From Ultra-leftist isolation to Laal: A personal reflection
Taimur Rahman is an academic, political activist and the lead musician of Laal Band of Pakistan. He is based in Lahore. For details, visit the band’s site.
When I came back from college in the USA, I was imbued with ultra-leftism. I wore nothing but working class clothes, I gave up playing the guitar because I considered it bourgeois, I took no interest in the mainstream media or mainstream politics (I didn’t even care to read the newspaper), I considered all left intellectuals to be psuedo, and I glorified the working class to the skies (even though I had no real experience of working with the workers).
Any comrade who wore nice clothes was automatically rejected in my mind, anyone who spoke fluently was a deciever, anyone who attained any degree of success in their political or personal life was to be distrusted. Only the poor and hungry were deserving of respect, even adoration.
With these infantile conceptions about socialism, I joined the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party in 1998 and began to work in the labour movement. I cycled to work, didn’t use air conditioning or deodrant, I wore shoes that would hurt, I would take the worst and cheapest form of transport I could find to travel to villages. In doing all of these things, I thought I was serving the working class. It turns out that I was only appeasing my own guilty bourgeois consciousness. I was pretending hard to be someone I was not. I was, to put it simply, slumming it. All this was encouraged by my part that called this entire process “de-grading” yourself. The irony of that phrase is not lost on me today.
There was no one event that lead me to shun this infantile stupidity. Patient study and hard work taught me the hard way that these were all my own complexes and had little to do with the real needs of the working class.
Above all else, it was the workers movement itself for having taught me the most important lesson out of this workerism. Among many other struggles, I saw how the Anjuman Muzareen Punjab used any and every crack in the system to fight for their rights. How the All Pakistan Trade Union Federation used any legal clause they could find to win their struggles, and how the Hashtnagar movement utilized contradictions within the ruling class to hold on to their lands.
This real struggle taught me one central lesson that is the guiding philosophy in my tactics today. Socialist ideas must be brought into the mainstream by hook or by crook. To put it simply, the end was to popularize socialist ideas. And this should be done by any means necessary. Hence, I have no shame in confessing that I have worked with capitalist cooporations, the mainstream capitalist media, utilized advertising gimmicks and social media strategies, worked with bourgeois political parties, worked with all and sundry to one and one end alone: Popularising the ideas of socialism in the mainstream.
My young infantile college graduate self who had no experience of the real world, who never had to work to earn a living or support a movement, who had no experience of the real politics of the working class, would have probably also found the 36 year old me as a psuedo bourgeois intellectual who was doing all of this for self-promotion and popularity. That is why I can totally understand why a few young comrades without any sustained experience of struggle are making similar judgements about me today. But I believe a time will come when they too will have cause to rethink their youthful and idealistic judgements today.
This is not a lesson that can be taught by words. It is a lesson that they can only learn when they enter into the real world of supporting themselves, their families, and in addition to that working in a sustained way in a workers movement. Then they will realize that in the real world of capitalist commodity production, every action, every strike, every poster, every leaflet, every campaign, every music video, every song, every concert, every study circle, in fact every single step has to be sustained with financial resources. When I was at an age when I was supported by my parents resources, or supported by the money that society gave me in the way of a scholarship, I could talk endlessly about utopian socialist fantasies in which revolutions were the result of a the purity of purpose alone. Only experience can teach one that the real everyday struggle of building a socialist movement is as far from such infantile utopianism as the heavens are from the earth.
In my defence, I can only say everything I have done was with the intention of popularizing socialism in a reactionary society. There was no road map available to me. There was no precedent of the way in which I approached my music and my politics. I made many mistakes along the way and the only guarantee I can give my friends is that I will make many more. But this much I can assure even my worst and bitterest critics, my intentions have always been to reach out to more and more people with the great message of a classless society.
Tomorrow Laal will culminate a great leap forward in our work to popularize socialism by performing a May Day concert in the red university of JNU. This is the climax of a triumphant tour that has made Laal into a truly international band. This tour has inspired progressives on both sides of the border. It has contributed more than a hundred of my sermons about peace between Pakistan and India. It has broken stereo-types. It has brought a new music and a new form of expression to the vocablary of the left in South Asia. It has been a triumph in every sense of the word.
I do not offer this as a roadmap to other movements. But I will end this short essay by saying that all mistakes in this tour and otherwise are my personal failings. And all triumphs are the result of the lesson I learnt from the great praxis of the workers movement in Pakistan. I offer this short essay only as a personal reflection on my own work and struggle.
Utho Meri Duniya!
Workers of the World Unite!