Special to the RW



Revolutionary Worker #952, April 12, 1998

A harsh morning rain let up. It was time to leave our campsite to meet with three peasant activists. They were members of an underground barrio (village) organizing group. They had come to talk to us about the conditions faced by peasants and the political situation. We met them at a patch of garden, where we sat on a log to talk. Nearby, a fighter from the New People's Army (NPA) stood sentry.

Rolan has been active since 1986; Pedro and Tito joined the underground organizing group in 1994. The three of them were from poor peasant backgrounds, farmers who can hardly make do on meager parcels of land. Rolan told us that people in his barrio grow abaca (hemp)--from which cord, cloth, and other products are made--and they also raise corn and root vegetables. Rolan said farming was not enough to make ends meet; so he also cuts logs to earn more income, but the merchants force him to sell the wood very cheap.

Pedro talked about the presence of the NPA in his barrio: "The NPA is here because of the poor and backward conditions, especially the land that has to be tilled. Because of the NPA we have become enlightened. We know about the situation in the Philippines. We know more about the international situation. With the help of the comrades from the NPA we can enlighten others. We help them fight for the right to own the land."

I asked about some of the changes that have taken place since the arrival of the NPA. Tito mentioned bayanihan. This is the Tagalog word (Tagalog is the most widely spoken language in the Philippines) for "labor exchange." Under the leadership of the NPA, the peasants organize themselves to work together on each other's plots--rotating one day to the next in small groups. "This way we can plant more. It is a big help."

The rain started up again and we went into a supporter's hut, where we continued our conversation. "The Philippines is rich in minerals and resources," Pedro said, "but the imperialists control those resources and minerals. That's why we are poor." Rolan motioned with an outstretched hand: "Look at the mountains. We could plant so many things. But the government is confiscating land. It is preventing us from making the land fruitful. There is armed struggle in the Philippines and in other countries because of the same basic situation, the same role played by imperialism and bureaucrat capitalism. Why is U.S. imperialism in our country? We want U.S. imperialism out of our country."

Maoism and the
Agrarian Question

In preparing for my trip to the Philippine countryside, I studied various materials about the Maoist approach to making revolution in semicolonial and semifeudal countries. And I tried to familiarize myself with some of the major issues that Maoist movements in these countries face.

Revolution in the Third World must confront three mountains. It must overthrow the bureaucrat-capitalist class and state system--which are dependent on and which serve imperialism. It must uproot semifeudal landlordism in the countryside. And it must drive out imperialism.

Mao Tsetung pioneered the path for such a revolution. It is the new-democratic revolution. It is led by the proletariat and its ideology of all-the-way liberation. And it mobilizes the peasantry as its main force. In nations oppressed by imperialism, a revolutionary solution to the land question is an essential part of breaking free of imperialism...and of standing up to imperialism after power has been seized.

The peasant demand for "land to the tiller" is a just one. It strikes a powerful blow against the huge concentrations of wealth and huge concentrations of means of production in the hands of exploiters, and at the inequalities in the countryside. "Land to the tiller" opens new possibilities to improve production and raise living standards.

The attack on landlordism enables the peasants to stand up and act for themselves--to challenge feudal authority and oppression. The right of peasant women to own land, for instance, is a key part of the struggle against the oppression of women in the countryside. "Land to the tiller" is a decisive step in destroying the old system. But it is not an end in itself. "Land to the tiller" lays the foundation to make the next great leap, the socialist leap, in agriculture. With land in their hands, the peasants can begin, step-by-step, to voluntarily develop new cooperative ways of farming and new collective forms of ownership.

Maoism teaches that this requires political power, built by people's war. There is a need for forms of base areas in the countryside, where the peasant masses exercise political power. This is a fundamental condition for developing the agrarian revolution.

From a Maoist perspective, these kinds of policies and transformations are crucial to maintaining the alliance of workers and peasants, and carrying the revolution forward.

So I was really interested in seeing how people are dealing with these problems and challenges in the Philippines.

Some Basic Facts about the Philippine Countryside

The revolutionary movement in the Philippines has produced much valuable analysis of the Philippine agrarian economy. Here is some information that I took from my discussions and study.

