Stalinist mind at the end of its tether/ 3

Submitted by AWL on 12 April, 2004 - 10:07

Revolutions only bring chaos?

"For [AWL] the overthrow of Mohammed Daud's - republican-royal - regime by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan was a "Stalinist military coup" which brought upon the heads of the masses nothing but decades of terrible suffering. Exactly the same message pushed by the White House, CIA, BBC, Hollywood action films, The Sun and the whole well oiled imperialist propaganda machine."
Is what we have said untrue?

The question has been raised about all revolutions: was it worth the cost in lives and social disruption? It is a reasonable question. Only those who remain "revolutionaries" by keeping their eyes and brains closed will be irked or angered by it. Because he does not want in general to concede the case of the reactionaries, that revolutions bring only suffering, J-J thinks he must deny it for Afghanistan…!

How about the October revolution?

The October revolution was a failure. Ultimately, it suffered total defeat, and the strange and unexpected Stalinist form which that defeat took had terrible consequences for the working class throughout the world, and for the prospects of socialism in the 20th century.

Unless you are some species of Stalinist or pixillated "orthodox Trotskyist", it is impossible to deny that the October revolution was an immensely costly failure. (The point here may be that J-J thinks - or half thinks - that the USSR was historically progressive up to its unfortunate collapse.)

I do not therefore conclude that the Bolsheviks were wrong in 1917. The October revolution was the greatest event in the entire history of the working class. As Rosa Luxemburg, the Bolshevik's harsh critic, who denounced aspects of their rule, said in 1918 - they had by their revolution saved the honour of international socialism. Their defeat in the early 1920s by the Stalinist counter-revolution was not inevitable.

The issue in Afghanistan concerns what happened, how and why. One cannot remain a Marxist and approach such a question determined to avoid any answer that might allow the reactionaries to say: "Ah ha! Told you so! No good ever comes from violence and revolution!"

As if the CIA and the BBC saying something determines whether it is true or not, or, in this case, can be "allowed" to be true.

"Presumably in 1978 the AWL… looked upon the fractious mujahedin groups as heroic resistance fighters as they began to impose their counterrevolutionary grip over the countryside and ruthlessly hunt down 'infidels and communists'.

"Certainly after the full-scale Soviet intervention in December 1979 Socialist Organiser - precursor of the AWL - proudly sided with the mujahedin against Soviet 'expansionism' and its 'puppet' government in Kabul in a sad parody of the paid persuaders of the bourgeoisie."

In 1978-9 it was still an internal Afghan affair. Yes, we sided with the Afghan people who were unfortunately led by the mujahedin in their resistance to the USSR imperialist attempt to conquer them.

J-J sided with Russian imperialism.

Eurocentrism?

"Given their pedantic and high-minded Eurocentric antipathy towards the April 1978 revolution and forthright promotion of the US-Saudi funded mujahedin, it is rather incongruous that the AWL decided to patronise the PDPA government with their support after Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the humiliating [?!] withdrawal of Soviet armed forces in 1988 (completed in the spring of 1989)."

When J-J believed that April 1978 was the socialist revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, he could logically denounce for "Eurocentrism" those who said a socialist revolution was impossible amidst Afghanistan's backwardness. It was stock-in-trade abuse spewed out by Stalinists and some "Trotskyists". But one doesn't even get a hint in this article of his old position on the Afghan Socialist Revolution. Now the PDP and the Russians are to be supported as the bearers of "key social gains and progressive principles". What does "Eurocentrism" mean here?

The use of "humiliating" to describe Gorbachev's pull-out from Afghanistan shows how much of his old positions (or the debris from it) and old Stalinist emotions still clogs his mind.

J-J: "Here is a paradoxical circle of their own making that they must square. After all Sean Matgamna says that you cannot at the same time be a democrat and 'support the Afghan Stalinist coup of 1978', let alone 'describe it as a real revolution!' 'Something is seriously wrong here,' he insists. 'These things just don't go together' ("Critical notes on the CPGB/WW")."

Supporting the cities against the countryside when the Russians left was no more political support for the Afghan Stalinists than supporting the Afghan resistance to the Russians was political support for the mujahedin. It did not imply support for the 1978 coup!

J-J: "Everything develops according to its own logic and from itself. That is ABC for any materialist. So was the 1989 PDPA regime of Mohammed Najibullah a direct, albeit degenerate, continuation of the April 1978 revolution? The only honest answer must be 'yes'."

