Part II: Ted Grant and Alan Woods on Afghanistan

Submitted by AWL on 27 October, 2016 - 1:14 Author: Sean Matgamna

What characterises Bolshevism on the national question is that in its attitude towards oppressed nations, even the most backward, it considers them not only the object but also the subject of politics. Bolshevism does not confine itself to recognising their “rights” and parliamentary protests against the trampling upon of those rights, Bolshevism penetrates into the midst of the oppressed nations; it raises them up against their oppressors; it ties up their struggle with the struggle of the proletariat in advanced countries; it instructs the oppressed Chinese, Hindus or Arabs in the art of insurrection, and it assumes full responsibility for their work in the face of “civilised” executioners. Here only does Bolshevism begin, that is, revolutionary Marxism in action. Everything that does not stop over that boundary remains centrism. Leon Trotsky, ‘What Next?’

These tribesmen [are] “dark masses”, stuck in the gloom of barbarism... The task of dragging the Afghan countryside out of the slough of primeval backwardness and into the 20th century would be formidable, even with correct leadership and Marxist politics... The Russian bureaucracy and their Afghan supporters are, in effect, carrying through the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution in that country. Alan Woods, Militant, July 1980

It so happened that Ted Grant published a major statement of his position on “the colonial revolution” just a few months after the April 1978 Afghan coup, in Militant International Review, No.14, Summer 1978. At the end of a very long article proclaiming that the Stalinist “proletarian Bonapartist” state is the wave of the future for large areas of the world Grant hails the latest proof of the correctness of his views — Afghanistan. He devotes two pages to it, asserting that: “...The fresh example of Afghanistan underlines the analysis we have made of the colonial revolution”.

Like the Ba’ath party in Syria, the PDP has “had no difficulty in swallowing the doctrine of ‘Islam’ as well as ‘Communism’. This is because religious superstition has deep roots in the backward and illiterate peasant majority. Afghanistan has had many coups, but this coup was not like other coups. “This coup opens up the possibility (Grant’s emphasis) of striking in a new direction. ‘Communists’ have become prime minister and president and also have a dominating role in the government. This indicates in which direction the officers wish to go”.

What about the problem of the deeply conservative Muslim clergy? Grant was not worried.

“As in Poland, where the Polish Stalinist bureaucracy came to an agreement with the Catholic Church so in Afghanistan the Communist Party leadership, together with the officers, can arrive at an agreement with the Mullahs of Islam”. In this field, Grant thinks, “Taraki... pursues the same policy as that of the Syrian leaders of the Ba’ath”. Grant believes Stalinism has a progressive role to play in Afghanistan, as he explains here.

“In the case of Afghanistan, only two roads are possible at this stage. The working class is minuscule. Sections of the intelligentsia, and apparently the majority of the officers and a great part of the professionals want to construct a modern civilised state. The peasants want the land”. There is no way forward “on the road of capitalism and landlordism”. The officers want to develop Afghanistan, “to take the road traversed by Outer Mongolia”.

These “peculiar changes” are only possible because of “the international context: “crisis of imperialism and capitalism, the impasse of the backward countries of the Third World and the existence of the proletarian Bonapartist states, especially of Russia and China in Asia together with the delay of the proletarian revolution in the West”. The officers are “attracted when they see the consequences of the Stalinist regime in the modernisation of Russia. Its effect on the tribesmen of similar peoples and even the same tribes, in bordering areas of Russia has a big effect, with formerly as low a standard of living, and just as great illiteracy and ignorance.

“The industrialisation, complete literacy and high standards in comparison to Afghanistan, are bound to impress these strata. In contrast the backwardness and barbarism on which the nobility thrived in Afghanistan cannot but appal all the best elements — the intelligentsia, the professionals and even the officer caste. They wish to break out from poverty, ignorance and dirt from which their country suffers. The capitalists of the West, with unemployment and industrial stagnation, offer them nothing as far as they are concerned. They wish to break away from the vicious circle of tribal rulers and different military regimes which change nothing in fundamentals”.

So they turn to — and in the case of much of the old upper classes and professionals, wish to turn into — the ruling caste of a degenerated workers’ state, what Ted Grant calls “proletarian Bonapartism”.

Everything is 100 per cent as it has to be because of the circumstances. Everybody is attracted to the Soviet Union and repelled by everything else. As we saw, in Grant’s soothing vision the problems with the Muslim clergy will soften and ease under the magic-working strokes of the wave of the future, as it benignly washes over Afghanistan.

“Under these circumstances, if the new regime leans on the support of the peasants and transforms society then the way will be cleared for the development of a regime in Afghanistan like that of Cuba, Syria or Russia”.

This new Afghan regime will be nothing less than epochal, “For the first time for centuries”, Grant explains (his emphasis), this regime “will bring Afghanistan forward to the modern world”. Continuing, Ted Grant becomes positively visionary. The reader must excuse a longish quotation.