Over 60 percent of the Philippine population lives in the countryside, and peasants make up almost 50 percent of the total labor force. Land is the most basic resource of the people in the countryside, providing food and income. But land is concentrated in the hands of landlord families and imperialist corporations. And more and more land is being grabbed up by the government and by agricultural, logging, ranch, and mining companies--both domestic and foreign.

Big landlords make up less than half a percent of the landowning population, but they control 21 percent of all the landholdings. This landlord class has its representatives at every level of government. The military defends the interests of the landlords. And individual landlords may have their own armed groups to enforce their will.

The Philippines is a country where semifeudal exploitation remains a crushing reality. Peasants till vast areas of agricultural land. They make vast amounts of land productive--plowing, fertilizing, engaging in pest control. They prepare rice seedlings; they gather and husk coconuts. But because a tiny minority of landlords have a monopoly on land, large numbers of peasants are compelled to pay rent. They are deprived of the fruit of their hard work. Seven out of ten peasants do not own the land they till.

The most common form of feudal land rent in the Philippines is payment in crop. The tenant-farmers (mostly poor peasants) hand over part of the rice, coconut, or other crops they grow to the landlord. No matter how bad the weather or harvest, rent must be paid. The landlord's share can range from 40 percent to as much as 90 percent of the crop. And the peasant must cover all his production expenses.

The peasants also get squeezed by merchants and suppliers-- who set high prices for the goods and supplies the peasants buy and low prices for the produce the peasants sell. The peasants, including lower-middle peasants who own some land, often go deep into debt to usurers (money lenders who charge outrageously high interest rates).

In addition to the peasants, there are farmworkers in the countryside. They face extreme exploitation, getting paid very low wages and having to endure many hardships. The poor peasants frequently have to hire themselves out for part of the year in order to make ends meet.

Most peasants in the Philippines work small plots of land. The few tools they own are simple. The peasant farmers work hard to survive. But the economic pressures are intense. Many peasants become dispossessed and uprooted from the land--ending up as seasonal farmworkers or migrants to the cities. Poverty, disease, and illiteracy stalk the Philippine countryside.

The Philippine Revolution
and Land Reform

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) has analyzed that the peasant demand for land is the main problem that has to be solved in the people's struggle for new democracy. The Philippine revolution is linking the peasant demand for land with armed struggle and the establishment of forms of popular power in the countryside. This is the heart of the protracted people's war to carry out the revolution to overthrow the semicolonial, semifeudal system.

Before going into the countryside, I studied the program of the National Democratic Front (NDF), the underground united front of the Philippine revolution. This program spells out how the Philippine revolution approaches land reform:

"The current minimum land reform program involves the reduction of land rent and abolition of usury, and the setting up of mutual aid and labor exchange systems among the peasantry.... After the nationwide victory of the revolution, it will be possible to carry out the maximum land reform program, which involves confiscation of the landlord property and the equitable distribution of the land to the landless tillers at no cost to them." The minimum program also includes improving the wages of farmworkers and raising the prices that peasants receive for agricultural goods they sell.

The Philippine revolution targets certain sections of the landlord classes--the big and the despotic landlords (those who sic their guns and goons on peasants), those who grab land from peasants, and those who are most tied to the ruling cliques.

Through my discussions and experiences at the grass roots, I was able to get a picture of the approach the CPP has developed for solving particular challenges of the agrarian revolution. I was also able to see how that revolution is concretely transforming the economy in the countryside.

Rent Reduction

Frank, a leading comrade from the region, told me about the backbreaking and dangerous work of coconut farmers and workers. "On 3 hectares of coconut land (a hectare is about 2.5 acres), about 3,000 to 4,000 nuts are raised every 45 days. The nuts have to be picked from the trees. Then they are gathered and hauled on sleds pulled by water buffalos to kilns. The coconuts are then husked--maybe 1,000 a day, with people working 12 hours a day--broken open, and cooked. The meat is removed and recooked. The coconut meat is then put in sacks and transported to buyers."

Much of the hardest work I am describing (like the picking and husking) is done by poor peasants and farmworkers. The poor peasants are like subtenants and squatters on the fields rented from the landlords by middle peasants. Women are involved in every phase of coconut growing and processing.

