Jefferson, Mao, and the Revolution in Nepal
by Gary Leupp
U.S. Ambassador Alarmed
In a recent interview U.S. ambassador to Nepal James Francis Moriarty expressed genuine alarm about the progress of the Maoist insurgency in the Himalayan country.
While he maintains that “the tide has turned against” the Maoists since the king’s seizure of absolute power February 1, he declares, “The threat they represent is terrific.” He says their plans for agricultural collectivization, reeducation of enemies and expansion of the revolution (in alliance with Maoist groups which control certain regions of India) are “basically a formula for an absolutely terrific totalitarian state in Nepal that also threatens the stability of the entire region.” (Notice the unusual use of the word “terrific,” with the same root as “terrorist.” He doesn’t mean it’s wonderful but horrible.)
Similar language was used by the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in relation to the National Liberation Front (“Vietcong”) in the early 1960s, when the region affected was Southeast rather than South Asia. But Moriarty doesn’t compare Nepal’s Maoists to the NLF. Nor does he more than subliminally suggest associations with 9-11, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Instead he conflates the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN, Maoist) with those archfiends of the Cold War era, the deeply anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge. The Maoists, Moriarty asserts, could turn Nepal into a “poor man’s Cambodia.” This analogy is significant, since many attacks on Maoists have sought to link them to the group that ruled Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979. For example, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) used to publish a “Sendero File” edited by Michael L. Smith, which damned the bourgeoning Maoist movement in Peru, routinely comparing it to the “Maoist” Khmer Rouge.
Using the Khmer Rouge to Attack Maoists
But this association between the Khmer Rouge and Maoism, originally made by the Soviets, is in fact rejected by Maoists themselves. The Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM, the “embryonic center of the world’s Maoists” of which the Nepalese party is a member) indeed calls it “a deliberate effort to slander Maoism.”
RIM describes the Khmer Rouge as “more a small circle than a party” that operated through a secretive body with an undisclosed leadership simply called “the Organization.” It denounces the Khmer Rouge for indiscriminate and widespread torture, economic disasters such as the abolition of money and proclamation of an immediately classless society, and general failure to understand socialism in the Marxian sense. It notes that the Khmer Rouge never called themselves Maoists, and indeed stated “it is better to learn nothing from foreign experience.” They made use of the monarchy surrounded by Theravada Buddhist traditions, promoted a ferocious nationalism, indulged in fantasies about recreating the glory days of the ancient Khmer Empire, and practiced a curious mix of doctrines that Philip Short, who has written biographies of both Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, declares should not be confused with Maoism. The differences, in Short’s interpretation, result largely from cultural context: “Whereas Mao was the product of an intensely rational, literate society, with highly developed traditions of philosophical debate, [the Khmer Rouge’s] cultural heritage was irrational, oral, guided by Theravada transcendentalism and by k’ruu, spirit-masters, whose truths sprang not from analysis but from illumination… They never once…carried out any social investigation of the social conditions in which that revolution was to come.” (“Investigation of social conditions” is fundamental to Mao’s thought.) “The contrast with Maoist China could hardly be greater,” concludes Short, a former BBC correspondent with no special pro-Mao agenda.
Short describes the one meeting between Mao and Pol Pot in Beijing soon after the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975. The Khmer Rouge had already evacuated Phnom Penh, set the population to rice production, and indicated its intention to immediately construct an ideal classless society. Mao diplomatically chided the Khmer leader, who had just arrived from talks in Hanoi: “[C]ertainly you have made mistakes. So rectify yourselves: do rectification!” Alluding to his visitor’s intention to eliminate class distinctions overnight, he noted that in China after many years of revolution, “Salaries are not equal. We have a slogan of equality—but we don’t carry it out. How many years will it take to change that? Until we become communist? …[T]his matter is not clear.” For Mao, the construction of socialism itself would require a very long period of arduous struggle, with the possibility of capitalist restoration seriously real at every step. Throughout the socialist period, there will be class division and class struggle. Thus for him the Cambodian experiment must have looked very dubious.
