21st century imperialism: A debate within the Pakistani left
First published at Jahmoor.
After a long interval, the 21st century has revived interest and support for Left politics in Pakistan. The Jamhoor team got together with leaders of Pakistan’s three major leftist parties – Aasim Sajjad Akhtar (Awami Workers’ Party), Ammar Ali Jan (Haqooq-e-Khalq Party) and Syed Azeem (Pakistan Mazdoor Kissan Party) to think through the challenges and opportunities faced by the Left within the current political and economic conjuncture.
As the balance of imperialist forces seems to shift across the world — with the US defeat in Afghanistan and China’s ever-growing role within the world economy and politics — the Pakistani Left is confronted with a host of dilemmas. How should it contend with a resurgent Afghan Taliban and militancy across the region in the context of US military defeat and withdrawal? How should it engage with Pakistan’s ‘evergreen friend’ China, and its ‘cold war’ against the US? How should it approach the role of Pakistan’s military and its machinations against rival imperialisms in the region? In short, what does anti-imperialism look like for the Pakistani Left today?
In tandem with these global political economic shifts, the deepening of the political crisis within Pakistan is a sign that alliances within the ruling class are shifting. The emergence of a new political vacuum presents the Left with another set of challenges and opportunities: How should it distinguish its anti-imperialism from the more popular right-wing anti-imperialist discourse of the PTI and TLP? Should it ally itself with mainstream liberal democratic forces or does that risk diluting its own politics? To what end should it engage with the electoral sphere?
By reflecting on the Left’s past and current confrontations with these questions, we hope to illuminate some of the emergent paths for Left politics in the 21st century.
We recognize that the panel’s male dominance partially reflects our team’s challenge in bringing together key women leftist leaders in a timely manner and partially the nature of the politics of leadership. On our end, we hope to rectify this omission with dedicated follow-up conversations in the near future. We also note that this interview was conducted before the unprecedented flooding disasters this year, and while our conversation touches upon issues related to the environmental crisis facing Pakistan, these questions have since assumed much greater urgency.
The US after the withdrawal from Afghanistan
Tayyaba: With the end of the US occupation of Afghanistan in 2021, and the return of the Taliban, the Pakistani Left and Pashtun nationalists took a range of different political positions, from being sympathetic to the US-backed Ashraf Ghani regime to supporting the Taliban as a potentially anti-imperialist force. How do you think the Left should have grappled with the American occupation, subsequent withdrawal, and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan?
Azeem: This debate dates back to 2001 when the US occupied Afghanistan. At that time, there were several different positions within the Pakistani Left. One position, held by many progressives, considered Pervez Musharraf a progressive liberal and were convinced that the ultra-conservative regime in Afghanistan, which was anti-women and anti-minorities, needed to be countered. So the Left had a very weak anti-imperialist position in the early 2000s. Most of them wanted the Taliban to go, so they supported the US invasion. This included Pervez Hoodbhoy and Taimur Rahman, for example. [Rahman has contested this claim. –Ed.]
With the exception of a few, most leftists either supported the war, or were silent at best. A lot of the left at the time was associated with the growing Western-funded NGO industry in Pakistan. Though we were a minority within the left, the Mazdoor Kisan Party (MKP) organized a long march, from Kasur to Sakhakot, condemning US imperialism.
Around 2006, when Musharraf’s popularity declined, and the occupation had not borne fruit, some more prominent people within the Left, like Aasim [Sajjad Akhtar], became openly critical of US policies in the region. At the time, the Pakistani Taliban were getting more active. When they took control of Swat and tried to implement Shariah, another liberal left position gained prominence: that the Taliban are the primary enemy, the principal contradiction. A third position held primarily by the Trotskyites, particularly Sartaj Khan and Dr. Riaz, celebrated the Taliban as an anti-imperialist force. While I disagreed with this position, it encouraged us to look at the class composition of the Taliban. In this regard, their analysis was noteworthy.
After witnessing the US failing in Afghanistan, and as a result of debates within the Left, a new middle position emerged, primarily from Farooq Tariq. While they were critical of the US, they declared that both the Taliban and the US were “equal enemies”.
My view at the time, which I clarified in my writing between 2010 and 2014, was that while both the US and the Taliban are our enemies, they are not at all equal enemies. One is the world's largest military machine, with immense arms, influence and economic power, and the others are dispersed tribes supported from here and there. So they can never be equated. US imperialism remains the principal contradiction, I argued.
In 2014, when drone attacks in Pakistan intensified, these same positions were reflected in the way different leftists reacted to the strikes. Leftists like Hoodbhoy and Taimur were supporting drone strikes, while people like us in the MKP were vehemently opposing them as forms of imperialist aggression.
Today, we need to look at things slightly differently. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has taken place at a time when the US is no longer a hegemonic force. It still enjoys immense influence. But with the rise of China, we are entering a non-hegemonic phase. In this new context, the earlier positions should be re-analyzed. Even today though, I would argue that imperialism remains the principal contradiction.
While I support the end of the US occupation, the Taliban takeover is not good news for the people of Afghanistan. They are not a pro-people force, and therefore cannot be an anti-imperialist force. You cannot be anti-imperialist if you are not pro-people: these two things go hand in hand. The fight against imperialism, historically, rests on the shoulders of workers, peasants, and the marginalized sections. Wherever the bourgeoisie has led anti-imperialist movements, they have always been compromised.
Ammar: There has been a debate within the Left about the exact role of the Pakistani state vis-à-vis imperialism, the Taliban, and Islamic extremism. In the 1980s, the debate was that Pakistan was a rentier state of the US in the Cold War, and it was using Islamic militants as proxies. This worldview was very easy to understand, and it informed much of leftist thinking in the twentieth century, particularly during the Cold War.
But all of this changed after the Cold War, especially after 9/11, when the contradictions between imperialism and militant Islam became sharper. Most of the Left at this point was experiencing a subjectivity of defeat. When I joined the Left, there were no serious discussions and perspectives about gaining power and winning, not even informally. Most of the analysis focussed on what the state should be doing. That is why large sections of the Pakistani Left morphed into something akin to civil society groups, like the civil rights movement in the US, where they were fighting for certain issues of social justice, but not asking how the people could win power.
This became an intense national debate after 9/11. One perspective was that the US is the mightiest military power in the world, and if it came to the region, it would be very difficult to fight and would cause immense destruction. The other perspective was that, despite the US being an imperialist power, Islamic extremism is the immediate threat faced by the Pakistani people because it would end any possibility of progressive thought in the country. They would give examples of Afghanistan where you had the possibility of a Left even under pro-Western governments, but once the clergy came to power, that possibility was annihilated.
First, over time, it became clear that people underestimated how the US presence and the War on Terror would impact local politics. Some of the biggest social movements in Pakistan over the last decade were crushed under the garb of the War on Terror. Farmers were arrested and charged with terrorism in the Okara military farmers’ movements led by the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab (AMP). Workers in the Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM) in Faisalabad were tried by the anti-terror court and given life sentences for terrorism because they went on strike for one day to demand a minimum wage. There are many other such examples of the Pakistani state using the War on Terror as a fig leaf to crush movements – including those of students, women, katchi abadi (informal settlements) residents, etc.
The War on Terror was not limited to fighting extremists in faraway lands. It became a tool of managing populations internally, and created its own legal, military, and political logic. It decimated space for democratic participation. It is very difficult for any country to have democratic participation when it has been geared towards fighting other people’s wars for so long. Pakistan has been doing this since the 1950s.
Second, people came to recognize that the US is no longer a power that is even mildly interested in reconstruction and state-building, as it was in post-war Europe. The US has become a demolition squad that invades and destroys states, which is their new way of managing opponents in different countries. This has happened in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Sections of the Left mistakenly believed that America would build some semblance of a civil society and democracy in Afghanistan.
To end, and as Azeem bhai pointed out, we should keep in mind that contradictions always remain dynamic. At a structural level, there is an absolute contradiction, but when immediate battles are taking place, it becomes important to take certain sides, which one would not have taken in other circumstances. When Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), with its very anti-Western rhetoric, stormed the capital in 2017, 2018, and 2020 in an effort to run over the Pakistani state, the Left correctly pointed out that the state ought to stop them, even by force, because otherwise it would lead to a chaotic situation. While we are anti-authoritarian and anti-state, a TLP victory would not be liberation from the state. Rather, it would be the reproduction of the worst aspects of the Pakistani state and its toxic ideology.
Similarly, when the Taliban were coming back to power, there was room for the Left to give tactical support to groups that were willing to resist the Taliban regime, which is not only interested in fighting a foreign power, but is ideologically anti-minority, anti-women, and anti-development. In that sense, these contradictions remain dynamic, and there has to be a dialectical relationship between the permanent, structural contradictions, and the immediate tactical questions faced by the Left.
Aasim: First of all, I would strongly suggest that to put all of these myriad groups that we have talked about into the category of ‘Left’ is misplaced. Pervez Hoodbhoy is not of the Left. I do not know under what category you could call him a leftist. He is a liberal. This explains why he would be thankful for Americans coming to kill the Taliban. This worldview does not extend to questions of class or even development more broadly. Taimur Rahman is a slightly different, more complicated, category of opinion, because obviously he is very avowedly Left.
Nevertheless, when I was getting involved in the Left around the turn of the millennium, to be progressive meant to be secular. It did not mean to have a position on class or other forms of social polarization. It meant to talk about equal rights for minorities and women, nothing beyond standard liberal positions. And I think we are still saddled with this when we are thinking through what an anti-imperialist position should be, because a lot of our immediate everyday political positions, and even actual mobilizations, involve people who are liberals. So I think this is a constant question of self-reflexivity.
I fully agree with Azeem's description of an evolution. There were people in 2001 who unequivocally opposed the US intervention. We came out against the Iraq War in Pindi in 2003. It was not huge, but there were significant sections of the Left talking about resisting empire. Of course, within the metropolitan Left, this was an age where Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri were writing about empire and multitudes, and how there was no such thing as imperial wars anymore. There were elements of that playing out in Pakistan as well.
