Afghanistan and the Left: The Russian Question Point Blank
Hail Red Army!
Reprinted from Spartacist English edition No. 29, Summer 1980
Reprinted from Spartacist English edition No. 29, Summer 1980: http://www.icl-fi.org/english/esp/archives/oldsite/Pointblk.htm
Afghanistan is a flash of lightning which illuminates the real contours of the world political landscape. It has exploded the last illusions of détente to reveal the implacable hostility of U.S. imperialism to the Soviet degenerated workers state. It has stripped away all diplomatic cover for Washington’s alliance with Maoist/Stalinist China. And it has confronted the left inescapably with “the Russian question”: the nature of the state originating in the Bolshevik Revolution and its conflict with world capitalism.
For revolutionary socialists there is nothing tricky, nothing ambiguous about the war in Afghanistan. The Soviet army and its left-nationalist allies are fighting an anti-communist, anti-democratic mélange of landlords, money lenders, tribal chiefs and mullahs committed to mass illiteracy. And to say that imperialist support to this social scum is out in the open is the understatement of the year. U.S. “national security” czar Zbigniew Brzezinski actually traveled to the Khyber Pass and rifle in hand incited the insurgents: “That land over there is yours and you will go back one day because your cause is right and God is on your side.” The gut-level response of every radical leftist should be fullest solidarity with the Soviet Red Army.
Yet much of the left, with the Maoists leading the pack, has joined the imperialist crusade against “Soviet expansionism.” In fact, the official pro-Peking group in the U.S., the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) attacked the Carter Doctrine from the right as too soft on the Russians. Likewise, the “Third Camp” social-democrats, like the British Cliff group, which could maintain a certain left posture in the days of détente, stand once more revealed as State Department socialists. Those leftists, whatever they call themselves, who deny that the Soviet Union is a proletarian state power (albeit bureaucratically degenerated) find themselves, some more, some less willingly, on the same side of the barricades as U.S. imperialism.
It is not surprising that the Maoists and social democrats should rally to imperialist anti-Sovietism, although some may bridle at making common cause with the crazed anti-communist Brzezinski and his Afghan cutthroats. But for Trotskyists, support to the Soviet army in Afghanistan should be an elementary political reflex. Trotsky’s last great factional struggle, against the “Third Camp” Shachtman/Burnham opposition in the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1940, was provoked by the imperialist campaign against the Soviet invasion of “little, democratic Finland.” Drawing the hardest line against social-democratic anti-communism, Trotsky declared: “The safeguarding of the socialist revolution comes before formal democratic principles.”
And the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan has a far more progressive content than Stalin’s action in Finland in 1940, where the Kremlin simply wanted a slice of territory for defensive military purposes, moreover, in the context of an alliance with Nazi Germany. A victory for the Islamic-feudalist insurgency in Afghanistan will not only mean a hostile, imperialist-allied state on the USSR’s southern border. It will mean the extermination of the Afghan left and the reimposition of feudal barbarism—the veil, the bride price. Moreover, the Soviet military occupation raises the possibility of a social revolution in this wretchedly backward country, a possibility which did not exist before.
Yet much of the ostensibly Trotskyist movement is also dancing to Carter’s tune over Afghanistan. The most outright counterrevolutionary position is that of the unstable bloc between the Stalinophobic reformists of the French Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (OCI) and the followers of political adventurer Nahuel Moreno. They not only demand the withdrawal of Soviet troops, but actually solidarize with the reactionary Islamic insurgents! (See “Morenoites Call for Counterrevolution in USSR,” Spartacist No. 27-28, Winter 1979-80.)
The United Secretariat (USec) has, predictably enough, split three ways over the question. A large minority, whose foremost spokesman is Tariq Ali, demands Soviet withdrawal in the name of self-determination for Afghanistan. The leadership around Ernest Mandel too condemns the Soviet intervention for violating national rights, but grudgingly admits that to now call for withdrawal would amount to support to imperialist-backed counterrevolution. The American SWP supports the Soviet action but deliberately minimizes its significance.
SWP Skirts the Russian Question
Long seeking to become a pressure group on the liberal bourgeoisie, the SWP has presented opposition to U.S. imperialist militarism almost exclusively by reference to the democratic right of national self-determination. It was “heroic, little Cuba” and later “heroic, little Vietnam” against the American colossus. Social revolution in the colonial world was reduced to a series of contests between various “Third World” Davids and the U.S. Goliath. In this way the SWP echoed and so reinforced the liberal notion of imperialism as big-power bullying of and military intervention into small countries.
But now it is Jimmy Carter who is appealing to liberal “anti-imperialism” and even Third World nationalism over the Soviet invasion of “little, independent Afghanistan.” The imperialist media go on about “Russia’s Vietnam,” evoking sympathy for poor villagers with their primitive weapons battling the mechanized army of a “superpower.”
How does the SWP justify its support to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan without confronting liberal, anti-Communist prejudices? No easy task this. The SWP tries the line that Washington is mainly reacting against “the Afghan revolution” rather than the Soviet expansion. That’s right. “The Afghan revolution”—this world-historic event which threatens imperialist domination in Asia!
