[Ted Grant] Afghanistan: Why the Russian bureaucracy invaded

Introduction by Alan Woods
London, 28th September, 2001

Ted Grant's article on the Russian invasion of Afghanistan has not been available for over twenty years. Its reprinting at the present time is most timely.

From the beginning, Ted's analysis of the Afghan revolution was scrupulously accurate and has stood the test of time. So accurate was it that some years ago, when I showed it to several of the Afghan army officers who led the uprising against Daoud in 1978, they told me that they found it hard to believe that it had not been written by an Afghan who had personally witnessed the events.

In the present article we find a scientific Marxist analysis of the class content of the 1978 revolution and its historical origins. In addition, we have an explanation for the principled position that we took with regard to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that occurred the following year.

Although the 1978 overturn took the form of a Bonapartist coup, carried out without the direct participation of the masses, it nevertheless had a relatively progressive content. The young left wing army officers who had been educated in the Soviet Union compared the extreme backwardness of their own country to the situation in places like Tashkent in Uzbekistan - a modern city with a strong industrial base, an educated population, schools, universities and hospitals of European standards - and drew the conclusion that the only way out of backwardness was through a nationalised planned economy.

The Afghan Stalinists who took power in 1978 did so without the knowledge or permission of the Moscow bureaucracy, which had excellent relations with the Daoud regime. Moscow wanted Afghanistan as a friendly buffer state and had no interest in changing the social relations there. They were even prepared to sacrifice the Afghan Communists to Daoud's executioners, if necessary in order to keep the status quo.

In my conversations with the army officers who led the coup, and later became ministers in the Kabul government, they confirmed all of this, and also explained that they had opposed the Russian invasion in 1979, which they consider to have been disastrous for the revolution.

In his article, Ted explains the concrete reasons why we did not support the invasion. This had nothing to do with the hypocritical reasons given by the imperialists, who, as Ted explains, have never hesitated to intervene in the affairs of other countries - as we see now again in Afghanistan.

Nor did we have the position taken by pseudo-Marxist sects like the SWP in Britain who shamefully supported the so-called mujaheedin in their war against the Kabul government, on the phoney excuse of supporting the "right to self-determination". As Ted points out in this article, these so-called mujaheedin "freedom fighters" (also backed by the CIA), were a gang of reactionary bandits based on the most reactionary sections of Afghan society: the feudal landlords, money-lenders, mullahs and lumpen proletarian riff-raff.

In the struggle between the Stalinist government in Kabul and these reactionary cut throats, there is no doubt which side we would support. Nor, in principle, could one reject the idea of aid from the USSR, if it had been requested, and if it was only a question of Afghanistan, taken in isolation.

But the Moscow bureaucracy invaded Afghanistan for its own selfish reasons, with no thought for the consequences for the working people of Afghanistan or on a world scale. It acted as an excuse for US imperialism to mobilise the reactionary forces of Islamic fundamentalism on a huge scale. The fatal effects of this are still being felt today. The end result was a disaster for both the Afghan revolution and the working class of the world.

Although the analysis in this article is both brilliant and penetrating, on one question it turned out to be mistaken. Ted believed that the Stalinists would eventually succeed in defeating the rebels. In fact, the Russians eventually abandoned Afghanistan to its fate in 1989, and in a couple of years Kabul fell to the mujaheedin, leading to an orgy of reaction which has lasted till now.

In fact, the real reason for the fall of Kabul was not the military superiority of the fundamentalists, but the fact that Moscow pulled the rug from under the feet of the Afghan Stalinists, cutting off military aid as part of a "compromise" deal with US imperialism, while Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - with the encouragement of Washington - carried on supplying the rebels.

If Moscow had had even half a correct policy, they could have won the war quite easily by carrying it into Pakistan, appealing to the oppressed nationalities: the Baluchis, Sindhis, Pashtoons, etc., to rise against their oppressors. But the conservative Russian bureaucracy had no interest in spreading the revolution to Pakistan, even on the basis of deformed workers' states. The result was defeat, collapse and humiliation.

