December , 2019

People Aur Politics

A liberation zone for democratic rights, multiculturalism, international brotherhood and peace.


The merger of three leftist parties into the Mazdoor Kissan Party is discussed in the context of a brief history of Pakistan’s left since independence. The contemporary political challenges and the debates about organising left politics in such a context are flagged.

The Pakistan Mazdoor Kissan Party, Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (CMKP), and People’s National Congress merged into one organisation on 20 December 2015, the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP). The merger was announced amidst red flags at a peasant convention in the stronghold of the party in Hashtnagar, Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Pakistan.

Long spells of military dictatorships, backed by imperialism, have spawned religious extremist movements and provided little opportunity for communist forces in Pakistan to operate openly in a democratic set-up. The internal divisions within Marxist organisations have also contributed to a state of demoralisation and paralysis within the progressive community. The number of leftist organisations and the manner in which they have combined and split from each other, more often than not, leaves people outside of Pakistan flabbergasted. It is difficult to follow just how many organisations are created, split and then re-merged. Perhaps most readers are not very interested in this history. Most people are more interested in what the left can actually accomplish.

However, since many readers of EPW are supportive of a left wing politics and interested in the outcome of the progressive movement, I would like to take this opportunity to provide a summary of the splits and mergers within the Pakistani left in the recent past.

Communist Party of Pakistan

Once the Communist Party of Pakistan was outlawed in 1954 after the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, and subsequently Hassan Nasir was incarcerated and tortured to death, the left in Pakistan was forced to operate under the umbrella of other organisations. This tactic of operating through other organisations has become such an endemic part of the very psychology of the Pakistani left that even when objective conditions have changed, the left prefers to operate in much the same way.

In other words, there has always been a tension within the Pakistani left of operating secretly, or operating openly with a watered-down message that is less likely to invite state or right-wing repression. While the former path has led to the formation of tightly organised circles, it has also tended towards sectarianism and becoming disconnected from mass movements. Similarly, the latter path has often led to the complete liquidation of the original revolutionary ideas and programme, not only into social democracy, but even more problematically into the purely bourgeois politics that is scarcely any different from the politics of the ruling classes with the only exception that the individuals may have had a revolutionary past. This can be seen as a constant theme throughout the history of the Pakistani left, irrespective of the group or organisation one examines.

To begin with, after being banned, the Communist Party of Pakistan joined the National Awami Party. Similarly, a section of a new generation of leftists that was radicalised in the 1960s joined the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and a section of the left was associated with the Awami League in East Pakistan. Almost all the largest political parties in Pakistan subscribed to socialism in the 1970s. This is a testament to the strength of the left intelligentsia of Pakistan, which despite illegality, their critique of class society managed to dominate the narrative of Pakistani politics. It was precisely to break this consensus founded on progressive premises that 11 years of a brutal military dictatorship was necessary. It was not as a result of some fair and equal public debate that Pakistani society gravitated towards religious extremism and authoritarian politics. Rather, it was purely a consequence of a state-manufactured coercive process.

Hence, while in the 1970s when the three major political parties of Pakistan were dominated by a socialist discourse, there was sadly never a time when Pakistan’s socialists were able to create an independent mass-based political party that could rival the political organisations of propertied classes (illusions about the National Awami Party (NAP), PPP, or Awami League (AL) notwithstanding). And perhaps the major reason why this never became the case is because the left at first was forced into a position where it had to seek refuge within a larger left-of-centre party. And second, because that became, with time, more or less the accepted method of left praxis in Pakistan.

Across the world, the 1960s saw both the enormous extension of leftist ideas, especially amongst the youth, as well as the formation of many new left organisations and the Sino–Soviet split within the communist movement itself. Similarly, in Pakistan while much of the Pakistani left continued its association with the NAP, the latter itself was divided along seemingly irreconcilable differences. And finally, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government banned the NAP and the party redefined itself as the Awami National Party (ANP), those who considered themselves Marxists slowly left the ranks of the ANP to form smaller leftist organisations. The perception within the left was that the ANP had moved away from socialism and into the camp of Pashtun nationalism. Sadly, a portion of the left associated with Begum Nasim Wali Khan also joined the reactionary Pakistan National Alliance (against the PPP) that led to the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq.