On the other hand, if you said anything about the Taliban being an organic force with rootedness in the rural countryside, which I was saying 20 years ago, you were immediately labelled a Taliban sympathizer. While the Taliban have always enjoyed external support, they certainly were a rural insurgency. Whether in Swat or Waziristan, their existence and sustenance cannot be explained by patronage of the religious right from the Pakistani state and military alone. But there was no space to have a nuanced position on this.
That persisted all the way through 2014 and 2015 with the Swat operation and with Zarb-e-Azb. Any position that was critical of military expeditions was seen as sympathetic to the Taliban. That has changed with the emergence of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which crystallized those nuanced positions that had been pushed into very distant corners.
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan brings all of this into sharp relief. Those who, 20 years ago, thought that the invasion was a great idea no longer defend that position. As Ammar said, the War on Terror gave the state a mandate to do whatever it wanted under the guise of some nebulous idea of terrorism. Liberals even stopped articulating that kind of unconditional support for the state in the name of crushing terrorism around the time the PTM emerged.
Having said that, the PTM also reflected these tensions and contradictions. Now, unfortunately, it is post-facto, because PTM is effectively fragmented. Ultimately, it was an articulation of nationalist politics, in which you could name the Taliban, the Pakistani army and the empire, though the latter was the one you named the least. You saw that when the Ashraf Ghani regime fell and the Taliban reconquered. It took a few months for a sheepish acknowledgment that Washington facilitated all of this. They struck a deal with the Taliban to bring them back into power. This did not happen by chance but by design. Those who had not criticized American imperialism for 20 years were now forced to name the US as a major protagonist in this whole story. Otherwise the Americans had been seen, in a sense, as the good guys.
I think, partly the Left struggles with these questions because we ourselves straddle Left and liberal positions. A distinctly Left position would have talked about the economics of imperialism, which in Afghanistan, as Ammar said, was basically just a money-making machine in the name of war and reconstruction. I think those facts of imperialism were thoroughly underspecified, and shouldn’t just be post-facto pointed out. Instead, there should have been a clear articulation that even if we share certain viewpoints with liberals, there is a distinctly Left position and I think as Ammar was saying, this is the only way that the Left can become a meaningful contender for power. This is what we’ve struggled to do in the last twenty years or so.
Tayyaba: Aasim, can you articulate this distinctly Left position a bit more clearly?
Aasim: There is an analytical position which acknowledges that in the absence of a genuinely anti-imperialist force, the Right (the religious right or others like Imran Khan) may pose as anti-imperialists. Even if empirically they have some rootedness in working class populations, that does not mean they offer emancipatory political horizons. It just means that the working class is being attracted to fascism, like in Italy and Germany in the past. That is what Antonio Gramsci spent his entire prison years writing about. It is equivalent to how working and lower middle-class populations in Karachi were attracted to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) politics. Once we have a clear analysis, we can assess how the right is stepping in to fill a space we are not occupying by selling vacuous slogans of anti-Americanism.
Imperialism and politics on the ground
Tayyaba: Having articulated your respective positions, how do you think they have played out on the ground? How is your political organizing influenced by your position on imperialism?
Aasim:: First, we have to go back in history to think about the last time that the Left was a meaningful contender for power in Pakistan or the region. A few decades ago, anti-imperialist politics was founded on two pillars. One was class, and the other was the national question. A crucial reason for the decline of Left politics domestically — aside from the end of the Cold War and the ‘end of ideology’ etc — was the decline of the politics of class. The Left ceded space in working-class neighbourhoods and issues to the Right, making progressive politics all about secularism, or a certain kind of politics of recognition rather than a politics of redistribution.
Second, over time, the national question has become more insular. We have nothing like the National Awami Party (NAP), a broad united front of anti-imperialists, socialists, and ethnic nationalists. Now you have Sindhi and Baloch nationalists in many different groups, often hating on one another for different levels of commitment to the nationalist cause. PTM was exciting precisely because it represented for a while a rehabilitated articulation of potentially anti-imperialist Pashtun nationalism. But, as we know, it did not quite reach its fruition and is now fragmented.
In organizing on the ground, our efforts have tried to address those two spaces where we have retreated. I work in Pashtun katchi abadis (informal settlements), where people are hardcore Deobandis and many of them probably have a soft corner for the Taliban. But if we had gone in there and asked, “What is your ideology?”, rather than, “What is the issue of dispossession around which we can organize?”, then we would not have made much progress. It would be naive to pretend that working-class neighbourhoods are automatically imbued with progressive ideals. Irrespective of ideology, one still tries to engage on class issues, and then over time, once you have developed deeper relationships, then you can challenge people on ideological issues and question their views about women, minorities, etc. This happened in our organizing work in Okara. I also talk about internationalism when I am organizing. The Left spends a lot of time doing politics on the national question, on the brutalization in peripheries like Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh or Gilgit-Baltistan. But most nationalists still do not trust us; they are wary of us trying to bring people together. So it’s an uphill battle but that does not mean that we stop.
To reclaim that ceded space, we need to generate substantial working-class pockets of support, and try to move back towards progressive nationalist principles in the peripheries. Similarly, in metropolitan areas, a lot of Baloch, Pashtun and Sindhi youth who come to study almost always tend towards us but there is always a point beyond which we struggle to have our minds meet. But that is an ongoing challenge.
Ammar: Aasim has explained some of the main contradictions that one faces when dealing with allies internally around the question of imperialism. For example, it is both a moral and historical responsibility for the Punjabi Left to take a position in favour of Baloch, Sindhi, and Pashtun nationalists who are being targeted by the state. We do not have to agree with all aspects of their ideology. Unlike the ‘70s and ‘80s, when these were anti-imperialist projects, now there is considerable expectation amongst these nationalists for some kind of US support. Despite all of that, the level and the kind of brutality exercised against these groups makes it an absolute necessity to defend them.
At this point in time, it is very important to defend them from a perspective of solidarity, building a kind of broader coalition in the future, and not necessarily from a perspective of shared ideology. A lot of our friends in the PTM, as Aasim rightly pointed out, are not just soft on imperialism – some of them are pro-imperialism, pro-US. Despite that, when the PTM arrives in Lahore and there is a crackdown on them, it becomes a responsibility on the Punjabi Left to defend them. All of us have suffered because of our position on the PTM. These are questions of practice that will have to be resolved over time, keeping in mind the role of the Pakistani military and the Taliban in brutalizing many of these populations.
I believe that in politics one has to remain open to impossible alliances and impossible encounters. I say that not only with regard to alliances with nationalists, but also with civil society liberals. Whenever we have been in trouble, a lot of these NGOs, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, have supported Left activists, knowing that we have a critical stance towards NGOs and the West. But they have stood by us, and if anything illegal happens to them, we raise our voices in support as well.
These are tactical alliances that are made in struggle, which should not be confused with the strategic horizons that every political entity has. For any human rights group funded by the West, the strategic horizon is to defend some idea of liberal democracy, with all the compromises that it entails. We encounter these groups in our struggle for a different kind of state and society, but momentarily we are also meeting because we are faced by the same mortal threat by an enemy that can annihilate us.
This is even true in working-class neighbourhoods. Recently, people from the TLP joined the Haqooq-e-Khalq Party (HKP) because we launched a campaign on cleanliness in their neighbourhood. These people are Barelvis with a lot of extremist views. But when you are in a fight, let’s say against a government institution that is refusing to clean the neighbourhood, to provide clean water, gas and electricity or to improve the schools, then you go to the mosques, the churches, to anyone and everyone, to seek support. At the tactical level, that openness is very important.
Finally, we have to talk about engaging with the mainstream as well, considering that the Left does not have representation in the parliament and we are pushing for legislative reforms like the restoration of student unions. For that, one will have to engage with the mainstream parties that have the power to legislate. This is part of a rich history of leftists, like Mao and Lenin in some cases, critically and tactically engaging with ideological opponents, including state officials, and even imperialism. Considering the nature of the state, we will have to deal with mainstream parties. This may blur things at the tactical level, so we have to be clear about our strategic horizon, which is a fight for a socialist Pakistan.
Azeem: Ammar and Aasim have explained in depth the important practical problems we face on the ground. I will just refer to history and some Marxist theory to explain how I think we should be dealing with these very real problems. There are two types of contradictions: principal contradictions and other contradictions. For example, at one point, imperialism was supporting religious extremism. Then post-9/11, it started fighting the Taliban, and then, when the US was leaving Afghanistan in 2021, they once again supported the Taliban to facilitate their exit. While the principal contradiction – imperialism - remained throughout this time, other contradictions kept changing.
While dealing with other contradictions, if we are not clear about the principal contradiction, then our struggle can derail into narrow nationalism or very liberal forms of struggles against the Taliban etc. Even in practice, there is strategy, and there are tactics. Strategy is the program the Left wants to achieve: a socialist society, anti-imperialist struggle, a planned economy etc. If our tactics are not aligned with our strategy, that will derail us from achieving our ultimate goal and take us towards reformist, liberal politics.
That is the danger of dealing with day-to-day problems without having determined the extent to which we can fight these battles. For example, it was not wrong for the Left to have supported liberal democracy in Pakistan. We supported the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in the ‘80s and the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy in the 2000s. We still support struggles against the military or judiciary when they try to derail democracy, but the extent to which you do that depends on your strategy.
In terms of the national question, I was reading a very important article by Dr. Aziz ul-Haq from 1971, when there was a split within the Professors’ Group on the question of the military operation in East Pakistan. Dr. Aziz ul Haq led the group that supported the operation and split from Professor Azizuddin, who was leading those against the operation. He went on to form the People’s Youth Front and was murdered soon after.
In the article, he explained this split, spelling out four different positions, which are relevant even today. His position was to support the resolution of the national question, but he was against the elites leading the national fight — people like Akbar Bugti, Wali Khan, etc. On the other hand, the Left that was opposed to the operation in Bangladesh was lending support to these nationalist leaders. We are once again at a similar juncture. After the ‘50s and ‘60s, after Fanon and the many national liberation movements of that time, it has become clear that the national bourgeoisie in post-colonial countries is not in a position to lead the historic task of anti-imperialism and liberation. In those countries, the question of national liberation comes on the shoulders of workers, peasants, middle classes, students, etc. National liberation requires them to fight for their democratic struggle against their national bourgeoisie. It is not possible for Wali Khan’s group to ever be anti-imperialist, and fight for the freedom of Pashtuns, or for the Baloch tribal leaders to win freedom for the Baloch. Historically that has not been true. Even if they accomplish a formal liberation, it will not last for long. It will turn into something else because the class question will remain unasked.
