Stalinist mind at the end of its tether/ 2

Submitted by AWL on 12 April, 2004 - 10:04

Putsch, coup and revolution

J-J: "The Afghan 1978 revolution was carried out from above… But that can also be said of many revolutions in the Twentieth Century. Egypt and Abdel Nasser's free officers movement of July 1952….Iraq…in July 1958. Even Comrade Matgamna [in WL] grudgingly (sic) admits (sic) that the Afghan revolution was a political revolution… Yet the 1978 revolution was not led by a small military group or clique… The PDPA was predominantly a civilian party that illegally organised secret cells inside the armed forces of the existing state, which it then managed to decisively split. So was Afghanistan's revolution a mere conspiracy hatched within the state machine, lacking in popular support or sympathy and only altering things at the top of society?"
Having obliterated the distinction between revolutions and revolutionary-military coups such as that in Egypt in 1952; having loaded all the definitions - not a "mere" conspiracy, not "entirely" hatched within the state machine, not "entirely" lacking in popular support and sympathy, not "only" altering things on top - Jack Conrad, before he lost the thread, and started talking about the rights of small nations, went to Lenin - following Emine Engin - to cull a definition of a coup.

After Engin, Jack Conrad cites Lenin, discussing the 1916 Irish Rising, insisting that the term "putsch" "may be employed only when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses".

But, like Emine Engin, J-J too needs to twist Lenin a little out of shape here. J-J:

"What of the term 'putsch' - or coup, to use French-English?"

Lenin responded to Karl Radek's description of the Rising as a "putsch"; he did not call it a "coup". Neither in English nor in political usage, especially Marxist political usage, are putsch and coup the same thing.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a coup (d'état) as "violent or illegal change in government", and a putsch as an "attempt at a political revolution". The one is an unsuccessful attempt, the other a successful blow that changes the government.

And that is exactly how Lenin uses "putsch" - not an unsuccessful attempt, defeat and failure, per se, but such an event shown by the revelation of experience to have concerned only "a circle" of "conspirators or stupid maniacs".

Master singer Lenin refuses to perform as Karaoke Jack expects him to!

Indeed, as in a good court room drama, J-J's attempt to twist his words, substituting "coup" for "putsch" serves only to bring the truth more sharply into focus. What J-J is trying to do is use Lenin to define the idea of a coup d'état out of existence. Why? In order to avoid facing the fact that "Great Saur", despite having aspects that were unique, was precisely, a coup d'état.

Only if it is a circle of conspirators is it a putsch: if it succeeds, this is by definition not the case. Ergo, it wasn't a putsch

Like Emine Engin, in whose tracks he follows uncritically, by conflating the two, J-J eliminates the concept of coup, conflating it with putsch.

The April '78 coup had some popular support, and therefore it was not a coup!

But which military coup has ever entirely lacked outside civilian support and sympathy?

The armed forces officers do not exist in a social vacuum. They reflect sections of the ruling class, and even of lower social layers (And only the non-commissioned officer sergeants made the revolution in Cuba in the 1930s and in Ghana in the 1980s, for example).

The politicised officers are concerned with social problems, and with the social crises, maybe a succession of them, over a long time, that creates the conditions, including their own thinking, for their assumption of power.

It was a characteristic of many "third world" coups - and even of the "Octobrist" movement in Russia as far back as the mid 1820s - that the officers wanted to modernise the country - and of Afghanistan too, but with the difference that the officers who made the 1978 coup - yes, under the political leadership of the PDPA - took Stalinist Russia as their model of development and the Afghan Stalinists, the local agents of the Kremlin, as their mentors.

What makes military seizures of power, with varying degrees of civilian support, coups, is precisely that the agency of the "revolution" is the armed forces, and in terms of deciding, a very small number of them, at the top of command-regulated military hierarchies.

Was Chile, 11 September 1973, a coup? It had mass middle class support. Yet it was a coup: the agency was the officer corps, using their military machine; and it was they who held power afterwards.

That is the defining thing. The many variations in civilian support, in the social and political aetiology of the coup, in its possibly revolutionising impact on society - these are all, for what we are talking about, secondary. Not unimportant or without consequence - secondary.

