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Why Social Democracy in Nepal Now?

Chaitanya Mishra
Tribhuvan University


There is, among the political actors in Nepal, i.e. leaders of political parties, leaders of the multitude of 'sister organization' of political parties and many other active political-party sympathizers, a huge and dangerous problem of comprehending history and historical process. Indeed, this problem has shaped and colored, to various degrees, the political thinking of most politically-inclined citizens and voters. It is the very narrow present, the immediate, the most concrete, and the most local that occupy their attention. As such, they often miss the opportunity to seize the specificity of a historical moment or an entire flow of historical sequences. Or else, and obversely, they also often miss seizing the specificity of a historical moment because they are given to sweepingly large-scale and long-term ideological and political-economic generalizations. An emphasis on the long term and the large scale, of course, is good by itself. But over-generalized historical and spatial interpretation--and political programming-misses the specificity of the present historical moment. In either case, there is a huge chance that the actors miss acting upon a specific and historically structured world, regional and 'local' state system. Both over-concretization and over-generalization whether in terms of history or space or peoples or whatever, leads to an ahistorical conception of the present which, in turn, contributes to unwarranted world view and political programming.

This, of course, is not merely a problem that uniquely afflicts political leaders and activists in Nepal. This problem has had many global, regional and local editions. As we can see, the fundamentalist-Islamization in Pakistan, which began right after 1947 and which, in fact, was 'seeded' in the 1930s, is a glaring regional instance. On the other hand, there have been spectacularly successful instances of seizing history in all its specificity and linking it continuously-up to a long stretch, which is probably all that can be done within the limits of historical-structural dialectics--to the flow of history. The spectacular and continuing success of China--and India to a large extent--attests to the extreme astuteness with which local, regional and global history was seized there. The republican turn in Nepal four years ago was also, locally, an instance how history was seized both by the political parties and the youth who were facing a rapidly changing landscape, i.e. a crisis, of production and generation of livelihood. As hinted, this is not merely or primarily a matter of a particular psychology that afflicts political leaders. It is, as any other social process, historically and socially constructed-although its most visible manifestation may be more easily fathomable, for some, in terms of individual action.

Let me begin by dividing political party and political leaders along the conventional right, center-left and communist divide. The communist parties across the world often cannot comprehend the historical process because they cultivate a false 'history' based on the fake death of capitalism. This was, of course, very largely based on late-Lenin's false diagnosis of an imperialism which, according to him, had already reached its peak by 1914. Capitalism, as such, had nowhere to go but down. This false historical diagnosis provided the basis for the 'Soviet workers' state' and for a pre-mature socialist program. No matter the fact that many, even at that time, saw the 'Soviet state' not as one of owned and operated by workers but of the power-hungry and autocratic communist party, the war-weary military, the petty-bourgeois and loyalist bureaucracy and the landless peasants who had been promised farm prior to the Stalinist collective. During the post-WW II and post-Mao period and, in particular, after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1990, an increasingly defensive but vocal communist parties kept alive the appearance of the 'imminent demise of capitalism and thus the political and moral duty of the communist party to immediately throw capitalism to the dustbin of history' alive. Relevant instances of such rhetoric includes till the British labor party's rhetoric of nationalization of private enterprise before Tony Blair, i.e. till just two decades ago. Even centrist parties have, at times, threatened of 'nationalization' in India. In Nepal, one can bring to notice rhetoric such as the undefined, expedient, archaic-sounding agragami (i.e. 'forward moving'). There is a far more popularly known and accepted-indeed venerated in some circles in the manner of a sacred--terminology of pragatisheel (i.e. progressive). This of course, is also more politically transparent and universally comprehensible. But this is precisely why this would not do: The term is tainted because it is known to refer to a relatively known class of political, economic and cultural changes. Thus, communist leaders and sympathizers in Nepal are agragami but not pragatisheel. Then there are other rhetorical devices, e.g. 'krantikari bhumi sudhar' (which convolutes both the notions of revolution and reform), janabadi sikshya (which apparently negates 'bourgeois education system'). Despite the rhetoric of ekkaisaun shatabdiko janabad, the UCPNM incessantly threatens to go back to the Stalinist era, e.g. vide the definition of janata (i.e. 'people') in UCPNM Chairman Prachanda's presentation in the recent FNCCI-organized program.