“It was not Moscow’s increased influence in Afghanistan that alarmed Washington—though there was some concern over that—but the Afghan revolution itself and its repercussions throughout central Asia. The imperialists were opposed to the social gains that had been won by the Afghan workers and peasants and feared that the revolution would advance toward the overthrow of capitalist property relations.”
—“How Washington Instigated Counterrevolution in Afghanistan,” Intercontinental Press, 14 January 1980
So the SWP can play its old liberal refrain of “self-determination for the Afghan revolution.” The Soviet role is here reduced to merely aiding a revolution in a small country attacked by imperialism, a role comparable to that which it played in Cuba and Vietnam:
“So the issue is not Soviet intervention, but a growing U.S. intervention—aimed at taking back the gains won by the Afghan masses—that finally forced the Soviet Union to respond.”
—Militant, 15 February
Everyone knows that, of course, the issue is Soviet intervention or, more precisely, the incorporation of Afghanistan into the Soviet bloc through social revolution from without as in East Europe.
Although the SWP has written numerous articles on “the Afghan revolution,” one is hard put to find a class analysis of the revolution, the government which issued out of it or the state. Rather, in Stalinist or bourgeois-nationalist fashion, the post-April 1978 government is described as “revolutionary,” “popular,” “progressive,” “anti-imperialist,” etc.
The April 1978 “Revolution”: What Happened?
Key to understanding what has happened in Afghanistan since April 1978 is that for decades the country has been a Soviet client state. A large fraction of the country’s thin educated stratum was trained in the USSR, and much of the intelligentsia regarded the Soviet Union as a source of social progress. And for good reason. An Afghan schoolteacher looking across the northern border at Soviet Central Asia, two generations ago as wretchedly backward as Afghanistan, today sees a literate, relatively modern society where women are no longer degraded slaves.
The generally pro-Soviet sympathies of the Afghan intelligentsia manifested themselves organizationally with the establishment of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in 1965. A pro-Moscow, petty-bourgeois radical party, the PDPA was composed of schoolteachers, university students, government officials and, not least important, army officers. The party had no base among the peasant masses nor among the tiny urban working class.
In 1967 the PDPA split between the Khalq (Masses) faction led by Noor Mohammad Taraki, one of the country’s best-known poets, and the Parcham (Banner) faction led by Babrak Karmal. The difference between the factions is hard to fathom, and may have been cliquist in nature. Both groups adhered to a strategy, consistent with their social composition, of capturing and radicalizing the weak governing apparatus. Officers loyal to the PDPA-Parcham played a major role in overthrowing the monarchy in 1973, and the party participated in the first bourgeois-nationalist Daud government.
Subsequently Daud moved right and in early 1978 decided to crush the PDPA, now shakily reunited. When police assassinated a PDPA leader and others were arrested, mass demonstrations, mainly composed of students and government office workers, broke out in Kabul. In the ensuing showdown the PDPA military fraction outgunned Daud’s men; Daud himself was killed. Thus was born the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
The April 1978 “Revolution” was essentially a left-wing military coup with a certain popular support among the intellectuals. Unusually, the PDPA officers turned the main governmental posts over to the civilian wing of the party. But the real power remained in the military. Hafizullah Amin emerged as the strongman of the new regime because he had previously been in charge of the PDPA’s work within the officer corps.
Glorifying “the Afghan revolution” so as to minimize the significance of the Soviet intervention, the SWP conjures up a non-existent mass workers’ and peasants’ insurrection:
“Then, in April 1978, the Afghan masses rose up and fought to change these oppressive conditions….
“Tens of thousands of Afghan workers and peasants took to the streets, a section of the army rebelled, a new government came to power.”
—Militant, 18 January 1980
The narrow, petty-bourgeois elite social base of the new PDPA regime is described in late 1978 by the knowledgeable radical journalist Fred Halliday. Although a supporter of “the Afghan revolution,” Halliday, unlike the SWP charlatans, respects empirical truth:
“What has occurred is the seizure of power by a radical sector within the state apparatus, led by civilians (most of them teachers or other kinds of civil servant) aided by army officers….
“The new regime’s implantation outside the main urban centers is very weak, and the inevitable temptation will be to rely on the armed forces rather than the party to implement policies….
“At the same time, the lower ranks of the State apparatus—both civilian and military—remained untouched, and in particular it was evident that the possibility of counterrevolutionary resistance from the lower ranks of the armed forces had not been eliminated merely by the removal of the top officers.”
—“Revolution in Afghanistan,” New Left Review, November-December 1978
The left-nationalist PDPA came to power in one of the most primitive, tradition-bound countries on earth. According to the United Nations Statistical Yearbook for 1978, only 35,000 people were employed in manufacturing out of a population of 17 to 20 million. At the same time, there were a quarter of a million mullahs, paid by the government, an enormous parasitic caste sucking the blood from a desperately poor people.
These few statistics indicate the limits to social change from within Afghan society. Unlike in neighboring Iran or Pakistan, a proletarian revolution is not possible in Afghanistan. The country is too absolutely economically backward. On the other hand, the social base for reactionary resistance to even the most moderate bourgeois-democratic reforms is strong.
