The Russian Revolution Changed The World Forever


Stephen Millies

Ninety-six years ago on Nov. 7, 1917, workers and peasants overthrew the capitalist government in Russia.

Two million soldiers in the Russian army had died in World War I. Russia was ruled by the cruel Czar Nicholas II.

Like the United States, the Russian Empire was a big prison of oppressed nationalities. Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Poles, Ukrainians, Georgians, Finns, Armenians and other peoples were denied self-determination.

Russian peasants and workers were also oppressed. Many had been serfs, a sort of land slavery. Serf families couldn’t be broken up and sold like cattle, as African slaves were in the U.S., but they could be worked to death. Thirty thousand serfs died building St. Petersburg, the former Russian capital.

Serfdom was abolished in 1861, two years after John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. The outbreak of the U.S. Civil War may have influenced the czar to get rid of serfdom before the serfs got rid of him.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks

By 1914, serfdom was gone, but 30,000 big landlords still ruled the countryside. The vast majority of people were peasants who couldn’t read or write. Women had no rights.

Foreign capital poured into Russia, grabbing huge profits from long workdays in the factories. Striking workers were shot down.

Oppression breeds revolution. V.I. Lenin was the greatest leader of Russia’s revolution. He built a communist party commonly known as the Bolsheviks.

Lenin was 17 when his older brother Alexander was hanged in 1887 for trying to assassinate Czar Alexander III. That’s the same age Black revolutionary Jonathan Jackson was in 1970, when he was killed trying to free his older brother George Jackson and other political prisoners.

Lenin studied the teachings of Karl Marx. Lenin taught that workers had to be imbued with Marx’s revolutionary knowledge and determination to win.

Soviets vs. pogroms

The first Russian Revolution broke out in 1905. Workers went on strike, shutting down factories and railroads. Peasants burned the gentry’s mansions. Czarism was on the ropes.

Workers formed councils called soviets. These councils had no formal legislative power, but they had great authority among the workers, peasants and soldiers.

European banks poured in loans to save czarist tyranny. The 1905 Revolution was defeated. The czar was able to pit peasant soldiers against workers and even other peasants, just as billionaires divide poor and working people in the U.S. today with racism and anti-immigrant bigotry.

Mass lynchings called pogroms killed Jewish people, just as the Ku Klux Klan did to African Americans here.

The Bolsheviks fought pogroms with guns in hand. Lenin waged war on racism. He enriched Marxism by teaching that workers in the big capitalist countries had to support revolts in the colonies.

“What emotion, enthusiasm, clear- sightedness and confidence it instilled into me!” was how Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh described Lenin’s “Theses on the National and Colonial Questions.”

Peace, land and bread

Sick of war and hunger, women textile workers in Petersburg went on strike on March 8, 1917, International Working Women’s Day. The holiday commemorates a 1908 march of women garment workers in New York City.

Five days later, czarism was overthrown. Workers, peasants and soldiers made that revolution, but capitalists controlled the new government.

For the next eight months Lenin’s Bolsheviks won millions of poor people to socialist revolution by demanding bread, peace and land. Despite Lenin and other leaders being forced underground, Bolsheviks won majorities in the soviets that sprung up everywhere.

These soviets overthrew capitalist politician Alexander Kerensky on Nov. 7 (Oct. 25 by the old Russian calendar). Many peoples, not just Russians, rose up to break their chains.

Peasants threw out their landlords. Bolsheviks exposed secret treaties among the imperialists that divided up colonies. This revolutionary energy helped overthrow Germany’s kaiser and end World War I in 1918.

Capitalist governments, including the U.S., then waged war against the Soviets on a dozen fronts. But the Red Army, organized and led by another Bolshevik leader, Leon Trotsky, was victorious.

The 73-year war

Following Lenin’s death the enormous difficulties involved in trying to build socialism in a very underdeveloped country, encircled by imperialism, led to struggles in the party and then to backward steps. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin purged Bolshevik opponents while making concessions to careerists and increasing inequality.

Nevertheless, at the same time the Soviet Union launched the first and biggest affirmative action program in history. Every person had the right to education in their own language. The Soviet five-year plans created the world’s second-biggest economy. Everyone had a job.

But the Soviet Union remained the target of world capitalism. German big capital handed power to Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party so the Nazis could crush the German working class. German imperialism invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

With Stalin leading the government, the Soviet Union defeated Hitler, but nearly 26 million Soviet people died in World War II. The Red Army liberated all of Eastern Europe from Nazi rule, including the extermination camp at Auschwitz.

The Pentagon spent $5.5 trillion on nuclear weapons aimed at the Soviet Union. This relentless pressure undermined socialist solidarity and finally led to the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Despite this tremendous defeat, the lessons of the October Revolution will live forever.


Russian Revolution Still a Shining Example


Eugene Puryear

(Originally posted in Nov. 2009 and updated slightly.)

Nov. 7 marks the 96th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution. While the revolution itself could be considered a more drawn-out process, Nov. 7 stands as its most outstanding date. When the majority of workers, peasants and soldiers took over state and governmental power, for the first time in the history of class society a country was not controlled and governed by a tiny group of monarchists, capitalists or other exploiting class.

