CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam - Singh

Posted by patwari on August 07, 2016 · 21 mins read

[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
Book: Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism 1947 — 1972 (IB Tauris) / Surkh Salam: Communist Politics and Class Activism in Pakistan 1947—1972. (OUP — Karachi)
Author: Kamran Asdar Ali
June 20— Ahmed Kanna, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of the Pacific.
June 28— Sarah Besky, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
July 6— Junaid Rana, Associate professor of Asian American Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana—Champaign.
July 13— Arvind Elangovan, Assistant Professor of History, Wright State University.
July 27— Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of English Literature, Kings College.
Aug 7— Atiya Singh, University of Chicago.
Aug 21— Author's response
Surkh Salam
Surkh Salam
Atiya Singh is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Currently, she is working on her manuscript entitled, "The Vicissitudes of Democracy in Pakistan."


Photo Courtesy: Dawn Photo Courtesy: Dawn

A recent New York Times article, Posters in Pakistan Urge a General to Take Control of the Government, (July 15, 2016) reveals a not-so-astonishing demand of the masses of Pakistan requesting the military to establish control of the government—“For God's sake, take over.” The gist of this slogan was further captured in a statement issued by Rana Jafar Ali, President of a political party, Move On Pakistan: “Civilians are corrupt. They only fear the military.” Both the posters and Jafar Ali's statement resonate with the sentiment of most people in Pakistan, whether they belong to the Left or to the right. It comes as no surprise when conservative forces pledge allegiance to the rule of the army, but how are we to understand the Left's flirtation with authoritarianism?

The history of Pakistan provides several instances of the Left conceding to the ideological stance of the right. Before delving into the details of this history, it will be useful for us to keep in mind that on the whole the South Asian Left—Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, etc.—was a direct expression of the ideological orientations existing within International Marxism. The rise of Stalinized communism in the 1930s signaled a shift in the idea of socialism away from overcoming capitalism, understood as an international and world historical phenomenon, toward the struggle for “socialism in one country.” This had significant consequences for the Left in regions that had struggled to find their national identity under colonialism. The story of the Left in India and Pakistan unfolds in this historical context. Anyone studying the history of the Left therefore has to contend with the implications of the legacy of Stalinism as a political problem that has continued, in the words of Marx, to “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Kamran Asdar Ali's Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism, 1947—1972, wrestles with the predicaments of leftist politics in post-independence Pakistan. The example of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), and later other variations of leftist politics that emerged in the form of the National Awami Party (NAP) and the Peoples Party of Pakistan (PPP), reveal problems in relating struggles for democracy with the struggle for socialism. Ali claims to recover the lost narrative of the Left in Pakistan's history in order to uncover a series of political struggles led by the Left for the institution of democracy in the country. Undoubtedly, his narrative account has brought to light the unknown and forgotten tale of hardships confronted by a number of cadres, unions, and intellectuals at the hand of the state; the details of torture in the prisons are painfully vivid. In retrospect, confronting such extraordinary sacrifices, one is left to wonder how these martyrs understood their own political role. What did Marxism mean to these leftists? It is this conception of Marxism that needs to be directly addressed in Ali's framework.

Ali begins with the thorny issue of the national question in British India. In the 1940s Muslims were considered “an oppressed nationality” by the CPI and had “the right to secede from the Indian Union.” (33) How did the CPI come to recognize Muslims as a separate nation, and why did it support the Muslim League? To put it simply, when the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) changed its stance on WWII by supporting the efforts of the allies against fascism, it instructed the CPI to forge a United Front in India, which entailed working in cooperation with Congress and the Muslim League in order to wage a united struggle against imperialism and fascism. Since the Muslim League was already supportive of the British efforts in the war, the CPI had no issues reaching out to its leadership and supporting its program for an independent Pakistan. As it turned out, specifying what the idea of Pakistan would entail in practice was not as straightforward as it might have appeared at this early juncture.

