Issue No. 203 | MAY 30, 2014

Elegy for a comrade who lost his way: A review of Jamal Naqvi’s biography

  • Written by  Eric Rahim
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Jamal Naqvi joined the Communist Party of Pakistan (Karachi) in the early 1950s, played an active part in the students movement of the time. In the 1960s he assumed an important position in the party and later led it as a member of the politburo. He spent something like eight years in prison, more than one in solitary confinement during the regime of General Ziaul Haq. Around 1990, after a period of ‘inner party struggle’ and a visit to Russia (on an invitation from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) he became ‘disillusioned’ with the party, Marxism, communism, socialism, the Left generally, and all that. Now at the age of 82 he has written an autobiographical memoir covering the period from his early childhood in Allahabad (India), migration to Pakistan around 1949-50, his work in the Communist Party of (West) Pakistan, experience in prison and the process of his final ‘disillusionment’. (See footnote.)
It needs to be emphasised that the book is not (and is not intended to be) a history of the Left movement in Pakistan; it is a very personal account of Naqvi’s participation in the movement. Nevertheless, it is a useful account of the events during the period covered by the book – though, as I said, necessarily from a personal perspective. For this reason the book deserves careful attention.  It is to be hoped that others, Naqvi’s contemporaries in the Left movement in Pakistan, will emulate him in this respect.

Naqvi was born in Allahabad, India, with a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets in his hand, instead of the proverbial silver spoon. His grandfather was a lawyer, an advocate, his father a professor of zoology, and he had a mother passionately devoted to the education of her   children. All his siblings grew up to distinguish themselves in the academia. The family lived in a Hindu neighbourhood in an atmosphere of peaceful coexistence. But with the creation of Pakistan the family moved to Karachi, and the young Naqvi, who had enrolled in the English department of Allahabad University, now joined Islamia College.

I report these facts because it was young people with a similar background and outlook who after migrating to Karachi during the 1947-50 period provided the bulk of the membership of the Karachi Communist Party, then being reorganised by Hassan Nasir, who himself was a recent migrant. It was also these young people from middle class families, with secular outlook and exposure to the independence movement, who provided the leading cadre of the students movement in Karachi.

On entering Islamia College Naqvi joined the newly formed Democratic Students Federation (DSF). There are sections in the first two chapters of the book that give a good and detailed account of the students movement of the time. Those interested in the history of  this movement will find this account, though necessarily partial, useful.

At this time, Naqvi also   joined the Communist Party. Unfortunately, he says very little about the activities of the party. For the record I will mention that besides playing an active – I would say, the leading – role in the students movement, the Karachi district committee was active on the industrial front, promoting the formation of trade unions in, for instance, the Pakistan International Airlines, the textile mills that were being established in and around Karachi, the Karachi Union of Journalists, and so on. It established the Pakistan-Soviet Cultural Association, Pakistan-China Friendship Society, and a film society – their objective being to bring to public attention the achievements of the socialist countries. Its members also played an active part in the Progressive Writers Association, strengthening its Left orientation.

In the second chapter Naqvi skips too rapidly over some important events, for instance, the 1954 arrest and incarceration in Karachi jail, for nearly a year, of something like twenty-five students, teachers, journalists and trade unionists. Most of them were members of the Party and the arrests did an irreparable damage to the Karachi communist party that was still in its early period of development. Naqvi was one of these arrested but unfortunately he says nothing about life in the prison.

I noted a lapse of memory on Naqvi’s part. Among the people who were brought to Karachi jail he mentions the names of GM Syed, Sobho Gianchandani and Hassan Nasir. They were definitely not in Karachi jail.  I noted two other lapses that need to be mentioned. He says that the Azad Pakistan Party was formed as a cover for the Communist Party after it was banned in 1954. The Azad Pakistan Party was in fact established well before the ban, I think, in 1951. Further, the National Awami Party (NAP) (formed in 1957) was not created by the Communist Party (as Naqvi claims). The Party – at least its West Pakistan wing - had no contribution in its formation. (I may add here in passing that Mian Iftikharuddin, the leader of the Azad Pakistan Party, and the only  progressive leader at the (West Pakistan) national level, though he played a leading role in the formation of NAP was never comfortable with other West Pakistan leaders like Abdul Ghaffar Khan. He thought they were narrow minded nationalists who had little interest in land and other progressive reforms.)