The coconut lands in the Philippines are dominated by big landlords. Frank explained that "the landlords exact a heavy rent. They take two-thirds of the coconut crop. The landlords often have overseers living among the peasants. The overseers manage the landholdings and make sure the peasant share is delivered to the landlord. They buy the coconut meat from the peasant, but often cheat the peasant through false weighing and unfair pricing. Some of the overseers are armed."

The revolutionary movement has carried out the minimum program in significant parts of this region. The landlord is not overthrown; his land is not confiscated. Rather, the crop-sharing arrangements are changed in the peasants' favor. The result is what Frank called the "drastic" reduction of rent. In the case of coconut production, this means the peasants will keep two-thirds, instead of one-third, of their crop. "Sometimes," he said, "we have pushed to lower the rent even more." As the NDF program states, higher wages for workers in the fields are also fought for.

Usury, which is the practice of lending money at oppressively high interest rates, is also attacked. Under the system of usury in this area, loans have been charged at monthly rates that work out to 150 percent interest per cropping season. But as a result of the struggle, interest rates have been cut in half. In this area, the NPA has also organized and protected the peasants against local thugs and robbers.

I asked Frank about how rent reduction comes about. "One way is confrontation: marches on the residences of the landlords, shoutings and threats. But the principal way is negotiations. Years of military action by the NPA and the strength of the mass movements have softened landlord resistance. So the NPA will first try to talk with the landlords."

Frank made a more general point about the methods of the agrarian revolution--whether or not force is used in particular circumstances. "The NPA must educate and inspire...but the masses must face the landlords." The NPA cannot substitute itself for the masses.

I talked with some members of the NPA unit about their work in the barrios. Lino spoke about the general situation, "There is terrible crisis, the peasants cannot meet their basic needs."

In the Philippine countryside, land is being rapidly grabbed up by foreign agribusiness, domestic speculators, and old and new types of landlords. The land left for peasants to till to support themselves is often the less fertile land. Land rent and production costs for the peasants are rising. Men are often forced to migrate from the villages in search of paid work, and this puts heavier burdens on peasant women.

In the guerrilla front, the NPA works with the peasants to help them solve their production problems and requirements. The peasants are encouraged to expand production of sideline crops that can help raise their incomes. The growing of root and tuber crops is promoted. "These crops can be easily cultivated and help stabilize the food supply, especially when rice is in bad supply."

Summing up the situation overall, Frank explained that at this stage of the struggle, "land to the tiller is not the order of the day. The minimum program of rent reduction is being carried out on a wide scale."

I wanted to understand why the Philippine revolutionaries believe that confiscation and redistribution of land are not now on the agenda (I am speaking about the current minimum program of the agrarian revolution). These are important and difficult questions that have come up in the Philippines, and they have also arisen in other countries.

Frank pointed to several factors. Mainly, the "fighting that goes on in the countryside and the changing balance of forces" make it hard to carry out and then "stabilize" land distribution. In other words, the revolution makes advances but the enemy will often seek to gain back what it has lost. This poses real challenges.

And there is the related question of the strength and capability of the revolution--the Party, the NPA, the mass organizations, and the organs of political power--relative to the enemy's strength in a particular area. The revolution has to be ready to meet the enemy's retaliation. The level of consciousness and organization of the peasant masses, according to Frank, also has to be taken into account. He mentioned that "self-management" of land requires that the peasants gain experience and raise consciousness. Land redistribution also requires, Frank explained, that the party and the NPA have sufficient cadre and skill to lead and organize the masses. Land can't just be parceled out. So these are some of the factors affecting the scope of land reform.

There is, Frank emphasized, a process of learning through struggle. "The consciousness of the masses depends on their practice. When the masses achieve victories over cattle rustlers or for rent reduction, that experience must be summed up and lessons instilled. The masses must understand that their unity and the NPA gave them these victories. They must understand that all these activities must lead to popular power. We explain the policies [such as why rent reduction is the minimum program and not confiscation] to the masses. And the masses are being taught about protracted people's war, agrarian revolution, and base-building."

