Pakistan’s Other Story: 1. Introduction

A new book by Lal Khan is being published to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Pakistan revolution. Here we publish Alan Woods' Introduction in which he highlights the main processes of the tumultuous 1968 events and explains how a new 1968 is being prepared in Pakistan in the coming period.

The publication of a book by Lal Khan on the Pakistan revolution of 1968-9, Pakistan's Other Story, is a most important addition to the theoretical arsenal of international Marxism. In 1968 the attention of most people in Europe was absorbed by the revolutionary events in France. But I can vividly remember the marvellous movement in Pakistan, which made a deep impression on me. In fact I wrote an article about it at the time. It was published in our journal Perspectives under the title Pakistan - The revolution betrayed. The present introduction is largely based on what I wrote at the time.

Pakistan’s Other Story - The 1968-69 RevolutionAt the beginning of 1968 the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan appeared on the surface as one of the most stable regimes in all Asia. For ten years he had ruled the country posing as the "strong man" who had saved society from "anarchy". In classic Bonapartist style, he balanced internationally between the rival great powers of East and West, now taking aid from Britain or America, now from Russia or China. In particular, his close relationship with China paid dividends, not only economically, in terms of massive aid and trade, but also politically, by granting the regime the semblance of a "progressive" face.

The Chinese bureaucracy supported the dictator Ayub Khan. Chou En-lai congratulated Ayub Khan on his success in rigged elections in 1965. When war broke out between India and Pakistan in the same year, Beijing gave full support to Pakistan, describing it as a "people's war". All this was dictated purely by cynical reasons, mainly in response to Moscow's support for India, on the principle that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

The successes of the Ayub regime in the international arena concealed the depths of the economic and social crisis of Pakistan. True, the economy had gone forward at a rate of more than five percent per annum. But this growth was confined mainly to West Pakistan. East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) remained in a state of hopeless, semi-feudal backwardness. In fact it declined. The province was dependent upon two crops: rice (subject to flooding) and jute, which was rapidly being ousted on the international market by the use of plastics and other synthetic material.

In the more industrialised province of West Pakistan, the polarisation of wealth was chronic. On the one hand, the notorious twenty-two families owned 66 percent of industrial assets, 79 percent of insurance and 80 percent of banking. On the other, the average income in West Pakistan was a mere £35 per annum: in East Pakistan, the figure was even worse - an abysmal £15.

The misery and chronic backwardness of the population created an explosive situation, which only needed a single spark to ignite. Towards the end of 1967, a series of riots occurred in various regions. These were renewed the following January. The basic issue was the fake elections, which Ayub had called under his system of "basic democracy", a fraudulent scheme designed to place the power of elections into the hands of 80,000 so-called basic democrats, stooges of the regime.


In the first months of 1968, Pakistan was shaken by a series of massive revolutionary movements involving every section of society. The bourgeois press described this as "mob rule". Naturally! For the idle parasites that rule society, the people - the workers and peasants who produce all the wealth of society ‑ are nothing more than a "mob". In reality, the revolution of 1968-9 had been prepared well in advance. Beneath the surface of apparent stability, the unbearable contradictions in Pakistan society were building up slowly but surely.

Dictator Ayub Khan
Dictator Ayub Khan

On January 17 police opened fire on demonstrators in Dacca, killing several. On January 24, the city was paralysed by a general strike and student riots and troops were called in. There was even a 24-hour strike of journalists, gagged by the regime's "emergency laws" (introduced during the Indo-Pakistan war and retained for use against the "enemy within"). Fearing a general conflagration, the Ayub regime hastily began to throw out concessions aimed, in the first instance, to placate the students. The ban on political organisations in universities was lifted.

Ayub's concessions had come too late: instead of placating the movement, they added fuel to the flames. A freak impetus was given by the victory in India's mid-term elections, of the United Front Government in West Bengal, the effects of which spilled over the borders into East Pakistan. Alarmed at the prospect of new upheavals, Ayub hastily released from prison the leader of the secessionist opposition in East Pakistan, sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman. In a desperate attempt to stave off the crisis, Ayub agreed to meet the leaders of the opposition parties, which in 1965 he had mocked as "five cats tied together by their tails". The offer, however, did not extend to the left-wing opposition parties.

Throughout the entire crisis, the bourgeois opposition (the DAC) showed itself to be utterly worthless. Their imperious demands for "constitutional rule" which echoed around the cocktail parties of Karachi were unheard in the streets, where the mass movement was growing rapidly in strength and breadth. The movement, which had hitherto been dominated by the students, gave way to the might of the working class. The serious capitalist journals of the West looked on in dismay. The victory of the United Front in West Bengal and the mass movements in Pakistan caused The Economist to remark that "If anywhere in Asia is ripe for an attempt at urban revolution it is Calcutta, and the cities of East Pakistan are not far behind."

In February and March, a sweeping wave of strikes engulfed the country. On February 13, for the first time in ten years, the red flag was hauled up in Lahore, as more than 25,000 rail workers marched along the main street chanting: "Solidarity with the Chinese people: Destroy capitalism." This showed the will of the workers and peasants to change society. Unfortunately, there was no mass Marxist Party to provide the necessary leadership.

