I have reposted this piece to shown that there is a Marxist revolutionary approach to religion and women’s oppression and that the early Soviet government of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks attempted this in a serious way. This stands in contrast to the Menshevik methods when they were in power in southern republics like Georgia during the Civil War and in stark contrast to the brutally ignorant policies of Stalin and the bureaucracy after they triumphed in 1924. This is the method of Lenin as recounted by Dale Ross (D. L. Reissner), the first editor of the Spartacist League’s ‘Women and Revolution':
‘The Bolsheviks viewed the extreme oppression of women as an indicator of the primitive level of the whole society, but their approach was based on materialism, not moralism. They understood that the fact that women were veiled and caged, bought and sold, was but the surface of the problem. Kalym was not some sinister plot against womankind, but the institution which was central to the organisation of production, integrally connected to land and water rights. Payment of Kalym, often by the whole clan over a long period of time, committed those involved to an elaborate system of debt, duties and loyalties which ultimately led to participation in the private armies of the local beys (landowners and wholesale merchants). All commitments were thus backed up with the threat of feuds and blood vengeance.
‘… Lenin warned against prematurely confronting respected native institutions, even when these clearly violated communist principles and Soviet law. Instead he proposed to use the Soviet state power to systematically undermine them while simultaneously demonstrating the superiority of Soviet institutions, a policy which had worked well against the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.
Bolshevik feminist Alexandra Kollontai, in her younger days she understood and fought against the oppression of women better than Lenin and Trotsky
Historical confusion on Afghanistan exists between Stalinophobic left groups who supported the mujadiheen and Stalinophile groups who supported the 1979 invasion. The former included the state capitalist British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the ‘Trotskyist’ Lambertists of France and the Latin American Morenoite groups. The latter included the ex-Trotskyist US Socialist Workers Party (SWP US), the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB, formerly The Leninist), Workers Power (though they changed their line on Stalinism in 1987) and the Spartacists League (SL) of the US with their international grouping the International Communist League (ICL). The SL infamously promoted the obsequious slogan: ‘Hail Red Army in Afghanistan’
We have out to prove two main theses:
1. The working class, far from being a non-existent or an insignificant factor, was the only hope for developing a genuine socialist revolution.
2. Only the transitional method applied by revolutionary Marxists could have defeated the mujadiheen in the circumstances.
Differences within the PDPA
In early 1978 the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was forced to launch a self- preserving coup, the ‘Glorious Saur (April) Revolution. The PDPA was divided between the Khalq and the Parcham factions. In sociological terms the Khalq faction of Noor Mohammed Taraki and Hafizullah Amin was differentiated from the Parcham faction of Babrak Karmal and Najibullah by background (urban and rural) and by class origin (lower middle/working class and upper middle) and by tribal origin Pushtun vs. others (Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, etc.) However the role of racism in containing the working class meant that the most oppressed worker from the Hazara tribe were more opposed to the Khalq than to the Parcham, as described below. The Khalq was itself divided between the followers of Taraki and Amin. Amin had his power base in the Soviet influenced army and played the major part in the coup of April 1978.
The Khalq represented the aspirations of the urban state employees and lower middle classes around Kabul and Kandahar, swollen since 1954 by Soviet aid. They therefore had a working class base, but one which was dependant on the state for its wages. The Kremlin, of course, favoured the upper middle class who were the most conservative, the most compromising and bureaucratic. They had the least to gain and the most to lose if modernisation should really proceed to revolution.
On the other hand the Khalq had much to gain in social advancement from modernisation and were therefore more radical though they also were totally opposed to revolutionary methods and sought only the same bureaucratic ‘revolution’ from above and without.
Karmal had made his name by demagogic parliamentary speeches supporting the previous monarchical and then pseudo-republican regimes. The Saur coup and the Russian invasion enabled him to pass himself off as some type of a genuine communist for a period.
Many left groups believed PDPA propaganda about the participation of the masses in the ‘revolution’ after the coup. It was the revolution ‘most conspicuously from above’ of any of the so-called revolutions in the third world. 1 The ‘revolution’ was basically the endeavours of the petit-bourgeois Khalq faction to continue to modernise the Afghanistan state. They stood in the long tradition of modernises, dating back to Shah Zambian in the 18th century, Lenin’s contemporary King Amanullah Khan, with whom he signed the first Soviet/Afghanistan friendship treaty in the early 1920s, and Sardar Daud Khan, who fell to the 1978 coup.
Daud feared modernisation was going too far and wanted to halt the process. He had begun to court reaction and was looking to the US allies in Iran and Pakistan. The immediate impulse for the coup was the clear indications that he was about to liquidate the representatives of the urban petit-bourgeoisie, the PDPA, in April 1978. Two of its central leaders were in prison, the rest were waiting to be picked up and executions could not have been far away.
It was, in fact, a coup by a section of the armed forces that were influenced by the petit bourgeois radicals of the PDPA. The character of the PDPA was determined by the large amount of Soviet aid and personnel training, advisors. etc. At last the modernising, radical petit bourgeoisie had the social base provided by Soviet aid to carry out one of the regular coups that marked the governance of Afghanistan. Of course we should have critically supported it as a movement against semi-feudal reaction which was backed by imperialism.
Both sections of the PDPA supported the same programme, a not-quite standard Stalinist text that distinguished itself by developing a three-stage rather than the standard two-stage theory of revolution.
In analysing the nature of the April 1978 military coup the ICL are broadly correct against the CPGB. If we are to call it a revolution then we are stretching the concept to cover a revolution without popular participation. The 15,000 strong demonstration following the state assassination of Parcham leader Mir Akbar Khyber does not constitute a revolution, though it did indicate a strong base of support for the PDPA.
The international situation
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on 27 December 1979 was the defensive reflex of a Soviet bureaucracy that was entering a crucial phase of its decline. In order to appreciate the context it is necessary to set the 1978 coup by the PDPA in its international context. The following quote from Afghanistan Politics, Economics and Society by Bhabani Sen Gupta does this:
‘The political ambience of 1978 was very different from that of the late sixties or early seventies. Nasserism had died with Nasser. The emergence of oil power radically altered power alignments in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. The Soviet Union had suffered a severe setback in Egypt. Sadat had signed a peace treaty with Israel. The conservative forces – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran – backed by the United States, dominated the politics of the Middle East and the Gulf region. The Shah of Iran was using oil money and newly acquired military power to reduce the influence of the Soviet Union in the Gulf area, as well as South Asia. The Shah wanted the two regions to be less polarised between the United States and the Soviet Union, and Afghanistan, with its surfeit of Soviet influence, was one of the targets of his foreign policy. ‘The political influence of the Soviet Union had diminished in the Gulf and the Middle East – and even in India to some extent, following the installation of the Janata party government in Delhi, with its declared commitment to ‘genuine non- alignment’. At the same time the Soviet Union had emerged unmistakable as a global military power capable of intervening, and willing to intervene, in national liberation struggles on behalf of its friends and allies. Soviet military help had proved a decisive factor in the Vietnam War … Cuban troops, airlifted in Soviet transport planes with heavy war equipment, determined the fate of the revolutions in Angola and Mozambique… Whatever the state of Soviet political fortunes in specific third world regions at specific periods of time, the fact that the Soviet Union was capable of intervening with arms on behalf of revolutionary movements and had the will to intervene., given a decisively favourable balance of forces, undoubtedly made a vital difference to Third World conflicts after 1975. From the 1970s onwards, most successful Marxist-led national liberation movements owed their victories to Soviet military assistance. ’2
The working class in Afghanistan
The size of the working class in Afghanistan is disputed. The industrial workers numbered just some 20,000 in 1965 and had risen to just 40,000 out of a population of 15 – 17 million by 1978 according to figures from Afghanistan Politics, Economics and Society’ by Bhani Sen Gupta. These figures seem to be underestimating its size by a factor of ten. This would make political sense as Bhani Sen Gupta writes his account from a Stalinist perspective and would therefore wish to prove that no appreciable working class existed. This would then implicitly justify the Soviet invasion as socialist revolution was supposedly impossible and only the ‘Red Army’ could provide the forces to defeat reaction.
His figures are contradicted by the US SWP, who give a figure of 300,000 out of a population of 20,000,000 in their 1980 pamphlet, The Truth About Afghanistan by Doug Jenness. But Jenness seems to be taking a narrow definition of working class as simply industrial workers. The total working class had to be much bigger than this because of the relatively large state sector arising from Soviet aid programmes.
