How revolutionary was the Philippine Revolution?

Vicente L. Rafael

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How revolutionary was the Philippine Revolution?
Was the Philippine Revolution something like the liberal revolution in North America, led by creole, mestizo and indio elites, aiming at 'unity' and 'homogeneity'? What would it mean to consider this possibility?

Lately, I’ve been reading Jim Richardson‘s indispensable book, Light of Liberty: Documents and Studies of the Katipunan, 1892-1897 (Ateneo de Manila Press, 2014) alongside Mila Guerrero’s classic and soon to be published PhD dissertation, “Luzon at War: Contradictions in Philippine Society, 1898-1902.”

The documents in Richardson’s book – the most complete collection so far of Katipunan records – are a treasure trove, but his commentaries are also pretty illuminating.

Guerrero’s dissertation, written for the University of Michigan in 1977, is perhaps the best account of the Malolos Republic based largely on her reading of the massive collection of revolutionary documents captured by the Americans called the Philippine Insurgent Records.

From these two works, a different view of the revolution – and thus, of the origins of the nation and nationalism – begins to emerge. What are the features of this other view? Here’s a very provisional list:

1. The Katipunan’s class composition was anything but “plebian.” From its inception, it was made up of members of the educated and gainfully employed “middle class.” More than half of those present at the Cry of Balintawak had positions in the colonial bureaucracy while the rest were printers, merchants and teachers. There were only two “laborers.” It was more like a smaller version of EDSA I and II rather than, say, the Paris Commune. 

2. Coming out of Rizal’s short-lived Liga Filipina, the Katipunan was liberal in orientation. The members of the secret society had a lot in common with ilustrados and in fact some of their earliest members came from this class of people. Both were influenced by Spanish liberalism and had neither organizational nor ideological links with millenarian colorum sects. Rather, these colorums would come to appropriate aspects of the Katipunan later on. Not surprisingly, Katipunan liberalism was articulated in the language and symbols of Freemasonry and bits of the French Enlightenment rather than the rituals of the Catholic Church or some other folk epic like the Pasyon.

3. Primarily liberal and middle class, the Katipunan never had a goal beyond “uniting” the Philippine colony under its leadership for the sake of overthrowing Spain. As its founding documents indicate, the Katipunan sought the formation of a “unified, compact, vigorous and homogenous body” that would become a new sovereign nation.

4. The goal of “unity” and “homogeneity” meant side stepping, if not suppressing differences: ethnic, class, regional, even religious. Rarely do the Katipunan documents make mention of social categories. This avoidance of difference was strategic. The Society aimed primarily at regime change, not social change. It never had a program for addressing social inequities, only for instituting legal equality within the terms of Spanish civil law. Neither did it furnish a theory and an analysis of social conflicts, merely proffering moral exhortations a la Rizal, urging its members to lead virtuous lives. As such, the Katipunan never planned to redistribute land or to democratize social relations. This would have been difficult, if not impossible, given that its leadership was made up of male, urban middle classes and provincial elites. Its revolutionary aims were limited to replacing the Spaniards on top with male Filipino leaders, and limiting, but not banishing, the Church’s power by neutralizing the influence of Spanish friars (again, a standard liberal goal).

5. It is well-known that a deep factional divisions tore through the Katipunan ranks beginning late 1896, culminating in March-May 1897. Bonifacio was executed for plotting a coup as Aguinaldo became president of the Revolutionary Republic. But the conflict between the two was part of a larger intra-class conflict among the middle class over control of the revolution. No alternative visions of utopia nor sharply divergent ideological stances were at stake. The Magdiwang and Magdalo members easily slid into each other, as practical needs determined their allegiances.

By the time the Bonifacio and his brothers broke away to plot an uprising, most of his most trusted followers had already deserted him and gone to the side of the Republic. This was happening just as Spanish reinforcements were bearing down to re-take Cavite. In the end, nearly everyone but a small group deserted Bonifacio and took the practical step of siding with the larger forces of Aguinaldo’s Republic. So if you want to blame anyone for Bonifacio’s execution, you should blame not just Aguinaldo but everyone else in the Republic: del Pilar, Noriel, Ricarte, et. al., who were complicit with the execution, even urging Aguinaldo not to commute the death sentence.

6. Sustained inter-class conflicts arguably didn’t emerge until much later, by late 1898- 1899 with the return of Aguinaldo from exile and the reformation of the Republic in Malolos. By then, peasant groups and urban strikers had begun to ride the revolutionary wave, engaging in guerilla warfare while insisting on their rights. For their efforts, they found themselves faced with the Republic’s heavy-handed attempts to raise funds by imposing old and new taxes—poll taxes, sales taxes, taxes for transporting goods, for selling them, for buying them, etc. In addition, after initially ending forced labor, the Republic restored it as a way of drafting men into the militias. The result was economic disaster. Able-bodied men were removed from their fields and no one was left to plant and harvest crops.

The Republic also sought to secure the support of provincial elites by promising them friar lands in exchange for their help. The Malolos Republic thus initiated a period of land-grabbing which was to be consolidated under US rule. It also sought to float a National Loan, whereby the Congress mortgaged the assets of the country to wealthy ilustrados in exchange for loans to finance the fight. What would have been a massive transfer of wealth to the rich was averted by the US invasion and the fall of the Republic.

