Philippines peace talks: A comparison between the Bolsheviks at Brest Litovsk and talks today in the Philippines

Felix Zorba looks at the peace talks taking place bewteen some of the armed left parties in the Philippines and compares the behaviour of these parties with that of the Bolsheviks at Brest Litovsk in 1918. He explains the dangers involved in trying to achieve partial, or even regional, deals when the only lasting solution to the problems of the working masses is the socialist revolution.

The case of Brest Litovsk

On March 3, 1918, the Bolsheviks were compelled to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the powerful and much better armed Germans. To save the Russian Revolution from being crushed by the imperialist armies they had to pull Russia out of the First World War. This was to buy time, since the Russian army was in complete disarray and the domestic economy was in a deep slump. The peace terms were very harsh for Soviet Russia. However, the treaty prevented further needless loss of life, and gave the young Soviet Republic the possibility of shifting its attention to urgent domestic matters instead of having to worry about the immediate invasion of the imperialist armies. The way the Bolsheviks went into the Brest-Litovsk peace talks gave them the opportunity of promoting the struggle for peace by spreading the spirit of the revolution among the broad working masses of all the warring nations (Germany, Italy, Hungary, France and so on). They denounced the war as a struggle between the imperialist powers and also against the working class. In fact before the end of the year the revolution in Germany had started.

This is how Lenin posed the question: "To carry on a war for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie, a [class] war which is a hundred times more difficult, protracted and complicated than the most stubborn of ordinary wars between states, and to refuse beforehand to maneuver, to utilize the conflict of interests (even though temporary) among one's enemies, to refuse to temporize and compromise with possible (even though temporary, unstable, vacillating and conditional) allies - is this not ridiculous in the extreme?". (From Lenin’s work, "Left-wing communism, an infantile disorder").

The Bolsheviks were forced to halt their military operations against the German army. They had no choice. But they used the weeks of negotiations in order to buy time (while at the same time waiting for and promoting the revolutionary movement in Germany) and to denounce the class enemy and call for an international uprising against all the capitalist governments in Europe. They were hoping this would give the German working class the time to rise and overthrow their own national capitalists. Lenin and Trotsky, however, had no illusions. They constantly explained that no lasting peace was possible under capitalism. In fact, a few months later, 21 imperialist armies invaded revolutionary Russia in an attempt to overthrow the Soviet Republic.

"Imagine that your car is held up by armed bandits. You hand them over your money, passport, revolver and car. In return, you are rid of the pleasant company of the bandits. That is unquestionably a compromise. "Do ut des" (I "give" you money, fire-arms and a car "so that you give" me the opportunity to get away from you with a whole skin). It would, however, be difficult to find a sane man who would declare such a compromise to be "inadmissible on principle", or who would call the compromiser an accomplice of the bandits (even though the bandits might use the car and the firearms for further robberies). Our compromise with the bandits of German imperialism was just that kind of compromise". (ibid).

Trotsky made use of every single day of the Peace Talks to publicly denounce the imperialist war using every interview with the journalists and all the mass media available. He tried to get the German generals to insert into the peace talks one key condition: the right of self determination for all the nationalities of Europe. This was the same right the Bolsheviks had granted all the peoples of the old Tsarist Empire after taking power in October 1917. Lenin wrote: "When it had assumed political power, the Bolshevik party did not leave a vestige of either landed or capitalist ownership. After making public and repudiating the imperialists’ secret treaties, this party proposed peace to all nations, and yielded to the violence of the Brest-Litovsk robbers only after the Anglo-French imperialists had torpedoed the conclusion of a peace, and after the Bolsheviks had done everything humanly possible to hasten the revolution in Germany and other countries." (ibid).

