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The Constituent Assembly And The Revolutionary Left

Tuesday 25 March 2008, by Mahesh Maskey and Mary Deschene

As the elections to the constituent assembly draw near, the question
in Nepal seems not to be whether there will be a democratic republic,
but rather what kind of democratic republic it will be. “Bourgeois
democrats” would want to preserve the country’s capitalistic
character, while the “revolutionary left” will make every effort to
give it a transitional character to bring socialism on to the
nation’s agenda. “The reformist left” will vacillate between the two
courses but predominantly forge alliances with the “bourgeois

As the revolutionary left braces to complete the next stage of a
rather long bourgeois-democratic revolution in Nepal – the election
of a constituent assembly – these words of Lenin in 1905 may serve as
a beacon pointing the way toward socialism: “The proletariat must
carry the democratic revolution to completion, allying itself to the
mass of the peasantry in order to crush the autocratic resistance by
force and paralyse the bourgeois instability. The proletariat must
accomplish the socialist revolution, allying itself with the mass of
semi-proletarian elements of the population so as to crush the
bourgeoisie’s resistance by force and paralyse the instability of the
peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie.”

Lenin was emphatic that these tasks of the proletariat be carried out
even when the bourgeoisie recoiled from its responsibility during the
bourgeois-democratic revolution. Those who keep a close watch over
the history of class struggle in Nepal will know that the democratic
revolution has been delayed at certain junctures, but never halted.
Indeed, it has carried on even though the Nepali bourgeoisie recoiled
to such an extent that its representative party viewed itself and the
monarchy as Siamese twins with a single body and intertwined heads.

The bourgeoisie came to favour constitutional monarchy, undermining
the call for a democratic republic from the left. In 1958 they
abandoned the struggle for a constituent assembly in favour of the
constitution given by the then monarch, won an election under that
constitution, but were soon stripped of state power by enforcement of
a clause of that same constitution. The stance of the Nepali
bourgeoisie can be viewed as a local manifestation of a world- wide
phenomenon in predominantly feudal states surviving under the grip of
imperialism and colonialism or neocolonialism. These outside forces
were aligning with local feudal forces for easy access to, and
exploitation of, the national resources, and to ensure their
influence in a geo- strategically sensitive territory. The character
and attitude of the bourgeoisie was also changing under such
influences; over time they turned themselves into comprador and
bureaucratic capitalists who gained more by compromising with
feudal and imperialist elements than by standing against them. As a
class, the bourgeoisie found a comfortable perch under the
protective wing of a bourgeois monarchist party. Thus Nepal came to
witness the sorry development of the Nepali Congress which, while
proclaiming “democratic socialist” principles, in practice preferred
to forge alliances with monarchist forces rather than with the left,
even though the monarchy kept on pushing them out of political power
and when- ever possible out of the state political apparatus all

Left Extends the Boundaries

As the bourgeoisie recoiled from its historic tasks to curl up
subserviently at the feet of the monarch, responsibility to
complete the democratic revolution and hold a constituent assembly
election fell to the fledgling revolutionary left, representing the
proletarian class. They were clear that only by completing the
course of bourgeois-democratic revolution, of new democracy, could
they embark on the path of socialist revolution. Realising that
they could not step outside or past the bourgeois-democratic
boundaries of the Nepali revolution as it was currently
constituted, the revolutionary left made every effort to extend
those boundaries, pushing the bourgeoisie further along the path
toward its completion, whenever and wherever the latter tended to
stop due to its own limitations. Alliances made with the peasantry,
expressed in rural class struggle, have been the main means to
expand those boundaries and to pressure the bourgeoisie.

In this context, the People’s Movement of 1990, or the Janandolan-1
as it is now popularly called, stands as an important turning point
in Nepali history. The absolute rule of monarchy was no longer
acceptable and the political system through which it was practised
– the “partyless panchayat system” – could no longer serve as its
vehicle. The bourgeoisie, threatened by a maturing left force, had
to become more vocal for its own agenda of abolition of the
panchayat system, establishment of multi- party democracy and
constitutional monarchy. Left influence and power had increased to
the extent that for the first time they were participating in a
joint movement on an equal basis with the Nepali Congress, some in
alliance and some outside the alliance. Students, teachers and a
section of civil society were also taking a strongly pro-democratic
stand against the monarchy. The convergence of all these forces,
backed by popular participation, successfully ousted the partyless
panchayat, established a multiparty parliamentary system, and
replaced absolute monarchy with constitutional monarchy. Outwardly
it appeared that sovereignty had been wrested from the crown and
vested in the people where it belonged, though some on the
revolutionary left immediately realised that a Janandolan-2 would be
necessary to achieve true people’s sovereignty.

