Dec 2022

Faded gloss of socialism

William Crawley  on a book of essays that evaluate the significance and influence of the 1960s’ journal Pakistan Left Review, both at the time and for contemporary thinkers

This unusual book represents a search for the heritage or genealogy of leftist and ‘progressive’ intellectual exploration in Pakistan. The Pakistan Left Review was a short-lived magazine published in London over a period of 18 months, from autumn 1968 to spring 1970.Only five issues were printed and their contents form the core of this book. So it is principally an archive. But the editors aim to placeit in the context of a contemporary view of the journal’s intellectual significance for the development of leftist and progressive ideas in Pakistan at the time and since.

The magazine was launched amidst the widespread protests in Pakistan which brought down the Ayub Khan regime. London was where Ayub’s critics and opponents could avoid the blanket censorship imposed by the military regime in Pakistan. The PLR was a student enterprise centred around the University of London Union. Of its two young co-editors, the more visible was Iqbal Khan, who contributed substantial articles to three out of the five issues. We are told that the anonymous editorials with which each issue opened were jointly written by Iqbal and his co-editor Aziz Kurtha, a lawyer and businessman, who later became better known as a television broadcaster and presenter of Eastern Eye, a TV programme for Asian viewers in Britain.

There seemed,in part,to have been ahigh-minded didactic purpose behind the magazine, a sort of handbook for aspiring leftists.The first two issues contained translations, in Bengali and Urdu, of texts by Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist philosopher who was guru to the 1968 student generation in Europe and America, and a passage from Karl Marx himself on ‘The Concept of Man’, which is abstruse enough in English and doubtless also in Urdu. However, the first issue was dominated by an interview with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Ayub’s former Foreign Minister and now leader of the newly formed Peoples Party of Pakistan. It was a journalistic scoop by Kurtha, in which he, along with other writers, including the young Tariq Ali, deplored what they saw as Bhutto’s failure to live up to their socialist expectations.

Despite his criticism of Bhutto, Kurtha agreed to speak at several US universities on behalf of Bhutto’s PPP. After the Pakistan Communist party had been banned, leftist political activity in Pakistan in the late 1960s was most prominently represented by the National Awami Party, and its support was mainly,though not exclusively, in East Pakistan. Tariq Ali tried to persuade Maulana Bhashani and the National Awami Party to advocate revolution. Iqbal Khan, on the contrary, criticised the ‘extremist tendencies’ of the pro-Peking left. The magazine had closed before the elections of December 1970 which confirmed an apparently irreconcilable split between political opinion in West and East Pakistan, and led to the eventual secession of Bangladesh. The Bengali demand for autonomy was not, of course, in any sense a communist-inspired or left-wing plot. So a left-wing analysis of the events seems more of a view from the sidelines than a direct influence on political events or their outcomes.

Book review
Pakistan Left Review: Then and Now,edited by Nadir Cheema and Stephen M. LyonOUP Karachi 2022 pp 285 p/b ISBN978-969-7341-53-5

There is a short biographical notice of Iqbal Khan’s later career, which after the PLR was largely under the radar. He lived and taught in the Bahamas for some years and later returned to Pakistan where, in his writing and teaching, he aimed to keep the torch of leftist progressive thinking alive. Years after the PLR, Kurtha played a less than glorious role in an exposé of the best-selling novelist and leading Conservative politician Jeffrey Archer. This proved scandalous both for Archer – who, after winning a libel case, was jailed for perjury –  and for Kurtha, whose standing as a political journalistin Britain it effectively destroyed.  Kurtha became known as a collector of Pakistani art, especially that of Francis Newton Souza, whose biography he has written. Little is said in this book about Kurtha’s earlier journalistic and intellectual ambitions or his subsequent career, though as keeper of the PLR archive, his permission to re-publish the journal was key to the project.

Kurtha’s legal training was reflected in the critique of Ayub Khan’s 1962 constitution, which appeared in the second issue of the PLR under his by-line. The contribution of the then student economist Rehman Sobhan to the second issue of the journal foreshadowed that of the group of East Pakistani economists whose analysis on the imbalance and inequity of the economic benefits of Pakistan had such an influence on both domestic and foreign perceptions of the elections of December 1970. It also added powerfully to the credibility of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the Awami League’s demand for Bangladeshi autonomy – not initially full independence. Sobhan, now the doyen of Bangladeshi economists, contributes an article giving a 21st century perspective on the events of 50-plus years ago, framed in the language of ‘identity’ and ‘exclusion’ rarely used at the time.

A further contemporary insight came in discussion at the book launch from Professor Amin Mughal, veteran mentor to generations of Pakistani students in London, who said: ‘They tried to make out we in the NAP were Communists but we were not.’ The dedication of the volume recalls Amin Mughal’s and the late I.A. Rehman ‘s ‘lifelong struggle for a progressive Pakistan’. Rehman’s earlier political allegiance as a Communist was largely superseded by his work as an editor, and decades-long foundational work in the Pakistan Human Rights movement .

The interest that the PLR took in Pakistani art criticism and appreciation must have been due to Kurtha. It is marked by articles both in the original PLR and in this commemorative book, by the artist Salima Hashmi, daughter of the renowned poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. One of her father’s poems was published in the PLR for the first time and is reproduced here. Her participation in the publication of the book was another highlight of the October launch held in London.

Talk of ‘revolution’, and of Pakistan not living up to its promises, was a common message both of the 1960s and 2000s, but by 2000 the shine of socialism was ‘decidedly less pristine’ after decades of attack. The radical dreams of the 1960s werenot fulfilled. But the editors argue that it important to remember that they existed.There are parallels with the anti-Musharaff movement 30 years later. It is interesting to note that several 1960s’ vintage Marxists,including Tariq Ali,have supported the Taliban’s demand for social justice. None of the 60s’ leftists gave credence to Z.A Bhutto’s notion of ‘Islamic socialism’. Many of the committed political activists of the 60s turned out to be decidedly more self-oriented than suggested by their youthful selves. The Marxist rhetoric of the 60s is absent but the editors of this book argue that  passion and commitment is shown in different generations in different ways. Even the ‘conservative and apathetic’(their words) 1980s’ students were active in opposing investment in South Africa under apartheid, or opposition to General ZiaulHaq’s policies. In the 2000s the battle was for a restoration of democracy,andin some quarters (though the editors do not say this) a new feminist perspective on both social and international affairs.

In a revealing Afterword, Kamran Asdar Ali writes of the plurality and often contradictory nature of the views expressed in PLR debates, whether in the journal or the face-to-face meetings of the group that took place in a Soho restaurant.Does the PLR deserve the editors’ write-up as a seminal influence? Probably not, though other journals such as Pakistan Forum published in the United States took up the baton. The student ideology of the 1960smay not be widely shared, but the social aspirations for Pakistan expressed in this cameo remain alive.

William Crawley is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London