Revolution and counterrevolution

By Mark Fischer, Weekly Worker, #403, Thursday 11 October 2001

Failure to come to terms with the nature of the Taliban movement today is a sort of programmatic revenge for a much earlier mistake. Wide sections of the left dismissed the April 1978 revolution in Afghanistan—led by the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan—as a putsch.

Though inevitably some aspects are now completely dated, our lengthy extract from The revolution in Afghanistan by Emine Engin of the Communist Party of Turkey provides useful material to correct this mistaken assessment. Only by grasping the fact that Afghanistan had a revolution in 1978 is it possible to understand the nature of today's Taliban regime. It is the counterrevolutionary opposite of the April Revolution.

Considered in this light the pro-Taliban apologetics we hear from certain quarters has a definite source. Thus, in the Socialist Workers Party's October edition of its Socialist Review, Clare Fermont gives us a panoramic overview of Afghan society since the 19th century. She avoids the difficulty of characterising the 1978 April Revolution by failing to mention it at all. The nearest we get to it is the statement that Afghanistan was simply a battleground in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. It seems that in SWP eyes it is this—and this alone—that accounts for the hellhole that is Afghanistan today. Indeed, true to the mechanical perspectives of the SWP, she denies the possibility that Afghanistan had the societal raw material to produce a progressive working class movement in any case:

When the Russian troops invaded in 1979, the US threw its weight behind the Afghan armed military resistance (the Mujahadeen) and their ‘holy islamic war’ against the ‘infidel’ invaders. It was not surprising that the Afghan resistance was fought under an islamic banner … the lack of economic development meant there was no social basis for a ‘social democratic’ movement, let alone a socialist one.

Thus, comrade Fermont tells us, Afghanistan has a long history as the plaything of bigger powers. For a time, this took the form of superpower rivalry between the US and the USSR. As a result of this conflict, the USSR invaded and it was this that sparked the civil war, as the islamic movement, for all its reactionary ideas, had a long tradition of fighting foreign oppression … (ibid).

In a similar dishonest vein, the Socialist Party journal, Socialism Today, also ‘disappears’ the April Revolution, if anything in an even cruder way than the SWP. In a piece by Per Ake Westerlund, we get this passage: In the 1970s, a growing layer of low-ranking officers looked to Stalinism as a model, an alternative to the capitalist west. Another group looked towards islam. In December 1979, Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union … against the background of an intensified power struggle and military coups (September).

In fact, the course of the Afghan tragedy was rather different, as Emine Engin detailed in her book. The PDPA led a genuine democratic revolution in 1978—there was a mass base in the working class, the intellegensia and the urban poor. Sweeping reforms were introduced and old privileges swept away. Women in particular benefited. However, the party was deeply split between a revolutionary and an opportunist wing—Khalq and Parcham respectively.

It is true that both wings looked upon the Soviet Union as a model to emulate. However the national socialism that existed in their programmatic imaginations was to be achieved via two different routes. The evolutionary road of conciliation and compromise. The revolutionary road of struggle and turbulence. By putting Afghanistan on the revolutionary road the Khalq wing of the PDPA stirred the countryside into revolt.

Social relations were still patriarchal. Tribe could count for more than class and the PDPA had no properly developed roots in the countryside. There was a belief that land reform delivered from above would be sufficient to undermine the power exercised by the imams and chiefs in the villages. It was not. Counterrevolution broke out and gained momentum. Hafizullah Amin fought Mujahadeen terror with revolutionary terror. And, thinking they had true friends in Moscow, the leaders of the revolution, first Tarakki, then Amin—asked in desperation for help. When it eventually came in December 1979 Soviet fraternal aid took the form of a counterrevolutionary defence of the revolution. Brezhnev had no liking for a hot spot smack on the Soviet Union's borders. The first act of the Soviet armed forces was to kill Amin and 97 leading members of Khalq, and install Babrak Karmal, from the right of the party.

With Afghanistan's Castro out of the way, the conviction was that everything would return to normal. It could not. It did not. The USA saw its opportunity. Turn Afghanistan into the Soviet Union's Vietnam, was Ronald Regan's slogan. Sophisticated weaponry and millions of dollars were pumped in to support the Mujahadeen counterrevolution—of which the Taliban formed the most reactionary but most ideologically coherent strand.

The Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1988 and the beleaguered PDPA government in Kabul—now under Mohammed Najibullah—hung on for another four years or so. The very fact that it showed this ability to survive underlines that this regime was a product of something more than a ‘putsch’. Workers Power—another of the ‘putsch’ school—tacitly admits as much: the PDPA demonstrated that it did have a serious base in Afghanistan (Workers Power September 30). Ditto, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty: the fact that the Afghan regime the Russians left behind them did not collapse for over three years indicates that it was not only a creature of the Russians (Socialist Organiser April 23 1992).

Emine Engin's book has many flaws, reflecting the illusions and theoretical errors characteristic of the extreme left wing of ‘official communism’. However, it underlines that in 1978, Afghanistan had a revolution. A revolution not imposed from outside, but one that grew from the soil of the country itself, a product of its contradictions and social struggles. This must give us room for optimism and hope. Counterrevolution also produces its opposite. The Taliban must be overthrown— not by US imperialist intervention, but by a democratic, secular and working class revolution.

Emine Engin The revolution in Afghanistan London 1982, pp174

1. Brief background information on Afghanistan

In order to arrive at a better understanding of our topic let us … take a brief look at the history and the socio-economic structure of Afghanistan, one of the world's 20 most backward countries.

Afghanistan is a very old country with a deep-rooted history. It is one of the countries where feudalism survived the longest. The British occupied Afghanistan for the first time in 1838, when it was a feudal emirate. The Afghan people smashed this occupation. However, Afghanistan held an important position for British imperialism from the point of view of both tsarist Russia and India. Therefore, the British reoccupied the country between 1878 and 1880. The people fought against this occupation as well, but, as a consequence of a treaty signed between the occupying forces and Emir Yakup Khan, the country became a de facto British colony and remained so for 40 years.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a movement called the Afghan Brotherhood, similar to the Young Turks, started in Afghanistan. This movement, which also included some Turkish intellectuals, demanded constitutional government and independence. As the movement gained strength with the effects of the 1905 revolution, British imperialism strove to suppress it. On the other hand, German imperialism and the Ottomans supported it against the British.

The victory of the Great October Revolution, as everywhere else throughout the world, had a revolutionising effect on the Afghan people. When the leading members of the Afghan Brotherhood were arrested in 1919, an armed uprising broke out in Afghanistan. Members of the Afghan Brotherhood were released from prison, independence was secured and Emir Amanullah Khan, who took sides with the Afghan Brotherhood, was brought to power.

The bourgeois-democratic reforms of Amanullah Khan, imposed from above, aggravated class contradictions in the country and angered the feudal lords. With the support of British imperialism, reactionaries once again seized power as the result of an uprising in 1929 and the Nadir family took power.

The Nadir family was the representative of the feudal lords. Nevertheless, in order to be able to keep pace with the 20th century, and to avoid a revolutionary outburst, it had to take certain steps towards a bourgeois monarchy. Under the revolutionary impact of the great victory won by the Soviet Union against fascism in World War II, Afghanistan saw a period of reforms which lasted from 1946 until 1952. Political parties were formed, elections were held (under the condition that the king had the final say), and a certain degree of press freedom was granted. However, as the logic of these reforms started to bring about changes unforeseen by reaction, ‘mad Daoud’, who came to power in 1953, took back many of the reforms and attempted to turn back the clock.

Between 1953 and 1963, Afghanistan once again experienced a period of severe repression. However, in the meantime, capitalism was developing and intensifying the bourgeois-democratic potential in society. In accordance also with changes in the international arena, this potential began to assert itself forcefully in the 1960s. In this situation, the monarchy was once again obliged to grant certain reforms. In 1964, some limited liberties were recognised and an electoral system, etc, was adopted.

These limited rights, which were granted as a result of the social pressures mentioned above, at the same time brought about an upsurge of social activity. In 1965, the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was founded. Between 1964 and 1973, worker, peasant and student movements were born.