Just six months before, all actors in the political drama had considered it impossible for such a revolution to occur so soon.

Prior to the revolution, the Russian Empire—roughly the same territory later covered by the Soviet Union—was ruled by the czar, or emperor. The czar had absolute power. He ruled both through the Russian Orthodox Church, which created a religious veneer for the regime, and by virtue of his hereditary position as the richest and most central of a group of feudal princes who divided the land amongst themselves.

Small in number, they had tied the vast majority of the country, some four-fifths of the population, to the land like feudal serfs. Although serfdom was formally abolished in 1861, serf-like conditions continued well into the 20th century. Along with the feudal remnants of the 17th century, a section of the nobility wished not only to emulate Europe but also to establish the place of the ruling classes of Russia alongside those of Britain, France and Germany—that is, the most powerful capitalist countries of Europe. That meant Russia also had to develop capitalist industry.

The czar, however, was aware that popular forces led by the capitalist class had overthrown the absolute monarchs in Western Europe. He therefore sought to control the process and preserve the aristocratic class. Capitalism in Russia thus developed in its own peculiar and somewhat “deformed” way. As a proportion of the economy, industry remained relatively small. However, in technique it matched the advanced nations of Western Europe, and indeed foreign, mostly British and French, investors owned most of Russian industry.

The workers were drawn from the peasantry, closely connecting the two laboring classes. Many of Russia’s new capitalists were also landowners and part of the nobility. Illiteracy, poverty, hunger, disease and poor housing ravaged the lives of both the workers and the peasants, in sharp distinction to the great wealth and high living of the czar and aristocracy.

Elements of the new capitalist class in Russia, however, chafed under the czar, as did many of the intelligentsia. Both sectors resented and felt oppressed by the czar’s absolute power. These pressures accompanied the demands of the workers and peasants for more economic and political rights.

War lays basis for revolution

When Russia followed France and England into the First World War, social tensions inside the empire became exacerbated. By 1917, war had wreaked a terrible toll. The brunt of the hundreds of thousands of deaths was borne by the peasants, who were forcibly conscripted. Hunger, disease and poor living conditions ravaged the rank-and-file soldiers just as the rest of the exploited classes.

It was under these pressures that the czar’s regime finally fell. On International Women’s Day, Feb. 23, 1917, on the Gregorian calendar, women textile workers launched a strike in Petrograd, the capital of Russia. Over five days, the textile workers’ strike grew into a general strike, and the army split, with rank-and-file soldiers coming over to the side of the workers.

It took five days for the czar’s government in Petrograd to fall, and some months for the monarchy to be swept away in various parts of the country. Parties representing the capitalists, petty capitalist elements and, purportedly, the peasantry, formed a provisional government.

The reformist socialists—the Mensheviks—and the peasant-based Social Revolutionary Party supported the provisional government. The Mensheviks justified their support for the new bourgeois government by arguing that the revolution would have to pass through a separate “bourgeois” stage where a capitalist republic would be established, with formal democratic rights, as a prerequisite for a socialist revolution. Until their central leader, Vladimir I. Lenin, returned from forced exile in April 1917, the Bolshevik Party, too, gave support to the new regime.

The provisional government, however, was very fragile. The weak Russian capitalist class, totally dependent on Anglo-French imperialism, could not end Russia’s involvement in the war. Prostrate before the Western imperialists, and with little to no independent social base, forces of the provisional government began to move closer to monarchist elements scheming to return to power.

Meanwhile, the workers and peasants had created their own structures of power—soviets. The soviets, or councils, were mass democratic organs based in the factories, districts and military units, as well in some parts of the countryside.

Thus, a type of “dual power” arose. On the one hand, the precarious provisional government was besieged on all sides, unable to end the war or meet the workers’ and peasants’ other social and economic demands. And on the other, the soviets of soldiers, workers and peasants potentially represented the interests of the toiling, exploited masses, who continued to clamor for relief from the jaws of war and poverty.

In April 1917, Bolshevik leader Lenin arrived in Petrograd and grasped the situation immediately. He understood that the nascent Russian capitalist class could not end the war and would not touch the great landed estates or capitalist industry, leaving all the demands of the masses unmet. He argued that instead the soviets of soldiers’, workers’, and peasants’ deputies should take power in their own name.

Rather than depend on the provisional government to provide “Land, Peace, and Bread,” they should gather all the power in the organs of the working masses, demanding and achieving “All Power to the Soviets.” When Lenin first produced his famous April Theses, only a small minority of the party’s Central Committee supported his position. But the force of his arguments and the unfolding of events soon won over the Bolshevik leaders and rapidly growing rank-and-file membership.

On Nov. 7 (Oct. 25 according to the old Russian calendar) the workers, peasants and soldiers rose again, and it was these two slogans that drew them over to the Bolsheviks, giving the revolutionary communists leadership of the soviets. Under that leadership, the workers in alliance with the peasantry deposed the provisional government and assumed total control through the soviets.