“It could become a new blow at capitalism and landlordism in the rest of capitalist- landlord Asia... It will have incalculable effects on the Pathans and Baluchis of Pakistan. It will have an effect on the like peoples on the borders of Iran. The rotting regime of Pakistan in coming years will face complete disintegration... The tribesmen will be influenced by the processes taking place among their brothers across the borders... The effect will be in widening circles... felt in Iran... also in India.

“This is the road which the ‘Communist Party’, which holds power together with the radical officers, will take.”

Taraki, Amin, Babrak Karmal — history is at your feet... if the people of Afghanistan are!

But if they hesitate, perhaps under restraining Russian influence, then, Grant warns, they will prepare the way for a ferocious counter-revolution led by landlords and mullahs. If successful it could slaughter hundreds of thousands of peasants, massacre radical officers, and perhaps exterminate the educated elite . Grant concludes with a firm commitment to support the new regime in Afghanistan:

“... the most progressive development in Afghanistan seems at the present time to be the installation of proletarian Bonapartism. “While not closing our eyes to the new contradictions this will involve, Marxists in sober fashion will support the emergence of such a state and the further weakening of imperialism and capitalism and the regimes basing themselves on the remnants of feudalism in the backward countries”. On the whole Ted Grant is very optimistic for the future of Afghanistan. He warns of the dangers of counter-revolution, but expects them to become serious only if the government temporises. Rivers of blood and napalm later, 18 months in the future, when he comes to assessing the Russian invasion, Ted Grant will still manage to spin optimistic “perspectives” for Afghanistan.

Militant took some time to hammer out its response to the invasion. It took a very long article by Ted Grant and then, a month later, another long article by Lynn Walsh supplementing it, before their line was clear.

A third article by Alan Woods, published in July 1980, drew out the logic brutally expressing the satisfaction with which this “Trotskyist” tendency greeted the prospect of a Stalinist transformation in Afghanistan.

Militant’s first response to the invasion was a three-page-long article by Ted Grant (Militant, 18 January 1980). The last third of the article fell apart into an unintegrated series of musings and reflections, not too far above the stream-of-consciousness level. We shall see the consequences.

Despite that it was a knowledgeable analysis of the events that preceded the Russian occupation. Though the analytical framework was different, the essential features of Grant’s description paralleled that presented above (which first appeared in Workers’ Action, 16 January 1980 and 23 January 1980). In contrast to the fantasies then being peddled by others who call themselves Trotskyists, especially the SWP-USA and the large part of the USFI which consists of its international satellites, Grant knew quite well who it was that had made the original so-called revolution, that is, the military coup of April 1978.

“The April 1978 coup was based on a movement of the elite of the Army and the intellectuals and the top layers of professional middle-class people in the cities”. But Grant still did not know what it was that they had made. He writes as if the revolt against the PDP regime had not happened (though his article contains a passable account of it), or as if what had happened had no possible bearing on his 1978 analysis or the validity of his “proletarian Bonapartist” tag for Afghanistan. ‘’Conditions of mass misery and the corruption of the Daud regime resulted in a proletarian Bonapartist coup. Proletarian Bonapartism is a system in which landlordism and capitalism have been abolished, but where power has not passed into the hands of the people, but is held by a one party military-political dictatorship”.

He goes on: “After the seizure of power, they abolished the mortgages and other debts of the peasants, who were completely dominated by the usurers, and carried through a land reform”.

Now if this is what happened, it becomes impossible to explain why the regime had so little popular support, why its initial support declined, and why it needed the Russian army to keep it in power. But Grant is not dealing with Afghanistan but with the model of “proletarian Bonapartism” in his head.

The PDP regime did decree an end to usury and a cancellation of debts, it decreed steps towards equality for women; and it legislated a land reform — but it could not carry them out. The central point is that the PDP did not carry through a revolution, and that it proved unable to do so. What Grant chooses to call “proletarian Bonapartism” was a middle-class regime, symbiotic with the Russian Stalinist regime, but still resting on the old state. It never succeeded in making itself, still less the society, into a replica of the USSR’s social institutions, and the invasion snuffed out its independent development.

Why in Grant’s view did the Russians invade? Because “the Russian bureaucracy could not tolerate the overthrow, for the first time in the post-war period, of a regime based on the elimination of landlordism and capitalism [thus he describes the PDP regime, though even their formal programme for the ‘first stage’ did not break with capitalism] and the victory of a feudal-capitalist counter-revolution, especially in a state bordering on the Soviet Union”.

Fear of the ferment spilling over to the Muslim population of the USSR was also a motive. (Remember that in 1978 Grant thought it was the USSR that exerted the compelling influence: “The industrialisation, complete literacy and high standards... are bound to impress...”). The Russian bureaucracy thus intervened “not only because of Afghanistan’s strategic position, but for reasons of their own power and prestige”.

Grant denounces the hypocrisy of the imperialist outcry and chronicles recent imperialist “interventions” — South Africa in Angola and Zimbabwe, Belgium in Zaire and France in Chad and Zaire. All true, as far as it goes, but it obliterates in a cloud of minor propaganda/agitational points what is “new” in Afghanistan — the fact that the USSR, acting from strength, was overstepping the agreed boundaries that had prevailed since World War 2, or at least since the end of the Korean war.

