The Russian occupation of Afghanistan

Submitted by AWL on 12 April, 2004 - 10:19 Author: Sean Matgamna

The Russian invasion and colonial war in Afghanistan, after 1979, and a Marxist critique of Militant's support for it.

Introduction, 2003

This article was written in 1981. As we see it now, the theoretical framework on which it rests is not adequate. We regarded Russia as a 'degenerated workers' state', and made a distinction between the Stalinist states in which the old ruling class had been destroyed, and states such as Egypt then, whose state economies we called 'state capitalism' because the old ruling class had survived and the statification of the economy was not likely to last (in Egypt the bought-out capitalists could trade their government bonds on the Cairo stock exchange).

The collapse of the USSR in 1991 shows such distinctions to have been a lot less definite than we then thought. The description of the USSR as a 'degenerated workers' state' can now be seen to have been wrong, and wrong since about 1928, when the Stalinist bureaucracy made itself "sole master of the surplus product", to use Trotsky's description of it. In my opinion, the Stalinist states were best described as a distinct form of class society, 'bureaucratic collectivism'. Other comrades in Solidarity and Workers' Liberty think the Stalinist states were a form of 'state capitalism', using 'state capitalism' differently from the way it was used in this article 22 years ago.

S.M., August 2003

Unlike most other would-be Trotskyists, Workers' Action opposed the Russian invasion and called for the withdrawal of the troops. John O'Mahony [Sean Matgamna] examines the arguments put forward in favour of supporting the Russian occupation by Militant.

"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 trampling 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 Chinese, Hindus or Arabs in the art of insurrection, and it accepts 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?

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan was a test case for the attitude of political tendencies towards Stalinism and towards the rights of oppressed nations.

Militant took some time to hammer out its response to the invasion. It took a very long article by Ted Grant and then, a month later, another long article by Lynn Walsh supplementing it, before their line was clear. The following article examines the emergence of Militant's line on the invasion of Afghanistan as expressed in those two articles and in an article by Alan Woods, published in July 1980, which brutally expressed the satisfaction with which this 'Trotskyist' tendency greeted the prospect of a Stalinist transformation in Afghanistan.

Militant's first response to the invasion was a three-page long article by Ted Grant (Militant, 18.1.80). The last third of the article fell apart into an unintegrated series of musings not too far above the stream-of-consciousness level. We shall see the consequences Despite that it was a knowledgeable analysis of the events that preceded the Russian occupation. Though the analytical framework was different, the essential features of Grant's description paralleled that presented in Workers' Action (12.1.80 and 19.1.80).

In contrast to the fantasies peddled by others who call themselves Trotskyists, (especially the SWP-USA and the large part of the USFI which consists of its international satellites), Grant knew quite well who it was that had made the original so-called revolution, that is the military coup of-April 1978:

"The April 1978 coup was based on a movement of the elite of the Army and the intellectuals and the top layers of professional middle-class people in the cities".

But he does not know what it was that they made. His definition of the regime that resulted rings strange in the ears of a Marxist.

"Conditions of mass misery and the corruption of the Daud regime resulted in a proletarian Bonapartist coup. Proletarian Bonapartism is a system in which landlordism and capitalism have been abolished [when?] but where power has not passed into the hands of the people, but is held by a one party, military-political dictatorship".

He goes on. "After the seizure of power, they abolished the mortgages and other debts of the peasants, who were completely dominated by the usurers, and carried through a land reform."

Now if this is what happened, it becomes impossible to explain why the regime had so little popular support, why its initial support declined, and why it needed the Russian Army to keep it in power.

What the PDP did

They did decree an end to usury and a cancellation of debts; they decreed steps towards equality for women; and they legislated a land reform - but they could not carry them out. Everywhere and in everything, they proved to have neither popular support that would move to gain through mass actions what the regime decreed, nor, alternatively, the strength and resources to manipulate from the top and to wean people from the age-old network of dependence on landlords, usurers, and priests (often the same people). They had neither a banking system to offer instead of the system around the usurers, nor an agricultural supply system to carry through the land reform. Their efforts from on high alienated the people, and their good intentions found real expression mainly in bureaucratic/military repression of their own people.

The whole experience was shaped by these facts. The Afghan 'revolution' was a coup by the officer corps of the air force and a section of the officer corps of the army, differing from other efforts by officers in backward societies to take the role of developers of the country (e.g., the coup of 1968 in Peru) in that the officers, trained and equipped by the USSR since 1955, took the bureaucratic USSR as their social model. And they took the bureaucracy itself as their model for their own future role.

Because of the link with the USSR and the magnetic attraction of the Stalinist states on the central state forces of Afghanistan, the PDP gained its major forces in the Army and among the urban middle class, especially in Kabul. Estimates of its strength at the time of the coup range from 2,000 (in an extremely well-informed article in the Financial Times, in l978) to 10,000 (Intercontinental Press, publication of the SWP-USA, which, give or take a few ritual criticisms, acted for six months after the invasion as vulgar propagandist for the USSR and the PDP in the style of the CPs in the 30s).

How extraordinary this was is best seen if translated into British figures. Its equivalent would be for a 'party' of between 5,000 and 25 or 30,000 to seize power in Britain via the army! Even this comparison is inexact, because of the structure of society in Afghanistan. The divide separating town from country, centuries and even millennia wide in terms of culture and development, meant that the Party and the upper layers of the Army were sealed-off from the masses in a way that would be impossible for even a small party in Britain.

Thus the PDP began alienated from the masses; and their behaviour deepened the alienation and drove the masses into the hands of the landlords and mullahs. This happened because of the extraordinarily elitist, bureaucratic, militarist, commandist attitude adopted by the regime. (It was absolutely typical of such military regimes, whether of right or 'left' persuasion, though there are examples of radical state capitalist regimes far less elitist than was the PDP/Army regime). Brute military force was their essential tool, at least outside of the main towns; and a severe permanent police-state terror decimated even the supporters of the April Coup. The PDP used force from the beginning with terrible abandon, sending the air force with bombs and napalm against recalcitrant villages. They seem to have thought this would be sufficient to implement their programme.

