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Liberalism Betrayed?

Liberal democratic principles consider any form of mobilisation of the masses that is beyond the purview of the organs of the state to be illegal. Liberals also regard the masses as disinterested and "innocent"; it is claimed that radical parties such as the Nepali Maoists impose their will on the masses. Inevitably this conception of "innocent" masses and non-comprehension of radical mobilisation explain the surprise at the Maoist victory in Nepal. At the same time, does the participation of the Maoists in the liberal polity create the conditions for mass passivity and hence co-option within the same liberal framework?

Liberalism Betrayed? Saroj Giri People’s Liberation Army (PLA), winning the CA elections in Nepal allows us to raise and, given the novelty of the event, perhaps recast this question of the relationship of revolutionary armed struggles with

Liberal democratic principles consider any form of mobilisation of the masses that is beyond the purview of the organs of the state to be illegal. Liberals also regard the masses as disinterested and “innocent”; it is claimed that radical parties such as the Nepali Maoists impose their will on the masses. Inevitably this conception of “innocent” masses and non-comprehension of radical mobilisation explain the surprise at the Maoist victory in Nepal. At the same time, does the participation of the Maoists in the liberal polity create the conditions for mass passivity and hence co-option within the same liberal framework?

Saroj Giri ( is with the department of political science, University of Delhi, Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

june 7, 2008

s the Maoist victory in the constituent assembly (CA) elections in Nepal a challenge to the liberal consensus and hegemony or is it its expansion, or worse, its intensification, due to co-option of the Maoists in the process? It could be either, mostly depending on which way events unfold in the coming days. The meaning of the Maoist victory calls for a critical examination even as it promises an interesting and politically salient expose of the intricacies and dangers of trying to beat liberal democracy in its own game. Liberals, both left wing and right wing ones, have welcomed the Maoist victory though with caution and sometimes clenching their teeth, as a victory of the ballot over the bullet and a step forward for democracy and peace in Nepal. Those on the revolutionary left have however hardly allowed their pleasant surprise at the results to underestimate the enormous risks of “right wing deviation” and capitulation that the present path entails for the Maoists.

If not anything, however, the Maoist victory in the CA elections in Nepal, in all its conflicting irony of trying to put the revolution to vote, can be taken to make a slightly broader but incisive point on the question of a revolutionary party’s relationship with the masses. For it has always been accepted as almost an article of faith that revolutionary parties, particularly those leading an armed struggle, do not have genuine mass support or that whatever support they have is extracted from the hapless villagers/workers, the masses, through violence. The image of peaceloving, innocent masses cynically tailored to fit the parliamentary, multi-party consensus of global capitalism, is used to deny the possibility of a popular armed struggle or revolutionary movement (apart from of course spontaneous uprisings like the tribal Hul). A party like the Maoists, who led an armed struggle (the people’s war for 10 years) and which still possesses its the masses.

Right from Bhagat Singh to the Naxalites/Maoists in India, revolutionaries have more often than not been pitted against “innocent masses”, with the claim that revolutionaries are bereft of mass support and involvement. This is how the state, both colonial and “post-colonial”, as also the right wing think. Those on the progressive “anti-state” left are slightly better on this score: the masses are neither really with the state nor with the revolutionaries, but are in fact trapped, sandwiched in a battle between two armed groups. For them, revolutionary armed struggles are ultimately just a conflict situation. The Maoist victory in Nepal can perhaps be taken as an occasion to critique and show the vacuousness of such a liberal portrayal of the innocent masses and the reduction of revolutionary parties/movements to mere armed groups bereft of genuine mass support. This is important since, if not in Nepal, large parts of India today are gripped by a fledgling revolutionary armed struggle.

