``Me, a rich peasant?'' said Pedro, a Filipino farmer, his face worn by years of toil on the land. ``No, I'm not rich.'' ``But the party classified you as rich,'' countered Ka Punyong, a leading Communist Party member visiting the area.
``Yes, the other peasants thought I had extra income. But I am barely self-sufficient,'' Pedro said, pleading for pity yet trying to keep his honor. ``They forced me to pay more taxes and give more to my tenant farmers. There was no choice. If I didn't go along, I would lose my friends. Now my income has dropped.''
``OK, OK,'' the Communist Party leader said. ``Maybe they were a little excessive. We'll see what we can do.''
Pedro is one of several million peasants living under a quasi-communist rule in the Philippines, a mainly rural country where about half of the people earn under $1,000 a year. The communists directly or indirectly control some 17 percent of the 56 million Filipinos. In hundreds of villages since the late 1970s, they have set up underground governments, organizing the poorest peasants into power blocs that impose new rules on income and land use, either by force of firearms, shunning, or Filipino-style consensusmaking.
Many better-off peasants such as Pedro choose to support the insurgents, believing the communists may improve the peasants' lives, end official graft, stop military abuse, and rid villages of criminals. The communists hope that such village notables can ``transcend their class origins.''
But the more the communists squeeze the incomes of wealthier peasants with ``reforms,'' the more they risk losing their support in the revolution. In short, the Communist Party believes there must be Marxist-style class struggle, but it also needs to form class alliances.
It's a widespread dilemma confronting communist leaders in the Philippines: How much do they compromise their ideals with the so-called ``middle forces'' in order to win power? Every communist revolution has had to grapple with the problem, some choosing a pure uprising of the poorest masses, others electing a ``national democratic'' revolution that includes the middle class.
In the Philippines the unexpected rise to power of a reformist government under Corazon Aquino last February has thrust this dilemma onto the communists in full force.
At the village level, the problem comes up almost daily. Without continuing aid from wealthier peasants, both in hiding guerrillas and in paying taxes, the insurgency would falter, still far from victory.
At the national level, the communists now face a similar problem: How much do they compromise, such as on land-reform goals or on the fate of the American military bases, during negotiations with the Aquino government?
The talks, which began last week, are part of a 60-day cease-fire agreement that began Dec. 10. The communists hope to strike a deal with the new liberal government while putting their armed struggle on hold. They are banking on ``reformist'' government officials around President Aquino to accommodate their demands.
Since the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos last February, in which the middle class and military played primary roles, the Communist Party has decided to give more emphasis to its political arm, the National Democratic Front, party leaders say. The NDF is a grouping of 13 radical organizations - including the party and the New People's Army - largely controlled by the party but containing many middle-class members.
The party lost many of its alliances with the middle class, church officials, and intellectuals because of its decision to boycott the Feb. 7 presidential election.
On the other side of the negotiating table, the pivotal middle class that supports Aquino wonders just what kind of communists it is dealing with.
Some observers say a communist Philippines would be as benign as Yugoslavia. The Philippine military, in its propaganda to villagers, says the communists would be as ruthless as Cambodia's Khmer Rouge in wiping out the bourgeois if they came to power. In fact, the military often plays a videotape of the movie ``The Killing Fields'' for villagers.
``Let us not forget that the leaders in the hills are hard-core Leninists,'' a ranking United States official says.
In the meantime, however, it appears that most Communist Party leaders want to convert the ``middle forces'' to their side when they can, by appealing to their nationalism, dislike of the elite, or fear of the military.
``We do not want a classless society. We want power in order to end foreign domination, feudalism, and corruption,'' says Ka Punyong, a member of the party's regional central committee on the central island of Samar, a communist stronghold. (``Ka'' is short for kasama, or ``comrade,'' in the national language; Punyong is an underground nickname.)
When it was founded on Dec. 26, 1968, the Communist Party planned to follow Mao Tse-tung's strategy of rallying the poor peasants in the countryside and eventually surrounding and winning over the cities. But after 1975, when many Maoist ideas began to be rejected in China, the party began to debate the tactic of using the middle class.
``The middle class controls public opinion,'' says Ka Punyong.
One tactical reason for gaining middle-class support is a post-1982 party policy of preparing for guerrilla war in the cities. ``We have to first convince the petty bourgeois that economic sabotage is necessary,'' says Ka Sento, head of the party's military commission in Samar. ``We cannot alienate the middle forces when we decide to hit the state structure, such as power line.... The middle forces must not become a reserve of the enemy, but a reserve of the revolution.''
The party hopes it can maneuver the NDF into forming coalitions with the ``middle forces,'' either directly with the Aquino government or with leftist and middle-of-the-road politicians for the local and congressional elections in mid-1987.
