The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the British labour movement

Submitted by AWL on 27 October, 2016 - 1:48 Author: Sean Matgamna

Most of the Trotskyist organisations backed the Russians. Socialist Organiser was the only organisation in the entire “orthodox Trotskyist” political spectrum that condemned the Russian invasion and called for the troops to be withdrawn.

The confusion on the left about Stalinism created great difficulties for Socialist Organiser in the 1984-5 miner’s strike. For us the first principle was the liberty and political independence of the working class everywhere. We had to combine necessary criticism of Scargill and his friends in their capacity of Stalinists with whole-hearted support for them in their capacity of heroic fighters in Britain. We encountered considerable hostility.

To give an example from my own experience at the time, one of the rowdiest labour movement meetings I’ve ever attended was a debate I had in Edinburgh soon after the Russian invasion with a pro-USSR Labour MP, Ron Brown. He was an honest but politically foolish man who thought that Leonid Brezhnev and Colonel Gaddafi — and probably Saddam Hussein — were socialists. Just back from Afghanistan, he was keen to report that the Russians were doing great work there, and were very popular.

It was a Saturday afternoon at the end of some miners’ gala or conference, and a big proportion of the large meeting were miners, many of them bevvied-up. The meeting was overwhelmingly pro-Russian and very hostile to those who denounced Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. Most of them would have been Labour Party people. To the loud approval of much of the meeting Brown praised the Russian leaders for sending tanks to Kabul. I attracted fierce abuse and much interruption when I argued that we should condemn the invasion and call on the Russians to get out of Afghanistan.
“The Yanks are against the Russians, so is Margaret Thatcher, so is the CIA — and so are you”.

I’d taken part in open-air mass meetings of dock workers in Manchester. Noisy, sometimes conflict-ridden affairs in which a more genteel outsider would have seen imminent violence where there was none. At a number of points I thought the Edinburgh meeting was about to break up in violent disorder. The supporters of the Russians in Afghanistan would certainly have won the vote had we had one.

This large Scottish labour movement meeting was not all that unrepresentative of opinion on the left then. Many people who called themselves socialists thought “defending nationalised property” more important than the right of the Polish workers’ movement Solidarnosc to exist. The most distressing thing about that Edinburgh meeting was who and what these angry supporters of Russian imperialism’s colonial war in Afghanistan were, and the tragic gap between what in reality they were supporting and what they thought they were supporting by backing the Stalinist dictator Brezhnev. These were some of the best people in our movement then. But they were hopelessly disoriented. Politically they had no future.

From Class Against Class : The miners’ strike 1984-5, July 2014.