Nothing Left?

Posted on May 9, 2010 by

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by Salman Tarik Kureshi

Daily Times – May 8, 2010

The Left, whether united or otherwise, remains ignorant of and utterly irrelevant to these historical mega-phenomena. This is in spite of the fact that left-wing philosophers of the order of Gramsci and Foucault have written at great length on precisely such issues

In a recent editorial (‘Left fortunes’, Daily Times, April 26, 2010), the respected Editor of this publication observed, “The Left in Pakistan collapsed 10 years before the worldwide collapse of socialism.” One certainly agrees that the collapse of the Left in Pakistan — at least, in an organised, intellectually coherent sense — had nothing to do with either the Afghan ‘jihad’ or Soviet failure, but predated both these epochal events. Nor, it should also be noted, can the reactionary darkness of Zia’s oppressive regime be implicated in the demise of the already auto-castrated Pakistani Left.

In this week of Karl Marx’s birthday, let us note that the passing from fashion of socialist ideas around the world owed little to the crumbling of the unloved Soviet empire. The brutal knout of the Soviet police state was in fact always an embarrassing liability for the partisans of socialism. The bloodstained face of this monstrous “god that failed” proved repulsive everywhere, particularly to the politically conscious youth of the world. Many of these, as I suggested in these pages last week, had in the 1960s moved away from the traditional Left parties towards an array of libertarian New Left movements. The energies of the young around the world — and no less in Pakistan — drove the electrifying currents of change and social innovation everywhere as the 1960s drew to a close. To borrow from Wordsworth, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive; but to be young was very heaven.”

However, the high panjandrums of the ‘official’ Left here continued to genuflect before their Russian icons. Their intellectually moribund narrative failed to evolve beyond the clichés of Soviet dogma, ignorant even of such original thinkers within the Marxist tradition as Marcuse, Gramsci, Mandel, Foucault, Hardt and others. Certainly, they failed to provide any kind of intellectual or organisational leadership to the rebellious youth of the 1960s and 1970s.

Therefore, New Left groupings in Pakistan remained divided and inchoate. Among numerous such tendencies, there were three that are noteworthy to our present purpose. The first concerns the many young people of the time who found their source of inspiration in the ‘pure’ socialism of China and its Great Helmsman Chairman Mao Zedong. This particular idolatry required its adherents to turn a blind eye to China’s ‘Gang of Four’, the violent excesses of the Great Cultural Revolution and the appallingly turgid prose of the pronouncements emanating from Beijing. No sooner had Pakistan played the matchmaker’s role in bringing the US and China together, we witnessed how the Chinese blocked Russian weapons supplies to the Vietnamese patriots fighting against the US. Shortly after the Americans were driven out of Saigon, the Chinese army helped install the bloodthirsty Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. China then itself attempted to invade a Vietnam still shattered from 40 years of successive wars against Japan, France and the US.

Still worse (for socialist ideology) was to come, with the ascent to power of Deng Xiaoping and his successors, who have turned China diametrically away from the socialist dreams of the Revolution towards a capitalist single-party dictatorship. The phenomenal economic growth this has brought to China has been widely and deservedly praised. But, let it be quite clearly understood, it has nothing whatsoever to do with socialism or with the Left.

Another, and probably the numerically largest, segment of the 1960s New Left were the social democrats who moved organisationally towards the populism of the PPP here and the radical nationalism of the Awami League in what was then the East Wing. These young people had helped spark and sustain the uprisings that toppled the Ayub regime and led to the nation’s first general elections. The establishment forces of the time successfully drove a wedge between the two wings, precipitating a bloodbath, civil war and dismemberment. In the surviving portion of Pakistan, the PPP made a remarkable start (“Picking up the pieces, the very small pieces”, in the words of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto). But, before long, it began to lose its social democratic identity — a process that was greatly speeded up with the advent of Benazir Bhutto to power. Today, the PPP (again in power) represents little other than an ‘elected’ elite in contradistinction to the powerful ‘unelected’ elite of the establishment.

There was also another, much smaller strand to the New Left in Pakistan. My Editor may choose to recall a passionate discussion over late night coffee in Karachi more than three decades ago. The question then engaging us coffee drinkers was whether a non-doctrinaire regional liberation movement (the Baloch, in the case then at hand) could, by virtue of its dynamism, spin up towards a major revolution. That this failed to happen is not the point. What is relevant is that this armed insurgency, driven by the sense of alienation of the Baloch nationalists, has remained on the boil among those hills and plateaus, practically for Pakistan’s entire history. The Left in Pakistan, old or new, has no nexus with it.

The Baloch question, let us understand, is far more complex than the common establishment perception of a cabal of disgruntled tribals, who can be either bullied or bought out. Yes, these insurgents have at different times received armaments and support from India, Afghanistan, the USSR and Iraq and North Korea. It is the way of the world to fish in others’ troubled waters…if only so as not to be left out of a race for the spoils.

The point is the passion and sustained continuance of the Baloch insurgency. And this grows from the fact that it is at bottom a question of Baloch identity.

This issue of identity — whether ‘genuine’ or contrived — and the related issue of perceived culture are amongst the most powerful drivers of history. Observe the other, younger but larger and more deadly, insurgency that is also in progress in Pakistan today. That too has sprouted from issues of identity and perceived culture.

To close today’s little essay, let us only note that the Left, whether united or otherwise, remains ignorant of and utterly irrelevant to these historical mega-phenomena. This is in spite of the fact that left-wing philosophers of the order of Gramsci and Foucault have written at great length on precisely such issues. But, of course, precision of thought cannot trump the mouthing of irrelevant anti-American clichés and the concoction of elaborate conspiracy theories.

The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet

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Posted in: Politics