CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Kanna

[The CM Roundtable is a new series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. Each new roundtable will conclude with the author’s response. We thank each of our distinguished panelists and the authors for engaging in this public dialogue. We aim to have each roundtable available as a single beautifully produced e-book available at the conclusion– for classroom or referential usage.]

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam
Author: Kamran Asdar Ali
July 27– Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of English Literature,  Kings College
July 31– Atiya Singh, University of Chicago
Aug 14– Author’s response

Surkh Salam


Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism 1947 – 1972 by Kamran Asdar Ali. London and New York: IB Tauris. xiv + 298 pp.

Ali-Communism in Pakistan

Ahmed Kanna, School of International Studies, University of the Pacific

Kamran Asdar Ali’s Communism in Pakistan is a meticulously researched and carefully argued work of scholarship. It is also a deeply moving reflection on Pakistani dreams for a just society unfulfilled, dreams that, though they are in retreat in present-day Pakistan, are ultimately unvanquished. An anthropologist and director of the South Asia Institute at University of Texas at Austin, Ali evokes the egalitarian and democratic hopes that animated generations of working class Pakistani fighters and their comrades – from communists in the first decades of the new country to labor militants in the early 1970s – as ultimately indomitable, if only in the traces, or as Ali calls them “ruins”, that they have left behind. Following the work of anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler, Ali suggests that these ruins can become resources for ongoing and future struggles for justice. While it will be compelling interest to South Asia specialists, non-specialists approaching Communism in Pakistan with little or no knowledge of the country’s history and that of South Asia more generally should prepare to devote intense concentration to it, as the complex skeins of narrative that Ali so skillfully weaves together produce a highly entangled and rich portrait of Pakistani history that often only yield insight upon rereading.

A dominant feature of the Pakistani state since its formation in 1947 has been the “non-resolution of its ethnic problem” (3). The group most closely linked with the new state’s ideological construction of Pakistan as an Islamic polity and with Urdu as the national language have been the Mohajirs or “refugees,” those who migrated from what became India after Partition. The Pakistani state’s integration of other cultural and language groups has been, argues Ali, far less successful and continues to be so today. Thus, “Pakistan’s post-colonial history has been one of contestation and conflict around questions of national self-determination of various ethnic groups, while the promised or imagined religious (Muslim) cohesiveness and national belonging have been difficult to achieve” (3). For the Pakistani left, itself dominated by Mohajirs and especially elite ashraf schooled in North Indian, Urdu adab, building a politics of class struggle has been vexed by crosscutting lines of ethnicity and nationality. The Communist Party of Pakistan or CPP seemed especially to have struggled to evoke a mass base to which to lead to a socialist Pakistan (by the late 1940s, the Party argued that Pakistan was capitalist and ripe for a revolutionary breakthrough to socialism). 

The CPP of the late 1940s, which was formed at Partition as a tributary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), attempted to build its party organization and mass base in a larger context dominated by the so-called Muslim Question. Ali reminds us of the correspondence between Jinnah and Gandhi in 1944, summarizing the main features of this debate (46 – 47). Gandhi viewed India as one nation before the advent of Islam and he argued that it had remained so through changes in dominant culture, religion, and state after Islam’s arrival. Jinnah was skeptical of this, prodding Gandhi constantly to clarify his view on what precise status this one-nation idea portended for Indian Muslims after independence from the British. For Jinnah, the Gandhian view inevitably consigned Muslims to minority status, a “minoritization narrative” (47) that made him insist on an independent postcolonial nation for Muslims.

Though its approach, respectively, to the related issues of Pakistani independence and collaboration with the Muslim League would change significantly in the decade or so around Partition, the CPI consistently tended to depict the territories of what would become Pakistan as economically “backward,” lacking industrialization, and under the control of reactionary feudalism (59). And indeed, leaving aside the cultural disdain implied by this position toward Indian Muslims – shared, to be fair, by Nehru and many in the mainstream of the Indian National Congress as well – the CPI did have a point. The territories of Pakistan were in 1947 overwhelmingly rural, with less than one percent of a population of approximately 80 million working in wage labor. Union membership stood at 190,000, the majority in railways in West Punjab and in railways and tea plantations in East Bengal (61). In chapters One and Two of Communism in Pakistan, Ali carefully disentangles this complex interplay of debates and negotiations between the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, and the CPI/CPP, guiding readers through the seemingly obscure shifts of the CPI/CPP line on the Pakistan question: from essential agreement with the idea that India was one nation in the 1930s, to a policy of national self-determination for each national and cultural group within India in the early 1940s, to a return, by 1946, to the one-nation idea and the notion that Pakistan represented feudalism and reaction, the so-called radical line (30 – 38).

