‘Maelstrom Over the Killing Fields’: Dire underdevelopment and the Filipino national idea
A 2014 street scene in Batac in the province of Ilocos Norte on the island of Luzon / Bernard Spragg (Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication).

E. [Epifanio] San Juan Jr. is a Marxist literary critic who has taught at many major universities in the U.S. and the Philippines. Born in 1938, he is the Harvard-trained author of about four dozen books in English and Tagalog on Marxist theory, criticism of U.S. racism and imperialism, literary studies of Filipino, U.S., and European literature, and national liberation. In addition, his work includes poetry in English and Tagalog and translations into English of Filipino poets such as Amado V. Hernandez’s Rice Grains, published by International Publishers in 1966.

San Juan’s collective lifetime of scholarship focuses on several major themes. Some are outside the scope of this review. Still, two of these center on the relationship between radical 20th-century literature of the Philippines and the same in the U.S. In this vein, readers should study San Juan’s research and writings on Carlos Bulosan, the Filipino labor organizer-writer who was both a fellow traveler of the CPUSA and a militant organizer of industrial and agricultural workers on the West Coast in the 1930s until severe illness forced a change in his profession. Bulosan’s famed book America is in the Heart sealed his reputation as the foremost Filipino writer in English. San Juan’s work on Bulosan is monumental and acclaimed.

Maelstrom Over the Killing Fields explores another primary focus of San Juan’s work: the literary struggle to develop a national popular Filipino consciousness under the duress of U.S. neocolonialism. It traces the historical development and significant milestones in this collective identity from the late 19th century through the late 20th century by focusing on the writings of key intellectuals such as Jose Rizal, Benigno Ramos, Salvador Lopez, Nick Joaquin, and Lualhati Bautista.

Of those writers, Rizal stands out. His novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo were significant foundational markers for Filipino literature and what San Juan calls the Filipino national popular idea. Rizal may be classed with Jose Martí and Lu Xun, founders of radical literary nationalism and anti-imperialism in their respective countries.

After his return to the Philippines from his European travels and education, Rizal was angered and shocked by the misery and violence of Spanish imperialism. He formed La Liga Filipina to rally his milieu of intellectuals and social movement leaders to the nationalist cause. His novels, stories, plays, and essays dramatized “the spectacles of misery” he encountered. He began to grapple not only with the question of how “literary artifice [might] serve as an effective tool to improve the lives of the victims of wretched conditions” but also to imagine a collective national identity to resist imperialism. Rizal’s novels can be regarded as “foundational scripture of the republic” and as a “national allegory of our collective experience,” writes San Juan.

National identity is constructed in close relationship with how language is used to build a shared imagination of the meaning of collective experience. For Filipinos, this collective experience is fraught with contradictions and struggles over gaining national liberation and rejecting the comprador oligarchy. A goal still to be achieved, writes San Juan, under conditions of contemporary U.S. neocolonialism, which imposes its ruthless military will on the islands in its enduring, if waning, fight for global supremacy.

Using Marxist literary tools that contextualize literary readings with critical political events, working-class and peasant struggles, and the struggle against Spanish and U.S. imperialism, San Juan traces this national allegory concept through the writings of several significant intellectuals. It is worth noting that while his research emphasizes the role of literature and the Filipino intelligentsia, it never places imaginative writing as a centerpiece of historical subjectivity or the intelligentsia as a vanguard of the revolution. Instead, the study of literature and the consciousness of this class fraction is an opening to understanding the social totality of the Philippines and its relation to imperialism. It is a means to understand the minds of intellectuals who shaped the use of language to construct a national identity out of that history.

The work of the Marxist literary scholar mirrors, in some crucial ways, the labor historian who might study a strike, technological developments in an industry, or the actions and cultures of workers in a particular place to gain new insight into the development of the class struggle. San Juan explores the relationship between literary production and the national independence movements, the founding of the first working-class organizations, the creation and roles of the Philippines Communist Party, the anti-imperialist Huk uprising after World War II, and much more.

In his opening and closing chapters, he details the connection between the Duterte regime’s human rights atrocities and the abuses of U.S. imperialism, which continues to use the islands both as a dumping ground for cheap finished goods, super-exploitable labor, and as a way station for its ongoing attempts to assert military dominance in the South Pacific. Submission to the Washington Consensus by the various “democratic” regimes that have come to power since the overthrow of the U.S.-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos has been the hallmark of Philippine politics.

Since publication of this book, in the 2022 national elections, the Marcoses’ son has been elected President, and Duterte’s daughter, as his running partner, as Vice President.

Adherence to Washington Consensus-IMF structural adjustment programs has so impoverished the country’s working class and peasantry that the export of humans to become domestic servants, intensely exploited industrial workers, and cheap agricultural labor in Korea, Japan, and other countries of the region has become the dominant economic activity of the Philippines. Remittance from wages from overseas contract workers forms the largest intake of foreign currency for the islands. These conditions “allowed the oligarchic few to continue to live in luxury, and the rest of the 103 million folks to submerge/sublimate their misery in spending the money sent by their parents, children, relatives, in endless malling, consumption of mass-produced goods and the illusions manufactured by the global culture industry.”

San Juan estimates that several thousand people annually have been forced to leave their home country under these conditions for the past decades. Up to 12 million Filipinos live apart from their families and homeland. With such a large population of its people in other countries, as far away as Africa and the Middle East, the U.S., and Mexico, the national popular idea has entered a diasporic stage, he writes. This loss of rootedness in the land of birth means “[we] are a neocolonial formation defined by the contradiction between the exploiting minority and the exploited majority. We suffer from dire underdevelopment…and thus escape to the countries abroad for work and even permanent settlement.” San Juan anticipates the reconstruction of this national popular idea, rooted in its anti-colonial origins seeking independence and working-class power, through deliberate choices within the diaspora to rebuild kinship ties, seek to repair the nation from the atrocities of its oligarchic rulers, and resist the neocolonial dominance of the U.S.

Careful study of this theme in San Juan’s extensive body of work will be a valuable opening to explore the history of U.S. neocolonialism in the Philippines, a sometimes forgotten history of the relationship of Filipino radical movements with their counterparts in the U.S., and the ongoing struggles for national liberation in that country.

A 2003 interview conducted by Michael Pozo with E. San Juan Jr. can be read here.

Maelstrom Over the Killing Fields
by E. San Juan Jr.
Quezon City, Philippines: Pantas Publishing, 2021


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).