The pre-history of the April 1978 coup

J-J tries to follow Lenin on Ireland and to demonstrate that, like the Easter Rising, the April coup was similarly the product of preceding events and crises.

That the April coup was the product of a long preceding social and political history is not in dispute. Indeed, I traced it back to the 1920s and even further back, in considerable detail, in "Afghanistan…" and suggested how it all fitted together. J-J does it skimpily, inadequately and he gets some of the history wrong. He looks for the relevant preceding events in the wrong place: the most important part of it is the history of elite reform attempts from above in Afghanistan and the symbiosis of a section of the Afghan elite with the rulers of the USSR for the previous quarter century (see "Afghanistan…"). Where J-J traces the wrong, indeed half-imaginary, antecedents I gave a pretty detailed history of Afghan Stalinism. J-J treads the same ground, but very selectively. He ignores the case in "Afghanistan…".

He is still emotionally with the PDP, and in terms of PDPA factions, with Khalq. He questions the figures - "That is not right" - I cited for PDPA membership in April 1978 (8,000) and, following Emine Engin, cites World Marxist Review (WMR) in Jan 1979 that they had 50,000 members before April 1978. He tells his readers that the journal he is citing, was "the journal of the official world communist movement", adding to show his independence, that it "was thoroughly turgid".

WMR was the journal in which the ruling class in the USSR gave "the line" to the overseas parties that looked to Moscow. Lying, shameless lying, was its predominant characteristic, not turgidity. Nobody who is politically, or just intellectually, serious would take the word of a writer in "WMR" for anything!

In fact, the figure of 8,000 was the PDPA's own figure.

The idea of a party claiming to have only 8,000 members seizing power in a vast country of 16 to 20 million people (nobody knows for sure what the population was) is mind boggling. If you knew nothing else about it but that figure - 8,000 - and the fact that the PDPA made a "revolution" in April 1978, you would have to deduce that "the revolution" had been made by some other agency.

To make sense of these facts you would, if you didn't have the facts available to you, have to deduce a military coup!

In fact, the true membership figure was less than, and may have been less than half, the claimed 8,000.

But suppose it was 50,000? Is anything changed qualitatively if we accept the figure of 50,000? For a party of even 50,000 to take power in Afghanistan would also have been preposterous. If you didn't know the details, you would still have to deduce something like a military coup. It would still be the fact that they played no part in making the "revolution".

Quoting WMR, he denounces my figures as emanating from the CIA! The demonstrations J-J cites played no part in the struggle for power. Jack Conrad obfuscates by telling us unconnected details about the PDPA. He tells romanticised fairy tales, (and where they clash with the more exact account in WL he ignores WL).

He suggests what he doesn't dare assert. Both these traits are in this passage, about the April 78 coup:

"At midnight on April 28th, 1978 Amin - who was responsible for the Party's illegal work in the army - managed to issue instructions for an uprising." [He is here quoting B Szajkowski, The Establishment of Marxist Regimes] "As crowds gathered" in the Kabul central park "in protest against the imprisonment of PDPA leaders, MIG 21s struck the Presidential palace and tanks moved into the city."

In fact, one of the details that most clearly illustrates the real relationships, is what happened to Amin. I described it in WL 2/2. He was held under house arrest that allowed him pretty free communication with his "supporters outside". "As crowds gathered…" Plainly Jack Conrad wants to suggest involvement, and by two phrases conveying only detail which he suggestively tries to connect up.

After the fighting, Jack Conrad assures us, citing BBC film footage "the common people of Kabul on foot and horse(?) taking to the streets and a sea of red flags". Grant him everything he wants to establish here, as I do, except the suggestion that the demonstrators played any part in the taking of power in the army coup - and it is irrelevant to the issue in dispute: coup or popular revolution.

A coup sui generis if you like, the coup makers, certainly, an instrument of the PDPA, and, scarcely less certainly, of the Russians - but a coup nonetheless. And J-J knows it.

Who gave the orders?

