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Afghanistan: Between Imperialism, the Taliban, and the Chinese Bureaucracy

Two decades after the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban have returned to power and the United States’ hegemonic project has come to an end. Trotskyism — unlike impotent Stalinism and post-Marxism — has some light to shed on Afghanistan’s necessary struggle for emancipation from imperialist oppression and capitalist exploitation and for the conquest of all democratic rights for women and ethnic minorities. National bourgeoisies cannot accomplish any of that.

André Barbieri

September 3, 2021
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A U.S. soldier stands in the foreground in military gear and helmet. In the background, a line of Afghans.
Image: Reuters

After 20 years of intervention in Afghanistan, the United States’ already obvious political failure took its final shape. As Taliban troops entered Kabul to retake control of the central government, the United States suffered the humiliation of having to use helicopters to rescue its embassy employees. The government of Ashraf Ghani, supported by the United States after the fall of Hamid Karzai, began to evaporate as Pentagon troops departed and dissolved into thin air in only a few weeks. Intelligence reports from U.S. spy agencies failed to calculate the commitment of the Afghan army, whose 300,000 units capitulated without resistance in most parts of the country. According to Tariq Ali, a British Marxist of Pakistani origin, Taliban infiltrators were trained by the United States as part of the official army and quickly deserted during the Islamic militia offensive.

This is a crowning failure of bipartisan U.S. imperialism as a whole and its Republican and Democratic “warlords” alike.

The devastation of Afghanistan wrought by the U.S invasion is evident. It was marked by the events of September 11, 2001, after which the invasion went unchallenged and served as a platform for spreading imperialist xenophobia against Muslims. The Afghan economy has been dismantled to such a point that today, exporting opium is the country’s most profitable industry, one that for years has been a source of income for the Taliban.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Afghanistan was already facing one of the world’s most severe food crises at the start of the pandemic. By the end of 2020, 16.9 million people — 42 percent of the population — suffered from food insecurity at a “crisis” or “emergency” level. According to the United Nations, nearly 12 million Afghan citizens face acute food insecurity and lack access to jobs and stable incomes. The country has one of the world’s worst GDPs per capita, at only 524 euros; in 2019 more than half the population could not obtain a dollar a day to cover their needs. According to UNICEF, only 23 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water, and only 12 percent to sanitation systems. Afghanistan has the world’s third-highest infant mortality rate, at 161 deaths per 1,000 births.

The war crimes committed against Afghan women and workers are countless. Afghan women have been raped by Western troops, and a nefarious “sex market” has proliferated, with reports of sexual services being exchanged for food — much the same as that to which UN troops have become accustomed in their so-called peace missions in places such as Bosnia and Haiti. The so-called “Afghanistan War Diary,” a scandalous collection of reports released in 2010 by WikiLeaks, detailed the worst atrocities committed by U.S. and NATO troops against the local population, including the killing of civilians, the use of death squads, the existence of Muslim extermination groups, and indiscriminate bombing; this further undermined the false rhetoric of “freedom and democracy,” cynically buried by Biden in his official statement about the U.S. withdrawal, by revealing the obvious: the United States never wanted to “build a democracy” in Afghanistan.

In France, Emmanuel Macron was quick to present himself as a Marine Le Pen 2.0. He went into full xenophobic mode, declaring that the country would not accept Afghan refugees forced to flee NATO’s imperialist bombs, the same position taken by Josep Borrell, the foreign affairs spokesman of the European Union. The cynical racism of imperialism has no limits.

Washington wants to pretend that it is not the problem, but reality does not forget Washington — and reality takes its toll. This is the biggest crisis since the beginning of Biden’s Democratic administration: the explosion of the last hegemonic project launched by the United States, which passed through the hands of four presidents (two Republicans, George W. Bush and Trump, and two Democrats, Barack Obama and Biden). Biden had been enjoying great political capital, having defeated Trump through the diversion into electoral politics of the Black Lives Matter mobilizations, a promise of trillions of dollars of employment and infrastructure plans, and the collaboration of the AFL-CIO union bureaucracy and social organizations. That’s not the case now.