More Advanced Experience

Where the armed revolution is strong enough, it is able at times to go beyond the current minimum program and carry out land redistribution. The NPA has mobilized peasants to occupy and plant on fields abandoned by landlords. It has led struggles to confiscate property of cruel landlords. And in some places the revolution has attempted to form some peasant cooperatives--in which peasants cultivate crops collectively and buy and distribute goods through cooperatives. On the haciendas, like the large sugar plantations, cooperatives are also organized. These kinds of policies are also addressed in the NDF program.

About a day's hike away from our camp is a barrio made up of "300 highly politicized families," as one fighter put it. This is part of a more consolidated guerrilla base in the region. This stronghold has been forged through years of confrontation between revolutionary struggle and counterrevolutionary attack. The barrio has had a party branch, mass organizations, and self-defense units...and has had to rebuild them in the wake of bloody campaigns by the enemy to root out the revolution.

Here in the 1980s, a "despotic" landlord's holdings were confiscated. The tenants had grown corn, coconuts, and tubers on this land. The land was taken over and distributed to the peasants. The landlord, who lived in the city, did not contest this takeover, and in fact his holding had gone into bank default. The peasants have held on to this land and made it far more productive. Carlo, one of the NPA fighters, told me that in recent months the government has been sending surveyors in to the barrio to establish property deeds. A struggle is brewing.

In this barrio, the practice of labor exchange, which those three peasants had told me about, is very advanced. Teams of five persons work together--plowing and fertilizing--rotating each day, five days a week, between different plots of land. This kind of mutual aid and assistance is not just a way of improving production; it is also a means to promote a more cooperative consciousness. The special organizing groups that reach out to youth, women, and others have also farmed small communal plots.

I asked how the peasants in a more consolidated area of revolutionary strength like this are educated to see their role in the struggle and the direction that the struggle must take. Isabel, a regional leader of the guerrilla front, said the peasants are told: "The problem in our society is land, and if you want land, you must unite, organize, and participate in the struggle. Now you have land, and it is because of the revolution that you have land. But you must continue to organize yourselves and participate in the agrarian revolution. This is only the beginning. You must support the New People's Army. You must support the armed struggle until victory. It is you, the peasants, who are the main force of the revolution."

Challenges in Today's World

As I said earlier, Mao Tsetung pioneered the path to liberation in semicolonial and semifeudal countries. In China's specific conditions, the revolutionary forces, starting in 1928, were able to establish relatively self-sufficient and relatively stable base areas in the countryside.

With the Chinese Communist Party leading, and with the poor peasants and farm laborers as the backbone of the movement, land reform was carried out. Land was confiscated from the landlords and distributed among the peasants. (When the Japanese imperialists invaded China--and the communists led a united front against them--the focus of land reform temporarily shifted to rent reduction). The seeds of a new economy were planted. The base areas spread and served the advance of the armed struggle for nationwide power. The new-democratic revolution in China achieved victory in 1949.

Since the time of the Chinese revolution, changes have taken place in the world economy. Globalization is resulting in the greater integration of Third World agriculture into the world market, and in the spread of the cash economy. Hundreds of millions of peasants are being dispossessed in the countryside and driven into the cities.

But for all these changes, the horrors facing the masses have only multiplied. And for all these changes, the struggle for land and against semifeudalism is still central to the people's struggle in most of the countryside of the Third World--from Mexico, to India, to the Philippines.

Maoist revolutionaries in the oppressed nations are trying to solve the particular problems and challenges thrown up by their concrete conditions (including the technological and military capabilities of the enemy). In carrying out people's war, there may be necessary tactical steps and stages for the agrarian revolution to go through. But whatever those steps and stages are, the Maoist road requires that uprooting semifeudalism be the firm orientation and practice all along the road.

A Parting Thought

In going over these issues in my mind, I recalled something that Pedro, one of the three peasant organizers I had spoken with, said to me. I had asked him how he saw the prospects for revolution in the Philippines. He reflected for a few seconds. "The enemy has strength. But the government has no plan for the poor. It can't give any solution. We will fight and we will learn more. The revolution will grow strong." Based on what I learned, I came away from the guerrilla front thinking that Pedro was right.


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