The left in Pakistan: a brief history

By Farooq Sulehria

Farooq Sulehria is a member of the Executive Committee of the Labour Party Pakistan and of the Editorial Board of Links.

The left movement in Pakistan traces its origins to the Indian communist movement. The Indian communist movement in turn drew its inspiration from Russian revolutions of 1905 and October 1917. Lenin himself paid considerable attention to India, and, long before him, Karl Marx showed a great interest in what he called "an interesting country" and a "good future ally". He wrote quite a few articles on the Indian subcontinent, especially during the 1857 war of independence, which ended in defeat. That defeat strengthened and consolidated the imperialist base for a century, an era of exploitation, plunder and repression.

However, exploitation and plunder, requiring an industrial base and an infrastructure, also gave birth to a vast proletariat. Intensified exploitation also generated resistance by the peasantry.

By the early 20th century, trade unions and strikes had started appearing, while the biggest provinces, Punjab and Bengal, were in total revolt as the peasantry rose up against imperialist Britain's exploitation.

Indian revolutionaries who went into exile had also established contact with their European comrades. Through these contacts the Russian Revolution of 1905 showed a new way forward to Indian revolutionaries. In 1911 these exiled revolutionaries formed the Kairti Kissan Party in the USA. Soon it had established itself in the USA, Canada and Europe.

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 shook India as well. In 1920, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was formed; its leader M.N. Roy participated in the meetings of the Third International. In 1934, the CPI was banned because of its rapidly spreading influence. Its popularity had scared imperialism. The ban did not prevent the spread of communist ideas, however. Communists still worked tirelessly under different umbrella organisations.

In the meantime, the Third International under the leadership of Stalin had gone through a whole period of degeneration. From the "Third Period" to popular fronts and from the non-aggression pact with Hitler to alliance with the allies, the Comintern had taken many somersaults. A total degeneration of the Soviet bureaucratic clique manifested itself in its bankrupt theory of socialism in one country and two-stage theory of revolution.

The CPI blindly followed the Stalinist line, betraying both the Indian proletariat and the revolution. When World War II began, the CPI opposed it until Stalin inked an accord with the allies. The CPI refused to lead the fight against British imperialism because (1) Stalin had become its ally; and (2) according to its two-stage theory, India had yet to undergo the bourgeois democratic revolution under the leadership of the bourgeoisie.

On the other hand, teeming millions of youth, revolutionaries and freedom fighters were offering heroic sacrifice to rid their homeland of British imperialism. From 1940 to 1945, 10,000 freedom fighters were martyred; tens of thousands were sent behind bars and tens of thousands flogged. But for the CPI, these freedom fighters were "fifth columnists".

1946 proved the year of revolution. The subcontinent was in total revolt. Mass uprisings, strikes and a mood of revolt marked the beginning of the year. The proletariat was leading the revolt. On February 10, navy sailors went on strike. To show their solidarity with the sailors, the workers of the Royal Air Force went on strike. On March 1, sepoys [Indian soldiers employed by the British] revolted in Jalapur. On March 18, in Dera Doon, Gorka sepoys revolted. Karachi, Bombay, Madras and many other cities were in the grip of a general strike. On April 3, following the Delhi police, the police in the entire province of Bihar revolted. In May, 100,000 employees of Railways and Post struck. On May 23, 400,000 industrial workers joined this strike.

During this wave of strikes, the CPI played the role of strikebreaker. Not drawing any lesson from the defeated revolutions of China (1925-27) and Spain (1934-37), the CPI remained blindly committed to the Stalinist line of two-stage theory in the hope of a bourgeois democratic revolution which never came. This ideological blunder, coupled with a shameful alliance with British imperialism, alienated the CPI from the working class; they were going in opposite directions.

This state of affairs benefited Congress and the Muslim League. Because they led the revolt, a movement that could have ended imperialism as well as capitalism and feudalism proved only a movement of national independence. The millions paid a heavy price for the CPI's blunders. Not only was a chance of class liberation missed, but the Indian subcontinent was also plunged into bloodshed. Huge riots and migrations left behind indelible stains of blood. In 1947, the British left India. The CPI supported the partition and ordered its Muslim cadres to migrate to Pakistan.

Communist Party of Pakistan

The Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) inherited not only cadre from the CPI but also its ideological legacy—i.e., the two-stage theory of revolution. Following their theory, they joined the Muslim League. In the Muslim League, they supported the bourgeoisie against the feudal lords. But the Muslim League was and always had been a party of Muslim feudalists. These feudals soon managed to rid their party of the "infiltrators". These purges drove the CPP to another extreme. Instead of organising the working class for a revolution, it sought a shortcut—a coup.