This “October Revolution” reverberated all around the world. In China, where Marxism had no history, small circles of revolutionaries began to discuss the ideas of communism. Among them was Mao Tse-tung who urged the Chinese people to “Arise and Imitate” the great popular unity of the October rising. Two years later, in May 1920, Mao and the few other communists formed the Chinese Communist Party, which went on to lead the great Chinese Revolution of 1949.

Over time, when at the peak of its power, U.S. imperialism, along with its imperialist allies, succeeded in dividing the world communist movement and containing the Russian Revolution, leading to the overthrow of the Soviet Union and to other major working-class defeats.

Millions have looked to the Russian Revolution for inspiration, however, because it continues to stand as a shining example of how the majority of society, its exploited and oppressed masses, can under the leadership of a revolutionary party take power in their own hands, mold it in their favor and take a giant leap toward wiping away all vestiges of exploitation.

With capitalism entering an era of deepening crisis, and U.S. imperialism in apparently irreversible decline, the beacon of the October Revolution shines brighter than ever.

Mitt Romney and Lech Walesa: Traitors to Humanity

Head of CIA’s Polish Company Union Endorses Candidate Running on Union-Busting

There once was a time when a wide spectrum of the so-called “left” in the West fomented illusions in this man, Lech Walesa, and his “union,” Solidarity — the only union that received the full support of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. “Solidarity with Solidarity” was the slogan even as the “union” openly did the bidding of the Vatican and promised the restoration of capitalism. These are the “socialist” and “communist” groups that today cheer terror bombing in Syria, NATO’s destruction of Libya, who endorsed the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, and who proudly stood with Bush and Yeltsin after counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, delighted by a world-historic defeat for the working class and oppressed people everywhere.

The public healthcare system in Poland has been dismantled and rights for women have been rolled back. The current government supports a religious curriculum in public schools and a host of reactionary positions on social issues. This was what Solidarity was fighting for, from the beginning. And Walesa won a “Peace Prize” for his efforts.

“They ask us to renounce ourselves, the results of our work, of our struggle, to betray millions of people who fell in battles against imperialism, to betray our Communist future.”

— Soviet workers on Solidarity’s efforts to expand counterrevolution to the USSR

Below I am reposting a 1990 article about the “leftist” supporters of Solidarity that remains true today.


As Solidarność Cracks the Whip against Polish Workers…

Walesa’s “Left” Fans Run for Cover

Eight years ago, almost every self-declared “Trotskyist” organization in the West took the imperialists’ Cold War rallying cry of “Solidarity with Solidarność” as their own. They heralded Solidarność as a glorious uprising of the Polish working people against Stalinist “totalitarianism,” as an example for the American labor movement, as the inspiration for revolutionary struggle around the globe, ad nauseam. The international Spartacist tendency (now International Communist League [Fourth Internationalist]) stood virtually alone in recognizing Solidarność for what it was – “a company union for the CIA and bankers.”

Walesa & Co. hardly kept their program for capitalist restoration a secret. At its first national congress in September 1981 Solidarność opposed any mention of “socialism” in its constitution, while taking up the CIA call for “free trade unions” and “free elections” in the Soviet bloc and demanding that Poland join the bloodsucking International Monetary Fund. Lane Kirkland, the hardline Cold Warrior who heads the AFL-CIO, was invited to attend. So was Irving Brown, the CIA’s main “labor” operative in smashing Communist-led unions in Europe after World War II.

A month after the Solidarność congress, Lech Walesa secretly met with top American corporate executives at a posh restaurant outside Paris (see “Friends of Lech Walesa, Inc.,” WV No. 296, 8 January 1982). Meanwhile Solidarność was getting millions through various CIA conduits, including the German Social Democracy and the AFL-CIO “International Department” (see “‘AFL-CIA’ and $olidarność,” WV No. 490, 24 November 1989). The tapes of the secret Radom leadership meeting in December 1981, publicly broadcast by the Jaruzelski regime, exposed Solidarność plans for a counterrevolutionary coup.

Our call to “Stop Solidarność Counterrevolution!” provoked howls of outrage from the left. Now Walesa openly brags, “We are setting out… to return to the prewar situation when Poland was a capitalist country, after having gone through a long period of socialism” (Il Messaggero, 22 August 1989). Cracking the whip for Western bankers the Solidarity-led government of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki has begun to slash wages and subsidies for food, housing and social services – the price of coal for home heating has already been jacked up by 600 percent! Whole industries are to be dismantled, with up to one million workers laid off. If Walesa, Mazowiecki & Co. got their way, conditions of life in Poland would make Ceausescu’s Romania look tame by comparison.

So now Walesa’s former “left” fans are trying to bury their years of cheer-leading for Solidarność. Not surprisingly the award for the most consummate hypocrisy and cynicism in this endeavor has to go to David North’s Workers League.

