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Weekly Worker 403 Thursday October 11 2001

Revolution and counterrevolution

Failure to come to terms with the nature of the Taliban movement today is a sort of programmatic revenge for a much earlier mistake. Wide sections of the left dismissed the April 1978 revolution in Afghanistan - led by the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan - as a “putsch”.

Though inevitably some aspects are now completely dated, our lengthy extract from The revolution in Afghanistan by Emine Engin of the Communist Party of Turkey provides useful material to correct this mistaken assessment. Only by grasping the fact that Afghanistan had a revolution in 1978 is it possible to understand the nature of today’s Taliban regime. It is the counterrevolutionary opposite of the April Revolution.

Considered in this light the pro-Taliban apologetics we hear from certain quarters has a definite source. Thus, in the Socialist Workers Party’s October edition of its Socialist Review, Clare Fermont gives us a panoramic overview of Afghan society since the 19th century. She avoids the difficulty of characterising the 1978 April Revolution by failing to mention it at all. The nearest we get to it is the statement that Afghanistan was simply “a battleground in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union”. It seems that in SWP eyes it is this - and this alone - that accounts for the hellhole that is Afghanistan today. Indeed, true to the mechanical perspectives of the SWP, she denies the possibility that Afghanistan had the societal raw material to produce a progressive working class movement in any case:

“When the Russian troops invaded in 1979, the US threw its weight behind the Afghan armed military resistance (the Mujahadeen) and their ‘holy Islamic war’ against the ‘infidel’ invaders. It was not surprising that the Afghan resistance was fought under an Islamic banner … the lack of economic development meant there was no social basis for a ‘social democratic’ movement, let alone a socialist one.”

Thus, comrade Fermont tells us, Afghanistan has a long history as the plaything of bigger powers. For a time, this took the form of superpower rivalry between the US and the USSR. As a result of this conflict, the USSR invaded and it was this that sparked the civil war, as “the Islamic movement, for all its reactionary ideas, had a long tradition of fighting foreign oppression …” (ibid).

In a similar dishonest vein, the Socialist Party journal, Socialism Today, also ‘disappears’ the April Revolution, if anything in an even cruder way than the SWP. In a piece by Per Ake Westerlund, we get this passage: “In the 1970s, a growing layer of low-ranking officers looked to Stalinism as a model, an alternative to the capitalist west. Another group looked towards Islam. In December 1979, Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union … against the background of an intensified power struggle and military coups” (September).

In fact, the course of the Afghan tragedy was rather different, as Emine Engin detailed in her book. The PDPA led a genuine democratic revolution in 1978 - there was a mass base in the working class, the intelligentsia and the urban poor. Sweeping reforms were introduced and old privileges swept away. Women in particular benefited. However, the party was deeply split between a revolutionary and an opportunist wing - Khalq and Parcham respectively.

It is true that both wings looked upon the Soviet Union as a model to emulate. However the national socialism that existed in their programmatic imaginations was to be achieved via two different routes. The evolutionary road of conciliation and compromise. The revolutionary road of struggle and turbulence. By putting Afghanistan on the revolutionary road the Khalq wing of the PDPA stirred the countryside into revolt.

Social relations were still patriarchal. Tribe could count for more than class and the PDPA had no properly developed roots in the countryside. There was a belief that land reform delivered from above would be sufficient to undermine the power exercised by the imams and chiefs in the villages. It was not. Counterrevolution broke out and gained momentum. Hafizullah Amin fought Mujahadeen terror with revolutionary terror. And, thinking they had true friends in Moscow, the leaders of the revolution, first Tarakki, then Amin - asked in desperation for help. When it eventually came in December 1979 Soviet fraternal aid took the form of a counterrevolutionary defence of the revolution. Brezhnev had no liking for a hot spot smack on the Soviet Union’s borders. The first act of the Soviet armed forces was to kill Amin and 97 leading members of Khalq, and install Babrak Karmal, from the right of the party.

With Afghanistan’s Castro out of the way, the conviction was that everything would return to normal. It could not. It did not. The USA saw its opportunity. Turn Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, was Ronald Regan’s slogan. Sophisticated weaponry and millions of dollars were pumped in to support the Mujahadeen counterrevolution - of which the Taliban formed the most reactionary but most ideologically coherent strand.

The Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1988 and the beleaguered PDPA government in Kabul - now under Mohammed Najibullah - hung on for another four years or so. The very fact that it showed this ability to survive underlines that this regime was a product of something more than a ‘putsch’. Workers Power - another of the ‘putsch’ school - tacitly admits as much: “the PDPA demonstrated that it did have a serious base in Afghanistan” (Workers Power September 30). Ditto, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty: “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” (Socialist Organiser April 23 1992).

Emine Engin’s book has many flaws, reflecting the illusions and theoretical errors characteristic of the extreme left wing of ‘official communism’. However, it underlines that in 1978, Afghanistan had a revolution. A revolution not imposed from outside, but one that grew from the soil of the country itself, a product of its contradictions and social struggles. This must give us room for optimism and hope. Counterrevolution also produces its opposite. The Taliban must be overthrown - not by US imperialist intervention, but by a democratic, secular and working class revolution.

Mark Fischer


The whole of this document, which is very informative and extensive, can be viewed at The Weekly Worker web site by clicking on the banner below...