Despite this the PDPA regime launched an ambitious (for Afghanistan) series of democratic reforms—land redistribution, cancellation of peasant debts, reduction of the bride price to a nominal sum, compulsory education for both sexes, moves toward the separation of church and state. In particular it was the regime’s steps toward the equality of women which most fueled the reactionary uprising. And this is recognized even by bourgeois journalists who have covered the Afghan “freedom fighters.” The New York Times (9 February) reporter observed:
“Land reform attempts undermined their village chiefs. Portraits of Lenin threatened the religious leaders. But it was the Kabul revolutionary Government’s granting of new rights to women that pushed Orthodox Moslem men in the Pashtoon villages of eastern Afghanistan into picking up their guns.”
The Left-Nationalist Regime Besieged
By all accounts the PDPA regime acted with a bureaucratic commandism and arbitrariness which alienated many of its potential supporters, especially among the rural poor. The example commonly given is the cancellation of peasant debts to the landlords. The landlords retaliated by withholding seed grain and, since the government couldn’t supply it, the peasants were economically worse off than before.
In general the regime made no effort to neutralize its numerous social enemies by moderating the pace of reforms while simultaneously broadening its own base (e.g., sending large numbers of youth to study in the USSR, rapidly expanding the urban proletariat). At the same time, murderous cliquism, especially by Amin, eliminated much of the PDPA’s original following. An ever smaller group of modernizing intellectuals was tending to be pitted against the mass of the people. The Taraki/Amin regime can thus be convicted of a large dose of utopian adventurism, seeking to drag Afghanistan into the twentieth century by purely military means, moreover, a military means it did not possess.
As the insurgency grew the army was riddled with desertions and mutinies, and the PDPA regime became ever more dependent on Soviet military support. By the summer of 1979 Amin commanded some 5,000 Soviet military cadre; they manned the sophisticated weaponry, especially flying combat aircraft. Without these Soviet forces it is more than possible the Kabul radical government would have fallen before the counterrevolution.
Those self-styled “Marxists” like Tariq Ali, who now maintain that the Afghan left-nationalists and feudalist reactionaries should be allowed to fight it out free of foreign interference, should logically have demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops well before the December coup. Here Khomeini and Brzezinski were, as usual, more consistent than their present left tailists. Last June the ayatollah read the riot act to the Soviet ambassador over his country’s intervention in “Islamic” Afghanistan. A month later Carter’s spiritual adviser Brzezinski denounced the Soviets for trying “to impose alien doctrines on deeply religious and nationally conscious peoples” ([London] Guardian, 6 August 1979).
There has been speculation in both the bourgeois and left press that the Soviets overthrew Amin because he was a “national communist,” a budding Afghan Tito. Even leaving aside that he ruled through a section of the old bourgeois officer corps, this notion is utter nonsense. The Soviet presence in Afghanistan expanded precisely with the accession of Amin as premier in the spring of 1979, as he opted for a purely military solution to the rightist insurgency. Conversely, the Kremlin advocated slowing down the pace of reforms in order to minimize the need for direct Soviet military support to the petty-bourgeois radicals in Kabul. Amin evidently believed that however much trouble he got into with the counterrevolution, the Russians would be forced to bail him out.
And in a sense they did, though not exactly in the way he had expected. Here we have one of those ironies of history so appreciated by the late Isaac Deutscher. One wonders if the shade of Hafizullah Amin appreciates that in the end he won, though it cost him his own life. He provoked a situation in which the Soviets intervened with sufficient force to crush the reactionary insurgency and therefore with sufficient force to impose a social revolution on backward, mullah-ridden Afghanistan.
Extend the Social Gains of the October Revolution!
Khomeini and Brzezinski to the contrary, Taraki/Amin’s Afghanistan was not a Soviet Communist satellite, i.e., a deformed workers state. It was an unstable petty-bourgeois nationalist regime ruling through a shaky remnant of the old army. Facing a seemingly unwinnable civil war, a section of the PDPA might have tried to extricate itself by turning sharply to the right, expelling the Russians and making a deal with the Western imperialists for their backing against the rebels. From what we know of the ruthless, power-mad Amin, he was capable of emulating Chiang Kai-shek in 1927 or Anwar Sadat in 1972.
With its massive intervention in late December, the Soviet armed forces became the dominant power in Afghanistan, whose present fate will be decided in Moscow, not Kabul. Of course, the conservative bureaucrats in the Kremlin did not send 100,000 troops into Afghanistan to effect a social revolution, but simply to make secure an unstable, strategically-placed client state. No doubt Brezhnev & Co. would prefer a friendly bourgeois state like Finland. But Afghanistan is not Finland. There is no way that country can sustain anything remotely like a stable bourgeois democracy. In any case, the rightist insurgents and their imperialist backers are intransigent against any coalition government the Russians would accept. It is possible the Kremlin could do a deal with the imperialists to withdraw, for example, in return for NATO’s reversing its decision to deploy hundreds of new nuclear missiles in West Europe. That would be a real counterrevolutionary crime against the Afghan peoples.
