Proletarian Literature: For whom do we write?


May 1 Labor Day was made into law in 1913 but its first actual celebration was held in this country in 1903 by more than a hundred thousand workers who marched to Malacanang to demand better working conditions. Their slogans included “down with U.S. imperialism.”

Just as the American interventionists were claiming the defeat of the Filipino “insurgents” with the capture of Aguinaldo and other leaders, the workers, true to their nature as the class vanguard, had risen to continue the struggle not just for economic reasons but for Philippine sovereignty as well. Isabelo de los Reyes, an ilustrado who learned his socialism in street fighting and as a prisoner in Montjuich Castle in Barcelona (where Rizal was briefly detained before he was sent back to the Philippines for trial and execution) played a leading role in organizing the workers, first through the printers union and the Union Obrero Democratica, the country’s first labor federation that organized the 1903 May 1 march to Malacanang. Isabelo de los Reyes is acknowledged as the “Father of Philippine Labor.”

Workers all over the world have had a long tradition of struggle marked by triumphs and setbacks ever since they became class conscious as a result of socialized production. In time socialist theory formed the basis of their ideology.

Lope K. Santos who worked closely with de los Reyes in labor organizing wrote what may well be the first proletarian novel in this country – Banaag at Sikat published in 1906. Aurelio Tolentino, writer of what the colonizers called “seditious plays,” contributed greatly to the creation of anti-imperialist literature – a legacy that did not affect writers in English who were among the early products of “benevolent assimilation” (through English instruction and pensionadoships in the U.S.) until the thirties.

It was Salvador P. Lopez who first defined “proletarian literature” or writing from the working class during the Commonwealth period, the period before the war characterized by labor and peasant unrest.

As James Allen in his book The Radical Left on the Eve of the War saw it, the country “was at the height of a strike wave which began early in the Depression decade. Workers walked out of the tobacco and other industrial enterprises, in transportation and on the docks for higher wages, the eight hours day, the right to organize and other demands.”

Allen (known as Sol Auerbach locally) also wrote that “the struggle was even more acute in the haciendas including those belonging to the church and friar orders. The burning of the crops, rice marches on the provincial towns and the seizure of food supplies in plantation bodegas were not uncommon. Bloody clashes occurred between peasants fighting eviction and the private armed gangs of the big landowners.”

Looking back I do remember the stories about the Sakdalistas (whom we were warned about being in Manila like Tondo and Sampaloc) and the crucified Asedillo — together with memories of visits of relatives from Bicol for the Eucharistic Congress and the carnivals. Then the guerra civil in Spain, the young uniformed falangists (falanghe as my mother called them) trooping to hear mass and give the fascist salute in San Marcelino church, and later the war in Europe (discussed earnestly in school) before the Japanese bombs started falling in Manila.

I did not know anything then about the literary scene though we were introduced in Grade Six to Hernando Ocampo’s “Rice and Bullets” (originally “We or They”) by a liberal student teacher at the Normal Training School.

This I gathered after the war: that the Philippine Writers League had sponsored a literary contest, with cash prizes from the office of President Manuel L. Quezon, in 1940 and 1941; and that Lopez’s collection of essays Literature and Society won the first prize in the English essay division. The book contained the pioneering piece “Proletarian Literature: A Definition” plus other essays that dealt with writing and social change and lyrical pieces. Manuel E. Arguilla won the first prize for the short story for How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife and other stories which included stories like “The Socialists”, “Epilogue to Revolt,” and “Caps and Lower Case” which are in line with the new orientation proposed by the Philippine Writers League, that literature be responsive to the critical times.

Hernando Ocampo, before he became known as a visual artist, wrote stories like “We and They,” depicting hungry peasants looting a rice warehouse and getting killed by the guards. As Lopez put it, the “truly sensitive writer” is one who “reacts positively to the social milieu wherein he is born by becoming the interpreter of the hope and despair, the freedom and predicament, the tradition and destiny of man in his time.”

This position was challenged by writers like Francisco Arcellana, Alfredo E. Litiatco, and Jose Lardizabal (inclined to the formalism of Villa) who debated with Lopez, Arturo B. Rotor, and Federico Mangahas in the pages of the Herald Midweek Magazine and other journals before the war.

Rotor was cutting in his remarks: “That no Filipino has shown a notable grasp of the events that now absorb the country’s attention indicated the extent to which he has failed in his art. No notable story, for example, has appeared thus far about the peasants in Central Luzon and their efforts to improve their living conditions. While the rest of the country are talking about the slums of Tondo, our poets still sing ecstactically about the sunset in Manila Bay. What then shall we think of these writers who debate so learnedly about rhythm and balance in prose and who do not even glance at the newspapers? What shall we say of them who will work for weeks over a single phrase but who will not spend five minutes trying to understand what is social justice and why some peasants in Bulacan were caught stealing firewood from a rich landowner’s preserves?”

This comment might have been addressed to Manila writers in English. But left-leaning intellectuals themselves were not spared by Manuel Arguilla in his story “The Socialists” where he drew the contrast between the arm-chair Marxists and the peasant organizers. In his other story “Caps and Lower Case” Arguilla no longer caricatures his radical colleagues but obliges Lopez’s definition of proletarian literature.

The 1940 Commonwealth awards went to writers who seemed to have fulfilled the objectives of the contest for socially conscious and patriotic literature. In the English division, the top prize for the novel went to Juan C. Laya’s His Native Soil which treats of the question of cultural conflict through the perception of balikbayan Martin Romero. For poetry the prize went to Rafael Zulueta da Costa’s Like the Molave, inspired by Quezon’s words and remarkable for its stridently anti-American rhetoric. Honorable mention went to N.V.M. Gonzalez’s The Winds of April which Resil Mojares ( Origins and Rise of the Filipino Novel) says gives us a glimpse of a “marginal life, of peddlers, immigrant workers, and homesteaders in the provincial hinterlands.” I noted elsewhere that Winds of April, particularly the lyrical and exuberant “A Room of My Own” (the last chapter) was stylistically different from the restrained prose of his later novels.

In the multi-language contest, prizes were given to writers in Tagalog (Lazaro Francisco, Rosalia Aguinaldo, and Antonio Sempio), Spanish (Antonio M. Abad), and Hiligaynon (Ramon Muzones and Conrado Norada), Cebuano (Tomas Hermosisima) for hewing to the requirement of proletarian writing.

In a country where the workers and other marginalized sectors are always in struggle for social justice, proletarian literature will continue to be written, not because of literary contests, but for a deeply felt need that the aspirations of the dispossessed are expressed. Amado Hernandez detained for his work in the Congress of Labor Organizations (CLO) wrote Mga Ibong Mandaragit and his poetry Isang Dipang Langit in prison. The reading list on proletarian literature in this country is now a long one.


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