The year that the PDPA was founded it participated in the elections and gained four seats in the parliament. The party organised a mass demonstration to observe the opening of parliament. However, the government banned this and three demonstrators were killed when government forces fired on the demonstrators. This event had a profound impact and became known in the history of the revolutionary struggle as the ‘three scorpions’ (named after the old calendar) demonstrations. There were subsequent demonstrations on the same day every year, attended by thousands, and many more were martyred. For example, during the ‘three scorpions’ demonstrations in 1970, the young party member Abdur Rahman was murdered by reactionaries.

After 1965 there was a clear upsurge in the mass movement. There were student boycotts, workers' strikes, strikes at Afghan Airlines, resistance by mining and electrical engineers, and the Paghman peasant movements. In these years, many were killed, hundreds wounded and thousands arrested. There was widespread discontent in the army. The rulers were in a panic. In Afghanistan, where technology is not widespread at all, spies with small cassette recorders and microphones were all over the place. Bribery and corruption were rife. Rumour had it that the royal family was spending foreign aid on itself.

In the years 1946-1953, Afghanistan had seen some activity in the political sphere. However, this was mostly on an intellectual level and in the form of the defence of certain bourgeois views by liberal methods. Whereas what was observed after 1965 was altogether different: it was a deep-rooted movement, embracing vast masses of people.

It is quite clear that a revolutionary situation began in Afghanistan in the years 1965-1973. The founding of the PDPA was in itself an indicator of social pressures in the country before the revolutionary situation. The coup led by Daoud in 1973 was also a direct consequence of the revolutionary situation. The inability of the rulers to rule, discontent among the masses, restlessness within the army, attempts by the ruling circles to suppress the mass movement and head off a social explosion—all these found expression in the coup of 1973.

Daoud was a close relative of the king. The monarch was overthrown, but replaced by a constitutional monarchy. The essence of the coup was to avoid a revolution, and to open the way for the development of capitalism in an evolutionary way. Within this framework, Daoud came forward with many promises. He even promised socialism! But these promises did not and could not go any further than being mere demagogy.

Promises such as the distribution of land, etc could have been fulfilled only by revolutionary means, through the active participation of the masses. But the point of departure of the coup was to delude the masses, to prevent revolution, and to guarantee evolutionary capitalist development within limits agreed upon by the alliance of the bourgeoisie and landowners. The coup reflected the fact that, in order for these to be accomplished, there had been a change in the balance of forces in this alliance. No revolutionary initiatives could possibly be expected from this coup.

Daoud's coup was unable to satisfy the people's demands by mere demagogy. On the contrary, as the promises failed to be realised, the contradictions within society deepened still further. The coup d'état government was sharply split in two within a year. One section united with notoriously reactionary forces to form a front against the other. As the bankruptcy of the government became more apparent, repression increased. Between the years 1973 and 1977, more than 100 members of the PDPA were arrested. Censorship of the press and prohibitions of strikes became more frequent. Scores of progressives and revolutionaries were gunned down.

After Daoud's coup the mass movements had slowed down for a while. As the real character of the coup d'état government became clearer, a tendency towards a far more powerful explosion was born. But this time too there were attempts to halt it by means of bans and the like. For example, when the workers at the Prefabricated House Factory went on strike, this was banned as an activity against the existing order. In the same period, many peasant, student and teachers' movements were suppressed …

The increasing demand for action among the masses was reaching such dimensions that it could not be stopped by bans. In the army too, the mood was changing even among those sections which supported Daoud's coup.

At this time, the party member and trade union leader, Ahbar Hayber, was murdered. His funeral turned into a huge mass demonstration. Thousands of people poured into the streets. The demonstration was marked by speeches by leading members of the PDPA. Due to these speeches, the decision was taken to arrest six PDPA leaders, including Tarakki, Amin and Karmal. The government lived in fear. Tarakki was arrested on April 25 1978. Immediately afterwards, Amin was arrested. There existed a strong party organisation within the army under the direction of Amin. Before being taken to prison, Amin issued an order to this party organisation. The next morning, on April 27, the insurrection began. After 10 hours of fighting, the revolution ended in victory.

In order to arrive at a better understanding of this revolution, let us now take a brief look at the socio-economic structure of Afghanistan, the situation of the various classes, and the position of the army.