More likely is the Soviet army’s prolonged occupation of Afghanistan and with it the possibility of its transformation along the lines of Soviet Central Asia or Mongolia. Social revolutionary measures (e.g., land to the tiller) would be necessary to erode and win over the poor peasant supporters of the reactionary insurgency. Only those leftists poisoned by bourgeois-nationalist ideology could deny that such a social revolution, although imposed from without and bureaucratically deformed, would have an enormously liberating effect for the Afghan masses. Even the New York Times admits that Soviet Central Asians regard their country’s military intervention in Afghanistan as support for the liberation of their backward, oppressed neighbors. (See “Soviet Central Asians Back Afghan Intervention,” Workers Vanguard No. 254, 18 April.)
The difference between Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan is to be measured not in decades but in centuries. While Afghanistan is over 90 percent illiterate, neighboring Soviet Uzbekistan probably has a higher literacy rate than Jimmy Carter’s Georgia. The average life expectancy in Uzbekistan is 70 compared to 40 in Afghanistan. A major reason for this is that in Uzbekistan there is one doctor for every 380 people and in Afghanistan one doctor for every 20,000! All social and economic comparisons show the same thing.
Marx and Engels, following the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, maintained that “in any given society the degree of women’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation.” The status of women in Soviet Central Asia is not only higher than in any Islamic bourgeois country (let alone Afghanistan), but in some areas (e.g., representation in the government) compares favorably even with the advanced bourgeois democracies. For example, 18 percent of all judges and 45 percent of all legislative members from the village level up in Uzbekistan are women.
To be sure, the workers and peasants of Soviet Central Asia suffer the same inequalities and bureaucratic oppression as their class brothers and sisters in Great Russia. There is some pressure for Russification in Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, Khirgizia, etc. and, of course, the Moscow Stalinist regime denies all nationalities the democratic right of self-determination, i.e., the right to secede and form a separate state. Should Afghanistan be transformed into a Soviet-satellite deformed workers state, it is possible a future revolutionary crisis could find the Afghan workers and peasants battling against a Soviet army under command of the Kremlin Stalinist bureaucracy. And in general proletarian political revolution within the Soviet bloc will be interwoven with the struggle for the right of national self-determination and other democratic rights and freedoms. But to raise the banner of “national self-determination” for Afghanistan today is to provide a democratic cover for imperialist-backed social counterrevolution of the most brutal, barbaric kind.
Revolution, Counterrevolution and National Self-Determination
“Russia has violated the national sovereignty of Afghanistan,” scream the U.S. imperialists, the Peking Stalinists, the Eurocommunists. And this cry is duly echoed by the Mike Klonskys, Tony Cliffs and Tariq Alis. This charge doesn’t even hold up on its own terms. Afghanistan is not a nation but a feudal-derived state comprising a mosaic of nationalities, ethnic and tribal groupings. The Afghan monarchy was consolidated in the late nineteenth century over myriad unrelated peoples as a buffer state between tsarist Russia and British India. Much of the rural population has never lived under the effective control of any central state power, but identifies exclusively with particular ethnic, tribal or linguistic groups.
Imperialist trouble-shooters to the rightist insurgents lament that the Pashtoon, Hazara, Tadzhik, etc. guerrillas hate one another as much as they do the Soviet-backed Kabul radicals. Should the counterrevolutionary forces win, there would likely follow another civil war, this time fought along ethnic lines. In fact, if Soviet Central Asia is taken as a guide, the ethnic minorities of Afghanistan would enjoy more genuine national rights in a Soviet-bloc satellite than under a Pashtoon reactionary regime.
At a more fundamental political level, however, all this is beside the point. Even if Afghanistan were a homogeneous nation, revolutionary Marxists would support the Soviet Union’s armed intervention. Both before and after the December coup, all talk of Afghan “national sovereignty” was but a cover for defending the class and caste privileges of the landlords, moneylenders and mullahs, privileges threatened by the Kabul petty-bourgeois radical government. For the imperialists, such slogans were mainly designed to bolster popular support for a renewed onslaught against Communist Russia. For revolutionary Marxists, the furthering of social revolution, including defense of the USSR against capitalist-imperialism, stands higher than the bourgeois-democratic right of national self-determination.
Seeking to justify their enthusiastic support to the Carter Doctrine, some Maoists, like Carl Davidson, have turned Lenin into a national-liberal, who supposedly opposed in principle military interventions to support revolutions in other countries. As against this Stalinist claptrap, even before the Bolshevik Revolution Lenin maintained that a victorious workers government was duty-bound not only to agitate for proletarian revolution in capitalist countries, but, when necessary, to support it with force of arms:
“After expropriating the capitalists and organising their own socialist production, the victorious proletariat of that country will arise against the rest of the world—the capitalist world—attracting to its cause the oppressed classes of other countries, stirring uprisings in those countries against the capitalists, and in case of need using even armed force against the exploiting classes and their states.” [emphasis in original]
—“On the Slogan for a United States of Europe” (1915), Collected Works Vol. 21 (1964)
When a civil war is raging, a liberal attitude raising national self-determination to the ultimate principle can become downright criminal. Consider Hungary in 1919. In good part due to its own errors, the Soviet regime of Bela Kun alienated probably a majority of Hungary’s peasantry and national minorities. The passive opposition of the petty-bourgeois masses to the Budapest-based workers government contributed to the victory of Admiral Horthy’s white army, backed by the imperialists, and with it the extermination of the revolutionary proletarian vanguard.