Finally, Congress was unable, and perhaps unwilling, to curb on-going abuses of its military forces. As with most volunteer forces, the soldiers relied on donations, and barring that, on pillage. It was not uncommon for them to steal food and money, engaging in rape and other violations. But instead of alleviating the plight of the masses, the Republic responded through brutal military repression–exactly as if it were a colonial power.

7. Not surprisingly, peasant armies emerged to fight the Republic. Class warfare of sorts erupted in many parts of Luzon, fomenting decidedly non-liberal versions of the revolution. Rail workers, tobacco workers and domestic servants struck for their rights in Manila. Other examples included the Pensacola brothers in Zambales who were famous for their motto: “it was time for the rich to become poor, and the poor to be rich.” Peasant groups attacked government offices and burned documents, thinking that by doing so, they could now claim the lands they’ve been tilling. They harassed and attacked tax collectors, squatted on hacienda lands, and set up communes such as the Guardia de Honor or the Santa Iglesia around Pangasinan, Tarlac, and Pampanga. Some formed new katipunans and alternative Republics in the mountains of Sierra Madre, like Macario Sakay. There, people lived free from labor demands under the leadership of self-styled Popes and prophets. Surviving meant praying while raiding surrounding haciendas for their supplies. Seeing these groups as threats for the radical social changes they demanded, the Republic sought either to curb or crush them.

8. In short, there was no break between the Katipunan and the Malolos Republic, no shift from a revolutionary to a counter-revolutionary moment. Presiding over the Republic were wealthy ilustrados alongside the provincial elite leadership of the Katipunan. Both agreed on the essentials of a liberal social order. The nation was to be ruled by an “oligarchy of the mind” composed of the wealthiest and most learned people, while the place and power of local elites – many of whom owed their position to the Spanish colonial order – would be preserved and expanded.

There was never a question of redistributing wealth or instituting progressive taxation. There was certainly no talk of social leveling, only the protection and enhancement of the privileges and properties of the landed. Sending out ambassadors to the United States and Europe, the Republic was far more concerned with international recognition than with local legitimation. Again, this was because the revolution, from the perspective of its leaders, was always about regime change, never about social revolution.

If this sounds familiar, it should be. It was exactly the same program pursued by the US occupying forces. Thus the irony: rather than destroy the Republic and its Katipunan predecessor, the US actually kept it alive. Re-organizing the local government, the US held municipal elections in 1903, and by 1907 established the first national colonial legislature called the Philippine Assembly. Nearly every member of this body had been part of the Malolos Republic. Purchasing the friar lands from the Vatican, the Americans then sold them at bargain prices to the landed elites, thereby completing another key ambition of the Republic.

9. This brings up one more question that Richardson’s and Guerrero’s works made me think about: just how revolutionary was the Revolution?

Filipino nationalists in the Propaganda Movement, the Katipunan and the Republic were clearly inspired by Spanish liberalism rather than anarchism, much less European socialism. They were propelled by the desire to unite and rule the country for their benefit, which they assumed was identical to the rest of the country. What was good for the elites, they assumed, was good for the rest of the nation regardless of their class, gender or ethnicity. This meant above all the rule of private property alongside formal legal and racial equality with the Spaniards, then later with the Americans. It did not mean socio-economic equality with those below them whose value lay, as far as elites were concerned, in knowing their proper place at the service of those above.

Unlike the French

The Philippine Revolution was thus nothing like the French Revolution. There was neither regicide nor mass slaughter of Spaniards.

To my knowledge, only a tiny handful of friars, the real “kings” of the country, were ever executed, and usually to the great reluctance of both leaders and common people. It was certainly not like the Russian or Chinese revolutions. There was, instead, great continuity between the Filipino colonial elite and those who fought, then governed in the Revolutionary era, as well as under US occupation.

Could we think of the Philippine Revolution as closer to the liberal revolution of the United States?

In 1776, a group of largely conservative white men, many of whom owned slaves and a number of whom had fought for the British imperial army, got together and decided to overthrow their British overlords so that, in the words of John Adams, “we could have an empire of our own.”

This empire of course emerged through the trans-continental theft of Indian lands and the genocide of their native inhabitants. The American revolutionaries freed themselves from the onerous taxes and military occupation of the British. But in doing so, they also freed themselves from any constraints in dealing with the Indians. To preserve the unity of the Republic, they also kept slavery- – one of the most crucial elements in the capitalist development of the US – at least for another 150 years. They thus exploited and sacrificed black lives and dispossessed Indian lives in order to create a Republic where all white males would be legally equal to pursue liberty and happiness indissociable from the accumulation of property.

Was the Philippine Revolution then something like the liberal revolution in North America, led by creole, mestizo and indio elites, aiming at “unity” and “homogeneity” in order to preserve the structures of hierarchy deeded by colonial rule? What would it mean to consider this possibility? Would this require us to re-think the meaning of revolutionary heroism? What would it mean to be a nationalist in view of its liberal-colonial foundations in the sacredness of private property, requiring both formal legal equality and actual, on-going social inequality?

When we celebrate the revolution and its heroes, what and who are we exactly celebrating? And who, exactly, is this “we?” Who does it include? Who does it exclude? What sort of amnesia must we cultivate so that we can be proud of being what we proclaim ourselves to be when confronted with the contradictory legacies of the revolution? –


Vicente L. Rafael is Professor of History at the University of Washington.




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