Freedom and equality

- Gérard Toffin
Freedom and equality

May 5, 2014-

In her fascinating and particularly rich book, On Revolution (1963), Hannah Arendt opposes two distinct trends in revolutionary uprisings and events. The first one, which focuses on freedom, is directed against tyrannical and authoritarian power. The second, mainly concerned with equality among men, aspires to address social questions and completely change society. The first trend, typified by the American Revolution, strives to divest repressive governments of legitimacy and overthrow governments that no longer satisfy the people’s wishes.

The second trend, more characteristic of the French Revolution, rests on an abstract notion of general sovereignty and intense compassion towards the poor and deprived categories of people. In both cases, some form of violence is justified but terror and excessive passion is more likely to burst from the second. Arendt quotes the words of Francis Bacon: “The rebellions of the belly are the worst”. Resentment, greed and vengeance ultimately lead to power misuse. According to the author, total egalitarianism leads to single-party dictatorship and terror. It “devours its own children”.

Nepali upheavals

It is tempting to apply this dualistic model to the post-1990 political landscape in Nepal. The upheavals of the Janaandolans I and II were mainly directed against an authoritarian royal power, which appeared more and more like an oddity in the new democratic international environment and no longer corresponded to the aspiration of the masses, mainly urban educated people. The Maoist Jana Yudha (‘People’s War’), however, intended to proceed with a more radical transformation of society and to experiment its ideas in areas directly under its control and administration.

Maoist revolutionaries sought to go beyond the structure of the political realm; they wished to intervene in the private sphere and inculcate new principles in people’s minds. The changes they imposed in religious matters illustrate these concepts. The Maoists were attempting to bring about the birth of a new world dominated by the impoverished masses. Yet, their reluctance towards the freedom of the press and pluralism within their own party testifies to an inner conflict, which is intrinsic to their doctrine, between freedom and equality.

Opposite extremes

If one accepts these two opposite extremes, the persisting difficulties in solving the current political deadlock, endless conversations between leaders of political parties, their incoherent conclusions and the delays in writing a constitution all become clearer. Behind each specific political issue lies a deep confrontation between two different visions of Nepali society. For the Maoists, the establishment of a republic was a first step towards a total reformation of Nepali society. For the other political forces, such an institutional shift was the ultimate concession to an old, outdated social structure that had to be reformed to fully satisfy modern requirements in terms of environmental issues and social justice. These reformist political forces, more pluralist than the first, insist on defending the freedom of individuals. Two different, mutually exclusive visions of the future therefore clash with each other on the political scene. The predicament of Nepal’s present political situation derives from this confrontation.   

The situation is of course more complex. The opposition between freedom and equality is not as bold as Arendt states. Twentieth-century revolutionary movements cannot be reduced exclusively to fighting for equality. The upheavals that overthrew communist regimes in Eastern Europe were clearly a combination of the two. Similarly, the current transnational notions of human rights derive in many ways from equalitarian notions. In Nepal, non-revolutionary leftist activists have accepted the pluralist viewpoint of a democratic regime and have become openly reformist parties without forsaking their concern for the poorest and the downtrodden.

Arendt’s book has been the object of attacks by Marxists and has been denounced as being politically oriented towards the West. According to communists, freedom is a ‘bourgeois’ notion, of less importance than overthrowing the capitalist upper classes and replacing it by the poor masses. Like all pure Marxist-Leninist communists, Nepal’s Maobadis have difficulty in admitting democracy, ie, majority rule. They basically view such a regime as a ‘bourgeois’ individualistic institution. Freedom comes second in their revolutionary objectives. Yet, the true history of the course that revolution has taken, attested to by tangible realities in diverse countries, clearly lies in Arendt’s favour. In China, the Soviet Union and Cuba, political transformations have led to a single-party communist dictatorship, a ban on democratic freedom and censorship.

Entrenched inequalities

The antinomy between individual rights and the takeover of power by a Marxist political party that identifies itself with the masses is all too significant on the Nepali scene. The problem is that the eighteenth-century American Revolution, which is seen as exemplary by Arendt (only up to a certain point), occurred in a freshly populated state living in relative prosperity, with few old, established inequalities and no deep class divide. It even initially led to a restoration of the monarchy. The Nepali upheavals and rebellions, much like the French Revolution in 1789, erupted in a country with a long tradition of inequality and established hierarchical order, whether feudal or monarchical. The opposition between the monarchy and the republic, therefore, became the major line of battle.

Now that the kings have been dethroned, a long path still lies ahead before ridding the old entrenched structures of subordination and dependency. In its actual political sense, equality itself is a new notion in South Asia, and is even more recent in Nepal than in India. Today, the greatest danger for Nepal would be tabula rasa politics, with the intention of rebuilding the country from scratch. Experience from elsewhere has taught us that this always paves the way to major


Toffin is Director of Research at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France

Published: 06-05-2014 08:02

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