Armed Struggle and Mass Support

The more interesting question is however not how a revolutionary party fares in elections once it renounces armed struggle and joins mass democratic politics. For raising this question alone might, even without wanting to, suggest an implicit legitimisation of a trajectory so often taken by communist parties in south Asia: the (mostly uni-directional) trajectory from revolutionary, underground struggle to a compromised open, democratic politics, participation in parliamentary elections and all the rest. Lest the Maoists’ electoral victory in Nepal be read only in terms of legitimising such a liquidationist trajectory, we need to quickly ask a different question: can multiparty elections serve as the means of judging if any armed struggle might or might not have mass support? Can a revolutionary struggle, to the extent that its core political task is to


bring down the liberal order itself, be legitimately subjected to the liberal criteria of multiparty elections, even when they are really free and fair? And would vote count and elections under a liberal democratic regime be ultimately no more than a way of gaining political legitimacy for the capitalist state and system – even if a revolutionary party were to gain a majority win? Perhaps these questions are pertinent here since the Nepalese Maoists’ joining the democratic mainstream and winning elections is already being peddled as a norm for the Indian Maoists to follow.

Now it is true that the Maoists in Nepal have joined the democratic political process and their people’s war is presently suspended. But the party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), is not wholly a peaceful, law-abiding “democratic party”. And the propaganda onslaught from the media and the political parties obviously tried to corner the Maoists on this, about how unfit they are for decent democratic politics. The media and other political parties presented the Maoists as engaged in extortion and threats, routinely violating the rule of law, taking law into their own hands, yet unreformed in its ways and means. What was considered a weakness was however actually the real strength of the Maoists and which lay at the basis of the strong relationship it had with the majority of working people. Thus, least mindful of the propaganda against them, the Maoists on their part carried on with their politics, their activities of challenging the embedded power relations and in the process violating the rule of law and, as the media never tired of saying, of taking law into their own hands.

So the innocent masses were supposed to have been fed up with the strong arm tactics of the Maoists, not respecting rule of law, countless illegal activities, etc. And that they, given a chance to exercise their democratic franchise, would vote these illegal marauders into oblivion, it was suggested. Thanks to liberal democracy, the innocent masses have the ballot through which they are going to banish the red proponents of the bullet forever, it was hoped by many critics of the Maoists! This is what, on the eve of the CA elections, all whose empires and political fortunes rested on the legitimacy of the liberal ballot thought will be its outcome. Of course it looked like the victory of the ballot over the bullet and the liberal world presented it as such. But then the majority of the masses betrayed the ballot, as well as the liberal consensus and raised serious questions about their innocence by overwhelmingly voting for the Maoists.

This betrayal and lack of innocence of the masses could be more serious when retrospectively viewed backwards to the period of the people’s war. Going by the results of the free and fair elections, perhaps lots of these masses had “freely and fairly” participated in and supported the Maoist people’s war. This seriously challenges the oft-repeated assertion that revolutionary armed struggles are bereft of mass participation and support. But then if the revolutionary armed struggles have genuine mass support, does this not raise questions about the rationale of ending it in favour of joining mass democratic politics?

The Lie of Liberal Politics

Good liberals thrive by showing that people are always innocent – a deeply ideological stance actually, in that this works with an assumption of “ordinary people” detached from active politics and immersed in the routines and pleasures of day-to-day life.1 With such a politically passive mass at hand, all that we need are good democratic institutions of governance, proper channels for the expression of social discontent, responsible, accountable politicians, a representative political process and so on. Gandhians too think of the people as innocent and essentially non-violent, benevolent – until they are suppressed or repressed by some form of modernity. In voting the Maoists to power, the people of Nepal have shown that the people are not always innocent – that they sometimes side with a party which openly let a violent people’s war for the last ten years causing the death of thousands.

The people are innocent unlike the blood-stained Maoists, the people are not with the Maoists, that the Maoists got whatever mass support they had through the use of force, and now they are going to get exposed and vanquished in democratic elections – these were the kind of statements and views incessantly repeated and too often blurted out and heard in the run-up to the CA elections. This clearly implied that in an open democratic process of voting through the ballot the Maoists, who so far ruled by force, will definitely lose. The vast majority of people will finally show that the Maoists have ruled by arousing fear among the people, that thanks to the democratic voting process the people will be able to speak their minds and thrash the Maoists, opening the way for a peaceful country, it was felt.

