Afghanistan and the sectarian turn of the AWL

Jack Conrad takes a look at the Saur revolution and Workers' Liberty's continuing anti-unity campaign

Once again Sean Matgamna - the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s patriarch - and myself are set to debate Afghanistan. The occasion is the AWL’s ‘Ideas for freedom’ school in London this weekend. If past exchanges are anything to go by, I know just what to expect. Comrade Matgamna will use our real and not insignificant differences over Afghanistan and the April 1978 revolution as an opportunity to foster the maximum disunity between the AWL and the CPGB.

A retrograde development. Not so long ago comrade Matgamna was prepared to admit that our divergent opinions were containable within a single democratic centralist organisation. Now he says we “cannot unite” because of issues such as Afghanistan (Weekly Worker May 29).

Even if the January 1999 call in Workers’ Liberty for “unity in action, dialogue where there are differences” was a cynical factional ploy by a disorientated group, the recent turn towards courting martyrdom and institutionalising sectarianism is to be very much regretted. The atmosphere surrounding debates is poisoned and the left’s culture further degraded. Hence, instead of giving our disputes, such as over Afghanistan, their proper weight and calmly arguing them through, what we have witnessed, particularly over the last year, is a full-blown anti-unity offensive and an accompanying demonisation of the CPGB as “muggers”, “Stalinists” and “crazies”.

Anyway, let us revisit the arguments over Afghanistan. Comrade Matgamna characterises the overthrow of Mohammed Daoud’s republican-royal regime by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan as a “Stalinist military coup”, which brought upon the heads of the masses nothing but decades of terrible suffering. Exactly the same message pushed by the White House, CIA, BBC, Hollywood action films, The Sun and the whole well oiled imperialist propaganda machine. Certainly after the full-scale intervention by the Soviet Union in December 1979 Socialist Organiser - precursor of the AWL - proudly sided with the mujahedin against Soviet “expansionism” and its “puppet” government in Kabul in a sad parody of the paid persuaders of the bourgeoisie. A prominent AWL leader even referred to the mujahedin as being “our kind of people” during a debate with me in Lambeth town hall.

The AWL claims an almost unique commitment to ‘third camp’ Marxism - increasingly the rest of the left is pooh-poohed as “fake”. However, the fact of the matter is that Soviet phobia has driven many of the AWL comrades into a worrying softness towards the ‘first camp’ - note the AWL’s stance on the rightwing witch hunt against George Galloway, the IRA’s guerrilla war against Britain, involuntary Bosnian unity, support for imperialism’s road map in the Middle East, the claim to be “a little bit Zionist”, etc. As with Max Shachtman, comrade Matgamna’s mentor, there is a real and present danger of a complete flip to the other side. Tragically Shachtman ended his life as a revolutionary backing the CIA-directed Bay of Pigs landing by Miami-based Cuban contras.

Comrade Matgamna’s contempt for the April 1978 revolution and support for the US-Saudi-funded mujahedin stems from a combination of Eurocentrism and Soviet phobia. Nevertheless the AWL sided with the PDPA government after Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the humiliating withdrawal of Soviet armed forces in 1988 (completed in the spring of 1989). Here is a paradoxical circle of comrade Matgamna’s own making, which he still has to square. After all, the comrade says that you cannot at the same time be a democrat and “support the Afghan Stalinist coup of 1978”, let alone “describe it as a real revolution!” (all quotes unless otherwise stated from S Matgamna, ‘Critical notes on the CPGB/WW’).

Things develop according to their own logic and from themselves. That is ABC for materialists. So was the PDPA regime of Mohammed Najibullah a direct, albeit degenerate, continuation of the April 1978 revolution? The only honest answer must be ‘yes’. Communists - authentic communists, that is - supported the PDPA under Najibullah on the basis that in some way, no matter how hamfistedly and contradictorily, it defended certain social gains and progressive principles. Gains and principles originally ushered in, or advanced, by the government headed by Noor Mohammed Tarakki after the April 1978 revolution.

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

What was April?

