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Juan Sumulong: Dreamer, not demagogue, September 17, 1938

Dreamer, not demagogue


By Leon Ma. Guerrero

Free Press staff member


September 17, 1938–THE day before, Nationalist Campaign Manager Benigno Aquino had said: “Juan Sumulong would be an ideal critic. He is a profound thinker, an effective writer. But as a leader of the opposition he will not be successful. A person who considers thoroughly what he is going to do and say, because he is afraid of what may be said against him, cannot lead a successful opposition. Juan Sumulong is a dreamer, an idealist.”

Sitting at a quiet window in native shirt and slippers, looking out occasionally at the great tree an arm’s length away or down at the quiet street, the old man I was talking with looked indeed like a dreamer, an idealist.

He laughed when he heard what Aquino had said. It was a kindly laugh, springing from real amusement. I could not make up my mind whether he was laughing at Aquino or laughing at himself. Ever afterward, after explaining a plank in the opposition platform, he would stop and add an ironic footnote. “But of course, I am an idealist,” he would chuckle tolerantly, “just a dreamer.”

“Every man a king”

Once I interrupted his careful exposition of the opposition’s plans. “That is all very well. But the masses can’t understand that.” It was a complicated explanation of tariffs.

“No, they can’t,” he admitted.

“Why don’t you get something popular, something dramatic and easily understood, like President Quezon’s social justice, for example?”

He frowned. “Unfortunately,” he said, “there are no demagogues in the opposition.”

It sounded like a death sentence—for the opposition.

What does the opposition need? Above all things it needs a demagogue. It also needs an issue, money, a machine, etc., etc. But a rip-roaring, hell-raising, heaven-promising, unscrupulous demagogue could make everything an issue. He wouldn’t need money or machine.

An opposition party is the party of the outs, the party of the dispossessed. That is its weakness, and its strength. If it can appeal successfully to the grumbling and the groaning, the out of money and the out of sorts, no political machine can stop it, no lack of funds can handicap it; its issue will be the sure and simple Huey Long formula of “Every man a king.”

The Russian Revolution was not won with the abstruse economics of Karl Max. It was won with three alluring words, easy to remember, hard to refute: “Peace and Bread.”

Philosopher in an easy chair

The new deal did not sweep America in two presidential campaigns on the party platform of a balanced budget and states’ rights. It won 46 out of 48 states with a budget deliberately unbalanced to feed the hungry, raise wages, give government work to the jobless. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with the Democratic machine wrecked by the overwhelming defeat of Al Smith, led a discouraged opposition to unprecedented victory by deliberately fostering an electoral class war: the poor against the rich, the bottom against the top.

In spite of fusions and coalitions, the Philippines is fertile soil for such an opposition. The coconut planters are dissatisfied—promise them the repeal of the excise tax, which feeds the party in power! The price of rice is high—promise to force it down to P5, P4, P3 a cavan! Tenants on the big estates are grumbling—promise them free land, good prices, no taxes! Every man a king! If and immediately when elected!

The laws of economics? The constitution? The demagogue doesn’t know and doesn’t care. Neither do the people.

But such a demagogue, the opposition party in the Philippines, whatever there is of it, emphatically does not have.

“There are no demagogues in the opposition.”

Instead there is a philosopher in an easy chair, a man who thinks like a judge and talks like a teacher.

“What do you think of President Quezon’s social justice program?” I asked Juan Sumulong.

“The opposition is not in favor of class war.”

“Well, do you admit that there are injustices and sufferings to be remedied?”

“Several years”

“Yes, but we disagree with the remedies offered by the party in power. The minimum wage, the distribution of land, the tenancy contract law, do not go to the root of the trouble.”

“What do you propose instead?”

“Our plan is to establish agricultural banks. The main defect in our system is that we have the very poor and the very rich, with very little middle class. The very poor never have any money, they must always go into debt. Whether you give them land or not, they eventually lose it, because they must borrow money to buy materials; they must mortgage their lands and eventually they lose those land.”

Sumulong went on to discuss tariffs, free trade, provincial autonomy, permanent U.S. naval bases, commercial zones.

“But how long would all these plans take?”

“Several years,” he said frankly. Or perhaps frankly is not the word; perhaps it is carelessly. What is a year or two to a philosopher?

Sumulong is definitely not a demagogue. He does not have the demagogue’s frenzy, his irresponsibility, his glorious generosity; he does not promise everything, now!

