The uprisings in Nepal and Thailand have radicalised millions in both countries, but unless social and economic questions are raised, their potential will be lost.

Protestors during Nepal's recent general strike

The recent political upheavals in Nepal and Thailand have been historic events in those countries. They have been heroic struggles, and they have started to open up class divisions. Yet they have failed to achieve fundamental change.

The specifics of these cases are different, but both have been characterised by mass movements on the streets, which have created temporary paralysis in society, and both have concentrated on democratic demands.

They join a long list of popular mass movements since 1989 that have caught the imagination of workers and the poor—from Indonesia to South Africa to much of Eastern Europe—but which have not delivered on their promises. None have been able to address the problems of poverty and inequality.

Not only have the aspirations for fundamental social change that precipitated these movements remain unfulfilled, but the movements have often fallen far short of the democracy they have been fighting for. They have been met either with severe repression, or accommodated through partial settlement.

These post-1989 revolutions have taken place in the context of undisputedly significant working class populations. The majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, and the working class has a decisive social weight almost everywhere. The project of globalisation has intensified relations of exploitation and communication.

So why have these uprisings failed to bring about radical social transformation for the vast majority?

There is no doubt that the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the decline and degeneration of communist parties the world over, combined with a series of working class defeats in the 1970s and 80s, have dealt blows to working class confidence and to the project of socialist transformation.

But the crises of capitalism—the inherent problem of capital accumulation but also the more immediate global banking crisis—have led to more favourable circumstances for challenging the system. For the poor, mass mobilisation not only seems reasonable, but often the only logical response. The underlying problem appears to be that much of the left internationally is undecided about what kind of change is possible in the current global crisis.

In Nepal, following a mass protest in the capital on May Day over the looming constitutional deadline, the Maoists led a six-day general strike. They then withdrew the strike when the middle classes came out in the streets to oppose it. While the immediate goal of the Maoist leadership was to force the Prime Minister to resign in order to facilitate the writing of a people’s constitution under Maoist leadership, a significant section of Maoist cadre wanted to force the situation far beyond this goal.

In Thailand, the struggle of the Red Shirt movement was directed against an unelected government that took power following a military coup in 2006. Immediate demands were the resignation of the Prime Minister and fresh elections. But after two months of street battles and the occupation of the commercial district by the Red Shirts, when the army was brought in and killed 90 demonstrators, the Red Shirt leadership withdrew and conceded temporary defeat.

The Nepali Maoists: first capitalism, then socialism

The first people’s movement for democracy in 1990 marked the beginning of the modern democratic revolution in Nepal.[1] Ten years of the people’s war, led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) beginning in 1996, followed by the second people’s movement for democracy in 2006 and the abolition of the monarchy in 2008, completed the democratic revolution.

But while the transition from monarchy to republic was a momentous step forward, fundamental change has scarcely been felt amongst the poorest in Nepal.

Maoists enter the mainstream
The Maoists’ entry into the mainstream in 2006 following the people’s movement was arguably the most significant political event in recent Nepali history. Fearful of being swept away altogether after taking power in a royal coup in February 2005, just over a year later the king was forced to capitulate to an alliance of the Maoists and the parliamentary parties, with the calculated backing of India.

The second people’s movement in April 2006 called for an end to the monarchy and had the support of millions across the country.

The movement was as much a reflection of the discontent over social and economic inequality as it was about reinstating a democratic framework. Expectations for change amongst the poorest were high, and it was thought that the Maoists, having taken up arms in a class war, could deliver this change. Elections to a Constituent Assembly were then held in 2008, in which the Maoists gained an overwhelming majority. The Assembly voted to abolish the monarchy altogether.

But the Maoists’ nine-month stint in government in 2008/09 exposed a contradictory set of politics.[2] Baburam Bhattarai, in the post of finance minister, said at the time, “we want to attract more investment in the industrial sector so that jobs are created within the country and the productivity of labour becomes high.

That will lead to double digit growth within the next three years‚Äîthat is our goal. For that the private sector has to play a leading role.” He went on to say that “both the management and workers have a common interest now, for the development of the economy” and that therefore workers must not resort to strikes.[3]

A few years earlier, in 2005, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, one of the spokespeople of the party, made the Maoists’ thinking on revolution unambiguous: “If we are to forge an alliance with the other parties we have to be flexible. We envisage a two-step revolution‚Äîfirst a multi-party democratic republic. If it was a genuine democracy, then we would work for the peaceful transformation of the state.”[4] The Maoists envisioned socialism as the ultimate goal, which could only be realised after the development of national capital, and after Nepal had created an industrial economy with a bigger working class.

