The following article was first published in Socialist Voice No. 9 (Summer 1980).

Afghanistan and Pseudo-Trotskyism

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan has thrown the pseudo-Trotskyist left into confusion. The various groups that claim to base their positions on the common premise that the USSR is still a degenerated workers’ state have come up with widely disparate points of view. What we will show here is that none of these positions defends the Afghan revolution, the proclaimed goal of both the Russian invaders and their pseudo-Trotskyist interpreters; moreover, none has anything in common with the positions taken historically by the Trotskyist movement which are cited as precedents. And in the case of the American groups, whose lines are most uncritical of Russia, their positions on the Russian invasion mark a new milestone in their degeneration. Not since the Stalinist parties turned to their policy of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism in the 1930’s have would-be revolutionists made such obeisance to the counterrevolutionary goals of “moderation” and “stability.”

The Afghan Revolution

The Afghan revolution began in April 1978, when the bourgeois nationalist People’s Democratic Party (PDP), riding on a mass urban uprising, overthrew the quasi-monarchist regime of Mohammed Daoud and embarked on a series of democratic reforms directed against the backward, pre-capitalist traditions of the country and the landowners, tribal chiefs and Islamic mullahs who exploited the masses. The reforms included trade union rights, land to the rural masses, cancellation of some of the peasants’ debts to usurers, a mass literacy campaign extending education for the first time to women as well as men, democratic rights for national minorities, reduction of the bride price, the separation of religion from the state and the increased taxation of foreign businesses.

In its initial period the revolution had active support in the cities and expectant acquiescence among the peasants. But it ran into immense difficulties, due not least to the fact that the ruling PDP (the official Communist Party of Afghanistan) carried out its reforms incompletely, bureaucratically and with extreme brutality. The guerrilla war mounted by the Islamic reactionaries (with aid from the Iranian Shah, Pakistan and China) confined the PDP’s rule to the major towns. The government, armed and aided by the USSR as all recent Afghan governments have been, reacted by offering concessions to the reactionaries while stepping up military attacks against villages harboring guerrillas. The bourgeois regime was incapable of defending the achievements it stood for by extending them further and leading a genuine mass revolution.

Russia tried to intervene in September 1979 by urging the revolution’s leading figure, Nur Mohammed Taraki, to depose Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin, the organizer of the most ruthless attacks on the counterrevolutionaries. The maneuver backfired: Taraki was killed, and Amin took over full powers. Having failed to moderate the revolution, Russia then intervened in force. In December, troops invaded from the USSR’s Central Asian provinces bordering Afghanistan, murdered Amin (with the crude excuse that he was a CIA agent) and installed Babrak Karmal in his place. Karmal was the leader of the Parcham wing of the PDP, traditionally more conservative and even closer to Moscow than the Khalq wing of Taraki and Amin.

The Russian army has bolstered Parcham’s sway over the towns and some main roads, but it appears to have turned the sentiments of the majority of the population against a government which is openly a foreign puppet. Karmal has moved to conciliate his enemies but with little success. Upon his arrival he appealed to “virtuous clergy, believers, honest Muslims” for a “holy war” in defense of, no less, the “sacred Islamic religion.” He promised “respect for our family, people’s and national traditions,” code words for the barbarous oppression of women and minorities that the April revolution had at one time fought against. Karmal’s regime labels itself a “second phase” of the revolution and has replaced the revolutionary red flag of Taraki and Amin with one that bears the image of the Koran.

Karmal has added to his cabinet three men from the pre-revolutionary government and has promised to enshrine “the principle of private ownership” in the new constitution. In an interview with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP Bulletin, March-April 1980), Karmal explained his goals: “Already we have achieved a kind of reconciliation; negotiations have started with representatives of the national and democratic forces and of the different classes and social groups in the country.” As well, “there is also a very remarkable section of the patriotic religious leadership working in the government.” Karmal and his Russian masters undoubtedly hope to defeat the Islamic forces, but they are still making their futile appeals to the landlords and mullahs in order to deepen the divisions among the rural guerrillas and to limit the aspirations of the restive urban classes.

Russia’s Stabilization Efforts

Russia’s goals in its imperialist invasion of Afghanistan are not hard for Marxists to decipher. The USSR has a specific interest in maintaining secure and inexpensive deliveries of natural gas from Afghanistan to augment its own production, especially since its Iranian supply has been interrupted. Nor can state capitalist Russia, in a condition of economic decline, afford to lose control over Afghanistan’s repayments on its substantial debt. But Moscow’s fundamental purposes are far broader. The Russian economy is bound up with the whole world market, which is plagued by economic crisis in the East as well as the West. Moscow and Washington share a fundamental interest in the preservation of the imperialist world system. Within this context they are rivals, each seeking to pacify the tumultuous regions on terms most favorable to their national self-interests.

