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Archive for April, 2016

Pakistan: failing state or neoliberalism in crisis?-Geoff Brown

Posted by admin On April - 18 - 2016 Comments Off on Pakistan: failing state or neoliberalism in crisis?-Geoff Brown


The popular image of Pakistan is of a failing state with nuclear weapons. Neither the government nor the army can prevent the Taliban’s terrorist outrages, not least because they cannot do without the proxy forces they use against Afghanistan and India, forces often indistinguishable from the Taliban in their methods. What follows seeks to show the falsity of this pathologising, Islamophobic mythology that pays little attention to Pakistan’s place in the global division of labour. It applies an understanding of imperialism as the combination of the unequal competition between capitals and the geopolitical conflicts between states aiming to show that the core elements of Pakistan’s crisis are not unique to Pakistan but result from dynamics which always produce uneven results.

Our starting point is the world economy. With global economic growth slow and without a full recovery from the 2008 crash, despite record stock market highs, Pakistan’s annual growth, at just over 4 percent, barely keeps GDP per head rising. Growth of 7 percent is needed to absorb the annual 2 million increase in the labour force. The resultant poverty for most of its 180 million people, half of them under 25, is not specific to Pakistan. Rather, as Karl Marx put it, “an accumulation of misery [is] a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth”.1 But why is Pakistan’s performance so weak when compared to most of South and East Asia? The argument that imperialism has underdeveloped Pakistan as some form of neo-colony is mistaken.2 The reasons for Pakistan’s failure to join the Asian tigers do not lie in unmediated North on South pressures from the heart of the beast, depriving Pakistan of access to productive resources.3 Rather the explanation lies in the failure of the Pakistan bourgeoisie to establish its territory as a location for successful accumulation in a world dominated by competing global capitals. Unlike India and South Korea, it has failed to establish its own multinationals. This is despite the geopolitical advantages it possesses with major powers competing to strengthen their influence.

Pakistan and surrounding countries

Pakistan’s colonial legacy

It is true that the early stages of capitalism as a global system, the primitive accumulation of capital, saw the Indian subcontinent robbed of greater wealth than anywhere else.4 The destruction of much of its textile industry in the 18th and 19th centuries created a huge, captive market for British exports. Yet under imperial domination of the world’s most valuable colony there was a willingness to develop selected productive capacity in the Indian subcontinent.5 Arguably the most important example was the expansion of the Indus irrigation system in Punjab. Today it is the world’s largest, valued at $300 billion.6 Securing the north western border with Afghanistan against the expanding empire of the Russian tsars, the so-called “Great Game”, was an important element of British imperial strategy.

The British used a peculiarly sharp form of divide and rule in creating “Muslim” Pakistan in 1947. Partition, the division of the subcontinent, came at the cost of over a million lives. Pakistan was based on the large landowners of Punjab and, on the opposite side of the subcontinent, the privileged few of East Bengal in what would later become independent Bangladesh.7 Together with the mohajirs, educated migrants from northern India, they saw the opportunities to be gained from creating their own state. The result was a truncated state dominated by mohajir and Punjabi elites who oppressed all other nationalities including Sindhis, Pashtuns, Balochis and Bengalis economically, politically and culturally. The need to have India as a threat that justified Pakistan’s existence guaranteed that throughout the Cold War the subcontinent would never unite against the US and its allies. In two halves on opposite sides of the subcontinent separated by a thousand miles of hostile territory, starting with just 9 percent of the industry and virtually none of the banks that had existed in previously united India, Pakistan would always struggle to compete.

The first Asian tiger?

Despite this, Pakistan boosted its annual growth from 3.5 percent in the 1950s to
6.5 percent in the 1960s, overall a higher rate than India. Unlike India, as a loyal servant of Western imperialism Pakistan received substantial US military and civilian aid. It was, however, not its political loyalties that qualified it as the first Asian “tiger”: “Many countries sought to emulate Pakistan’s economic planning strategy and one of them, South Korea, copied its second Five Year Plan, 1960-65. In the early 1960s the per capita income of South Korea was less than double that of Pakistan”.8

The post-war boom provided a global market in which, with strong support from the state, capital intensive industry expanded rapidly. Starting as joint public-private ventures they were handed to private owners when they became viable. In effect, a new manufacturing bourgeoisie was created by the state.9 Such state-driven hothousing of economic growth was not unique to Pakistan. What distinguished it was the government’s pro-market attitude, particularly under its first military dictator, Ayub Khan. Pakistan welcomed advice from Gustav Papanek and other Harvard academics advocating “the social utility of greed”.10 While manufacturing output grew at an annual rate of 10 percent,11 real wages were kept down, both by squeezing agriculture to lower food prices and by repressing labour organisation. The share of wages in value added in manufacturing fell from 45 percent in 1954 to 25 percent in 1967.12 A number of private business groups, often called “the
22 families”, came to dominate manufacturing, insurance and finance.13

The uneven geographical distribution of growth was politically unsustainable. Trying to deal with this, in particular to forestall any electoral victory for Bengalis, who constituted 55 percent of the total population, the “One Unit” policy in 1955 combined the four provinces of West Pakistan into one with its capital in Lahore, Punjab’s largest city. East Bengal became “East Pakistan”. Land ownership was skewed in favour of rich farmers whose power grew as land reform failed. Often called “feudals”, the persistence of the term conveys their brutal control at the local level.

Regions of Pakistan
*AJK= Azad Jammu Kashmir, under control of Pakistan. Dashed lines denote disputed territories.
Not only were the benefits of growth unequally divided between classes14 but East Pakistan was treated almost as a colony of West Pakistan. The lion’s share of growth went to Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad and the other big cities of Punjab and Sindh. As industry in these cities grew, so did slums which housed half of Pakistan’s urban population. Education, health services, public transport and welfare provision all failed to keep pace. Sustained repression of workers included shooting striking workers during the Karachi mass strike of March 1963.

By 1968 the masses had had enough of “managed democracy”. Students and workers rose against the regime and within four months Ayub Khan had gone, opening the way to the country’s first proper general election in 1970 with an overwhelming victory for Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan. The army under Ayub Khan’s successor, Yahya Khan, responded with genocidal repression which cost more lives than partition but was unable to avoid humiliating defeat at the hands of India. In December 1971 East Pakistan became Bangladesh. What was left, West Pakistan, found itself bankrupt.

The state capitalist alternative

As with all developing countries, the global recession of 1973-74 found Pakistan in a weak position to overcome the end of the post-war boom. Promoting a “third world” model of development which inspired radical nationalists in former colonies across the globe, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then a reformist politician, built a populist mass base, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). He campaigned for working class and poor peasant votes using the slogan “Bread, clothing and shelter” and won the 1970 general election in West Pakistan. Taking office as president in December 1971, he vigorously pursued a Nasserite state capitalist strategy,15 immediately nationalising 31 major industrial enterprises, including steel, chemicals and cement and fertiliser plant. Three years later he followed this with nationalisation of banking, insurance and shipping. Bhutto’s more radical attempt at land reform failed as badly as its predecessors. While workers used new tactics such as gherao, occupying the workplace with the boss held captive in his office, Bhutto, much weakened by the loss of East Pakistan and unable to sustain the new social contract with the poor, the oppressed nationalities and women, turned on the radicals. A key turning point came in the Karachi textile mills, June-October 1972, where a mass strike and three month long occupation of working class communities with workers killed by police both in June and October ended with defeat for the workers.16

A large Sindhi landlord himself, Bhutto made alliances with the rich to bolster his position. Faced with quadrupled oil prices, he sought backing from Saudi Arabia by playing the “Islam card”. In 1974 he declared the million strong Ahmadi sect to be “un-Islamic” and three years later banned alcohol, made Friday an official holiday and shut down much of the cultural life in cities. General Zia-ul-Haq, a staunch Islamist, was appointed army chief of staff. Having attacked the radical base that had worked to bring him to power and strengthened the repressive apparatus, with an army chief who, unlike himself, was committed to an Islamist worldview, Bhutto had paved the way for Zia to depose him in a right wing coup. While there was no Chile-style involvement by the US, there was unofficial approval of Zia’s takeover in July 1977.17 Zia introduced elements of sharia law, sharpening sectarianism, but made no immediate changes in economic policy. Political parties together with labour unions and student unions were suppressed, journalists were flogged for criticising the dictatorship and party-less elections held, initially for local bodies, later in 1985 for national and provincial assemblies. A new layer of subservient “non-party” politicians were brought in.


Despite the growth achieved by Bhutto under difficult circumstances—the ­average rate in the 1970s, 4.8 percent, was higher than that in the 1950s—Zia came to accept the “Washington Consensus” over privatisation and deregulation, deficit reduction and trade liberalisation. The neoliberal “reforms” under Zia started slowly with roll-back measures to restore the private sector. By 1988, when Zia was killed in an air crash, the public sector share of total industrial investment had fallen from 73 to 18 percent. Though growth averaged over 6 percent, exports per capita stagnated (see figure 1). The interim government appointed by the military and headed by former IMF employees signed the structural adjustment agreements focused on reducing budget deficits and boosting currency reserves.

Figure 1: Exports of goods and services per capita 1980-2014 (in constant 2005 US dollars)
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators

These agreements set the course for the next decade. While the Asian tigers used state control to accumulate capital to bring “the end of the Third World”,18 Pakistan failed to keep pace. This was not because of external pressures, real as these were, but from a failure to use resources to accumulate and compete for a larger share of the world market. Instead the resources gained from its geopolitical situation, an (unpredictable) rentier benefit, paid for the coercion needed to sustain control. The resulting position of the army with its hegemonic political role has reduced parties to little more than organised patronage. While investment in education, research, health and welfare remains minimal, the political class focuses on dividing the spoils.

The depth of ethnic division and lack of any Pakistani national ideology beyond seeing India as the eternal enemy have made a strong military necessary if Pakistan is to survive as a single entity. The success of Bengali nationalists in breaking away in 1971 inspires Baloch, Pashtun and Sindhi nationalists. It makes the myth of India as a permanent threat indispensable.

