Gramsci and Pakistan

By Taimur Rahman.

Antonio Gramsci was the founder of the Communist Party of Italy. He struggled courageously against the rise of Mussolini’s Fascist government. For his revolutionary activities he was arrested on November 1926 and was imprisoned. After ten years of incarceration he died in 1937 at the age of 46. Just like Faiz Ahmed Faiz of Pakistan, Gramsci produced some of his most enduring writings from prison. His writings filling some 2,848 pages in 33 notebooks, painfully put together after his death, and which are now world famous by the title The Prison Notebooks. Widely regarded as a defender of Lenin’s Third International and a creative Marxist-Leninist, the influence of Gramsci’s thought has implications far beyond Italian fascism. Some of Gramsci’s concepts may offer vital insights into recent events in Pakistan.

The most famous of Gramsci’s concepts is hegemony. Hegemony, based on a combination of coercion and consent, is said to exist when the hegemonic class gains the leadership of other social forces through political and ideological struggle. This hegemonic status comes about when the class striving for hegemony is able to convince other sections of society that its own particular interests are simultaneously the general interests of society. The hegemonic class may carry out, in Gramsci’s words, national-popular struggles that involve other sections of society and establish a network of alliances (for instance, the revolutionary bourgeoisie of France gained the leadership of the peasants’ struggle for land). Alternatively, the hegemonic class may also undertake what Gramsci calls a passive revolution. The strategy of a passive revolution relies on the power of the state and army to create a network of alliances for the exercise of hegemony. Whether through a national-popular or passive revolution, these networks of alliances together form a historic bloc that constitutes the basis of the hegemony of a given class in specific historical periods.

However, with the ceaseless changes in the balance of class forces, brought about by the incessant transformations in capitalist society, hegemony has to be constantly renegotiated. This gives rise to recurring political crises. At times, the crisis may become so severe that it is no longer possible to resolve it within the framework of the old network of alliances. Gramsci calls such a crises organic. He writes, “A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity) and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts…form the terrain of the ‘conjunctural’ and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organize.”

The sceptical reader may ask, all this sounds fascinating but how is this relevant to Pakistan?

Since the anti-Ayub movement of 1968, what is today Pakistan (that is, minus Bangladesh) witnessed the emergence of a new contender for power: the Pakistan People’s Party. Against the national-popular aspirations of the PPP, the military created a network of alliances of all reactionary elements in society. This reactionary network included broadly the military, religious fundamentalists and the right-wing Muslim League. Whether it went by the name of the Pakistan National Alliance or the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, this reactionary alliance undertook a passive counter-revolution with the sole intent of destroying all trace of national-popular struggles. This led to the oft-quoted phrase that the Military-Mullah Alliance (MMA) has come to rule Pakistan. That the military establishment was the real power behind the democratic façade of the nineties was never contested by anyone. However, it appears that all that is about to change dramatically because this reactionary historic bloc between the military and the mullahs has reached a stage of organic crisis.

The “War on Terror” unleashed soon after the events of September 11, 2001, created an incurable structural contradiction within the establishment of Pakistan. Musharraf’s military dictatorship, brought to power purely by the contradictions within Pakistan between the civilian government and military establishment over the question of peace with India, found a new lease of life. Pakistan, once a frontline state in the Cold War, became a frontline state in the “war on terror”.

However, the military’s involvement in the “war on terror” was bound to increase tensions within the mullah-military alliance. From 2001 the military establishment undertook a policy of appeasing the Pakistani fundamentalists while hunting down and handing over foreign militants. Appeals to Pakistani nationalism and political and economic concessions of all sorts were necessary to bandage this historic bloc in order to prevent it from falling apart. This policy of appeasing the Pakistani fundamentalists while fighting the “war on terror” against “foreign miscreants” was obviously coming under increasing stress with the operations in North Waziristan.

With this background of an “incurable structural contradiction” between the demands of the “war on terror” and the necessity to maintain the reactionary historic bloc (the military-mullah alliance) that was the basis of state power since the overthrow of the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto government, the lawyers’ movement for the restoration of the Chief Justice burst forth with unprecedented force. When tens of thousands of people began to hit the streets in protests against the military establishment, a section of the fundamentalists felt that the time had come for more than the usual peaceful marches and protests. The result was the increasing aggressiveness of the fundamentalists of the Lal Masjid. The consequent military operation against the fundamentalists of the Lal Masjid signals the final rupture of the military-mullah historic bloc.

Regardless of the strength of the fundamentalist forces, one thing is clear. The historic bloc (the military-mullah alliance) that had ruled this country for the last three decades through a process of passive counter-revolution against all national-popular aspirations has reached an organic crisis. New efforts to cure and overcome this structural crisis are inevitable. These efforts in turn lead to new possibilities and opportunities and, in Gramsci’s words, form the terrain upon which the forces of the opposition are organizing. The real question is, “Can the break up of this reactionary historic bloc lead to the re-emergence and revival of forces based on national-popular aspirations?” Only time will tell.

The writer has a Masters in International Relations from Sussex University, is currently pursuing a PhD on the class structure of Pakistan from School of Oriental And African Studies (SOAS) and is teaching at LUMS.