For a decade or so, the media has been talking about new color and flower revolutions with colorful revolutionaries like “orange” ones in Ukraine. But, after so many sponsored, colored and sanitized revolutions, as additions in the market of “a series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, politics without politics the other deprived of its otherness” (1), once again we are witnessing pure-and-simple revolutions and revolutionaries, in Latin America and Asia (and of course, there are many in the streets of Paris, and among the immigrants in the US, too). Nepal and Venezuela are two hot centers of pure-and-simple revolutions.
The parallel between the Nepalese and the Venezuelan movements that I draw rests upon some of their basic commonalities. There might be people for whom such comparisons would be outrageous–how can one compare the sophisticated experiments in Latin America with a violent and uncompromising movement of Nepal? Although it is not my purpose here to make the Nepalese movement palatable, but this parallel allows me to expose some of its basic facets.
1. “The Object and the subject of power”
Broadly, I attempt to understand the Nepalese experience as part of the global struggle for democracy, self-determination and socialism. As I see, both the Maoist movement in Nepal and the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela (along with other Latin American movements), evolve as continuous critiques of capitalism and its political forms, especially formal bourgeois democracy, from the perspective of the downtrodden classes and communities in the respective countries. The element of negativity defines the basic unity between them.
In the Americas, there are many “sui generis” laboratories of revolution, where people in their daily practice of “humanist and cooperative logic” transform themselves colliding at every step “with the capitalist logic of profit” and their own exploited existence.(2) In this daily experience they find their own power and political expression. “Rather than putting the Venezuelan people asleep in order to enslave by making the act of voting ‘into the beginning and end of democracy,’ Chávez wrote in 1993 that ‘sovereign people must transform itself into the object and the subject of power. This option is not negotiable for revolutionaries.'”(3)
On the other side of the global south, who understands better than the Nepalese, the farce of voting as “the beginning and end of democracy”? They also know the various ways in which this farce could be enacted. Each time their grassroots consciousness become a decisive challenge to the status quo, a newer version of this farce has been enacted in Nepal to distract them, co-opt a few representatives, de-popularize policy-making and dissipate whatever energy is left in the streets.
Even the day, which is celebrated as the “Democracy Day”, was the day when Indians re-instated the Shah Dynasty on the throne with an arrangement with the Nepali Congress to preempt the radicalization of the uprising in the countryside. Eight years after that, when the unrest on the unfulfilled promises seemed simmering again, elections were held in 1959. B.P. Koirala won on the plank of providing ‘land to the tiller’. But in December 1960, King Mahendra banned all parties for dividing the country and found, on the basis of researches probably done in the US’ universities, that the parliamentary system, being a foreign creation, was not much in “step with the history and traditions of the country”. The homegrown panchayat ‘democracy’ institutionalized the indigenous Hindu hierarchy as a political system with the King on its top as the reincarnation of Vishnu. Destroying commons, unprecedented commercialization, uprooting the people and growing unemployment radicalized the youth and forced the rural poor to self-organize in the 1970s; and the political elite–the royalty, with the democrats’ assent–needed to stage another ‘democratic’ farce–a referendum on the panchayat system, with far more ballots than registered votes. Finally, right at the time when global imperialism was full of expectations for its hegemonic stability in the late 1980s with the crumbling of East Europe, a new compromise in Nepal was reached in 1990 to preempt the organized revolutionary tide that seemed certain.(4)
The history of Modern Nepal is the history of the crisis of democracy, as a system of “elite decision and public ratification” (5). The exploited and downtrodden Nepalis have time and again refused to accept this opiate of voting as “the beginning and end of democracy” and took the burden of exercising democracy in the streets and in their daily lives. The Nepali ruling classes and their international sponsors in their desperation have tried many exotic forms of putting them to sleep in order to control them, but have repeatedly failed. The Maoist uprising is the longest and most systematic (in official terms, brutal) attempt by the Nepalese landless, poor peasantry and the proletarians to transform themselves “into the object and the subject of power”. And thus they refused to be duped.
