Introduction. Afghanistan and the left

Submitted by AWL on 12 April, 2004 - 9:19

The Afghan Stalinist coup d'état of April (Saur) 1978 had enormous consequences. The "Great Saur Revolution" led directly to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan at Christmas, 1979. That in turn led to the Second Cold War. The USSR got drawn into what was soon accurately being described as "Russia's Vietnam War".
In the nine years of that war, perhaps one and a half million Afghans - about one in 12 of Afghanistan's population - died. Six million - one in three - Afghans were driven over the borders as refugees.

The prolonged war in Afghanistan helped shatter the elan and self-confidence of the Russian Stalinist ruling class and thus contributed to the crisis that led in 1991, two years after the Russians finally withdrew from Afghanistan, to the collapse of Stalinism in Russia.

The Russian invasion and the new plunge into deep cold war divided the left and threw most of it backwards. Since the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, to snuff out the "Socialism With a Human Face" regime of Alexander Dubcek, many had grown very critical of the "socialist" USSR and taken to seeing it as one of the two great pillars of world reaction. Many of these were now thrown back to "support" for the state which had (as one segment of the USFI, that centred on the SWP USA, put it) "gone to the aid of a revolution".

Independent working class politics was thus subverted in large parts of the left. Many working class militants who wanted to "tear the head off capitalism" were disoriented enough, and politically backward enough, to support the Russians in Afghanistan.

The Communist Party condemned the Russian invasion, but most of the "Trotskyists" - Militant/Socialist Party, the Mandelite organisation - backed the Russians.

So did a large part of the then large and militant Labour Party left. Three Labour MPs went to Afghanistan and came back to tell the British labour movement how wonderful for socialism it was that Afghanistan was now part of the socialist world.

To give an example from my own experience at the time, one of the rowdiest labour movement meetings I've ever attended was a debate I had in Edinburgh soon after the Russian invasion with a pro-USSR Labour MP just back from Afghanistan: should socialists be for or against the Russians in Afghanistan?

It was a Saturday afternoon at the end of some miners' gala or conference, and a big proportion of the large meeting were miners, many of them bevvied-up. The meeting was overwhelmingly pro-Russian and very hostile to those of us who denounced Russian imperialism and its invasion of Afghanistan. "The yanks are against the Russians, so is Margaret Thatcher, so is the CIA - and so is Socialist Organiser!…" was the theme of a number of speakers.

Some of them were, but most of them were not, diehard old Communist Party "Tankies". Most of them would have been Labour Party people.

My opponent in the Edinburgh debate was the Labour MP for Leith, the former engineering worker, Ron Brown - an honest man but a political idiot who thought that Leonid Brezhnev and Colonel Gadaffi - and probably Saddam Hussein - were socialists. Just back from Afghanistan, he was keen to tell British workers that the Russians were doing great progressive work there, and, moreover, that they were very popular… To the loud approval of much of the meeting Brown praised the Russian leaders for sending tanks to Kabul. I attracted fierce abuse and much interruption when I argued that we should condemn the invasion and call on the Russians to get out of Afghanistan.

I'd taken part in open-air mass meetings of dock workers in Manchester. Noisy, sometimes conflict-ridden affairs in which a genteel middle class outsider would have seen imminent violence where there was none. But at a number of points in that debate, I did think the meeting was about to break up in violent disorder. I was struck by the fact that at no point did Ron Brown appeal for order. Even he was intimidated, or so I thought at the time, by the fierce feeling whose tribune he was.

This large Scottish labour movement meeting was not all that unrepresentative of opinion on the left then. The supporters of the Russians in Afghanistan would certainly have won the vote had we had one.

And it wasn't only the left that was disoriented on Stalinism.

For example, at the time of the upsurge of Solidarnosc in Poland and the seizure of the Gdansk shipyards (August, 1980), the TUC had to decide whether or not to send a long-arranged delegation to Poland to visit the Stalinist police-state "unions" there - whose Gdansk representative Tadeusz Fiszbach had responded to the workers' seizure of the shipyards by threatening them with slaughter. He would, he threatened, unleash the tanks and the army against them, as had been done a decade earlier (December, 1970) when hundreds of shipyard workers had been massacred.

It became a big issue in the labour movement and in the bourgeois press whether the TUC should cancel the scheduled visit.

I recall a speech by Sir Bill Sirs (sic), the stone-age right-wing leader of the notoriously undemocratic steelworkers' union, defending the TUC's projected visit to Poland. He talked warmly about his "Polish colleagues", the bureaucrats running the totalitarian pseudo unions in Poland!

A large part of the labour movement was infected with such ideas and attitudes, or accommodated to those who were. We of course denounced the visit and said it should be cancelled. But even the British Mandelites (the United Secretariat of the Fourth International) favoured and defended the visit. One wing of that "International" (that organised by the SWP-USA) called for "massive" western aid for Poland in response to a Solidarnosc call on workers throughout the world to boycott Polish goods!

Many people who called themselves socialists thought "defending nationalised property" more important than the right of the Polish workers' movement Solidarnosc to exist.

I remember the Edinburgh meeting as a distressing experience, and not only because it is a bit unnerving to stand in front of two or three rugby teams' worth of pissed and half-pissed miners and continue telling them that they are suicidally wrong when some of them are acting as if they are about to rush you.

What distressed me then and distresses me now, remembering it, is who and what these angry supporters of Russian imperialism in Afghanistan were, who looked on what I was saying as treacherous and a comfort to the class enemy in Britain, and the tragic gap between what in reality they were supporting and what they thought they were supporting when they cheered on the Stalinist dictator Brezhnev.

These were some of the best people in our movement then. But they were hopelessly disoriented. Politically they had no future.

Looking through the files of one of the worst of the small Tankie Stalinist groups of the 1980s, The Leninist, now the Weekly Worker/CPGB, I was reminded of the tragic political confusion, on Afghanistan, Poland and many other questions, which poisoned and helped destroy the subjectively revolutionary left of that time. The debate between the Weekly Worker group, and Solidarity and Workers' Liberty on Afghanistan provides us with a chance to re-examine the politics of that time and the broader question of the nature of Stalinism and the proper independent socialist attitude to it.

Sean Matgamna

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