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Guerrilla Poet Passes: Obituary for Joma Sison

 Jose Maria Sison, affectionately known as Joma, one of the great revolutionary figures of the latter half of the 20th Century, has just passed away. This death follows that of other revolutionaries of the same generation and camp: Comrade Zia in 2020 and Chairman Gonzalo in 2021. Like them, Joma founded the contemporary revolutionary movement in his country, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) with its New People's Army (NPA). Like them, he was the principle theorist of this revolutionary movement––writing also under the names Amada Guerrero and Armando Liwanag.

After the reestablishment of the CPP in 1968, and the First Great Rectification Movement, Joma's leading role in the CPP and its people's war, led to his arrest in 1977 by the Marcos regime. After years in prison and solitary confinement he was released only to be exiled to Utrecht. Meanwhile the CPP/NPA generated new leaderships (and eventually a Second Great Rectification Movement) and Joma, though no longer part of this concrete leadership, worked in exile to help organize related internationalist organizations such as the International League of People's Struggle (ILPS). During that time he was also arrested in Utrecht in 2007 (where he was nearly rendered and sent to Guantanamo) but, following an international campaign, was released with the charges dropped in 2010. Since that time until his death, Joma worked tirelessly to support the revolutionary movement he had helped initiate––the people's war that is ongoing in the Philippines––unable to return home. "Someday," he wrote, "I will return to the Philippines. Physically, or in ashes."

After having lived in exile for four decades, it will be his ashes that return. Bodily ashes, though, because we know that what he contributed to the revolution, his living memory, is more than dust and ashes; it is not the flesh and organs of a finite body that, like all living beings, must die. Joma Sison is immortal, his work part of the infinity of other revolutionary work, and he will live on as part of a living movement. "He has merged with the trees / The brushes and the rocks," as he wrote in one of his most well-known poems (that was also the name of a biopic about him) for he was also a critically acclaimed poet. 

As Mao was a poet, Sison was a poet, and long ago I wondered about whether there was something about poetry and revolutionary politics––or at least a certain kind of poetry and certain kind of revolutionary politics––that was importantly interconnected. Badiou likes to draw parallels between the truths of poetry and the truths of revolutionary politics; it would be nice if he would recognize Sison just as he recognizes Mao but, sadly, I'm not holding my breath.

Joma was a figure who was important for every contemporary Maoist, regardless of how one fell in the debates regarding the Maoist International Communist Movement. Whereas the Gonzaloites sometimes classified him as representative of the "rightist" line of international Maoism, because he rejected the universality of PPW, they also couldn't help recognizing his importance as a revolutionary figure. After all, both he and Gonzalo were in China around the same time during the Cultural Revolution. And those of us who disagreed with his rejection of PPW's universality, but who didn't care to denounce him because, after all, he was part of a living PPW in the Philippines, saw him more as a communist uncle in exile trying to figure things out after being pushed into dislocation from the living movement he could not fully associate with, could only engage with on the international solidarity level. Ka Joma, Tiyo Joma.

I really wish I'd had the chance to meet Joma. Until now I thought I'd still have the chance. We were once at the same electronic conference during the lockdown days, but he ended up delivering his contribution as pre-recorded––it was still an honour! One of my friends and former comrades once visited him in Utrecht, years ago, and brought me back an autographed copy of Philippine Society and Revolution.

All of the remaining revolutionary giants are passing into memory. Our generation needs to manifest new figures, new leaders that are of the same pedigree as Joma. Or maybe we need to instead generate collective movements of this pedigree, that aren't ossified in individualized Sisons or Gonzalos. Maybe the death of this generation of great revolutionaries––and their legacies are indeed great, let us not denounce this fact ever––means that we are now at the point, if we can ever get the subjective circumstances functioning, that the generation that follows in their wake is no longer about names of individuals but about a more collective sensibility. Which is what, let's be honest, Joma Sison would have wanted.