Nepal's crossroads: Kasama on debates in the Maoist party

May Day 2011, Kathmandu.

This statement emerges from within the Kasama Project — in internationalist communist solidarity with the revolutionary movement of Nepal’s people. Kasama submitted it to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal for publication.

By Eric Ribellarsi and Mike Ely*

June 30, 2011 -- For more than 20 years, the impoverished and isolated peoples in the southern Himalayan foothills have risen up to remake themselves and their world. Now, after the sacrifices of a whole generation, the future of their movement and society hangs in the balance.

Will the revolutionary sections of the people be able to carry through the struggle to create the radically new Nepal they have dreamed of? Or will the accomplishments of their struggle so far be consolidated into something that falls short of liberation?

Two roads sharply posed

Different futures confront each other. Those opposing roads have become concentrated in a very stark set of opposing choices.

  • Should the leading Maoist forces and their broad allies break the current political stalemate?
  • Should they prepare the people for an insurrectionary uprising in a focused way and move to break the current ceasefire and seize countrywide political power?
  • Should they carry out a program of radical social changes and take historic steps against foreign domination?
  • Should they break out of the deadlocked framework of the current parliamentary system, and create a “people’s democratic” system together with other forces dedicated to fundamental change?
  • Should they expand and mobilise armed forces based among their People's Liberation Army to carry through these tasks?

Or, by contrast:

  • Should they take an approach that confines Nepal’s people within the world’s capitalist order for yet another generation?

These choices don’t  face each other as just a debate – but as a power struggle over two roads. That power struggle is now focused on the question of preserving or dissolving the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – which is one of the major accomplishments of the revolution so far. That power struggle will be decided (one way or another) by what the militants and supporters of Nepal’s revolution now do – in the period ahead.

Consolidate without revolutionary victory?

The armed struggle initiated by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (UCPNM) combined with broad upsurges of the people in 2006 to overthrow the dictatorship by Nepal’s theocratic king.

This was an historic change. It did not itself resolve the people’s problems. However, the fall of Nepal’s king opened the door to restructuring Nepal. That abolition of the feudal monarchy established the radical idea that the people themselves (long silent, ignored and suppressed) should decide how a future society would be organised. Nepal experienced a great flood of political hopes and ideas – while the resulting political process was gripped by a long, frustrating stalemate. Consensus between the communist revolutionaries and the parliamentary parties was impossible.

The parliamentary spectrum of non-monarchical parties and forces wanted to move Nepal toward a society modelled loosely on India’s corrupt parliamentarism and oppressive capitalist modernisation. Such capitalist modernisation programs rest on familiar assumptions.

  • That development can only happen by creating creating high-profit conditions for Western investment.
  • That the people and their national resources should be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
  • That the expansion of infrastructure (electrification, roads, schools), exploitation of modern technologies, rapid growth of productive forces – all require subservience to world capitalism.

This is, in short, the classic promise of progress through capitalism – and these are the programs of those strata who expect to be the administrators and main beneficiaries of this road. Though the various parties bicker over policy details and government posts, the non-revolutionary parliamentary forces share outlines of a common vision: where some of the worst symbols of feudal oppression (including the monarchy itself) get targetted for reforms, but where many central institutions of the old society will not be uprooted through mass political struggle.

In Nepal, after 10 years of people’s war and six years of post-war political turmoil, core relations and institutions of the old society have not yet been uprooted. These include feudal property relations in land, de facto foreign domination by India, patriarchal male domination over girls and women, and (significantly) the armed power of the formerly royal army and the hated paramilitary police.

Imagine what it would mean if Nepal’s changes stopped short of ending these things. The people have sacrificed so much to accept so little.

For a federated people’s democratic republic

Broad ranks within Nepal’s Maoist party have been opposed to proposals and compromises that would consolidate a parliamentary political order without basic revolutionary change. They have popularised their plan for a New Nepal: a federated people’s democratic republic.

This envisions a determined and thorough uprooting of the oppressive old feudal culture and an agrarian revolution to end the exploitation of rural people by landowners and usurers. It would bring a historic end to the domination of Nepal by India and foreign corporations. And it would overthrow survivals of the previous political-military system that served elites alone.

Having a federated republic means an end to theocratic Hindu hegemony and the dominance in Nepal of one ethnicity and language. It would involve forms of autonomy in local areas, establishing equality of many minority religions, languages and ethnic groups for the first time.