One gets a strange feeling from the accounts of the brutal regime of government ukases backed by napalm. It was as if they knew neither their own society nor themselves. They acted as if 'the revolution' was already made, as if the government could command the forces and the tides by its very word.

State Capitalist

It was as if they were mimicking the established Russian bureaucracy. The PDP was a bureaucratic, militaristic social formation in control of the state apparatus (though a state apparatus not even traditionally in full control of the society - one whose rural subjects are accustomed to bearing arms and acting for themselves). But the PDP stood an one side of a revolutionary transformation which had yet to be won, led, or even evoked. And the Russian bureaucracy - on which they modelled themselves - stands on the other side of a revolution of the working class and peasant masses, erecting its power on that revolution's political grave but also on its social-economic achievements and accomplishments.

In fact, as the statement of the Workers' Action editorial board defined it (9.2.80):

"The 20-month history of the PDP-Army regime, until the Russian invasion essentially put an end to it and replaced it, was marked by the narrow base of the regime and the attempt to use the armed forces as the instrument of a social transformation which proved obnoxious, for varying reasons, to the big majority of the population.

"Despite its unusually close links with the bureaucracy of the degenerated workers' state, the regime never got beyond the stage of being a military-bureaucratic state capitalist regime attempting to carry through the bourgeois programme of land reform, educational reform, and some easing of the enslavement of women.

"Its methods in relation to the Afghan masses were never other than military-bureaucratic: the bombing and strafing of villages, including the use of napalm, from the first weeks of the regime, and the figure of 400,000 mainly non-combatant refugees, graphically sum up the military-bureaucratic regime's relationship with the Afghan masses."

The central point is that the PDP did not carry through a revolution, and proved unable to do so. There are few clearer examples of the impotence of the middle class to achieve a revolution and open the way for serious development in the Third World today (though there are special problems in Afghanistan).

It was a middle-class regime, symbiotic with the Russian Stalinist regime, but still resting on the old state. It never succeeded in making itself, still less the society, into a replica of the USSR's social institutions, and the invasion snuffed out its independent development.

'Proletarian Bonapartism'

But Grant, as we have seen, views the Afghan events through the prism of his own special theory - the theory of 'proletarian bonapartism'.

'Proletarian bonapartism' describes regimes as identical to the Stalinist system on the sole basis of the state ownership of industry. It is a 'profile' derived from the features which the Stalinist states have in common in repose. What the theory lacks is any conception of the dynamic and the struggles whereby the Stalinist states have come into existence.

The East European states were subjugated by Russian military power and assimilated to the Russian system. Apart from that, the only Stalinist-type states (that is, states identical to the USSR) which have achieved any stability have had in common mass peasant (and sometimes working-class) mobilisations, under the leadership and control of militarised Stalinist parties. The Stalinists, via the mass mobilisation, break the state machine, or at least the upper layers linked to the old ruling classes, collectivise industry and the land, and radically root out the old ruling classes. As in 1928 in Russia, all major competitors for the surplus product are eliminated, and the newly-created bureaucracy then becomes the master of the state economy. In this way a truly radical break is made.

(Cuba is partly an exception. But there too there was a mass mobilisation and a radical overturn, with the new regime then settling over time into the Stalinist mould.)

In contrast, the general experience of regimes which have emulated statism purely from on top, without a radical overturn, has been that they tend to be unstable. There has been no real replication of the existing Stalinist states. In Egypt, for example, industry was statified, but the old ruling class was kept on (stock exchange dealings in Government compensation bonds continued, for example), and eventually reasserted itself. The Army acted as agent and caretaker for the bourgeoisie.

Grant and Militant have a history of being unable to distinguish between real Stalinist-type transformations and developments like in Egypt in the late 50s and the 60s. They consider Syria, Burma, Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique, for example, as of the same order as the Stalinist states (deformed and degenerated workers' states). Their urge to play at 'prophets' and to 'spot the trend' leads them repeatedly to make foolish and hasty judgments. They briefly hailed Portugal as a workers' state in 1975, and are now seemingly on the brink of so classifying Iran.

They see a fundamental trend - the 'autonomous movement of the productive forces' - in the colonial revolutions of the Third World, manifesting itself everywhere, through many different forms. Thus Militant spent most of the 60s predicting the eventual manifestation of this trend within South Vietnam, and US withdrawalÂ… while others were building the anti-war movement.

Analysing Afghanistan, Grant, the prisoner of his dogmas, scans the horizon for 'empirical' confirmation of what he knows in his heart, and so decrees that the PDP regime was proletarian Bonapartist - whereas the whole dynamic of the events he is dealing with derives from the PDP's failure to be what he calls a proletarian bonapartist regime.

When Grant assimilates the pre-invasion Afghan regime to his proletarian bonapartist scheme, then he, like the regime itself, mistakes form for substance, government decrees for achievements, impotent middle class aspirations to be a Stalinist bureaucracy for a society in which the old ruling class has been overthrown.

The invasion

Why, in Grant's view, did the Russians invade?

Because "the Russian bureaucracyÂ… could not tolerate the overthrow, for the first time in the post-war period, of a regime based on [?] the elimination of landlordism and capitalism and the victory of a feudal-capitalist counter-revolution, especially in a state boarding on the Soviet Union."

Fear of the ferment spilling over to the Muslim population of the USSR was also a motive. The Russian bureaucracy, thus, intervened, "not only because of Afghanistan's strategic position, but for reasons of their own power and prestige."

Grant denounces the hypocrisy of the imperialist outcry and chronicles recent imperialist 'interventions' - South Africa in Angola and Zimbabwe, Belgium in Zaire and France in Chad and Zaire. True, as far as it goes, but it obliterates in a cloud of minor propaganda/agitational points what is new in Afghanistan - the fact that the USSR, acting from strength, was overstepping the agreed boundaries that had prevailed since World War Two.

The US, says Grant, is using the pretext of Afghanistan and "attempting to hit at Russia because of the class character of the Soviet Union, where landlordism and capitalism have been eliminated". This is typical Grant-thought. Basic, general historic truths about capitalist class antagonism to the anti-capitalist regime are used to 'explain' specific developments.

