Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is a renowned left intellectual and currently the general secretary of the Punjab section of the newly formed Awami Workers Party (AWP). The new party was formed last month after a merger of three progressive and left forces, the Awami Party Pakistan, the Labour Party and the Workers Party and vowed to "build a new programme of socialism for 21st century Pakistan". Com. Sajjad speaks about the challenges before the AWP, it's goals and its immediate aims to Pragoti Edit Group Convenor, Srinivasan Ramani in this interview (via email).
Q: Com. Sajjad, you and others have taken significant steps in the formation of an united left party by merging three similar progressive and left forces in Pakistan. You claim that the party will not be governed by traditional basis of Leninism, Maoism or Trotskyism, but by "21st century socialism". What do you think are the distinguishing features of this "21st century socialism"?
A: Frankly nothing of great substance yet. The point we want to emphasise is that there is a need to move beyond 20th century orthodoxies, and even more so the sectarianism that has greatly harmed the leftist movement, both in Pakistan and the rest of the world. The term '21st century socialism' has of course been used a great deal in Latin America, so we ought to spend some time learning from the experiences in Venezulea, Bolivia, Ecuador and so on. If I had to put my finger on anything, I would say 21st century socialism means a move beyond an exclusive emphasis on the development of productive forces and an emphasis - in the Gramscian sense - on the development of socialist ideals within society at large.
Q: A generally skeptical critique of the "21st century socialism" project in Latin America, by some leftists is that it is not necessarily the same as class struggle waged by the alliance of workers and peasants under the leadership of a vanguardist communist organisation. Surely, your newly unified party will have to face a similar critique from orthodox Marxists and leftists. How do you respond to them? Is there an alternative way for class struggle, envisaged by the concept of 21st century socialism in Pakistan?
A: Our new party does not claim to be a vanguardist communist organisation. There are some leftists in our country that claim to be 'true' communists, and we do not wish to engage in mud-slinging about authenticity (in fact we want to move on from such self-righteousness entirely). Our party is an attempt to bring together the widest possible cross-section of leftists on a broad platform. We will of course focus on the same constituencies that the left has always attempted to organise, but we also recognise that new innovations are required: indeed, even the definition of the working class has to be adapted to account for what is today called the 'informal sector'. Class struggle is not waged in only one way; we want to learn by doing.
Q: You have written in the EPW that the formation of the party constitutes baby steps towards a more engaging form of left politics that captures the attention and support of the large section of Pakistan's people. What do you identify as the AWP's immediate tasks and issues to be tackled at the political level?
A: Precisely that - to provide some indication that there is a political alternative available. In our draft manifesto we have identified four immediate contradictions that we will attempt to address - class, the national question, imperialism, and religious fundamentalism. Obviously we need to engage with working people on bread and butter issues as a first step to introducing our program.
Q: What new forms of organisational structures do you envisage as part of the new party as distinguished from traditional Leninist structures that emphasise "democratic centralism"? How would you ensure that the Leninist organisation's advantages of stability, dedicated (and "professional") cadre base and decisiveness of positions are not compromised in the new structures?
A: Pakistan's fragile unitary state structure has to be replaced by a genuine federal structure. The new party therefore envisages itself as a 'federal' one insofar as each of the 'national' committees we are constituting at provincial or sub-provincial levels will not be dictated to by the federal committee at the apex of the structure. Of course basic disciplinary protocols will be in place, but we want to emphasise the 'democratic' over the 'centralism'. As for the cadre base, we live in an era where the committed political worker who dedicates time and resources voluntarily to the party is becoming a rarity. The NGO phenomenon has a lot to do with this, as does the glitter of consumerism and the decline of ideology. I don't think our organisational structure will constitute an impediment as much as these other factors.
Q: You also make the claim that unlike what is being perceived elsewhere, the more important contradiction in Pakistan's political economy is the issue of oppressed nationalities within the union. What is the AWP's position on them and how do you contra-distinguish it from what are called "divisive" ethno-nationalist positions?
A: We believe Pakistan must be reconstituted as a multi-national state and that all nations within it are free to either stay within the federation or leave it. We nevertheless want to bring the working people of all nations together, as communists have done throughout the ages. It is this empahsis on unity that distinguishes us from nationalists who thrive on a politics of hate. Of course we recognise that historically oppressed nations, such as the Baloch, cannot be convinced that Pakistan is theirs until incumbent structures are dismantled and the historical domination of Punjabi and Urdu-speaking ethnic groups is redressed.
Q: How difficult is it for your party to wage struggles against the mutually contradictory (as of now) US imperialism and the fundamentalism represented by the likes of the Tehreek-i-Taliban in areas dominated by it. Is your party's position gaining traction among the people in Pakistan?
A: Of course it is difficult, primarily because of the existential threats facing anyone who speaks against either of these two reactionary forces. But I do not believe that it is difficult to convince the people of Pakistan that both of these two forces are ultimately responsible for much death and destruction. In fact most people already know this. The problem is that right-wingers and/or pro-imperialist forces dominate so-called public opinion and this is where it is difficult for us to get a foothold.