After years of abandonment following the demise of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, socialism is generating academic and political interest again. The financial crash of 2007-08 only added fuel to the fire, as critics of capitalism pointed towards the inherent tendency of the system to collapse. The left-wing tilt of Latin America, since the start of the century, along with the victory of Syriza in Greece in the not too distant past, has only encouraged further debate on the merits of socialist thought.
Interest in socialism and the Marxist worldview has a long history in Pakistani politics. While it can safely be argued that Pakistan has never turned into, or come close to turning into a socialist society, there have been times in the past where this particular school of thought generated lively debate within political circles. As things stand currently however, interest in socialism in Pakistan is limited with only a handful of political entities with no substantial electoral muscle.
This leads to the natural question: Why, with all its merits that seem to answer so many of our problems, is there a disappointing lack of mainstream interest in socialism within the web of Pakistani politics?
The answer to this can include numerous explanations, and the purpose here is not to paint a simplistic picture of an otherwise complex situation. The purpose here is to only highlight some portions, perhaps the five most obvious ones:
1. Academic bias
The material taught in academic institutions of the country is tilted heavily in favour of the neo-liberal school of thought, where it is argued that merits of the free market far outnumber those of other alternatives. Pakistan Studies classes at school put Bhutto’s nationalisation policies in an extremely negative light, which is further used as proof against the weakness of a planned economy.
By the time students start higher education, there is a strong focus on entrepreneurship, with academic literature arguing strongly in favour of profit and private ownership. While the curricula in business schools suffer from academic bias, the quality of education within social science has a different problem – a severe lack of quality.
It is no wonder that every time higher education in the country is discussed, we all know what the best business, engineering and medical institutions are, but are clueless when it comes to identifying the best social sciences institutions. Also, a large chunk of students beginning their bachelor degrees usually have the field with social science as their last option which means that exposure to academic literature on an alternative political school of thought, such as socialism, is not automatically present for fresh minds.
Pakistan has turned into a deeply religious society over the years, which is in stark contrast to socialism’s hostile attitude towards religion. A far cry from embracing atheism, Pakistani society is not even open to the idea of secularism.
While there have been instances in the past where religion and socialism have been mixed by various leaders, even with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto bringing forward his brand of Islamic Socialism, separation of religion and state (even if it doesn’t go as far as state atheism ), is necessary to move into a classless socialist society. Since religion has become such an integral part of the daily lives of average Pakistanis, opening the mind to a political ideology that argues the exact opposite is extremely difficult.
3. Decline of Pakistan People’s Party
Even though Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) abandoned its socialist roots a long time ago, its demise as a force at the federal level has done more harm than good for socialism in Pakistan. Historically, PPP has been the country’s largest left-wing political party to argue for socialism. It has seen a rapid decline in popularity over the last few years, primarily because of the party’s extremely poor performance in office, during its last tenure at the helm, and from being, arguably, the most popular and well organised political party in the country back in the day, now the PPP has been reduced to a regional party.
The decline of PPP has dealt socialist thought in Pakistan a blow since now the average Pakistani voter looks towards alternatives such as the largely conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Despite moving away from socialism, the PPP did, at least at some point in time, advocate for it, unlike the PML-N and PTI which argue on opposing ideological footings.
4. Focus on civil liberties, not enough on labour struggle
Over the last few years, Pakistan has seen an explosion of commentary and activism in favour of civil liberties. From women’s rights to religious coexistence, a day doesn’t go by when an article or blog on a topic arguing for civil liberties does not pop up.
However, there has been an almost complete lack of commentary on labour struggle, one of the central topics in Marxist theory and in turn, socialism. Perhaps the realisation of class conflict has not seeped into every day thought for Pakistanis yet, which is why labour struggle has not been present in mainstream socio-political discussions.
As a society that has suffered from a large amount of infringement on personal space and rights, the impulse is always to speak out in favour of civil liberties, since they directly impact our daily lives. Labour struggles, incorrectly in our minds; do not impact our average everyday lives, which could potentially be one of the reasons behind the apathetic attitude towards it. Also, it is pertinent to point out that trade unions in Pakistan do not yield enough influence which makes labour struggle even more difficult.
5. False view of the socialist/communist ideology
From a historical point of view, the Cold War communist world in Pakistan (like large parts of the rest of the world) has been extremely negative, generally consisting of state brutality, economic mismanagement, unparalleled red tape-ism and massive corruption. This in turn, has lent a more favourable view of opposing political and economic ideologies, and discarded the socialist school of thought.
While criticism of the Cold War communist states is completely justified, the fact that the States in question did not practice communism or socialism in its actual form has never crossed most people’s minds. Socialist ideology is actually the exact opposite of what was carried out in the Cold War communist States, and in many ways; modern States such as North Korea. However, this is not discussed enough, since the image of the socialist world in young minds exposed to history, continues to be negative and no effort has been put into changing that.
This post originally appeared on The Express Tribune Blog on 7 November, 2015.