Marxism in the future of Nepal It's Karl, not Grouncho
What is Marxism?
Marxism is not a dogma true for all time, to be learned by heart, and applied to political practice by taking the party line. Instead Marxism is a .ates a democratic political imagination so as to guide effective, revolutionary practice.
As a mode of thinking, Marxism stresses the materiality of human existence. It analyses society from the perspective of the mass of hard working people. Marxism believes that the hard efforts of ordinary people – peasants and industrial workers – construct the material basis of human existence. But, in literally making history, people are forced into oppressive social relations – as when a minority elite controls the means of the production of existence, for example, landlords controlling the land farmed by peasants. Here, Marxism focuses on the political and social system in which surplus produced by hard, peasant work, on land that has been seized by the elite, is “expropriated” – for example, through peasants paying rents to landlords. This crude exploitation is made possible by an entire, sophisticated, political-culture superstructure, perpetuated by a traditional culture, full of tales of kingship and lordship, elite heroics and their occasional acts of generosity, all this being imagined in order to excuse elite domination. Revolution means overthrowing this entire social order, or where tradition contains elements, sentiments, insights and deep satisfactions, modifying that social order under democratic consent. And finally, Marxism is a theory of how to conduct revolutionary practice as a self-critical yet optimistic, knowledgeable yet practical, agent of history. In terms of political imagination, Marxists believe in thinking hard, practicing all day and night, and dedicating their lives, so that the conditions of human life can be transformed for the better, beginning with the conditions that most oppress the poorest people. Marxists believe that society belongs to everyone, equally, with full democratic rights for all, not just in the political sphere, but more importantly, in the economy and the culture. In a phrase, we believe in economic and cultural, as well as political, democracy!
With this as introduction, I want to revisit a review that I wrote two years ago, in a journal called Monthly Review, of Baburam Bhattarai’s book, The Nature of Underdevelopment and Regional Structure of Nepal: A Marxist Analysis (Delhi: Adroit Publishers, 2003). At the end of a long summary of this excellent book, I put forward some critical comments on the author’s philosophy and theory. Let me briefly repeat this critique. Basically, I said that Bhattarai’s position, derived from Kautsky and Lenin, is that the decisive role in the movement of society to a “higher” mode of production is played by the urban-industrial sector – because in manufacturing industry, capital, labor and machines can be combined more readily, increased more quickly, so that the economy can grow faster. Dynamic industrial capital, concentrated in cities, then emits impulses of commodity production into the countryside – that is industry calls for food, raw materials etc, made by rural people. Urban-induced commodity production eventually transforms the countryside. Without industrialization, Bhatterai said, peasant agriculture remains perpetually “backward” – it is the less dynamic component, the passive part in the dialectics of societal change.
My criticism was: that exactly the peoples of the “backward” areas of Nepal’s hill and mountain regions form the base of peasant support for the CPN(M). So we have “backward” areas populated by progressive people? And restructuring in the postwar period will have to involve a strategy of complete land reform (that removes the landlord class) and productive transformation (investing in rural production) if a future socialist Nepal is to respond to the popular aspirations of the vast majority of the people of the country, and to the revolutionary peasantry in particular. As I understand it, this entails developing a different kind of Marxist theory, a Marxism that passes through the looking glass, in which the countryside and the peasantry are seen as dynamic and progressive, rather than cities, manufacturing, and the industrial working class.
My general conclusion was that Nepal cannot develop by copying the industrial history of the capitalist West. Nor can Nepal develop by copying post-Maoist China. Rather, Nepal has to conceptualize its own model of socialist development if it is to self-transform in a way that serves the people, and not the domestic ruling class, or the elites of global capitalism. This means a model of development that stresses internal processes rather than external impositions. In this internally-driven society, specialization, division of labor, productivity, exchange, complementarities must be brought together within beliefs in social justice, without the domination of one sector over the others – forced industrialization at the expense of rural transformation, for instance. Conceptualizing this model means releasing the revolutionary, theoretical imaginary in the way I outlined above. Nepal is not “backward” in a universal developmental experience. And Nepal does not have to go through industrial capitalism to transform into socialism. Nepal, it still seemed to me, writing from the other side of the earth, needs creative, Marxist thought based on the real experiences of its predominantly rural people.
And Bhattarai generously accepted most of this in the spirit of good, Marxist, critical discourse, saying he had stressed Lenin over Mao!
I would like to expand the part of this argument that I find most crucial for thinking the future of Nepal.
