The withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan must be perplexing for those on the left who supported their invasion or did not oppose their presence.
They argued that Afghanistan was a different case from Vietnam or other battles against imperialism. The USSR claims to be socialist; and even if we reject this claim we can point to the frankly reactionary prograrnme of the Afghan rebels and the support for them from the United States. In comparison the Afghan government and its Russian backers are , if no more, 'progressive'.
The People's Democratic Party (PDP) government which took power through a military coup in April 1978 did promise land reform, modern education and women's emancipation in Afghanistan, one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. But they tried to impose these reforms through the control of the central state machine by a small modernising elite of officers trained in the USSR. The mass of the Afghan people rebelled against this 'enlightened despotism'. Under pressure of the rebellion, faction fights exploded in the PDP. Moscow became alarmed: Hafizullah Amin, the ultra-Stalinist who had come out on top in the PDP faction fight, looked like leading the pro-USSR regime to a shattering defeat.
In December 1979, Moscow invaded, got rid of Amin, created a new government from more pliant PDP members and took effective control. It must have hoped to put down the rebellion quite quickly.
Eight years on, five million people are refugees and perhaps a million are dead. The USSR has employed all the traditional techniques of modern colonial warfare, including putting napalm fire to villages, in an effort to subdue the Afghan resistance.
The modernist programme of the PDP has been largely scrapped. Land reform has been halted, and the government loudly proclaims its respect for Islam; but all the efforts to appease the rebels have been as vain as the efforts to crush them.
The essential reality of Afghanistan is that the Soviet Union has behaved as an imperialist power trying to bombard an economically and socially underdeveloped people into submission. That the Afghan people are backward - economically, culturally and politically -no more justifies this war of conquest than the backwardness of colonial peoples justified British colonialism in the past. The Zulu kings for example, were certainly no more modern-minded than the Afghan rebels, while British colonialism could promise progressive capitalist development in southern Africa.
Socialist Action, twice referring to the Afghan rebels as 'scum' call energetically for 'Victory to the Afghan government' (May 1988). They do not say whether they support or oppose the Soviet withdrawal, but they do warn that a rebel victory "will wipe out... all traces of communism, liberalism
working class organisation (and) any organisation of women". What 'traces' of working class organisation, or liberalism, not to mention communism, exist now in Afganistan, under Moscow's control? Since when have the Kremlin bureaucrats been defenders of these things?
Socialist Action do criticise the 'bureaucratic methods' of the Soviet Union - although 'bureaucratic' is hardly an adequate adjective - but continue their spirited defense of the Soviet Union's puppet. "It is a matter of disgrace" they say, "that the British left has been supporting this scum", meaning, again, the rebels. In fact, many on the British left over the last 8 years, have supported the 'scum' ruling in Moscow.
Militant was one of the few groups who never switched to calling for Russian withdrawal after the reality of occupation became impossible to ignore. Mike Waddington (Militant, 13 May) argues that Gorbachev is getting out because the 'counter-revolution' has been defeated - a thesis not supported by any other observers, or, indeed, by any evidence.
Quoting Ted Grant from 1979, Militant rails against "the confused 'analyses' of the media, which portray the Russian withdrawal as a defeat" and proudly proclaims: "As always, Marxism has shown a far clearer understanding of the processes in advance than the capitalist 'experts' have been able to develop even with hindsight!"
The relevant prediction from Grant was that Russian troops would withdraw "once the counterrevolution has been defeated". So it is somewhat surprising to read Waddington referring to Gorbachev's description of the war as ''a bleeding wound", and speculating that "Gorbachev has probably whipped up anti-war stories as a warning to the bureaucracy of what could develop if the situation continues"- a peculiar calculation for somebody about to secure victory to make.
In fact Militant means that Russia hasn't been defeated, rather than that it has actually won - which renders Grant's 'prediction' irrelevant. Of course the Russians haven't literally been driven out by the rebels storming Kabul, but very few colonial wars end like that. The USSR failed to defeat the rebels: that is the truth of it.
Militant also is full of venom for the rebels, and praise for the current regime. Confident of Ajibullah's future victory, they predict yet more glowing achievements to come. The methods employed by the USSR, the number of Afghan deaths, all of that gets not one word. Mere details, no doubt, on the scale of historical progress.
What is important is that "illiteracy has largely been abolished and the position of women improved... new mosques have been built and 1,226 mosques have been repaired". The number of mosques - or homes - demolished is not recorded.
Militant have defined the Russian war in Afghanistan essentially as one of civilisation against barbarism - against the 'dark masses', as they once described the Afghans. If the Afghan masses aren't prepared to accept the benefits of the twentieth century, so much the worse for them.
Now Militant find themselves in the invidious position of having to support Russian withdrawal after opposing the call for it all along. The logic-chopping about Russian victory is merely a device to get themselves out of a fix. Their basic attitude, reminiscent of the Fabians, who justified imperialism as the extension of civilisation, remains unchanged.
Afghanistan is no side issue. The view of the world and of socialism's place in it expressed by Socialist Action, Militant and many others on this issue is a major disease on the left. If 'socialism', 'liberation', or 'democracy' can be imposed on the mass of the people by a brutal military elite, then Marx's idea that the liberation of the working class must be the task of the workers themselves' is mere prejudice.
Socialists of course do not welcome the prospect of a medieval Islamic regime in Kabul. We are for progressive minorities defending themselves, and the development of a socialist movement. But we are not in favour of governments imposed on the mass of the population.
Any socialist movement must recognise that the peoples of Afghanistan, like any other have the right to self-determination. Socialism is about freedom, including national freedom. And from that point of view, the Russian departure from Afghanistan is a step towards socialism, not away from it.
SO 356 19-5-88