The CPI/CPP’s return to this radical line, which would remain party policy until the so-called Rawalpindi Conspiracy case of 1951, had important consequences for rank and file activists. The line, articulated at the CPI’s 1948 Calcutta Congress, argued that the Muslim masses needed to be made conscious of their historic duty and must be “wrenched away from their communally minded feudal Muslim League leadership” (68). The CPP in turn argued, quite in the face of Pakistan’s overwhelmingly agricultural character, that Pakistan was a capitalist country that can break through to socialism via militant worker struggle. Ali writes that under the radical line, the “party envisaged a People’s Democratic Revolution” based on an alliance of workers, peasantry, progressive intellectuals, and the petit bourgeoisie, led by workers. Central to the line’s strategy would be countrywide spontaneous industrial strikes and militant peasant revolts. Thus, “proletarians and peasants from different parts of the country were encouraged to bear the brunt of state repression” (69). The CPP thus advocated at this time a “politics of constant agitation” and worker militancy as means both to confront capitalist power and to raise class-consciousness (76). This politics of confrontation led to increased state repression, culminating in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case. In Early 1951, using as a pretext the meeting of high-level CPP cadres with disgruntled elements in the military, the state leveled against the CPP the accusation of conspiracy to overthrow the government. This case, the so-called Rawalpindi Conspiracy case, which Ali discusses at length in Chapter Four, became the opening act of the state’s eventual crushing of the CPP. In 1954, seeking to position itself as a reliable Anglo-American ally in the Cold War, the Pakistani state criminalized the party. As Ali writes, the interesting question is why the CPP decided to open a dialogue with the military in the first place. Perhaps, Ali not so idly speculates, the party, finally bending to reality, thought that it could circumnavigate Pakistan’s rural character to bring about a future popular revolution from above (140).

Reza Shah Pahlavi's visit to Pakistan in 1967-- with Ayub Khan
Reza Shah Pahlavi’s visit to Pakistan in 1967– with Ayub Khan

By 1958, military rule was firmly in place under General Ayub Khan, whose regime oversaw a decade-long period of unprecedented wealth accumulation by Pakistan’s major industrialists, skyrocketing social and economic inequality, and severe labor repression. Ali quotes a trade union leader who summarized the Ayub years thus: “the bureaucracy through the labour courts, the industrialists through their jobbers, masters and paid strong men and police through violent suppression of demonstrations worked in unison to suppress the labour movement” (173). This situation was, unsurprisingly, celebrated by the best and brightest of US elite academia, who saw in Pakistan an ideal application of the principles of “free enterprise.” The Harvard economist Gustav Papanek, for example, admiringly called Pakistan’s state-sponsored bourgeoisie “robber barons” whose wealth accumulation would inevitably trickle down to lift up all strata of society (172). The working classes, urban poor, and sections of the intelligentsia disagreed with the Ivy League professor. In 1968, an alliance of these groups under the leadership of Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party mobilized en masse and brought to power a new regime promising to confront the socioeconomic failings of the Ayub years and to empower the working classes. These hopes would be dashed, however, as the PPP regime, almost immediately upon taking power, continued the labor repressions of the Ayub years, if in a slightly different, ostensibly more worker-friendly form (173 – 174). Ali ends his journey through the tortuous story of the CPP and the larger Pakistani worker left on a deeply melancholic note. In interviews with Ali, workers who were involved in the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s reinterpreted the well-known PPP slogan mang raha hai har insan, roti, kapra, aur makan (every human is asking for food, clothes and shelter). “The workers,” writes Ali, “even after 30 years, interpreted the slogan as follows: ‘Bhutto kept his promise … roti ki jagah goli mili, kapre ki jagah kafn aur makan ki jagah qabr’ (we received bullets in place of food, burial shrouds in place of clothing and graves were given to us as our shelter)” (194). This moment seems to mark, for Ali, the final demise of the organized Pakistani worker left, leaving the arena of struggle open to less capacious, often deeply intolerant identitarian forms of politics.

So what can be said of the legacy of the Communist Party of Pakistan? Ali is ambivalent. Communism in Pakistan leaves the reader with a complex and ambiguous image of the party as both composed of sincere fighters for a socialist Pakistan, noble victims of severe state repression, repression to which they refused to yield, and as prey to the illusions and political mistakes typical of mid-20th century Stalinized communist parties. What the Stalinist model yielded in terms of the (arguable) advantage of party centralization and discipline was counterbalanced by the disadvantages of the radical line, reminiscent of Stalin’s so-called Third Period of the interwar years, which notoriously insisted that social democracy was really “social fascism,” its mechanistic understanding of how revolutions work, and its proletkult approach to aesthetics and ideas. It is depressing to read, in the third chapter, CPP cadres’ puritanical dismissals of Sa’adat Hasan Manto as an “obscene” writer whose stories, they argued, did not provide healthy images of worker struggle against capitalism or solutions to the predicaments faced by Pakistan’s poor. Ali quotes at length a revealing exchange in 1948 between a group of CPP literary theorists, who almost unanimously pan Manto, a master of Partition literature and Urdu modernism. The one dissenter on the panel notes drily: “if we think that intellectuals have the power to cure, then they should open up a clinic” (96).