An editorial in the Bulletin (15 December 1989) entitled “Eastern European Revolutions Threaten World Capitalism” warns against the “program of capitalist restoration and mass impoverishment… imposed through the joint collaboration of the sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy and imperialist stooges like Lech Walesa.” But a few years back, under the heading “Lech Walesa Speaks,” the Bulletin (2 January 1981) rhapsodized over this imperialist stooge as a veritable working-class savior: the “son of a carpenter,” who “had to live in a tiny two-room flat…with his wife and five children” but now “leads of [sic] union of 10 million workers which has… the bureaucracy trembling in its boots.”

Today Walesa’s program is “capitalist restoration and mass impoverishment.” But when Solidarność decisively took the road of capitalist restoration at its first congress, the Bulletin (15 September 1981) crowed “Poland: On the Road to Political Revolution” and heralded “an undaunted, young, vigorous and independent trade union movement – the strongest in Eastern Europe – Solidarity.”

Now the Bulletin asks “What Is Lane Kirkland Doing in Poland?” and points out that “Kirkland’s specific assignment on behalf of the White House is to setup a CIA-run trade-union bureaucracy to brutally suppress the struggles of Polish workers.” But in 1981 they somehow “neglected” to mention that Kirkland was invited to the Solidarność congress. Even now the Northites’ German outfit, the Bund Sozialistischer Arbeiter, damns the Trotzkistische Liga Deutschlands for “slander[ing] the mass movement of the working class in Solidarność as a ‘company union for the CIA’” (Neue Arbeiterpresse, 15 December 1989)!

Meanwhile the Australian Northite press is attacking United Secretariat leader Ernest Mandel as “an agent of capitalist restoration” who is “absolutely hostile to questions of political principle” for his support to Solidarność! When the Northites talk about “political principle,” hold on to your wallet! The Workers League has consistently stood on the side of every and any force hostile to the Soviet Union from Walesa to the ayatollah Khomeini to the CIA’s Afghanmujahedin. Vitriolic Russia-haters, the Healy/ Northites hailed the murder of 21 Iraqi Communists by the Ba’athist regime in 1979, as only one among many of their paid services for a variety of Middle East despots.

The Pope’s “Trotskyists”

Of course the USec took a back seat to no one in its enthusing over Solidarność. Mandel called Walesa & Co. “the best socialists in the world,” while the U.S. Mandelites in Socialist Action were so inspired by Walesa that they took the Solidarność logo as the masthead for their paper. In a 1984 speech to commemorate the birth of Solidarność, Socialist Action’s Larry Cooperman declared, “For us, Polish Solidarity has been and is a reminder of the ‘socialism we want”‘ (Socialist Action, October 1984). Now we read that “Walesa steps in to direct attacks on Polish workers” (Socialist Action, September 1989).

In yet another American Mandelite group, the Fourth Internationalist Tendency, support to Solidarność seems to be causing some friction today. In the December 1989 Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, an article by Samuel Adams chafes that FIT leader Steve Bloom “tends to make light of Solidarity’s rightward thrust.” “Let’s Not Forget the Role of the Masses,” replies Bloom, dismissing Solidarność’ program for capitalist restoration as “a purely abstract possibility raised by Mazowiecki in his public pronouncements”!

The bottom line for Walesa’s “left”enthusiasts was “ten million Polish workers can’t be wrong.” Like their support to the ayatollah Khomeini’s “Islamic revolution” – which they also now seek to deny – they couldn’t resist Solidarność because it too was a “mass movement.” Above all, support for Solidarność was the ideal calling card for getting hired on as waterboys by the anti-Communist U.S. labor bureaucracy.

Spouting revolutionary jargon does not a revolutionary make. Those incapable of swimming against the stream when the masses are intoxicated with backward consciousness will not be capable of leading them to victory when a revolutionary opportunity arises. As we wrote at the time of Solidarność first national congress:

“The choices facing revolutionaries over Poland in the absence of a mass Trotskyist vanguard are not attractive even if they are clear. Abstentionism is not a choice; it is backhanded support to counterrevolution. No less a danger is abandoning the perspective of struggle for the conscious factor in history, for the international proletarian vanguard.
– Stop Solidarity’s Counterrevolution!” (WV No. 289. 23 September 1981)

Today there is an opening for common struggle between the workers who were the base of Solidarność and those in the much larger, formerly Stalinist-led trade unions against the unholy gang of Stalinist bureaucrats and Solidarność leaders who are controlled by the bloodsucking international capitalists of the IMF. While necessarily beginning around immediate economic demands for survival, what is posed implicitly is a working-class struggle for political power. What is desperately needed, as we wrote eight years ago, is a genuine Trotskyist leadership “reforged in a reborn Fourth International by revolutionaries who defended the gains of October when the danger was near, the situation complex and need for programmatic clarity and backbone urgent.”

Afghanistan: Women Under Imperialist Occupation

U.S./NATO Troops Out Now!
We Said: Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!

Workers Vanguard

On March 6, two days before International Women’s Day, Washington’s Afghan puppet president Hamid Karzai announced that he had approved a new “code of conduct” issued by the Ulema Council of senior Muslim clerics. This edict legally confines women to their homes, barring them from going out without a male guardian or mingling with men in schools, offices or markets. It also officially condones wife-beating. “Men are fundamental and women are secondary,” said the statement, which Karzai saluted as “the sharia law of all Muslims and all Afghans.”

