Report from Pakistan

Demo in Pakistan

Scottish Socialist Voice editor Alan McCombes recently returned from a three-week visit to Pakistan. In this article he analyses the situation in the country and the effects of the war in neighbouring Afghanistan. He also describes the contacts he established and the invaluable discussions he had with Pakistani and Afghan socialists. The report below is the full version of the article which appears in Frontline 5, which was cut for reasons of space.

On the face of it, Pakistan should be a free marketeers dream. It has entrepreneurial spirit in abundance. The people are hard working, often holding down two or three different jobs and working from early morning until late at night. Taxes are rock bottom, and no-one could accuse the state of reckless public spending on welfare, health and education. All the country's public assets have been privatised. Only two per cent of the workforce belongs to trade unions.

The country does not lack natural resources. It has an abundance of natural gas. It has petroleum, iron ore, copper, salt and limestone. It has a higher proportion of arable land than Britain.

Yet poverty screams its heartbreaking tale from every street corner. Women with tiny babies beg, not for money, but for food. Barefoot, emaciated children swarm around filthy, vermin-infested rubbish heaps hoping to scavenge a few items that their families can then sell. In the shanty towns on the edge of the cities, people live in squalor with no electricity, no running water, no basic sanitation.

Prices are cheap, perhaps roughly one fifth of the prices in Britain. But the £5 a week average wage of a worker in Pakistan is less than one fiftieth of the average take home pay in the UK. And for those who cannot work, there is only charity or destitution.

Measured in pure economic statistics, Pakistan is far from being the poorest country in the world. According to the CIA, its Gross Domestic Product - the total value of all goods and services produced - is $2000 per head. This is higher than Cuba, which has a GDP of $1700.

Yet infant mortality rates are 10 times higher in Pakistan than in Cuba. Life expectancy in Cuba is 15 years longer than in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, the literacy rate is just 42 per cent - and just 29 per cent for women. In Cuba literacy rate is 96 per cent for both men and women. In Pakistan, 40 per cent of children are malnourished and 270,000 children die every year from malnutrition. In Cuba, malnourishment is virtually unknown. In Pakistan, there is one phone line for every 50 people; in Cuba there is one phone line for every 20 people. In Pakistan there is one television set for every 50 people; in Cuba there is one TV for every four people. There are 171 airports in Cuba compared to 111 in Pakistan - even though Pakistan is seven times larger and 11 times more populous.

These comparative statistics are not provided for the purpose of glorifying the political system in Cuba, but to expose the fraudulent deception that equates free market capitalism with dynamism, progress and efficiency. I spent almost three weeks in Pakistan, mainly Lahore (on the east side of the country next to the Indian border) and Pesahawar (in the North West Frontier Province next to the Afghanistan border).

I also spent a few days in Islamabad (the capital), and Rawalpindi (an industrial city close to Islamabad).

The purpose of this visit was twofold. First, to report direct from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border on the war; and secondly to establish direct links between the SSP and the Pakistan and Afghanistan left.

Pakistan and Afghanistan

These two countries have a mass of political, geographical, ethnic, religious and cultural links. The city of Peshawar, in particular, although geographically located in Pakistan, is almost an Afghan city. The language of the street is Pashto and aat least half its 2.5 million inhabitants are Afghan exiles. Peshawar is the headquarters and political base of a multitude of Afghan political parties and militias. It is from this city that the wars and civil wars that have torn Afghanistan for the last 23 years have been directed.

During my visit I spoke to hundreds of Pakistanis and Afghans about the general situation. Many of these were not affiliated to any political organizations. However I did speak to members and representatives of a variety of political groups, trade unions, newspapers, human rights organisations and charities.

These ranged from Islamic fundamentalists to radical women's groups; from the leaders of revolutionary Afghan organisations to to the leaders of the youth wing of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League; from represenatives of Imran Khan's liberal pro-business Justice Party to leaders of the Pakistan Trade Union Confederation.

Everyone I spoke to, right across the political spectrum, unreservedly condemned the bombing campaign. There was tangible hatred towards the West, especially towards the US and Britain. (Although I did not encounter any trace of personal hostility; the attitude of everyone I met was friendly and hospitable, perhaps reflecting the fact that since September 11, virtually all westerners have left Pakistan. Apart from a few journalists in a hotel restaurant in Peshawar and a French TV crew in Lahore, I saw no other westerners).