An example of peace talks in the Philippines

Lenin used to say that the class struggle is fought by the working class and its revolutionary party in many different ways, depending on the situation and on the balance of forces: strikes, general strikes, local disputes, insurrections, peasant movement, guerrillaism, mass demonstrations, etc. The methods vary but one thing remains clear: alliances and agreements are sometimes necessary with temporary allies in order to reduce unnecessary casualties and damage and to improve the position of the working class as a whole. Indeed, compromises are sometimes necessary even with the class enemy, if there is no other way out of an extremely difficult situation.

A revolutionary position is not determined simply by whether one is waging guerrilla warfare against the government, neither is it determined by whether one controls bigger or smaller areas of the country. For example, the Maoist and Stalinist leaders of the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) have been mere onlookers every time an important movement of the working class has taken place in the key areas of the country (such as the metropolis of Metro Manila). This is not surprising. It is a fact that Stalinism has been an objective obstacle to the revolution throughout the whole world, including in the Philippines, because its starting point is that there is a progressive wing of the bourgeoisie that can complete the tasks of the democratic revolution. We have to ask ourselves where is that wing in the Philippines? Is there any bourgeois party that is calling for the withdrawal of the anti-labour laws or proposing any serious agrarian reform? There is no such wing, and there are no such parties.

We should never forget that the Filipino government is a right wing pro-imperialist agent. It has been responsible for countless campaigns of repression and state terrorism against the left parties, the national minorities (Moro, Lumad and others) since the times of the Marcos dictatorship. We recently wrote about the use that the government makes of the so-called "war on terror" in this country. However, the tools of repression are not always trustworthy. This summer’s rebellion inside the AFP (Filipino Army) serves to underline the fact that the bourgeois state is weak and that there is discontent among the ranks of the soldiers. The possibility of splits inside the army along class lines is becoming ever more real. I believe that the question of the peace talks between an armed left party and the Government should be considered bearing in mind this real situation.

The Bolsheviks lost many comrades who had been killed by the tsarist state and in the wars, just like all the Filipino left parties of today. The RPM-P/RPA (RPA is the armed wing of the RPM) is one of them. It is not the first such party to enter into a similar process. This party of the central region of Visayas (RPM-P/RPA) is involved now in peace talks with the Arroyo government. We read the following in two articles in the Filipino press:

"Last month [spring 2002] the government [of the Philippines] and RPM-RPA-ABB leaders met in Bacolod City and discussed the four major points of the peace pact that include the processing and release of political prisoners, cessation of hostilities, granting of special gun permits to 100 RPA-ABB guerillas nationwide, and the release of development and re-integration funds for political prisoners. Deles reiterated her call for the Department of Justice to fast track the release of the remaining 19 political prisoners. As stipulated in the peace agreement, the government will allocate P500 millions for development of areas identified by the RPM-RPA-ABB, and P10 millions as re-integration fund for released political prisoners. In December last year, RPM-P chairman Arturo Tabara reportedly threatened to back out from the peace agreement next month if the national government fails to implement the four major points of the peace agreement. Deles said the RPM-P-RPA-ABB has already given assurance that they will not threaten the peace process." (Visayan Daily Star, web edition.)

"BACOLOD CITY – The Revolutionary Proletarian Army-Alex Boncayao Brigade (RPA-ABB) has been granted 100 special gun permits but its members are not allowed to display their firearms publicly. This was among the provisions stipulated in amendments proposed to the peace agreement signed between the government and the RPM-P, the RPA-ABB’s political arm, in December 2000. Of the 100 special gun permits, 35 were given to RPA-ABB members assigned in Negros Occidental, 21 on Panay Island, and 20 in Central Visayas. The rest were given to members operating in Davao, Maguindanao, Agusan, Nueva Ecija, Compostela, Lanao, Metro Manila, Ilocos region and to its national staff. RPM-P chair Arturo Tabara told a news conference on Saturday that the issuance of the special permit is governed by existing laws, rules, regulations and procedures … Tabara said the assistance being extended by the RPM-P/RPA-ABB leaders and members in the maintenance of peace and order was stipulated in Article 2 of the peace agreement. This assistance, which included helping the police in the arrest of wanted persons, was part of confidence-building measures." (The Inquirer, April 2002)