From a long-term perspective, the greatest importance of
Janandolan-1 and the period that followed may lie in the fact that
several long-held political hypotheses were put to the test. The
first to be refuted was the hypothesis of the viability of
constitutional monarchy itself. For decades this theoretical concept
had been presented by the bourgeoisie as a political panacea for
many of the socio-economic ills of Nepal’s semi-feudal society.
When put to the test however, actual constitutional monarchy proved
neither to be prepared to respect constitutional restrictions, nor
to be ready to make a break from the feudal base that had sustained
it over centuries. Backed by a loyal army and bureaucracy, it
continued to defy the letter and spirit of the new constitution and
to create difficulties for the bourgeoisie to rule effectively.
Conversely, the government could not substantively protect the
people from the oppression of feudal and comprador forces, nor did
it have the political will or class interests necessary to protect
the country from the liberalisation/structural adjustment regime of
the international financial institutions that was so severely
imposed throughout the south during the 1990s. Failing to better
the condition of the masses, the bourgeois-monarchist political
position weakened considerably. In this context, two strong
tendencies emerged which played a dominant role in preparing the
groundwork for the 2006 movement, or Janandolan-2 – another landmark of great historical importance.

The Left

The first of these tendencies was the radicalisation of the
revolutionary left. Immediately after Janandolan-1 the revolutionary
left stream organised itself into the Nepal Communist Party (CPN)
(Unity Centre) with the objective of accomplishing the new
democratic revolution. At the same time, the reformist left current
concentrated itself in the Nepal Communist Party (United Marxist-
Leninist or UML), organised around the slogan of “people’s multi-
party democracy”. This latter current which drew its inspiration
from Euro-communism, kept vacillating between social democracy, and
a revised form of new democracy. The reformist left was keen to
beat the bourgeois-monarchist forces at their own game. In order to
occupy the political space created by the shrinking of bourgeois
influence, it made peace with the palace and regressive Indian
forces, and immersed itself in capturing state power through
elections. The CPN(UML) hypothesis that people’s power can be won
and executed through elections without uprooting the feudal
structures and socio- economic relations was also refuted by the
events of the post-1990 period. The negligible achievements even
during occasional periods of partial state power made this clear.
Even clearer was the extent to which their reformist philosophy led
to their co-optation within the system.

The revolutionary left was faced with the challenge of reconciling
with multi- party democracy which they jointly fought for in 1990,
and continuing the revolution through to the end. They also adopted
two tactics: participating in parliament to expose its reactionary
class nature, and underground preparation for mass agitation,
general strikes and peasant revolts. However, as the crisis in the
bourgeois camp deepened, the revolutionary left divided over the
nature of people’s war and appropriate timing for its launching,
the question of united front, the importance of mass movement,
integration of urban and rural class struggle, and integration of
people’s war with popular uprising. That stream which opted to begin
people’s war renamed itself as Nepal Communist Party (Maoist),
while the other stream continued as CPN (Unity Centre) with its
legal front known as United People’s Front (later “People’s Front”
or Janamorcha).

Splits and Unity

Much has been written about the genesis of the Nepali Maoist
movement, the war they waged, their achievements and losses. Much
less attention has been paid to the changes they were making in
their positions and outlooks during this period. What began almost
as a repetition of the Peruvian Maoist’s People’s War developed its
own character as the Nepali Maoists achieved victories in battle,
learned to minimise losses and preserve themselves with great
flexibility and tenacity, and to change course as and when needed.
These changes were influenced by the intense debate that continued
between the two streams of the revolutionary left within the
general context of grasping the reality and course of events around
them. For an observer who revisits the debates over political
positions from the period of the split and commencement of people’s
war, it will be clear that many of the CPN (Maoist) positions were
refuted by the practice of revolution and it gradually adopted the
positions taken by the CPN (Unity Centre). On the other hand, while
the CPN (Unity Centre) proved itself to have achieved theoretical
clarity about the course of revolution, it could neither launch
another people’s war nor join the CPN (Maoist)’s ongoing war, given
the continuing difference in analysis concerning the role of
building a mass base for the success of a people’s war. In this
situation, its revolutionary task evolved to protect the Maoist
movement while fiercely criticising the militarist thinking and
petty bourgeois adventurism within its ranks.