During the four and a half months of Soviet Hungary’s existence, the Russian Bolsheviks did everything in their power to link up with it militarily. In late April Lenin personally ordered the commanders of the Ukrainian Red Army: “The advance into part of Galicia and Bukovina is essential for contact with Soviet Hungary. This task must be achieved more quickly and surely” (Collected Works, Vol. 44). But the military campaign did not succeed, to the great misfortune of the socialist cause. In late July, just before the end, Lenin had to inform Bela Kun:
“We are aware of Hungary’s grave and dangerous situation and are doing all we can. But speedy assistance is sometimes physically impossible. Try to hold out as long as you can.”
Had the Ukrainian Red Army managed to save the Hungarian Soviet Republic, imperialist spokesmen and social-democrats throughout the world would have denounced “Soviet Russian imperialism” for trampling on the national independence of the Hungarian people. No doubt there would even have been analogies with tsarist Russia’s occupation of Hungary during the revolutions of 1848.
The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was not, like the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, a proletarian dictatorship (the Afghan proletariat being minute). Nonetheless, the civil war in Afghanistan was a social struggle which pitted a modernizing intelligentsia against feudalist reaction. Here it is significant that a number of left groups (e.g., the soft Maoid Guardian and various Shachtmanite sectlets in the U.S.) supported the PDPA regime against the rightist rebels, but then condemned the Soviet intervention and demanded the Red Army withdraw. When a left-nationalist bourgeois government is fighting reaction, these self-styled “Marxists” can support it. But when there is actually a possibility that feudal-capitalist property relations will be overthrown, when the power of the mullahs can in fact be broken, when women can be liberated from the veil—then these petty-bourgeois radicals are against it. For these dregs of the pro-nationalist New Left and the wretched “Third Camp” social democrats, counterrevolution from within is preferable to revolution from without!
The Bitter Fruits of New Leftism
A decade ago it was the first principle, almost a truism, for every young radical that U.S. imperialism was the truly monstrous main enemy of the world’s peoples. Yet today the remnants of the New Left “anti-imperialists” of the 1960s, now largely one or another variety of Maoist, have reunited with American imperialism against “Soviet aggression.” How has this come about?
During the early/mid-’60s, when Washington was more hostile to Peking than to the Kremlin, a new generation of radicals arose critical and contemptuous of Khrushchev/Brezhnev in the name of Third World nationalism. But today over Afghanistan it is the American ruling class which invokes the rhetoric of national independence in attacking Soviet “hegemonism” and “superpowerism.”
The New Left considered “the Russian question,” i.e., the social character of the USSR, a scholastic topic of dispute among the irrelevant “old left.” To them the Cold War was dead, Russia had become part of the rich white man’s world, a co-partner with the U.S. for conservatism on a world scale. The real struggle was now between the “Third World”—China, Vietnam, Cuba—and U.S. imperialism.
This outlook was captured by the U.S.’ most prominent New Left “theoretician,” Carl Oglesby, in his 1967 Containment and Change. Here the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions are presented simply as responses to foreign domination, having little if anything to do with capitalism versus communism. The Chinese Revolution “has nothing at all to do with communism, but rather with the independent organization of China and her acquisition of modern fire.” On Vietnam: “…one should be able to show somehow that the issue of the Vietnam war is not Western freedom versus Eastern slavery, but foreign versus local control of Vietnam.”
On U.S.-Soviet relations, Oglesby opined:
“With the Soviet Union, we have gone from confrontation to detente. The relationship is no longer defined by its anger and uncertainties…. Direct military confrontation is feared and avoided equally by both sides, crises are referred to hot lines instead of war rooms, and one sometimes wonders if there is not something still springier in the air: a slow convergence of political aims. The European Cold War no longer finds Russians and Americans peering at each other through gunsights. Instead we have the experience of virtually integrated aid programs in Afghanistan [!] and India.”
This political worldview, which equated the global roles of the U.S. and USSR, contained the rudiments of the “superpower” doctrine even before much of the New Left embraced Maoism and its doctrine of “Soviet social-imperialism.”
Western Maoism arose from the grafting of New Leftism and Stalinism. A decisive shaping factor was the Vietnamese Revolution, in which a successful struggle against American imperialism was carried out under a traditional Stalinist leadership. To the impressionistic New Leftists, the “Third World” Stalinists seemed revolutionary as against the Soviets. From here it was only a short step to Mao’s doctrine of rival superpowers.
The myriad Maoist sects have tended to come to terms with the Peking-Washington alliance which has developed ever since Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, while the U.S. was raining bombs on Vietnam. In the face of such events as Chinese support to the CIA-engineered South African invasion of Angola in 1975-76, many Maoists pulled back, seeking to return to the good old days of “anti-imperialist unity.” But in Angola it was war-by-proxy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Now it is face-to-face over Afghanistan and there is no escaping. They must choose their camps.