PTM is facing the same dilemma. While they have the support of a very large number of radical, enlightened and progressive youth, the Pashtun bourgeoisie and nationalist leaders view them as a threat. In resolving the national question, PTM can either join hands with the old nationalists, or it can go to the working class to deepen its roots and to truly engage in a project of emancipation of the Pashtun population against imperialism and the military. For now though, they seem to be leaning towards the idea that the national question can resolve all other contradictions, which I do not agree with. If the principal contradiction is not kept in mind, it will keep changing form, and continue adding to the misery of the Pashtun populations.
Tayyaba: The overall point you are making is that the principal contradiction dictates the strategy, and therefore the tactics have to be aligned with the strategy, otherwise the movement can go in a direction that ultimately undermines its political goals.
Azeem: If you are clear about the principal contradiction, you can organize more around the subjective conditions rather than the objective conditions. Instead of constantly moving from one issue to the other, you can focus on organizing around your long-term strategy. Otherwise you will start ambulance-chasing, because there are so many other contradictions that momentarily become sharper.
Hadia: Do you have an example from your organizing work where you have had to confront this dilemma of the strategy not aligning with the tactics? What did you do in those situations? Have there been instances where you have had to leave a tactic for the sake of the broader strategy?
Azeem: After the 1996 takeover of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the MKP was part of the Pakistan National Conference (PNC) along with the Workers’ Party of Minto Sahib and Ghinwa Bhutto’s party. They saw the Taliban as the primary danger to the Left. They would say things like, “The Taliban are coming to Pakistan. They are 200 kilometres from Islamabad”. For many, the end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a new peaceful era of democracy, the market economy, development, and no imperialism. Many leftists/liberals saw religious fundamentalism as the primary enemy. After Pervez Musharraf’s coup in 1999, people within our groups supported the takeover, claiming that the military had changed its position and would now give space to the Left. They claimed it was a progressive power that wanted things like land reforms and development, even claiming that some generals had attended progressive study circles. 9/11 gave credence to those voices. The Left made a tactical decision to support the military against religious fundamentalism.
In such situations, one is compelled to decide whether to forego their focus on the principal contradiction in order to attend to other immediate contradictions, or to ensure that the principal contradiction is always dictating tactics on the ground. If the focus is always on addressing these other contradictions, it can take you very far from your revolutionary project. Those immediate contradictions have their own solutions within a liberal, reformist system, and are not anti-imperialist.
Tayyaba: Azeem, in light of that, what would you say to Ammar’s point of building a strategic alliance with the PTM because of the brutality they are facing, and as a historic responsibility of the Punjabi Left, even if there are elements within the PTM which do not fully align with an anti-imperialist vision?
Azeem: We all agree that we should support the PTM. However, while being in those alliances, how does one keep a distinct position? How is one clear about the long-term strategy, while continuing to engage at a tactical level? And most importantly, your cadre must not lose sight of your long-term goal and vision.
War on Terror
Arsalan: There was a lot of confusion within the left around Operation Zarb-e-Azb [the Pakistan military offensive ostensibly against militant groups in North Waziristan/FATA]. A vocal section of the Left supported the operation, and many were taken by surprise when the PTM later emerged from many of the same areas. Do you think the Left has been prejudiced in dealing with peripheral regions like FATA?
Aasim: I agree this was a source of confusion. In the Awami Workers’ Party (AWP), there was a huge struggle over this question. Those of us explicitly opposed to supporting any military operation were seen as a big problem. As you suggest, the Punjabi Left has historically tended towards being a bit insular and we have all inherited this deep sectarianism. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and even now in some segments of the Left, there is still an acute sense of sectarianism, such as who is a Trotskyite, a Maoist, a Stalinist, so on and so forth…
When I became involved in Left politics, I was exposed primarily to the pro-Russian left — and there was always this sense, which I felt was a bit too simplistic, that the ‘pro-Ayub’ [pro-China] Left, also called the ‘sarkari’ (state-allied) Left, had been given more leeway to work, unlike us, the leftists in the peripheries who were not even allowed to exist. So there is a history and element of truth in what you are saying.
Similarly, there were large segments of the Left that broke away from the National Awami Party (NAP) and joined the People’s Party (between 1967-69), who were very ethnocentric and insular. They had a compromised position on Bangladesh and even supported Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s military operation in Balochistan. So there is this underlying tension in Pakistan’s Left movement — I said previously that, for me, the class and national questions enjoy a symbiotic relationship, but unfortunately that’s not how they have always been seen in Left circles. Having said that, we also cannot equate class with nation and it’s important for there to be some ‘gradation’. In fact Ammar and I were discussing this the other day that for those of us organizing in Punjab, we cannot just do politics on the national question — we also have to have our own working-class base in the final analysis. So these are difficult, tricky questions.
Coming back to your point, I do not discount the fact that there may be some underlying racism. But not just racism, maybe an underlying feeling of superiority — that perhaps as Punjabis we are more well-read, samajhdaar [politically astute], or have greater familiarity with the Marxist canon, than those who are ‘only nationalists’. Coincidentally, our current party president, Yousuf Masti Khan, has spent his life among nationalist circles and still describes himself as a progressive nationalist — so I think there is a way to reconcile across this diverse spectrum, but there are also tensions. And these tensions were certainly reflected in the [military] operations. They were happening far away, and we might not like to admit it but mainstream Pakistan was always more likely to be drawn to government ideological tropes and media projections [about the tribal areas].
I was not surprised about PTM because, as I mentioned, we have greater interactions with Baloch, Pashtun, and Sindhi students coming into [Punjabi] cities to study. But some of the old guard, who may not have had that exposure, were a bit taken aback, and suddenly had to reconsider their previously unconditional support for the operation. I would not attribute that to some absolute underlying racist streak, while at the same time, one should acknowledge their blind spots and insularities.
Azeem: Yes, I think there were multiple levels of confusion within the Left — first, on the question of imperialism as we discussed, and then within that context, the question of Pashtun nationalism and the military operation. The operation was not just against the Taliban but against mostly Pashtun populations with huge violations against their human and constitutional rights. In a sense the national and imperialist question collided here.
I agree that we need to look back into historical patterns. As Aasim pointed out, yes Maoist groups were historically very much pro-Pakistan, due to the ties between the Ayub regime and China, whereas the pro-Moscow Left was very pro-India as it was anti-Pakistan state. At the same time, our analysis right now should be a ‘concrete analysis of concrete conditions’ — we should go back to theory and history but we must also reinvent. Continuity from the past is important but there is also a need of rupture, and here again I agree with Aasim.
While our positions have evolved over time particularly on imperialism, I think on the national question we are going in circles. On the one hand, the national question has been exhausted, on the other, it has gotten sharper. There seems to be an opening for class politics within it. It seems to be the right time to intervene in the national question from a class perspective.
Tayyaba: In your organizing, how have you dealt with the question of the Pakistani military vis-à-vis its position within Pakistan’s ruling class, its subservience to US imperialism, and its own strategic and economic agendas?
Ammar: This is an important question and it links back to what comrade Aasim and comrade Azeem were saying. The Pakistani state has an ethnic logic – how it makes certain human beings more disposable compared to others is a very real part of the experience of ordinary people. This becomes clear in peripheral regions and in the case of women and minorities. This differentiation between people and the different intensities of violence they face is an integral part of how the state operates, and hence should be an integral part of our strategy to fight the state. Pakistan’s military is the primary vehicle in this racialized violence.
The question of unity is a difficult one because there is no such thing as one Punjabi left, one Pashtun position or one Baloch position. Just a few days ago (Aug 2022), the largest contingent of Imran Khan supporters was in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where he is extremely popular. So the periphery has its own contradictions, alongside the ones in the core and those across the federation. These have to be articulated together to form an alternative politics.
When we talk about the military and the state, we often ignore the global economic infrastructure within which our state is embedded. The critique of imperialism should not just stem from our position on Afghanistan or drones. Imran Khan has a very strong anti-American position on some of those issues, but he is the same guy who kneeled in front of the IMF, cut one of the worst deals and handed over the State Bank to an ex-IMF employee, Reza Baqir.
We have a very decadent elite that is not productive, even in the capitalist sense. Most of our money goes into land speculation overseen by the military, which has massive financial interests. Our unproductive economy is sustained by a massive import bill. We have a balance of payments crisis because of the IMF. The Pakistani state does not undertake reforms to fix this because it knows that it will keep getting loans as long as the military continues to play its historical role of a rentier.
The military rents its services out to the US in order to fight wars in the region. That has ensured constant supply of cash to sustain this very decadent, elite-driven economy. This relationship between violence, the military and imperialism is also intimately tied to the economic structure which is embedded within global capitalism. Pakistan is an outpost for America’s wars in the region, for controlling South Asia and for trying to manage the Muslim world. The US is now intensifying its role against China, which is also a part of the contradiction that is emerging between the Pakistani state and the US.
So one way that we can target both the military and imperialism is by questioning this IMF-sustained, unproductive, and decadent elite-driven economic infrastructure, which, according to the UNDP, includes a massive 17 billion dollars in annual privileges to the elites, a large portion of which goes to the military. Ordinary people become sacrificial lambs, and the situation is even more tense in the peripheries. Comrade Aasim has written about this in his recent book. Since this decadent elite cannot provide even a semblance of capitalist development, it simply goes on a rampage resembling primitive accumulation — taking away resources from the Baloch, occupying islands in Sindh, dispossessing farmers in Okara from their lands, and extracting minerals from FATA by creating monopolies and extorting rents.
The future is quite bleak. The military is not creating jobs but creating surplus populations. The natural logic of this system will be increased militarization, and the only thing we will be selling to the world is our support to some imperial power in its geo-strategic calculations in the region. That is a dystopian future against which we must fight. If we couch it in those terms, we can get support not just from mainland Pakistan, but also from the peripheries, because this system cannot give recognition or a place to either unless we have a very different economic orientation freed from the elites and their international backers.
