Afghanistan’s “Great Saur Revolution”, in April 1978, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan that flowed from it 20 months later, at Christmas 1979, were two of the most important events of the second half of the 20th century.
The invasion led to the so named Second Cold War. Their failure to subjugate Afghanistan in a nine-year colonial war was one of the things that shattered the self-confidence of the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy, and contributed to its downfall. The April 1978 revolution was a freakish event — an army and air force officers’ coup controlled by the Peoples Democratic Party, the Afghan Stalinist party.
The PDP was itself a tiny town-based middle-class organisation of a few thousand people, perhaps as few as 2000, in a country then reckoned at about 18 million people. The symbiosis between the PDP and the Air Force and Army officers had came into existence in the previous quarter century, during which Russia had equipped and trained the Afghan air force and army officers. Afghanistan’s neighbour and rival, Pakistan, had the patronage of the USA. These army and air force officers took the USSR as their model for modernising Afghanistan.
It was a coup, not a revolution, that they made in April 1978. In China, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Stalinist revolutions had been led by organisations at the head of mass movements. The PDP had no such base. It had only the officer corps. The army and air force soldiers in these organisations obeyed the officers in the traditional military discipline of command and obedience. The military hierarchies remained intact.
A gap of centuries of social and intellectual development divided the towns and their educated elites from rural Afghanistan. Having very small support in rural Afghanistan, the new regime had only force to rely on. It resorted to military and airborne terror to enforce revolutionary decrees for which there was little or no support in rural Afghanistan — land reform, for a surprising example. Within a couple of months of the coup, the regime was at war with much of rural Afghanistan, and soon with almost all of it.
The Stalinists in power found themselves using the typical techniques of colonial war against the people they were trying to force-march into the 20th century. Villages were napalm-bombed, crops destroyed in the fields, large numbers of people killed or driven over the borders into Pakistan and Iran. The PDP had been divided between two murderously hostile factions, Khalq and Parcham.
They united under Russian pressure to make the coup. But not for long. Soon the Stalinists in power started killing each other. Within a year of the coup so many officers had been killed or jailed that a large number of Russian air force pilots had to be brought in so that the air force could continue to function. Russian pressure to take things more slowly had no effect on the ruling faction, Khalq.
Their policy was to slug it out with the peoples of Afghanistan. By that time they probably had little choice other than to go down before the hostility of rural Afghanistan. Russia invaded at Christmas 1979, shot the leaders in power, had the leaders they put in their place invite them to invade Afghanistan, and got bogged down in the last great colonial war of the 20th century — Russia’s Vietnam war. What attitude should socialists take to the Russian annexation of Afghanistan?
This question immediately divided the international left. All the “Orthodox Trotskyist” organisations except what is now AWL either backed the invasion enthusiastically or took the line that, the Russians being there, they could not now condemn the invaders or call upon them to withdraw. One segment of the Mandel Fourth International announced jubilantly that Russia had gone “to the aid of a revolution”. Militant (today divided into the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal) was then the biggest proclaimedly Trotskyist organisation in Britain. They soon came out in support of the Russian occupation. The invasion caught the Workers’ Power group, who had been supporters of a state capitalist account of the USSR, in the middle of a reexamination of the “class nature” of the USSR.
The new example of Russian imperialism made them decide to stick to the state capitalist point of view? No, they took a flying leap into the air and across the newly reinforced barrier to the idea that the USSR was any sort of workers’ state. They chose to see the invasion as a new proof that the USSR was, after all, a degenerated workers’ state. After six months or a year many of the Orthodox Trotskyists sobered up and stopped supporting Russia’s colonial war. Others backed Russia through a decade of savage colonial war in Afghanistan.
The Socialist Party never sobered up. Nor did Workers’ Power. A lot of labour movement people, including some Labour MPs, backed Russia in Afghanistan. The introduction to the AWL book on the miners’ strike contains an account of some of our experiences in connection with Afghanistan at that time. An odd thing in the response of the ostensible left to the invasion was that, in contrast to the “Trotskyists”, some Communist parties refused to back the Russians. For example, the Communist Party of Great Britain* condemned the invasion. Jack Woddis published factually honest accounts of what was happening in Afghanistan, and condemned it.
These were Stalinists turning themselves into bourgeois liberals, but they had learned something from their experience, and in this case behaved as serious political people.
Before the invasion the AWL had been going through a prolonged “re-evaluation of values”. There had been a short but nasty fight in the group on our attitude to the Iranian Revolution, early in 1979.
The argument for a more critical approach to this alien, reactionary revolution had received one vote on the National Committee. We learned from that mistake. In January 1980, we decided that we could not in political conscience join the other “Orthodox Trotskyists” as we had on Iran. We must oppose the Russians in Afghanistan. It was a major event in our ongoing “re-evaluation”.
But the material in this pamphlet was all written from within a residual “degenerated workers’ state” position on the USSR. When the Russians pulled out, we responded to the new situation by supporting the cities against the rural barbarians.
An article reprinted in this collection outlines that position. Some half-wise people have accused us of inconsistency in our attitude to Muslims. If there is inconsistency it is in the circumstances and situations in which different Muslim peoples exist. Of course we opposed the attempt to conquer the Muslim peoples of Afghanistan. Of course we sided with the Muslim victims in Bosnia of the butchering Serb ethnic cleansers. Of course we campaigned politically against the international embargo on arms for the Bosnian Muslims. Of course we supported the Albanian Muslims in Kosovo, a Serbian colony, against the would-be genocidal Serbian state and its local supporters.
And of course we oppose political Islam. Of course we oppose their oppression of Muslims and non-Muslims who disagree with them. Of course we oppose them in their drives to set up Islamic theocracies. Of course we denounce their 9/11 atrocity in New York and the terror attacks in other places, including London. Of course we oppose Islam, as we oppose Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, etc, etc, etc. Of course, we believe that the values and best standards of advanced bourgeois civilisation, one dialect of which is our own Marxist socialism, are better, superior, more advanced than backward Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and all the other obscurantist enemies of reason, democracy and rationality.
Our record on these questions shows the kitsch-left charge that our politics on political Islam now are rooted in a fixed hostility to Muslims as people is ignorant a-political and often hysterical abuse from people who have themselves lost the political plot. Finally, it has become something of a truism on the left that by arming Russia’s opponents in Afghanistan, the USA was the great villain there.
No, the Russian invasion and the decade-long colonial war there was the great primal villainy, from which all the other bad things followed. This pamphlet was published in 1985. The material appeared in weekly installments in the paper Workers’ Action in 1980, and in a magazine issue of Workers’ Action at the end of the same year. The Appendix was written in 1985.
* Footnote: This, of course, was the real CPGB, not the Weekly Worker group that uses that name now. These were then The Leninist and wild enthusiasts for the Afghan regime, lauding and relishing, and, indeed, openly drooling and thrilling over, the strong hand of Stalinist rule and Stalinist terror in Kabul and other urban centres. In print, they threatened to wreak eventual Stalinist vengeance of the same sort against opponents of "The Revolution" in Afghanistan, and on "Trotskyites" such as ourselves. In plain words, the leaders of this groupuscule, then as now, were psychologically very strange people.