Afghanistan and the Left
Dear Radical Philosophy,
The Afghan crisis has revealed the real
contours of the international political
Though there is (as yet) no
consensus regarding what measures should be
taken in response to this crisis, a cry has
echoed throughout the non-Soviet world in
outright condemnation of the Russian presence.
The Editorial in RP25 added one more
– albei t ‘Lilliputian’ – voice to the chorus.
But in a journal given
to ~xposing ‘conservatism masquerading as
formal reason’ that voice will be taken by
many to air the considered judgement of
This makes a response to your
position all the more exigent.
In presenting your denunciation of the Soviet invasion
as self-evident you have not only weakened
your stand against ‘Cold War Thinking’ (as
you call it) but failed to set yourselves
apart from those who uphold conservatism and
Cold War strategy is premissed on a neat
symmetry of ‘Them and Us’; a modern
Manichaeism in which the Soviet system represents the major threat to the rest of the
globe; one which should in the short term be
contained and, when the time comes, destroyed.
Though seldom put quite so arrogantly,
this view remains the fundamental reality
for imperialist states and, as we are coming
to see, is all too easily translated into
the language of nuclear stockpiles, theatre
war and ‘protect and survive’.
The suggestion that you share this view is, of course,
ridiculous and the short history of RP
offers evidence enough of a laudably consistent struggle against naked anti-communism.
Some who have shared in this struggle
have adopted a ‘third-camp’ position; refusing to align themselves with either the
Soviet-bloc or the West.
This stance, however attractive, has not and cannot be consistently maintained.
‘A plague on both
your houses!’ – like all fundamentally liberal pronouncements – functions better at
pointing out what may be desirable than at
offering a programme to achieve it.
In concrete terms, whilst ‘Your enemies’ enemy is
your friend’ may be a flimsy basis on which
to forge political allian~es, in periods of
crisis imperialism has found it a rewarding
one on which to gather anti-Soviet,
‘neutral’ and ‘critical’ allies.
More common has been to view the Soviet
occupation as an attack on the ‘rights’ of
liberty, freedom and, more pertinently, on
the sanctity of borders and self-determination.
I shan’t dwell on the ideological
matrix underlying the first two notions except to note that though they have been
invoked in the machinations of both super
powers, their relation to socialism remains
a complex and controversial one.
As is the case with many underdeveloped
countries, an identifiable ‘Afghan’ state
only came into being during the 18th century.
Its boundaries were established and
re-established in response to colonial
invasions and territorial annexations in
1879, 1893, 1919 (twice) and again in 1921.
Just as we need to take account of the
irredentism of Somalia and the war over
secession being fought by Eritrea and
Ethiopia before speaking of any frontiers
in the Horn of Africa, so political, geographical, racial and tribal divisions have
to be examined before we can realistically
assess the boundaries of Afghanistan.
accept these as inviolable is likewise to
offer a response to i.e. Pushtun demands for
self-determination, to Afghan irredentism
and to the multiple interacting oppressions
which cut through the area (see Halliday,
Revolution in Afghanistan, NLR 112). Moreover, Afghanistan’s claims to self-determination have economic, cultural and even
psychological dimensions which eut across
what is a simple political-democratic demand
(i.e. for secession).
Such factors clearly
have to be examined before either denying
the legitimacy of a nationalist movement or
espousing nationalist ideology.
The Left has not seen fit to carry out
such an analysis, though a start has been
made to examine the demands of the rebels
in Afghanistan and the motives behind the
Soviet intervention (1).
reports in the press have been revealing.
If the position of women is an index of
social progress, the programme of the Muslim
rebels would seem to fall somewhere between
feudalism and barbarism. Many of the
250,000 mullahs who have taken to the hills
have done so to launch a Holy War against
the removal (by the Soviets) of bride price,
polygamy and the chadri, against the implementation of secular education, sex equalit~
economic development and limited agrarian
‘It was the granting of new rights
to women by the revolutionary government in
Kabul (writes a correspondent in the New
York Times) which finally pushed the orthodox musllm men … to take up arms’.
unemployment higher than 20%, literacy under
10%, with serious problems ,of malnutrition,
disease and sanitation, with infant mortality at around 270 per 1000 and average life
expectancy at 35 years – and this in a
country rich in natural resources – there
is (as the Guardian put it) a strange
‘irony’ in Moscow relying so heavily on its
Muslim divisions to impose national oppression on their ‘fiercely independent brothers
across the border’.
In themselves these
factors cannot be invoked to condone the
They simply remind us
that, as in the case of the Tanzanian presence in Uganda or the Cuban intervention in
Angola, outside ‘interference’ can be both
beneficial and progressive.
This isn’t to suggest that the Soviet
motives have been purely benevolent.
Against the costs engendered by the war and
the price the USSR will have to pay for its
rupture with the USA, the Kremlin bureaucracy can console itself in the knowledge
that its actions have gone some way towards
halting the developing national question in
Centr~l Asia and redressing its internal
economic situation. As Ticktin rightly says,
the Afghan invasion has provided a pretext
for the introduction of administrative
measures over the economy, for imposing
national discipline in the name of an exceptional crisis on worker and intellectual
and for silencing dissident nationalist sent
iment under the threat of war.
If these truncated remarks reveal anything, it is simply the complex tangle which
underlies what RP has taken to be a straight
forward case of occupation and independence.
Even,if we can accept this capricious formula, the real alternative to occupation by
Soviet troops would be, as you suggest,
another addition to the ‘American-dominated
Or more likely, another
theodicy modelled on Iran – wlth the ‘benefits’ that has brought to leftists, women,
workers, peasants and minority groups.
is clearly too early to assess the full consequences of a continued Soviet occupation.
As always, the difficulty will be to begin
that assessment in terms other than the
‘defence of a position’ and by means of concepts other than those handed down to us by
the Right: freedom, liberty, human rights,
independence and sacrosanct borders. Only
then will the prospects of the Left be less
wretched than you declare.
The publications of the International Spartacist Tendency
(Workers Vanguard, Spartacist Britain) are, to my knowledge,
the only ones to have presented a full analysis of the Afghan
situation – the programme of the PDPA, the rebels and the wider
implications of the West’s response. Having given support to
Soviet occupation, they have failed to examine the pressures
which forced the USSR to take over Afghanistan. These are set
out in H. Ticktin, The Afghan War: The Crisis in the USSR,
Critique, 12, where it is argued that ‘The Afghans have to be
arrowea-to choose their own destiny, instead of having it
imposed on them an external form which will be overthrown the
the conquerors leave’ (p2 5) .