The US, says Grant, is using the pretext of Afghanistan and “attempting to hit at Russia because of the class character of the Soviet Union, where landlordism and capitalism have been eliminated”.

This is typical Grant-thought. Basic, general historic truths about capitalist class antagonism to the anti-capitalist regime are used to “explain” specific developments. The method is one of living off the mental stock rather than thinking about live issues.

What response should socialists make to the invasion? How do we advise the labour movement to see it? Should we support or oppose the invasion? What should we say to the Communist Party in Britain, which denounced the invasion? Grant is far from clear.

He attacks the Communist Parties for opposing the invasion because, he says, they proceed from “abstract “principles’” of opposition to “aggression between peoples”, support for the UN, etc — “instead of viewing the process from the point of view of the class struggle internationally and the class relations between the nations”. Which means? Grant doesn’t tell us. Others — his pupils — subsequently will.

In fact, it is a way for Grant to evade the by no means abstract question of what the Afghan masses would choose, and what their choice tells us about what our attitude should be. Everything is skewed by Grant’s basic attitude to Stalinism. 40 and more years after Trotsky and the Bolshevik rearguard publicly declared, with irrefutable truth, that a river of blood separated Stalinism and Bolshevism, Grant is still — in his mind — engaged in a political and ideological dialogue with the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The bureaucracy in the 1920s accused Trotsky of wanting to use the Red Army to “export revolution”. (Grant mistakenly asserts that Trotsky did advocate this). Lo and behold, says Ted Grant in 1980, we now have a grossly bureaucratic use of the Red Army (the same Red Army?) without the support of the workers, etc. The point, of course, is that the Russian bureaucracy is necessarily against the workers and the common people of Afghanistan. In this vein, as a critic of the techniques and crudities of the bureaucracy, Grant comes to his central objection to the invasion. It will repel the international working class. The Russian state conducted itself differently in Lenin’s and Trotsky’s time.

“They based themselves on proposals and actions which would raise the level of consciousness of the working class internationally”.

“‘Anything which acted to raise the consciousness of the working class was justified; anything which had the opposite effect was to be condemned”, etc. etc.

Yes (though in fact the Bolsheviks were sometimes forced to do things irrespective of the effect on international working class consciousness.) But what have Lenin and Trotsky got to do with the present Moscow regime — with its character, its selection, its education, its motivation, its lifestyle, or with its relationship to the Russian and other USSR peoples and to the workers in the USSR or outside it?

The answer, for Ted Grant, seems to be that they carry on the same business in a “distorted” way. The train of thought runs on tracks laid down by Isaac Deutscher — Stalinism is a part of the continuation of Bolshevism or at least the custodian of its social-economic achievements and the transplanter of them to other countries, carrying them on the point of bayonets to people who are crushed by tanks if they resist.

This is very strange stuff. But it is of interest as illustrating the confused thought processes of the main political leader of one of the biggest groups in Britain calling itself Trotskyist. He is confused to the point of seemingly not knowing who he is supposed to be, who and what the Stalinist rulers of the USSR are, and what their relationship is to the working class. He is seemingly confused about what time of the political clock it is.

Like the legendary professor of history who asked a colleague “What century is this?”, Ted Grant must have occasion to ask his associates “What decade is this?” (But they won’t be able to tell him).

Having explained at great length the different methods and techniques of the Stalinist bureaucracy on the one hand and of Marxist working-class revolutionaries on the other, Grant then comes close to the truth that it is a matter of different people, as a different social formation, and of different aims.

But he puts his own gloss even on this. The policies of the “proletarian Bonapartist” regime in the USSR are determined by the “income, power, prestige and privilege” of the bureaucracy. But that’s not the whole story, nor — for backward countries — the relevant part of it. The USSR bureaucrats support revolution in backward countries “when it takes place in the distorted form of proletarian Bonapartism”. But strictly only in backward countries, with their “distorted revolutions”.

“They are opposed to a socialist revolution in advanced countries [because] ... the establishment of a democratic socialist regime in any country in the world would immediately threaten the foundations of the bureaucratic misrule in Russia, China and the other Stalinist states”.

This seems to mean that despite what they are, and in the course of serving their own interests, the Russian bureaucracy can nevertheless do good work in backward countries. Grant manages simultaneously to conflate, collapse into each other, and link as parallel phenomena the workers’ revolution and the mutations he calls proletarian Bonapartism: the idea is clearly one of distinct stages reflecting different levels of development. Stalinist bureaucratic revolution is appropriate for backward countries and even inevitable.