Azeem: The Pakistan military is the seat of power of imperialism in the region, and it protects the interests of Pakistan’s capitalist and feudal elite. They may fight among each other, but ultimately the military protects them. This means our politics should be careful not to lend support to this institution through any excuse, whether that be curbing fundamentalism or anything else. It should be confined to the barracks, and its economic interests challenged. We should support any efforts to weaken this institution, from liberal sides or progressive sides, because — and this is important — this is the force that is protecting imperialism. We should not lose sight of this overall goal. Our struggle should be tied to our anti-imperialist politics and our ultimate project to build a socialist economy in Pakistan.
Aasim: This is an easy one for all of us to agree on, so I will just add some complexity to the problem. Is the military purely an entity that protects, defends, and projects the interest of the American empire, or does it also do a bit of mix and match? Ammar talked about Pakistan being a militarized rentier state. We should extend that a little bit further to understand CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and the other patterns of the Pakistani state. America is still the dominant and primary entity as it still props up the military. While China has been an important part of Pakistan’s foreign policy matrix since the mid-60s, Chinese developmentalism is a new phase of the Sino-Pak relationship which started with the free trade arrangement in 2002, and in the form of CPEC in 2015. Of course, if Imran Khan was genuinely ‘anti-US’, he would have deepened CPEC, but he did the opposite. The PML-N were serious about CPEC and Imran Khan dragged his feet on it. Either way, the state as a whole, including the military, has cultivated and deepened economic ties with China.
This indicates that the military still sees its primary strategic, economic and corporate interests being served. It certainly does not see economic cooperation with China or Chinese influence as detrimental. In fact, in some areas — particularly the question of surveillance — it benefits from the cooperation. As far as statecraft goes, China is a more successful model of surveillance than any other country in the world. Large CPEC projects, like lining the fiber-optic cable and various ‘safe city projects’, represent a symbiotic relationship with the Pakistani military’s project of social control.
How will the military strike a balance between the US and China? Will it be able to maintain an adequate balancing act? Ammar has noted very rightly that a “New Cold War” on China seems to have a strategic consensus in the American establishment. How will America take to Pakistan continuing to warm up to China? We will have to wait and see. The Pakistani military clearly feels it can play both sides of this very complex strategic game.
But regardless, it certainly feels that its economic and corporate interests are being served by playing both sides. Because either way— whether it is the rapacious model of natural resource capture with the help of China, or the more financialized form of speculative capitalism christened and sealed in New York and Wall Street—the Pakistani military is trying to bridge these various forms of developmentalism in the global capitalist system for its own purposes.
Ammar rightfully pointed out that, for the Left the question is how to link these somewhat complex questions to organic struggles on the ground, especially struggles around dispossession. Whether it is Chinese developmentalism, or America’s imperial wars, the dominant effect of both is dispossession. Not just now but also for future generations, when it comes to mass construction and mining of gold, coal, or copper. The long-term ecological impacts of the National Logistics Cell (NLC) and Frontier Workers Organization (FWO) complex, along with their logistics, construction and road-building empires remains underspecified, especially in mountainous highland areas. I think we have to be brave, and not just resign ourselves to choosing between the US and China. Our job is not to engage in baseless China-bashing either, but to understand our own concrete conditions.
I’m always looking for a reason to believe that Chinese hegemony on the world stage will be pro-people and anti-imperialist, but I have yet to find one. This hope cannot be based on some abstract idea; it has to be reflected in what China brings to the table. If China ends up supporting authoritarianism, giving an affiliate to the military’s corporate empire, and by the way also offering a challenge to American hegemony, that is not sufficient for the Left to put all our chips in with China.
I also don’t think it’s time for us to call China a global imperialist power because that is going too far, but I do think it has imperialistic tendencies in Pakistan. While it’s not easy to build a political position around this, analytically it is something to acknowledge when thinking about how to articulate our positions.
Azeem: I agree with Aasim that the question of China is still unfolding. While we have a basic analysis of the nature of Chinese capital and some history of its investments in Latin America, Africa, and Pakistan, we do not have a history of Chinese expansionism. We should also be careful using the word “Cold War” for the the US and China rivalry. The Cold War was between two ideologies (with the socialist USSR which was supporting socialist movements around the world) whereas China today is a capitalist country. At most it can be called anti-[US]imperialist. It is too soon to call it a [global] imperialist state either.
My understanding is that a large contingent within the military has decided to side with US imperialism because of its historic continuity of colonialism. The links between the West and Pakistan run very deep and seeing this, China seems to have retreated from its promises to the Pakistani establishment. As Aasim said, once we are on the ground dealing with issues of dispossession, environmental degradation and landlessness, we will see China, the West, and our capitalist military — all of them — as enemies of the people.
Tayyaba: The right-wing has been successfully mobilizing support using the rhetoric of anti-Americanism. Why has the Left’s politics of anti-imperialism not been as resonant? Why has the Left been labelled “anti-national” or a “foreign agent”, when in fact it has such a long history of anti-imperialism?
Ammar: There is a difference between anti-Americanism or anti-Westernism and anti-imperialism. Anti-Westernism in Pakistan is a dangerously right-wing project, whose targets are women and minorities, and is tied to a hypermasculine notion of Pakistani nationalism. Nothing progressive can be redeemed from it. It takes the existing anxieties of people against the West and uses them with precision for a very anti-people, particularly anti-working class and authoritarian politics. This kind of xenophobia is happening across the world with Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines, previously Bolsonaro in Brazil, etc.
Reifying the global North and the global South as fixed categories is dangerous, and Imran Khan is using these in a deadly manner. The current bout of hysterical nationalism in Pakistan is particularly dangerous for the people and left-activists because he openly calls the Supreme Court, parliament, the media, liberals and the Left the biggest obstacles to his agenda. His project seeks to annihilate institutional protections for people, which is why even while he is out of favour with the army chief, he still has so much support from different sections of the military. This is exactly the political project of the military over the past 40 years, and now they have street support behind it.
Our anti-imperialism cannot be limited to these cultural critiques. As comrade Azeem said, our anti-imperialism is different because it is premised on marginalized sections of the population — women, students, middle class — but led by the working class and the peasantry. That is the historical meaning of anti-imperialism: to fight for socialism, a redistribution of resources, human dignity and national rights.
When there were high-profile rape cases during his tenure, Imran Khan would attribute them to vulgarity and Western values infiltrating our culture, shifting the blame onto women. When Hazara Shias were killed, he called them blackmailers because they are a minority and hence dispensable, disposable people.
The question of national or federal sovereignty should not be tied to culture, but to economic sovereignty. People like Modi, Duterte and Imran Khan are willing to give up on all forms of economic sovereignty. We saw how Imran Khan pushed the legislation giving autonomy to the IMF through Parliament without any debate, but somehow he is considered anti-American.
So we have to reverse this — we have to stress that being anti-imperialist means fighting for economic sovereignty, creating a people’s government with a developmental plan for all, redistributing resources internally, and ending the constant wars in our peripheries. A radical, pro-poor economic agenda lead by a part of the the working class — this sets us apart from these xenophobic, cultural critiques of the West. This is the only way to demilitarize, create cohesion and frankly to face the challenges of climate catastrophe.
Azeem: Imran Khan and his supporters are addressing the dissatisfaction people have with the cultural, military, and political aspects of imperialism. In terms of economics, while people recognize the issues with the IMF and the World Bank, Imran Khan’s regime was complicit in succumbing to these institutions.
When leftists take anti-US positions, they are accused by liberals and the Left of siding with the Right. After 9/11, we were dismissed as closet Jamaatis [supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami].
To be an anti-imperialist, one must necessarily subscribe to a pro-people politics. Both of these go hand in hand. The Imran Khan phenomenon is an upper-middle class one (and a diasporic one too) — appealing to engineers, educated professionals, those with money. Mainstream political parties have been unable to confront their propaganda. The only possible ideological confrontation can be from the Left: our truly anti-imperialist ideology which must be connected to a pro-people politics, the politics of the marginalized, and our history which shows that we are the actual custodians of anti-imperialist struggles.
In this context, organizing and educating our workers and cadre becomes extremely important. Since I joined the left in the 1990s, Left and anti-imperialist ideas have never been more popular than they are today. There is so much demand from students, professors and the educated youth, who want to learn about these things. This is an opportune time for the Left to organize around anti-imperialist ideas.
Aasim: I totally agree. Twenty years ago to be anti-imperialist was immediately to be branded a sympathizer of the Taliban, even on the Left, no matter how much you distinguished that position from a right-wing position. After the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a lot of recognition that these people were correct. That the empire made a mess and now we are left to clean it up.
You asked why we are branded anti-national — well, because our state is a pro-imperialist state. We have always been anti-national and anti-state, by that definition. Even relatively affluent nationalists have been branded anti-state in Pakistan’s history. So that is not surprising. To turn the tide and to make what is a minoritarian position into a mainstream position, as both Azeem and Ammar have said, we have to mobilize within working people, which is not difficult to imagine, but is difficult to do.
In the short-term, we need to keep pushing our narrative, and actually have an anti-imperialist position, not just raise slogans like Imran Khan is doing. But in the long run, given that we have a youth bulge in Pakistan, our definitions of working people and class politics must also expand to address this demographic because it is going to be the majority of the population.
This is also the population that Imran Khan appeals to. Youth who are tech-savvy, young, diasporic, connected, and wanting something new. Deepening their understanding is our responsibility. They are not necessarily going to be drawn to anti-imperialist positions, but we have to devise a strategy to address that population, both in the position they occupy as working people in whatever form that takes, and as young people and students.
And lastly, anti-imperialism in Pakistan in practice demands challenging the military. There is just no way around it. One way or another, this is the pillar of imperialist power in the domestic context. That is not so difficult to imagine now as opposed to twenty years ago. Today, the mainstreaming of the anti-establishment discourse, however superficial, where people do talk about the military and its corporate empire, also owes itself to the few left voices who used to talk about this when nobody else would. Okara [protests against military farms] was the first movement of its kind. No one else talked about the military’s land grabs at the time. That is something we have done, and I agree with Azeem, we have greater potential now, and that potential is more likely to be realized if we do it together.
