Liberal Democracy as a Tactical Objective

Liberal Democracy as a Tactical Objective

An Appraisal of AKBAYAN Youth’s Narrative Paper

By: Francis Isaac

A day before my scheduled flight to Iloilo last January 13, I was asked by the party’s Acting President Machris Cabreros to write an appraisal on AKBAYAN Youth’s Narrative Paper. Sensing the need for such an initiative, I readily acceded to her request[1] and began examining the copy that was e-mailed to me by fellow party worker Wharson Arguelles.[2]

Thirteen pages in length[3] and written in the form of a manifesto, the Narrative Paper is intended to establish AKBAYAN Youth’s ideological orientation as well as determine its overall strategic direction. As an outcome of these features, the document has practically become the youth section’s first major “dialogical contribution in the narrative building of (the) party,” and in the continuing discourse on Participatory Democracy and Participatory Socialism (p. 3). This can even be seen in the very title of text (Building a Socialist Future), which leaves no doubt as to the ultimate objective of AKBAYAN Youth.

Unfortunately, the Narrative did not care to explain what it actually means by socialism; nor was it able to convincingly distinguish its alternative societal vision from the totalitarian monstrosity that was the former Soviet Union. Instead, the Paper simply called on the members of AKBAYAN Youth to fight against elite democracy, and to “liberate” the state from particularistic interests (pp. 5-6) so that its institutions can eventually be used to uplift the lives of its disadvantaged citizens (p. 12).

Such assertions, however, are still fairly consistent with the party’s general political platform, which sees the growth of state institutions as a necessary precondition for capital accumulation and economic consolidation (AKBAYAN; 2006; p. 4).

But despite the radical character of these proposals, they still do not constitute a socialist program. This is so, especially since the elite’s modernizing segments have also adopted a set of reform measures similar to that of AKBAYAN Youth. As a case in point, former National Security Adviser Jose Almonte had earlier called on his fellow principales “to listen to its conscience” (2007; p. 3), admitting that for much of our country’s history, the leaders that we have had were trained “neither in the democratic ideal nor in a populist ethic but in the art of using government for personal interests” (Ibid; p. 14).

This has prompted the former Cabinet member to aver that our “most urgent need is to raise the political capacity of the State—to set it free from the dominance of vested interest groups and enable it to act—unequivocably—on behalf of the common good and the national interest” (Ibid.; p. 119). Developing state capacity is also doubly important, according to Almonte, “because economic development cannot take place until the Philippine State can set—and implement—a coherent policy of economic development” (Ibid.; p. 120).

This sort of analysis eventually found resonance in certain segments of the elites and was even adopted by former President Fidel V. Ramos. In his first State of the Nation Address for instance, the former Chief Executive offered “a strategic framework for development which will be guided by a strong State,” claiming that “for the last 47 years, we have had a political system that has been too unresponsive to do their will.” Such governmental arrangement, according to Ramos, “has distorted our economy” and is “the reason why the Philippines has lagged so far behind the East Asian Tigers” (Rocamora; 1996; p. 174).

These statements from the country’s two former leaders are exceedingly important because of two reasons:

  • first, they indicate that an anti-elite position is not an exclusive socialist franchise; and
  • second, that those from within the ruling Establishment are equally capable of adopting certain political proposals that are potentially radical, revolutionary and transformative.

The distinguishing feature, therefore, of any socialist program does not lie in its counter-elite character but in its overall aim of advancing socialism.

But this begs the question: What do we actually mean by the term socialism?

For many of its advocates, socialism simply refers to the public ownership of the means of production and exchange. Though fairly lucid and straightforward, this definition actually underscores the collective character of commodity production and the significant contribution of every individual (whether he be a farmer, a laborer, or a plant manager) in the overall process of wealth creation.

It is these attributes that were featured in Kay Lawson’s book The Human Polity which described socialism as “an ideology which holds that human beings readily engage in cooperative social activity and that the state, controlled by the workers, should own or at least control the means of production” (1989; p. 554).

A similar idea was also proffered by local communist leader Jose Ma. Sison who defined socialism as a “social system in which state power is in the hands of the working class and in which the means of production are under public ownership” (1972; p. 185).

This repeated emphasis on workers’ control is due to socialism’s unique history and class standpoint, which seeks to transform present-day society so as to uplift the living conditions of the laboring poor. And such assertions have even prompted a number of socialist champions to take a more radical position by calling for the complete abolition of private property. This measure, they argue, is highly necessary in order to correct the imbalances that are to be found in most capitalist societies, wherein a few are allowed to have so much, while the rest are left to live in poverty and filth.

This analytical assertion was best articulated by German thinkers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who, in the Communist Manifesto, argued that

the distinguishing feature of communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few. In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single phrase: Abolition of private property. (1964; pp. 81-82)[4]

Such stance was eventually reiterated by anarchist historian Rudolf Rocker who stated that the “serious, final, complete liberation of the workers is possible only upon one condition: that of the appropriation of capital, that is, of raw materials and all tools of labor, including land, by the whole body of workers” (Chomsky; 2003; p. 372).

Given this apparent consensus among various Leftwing thinkers, a truly socialist program would therefore have to demand for the complete abolition of the existing property regime, wherein a small group of capitalists privately own the means of production and exchange. And this can only be achieved if (according to Engels) “the proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into state property” (1999; p. 91).[5]

Since no such demand can be read in AKBAYAN Youth’s Narrative Paper, the said organization has, ergo, failed to provide a proper socialist agenda. But despite this blemish, the said document remains extremely significant for it was able to identify the most immediate objective for transforming Philippine society—that is, the creation of a liberal democratic state that could guarantee the people’s basic civil liberties and deliver needed social services in a timely and highly effective manner.