The International Monetary Fund

Pakistan’s relation to neoliberal imperialism has not been one of subservience. Foreign multinationals play a limited role. Rather IMF loans have been used to postpone and ultimately avoid the reforms that they were designed for. Since 1988 Pakistan has had 12 IMF programmes, more than all other South Asian countries combined. None have succeeded in reducing the budget deficit or increasing the tax base. Pakistan still has a tax to GDP ratio of less than 9 percent, half that of India and a quarter of the OECD average. The rich evade paying tax; and the military takes 35 percent of the budget. Throughout the 1990s exports hardly grew and development expenditure fell with a growing layer of aid-funded NGOs in a quasi welfare state role. Support for foreign reserves came not from increased exports but from loans that continued thanks to US fears of civil breakdown in Pakistan (as happened in Sudan after the IMF withdrew).

Thus IMF programmes not only failed to bring reform but acted as a shield protecting Pakistan’s ruling class from the need to reform. Today a combination of unilateral US, European Union and Saudi aid plus IMF and World Bank programmes provide what can be called “geopolitical rent”. The current IMF programme provides $6.7 billion, paid in quarterly tranches. Through the 1990s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Muslim League governments, relying on IMF loans, presided over growth averaging little more than 4 percent. There was little difference between the PPP, led by Bhutto’s daughter Benazir with a popular base in the cities plus backing from Sindhi feudals, and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League (PML-N), party of the big bourgeoisie and landlords.

From General Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 military coup to the collapse of the global boom in 2008, growth averaged 7 percent per year—without, however, Pakistan catching up on its competitors. The government debt burden fell; the IMF programmes stopped. As elsewhere, this was credit-fuelled expansion. The middle class grew along with consumer debt. The banks were given the largest interest rate spread in the world, much of their lending contributing to a property bubble. Speculators hoarded sugar, flour and rice whose prices jumped. Mobile phone use grew exponentially and private TV channels flourished, neither having much impact on labour productivity. This was a joyless boom with little improvement in most people’s living standards and none in Pakistan’s competitiveness.

As the officer class enriched itself, Musharraf, both military chief and president, found himself increasingly challenged by the judiciary. In suspending the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, in March 2007, he triggered a wave of protests led by lawyers against the growing corruption and incompetence of his dictatorship. Baton charging the protests only radicalised the movement, which climaxed with the elections in early 2008 replacing Musharraf with PPP boss Asif Zardari, husband of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto. Under Zardari, government borrowings rose by 10.3 trillion Pakistani rupees ($100 billion), pushing debt up to 68 percent of GDP. His successor from 2013, Nawaz Sharif, has taken $32 billion in loans from China, $11 billion from the World Bank, $6.64 billion from the IMF and $2 billion in eurobonds.

Efforts to boost tax revenues to overcome the low income tax to GDP ratio have done nothing to reduce tax evasion, only increasing the burden on the poor with indirect tax revenue nearly twice that from direct taxation.19 Meanwhile, despite extensive borrowing, load-shedding—power cuts of six hours daily in big cities and up to 22 hours in rural areas—continues as electricity production lags 25 percent behind demand, up to 60 percent in summer. Unregulated development leading to pollution and the destruction of the environment is the norm. Dams and the manipulation of irrigation systems were important contributors to catastrophic flood damage that has destroyed the livelihoods of several million people since 2010.

Labour rights are weaker than under the British. Some 95 percent of Sindh’s 14 million workers are unregistered with no entitlement to social security benefits. There is no enforcement mechanism for the minimum wage. Labour inspectors in Punjab and Sindh have not set foot in a factory for more than 10 years. The owners of the Ali Enterprise clothing factory in Karachi, where locked fire doors led to the death of over 250 workers in September 2012, had no record of the names of most of the thousand workers in the plant when the fire started. They were hired on casual contracts by a senior manager acting as an employment agency. Inflation, averaging 8 percent, robs the poor. The official figure for August 2015, 1.7 percent, is a 12-year low. The effective rate for those spending over half their income on food is higher.20 The worsening figures for stunted growth in children under five indicate that increases in the rate of exploitation undermine the capacity of labour power to reproduce.21

Accumulate, accumulate!

Support for export-led growth had to focus on textiles, Pakistan’s most important industry, today employing 15 million workers, 30 percent of the industrial workforce, and producing just under 10 percent of GDP. With global exports of textiles and clothing around $600 billion, Pakistan is a relatively minor player with exports of $13 billion in 2014 (table 1). Its textile industry, untrammelled by regulation, paying male workers less than Rs12,000 a month (£80) for a 53-hour week and female workers Rs6,900,22 competes with that of Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia in the race to the bottom (see table 1). Given Pakistan’s position as the world’s fourth largest producer of raw cotton there is a clear failure to make the downstream investment needed fully to exploit the value added potential of this crop, much of which is exported as yarn or semi-finished cloth, often of poor quality. This is despite the capital needed to expand the clothing industry being far less than the current investment in large-scale spinning and weaving plant, much of it concentrated in large integrated plants, with up to 20,000, mainly male, workers. The clothing industry is relatively labour intensive, generally in much smaller units with vast and growing numbers of subcontractors, often home based women paid lower wages. Expanding it would require investment in a more skilled workforce in the increasingly sophisticated supply chain for clothing exports across the globe.

Table 1: Clothing exports of selected economies (million dollars)
Source: World Trade Organisation, 2014.





















































Sri Lanka












Viet Nam





Industry’s failure to invest in fixed capital can, in the first instance, be explained by a gross national saving rate of 13 percent compared to India’s 34 percent, Bangladesh’s 30 percent and China’s 50 percent.23 Pakistan’s annual foreign direct investment (FDI) is only $1.5 billion ($8 per capita) and its total FDI is $24.33 billion—India’s is 12 times as much, $310 billion. The problem is not too much foreign control of Pakistan but too little investment. One important reason is the energy crisis. Another is the law and order situation in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest industrial centre. There are reports of textile plant relocating to Bangladesh.24 The resulting weak growth creates vicious circles. With few jobs being created, labour migrates abroad, particularly to the Gulf. Betweem 2008 and 2013 some 2.5 million workers left, many skilled, a brain drain weakening Pakistan as an investment location and reinforcing dependence on foreign aid and remittances from expatriates. Running at $15 billion a year, these remittances are indispensable in paying for much of Pakistan’s imports.

The stick of “open door” imperialism continues with the occasional carrot such as the European Union’s 2013 decision to grant Pakistan trade concessions conditional on progress with human rights and ILO conventions. The 20 percent increase in textile exports to the economically stagnant EU, Pakistan’s largest export market, in the first eight months of 201525 shows the EU’s softer strategy compared to that of the US. It illustrates how states and their representative institutions such as the EU, however much they are influenced by multinational corporations, dominate economic development.

An Islamic state?

Hamza Alavi’s concept of the relatively autonomous “overdeveloped state” in “such peripheral capitalist societies as Pakistan”26 implies a ­self-perpetuating burden condemning Pakistan to permanent domination—sometimes open, sometimes hidden—by the military. But Pakistan did not inherit an overweight state apparatus from the British, quite the opposite. Rather, the various forms of “strong” state in Pakistan are rooted in partition and the consequent need for a vast military to deal with India.

It was this weakness of the Muslim landowners that led to Muhammad Jinnah’s adoption of a “two nations, Muslims and Hindus” theory to justify dividing the subcontinent. Jinnah’s use of religion was, however, very soft. Pakistan was not an Islamic state:

Islam and Hinduism are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but in fact different and distinct social orders, and it is only a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality… To yoke together two such nations under a single state…must lead to a growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state.27

It was, however, impossible to show that life for Muslims in Pakistan was better than in India. In 1953 there was rioting in Punjab with Ahmadi sect members targeted as “non-Muslims”. Bangladesh’s secession left Pakistan with only a third of the subcontinent’s Muslims. Consequently the ongoing efforts by governments to reinforce the “Muslim identity”, school syllabuses shaping the common sense of the young, can only be understood as “playing the Muslim card”.28 While Jinnah insisted that Pakistan “should be a modern democratic state with sovereignty resting in the people and the members of the new nation having equal rights of citizenship regardless of their religion, caste or creed”,29 others argued the state should be based on sharia law. Pakistan’s successive constitutions contained compromises reflecting politicians’ alliances with religious forces, forces that have rarely been electorally successful. The judgement of the Supreme Court’s sharia bench that land reform contradicts Islam continues to reinforce the power of landlords. Despite assurances given over the years to minorities, Bhutto declared in 1974 that Ahmadis were not Muslim, boosting sectarianism, not just against Ahmadis but also against Shia, Hindu and Christian minorities. The 1977 ban on un-Islamic practices such as drinking alcohol laid the ground for Zia to introduce the Hudood ordinances, which enshrined sharia-based discrimination against women into law.

The growing strength of Islamist organisation has reached the point where any move towards secularism risks a violent response. Despite the links between terrorist activity and thousands of madrassas with several million students, funded both locally and by rich Sunni interests in the Gulf, commitments to regulate madrassas remain verbal. The key Islamist organisations are used by the deep state, ie the military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which gives the Islamists the freedom to spread their networks. In return they can be employed to provide proxy forces in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Asad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and elsewhere.

The national question

Underlying the contradictions of the Islamic Republic is the national question. Conflicts between the four provinces have grown. Punjab, with over half of Pakistan’s population, benefits at the expense of the others. The majority of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK)30 was opposed to the partition of India in 1947 only to be forced to join Pakistan. Balochistan, the largest and poorest province, was only incorporated into Pakistan after invasion in 1948. Since then the state responds brutally to nationalist resistance with daily “disappearances” of activists whose bodies are often later found mutilated.31 Almost none of Balochistan’s gas and other natural resources have been used to develop the province. Sindh, the only province in West Pakistan with majority support for the Muslim League before 1947, quickly experienced discrimination in the distribution of resources. The recent 18th constitutional amendment, devolving education, labour, etc to provincial governments, is undermined by “apex committees”, ostensibly established to speed implementation of the counter-terrorism National Action Plan (NAP), and unable to correct the imbalances.

The army’s control of the deep state has combined with the corrupt practices of big business to hollow out the state’s formal structures. A coterie comprising army chief Raheel Sharif, his five corps commanders, prime minister Nawaz, his brother Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab and Ishak Dar, minister of finance, make all the important decisions. The current priority is the domestic “war on terror”. But this has to be balanced with defence against the traditional enemy, so as the perceived threat level from India rises and falls, policy zigzags back and forth. The massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 brought renewed commitment to the “war on terror”, to be followed a month later by concern that the defence posture towards India needed strengthening with Barack Obama’s India visit. It is not only that the resources to do both at once are not available but that they contradict each other. Defence against India involves strengthening precisely those Islamist organisations such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the Haqqani network that are the enemy in the “war on terror”. Unable directly to confront the vastly superior Indian forces, Pakistan has, since the 1990s, used these organisations as proxies. This sustains the myth of an ongoing challenge to India’s 68-year occupation of Kashmir and provides some control of the Afghan border needed to make “strategic depth” possible. At the same time the proxies’ jihadist ideology leads them to challenge the Pakistani state, often violently, whenever it looks for an accommodation with Indian or Afghan governments.