Russia, as the weaker of the two superpowers industrially and the more dependent financially and technologically, is in the position of having to prop up a world imperialist structure still largely dominated by the U.S. in order for its share to survive. Having entered onto the imperialist scene as the result of the counterrevolutionary defeat of the Soviet workers on the eve of World War II, the Russian rulers’ particular role is to entrap and defeat proletarian revolutions wherever they threatened to occur. This task they accomplished after the war in Italy, France and other countries, not to speak of the countries in Eastern Europe and Asia that Russia conquered for its own imperialist sphere.

The crushing of the proletariat after World War II permitted the U.S. to expand its empire and post-war imperialism to prosper temporarily through the concentrated extraction of surplus-value from the war-weakened industrial countries and the colonies. In the absence of an international revolutionary proletarian leadership, the mass movements that continued to erupt (especially in the colonial areas) were turned to nationalist paths.

Despite heroic struggles, none of the new nation states that emerged could conceivable achieve either viability or economic independence on the bourgeois road of nationalism in an epoch of economic internationalization. Russia had been successful in creating a powerful modern (although highly contradictory) nation-state because it was built upon the legacy stolen from the Soviet workers’ state: the thoroughgoing nationalization of property, the centralization of banking and credit, the state monopoly of foreign trade (see Socialist Voice No. 2). This national consolidation proved to be impossible for new bourgeoisies which could not leech off proletarian revolutions. When the crisis of capitalism that had been masked by the post-war prosperity reasserted itself in the late 1960’s, the ex-colonies were devastated. The “new nations” from China to Chad were forced to turn back to the imperialist orbits they had never really escaped. And they still face mass upheavals and disintegration. The bourgeois nationalist ideologies and leaderships are losing their sway as the oppressed layers, including larger and more centralized proletariats, begin to move again. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East and South Central Asia.

Russia has long had a neighborly imperialist concern for the stability of this critical region and had even maintained friendly relations with the bloodthirsty Shah of Iran, America’s junior partner, before his ouster. Since then, Iran has been wracked by continuous revolutionary upheavals. Workers councils exist, despite the Islamic obscurantism that constrains them. Various oppressed nationalities are fighting for self-determination. Externally, the grip that the Shah held over the region has collapsed. Iraq and Iran are nearly at war; Pakistan is torn by ethnic conflict and mass struggles, and the vast Indian subcontinent is shaking with communal and class violence; the Israeli colonial-settler state’s “peace” with the Arab world is falling apart, and nearly every Arab regime including the wealthiest is itself faced with internal unrest. In the midst of this tinderbox the Afghan revolution threatened to explode.

Afghanistan has never really been a nation. Its antediluvian economy and diverse national groupings were held together by a central state that survived only with substatial foreign financing. It too was affected by the revolutionary currents of the late 1960’s, and the 1978 revolution symbolized the fact that the old relations could no longer hold. The new bourgeois nationalists could not achieve stability either, and it is no accident that the several reactionary guerrilla outfits are unable to even unify their forces against the central government. For there is no national solution for Afghanistan; only foreign imperialist control or international proletarian revolution can fill the vacuum. When Hafizullah Amin began to press the opposition and thereby foment even more chaos, the Russians stepped in to restrain the revolution and attempt to create a semblance of unity and order.

The danger the Russians see is not simply the internal anarchy but also the possibility of external combustion. Taraki and Amin were both ardent opponents of Khomeini and Islamic reaction in Iran, but Moscow was desperately trying to align itself with the Ayatollah both through its own diplomacy and its minions in Iran, the Tudeh Party. For Khomeini seemed to be the only force that could possibly stabilize Iran, playing his Bonapartist balancing act between the revolutionary anti-imperialist workers, peasants and petty-bourgeoisie and the bourgeois governments of first Bazargan and now Bani-Sadr. Indeed, Islamic reaction (in both pro- and anti-Khomeini forms) has been spreading rapidly throughout the Middle East and into Africa, in the absence of alternative ideologies with mass appeal. Religious obscurantism is the last refuge of bourgeois nationalism, whose secular proponents are faltering under the collapse of their promised heavens on earth. Moscow was compelled to prevent the secular Amin from alienating this powerful counterrevolutionary force.