With the rapid heating up of the Cold War and the open declaration of a Washington/Peking axis, the Maoists have come full circle. The events in Afghanistan only underscore that those who refuse to defend the Soviet Union against U.S. imperialism will inexorably be driven into the arms of the State Department and Pentagon. While Stalin suppressed proletarian revolution for an alliance with the “progressive” bourgeoisie, for Maoists the popular front against “Soviet social-imperialism” can only be constructed as a bloc with the most vicious, anti-Communist sections of the imperialist ruling classes.
At the core of Stalinist doctrine is the program of “building socialism in one country.” This is the ideology of a narrow, nationalist bureaucratic caste which rests on the foundations of a collectivized economy but stands opposed to the program of proletarian revolution. The attempt to counterpose China (or Albania) to Russia as the socialist fatherland has proved a dead end. The rapprochement of China with American imperialism has demonstrated that the Maos and Dengs, under the guise of building “socialism” in their country, are as willing to sell out the revolution as the Stalins and Brezhnevs. Moreover, the Peking Stalinists are today joined in a global counterrevolutionary alliance with the main imperialist power against the main anti-capitalist state power—the Soviet Union. Should U.S. imperialism overthrow the USSR (as the pro-Peking Maoists urge), this would also lead in short order to the destruction of People’s China by the same imperialist power.
“Third Camp” Fever in the USec
The Afghanistan crisis has predictably thrown the fake-Trotskyist United Secretariat of Ernest Mandel into utter political disarray. At a late January USec meeting three lines were presented. The right-minority resolution advocated the pro-imperialist “Soviet troops out” line, asserting that a victory by Muslim reactionaries would be “much less harmful” than a prolonged Soviet presence. The left-minority position, ludicrously coming from the reformist American SWP, defended the Russian-backed Kabul regime while minimizing the Soviet intervention.
The Mandelite plurality tries to split the difference, playing both ends against the middle and saluting the golden mean. Its resolution (Intercontinental Press, 3 March) upbraids the Kremlin for not “considering any of the democratic and national sentiments of the oppressed classes and peoples” and for “introduc[ing] extreme confusion in the world proletariat”; it refuses to give the intervention “the least political support” and declares it is “opposed to the annexation of new territories by the Kremlin”—even if a social revolution is carried out. But well practiced in the art of obfuscation, the Mandelites do not call for withdrawal of Soviet forces; and after more than 100 paragraphs of fulminating against the intervention, they drop in, out of the blue, four sentences of the most mealy-mouthed defensism.
There is now real trouble in Mandel’s main European sections. Almost half, 20 to 22 of the central committee of the USec’s badly tarnished “star” French section, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), has taken an outright pro-imperialist line. Arguing that Soviet intervention “mocks the right of peoples to self-determination,” they call for “actions by the anti-imperialist and workers movement to press the Soviet Union to immediately withdraw its troops from Afghanistan” (Rouge, 22 February). What “actions” do they have in mind? Perhaps refusal by French dockers to load grain for the USSR?
If this large LCR minority has become “Carter Doctrine socialists,” the majority are hardly red revolutionaries. They too condemn the Soviet action, but reject the call for immediate withdrawal as playing into the imperialists’ hands.
The factional dissension in the once-leftist British section, the International Marxist Group (IMG), is even more deep-going. The original “Soviet Troops Out” article by Tariq Ali (Socialist Challenge, 3 January) produced a major furor. The IMG printed a number of letters raking Ali over the coals for “joining the imperialist chorus” and “dancing to the tune of the U.S. State Department.” So a couple of weeks later the IMG changed its line without openly repudiating its earlier counterrevolutionary position. It still condemned the Soviet intervention but admitted that “in the present situation a call for the immediate withdrawal of troops would be tantamount to being in favour of the victory of the rightist forces” (Socialist Challenge, 17 January). No kidding!
Yet even this halfhearted “defense” of the Soviet forces provoked an outpouring of criticism from the right. Letters appeared in Socialist Challenge baiting the majority for wanting to form “welcoming committees for the Red Army” and urging the IMG to “junk the old Trotskyism.” Amid all this, Socialist Challenge (6 March) introduced a new column entitled “Thinking Aloud” for Tariq Ali to ventilate his “personal” (read, factional) views. He began his first column: “I remain unrepentant on Afghanistan.”
Thus just a few months after this Potemkin Village “Fourth International” lost perhaps a third of its members in the split of the Latin American-centered Bolshevik Faction of political adventurer Nahuel Moreno, the USec is once again wracked by internal strife, this time concentrated in the Mandelite heartland. Mandel & Co. are trying to downplay the extent of the dissension over Afghanistan, but it is more potentially destructive than the Moreno split, a somewhat accidental development arising from the Argentine caudillo‘s overweening personal ambition. In the present case, it is the fruit of Mandel’s own revisionism.
