• Literature and politics


    Ever since Plato banned the poets from his ideal Republic, the connection between literature and politics has been inextricably linked.

    Thus we can start with the proposition that no literature is politics free.  With this we are just one step away from the other premise that no literature is ideology free.

    It was Frederic Jameson who said that even the most apparently apolitical modern works of literature possess a political content which exists beneath the surface of the text like the Freudian unconscious — although Jameson’s idea is derived primarily from the Hegelian notion that the totality exists in each of its individual parts.  (Childers, Joseph and Gary Hentzi, p. 232)

    On the other hand, other Marxist critics insist that literary works are ideological productions brought into existence under the pressure of determinate forces rather than the uncircumscribed creations of individual genius.  Therefore, literary works must be understood as produced by the particular ideological configuration of a given historical moment. (Ibid.)

    Terry Eagleton thus sees literary creation as a mode of production — “a unity of  certain forces and social relations of literary production in a particular social formation” adding the proviso that in “any literate society there will normally exist a number of distinct modes of production one of which will normally be dominant.” (Ibid.)

    Thus, we have eschewed the banal notion of politics as simply the manipulative or manipulated practices of people in government.  Instead we have situated politics in the larger context of culture and ideology — where culture is defined as material production, the study of which leads us to systems of signification and
    the production of meaning (Ibid., p. 68) and where ideology has at least four possible meanings — as (1) a form of misrepresentation that distorts social reality, a definition akin to Plato’s impression of the poets’ function or Marx’s idea of false consciousness,  (2) as  social consciousness manifested in law, philosophy., ethics, arts etc., (3) as political ideas attributed to a .social or economic class (for instance bourgeois or proletarian ideology),  or (4) as a system of representations or stories that define the possibilities of existence for all individuals. (Ibid., 149)  Take your pick..

    This definition of culture as material production is different from what we have been used to under the colonial educational system — that culture as defined by Matthew Arnold is “the best that has been thought and known”,  an elitist view no doubt.  Hence, the aspiration for so-called high art or high culture, the struggle for control of cultural centers or agencies, the desire to establish literary academies as arbiters of taste or in the name of aesthetic excellence.

    Historically, culture or civilization has been used in the pacification of the natives by the colonizer, or by the ruling class on a restive populace.  Civilize ‘em with religion or education.  If there is resistance,  civilize ‘em with the sword , or civilize ‘em with the Krag, as the U.S. army ditty goes during the Philippine-American War.  For the subjugated natives, now ready for cultural assimilation, they would throw themselves upon the trough of western culture or civilization.

    We have also been used to the Romantic definition of literature as encompassing.three main genres — poetry, fiction, and the play which are given the usual importance in literature departments or what have been  called creative writing centers..  Literature at one time was all forms of writing or verbal expression but in the early 19th century , literature became “belles lettres” or imaginative writing.  Other forms like oral literature, residual epics and street ballads, or discursive prose such as essays and histories have been given subordinate status — such that there was an uproar when the National Artist for Literature was awarded to one who wrote mainly historical essays and biographies.

    The game of choosing the National Artist always seems to confer on the process the highest aesthetic standards set according to formalist criteria.  There is also the criterion of  political  acceptability.  Would Amado Hernandez be given the first National Artist award if he were alive during the dictatorial regime?  In 1972 he was as far as the fascists were concerned safely dead.  They thought he could no longer rouse the students, as he did, almost 30 years ago in this very school, during the funeral of a Lyceum student activist, Enrique Sta.Brigida,  with a verse oration that ended with the now familiar slogan, “Makibaka, huwag matakot!”

    The involvement or encounter of writers with regimes is still fresh in our memory.  While writers could be coopted and organized to promote the political agenda of a regime, they could also wage resistance, passive or active, against the ideological and coercive apparatuses of the state.  B y simply upholding its charter and living up to it, the Philippine Center of International P.E.N.has had its bouts with censorship and the imprisonment of dissenting writers.  Others have become cultural workers for the mass movement for social change, still others have given their lives in struggle in the city or countryside.


    The connection between literature and politics/ideology is patently seen in our own colonial experience and the struggle for freedom.  The religious literature introduced by the Spanish colonizers to proselytize the natives was itself appropriated by the native intelligentsia as a vehicle of expression for their own yearnings to be free. The pasyon thus became the subliminal vehicle for the suffering, death, and resurrection of the oppressed.
    For the masses read into the pasyon meanings other than what the friars intended — meanings having to do with the indios’ oppressed plight and the promise of salvation not necessarily in the hereafter..Andres Bonifacio used the structure of the pasyon in his “Ang Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog” published in the one and only issue of Kalayaan.  Many years later the agrarian movement in Central Luzon would have their version of the pasyon, known as the “red pasyon” calling for armed struggle.

    On the other hand, Francisco Balagtas turned the awit and corrido  metrical romance into an allegory “Florante at Laura” which was read unmistakably as a poem articulating the grievances of the people against colonial rule.  Jose Rizal and his generation readily saw the “foreshadowing of nationalism” in “Florante at Laura” and their own condemnation of colonial abuses.

    The emergence of an ilustrado class nurtured in the ideology of the Enlightenment and Freemasonry led to the Propaganda Movement waged here and abroad.  Rizal’s novels marked the shift from the romance and  didacticism to social realism derived from European novels at the time.  Rizal as well as the other writers for La Solidaridad wrote in Spanish given their readership among the ilustrados themselves who were then in the vanguard for social change and the Spanish and European liberals whom they wish to ally with in their struggle.  When the occasion demanded it, they wrote in Tagalog or their own regional language, as when Rizal decided to leave La Solidaridad and do organizational work in his homeland.  In Hongkong, before leazving for Manila, he translated into Tagalog the “Rights of Man,” a primer of the French Revolution.  He knew that the language of the Revolution had to be in a national Philippine language.

