The "Great Saur Revolution"

First, I will summarise briefly the main facts about Afghanistan. For more detail, see the article "Afghanistan and the Shape of the 20th Century" ("Afghanistan…"), in Workers' Liberty 2/2.

1. The "Great Saur Revolution" was a military coup made by a section of the officer corps of Afghanistan, under the control of the Stalinist party (the PDPA), working in co-ordination with agencies of the neighbouring Russian Stalinist state.

2. The PDPA's decisive class base was a segment of the Afghan ruling elite and of the intelligentsia, which had adopted as its goal the modernisation of Afghanistan on the model of the USSR, with itself forming the nucleus of an Afghan bureaucratic ruling class of the USSR type. Its active forces in the "Great Saur Revolution" were two or three hundred military officers, in command of armies tanks and aeroplanes.

3. Because of the links between the Stalinist PDPA and the officers who made the coup, and handed power to the PDPA, it was a coup sui generis. Nonetheless it was a military coup in its modus operandi, and in its relationship to Afghan society and to the classes within it.

4. Coups are revolutions, with varying intentions to act on society, and varying consequences in terms of their effect on the society under the state the coup-makers have seized. Nonetheless, Marxists distinguish between military coups and popular revolutions. "Saur" was a military coup because the sole active force in this "revolution" was a segment of the officer corps of the Army and airforce, using the troops under their command.

5. The relationship of the coup-making officers to those they commanded was that of traditional military hierarchs, and not in any sense that of revolutionary leaders to the rank and file of a revolutionary army.

6. The fierce week-long fighting in Kabul was an urban civil war, but one entirely confined to competing sections of the state samurai.

7. It was not a popular revolution, because mass popular activity played no part at all in the seizure, the consolidation or the subsequent exercise of power. Demonstrations and suchlike called by the PDPA played no organic part, or any part at all, in the seizure and consolidation of power. The "masses" had no share at all in the subsequent exercise of power by the PDPA.

8. What happened corresponded to the theory of revolution propounded by PDPA leader Taraki (or by a segment of the Russian state, speaking through Taraki):

"Comrade Taraki had appraised the Afghan society on a scientific basis and had intimated [to] the party since the 1973 [Daud] coup that it was possible in Afghanistan to wrest… political power through a shortcut, [inasmuch] as the classical way in which the productive forces undergo different stages to build a society based on scientific socialism would take a long time. This shortcut could be utilised by working extensively in the armed forces. Previously the army was considered as the tool of dictatorship and despotism of the ruling class and it was not imaginable to use it before toppling its employer. However, Comrade Taraki suggested this too should be wrested in order to topple the ruling class".

(From an official biography of Taraki, published in August 1978).

9. Almost all military coups have some support, amongst segments of the ruling class and sometimes amongst the people. By definition, where the military takes the role of protagonist, it is passive support. Sometimes a coup can unleash broad mass action (as for example did the coup in Iraq in July 1958). What defines it as a coup is its limitation to a segment of the state, to the shifting of power on top. It is the seizure of the whole of the existing state by one or more of its own parts. Even where a coup unleashes mass action, power remains in the hands of an elite. It was so in Afghanistan.

10. Unique to Afghanistan, was the subordinate relationship of the military coup-makers to a "communist", that is, Stalinist party, the PDPA. The coup-makers set up a military government, but within a few days they formally handed power over to the PDPA.

11. The nearest parallel to the relationship of the PDPA with the officers of the Afghan army and airforce is the relationship in Syria and Iraq in the 1960s between the Ba'th Socialist parties and coup-making officers there.

12. In handing over political power to the PDPA, the officers did again something like what some of them had already done once, less than five years earlier, in the "Daud Coup" of July 1973, after which they handed power to Mohammed Daud, a cousin of the ousted King and a former long-time Prime Minister. Now however there was an element of deliberately handing over power to the local agents of the USSR, the long time patron of the Afghan armed forces.

13. The armed forces remained the essential power base of the PDPA, which claimed only 8,000 members on the eve of seizing power, and probably had a lot fewer, maybe as few as 2,000 (organised, moreover, in two distinct and bitterly antagonistic parties, Parcham and Khalq). The two PDPAs had had two brief periods of unity - 1965/7 and 1977/78 - but otherwise had been separated by bitter conflict.

14. The PDPA government was stamped and shaped by its origins in an elitist, upper class, state-based military coup. It never had other than a very limited support in the population, even in Kabul, where it was strongest. Its social basis, apart from the army and airforce officers, was a segment of the intelligentsia. Though the PDPA in power tried to build the auxiliary structures typical of Stalinist states - such as women's and youth movements - essentially it related to Afghan society not as the political leader of any substantial segment of society, but by way of state compulsion, military power, military force.