So what about Afghanistan? Fantastically the AWL says that by designating the April 1978 revolution a revolution and not a mere coup we equate it with the October revolution of 1917. Comrade Martin Thomas - the other half of the AWL duumvirate - claims that on such a basis the CPGB believes that the 20th century witnessed only two revolutions. Such absurd notions are easy to mock. And, of course, AWL polemicists have proceeded to do just that. A small problem. Our actual position is a world away from the AWL’s caricature.

The CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee, and before it The Leninist faction of the CPGB, has always taken it as axiomatic that, when it comes to backward countries in the muslim world, we oppose reactionary anti-imperialisms which in actual fact promote the interests of traditional landowners, village warlords and would-be theocrats. Lenin was certainly right in his 1920 draft thesis on the colonial question, when he insisted that communists must “combat pan-islamism” and fake anti-imperialist movements which actually “strengthen the position of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc” (VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, p149).

The mujahedin groups in the 1980s fit this category as into a glove, as do the Taliban in the 1990s. Comrade Matgamna has no love for the Taliban and was right, like us, to lambast the Socialist Worker Party’s miserable Taliban apologetics when they first defied and then fought the full might of the US armed forces in 2001. But he maintains a parallel can be drawn between his “support” for the “peoples of Afghanistan, led by various mujahedin groups” against Russian “colonial conquest” and the Communist International’s support of Afghanistan against “British invasion in 1919” (he also cites the so-called Fourth International’s support for “very backward feudal Ethiopia against Italian invasion in 1935” - but we shall leave aside that old chestnut).

According to comrade Matgamna, the difference between the USSR and the USA was that the former wanted to conquer Afghanistan, while the latter did not. But what of his supposed parallel between the Soviet Union’s attempted “colonial conquest” in the 1980s and British imperialism in 1919? Frankly the parallel completely misses the mark.

In 1919 the Soviet government expressed its solidarity with what the respected historian, EH Carr, calls the “young and would-be progressive amir”, Amanullah Khan. He came to the throne as a “result of a palace revolution” and had then “denounced” the onerous treaty obligations imposed upon him by the British empire. What followed was known as the ‘third Afghan war’. This, the Afghan “national movement” headed by Amanullah, was “comparable”, though more primitive than the Persian revolution of 1906 and the ‘Young Turk’ revolution of 1908, and owed its “inspiration” to the Bolshevik revolution in the same “indirect way” in which those movements had owed it to the 1905 Russian Revolution (EH Carr The Bolshevik Revolution Vol 3, Harmondsworth 1977, p239).

In 1919 the Communist International supported a crowned revolutionary who advocated and put into practice a raft of progressive measures - in 1925 Amanullah “first began to introduce a civil legal code” which partially eclipsed the “deeply rooted” sharia law in terms of legal process (A Rashid Taliban London 2001, p83). In the 1980s comrade Matgamna supported forces whom he readily admits “were on almost all issues ultra-reactionary”. No prizes for spotting the difference.

Comrade Matgamna’s willingness to back mujahedin forces who “were on almost all issues ultra-reactionary” corresponds to his inability and unwillingness to admit that in April 1978 the PDPA carried out a revolution and that what Soviet forces launched in December 1979 was not so much an invasion designed to colonise the country and grab its raw materials, but rather a blundering, conservative intervention in what was an ongoing civil war.

In the aftermath of Vietnam comrade Matgamna reckons that the Soviet Union embarked on a strategy of imperial expansion - besides Afghanistan, other colonial gains are supposed to include Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, South Yemen, Ethiopia and Nicaragua. Again and again we find him repeating almost unquestioningly propaganda pushed by the CIA in the 1980s. He darkly suggests that “maybe” the KGB triggered the April revolution (Workers’ Liberty Vol 2, No2, nd, p45). This despite all the generally accepted evidence that the uprising took the Soviet Union entirely by surprise and did not accord to its likings.

Yet in none of the cases cited above did the Soviet Union initiate what was in my opinion progressive and supportable overthrows of old regimes: ie, Portuguese and British empire colonialism, the Somoza dictatorship, and the Haile Selassie autocracy. True, petty bourgeois-led movements such as the Socialist Party of Yemen, the Sandinistas, Frelimo, the MPLA and the Derg were ideologically inclined towards the Soviet camp. However, they were the product of prolonged internal struggles and developments and exercised varying degrees of independence.