A number of public opinion polls, such as those from Gallup, 538, and Real Clear Politics, show that Biden’s approval rating has plummeted for the first time in office to below 50 percent (still higher than any approval rating ever achieved by Trump during his entire administration). The important thing about these data is that 2022 is a midterm election year in the United States, and according to Gallup tracking, presidents with an approval rating below 50 percent typically lose an average of 37 seats in the House of Representatives, while those with an approval rating above 50 percent lose only an average of 14 seats. This is a very large difference, one that in this case would mean the Democrats losing control of the House. Divisions within the Democratic Party itself, some of whose members of Congress echoed the criticisms of Biden that came from Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, may be followed by more criticisms from the U.S. “deep state,” such as the CIA and the Pentagon. Biden does, however, enjoy the support of some powerful sectors of the U.S. ruling class that want to finally orient the “Pivot to the Asia-Pacific,” concentrating troops in that region to contain the rise of China.

For the various powers involved in this dance competition, the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul points to different geopolitical outcomes. The United States is the immediate loser. China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan are winners, to varying degrees. China appears positioned to emerge on top, having met with the Taliban last July and stating then that the Chinese would recognize a Taliban government. Both China and Russia benefit from U.S. troops leaving a country with which they either share a border (as in China’s case) or is nearby. Russia has already publicly rejoiced in the U.S. defeat, at a moment when Putin and Xi Jinping have established the best Sino-Russian relations ever, with their shared goal of disrupting Biden’s plans in Europe and Asia. Pakistan, China’s staunch ally, has strongly supported the Taliban for many years. And Iran — which along with Russia helped create an outcome in the Syrian civil war that clashes with U.S. interests — also benefits, now with a harder line since the rise to power of Ebrahim Raisi.

All this will most likely lead regional powers, and even some smaller countries in the capitalist periphery, to reshape their policies — resulting in some cumbersome accommodations. For example, Russia did not have to worry about protecting the borders of its Central Asian allies when there were U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But now Moscow cannot count, indirectly, on the U.S. imperialist invasion for its own regional security, and most likely it will now have to work on that with China — which now holds all the cards. China, which influences Pakistan, will maintain its position inside Afghanistan, while the Taliban need Beijing’s gold to try to rebuild the country (which will put Afghan territory inside Xi Jinping’s main project, the Belt and Road Initiative — China’s New Silk Road). All in all, it is not a very encouraging scenario for Moscow.

It is not geopolitics that are decisive, however, but class struggle. The problems the Taliban will have in dealing with Afghanistan’s internal contradictions could spread to the Middle East. There were already significant demonstrations against the Taliban during the first week after it took over in Kabul. Beginning in the Qom region, there was a demonstration against the oppression of Islamic fundamentalism by women already fed up with the devastation of women’s lives wrought by the U.S. imperialist invasion. Then protests broke out across the country, with demonstrations against the Taliban in Kabul and several large cities (Kandahar, Jalalabad, etc.) on Afghanistan’s day of independence from British rule (achieved in 1919). Demonstrators raised the flag of the Afghan republic that had just been overthrown, in defiance of the new government, which has installed an Islamic emirate in the country.

This is an important part of the regional trend. There have been protests in recent years in Iraq and Iran against increases in fuel prices, currency devaluations, unemployment, and so on. A year after the giant explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon erupted in protests against the government. In China itself, the proletariat is confronting Xi’s pro-capitalist measures. While most analyses ignore all these factors, for us they are a defining element of how things will unfold. Unemployment in Afghanistan is expected to reach 13 percent by the end of the year (unemployment among women is already 14 percent). The poverty of a devastated country and the anger at the oppression of political Islam may ignite sparks that become an explosion, as signaled by the protests “welcoming” the Taliban.

A Country Devastated by Imperialism and the Afghan Bourgeoisie

The rise of the Taliban and the conditions that allowed the group’s return to power after 20 years of imperialist intervention are not factors that “fell from the sky.” An extremely complex situation has been created by the country’s historical divisions, perpetual U.S. political interference throughout the Cold War, the reactionary policy of the Stalinist bureaucracies, and the sabotage of a cowardly and corrupt national bourgeoisie. These elements have acted politically to allow a reactionary leadership like the Taliban to usurp the resistance of the Afghan people against imperialism and foreign intervention.

What, fundamentally, gave rise to the Taliban? Two things can be stated without hesitation: (1) foreign exploitation of the country’s multiethnic divide and (2) the conflict between the various powers vying for control of this strategic region during the 20th century. There are many ethnic groups in the interior of the country, which is actually several Afghanistans in one. The harsh geography has kept communities quite separated for centuries, even though they have some cultural traits in common. Keep in mind that Afghanistan borders six countries, at the junction between the Middle East and South Asia. It has influences from Iran, Pakistan, India (through the 18th-century Mughal Empire), and several Central Asian countries.