What response, asks Grant, should socialists make to the invasion? How do we advise the labour movement to see it?

Grant and Stalinism

Grant attacks the Communist Parties for opposing the invasion because, he says, they proceed from "abstract principles" of opposition to "aggression between peoples", support for the UN, etc - "instead of viewing the process from the point of view of the class struggle internationally and the class relations between the nations". Which means? Grant doesn-t tell us. Others - his pupils - subsequently will. In fact, it is a way for Grant to evade the by no means abstract question of what the Afghan masses would choose.

Everything is skewed by Grant's basic attitude to Stalinism. Forty and more years after Trotsky and the Bolshevik rearguard publicly declared that a river of blood separated Stalinism and Bolshevism, Grant is still - in his mind - engaged in a political and ideological dialogue with the Stalinist bureaucracy. The bureaucracy in the 1920s accused Trotsky of wanting to use the Red Army to "export revolution". (Grant mistakenly asserts that Trotsky did advocate this). Lo and behold, says Ted Grant in 1980, we now have a grossly bureaucratic use of the Red Army (the same Red Army?!) without the support of the workers, etc. The point of course is that the Russian bureaucracy is necessarily against the workers and the common people of Afghanistan.

In the same vein, as a critic of the technique and crudities of the bureaucracy, Grant comes to his central objection to the invasion. It will repel the international working class. The Russian state conducted itself differently in Lenin's and Trotsky's time. "They based themselves on proposals and actions which would raise the level of consciousness of the working class internationally." "Anything which acted to raise the consciousness of the working class was justified; anything which had the opposite effect was to be condemned", etc., etc. Yes (though the Bolsheviks were sometimes forced to do things irrespective of the effect on international working class consciousness). But what have Lenin and Trotsky got to do with the present Moscow regime, with its character, selection, education, motivation, lifestyle, relationship to the Russian and other USSR peoples, relationship to the workers in the USSR or outside it? The answer, for Ted Grant, seems to be that they carry on the same business in a "distorted" way. The train of thought runs on tracks laid down by Isaac Deutscher - Stalinism is the continuation of Bolshevism, or at least the custodian of its social-economic achievements and the transplanter of them to other countries, carrying them on the point of bayonets to people who are crushed by tanks if they resist.

This is very strange stuff. But it is of interest as illustrating the confused thought processes of the main political leader of one of the biggest groups in Britain calling itself Trotskyist (a group which also has some supporters outside Britain). He is confused to the point of seemingly not knowing who he is supposed to be, who and what the Stalinist rulers of the USSR are, and what their relationship is to the working class. He is seemingly confused about what time of the political clock it is. Like the legendary professor of history who asked a colleague, "what century is this?", Ted Grant must have occasion to ask his associates "What decade is this?". (But they won't be able to tell him!)

Having explained at great length the different techniques of the bureaucracy and of Marxist working-class revolutionaries, Grant then comes close to the truth that it is a matter of different people, of a different social formation, and of different aims. He puts his own gloss on this. The policies of the proletarian bonapartist regime in the USSR are determined by the "income, power, prestige and privilege" of the bureaucracy. But they support revolutions in backward countries - when it takes place in the distorted form of proletarian bonapartism. That's only for backward countries with "distorted revolutions" - "they are opposed to a socialist revolution in advanced countries becauseÂ… the establishment of a democratic socialist regime in any country in the world would immediately threaten the foundations of the bureaucratic misrule in Russia, China, and the other Stalinist states". This seems to mean that despite what they are, and in the course of serving their own interests, the Russian bureaucracy can nevertheless do good work in backward countries. But Grant manages simultaneously to conflate and link as parallel phenomena the workers' revolution and the mutations: the idea is clearly one of distinct stages reflecting levels of development. At the same time Grant's scheme of workers' socialist revolution for advanced countries, "distorted (Stalinist) revolution" for backward countries, ignores the fact that the Stalinist bureaucracy has made its own 'revolution' in advanced countries too - in Czechoslovakia, in East Germany (a backward part of Germany, but that is relative), on condition of having military-bureaucratic rule over them.

Now Grant gets to the crux. The ending of feudalism and capitalism in Afghanistan opens the way to bring that country into the 20th century. "If we just considered the Russian intervention in isolation, we should have to give this move critical support".

"But because of the reactionary effect it has on the consciousness of the working classÂ… Marxists must oppose the Russian intervention".

"The Russian intervention in Afghanistan must be condemned despite its progressive aspects, because it is spitting at the opinions of the world working class".

It is clear from the article that when he talks about the bad effects on working class consciousness of the invasion, he has something specific in mind. "The overriding danger under contemporary conditions is the alienation of the workers of Japan, Western Europe, the USA and other advanced countries from the idea of socialism and socialist revolution [i.e. Russia?!]. This is shown by the attitudes taken by the [left labour] Tribunites. Like the CP, they unfortunately base themselves not on the real movement of the class struggle and on the actual relations between the great powers [sic] but, on the contrary, rely on abstract moral condemnations. But world antagonisms are a reflection of the dialectical contradictions between the capitalist states, and, above all, of the major contradiction of our time, that between the Stalinist states, on the one hand, and the countries of capitalism on the other".

It is clear that Grant is being tossed between the implications and necessary conclusions from his theory, and the pressure of the Tribunites. It may, "in isolation", be progressive in Afghanistan, but it makes life difficult in the Labour Party! The complete prostration into bloc politics, and the consequent abandonment of independent working class politics, should be noted.

But Grant deplores the invasion. Should the Russians then withdraw? Grant seems to think so, though it is not quite clear. His way of expressing it is to dismiss "the demand by the imperialist powers supported by the CP[GB] and the Tribune group" as "utopian". (Why? Grant adds immediately after this: "Russia, of course has vetoed this demand in the UN Council").

It seems that the CPs should be criticised for no longer automatically backing what Moscow does. Nothing here is abstract, or "idealistic", or contrary to "the real movement of the class struggle" and the taking of sides with one bloc in "the major contradiction of our time". The advancing tanks move, backed by History, and all your programmes and tears will not roll them back one inch!