The pro-Beijing National Awami Party had the support of a large section of the Pakistani workers and peasants. But it did not have a revolutionary programme. Instead of mobilising the working masses on a programme of the seizure of power, the pro-Chinese Stalinists called for a bloc with the right-wing Moslem Party, Jamaat-e-Islami. The Maoist peasant leader Maulana Bashani made demagogic speeches, threatening the ruling classes with civil war ("We will burn the houses of those who take part in elections"). But these were just words without any real content.

At this time the peasants in East Pakistan were already seizing the land and executing the criminal elements, village chiefs and rent collectors who made up the ranks of Ayub's so-called "basic democrats". The mood of the masses can be gauged by the fact that even the bourgeois Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman was obliged to accept the programme worked out by the Dacca students for nationalisation of industry and withdrawal from imperialist backed CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation) and SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organisation).

A magnificent movement

The bourgeoisie was convinced that Pakistan was on the verge of revolution. And they were not wrong. Businessmen inside Pakistan paid large sums to get their money out of the country. The black market rate for sterling shot up from 21 rupees to 30 in two weeks; the price of gold rose by 40 percent. The British capitalist press also understood the gravity of the situation and the impossibility of the old regime maintaining itself.

"Authority" had broken down. Power was in the hands of the workers and peasants who, like their counterparts in Spain in 1936, realised the whole "election programme" of democracy and more in a few days. What the cliques and coteries of bourgeois politicians had vainly struggled to obtain for ten years was carried through by the revolutionary action of the masses in an instant. Then what role was left to the "democratic" bourgeoisie? The answer is: None, except that which the "leaders" of the proletariat and peasantry were prepared to hand over to it.

On February 24, the Financial Times reported: "In Karachi junior army officers were being court-martialled for refusing to fire on demonstrators." The Times, in March, described the situation where "...strikers from every profession, trade and occupation from doctors to railway workers and state engineers, parade through the streets almost every hour demanding better working conditions and more pay... a police uniform has not been seen in the streets of Dacca for a fortnight."

The situation in Pakistan had "got out of hand" from the bourgeois point of view. The government had lost its nerve; the ruling clique was suspended in mid-air; the police force was demoralised and sections of the armed forces wavering; the mass movement, affecting all sections of the populace, had set about a transformation of society. All the elements of a classical revolutionary situation were present, except one: the revolutionary leadership.

Under those conditions, if a clear lead had been given, a peaceful transition could have been affected. But if the magnificent movement of the Pakistani workers and peasants were worthy to be placed on a par with the movement of their class brothers in France and Italy, the cowardice, shortsightedness and cynicism of the leadership was not far behind that of its European counterparts. The betrayal of the Pakistani Stalinists, who refused to mobilise the masses for the seizure of power, inevitably prepared the way for reaction.

The truly magnificent struggles of the Pakistani workers and peasants at this time are worthy to be put on a par with the great movement of their French and Italian class brothers. The movement in Pakistan, given a correct leadership, could have led to a peaceful seizure of power. But just as in France and Italy in 1968-9, the weakness was in the leadership. Neither Bhutto nor the National Awani Party were prepared to take power. This was what paved the way for the military coup.


The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was formed on December 1, 1967. Its programme was socialist and its founding manifesto called for nationalization of the productive forces and a people's militia. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (the father of Benazir Bhutto) appeared to challenge the Ayub dictatorship, while both the pro-Moscow Stalinists and Maoists were supporting the "progressive" Ayub Khan. Bhutto therefore became a symbol of resistance, although he himself was a feudal lord from Sindh, and had been foreign minister in Ayub's cabinet. Nevertheless, he raised the slogan of socialism and acquired considerable popularity. The PPP rose to prominence on the wave of the 1968-69 revolutionary movement.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto at a PPP rally
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto at a PPP rally

Bhutto claimed to stand for socialism and some regarded him as a "dangerous revolutionary". But the most perspicacious bourgeois did not share this view. The Times, anxious to soothe the jangling nerves of its readers, sent a reporter to interview Bhutto, who reported as follows: "Tagging at his cigar in his Karachi home, Mr. Bhutto now says that his concept of socialism is more akin to Scandinavia's than Peking's, Pakistan's ties with China are close enough." (The Times, February 26, 1968) The Economist wrote of Bhutto: "It is worth remembering that everything said about him was once said (reading ‘Russian' for ‘Chinese') about Nehru."

Many of the mass leaders of the 1968 movement joined the PPP. In 1970, the masses in West Pakistan voted massively for this party because they desired a fundamental change in society and were attracted by its socialist programme. They were faced with a stark alternative: either carry out the socialist transformation of society, or else obey the dictates of Capital. There was every possibility of carrying out the socialist transformation of society. But Bhutto and the right-wing leaders of the PPP failed to do this. Although they carried out some radical reforms they did not carry out fundamental change. They compromised with the feudals and capitalists and allowed the army to regain control.

