An interview with Ashfaq Saleem Mirza
Veteran writer Ashfaq Saleem Mirza, 74, is a multifaceted personality; a teacher, philosopher, writer and a poet. He was introduced to Marxism at an early age because of the environment at home and began working for the National Awami Party in 1959, at the time his elder brother was also a member of the party.
In his youth, he was a true revolutionary in keeping with the spirit of the times. He became president of Mazdoor Kissan Party in 1967. The same year he completed his MA Philosophy from Government College in Lahore.
In 1975, he joined Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA), Islamabad while Faiz Ahmad Faiz was its chairman. He left PNCA when Ziaul Haq came to power. In 2004, he retired as director Overseas Pakistan Foundation.
There was a time when he was considered to be the moving spirit behind Islamabad’s literary scene. He was one of the founders of Islamabad Cultural Forum. He also started the School of Modern History and Philosophy with the help of Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German foundation; the school ran from 2011 to 2016. He has written more than half a dozen books which include Mamnua Nazmain, Aao Mil kar Hansain, Tarikh-e-Siasi Fikr Machiavelli se Gramsci tak, Falsafa Kya Hai: Aik Nayi Ma’adi Tabeer and Tarikh-e-Nau Abadiaat aur Jamhuriat.
The News on Sunday: Apart from writing and posting your weekend poem on the social media, what occupies you?
Ashfaq Saleem Mirza: I write on the insistence of my friends. I have compiled another book of poetry but, so far, only one book of poetry, Mamnua Nazmain, has been published.
My latest and most important work is Machiavelli to Gramsci in which I have tried to comprehend the political philosophy from 14th to 20th century.
More recently I have been working on a book called Almiye Ka Safar. For this book, I translated three representative Greek plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
I studied all the philosophers to come to the conclusion that there is much fallacy about the thought of Machiavelli. In the book I have mentioned two names Macaulay and Machiavelli. Both are hated by our progressives but they contributed substantially to the advancement of civilisation.
One can prove that by looking at areas which remained out of British civilisation and mostly remained dark. While Bengal, Bombay and Madras and Lahore, Bombay, Delhi and Allahabad were areas that benefited from the educational system of the British, most centres of anti-British movements were in these cities. Moreover, what is said about human nature by Machiavelli is still valid -- that humans are greedy and can do anything for their selfishness. People often talk about The Prince but know little about his more important book The Discourses. People often negatively refer to The Prince but I think the rules of governance mentioned by him are still valid and practised. And you can judge it from what is currently happening in Pakistan.
Morality and politics are two contradictory terms. Gramsci who gave new theories on Marxism also introduced concepts like subalterns and hegemony, which are not commonly known to Pakistanis, even the Marxists here. Hence, I thought of introducing Gramcsi to Pakistanis.
TNS: You have also written about the armed peasant movement of Hashtnagar? What are your findings?
ASM: It was an adventure because it is difficult to confront the government machinery. And unless there is sort of mass protest and warfare, as in China or Vietnam, you cannot win and it becomes impossible.
What I conclude is that the times of revolutions have gone and have become historical. So those who are still misled by this conception that they can bring a type of Bolshevik revolution must rethink that, historically speaking, even Bolshevik revolution was not mature. There was a big split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Even mature revolutionaries like the teacher of Lenin, Plekhanov, was not ready for that. He thought that first stage was set for a bourgeois democratic revolution.
Most of the predictions made by Marx were utopian. The stateless and classless society never came into being and what Engels called the dictatorship of the proletariat and the much trumpeted ‘Paris Commune’ existed only for two months. Marx first criticised the Paris Commune but later praised it. He was unclear.
TNS: Do you think Marxism and dialectical materialism are still relevant?
ASM: One must differentiate between these two concepts. While Marxism is an ideology, dialectical materialism is a philosophy. Dialectical materialism is a scientific theory which says that everything changes into its opposite due to its internal contradictions. Who can deny the validity of the basic laws of dialectical materialism? The case of ideology is different. One must note that most ideologies attract masses by predicting a better future which never comes true. I find a stamp of heaven on every ideology, even in the Marxian utopia.