2. The socio-economic structure of Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a country which usually occupies a bottom place in various international statistics. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. This is closely linked with its socio-economic structure.

The first factory in Afghanistan was an arms factory built in Kabul in 1886. For a long time, this was the only factory in the country. That is, the setting up of the first factory was not in fact the beginning of a continuous process of industrialisation.

After the insurrection of 1919, King Amanullah's bourgeois-democratic reforms did not immediately accelerate capitalist development as they were carried out by a feudal establishment. The seizure of power once again by the reactionaries in 1929, and the consequent abolition of the few superstructural reforms that had been made, prolonged the life of the old relations of production and slowed down the development of capitalist forces of production.

For a long time, the feudal lords formed the main part of the class structure of small producer-artisans and broad peasant masses. The first bourgeois ideas emerged, not from any class base in the country, but from bourgeois intellectuals under the intellectual influence of world capitalism.

In order to be able to keep pace with the times, the monarchy made certain economic investments via direct intervention by the state. In 1930 the National Bank, and in 1936 the Cotton Company were founded. They too were instrumental in the gradual development of a bourgeois class.

After 1946, the ‘interest’ of imperialism in Afghanistan increased. Various contracts were signed with the Morrison Company in such fields as irrigation networks, mining research, road and canal construction, etc. Afghanistan had such a backward infrastructure that, in order to be able to render investments profitable, and to extend the market, imperialism laid its hands on these fields first. At the same time, with Marshall ‘aid’, imperialism paid due regard to capitalist development in agriculture through the evolution of the feudal landowners, and thus to precautions against any revolutionary outburst as well.

After World War II, the comprador commercial bourgeoisie gained strength in Afghanistan. A tiny industrial bourgeoisie was formed. The overwhelming majority of small producer-artisans moved in the direction of becoming the middle strata of capitalism. At the same time, with the opening of every workplace, be it public or private, domestic or foreign, the working class developed.

Prior to 1960, the main industries of Afghanistan were the textile, sugar and shoe industries, and yet they were able to meet only 15% of domestic demand. There was only one factory in the metallurgy sector. In 1953, the total number of workers in the construction industry, transport and mining was about 15,000.

After 1960, the development of capitalism in Afghanistan accelerated. There was also a rapid change in the class structure of the country. But still, as the 1970s began, Afghanistan was a country in which capitalist relations of production had not yet become dominant.

Out of a population of 17 million, three million were living as nomads raising their own livestock. Nearly half the land was held by feudal landowners who made up five percent of the population. Thirty-six percent of the entire rural population was made up of landless peasants who were subject to compulsory labour, rent-in-kind, etc.

Seventy-five per cent of the working population was engaged in agriculture. Agriculture was the country's main sector of production, but it was very backward. The backwardness of the technical level of agriculture is reflected in the determining role played by weather conditions. For example, the drought of 1970-1972 created a great food shortage and famine. The production of wheat and cotton declined. There was also a drop of millions in the number of livestock.

That part of the economy which was called modern industry was developing quickly. Still, the total number of workers before the revolution did not exceed 90,000. On the other hand, 300,000 people were working in small-scale industry which still contained remnants of guild traditions. For example, the tradition of apprenticeship and masters was still alive. Anyone wanting to open a business in the field of copper works or shoemaking had to give a feast for all his colleagues and obtain permission from the elders of that profession in order to be approved by the town council (AM Baryalai [ed] Afghanistan democratic republic annual Saur [April] 7 1358 [1979], Government Publishing House, p1,358)…

In short, Afghanistan was really a very backward, dependent country where capitalist production relations, closely bound up with widespread feudal forms, were newly developing in the direction of becoming the dominant mode of production. In agriculture, the development of capitalism was a process which followed a very slow evolutionary path, and which had still advanced very little even from the point of view of the feudal landowners becoming capitalist. The class differentiation of capitalism was at a very backward level among the vast peasant masses. The traditions of the guilds were still alive among small producers in the towns.

As capitalist production forces developed, however slowly, they aggravated the contradictions in society and, with ever growing force, imposed the necessity of a democratic revolution which would sweep away the obstructions in their way. The unrest which started in the 1960s was a consequence of this.

