We must stop simply mimicking whatever trends are catching on in the west. It is the kind of error that leads Dr. Eric to think a politics of social democracy, which isn’t even suitable for Glasgow anymore, is somehow suitable for Gwadar. Social democracy has failed dramatically in Europe and North America
The previous issue of Viewpoint is to be lauded for bringing to the fore the question of how the Marxist Left in Pakistan ought to be organized in view of past incarnations. In particular, articles by Ammar Jan and Dr. Eric Rahim have raised some important questions that have faced the Left for a long time and that face the Left now. In this article I express my general agreement with Ammar’s revolutionary politics against Dr. Eric’s social democratic politics, and suggest we should study the experiences of current socialist and communist movements in the Third World to help us conceptualize a new Left politics in Pakistan.
The new and the old
Let me begin by agreeing with Ammar when he points out how the Pakistani Left has not engaged in a proper analysis of global capitalism, especially in terms of what neo-liberalism has meant for Pakistan. Rather the Left has often repeated the mantra of “corruption” which tells us little.
Ammar also argues that we have to “move away from certain old leftist paradigms, whose relevance is questionable today,” pointing to the old Left’s inadequate attention to issues of gender and the environment. However, this is a critique of what the old Left did not address, but it is not a critique of what the old Left did address. One would ask for more clarification from Ammar, what are the old leftist paradigms whose relevance is questionable today?
Perhaps it is the paradigm that Dr. Eric raises in his article and interview. While Dr. Eric’s conclusions are highly debatable, the issues he raises are actually important and raise important questions for the Left’s practice. It may seem like these are “old” paradigms, but they still face us squarely today.
If I may summarize Dr. Eric’s overall view, it is that the objective conditions for a socialist revolution do not exist in Pakistan today, as they did not exist in Russia in 1917. Instead of going for a socialist revolution along the lines of the Bolshevik Party or the old Communist Party of China, Dr. Eric says Pakistani leftists must organize a social democratic front and fight for reforms of the system.
Dr. Eric also notes that the Pakistani Left does not have the subjective strength or organization to carry out a revolution. Instead of asking how this could be done or what this would mean, in his interview he suggests jumping right into the political field by asking for social reforms. However, from his article, “A Marxist Revolution?” it is clear that Dr. Eric gives primacy to the objective conditions, and subjective conditions are secondary: “If we go beyond those limits, we will fail in our purposes, we will not be able to act on our principles.”
This is certainly an old paradigm, it is the paradigm of what is called the “revisionist” Left. The revisionist Left notes that we have not yet achieved capitalism in the Third World, therefore leftists must subordinate themselves to the national bourgeoisie and push for the proper development of capitalism—that is, a good, social democratic capitalism. It is a Left that, by pointing to the objective conditions of underdevelopment, calls for broad cooperation with “progressive” capitalists and for the most gradual of reform, instead of planning for revolution. This revisionist view, grounded as it is in an almost mechanically deterministic view, dismisses the contingency and motive force of class struggle, when organized and pointed by a revolutionary party and revolutionary mass movement. As Leon Trotsky has said, "Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam." Dr. Eric dismisses the piston-box and the steam, the party and the masses: “A revolutionary party’ in Pakistan? … Are we serious?” he asks.
I join with Ammar to respond that, yes, we are and must be serious about revolutionary politics. A Left party focused on revolution is absolutely the need of the hour. It is the only realistic way forward, if the goal is broad-based development and people’s empowerment.
Understanding the nature of politics in Pakistan
As Ammar notes, it is clear that the ruling classes of Pakistan, be they military-capitalists, industrial, agrarian or finance capitalists, or just plain old landlords, have no interest in radically reforming the structure of Pakistan’s political economy. At best, certain sections of the petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie would like more tariffs or less tariffs to serve their particular sectional needs. The question of a popular, country-wide project of development does not arise.
