Going Against the Current: Clarifying Some Points on Student Activism

servethepeople2-indexWe all too often create our own conception of a thing that is removed from the reality of that object and dismiss the whole thing based on the wrong views that we have constructed.

An essay published online by John Ryan Recabar in the blog, Going Against the Current, last year questioned the continued validity of radical student activism as a means of effecting change.[1]

The disparity in the number of students participating in protest actions during the First Quarter Storm of the early 70s, and the height of the anti-dictatorship struggle in the mid 80s and the students mobilized in recent years seems to back up this view. A closer look at the topic, however, would reveal cracks in the arguments employed in the said essay to oppose what it labeled as “radical activism.”

Instead of tackling the demerits of the subject it sought to discuss, the piece only succeeds in revealing the preconceived notions of the blogger. On the one hand, it notes that “The media might have romanticized radical student activism that rendered it beyond recognition from what it truly should be” but on the other hand condemns it for this very same “romanticized” conception of activism.

But student activism is not just about going to rallies in “tubao, old shirt, torn maong pants, and slippers.” Appearing on television with a megaphone and placard in hand is just the tip of an entire range of activities that define student activism.

Protests go hand in hand with the painstaking organizing of the students, the entire university community, and the masses in general. It involves never ending meetings, the initiation of studies and critical discussions of university, sectoral, and national concerns, and the popularization of these issues. Mass actions are but the most visible means of collectively mobilizing those affected to confront the issues that affect them.

Inside / Outside

Student activists, the blogger argues, were not anymore what they truly should be by failing to address immediate matters “because they were busy fighting for concerns that were beyond their grasp.”

What this sentiment betrays is a misunderstanding of the actuality that the immediate concerns within and around the university can only be resolved by unraveling the basic problems that continue to affect greater society since this society forms the background within which the university is positioned.

The fisherfolk in Miagao still wallow in poverty despite the University in the Philippines Visayas’ being the center of excellence in fisheries development because in the first place the educational system has never been directed to address the needs of national development.

But then in a crafty spin, the student activists who have consistently fought against the prevailing colonial, commercialized, and repressive educational system are the ones who are ironically being blamed for the university’s neglect of the fishermen.

If anything, the humanitarian charity, which the blogger seems to be implying as the correct form of activism that students should enact, is one form of containment that lulls the students into thinking they are doing something significant when this, in fact, does not at all touch the fundamental problem. Charity, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek points out, “is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation.”[2]

Philippine education continues to cater to commercial and foreign interests. And this characteristic of our educational system is itself structured by a prevailing social order which continues to be subjected by foreign domination and elite rule. “True generosity,” the late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire writes, “consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity.”[3]

Local / National

To accuse activists in Miagao of addressing certain issues because these are the “national controversies that their counterparts in Diliman have been criticizing” betrays a failure to grasp of the societal and, hence, national scope of the problems that the students and the people confront. Local issues can never be resolved without linking them to the unjust social structures from which they are rooted.

The students of Diliman, Miagao, and other UP campuses face the same problems of the commercialization of UP education and repression in the campus in general although they have different manifestations in each setting. If the students are to advance their interests and win in their struggles, it should and always be a united stand.

What should be tackled first – local or national issues, immediate or long-term struggles, purely economic or political ones? This opposition misrecognizes what the Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani calls the parallax, “the irreducible gap between two perspectives. (To see it in action, extend your arm in front of you. Raise your index finger. Close one eye then the other. Your finger will shimmy in front of you, seemingly moving from one spot to another. Which position is its true or real one? The gap.)”[4]

Can the student sector be relied upon to carry the main burden of social change that they are now being blamed for not having changed the way of life of the marginalized people as is implied by the blogger in his essay? This raises false expectations that the students could independently solve issues confronting their sector and greater society, a myth that is precisely “beyond their grasp.”

Students, by virtue of their social position of being cloistered within the walls of the university from greater social reality, do not have the power to effect changes in the community solely on their own. As Philippine revolutionary leader Jose Ma. Sison analyzed in Struggle for National Democracy, “Students who truly stand for revolutionary change should always strive for integration with larger and even more dynamic social force, that is to say, the exploited masses of the people.”[5]

Misunderstanding Freire

The blogger of Going Against the Current goes on to accuse radical student activists in Miagao of subscribing to Freire’s observation of a “pure activism” that “may actually perpetuate the very problems they sought to address.” Then he proceeds to throw a cheap shot against Lean Porquia, the present chairperson of the League of Filipino Students[6] in Iloilo, for saying “nothing different from the same canned statement we hear from a bunch of radical student activists where he proudly says he belongs.”

What the blogger forgets to add is the fact that the League of Filipino Students and other national democratic mass organizations, far from having regressed to “pure activism,” all subscribe to the principle of the mass line, a principle which recognizes the primacy of the masses in the creation of history.