As for the position of the classes in the revolution that was to come, in our epoch—one in which the working class is at the centre—a working class, however small, was born in Afghanistan. Because of its fear of the epoch and of its representative in Afghanistan, the bourgeoisie had long abandoned any revolutionary tradition. The development of the bourgeoisie had at any rate been realised under the wing of the landowners and of their state, which was taking steps towards becoming bourgeois. Due to its fear of revolution, the bourgeoisie never broke this alliance. However, in time the balance of forces within this alliance changed.

In spite of its small size, the working class was the revolutionary vanguard of Afghan society. The peasantry was also a revolutionary force. Peasant insurrections in certain regions demonstrated this in practice. However, due to its generally scattered and unorganised nature, the discontent and revolutionary potential of the peasantry was reflected in its most organised fashion within the army.

As the state was not an established, experienced bourgeois state, the army too had a contradictory character, different from that of its counterparts in many capitalist countries. The state was becoming a bourgeois state to the extent that the feudal landowners were becoming bourgeois and the bourgeoisie gained in strength, in a process which unfolded according to the balance of forces within the alliance of feudal landowners and bourgeoisie. This situation imparted to the army a contradictory character which was concretely reflected in the coup of 1973.

It had become imperative to clear the way for capitalism in the society. This necessity reflected itself in two ways. One was the demand for democratic revolution, a demand which emanated from the peasant masses. The other, chosen by the bourgeoisie, was evolutionary development in alliance with the feudal landowners. The army embodied contradictions which stemmed both from the fact that the state was not in any one set of hands and also from the contradiction between the evolutionary and revolutionary ways of becoming bourgeois.

Thus the revolutionary potential of the peasantry was reflected even among the officer ranks in a manner which could never be met within the army of an established capitalist country. What the PDPA did was to develop this revolutionary potential reflected in the army through intensive ideological education and to direct it towards the position of the working class. With this ideological education it led the revolutionary democratic officers and soldiers to adopt more consistent revolutionary positions.

Afghanistan set out from the demand for a democratic revolution which would clear the way for capitalist development, but went on to a revolution which could lead the country to socialism. The creative revolutionary approach of the Khalq wing, which may be regarded as the only representative of the PDPA, played a vital role in this.

3. The PDPA and the April Revolution

The April Revolution was a very important event in several respects. The reason for this has to do with the exemplary initiative and creativity shown by the PDPA.

While the question of whether or not this was a coup or a revolution is being discussed in bourgeois and petty bourgeois intellectual circles, the revolutionary impact of the April Revolution had a share, for example, in the revolution in Iran.

Now let us look at the April Revolution in connection with the history of the PDPA and touch upon the question of coup or revolution.

The PDPA was founded in 1965, under the leadership of Tarakki. On its founding, it was announced that the party was the party of the working class armed with the ideology of the working class. However, any party founded as the party of the working class in a country like Afghanistan could not be expected to be a fully working class party, without a struggle and splits among various tendencies showing themselves almost immediately. And, in fact, such was the case in a very short time.

In 1966 began the publication of the party weekly, Khalq (The People). Babrak Karmal opposed its views and began to organise an anti-party faction. The Khalq was banned with its sixth issue. In contrast, the Babrak Karmal group started to publish a legal organ, called Parcham (Flag). In this organ, even worse than bourgeois tailism, this group defended some of the reforms which had been put into effect by the monarchy in 1964 (reforms which are implemented by reactionary establishments or forces, and which provide social process via the evolutionary path of reaction, can absolutely not be supported). It attacked the revolutionary trend in its legal organ, which was permitted by the monarchy. For this reason, Amin used the expression aristocratic kids for the Parcham group (ibid p788).

Thus, in 1967, the party split along two main lines: one revolutionary and one reformist. The revolutionary wing passed into party history as the Khalq, the reformist as the Parcham. The people's revolution in Afghanistan was a popular revolution which also confirmed in practice the revolutionary character of the Khalq.

Following the split in 1967, the coup in 1973 rendered the differences between the two lines even clearer, and became a turning point in the development of both.