Valentine M. Moghadam quotes statistics which give a figure of 593,970 in industry by 1975. 3 He quotes the International Labour Organisation Yearbook of Labour Statistics which gives a total workforce of 1,576,110 (calculated from statistics supplied) for commercial activities outside Agriculture, hunting, forestry and fishing for 1979. 4 Clearly then the total working class was in the region of two million by the late 1970s and certainly a major social constituent of the population.
The industrial and poorer workers are mainly Hazaras, ethnic Mongols who are descendants of Genghis Khan’s army. Their homeland is North West of Kabul. They are Shi’a Muslims who were clearly inspired by the Iranian Revolution. Because of their recent rural origins and the backward nature of Afghanistan (90% of the population were illiterate) they were at a low level of class consciousness. Very little changed for this working class after the coup of April 1978 despite all the fine promises.
The class had as their leaders the pro-Peking communists who saw ‘Russian Imperialism’ as the main enemy and were very addicted to simply parroting the Peking line, now increasingly pro-US. Of course it would have been impossible to relate to the working class Hazaras simply on the basis of class, as Raja Anwar proposes in the quote below, because they were specifically oppressed as a nationality. This continued under the PDPA.
The use of racial prejudices to control the working class necessitated the imaginative use of the theory of permanent revolution – only the working class was capable of uniting a nation against all national oppression by overthrowing capitalism and leading the fight against imperialism and its agents. It was this spectre that the PDPA feared most, hence their savage repression of the Hazaras, Maoists and pro-Peking communists.
Whether any of the opposition Maoist groups had developed any tactics that combined class and national rights in a progressive manner we do not know because we lack any details of where they stood. Because the Maoists represented a defeated wing of the Chinese bureaucracy they tended to be more independent- minded. Clearly only from these circles could a revolutionary socialist perspective have begun to emerge. Only if it developed in the direction of permanent revolution and Trotskyism could it have begun to provide revolutionary leadership. The main- stream pro-Peking groups did use the national question in a counter-revolutionary manner and offered no alternative to the PDPA.
Of several Maoist workers’ groups set up in the late 60s, only one, the Groh-i-Karagar, led by Ghulam Dastgir Panjsheri, joined the PDPA. Clearly that was quite a right-wing group. The main pro-Chinese communist party was the SAMA, founded by Dr Rahim Mahmoodi in 1946 and co-led by his brother Hadi and his nephew Rahman. The following quote gives a picture of the political influences on the class:
‘The Mahmoodi brothers tried to organise them (the Hazaras) on a tribal and religious basis instead of raising their class consciousness. The Hazaras are still considered the main recruiting ground by pro-Peking communists who, after 1980, launched an armed struggle against Karmal in the Hazarajat region. Consequently there is much weight in the claim that it was the pro-Peking communists who were responsible for most of the industrial strikes in Kabul back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is borne out by the fact that Dr Rahim Mahmoodi and Dr Hadi Mahmoodi were arrested in 1969 for their role in a strike that hit the largest state factory in Janglak. ’5
Babrak Karmal was very much part of the elite reformist establishment before the Saur Revolution. As Anwar points out:
‘… only three PDPA leaders were in jail for varying terms during Zahir Shah’s rule. In Daud’s second term Taraki and Karmal were in jail for only two days and Amin for one.’ 6
However the pro-Chinese communists, because they led the working class and some very important strikes were treated far differently:
‘In Daud’s second term (1973-1978) Shala-e-Jared j (the newspaper of the SAMA) supporters were singled i out for punishment. He hanged Dr Rahim Mahmoodi and a number of his pro-Peking followers. A pro- China communist Majid Kalkani… initiated an armed struggle against Daud’s regime, which continued during the years in power of Taraki, Amin and Karmal. In 1980 he was arrested and executed by firing squad along with some pro-Amin Khalqis, the men whom he fought for nearly two years. Both the Tajik Maoists and pro-Peking communists, it is said, shouted ‘Long live Marxism-Leninism’ before being put against the wall and shot.’ 7
It is clear from this quote that Majid Kalkani was driven by oppression and political confusion to abandon the working class and launch a peasant guerrilla war in the Maoist tradition. However some pro-Chinese communists remained with the working class at least until the savage repression of the Hazaras on 23 June 1979. It was therefore the working class, and its political potential, that Zahir Shah and Daud feared the most. Both wings of the PDPA maintained this class hostility, though they masked it in their propaganda for international audiences by left-sounding demagogy.
The Hazaras are still persecuted in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they are regarded as traitors, their Chinese features tell their origins in the remnants of Ghengis Khan’s armies and they are thepoorest of workers so often embrace Maoism as a liberating ideology
Hostile to the working class
The ‘Glorious Saur Revolution’ was indeed hostile to the working class:
‘The revolution had changed nothing in the relationship of employer and employee, either in the public or the private sector. That this relationship was unequal seemed almost a law of nature, an indisputable fact of life to so many working people in Kabul, happy to have a job at all, regardless of wage or working condition. Arbitrary and instant dismissals without back wages were common enough for lowly employees in either sector, as I found out from groups of Hazaras working in the capital. Since Hazaras perform the lowest, most menial tasks – being doubly disadvantaged as Shi’a Muslims and a Mongol race – I fully expected workers of this discriminated group to favour the Taraki regime, with its reforms and its stated rights for national minorities. Yet Hazaras scoffed at the idea that benefits would flow to them from reforms.
‘Whether working in hotels or state offices (in private or state jobs) their relationship with Tajiks and Pushtuns had not altered at all since the Saur revolution …. ‘Young Hazaras in school even in the capital still faced prejudice if they tried to continue beyond elementary school. It is hardly surprising, given this background, that many Hazaras who were literate and had a modicum of education rejected the Khalqi state and all it seemed to offer the underprivileged classes.
‘Instead, many were attracted by the ideas behind the Islamic revolution in Iran, reading many Iranian books and tracts by Dr Ali Shariati, the eminent Iranian philosopher, who provided a reconstruction of Shi’a Islam revitalised by Marxism and existentialism, before dying in 1975 an exile in London. 8
The confusion in Iran that was so apparent to all serious Trotskyists who sought to find the road to the masses via the transitional method existed also in Afghanistan. In Iran all was still to play for while revolutionary Marxist ideas, and literature, met a huge response and conflicted with Islamic reactionary ideas. It was the task of revolutionaries to distinguish between, and separate, the religion of the oppressor from the religion of the oppressed by proving the worth of revolutionary Marxist leadership in practice. Only a small group of Trotskyists within the USFI, the HKS, who broke from the official USF I section, the HKE, seriously attempted this.
Of course the ICL’s line of ‘Down with the Shah, down with the Mullahs’ could not make the vital connection with the masses to begin the task of differentiation between revolution and reaction.
In Iran there were many Dr Ali Shariatis. They were the political descendants of the ‘Red Mullahs’ of the 1920s, who sought to prove that socialism and Islam were essentially the same. They reflected the class struggles fought out within the working class in the Iranian Shoras in particular between early 1979 and the early 80s. They were the conduits who corrupted and distorted Marxism, particularly on the issue of women’s oppression, with the able assistance of the Tudeh Party and some of the fake Trotskyists. But the fact that they felt obliged to adopt this role spoke of the potential of revolutionary Marxism in the midst of what was perhaps the greatest mass movement of the working class and oppressed the world has ever seen.
