This is a transcribed version of an introduction to a discussion on Afghanistan and the theory of permanent, or uninterrupted, revolution. The main purpose of the discussion was to try to make concrete, to make specific, the general laws of capitalist development in the former colonial world – the laws summarized by the theory of permanent/uninterrupted revolution. This discussion was organized by Oaklandsocialist and held on September 11, 2021. The transcript has been slightly edited from the oral introduction. A video of this introduction is also reproduced here. A podcast of this introduction can also be heard here.
It’s really appropriate that we would be having this discussion on Afghanistan and the theory of permanent or uninterrupted revolution, on this date, September 11, which, exactly 20 years ago to the day, really expressed the disaster of capitalism in the former colonial world, where all the crises of capitalism are concentrated and magnified.
In today’s New York Times, there’s an article talking about how the US is actually expanding its military bases – in the Sahara, from which it runs drone flights to monitor al Qaeda and Islamic State militants in Libya, Niger, Chad and Mali. And it’s also doing drone strikes in Somalia, and also considering sending Special Forces troops there as trainers. The Times writes “20 years after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the so called war on terror shows no sign of winding down.”
And our first task as participants in the working class movement and as socialists is to understand the basis for this crisis. In order to do that, we have to place it in its historical context, which means understand the general pattern that’s developed. And that is what theory is – concentrating and understanding the general patterns of history.
(If you prefer to watch the video of this introduction, you can do so here:)
Theory of Permanent or Uninterrupted Revolution
The theory of permanent or uninterrupted revolution is essential for understanding that. And that theory explains first of all, the role of the capitalist class in Western Europe and the United States, where capitalism developed organically out of the developments in those societies themselves.
And the capitalist class, in that part of the world, united a large landmass into one large market with more or less clear rules. In other words, what they call here the rule of law. They largely united the populations in those different countries even with all the ethnic and regional differences.
And it broke the power of the feudal landlord class or in the US the power of the slave owners, which, in all these countries is still left the feudal remnants, or in the United States, some of the remnants of slavery still to this day, but the power of those classes was broken, and towards those ends, the capitalists leaned on the working class, through the establishment of capitalist democracy.
None of this would have been possible without uniting the mass of the population, around the idea, the consciousness of being all one people; we are all one nation; that is, we’re all Germans, we’re all Belgians, or we’re all Americans. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t divisions and strong divisions within those populations, but still at the end of the day, that was the dominant consciousness.
Capitalism in the Colonial World
You have to compare that to how capitalism was imposed from the outside, in the former colonial world:
There, the colonial powers went into whatever part of the world they entered, and they picked out out members of the landlord class and similar types. They pick them out in the first place, to go into business to be their representatives, in whatever capitalist enterprises they set up and also to be their political representatives. That was the base that they leaned on in order to rule in in the former colonial world. So, that class, the capitalist class, on the one hand was linked with the old landlord class and could not redivide the land. And also it was linked with the imperialist powers or the colonial powers and could not lead in a serious way, any kind of struggle for national liberation.
The colonial powers develop the different nation states from the outside; they impose it from the outside rather than those nation states developing organically from the
development of those societies themselves. And if you look, for instance, at Syria, where the formation of the Syrian nation went hand in hand with the development of all the nations in those areas through the Sykes Picot Accord, which was an agreement between French and British colonialism after World War One, that was how they established those nations.
In the case of Syria, the French imperialist actually, systematically prevented the development of any productive industries that would compete with the French industry. And it’s similar in all the former colonial world, and all the old ethnic and tribal traditions were ignored. So that leaves the national question as a huge issue today. And I think that many socialists either completely misunderstand the national question, or they overly focus on the issue of on the class conflict, which of course, we can’t forget. But that national question is a huge issue. And Afghanistan today is the perfect example. And a lot of what I want to want to talk about is based on based on this book, which is one of the most interesting history books that I’ve read in many years.
Early Development of Afghanistan
As far as Afghanistan: as we know, it is an extremely mountainous region, and that fact, coupled with the lack of availability of water, has meant that only 6% of the land in Afghanistan is subject to cultivation, either because it’s too mountainous or because there’s no water available. So, what happened was, you have little population centers develop in little isolated valleys, and that served as a block to the formation of a strong central state, especially in the early conditions, with lack of communication and so on.
And I’d like to quote from, from Anand Gopal (“No Good Men Among the Living”): he explains that, in the early days, at least in some areas in the predominantly Pashtun areas, which is the largest ethnic group in in Afghanistan, the peoples originally lived in the mountain sides, and were mainly pastoralists. they lived by a herding of sheep and goats and so on.