After Daoud's coup, the Parcham group directly supported the government. As different views emerged within the government, the Parcham became the tail of the right wing of the government. In the face of the left-sounding promises of the government, the Khalq came forward initially with the proposal for a united front. When the government failed to keep its promises, it drew the necessary lessons. Realising that, due to its very nature, this government would not be able to keep its promises, it took a stand against the government. The Khalq argued that the republic declared by Daoud was royal property, that this government represented the bourgeois-aristocratic partnership and would be incapable of giving anything at all to the masses, that the county's problems could be solved only by a radical revolution, and that this was what the government feared most. As the true face of the government began to appear before the masses, the Khalq became stronger.

Daoud's coup caused the Khalq line to develop. The inclusion of spokesmen of the ‘national’ bourgeoisie in the government showed the Khalq the true nature of the national bourgeoisie. Panjehri … counted among the lessons of the coup the fact that the national bourgeoisie can only support half-baked reforms (ibid p1,450).

He points out that, in general, the national bourgeoisie is terribly frightened of the complete democratisation of the social and political system and of radical revolutionary changes in the society. He also states that the party cadres were warned not to forget the lessons of experiences such as those in the Sudan, in Egypt and India…

Another lesson drawn by the Khalq wing of the PDPA from the coup was the special importance, in a backward country like Afghanistan, of working in the army. In doing this, the Khalq wing did not reject the general principles of Marxism in regard to the army. These general principles were stated, as was their correctness, but it was emphasised that, in Afghanistan, these principles would be put into practice in a somewhat different order.

In general, as the class struggle develops, the army is used as a means of suppressing the revolutionary forces; but as the class struggle develops further, it inevitably splits the army. Party work within the army is always necessary. Taking the social structure of Afghanistan into consideration, these general principles were put into practice, with emphasis right from the beginning on the party's work within the army. But the task of smashing the state apparatus was not rejected. Speaking of general principles, Amin said the following in a speech he delivered after the revolution: The first and most fundamental proletarian revolutionary task … is to smash the old state apparatus and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.

After the 1973 coup, Tarakki gave Amin the task of work in the army. Under the command of Amin, intensive ideological education was started within the main body of the army. At the same time, the Khalq wing carried out practices of its own during official military manoeuvres. Amin used to see Tarakki once a week and gave reports twice a year. In 1976, Amin reported that a reliable, Khalq section in the army was ready.

In 1977, Daoud became very frightened of the development of the PDPA along the path of its Khalq wing. Comparing the two wings, the Khalq and the Parcham, he said that the former was dangerous. It soon became clear that he would take action if there was no reconciliation. Consequently, on the initiative of Tarakki, the Khalq and Parcham were united and given equal rights in the leadership irrespective of the difference in strength. All the party organisations followed suit. The situation in the army, however, did not change…

If the party units within the army had united, revolution would have been dropped from the agenda. Soldiers belonging to the Parcham wing were being educated in how to defend Daoud, while those belonging to the Khalq wing were being educated in how to overthrow him. Unification would have meant obscuring the aim of revolution.

Amin continued to educate the Khalq organisation in the army as before even after the unification in the party. The situation in the country was becoming tense. As activity among the masses increased, and as the PDPA stretched out to townships, villages and nomads' tents, the repressive nature of the Daoud regime was becoming clearer. The revolutionary situation was maturing. In accordance with this, Amin began to turn education in the army into practical planning.

In the January 1979 issue of Problems of peace and socialism comrade Zeray from the PDPA describes the situation in the pre-revolution period as follows: The masses were ready to revolt. Living conditions were rapidly deteriorating … More than one million Afghans emigrated to Iran alone. The legitimacy of the official authorities had been greatly shaken in the eyes of the people … orders were not being followed … A most significant fact is that we have worked actively among the people for 13-14 years, we have led the popular movement. Before the revolution our party was a significant force with 50,000 members and close sympathisers and this frightened the regime.

It was obvious that the leadership of the PDPA would soon be arrested. Tarakki and Amin decided that, in the event of such an arrest, party members and sympathisers within the army should immediately launch an insurrection. Amin saw to it that various plans devised for this purpose were rehearsed 10 times. These drills were skilfully concealed under the cover of general military manoeuvres. Among soldiers and officers belonging to the party, a list was prepared of those who would be commanders during the insurrection. The party's military chain of command was determined.

