Monday, July 25, 2016

Business Recorder Column July 26, 2016

Socialism’s revival Rashed Rahman Mairaj Mohammad Khan’s passing away this July 22, while undoubtedly the loss of a towering icon of the Left and a major figure in the struggles of the people for democracy and rights, also presents us with an opportunity to reassess his life and political career within the context of the present day crisis of the Left, globally as well as in Pakistan. Mairaj came to prominence on the Pakistani political firmament as a radical student leader, militant agitator and powerful orator. As leader of the National Students Federation (NSF), he distinguished himself by taking up the cudgels against the Ayub dictatorship in the 1960s, graduating to mainstream politics when he fashioned a partnership with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who had been ousted as foreign minister after he fell out with Ayub over the Tashkent Declaration in 1966. This partnership fathered the left-of-centre Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 1967, whose radical reform agenda owed a lot to the group of left-wing intellectuals who joined Bhutto to form the party. The first test for the newly formed PPP came in 1968 when a student-led agitation against the regime escalated into a countrywide struggle against the Ayub regime. After a six month continuous agitation in both the wings of the country, in which the working class came out in strength for the first time in the country’s history, Ayub had no choice but to relinquish power. However, in a last stab at the country, he handed over power to the army’s commander-in-chief General Yahya in April 1969, thereby throttling the very Basic Democracies system and the 1962 Constitution he had himself authored. The Yahya dictatorship, under the pressure of the mass movement that overthrew Ayub, made a series of concessions to defuse the popular mobilisation. One Unit in West Pakistan was abolished and the four provinces restored, the ‘parity’ between West and East Pakistan’s electoral votes was abandoned in favour of one man one vote, and general elections were announced for 1970. The Yahya regime perhaps concluded that Pakistan’s first and fair and free elections would throw up a fractured mandate, which the regime would then be able to manipulate to its advantage. The people, however, spoke decisively. With Maulana Bashani’s National Awami Party-Bhashani (NAP-B) erroneously boycotting the elections, the East Pakistan political field was left open for Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League (AL) to sweep all but two seats in the eastern wing, which because of East Pakistan’s numerically larger population, gave it an overall majority nationally. In West Pakistan, the PPP swept the polls in Punjab and Sindh, with an alliance of the NAP-Wali and Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islam winning majorities in NWFP and Balochistan. Thus the mandate was ‘fractured’, but not the way the Yahya regime had anticipated. Yahya conspired to deny the AL its right to form the federal government, with Bhutto collaborating. This produced the first fissures in the Bhutto-Mairaj partnership. The second and more fatal breach occurred when, after coming to power in the wake of the loss of East Pakistan, in 1972 Bhutto had the police fire on factory workers occupying their workplaces in the industrial area of Karachi in order to forcibly take back the factories he had rhetorically been promising would belong to the workers. This led to Mairaj’s resignation from the federal cabinet. In 1973 the breach became an insurmountable gulf when Bhutto launched a military operation and a crackdown in Balochistan and NWFP respectively. Mairaj left the PPP and now began his long years on the margins of mainstream politics. Mairaj’s effort to form a Left party in the shape of the Qaumi Mahaz-i-Azadi failed to take off and his five-year flirtation with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) too foundered on the rock of Imran’s closeness to the military. Like many other leftists of his and earlier generations, Mairaj spent the last years of his life in quiet but dignified resignation to the currents of the time. It is during this period that he was heard to muse about the correctness of his decision to leave the PPP. This is where the history of the Left in Pakistan needs revisiting. During the independence movement, while the Communist Party of India supported the Pakistan demand on the touchstone of (religious?) self-determination, many leftists joined the ranks of the Pakistan Muslim League in the hope of influencing its policies towards a pro-people direction from within. This was the first of repeated attempts by leftists to use the umbrella of mainstream political parties to further their socialist agendas (e.g. NAP, PPP), especially after the Communist Party of Pakistan was banned in 1954. All these efforts based on the theory of using the platform of ‘multi-class’ parties to further socialism came to naught at the hands of the state’s repression and marginalisation by the right wing in all these parties. What went abegging in the process was the emergence of an independent and effective Left party. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant different things to different people. To the capitalist cold warriors, it was the triumph of capitalism, variously interpreted, sometimes even as the Hegelian realization of his Idea (the ‘end’ of history). In this heady triumphalism, the west not only enjoyed the horizontal expansion of capitalism into the former socialist bloc and the underdeveloped world (globalisation), it saw this as the chance history had offered once more to demolish all existing and emerging rivals. This is the only explanation for the west’s otherwise inexplicable hostility towards post-Soviet Russia and rising China. Ironically, in a repeat of its early history, late, triumphalist capitalism has engendered its own class opposition in the shape of the new, emerging Left in Europe (and Latin America) in response to its latest economic crisis (2007-08). This is a Left unencumbered by the burden of twentieth century socialism’s defeat. It is pragmatic, social-democratic, and prepared to contest on the ground of the existing mainstream politics. The Left in Pakistan, already reeling from its implosion a decade earlier, sank into retreat and defeatism. Although the existing Left virtually collapsed in Pakistan around 1981, a full decade before the Soviet implosion, it has yet to re-emerge as a viable and effective voice of change, despite the efforts of the surviving Left parties and formations. To do this, and despite Mairaj’s late life second thoughts about sticking with the PPP, the Left has to reinvent itself theoretically, practically and organisationally. And this time without kowtowing to foreign centres such as Moscow or Beijing, and without the illusions about the ‘umbrella’ provided by so-called multi-class mainstream parties.

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