Communism and the Iraqi Revolution - part one

In this article Benjamin Curry goes to the roots of the revolutionary history of the Iraqi people which is far from the barbarism which it is often labelled with by the bourgeois media today.

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Since the 2003 invasions of Iraq and the liquidation of the Ba’athist state, US and British imperialism have opened a Pandora’s Box in Iraq. Estimates suggest more than a million people were killed in the invasion and subsequent occupation, which have achieved nothing. Even from the cynical point of view of the furtherance of US imperialist interests, they now find themselves weakened and not strengthened. Far from bringing democracy and freedom, they have brought misery, barbarism and sectarianism. In the name of fighting terror the short-sighted strategists of imperialism threw the door wide-open to the Jihadist cutthroats they claimed to be fighting, including the Frankenstein’s monster of the Islamic State, which captured Iraq’s second city of Mosul in 2014 without the least resistance.

This atrocious exhibition of sectarian mayhem is from start to finish the creation of foreign imperialism. The point must be underlined and underlined again that the genuine traditions of the Iraqi working class and peasantry are progressive, secular and communistic in nature. Nothing better demonstrates this fact than the history of the revolution of 1958-59. For a time in the late 50’s and early 60’s Iraq became the key theatre of struggle in one of the most significant dramas in modern history.

Whilst the revolution ultimately went down to defeat and paved the way for the vicious dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party, culpability for this defeat, as we shall see, lies squarely at the door of the Stalinist leaders of the Communist Party and owes nothing to any lack of conscious understanding or fighting spirit on the part of the workers and oppressed masses of Iraq. The consequences of that defeat, that continue to be felt down to the present day, sharply illustrate Rosa Luxemburg’s words: that the choice before humanity today is one of socialism or barbarism.

The Development of Capitalism and the British Conquest of Iraq

The lines recognised today as the borders of modern Iraq are remarkable for their geometric regularity extending for hundreds of miles without deviation. These borders bare testament to the wholly artificial creation of modern Iraq as a nation state 100 years ago. In 1914 Britain and France plunged headlong into war against their rising rival, Germany. Before the war was concluded - which was principally fought for the defence of their colonial possessions - the two old powers had eyed the prospect of acquiring new territories from the remnants of the decaying Ottoman Empire. In 1916 the British and French drew up the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement to partition the Arab peoples into new states that would become the “spheres of influence” of one or other of the imperialist partners. France would take much of what is now Lebanon and Syria, and the British would take Jordan, Palestine and the three Ottoman wilayat (governorates) of Mosul, Basrah and Baghdad – what we know today as Iraq.

Prior to their direct occupation, the British capitalist class had already developed deep interests in Iraq. Until the industrial revolution in Europe, Iraq had suffered a long period of decline stretching back centuries, from the fall of the Abbasid Empire. Patriarchal, tribal relations had grown in strength as the radiating power of the urban centres weakened.

The growth of European capitalism, however, threw this process into reverse. The Ottoman Empire, resting on pre-capitalist methods of production, was forced to modernise and centralise its state apparatus so as to compete with its more advanced European neighbours.

Moreover, European trade had the effect of reviving urban centres, not only as military-bureaucratic centres, but also as commercial hubs. The advent of steam navigation along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the laying of telegraph and railway lines tremendously boosted commerce – and particularly trade with the British. With the growth of the modern state the old patriarchal tribal relations lost much of their relevance, whilst the penetration of capitalist relations pitched tribesmen against one another with opposing class interests. The late arrival of capitalism in Iraq and the deforming influence of foreign powers however, meant that this process of change was not a simple one capable of leading to the formation of a modern, industrialised and democratic nation-state but one which combined new forms with the conservation and strengthening of pre-capitalist forms. The pressure of the advanced capitalist countries like Britain generated not only strong centralising tendencies but also powerful centrifugal forces in the Ottoman Empire. In the early days of the expansion of its power across the region Britain rested first on the Mamluk dynasty in Iraq and then leant once more on the Sultan to crush the Mamluks in 1831, holding the Empire together.

In the cities the old artisanal methods of production were destroyed by cheap British goods. The famed spinners of Mosul, after which muslin cloth takes its name, were driven under by cheap imports from Lancashire’s mills. The British also brought wholly new methods of trade and transportation. The region had enjoyed a vibrant commerce according to the old methods of migratory caravans, tribal exchange and sailing stretches of river. However, with the arrival of joint-stock companies, steam navigation, and the erection of new borders dividing old trade routes after the British conquest, the old mercantile tribes and classes either integrated themselves as intermediaries of British trade, went under or else eked out a miserable existence.

With the way cleared, Iraqi capitalism was from the start based on British capital. Of the highest valued members of the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce in 1938 more than half were British, British-American or British-French companies. Only one Arab Muslim concern existed among the list, and almost all Iraqi-owned companies were British dependent mercantile companies of one type or other(1). However, the foreign capital invested in Iraq bore no proportion to the super-profits that were extracted. From 1950-1958 for instance, “Imperial Chemical Industries” made a total profit of over 1,500,000 dinars on a capital investment of just 3,000 dinars(2). Such figures bear out the parasitic character of Iraqi capitalism from its very inception.