Finally; what prospects does Grant see in Afghanistan?

"Balancing between the different nationalities of Afghanistan, and leaning on the poor and middle peasants, the Afghan regime, based on Russian bayonets, will undoubtedly be able to crush the rebels and establish a firm proletarian bonapartist state as a Soviet satellite". But things won't be so bad. "Once the counter-revolution has been defeated. most of the Russian troops will be withdrawnÂ… The Bonapartist regime and the Russians will find a way to compromise with the mullahs".

Essentially this is the same basic assessment as was made in Workers' Action last January. But the niceminded "optimism" is Ted Grant's.

The international contradictions will soften, too. Russia may, in response to the American trade reprisals, back the Baluchis and Pathans in Pakistan and maybe "fulfil the old dream of Tsarist diplomacy, a warm water port". But "before things go that far, however, it is likely in the not too distant future, that there will be a compromise between the US and the bureaucracy." This soporific message will perhaps lull the many readers of Militant who did not have the duty in 1965 and after to read Militant's monthly assurance that compromise was just ahead in Vietnam. It has the effect, however, of minimising the degree of blame the readers of Militant will attach to the bureaucracy for the invasion and the boost it has given to the warmongers.

Setting it straight?

Grant's article, though it left many things in the air, seemed to come out against the Russian invasion. In fact, it was utterly contradictory. The whole assessment of the "progressive" side of the effective annexation of Afghanistan implied support for it. The opposition to the invasion was grounded in the need to bow to working class public opinion. Grant declined to take a stand on an independent working class political assessment, and confined himself to describing a process and scoffing at the "utopians" of the CPGB and Tribune.

Within a short time, some of Grant's pupils inserted the appropriate explicitly Stalinist politics.

One month after Grant's analysis there appeared part one of a two-part reply to a letter from 'Roy Bentley', who had "just read" Ted Grant's article. He wanted to inquire what Grant's line really had been! He offered an interpretation, based on Grant's comment that the call for withdrawal was "utopian". Does that mean that Militant is against the "withdrawal of the troops, having quite rightly condemned, the invasion"? He "could see" that if the Russian troops were withdrawn, "the Afghan regime of Karmal would soon collapse and there would be an almost inevitable bloodbath and a return to feudal landowning and backwardnessÂ… This would justify support for the troops being there now they have invaded. Is this the position Militant is putting forward?"

"Roy has indeed drawn the right conclusion from Ted's article" began the reply. Thus, ludicrously, Militant began to correct itself. The reply, by Lynn Walsh; made the following new points.

To call for withdrawal would open up the risk of "Afghanistan's proletarian bonapartist regime" being overthrown. (But where was there a regime other than the one installed against the government that they said invited the troops in? This is a bit of camouflage. The Russian troops are the regime). Supporting withdrawal would therefore mean siding with the forces of counter-revolution. (The whole question of any rights for the Afghan people is wiped out by equating the Russians with the left, and by the pretence that the regime still has an independent existence). Militant couldn't support the invasion "because of the reactionary consequences, however, it would have been entirely wrong for Marxists to call for the withdrawal of Russian troops". In other words - don't take responsibility, but be glad the bureaucracy is not so fastidious. This attitude of saying 'no' while meaning 'yes' combined the joys of abstention from direct responsibility with those of vicarious real politic via hypocrisy. If it is necessary for the troops to stay, on pain of undesirable consequences, then it was right to send them in in the first place. Responsible people should have called for the invasion and should acknowledge now that the initiative of the bureaucracy (even for motives of their own) showed them their error if they didn't. Serious people should - like the SWP-USA - praise the historically progressive role being played by the bureaucracy in Afghanistan.

But Walsh continued: "The Russian intervention in Afghanistan was a progressive move" - Grant is quoted as stating this, though in fact he said it would be progressive if it could be taken in isolation, and that in fact it could not be. "The reactionary international repercussions of invasion completely outweigh any immediate gains in Afghanistan", admitted Walsh; but preventing the downfall of a proletarian bonapartist military regime was "in itself" another blow to world imperialism. And the invasion "established the development of historically progressive social relations in this small country."

"In Afghanistan though it has moved to prop up a bonapartist regime that rules through dictatorial methods, the Russian bureaucracy is defending new, fundamentally progressive social relations".

A mass base of support for the regime (that is, for Stalinism) will be created by land reform, planning, etc. "When the proletarian bonapartist regime is consolidated in Afghanistan, which will be within a measurable period, the Russian leadership [sic] will probably withdraw" its forces. But adds Walsh defiantly, "in any case if there were no danger of counter-revolutionary forces threatening the regime and the social changes that have been carried through, we would then call for the withdrawal of Soviet troops!"

What exists in Afghanistan is "a grotesque totalitarian caricature of a socialist state", "because of the isolation of the social change in an economically and culturally backward country, and the fact that the bonapartist leadership has inevitably taken Russia's Stalinist regime as its model". (Apart from the fact that it is nonsense now to pretend that the regime has an independent existence, it is not isolated: the character of the regime is determined now not by the conditions in its own society alone, but by the bureaucratic domination of the much more developed Russian society. It is that Russian domination that determined the shape of the regime even in immensely more developed Czechoslovakia.)

Walsh insists that Militant "stands for a further supplementary political revolution". But this is an epochal perspective. For Afghanistan it would be after a whole historical period. In Walsh's scheme, the first stage is the growth of support for the regime, under the Russian tanks, whose presence Militant supports. And Walsh underlines the point: in Russia and Eastern Europe the bureaucracy; has "outlived any progressive role it played in the past through developing the planned economy" (When was it progressive in Czechoslovakia, for example?) But not in Afghanistan. There it has prospects of an organic growth and-consolidation of mass support, with the bureaucracy as the natural leading force, despite its methods, for society at that stage - the bearer of a higher civilisation.

