Hunting Specters: A Political History of the Purges in the Communist Party of the Philippines

A historical study of the violent purges committed by the Communist Party of the Philippines and their armed component the New People's Army.

Submitted by kasama_libsoc on February 19, 2020

Table of Contents

I. Self-mutilation of a movement
1.1 The 'purges'
1.2 Particularities of the Philippine 'purges'
II. The Communist movement in the Philippines 1930 – 1952
2.1 Birth of the movement
2.2 'Arise Philippines!' – the anti-Japanese resistance
2.3 From resistance to revolution?
III. Peasant rebellions from the Huks to the CPP/NPA
IV. A second cycle of the Communist movement
V. The ideology of the CPP
5.1 Maoism comes to the Philippines
5.2 Violence and voluntarism in the Maoism of the Cultural Revolution era
5.3 The Party is always right?
VI. Instabilities in the party
6.1 Fragile unity
6.2 The party in Mindanao
VII. Elements of an explanation for the 'purges'
7.1 Existing explanations
7.2 Militarism: 'All things grow out of the barrel of a gun'
7.3 Class-reductionism
7.4 The assumption of treason
7.5 Functional torture and 'useless' cruelty
7.6 Desensitization to violence
7.7 Organizational weakness and the role of the leadership
7.8 Paranoia – a symptom of crisis


In 1986 a popular uprising ended the rule of Ferdinand Marcos, who had been dictator of the Philippines since declaring Martial Law in 1972 (officially lifted in 1981). The final years of Marcos' rule and the first years of restored 'democracy' were a period of disorientation and fracture for the principal anti-Marcos force, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which by the early eighties claimed an armed force of about fifteen thousand, a similar number of political cadres and about a million supporters, spread over the country's countryside and cities.1 During these years, CPP members tortured and killed hundreds of their own comrades.

The torture and killings were part of campaigns against suspected government spies in the underground party and its armed wing, the guerrilla force New People's Army (NPA). The intra-party violence was most intense in Mindanao, the southern island of the Philippine archipelago. Mindanao had become a CPP stronghold during the eighties but the purges there, roughly lasting from halfway 1985 to halfway 1986, dealt a heavy blow to the organization. A quarter century later, many questions are still unresolved.

This essay will examine explanations for the purges offered by survivors and political and academic commentators. More fundamental than the question who was guilty is the question why this process happened. Many of the explanations for the purges offered so far – such as 'paranoia' fostered by the conditions of underground armed struggle, the instrumental use of humans by an authoritarian, 'Leninist' organization or the use of accusations to resolve political conflicts – offer only parts of an explanation because they don't take the specific historical context of the CPP in Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines into consideration. The CPP was not an isolated bubble or only defined by its purported ideology, clean of outside influences. It was part of the development of Philippine society and the purges were a consequence of both internal and external developments.

This essay will try to locate the wave of purges as a part and a product of the historical development of the CPP. The interaction between the party and its social and political context needs to be considered. The structure and ideology of the CPP are important elements of an explanation of the purges but are not sufficient: the purges came at a time of intense political and social crisis in the Philippines, a crisis that also afflicted the party and its supporters. On August 21, 1983, Marcos' gunmen killed opposition leader Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino when he returned from exile in the United States. Before the Marcos dictatorship, Aquino had been a governor and a senator and he was the figurehead of the liberal opposition. The assassination caused an uproar and the Marcos regime, already weakened by the CPP-led 'National-Democratic' movement, started to decompose. Large parts of the hitherto politically passive urban middle-classes moved onto the political field. The regime was out of balance and nearing collapse. Trying to regain the upper-hand, Marcos announced in late 1985 that he would forward the presidential elections to 1986. The CPP, misreading the political situation and underestimating the anti-dictatorship sentiment in the country, declared a boycott of the elections but the majority of the anti-Marcos camp rallied behind presidential candidate Corazon 'Cory' Aquino, widow of Benigno Aquino. The massive fraud that declared Marcos the official winner was transparent and too few were willing too support him any longer with even parts of the American government, long a supporter of Marcos, now backing Cory Aquino. Finally, on the 22 second of February 1986 a failed military coup sparked the 'People's Power' mass uprising in Manila that forced Marcos to flee the country.

