Afghan skeletons

Afghanistan throws into sharp relief the failure of revolutionaries in Britain to resist the tidal wave of anti-communism unleashed by the Red Army’s intervention. Eddie Ford takes a critical look at the left’s record

The grim events in Afghanistan continue to develop. The medievalist Taliban is currently being forced to retreat in some parts of the country, its power base remaining in Kabul. It is quite possible that the Taliban’s grip might remain restricted to the capital city, and it is not beyond the bounds of likelihood that they might even be forced out of there by forces loyal to the former mujahedin government. Whatever happens, there can be no doubt that the victory of counterrevolutionary forces is total and complete. The 1978 Afghan revolution has been unfolded - with a vengeance.

This depressing outcome should make all the left re-examine back issues of their various newspapers, in order to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of their organisations’ theoretical and political framework. The Afghan question cruelly reveals that most of the left’s theoretical guns were, at best, inaccurate and faulty. At worse, they were downright treacherous and venal, desperately attempting to dress up anti-communism/counterrevolution in ‘left’ colours.

The second you open the cupboard door (almost any left cupboard door will do) you are nearly suffocated under the weight of chattering political skeletons - and simultaneously nauseated by the stench of narrow, bourgeois-inspired anti-Sovietism. Without doubt, the British left’s rampant anti-Sovietism - motivated primarily by an unwholesome desire to appear ‘respectable’ and a terror of being told, ‘Go back to Russia’ - saw it ineluctably drawn into the arms of imperialist-directed counterrevolution.

The most obvious and frankly stomach-churning example is the Socialist Workers Party. This is an organisation which has a consistent history of waving on Islamic counterrevolution - sometimes reluctantly, sometimes not so. Obscenely, when the Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan in February 1989, Socialist Worker could hardly contain its anti-Soviet glee: “The mujahedin victory will encourage the opponents of Russian rule everywhere in the USSR and Eastern Europe” (February 4 1989). Such a statement could easily be mistaken for a CIA communiqué.

Yes, we have to admit that the SWP was right on this one - who can deny that the mujahedin victory did inspire the forces of counterrevolution and anti-communism on a worldwide basis, not just in the USSR and Eastern Europe? We can guarantee that the CIA and those who eventually formed Taliban were very “encouraged” by the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Still, if your political world-view is informed by a near psychotic desire to be as ‘anti-Russian’ as possible, then it all makes perfect sense - and damn the consequences.

Which was exactly the attitude, of course, of Tony Cliff and his organisation. Shrugging casually, Cliff tells us in the same edition as above that an Islamic state in Afghanistan “would be both staunchly anti-imperialist and somewhere to the right of Khomeini’s Iran” (my emphasis). A curious definition of ‘anti-imperialist’. Then again, almost anything goes in the virtual reality world of the SWP. However, the SWP had covered its back on this one and had been supporting Khomeini’s Iran for many years prior to 1989.

If you do not believe me check out the December 1987 issue of Socialist Worker Review, where Phil -Marshall argued that the SWP is “with the Iranians - for defeat of the whole coalition of forces, including Iraq, that is ranged against them”.  He even went on to tell Iranian revolutionaries that they should not “call for the disruption of military supplies to the front. At the same time, they should call for a far more effective struggle against the US and its allies - a stand against imperialism based on the same workers’ power that rid Iran of the Shah, imperialism’s main ally in the Gulf region.” This is obviously ‘internationalism’ à la SWP, giving military advice to the mullahs and clerics in Iran.

The SWP was not alone when it came to ‘encouraging’ the Iranian mullahs and clerics - unfortunately. The Revolutionary Communist Party also weighed in behind its parent organisation, the SWP. In the pages of the long dead the next step the RCP also told us that we should be “backing Iran” against “imperialism” (ie, the US). It has to be said that the RCP was far more shifty and disingenuous than the SWP, never actually spelling out explicitly the logical consequences of such a line of argument.

The following formulation, placed in the context of a discussion on the nature of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime, provides us with a typical example of RCP doublethink: “Anything which tightens the grip of imperialism [ie, the United States - EF] over the Middle East will be to the disadvantage of the masses of the region. Thus we should defend the Iranians against all US or British aggression and interference” (July 8 1988, my emphasis). In other words, the RCP abandons the Iranian masses, loftily telling Iranian revolutionaries that they should be fighting for and alongside the Khomeini regime as it is the ‘lesser of two evils’. It is obvious to all that the RCP learnt its ‘internationalism’ at the SWP school.

This was reflected, of course, in its approaach to Afghanistan. Disgracefully, and utterly ludicrously, the next step tried to convince us that US imperialism wanted the Red Army to stay in Afghanistan. Why, you may ask. Simple, so they could lecture the world about the evils of “godless communism” and “Soviet expansionism”. If the Red Army got out, the naive RCP argued, then the US would be robbed of its “propaganda advantage” - to use the immortal words of the next step (February 26 1988). US imperialism, being stupid, would be unable to milk any “propaganda advantage” out of a mujahedin victory. Thus we were told: “The USA fears the consequences of a Soviet withdrawal. While Washington talks about peace, it uses the Afghanistan conflict to gain a foothold in Central Asia and to justify interventions in other third world hot spots. Moscow’s disastrous military adventure in Afghanistan has strengthened the forces of reaction in the region ... Only the independent struggles of workers and peasants can liberate the Afghan people” (Ibid). If RCP members ever bother to read through the back issues of Living Marxism and the next step they would blush with shame - then again, perhaps not ...