Press fantasies

Militant's third major article on Afghanistan, published in July 1980, brutally ties all this together. Its author was Alan Woods. Like Walsh, Woods is one of those who gathered around the dead stump of the old ISFI (Pablo-Mandel) British group in the early 60s and helped developed the mutant strain that is the present Militant tendency.
Grant established some account of the April 1978 "revolution"; and Walsh (perhaps after an internal dispute, but it scarcely matters) established a (hypocritically dressed-up) pro-invasion line from Grant's unresolved contradictions. Woods emerges as the arrogant champion of the civilising mission of the Army of the Russian bureaucracy, picking up (I should think consciously) the arguments of Fabian imperialism - all the way to the explicit paternalist depiction of the Afghan masses as necessarily the mere objects of someone else's boot and bayonet in history.

Entitled "Afghanistan: what is really happening? - the truth behind the press fantasies", Woods' article is a polemic against the press reports of mass resistance to the invaders. That aspect of it is not important. It is, indeed, ridiculous. For his case is that the Western press is grossly unreliable, and making anti-Russian propaganda on Afghanistan - and he establishes it entirely by quotations from the Western press!

The piece is studded by quotations from the Times.

In fact, of course, the bourgeois press has to be read carefully and watched. But what emerges from Woods' own rather silly polemics is that whereas an effort was being made in the Times and Financial Times to establish the facts, and this involved printing not entirely checkable accounts and then correcting them or repudiating them, what Woods himself does is take the comments of the Times on press inaccuracies and reports that proved false, one-sidedly seize on a series of their self-corrections, and belabour them in order to disguise his own partisan and one-sided propaganda for the civilising mission of the Russians.

Woods doesn't notice how ludicrous it is to end one point with, "And the Times reporter commented laconically: 'Not to put too fine a point on it, the Voice of America was talking rubbish'" - and then immediately go on: "But the Times itself has not been averse to talking rubbish in recent months, as when it screamed in banner headlines: Hundreds dead in Kabul revolt against Russians [28 February], a typically exaggerated report of the strike of reactionary shopkeepers in the Kabul bazaar in FebruaryÂ…". Woods is clearly a master of the major tool of Grantite reasoning, the non sequitur. Or perhaps he means - it is certainly his underlying train of thought - that dead shopkeepers are not worth tallying.

Woods does not need to read the serious bourgeois press (the only source of information available to us, and for that matter the only or main source of world news available to Marx, pre-1917 Lenin, and post-1927 Trotsky). He knows what is going on, from Grantite theory. This is the core of the article - his assumptions and interpretations.

The point is not assessments like the following (which are basically the same as in Workers' Action): "Moscow's strategy is first to dig in in the towns, secure control of the administration and the main highways, and then gradually consolidate their influence over the villages and the backward-mountain tribes". Nor is it his support (despite the reiterated hypocrisy about how the Russians should not have gone in) for the Russians. It is his interpretation of what is happening and why.

"Dark masses"

For Woods, because "these tribesmen [are] 'dark masses', sunk in the gloom-of barbarism, whose conditions of life and psychology have not changed fundamentally in 2,000 years", that "the task: of dragging [sic] the Afghan countryside out of the slough of primeval backwardness and into the 20th century would be formidable, even with correct leadership and Marxist politics".

"The Russian bureaucracy and their Afghan supporters are, in effect, carrying through the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution in that country". In a "distorted, bureaucratic, bonapartist fashion", Woods of course adds. Still, that is what they are doing in Afghanistan and it is the totalitarian bureaucracy that is doing it. And therefore we should be glad that they are doing it.

This is a new version of "permanent revolution". In Trotsky's formula the proletariat took the lead of the peasant masses in the struggle against reaction and backwardness, carried out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, and in the same movement took power, eliminating the bourgeoisie. Woods' formula is one of "international bonapartist permanent revolution" in which the bureaucracy of the USSR is the protagonist and its instrument is an Army which has the task of subjugating, as a bitterly resented foreign invader, the rural masses. (And not only the rural masses. Woods asserts falsely that the towns are solidly with the invaders, but in fact one of the results of the invasion is the alienation of the masses in the towns and even of sections of the PDP (the Khalq faction)).

What will happen in this special case of the permanent revolution that Woods thinks is likely to unfold in Afghanistan?

A foreign military machine conquers the country; organises, beginning from an initially tiny basis of support, a replica of the totalitarian Russian political regime, carries out reforms from above, manipulating the population (for example land redistribution under such a regime is no more than a transitional stage to collectivisation, with or without consent). At the same time, unless the regime proves to be different in Afghanistan from what it is in Russia, it will oppress, massacre, and deport as many of the Afghans as necessary. The norm for this regime is that the population has no civil rights.

What has this got to do with permanent revolution? Nothing whatever! Here permanent revolution is only an - unintentionally - ironic phrase to point up the contrast between Trotsky's programme and what is likely to happen in Afghanistan.

Woods rightly locates the pre-invasion dynamic in the backwardness of the country and the self-defined mission of the officer caste to- modernise in face of the feebleness of Afghan capitalism and its bourgeoisie. He accepts that the PDP/officer caste symbiosis was only possible on a programme of transforming that caste and associated sections of the middle class into a ruling elite of the Russian bureaucratic type. The "revolution" was nevertheless "a step forward in comparison to the previous situation", But the point is that it proved impossible for the PDP and the army to make that "step", and that for Trotskyists to support such a formation, rooted in the existing state and pitted against the masses is a programmatic betrayal. It was quite distinct from the sort of movement that existed in Vietnam and China, where Stalinist forces led masses against reaction and imperialism.

Woods tells us that the attitude to the invasion is not determined by sentimental considerations but "first and foremost [!] by class consideration". Which class forces stand behind the present Kabul regime, and which behind the Mujaheddin rebels?

Woods puts his shoulder and full weight to an open door by proving that the rich stand behind the rebels

Progressive Stalinism

The rebels have next to nothing in the towns, says Woods triumphantly. "The new regime can count on the support of the small working class that exists, plus the great majority of the students, intellectuals and functionaries". Woods does not present his evidence for thinking that this is how it actually is. He knows that it is so, for it is ordained in the schema that it is so. "The struggle in Afghanistan is essentially a struggle of the towns against the countryside [which was true before the invasion], of civilisation against barbarism, of the new against the old". Stalinism is the progressive next stage, the bearer of civilisation.