A similar proposal was, in fact, also suggested by Dr. Walden Bello during the party’s National Council meeting last February 12, saying that the party should work for the establishment of a modern democratic state which shall:

  1. have an effective and functional government;
  2. develop a rational criteria for state performance so as to reduce red tape, corruption and other clientelistic practices;
  3. institutionalize due process and basic political rights; and
  4. ensure the basic welfare of its citizens.

These ideas are also fairly consistent with the academic understanding of liberal democracy which is often defined as “a political system marked not only by free and fair elections but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the promotion of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property” (Zakaria; 2007; p. 17).

But perhaps the best articulation of the liberal democratic ideal comes from foreign policy expert Francis Fukuyama who broke it down into its two component concepts. In his book The End of History and the Last Man, the controversial author defined political liberalism as “a rule of law that recognizes certain individual rights or freedoms from government control” (1998; p. 42); while “democracy, on the other hand, is the right held universally by all citizens to have a share of political power, that is, the right of all citizens to vote and participate in politics” (p. 43).

Fukuyama, however, admits that the definition that he gave is both too formal and extremely limited since a country could already be described as democratic “if it grants its people the right to choose their own government through periodic, secret-ballot, multi-party elections, on the basis of universal and equal adult suffrage” (p. 43). Liberal democracy, in other words, is not concerned with the quality of participation or whether the condition of poor voters has actually improved despite repeated elections. Such is the case since it does not have the proper ideological resources to address social inequality or to end class conflict.

Such flaw in the liberal democratic paradigm has actually been underscored by Italian thinker Norberto Bobbio who asserted that while “liberal democracy offers the right to participate directly or indirectly in political decisions,” it is not often paralleled “by any increased equality in the distribution of economic power.”  And as a result, “the right to vote often amounts to nothing more than a mirage,” that is then used by the state to hide the actual hegemony of the ruling class (2005; p. 77).

Liberal democracy should therefore be seen by socialists as a mere tactical objective—a halfway house between oppression and socialism; and a necessary yet insufficient phase that we must all pass through if we are to provide a far better future for our people. But this offers no easy comfort for us in the Left, since in the end, our work continues—and we will not rest until all the world’s expropriators are finally expropriated.


AKBAYAN (Citizens’ Action Party). 2011. Minutes of the National Council Meeting; 12-13 February 2011; Ciudad Christia Resort, Ampid, San Mateo, Rizal. Unpublished document.

AKBAYAN (Citizens’ Action Party). 2006. Anti-Corruption: Understanding Corruption. Unpublished document.

AKBAYAN Youth. 2010. Building a Socialist Future. Unpublished document.

Almonte, Jose. 2007. To Put Our House in Order: We Must Level the Playing Field. Foundation for Economic Freedom, Inc.: Metro Manila.

Bobbio, Norberto. 2005. Liberalism and Democracy. Verso: London and New York.

Chomsky, Noam. 2003. For Reasons of State. The New Press: New York.

Engels, Frederick. 1999. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Resistance Books: Sydney.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1998. The End of History and the Last Man. Avon Books, Inc.: New York.

Hudelson, Richard. 1993. The Rise and Fall of Communism. Westview Press: Boulder and Oxford.

Lawson, Kay. 1989. The Human Polity: An Introduction to Political Science (Second Edition). Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1964. The Communist Manifesto. Washington Square Press: New York.

Pipes, Richard. 1995. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.: New York.

Rocamora, Joel. 1996. Breaking Through: The Struggle Within the Communist Party of the Philippines. Anvil Publishing, Inc.: Pasig City.

Service, Robert. 2009. Trotsky: A Biography. Pan Books: London.

Sison, Jose Ma. 1972. Struggle for National Democracy (New Edition). Amado V. Hernandez Memorial Foundation: Manila.

Zakaria, Fareed. 2007. The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.: New York.

[1] Despite the urging from the Acting President, this essay does not reflect the official position of the Mother Party since the opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own. Therefore, I alone am responsible for whatever inaccuracies I may have committed in the course of my analysis.

[2] Comrade Wharson, I was informed, was the one primarily responsible for preparing the draft of the Narrative Paper.

[3] The Narrative Paper was written on 8 x 11.5 bond paper, using Times New Roman (size 16) as font.

[4] It must be pointed out that the terms socialism and communism are used interchangeably in this essay. However, this is not the first time that this has been done, for as Richard Hudelson points out, these two concepts were synonymously understood during the nineteenth century and were “sometimes confused with ‘republican,’ perhaps on the assumption that if the ‘republican’ demand for the right to vote were granted to the working class, socialism would surely be the outcome” (1993; p. 23). In fact, no major attempt was made to differentiate the two until after March 1918, when the Bolsheviks “renamed themselves the Russian Communist Party in order to distinguish themselves from socialist parties in Russia and abroad which dissented from Lenin’s doctrines of proletarian revolution” (Service; 2009; p. 215). As a result, the international Left movement eventually “split into two camps: communists who adopted the ideas of Lenin and joined parties affiliated with the Third International, and socialists who rejected the ideas of Lenin and remained outside the Third International” (Hudelson; 1993; p. 73).

[5] The theory, of course, is that with the proletariat exercising direct control over the means of production, the state would become superfluous and will eventually wither away. But as our experience with Stalinism clearly shows, reality can sometimes have this naughty way of messing up with humankind’s most elaborate theories.


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