But the PDPA hated and despised the Hazara working class and only wanted ‘revolution from above and without,’ i.e. for themselves, the middle classes. Even towards some of the poor and middle ranking workers who were from the Pushtun and Tajik tribes, there was no attempt at any socialist measure or even simply making capitalism a little more just:
‘Another existing grievance in the lower and middle ranks of the administration was the failure of the Khalqi state to redeem the promises made soon after the Saur revolution. to level out the sharp differences in salaries between the various grades of civil servants. There was still a difference of 43 times between the highest and lowest salaries, which descended in nine grades from 70,000 to 1,600 afs per month.’ 9
Nepotism was powerful within the Khalqi regime. Taraki and Amin handed out lucrative posts to many close relatives who were totally unqualified for these. Schoolteachers, the main professional group to support the PDPA, found themselves at the head of all types of state enterprises when the adherents of the old regime were purged. They generally had little idea on how to fulfil the roles allocated to them by Taraki and Amin:
‘Hafizullah Amin relied greatly on his family, making his elder brother and a nephew two of the most powerful people in the country. His brother Abdul Amin was appointed president of the biggest textile group, the Afghanistan Textile Society; soon, as secret police director of Kabul, Samangan, Baghlan and Takhar, Abdul Amin became virtual viceroy of the four north-eastern provinces. Amin’s nephew, Asadullah Amin, reached even dizzier heights, from an early post as secretary of state in the Ministry of Health and President of the Afghanistan-Soviet Friendship Society, Asadullah replaced his uncle as Foreign Minister, in September taking over as secret police chief one of the key posts in Amin’s regime”. 10
Bureaucratic imposition was not an ‘error’ in Afghanistan but the basic Stalinist mode of existence since the 1930s. Excuses by the ICL and the US SWP about the backward nature of the country and the lack of a working class are simply cover-ups for this repression. Ironically both groups’ positions on Afghanistan were almost identical in their capitulation to Moscow. ICL leader James Robertson had split his followers from the SWP in the early 1960s on this very issue of abandoning the working class and capitulating to Stalinism (in Cuba).
The national question in Afghanistan
The coup only initially affected the urban centres and had little or no resonance in rural areas. These operated with a large degree of autonomy, controlled by local chiefs and Mullahs. The Mullahs had welded tribal customs to the needs of feudalism and were now adapting them to the needs of modern capitalist trading relations. The Mullahs ensured that everything reactionary from the past was maintained and that customs like tribal egalitarianism were marginalised. Over 80% of the population lived in these rural, oppressive conditions.
Afghanistan is not a nation in any accepted sense of the word. It is a state with various tribes and nationalities ranging from Pushtuns in the South to Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkomans, Hiratis, Aimaqs and Nooristanis in the North. The Pushtuns constitute almost half the population, seven to eight million. Only the Pushtuns describe themselves as Afghans. It is impossible to understand the politics of the PDPA, or the Taliban, who are based in the Pushtuns, without understanding this.
However this does not mean that certain nation sentiments – e.g., opposition to a foreign invader, be it British from the last century or Russian from 1979, cannot emerge from time to time. The reactionary nationalism of the Mullahs swept the country after the 1979 invasion and collapsed into tribal warfare with the withdrawal of the Soviet troops and the onslaught of the Taliban.
The Pushtuns do constitute a nation that is divided by the Durand line, imposed by the British Empire, from the rest of the nation in the North West Frontier province of Pakistan. Independent Pushtunistan emerged as a political slogan at the time of Pakistani independence in 1947 but there was no real movement to achieve it. Ironically it may emerge again as a real possibility if the Taliban, funded mainly by Pakistan now, fail to re-unite the country. In that case they would be tempted to turn against their Pakistani allies in order to carve out a viable territory for themselves. The forging of a multi-nation state able to develop economically remains the task of the working class and the future socialist revolution.
Reaction begins to consolidate
Less than a year after the coup, in March 1979, there was an uprising against the regime in the western city of Herat, near the Iranian border. Of particular importance here is the class character of the uprising. Whilst it must have been led by the Islamic fundamentalists, the quote from Soviet Politburo member Kirilenko below points out that: ‘The insurrectionists have been joined by a large number of religious persons, Muslims and among them a large number ofthe common people.’ And he correctly warns that if Soviet troops go in: ‘In this way we will be forced to a considerable degree to wage war against the people.’ It was put down with great ferocity by Amin, with Russian pilots and tank drivers leading the massive bombardment of the city. About 5,000 lives were lost. Significantly all Russian technical advisers in the city were lynched in the uprising while other foreign nationals, including east European communists, were spared. This crucial incident greatly consolidated reaction. Already by this stage the imposition of ‘revolution from above and without’ was having disastrous consequences. There were big disagreements on Afghanistan within the Politburo. As shown by the quotes below, Kirilenko, Gromyko and Andropov (whom the SL honoured by naming a party ‘brigade’ after him), had a greater understanding of how the deal with reaction that their gung-ho mentors in the SL. Brezhnev was ailing and the operational decisions seem to have been taken in the main by Defence Minister Ustinov. It was on the basis of his apparent freedom to manoeuvre in this period that he was mentioned in the western press as the most likely successor to Brezhnev.
The Politburo debates Afghanistan
This extract was supplied on the internet by Rolf Martens, a Swedish Marxist-Leninist, in response to my request. The italicised commentaries came with the quotes, the rest are my own. It has been slightly edited to improve the English. After the breaking up of the Soviet Union in 199], many earlier confidential Soviet documents were made public, The source for that quoted below is the issue No 4 /1994 of the Swedish language magazine Afghanistan-Nytt organ of the Swedish Afghanistan Committee.
The minutes of the Politburo discussed the Herat uprising of March 1979, just a month after the Iranian Revolution. At the time, almost nine months before the Soviet invasion, considerable disturbances took place in this third-largest city of Afghanistan. On 17 March, the Soviet Politburo convened for a three day meeting. During the first two days, Brezhnev was not present.
Gromyko: ‘The situation in Afghanistan has seriously deteriorated. The centre of disturbances is now the city of Herat… As is known from earlier telegrams, the 17th Afghan division is stationed there. It restored order but now seems in practice to have disintegrated. The artillery regiment and one infantry regiment that were part of that division have gone over to the side of the insurrectionists. ’ According to Gromyko, the uprising was caused by thousands of agitators from Pakistan and Iran who, with US help, had caused chaos in Herat. Over 1,000 people had died in Herat, he reported. The situation had not been adequately met by the Afghan government, Gromyko held and he continued:
‘Typical of the situation is that at 11 o’clock this morning I had a conversation with Amin, who is foreign minister and the deputy of Taraki, and he expressed no anxiety whatsoever concerning the situation in Afghanistan but spoke with Olympic calm about the situation not being all that complicated (…) Amin even said that the situation in Afghanistan is normal. He said that not one single case of insubordination on the part of the Governors had been registered. (…) ‘Within about half an hour we got another message, which said that our comrades, the military Chief Adviser comrade Gorelov and the Charge’ d’Affaires comrade Alekseyev had invited comrade Taraki to visit them (…) As far as military assistance was l concerned, Taraki said in passing that perhaps help will be needed both on the ground and in the air. This must be understood to mean that we are requested to send ground forces as well as aircraft. I hold that we must proceed from this most important consideration when helping Afghanistan; under no circumstances must we lose that country.’
Several other speakers expressed their distrust of the Afghan government and its heavy-handed purges of rival Communist factions. Even at that time various proposals for armed intervention and even for a complete invasion were put forward within the Politburo. Defence minister Ustinov briefly reported:
‘Tomorrow, 18 March, operative groups will be sent to Herat’s airfield. ’ He thus indicated that he was taking the operational decisions whatever the Politburo decided. He at the same time presented two possible lines of action. In the one case, smaller forces would be sent. ln the other, the Soviet Union would dispatch two divisions, or about 3 6, 000 men. The proposals were met with some objections.
Kirilenko: ‘The question arises, against whom will our Army wage war if we send them there? Against the insurrectionists, but the insurrectionists have been joined by a large number of religious persons, Muslims and among them a large number of the common people. In this way we will be forced to a considerable degree to wage war against the people.’ The following day, Kosygin reported on his telephone conversation with Taraki. The anti-aircraft battalion in Herat had also gone over to the enemy. ‘K the Soviet Union does not help us now, ’ Taraki had said ’we will not be able to stay in power. ’ This was understood by both Kosygin and Ustinov as a request for direct military assistance. But still individual Politburo members raised serious objections to an invasion.
Andropov: ‘We know Lenin’s teachings about the revolutionary situation. Might there be one in Afghanistan now? Obviously not. We can only help the revolution in Afghanistan by means of our bayonets, and this is absolutely impermissible for us. We cannot take such a risk?
Gromyko: ‘I wholly support comrade Andropov on our having to exclude such a measure as sending troops into Afghanistan. The Army is not reliable there. In this case our Army, if we send it into Afghanistan, will be an aggressor. (…) We must consider the fact that neither can we justify juridical the sending in of troops. (…) Afghanistan is not subjected to any (outside) aggression. (…) Furthermore it must be pointed out that the Afghans themselves have not officially made a request to us concerning the sending of troops’
The discussions went back and forth and a decision seems to have been reached only on the third day of the Politburo session, when Brezhnev was present and unequivocally made clear that sending in Soviet troops could not be the right thing to do at this moment. The session was ended by a decision immediately to call Taraki to Moscow. This meeting did take place on the following day, 20 March. In a rather patriarchal tone, Brezhnev educated his colleague and warned him on his purges. ’Repression’ Brezhnev said ‘is a sharp weapon which must be used very, very sparing ’.