In this context, Dr. Eric’s suggestion that progressive forces operate through the very state structure that is designed to resist transformative politics is unrealistic. When Ammar says that Left politics cannot be “confined within the repressive frameworks of our contemporary political scene” one should see this not as a philosophical point but a very practical point. Dr. Eric’s vision betrays a lack of understanding of how politics in Pakistan actually works. People are inspired to some extent by the ideological positions of parties, but at the end of the day appear to vote based on what kind of patronage elected officials can provide for them. This patronage is not simply an egalitarian reciprocal relationship between patron and voters, but often involves criminality, violence and domination—especially as different patrons face off against each other.
In urban areas, there is sometimes more scope for ideological, programmatic politics, especially amongst middle-classes. This is a sentiment that Imran Khan and the PTI have tapped into, albeit through vague promises of revolution without any substantive political basis. However, it is clear that there is also a serious politics of fear, service-delivery and violence/security operating in, for instance, Karachi, which contains at least 10% of Pakistan’s population of 200 million. People are not simply going to switch from voting for the ANP or the MQM to voting for some new social democratic formation because it has nice visions of reform.
That is, the state is incapable of programmatically delivering material necessities of life to all people. The ruling classes do so selectively in order to gain as much support per faction as possible. They then fight it out amongst themselves, the proportion of resources and patronage being doled out, sometimes decided through pitched battles on the ground.
To be sure what I have written above is a sketch of Pakistan’s politics, and more careful analysis and assessment is necessary. To this end, the work being undertaken by a new generation of Pakistani Marxist activist-academics around the world is supremely important and must be supported, so long as they remain tied to people's movements.
However, these are broadly the kinds of questions that the Left in Pakistan has to face up to: how to win the support of broad sections of the masses, in rural areas and in urban areas, by building up structures that serve the people, that assure people’s security, and, most importantly, do so by involving and mobilizing the people themselves. Of necessity, these spaces and structures have to be independent of the decrepit state and the mainstream political parties, and have to rely on the power of the people. Simply sharing visions of social democracy or socialism or communism is not going to wrench people away from old styles of doing politics. Those politics of material necessity have to be done in a new, ideologically and politically focused way.
Learning from new leftist movements, building people’s power through patient work
It is peculiar that, while Dr. Eric refers to the experiences of the socialist movements in Russia and China, he does not talk at all about current movements and struggles in Asia, particularly Nepal, India and Philippines, or struggles in Latin America, particularly Venezuela and Bolivia, which have successfully mobilized and organized millions of people in these countries along a revolutionary orientation. These millions are serious about revolutionary politics. We absolutely must learn from both Latin American Twenty-First Century Socialism and from Asian Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.
We must also conduct an assessment of past successful practices of the Pakistani Left. For instance, a vast peasant movement that took place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the 1960s and 1970s, led by the Mazdoor Kissan Party, must be systematically assessed and learned from if we hope to organize amongst peasants today. We must, of course, also look at more recent examples of Okara and Faisalabad workers and assess their successes and limitations. Farooq Sulehria's overview of the history of the Left is somewhat helpful as a thumbnail sketch, but we require more careful assessment and analysis. It is one thing to put the photographs of Major Ishaq and Hassan Nasir on our posters and web sites, it is much harder work to properly assess their political contributions and criticize their errors.
From Latin America we can learn about organizing in urban areas of slums and informal economies. Robust social movements have developed and taken on functions of building alternatives to the existing order, often in advance of the Left achieving political power through elections. Latin American movements also offer lessons about bringing together questions of national identity, the autonomy and interplay of nationalities, with broader leftist concerns. Such has also been the lesson of Nepalese Maoists, who have deftly incorporated questions of ethnicity and nationality into their broader peasant-based People’s War. Indian Maoists have also engaged with questions of caste and “tribal” populations of adivasis. Indeed, insofar as building parallel structures of people’s power in predominantly agrarian areas is concerned, the Maoist movements in India, Nepal and Philippines have very positive examples to offer.
