The Left could have a future in the Pakistani context, provided it addresses the people’s economic issues.
The Left in Pakistan has had a checkered history. The Socialist movement in British India owed its origin to the Russian Revolution and the subsequent migration of a large number of the Soviets to northwestern areas, more specifically into the territory that is now Pakistan and which was held by the British Empire in 1922-27.
The colonial government of India repressed the Left from its very inception, accusing its proponents of devising conspiracies to topple the government. However, the strong ideological moorings of the Left influenced virtually all other streams in India. They are even credited with the rise of radical trends inside the Congress in the post-First World War period. The militant anti-imperialist stand of communists attracted various revolutionary fighters. Among them were the Gadar fighters of the Punjab, Bhagat Singh’s peers, Bengali revolutionaries, the militant working- class fighters of the Bombay and Madras presidencies and radical antiimperialist Congressmen from different parts of the country. Even Subhash Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist who unsuccessfully attempted to liberate India militarily from British rule in the waning years of the Second World War, called himself a Socialist.
The Left played a major role in transforming the demand for independence to a pro-people concept of freedom – not just from
the colonial regime, but also from social and economic exploitation and sectarian strife.
With the division of the subcontinent, the Left underwent numerous metamorphoses from a counterpart to political conservatism of the hard-liners of the Communist Party to the reformist electoral project enshrined in the birth of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which projected Islamic socialism as its raison d’être.
In Pakistan’s formative years, after the demise of the Quaid, the Left came into direct confrontation with the government. The then Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan faced the first attempted coup d’état by a collusion of Leftists, including renowned intellectual Faiz Ahmad Faiz and some disgruntled elements of the armed forces. The coup was crushed and the protagonists tried and incarcerated.
Strengthened by the support of the rural class, thanks to its tough position on economic and social issues, the Communist Party promoted the cause of Pakistan's farmers and laborers against the nexus of the landed gentry. Although the 1954 general elections were won by the Communist Party in East Pakistan, yet the class struggle peaked when members of the Pakistan Muslim League and the Communist Party were involved in a violent scuffle with the East Pakistani police in 1958. The government dismissed the Communist Party government in the province and then arrested over 1,000 members of the Party in West Pakistan, after banning the party.
Pakistan’s Leftists were left high and dry following the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, with two factions emerging in the post-split scenario: Pro-Beijing and Pro-Moscow. The pro-Moscow Left dissolved into socalled liberal, progressive bourgeois parties while Ayub Khan hijacked the Maoist Left. The Chinese bureaucracy gave full support to Ayub Khan's dictatorship. When Marshal of the People's Army, Chun Lee visited Pakistan in 1966, he made a farcical comparison of communist democracy, terming Ayub Khan's system of "basic democracy" akin to the communist system. Pakistani Maoists started supporting Ayub Khan. In their myopic viewpoint, they declared Ayub Khan's foreign policy progressive, ignoring the Marxist point of view that foreign policy is merely a continuation of internal policy to safeguard and prolong the reign of the rulers.
Oblivious to the unprecedented economic growth internationally, Pakistan’s Left missed the boat. The post-World War II boom also benefitet Pakistan, where the process of significant industrialization took root, giving rise to an anti-capitalism phenomenon: the proletariat. Rendered rudderless, Pakistan’s Left started seeking progressives among the bourgeoisie, to whom it could lend support, instead of organizing and identifying itself with the proletariat. Its sustenance of the working class was confined to mere sloganeering. Resultantly, when a revolutionary movement, the first of its kind, began in 1968-69, and explosive
avant-garde events swept away Ayub’s military dictatorship – one of the richest presidents of an impoverished country – the Left again found itself in the lurch.
It saw light at the end of the tunnel with the emergence of the PPP, whose program was radical socialist since a Communist leader, J.A. Rahim, was the author of its basic manifesto. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto appeared in the political arena as a challenge to the Ayub dictatorship and claimed to be the representative of the masses.
Bhutto, despite being a landlord from Sindh, and having served as foreign minister in Ayub's cabinet, was an intelligent bourgeois politician, who raised the slogan of Socialism and joined hands with some Leftists to form the PPP. Ayub’s crackdown on Bhutto made him a symbol of resistance, enhancing his popularity and grip on the party.
The emergence of the PPP as a party of the masses was no fluke; elsewhere in the developing world too, parties with a socialist program had attained popular appeal. Pakistan’s Left was again found wanting, when it supported Bhutto on face value, taking him to be a supporter of the proletariat. His style of freely quoting Karl Marx – “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains” – endeared him to them. But Bhutto was in fact a radical bourgeois, whose feudal bent of mind would be his own and the masses’ undoing.
Instead of organizing and launching a class struggle, the Left identified with the working class' illusions in Bhutto and the PPP and missed a golden opportunity to rise to the occasion. When people ultimately rose against Bhutto, the movement was hijacked by right-wing religious fanatics and reactionary forces and the Left failed to offer any alternative during this period. Bhutto was hanged after a sham trial and General Ziaul Haq’s repressive regime curbed whatever steam remained. The military rule ended following the plane crash that killed General Zia, and elections were held in 1988, bringing Benazir Bhutto to power. But she further disillusioned the working class. The breakup of the USSR disenchanted the Left and currently they are in disarray. The present grim economic social milieu makes it ripe for the Left to play its role but the lack of credible leadership only adds to their problems.