Liberal tenets of peace, stability, law and order and the Gandhian emphasis on non-violence – all vouched for the innocence and good sense of the masses. But just in case the masses were not fully aware of the true nature of the Maoists, the media, political parties, think tanks, with the blessings of the US, India and EU made sure that the only thing anyone ever knew about the Maoists was their excesses, violence, loot, day in and day out. It was with the masses thus protected in their innocence and so thoroughly coached about the real character of the Maoists that the powers that be thought it wise to go ahead and allow the elections to take place in the first place. Earlier, the elections were twice postponed, fearing a Maoist win if they were held then. This time it was finally allowed to take place since all reports reaching India, US and the EU and the other political parties spoke of a sure rout of the Maoists: there were none to say that the emperor had no clothes.

Logic of Representative Politics

And yet the masses voted for the Maoists. It might seem a vexing question for some to explain how a party which violated the rule of law all the time could be voted for by not just the majority of people but by the majority of the poor, less privileged, working class, lower caste sections of society. In most countries, the violation of the rule of law (and getting away with it), is what characterises the right wing, at least in the present times where most of the left has accommodated itself into one or the other form of post-Marxist social democracy or “radical democracy”. So it seems natural and obvious to ask as to what is left wing about the violation of the rule of law by the Maoists: is this not really

june 7, 2008


the rule of the strong, the rule of force over what is good for all? And is it not also time that it is not in spite of the violations of rule of law but precisely because of the same that the Maoists seem to have secured the mass mandate? This “paradox” opens up a lot of other questions.

While those like the CPN(UML) and the Congress, upholding a bourgeois approach to the rule of law, found it so obvious that exposing the Maoist on their open violation of the rule of law and taking the law into their own hands would suffice to sideline and marginalise them, they completely overlooked that it was precisely this which had the masses joining the Maoists in droves. The so-called violation of the rule of law allowed large numbers of people to not just passively rely on those who represent them and frame laws through certain bodies of representative politics but directly intervene in society, economy and politics. Not only would they not rely on any representation but they could also treat all the given laws and the norms of business-as-usual for what they are – inherently biased. Further, they were not seeking the fulfilment of a certain symbolic demand but of specific oppressive acts and practices (for example, certain labour practices) in the immediate workplace, neighbourhood, school or office. This is true of taxi-drivers, hotel workers, factory workers, rickshaw pullers, etc, in different cities and towns across the country whose conditions have drastically improved through such direct interventionist methods of struggle under Maoist initiative. This was primarily conducted through the Youth Communist League (YCL) which was indeed the backbone, the main fighting force of the party once it entered the peace process.

The revolutionary aspect here is however not the fulfilment of certain demands of the workers and the amelioration in their conditions. These sectoral, trade specific victories were only a part of a general shift in the political balance of forces for the country as a whole. For these demands were achieved less by typical trade unionist methods of collective bargaining than by upsetting the existing balance of power relations, a challenge to the generalised domination of the ruling, upper classes. To the extent that

Economic & Political Weekly

june 7, 2008

the rule of law is a concrete embodiment of this abstract, generalised domination, the violation of the rule of law is often a foregone conclusion for any revolutionary movement. This of course took place in Nepal in the context of a larger challenge to the balance of forces at the political level throughout the country and society in the course of the people’s war and the accompanying revolutionisation of social relations.

The violation of the rule of law here was therefore the masses of people replacing the arms and functionaries of the state and acting directly. In challenging the hold of the state and its legal apparatus in preserving and defending the oppressive power relations, the initiative of large sections of working people got unleashed as they could now not just win concessions and get “empowered” but exercise political power without representation: approximating direct democracy. What was unmistakably present here was of course the working class character of these mobilisations; most of the participants here were not the educated, cultured, law-abiding citizens but ordinary, nondescript workers, the proletarian riff-raff, the lumpen proletariat in urban areas. The majority of people belonging to these latter classes in Nepal today are either members or sympathisers of the YCL.