This does not sound exactly like a truce; it seems more like a long term agreement. If the quote is wrong or the truth is different, please correct us. Lenin laid heavy emphasis on the idea that tactics may include temporary agreements, but never long-term agreements with the class enemy. You will not find any example of this kind of agreement in the whole history of the Bolshevik party. This is not to say that everything single thing that Lenin did should be copied in every detail, but we have to remember that long terms agreements with the class enemy can be used by the government to weaken the left movement as a whole. Of course, I am not saying that a protracted guerrilla war should be waged against the government. The strategy of a protracted guerrilla war has already demonstrated its failure. I am not saying that a truce that gets comrades freed from jail is wrong. One could actually say that this agreement can be also be taken as evidence of the weakness of the government. And I am also not saying that getting money from the government to channel it into social development projects in the RPM-influenced areas is a bad thing.

The problem is another one. While the government is probably fulfilling much less than it actually promised to this organization in the areas it controls, there is no doubt that the government is keeping up its repressive measures and bombing campaign in the rest of the country. In my opinion, the general interest of the workers could be better served by acting like the Bolsheviks. This would involve raising the horizons of the negotiations and posing more general demands in the course of reaching any agreement. These could be such demands as an end to state terrorism (last August, 300 mutinous soldiers posed this very demand), ending national oppression in Mindanao, ending the so-called "war on terror" on all left organizations, a general and free social and healthcare system for the whole of the Filipino working class and poor peasants, the withdrawal of the anti-labour laws. I believe it is necessary to do this loudly and publicly in order to force the government to give a public response and to help the workers to learn from such an experience. As far as I know the RPM-P did not try to impose any such conditions ton the Arroyo government. If all the left parties, together with their military wings were to adopt a Bolshevik policy on this matter, they would be contributing to strengthening the confidence of the whole of the Filipino working class. The workers would look positively on these left organizations and this would prepare the ground for a collective struggle of the masses against capitalism in the Philippines. It would be a great opportunity to raise the banner of these organizations. It would serve to show that these organizations (in this case the RPM-P) do not only struggle for an improvement in the social conditions of their own specific communities and members, but that they struggle for the general interests of ALL the workers, no matter whether they sympathize or not with these organizations. If these organisations adopted such a line it would be a powerful tool in rejecting all the accusations of the government and the bosses. Nobody would be taken seriously if they started spreading rumours against the left.

The peace talks and the soldiers

When I wrote about the need to build soldiers’ and workers’ action committees in my last article on the Philippines, I wasn’t calling for the building of soviets immediately and everywhere in the country. These committees, wherever they could be set up, would be instruments for discussing and spreading the transitional programme of the revolution. They would be based on the existing ‘rebel’ sector of the army. In the future, they could turn into embryos of soviets (or not), depending on the intensity of the class struggle. At present they could play a very important role, even if they initially would have to start underground. They could help by putting the active layers of the working class in a far stronger position than now thanks to their links with the most advanced sections among the soldiers. If there were a revolutionary party rooted in these committees, they would most likely discuss and instinctively move towards a programme that would include the following:

A minimum wage for soldiers and workers of 15,000 PhP per month. No officer should be paid more than 20'000 PhP.

Democracy in the army and democracy in the factories and workplaces. Officers should be elected by the rank and file according to their honesty and commitment to the soldiers (and always subject to recall). Shop stewards should be legally allowed into every factory. They should be elected on the basis of free elections involving all the workers regardless of whether they are permanent or casual labour. Full union and political rights inside the barracks and inside the workplaces.

The budget of the AFP to be scrutinised and under the control of soldiers’ delegates. Open the books of every factory that denies improvements in workers' salaries and introduce workers’ control.

End the "war on terror" policy and end military repression in Mindanao. Abolish all anti-labour laws and put an end to police repression of workers' strikes. Ban the GUAC and all the bosses’ militias.