The beauties of Islamic reaction have not been lost on the U.S. either. Despite the hostage seizure in Teheran, Carter tried every gambit in the book to curry favor with the Ayatollah, including a steadfast hostility to every rebellious movement in Iran. So far, however, the momentum of the Iranian revolution among the working masses has been too great to permit open government collaboration with U.S. imperialism.

The possibility of an alliance between Islam and the Kremlin is a great lure for Brezhnev. The Middle East is not just another area of the world but the source of the oil that turns the machinery of international capitalism. If its equilibrium blows up, the survival of the capitalist world is endangered; it is a central area for Russia’s stabilization efforts. For Marxists, therefore, to support the Russian military intervention is to line up on the side of imperialism, stability and counterrevolution.

It goes without saying, of course, that no serious Marxist could support the reactionary guerrillas. In fact, until the time of the Russian invasion, military support for the PDP forces against the guerrilla forces was appropriate, in order to defend the material gains won for the urban and rural masses and to protect the exploited classes from the counterrevolution. Military support means no political support for the bourgeois regime but rather opposition to its Stalinist strategy of holding the revolution back in the interest of achieving a bourgeois-democratic stage (which would in fact serve as a barrier to socialism). The best hope for extending the revolution was for the small proletariat to link up with the Iranian working class, which had been instrumental in overthrowing the Shah.

After the invasion, there were at first signs that army sections loyal to Amin were continuing to oppose both the Russians and the guerrillas (see January and February 1980 Socialist Action). The LRP called for military support to these forces. Since February little has been reported about them, but the media has an interest in tagging all rebels as pro-West guerrillas. However, after the recent Kabul campus riots the Manchester Guardian Weekly of May 18, 1980 reported that the students were not pro-West but pro-Taraki. Marxists call for the defeat of both warring counterrevolutionary sides. We hope the workers find their way from past political support to the Khalq to communist internationalism.

Trotsky’s Historical Position

We wrote in February that “to our knowledge, no other organization claiming adherence to Trotskyism has stood for the defense of the Afghan revolution against all its enemies.” This is still the case. Those that recognize the bourgeois-democratic achievements of the Taraki-Amin governments do not see that the regime has been completely overturned; those that oppose the USSR’s imperialism and even recognize the reactionary character of the guerrillas nevertheless deny the need to defend the limited gains of the revolution. Both end up in support of one form of counterrevolution or another.

Several of these left supporters of counterrevolution have tried to devise a Trotskyist precedent for their positions. Although Trotsky was killed in the early days of World War II and did not live to see the Eastern European Stalinist states created in Russia’s image after the war, he did witness the Russian takeover of Eastern Poland, Finland and the Baltic States in connection with Stalin’s alliance with Nazi Germany. Trotsky’s position (which appears in several articles and letters published in the books In Defense of Marxism and Writings 1939-40) can be summarized as follows:

  1. The invasions confirmed the counterrevolutionary character of Stalinism, both because they meant extending Stalin’s bureaucratic oppression to additional peoples and because they pulled Stalin further into Hitler’s imperialist orbit and thereby endangered the workers’ state, which Trotsky believed the USSR still to be.
  2. The Russian attack nevertheless had limited beneficial aspects, in that Trotsky believed that the approach of the Red Army inspired insurrections by the workers and peasants of Polish Ukraine to seize bourgeois property. But Trotsky warned the masses of the occupied territories that the Kremlin would soon turn against them in order to enslave them.
  3. The Russian territorial acquisitions had to be seen as subordinate to the imperialist war (World War II) in which Russia’s existence was endangered; therefore the Fourth International’s policy of defending the Soviet Union had to be maintained and extended to the new territories.

Trotsky’s information that the invasion of Eastern Poland inspired a revolutionary wave was based on reports in the Menshevik press, but there is no evidence that these reports were accurate. This question, however, does not alter the political logic of Trotsky’s position. Given that Russia was a workers’ state, it had to be defended; nevertheless, the Stalinist method of “defense” by enslaving new territories weakened the Soviet Union by demoralizing the workers, disorganizing the ranks of the Communist International, and undermining the potential of a revolutionary outcome to the war. In sum,

The primary political criterion for us in not the transformation of property relations in this or another area, however important these may be in themselves, but rather the change in the consciousness and organization of the world proletariat, the raising of their capacity for defending former conquests and accomplishing new ones. From this one, and the only decisive standpoint, the politics of Moscow, taken as a whole, completely retains its reactionary character and remains the chief obstacle on the road to world revolution. (In Defense of Marxism, p. 19)

