Issue Lal Khan

The Political Legacy of Tanvir Gondal

By Greg Oxley

Future historians of revolutionary thought and action in the Indian subcontinent will surely find it impossible to ignore the brilliant and outstanding contribution of Tanvir Gondal, known to many as Dr Lal Khan. The working class movement has produced many determined and self-sacrificing figures over the decades. Many of them have paid for their commitment to the revolutionary cause with their lives. Many of them have shown great skill in the explanation of ideas and slogans, in their ability to arouse the fighting spirit of the oppressed. Many have shown remarkable talent as organisers. But none, to my knowledge, have combined these qualities and, at the same time, proved themselves to be a profound thinker and theoretician of the cause, as much as Tanvir Gondal.

But as we know, history is written by the victors, and it will surely be that the true place in history of this man will only be fully and widely acknowledged when the classes that he defended and strove to arouse will finally overthrow imperialism and capitalism, and go on to establish a new and truly democratic society, free of oppression and exploitation, that is to say a socialist society.

Revolutionaries grow greater in accordance with the greatness of their tasks. In Western Europe, “Marxist ideas” can be somewhat easily acquired and applied to the problems of the day. And so it is that we have thousands of glib and self-sufficient “revolutionaries” here, repeating basic notions drawn from the works of the great founders of scientific socialism and convinced that they provide a very obvious and self-evident answer to contemporary social, economic and political problems. By contrast, in a country such as Pakistan – as it was in Tsarist Russia – the ideological framework and programmatic premises drawn up by these founders need to be worked on and enriched in a skillful and creative manner, so that they take into account the peculiar complexity of class relations within society. Tanvir was fully conscious of the importance and the immensity of this task, which, despite the theoretical heritage of Lenin and Trotsky in relation to the backwardness Russia, was still a largely new and unexplored field of study and analysis from a Marxist point of view. And so, as he struggled with this vital undertaking, Tanvir grew in stature, as a revolutionary thinker and theoretician, rising to a level higher than any other revolutionary theoretician of our epoch, only equalled by his mentor and inspirer, Ted Grant.

If we take, for example, the way Tanvir applied and enriched the so-called “theory of permanent revolution”, initially worked out by Parvus and Trotsky at the time of the revolution of 1905. The term “permanent revolution” figured in the works of Marx, in relation to the lessons of 1848. The basic idea put forward by Trotsky in relation to Russia, and by extension to numerous other underdeveloped countries still under imperialist domination, was that in such countries the national capitalist class was too dependent on foreign imperialism and too fearful of the emerging working class to play a revolutionary role. Therefore, the historic tasks generally associated with the bourgeois-democratic revolutions in Europe – emergence of a coherent “nation” and nation-state, democracy, land reform, complete eradication of pre-capitalist social relations, the rights and freedoms of national and cultural minorities – could only by accomplished by the coming to power of the working class, and that for this new power to survive, the revolution would have to spread to other, more developed countries. Trotsky spoke of “combined and uneven development” that is, the coexistence of ancient pre-capitalist and modern capitalist elements in society, which forms the premises for a “permanent revolution”.

And now let us look at how Tanvir was able to weave this idea into clear and understandable terms in relation to the concrete realities of Pakistan. There are many examples that could be given of his skill in this, but when I came to Pakistan in 2013, I saw an article he had written about the situation in Waziristan which made a very stark impression upon me. (Today, I only have a French translation of this text, and so in translating it back into to English, some of the original wording may be altered.) He wrote: “The people of Waziristan suffer from the worst forms of combined and uneven development. Satellite telephones came here before the installation of land lines, just as aeroplanes were here before good roads. The most advanced weapons, such as drones, carry out missile strikes on the most primitive of landscapes. Television and computers came before running water. The drug trade has created a mafia-led economy before more productive – and surely less profitable – enterprises could be established. All of this has broken the old medieval culture and traditions of the region. The fabric of society has been destroyed by the arrival of this technology, and by dirty money and the black market. Tribal loyalties, honour and ancient traditional values have become saleable goods. And yet all this modernisation has not brought the region out of its underdevelopment. Rather it has twisted and perverted the old social and economic relations.”

Greg Oxley delivering speech on the “History of Revolutions in France” in Islamabad, Pakistan. While Farhad Kayani translating for him.