What we are now witnessing is the open rebellion by a significant section of the USec, long schooled in New Left anti-Sovietism and petty-bourgeois nationalism, against the Trotskyist program of unconditional military defense of the Soviet degenerated workers state against imperialism. These USecers, cadres and ranks, are being drawn into the U.S.-led global counterrevolutionary alliance against the USSR through the medium of those tendencies with which they have long sought to regroup—East European “dissidents,” the soft Maoists (e.g., the French Organisation Communiste des Travailleurs), the Eurocommunists (the circle around Jean Elleinstein) and various social-democratic groupings (the British Socialist Workers Party of Tony Cliff).
Tariq Ali: Anti-Soviet New Leftist
There is nothing accidental or episodic in Tariq Ali’s role in this factional situation. He is the representative par excellence of New Left movementism and Third World nationalism within the USec. A former New Left celebrity, back in 1969 he edited an anthology, The New Revolutionaries, featuring such notables as Fidel Castro, Régis Debray, Ernest Mandel and, perhaps prophetically, Tony Cliff. His own contribution included among the “new revolutionaries” Mao and Ho but definitely excluded the stodgy Kremlin bureaucrats: “…Asian communism was to prove itself more human, more humane and more willing to admit its mistakes than its counterpart in the Soviet Union.” Ah, music to Pol Pot’s ears.
Ali also echoed the Maoist line that the Soviet Union exploits backward countries in its economic relations with them:
“…The Soviet Union and East European countries, in their trade relations with the exploited world, contribute toward maintaining the unequal exchange. The Soviet Union could easily pay more without harming its own economy.”
In other words, wealth should be transferred from the workers and peasants of the USSR to the bourgeoisies of the “Third World”—to the Pahlavis, Nassers and Indira Gandhis.
If Ali responds to the Afghan crisis with the outlook of 1960s New Left Maoism, he uses some arguments borrowed from the ideological arsenal of Khrushchevite “peaceful coexistence” (a tour de force of Stalinist ecumenism). The USec minority resolution presumably submitted by Ali and his co-thinkers actually accuses Brezhnev & Co. of something like “left adventurism” in provoking imperialist militarism. It deplores that Soviet intervention allegedly fuels:
“The imperialists’ justification for their resumption of the arms race, under the pretext that the Soviet Union is demonstrating in Afghanistan that it intends to use force to impose regimes loyal to it. The Afghanistan affair has already made a shambles of the efforts of the workers movement in the imperialist countries against the step-up of the nuclear arsenal in Europe and the West.”
—“Draft Resolution on the Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan,” Intercontinental Press, 3 March
This is, of course, the very rationale by which Soviet Stalinism has for decades justified not supporting revolutions in other countries. “Peaceful coexistence” means precisely: don’t “export” revolution; don’t export arms to revolutions. Do nothing to upset the imperialists and weaken the “forces of peace” in the imperialist countries.
Mandel’s Chickens Come Home to Roost
In the late 1960s the Mandelites invented the term “new mass vanguard” in order to identify themselves with the burgeoning New Left Maoist current against the pro-Moscow CPs. A 1969 USec majority resolution in praise of Maoism states:
“…the sharp campaign which Peking unleashed against the right-wing opportunist line of the CPs following Moscow’s lead…has objectively contributed to deepen the world crisis of Stalinism and to facilitate the upsurge of a new youth vanguard the world over. Inside that youth vanguard the general sympathy for China and Maoist criticism of the Kremlin’s revisionism remains deep….”
—“Original Draft Resolution on the `Cultural Revolution’ and Proposed Amendments—Arranged in Two Columns,” [SWP] International Internal Discussion Bulletin, June 1970
When this drivel was written, Peking’s criticism of Soviet “revisionism” had become its main ideological basis for declaring the USSR was a “social-imperialist, capitalist” country. In the immortal words of the Chairman himself: “The rise to power of revisionism means the rise to power of the bourgeoisie.” By 1969 the Mao regime was already likening the USSR to Nazi Germany, an overture for a deal with the “democratic” imperialist countries. In his memoirs Henry Kissinger indicates that Peking’s denunciation of the Brezhnev Doctrine as “a fascist theory” was one of the first signs which convinced him a rapprochement with Mao’s China was possible.
For over a decade the European USec has chased after precisely those elements within the Stalinist milieu which have broken with Moscow in favor of competing nationalisms—for the Maoists, it was the Chinese and lately the Albanian bureaucracies; for the Eurocommunists, their own imperialist bourgeoisies. Mandel has taught his followers that among Stalinists antipathy to the Soviet leadership is the main criterion for healthy political motion. Afghanistan shows many have taken this lesson to heart.
Never given to “sectarian” narrowness, the USec generously included in the “new mass vanguard” various left social-democratic groupings, such as the French Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU), a habitat for renegades from Trotskyism like Michel Pablo and Yves Craipeau. Proposing unity to the PSU a few years ago, Mandel assured its leaders that Trotskyism and the Fourth International were mere “labels” to be negotiated away if the organizational price was right.