2. “New Democracy”
As far as the details of what the movements in Nepal and Latin America posit and the way they posit are concerned, there are definitely many differences. But then, as Lebowitz tells us,
“We all start from different places in terms of levels of economic development— and, that clearly affects how much of our initial activity (if we are dependent upon our own resources) must be devoted to the future. How different, too, are the situations of societies depending on the strength of their domestic capitalist classes and oligarchies, their degree of domination by global capitalist forces and the extent to which they are able to draw upon the support and solidarity of other societies which have set out on a socialist path. Further, the historical actors who start us on the way may be quite different in each case. Here, a highly-organized working class majority (as in the recipe books of previous centuries), there a peasant army, a vanguard party, a national-liberation bloc (electoral or armed), army rebels, an anti-poverty alliance and variations too numerous to name or yet to emerge— we would be pedantic fools if we insisted that there is only one way to start the social revolution.”(6)
The Maoist movement might seem as a critique of global capitalism from outside the political economic mainstream–the ‘marginal majority’ of the peasantry and the landless. But the ‘outside’ is not equal to something autonomous from global capitalism. In fact, on the contrary, in the stage of imperialism, capitalism flourishes by preserving its diverse stages and even ‘pre-capitalism’ simultaneously–backwardness and advancement together. The persistence of the agrarian ‘outsiders’, as in Nepal, contributes in stabilizing the global rule of capital by providing a stable and informal reserve of potential proletarians to be drawn as scums and blacklegs whenever needed, guardsmen for international security and imperialist agencies, and peripheries for expansion of the late capitalist economies like those of India and China. It is in this regard that I find the “instability” in Nepal, the rise in the democratic aspirations of the Nepalese people and their struggle for advancement and development as a definite crisis for the politics of imperialism, for global capitalism in South Asia.
One might object to the above perception by saying that the Maoists have defined the goal of their struggle as “new democratic”, not socialist. Moreover, a new democratic revolution, classically, intends to complete the ‘national’ transformation towards capitalism. But it is important to note the factors that left this transformation incomplete, and for whose elimination we need a revolution. Even for Mao who defined “new democracy” in the Chinese context, the most formidable hurdle in such a transformation in a “semi-colonial” society was clearly global capitalism that had reached the stage of imperialism (“the invasion of foreign capitalism and the gradual growth of capitalist elements”). Moreover, for him, “any revolution in a colony or semi-colony that is directed against imperialism, i.e., against the international bourgeoisie or international capitalism is no longer a revolution of the old type led by the bourgeoisie with the aim of establishing a capitalist society and a state under bourgeois dictatorship.” The ‘new democratic revolution’ “serves the purpose of clearing a still wider path for the development of socialism. In the course of its progress, there may be a number of further sub-stages, because of changes on the enemy’s side and within the ranks of our allies, but the fundamental character of the revolution remains unchanged”, i.e. it is “part of the world revolution”, which “no longer refers to the old world revolution, for the old bourgeois world revolution has long been a thing of the past, it refers to the new world revolution, the socialist world revolution”(7).
So the immediacies of the ‘new democratic revolution’ constituting the “sub-stages” are determined by the task of intensifying the class struggle, which is the only road towards the “development of socialism”. Imperialism or global capitalism with its ‘national’ hegemonic nodes peripheralizes and retards economic development at various locations to stabilize those hegemonies. Any democratic assertion from below in any form in these peripheries is an assault on imperialism and its political arrangements. Venezuelan and Nepalese movements are united in this regard.