The basis for Trotsky’s defensist position had already been undermined by the Stalinist counterrevolution in the USSR, which wiped out the last vestiges of proletarian power and restored bourgeois social relations under the rule of the state bureaucracy (see Socialist Voice No. 2). The secret clauses of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 already outlined Stalin’s imperialist ambitions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and these were amply demonstrated by the outcome of World War II: Stalin’s new conquests were subordinated to Russia politically and economically. Trotsky’s judgement that Russia remained proletarian was wrong, but his view of Stalinism as counterrevolutionary was confirmed.

The leadership of the Fourth International tried after the war to maintain both aspects of Trotsky’s position: they continued to call Russia a degenerated workers’ state, but regarded the new buffer states of Eastern Europe as state capitalist and criticized their Stalinist rulers for holding back the workers’ revolution. By the late 1940’s, however, it became clear that the social and economic structure of the satellites was modeled after the USSR, and contradiction of labeling them as different social systems had to be resolved. The Fourth International’s head, Michel Pablo, devised the theory that they were workers’ states “deformed” by Stalinism (not “degenerated” since they had not gone through the process of degeneration and counterrevolution as had the USSR). But the notion that Stalinism could create workers’ states of any kind – requiring a socialist revolution, after all – was in total contradiction to Trotsky’s conception that Stalinism had become “the chief obstacle on the road to world revolution.”

United Secretariat’s Contradictions

All the Pabloite organizations are contaminated by the belief that the USSR still plays some kind of revolutionary role in the world. The largest such organization is the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec), which went in three different directions over the Afghan question. Its majority, led by Ernest Mandel, attempted to mimic Trotsky’s position on Poland as closely as possible. It stated, “Revolutionists... do not take any responsibility for the Kremlin’s military intervention. They do not give the slightest political support to this intervention, which flows from the overall policy of the bureaucratic caste” (Intercontinental Press, March 3). Its resolution even paraphrased Trotsky: even if the Russian forces were to overturn bourgeois property relations in Afghanistan, “we would remain opposed to the annexation of new territory by the Kremlin, to whom we do not entrust any historical mission” (see In Defense of Marxism, p. 20).

But the USec still manages to find a revolutionary lining to the Stalinist cloud:

Revolutionary Marxists reject any neutralist attitude in this war. In so far as the Soviet army actually is opposing the enemies of the workers and peasants, they favor its victory over them. To achieve that, the gains of the workers must be consolidated, radical social and democratic steps must be taken, and the Afghan masses must be organized and armed to defend them....

In the medium and long term, there is one possibility that cannot be excluded beforehand: In a situation where the semi-feudal and bourgeois forces are extremely weak and the presence of Soviet troops becomes prolonged, the fact that the Soviet bureaucracy is rooted in the workers state created by the October revolution could lead it to structurally transform property relations in Afghanistan.

An amazingly contradictory position! If the Russian army is capable of “structurally transforming” bourgeois property (which must mean creating another “deformed workers’ state”), how can any serious communist not give it political support? The contradiction lies in trying to meld Trotsky’s unshakeable opposition to counterrevolutionary Stalinism into the Pabloite world view that credits it with creating a dozen “workers’ states.”

Moreover, if defeating the Islamic guerrillas requires organizing and arming the Afghan masses, as it certainly does, then to support the Soviet army is insane – that army is engaged in disarming and disorganizing the Afghan workers and peasants, as any Trotskyist or even pseudo-Trotskyist ought to expect. The USec admits that “at the moment, there is no sign that the intervention by the ‘Red Army’ is encouraging such a mobilization of the workers against the landlords and capitalists,” and it warns that the Russians and the Karmal regime “might decide to make compromises” with the guerrillas. Such queasiness about the truth is appalling. Karmal was shouting compromises from the instant the Russian troops marched in, and to suggest that the Russian army might ever (even if not “at the moment”) encourage mass mobilizations rather than shooting them down is to disseminate the greatest, most dangerous illusions. It is clear that the USec dislikes and distrusts Stalinism, but it nevertheless cannot escape the Pabloite logic of seeking to tie the oppressed masses to the Moscow bureaucracy in the hope of making a revolution behind their backs. Trotsky’s “decisive” criterion, “the change in the consciousness and organization of the world proletariat,” is irrelevant to the Pabloites.

