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WRITERS AND SOCIAL CHANGE

KHALID SOHAIL

Last week when a socialist friend of mine asked me, “What role do writers play in social change?’, I shared with him that I can answer that question from a personal as well as a philosophical point of view.

        As a writer I feel I am in search of my truth. When I discover something significant, I try to share it with others in my creative writings. When I am successful, my creations inspire my readers and help them get in touch with their own truth.

        I think other writers are also in search of their own truth and share it in their writings. When poets are creating poems or fiction writers are writing short stories, there is no way for them to know how their writings will affect others and bring any social and political changes. The more gifted and talented the writers, the more they are intuitively in touch with the dynamics of their social environments. Some writers are fortunate that a large number of people can identify and relate to their creations. There are some writers who become representatives of their generation. In Urdu literature, poets like Meer Taqi Meer, Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Faiz Ahmad Faiz and fiction writers like Saadat Hassan Minto, Quratul ain Haider and Abdullah Hussain are such examples. Similarly in English Literature poets like Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound and fiction writers like Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka became representatives of their era.

        The question arises that when Ghalib was creating his poems and Kafka was writing his stories, were they consciously trying to bring social changes or the social changes they inspired were unplanned and unpredictable. Kafka even left two of his novels for his best friend, Max Boyd to burn but Boyd published them posthumously because he felt that they were masterpieces.

        In my opinion when writers consciously write to create social changes then they become social activists. If their writings fulfill literary criteria then they can be both, writers as well as social activists, as both roles are not mutually exclusive, although difficult to balance.

        I think the worlds of creative writers and social activists are quite different. Creative writers, whether poets or novelists, playwrights or essayists, need to isolate themselves from others, to nurture their creative imagination.  Many creative personalities are shy and introverted. They need privacy and uninterrupted free time to complete their unfinished manuscripts. They need to delve deeper in their unconscious mind to give birth to their masterpieces. After writers create their poems, plays and stories they become their own first readers. Many writers have a separate room in their home or a corner in the local library, where they deliver their creations and those isolated corners become their labor rooms. The writings of creative writers can inspire social and political changes but many writers are not members of political parties as they cherish their creative freedom and do not want to follow the party line of those political parties. They want to write for the whole community and humanity rather than just one political party whether of the right or the left.

        As compared to creative writers, social and political activists are active members of social organizations and political parties and attend their meetings and participate in the political process to change the laws and social traditions. Such activists are usually extraverts and outgoing people who like to interact with groups and engage in heated dialogues and passionate debates. Many social and political activists have their favorite writers, poets and philosophers who are a source of inspiration for them.

        There were many social and political movements in history when poets, philosophers and political activists worked together as a team to bring social and political changes but their roles were well defined. It was like making a film in which writers, actors and directors have their well defined roles. In some cases a writer can also be an actor and a director but it is very rare as each role demands a certain level of expertise and it is difficult, if not impossible, for one person to be a versatile genius.

        When we study different writers we realize that alongside creative writers who create poems and plays, essays and novels, there are other writers who write books about science and psychology, economics and political science, sociology and anthropology. Some writers like Karl Marx dreamt of social and political revolutions while there were others like Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein who broadened our existential horizons and helped us rationally understand life and universe around us. They brought inner revolutions that gave birth to outer revolutions. When people develop social consciousness then it is easier for them to bring social changes. Some writers change social attitudes while others change social environments and circumstances and in some mysterious way they are all connected.

        When we study the social and political changes of the 20th century, we realize that there were two distinct traditions that were inspired by gifted writers. The first tradition was of those people who believed in armed struggle. Revolutionaries like Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were inspired by the writings of Vladimir Lenin, Mao tse tung and Karl Marx who believed that ends justify the means. They believed in creating peace by using violent methods. The other tradition was of those people who believed in bringing social and political changes by peaceful means and did not believe in armed struggle. They were inspired by writers and reformers like Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy. Such writers believed that the ends did not justify the means. They were of the opinion that using violence to create peace was a dangerous proposition, especially when religion joined hands with politics.

The more we study writers of different traditions, the more we realize that they share their truth in their writings hoping that personal and social truth will liberate humanity. They hope that truth will help human beings to decrease human suffering and improve their quality of life. Over the centuries writers have played a significant role in social change that paved the way for human evolution. Fortunate are the communities and cultures that have writers who are not only entertaining but also enlightening, who are not only poetic but also philosophical, who have, not only hindsight, but also insight and foresight and lead the caravan of humanity. Such writers bring constructive social change and inspire us to create a peaceful world together.