Magsaysay and the Philippine Peasantry (review)

Review by David Wurfel in Journal of Asian Studies XXI:2, Feb. 1962
Magsaysay and the Philippine Peasantry: The Agrarian Impact on Philippine Politics, 1953-56. By FRANCES LUCILLE STARNER. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961. 304pp. $6.00 (paper)

Ramon Magsaysay and the Philippine peas­antry is a subject rich in resources both for the political scientist and the story teller, as earlier publications have indicated. Miss Starner has avoided story telling. This book is a valuable contribution to our knowledge of Philippine politics. Nevertheless, it is not entirely without a touch of romantic idealization of the subject more appropriate to the story teller’s medium.

Magsaysay was a colorful figure who charmed not only the peasant but the foreign observer. But four years after his death we are able to see his true role with some perspective. This book was apparently written, however, in 1956. It includes almost no material from that year and makes no mention of Magsaysay’s tragic end. Furthermore, its tone, aside from a prop­erly cautious concluding paragraph, is the es­sentially optimistic one which followed his 1955 election triumph. It makes no attempt to trace the administrative implementation, or lack of implementation, of the reform legislation, pas­sage of which is so carefully described.

Partly because of the locus of her field re­search, Miss Starner has defined the agrarian problem almost exclusively as it relates to Cen­tral Luzon. After a brief survey of the agrarian system in that region and the history of peasant movements there, she launches into a detailed review of the agrarian issue in the 1953 presi­dential election. Then follows a loosely struc­tured report on peasant political attitudes and the status of peasant organizations in Central Luzon. Nearly half of the 199-page text is de­voted to a description of Magsaysay’s agrarian program; a majority of this, and nearly a quar­ter of the entire book, is a lucidly written blow-­by-blow account of the enactment of the Land Reform Bill of 1955, a first-rate piece of legisla­tive history. Appended to the text are nearly forty pages of useful material, including elec­tion statistics for 1949 and 1953 and texts of the three most important agrarian reform laws passed during the Magsaysay administration.

Even with an abundance of primary sources, however, Miss Starner has reached conclusions which are not justified by her own text. This is possible partly because of failure to define terms. Nowhere has she defined “agrarian re­form,” the most important concept in the book. She has, in fact, used this term interchangeably with, “broad program of social and economic amelioration” (p. 39), “rural improvement” (p. 77), and at one point seems even to confuse “agricultural reform” with increased efficiency of production (p. 112). Terminological vague­ness and the previously noted tendency to ideal­ize Magsaysay have resulted in such generaliza­tions as “The significance of rural reform as an issue in the 1953 presidential elections can hardly be overestimated” (p. 23).

But Miss Starner, in more cautious moments, does not persist in this view. She adds, “it is by no means certain how much weight the rural voters attached to [Magsaysay’s] pro­gram” (p. 39), at one point, and “it would be difficult to overestimate the strength of personal factors as a basis for political choice in 1953,” at another. Elsewhere the conclusion is reached that Magsaysay’s “strength throughout Central Luzon appears to be more readily explicable on the basis of his contribution to peace and order than on the basis of any political promises he had made” (p. 69) In fact, this conclusion would seem the wiser; the contention that Magsaysay was “the one political leader who pressed most relentlessly for radical reform of the agrarian system” (p. 56) is nowhere substantiated.

Nor could the reference to the Nacionalista Party as “the party of reform” (p. 23), be sup­ported. Miss Starner herself admits that the Nacionalistas mentioned agrarian reform in only one of the fifteen planks of their platform, and even then failed “to come to grips with the question of means.” “In contrast, the Liberal party went to some length to enumerate spe­cific measures to assist the rural areas. . . .” “As a description of a multi phase rural im­provement program, the provisions of the Lib­eral platform were much more adequate than those of the Nacionalista platform” (p. 42).

To be sure these platforms were not an ade­quate reflection of the true intention of the respective parties and candidates (p. 46), but what Miss Starner seems not to grasp is the fact that Magsaysay was able to convey his intentions to the people without relying on plat­forms or programs. She makes only passing reference to the charismatic character of his leadership (p.37); it needs more emphasis. It was a sincere and intense concern for the peasants’ welfare, expressed through a warm and dy­namic personality, not a precise program of re­form, which won Magsaysay his mass support.

Even after his election Miss Starner fails to call attention to Magsaysay’s rather consider­able disinterest in the specifics of policy, though she does not conceal the facts. She maintains that Magsaysay’s first eight months in office re­vealed his “continued determination to carry out the program of rural reform he had out­lined in his presidential campaign” (p.141). At the same time she correctly reports that Mag­saysay’s first State of the Nation message “embodied few concrete proposals for agrarian legislation, and that the few it did contain were peripheral to the central issue of tenancy” (p.132). Even when agrarian legislation was pre­sented, Magsaysay’s failure to take advantage of the prerogatives of the presidential office per­mitted long delays in its passage and a serious weakening of its provisions.

Concerning Magsaysay’s second year in office, when the major event in agrarian policy was the passage of the Land Reform Act, the au­thor continues to insist that, “Without doubt, the enactment of the land reform bill was a tribute to the persistence of the President. . . .” Yet, alongside this statement is put the admis­sion that “the evidence seemed clearly to in­dicate that the President would have accepted a compromise with the House at crucial points in the discussions” if it had not been for the in­sistence of Sen. Montano and other presidential advisors (p.182). In fact, though Miss Starner warns that “it would be a mistake … to un­derestimate the role played by the President’s advisors on land reform,” her account does seem to underestimate their importance. Only Sen. Montano is given adequate recognition.

Errors or lack of clarity in analysis can often be redeemed by ending on a true note of the prophetic trumpet. Miss Starner’s trumpet is loud and clear. “The expectations of the peas­antry have been raised and it is no longer pos­sible to turn back the clock” (p.199). The fail­ure to meet those expectations could threaten “Philippine economic and social stability.” The threat has now become real.

International Christian University

Categories Philippines, Agrarian policy