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In a book launched recently at the Ateneo de Manila University is a black-and-white photograph that brings me back to another time of my life. It is of veteran peace activist Edmundo Garcia, then a Jesuit scholastic and leader of a newly formed movement called “Lakasdiwa,” speaking before a huge crowd in Plaza Miranda demanding justice for the arson victims of Bantay, Ilocos Sur. The date was July 30, 1970.

I can hardly recognize Ed in the picture but the scene in the background is one I know from memory. I was somewhere in the crowd, a first year high school student of a Catholic all-girls college attending her first protest action (with her parents’ permission, as was the nuns’ policy). I remember sitting on newspapers laid out on the asphalt pavement, quiet for the most part while hearing speaker after speaker cry out the names “Singson” and “Crisologo.” I didn’t imagine then that I would be recruited to a social democratic underground party five years later while studying in another Catholic educational institution.

Social democrats (“socdems” for short) are a rare political species in the Philippines even though they may be found in rather high altitudes of government in great disproportion to their actual numbers. The recent launching of the book “Socdem: Filipino Social Democracy in a Time of Turmoil and Transition, 1965-1995” expectedly brought together a broad sample of personalities who at one point in their lives identified with one or another variety of this species.

Published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press for the German Social Democratic Foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the book features essays on four political formations with histories associated with social democracy in the Philippines: Partido Demokratiko-Sosyalista ng Pilipinas (PDSP), Kapulungan ng mga Sandigan ng Pilipinas (Kasapi), Pilipino Democratic Party-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) and Pandayan para sa Sosyalistang Pilipinas (Pandayan). These chapters, the product of the collective remembering of people whose personal visions were shaped by the social democratic ideology, provide colorful narratives of these organizations’ origins, political engagements, successes, failings and reflections on their contributions to the rescue and prolonged consolidation of democracy in our country. A separate chapter narrates the socdems’ coalition-building efforts in the electoral arena as well as in the consolidation of sector-based movements of farmers, urban poor and workers, among whom the socdems conducted much of their organizing work.

A concluding chapter by the book’s editor, Dr. Benjamin Tolosa of the Ateneo de Manila University, provides an analytical summary of how social democratic thought played itself out in the actions and political choices of the different socdem groups as they navigated critical moments in the country’s history: repression under Marcos’ martial law state, the restiveness of the post-Aquino assassination period,  the opportunities for societal reform opened by the people’s uprising at Edsa, and the disappointments and challenges of the democratic transition under the Aquino and Ramos presidencies.

As the narratives in the book confirm, many socdems were drawn to political activism by their religious idealism, which forced them to confront the realities of an unjust social order. One undeniable facet of Filipino social democracy is its historical roots in Catholic social teaching and social action propagated by visionaries of an earlier generation. The works of Fr. Walter Hogan, S.J., Fr. Joseph Mulry, S.J., Johnny Tan of the Federation of Free Workers and the Institute of Social Order, Raul Manglapus of the Christian Social Movement, and Jeremias Montemayor of the Federation of Free Farmers sowed the seeds of a socio-political tradition that would evolve into and eventually call itself Filipino social democracy.

Even among the more politically aware, the identity of the socdems is not well known. Many people do not know who they are, what political groups they influence or control, and what they stand for. I suppose this is largely due to the fact that most socdems have carried on their political engagements during the past two decades independently of political organizations. Many of them developed their political agenda not so much from a commitment to an ideology but more from accompanying grassroots groups in their struggle for social justice and greater equality. Some of them continue to be active in the various movements for political and social reform, waging their causes alongside the urban poor, farmers, workers, indigenous peoples and communities caught in conflict. Some hold influential positions in government, academic institutions, civil society and corporate organizations pursuing development agenda for improving the living conditions of identified target groups of poor Filipinos. Still, others belong to political parties and organizations contesting electoral positions and building empowered constituencies among the politically marginalized.

As Tolosa wrote in the book’s concluding chapter: “The story of social democracy is a living one—embodied in the people and institutions that have been formed by its social vision and political practice, and by all those who will be willing to learn from this experience and take up the challenge to continue the struggle.”

At the book launch, I saw a good number of young faces in the audience, giving me confidence that there is not only a future but a future generation for the vision of social democracy.

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