Chapters 3 and 4 convey a good idea of Naqvi’s personal life and work as a college lecturer (including suspensions, etc.) and progress ‘up the ladder’ in the Communist Party (West Pakistan). Of particular interest here is his experience in prison during the martial law of Ziaul Haq. The discussion neatly conveys the irrationality and stupidity of the regime.   

I come now to what is the central issue in the book (and provides its title, Leaving the Left Behind). A subsidiary issue is the standpoint he adopted after leaving the Left behind. I do not wish to say much about his new standpoint, but for the benefit of those who will not read the book I will make a brief mention. On the new standpoint that he now adopted, Naqvi writes: ‘I was always a democrat [but] my actions were not in conformity with my  beliefs, and standing between the two was an ideology [Communism, Marxism] that put blinkers on my eyes...’ (p.180). The new vision that he now saw on his road to Damascus was that of abandoning ‘the myopic politics of Left and Right’ for ‘the enlightened concept of Right and Wrong’ [front cover blurb]. Note that Naqvi’s ‘democracy’ without Left and Right is in fact nothing but democracy without politics; and he treats Right and Wrong as universal concepts so that that what is ‘right’ (or ‘wrong’) for the oppressor is also ‘right’ (or ‘wrong’) for the oppressed. Sadly, Naqvi has retreated into a world of abstractions.

Now to the more substantive issue of the ‘disillusionment’, and the reasons behind it. The disillusionment came in two forms: with the Party after some disagreements with other leaders and the general membership, and with Marxist theory after a disappointing visit to the Soviet Union during its last dying days.

To take the split from the Party first. While still in prison (under the Zia regime) he knew that when he came out he would have to deal with certain ‘undesirable’ elements who had infiltrated into the Party (p.113). Chapter 7, ‘The Chaos Within’, deals at length with the struggle against the ‘undesirables’. We learn on p.148 that this struggle was successful. ‘The party was well and truly back in our hands.’ And then on the same page, one paragraph later, we are told that his friend and partner in the struggle (Imam Nazish, who had been in exile while Naqvi was in prison) had some ‘reservations’ about the circular on the basis of which (it seems) the fight had been won. He writes: ‘It was the first time ever that there had been any friction between the two of us. But that did not change the fact that he was the one who was re-installed as the CCP [Communist Party of Pakistan] secretary-general. The party was back in his hands, not mine.’

The remarkable point here is that we have absolutely no idea what happened? What were the issues – theoretical or personal – on the basis of which Nazish was ‘re-installed’ as the general-secretary. Was it simply the fact that Naqvi had been at the helm during Nazish’s absence abroad and when the latter returned he was ‘re-installed’ in his earlier position. We do not know.

The story of Naqvi’s disillusionment continued after his disenchanting visit to the USSR. The experience of the visit seems to have been an ‘eye opener’ for him and he returned with his faith in Marxism, Socialism, Communism shaken to the core. He seems to have discussed this experience with the leadership, but no details are given (p.172). This was late 1990. He spoke to Jam Saqi (an old veteran like himself and Nazish) who had by now replaced Nazish as general secretary of the party ‘about the need to broaden the party base and make it a party of the masses’ (p.172). It was agreed that the issue should be debated at the party congress ‘which was due in a few days time.’ He addressed the congress. He writes: ‘Hardly five minutes into my speech, I was booed down. There was blanket hostility and I could clearly hear shouts questioning my commitment to the Party’ (p.172). He walked out of the hall and that was the end of his nearly forty years of association with the Party, and the Left generally.

Again it is remarkable that the reader has absolutely no idea what the real issue was that led to his walkout from the hall. What did he say in those five minutes? What did it mean that the Party should ‘broaden its base’ and ‘become a party of the masses’? Did he suggest that the party should jettison its Marxist outlook? We have absolutely no idea? In fact, nowhere in the book Naqvi tells us what the main theoretical or practical issues discussed in the party were (apart from the making and unkmaking of alliances and united fronts with other parties).

Nor, even more surprisingly, does he tell us what, during the period of his leadership of the Party, it actually did, what its activities were. He tells us that in the ‘late 1980s ... the party membership was somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000’, and that its supporters numbered about 15,000 (p.168). What were these members and sympathisers doing? He does not tell us. (I recall that in 1953-54 the Karachi Party had no more that twenty-five members.)

