Volume 5, No. 3, March 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The 1960s of the last century were a period of social, cultural and political turmoil that changed the world in many ways while failing to change it in other aspects of that generation’s aspirations. It was a period when youth revolted against the values of their parents and elders. In the west, particularly the US, the long period of deprivation beginning with the Great Depression of the late 1920s-early 1930s, through WWII and post-war austerity had given way by the mid-1950s to relative comfort and middle class prosperity. The children of that period (referred to in the literature as the ‘baby boom’) had material satisfaction and the opportunity to join the swelling ranks of young people entering higher education. This ‘baby boomer’ generation that had not known the kind of want their parents and earlier generations had been through, began to experiment at various levels and in various fields with radical departures from their received norms. Music, culture, fashion, lifestyle, sexual mores (fuelled by the wide availability of the birth control pill) were rapidly and almost universally overthrown.
Part of this culturally and socially rebellious youth became radicalised due to events such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966), the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia (1967) and the incremental intervention of the US in the Vietnam War (1963-75). The Chinese Cultural Revolution placed youth centre-stage in continuing the socialist revolution after the seizure and consolidation of power and in combating revisionist tendencies creeping into the ruling Communist Party. Che’s failure to trigger a revolution in Bolivia through guerrilla struggle and his death in that campaign elevated him to a revolutionary icon for the 1960s generation. The Vietnam War, the first televised, and therefore ‘unsanitised’ war in history, radicalised a whole generation of youth in East and West. American youth in particular revolted against the compulsory draft that sent them to fight a poor, peasant, Asian society in Vietnam in the name of combating communism, but whose cruelty by the US and their allies alienated many conscripted soldiers. The horrible massacre with state-of-the-art weapons, including anti-human weapons such as napalm, horrified youth the world over and fed into the elements of political revolt.
An entire generation of youth therefore fought, organised, protested to change the world and its iniquities. Some amongst them went on to sustained political struggles, including guerrilla wars in the Third World. But the idealistic and youthful revolutionaries of the 60s underestimated the resilience of the global capitalist system and its ability to combat and eventually defeat the young revolutionaries through a combination of repression and co-option. By the late 1970s-early 1980s, the revolutionary upsurge had petered out worldwide.
Pakistan was a Third World country then, and now that that term is no longer in use after the end of the Cold War, it is euphemistically referred to as a ‘developing’ country. Here too the 60s were a seminal turning point. A student-led protest movement against the Ayub Khan dictatorship broke out in October 1968, was later joined by opposition political forces and eventually the working class, and incredibly, sustained itself till early April 1969 when dictator Ayub was replaced by military dictator Yahya Khan. The movement was sparked off by a relatively minor incident of some students of Gordon College, Rawalpindi, being harassed and beaten by customs staff looking to have their palms greased, as was the norm then, for smuggled goods bought by the students in Landi Kotal in the tribal areas of NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). But the protest by the students and its severe repression proved the spark that lit the conflagration of suppressed grievances and aspirations amongst the people of Pakistan. Although it is true that the movement failed beyond replacing one military dictator (albeit ‘civilianised’) by another because of the lack of a revolutionary vanguard that could have melded the disparate forces in the movement to take power, it is also a fact that the theory that a state of ‘dual power’ existed during the upsurge is an exaggeration. The military-bureaucratic oligarchy’s rule remained intact after sacrificing a discredited Ayub and repressing the upsurge. Subsequently, Pakistan went through the convulsions of the 1970 general elections, the aftermath of denying the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman its democratic right to form the government, the military genocide in East Pakistan, Indian military intervention, defeat and the breaking away of that province to re-emerge as independent Bangla Desh. The remaining Pakistan was now handed over to the party with the largest number of seats garnered in the 1970 elections in West Pakistan, i.e. the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto’s populism and slogan of ‘Islamic socialism’ was in essence an effort to divert the revolutionary impulse of the 1968-69 movement towards a social democracy that proved over time to be neither ‘social’ nor a ‘democracy’.
Bhutto dug his own grave by stopping the socialist revolution halfway after nationalising the commanding heights of the economy and carrying out partial and faulty land reforms. His regime turned on the working class from 1972, strangled the progressive student movement since 1974, and by 1975 was not only welcoming the traditional large landowning class into the ranks of the ruling PPP, but facilitating their taking back even the paltry distributed lands from the poor peasantry. This betrayal did not save him from the vicious revenge of the propertied classes and the next military dictator, General Ziaul Haq, who had overthrown Bhutto in a military coup in July 1977, delivered him to the hangman’s noose. This episode simply serves to once more underline the ruthless nature of the class struggle, in which no quarter is given.
Ziaul Haq so queered the pitch of Pakistan’s state and society in the direction of religious fundamentalism that we have not been able to rid ourselves of its malign effects even today. This enterprise was helped immeasurably by Zia’s support to the Afghan mujahideen. The struggle to overcome the combined effects of military dictatorships in our history through parliamentary democracy produced a mixed bag of partial success and yet also massive defeats. The partial success was the return to democracy in the decade of the 1990s, and its restoration despite the fourth military dictator General Pervez Musharraf’s coup and rule for nine years. Its defeat was the increasing inability of the civilian political forces to roll back the military’s domination. If anything, today that domination has produced the imposed ‘hybrid’ military-civilian regime under ambitious collaborator Imran Khan.
This imposed regime of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) is floundering however, because of its hubris and incompetence. A new phase of struggle is approaching that has some peculiar characteristics. If Imran Khan falls, the military has ensured there is no alternative replacement by throwing the other two mainstream parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the PPP into the catchall basket of ‘corruption’. Corruption, contrary to the PTI’s narrative, is not confined to those who have habitually used political office for private gain. It is widespread if not endemic to our system of governance. It is also embedded in the ethos of (especially developing) capitalism.
The void or vacuum could be filled by the military itself but today’s world may not look kindly on a military takeover. Given Pakistan’s weak economy, this could well turn out to be an unfeasible proposition. Can such a moment of impasse prove a trigger for a people’s movement? Unfortunately the portents are not encouraging. The Left has collapsed since the early 1980s into small parties and groups unable or unwilling to put the interests of the movement above their own narrow party (read virtual sect) interests. The working class movement is a pale shadow of itself because of repression and the changing structure of industry under capitalism today. The peasant movement became moribund some decades ago. The student movement has fractured along ethnic lines. The women’s movement is emerging as an encouraging development but still has a long way to go to challenge patriarchy and achieve women’s rights while associating itself with the movement for revolutionary change without which nothing much will change.
Revolutionaries in Pakistan in the 21st century therefore will have to apply their intellect to cut through the jungle of confusion and contradictory tendencies in the movement as a whole while organising at a mass level. This can only become a successful effort if the tendency of putting one’s own or one’s small party interests above the needs of the movement as a whole are overcome.