Weeks ago, the university students appeared at the city squares of Pakistan to raise their concerns. Clad in red, they were chanting in rhythmic notes the chunks from the poems of rebel poets whose poetry disseminates the message of revolution.

The posture of the students amazed many. Some called them socialists, while others termed them liberals.

Many ask whose agenda they are on. The important point is whether they are on some agenda or they are ideologically motivated ones, they have managed to resuscitate the debate symbolizing red colour.

But there is a confusion as to what these students are exhibiting – are they liberals, communists or socialists? Let us strive to clear the dust gathered around the thought being propounded by the students.

Simply put, there is a need to clarify the terms like liberalism, communism and socialism to reach reality.

Liberalism is a philosophy which promotes endeavours to remove obstacles in the way of individuals’ liberty. The obstacles are poverty, ignorance, disease and social discrimination, which impede an individual’s will to live freely. In so doing, liberalism may remain within the ambit of a capitalist polity having a free competitive market.

Communism commands disbanding the capitalist structure, which produces unevenness in society. In contrast, socialism does not dismantle the existing structure. It readily adjusts itself under already present political format – it could also be a capital set-up – seeking to liberate the proletariats from the totalitarian policies of the ruling class. Thus, socialism does not necessarily endorse collision with capitalism. That is why political parties of Pakistan have been nurturing socialist agenda speaking for the rights of labour-class.

Let us now travel down to the history-lane to ascertain reality.

The seeds of socialism can be traced even before the partition of the sub-continent. The ideology sneaked into the region along with ‘Red Revolution’ in Russia. ‘Peshawar Conspiracy Cases’ that befell between 1922-27 and the ‘Kanpur Bolshevik Case’ of May 1924 provide a peep into the efforts to bring socialism in revolt to the British imperialism.

After Pakistan came into being, Pakistan Socialist Party (PSP) could not create ripples in the face of conservative parties which had just supported the creation of Pakistan on the basis of religion.

The Communist Party, in contrast, was able to win over the farmers and the labourers as it participated actively in labour strikes and language protests in the early 1950s. In 1954, it formed the government with the backing of Awami Party in East Pakistan. Soon in the wake of clashes between police and the Communist Party, Sikandar Mirza imposed the first martial law on 7 October 1958.

During the Ayub era, the dissenting voices were considerably curbed. But following the Tashkent Declaration, the atmosphere in Pakistan turned antagonistic to President Ayub. Socialist elements again woke up from their snooze. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was shrewd enough to capture the direction of the veering winds, and thus founded Pakistan Peoples Party whose manifesto, “Islam is our religion, democracy is our politics, socialism is our economy, and power lies with the people”, was written by a Bengali communist, J.A. Rahim.

The PPP’s massive land reforms, nationalization campaign and efforts to abolish feudalism pleased the working class, which joined the party in flocks.

Despite having similar ideologies, the PPP could not get close to the ‘Red Shirts’ movement of Abdul Ghaffar Khan because of his looking at Pakistan through the prism of Afghanistan.

In General Zia’s epoch, the left-wing activists formed a ‘Struggle Group’ to resist the repression of the military government. The group, soon, started publishing a magazine, ‘Jidd-o-Jehed’, which carried the revolutionary poems of Habib Jalib, Ahmad Fraz and Faiz Ahmad Faiz. In 1984, the poem, ‘Main Baghi Hun’ written by Khalid Javed Jan became a symbol of struggle against the dictatorial reign of General Zia.

On the heels of 9/11 debacle and Pakistan’s joining as the front line ally of the US, the socialist strain made its presence felt from the art and cultural platforms through theatres, peace conferences, songs and literature. Literary festivals at Karachi Arts Council and Alhamra Hall Lahore apprised the people of the work of poets and writers who spur the masses for social reforms away from the shackles of fascism.

The recent rise of students’ activities is not an outcome of some abrupt outpouring; rather, the continuation of a socialist thought that has been appearing in every political phase of Pakistan.

But where does the problem lie? Why does these students’ ideology not have acceptance in our society?

The answer is that there has always been the idea of socialism being anti-religion; whereas it is to be understood that socialism may make an adjustment with already existing frameworks.

Another reason for not having acceptability is the culture of free mixing of both genders in the demonstrations. The optics of girls and boys shouting revolution being in proximity for many is outrageous in Pakistan, which still is dominated by conservatives.

Last but not least, in rising for the rights of the working class, the current movement’s biggest flaw may be to get aligned with the organizations having an inordinate anti-army stance. Lessons could be learnt from the postures of the nascent PPP in the 1970s which distanced itself from the National Awami Party’s pro-Afghan manoeuvrings. Then it also raised the slogan of ‘Islamic Socialism’ to create its acceptability in an otherwise conservative society.

If these issues are properly dealt with, the current movement may produce its inlets in Pakistan’s socio-political milieu, or else, it is likely to meet the same fate as the efforts in the past have faced.