Brezhnev did not send the Soviet army into Afghanistan in order to extend the imperium, as claimed by the CIA and other cold war warriors. The move was defensive. In his report to the 26th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Brezhnev complains that western imperialism had launched an “undeclared war” against the Afghan revolution. He adds that this “also created a direct threat to the security of our southern frontier”, which “compelled” the Soviet Union to “render the military aid asked for by that friendly country” (LI Brezhnev Report of the central committee Moscow 1981, p22).

The Soviet Union was inherently an unstable social formation riven with many national antagonisms. Doubtless that is why Hillel Ticktin offered the opinion that the Soviet Union acted in Afghanistan to stave off the “danger of breaking up” (Critique No12, autumn-winter 1979-80, p25). With the ousting of the shah in Iran and the imam’s counterrevolution, the dissatisfied southern republics in the Soviet Union could go the same way if things went badly in Afghanistan.

How did we assess Brezhnev’s move? In 1988 Jack Conrad wrote of the Soviet Union behaving as a “great power bully”. Its action “hardly strengthened the confidence of, and support for, the revolution”. Soviet aid was vital if the revolution “was to survive”. Yet in saving the revolution it extinguished the revolution. We were against any offloading or trading of revolutions such as Afghanistan and Nicaragua in order to appease imperialism. In Afghanistan that could “only” mean the “collapse of the government in Kabul, the reverse of the gains of the April 1978 revolution (not least the ending of the enslavement of women) and the wholesale massacre of the PDPA’s membership” (J Conrad From October to August London 1992, pp123-24). Admittedly a common premonition - what comrade Matgamna calls the majority of “orthodox” Trotskyite groups shared the same anxieties (Workers’ Liberty Vol 2, No2, nd, p86).

Over a decade later we again wrote that Soviet aid “saved the revolution in Afghanistan for a time - but in a thoroughly counterrevolutionary way”. Hafizullah Amin - the effective organiser of the April 1978 revolution - and 97 other leaders of Khalq wing of the PDPA were summarily butchered. Ridiculously, after their deaths they were charged with being CIA agents - a slander mindlessly repeated by the ‘official communist’ press in Britain, including the Morning Star. Already surrounded by a reactionary Vendée in the countryside, from then on the revolution “endlessly retreated” till its final demise in 1992 (Weekly Worker November 15 2001).

Counterrevolution is always and can only but be the product of revolution that either has failed or which for one reason or another stops short. Afghanistan is no exception. The April 1978 revolution produced and met its counterrevolutionary nemesis. Only by grasping that elementary proposition can one get correct programmatic bearings and understand why the Najibullah regime could survive the withdrawal of Soviet forces for three years and was then replaced by a chilling barbarism which culminated in the 1996-2001 rule of the Taliban.

In many respects, yes, the 1978 Afghan revolution echoed the Persian revolution of 1906 and the ‘Young Turk’ revolution of 1908. However, it owed its “inspiration” not to the 1917 October revolution, but directly to the post-1928 Soviet Union. The PDPA sought therefore to follow a path already trodden by Yugoslavia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, etc. In other words an Afghan version of Soviet bureaucratic socialism. Under different, more benign historical circumstances Afghanistan might have settled into becoming another Mongolia. But the Soviet Union was already living on borrowed time. As a freak society, an ectopic social formation, it had already reached its close.

The 1978 revolution was carried out from above. Of that there can be no doubt. But that can also be said of many revolutions in the 20th century. Eg, Egypt and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s free officers’ movement of July 1952, which forced king Farouk to abdicate, and Abdul Kassem’s overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in July 1958. Even comrade Matgamna occasionally admits that the Afghan revolution was “a political revolution” (Workers’ Liberty Vol 2, No2, nd, p47 - no inverted commas in original).

Yet the 1978 revolution was not led by a small military group or clique. Nor was it the final, decisive blow delivered by a party-army, along the lines of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China-Peoples Liberation Army or Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Party of Indo-China-Vietminh. The PDPA was a predominately civilian party, illegally organising secret cells inside the armed forces of the existing state, which it then managed to decisively split. So was Afghanistan’s revolution a mere coup - a conspiracy hatched within the state machine which lacked popular support or sympathy and only altered things at the top of society?

