View Full Version : Agents of change AASIM SAJJAD AKHTAR - 3rd July 2015

3rd July 2015, 01:39 PM
BACK in the day when the revolutionary left was the most talked about political force in the world — both inside and outside the corridors of power — the most famous revolutionary of them all asserted that only ‘professionals’ could turn the established order on its head. It was Lenin that insisted on the need for a ‘vanguard’, a group of full-time political workers willing to sacrifice everything to make the revolution possible.

Today the idea of a vanguard of professional revolutionaries is generally considered passé. Yes militant movements that have forsaken the political mainstream exist in many parts of the world, including in this country, but at the broader societal level the once romantic idea of revolution has been mostly criminalised in an environment when anything and everything can easily be reduced to ‘terrorism’.

The exceptions — mostly of the ridiculous variety — actually confirm the rule. Take, for instance, Tahirul Qadri who is back in Pakistan to continue the on-again, off-again ‘revolution’ that has brought us so many TV moments over the past couple of years.

What is the position of those on the left of the political spectrum?
I think that those who think seriously about the possible contours of a progressive politics in the present must revisit some — if not all — of the classic formulations of the 20th-century left, even if only to rescue ourselves from the increasingly sanitised versions of representative rule that appear to have become a taken-for-granted fact of life in the 21st century.

During the Cold War, ideas such as the ‘vanguard’ were either eulogised or vilified depending on which side of the political divide one was on. In this country, any political idea attributable to the left was instantly equated with treachery and decried as inimical to Islam. Yet beyond the rhetoric, the right-wing borrowed liberally from the left, both in the realm of ideas and political practice.

Most significantly, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) organised itself along Leninist lines — its founder Abul a’la Maudoodi built the party around a well-organised group of ideologically committed Islamists that could be the lived example for the Islamisation of society as a whole. Importantly, the JI’s close links to the Pakistani establishment meant that it never took on the established order head-on and successfully managed to induct its cadres into the state’s institutional structures.

With Qazi Hussain Ahmad becoming the emir of the JI in 1987 the party became less discerning in its attitude towards new recruits. Yet old-school Jamaatis still talk about the ideologically committed political worker as being the cornerstone of the party’s politics. Indeed, many old-school Jamaatis lament how the political and social landscape has changed so much that ideological commitment itself is starting to become an anachronism. The ranting aside, the JI is still very much part of the political mainstream, but it is still telling that the most prominent face of the religious right and historic ‘B-team’ of the establishment is struggling in some measure to adapt to the ever-changing realities of Pakistani politics.

Where, then, does that leave those on the left of the political spectrum? The replacement of the ideologically committed political worker by what some academics have called political ‘brokers’ is both cause and consequence of the left’s decline. Should progressives just accede to this reality and try and develop their own networks of brokerage? Is it even possible for progressives to compete with incumbents who cynically use money, influence and muscle to build such networks?

We are a world away from the classical era of the professional revolutionary and the vanguard organisation, and wishful thinking does not make for quick-fixes. But neither should we assume that the ideas and methods of the past are completely obsolete, especially given the widespread disillusionment that so many ordinary people harbour vis-à-vis the existing political order.

To be sure, we live in an age where a very different kind of ‘professional’ thrives, one who ‘invests’ in politics so as to reap a good return. No doubt those who partake in this brand of politics put in a considerable amount of time and energy to secure their objectives, a fact that the urban educated elite ignores in its completely indiscriminate bashing of politicians. But this investment of time and energy is rarely motivated by the concerns that instigated ideologically committed political workers in a bygone era.

Without restating the case for a politics in which we assert a vision of a radically different society, and making the necessary sacrifices for such a politics, progressives will not be able to re-establish themselves on the Pakistani political map. This does not mean blindly adhering to ideology — it means rehabilitating the idea of the individual that makes a commitment to a collective cause and adopts a lifestyle consistent with that cause.

Or we could just sit around and mope while Tahirul Qadri confirms himself as the revolutionary of our times.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2015