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Ferment in Nepal: Dynamic Vortex of Revolutionary Change


In continuing to read and share material for a comprehensive orientation to the situation in Nepal prior to my arrival on April 17, I am posting the following article originally published by

Links – International Journal of Socialist Renewal

. The analysis is comprehensive of the many aspects at issue: social, economic and political. The statistical and reference documentation is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the revolution of the Maobadi whatever our theoretical positions may be. Please go to the original article to get all the hyperlinks from Bill Templer’s notes.

Ferment in Nepal: A Dynamic Vortex of Revolutionary Change

By Bill Templer

January 3, 2009 — One remarkable laboratory that discussion in much of the world’s progressive press tends to neglect is the dynamic vortex of revolutionary change in Nepal. Since spring, Nepal has something that may be making genuine history: a Maoist people’s movement, that, led by the CPN (Maoist), and the struggle of the People’s Liberation Army over a decade, has come to state power through the ballot box. As Tufts University historian Gary Leupp wrote last April: “It ought to be the ballot heard ’round the world. It ought to be front page news. […] This moment may in the not distant future be seen as another 1917, another 1949.”[1]

Leupp has been one of the very few in the left media in the geopolitical North to call attention to this momentous change, and its current developments, albeit with little echo. Editors of some well-known journals refuse to consider an article that mentions Maoism, however contemporary, in a favourable light. Washington-based trade union organiser David Hoskins has been one of the few on the Marxist left in the US to stress the world-historical significance of the struggle in Nepal: “The state of the revolutionary movement in Asia takes on new significance in light of the recent advances made in Nepal and the rising global capitalist crisis. […] It is our responsibility as US revolutionaries to offer our unconditional support to the Nepalese revolution.”[2]

That solidarity was also voiced by the Party for Socialism and Liberation in the United States:

“The election of Prachanda is an achievement that deserves the support of revolutionaries around the world. A struggle over Nepal’s new constitution is bound to pit conflicting class interests against each other in the months to come. International solidarity will play a key role in facilitating the victory of Nepal’s workers and peasants.”[3]

The present article assumes one can be critical of certain historical aspects of socialism under Mao while still keeping an open mind about the Maoist-led social and political transformation now going on in Nepal, with all the internal upheaval and debate it is generating — and perhaps learning from its actual tactics and internal controversy. Whether you agree with CPN (M) analyses and strategies or not., blocking out any sustained focus on the Nepali revolution, labelling change there as “Stalinist’’, “bolshevik’’ or “authoritarian’’, can only preclude analysis and critique. This is all the more pertinent at this extraordinary juncture in the planetary capitalist economic collapse, where conditions worldwide are changing the minds of many. Fred Goldstein notes: “Globalization, capitalist restructuring, the hardships of low-wage capitalism, and growing racism and national oppression are creating the material basis for a new era of rebellion and class unity.”[4]

Convergence in diversity

The recent mass anti-repression insurrection in Greece is one point of working-class upsurge, what really fuelled Barack Obama’s presidential victory from below is another. And the April 2008 election victory of the CPN (M)in Nepal is still another. These nodes of people’s ferment reflect that “convergence in diversity” of the oppressed and exploited from all walks and continents united in opposition to the neo-reactionary order which economist Samir Amin sees as the nucleus for a new stage in the revolutionary project today, “recognizing the diversity, not only of movements which are fragmented but of political forces which are operating with them, of ideologies and even visions of the future of those political forces.” In his projected scenario for grounded socialist change, he sees the Left finding a critical mass and “moving into the masses to defend, not in rhetoric but in fact in action and through action, their real economic and social interests”.[5] That is at the core of the struggle in the street and inside the government in Nepal today.