‘Rule of the Mob’ versus the Law

The mainstream media and the other political parties presented the fight to be between those who supported the “rule of the mob” and those who supported the rule of law by law-abiding citizens, assuming that people will clearly vote against the former. But the opposite happened and this is where we realise how radicalised and seriously left wing the political scene in Nepal is today: the more the Maoists were exposed about their violation of the rule of law and excesses by the YCL, the more they were increasing in popularity, particularly among the lower, popular classes. It is of course true that as merely an election gimmick, such activities on the part of the Maoists or any party would be a total disaster. So the political parties, the media and their international backers thought that the Maoists, duly exposed on this front, are going to badly lose in the elections. However, it was not an election gimmick, or yet another vote-catching trick which the Maoists were devising. Rather they were pursuing their politics. And this meant above all that the large majority of people, particularly from the lower classes should be mobilised to challenge and replace the generalised domination of the ruling classes and the state. It was a question of unleashing the revolutionary initiative of the masses.

The norms and criteria of liberal democratic politics were simply not applicable and, worse, turned out to be counterproductive for other parties. This was what was happening on the ground but which the experts and pundits, the other political parties could not simply grasp due to their class position. As it happened it was this class of privileged people from Nepal who reported to the so-called international community that the Maoists are going to lose badly in the elections. That is, for the US, EU and India, that it was safe to allow the elections to take place this time, on April 10 and the expectations were the Maoists would be routed badly. But as we now know the people let down the international community, took the side of violence and voted for the “rule of the mob”!

In voting for the Maoists, the people proved not so innocent. All along, during the course of the people’s war in Nepal, the innocence of the people was assumed almost a priori. That is, the people were supposed to be not with the Maoists, that they do not really support the Maoists – an extension of the earlier thinking that they had been terrorised into the people’s war. At best, in the eyes of good liberals and human rights activists it was surely no less than a mantra to portray people as innocent and sandwiched between a battle between two armed groups, the state and the Maoists. That is what the people’s war was: a conflict situation, claiming so many lives. There then follows an effusion of humanitarian concerns: all presupposing their innocence and suffering and systematically denying their political involvement. The primary aim of all of this is of course to delegitimise the rebel forces and justify the terrible military repression which is then unleashed by the state. The Nepali Maoists are therefore still listed by the US as a terrorist organisation and the


Indian state treats its own Maoists in the country as terrorists unleashing terrible repression on the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Thus in Nepal the fact that the people can break out of their attributed innocence and get political in ways other than given by liberal democracy was just not considered. The CA election results demonstrate precisely this insight: that there is politics beyond liberal democracy. In fact, that politics proper starts beyond liberal democracy, otherwise it is nothing but the social management of capitalism.

Nepal today therefore provides a crucial clue to at least one way of opening or rather locating a crack in the confidence and assertiveness of the globally victorious capitalist class and its representative political parties and states. It is however not just the (misplaced) confidence of the dominant and the victorious which sometimes brings about their undoing; it also results from their very class and subject position which most surreptitiously eludes them a certain view of reality which is available to the working class and to the proletarian standpoint. That is to say that the bourgeois political parties and the international community failed to come to terms with the kind of far-reaching changes that Nepalese society underwent over the past one decade or so; more interestingly, these changes might have rendered these parties redundant, destroying their social base and traditional networks so the very conditions for them to know what was going on at the grass roots no longer existed. Thus these elections showed how the ruling, mainstream parties had been rendered redundant in the face of radical changes sweeping the grass roots. Basking in the ongoing dominance and hegemony of global capital could not come so easily for the Nepalese ruling class and its representatives, unlike ruling classes elsewhere today.

Innocent Masses and Revolutionary Politics

That is about the mainstream, right wing forces and states and their story regarding the Maoist victory in Nepal. Perhaps we here need to ask a few questions about the lack of innocence and hence the political character of the masses. In south Asia, heavily coloured by the Indian experience, the masses are regarded as innocent, at least as not political enough to be part of revolutionary politics. Revolutionaries therefore have been pictured as hopelessly daring and radical in being cut off from the masses. Bhagat Singh might have been a daring revolutionary but the masses were not seen to be with him, they were with Gandhi. It is as though revolutionaries by resorting to armed struggle only put the unprepared, innocent masses in harm’s way. The broad masses of people have never been with the extremists, the revolutionary left, or with the Naxalites. Revolutionary armed struggle is reduced to a universalisable conflict situation, to a spiral of violence in which ordinary, innocent people are trapped, in a civil war kind of a situation.