The Khmer Rouge crazies in fact were a unique phenomenon, not a product of any sort of Marxism so much as the product of saturation bombing that had destroyed the nation’s agricultural infrastructure, killed off 75% of its draft animals, displaced millions and thrown the culture completely off-balance. To this devastation we might add some of the cultural features Short finds relevant. In any case, from a certain anticommunist perspective, had the Khmer Rouge not existed in 1975 they would have had to be invented—if only to validate the longstanding prediction that a communist victory in Indochina would somehow produce a bloodbath. This just didn’t happen in Vietnam or Laos. But the Cambodian “holocaust” could be used to partly rationalize the carnage of the broadened Vietnam conflict that had killed about three million people, and to justify ongoing anticommunist counterinsurgency efforts around the world. (Meanwhile the horrific loss of life attributed to the Khmer Rouge could obscure that inflicted by U.S. bombing and related issues such as famine. One rarely sees a breakdown of casualties from 1970 to 1979 distinguishing the latter from the former, and of course the victims figure itself ranges significantly between 700,000 and two million.)
In any case, Ambassador Moriarty’s point is not to present an apt analogy but to associate the Nepalese rebels with mass murder and utopian schemes, and with assaults on modernity, literacy, and urban life. Moriarty might as well accuse the Maoists of wanting to transform Nepal into something like Afghanistan under the Taliban. (But then there are some fools who call those Islamic fundamentalists “Maoists” too.)
But CPN(M)’s model is in fact Mao’s China, which still inspires a lot of people in the world and provides them a body of theory about how to make socialist revolution. There are growing Maoist movements, in Nepal, India, and the Philippines especially, giving the U.S. State Department the jitters three decades after Mao’s death and the abandonment of Maoism by those Mao appropriately termed “capitalist-roaders” in the Chinese ruling party. (The Chinese press, by the way, refers to the Maoists of Nepal as “terrorists.”)
Easing Up on the King in Order to “Help the Poor People”
Fear of Maoist revolution greatly exceeds Washington’s concern about Nepal’s present human rights situation. Thus while the U.S. and most of its allies have condemned the king’s coup and reduced aid in its wake, Moriarty implies sympathy with the king’s position. “We recognize,” he states, “that as of Jan 31, Nepal didn’t really have a functioning multi-party democracy, it had a multi-party government. We are worried that what is happening in the interim will make it more difficult for the king to achieve these goals.” But meanwhile the U.S. will manufacture thousands more M16 rifles promised to the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), hoping the political situation will improve well enough for their delivery, and arguing that nothing could be worse (more “terrific”) than a Nepal under the Red Flag.
“What we’d really like to see is progress,” the ambassador declares. “A big debate is going on [in Washington] and a tough draft [concerning the coup] going around. [But] instead of a tough draft that doesn’t change the situation on the ground, we would like to see enough progress on the ground so that the international community can focus on how to help Nepal.….. There is a wider view in the U.S. not to do anything that would harm the poor people of Nepal — both people who are poor and those suffering so much under the insurgency.” In other words, the U.S. might not make a big deal about the coup, and especially if it seems like the Maoists are poised to seize power may increase support for the RNA against them, however despotic the Katmandu regime.
The danger to the overextended superpower is that it will wind up embracing a losing cause and by its actions encourage rather than stifle Maoist movements throughout South Asia. This, as its “Greater Middle East” imbroglio deepens, its economy falters, and its allies either keep their distance or are obliged to break with it, a communist movement may again somewhere on earth grasp state power. First in Nepal, a place historically of little concern to U.S. capital (rather like poor backwoods Afghanistan has at points been of minimal concern), but then potentially in the great prize of India, where the Maoist movement becomes stronger by the month. You might think that’s an implausible scenario, but Washington seems to truly imagine it, and to plot its own response with mounting anxiety.
The First U.S. Secretary of State on Violent Revolution
Colin Powell, the sixty-fifth U.S. Secretary of State, was the first in that position to visit Nepal, in January 2002. There he stated to his hosts, “You have a Maoist insurgency that’s trying to overthrow the government and this really is the kind of thing that we are fighting against throughout the world.” Obviously his unprecedented visit was promoted by concern about the rapid progress of the revolution. It was followed up by arms sales and the consultations between U.S. military officers and their Nepali counterparts.
But the U.S. State Department was not always so hostile to violent revolution. On January 3, 1793, the first Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson wrote to William Short, the American ambassador to Paris, who had criticized the early excesses of the French Revolution. Praising the insurrection, he asked whether “ever such a prize” had been “won with so little innocent blood?” His “own affections,” Jefferson added, “have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.”
