Pakistan: Populism, revolution and counter-revolution

"Socialists and the Venezuelan Revolution", by Tony Saunois, is very relevant to the struggles of the workers and peasants in the neo-colonial world as a whole, but is of special significance for Pakistan.

The following article is an English version of an introduction to the Urdu language version of the pamphlet Socialists and the Venezuelan Revolution, written by Tony Saunois. This introduction covers important issues for socialists internationally raising the general approach revolutionaries should take towards populist regimes which come to power in the neo-colonial world and using the example of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s administration in Pakistan to illustrate these points.

Populism, revolution and counter-revolution

It deals extensively with the processes of revolution and counter-revolution in Venezuela, and the role within this process of the populist leader Hugo Chavez and his government.

Pakistan between 1971 and 1977 also experienced a populist regime, that of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Unfortunately, the lessons of that period for the working class and poor peasants of Pakistan have not been fully understood by many leaders or would-be leaders of the Pakistani workers’ movement even today. Included amongst these must be the organisation of Lal Khan of Class Struggle and its most prominent international representative, Alan Woods, whose mistaken approach and ideas on the Venezuelan revolution are the subject of this searching analysis by Tony Saunois.

Nothing could be worse for socialists and Marxists than to approach politics from the standpoint of wishful thinking. This is particularly dangerous in a period of revolution and counter-revolution, as in Venezuela today. The comrades of Lal Khan’s organisation are guilty of making this mistake, as Tony Saunois’s pamphlet demonstrates. Alan Woods, flattered by a personal invitation from Chavez to meet him and Manzoor, the PPP MP, in Caracas, overemphasised the personal qualities of Chavez at the expense of an objective appraisal of the realities of the Venezuelan Revolution and a programme for victory for the workers and peasants of that country.

Venezuela has begun to occupy the same position in the eyes of the world labour movement as did the struggles of the Chilean workers between 1970 and 1973. It is for this reason that Tony Saunois wrote this book. The task of Marxists is to support all genuine steps forward of governments like those of Hugo Chavez – which have benefited significant sections of the workers and peasants – but at the same time to warn against the dangers that flow from piecemeal measures which remain within the framework of capitalism.

In a friendly and positive way, it is necessary also to criticise the deficiencies of the leaders of mass movements that are not prepared to go all the way in the struggle against landlordism and capitalism. No matter how radical of "left" these leaders are, it is also necessary to warn the working class of their deficiencies, while at the same time outlining a positive political programme and action for the independent mobilisation of the masses.

Both we and the comrades now in the CMI pursued such a course in relation, for instance, to the revolution in Chile, in our attitude towards the leaders of the Cuban Revolution and in many other important struggles in the neo-colonial world. This approach has now, unfortunately, been abandoned by them. Belatedly, Alan Woods did attempt to answer the points raised by Tony Saunois – without naming him! – when he sought to argue recently that he did strike a critical note towards Chavez and the Venezuelan revolution. Where did he do this? On his website, which is largely restricted to a narrow audience and read predominantly by his own members and sympathisers.

When, however, he was given the opportunity to publicly strike a critical note he failed to do so. At a meeting organised by the left reformists of the Labour Representation Committee at the recent Labour Party conference in Britain, he spoke on the theme of solidarity with Venezuela without once mentioning the limitations of the revolution at this stage – not going beyond the framework of capitalism – or of Hugo Chavez himself or his government.

In his speech Alan Woods said: "…the American imperialists will never be reconciled to the Venezuelan Revolution, any more than they will ever be reconciled to Cuban Revolution". Very good – we agree that US imperialism will never reconcile itself to the Venezuelan and Cuban revolution. However, the Cuban regime is qualitatively different to the Venezuelan one since the former involved a social revolution and even then Marxists did not adopt an uncritical attitude to Castro’s regime.

Alan Woods goes on to say: "It [the Venezuelan revolution] provides an example for the millions of poor, downtrodden, hungry people of Latin America. That is why they cannot accept it." But this example is under threat if the Venezuelan revolution is not completed. Alan Woods does not say this. Is this because he was afraid to upset the reformist sensibilities of the audience he was addressing?