The army is caught in this contradiction. Since both religion and nation have to be used to justify their position, India must remain the enemy. Inevitably, India’s reaction is to expand its own military capacities, especially nuclear, creating an arms race draining the resources available for productive investment. This squeezes health, education and welfare spending. Pakistan spends 2.5 percent of GDP on education, India 3.9 percent, South Korea 4.6 percent.32

Despite having lost all the wars it has fought with India, the army describes itself as “the guardians of the geographical and ideological frontiers of the nation”. The confrontation with India over Kashmir, cause of three wars, remains unresolved. The “strategic depth” policy, the control of the Afghan border area, the army’s rear in any future conflict with India, necessitates good relations with the Afghan Taliban. Meanwhile, the proxy forces used in Afghanistan and Indian-occupied Kashmir, irregular Islamist militants, anti-Hindu and often anti-Shia, have spread across the country, often based in madrassas. Some carry out sectarian killings against “non-Muslims” such as the large Shia minority, and others have joined the Pakistani Taliban, though often only on a temporary basis, dependent on shifting tribal alliances and who is providing funding. Despite increasingly violent blowback, the military argues the only alternative is to admit defeat and accept a junior partnership position with India.

The US versus China

Pakistan depends on competition between rival imperialisms. After 1947, countering India’s good relations with Russia, the US-Pakistan alliance was underpinned with aid.33 This vital component of the economic boom of the 1960s was withdrawn after Pakistan’s attack on India in 1965. Relations with the US further worsened in the 1970s with Bhutto’s state capitalism, his anti-imperialist rhetoric and the decision to develop nuclear weapons. Following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, Pakistan was a key US ally funnelling US aid to the mujahideen fighting the Russians. However, the collapse of the USSR and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme caused US aid to fall to an all-time low in the 1990s, relations cooling further when General Musharraf’s coup in 1999 established Pakistan’s third military dictatorship. Immediately after 9/11 US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage invited Musharraf to be an ally in the “war on terror”, threatening to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age if the invitation was refused.

Since then assistance, mainly military, has fluctuated along with US perceptions of the terrorist threat. Anti-US sentiment in Pakistan has increased with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, deaths of civilians caused by US drones and a CIA agent shooting two men dead on the streets of Lahore. Aid nevertheless continues at around $1.5 billion a year as the US seeks to maintain its credibility in the region after defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rise of Islamic State. For Pakistan the price of US aid is high. The decision in June 2014 to attack North Waziristan, stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban and also a refuge for many foreign Islamist militants, has cost $1.9 billion creating 80,000 casualties and a million refugees. Far from defeating the enemy, Taliban activity has increased across Pakistan.

The often tense relations with the US contrast strongly with Pakistan’s joint ventures with China including airports and two nuclear power stations near Karachi and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, new investments estimated at $46 billion. A new port at Gwadar, built and managed by China, will give China access to the Arabian Sea and all points west, cutting out the need for the long, vulnerable route round South East Asia through the Malacca Straits. These projects draw on around $40 billion in soft loans from the world’s largest creditor. China has earned the title of Pakistan’s “all-weather friend”, avoiding the rancour so often found in US-Pakistan relations.

Taliban, resistance of the rural poor and the “war on terror”

The British Raj had established a system of control by the maliks, the propertied class, in the settled areas of today’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This was reinforced with regulations allowing government agents to use force including collective punishment. Starting in the 1960s, the maliks’ authority was undermined by mass emigration to Karachi and later to the Gulf. In Karachi, Pashtun businesses came to dominate transport and construction. Together with the advantage of some modern education, the power of émigré remittances produced a challenge to traditional authority.

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was the key event in the decay of the power of the maliks. Some 35,000 young Muslims from across the world came to fight. They revived the tradition of a challenge from below, movements led by low status mullahs, often charismatic figures. They drew strength from the growing reputation of Islamism, the successful mujahideen challenge to the “socialist” regime in Kabul and its Russian “communist” backers and the Iranian Revolution’s overthrow of the Shah’s pro-US regime.

After 9/11, under pressure from the US, Pakistan, now “a key non-NATO ally”, sent 80,000 troops to fight fleeing Taliban. The question was whether to sustain the policy of strategic depth and relations with the Taliban or support the “war on terror”. The answer was to allow Taliban forces such as the Haqqani network to escape capture while continuing to publicise unverified “successes” in anti-terrorist operations. Good relations with the Afghan Taliban, however, also required some kind of relationship with the emerging Pakistani Taliban after the army’s invasion of Waziristan in the tribal areas in 2004 started the “Talibanisation” of Pashtun communities. These communities had strongly reacted against the breach of the agreement dating back to the Raj whereby the military stayed outside tribal areas. Resistance grew, strengthened in response to the US’s use of drones. From 2006 the Taliban marginalised tribal leaders, killing hundreds and forcing others to flee. The main Pakistani Taliban organisation, Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), was established in December 2007. As malik rule weakened, the army tried to build alliances with warlords, distinguishing between “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban”.

Efforts to restore support for central and provincial government among Pashtuns such as renaming the province were not backed by any serious increase in material resources. Growing inequality in the supply of electricity, water, jobs, health facilities and quality education meant the Taliban was able to present itself as a credible alternative to the dysfunctional Pakistani state. For example, in contrast to the official system of justice, the Taliban offer was quick and cheap. As the “war on terror” stoked anger, the military continued to fudge. The KPK government made a power-sharing agreement with the local Taliban in Swat in central Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that, as Malala Yousafzai described in her BBC blog, the Taliban used to attack local girls’ schools.34 Under pressure from the US, the army invaded Swat in 2009, at a cost of thousands of lives and over 2 million refugees. Despite growing anger towards the US, Obama’s aid package of $7.5 billion over five years was accepted a few months later. This committed the military to support Obama’s so called “Af-Pak” strategy which used Pakistani troops to do the fighting against the Taliban and Al Qaeda with NGOs running development projects. Unable to create a sustainable opposition force to counter the Taliban, the package has failed miserably.

Pakistan today

Five years on, nothing of importance has changed. Military occupation has expanded, most recently in June 2014 with Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. The massacre of 143 children and staff in the Peshawar army public school in December 2014 was immediately followed by indiscriminate aerial bombing of tribal areas killing hundreds, all “terrorists” according to the military’s communiqués. The Pakistan media has dutifully repeated this despite being banned from the areas under attack. With 7,000 prisoners on death row, a six year old moratorium on implementing the death penalty was lifted. An emergency amendment to the constitution enabled military courts to handle terrorism cases, breaching the constitutional principle separating judiciary and executive.

“Modernisers” such as Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Movement for Justice Party (PTI), argue for integrating Pakistan further into the global economy. Representing the interests of the growing professional classes, they aim to create the growth that can ease national tensions and reduce the need for a strong state. However, the desire to demonstrate national unity at the top resulted in Khan calling off the four-month mass sit-in in the autumn of 2014 against vote-rigging and corruption, in order to unite with Muslim League, People’s Party and other parties to back the new counter-terrorism National Action Plan (NAP). After countless meetings of NAP committees, many chaired by the prime minister, actions such as shutting down the dozens of outfits on the official list of terrorist organisations have not been carried out. The Supreme Court found it necessary to order the government to publish the list. Having invested so much in its proxies, the deep state refuses to abandon them. Jamaat-ud-Dawa, political-welfare wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist organisation focused primarily on Kashmir, was able to bring over 10,000 supporters onto the streets of Karachi in protest against Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons.

Imran Khan’s calls for reform continue. Launched at a giant rally in Lahore on Independence Day, August 2014, his populist strategy gave hope to many. His supporters, together with those of the moderate cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, marched on Islamabad to sit down in front of parliament. The protest expressed the anger of all but the very rich at Nawaz’s failure to deal with the Taliban or to tackle any of the basic problems such as load-shedding and corruption. In June 2014 the fruitless efforts to find a “good Taliban” through talks with elements of the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan ended after the humiliating attack on Karachi airport and the start of Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

The May 2013 election had been heralded as a step forward for Pakistan, as the Muslim League took over from the People’s Party, the first time a civilian government completed a full five-year term to be replaced by another. The new government put the former dictator Musharraf on trial. Such moves strengthened the US narrative of “fighting the Taliban in the name of democracy”, important given their plans to withdraw from Afghanistan having failed to defeat the Taliban. In reality, the pro “war on terror” governing parties in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) and People’s Party were massively voted down. The Islamic reformists Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) having equivocated on the “war on terror” also did badly. These defeats came as no surprise. At a cost of $100 billion since 9/11,35 the “war on terror” has broken tribal self-governing traditions and created widespread despair.

The election itself triggered unprecedented protests against vote-rigging. Despite the heavy military presence, Balochistan saw the independence movement’s mass support ensure a near complete boycott. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, pledging to end drone attacks, Imran Khan’s PTI topped the polls. In Punjab, Pakistan’s most powerful province, it was a “No” vote against the ruling People’s Party which gave victory to the PML-N, largely because the PTI could rally opposition to electricity shortages. Karachi and other cities in Sindh saw a huge vote against the gangster tactics of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Karachi’s ruling party for the last 25 years. The MQM is the party of the mohajirs, the relatively well educated and more affluent migrants from India who dominated Pakistan’s capital until it was moved from Karachi to Islamabad in 1959. The nationalisations of the 1970s saw young mohajirs marginalised as jobs went increasingly to new waves of migrants, mostly from rural areas. Initially a mohajir student leader, Altaf Hussain established the MQM as a reactionary force challenging this marginalisation and seeking concessions at the expense of others by trying to define the new migrants as privileged.