That is beside the point. It is political sleight of hand. He conflates "country versus town" with Russia versus Afghanistan, and identifies the former with the attempt of the Russian invasion to turn Afghanistan into a Russian colony and a Stalinist puppet state, and with the colonial-imperialist invaders. To make any sort of sense this requires something like the idea that PDPA and Russia alike were defending the socialist revolution in Afghanistan. But in fact in this article he says nothing about the "working class" revolution he supported all though the 1980s because of its Stalinist dimension… That he has flushed down the memory hole…

J-J: "Communists - real communists, that is - supported the PDPA under Najibullah on the basis that in some way, no matter how ham-fistedly and contradictorily, it stood for and defended certain key social gains and progressive principles."

In fact this was decidedly not your position! Why is he so coy? He has dropped his old - nonsensical - "class" designation and replaced it with the classless, "key social gains and progressive principles", radically distancing himself from the designation that it was the working class in power. He has dropped all that, but still he uses the arguments he used to defend that position!

J-J: "By that very same measure we supported the original PDPA regime of Noor Mohammed Taraki, ushered in by the April 1978 revolution. [No, you supported an imaginary socialist revolution! You gloated over the Stalinist police terror as the very stuff of "communism"!]

"Leonid Brezhnev's panic-stricken [!] decision in December 1979 to order a massive airlift of Soviet troops into Afghanistan and the subsequent decision by the US administration - first under Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan - to turn the country into a sacrificial pawn in their second cold war against the Soviet Union did not dictate nor cloud our judgement."

The idea that by responding to the first unagreed USSR-"red" Army expansion since World War 2, the US was the aggressor is a quintessentially two-campist, Stalinist interpretation.

The Leninist's view that it was a working class revolution, and its active, indeed hysterical, support for the Russian invasion is all now elided, even if he retains the language and feel of a kitsch-Stalinist.

The organic dishonesty shown in things like this is entirely Stalinist. The confusion is entirely J-Jist!

"Pathological anti-Sovietism"

J-J: "What the fountainhead of Matshachtmanism says about Afghanistan post-1988 shows him to be politically inconsistent. While an inflated ego has him making a unique contribution to 'third camp' Marxism, the plain fact of the matter is that Matgamna was pathologically Sovietphobic in the 1980s."

What might that mean, given his current view that the USSR was some sort of slave state? It was wrong to be intensely hostile to the USSR waging a bloody colonial war, the USSR's "Vietnam War", in Afghanistan? In what way was it pathological?

In the usage of our movement, "Stalinophobia - not sovietophobia, Stalinophobia! - designates people who have lost their political bearings and sided with the bourgeois anti-Stalinists. Where and when did we ever do that?

We were of course often denounced as "Stalinophobes" and "anti-communists" by "Orthodox Trotskyists" and others like The Leninist, who were themselves firmly in the Stalinist camp, more or less critically, and who looked on our attempt at a "third-camp" position with the jaundiced eyes of "one-campers" - in the case of The Leninist hysterical one-campers! - and considered us traitors to the USSR and the "workers' states".

It is a measure of J-J's deep confusion that though now he is supposedly a Third Camper, he, who was vociferously and militantly in the Stalinist camp all through the 1980s and into the 1990s, still denounces those of us who were third campists when he was an unreflecting Stalinist. Now, as then, he cannot see our Third Campism - we didn't call it that - except as treason to his own, "First Camp", the "communist" Stalinist Empire.

He has changed a great deal, if not enough, but he still denounces us in something like the terms in which The Leninist frequently denounced us! He denounces us in terms that simply make no sense except from his supposedly abandon "old" position.

J-J: "Even in the absence of the Soviet Union this affliction still manifests itself in a worrying softness towards the 'first camp'. Note his stance on Zionism, the IRA's guerrilla war against Britain [!!] and involuntary unity in Bosnia [???], etc. As was the case with his mentor, the ever-present danger exists of an eventual symphysis or annexation by the other side. Tragically Max Shachtman finished his life as a revolutionary backing the CIA-directed Bay of Pigs landing by Miami-based Cuban contras in 1961."