SWP Backs “Moderation”

A minority of the United Secretariat led by the American Socialist Workers Party took a less contradictory but more reactionary position: it backed the Russian invasion as a justified defense of the Afghan revolution, and in particular supported the capitulatory policies of the Karmal regime as opposed to those of the government that the Russians overthrew. Some of the SWP’s arguments have to be seen to be believed. Take, for example, the commentary on the PDP’s critical attitude towards Khomeini’s reactionary “Islamic Republic” in Iran in the article “Problems of the Afghan Revolution” by Ernest Harsch (Intercontinental Press, February 18). Harsch points out that Taraki “hailed the overthrow of the Shah, but added that the Iranian masses had simply jumped ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’.” He continues:

The sectarian attacks against the Iranian revolution became even more virulent. Each month, the Kabul Times carried at least one editorial devoted to condemning the ‘tyranny and despotism’ of the ‘reactionary and fanatic regime of Iran, led by Khomeini.’

If that is true, the bourgeois nationalist revolutionaries in Kabul, although Stalinists, provided a more accurate description of the Teheran regime than many “Trotskyists.” The SWP is upset that people trying to achieve revolutionary democratic gains in Afghanistan would dare to criticize a regime desperately holding the masses back in Iran. An even more illuminating example is Harsch’s analysis of the difficulties the PDP encountered in bringing education to women, in the same article:

Under the literacy campaign, for example, the PDPA activists who went out into the villages to organize classes immediately attempted to introduce coeducation, without regard to the problems of doing so in areas where women were still commonly segregated from men in public life. Rather than carefully and patiently trying to overcome conservative prejudices against women’s emancipation, they sought to force the process.

What tender consideration the SWP shows for those whose “conservative prejudices” classify women as sub-human and who enforce the most barbaric oppression in private as well as public life! Imagine such a statement applied to the desegregation of schools in the United States – the U.S. Supreme Court’s eminently conservative formula of desegregation “with all deliberate speed” must seem to be wild-eyed radicalism to the patient “militants” of the SWP. This statement comes from a party that parades on its home ground as the foremost defender of women’s rights – but when it comes to treating women as members of the human race it hesitates to “force the process.” Forced busing of school children by the bourgeois courts, police and army is the policy of the SWP in the U.S. whatever the wishes of the black families involved, but compulsory education of women by a revolutionary government is, in Harsch’s words, an “error and misjudgment” due to the lack of “self-correcting feedback from mass participation and involvement in decision-making.” It is not the revolutionary masses (who turned out the monarchists) whose participation the SWP is calling for, but the reactionary forces who shoot people for the crime of teaching women. The SWP’s theory that socialism is nothing but the culmination of consistent democracy has been brought to an ultimate, counterrevolutionary end.

The SWP has swallowed whole the Stalinist argument that it was necessary to crush the Afghan revolution in order to defend it. The SWP’s criticisms are not just that the PDP was too brutal but that it went too far and too fast. Far better to have “revolutionists” who do their best to hold the revolution back, like Karmal, Khomeini and the Nicaraguan FSLN.

What on earth does this have to do with Trotskyism? The SWP has been reluctant to cite any Marxist historical analogy whatever, but it eventually felt compelled to come up with a Trotskyist citation that would give it some justification for its position. Here is the passage they found, quoted (from Letter on India in Writings 1939-40, pages 108-9) twice on the same page of the April 28 Intercontinental Press:

The general historic role of the Stalinist bureaucracy and their Comintern is counterrevolutionary. But through their military and other interests they can be forced to support progressive movements. We must keep our eyes open to discern the progressive acts of the Stalinists, support them independently, foresee in time the danger, the betrayals, warn the masses and gain their confidence.

The SWP then connects this passage to Afghanistan by the following reasoning:

  1. Since the Soviet bureaucracy rests on the October revolution, it can be forced to take progressive steps;
  2. the Afghan revolution was a progressive movement, which, moreover, was endangered by American imperialism through “Washington’s violations of Afghanistan’s national sovereignty”; therefore
  3. Russia’s intervention was a progressive step.
The fallacy in this logic is that Russia invaded not to support the Afghan revolution but to undermine and “stabilize” it – a fact that the SWP fails to notice because it supports the measures of stabilization itself. And the SWP bats not one eyelash at Moscow’s violations of Afghanistan’s national sovereignty, which, despite the CIA’s dirty work, happen at the moment to be somewhat more extensive than Washington’s. After all, the SWP murmurs (parroting Moscow), Hafizullah Amin himself invited the Russians in – and presumably therefore called for his own murder and the overthrow of his own regime.