Citing facts about the rebels burning schools, Woods declares that the victory of these "reactionary gangsters" "would lead to a terrible bloodbath and an orgy of violence and destruction which would plunge Afghanistan back into the dark ages". He lists the traditional cruelties and mutilations used by the rebels; he is completely silent about the napalm and the Russian tanks and bombers. The historical mission of the rebels is "about as progressive as that of Genghis Khan" - unlike the mission of the Army of the Russian totalitarian bureaucracy.

And no starry-eyed enthusiast for the conquering armies of capitalism was ever so "optimistic" as Alan Woods. After the brutal disregard comes the consoling cant: the future - after the invading army has completed the subjugation, buried the dead, and re-built the bombed villages - is bright and hopeful. "As the social benefits of the revolution [the conquest] begin to become understood by the poor peasantsÂ… the mass base for reaction will evaporateÂ…." Moscow will eventually withdraw "the bulk" of its troops (and of course Militant will approve their judgment and wait for it). "Despite all the totalitarian deformations[!] the new regime will mark a big step forward for Afghan society. Industry will be built up rapidlyÂ… The growth of an industrial proletariat in Afghanistan will ultimately serve to undermine the base of bureaucratic rule and prepare the way for a new political revolution, and the establishment of a healthy workers' democracy in Afghanistan".


Militant's whole argument on Stalinism and Afghanistan is dependent on an unstated analogy with the attitude Marxists took to early capitalism.

In 19th century Europe capitalism developed industry, cleared away feudal restrictions, and also developed the working class. Marx and Engels argued for a recognition of the progressive role of capitalism, and an alliance between the working class and the middle-class revolutionaries.

Stalinism today in some backward countries - so Militant's argument runs - develops industry, develops the working class, clears away feudal remnants. So why not "critically" support the Stalinists' efforts to "drag Afghanistan into the 20th century"?

Why not? In the first place, Marx and Engels also argued for independent anti-capitalist activity by the working class at every stage. Lenin developed this emphasis with great sharpness in relation to capitalist development in Russia, denouncing the Mensheviks' passive, self-limiting policy of accepting that the bourgeoisie was preordained to lead all and any general revolutionary movements for the foreseeable future.

There is nothing similar in Militant's policy. Nothing the Mensheviks did comes near to equalling the fatalistic prostration of Militant before the Afghan Stalinists and the Russian Stalinists in Afghanistan.

Even the worst of the Mensheviks tried to organise workers independently for their immediate interests. Militant accepts that such workers' organisations are impossible under Stalinist rule. It deplores the fact, but accepts it as an inevitable feature of a whole stage of development in which the active force, deserving of support for its progressive work, is the Stalinist bureaucracy.

At the end of that stage Militant sees the political revolution. But no practical conclusions follow for now.

Although Militant gives an accurate description of who dominates now in Afghanistan, of what the motives for the Russian invasion were, and although they describe the bureaucracy as totalitarian, at no point do they draw any conclusion about the oppressive, anti working class character of the regime that the Russians will create. They know there will be "totalitarian-deformations" but that is not important, it is a secondary aspect of a fundamentally progressive phenomenon.

Trotskyists say that the bureaucracy can be (and has been) in certain circumstances revolutionary against the bourgeoisie, treating it (as Trotsky expressed it) as a competitor for the surplus product. It is in all circumstances counter-revolutionary against the working class. Militant, which might accept this formula, adds however - even so, it is also progressive in backward countries.

Militant completely identifies with the transformation it projects. It portrays the fact that the Russians will probably be able to create a stable regime as reason for hope in the circumstances. It assumes, takes for granted, that the workers will support the transformation, and blandly sets aside the fact that this means co-option of individuals into the new bureaucracy and repression for the masses.

A false analogy

In any case, the historical perspective is wrong. The presentation of Stalinism as a progressive historical force analogous to early capitalism is fundamentally false - and moreover it undermines, as we shall see, the ritually-proclaimed perspective of political revolution.

It is the relationship of Stalinist regimes to the working class that makes the analogy with developing early capitalism completely untenable.

Under the regime of Stalinist totalitarianism the working class is bound hand and foot, deprived of all rights by a highly conscious and militantly anti working class state apparatus which concentrates the means of production in its own hands - together with immense powers of oppression and terror.

It was possible, within developing capitalism, for Marxists to look to a progressive capitalist evolution and still to relate to the working class, support its struggles, and try to organise it independently: The prospect was not that if the bourgeoisie established their regime, then the working class would be held in a totalitarian vice. On the contrary, even in the worst and most repressive early capitalist hell-holes the working class retained individual rights and could take advantage of loopholes to organise itself.

Bourgeois society offered the possibility of the workers organising themselves and developing politically and culturally. This did not happen without struggle, repression, and setbacks - but it was not ruled out, it could happen and it did happen. And otherwise the Marxist policy would have been a nonsense.

A specific, repressive, and terribly reactionary regime is inseparable from Stalinism. Economic development was separable from the often repressive early capitalist regimes because the exploitation of the working class did not rest on its legal status but on economic (market) transactions and the bourgeois ownership of the means of production. Stalinist economic development is inseparable from totalitarian oppression of the working class; the-economics are not separable from the regime, and to opt for one is necessary to opt for both. The surplus product is not seized primarily via market transactions, but via the winepress grip of the bureaucracy. For this reason, the analogy with the capitalist development of the means of production is a piece of monstrous Stalinist nonsense.

Defence of USSR

But surely Militant's approach is implied in the idea that the Stalinist states should be defended against imperialism? Not so. That is fundamentally a position against imperialism, against according it any progressive role, against looking to anyone but the working class to deal with the bureaucracy, against allowing imperialism once again to feed off the areas taken out of its control in the USSR and later the other Stalinist states.

The remnants of the conquests of October are defended against imperialism despite the monstrous totalitarianism that is grafted onto them.