As the same time, Brezhnev repudiated the idea of dispatching Soviet troops:
‘l am saying it quite plainly: This is not necessary. It would only play into the enemy’s hand.’
However it is clear from the account in the next commentary and from Antony Hyman’s book, Afghanistan under Soviet Domination, that Soviet air force pilots and tank crews, directed by Ustinov, were very much in action in Herat, whatever Brezhnev had decreed.
During Taraki’s continued consultations with Kosygin, Gromyko, Ustinov and Ponomarev, Ustinov was able to promise Soviet shipment of l2 Mi-24-type helicopters. Citing the unreliability of those Afghan helicopter pilots who had been trained in the Soviet Union (’Muslim brothers’ or pro-Chinese Q, Taraki asked for the assistance of pilots and also tank crews from Cuba, Vietnam or other socialist countries. This proposal was bluntly turned down by Kosygin:
‘I cannot understand why this question arises…The question of sending people who would climb into your tanks and shoot on your people. This is a very serious political question.’
After their meeting with Taraki, Gromyko, Andropov, Ustinov and Ponomarev worked out a proposal for a decision by the Politburo, in which the Afghan leadership were criticised for their suggestion of introducing Soviet troops into the country. This line was an expression of ’lack of experience’ and ‘…it has to be held back also in the case of new anti-government actions in Afghanistan. ’
The unfortunate area of Joda-I-Maiwand
The Hazaras were Shi’a co-religionists with the Heratis. In Kabul, on 23 June 1979, they began a procession of about 100 with green Islamic flags and followed by two buses full of armed fighters. The procession grew to several thousand before the army opened tire. The firing went on for four hours before they managed to disperse the crowd. The wounded were refused treatment in the Kabul Hospital and then the mass purges of the Hazaras began: ‘All this month, a massive round-up took place of suspected opponents of the Taraki regime. In the unfortunate area of Joda-I-Maiwand, troops filled lines of waiting trucks with the ‘flat noses’ i.e. the Mongol-race Hazaras, and sober observers among Kabul’s citizens speak of 3,000 at least of the [ Hazaras, picked casually off the street in the main, who disappeared into the mass graves of the regime ... Among those killed in the purges of the intelligentsia were many socialists and personal friends of both Taraki and Amin and other prominent Khalqis - left wingers of undoubted progressive views... (Surely the pro-Chinese communists - GD)’H
This massacre and the subsequent purges was the major counter-revolution against the working class. As in the Barcelona May Days of 1937 the Stalinists smashed the organisations of the working class and thus practically guaranteed the victory of reaction. The backward capitulation to nationalism and tribalism of the pro- Peking communists (though the racism of the PDPA explains why they won support in the working class) prevented any powerful impact by consistent Marxist ideas, and when the class arose in confused outrage at the promises of the Saur ‘revolution’ betrayed, they were cut to pieces by Amin’s troops.
The class, therefore, did and does exist and that strike wave of the late 1960s indicated the potential power of even a small working class in modern imperialist conditions. And it is the ideology of Marxism, based on the potential power and leading role of the class in revolution, which must guide a revolutionary leadership. No revolution has historically superseded the model of Russia 1917 despite all the attempts to substitute ‘red armies’ whether composed of peasant guerrillas or the direct armed forces of a Stalinist bureaucracy for it.
As the period since the Russian Revolution stretched into three generations the disparity between the lives of the workers in the Soviet Bloc and the West (and between East and West Germany in particular) became more apparent. Their class consciousness was driven to a historically low point by the late 1980s. The Soviet armed forces themselves became increasingly disaffected as the futility of the war in Afghanistan became clear to them.
The heavy industries, another powerful pillar of the bureaucracy, were increasingly undercapitalised as Afghanistan and Regan’s Star Wars offensive obliged the bureaucracy to divert ever greater resources towards military expenditure. This whole crisis of under capitalisation, a bludgeoning military budget and frustrated expectations of the toiling masses meant that the bureaucratic methods of defending nationalised property relations eventually ran out of steam. Afghanistan was the excuse that enabled US imperialism in particular to apply the final turn of the screw, but it merely hastened the inevitable end.
The overthrow of the Shah in 1979 altered the balance of forces in the area against imperialism (before the new rulers managed to stabilise and defeat the revolutionary strivings of the masses). If social revolution triumphed in Iran (and this aspiration in the masses was not dealt its decisive blow until the counter-revolution of the so- called ‘Revolutionary Guards’ in 1980 at the start of the Iran-Iraq war) then political revolution threatened in the USSR. If Islamic fundamentalism triumphed then the Soviet Central Asian Republics, which had a majority of Muslims, could succumb to Islamic counter-revolution. In either case disaster threatened the bureaucrats. Therefore the invasion was prompted by a number of considerations:
1. The desire of the bureaucracy to have another front to attack the Iranian Revolution if it should develop l into a social revolution, thereby threatening political revolution in the USSR - counter-revolutionary motive.
2. Fear that Imperialism itself would supply sufficient arms and other support to the mujadiheen to overthrow the PDPA government and consolidate a pro-western regime.
3. Fear that if Islamic counter-revolution consolidated itself in Iran and spread into Afghanistan it would precipitate counter-revolution in the Soviet Central Asian Republics - defence of nationalised property relations as the source of their own privileges.
4. The ascendancy of the Red Army bureaucracy in the Kremlin due to the increased military spending in response to the US ‘Star Wars’ military build-up led to increased belief in military solutions to all problems.
5. Desperation at the increasingly critical internal economic problems in the USSR and hope that a military victory in Afghanistan would divert the attention of the masses.
To support or oppose the actual invasion?
To assist us in deciding whether to support or oppose the actual invasion we have to first establish the facts. Hafizullah Amin was the new president and plenipotentiary after September 1979, when he overthrew and murdered his rival, Noor Mohammed Takari and as many of his supporters as he could get his hands on. Takari was just about to do the same to him. He had invited in Soviet troops in large numbers to save the regime against the mujadiheen counter-revolution. Obviously under instructions from the Kremlin the troops took advantage of the invitation and proceeded to murder their host and practically his entire government. They then installed Babrak Karmal in power, a former leader of the Parcham faction of the PDPA, which faction Taraki and Amin had attempted and almost succeeded in liquidating in August and September 1978.12
Karmal had been sent into exile as ambassador to Czechoslovakia a few months before Amin discovered the Parcham plot against Taraki and his Khalq faction. It is likely that the plot was an attempt to prevent the liquidation of the Parcham faction by Taraki. Karmal was then deposed as ambassador and lived secretly under Moscow’s patronage until the day came for his reinstatement on the back of a Soviet tank.
There were already many thousands of Soviet advisors in the country. Amin had invited in the ‘Red Army’ because of the increasing strength of the mujadiheen attacks, now well armed by US imperialism and its allies, which now clearly included China. Considerable numbers of Soviet troops were already in place and more were expected with government knowledge. None of this constituted an invasion and even the CIA did not claim it as such.
The invasion consisted of the secret dispatch of huge numbers of extra ‘Red Army’ troops (100,000 is the figure now accepted). The advance troops surrounded the barracks of the Afghan army and air force units who had led the 1978 military coup. They then captured Amin’s residence. Food doping by Russian cooks had not worked well enough as Amin ate little because he was ill. This necessitated the very bloody public massacre. Having disposed of Amin and his immediate family they occupied all the government buildings, murdered 97 government officials and installed their own chosen puppet, Karmal.
That is an invasion. The Soviet reason for installing Karmal was their perception that only he could re-unite the PDPA and appeal to the more conservative section of Afghan society, in particular the upper middle class and the bourgeoisie and ‘unite the nation’ against the mujadiheen. Its aim was to supplement military force with a new, more right-wing popular-frontism as against the more radical popular frontism of Amin.
It is totally incorrect, therefore, to assert that the invasion was because Amin had become a CIA agent and it was necessary to prevent the US Army landing in Kabul. He would scarcely have invited in both the US and USSR to fight it out at Kabul Airport! However clearly he was making overtures directly to the US and indirectly via Pakistan because he must have had wind of the impending coup.
