As I See It Column
March 3rd, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
Faiz Ahmed passed away quietly. He lived a long and an eventful life. In a visible public life he remained above controversy and at the same time earned bipartisan respect in a highly partisan society. Among the news that came out after his death in the newspapers, there was one that made me think about the wisdom of the man. This was about the advice he had given his niece when he was alive. He asked her to keep a copy of the Communist Manifesto with her all the time.
Faiz Ahmed was himself a communist all his life. Therefore, it is understandable that he had the faith in the book that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote 164 years ago, that had taken the world by storm and had shaken the foundations of the capitalist world. In the 48 pages, the two had scribed the text book of communist revolution by which the poor and the downtrodden could overthrow their age-old historical bondage to the rich. His call to the working class, the proletarians was to unite and challenge the bourgeoisie “for they have nothing to lose but their chains” and a “world to win” if they succeeded.
In the post Cold War world, communism that had held up such high hopes for the proletariat died an unsung and innocuous death. The lures of riches that capitalism offered and showcased by the West found converts among the communist countries China and the former Soviet Union that had held such promises for the people in the developing countries. The Chinese leader Deng Xiao Ping was the first Communist leader to open China to capitalism. He had said in 1979 that China was adopting socialism with Chinese characteristics as a result of which all Chinese would become rich but some earlier while others later.
Since adopting socialism with Chinese characteristics, the fate and destiny of China has changed dramatically. Today China is the second most powerful economy after the USA. However, how much has Deng Xiao Ping’s promise that all Chinese would become rich has been realized is a matter of opinion. Nevertheless, China fabulous economic development has left some provinces very well developed while some are still very poor. Among China’s 1.6 billion people, there still exists abject poverty among a large section of the country’s population.
Nevertheless, China’s opting for a mixture of socialism with open market economy was a body blow on the fundamentals of communism. The end of Soviet Union a decade later was an equally fatal blow to the hopes of the proletariat worldwide to overthrow the bourgeoisie because the communist party there also compromised with the bourgeoisie and sacrificed Marx’s promise to the proletariat that the Communist party would help them lose their chains to take their destiny in their hands. The changes towards the market economy in China and the former Soviet Union ended the hopes of the proletariat round the world of getting rid of their chains.
Whether the average Chinese and Russian has benefitted by making fundamental compromises with the teachings of Karl Marx is debatable. Nevertheless, the demise of communism has not been good for the poor in the developing countries like Bangladesh. With the demise, the Chinese and the Soviets who were sponsors of the local communist parties stopped their sponsorship with negative impact on the usefulness of these parties in Bangladesh. The parties have not withered away; they have simply become impotent. Their ineffectiveness removed for the proletariat, the poor and impoverished the instrument through which they could hope to achieve their needs and demands. Although socialism has been enshrined in our constitution, it is no more than lip service that the state gives to it. With international communism dead and buried rendering their supporters in the country weak and in disarray, there is no pressure on the government to be serious about socialism.
A host of new institutions, concepts, etc have emerged since the demise of communism as hopes for the poor not to lament. Globalization has been one such hope. In Bangladesh, the government and the NGOs have also appeared on the scene as saviors of the poor. Programmes such as those related to alleviation of poverty have been talked about in a huge scale. Each successive government of the country has claimed credit for reducing the number of people below the poverty line. These claims notwithstanding, we see below the surface seething discontent in the society. The symptoms are all around us but we just ignore them. We see the expansive life style of the novae riche in the country with fabulous wealth made mainly at the expense of the country’s success in export of RMG and a few other items to complement the RMG sector.
Yet the predicament of the working class, the proletariat of the forgotten era, is visible all around us. Frequently, they take law into their own hands. They destroy factories but in the end, without even the right of a trade union, they have to return to their enslavement and accept what is dished to them by the new era bourgeoisie with the Government always by their side. In a largely agricultural country, the predicament of the agricultural workers is no better than the workers at the factories. While technology has helped massively in enhancing production bringing Bangladesh, despite its unbelievably humungous population, close to self sufficiency in food production, agricultural workers are not getting even a pittance of their work. With the government turning a blind eye, agricultural land and is being devoured by the emergent bourgeoisie for their “summer homes” and real estate development. The bourgeoisie never had such a tension free time as they have in Bangladesh today. One needs to just contemplate these rich people of Bangladesh existing when communism was a force in society and with the former Soviet Union and China as active sponsors of the local communist parties. Surely, the rich would have, for their own survival, given much more to those who have made them fabulously rich.
It is not the Government or the private sector that is helping Bangladesh avoid a serious conflict between the poor and the rich. It is again the poor that is doing the job although sadly they are hardly aware of it and neither the Government or the rich of the country giving them any credit for it. The cushion of a conflict between the rich and the poor is coming from the US12 billion a year that the poor people send to the country by literally putting their lives on the line. These poor people receive almost no help from the Government or the manpower agents except obstacles in their effort to go abroad for employment. There is a curious parallel here why England did not face a proletariat revolution as Marx had predicted. England was saved by the wealth repatriated from the colonies such as India with which it kept its working class happy. In Bangladesh, a class conflict has been kept at bay, albeit temporarily, partly due to the remittance that reaches the poor of the country and partly because the communist parties have been rendered impotent.
Nevertheless, the gap in Bangladesh between the rich and the poor is widening with threatening prospects. A re-emergence of the Communist Manifesto could at least help increase awareness among the rich that the country could continue to treat its proletariat, its working class and the poor with such disdain only by inviting anarchy with cataclysmic consequences. Faiz Ahmed may have seen that catastrophe in his wisdom and that must have been the reason for his advice to his niece.
The writer is a retired career diplomat and former Ambassador to Japan.