For Grant “proletarian Bonapartism” is to socialism what the bourgeois-democratic revolution was for the Russian Mensheviks: an inevitable stage in a two-stage process. At the same time Grant’s scheme of workers’ socialist revolution for advanced countries, “distorted (Stalinist) revolution” for backward countries, ignores the fact that the Stalinist bureaucracy has made its own “revolution” in advanced countries too — in Czechoslovakia (he has a selective memory. He forgets the Czechoslovakian Stalinist coup of 1948, and he forgets that his own organisation, the RCP, was then alone among Trotskyist organisations in supporting the coup), in East Germany (a backward part of Germany, but that is relative), on condition of having military-bureaucratic rule over them. But what has this to do with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan? Now Grant gets to the crux.

The ending of feudalism and capitalism in Afghanistan, says Grant, opens the way to bring that country into the 20th century. “If we just considered the Russian intervention in isolation, we should have to give this move critical support”. So we support the occupation? No: “because of the reactionary effect it has on the consciousness of the working class.... Marxists must oppose the Russian intervention”.

“The Russian intervention in Afghanistan must be condemned despite its progressive aspects, because it is spitting at the opinions of the world working class”. It is clear from the article that when he talks about the bad effects on working class consciousness of the invasion, he has something specific in mind.

“The overriding danger under contemporary conditions is the alienation of the workers of Japan, Western Europe, the USA and other advanced countries from the idea of socialism and socialist revolution [i.e. Russia?]. This is shown by the attitudes taken by the Tribunites. Like the CP, they unfortunately base themselves not on the real movement of the class struggle and on the actual relations between the great powers [sic] but, on the contrary, rely on abstract moral condemnations... But [world antagonisms] are a reflection of the dialectical contradictions between the capitalist states, and above all of the major contradiction of our time, that between the Stalinist states, on the one hand, and the countries of capitalism on the other”.

It is clear that Grant is being tossed between the implications and necessary conclusions from his theory on one side, and the pressure of the Tribunites on the other. The Russian occupation may “in isolation” be progressive in Afghanistan, but it makes life difficult in the Labour Party! The complete prostration into bloc politics, and the consequent abandonment of independent working-class politics, should be noted. So Grant deplores the invasion. Should the Russians then withdraw? Grant seems to think so, though it is not quite clear. His way of expressing it is to dismiss “the demand by the imperialist powers supported by the CP and the Tribune group” as “utopian”. Why?

Grant adds immediately after this: “Russia, of course, has vetoed this demand in the UN Security Council”. And you can’t beat that, can you? Grant’s comment on the “utopianism” of the CP seems to suggest that you shouldn’t try. The CPs should be criticised for no longer automatically backing what Moscow does! Nothing here is abstract, or “idealistic”, or contrary to “the real movement of the class struggle” and the taking of sides with one bloc in “the major contradiction of our time”. The advancing tanks inexorably roll forward, backed by history, and not all your programmes or your tears will ever roll them back again one inch!

Even after deploring the invasion, Grant is as optimistic as he was in mid-1978. The Kremlin bureaucracy will save the day. “Balancing between the different nationalities of Afghanistan, and leaning on the poor and middle peasants, the Afghan regime, based on Russian bayonets, will undoubtedly be able to crush the rebels and establish a firm proletarian Bonapartist state as a Soviet satellite”. But things won’t be so bad.

“Once the counter-revolution has been defeated, most of the Russian troops will be withdrawn... The Bonapartist regime and the Russians will find a way to compromise with the mullahs”. The international contradictions will soften too, though not immediately. First Russia may, in response to the American trade reprisals, back the Baluchis and Pathans in breaking up Pakistan, and thus maybe “fulfil the old dream of Tsarist diplomacy, a warm water port”. But “Before things go that far, however, it is likely, in the not too distant future, that there will be a compromise between the US and the bureaucracy”.

This soporific message perhaps lulled the many readers of Militant who did not have the political duty in 1965 and after to read Militant’s assurances, month after month and year after year, that compromise was just ahead in Vietnam. It had the effect of minimising the degree of blame the readers of Militant would attach to the bureaucracy for the invasion and the boost thereby given to the re-armers and warmongers in the USA. Grant’s article, though it left many things in the air, seemed on balance to come out against the Russian invasion. But in fact Grant’s position was utterly contradictory.

His basic assessment of the “progressive” side of Russia’s effective annexation of Afghanistan strongly implied support for it, while his seeming opposition to the invasion was shallowly grounded in the need to bow to working-class public opinion. Grant declined to take a stand on the basis of his own political assessment, instead allowing the public opinion of the labour movement to override for him the necessary conclusions that flowed logically from his fundamental assessments. The occupation would bring the advantages of the 20th century to 16 million Afghans, in the only way possible, and create a society which would be an inspiration for hundreds of millions across Asia.

But, unfortunately, the British labour movement does not understand about these things and was displeased. So there was nothing else for it: Ted Grant would have to tell the Russians that they should not have invaded! The Afghans would just have to grit their teeth and endure “ferocious counter-revolution”. No wonder this position soon crumbled.

In effect Grant had confined himself to describing a process and scoffing at the “utopians” of the CP and Tribune. Within a short time, some of Grant’s pupils insisted on drawing the logical political conclusions from Grant’s analysis.One month after Grant’s article there appeared part 1 of a two-part reply to a letter from “Roy Bentley”, who had “just read” Ted Grant’s article. He wanted to inquire what Grant’s line really had been! He was bold enough to offer an interpretation, based on Grant’s comment that the call for withdrawal was “utopian”.