Whilst things were bad in the rural areas by 27 December 1979 the counter-revolution was not able to gather any significant support to launch an all-out attack on the government nor did it have any type of unifying ideology of even tactical consideration to prevent the continual outbreaks of inter-tribal warfare. The invasion of the ‘Red Army’ and the old rallying cries against a foreign invader were utilised by the reactionaries and this did indeed seal the loss of the modernising attempt and welded together a counter-revolutionary alliance which did operate non-aggression pacts with some success until the present phrase, after the fall of the PDPA. Karmal’s Soviet advisors attempted no better tactics than Taraki or Amin.
The invasion also succeeded in alienating the base of the PDPA support in the urban areas. There were demonstrations by the girls’ colleges soon after that were brutally put down. Two girl students were murdered by the regime. More ominously a national Islamic movement called Allah-au-Akbar started against Karmal. There were several daytime demonstrations and at night the entire population began to chant the azan, the Muslim call to prayer, from the rooftops. Reaction was consolidated even in Kabul. Not only the poor and most oppressed were alienated by the invasion but now there was an end of any pretence at rallying the urban petit bourgeois behind the regime. Henceforth Karmal was a hated and isolated figure, hiding from all classes of his own people behind the Russian tanks.
The Kremlin’s foreign policy
We should also bear in mind the direction of the Kremlin’s foreign policy, according to Trotsky:
‘The entire foreign policy of the Kremlin in general is based upon a scoundrelly embellishment of the ‘friendly’ imperialism and thus leads to the sacrifice of the fundamental interests of the world workers’ movement for secondary and unstable advantages. 13
The fact that in order to defend their own privileged positions at the head of the bureaucracy the Kremlin leadership often took measures that safeguarded nationalised property does not oblige us to give them a blank cheque on this or any other occasion. The point, which Trotsky always emphasised, was that the bureaucracy defended these relationships by their own, bureaucratic, counter-revolutionary, methods. This type of bureaucratic ‘defence’ was continually weakening and undermining the only real and ultimate way that they could be defended: the class conscious actions of the working class defending the nationalised property relations as economic basis of socialism, despite and against the bureaucracy.
This is how Trotsky explained the matter in relation to eastern Poland in 1939:
‘Foreign policy is the continuation of the internal. We have never promised to support all the actions of the Red Army, which is an instrument in the hands of the Bonapartist bureaucracy. We have promised to defend only the USSR as a workers’ state and solely those things within it which belong to a workers’ state. ‘...In every case the Fourth International will know how to distinguish when and where the Red Army is acting solely as an instrument of the Bonapartist reaction and where it defends the social base of the USSR‘ 14
No doubt with the experience of the disastrous invasion of Poland in 1920 in mind Trotsky was opposed to exporting revolution even by a healthy workers’ state except in very favourable circumstances: ‘...But such an intervention, as part of a revolutionary international policy, must be understood by the international proletariat, must correspond to the desires of the toiling masses of the country on whose territory the revolutionary troops enter." 15
Not even the ICL could claim that these conditions were satisfied in the invasion of Afghanistan. As Trotsky said of the joint invasion of Poland in 1939 by Stalin and Hitler: ‘On the contrary, it (the Kremlin) boasts cynically of its combination, which affronts, rightfully, the most elementary democratic feelings of the oppressed classes and peoples throughout the world and thus weakens extremely the international situation of the Soviet Union. The economic transformation in the occupied territories do not compensate for this by even a tenth part. 16
CPGB and ICL support invasion
It is ludicrous to claim, as Eddie Ford does in Weekly Worker No. 163, that it is correct to support the invasion and then to acknowledge;
‘... the paradoxical nature of the Soviet intervention in 1979 - which was to extinguish the flame of the revolution while defending the husk that remained. The Soviet bureaucracy feared social revolution, especially one on its own doorstep, far more than it welcomed one - yet it feared imperialist intervention and Islamic-inspired counter-revolution even more." 17
But is not ‘extinguishing the flame’ of a revolution called counter-revolution? However comrade Ford here correctly attacks the ICL from the left, at least pointing out that the manner of the intervention was reactionary, whilst tying himself in knots by supporting that same intervention. Seemingly uneasy about his paradox comrade Ford tries again a little later in his piece:
‘It was better to have the Red Army defending the dried out remnants (ashes from the flame extinguished by the ‘Red Army’ according to The Leninist - GD) of the 1978 Revolution, rather than not at all." 18
Why is this better? If we accept his assumptions; that 1978 was a revolution, that popular enthusiasm (flame) for the event still survived by 27 December 1979 - as distinct from preferring it to Islamic counter-revolution - then it was surely the duty of all revolutionaries to defend and nurture those flames that then might sweep and liberate the country and continent in time?
Since clearly neither Comrade Ford, nor The Leninist back then, seriously believed this then it is best to say why they supported the invasion, even if it was paradoxically reactionary and develop the argument to a higher plane than one of the pro and anti-Soviet ‘camps’. They should seek to establish what revolutionaries in the region should have done in those circumstances.
Were Comrade Ford to do this he might not find so ridiculous and inconsistent Ernest Mandel’s position, (which in our view was broadly correct) that it was necessary to oppose the invasion in the first place but once the deed was done, and reaction was enormously strengthened because of it, it was now incumbent on all serious revolutionaries to demand that Soviet Army stay and fight that reaction. For a similar reason we would oppose a foolish and ill-prepared strike called by a trade union bureaucracy, but once it was called we would demand that the bureaucracy go all out to win that strike - because the battle was now joined! This is essential united front tactics - strategically with the masses struggling against oppression, tactically with their leaders in order to expose them in struggle and so build a leadership capable of winning and willing to do so.
This was exactly Trotsky’s position on the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland just before the war. Stalin had signed the secret protocols with Hitler over that and the invasion of the Baltic lands, etc. but nevertheless:
‘The occupation of eastern Poland by the Red Army is to be sure a ‘lesser evil’ compared to the occupation of the same territory by Nazi troops. But this lesser evil was obtained because Hitler was assured of obtaining a greater evil. lf somebody sets, or helps to set, a house on fire and afterwards saves five out of the ten occupants in order to convert them into his own semi-slaves, that is to be sure a lesser evil than to have burned the entire ten. But it is dubious that this firebug merits a medal for the rescue. If nonetheless a medal were given to him he should be shot immediately after as in the case of the hero in one of Victor Hugo’s novels.
‘...A trade union led by reactionary fakers organises a strike against the admission of Black workers into a certain branch of industry. Shall we support such a shameful strike'? Of course not. But let us imagine that the bosses, utilising the given strike, make an attempt to crush the trade unions and to make it impossible in general to organised self defence of the workers. In this case we will defend the trade union as a matter of course in spite of its reactionary leadership. Why is not this same policy applicable to the USSR?’ 19
Also comrade Ford is wrong to assert that:
‘The Soviet bureaucracy feared social revolution, especially one on its own doorstep, far more than it welcomed one - yet it feared imperialist intervention and Islamic-inspired counter-revolution even more’ 20
The Soviet bureaucracy feared social revolution more than anything else on the planet because it would threaten political revolution in the USSR. Islamic reaction would be positively welcomed by the Kremlin in the face of this ‘horrendous’ prospect, and that has been their increasing paranoia, displayed in every action, internal and in foreign policy, since 1933 at least.
‘The only decisive standpoint’
The ‘flame’ that the CPGB thought was extinguished by the invasion was only then flickering into life, according to the ICL. In defiance of the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution the ICL (adopting Amin’s line) believed the socialist revolution was not possible in Afghanistan because it had no working class (uniquely in the entire planet, according to some members).
Ludicrously, in attempting to cover for their capitulation to Stalinism, the ICL demanded the formations of soviets - led by whom'? The working class that they had already written off or its adequate substitute, the ‘Red Army’? The possibility of ‘revolution from without’ is referred to several times in the article and it is clearly their main rational for supporting the invasion, e.g., in attacking the IMG and the UK SWP (IS as was) they say:
‘For these dregs of the pro-nationalist New Left and the wretched ‘Third Camp’ social democrats, counter- revolution from within is preferable to revolution from without. ’21
In the Winter of 1979/80 they held that: ‘Even if the country is incorporated into the Soviet bloc - a tremendous step forward compared to present conditions - this can only today be as a bureaucratically deformed workers’ state.’ 22
Then they follow with a call for political revolution in the USSR and social revolution in Iran - no question of calling for one in Afghanistan. But by the summer 1980 issue such caution was flung to the winds: ‘Moreover, the Soviet military occupation raises the possibility of a social revolution in this wretched, backward country, a possibility that did not exist before.’ 23
The ‘Red Army’ was now apparently going to lead, or at least assist, a social revolution from within and not simply bureaucratically overthrow capitalist property relations. Quite why this possibility was not realised, or never even raised its head, is never explained. The illusions of the ICL in the ‘revolutionary’ nature of the Kremlin bureaucrats were never clearer than in re- reading their 1980 positions.