Lenin’s lessons

Lenin’s discussion of the Irish rebellion - under the military command of James Connolly, but politically dominated by nationalists - in 1916 is instructive here. Against the Sean Matgamnas and Martin Thomases of his day - the leftist pedants and doctrinaires who dismissed the 1916 rising as the last song of Irish nationalism and nothing more than a “putsch” (ie, the German word for a coup) which “had not much social backing” - Lenin warned against “treating the national movements of small nations with disdain” (VI Lenin CW Vol 22, Moscow 1977, p355). It was not only Karl Radek and Leon Trotsky who looked down their noses at the Dublin uprising, but representatives of the imperialist bourgeoisie. Lenin urged these comrades to open their eyes to the shocking, “accidental” coincidence of opinion - comrades Matgamna and Thomas please take note.

What of the term “putsch” - or “coup”, to use French-English? For Lenin the term “may be employed only when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses”. The Irish national liberation movement did not come out of thin air. It had manifested itself in street fighting conducted by the petty bourgeoisie and a section of the working class after “a long period” of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers, etc. Hence for Lenin anyone who calls the Dublin uprising a “putsch” is either a “hardened reactionary” or a “doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon” (ibid).

Lenin famously rounded upon his leftist doctrinaires as follows: “To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outburst by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletariat and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc, - to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution .... Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is” (ibid pp355-56).

There will be localised general strikes and risings, army mutinies, premature and isolated revolutionary movements, etc. Of course, the petty bourgeoisie and non-socialist masses inevitably bring with them all “their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors”. However the task of the advanced section of the working class - the Marxists, the communists - is not to belittle the efforts of the petty bourgeoisie in the backward countries, but to critically defend them, to side with them and to extend efforts to lead and influence them.

Poor Afghanistan

The conditions which eventually produced the 1978 revolution in Afghanistan date back to at least the mid-1960s and the failures of the Zahir Shah monarchy to carry through the modernisation of the country. Neither healthcare nor education existed for the mass of the population. Over 90% were illiterate. The UN credited Afghanistan with being one of the poorest 20 countries in the world.

Afghanistan was an example of the Asiatic mode of production with a tincture of industrial capitalism sponsored from above by a weak state. Actually capitalist - or any kind of industrial - development barely existed. Before the revolution there were only some 100,000 workers in what could be called modern industry. Another 300,000 laboured in small-scale workshops and artisanal enterprises. However, the overwhelming majority of the population lived in the countryside. Agriculture remained woefully primitive and rural society viciously unequal. Forty percent of the irrigated land was in the hands of 4% of the population. Employing 85% of the workforce, agriculture accounted for only 5.9% of total output.

Nevertheless the economic and educational development that took place, in particular since World War II, created an alienated urban intelligentsia and a small but militant working class, around which much wider forces could be rallied. Factories were established and schools promoted, including a much expanded Kabul university.

Between 1953 and 1963 Afghanistan suffered a whole period of oppression. Yet discontent could not be bottled up indefinitely and in the mid-1960s the monarchy was forced to grant one concession after another. In 1964 some limited democratic rights were officially recognised and an electoral system was introduced. In the countryside the traditional rulers could often fix the ballot and force unwanted candidates to stand down. That was even true for the smaller towns and some of the cities. The exception was Kabul, the capital. Here alone there was something approaching political liberty.

Under these harsh but promising conditions the PDPA was founded - in 1965 - under the overall leadership of Tarakki. The party gained four MPs in the elections of that year. Mass demonstrations were called by the PDPA to mark their triumphant entry into parliament - the government killed three of the demonstrators. In the annals of the PDPA this was a highly symbolic event marked every year thereafter by mass demonstrations and meetings.

The SWP’s Jonathan Neale describes the PDPA communists as “brave men and women” who were the “flower of their generation” (International Socialism No93, December 2001, p34). He recalls how as a research student in 1971 he stood on a street in Lashkargah, in the south, and watched a demonstration of pro-communist school students. They called for the death of the hated landlords, a modern developed economy and an end to corruption.