The most important thing leftists will have to learn is that we must serve the people. We have to address the day-to-day problems of the people, their real material needs. We cannot hope to solve these problems completely without total revolution, but we can certainly improve them through creative reorganization of people’s own abilities. Often, working class and peasant groups have developed mechanisms of coping and survival. We have to give ideological direction to create a political programme of survival. Such programmes, operations and movements will operate as parallel structures of people’s power. It is precisely through serve-the-people programmes that leftists will gain the trust of the masses, and develop more cadres and broad mass movements. Moreover, these parallel structures can form the basis of a workers’ and peasants’ states.
Ammar is correct that such paths demand exemplary patience and courage. Any revolutionary Left will have to spend a considerable amount of time in incubation, simply accumulating forces and working with the masses carefully and thoroughly, while avoiding the repression of the state. Not least of all, carrying out in-depth analysis while working to improve people’s lives will take much time. We need to bring Marxist analysis up from the dungeons of academia to active cadres who are able to assess and analyze relations of production and power down to the village and neighbourhood level, and engage with people on such bases. The patience is in order for us to build up people’s power through movements and parallel structures.
At some point, these structures, movements and spaces will have to be defended against the violence of the state and mainstream political parties and non-state actors. The Left will face great repression and violence, and so courage is absolutely a must, as is wisdom based on the experiences of old and new parties. Without a doubt the greatest lesson is, as Mao Tse-tung asserted, that leftists “must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea,” for the masses will be the primary and greatest defense against reactionary violence. In Venezuela, for instance, a reactionary coup against President Hugo Chavez was reversed by the outpouring of masses onto the streets. In Nepal and India, guerrilla fighters were and are protected and defended by ordinary villagers. The masses protect the revolutionaries, because the revolutionaries serve the masses.
One might argue that a vision of building parallel structures of people’s power and movements of people’s issues is unrealistic and utopian in Pakistan. However, the current political structure, unless fundamentally challenged and changed, will never let Pakistanis pursue a path of broad-based development. To expect Pakistan to develop without concretely challenging the politics of patronage, the politics of violence and the politics of fear is absolutely unrealistic. Realism demands envisioning what appears to be impossible now. Che Guevara’s saying is apt: “We are realists… we dream the impossible.”
We can, and must, debate the mistakes of the Latin American and Asian movements as well, particularly in terms of how they have sometimes devolved to the kind of revisionism exhibited by Dr. Eric by sliding into reformist politics of electoralism, or have incorporated bourgeoisies and petty bourgeoisies into the socialist parties that seek to stunt the initiative and creativity of the masses.
Often, there has been an orientation of some Pakistani leftists toward Latin American socialist movements, perhaps because they are lauded and closely followed by western Marxists, instead of also seriously studying Asian Maoist movements, perhaps because western Marxists tend to ignore them and pretend they do not exist. We must stop simply mimicking whatever trends are catching on in the west and amongst western Marxists. It is the kind of error that leads Dr. Eric to think a politics of social democracy, which isn’t even suitable for Glasgow anymore, is somehow suitable for Gwadar. Social democracy has failed dramatically in Europe and North America. The intensity of neo-liberalism and new austerity, implemented everywhere by social democratic parties, has illustrated how social democracy is now the ideology and practice of capitalist reaction, not worker (or peasant) progress.
Similarly, we must be warned that we cannot abstractly or dogmatically apply Latin American or other Asian methods here in Pakistan, we have to be creative but not simply abandon the experience of the actual communist movement as it has developed through the dialectics of theory and praxis. From Marx to Lenin to Mao, from Fidel Castro in Cuba to Amilcar Cabral in Guineau-Bissau to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, we have to study the successes and failures of revolutionary socialist and communist movements seriously if we are to develop something new. Otherwise, we risk having to reinvent the wheel.
A revolutionary politics is absolutely the need of the whole world, for the defeat a brutal and crushing imperialist capitalism, for the liberation of workers, peasants, women, and other subordinated groups, and for the sustainable use and custodianship of the environment.