Pakistani Left Launches New Organizational Initiative

Criticism &c. looks upon efforts towards left “regroupment” with great scepticism. Too often “regroupment” has meant merely a tactical improvisation in lieu of the developement of new ideas. The statement by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar excerpted below appeared in the November 10 issue of Economic & Political Weekly (edited in Mumbai, India) under the title “21st Century Socialism in Pakistan?” While this statement reflects some of the weaknesses of “regroupment” thinking, it would be churlish to summarily dismiss the effort, taking place as it does in a country enormously in need of a movement of its toiling and exploited peoples. The statement also seems to take the struggle of women in Pakistan seriously, which alone speaks to its merit. While Criticism &c. does not share the author’s apparent endorsement of the contemporary Latin American Left, we will withhold further comment at this point in time.

 

21st Century Socialism in Pakistan? (excerpts)

Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai, India)

November 10, 2012

by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar (Workers Party Pakistan)

It is rare for Pakistan to be in the news for something other than suicide bombs, Hindu and Jew-hating mullahs and a very peculiar (and vulnerable) type of postcolonial democracy. A plethora of institutions, classes, ethnic groups and prominent individuals animates narratives of Pakistani modernity, most notably the omnipresent military and those who would challenge the men in khaki, including ethno-nationalists like those presently leading an insurgency in Balochistan.

Conspicuous by its absence in almost all such accounts is the Pakistani left. Even informed observers of Pakistan might have little or no knowledge of leftist forces in the country, at least in the contemporary period. Students of history will know that the Pakistani ruling class visited a great deal of repression upon leftists during the cold war when the country was the frontline against the Soviet bloc. Despite having to operate in extremely dire circumstances, the Pakistani left exercised not insignificant influence on the polity, and society more generally, until the 1980s.

Since the end of the cold war, however, the little space that the left previously garnered has, more or less, frittered away. Of course this has been the fate of the left in many countries. With the exception of the experiments in “21st century socialism” being effected in Latin America, the left continues to suffer from a crisis of identity in the face of changes in the global political economy associated with neo-liberalism.

The retreat of the Pakistani left has arguably been more damning and sustained than most, even if one limits the comparative frame to south Asia. It is, for instance, an uncomfortable truth that a majority of the more than 100 million Pakistanis below the age of 25 do not even know that there is a political left in its country, or indeed even that there is a competing ideology to the left of the dominant intellectual mainstream. The common sense notions that do exist are carry-overs from the cold war inasmuch as the term “communist” in Pakistan still connotes an irreligious world view.

There are, however, glimmers of hope amidst the relative gloom. On 11 November, three existing parties of the left – Labour Party Pakistan, Awami Party P­akistan and Workers Party Pakistan – will come together to form a new party with the goal of building a viable alternative to mainstream parties. This merger reflects recognition within leftist circles, both of the growing contradictions ­within the prevailing structure of power and the need for unity and maturity so as to take advantage of these contradictions.

Unity is of course a favourite slogan of the left. The Leninist tradition has, alongside unity, also emphasised ideological purity which, in far too many cases, has translated into sectarianism of the worst kind and continuous organisational divisions. The present merger is, in this regard at least, a first in Pakistan insofar as the three parties represent different Marxist traditions which have historically been distinctly opposed to one another.

Indeed, the merger process was ­impelled by younger activists within these three parties, and some outside of them, that do not carry the baggage of cold war sectarian conflicts (read: Stalinists, Trotskyites, Maoists, etc). It is also amongst the more recent entrants to the left fray that there is a greater critical ref­lection about the failings of 20th ­century socialist experiments, and a willingness to think in dynamic terms about the s­ocialist project in the present century.

While there has been resistance from a segment of the older cadre, the imperative of unity, especially in the face of the inadequacies of the existing parties, appears to have won through. The most obvious manifestation of the left’s r­etreat over the past two decades is in the composition of existing formations: a majority of the left’s existing leadership and rank-and-file is the same as it was at the end of the cold war. In short, the left has, since the late 1980s, struggled to induct young people into its fold, or at the very least retain those who have joined the ranks. The latter failing is an indicator of the lack of dynamism in the left’s analysis and political work, as young people, otherwise attracted to leftist ideas, are quickly alienated by its actual practices on the ground.

• • •

Notwithstanding the obsession of the world’s news media with the supposedly existential threat posed to Pakistan by the religious right, the left’s arguably biggest immediate challenge will be to bridge the growing ethnic divide in the country. The Pakistani ruling classes’ visceral mistrust of the democratic process and their undying commitment to a unitary nationalist ideology emphasising Islam and Urdu directly resulted in the secession of the eastern wing in 1971, and the deepening of conflicts within and across existing provincial boundaries since then.

The left has had to contend with the regionalisation of politics across south Asia and much of the world, so the challenge facing Pakistani leftists is not necessarily unique. Nevertheless, given the distinct rise of parochial trends in recent times, projecting a sensitive and nuanced politics of class that foregrounds Pakistan’s multinational character is, in the contemporary climate, a truly revolutionary task.

There are, at present, highly contrasting imperatives of doing politics in different regions of the country. The new party will likely try, as the left has done throughout Pakistan’s history, to build alliances with ethno-nationalists who stand opposed to the Pakistani centre. But it will do so in a trying context – many ethno-nationalists, particularly in Sindh and Balochistan, now view the western powers, and the United States in particular, as the guarantor of their right to self-determination, a perspective that flies in the face of the anti-­imperialist foundations of a left programme.

Imperialism remains a major impediment to the long-term democratisation of state and society, and here it is important to consider not just the role of the US, but also the states of the Arabian Gulf and China, multinational capital, and the international financial institutions (IFIs). The new party must move beyond sloganeering and develop a substantial understanding of the complex and contradictory ways in which imperialist influence is exercised. Further, and of particular importance is to develop an understanding of the extent to which an emergent middle class addicted to the neo-liberal economy and globalised cultural forms is a friend or foe of the subordinate classes.

This is a particularly pertinent question in light of the increasing polarisation between segments of the left and liberals who are inclined to view western governments and intervention in Pakistan and the wider region as necessary, desirable even, in the struggle to clip the wings of the religious right. In short, the struggle for secularism is all too often seen as an end in itself, rather than linked to the left’s historic tasks of securing national liberation and class equality.

As in many postcolonial countries of Asia and Africa, in Pakistan too the fragmentation of progressive discourse and politics is explained in part by the rise of the non-governmental organisation (NGO). While there is merit to the argument that NGOs – donor funding more generally – have undermined radical political praxis, it is just as true that they have exposed some of the left’s major failings. NGOs in Pakistan have, for instance, proven to be a vehicle for women’s mobility, whereas the left, especially in its current incarnation, cannot claim to have made any meaningful contribution to the struggle against patriarchy. If nothing else, the new party must dedicate substantial time and effort to increasing the number of women activists among its ranks.

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