What is this premium placed on the innocence of the people? And what happens to this premium on innocence when the masses actually turn out and vote for a revolutionary party, blatantly betraying the dominant order? Maybe if the elections were not held in Nepal today, which was quite a possibility, as it was already twice postponed and held only since Maoists were expected to be defeated, we would never have had this evidence to show about the Maoists’ popularity among the masses. How do we then know, one is tempted to ask, that Bhagat Singh did not have the kind of mass support which Gandhi had? How do we know for example that the Maoists in India are not popularly supported by the masses? Isn’t there a dominant will to preserve the innocence of the masses so that they do not end up expressing their lack or loss of innocence, so that revolutionary forces are simply bracketed out of politics?

What the Nepal experience teaches us is that revolutionaries are supported by the vast majority of working people and that merely following the path provided by other parties would have lead them to their defeat! Topping this list, in the context of Nepal, was the violation of the rule of law, taking the law into their hands, as the Maoists did through the YCL across the country. As we saw, the fight for better working conditions, increased wages, shorter working hours was part of upsetting the political balance of forces in society as a whole. In breaking the law, they did two things simultaneously. They challenged the generalised domination of the state and ruling classes in society, and in achieving this through mass mobilisation they unleashed the initiative of the masses towards something approaching a direct exercise of political power.

In opting for the interventionist activities of the Maoists (hence the Maoists were often accused of taking law into their own hands, not respecting the rule of law), the masses no longer wanted to respect the narrowness of the political under bourgeois democracy: the political as constituted around the institutions of periodical multiparty elections and representative politics through which the state legitimises its (monopoly) powers. It is very clear that mass following in revolutionary politics is not a question of mobilising the masses on certain issues alone but of the masses directly intervening not for just some symbolic demands but for specific demands in and through a larger struggle against the generalised power relations as manifest in the law and the state. This struggle would not be against the state and law in their empirical manifestations and particular instances alone, but against its generalised domination so that this would mean their replacement by direct power of the masses. Going by the experience of the Maoist movements in Nepal and India, it seems clears that it is such a revolutionary politics which draws masses into it.

Unlike in the kind of mass following for Gandhi, for example, here in Nepal mass following is replaced as it were by masses exercising direct political power by replacing the old state and law. However such revolutionary mass mobilisations, unlike the Gandhian ones, are under no circumstances allowed by the ideological and armed might of the existing state and law.

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Thus the revolutionary party is banned and severe state repression is unleashed on its members and sympathisers as witnessed in India today. That is why mass mobilisation along these lines must be protected by a people’s army which is nothing more than the people armed, and not a standing army. The end of the innocence of the people, in which the people do not just innocently bargain with or withdraw from the state, but move forward to replace this state and political representation with the direct exercise of political power, protected by their own people’s army, is the kind of revolutionary politics which in Nepal provided a surge of mass mobilisation. The YCL, which was the main organ of the Maoists after they joined the peace process, organised hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, mostly from lower classes, not just for basic rights but into an alternative exercise of power, sometimes parallel to and most of the times counter to the power of the state.

Revolutionary Party, Parliamentary Politics

However there is a deep tension here. If there was a surge of mass mobilisation for the direct exercise of political power replacing the old state and its laws and if the Maoists gained popularity since the revolutionary initiative of the masses was unleashed under their leadership, then what position does the vote occupy in this obviously larger context? In other words, is not the direct exercise of political power and the mass mobilisation towards it, undone by the mechanism of the vote which is the very basis of representative politics and hence of a pacified mass of people? People casting their votes, giving their mandate for a particular party so that that party can and now should carry out the promises of the people: this is the format of parliamentary politics. Within this format, any party which wins is supposed to then prove itself and deliver the goods and uphold its mandate. There is a lot of pressure on the Maoists to now live up to these expectations and improve the economic and political situation in the country. What does this mean in terms of the emerging relationship between the Maoists (the party more specifically) and the wider people (the masses)?