    The cultural intervention of the American colonizers in education led to generations of English-trained intellectuals and writers who would at first imitated  western models of belletristic writing.  They would find their nationalist bearings only during the Thirties and formed the Philippine Writers League, together with other writers in Spanish and Philippine languages, to push for more social content and commitment in writing.  The Commonwealth Literary Contests promoted just this type of literature, of which Literature and Society by Salvador P. Lopez became a kind of exemplum..

    The advent of New Criticism in the fifties installed and consolidated the formalist trend in Philippine letters — a critical approach still very influential in the academe and in the discourse on national literature.  The valorizing or narrowing of focus on imaginative or creative writing occurred in literature departments and newly formed creative writing centers, though it is to be noted that this Romantic idea  of literature as basically imaginative/creative writing was itself contained in a political move  — a form of resistance to the absolutist state in a decaying feudal system.  Hence, the sympathies of the Romantic writers for the French Revolution and their participation like Byron’s in emancipatory struggles.

    Over the years, however, the revolutionary thrust of Romantic literature gave way to depoliticization and the formalist tradition in literature.  Matthew Arnold held sway with his “Culture and Anarchy” where culture as “the best that is thought and known” could  be accessed through education by the restive workers seeking suffrage in the bourgeois state of  the British empire.  This mode of pacification would be used as well at the turn of the century where public education with English as the medium of instruction would be installed, first in Manila, then later in the literally pacified areas of the country.

    The sixties as a period of social restiveness changed the literary landscape in the country.
    Mass organizations proliferated under the banner of the national democratic movement so that by 1970 PAKSA (Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambanyanan) was set up on the basis of the aesthetics assimilated from the “Talks at the Yenan Forum” by Chairman Mao.  PAKSA interestingly retained the Romantic categories of drama, short story, and poetry (including song) in its literary situationers, though writers and critics of national democratic persuasion have expanded the alternative canon with the inclusion of popular and folk literature and the testimonio.  Certainly formalist criteria would not be useful in assessing national democratic literature.

    When martial law was declared, the dictatorship unleashed a military campaign against the fast developing national democratic movement which had already opened guerrilla fronts.  The response to the fascist violence was protracted people’s war.  PAKSA along with other mass organizations went underground, producing literary works tailored to the requirements of war in the countryside.  In the cities,  where censorship was strictly enforced, writers put out underground publications to counter state propaganda.  They had to resort to what was called the “literature of circumvention” or the “literature of detour” — the use of cunning and subterfuge through literary devices such as allegory and myth in exposing the enemy in state-controlled publications.

    Hence from the sixties to the present there has developed a substantial body of underground and aboveground literature that has played a significant role in the counter-hegemonic struggle.


    Given the relations characterized by domination and subordination, or more particularly the lived process of domination and subordination of particular social classes; and an articulate formal system of meanings, values, and beliefs which a dominant class exercises through its ideological apparatuses, (Raymond Williams) there is bound to develop a counter-hegemonic force that would challenge the politics,  culture and ideology of the dominant or ruling class.

    In literature the manifestations of this struggle are in the canon itself,  or in the process of canon formation. Arnold and  the literary establishment uphold the canon of the great books which we take for granted when in fact they were conceived of as great books by a privileged elite in the west, by white male critics and teachers who have by their formalist and patriarchal upbringing excluded the works and voices of other significant but marginalized groups such as women, homosexuals, and people of color
    Basically the strategy of canon formation is putting ruling class ideology to work by reproducing the very intellectual conditions that marginalized excluded works in the first place.  (Childers and Hentzi) Canon formation has been the preserve of the ruling class through its ideological institutions like schools and cultural centers and agencies.
    The alternative strategy of the counter-hegemonic force has been to institute ways of broadening the canon such as (1) changing the curriculum to include so-called minor or excluded works, (2) establishing parallel, oppositional canons say the works of women, Third World writers, gays and lesbians, and resistance literature, and (3) doing away with the concept of canon and undertaking studies in a non-elistist, more eclectic way that refuses arbitrary distinctions of high and low culture. (Ibid.)

    Ultimately the connection between literature and politics is seen in this alternative strategy of developing the emergent literatures that challenge the assumptions of the literary establishment shoring up the dominant or ruling class.  Literature as subversion is what it is all about. Plato knew it all along.


    Childers, Joseph and Gary Hentzi, eds. The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (New York: Columbia University  Press, 1995).

    Eagleton, Terry.  The Function of Criticism (London: Verso, 1984).

    Easthope, Antony and Kate McGowan,, eds. A Critical and Cultural.Theory Reader ( University of Toronto Press, 1993).

    Jameson, Frederic, Marxism and Form (Princeton University Press, 1971).

    Jameson, Frederic, The Political Unconscious (London: Methuen, 1981)

    Makaryk, Irenar, ed. The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory (University of Toronto Press, 1993).
    Williams, Raymond, Writing in Society (London: Verso, n.d.)

    Williams, Raymond, Marxism and Literature (London: Oxford University Press, 1977).


    Please follow our commenting guidelines.

    1 Comment

    1. maximo p fabella on

      The conjunction between literature and politi/cs is hard to follow even among intellectuals.svenvn among intellectuals. It puts both in a different light. How many professors have the time or the inclination