Harbingers of change

Asim Sajjad Akhter

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

AMONGST the more popular rhetorical questions that litter our political and intellectual landscape is: ‘Who will change Pakistan?’ Imran Khan’s elevation to most obvious contender for the prize notwithstanding, the truth is that there is a problem with the question itself.

Societies are not static entities that change only when our messiah of choice graces us. They are like living organisms, and constantly changing. Yes, big convulsions do take place from time to time which accelerate or interrupt processes of change. Such conjunctures are, however, not the ‘doing’ of individuals even if certain personalities become closely associated with them.

So, for instance, capitalist modernisation through the late 1950s and early 1960s precipitated the emergence of a radical politics of class in the latter half of the 1960s; the upsurge during those years was unlike anything that preceded or followed it. Tens of thousands of ordinary people politicised during this period became the face of the anti-Ayub movement in particular, and an anti-systemic politics more generally.

Societies are like living organisms and are constantly changing.

It was not just in Pakistan that a cadre of committed political workers emerged. The politicisation was global in scope; students were taking over Paris in May 1968, unprecedented numbers were protesting the Vietnam War in America, and anti-colonial consciousness was peaking in large parts of Africa and East Asia.

Those who crave a short answer to ‘who will change Pakistan?’ are either unaware of how significant a role an entire generation of political workers played in fomenting transformative ideas and movements in the late 1960s and for two decades subsequently, have conveniently forgotten that change in society is not possible without a conscious, critical mass of activists adequately organised to take on established structures of power.

The world has of course moved on from those heady days. Indeed, the tide turned against the revolutionary generation as early as the late 1970s, and brave resistance through the following decade petered out by the early 1990s.

It can be reasoned that a new generation of committed young people is finally coming to the fore after a long period of dormancy. The means and methods are different; so-called social media technologies are the carriers of ideas of change rather than cyclostyled handbills, and the emphasis tends to be on deepening citizenship rights rather than uprooting the bourgeois order as a whole.

Examples all around the world, from the Arab uprisings to the Occupy movements, confirm that the impact that this new generation is making on political discourse and practice is growing. In Pakistan too, a small but increasingly influential cadre of young activists is reinvigorating left politics. But, in this country or elsewhere, it is just as clear that there is a critical ingredient missing in this new brand of politics and that without it even the newest enabling means and methods cannot play a decisive role.

I am of course referring to that old-fashioned creature called the political party. The urban middle class typically decries political parties as vehicles of corruption in particular, and appendages of an unjust and exclusionary political order more generally. Yet mainstream bourgeois parties represent a means for ordinary people to express themselves politically, however flawed the electoral system.

That bourgeois elections offer very little leeway for meaningful political change is another matter altogether. The generation of the 1960s and 1970s developed a formidable organisational infrastructure outside the bourgeois mainstream — political parties, trade unions, peasant groups, cultural fronts, student federations. This infrastructure started decaying from the early 1980s onwards, and progressives continue to suffer for it.

Certainly organisational patterns of the past need not be replicated in toto in the contemporary period. But without leftist political organisations there can be no transformation of society’s established structures of power.

It is thus that the best organisational traditions of the 20th century must be wedded to the novel initiatives of the new generation of political activists politicised over the past few years. This process will take time, because in recent times there has been no society-wide upsurge such as that of the late 1960s that would induce a large number of people towards political activity.

The anti-Musharraf mobilisations in 2007 did indeed politicise a not insignificant number of young people, and the impetus generated culminated in the consolidation of the still small left in 2012. In these intervening two years, things have shifted even further to the right but then again a once stable hegemonic order is also beset by irreconcilable contradictions. Ultimately it is only a left party and the committed activists who run it that can turn today’s maelstrom of contradictions into a just and humane society tomorrow.


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