The collapse of the USSR as a result of decades of Stalinist degeneration has transformed the situation not just in Afghanistan and Central Asia, but on a world scale. Today, the world can no longer ignore the barabarism that has been inflicted on Afghanistan because of the monstrous crimes of US imperialism and the Moscow bureaucracy. The bill for these crimes has now been delivered to New York and Washington, where, unfortunately, the price has had to be paid by thousands of innocent people.

What a condemnation of those so-called "Marxists" and "Lefts" who for years enthusiastically supported the Afghan "freedom fighters" and who must now hang their heads in shame! They would not want to reproduce today what they wrote then. By contrast, we are not ashamed to reprint anything we have written in the past. We are proud of our record as Marxists and class fighters.

Only a correct class position can guide us through the minefield that is the national question in the period of capitalist decay. The analysis made by Ted Grant of the Afghan events is an outstanding example of the Marxist class approach which fearlessly tells the working people what is. Only on that basis can we educate the advanced workers and youth and prepare them for the great events that impend.


Afghanistan: Why the Russian bureaucracy invaded

by Ted Grant, January 1980

In the international reaction to the events in Afghanistan can be seen the fundamental national antagonisms and class conflicts which affect the capitalist world. For the advanced workers in the world labour and socialist movements, it is vital to understand these things clearly, in order to answer the arguments of the capitalist politicians.

Before dealing with the issues of diplomacy and power politics, however, it is necessary briefly to outline the development of the revolution in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a mountainous country, where only a fifth of the land can be cultivated, and with only 20 million people in an area as big as France. Its strategic position made it prone to foreign invasion. In the second half of the 20th century it remained a largely feudal state. Nevertheless, this remote country wrapped in feudal chains and superstition, has inevitably come under the pressure of the modern world.

On the basis of the old feudal relations there was no possibility of going forward. About 97% of the women and 90% of the men are illiterate. About 5% of the landowners owned more than 50% of fertile land. There are no railways, and it is only in the last twenty years, with Russian assistance, that the country has acquired a road system.

Historically, Afghanistan was a buffer between Tsarist Russia and British imperialism. With the collapse of British power in the Indian subcontinent, the influence of imperialism was replaced by that of the Soviet bureaucracy.

First, the bureaucracy supported the monarchist regime, and then, when it was overthrown by Daoud, they supported his regime. With the chronic impasse of Afghanistan's social system the pressure of capitalism and Stalinism on its borders has inevitably had an enormous effect on the country.

In April 1978, conditions of mass misery and the corruption of the Daoud regime resulted in a proletarian Bonapartist coup. Proletarian Bonapartism is a system in which landlordism and capitalism have been abolished, but where power has not passed into the hands of the people, but is held by a one-party, military-police dictatorship. The coup was precipitated by Daoud's attempt to suppress all opposition. His overthrown regime had been a one-party feudal-bureaucratic regime. The country's small working class had no trade union organisations.

Had the revolution taken the healthy form of a movement of the masses themselves, the result would have been very different from what actually happened in Afghanistan. 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.

They organised the coup first of all as a preventative measure against attempts which were being prepared to exterminate them and their families. They acted from self-preservation, but also with the idea of bringing Afghanistan into the modern world. 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. At the same time, they announced the nationalisation of "anything worth nationalising".

Unlike the Ethiopian elite, however, they did not send thousands of students from one end of the country to the other, into every valley and mountain throughout Afghanistan, to explain the reforms.

Consequently, it was not clear to the mass of the peasantry what the benefits of the April revolution would be. A revolution in the classical sense begins with the masses at the bottom, and involves the majority of the population. But in this case, with the revolution beginning at the top, the town-based intellectuals at its head were isolated from the overwhelming majority of the population living in the countryside and the mountains.

Among the other reforms instigated was the abolition of the "bride price", the selling of women to prospective husbands for the benefit of the family, usually of the male head of the family. The programme for the abolition of illiteracy, moreover, involved women as well as men. This was fiercely resented by the backward and reactionary part of the population.

Using this, and the superstitions of the peasantry, mountain tribesmen, incited by Muslim reactionaries, mullahs, monarchists, landlords, and various riff-raff, began over a two-year period to organise a guerrilla war against the new regime in Kabul.

