by [an STO member]
Urgent Tasks No. 8
Spring 1980

In July, 1978, three months after the overthrow of Mohammed Daoud, an Iranian journalist asked the new Afghanistan President Noor Mohammed Taraki, “Will Afghanistan’s military cooperation with the Soviet Union, which was going on in the past and at the time of the revolution on a regular basis, further expand in the future?”

Taraki answered, “The DRA (Democratic Republic of Afghanistan) is adequately prepared for the defense of the people’s interests and the gains of the April revolution. Should reactionary and imperialist plots necessitate the further strengthening of our armed forces, every available possibility will be utilized.”


The last several years have seen an increase in the number of wars fought between ostensibly socialist countries. Apologists for the Soviet or the Chinese governments have no trouble explaining these events from their own perspective.

In this article, it will be argued that the most recent example of the use of military force between so-called socialist countries, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, can best be understood as as example of the conflicts inherent to state capitalism. (1)

The Afghani regime which the Soviet armies are trying to bolster represents an attempt to use the state apparatus to accelerate the modernization process. The fact that those carrying out the modernization call themselves Marxist should not blind us to the reality that Afghanistan is not building socialism. Nor should it obscure the very real similarities between the Kabul government’s program of change and efforts made towards modernization by its non-Marxist predecessors.

In fact, the opposition between the drive for modernization and the inertia and reaction of generations has provided the central dynamic to political life in Afghanistan since World War I.

When the Marxist Peoples Democratic Party seized power on April 27, 1978 it took as its task the modernization of Afghanistan. Afghanistan had never been fully colonized and consequently lacked even the imperialist economic infrastructure that the British developed in India and Egypt. It was backward even by Third World standards. As late as the 1920’s it had yet to develop a nationwide uniform system of weights and measures. Afghanistan, like Pakistan next door, is rife with tribal and nationality divisions. There are 21 different ethnic and national groups in the population of 17 million. There is an extremely small industrial proletariat, with a total working class in manufacture of 150,000-including those working in cottage industry in the small towns. Large proportions of the population are still nomadic. Illiteracy is around 90%! fundamentalist Islam, without any of the anti-imperialist trappings it has developed in Iran and with its bride-price marriages, dominates the social and cultural life of the people.

Within this social context, a relatively modern and large state apparatus has been developing. Particularly key to the state was the Army and Air Force, which had been largely trained and equipped by the Soviet Union as far back as the emergence of an independent Afghanistan in the 1920’s. A central army drawn from universal conscription was a revolutionary measure in a society where the earlier King’s army had been based on tribal levies. It was within the military, the most modern component of Afghan society, that the Marxist intelligentia found a base. It was the military that provided the force necessary to bring the Marxist PDP to power in 1978 to fulfill the promised reform and modernization of all of Afghan society.

From the beginning the PDP regime was faced with armed opposition. Initially it came from the numerically insignificant Muslim Leagues. At first the Muslim Leagues operated primarily in the Pushtun areas on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, the Durand Line (2).

The Moslem opposition until very recently was armed with vintage British Enfield rifles and resupplied from the cottage industry on the Pakistan side of the border.

It is internal weakness within the PDP government that led to the near-collapse of the PDP regime, not the machinations of Western imperialism or the CIA. In fact, since the fall of Shah Reza in neighboring Iran, the one actual agent of Western imperial¬ism that has been historically active in Afghanistan, SAVAK, has been rendered ineffective.

A series of coups and purges within the PDP led to a continual narrowing of the political base within the military apparatus and among the general population. Large-scale defections weakened the military’s ability to defeat the opposition, and stregthened the opposition with the means of mechanized warfare, hitherto monopolized by the state.

The Soviet Union’s military takeover of the Afghan state was required for the defense of its own superpower role in that part of the world and no bold new initiatives in Soviet foreign policy were involved. In the hard world of geo-politics Afghan¬istan is a Soviet buffer state. They cannot afford to see it disintegrate into a militant anti-communist base of Moslem revolution.