The biggest fraud in the SWP’s argument, however, is the link between Moscow’s supposedly “progressive” role and Russia’s supposedly proletarian character. For Trotsky meant nothing of the sort, and the passage just quoted had to be doctored by the SWP in order to make it seem so. In between the second and third sentences quoted, Trotsky had placed a parenthetical phrase that the SWP removed without notifying the reader: “Even Ludendorff felt himself forced to give Lenin a train – a very progressive action – and Lenin accepted it.” Ludendorff, the brains of the Imperial German military machine during World War I who permitted Lenin to cross Germany to get to Russia in 1917, was hardly trying to defend socialist property relations!

Trotsky’s point was to show that the Stalinists, like all counterrevolutionaries, could end up on the right side at a given moment through fortuitous circumstances. It is perfectly natural for one power to aid the opponents of a rival, as Ludendorff did, and as Stalin might do against British imperialism in India while he was allied with Britain’s rival, Germany. But there was no material compulsion for Stalin to support the progressive movement in India, a fact that was proved when Stalin switched sides, backed Britain and opposed the anti-imperialist struggle of the Indian people. Trotsky’s real point of view on such interventions by the Red Army was explained (In Defense of Marxism, page 29):

Some comrades say: ‘And if the Red Army tomorrow invades India and begins to put down a revolutionary movement there shall we in this case support it?’... We have never promised to support all the actions of the Red Army which is an instrument in the hands of the Bonapartist bureaucracy. We have promised to defend only the USSR as a workers’ state and solely those things within it which belong to a workers’ state.

An adroit casuist can say: If the Red Army, independently of the character of the ‘work’ fulfilled by it, is beaten by the insurgent masses in India, this will weaken the USSR. To this we will answer: The crushing of a revolutionary movement in India, with the cooperation of the Red Army, would signify an incomparably greater danger to the social basis of the USSR than an episodical defeat of counterrevolutionary detachments of the Red Army in India. In every case the Fourth International will know how to distinguish where and when the Red Army is acting solely as an instrument of the Bonapartist reaction and where it defends the social basis of the USSR.

Trotsky’s discussion is perfectly valid today, despite his incorrect conception of the social basis of the USSR. The crushing of the revolutionary movement in Afghanistan is a responsibility shared by the Stalinists leading it, the Islamic guerrillas (and their Western and Chinese supporters) opposing it, and the Russian army that stabbed it in the back while coming to its “aid.” We could add to this list the pseudo-Trotskyists who can’t tell revolution from counterrevolution.

Spartacists Hail Stalinist Army

The SWP’s enthusiasm for the Russian invasion is subdued in comparison to that of the Spartacist League, an organization that likes to think of itself as the SWP’s great rival on the left. The similarity of their lines on Afghanistan gave the SL a problem. All it could do was mumble how “unexpected,” “incredible” and “ludicrous” it was for the SWP (which the SL considers to have abandoned the “defense of the Soviet Union”) to have a line only marginally less pro-Stalinist than its own. But there was really nothing surprising about the SWP’s position. The SWP has long been enamored of nationalist revolutions with leaderships that it considers fundamentally independent of Moscow (like Cuba’s and Nicaragua’s). The SWP loved the Afghan nationalist revolution but feared its defeat at the hands of the guerrillas, and therefore it accepted both the Russian “support” and stabilization. The SL, for its part, identifies with Russian nationalism, and its position too was predictable.

But not the vehemence with which the Spartacists declared support for the Stalinist army. In the past their support had been couched in more critical terms. Nevertheless, in our critique of the SL’s analysis of Russia (Socialist Voice No. 4) we had shown that the Spartacists, in effect, disagree with Trotsky’s theory that Stalin’s rule over Russia after Lenin’s death undermined proletarian state power and threatened to restore capitalism; for the SL, Stalin’s nationalizations and forced collectivizations destroyed the law of value and therefore moved the USSR further away from capitalism than it had been in the days of Lenin and Trotsky. In Afghanistan, their slogan “Hail Red Army!“ was only the beginning:

While the Moscow Stalinists apparently presently intend to shore up the PDPA regime, and if anything limit the pace of democratic and modernizing reforms, the prolonged presence in Afghanistan of the Soviet army opens up more far-reaching possibilities. Speaking on the national and colonial question at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, Lenin foresaw that ‘...with the aid of the proletariat of the advanced countries, backward countries can go over to the Soviet system, and through certain stages of development, to communism, without having to pass through the capitalist stage.’ Extend social gains of the October Revolution to Afghan peoples! (Workers Vanguard, January 11)

What was possible in the days of Lenin’s revolutionary Communist International, however, is impossible for the agents of counterrevolutionary Stalinism. But even were we to ignore this decisive obstacle, the Spartacists do not inform us just how the advance to communism in Afghanistan is to be made. Are the Russians supposed to statify bourgeois property there? That can’t be, because the banks and large industries were taken over by the government years ago – by that criterion, Afghanistan has long been a workers’ state. Is it to be done by extending bourgeois-democratic reforms to the limit? No, for the SL has already noted that Moscow is limiting the pace of reforms. We suspect the SL is suggesting that Russia ought to incorporate Afghanistan within the USSR; that is why it expresses amazement (Workers Vanguard, April 4) at the USec’s declaration opposing “the annexation of new territories by the Kremlin.” The SL is apparently unaware that the subtle minds of the USec were quoting Trotsky without saying so.

Trotsky’s legacy has another surprise for the SL. Trotsky had an answer to those who called for the “Hail Red Army” slogan in 1939. Writing to Max Shachtman, the American Trotskyist leader who took the unprincipled position of opposing the defense of the USSR even though he considered it a workers’ state, Trotsky replied:

You quote the march of the Red Army in 1920 into Poland and into Georgia and you continue: ‘Now, if there is nothing new in the situation, why does not the majority propose to hail the advance of the Red Army into Poland, into the Baltic countries, into Finland...’ In this decisive part of your speech, you establish that something is ‘new in the situation’ between 1920 and 1939. Of course! This newness in the situation is the bankruptcy of the Third International, the degeneracy of the Soviet state, the development of the Left Opposition, and the creation of the Fourth International. This ‘concreteness of events’ occurred precisely between 1920 and 1939. And these events explain sufficiently why we have radically changed our position toward the politics of the Kremlin, including its military politics. (In Defense of Marxism, page 38)

The Spartacists have forgotten the difference between Lenin’s Soviet Union of 1920 and Stalin’s of 1939 and after; or, more precisely, they regard Stalin’s as an improvement (Socialist Voice No. 4). Trotsky adds to the statement above: “It seems that you forget somewhat that in 1920 we supported not only the deeds of the Red Army but also the deeds of the GPU.” In the 1970’s the Spartacists reverted to supporting the deeds of the GPU; they are one of the few tendencies outside of the Communist Parties that supported the monstrous Berlin Wall designed for the enslavement of German workers.

The Spartacists have not ignored every Trotskyist precedent. They wrote a diatribe on the Afghan question against the League for the Revolutionary Party in Workers Vanguard of March 21, claiming that we had distorted Trotsky’s position. We have already replied to some of the slanders and misquotations contained in the SL’s article (see Spartacist Acrobatics in Socialist Action, April 1980); and we have amply showed that Trotsky did not favor the invasion of Poland. But there is more to be said. After defending the invasion of Eastern Poland, the SL goes on to argue, oddly, that Poland in 1939 is not a precedent for Afghanistan in 1979:

The cases are not identical. In 1939 the Russian invasion of Poland was a product of the Kremlin’s reactionary-utopian belief that the USSR could not be defended by deals with one or another imperialist coalition (in this case the Stalin-Hitler pact). The intervention into Afghanistan is not a product of ‘peaceful coexistence,’ but its opposite: the Soviets were forced for purely defensive reasons to intervene in a civil war fighting against imperialist-aided feudalistic reaction.

According to this, the 1979 invasion was a necessary defensive move against imperialism while the 1939 attack, however justifiable in its own right, was unnecessary, a product of the misguided strategy of peaceful coexistence. That is, the case for invading Afghanistan is even better than the case for Poland, says the SL. It is a very twisted argument. In 1939 Russia was genuinely endangered by Hitler’s armies mobilized on the Polish border, but the idea that the existence of the USSR today is threatened by or through Afghanistan is hard to swallow. In 1939 Trotsky thought that the Kremlin was momentarily aiding social progress in Poland; in 1979, not even the Spartacists believe that the Russian troops are advancing the PDP’s reforms. The real purpose of this argument is to evade what Trotsky had to say, and we can well understand why.