Yet while the PDPA could build support in village schools, the khans, the landlords, would frighten the poor peasants, sharecroppers, who might be tempted to join the communists. They were godless and anti-muslim. Failing that, anyone who dared promote the politics of the PDPA in the countryside “could easily die for speaking out of turn” (ibid). It is therefore quite remarkable that one of the PDPA’s leaders, Babrak Karmal, managed to get himself elected as the MP for a rural constituency.

The PDPA was deeply divided factionally between the right wing around Karmal and the left wing around Tarakki and Amin. In 1966 the PDPA issued the first edition of its paper Khalq (masses). After six issues the government banned it. In contrast, when Karmal published his paper Parcham (flag) as a legal organ, it was allowed to continue without let or hindrance. Whereas Khalq opposed and criticised the monarchy, Parcham was supportive. The monarchy pursued a policy of close friendship with the Soviet Union and willingly accepted aid and grants from Moscow, just as it did aid and grants from Washington.

Between 1964 and 1973 the growing mood of anger gave birth to organised movements amongst the workers, students and peasants. In 1965 there were student boycotts of classes and strikes in the mining and electrical industries. Even comrade Matgamna concedes that in 1971-72 “the PDPA led a wave of strikes” (Workers’ Liberty Vol 2, No2, nd, p42). In Paghman a peasant movement began to demand land redistribution. All in all many thousands were arrested and scores killed. Unrest also began to manifest itself in the army.

Things came to a head in 1973. There were, admits comrade Matgamna, “conditions for revolution” in “urban Afghanistan” (Workers’ Liberty Vol 2, No2, nd, p42 - my emphasis). He is correct. The rulers could not rule in the old way and the ruled in the cities, especially Kabul, refused to be ruled in the old way. The result was a pre-emptive army coup led by Daoud - former prime minister and a member of the royal family. Daoud came to power with the active help of the Parcham wing of the PDPA, which was rewarded with ministerial positions. Nevertheless, though Daoud came forth with a stream of worthy promises, his regime did hardly anything to resolve the underlying discontent and the social malaise affecting Afghan society.

Daoud pledged to reform agriculture and redistribute land. Nothing was done. Indeed Daoud quickly turned to the same oppressive measures witnessed under the monarchy. Strikes were banned, and progressives and revolutionaries gunned down. Parcham was eased aside and, much to the chagrin of not only the PDPA but wide layers within the intelligentsia and lower elements of the state bureaucracy, he began to distance himself and his regime from the Soviet Union. Conditions for a revolution began to mature once again.

Khalq significantly outgrew Parcham in terms of membership. The ratio was in all probability five to one in favour of Khalq. Nevertheless when the party was formally reunited in July 1977 there was a 50-50 division of the central committee. Hard membership figures are impossible to come by. True to form, comrade Matgamna writes of an 8,000 total for both factions as the “highest PDPA claim”, but guesses that “the real figure” before the revolution “may have been half of that” (Workers’ Liberty Vol 2, No2, nd, p49).

This is not right. I make no pretence to know what exactly the membership of the semi-legal PDPA was. Nonetheless a 1979 issue of World Marxist Review - a thoroughly turgid journal of what was then the ‘official’ world communist movement - carried an article by a certain comrade Zeray. Here we read of the PDPA boasting as follows: “We have worked actively amongst the people for 13-14 years, we have led the popular movement. Before the revolution our party was a significant force with 50,000 members and close sympathisers, and this frightened the regime” (World Marxist Review January 1979, p76).


The spark for the April revolution came with the state assassination of Mir Akbar Khyber, a university professor and former editor of Parcham. Comrade Matgamna, taking his cue from the CIA, blames the killing upon the Khalq wing. Others claim he was popular with both factions of the PDPA. Either way, his death did not lead to factional war, but “massive demonstrations” against the government (B Szajkowski The establishment of Marxist regimes London 1982, p125). Perhaps the masses knew more about the Afghan government than comrade Matgamna. In terms of Kabul’s political life the demonstration was huge. Some sources write of 50,000, others of 15,000, comrade Matgamna a much more modest 10,000. The size and militancy of Khyber’s funeral alarmed the royal-republican Daoud government and triggered the high-risk decision to arrest leading members of the PDPA.