From time immemorial governments in Kabul had only a shaky hold over the mountain tribesmen. And this applied to the new, revolutionary government set up under Taraki. The rebellion was a motley upsurge of hundreds or even thousands of disunited tribesmen and groupings in different valleys and mountains. Many were bandits and criminals "out for loot".

Entirely lacking unison, even under the best conditions the rebels would have had difficulty in sustaining a national war against the Kabul regime. However, this disunited rabble, with hundreds of thousands taking refuge in Pakistan, was surreptitiously backed with money from Saudi Arabia, and with arms from Pakistan and to a certain extent from China.

The proletarian Bonapartist regime in China always seems to back the wrong horse, blinded by hatred of any extension of the influence of Russia's proletarian Bonapartism.Undoubtedly, the United States through the CIA also supplied money and arms to the rebels.

According to a decision of Afghanistan's revolutionary council taken in August 1978, they decided to "distribute among the peasants the land owned by the feudal lords", which constituted about 80% of the country's farmable area. On July 12 the council decided to cancel peasants' loans and mortgages and reduce officers' privileges in the armed forces. Babrak Karmal, then deputy prime minister - now president - told the Libyan prime minister on May 10, that, like the Libyan Revolution of September 1969, the Afghan Revolution also stemmed "from the two principles of Islam". "Nor had there ever been a party called Communist in AfghanistanÉ We make no secret of our commitment to oppressed peoples. The development last week rid Afghanistan of the aristocracyÉ There will be a programme of land reform, prices will be brought down; wages will go up, and there will also be a programme of nationalisation of anything that is worth nationalising."

Under the reform measures, land ownership was limited to six hectares or fifteen acres per family, or more in the case of poor quality land. The land in excess of the limits was distributed among the poor peasants. The government encouraged the private ownership of small and medium-sized undertakings both in agriculture and industry. But poor peasants lacking adequate farm implements were advised to form co-operatives.

As a direct consequence of the way in which the proletarian Bonapartist regime was instituted, it did not immediately gain the support of the tribesmen and peasants. The big and medium landowners took advantage of the backwardness of the tribesmen to incite them against the "godless", "communistic" regime in Kabul. This insurgency, in its turn, produced instability within the top ranks of the regime. President Taraki in effect exiled Babrak to Czechoslovakia as ambassador.

The "Communist" Party, calling itself the People's Democratic Party, was a fusion of two communist parties, the Khalq and the Parcham parties. The Parcham Party had split under Babrak Karmal from the Khalq in 1967, and later carried out Moscow's policy of support for president Daoud when he seized power in 1973. This was opposed by Taraki and Amin. This is how far the Russian bureaucracy was from supporting a socialist transformation of Afghanistan at that time! Later, the two factions unified and, under pressure from Moscow, Taraki began to oppose Amin's hard-line against the reactionary mullahs.

After a meeting with Brezhnev in Moscow, Taraki returned to Kabul with the intention of removing Amin. Amin, however, outmanoeuvred Moscow by having Taraki assassinated. But Amin still depended on Moscow, who were becoming more and more perturbed by his hard-line policies aimed at ending the guerrilla war in the mountains. His regime had firm control only in the large towns.

The Russians manoeuvred Amin to call for Russian troops under the terms of their joint friendship treaty. They brought the exiled Karmal back with their tanks; Karmal became president, and Amin was executed. But the intervention shook the Afghan army whose morale had been undermined by repeated purges.

The Russians wanted - and still want - a regime which compromises with the mullahs in order to establish a firm foundation for itself. The Russian bureaucracy intervened directly because they 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 bordering on the Soviet Union. The Kremlin bureaucrats fear that a reactionary ferment in Afghanistan will spill over and affect the Muslim population in the neighbouring regions of Russia. Muslims make up about a quarter of the Soviet Union's population.