Afghanistan’s dozens of Islamic militias are linked to different ethnic groups. There are four major ones. Some 42 percent of Afghans, according to recent data on ethnic affiliations compiled by the Asia Foundation, identify as Pashtuns, which is the largest of the country’s ethnic groups. The Tajiks (including Aimaqs) comprise 33 percent; the Uzbeks (along with Turkmens) comprise 11 percent; and 10 percent are Hazaras. The remaining 4 percent identify as Nuristanis (affiliated with the Tajiks), Balochs, and others. The Taliban are linked to the Pashtun ethnic group, which is the majority in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

The region’s long history includes few relations among these different ethnic groups, thanks in large part to the geography and especially the 500-mile-long Hindu Kush mountain range. This led to many rivalries based on cultural, political, and language differences. These rivalries translated into interethnic conflicts, aggravated by the intervention of foreign powers that took advantage of the rivalries — as they do throughout the world — to divide and weaken the country and render them more susceptible to control and domination.

Afghanistan’s sobriquet as the “graveyard of empires,” in whose territory imperial expeditions have failed since antiquity — the Macedonians, the Mongols during the Middle Ages, and the British, Soviets, and Americans in the 20th and 21st centuries — indicates that it has oft been invaded. From 1838 to 1919, the territory today known as Afghanistan was under British colonial control after an invasion. England brutally dominated the population, waging two wars against the Afghans (in 1839 and in 1878) and installing puppet governments that served its interests. This came to a close with the end of World War I. Afghanistan was left out of the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreements, by which Britain and France divided their zones of influence in the old Ottoman Empire; and it was left out when the United States supported bourgeois nationalist movements in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere. This history helped create a country with a dynamic quite distinct from others.

At the end of the 1920s, with popular unrest and revolutionary processes erupting in a number of Asian countries (including China) and in the Middle East, protests broke out in Afghanistan against Emir Amanullah Khan, who fled the country. This culminated in a monarchy being installed; in the 1950s, it sought help from the Soviet Union.

In 1973, Mohammed Daoud Khan staged a coup, orchestrated by the CIA, to bring Afghanistan in line with the West. It was a blow to the Soviets, and the USSR executed a countercoup in 1978, overthrowing Daoud and opening a bloody civil war against the mujahideen (“fighters for jihad,” the Muslim holy war), supported by the United States. The Soviet Union’s decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979 was influenced by the weakening of the United States in the region, especially after the Iranian revolution that same year, when the Washington-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi was overthrown. This gave rise to the shoras (mass self-organized groups), an important part of the class struggle that ultimately ended in defeat with the rise of the reactionary government of Ayatollah Khomeini. In Afghanistan in the early 1980s, Babrak Karmal was installed as ruler, with the support of Soviet troops.

Opposition, however, grew, with various mujahideen groups fighting Soviet forces. The United States, Pakistan, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia all contributed to funding, training, and arming the mujahideen. The Sino-Soviet conflict, culminating in the break between Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev in 1969 when Moscow and Beijing almost went to war on China’s northeastern border, caused Deng Xiaoping’s bureaucracy to collaborate with U.S. imperialist efforts to arm anti-Soviet Islamic warriors. Hence the reactionary character of foreign policy, not only of U.S. and European imperialism, but also of the Stalinist bureaucracies in the deformed and degenerated workers’ states during the Cold War: all these bureaucracies saw politics through the prism of “geopolitics, or the policy of states,” and not as class struggle, and thus as serving the essential purposes of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements with Roosevelt and Churchill for the containment of international revolution.

During the 1980s, Afghanistan was controlled by the Soviet Union but was in a state of continuous political turmoil thanks to the activities of the Islamic militias, which became the basis for many fundamentalist groups in the decades that followed — including the Taliban. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, Russian troops left Afghanistan, and a new civil war broke out in 1992 to define the contours of the new regime. The Taliban finally emerged as a group in 1994, two years before taking power. Their regime lasted from 1996 to 2001, ending with the U.S invasion advocated by the neocons around George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks on the twin towers.