Further, after Soviet Union and China succumbed to the political economic exigencies of international capitalist competition and the politics of “peaceful coexistence”, there was a temporary crisis for the world revolutionary challenge to capitalism. With the vestiges of official socialism swept aside, the global challenge to imperialism, the “highest” stage of capitalism, is once again visible, and only naive journalistic exercises, which fiddle with apparent dissimilarities and descriptions, will find the linkage between the Venezuelan and Nepalese movements uncanny. Even the police state of global capital is far more aware of the underlying unity challenging its hegemony, forcing it to mention the “demagogue” Chavez, the “anti-American dictator” Castro and the “vicious” Maoists together in its National Security Strategy 2006.
The dissimilarities between these movements are rooted in diverse “concrete situations” in which the revolutionaries find themselves. Obviously, as Michael Lebowitz time and again reminds us, “socialism doesn’t drop from the sky”. Venezuela with its tremendous oil assets and relatively higher level of systematic industrialization and proletarianization, along with its (counter-)hegemonic relationship with other Latin American countries bestow on the revolutionaries tasks very distinct from those in the backward, aid-driven economy of Nepal. But none of these ‘concrete’ local conditions can undermine the basic unity and complementary character of these movements in challenging the “concrete whole” of global capitalism. In fact, what makes the Venezuelan and Nepalese experiences stand out among the plethora of anti-capitalist, anti-globalization movements is the definiteness of their goals–the political-economic self-determination, to create a situation where the laboring majority would toil to satisfy their “own need for development”. As the Latin American working classes have evolved co-management and asambleas barriales to reclaim their collectivity and its fruit, the Nepalis for their self-liberation will need to first destroy the shield of the whole hierarchy of the officialdom and its privileges fed and armed by foreign aid and ensure a complete agrarian transformation to reclaim their resources and labor from global capital and its local agencies.
3. The Inside-Outside Dialectic
However, there is an interesting political economic dialectic that operates in Nepal and Venezuela making these movements mirror images of one another. Both are engaged in the process of transcending the dichotomy between the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’ that global capitalism creates for its own expansion. The Maoists are doing so by forging an alliance with the forces that are struggling ‘within’–the trade unions, other working class organizations and petty bourgeois parties/fronts, while the Bolivarians are trying to establish a democratic space beyond the institutionalized framework of bourgeois democracy that subsumes every participatory initiative into its competitive dungeon.
As mentioned earlier, the loci of Venezuela and Nepal in global political economy are highly dissimilar, even opposite. Venezuela as a fully capitalist economy challenges capitalism from within; hence the Bolivarian movement for a complete social transformation needs to build and sustain apparatuses and institutions outside the established political and economic paradigms. Co-management and barrios formed on the participatory principles are the expressions of this ‘convex’ need of the movement. As Massimo de Angelis rightly puts, “The “outside” created by struggles is an outside that emerges from within, a social space created by virtue of creating relational patterns that are other than and incompatible with the relational practices of capital”(8).
In Nepal, on the other hand, the six decade-long Nepalese democratic movement achieved its partial victory in 1990, with the accommodation of the “democrats” in the power structure, which eventually frustrated the movement’s vigor, alienating its committed vanguards and grassroots–institutionalizing “popular exclusion”, without the semblance of “popular inclusion” that bourgeois parliamentarism or representative democracy provides for self-legitimacy. Herein lies the root of the internal instability that has marred the political arrangement of 1990 and the secret of twelve Prime Ministers in thirteen years. In fact, parliamentarism became Monarchy’s instrument of legitimacy.
It was this ‘illegitimate’ arrangement that provided a ready opportunity for an independent political mobilization of the ‘excluded majority’–mobilization and dispersal of the movement ‘outside’/beyond a few urban centers. The cry for democracy for “self-determination” reached hitherto untouched zones of the society, giving birth to the “dual power”. Evidently, it aggravated the crisis in the established hierarchy (broadened by the 1990 arrangement), which sustained itself and the hegemony of its international sponsors by such exclusion–sustaining Nepal’s peripheral character, as a ‘reserve’ for capitalist expansion and accumulation. The Maoists assaulted right at the middle of the passage, through which the “included minority” leeched upon the ‘excluded’. The consequent internal mutation choked the parasitic political economic hierarchy. The 1990 arrangement was critically shattered in 2005.