I turn now to the second aspect of Naqvi’s disillusionment. As I mentioned earlier this aspect of disillusionment came after his visit to the Soviet Union. What he had seen there did not impress him and at this point (sitting in Moscow airport’s departure lounge) he realised that Marx’s theory of surplus value did not make sense. (I do not see any connection with what he saw in the Soviet Union and the theory of surplus value. But let that pass.) He writes: ‘As I started thinking about it, my mind got filled with nothing but confusion. The capitalist brings to the table the premises, the building, the machines, the utilities and the raw material. He pays for everything just like he pays the labor. The output is the product of what I call ‘industrialism’, not to the labour or working class (sic). The Surplus Value, therefore should [my italics) result in fair wages for the labor and fair profit for the capitalist according to the ratio of their input in the final product’ (p.164).

It follows that (according to Naqvi) capitalism is a fair and just system. All those who make a contribution to the product get their fair reward. Since some readers of Naqvi’s book may find the claim that as the capitalist ‘makes a contribution to production’ the capitalist system must necessarily be fair and morally just plausible, I devote the next section entirely to a discussion of this point.

Is Capitalism a fair and just system?

To try to answer this question I will briefly consider two standpoints that are fundamentally opposed to each other – that of modern orthodox economic theory (which forms the core of economics teaching in colleges and universities), and that of Marx. The modern economic theory provides a theoretical rationale of capitalism – only it does not call it capitalism, instead it describes the system as the free-market economy. Marx of course holds a different view of capitalism. I will only consider the standpoints of these two theoretical systems in general terms, avoiding all technical detail.

According to the orthodox economic theory we all have certain resources (property) that we bring to the market and engage in cooperative production. A worker’s property consists in his labour power, that is, his ability to perform certain physical and mental tasks, and the capitalist’s property takes the form of capital goods, such as machines and raw materials. These capital goods contribute to production just as the worker’s labour power does. And thus both share in the final product. (I leave aside the important question of the proportions in which they share the net product for it would take us into details that I wish to avoid.) The point to note here is that it is the fact of ownership of capital goods (capital) that is responsible for the capitalist’s share in the product, just as is the fact of the worker’s ownership of labour power.

According to this theory the source of worker’s ownership of property – labour power – lies in his physical and mental powers and he receives his fair share because of the ‘sacrifice’ (‘disutility’) he makes in terms of the hours spent in labour . What is the source of the capitalist’s property – capital? The answer given by this theory is that it lies in the owner’s abstinence from  consumption; the capitalist decides to abstain from spending his income on consumption goods and instead saves part of it to derive greater consumption in the future. The source of capital accumulation lies in this form of sacrifice (‘disutility’) on the part of the capitalist.

To put it another way, the worker has to be induced (by society) to work, that is, to forego his leisure time (which he could have spent at the swimming pool or hill walking) by offering him a reward in terms of the wage, the capitalist is induced to sacrifice his present consumption (and save and invest) by the prospect of a certain amount of profit in the future. (Some readers of this article may be asking themselves as to how many of the richest businessmen in Pakistan accumulated their wealth through abstinence and self-denial.)

This is the justification of profit, capitalist’s fair share in the net product. It is this claim that gives moral endorsement to capitalism or the free-market economy. 

The point I wish to emphasise is that in this theory the relationship between the capitalist and the worker, between profit and wages, is symmetrical, it is a relationship of equality, as it would be between two peasants exchanging their products – beans for peas – with each other. There is also a  symmetry in time between wages and profits. They are paid at the same time (after the production has taken place). In this theory there is no relationship of power between the capitalist and the worker.

Marx’s standpoint is, as one would expect, very different from that of the orthodox economic theory. Marx starts with a real society, one that exists in historical time.  It is a class society, there are those who own property and others who only have their labour to sell in order to survive. The relationship between the two classes is asymmetrical, one of inequality. Further, the distribution of the social product, the division between wages and profits, emerges through social processes, rather than through individual choices. It emerges through the bargaining powers between the two classes, through class struggle.

By way of illustration, I take a simple model to make the point. Imagine a society in which people can produce no more than what they need to subsist on, in physiological terms. In such a society there is no scope for private property, nor for social classes and exploitation of one by the other. 

But when labour productivity is such (because of improved technology) that people produce more than what they need for their basic subsistence -  that is, when society produces a surplus over and above its necessary consumption - there is scope for private property and for social classes to emerge. When that happens this surplus is appropriated by the propertied class. That is exploitation. This exploitation is always the result of some kind of power of one class over the other.