Conversely Juan Sumulong does not have the demagogue’s fierce hatreds, his artificial vote-getting enemies. He does not ask for the President’s head.

“What do you think of Quezon?”

“He’s a good man, but his advisers are ruining him. We were classmates, you know, at Santo Tomas. I remember that when we were students, I and several others at the university were affiliated with the Katipunan. We used to get revolutionary pamphlets from Spain, and between classes we would gather in corners to discuss them. But whenever we saw Quezon coming, we changed the subject. We never showed him the pamphlets either. You see, Quezon was a Spanish mestizo and he had been brought up by the friars, so he leaned to their side.”

“I am a sick man”

It was the only slight on the President’s career made that afternoon by Sumulong and it was made with a chuckle, as if he had been reminded of the President’s recent autobiographical speeches, in which the latter spoke of his witnessing the fall of Manila, and of his fighting in Tayabas, as an officer of the revolution.

“We were classmates.”

After a time one begins to get the all flavor of that sentence. Manuel Quezon and Juan Sumulong do not look now as if they had been classmates, contemporaries.

Manuel Quezon looks years younger; the skin on his face is taut and pink with good living, his step is springy, his voice and mind are vibrant with the impulsiveness of youth.

Juan Sumulong’s face is ridged with wrinkles, the skin is loose and pale. He likes to sit by the window and look down on the street, like an old man.

He admits it. I asked him: “Do you intend to run for the Assembly?” “I am too old,” he answered. “My health won’t let me. I am a sick man.” He said it cheerfully, with resignation. One Manuel Quezon was sick too, but he took it rebelliously, with an angry haste to get back on his feet.

At a banquet last week for Vice President Sergio Osmeña, President Quezon analyzed himself and his old partner: “We are temperamentally opposite. He was by nature an evolutionist, and I have been all my life a revolutionist. He always built upon the past and I always ignored the past. He never took but one step at a time and I always wanted to jump….I moved and was inspired by a rebellious spirit, always in a hurry, never satisfied; I wanted to go on without looking back. And he, always measuring the distance, always looked ahead but without forgetting what was behind.”

The President might have been speaking of another classmate, Juan Sumulong. Sumulong, like Osmeña, is an evolutionist, a cautious philosopher going one step at a time. That is why neither Sumulong nor Osmeña ever was any good as leader of an opposition. They are temperamentally suited for power, for deliberate direction without opposition.

Manuel Quezon, the rebel—almost, one might say, the demagogue—would be infinitely more fit to lead the opposition today than Sumulong; and would feel infinitely happier about it.

Now in power, surrounded by yes-men, Quezon misses the fights he used to have. He flails about, looking for trouble. He puts up straw men, just for the pleasure of knocking them down. Deprived of the pleasure of an opposition in politics, he has picked a fight with corrupt government and corrupt capital.

Juan Sumulong, on the other hand, does not even want to run for election. He prefers to have others do the fighting for the opposition. We are depending on the younger men. The students in the towns and barrios. They are intelligent enough to understand our platform, to explain it to the voters of their towns. You know how it is in the provinces. Whenever a man cannot understand something, he sends for the town student to explain it to him. These are the men on whom the opposition builds its hopes.”

Sumulong was once such a young man, in the hilly pilgrimage town of Antipolo, just as Quezon and Osmeña were in their towns in Tayabas and Cebu, respectively. But the careers of the three diverged sharply from the outset.

Political history

Quezon and Osmeña became two of the founders and leaders of the Nationalist party, whose platform was immediate, complete, and absolute independence. Sumulong, characteristically, aligned himself with the Federal party, whose platform was the entrance of the Philippines into the American Union as a state.

Quezon and Osmeña plunged into politics together. Last week the President reminisced: “The Vice President and I have been friends ever since we were in college. We entered politics in the same year. We were elected provincial governors on the same day. We took our oath of office on the same day. We were elected to the National Assembly on the same day, and we took that oath of office on the same day.”

While his two classmates were in the thick of elections, scrambling for votes and power, Sumulong became a judge of the court of first instance. As early as that his judicial mind, his natural detachment from the hurly burly of politics, was becoming evident. Evident also was his idoneity for calm counsel instead of rabble-rousing opposition. As a Federalist, Sumulong was a friend of the Americans. On March 1, 1909, he was appointed to the Philippine Commission, the upper appointive legislative house at the time, as commissioner without portfolio.

When pro-Filipino Gov. Gen. Francis Burton Harrison came to power, he demanded the resignation of all four Filipino commissioners to make place for the Nationalists. Sumulong resigned October 10, 1913.