In the world-historical context that Nepal is currently located, the programs of 'socialism,' 'new democracy,' 'worker-led-capitalism' (which apparently implies state capitalism), etc. are similar rhetoric and political programs which lead to a dangerous incomprehension of history. It is noteworthy, on the other hand, that everything about capitalism is progressive (or janabadi-if this is a proper translation) in comparison to the pre-capitalist forms-except for private property and, of course, its large-scale and deep consequences. The preceding rhetoric and political programs, on the other hand, and foundationally, are expressions of denial that capitalism is revolutionary in itself in particular historical circumstances, i.e. in pre-capitalist political economies. These rhetoric and political programs, on the other hand, deny the basic logic of historical and dialectical reasoning: That capitalism needs maturing before contradictions within it can mature and begins the process of bursting at the seams. Capitalism, as a specific historical construction, will wane and give rise to a new political economic system. But it needs to rise first before it enters a process of waning.

Most (capitalist) bourgeois-democratic political parties hide behind another from of ahistoric comprehension and acting. Such parties acknowledge and fully appreciate the nature of the past and the transitions that have taken place since. Such parties and leaders, in association with the underclass, led to the global demise of hereditary rule and heralded the era of bourgeois democracy. But they also tend to think that there will be large-scale, foundational or structural changes any more. For them the present is the future; the future has already arrived. Bourgeois democracy is not only the final peak but also the endless plateau of history. Thus, bourgeois democracy, as reckoned by one author-and celebrated by a great many bourgeois-democratic parties and leaders--is the end of history. Tomorrow will be one more today and so on and on. The economy might change and grow. There might be political changes to be sure but these will remain under the ambit of bourgeois democracy. The future, in any case, will remain structurally constant.

Both of the readings are, of course, ahistorical. The end of the world-capitalist system-proclaimed nearly one full century ago--is as false as the final victory of world-capitalist bourgeois democracy. Political programs based on such readings are almost certain to lead to unwarrantedly subjective, romantic and false. Such programs are also likely to inflict unwarranted contradiction into the body politic, obstruct transition of the mode of production and distribution and inflict unwarranted hardship and pain on citizens, workers, consumers, students, family persons and so on.

Both the communist and the classical capitalist bourgeois-democratic roads are, therefore, closed for the present. There must be some other tried and tested model that we can rely on. No model, of course, is perfect. But the weight of history and political and economic structure would necessarily privilege one model over all others. I argue there that the privileged model is social democracy.


If the historical and dialectical reasoning made in the preceding section is valid, we are forced to recognize one more fact: Social democracy, subject to historical-dialectical laws as it is, is not a universal and cross-historical panacea. As everything else, social democracy is a specific historical construction and is, therefore, 'appropriate' for certain specific historical political economies and not for others. It is most appropriate within a political-economic form which is capitalist and democratic. It rounds out the very rough and painful edges of runaway classical capitalist bourgeois capitalism by means of democratic political, economic, legal, military and popular control. In doing so it makes tames capitalist development and growth and, in so doing, makes capitalism more resilient and durable. Capitalism and democracy, in specific historical political economies, can become sharply antithetical. One tames and supports the other. Social democracy, in such settings, can provide, for a long but not interminable term, a mechanism of resolving contradictions within capitalist democracy. In the longer run, as is the case with all other political-economic systems, contradictions within a social democratic set up become irresolvable. But social democracy itself can evolve over a period of time such that resolutions can be sought in a progressive manner with a social democratic set up. However, within the bourgeois democratic setup, the social-democratic strand may well enjoy a longevity that other strands may not. Eventually, however, social democracy will certainly devour itself and make way from some other political-economic system. It is more possible-among many other possibilities-that a self-devoured social democratic system will be some form of socialism. Bit this is by no means certain. The preparation and execution of political activism may well play a key role in deciding the 'final' outcome.


What is the essence of social democracy?