A product of its unique development in the face of imperialist interference, Afghanistan has not always been under the barbaric rule we have seen in recent decades. Important cultural centers and universities had been developed; the idea of a “backward culture” was spread by the United States during its invasion, which opened a reactionary offensive against Muslims after September 11. All the so-called Western powers participated in the xenophobic anti-Islamic campaign against Afghanistan, the invasion of which generated a broad agreement much larger than the 2003 Iraq war. The “War on Terror” also aimed at weakening the living conditions of the Arab peoples and spreading xenophobia around the world, which was a fundamental part of the imperialist strategy of promoting preemptive wars — which the United States wanted to try as a way to halt its hegemonic decline. Thus, it is U.S. imperialism that bears responsibility for the Afghan national catastrophe. As it leaves the embassy in Kabul, humiliated, the effects of its 20-year intervention remain. One of these is the maintenance of a national bourgeoisie subordinated to the games between the big powers, making billions of dollars from arms and drug trafficking and the export of minerals and other natural resources. This bourgeoisie is represented today by the Taliban, another product of Washington’s intervention.

The Reactionary Taliban and Equally Perfidious Imperialist “Anti-Islamism”

The Taliban began as an ultra-orthodox faction of the mujahideen led by the cleric Mullah Omar, who was joined by young Pashtun tribesmen who studied in Pakistani madrassas (religious schools) and seminaries funded mainly by Saudi Arabia. While in power, the Taliban leadership went on several military offensives to exterminate people from other ethnic groups. On August 8, 1998, the Taliban launched an attack in Mazar-i-Sharif, and proceeded to kill people indiscriminately based on their ethnicity, especially Hazaras and Uzbeks. Women were raped, and thousands of people were locked in containers and left to suffocate. During their time in power, the Taliban imposed a more extreme Wahabbist reading of the Koran, followed the instructions of the local bourgeoisie to make social services more precarious, and imposed ultraconservative restrictions on women’s rights, stipulating that women could not study or leave home without a man and that they had to wear burqas to cover their bodies completely. Many women were charged with adultery and murdered by stoning. Music and television were forbidden, and any man whose beard was considered too short was arrested.

There are images circulating all over social media comparing the Afghanistan withdrawal with the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. While there are some points of comparison, the two are not the same — beginning with the reactionary, bourgeois character of the Taliban. Whatever profound disagreements we have with the Vietnamese Communists, the Taliban’s reactionary character is central — and it is precisely why we can expect new social and political contradictions to quickly arise. A Taliban government will be unable to respond to the deep-seated problems of the Afghan population, despite its genuine rejection of imperialist intervention.

It is a lie that there is only “barbarism” in Afghanistan. Just as it is true that the Taliban are a reactionary Islamic fundamentalist sect that represents the interests of factions of the Afghan bourgeoisie, it is no less true that imperialist “anti-Islamism” is a perfidious display of the racism of the great powers. The prejudice against the Afghans, as if they were all Taliban, conceals the fact that it was U.S. imperialism that armed and financed the Taliban, taking advantage of interethnic disputes to impose its objectives. Beginning in 2001, the U.S. operation — soon joined by British and French imperialism — aimed at conflating Arabs and Islam with “terrorism,” which included racist and xenophobic campaigns against Muslims living in the central powers. In countries such as France, it is Muslims who have the most precarious, outsourced jobs and who live in the banlieues (outskirts) of large cities, daily confronted by the racist police. The construction of the figure of the Muslim as a “terrorist” is one of the most reactionary products of the North American and NATO offensive in the Middle East, always at the service of the oppression and exploitation of the Arab population by Western capitalism.

Xi Jinping’s Bureaucracy and China’s Real Interests

The Taliban’s rapid military advance would be incomprehensible without the behind-the-scenes assistance of Chinese diplomacy and the People’s Liberation Army. By the time China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, officially met with Taliban spokespersons, agreements had already been made to facilitate the conquest of northern Afghanistan, an anti-Taliban stronghold in previous decades.

The autocratic bureaucracy of Xi, supreme leader of the Chinese Communist Party, has plans for Afghanistan that are anything but modest. It wants to bring the country into its sphere of influence and power, just as it did with Pakistan, a former U.S. ally. Afghanistan is a strategic junction point between the Middle East and Asia, sharing borders with a good part of Central Asia, in addition to its 90-kilometer border with China’s Xinjiang region. It is a key country that could help the Beijing government with its “national rejuvenation” project. In fact, Beijing is already using its deception in Afghanistan — and the U.S. defeat — to warn Taiwan that Washington will not protect it from being reincorporated into the mainland. To that end, Xi has no problem allying himself with the Taliban, recognizing its government, and collaborating in the oppression of the working and poor population of a neighboring country, disguising his interventionist policy as much as possible.

