Against All Odds: Revolution in Nepal Moving Forward
Right now, communists are on the verge of what could potentially be the first successful revolution in over a generation. They’re internationalists, who boldly proclaim that either we all get to communism, or none of us do. Yet, there has been a lack of discussion and popularization of this movement, not to mention a frustrating lack of internationalist support for the people now making history.
This revolution is taking place in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world. Most people are poor peasants who can barely eke out a living in the rugged and remote valleys in the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s a country dominated by foreign powers, especially by its southern neighbour, India, which has historically strangled Nepalese domestic industry and controlled its resources. Internally, the caste system and women’s oppression weigh heavily. Communists have been active in Nepal for decades searching for ways to address these basic problems.
The People’s War
A turning point came in 1996, when an insurrection was launched by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) – recently renamed the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Starting off small, the Maoist movement was able to strengthen and grow by relying on and leading mostly poor Nepali peasants to fight and overthrow the forces of government in the countryside, then represented by an absolute monarchy. In their place, they began constructing a new society – by taking steps to end gender and caste oppression, introducing forms of popular democratic government, and providing for people’s needs like basic health care and education. The Maoists called this the “People’s War” – a revolutionary war of the people that seeks to overthrow the old system.
I was fortunate enough to have visited Nepal’s Maoist base areas in the Western hill region in 2006 to witness some of these changes first-hand. There is one small incident I will never forget that speaks volumes to the liberating changes that are taking place. Together with some friends, I was in the village of Tilla in Rolpa district talking to a boy in his early teens. Rolpa, along with the neighbouring Rukum district to the north, is considered the heartland of the revolution, and it was here that the revolution began exercising power over ten years ago. Through a translator, we asked him about his life, including what caste he was in. At this question he paused and looked puzzled. He in turn told us that he was a Dalit, a low-caste untouchable, but that it was strange that we asked him that, since no one cares any more. He told us that his parents would tell him stories about caste discrimination and oppression, but that he had never experienced them.
Throughout the base areas we heard similar stories: women organizing themselves to stop wife-beating; parents able to get medical care for their sick kids at a newly-built hospital; and villagers who no longer have to walk for two days to get salt because of a newly-constructed road. In the context of Nepalese development, these transformations are stunning. They help partially to explain the rapid advance of the revolutionary movement.
One aspect of the Nepali revolution people ought to be paying attention to is the strikingly creative approach of its leaders. Revolution – the Nepali Maoists are fond of saying – cannot be replicated, but only developed. In developing their strategy and tactics, the Maoists have made a serious study of the serious setbacks suffered by revolutionary movements in such places as Peru, Nicaragua and Malaysia after a certain level of development was reached. They aim to mobilize the Nepalese people to continually push their movement forward, without either being swallowed up by electoralism or scraping by in a perpetual military insurgency with no real hope of victory.
An outcome of this approach has been the Nepalese concept of “total war.” By which they mean fighting on all fronts: military, cultural, political, and ideological. An example of this has been their deliberate tactic of alternating between political and military offensives. There were several ceasefires and negotiations throughout the people’s war period, in each case the Maoists used the opportunities to reach out to different segments of the society, win new allies, and further expose and isolate their enemies. This was done with careful consideration to the specific ideological terrain they had to deal with.
For example, the amalgam of comprador and feudal ruling classes in Nepal had for decades used the concepts of patriotism and (bourgeois) democracy to build hegemony for their rule. Feudalism was defended with the banner of patriotism and the comprador bourgeoisie wrapped themselves in democracy. The Maoists answered by turning these concepts on their head. They developed a new form of democracy (anti-caste oppression, anti-women’s oppression) in their base areas to fight the feudal monarchy and rallied people with an anti-imperialist, anti-expansionist patriotism to attack the comprador bourgeoisie.
This creative approach also informs the Nepali Maoists vision of the future society they want to build. They believe a major defect of previous socialist societies, notably in the Soviet Union and China, was the ease with which counter-revolutionaries were able to turn these revolutions into their opposites and restore capitalism. Their thinking on this problem has led them to emphasize the importance of strengthening popular militias under socialism, as well as developing plans for a socialist democracy in which numerous parties will compete in a politically communist “mainstream.”