Thus the Russian bureaucracy, not only because of Afghanistan's strategic position, but for reasons of their own power and prestige, found themselves compelled to intervene. Such intervention has nothing in common with the policies of Bolshevism in the past. The intervention of Russia in its turn has become a major international question. The press, radio and television of the world are filled with indignant denunciations of Russian aggression. This propaganda campaign against intervention in other people's affairs is completely hypocritical.

When one considers the recent period, let alone the pre-war and post-war crimes of imperialism, and especially the United States' intervention in Vietnam and against other movements to overthrow landlord-capitalist domination, it is clear just how hypocritical all the indignation is, particularly that of the American ruling class. Not a word of caution even was spoken against the intervention of France in Zaire, in Chad and in other African countries. Nor was Belgium reprimanded for her paratrooping incursion into Zaire. Threats of breaking off commercial relations were not made against them. In the recent period, South African troops were used in Angola at the direct instigation of American imperialism. At present, South African troops remain in Rhodesia to be used against Patriotic Front guerrillas, if necessary. Yet there has been no protest, no demand that the "Commonwealth" "peace-keeping" forces insist on the withdrawal of South African personnel. The blood-stained imperialist powers, with their blatant double standards, are the last people to have the possibility of appealing to the peoples of the world on a "moral" basis.

The measures which have been taken by American imperialism are class measures. The breaking off of trade, the refusal to ship grain and so on, means reprisals against the Russian people and will have little effect on the bureaucratic rulers of Russia. American imperialism has taken these spiteful measures not because of the totalitarian bureaucracy, but in spite of the them. They are attempting to hit at Russia because of the class character of the Soviet Union, where landlordism and capitalism have been eliminated.

In the light of this, we have the curious position of the Communist Parties. On the one hand, they try to distance themselves from the Russian bureaucracy because of the totalitarian nature of the regime. On the other hand, they continue to declare that this regime is "socialist". The Italian and Spanish Communist Parties have condemned the Russian intervention in Afghanistan, while the French Communist Party has taken an ambiguous position. Instead of viewing the process from the point of view of the class struggle internationally and the class relations within the nations, the Communist Party and the Tribunites [editor's note: the left-wing of the British Labour Party] have adopted a position of abstract "principles". "No aggression between peoples", support for the United Nations, and so on. They have condemned the Russian intervention without explaining it in any way. Their attitude is that such an intervention is not nice! They take a pious, sentimental, middle-class point of view: a "socialist" country should not behave like this.

In reality, this is the other side of the policy of "socialism in one country". In its early years, the Russian bureaucracy argued against Trotsky when he said that the Red Army could be used for the purposes of the international socialist revolution. Yet now we have the grossly bureaucratic use of the Red Army without the support of the workers and without supporting a movement towards socialist revolution taking place clearly in the view of the world working class.

The Russian Stalinists are indifferent to the opinions of the working class. The capitalists are too, but they try to hoodwink the workers. Marxists can be effective in gaining the conscious support of the workers of the world only by telling the truth at all times. That was the way the Russian state conducted itself under Lenin and Trotsky. They based themselves on propaganda and actions which would raise the level of consciousness of the working class internationally. They stood for the real self-determination of peoples. Anything which acted to raise the class consciousness of the working class was justified; anything which had the opposite effect was to be condemned. That is the criterion which has to be used; anything which increases the internationalism and the powers of the working class must be supported by the advanced workers; anything which results in a lowering of class consciousness and exacerbates national divisions must be condemned.

The class struggle doesn't have to stop at the narrow level of the frontiers. In France in 1968, we had the instinctive solidarity of the international working class with the French workers. The German, Italian, Dutch, Belgian and other workers on the frontiers of France refused to blackleg on their French brothers and sisters. They were prepared to render assistance to the class struggle in France. Transport workers, airport workers, railway workers - every section of the working class was instinctively prepared to give solidarity, and it is on this that the international movement of the working class should be based.

On the other hand, Trotsky explained in the period of the rise of Hitler, that the Red Army should be mobilised and should even be used to give assistance if requested by the working class of Germany, to prevent Hitler from taking power. But this presupposed a correct policy in Germany itself.

