It is not a rarity for national liberation movements to make an association between creativity and building the broad united front (BUF). The late Jose Maria Sison, founding chairperson of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS) breaks it down:
“…the organized masses must be mobilized to engage the unorganized masses according to their common and specific interests. There must be a united front within every class and within every sector and there must be also a broad united front embracing all the oppressed and exploited classes and sectors and taking advantage of the contradictions among the reactionary classes in order to isolate and defeat the enemy at every given time.”
BAYAN-USA Spokesperson Bernadette Ellorin concretizes this general principle by sharing that the activist work of Filipinos in the diaspora involves “multiple forms and ways that allow them to gather a broader range of Filipinos around the national democratic cause.”
Little Manila is a neighborhood in Queens (New York City) about two blocks long composed of small Filipino-owned business, Filipino workers, couple of banks for remitting and sending packages, Filipino-run law offices. A few years ago, Little Manila was threatened to be demolished to give way to the construction of a mega-church, which turned out to be, in Ellorin’s words,” a mega-monster.” BAYAN-NYC’s intervention is to form a broad coalition composing of BAYAN organizations, residents in the neighborhood who are not Filipinos but will be affected by the small-business phase out that will result in an increase in property tax, which will make rents in the neighborhood go up. BAYAN-NYC’s goal was to broaden the struggle against gentrification and dispossession that linked the same problems to neoliberalism. The result is a multi-sectoral, multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-class coalition.
The same coalition is now an active network pushing back against Asian violence resulting from a rhetoric spun by the previous administration for the Corona virus that scapegoats China. As the lockdown took hold of NYC, BAYAN activists mobilized the same coalition for building campaigns and unities in the middle of what at the time were new lockdown conditions. Ellorin shares that this coalition has broadened immediately as it included in its demands to protect health workers and health professionals who are badly affected by Covid 19. Most of the health workers in the area are Filipinos, and 33 percent of nurse deaths in the US are Filipinos. Members of the coalition delivered meals to health workers in specific hospitals. This then made it possible for BAYAN to build contacts and gather more information about the conditions that health workers face. The small business owners and residents in Little Manila significantly contributed in financing the meals delivered to hospitals beyond the area of Little Manila.
A parallel practice is described by Angelo Suarez, an organizer for the peasant movement in the Philippines. Suarez explains that “there are concrete conditions that require people to unite even across classes.” He shares the peasant movement has “encountered instances where agricultural workers have had to unite with landlords in order to combat the liberalization of agriculture.” He describes this further:
“You have a common anti-imperialist, anti-fascist campaign where you have landlords who count on domestic sugar production and workers who count on the same have to fight the influx of imported sugar and other sugar-based products. It is not like we arbitrarily decide to team up with landlords. Both classes feel the pressure of so much sugar being brought into the country. These points of unity are solid. There is always a reason to unite if you know what the issues are. A solid SICA [social investigation and class analysis, a Maoist method) is always necessary to sort out with whom we can link arms and on what grounds.”
The link between building the BUF and creativity in these two examples concretizes what Donna Miranda, an organizer from the peasant movement in the Philippines, describes as the activist practice of creativity. For her, creativity is a response to the urgent question of “How do we get across our struggles despite the material limitations that we face? What strategies of organizing, educational activities can be done overcome the same limitations?” As for building the broad coalitions with multi-class character, she stresses that “being honest and open about differences and not turning a blind eye to contradictions create a healthy space for cooperation and criticism; where people will be encouraged to exercise political maturity to overcome a common enemy.”
Creativity and criticism
The link between creativity and criticism is a common thread reflected on by activists. This association obviously derives from the fluid situation within the broad united front and the flexibility required for a movement to thrive in such an endeavor.
Ellorin describes an opposite situation from which we may draw urgent reasons and lessons as to why it is important to practice creativity in building the united front. She observes the US Left’s tendency toward fragmentation, sectarianism and rigidity. “If you look at the anti-war movement, you would think that would be a major cause for unity here within the left, but the left here cannot even unite on the fact that they do not want the US to be waging wars on other countries.” She also notes the lack of young people in the anti-war movement. Ellorin signals that creativity within the BUF literally needs new blood in creating revolutionary conditions. Members of BAYAN USA are often tagged as a group of disruptive kids when they stage town hall protests and other militant activities to expose and oppose US-backed Duterte tyranny in the belly of the beast.
CUNY Professor Stuart Davis offers a historical context to Ellorin’s critique of fragmentation in the US left. Davis, himself a union organizer, recalls that there was hardly any organized left in the US in the early 2000s when he was himself getting active as a college student. The post-Marxist language was dominant. “People were invested in singularity, non-subsumptions of political antagonisms, enamored with social movement struggles that did not constitute a critique of value and property relations.” Davis describes that the sustainability of struggles were “inflected with neoliberal language and interests and shaped by foundations like non-profits and NGOs. In those conditions, revolutionary politics was downplayed.”
