Rizal the Social Critic

By Jose Maria Sison

December 29, 1966

Dr. Jose Rizal was the outstanding representative of a numerically small middle class that developed during the 19th century. A complex of historical circumstances, such as the marked acceleration of commerce and intellectual contact between the Philippines and Europe and a certain amount of concessions made by the colonial regime to the principalia, made it possible for that  mall middle class to develop under the shadow of the white colonial elite composed of friars and lay officials, which simultaneously exploited the masses more. In other words, while the colonial regime gave more concessions to some indios through such objective processes as limited participation in trade, leasehold grants on friar estates, a limited amount of university education available locally, and travel and study in Europe, which procolonial historians readily admit as signs of good intentions on the part of Madrid for its colony, the vast majority of the colonized people were increasingly exploited and politically repressed. These were the futile attempts of Spain to accelerate its capital accumulation in a fast modernizing and competitive Europe, to contain the rapid advances and expansionism of modern imperialist powers which had succeeded in developing capitalist societies, and to frustrate the raging revolutionary aspirations of peoples in all the colonies, especially Latin America where these aspirations had become a revolutionary movement of continental scope. Spain found its basic foundations irrevocably weakened by overextension, its antidemocratic authoritarianism unable to contain the rise of modern imperialism in Europe and the national independence movements in the colonies. The situation of Spanish colonialism then parallels that of US imperialism today, over-extended and unable to cope with the advance of the world socialist revolution and the more vigorous national independence movements of the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

As a leading representative of the enlightened stratum or “Leftwing” of the middle class, Rizal easily adopted the liberal point of view and developed his own national sentiment and consciousness. What actually made him a progressive and a radical of his own time was his ultimate recognition that the liberties of the individual could be realized only if the nation as a whole, particularly the masses whom he spontaneously observed, would be uplifted and enjoy more freedom from an overwhelming system of clerical authoritarians and antiliberals who represented what had long been considered backward in the northern parts of Europe. He saw in the European development that the nation-states arose with the concept of popular sovereignty and republicanism. He pointed out that if no better colonial policies were to serve the Philippines there would be the increased likelihood of a movement for separation from Spain. For this suggestion of Filipino nationhood, he was called a filibuster or a subversive in the same manner that the advocates of national democracy today are being witch-hunted for asserting the sovereignty of their people.

Rizal belonged to a middle class family that could provide him with a university education here and abroad. But he had seen that where colonial authoritarian rule existed even the native middle class was insecure and subject to arbitrariness and racial discrimination. The fate suffered by Fathers Burgos, Gomez and Zamora profoundly influenced his thinking. The humiliation of his mother at the hands of the colonizers came to signify the colonial injustices done to the motherland. The Calamba affair in which both the middle class and peasantry suffered as a result of their just petition against the increased land rent and other arbitrary impositions of the friars had the most profound effect on him as a Filipino. In retaliation for the petition penned by the youth Rizal himself seeking justice for the tenants of Calamba, General Weyler burnt their homes and effected their imprisonment and deportation. Here was a concrete yet symbolic instance of colonial oppression of the masses ultimately resulting in oppression of the middle class.