``If some members of those political parties are bourgeois, we will deal with them later,'' says Jaime Lanoy, party secretary for southeast Mindanao. ``When we raise the consciousness of the people, their ideas will be obsolete. And if they stick to their ideas, they will be eliminated, although not necessarily with guns.... But we have to use their ideas if they are best for the present time, depending on who they are.''
As more villages become controlled, the party finds it difficult to involve richer peasants in political affairs.
The party admits creating the problem: When it enters a village, it first organizes the poorest peasants, purposely excluding the richer ones, into peasant associations. These are designed to help build poorer peasants' unity and confidence.
``The poor peasants learn to speak out,'' says Ka Elio, party secretary on Samar. By background and wealth, rich peasants are considered smarter and more dominating than their poorer neighbors, and thus have to be isolated. Only after an association is well established are rich peasants invited to join.
``The associations that we set up are not operating at the national-democratic level,'' says Ka Elio, meaning they don't see the need to include richer peasants for the sake of helping the revolution nationwide.
``They risk becoming another local peasant rebellion that only lasts a few years. If we only have the poor peasants, there would be no revolution. We cannot go ahead until we resolve the problem of the rich peasants and landlords.''
The problem is highlighted by the party's inability to include richer peasants in running the villages. Even on Samar, where the revolution is most advanced, the communists have been able to set up Barrio Revolutionary Councils in only two villages. With the associations assuming most authority, the poorer peasants fail to see the urgency of including the wealthier villagers in a revolutionary council.
``The peasant associations become too powerful and alienate the rich peasants,'' says Ka Elio. ``They give no incentive for the rich peasant to invest in the barrio, and if they don't invest, the general welfare of the people suffers.''
He cites an example: One peasant association imposed a 10 percent limit on interest rates demanded by the wealthier villagers in granting loans. But when the loans dried up, regional leaders stepped in and persuaded the association to set the rate at 20 percent. Other villagers have had similar problems after setting high minimums for wages and crop-sharing.
``When the peasants experience exploitation for so long and suddenly gain new powers, they think that a little profit is a bad thing,'' says the party secretary.
In one recent issue of the Samar Communist Party newsletter, a new song was introduced, one stanza of which spells out the problem: ``We have to improve our tactics. The mass campaign - the anti-feudal and anti-fascist struggle - must be pursued by including others.''
Each controlled village is put through a Social Investigation and Class Analysis. On Samar, such a study revealed (to the 100th decimal point) that 51.79 percent of villagers were ``petty bourgeois.'' That meant they were ``lower-middle peasants'' or higher.
``The [analysis] helps us decide who is to be won over and who is to be isolated,'' says Ka Punyong.
In Pedro's village of Angyap, for instance, the first analysis conducted in 1981 showed him as a rich peasant, meaning he earned 30-49 percent of his income from the labor of others (what the party calls ``exploitation''). But by 1985, when another analysis was conducted, he had dropped to the ``upper middle'' category, because of a combination of a worsened economy and the new policies on tenant share-cropping and wage levels. The village's association leader and leading Communist Party member, Ka Jap, says the poorer peasants welcomed the new policies. ``It helps build enthusiasm.''
Doing an analysis requires that local party leaders determine the ``surplus value'' in a farmer's income. Sometimes that decision can be quite arbitrary. In one communist-controlled village on the southern island of Mindanao, the head of taxation was asked how he knows if farmers had ``surplus value.''
``If he buys a radio, a bicycle, or an extra pair of pants, those are considered luxuries, and mean he made too much money,'' he said.
On redistribution of land, the party has dealt with many small and large landlords rather gently, but nonetheless coercively, in hopes of gaining their support.
Land reform usually goes only so far as raising the share of the crop for tenant farmers or raising farmer and worker wages. Rarely is land confiscated outright. When land is wanted, the communists first try persuasion. Failing that, they organize peasants and hold mass protests in a confrontation, or they hold back labor. Last, they use confiscation. ``Abusive landlords are liquidated,'' says one local party chief.
``Many landlords just give their land to the peasants as an investment for the future - when the revolution finally wins,'' says a government agricultural official who doubles as a Communist Party member. ``At best, we try to neutralize the landlord, and make sure he doesn't go against the revolution.''
But, adds Ka Elio, ``We are still set on the policy of eliminating landlords. They support us when we promise just compensation for their land. But at present, we cannot compensate the landlord. We don't have the money.''
After 18 years of guerrilla warfare, the rebels realize how many compromises they have to make. Some are resigned to a multidecade struggle. Others predict victory by the early 1990s. Whether the communists win or not depends to a large degree on how they handle the ``middle forces.''
``We are not going to establish a communist society quite yet,'' says Mr. Lanoy, from southeast Mindinao. ``That is several generations away. So in the meantime, we will allow even anticommunists to coexist with us.''