Origins of Clan System
For all the brilliance of this book, Gopal is not a Marxist. As a result, what only comes partially through is the issue of property and property ownership. However, Gopal does explain: “wealth in pastoral societies is a peculiar thing. Because being on the hoof, it can wander off or be pilfered, or slaughtered. With too little to go around and no state to enforce property relations, fighting could be frequent and brutal. You adapted by leaning on those you trusted most first your immediate family, then your cousins, your cousins’ cousins. And so on. Clannishness in other words was not a symptom of Afghans preternaturally backward ways but rather a sensible response to harsh and precarious conditions.”
So that was the origins of the development of the clan system. In Afghanistan, and also, incidentally, as far as male ownership of the of property, which initially was domesticated animals. There’s nothing in the Koran that mandates male ownership. This is purely a tradition of some of the tribes living in these more isolated conditions, especially evidently among the Pashtuns.
So you have these ancient traditions, then you have British colonialism. And in some ways, it was a repeat of what happened with the Sykes-Picot Accord, because a representative of the British colonialists, a guy named Mortimer Durand, drew up a boundary line between what’s now Afghanistan and what’s now Pakistan called the Durand Line. And that that border divides the Pashtuns between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And so the Pakistan state has a vested interest in maintaining Islamic consciousness or Islamic nationalism, for fear that Pashtun nationalism could develop, what they could call Pashtun irredentism. In other words, the formation of a Pashtun nation. Similar to what’s happening with the Kurdish people could develop and would threaten the territorial integrity of the Pakistani state. So Durand left a ticking time bomb there back from back in the 19th century.
You have also several other ethnic groups that predominate throughout Pakistan, you have the Uzbeks, in the Tajiks, and note just to the north of Pakistan, you have Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
So Afghanistan is really divided into these different ethnic groups without any strong national state, partly because the very geography of Afghanistan itself is mountainous nature. As Gopal explains, because of that mountainous nature, it was, in those early years, impossible to develop a strong national state.
Afghan Ruling Class
How about the question of development of a ruling class class in Afghanistan? Previously, I had thought that there was no real landlord class. But it turns out that that is mistaken. (And incidentally, it’s a symptom of the lack of knowledge of, of Afghanistan, that Oaklandsocialist’s previous article on Afghanistan basically commented that there was no real landlord class. That article got 460 hits, but nobody corrected that. So it really is a symptom of how the overwhelming majority of people outside of Afghanistan really don’t understand very much about that country.
From Pastoralism to Agriculture and Division of Wealth
The issue of ownership of the means of production needs to be clarified beyond Gopal’s book. He does give some excellent descriptions, especially in regard to the Pashtun regions in the south and southeast of Afghanistan. And he describes, as I said, the movement of the pastoralists down into the valleys, and the development then of agriculture. And he describes that when they were pastoralists, then the wealth was more or less equally spread around. Then when they moved down into into the valleys, he doesn’t explicitly say this, but it appears from what he writes, that it was at that time, that what ownership of land, as opposed to just simply ownership of herds of animals, that land ownership started to develop. And at that point, then you had unequal distribution of wealth and power, at least, at least amongst the men of course. Between men and women, it always was unequal, but amongst the men that unequal distribution started to develop
That development is linked according to him with contact being made by, as he puts it, some “more enterprising individuals” in the Pashtun regions and an earlier colonial power, which was the Safavid Empire or Persian Empire. And it was through that connection that a hierarchy started to develop within the Pashtuns, who formerly had had some of the most egalitarian societies, at least amongst the men in what’s now Afghanistan. They became one of the most hierarchical of all, according to Gopal.
Tribal vs. Religious Law
Connected with that, two forms of law developed, which is to say two forms of state power developed side by side, you had the old tribal laws with clear rules. For example, if you break a man’s nose in a fight, you have to give him a chicken.
But then along with that you had religious law starting to develop, religious law as interpreted by the mullahs. Now, who were the mullahs? In some ways, they were equivalent of American 20th century lawyers. I think they had to spend like five or six years studying religion as interpreted by a certain layer of religious leaders.
And this was the origin of the madrassas.
So you had the religious law, and then the old tribal laws. So then you have the Talliban, which just means students. And these are the students in the madrassas, and apparentlu they combined the religious and the old tribal laws, for instance there’s nothing in the Quran or in Islamic tradition that mandates that only men can own property. That they brought in from the old tribal laws.
Now, one thing that would be interesting to know more about was what was the relationship between the mullahs and the madrassas and those who would acquire the large tracts of land, which is to say, the landlords? but it’s difficult to imagine that the landlords did not play a big role in the madrassas in one way or another.
So then you had the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, and the war against the Soviets, the rise of the Mujahideen, which was financed by the United States, some Saudis and other sheiks, and also through that layer of the Pakistani state, especially the ISI, which was the Pakistani equivalent of the US CIA.
