New course needed to deliver change for Nepal’s poor

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As 2009 drew to a close, the class struggle in Nepal continued to escalate. Several General Strikes – including a 3-day strike in the capital, Kathmandu, starting on 20 December – closed factories and markets and kept vehicles off the streets. Thousands of supporters of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) marched in torch-lit processions to protest State repression against the mass movement.

A vicious police assault on a squatter camp in the Kailali district, 640 kilometres west of Kathmandu, sparked a successful countrywide General Strike on 6 December. More than 20,000 homeless people were in the camp, many having lost their homes due to mudslides. The State declared the camp illegal and moved in to remove people and dismantle their huts, sparking a spirited defence. The police opened fire, killing four people and injuring dozens more.

The later strike had the goal of breaking the impasse between the Maoists and the other main political parties. A key point of friction is the failure to implement the 2006 peace deal and particularly what will happen to 20,000 former Maoist fighters, who have been living in UN-supervised camps since the end of the protracted “People’s War,” launched by the Maoists in February 1996.

Maoism is a variant of Marxism that emphasises rural rather than urban, struggle and promotes the tactic of guerrilla war in opposition to building a mass revolutionary movement led by the working class. The tactic of People’s War is one of the basic principles of Maoism, which shares with Stalinism the idea that revolutions must be made in distinct stages.

Nepal has been rocked by almost constant protests since the 4th of May 2009 when, just nine months after coming to power, the Maoist-led government resigned after failing to win a showdown with the military. The current Nepalese government holds power with the support of the military and is chronically unstable, united only by its opposition to the Maoists.

From civil war to uneasy peace.

Throughout the decade of guerrilla struggle, support for the Maoist insurgency and its leader, Pushpa Kamal Dhal (known popularly as Prachanda, “the fierce one”), grew steadily.

Nepal, with its population of 28 million, is one of the poorest countries in Asia with a per capita income in 2009 of the just USD$471 per year. Poverty and malnutrition is widespread with 31% of the population living below the poverty line and 16% having no access to safe drinking water.

Nepalese women carry a double burden. Nepal is the only country in the world where women’s life expectancy is shorter than men’s. Women’s literacy rate is just 27% compared to 63% for men. The country is semi-feudal and has an entrenched caste system, with dalits making up 20% of the population. Dalit women are the most downtrodden. Rape, domestic violence and dowry murders are all rampant. Poor women are also frequently trafficked into the Indian sex industry. Women’s rights organisations estimate that up to 7,000 Nepalese women and girls are trafficked into sex slavery every year.

Given these conditions, active support for the Maoists, with their vision of a “new Nepal,” grew rapidly. They advocate free education and healthcare. Their promise of land reform is popular in a country where 80% of the population lives in rural areas andsupports itself through subsistence agriculture. Calls to empower and improve the lives of workers struck a chord in the cities. However, the Maoists limited their program to a “democratic and secular” Nepal and did not put forward a socialist program.

Increasingly the Maoists faced a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, they experienced success as their popular support base grew. On the other, it became increasingly clear that they were locked in a guerrilla war they could not win. In 2006 they reversed their strategy and negotiated a peace deal agreeing to lay down their arms, to enter into the interim government and to participate in the April 2008 election.

With the peace pact, the Maoist leadership changed course from “People’s War” Maoism to “popular-front” Maoism, seeking alliances with what they call “progressive bourgeois leaders.”

Guerrillas in government.

Support remained high after the peace was signed. The Maoists won 40% of the seats in the elections, with the remainder shared between 20 other parties. They played a key leadership role in the “seven-party alliance,” which led a huge mass movement campaign to abolish the monarchy and feudalism. The constitutional assembly voted to abolish the 240-year-old absolute monarchy and establish a republic, handing the Maoists a huge victory.

Yet, with their republican goal achieved, what to do next?

