Volume 5, No. 5, May 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
May Day 2019 came and went this year with the usual labour rallies throughout the country. However, as has been the case for several years now, the rallies were relatively small (especially when compared to the mammoth rallies of the working class movement at its apogee in the 1960s), lacking the passion that characterised the movement in the past, and may be considered to reflect the weakened situation the movement finds itself in. The concern is that May Day, the biggest day for the working class in Pakistan and around the world, now runs the risk of being reduced to an annual ritual and not much else.
The trade union movement has been pushed back immeasurably and incrementally over the last four decades. A combination of repression, laws that circumscribe or deny the right to organise unions for collective bargaining, restructuring of capitalist production through outsourcing, labour contractors and home based workers has left less than two percent of the working class in the formal sector unionised. The informal sector hardly has any scope for unions so far. All this means the working class and trade unions do come together on May Day every year, but their ranks are depleted and, despite local struggles, are unable to make a significant dent in the current situation.
The rollback of the trade union movement in the early 1980s (under military dictator General Ziaul Haq) unfortunately coincided with the collapse of the Left and the virtual liquidation (one or two localised struggles notwithstanding) of the peasant movement. The Left collapsed and fragmented into small parties and groups not on major ideological/political issues but, as is known to have happened in history in periods of defeat and retreat, on petty ego, personality, and other similar differences. The result is that currently we are passing through one of the worst periods for the Left in Pakistan. Why we have arrived at this pass bears explication.
After the Communist Party of Pakistan was banned in 1954 in the wake of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, the Left sought to survive and fight on under the umbrella of the nationalist-progressive National Awami Party (NAP). When NAP, after many ups and downs, splits, etc, was finally banned in 1975, the Left within its factions was orphaned, left rudderless, and became incrementally and increasingly irrelevant, a situation that continues and is at its worst today. The New Left of the 1960s also sought the ‘umbrella’ of the newly formed Pakistan People’s Party, and when that party’s fortunes declined from the 1980s onwards, they too collapsed. The remnants of these scattered, disparate Left groups are today reconstituted in a number of Left parties and groups, but these are individually and collectively ineffective. Even the formation of the Left Democratic Front of 10 parties in 2017 did not change this miserable scenario, in which the Left has neither any meaningful presence nor voice in national politics. The collapse of the ‘umbrella’ strategy by the 1980s exposed the absence of any alternative, more autonomous or independent option the Left could come up with. The Left as it exists today seems to be broadly constituted of three tendencies. The Trotskyites are regrouping at one end. In the middle are Left parties, groups and individuals who claim to be revolutionary socialists but in practice are no more than social democrats. At the other end of the spectrum are groups or individuals inspired by the post-Cold War currents of postmodernism, identity politics, and the assertion of individualism over the collective, all summed up in the tendency to drift towards liberalism.
In this seemingly unpromising landscape, there are chinks of light. One, Pakistan’s population has 65 percent people under the age of 30. This is a vast, largely untapped reservoir of idealism. Two, Pakistan’s crisis of state and society shows no signs of improvement. With the advent of the military establishment-backed government of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf, the economy is in recession, inflation, stoked, amongst other factors, by the free fall of the rupee has deprived millions of three square meals a day, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) 22nd programme will further dampen demand, slow growth to around or less than the population growth rate (2-3 percent) and increase the immiseration of the people. It remains to be seen how long the people of Pakistan bear this burden, informed by the ‘politics of common sense’ (see the review of Asim Sajjad Akhtar’s book below), before they arrive on the barricades.
The Left will have to gear up if it is to play a role in this looming confrontation between the people and Imran Khan’s government, backed by the military. First and foremost, the Left has to update its analysis of the world and Pakistan to reflect the contemporary reality of capitalist imperialism that dominates the globe (see Rashed Rahman’s article below). Two, the mass fronts, working class, peasantry, women, religious minorities and oppressed nationalities will have to be energized, brought together in a mighty stream before it can put pressure on the ruling elite for change. This seems the only viable path at present towards 21st century socialism.