Commentary on Jose Maria Sison’s “The Need for a Cultural Revolution”

This text aims to provide a commentary on Jose Maria Sison’s brief text, “The Need for a Cultural Revolution.” The currently existing text to be cited in this essay is the one published on Sison’s website. The text was originally from a lecture delivered by Sison on September 30, 1966.

It is important to consider here how the text or lecture was delivered months after the official start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which Mao had officially announced in May 1966. I was not sure right now how great was the influence of Mao’s announcement on Sison’s thoughts at the time that the lecture was delivered. But it cannot escape me how much of these align.

The commentaries I have on the text attempts to clarify, at least for myself, the text as it was written for a lot of the paragraphs seems to me needed a lot more explication. The commentaries will involve mainly elementary discussions on principles highlighted by Sison, while I will also attempt to update where Sison seems to miss or fail to provide further explication.

For this post, I’ll try to comment on the first four paragraphs of the text. Future posts maybe dedicated also to commenting on paragraphs following these four, but there is no assurance that it will come about soon.

“To have a scientific view of culture as we should, we need to understand first of all that culture is a superstructure that rests upon a material basis.

The ideas, institutions and all cultural patterns are dependent on the material mode of existence of a society. These change as all societies are subject to change. There is no permanent society or culture.

The cultural balance, pattern or synthesis that exists in a society at a given historical stage is nothing but the unity of opposites—the unity of opposite cultural forces. This unity is always a temporary balance subject to the dynamism of opposites.

The progressive force always outgrows and breaks the old framework which the reactionary force always tries to preserve.”

The Need for a Cultural Revolution (

The opening paragraphs ultimately suggest a “scientific view of culture” which underlying principles were only laid out in these paragraphs. The rest of the text would appear as something that “applies” these principles to effectively stress the “how” of these principles. The consequence, however, of this fleeting passage may be one that misunderstands the core concepts surrounding this “scientific view of culture” as no further clarification was stated on the concepts being laid out in the paragraphs. Particular concepts that need to be clarified more – especially if this text is to be used for instructional purposes – are the following: “the scientific view”, “superstructure”, and “the unity of opposites.” Let us try to fill in each one by one.

The notion of “science” is one which is rarely clarified in local theoretical writings for the revolution. There may be instances to which negative definition of “science” are presented: for example, in Alice Guillermo’s “Philippine Culture: Ideology and Transformation”, the “scientific character” is defined as one that “rejects the mystifications of metaphysical idealism and posits the derivation of truth from concrete reality.” Guillermo suggests, however, in the same essay positively of a scientific process that is integration to social practices and with the masses. This is a trend on most writings in social criticism and revolution: positive definition of practices is often easily suggested while ontologies are often suggested late or was never really placed into discussion at all.

This trend is what J. Moufawad-Paul identifies as philosophy lagging behind practice and science. All the while what to do and what we’re doing are all clear to those who participate in practice, formalizing concepts surrounding practices often lags behind: “Philosophy lags behind because it lacks the power to lead anything other than itself.”

In the opening passages mentioned above, Sison is noting a science of understanding culture through its identification as a superstructure, which is present within the framework of Historical Materialism. Moufawad-Paul noted in Continuity and Rupture how historical materialism “satisfies basic definition of science of the most textbook definitions of scientific reason”:

  1. it provides a natural explanation for its given natural phenomena (i.e. it does not explain social-historical phenomena according to supernatural categories);
  2. it provides the possibility for explanatory depth and inferences to the best explanation;
  3. it hypothesizes a general law of motion (class struggle) that accounts for theoretical development;
  4. its general law of motion is testable/falsifiable […] according to moments of revolution and practice;
  5. it generates a truth procedure that determines how its theoretical terrain is open to the future.