The term “people’s democratic” means that the future republic and constitution would involve radical new forms of social decision making that will empower the oppressed – both at the grassroots and at the national level. This is a proposal that rejects a traditional parliamentary system dominated by corrupt parties, urban elites and property-owning ruling classes – and envisions a “new mainstream” of different revolutionary parties competing in elections and exercising governmental power.

A people’s democratic system would protect the country and the revolution by arming the people at the grassroots – to enable New Nepal to withstand the threats of both invasion and counterrevolution.

Strategically, these revolutionary plans saw the anti-feudal and independence struggle as a first stage that opens doors to further explicitly socialist economic transformation (meaning economic planning, socially administered investment funds, collective forms of work and ownership, suitable forms of development, abolition of extremes of wealth, and more).

In short: the terms are posed as capitalist-parliamentary modernisation or a new revolutionary leap to a federated people’s democracy. These represent two sharply opposed directions.

Stalemate and power: one eats up the other

Conflict over these opposing roads has defined the protracted political stalemate in Nepal for the last five years. Attempts to write a new constitution were deadlocked in the Constituent Assembly. Two opposed armies remained warily in their bases and where endless negotiations made zero progress.

There have been periods in which the Maoists led the national government, without having actually captured control over the state or Nepal army – and that stalemate then led to their resignation from those top posts.

Through all of that, middle ground has been falling away. There is no framework of consensus or mutual compromise between increasingly opposed roads.

The earlier people’s war led by the Maoists initiated the overthrow of the monarchy and a period of sharp social debate. The stalemate of the last years has now made a new leap in revolution necessary.

Among the Maoists: A struggle for and against revolution

At the same time, the struggle over which road to take extends deep into the Maoist party (UCPNM) itself.

Members of one influential minority wing of the party have aggressively (and rather articulately) advocated a road of capitalist modernisation. They advocate protecting rights to private property (including apparently feudal ownership of land). And they claim that opening the country further to IMF/corporate investment is crucial for development of Nepal’s resources. In short, these forces argue for abandoning further revolution and seek to occupy top government posts within the currently existing institutional framework.

While the core of their argument is to promote great illusions about the path of capitalist modernisation, they also mobilise every form of possible pessimism for the cause: international conditions are too adverse, they say, for Nepal to take a radical course alone. Socialist revolution, they say, would simply mean an impoverished Burma-like isolation. Nepal’s people, they say, are too poor, illiterate, scattered and backward to advance under their own efforts, and the country needs to place itself in hock to foreign technology and expertise. The people’s armed forces are too weak, they say, and the reactionary professional army is too strong for a new attempt at power to succeed. And so on.

Firm on strategy, flexible in tactics

The proposals and arguments of the Maoists’ rightwing have been sharply opposed by revolutionary forces within the Maoist party. These revolutionaries have tried to articulate a different path, and are fighting to win their party over to adopting it.

Meanwhile, in their public work, the revolutionaries offered constitutional proposals embodying the people’s demands – that the reactionaries then rejected. They proposed forms of civilian control of the military that the reactionaries then spurned. They proposed peaceful ways of making extensive social changes that the reactionaries have blocked. All of this has helped prepare large numbers of people to see the need to sweep away the reactionary parties and their allied armed force – to make a new leap in the revolution. An important goal of these tactics has been to put the onus of breaking the current peace onto those reactionaries.

And the revolutionaries within the UCPNM have mobilised the people for revolution – by strengthening the militant Young Communist League, by promoting important socialist models like the peoples commune in Rolpa and Rukum, and by preparing the embryos of new people's militias for future armed struggle.

In short: the revolutionaries viewed the extended ceasefire since 2006 as a time to conduct a political offensive that would expose (to the people broadly) that the various reactionary forces (both pro- and anti-monarchy) remain an ongoing and determined obstacle to the needs and desires of the people.

A struggle within the party: now over the PLA itself

No other party in Nepal has the influence, apparatus or popular support of the Maoist party. As a result the debate within the Maoist party has emerged as a key arena for the country as a whole.

This means that the leading representatives of these two roads within the Maoist party have become, in many ways, the leading representatives of those roads within the society as a whole. The future of Nepal may well be determined by which wing of the Maoist party is the one that now emerges with countrywide power.

The capitalist modernisation program of the Maoists’ rightwing would be implemented through a non-revolutionary and capitalist consensus formed both with corrupt and pro-Indian parliamentary parties and with the Nepal army. And therefore it requires first the demonisation and then defeat of the more radical currents within the Maoist party.

