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'I am free now' - Soviet poster from 1921, inviting young Muslim women from Turkestan to join the revolution

Talking Lenin with Tariq Ali – I

Originally published: The Friday Times (March 6, 2020)   | 

Raza Naeem sat down with one of the most influential leftists of our world today to discuss politics, history and his 2017 book

On a cold rainy afternoon of the 28th of January this year, I made my way to the house where the renowned writer and activist Tariq Ali was staying during his latest visit to Pakistan to deliver one of the keynote addresses of the Lahore Biennale 2020 at the National College of Arts (covered in these pages last month). It turned out this house belonged to his sister’s. Given that his keynote address was all about current affairs, I wanted to interview him about Lenin, the subject of his most recent work, as well as some other foundational figures of the Communist movement, as well as literature and his forthcoming work. What follows is a transcript of this wide-ranging conversation.

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Raza Naeem (RN): Charity, they say begins at home. So let’s start with this afternoon, 27 years ago in this very city. You lost your father Mazhar Ali Khan, a militant communist, upright journalist, husband to a great militant woman. What are your memories of that day?

Tariq Ali (TA): I was in London, my mother rang me up; naturally I was very upset. I reached Lahore early the next morning. My father had already been buried. Large number of people came to condole and many memories flooded back; of the early days both of Pakistan and the newspaper he edited. It was a huge tragedy that this chain of newspapers, the Progressive Papers Limited, was taken over by a military government. Its constituents Lail-o-Nahar was edited by Sibte Hasan; The Pakistan Times was edited by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, later by my father; and Imroz was edited by Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, and later by Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi. The thing which the editors were shy of saying then, but which we can be proud of today is that most of the people who were hired were communists or fellow-travelers; and they educated an entire generation of Pakistanis. The basic line of the newspapers was staunchly anti-imperialist.

The tragedy was when the first Martial Law took place in October 1958, the United States was very keen that this newspaper was closed down. A case was manufactured against the paper. I will never forget the day when they came to tell Mazhar Ali Khan about the takeover; Mazhar Ali Khan asked his name to be taken off the newspaper and resigned. TIME magazine referred to Pakistan Times as the best edited newspaper in Asia. The takeover was a vicious attack against press freedom. Dawn and Nawa-i-Waqt wrote vicious editorials supporting the takeover. It was the end of a certain phase in Pakistani politics.

Ten years later a huge wave of protests overthrew the military dictatorship. So those memories flooded back to me. People from that generation came to the funeral and told old stories.

My father was a very principled man and did not suffer fools gladly. I was very proud that he resigned from Progressive Papers Limited after the government takeover and was blacklisted for the rest of his life. He was healthy and in the prime of his life when he passed away. Afterwards, he started Viewpoint and wrote a column for DAWN, but it was never the same.

Father RN: 2017 was your father’s birth centenary year. Yet none of our literary festivals chose to remember him. You talk a lot about memory. What accounts for this amnesia regarding your father’s life and legacy?

TA: My father never liked too much publicity. When he was alive and edited the Pakistan Times, there were strict orders not to cover my mother’s activities and to a lesser extent his own activities. He hated cronyism or self-promotion of any sort. He was never an official person. The only groups who could have commemorated him were small groups on the Left. I mean why should they mark his centenary? He was a very fine journalist, but no more than that.

RN: Coming to Lenin, the subject of your most recent work, how did your father see him and would he have disagreed with your portrait of Lenin in your book?

TA: I am sure he would have disagreed. His generation of communists from the 1930s were very loyal to Moscow. They saw Lenin as a secular saint who did no wrong and almost as a god and accepting the image of Lenin which official Soviet ideology presented later under Stalin and Khrushchev. Lenin as a thinker and human being and his mistakes and his ability to recognize and come to terms with his mistakes was not the Lenin they were taught. There was no trace of dogma in Lenin’s Collected Works. He develops and refines the Marxist view of politics. In his last years, crippled by a stroke, Lenin begins to write articles which so shocked some of his colleagues; that his comrades even thought of publishing a fake issue of Pravda just to show him (eventually vetoed by the Politburo), frightened, lest his ideas penetrate too deep. Very few other leaders who have ever done that. Russian anarchism plus Marxism plus the experiences of the European labour movement made Lenin what he was. He was very determined to break with Tsarism. Without Lenin, there would have been no October Revolution. I wanted to produce a book on Lenin which made people go back and read his actual writings.

Tahira and Mazhar Ali Khan

Tahira and Mazhar Ali Khan

RN: Today also happens to the fateful day when 80 years ago, a great Muslim comrade of Lenin, Mirsaid Sultan Galiyev was executed in Moscow by firing squad for being a reactionary. How did Lenin see him in his efforts to popularize socialism in the Muslim states? Has history been kind to Galiev despite his early death?

TA: Lenin’s last struggle inside the Soviet communist party was a struggle to defend the right of nations to self-determination for minority communities. The mistreatment of Georgian leftists by his Georgian colleagues greatly angered Lenin and he shouted at
them. He said that any constituent republic of the Soviet Union had the right to self-determination. So much so that once Lenin said: ‘Why do you think Soviet Turkestan is any different from French colonialism in Algeria?’ These republics were modernized, not perfectly; everyone, male and female were educated; there was upward mobility from the lowest rung of society including women. I often meet professors from that region at conferences, who give fantastic and Progressive interpretations of Islam, because they were educated in the Soviet Union and liberated by the Soviet Union. This does not apply to all of the countries of the world.