This a version of Stalin’s two-stage theory of revolution, which held that the working class would have to subordinate socialist aspirations to a broad alliance aimed at achieving a democratic revolution. Only later could socialist demands be raised.

This theory still has much currency throughout South Asia, but it is precisely what has militated against any moves to secure social and economic change beyond the democratic revolution. The insistence of the democratic revolution as the first stage—in direct opposition to the Leninist approach of the simultaneity of the democratic and socialist revolutions—means that the working class does not play the leading role, since the democratic revolution can be achieved by a cross-class alliance of progressive forces based on nationalist lines.

Revolutionary prospects
That was the approach taken in 2006 during the second people’s movement for democracy. Although the Maoists instigated and led the movement in Kathmandu, the mainstream political parties and civil society activists also played a leadership role.

They were accepted as co-leaders of the movement, but had no real hand in creating the conditions for it to emerge. Mainstream politicians went to the villages and district headquarters to spread the message of “peace and democracy” but it was the Maoists who mobilised the mass movement from below. And while it was important for the Kathmandu intelligentsia to be involved, the trouble was that the Maoists‚Äîwith the weight of the masses behind them‚Äîwere no longer in control.

They allowed the middle classes to dominate and even define the aims of the movement, and thereby strip it of any class element. It thus became a nationalist project, embodying “the drive for industrialisation, for capital accumulation, for national resurgence”[5] rather than a movement that could crystallise class demands. This was a consequence of the “peaceful transformation” approach adopted as part of the two-stage theory.

While the alliance between the Maoists and the middle classes succeeded in abolishing the monarchy, the limitations of this approach were seen in the recent indefinite general strike called by the Maoists following a massive May Day rally in the centre of Kathmandu.

The strike began on 2nd May 2010 over the inability of the parties to come to a consensus on drafting the new constitution. Tens of thousands of Maoist cadre were brought to the city to show political rivals the strength of the party, demonstrate the Maoists’ peaceful and disciplined resolve, and enforce the strike. The Maoists were the sole force behind this movement.

They had stirred up the cadre by declaring the strike to be the “last battle to capture state power” and tens of thousands of enthusiastic and committed cadre believed this was the aim of coming all the way to Kathmandu.[6] But this was never the goal.

The immediate tactical aim of the strike was to force Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to resign in order to make way for a Maoist-led coalition government. This upheaval‚Äîwhat some had termed the third people’s movement‚Äîwas led by socialists, but without a revolutionary perspective.

The general strike was withdrawn on the sixth day not because it was crushed by the army or the police, but because the middle classes came out in the streets in their thousands and asked the Maoists to withdraw it. This situation had forced a deep and explicit polarisation in the streets along class lines as never before in Nepal.

A significant section of Maoist cadre later expressed their anger and frustration at the withdrawal. One cadre said, “we cannot leave this agitation in the middle of nowhere and quit,” while another questioned how he could return home to his village “empty-handed.”[7] The radicalisation of tens of thousands amidst a general strike, with much support in the rural areas, meant that the opportunities were immense.

But unlike in 2006 when middle class leaders limited the movement to the kind of political structure which dominates Western powers, this time it was the Maoists that limited themselves to democratic demands. And when the middle classes came out, the Maoists felt they had no choice but to surrender. They even apologised.[8] The problem lay with the political programme they had adopted.

The revolution postponed
The preceding decades of liberalisation had caused rising levels of economic inequality in Nepal, and did virtually nothing to alleviate the misery of the vast majority of the population.[9] This inequality created the basis for political instability. The Maoists recognised this more than any other political party in Nepal’s history, and tried to reflect it.

But they failed to grasp its theoretical implications. Although they initially raised issues of social and economic equality,[10] the Maoists had no comprehensive theory as to how to combine the struggle for social demands with the struggle for democracy. This theoretical oversight about the limits of revolutionary possibility led them to an ambiguous attitude to the working class. They saw the unions as both defending working class interests, and as obstacles to economic development.[11]

What was said of the ANC in South Africa in some respects is also true of the Nepali Maoists. Getting into alliances with the bourgeoisie and having “a broad commitment to a national democratic revolution made for a wide range of rhetoric and activity‚Äîfrom appeals for insurrection to demands for compliance‚Äîand an equally variable series of tactics‚Äîspanning guerrilla struggle and peace negotiation.”[12] This accurately describes the history of the Maoists.