Nevertheless, Ali warns against reducing the memory of the communist and the larger organized worker – peasant left to these mistakes. In comparison to what would become India, Pakistan had few communist cadres and the level of organization of workers was low. As mentioned, many of Pakistan’s communists came from North India, were of sharifian background and schooled in North Indian adab, and thus found it difficult to connect with the working classes of the new country. “Yet these very same people were also dedicated to establishing a future socialist society that was committed to democratic values, distribution of wealth and an end to exploitation of the oppressed. They brought with them a vision of an anticipatory politics that argued for a future that would be more egalitarian and more liberating than that being offered by the dominant political forces” (13 – 14). Their dedication was a fillip and a credit to these struggles, and their final repression by the state a major impediment to the realization of the goals of these struggles. Taking inspiration from the Soviet October Revolution of 1917, this “initially small and disjointed group of people created a space in the new country to speak about social reform, labour rights, land distribution, free education, economic and social justice and women’s rights with an intensity and focus that surpassed all others” (15).

51ZxDWhi8VL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Inspired by his teacher, the late great – gone far too soon – anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, along with the distinguished feminist anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler, Ali describes his effort as one of “reconstructing ruins” (19). In his masterpiece, Silencing the Past, Trouillot argued that European Enlightenment observers of the Haitian Revolution did not simply dismiss out of political fear the capacity of slaves to organize a rational politics. They did so because the very idea of a thinking, reasoning slave with political subjectivity was, for these powdered Parisian cogitators, unthinkable. Their political impoverishment was thus intertwined with an incapacity of what Nancy Fraser would call “recognition.” The stakes for Ali are the same as those for Trouillot and Stoler: the silencing, because of the incapacity for recognition, of profoundly important parts of the Pakistani past, such as the cultural and national claims of non-Urdu- and North Indian-based identities. Not least in importance is the inability of Pakistani elites to recognize the equal humanity of the people of East Bengal, a failure of recognition that paved the way for the horrendous slaughter of the 1971 war.

Communism in Pakistan will be of major interest to experienced scholars and graduate students of Pakistan and South Asia more generally, and also to scholars and activists interested in the stories of communism and working class histories in the global south. Ali’s deep learning in anthropology is also both evident and worn lightly. But there are areas where I would have liked to see him elaborate and work through his thinking in more detail. The Cold War context is, given the emergence of Pakistan in 1947, of major interest but Ali mentions this only in passing. For example, the connection between the demise of social democratic and socialist forms of class politics and the emergence in their wake of identitarian politics, often invoking religion, and the connection of these to the Cold War context, has been noted by many scholars, both of South Asia and beyond. It would have been good for Ali to offer his opinion on this scholarship and to say how Communism in Pakistan fits in this larger field. Moreover, the idea of the ruin is left highly impressionistic. In invoking it, Ali writes that ruins “need to be understood not only in terms of their past magnificence … or nostalgia for past grandeur … but as structures that actively create an alternative sense of history and the possibility of action (or inaction) … This is ‘not a call for the history of the present preoccupied with settling scores, but an attempt to see what is tenacious in the residues and how there are emergent and resurgent histories embedded in the ‘ruins’ of the past” (20). This is fascinating and suggestive, but I wish Ali could have devoted more space to unpacking and fleshing out this idea, so central to his argument. It is therefore uncertain how the notion of the ruin translates into ongoing struggles. This is hinted at in an epilogue on the historiography of the East – West Pakistan war, but this section feels tacked on, even though the war would seem an ideal arena in which to work out the counterintuitive idea of the ruin for which Ali is arguing here. This would probably require another book entirely, though this book could have accommodated more than the cursory if highly thought-provoking treatment offered by Ali. These critiques, however, are minor beside the immense value of this book. Communism in Pakistan is clearly a labor love, and it is a masterpiece.



Ahmed Kanna is associate professor anthropology and international studies at University of the Pacific. His books include Dubai, The City as Corporation (2011, Minnesota), Rethinking Global Urbanism (2012, Routledge, with Xiangming Chen) and The Superlative City (2013, Harvard), and his articles have appeared in numerous journals, including Cultural Anthropology, City, Jadaliyya, and Journal of Urban Affairs.  He is currently researching US Marxism in the 21sth century from an anthropological and ethnographic perspective.