In fact this political Malvolio is giving himself airs! He himself was in one of the camps, wholeheartedly. He hasn't yet cleared out of his mind the underlying thought here: he was in the right camp. He hasn't lost his predilection for one campism either, except that he now follows the SWP's "negative one-campism" - oppose US imperialism and side with never mind who, even with the Arab Hitler, Saddam Hussein. Never mind about independent working-class politics!

Softness? In fact he shows us not only to have been consistent on Afghanistan but nuanced and balanced, shifting our "line" when reality changed in Afghanistan.

"So what about Afghanistan? Fantastically the AWL says that by designating the April 1978 revolution a revolution and not a mere coup we equate it with the October revolution of 1917.

"Martin Thomas writes - I presume with a straight face - that on such a basis the CPGB believes that the 20th century witnessed only two revolutions. Daft? Yes. Dishonest? In all probability.

"Such an absurd notion that Afghanistan and the April 1978 revolution is on a par with Russia and October 1917 is as easy to knock down as it is to mock."

Yes, but only if your reader doesn't know what The Leninist was saying through the 1980s about the Afghani proletarian revolution and your arguments - taken from Emine Engin - that if Kabul in 1978 was a "coup" then so was the October Revolution. J-J rants like this in one part of his article and later flatly declares "…The form of a rising can be that of a coup - like the October revolution of 1917…".

Intent on arguing that Afghanistan was not a coup, he insists that October was!

Instead of behaving like a self-respecting Marxist and honestly confronting his past, here he denies it, sloughs it off, relying on the ignorance of his readers!

To write as he does and not, for the sake of clarity, to even mention what he used to think is sharp practice and, unfortunately, typical of the organic, Stalinism-schooled, dishonesty of his approach to politics.

The Second World Congress and anti-colonialism

J-J: "[The CPGB] has always taken it as axiomatic that when it comes to backward countries in the muslim world, we oppose reactionary anti-imperialisms which in actual fact promote the interests of traditional landowners, village warlords and would-be theocrats.

"Lenin was certainly right in his 1920 draft thesis on the colonial question when he insisted that communists must 'combat pan-islamism' and fake anti-imperialist movements which actually 'strengthen the position of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.' (V I Lenin Collected Works Vol 31, Moscow 1977, p149).

"The mujahedin groups of the 1980s fit into this category like a glove, as do the Taliban in the 1990s.

"Comrade Matgamna has no love for the Taliban and was right, like us, to lambast the miserable Socialist Workers' Party's Taliban apologetics when they first defied and then fought against the full might of the US armed forces in 2001."

This was not the CI - or FI - position! It implies that we might be neutral or support the "more progressive imperialists" - which is indeed what the misnamed Leninist did in Afghanistan. Here he generalises and rationalises from their old Stalinist relationship with the USSR in relation to Afghanistan. Trotsky once expressed the Bolshevik attitude like this:

"What characterises Bolshevism on the national question is that in its attitude towards oppressed nations, even the most backward, it considers them not only the object but also the subject of politics. Bolshevism does not confine itself to recognising their 'rights' and parliamentary protests against the impinging upon of those rights, Bolshevism penetrates into the midst of the oppressed nations; it raises them up against their oppressors; it ties up their struggle with the struggle of the proletariat in advanced countries; it instructs the oppressed Chinese, Hindus or Arabs in the art of insurrection, and assumes full responsibility for their work in the face of 'civilised' executioners. Here only does Bolshevism begin, that is, revolutionary Marxism in action. Everything that does not step over that boundary remains centrism."

Leon Trotsky, What Next? (1932)

It is again a shift in J-J's position: he opposed not "reactionary anti-imperialism" but opponents of the Afghan socialist revolution and then of the USSR which was defending it in its own way. Stressing how reactionary their opponents were was an afterthought, a convenient argument. The wholesale retreat up the ladder of abstraction, holding to his old attitude to Russian imperialism in Afghanistan but radically changing the reasons, leads him to generalise about reactionary anti-imperialism in a way that has massive anti-Marxist implications, and which pushes him towards the positions of the old pre-1914 right-wing Second International and away from the politics of the Lenin-Trotsky Third International on these questions.

First and foremost the Theses of the Second Congress of the Communist International opposed imperialism and championed its colonial victims*. Trotsky's proclamation in the manifesto of the 2nd Congress (May 1920) that those who would not defend the victims of "their own" imperialism deserved "to be branded with infamy, if not with a bullet" neatly sums up the spirit of the early Communist International on this question.