Afghanistan has enabled the Spartacists to make clear just what it is they defend in the USSR. Comparing the aborted invasion into Iranian territory by “Crazy Carter and his mad anti-Russian Dr. Strangelove” with the “speed and efficiency” of the Russian intervention into Afghanistan, Workers Vanguard (May 2) commented, “No wonder everyone recognizes that the Russian presence on the Afghan border of Iran is one of the few stabilizing features in a dangerously unstable situation.”

No doubt Russia’s presence is a stabilizing factor, or at least the Russians hope it to be. What causes one to wonder is that people calling themselves revolutionaries find stabilization to be a virtue. This Spartacist preference is reminiscent of Andrew Young, who liked to praise the Cuban troops in Angola for their stabilizing efforts (see Carter’s Twisting African Policy in Socialist Voice No. 7) when he was in office. Indeed the SL’s plea for stability amounts to a call for U.S. imperialism to turn back to the “peaceful coexistence” notions of Young and Vance and reject the “manifestly mad” hawkishness of Brzezinski. We have often pointed out that a policy of defending the Soviet Union today, when that country is one of the two leading imperialist superpowers, will in the long run come down to defending the Soviet Union’s goal of détente. Apparently frightened out of their customary discretion by the specter of Carter’s “craziness,” the Spartacists have compressed the long run into the short. Underneath their verbal ferocity lies an organization of panicked liberals.

(The Spartacists’ incessant refrain that Carter, Khomeini and Brzezinski are all crazy signifies the abandonment of any attempt at Marxist understanding. There are, after all, revolutionary mass struggles on the loose in the world, and the politicians of the bourgeoisie have to find ways to contain them. Whipping up chauvinist feelings by Iranians or Americans is one method for doing this, and it is not madness but bourgeois class logic to try.)

There is a certain tragic comedy in the SL’s position on Afghanistan. On Iran, the Spartacists claimed that Khomeini was “even more reactionary” than the Shah and criminally chose not to support the mass revolution that overthrew the monarchy. But they had consistently and very often correctly attacked the SWP for backing the policies of Khomeini and the mullahs. We note with interest that they have joined with the SWP over Afghanistan in covering for the Stalinists’ hailing of Islamic reaction. For the SWP, a “moderate” revolutionary process is a very good thing. For the SL, the methods don’t matter as long as the Russians do it. The techniques and styles differ, but the conclusions of these sister organizations are the same.

“Stabilization” and Imperialism

The SWP and the SL have been rivals ever since the SL split away in the early 1960’s, nominally over the degree of degeneration of the Cuban “workers’ state.” Their alignment today results from the fact that they each capitulate to counterrevolutionary nationalisms, even if different ones. The SL’s first loyalty is to Russia because of its “advanced,” planned economy that typifies order and stability; its anti-capitalism is a middle-class hostility to competition and anarchy, but not to exploitation. This is the nationalism of the world powers, a position the SL arrived at because of its identification with the advanced nations and its disdain for the oppressed. (We have analyzed the most obscene manifestations of this phenomenon in articles on the Spartacists’ American chauvinism in Socialist Voice Nos. 3 and 8.) The SWP, on the other hand, romanticizes bourgeois-nationalist revolutions, especially in the “third world.” At a historical conjuncture when the possibilities for national consolidations are fading and the nationalist leaders must make ever greater concessions to imperialism, the SWP finds no alternative but to go along with them: hence its attitude towards Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iran, Grenada and now Afghanistan.

Both organizations have substituted nationalism and sectoralism for the proletarian internationalism of Marxists. Stalin’s theory of socialism in one country was a way to give a proletarian cover to nationalism. It now requires the cleverer disguise of pseudo-Trotskyism. But it is still bourgeois. In both its “third world” and its Russian form, nationalism leads first to “stabilization” (the goal of Russia, Cuba and every bourgeois ruling class) and then straight into the lap of U.S. imperialism.

Trotsky defended the Soviet Union, he believed, in order to promote revolution. His latter-day misinterpreters defend it in the name of moderation and stability. Trotsky opposed Stalin’s invasions because, above all, they disoriented the revolutionary workers. The SL and SWP defend Brezhnev’s invasion because they no longer believe in proletarian revolution and are, knowingly or not, dedicated to the bourgeoisie’s last gasp at an alternative. The instability the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie are so afraid of is a sign that the proletarian revolution is again moving onto the agenda throughout the world. The pseudo-Trotskyists have done the rising proletariat a service by so publicly declaring their loyalties to the bourgeoisie in advance.