Azeem: Nobody can fight an anti-imperialist fight alone. It is always a united front strategy. I think we are almost there.
Tayyaba: In the first part of this conversation, we took a more historical lens on the engagements of the Pakistani Left with the question of imperialism, specifically US imperialism and its entanglement with the Pakistani state through the War on Terror in the region. Today, we will focus on the current conjuncture. To start off, how would each of you characterize the building blocks for an anti-imperialist politics in Pakistan today?
Aasim: Pakistan is a rentier economy. Sometimes we beg from America, and sometimes from others. We have been borrowing from the IMF regularly for the past 40 years. The IMF has shaped the economic model which has been institutionalized along with its various forms of accumulation. This includes the military’s corporate empire, accumulation by the state, and accumulation by the capitalist and land-owning classes.
The progressive community has left unanswered this question of the economy, of class and empire. To re-occupy that space, we have to propagate the fact that this empire and imperialism are primarily economic constructs. Without that understanding, the progressive response ends up being a cultural critique only. This is the time to do that. There is a recognition now more than ever that the economy is dominated by lobbies or special elite interests, which, no matter what conditions the IMF imposes on us, still manage to keep intact their power and various sources of accumulation.
Azeem: I agree with Aasim. In the last phase of anti-imperialist politics in Pakistan, we were stuck with the question of terrorism, or dealing primarily with the military, political and cultural sphere of imperialism. That phase is now coming to an end. While we did criticize the IMF, World Bank, privatization, deregulation etc., we did not engage with those issues in a serious manner. The dire dependency of Pakistan on international forces has become clear. Not just on the IMF and the World Bank, but also the US, EU, the Arabs and other international consortiums, and now our dependency is quickly shifting towards China. How do we understand this dependency? How is it going to affect us, and how will we struggle against China? Where do we place China? Is it an imperialist force or not?
As Aasim said, we need to focus on imperialism as an economic construct to separate ourselves from the likes of Imran Khan and the Taliban whose anti-West rhetoric deals exclusively with the cultural aspects of imperialism. In spite of his anti-West rhetoric, all Imran Khan has to show for is his Ehsaas Program, and reliance on mainstream economists like Shaukat Tareen. They believe in capitalism. They believe in charity, rather than giving rights to workers. We have to have a very clear plan to counter this politics. Our next phase of struggle should be focused on the dependency and semi-colonial nature of Pakistan.
Ammar: I completely agree with what has been said so far. Increasingly, the question of imperialism is getting embedded within everyday experiences of Pakistanis. This is particularly evident when you work in any community with an infrastructure crisis. We were recently involved in a campaign around education, and we found that there are so many schools shutting down in working class areas, because parents cannot afford to pay 500 rupees tuition fee. On the other hand you have elite private schools popping up charging exorbitant amounts like 50,000 rupees per month. The class gap is huge. It is becoming increasingly clear that these loans that are crushing the country and our infrastructure were taken by the elites, whether from IMF, the international market and different lending sources like China, Saudi Arabia etc.
This is an unproductive, clientelist, patronage-based elite, who have only invested in unproductive sectors like real estate speculation. The surplus was absorbed in the unproductive sector so when it comes to paying the money back, the country is left with nothing. It almost always leads to a balance of payment crisis because this money is used to fuel a certain elite lifestyle, which leads to an increase in imports, but you have nothing to export. I mean you can not really export plots [real estate].
With this balance of payment crisis, the IMF comes in asking the country to make sacrifices. Eventually, however, the only people who are sacrificed are working class people or even the middle classes. This sacrifice happens through austerity. They face severe budget cuts, in education, health etc., and increasing interest rates, which lead to a slowdown in economic activity causing unemployment and inflation. This is how the elites are able to shift the crisis onto the working classes, and how this parasitic elite has sustained itself through imperialist loans over the past 75 years.
These loans have become more and more vicious over the past 40 years. At the behest of the IMF, even the new government is transferring the burden of the loan onto the public. When you go to any working class area, the kind of desperation that you see with the hike in fuel prices, unemployment, cuts to education and basic infrastructure, electricity and gas shortages, it becomes very clear that this very dangerous nexus between Pakistani elites and international finance has completely hollowed out the state. The state has become more of a way of sustaining Pakistani elites.
So The question of debt is becoming increasingly politicized. I was at a protest by denim factory workers earlier today, and there were a few people from the intelligence agencies there. The first thing they said was “You don’t know, this is a foreign company and we need foreign investment. The world is already so scared of us, and you are giving us a bad name.” So we are at a point where we are willing to sacrifice our labour laws and environmental laws just to satisfy global capital. And yet, they are not even getting satisfied.
In every struggle we do now, the global dimension becomes very important. How will financial markets react? What will foreign investors think? What will foreign governments think? Which means that every struggle in that sense has become international.
Tayyaba: The right-wing has been successfully mobilizing immense support on economic questions as well - IMF, inflation, elite capture – such that IMF, anti-imperialism and anti-American have become buzzwords. How should the left mobilize this discourse at this time and put forth an alternative politics that is genuinely different from the right but also resonates on the ground. Do you see the current moment as an opportunity?
Aasim: I feel very strongly about this “moment” question. It is true that because of increasing cost of living, increasing petrol and electricity prices, the pain from all accounts is set to intensify. This has boosted the support for Imran Khan. However, I believe the right is not taking up this issue in a serious way, and perhaps even how much its pay-masters are willing to allow for.
Ammar’s point is very important. Whenever we talk about these things, we get such reactions that ‘now is not the time’, ‘we need foreign investment to resolve this economic crisis’, etc. All of the markers of how the mainstream understands the crisis, like the dollar exchange rate and macro-indicators, do not reflect anything about how the crisis is crushing the working masses. This forces us to distinguish ourselves from the mainstream.
It has been 40 to 50 years since there was a mass left alternative. And the mass will not form through a merely cultural narrative — we need a robust materialist basis. Our challenge is to bring that politics from the peripheries into the mainstream. Articulating a mass politics in mainland Pakistan is not something that the right-wing is doing beyond making some token gestures.
It makes sense for the PTI to oppose the US right now. Interestingly, a few days ago the President, who is from the PTI, gave a guard of honour to the incoming US ambassador. Therefore, it is clear that aside from rhetorical posturing they will not do anything.
So this is the time and place to articulate a very clear project of what redistribution looks like. There are intelligent people, even in the mainstream, who recognize that it is no longer about making small changes, but it is a fundamental question of redistribution of assets and wealth. In the first instance, we have to mainstream that debate. And you can do that even without being a mass force. If nothing else, leftists are able to influence public opinion to a certain extent.
So even if we are not yet in a position to have an organic mass politics that is founded upon these questions of class, equality, debt, empire, elite capture and so on, at the very least we can come together to say that there is no other way but to talk about these issues. You can not manage with temporary measures anymore. For example, the super tax that Shahbaz Sharif imposed is a temporary measure that is certainly not enough to deal with the crisis.
We have space to do that now. This space will not always exist. This economic crisis will only get worse, no matter who is in power. But there is something distinct about the present moment because PTI supporters have started mobilizing around slogans such as “Death to America”. On the other hand, the PDM movement that displaced the PTI government, claiming to have restored democracy, are also clearly failing to improve things. There is a clear intellectual bankruptcy and lack of answers on both sides of that mainstream fence.
In this moment, leading up to the general election, you can introduce your position in an organized manner by making the idea of redistribution mainstream — at all scales, from the micro to the international. That includes creating mass consciousness for the idea that this accumulated debt has been taken by the ruling classes, not the people. Why are the people bearing the burden of this debt? There is a need for building that narrative and creating unity in action. This summer (2022), we had a meeting of many left parties. Everyone agreed that this is a good time to demonstrate this unity in action around real concrete issues. Right now, there is no other concrete issue which recognizes the unevenness between the centre and the periphery, and also allows us to form political action that brings them together. That is something that only the left can do. No one else is interested.
Azeem: We are witnessing a contradiction of capitalism in Pakistan. On the one hand everyone is against the IMF loans. They consider them unfair and want them waived off. At the same time, local elites are accusing each other of corruption. I feel, as long as this parasitic elite exists, even if we demand and achieve a debt write-off, the elite will make sure that all the concessions go to them, without significantly improving things for the masses.
What I have gathered from mainstream politics in the last four years, particularly the rise of PTI, is that we are getting trapped in a constructed politics, particularly in how discourse is being shaped. There are about 20 news anchors on TV who give their analyses on the country’s political situation and people listen to them. While people are aware of the hardships Ammar talked about, the mainstream political discourse is shaped by these 20 anchors who just flit between their offices and homes, disconnected from issues on the ground.
Aasim is correct that what sets us apart in this constructed politics is the question of redistribution. But who are we addressing when we talk about redistribution? Are we addressing people in this constructed politics? We should actually be addressing our labour, peasantry, and the working class people Ammar was talking about.
We have to take the question of redistribution and the economic aspects of imperialism to the working class, rather than thinking that we can make space for our politics in this constructed political sphere. We are the custodians of not just anti-imperialist struggles, but also economic struggles of the peasantry and the labouring classes.
The system itself is trapped at the moment. This is absolutely the right moment to have a separate narrative about redistribution (and about privatization) that differentiates us from charity-based models. For example, the Ehsaas Program wants to give charity to labouring classes. But where is the tax collection from the elite, as in the Scandinavian model, which will sustain this program? How are you going to provide free healthcare in the absence of that revenue? So of course there will be fraud or you will take further debt.
I think the question of redistribution should be pushed in our classical sense, in our way of struggle. But we have to be clear about our strategic horizons. I admire the efforts of our left parties in coming together in Islamabad where we agreed that now is the time to work together.
Ammar: I completely agree. The anger is there, and I think the role of ideology is to inform where to channel this anger. That is where the debate is right now. There is a very powerful cultural and nationalist critique of the US, given by Imran Khan and others. Then there is the PDM coalition saying that beggars can’t be choosers. They have a pragmatic, realpolitik understanding of global politics, that you have to work with Big Brother.