“Does that mean that Militant is against the withdrawal of the troops, having quite rightly condemned the invasion?” He “could see” that if the Russian troops were withdrawn, “the Afghan regime of Karmal would soon collapse and there would be an almost inevitable bloodbath and a return to feudal landowning and backwardness... This would justify support for the troops being there now they have invaded. Is this the position Militant is putting forward?”

Roy Bentley, if he is a real person, obviously has a great future before him as a political interpreter. ‘Roy has indeed drawn the right conclusion from Ted’s article”, began the reply. Thus, ludicrously, Militant began to correct itself. The reply by Lynn Walsh did not mention that meanwhile the “world Trotskyist movement” — for which Militant spuriously affects contempt — was agog over the invasion. Many groups, like the SWP-USA, had hailed the progressive work of the Russian army in “going to the aid of the revolution”.

In Britain, the IMG (the USFI section) came out fiercely against any call for Russian troops out, after a brief and sharp faction fight against the editor of its paper, Tariq Ali, who left the organisation soon after. Ted Grant’s deference to working-class public opinion had put Militant dangerously close to what most would-be Trotskyists saw as lining up with the world counter-revolution — and with Workers’ Action (one of the publishers of Socialist Organiser then)! Hastily they changed their line.

Walsh made the following new points. To call for withdrawal would open up the risk of “Afghanistan’s proletarian Bonapartist regime” being overthrown. Supporting withdrawal would therefore mean siding with the forces of counter-revolution. The whole question of any rights for the Afghan people against the invading Russian army was thus wiped out by equating the Russians with the left, and by equating what the Russians would do if they assimilated Afghanistan with the proletarian revolution.

The pretence that the regime had an existence independent of the Russian army also helped Walsh to evade the issue. Militant, wrote Walsh, could not support the invasion “because of the reactionary consequences internationally. Once Russian forces had occupied the country, however, it would have been wrong for Marxists to call for the withdrawal of Russian troops”.

In other words — don’t take responsibility, but be glad the bureaucracy is not so fastidious. This attitude of saying “no” while meaning “yes” combined the joys of abstention from direct responsibility with those of vicarious realpolitik, via hypocrisy. For if it is necessary for the troops to stay, on pain of undesirable consequences, then it was right to send them in in the first place. Responsible people would have called for the invasion and should acknowledge now that the initiative of the bureaucracy (what ever their motives) was the correct one. That is what the American SWP did for the first six months of 1980, and at least they were consistent and, after a fashion, politically serious. Walsh continued: “The Russian intervention in Afghanistan was a progressive move” — Grant is quoted as saying this, though in fact he said it would be progressive if it could be taken in isolation, and that in fact it could not be.

If the invasion was a “progressive move”, then surely you should support it. If not, why not? Walsh admits that “The reactionary international repercussions of invasion completely outweigh any immediate gains in Afghanistan”. Still, preventing the downfall of a “proletarian Bonapartist” military regime was “in itself” another blow to world imperialism. And the invasion “established the development of historically progressive social relations in this small country”.

“In Afghanistan, though it has moved to prop up a Bonapartist regime that rules through dictatorial methods, the Russian bureaucracy is defending new, fundamentally progressive, social relations”. A mass base of support for the regime (that is, for Stalinism) will be created by land reform, planning, etc.

Like Grant, Walsh retains his optimism. “When the proletarian Bonapartist regime is consolidated in Afghanistan, which will be within a measurable period, the Russian leadership will probably withdraw its forces”. And if it doesn’t it will have Militant to reckon with! Walsh adds defiantly: “in any case if there were no danger of counter-revolutionary forces threatening the regime and the social changes that have been carried through, we would then call for the withdrawal of Soviet troops...”!

Nobody should mistake Walsh’s enthusiasm for the great prospects that Stalinist bureaucratic rule opens for Afghanistan for unawareness of what is happening there. What exists in Afghanistan, he adds, is “a grotesque totalitarian caricature of a socialist state”. He has a strange idea of why this regime exists. He thinks it is “because of the isolation of the social change in an economically and culturally backward country, and the fact that the Bonapartist leadership has inevitably taken Russia’s Stalinist regime as its model”.

Apart from the fact that it is nonsense now to pretend that the Afghan regime has an existence independent of the USSR, it is certainly not isolated. The character of the regime is determined now not only by the conditions of its own society, but by the bureaucratism of the much more developed Russian society which dominates Afghanistan.

Even if they industrialised Afghanistan and modernised it, the bureaucracy would still — unless overthrown — maintain a totalitarian state to defend its privileges, which would grow with the growth of the social wealth as they have increased in the USSR over the decades. Russian domination determined the shape of the regime even in immensely more developed Czechoslovakia. Isolation? Ted Grant is not the only one who does not know what time of the historical clock it is — for Stalinism, or for anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialists.