The Soviets have historically maintained friendly relations with whatever regime was in power in Kabul–absolutist monarchy or erstwhile Republican. Their military is in Afghanistan to ensure the integrity of the central state apparatus, not to defend social revolution. They will take whatever measures are necessary to that end, including backing off any social reform programs. In fact, indications are that the installation of Karmal means a slowing down of land reform and guarantees to the powers of the religious establishment.

The Soviets would not hesitate to bring back the monarchy if necessary.


The Soviet Union’s military takeover of the Afghan state is an inexcusable intervention into the internal affairs of the PDP. It is an inexcusable denial of Afghan national sovereignty. It must be condemned.

The Soviets’ rationale is based on a web of fabrications.

In order to justify the change of government in December of last year several stories have been floated out of Kabul. One of the favorites of the Soviet press is that Amin was an accomplice of the CIA. This story has dutifully been given play by the Cubans. A February, 1980 issue of Granma said,

…the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was planning to stage a coup in Afghanistan on December 29, in complicity with the deposed President Hafizullah Amin.

By this logic the Russian coup on December 8 was a pre-emptive strike.

Of course, the truth is that Amin was not an agent of the CIA.

When the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan held its first Congress in January, 1965, Hafizullah Amin was elected an alternate member of the Central Committee. When the PDP chose a new Central Committee in 1973, at the time of the overthrow of the monarchy, Amin became a full member of the CC. In the Taraki government Amin was first Foreign Minister and then became Prime Minister. Shortly before he staged his own palace coup against Taraki in September, 1979 Amin also became Defense Minister.

The fact that Pravda and Granma are reduced to charging Amin with being a CIA agent tells us more about the state of Marxism and the “socialist world” than it does about Afghanistan.

What Amin was guilty of was participation in the series of purges that began almost immediately after the PDP took power. Both Taraki and Amin were members of the Khalq (Masses) faction of the PDP. At the time of the overthrow of Daoud in April, 1978, they were still tenuously linked with the Parcham (Banner) faction. The first PDP government included Parchamites Babrak Karmal as Vice-President of the Revolutionary Council and Dr. Anahita Ratebzad. Ratebzad, the country’s most prominent female Marxist, was Minister for Social Affairs. Many of the commanders in the armed forces were Parchamites of long standing. (One of the original differences between Khalq and Parcham was Parcham’s desire to build a base in the military under the King’s rule. Khalq did not. By July, 1978, Taraki and Amin had arrested Defense Minister Abdul Khadir, who had led the military assault on Daoud in April. Khalquis became commanders in the armed forces. Karmal and Ratebzad were dispatched out of the country as ambassadors. When the arrest of other Parchamites became wholesale and Taraki recalled them to Afghanistan, they went into exile.

The series of purges continued among the Khalquis centering upon who would control the highly politicized Kabul barracks. Amin emerged as President last September and Taraki was killed.

This political cannibalism was not merely the result of personal power plays a la the bourgeois press. There were, and continue to be, real differences over how to modernize and reform society and what to do with the armed opposition.

Taraki, at Soviet urging, had a go slow approach to land reform and overhauling and secularizing the country’s educational system. He also wanted to reach some understanding with the Moslem opposition. Amin wanted to crush the opposition, an increasingly difficult task.

Soon after Amin took power there was speculation that the Soviets were dissatisfied. On October 5, 1979 Far Eastern Economic Review wrote

…the Soviets will either have to support the new Amin regime…or look around for alternatives….One possible alternative…is remnants of the Parcham Party…

That, of course, is what happened. At the time of the Soviet invasion last December, Parchamite Karmal became President.