At midnight on April 25 1978 Tarakki and Karmal were lifted by the police. However, before he was seized, Amin - who was responsible for the party’s illegal work in the army - managed to issue instructions for an uprising. “As crowds gathered” in the Kabul’s central park “in protest against the imprisonment of PDPA leaders”, Mig 21s struck the presidential palace and tanks moved into the city (ibid). After some fierce fighting, especially in Jelalabad, the Daoud regime was swept away amid widespread rejoicing. Comrade Matgamna writes improbably of 10,000 deaths. Film footage shown on the BBC tells of a less bloody scenario - the common people of Kabul, on foot and horse, taking to the streets and a sea of red flags.

Undoubtedly the PDPA’s overthrow of the Daoud regime was carried out using alternative hierarchical lines of command in the army and airforce. PDPA officers were given orders by PDPA cadres and then themselves gave orders to the conscripts under them. The revolution was therefore an uprising organised by a mainly civilian ‘official communist’ party which had aligned to itself a section of the officer corps and enjoyed the sympathy of the politically advanced masses in the cities, above all Kabul.

Does that mean we should dismissively classify the April 1978 revolution as a “coup”? That is what the imperialist bourgeoisie say, a charge repeated by many on the left in Britain and elsewhere. A coup d’état, a blow against the state, by definition involves a plot against the existing state in isolation from any section of the masses. It originates within the state: eg, military or palace coups. Examples from European history would be Louis Bonaparte and Otto von Bismarck. They elevated themselves into dictators by relying upon “organised state power”, not the “unorganised, elemental power of the popular masses” (F Engels CW Vol 26, Moscow 1990, p479).

In 1978 there existed a revolutionary situation in the urban centres. The old regime was turning to assassinations, arrests and bannings. The masses for their part were mobilised and demanding radical change. Under such circumstances revolution is a matter of art. While the key is social content, the form of an uprising can be coup-like - the October Revolution of 1917 and the storming of the Winter Palace was carried out by red guards and sympathetic army units. However, this ‘coup’ had a definite proletarian-peasant content: land, peace and bread and all power to the soviets.

The newly installed PDPA government - overwhelmingly civilian - enacted far-going reforms. Usury was abolished in the villages - debt crippled the peasantry. Rigorous ceilings on private land ownership, along with the encouragement of cooperatives and offers of cheap credits, fertilisers, seeds and agricultural implements, were intended to free “millions of toiling peasants from the yoke of exploitation” (quoted in B Sen Gupta Afghanistan London 1986, p50). The government envisaged land confiscation and redistribution, not collectivisation.

Equal rights between men and women were announced with much fanfare. Another decree banned forced marriages and set limits on dowry and marriage expenses. An adult literacy campaign was put in place - directed especially towards women in the countryside. Higher education was encouraged - women came to occupy over 50% of places in Kabul university.

The country’s numerous nationalities were from now on to be treated with strict equality, declared the PDPA government. Oppressed language groups heard their mother tongue on Kabul Radio for the first time. Pushtan domination officially ended. Constitutionally the country became a multinational state. A secular state too. Islam was not subjected to any attacks, but the state promised neither to promote nor interfere with any religion.

Never before in Afghan history “had there been such a ruthless attempt to push through so many basic reforms”, says the Indian academic, Bhabani Sen Gupta (ibid p55). In other words it is vital not to confuse the form first taken by the April revolution with its content. What began as an action by a section of the armed forces had, as revealed by subsequent events, a radical social content.

But the PDPA lacked roots in the countryside, where the majority of the population lived. Its cadre were urban in background and its support rested upon the Soviet-trained army officers, the radicalised lower elements of the state bureaucracy and the semi-proletarianised poor of the cities. Nor did the revolution in Kabul coincide with an agrarian revolution amongst the peasantry. Land reforms - the key to the revolution - were therefore to all intents and purposes bureaucratic and, like the decrees of the 1871 Paris Commune, largely remained on paper. Despite that the revolution and its reforms managed to enrage all elements within the old ruling bloc, but without launching a counterbalancing peasant movement below. A fatal weakness.