One argument used to defend this approach is that the Nepali working class is too small to lead a successful struggle for socialist revolution. Exactly the same argument was used to oppose revolution in Russia in 1917 and in China in 1927. Lenin and Trotsky’s counterargument in 1917 was that the Russian revolution would help detonate struggles across Europe. Revolutionary strategy in Nepal must be conceived in the context of the series of crises in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere in South Asia. A deepening of the revolution in Nepal could generate powerful solidarity movements in the massive working class centres of Delhi, Kolkata, Karachi, Lahore, Dhaka and beyond.

The Maoists have also used the excuse that the “consciousness” of both workers and peasants is too low to go beyond democratic demands. But this neglects that fact that in the course of a revolutionary upheaval, consciousness develops in leaps and bounds.

The plan to develop national capitalism, on the other hand, would only mean strengthening a crisis-prone, anti-welfare, monopoly-dominated system. The Maoists would not be able to revive industry in a way that benefits the poorest. Neighbouring India and China would prove impossible to compete with in terms of production, nor would they allow brazen attempts at nationalisation. Even a “state capitalism” could not deliver for the poor. The stages theory not only postpones socialism but social and economic demands, therefore weakening the movement in the present.

The danger is that the Maoists’ policy will reduce the fight to one about how power will be divided in parliament. There is increasing ethnic tension outside the capital. It remains to be seen how long the Maoists can sustain themselves as the most popular party when they have failed to present a serious challenge to capitalism and the fragile and corrupt parliamentary system. It also remains to be seen whether they can keep in touch with their base. Or whether their base will start raising economic and social demands independently of them.

The Red Shirts in Thailand

The military coup in September 2006 that ousted elected Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra deepened a growing polarisation in Thai society along class lines, with the monarchy as the focal point.[13] The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) brought together an anti-Thaksin alliance comprised of royalists, conservative bureaucrats, businesses, NGOs, Buddhists and assorted ultra-nationalists.

The Red Shirts, formed in response to the coup under the banner of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), largely represent the rural masses and urban poor. But corrupt, populist politicians like Thaksin have only managed to articulate and focus the aspirations of the poor because of a leadership vacuum on the left.

The coup and class war
Winning two successive general elections in 2001 and 2005 before being overthrown, Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party had the support of the Red Shirts because he led a number of pro-poor reforms, for example, universal healthcare and village funds, which benefited millions of people. His populism was as a response to the demands of the poor that were the result of decades of capitalist development.

Attempts by Thaksin to reform the economy following the financial crisis of 1997 ultimately resulted in deep divisions within the ruling class itself. Capitalists like himself who wanted financial and bureaucratic reforms in Thailand in order to make it more competitive, but who were never against the monarchy, and conservative royalists who thought that any reforms could lead to the end of the monarchy altogether.

Thaksin’s corruption perhaps matched the corruption of the military, but he was modernising, and upheld the more progressive 1997 constitution containing Article 65 which allowed for peaceful demonstrations against unconstitutional attempts to seize power.

The coup, however, could never have happened without the support of hundreds of thousands of PAD supporters, the so-called Yellow Shirts, who effectively came to be dominated by an elite that wanted not only the status quo to be protected, but for the monarchy to regain its former explicitly absolutist role in the country.

Following the 2006 coup, the 1997 constitution was replaced by a new constitution drafted by the military, in which a number of democratic reforms were rolled back, including that the elected Senate was now to be partially appointed.

Highly conservative, nationalist and royalist propaganda was ramped up. One of the most farcical tactics was the implementation of the king’s “sufficiency economy theory” which states that everyone must live within their means, and become moderate and self-dependent.

In practical terms, it was used to impose a number of neoliberal policies that previous governments were unable to, including the privatisation of national enterprises and the establishment of internal security mechanisms to protect these policies.[14] But it was also an ideological project meant to reinforce class division, where the poor must know their place and give up trying to challenge the existing order.

There is a large and growing section of the Red Shirts that has few illusions in Thaksin. Beginning on 14th March 2010, the Red Shirts led the biggest street protests Thailand has ever witnessed. The trigger was the Supreme Court’s verdict on corruption charges against Thaksin.

But it led to an uprising that called for the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is backed by the military junta, and fresh elections. These were legitimate demands in themselves, but they were also critical because elections are exactly what the unelected government wanted to avoid.

When the military started a crackdown and began firing at protestors, the Red Shirts called for a ceasefire and offered talks. The government refused to talk until the demonstrations were called off. Wildly disproportionate tactics were used to disperse the Red Shirts, including snipers and assassination squads, and draconian censorship laws. They arrested activists for insulting the monarchy and declared a state of emergency on 8th April. Local mediation efforts failed over whether to dissolve parliament and when elections would be called.