Here too the CPP depended on a liberal section of the bourgeoisie, in the persons of General Akbar and his mother-in-law, Begum Shahnawaz. They discussed a coup plan with the general. This coup attempt, known as the Rawalpindi conspiracy case, was only a discussion: it was unearthed in 1951, before it was executed. The government banned the CPP, along with its student and trade union wings. At the time of banning, the party had a membership of 200.

Following the ban, CPP members formed the Azad Pakistan Party (Independent Pakistan Party). This party was led by a radical nationalist, Mian Iftikhar-ud-Din. In 1957, the Azad Pakistan Party merged with some other so-called liberal progressive groups to form the National Awami Party (NAP-National People's Party). NAP had a reformist program instead of a revolutionary one. Anti-imperialism, secularism, regional autonomy and industrialisation were features of its program.

After the merger, the Communists dissolved their independent identity and did not organise any class movement independently. In 1958, as the capitalist crisis worsened, the workers took to the streets. A working-class movement had begun across Pakistan. It also affected the peasantry. In the same year, NAP leader Maulana Bhashani (who belonged to the then East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh) formed an All Pakistan Peasants Association (Kull Pakistan Kissan Association). A working-class movement began in Lahore that gripped the whole country. To crush this movement, General Ayub imposed martial law on October 26, 1958.

Sino-Soviet conflict

From 1956 onwards, the Sino-Soviet bureaucratic conflict became grave. This conflict was a setback to the international working-class movement, disillusioning a mass of conscious working-class fighters and dividing the working class.

Despite its bureaucratic deformations, the Chinese Revolution of 1949, because of its success in ending feudalism and capitalism, had a great attraction for the colonial world. The Chinese Revolution proved contagious for Pakistan, which has a common border with China. Maoism attracted a big chunk of the working class, youth and intelligentsia, especially students.

One big reason for a tilt towards Maoism was an aversion for Stalinism's impotent theory of two stages, which was stopping the Pakistani left from striking for revolution at a time when revolution was a battle cry. But the Chinese bureaucracy was not a different phenomenon than the Russian. It also had its own priorities and ideological deformations.

Events exposed the real character of the Chinese bureaucracy. It gave support to military dictator General (later self-appointed Field Marshal) Ayub Khan. In 1965, Chou En-lai congratulated Ayub Khan on his success in a sham poll. The so-called election was not even based on adult franchise, but on "basic democracy": a few thousand so-called elected representatives of local bodies had to elect the president. Ne Chu, the head of a visiting Chinese trade delegation, also termed military dictator Ayub Khan a representative of the people.

When a war broke out between India and Pakistan in the same year, it was called a people's war by the Chinese bureaucracy, which gave full support to Ayub Khan's dictatorship and Pakistani chauvinism. When Marshal of the People's Army Chun Lee visited Pakistan after the war, he made a mockery of communist democracy, terming Ayub Khan's system of "basic democracy" akin to the commune system.

Pakistani Maoists started supporting Ayub Khan. They also declared Ayub Khan's foreign policy progressive, utterly forgetting the Marxist point of view that foreign policy is merely a continuation of internal policy. The ruling classes adopt certain foreign policies, and for that matter internal policies, in order to safeguard and prolong their rule.

Later, Marshal Lee also called India an "aggressor", not bothering to elaborate whether this referred to the Indian ruling class or the Indian working class.

In 1967, a Chinese trade delegation visited Pakistan. The statement by the head of the delegation said: "Led by General Ayub Khan, Pakistan has made a great development in the fields of agriculture as well as industry. The day is not far when Pakistan will achieve total economic independence." (Pakistan Times, 29-10-1996). The policies of class collaboration that the Chinese bureaucracy had adopted were nakedly manifested in Pakistan during this period.

The Soviet bureaucracy was not playing a radical role either. It was supporting the Indian bourgeois. The line for the pro-Moscow left during this period can be gauged from an extract from a monthly party organ, Outlook. In April 1964 it wrote: "Our newly emerging bourgeois will come in conflict with the international bourgeois. Driven by economic compulsions, Habib Ullahs, Sehgals and Walikas will have to turn to socialist bloc for trade. This process will end western monopoly on our economics. This is where we are heading for. And I will be the biggest mad if I oppose General Ayub for this door opening towards left."