This was, in fact, a variant of the PDPA theory on why they had to use the army and not organise the working class and poor peasants. They also feared and opposed a revolution from below and would only tolerate a ‘revolution from without’ for this reason.
We can only react with huge amusement at the Stalinophilia of the ICL - Brezhnev - a revolutionary to the end! Despite all the hysterical condemnation of ‘Pabloism’ Pablo never sunk to the level of supporting the brutal invasion of the ‘Red Army’ to install a conservative reactionary Stalinist politician and say this raised the possibility of social revolution. All that ICL stuff about calling for soviets, etc., while ignoring the real Afghan working class and even denying their existence, is so much eye wash.
Indeed the ICL held the working class and poor peasants in such contempt that they imagined that it was possible to produce the baby first (the revolution) and then invent the mother (the working class)! Of course it turned out that it was not a real baby at all but a shoddy painted Russian doll that fell to pieces at the first rattle. We can reasonably assume that the PDPA and the Kremlin operated purely cynically with no such illusions. The quotes from the Politburo members above are an example of this, revolutionary phrases masking bureaucratic realism. But Trotskyists should have different politics:
‘Our defence of the USSR is carried out under the slogan: For Socialism! For the world revolution! Against Stalin! ’24
Even where the Kremlin had bureaucratically transformed property relations after the Polish invasion i Trotsky warned that:
‘This measure, revolutionary in character - ‘the expropriation of the expropriators’ - is in this case achieved in a military bureaucratic fashion. The appeal to independent activity on the part of the masses in the new territories - and without such an appeal, even if worded with extreme caution, it is impossible to constitute a new regime - will on the morrow undoubtedly be suppressed by ruthless police measures, in order to ensure the preponderance of the bureaucracy over the awakened revolutionary masses.
That is one side of the matter. But there is another. In order to gain the possibility of occupying Poland through a military alliance with Hitler, the Kremlin deceived and continues to deceive the masses in the USSR and in the whole world. The primary political consideration for us is not the transformation of property relations in this or another area, however important they may be in themselves, but rather the change in the consciousness and organisation of the world proletariat, the raising of their capacity for defending former conquests and accomplishing new ones. From this one, the only decisive standpoint, the politics of Moscow, taken as a whole, completely retains its reactionary character and remains the chief obstacle in the road to the world revolution. 25
This latter position of Trotsky’s was abandoned by the ICL in Afghanistan, Poland and everywhere else.
Marxist method vs. bureaucratic method
It took fifteen years of warfare to subdue the uprisings in the Soviet Central Asian republics caused in the main by Menshevik and Stalinist bureaucratic methods. Some conflict was and is inevitable if the power of the Mullahs, Khans and fundamentalists is again to be broken in the countries of Soviet Central Asia and in Afghanistan, Iran through to Algeria. What a terrible price humanity must pay for the marginalisation of the transitional method of the Bolsheviks and the triumph of the counter-revolutionary bureaucratic methods of fighting reaction of Stalinism and petty-bourgeois nationalism in these states.
Given imperialism’s support for the mujadiheen and the nature of the terrain victory was only possible if the PDPA or the ‘Red Army’ combined warfare with the transitional method. A reactionary ideology, such as fundamentalism, can only be broken by total military defeat or by a dialectical combination of warfare and the transitional method. Marxists must use great tactical sensitivity to fight against the oppression of women and for the material, economic and social advancement of the working class and the poor. Neither the PDPA nor the ‘Red Army’ were prepared to fight in this way.
In a front pager article of Workers Hammer (April/May 1995), paper of British SL, we are told the ‘Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz’ but nowhere that the war against the Nazis was fought as a ‘great patriotic war’ and was specifically anti-German and anti-working class. The ‘Red Army’ either allowed the Nazis to crush workers’ uprisings or crushed them themselves to defeat attempts at socialist revolution in Eastern Europe. Following the same policy the communist parties in the west betrayed post-War revolutionary situations in Italy and Greece and prerevolutionary situations in France and elsewhere.
Therefore to ignore the method of the liberation of Auschwitz, not to counterpose the method of the real Red Army of the 1920s against the method of the armed forces of the bureaucracy, in Berlin 1945 or in Afghanistan in 1980s, is to perpetrate an historical lie on the working class. 26 Trotsky always combined revolutionary propaganda, guerrilla warfare and uprisings behind enemy lines with socialist measures in liberated territory to win over the workers and oppressed masses. The bureaucracy could not have possibly contemplated such revolutionary methods, lest a successful revolution would ensue which would see the bureaucracy expropriated as a parasitic social cast.
It was possible to drive a wedge between the feudalists and progressives, between the Mullahs and the poor and landless peasants - if a Marxist regime had existed in either Kabul or Moscow that desired this end and fought for it. However the PDPA were so busy scheming and plotting against each other and murdering their former comrades wholesale in the most bloodthirsty fashion at the first opportunity that there was little time, or inclination, to consider how to propagate their revolution among the workers (who never got a look in at all from any of the ‘revolutionaries’) or the poor and landless peasant masses, who were supposed to be the real beneficiaries of the entire revolution.
Moreover they attempted to impose the ‘revolution’ from above in such a bureaucratic, heavy handed fashions that it stood no chance. They rode rough-shod over tribal customs and religious sensitivities and prejudices alike. For examples they granted land to the landless peasants without the provision of bank credit to fertilise it or buy seed. In consequence the peasants were forced back to the very landlords who had been expropriated when it was presented to the peasants by the ‘revolution’ in the first place. In many cases they had to accept the most humiliating terms and punishments from these reactionaries, including self- mutilations, for their ‘anti-Islamic actions’.
The PDPA failed to conduct any preparatory campaign against all the other reactionary customs like women’s oppression, e.g., the selling of daughters in forced marriages - the Kalym (bride price) -, etc. They issued ‘binding’ decrees but did not provide any viable alternative. They naturally did not expropriate the landowners by mobilising the peasants.
There were local Jirgah - tribal councils whose job it was to ensure tribal laws were carried our including those stipulating equality between all tribal members - which still theoretically, and practically in some minor issues, existed. These could have been pressed into service by careful preparation and could have revived local pre-feudal, progressive tribal customs of equality in land tenure that would have made the first steps in breaking the hold of the landlords and Mullahs.
The very strength of the authority of the Jirgah lay in this notion of universal equality - which made the system of land holding seem ‘democratic’ as distinct from the system in the Indian sub-continent where the landowner operated a cast system and flaunted his privileged birth over his ground-down subjects.
Therefore the very strength of the Jirgah was also its weakest point, and any patient attempt to penetrate the surface appearance of unity and relate to the political necessity of today’s revolution with yesterday’s progressive customs would have begun to turn the masses outward from the valleys and forward from the past. But a full frontal attack, such as the PDPA launched, and which was enormously intensified by the Soviet invasion, could only unify the oppressed with the oppressor in the countryside in an undifferentiated mass of reaction against their perceived common enemy.
The material basis of women’s oppression in Afghanistan
The SL obviously still understood the material basis for the rural customs that all hinged around the terrible oppression of women but they drew no practical conclusions from this. This was an integral part of the production process in those terrible conditions of poverty. Tribal blood feuds, polygamy, etc. are part of the local customs and institutions that enabled that primitive system of production to continue.
The short skirted teachers from Kabul who were to educate the illiterate womenfolk often used army units to force attendance at class - which quickly provoked tribal uprisings at the ‘godless’ attempts to corrupt ‘their’ women and deprive them of an essential part of the peasant household economy.
A real material improvement in living standards in selected pilot areas would have begun to turn the tide against the local oppressors. It was this type of sensitive approach, taking full cognisance of local customs and practices to advance the progressive and defeat the reactionary that succeeded in Soviet Muslim lands just across the border in Soviet Central Asia in no less difficult circumstances. This was the method of operation of the Zhenotdel - the Department of working women and peasant women - in the years between the end of the civil war the beginnings of its Stalinisation after 1924.