This is very graphic prose which brilliantly puts flesh and blood into a reality which is all too often “summed up” in a theoretical phraseology. This particular talent of Tanvir is really one of the great hallmarks of his political writings. The theory of “permanent revolution” points to socialist revolution as the only means of sweeping away the oppressive contradictions he so admirably describes in the extract I have given here, and stand in total opposition to the artificial constructions of the so-called “theory of stages” of the Stalinist school, which seeks – and never finds – a progressive wing of the national capitalist class to lead a first stage of the revolution, and postpones the second, socialist, stage to some later date. With this treacherous “theory of stages”, this second never comes. The time is never right for the overthrow of capitalism. All through his life, Tanvir fought against this despicable theoretical trick. He saw that the interests of foreign imperialism and those of the Pakistani state and the ruling class were so completely intertwined and interdependent – economically, militarily, strategically – that they must necessarily stand together and fall together, and that the only way they would fall would be as a result of a decisive blow delivered by a revolutionary movement of the working class and the rural poor.

From the days of his youth, from the very beginnings of his political activity, Tanvir could see that the struggle at hand would mean confronting both capitalism and “Stalinism”. In his writings and speeches, he explained the circumstances which led to the overthrow of the Soviet democracy under Lenin and Trotsky and the slide towards bureaucratic and counter-revolutionary dictatorship. Whereas in many parts of the world, in years leading up to World War II and right up until the 1980s, there were enormous illusions in the USSR and the various regimes of a similar nature which had taken shape, such as in Eastern Europe and in China.

But Tanvir saw under understood the reality of these regimes and could also see the disastrous consequences of the policies pursued by their “communist” acolytes in other parts of the world, including, of course, the Indian subcontinent. The collapse and disappearance of the URSS and of almost the entire “communist” bloc dissipated many of these illusions, but the problem of their legacy in the conscience of the masses remains. Unless the phenomena of Stalinism can be explained and understood by the working people – or at least by their most conscious and politically active elements, the failure of what was understood to be the product of Marxism will continue to blunt and distort their political outlook. The struggle against Stalinism was therefore a vital and integral part of the political task to which Tanvir devoted his life. And so it must be for those who wish to pursue this task in the future.

Gerg Oxley in Pakistan with Dr Lal Khan.

The latter years of the life of this great revolutionary were marked by his conflict with an so-called “International”. The resultant break with this structure is not, within the general context of the struggle for socialism, of any notable importance. However, because it tells us something of the moral and political integrity of Tanvir, it is worth saying a few words about this episode. For many years, Tanvir was – as were many of us, including myself – a loyal and hardworking advocate of that tendency. But then, under the cover of “political differences”, the London-based leading committee organised a plot to push Tanvir aside. Why was this? It was because, as numerous operations of a similar nature show, the leadership of that tendency has a deep-rooted fear of any of their national sections which begin to sink roots among working people and within which arise a confident, autonomous leadership of revolutionaries who do not feel they need ideas to be handed down to them from self-appointed political masters abroad. The moral and political authority of Tanvir did not stand or fall on the whim of a London-based committee. It stood on his own achievements, which, incidentally, outweighed those of all the other national sections put together. The methods used in every case were always the same. They involved the creation of a secret fraction which would work to prepare the ground for the installation of subservient leaders who feel they owe their promotion to London. At the chosen moment, a campaign of vilification is launched. Tanvir was branded as a dishonest opportunist, a bureaucrat, a “nationalist” – in a word, as a traitor to the revolutionary cause.

But here we see the measure of the man who was the main target of the operation. It would have been an easy step for Tanvir to bow to pressure and to step aside. But there was much more at stake here than his personal destiny. The cynical bureaucratic methods, the flagrant lies and calumny, dragging the names and the reputations of comrades into the gutter, his would not allow the organisation he had struggled to build over decades to be subjected to such methods. He fought back, and he won. The operation backfired, and the so-called tendency deservedly lost the overwhelming majority of the membership.

Tanvir never demanded praise or recognition. He simply showed, in theory and in practice, what he was capable of. Recognition was passively earned in this way. It was not the result of intrigue. He had no need of obsequious “yes-men”, offering him blind obedience and submission. Of course, he made mistakes, errors of judgement, like we all do from time to time. But he never varied in his unshakeable revolutionary convictions, never deserted the working class, never placed his own interests above the cause he served. He was an implacable internationalist. His whole being was consumed by his task. He personified the spirit of resistance and struggle without which the prospect of revolution is inconceivable. Tanvir Gondal was a revolutionary from head to foot. So he lived and so he died.

The death of Tanvir is a blow to us all. But to those who succeed him, in Pakistan and elsewhere, his political legacy and his moral integrity will serve as an example and an inspiration. Revolutionaries in Pakistan face many difficulties. But these will only serve to sharpen their consciousness and their will to struggle. It is no accident that in the early years of the last century, the most consistent and outstanding revolutionaries of the international working class came not from Western Europe, but from the homeland of tsarist despotism and oppression.

In Pakistan and throughout the world, let us face the future with courage and determination, and go forward. Our departed comrade would ask for nothing more than this.

The article originally published in AMR Spring 2020 edition. Here we are publishing it for our readers on the 1st death anniversary of great revolutionary, Dr Lal Khan.