As the common saying goes: “If a young man is not a socialist before the age of 20, he has no heart. If he is still a socialist after 20, he has no head.”
Would this still be true today? Do our millennials and post-millenials have hearts? Are they still troubled by the perception that “things are all wrong somehow” and feel enough moral outrage to seek fundamental solutions to social injustice? Or have people changed totally since that day on this month, more than 130 years ago that stung the thinking, feeling youth everywhere into striving for a better world? It was on the 1st of May 1886 that a rally took place in the American city of Chicago. The participants – mostly common labourers, artisans, small merchants and impoverished immigrants – were protesting an incident in which police had opened fire and killed four of a group of workers from the Stockyards who were on strike for an eight-hour work day. As the police moved in to disperse the crowd, someone threw a bomb. The resulting police riot left at least a dozen people dead. A sensational show trial ensued in which defendants were openly tried for their political beliefs, and not necessarily for involvement in the bombing. Four Syndicalists (trade unionists) were publicly hanged.
The Haymarket incident became a source of outrage for people around the globe. Karl Kautsky’s Socialist International was quick to declare the 1st of May as a commemoration of the Haymarket martyrs. Since then, in 175 countries of the world – but notably not in the USA – May Day became an international celebration of the labour movement’s struggles for the rights of the working class.
Bhutto’s PPP had been swept to power by a nation hungry for democracy and social justice. Both causes were to suffer
But yesterday’s struggles seem to have faded from public concern. May Day today is a sad annual reflection on how far the world has veered from the ideals of social justice.
At a time when our electronic media are loud with argumentative noises, when queues of persons are disputatiously lining up outside our courtrooms, and noisy scenes in unproductive parliaments are the order of the day, we need to remind ourselves that the present set of political controversies is little more than a squabble between differing groups of the elite. The right of the people to vote their choice between these groups – a hard-won right and one that is anyhow being constantly strait-jacketed in restrictions and impositions – will not, we already know, make much difference to people’s lifestyles or control over their own economic destinies, nor advance the cause of social justice.
For context, let us note that as the modern age emerged, two broadly progressive trends of political thought developed: liberalism and socialism. Both were similar in that they posited the progress of human institutions towards a better future. Both these modernizing philosophies preached tolerance and legal egalitarianism and opposed feudalism and monarchy. The difference between them centred on the ownership of the means of production: whether these should be privately owned and managed or belong to the people. And this is clearly a fundamental difference.
While liberal parties drove the burgeoning of democracy and capitalism, socialist ideas found their first vehicle in the International, an organisation founded by Karl Marx in London around 1870. After Marx’s death, his co-author Freidrich Engels helped establish what came to be called the Second International. This Second (or ‘socialist’) International revised Marx’s idea of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat into a non-revolutionary model, based on bringing socialist change through the ballot box. This social democracy would become associated with the welfare state. The European socialist and labour parties, the Indian National Congress and several other Indian ‘left’ parties, and (at one time) our own PPP and ANP, have all been proponents of social democracy, or democratic socialism.
A Third (or ‘communist’) International was formed after the 1917 Russian Revolution, under the guidance of the Bolshevik leader Lenin, to reassert the revolutionary principle. The communist parties of the world were all affiliated with this ‘Comintern’, led by the rapidly developing USSR. In the 1960s (with some subtle prompting from the USA), frictions surfaced between the two revolutionary communist giants, the USSR and China. But we’ll come to that in a minute.
The 1960s also saw the appearance of a New Left. Disillusioned by the crudities of the Soviet totalitarian state, on the one hand, and on the other by the bloated welfare bureaucracies of social democracy, young people turned toward a variety of idealistic left-wing ideas. These included concepts like the ‘permanent revolution’ of Leon Trotsky, the ‘perpetual revolution’ of Mao Zedong, and a wide range of anarchist ideas. In Pakistan, the restless radicalism expressed by Pakistani youth in 1967-68 formed the core of a massive, generalised public revolt against the authoritarian Ayub regime.
Many young people of the time found their source of inspiration in the ideas of China’s Great Helmsman Mao Zedong. This particular idolatry required its adherents to turn a blind eye to China’s ‘Gang of Four’ and the violent excesses of the Great Cultural Revolution. In 1968, with repeated winks and nods from the USA, Pakistan played the matchmaker’s role in bringing the USA and China together. The already widening split in the communist bloc now became a total rupture. We witnessed how the Chinese even blocked Russian weapons supplies to the Vietnamese patriots fighting against the mighty USA. After the Americans were nevertheless driven out of Saigon, the Chinese helped install the blood-thirsty Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. China then itself directly invaded a Vietnam, still shattered from forty years of successive wars against Japan, France and the USA, but – as with the others – was forced to withdraw.
Still worse (for socialist ideology) was to come, with the ascent to power of Deng Xiaoping and his successors, who turned China diametrically away from the socialist dreams of the Revolution towards a capitalist single-party dictatorship. The phenomenal economic growth this has brought to China has been widely and deservedly praised. But, let it be quite clearly understood: it has little to do with socialism or with the Left.
As for the USSR, home and standard bearer of communism, the blunders of the bullet-headed Soviet dictatorship brought about its total disintegration as a state.
In Europe and America, the bloated welfare state bureaucracies of the social democracies became expensive to sustain…or perhaps simply unnecessary sops to the working classes now that the Cold War had ended. Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing crudities dealt body blows to enlightened thought and have since evolved to Donald Trump’s deadly neo-Fascism. Along the way, the historian Francis Fukuyama celebrated the Final Triumph of free-market liberalism and (ironically borrowing the phrase from Marx) the End of History.
Earlier, in Pakistan, Bhutto’s PPP had been swept to power by a nation hungry for democracy and social justice. Both causes were to suffer. The authoritarian tendencies and feudal mindset of its charismatic leader led him to consciously turn his face against the left. Then, with dreams of becoming a Muslim World leader, he embraced the so-called Islamic bloc. The result was that that the withering ideological winds from the Persian Gulf began to blow over our soil, destroying, as early victims, both Mr Bhutto and his Constitution.
So, then, have progressive ideals finally crashed and burned? Become passe? Irrelevant? So it would seem from the kinds of choices we have: Imran, Shahbaz, the Zardari clan.
But, if the political left has disappeared in the smoke of unrealised fantasies, the reality of brutal social inequity has not gone away. Consider the powerful anti-elite undertones in the otherwise spurious scourge of so-called Islamist terror now unleashed on the world and, temporarily suppressed here, raising its head yet again.
In the absence of any real change, or possibility of change, there are two choices for our post-Millennials: opportunistic conformism…or the blind, unthinking rage of nihilism.