Walsh does not forget the political revolution. He insists that Militant “stands for a further supplementary political revolution”. For when? This is an epochal perspective, unless the Russian workers soon overthrow Stalinism. For Afghanistan it could come only after a whole long historical period — after a strong working class has developed, after present-day Afghanistan no longer exists.

Walsh tacitly admits this. In his account the first stage is the consolidation of a progressive Stalinist system by the growth of support for the regime. The Russian tanks and the napalm-spraying helicopter gunships — whose presence Militant supports because of the progressive work Russia is doing in Afghanistan — will subdue the population. Thus cowed, the Afghan masses will be made to support or tolerate the regime by economic measures. And after that, perhaps political revolution. Walsh underlines the point: in Russia and Eastern Europe the bureaucracy has “outlived any progressive role it played in the past through developing the planned economy”. (When was it progressive in Czechoslovakia, for example?) But not in Afghanistan. There — as in many ether backward countries, indeed apparently in most of the world — it has prospects of an organic growth and the consolidation of mass support. The bureaucracy is the natural leading force, for society at that stage — the bearer of a higher civilisation. And for that reason revolutionary socialists must support the proletarian Bonapartist bureaucracy even against most of the people of Afghanistan. And why only Afghanistan?

Militant’s third major article on Afghanistan, published in July 1980, brutally tied it all together. Its author was Alan Woods, editor of Militant’s theoretical journal. Like Walsh, Woods is one of those who gathered around the dead stump of the old ISFI (Pablo-Mandel) group in Britain in the early 60s and helped develop the mutant strain that is the present Militant tendency. By July 1980 Russia had been fighting a brutal colonial war in Afghanistan for seven months, using mass terror bombings and reprisals against the recalcitrant Afghan peoples — in fact, using the same techniques that the US used in Vietnam, the French in Algeria, and the Nazis in some parts of occupied Europe and of Russia. You did not have to know that this war would still be going on in 1985 to realise that it was, as the gloating capitalist press insisted, Russia’s “Vietnam war”. There was still quite a lot of noise in the capitalist press, and perhaps some Militant supporters asked awkward questions. Alan Woods’ article was designed to answer them.

Grant had established some account of the April 1978 “revolution”; and Walsh (perhaps after an internal dispute, but it scarcely matters) got Militant into line with the Mandelites and the SWP-USA by establishing a (hypocritically dressed-up) pro-invasion line from Grant’s unresolved contradictions. Woods emerges as the arrogant champion of the civilising mission of the army of the Russian bureaucracy. As we will see below he boldly picked up the arguments used by the old Fabian imperialists (and other “socialist” imperialists) to justify the colonisation of Africa and Asia by Britain and other colonising European countries and used them to defend and justify Russia’s colonial war in Afghanistan.

Entitled “Afghanistan: what is really happening? — the truth behind the press fantasies”, Woods’ article is a polemic against the press reports of mass resistance to the invaders and of the horrors of Russia’s war in Afghanistan.

It was Militant’s contribution to a campaign then being waged by the SWP-USA and others to pretend that Afghanistan, before and after the Russian occupation, was the victim of a sustained press conspiracy to misrepresent what was happening there. Given that they supported the PDP regime and then the Russian war of colonial conquest while continuing to proclaim themselves Trotskyists, they had little choice but to deny the serious press reports of what was actually happening in Afghanistan. Of course, the SWP-USA and the Mandelites usually glorify and fantasise about the Third World regimes they support. Their six-months period as vulgar propagandists for Kabul was only a little more than business as usual for them. (Today it’s Cuba and Nicaragua).

Militant does not usually go in for this sort of thing. Why was Militant forced in this case to deny the basic facts of what was going on? Was it because even Militant’s leaders were not given sufficient philosophical fortitude by their vision of the long-term progressive effects of the Russian occupation? Did they balk at supporting the brutal Russian war of conquest without the consolation of fantasies and delusions of a more immediate sort? Or was it that they thought that some people in Militant or on its periphery would need to be lied to for fear that they would refuse to follow Militant into support for Russia’s Vietnam? As they say, in war truth is the first casualty.

Woods’ denunciation of the bourgeois press for what it says about Afghanistan was simply ridiculous. For his case was that the Western press is grossly unreliable, concerned only with making anti-Russian propaganda on Afghanistan — and he establishes it entirely by quotations from the self-corrections of the Western press. The piece is studded by quotations from the (pre-Murdoch) Times. What emerges from Woods’ own polemics is that a serious effort was being made in the Times and the Financial Times to establish the facts, and this involved printing not entirely checkable accounts and then correcting them or repudiating them.

