Column: Miseducated by Agoncillo

Published on October 6, 2015.

The most influential Filipino historian of the 20th century was the formidable Teodoro Agoncillo, who wrote “The Revolt of the Masses” and changed our view of history. Not all of his influence, however, was salutary or, in truth, properly historiographical. He wrote some bad history.

As the provocative success of the historical epic “Heneral Luna” should prove, his driving idea that class conflict defined the Philippine revolution and explains its ultimate failure has come to be so dominant, so second-nature to any discussion of Philippine history, that it has even come to wrap one historical figure he did not deem heroic in the one-size-fits-all mantle of class-conscious heroism.

I mean Antonio Luna, of course. In the course of a series of conversations with Ambeth Ocampo, which Ambeth has been kind enough to recall in these pages, Agoncillo once waxed eloquent against Luna’s betrayal of the first phase of the revolution (“Luna not only did not join the Revolution of 1896, he was a traitor!”) before reaching a thundering conclusion: “As a matter of fact, I do not consider Luna a hero. How did he become a hero? He never won any battle, papaano mo sasabihing hero iyan [how can you say that’s a hero]?”

Agoncillo may have been carried away by emotion; by his severe standard, the protagonist of his own “Revolt of the Masses,” subtitled “The Story of Bonifacio and the Katipunan,” would be no hero either. But as the revolutionary general Jose Alejandrino testified in his memoirs, “The Price of Freedom,” Luna was truly the revolution’s best general even though he never won a battle. He organized the Army, trained its soldiers, imposed discipline in the ranks, prepared a blueprint for military action, built high-quality defenses, blunted American offensives; he himself often took to the field.

But Agoncillo’s notion of Luna as unworthy of being called a hero has been overrun by the historian’s central idea that the class struggle undermined the revolution. Because Luna, in the movie, utters such either-or lines as “Negosyo o kalayaan? Bayan o sarili, pumili ka!” (Business or freedom? Country or self, choose!), and because his confrontations with those who sought to negotiate with the Americans were staged so dramatically, the narrative momentum seems to drive Agoncillo’s larger point home.

(Because the writer-director-editor-musical-scorer Jerrold Tarog is an artist of the first rank, he did not create a caricature of Luna, or indeed of any of the major characters. In Luna’s case, the script shows his idealized self-image; for instance, at one point he describes himself as a mere indio, but is gently but firmly reminded by his lover Isabel that in fact he was from a wealthy family himself, part of the ruling class. But it’s a movie. The logic of images trumps the logic of words.)

Thus was Luna, whom Agoncillo did not include in his pantheon of heroes, rediscovered as a hero by a new generation of Filipinos; in the movie, he embodied Agoncillo’s dominant idea of class struggle.

When “The Revolt of the Masses” was finally published in 1956, a scorching review written by the chair of the University of the Philippines Department of History, Nicolas Zafra, and four female scholars from the department (later to make a name for themselves), appeared in print; an expanded version ran in the scholarly journal Philippine Studies.

The Zafra review is not unproblematic, but I will quote from it to show the kind of critical reception that met the book—and to suggest that its warnings about Agoncillo’s lack of scientific rigor in using the Marxist lens of class struggle were swept away by the wave of nationalism that shook the country in the 1960s and 1970s.

“One feature of the book that the reader cannot fail to notice is the author’s obsession with the idea of class conflict. He constantly harps on the theme that there was a sharp clash of interests between what he calls the ‘masses’ and the ‘middle class.’ For one thing, he gives the reader the impression that the Katipunan revolt was exclusively ‘the revolt of the masses’; that the ‘middle class’ were interested mainly in the things that would redound to their material welfare; that not only were they unsympathetic with the needs and aspirations of the ‘masses’ but they ‘betrayed’ the cause of the Katipunan as well.

“It is regrettable to say that the author’s presentation of this aspect of his subject is unsatisfactory, unconvincing, unscholarly. In the first place, there is much confusion in the author’s mind as regards his categories. What he calls the ‘masses’ for example can be interpreted in many ways…. What the author’s criterion is by which a person may be identified with the ‘masses’ is obviously not at all clear…. The confusion becomes worse confounded when he speaks of the ‘middle class’….

“In his efforts to underline his idea that the Revolution was a ‘class conflict,’ a ‘class struggle,’ the author has, wittingly or unwittingly, drawn a distorted picture of the character of The Philippine Revolution.”

And this is not to speak of Agoncillo’s failure, in painting his portrait of Bonifacio, to include Hermenegildo Cruz’s “Kartilyang Makabayan” or Santiago Alvarez’s memoirs; to verify the recollection of someone who was not at the first uprising, Pio Valenzuela; or, irony of ironies, to question his dependence on Emilio Aguinaldo’s version of events.

The scholarship on the demographic composition of the Katipunan and the Philippine Revolution has progressed well beyond Agoncillo’s limited framework. Jim Richardson’s “The Light of Liberty” is, in my view, the most important book of our time, but there are other scholars, other studies. Time to rethink Agoncillo’s outsize influence.

 

Editors’ Note on Inquirer.net: Professor Zafra’s first name was mistakenly spelled in the original; it was corrected from Nicholas to Nicolas at 8:50 am. 

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