Now, thousands of Red Shirts have been arrested and some have been threatened with death sentences. There are rumours that some Red Shirt activists are being held in an army prison camp. The government has extended the emergency and as a result, a section of the Red Shirts have gone underground vowing to fight a guerrilla war against the junta.

The leftwing of the movement
The Red Shirts are a genuine grassroots democracy movement, with all the contradictions and uneven consciousness this entails. Giles Ungpakorn, one of the leaders of the left in Thailand who is now exiled in Britain, wrote that “the movement politicised and activated millions of citizens and many people became more radical than the initial leaders” in the TRT.[15]

Though radical left groups subsequently became part of the movement, arguing with leadership for revolutionary demands, they have not been able to shape and lead it.

The rise of Thaksin and subsequent polarisation—both within the ruling class and between the ruling class and the poor—created the possibility for class demands to be raised. Indeed the Red Shirt leadership started to use the language of class struggle during the occupation of central Bangkok.

But class demands were not raised in a way that linked the Red Shirt movement directly with workers. Though a number of unions did support the Red Shirt protests there were no serious calls for a general strike, which would have added enormous power to the movement and could have generated social and economic demands. Instead, the central demands remained democratic, and not combined with real pressure for social and economic change.

Growing republicanism may ignite further protests, but there is no viable working class party that can rival Thaksin’s party, now the People’s Power Party, which was formed out of the dissolution of Thai Rak Thai in 2007 by the government that overthrew him.

Radical consciousness is deepening as a result of the experience of sustained street protests. In order to deepen its roots, the growing left in Thailand needs to prioritise social and economic demands, in addition to democratic demands. It needs to raise the question of economic crisis, private property, and of socialism.

Bourgeois revolution and workers’ revolution

The classical bourgeois revolutions that began in England in 1640, America in 1776 and France in 1789, led to fundamental social transformations. The effect of the bourgeoisie taking power was to accelerate capital accumulation. The poor were often mobilised but they were peasants, artisans and labourers working in small workshops, incapable of organising on an independent class basis.

This made it impossible for them to effectively press for more radical demands, or to challenge capital accumulation for a minority. More far-reaching movements “necessarily failed, owing to the then undeveloped state of the proletariat, as well as to the absence of the economic conditions for its emancipation.”[16] But by 1848 these objective circumstances were no longer a barrier.

For Marx and Engels the significance of the 1848 revolutions was that the era of bourgeois revolutions, in which the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary force, had come to an end. This was because the level of industrialisation, at least in Western Europe, had developed to such an extent that it had strengthened the working class.

However young and relatively unorganised this working class was, it still posed more of a threat to the bourgeoisie and capitalist interests than the aristocracy above them, because in attempting to realise the democratic goals of the bourgeois revolution, the working class had the potential to challenge the exploitative and fundamentally undemocratic foundation of the bourgeois ruling class. In other words it had the potential to fight for democracy in both the political and economic realms.

The second Russian revolution in October 1917 made this “spectre of communism” real. In February 1917 workers had forced a situation of dual power by creating parallel and distinctive organs of power through workers’ councils. The councils organised opposition amongst wide layers of the working class and peasantry, from below, and when the revolutionaries won the majority in the soviets, they organised that power to remove the provisional government and begin the process of securing fundamental social and economic change for the masses.

The soviet government had made progress on a number of social and economic policies until the defeat of the workers’ revolutions in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. At the same time they argued that unless the socialist revolution spread beyond relatively underdeveloped Russia, the new workers’ regime could not hold out against imperialist forces indefinitely.

Permanent revolution

The theory of permanent revolution was developed by Trotsky after the experiences of the 1905 revolution in Russia, then a relatively underdeveloped country. He built on the idea that the bourgeoisie is incapable of providing a revolutionary solution to the problems of feudalism and imperialism, and that therefore this role would necessarily fall to the working class, however small. This idea was first suggested by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto:

“The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that is has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.” [17]

There are three elements of the theory that are particularly instructive for understanding what happened in Nepal and Thailand. Firstly, unlike what most Marxists believed at the time, Trotsky argued that socialist revolutions can happen in countries that are not advanced industrially. That is, the revolution does not depend on the size of the working class. Rather:

“…the day and hour when the power passes into the hands of the proletariat depend directly not upon the state of the productive forces, but upon the conditions of the class struggle, upon the international situation, finally upon a series of subjective factors: tradition, initiative, readiness for struggle…”

The experience of Russia in 1917 showed that the proletariat could come to power in a developing country, and that political obstacles were far greater threats to the development of the socialist revolution than technological backwardness.

