Characterising the PPP
By Farooq Sulehria
May 12, 2014
Noted poet Kishwar Naheed laments that the PPP is no longer of the Left’ (Daily Jang, May 9) In truth, it never was. However, in journalistic narratives and daily conversations, the PPP’s socialist character is fanatically propagated by a Trotskyist tendency.
Identifying itself as the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), this trend views the PPP as a traditional party of the Pakistani working classes. Such a romanticised, in fact laughable, characterisation of the PPP is in sharp contrast with the sections of the old Left which in the 1970s considered Bhutto a fascist.
In any case, characterising the PPP is important because it has been the only mass party in the country’s history that mobilised the working classes; its subsequent degeneration and shrinking popular base pose the question of building anew a mass organisation of the oppressed and toiling millions.
The PPP was neither a traditional party – an organisation built by forces issuing from labour movement – nor a ‘socialist’ party. And a little digression for the attention of Pakistani liberals: it is not a secular party either. ‘Islam is our religion’ has always been one of the four founding PPP principles. The other three were: socialism is our economy; democracy is our politics, all power to the people.
Attributed to J A Rahim, the PPP’s founding document no doubt sounded radical on the question of economy and certain aspects of foreign policy. However, even during in its most radical phase (1967-1977), it was at best a populist party.
While the term populism emerged in Czarist Russia and south and Midwest US over a century ago, the term is more popularly assigned to certain governments in Latin America, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, that introduced measures to distribute wealth and espoused a nationalistic ideology. Peronism (Argentina), Varguism (Brazil), National Revolutionary Movement (Bolivia) and Institutional Revolutionary Party (Mexico) are some famous examples. Certain military dictatorships have also been described as populist (Torres in Bolivia, Velasco in Peru, Torrijos in Panama).
While certain populist regimes harboured anti-imperial ambitions, others allied with the US. It is, therefore, fair to say that populism is a vague term. However, there are certain characteristics common to all populist phenomena in Latin America. For instance, all such movements and governments were staunchly anti-communist. On coming to power, Bhutto was also boasting, ‘I have stopped the tide of communism by introducing Islamic socialism’.
Understandably, conflicting definitions coined by theoreticians across the ideological spectrum count figures as different as Mao and Hitler as populist leaders. For defining and describing populism below, I will lavishly barrow from French theorist Michael Lowy (Populism in Latin America, Amsterdam: IIRE).
Lowy views populism as a multi-class political movement under bourgeois hegemony espousing a nationalist ideology spearheaded by the charismatic leadership of a caudillo. He points out the following aspects of populist movements:
First, ‘the leading personnel of populist movement is of petty bourgeois extraction’ serving the bourgeois interests. (The dependency school, in fact, claims that populism was an accumulation strategy during the period of industrialisation through import substitution which necessitated redistributive measures). However, ‘conflicts between the two are possible’ given the Bonapartist nature of the populist regime. Second, the caudillo, the popular leader plays an essential role in holding the movement together and giving it a face. Third, its social base is multi-class. Fourth, populism is ideologically an expression of ‘petty-bourgeois nationalism at once anti-imperialist and anti-communist’. Finally, when in power, populist regimes are of Bonapartist nature.
In the case of the 1970s’s Pakistan, doesn’t this sound all too familiar?
Taking Latin America into account, Lowy claims that none of the Bonapartist regimes succeeded in achieving the tasks of a ‘bourgeois democratic revolutions’: Agrarian question remained unresolved, break with imperialism and national independence could not be obtained. Likewise, independent industrialisation and stable democracy remained elusive.
Invoking Leon Trotsky, Lowy draws a sweeping conclusion, “under a bourgeois leadership, democratic gains…are limited and ephemeral|”. The judgement holds equally true about the Bhutto government.
Post-Bhutto, as the international context and balance of forces within Pakistan took a different turn; the PPP became a symbol of imperial bootlicking, the neo-liberal project, financial corruption and ideological opportunism.
True, under Benazir the PPP affiliated itself with Socialist International. But in the late 1970s, many populist parties in Latin America also joined the house of ideological corruption called the Socialist International. It is fashionable nowadays to blame Asif Zardari. In fact, long before Zardari’s rise, the PPP’s founding principles had become: The USA is our faith; Double-speak is our politics; Corruption is our economy; All power to the robber barons.
Pinning any genuine liberal hopes in the PPP, let alone the ‘left turn’ IMT trots have been hoping for since 1980, is political myopia.
Farooq Sulehria is a freelance contributor.