It was called the ‘New Left.’ Emerging in Britain in the 1950s, the New Left was the left’s disparaging response to the authoritarian tendencies of Marxism mainly symbolised by so-called ‘Stalinism’. The New Left revisited Marxist doctrines and attempted to bring them more in line with concepts like liberal democracy.
The New Left criticised both western capitalism and Soviet communism and attempted to put forward a more non-dogmatic and democracy-friendly version of Marxism. By the 1960s, it was ideologically informing the evolution of the various leftist movements that began taking shape around the world.
The New Left thinking also contributed to the various contemporary socialist experiments taking place in the Muslim world at the time, where certain leaders and political organs attempted to cut through Marxist dogma and capitalist whiplash by fusing nationalism and the more egalitarian notions of Islam with socialist economics. By the early 1970s, the New Left had begun to influence conventional social-democracy in Europe as well, where leftist parties emerged without any ideological strings attached to the Soviet Union.
However, the oil crisis, brought on by Egypt and Syria’s war against Israel in 1973, triggered a serious economic downturn in the West. It also began generating a gradual reaction against the New Left politics and economics. Consequently a number of economists emerged who severely critiqued social-democracy, socialism and the concept of the welfare state.
By the early 1980s, this tendency was referred to as the ‘New Right’ and its early political and economic manifestations were defined by the Ronald Reagan presidency in the US and Margrate Thatcher’s rule in the UK. The New Right forwarded an aggressive mixing of free market economy, religion, patriotism and a militarist foreign policy, a tendency which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, peaked in the shape of neo-conservatism during George W. Bush’s administration (2001-2008).
In Pakistan, the New Left’s frontline expressions were the students’ movement against Ayub Khan in the 1960s and the populist emergence of social-democratic parties such as the PPP. However, interestingly, just as the New Left was being wiped out in the West by the New Right in the 1980s, in Pakistan it was the old right (i.e. conventional religious parties in cahoots with a politicised military) that did the trick.
But, alas, the New Right in Pakistan seems to finally be coming of age. Because if the collapse of the country’s last military dictatorship and the constant drubbing the conventional religious parties have faced in various elections can be seen as the withering away of the old right in Pakistan, then the active emergence of a revamped PML-N supplemented by an alarmist new electronic media can be detected as a more vocal arrival of the New Right in Pakistan.
Couple these happenings with a vigilante-like nature of a new-born ‘judicial activism’ exhibited by a current strand of top judges and lawyers, and the impulsive support it is getting from PML-N, the electronic media and small right-wing organs like the Jamaat-i-Islami and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf, one can then suggest that a somewhat instinctive move is afoot to challenge the large remnants of both the old and new Left in Pakistan. These include social democratic parties like the PPP, the ANP and secular bourgeois parties such as the MQM.
Boiling within the mix of the New Right politics and sociology in Pakistan are also characters operating as televangelists, ‘security analysts’ and TV journalists. In appearance and content they are consciously avoiding the persona of the greying guard of the old right, and attempting instead to sound and look a lot more contemporary.
They have gone on to use an intriguing combination of the economic and aesthetic dynamics of consumerism, free-market enterprise and media-centric imagery to forward a fusion of social piety, a neo-Maududi’ist take on political Islam, a plethora of conspiracy theories and demagogic (left-meets-right) oratory. Barring the PML-N, much of the New Right in the country is rather ambiguous about its views on democracy.
It is equally ambiguous about its stand on matters such as terrorism and extremism. It claims to condemn it, but is more likely to put the blame on American foreign policy and then return to its ambiguous disposition when questioned about the long involvement of Pakistan’s own intelligence agencies and past policies in the matter.
Whereas the top tier of the Pakistani New Right (PML-N and certain senior TV anchors) are merging lofty political notions such as constitutionalism and accountability with vigilante-type ‘judicial activism,’ the second tier, mainly made up of small rightist political parties and a new breed of TV preachers and personalities, are (for want of a better word) glamorising retro-Maududi’ist and Tableeghi notions of ‘Islamic society’ by encouraging a neo-conservative reading and practice of religious texts, history and ritualism.
More dangerously though, undaunted by the obvious failure of political Islam in the Muslim world, the country’s New Right is trying to rekindle it and that too at a time when various Islamic reformist movements the world over are consciously trying to detach Islam from the political moorings it was convolutedly given in the 20th century by men like Maududi and Syed Qutb. Moorings that may have played a major role in plunging many Muslim countries in the state of cultural stagnation and political turmoil they are in today.