If the Communist Party had offered a united front to the Social Democrats, Hitler would have been prevented from coming to power. It would probably not have been necessary to use the Red Army. Nevertheless, the Red Army could have been mobilised to give assistance to the German workers in the face of possible intervention on the part of British and French capitalism. It could then have been used to supplement, not to replace, the socialist revolution in Germany itself. Had these policies been followed, the world working class would have been spared the nightmare and suffering of totalitarian Hitlerism and the bloodbath of the second world war in which many millions died.

The problems of the class struggle are not solved by nice, "moral" behaviour on the part of the powers. It is a class question and a social question. What should determine the policy and attitude of socialists are the class interests of the workers as opposed to those of the capitalists. What determines the policy of the capitalist nations is profits, power, privilege, prestige and the demarcation of spheres of influence in the neo-colonial domination of the world, particularly the under-developed countries. That is the naked ideology of capitalism. They try to disguise this with all sorts of subterfuges and moralising, but in reality that is what determines the policy of capitalist Britain, America, France, Japan, Germany and the others.

On the other hand, the policies of the Russian, Chinese and other proletarian Bonapartist regimes are determined not by the interests of the world working class, not by their "socialism", but by the income, power, prestige and privileges of the bureaucratic caste which usurped power in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, because of the different social basis of these regimes, the capitalist powers support every rotting, obscurantist, reactionary semi-feudal landlord-capitalist regime, as in Vietnam. The Russian leaders, on the other hand, support the revolution in backward countries when it takes place in the distorted form of proletarian Bonapartism, and support such movements only when they consider they will further their own interests.

Probably, Moscow was taken by surprise by the insurrection of the army, a middle-class elite, and of the Communist Party in Afghanistan. Once it had taken place, they set out to take advantage of it and supported it. But it is not certain that they knew a coup d'etat was going to take place in April 1978.

However, whereas they can lean on distorted revolutions in backward countries, they cannot allow themselves this luxury as far as the advanced countries are concerned. They are opposed to a socialist transformation in advanced countries, as this would threaten their rule in Russia. The establishment of a democratic socialist regime in any major advanced country in the world would immediately threaten the foundations of the bureaucratic misrule in Russia, China and in other Stalinist states. In the backward countries, however, where the abolition of feudalism and capitalism has led to the installation of a bureaucratic elite on the model of Stalinist Russia and China, they can give support. Nevertheless, the ending of feudalism and capitalism in a country like Afghanistan opens the way to bringing this archaic society into the 20th century, and is therefore a progressive development.

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 world working class, which is a thousand times more important than the developments in a small country like Afghanistan then Marxists must oppose the Russian intervention. The over-riding danger under contemporary conditions is the alienation of the workers of Japan, Western Europe, USA and other advanced countries from the ideas of socialism and socialist revolution. This is shown by the attitude taken by the Tribunites. Like the Communist Party, they unfortunately base themselves, not on the real movement of the class struggle and on the actual relations between the great powers, but, on the contrary, rely on abstract "moral" condemnations.

For them, frontiers which have been established over the last two centuries are sacrosanct. In the case of Afghanistan, they are satisfied, then with frontiers which cut the nationalities in half, dividing them between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other neighbouring countries.

They appeal to the United Nations as a means of resolving these problems, yet the complete impotence of the United Nations, like the earlier League of Nations, has been amply demonstrated by its failure to prevent a single war since 1945, and such conflicts have claimed 25 million lives since 1950.

The impotence of the United Nations is also demonstrated by its inability to halt the monstrous armaments race. At least $250,000 million is now wasted on military spending every year, money which, if it were used in a constructive way, could easily transform the world. But of course, these 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 hand. The Russian intervention in Afghanistan must be condemned, despite its progressive aspects, because it is spitting at the opinions of the world working class. Robespierre long ago declared that "missionaries with bayonets" are never popular.

But the demand by the imperialist powers, supported by the Communist Party and the Tribune group, for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan is utopian. Russia, of course, has vetoed this demand in the UN Security Council.

The demand for American withdrawal from Vietnam succeeded only because of the pressure of the American people and the US soldiers disgusted by the dirty war. But the reactionary class nature of the opposition in Afghanistan means that it will not succeed in pushing out Russian forces.