To another question, the same issue suggested that, were the masses conscious, the "basic democracies" could become training institutions for soviets.

The pro-Moscow left dissolved into so-called liberal, progressive bourgeois parties. The left itself remained divided into pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing. The former would support one section of the bourgeoisie, terming it progressive, while the latter would support the other section of the bourgeoisie, terming that progressive.

The left during this period failed to see the unprecedented economic growth internationally. The post-World War II boom also affected Pakistan. A process of significant industrialisation had begun for the first time, giving birth to capitalism's gravedigger, the proletariat, in a big way. The left during this period, instead of organising and associating itself with the new layer of the proletariat, was hunting for progressives among the bourgeoisie to whom it could lend support. Its flirtation with the working class was confined only to sloganeering. This was why, when a revolutionary movement, the first of its kind, began in 1968-69 and explosive revolutionary events swept away the military dictatorship which had made dictator Ayub the richest president of the poorest country, the left was taken aback.

Revolutionary movement of 1968-69

During this movement, which went on for few months, two parallel powers were in operation. On one hand, workers and peasants controlled the country. On the other hand, due to the absence of proletarian leadership, the bourgeoisie was in control of the state apparatus.

The movement had begun as a protest against a hike in the price of sugar. The students joined this protest. A student of Rawalpindi Polytechnic College, Abdul Hameed, was shot dead in a protest demonstration.

This spark ignited the whole society. Now the proletariat joined the movement. The workers were taking over the mills and factories, the peasantry had risen up, and strike committees appeared, controlling the cities. In the industrial district of Faisalabad, the district administration had to seek the permission of local labour leader Mukhtar Rana for the supply of goods through trucks. All censorship had failed. Trains were carrying the revolutionary message across the country. Workers invented new methods of communication.

It was a new phenomenon. But it had not come from the heavens. Industrialisation, and exploitation and oppression widening the gulf between rich and poor, brought about this change. In the 1960s, the ruling classes had intensified their plunder. For example, in 1965, according to the Delhi-based weekly Links, dictator Ayub's family assets were estimated at Rs250 million, not including the wealth transferred abroad into foreign banks. Similarly, 66 per cent of industrial capital, 80 per cent of banking, and 97 per cent of insurance business was owned by 22 families. In contrast, the average monthly income of a working-class family was Rs780 (US$16 at that time).

In 1967, railway workers were the first to take action, going on strike. The official union had opposed the industrial action. The unofficial union, controlled by Communists, also opposed it because they were supporting "anti-imperialist" Ayub Khan. Nevertheless, the railway workers formed workers' committees and began their own action.

The government resorted to all kinds of repression, but it had to grant some of the demands before the strike was called off. The working class, peasantry and students all were in total revolt. But the left, still caught up in its two-stage theory, was dreaming of bourgeois democratic revolution led by progressive bourgeois.

Professor Muzafar Ahmad, a Communist leader of the National Awami Party, explained this position at the time in Outlook. He said that when he talked of favourable objective conditions, he did not mean objective conditions for socialism but for bourgeois democracy. Consciousness in Pakistan was in no way socialist; therefore revolution must pass through stages, he added. We definitely need a revolutionary party, but in the next stage, he concluded.

Formation of Pakistan People's Party

The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was formed on September 1, 1967. Its program was radical socialist; a Communist leader, J.A. Rahim, had written its basic manifesto. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (the father of Benazir Bhutto) appeared in the political arena as a challenge to the Ayub dictatorship. The Communists (both pro-Moscow Stalinists and Maoists) were supporting the Ayub dictatorship, while Bhutto was representing the masses' feeling.

Bhutto, himself a feudal lord from Sindh, had been foreign minister in Ayub's cabinet. An intelligent bourgeois politician, he raised the slogan of socialism and joined hands with some leftists to form the PPP. When the Ayub dictatorship started targeting Bhutto, he became a symbol of resistance, strengthening his popularity and his grip on the party.

In fact, the PPP's popularity was a sequel to the 1968-69 revolutionary movement. Even prior to 1970's first ever general election on an adult franchise basis, the masses had joined this party because of its socialist program. The labour leaders who became strong because of the 1968 movement joined this party.

It was no accident that the PPP became a mass party. In the colonial world, only parties with a socialist program become popular. This reflects the need for a socialist change. But the Pakistani left as usual failed to understand the unfolding events. They found a radical bourgeois in Bhutto and started supporting him. Instead of organising and launching class struggle, the left developed the working class's illusions in Bhutto and the PPP. They reconciled with feudals and capitalists in the PPP, and even presented them as leaders. Hence the PPP became a working-class party with feudal leaders who used socialist sloganeering.