What Woods himself does is seize on the reports printed by the Times about press inaccuracies and on their corrections of reports from Afghanistan which proved false, and belabour them in order to disguise his own partisan and one-sided propaganda for the civilising mission of the Russians. He denounces the press to forestall the effect on Militant readers of press reports — in general probably true — of Russian war atrocities in Afghanistan. Militant’s support for Russia’s bloody war of conquest had pitched it into the role of making dirty war propaganda for the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Woods doesn’t notice how ludicrous it is to end one point with “And the Times reporter commented laconically: ‘Not to put too fine a point on it, the Voice of America was talking rubbish’” — and then immediately go on: “But the Times itself has not been averse to talking rubbish in recent months, as when it screamed in banner headlines ‘Hundreds dead in Kabul revolt against Russians’ (28 February), a typically exaggerated report of the strike of reactionary shopkeepers in the Kabul Bazaar in February...”

Woods is clearly the coming master of the major tool of Grantite reasoning, the non sequitur. Or perhaps he means — it is certainly his underlying train of thought — that dead shopkeepers are not worth the tallying. Here a digression is necessary on sources of information in politics. It is almost a reflex in large parts of the left to dismiss information like the accounts of Russia’s war in Afghanistan as “capitalist propaganda”. In fact the picture that Woods and others present of an invariably lying bourgeois press systematically orchestrated to mislead and hide the facts about the “socialist revolution” in Afghanistan (and everywhere else) is a grotesque distortion of reality. Yet — significantly — this picture is often a fundamental part of their politics.

For if Militant, the SWP-USA, etc are to present the “analysis” and “facts” decreed by the “party line” — in this case on Afghanistan, but there are many other instances — then it is frequently necessary for them to explain why their picture of reality is so widely contradicted. Now every socialist worker knows that the bourgeois press is unreliable, biased, hostile to revolution and to most workers’ struggles. But this varies from issue to issue and from newspaper to newspaper. On certain issues of “security” the entire press can be orchestrated and silenced.

This can also be done on trivial things: gossip about the Royal Family, for example. There is also sometimes self-suppression by newspapers, encouraged by the government. Reporting on Northern Ireland is the worst current example in Britain. Apart from that, in the bourgeois democracies there is no orchestration, no censorship. And between a newspaper like the Sun or Maxwell’s Mirror and papers like the Guardian, Financial Times and Times, there is an enormous gulf. The serious bourgeois press does, in most cases, subscribe to the ideal of honest factual reporting and to the rights and duties of a free press to provide an honest public record. The bourgeois revolution was good for something, after all!

Papers like the Financial Times and the Economist are written for and directed at the ruling class itself, and they see their role as opinion formers and aids to guiding that class in steering the capitalist system. Class bias, bourgeois ideology, and wishful thinking obviously colour these papers, but for them crude lies and propagandising would be counter-productive. And such papers probably don’t feel tempted to suppress news of revolutions for fear of arousing the sympathy of their readers!

The British miners’ strike of 1984-5 — on which any British bourgeois paper would have much more motive for distortion than on events in Afghanistan — provides a test. Papers like the Sun were foul. The Financial Times gave dispassionate and accurate reporting. In most Stalinist states there are special shops for the bureaucratic elite, but there are no special shops for the bourgeoisie. Papers like the Economist and the Financial Times are on public sale, private reports produced by banks for their big business customers are available in libraries. Lenin once said of the Guardian that it told the truth usually in order the better to be able to tell lies at crucial points. That is a million miles from saying that such a paper lies on everything serious, all the time. On the contrary. The Guardian is a serious paper with extremely high standards of accuracy. So are the Times (even today under Murdoch); New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, Le Monde, Die Zeit, etc.

Their view of the world is not our view. But read critically the facts and reports they produce do allow you to gain a roughly accurate picture of the world. Obviously no Marxist could use the accounts of the bourgeois press of events like those in Afghanistan without selection, judgement, and so on. But if the whole press coverage were a conspiracy to pervert the truth, then it would scarcely be possible to know anything about the world unless you were part of an independent newsgathering international network. And more: most of the Marxist commentaries on past events by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, etc would be by definition suspect or invalid, for they too depended heavily on the serious bourgeois press, filtered of course through their own judgement and understanding. The serious bourgeois press is the only source of information on Afghanistan available to us. But Woods doesn’t need to read it. He knows what is going on, from Grantite theory.

This is the core of the article and what makes it worth bothering with — his assumptions and interpretations. The point is not assessments like the following (basically the same as the assessment made in Workers’ Action in early 1980): “Moscow’s strategy is first to dig in in the towns, secure control of the administration and the main highways, and then gradually consolidate their influence over the villages and the backward mountain tribes”.

Nor is it his support (despite the reiterated hypocrisy about how the Russians should not have gone in) for the Russians. It is his interpretation of what is happening and why. The old-style Fabians argued that colonialism, despite everything, brought civilisation to backward peoples. Basing himself on the same approach, Woods makes it plain that for him the Afghan masses are necessarily the object of someone else’s boot and bayonet in history.

They are “dark masses”, hopelessly benighted, and the Russians are doing them a great historical favour. For Woods, because “these tribesmen [are] ‘dark masses’, sunk in the gloom of barbarism, whose conditions of life and psychology have not changed fundamentally in 2000 years”, it follows that “the task of dragging [sic] the Afghan countryside out of the slough of primeval backwardness and into the 20th century would be formidable, even with correct leadership and Marxist politics”.