The ruling parties

The Muslim League had promised to revive the economy through deregulation and by cutting bureaucracy. It also pledged to increase spending on health, education, young people and women. Its industrialist backers, hampered by load-shedding and high interest rates, were to get privatisation, cheaper credit and international partnerships. On each point the government has failed. As its predecessor had done, the so-called circular debt owed to the electric power companies totalling Rs500 billion ($5 billion) was cleared by government. Nothing, though, was done to prevent big business dodging its electricity bills. Nor did the government have the confidence to end subsidies and raise prices to cover costs. After just 18 months the circular debt was back, the power companies were again unable to pay for their fuel and the load-shedding returned. The new government claimed that higher indirect taxes on mobile phone calls and petrol would pay the private power producers. This was simply to make workers pay while protecting capital. Other neoliberal policies such as lower interest rates, higher prices for basic goods, devaluation and an IMF bailout followed a pattern that has polarised Turkey, Egypt and Brazil. While the recent fall in oil prices will ease matters, the government’s failures, especially load-shedding, have undermined support in all but the best-connected business circles.

There is no shortage of ambitious objectives. Overall the plan is to increase growth to 5 percent a year and cut the deficit. In 2012 half of government spending went to the gas and electricity companies, vastly increasing the deficit. The current plan involves public sector spending cuts and privatising steel, airline and rail companies at a cost of hundreds of thousands of jobs. The funds released will further enrich the energy companies that already dominate the stock market. The other major beneficiaries are the textile, rice and leather exporters who get preferential treatment in tax reductions and rebates on exports. So the stock market rises not because the economy is booming but because of the super-profits of the energy and export sectors based on government support and subsidy. There is no reason to suppose that government commitments to the IMF to levy new taxes to lower the deficit will be any more successful than in the past.36

The government aims to restore investor confidence. What public investment takes place is built without any serious planning, only projects guaranteeing massive profits to the few. For example, the heavily subsidised Lahore Bus Rapid Transport, a single 16-mile route with 86 buses, has cost Rs30 billion (£200 million). Meanwhile Karachi, twice the size of Lahore, remains the largest city in the world without a publicly funded transport system, dependent on 10,000 privately owned buses and 50,000 six seater motor tricycles.

The middle class reformist challenge

Notwithstanding the apparent return of stable parliamentary government, hatred of the ruling elite continues. While rising inequality is global, Pakistan’s appallingly low spending on health, education and welfare as shown in its UN Human Development Index rating, remains much weaker than its GDP per capita would indicate. Public health spending is 1.0 percent of GDP in Pakistan, 7.8 percent in Britain and 8.3 percent in the US.37 Perhaps the harshest indicators are the statistics for the condition of women: In 2012 there were approximately 500 “honour” killings and out of a total of 9 million pregnancies, 4.2 million were unintended with 54 percent resulting in induced abortions, almost all clandestine. Some 623,000 women were treated for complications arising from induced abortions.38

In May 2013 the megacities Karachi and Lahore saw a massive uprising of young people protesting against the fixing of the general election. They were led by members of the professional middle class, challenging the ballot-rigging and demanding re-elections in almost 100 of the 290 seats contested. The success of the Balochistan independence movement’s election boycott ensured that its provincial government would be a puppet of Islamabad.

Almost all the political heavyweights from prominent KPK families suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of little known, middle class candidates, mostly from the PTI. Massive spending on roads and education in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, including scores of schools, 70 colleges and eight universities, failed to win votes as most people saw government sponsored developments as corrupt failures.

Imran Khan built his support thanks to his reform programme. People in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa voted for him hoping for an end to the war and a negotiated settlement with the Pakistani Taliban. The PTI is primarily a party representing professionals: doctors, engineers, architects, lawyers, managers in larger businesses. Together with educated youth keen to become professionals, they have emerged as a challenge to all middle class parties in the urban centres across Pakistan, asserting themselves ever more independently of big capital and its various political formations. Large numbers of lawyers and educated young people have been active against the war, corruption at highest levels and the interference of the military in civilian matters. The high points of this activity were the two “long marches” of the 2007 lawyers’ movement that twice resulted in the restoration of the senior judges sacked by General Musharraf. The urban youth now active in the PTI are led by students from middle class professional colleges particularly in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, desperate to rescue Pakistan from the disasters brought about by its Western-backed ruling elite.

Small and medium capital faced ruin during the years of People’s Party rule with its load-shedding, expanding war and the falling purchasing power of the mass of the population. Professionals, earning up to Rs7.5 million (£50,000) a year have not been weakened to the same extent. Traditional parties like the Muslim League and Jamaat-e-Islami who used to represent the small business class have failed to adapt. The PTI has emerged as representative of professionals, appealing to the masses by pointing to the poverty, rising inflation, corruption and lack of healthcare and education. Expressing the growing confidence of professional layers, it has benefitted from the weakening of the traditional petty bourgeoisie and its parties because of the impact of neoliberalism. The assertion of this layer against the super-rich, those associated with international capital and the domination of the military, comes from the realisation that they and those poorer than themselves pay most of the taxes while the rich and powerful are the main beneficiaries. Hence, despite the weakness of its policies—more private investment, less state involvement and a bigger role for NGOs—the PTI programme has a strong appeal when it says it will jail the corrupt, bring their money back to Pakistan and end their privileges and manipulation of the state machinery.

Pakistan needs approximately $40 billion to pay for its imports. Exports bring in $25 billion; remittances from Pakistanis working abroad, mainly the Middle East, Europe and USA contribute $14 billion, a six-fold increase in the past 12 years. Imran Khan and the cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have appealed to Pakistani professionals living abroad, promising to give them a role in the country’s politics. This appeal to expats has provided almost 80 percent of PTI funding enabling it to spend billions on media campaigns. It is noticeable, though, that unlike the traditional parties that build local organisation, the PTI cadres find themselves mere cheerleaders as private event managers run the PTI rallies.

Western media have regularly used Imran Khan’s opposition to war and calls to negotiate peace with the Pakistani Taliban as evidence that he is right wing. In reality, the PTI is socially liberal and uses a mix of Islam and nationalism similar to that used by the People’s Party when it was founded in the late 1960s and earlier by the Muslim League itself. When it comes to negotiating with imperialism, the PTI has proved no less willing to compromise than the established parties. In late 2012, as the Muslim League’s attempt to create a movement against People’s Party rule was failing, it was the PTI that emerged as a challenger both to the Muslim League and the People’s Party. As a result, a number of Muslim League stalwarts joined the PTI. However, the floodgates did not open, largely because the PTI was too weakly organised, particularly in rural areas. In class terms, the PTI challenge to the Muslim League is a challenge by the professional layer to big and medium sized capital.

The 2013 elections in Pakistan showed the mix of revolts that have hit this so-called frontline state in the war against terror. Like any rebellion, it brought to the fore new political forces that challenge the system in apparently reformist ways. However, up till now those involved have very high expectations. In KPK, despite the wave of support for the government after the Peshawar massacre, there is a huge desire for an end to the war. In Punjab, it is the energy crisis that motivates mass opposition. In Karachi and Sindh’s other cities people want an end to the politics of the gun.

The election generated hopes that the indifference of the ruling elite would disappear and that poverty, unemployment and hunger would be addressed. The Karachi youth who came out in their thousands demanding the right to vote after the MQM had stopped them were among the 30 million on the electoral register targeted by billions of rupees of state and NGO money exhorting them to vote. Professional middle class leaders like Imran Khan promised a “tsunami” that would not only wipe out their opponents but the entire structure of state repression. Business class leaders like Nawaz Sharif roused hundreds of thousands at rallies claiming voting Muslim League would save Pakistan from those destroying it. It is the promise of such “revolutions” of the professional middle class and the business class leaders that instilled hopes of reform into millions everywhere except Balochistan. Now these parties have to put the genie back into the bottle.

The millions who voted PTI in May 2013 included many young people but also 80 percent of women voters in Karachi and other parts of urban Sindh. In Lahore hundreds of thousands of under-25s voted PTI in the hope it would wipe out the old, corrupt ruling system. However, the PTI leadership failed to take up this huge challenge. It limited the movement to social media and sit-ins under military protection rather than spreading the movement to workplaces, colleges and universities. Nor was it ready to give a strike call to demand fresh elections in the many seats its supporters consider lost due to vote-rigging. It wanted to reinstate faith in the failed Election Commission, persuading people to believe it is not the system but its mismanagement that is the problem. It was also eager to accept the results in KPK and form a government. Hence Imran Khan nominating billionaire Pervaiz Khattak as KPK chief minister.

These attempts to put a lid on the movement and impose leadership on the various assemblies that claim to represent the will of the people show a fearful ruling class. This widening gap between hopes and reality grew dramatically at the beginning of 2013 when Qadri mobilised people to march on Islamabad demanding electoral reform. The 20,000-strong Islamabad dharnas (sit-ins) that started in August 2014 led by Khan and Qadri, and with some support behind the scenes from the military, allowed a further demonstration of popular anger.

Why do such movements fail to break a system imposed from above and seen by all to be weak? The answer lies in the contending forces. In Karachi the PTI emerged as a force challenging the mafia-style rule of the MQM. Here a huge majority of the population voted against the MQM who, as usual, rigged the elections winning 18 out of 20 seats. The protests by young people, at first independently organised, were quickly taken under control by the PTI leadership wanting to pressure the Election Commission to permit some repolling. When the MQM terror struck one day before the repolling of only a part of one of the 19 disputed seats, a majority of would-be PTI voters were terrorised into staying at home. All parties opposing the MQM had demanded elections under military supervision. The state ensured that its military presence appeared as a neutral force stopping the MQM killers from attacking those voters who appeared on the repolling day. In the event, the turnout was down by three quarters. Those wishing to rid Karachi of the MQM stranglehold were reminded by the military that it is they who decide if the masses will be allowed to participate in the parliamentary process. It was the same when, in early 2014, tens of thousands, having taken part in a “long march” to the capital Islamabad, braved the cold and rain to sit-in for five days in front of the national assembly until Qadri, fearful of a police attack, retreated with a sham set of promises.

The “tsunami” mobilised by the PTI, the march and the sit-ins organised by Khan and Qadri all presented a Pakistani nationalist view based on fear of a collapse of the state, reflecting the growing chaos experienced by the professional and middle classes. They have attracted the support of a huge mass of the underprivileged by claiming they will rid the system of its corrupt rulers. They use the words “revolution” and “tsunami” but their attempt to halt the decline is an entirely reformist scheme. At its core is the desire to continue with this systematic indifference towards the working masses. When pressured by the military, Imran Khan will abandon his supporters, for example, calling off the 2013-14 blockade of NATO supplies to Afghanistan staged in protest against the US use of drones. The professional and middle classes have neither the strength nor the will really to challenge the system. They raise the hopes of the masses only to limit any movement that arises. They call for free and fair elections but only for a parliament full of billionaires and the already powerful. They challenge the mafia-style rule of the MQM but they wish only to take the place of the MQM. They call for an end to state terror in Balochistan but only in so far as such lip-service is needed to cover their Pakistani nationalism, a nationalism that has always denied any demand for freedom for the Baloch.

