SMOKERS’ CORNER: SOCIALIST IDEAS AND THE WORKING CLASS

Updated 26 Jul 2020

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

An acquaintance associated with an advertising firm once related a rather telling anecdote. Two years ago, his firm prepared an advertising campaign for a company owned by a gentleman from Faisalabad. It was a ‘food company’ that had invited some advertising agencies to pitch for their account. The owner of the company was the figurative self-made-man who, decades ago, had begun his career as a common worker in some factories, after arriving as a teenager from a village. 

He had passed his matriculate exams, but because of his family’s deteriorating economic situation, he could not attend college. However, this did not stop him from diligently working his way up. From a factory worker, he became a foreman, and then, years later, with some money borrowed from a friend, he first set up a grocery store and then a small food company. The business was a success and, by 2006, he was considered a rich man. 

The campaign that the advertising firm presented to him and his marketing staff was based on phrases and antics popularised by archetypal Punjabi films. After the firm was done presenting, the owner began giving his feedback. He told the ad agency’s executives that he would never want to use the campaign for his company. 

He then explained: “For years, Punjabis like me have been struggling to eliminate this image of us as people who look and do things like Sultan Rahi in Punjabi films.” 

According to the acquaintance, the owner was disappointed that a group of educated executives from Karachi could not visualise his company as a modern entity as they would do for a multinational. 

Complex political and cultural ideas that stem from upper and middle-class discourses often mean little to the working class looking for upward mobility

This was a case of how superficially sometimes members of urban middle-classes perceive people from humbler backgrounds. The advertising executives had been told by ‘insiders’ in the company about the owner’s rural origins. So, in a bid to appeal to this aspect of his personality, they assumed that Punjabi films were accurate depictions of the province’s rural life and, therefore, such imagery would suffice to get the owner’s approval. 

In the early 1990s, Imran Aslam, playwright and former editor of an English daily where I worked as a reporter, told me that, when he was a young man and “experimenting” with communism, there used to be a trend among communists from well-to-do middle-class families to “prove their socialist credentials” by taking up ‘working class vocations.’ Imran said that he once joined a group of labourers working at a construction site, but the workers simply refused to let him work. 

This was not because his presence threatened them. In fact, according to Imran, it actually amused them no end. They just could not figure out why a person with a good education, spacious home and the potential to bag a lucrative job would leave all this to lift bricks with a group of men who would rather have a good education, spacious homes and the potential to bag lucrative jobs! 

According to Imran, his young, idealistic self had sketched a romanticised picture of how working class people think. He believed they would be pleased to see a member of a more prosperous class join them in doing what they did for a living. Imran said that, eventually, some of the labourers told him that one day they would like their children to have the kind of life he had before he arrived at the construction site. Imran went back home. 

In 2015, at that year’s Karachi Literature Festival that I attended as a speaker, I bumped into a relative of the late communist leader Hasan Nasir. Nasir, who hailed from an aristocratic family in India, was associated with the Communist Party of Pakistan. He was arrested by the Ayub Khan dictatorship in 1960, tortured and killed. His relative is married to one of my mother’s cousins. 

He (the relative) told me that Nasir was arrested from a shanty town in Karachi. When I asked him if he was hiding there, the relative smiled and said, “No, he was living there.” He said that Nasir was constantly at odds with his privileged background and made sure he challenged it by residing in areas where working-class people lived, in their huts and tiny apartments. 

As I showed my appreciation, the relative smiled again and said, “But they (the poor) always treated him differently. He was never accepted as one of their own. All they were interested in was whether he could get them better jobs or better education for their children. All else they understood as just talk by a young man.” 

This is interesting because, as a student leader, during my involvement in a campaign for a political party for the 1988 elections, I remember that when we used to visit low-income areas, the people there would nod, smile and applaud at the fiery speeches that the party’s younger cadres delivered. But they were far more interested to meet the candidate and talk to him about whether he was capable of providing them jobs or schools, or how the candidate planned to resolve the area’s infrastructural issues. 

Finally, one day, I asked the candidate how he was able to engage with the voters in such areas where our revolutionary speeches about solidarity with the poor were failing to attract similar traction. He replied: “They [the poor] dream about becoming what you are. They don’t want to see another them. They want to see themselves becoming you, or at least believe that their children can. That’s what I promise them. Things and tools to better their lot. Most of them might remain being what they are, but at least they can continue to hope that the lives of their children can become like ours.” By “ours” he meant middle-class. 

He added that, sometimes, politicians behaved as if they understood what being poor is about. But according to him, the fact is, the poor are simply amused by this and may feel that the leader is either naive or can’t deliver that which can improve their lives. He also said that he keeps ‘ideologues’ away from his voters. “They live in their heads and may actually make the voters run away.” 

In his 1937 book, The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell writes about his experiences living as a socialist among coal miners and factory workers. According to Orwell, the poor were simply interested in improving their lives with better pay and conditions. 

They had no interest in the theoretical aspects of any ideology. Orwell believed that the reason the socialists failed to fully engage with the workers was because they (the socialists) bring with them people who preach complex political and cultural ideas that have everything to do with upper and middle-class discourses and nothing to do with the realities and aspirations of the working-classes. In some cases, this may also mean using ideological rationales to keep the poor from even thinking about any upward mobility because that would be ‘beneficial to capitalism.’ 

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 26th, 2020