Emergent dynamic agendas for struggle like Prachanda Path — and the very vigorous internal party debate on how to move forward without sacrificing revolutionary vision — belong more centrally on our own horizons of discussion. The revolution in Nepal faces what can threaten to become a quagmire of compromise, reformism and defeat. Internally, this is a struggle between hostile class enemies for control over the Nepalese state. It also is confronted with sustained efforts by political elites in Washington, Delhi and other quarters, and by opponents like the bourgeois Nepali Congress on its home turf (second-largest party), to undermine the revolutionary process. The other major Marxist party in the coalition, with some 15% of the National Assembly, the CPN-UML (United Marxist-Leninist) remains highly critical of the Maoist leadership, a long-standing rival, and could, in fierce rivalry, seek to topple the present government.[6] The Madeshi civil rights movement in the southern plain remains a powerful divisive force struggling for ethnic rights and greater autonomy, and members of the Madeshi People’s Rights Forum were involved in heavy clashes with the CPN (M) in March 2007. Demands for more autonomy in the Terai/Madesh south continue.[7] The Asian Human Rights Commission has issued The State of Human Rights in Nepal, which paints a complex picture in a highly diverse country with legacies of multiple ethnic oppression.[8] Yet nowhere else in the world has a movement oriented to Marxism and contemporary Maoist thought achieved the effective reins of democratic power, projecting its visions of “21st century socialism”.

This article suggests some sources for looking more openly from afar at what’s happening in Nepal, in a spirit of critical solidarity, getting better informed to enable grounded judgement. All footnotes are hyperlinks to relevant reports, largely in the Nepalese media.

Revolution in a ‘least developed country’

Nepal is a prime landlocked “least developed country’’ of 29.5 million, with some 80% of Nepalis labouring as poor agriculturalists. Literally sandwiched between Asia’s two giants, the famous dictum by Prithvi Narayan Shah, founder of the Shah monarchy in the 18th century recently abolished, was that "Nepal is a yam between two stones". Much of the country is barely accessible by road, remoteness takes on an almost surreal quality in the hills and mountains north of the narrow southern plain of the Terai (Madesh). Space there is a largely vertical topography where a hundred languages flourish, where villages in one valley are totally cut off from settlements in the next. The top 5 per cent of landholders own 27 per cent of agricultural land, the bottom 44 per cent occupy only 14 per cent of the land. Land reform is crucial for the Nepali masses to dismantle the multiple structures of the feudal system that now still dominate the country.[9]

The literacy NGO Room to Read is active in building village libraries: “A child growing up in Nepal faces some of the worst living conditions in the world. Roughly 50% of Nepalese live in poverty — on less than US$1 a day. Of every 100 children in Nepal, 84 live in villages, 47 are malnourished, and 40 belong to extremely poor families […] While 35% of males are illiterate, 57% of females cannot read or write.”[10]

A steady torrent of migrant workers continues to pour into India to the south, with nearly 70% finding menial labour as porters, security guards and restaurant help. A recent study of trafficked Nepalese girls, most in their early teens, working in debt bondage and near slavery in Indian cities pointed up the desperate plight of young Nepalese women seeking to survive, and often disowned by their families back in the impoverished villages they were raised in.[11] Estimates are that some 200,000 Nepalese girls are working as prostitutes in virtual bondage in Indian cities, nearly a quarter under the age of 16.[12]

Production for profit or for use?

Some fanciful neoliberal development speculation sees Nepal as the future entrepreneurial link between China and India, with trans-Himalayan highways, IT parks, vast investment in fibre optics, arguing that “The rising middle classes — close to a billion — in the two countries can be a bonanza for Nepal” — at the same time turning the country into a huge Himalayan mega-resort, an illusory capitalist pipe dream.[13] Revolutionaries in the CPN (M) are guided by alternative visions of economy, society and workers’ democracy. But whether they can move forward to a major break with the capitalist cash nexus and, beyond subsistence agriculture, an array of forms of production for use, not profit, remains to be seen. After decades of disdevelopment, for example, Nepal faces the worst national electricity crisis in Asia, with power cuts lasting up to 10 hours daily, with load shedding up to 16 hours a day projected by early spring 2009.[14] That shortfall is also impacting on tourism, especially in towns like Pokhara. Some lateral socialist brainstorming is needed on practicable schemes for solar, hydro and geothermal energy. Transformation and people’s power are needed literally from the ground up. Experimentation with LETS (Local Economic Transfer System) in rural areas may be one avenue for cooperative change, building community support networks and mutual aid.[15]