This speech is an example of his tendency – which we are all too familiar with – to court cheap publicity, ingratiating himself with an audience of largely older, left reformists clinging to the battered wreckage of Blair’s pro-imperialist Labour Party, at the expense of a Marxist analysis aimed at raising the level of understanding of workers.

This does not mean that the Chavez government should be attacked in the shrill tones of the ultra-left or that solidarity with the Venezuelan Revolution is not important. But Alan Woods restricted his comments to a vague "solidarity". No concrete measures were or are suggested. But for Marxists, solidarity is not just a material issue; first and foremost it is political. Workers and socialists everywhere have the right and duty to comment on the policies of the Venezuelan government and organisations. Conversely, the Venezuelan workers have similar rights to do likewise for workers’ struggles elsewhere. By his silence on the deficiencies of the Chavez government, he uncritically endorsed the policies of this government.

For Pakistani workers to fully draw the correct conclusions today of populism in general, and specifically how it applies to the neo-colonial world, it is necessary to revisit the experiences of Bhuttoism and particularly his government of 1971-77. Of course, there are almost as many varieties of populism as there are colours in the kaleidoscope. But there are also many common features. The populism of Peron in Argentina (1946-1955), for instance, in some aspects is different to the Chavez government today. The world background was different; the situation of capitalism then allowed the bourgeois Bonapartist regime of Peron to nationalise significant sections of industry. Basing himself on the huge amounts of meat exported from Argentina to a hungry post-Second World War Europe, his regime was cushioned for a period. In a similar way, the Chavez government in Venezuela has vast reserves of oil – it is the fifth largest oil producer in the world – which has given it a certain economic leverage in satisfying some of the demands of the masses.

Populist regimes are also an expression of a certain deadlock in class forces; in that sense, it possesses similar features to Bonapartism in general. The state, while defending a particular class or section of a class, can nevertheless balance between the different classes, thereby attaining a certain "independence". While defending capitalism, populist regimes can often lean on the masses and carry through temporary measures in their interest, while in the final analysis acting as a defender of landlordism and capitalism. This was certainly true of the Bhutto regime in Pakistan, which went much further in nationalising banks and industries than the Chavez government has gone so far. Nevertheless, ultimately the Bhutto government turned on the working class, derailed a potentially revolutionary situation and prepared the basis for his own bloody downfall.

History of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a minister, for industries and national resources, and later foreign minister, in the brutal military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan in the 1960s. Ayub Khan described him as his "political son" but when Bhutto saw the government heading into choppy waters he jumped ship, resigning from the government in 1966. Shortly after this he formed the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). At its founding meeting in Lahore, only 34 people were present and significantly, no trade union representatives.

Bhutto and his family were the second largest feudal lords in the vast province of Sindh. However, Bhutto was clever and rightly read the mood of the masses, which was shifting decisively towards the left. He formulated a radical programme but the PPP owed its rapid ascendancy to the complete failure of the left forces in Pakistan at that stage.

The Stalinists were active within the National Awami Party (NAP), a petty-bourgeois democratic party. However, in the 1960s it began to decline in what was then "West Pakistan", while in "East Pakistan" – now Bangladesh – the National Awami Party maintained a base with the Stalinists forming an important segment of this organisation. As with the Stalinist left elsewhere, the "Communists" were divided into pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing factions. The Pakistani regime of Ayub Khan was supported to such an extent by China that Mao Ze-dong personally urged the left in Pakistan to "go easy" on the Ayub Khan government. This was, argued Mao, because its downfall would only strengthen the hand of Russia, America and India. In other words the national interests of the Mao Chinese Stalinist state assumed more importance than the struggle against this military dictatorship which held the Pakistani masses in check.

The pro-Beijing Left forces in Pakistan at that stage toned down their criticism of the Ayub Khan dictatorship and even defended it as an "anti-imperialist government". This complete failure of the left, including the NAP, allowed Bhutto to step into the vacuum. This coincided with a colossal radicalisation within the country, initially reflected in the huge student population. The PPP managed to attract a big layer of former activists of the NAP, disgusted by the pro-regime stance of one wing of this party and the inactivity of the other. Therefore, the "political son" of Ayub Khan became the major focal point of agitation against his regime, which started in November 1968.