He writes: "Undoubtedly the PDPA's overthrow of the Daud regime was carried out using alternative (sic) hierarchical (sic) lines of command in the army and airforce. PDPA officers were given orders by PDPA cadres and then themselves gave orders to the conscripts under them. The revolution was therefore an uprising by a mainly civilian official 'communist party' which had aligned to itself a section of the officer corps and enjoyed the sympathy of the politically advanced masses in the cities, above all Kabul."

In terms of the facts, there is much wrong with this account but, for the sake of argument, grant what he says. What is he describing but a military coup?

Jack Conrad is the master of a certain type of language that goes around, so to speak, in masks: "Alternative hierarchical lines of command"? "Alternative" to what? Not to the hierarchy of the PDPA segment of the airforce. Alternative to the PDPA? Exactly! Hierarchical? Military! In which not politically conscious revolutionaries acted, but obedient soldiers, whose views counted for nothing.

The picture of "the PDPA officers (being) given orders by PDPA cadres and then themselves (giving) orders to the conscripts under them" suggests an intermeshing of the PDPA cadres with the top of the armed forces and conjures up something like the relationship of the commissars at all levels put in by Trotsky to control the ex-Tsarist officers utilised by the Red Army.

This picture is completely false as far as I know. There was no such supervision, nor is it conceivable that there were non-military "cadres" capable of exercising it.

PDPA control was secured by the allegiance to them of political officers who operated in their own area autonomously.

The rest is detail. Immensely important detail, yet only detail. Those officers who made the coup, like the PDPA itself, were part of, and were aligned with a broader segment of the Afghan ruling elite - with that substantial part of it that wanted to make Afghanistan into a replica of the USSR, and themselves into a replica of its ruling class.

That "detail" shaped the whole story, just as it summed up the relationship with the USSR.

Without that the story is incomprehensible. This was certainly not just another coup.

But the story is also incomprehensible if you try to pretend that things were not shaped by the fact that the regime originated not in a revolution with sufficient popular support to make itself viable, or allow it to struggle for its life with some chance of viability, but by a narrow military coup.

The PDPA dimension determined that the ensuing regime then tried to do things that no mere military coup would have attempted. I will return to this issue below.

Unpurged Stalinism

Central to J-J here is that he hasn't emptied out of his head any of the Stalinist debris on this question. He is still a romantic PDPA-Khalq supporter. He still thoughtlessly lapses into the old Stalinist rhetoric he was using over 20 years ago

The romantic Stalinist baggage is unmistakable. J-J appears in the lists as he might have done twenty years ago to defend his Afghan comrades, the comrades of "our party" who have taken power. He has, it seems, learned nothing.

Take as example his comments on the murder of Mir Akbar Kyber, the PDPA Parchami leader whose assassination triggered the events of April, 1978:

"Comrade Matgamna, taking his cue from the CIA, blames the killing upon the Khalq wing. Others claim he was popular with both factions. Either way his death did not lead to a factional war but to 'massive demonstrations' against the government. Perhaps the masses knew more about the Afghan Government than comrade Matgamna?"

Now, it is nonsense to pretend that Kayber stood somewhere between Parcham and Khalq, "popular" with both: he was a central leader, arguably the central leader, of Parcham. Like J-J, I lack independent direct knowledge of these events. I had to pick my way through newspapers, magazines and books to construct a picture of what happened. The evidence for the killing of Akbar Kyber being the work of Khalq is set out in "Afghanistan…" in WL 2/2.

There is reason to think that both wings of the PDPA had set the date for a coup for August and that Khalq forced the pace. But what is of interest here is J-J's argument. It is as if he is writing 25 years ago just after the coup, with no possibility of knowing what is to follow.

How dare you, Trotskyite, echoing the CIA, say that our Comrade Kyber was killed by the comrades of Khalq. He was popular with both Khalq and Parcham!

He was a central leader of Parcham, which between 1973 and 1976 had helped hound, jail and torture his "comrades" of Khalq. Factional war broke out in the open within weeks after the coup! The two sides then went for each other like homicidal maniacs. And 25 years later, J-J talks in the tone of a member of the "official Communist Movement" addressing a Trotskyite guttersnipe who is probably in the pay of the CIA for daring to suggest division within our fraternal Afghan Party, the PDPA.

Part 3

Part 1

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