A short oral history of the growth of anarchist ideas in Bangladesh and a call for solidarity and linking up across borders.
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The Bangladesh anarchist workers’ movement is less than five years old, born out of the ashes of failed Marxism-Leninism. The author of this article recalls the antecedent period in Bangladesh history where Marxism-Leninism held hegemony. This was a time of deep faith and affection for the thought of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and Trotsky.
As far as the author understands, none in the movement knew of anarchism as a political ideology and would not know of it until decades later. We revered the hanging portraits of Marxist leaders, we studied their books, and we integrated discussion of their ideas into our daily lives. Our life’s pursuit was to become socialist revolutionaries.
We were so fervent in our beliefs of a better world that we sacrificed clothing for books, food for paper. The socialist movement was already active in Bangladesh when my generation moved from studying socialism to helping develop a mass socialist movement.
In Dhaka, the capital, we helped in the dissemination of pro-Soviet papers, we joined student organizations, and we participated in interviews. We explained socialism to the people, to workers, from the factories to the fields. Our path was guided by science and freedom of expression, and we spread our ideas without imposing on others.
But we faced public rejection and many dangers. When speaking in Muslim-dominated areas, many condemned us as atheists and unrighteous. And where we were not simply denounced, many of us were murdered. Our struggle has been the history of bloodshed. We have lost many of our companions. And although the oppressive apparatuses tortured and killed us, we proceeded ahead with the dream of revolution and continued to take those steps to make the revolution.
I had the first hand experience of seeing our work between the 1970s and 1980s increase the number of socialist organizations and supporters in cities and villages. These bodies were intent to fight against the tyranny of oppression, against the national military dictatorship and against imperialism. As early as 1980 we were able to hear about the Soviet Union and China’s authoritarian nature and their contradictions.
We did not believe this was the truth, that “scientific” socialism could be false. Rather, we believed this was imperialist and CIA propaganda. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and the breaking of Lenin’s statue greatly shocked us all. Together with the eastern bloc, the socialist countries of the world changed. They moved away from having even a veneer of socialism and openly embraced a capitalist restructuralization. This produced a tremendous shock in the thought of our movement.
We re-read Marxism over and over. We re-studied its fundamentals. But none of this helped us to better understand the failure of “socialism.” We did, however, take an unprecedented interest in revolutionaries who criticized Marxism-Leninism, people whom we had never heard of. This led us to read the works of many anarchists, such as Mikhail Bakunin, William Godwin, PJ Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Errico Malatesta, Alexander Berkman, Max Stirner, Élisée Reclus, and Noam Chomsky.
Their works are not in print form, nor are they in Bengali (something we are in the process of doing, hopefully with the help of comrades from abroad). So our medium of learning has been through reading anarchist texts through the internet in foreign languages. By 2012, many of us former Marxists acquired a clear idea of anarcho-syndicalism from our continuous internet studies.
Because I myself have been involved in tea workers’ struggles since 2000, it was among tea workers and close, political friends that we first introduced anarcho-syndicalist practices through the development of The Tea Workers’ Council. This council did not bear the name of any specific doctrine or party.
Because old, authoritarian ways persisted, a clear articulation of anarchism and a regrouping along anarchist principles was necessary. As a result, on 1 May 2014, many militants formed a twenty three-member committee of those committed to the principles of anarcho-syndicalism.
This committee has fostered the development of anarcho-syndicalist organizations in across fifty-two places in Bangladesh today. Presently, we are receiving help from the Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation of Australia to improve our organization. With their help, we are also trying to become members of the IWA-AIT.
We want to work together with everyone, and we seek solidarity from sister and brother comrades all over the world today.
AKM Shihab (basfsylhey [at] gmail.com)