 Many peasants felt themselves compelled to return “their new land” because the village headmen, or khans, still controlled the “irrigation systems” (G Chaliand Report from Afghanistan Harmondsworth 1982, p37). Passages in the Koran forbidding the theft of another’s property might also have proved to be a material factor. Indeed the fact that the country’s 300,000-strong clergy, the harkim, held largish estates ensured that, once attempts to implement the reforms began in October 1978, they took a leading role in organising armed risings alongside the village headmen and elders. Counterrevolution - royalist, merchant, tribal and rural - became through that vital ideological mediation a jihad.

The PDPA responded by turning to arrests and torture. That only multiplied their enemies and supplied recruits to the mujahedin groups. When the PDPA was physically driven out of the villages, it fell back on the methods employed by the old royalist governments - artillery and air strikes. As Jonathan Neale observes, it is “not possible to wage class war by bombing a village”. Bombs hit rich and poor alike and unite them. Hence in one area after another the PDPA “found themselves fighting the people they had meant to free” (International Socialism No93, December 2001, p34).

The fragile unity of the PDPA began to unravel. The Parcham wing urged a policy of compromise and bringing back people from the defeated Daoud regime. The Khalq wing responded by turning on the Parchamis and imprisoning or exiling its leaders. In the end even the Khalq wing suffered ruinous internal divisions. Tarakki - having been convinced by the Soviet Union to dump Amin and turn to compromise - was killed in a shoot-out. Amin took command.

As we have said, the Soviet intervention of December 1979 saved the revolution in Afghanistan, but in a thoroughly counterrevolutionary way. The results were disastrous. Not only was the policy of bombing and terrorising the villages continued, but it was massively increased. Though Amin had repeatedly requested increased Soviet aid, he would not have expected to be its first victim when it eventually came. Soviet special forces executed him and most of his fellow central committee members and installed Karmal as a pliant satrap. In disgust many Khalqis deserted and joined the mujahedin groups or went into exile.

What was a civil war now became intertwined with a war against foreign domination. Opposition grew and Afghanistan spiralled into a horror which saw perhaps a million deaths and countless maimings. The countryside bled and huge numbers sought refuge in Kabul or in the mammoth refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan.

The US saw its chance to turn Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. Weapons and money poured into the country. In 1986 the shoulder-launched Stinger missiles wrought havoc with Soviet aeroplanes and helicopters. Hundreds were blasted out of the skies. The decrepit Soviet Union could not afford the political or economic costs of staying in Afghanistan. In 1988 Gorbachev decided upon a phased withdrawal.

The overthrow of the PDPA government - now led by Najibullah - marked the triumph of the countryside over the city. The ideas of 20th century progress were buried. The values of obscurantist mullahs, traditional village headmen and gun-toting banditry replaced those of national equality, women’s liberation and secularism.

That the PDPA government survived till 1992 - after the Soviet Union’s collapse - testifies to a residual, but nonetheless real, base of popular support. Workers Power - which characterised the 1978 revolution as a “coup” - nevertheless owns up that “the PDPA demonstrated that it did have a serious base in Afghanistan” (September 30 1992). Ditto Socialist Organiser - the forerunner of the AWL’s Solidarity - “the fact that the Afghan regime the Russians left behind them did not collapse for over three years indicates that it was not only a creature of the Russians” (April 23 1992).

Having promoted the mujahedin counterrevolution, the US spawned heroin, fragmentation, the Taliban and al Qa’eda. Yet the US had little interest in the post-PDPA Afghanistan. It was content to leave the ruined country to its awful fate. The counterrevolution continued unchallenged and unchecked.

Ethnic divisions between Pashtun, Uzbeks, Tajiks, etc within the counterrevolution were overlaid by religion, the rival interests of outside powers and the various ideologies of pan-islam and fake anti-imperialism. The Taliban were not only mainly Pashtun, but militantly sunni. Where Pakistan guided, supplied and jealously protected the Taliban, in their turn Iran and India backed the Northern Alliance.

The US only woke again to the situation in Afghanistan after bin Laden and his al Qa’eda terrorist network murderously struck at their Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies. Tomahawk missiles rained down on Afghanistan in punishment. September 11 2001 and the spectacular attacks on New York and Washington were the final straw. After that the days of the Taliban were numbered and a bloody new American century was about to begin.