Zarb-e-Azb and the Left: On Imperialism’s Materiality

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Want a print  or downloadable copy? Click below. 

[purchase_link id=”7264″ text=”Get download” color=”green”]

In all cases, Pakistan’s ruling classes have assiduously avoided the kinds of fundamental transformations needed for broad-based, equitable development. They have limited substantial land reforms, for example, by granting limited concessions to upper layers of some peasantries and thereby partially coopting them. But, they have also suppressed structural transformations by relying on international institutions for grants and loans to the tune of billions. This aid further ties them – and the country – into a neoliberal politics that weakens significant change by inviting foreign investment that benefits select layers of society while oppressing the rest.8 or by creating a release valve for the problem of endemic underemployment by shipping millions of men to Gulf states as cheap, precarious, super-exploited labor. It is in these ways that imperialism – the political and economic dominance of advanced capitalist countries over underdeveloped ones – is internal to Pakistan’s production and reproduction. Pakistan’s capitalists and landlords have traded away the country’s economic sovereignty, and therefore the possibility of improvement for the vast majority of the population in return for a submissiveness and dependence that keeps their dominant positions safe.

If the military appears to be strong in Pakistan, it is not only because the institution has a particular self-interest – since the same social forces and fissures that permeate the rest of society permeate the military – but mainly because it has regularly served as a seat of power for the U.S. to acquire the consensus and contradictory unity of the landlords and capitalists.

The U.S. deems the bitter conflicts that sometimes occur between the political parties or factions of these classes a threat to the aim of dampening and controlling the subordinate classes. These struggles among the elite do not necessarily indicate a grounding in the interests of the masses of the people. For example, before the first military coup of 1958, the ruling Pakistani classes were constantly splitting and reforming in conflict with themselves, even as they remained reluctant about conducting direct general elections.9 Yet, because such conflict among the dominant classes did not represent and could not contain surging mass political struggle, it could potentially open up space for great damage to the regional interests of imperialism, not to mention those ruling classes themselves. In the 1950s, progressive movements in other parts of the region, such as the election of nationalist Mohammad Mosaddegh in neighboring Iran in 1951 or the Egyptian revolution in 1952, threatened the geopolitical interests of U.S.-led imperialism and local ruling classes.10 Such progressive sentiments also permeated the Pakistani military, opposed to the predominating conservatism of the institution.

Therefore, imperialists considered the military as the best guarantor of stability in many countries in the Third World, including Pakistan, but only after progressive sentiments were purged inside and outside of the military by way of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in 1951.11 Imperialists thereafter used the armed forces to acquire a contradictory unity of the ruling classes. Sometimes, this was acquired by overthrowing a democratic regime, such as that of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s; at other times, it was acquired by implanting a democratic regime, as was the case with the 2007 Dubai pact between Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf.

The military obviously forms a core component of the ruling compact in Pakistan – the state, by definition, incorporates such organized violence – but the military is interpenetrated by and works in tandem with the ruling classes, and is not the sole arbiter of Pakistani politics. Indeed, though the military may restructure certain institutions or politics (e.g., via the Basic Democracies system under Ayub Khan), it ultimately relies upon the reigning classes. These include landlords, whose entries into capitalism are grounded in their ongoing feudal relations, and who use government as a means to further their accumulation. The same high-ranking politicians have served in various roles under both the military government of Pervez Musharraf and later, the civilian government of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). For example, the landlord Hina Rabbani Khar was minister of state for economic affairs under Musharraf, and continued to serve in that role under the PPP before being promoted to minister of foreign affairs.


Subscribe! Because you want to support a zine founded by progressive women. 


Additionally, there are the capitalists: Musharraf’s prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, was previously a leading employee of Citibank; while the PPP’s finance minister, Hafeez Sheikh, had served as Musharraf’s minister of privatization, after having worked at the World Bank. These examples illustrate the intimate connections between global capitalism, the ruling classes and the military. In these ways, imperialism is integral even to the government personnel, often with little to distinguish military governments from civilian ones. Certain sections of the ruling classes, like those represented in the leaderships of political parties like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) or the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), are weak not vis-à-vis the military as such, but weak vis-à-vis U.S. imperialism. The imperialist combine is internal to the very state, political economy and society of Pakistan.

