By Reshma Stephens
The revolt of the Nepalese people against their country’s autocratic monarchy demands our support and solidarity. The mass strikes and demonstrations which forced king Gyanendra to restore parliamentary government last month are the classic forms of a deep popular revolution, with neither the ruling class able to maintain the old system of domination any longer nor the ruled willing to tolerate it.
Equally, our solidarity demands that we warn against the co-option and denaturing of this revolutionary movement, whether by the bourgeois “constitutional” opposition parties which currently lead it in the cities, or by the Stalinist guerrillas who lead it in the countryside.
Except for a brief liberal experiment in the 1950s, Nepal was an absolute monarchy, with the king officially an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, until 1991. Opposition parties and popular organisations including trade unions were policed to the point of suppression. Even after the Jan Andolan (People’s) movement forced the creation of a multi-party democracy, the monarchy remained influential enough to intervene repeatedly in the creation of governments; and in 2005, faced with the growing strength of Maoist rebels in the countryside, Gyanendra dismissed parliament and restored a personal dictatorship.
The strength of the mainly-rural rebellion which the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) launched in 1996 stems from the fact that formal democracy changed little in terms of Nepal’s social structure and relationships of exploitation. The absolute monarchy rested on the support of the semi-feudal families who have legal claim to the majority of Nepal’s arable land. (A graphic picture of this elite is provided by the events which brought Gyanendra to power, in which his drugged-up nephew Dipendra massacred his royal parents and seven others in a tiff about wedding plans before turning the gun on himself.) More than 80% of the Nepalese population are engaged in subsistence agriculture — the majority though not all of them poor peasants — and less than 2% in industry — mostly in low-tech assembling and processing.
Most of the factories in Nepal are owned by feudal landowners who have branched out as capitalists; king Gyanendra, for instance, has taken time out of his busy schedule as a living god to acquire assets including a hotel in Kathmandu, a tea estate in the east of the country and a cigarette factory. Most foreign capital in Nepal is Indian, with Indian traders and industrialists exploiting the “favourable” trading terms which the Indian government has screwed out of the monarchy in return for political support and military resistance against the Maoists. The Indian ruling class has historically supported the Nepalese regime not only because it wants a lucrative environment for profit-making north of the border, but because Maoist guerrillas also threaten social stability in parts of the Indian countryside.
Understanding that absolutism is a busted flush, however, both India and the international “brokers” have changed tack. The first danger faced by the Nepalese revolution is a rotten compromise engineered by the imperialist powers, in which the king retains office and possibly limited powers as part of a constitutional monarchy.
The Seven Party Alliance (SPA) of “constitutional” opposition parties has been noticeably inconsistent in its support for republicanism. When Gyanendra announced the restoration of parliament, tens of thousands of people flooded Kathmandu’s streets to celebrate — but instead of mobilising these activists to smash the monarchy, the SPA called for an end to all strikes and demonstrations, nominating former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress Party to head a new government under the king. The SPA, sadly, includes Nepal’s other leading “communist” organisation, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), which won 31% of the vote in the last elections and is influential in the country’s trade union movement, but refuses to organise a workers’ voice independent of the bourgeois parties.
This popular front strategy, in which the CPN(UML) advocates that the working class and rural poor submerge themselves in a union of “constitutional forces” to “defend democracy”, has not only weakened the uprising against the monarchy, but strengthened the other threat which the Nepalese revolution faces: the creation of a Stalinist-type regime resulting from the coming to power of the Maoist rebels. There is no need to look across the Himalayas to China to see what a Maoist victory would mean for the Nepalese people.
In the areas which the CPN(M) controls, the only “working-class” organisation is the party’s tightly controlled trade union front. The Maoists are organised as an autocratic personality cult around their leader Prachanda, who sympathises with the ultra-Stalinist, primitivist Shining Path movement in Peru and who has told the BBC that his party will ban alcohol, gambling and “vulgar literature” from India and the US when it comes to power.
Unfortunately, the idea of supporting the struggle for democracy in Nepal without supporting the Maoists seems to be incomprehensible to most of the left internationally. The Maoist virus has perhaps unsurprisingly infected the British SWP, which has opposed any criticism of the CPN(M). With typical political vagueness, Socialist Worker’s lengthy initial article on the crisis in Nepal argued that “whatever the nature of the Maoists’ political goals”, there is no analogy with the Khmer Rouge’s disastrous seizure of power in Cambodia because “the Maoists enjoy broad bases of support in large areas of the country, and the popular movement in the cities is enthusiastic and confident”. Perhaps the CPN(M) is not the Khmer Rouge; but how does that prove its victory will be anything other than a defeat for the working class?
The following week, Socialist Worker carried an article entitled “Maoism in the 21st century” by Alex Callinicos, assimilating Stalinist guerrilla warfare as simply one form of “democratic revolution” and “resistance to capitalism”, and favourably contrasting the militancy of the CPN(M) to the cynical manoeuvring of the Chinese bureaucracy. As with Islamic fundamentalism, the SWP apparently believes that the revolutionary variant of Stalinism is better than its more pro-capitalist reformist mutation.
In contrast, the genuine revolutionary left must build solidarity with the Nepalese people on the basis of a consistently democratic and socialist stance. The new cabinet has annulled all the appointments made and recalled all the ambassadors created by Gyanendra: a start, but for the Nepalese masses, not nearly enough. Against the attempts of the imperialist diplomats to maintain the monarchy, we must support its immediate overthrow and the election of a single democratic assembly concentrating all power in its hands. We must support radical land reform to break the back of the feudal elite and prevent the resurrection of the monarchy. And we must support socialists fighting for the small, but existing Nepalese workers’ movement to break with the SPA and pursue an independent working-class policy, allowing the embattled Nepalese workers to rally the country’s rural majority independently of the Maoist military machine.
Those who object that the Nepalese working class is tiny and its movement weak are not only guilty of political betrayal. They also ignore the fact that Nepal borders countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China, countries with huge working classes with powerful traditions of independent struggle. The Nepalese revolution must be seen in the context of working-class struggles, and the possibility of working-class revolution, throughout South Asia.