We can differentiate ourselves from them on the question of workers’ power. It is not that Muslim League-N, for example, is opposed to welfare measures. If they have money, they will use welfare measures to win an election. The People's Party does the same. The PTI also put in a lot of money in welfare schemes, particularly the Ehsaas Program, and the initial investment in the health card, because they thought it would solidify their constituency. These are all measures to reverse the effects of accumulation, dispossession and exploitation. They reverse some of the effects by taking a hundred rupees from the people, but giving 2 rupees back. This is a fundamentally different conception of politics than the left’s. The left is not just interested in giving crumbs to the working class. It is about building a politics of the working class, of the marginalized, of the dispossessed. Once you say that, you shift your entire emphasis away from ‘how do we govern’, to ‘how do we build power from below?’
This is a real difference in worldviews. If you meet any of the bigwigs from PML-N, PPP or PTI, they’re very much concerned about good governance. You will find some good people as well, true bleeding-heart types, proposing different reforms, but they cannot even acknowledge that workers themselves can have power, not just for some crumbs from the state, but to assert their own rights and dignity. That this would include labour rights, social security, questions of decent pay in the rural sector, decent support prices, the right to unionize, the right to education grants, death grants, marriage grants for their family members, all of which are already in the law. This would mean expanding the law over time and expanding what we can get from the state. In other words, creating a dynamic in which you are pushing the elites to negotiate harder with their lenders as well.
This is the kind of crisis that we need. Instead, we have a crisis in which the lenders are putting pressure on the state, and in turn the elites who run the state are putting pressure on the public, and then when they have to contest elections they ask how they will ameliorate the crisis that they themselves have created. Instead of that, we need a genuine workers’ movement like the uprising against the labour law in Indonesia. That kind of autonomous workers’ power creates a dynamic of its own, it upsets calculations, it expands the horizon of possibilities and it expands the debates. Even the IMF has been forced to change its position in a number of countries where there has been resistance. We know that the elites are getting 2,700 billion rupees annually as privileges and subsidies from the state, whereas the poor are only getting 624 billion. The elites are getting 4 times more. This is really a welfare state for the rich, it is socialism for the rich. To call this economics is to completely veil the violence. This is elite capture, this is the ruling class, this is capitalism in the periphery.
The entire logic can change if it is not a one-sided classroom — if the other side prepares itself. We have to prepare, we have to accept that there is a class war going on, and it is being imposed by one side while the other side is being completely demobilized and disaggregated. Our task right now is to create institutions that can bring together the dispersed power of the marginalized.
If that happens, then we are back in the game of class struggle. The debates are going to shift massively. Good governance will not remain the only issue and technocrats are not going to remain the only solutions to every problem. An autonomous, left-wing organized point of view will come, backed by the force of the people.
PDM vs Imran Khan
Arsalan: How do you feel about PDM? Was it something the left should have ignored or supported ? Was it just an unraveling of the military’s project? How do we understand the working-class support base of Imran Khan?
Azeem: I do not think left parties supported PDM. If individual leftists supported it, it was because of the way Imran Khan’s regime was co-opted by the military establishment. No one knew who was running that government. It was really a bad time for Pakistan, the way the military was manipulating the regime, whose class composition is primarily professionals from the upper-middle class and the diaspora.
It was clear that the regime was moving towards fascism. If something could be done to push back against the dominance of the military, and Imran Khan’s fascist ideas, that is fair. Eventually it was the same elite that came back to power through PDM. If there is a difference between the PDM and Imran Khan, it is that the PDM know the limits of where to accept military dictation. Imran Khan is a new phenomenon.
Whether it is PDM or Imran Khan, it is clear that the elite cannot deliver because we are a dependent economy and the elite is parasitic. Nothing great will come out of the PDM government either. As Aasim and Ammar said, international institutions have shifted the burden onto our elite, and they have shifted that burden onto the people. That is the story of the Pakistani state.
Aasim: I think these are partly strategic, tactical questions — i.e. how vocal one should be in engaging with mainstream palace intrigues. For me, this was Pakistan’s Biden moment. Our standards have lowered so much that we are applauding the same person who was the reason for Trump winning in the first place. The same has happened in Pakistan. Imran Khan was viewed as so dangerous and threatening, and I do not disagree with that necessarily.
I think it’s important for the left to develop a shared understanding [of the situation] even if we approach these tactical questions differently. This understanding will develop based on how we respond to the fact that there is such a threatening entity like Imran Khan that is able to mobilize, even if rhetorically, large numbers of young people for such an agenda.
My understanding is that there is an extreme center, and when it fails, phenomena like the PTI emerge. The military’s intention was to run this project for a while, but it did not work. Imran Khan fell out of line, and they forced him out. I do not think that had a lot to do with democracy — democracy was not at stake here, perhaps procedurally it was, but this had more to do with palace intrigues. Nevertheless, it is the first time that a mainstream politician has so openly abused America. These are not developments that anyone would have foreseen.
It certainly confirms that the crisis is an organic one. No matter how much the military or America, or whoever the big players are, try to manage it and manipulate it from above, there are big problems at the bottom that persist. There are some unpredictable elements here, like Imran himself is a bit of a loose cannon in ways that perhaps these other entities are not.
There are other stories at play as well, for example, there are two camps in the PML-N, one led by Shahbaz Sharif, and the other one which is a bit silent these days. Maybe that second camp wants to fight the military more openly. So there are a lot of little intricacies in this story. But we the Left should be able to share an understanding that this is an ongoing battle. To expect that any of these people will shake up the system in any major way, is misplaced. It is certainly not my expectation.
The only thing that it clarifies again and again is that this merry-go-round will keep going, and there will be a race to the bottom, until and unless the left also becomes something. Or else, we will just end up being analysts of existing politicians, whereas we should actually become a viable option.
I think that perhaps there was a bit of an overbalancing here, in saying that because the PTI regime was such a disaster that the opening of some space [with PDM] meant that some progressive or pro-democracy sections were perhaps not celebratory but too optimistic. But that optimism has also blown over and it’s clear that PDM is not even taking on the army. The missing persons issue is actually getting more severe ever since they’ve taken up power. It’s clear that the PDM leadership does not have the wherewithal to challenge the military, let alone IMF or the United States.
Ammar: When the government collapsed, it is very important to see what collapsed: a ten-year project which was supposed to go on for another six, seven years. A lot of hard work of our brothers and sisters in the ISI and the military went in vain. They created and projected this guy, they destroyed institutions and they abducted people. Social movements collapsed. We know what we and our students went through. So it was not just authoritarianism, which is the standard of the Pakistani state, no matter who is in power. This was a very distinct regime. It was a hybrid regime in which they thought they needed stability, so they needed a one-party state with the military on top. The rest of the leadership was all in exile. They ran Pakistan for 10 years like that. This particular project collapsed in March because of Imran Khan’s complete incompetence. He crashed the party.
The collapse of the hybrid regime was a cause of celebration to the extent that this was a major, major investment that failed. That is a correct position to take because it shows that it is impossible for even the military to land a long-term orderly project of hegemony and accumulation for 10 to 15 years. They had to go back to the people who they could not stand. And during that time they opened up some space, and relaxed things. This is not to say that the people replacing Imran Khan are revolutionaries. Those are two completely different things.
What it means is there is an absolute crisis of government, of hegemony, of any kind of order in Pakistan. This PDM coalition, for example, logically cannot continue for too long. You cannot have a coalition of 11 parties. You cannot have Ali Wazir, Mohsin Dawar, Shahbaz Sharif, Fazlur Rehman and everybody across the spectrum in the same government. (Ali Wazir is in jail but he is in the government, he voted for them.) There are people like Mohsin Dawar, whose party members have recently been killed by people who are supported by Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam. And they are both coalition partners. And MQM and People’s Party cannot stand each other. This crisis will continue to grow.
The social and economic crisis is turning into a political crisis because political parties are losing credibility. They are collapsing. The party form is unable to reflect the social and economic crises so it has become a machine. Even the machines are not working that well on the ground because of the infrastructure crisis. For example, the PML-N and ANP can no longer get votes the way they did in 2013 and 2008-9. These parties have collapsed partly because of the military, partly because of how they are organized. They are unable to respond to the pressure. The same goes for PTI. The party does not exist on the ground. Imran Khan may hold rallies and collect people from all over Lahore, but his recent long march call shows that the party does not exist on the ground. The working class, in particular, has ignored his call for the long march. It has ignored his call for protests a number of times now.
So we are seeing a vacuum emerge. Who you sit with and when are tactical questions. In our strategic horizon, we have to place ourselves in a larger trajectory. We know that Imran Khan is extremely incompetent. He does not have the infrastructure or the social base to lead a sustained fight in his brand of anti-America and anti-military politics.
Similarly, Bilawal Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz will not be acceptable to this growing middle class as well as large sections of the working class, who are outside the structure of these political parties. There is a growing space for new forces. These forces can come from the far-right, like the TLP, but they can also come from the left, because our ideas are resonating. I am optimistic because in the last few months, wherever we have worked, people have responded in ways that they have not in the past. The way people showed up and reacted to Aasim’s book launch recently. Wherever we have had events, it is visible that people are hungry for ideas. We have to ensure we do not attach ourselves to a declining order.
In the future where, how and when you strike alliances in parliamentary politics, is an ongoing question. Everyone has to do it, even someone like Ali Wazir. But right now, if elections happen on and the PTI loses, they will come crashing down. If they win, the other parties will crash. Because somebody has to crash, this is an unsustainable model.
Tayyaba: That is a very interesting point, Ammar. I have a follow-up question for Aasim and Ammar. Are these the sentiments that are guiding your electoral tactics and strategy? Where does electoral politics fit into your larger strategic goals of putting forward a strong left vision that resonates on the ground?
Aasim: I do not think of electoral politics differently from the broader vision. Historically, whenever we have contested elections, the purpose has been to participate so we are not ceding ground. At this stage, winning is not a reasonable expectation especially in provincial and national assembly elections. At the local government level, it is different.
