Art by Gica Tam. Portrait from the Lean Alejandro Facebook page.
Culture Spotlight

What Lean Alejandro can teach us about being a man

In memory of Lean Alejandro's 32nd death anniversary, a young man reflects on the life of the charismatic revolutionary, his sense of adventure, and what he taught us about being our best possible selves — whether in days of freedom or days of disquiet.
Jam Pascual | Sep 22 2019

In a letter to his old professor Dr. Rita Estrada during his time in prison, Lean Alejandro wrote, "The greatest adventure on earth today is our struggle for freedom." This was in March 14, 1985, when he was still being detained at the Camp Ipil Reception Center. He was 24, younger than this writer is now, talking about adventure, referencing Lord of the Rings even as he was incarcerated.

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Lean Alejandro, like many activists during his time, fought against the tyranny of Ferdinand Marcos's martial law. He was a chairman of the UP student council in 1983, a writer for the UP Collegian, and a member of the Anti-Imperialist Youth Committee. He established the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan. He wasn't one of those revolutionaries who went up to the mountains to take up arms, but he was undeniably radical, a socialist informed by the teachings of Marx, who led and joined countless rallies, symposiums and marches. He's right up there with Edgar Jopson, Pepe Diokno and Emmanuel Lacaba as one of the great revolutionary Prometheans, a demigod of dissent.

Like many activists during his time, Lean fought against the tyranny of Ferdinand Marcos's martial law. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons

It is invigorating to assume that this sense of adventure was what defined his activism, and also what defined his life beyond the mobilizations and marches. To live revolutionarily, people might imagine, is to live motivated by rage. But as Lean taught us, a revolutionary’s life can also be defined by joy. Consider what he said about the socialist man—or rather, what kind of person any man should aspire to be.

“The socialist man must know how to compute the distance of the stars, how to differentiate a fish from a shark, a mammal from a reptile. He must know how to distill wine into liquor and how to arrive at e=mc^2. He must know how to cook bacon, butcher a pig and roast a lamb.”

There is anecdotal evidence of Lean’s salt-of-the-earth craftiness. Patricio Abinales wrote that Lean and he would borrow the Volkswagen of fellow activist Ed Tadem, and Lean would teach Patricio how to drive around campus. These driving lessons would include shifting from first gear to third gear, and more advanced maneuvers that might help one outspeed and elude military tanks. And as for cooking? Lean was a faithful devotee of the church of sinigang, praising the dish as a “complete meal” that covers all the necessary food groups. Absolutely brilliant.

And as for cooking? Lean was a faithful devotee of the church of sinigang, praising the dish as a “complete meal” that covers all the necessary food groups.

On the socialist man, he continued: “He must be capable of leading armies into battle. He must know how to follow orders, give orders and he must know when to disobey them. He must be able at debate, at lobbying, at open struggle. He must know how to analyze difficult political situations, how to get out of one and how to convince others that they must do the same.”

Lean’s peers remember him as a charismatic leader, the kind whose wit and heart, in equal measure, influenced others to stand up to tyrants. He led several mobilizations to Mendiola. Those with whom he disagreed, he took the time to dialogue with. And though the nationalist movement then, as it does now, would splinter into different factions, Lean’s way of leading was to unite.

One would think that the man’s political leanings would indicate a proletarian lifestyle or sensibility, but this wasn’t the case, if his proclivity for martinis and taste for British cigarettes were any indication. One might also imagine that Lean’s position as a political leader might lead him to commit to specific skills, but that wasn’t true either.

He would say of the socialist man: “He must know how to sail a ship, dig a latrine, construct a pigsty, wash clothes, wash dishes, plan an offensive, plan a retreat, mix martinis, drink martinis, differentiate brandy from whisky, keep quiet, participate, take care of babies, manage a state bureaucracy, soothe pain, comfort the sorrowful, maintain his composure in hot water, when to watch, when to participate, repair appliances, maintain a car, purge revisionists, ride a horse, run from a bull, swim, play tennis, drown gracefully, sink with his ship with honor along with the mice, discuss Mao, debunk Zinoviev, ridicule Stalin, appreciate a beehive, raise chickens, cook chickens, play boogle (respectably), correctly read Mabini, recruit members into the movement, motivate members to struggle, host a party, play at least one musical instrument, be critical, self-critical, honest…”

Lean would say of the socialist man: “He must know how to sail a ship, dig a latrine, construct a pigsty, wash clothes." Photo from Lean Alejandro Facebook page.

It’s a lot. A few miscellaneous points, first: 1) props to ridiculing Stalin, who twisted Lenin’s socialist vision; 2) good to know he was a boogle fan; 3) thankfully the Marcos administration unleashed no bulls for dissidents to run from. But seriously: one can’t help but admire Lean’s renaissance man aspirations. This was a vision of man that held both artisanal skills and household chores in high regard. One could even argue that these life prescriptions could qualify as socialist tenets: capitalism and fascism turn work into exploitation, but the leftist knows that, whether in freedom or in the struggle for freedom, there is joy to be found in work.

And there is joy to be found in play! People who get wrapped up in an advocacy or moral mission can forget that, but Lean knew where to find rest when it was given. During his time in prison, he read books voraciously, and was indeed a Lord of the Rings fan.

Could it be that in another more merciful universe, he would be writing screeds against the current administration, and in his free time sip on a fine glass of Glenfiddich?

Perhaps his peers would agree that if he had the chance to see LoTR adapted to the big screen, he would’ve been over the moon, but that time did not come. He was killed not during Marcos's reign, but during Cory's. Lean and others called for a boycott of the 1986 presidential elections, well aware that while Marcos's iron grip on the country had been loosened, his exile would not spell the end of the problems that paved the nation. And though the national democratic movement was indispensable in dethroning Marcos (which made it possible for a new president to come to power), the Aquino opposition couldn't have any more radicals nipping at their heels.

Had he been alive today, what could have he accomplished? Would he have fully fulfilled his vision of man? Could it be that in another more merciful universe, he would be writing screeds against the current administration, and in his free time sip on a fine glass of Glenfiddich? It seems an excellent way to live, but in death there is rarely ever use in dwelling on hypotheticals.

Still, much of what Lean says still rings true now, especially now. In the iron grip of an authoritarian, it is of paramount importance that we safeguard the sources of our joy. And even when we do become free, his vision still applies. In the pursuit of excellence, self-sufficiency and good work, man serves himself and others. Even when the work is hard, the struggle is in itself the reward.