The first of a two-part column, published on June 15, 2010.
The classic critique of Rizal, whose 149th birthday we mark on Saturday, has itself become venerable. Renato Constantino’s “Veneration without Understanding” was the astounding Rizal Day Lecture of 1969, over 40 years ago. In my view, it does not fare as well as any of Rizal’s key writings. But it continues to be a popular read, and is sometimes used to punctuate, or even stop, a discussion. Everything that a genuine nationalist ought to know about Rizal, I can remember a friend saying, is in Constantino.
What, exactly, did Constantino say, in the courageous, cobweb-clearing lecture that perhaps best reflects his approach to history? He says Filipinos who hold Rizal up as the ideal hero do not understand that he was, in truth, a counter-revolutionary—and therefore insufficiently nationalistic. “Rizal repudiated the one act which really synthesized our nationalist aspiration, and yet we consider him a nationalist leader.” That “one act” is the revolution of 1896.
In rereading Constantino’s “Veneration” yet again, however, I found myself struck by the profusion of false choices he presents to the reader (or the shell-shocked member of his original audience). His critique is based, not only on a Marxist reading of history and nationalism (for instance: “The exposure of his weaknesses and limitations will also mean our liberation, for he has, to a certain extent become part of the superstructure that supports present consciousness”) but also, and tellingly, on a rhetoric of false dichotomies.
A Marxist reading of Rizal is not necessarily impossible; E. San Juan Jr. has written incisively on Rizal’s writings from just such a perspective. For instance, in his post-2001 riposte to Constantino entitled “Understanding Rizal without Veneration,” San Juan wrote: “As I have tried to argue in previous essays, Rizal displayed an astute dialectical materialist sensibility. One revealing example of concrete geopolitical analysis is the short piece on Madrid and its milieu excerpted in Palma’s ‘The Pride of the Malay Race’ (pp. 60-62).” (I took a peek at the previously unpublished piece, originally written in French, in the Ozaeta translation; it is an intriguing read.)
But an argument anchored on false choices is not only deceiving; it fosters a new misunderstanding. In 1969 (and again in 1979, when he published the lecture as one chapter in “Dissent and Counter-Consciousness”), Constantino may have been moved by a genuine desire to offer a corrective to the hero-worship of Rizal. But a corrective based on false logic can work only if it itself is based on false consciousness; in other words, if a reader or an auditor did not know any better.
Right at the start, “Veneration” offers a false choice between revolutionary leader and national hero. “In the histories of many nations, the national revolution represents a peak of achievement,” Constantino writes. “It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that almost always the leader of that revolution becomes the principal hero of his people.” He then offers mostly martial examples: Washington, Lenin (writing in 2010, I am tempted to ask, of the Soviet what?), Bolivar, Sun Yat-sen, Mao, Ho Chi Minh. But if we take a closer look at his phrasing, we find that he has in fact qualified his sweeping statement: thus, “many nations,” not all; “almost always,” not always. If he admits exceptions, then his starting assumption that a country’s “principal hero” is the leader that scaled the peak of that revolutionary achievement is not exceptional. In other words, if there are exceptions to this apparent rule, why take Rizal to task for being yet another exception?
It seems to me that the rhetorical objective of this first false choice is to imply that the Philippines, by choosing Rizal as its preeminent hero, is less of a nation. “In our case, our national hero was not the leader of our Revolution. In fact, he repudiated that Revolution.”
Constantino’s main proof for this repudiation is the famous Manifesto of Dec. 15, 1896, which Rizal prepared as part of his legal defense. (It was actually written five days before, Rizal scholar Floro Quibuyen reminds us in “A Nation Aborted.”) It is a controversial read, because as foremost Rizal biographer Leon Ma. Guerrero has noted, apropos of the Manifesto, “There can be no argument that he was against Bonifacio’s Revolution.” But again the nationalist historian offers us a false choice: Either Rizal was for the revolution, or his words “were treasonous in the light of the Filipinos’ struggle against Spain.”
But in fact there was a third alternative. The Judge Advocate General refused to publish the Manifesto, which would surely have been read by the revolutionaries, because Rizal “limits himself to condemning the present rebellious movement as premature and because he considers its success impossible at this time, but suggesting between the lines that the independence dreamed of can be achieved … For Rizal it is a question of opportunity, not of principles or objectives. His manifesto can be condensed into these words: ‘Faced with the proofs of defeat, lay down your arms, my countrymen; I shall lead you to the Promised Land on a later day’.” (Guerrero’s translation)
This reading of Rizal’s statement from the Spanish perspective, which Constantino did not acknowledge or advert to in his lecture, shows the fundamental flaw behind his historical approach. In using “historical forces unleashed by social development” to situate Rizal’s “treason”, he fails to reckon with the actual, life-or-death context in which Rizal wrote. Indeed, he fails to see Rizal the way the revolutionaries themselves, beginning with Bonifacio, saw him. Shouldn’t their understanding serve as the standard for ours?
To be continued