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Left in Pakistan — I Political Alternative | Sarah Humayun

26 September 2013

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The News on Sunday, 22 September 2013


Left in Pakistan — I

Political alternative

Globally, the focus of the left has shifted from regime change to searching out political spaces and networks, and bringing people together to make normative claims about freedom, justice and equality. Is the left in Pakistan, particularly the younger lot, committed to similar goals? Do they see the ‘party’ as one channel for what they are trying to do? Do they have dogmatic formulations on this subject? Here’s an attempt to find answers to these and many other questions

by Sarah Humayun

Discussions of the political left, as indeed the political left itself, will always search for their own relevance and never be in danger of being irrelevant.

It is within these parameters that we can begin to inquire into the conversations the political left is engaged in, with itself and with others — the conversations it is having on class, identity, revolution, authority, among others.

In trying to write about this, however, I would like to steer clear of judgements on left’s standing in the ‘actually existing’ power politics of today. It is hardly news that the post-1990s left is extremely marginal to mainstream politics and diminished, with the exception of a few luminous struggles such as in Okara and Faislabad, even in their traditional stronghold of trade unions and peasant struggles. Or that its positions and perspectives find no forceful, organised articulation in the public discourse, although, as one activist pointed out to me, they are increasingly echoed there without necessarily being associated with the left.

But though the politics of the centre and the right have absorbed shades of leftist thought — as they have of liberal thought — it might be fair to say that this has happened without the centre having shifted to the left. In addition, the left has lost visibility in the public space; in this respect, it has fared even worse than the NGOs, whose liberal pro-civil-society thought has been similarly assimilated without increasing the appeal of liberal thinking as such in the public space.

Why pay heed to the left when they do nothing, or almost nothing that shows up on the media-charted political map of mainstream and populist politics? Why take an interest in their interminable bickering over dusty ideologies, their painstaking and fragile mergers, the promise and disappointment of their wavering existence?

By self-admission, the left is in a state of crisis. The 2013 election delivered a clear mandate for a socially-conservative, economically-neo-liberal and poor-indifferent political parties. But the elections did not so much as mark a shift to the right than extend and confirm it. Religious conformism that gives direct and indirect support to murderous policies towards Qadianis and Shias, not to mention other groups classified as ‘minorities’, is one of the more obvious markers of the shift.

Significantly, the populisms of the last few years, from Imran Khan’s faltering tsunami to Tahirul Qadri’s pro-establishment long march to judiciary and media activism, have been pro-right or, in the lingo of the moment, pro-middle-class. Their slogans are corruption, security, and good governance, often justified with reference to religion and nationalism, or presented in the idioms of righteous piety and nationalist hysteria. These slogans make hegemonic claims on ‘our’ behalf and have successfully come to dominate the public space as the rightful demands of the ‘people’, without significant alternative being articulated by groups whose interests may not be aligned or be differentially aligned with them.

At present, the issues of the middle-class (as commentators are noting with increasing insistence) are making a claim to being ‘everyone’s’ problems, or everyone’s in the same way. This point is only rarely made in mainstream public media (a recent article in Dawn,, was a welcome exception).The middle-class represents a sizeable chunk of key state institutions — army, bureaucracy, judiciary — as well as the media and the professions. It is interested in producing wealth and acquiring education, in better service delivery and a functioning government. But it is also invested, its critics would say, in regressive norms of social stability, in opposing collective action for labour issues, in patriarchal and exclusionary religion that favours social conservatism and sexual puritanism, in enforcement of law without change in the status quo and without radical interventions on the side of social equality and wealth redistribution.

Would the picture change if we admit other collective entities as parties to the public space, resources and policies in their own right, entitled to make a bid for the name of ‘the majority’ or ‘the people’? ‘Class’ could draw attention to the fact that security, governance and corruption can have a different place in your life depending on differential ownership or influence over resources, your ability to create opportunity or control your environment through possession of material or cultural assets, or to mobilise with others to defend what is in your interest. A working-class position, it has been argued, generates conditions and experiences that form subjects who are marginal to or altogether outside the prevailing status quo, who perceive illusion or division in socially-inscribed reality where another class might see them as given or necessary.

Class in this sense is not necessarily an empirical category; it is a socially-constructed subject position to which meanings and possibilities can be ascribed, and not just by people who count themselves as its members.

But how might class be mapped on the grid of today’s cultural and social figurations, and what can be accomplished politically with it is far from clear. A lot depends on whether a class is seen to exist prior to the struggle for its ‘emancipation’ or whether it is political struggles themselves that shape the parties who struggle, for which ‘class’ may be one name among others. In other words, are emancipatory struggles hitched to groups who define themselves as classes or nations? Or are politics or political struggles themselves shaped, not by a social and historical vector that remains constant, but by the unpredictable unfolding of contingent and context-bound political processes?

The new-er leftism seemed inclined to take the latter route. Globally, the focus has shifted from regime change favourable to the left to searching out political spaces and networks, discrete articulations and struggles, which may or may not link up to produce the phenomenon recognised as class struggle or collective identity but which nevertheless brings people together to make normative claims about freedom, justice and equality.

The recent Arab uprisings are a case in point; they will keep the mandarins arguing for long about whether or not they count as ‘revolution’ — perhaps only to answer both yes and no. Benjamin Arditi noted after the events of 2011 that they gave ‘political thought with the opportunity to come to terms with the loss of loss’, which means ‘parting ways with a grammar of emancipation that was never there to begin with, at least not in actual uprisings: an alternative to the existing order comes in handy but has rarely played a central role in rebellions. One can then begin to think the difference between insurgencies and programmes as a difference in nature instead of framing their relationship within a hierarchy of stages that commits us to place programmes above revolts in the political food chain’. This dialogue with an event is critical because it puts the narrow worlds of both academia and the organised left in contact with an outside which has no obligation to prove them right.

One of the more striking thing about the admittedly few young lefties that I met (all have or have had a link with the Awami Workers’ Party, though not all are current members) is that they see the ‘party’ as one channel for what they are trying to do. No doubt, they are cautioned by the left’s history of parochialism and factionalism; but possibly their imaginations are no longer limited by the horizons offered by party politics.

Refreshingly, I did not hear many dogmatic formulations on this subject. The form of the party does not seem obsolete, and there were lots of remarks that suggested enthusiasm for elections, even if only as a mobilising opportunity, and a considered engagement with party squabbles that showed amusement, exasperation, and perseverance. Everyone had something interesting and slightly different to say about this, and did not seem particularly concerned with reaching agreement; even at times pointed out express disagreements between themselves.

What this means for the long-term strength or coherence of ‘the party’ is difficult to say, but to those in search of a different politics of heterodox forms, the opportunities to come together will have a value of their own. ‘The left gathers those who seek to improve on existing thresholds of egalitarianism and solidarity through critical thought and collective action’, writes Benjamin Arditi in a recent discussion of what counts as the left today. ‘It is not particularly relevant whether this pursuit is channeled through mainstream institutions of liberal democratic states — parties, legislatures, and executive branches of government — or through other sites of intervention that are starting to demarcate a post-liberal setting for politics. Echoing Karl Marx, all this happens in circumstances that are not of the left’s choosing and within the constraints imposed by the strategic relationships with others, the available resources, and a particular time frame.’

Is it surprising that the political left — with its insistence that the ‘social’ cannot be mapped solely by monotheistic or monopolistic forms like state, capital or religion, its organising metaphor of ‘class’ that stresses division — is disunited, perpetually on the verge of merger or split, perpetually restless and in disagreement? (I would point anyone tempted to think this a peculiarly Pakistani affliction to read this article on the Indian left is the latest EPW http://www.epw. in/commentary/why-left-more-divided-right.html, and this article in the Guardian http://www.theguardian .com/politics/2013/sep/09/time-for-leftwing-ukip-labour on the new British far left, which mentions its ‘apparent belief in an age-old socialist maxim: why have one party when 59 will suffice?’) This can seem like a good or bad thing depending on where you stand — but it is certainly discouraging for those who want the left to present a unified front and maybe even make some kind of showing at the polls.

In 2012, news of the merger of three left parties (Labour, Awami and Workers’ parties) in the Awami Workers’ Party revived a degree of interest in the subsequent course of action of the organised left. I asked a couple of left activists about life after the merger. One senior activist I talked with described it as an arranged marriage, in which you have to get to know the person after you end up with him. Unfamiliarity with electioneering and perhaps a fear of democracy-by-vote caused organisational friction. Fear stemmed from recoil from what abject defeat could confirm about the present status of the left among the awam as well as what the process of engagement would do the parties who had spent much of the 1990s closeted in on themselves. In the event the AWP did field some 14 candidates.

Yet, the younger activists or engagés that I met with seemed to be under no illusion about their ‘objective’ standing in electoral or popular politics. One admitted that their participation in the Lawyers’ Movement, which aggregated the forces of lawyers, civil society activists and some political parties, brought home to them the sorry state of their ability to mobilise street power.

The PPP’s legacy casts its huge shadow or glow, depending on how you see it, on the left today; the time may now be ripe to have an informed, multivocal debate about what the left, specifically, can take away from this legacy. For some left activists, the current state of the state is a direct corollary of the disappearance of left-wing politics from the public sphere, which leaves the field wide open for rightist religious extremism and pro-market social conservatism. In this narrative, the PPP is sometimes credited with keeping the floodgates closed. It presented a confused hydra-headed form — Islamic-socialist, secular, pro-nationalist, pro-Sindhi-nationalist and pro-poor, and perhaps even pro-intellectual — that managed to win a substantial public space. As long as it was not in a full-term government, where possibility decisively failed to translate into performance.

But beyond the nostalgia for the PPP myth, a more pertinent question for the left might be if there is any appetite left for a politics that makes a reality out of so many illusions and compromises. What cannot be underestimated, however, is the value that attaches to representation of interests above and beyond the success of a particular political party. Are the ‘people’ are in need of a new party — the disenfranchised factory labourers, peasants, slum dwellers, women, liberals and artist whose constituency was so ambiguously represented by the PPP? Or is this a juncture at which a new politics is possible, one that would put the PPP in perspective and possibly make a case for a politics not against but adjacent to the state-party-establishment form.

Sarah Humayun is a writer based in Lahore. She can be reached at sarah.humayun at


The above article from The News is reproduced here in public interest and is for educational and non commercial use