Ali draws an informative comparison between the nationalities question as it emerged in the Soviet Union in the wake of the revolution and the form it took in India in the wake of the demand for Pakistan. It is noteworthy that the CPI attempted to replicate the Soviet situation in India in a rather formulaic way, introducing a tension in its own self-conception between the prioritization of national demands and the goal of confronting capitalism internationally. To expand on Ali's account, the nationalities question in the Soviet Union gained salience in the specific context of a socialist revolution that was international in its ambitions. Previously, it had been the Polish Question that pushed the Marxists of the Second International to elaborate the relevance of national liberation in connection to socialist struggles. For Marx and Engels, Lenin and Luxemburg, the national question attained salience only when tied directly to the project of social emancipation from the rule of capital. By the time the question of Pakistan was raised in India, the prospect of worldwide revolution was off the table, which meant the Indian Left could only take recourse in one or another form of nationalism. As widespread popular demands for national liberation proliferated as the crisis of colonialism mounted, the historical memory of an earlier internationalist understanding of socialist politics was papered over by a view of socialist revolution in which national self-determination became an end in itself. The growth of the Left in the 20th century, then, was deeply imbricated with a transformation in the conception of socialism, by which socialist politics came to be understood one-sidedly as a project of national self-development. It was against this backdrop that, as Ali puts it, the “CPI was primarily nationalist” in orientation. (32)

Given this shift in the ideological conception of the international Left, the CPI and subsequently the CPP had to navigate the difficult path of “socialism in one country,” employing high-handed statist tactics in the name of restoring “democracy.” Marx himself was keenly aware of the potential for such a regression within the struggle for socialism itself. In the aftermath of the failure of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, Marx elaborated on the theme of Bonapartist authoritarianism in the socialist movement of the 19th century. It may be worth our while, then, to revisit the conception of Bonapartism as explained by Marx. The tendency in leftist discourse today has been to view the authoritarianism of the state one-sidedly, as if it only emerged rectilinearly from the repression and defeat of the Left. By contrast, in Marx's analysis, the problem of authoritarianism is treated dialectically as a function of the failure and, indeed, the self-defeat of revolutionary forces.

In his political writings, particularly The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and The Class Struggles in France, Marx queried the historical status of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in 1848. The temptation, then as now, is to interpret that moment schematically: The bourgeoisie played a progressive role in the 18th and 19th centuries, but with the rise of the workers' movement, it was forced, out of class interest, into a reactionary position against the workers' movement. While such an account is not wholly inaccurate, Marx focused on a rather different point concerning how bourgeois society, the society of the “Third Estate,” came into contradiction in the epoch of capitalism. For Marx, the demands of the bourgeois-democratic revolution were not obsolete, but had been (self-)betrayed. The tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution thus fell to the proletarian socialist movement, which alone was able to complete the bourgeois project by transcending it via socialist revolution. Marx was clear, moreover, in analyzing how this task necessarily placed the workers' movement in a contradictory position. The workers made socialist demands, but were nonetheless beholden to a bourgeois political mode that could not meet those demands. What is unique to Marx's analysis is not the attention he pays to the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but the emphasis he places on this contradiction within the movement for socialism itself. Other socialists, such as Proudhon and Lassalle, addressed the workers as political subjects struggling against their economic objectification. In so doing, they tended to subsume the workers' struggle to one side of the antinomy of politics and economics—an antinomy that Marx thought was itself symptomatic of the crisis into which bourgeois society had entered, in the wake of the industrial revolution and the age of capital. Albeit under different circumstances, the birth of the CPI in the mid-1920s manifested a similar crisis in its failure both to lead and to transcend nationalist—democratic demands in the struggle for socialism.

In order to better understand the contradictory developments of the CPI, and more specifically the nationalist shift within it, it might be instructive to glance at the case of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as it set a precedent for the communist parties operating in other parts of the world. Following the instructions of the International, the CCP abandoned the workers' and peasants' movement and subordinated itself to the nationalists in the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-Shek. This had catastrophic consequences for the entire communist movement; by 1926 Chiang Kai-Shek's forces had brutally suppressed the Chinese left. This, however, did not stop the International from subsequently admitting the Kuomintang, even as it snubbed the CCP. Guided by this shift, a similar strategy was adopted in India when the CPI was asked to abide by the Gandhian injunctions, subordinating itself to the imperatives of the national movement rather than maintaining a critical stance toward it. In an ironic twist, the communists would outsmart the nationalists by becoming a champion of the idea of Pakistan, recognizing it as an opportunity to gain a higher form of “nationalist consciousness.” (45)

Sajjad Zaheer Sajjad Zaheer

A direct offshoot of the CPI, the CPP inherited the legacy of this nationalist turn. After being dismissed by the Muslim League in Pakistan, the CPP not only failed to become an independent political party, but was dismantled in the aftermath of its involvement in a failed coup attempt, known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, in 1951. Ali's account captures well the contention within the CPP about its involvement in the coup. Influenced by the “militant adventurism” of the CPI, Sajjad Zaheer, leader of the CPP, was in favor of cooperating with the military to subvert the Muslim League government. Other members of the central committee opposed this move by arguing that “a revolution can only be brought about by a revolutionary party.” (135) Despite the prevailing disagreements within the party, the leadership decided to participate in this adventure and “provide it with intellectual direction.” (136)

The CPP's decision to participate in the coup brings us back to the problem of authoritarianism. Zaheer's letter to an Afghan comrade from 1949, as Ali documents, provides useful clues to this problem. Raising his concern about “Bonapartist tendencies,” Zaheer warned his comrade against “some charismatic individuals,” asserting that, “however well-meaning and honest or popular an individual might be, one person alone could not be relied on to bring about change through an alliance with tribal leaders or military commanders.” (85) One wonders why Zaheer didn't follow his own advice when, only two years later, the question of collaboration with the military arose.