Hence, from the once united NAP developed many smaller groups in West Pakistan that subscribed to Marxism–Leninism, and attempted to form a political organisation that would be closer to socialist principles. C R Aslam led the Pakistan Socialist Party. Abid Hassan Minto led the Awami Jamhoori Party, Major Ishaq and Afzal Bangash led the MKP, and Jam Saqi and Imam Ali Nazish continued to lead the still underground Communist Party.

Mergers and Splits

The history of how the NAP managed at one time to unite the nationalists and communists under one umbrella, and their subsequent split is yet to be written. Most scholars have focused only on the early period (namely, the 1950s) of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). And the more this latter history is shrouded in mystery, the more the Pakistani left has romanticised that period when the left could (at least in theory) exercise some influence on the national politics of Pakistan by their alliance with nationalist movements within Pakistan.

Nonetheless, the mass momentum behind the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in the 1980s, with which the left itself was associated in various ways, did not reveal any of these contradictions. Despite the splits it was clear that major tasks had to be achieved against dictatorship and fundamentalism, and the goals of socialism were clear and demonstrable in the arena of international politics (even when they were criticised by the left itself).

The real crisis of the Pakistani left—a crisis that we are still recovering from—came with the break-up of the Soviet Union. Perhaps because the left in India continued to advance in the 1990s (it is perhaps the only communist movement to have done so), it is difficult for Indian progressives to imagine the devastating intellectual impact of the destruction of socialism in the Soviet Union.

The result of this crisis of faith was that those who continued to adhere to the doctrines of Marxism and socialism clamoured for unity between various surviving or existing Marxist groups. These calls for unity reached such a crescendo that all the old theoretical differences became completely irrelevant to the rank and file of various organisations.

In 1994, the MKP and the Communist Party began a dialogue for unity that culminated in their merger in 1994. The CMKP at that time became, arguably, the major party of the Pakistani Marxist left. For a while, many thought that this would now be the stable formation that could result in the revival of the left. However, this illusion did not last long. In 1999 the party experienced its first major split when Imdad Qazi and Maula Bux Khashkhehli called a party Congress in Hyderabad and restored the CPP. Then the CMKP split further in the Lahore Congress of 2003 when, led by Afzal Khamoosh, the majority voted to restore the MKP. A minority continued to operate as the CMKP. In this way, the CMKP split up into at least three groups (CPP, CMKP, MKP) and declined in terms of its organisational strength.

But time and struggle are the best teachers bringing political competitors back to the negotiating table for the larger object. Hence, in April of last year, the CMKP first merged with the followers of Peoples National Congress to form the Peoples Mazdoor Kissan Party. And then the Peoples Mazdoor Kissan Party as a whole merged with Afzal Khamoosh’s organisation to reunite the Pakistan Mazdoor Kissan Party.

Will this new unity last? Will it be able to capture the popular imagination of the working people? We are confident that it will, but only time will tell. However, for the moment, the progressive community in Pakistan has supported this as a welcome development that would strengthen the hands of all those seeking a society free of dictatorships, religious extremist violence, oppression, and class exploitation.

MKP and Religious Extremism

The draft programme of the party is too lengthy and with too many different aspects to capture in the space available in this brief essay. Instead, I think it will be more interesting to address one concern that seems to be on the top of everyone’s mind in and out of Pakistan. That is, how do we understand religious fundamentalism?

Liberal solutions to the question of religious extremism have been to support the bourgeois democratic parliamentary process to emphasise secular education and values, and to work with the state and media to limit the scope of religious fundamentalism. In sum, they do not link the question of religious extremism to any examination of the class structure of the country.

On the contrary, liberals are prone to dismiss any class analysis of religious fundamentalism by arguing that fundamentalists can be found in all classes of society. The fact that socialists can equally be found amongst all classes of society and yet socialism is a class-based movement does not seem to dissuade them from their erroneous conclusions.