At midnight on April 25 1978, Tarakki and Karmal were arrested by police. Amin was also taken under house arrest the same night and, having learned about the arrest of Tarakki, issued the order for the insurrection through his child. The insurrection began on the morning of April 27, exactly one day after the morning Amin had been taken to prison…

By 7 o'clock the insurrection was successful. Tarakki, Amin, and one of the ‘equal rights’ leaders of the PDPA, Babrak Karmal, were at the State Radio House…

4. The April Revolution was not a coup

As we mentioned above, one of the discussions to which the revolution in Afghanistan gave rise is that as to whether it constituted a coup or a revolution. For example, in Turkey Revolutionary Path, Liberation and Accumulation (Dev Yol, Kurtuluf and Birikim) all say that it was a coup. Those who call it a coup put forward such views as that the revolution was effected through an uprising in the army, that a section of the counterrevolutionary muslim guerrillas had found a base among the peasantry, and that the revolution was announced to the country over the radio.

Let us too touch briefly upon the question of coup or revolution.

While explaining the term ‘putsch’, which is the exact equivalent in German of the word ‘coup’, Lenin said the following: The term ‘putsch’, in its scientific sense, may be employed only when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses (VI Lenin CW Vol 22, Moscow 1977, p355).

This explanation generalises efforts to seize power through a plot isolated from the masses under the concept of putsch. The concept of coup d'état or ‘blow against the state’ is also included in Lenin's generalisation. A coup d'état also involves a plot isolated from the masses, but here it originates from within the state itself: eg, military coup, palace coup, etc.

While talking about the coup d'etats of Bonaparte and Bismarck, Engels said: In politics there are only two determining forces: the organised force of the state, the army, and the disorganised natural force of the popular masses (F Engels The role of force in history International Publishers, New York, 1968, p62). In connection with the coups of Bonaparte and Bismarck, we see that Engels's explanation reflects the understanding that a coup rests on a certain support within the state, not on the masses, and that it has the character of a plot isolated from the masses.

When we look at history we see that in general this type of coup reflects a struggle for power within the ruling class which controls the state. The decisive factor in such a struggle is the balance of forces within the state mechanism. The consequences of the coup for the country as a whole can vary according to the particular situation within which the country finds itself.

Again, when we look at history, we also see revolutions which have the appearance of coups. However, the only way in which revolutionary views which take the side of the oppressed classes, and defend radical changes that can be implemented through broad mass participation, can gain strength within the old state apparatus is as a reflection within the state of the mood and revolutionary potential of the masses. Revolutionary views cannot gain strength within the old state apparatus in isolation from the masses and then, resting on this strength, carry out a coup in isolation from the masses.

For this reason, revolutionary coups are either the unsuccessful and easily crushed attempt of a small group, or a revolution which, even if in form it resembles a military coup, for example, has in reality created a genuinely organised vanguard from the petty bourgeois revolutionary military cadres in the army. In history, such examples have led the potential which they themselves objectively represent to explode the day after the coup by bringing the masses out onto the streets. Just as in Iran the revolution found its subjective factor in the mullahs, it may also find it among revolutionary officers in the army. In such cases, the seizure of power appears in form as a coup, but in essence it is a revolution under the leadership of petty bourgeois military cadres. (The future of a revolution led by petty bourgeois revolutionaries is another question.)

If we look at the events in Afghanistan from this point of view, again it is a revolution. Nevertheless, the Afghanistan revolution was not this type of revolution. We will return to this below. What we want to emphasise here is that if, without looking at the essence of the matter, we call every revolution which appears to be a military one a coup, and if we then label it to be isolated from the masses because counterrevolutionary attempts have intensified—as they would naturally be expected to do—we would be in a situation where the finger points at the moon while the fools are looking at the finger. This logic would lead to calling the October Revolution a coup.

In Russia as well, soldiers made up an important section of the striking force. Clashes were brief and power was seized with relatively few losses. What did last for a long time were the sharp and bloody clashes throughout the civil war. And in the civil war certain backward sections of the people took the side of counterrevolution. Was the October Revolution a ‘coup’?