Throughout the past ten years of U.S. occupation, Afghanistan has been a living hell for women. To sell their predatory war in retribution for the September 11 attacks, the U.S. and its NATO allies pointed to the crimes against women under the then-ruling Taliban, pledging that an American-led takeover would bring liberation. After U.S. forces seized control of the country in 2002, George W. Bush proclaimed that “today, women are free.” In reality, the U.S. rulers merely handed power to another wing of the anti-woman fundamentalist forces that they had backed against the Soviet Union and the leftist regime of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) from the late 1970s to the early ’90s.

In Afghanistan today, women are forced to wear the suffocating head-to-toe burqa almost everywhere. The sight of women begging for money to feed their starving families is commonplace on the streets of Kabul, the capital city. To survive or pay off debts, families sell their daughters in marriage or to the many brothels servicing U.S. troops and contractors. More than half of all girls are forced into marriage before the age of 16.

There is a saying in Afghanistan that a woman belongs either to her husband’s house or to her grave. Half of the inmates at the Badam Bagh women’s prison in Kabul have been imprisoned for years for refusing to marry or for fleeing abusive husbands. Returned runaways are often shot or stabbed by family members in “honor killings.” Other women are jailed for being victims of rape or assault. For a woman in Afghanistan, any sex outside marriage is considered a crime—including when she is raped. The rapist, meanwhile, almost always goes unpunished.

Barely a quarter of Afghan girls go to school. Religious fanatics attack those who do, including by spraying acid in their faces, as happened at a school in Kandahar in 2008. The following year, the education ministry reported that nearly 500 schools, mostly schools for girls, had been destroyed, damaged or forced to close. Between March and October 2010, at least 126 students and teachers were killed. The literacy rate for women is 12 percent, while their average life expectancy is 44, some 24 years below the world average. To escape their unbearable lives, many women turn to suicide. Even according to official Afghan statistics, some 2,300 women and girls kill themselves every year—more than six each day. The most common method is self-immolation with cooking oil.

The atrocities endured by Afghan women are not in the main the actions of rogue elements breaking the law. In 2004, the U.S. overseers brokered a constitution that enshrined Islamic sharia law. Despite the token presence of women in the constituent assembly and a claim that women have “equal rights,” the constitution states that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” In 2006, Karzai’s cabinet reestablished the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which was notorious under the Taliban for its brutal imposition of sharia, including stoning to death women who defied its edicts.

Calling Afghanistan “the good war,” in 2009 the Obama administration reinforced the U.S. occupation with another 30,000 troops. The imperialist troops, full of racist contempt, continue to massacre untold numbers of civilians. American soldiers have murdered Afghans for sport, cut off their fingers as trophies and urinated on their dead bodies. Marine snipers have posed for photos with a flag bearing the Nazi SS insignia. Soldiers regularly stage night raids in which they go after suspected opponents of the Afghan regime at private homes and shoot dead whoever opens the door. The explosion of anger that followed the revelation that the U.S. military had burned copies of the Koran last month shows the depth of resentment that has built up among the Afghan peoples.

In the latest atrocity, a U.S. Army staff sergeant went door-to-door in a village in southern Afghanistan overnight on March 11, gunning down at least 16 civilians, including nine children. This outrage provoked an immediate condemnation from the Karzai government and vows for vengeance from the Taliban, further complicating the U.S. rulers’ efforts to extricate themselves from the Afghanistan quagmire.

After repeated instances of Afghan forces turning their guns on American soldiers, the Obama administration announced last month that it was moving up the timetable for ending U.S. troops’ “combat role” to some time next year and withdrawing them in 2014. The U.S. is looking to open negotiations with the Taliban, which continues to control large parts of the country, in order to somehow cobble together a “political solution” that would create a modicum of stability after U.S. troops are withdrawn. Karzai’s approval of the clerics’ woman-hating “code of conduct” is widely seen to be an overture to the Taliban on the part of his regime.

As Marxists, our starting point in opposing the U.S. occupation is proletarian class opposition to America’s capitalist rulers and their imperialist predations. In the lead-up to the 2001 invasion, we called for the military defense of Afghanistan against the U.S. and allied forces without giving any support to the Taliban reactionaries. In the face of the ongoing occupation, we emphasize that every blow struck against the blood-soaked U.S. ruling class is a blow against the chief enemy of working people and the oppressed around the world. All U.S./NATO troops out of Afghanistan now!

Afghanistan: Front Line of the Anti-Soviet War Drive

In their drive for world domination, the U.S. imperialists have never had any compunction about siding with the most retrograde social forces. It is impossible to comprehend the current plight of Afghan women without examining Washington’s role in backing the forces of Islamic reaction against the Soviet Union and its PDPA allies starting in 1978.

