Who’s Fighting for What?

Against the Current, No. 20, May/June 1989

David Finkel

CHRIS HOBSON’S CONTRIBUTION raises exactly the right question about Afghanistan. The central question is: If there is going to be a viable social struggle for women’s rights and other elementary democratic goals in Afghanistan, where will the forces for that struggle come from? I will explain why I don’t have much confidence in the answer that Hobson offers with such great certainty.

For Hobson, and for Dan La Botz whose comment appeared in ATC 19, the answer is clear: such forces can come only from one camp in the existing conflict, “from inside the inevitable, progressive and democratic struggle for national independence” (Hobson) being waged by the anti-PDPA Mujahedeen. It follows then that “what revolutionaries in Afghanistan should have been doing since 1979 was building a secular, democratic, socialist force in the national resistance.”

I see three immediate problems with this policy. First, while I don’t feel competent to tell Afghan  revolutionaries what they should have been doing since 1979, I am not aware of any force that has emerged in the resistance(1) that is at all secular or democratic or socialist — by even the loosest definitions of these terms — let alone all three.

Such a force may exist, and I am open to Hobson or La Botz or anyone else who can inform me about it. Unfortunately, while I take it for granted that the New York Times description of “fundamentalist” (Saudi-Pakistani-backed?) and moderate” (Iranian-backed?) factions is basically rubbish, I don’t know where to look for a useful analysis of possible democratic currents.

Second, the Hobson and La Botz formula excludes the possibility that any forces in the camp of the current regime might themselves be authentic supporters of Afghan national independence and capable of learning the lessons of the PDPA’s catastrophic experiment in helicopter-gunship “socialism.”

It seems to me that such forces, particularly educated urban women and perhaps sectors of the working class organized in pro-PDPA unions, are quite likely to be defenders of the existing PDPA government on the grounds of sheer physical and social survival — that the resistance if it came to power would exterminate or enslave them. Hobson indeed recognizes that “a catastrophe for women [is] a real possibility.”

This possibility is all the more grave if, as seems to be the case, the resistance factions are unable to agree on a program for post-PDPA Afghanistan –a large­scale slaughter of ordinary people in the government camp might be a short-term expedient to delay their own internal conflict.

Further, the hideous character of the war in the countryside — for which I agree the PDPA bears enormous responsibility — is likely to have generated a deep peasant hatred of the urban society, similar to that of the Kampuchean peasantry that gave some social base to the Pol Pot catastrophe.(2)

A government based on such understandable but ultimately reactionary peasant hatred would likely not limit its reprisals to PDPA officials but would victimize ordinary urban civilians in a murderous way.(3) For these reasons, my guess is that the potential forces for an independent and democratic Afghanistan are not in one camp, but in both, trapped in a brutal war against each other.

Third, while all of us in this discusion are revolutionary internationalists, our politics must be conducted in a certain time and place. For democratic activists and socialists in the Soviet bloc, the main enemy must be their own bureaucratic rulers. For us in the United States — even if one agrees with Hobson that the Mujahedeen were justified in taking U.S. assistance — it is imperative to emphasize the deep political-military involvement of our own imperialist government in the Afghan conflict, an involvement that is at least as deep as that of the Soviet Union now that the Soviet troops are gone.

For us to support the Mujahedeen in this context is difficult to distinguish — “in practice, not in words,” to borrow Hobson’s phrase — from supporting our rulers’ imperialist machinations.

I want to be clear: in my opinion the Afghan events have been a disaster for socialism. This is not because the Soviet Union was defeated and driven out of Afghanistan. Indeed, that defeat is just about the only positive thing that has happened in this conflict since 1979. (I would add also the demise of Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq, if indeed that happy event was somehow occasioned by the Afghan war.)

The Soviet rulers’ military and political debacle in Afghanistan certainly weakened their options in Poland in 1980-81 and accelerated the political ferment that has opened up important space for the democratic movement from below in the Soviet Union.

The disaster, rather, is the identification of the Soviet Union in the public mind (and in the mistaken view of most of the international left) with “socialism.” Such identification has naturally reinforced the image of socialism as something that is rammed down people’s throats by foreign armies. The left failed dismally in its responsibility to explain that what the Soviet army was trying to ram down the Afghan people’s throats was not, and could not possibly be, socialism in any way, shape or form.