Below I touch on some of the contemporary discussion inside the CPN (M) and suggest online material and web sites to explore the dynamic changes in Nepal, largely through indigenous voices in the struggle, refracted in part through the lens of socialist theorist Samir Amin, a chief architect of the 2006 Bamako Appeal[16], and in basic solidarity with revolutionary developments on the ground in Nepal.

Prachanda on the CPN (M) path

As a point of departure, instructive is the interview with CPN (M) chairperson Pushpal Kamal Dahal (aka “Prachanda’’), conducted earlier in 2008 by people from the IPS in Washington, visiting in Kathmandu, on video as Part 1 [17] and Part 2.[18] Candid and concise, Dahal lays out the vision of the movement in the early weeks of its ascendance to state power. This is lived experience over a long struggle, with a powerful legacy of liberation that is distinctive to Nepal but applicable far beyond: “As the CPN-Maoist has already declared its decision to write a 21st century Communist Manifesto, it has also started a debate and discussion in the Communist spirit, not only in the country, but also in the world.”[19] This can be supplemented by Chairman Dahal’s address, “A Maoist Vision for a New Nepal,” given at the New School University on September 26, 2008, followed by an extended question and answer period, along with the text of his earlier address that same day to the UN General Assembly. Likewise of interest is the historic interview with Prachanda by the US left journalist Li Onesto at the height of the People’s War in the spring of 1999.[20]

`All the bases belong to the old class power’

Yet the compromises that now entails has deepened debate and divisions within the party on future anti-capitalist strategy in transforming Nepal and concrete tactics as the major formation in power, repeatedly frustrated by the actions and rhetoric of the Nepali Congress Party. Part of that discussion is on the dangers of succumbing to the pull of reformism. Netra Bikram Chand, aka “Biplap’’, a member of the party’s central committee, provides critical analysis on “The differences of opinion within our party” in the biweekly English paper of the CPN (M), The Red Star.[21] Biplap discusses the tactics necessary to destroy the existing “bases and the bodies of the comprador capitalist power and shatter them.” In his view:

The class character of the democratic republic is of a bourgeois class character. After the constituent assembly, the monarchy has been abolished and the republic has been established, however, there is no change in its class character. The party has reached up to the super structure of the state power, the constituent assembly government; but all of the bases belong to the old class power.

He differs with the party’s leader on the shape of a road forward, and fears that if the CPN (M) follows the program proposed by Prachanda, “our party will be drowned into the swamp of reformism up over its head”.

`On the brink of the change of an age’

The debate on the future path forward in Nepal came to a head in a national convention of the CPN (M) in November 2008, where, after pretty heated discussion, some solid basis of unity was achieved. The core issues are outlined by Indra Mohan Sigdel (aka “Basanta’’).[22] A decision was reached to move toward a “people’s federal democratic national republic” as the longer-term goal, and that among the “three fronts of struggle” – the constituent assembly, the government and the street – “the street struggle would be the principal one”.[23] The street struggle also means involving the masses at the grassroots in the dynamic of discussion, experiment and change. Kumar Dahal has warned of possible counter-revolution, and likewise stresses the need for struggle “in the street”: “The workers should advance ahead to guarantee and establish the working class as the decisive force in the state. Workers should advance ahead to take the major responsibilities in the policy-making place.”[24]

Part of that struggle in the streets and villages is being carried forward by the CPN (M)’s Young Communist League, with nearly half a million members. It is organising neighborhood cleanup campaigns, programs to counter youth unemployment, communal development initiatives in agriculture, initiatives against corruption and crime.[25] They remain controversial because accused of violence, and are often in a critical spotlight, but their mobilisation of the Nepalese young and hands-on contribution to social betterment cannot be denied. Agitating on campuses, the All Nepal National Independent Students Union (Revolutionary) is the student wing of the CPN (M), struggling to democratise education at all levels.[26] It has also been involved in strike action against conservative university administrations on a number of campuses, and in clashes with other student organisations.