On all levels, the strategy is to first recognize that electoral politics is politics. In my experience over the years, I saw many people join us, but they distinguish us as people who are standing with them on matters of dispossession, issues of labour and social justice, but when it comes to elections, they have a different calculus. So participating in electoral politics is a way to move beyond that bifurcation. It shows that we are also involved in this politics, and that we talk about resistance here too. We are open about the fact that we do not have the kind of resources to plaster constituencies with posters and banners, or to lure people with biryani. In engaging with that process, we are also challenging its dominant money logic.
In this electoral cycle, we have had a few local body elections. This is a potential opportunity to scale up our narrative to national and provincial elections because parties on both sides of the aisle have been humiliated because of their inability to deliver to the people.
I would be remiss to ignore that we have a lot to learn. In my experience, the left does not do constituency-based politics, especially one that deals with thaana katcheri (police, courts) or local neighbourhood issues. To be able to do this kind of politics, which becomes more prominent during elections, you have to face it head-on. We have to be able to do these things in a way that is consistent with our worldview, and not have to choose between one or the other extreme.
If we can scale up, together as a broader alliance of the left, it will be easier to manage the expectations of an electorate that has very cynical, common-sense ways of thinking about elections. With time, we can convince people that elections can be won on ideas and programmatic issues and not purely on localized patronage.
Ammar: I agree, it is very important that we change part of our position from resistance into the question of power. The question of power has to be taken very seriously. When we criticize PDM, many people in civil society do not understand why we are criticizing this government. They think something is wrong with the left. I understand where they’re coming from because they really think the left is a civil society organization, which should be working with them for reforms. The general impression is that to do something good, we need to help an MNA, or administer something, and if we want to be political then we should join a mainstream party. They have this impression because we have been removed from the question of power, not because we did not want to address it, but mostly because we were forced to stay away from it, often violently.
While we all have our own strategic calculations on how to engage with electoral politics, the big questions on the left have to do with the road to power. How we define a certain pathway to power. What we want to achieve once we have power, at least on an abstract level, is something that most far-left groups can agree upon. But there is a lot of infighting and disagreements over the path itself.
There has to be a very serious discussion — if we are contesting a union council election, it has to be to win. What does it mean to actually win and take power? Not just once or twice, but actually developing a long term strategy, without necessarily abandoning your principles. Practical politics is about the movement of ideas into the realm of practice and back into the realm of ideas. This back and forth between practice and ideology is what makes ideology a living, breathing thing.
This is not just about elections. Some people are organizing a workers’ movement in Faisalabad under the banner of Labour Qaumi Movement. The question is: what would it mean to have power in factory areas? What would it mean to have an organized workforce that can fight back, that can assert itself in factory areas and create a kind of class-consciousness not limited to this or that struggle, but consciousness of a class? You have to do that, and take up issues of clean water, gas, electricity, and education at the same time. These are all class issues and there has to be some kind of symbiotic relationship between the factory, and the workplace. That brings about class consciousness and actually allows class to turn into a political subject. Only then can we fight elections, have mass movements, defend our partners, our comrades, factories, fight the police, or capture power, whatever your path may be. Fundamentally, we have to start building power with the intention of winning in different sites of class struggle.
If we do this effectively, we can then confront the barriers, counterrevolutionary forces, internal weaknesses, and the real political forces. Hopefully, the future of left politics in Pakistan will be guided by these questions, which means that we have a pretty good chance of winning and getting back the space that we lost.
Azeem: I agree that the aim of revolutionary politics is always the seat of political power. That said, the question that is always relevant is where we can capture power. For one, winning national elections is very hard. But even if we win a few seats and send one or two MNAs or MPAs to the parliament, they get compromised once they reach the top. There are a few examples of this. At most, we hope that at least they will talk about our ideas, but who they will talk to and how is a problem.
If our aim is to capture political power, then the strategy should be to establish dual power. Before our strategy reaches an equilibrium, elections are meaningless. Leftist MNA candidates often end up with a meagre 20-30 votes.
Revolutionary parties use the parliament for power when they are able to capture fifty percent of it. Then we can use the parliamentary forum while we also have power on the ground — we can fight the police, the military etc, because we would have captured power in multiple spaces. So it’s a question of timing. Revolutionary parties do entertain elections. The Bolshevik party contested elections. Recently, the Maoists in Nepal did as well.
In terms of local government elections, I agree that we have to capture local power. For example, in Hujra Shah Muqeem even when a few nazims or counselors get elected, a lot of funds get diverted towards the working class. It is a small constituency, so it is easier to capture power. Since you have done work in these places, you may also be popular. Local bodies are a good forum for building dual power.
In order to build dual power and move towards national elections, we need to further build our community and labour organizing. If we enter national elections prematurely, it may distract our revolutionary politics.
Political alliances against fascism
Tayyaba: Ammar, on the question of alliances, you said that sometimes tactical alliances make sense against the larger enemy in your long-term strategic vision. So you take the example of supporting the military’s fight against the TLP because the TLP represents an alternative that is much more threatening to your long-term vision. When you are thinking about making alliances, where do you draw the line?
Ammar: I never said we should ally with the military or the state. What I meant was that if the TLP and the state were fighting, my position would not be the same as if the state and the Baloch Liberation Army were fighting, for example. A few days ago, we saw how that right-wing journalist, Imran Riaz Khan, was jailed. I have no sympathy for him, but we have condemned his detention. Similarly, we condemned Shireen Mazari’s detention.
But if the TLP organizes a long march, and they are fighting the police, I am not going to ask the state to respect their rights etc. That is liberal nonsense. We should understand politics with all the complexities that come with it. It is never neat: you make dirty choices in it and that is part of being a political person, as compared to being a “beautiful soul” who takes a politically correct position everywhere.
We do not ally with the state because that would mean that the state is right. The state is not innocent. The state is not right. The state is responsible for the Taliban, for the TLP, for Imran Khan, for Nawaz Sharif because it has empowered them over the years.
But when there are particular contradictions, for example recently Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir demanded that the state should wipe out the Taliban from their areas. Now the Taliban have targeted and killed 4 of their kids, even one of my students, so of course they would all seek protection from the security forces.
So those are tactical questions. Sometimes when you are working in an area, you may find people in the municipal corporation, or the Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC), a person or two who are sympathetic and want to help you. You make contacts in the police so that when you are in trouble, they are able to help you, while you are still enemies at the higher level. That is always the case when you go deep into organizing in any particular area. You start encountering all kinds of institutions. That is not an alliance, but an engagement that happens whenever you become a political actor. It is like engaging with university administrations when you become union leaders in the university. At times, that engagement can lead to good results; at other times, it can lead to really antagonistic situations, even arrests.
Alliance is something completely different from these kinds of engagements. Left political parties have to form alliances with other left-wing or workers’ organizations. Sometimes there are workers’ organizations or trade unions that may not be that progressive, but may be doing important work so you may consider forming an alliance. For example, there is a trade union in the area we work in, the leadership of which is primarily maulvis but they are trying to protect hundreds of jobs right now. When we did a rally in Chungi, they invited us to speak and we spoke about workers’ rights. It is a right-wing union, but it is important to engage with them because right now they are at the forefront of a genuine class struggle. Similarly, Maulana Hidayat ur Rehman is part of the struggle for fisherfolk in Gwadar. Even though I have many critiques of him, we give him strategic support from time to time because he and the women with him are fighting on the frontlines.
You can do tactical engagements with anyone. For example, if someone from TLP wants to organize an event at the same time as us, I may engage them to try and reach an agreement to hold our events on separate dates. That is a tactical agreement, a simple everyday engagement that you need to have to organize in any area. An alliance, on the other hand, is on the basis of your program, which has to be a left-wing program.
Arsalan: Ammar, when we support the state’s intervention against a force like the TLP, what is the difference between that and supporting their operations against the Taliban and Zarb-e-Azb for example?
Ammar: It should not be a burden on us to support the state. Why do we have to support it? I am not going to support either the fascists or the state. I am also not going to join this bandwagon of human rights-type liberals who say the police should move out of the way. I am also not going to call for the police to annihilate them. This is the state’s crisis, they have to deal with it.
It is not our burden to take a lead position on this. Our position is to oppose the state. We even opposed them on the issue of the TLP. We were never saying “long live Punjab police” when these guys were fighting. We were saying “why did you distribute money among them, use them, make them strategic assets, bring them to Faizabad, organize their dharna (sit-in), build their party, and spoil other parties?” We have to ask these broader structural questions.
This idea that we have to immediately take sides when a crisis hits can be circumvented if we keep asking the broader, difficult questions about why the state has done all this. We shouldn’t be asking the state to negotiate with the TLP, bring them into the mainstream, like Imran Khan used to ask for the Taliban, to open their offices in the country and so on. We are not going to do that either.
The TLP are the state’s monsters, and they are going to have to deal with them in whatever way they have to. We will continue our criticism – and the state knows that we are extremely critical of them in those moments –but we will not shout in their favour, and neither would we come to their defence.
Aasim: As we discussed before, we need to distinguish between the liberal and left positions that emerged around the War on Terror. Those distinctions developed over time.
This is also a generational question, and a question of learning from organic developments. Things develop on the ground and facilitate our understanding, which is an important part of the story. I agree with Ammar: the left does not have to take positions on these things, but we certainly should acknowledge, within our groups, that right-wing phenomena like the TLP, the Taliban or even Imran Khan will keep propping up. These groups enjoy the support of certain sections of the masses. We have to acknowledge that in order to understand where that vacuum exists, and that, if we do not fill it, these forces will.
You also do not have to take a position on everything. It is not necessary to satisfy everyone all the time. We can have tactical differences, but as the Left, I do think on big, significant matters, we should have some clear, consistent positions that allow us to be seen as such. Then even if we have small differences on an individual, organizational level, they would not matter as much.
But I see your point – that we should not be seen as supporting the very state that is responsible for these issues in the first place. And as we discussed last time, I remember fifteen or twenty years ago, when all the liberal-left community stood by saying that the US is getting rid of these mullahs. If you opposed that position even slightly, you were immediately branded a Taliban supporter. All these problems are there because we are not one of the [political] players. We are only analysts at this point — as in, there are two sides with stakes in the issue and we are forced to pick a side. But in fact, we do not want to pick a side – we want to put forward our own position which represents our stake. It is difficult and tricky, sometimes you have to take a position. On these issues, we should be able to have a distinct position without feeling goaded into saying something about everything. The more positions you take, the more you will be expected to answer for every position that you do not take.
