Rizal on Reform and Revolution (part 1 of 4)

Rizal on Reform and Revolution (part 1 of 4)

by Levy Abad

Almost a third of the seventeenth century, prior to the birth of Jose Rizal, constituted the history of the French Revolution. The great ideas of the French Revolution like equality, liberty, and fraternity were concepts that were antithetical to the worldview engendered by the feudal order predominant during the Spanish rule. Under this rule, there were two major contending classes that shaped society: few feudal lords that controlled the land and the vast numbers of serfs or peasants that tilled the land for a pittance. The conflict between these two classes gave birth to the ideas of the French Revolution; and thereafter, influenced the history and worldview during the time of Rizal. Even Andres Bonifacio himself read and studied the French Revolution from which he got the clandestine conduct of the Katipunan. Bonifacio was a follower of Rizal.

Who was Jose Rizal? Dr. Jose Rizal is the National Hero of the Philippines. Rizal wrote the two famous novels titled Noli Me Tangere (‘Touch Me Not’) and El Filibusterismo (‘The Filibuster,’ or ‘the Subversive’). If Rizal wrote a novel titled “Or Else” between his two novels, then I think the confusion regarding his stance on the revolution would be clarified. Renato Constantino, in his 1968 essay “Veneration Without Understanding,” pointed out that Rizal was just propped up by the U.S. colonial government as a tool to pacify the revolutionary aspiration of the Filipino people by playing up his reformist calls. Ambeth Ocampo wrote in his newspaper column “Reform and Revolution” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 19, 2012) that, “Constantino argued that Rizal was an American sponsored hero, citing without any documentary proof an alleged Philippine Commission meeting where the American colonial government chose Rizal as the foremost national hero because he was nonviolent and reformist, unlike Bonifacio or [Emilio] Aguinaldo.” Granting that there was no documentary proof, any colonial power would have not fostered a known revolutionary like Bonifacio, but would have instead chosen a milder one who would serve the colonial design. A colonial power could also foster a leader with conflicting attitude regarding the issue as this would be a good tool for sowing confusion. My personal take on this is, given the conflicting ideas about Rizal, what was decisive and more important was his practice. If his intention was to depart for Cuba to serve Spanish colonial interest, this was proof enough of where he stood on the matter.

In the same column, Ambeth Ocampo argued that “what Constantino conveniently left out are that Rizal was considered a hero in his lifetime; that he was an honorary president of the Katipunan; that his picture was displayed during Katipunan meetings; and that his name was one of the passwords of the Katipunan. Then of course, the annual commemoration of Rizal’s death each year in December 30 was started by Aguinaldo’s shortlived First Philippine Republic in 1898 (before the American colonial period and continues to our day).”

Jose Maria Sison, a known leader of the revolutionary movement in the Philippines from 1968 up to the present, also expressed some crucial points regarding the matter. If I am not mistaken in my grasp of it, we cannot judge the ideas of Jose Rizal out of the context since doing this will be unfair. The ideas of Rizal exposed the ills of Spanish colonial rule. Rizal’s reformism prepared the condition and set the stage for the revolution to grow.

In his book Struggle for National Democracy (1967), Sison wrote a piece titled “Rizal, The Subversive,” in which he saw Rizal as a leading representative of the “left wing” of the middle class, developing his own “nationalist sentiment and consciousness.” Elmer A. Ordonez, in “Rizal and the Literature of the Left,” quoted Sison: “What made Rizal 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, would be uplifted and enjoy more freedom from an overwhelming system of clerical authoritarians and anti-liberals who represented what was long considered backward in the northern parts of Europe.” Ordonez added that Sison emphasized that Rizal’s novels demonstrated that revolution was an offshoot of reform. The character of Ibarra showed his frustration in reformist efforts, but the other forces represented by Elias, struggled to fight the oppressors. In Noli Me Tangere, Pilosopo Tasyo told Ibarra: “Change will ultimately come with the coming of fresh ideas from abroad.”

(to be continued in the next issue)