It is important to demystify the idea, spread by ideologues friendly to the Xi bureaucracy, that China “does not intervene in foreign affairs.” This notion comes from The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which China signed with India in 1954 and which was ratified at the Bandung Conference in 1955, at a time when China was weak, poor, and internationally isolated. That is no longer China’s global situation. It now ranks second among global economic powers and first in terms of “purchasing power parity.” It continues to modernize rapidly both in military terms and in strategic competition with the United States, which is full steam ahead as it gains from its vast network of commercial alliances. Chinese power allows the Communist Party bureaucracy to expand its international influence and even acquire imperialist traits, although it lags far behind the United States in its ability to command the destinies of other nations.

This helps clarify another conceptual misconception that, historically, despotic regimes in Asia have been less assertive than those of Western empires. One of the main exponents of this interpretative reading is the Italian economist Giovanni Arrighi, in his famous book Adam Smith in Beijing,1Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing (London: Verso, 2007). in which he predicted that capitalist China would peacefully rise because it has a supposedly less belligerent tradition and that it would return to a multilateralism that, in the imperialist epoch, did not envision new intercapitalist disputes that would result in wars and revolutions. To verify the “pacifism” of the Chinese ascension — never very “soft” for the workers of its own country, massacred in the factories of the eastern seaboard — it is enough to consider China’s actions in Africa, where it supports authoritarian governments that serve as a transmission belt for Beijing’s oppression (as in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Angola, and South Africa, to give some examples of the human rights violations chronicled by Adaora Osondu-Oti, an academic researcher in Nigeria); or even China’s support for the murderous military junta in Myanmar, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, who ordered troops to shoot at striking workers who rose up against the dictatorship. Afghanistan is just another country where China proves to be an interventionist government that meddles in foreign affairs, in complete contravention with the norms of The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which enchant bureaucratic courtiers such as Stalinists of the caliber of Jones Manoel or Elias Jabbour, leaders of Brazil’s Communist Party.

What are China’s material interests in Afghanistan?

a. Repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang: Any policy of alliance between Beijing and the new emirate would be conditional on the Taliban’s approach to Xinjiang, the northwestern region of China that shares a border with Afghanistan. There, Beijing incarcerates more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in concentration and forced labor camps, working in the cotton industry and other sectors. The region is strategic for China because of its economic and military importance. The People’s Liberation Army has conducted joint exercises with Russian military forces there, and it is in Xinjiang that China is building its complex of hundreds of storage silos for nuclear ballistic missiles, totaling an area of 800 square kilometers. Xinjiang, which became part of Chinese territory in the 18th century during the Qing dynasty, is the home of Muslim separatist movements that fight the racist oppression of the Chinese Communist Party. The Islamic Movement of East Turkestan is particularly worrisome to the Chinese bureaucracy.

b. Expanding China’s economic strength and influence in Asia: Economic factors such as the New Silk Road project, key to the expansion of Beijing’s political influence over the entire Asian continent, weigh heavily. Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times writes, “If China can establish a working relationship with a Taliban-led government in Afghanistan it would provide Beijing with economic benefits — such as the possibility of a transit corridor, across the country, to the Chinese-built port of Gwadar in Pakistan.” The New Silk Road is Xi’s flagship project, which seeks to link three continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe) and more than 64 countries economically through infrastructure projects to build ports, highways, and railways, the focal point of which would be Beijing. The billion-dollar projects sponsored by the Bank of China have already led many countries into a “debt trap,” as happened in Sri Lanka, which was forced to cede the port of Hambantota to China when it could not pay the debt it took on for the port’s construction. These New Silk Road projects are also support points for the growing international military expansion of China, which has established its first foreign naval base in Djibouti, on Africa’s east coast, with the aim of monitoring the Indian Ocean. China also wants Afghan ores used for semiconductor manufacturing, such as lithium, and Afghanistan has one of the largest lithium deposits in the world (these are trillion-dollar reserves; the Pentagon once characterized Afghanistan as the “Saudi Arabia of lithium”). The country also has iron ore, cobalt, gold, and copper.

c. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from a border country: Taliban collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army, given Afghanistan’s position as a conduit between the Middle East and South Asia, would further expand the China-Pakistan economic corridor, enabling access to the Persian Gulf.