His rhetoric combined anti-imperialist demagogy with talk of "socialism". His popularity was, moreover, furthered by the propaganda campaign against him by the government and his subsequent arrest. In this situation, the "traditional left" was completely bypassed by the PPP. His rise was paralleled by that of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in East Pakistan. Bhutto had emerged as the only mass leader who could command mass support in the Sindh and Punjab provinces. On the eve of the overthrow of the Ayub Khan regime, these two populist leaders stood in the leadership of the movement which was soon to spread throughout the whole of Pakistan.

Popular explosions of anger which eventually ended the Ayub Khan regime began on 7 November 1968. What followed were features of a pre-revolutionary situation as a colossal mass movement lasting for at least five months reached all corners of Pakistan. Student demonstrations, workers’ strikes and mass mobilisations of teachers and lawyers engulfed the country. The working class began to occupy industries and the peasants took over the land as landlords fled from the villages. To all intents and purposes, the Pakistani state was suspended in mid-air.

This was the first generalised popular uprising in the history of the Pakistani state. It was, moreover, concentrated in the first instance, in the urban areas with the workers and the petty bourgeois masses joining them, and was as convulsive in East Pakistan, if not more so, than in the West. Over 100 cities were involved in the mass agitation that confronted the bullets and bayonets of the Ayub Khan regime. Undoubtedly, in this situation, with a mass revolutionary party at its head, the popular mass movement could have overthrown not only the Ayub Khan regime but put an end to Pakistani landlordism and capitalism.

The mistakes of the left, particularly the Stalinist left in the previous period, allowed the emergence of the PPP, which was to subsequently play a role in derailing this revolutionary movement. In the first instance, however, Bhutto was forced to echo the radical and revolutionary demands of the masses. He put forward the slogan "food, clothing and shelter" allied to the general idea of "socialism".

The colossal movement over five months of 1968-69 could not be contained by the repression of the Ayub Khan regime. When officers began to go over to the workers, the warning signs were clear to Ayub Khan, who feared that the army would completely split along class lines. He therefore announced his resignation on 26 March 1969 and power was subsequently handed over to General Yahya Khan.

The Yahya Khan regime was a short interlude before the elections called for December 1970. In the run-up to the elections, the different political forces were able to explain their programme and ideas in detail before mass audiences. Through the struggles of 1968-69 the political understanding of broad masses of the Pakistani working class had increased dramatically. Growing sections of the working class and the petty bourgeois for that matter wanted to completely overthrow landlordism and capitalism. Workers kept in the dust – many of them illiterate – poured onto the political arena. This mass movement inevitably put its stamp on the parties seeking mass support and influence like the PPP.

Bhutto’s programme of "food, clothing and shelter" was backed by his supporters, who promised "paradise" to the poor peasants and workers. The PPP promised radical land reform, extensive nationalisation, an end to the economic power of the 22 families which dominated Pakistan, etc. In comparison to the discredited left, the "new" party of Bhutto, standing as "socialists", appeared to offer a new way forward from the corruption and rottenness of Pakistani politics in the past. Bhutto himself was extremely radical in his speeches, although the PPP itself consisted of an unholy alliance of landlords, racketeers, lawyers, petty bourgeois jumping on the bandwagon, as well as significant sections of the working class and poor.

In the East, Mujibur Rahman’s campaign meant that the Awami League captured the overwhelming support of the masses. There, the campaign was fuelled by the national discontent of the "East Pakistanis" and the underlying demand for independence. In the general election, the PPP won a landslide in the West but the Awami League not only won virtually every seat in the East but was also the biggest party in the "national" parliament. The military, however, refused to hand over power to the Awami League. Bhutto supported this undemocratic measure and he refused to come to an agreement or even shake hands with the Awami League’s leaders.

On the other hand, even while it was clear that the Pakistani military caste was preparing to smash the movement in the East with a bloodbath, Mujibur Rahman and the other Awami League leaders at the head of the movement there, refused to mobilise the masses who were clamouring for independence. This prepared the basis for the intervention of the Pakistani army and the subsequent massacre of thousands of students, lecturers and workers, combined with the mass rape and killing of women.

