THE 20th century marked the culmination of modern humanity’s aspiration for the world to be free of pain and suffering. With the death of Mairaj Mohammad Khan, we have lost yet another stalwart of that ideal.

The generation of left radicals of which Mairaj was a part is now slowly disappearing into the annals of history. There are now but a handful of individuals who were involved in the revolutionary movements of the post-Second World War era — which culminated in the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s — who are still living. Which begs the question of whether a new generation has emerged to replace that which is slowly withering away.

On the surface there is very little indication that radical ideas — of a progressive, leftist variety — circulate within today’s youth. Indeed, the very definition of radicalism has changed dramatically; when one thinks of a radical in today’s world, the first image that comes to mind is the suicide bomber associated with the religious right.

It is important to try and understand why this has happened. The first part of the answer is relatively uncomplicated; a concerted effort was made by Western powers and the dominant elements within Third World countries from the 1950s onwards to promote the religious right as a means of challenging leftist movements. In attacking and eventually eliminating the leftist threat, the makers of this policy ended up creating a new enemy for the 21st century — that of millenarian ‘terrorism’.


The left never appeared to recover from its historic defeat.


All of this is now common knowledge. What is less thought about is the fact that the left never appeared to recover from its historic defeat at the hands of the right. While there has been a revival of sorts in some countries in recent years, it can be reasonably claimed that the left has never quite reached the heights of the 20th century.

On the one hand this can be explained by the ever-increasing complexity of social relations, and the fact that it is no longer possible to understand this complexity only through the lens of the so-called ‘principal contradictions’ that motivated revolutionary (read: left) politics until the 1990s — class, state and empire.

Socially conscious individuals and collectivities now aspire to all sorts of things — recognition of identities, sexual freedom, ecological change — that previous generations of leftists would barely recognise. The organised left has been slow to catch up with these changing realities at the level of analysis, and, therefore, action.

Yet in trying to understand why the deaths of individuals like Mairaj Mohammad Khan, Tahira Mazhar Ali or the many other left radicals whose names are not known to us feel like the end of an era, it is necessary to think beyond analysis and strategy.

Go back to the case of Islamist radicals in the contemporary period; one of the reasons that most of us are so petrified of them is that they appear fearless. They are ready and willing to blow themselves up in the name of the ideal that motivates them. The vast majority of people in today’s world think of this as a ghastly kind of commitment from which the deranged individuals in question need to be weaned away.

Yet if we go back to the era in which Mairaj Mohammad Khan came to prominence, we would uncover an unceasing level of commitment amongst revolutionaries that was, in principle, not all that different from that which we today condemn uninhibitedly. Young people inducted into leftist circles were imbued with a sense of sacrifice so deep that they were willing to commit their lives to the cause in toto.

Certainly part of the failure of the left project in the 20th century was this unquestioned loyalty to the cause, in the face of obvious contradictions. That a meaningful left politics in the present day must transcend the myopia of the past goes without saying. But any effort to change the existing social order, an order that is sustained by the structural and physical violence of its beneficiaries, can only succeed if there is a certain level of commitment amongst the protagonists of the effort.

It is this commitment that is lacking in today’s world, or at least is conspicuous by its absence amongst the vast majority of young people. Individuals like Mairaj became revolutionaries while young, when the will to change the world — and make the necessary sacrifices to do so — is typically most pronounced.

Today’s teachers, parents, and even political activists advise young people to stay away from making commitments to causes bigger than their person. To want to change the world is, indeed, sometimes a very lonely process in which much has to be sacrificed. There are a handful of young people in today’s Pakistan who have made such commitments. We need to support them if we want the world to be a better place for future generations.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2016

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