Jefferson obviously employed some hyperbole here, and the choice of words seems particularly injudicious in the nuclear age. But plainly the author of the Declaration of Independence felt that the revolutionary prize had been obtained with relatively little loss of innocent blood in France. He also felt that the achievement of “freedom” as he understood it could justify far greater loss of life at the hands of the enraged, sometimes excess-prone revolutionaries, than had occurred as of January 1793.
“With Violence, Errors, Even Crimes”
This was before Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Danton and Robespierre were guillotined, before the Reign of Terror that killed thousands of people. But later in 1793 he again wrote to Short, “In the struggle which was necessary [in France], many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as anybody, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle.” In 1795 he wrote to the Swiss-born English agent François D’Ivernois, “It is unfortunate that the efforts of mankind to recover the freedom of which they have been so long deprived, will be accompanied with violence, with errors, and even with crimes. But while we weep over the means, we must pray for the end.” To his death in 1826 Jefferson upheld the French Revolution.
Some might find in Jefferson callous disregard for human suffering, and hypocrisy in any talk of freedom by a Virginia slave-owner. But I see Jefferson as a humanist, about as sensitive and thoughtful a man as you might find among his class during his time. He was merely coupling a passionate commitment to a better world with a realistic understanding of what deeds flawed human beings might perform in its pursuit: “……rather than [the Revolution] should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it now is.” Better a less populated world that is free, than a world populously unfree. Better revolution replete with errors and crimes than no revolution at all.
“The Oppressed Should Rebel”
What would Jefferson think of the revolutionaries of today, the serious, violent, bloody revolutionaries such as the Maoists in Nepal charged with the slaughter of innocents, vilified in the mainstream press and even in some of the alternative press? We can only speculate on the basis of his writings. In his “Notes on Religion” written in 1776, a Jacobin Jefferson wrote, “The oppressed should rebel, and they will continue to rebel and raise disturbance until their civil rights are fully restored to them and all partial distinctions, exclusions and incapacitations are removed.” His reference to restoration reflects the Enlightenment Deist belief that “Nature’s Law and Nature’s God” gives human beings rights at birth that governments sometimes take away. But he’s basically saying what Mao Zedong did three centuries later: “It’s right to rebel.” Mao declared “Revolution is not a dinner party.” Jefferson in 1790 noted, “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed.”
When you decide that it’s necessary to violently destroy a state apparatus and build something else in its place, you’re probably, in Jefferson’s words, going to make errors and even commit crimes. Errors and crimes are always regrettable. But those committed by the oppressed seldom rival those committed by the oppressors. Today a single hyperpower, a law unto itself, violates the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions and its own Constitution, and kills tens of thousands of civilians in order to establish an empire. It refuses to allow the World Court to try any of its citizens, and by its arbitrary “terrorist” designations targets many who really do challenge despotism and seek liberty.
About 11,000 people (fewer than have died at the hands of U.S. forces in either Afghanistan or Iraq since those countries were invaded) have died for reasons connected to the People’s War since the war began in Nepal in 1996. Many fault the Maoists for all the casualties, although the great majority of those slain have by all accounts been Maoists and civilians perceived as Maoist supporters by the security forces (Nepal Assessment 2003). What would Jefferson think of this attribution? Perhaps he would say, “We American patriots plus our German mercenaries lost over 8,000 in action in our Revolutionary War, plus 20,000 civilians dead, and killed hundreds of redcoats. Were all those deaths the fault of our rebellion, or the fault of the government that through its injustice impelled us to the separation? To a new sort of regime only possible to create through force of arms?”
What would that other eloquent voice of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine, who denounced Edmund Burke’s “horrid paintings” of the French Revolution, and despite his own imprisonment for a time by the Jacobins (an example of error and excess) was always a great friend of the French Revolution, might say: “The rebellion in Nepal is a revolt in favor of Reason. It makes no sense for 72% of its people to live below the poverty line, many in conditions resembling medieval European feudalism. It makes no sense for the government to neglect the population and present the king as the incarnation of a god. It makes no sense for 60% of the development budget to come from abroad, or for the country to so lack job opportunities that 50,000 Nepali women have to work as prostitutes in Mumbai, India — half the city’s total. It makes no sense for infant mortality to be 70 in 1000 because there’s just one doctor per 25,000 people, or for longevity to average 59 years, or for literacy to stand at 45% with only a third of girls getting any education. The revolution will quite likely change all this. The world is my country, all men my brothers, all women my sisters. So I reject the horrid depictions of it and yes, I support the truly terrific revolution in Nepal.”
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 18, 2005