The unarmed masses attempted to fight back but were ruthlessly repressed. Huge numbers fled to the countryside and formed the basis of the Mukhti Fauj (Liberation Army) which ultimately became the Mukhti Bihini. It is well known what happened after that; a guerrilla war was launched with significant blows to the Pakistani army. The effects of the war, however, threatened to spill over into neighbouring India, with the danger to the Indian ruling class that it could spark off similar national rebellions in India itself. This prompted Indira Ghandi to launch an invasion of East Pakistan, which resulted in the defeat of the Pakistani army.

Bhutto played a shameful role in this process, declaring on the day of the army intervention in East Pakistan: "Thank God! Pakistan has been saved." In fact, his political support for the military repression of the East was critical in preparing the basis for military intervention but this resulted in a massive defeat of the Pakistani army by India. He was as much an architect of this defeat as the military generals but, paradoxically, emerged "victorious" from this disastrous process.

The military generals were forced to hand over power to Bhutto and in 1971 he became the first civilian martial law administrator. He then became President and subsequently Prime Minister. In the aftermath of the failed war against the East, the very fate of Pakistani landlordism and capitalism hung by a thread. Wars, and particularly on the side of a defeated power, are very often the midwives of revolution. Pakistan was no different in 1970-71. The break-up of Pakistan had a huge effect on the Pakistani people. The defeat of the military high command which had held power for a decade or more created an explosive mood where the demand for a complete social transformation would have won huge support. It provided the opportunity to crush once and for all the military-bureaucratic Bonapartist backbone of the Pakistani army.

The very isolation of the generals was reflected in the fact that they were forced to send for Bhutto as the saviour of themselves and Pakistani landlordism and capitalism. His assumption of power was hailed internationally by western capitalist forces. Although he dismissed some of the more discredited generals, nevertheless, Tiqa Khan, the butcher of Dhaka, was appointed head of the army under a new title of "Chief of Staff".

A broken Pakistan had lost a major market and big economic assets in the east. The economy itself was in a state of disintegration, which demanded the boldest measures. The Bhutto regime shrunk from carrying through effective revolutionary measures which would have rescued Pakistan and opened up a new vista for the working class in Pakistan and throughout the region. Some reforms were introduced which benefited the masses, such as free education and free healthcare. Bhutto also nationalised the banks and some industries and introduced pro-worker labour laws. Land reform was also introduced which benefited certain sections of the rural population – although it created a layer of rich peasants, "kulaks" – but not fundamentally altering the semi-feudal land relations, which plagued Pakistan. In fact, none of the major tasks of the capitalist-democratic revolution – which still remains to be completed in Pakistan – of land to the peasants, unification of the country and by, taking over the assets of foreign capital as well as native capitalism, the development of a modern economy, were implemented in Pakistan.

Above all, the working class which raised the PPP to power expected significant changes in their interests from their government. What they received instead was bullets from Bhutto’s police when they went out on strike as, for instance, in 1972 in the textile mills of Karachi, when a number of workers were killed. This was met by an 11-day strike throughout the province of Sindh and a searing anger gripped the industrial estates of Karachi in the months that followed. Factory occupations laid the basis for a new unionism which developed at that stage.

It was in the industrial belt of the suburbs of Karachi where 80,000 workers were concentrated that the first real clash between the Bhutto regime and the working class took place in September 1972. In true Bonapartist fashion, Bhutto was in Karachi at this stage, appealing to the capitalists to accept workers as a "legitimate interest group", warning that if "trouble came" then "I can tell you frankly that we will be with labour". Such statements reinforced illusions in Bhutto’s sympathy for the masses. However, when the working class came out on strike in October 1972 hundreds of workers were injured and four were killed. Instead of leaning towards "labour", as he had promised, the Bhutto government turned a blind eye when the goons of the bosses intimidated and murdered union activists.

The government embraced undemocratic measures against the left and democratic press. His government also set its face against the longstanding national aspirations of the Baluchi masses. Baluchistan had originally been incorporated into Pakistan, against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Baluchi people.