No class movement in the history of the world has ever coincided perfectly with the members of that class. Movements are carried out in the broader interests of definite classes. And while the movements are broadly composed overwhelmingly of the individuals of that class, they almost always include people whose class background is at odds with their political convictions. Vice versa, there are many individuals and even entire sections of the class, who identify not with their own class interests but with the interests of other classes.

Nor is it enough to suggest, as some progressives do, that religious extremism is purely the result of imperialism (that is, the counter-revolutionary campaign carried on by the United States (US) and Pakistan against the Afghan communists). Such an analysis is weakened by the fact that religious fundamentalism has been present as a political force long before imperialist assistance with intellectual roots going back several centuries. They would fail to note how religious fundamentalism has been used by the state and the ruling class to crush democratic aspirations within Pakistan, to stifle the development of a rational discourse in the academy, to further Pakistani interests outside of its borders, and to quell nationalist and class rebellions inside of Pakistan (take for example their role in the massacres of 1971).

There is a third line of reasoning that is perhaps the most untenable and ridiculous of all—that the Taliban represent a religious form of anti-imperialism. But events have so thoroughly discredited this view that was argued by some Trotskyist groups in and outside of Pakistan that we need not waste any further ink on such preposterous ideas.

It is our contention that the Islamic fundamentalists represent a reactionary and restorationist movement. The term reactionary refers to any movement or ideology that “opposes change or progress in society, and which seeks a return to a previous state.” It is restorationist in the sense that it adheres to the belief that pristine or original Islam should be restored. In fact, this movement opposes the entire social, cultural, political, economic, and ideological revolution associated with the rise of modern capitalism. Whether we speak of modern education, the emancipation of women, the ideas of enlightenment, the scientific revolution, and so on, in all these things and more, we find that Islamic fundamentalism sets itself in opposition to the march of history.

How is it possible that 500 years after the emergence of capitalism and at least a century after the capitalist transformation of South Asia, such a reactionary and restorationist movement could have come about and gained influence? Does this not contradict one of the cardinal principles of Marxism that history moves in a progressive direction?

In our view, Marxism does not preach a unilinear evolutionism. It is premised upon the dialectics of class struggle that includes both the possibility of progress and also of reaction. Classes defend their interests. Hence it is only logical that pre-capitalist classes will also attempt to rollback and reverse the tide of history. Whether we examine their ideological apparatus or their political programme for the restoration of a theocracy, everything takes us back to medieval texts and middle-age debates. Their entire framework is built on the idea that the unadulterated Sharia of the 12th century must be restored to the last letter. Nothing better emphasises this than the way in which they have attacked all the gains made under the umbrella of women’s emancipation.

Some liberals and especially some postmodernists are prone to point out that religious fundamentalists use very modern means to recruit and organise (that is, they use social media, mobile phone technology and so on). But this is a ridiculously low bar. The intellectual apparatus required to use technology and the critical and scientific thinking that a culture needs to create that very technology are two completely different things.

In Conclusion

Religious fundamentalism, as an ideology, represents those class forces in society that hark back to the medieval period. They are the representatives of those medieval classes that have been ruined by the advance of industry and the march of history. Their struggle to restore what history has destroyed inexorably leads them towards extreme forms of violence, not just against the state but also against ordinary people, because society is unwilling to turn back the wheel of history. Hence, we see the struggle against them as part and parcel of the unfinished business of the democratic revolution.

The capitalist and landed classes of Pakistan are unwilling to conduct the struggle for the complete emancipation of the people from these medieval elements because they, from time to time, require the support of this medieval movement against democratic and socialist movements (and Syria and Libya, to name but two recent examples, clearly demonstrate that the same conclusion holds true for imperialism). Instead, their ultimate and final defeat can only come about with the rising tide of a peoples’ movement against class rule.

—Taimur Rahman teaches political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, Lahore, Pakistan.

Source: EPW

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