Instead of organising the PPP on a radical socialist program, it was organised on a bourgeois democratic basis, which led to a right-wing turn by the party. It was again their ideology that stopped the left organising the PPP on a revolutionary basis. The left was just working in line with the foreign policy of Moscow and Beijing.

When the PPP came to power in 1972, many Communists joined the government, but the PPP could not bring any fundamental change despite some radical reforms. This disillusioned the working class. The proletariat took to the streets during the period May-September 1972. The movement was especially strong in Karachi. The government decided to crush the movement. A demonstration of workers was fired on in Gandhi, Karachi, leaving dozens dead. This angered the Communists who had joined the government, and some of them resigned in protest. Perhaps they had forgotten that capitalist governments, no matter how radical they may be at times, always repress the proletariat.

Disillusioned by Bhutto and the PPP, the left went looking for more progressive bourgeois figures, leaving the working class, having illusions in the PPP, at the mercy of its feudal and capitalist leaders.

The left failed to offer any alternative during this period. Hence when the disillusionment grew, it was right-wing religious fanatics and reactionary forces that became an alternative to the PPP. In 1977, a movement began against the government, spurred by economic conditions and US intervention. The left did not understand the nature of the movement nor analyse the nature of its leadership. The left termed it a movement of democratic liberties and urged the working class to join it.

In a statement from Hyderabad jail on April 12, 1977, Miraj Mohammad Khan, a leader of the pro-Beijing Qaumi Mahaz e Azadi party, and Sher Mohammad Marri and Ata Ullah Mengal, two pro-Moscow Baluch nationalist leaders, said: "We appeal to the workers, peasants, students, intellectuals and toiling masses to join the ongoing people's movement which is a movement of democratic liberties. We believe this movement will rid our motherland of the dictatorship." They hoped to rid the "motherland" of "dictatorship" through religious fundamentalists. Terming the Bhutto regime a dictatorship was not correct either socially or politically.

The hope of democracy from religious fanatics backed by the USA was irrational. Their illogical analysis and hopes were soon dashed when another military dictatorship rid the "motherland" of Bhutto's "dictatorship". It was the left that suffered most during this military regime, led by General Zia Ul Haq.

Left in the 1980s

The 1980s were years of resistance against the dictatorship. The proletariat offered heroic resistance and an unprecedented fight back. For the left it was a decade of mergers and alliances.

Bhutto was hanged in 1979, showing that the bourgeoisie doesn't tolerate even some reforms, and imperialism can go to any length to crush the working-class movement.

Bhutto's hanging once aging popularised the PPP, and it became a symbol of resistance against dictatorship. A united front, Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD), was formed. The PPP right wing, liberals and the left all joined hands on this platform. A united front against dictatorship is not a wrong policy, but the left, instead of presenting a transitional program and linking it with a socialist program, reduced itself to social democratic demands.

By this time the Communist Party (pro-Moscow Stalinist), Workers Peasants Party (MKP, a Maoist party) and Socialist Party (a Stalinist party) had some good mass bases in different areas. But they did not use these bases to launch an independent and organised struggle.

The national question during this period became even sharper because of ruthless oppression by the regime in Sindh, North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. But the left failed to take a Leninist stand on the national question because that was not Moscow's line.

In 1986, Pakistan National Party, a faction of MKP, National Democratic Party and Awami Tehrik (People's Movement), all four pro-Moscow groups, merged to form Awami National Party (People's National Party). It was another attempt at a class-collaborationist alliance with illusions in the bourgeoisie; bourgeois nationalists were the main leaders of the new party.

Soon the Pakistan National Party dissociated itself from the merger, followed by Awami Tehrik and the section of MKP. In1987, QIP (National Revolutionary Party -- Qaumi Inqlabi Party) was formed again as a result of mergers among different left and bourgeois nationalist parties, but after one year it was disbanded. In 1988, Qaumi Mahaz-e-Azadi (National Liberation Front), a Maoist party, and the Workers Party (a Stalinist party) merged to form AJP (Awami Jomhori Party -- People's Democratic Party), but barely a few months had passed when, on the eve of an election, the merger was split. The National Liberation Front, led by Meraj Mohammad Khan, left the party. The issue was whether AJP should support Benazir or Nawaz Sharif.

