Pakistan: New Left or no Left?

By Haider Nizamani

MR Muhammad Ali Siddiqi writing in the March 3 issue of Dawn (Pakistan’s New Left) has commented on the potential success of the Workers Party Pakistan (WPP), a new party formed by the merger of the National Workers Party and the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party.

The focus of this essay is not the newly formed party. I restrict myself to a general outline for political action suggested by the writer to rejuvenate the Left in Pakistan.

Mr Siddiqi raises the vital question of “how does the new party … create space for itself in the situation now obtaining in Pakistan?” I respectfully disagree with his answers to this question, and submit that recommendations offered to the Left to have a chance at gaining power indicate a poor understanding of the county’s political-economy, regional and international political politics, and the cultural prisms used by ordinary Pakistanis to make sense of the world around them.

A questionable assertion is of suggesting Tony Blair as the model to be copied in the following words: “Just as his ‘New Left’ in post-Thatcher era secured Tony Blair three unprecedented terms as Labour prime minister, so too does the WPP have a chance now to craft a new ‘ideology’ suited to the changed national and international situation.”

As a minor corrective, it was ‘New Labour’ that Blair professedly created and not the ‘New Left.’ I am not an expert on British politics but a cursory glance at the British Left’s view of Blair would suggest that he cleansed ‘New Labour’ of its leftist ingredients. Blair’s Labour brought the party much closer to the neoliberal mantra of Thatcher. Going the Blair way the Left will not win the support of the Pakistani masses, whatever its organisational incarnation.

Secondly, this comparison is erroneous. The Labour Party in UK has been one of the ruling parties, and when not in government it has been the government in waiting. Pakistani leftist parties, no matter what name they went by at any given time in the country’s history, have seldom been close to such a mantle. In fact, the electability of leftist parties is a dream that their leaders have never taken seriously.

The remainder of the article alerts the Left to four minefields that it should avoid. The writer makes three propositions. All of them have problems that could assign the WPP to the political margins of the country. Foremost among them is to get rid of anti-Americanism, because anti-Americanism is now the forte of Islamic parties and that sentiment is not going to lessen the ‘economic misery’ of the Pakistani people. True, assorted religious parties and individuals like Imran Khan champion simplistic and at time crass anti-Americanism. That is confusing anti-Americanism with anti-imperialism and reducing the former to the latter. In a bid to distance itself from the religious parties, the Left is asked to keep quiet whenever America’s role in the world at large, our region and the country is mentioned. Or worse, to condone it. Abu Ghraibs will not find mention in the parlance of the leftist party because Islamists are condemning it. Occupation of other countries in the 21st century would not ruffle the political conscience of the Left because that is anti-Americanism.

The writer also makes another questionable claim: “In the past, the leftist parties had shown themselves to be utterly indifferent to Pakistan’s foreign policy concerns.” He writes that the Pakistani Left has over the years opposed Pakistan’s jumping into US-sponsored military alliances in the 1950s, a partnership that according to him “opened the floodgates of American investment” in Pakistan. It would have been helpful to be given figures as an indication of the amount of investment as most of the harvest of that close relationship went into military use.

What is more troubling is the conclusion he reaches that Pakistan’s unemployment problem cannot be solved “without welcoming the flow of foreign capital and technology in a big way”. So welcoming it should be part of the new Left’s creed.

Fourth, the Left’s main enemy is “religious militancy” that is trying “to turn Jinnah’s Pakistan into a barbaric theocracy”. What was Jinnah’s Pakistan? And since when has it become the marker for the Left to choose enemies and friends? To me it appears more like a political Shangri-La that this country never was even during the 13 months that Jinnah led it. Little wonder that the biggest enemy of the Left is reduced to a trend, namely religious militancy, without putting into context the economic, political and social conditions that have given rise to it.

Let us visualise a political party in Pakistan that says nothing against the US role in the world, that strives to attract unbridled foreign capital, and that magnifies religious militancy as its biggest enemy. That sounds more like a social group of westernised upper middle class urbanites who have little clue about the economic, political and cultural dynamics of working Pakistanis. The reference to class is conspicuous by its absence, so are issues having to do with the federation and nationalities in Pakistan.

In an article (Has the Left left Pakistan?) published in December 2007 in Dawn, I provisionally defined the Left in the Pakistani context as “identified leftist parties and individuals who question the existing social property relations and the international order associated with them. Marxism in some form remained its intellectual inspiration”. The ‘New Left’ of Mr Siddiqi is almost the exact opposite of that.

This is how I concluded my 2007 piece “With the Left nowhere to be seen in the formal political arena, Pakistan’s political discourse revolves around phrases like ‘extremism versus moderation’ both of which leave the fundamental structures of the society untouched”. Mr Siddiqi’s offerings, if accepted by leftist practitioners, would only reinforce my conclusion.

Courtesy: dawn, Thursday, 18 Mar, 2010

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