How to define socialism
In our contemporary global society, socialism has become a cliché that denotes a vast array of political approaches and ideologies that purportedly defy the political, economic and cultural status quo. It is in vogue to refer to a person as a socialist if he or she has an intellectual bent that advocates vague notions of religious freedom, economic equity, cultural revivalism and political egalitarianism.
While it is true that socialist ideals are founded on an alternative political and economic order from capitalism, they do not advocate an interpretive theoretical model that lumps together religion, culture, the economy and politics as mere analytical categories.
One must make a clear distinction between socialist idealism as an interpretive scheme with a set of moral narratives of an imagined egalitarian society and scientific socialism as an objective critique of capitalism. Despite all its variants, socialist ideals have somehow become a symbol of resistance and aspiration for a better society – no matter how ill-founded these ideals of a new society are.
Far removed from working class movements, a large number of social democrats, anarchists, Maoists, civil society groups and human right activists consider themselves to be socialists. Under the rubric of socialism as we understand it today, little attention is paid to the most significant ideological contribution of socialism as a form of economic advancement. Scientific socialism unleashes the force of transformation through an organic political movement of the working class without recourse to a messianic political narrative of an exalted society.
In an ideological state like Pakistan, political non-conformity to the state ideology is socialism. This is sacrilegious, condemnable, treasonous and one of the key factors that promote moral turpitude in society. Socialism, secularism, atheism and profanity are used interchangeably as concepts that are inimical to the integrity of state and religious morality. Religious moralists argue that socialists do not practice what they preach and are, therefore, hypocrites. This interpretation of socialism by religious moralists in Pakistan emanates from real-life experiences as all alterative political thoughts are dubbed as acts of disloyalty to the state.
Elsewhere in the world, socialism has been distorted for short-term political mileage and often as a form of disdain and resentment to neoliberalism. Former US president Barrack Obama was seen wearing a T-shirt bearing the picture of Che Guevara during his visit to Cuba as a political symbol to resist the visible return of the far-right in America.
In the recent past, at political rallies against the execution of Mumtaz Qadri for killing former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer a group of students of religious seminaries were seen carrying placards with pictures of Che Guevara. When asked what made them carry these placards, the students had no clue about the political ideology of Che. But they knew one thing: the man on the placard was a revolutionary who had fought against injustice and corruption. Che Guevara has also become a brand for trendy young people who can be seen wearing a Che cap and a T-shirt with his picture.
According to some political analysts, the revolutionary ideals of Che have been decontextualised. This has diluted the spirit of the class struggle through the political frivolity of religious infighting, the symbolic defiance to the status quo by liberals and by the attempts to turn political resistance into an insignia for brand-loving trendy lads. Che is for sale in supermarkets as a product that fits into an economic proposition of value for money and a means of political mileage.
This is, of course, not new in human history where change-makers and revolutionaries have been turned into the statues of grandeur, political supremacy and control. Che is also subjected to the tyranny of the history of the ruling class – albeit with slightly better treatment than what Romans did to Christ.
Regardless of their religious or sacrilegious significance, reformers and revolutionaries have either been vilified or glorified in the political and cultural narratives as a means of establishing the ideological hegemony. Che may continue to be a symbol of resistance for millions of people across the world with the sting of his political ideology taken out. But the revival of Che is not only frivolous. It is easy to lose sight of the political and historical context of his struggle. However, resistance against neoliberalism is much deeper than the political frivolity today.
Whistle-blowers like Joseph Stiglitz and Al Gore have been vocal against the neoliberal economic and political onslaught on a variety of global issues, ranging from international trade to climate change. Local manifestations of resistance against the adverse trickledown effects of neoliberalism vary from moral narratives of religion and the cultural discourse of nationalism to the politico-economic counter-narratives of socialism. It would, therefore, be simplistic to discount the impact of religious and cultural movements on anti-neoliberal narratives of globalisation.
Many liberal and progressive thinkers in Pakistan dismiss religious movements as intrigues of the establishment. But in doing so, they also discount the transformative potential of millions of the ‘wretched poor’ associated with these movements. These liberal thinkers and their political tactics become irrelevant to a clear majority of the working class whose wretchedness is left for religious zealots to exploit.
Nationalist groups in Balochistan, Sindh, KP, Gilgit-Baltistan and AJK have their own political narratives that are “essentially territorial” in nature – borrowing the phrase of late Professor Hamza Alavi. These territorial narratives are confined to a political discourse of cultural purity, ethnocentricity and geographical grandeur, with an aspiration for equitable access to national resources within the context of a nation-state.
Owing to their narrowly defined ethnocentric agenda, nationalist movements are less effective than religious movements in asserting their political influence on policymaking. As a result, they have, at times, been neutralised by religious forces. Left-wing political groups have traditionally entered into alliances with nationalist groups because of their secular outlook.
In many instances, the left was submerged into these nationalist groups. For instance, the ANP, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), the Jeay Sindh and the Karakoram National Front (KNM) could attract a sizeable number of progressive political activists who became the intellectual core of these nationalist forces.
It has been one of the biggest failures of left politics in Pakistan that a vast majority of poor people were left at the mercy of religious bigotry. With a strong intellectual tradition, left politics lacked praxis and therefore could not penetrate the rank and file of the people and the working class. Socialism is, of course, about a post-capitalist economic system, ie the economic and political advancement of a society with collective ownership of the means of production. Socialism is not a moral theory that provides scholastic interpretation of morality, values and normative/prescriptive political solutions from the outside. Instead, it is all about an objective and scientific analysis of material conditions under the capitalistic mode of production and aims to strategise for a transformation by linking together the organic working class movements. Socialism is not about individual purification, self-cleansing and moral sublimity, which are the products of the interplay of political and economic forces that the moral systems are founded upon.
In a nutshell, socialism is all about the qualitative political and economic transformation of capitalism into a system of political and economic democracy. The qualitative transformation of a system requires a systemic view rather than groping in the darkness of individual morality, which is as ephemeral as a chimera in the darkness and a mirage in the desert.
With all the wrong moral assumptions, we, perhaps, expect too much from a socialist to surrender all worldly pleasures like a hermit and become a pauper to show disdain towards capitalism. Socialism is not anti-capitalism. It is post-capitalism, a much-refined and developed economic system for which socialism lays out well-defined principles. One may disagree with the economic principles of socialism without getting into an irrelevant moral debate of individual purification.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad