Writing on the Paris Commune in 1871, Karl Marx noted that, ‘in every revolution there intrude, at the side of its true agents, men of different stamp; some… [are] mere brawlers who, by dint of repeating year after year the same set of stereotyped declarations against the government of the day, have sneaked into the reputation of revolutionists of the first water… As far as their power went, they hampered the real action of the working class, exactly as men of that sort have hampered the full development of every previous revolution. They are an unavoidable evil: with time they are shaken off’. Despite the differences of time, place, and context, not least of which is the simple fact that Pakistan is not experiencing anything even remotely similar to what might reasonably be called a ‘revolution’, Marx might as well have been describing men like Tahir-ul-Qadri and his allies. Over the course of the past two decades, these individuals have repeatedly made noises about revolution while engaging in some of the most undemocratic, reactionary, and counterproductive forms of political chicanery in Pakistan.

On 31st May 2014, Qadri and the leadership of the PML-Q released a joint statement in which they claimed there was a need for, ‘all patriotic political forces and segments [to] agree on a broader revolutionary agenda and wage joint struggle for establishment of transparent and participatory democracy in Pakistan in the real sense’. Following from this, the PAT and the PML-Q agreed to build an alliance against the PML-N government, inviting General Musharraf’s APML and Imran Khan’s PTI to join them in their campaign. Since his return to Lahore, reports have now emerged that Qadri has decided to postpone the creation of this political grouping, arguing instead that his principle aim has always been to overthrow the government, rather than engage in vague alliance-making.

While we can only speculate on the reasons behind Qadri’s sudden change of heart with regards to his erstwhile allies, it is easier to expose his claims of ‘revolution’ for the hollow untruths that they are. Indeed, the very prospect of these characters heading some kind of popular revolution is laughable. The reality is that throughout his political career, Tahir-ul-Qadri has been one of the staunchest cheerleaders for authoritarian rule. In 1999, as part of the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) that had been formed to oppose the then PML-N government, he was quick to endorse the Musharraf coup and continued to do so long after the other parties in the GDA chose to start opposing Musharraf’s dictatorship. When Qadri fell out with Musharraf in 2004, it reportedly had nothing to do with any principled opposition to dictatorship or even the government’s policies. Instead, Qadri essentially left for Canada in a fit of pique, angry that Musharraf had overlooked him and his party when the former set about erecting a civilian façade for his regime with the help of the PML-Q.

Since his return to Pakistani politics last year, when he led a thoroughly pointless Long March aimed at subverting the electoral process, Qadri has repeatedly demonstrated that his favored form of political activism and mobilization is one that, for all its invocations of ‘revolution’ and ‘democracy’, essentially serves little purpose other than to weaken and topple democratically elected governments. What makes this worse is the fact that there are no big ideas behind these machinations; the revolution promised by Qadri offers nothing beyond vague platitudes and hollow rhetoric. While the PML-N and Pakistan’s other parties deserve the criticism they receive and more, it is not at all clear that Qadri and his ilk, including the PTI and the PML-Q, offer a meaningful or even desirable alternative.

The French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions brought about fundamental transformations in their societies. Explicitly aimed at smashing elite power and privilege, and engineered through the mobilization of mass support for more democratic and equal societies, these revolutions were powered by ideologies that painted vivid and compelling pictures of what society could become. While it is possible to argue over the extent to which these revolutions were able to achieve their stated aims in the long run, it cannot be denied that they were committed towards achieving a vision of society that marked a tremendous advancement over the status quo.

By contrast, what exactly do Qadri and his allies offer? It beggars belief that Qadri can promise to uphold democracy while simultaneously doing all in his power to undermine Pakistan’s democratic institutions and call for military intervention in all but name. The claim that he and his allies can end corruption is preposterous; even a cursory look at the PML-Q’s record in government demonstrates this. On questions of economic and social justice, Tahir-ul-Qadri does little more than offer banal clichés, promising everything under the sun in an attempt to rally popular support for his ‘cause’. When it comes to asking the questions that really matter, about the skewed balance of power between the military and the civilian government, the predatory and savage nature of Pakistan’s capitalist economy, and the perpetuation of exclusionary political structures aimed at reinforcing elite power, Qadri and his allies are silent. Ultimately, Qadri stands for nothing other than himself, willing to align with anyone, say anything, and do everything that allows him to achieve his political objectives. There are no great principles or ideologies at work here, just naked opportunism.

In The German Ideology, Marx argued that, ‘revolution is necessary… not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew’. Given the oligarchic nature of political power, civilian and military, in Pakistan, the extreme inequality engendered by its economic system, and the manifest disinterest displayed by the governing elite with regards to enacting any kind of meaningful reform aimed at ameliorating the lives of the majority of Pakistanis who continue to lead lives shaped by poverty and deprivation, revolution may prove to be the only way to fundamentally transform the country in a way that makes it more progressive, participatory, and egalitarian. However, absent a clear and credible commitment towards these aims, and without the mobilization of the oppressed and the marginalized, united in a common struggle not only against the sitting government but also against the broader system of exploitation and subjugation that exists in Pakistan, calls for revolution are little more than empty sloganeering; the cynical redeployment of hackneyed phrases and rhetoric to justify the same old reactionary politics.

Charlatans and frauds like Tahir-ul-Qadri who invoke the language of revolution to advance their own petty, parochial political agendas are worthy of nothing but our complete and utter contempt, as are their barren ideas, bereft of even an iota of radical or progressive potential. They will rightly be consigned to the trash heap of history.

 The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.