15. The all-determining factor before and after "Great Saur" was the relationship of the Afghanistan armed forces to the USSR. After 1955, the USSR became the main supplier of military hardware (the USA supplied Pakistan, with which Afghanistan was in conflict), and, most importantly, of training for most of the technicians needed to run the tanks and aircraft of a modern military machine. Over decades a symbiosis developed between segments of the aspirant modernising Afghan elite and the ruling elite in the USSR. The PDPAs, especially Khalq, reaped the harvest sown by the USSR's relationship with Afghanistan by recruiting key segments of the officer corps. Some officers had certainly been "lined up" by the Russian secret service.

16. Two factors converged in the making of Saur. The link with the USSR was one, the matrix so to speak. The other was the decades of experience of the enlightened Afghan intelligentsia, including the officers trained to use modern military technology, in a largely pre-feudal society, one which still had two million nomads in 1978. A significant element was won to support for the USSR model of what seemed to be a modern society.

17. Sardar Mohammed Daud, the King's first cousin and brother in law, had been the decisive reformer in 20th-century Afghanistan. What was won in the way of modernisation, of liberating women, etc., was chiefly the work of Daud, Prime Minister in 1953-63 and 1973-78. In the 1950s Daud took Afghanistan into the USSR's orbit.

18. Daud's republican coup in July 1973 was supported by both PDPAs. Parchamis helped organise it. Parcham joined the government. Khalq offered to join the government, but Daud and Parcham rejected the offer. The government, with Parcham participating, persecuted Khalq. In 1976/7 Parcham was eased out of office. The failure of Daud to modernise Afghanistan threw to the PDPA layers of the officers who had supported him in 1973 and after. Khalq, which was far less Daudist than Parcham, and which was in opposition while Parcham was in government, recruited most of them.

19. The international context was decisive in what happened in Afghanistan in 1978. In the 1950s the Afghan Stalinists had supported Daud. Whenever "Third World" rulers, like Nasser in Egypt, for example, developed friendly relations with the USSR or were at loggerheads with the USA, the Stalinist parties were docile and supportive. The Egyptian Communist Party obligingly dissolved itself in 1960. The Afghan Stalinists, who had been organised in discussion groups in the 1950s, did not form a party until January 1965. The declaration of a "Communist Party" in 1965 was a direct response to the less close relations with the USSR which the King, who dismissed Daud in 1963, seemed bent on. By the 1970s the CPs were not so docile. In the aftermath of the US defeat in Indochina, and the collapse of its power there, the USSR seemed commensurately strengthened. A number of regimes that were non-Stalinist in origin seemed on the road to doing what Cuba did in 1960-61 and becoming Stalinist states. In 1976 and after Daud made serious moves to loosen the ties with Russia, on a trajectory that would have taken what was in effect by now a USSR protectorate out of the USSR's orbit. That fact was probably decisive in prompting the Stalinists' April 1978 coup.

20. In preparation for the coup, the two warring Afghanistan Stalinist parties were united. It must have been very much a shotgun wedding, at the behest of the Russian KGB. Numbers, and especially the numbers of its officer members, made Khalq very much the dominant partner. Within weeks of taking power in the Saur coup, the two PDPAs within the "united" party were savagely fighting each other, in a mixture of Robespierre's Reign of Terror and Stalin's bloody purges of the 1930s. The simplest measure of it is this: by mid 1979, Khalq's purging of "unreliable elements" and Parchamis had reduced the air force to reliance on Russian pilots to do its work in the civil war that was raging in a number of separate parts of the country.

21. The coup pitted the new regime against most of Afghan society. They had uneven support in towns, mainly in Kabul, no support at all in the countryside. In fact, the Stalinist military coup vastly intensified the antagonism between town and country. They issued radical decrees about land reform, against usury, for equal education for men and women. But outside of Kabul and, less so, in a few other places, they simply had no power to implement their decrees. The supposed beneficiaries rejected their land reforms. The attempt to abolish usury by decree, without having in place any alternative for peasants who could not do without credit, led to a massive agricultural crisis and a catastrophic fall in agricultural production.

22. Armed revolt faced them from the beginning, at first in scattered pockets. The theory of Stalinist revolution that guided them assumed the existence of a state able to dominate society, but the Afghan state was weak in relation to society. It could not impose itself. Committed to trying to impose itself, the government went to war with most of Afghanistan. This too was a function of the nature of the military coup that was not able to become a revolution, and of Taraki's theorising on it. Napalm being dropped on villages within weeks of the April coup symbolised the real relation between government and people. Attempts by the aspirant bureaucratic Stalinist ruling class to rouse the people against the old ruling class failed comprehensively, in part defeated by Islamism, which linked the rural population and the old ruling class.

23. The idea that this was equivalent to the conflict in the 1790s between revolutionary, emergent bourgeois France and the backward Vendée region, Catholic and reactionary, is suggestive, but in the end, it is of only limited validity. The idea of the Vendée presupposes an anti-Vendée, an advanced area sufficiently large as a base area from which to transform the whole country despite pockets of resistance, even serious and protracted resistance as in the Vendée. No such base area existed in Afghanistan, with the possible exception of Kabul. And Kabul, like all the cities in varying degrees, was an island in the pre-feudal sea of a country that was many hundreds of years behind them in terms of social development and social relations.