The real lessons of the Diliman Commune?

I am sharing an essay that I co-wrote last month with Orly Putong and Rochel Bernido about the historical and political lessons from the Diliman Commune.

Rappler recently published an opinion piece by American academic Joseph Scalice discrediting our essay for purportedly propagating myths about the Diliman Commune. He reiterates claims he made in his dissertation and journal article about the Diliman Commune being a “planned and coordinated anarchy” and that it was ultimately a failure.

We do not agree with his conclusions.

Starting February 1, 1971, radical youth groups erected barricades in thoroughfares along major universities in Metro Manila and other provinces in support of striking drivers. But it was the spontaneous outrage in the face of state violence that erupted into the Diliman Commune. Strange to hear us being accused of a “glorification of spontaneity” when we were in fact commending the way this was given organized direction by national democratic activists led by the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK).

It is unfortunate, however, that our dissenting views opposed to the simplistic Cold-War era narrative of the Diliman Commune as a premeditated plot by subversive conspirators are simply framed as nothing more but a defense of the Communist Party.

Yes we read the archival sources and press reports that Scalice used. But we also spoke with Diliman Commune participants who manned the barricades, including those who were part of its provisional directorate. And it is largely from the perspective of their experiences and the larger history of social movement-building that we assess its victory as a symbol of resistance to Marcos.

So what are the real lessons of the Diliman Commune? These are lessons that remain relevant amid the Duterte regime’s unilateral termination of the UP-DND accord and the necessity of forging people’s resistance against its steady rush towards full-blown authoritarian rule:

[The Communards] brought to the limelight not only their demands as students, but also the demands of the working classes such as jeepney drivers. The university was used as a political space and a platform to explain the impact of oil price hikes to the general public. The students asserted the importance of academic freedom and exposed the fascist character of the Marcos government. More importantly, they showcased how even a dictator can be bested by collective action and broad solidarity. 

This exercised the true meaning of being an iskolar ng bayan – learning from the masses and amplifying the voice of the marginalized. The establishment of the Commune broke the narrow concept of “student power” – which feeds the idea that students, by themselves, can make change. The students understood that they will only realize their true power if they link themselves with the masses. Because of their militancy and unity, they were able to prevent, albeit temporarily, the police takeover of the university, and the arrest of fellow students. 

Anti-communist scholars and state propagandists have painted a picture of the Commune as a premeditated plan by conspirators to foment anarchy and destabilize the Marcos regime in favor of their liberal political allies. But a careful piecing together of archival material, media reports, eye-witness accounts, and narratives by surviving participants would show that the Diliman Commune was a spontaneous outburst amid repression. Despite being constantly overtaken by the fast turn of events, organized forces led by the KM and SDK tried to give direction to its movement by organizing student resistance and raising political consciousness. 

Aware that the Commune cannot be sustained forever amid threats from the state, the barricades were eventually voluntarily torn down – but not before raising the political militancy of an entire generation of youth who would later go on to lead the resistance to the Marcos dictatorship. 

More than the concrete gains like fortifying the university’s position against military presence in the campus, it was the Diliman Commune’s value as a symbol of collective resistance to a budding dictator that constitutes its greatest victory. 

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