Lenin was a strong believer in women’s equality and was very angry at women whose roles were reduced to household chores. If we look at the constitutions of post-Soviet leadership in Russia and leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, it is almost as if women do not exist. The older generation of communists saw Lenin largely through Stalinist eyes; the dissidents saw Lenin through anarchist or Trotskyist eyes; I want readers to see Lenin as he himself was through his own writings.

The older generation of communists saw Lenin largely through Stalinist eyes; the dissidents saw Lenin through anarchist or Trotskyist eyes; I want readers to see Lenin as he himself was through his own writings.

RN: It’s interesting how one of the final thoughts in your Lenin book is how Lenin foresaw the ritual mummification of his ideas, much less his body. Even Marx, his great predecessor saw this, when towards the end of his own life, he said in exasperation, ‘I am not a Marxist!’ Wouldn’t you say the appellation ‘Marxism-Leninism’ is itself a form of mummification to which many have added ‘Maoism’, ‘Hoxhaism’, etc.?

TA: Marx certainly believed in historical materialism. You can’t write a history of a country or society based purely on dynastic rule in these countries. We have to understand social and economic forces that shaped the ruling classes in these countries. When Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that ’Hitherto the history of the entire world is a history of class struggle’, it was a code for historical materialism.

There are many aspects of historical materialism as well, apart from economic suppression and oppression. Some became reductionist; Marx, Engels and Lenin were not like that. Lenin angrily said when people used to misquote and misuse him, if they are saying that then I am not a Leninist. Political theory was constantly in flow and you couldn’t completely freeze these ideas for all times to come. They will be changed by changing circumstances both on a national and global scale. Some of the groups that came afterwards never understood that.

RN: How would you compare Lenin with some of the other revolutionary leaders of ages past. Let’s start with the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and then discuss Robespierre, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and Khomeini.

TA: Basically all earlier revolutionaries became what they were through the force of circumstance and history; made them what they were. Lenin was the only leader on a historic scale who predicted the revolution and said what revolution should be; what the role of the party he was creating should be. If you like, Lenin pre-ordained his revolution. You cannot say that about other leaders. Toussaint was a great leader, waited and waited until there was no way he could act; same was the case with the Jacobins in France. The October Revolution because of its incredible ability to see the world and understand the world and the nature of imperialism, was a decisive factor in decolonization; from China to Cuba and Vietnam, the revolutions were all led by communists, it was all because of the Russian Revolution that this happened. I have always liked Ho Chi Minh’s reply, when K. Damodaran, a communist from Kerala leading a delegation led by India communists, asked the former “How come you led the Vietnamese Revolution, but here in India our size of our party was just the same as the Indo-Chinese Communist Party and we could not lead?”

Ho said,

In India you had Gandhi; here I am Ho Chi Minh and Gandhi. You were outflanked by the Indian bourgeoisie and here the communists were in charge of the national struggle from the beginning.

In China and Vietnam, both leaders fought against Japanese and French occupations which gave them prestige. Both owed their ideological success to the Russian Revolution. The Chinese Revolution was stronger than the Russian Revolution because it was 20 years in the making. The Russian Revolution was a short and sharp revolution. Mao’s armies were traveling the country, so the relation between the peasantry and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was very different to that in Russia. In China, the CCP hegemonized the peasantry; while in Russia the majority of the peasantry remained hostile.

RN: So how are these revolutionary leaders doing with mummification?

TA: Going back to your question about Khomeini, the Iranian Revolution was of a very different character; it was a counter-revolution within a revolution. The revolutionaries crushed the Iranian Tudeh Party and the Fedayeen after coming to power. It was a revolution against both the United States and the left. It has remained extremely hostile to the latter, which is a tragically. The Iranian intelligentsia was the most advanced in the Muslim world both in terms of culture and politics, much more than its counterparts in the Arab world, leave alone South Asia.

The French and the English Revolutions were bourgeois revolutions. The Russian Revolution was the only revolution intended to be a socialist revolution. The Nicaraguan Revolution was an anti-imperialist revolution, inspired by the Cuban Revolution. What the Russian Revolution did for the world, the Cuban Revolution did for Latin America. Some good people left the Sandinistas. There are of course many tragedies in revolutions.

Lenin was completely opposed to mummification and his widow pleaded with the Politburo not to mummify his body. In The State and Revolution, Lenin has a passage on “how leaders can become mummified.” Mao was mummified; Ho was mummified; Lenin was made into a Byzantine relic. It’s a substitute for lack of real support in the country, completely unnecessary. In his last years, Mao did promote a personality cult during the Cultural Revolution. Some of his battles were on New Economic Policy, which made concessions to capitalism. He understood that the Cultural Revolution had failed and that you couldn’t do things in a voluntarist manner.

RN: You have an interesting quote from Bertrand Russell as a blurb, where he compares Lenin to Cromwell!

TA: I wanted to show readers that both Churchill and Russell understood Lenin’s importance, despite not being friends of the Russian Revolution. But it is a sort of trivial matter.

RN: How has Lenin been commemorated in subcontinental literature, if at all? I mean in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, etc.?

TA: Lenin was written about a great deal in the 1930s and 1940s, and his books were translated into every major Indian language. Iqbal wrote a poem  where God summons Lenin for an interview, Lenin goes to Heaven and Lenin explains what trouble is going on in the world. God is impressed by the argument and sends an injunction to His angels. I used to remember it by heart. It is a very radical poem. That is probably the most famous poem in Urdu literature on Lenin by a poet who was not a communist, but a modernist Muslim poet. But I don’t think this poem is taught here in schools…

(to be continued)

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