Dale Ross (D. L. Reissner), the first editor of the SL’s ‘Women and Revolution', explained that method and history well in her article ‘Early Bolshevik Work among Women of the Soviet East’ (Issue No. 12 Summer 1976). She goes into great detail to explain the difference between the Bolshevik method of approaching this work and both the Menshevik and Stalinist method. There is no need to ask which method the PDPA and the ‘Red Army’ operated in Afghanistan. Or which method the ICL supported so uncritically after 1979. http://regroupment.org/main/page_ussr_east_women.html
The following quotes from that article stand in total repudiation to the ICL’s posturing Stalinophilia in Afghanistan. Note in particular the great detail given of the sensitivity of approach of the revolutionary Bolsheviks to local custom and law, in total contrast to the Menshevik and Stalinist methods. The revolutionary women of the Zhenotdel faced horrible death in the early 1920s by donning the paranja (a garment that totally covered women’s faces without even openings for eyes and mouth) to get the ear of the oppressed women. The ‘Red Army’ rained napalm on them in the 1980s. This account highlights, better than any other analytic article I have seen, the practical application of the transitional method in such circumstances:
‘The Bolsheviks viewed the extreme oppression of women as an indicator of the primitive level of the whole society, but their approach was based on materialism, not moralism. They understood that the fact that women were veiled and caged, bought and sold, was but the surface of the problem. Kalym was not some sinister plot against womankind, but the institution which was central to the organisation of production, integrally connected to land and water rights. Payment of Kalym, often by the whole clan over a long period of time, committed those involved to an elaborate system of debt, duties and loyalties which ultimately led to participation in the private armies of the local beys (landowners and wholesale merchants). All commitments were thus backed up with the threat of feuds and blood vengeance.
‘... Lenin warned against prematurely confronting respected native institutions, even when these clearly violated communist principles and Soviet law. Instead he proposed to use the Soviet state power to systematically undermine them while simultaneously demonstrating the superiority of Soviet institutions, a policy which had worked well against the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.
‘Extending this practice to Central Asia, the Soviet government waged a campaign to build the authority of the Soviet legal system and civil courts as an alternative to the traditional Muslim kadi courts and legal codes. Although the kadi courts were permitted to function, their powers were circumscribed in that they were forbidden to handle political cases or any cases in which both parties to the dispute had not agreed to use the kadi court rather than the parallel Soviet court system. As the Soviet courts became more accepted, criminal cases were eliminated from the kadis’ sphere.
Next the government invited dissatisfied parties to appeal the kadis' decisions to a Soviet court. In this manner the Soviets earned the reputation of being partisans of the oppressed, while the kadis were exposed as defenders of the status quo. Eventually the kadis were forbidden to enforce any Muslim laws which contradicted Soviet laws. Two soviet representatives, including one member of Zhenotdel were assigned to witness all kadi proceedings and to approve their decisions. Finally when the wafks (endowment properties), which had supported the kadis, were expropriated and redistributed among the peasantry, the kadis disappeared completely.
‘This non-confrontationalist policy in no way implied capitulation to backward, repressive institutions. It was made clear that there could be no reconciliation between communism and the Koran. Although ‘Red Mullahs’ attracted by the Bolshevik programme of self-determination and land to the tillers, suggested to their followers that Islam was socialism and vice versa, the Bolsheviks insisted that Soviet and Muslim law could never be reconciled precisely on the grounds that the most basic rights of women would be sacrificed.
‘The bloody civil war that pitted the Bolshevik state against imperialist-supported counter-revolutionary forces devastated the young workers state and threatened its very survival. During this period when Bolshevik capacity to intervene in Central Asia was crippled, the crude tactics employed by their ostensibly socialist opponents fuelled anti-Soviet sentiments. In Tashkent, the railway centre of Central Asia, the governing Soviet was made up of Russian émigrés, many of them railway workers, led by Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks.
In an orgy of Russian chauvinism and self indulgence foreshadowing to policies of Stalinism to come, they expropriated the holdings of the most respected Islamic institutions and stood the slogan ‘self- determination of the toiling masses’ on its head to justify the exclusion of native intellectuals and sympathetic Mullahs, whom they labelled ‘non- proletarian elements’. At the same time they collaborated with former white army officers. When the Tashkent soviet began arbitrarily requisitioning food from the peasants during the worst grain shortages of the civil war, Lenin intervened to stop this. But the seeds of anti-Soviet rebellion had been sown.
‘...The end of the war signalled the initiation of systematic Bolshevik work among Muslim women. In the absence of native activists, it was the most dedicated and courageous members of Zhenotdel who donned the paranja in order to meet with Muslim women and explain the new Soviet laws and programme which were to change their lives. This was an extremely dangerous assignment, as any violation of a local taboo enraged husbands, fathers and brothers to murder.
‘...Had a balanced approach of training and education complemented this liberalising agitation, these new divorcees could have become enthusiastic pioneers of agricultural collectives and proletarian reinforcements for industrialisation. But at the January 1924 Party conference, which preceded the 13th Party congress, the leadership, programme and methods of the party changed decisively.
‘In an ominous prelude to the policies of the ‘third period’ such as the forced collectivisation of agriculture, the legal offensive against traditional practices in Central Asia was stepped up until the divorce rate assumed epidemic proportions
‘...Then on 8 March 1927, in celebration of International Woman’s Day, mass meetings were held at which thousands of frenzied participants, chanting ‘down with the paranja!’ tore off their veils which were drenched in paraffin and burned. Poems were recited and plays with names such as ‘Away with the Veil’ and ‘Never again Kalym’ were performed. Zhenotdel agitators led marches of unveiled women through the streets, instigating the forced desegregation of public quarters and sanctified religious sites’
The consequences of these brutal Stalinist methods were the same in 1927, 28 and 29 as they were in Afghanistan sixty years later:
‘Women suing for divorce became the targets of murderous vigilante squads, and lynchings of party cadres annihilated the ranks of the Zhenotdel. The Party was forced to mobilise the militia, then the Komsomolsk and finally the general party membership and the Red Army to protect the women, but it refused to alter its suicidal policies. The debacle of International Woman’s Day was repeated in 1928 and 1929 with the same disastrous consequences, exacting an extremely high toll on party cadre.’
The best results against fundamentalism were achieved by women revolutionaries of the Zhenotdel using the transitional method of Bolshevism, as Dale Ross describes. The Afghan coupists were no revolutionaries, had no knowledge of and did not want to know about the methods of Marxist revolutionaries. They feared the consequences of utilising such tactics and were utterly opposed to them. They preferred their own bureaucratic ‘suicidal policies’, as Dale Ross says above.
Armed with this understanding in must have been with either the utmost reluctance or greatest confusion that Dale Ross embarked on what ‘Women and Revolution Issue No. 44 Winter 1994 - Spring 1995, in her obituary, described as a ‘tour under our banner ‘Hail Red Army in Afghanistan’ on International Women’s Day in 1980.’ After describing the disastrous consequences of International Women’s Day demonstrations of a like political character in 1927, 28 and 29 in Central Asia this must have been a severe blow to her self esteem.
To say ‘In Afghanistan today the Red Army alone stands between women and the perpetration of feudal and pre-feudal reaction’ on this tour after describing in such vivid detail the consequences of the Stalinist degeneration by 1927 in outrageously provoking such reaction must have been too much to bear.
To abandon theoretically all hope in the revolutionary potential of the Afghan working class (and then the Polish and the working class and oppressed in general after totally failing to relate to the Iranian working class) and be obliged to put her faith in counter-revolutionary Stalinism must have been the last straw. She left the SL in January 1983.
Having left the SL, she discovered the future leaders of the Bolshevik Tendency, but they too had abandoned the Transitional method and were not seeking the road to the working class and masses. This proved to be the political end for Dale Ross.
The left and the mujadiheen
The crisis of Trotskyism and those who regard themselves as revolutionary socialists is evident here. Of the groups mentioned in this article who at least took the correct class lines against imperialism, one, the US SWP, has renounced Trotskyism. Another, the CPGB, is a left Stalinist grouping (though quite an a-typical one) and a third, Workers Power, had a substantial minority which was pro-imperialist on Afghanistan. This minority became a majority at the recent international congress in Austria of their international grouping, the League for a Revolutionary Communist International, on closely related issues pertaining to Stalinism. The ICL has abandoned all attempts to apply the transitional method and pride themselves in posturing ultra-leftism. They clearly show their US chauvinism and pro- imperialist bias by their lack of sympathy for, let alone orientation towards, the working class and oppressed in non-imperialist countries.