Already in 1939-40, Trotsky and his comrades declared, "We were and remain against the seizure of new territories by the Kremlin." (They took sides with Russia against Finland because Finland was then an outpost of Anglo French imperialism; they did not evaluate an expansion of Russian control as progressive. On the contrary, Trotsky spoke of the fate of the people of former Eastern Poland as becoming the "semi-slaves" of Stalin. The historically progressive elements were massively overlaid by the reactionary anti working class regime. The experience since then has reinforced this attitude one hundredfold: in an advanced capitalist country like Czechoslovakia with a mass labour movement and a mass Communist Party (a real party, not a ruling apparatus), Russian control meant the annihilation of the labour-movement.

Trotsky's view, in fact, was that the property relations were potentially progressive; imperialism should not be allowed to destroy-that progressive potential, but working class revolution was necessary to realise the potential. "In order that nationalised property in the occupied areas, as well as in the USSR, become a basis for genuinely progressive, that is to say socialist development, it is necessary to overthrow the Moscow bureaucracy" (Trotsky). The USSR "as a whole" - property relations plus bureaucratic tyranny - was a reactionary force.

To advocate the expansion of that system is an explicitly pro-Stalinist position.

Of course, we supported the Vietnamese, for example, against imperialism, despite the Stalinist leadership: In the case of Afghanistan, there is nothing to support but a Stalinist leadership and the brutal extension of Kremlin power.

To say that the overthrow of already established nationalised property by imperialist intervention is reactionary and should be resisted is one thing. It is another to support the Russian bureaucracy against the people of an invaded country. We say to imperialism: hands off Afghanistan. We can't, or we should not, say that to the people of Afghanistan.

To slip from the view that Stalinist collectivism contains progressive or potentially progressive elements compared to imperialism or imperialist-backed alternatives, into the view that the Stalinist regime is progressive apart from the working class, while atomising and oppressing the working class and plebeian population, is to accept the bureaucracy as the protagonist of history - for now or for "the next stage". It is a reactionary and elitist position. No wonder Woods finds himself speaking of the dark masses of Afghanistan.

If we-assume that no conscious or subconscious racism is involved here (and I do assume that), we are left with a choice example of Militant's insensitivity, and with a naked expression of truly Fabian contempt and disdain, licenced by paternalism, towards the people of Afghanistan. The brutal expansion of Russian Stalinism is looked to to sort them out rather than the brutal expansion of British imperialism. But it is the same spirit, the same tone, even the same image - complete with self-aware quote marks for the people who are mere objects of history and of someone else's drive to conquer and perhaps industrialise them.

The broad sweep

But, in the broad sweep of history, is it not true that the development of industry lays the basis for progress? In the broad sweep, yes - on condition that the working class liberates itself and seizes the control of the means of production from the hands of the bureaucracy. But politics is necessarily concerned with a more immediate focus, a sharper focus. In that focus the idea that the oppression and slaughter, deportation, etc, which has been the stock-in-trade of the Stalinist bureaucracy ruling the USSR, is a detail in the broad sweep of history, is a monstrous anti-Trotskyist nonsense. It loses the viewpoint of the militant who stand with the working class and with oppressed peoples, trying to, organise them to-make themselves the subjects of history not its passive objects. in favour of the viewpoint of the historian "prophet", the man in the ivory tower. An entirely different set of values, priorities, concerns and considerations belong to the militants compared to the philosophers in the watch towers. Of course Marxist militants inform their work with general historical consideration. The do not allow them to override their mobilising, organising, and rousing up of the oppressed. They do not allow the goal of industrial development on the back of the masses to supplant the goal Trotsky outlines in the quotation at the head of this article*.

In the Grantite view of Afghanistan everything is eventually and quickly to be made right by the workers taking political power from the bureaucracy in Russia and elsewhere. Such a view is rational only on an analysis of Stalinism such as Trotsky's, which identifies the bureaucracy as being in fundamental contradiction with the basic socialised relations of production. (In the final analysis, that is because it is in fundamental contradiction with the working class). Grant presents a different picture: the bureaucracy (the Russian one of its would-be Afghan duplicate) is the bearer of a higher civilisation and will do for Afghanistan what capitalism did for Europe. That bureaucracy is at one, at least for a whole historical period, with the collectivised means of production, which for that epoch of history are its means of production.

The implication is inescapable that Stalinism, which has a progressive role in the backward countries, has had a progressive role in Russia too. We have been through, and are still in, an epoch of progressive Stalinism. And it follows that the Stalinist states are stable class societies, whose ruling group is not a usurping bureaucracy in contradiction to the property relations but a historically legitimate ruling class, whose role in history is to develop the forces of production. Grant, in fact, like Isaac Deutscher, is a Shachtmanite (bureaucratic collectivist) disguised within the verbiage of Trotsky's theory, and placing a plus sign of appreciation against the new class society between capitalism and socialism while Shachtman placed a minus sign, calling it barbarism.

In that perspective, it is not clear why the working class political revolution against Stalinism in Russia should be on the order of the day now, or even on the agenda of the next epoch at all.


Finally, all arguments and details aside, there is the fall-back argument: if the Russians go, there will be a bloodbath. If the Russians stay there will be [and there is] a bloodbath. The argument is in fact thoroughly dishonest. It is also incomplete. The complete version would say, and not just imply - a bloodbath of PDP people and collaborators with the Russians.

Militant is not raising a humanitarian objection, but taking sides with the Russian army and its supporters. It is a variant of the idea that it is better if the Russians do what the PDP/Army aspirant bureaucrats could not do - subjugate the population and make a Stalinist revolution.

The first question to the hypocritical "humanitarians" is, how many of the Afghans will the Russians shoot? The second question is, why is such a brutal transformation by conquest necessary? Why should it not be what the majority of the peoples of Afghanistan want that occurs? Why can't this area wait until the majority of its own population decides to fight for social change, or until a socialist revolution in the advanced world makes it possible to attract its people to the work of transforming their own country? From the point of view of the international socialist revolution, there is no reason why not.

Fundamentally, however, it is impossible to work out a serious independent working class political assessment on the basis of yes or no to such gun-to-head questions as: do you want the right-wing Muslim reactionaries to triumph? (In Militant's case, anyway, the question is an afterthought to dress up and explain a decision to support the logic of their theorising. When they, initially, opted to bend to "working class opinion", it did not worry them at all).