And incidentally, Gopal says that in Pakistan and Afghanistan, what we call the warlords are simply called commanders, the military commanders in Afghanistan. These were the the commanders of different little small local armies of the Mujahideen that had fought against the Soviets.
And they tended to be picked out from the landlord class. So there was a link between the commanders or so called warlords and the ruling class, the owners of the means of production in Afghanistan. And of course, they were directly linked with foreign imperialist capital – the USA, some of the Arab Sheik capitalists, and also Pakistan.
Now, I can’t find much mention anywhere of development of any industry throughout Afghanistan, although I think that may be coming, because Afghanistan is quite wealthyin some important minerals, but the main power rested on the landlord class who became those military commanders. Of course, the reactionary role of Stalinism helped accelerate this entire process.
When the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in 1989, that left a power vacuum, which had to be filled by some force, as chaos ruled the nation and Afghanistan was and still remains one of the few countries in the world, I believe, where the working class is actually objectively too weak to impose its order by taking power. The result was that the Taliban came to power to impose order, which was the order of one of the more reactionary regions of rural Afghanistan imposed on the entire country, including on the cities.
And there’s no state power without international links. And in the case of the Taliban, as I’ve said, they had links with the Pakistani ISI, and also to al Qaeda and with Arab capitalists.
Incidentally, initially, the US welcomed the coming to power of the Taliban.
And this created a crisis of its own as expressed exactly 20 years ago today. It’s pretty clear what happened, when the US invaded: they picked out various commanders, the so-called warlords, who were linked with the landlord class, to represent US interests.
I should just note, by the way, that during the period prior to the US coming in, a capitalist class had developed when the Soviets were in there, around both poppy cultivation plus smuggling – what Ahmed Rashid in the book, “Taliban” calls the transport mafia, and also the drug dealers or drug smugglers. So that was, as far as I can make outa central section of the Afghan capitalist class prior to the US coming in when the Taliban had first taken power. And they benefited from the Taliban taking power because the Taliban opened up the roads for transport, including transport of poppy paste and heroin to be smuggled to Iran and elsewhere. (It was only at the very end of their rule that the Taliban banned poppy cultivation.)
So you had these warlords or commanders who became the supplier for the US military there. They organized supplies for the troops. They were the construction contractors who, for example, built the US air bases. And incidentally, they also seized land not owned by them for that purpose of construction. In other words, they used their ties with US imperialism, to increase their wealth and economic power. And they they organized private security companies that were really similar to Blackwater Security of Erik Prince.
They used their connection with US imperialism to eliminate rivals. Anybody that was a rival or even a potential rival to their wealth and power, they just went to the US military and said, “Hey, that guy there, that guy is Taliban,” whether or not they’d ever had any links with the Taliban. In many, many cases, they were Mujahideen who had actually oppose the Taliban. But then they’d be arrested and several 100s of them were ultimately sent off to Guantanamo.
Also, under US occupation, occupation poppy cultivation flourished. So these commanders were in on that. And also, as the poppy cultivation flourished, land values increased, and so they engaged in land speculation, so they were real estate dealers also.
Afghan Capitalist Class
So you can see what type of capitalist class is developing in Afghanistan. It’s the archetype, the paradigm, the very essence of the degeneracy of 21st century capitalism, mixed in with the dynamics of the laws of development of capitalism in the former colonial world, that is to say, the laws of development of capitalism in its death throes, combined with the laws of development, that are explained by the theory of permanent or uninterrupted revolution.
Now, what would be a strategy for socialists, a working class strategy to deal with this ongoing disaster? And that’s not so easy because of the objective weakness of the working class.
But we have to keep in mind that the national question is alive and well in Afghanistan.
One important population group there is Hazaras, who live along the border with Iran, for whom Persian is their native language. (They are also predominantly Shia as are most Iranians.) And I think that connection is extremely important. Because right across the border, you have the powerful Iranian working class in motion. It’s unclear at this point, to what extent they’re taking up either the national question, or the question of women’s women’s liberation. But if and when, as a working class movement it develops, in a more overtly political direction, that Iranian working class will be forced as a class to take up those questions. And incidentally, already, Afghan women refugees in Iran are linking up with Iranian women.
So it’s through that then, that a working class based movement, I think, could develop in Afghanistan. And the Stalinists proved that that cannot be imposed from the outside. But through that sort of movement, it could link up primarily, but not only with with women and mainly the younger women.
And through that, then start to develop a true working class based liberation movement within Afghanistan to resolve the crisis of capitalism, not just in Afghanistan, but throughout the entire region. I do believe that women would have to be the driving force, in that movement, but the driving force, based on the working class itself. So those are some ideas that I have.
Reply to Discussion
(After an extended discussion – too long to post here – these were my comments. To an extent, these comments also somewhat summarized the discussion.)