“Peacekeeping” is a well-known subterfuge behind which the global capitalist powers defend, often militarily, their economic interests in different parts of the world. Now the Stalinists of the Chinese Communist Party will be part of the hypocritical UN “peace missions” to ensure their investments in Afghanistan at the cost of continued despair of the local population. It comes as no surprise that Brazilian Stalinist groups, including the Brazilian Communist Party, gratefully acknowledge the alliance sought by Xi in the same hypocritical terms used by the United Nations.

Afghanistan in Continuity: A Revolutionary Legacy for Our Time

Stalinism, which in its conservatism and “theory” of socialism in one country condenses politics into a “geopolitics” isolated from the class struggle, represents nothing but disaster for countries such as Afghanistan that find themselves in complex situations, whether with the former Soviet Union or with present-day China. There is, however, another legacy that provides an explanation — the legacy of Trotskyism. Even 81 years after the assassination of Trotsky, the Afghan situation can be illuminated by the theory of permanent revolution, which in fighting imperialist oppression integrates the inseparable struggle against all national bourgeoisies that were created as a transmission belt for the influence of foreign capital in the internal structure of exploitation. As Trotsky wrote,

With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.

The Afghan working class is the subject that can respond to all the country’s problems, unveiling the democratic tasks and fulfilling all the demands of the oppressed sectors, including women and ethnic minorities, and taking power from the national bourgeoisie with a hegemonic program. Trotsky continued,

No matter what the first episodic stages of the revolution may be in the individual countries, the realization of the revolutionary alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry is conceivable only under the political leadership of the proletariat vanguard, organized in the Communist Party. This in turn means that the victory of the democratic revolution is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat which bases itself upon the alliance with the peasantry and solves first of all the tasks of the democratic revolution.

In backward capitalist countries such as Afghanistan, the most elementary democratic demands, as well as liberation from imperialist oppression and the agrarian revolution, can be fulfilled only by overthrowing the bourgeoisie through socialist revolution.

Here the debate is with the national reductionism of several theorists who have sought to separate the democratic questions from the question of revolution. Many theorists have spent decades writing that the working class cannot be a hegemonic subject in our epoch, that bourgeois democracy is the only democracy possible, and that it is just a matter of making it better. According to this theory, the struggle for political freedoms and rights — in Afghanistan, that would also include the struggle for the rights of women and oppressed ethnic groups, although these theorists showed little concern for backward capitalist countries — should be separated from the socioeconomic transformations that are indispensable for their full realization.

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe are two of the theoretical representatives of this tendency, which is popular among European neoreformist and Latin American “post-neoliberal” currents. In their approach to democracy and “populism,” the objective foundations disappear (that is, the economic foundations of capitalism, imperialist oppression, social classes, power relations): it is permissible only to “radicalize democracy” (democracy without adjectives) and articulate a progressive populism. Mouffe’s book, For a Left Populism,2Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (London: Verso, 2019). has used these fundamentals to buttress Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the neoreformist of La France Insoumise (Unbowed France), without examining the experiences of Syriza in Greece or Podemos in the Spanish State, nor of bourgeois nationalism in Latin America. Besides being reformist, it is a narrowly national theory par excellence, incapable of even beginning to address complex problems such as those presented by situations like the one we see in Afghanistan. What are we to do? Achieve the “advance of democracy” within the framework of the catastrophe left behind by the United States? Implement women’s rights by “moderating” the Taliban, as the Stalinists maintain? Simply posing the problem reveals the fossilization of these confused, sterile “theories,” Stalinist and “post-Marxist” alike.

In contrast, the theory of permanent revolution, which Trotsky elaborated based on the lessons from revolutions in the 19th and early 20th centuries, begins from the exact opposite point of view: the complete, effective achievement of democratic goals is inseparable from structural transformations (such as the Russian Revolution’s struggle against autocracy and the exploitation of landlords).

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was founded on the conception of uneven and combined development. As he wrote in The Third International After Lenin,

Linking up countries and continents that stand on different levels of development into a system of mutual dependence and antagonism, leveling out the various stages of their development and at the same time immediately enhancing the differences between them, and ruthlessly counterposing one country to another, world economy has become a mighty reality which holds sway over the economic life of individual countries and continents.