Secondly, he argued that if the democratic revolution was led by the working class, it would grow over into socialist revolution or it would fail. It could not stop at political, democratic demands, but would have to raise socio-economic issues. This is precisely what Lenin argued in the April Theses when he called for a second socialist revolution upon his return to Russia at the Finland Station in 1917.

The peasantry cannot develop a programme for systematic social transformation because they are too atomised and divided. The fact that they own individual plots of land and are therefore still attached to the idea of private property prevents them from developing a perspective that is fully independent of the bourgeoisie. One of the limitations of the movements in Nepal and Thailand is precisely that they are based on the peasantry and the marginalised urban poor.

The final element of Trotsky’s theory is that the completion of the socialist revolution is unthinkable within national boundaries. This is especially the case in countries with small working classes. The revolution must spread to other countries, or it would degenerate and crumble.

This is exactly what happened in Russia after the defeat of the working class revolution in Germany. The rhetoric of “socialism in one country” hid a profound shift away from revolutionary politics and towards the reintroduction of capital accumulation. It was a shift that led to untold suffering for the Russian working class and peasantry.

Large sections of those participating in the mass movements in Nepal and Thailand, as a direct result of their experiences, gained a consciousness that surpassed the leadership, and wanted to force the situation further. More than anything it was the leaderships’ attachment to a perspective of a revolution in two stages and a refusal to raise class demands that served to disorientate activists and weaken the movements themselves.

In Nepal this has meant a deferral of even modest democratic reforms, while in Thailand it has resulted in repression and increased isolation of the Red Shirts. There are now debates raging in both countries about the lessons of these upheavals and the way forward. Hopefully the outcome will be a strategy that puts the needs of the working class and the poor first.


1. Nepal went through a short-lived experiment in democracy for the first time in 1950, until King Mahendra staged a royal coup in 1959 instituting the party-less panchayat system until 1989.
2. There were a number of forces in Nepal that were quick to reinforce the Maoists’ entry into the mainstream. The NGOs for example, through the donors, offered the Maoists lucrative opportunities in the NGO sector. Although they refused a number of big contracts, they began facilitating the work of NGOs at national and local levels. This is clear in Rolpa, one of the original Maoist base areas in the mid-western hills. During the war the Maoists were doing more development than the NGOs, and they were against the presence of NGOs. But since 2006, there has been a veritable explosion of NGOs in the district. Yet people say not much has changed in terms of poverty.
3. Adhikari, A. (20 January 2009) Dr Bhattarai facing the challenges of government. [Online] Available:
[Accessed 5 July 2010].
4. Hilton, I. (14 May 2005) The King and Mao. [Online] Financial Times. Available: [Accessed 5 July 2010].
5. Cliff, T. (1963) Deflected Permanent Revolution, London: SWP, p.20.
6. 26 April 2010. Maoists for indefinite strike in no national government. [Online] My Republica. Available: [Accessed 5 July 2010].
7. Rauniyar, I. (8 May 2010) Maoist cadres seethe at strike recall. [Online] The Kathmandu Post. Available:
[Accessed 5 July 2010].
8. Koirala, K. (12 May 2010) Prachanda apologises for remarks; urges civil society to push PM Nepal to quit. [Online] The Kathmandu Post. Available: [Accessed 5 July 2010].
9. Wagle, U. (2007) Are Economic Liberalization and Equality Compatible? Evidence from South Asia, [Online] World Development, 35(11), pp.1836-1857.
10. The 40-point demand issued by the Maoists to the government in 1996 before launching the war underscored poverty, unemployment and the growing gap between rich and poor as justifications for taking up arms.
11. Trade unions affiliated to the Maoists are still the most popular amongst workers, and workers were successful in achieving a number of demands through the unions, including higher wages, contracts and job security. Yet this contradicts the idea that once the Maoists are in government, it would be better for workers to stop striking.
12. Rees, J. (1999) The socialist revolution and the democratic revolution, International Socialism, 83, p.55.
13. The 1976 military coup also took place at a time of deep divisions between right and left, and where the military and police, as well as groups of right-wing thugs, went on the offensive, forcing many to seek refuge in the Communist Party of Thailand.
14. Connors, M. and K. Hewison (2008) Introduction: Thailand and the “Good Coup”, [Online] Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38(1), p.7.
15. Ungpakorn, G. (2010) Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy. Oxford: WDPress, p.18.
16. Marx, K. and F. Engels (1848) Manifesto of the Communist Party. [Online] Available: [Accessed 5 July 2010].
17. Marx, K. and F. Engels (1848) Manifesto of the Communist Party. [Online] Available: [Accessed 5 July 2010].
18. Cliff, T. (1963) Deflected Permanent Revolution, London: SWP, p.9.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU