Friday, August 22, 2008

Cracks in the Neoliberal “Consensus”: The Meaning of the Nepali Revolution

by Gregory Esteven

For some time I have been following developments in Nepal just as I have followed developments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and other countries experiencing dramatic political shifts in Latin America. Like countless other leftists, I am trying to orient myself to the realities of the 21st Century, to find out where we are, to understand the meaning of the changes underway in these and other parts of the globe. Sometimes I feel like the more I find out, the less I really know. But I’d like to think that I have at least something of a grip on South American politics, and have some understanding of the amazing cultures of that continent, having spent some time there. Nepal, on the other hand, couldn’t be further removed from both my political and cultural frames of reference. I feel like I understand the incredible complexity of its history and current situation even less.

And yet I can’t let this moment pass without at least commenting on the astonishing changes taking place in that mountainous country. News from Kathmandu is riveting.

Incredible as it is, a week has already passed since Pushpa Kamal Dahal (or “Prachanda”), the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, was elected as the first prime minister of the new republic by the Constituent Assembly, garnering 80% of the vote. This has surprised some analysts, just as the elections for the Constituent Assembly brought its own surprise last April when the CPN-M got 38.10% of the vote – a popular vote, no less.

What all this means for the future of Nepal, no one can tell. Cautiously, however, I think we must conclude that these developments represent a major crack in the neoliberal consensus that has dominated world politics since the end of the Cold War. Flying in the faces of Fukuyamists everywhere, what greater sign could there be that history is not, in fact, over; that the battle of ideologies will continue for a long time to come? It is undeniably significant when, nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a communist-led movement is defining the politics of a country, even if that country is as small as Nepal.

Of course I have reservations about the Nepali Maoists (hence much of the hesitating tenor of this little commentary). There are disturbing allegations about the party circulating around. The United Nations Mission in Nepal, for instance, alleged that during the lead up to the elections in April, they were intimidating officials. The European Union maintains that they used child soldiers in their “people’s war” against the theocratic monarchy. And Hugo Chávez has recently stated that “guerrilla warfare is over,” calling into question the very propriety of using violence to advance “progressive” goals. (Though to put things in perspective, it should be noted that of the 12,800 people who were killed in the conflict since 1996, 8,200 – or the vast majority – were killed by the autocratic monarchial government, with significant aid from the U.S.)

But let’s put aside the character of the CPN-M for a moment. It is not the most amazing, and promising, aspect of Nepal’s current situation. The people are what’s most important. Whatever we think about the tactics of the CPN-M, nothing changes the fact that the people of Nepal have taken a sharp left turn, shirking the so-called wisdom of Washington and the forces of global capital. Let’s do a little math. In the April elections for the Constituent Assembly, 38.10% of the delegates voted into office were from the ranks of the CPN-M, as stated earlier. 17.97% came from the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), the second largest communist party in the country. These alone constitute over 56% of the seats. When you add up the seats that went to other communist parties (there are six others represented), the percentage is 61.55! Overwhelmingly, the Assembly is dominated by communists, and when you consider that a social democratic party, the Nepali Congress, received the second greatest number of seats (19.13%), a picture of left-center hegemony in Nepali politics emerges. Only a small number of seats went to right-wing and monarchist parties. The people of Nepal, clearly, want a brighter future than either feudalism or neoliberal capitalism can offer.

What I find truly promising about the development of this left-center movement in Nepal is that it is not controlled by a single political party, or a single ideological tendency. Certainly, the CPN-M seems to be at the top for the moment, but it is nothing like what happened in Russia, for instance, where the Bolshevik Party emerged as the only political entity with any real power (this happened in many countries, actually, leading to the grave mistake known as the single-party state). As Joe Sims said in the third edition of his “Ten Worst and Best Ideas of Marxism” series in the Political Affairs Editor’s Blog, “The existence of two or more working-class parties in a number of countries – in some cases – for several decades raises basic questions as to whether single structures in the long run are desirable or achievable.” I suspect that the concentration of power in single political organizations has been largely responsible for the bureaucratic and authoritarian deformations that prevented the establishment of true worker’s states following socialist revolutions in the 20th century. Without the checks and balances offered by a genuinely pluralistic left (or left-center) hegemony – a bona fide people’s power – what is to prevent such deformations from occurring? In Nepal, if one party gets out of line (like the CPN-M’s militia committing acts of violence), the other parties can pressure them to correct their behavior. And if one party falls out of favor, it doesn’t necessarily take the whole left with it. In the USSR, when the CPSU fell out of power, there was no organized left alternative to counter the onslaught of capitalist restoration in the form of economic “shock therapy.” The CPSU was the left, pure and simple.

We should all regard Nepal as significant for a number of reasons. One is that the consolidation of people’s power in that country, should it happen, would offer a great deal of hope to neighboring India, a nation of over one billion people and thriving communist movements, especially in the states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. Strategically, I think, this is quite important. Moreover, along with the Bolivarian revolutions underway in Latin America, though with vastly different circumstances, it represents – as I said earlier – a crack in the capitalist world order that defenders of the status quo should find both troubling and shocking. Hopefully it will have rippling effects, inspiring all of us in the world communist movement and increasing the possibility of real people’s power worldwide. I remain guardedly skeptical, as usual, but I am holding my breath.