Far from treating “the masses as mere recipients of denied opportunity without giving then [sic] a chance for reflection,” the point of departure of genuine student activism is to serve the people. This principle is encapsulated in the line “mula sa masa, tungo sa masa” (from the masses, for the masses). Freire himself qualifies that the people’s struggles “cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection: only then will it be a praxis.”[7]

Nowhere in Freire’s works did he say that “radical activism” only leads to the manipulation of the masses by the radicals themselves. What Freire warns against is a “pure activism,” a superficial form of action that eschews the combination of theory and practice or praxis and is thus never radical in the first place. For Freire, “to surmount the situation of oppression, men must first critically recognize its causes,”[8] and this relating of instances of oppression to their root or origin is radicalism at its purest and most basic.

A Continuing Struggle

Proactive student leaders must therefore make their voices echo louder by taking up the megaphone and making more placards. They should be more adroit at employing all means, including novel ones, to arouse, organize, and mobilize the students and unite their struggles with that of the people.

While it is true that some student activists have become co-opted by the system after graduating, it is also true that many have chosen to continue to serve the people after leaving university. Most choose to serve the people in their given professions, others work full time in people’s organizations, and some have laid down their lives while upholding the rights and welfare of the masses.

Rachelle raising her fist during the May 2007 multiparty miting de avance of the Kabataan Partylist, Bayan Muna, Anakpawis, and Gabriela at Colon St. That's me in the extreme left.
Rachelle Mae Palang (center), former College Editor's Guild of the Philippines Vice Chairperson for Visayas, chose to serve the exploited peasants in the countryside and was brutally murdered by the armed forces of the fascist State on the 18th of September last year.

Did the blogger of Going Against the Current make a mistake in his piece? The answer would definitely be a yes, and not just once. Do the opinions expressed in the essay go against the current? No. It in fact only reproduces the prevailing cynical and pessimistic intellectual currents, which has lost all hope for the possibility of social transformation. [9]

But the passage of time has only presented new faces to the same old problems. Radical student activism is still the only force in the campus that can help in challenging an unjust social order.

In recent years this has been demonstrated once more from the overwhelming participation of the student and youth sectors in the second EDSA uprising in 2001, the successful mass campaigns in UP and other schools all over the country, to securing youth representation in Congress in the person of Kabataan Partylist representative Raymond “Mong” Palatino.

Our unity and collective action is still the only realistic way to achieve real peace, development, freedom, and social justice. ■


[1] I have absolutely nothing against the blogger personally, only the incorrect ideas propagated in his piece. I was told that the essay is just one of a series posted in his blog. I have yet to read the rest in the series.

[2] Slavoj Žižek, Violence, New York: Picador, 2008, p.22.

[3] Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1984 [1970], p.29.

[4] Jodi Dean, “Again and Again and Again: Real Materialism” available online at http://jdeanicite.typepad.com/i_cite/2009/05/again-and-again-and-again-real-materialism.html

[5] Jose Ma. Sison, “Student Power?” in Struggle for National Democracy, Manila: Amado V. Hernandez Memorial Foundation, 1972 [1967].

[6] The League of Filipino Students commemorates its 32nd founding anniversary this month. Congratulations to Lean Porquia and LFS – Iloilo for the successful anniversary concert with Musikang Bayan held in the UPV Iloilo Auditorium last September 18, 2009.

[7] Freire, p.52

[8] Ibid, p.31

[9] Recent developments, it seems to say, have made collective struggles for systemic change an impossible dream (so let’s just focus on small charity works, piecemeal reforms, etc).


    1. Salamat. Medyo madulas talaga kadebate ang mga “postmodern” relativists.

      Ang argument dun, obsolete na raw ang aktibismo. Kung siya ang tanungin, totoo raw yun.

      Pero kapag tayo na ang mag-assert sa katotohanan na maraming mali ang argument nila, “totalitarian” na agad tayo. Di raw natin recognized ang “infinity of truths.”

      Pero, of course, alam naman nating yung pagiging “unaligned” ay mismo isang political view nga na nagsisilbi sa mga dominanteng grupo sa lipunan.

      Sabi nga ni Žižek sa kanyang akda tungkol kay Lenin:

      the gesture of taking sides, are not only not mutually exclusive but condition each other. In a concrete situation, its universal truth can only be articulated from a thoroughly partisan position…

      Sure, repost lag ah.

  1. well at the end, Lacan, at least his ghosts, still has it tinges of Kant’s poetic conception of the “island of truth” (phenomenon) and the “ocean of illusions” (noumenon), i.e., we should not mistake the representation as the object itself, this is, as Eco said: the greatest form of Idolatry. :-)


  2. hey

    I love you blog

    baka maging madalas mo na akong tagasubaybay

    I’m really happy na nakita ko tong blog mo

    I’ll bookmark it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.