Over two decades later, the global anti-fascist and anti-imperialist movement still needs to overcome neoliberalism’s consequences for political movements as they deal with what Ellorin describes as a common experience by activists. “Regardless of being mindful of being creative, criticism by outsiders of national liberation activists can also take the form of red tagging.” Ellorin mimics this tendency:
“whatever you do, you are all the same, whether what you are offering is fresh, new or applies to me, it is just the same, you are all communists.” “It is a propaganda war, you have to play this game of who is creative who is not, who is relevant, who is not. Such attacks should be delegitimized by activists.
For Sison, heeding “criticisms and proposals from any source” is a “good policy for any anti-imperialist and anti-fascist formation. But he also warns that
“a sweeping criticism of the Left as being “passé” and “dogmatic” comes apparently from either a hostile or ill-informed source and should be subjected to a critical examination to find out exactly what is the basis of the criticism behind the proposal of creativity…If the criticism and its objective is merely to malign the movement and mislead the people, then the attack has to be countered immediately and sharply.”
Addressing the same concern, Suarez asserts that
“the common suspicion that the ND [National Democratic] movement lacks creativity comes from a suspicion of collective movements [in general]. It is really how we have gotten used to creativity being an individual trait where you find for yourself a way out of a problem or a way out of a style. It is really an individualist mindset that finds no creativity in being part of an entity like a society or a nation. This is a strange exceptionalism of having to be different from others, as if the masses or workers and peasants were beneath them. One way that the movement exercises creativity is to gain the numbers that we need in order to win, we will never win if we do not have the numbers that does not require the sort of creativity that enables the individual to stand out as a genius or as a unique artist. We need the kind of creativity that builds solidarities across oppressed sectors in order to bring about a new society.”
Antares Gomez Bartolome of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) provides a contextualization for the need for criticism and creativity within national liberation struggles. For Bartolome,
“dogmatism and/or becoming passé are tendencies present in any movement or organization. These are tendencies that happen to rear their heads in any movement and should be addressed and combated. This is why there are documents and educational discussions about it. It is not as if people engaging in ND struggle are infallible, beautiful beings. [Dogmatism] is acknowledged and it is prepared for. [Within the movement], there is space to address this. Part of being creative is finding ways pass it and to move the organization forward and overcome those habits of work and thinking.”
Building the broad united front against imperialism, for Miranda, means recognizing that every activist, or individual for that matter, needs a space for nurturing creativity. But conditions for creativity will not exist abundantly if there is foreign control of your material conditions of work and material resources. Pursuing this line of thought, Bartolome asserts that
“Imperialism by and large is not generative of anything radically new. Its logic is to reproduce itself while it will comes up with novel forms to sell its old ideas or to fool people into thinking that this is new and this is the future when in fact it is this decaying corpse that is shambling through its death. What is new is generated on the ground by people who find ways to overcome it.”
For whom and for what?
Dr. Joi Barrios-Leblanc of UC Berkeley, who organizes for BAYAN Tandang Sora Network shares how creativity figured in street theatre during the anti-dictatorship struggle. Her generation’s embrace of the anti-fascist struggle alongside creativity may not have yielded a permanent victory, but for Barrios- Leblanc, “it was a necessary rehearsal for the revolution to come.”
Figurations of this kind culled from building the anti-fascist and anti-imperialist struggles in relation to the creation of something new is expanded by Suarez:
“I fail to comprehend why there is anything less creative than the desire to create a society that none of us has experienced before. I think anyone who fails to see the creativity in that is someone who has yet to experience the hard work of building solidarities across oppressed sectors.”
Within the context of building the broad united front and the inter-generational voices from activists located in different parts of the world where the Philippine national democratic struggle is alive, creativity is posed and aspired to as both an ideal and practical guide. For Mao Zedong, the BUF is one of the three magic weapons in winning the war against imperialism and building democracy. The magic in this process is the capacity of activists to collectively plan and practice creativity in bringing forth a new society. Within the national liberation struggle, this practice necessitates broadening. This is precisely what makes the anti-imperialist and anti-fascist struggle a formidable threat to the current system. The BUF is a people who embrace unity and struggle as conditions for transforming society. The idea of a BUF takes creativity as a factor of correctness i.e., correct handling of contradictions. But more importantly, what the praxis of building the BUF reveals is that anti-imperialist and anti-fascist activists do not only want to cultivate and practice correct methods. Miranda asserts that “we actually want to win.”
Author Interview with Jose Maria Sison
Mao Zedong https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-2/mswv2_20.htm
The author is deeply grateful to her comrades, Antares Gomez Bartolome, Dr. Stuart Davis, Bernadette Ellorin, Dr. Joi Barrios-Leblanc, Donna Miranda, and Angelo Suarez for their time, generosity and indispensable insights.
Sarah Raymundo is a full-time faculty at the University of the Philippines-Diliman Center for International Studies. She is engaged in activist work in BAYAN (The New Patriotic Alliance), the International League of Peoples’ Struggles, and Chair of the Philippines-Bolivarian Venezuela Friendship Association. She is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal for Labor and Society (LANDS) and Interface: Journal of/and for Social Movements.