However the attitude towards General Musharaf was more mixed. Some people defend Musharaf's backing for the war on the grounds that he has no other choice. The argument of a section of the liberal left is that if Musharaf had failed to go along with the bombing campaign, Pakistan would be destroyed. They argue that the US would then have incited India to declare war on Pakistan - using as a pretext the guerilla war in Kashmir, which according to the Indian ruling class is a terrorist campaign directed from Pakistan. I was left with the impression that Musharaf is an astute operator, who has skilfully managed to avert civil war or a military coup. Because of this, he is probably already being marked out as a target for a future assassination attempt.

Events in Afghanistan over the past 25 years have had a profound impact on Pakistan. For example, the Soviet invasion and the subsequent brutality of the Red Army in Afghanistan catastrophically undermined the cause of socialism in both countries and and simultaneously paved the way for the development of the fundamentalist religious right.

This new war will also have dramatic long term political consequences in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. But this war is more likely to strengthen rather than weaken the influence of socialism in both countries. On the one hand if things go wrong in Afghanistan, for example if the country descends into civil war, or if the initial successes of the Northern Alliance cannot be swiftly extended into the southern Pashtun stronghold of the Taliban, the anti-imperialist, anti-western mood is certain to intensify. This in turn would lead to a weakening of the center ground in Pakistan and of the Northern Alliance groups in Afghnaistan, and a strengthening of both the pro-Taliban religious right and the socialist left.

Conversely, a clear cut short term victory for the West would deal a shattering blow to the morale and authority of the Islamic fundamentalist parties, who werein the past nurtured by the CIA as a bulwark against the left. That means that, whatever the outcome of this war, there is likely to be a major opening for the reemergence of socialism on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The Labour Party Pakistan

The most intensive discussions I held were with the Labour Party Pakistan (LPP); the Afghan Revolutionary Left Organisation (ARLO); and, to a more limited extent, because of pressures of time, the Afghan Left Radical Organisation.

Prior to this visit, I'd had no direct contact with any member of the LPP for at least 10 years. At that stage, the group that later formed the LPP consisted of literally a handful of members.

The LPP was not formally launched until 1997. The idea was to form a broad -based party of the working class, led by those Marxist forces who at that time were members of the Committee for a Workers' International. It involved the unification of different left trends, including ex-Communist Party and ex-Maoist trade union leaders.

Within six months the LPP had been expelled from the CWI amidst allegations that the party had been "politically corrupted" because of its involvement in the Education Project, which is registered as a NGO and receives money from Swedish trade unions.

There were also criticisms of the name of the new party, with the CWI proposing as an alternative the name 'Justice Party' - a name that since been adopted by Imran Khan, the former cricket star, whose Justice Party is a pro-capitalist, pro-business party.

The LPP was also criticized for concentrating on public campaigns and neglecting internal Marxist education and for being producing a general left paper, rather than a narrow revolutionary Marxist party journal. On top of that, the party was also condemned for orientating towards the trade union leadership rather than rank and file workers.

I asked Farouk Tariq, the general secretary of the LPP about some of these criticisms. Why, for example, did they choose the name Labour Party Pakistan? Farouk explained that in its English form, has been incorporated into Urdu and the other languages of Pakistan. "It describes the most downtrodden sections of the working class, the manual workers. In the whole history of Pakistan, there has never been a genuinely independent party of the working classes, of the labouring classes.

Farouk dismissed any suggestion that there could be any confusion with the British Labour Party. "People in Pakistan know who Tony Blair is - but ask them which party he represents and they'll look blank.

People in Britain might have known who Benazir Bhutto was when she was Prime Minister of Pakistan. But how many people would know she represented the Peoples' Party?"

The party is still involved in the Education Foundation, which has existed since 1993 and is highly respected. It is not a traditional NGO, but is closely linked with the trade union movement. It is controlled by trade union activists for the benefit of the working class movement of Pakistan.

The project has provided education for more than 3000 students and provides vital printing facilities for the socialist and trade union movement in Pakistan.

Its aims include "improving the material conditions of ordinary working people through the development of a strong and effective trade union movement."; "assisting workers to develop trade unions in non-unionised sectors" ; "combatting child labour"; "fighting the oppression of women"; "strengthening the anti-nuclear and peace movement".

Far from diluting their politics, the impression I formed was that the LPP has used its position in these projects to extend and deepen the influence of Marxism and socialism in Pakistan.