A decade long success of the Maoist movement today has reoriented the aspirations of the Nepalese petty-bourgeoisie forcing the “democratic” parties to form an alliance with the revolutionaries against “the autocratic monarchy”. The 12-point agreement between the Maoists and seven parliamentary parties last year, along with the unilateral ceasefire by the revolutionaries marked the beginning of a critical phase in the Nepalese democratic struggle, in the struggle for self-determination. This agreement creates the possibility for an open ‘competitive’ struggle (as a manifestation of the deeper class struggle) between democracy as a mere form or mode of decision-making and democracy as practice or “a way of people developing in struggle and emerging as a class for itself through a process of self-transformation” (9). In other words, it potentially opens the road for a confrontation between the practice of formal democracy and “insurgent” popular democratic “practice” based on the collective needs and aspirations of the landless, proletarians and the poor peasantry that the Maoists have helped in developing and sustaining in their decade long armed struggle.
In other words, the “outside” is increasingly reclaiming the “inside”–i.e., the Nepalese movement is ‘concaving’ in, seemingly in contrast to the Venezuelan experience. It is in this dialectic of inside/outside that these movements realize the complete transformation of the respective societies. Only by transcending this dichotomous binary can a society comprehensively move “beyond capital”.
4. “Sukumbasis” as the protagonists
For many years now, the aid and remittance economies have fed the mainstream political economic institutions in Nepal. They nurtured a polity based on the ‘cut and commission regime’, which in turn facilitated these businesses of foreign aid and legal-illegal human trafficking. They survive on the toil of millions of exploited and oppressed Nepalis working abroad and for the agencies usurping the indigenous commons and resources. Internal and international migration has been a persistent feature of Nepal motivated by immense agrarian inequality, reinforced further by the commercialization of the local societies through foreign aid. Industries that were established in the country have been heavily dependent on foreign capital, especially from India, and do not generate sufficient employment because of their capital intensity. Of course, ‘alternative’ industries in service sector like tourism have definitely flourished, but only the local population knows what it means to work in this sector heavily based on informal labor with no security and degenerating exploitation of human beings, not just their labor. Hence, circular migration across the borders, even beyond the seas, with falling back on land is a viable option before the Nepali.
Regarding the rural scene, a prominent Nepali political economist, Nanda R Shrestha says, “Overall, near-landlessness remains prevalent as a permanent fixture of the Nepali agrarian economy” and outmigration–especially, circular migration to India–has been an important survival strategy, that helps sustain “the hill economy in general and the hill near-landless in particular”(10). However, since the 1970s there has been a remarkable degree of self-organization among the landless peasants (Sukumbasis), which has been evident in their organized land encroachments and spontaneous settlements, time and again crushed by the Shah Regime. It is beyond the class capacity of the petty-bourgeoisie and the legalist-opportunist politics of petty-bourgeois radicals and democrats, who generally represent the landed gentry and are ever ready to compromise on any concession from the royalty, to give a radical turn to this ‘new’ peasant spontaneity.