As Spanish colonialism could no longer hold back the advancing forces of liberalism and nationalism and it became wracked with the internal struggle between the friars and the liberal quarters, it became more and more despicable to the Filipino people; and religion could no longer be used as an ideological weapon of the ruling elite of friar and lay absolutists. The argument that the Filipino people should be perpetually indebted to colonialism for Christianity was answered effectively by the more powerful argument of social reality and its revolutionary forces. Dr. Jose Rizal had so well exposed the fact that during the previous more than three centuries the friars failed to uplift the people spiritually but only succeeded in causing the brutalization of the people. In scientific terms, we say that Christianity through the unity of church and state had had its day in the feudal regime.
When we consider the anticolonial and anticlerical writings of Rizal, we immediately perceive that national democracy of the old type, that is to say, of the now outmoded liberal cast, developed in the process of struggle. The struggle was in the direct personal experience of Rizal as well as in the collective life of his people. The Propaganda Movement was reflective of the struggle of the Filipino nation; and the Philippine Revolution of 1896 that followed it was the irrepressible continuation of social reality and the people’s struggle even if Rizal’s life had already been extirpated.
When as a small boy Rizal wrote a poem advocating a national language, he was spontaneously struggling against the Spanish language as a tool of foreign domination. When he felt compelled to annotate Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, he wanted to fight racial discrimination by asserting that a national culture could develop without colonial culture. In writing his satirical essays against the friars and their absolutist cohorts, he was expressing the collective will of his people against authoritarianism, arbitrariness and brutality. He was thereby asserting the democratic capacity of his people and the capability of man to solve his problems without the intervention or mediation of the clerics and other alien powers.

When he wrote “The Indolence of the Filipinos,” he debunked the colonial argument that Filipinos were inherently lazy and exposed the fact that the colonizers lived gloriously on the labor and blood of his people. When he wrote “The Philippines A Century Hence,” he demonstrated in full the vicious process used by the colonizers to subjugate the people by corrupting them and taking advantage of their virtues. Furthermore, he indicated the direction that events would take in favor of the Filipinos if they were to achieve national consciousness and national unity. For writing these two major essays, Rizal was called a “subversive” and, in the phrase of today’s defenders of US imperialism, a “negative” thinker. Yes, he negated colonialism. He contributed a certain share to anticolonial propaganda and incited the people to mobilize themselves for their own welfare.

When Rizal wrote his master works, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, he explored the possibility of reform first and, upon exhausting that possibility within the colonial framework, he also explored the possibility of revolution.

In the Noli, he presented Crisostomo Ibarra as an extremely well-intentioned reformer who thinks that the solution to the suffering of the motherland, signified by Sisa, would be a new type of education for her children along the lines worked out by the Schoolteacher, the antithesis to the brutalizing system of thought control maintained by the friars.

But what is done to him, the well-intentioned reformer who does not even hold a grudge for the persecution of his own father? He is  attacked from all sides and by various means by the hypocritical Padre Salvi and the crude Padre Damaso, who represent the basic institutional aspects of the most numerous church. In the end he is framed up by the clerical conspirator, Padre Salvi, as the “mastermind” of a foolish attack on the barracks. And who are the tools of this foreigner, this source of violence and corruption? Indios, like the sacristan who is chief executor, and petty mercenaries like Lucas and Bruno.

What social system are the enemies of Crisostomo Ibarra in defense of? A friar-dominated society signified by the weakling and hybrid Maria Clara, the colonial product of a questionable relationship which makes of Capital Tiago, the symbol of the newly-risen corrupt Filipino bourgeoisie, a cuckold of colonial power. The bastard culture is further signified by Sister Rufa and Sister Pute, whose thinking consists of a systematization of superstition which includes airy stocks of plenary indulgences, bundles of candles and sacks of girdles and scapularies. In clearer secular terms, the social system being defended is one dominated by the curate and the alferez, assisted by a docile and stupid gobernadorcillo and principalia, whose main activities are holding fiestas, and by the corrupt trader, contract-maker, influence-peddler and cuckold Capitan Tiago and by Dona Consolacion, the vicious symbol of the Civil Guards’ mentality, and by Dona Victorina, the paragon of a colonial mentality which always manages to adopt what limps in the alien culture.

What alternative is lef t af ter the vicious frustration of Don Crisostomo’s hopes for reform? Pablo tells Elias in the forests that the oppressed are ready to fight the oppressors. Pilosopong Tasio, the idealist cynic, has told Crisostomo Ibarra that change will ultimately come with the coming in of fresh ideas from abroad.