The LPP certainly has in its ranks a large number of national trade union leaders. But this is a world removed from the bureaucrats of the British TUC. In Pakistan, trade unions are still at their early formative stage. These union leaders are carrying out difficult and dangerous pioneering work and have more in common with Joe Hill than Jimmy Hoffa. They have no lavish salaries, plush offices or elastic expense accounts. Instead, they travel the country, recruiting sleeping on floors and railway stations. Often they have been victimized themselves and live in grinding poverty.

During my stay in Lahore and Rawalpindi I met a number of individual LPP members and spoke at three meetings. At the first meeting, attended by around 50 core activists in Lahore, I gave a report on the progress of the SSP. The discussion was impressive, ranging over the national question, globalisation, and revolutionary tactics and strategy. I received spontaneous applause at my response to two questions in particular. The first was when I explained - in response to a question from a female comrade about women's involvement in the party - that the two co-chairs of the SSP are women and that the party aspires towards equal representation for women in candidates' lists. I was also enthusiastically applauded when I explained that the SSP constitution states that all candidates for public office must pledge to live on a workers wage.

I also spoke at an event to launch of the book Imagine, which the LPP has published in Pakistan with a new introduction. Again there was wide ranging political discussion which demonstrated to me that the LPP, like the SSP, combines a flair for local campaigning with a broad internationalist outlook. Finally, I spoke the opening ceremony of a local LPP headquarters in a working class district of Lahore. This was an especially impressive event, showing the deep roots that the LPP has managed to sink in some local communities.

My overall impression was of a party with a high level of political understanding, a solidly working class membership, and extensive influence and respect. The party is taken seriously by the national media and looks to be in pivotal position to make massive advances in the near future.

It has also a taken a principled working class, socialist position on all of the national and international issues that have arisen over the past three years including the Balkans War, the crisis in East Timor, the war in Afghanistan and the military takeover in Pakistan. It has bent neither to the pressures of imperialism or religious fundamentalism.

On Kashmir, which is a key issue in Pakistan, the LPP opposes both the imperialism of the Indian state and the religious and national chauvinism of the Pakistani state, and calls instead for an independent Kashmir.

Even on more mundane tactical questions, the LPP leadership combines a non-sectarian and flexible approach towards the broader movement with a preparedness to advance a clear socialist alternative.

For example, on the Rawalpindi peace demo the LPP came under pressure not to sell their paper, not to distribute their leaflet, and not to march under their own banner. Some of the organizers argued that any explicitly socialist display on the demo would be divisive. The LPP, who are part of the leadership of the peace movement, rightly resisted that pressure and as a result came under fire from some of the people with whom they have worked closely. I saw no visible evidence, either on that demo or anywhere else of the he CWI. At the time of the expulsion of the LPP, the CWI claimed to have "the overwhelming support of the party's genuine activists and its trade union cadres in Lahore and Punjab province". According to LPP members I spoke to, the CWI has only one activist in the whole of Pakistan.

The only other socialist force of any significance in Pakistan is the group which is part of the international led by Ted Grant and Allan Woods. However, this group is buried in the pro-big business Pakistan Peoples Party - which has been discredited in a succession of corruption scandals and which is now supporting General Musharaf after helping bring the Taliban to power. Among those workers and youth I spoke to I found not a trace of support for the PPP. It is even more more difficult to visualize a mass movement of left wing workers and youth into the PPP than it is to imagine a large scale influx of socialists into the British Labour Party.

The Afghan Left

It was through the LPP that I was introduced to the Afghan Revolutionary Labour Organisation. A young member of this organization in Lahore travelled with me hundreds of miles across the country to the North West Frontier Province. There, he introduced me to some of the leaders of the party's leaders. Some elements of these discussions have already been reported in the Scottish Socialist Voice. However, there are some additional points worth elaborating. First, what is their background? Where did they come from? The ARLO was only founded three years ago, in 1998, around the same time as the SSP. But its key leaders have a long history of struggle. From the 1970s until the mid 1990s, the present leaders of ARLO were involved in the Maoist Afghanistan Liberation Organisation which in the past a strong base, especially in the mountain villages.

In contrast to Europe, where the upsurge in 1960s radicalism among young people led to the development of strong organizations influenced by the ideas of Trotsky, in Afghanistan and other parts of Asia the movement was dominated by the theories of Maoism.

The Afghanistan Liberation Organisation was brutally repressed by the Soviet Union on the one side and by the fundamentalist mujaheedin on the other. The core leadership of the organization - including its most prominent leader, Dr Fazi Ahmed - were kidnapped in Peshawar and disappeared without trace in 1986. But the organization became more and more centralized, more and more bureaucratic. Today it exists in exile as a hardline Maoist group. In 1996, a number of key activists left the ALO and began to lay the basis for a new party, which was more democratic and prepared to reassess the way forward.