This is why sections of the Maoist leadership have proposed (more and more openly) the acceptance of a particularly central demand of Nepal’s conservative forces: the disarming and dissolution of the People's Liberation Army. This would mean granting an ominous monopoly of violence to the high commands of the formerly royalist Nepal army and Armed Police Force.

The very existence of this People’s  Liberation Army (even while currently concentrated in “cantonment” base camps) has been a crucial obstacle to many disastrous outcomes – including a possible military coup, anti-people bloodbaths, assassination of leading revolutionaries, wholesale removal of farmers from lands they have seized and more.

To put it sharply: Nepal’s old reactionary forces have not been able to accomplish the disbanding of the heroic PLA. But now some within the Maoist party think they might be able to order it.

A long struggle over two roads now gets concentrated in a tightening knot of controversies – all of which inevitably involve political power and the question of who controls the gun.

Three clarifying moments

Last May Day 2010, the revolutionary forces gathered half a million people in Kathmandu for the dress rehearsal of revolution. This unprecedented event confirmed (yet again) the tremendous popular support for the Maoists and revolutionary change.

The massive and disciplined May 1 rallies then gave rise to a general strike that shut down the capital. Many people believed that the moment had come for ending the stalemate, overthrowing the reactionary parties and seizing countrywide power.

Apparently amid great internal conflict inside the Maoist party, this general strike was called off. The revolution’s supporters were dispersed back into their villages and neighbourhoods.

There was great controvery over the decision to back away from seizing countrywide power (by seizing the capital). Out of that controversy over these May 2010 events, a second defining moment emerged: the UCPNM convened a party plenum with thousands of representatives in October 2010 at Palungtar. Again after sharp struggle, an agreement was reached that seemed (at long last) to establish a clear, common plan for revolution and isolate the party’s rightwing: An overwhelming party majority called for actively preparing a new uprising that would break the country’s political stalemate.

Empowered by this decision, some sections of the Maoist party started to prepare an uprising – including by organising and training militants at the party’s base. But it is now widely claimed that such preparations were not, in fact, taken up by the party as a whole. Palungtar was an important agreement, but in some ways remained a paper agreement. The struggle within the party and its leadership remained and sharpened. Meanwhile, the party’s revolutionary preparations were paralysed and thwarted.

That forms the background for a third moment. In April and May of 2011, two of the top leaders of the UCPN(M), party chair Prachanda and vice-chair Bhattarai, announced their acceptance of the Nepal army’s proposal to “integrate” the People's Liberation Army into the Nepal army on very specific terms – terms that would, in effect, dissolve the PLA as a liberation force. This potentially includes the final disarming of the PLA and the deployment of its troops in minor roles (as unarmed police in forests, for example). The so-called “final modalities” have not yet have been worked out – but clearly, a powerful alliance within the UCPNM’s top leadership has departed from the revolutionary orientation of Palungtar.

Different kinds of compromise

In revolutions there are always compromises of different kinds. Some are minor or represent accommodations (to various opponents or allies) in the pursuit of the larger revolutionary victory. But some compromises represent the potential abandonment of revolutionary and socialist goals – and a reckless endangerment of the revolutionary people and their precious core networks.

Those who have studied the 1990s military “integration” in South Africa and the 1973 military coup in Chile feel a deeply disturbing chill when hearing about moves to disband the PLA.

As we write this, it is not clear that the plan for dissolution and disarming will succeed, that the PLA will comply, that the cadre will accept this, or that the plan will not be reversed by larger party processes.

The disarming and dissolution of the People's Liberation Army would represent a grave danger to the revolution and to all who have thrown their lives and hopes into that cause. It would mean that Nepal’s oppressed classes and the Maoist revolutionaries would lack the most basic means of preventing a non-revolutionary consolidation of power. They would no longer even have the ability to defend themselves and their leaders from determined and vicious enemies.

This is seen and understood by many people.

For just that reason, the Maoists of Nepal have refused to disband the PLA in the past. And for that reason, this current “modality” for army integration is being vigorously opposed by revolutionaries within both the UCPNM and the PLA. It is said, by some of them, that they will simply not agree to such a direction – that they will repudiate and replace the current party leadership, shoulder for themselves the responsibility of leading the revolution and actively pursue the revolutionary plan adopted at Palungtar.

