Such was the hegemony of socialist ideas that in 1970 when general elections were held for the first time, the three largest parties, namely Awami League, the PPP, and the NAP, were paying lip service to socialism
If the left did not exist in Pakistan, it would be necessary to invent it. Luckily, it has always existed in Pakistan. Unfortunately, it got marginalized. Hence, ‘the-left-has-failed,’ is a common refrain entailed by this marginalization.
The failure of the left in Pakistan is joyously trumpeted, firstly, by the right wing critics who claim that Marxism is an alien concept from the West, hence, incompatible with Pakistan’s religious polity. Secondly, an even vicious explanation offered by ex-leftist-turned-liberals is the impossibility of Marxist task. However, there are even sections of the left that do not believe in the inpossibility of a Marxist revolution but deny the actuality of such an undertaking.
This author considers all the above propositions as highly flawed. For the first, the narrative that socialism is a Western construct, hence, not suitable for Pakistan is a delirious objection. Ironically, the major faith practiced in Pakistan is an import from Arabia while dominant economic system here, capitalism, was born in Europe. One hopes the middle class critics, bearded as well as clean-shaven, pointing out socialism’s Western origin do not send their children to English medium schools and Arabic lessons, never travel by train and by air, and are ready to live without bijli [and they do not enjoy cricket either]. Let us also return our Islamic bomb to the Dutch people.
Secondly, in view of the Arab Spring, chaotic situation in Europe and electoral victories scored by leftish leaders across Latin America, any blind can deny the actuality of revolution. The post-modernist, post-industrialist intellectual offensive of the 1980s and the triumphalist ‘end-of-history’ narrative of the 1990s have run out of steam. The proletariat has grown in size in spite of much-glorified digital age and the notion of flexible labour. As 99 percenters in the heart of capitalism refuse to buy the capitalist solutions, Karl Marx is becoming the best selling author in Europe, tyranny of the mainstream publishing houses notwithstanding.
Thirdly [and most importantly], ‘the-left-has-failed’ mantra is an uninformed and uncritical, in fact, highly biased storyline. Such was the hegemony of socialist ideas that in 1970 when general elections were held for the first time, the three largest parties, namely Awami League, the PPP, and the NAP, were paying lip service to socialism. Even Muslim League (Daultana faction) was paying lip service to socialism in its election manifesto. When the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) launched a vicious campaign against newly-launched PPP, the JUI held joint meetings with the PPP. While the JI was defending feudalism and private property, the JUI organ was publishing a series of articles in defence of ‘Islamic Socialism’. Even radical was JUI’s alliance with the Pakistan Labour Party (PLP) in July 1969. The PLP founded by a labour leader, Bashir Bukhtiar, stood for socialism too.
Long before these elections, when Pakistan’s feudal and Khaki rulers, flanked by beards, went to White House begging alms in the early 1950s, they were invoking the ‘Red Threat’ to win Uncle Sam’s sympathy.
The threat was not unfounded either. In the elections for East Pakistan Assembly in 1954, 22 communists were elected [four as Independents, 18 on the platform of Jagto Front]. Earlier, in 1951 legendary union leader Mirza Ibrahim contested for Punjab Assembly, from Lahore. Election results were rigged to deny him the victory.
However, these initial gains did not translate into a viable Marxist organization owing to a combination of factors. The ban on the Communist Party in 1954 and its front organisations coupled with state repression forced the communists to work inside progressive formations such as the NAP. Like elsewhere, the Moscow-Beijing dispute bitterly divided, hence undermined, the Pakistani left too. Ideological theories that progressive bourgeoisie should be supported in the first phase towards revolution and socialism would be the second phase to be strived for in a distant future, further constrained the left. Instead of taking the initiative to build an independent political project, ideological and objective imperatives drove the left to margins.
However, regardless of left’s failure to build a mainstream political party, it has cast a deep impression on Pakistani society. At times, the left was the most strong force inside the trade union movement and the students. It took decades of repression to rid student politics of the National Students Federation (NSF) and the Democratic Students Federation (DSF).
Before the Zia dictatorship banned the students unions and handed over the campuses to fascist organisations of every hue, the NSF and its progressive cousins would sweep the union elections all over the country. In 1982, last time student were allowed to practice their democratic right to elect their union representatives on the campuses, the NSF was able to outdo its major rival, the Islami Jamiat Talaba.
Similarly, affiliates of Pakistan Trade Union Federation [and later on other left-wing trade union federations] managed to organise workers on thousands of plants and workplaces. It was a genuine ‘social movement’ at ‘grassroots level’ in the contemporary fashionable NGO-parlance. Likewise, assisted by the left cadre, peasantry fought heroic battles from Hashtnagar to Pat Feeder.
Another big and important area of left influence was art and literature. Poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Habib Jalib had become legends in their life times. They remain the biggest literary legends in Pakistan to this day. It was the Progressive Writers Association’s [PWA] cadre and sympathisers who contributed to build a dynamic cultural movement. All form of artistic creativity, from film and drama to journalism and poetry, greatly benefitted from the PWA initiative. In the absence of PWA, Pakistan would have been culturally a barren land.
Most importantly, the left cadre was always at the forefront of democratic struggles in the country. While Hasan Nasir, tortured to death at notorious Lahore Fort, emerged as a symbol of resistance under the Ayub dictatorship, Nazir Abassi’s ghost continues to haunt Brigadier Billa.
It is a matter of relative satisfaction that the left is re-emerging despite all odds. A band of courageous young people have revived the NSF in the Punjab and the DSF in Sindh while miniscule but active left formations are struggling to offer an alternative to the mainstream parties. As a matter of fact, for Pakistan’s future it is vital to re-invent its left.
Farooq Sulehria is currently pursuing his media studies. Previously, he has worked with Stockholm-based Weekly Internationalen. In Pakistan, he has worked with The Nation, The Frontier Post, The News, and the Pakistan. He has MA in Mass Communication from the University of Punjab, Lahore. He also contributes for Znet and various left publications internationally.