Economic & Political Weekly

june 7, 2008

On the one hand, the people, the masses, working actively in and for the system in their everyday life (they have to build a new Nepal right?) but will be politically passive, and would just observe and judge whether the party in power is living up to their expectations and to the given mandate. On the other, the party in power is supposed to mobilise the state, the bureaucracy and the business class and, with the right kind of policies, ensure that it can actually deliver the goods. What this means however is that the relationship between the masses and the party here gets completely depoliticised in a very particular sense. The very logic of this format of parliamentary, representative politics contains the seeds of defusing any popular political mobilisation of masses and makes routine “party politics” as the norm. In such a situation what happens to the Maoists whose relationship with the masses presupposed and was based on mass mobilisation and not on a passive mass of supporters who vote for it?

The masses and the society as a whole are no longer part of challenging the power relations that constitute society, particularly its social relations. A revolutionary party’s relationship with the masses, even when “it is in power”, presupposes a society which is constantly in motion, challenging the power relations that constitute it and in that process release the massive creative energies of the people. The energies of such a “society in movement” then allows the party to deliver the goods without having to rely on the old state bureaucracy and private capitalists, or more generally the ruling classes that would have monopolised the surplus. Working with a pacified mass, however, where the masses just wait for the party to now deliver the goods and society is not itself being revolutionised, meaning that the party in power has to invariably find itself at the mercy of private capitalists and the state bureaucracy.

It is in this context that one has to understand the Maoist leadership’s unexpectedly unabashed declaration that they are committed to developing capitalism in Nepal. Whether this “commitment” to capitalism is a pragmatic survival tactic to preserve the real revolutionary core of the party by pre-empting any real confrontation with the overwhelmingly stronger enemy or whether there is no such core and what we see and hear, the tactic, is all that there is, seems increasingly less debatable as the emerging contours are getting clearer. In the name of national reconciliation and the need for national economic development for which all are called upon to join hands and come together, the Maoists in Nepal seem to increasingly rely on the capital and the old state bureaucracy.

This will of course mean that the party’s relationship with the masses is going to change and will increasingly become one dictated by the logic of multiparty parliamentary politics which we pointed out above. This might of course spell the end to the direct action through which the YCL challenged power relations, cutting through the dubiously lawful niceties of representative politics and bringing the masses closer to exercising direct political power. Already there is enormous pressure on the Maoists to wind up the YCL and completely function as a “democratic” party. The UML and the Congress have placed this as the conditions for joining any Maoist-led interim government. This would mean that the Maoist party in gaining the vote loses on the kind of mass mobilisation and involvement that provides the basis for its revolutionary politics.

Thus while the need to develop capitalism can be still understood, even if unconvincingly, as a phase in the march towards socialism, this transformation of the party’s relationship with the masses would clearly transform it into yet another bourgeois democratic party as the left wing of capital. The party’s declaration affirming its present course towards economic revolution and capitalism is being justified, if rarely even attempted, by arguing that it is only a phase or sub-phase towards new democratic revolution or socialism. However, the transformation of the party into a force which increasingly deprives itself of the mass energies for revolutionary change and armed struggle seems to provide a clear picture of the direction in which the party is headed through its economic revolution and road to a prosperous, “new” Nepal.

In this context, the party still possessing a people’s army, the PLA might not really, by this very fact, make it a


revolutionary party. After all, even the most ardent right-wingers are not asking for disbanding the PLA but are for merely transforming it for purposes of national reconstruction. Proposals from all sides, including the Maoists, suggest that the PLA be changed into a force for the protection of industrial installations, for example.

Liberal democracy seems truly liberal and truly democratic to accommodate even the PLA in its fold. This would make Mao turn in his grave but fair enough, for it is no less than what Prachanda calls this miracle (‘chamatkar’) taking place: has something like this ever happened anywhere? The miracle of revolution in and through liberal democracy: the miracle of revolution and the end of history?


1 Wilhelm Reich famously ridiculed the “little man” whose indifference to and innocence about politics made him wonderfully innocent about his complicity in the crimes of Nazism.

june 7, 2008

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