Many of the modernizing left nationalists who led the PDPA were educated and trained in the Soviet Union, which they rightly saw as a source of social progress. The Soviet Union was a workers state that embodied key social gains of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, centrally a planned economy and collectivized property, despite its subsequent degeneration under a nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy. Progressive-minded activists in Afghanistan in the 1970s looked at the example of Soviet Central Asia, just across the border, which was a modern society where women went unveiled, were educated and participated in public life and where everyone had access to free education and health care.

On coming to power in April 1978, the PDPA began to implement serious reforms favoring women and poor peasants, such as redistributing the land, lowering the bride price, educating women and freeing them from the burqa. In the context of this cruelly backward country, which had far more mullahs than industrial workers, such reforms had an explosive impact. They fueled a revolt by reactionary traditionalists who sought to maintain the old society, including its all-encompassing degradation of women. When the Muslim insurgency threatened the PDPA’s hold on power, the government made repeated requests for Soviet assistance, until the Soviets finally dispatched tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan in December 1979.

This was the only war in modern history fought centrally over women’s rights. From the start, the U.S. imperialists, determined to strike a blow against the Soviet Union, took the side of benighted reaction. Democratic president Jimmy Carter and his successor, Republican Ronald Reagan, backed the mujahedin holy warriors to the hilt in the biggest covert CIA operation in history. Billions of dollars in aid went to an array of Islamist groups based in Peshawar, Pakistan, and to that country’s ISI intelligence service. The CIA used the ISI and the Egyptian and Saudi intelligence services to create, train, finance and arm a network of 70,000 Islamists (including Osama bin Laden) from more than 50 countries to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, giving a huge boost to Muslim fundamentalist movements the world over.

We wrote at the time of the Soviet intervention: “For revolutionary socialists there is nothing tricky, nothing ambiguous about the war in Afghanistan. The Soviet Army and its left-nationalist allies are fighting an anti-communist, anti-democratic mélange of landlords, money lenders, tribal chiefs and mullahs committed to mass illiteracy…. The gut-level response of every radical leftist should be fullest solidarity with the Soviet Red Army” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 29, Summer 1980). The threat of a CIA-backed Islamic takeover on the USSR’s southern flank posed directly the need for unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the extended Soviet presence opened the possibility of social liberation for the Afghan masses, particularly women. We proclaimed: Hail Red Army! Extend social gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples!

In contrast, the bulk of the left internationally, with few exceptions, eagerly joined the imperialist chorus against the Soviet Union and whitewashed the mujahedin. The International Socialist Organization and its then ally in Britain, Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP), stood foursquare with the imperialists. The 12 January 1980 issue of the SWP’s Socialist Worker blared, “Troops Out of Afghanistan!” In 1981, the then fake-Trotskyist United Secretariat of Ernest Mandel called for “stopping Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.” In howling with the imperialist wolves against the Soviet intervention, these groups made common cause with the worst enemies of the rights of women and all the oppressed.

Huge Gains for Afghan Women Under Soviet Presence

Freeing Afghan women from purdah (seclusion) and giving land to the peasants required ending the domination of the mullahs and tribal khans and overturning the country’s entire social structure. But the popular base of support for such moves within Afghanistan was very narrow. The country utterly lacked a proletariat with any social weight. Its tiny manufacturing workforce of some 35,000 was dwarfed by the quarter million Islamic clerics. Those elements in the cities aspiring to progress were surrounded by a sea of nomadic herdsmen and landless peasants beholden to the khans and the landlords. Thus, the presence of the Red Army, together with substantial Soviet aid, was essential to social progress.

Afghan women made unprecedented gains under the Soviet umbrella. While the 1964 constitution had declared women equal to men, equality largely remained on paper except for a few women in the upper strata of urban society. A thin layer of women had taken off the burqa and obtained education and employment outside the home, but even in Kabul, the main urban center, half of all women still wore the full veil in the late 1970s. Throughout the country, 98 percent of women were totally illiterate. In the 1980s, in contrast, there were vast opportunities for women to escape at least the strictest restraints of purdah. Many thousands became university students, workers, professionals and leftist activists.

Suraya Parlika, a founder of the PDPA-affiliated Democratic Women’s Organization, recounted some of these accomplishments in the 2007 documentary Afghan Women: A History of Struggle: “Women worked very hard to get their rights. They formed childcare centers in their workplaces to make it easier for women to work. Maternity leave was extended to three months from six weeks and they were still getting their salary.” The Afghan government also began mass literacy campaigns and provided free medical care.

By the late 1980s, women made up 40 percent of the country’s doctors (women doctors were in high demand, especially in rural areas, where women were still strictly secluded and barred from consulting male doctors). Sixty percent of the instructors at Kabul University and 65 percent of the student body were women. Family courts, in some cases presided over by female judges, had replaced the mullahs’ sharia courts. The number of working women increased 50-fold. By 1987, there were an estimated 245,000 women working in fields ranging from construction, printing and food processing to radio and TV journalism and especially teaching, where they made up 70 percent of the workforce.