In any situation where a large revolutionary working class movement does not exist, the gun-to-head appeal to responsibility, humanitarianism, and lesser evilism can almost always be counter-posed to an independent working class political assessment. In 1969 when the British Army was deployed to stop sectarian fighting in Derry and Belfast, enormous pressure was generated to support the use of the troops, or refrain from opposing their use, on the grounds that they had probably saved Catholic lives and that Catholics had welcomed them. A lot of socialists succumbed to the pressure. The IS (SWP) organisation did. The small minority at the September 1969 IS conference who resisted and called for opposition to the British imperialist troops were met with hysterical denunciation and slandered as "fascists" who "wanted a bloodbath". Yet it was those Marxists who refused to be panicked or to abandon their understanding of Britain's role in Ireland who had the better grasp of reality.

But then, Ted Grant might say, it was plainly a matter of a reactionary imperialist army. And in Afghanistan it is a matter of the thoroughly reactionary anti-working class army of the Russian bureaucracy.

If the Russians withdraw, it might well prove to be the case that the final result of the strange episode of the seizure of power by the putschist† PDP/Army bureaucratic revolutionaries would be a massacre of PDP supporters. That would be a tragedy. But it cannot follow that because of this Marxist socialists should abandon their programmatic opposition to the expansion of the area under Kremlin control. or should abandon the idea that the consolidation of a Stalinist regime in Afghanistan would be a defeat for the Afghan working class.

We cannot abandon independent working class politics for the lesser evil - for the PDP and the supporters of the Russians - in the situation which the putsch the policy of the PDP/Army and the Russian invasion has created for them. We are not, to quote Trotsky, the inspectors-general of history.

Political independence

The political independence of the working class and in this pioneering place the political independence of the Marxists, is the to-be-or-not-to-be question for socialism - independence from the bourgeoisie, from the labour bureaucracy and from the totalitarian state bureaucracies of the Stalinist states. This is the immediate political question for people who take Militant's pro-Stalinist line on Afghanistan for Marxism. While Militant is unlikely to influence events in Afghanistan it does influence people in Britain (and perhaps elsewhere). It influences them away from independent working-class politics and towards the role of cheerleaders for the "progressive" Stalinists in Afghanistan where it supports a Stalinist transformation, abandoning the very commitment to working class political independence as well as the Trotskyist programme.

Militant insists that the proper role for socialist militants is to line up firmly with one of the international blocs. It deplores the lack of class consciousness and failure to relate properly to the "major" contradiction to our time on the part of the British CP because it does not support the invasion. Militant even criticises the Tribunites, as we saw. for not basing themselves on the actual relations between the great powers.

Even the most wretched of the left reformist currents is too independent for "Labour's Marxist Voice".


I summarised above what Trotsky's attitude to the expansion of the Stalinist state actually was in 1939-40. This is a much mythologised episode, and many "Trotskyists" think Trotsky supported Stalin's expansion. (Walsh does, for example). Some think that Trotsky identified with the "revolution" in eastern Poland. Nothing of the sort.

During the Stalinist occupation of Poland and invasion of Finland in 1939-40, Trotsky argued that revolutionaries must recognise that the Russian Army was likely to stimulate revolutionary struggle which the Stalinists would use against the Polish and Finnish ruling class - and then strangle. Revolutionaries should support any such independent working class and poor peasant mobilisation, and align themselves with it. They should at the same time try to warn the workers and peasants against the Stalinist Russian state and all its instruments as deadly enemies. They should immediately fight for political independence from the StalinistsÂ… and prepare to fight them with guns.

It was a policy for the orientation of revolutionaries in a situation where (Trotsky assumed) the "Red" Army had still a revolutionary prestige and authority with the oppressed "Polish" Ukrainians, and others, where its call to seize land, etc., could be expected to evoke responses of a revolutionary sort. Nothing like that can be even imagined in Afghanistan now. The Russians have alienated even former supporters of the PDP.

And, as far as I know, Trotsky's assumptions about Eastern Poland and Finland were seriously mistaken. He was starved of concrete information). Even in 1939 the "Red" Army's power to rouse revolutionary action was minimal; its power to kill off Poles was much greater. Between one million and 1.5 m. Poles alone were deported to make Poland safe for Stalinism. (The Poles numbered five million out of 13 million in Eastern Poland, the rest being Ukrainians and White Russians. Trotsky partly acknowledged his misestimate (see In Defence of Marxism). And in any case, as we saw above, he did not hesitate to describe the fate of the people of East Poland, in so far as they were subjugated by the "Red" Army, as that of "the semi-slaves of Stalin". Where is the analogy with what Militant is supporting in Afghanistan? Militant is supporting the implied "promise" of nationalisations and agrarian reform to be carried out by a totalitarian state which has imposed itself by force, against the resistance of the people of Afghanistan. Where Militant part company with Marxism is clear at this point: they do not relate to the working class and its struggles and its interests [the struggle against repression, the struggle to secure the basis for its own free organisation - the sort of issue Marxists would relate to if they assumed, in an open, rational and demystified way, that a revolution was occurring but not a proletarian revolution]. The Stalinist 'revolution' will impose savagely oppressive regime, which will destroy and continually uproot any elements of a labour movement. To go from the clear and simple idea of 'defencism' - that the conquest of the Stalinist states by imperialism and their return to capitalism would be reactionary and should be opposed by socialists - to support for the conquest and hoped-for transformation of Afghanistan is to travel light-years away from revolutionary socialism. It is to take up residence on the grounds of Stalinism; to accommodate to the existing Stalinist bureaucracy with the "perspective" (i.e., passive hope) that after the totalitarian "stage" will come a better stage.


* As on Afghanistan, so in British politics where Militant see their role as that of making propaganda for their "perspectives" about how things will develop. Eschewing action and struggle, they mistake the role of passive commentators and would-be prophets for a proper work of proletarian militants.

† This, of course, is sloppy - not a putsch, but a coup. Since nothing is built on calling it putsch and not a coup, the sloppiness is of no political consequence.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.