‘SOCIAL CHANGE is possible if you got off your backside and did something’

Published: June 2, 2009 - 12:56 Updated: July 1, 2015 - 16:42

Face to Face: Tariq Ali
Mehru Jaffer Vienna 

It was perhaps a glimpse of what his streetfighting years may have been like when scholar, academic, activist and author, Tariq Ali, 65, insists that the suppression of the people of Kashmir by the army is 'brutal'. Ali repeats himself when Saurabh Kumar, Indian ambassador in Austria, intervenes in a question and answer session after a talk on 'Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power' at Vienna's Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue. In the face of objections raised by some in the audience, Ali continues to echo that the treatment of Muslim minorities in India is a 'disgrace'.

Ali's latest book of the same name was released last year where he traces the history of Pakistan and its 60-year-old relationship with the US which he calls 'tormented'. However, to say that Pakistan presents the biggest threat to world peace is nonsense, says Tariq Ali. He calls it propaganda and pressure on the Pakistani military to do as it is told by the US. It is also foolish to say that Pakistan is on the verge of collapse.

"It isn't, unless the US does something very serious, like sending an occupation force into parts of the Northwest Frontier Province. That will split the Pakistani military and soldiers will fight with each other then. This is obvious and not a secret either. Experts like Stephen Cohen who know the Pakistani military say to the US:  don't do it, don't do it".

Ali dismisses fears that jihadi groups will capture the nuclear facility in Pakistan. "Look... this is so crazy. It is so stupid and designed to frighten people in Pakistan and also citizens of the US. This is the telling of stories to frighten children at home and to say why the Americans are there.

Argues Ali: "The Pakistani military is half-a-million strong. None of the jihadi groups can match this. We know that the nuclear facility is the most heavily guarded facility in Pakistan as it is in every nuclear State. We know that American nuclear experts have been into the facility and further strengthened the security. So what is this joke about jihadis capturing the nuclear facility? This is like someone saying that born again Christian groups in the US are about to capture missiles from the nuclear facility there...to target whom I don't know - maybe abortion clinics? People would laugh if someone said this. And, rightly so".

Ali points out that the Taliban today is not the same as the one in power in Afghanistan. It is a neo-Taliban now that has spread its message deep into the Pashtu tribe and has essentially become the voice of a Pashtun national movement for independence.

He regrets the decision of late Benazir Bhutto to hand over her political party to her family in a will. "This is appalling in the 21st century. But she did it and that is the reason that this guy Asif Zardari, who the US thinks is a pliable instrument, is the president of Pakistan. He does not have an idea in his head. The real problem of Pakistan is economic and political."

In an exclusive conversation with Hardnews, Tariq Ali continues to talk on a range of topics - from 'neo-liberal theology' to Latin America. 

Your thoughts on the notion of revolution today...

There is no notion of revolution today. No one thinks or talks about it. The changes in Latin America have come about by a democratic electoral means. This does not mean that there will not be a revolution - but where and when remains an open question. Certainly, the conditions are there and if any country that needs a social revolution, then it is India and Pakistan. But the forces that could bring it about are sadly lacking. And, the same can be said about many other parts of the world. 

Radical ideas today...

Radical ideas today tend to be more anarchist in the best sense of the word, rather than following Marxism, Leninism or Trotskyism. Its not that these groups have totally disappeared but what attracts the youth is a different form of political organisation and political ideology. And, this is something that one has to take on board as one can't just carry on repeating oneself endlessly like a gramophone. And, I think the new type of progressive groups that are emerging and trying to unite the Left in different parts of the world understand this fact. 

Liberal theology, neo liberalism...

Theology is the right word because this is the only thing you can do. The only right thing to do was to create an ultra rich class, and below it, a rich class. As far as the poor are concerned, it does not matter and they are left to pick up the crumbs. This is neo liberalism as defined by the Washington Consensus and it has now imploded. The economic crisis which people are writing about endlessly is not brought about by one accident or two mistakes. It is essentially a crisis of the system.

Curiously enough, Marx predicts this in volume three of Capital. The use of fictive capital to make a system work is bound to implode. And, the joy with which some in South Asia, especially, the Indian ruling elite and young class of yuppie Indians, greeted this is like they have discovered a new religion.

Well, it is all gone and people, including in the US, and certainly in Europe, are thinking about some ways to change this. There is talk of a public utility capitalism that is social democracy. There is talk of re-industrialisation. There is even talk of social forms of social planning. These are things we were told are barred forever. Twenty years ago if these questions were raised people said, are you a dinosaur? But now it seems dinosaurs are back in fashion.

Marxism is on the bestseller list in Germany. Newsweek is talking about socialism and 37 per cent of American kids under 30 in a recent opinion poll declared that they are sympathetic to socialism.