The first paragraph of Sison’s text is prescriptive of Historical Materialism, which practice has to have these characteristics. A mere practice of Historical Materialism won’t be scientific in itself: after all, there really are misalignments present to those who claim to practice it (the problem of dogmatism and eclecticism as presented by Moufawad-Paul in Critique of Maoist Reason). A self-conscious practice of Historical Materialism is what is needed: that is a practice of historical materialism that knows what it means and what it entails to do science. A “scientific view of culture” is therefore to see culture within the following parameters:

  1. That culture is seen as part of natural-material realities and must be explained as such;
  2. That defining culture or a cultural matter must be presented analytically with the best possible explanation in accordance with its correspondence with natural-material realities;
  3. Culture must be seen with what accounts for its development;
  4. That the view of its development, its motion, must be verifiable according to moments of material development – particularly of revolution and practice; and,
  5. That this view of culture is never placing culture in stasis as it would entail a mystification of culture back to its supernatural explanations, but of culture that is open to the future. (Something that must already be accounted for by the view of its development and motion.)

Sison tried to compress the need to see the following as part of the “scientific view of culture” in his identification of the concept of the “superstructure” as one which accounts for these if the concept is to be studied scientifically.

The “superstructure,” as understood within historical materialism, is seen as a product of the economic base, at times called as the “infrastructure” – or the economic structure of society. The Superstructure is determined by the dominant economic system of a particular society at a particular historical time, i.e., by the material conditions. As products and determined by the economic system, the superstructure functions to maintain the economic system and to reproduce the social relations involved in this maintenance. The superstructure is therefore, not a passive element but an active one. As Joseph Stalin puts it: “having come into being, it becomes an exceedingly active force, actively assisting its base to take shape and consolidate itself.”

In one of Marx’s texts, what was initially identified as included in the superstructure are the legal and political ones. In Freidrich Engels’ Anti-Durhing, the superstructure is later identified with a juridico-political structure on one side, and an ideological structure on the other. It is within this complex of a superstructure between the juridico-political and the ideological structures that Sison situated culture. And that the relationship between the economic infrastructure and the superstructure is what was captured in the second paragraph from the passages above.

What appears to us as “culture” – what the dominant culture is – is identified by Sison not ontologically what “culture” actually is for eternity, but a point of synthesis from the conflicting forces within the relationship between the economic base and superstructure. As synthesis, this culture exists mainly within a particular context and thus also subject to change if the context of its emergence can no longer manifest. This synthesis is what Sison identifies as a unity of opposites.

Culture as synthesis, as unity of opposites possesses a quality of temporariness. But unlike what Sison assumed, this unity is not necessarily “balanced.” The imbalance of the synthetic product is what actually pushes its temporariness. It is only in this view of the synthesis that we can assume the emergence of progressive forces within these unities.

If culture is a balanced synthesis, it can’t be temporary. Unity in the sense of a synthetic process, particularly if a synthesis came from antagonistic contradictions, this can only be anything but balanced. To put it in class struggle, let’s say culture is a synthesis: a synthesis of economic realities whose relationship in the mode of production is determined by private property and the socio-political participation of the masses. Differing classes have differing interests. If a culture appears, as a synthesis of these differing interests, the intensity of influence of one which owns the mode of production differs from those masses who work for the development of society. This “relative” aspect to the unity of the opposites, as also pointed out by Mao in one of his texts, is reflected as the struggle also of the opposites within that particular unity. In parallel with physical laws, this does not fall far from Einstein’s general theory of relativity where a body’s movement differs according to a particular frame of reference. In the context of class struggle, the frame of reference, one with greater mass, is the working classes, whose power to move and create history is enacted into their living labor. This working class power is often contradicted, in the capitalist society, with the ruling class power. And if culture – and by extension the whole of superstructure – is a synthesis of these relationships, culture can never be a balanced unity of opposites. Class struggle persists in culture as evidenced by proletariat development of bourgeois culture to its “bastardized” and/or popular forms, and with desperate attempts by the ruling classes to maintain the “purity” of their high culture through a lot of gatekeeping.

The reason why “progressive forces” always outgrows old frameworks is mainly due to this struggle that happens within temporary unities. The emergence of progressive forces can never happen to anything that is balanced, because a balanced state is a static state, and thus, can only be trapped in its own state.

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