However, “the rage simmering under every poor peasant’s feet is finally being ignited by a cadre of unwavering Maoists. Irrespective of political persuasion, few can deny that this is a fire that can no longer be smothered by the state and its armed forces no matter how much larger and better-equipped these forces are in relations to any force that the Maoists can muster with its limited resources. What looms heavy over Nepal’s political horizon, therefore, is the unyielding question of who the masses will side with–with the forces of fractured democracy, with the ever-sinister hands of the absolutely dysfunctional royalty, or with the uncharted territory of the Maoist vision. Maoists derive their power from the people.”(11)
It is evident that the agrarian question which confronts Nepal today and provides the basis for the Maoist upsurge, once again, puts the Nepalese movement in line with the great “new peasant movements” (as James Petras describes them) in Latin America and Africa that decisively threaten ‘third world’ dependency and the global capitalist hegemony. In this regard, it is worth noting that as global capitalism develops, ‘unresolved’ agrarian question becomes more and more that of labour, less of capital. As Henry Bernstein tells us, “the many popular struggles over land today are driven by experiences of the fragmentation of labour (including losses of relatively stable wage employment in manufacturing and mining, as well as agriculture), by contestations of class inequality, and by collective demands and actions for better conditions of living (‘survival’, stability of livelihood, economic security), and of which the most dramatic instances are land invasions and occupations. There is now a revival and restatement of the significance of struggles over land to the social dynamics and class politics of the ‘South’ during the current period of globalization and neo-liberalism.” Referring to James Petras’ work on Latin America and Paris Yeros’ work on Zimbabwe, Bernstein concludes, “Contemporary land struggles are significantly different from the (‘classic’) peasant movements of the past, and are much more rooted in the semi-proletarian condition: that of ‘a workforce in motion, within rural areas, across the ruralurban divide, and beyond international boundaries’.”(12)
5. “Human beings in all their determinateness”
One may have doubts about the “participatory” element in the Maoist movement. But this doubt comes from a sterile presupposition and deification of trans-historical pluralism and democracy. It is important to keep in mind the class composition of every movement that shapes the character of ‘democracy’ and ‘participation’ in it. The experiences of the peasant movements and struggles show that democracy from below in a rural setting will come with all its ‘violence’, ‘primitiveness’ and ‘distortions’, devoid of the preconceived urban sophistications. What is important is the raised political consciousness of the Nepalese landless, poor peasantry and proletarians, and their active willingness to decide and build their own future. However, the tension between the participatory element and its institutionalized alienation in the process of consolidating movemental gains, which create status quoist interests, is always there, as also with the Venezuelan experience.
It is well recognized that a fundamental contribution of the Maoist movement has been to inculcate the issue of self-determination at every level of the Nepalese society. Even the most vehement critiques of the Maoists recognize that it is the contribution of these “economic determinists” that the issues of socio-cultural oppression based on identities, gender, nationalities, castes have found definite political expressions. As one analyst complains, the Maoists “were quick to identify” the ethnic discontent in the Nepalese society and tried “to ride it to their purpose, taking advantage of the supposed correlation between ethnicity and poverty”.(13) Another notes that the Maoist movement “has also set precedents for alternative experiences, practices and discourses on gender equality”.(14)
Dalit intellectuals, from the communities that are lowest in the caste hierarchy, find, “Insurgents have raised the economic, social and political issues of Dalits as well as the issues of women, indigenous people and others”. Further, in “people’s war”, “Maoists refocused on social intervention in their stronghold areas. Maoists have initiated a campaign called ‘caste integration and people’s awareness campaign’ in order to overcome hesitation of non-Dalits in breaking age-old practices of untouchability. In the Maoist heartland in Rolpa district, the untouchability and caste discrimination has been reduced. They have declared ‘caste free villages’. They have strictly made villagers not to practice caste discrimination. The Bista System (in which occupational Dalit castes receive grain annually for the services they provide to non-Dalit households), considering it an economical exploitation as well as a way of maintaining feudal relations of domination and subordination, has been transformed into daily remuneration for labor, which is now the norm in the Maoist base areas”.(15)
Since its inception, the Maoist movement in Nepal understood the fact that, “While no one liberates himself by his own efforts alone, neither is he liberated by others.”(16) The Maoists facilitated the creation of a definite space for solidaristic praxis where these autonomous ethnic, gender and community-level struggles for self-determination could coordinate their liberatory praxes. The active participation of the oppressed identities in “people’s war” has armed their identity assertion, their aspiration for self-dignity and freedom against a brutally oppressive Hindu hierarchy. In its turn, the ‘reflective participation’ of these entities has strengthened the support base of the Maoist movement.