When Vietnam invaded Cambodia and China invaded Vietnam the “independent radical newsweekly” Guardian was forced to do a lot of hand-wringing. For the Guardian the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and now Afghanistan are socialist. As they explained it in the January 16, 1980 issue,

Moscow was wrong to invade Afghanistan and its…troops should be withdrawn. The U.S. S.R. cannot justify limiting the sovereignty of socialist Afghanistan (italics added)

When did Afghanistan become socialist? Under King Zahir Shah or his relative Mohammed Daoud? Presumably not. It must have been when the armed forces stormed the palace in Kabul and installed the PDP regime. Where was the activity of the working class in which the class was transformed and the muck of ages overthrown? Was it the week of demonstrations by government employees and students that preceeded the military putsch? Can we consider Afghanistan to be socialist because the PDP cancelled debts by peasants, wrote into law the rights of women, and has promised the much-needed land reform? All these are worthy goals, no doubt. All are needed for the progress of the country. Combined with the 5-Year Plan and state control of industry and finance, the Guardian probably believes you have the formula for Afghan socialism. Perhaps they would add a little something about the leading role of a Marxist party.

What is missing from Afghanistan and from the Guardian’s formula for socialism is the revolutionary self-activity of the working class.

The PDP’s social program is very similar to King Amanullah’s in the period after World War I. Amanullah came to power not after the victory of one tribe over the others, but as a result of the young Afghan movement (modeled after the Young Turks) which forced Britain to concede Afghani independence. Amanullah separated the state treasury from the monarch’s. He introduced a free secular education based on the European model. He pressed for the emancipation of women. He broke down the feudal constraints on internal and external trade. He sent abroad a group of people to be trained as state administrators. Most importantly, the state began the process of developing postal, telegraph and tele¬phone systems and capitalizing industry. The government bought machinery from Japan and Germany and opened soap and match factories.

Most of these progressive measures were repealed when Amanullah was overthrown.

Under Mohammed Daoud (1973-8) state cooperatives in Karakul skin and sugar beet production were developed. They provided credit, improved the network of artificial irrigation, combatted pests, and introduced technical improvements.

The banking and finance system was also statist.

Daoud even instituted the first 5 Year Plan (cited in R.T. Akhramovitch, Outline History of Afghanistan after the Second World War, p. 92).

The bottom line is that measures of social reform and state development of the economy are not particular to or dependent upon the existence of a Marxist regime. Any development and modernization of Afghanistan will travel a similar road–that of state capitalism. (3)


During the 19th Century common Marxist understanding of capitalist development was based on the European model. In that model a capitalist class emerged within the feudal mode of production. Eventually feudalism burst asunder and the capitalist class led the proletariat and peasantry and established the modern nation-state alongside the capitalist mode of production. Further down the road yet, it was predicted, the proletariat would differentiate itself from the bourgeoisie and make its own revolution. That revolution would be socialist

In 1905 Lenin advanced a radically different thesis. In Two Tactics he argued that the nascent capitalist class of Russia was too weak to lead the fight against the autocracy. It was the working class, he argued, that would have to lead the capitalists and the peasantry in establishing a bourgeois-democratic order.

The revolutionary process in the Third World has confirmed at least part of his thesis. In almost every case the national bourgeoisie has been too weak to consistently lead the fight against colonialism. In most cases where Marxist parties have led the national liberation movements, the main social force of the revolution has been the peasantry. In these countries the proletariat has yet to emerge as an independent force and make its own revolution.

In Afghanistan there is no social force other than the state large and cohesive enough for the tasks required for social progress. There has never developed a modern bourgeoisie— either of the comprador or national type. The closest development has been the class of landlords and traders. The working class remains miniscule and socially insignificant. Peasants engaged in sharecropping and peasants without any land at all form the greatest section of the population.

They are socially and politically fragmented.

It has remained with the state employees and administrators, both military and civilian, to cast themselves as the heralds of a modern Afghanistan. In this regard Afghanistan is similar to Ethiopia. In both countries military regimes have come to power on the ruins of feudal monarchies. Because they were never fully colonized, both monarchies survived centuries relatively intact. Imperialism never unified the language, culture, or economy of these countries. It has been the military, albeit in a Marxist guise, that has begun to do what imperialism did not. In this regard, state capitalism in Afghan¬istan is a different formation than it is in Vietnam, Angola, et. al.