Any attempt to consolidate Nepal’s changes at this point – without the clear subordination of the Nepal army, without a revolutionary army representing the people’s interests, without carrying out revolutionary land reform, without Nepal taking a historic turn toward real independence from India, without adopting a socialist approach to production, without freeing the country from dependence on world capitalism – would represent a resolution of Nepal’s revolution far short of the liberation the people need. It would inevitably involve consolidating forms of oppression and exploitation that are extreme and intolerable. It would mean the replacement of great hope with feelings of betrayal and disappointment.

The continued existence and active resistance of powerful revolutionary forces – within the UCPNM, the People's Liberation Army and deep among the people – mean that preparations may well go forward for the creation of a people’s democratic republic and for the defeat of organised reactionary forces.

Support the revolution in Nepal

It is rare that an impoverished, isolated and relatively small country should have the potential to influence world events. But, in fact, a radical communist revolution on the very northern edge of India could encourage waves of new revolutionary hope and activity in many places.

This was always part of the motivation among Nepal’s Maoist revolutionaries – to take tremendous risks do their part to advance communist revolution in a world where such revolution had been declared impossible.  They proudly said that they had viewed their people's war as an internationalist responsibility. And it stands out just as much that the arguments for capitalist modernisation in Nepal do not have a global internationalist perspective, and start from a much more narrow, local and pragmatic framework, marked by disbelief and indifference towards world revolution.

Nepal’s revolutionaries created a possibility of socialist revolution in a world that so desperately needs such things. Many more revolutionaries could learn from their sophisticated novelty of thinking and their deep grasp of their country’s unique conditions.

Over decades now, this revolution has earned the active political support of everyone who shares its goals of real liberation. However, to extend that kind of support and to learn from that rich experience, it remains necessary for all of us, around the world, to struggle for a clear sense of what road would represent liberation and what road would not.

Across our planet there are many examples of attempts to advance and develop through models of capitalist modernisation. But in all the examples of that road – in South Africa, Brazil, Singapore, Turkey, India and China – the occasional enclaves of industry and high technology rest on an ocean of extreme poverty and human suffering.

Why fantasise about becoming a privileged Switzerland, when world capitalism really offers the searing exploitation of Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Dominican Republic?

Capitalist modernisation means that whole peoples and regions remain enslaved to the heartless demands of world capitalist finance and markets. Capitalist modernisation is inseparable from the suffering caused by cavernous sweatshops, pervasive sexual trafficking, constant harsh repression of the people, cultural and military domination by foreign powers, and the deep corruption of fattened local elites.

Our eyes have turned to Nepal over these past years precisely because its revolution sought to mobilise the oppressed in an inspiring alternative to that capitalist road – and because a core of revolutionaries in Nepal were creatively pursuing that socialist road under their very specific and difficult conditions. This is still the case.

No one believes victory is inevitable for revolution. Most revolutions fail in one way or another. We will learn (all over the world) from the attempt and outcome of this great effort in Nepal.

The fact is that there is an ongoing revolutionary process in Nepal. It has not been decisively stalemated or defeated, but is struggling for a path to victory.

There is a revolutionary people in Nepal – that has matured through the complex ebbs and flows of a real revolutionary situation. There are bases of the People's Liberation Army where determined commanders remain focused on seizing state power. There are cores of communist revolutionaries at all levels of the Maoist party who are seeking to carve a way forward. There are the embryos of popular militias and people's power. And there are millions and millions of Nepali people caught between hope and frustration – wanting a new Nepal and a new world.

Together they constitute a real and living revolution. They face intrigues and possible betrayals. They face the heavy weight of tradition and illiteracy, deep poverty, and the dangers of Indian intervention and blockade. They are targetted by little-known US military conspiracies and political threats (including the outrageous and unjustified inclusion of Nepal’s Maoists on the US State Department’s terrorist list).

It is this determined, ongoing, revolutionary movement in Nepal that deserves our attention and political support. They must get such attention and support – so that their enemies are exposed and weakened, so that they can’t be strangled in silence, so that diverse positive factors can be mobilised on their behalf, and so that the lessons of this precious communist attempt serve as sparks around the world.

[*Co-signers: Firewolf Bizahaloni-Wong, Jed Brandt, Luis Chavez, J.B. Connors, Joel Cosgrove, Gregory E, Red Fox, Gary, Chegitz Guevara, Rosa Harris, Lee  James, Eddy Laing, Bill Martin, Stephanie McMillan, Giovanni Navarrete, Stiofan Obuadhaigh, Radical Eyes, Redpines, Alastair Reith, Enzo Rhyner, Harry Sims, John Steele, Kathie Strom, Tell No Lies, Adolfo V., Nat W., Fanshen Wong, Liam Wright]