U.S.-led imperialism cannot secure its hegemony over Pakistan without the reigning capitalists and landlords. Similarly, the landlords and capitalists certainly have their own interests, but they are dependent upon imperialism and are unable, and unwilling, to resist it. It is under this contradictory unity achieved by imperialist hegemony that decisions are taken. In the 1980s, the decision was war against the USSR through Islamist militants; now the decision is war against Islamist militants.

Notes Towards a People’s History of Pakistan | Saadia Toor (Artist: Zahra Malkani | Dadu 1960 series)

Notes Towards a People’s History of Pakistan | Saadia Toor (Artist: Zahra Malkani | Dadu 1960 series)

Apart from political economy, we can briefly mention the cultural politics of ideological domination. Having actively cultivated political Islam during the Cold War, the U.S. now cultivates a liberal agenda, one that it promotes through drone attacks and NGOs, so called “civil society” — the primary beneficiaries of which are the urban elite in the form of lucrative contracts and jobs, not to mention the chance to circulate among an international elite and establish informal networks.

This combine of imperialism, capitalism and semi-feudalism in Pakistan is what makes it a semi-colonial social formation. We should be clear that the principal contradiction in Pakistan is imperialism, insofar as, following Mao Tsetung’s analysis, its “existence and development determines or influences the existence and development of the other contradictions.” This is critical in comprehending the miseries faced by the people of Pakistan, above all their economic and political deprivation. And, as we demonstrate below, it is essential for understanding the conditions that produce religiously-inspired militancy. These structures of power produce the conditions in which a conjuncture such as the current military operations become possible, and even necessary for the ruling class forces.

Meanwhile, the political left has been in decline due to the defeat of the working-class and peasant movements in the 1970s and their dismantling in the 1980s through the promotion of political Islam. Acts like drone attacks and military operations also correlate with an increase in militancy. This is partly what has given rise to various forms of insurgencies, including the multitude of Pakistani groups that may be ruthless, but feed off a desire for resistance to the machinations of the U.S. and its collaborators.12

This resistance has taken many complex forms, from popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt to armed political Islamists like the Taliban groups who sometimes fight against, and sometimes fall into, the laps of imperialists. To be clear, because we recognize the mere fact that the various Islamist groups are part of networks that fight U.S. soldiers in neighboring Afghanistan, does not mean we are celebrating these groups as anti-imperialist rebels. Their involvement in the struggles against NATO troops is simply a reality, and as researchers and activists, we ought to recognize the many complicated ways in which these groups exist and act throughout the region. Yet, most progressive, leftist analysis has thus far avoided examining the social roots and dynamics of the militancy – that is, the ways in which militant groups may intervene in the grievances and aspirations of people to gain their support – because many progressives wrongly conflate such analyses with justifying and excusing armed political Islamism. Liberals have been successful in cowing and even persuading leftists that such questions are best left unasked. Those who do so are quickly labeled as Taliban apologists. Read on >>