Thankfully, with time, there is more clarity between liberal and left positions — e.g. on the question of the economy, its becoming increasingly clear. And the more we project ourselves as a united left, having consistent positions on big issues, the easier it will be to move forward.
Azeem: We should always be careful when dealing with issues that may add to the power of the state or imperialism. When we say that imperialism will destroy the Taliban, or that the state will handle the TLP, it is also important to remember that the laws and policies that are developed to do that will most certainly be used against us.
I agree with Aasim that we, the left, do not need to give opinions on every issue. Sometimes we also exaggerate the power of entities like the TLP. I am not saying these are small things, but they are nothing compared to the state or mainstream parties, or compared to Imran Khan. Those are the bigger enemies.
Tayyaba: A final point for Azeem: on the one hand, you have said that we should be more cautious when making alliances or engaging with mainstream politics. On the other, you seem to be saying that the left needs to inject itself into the mainstream as well. How do you see that balance of doing politics on the ground whilst not becoming irrelevant by missing opportunities to engage with the mainstream?
Azeem: Let’s differentiate between the two. First, I was talking specifically about electoral politics, not necessarily participating in the mainstream. I think in the mainstream, political debates and binaries are often constructed — they have a reality but they are also constructed When Trump was elected, it was because of Obama’s failures, and that is how Trump gained popularity. Similarly in India, the Congress, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) were unable to deliver for the last 70 years and, as a result, Modi came to power. When liberal or social democracy does not deliver, the burden is put on the left to support mainstream liberal forces – something I’m uncomfortable with.
The liberals are going to say, “Fascism is coming! Fascism is coming!” but that does not mean that we should immediately start supporting liberals and social democrats. They will come to power, not deliver to the people and we will end up with even worse fascism. I am not saying that we should not fight fascism, but you have to understand the cost of doing that, and do it in a way that keeps your cadre and rank and file intact.
I am also not against engagement with the mainstream altogether. But we should have our own agenda and perspective, know our own audience, and be clear on the terms on which we engage. And importantly, we should keep our rank and file distinct from liberals. Our focus should be on building dual power and the labour movement because, ultimately, even liberal democracy will be sustained through working-class movements.
Tayyaba: Let’s finally turn to China. How do you understand the China-Pakistan relationship? Is China an imperialist force in Pakistan? And how do you see a left politics being advanced in relation to that?
Azeem: The main component of imperialism is economic, then we have the political and military components and then the cultural. There are three views on the nature of Chinese capital. One comes from a world-systems framework and it says that Chinese capital is a part of global capital in that the latter is invested in and traded with China.
A second view comes from those who have studied the effects of Chinese investments in Africa and Latin America. They argue that while Chinese capital has strategic interests in capturing raw materials, it does not function under the imperatives of the free market. These particular characteristics mean that it is not a part of Western or global capital. The third view, which I agree with, comes from Ho-Fung Hung. It is that Chinese capital is both part of global capital and has its own characteristics and strategic interests.
It is clear that China is both expansionist and capitalist. China may not have a long history of colonization of other spaces but it certainly has political and military ambitions. However, the scale of these ambitions is still limited to consider China hegemonic.
In terms of cultural hegemony, China uses international legal institutions eclectically. It both uses these bodies for its own expansionist aims and by-passes them when they are an obstacle. It purposefully invests in countries with ‘bad governance’. So we cannot call China imperialist.
That said, Maoist parties in India and the Philippines think of China as a ‘social imperialist’ country. Similarly, some on the left think that we are in a ‘New Cold War’ situation and we need to stand with China. That is a mistaken position. The cold war was a conflict between two world-systems - capitalism and socialism - which is not the case anymore. China is an emergent imperialist power.
There has been an ongoing debate within the Pakistani left on how to categorize China. I thought it was strange that traditionally pro-Soviet parties in India like the CPI-M and their allies in Pakistan have started openly supporting China in this ‘New Cold War’. We made these mistakes in the past and we are about to make them again. Instead of taking these ‘international positions’ of the old era, the Pakistani left needs to focus on the ambitions of Chinese capital in Pakistan and how they are going to affect the working class and its revolutionary struggle.
Ammar: China has integrated with the global capitalist system in the last 40 years in such a way that we cannot understand global neoliberalism without China’s central role as the factory of the poor. Having said that, I think a lot of analysis of China misses out on the class struggle taking place within China.
Categorizing China as this or that veils the fact that it is a deeply divided polity which has an in-built mechanism for massive disagreements and theoretical debates. Currently, there are many debates within the party to the point that magazines like Foreign Policy and The Economist are using the specter of Marxism’s return. For example, Xi Jinping arrested corporate heads of Alibaba. He has also made Marxism a compulsory subject for everyone joining state companies.
As Isabella Weber argues, China never accepted the shock doctrine the way Russia did. Within China, there was a debate on keeping certain limits to capital inflow, on allowing anything that will increase exports, on keeping a majority of their industry within the public sector, and on extreme regulation of banks. So there are many anomalies within China which make it difficult to study.
There are so many contradictions and problems in China that any analysis that purports that things are fixed needs to be rethought. There have been massive anti-corruption campaigns since the 1990s and over 1500 strikes a year which challenged the Western analysis that things are rigidly fixed there.
Latin American governments are enamoured with China and its role in providing investments. While there is no doubt that these are extractive investments, I bring this up because governments do see the emergence of a new pole with the rise of China. For instance, when Greece was in a deadlock with the EU, Yanis Varoufakis was looking towards China in the case of a break with the EU. So the question of how small countries imagine new global alliances is important.
You realize what imperialism is when you look at the Western war machine and its rhetoric which is currently encircling China. NATO is sending German warships and we know what is happening with Taiwan in the South China Sea. Having said that, I completely agree with Azeem that on the one hand, there is a dynamic and global point of view and on the other, a Pakistani perspective on China. The latter must prioritize investigating Chinese investment and relations, and the contestations around them. This means that the Baloch and Pashtun questions become central. Gilgit-Baltistan, as the gateway to CPEC, becomes very important. There is no doubt that because Chinese investments come with the state and its predatory nature that it will hurt the Pakistani economy.
At the same time, Kaiser Bengali, who was initially part of the CPEC negotiations, says that the way our elites negotiated with Chinese officials was laughable. In fact, they did not negotiate at all. They were acting like they were negotiators on China’s side willing to give away things for even cheaper. Our state is rentier in nature and does not have the capacity to defend the public. It does not even have an idea of the public, of public good and of national interest of any kind. So whenever there is any kind of foreign investment, that money will go into rent-seeking and monopolies, from which both China and Pakistani elites benefit.
Even if there was a left-wing government today, China would still play a very important role in the region. The question would be how we renegotiate the terms with China on some of the major projects. For that, we should develop a Pakistani perspective that prioritizes the protection of the peripheries, our environment and our labor, which is not protected in CPEC projects. In fact, our labor is not protected anywhere. In order to ensure these protections, you need a left-wing government with an agenda for sovereignty of the people. In the absence of that, anybody who can make a killing out of Pakistan’s resources will do so in a predatory way and China is no different.
Aasim: I agree with much of what Azeem and Ammar have said. The question of China remains unresolved. As Azeem said, China is integrated with global capitalism in a way that the Soviet Union never was. That is because the structure of capitalism has become truly global in the way that it could not be when the second and third worlds existed. Also because of financialization and digitalization.
Yet, China remains distinct with its own characteristics. While I do not think that we should dismiss their internal debates, we also cannot take what the ruling party says at face value.
Statistics show that surplus value still flows largely to Western imperialist countries on the whole. Having said that, China is exploitative when it comes to debt and investments in countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Chinese debt has played a huge role in driving Sri Lanka to bankruptcy. Similarly, seven years ago, we were being told that Chinese loans were going to be a gamechanger without being given any information about the terms, only to find out that these loans are not any more concessionary than the IMF or World Bank’s. We must be at the frontlines talking about all of this when people are being humiliated in this economic crisis.
My sense is that whether or not China will diverge from Western imperialism will be on the question of planetary survival. I take seriously the Chinese communist party’s claim that it wants to make China an ecological civilization. However, China has to demonstrate that in action. In CPEC, for instance, most of the funding was in thermal power which is ecologically disastrous. Similarly, coal-fired power plants like the one in Sahiwal, have created devastations that are beyond our imaginations. Gwadar port has ruined marine ecology. So I want to take this claim of an ecological civilization seriously but I cannot if China is just externalizing and off-outsourcing its ecological disasters to the rest of the world, much like the Western empire did. The question of the planet will become the defining question of our age, not just with regard to China.
Even just within the last four months, Pakistan has experienced incredible variation in its climate. One day the temperature rises to 45 degrees, the next day there is a flood and snow. This is the most climate change prone region in the world. Chinese leadership will have to demonstrate itself on these matters. We have to remain critical of China while not falling into the trap of China-bashing. While we should continue having these debates amongst ourselves, for now it is enough to say this: China’s role is not the same as that of Western imperialism but China has yet to demonstrate that it will lead the world in a decisive war against western imperialism.
For now, we have to concern ourselves with the role China is playing in Pakistan. If we are talking about the IMF’s destructive role and ignoring China’s, that is not anti-imperialist but opportunistic. Making grand statements about China does not matter. What matters is the concrete positions we take on Chinese interventions in Pakistan, which in turn, automatically clarify where we stand on matters of fundamental importance.
Tayyaba: Thank you, Aasim. That is an excellent closing statement. This was a very enriching and extremely valuable conversation. Thank you so much for making the time for this.
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is an Associate Professor of political economy at the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan. He is the author of The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan: Fear, Desire and Revolutionary Horizons.
Ammar Ali Jan completed his doctoral studies in history from the University of Cambridge. He is a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Party and the author of Rule By Fear: Eight Theses Authoritarianism in Pakistan. Ammar is also a Council member of the Progressive International and a Board member of Jamhoor.
Syed Azeem is an Associate Professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). His research is on labour in Pakistan, and he is a member of the Pakistan Mazdoor Kisaan Party.