There is no implication that we would be neutral if such people were actually fighting or that we might be neutral or supportive of imperialist would-be conquerors because we saw imperialism despite everything as the bearers of civilisation. That was the view taken up from about 1900 by Fabians and other such within the Second International. [See the Appendix on Militant (the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal now) on Afghanistan where this is discussed.]

Can he really think that support for "progressive" imperialism was the Comintern's line? That the French Communist Party was wrong in the mid-20s to defend the Riffs in Morocco against France? That, for example, the Trotskyists were wrong in 1935 to side with the medievalist Ethiopian kingdom against the ultra-civilised, but murderous, Italian invaders? One has to remind oneself that J-J is talking of invaders who killed one and a half million Afghans, and drove six million out of the country across the borders!

The whole thing is an incomprehensible muddle, because he suppresses the truth about the motive behind his position in the 1980s - that he was a Stalinist cheering on a "workers' revolution" - and presents it as normal for "real communists" to refuse to side with backward peoples resisting conquest. He retreats up the ladder of abstraction and sectarianism and winds up generalising ridiculously from his reactionary support for a Russian conquest of Afghanistan.

By analogy with Afghanistan, J-J should surely have backed the USA against the Taliban. In all this there is a clotting together of elements that, combined, constitute a generalised rightist sectarianism.

"What of his parallel between the Soviet Union's attempted 'colonial conquest' in the 1980s and British imperialism in 1919?…

"In 1919 the Communist International supported a crowned revolutionary who advocated and put into practice a raft of progressive measures - in 1925 Amanullah first began to introduce a civil legal code which partially eclipsed the 'deeply rooted' sharia law in terms of legal process (A Rashid Taliban London 2001, p83)."

In fact, what Amanullah renounced - British control of Afghanistan's foreign affairs - was very trivial compared to what the Afghans after 1979 were resisting!

Inescapably, what he is saying is that support for peoples resisting conquest depends on such things as them having progressive leaders. He has the attitude the CI damned, that of the Second International right wing!

What does J-J think King Amanullah, taken as a whole, represented in 1919 when the CI supported him against "civilised" Britain? He doesn't notice that Amanullah's "progressive" measures came after his victory over the British! The CI supported him as an opponent of the British Empire. Some of his "progressive" measures may even have been a result of his association with the USSR (as well as the post-1919 example of Ataturk, etc.).

"In the 1980s comrade Matgamna supported forces whom he readily admits 'were on almost all issues ultra-reactionary' ('Critical notes'). No prizes for spotting the difference."

Not quite. We gave them "support" against the imperialist invaders, but not political support, or internal support, as our shift when the Russians went shows. And they were not comprehensively "reactionary". "Afghanistan…" put it like this:

"The heroic resistance of the Afghan rebels, who by every test of the 20th century except their resistance to subjugation were reactionary…" [p85, WL 2/2, emphasis added].

The "revolution-not-coup" line served in the 1980s to differentiate The Leninist from the others who had the same politics on Afghanistan. The same idiotic assertion serves to differentiate them now from from us. There is, of course, a purer sort of self-love in it too!

J-J: "Brezhnev did not send the Soviet army into Afghanistan in order to extend the imperium, as claimed by the CIA and other cold war warriors. The move was defensive.

"In his report to the 26th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Brezhnev complains that western imperialism had launched an 'undeclared war against the Afghan Revolution'. He adds that this 'also created a direct threat to the security of our southern frontier', which 'compelled' the Soviet Union to 'render the military aid asked for by that friendly country' (L. Brezhnev Report of the Central committee Moscow 1981, p22)."

And we are for the Stalinist empire annexing a country when it thinks it needs to do so for defence? China has a right to do what it has been doing in Tibet for the last 44 years? If Russia was entitled to annex a country to facilitate its own defence, why are other imperialisms not entitled to do this?

Karaoke Jack Conrad still thinks Russia was altruistically defending a revolution - at the time he insisted, a working class revolution - and that its support for an "extension of the Revolution" had nothing to do with the extension of the Russian empire (he even argues that because of their motives, as he sees them, they did not expand that empire, even when, in response to "Western imperialism's undeclared war" against the Afghan revolution they invaded and annexed Afghanistan!).