Since the 1970s industrialists in Sindh and Punjab have robbed Balochistan of its gas reserves. More recently this pillage has been joined by Australian and European multinationals. The new Gwadar port in Balochistan and the highways connecting it help Pakistani and Chinese capital but marginalise the local population. Such developments have changed Baloch resistance from its roots in partition and Balochistan’s subsequent occupation by the Pakistani military. What used to be fought and led by tribes and tribal leaders in the mountains is now taking place in the populated areas along the coast under middle class leadership, a vicious conflict characterised by “disappearances” and cold-blooded murders of political activists. Meanwhile the Pakistani state claims that minor interventions by Iran and Afghanistan are a threat to Baloch interests. However, it is with precisely these same “interventionists” that the Pakistani state is working on mega-projects including the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and Afghan-Pakistan hydropower projects.

“Laissez-faire” urbanisation and ethnic division

The toughest of all the “ethnic” political parties remains the MQM. However, as the IMF-led privatisations of the 1990s brought professional education and jobs back to Karachi, the MQM turned itself into a Karachi nationalist formation. It broadened its base, substituting “Muttahida” (United) for “Mohajir” in its name and championing the development of Karachi. Based among the lower middle classes, its leadership used gangster muscle power to silence its opponents, thousands of whom have been killed since the late 1980s.

Despite this, challenges to the MQM’s rule have grown as Karachi has become divided into areas held by competing mafias. Mass migrations from rural areas, especially from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, have brought major changes in the city’s political landscape. Today Karachi stands divided into three distinct parts each ruled by a mafia with its own political cover. The resulting weakening of MQM control has led big capital to call for power sharing between the MQM, the People’s Party and Pashtun nationalists. The recent elections saw the PTI emerge as the second largest party in Karachi. Had the MQM not rigged the vote, the PTI would have taken at least half Karachi’s seats.

In Karachi the huge, if often passive, support for the PTI has put MQM leaders under tremendous pressure. Its weakness is also a problem for the Pakistani state; demanding rights for mohajirs, the MQM’s core support, has allowed big business and state institutions to use divide and rule to crush resistance. However, the havoc of privatisation and deregulation has unleashed a new generation of tens of thousands of the unemployed and semi-employed that the MQM alone cannot manage. Threatened by Karachi’s instability, big business has been suggesting multi-party rule for some years. The PTI leadership sees the protests as an opportunity to show it has a serious popular base. However, it also has to show it has the power to coerce the masses it has mobilised, to suppress workers and students from organising where they work and study. This combination of consent and coercion, which the MQM has sustained for 25 years, no longer works, creating the possibility for alternatives. The military’s choice has been to give the Pashtun middle classes in Karachi proper representation. In 2015 the paramilitary Sindh Rangers carried out a massive campaign against the street power of the MQM and, to a lesser extent, the PPP. With around 500 extra-judicial killings—many “shot while trying to escape”—they have forced the remaining MQM militants underground. For the first time in decades an MQM call in September for a city shutdown, in protest at extra-judicial killings, failed.

Where now?

If reformist leaders succeed in restricting the movement to changes through parliament, its aims will remain limited to power struggles between members of the elite. Against this possibility the resistance from below constantly asserts itself. There are daily protests against water shortages and ­load-shedding. Larger-scale protest movements have successfully blocked the building of new dams. The post-election budget triggered strikes in state enterprises and government offices, winning 10 percent pay rises. The 20,000 members of the Faisalabad-based power loom workers’ union, the Labour Qaumi Movement, have achieved the distinction of being accused of bullying by local employers forced to pay wage increases. The fisherfolk organisation, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, mounted mass protests successfully challenging the theft of inland fishing rights by the paramilitary Rangers. The Young Doctors Association in Lahore struck successfully, forcing chief minister Shahbaz Sharif to negotiate with them over both their pay and conditions and the provision of free healthcare. In Gilgit-Baltistan, Shia and Sunni united in a week long mass “shutter down” and “wheel lock” strike in April 2014 to force the federal government to restore the bread subsidy. In Punjab the brick kiln workers’ movement against debt bondage has mobilised thousands against the kiln owners.

While none of these movements is national in scope, the demand for democracy that has drawn people into activity since the 2013 election means greater opposition to neoliberalism. The elite are ever more divided on the “war on terror”. They are also split on whether to promote a bigger role for international capital, so further limiting democracy and weakening trust in state institutions while requiring more military operations. The alternative is to rebuild trust in the state and check the role of global capital. As a result, the ruling elite has been forced to deliver reforms and restore the independence of the judiciary, resulting, if only temporarily, in huge numbers of ­anti-corruption cases. However, none of these movements has spread far enough to include the national question, the Baloch and the Pashtun insurgencies, nor has the working class managed to put itself at the centre of these struggles.

Large numbers of young people, especially students in Punjab and in other urban centres are now engaged in PTI politics. The PTI leadership wishes to keep all struggles confined to winning seats in elections. Time and again it has lagged behind its supporters. Despite this the prospect of new, larger protests will not disappear. An important example is the all-out strike against the privatisation of Pakistan International Airlines which saw hundreds of thousands take solidarity action across Pakistan after the military killed two PIA workers on a demonstration at Karachi airport.39 It is up to those wishing to overthrow this rotten system to organise where they work, where they study and on the streets to unite the movements of resistance against war and neoliberalism.


1 Marx, 1976, p799.

2 Ahmed, 1983.

3 Callinicos, 2009, p12.

4 Alavi, 1981, Ashman, 1997, Luxemburg, 1963, p371, Marx, 1853.

5 “From 1802 to 1814, the East India Company built 31 ships in London and 38 in India”—Prothero, 1979, p49.

6 Belokrenitsky, 1991.

7 Alavi, 2002.

8 Abbas and Foreman-Peck, 2007.

9 Ahmed and Amjad, 1984.

10 For example Papanek, 1967.

11 Zaidi, 2015, p6.

12 Shaheed, 1983.

13 Shahid-ur-Rahman, no date.

14 Weiss, 1991, pp34-35.

15 Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, p43.

16 Asdar Ali, 2005, p88.

17 Harman, 1994.

18 Harris, 1986.

19 Dawn, 2014.

20 Subohi, 2015.

21 World Food Programme, 2012.

22 Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 2013, figures for manufacturing as a whole.

23 Jamal, 2014.

24 Hasan and Raza, 2015.

25 Dawn, 2015.

26 Alavi, 1983.

27 Jinnah, 1940.

28 For one example of the elite’s hypocrisy, see Armytage, 2015: “Blurred lines: Business and Partying among Pakistan’s Elite”.

29 Fell McDermott and others, 2014.

30 North West Frontier Province till 2010.

31 See Brown, 2015.

32 Go to http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.XPD.TOTL.GD.ZS

33 Guardian Global Development Data, 2011.

34 Yousafzai, 2009.

35 Dawn, 2013.

36 Iqbal and Kiani, 2015.

37 World bank figures: data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.XPD.PUBL.ZS

38 World Economic Forum, 2014; Junaidi, 2015.

39 Ahmed, 2016.


Abbas, Qaisar, and James Foreman-Peck, 2007, “Human Capital and Economic Growth: Pakistan, 1960-2003”, Cardiff Economics Working Papers, E2007/22.

Ahmed, Feroz, 1983, “The New Dependence”, in Hassan Gardezi and Jamil Rashid (eds), Pakistan: The Roots of Dictatorship (Zed).

Ahmed, Riaz, 2016, “Striking PIA Airline Workers Defy Guns and Killings in Pakistan”, Socialist Worker (5 February), https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/42119/Striking+PIA+airline+workers+defy+guns+and+killings+in+Pakistan

Ahmed, Viqar, and Rashid Amjad, 1984, The Management of Pakistan’s Economy, 1947-82 (Oxford University Press).

Alavi, Hamza, 1981, “Structure of Colonial Formations”, Economic and Political Weekly, volume 16, number 10/12 (March).

Alavi, Hamza, 1983, “Class and State”, in Hassan Gardezi and Jamil Rashid (eds), Pakistan: The Roots of Dictatorship (Zed).

Alavi, Hamza, 2002, “Forces and Ideology in the Making of Pakistan”, Economic and Political Weekly, volume 37, number 51 (December).

Alexander, Anne, and Mostafa Bassiouny, 2014, Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution (Zed).

Armytage, Rosita, 2015, “Blurred Lines: Business and Partying among Pakistan’s Elite”, Tanqeed (February), www.tanqeed.org/2015/02/blurred-lines-business-and-partying-among-pakistans-elite

Asdar Ali, Kamran, 2005, “The Strength of the Street Meets the Strength of the State: The 1972 Labour Struggle in Karachi”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, volume 37, issue 1.

Ashman, Sam, 1997, “India: Imperialism, Partition and Resistance”, International Socialism 77 (winter), www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1997/isj2-077/ashman.htm

Belokrenitsky, Vyacheslav, 1991, Capitalism in Pakistan: A History of Socioeconomic Development (Patriot Publishers).

Brown, Geoff, 2015, “Meeting Defies State to Expose Horror of ‘Disappearances’ in Balochistan”, Socialist Worker (12 May), https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/40499/Meeting+defies+state+to+expose+horror+of+%E2%80%98disappearances%E2%80%99+in+Balochistan

Callinicos, Alex, 2009, Imperialism and Global Political Economy (Polity).

Dawn, 2013, “12-year War on Terror Cost $100bn, says Dar” (13 December), www.dawn.com/news/1072098

Dawn, 2014, “Direct vs Indirect Tax” (8 January), www.dawn.com/news/1079045

Dawn, 2015, “Exports to EU Increased by $1bn under GSP-plus Status: Minister” (9 February), www.dawn.com/news/1162476

Fell McDermott, Rachel, Leonard A Gordon, Ainslie T Embree, Frances W Pritchett, and Dennis Dalton, 2014, Sources of Indian Traditions, volume 2, Modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (Columbia University Press).