If the revolution in Afghanistan had a classical character on the lines of the October 1917 revolution in Russia, then far from intervention, the Russian bureaucracy would now be having difficulty in maintaining their power even in Russia itself.

The United Nations is merely a forum for the airing of arguments between the powers and the settling of secondary disputes. No major issue can be solved, especially as the veto has been built in, so the superpowers can veto any resolution brought before the security council, thus paralysing this body on any issue which touches their vital interests. Thus the solution to national antagonisms, the problems of arms, the solution of the problem of war, can only be achieved by the overthrow of capitalism and Stalinism, and through the institution of a Democratic Socialist Federation of the United States of Europe and of the World. This is the only final solution to world problems and world diplomacy.

The so-called "practical" politicians who try to steer away from reality with resolutions of moral condemnation are utopian. They wishfully hope that the tiger of capitalism and the tiger of bureaucracy will become vegetarians, and eat grass together. Unfortunately, however, the lion does not lie down with the lamb - but consumes it.

The antagonisms and contradictions that have been building up during the course of the last 50 years can be overcome only through the democratic control of the working class - not only on a national, but on an international scale.

However, because of the progressive steps for the elimination of landlordism and Afghanistan's nascent capitalism, the imperialists will not achieve what they are hoping for. Undoubtedly, America, Pakistan and China, will supply arms and money to the rebels, but there will not be an Afghan "Vietnam" for Russia, as the American imperialists hope. 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.

In Vietnam, the American imperialists leaned on the corrupt landlords, the military, and the capitalists, while they were opposed by the majority of the population in Vietnam. In Afghanistan, as the truth dawns on the people - as the poor peasants and the minority peoples find that they will benefit from the social changes - the new regime, despite the national question, will be able to consolidate itself.

US imperialism, despite being the greatest military and industrial power in the world, was defeated by barefoot, ragged peasants in Vietnam because of the class question, because of the national and social oppression, and because it was clear that America was an alien oppressor. In Afghanistan however, once the counter-revolution has been defeated most of the Russian troops will be withdrawn.

The malicious wish of the imperialists for a long and disastrous war is misplaced, for social reasons. The Bonapartist regime and the Russians will find a way of compromising with the mullahs.

American imperialism backs everything that is reactionary in the world. Now they are reinforcing their support for General Zia in Pakistan. Such measures will inevitably boomerang on the Americans.

The American trade reprisals may result in the Russians deciding to back the Baluchis and the Pathans in Pakistan. They could speed up the disintegration of Pakistan, and perhaps fulfil an old dream of Tsarist diplomacy: a warm water port.

Behind the scenes, Russian diplomacy will warn the Americans not to prolong the withholding of grain, technology, and credits. They will warn that they may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb, and therefore would have nothing more to lose by intervention in Pakistan, especially as Zia, with the encouragement and assistance of the US and China, is assisting the rebels in Afghanistan.

Before things go that far, however, it is likely in the not too distant future that there will be a compromise between the United States and the bureaucracy.

The Chinese bureaucracy has condemned the Russian movement into Afghanistan, although they proceeded on exactly the same lines in Tibet when they conquered the country and crushed a counter-revolutionary revolt.

It is noteworthy that the takeover of Tibet by the Chinese Red Army received nothing like the present condemnation or indignation from the capitalists, because events in that remote area of Asia hardly affected them.

China's intervention did, however, lead to a war between India and China. But the imperialists adopted a fairly neutral stand, and no measures were taken against China or India. Nor were there reprisals against India when its army intervened in Bangladesh to help the Bangladeshi people's struggle against the oppression of Pakistan. Active workers in the labour and trade union movement must take a stand on the basis of a Marxist class analysis. This is the only way to cut through the hypocrisy and hysterical propaganda from the capitalist class and its venal media. Marxist analysis gives us an understanding of national and international problems. It is a weapon in the struggle to transform society in the interests of the working class.

Only by analysing the class interests that lay behind the international clashes and contradictions is it possible to understand the modern world and prepare the working class for the necessary transformation of society.

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