Afghan: Socialism from Above and Outside

Against the Current, No. 27, July/August 1990

Samuel Farber

The Tragedy of Afghanistan
A First-Hand Account
By Raja Anwar, translated by Khalid Hasan
London & New York, Verso, 1989.286 pages with notes and index. $16.95 paper
Distributed by Routledge in the U.S.

RAJA ANWAR LIVED in Afghanistan from June 1979 to January 1984, including a term in prison from October 1980 to March 1983. He is a Pakistani who worked as an advisor in the administration of populist Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, father of the current prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

This book is a no-holds-barred, take no-hostages account of the Afghani tragedy. Here we can find a rich and trenchant analysis that spares nobody, whether the author is dealing with the two major wings of the Stalinist PDPA (Khalq and Parcham) and its main leaders (Taraki, Amin and Karmal), or whether he is discussing the reactionary mujahideen. However, while Anwar has important things to say about the retrograde character of the right-wing guerrillas and about the events that have taken place since the PDPA rose to power in 1978, the bulk of the book is dedicated to an analysis of the politics of the PDPA and its rival factions and leaders.

Anwar explains how after 1953, the expansion of Afghani relations with the USSR led, together with an important increase in Soviet assistance and advisers, to a rising Soviet influence among the educated Afghan strata–teachers, journalists writers, engineers and, most importantly, army officers. Between 1956 and 1977, 3,700 officers, or one-third of the officer corps, had received training in the Soviet Union. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was itself formed during this period, in 1965.

In Anwar’s treatment, both major wings of Afghani Stalinism appear as chemically pure examples of socialism from above” as exist anywhere in the world. Anwar’s account is fully consistent with that provided some years ago by the Marxist anthropologist Jonathan Neale (“The Afghan Tragedy,” International Socialism 12, Spring 1981, 1-32).

Yet, what is most striking and revealing in Anwar’s description is this party’s lack of interest whatsoever in organizing workers or peasants. This made the PDPA more clearly elitist than old-fashioned Stalinism, which has traditionally attempted to bureaucratically organize workers and peasants from above while manipulating these classes for its own purposes. Thus it could be said that both wings of the PDPA were not only “socialists from above” but also “socialists from outside.”

Anwar points out, for example, that by the time the PDPA took power in 1978, thirteen years after its foundation, the party had not attempted to set up a peasant organization. Given this, it is not surprising that at that time not a single member of the thirty-strong Central Committee came out of the working class or the peasantry. Moreover, as late as 1987, neither the Central Committee, nor the provincial leaderships, nor the Political Bureau, had any members with a background in those exploited classes. Moreover, while it is true that the Afghani working class is small, the PDPA did not attempt to participate or intervene in its actual struggles.

Thus, for example, Anwar describes nineteen workers’ strikes that took place in Spring 1968. A non-PDPA group of pro-Peking Communists did play an important role in those events, although the author criticizes them for their having tried to organize workers on a tribal and religious rather than on a class basis. But what about the comparison between the Khalq and Parcham factions of the PDPA? Here is where I find this book most illuminating. The split occurred in 1967, two years after the foundation of the party.

Since then, the two factions have behaved in a ruthless fashion towards each other (68). Nevertheless, Raja Anwar strongly emphasizes the similarities between the two factions. Both have been pro-Soviet, put forward a so-called national democratic program, and saw the opposition of the people to imperialism as more important than the opposition of the peasantry to the landlords.

Moreover, both factions were noted for their key strategy of attempting to permeate or influence the pre-revolutionary political and army institutions. Nevertheless, Karmal’s Parcham faction tended to be more timid than Khalq in stating its radical positions, and was even willing to ally with disgruntled elements in the royal house.

Most interesting is Anwar’s analysis of the contrasting social backgrounds of the two PDPA groups. He sees Parcham as being based on the city-bred, high-ranking upper-middle class while Khalq was much more based on the salary-earning, lower-middle class. As a matter of fact, Khalq leader Taraki once referred to his group as a teachers’ party.

No less important is the fact that Khalq tended to be more rural and have more influence in the army than Parcham. Indeed, Khalq’s Amin once declared that, “in the great April [1978] Revolution, in spite of the fact that it triumphed according to the general and particular laws of the epoch-making ideology of the working class, the army played the major role of the proletariat, that is the powerful center of the victory.”(138)

Another example of the PDPA’s unwillingness and inability to organize among the presumed beneficiaries of its reforms concerns the question of women’s rights. Anwar notes that the PDPA did not have a single woman as a member of the Central Committee of the Party or as a member of the Cabinet after it took power in 1978. In this context, the author narrates a symptomatic incident that took place in a village in Paktia province when the people refused, when asked, to send their women to the literacy center. The team from Kabul ordered the guards to break into homes to get the women out and bring them forcibly to the center. At that point, the villagers started firing. All members of the Kabul party, along with the guards, were killed. As news of the clash spread quickly, the entire area rose in rebellion against the government (147).

It is worth noting that Anwar argues that there was an alternative to what I have called here “socialism from above and from outside” and to the complete obliteration of local initiative and authority that it implied. He discusses a traditional local Afghani institution called jirga, claiming that the jirgas represented 90 percent of the country’s poor farmers.

The principal task of these local institutions was to distribute land among the members of the tribe in equal measure. According to Anwar, the party could have made the jirgas part of the power structure, and politicized them to the extent that they themselves would have demanded radical reforms. In sum, according to the author, the local jirga was the political vehicle through which the party could have led the struggle for the transformation of the old rural power structure.

However, Anwar neglected to explain how the jirgas could have been used to promote the emancipation of women given the fact that while these community institutions were in many ways egalitarian, their membership was still limited to all male members of the community (139-140).

Toward the end of the book, Anwar proposes the formation of a “national government” as the only possible bulwark against a civil war, once the Soviets troops left However, he does not tell us anything about the composition of such a government, and what role, if any, the PIDPA and extreme Muslim fundamentalists should play in it.

Whether or not such a government ever comes into being, an end to the civil war may create a breathing spell for Afghani society, the opening of new political spaces, and the possibility of a regroupment of radical and revolutionary democratic forces. While such new formations are likely to be at least initially small, it is far better to take small steps in the right direction, than what may possibly be larger steps, but in the wrong direction, for example, giving political support to either wing of the PDPA or to the right-wing fundamentalists.

July-August 1990, ATC 27

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