In Ethiopia when a revolutionary movement of the proletariat and peasantry began at the time of the “Lion of David’s” fall, the new military regime crushed it. With Soviet and Cuban help they have continued to pursue a reactionary war against Eritrea. In Afghanistan such a revolutionary movement has yet to emerge.


The United States government, for its part, has constructed its own web of fabrications and deceptions around the Afghan events. It is using the occasion as another opportunity to galvanize the U.S. people around a war policy and to resurrect the military as a tool of U.S. imperialism.

Since their defeat in Vietnam the armed forces have been an unreliable, and, in a sense, demobilized weapon. First in Angola and then in Iran and Nicaragua the imperialists have tried other means to stop national liberation movements. Any weaknesses in the social programs of the movements in those countries should not be laid at the doorstep of the imperialists. The U.S. policy of finding a “moderate” solution has been a consummate failure in its intended results. To be an effective tool the carrot of moderation must be accompanied by the stick of military intervention.

First draft registration was floated through Congress. When that failed, Russian troops were “found” in Cuba. After that tactic failed, the Shah was allowed into the U.S. with the expected Iranian response. But it is the hoo-ha over Afghanistan that has had the best results for the imperialists.

By concocting a new Soviet policy of aggression, Carter has placed the revitalization of the military as the top item on the national agenda. New Defense Department spending is in sight. Draft registration will shortly become a reality. “Winning” a nuclear war has become part of the presidential debate. Military bases for conventional troops have recently been acquired in Oman, Kenya, and Somalia. The cloud that has hung over the CIA is evaporating, as the latest version of the CIA Charter is consonant with its expanded use as a counterrevolutionary weapon.

Most ominous of all is the open talk of sending military aid and advisors to help the embattled junta in El Salvador. This would be the first such use of the military that would be openly acknowledged since Vietnam.

The events in Afghanistan mark the beginning of a polarization of political thought on a mass level. Even though the presidential debate has shifted to the right, the population as a whole has not swallowed all of the new Cold War rhetoric. This is particularly true of the working class, which is experiencing a polarization within itself, as a class, and even in the minds of individual workers. It is common for one and the same person to be for boycotting the Olympics and against sending their sons and daughters to fight in the Khyber Pass

This process of polarization presents new difficulties and opportunities to revolutionaries as they leave the 70’s behind.

(1) For an historical and theoretical elaboration of state capitalism, see Ignatin, No Condescending Saviors.

(2) This border was created in 1947 by the colonial powers at the time of the creation of Pakistan and artificially divides the Pushtun people. On one side Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province is inhabited primarily by the Pushtun nationality. On the other side the ruling circles in Afghanistan, including the monarchy, have historically been Pushtun. Seasonal migration by nomadic tribes has obscured the border and traditionally the area has been outside the firm control of any central government, including the one in Kabul.

(3) The Socialist Workers Party in defending the Soviet invasion similarly insist on the progressive nature of the social reforms and the specific role of the PDP (and the Soviets) in promulgating them. The February 1 Militant carried an article which read in part, “Supporters of the Afghan revolution badly needed allies….It was natural for them to look to the Soviet Union…. While carrying out this progressive act, the Soviet rulers stage-managed a coup to remove President Hafizullah Amin and replaced him with Babrak Karmal. Focusing on the undemocratic method of changing govern¬ment, some…radicals…failed to see the progressive role of Soviet troops in fighting the counterrevolution.” The sub¬stance of this contention has been dealt with throughout the text of this article. But the SWP’s position deserves special mention because, since they don’t swallow the ‘Amin was a CIA agent’ bait, they are better defenders of the Soviets than the Soviets themselves. Whatever remaining moral authority they may have had from years of anti-Stalinism has disappeared completely.

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