This tumultuous sequence of events, taking place while the purges were going on, threw the CPP off balance. A surge of excitement went through the CPP as it expected the day the autocrat would fall to come quickly but almost simultaneously, debate broke out in the party on how to proceed in the changing circumstances. The party stuck to its strategy of boycotting the fraudulent elections and accumulating forces for its rural based guerrilla, which was supposed to be the principal force in bringing down the government. But developments left the party isolated: its call for a boycott received little attention. The party didn't play a decisive part in the urban mass-protest against Marcos in which middle-class opposition leaders were more prominent. In a few short months the CPP had gone from 'vanguard' of the anti-Marcos movement to society's 'rear-guard'.2

The second major part of an explanation is the nature of the party itself. People 'make their own history' but under 'given and inherited circumstances', as Marx wrote.3 The CPP was the product of Philippine society that was going through a protracted crisis, a crisis that shaped the form of the revolutionary movement that sought to resolve it. The situation of the CPP in Mindanao was highly peculiar: in about five years, the party developed from a small ragtag band of hunted activists into a formidable force, leading a series of mini-uprisings and commanding an armed force that engaged the national army in pitched battles. The rapid growth of the party meant the introduction of many raw recruits who were unfamiliar with underground work and who were ill prepared to respond to changing circumstances. The Mindanaon CPP was highly successful but also unstable, exactly because of its rapid growth. This growth was linked to a crisis of Mindanaon society that weakened social ties and attracted a large number of people to a revolutionary movement.4

An examination of the CPP in Mindanao shows that it was far removed from the idea of the 'Marxist-Leninist' party it liked to project.5 But the disconnection between theory and practice was not complete and claims of authority and the supposedly unique role of the party did influence its policies. To compare the differences between its Marxist-Leninist theory and its practice on the ground, both need to be examined.

Finally, any explanation that seeks to present one single cause for the purges will not do justice to the complex realities of the CPP and Philippine society in the mid-eighties. Schematically, the purges pose two main questions. The first is what started the purges, the second why the purges were so damaging. I argue the CPP was unable to overcome a number of difficulties that have plagued the Philippine Communist movement for decades and that have their roots in the social make-up of its social base and its ideology. The CPP's theory failed to prepare its supporters for the challenges of the acute crisis and near civil-war circumstances of the mid-eighties. These weaknesses made the party susceptible to a process of self-destruction.

To illustrate this, a discussion of the purges is followed by a historical sketch of Philippine Communism as a movement and of its ideology in which the development of three key-themes are highlighted: a reduction of political struggle to violent confrontations, the notion the party had a 'correct' and 'objective' view of reality and a gap between the movement's rank-and-file and its national leadership. Together, these conditions made the purges possible. Finally, I argue that the purges begun as a failed attempt of the party to adept to the changing political circumstances.

  • 1Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso, State and society in the Philippines (Oxford 2005) 219.
  • 2The description is from Kathleen Weekley, The Communist Party of the Philippines 1968 – 1993. A story of its theory and practice (Quezon City 2001) 224.
  • 3Karl Marx, 'The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte', in: Idem, Surveys from exile. Political writings, volume 2 (Middlesex 1973) 143 – 250, there 146.
  • 4Patricio N. Abinales, 'When the revolution devours its children before victory: Operasyong Kampanyang Ahos and the tragedy of Mindanao communism' in: Idem, Fellow traveller. Essays on Filipino communism (Quezon City 2001) 153 – 193.
  • 5Patricio N. Abinales, 'Kahos revisited: the Mindanao commission and its narrative of a tragedy' in: Rosanne Rutten, Brokering a revolution. Cadres in a Philippine insurgency (Quezon City 2008) 144 – 188.