In El Filibusterismo, Crisostomo Ibarra reappears in the guise of Simoun the jeweler. His character is a clear study of the liberal reformer who swings to being an anarchist. The author frustrates him at every decisive step of his plot but succeeds in presenting him as the symbol of desperation and personal vengeance. Simoun is the archetype of putschism and contravenes the Marxist-Leninist concept of a revolutionary; he thinks of the masses as a mere manipulator and conspirator would, commanding them from the city. He holds the illusion that by one blow at the palace the whole structure would crumble.

Nevertheless, Rizal presents Cabesang Tales as the peasant victim of feudal oppression and he transforms him into a peasant rebel with a mass following, waging guerrilla warfare, after finding out that the redress of grievances and justice are not possible in the system. The development of Cabesang Tales as a character indicates Rizal’s own recognition that the question of land was of basic importance in the colonial question. The Calamba incident was unquestionably a big matter to Rizal. What is most engaging about the story of Cabesang Tales or Matanglawin is that it was left unfinished by Rizal. It is an unfinished story in the sense that Simoun’s story is finished or, equivalently, in the sense that the class leadership of the ilustrado in the Philippine Revolution is incapable and frustrated. Did Rizal leave the story unfinished because he, as a liberal thinker, was incapable of following it through? Nevertheless, by keeping the story unfinished he merely left it to be continued like the Philippine revolution.

The story of Crisostomo Ibarra as a reformer is actually continued in the attempt of Isagani, together with many other students, to establish the Castillian Academy. The hypocritical friars frustrated their reform project after giving them false hopes. What is worse, they suffer persecution and brutal reaction afterwards. They hold a pancit party at a restaurant in mock honor of Don Custodio who has been entrusted by the authorities with the duty of making a sham investigation and study of the project of the students and of disapproving it. As it is being done today by our intelligence agencies and by the agents of American imperialism, the government authorities misconstrue the pancit party of the students as a conspiratorial meeting where subversive matters have been taken up. The authorities are agog over the pasquinades posted on the university walls against the friars’ system of education and these are linked with the pancit party. The students are arrested and imprisoned and the university is closed in reprisal.

Even Basilio, the son of Sisa, who has always refused to join student groups, is implicated by the authorities. His arrest leads to a series of misfortunes for him and his sweetheart Juli whom Padre Camorra tries to rape when she seeks his help for Basilio’s release. Basilio’s misfortunes serve as a lesson that opportunism does not always pay in critical times. It was foolish of Basilio to think that the business of a student is only to earn a diploma and become a prosperous man afterwards. He had been thinking only of personal advancement without thinking of the oppression of the masses from which he comes. And, thinking that he would inherit Capitan Tiago’s property, he feeds him opium even against the code of the medical profession for which he is studying. The careerism and amoral technocracy, represente by Senor Pasta, are a bane to the masses along the  ines of Capitan Tiago’s corrupt money-grabbing activities. The evil source of these weaknesses of the middle class is the colonial ruling class and its exploitative system.

In the Fili, Rizal exposes thoroughly and systematically the decadence of the system as the beginning of a revolutionary situation. He exposes the rotting body of the corrupt Capitan Tiago, the sham character of Senor Pasta and the devilish viciousness of Padre Irene and Padre Camorra, Don Custodio and many ugly features of the colonial domination, including Don Tiburcio de Espadana’s misery.
After only writing the Noli, Rizal was already a marked man. His novel was immediately denounced as subversive and heretical. The foreign rulers of his native land started to slander him and call him an agent of another alien power. After the more forward novel, Fili, he was practically bound for Bagumbayan. But just the same he came back to the Philippines from abroad with the naive hope that he would work for the cause of his nation in the open and in the city. Upon arriving at the port of Manila, his baggage was thoroughly inspected and all written materials were confiscated from him. Nevertheless, Rizal persisted in his efforts to seek reforms in the open and in the city. He visited some provinces and subsequently organized La Liga Filipina. That was the last straw, the colonialists said, and they apprehended him.

On December 30, 1896, after his exile in Dapitan and after the Cry of Pugad Lawin had been made, he was led like a lamb to Bagumbayan to be killed.