In a 1994 PhD thesis, Educated Afghan Women in Search of Their Identities, the Afghan-born academic Sharifa Sharif reported on her 1987 interviews with 30 women workers in Kabul, undertaken as part of a survey for the United Nations Development Program. The sharp increase in women’s participation in economic life was partly due to the war, which had taken away many men and brought women from the countryside into Kabul. But it was also the result of greater legal rights, supportive government policies and economic development, including the construction of new homes, factories, schools and hospitals.

The transformation of these women from backward traditionalist areas into skilled workers gives a glimpse of what might have been achieved if Afghanistan had been able to continue its Soviet-assisted development. While initially encountering fierce resistance from their families, women workers were exposed to technology, education and literacy. They took pride in acquiring job skills and becoming ustad (expert masters) in their fields. Some were sent for training to the Soviet Union. At a construction site, Sharif interviewed a 23-year-old widow and mother of two children, who was one of three female crane operators, a job never before done by a woman in Afghanistan.

Many women took up arms against the mujahedin threat. Four of seven military commanders appointed in 1986 were women. By 1989, the regime reported having armed some 15,000 women. The same year, all female members of the PDPA received military training and arms. The arming of unveiled women with Kalashnikovs symbolized the social transformation then under way in Afghanistan. As early as 1984, Indian journalist Patricia Sethi reported encountering 15-year-old girls carrying rifles who were members of a civilian brigade in a village near Kabul: “They spoke fervently and passionately about their revolution and what it meant for young women in Afghanistan: it meant ‘an education, freedom from the veil, freedom from feudalists who want to keep us down,’ said Khalida. ‘We do not want to become the fourth wife of a 60-year-old man, existing solely for his whim and pleasure’” (India Today, 31 July 1984).

Many women in Afghanistan took up arms to defend the gains of their revolution.

Soviet Withdrawal Betrayed Afghan Women

The Soviet military presence posed the possibility not only of defeating the U.S.-backed Islamists but also of incorporating Afghanistan into the Soviet system. In the 1920s, Soviet Central Asia looked remarkably like Afghanistan in the 1970s—a miserably backward and desolate place where women were bought and sold. Every step toward emancipation taken by the Soviet regime was met with fierce resistance from the khans, mullahs and their armed gangs of basmachi (the mujahedin of the time), including the wholesale murder of Communist agitators and women who rejected the veil.

The imposition of Soviet power under the umbrella of the Red Army created the conditions for dismantling centuries-old tribal/clerical domination and developing the region’s vast natural resources. Once the Soviet Army got the upper hand against the basmachi in 1922, Bolshevik women activists were sent in to work among the horribly oppressed women, who stood to benefit most from the extension of the gains of the October Revolution. Under Lenin’s guidance, they set out to gradually undermine the power and authority of the khans’ and mullahs’ institutions through legal and administrative measures, demonstrating that the Communists were the foremost fighters for the oppressed.

Beginning with the Stalinist political counterrevolution in 1923-24, the USSR underwent a qualitative bureaucratic degeneration in which the working class was deprived of political power. Even after this, however, the necessities of industrialization and economic planning continued to produce particularly huge benefits for Central Asia. As the USSR was transformed from a largely peasant country into an industrial power starting in the late 1920s and early ’30s, Soviet women were increasingly mobilized to work in industry. In Central Asia, women entered the industrial workforce in large numbers during World War II, when many Soviet factories were relocated to the region away from the front lines of the war.

Had the Soviet leadership been determined to see the war in Afghanistan through to victory, the country could have undergone similarly immense social progress through the construction of a modern infrastructure, the creation of a significant urban proletariat and the institution of economic planning. But the Stalinist bureaucrats in the Kremlin did not pursue this course. Instead, the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew the Red Army in 1988-89.

This was not because it faced military defeat; to the end, the Soviet Army had the upper hand militarily. The Soviet withdrawal was a political decision by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow carried out with the fatuous aim of appeasing U.S. imperialism. It was a betrayal of the Afghan masses, especially women, that helped pave the way for capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union itself in 1991-92.

The Stalinist bureaucracy was a contradictory caste whose nationalist outlook subordinated the interests of the world proletariat to the defense of its own privileged position as a parasitic layer resting on the collectivized economy. The 1979 Red Army intervention was a decent and progressive act, even if it was carried out by the corrupt and conservative regime of Leonid Brezhnev, that cut against the grain of the Stalinist dogma of “socialism in one country.” However, we warned from the outset that the bureaucracy might cut a deal at the expense of the Afghan peoples as part of its quest for “peaceful coexistence” with Washington. We fought for a proletarian political revolution to oust the treacherous Stalinist bureaucracy and return the Soviet Union to the Bolshevik internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky.

After the Soviet withdrawal, the Afghan government fought on valiantly for three years. The Partisan Defense Committee—a class-struggle legal and social defense organization associated with the Spartacist League—wrote to the PDPA government in 1989 offering to organize an international brigade to help fight the forces of Islamic reaction. When that offer was turned down, the PDC, at the request of the Afghan government, launched an international fund drive to aid civilian victims of the mujahedin siege of the city of Jalalabad, raising over $44,000. The Afghan forces were able to repel this attack.