Not Quislings

At the same time, while the POPA is not in my view a socialist force (and I explicitly rejected Val Moghadam’s suggestion calling for political solidarity with it), it is quite wrong to label it as “quisling” (La Botz) or to think that simply saying “the [PDPA’s] real program, in reality, not on paper, is to stay in power by any means necessary” (Hobson) exhausts the subject.

There is much more to it, and Jonathan Neale’s article cited by Dan La Botz indicates what it is:

“It would be different [for the PDPA] if they were time-servers, Brezhnevs and Kosygins. They are not. They are enormously brave men and women, the flower of their generation. They worked publicly and underground for years against feudalism, reaction, corruption and the oppression of women. They and they alone had the daring to seize the time, to try to roll back the forces of inertia, backwardness, bigotry and ignorance. They fought one of the most repulsive regimes in the world under some of the most difficult conditions revolutionaries have faced. And it has come to this. Now they stand up to their mouths in the blood of their people, helpless prisoners of helicopter gunship “socialism,” seen as traitors by the very people from whom they came.“(4)

Any view of the PDPA as a party concerned only with hanging on to power therefore misses half the point. The Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan was purely of its own making, but for the PDPA, the Afghan tragedy was a function both of its deeply flawed politics and the overwhelmingly difficult conditions that would confront any revolutionary force in such a society. In any case in the Afghan civil war as it stands today there is nothing to indicate that the PDPA is any less nationalist, or more entangled in imperialist connections,(5) than the leadership of the Mujahedeen.

The hegemony of the PDPA is not the solution for Afghanistan. Neither is e ascendancy of Islamic fundamentalism. My argument, against which neither Hobson nor La Botz presented any specific information, is that those sectors at might spearhead a struggle for an independent and democratic Afghanistan (Hobson’s and La Botz’s own goals) will have more room to breathe if the current regime survives at least in the cities than if the mullahs and the Hekmatyars take over.

Granted, the people of Poland (and ultimately the Soviet Union too) benefitted from the defeat of the Soviet army in Afghanistan. We should be glad of that. Why now should revolutionary socialists who support the fight for genuine trade unionism of Solidamosc in Poland, and the struggle from below for democracy in the USSR want the victory in Afghanistan of forces that will crush unions and treat every democrat as the Ayatollah treats Salman Rushdie?

A final note: Dan La Botz asks, “If we do not want to support military victory to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, will we also oppose military victory to the Catholic Nationalists in Poland [who] have historically been antisemitic … because we do not like their repugnant customs?” (ATC 19, 48)

There are in fact two distinct and counterposed wings of Polish nationalism. La Botz has made clear to me that he used the term “Catholic Nationalists” to refer to the anti-democratic and anti-semitic currents of historic Polish nationalism, as distinct from the enlightened, democratic wing of the nationalist tradition that has fought antisemitism in Poland. It was the latter democratic current of nationalists who supported the Solidarnosc movement from the beginning, before it became a mass movement of virtually the entire Polish people.

This distinction among nationalists is crucial, and it seems to me that the term “Catholic Nationalists” is a poor choice in as much as both currents of Polish nationalism — reactionary and democratic — consist primarily although not exclusively of Catholics.

In any case, my answer to La Botz’s question is that I would not necessarily support the “military victory” of the reactionary anti-semitic Polish nationalists, even in a war against a foreign invader, depending among other things on the possibility of supporting other independence forces. Still less would I support the victory of right-wing Polish nationalists after the invader was repelled, in a Polish civil war!


  1. I was quite clear in my original comment (ATC 19) that the Mujahedeen are indeed a resistance movement and not contras as some on the pro-Soviet left have tried to label them.
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  2. See Michael Vickery, Cambodia 1975-1982 (Boston: South End Press, 1984), especially Chapters 1 and 5, for extensive analysis.
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  3. Obviously I’m not suggesting that the Mujahedeen would abolish private ownership of land — quite the contrary — or adopt Pol Pot’s economic strategy. But the consequences for many urban Afghans would be similar.
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  4. The article, the best background piece on Afghanistan I know, appeared in the British journal International Socialism 12 (Spring1981). The reference was inadvertently omitted by ATC from Dan La Botz’s article in ATC 19: 48.
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  5. Contrary to Chris Hobson’s assertions, my own opinion that the Soviet Union is an imperialist state of a bureaucratic type is not compromised here. Indeed, the fundamental distinction between a war of resistance against Soviet occupation and a civil war among Afghans is more central to my position than to Hobson’s.
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May-June 1989, ATC 20

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