The party's involvement in the coup in effect amounted to its self-liquidation, a process that had already been set in motion thanks to the CPI's operational dependence on front organizations such as trade unions, peasant organizations, and the literary front. Communists within these groups uncritically followed a pro-unity strategy that required making concessions to the conservative landlords, the Islamists, and government unions, all groups who were not invested in the project of democracy. Even though the CPP could utilize the organizational framework of its different fronts, it failed to channel, much less provide leadership for, the mass discontent that erupted in the wake of the internal crisis of the Muslim League in the early 1950s. Since the CPP had failed to organize workers, peasants, and intellectuals as a revolutionary party, it scarcely had a chance to succeed in its late attempt to stage the coup. The CPP's failure here not only anticipated its own dissolution, but set an example of accommodating authoritarianism that the Left would repeat subsequently.

After a considerable hiatus, as Ali demonstrates in his narrative, leftist forces reconvened in the late 1950s to form the NAP, a conglomeration of political groups from the four provinces of the country wherein, as Ali notes, “the leftist elements in these parties felt sidelined by the dominance of regional leaders.” (155) What was unusual about the NAP was that, for the first time, leftists of East and West Pakistan came together as a party to struggle for democracy in the country. Soon after its constitution, however, members of the NAP backed the project of development put forth by General Ayub Khan. While some students did lead anti-Ayub demonstrations, the NAP withered away. The Sino-Soviet split that occurred in the early 1960s further split the Left along Maoist and pro-Moscow affiliations, giving rise to yet another layer of serious ideological confusion. The question of democracy became even more confounded as both leftists and conservatives agreed that Pakistan was too backward politically and economically for democratic rule. Many on the right and the Left concluded that Pakistan would fare better under Ayub Khan's program of “guided democracy.”

Photo Courtesy: Photo Courtesy:
"Bengali nationalist leader, Shiekh Mujeeb, adressing an election rally in Dhaka (1970)."

More importantly, however, the Left's own “accommodating relationship” (163) with the martial rule resulted in its failure to organize and channel the energies of the masses. It was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who emerged from this political vacuum and capitalized on the pervasive discontent of the masses against General Khan by forming the populist Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP). Members of the NAP, trade unions, and the student-left all flocked to the PPP, hoping that their demands of better wages and social justice would be fulfilled by Bhutto. Instead, as Ali shows, the 1970s witnessed the unleashing of Bhutto's oppressive measures, decimating the unions and ultimately destroying the Left as a practical force in Pakistan in the wake of the 1971 war. Ali notes that the trade union movement, in the midst of state repression, “did not want to go beyond pushing for liberal democratic rights of association, speech and state-welfare. They understood that the workers were not sufficiently disciplined and trained for the final transcendence beyond a capitalist bourgeois order.” (189—90) And how could they be trained to overthrow capitalism in the absence of a politically self-conscious and organized Left?55ba3762b8636-2

If today the masses in Pakistan wish for a military dictator, we know that the roots of this desire stretch back to the history of authoritarianism within, and not merely against, socialism. It stretches back to the identification of the workers movement with authoritarian measures employed to prop up formally “liberal” policies. Starting with how the CPI dealt with the question of nationalities in India, one sees a deepening illiberalism in the way the CPP abdicated leadership of its front organizations, the ambivalence of the NAP toward Ayub Khan, and finally the exaltation of Bhutto by the Left.

Ali concludes his survey of this history by rejecting the “teleological understanding of historic progression,” offering instead a politics “that is not always, as Jacques Ranciere would argue, dependent on an analysis of conflict and friction; rather it is a politics that is often concerned with living disagreements as much as it is about creating consensus.” (199) In contrast to Ranciere's version of history, the Marxian dialectic has a telos: freedom from history. But in order to reconstitute Marxian politics internationally, the Left has to face its own history, the role it has played in supporting “late Bonapartist” regimes in the 20th century. The Left must face its own authoritarianism.