All of this unorthodoxy is not without controversy within the Maoist movement. Internationally, some former friends have distanced themselves from the UCPN(M), arguing that these developments are in fact an abandonment of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist principles.
Within the UCPN(M) itself, line struggle has been intense. There has been serious concern among cadre, as voiced by senior member Biplap, that the negotiations and constituent assembly process will lead to a situation where the “party will be drowned into the swamp of reformism up over its head.” This danger is acknowledged and discussed by the Party in their many publications. However, as another party leader, Basanta, has argued, parties scared off by any danger have never been able to seize any opportunity.
A New Phase of the Revolution
In November 2006, the UCPN(M) decided to seize such an opportunity and end one phase of the revolution by signing a peace treaty with the government on the condition that elections be held for a Constituent Assembly – a temporary governing body that serves to write a new constitution for how society will be restructured. Although they then controlled 80% of the territory of the country and had built the powerful People’s Liberation Army (PLA), they did not feel it would be best to try and capture the cities militarily. They faced several obstacles: weak support among the middle-classes in the cities, who would have to be important allies in any future society; an unfavourable international situation with no socialist countries who might assist their extremely undeveloped country; and the mood of the masses themselves, who were justifiably exhausted by a decade of bloody conflict and yearned for peace.
The peace treaty gave the Maoists the freedom to begin doing intensive political work in areas they had previously been weak – namely in the cities and the heavily populated southern Terai region. A tactic during this time was to politically isolate the leadership of the mainstream parties and reach out to their supporters by demanding the unconditional dissolution of the corrupt and widely-hated monarchy.
In April 2008 elections for the Constituent Assembly were held, and the Maoists emerged as the biggest and most influential party. This shocked everyone except, perhaps, the Maoists themselves, who knew the huge support they had been building throughout Nepal. In May 2008, the monarchy was abolished.
The peace treaty has been misunderstood by some as a form of capitulation. However, the Maoists have shown no sign that they have swayed from their basic understanding that “without a people’s army, the people have nothing.” They have not disarmed, but have instead argued for the integration of their fighters into a re-constituted army under democratic control. The National Army and their royalist allies have continually resisted this demand.
The Current Uprising
In May 2009, this controversy reached a breaking point when Army general Katawal, with United Marxist-Leninist encouragement (UML – a party which, despite its name, has been stubborn defender of the old Nepal and a violent opponent of the revolution), refused to follow government directives to resign. This in turn led to the resignation of the Maoist leader Prachanda from the post of Prime Minister – a move which marks a new phase in the revolution.
Senior UCPN(M) leader Gaurav, speaking on May 17th, 2009 declared “now, we’ll spearhead the ‘third Janaandolan’ [people’s uprising] against the president’s unconstitutional move to reinstate the Army chief and also complete our unfinished revolution.” Such an uprising may prove to be a component of the final insurrection that Prachanda has long argued is inevitable.
The recent developments make sense when considering the UCPN(M)’s strategic approach as a whole. Revolutions without the masses are not revolutions worth having: the lasting success or failure of a revolution hinges on the genuine involvement of people in it – and their deepening mastery over all spheres of society. What we see in Nepal now is a living political process where the Nepali people are being convinced of the need for further change. Many Nepalis were rightfully elated when the monarchy was abolished, but now they can see that the continued presence of the National Army (among other institutions) is the biggest obstacle to progressive change. In other words, they are being shown through events that the revolution needs to seize state power.
There is no guarantee the Nepalese revolution will succeed. Revolutionaries may be politically outmanoeuvred by the old political establishment and their allies like the United States, who still outrageously label the UCPN(M) a “terrorist” organization. They may be militarily defeated by remnants of the National Army, an Indian invasion, or a combination of the two. There is the looming difficulty of building a socialist economy in a country so undeveloped that even sewing needles have to be imported.
Against all these obstacles, the Nepali people need and deserve our solidarity and support. •
Derek Rosin visited Nepal in 2006 to observe some of the work being done by the Maoists in their rural liberated territories, and he has been a close observer of the developments in Nepal ever since.