However, in 1986 a new element had entered the politics of the Pakistani left. This was the Struggle Group, activists who called themselves supporters of the monthly Mazdoor Jeddojuhd (Workers Struggle). The Struggle Group, formed in 1980 in the Netherlands, was working within the PPP because this was a period of fight back for democracy and the working class had many illusions in the PPP.

In 1986, the group's main leadership returned from exile because there were limited liberties available now under the military dictatorship.

Post-Soviet left

The collapse of the Soviet Union shattered the Pakistani left. It almost disappeared. On the other hand, the military regime ended following the plane crash that killed military dictator General Zia, and elections were held in 1988. Benazir Bhutto came to power, but she badly disillusioned the working class.

Disillusionment with the PPP and the break-up of the USSR generated hopelessness and desperation. The Stalinist left in Pakistan, as elsewhere in the world, turned to social democracy. The early 1990s were a period of counter-revolutionary consciousness in Pakistan, giving birth to the rise of fundamentalism.

The Struggle Group, however, did not lose faith in socialism. It ended the entrist policy in view of its analysis that the working class would leave the PPP from now on and that an alternative should be built. To build this alternative party, it launched a Jeddojuhd Inqlabi Tehrik (Struggle Revolutionary Movement) in 1993 for the formation of a workers' party by the trade union movement. In 1997, after some success, it formed the Labour Party Pakistan. The Stalinist parties by now had shrunk to small groups.

For the sake of survival, the Communist Party and MKP merged in 1994 to form CMKP (Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party). On June 3, 1999, another three parties -- AJP, Pakistan National Party and Socialist Party -- merged to form the National Workers Party (NWP). Both CMKP and NWP still believe in a bourgeois democratic program, while NWP is turning more and more to the right. Both are ageing parties with hardly any chance of growth.

At present the LPP, CMKP and NWP are the three main parties. Besides these three, there are some left groups having little influence. None of the left parties has a mass base. The left as a whole is hardly recognised as a force at present. However, the LPP has achieved some success since its formation in gaining a semi-mass base, especially in Sindh. There exists a big gap on the left. The LPP is filling the gap. At present it has a membership of more than 1500, but it is not yet a very consolidated membership.

Future downsizing, privatisation, poverty and ever increasing joblessness will make workers take to the streets, and the left will get a chance to organise these radicalised masses. But at the same time, fundamentalists may appear as a big danger since they are at present more organised and strong.


Dear Farooq Sulehria
I read your brief history about the left in Pakistan through a link from SPN.
It is really so informative and on actual grass roots of left.


I do not see any coherence (with the main article's core) in the following lines of the article:
"When a war broke out between India and Pakistan in the same year, it was called a people's war by the Chinese bureaucracy, which gave full support to Ayub Khan's dictatorship and Pakistani chauvinism."
First, looked from the point of view of the article, India's war on Pakistan was yet another attempt by an aspiring capitalist government at repression. Enabling Pakistan to defend it's frontiers against aggression, in no case supports any chauvinism. Marshal Lee was dead right in calling the Indian ruling class "the aggressor". Next, the Pakistan of 1967 led by Ayub, demonstrably made those developments in the fields of agriculture as well as industry and was in fact very well put on the way to achieve total economic independence (if it were not for the nationalization misadventures of 1970-1977), as observed by the Chinese trade delegation (as reported in Pakistan Times, 29-10-1996). I wonder what is the point in seeing that development as a "naked manifestation" of some "higher evil" engaged in some "higher conspiracy"?
However, I do agree that "instead of organising the PPP on a radical socialist program, it was organised on a bourgeois democratic basis, which led to a right-wing turn by the party." It was an ill-conceived ideology to start with, that stopped the left from organising the PPP on a revolutionary basis. The left were thus actually working in line with the foreign policy of Moscow. Of Beijing? Not quite sure.


As concerned the left wing in pakistan,from the very begning they were looking towards the Mascow or Bejing. Disappearance of Sovit union and capital based policies of China left the left wing astonshied and they become isolated from the masses.
This state of affairs still exsits,there are so maney parties in pakistan, who claim to be true left parties,but all these parties speaks about the working class,but majority of these parties have links with the capitalist based parties. For example Mr lall khan and Ch: Manzoor party both are affiliated with PPP, but they are at daggers with each other.
Some left groups in KPK have made a alliance with each other,and named Awami Party Pakistan (APP),with Fanoos Gujjar as its chairman,this party have some base in Malakand division and at Swabi district, as per his chairman the party have also some say in punjab and sindh....