Socialism, Dogmatism and the Intellectuals - I

Progressives were once at the forefront of critically acclaimed writing in Pakistan. Raza Naeem explains why that is no longer the case

Socialism, Dogmatism and the Intellectuals - I
"If one doesn’t find feelings of defeatism and sorrow, loneliness and helplessness in the writings of Progressive writers; the reason is that they trust the collective power of Man; and illuminate the lamp of their creation with this same lightning. They try to understand the reality of things. They know that human history is the history of struggle against oppression, of transforming oppression into authority. Therefore they inform themselves about the laws of oppression.”

So writes Syed Sibte Hasan (1916-1986) in his essay “Writers and Social Process”, part of his latest collection of previously uncollected essays (Adeeb aur Samaaji Amal, 2016) in the volume of the same name published recently by Maktaba Daniyal.

These words of Sibte Hasan matter today – and  not only because he was one of the pioneers of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in undivided India and the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) in independent Pakistan, and worked closely with the noted poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Syed Sajjad Zaheer, the first General Secretary of the CPP. Sibte wrote and worked at a critical juncture for the country, paying the price of his courage of conviction and independent mind, being jailed repeatedly by the country’s first government and the military dictatorships of Ayub Khan and Zia-ul-Haq, as well as a ban on his writings. His writings played a seminal role in popularising socialism amongst the masses. The reason was very simple. Sibte was the public intellectual par excellence, choosing to write in Urdu despite his excellent command over English as well as Persian; the majority of his many works were written in the former, with only his last work which was published in his lifetime written in English.
Has the decline been brought about by a failure of imagination on the part of what still functions as the official (but miniscule) Left in the country? Or is it the case that some of the early founders of the PWA had a foreign and imported agenda rather than a ‘Pakistani’ and ‘Islamic’ one?

Writing these words in the year 2017-2018, a seminal year of commemorations for the Marxist canon – the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the fiftieth anniversary of the untimely execution of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in Bolivia and the birth centenary of another key Progressive writer, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi (1916-2006), the bicentennials of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Karl Marx –one wonders why there are no public intellectuals in Pakistan today writing in the mainstream media like Sibte and Qasmi in Urdu and our other languages? In fact, there is a barrenness in the landscape when it comes to Progressive writing in the era of the ‘end of history’, ‘clash of civilisations’and of course 9/11. The ones who profess to be on the left are either writing in English in the alternative media or academic books written in the same language which are neither written for, nor do they reach, the public.

One of the last representatives of our popular public intellectuals of the left, Sobho Gianchandani, who was even conferred with an official Kamal-e-Fun award, passed away in 2014, while Ibrahim Joyo – another Sindhi like Gianchandani and the doyen of Sindhi Marxist literature – too joined the former in the heavenly firmament just last year, barely noticed by our mandarins of culture and taste when his birth centenary was celebrated in 2015. Abid Hasan Minto, the president of the left-wing Awami Workers Party (AWP) has a lifetime of making a career as both a Progressive activist and literary critic, but he seems to have given up on the latter role. Then there were popular Urdu columnists like the late Munno Bhai, who despite adhering to socialist ideology, managed to find space in mainstream, right-wing, mass media like the Urdu daily Jang.

It becomes more pertinent to ask this question given that the 80th anniversary of the founding of the PWA in Lucknow in a historic session presided by the distinguished writer Munshi Premchand passed us by, also in 2016.

Has the decline been brought about by a failure of imagination on the part of what still functions as the official (but miniscule) Left in the country? Or is it the case that some of the early founders of the PWA had a foreign and imported agenda rather than a ‘Pakistani’ and ‘Islamic’ one, as is alleged by a recent book on Anjuman Taraqqi Pasand Musanifeen Pakistan Main: Islami Roshan Khayali ya Ishtiraki Mullaiyat? (“The Progressive Writers Association in Pakistan: Islamic Enlightenment or Socialist Dogmatism?”, published by Sang-e-Meel, 2016) by Fateh Muhammad Malik? What follows is a humble, and by no means exhaustive attempt at a response.