Before the October Revolution, Lenin said that if, in a peasant country, matters have come to a peasant uprising, it is sufficient even if there are no other symptoms of a nationwide crisis. Then he enumerates the other symptoms as well, referring to a heating up of the national question, the situation in the army and the mood of the whole nation (VI Lenin CW Vol 26, Moscow 1977, pp79-80).

Lenin enumerated the following as the guarantee of the Bolsheviks' success in an uprising: 1. we can launch a surprise attack from three points; 2. we have slogans that guarantee us support among the peasants; 3. we have a majority in the country; 4. the disorganisation among the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries is complete; 5. we are technically in a position to take power in Moscow; 6. we have thousands of armed workers and soldiers in Petrograd who could at once seize the Winter Palace, the general staff building, the telephone exchange and the large printing presses (ibid pp83-84). After enumerating these conditions for an uprising, Lenin said that, given these conditions, it would be treachery not to treat insurrection as an art (ibid pp22-23).

Let us now return to Afghanistan in the light of these comments of Lenin. We have mentioned the existence of a revolutionary situation in the country. The situation prior to the April Revolution was developing in the direction of a nationwide crisis. Firstly, the stirrings of a peasant uprising were felt in the rural areas just as in 1970-72. In 1978 The Times wrote as follows: The acute food shortage led to wide-scale discontent and dissatisfaction in the first months of this year (The Times May 2 1978).

Then the murder of Akhbar Hayber, one of the leaders of the PDPA, on April 17 1978 sparked off broad reaction, including a 50,000-strong funeral march as well as other demonstrations…

The conditions for an uprising were maturing. It was not for nothing that the order for the uprising was connected with the arrest of the PDPA leaders. It is very obvious that this was to serve as the turning point mentioned by Lenin. And so it was.

Using criteria similar to those Lenin cited for Russia we may say that the PDPA had: 1. slogans which guaranteed the support of the discontented peasants; 2. from the social-psychological point of view, a majority in the country (and this is what Lenin was referring to when he spoke of a majority in regard to Russia); 3. a situation which made it difficult for even lukewarm friends to support Daoud and in which a clear injustice had been perpetrated; 4. the possibility of a surprise attack; 5. technical ability and thousands of armed soldiers which would enable the seizure of various centres. More factors could be enumerated.

Once the conditions for an uprising have appeared, the rest is a matter of art. This is one point on which the question of coup or revolution has been confused. In regard to the art aspect of the uprising, the Khalq organisation and its sympathisers within the army were chosen as the striking force. Lenin said: The exploiters can be defeated at one stroke in the event of a successful uprising at the centre, or of a revolt in the army (VI Lenin CW Vol 28, Moscow 1977, p252).

By succeeding in carrying out a revolution, the PDPA succeeded in passing a test. It drew up a definite policy, taking into account the mood of the masses, the position of its enemies and lukewarm friends, etc. The revolutionary army which it formed within the army was loyal to this policy. In this respect, the revolution in Afghanistan was not a revolutionary explosion of a type which created its subjective factor in revolutionary soldiers within the army. The revolutionaries in the army did not fill a vacuum in the political sphere: rather they formed a revolutionary army under the political leadership of the PDPA; they performed a military function.

When the revolution was announced over the radio hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets all over Afghanistan. The Trotskyists have seized on this, notwithstanding the fact that, although the Bolsheviks too were in the majority before the October Revolution, the overwhelming majority of the population of Russia learned of the revolution via the telegraph or over the radio where there was one! This is something related to the art aspect of the matter. To understand revolution as something in which the absolute majority of the people, organised in regular armies, strikes as one, would be nothing but the other side of a parliamentarist understanding, replacing the number of votes by a head count.

Immediately following the revolution, a Revolutionary Council in which the PDPA was in the majority was formed. It took revolutionary decisions on vital topics, decisions which further increased the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses. This enthusiasm is reflected in photographs taken after the revolution. Thousands of working people on horses and on foot, with red banners in their hands, poured into the streets … These photographs document the treachery of calling what was a revolution a ‘coup.’