dangerous of which was the founding of the Communist Party. It was rumored that through Tan Malaka, communism spread to Malaya (now Malaysia)  and Singapore. He   participated in the 4th Comintern in 1922 and was at that same Conference of Transport Workers in Canton where he made friends with the Filipino delegation.

Why did Tan Malaka come here? He probably needed a place of exile, peaceful enough but close to Indonesia and its revolutionary movement.  Ms. Ruth McVey, a leading scholar on Indonesian communists, was of the opinion that Tan Malaka came here not upon the orders of the Comintern but because he had tuberculosis. He enjoyed the hospitality of the Filipino trade unionists he had met in Canton. Take note   that none of those who attended the Conference of Transport Workers of the Pacific in China  became communists. (more..)