When the mujahedin finally took Kabul in 1992, re-enslaving Afghan women, the various tribally-based militias carried out a vengeful war of mass murder, torture and rape of rival ethnic populations, which left at least 50,000 people dead in Kabul alone. This led to four years of horror under the rule of various warring fundamentalist factions which brought the city to the point of famine and total devastation.

A recent New York Times article (“In Afghanistan, a Soviet Past Lies in Ruins,” 11 February) captured some of the destruction wrought by these U.S.-backed cutthroats. The article notes that in the Soviet House of Science and Culture during the 1980s, “Soviets and Afghans gathered for lectures, films and the propagation of modernizing ideas that for a while refashioned Kabul, including a time when women could work outside the home in Western clothing.” It continued:

“But during the civil war of 1992-96, the House of Science and Culture was occupied by one faction and wrecked as another lobbed shells down from a nearby hill. Today, the auditoriums are littered with rubble; cold air comes in through rocket holes; and once-bold Soviet murals of men and women, Afghans and Russians, are hidden in the squalid darkness near cartoon images depicting a Taliban fighter instructing children to become suicide bombers.”

Eventually the Taliban, recruiting from the historically dominant Pashtun ethnic population, emerged as the strongest of the mujahedin factions. Backed by Pakistan and supported by the U.S., it came to power in 1996. A year later, an American diplomat declared: “The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that” (quoted in Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia [2000]). Only when the U.S. rulers realized that there would be no Aramco (or any other oil company) and no pipelines did they start talking about the Taliban’s barbaric treatment of women.

Many of the CIA-financed fundamentalists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s turned against their former paymasters over the following decade. This was the case with the September 11, 2001 attacks carried out by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, which led in turn to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. After ousting the Taliban, the Bush administration installed a regime based largely on the same mujahedin warlords who devastated the country from 1992-96.

The Impact of Counterrevolution in the USSR

The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union has fed the bonfires of social reaction on a global scale. In many countries, women’s rights and social progress in general have been thrown back by generations. For working people in the ex-Soviet Union and the former deformed workers states of East and Central Europe, the return of capitalism has been a calamity measured in unemployment, homelessness, collapsing life expectancy and intercommunal violence.

In ex-Soviet Central Asia, while the effects of more than seven decades of socialized economic development did not permit a quick and easy victory for the Islamic fundamentalists, millions of women have found themselves again trapped under veils and classified as second-class citizens. Fewer and fewer girls attend secondary schools. In much of the region, women can no longer initiate a divorce. The resurgence of nationalism has led to interethnic strife, as in Tajikistan in 1992-97 and more recently in Kyrgyzstan. The region remains a powder keg, where ethnic clashes continue to rage.

The horrors produced by U.S. imperialism’s “holy war” against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, as well as its present occupation of the country, underline how the capitalist system is a barrier to social progress and a breeding ground for reaction. As in Afghanistan, U.S. occupation forces devastated Iraq during their occupation of that country, fueling sectarian massacres and throwing back the rights of women and other oppressed.

Through its “war on terror,” U.S. imperialism aims to impose its will on oppressed peoples around the world. The despotic bourgeoisies of the neocolonies subjugate and plunder their “own” people for their own profit and that of the imperialists to whom they are beholden. There is plenty of hatred among the masses for these parasites and their overlords, however the aspirations of the downtrodden have increasingly been channeled into religious reaction. Islamist forces continue to grow in influence throughout North Africa and the Near East, from Egypt to Gaza to Turkey and beyond.

The only way forward is the struggle for an internationalist revolutionary leadership dedicated to the fight for workers revolutions in both the neocolonies and the heartlands of world imperialism. While this may seem a distant prospect in this very reactionary political period, the bitter truth is that no other road can put an end to ethnic and national oppression, the oppression of women and the exploitation of working people.

The domestic complement of the murderous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is an escalating war on the U.S. working class, black people and immigrants. While a handful of wealthy capitalists accrue massive profits, the rest of the population is faced with increasing assaults on its living standards or utter poverty. Moreover, anti-woman religious fundamentalism is also rampant on the home front, as bourgeois politics is saturated with God and the right to abortion and even contraception is under siege.

The purpose of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), of which the Spartacist League is the U.S. section, is to forge revolutionary Marxist parties modeled after Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party that led the October Revolution. Only the working class has the social power and objective interest to sweep away the deeply irrational and inhumane capitalist system through socialist revolution, replacing it with a planned economy in which production is based on the human needs of all, rather than profits for the few.

Particularly in the neocolonial world, where women’s oppression is so acute, women workers will be in the front ranks of such parties. The overthrow of the imperialist-dominated world order will lay a material basis to free women from age-old family servitude and reorganize society in the interest of all. The social functions of the family—housework, child rearing, preparation of food, etc.—will be replaced by collectivized institutions. When the bloody rule of capital is swept away by the workers of the world, the veil, the bride price, purdah, “honor killings” and the social degradation of women in all its forms will become but bitter memories of a barbaric past.