The heady days of the late 1960s

May 28, 2023

Exploring the history of the Left in Pakistan in a global context

Share Next Story >>>


akistan: Left Review, Then and Now, edited by Nadir Cheema and Stephan M Lyon, was a revelation to me. Prior to delving into the pages of this publication, my knowledge of the Pakistan Left Review was rather limited. Having absorbed its contents, I find myself considerably enriched with a deeper understanding of the events that unfolded in Pakistan during the exhilarating late 1960s. The contributions of luminaries such as Hamza Alvi, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Feroze Ahmad, Iqbal Ahmad, Tariq Ali and Aziz Kurtha shine brightly. They have meticulously documented and challenged the entrenched interests that prevailed at the time. While exploring Pakistan through an international lens, it becomes essential to recognise the global context that undoubtedly left its mark on the country. Intellectuals like Adorno, Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre and Franz Fanon served as beacons of inspiration for the youth, igniting their passios for change.

Meanwhile, the indomitable spirits of Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and Castro acted as powerful motivators for the young individuals yearning to resist imperialist forces. The volume under review evokes a sense of nostalgia, transporting us back to the vivid memories of those transformative years. It unveils a tapestry of intellectual discourse, activism and a collective desire to challenge prevailing narratives and shape a more just society.

In the late 1960s, revolutionary movements erupted worldwide. Those were driven by social, political and cultural factors. Young people, disillusioned with the status quo, sparked these movements. The civil rights movement in the US, led by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, exposed the racism and fuelled demands for equality. The Vietnam War provoked global opposition, with diverse groups protesting imperialism and militarism. Europe witnessed dissent against authoritarianism, consumer culture and demands for personal freedom, exemplified by the May 1968 protests in France. Latin America saw guerrilla warfare and resistance against oppressive regimes, while the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia aimed for communist reform. These movements had diverse goals, including challenging capitalism, promoting equality, anti-war activism, environmentalism and cultural revolution. Their collective aim was to challenge power structures and create a more just world.

Although the revolutionary fervour of the late 1960s eventually waned, the impact of these movements was profound and far-reaching. They reshaped political and social discourse, inspired future generations of activists and left an indelible mark on the 20th Century. The legacy of these movements can still be discerned today in the ongoing struggles for social justice, human rights and the pursuit of a more equitable and inclusive society. The revolutionary movements of the 1960s had a significant impact on the leftist movement in Pakistan, shaping its ideology, mobilisation strategies and goals. These movements inspired a generation of Pakistani activists to challenge the status quo and fight for social justice, equality and progressive change.

In Pakistan, the leftist movement had already gained momentum in the 1950s and early 1960s, primarily focusing on labour rights, peasants’ struggles and anti-imperialist sentiments. However, the global revolutionary wave of the late 1960s provided a new impetus and expanded the horizons of the movement. A key influence of the global revolutionary movements on the leftist movement in Pakistan was the emphasis on class struggle and the critique of capitalism. Marxist ideas gained traction and resonated with the socioeconomic conditions in the country, where a large segment of the population faced poverty, exploitation and inequality. Activists and intellectuals became more inclined towards socialist and communist ideologies, seeking to address systemic injustices and advocate for a more equitable society.

The volume unveils a tapestry of intellectual discourse, activism, and a collective desire to challenge prevailing narratives and shape a more just society.

The anti-imperialist sentiment that permeated the global revolutionary movements also found resonance within the Pakistani leftist movement. The opposition to the Vietnam War, US interventionism, and neo-colonialism fuelled a sense of solidarity among Pakistani activists who were critical of their own country’s alignment with global powers. The movement began to focus more on issues of national sovereignty, decolonisation and anti-imperialist struggles in other parts of the world.

Moreover, the revolutionary movements of the 1960s inspired new forms of mobilisation and activism in Pakistan. Students and youth played a crucial role in driving the leftist movement forward. They organised protests, demonstrations, and sit-ins, drawing inspiration from the student-led movements in Europe and the United States. Campuses became hotbeds of political activism, with leftist student organisations gaining prominence and advocating for radical change. The cultural revolution that unfolded globally during this period also influenced the leftist movement in Pakistan. The emphasis on cultural transformation, challenging traditional norms and promoting alternative forms of expression resonated with activists who sought to challenge the conservative and patriarchal aspects of Pakistani society. Leftist intellectuals and artists became increasingly involved in shaping cultural discourse, using art, literature and media as tools for social critique and change.

The analysis presented below has been gleaned from the contents of this publication. It is crucial to acknowledge the immense challenges and oppression faced by the leftist movement in Pakistan. During the 1960s, the country was under autocratic rule, with the government of Ayub Khan actively suppressing political dissent and curbing leftist activism. Leftist leaders and activists were frequently persecuted, arrested and subjected to harassment. Relentless repression, internal divisions and ideological differences within the leftist movement, severely hampered its ability to attain significant political power or instigate a comprehensive revolution.

The book’s scope encompasses a wide array of profound issues. The analytical essay on the 1962 constitution and the enlightening interviews featuring Maulana Bhashani and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, not only offer valuable insights but also unveil fresh perspectives on political dynamics. Both the book’s Introduction and the Afterward, penned by Kamran Asdar Ali, are masterfully crafted and provide compelling arguments. The translation of Marcuse’s essay is particularly remarkable, considering his reputation for dense and concise scholarly writing.

The impact of the revolutionary movements of the 1960s on the leftist movement in Pakistan was profound and enduring. The global wave of activism provided a framework for the articulation of demands, strategies for mobilisation and the shaping of political consciousness. The ideas and aspirations that emerged during this period continued to inspire subsequent generations of leftist activists in Pakistan, who have carried forward the struggle for social justice, labour rights, gender equality and progressive change to this day.

Pakistan: Left Review, Then and Now

Author: Nadir Cheema and Stephan M Lyon

Publisher: Oxford University Press, Karachi

Pages: 285

Price: Rs 1,395

The reviewer is a professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

More From Reviews