If you ask me who are you, I will say I am a dialectical materialist but not a Marxist. This may appear strange, but it is true in the sense that certain hard-core Marxists violated the laws of dialectical materialism. Marx never used this term; it was later on introduced by Plekhanov.
I think the page about revolution has been torn from history. Moreover, this concept of private property has become a sort of natural instinct, like two children fighting for the possession of a toy. Who ingrained that concept in their minds? China reintroduced private property, it is challenging the US now. The era of socialism could not achieve those heights of economic indexes.
TNS: So is it another sort of capitalism in China?
ASM: Yes, I always say and some people do agree with me that Eduard Bernstein was more on point than many Marxists pundits when he said capitalism would continue, there would be ups and downs but again it would stabilise. And this is what is happening.
TNS: Capitalism is also production of a certain period of history. How we can say that it will remain forever?
ASM: Yes, but now it has taken the garb of social democracy for its longevity. I don’t say it will remain forever, but it is there at present. Marx predicted the fall in 1848, and we have been told from childhood "Woh subah kabhi toh aigee, jab amber jhoom kay naache gaa" and "Hum daikhain gay" but it never happened.
TNS: But there have been challenges to capitalism?
ASM: Yes, after 1917 they said it had failed. During the depression of 1930s it was said that capitalism was doomed. After the Second World War they said capitalism was going, but it is still there and I am talking about facts of history. I am not a propagandist or supporter of capitalism but I have to admit that it is still holding the fort.
TNS: How do you look at the left or communist movement in Pakistan?
ASM: Disappointing. It was mainly drawing room politics. In fact, there was no objective analysis. Nobody has written an objective analysis of Pakistani situation. We blindly followed Soviet and Chinese models, and failed.
TNS: How do you define Pakistani society?
ASM: This is a very difficult question. It is confusing because Pakistan is neither purely capitalist, nor simply feudal. To borrow a term from Hegel "it is in the period of becoming". Some say feudalism has gone. Some say it is still there. Some say the bourgeois have consolidated their power.
Pakistani is progressing but there is massive hold of feudal culture on bourgeois values in Pakistan. They live like lords; they don’t want to live like small capitalists. Then there are the leftists of Pakistan who love primitive culture which is beyond my understanding. They always defend primitive cultural values.
TNS: How do you look at the struggle for ascendancy between the civil and military establishment?
ASM: There is no civil political culture, there is only military culture. The first order of establishment was banning Jinnah’s 11th August 1947 speech and at the same time Jinnah ordering certain undemocratic changes in the NWFP government. From that day, the establishment has been on the driving seat.
TNS: Some people say the "Two-Nation theory" was a farce?
ASM: No that was a political strategy. Jinnah wanted to motivate Muslim voters.
TNS: Do you think there can be a nation on the basis of religion?
ASM: No, the modern nation states are products of capitalism.
TNS: What do you think of literature being produced in Pakistan?
ASM: Currently, we are experiencing a lean period for both ghazal and nazm. The literature produced here is devoid of any substance. I think apart from their ideology, Faiz, Noon Meem Rashid, Ghani Khan and Shaikh Ayaz are still relevant and popular along with Nasir Kazmi, Munir Niazi, Jaun Elia, Majeed Amjad and Ahmad Faraz. Fahmida Riaz, Parveen Shakir and Kishwar Naheed have also contributed positively. We have good novels but we are far ahead in our short stories. Manto is more significant than many western short story writers. We have Ghulam Abbas, Ismat Chughtai, Bedi and Krishan Chandar.
TNS: Your views about the future of Pakistan?
ASM: The current politics of Pakistan is being managed by establishment and religious extremists and certain minorities are being pushed to wall. Small nationalities are fighting for ethnic nationalism and for linguistic identity. The situation is more chaotic than ever.
TNS: What are you currently working on?
ASM: I am working on two books Nationalism; Teaching of Marx and From Materialism to Dialectical Materialism.