Guardian Global Development Data, 2011, “Sixty Years of US Aid to Pakistan: Get the Data” Guardian (11 July), www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jul/11/us-aid-to-pakistan

Harman, Chris, 1994, “The Prophet and the Proletariat”, International Socialism 64 (autumn), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1994/xx/islam.htm

Harris, Nigel, 1986, The End of the Third World (Penguin).

Hasan, Arif, and Mansoor Raza, 2015, “Impact of Regional Conflict on Power Loom Units in Karachi”, in Status of Labour Rights in Pakistan 2014 (Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research), www.piler.org.pk/index.php/publications

Iqbal, Anwar, and Khaleeq Kiani, 2015, “Rs40bn Additional Tax Measures Soon to Meet Fiscal Deficit: IMF”, Dawn (7 November), www.dawn.com/news/1218083

Jamal, Nasir, 2014, “Stimulus for Investment”, Dawn (9 June), www.dawn.com/news/1111440/

Jinnah, Muhammad Ali, 1940, “Presidential address to the Muslim League, Lahore” (22 March), https://sites.google.com/site/cabinetmissionplan/speeches-and-statements-by-jinnah-1938—1940

Junaidi, Ikram, 2015, “Annual Abortion Rate in Pakistan Doubled in 10 Years”, Dawn (29 January), www.dawn.com/news/1160125

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1963 [1913], The Accumulation of Capital (Routledge).

Marx, Karl, 1853, “The East India Company: Its History and Results”, New York Daily Tribune (11 July), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1853/07/11.htm

Marx, Karl, 1976, Capital, Volume 1 (Penguin), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch25.htm

Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 2013, “Labour Force Survey 2012-13” (November), www.pbs.gov.pk/content/labour-force-survey-2012-13-annual-report

Papanek, Gustav, 1967, Pakistan’s Development: Social Goals and Private Incentives (Harvard

The Resolute Subject: Daniel Bensaïd, Voluntarism and Strategy-Doug Enaa Greene

Posted by admin On April - 18 - 2016 Comments Off on The Resolute Subject: Daniel Bensaïd, Voluntarism and Strategy-Doug Enaa Greene


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, it has been fashionable to say that the time for communist politics has passed. One commentator went so far as to claim that “history had ended,” which meant capitalism was the only game in town. For many leftists, politics shifted from Marxist theory, revolutionary strategy and fighting to win, to begging the ruling class for “realistic” reforms. Yet there remained a stubborn few who refused to accept that capitalism was the sole vision on the horizon, but maintained a stubborn fidelity to Marxism and revolution. One of these was the French Trotskyist, Daniel Bensaïd (1946-2010), a key figure of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, a leading participant in the May 1968 general strike and a militant Marxist intellectual. Bensaïd practiced a critical and creative Marxism throughout his life that fruitfully engaged with other radical political thinkers, such as Blanqui and Benjamin, and he refused to believe that the last word on our future had been said. Rather, he argued that resistance to capitalism was not only possible, but he gave serious thought about what it would take to win. Daniel Bensaïd remains a powerful voice to argue for strategic thinking and developing a “resolute subject” that could overcome the crushing weight of the “objective situation.”

Daniel Bensaïd’s political activism extended back to the early 1960s with his involvement in the youth wing of the French Communist Party (PCF). However, Bensaïd, like so many of his generation was repulsed by the Party’s dogmatism, conservatism and lack of revolutionary initiative during the Algerian War of 1954-1962. Bensaïd was attracted to the revolutionary ideas of Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky, and joined the growing opposition to the Vietnam War. Bensaïd and other dissidents were expelled from the PCF in 1966. During the events of May 1968, when ten million workers and students launched a general strike that brought French capitalism to the brink of ruin, Daniel Bensaïd was one of the most prominent leaders in the Mouvement du 22 Mars. The PCF had done everything to hold back the May Movement, so Bensaïd and his comrades began forming a new organization, which they believed could provide the necessary political leadership for a future revolution. This organization, the Jeunesses communistes révolutionnaires (JCR), was banned by the French government after the May strike, was later reformed into the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR), and by the mid-1970s was one of the largest “gauchist” groups with 5,000 members.

For Daniel Bensaïd, the days of 1968 and after were a time of “hasty Leninism” when it was

the duty of each person was to contribute his or her little strength, as best they could, to settle this alternative between socialism and barbarism. It was in part up to them, therefore, whether the human species sank into a twilight future or blossomed into a society of abundance. This vision of history charged our frail shoulders with a crushing responsibility. In the face of this implacable logic, impoverished emotional life or professional ambition did not weigh very heavy. Each became personally responsible for the fate of humanity.[1]

It was easy for Bensaïd and his comrades to believe that revolution was coming, as struggles from Vietnam to Latin America to Europe demonstrated with their worker strikes, armed guerrillas, and students hungry for radical ideas. However, the hopes of those revolutionary years were not crowned with victory, but instead met with defeat, catastrophe, and (for some) disillusionment as neo-liberalism reigned triumphant across the world. Yet Bensaïd stayed true to his ideals – he maintained a perspective for strategic thinking over the long haul, the need to be resolute and to seize upon unexpected revolutionary openings. In short, Bensaïd was a dialectical voluntarist, who had not only sustained his fidelity to revolution, but thought seriously and sincerely about how to win. Bensaïd’s revolutionary world view that could be found throughout his work, and not very popular when history was supposed to have “ended,” but he was determined to “brush against the grain of history.”

I. The Collective Will

Dialectical voluntarism was what the radical philosopher Peter Hallward calls “the will of the people” which is a “deliberate, emancipatory and inclusive process of collective self-determination. Like any kind of will, its exercise is voluntary and autonomous, a matter of practical freedom; like any form of collective action, it involves assembly and organisation.”[2] For Bensaïd, the subject needed to carry out collective revolutionary action was the working class.

Yet Bensaïd’s view of the working class was not the crude class reductionist workerism of the PCF who saw exploitation existing only at the point of production. For Bensaïd, this view of the class struggle was a crippled and deformed Marxism that had left the PCF’s Marxism with a stale theory which produced a reformist practice that did not challenge the system. Rather, he argued that Marxism was not a

reductive, normative or classificatory definition of classes, but a dynamic conception of their structural antagonism, at the level of production, circulation and reproduction of capital: classes are never defined only at the level of the production process (the face off between workers and employers in the enterprise), but determined by the reproduction of the whole when the struggle for wages, the division of labour, relations with the state apparatuses and the world market enter into play.[3]

This was a dynamic view of how the working class was shaped and reshaped by social contradictions and the continued development of capitalism. And if there were retreats as well as advances, then the vulgar Marxist idea that the continued march of capitalism which brings forth an ever more united and concentrated working class needed to be dismissed. Rather, the deep divisions of the proletariat would not be overcome on their own, but according to Bensaïd “the unity of the exploited classes is not a natural given, but something that is fought for and built.”[4] And to do this required the conscious creation of a collective political will.

The intervention by a political will, according to Bensaïd, was needed because capitalism would not disappear on its own. Without being stopped, capitalism was liable to destroy the planet, either through war or ecocide. This meant that history’s outcome remained undecided. In his view, Marxism must banish “a determinist or teleological philosophy of history”.[5] This left Bensaïd skeptical of the whole idea of progress. And while Bensaïd acknowledged the rapid advances of industry and science, he linked this with environmental crises which threatened the very survival of the planet.

Bensaïd upheld the Jewish Marxist intellectual Walter Benjamin’s dialectical view of progress that was outlined in his 1940 Theses on the Philosophy of History. According to Benjamin, progress was a storm threatening the future. The so-called progress and enlightenment of modern society was built upon immense suffering and exploitation that occurred throughout history. “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another.”[6] And one look at Bensaïd’s home country of France makes this clear. Modern France grew wealthy from the sugarcane of Haiti through brutal enslavement. The glorious slogan of the 1789 Revolution “liberte, equalite, fraternity” was championed by the French colonialists and soldiers who ravaged Algeria for a hundred years. Benjamin argued that it was not the task of a Marxist to perpetuate this “storm of progress”, but to finally break the cycle.

Closely connected to Bensaïd’s rejection of progress and determinism was his defense (along with Benjamin) of Louis-Auguste Blanqui’s voluntarism. Blanqui (1805-1881) was the consummate professional revolutionary and man of action. He was one of the loudest and uncompromising voices in nineteenth century France calling for class war and the violent overthrow of capitalism. And he meant it. From 1830 to 1870, he organized innumerable secret societies and participated in at least five revolutions to bring about the advent of communism. The only method of action open to Blanqui was an elite and tight-knit conspiracy which would strike capital at the appointed time to bring about communism. Each time he failed. And he paid the price by spending more than three decades in prison. His eagerness to rush into revolutionary battle caused him to act before the time was right.[7] While Bensaïd was aware of the great weaknesses of Blanqui’s voluntarism, he highlighted one of his key strengths: “it nevertheless saved him from the straitjacket [marais gluant] of scientific’ determinism.”[8]

Blanqui, like Benjamin and Bensaïd, remains skeptical of philosophies built upon progress and determinism, highlighting their cost: “History is sketched out with broad strokes in the most beautiful cold blood and with piles of corpses and ruins. No butchery can raise an eyebrow on these emotionless faces. The massacre of a people, evolution of humanity. The invasion of the barbarians? Infusion of young and new blood in the old veins of the Roman Empire. … As for the populations and the cities that the cataclysm flattened on its path … necessity … inevitable march of progress.”[9] Yet if socialism is not guaranteed by the onward march of historical progress, what justifies it? Drawing on Blanqui’s insights, Bensaïd argues that capitalism needs be opposed because it is unjust and exploitative. And that the “ethical dimension of socialism as a struggle against injustice is also crucial in Blanqui’s eyes.”[10] For Blanqui, according to Benjamin was not motivated by progress, but with “a determination to do away with present injustice. The firm resolve to snatch humanity at the last moment from the catastrophe looming at every turn…”[11] Thus, if the danger of societal destruction was to be overcome, it was up to revolutionaries to force a decision by creating a collective will to overthrow the old order and halting the march of “progress.”