The presence of an alternative ideology to the now dominant – perhaps the only one at that – ideology of capitalism was definitely a major reason why writers like Sibte and Qasmi were not only read, but taken seriously even by their critics on the liberal or right-wing side of the ideological divide. The Soviet Union not only provided moral support to leftist writers but also helped propagate or translate Russian and Soviet classic literature in countries like Pakistan. This function was also provided later by Maoist China after the revolution there in 1949.In the 21st century, while capitalism itself is undergoing a crisis in its very epicenters, there is still no real alternative to it in the form of a viable ideology which can propagate an alternative narrative. There is no major state like the former Soviet Union to counter capitalism.

Among friends - Sibte Hasan, Dr M. Sarwar and Faiz Ahmed Faiz

The phenomenon of ‘NGOisation’, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, was very damaging to both the Progressive cause and the writers adhering to it. While in the 1960s, the CIA created organisations like the Congress of Cultural Freedom to counter the influence of organizations like the PWA worldwide, their impact was less damaging than the voluntary decision of many leftist ideologues to change tack after their Progressive Mecca disappeared overnight; and to join NGOs, which mushroomed in Pakistan in the wake of the events of the 1990s, at inflated salaries. Many others abandoned the ideology of their youth, and became businessmen or religious preachers or televangelists apparently with a lot of ease and little guilt, mirroring the actions of their ‘comrades’ elsewhere in the world. Still others became devotees of one language or the other, such as those who became affiliated with Muhajir politics and Punjabi nationalists and language activists. Hence the co-opting of the term ‘civil society’ (coined by Antonio Gramsci, the main theoretician of Italian communism) by not only these NGOs but the World Bank! The agendas of these NGOs are notoriously driven by donor-funding, placing them ironically away from the very ‘civil’ society they claim to be working for, and nearer to positions of power and influence.

In Pakistan, since the 1990s, the Left has become very weak. This has historically to do with its consistent banning and persecution right from the 1950s by the state. Moreover it is disunited and cannot seem to agree on a common minimum program to oppose the status quo. The largest mainstream left party, the aforementioned AWP, itself an alliance of three left and communist parties, believes in social democracy and apart from older stalwarts like Minto, there are younger ones like Asim Sajjad Akhtar, a brilliant academic and activist who prefers to write in English, not Urdu. Then there are other parties like the Peoples Mazdoor Kissan Party, a successor to the Mazdoor Kissan Party once led by the legendary communist leader Major Ishaq Muhammad; now led by another brilliant academic and musician (who fronts the progressive Laal band), Taimur Rahman. Though Rahman has already written a best-selling academic work on the class structure of Pakistani society (again in English), it is in Laal’s utilisation of Progressive and Sufi poetry of Urdu and Punjabi poets which shows a lot of promise in overturning the fortunes of the Progressive narrative in the country.

Sobho Gianchandani

Other left groups like Dr. Laal Khan’s The Struggle maintain a smaller presence, Dr Khan frequently contributing articles in English in the media.

It seems that the intellectual precursors of all of these leaders of the left in Pakistan today were gifted writers and activists like Dr. Eqbal Ahmad, Hamza Alavi and Dr. Feroze Ahmad who were all active in progressive politics, often landing them in trouble with military dictatorships. Eqbal Ahmad carved a global reputation with his participation in the Algerian anti-colonial struggle against the French in the 1950s and 190s; then in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements in the United States in the 196s and 1970s; and his involvement with the Palestinian cause. Alavi was the most prominent Marxist theoretician from Pakistan and made enormous contributions to our understanding of the peasant’s revolutionary role, as well as the contradictions of the overdeveloped state in postcolonial societies. Unfortunately, these three spent most of their lives in exile abroad, making their engagement with the progressive movement in Pakistan very limited and thus of little lasting value. Most of their scholarly or research work was carried out in English and published abroad, with the result that Pakistanis knew less about them than their global counterparts. A fourth such distinguished Pakistani, Tariq Ali, the offspring of two very prominent members of Pakistan’s communist movement, has been living in the UK for almost six decades now.

Sibte Hasan helped found the Progressive Writers Association

The Progressive Writers Association, which became the most powerful literary movement in the Indian subcontinent in the second half of the twentieth century, rivaling Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Aligarh Movement, is also no longer the force it once was in the heydays of Sibte and Qasmi. It is also divided into tiny cliques on the pattern of the official left, hampering its effectiveness. Although many critics like Fateh Malik criticise the closeness between the CPP and PWA in the past, it was this ideological link which helped make the PWA a mass organisation and attracted to it scores of talented individuals who became legends in their own lifetime. The link between the Left and the masses is now broken comprehensively. Writing for television is now taken more seriously than literature of commitment.

The role of the Pakistani state and its nexus with right-wing parties and the mainstream media is a legacy of the Zia-ul-Haq era, when the left was banned, hounded, jailed, persecuted, forced into exile or murdered outright. Almost all of our leading Progressive writers were thrown in jail or persecuted at one point or the other: Sibte, Qasmi, SajjadZaheer, Faiz, Zaheer Kashmiri, Abdullah Malik,Ahmad Bashir, Hameed Akhtar, Safdar Mir, Habib Jalib, Ahmad Faraz, Masood Ashar, Ahmad Salim, Fehmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti; some others like Saadat Hasan Manto, Mustafa Zaidi, Sara Shagufta and Saghar Siddiqi were hounded so much so that they were compelled to depart early from the ranks of the living.
One factor which often receives scant attention was the deliberate construction and cultivation – literary engineering no less – of state intellectuals, personality cults and lobbies of conservative, right-wing writers in opposition to leftist writers from the 1950s to the 1980s

One other factor which often receives scant attention when we discuss the relative decline of Progressive writers and writing in Urdu and other languages was the deliberate construction and cultivation – literary engineering no less – of state intellectuals, personality cults and lobbies of conservative, right-wing writers in opposition to leftist writers from the 1950s to the 1980s.For example the rise to prominence of the group comprising Qudrutullah Shahab, Ashfaq Ahmad, his wife Bano Qudsia (who has just passed away) and the reformed Mumtaz Mufti on one hand; the cult of Naseem Hijazi, the celebrated writer of pastiche potboilers glorifying Muslim conquerors; and promoting writers like Intizar Hussain, Muhammad Hasan Askari and M.D. Taseer at the expense of equally-influential and talented Progressive writers like Sibte and Qasmi. Promoting one set of writers at the expense of others created a battle of ideas dangerously skewed in favour of imposing a monolithic narrative on a multiethnic society with a secular ethos.

Compare that situation with the one now, when there is little or no persecution of Progressive writers, though the state’s attention has now shifted to the Taliban, while the right-wing elements and the media are busy hounding out those who challenge the former’s writ to take the larger society hostage through its exclusivist narrative. ’Terrorism’ is the new agenda, not ‘Progress’; even the left broadly agrees with the state in its efforts to fight terrorism: is it a desperate attempt to stay relevant in the 21st century? A case in point is the recent ‘Zarb-e-Kalam’ initiative declared by the then Prime Minister at the annual conference of the Pakistan Academy of Letters in January last year. Is this another attempt by the state to co-opt intellectuals like the case of the infamous Writers Guild during the Ayub Khan era? Only time will tell.

Note: All the translations from the Urdu are mine.

Raza Naeem is a social scientist, book critic, and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He is presently working on translations of the selected work of Sibte Hasan, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Abdullah Hussein. He has curated a first-ever edition of Banned Books Week in Pakistan in Lahore in September 2014, and subsequent editions since then, in collaboration with Olomopolo. He is currently the President of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent work is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic novel The Weary Generations. He can be reached at:

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979