Nepal’s political crisis carries lessons for the U.S. Left

Over the last few weeks, the Nepalese government has undergone a severe constitutional crisis without meriting more than a perfunctory line in most of the U.S. mainstream press. Owing to a dispute between Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli and his rivals within the governing Communist Party—namely former Maoist guerrilla leader Pushp Kamal ‘Prachanda’ Dahal—Oli has unilaterally and illegally dissolved the lower house of the Nepalese parliament. This has provoked massive protests from across the political spectrum and a split between the warring factions of the Party, ending the fragile experiment of a united Nepalese Left. Twelve years after the defeat of the Nepalese monarchists and Nepal’s rebirth as a parliamentary republic, the Communists’ promise of social revolution remains unfinished, and their reputation lies in tatters. Their fall from grace offers lessons for the United States Left, lest our own attempts at governance meet a similar fate.

This collapse was not inevitable. Despite a history of fracturing on ideological and strategic lines, the Nepalese Left of the 1990s and early 2000s was in many ways a bright spot in a region that had seen the organized Left lose tremendous ground in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The country’s various leftist parties banded together under a united front to lead the 1990 Nepalese revolution against the monarchist regime, which established a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy after 30 years of autocracy. While the Communist Party (Unified Marxist- Leninist, known as UML) became Asia’s first democratically elected communist government, it was constrained by the dominance of the neoliberal political elite that had helped to power the revolution and thus  retained their hold on the levers of state power. As a result, a rival group of leftists formed the Communist Party (Maoist) in 1996, which subsequently launched an armed struggle against the government to abolish the monarchy and remake the country’s ineffectual parliamentary structures. In 2006, after nearly a decade of civil war, the Maoists put down their arms and united with the UML and the country’s center-left parties to finally topple the monarchy, redraft a new republican constitution, and put an end to Nepal’s inner turmoil.

The Maoists’ success against the reactionary Nepalese monarchy was powered by their closeness with the Nepalese masses, particularly marginalized ethnic groups such as the Madhesis in the impoverished south. The Nepalese people recognized this in 2008, voting the Maoists in as the largest party in the country’s new Constituent Assembly. However, although Prachanda had led the Maoists through a successful revolution, their status as a governing party meant that the party watered down many of its proposals in order to gain the backing of the rest of the Nepalese political establishment. The most stunning reversal was the party’s abandonment of their age-old commitment to fight for a federalized Nepal, which would have granted the Madhesis and other minorities increased autonomy. Though the Maoists had relied on the ‘masses’ to power their revolution, once in a position of power, they turned their backs on their promises to the people in favor of a more liberal vision of parliamentary politics. As a result, the party split once again, with more radical members renouncing electoralism in favor of going underground to wage another “people’s war”. Moreover, the party lost much of its parliamentary power and eventually merged with their archrivals in the UML under Oli to create today’s governing Nepal Communist Party.

Oli’s maneuvering against Prachanda and the more radical members of the united party epitomizes an unfortunate trend in recent years: having abandoned the principles of mass struggle and organizing, Nepal’s various Left parties began to lionize their leaders as quasi-superhuman figures capable of solving any political quandary, which has in turn led to petty squabbling. Coupled with a lack of internal party democracy, Prachanda and Oli alike were able to use their cults of personality to wage war against each other without paying the people of Nepal much heed. That the mass movement the Maoists had built up was so quickly cast aside once they entered the halls of power is further proof of this trend. The collapse over the last few weeks was the inevitable result of a leadership that viewed the ‘masses’ as little more than a collective vehicle to steer rather than the helmsmen of progressive change themselves.

Not all is lost in Nepal; the country’s recent protests may yet awaken some of that past radicalism. However, the recent failures of the country’s organized Left carry pertinent lessons for the DSA as we commit ourselves to our own revolutionary project. Our dedication to democratic socialism must also mean that we always maintain internal democracy and a transparent leadership structure that does not glorify any single individual. Internal debate and democratic practices within the organization itself must never be cast aside for the sake of strategic expediency. Rather, internal democracy will allow us to maintain an organizational culture that does not rely on our leaders’ accolades or reputation alone but compels us to serve our communities and struggle for the benefit of all people. 

While Joe Biden is certainly no communist, we in the DSA find ourselves in a similar scenario to Nepal in 2008: we have the opportunity to not only undo the damage of the Trump administration, but to also push for historic, structural changes. While it is tempting to allow ourselves to put politics aside and enjoy this moment—however tenuous it may be—it is crucial that the Left stays organized and active as we pressure the new administration to make good on its promise to the American people. In doing so, we can hold the Democratic Party accountable and win the goodwill of the people we serve. Only then will revolution be truly possible.