  • A social democratic set up is one in which capital, labor and the state become partners in an evolving and contradiction-prone compact. The state is vested, unlike in the strictest Marxist sense, with an autonomy which it utilizes to mediate between labor and capital-two forces which are antithetical but also one, within a capitalist system, which cannot realize one's potential without the other. The two are congenitally in conflict. But their conflict can be managed to more or less extent during a specific historical period. The state acquires autonomy, first, by virtue of the fact that its executive body, the government is periodically elected both by capitalist but also by labor in order to oversee their interests. The state can waver and fluctuate in particular instances vis-à-vis labor and capital with respect to particular disputes but it participates in and legitimizes a process of collective bargaining by means of broader bourgeois democratic and social democratic principles, rules that are established during the practice of such a regime and various other national, regional and global exigencies. But it cannot waver and take a consistent and sustained stand in favor of one and against the other. Second, the state also acquires autonomy because it acquires a strong financial base which it utilizes to enhance the capability and welfare of its citizens. And, third, the state also acquires autonomy because it implements legislations promptly and without partiality.
  • Universal ownership of and access to a minimal set of private and public political, economic and cultural resources is a prerequisite to effective citizenship within a social democratic system. Social democracy implies not only, among others, the right to expression and vote but also the right to vote independently based on self decision without fear or favor. Ownership and access to resources, access to a minimal level of living and opportunities to enhance capability for self and one's dependents, thus, is fundamental free and fearless exercise of democracy. It is also the highway to the expansion and deepening of democracy within capitalism. This is what leads to loyalty, trust and solidarity within the citizenry and in relation to the state.
  • Social democracy goes beyond the minimum wage, etc provisions. It visualizes citizens not only as workers but as human beings who require means to support themselves over their lifetime (as well as those of their dependents). A social democratic set up, thus, provisions for lifetime capability enhancement and welfare. Thus, citizens in a social democratic set up have claims to support whenever such support is warranted. On the other hand, this support is financially based on taxes-usually fairly progressive taxes--on income earned by the workers themselves and their employers. In addition, there are a host of corporate and other taxes. The taxes, in effect, are utilized both to reproduce labor power and to create a market for goods and services that the capitalist entrepreneurs produce. The state, thus, is an independent channel of income support to the citizens. This is what encourages workers and other citizens to see that the state is, in part, their ally.
  • Within a capitalist system, social democracy valorizes labor better than any other political form. This in turn implies a minimum level of wages, fair job and job performance practices-with tactically flexible definitions of what constitutes fairness and adequate performance, and collective bargaining.
  • Social democracy, however, is not only about the 'social' i.e. economic, financial, etc. redistribution. It is also about democracy, about rule by all citizens and voters and their representatives. Strengthening democracy, fundamental rights, oversight capability of legitimate popular bodies, thus, is fundamental to social democracy. Economic and financial enabling of all citizens, of course, helps much in expanding and strengthening democracy.
  • Social democracy, because it insists on universalized economic, political and cultural enabled democracy, removes barriers to effective citizenship and selfhood and self respect faced by various subordinated and marginalized groups, e.g. women, Dalits, marginalized ethnic and regional groups and so forth and expands and deepens democracy. Social democracy can play an extremely powerful role in removing and weakening ascribed and 'inherited' inequality. It can be effective instrument to promote equity.
  • Social democracy goes beyond all inherited privileges except for private property and investments (which can be reasonably taxed, however). It negates subordination and discrimination on the bases of caste, ethnicity, gender, faith, location of residence, 'indigeneity' and 'newcomer-ness,' various 'orientations' and so forth. It defines citizenship inclusively and promotes equity and equality among all citizens. No citizen is legally privileged over another. Customary privileges, except those related to private property, are systematically and consciously weakened down and eroded.
  • Social justice: The above 3 points are about what social justice is about within a capitalist system.
  • Social justice is not only about social justice, however. It is also about successively enabling capitalism and promoting economic growth as well as public revenues and utilizing the revenue to promote both capitalism and democracy. Social democracy, as noted, tames runaway capitalism but also gives it durability and resilience. Lack of democracy and production of low-capability youth and workers produces uncompetitive and low-quality capitalism. Social democracy, in contrast, by redistributing resources and investing in education, health, etc. produces high-capability citizens and youth.
  • Social democracy also ensures a relatively peaceful political, economic and cultural climate which is both an objective of human society and life as well as an instrument to promote economy, employment and income, give citizens the dignity that they deserve and to reduce violence. It is likely to ensure a more stable future in which individuals and groups can plan ahead without being forced to consistently react to powerful forces. It allows, therefore, a measure of self control and self initiative.


Why should Nepali political parties and leaders push for it at this juncture? Why the present and specific historical and structural juncture is an opportune period to begin instituting social democracy?