In early November 2008, Finance Minister Baburam Bhattarai announced the government’s intention to put an end to private primary and secondary schools in Nepal in the near future, because of the privilege that breeds. This is perhaps the only principled statement in any country to enact policy to eliminate privatisation and commercialisation of education in the name of educational equity. About a third of Nepal’s schools are now private, catering largely, though not exclusively, to children from families with higher incomes. Bhattarai also outlined the government’s intention to issue some kind of academic certificate to men and women who fought in the people’s liberation forces and sacrificed their schooling.[27]

Through all this, the CPN (M) is determined to stick to its principles. Stressing the unwillingness of the party to participate in a coalition government that frustrates the basic promises of radical change made to the Nepalese people, Prime Minister Dahal threatened in December 2008 that his party might leave the government by mid-January to struggle in opposition rather than compromise its program: "Steps of struggle still remain to fulfill what we want. We are on the brink of the change of an age.”[28] D. Bastola notes: “As long as the rooted feudalism and comprador bureaucrat capitalism is not abolished, the Nepalese people cannot be free, and the national economy cannot be built up.”[29]

`Plain living, hard struggle’

In December 2008, the party prepared a battery of new “codes for simple living” for all Constituent Assembly members, with guidelines for type of vehicle (battery-driven Chinese bicycle preferred), simple clothing, use mainly of public transport, and a limit of two cell phones. The codes are in response to “criticisms that Maoist leaders were starting to lead opulent lifestyles opposed to their proletarian philosophy”.[30]

A new democratic space

Writing that “Nepalese society is committed to fulfil the dream of a new Nepal through an epoch making ideological, political, economic, and cultural transformation, raising the banner of mass insurrection against semi-feudal and semi-colonial conditions in the country”, the new minister of culture and state restructuring, Gopal Kirati, issued a concept paper in late 2008 for public discussion detailing new ideas for a radical transformation of local and regional organisation, and ethnic autonomous structures, including an “Autonomous Sherpa State”. In this revolutionary design, 800 districts are proposed. Outlining a new concept of ethnic pluralism and national consciousness, Kirati notes: “By abandoning the renegade definition of Nepal as a “yam between two rocks’’, the Peoples of the Republic of Nepal will establish a strong definition of nationality. This definition will be a ‘dynamite’ between the two rocks in 21st century rather than a yam,” grounded on “proletarian internationalism.”[31]

A new international?

Flanking a spectrum of debate and self-criticism inside the party, Roshan Kissoon and Chandra have a new two-part interview with Samir Amin, “We need a new international”[32] and “Maoism is needed everywhere in the world”,[33] first published in The Red Star. Samir Amin is current chair of the World Forum for Alternatives.[34] The interview also echoes arguments from his new book The World We Wish to See.[35]

In fundamental solidarity with the CPN (M), he stresses that:

the Nepalese have, at least, succeeded at the first chapter of basing their struggle in peasant revolt and then making, becoming, a force able to overthrow the regime, the King and his comprador servants; and then coming in to negotiation, agreement, with other possible partners in the building of a national, popular, democratic, hegemonic alternative block; alternative to the comprador ruling class submitting to imperialism and neo-liberalism.[36]

He develops a strong argument for the need for the left in the West to look carefully at what is happening on the ground and inside the revolutionary echelon in Nepal. His book The Future of Maoism (Monthly Review, 1981) can now be read in the light of recent events.

The Cultural Revolution revisited

Bastola stresses that the November 2008 national convention of the CNP(M) was an exercise in the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, bringing the masses back into the dynamic of transformation. Changing perspectives on the legacy of Mao’s vision of transformation for China, and the actual reality of the Cultural Revolution, “counter-narratives’’ to the usual take on that era, are being re-explored in the West. A December 2008 symposium on "Rediscovering China’s Cultural Revolution: Art and Politics, Lived Experience, Legacies of Liberation,"[37] was organised at NYU in Manhattan by Revolution Books, an affiliate of the Revolutionary Communist Party[38], and Set the Record Straight project, with input from Monthly Review and others. Typical of the widespread blockout on any renewed exploration of the Cultural Revolution in the progressive media of the global North, that symposium received scant coverage. Among its speakers, historian Dongping Han introduced his new book The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village (Monthly Review, 2008), that deals with his own experience as manager of a collective village factory during the Cultural Revolution, and his views on Mao’s thought and its vital relevance to struggles today worldwide.[39]

Dongping provides an insider’s view of how farmers in China were empowered through education during the Cultural Revolution, and the special structures of communal democracy that were created: “Chinese farmers had a strong sense that they controlled their own destiny at the time. […] most Chinese, not just farmers and workers, but professors and artists, were sincerely convinced they were building a better society for themselves, and not just for the working class. They had a new life.” Based on his research and personal experience, Dongping is certain that “despite the efforts of the last 30 years to bury the Cultural Revolution, this era will stand out for people in China, in other Third World countries, and in Europe and in US and the rest of the developed world as well. […] Mao’s Cultural Revolution should be the most important event in human empowerment in humanity’s 2000-year history.”

Revised views of the Cultural Revolution also emerge from the volume edited by X. Zhong, W. Zheng and Bai Di, Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era (Rutgers UP, 2001), here reviewed in depth by a Maoist-Third Worldist.[40] “Prarie Fire’’ stresses:

The Cultural Revolution, whether intentional or not, was the greatest instance of youth liberation in history. […] Authority at almost every level could find itself challenged by youth. This did not just affect the public realm, but also the private realm of the family. In the Manifesto Marx wrote, “Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” The early Cultural Revolution, more than any other period, realized the communist goal of youth liberation. […] Some of Us, despite its own bourgeois outlook, challenges typical, one-sided bourgeois narratives.

Bai Di is director of Chinese and Asian Studies at Drew University, and also spoke at the December 2008 symposium on the Cultural Revolution at NYU. Another speaker was Li Onesto, whose book Dispatches from the People’s War in Nepal (Pluto Press, 2004) was the first account by a foreign journalist of the Maoist insurgency from the inside, as she travelled deep into the liberated guerrilla zones. [41] Perhaps an aspect of the Eurocentrism endemic in some quarters of the Northern left is the refusal to even engage with these voices and dissident perspectives. Why?

Staying better informed

Progressives interested in keeping informed about developments in Nepal can regularly read the biweekly The Red Star.[42] A daily more ‘mainstream’ bourgeois political and economic news on Nepal is eKantipur.com.[43]

The website Revolution in South Asia provides a solidarity window onto the rapidly unfolding events in Nepal and the broader South Asian region.[44] An Indian Maoist insurgency is spreading in Orissa and Chhattisgarh states, largely unreported outside India.[45] Policy analyst Sean Deblieck, in a bourgeois analysis of how to cope with and neutralise Maoist insurgencies in South Asia, gives an overview of Naxalite movements in India and the CPM (N) in Nepal. He concludes:

The reason that Maoism was able to take root in India and Nepal stems largely from the failings of politicians and their political systems. It is clear that the lowest castes and classes in these two countries have been largely ignored by their representatives, and development has passed them by. The Maoists on the other hand are the only party that seems willing to venture into remote areas and to work with the poor. Chairman Mao was unique in recognising the latent potential of such rural peasants, and left behind powerful tactics and a vague ideology that continue to be of use to this day.[46]

The activity of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM), of which the CPN (M)is a part, is a broader frame in South Asia.[47] Yet some currents of “Third-World Maoists’’ remain fundamentally critical of the RIM, the North American Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), its chairperson Bob Avakian, and RCP solidarity with the CPN (M) strategy to abandon the armed struggle at this juncture and form a coalition government.[48] This argument will rage on, part of a vibrant debate.