Again, by way of illustration: take the case of a slave society. Here the entire labour of the slave is at the disposal of the master. The slave’s surplus labour, that is, labour over and above what is needed to provide for the slave’s own necessary (physiologically conceived) subsistence, belongs to the slave owner. The mechanism of appropriation (exploitation) is direct physical control.

In the European feudal system the serf (who was tied to the land and was therefore not a free man) worked a certain number of days (without any payment) on his lord’s land; the rest of the time he was free to work on his own plot. The days when he worked on the lord’s land without any recompense was surplus labour. The product of this labour – surplus product – belonged to the lord. The mechanism of appropriation was direct, clearly observable and sanctioned by law.

Marx extends this idea of surplus labour to the case of capitalism. Under capitalism this process is opaque. The mechanism of exploitation has to be discovered through analysis; one has to go behind the observed reality. Here the worker is free to choose his profession and employer. (Free movement of labour is an essential condition for the development of capitalism.) Labour power has become a commodity (in one respect) like any other – it is bought and sold in the market. Marx, as noted, has now to discover the mechanism through which the capitalist can appropriate the surplus labour and surplus product of labour that is appropriate to the form of freedom enjoyed by the worker. He calls this mechanism the wage-labour system. Marx’s theory of value plays a key role in this mechanism but we will avoid technical arguments and state his position as simply as possible. 

A fundamental feature of production is that it takes time. Even in simple agriculture there is a period of months between the sowing of the seeds and harvesting of the crop, and even simple investments in irrigation facilities take time to bear their full fruit. Some investments take years to produce result. This means that capital must already have been accumulated before the production process can begin, and over this period labour must be fed and maintained, that is, wages must be ‘advanced’ over the period (say, in weekly or monthly instalments) before the product is produced and marketed.

Thus, for capitalist production to take place two conditions must be satisfied:  there must be a class of people who have accumulated capital which they invest in order  to make profit, and there must be another class of people who have no means of subsistence of their own and therefore must sell their labour power (their only ‘resource’)in order  to survive.

In the early stage of capitalist development in Western Europe, stretching over centuries from around 1500 towards the later part of the 18th century, this capital came from merchant capital, usury, improvements in agriculture, colonisation, piracy, slave trade, outright plunder of public resources, and so on. There is a graphic account of this process in the section on ‘primitive accumulation’ in the first volume of capital.

 Later, when capital has been accumulated in sufficient volumes, that is, in developed capitalism, capital accumulation comes from the appropriation of surplus value (profit). This is then the sources of capital accumulation, not self-denial on the part of the capitalist.

The mechanism of the appropriation of labour’s product by the capitalist has a neat parallel with the situation under feudalism: the worker works part of the time to produce the equivalent of his own maintenance, and the rest of the time for the benefit of the capitalist. Thus in a working day of ten hours, he may work six hours to produce the equivalent of his own maintenance, the rest is the surplus labour (and surplus product) appropriated by the capitalist.

To put it another way: What the worker sells to the capitalist is not labour, but his labour-power which is the worker’s capacity to perform useful labour. The price of the commodity labour-power (the wage that the worker receives) is determined, like the prices of all other commodities, by the costs of their production . What is the cost of producing labour-power? The answer: the worker’s ‘necessary consumption’, that is, the equivalent of goods and services required to reproduce his labour-power (and to support a family to provide workers for the future). The worker is able to do produce the equivalent of his own maintenance in less time than the labour time actually bought by the capitalist (ten hours in the example above).

Now what is the labour’s ‘necessary consumption’?  It varies from one situation to another. In a slave economy the slave’s necessary consumption – what is needed to keep him alive and maintain him in working condition- may be physiologically determined. But that is not the case under capitalism. Marx discusses this point in chapter 6 (‘The Sale and Purchase of Labour-power’) in the first volume of Capital. The suggestion he makes there is that labour’s ‘necessary consumption’ (the wage) is determined by social and historical factors. Ultimately, it is determined by the power relations prevailing between the two classes involved, their bargaining power. Workers can resist and obtain a larger proportion of the surplus, and eventually overthrow the system of exploitation.

To return to the question, is capitalism a fair and just system?  Marx never talked about fairness and justice of a political and economic system. What he thought of capitalism was stated plainly in the Communist Manifesto. Capitalism is a highly productive system. ‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production.’ At the same time, for the capitalist labour is and will always remain a cost of production which it must try to minimise in order to maximise his profit. Class conflict is inherent in the system.

Footnote: Syed Jamaluddin Naqvi , with Humair Ishtiaq, Leaving the Left Behind, Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi, Karachi, 2014. 
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