Marxist economic theory, originally developed in the mid-nineteenth century, accepted the dominant idea of that time, that labor creates the value of commodities. But Marx produced an innovative version of the labor theory of value. He thought that labor could be divided into two parts. One part of the working day has to reproduce labor power – that is, people have to work long enough, produce enough, to keep themselves alive, and raise their children so they can work in the future. In the rest of the working day, labor produces a surplus of commodity values. This surplus is absolutely crucial, because it can be invested in improving the means of production and the conditions of labor. In a phrase, the class that controls the surplus value, and the class that decides how this surplus should be used, for whose benefit, controls the economic development of society. Surplus also makes the minds that imagine the society’s future.
In feudal societies, the surplus produced by peasant labor is expropriated as rent by an aristocracy that has seized ownership, or been granted the control land, by a monarch who has managed to persuade people that he represents the gods. And what do they do with the surplus, the lifeblood of rural society? Mostly, the lords of the land use the surplus to support their own ostentatious lifestyle – big houses, rich food, expensive clothes, flights to Europe, college for their kids, absenteeism. This is disastrous in terms of social development. The surplus produced through the hard labor of the mass of working people is squandered in status, spectacle and grandeur, rather than being reinvested by those who produce it, in developing the forces of production. This disastrous situation can be transformed only through land reform that vests ownership and control of productive resources in the hands of the people who do the real work. Only in this way can the peasants control their own surplus, invest it in improving production, and begin a democratic, social process of development.
In this way, social transformation begins in the countryside. The countryside transmits change to the cities by calling for the production of inputs produced by a local-needs-serving industry – crude maybe at first, but developing in time. “Domestic retention” is necessary for most of the multiplier-accumulative effects of rural surplus production to be used in developing the country. In other words, rural transformation is in the interest of all who want to construct a better, more productive, more equitable society. It is in the interests of even the previous elites if they can transcend their “traditional” prejudices and accept their common humanity.
Should the landlords be compensated during a land reform that takes, and redistributes, the lands which they have long controlled? Let us examine this question of elemental social justice through the lens of class and historical analysis. The elite have already been more than compensated through long decades of peasants paying them rents. Years of toil, tears and struggle by rural workers have supported their lifestyles. So, it is more a case of the landlords compensating the peasants for surpluses long taken – for example, by them paying higher taxes to a state that is trying to develop the society. Marxists do not mean this in a nasty, vindictive way – class warfare as an act of vengeance. But more by way of invitation. Compensate back. Join a political process motivated by legitimate claims for social justice. Take part in a political process controlled by everyone, and not just by you, its former leaders. The idea now is to use that surplus to construct a society that develops in order to meet the basic needs of the people. It takes the spatial form of a symbiotic interchange among regions and localities that is driven dominantly by rural transformation. From the “periphery” comes the impulse to change.
Liberating Political Thought
Why do we say these provocative words? Certainly not to oppress people with heavy ideas that they can scarcely comprehend. But rather to suggest a way of thinking so sensible and rational, so rooted in the realities of human existence, that everyone can understand and feel attracted, or interested. Theory can liberate the mind to think productively in the broadest and most appealing sense of the term. We want people to realize things they could never quite understand before, in an organized, coherent, insightful way – a way that appeals to the best in all of us, rather than our selfish worst. Social life is so complicated, and the demand for insights is so utterly urgent, that society needs the best thoughts of its entire people even to survive, let alone transform. And because no one can think everything for everyone else, ideas have to be discussed, challenged, rethought, and debated, without limitation on what the participants think, dream, whisper, or proclaim. If you have a good argument, people listen, they want to take part in collective discussion, and they become prepared to practice in order to use the ideas formed in this democratic way. So we claim that Marxism comes to liberate the mind so it can better serve the interests of all, especially those classes and peoples who were most oppressed in the fast-receding past.
These are some ideas that you might find interesting. They are meant to stimulate discussion, response, amendment and, I hope, serious disagreement. For in the dialectics of discourse, negativity plays a strong role in producing the best of new ideas. Synthesis of negativity and positivity incorporates a diversity of memories, interpretations and anticipations into an ongoing dialogue about the future.
Dr Professor Richard Peet is a professor of geography at the Clark University in USA. He is interested in political ecology, social and economic geography and philosophy. He has authored several books, including Unholy Trinity: The IMF, World Bank, and WTO (Zed Press, 2003.)
Nepal´s poor and landless peasants have decisively rejected the populist "agrarian socialism" refuted by Lenin - as shown both by rallying to the leadership of the Maoist party and by seeking jobs as proletarians anywhere in the world rather than dreaming of backward Nepal´s countryside leading the cities. The future of Nepal involves urbanizing the countryside around 800-900 market centres (at ilaka level) linked to the cities and the world, not perpeetuating primitive villages and