In other words, it is impossible to conquer elementary and structural democratic demands consistently (and avoid going backward the next moment) without destroying imperialist oppression, something that in turn is impossible if alliances with the national bourgeoisies are maintained or if the program is limited to fighting for ‘bourgeois democracy to the end.” What sort of emancipation from imperialism’s chains, what freeing of the productive forces of the region, can be achieved by restricting the struggle to the “geopolitical dispute” framework, as Stalinism imperialist chains, freeing the productive forces of the Middle East, can be achieved by restricting oneself to the framework of the “geopolitical dispute,” as Stalinism would have it — and just as it was within the reactionary concept of “socialism in one country”?

That is a perspective of defeat. In a final formulation of the theory of permanent revolution, Trotsky wrote,

In the present epoch, to a much larger extent than in the past, the national orientation of the proletariat must and can flow only from a world orientation and not vice versa. Herein lies the basic and primary difference between communist internationalism and all varieties of national socialism.

This workers’ internationalism has been proved by history (and not the versions “remastered” by the Trotskyist organizations that abandoned this approach in the second half of the 20th century). History has, moreover, discredited the “theory of socialism in one country” and the retreat from Marxist internationalism represented by national socialism. Just as wrong is the idea that, even while acknowledging the reactionary character of the Taliban, the outcome in Afghanistan (and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the government) is somehow a “triumph of the masses” — a resuscitation of the unique stage-ism of the Morenist tradition of the International Workers’ League (LIT) and its Brazilian PSTU organization.

It can be affirmed without a doubt that Trotskyism, given its powerful strategic dynamics, is indispensable to fight for the emancipation of the workers and the oppressed peoples of Afghanistan and the Middle East, crossed by the imperialist interventions of the United States and the murders of Palestinians by the terrorist state of Israel. But the struggle against imperialism does involve supporting Islamic fundamentalism, which throughout the entire region defends the interests of the Arab bourgeoisies and their agreements with the same imperialist powers, as in Afghanistan (the Taliban seek to please the “Greeks and Trojans” alike, the Chinese and the Americans).

These reactionary political movements position themselves against the most heartfelt interests of the masses, and it is no accident that they seek alliances with autocracies and Bonapartist regimes such as those that rule China, Russia, and Iran. The struggle for class independence and for workers to emerge with a hegemonic program in the region is the only path to take against the ravages of imperialism and the false Stalinist friends. It is essential to defend the opening of borders and ensure that all those who want to take refuge on European soil or elsewhere are welcomed.

First published in Portuguese on August 22 in Ideias de Esquerda.

Translation by Scott Cooper


1 Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing (London: Verso, 2007).
2 Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (London: Verso, 2019).
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Faculty, Staff, and Students Must Unite Against Repression of the Palestine Movement

As Gaza solidarity encampments spread across the United States, faculty and staff are mobilizing in solidarity with their students against repression. We must build on that example and build a strong campaign for our right to protest.

Olivia Wood

April 23, 2024
A mash-up of Macron over a palestinian flag and articles detailing the rising repression

Against the Criminalization of Opinion and in Defense of Our Right to Support Palestine: We Must Stand Up!

In France, the repression of Palestine supporters is escalating. A conference by La France Insoumise (LFI) has been banned; a union leader has been arrested and charged for speaking out for Palestine; court cases have increased against those who “condone terrorism”; and the state has stepped up its “anti-terrorism” efforts. In the face of all this, we must stand together.

Nathan Deas

April 23, 2024
SEIU Local 500 marching for Palestine in Washington DC. (Photo: Purple Up for Palestine)

Dispatches from Labor Notes: Labor Activists are Uniting for Palestine. Democrats Want to Divide Them

On the first day of the Labor Notes conference, conference attendees held a pro-Palestine rally that was repressed by the local police. As attendees were arrested outside, Chicago Mayor — and Top Chicago Cop — Brandon Johnson spoke inside.

Left Voice

April 20, 2024
A tent encampment at Columbia University decorated with two signs that say "Liberated Zone" and "Gaza Solidarity Encampment"

Dispatches from Labor Notes 2024: Solidarity with Columbia Students Against Repression

The Labor Notes Conference this year takes place right after over 100 students were arrested at Columbia for protesting for Palestine. We must use this conference to build a strong campaign against the repression which will impact us all if it is allowed to stand.

Olivia Wood

April 20, 2024