Was the Katipunan ‘populist’?

/ 05:06 AM August 13, 2019

I am under the weather; allow me to use this downtime to run excerpts from a speech I read at the 2018 Euro Summit in UP Diliman:

We can discern three main conceptual approaches to the study of populism: as substantive ideology, as discursive style and as political strategy.


One of the more influential definitions of populism as ideology is that of the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde: Populism is “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”

How does this square with our understanding of the Katipunan? There was certainly a strong sense of difference between the “Capuloan” (Archipelago) and “Ina” (the Spanish Motherland). The “foundational documents” from January 1892 (half a year before Rizal returned to the Philippines and was exiled to Dapitan—that is, before what most histories assert is the founding date of the Katipunan), presented to us by Jim Richardson, foremost scholar on the Katipunan, start thus:


“Statement of the reasons for separating this Archipelago from the Mother who possesses her.

“We have been impelled to separate from Sp[ain] by her abusive behavior, hardheartedness, treachery and other degradations that no Mother should inflict upon any child…”

There is the contrast between the innocent people and the abusive, treacherous authorities. But the ideology behind the Katipunan was not thin-centered, susceptible to the content of other ideologies. Rather, it was a full ideology — filled with the ideals of the French Revolution which Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Jacinto venerated, informed by a deeper knowledge of Philippine history made possible by Gomburza and by Rizal.

The most famous of all Katipunan texts, the “Kartilya” written by Jacinto, shows that the movement against Spain was not a mere reaction to Spanish oppression, but rather a virtuous, enlightened campaign.

For instance, we read:

“Poor, rich, ignorant, wise — here [that is to say, here inside the Katipunan], all are equal and true brethren.”



“A good deed lacks virtue if it springs from a desire for personal profit and not from a sincere desire to do good.”

Richardson reminds us of something that has been there all along, but which we failed to see because of our miseducation:

“The Katipunan did not address its appeals to any particular class or sector of society. It sought to unite the entire nation, to mobilize the whole bayan, in the fight for freedom, and it welcomed support from wherever it came, from rich and poor, from hacenderos and peasants alike.”

The second conceptual approach to the study of populism focuses on language. Benjamin Moffitt and Simon Tormey are leading contributors to the study of populism as political style. They identify three elements of populist performance: popular appeal (the populist leader reinforces the people vs. elite narrative), the perception of crisis and the “coarsening of political discourse”—“tabloid style” language that use “slang, swearing, political incorrectness.”

Sounds familiar? As it turns out, hindi nauna si Mayor.

There was certainly fiery language in the documents of the Katipunan, and colorful anecdotes punctuate the memoirs of the revolutionary generals, but as a movement and an organization, the Katipunan was nothing but dignified.

Bonifacio, in his “Decalogue,” his listing of the 10 “duties of the sons of the people,” held members of the Katipunan to the highest standards.

“Let each of us strive in the performance of our duty to set a good example for others to follow.”

Jacinto’s “Kartilya” has even more of these noble and ennobling admonitions.

“Do not regard a woman as a mere plaything, but as a helpmate and partner in the hardships of this existence. Have due regard to her weakness, and remember the mother who brought you into this world and nurtured you in your infancy.”

The third approach to the study of populism is centered on strategy, organization, mobilization.

Kurt Weyland, an expert in Latin American politics, suggests that “populism is best defined as a political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers.”

Again, how does this align with our understanding of the Katipunan?

From its founding in 1892 until the revolution broke out in 1896, and perhaps until the start of the second phase of the revolution in 1898, the Katipunan was a highly regimented organization with elaborate rituals, a system of documentation and a tested method of recruitment and communication. As Richardson writes: “The Katipunan, in sum, was at its core a modern, forward-looking organization, rationalist and secular.”

All this is itself an elaborate ritual, to test our concepts of populism by measuring them against our understanding of the Katipunan. The Katipunan was a popular movement, especially in the years between 1894 and 1896, but it was not by any means populist.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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