They describe themselves as Marxist Leninist, though one of the leaders, Majit told me: "Marx died 150 years ago. Conditions have changed. We should always be prepared to rethink, to update our ideas without abandoning our principles." I asked their leadership about their attitude now towards Maoism and guerillaism. "We basically believe in Marxism. We do learn some things from Mao, because Afghanistan has similarities with China. Maoisnm has always been a powerful trend in Afghanistan. This was how another leader, Adil, expressed their position:

"During the war against the Soviet Union, we used some tactics from Mao. But we are not Maoists. Some individual members have leanings towards Maoism but essentially we are Marxists rather than Maoists. We also learn from Che Guevara, and we used some of his tactics in the Afghan resistance war, but we are not Guevarists. Marxism is our ideology."

ARLO are clear in their rejection of guerillaism as the way forward now in Afghanistan. "We believe in class struggle and mass action, mass revolution." Their energies now are concentrated on education and on building a political base in the cities and villages of Afghanistan and in the refugee camps and exiled Afghan communities in Pakistan.

When I asked about Cuba and China today, they were refreshingly honest about their lack of detailed knowledge of politics outside Asia. "We know a lot about China because it's our neighbouring country. We do not recognize it as a socialist country. We recognize it as a capitalist country.

"But Cuba is too far from us. We've not studied it. But compared with China, Cuba seems to be a revolutionary country. It has stood out against imperialism. It has defied America and stood up for its working classes. It also seems to have and internationalist outlook. But we don't know too much about it."

ARLO believe the immediate now struggle in Afghanistan now is for democracy. "We would not unite with any party which did not believe in democracy or which supported tribalism. But we will collaborate with all those who stand for human rights, women's rights and democracy. However, if the struggle for democracy is to be successful, it must be led by left forces, by socialist forces."

So what other left and socialist forces exist in Afghanistan and where does ARLO stand on the stand on the question of socialist unity? They explain the difficulties of working clandestinely. With no way of distributing public material, no computers, no websites, nor even telephones it's difficult to establish contact with other organizations. In the past there were other organizations on the left, but they are not sure whether some of these organizations still exist. They may have been smashed completely, or just given up under the difficult and dangerous circumstances they face. They think some groups may have gone into exile in Europe. But ARLO believe it's vital to remain in and around Afghanistan at the heart of Afghan politics.

They have begun to collaborate with an organisation called the Afghan Left Radical Organisation, and put me in touch with one its leaders. Noor visited me in Peshawar from the refugee camp. Like ALRO, his organization is trying to work towards left unity.

For practical reasons, our time was limited and I was unable to take up his invitation to meet other members of his party, though I hope to keep in touch. Noor's analysis of the situation in Afghanistan is very similar to that of ARLO. He too describes himself as a Marxist, though he is more critical of Leninism, believing that it led to Stalinism.

Both Noor and the ALRO leaders were scathing of the sectarianism that appears to have plagued the Afghan left in the past. They also enthusiastically endorsed the approach of the SSP towards unity.

"That's exactly the way we want the Afghan left to work. Sectarianism is a disease," said one of the ALRO leaders.

"There were times in the past where we had 90 per cent agreement among the left forces. We could have united around the positive points. But some people only wanted to concentrate on the negative points, on the ten per cent of points where we disagreed."

Now the brutal circumstances of Afghan politics are forcing socialist and left unity. Where the forces of socialism are scattered, where left activists walk in the shadow of death, where they know they can be executed at any time - under these conditions there is little time or energy to indulge in petty squabbling over this nuance or that formulation.

In the short term, one of the biggest obstacles to the development of socialism in Afghanistan is material poverty. If Pakistan is a Third World country, Afghanistan barely qualifies for the Fourth World. The infant mortality rate in Afghanistan is the highest in the world. A quarter of all Afghan children die before their fifth birthday. Life expectancy is just 43 years.

Over the years, right wing religious parties and militias have been generously supplied with money, weapons and other resources from outside Afghanistan, while the socialist forces have been left isolated and destitute.

There is now an opportunity to rebuild socialism in Afghanistan. But that will require material resources. I would strongly appeal to all readers of Frontline to assist those who are today literally on the frontline.

Send cheques and postal orders to Afghanistan Workers Solidarity Appeal, c/o SSV, 73 Robertson Street, Glasgow G2 8QD. Please make cheques payable to Afghanistan Solidarity.