Believe it or not, there were some organisations whose Afghan record is even worse than the SWP or RCP in many respects. Socialist Organiser, now incorporated into Workers’ Liberty, was positively gruesome, driven into an anti-communist frenzy. It went so far as claim that “the Islamic militants are spurred on by an understandable thirst for revenge” (February 2 1989). How very understanding of them. No comfort, we imagine, to the god knows how many Afghan revolutionaries, progressives and young Soviet conscripts who suffered unimaginably painful deaths at the hands of mujahedin torturers and sadists.

Let it not be said that Socialist Organiser was shifty or evasive when it comes to Afghanistan. That would be gross libel. They were right out in the open, and backed the mujahedin from day one and right to the bitter end:

“The Muslim fighters’ conquest in a heroic battle waged by the people of Afghanistan - the people as they are, which is not what socialists would like them to be - to stop themselves being subdued by foreign invaders” (April 23 1992).

Workers Power wanted to have its cake and eat it - and then have it again and gobble it up once more for good measure. In other words, it flipped from one position to another, demonstrating its near breath-taking ability to hold several contradictory positions simultaneously. After flatly condemning the Soviet intervention in 1979, more as point of ‘principle’ than from any detailed Marxist critique of the motivation and actions of the Soviet bureaucracy, it went on to become an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan: “Soviet and Pakistani workers must organise internationalist aid, including military aid without strings, to those resisting the mujahedin” (February 1989).

However, as always with Workers Power, there is a catch. This “aid” must not go to those forces actually resisting the mujahedin - no, no, that would be far too simple. The February 1980 edition of Workers Power, quite fantastically, called for the “self-organisation of the Afghan proletariat and feudal elements to organise their own state power, independent of the Stalinists and the imperialists” - the “Stalinists” being the PDPA government and the Red Army, one can only assume. As to the identity of these “feudal elements” who are linked to the proletariat and battling imperialism, this regrettably remains a closely guarded secret. This displays Workers Power’s gift for lofty abstraction, if not fantasy, and convoluted mystification. Jacques Derrida would be kept busy for a lifetime if he decided to undergo a close textual analysis of Workers Power, abundant as it is with ‘epistemological gaps’, significant silences and oblique formulations.  

There were some on the left who did not capitulate wholesale to this revolting anti-Sovietism. A near honourable exception was Workers Vanguard, publication of the Spartacist League of the United States. The SL certainly stood up to the tidal wave of anti-Sovietism. But it paid a price for this orientation, which was to anchor itself in a fanatically rigid ‘pro-Sovietism’. This was encapsulated by its central slogan during the Afghan conflict - “Hail the Red Army!”

This ‘hardline’ position by SL ensured that it was never really able to understand the paradoxical nature of the Soviet intervention in 1979 - which was to extinguish the flame of the revolution while defending the husk that remained. The Soviet bureaucracy feared social revolution, especially one on its doorstep, far more than it welcomed one - yet it feared imperialist intervention and Islamic-inspired counterrevolution even more. This is how to understand the feints and manoeuvres of the Soviet bureaucracy and the Red Army.

This was not the message from Workers Vanguard, which reassured us that “to stabilise Afghanistan as a buffer state the Soviet forces would have had to destroy the mujahedin. And a prolonged Soviet occupation would open up the possibility of social revolution” (April 14 1989). This is to view the role of the Soviet Union/Red Army through  rose-tinted (‘orthodox’ Trotskyist) spectacles, and to downplay the criminal nature of the Red Army’s intervention - ie, the cynical murder of  Hafizullah Amin and 97 other PDPA government members, the leaders of the Afghan revolution.

Workers Vanguard preferred things to be a little bit neater though. For it, the Red Army “intervention opened the possibility of social liberation in this deeply backward country, as well as defending the Soviet degenerated workers’ state against imperialist encroachment on its southern flank” (Ibid). Yes, comrades, but it also opened the door to counterrevolution by its brutal annihilation of comrade Amin and the others: the first act the Soviet bureaucracy took in its ‘defence’ of the Afghan Revolution was to signal its death knell. It was not Soviet intervention that was the problem in and of itself - far from it. It was the manner in which the Red Army went in that needed to be condemned without hesitation.

This was the message of The Leninist, the precursor of the Weekly Worker, and its words stand up well:

“Without the existence of the Soviet Union the revolution in Afghanistan would either have never taken place or its life would be countable in months, if not weeks. This said, local dynamism is however essential, thus we consider the killings of Amin and 97 other PDPA leaders as representing the extinguishing of the flame of the revolution: this was not only a crime, but also deforms the development of the country” (Spring 1982).

All that said, we do not hesitate to say that SL stood head and shoulders above the rest of the left, when it came to swimming upstream against the anti-communist tidal wave that engulfed virtually every other organisation on the British revolutionary left.

The Red Army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was its final act of betrayal. But this does not detract one iota from the fact that it was better to have the Red Army defending the dried-out remnants of the 1978 Revolution, rather than not at all. 

All those leftwing groups who called for withdrawal are guilty of betraying the revolution. All those who regurgitated the transparent lies of ‘official communism’ are guilty of betraying the revolution. All those who “hailed the Red Army” helped weaken the fight against betrayal. We must all learn from our history, and be prepared to confront our inadequacies and failures. The task before us demands nothing less.