In fact, the military repression which the Bhutto government used against Baluchistan – involving the use of 100,000 Pakistani troops – was to lay the basis for the overthrow of Bhutto himself. The army had been largely discredited in the military intervention in East Pakistan and subsequent defeat by the Indian army. Bhutto, however, "rehabilitated" the discredited officer caste by giving them free rein in the civil war in Baluchistan.

This saw the emergence of General Zia al-Haq, promoted – as Allende did with Pinochet in Chile – into the leading position in the army by Bhutto himself. Bhutto considered General Zia as too "servile and unintelligent" to act alone. He seriously underestimated Zia and the Pakistani military caste. He was to sign his own death warrant. But the basis for this had already been created by the evaporation in popular support in the period up to the discredited elections of 1977. The perception of widespread rigging of these elections by the PPP led to riots, which in turn resulted in the proclamation of martial law on 5 July, 1977.

There are many lessons to be learnt from the experience of the Bhutto regime which are relevant for today. He was, in words and in some deeds, to the left of where Hugo Chavez is at the present time. The latter started out as being in favour of "humane capitalism". Bhutto proclaimed his "socialism" but never seriously attempted to introduce such a programme, as we have seen. Bhutto relied on the power of the capitalist state to maintain his position. The capitalist state in Venezuela has not yet been fully dismantled, although there is a significant layer of officers who have been radicalised by the situation. Nevertheless, Hugo Chavez promised to introduce a "popular militia" against counter-revolution but has not yet done so.

There are profound differences between the character of the Pakistani military and the military in Venezuela, as explained by Tony Saunois. Nevertheless, the working class can not rely on the officers, no matter how radical they might be in words. They must look to their own forces: popular committees, the arming of the working class, etc. Bhutto compromised with the ruling elite and with capitalism while promising to implement a socialist programme. He actually strengthened the weakened state apparatus and, in particular, the military, which was subsequently used to overthrow him and shackle the working class. He used anti-imperialist rhetoric but failed to destroy the capitalist system. When faced with reactionary opposition from the state machine, he failed to mobilise the masses against this reaction and paid the price.

 In Venezuela, reaction has tried on eight occasions to overthrow the Chavez regime without success, largely because of the spontaneous mobilisation of the masses from below. Bhutto used the military against the mass uprisings and killed many Baluchi activists and workers between 1973 and 1976. The Chavez regime has not moved in this direction. The overwhelming balance of forces is in favour of the working class and the poor at this stage. But it cannot be excluded that, from inside the military, a pro-bourgeois layer can emerge and attempt to repeat what their Pakistani counterparts did in the past.

 The working class paid a big price for the failure of Bhutto and the PPP. The military dictatorship of General Zia launched a vicious attack against the trade unions and the left. He destroyed the largest left student organisation, the National Student Federation (NSF), while also introducing widespread torture and imprisonment of thousands of political activists.

 There can be no crude parallels drawn, of course, between what happened in Pakistan and the situation in Venezuela today. The world background is different. The Bush regime, preoccupied by Iraq and needing Venezuelan oil, has been forced to stay its hand at this stage. Reaction has been weakened by its failure to topple Chavez in the referendum of August 2004. A certain modus vivendi has been obviously accepted by world capitalism. It requires Venezuelan oil in the present situation of shortages and the $50 a barrel price. However, this unstable relationship of forces cannot last indefinitely. Reaction may wait until the 2006 elections to once more seek to topple Chavez. This does not preclude further "extraparliamentary" attempts to overthrow the government and destroy the gains of the working class from the revolution.

 It is the fervent hope of all socialists and Marxists that the Venezuelan revolution will succeed. To do this, however, the government must end its temporising with the capitalists, both domestic and international. Tony Saunois spells out the measures required to ensure this in his pamphlet. The real friends of the Venezuelan revolution are not those who close mouths or relay a different message to different audiences, when they see dangers of counter-revolution. Only by adopting a clear, bold socialist programme and appealing to the working class internationally, first and foremost in Venezuela and Latin America itself, can the Venezuelan revolution be victorious. These are the real lessons of the failed policies of Bhutto in Pakistan in the past and of the situation in Venezuela today.

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January 2005