A famous dictum of Mao is the three magic wands that made the
Chinese revolution successful – the communist party, the red army
and the united front. In Nepal the CPN (Maoist) could claim the
first two and the CPN (Unity Centre) the first and third. Together
they have complemented one another in furthering and shaping the
course of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Nepal. After the
people’s movement of April 2006, these two streams have achieved
consensus on major issues. The senior-most leaders of both streams
have stated more than once that the objective and subjective
conditions leading to their split no longer exist; hence unity is
inevitable. At this late date the technicalities of election
commission regulations prevent them from achieving formal party unity
before the election of the constituent assembly. However, the
revolutionary left still has a chance to make electoral alliances
and join forces to influence the outcome of the constituent assembly.
Their commitment to their own hypothesis that unity of the
revolutionary forces is imperative to complete the bourgeois
revolution may now be tested.

Rejection of Absolute Monarchy

The second tendency that emerged to take advantage of the political
chaos and dissatisfaction of the people was the extreme right’s
attempt to re-establish absolute monarchy. The gruesome palace
massacre of 2001 was followed by the long royal takeover that began
in 2002 and culminated on February 1, 2005. This period saw a
succession of ruthless events de- signed to intimidate the Nepali
people into accepting the rule of absolute monarchy. This oppression
was answered by staunch resistance by people from all walks of life.
Civil society activism forced political parties to stand up to the
challenge posed by monarchist forces. Political initiatives
successfully brought the CPN (Maoist) and seven other major political
parties to the negotiating table, resulting in a 12-point agreement
that created a supportive environment for non-violent popular
uprising. The slogan of constituent assembly began to capture the
popular imagination as a peaceful means to settle the issues under-
lying the decade-long violent conflict between the state and the CPN
(Maoist). In this charged environment, the slogan of democratic
republic emerged as the embodiment of the aspirations of the
peasantry, proletariat and all conscious citizens for breaking the
fetters of the old feudal state.

Bourgeoisie at the Crossroads

It must be noted in the present context that both the slogans and
agenda of constituent assembly and democratic republic were
articulated and argued by the revolutionary left. Half a century ago
the bourgeois forces agreed to halt the 1950 revolution when an offer
of constituent assembly was made at the negotiating table. The
question of a constituent assembly remained a demand of bourgeois
monarchists for a decade, but was abandoned when they accepted a
constitution produced by the monarchy and old feudal forces. The
left continued with it as its own agenda. But later, the reformist
left also dropped it, following the example of the bourgeois-
monarchists. From that time forward it was solely the revolutionary
left who carried on with the slogan and agenda of a democratic
republic and a constituent assembly – for which it right- fully
deserves credit.

The recent course of events in Nepal not only revived the agenda of
constituent assembly, it also forced the agenda of democratic
republic upon the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Hesitantly and
cautiously they began making the transition from bourgeois-
monarchist to bourgeois- democrat, weaning themselves away from the theory of the monarchy and the bourgeoisie as Siamese twins and, at least formally, dropping the agenda of constitutional monarchy. This
transition was in part made possible by the sharpening contradiction
and power contestation between these two forces, pushing the
bourgeoisie toward collaboration with the left. Nepali history has
more than once demonstrated that when the bourgeoisie and the left
collaborate, as in 1990 and 2006, they can win key battles with
monarchist forces. The tremendous efforts of imperialist and Indian
regressive forces to pre- vent the bourgeois-left alliances that
created the peace process and restoration of civil government, and
are taking Nepal to the constituent assembly election, must also be
understood in this light.

The second major adaptation in bourgeois attitude was the transition
from insistence on a majority rule system to reluctant consideration
of inclusive and proportionate democratic rule. For more than two
centuries, the ethnic, linguistic and regional diversity of Nepal
has been deliberately suppressed by the centralised feudal state.
The struggle for identity and equal rights along these lines,
together with the struggles of women, dalits and marginalised
communities is carving out a new system of political rule.
Federalism, autonomy, right to self-determination, proportional
representation, and inclusive democracy are but a few of the
concepts now shaping the consciousness of the Nepali people. The
left, as always, is more open and sensitive to these newer
concepts. The bourgeoisie, in keeping with its own character, is
taking them cautiously and hesitantly, even though they are
familiar bourgeois-democratic concepts established by their own
predecessors in other parts of the globe.