In Britain for years the main political bedfellow of the IMG has been the “state-cap” Socialist Workers Party of Tony Cliff, who broke from Trotskyism in 1950, refusing to support the Soviet bloc in the Korean War. Right now when the Cliffite SWP is denouncing the Soviet action in Afghanistan as “imperialist,” the IMG is holding joint meetings with these anti-Communist renegades. And at a mid-February IMG national conference, the “majority” (a bare 50 percent) voted to “launch a public campaign to unite the forces of the IMG with those of the SWP.” Even the main opposition wanted to follow this liquidationist course, only desiring to hold out for better terms (see “IMG Lurches Toward Cliff,” Spartacist/Britain, March 1980).
Pandering to the left social-democratic/Eurocommunist milieu, the USec has for years uncritically enthused over pro-Western Soviet-bloc dissidents. In light of Carter’s present moves, we recall that in early 1979 the USec-sponsored Labour Focus on Eastern Europe reprinted without comment a call by a group of Soviet émigrés for a total economic, technical and cultural boycott of the USSR. Circulating this reactionary, anti-Communist propaganda caused Tamara Deutscher to withdraw as sponsor of the journal. So when the USec majority now claims to oppose Carter’s boycott of the Moscow Olympics and “the imperialist sanctions,” this declaration is less than convincing.
Afghanistan Explodes Mandel’s Détente
How does Mandel square his professed Trotskyism with a regroupment orientation toward those who refuse to defend the Soviet Union? Simply by proclaiming that defense of the USSR against imperialism is irrelevant in this happy age of détente. Mandel’s conception of détente is actually a version of the old 1960s Maoist “superpower” condominium doctrine. He denies that U.S. imperialism remains fundamentally hostile to the Soviet degenerated workers state. Rather he defines the relationship as one of jointly suppressing the revolutionary forces throughout the world. Mandel claims that Brezhnev’s Russia functions essentially as world capitalism’s gendarme, a position in substance (if not in form) identical to that of the New Leftish Maoists and “Third Campists” like Cliff.
Mandel has derided the Spartacist tendency as fixated on Soviet defensism for our contention that Washington has abandoned its post-Vietnam policy of détente and returned to the Cold War path (ideologically expressed in Carter’s “Human Rights” campaign). After the Sino-Vietnam war in February 1979, he reasserted: “…nothing has changed in the basic aspect of the world situation, which is the consistent pursuing of mutual peaceful coexistence and collaboration by Moscow and Washington on a world scale” (“Behind Differences on Military Conflicts in Southeast Asia,” Intercontinental Press, 9 April 1979). Never mind that Washington rather openly colluded with the Chinese invasion of a Soviet ally. Never mind that the day that the Chinese army crossed the Vietnamese border, the State Department warned the Soviets against retaliating in kind. For Mandel, it’s détente über alles.
His latest book, Revolutionary Marxism Today, published a few months before the Afghanistan crisis, actually prophesies:
“…I would deny that we are entering a new cold war situation in which imperialism, more or less allied to Peking, is preparing an aggressive drive against the Soviet Union….
“The basic trend in the current world situation, I would argue, is not toward a new, full-fledged cold war between Moscow and Washington, but a continuation of `peaceful coexistence’ that has been pursued for several decades [?!] now.”
One can imagine that as the Trident missiles rise out of the North Sea headed toward their Moscow target they pass over the University of Louvain where a certain professor of Marxism is lecturing that détente is alive and well and is the main axis of world politics.
Remember how, when Michel Pablo wanted to tail after the Kremlin in the 1950s, he invented a theory of “centuries of deformed workers states.” Mandel’s present equivalent—aimed at cozying up to anti-Soviet dissidents, Eurocommunists and Jimmy Carter—is “decades of peaceful coexistence.”
Marx was fond of the British empiricist saying: facts are stubborn things. In Afghanistan today the defense of the USSR is posed with a directness and immediacy that not even a centrist charlatan like Mandel can dodge. Everyone knows that to call for Soviet withdrawal is to call for the establishment of a fanatically anti-Communist government on the southern border of the USSR. But for the USec to militarily support the Soviet army in Afghanistan would draw the line against almost every organization, tendency and individual it has sought to regroup with for the past five or even ten years.
After years of sweeping the Russian question under the rug, the USec is now reaping the reward in the form of a massive anti-Soviet bulge in the face of American imperialism’s warmongering over Afghanistan. Whether the USec’s deeply ingrained cynicism toward program can stave off sharp and even factional polarization over the central questions of revolutionary orientation in a period of heightened bourgeois anti-Sovietism remains to be seen. Is there anything left of the primitive leftist energies which once characterized the young USec cadres who built barricades in the Paris streets in May ’68 and carried Vietcong flags in the radical “mobilizations” over Vietnam? Or have “the children of ’68” grown up through the years of tailing popular frontism into ordinary anti-Soviet social democrats?
This much is clear: the consistent Trotskyist program of the international Spartacist tendency, centering for the backward countries on the struggle for the permanent revolution—the fight for liberation under the leadership not of the “anti-imperialist bourgeoisie” but of the revolutionary proletariat—is the only road forward.
For unconditional military defense of the deformed and degenerated workers states through socialist revolution in the capitalist countries and political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracies! Extend the gains of the October Revolution to Afghan peoples!
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