100 years of a nationalist: Renato Constantino as social critic and public intellectual

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By Francisco Jayme Paolo A. Guiang

“NATIONALISM is not just an empty word full of emotional appeal. It is the expression of a reality — that we have a country of our own, which must be kept our own. Its political expression is independence.”

These were the words that Renato Constantino wrote in an article entitled “The Corrupt Society” published in 1958 for the Sunday Times Magazine.

More than six decades later, the relevance of this statement remains undisputed as Filipinos continue to contend with forces that impede national development. The current threats against the nation’s democratic institutions and sovereignty make the struggle for profound change a necessary undertaking. Given this context, Renato Constantino’s ideas on nationalism can serve as a guide for the task at hand. But in dealing with his timeless thoughts, an introduction to the man must first be in order: who was Renato Constantino and why do his views still find bearing in the present-day?

Tato, as he was known by his peers, was raised in Manila, which was the hotbed of contending socio-political ideologues in the 1930s. He was educated at the Manila North High School (now, Arellano High School) and the University of the Philippines (UP) where student activism influenced his worldview.

During his time as the editor of UP’s Philippine Collegian, he fervently wrote about the youth’s vital role in the nationalist struggle for independence and, at the same time, criticized political bigwigs. That was his way of expressing himself as a young nationalist: wielding the pen with words of keen wit and sharpness while exposing social ills. Tato’s most crucial views on nationalism came in the years that followed the Second World War when, as a professional journalist, he wrote about the society’s glaring issues. His writings were published in various broadsheets and magazines like the Evening Herald, Manila Chronicle, Malaya, Daily Globe, Manila Bulletin, Manila Times, and Graphic.

In them, he expressed his criticism on the Filipino society’s “synthetic” culture and identity shaped by its long colonial experience. Coupled with this is the problem of political subservience and mendicancy that transformed the nation into a neo-colony of American imperialists. Nonetheless, Tato was hopeful for the promise of revolutionary change. He stressed the importance of nationalism as the Filipinos’ primary weapon against reactionary forces. He even asserted that nationalism with an anti-imperialist strand is the best means to produce a counter-consciousness for the purpose of social emancipation.

On the other hand, Tato’s love for history made his social criticisms more potent. His notion of partisan scholarship, though questionable for most academics, met the needs of his nationalist aspirations: “History… should serve the purpose of integrating seemingly isolated facts and events into a coherent historical process so that a view of the totality of social reality may be achieved…” he wrote in The Philippines: A Past Revisited, published in 1975. He opines that a history biased towards the struggles of the people is one that could free the Filipinos’ consciousness from years of colonial miseducation.

Indeed, Tato’s controversial image as a historian and journalist made him one of the most influential public intellectuals of his generation. His stature as a leftist even earned him the label of being a communist. He was actually subjected to various forms of political harassments including that in the 1960s during the “witch-hunt” facilitated by the Committee of Anti-Filipino Activities (CAFA) and the 1970s during the Martial Law years.

But Tato endured and never wavered. Nationalism and social criticism remained constant themes in his columns and articles. He continued to articulate provocative sentiments about the issues of his time, most of which are still relatable up to today: government corruption and patronage politics, economic subservience due to foreign debt, the question of independence and sovereignty, and the like. Hence, his nationalism will always be applicable and valid because it attempts resolve society’s chronic problems.

Tato ultimately deserves the same esteem accorded to 20th century Filipino nationalists like Senators Lorenzo Tañada and Claro M. Recto. March 10, 2019 marks his 100th birth anniversary and after so many years his message remains an appropriate and relevant reminder about the country’s situation. Tato, the social critic and public intellectual, continues to speak to us because there is much to be done.


Francisco Jayme Paolo A. Guiang is an instructor at the Department of History of the University of the Philippines.