The revolutionary myth

  • Maoist insurgency, like many revolutions, provided fertile ground for epic constructions and mythologies
- Gérard Toffin
The revolutionary myth

Nov 13, 2014-

Across the globe, the word ‘revolution’ is charged with emotion. In France, the ‘great’ 1789 Revolution has so far been a cornerstone of modern political ideology. The republican regime that was established that year and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen have been raised to the status of a foundational charter of French social values. Similarly, the term is still regarded as sacred in China and Cuba and continues to be a mandatory reference in official jargon—in spite of the changes and the gradual accommodation of these regimes since their inaugural era. In these models of ‘celebratory history’, the loss of human lives, summary executions, and blind violence that have often accompanied these events are frequently underestimated. Likewise, the link between ‘revolution’ and totalitarian regimes is forgotten.

It therefore comes as no surprise if, in a country where revolution has provoked a major break with a former weakened regime, disagreement over a particular revolutionary sequence (blind violence, for instance) or alteration of the whole self-glorified process engenders aggressive reactions. Accusations of disseminating a false revisionist history are rife. To the utter despair of historians and social scientists, revolution has become a myth, a legendary story with its own heroes and epic victories, which leaves no room for criticism. Revolutionary creeds rapidly turn into passionate tirades and sometimes blend together with religious beliefs.

The Maoist insurgency

The Maobadi ‘People’s War’ was fertile ground for epic constructions and mythologies. In their songs, films, posters, and cultural performances, revolutionaries resorted to rudimentary caricatures and over-simplified figures. Feudal landlords, samanti, were (and still are) portrayed as leeches sucking the blood of the common people. The Nepali Congress party, identified by its four stars, was also stigmatised as one of the main political rivals propagating erroneous ideas. By the same token, India was demonised as the treacherous enemy. This country—so it is said—merely wants to meddle in Nepal’s affairs and to ‘swallow’ it up whole. On the other hand, sympathy for the toiling masses (garikhaane, those who work to eat) and the pain, dukha, of the poor are major omnipresent themes. The political target was twofold: to win the hearts of the people by brandishing images and slogans that mean something to them, and to shift the conflict gradually from a traditional caste/ethnic realm to a vision of a class war.

These stereotypes enabled the Maoist party to stir up patriotic and warlike feelings. The time had come for the people to fight and to support the guerrillas to the best of their capability. Danger was everywhere, not only with the army and police. Reactionary forces were allegedly plotting against the masses and conspiring against the peasantry. This real or imaginary threat has been utilised in a number of revolutions in order to mobilise people and to precipitate the transfer of power to communists. In this respect, the ‘catechism of revolution’ (an expression used by the French historian François Furet) and revolutionary propaganda are surprisingly similar from one country to another. In Nepal, an implausible ‘Prachandapath’ was promulgated with no clear ideological references, yet effectively enough—it was assumed—to rally people’ support for the final elimination of the class enemies. The religious content is sometimes explicit: some Maobadi revolutionary songs are called muktiyuddhaka geet (as outlined by anthropologist Anne de Sales), thus playing on the religious significance of the word mukti, ‘liberation’.

Simplifying complex situations

The Marxist representation conveyed by these images and performances erase local differences and pre-modern forms of social stratification. They portray a dichotomous picture of social realities, which oversimplify much more complex situations. As a matter of fact, the analysis of Nepal’s rural hinterlands in terms of a single peasant class undermines the differences that exist from one district to another, and even within the same district. Nor is this consistent with the local social morphology that is made up of fragmented social spaces. On a village scale, a study in terms of class tends to overlook client relationships that permeate society. It ignores the traditional sources of power and the role of the ‘big men’, thulo manche. Undoubtedly, the concept of a peasant class masks a number of internal conflicting interests.

Criticism of 19th century Marxist theories may be extended to other domains. What is, for instance, the validity of the ‘feudal mode of production’ concept in a country like Nepal (‘feudal’ being a notion applied originally to medieval European origin that is used less and less by historians)? It is indeed a reliable notion in parts of the Tarai plains where an exploitative land-owning class opposed to tenants and poor labourers clearly exists. Yet, it is inappropriate in most hill regions for, despite the prevalence of landless Dalit families, such a mode of production does not encompass all members of hill society. Local situations show some interplay between powerful pre-capitalist economic formations and capitalistic production relations without establishing any clear dominance of one system over another. The diversity of geographical situations needs to be taken into account. Besides, up until very recently, the Nepali state was barely present in many remote mountain or hill districts. Any interpretation that stresses state domination over the communal nature of landholding, according to the famous ‘oriental despotism’ model, is therefore also debatable.

A necessary task

Marx is not to be burned, but the work of the great German thinker should be rethought and his exegesis should be updated in the light of globalisation and modern developments. Similarly, the revolutionary dynamic needs to be revisited. More often than not, the mythology of revolution is a political instrument used to legitimise the power of the ruling communist ‘nomenklatura’ or to rally the working class to seize state power. One major lesson is to be learnt from this all-too-brief sketch: an unbiased analysis of events that have unleashed so much passion and where so many political interests are at stake is a perilous but necessary task.

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

Published: 14-11-2014 09:09

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