Withdraw the US troops from the Philippines and cancel the "State of rebellion" powers of the President and the chief of the Army.

Land reform for Mindanao and the rest of the country in order to expropriate the multinational corporations and big landowners and provide good jobs for the plantation workers. The soldiers should help the workers (their brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers) to expropriate those lands.

However, these democratic demands will not be met by any bourgeois government because they undermine the rule of capital and its control over the state apparatus. Only a powerful mobilization of the soldiers and the working class can turn them into reality. In the meantime a nationwide discussion on this programme can prepare such a mobilization. If any left party and its military wing were to use the tribune of the peace talks with the government in order to campaign for such a programme, then we welcome the peace talks! The effect would be to further weaken the bourgeois state in the Philippines.

Are peace and reforms possible under the "war on terror"?

If, instead of this, the left organizations lead the workers and poor peasants to think that peace and serious reforms are possible under this government and this economic system without any mass mobilisation of the workers and soldiers, then a serious mistake is being made. Lenin and the Bolsheviks waged a determined struggled against pacifism during a period of more than three decades. They condemned the methods of individual terrorism as a policy, but never joined the hypocritical chorus of the bourgeois politicians who shouted, "We want social peace! No to rebel’s violence! No to chaos!" My impression is that the RPM-P is acting as if peace and social justice are achievable in certain limited areas of the Philippines under capitalism. However, in practice, what we see is the opposite. The government keeps bombing and killing and continuing with its state terrorism. None of the anti-labour laws have been withdrawn. Every socialist or communist activist knows that the so-called "global war on terror" is simply a military instrument in the hands of imperialism. It helps them to better fighting its class war against the workers and their organizations.

To go back to Lenin, the real armed bandits (the capitalist GRP, the fascist militias and US imperialism) are holding up Moro and Lumad and the Christian workers in Mindanao as well as holding up the young generation of Filipinos. There should be no trust in the bourgeois government. GMA does not give out money because she is generous. In reality she does not care about the social problems of the poor workers in town barangays or in the countryside! The promise (or even actual spending) of some PhP 500 millions (US$10million) on a few dozen or even a hundred or so social programmes does not change the general nature of the government’s budget. It is in reality a small amount compared to overall spending and it is painless for Arroyo and her friends. And, more importantly it does not change much the social conditions in those areas.

However the political meaning of the peace talks far outweighs any minor spending that may be achieved. Let us imagine a scenario in which other left parties or guerrilla groups go down the same path as the RPM-P. You would end up with a few hundred limited local social programmes. Each party and group would limit itself to taking care of the area in which it has influence and nobody would struggle for the general socialist programme or against imperialism’s so-called "war on terror". So without any general transformation of the system one danger would appear: a struggle between the left parties and groups for a share of local social programs, i.e. for the crumbs thrown down to them by the bosses’ government.

Lenin was not talking of compromises "in general"; he was analyzing a very concrete and difficult case. Every socialist knows that Leninism opposes any compromise or agreement that does not serve the general interests of the working class. I agree that Lenin justifies every temporary compromise and agreement that can help the working class in a given circumstance, especially in difficult conditions. Also, it is dangerous to identify the party or its base with "the class". Marxism does not play with reforms, compromises and agreements "in general" or "in particular". In this sense, Lenin insists on writing: "There are different kinds of compromises. One must be able to analyze the situation and the concrete conditions of each compromise, or of each variety of compromise […] In politics, this is by no means always as elementary as it is in this childishly simple example. However, anyone who is out to think up for the workers some kind of recipe that will provide them with cut-and-dried solutions for all contingencies, or promises that the policy of the revolutionary proletariat will never come up against difficult or complex situations, is simply a charlatan."

As anyone can see, my criticisms of these particular peace talks have nothing to do with the Maoist and Stalinist CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) criticism of the RPM-P. They are based on the general interests of the whole of the Filipino working class, and on the perspective that socialist revolution in the Philippines is possible and that this can come about only under the leadership of the working class.