The Maoists faced the very same question as Russian Marxists after the February 1917 Revolution ousted the hated Tzar. For Russia to advance, the peasants needed to be freed from the grip of the agricultural landlords, and the working class needed democratic rights. These tasks would normally be achieved by a “bourgeois-democratic” revolution – the consolidation of power by the capitalists. But the capitalist class was too weak and too tied to feudalism and foreign banks to make a revolution.

So the workers, led by a revolutionary party, and in alliance with the peasants, had to make it instead. Getting rid of the Tsar was only the beginning! In Russia, the workers continued the struggle for basic democratic freedoms and land reform. In October 1917 the Bolsheviks took power, overthrowing capitalist private property relations.

In contrast, the Maoists believe that, with the monarchy gone, stage one of their revolution had been achieved and the task ahead was to raise living standards by building a strong capitalist Nepal. They adhere to the two-stage theory of revolution, which was emphatically disproved by the Russian experience.

This theory was developed by Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, to absolve the former Soviet Union of any responsibility to assist in spreading workers’ revolution around the globe. In essence it holds that “underdeveloped” countries must first pass through a stage of capitalist democracy before moving to a socialist stage at some indefinite future time. It was a policy that led to the betrayal of workers’ struggles throughout the 20th century.

This betrayal is happening in 21st century Nepal. Baburam Bhattarai, then Finance Minister and a member of the UCPN-M political bureau, said in January 2009: “both management and workers have a common interest now for the development of the economy.” He argued: “We are transitioning from a feudal era to an industrial-capitalist era. Our policy is focused on doing away with all the remnants of feudalism in the political, economic and cultural spheres… For that the private sector has to play a leading role.”

Bhattarai is the Maoists’ key theorist. Following his recipe, the Maoists in government proceeded to pursue a free market agenda. They failed to deliver land reform, banned strikes and imposed a budget praised by the World Bank as “economically responsible.” Any government favoured by the World Bank is, by definition, working against the interests of the poor!

Reactionaries hit back

. In May 2009, having left the State intact, the inevitable showdown occurred. The Maoists attempted to sack General Katawal, the pro-monarchist head of the Nepalese Army, for insubordination. The conflict was over his refusal to implement key parts of the peace agreement, particularly a freeze on recruitment to the Nepalese Army (NA) and the progressive integration of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Katawal had overseen three army recruitment drives and refused to consider PLA cadre, rejecting them as “politicised.” Prachandra sacked Katawal but the pro-monarchist President overturned this. When the Maoists’ coalition “partners” refused to back them, the Prachandra government resigned.

Taking to the streets again, the Maoists’ central demand today is for “civil supremacy” and their goal “democracy, peace and stability.” Any hint of a socialist program remains completely absent.

Once again the UCPN-M finds itself in a contradictory situation. It has overwhelming mass support from workers, peasants and the poor, who look to it to deliver a better life. It can mobilise huge popular protests like those November 2009, which completely immobilised the functioning of government for 13 days. But as long they see creating a strong capitalist Nepal as the way forward, their followers will be bitterly disappointed.

Recently there has been some debate among Nepalese Maoists. Since they abandoned the armed struggle and entered into the “peace process,” they have been struggling to convince the majority of their supporters about the new strategy.

There is growing discussion about internationalism. Bhattarai wrote recently: “Today, the globalisation of imperialist capitalism has increased many-fold as compared to the period of the October Revolution. The development of information technology has converted the world into a global village.” He argued: “in order to sustain the revolution, we definitely need a global or at least a regional wave of revolution in a couple of countries.” Precisely! That is what genuine revolutionaries have been arguing since 1917! The fall of the massive world power that was the Soviet Union, the largest country in the world, demonstrates that there is no way for tiny Nepal to pull itself out of the grip of feudal backwardness on its own. Revolution is a planet-wide process.

This discussion among Nepalese Maoists is a welcome start, but the mass movement they lead needs to reverse course now. The need is great and the opportunity for Nepal’s long-suffering workers, and peasants to get rid of feudalism and capitalism in Nepal is too important to squander in the name of the discredited policies of a discredited dictatorship.

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