Although the Nepali bourgeoisie has collaborated with the left
against monarchical rule, by its very nature it is reluctant to
complete the democratic revolution. It rather opts not to sweep away
all remnants of the past. As Lenin put it in 1905: “It is to the
advantage of the bourgeoisie to rely on certain remnants of the
past, as against the proletariat, for instance on the monarchy, the
standing army, etc.” It is not unlikely that the Nepali bourgeoisie
may betray its own self – the cause of liberty. Will it follow that
traditional path of betrayal or will it forge a new alliance in
the face of the ravages of capitalism in the age of “globalisation”?
The alliances made during and after the election of the constituent
assembly will indicate which turn the bourgeoisie may take in
future, and whether it will yet again fall to the Nepali
proletariat to “paralyse the bourgeois instability”.

Conjectures and Speculations

At present, bourgeois democrats appear more likely to ally with the
reformist left, rather than with the discredited monarchy. However,
it is certain that policy intended to appease the monarchy will be
continued so that its military loyalists are not antagonised. The
question in Nepal at present seems not to be whether there will be
a democratic republic, but rather what kind of democratic republic
it will be. Bourgeois-democrats would want to pre- serve its
capitalistic character embedded in the matrix of “hyper-capitalism”
under globalisation. The revolutionary left, on the other hand, will
make every effort to give it a transitional character to usher in the
phase of socialist revolution. The reformist left, it can confidently
be speculated, will vacillate between the two courses but pre
dominantly forge alliances with bourgeois democrats, as it continues
to make its own transition to “social democracy”.

It cannot be ruled out, however, that in the process of pre- and post-
constituent assembly polarisation and realignments, some bourgeois
democratic forces would opt to stand against the forces of
globalisation and militarisation, upholding the values of social
justice and democracy as the revolutionary republicans will do.
Likewise from within the ranks of the reformist left many may refuse
to adopt social democratic revisionism, opting in- stead to work more
closely with the masses. The revolutionary left should have no
hesitation in forging alliances with these forces along with the mass
of peasantry and petty bourgeoisie.

Whether one of these configurations develops, or whether the
regressive forces of the country are given yet another chance to
reconsolidate power may depend vitally on the ability of the
revolutionary left to translate its theoretical under standing into
concrete practice. The vacillating tendency of the reformist left
is hardly new. The revolutionary left must prove itself capable at
this crucial juncture to bring that force into alliance. Similarly,
the emergent pro-republican tendencies of the bourgeois forces must
be skilfully and effectively encouraged in an environment where
domestic and international regressive elements are doing their
utmost to bring the bourgeoisie back into their fold. As CPN (Unity
Centre) and People’s Front have been emphasising, the present
situation demands tactical alliance not merely of the revolutionary
left, but of all republican forces.

Serve the People

With hindsight, it can be said that by arousing the peasant masses
through rural class struggle and Maoist people’s war, the
revolutionary left has achieved consider- able success in paralysing
bourgeois instability and crushing the resistance of autocracy by
force, thus clearing the ground for the unprecedented spectacle of
mass protests and popular demonstrations witnessed by the whole
world in 2006. The combined effort of national and inter- national
reactionary forces was able to pre- vent the final culmination of the
peaceful uprising – the armed revolt – only by opting to compromise
and not through military suppression of the popular movement.

It has taken two turbulent years for the constituent assembly
election to materialise, now due to be held on April 10, 2008. For
the revolutionary left it is a hard won victory and epoch-making
event which can help speed the completion of the democratic
revolution. They can be expected to make a sincere effort to win the
hearts and trust of the people for their candidates and to win a
majority of the seats. But it should also be kept in mind that
revolutionaries do not participate in elections in a desperate bid
to win seats. When they participate in elections it is to make
their agenda clear, and to educate the people about the probable
course of history.

For the CPN (Maoist), the occasion is an added opportunity to
rectify its past mistakes, and atone for atrocities committed during
the people’s war. It is also an opportunity to gain strength by
revisiting the masses on a different footing, and to emerge as a
more mature political force, freed from the tendency to militarism.
It would not be out of place, I believe, to remind the revolutionary
left of the spirit of “serve the people” and the “eight points of
conduct” so eloquently put forward by Mao as they present themselves
to the people as their true representatives in the elections to the
constituent assembly. Such an effort may hasten the pace of
completion of the first tactical phase of revolution as articulated
by Lenin, and prepare them for the second.

Article originally published in Economic and Poltiical Weekly, March 24, 2008