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6


  1. For example, consider the case of the Baldia factory fire in 2012. See Akram Javed. 2012. “Drone strikes, factory fires and imperialism in Pakistan.” Tanqeed, December. []
  2. Noted political scientist Mohammad Waseem writes that the “fact that major parties were born and re-born within the confines of legislature [with no solid links to the masses] kept them nervous about the public response in an event of elections.” Mohammad Waseem. 1989. Politics and the State in Pakistan. Lahore: Progressive Publishers. Significantly, they were rather afraid of leftist politics led by Maulana Bhashani (and behind him, the Communist Party of Pakistan). []
  3. Some of this early geopolitics is described in Hamza Alavi. 1991. “The Origins and Significance of the Pakistan-U.S. Military Alliance.” In: Yearbook on India’s Foreign Policy, 1990-1991. Satish Kumar, ed. New Delhi: Sage. []
  4. The “Rawalpindi Conspiracy” was an attempt by officers of the military and Communist Party members to arrive at a plan for a “progressive” coup. They reportedly did not arrive at any agreement about moving ahead, but the plan was reported to military brass, leading to the arrests of the officers in question and Communist Party members, and subsequent banning of the Communist Party and its frontal organizations in 1954. One can certainly critique the adventurism of the Communist Party at the time under the leadership of Sajjad Zaheer. However, it is important to note the difference in content between a coup attempt led by these kinds of anti-imperialist progressive nationalists and communists, and the subsequent actualized coup under Ayub Khan that was led by conservative elements subordinated to US imperialism. Liberal historiography only sees the coup through the lens of an anti-democratic move that was fortunately stopped by a purportedly democratic government, without examining the class and ideological content of the coup attempt or the rather non-representative government of the time. See for details Naveed Siddiqui. 2007. “Benazir-Musharraf Deal is Done.” Daily Times, April 17. []
  5. We are aware that the success of these groups is not only the result of resistance politics. After all, leftists too articulate resistance, but unlike these organizations, have been hampered by lack of funding and resources to further their message. The Gulf states have been especially critical in funneling money and resources to these groups. We do not, however, subscribe to a vulgar materialist view that claims that only problem for the left is our lack of funding, since revolutionaries in other countries such as Nepal and India have managed to wage relatively successful campaigns despite being cash-strapped. By that same token, it is not money and resources alone that have led to the rise of religiously-inspired militant groups in Pakistan, but the fact that they have managed to articulate grievances and work among people in ways that, ironically enough, once were pioneered by leftists. []

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Tags: , ,

46 Responses to Zarb-e-Azb and the Left: On Imperialism’s Materiality

  1. TQ Chāt | # 17 | Tanqeed on Aug 2014 at 5:33 PM

    […] Zarb-e-Azb and the Left: On Imperialism’s Materiality [x] […]

  2. Storage on Sep 2014 at 5:31 PM

    […] Zarb-e-Azb and the Left: On Imperialism’s Materiality […]

  3. Cornell Daily Sun on Sep 2014 at 12:02 AM

    […] values, placing Islam itself as the root cause of terrorism (relatedly, one could argue that  a cycle of American military and cultural dominance feeds fundamentalist, anti-American sentiment), the oppression of women, and irreconcilable cultural differences. Kairey’s column relies on […]

  4. […] Syed Azeem and Noaman G. Ali: Accordingly, the responsibility of anti-imperialist struggle falls on the shoulders of the working classes of Pakistan. There should be no doubt about this point. Finding any solution to problems like militancy or economic development as suggested by the petty bourgeois “civil society,” reliant as they are upon imperialism, will lead Pakistan towards a situation like that of Libya, Syria and Iraq. That is where half of the population is fighting against the other half. Let us stop right here. There should be no more wars on the people of Pakistan, not least of all because that is what imperialism wants. Being anti-imperialist is being in favor of those vast masses who find themselves squeezed by the daily grind of an underdeveloped economy and a repressive politics and especially those who find themselves the victims of the violence that has exploded as a result of imperialist misadventures. In terms of practice, the first step in this regard is to embrace the people of Pakistan – that is, the working classes, the poorer peasants, the unemployed and underemployed, the oppressed women, the minorities – whether they are of North Waziristan or Balochistan, regardless of whether these people are “conservative” or “progressive.” They are suffering, and no one can tell us better than them why they are suffering and what problems require what kinds of solutions. If they say imperialism is the enemy, we should not try to convince them that it is necessary to first evacuate oneself of Islamic sentiment and fight “religious extremism” in the abstract in order to be progressive. We should critically examine the history of leftist struggle in Pakistan and advance our own understanding in a way that provides lessons for our current practice. How did the left degenerate so much that it started standing with imperialism and the ruling classes against the people of Pakistan? A comprehensive and self-critical assessment will be a sign of the ideological strength of the left, not its weakness. More here. […]

  5. […] this sense of justice also implants in us a responsibility to be critical of power holders who have capitalized on horrific ordeals — such as last week’s tragedy —  for their own interests. It is this […]

  6. jaffer on Sep 2015 at 12:01 AM

    very very strange analysis, dont put any blame on mil alone , u may nat be knowing actual sit ion ground in NWA it is easy to make dramatic analysis in ur drawing room rather be upfront against those elms. poor analysis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *