Comrade: a lament, a love letter

What does it mean to be a comrade today? What unfulfilled desire, what future promise, does it hold?


Bekari-e-junoon ko hai sar peetne ka shughal
Jab haath hi toot jaein tou phir kiya kare koi

Husn-e-farogh-e-sham’a-e-sukhan duur hai Asad
Pehle dil-e-gudaakhta paida kare koi

Passion, now eclipsed, is indulgent in self-flagellation
With the hands amputated, is there else to do?

Keeping the flame of poetry aglow is a far cry, Asad
That molten heart is yet to be born
–Mirza Ghalib*

“At the time I was thinking I’m such a big comrade, we had so much jazba. Now I think this was himaqat.” || Rank-and-file trade unionist Usman Swati** from the 1970s

“Yaar there were so many people, they would sit on the street corner and shout Inqilab Zindabad! They went mental, nafsiyati.” || Abdullah Shah, a Communist Party (CP) organiser referring to young men of the Lyari Naujawan Tehrik after the break-up of the party.

“Why do you use this term? It sounds, you know… like a cult.” || A prominent human rights activist.

Few terms in the Pakistani, and indeed the world-wide, political lexicon are as charged with meaning as “comrade”. It represents both disillusion and hope, disappointment and expectation; a fevered nightmare and the herald of a future to be realised. It is a demarcation of one’s side and (therefore) of one’s enemies. It holds the possibilities of a bygone century and the impossibility of today’s impasse, the heroism of previous generations and the tales of a new one, yet to be written. It is an anachronism of the past and the poetry of the future.

In a most popular discourse in Pakistan, the comrade has been a figure of curiosity and suspicion. Derided as agents of foreign powers, as deniers of all that is sanctified, working against the grain of both human nature and sacred injunction, the comrades’ dilemma was neatly encapsulated in the pronouncement by a police superintendent who arrested anti-colonial revolutionary Sobho Gyan Chandani—a student of Rabindranath Tagore no less—in 1948: “he [Sobho] is dangerous because he is communist, he is Hindu, and he is Sindhi”. Considering our tortured history, all three terms might as well be collapsed into the same. In his ironically truthful manner, Sobho would, for the rest of his days, refer to himself as “the three-headed monster.”

“We were breathing in the century of revolutions.”

Among the comrades themselves, the term encapsulates the entire range of meanings indicated above. For an older generation of communists, and especially the rank-and-file-workers of the Left, the term has come to represent a studied sadness. This melancholia itself hides many emotions: disappointment, disillusion, the sense of being left behind, and regret. Swati, whom I refer to above, represents the more extreme end of this melancholia. He was unable to take his ill daughter to a decent doctor because, as general secretary of a factory union, he had to represent the case of over 250 workers in a labour court. As he returned home that day, mourners were returning from the graveyard after burying his daughter.

Braving the jails of Bhutto and then tribulations of the Zia dictatorship, Swati’s story is unique neither in the degree nor the quality of its suffering. For a whole generation of political workers, the “cause” was everything: a new world was just around the corner, the moral arc of the universe bent towards the communists. In the words of Mairaj Muhammad Khan, “we were breathing in the century of revolutions.” But with the one-two punch delivered by the Bhutto-Zia combine and the downfall of the Soviet Union, a perfect storm had brewed up. The Communist Party itself broke into many factions; several prominent intellectuals quietly accepted the End of History as a deus ex machina, and gave up Marxism as that road to hell paved albeit with good intentions.

The aporias of “comrade” were here plain to see. Much of the upper crust, as alluded to above, reconciled themselves with liberalism: a procession of agnosticism cursing the god that failed. For those who remained associated with some form of left politics, the feeling was a mix of what Perry Anderson has described as “consolation” and “resignation”: swinging between staunch affirmation of ideals and a lucid recognition of the triumph of the system (the latter, of course, never being publicly affirmed as such). Veering between inordinate expectations from small openings and quietism—both opposite sides of the same coin—this was a brave attempt to keep the flame alive.

“Many comrades came to see their exertions as the excesses of youthfulness. Several others became mental, nafsiyati.”

For most rank-and-file workers, however, “comrade” became a term charged with disappointment to the point of pain. Some complained of the “betrayal” of the “leaders”, the “Suqrats” (Socrates) and “Buqraats” (Hippocrates) of communism, as a worker once caustically recalled to me. Others lamented state repression and the lack of “true” democracy in a movement whose workers and leaders spent inordinate amounts of time “underground”—Jam Saqi, the legendary general-secretary of the CP, once quipped that “we [the leaders] were buried so deep underground that the workers couldn’t see us. I think maybe the only people who knew where we were were the police!”. Many came to see their exertions as the excesses of youthfulness. Several others, as recalled by Shah above, became “mental, nafsiyati”.

The loss of the party, the eclipse of its various associated organisations, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, therefore was not simply the dissolution of a political organisation. A whole symbolic order had collapsed on itself. The “discipline” of the party and its various fronts here had not been fetters on creativity and association (as the hyper-individualism of turbo-charged liberalism would have us believe). Discipline, in fact, was the very context of community and comradeship. The discipline of the “comrade” was the expectation of a unity in action, it was imperative to take a side.

Discipline here functioned as mediation between comrades with different capacities and identities. For comrades with different capacities, backgrounds, and identities, the party was the context of a radical levelling, a sense of equality in the service of a cause beyond one’s person. Beyond the strictures of imposed identities and divisions, the party was the medium where these divisions could be held in abeyance, a pooling of energies where the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts. Here, the denial of the self, the striving towards a radical levelling, was not asceticism: the discipline of the party in fact fostered capacity and (crucially) courage. This was the courage to not just fight with one’s comrades on the street, but to welcome self-criticism and free discussion without intervention by a defensive ego. Courage here was not simply or even primarily born out of individual heroism, but an effect of collective discipline, it was strength born out of self-negation and in service of a common struggle. Discipline was therefore not simply negative, it pre-figured a different kind of community-in-the-making: it was negation and creation in the same moment, experienced by its members as the joy of feeling the world being made anew.

“This was a tradition, it must not be forgotten, where incarcerated members of the German Party in Auschwitz continued to pay their party dues by collecting cigarettes and unsmoked cigarette butts.”

And not simply in Pakistan. This was an international army of the damned and the exploited, often of violent dispute (as in Hungary 1956 and Prague 1968), but always the real feeling of being part of something which transcended the immediacy of one’s own time and location. There is no understanding of “comrade” without a grasp of the total devotion which the call inspired among its votaries. This was a tradition, it must not be forgotten, where incarcerated members of the German Party in Auschwitz continued to pay their party dues by collecting cigarettes and unsmoked cigarette butts (extremely precious and almost impossible to obtain in a concentration camp).

As such—and in the words of Jodi Dean, author of the recent book Comradethe collapse of communism and the eclipse of the communist party was experienced all over the world, including in Pakistan, as “the loss of a perspective that lets society be seen”. The rhythms of everyday life; the cognitive coordinates for making sense of society, history and one’s own place in it; the values, experiences, and expectations which sustained comrades; in short, a whole structure of feeling collapsed. No longer was there the consolation of an inevitable moral arc to the universe, no rhythm to place one’s day-to-day life in, no comrades to turn in times of confusion and tribulation. At its most extreme, this was experienced as descent into a schizophrenic existence—congruent with the allusion to nafsiyati above.

A new vocabulary emerged: human rights instead of class powerstakeholders instead of workersadvocacy instead of strugglepoverty instead of exploitationempowerment instead of liberationactivist instead of organiserally instead of comrade. “Comrade” and communism, the fidelity (not blind faith) to a truth, was now associated with a cult of fanaticism (as with the prominent activist referred to above). “Oppression” was now to be fought singularly, at most one could be an “ally”: the language of “making” and accountability to something greater than one’s self, now replaced with the fixation of positionality. In the words of Dean again, the ally here “appears more to designate a limit” between—ultimately incommensurable—interests and experiences: it is a performance of privilege and its disavowal, punishment without discipline, solidarity without collectivity. This was part and parcel of a monumental shift in political lexicon, what Enzo Traverso has described as a rupture in memory: the rebels and struggles of yesteryear were now forgotten in the litany of “compassion” for the “victims” of history, the deification of the victims of fascism and reaction as opposed to the inspiration of the Resistance against it, the privileging of memorialising and canonisation over struggle and politics.

It is in this context of the eclipse, forgetting, and melancholia that new generations of left workers in Pakistan (and beyond) approach “comrade”. To be sure, there are regional variations here. In our peripheralised regions, the term “comrade” has had more continuity (if, perhaps, not the vitality). For example, the left current in Baloch nationalism, the outsized influence of Palejo’s Awami Tehrik in Sindh and its heroism during the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), have ensured some form of continuity for the intellectual and — more weakly — organisational cultures of “comrade”-ship in these regions.

But by and large, the younger generation of leftists approach “comrade” with all the weight of the history described above. In fact, where Dean describes comrade as a “mode of address, figure of belonging, and container for shared expectations”, one can add in our case the traditions of melancholia inherited from previous generations and, relatedly, a sense of playfulness. The comrade here is a lubricant for interaction between people of all sorts, often kept divided the strictures of language, ethnicity, gender, and age. But it may also function as a kind of inside joke. That term used when one forgets—as one often does—the name of a comrade whom you’ve met several times but whose name just does not seem to stick in your mind. It is that half-serious invocation when one is coaxing one’s colleagues to come round to one’s point of view or, more seriously, to face the courage of one’s own convictions. The “comrade” then is the sense of fun but also—in its different intonations and accents—a term for forging association, for demarcating aside, for lubricating a grating disagreement, and for conveying urgency.

It is this playful sense of the “comrade”, and its use by younger leftists, which conveys the ambivalences of the term today: both an indication of its eclipse and the ambition that it hides. For on one hand, the term is a carrier of disappointment and disillusionment. With the full weight of past defeats bearing down upon us, the ambivalence of the “comrade” is in some ways a means of hedging bets, steeling one’s self against the disappointments and resignations described above.

But, in the same moment and precisely because of its ambivalent timbre, the “comrade” is still today the carrier of hopes. Swati’s mourning here is not simply about closure, nor his melancholia a fatalism. It designates in fact the conjunction of “comrade” with expectation, an expectation which—for him—party leaders were not able to live up to. The failure then is not of the term or its desire, but of its operationalising, of the living up to its exacting standards. The ambivalent playfulness of younger comrades, the melancholia of Swati and thousands of ordinary political workers like him, is therefore not just about loss; but due to its recognition of the contingency of the closure of the past, it is the very condition of hope.

“It is exactly this utopian longing, this rejection of given coordinates of belonging, this non-localisability that makes a comrade suspect.”

In the loss of symbolic horizons, in the deadening language of rights and activism, the invocation of “comrade” is not about stakeholders, but about taking sides. It is a kind of unspoken common sense, the conjuring of ghosts long considered buried, to name the desire for and gesture towards utopia. It is this taken-for-granted common sense then which is the utopian surplus of this long-derided term. It designates a relationship of generality beyond the strictures of borders whether of the social or territorial kind. For the “comrade”, while necessarily situated in a context of states and nations, possesses a vision which overflows these borders: she acts locally, but the horizon of action is always transnational and global. This universal vision is complemented by a universal mode of address: “comrade”. It is exactly this utopian longing, this rejection of given coordinates of belonging, this non-localisability that makes a comrade suspect and what made Sobho into a “three-headed monster”. Its negation of given coordinates of identity and states is supplemented and supplanted by a positive gesture to the creation of a future community i.e. communism (from each according to their ability, to each according to their need; see also Article 3). This gesture to a different society, in turn, is already given in the universal—and generalisable—mode of address: “comrade”. The “comrade” is, therefore “zero points of possibility and communism” (Dean): its negativity hides within its bosom a positivity.

It is also in this gap between negativity and positivity, between destruction and creation, between the particular and the universal, that we return to the aporias of “comrade” with which we began this reflection. For the unmediated truth, the singular conviction nobly held, is also singularly ineffective. The “comrade” designates a political relation and, therefore, a collectivity. Absent the solidarity of the collective, the “comrade” is an empty signifier: one cannot be a comrade all by one’s self.

This is, of course, the question of organisation and the party at the heart of the “comrade”. For without a political formation, that catalyst of collective will and the “body of the process of truth” (Badiou), there is neither comrade nor solidarity. Without such an organ, the “truth” is simply individual fancy, a self-satisfied narcissism. To be effective therefore, the “comrade” must navigate this complicated terrain between its non-localisability within borders and its embodiment in the crucible of collective will.

It is exactly this ambiguity, this gap between performance and effectiveness, which animates questions of the political and the “people” all over the world today, and with particular ferocity in our parts. For the struggles over constitutionalism in India and over the social/federal contract in Pakistan are fundamental struggles to imagine and define a new “people”. Here, the party—or, at least, some organ of effective political articulation—is the key mediator between the mass and the people, between truth and its effectivity, between the “comrade” as simply a moral claim and as a political relation.

“But if there is one lesson that we can glean from the successes and failures of the past it is that discipline for the sake of discipline only serves to stifle creativity and circumvent the party’s function as a crucible for building collective capacity.”

This crucible of mediation, the moment between being and becoming (what Nietzsche called the act of poiesis), also asks us to think about the question of “discipline” in today’s conditions. This is, not incidentally, also the question of time and rupture at the heart of the “comrade”, between living a shared political relation in the now and the horizon of a qualitatively different future. With the eclipse of the Soviet Union and the old left parties and the general desecration of the political culture in Pakistan, much that was valuable in past organisational cultures is now lost. But if there is one lesson that we can glean from the successes and failures of the past it is that discipline for the sake of discipline only serves to stifle creativity and circumvent the party’s function as a crucible for building collective capacity. In the bygone era, this was conditioned in no small part by the dire contexts of repression in Pakistan. State repression and the condition of being “underground” bred not just distance, but also cultures of suspicion between rank-and-file and upper tiers. In a self-reinforcing cycle, the distance between leaders and the led compounded issues of internal democracy and often militated against ordinary workers’ creativity, further widening the gap between different tiers. In this context, injunctions to discipline often masked the excesses of a feverish superego, where a desire for the collective morphs into a drive for impossible purity.

Today, however, political repression has taken on new forms: it is both brazenly naked, but also works more insidiously through legal wrangling and the sense bombardment of the 24/7 culture industry (including its newer, social-mediatised forms). Thus, where there are multiplying avenues of alienation from the system, there are also as many means of dissimulation and expression. Class exploitation, gender oppression, and ethnic marginalisation: today all of these are intensified but also take on new forms. Here, while the new media serve as avenues for expression, they also offer a momentary stimuli which militate against long-term and strategic cadre-organisation-building. In fact, this turbo-charged culture industry makes comradeship susceptible to bubbles of publicity and spectacle. New media here serve as modes of dissimulation, an anti-politics machine accountable to no one beyond the user’s own ego, the immediate jouissance of “likes” and retweets, and the algorithms of monopoly corporations.

However, the issue here is not merely the formation of these bubbles or spectacles: at one level, and regardless of their content, they are an inevitable product of the media/form of social engagement today. In fact, condemnation of such phenomena as an inevitable heralding of “personality cults” or “lack of discipline” is itself sterile: an anachronistic desire to turn back to an imagined “simpler” time, a refusal to understand and work through the implications of changing relations between form (for example, new media) and content (i.e. the conveying of the communist imperative). Merely moral condemnations of “individualism”, “identity politics”, and “self-promotion” themselves re-enact a spectacle of purity. Unable to come to grips with changing modes of exploitation and oppression, and their dizzying forms of expression, an already defeated subject finds consolation in easy condemnation of all that seems new and strange. However, this too is a consolatory but ultimately counterproductive reaction. Here too, the performance of purity takes the place of sober and strategic thinking. One must guard strenuously against this kind of moralism, for here the virtue of simplicity slides easily into the vice of sectarianism.

“Perhaps that incompleteness, the constant striving to suture the now and the future, is exactly the point of the ‘comrade’.”

Any effective form organising, any new organ of articulation, will have to work through these tendencies of spectacle and self-fashioning through new media. The avenues of creativity and expression offered here will have to be harnessed, even while guarding against the tendencies of burn-out and individualistic self-gratification fostered by the turbo-charged culture industry. Any effective crucible of comradeship today will therefore have to rethink the question of discipline in this changed political terrain, as one where discipline works not as fetters, but as means for fostering joy and courage, for creativity and building collective capacity.

In this sense then, until the emergence of such a crucible of collective will, the promise of “comrade” will remain just that. But perhaps that incompleteness, the constant striving to suture the now and the future, is exactly the point of the “comrade”. The “comrade” here is an unfulfilled desire, an expectation from one’s self and from others, and a placeholder for our promise to past and future generations.

It is that dil-e-gudakhta, whose molten flow, whose heat and convulsion, is the only sure guarantor of the poetry of beauty and shimmering flame, that husn-e-farogh-e-sham’a-e-sukhan, which is conjured every time the word “comrade” is invoked. Courtest: Sochwritings

This article is dedicated to recently deceased Comrade Tanvir Gondal, Dr. Lal Khan, a dedicated worker of the left, a warm and generous man, and a larger-than-life figure. Lal Khan kept the flame shimmering for future generations in a time of great confusion and tribulation; future generations will do the same for him.

*All translations are the author’s.
**Some names have been changed.

AYYAZ MALLICKis a doctoral student with interests in left and labour politics.

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