When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told the nation the other day that the problem of beggars in the country called for a solution, it was one more opportunity for many of us to remind ourselves of what socialism was --- or is --- all about. Of course, there will be all those people around you to inform you of the 'demise' of socialism with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. But that would be a bad explanation. Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union collapsed not because socialism had lost its life force but because Gorbachev made a mess of things. He went for reforms in a chaotic manner. For him, reforms meant a simultaneous working of glasnost and perestroika. In the end, he achieved neither. The collateral damage was the disappearance of the state that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had built. Gorbachev's failure spawned such nonsense as Boris Yeltsin and such robber barons as Boris Berezovsky. Suddenly it was a whole band of brigands running riot in the old country.
For Bangladesh, socialism died the day the country decided that it needed the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to help it reach its target of developing itself. That was the moment when capitalism sneaked into the country and not even a committed socialist like Tajuddin Ahmad was able to do anything about it. In his early days as finance minister, he would not deign to talk to the World Bank. Indeed, when at a conference in Delhi only weeks after Bangladesh's liberation Robert McNamara wished to have a conversation with the man who had led the war for independence as prime minister in 1971, Tajuddin Ahmad spurned him. He knew, as we know now, that nations do not rise to the heights of economic happiness through dependence on global donor institutions. And yet the irony for all of us is that the very same Tajuddin Ahmad was compelled by circumstances in 1974 to call on McNamara in Washington. It must have been the Bangladesh leader's saddest moment. Only days later, he left government. And he left because Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in a terse note, asked him to.
The truth for everyone in this country is that Tajuddin's resignation led not just to an end to Bangladesh's fledgling socialist experiment. It brought together a cabal determined to undermine the government. The job was done through Bangabandhu's assassination and, less than three months later, Tajuddin's own murder in company with his comrades in prison. The pity is not that capitalism went up by leaps and bounds in the country in the years after August-November 1975. Neither is it the fact that the Awami League was unable to give us a socialistic base of existence, for the Awami League had always been middle class in its approach to politics. You could say that Tajuddin attempted, in his limited and constrained way, to steer it toward left-wing politics. Obviously he did not succeed. That, and more, is the pity. And the more comes in the realization that in all these four decades since the collapse of constitutional government in 1975 and the steady encroachment of communal politics and grasping capitalism in the national body politic, the Left has been grossly unable to make a mark on politics. The Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), the Workers Party, the various factions of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, the Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal, the Muzaffar-led National Awami Party --- none of these political parties have been able to transform themselves into effective vehicles of democratic politics. Their appetite for mass welfare has gone missing and they have mutated largely into ineffectual single individual shows. In contrast, the political Right, in its many shrewd and often crude ways, has made dents in national politics that have only pushed the country into the hands of forces which have taken perverse delight in creating an exploitative society in the country.
Capitalism is always a menace, especially in countries where the few hold the keys to prosperity. In Bangladesh, what has been passing for capitalism is hardly anything short of a concerted campaign to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. It is a reality which hits you in the face when you see garments workers marching on the streets to ask for their legitimate wages and festival bonuses. The faces of poverty, in the person of the beggars the prime minister speaks of, pursue you as you emerge from an elitist restaurant after a hearty meal and yet you do not feel the shame which is flung your way from those emaciated faces. The degree to which social injustice has penetrated the national soul and has passed into the crevices of life is a sight you cannot miss when you have private schools and colleges and universities brimming over with students whose parents must cough up nearly all they have in securing an education for their children. The accusing finger does not point at the parents. Far from it. It points at the institutions, for these institutions have declined into being money-spinning industries. You have the most recent instance, a glaring one, of agitated parents erupting in loud, fierce protests before Willes Little Flower School over the school authorities' sudden, surreptitious move to enhance tuition fees for their students.
The problem with capitalism anywhere is its unbridled greed. You see that greed at work as you travel through Bangladesh. All along the highway, on those agricultural lands, are marks of the predatory intentions of our nouveau riche. And that is what capitalism ends up giving us, a class of nouveau riche to whom nothing but crass affluence matters. On those fields which give you rice and jute, endless rows of signboards seduce you to be part of a forthcoming
enjoyment of fresh new urban squalor in a rapidly receding pastoral clime. When you have poverty-stricken primary school teachers spending days on the pavements of the nation's capital asking for fair, honourable salaries, you understand yet once again why socialism needs to come back in our lives. When you observe the agitation by teachers of the public universities for due recognition to be given to them in the national pay scale, you know afresh of the damage our flirtation with capitalism has done to the country. Values have been cast to the elements.
Socialism is what makes the state care about its citizens. It does that in very many ways. Here's how. It initiates drastic land reforms and ensures that all citizens have a right to land. It guarantees a working of agrarian principles through cooperatives all over the country. It promotes free education for children, which education takes into account the national goal of bringing up a generation imbued with patriotism based on the idealistic. It aims at building a welfare state for all. It gives people a free health care system. It ensures that the state belongs to every citizen, that every citizen is entitled to an equitable distribution of resources in the land. A socialist state stops old men and old women from seeking alms on the streets and before homes, by letting them know that it cares for them and for everyone else.
Socialism cares about the country. Capitalism serves the individual. When socialism falls or is murdered, it is the robber barons and the neo-feudals who take over. Let your eyes rove all across eastern Europe, whose once socialist states are today trapped in the chaos and the corruption traditionally attendant on capitalism. Observe the economic decadence into which Greece has been pushed by capitalism.
Think of Cuba, think of all that it has achieved in the face of all odds. Fidel Castro is one socialist who has not failed. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela had his heart in the right place when he decided that the poor were the priority.
Think of what Bangladesh could have been, can yet be, with socialism as its ideological underpinning. If only the CPB, the Workers Party, the many JSDs, the BSD could revive the old ideals they once were keen on transforming into a way of life in this country!
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer. Email: [email protected]