However ultra-left the CPGB and the ICL were, however supine the capitulation to Stalinism the politics of the US SWP and the ICL were in 1980, nothing excuses the direct assistance rendered to imperialism by the leftist pro-mujadiheen groups. The former at least stood on the correct side of the class line in many confused ways but the latter were cynical capitulators to bourgeois public opinion.
The Communist Workers Group of New Zealand (CWG NZ), who supported the invasion, correctly commented in an article written in November 1996:
‘Those, like the state capitalists, who claimed that the USSR was ‘social imperialist’ flatly opposed the Soviet presence and drew graphic pictures of the death and destruction of Soviet ‘gunships’ etc. The even more right-wing tendencies painted the mujadiheen as a national liberation army. The right opposition inside Workers Power under Keith Harvey took this position, but was defeated by a majority which took a more correct line. ...lf revolutionaries could not see which class forces were aligned against each another in this civil war, then they cannot get to ‘square one’ in the class struggle.’
Though the British SWP, the French Lambertists and the Latin American Morenoites supported the mujadiheen, this does not mean that these are now totally counter-revolutionary groupings. They were acting in typical centrist fashion when faced with hostile public opinion over the Soviet invasion. They saw little point in taking a principled stand, which would cost them members, when it did not seem to matter overmuch to their own class struggle what happened in far-off Afghanistan. Nothing fundamentally new here, this has been their practice since the 1950s, though certainly a new level of cynicism was reached by the British SWP. Not only did they support the mujadiheen from the beginning as ‘freedom fighters’ on 5 October 1996 they welcomed the victory of the Taliban, though with some reservations(!):
‘But Taliban’s success comes from popular disenchantment with the leaders who oppose it - the forces guarding Kabul melted away last week. Tragically, (l) the Taliban has no answer to the crisis of the country either 27
As the SL pointed out in quoting this piece, the Taliban did indeed have answers - brutal repression of women was just one.
Where to now?
Najibullah took over from Karmal in 1986 and was formally elected President of the Republic of Afghanistan in 1987 at a national Loya Jirgah. This was an attempt to give democratic credibility to the regime. The Loya Jirgah was supposedly the traditional way that national emergencies were solved in Afghanistan going back to time immemorial. In fact these were convocations of tribal leaders to take some common action, usually to confront an invader.
That was certainly how the rural population in particular understood them. The attempt to portray them as a type of modem parliament, or a traditional body which could be taken and transformed into a parliament could not work. It was merely a rubber stamp for the Najibullah, completely controlled by the PDPA who were desperately manoeuvring to stave off the assaults of the imperialist-backed mujadiheen.
It adopted a new constitution based on democratic capitalist principles coupled various aspects of reactionary feudalism. For instance we are told by a government publication that:
‘The Constitution is popular because every article is in conformity with the sacred principles of Islam, the time-honoured tradition of Afghan society.’ 28
This attempt to conciliate reaction was the direct opposite of the policy of the early Comintern, which always combined the utmost sensitivity to religious sentiments with uncompromising opposition to religion itself. Najibullah’s efforts were, in any case, too late. Reaction had been consolidated and the withdrawal of Soviet troops sealed the fate of his regime.
The CWG NZ concluded their November 1996 article:
‘In 1986 Najibullah, another Parcham leader, became President when Karmal stepped down. The US backed mujadiheen revolt had been contained by Soviet troops, but under pressure from the US Gorbachev withdrew the Soviet forces in 1989.
‘Najibullah’s government lasted for another three years. But internal fighting weakened the government. In 1992 mujadiheen forces overran Kabul. Najibullah took refuge in the UN compound. The victory of the mujadiheen did not end the tribal conflicts. Taliban, a more fundamentalist Islamic students’ movement backed by Pakistan, became the dominant military force driving back the Rabbani government. Then in early October 1996, the Taliban took Kabul and Najibullah and his brother met their grim fate.
‘When the Soviets pulled out in 1989 Trotskyists were correct to condemn the action as a retreat in the face of imperialism. We recognise this for what it was, an attempt by Gorbachev to placate imperialism, to buy time, in the face of the collapsing USSR economy, in the hope of introducing ‘market socialism’ and stave off a total counterrevolutionary return to capitalism. But the price was the eventual victory of counterrevolution in Afghanistan, as it was counterrevolution in many of the other former Soviet republics.
‘The Taliban victory is a victory for reaction. We do not recognise let alone defend the national rights of the mujadiheen or the Mullahs. They represent a feudal ruling class determined to destroy every last PDPA democratic reform. Their fight is not a popular fight for national self-determination. Any rights the feudal leaders may have are cancelled by the rights they deny to everyone else. The belief that reactionary leaders can represent national rights only applies in circumstances where they are leading a popular national movement against imperialism.
‘When Lenin says:
‘The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a ‘revolutionary’ struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism.] is true only under such conditions. Today, the ‘Emirs’ are on the side of imperialism against the only forces capable of winning a national democratic permanent revolution, the impoverished masses. Already the summary executions of Najibullah and others and the return of the veil and appalling oppression of women show what is in store. A return to feudal patriarchal relations is underway.
‘The rights won by women to equality, to jobs, education, free health, etc. will now be subordinated again to their status as the property of men. All those who had anything to do with the ‘communists’ democratic reforms will be hunted down and killed. In this situation there is no question as to what must be done. We are for the formation of workers’ and peasants’ soviets backed up by armed militia, and for the smashing of the reactionary clerical, theocratic dictatorship of the mujadiheen!’
1 Afghanistan Politics, Economics and Society, Bhani Sen Gupta 1986, Frances Printer (Publishers) Limited in the Marxist Regimes Series, Department of Sociology, University College, Cardiff Pages 159-160. Page 158. While this book is somewhat pro-Stalinist it contains much useful detail in it.
2 Afghanistan Politics, Economics and Society. Pages 159-160.
3 Modernising women: gender and social change in the Middle East by Valentine M. Moghadam. Page 224. quoting World Bank, Social Indicators of Development 1988 (Baltimore; John Hopkins University Press, 1988), pp. 10-11.
4 Ibid. Page 227 quoting ILO Yearbook of Labour Statistics 1945-1989: Retrospective Edition on Population Censuses (Geneva: ILO, 1990).
5 The Tragedy of Afghanistan, A First-hand Account, Raja Anwar Verso, 1988 Page 58. The majority of the empirical details in the article are taken from this account by a former minister of the Pakistan People’s Party in Ali Bhutto’s government. He learned much of the details from speaking to the passing population of Kabul’s Pulcharkhi Prison (as an inmate himself) as different factions of the PDPA fell from favour.
6 The Tragedy of Afghanistan, Page 58.
7 The Tragedy of Afghanistan Page 60.
8 Afghanistan under Soviet Domination, Page 115-116, Antony Hyman, Macmillan Press 1982. This book supplements the other two used as background material. The author’s political views are liberal-democratic and therefore pro-imperialist, but he supplies greater detail on some issues.
9 Afghanistan under Soviet Domination, Page 118.
10 Afghanistan under Soviet Domination, Page 118 – 119.
11 Afghanistan under Soviet Domination, Page 118.
12 The Tragedy of Afghanistan, Page 165 et seq.
13 In Defence of Marxism (Idom) New Park, Page 33.
14 Idom, Page 36.
15 Ibid, Page 34.
16 Ibid. Page 33.
17 Weekly Worker No. 163, October 17 1996.
19 Idom Page 36.
20 Weekly Worker No. 163, October 17 1996.
21 Spartacist No. 29 summer 1980, Page 23.
22 Spartacist No. 27-28 winter 1979/80, Page 2.
23 Spartacist No. 29 summer 1980, Page 2.
24 Idom, Page 25.
25 Ibid, Pages 22-23.
26 Recent revelations has shown that the 1920 invasion of Poland by the Red Army was on the advice and political perspective of Red Army General Tukhachevsky who persuaded Lenin into this error on the notion of spreading the revolution by military means. The ICL defend this line of Tukhachevsky against Trotsky’s judgement and thus defend this historic disaster.
27 Socialist Worker 5 October 1996 as quoted in Workers Vanguard 25 October 1996.
28 Afghanistan Today – March – April 1988 p. 5