It is, I suppose, quite a feat in 2003 to unblinkingly quote the hard-line neo-Stalinist dictator Brezhnev as a plausible commentator on what the USA was doing! J-J accepts Brezhnev's account, his reasoning, his right to invade, his "conservative" concern for the revolution! This is an unpurged residue too, implying the old view - workers' revolution - but senseless without it. And the idea that whether or not Russia is extending its "imperium" is determined by Brezhnev's intentions and motives, and not by what the USSR and its armed forces do, is the most crass historical idealism.

Selected history

Now J-J comes to giving an account of himself on Afghanistan. He starts not with 1982 - see above - but six years later, in 1988.

"How did we retrospectively weigh up Brezhnev's move [into Afghanistan]? In 1988 Jack Conrad wrote of the Soviet Union behaving as a 'great power bully'. Its action 'hardly strengthened the confidence of, and support for, the revolution'.

"Soviet aid was vital if the revolution 'was to survive'. Yet, in saving the revolution, it extinguished the revolution. We were against any offloading or trading of revolutions such as Afghanistan and Nicaragua in order to appease imperialism.

"In Afghanistan that could 'only' mean the 'collapse of the government in Kabul, the reverse of the gains of the April 1978 revolution (not least the ending of the enslavement of women) and the wholesale massacre of the PDPA's membership' (J Conrad From October to August London 1992, pp123-24). An admittedly common premonition - what comrade Matgamna calls the majority of 'orthodox' Trotskyite groups shared the same anxieties (Workers' Liberty Vol 2, No2, nd, p86)."

The Russian-PDPA commitment to gender equality found its expression in impartial slaughter from the air of women and children!

The most striking thing here is that so far he - who used to be so passionate about the working class socialist nature of the "Afghan Revolution" - has avoided giving any class definition of the revolution except for the reference to "progressive principles"! Yet his old views are still alive, even if his is now the revolutionary ardour that dares not speak its name (and possibly no longer knows quite what it is!).

Imperialism was not those who went to Afghanistan and killed one in 12 of its people. Imperialism is only capitalism!

In fact, as I wrote in Workers' Action in 1980, these "humanitarian" arguments for supporting the Russians and their war were the sheerest hypocrisy (see appendix). It was strictly one-sided humanitarianism, used to package a political position, support for the Russians, derived from other 'reasons' entirely - the last refuge of the pro-Stalinist political bankrupts who idiotically invoked humanitarian concern to justify their support for invaders who killed 1.5 million Afghans and would have killed a lot more if, as The Leninist repeatedly called on them to, they had mustered enough force to subjugate the country.

J-J: "Over a decade later we again wrote that Soviet aid 'saved the revolution in Afghanistan for a time - but in a thoroughly counterrevolutionary way'. Hafizullah Amin - the effective organiser of the April 1978 revolution - and 97 other leaders of the Khalq wing of the PDPA were summarily butchered.

"Ridiculously after their deaths they were charged with being CIA agents - a slander mindlessly repeated by the 'official communist' press in Britain, including the Morning Star. Already surrounded by a reactionary Vendée in the countryside, from then on the revolution 'endlessly retreated' till its final demise in 1992 (Weekly Worker November 15 2001)."

He forgets how many PDPA Amin had butchered, including Khalq leader Taraki: he is still a partisan.

Here he cuts out six years of their history and quotes a few phrases to sum up their politics! There is as little hint of what their defining politics were - that it was a socialist revolution - as in their old polemics there was of the fact that those - Workers' Power, Militant-Socialist Party, the Sparts - whom for a decade The Leninist regularly denounced for saying that April 1978 was a coup, actually shared their politics supporting the Russians! Even now, organic Stalinist dishonesty runs through J-J's polemics and his politics like "Brighton" or "Blackpool" through a stick of rock!

The psychological/ideologic term "inspiration" covers and obscures the most important thing: the lack of popular support. It leaves out of the picture information about who exactly was "inspired" and by what precisely.

There is no need to minimise the effect of outside support for the anti-PDPA forces after Saur, but what J-J does is use it to minimise the elemental power of the Afghan people's opposition to the invaders. This power of the recoil after April 1978 came not from a typical counterrevolutionary backlash, but from the central peculiarity in Afghanistan that the "revolution" was made by a party of a few thousand - probably fewer than 2,000 - people who were freakishly able to seize power because of the magnetic attraction which the USSR exercised on sections of the intelligentsia and on the urban military elite.

Part 4

Part 1
Part 2

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