Old World Order Ending; New World Disorder
The uncontested domination of US imperialism, or US capitalism, throughout the world, that situation is diminished and going away. And there’s other other rivals that are rising first and foremost, Chinese imperialism and also Russian, but none of them will be able to achieve the dominance that US imperialism had.
The breakdown of the old world order is certainly going apace, but there’s no new real world order. There’s a kind of a world disorder. And that presents a somewhat of a shift in the dangers that world society faces,
Make Theory Concrete
Possibly even the majority of those who even consider themselves Trotskyist have really forgotten about the whole theory of the permanent revolution, except in an extreme abstract and academic form. And if you believe that this is a general description of history, then you have to try to apply that to each new concrete situation, whether it be Afghanistan, Syria, or Zimbabwe. And that’s what they never ever ty to do. And that’s what leads them to this kind of confusion, which has been many times described as the red brown alliance – the alliance between the left and outright fascists. And it shows why for us, like for socialists that are serious, and want to be part of the working class, that understanding is our first responsibility.
This book by Gopal is really brilliant as far as explaining what was going on.
Time after time after time after time, the US would side with one corrupt military commander or warlord against another. And you know, on the basis of that they were fighting the Taliban. And many times, incidentally, it was just simply a matter of kidnappings where one commander would get some businessman or potential rival, kidnapped, and “arrested”. And then his family would have to pay several $1,000 ransom to get him released. And then a few weeks later, he’d be kidnapped again.
And so there’s one guy who was victim of that, he started wondering what he said: Well, there could only be one explanation for what the Americans had wrought. They were the world’s sole superpower capable of toppling the Taliban. They were now siding with the Northern Alliance, arresting the wrong people. This is in a different part from the Pashtun area, arresting the wrong people unleashing a predatory police force.
And it couldn’t be an accident. And then he started going to the mosque. And he heard the mullahs preaching that what the Americans wanted, was colonizing his country and converting the whole population to Christianity, just as the Russians had attempted to enforce communism. That sounds like a wild conspiracy theory, and I don’t think that US imperialism, consciously, systematically was planning that, but think about if they had been able to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely, and had been able to establish some kind of rule, based on their domination: What would have come next, just as surely as night follows day, you would have had all the Christian fundamentalist missionaries going over there to Afghanistan, and converting people to capitalism/Christianity or trying to. That would have been part and parcel of it. So it would have been economic, military and also cultural domination, by US imperialism.
Just a couple of other points as far as what were what the women from Kabul were doing about women’s rights in the rural areas. Again, Gopal explains how representatives of the United Nations and also some NGOs, recruited women in the rural Pashtun areas, to register women to vote for an election when Karsai got elected largely through fraud, although evidently he was fairly popular in the Pashtun areas, because that was the background that he came from. And he describes how that one woman who was involved in that and her husband then subsequently had to go into hiding, because his life was under threat, and the husband did ultimately get murdered. And partly, it was a result of violating those taboos against against women’s liberation. What they would have had to have done to make it successful was organize a movement from below, link it up with the land question, link it up with the corruption, and link it link all that up with women’s rights, but by their very nature, no capitalist force, whether it be Bernie Sanders, or the United Nations, no capitalist force can or ever will build a movement from below like that.
Future of Taliban
I think the Taliban is trying to link up with international finance., I think before they had never really thought about ruling. Don’t forget, they had been largely connected with al Qaeda, which isn’t a state force nor does it have any strategy for becoming a state power. It just has a strategy of attacking, attacking the US and Europe.
But now, the Taliban seems to have learned from their previous rule, and that was what the Doha negotiations were all about – to link up with some element of world imperialism. This time they are going to be trying to get Western loans. Given the economic conditions in Afghanistan, they have to. And so in order to do that, they may have to superficially moderate some of what they did as far as the oppression of women and so on, when they were in power the last time. If they do, it will be mainly window dressing, but even that means just that there’s going to be divisions within the Taliban, splits within the Taliban. And the Taliban are not exactly a democratic force that carried on political debates in a democratic manner. It means that there will be violence within the Taliban. And some members of the Taliban may move over to some of the more extreme groups like ISIS K, and so on – those who aren’t thinking about ruling and holding state power.
In conclusion, I want to emphasize the necessity for us to try to apply these general theories, especially the theory of permanent or uninterrupted revolution, to see how that’s worked out, in each individual situation, like what’s happening in Afghanistan. And also to see the developments there not not taken out of their historical or regional or even global context. And to consider the role of the working class in in other parts of the region, and how that working class can work together to help resolve the situation in Afghanistan. And, by the way, if a real powerful movement of the working class in Iran develops and starts to challenge for power, and starts to influence the situation in Afghanistan and other parts of that world that will completely transform the world situation.