II. Crisis

How was this rupture with “progress” going to be achieved? For Bensaïd, the answer revealed itself with the emergence of a revolution crisis. Bensaïd’s view of a revolutionary crisis came from Lenin, who said:

(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes”, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time”, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.[12]

However, a revolutionary crisis did not automatically happen when the economy flounders during the business cycle. A revolution crisis, Bensaïd argues, is profoundly political, “it involves a crisis of the power structure with a political dimension from the start.”[13] Major revolutionary crises have occurred throughout history: the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, Cuba, and so many others. It is in these moments that the seemingly impenetrable power and legitimacy of the ruling class and their state apparatus is weakened and can be toppled. It is during a crisis that all the cracks, fault-lines and gaps of society become fully-revealed with all their ugliness: “it acts to lay bare the battle lines, which have been obscured by the mystical phantasmagoria of the commodity.”[14] And Bensaïd argues that for masses of workers and oppressed, who are suddenly awakened to political life “the relationship of forces can be radically altered, creating the possibility of changing the world or at least changing society.”[15] In other words: the “impossible” of a revolution has has abruptly become possible during a crisis.

A crisis gives rise to “an exceptional moment” which is perhaps a few hours, a day, a week, six months, or maybe longer, when there is an opening for radically different outcomes: either socialism or more murderous capitalism. As we have seen, Bensaïd does not argue that there is a preordained outcome where revolutionaries are guaranteed to win: “The crisis can be resolved only by defeat, at the hands of a reaction which will often be murderous, or by the intervention of a resolute subject.”[16] The instrument needed for the “resolute subject” to succeed is a vanguard communist party.

III. Art of Strategy

For a left that has washed its hands of “Leninist authoritarianism,” Bensaïd’s advocacy of a revolutionary party may appear quaint at best or a relapse into “totalitarian excesses” at worst. Rather, in the minds of the “good leftists” such as John Holloway (whom Bensaïd sharply criticized), we should change the world “without taking power,” perhaps by growing our own garden or changing our lifestyle or what not. Or if we are a little more bold, maybe letting the powers that be know our “moral outrage.” Then after fighting the good fight, we can go home and pat ourselves on the back without having changed anything in the process. While Bensaïd had a soft spot for libertarian left currents, he understood that anarchism, syndicalism, and any politics that denied a party is bound to lose. If you want to win, you have to develop the means to win. And ultimately without developing a party, according to Bensaïd, we don’t even possess politics:

A politics without parties (whatever name – movement, organisation, league, party – that they are given) ends up in most cases with a politics without politics: either an aimless tailism towards the spontaneity of social movements, or the worst form of elitist individualist vanguardism, or finally a repression of the political in favour of the aesthetic or the ethical.[17]

And at the center of the Bensaïd’s strategy to win was the need for a communist party. For him, the way to break the grip of the fetishism of commodities was via crisis and the struggle between parties. As he put it, “this is indeed the Leninist answer to the unsolved puzzle of Marx.”[18] The party’s goal is the conquest of power and the establishment of revolutionary rule with a republic of councils (on the model of the Paris Commune). This meant that revolutionaries could not ignore state power because

it will not ignore you. You can act superior by refusing to take it, but from Catalonia 1937 to Chiapas, via Chile, experience shows right up to this very day that it will not hesitate to take you in the most brutal fashion. In a word, a strategy of counter-power only has any meaning in the perspective of dual power and its resolution. Who will come out on top?[19]

The type of party envisioned by Bensaïd is not the caricature of the paper sellers found at every protest or those locked in arcane debates that resemble medieval theologians discussing with great fervor how many “angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Rather, this one begins with a belief that victory is actually possible. For if one accepts in advance, that the enemy cannot be defeated, then you can never win. Without this perspective, Bensaïd says, we risk backsliding towards reformism and giving up our revolutionary vision:

In the best of cases, this something else will be a resistance organization useful for day-today problems. More likely though, renouncing the final goal will lead either to pseudo-realistic adaptations in the day-to-day struggle itself or to an organization focused on the distant future, posing as the best fighter against potential bureaucratic degenerations for lack of anything to propose for the present.[20]

Thus without our eyes on the revolutionary horizon and working patiently towards it, communists risk either giving up on the goal and sinking into “practical” politics, which is the old social democratic reformist error, or to remain so fixated on the communist end, that we remain a sect aloof from the suffering and struggles that the masses endure. This gap needs to be bridged by developing a Leninist politics.

Some may argue that a Leninist politics with its discipline and organization is foreign to dialectical voluntarism. Yet Peter Hallward argues to the contrary that “it’s one thing to dream that another world is possible; it’s quite another to organize a practical political project, one that has a chance of of winning the battles that confront it. That’s the whole issue – how to get to that point.”[21] Since the forces arrayed against us are powerful and united, while those the working masses are often disunited and disorganized, this needs to be overcome by creating a collective will in the shape of a communist party. An instrument is needed to bring the masses together in the shape of a fist. Hallward goes on:

Anyone involved in a popular struggle knows that if we are to continue to fight, and to fight to win, then we need to maintain solidarity and unity, to resist fragmentation and dispersal, to invent forms of discipline and organisation, and to encourage means of leadership that are both responsive and decisive. A popular mobilisation prevails when its sense of purpose is strong and its principles are clear, and when it is prepared to take the steps needed to apply them.[22]

So if we are serious about building the capacity of a communist party that can win: what do we have to do? For one, majority support is necessary from all the oppressed and exploited classes throughout society. As we saw, Bensaïd believes that the working class needs to be at the center of the revolutionary project, but the struggle cannot be reduced to just those between capital and labor. Rather, Bensaïd took up Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and the united front and argues that workers need to have its own vision and need to “demonstrate that another society is possible, with the proletariat itself as the driving force behind that endeavour. This must be demonstrated to some degree before the seizure of power lest this be a leap into the unknown, a half-hearted running jump, a smash-and-grab or a putsch. So the notion of transitional demands and that of the united front are tools for winning over a majority.”[23] And this implies the necessity of a party that is deeply immersion in the popular struggles, but also looking beyond them as well towards a more distant goal.

Considering that Bensaïd views of society and social classes are far more complex than that of vulgar Marxism, this perspective is reflected in how he envisions a party needs to operate internally. For one, a party needs to be democratic and pluralist, so it can not only combat the past abuses of socialist and communist movements, but in order to dialectically learn and teach its own cadre:

Pluralism within the organization means that we do not hold any definitive truths and that there is a constant exchange between the party that we wish to build and the experiences of the mass movement. Since these experiences are quite diverse, this diversity may be reflected from time to time as currents within our own ranks.[24]

This practice is reflected in the interaction of the party with the mass movements where it is immersed. A dialectic of learning and teaching occurs, whereby the party is able to record and synthesize the experiences of the masses in order to better participate in the revolutionary struggle.

And more importantly, a party that is not only flexible, democratic, but also centralized so it can correct a mistaken course in time, to ensure that it will enter a revolutionary situation with a correct line: “With a party built on solid foundations it is possible to correct tactical errors, and even more fundamentally wrong orientations. The party is the mediation between theory and practice.”[25] Indeed without that ability, true strategy can not be developed. as the Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke once said, “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”[26] That means you can plan to the best of your abilities beforehand, but reality will likely take you by surprise. And if a revolutionary organization is unable to shift its strategy in time, then it will wind up shipwrecked on the shores of history.

The example of Lenin is instructive here. Before 1917, Lenin believed that the Russian Revolution would undergo a prolonged bourgeois period as outlined in his 1905 work, The Two Tactics on Social Democracy. However, reality intervened in 1917 with the downfall of the Tsar placed a socialist revolution on the agenda. Lenin recognized this and threw out his old plans, writing the April Theses that the revolution needed to transfer all power to the Soviets (workers’ councils). Initially most of the Bolshevik Party were bound to old formulas and schemas, Lenin was able to convince them to recognize the new possibilities and openings created in 1917 and to change course. Since the Bolsheviks already were an open democratic party who were used to careful planning, they were able to change course as new possibilities emerged, enabling them to lead the revolution to victory. Bensaïd would no doubt agree with Zizek, who said we need to repeat Lenin’s act once again in our time: ““Lenin” stands for the compelling FREEDOM to suspend the stale existing (post)ideological coordinates…it simply means that we are allowed to think again.” [27] Bensaïd does not fall into the trap of envisioning a party that refuses leadership of the struggle for fear of “vanguardism” (as some autonomists are prone to do). Rather, he says a party needs to build up a majority movement by becoming a pole that is able to attract disparate classes, political forces and movements. A pole “should be able at once to promote unity in a powerful way, and fertilize this unity with revolutionary content….The key will be the questions and forces which arise from experiences and struggles; these will bring out the potential elements for a new revolutionary party.”[28] Historically, in every revolutionary movement there is a pole of attraction for separate movements moving towards the same goal. In Cuba, the July 26th Movement of Fidel Castro did not operate alone, but was part of a large constellation of student, worker, and other political groups. Yet it was the July 26th Movement who served as a pole by attracting and uniting these other movements by providing ideological and political leadership.

The ultimate goal orienting the myriad struggles and strategies of a communist party is the seizure of power. Bensaïd views the class struggle not as a linear process, but one that possesses its own ruptures, breaks, and speeds, which he captures in this poignant passage:

Revolutions have their own tempo, marked by accelerations and slowing down. They also have their own geometry, where the straight line is broken in bifurcation and sudden turns. The party thus appears in a new light.….It becomes a strategic operator, a sort of gearbox and pointsman of the class struggle. As Walter Benjamin very clearly recognised, the strategic time of politics is not the homogeneous and empty time of classical mechanics, but a broken time, full of knots and wombs pregnant with events.[29]

When a revolution erupts, it suspends the old way of doing things, making new openings possible and a Party needs to be ready for these sudden turns.

While Mao was not someone Bensaïd agreed with politically, an example from his career proves this point. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, the Communist Party formed an alliance with the Nationalists, whom they had been at war with for more than ten years. Yet this sharp turn was done with the Communists maintaining both their political independence from the Nationalists and keeping a hold of their weapons. As the war dragged on, the Nationalists proved both unwilling and unable to fight the Japanese for fear of the Communists gaining the advantage. Mao’s forces were thus able to prove, in practice, that they were not only committed to fighting the Japanese, but the age old abuses and oppression which afflicted China. When World War II ended in 1945, the Communist Party had gained immense prestige and popularity based on both their program and their struggles against the invader, while the Nationalists were isolated and discredited. A mere four years later the Communist Party managed to take power by toppling the Nationalist regime.