  • For one, it is, at least for the present, the only possible common political ground both in relation to political parties as well as the electoral distribution across the right-left-communist divide. The rightist political forces are at the weakest ever, even though there are rightist elements in all political parties. Monarchist, religious fundamentalist, militarist, etc. tendencies are the weakest ever. The center-left and communist alliance, in turn, is potentially the strongest ever. And this is a period in which a new constitution is being drafted. This is the time when key elements of the social democratic elements will have to be enshrined in the constitution.
  • As long as we are talking about political parties, it should be noted that the UML has definitely transitioned from its Leninist days of the 1970 and the 1980s. In 1990 it transitioned from the radical left to one which championed 'multiparty people's democracy'. Man Mohan Adhikari noted in the early 1990s that the UML was not a communist but a social-democratic polity party. He was derided for that by some within his own party. But that was an astute and daring characterization. The risk now, on the other hand, is that many UML stalwarts may veer to the right of social democracy. Nonetheless, nominally a communist party, it may, as a non-official party line, well be expected it to broadly pursue a social democratic line. The Nepali Congress Party has a long history of nominal democratic socialism, a notion which was more familiar prior to the 1980s and one which has a stronger kinship ties to non-Marxist socialism. The party leadership apparently spans from the mild right to the center and left. At times it has espoused a stronger version of land reform than other left and communist parties. Its political center may fall somewhere along the center, making it well amenable to a softer version of social democracy and a relatively hard line version of bourgeois democracy. The left-of-center electoral pull in the country would not allow it to decisively move to the right of the center. The UCPNM, to the extent that it adopts a strategy or even a tactic of working with a democratic and capitalist system may, like the UML in the past, well see that its future-or at ;east medium-run future-lies in social democracy. If this does come true, this would constitute a potent victory for social democracy. Bit then the UCPNM is in the midst of a large-scale ideological and political transition itself and it is therefore uncertain the course it will take. It may emphasize the social but push democracy to the backburner. It may, for example, also very well opt for mildly redistributive state capitalism, which is where its inclinations have been for a long time. This course would, of course, be bad news for democracy inasmuch as it would lead towards one-party state. Finally, ethnicist, regionalist, faith-based fundamentalist forces, and forces which encourage militarist tendencies may well block the path to a social democratic set up.
  • The present is a highly politicized moment in history and moving toward social democracy requires a politicized citizenry. A politicized but democratic and 'capitalist citizenry' is a 'natural' ally of social democracy.
  • The present is the historical moment when a republic has been born. But it is not only the birth of a republic that is the signature of the present. The present is also characterized by large-scale social transition and a rejection of some of the crucial ways of making a living, believing and relating. These include changes in the mode of generation of livelihood. Just witness the significance of the slide of the rural, the agricultural, the subsistent, and the in the GNP, the family budget and the life-preparation and inclination of the youth. Witness the huge number of the youth involved in labor migration from the interiors to the district headquarters the Tarai and other cities and towns, to cities and towns in India and to southeast and west Asia and beyond. The global recession may mean that the rate of labor emigration may not increase. It is unlikely, however, that the size of the outward bound labor migration will substantially decrease. The high rate of growth in India, in particular, implies that capitalist enterprises as well as the upper and middle classes in India will increase the demand of labor, including of those from Nepal. Growth in China may have a similar consequence across the northern border. More organized expansion of labor migration in Chinese manufacturing and service establishments, of course, will have to wait major diplomatic initiatives. Similar initiatives may open up several other Asian and other countries as well. It is not only the number involved that is of significance from the point of view of social democracy. The uprooting from land and the rural implies an immense impetus for the rise of the public and of the democratic. It also implies both the opportunity and the obligation to draw resources from the enlarged pool of income earners and to address the needs of the inept and the subordinated, dispossessed and marginalized.
  • To supplement the above, the rapidly rising differentiation and diversification of the economy and the increasing disassociation of the youth from older forms of social relationship-including family relationships, implies the need to bind them into newer forms of economic, political and cultural relationship. It is best that these new relationships be founded on social democracy.
  • Several agreements entered into by the currently dominant political parties, e.g. the 12-point agreement; possess a social-democratic content.
  • The interim constitution, which is an agreement among political parties on how to run the new state, has pronounced social democratic features.
  • The debates in the constitutional assembly and the reports of the various committees also can provide a platform for social democracy. The existing bones of contention in the constituent assembly, except for those related to land reform, are not frontally related to the substance of political economy but to other political, administrative, and 'cultural' issues.
  • The large size and the globally historically unprecedented economic growth in India and China, Nepal's immediate neighbors demand that Nepal match or at least come close to their growth rates. The growth in India and China may well help Nepal's growth as well-to the extent that appropriate policies are adopted. This growth, in turn, will quicken the adoption of the social democratic agenda in Nepal.


To conclude, there is a widespread recognition in Nepal now that the classical capitalist road will turn to a dead end without the ownership of the political system by the relatively dispossessed and the less capable. Keeping ownership of the state, in turn, requires that the workers are entitled to part of the profit earned by the capitalists in the form of support and subsides funded by public revenues generated through progressive taxes. Bourgeois democratic parties, which often ally themselves more to capitalism than democracy, cannot afford to do so. They have to cease seeing nothing but democracy in capitalism even as the communist parties must see than capitalism and democracy can go at least some way, may be even a long way, forward.

It is necessary to arrive at a historically and structurally appropriate delimitation of dimensions of social democracy. It is an appropriate historical moment to adopt an evolutionary, gradual initiative on social democracy. Now that, in Nepal, politics is far ahead of economics, e.g. democracy way ahead of employment creation, the latter deserves relatively more emphasis in the short run. Nepal cannot rival relatively full-blown social democracies for several decades. Nepali political leaders, instead, and like political leaders immediately after World War II, have to begin building social democracy instead.

Note: Paper Presented at a seminar organized by FES-CNS on "Inner-Party Democracy and Social Democracy," August 7-8, 2010

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