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hamza alavi pakistan postcolonial state

#Notes: Hamza Alavi’s Influential Essay on Overdeveloped Postcolonial State

Hamza Alavi’s ‘The State in Post-Colonial Societies: Pakistan and Bangladesh’ is one of the highly influential essays on postcolonial societies. An influential Marxist sociologist from Pakistan himself, Alavi’s work analyses the structure and the role of postcolonial states in South Asia. His writings extensively focused on the overdeveloped bureaucratic and military machinery inherited from colonial rule.

For Alavi, the classical Marxist reading of the central role of the bureaucracy and military in the government and political development raises some fundamental questions. He notes, unlike the usual Marxist reading of military and bureaucracy as instruments of a single ruling class, the conditions created by colonial rule have deemed the postcolonial relationship between the state and the social classes more complex.

Marxism, State, and Postcolonial Societies

In Western societies, nation-states are often created by indigenous Bourgeois to frame certain legal institutions to sustain the capitalist relations of production. However, in the colonised societies, the state institutions are already established by the metropolitan bourgeois (i.e. European colonisers).

Famously, in another of his essays, ‘Nationhood and the Nationalities in Pakistan’, Alavi writes: “Whereas in Europe nations were constituted into states, in post-colonial societies the problem is inverted—states have to be transformed into nations.” In doing so, they have already established a replica of a superstructure of the state like in the metropole (the West), whose role was to exercise total domination of the indigenous social classes in the colony.

Alavi’s Overdeveloped Postcolonial State

Therefore, the postcolonial state, according to Alavi, is an “over-developed” state. Its origin lies in the metropolitan structure itself (i.e. the state formed as a result of colonial elites), from which it is later separated at the time of independence.

This over-developed state has a powerful military-bureaucratic apparatus, which now works to subordinate the native social classes. The postcolonial state can now, through its over-developed state apparatus and institutionalised practices (known as the military-industrial complex), seek to regulate and control indigenous social classes.

pakistan army postcolonial state alavi
Members of the newly formed Pakistani Security Guard standing at attention during parade review for Pakistan’s Leader Jinnah in 1947 | Picture: Wikimedia Commons

After the independence, the weak indigenous bourgeoisie (indigenous capitalist class) found it difficult to control an already highly sophisticated military bureaucracy of the state, which, after being freed from direct metropolitan control, has maintained complete power over the society. Moreover, in a postcolonial state, the metropolitan bourgeois and the neo-colonialist bourgeois join together – and form a powerful element in class structure.

Alavi argued that the state apparatus (military and administrative institutions) inherited by the postcolonial state lay at the heart of the metropole, whose task it is to subordinate indigenous classes in the colony, therefore, the postcolonial state is “over-developed” in relation to the former colony. He adds, “The specific role of military-bureaucratic oligarchy has become all too common a phenomenon in post-colonial societies” (p.59).

The Role of Military-Bureaucratic Oligarchy in Postcolonial State

The postcolonial state appropriates all of the economic surpluses to what is known as bureaucratically directed development activity. The centrality of the state then gets transformed into the centrality of state bureaucracy. He notes that there are three properties exploiting classes at the end of the colonial role: (1) indigenous bourgeois, (2) metropolitan neo-colonialist bourgeois, and (3) landed classes.

Alavi writes: “A new convergence of interests of the three competing propertied classes, under metropolitan patronage, allows a bureaucratic-military oligarchy to mediate their competing but no longer contradictory interests and demands.”

He referred to this “oligarchy” as relatively autonomous of all social classes. Now, he adds: “Such a relatively autonomous role of the state apparatus is of special importance to the neo-colonialist bourgeois because it is by this fact that they can pursue their class interests in the postcolonial societies.”

Therefore, Alavi argues, a single dominant class does not dominate the state in postcolonial society, but multiple, relatively autonomous classes. The role of the state becomes the mediation between “competing interests of the three propertied classes”.

The Postcolonial State of Pakistan and Bangladesh

Discussing how this military bureaucratic apparatus works in Pakistan and Bangladesh, Alavi discusses how the political elite in the Muslim League had weakened significantly soon after the death of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

For Alavi, two things stand out: One, the dominant position of the bureaucratic-military oligarchy in the state that has come to effectively hold state power. Two, the most dominant challenge to the military-bureaucratic oligarchy has come from the underprivileged sections of society, seeking greater regional autonomy and greater material resources.

In Pakistan, the ruling Punjabi military-bureaucratic oligarchy has effectively used slogans of Muslim nationalism and Muslim solidarities (which were also some of the dominant themes of Pakistan’s independence movement) to keep the state under its hold. They extol the virtue of Islamness, while, at the same time, denouncing the linguistic and regionalist aspirations.

Soon after the disintegration of the Muslim League after Pakistan’s formation (whose purpose of the creation of the state for underprivileged Muslims of British India had been fulfilled), the new elite (in the military-bureaucratic apparatus) began to propagate the ideology of Muslimness as an integrating force in opposition to regional aspirations.

Alavi writes: “The ideology of Islamic unity was employed to deny the validity of the claims and demands of the less privileged groups, namely Bengalis, Sindhis, Pathans and Baluchis, for the recognition of their distinct identity and needs” (p. 76).

Key Summary of Alavi’s State in Postcolonial Societies

In essence, Hamza Alavi argues that Pakistan as a postcolonial project sustains today on the virtue of a dominant Punjabi elite that makes for the majority of military-bureaucratic setup controlling all aspects of lives. It does so in order to maintain its control over the political and economic surplus that it enjoys in its current state. The state has a narrow base and lacks embeddedness in society in comparison to the Western states.

In doing so, it has effectively caused the underprivileged classes (in regions of Sindh, Bengal and Baluch, among others) to seek a greater share of the state power. However, the state apparatus, given its colonial origins and its overdeveloped nature, is all too powerful to effectively curtail all forms of opposition to its legitimacy.


Hamza Alavi, ‘The State in Post-Colonial Societies: Pakistan and Bangladesh’, New Left Review I/74, July–August 1972.

Cover Photo by Huzaifa Waheed on Unsplash

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