A communist party must be able to face the sharp turns, breaks in order to seize the opportunities which present themselves, for they can appear in unexpected corners. And due to the nature of history and struggle, which was composed of breaks and zig-zags, a Party needs to be “a strategizing party – a party that organizes struggles based on suggested goals, that can also organize and limit defeats by preparing a retreat when necessary.”[30] There are examples from Bensaïd’s experience of Trotskyist and revolutionary organizations who did not learn this lesson and were either unable to develop a viable politics or limit defeats, such as the Argentine PRT or the Chilean MIR.[31] In the end, both these parties met with utter disaster and defeat. By contrast, the Bolsheviks under Lenin managed to prevent a premature attempt at power in July 1917, realizing that the time was unripe. And because the Bolsheviks learned those lessons, they were able to navigate the rocky waters of 1917 and strike when the time did prove ripe.

Throughout this essay, we have used many historical examples to make Bensaïd’s points. While he believed that each situation was unique and that the past shouldn’t be mechanically repeated, Bensaïd never denied the importance of history for strategy and the party:

You can throw history out the door, but it will kick over the traces and come back in through the window…But the historical dialectic of old and new is subtler than any binary or Manichean opposition between old and new, including in the methodological sense. Yes, let the new flourish; do not give in to routine and habit; stay open to surprise and astonishment. This is all useful advice. But how, by what standard, can we evaluate the new if we lose all memory of the old? [32]
When we formulate our strategies and plans for action today, we need to learn from what worked and what went wrong and to study closely the lessons of the past. If communists ultimately reject one strategy or plan of action, we still need to know exactly what it is we are rejecting and why. And Bensaïd’s embrace of dialectical voluntarism and strategy is based as much upon his reading of history as upon his openness to the possibilities of the future.

IV. Badiou

Bensaïd’s insistence on the importance of history to the revolutionary project is at the heart of his polemic with the French communist philosopher Alain Badiou. Badiou, a former Maoist militant upholds a politics of fidelity to the Event in opposition to the reigning tyranny of opinion that there are no emancipatory Truths. According to Bensaïd, “a truth is sparked by an event and spreads like a flame fanned by the breath of a subjective effort that remains forever incomplete. For truth is not a matter of theory but is a ‘practical question’ first and foremost: it is something that occurs, a point of excess, an evental exception, ‘a process from which something new emerges…”[33] An example of a political Truth is the October Revolution, the Storming of the Bastille, or the slave revolt of Spartacus that produce their own faith subjects: Communist party militants, sans culottes, or the liberated slave proclaiming the universal Truth of equality.

Badiou, according to Bensaïd, believes that the emergence of a Truth is something that happens from the void and is beyond history. “What exactly is an event? Aleatory by nature, the event cannot be predicted outside a singular situation, nor even deduced from that situation without some unpredictable chance operation.”[34] So how do communists take advantage of an event? How do we develop strategy? How can we recognize the conditions and history that lead to an event? Bensaïd says that,

Badiou remains silent on this score. By refusing to venture into the dense thickets of real history, into the social and historical determination of events, Badiou’s notion of the political tips over into a wholly imaginary dimension: this is politics made tantamount to an act of levitation, reduced to a series of unconditioned events and ‘sequences’ whose exhaustion or end remain forever mysterious.[35]

Bensaïd argues that Badiou’s subject remain outside of history (following the worst of Althusser), but rather a revolutionary subject is no longer the working class struggling to proclaim its own politics and this amounts to an “autonomous politics of the oppressed….[and] this divorce between event and history (between the event and its historically determined conditions) tends to render politics if not unthinkable then at least impracticable.”[36] This means that Badiou’s politics is just a grand refusal, a ‘Platonic Gesture” of pure ‘free decision’ that ignores the necessity of a party capable of intervening and producing a collective will. Fidelity, in Badiou’s sense, is the refusal to surrender or to submit, but is unable to think on strategy or how to develop organizations.

Bensaïd traces the problems of Badiou’s understanding Marx and history to his inability to come to terms with the legacy of Stalin and Mao. Bensaïd reproaches Badiou for being unable to envision a communist or Marxist politics outside of a Maoist milieu. In fact, Badiou says that the old Marxist-Leninist party is now exhausted and believes revolutionary politics in the future will be “post-party.” While it could justly be argued that the alternative of Trotskyism that Bensaïd implies is not much more viable, but that aside, what does Badiou offer as an alternative? The political practice of Badiou’s own L’Organization Politique (OP) is done at a distance from the state, intervening in a few local struggles, but without a political program and divorcing politics from economics (but in practice accepting some reliance upon the state). According to Hallward, the political practice of the OP and Badiou is not an practical revolutionary alternative, but a “stoical affirmation of a worthy ideal or subjective principle, but as divorced from any substantial relation to the material organization of the situation.”[37]

By Bensaïd’s standard, this shows the weaknesses of translating Badiou’s ideas into political action. This is not the end of his polemic with Badiou, seemingly defeated at the hands of Bensaïd. Recently, Badiou has affirmed the need for a political organization which curiously resembles that of a communist party (without using that name), in his The Rebirth of History:

A politics regards as eternal what the riot has unearthed in the form of the existence of an inexistent, and which is the sole content of a rebirth of History. To do this , it is necessary that in the light of the Idea, which abstractly unites militants , the organization retains traces within itself of what made for the creative power of the historical riot: contraction, intensification and localisation.

Classically, contraction (whereby a small minority is the genuine existence of the whole of the riot) is guarded by strict rules of membership of the organization. A formal demarcation is created between those who are of it and those who are not, which is as powerful as the demarcation during a riot between those who are there and those who stay at home. Intensification is preserved by militant activism, a life devoted to the demands of action, a subjectivity that is keener and more sensitive to circumstances than one which has reverted to routine existence . Localization will be guarded by firm rules of conquest of the sites where one is present (a particular popular market, an African workers ‘ hostel , a factory, a tower block on some housing estate, and so on) . This set constitutes the militant dimension of a particular type of organization, which was called ‘ communist party ‘ for some decades in the twentieth century, but which must doubtless seek a different name today.[38]

It remains to be seen how Badiou’s recent, and cautious, advocacy of political advocacy will impact his overall political and philosophical project. Is he breaking with the limitations of the organizational form of OP and the “post-party” and returning (or repeating?) a Leninist gesture that Bensaïd would wink at in approval? Maybe. Maybe not. But it would appear that Bensaïd’s assessment of Badiou’s philosophy – as rendering revolutionary politics impossible – is not be the last word.

V. Conclusion

Daniel Bensaïd’s thought and practice was directed toward thinking through how to maintain a revolutionary fidelity, the necessity of organization, strategy, and the importance of history. Yet he always insisted, following Benjamin and Blanqui, that history remained radically open with no guarantee of victory. So in that sense, Bensaïd should not be seen as a new messiah who offers us the “correct path” to inevitable triumph. That would be a betrayal of what he stood for. Rather, Bensaïd remained committed to the revolutionary cause while others fell away and he was still envisioning how to do the “impossible” when others had surrendered to being “realistic.” The questions he asked of revolutionaries remain with us. All that more than anything justifies the importance of Daniel Bensaïd and we ignore him at our peril.


[1] Daniel Bensaïd, An Impatient Life: A Memoir (New York: Verso, 2013), 109.

[2] Peter Hallward, “The Will of the People,” Radical Philosophy 155 (May/June 2009): 17.

[3] Daniel Bensaïd, “Theses of Resistance,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/Bensaïd/2004/12/resist.htm

[4] Daniel Bensaïd, “Marxisms, theory, yesterday and today,” International Viewpoint. http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1929

[5] Daniel Bensaïd, “Stalinism and Bolshevism,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/Bensaïd/2005/12/stal-bolsh.htm

[6] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm

[7] For more on Blanqui, see my forthcoming book, Specters of Communism; “The will to act: The life and thought of Louis-Auguste Blanqui,” LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal. http://links.org.au/node/4115 ; “Despite It All: Blanqui’s Eternity By the Stars,” Counterpunch. http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/12/13/blanquis-eternity-by-the-stars/ (Most of this paragraph is a direct quote from the article)

[8] Daniel Bensaïd and Michael Lowy, “Auguste Blanqui, heretical communist,” Radical Philosophy 185 (May/Jun 2014): 27.

[9] Quoted in ibid. 27.

[10] Ibid. 30.

[11] Quoted in Michael Lowy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’ (New York: Verso, 2005), 84.

[12] V. I. Lenin, “Collapse of the Second International,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/csi/ii.htm

[13] Daniel Bensaïd, “Revolutionary Strategy Today,” International Institute for Research and Education 4 (1987): 9. fileserver.iire.org/nsr/NSR4.pdf

[14] Daniel Bensaïd, ““Leaps, Leaps, Leaps”: Lenin and Politics,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/Bensaïd/2002/07/leaps.htm

[15] Daniel Bensaïd, “Strategy and Party,” International Viewpoint. http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2198

[16]““Leaps, Leaps, Leaps”: Lenin and Politics” (note 14).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bensaïd 1987, 4.

[21] Peter Hallward, “What Is Political Will? Peter Hallward Interviewed by Samuel Grove,” MRZine. http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2013/hallward231213.html

[22] Peter Hallward, “From Prescription to Volition,” Politics and Culture. http://politicsandculture.org/2014/09/01/from-prescription-to-volition-by-peter-hallward/

[23] “Strategy and Party” (note 14).

[24] Ibid.

[25] Bensaïd 1987, 26.

[26] Helmuth Graf von Moltke, Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, ed. Daniel J. Hughes (Novato: Presido Press, 1995), 45.

[27] Slavoj Zizek, “Repeating Lenin,” The European Graduate School. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/repeating-lenin/

[28] Bensaïd 1987, 25.

[29] ““Leaps, Leaps, Leaps”: Lenin and Politics” (note 14).

[30] “Strategy and Party” (note 14).

[31] For Bensaïd on the RPT and MIR see 1987, 14-16 and my “Chile’s Movement of the Revolutionary Left,” Kasama Project. http://www.kasamaproject.org/threads/entry/chile-s-movement-of-the-revolutionary-left

[32] Daniel Bensaïd, “On a Recent Book by John Holloway,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/Bensaïd/2005/xx/holloway.htm

[33] Daniel Bensaïd, “Alain Badiou and the Miracle of the Event,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/Bensaïd/2004/xx/badiou.htm

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] See Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 242. For more on Badiou and the political practice of OP see ibid. 223-242

[38] Alain Badiou, Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings (New York: Verso, 2012), 64-5.

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