In the absence of “correct” leadership and politics, the Russian bureaucracy has fortunately undertaken to do the job. “The Russian bureaucracy and their Afghan supporters are, in effect, carrying through the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution [eh?] in that country”. In a “distorted, bureaucratic, Bonapartist fashion”, Woods of course adds. Still, that is what they are doing in Afghanistan. It is the totalitarian bureaucracy that is doing it. And we should be glad that they are doing it. We should support them in doing it. Thus, 40 years after Trotsky’s death, one of the leaders of Militant, a tendency which claims to be the sole representative of Trotskyism in the whole world, speaks up for the USSR bureaucracy and its “civilising mission”. His tone and voice would be
appropriate to a brutal Fabian imperialist of the year 1900, championing the civilising mission of the British ruling class which had picked up “the white man’s burden” in Africa and elsewhere.

Such people explained that the wars of colonial conquest against “lesser breeds without the law” were really in the victims’ interest. Conquest would civilise them and make them fit to hear the socialist message by dragging them — or those of them who survived — into the year 1900. There were many such Fabian imperialists — some of them no doubt honest and sincere blockheads — and they argued their case rather like Woods argues his, looking to the British army where he looks to the Russians in Afghanistan.

In fact Militant’s politics on Afghanistan are identical to the politics of those whose attitude to the people of backward countries was condemned by Trotsky in the quotation at the beginning of this pamphlet. True, the old Fabian imperialists thought of countries like Britain as the hub of contemporary progress, and Militant looks to the USSR instead.

But the “Red” Army ceased to be a Red Army over five decades ago. The different orientation changes nothing politically essential, though Militant thinks it does. That is also the significance of the insensitive reference to the “dark masses” which — even if you exclude any racist implications, as I do — is also a choice expression of “socialist” imperialism. Undoubtedly Afghanistan is very backward. Militant’s conclusion from this is not Trotsky’s but Taraki’s and Amin’s and Karmal’s. The politics of Trotsky conjure up no big battalions these days, and therefore support for the conquering armies of Stalin’s heirs is the lesser evil in Afghanistan. (And Pakistan? If not, why not?) All this is not confined to Afghanistan. It is rooted in Militant’s whole political outlook on the Third World.

The picture of the Third World presented in such articles as Grant’s 1978 piece on “the colonial revolution” is as follows. Capitalism means nothing but stagnation. The inevitable way forward, once the local middle class has “tired” of capitalist stagnation (Grant’s term), is for that middle class to create “proletarian Bonapartism”. This “proletarian Bonapartism” is totalitarian and brutal, but progressive: it develops industry and society. Such are the prospects for the great majority of the world’s population — all except those who live in the most developed countries. Even countries such as Portugal are candidates for a “proletarian Bonapartist” stage. Working-class socialist revolution is for the few.

This picture — segmenting the world into economically progressive “proletarian Bonapartism” and stagnant capitalism — blots out a large part of reality. Militant (implicitly at least) denies even the theoretical possibility of state capitalism: so what about Egypt, or Algeria, or many other countries where social structures have been substantially changed, and industry expanded on the basis of a very high level of nationalisations? Have all the struggles in those countries been much ado about nothing? And in fact in many Third World countries — from South Korea through the Ivory Coast to Brazil — capitalism has developed industry and society very fast. The record is one of hideous human suffering but certainly not of stagnation.

Even India or Pakistan, for example, have seen industrial growth since independence far outstripping Britain’s in the 19th century. Within this development there are substantial struggles, on many issues. Sizeable working classes now exist in many Third World countries; in terms of objective social weight they are better placed to make socialist revolutions than were the Russian workers in 1917.

But worse. Aside from its factual inaccuracy, Militant’s vision is so Eurocentric as to be almost racist. They endorse “proletarian Bonapartism” as the best available next stage for most of humanity. Yet they do not engage themselves actively in the struggle to install this “proletarian Bonapartism”, as the Russian Mensheviks before 1917 actively fought to get the bourgeois democratic revolution which they saw as the best development possible for backward Russia. No: at most Militant expresses satisfaction after the event at the good results to be expected from “proletarian Bonapartism”.

At the same time they dissociate from it, describing its viciously repressive methods, and venomously denouncing those Trotskyist “sects” who actively support the movements for “‘proletarian Bonapartism”. The basic idea is that nothing very much at all can be expected from the great mass of humanity; that most of the world’s people (not just the Afghan peasants and nomads) are fated to be mere objects for boots and bayonets; and that it doesn’t matter very much, for in due course the socialist revolution will come through the legislation of Enabling Acts and nationalisation decrees in countries such as Britain (or the political revolution in the USSR), and will “usher in an epoch of unprecedented abundance’” .

Despite the routine expressions of indignation in Militant’s articles about the terrible social conditions in the Third World, their attitude to the mass of workers and peasants suffering those conditions is that of the philosopher on a watchtower.

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