Press freedom and social democracy

One recurrent flashpoint of controversy within Nepal is press freedom, especially the role of the bourgeois press in its criticism of the CPN (M). United We Blog! For a Democratic Nepal, established in 2004 by Nepalese journalists during a period of great repression, continues to be a site for broad discussion of issues and developments.[49] Nepal Press Freedom is reporting on intimidation of journalists and fighting to protect and promote “free, fair, and vibrant journalism”.[50] In late December 2008, cadre from the CPN (M) attacked the offices of Himalmedia, which publishes three magazines, after an article appeared critical of the Young Communist League. The Revolutionary Journalists’ Association Nepal and CPN (M) activists condemned the violence, which left many Himalmedia staff injured.[51] Naturally, such conflict, involving the independent media, draws particular media attention. The FES-Nepal (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung), reflecting a longstanding German cultural presence in Nepal,[52] offers a more social democratic view on the path forward and the current situation.[53] So there is a rich heteroglossia of voices and opinions in a dynamic public sphere, as reflected in analytical commentary by political scientist Dev Raj Dahal (head of FES-Nepal) on the “multiple transition” the country is now facing.[54] Beyond the current clash of diverse camps, an alchemy of radical democratic synergy may emerge.

Working-class protest

In any event, the level of militant popular protest by the people is remarkable. On January 2, 2009, in an unprecedented protest action, local people in the town of Kirtipur outside Kathmandu, the home of Tribhuvan University, the oldest campus in the country, shut down the town and university over demands for compensation for land appropriated from their families to build the university 50 years ago and giving locals more employment opportunities on campus. They vandalised the Tribhuvan University central offices the day before.[55] That came amidst widespread labour protests by workers in various sectors across the nation, in part due to the severe power crisis.

People are learning the power of acting collectively, to address critical grievances. Speaking to workers, Prime Minister Dahal stated that “pretty soon, the government will make an important announcement, which will help usher the nation in a new era”, stressing that the feudalistic mindset of political leaders had affected the performance of the Maoist-led government. He noted that previous political misrule was to blame for the prevailing power crisis: “During [their] 15-year-long rule, dishonest leaders never thought about the looming power crisis. People are suffering now because of their inaction.”[56]

Progressive Nepali Forum in the Americas

The newly formed PNEFA aims to “support activities intended to do away with unjust social, economic and political discriminations and exploitations upon the historically marginalized, working-class Nepalis”.[57] centering in particular on eliminating caste-based discrimination against some 4.5-5.5 million Hindu Dalits (Untouchables) in the new Nepal.[58] Their plight is extreme, and they may make up nearly 20% of the total population.[59] They voted heavily for the CPN (M) in the April 2008 poll.

Other social hegemonies

However remote geographically, Nepal is one of the major laboratories for social and political transformation, and socialist discussion anywhere in the geopolitical South. The ferment of discourse and praxis developing there are relevant far beyond that country’s borders, wherever you may stand on the socialist left. Amin is optimistic about a coming upsurge in the tide of counter-globalisation:

conditions are ripe for the emergence of other social hegemonies that make possible a revival of development conceived as it should be: the indissociable combination of social progress, democratic advancement, and the affirmation of national independence within a negotiated multipolar globalisation. The possibility of these new social hegemonies is already visible on the horizon.[60]

Nepal’s transformation may yet augur those emergent “new social hegemonies” at the very top of the world. In India, a segment of the comprador class may harbour growing fears that Nepal, with a huge impoverished rural agricultural population similar to India’s, could provide a radical example on the nation’s very doorstep for “revolutionary change in the countryside and self-determination for the great majority” (ibid.), as the global crisis in imperial hegemony deepens and a Maoist-led alliance to the north consolidates its position. [61]

[Bill Templer is a linguist based in Asia. He worked a number of years in Nepal, connected with the Nepal Research Centre and Tribhuvan University.]

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