I think because of the economic crisis the debate will deepen and there will be a reopening of historical discussions. This big idea that you live just for today and nothing else matters, I think, will die a death. It will take time but it will die a death. 

Marxist ideas today...

The magazine I have been associated with for a long time, the New Left Review, will be 50 years old in 2010 and it is still going strong. We discuss the state of the world, the state of the world economy, strong defence of Marxist historians and we are going from strength to strength. The magazine is now produced in Spanish and annual editions of it appear in several languages. The website of each issue attracts at least quarter of a million people if not more. There is a need for these ideas, a demand for them, too. The big question is the linking of these theoretical ideas to a concrete practice. That is where the problem comes. Its not that these ideas are not around and the re emergence of the crisis in capitalism is raising a lot of issues. 

How new are the New Left ideas?

Well, you know, I mean a name is a name. Some magazines are called a name and they move on but quite a lot of ideas in the New Left are new and old. There is a continuity from the past. We have never broken with that continuity.

The state of the power of the people...

It depends on what continent you are in. In South America, it is very strong. Without the power of the people, you would not have these changes. These changes have only come about because people from below have been up in arms. In Europe, it is very uneven. In the US, there is no big movement from below despite the crisis. We shall see what happens in France that remains the most unpredictable country in the world.

India is one of the two large Asian countries. There you still have social movements like the Naxalites but they are no longer what they used to be. In fact, they are even stronger in some areas where they really defend the poorer section of strata against their oppressors. And, it has been impossible for the Indian State to crush them at the moment. There are these movements that exist, and unless and until we take them seriously and their demands are dealt with, they will continue to grow. 

Activists today...

I think people are doing what they should be doing and the examples you have from South America are very positive where you have the emergence of big social movements. There is social and political change with the election of leaders like Chavez, Morales and Correa. The isolation of Cuba is broken and the different way forward is filled with hope on that continent, in particular. But this hasn't spread to Asia or Europe. That is the problem. If you want to make a comparison, the movements of the 1960s and 70s were universal, a global phenomenon, the big radical wave that came and then receded. Whereas, what is happening now is not like that but more on a regional continental scale as in South America.

The situation in Europe is not good at all and the situation in Asia is uneven... the most interesting thing that happened in recent years is the overthrow of the monarchy in Nepal and that is pretty positive.Obviously, activists are constrained in the world they live in as to what they can do and what they cannot. 

On participatory democracy...

I have never been a great believer in it as it is a lot of talk really. I mean I am not opposed to it on principle but it is essentially (a concept) in the sky really.


Obama - on the economy - is carrying out similar policies as Bush. All his advisors are Wall Street conservatives whose policies and politics and approach helped to create the economic crisis.

People that Obama should have brought in, economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz are kept at a distance from the White House. That is not good.

In terms of the wars Obama has escalated, especially the war in Afghanistan: his policies are meant to destabilise Pakistan. I can't point out at the moment anything useful that he has done so far. Obviously, closing down Guantanamo is very big. It is good that is being done, but in terms of big shifts at home in domestic and foreign policy, so far, there is no indication.


Cuba is less isolated then it ever was. It is recognised by most of South America. It produces doctors and teachers in the shape of human capital. Cuban doctors are helping Africa and Latin America. Cuba has got a lot to be proud of. As to whether Obama will lift the sanctions against Cuba, I don't know. I think the time to have done it was when the Soviet Union collapsed. Now, the Cubans have other supporters in Latin America, China and even the Russians are making overtures. So, the Cubans at the moment are in quite a strong position. 


It is crazy that this religion has become a bugbear. It is ironic that India in the 1950s and 60s as a neutral country had enormous respect in the Middle East. In 1956, when Israel, France and Britain attacked Nasser's Egypt, Pakistan supported that attack more or less. Nehru opposed it very strongly and children in the Arab world were named Jawaharlal Nehru. This name became a popular name in the Arab world. Look at India today... in bed with the Americans, in bed with Israel, and inviting Israeli generals to Kashmir to give India counter-insurgency advice. It is a pretty dismal picture. What unites India and Israel is their hostility to Islam, hostility to the people they are oppressing - the Palestinians and Kashmiris.

So Islam has got caught up in other broader struggles that are taking place. It has to be stressed that Islam remains what it has always been - a religion of hundreds of millions of people all over the world and lots of them have no links with each other. The notion that Islam is monolithic and every Muslim is the same is what crude Americans come up with. This is a complete joke. There are extremist groups in Islam but it is the same for Buddhism. Extreme Rightwing Buddhist monks initially triggered off the attacks on Tamils in Sri Lanka. You have similar developments among born-again Christian groups in the US and we all know what the Israelis are doing. These are all forms of fundamentalism. You can't just denounce the fundamentalism within Islam alone. The biggest fundamentalists are imperial fundamentalists for they believe that they are right and everyone else is wrong.  

Muslim League...?

What can one say about the Muslim League. There is nothing to say about it.

China's economic surge...?

China's economic surge is China's shift to capitalism. China today is a capitalist State. It functions like that. It has been a very successful capitalist State and it is creating a vast underclass and there will be some social upheavals in the country. There have already been factory occupations; there have been peasant uprisings; but these have remained largely localised. Whether anything will ever erupt on a national scale remains to be seen. The success of Chinese capitalism has certainly altered the world market and shifted the centre of the world economy eastwards. That is, of course, not unimportant.

China and Japan are the two largest creditors of the US. The US is in debt to them and so we will see what the world looks like in the middle of this century. I will not be able to see that because I will be dead, but many others will be able to see and form a better judgement of whether the Far East is actually going to replace the West as a centre. It could well happen. I would not underestimate it.

It is sad to look around and to see the role that India is playing in the world. It has become an extremely passive, semi-reactionary State with very little independence and trying to mimic the US regionally, kowtowing to the US globally. The policy differences between the BJP and the Congress are not so great really.

Contemporary nation-state...

The contemporary nation-state is there. It is not going to disappear. There was sort of an absurd notion that globalisation was going to remove nation states. Globalisation needs nation states to push through what it needs to. One of the results of the economic crisis has been to show up the weaknesses of globalisation. The measures taken were not by the bankers. These were political policies that the bankers implemented. To scapegoat the bankers which the politicians do is essentially to try and ward off any criticism of themselves. Anglo Saxons governments supported these policies as a model for the world. This political model has now imploded. 


Nationalism is strong in some parts of the world and weak in others. But I think what is happening in South America is an attempt by Chavez to develop a regional bloc of states that talk in a single voice to the US rather than allow themselves to be divided. At the same time, there is the rise of xenophobic nationalism in countries like Austria, Italy, Denmark etc, and that is a response to the vacuum that globalisation created ideologically. Some people feel the only way to attack it is by nationalism.

Postmodern ideas...

Postmodern ideas are still around. But they are under heavy pressure. The big attack of post modernists was on history. But how can you understand the world today and the economic crisis unless you know some history? For the last 20 years, the dominant narrative was capitalist globalisation.

Today, the dominant narrative increasingly looks like finding an alternative to the collapse of the globalisation programme. History is well on its way to being revived. You can't discuss this crisis without comparing it to the crisis of 1929 and what happened in the 1930s.

And, people are beginning to realise that. The basis for post modernism was the collapse of communism, the collapse of ideological debate and discussions - that is gone. 

State of world literature, cinema...

They certainly play an important part in the formation of different cultures of the countries that produce them and the culture of the world. Take cinema for example. The dominant, highest quality of cinema is not being produced in the US or Europe today, but in Iran, Taiwan and South Korea. These are the countries that are producing some of the finest movies that have been made over the last decades. I don't want to write off everything. Obviously, some good movies are done in the US and Europe but in terms of trends it is the so-called marginal states that are producing some of the most interesting cinema.

India used to have quite a fine cinematic tradition of serious cinema. I don't talk of Bollywood. That seems to have disappeared. It is not there.

The years that made you take to the street...

I have written a couple of books of the 1960s where I give an account of that world. That was a very different world. It was a world where people believed that real social change was possible if you got off your backside and did something. People were active in attempts to change the world. That is now all gone. It is essentially the collapse of communism that made this world a sort of unipolar world with the US as totally dominant.

What more is there to say about that world? Having written about it I don't like going back to think about it. You have to do the best you can in the world in which you live. And, I have never been a great one for nostalgia and, especially, when one is talking to the younger generation who get fed up of people saying how wonderful it was in the 1960s. It was, and it wasn't, in many ways. Many good things happened but many bad things happened as well. Five million Vietnamese died then, which is not a good thing.

I think what is most important about that world is that that generation had hope and that has gone. Hope does not exist in the same way as it did then.

Regrets on having left Pakistan...

I had regrets that I left Pakistan in the first place. I did not want to leave but my parents were very insistent. But now I have no regrets. I do what I do and I can do it at any location.

Obviously, what you do at a young age determines your biography. Had I not come to Europe I would not have been such an active member of the Vietnam solidarity movement. I would probably not have gone to north Vietnam for Bertrand Russel and Jean Paul Sartre. I would not have done the things I did and who knows what I would have done instead. So I don't have any regrets.

Indeed, the experiences have generally been good even in bad times as far as my personal life and my political and cultural activities
are concerned. 

You call one of your children Chengiz ...after Chengiz Khan, the marauder?

No, no, no...Genghis is a very popular Central Asian name. It is after Chingiz Aitmatov, the great (Russian and Kyrgyz) writer.


This story is from print issue of HardNews