In every revolution there is a stage when the masses feel cheated and try to take action to regain the initiative. Such a period was the July Days in Russia in 1917 or the Spartakist uprising in Berlin in January 1919. The proletariat took to the streets to press their demands during the period May-September 1972. The movement was especially militant in Karachi, the Petrograd of the Pakistan proletariat. The government moved to crush the movement. A demonstration of workers was fired on in Landhi, Karachi, leaving dozens dead. This disillusioned the working class and prepared the way for reaction. Having turned against the Left, the PPP government allowed the pendulum to swing to the right.

It is significant that at the height of the crisis, Bhutto's People's Party split. The difference, as always, was on the question of independence for East Pakistan. Bhutto's refusal to deal with this question indicated his subordination to the interests and wishes of the Pakistani bourgeoisie and the military. The result was a terrible tragedy. It led, first to the break-up of Pakistan and then to war with India. Then, inevitably, having played into the hands of the military and reactionary forces, Bhutto was overthrown and hanged in 1979. He was a victim of the reactionary Pakistan oligarchy. But he was also the victim of his own attempts to conciliate the forces of reaction. As a result, the people of Pakistan were thrown down once more into the black abyss of military dictatorship.

The heritage of 1968

The dictatorship of Zia al Huq was a thousand times worse than that of Ayub Khan or Yahya Khan. Backed by American imperialism, this monstrous regime represented an appalling regression, in which ruthless dictatorship and disgusting corruption was combined with religious obscurantism and barbarism. The rich cultural life of Lahore was extinguished and fanaticism suffocated intellectual life. It was at this time that US imperialism became the real Master of Pakistan, which it dragged into its military adventure in Afghanistan. The peoples of both countries have been paying the price ever since.

Zia al Huq

Zia al Huq

The plane crash that killed military dictator General Zia was probably an assassination prepared by the CIA and elements within the ISI. The elections of 1988 led to the second government of the PPP under Benazir Bhutto. But she carried out a policy of conciliation with the ruling class and the army, which again disillusioned the working class and ended in new defeats. The policies of the "free market" adopted by the PPP leaders have led to more downsizing, privatizations, unemployment and a deepening of poverty for the masses. The experiment in "democracy" ended inevitably in the dictatorship of Musharraf.

Pakistan has been reduced to a desperate position. Its economy, despite its enormous potential, has been ruined. The country's finances are bankrupt and it is on the verge of default. There is mass unemployment and poverty. The counter-revolutionary policies of US imperialism aided and abetted by the corrupt and degenerate Pakistan ruling class have conspired to produce the rise of fundamentalism and black reaction. The symptoms of barbarism are present and threaten to engulf society.

The horrors that threaten the people of Pakistan were shown by the brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007. This was intended to halt the mass movement that was stimulated by the return of the leader of the PPP. The masses were looking to the PPP for a way out of the crisis, for a change in the miserable conditions of their lives, for roti, kupra aur makan (bread, clothing and shelter). The reactionaries, and the imperialists who stand behind them, will stop at nothing to destroy the movement of the workers and peasants.

The present leaders of the PPP would prefer to forget the mass revolutionary struggles of the workers and peasants of Pakistan in 1968-9, although it was the workers and peasants and their revolutionary struggle which created the PPP and propelled it to power. They have forgotten everything and learned nothing. They have turned their backs on the socialist traditions of the PPP. They act as if the PPP's founding Manifesto never existed. They are trying to administer capitalism in a situation where the global crisis of capitalism renders this impossible. As a result, they will be compelled to carry out deep cuts in living standards. This will create the conditions for a new defeat of the PPP and the return of the right wing. Under these circumstances an explosion of the masses and a new 1968 is entirely possible in the next period.

The American philosopher George Santayana wrote: "He who does not learn from history will be condemned to repeat it." My comrade and teacher, the late Ted Grant, was very fond of this quotation. Today it is more necessary than ever that we study history, especially the history of revolutions. The Pakistan Revolution of 1968-9 was one of the greatest revolutionary movements of the 20th century. It is rich in lessons and Lal Khan's book ‘Pakistan's Other Story' is an outstanding summing-up of these lessons. It deserves the most careful study by every revolutionary.

Today the traditions of 1968-69 are upheld by the Marxist tendency, Jeddojuhd (The Struggle). Beginning as a small group of exiled revolutionaries in 1980 in the Netherlands, The Struggle has grown in strength and influence, especially in the last ten years, when it has established itself as the only genuinely revolutionary tendency in Pakistan with a mass base. Under the leadership of Lal Khan, who I am proud to call my comrade and friend, The Struggle has maintained a firm stand on revolutionary principles, waging an implacable struggle against both ultra-left sectarianism and unprincipled opportunism.

There are only two possibilities before the people of Pakistan: socialism or barbarism. The Struggle, in collaboration with the International Marxist Tendency, is fighting for socialism, in Pakistan and the whole Subcontinent and on a world scale. The best way to pay tribute to those courageous workers and peasants who fought for socialism in 1968-9 is to continue their struggle and carry it to a victorious conclusion. We pledge ourselves to this end.

London, October 20, 2008.


  Contents 2. A Revolutionary Epoch >>


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