However, this identity of the oppressed and exploited in diverse social relations with a class movement derives from the basic fact that this class of proletarians and semi-proletarians are “human beings in all their determinateness”. Hence their complete liberation requires liberation from all forms of oppression and exploitation. The unity between dalit, women, national and other liberation movements is the laboring majority’s self-assertion as human beings. It means that they are fully aware of the secret through which the global capitalist class, directly or indirectly, maintains its power, i.e., by the ‘parcelisation’ of their ‘selves’ according to sex, age, race and nationality, among other aspects.(17)
In “participatory” experiences of both countries–Nepal and Venezuela, despite differences in the levels of sophistication (due to the differences in the “levels of economic development”), the element of force or “coercion” is important. In the case of Venezuela, it is provided by the ‘transitional’ State, while in Nepal, it is the ‘provisional’ state, constituted by the Maoists, that stands in the background of those experiences. However, arbitrariness is the price of the provisional and the insurgent nature of the ‘force’ in Nepal. But post-2001 developments demonstrate that the Maoists are fully aware of this problem, and their internal debates and readiness to form an alliance with other ‘forces’ are indicative of their efforts to transcend it. It will be interesting to see if their resistance against the local representatives of the extraordinarily dense and widespread imperialist network of relationships and connections will bear any immediate success. Or, will global hegemonies and their agencies succeed in buying a compromise and betrayal that the Nepalese people have seen so many times in their struggles for self-determination?
Pratyush Chandra can be reached at: email@example.com
(1) Slavoj Zizek (2004), A Cup of Decaf Reality.
(2) In the laboratory of a revolution: Interview with Marta Harnecker, Venezuela Analysis, Sep 22, 2005.
(3) Michael Lebowitz (2006), BUILD IT NOW: SOCIALISM FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, Monthly Review Press, forthcoming
(4) For an interpretation of the political history of Nepal, see my short articles–‘Pre-1990 “Democratic” Experiments in Nepal and The Evolving Pattern’ (August 2005) and ‘The 12-point Agreement and the Future of Democracy in Nepal’ (December 2005)
(5) Noam Chomsky (1987), ON POWER AND IDEOLOGY: THE MANAGUA LECTURES, South End Press
(6) Michael Lebowitz (2006), op cit
(7) Mao tse-Tung (1940), ‘On New Democracy’, Selected Works Vol. 2, Peking
(8) De Angelis, Massimo (2006), ‘Enclosures, Commons and the “Outside”‘, University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society Colloquium on the Economy, Society and Nature, Durban
(9) Completing Marx’s Project: Interview with Michael Lebowitz, Weekly Worker 608, January 19 2006.
(10) Nanda R. Shrestha (2001), THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF LAND, LANDLESSNESS AND MIGRATION IN NEPAL, Nirala, New Delhi. (New edition of ‘Landlessness and Migration in Nepal’, West View Press, 1990)
(12) Henry Bernstein (2004), ”Changing Before Our Very Eyes’: Agrarian Questions and the Politics of Land in Capitalism Today’, Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 4 Nos. 1 & 2.
(13) Deepak Thapa (2001), ‘Day of the Maoist’, Himal South Asian, Vol 14 No 5.
(14) Mandira Sharma & Dinesh Prasain (2004), ‘Gender Dimensions of the People’s War: Some Reflections on the Experience of Rural Women’, in Michael Hutt (ed) HIMALAYAN PEOPLE’S WAR: NEPAL’S MAOIST REBELLION, Indiana University Press.
(15) Tej Sunar (2006), ‘Fighting Caste Discrimination in the Context of Conflict in Nepal’, DNF.
(16) Paulo Freire (1993), PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED, Continuum Books, New York.
(17) Michael Lebowitz (2003), BEYOND CAPITAL: MARX’S POLITICAL ECONOMY OF THE WORKING CLASS, 2nd Edition, Palgrave.