by David Broder
On Monday afternoon the unpretentious surroundings of Woolwich town hall played host to remarkable scenes as Nepalese Maoist leader Prachanda addressed a 400-strong meeting. Prachanda is chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which won a majority in April 2008’s parliamentary elections after a 13-year guerrilla campaign to overthrow the monarchy: he was himself the first Prime Minister of the new republic, before ceding power this May.
The rally was a fascinating spectacle, in particular insofar as it was marked by prolonged bouts of energetic shouting and interventions with a ‘revolutionist’ zeal rather at odds with the actions of Prachanda when in power. The music and speeches preceding Prachanda’s arrival and the fact that, following the apparently much-cherished tradition of the labour movement, the meeting began well over an hour late, only added to the sense of occasion.
The vast majority of the audience were (seemingly) from the Nepalese community, and given the make-up of the meeting it was unsurprising that only small sections of the meeting were conducted in English, even though Prachanda can speak the language. A man sitting next to me very kindly translated.
Prachanda’s repeated invocation of the Maoist doctrine of “people’s war” and the CPN(M)’s own guerrillaist history in his address were seemingly rather at odds with the strategy for power he outlined, which was very gradualist. Essentially his ideas boiled down to the argument that Nepal could not realistically go it alone in creating socialism (which is undoubtedly true) and therefore the maintenance of a broad alliance for multi-party democracy is the best option in laying the basis for the sort of political culture one would hope to see in future. Although he is an admirer of Stalin, this view was a direct rejection of the theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’, and he also argued that multi-party democracy was a necessary part of socialism.
In practice, the CPN(M) has taken part in a cross-class alliance of all major parties opposed to the monarchy, thus reshaping the existing state apparatus to a limited degree, and for several months after the Constituent Assembly was established, headed a coalition government based on such forces. Prachanda was forced out of power after a dispute with certain sections of the military, who were unwilling to assimilate ‘ideological’ elements of the Maoist army.
But Prachanda’s view that a communist party could control the levers of state under capitalism and gradually go about enacting socialism through reforms is a very unsophisticated understanding of the inertia of the state itself. Calls for greater democracy, allowing dissent and criticisms of voluntarist ideas of breakneck ‘socialist accumulation’ as occurred in the Great Leap Forward are without doubt less anti-working class than classical Maoism – but the CPN(M)’s claim to represent revolutionary politics applied to a ‘Nepalese context’ ring rather hollow. Of course all countries and all periods have their own particular characteristics and unique aspects, but the point of an analytical framework like Marxism is that it enables you to understand what things they still have in common.
In fact, the experience of trying to hold together a ‘popular front’ (Trotskyists use this expression to mean unprincipled unity with pro-capitalist parties: in my view, using the state machine as your executive arm basically has the same implications) always creates a tendency for the revolutionaries to identify their own interests with those of the state apparatus into which they are assimilated. The state is not a classless, open ‘political space’ in which to operate: the machine has its own objectives and those who take over, rather than replace, the bourgeois state are taking responsibility for managing the existing system effectively. The gap between the current-day practice of the CPN(M) and its talk of communism is fake: they have no strategy for communism, only for the bourgeois state, since they attribute their being in power a phantom ‘transitional’ quality even though there is plainly no dynamic towards the state ‘withering away’.
Getting rid of the royal family does not change the character of the bureaucracy and its many ties to business interests. Prachanda and his comrades cannot and could never have just played a waiting game, holding onto government and hoping that the situation of world capitalism would develop in their favour and allow steps towards socialism: in the here and now, being in power and propping up the bourgeois state forced them to make decisions like sending extra troops to participate in the carve-up in Afghanistan, crush strikes (for all the talk of democracy), and ultimately, simply capitulating in the face of pressure from upstart generals.
While Maoism is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence both on the subcontinent – given the strength of the Naxalites in India as well as the Nepalese left – and in academia, with the likes of Alain Badiou and now Slavoj Zizek willing to stand up for Mao’s heritage, there is not really much cause to re-evaluate its ideas in the wake of Prachanda’s experience in power. The CPN(M) are the post-modern, post-‘end of history’, post-‘There Is No Alternative’ brand of Maoism – they think transformative change is impossible, but seek ministerial positions anyway in the name of a cause they have no plans to move towards.
While academic Marxists in the west may like to eulogise Mao’s “daring to act” and “willingness to suspend the existing ideological co-ordinates”, the reality of these movements today is that although they are sometimes superficially ‘militant’ – in the sense of being dogmatic, terroristic or repressive – their identification with the existing state apparatus means they are at the same time unwilling to bring about any real changes in social relations. Whether Maoist, Stalinist or Trotskyist, a party that claims to be the representatives of the working class who then take over the administration of the state apparatus, actually become representatives of that apparatus because that is their power base.
In that sense, it is not for us to give ‘advice’ to the Nepalese Maoists: their conception of communism is utterly different from our own, and for that reason the strategy of parliamentary manoeuvre they have adopted is way off our radar. Their point of departure is totally wrong: building a movement from below on democratic lines, whether slower or faster in bringing political power, would be an entirely different course of development to theirs. But the experience of Prachanda as Prime Minister has much to teach the left about the vacuous nature of defining alliances against a perceived ‘common enemy’ or coalition-building with no independent objectives; and the impossibility of managing the state in the interests of the working class.