It was a humiliation and a rebuke hard to take. Sumulong had remained with the Federal party through its change into the Progressive party, advocating gradual transition to independence. Disillussioned perhaps, he helped organize the Democrata party in 1917, asking for absolute and immediate independence.

At long last, step by step, Evolutionist Sumulong had arrived at the position Quezon and Osmeña had taken from the beginning.

But he did not immediately enter politics. He waited until 1925 to launch his candidacy for senator from the fourth district. He was elected, became the floor leader of the Democrata minority in the senate until his retirement in 1931.

The only time Sumulong tasted party victory was when he allied himself Manuel Quezon against the Hare-Hawes Cutting bill. Perhaps there was much of personal jealousy in Quezon’s stand; in Sumulong’s there could have been only intellectual conviction. But it was Quezon’s fire, his contradictory but magnetic speeches, his boasting and promising, that gave the anti opposition an overwhelming victory. It showed once more Manuel Quezon’s genius as a rebel.

But it also showed Sumulong’s fatal consistency, the careful consideration and intellectual honesty which have proved his political undoing. In the heat of that campaign, Sumulong, like Quezon and the other antis, assailed many provisions in the HHC law that are now embodied in the Tydings-McDuffie law, as accepted by Quezon and the party in power.

But Sumulong still believes that the establishment of permanent U.S. naval bases will prove disastrous to an independent Philippines.

He still believes that the longer free trade is continued, the harder it will be for the Philippines to shake off economic bondage.

The first and last anti

He is, in a way, the Last Anti.

He was also, in a way, the First Anti. As one of the founders of the Progressive party, he advocated just such a transition to independence as we have now, under the Tydings-McDuffie law.

Immediate, absolute and complete independence has now lost much of its glamour, but in the provinces it is still as potent a political platform as it was when Manuel Quezon used it to rise to power. An unscrupulous opposition, a demagogue, could still use it now with great effect.

The Sakdals under Benigno Ramos won the only opposition victories in the Philippines in recent years with that old slogan. The new opposition under Juan Sumulong could win even greater victories. Manuel Quezon knows this: periodically he hints that it’s just the thing.

But when the opposition party met to formulate its platform recently, Sumulong put his foot down and kicked out the magic plank. Why? He didn’t think it was beneficial, or even possible!

“We may have won a few votes with it,” he said. And then he shrugged. Votes were not everything.

Instead of political independence, Sumulong wants to wave economic independence at the voters. He accuses the Nationalist Party of working to keep us in indefinite economic bondage to the U.S., with transition tariffs extended until 1960, the ceaseless grabbing after quota concessions, even the JPCPA.

Economic independence! A fresh slogan, a vital problem, but….

“Will the masses understand it?”

“No.”

“Then, why….”

“There are no demagogues in the opposition.”

One wonders why Sumulong is in the opposition at all. His fellow Democrats who sided with Quezon in 1934 went high. Claro Recto became president of the constitutional convention, associate justice of the supreme court. Gregorio Perfecto is a powerful Assemblyman, chairman of the Little Senate.

Why did Sumulong break with Quezon? It is a question which Sumulong wants to keep until he writes his memoirs. He contents himself now with telling an anecdote. In the midst of the campaign, Quezon was discussing a measure at a council of the antis. Immediately, says Sumulong, most of the antis moved to give him a vote of confidence.

“I objected, of course,” says Sumulong. “Quezon hadn’t asked for confidence; no difficult question had been proposed. It was a routine discussion, and these fellows wanted to give him a vote of confidence!”

A dreamer

Sumulong thinks that Quezon is still plagued with yes-men.

“The poor man is being led astray by sycophants. Sí, señor; sí señor. That’s all he hears. No wonder he commits all his mistakes.”

Sumulong enumerates:

The plans for industrialization are “ill digested.”

Provincial and municipal governments should be given more autonomy. This is possible by making them financially independent of the central government through greater powers of taxation.

The senate should be revived under the old plan. Older heads could restrain and counsel the younger Assembly. The army and insular police should be divorced from politics. The President should not be Commander-in-Chief of the army….

Juan Sumulong is not an opposition leader. He is not a demagogue. He is too careful, too kind, too intellectual. He likes to dream, to plan quietly for an ideal state, sitting by the window above a quiet street. He is not the man to shout on a soapbox and light the fire of opposition. He would be happier and more useful as a judge, a senator, or an adviser at Malacañan, this wise and tired old man.

End