In the countryside the penetration of the world market switched the axis of Iraqi agriculture from subsistence farming to production for the world market. Hungry bellies at home were placed in direct competition with food speculators abroad, causing prices of foodstuffs to skyrocket. The profit motive spurred the land hunger of the landlords and forced the process of disintegrating the communal tribal landholdings. Whilst this process began under Ottoman rule, it was consummated under the British occupation. Through the land laws imposed by the British in the 20’s, agricultural lands which were nominally the domain of this or that tribe were converted into the direct private property of the sheikh (or agha in Kurdish regions) as head of the tribe. Vast tracts were concentrated in the hands of the sheikhs who more often than not converted their tribesmen into little more than serfs. As old sheikhly titles were dusted off or “discovered”, all manner of half-forgotten rights and duties were revived as the new landlord caste extracted every kind of tithe and corvée labour “owed” to them by the peasants.

Thus the British, at a time when old tribal relations were disintegrating, tremendously revived them on a semi-feudal basis. It was on this foundation, on the most backward and antiquated elements in Iraqi society, that British imperialism based its support. The colonial regime was erected on classical lines of divide and rule: not only between Kurd and Arab, Shia and Sunni, tribe versus tribe, but also playing off the monarchy and regular army with the sheikhs and their armed retainers.

Iraqi agriculture in particular came to suffer from both the worst elements of capitalism and feudalism. Land ownership became tremendously concentrated in the hands of a few, 49 families owning 16.8% of the land in 1958. The landlord class for their part had no interest in the application of science and machinery to agriculture – they could enrich themselves far more easily by means of land grabbing and squeezing the peasantry. On the other hand where capitalist methods did make themselves felt it was in the blind anarchy of individual competition. The uneven application of water pumps to irrigation by enterprising capitalists-turned-landlords led to droughts in some areas and flooding in others. Meanwhile British management of river flow concerned itself with navigation for the purpose of commerce first and irrigation second: thus leading to the destruction of arable land, the ruining of harvests, the silting-up of irrigation canals and the salination of previously fertile soils (3).

We can see then how capitalism developed in Iraq in an extremely uneven and unbalanced manner. Antiquated technology persisted alongside the most modern machinery; peasants suffered under the yoke of feudal relations whilst a modern proletariat was being forged in the cities; and the most advanced ideas developed alongside time honoured prejudices. Such a combination made for the most acute social conflict as capitalist exploitation was compounded by tribal-feudal privileges, by national oppression and by the police methods of the British-backed Hashemite dynasty.

Perhaps few things better demonstrate the brutality and the unbalanced nature of Iraqi capitalism than the manner in which the RAF and British mechanised infantry were used to suppress poorly armed, tribal peoples in the Revolution of 1920. What began as the first urban revolt against the newly established British mandate with its centre in Baghdad, sweeping all classes and all sects into its maelstrom, became converted into an armed tribal uprising in the countryside. The working class was as yet too numerically small to lead the revolt and the urban bourgeoisie were both too weak and too interlaced with imperialism to represent an effective opposition. Leadership thus fell to the old caste of sheikhs and sayyeds. The events of 1920 were at the same time the first national, anti-imperialist uprising in Iraq's history and a last show of vigour by the dying tribal order.

Inevitably, with such a disconnected, tribal character, the revolution went down to defeat. The British put down the revolt with extreme brutality that bears comparison with the White Terrors unleashed in Eastern Europe. As a matter of cost saving, the British developed what they termed “aerial policing” to deal with rebellious populations; that is, indiscriminate bombardment of villages and towns to establish order. Whole villages were razed to the ground in order to quell uprisings. In one instance British commanders gave orders to raze every single town and village along 100km of a tributary of the Euphrates (4). In the annals of British imperialist atrocities those carried out in Iraq, of whom Winston Churchill was the main architect, deserve to be remembered for their particular barbarity.

Despite the defeat of the 1920 revolution in its attempt to oust the British, its psychological impact was particularly significant. It laid down a tradition of revolutionary struggle cutting across sectarian lines and left a deep impression on a generation of youth. The founder of the first Marxist study circle in Iraq, al-Rahhal; and Yussuf Salman Yussuf (“Fahd”) who lead the Communist Party from modest beginnings to its emergence as a serious force in the 40’s; both attested to the tremendous impression the Revolution left on their youthful minds. It is to the particular conditions that prevailed at the inception of Iraq’s Communist Party, the traditional party of the Iraqi working class, that we now turn our attention.

The Beginnings of the Communist Party of Iraq

Youssif Salman Youssif-public domainYoussif "Fahd" Salman Youssif - Photo: Public DomainThe history of the development of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) is intimately tied with the growth and development of the Iraqi working class. We have seen how the penetration of the world market, the growth of capitalist relations and the intervention of British imperialism had drastic and contradictory effects on the fabric of Iraqi society. The most important result of this process was the burgeoning growth of the working class. Huge numbers of peasants streamed into the urban centres in their attempts to escape the dislocation, poverty and distress that prevailed in rural areas.

In the 36 year period from 1922 to 1958 the population of Mosul increased 2.5 times over, whilst the population of Basrah tripled. In the same period the population of Baghdad quadrupled from 200,000 to 800,000. The oil boom in particular served to significantly increase the size and weight of the industrial working class. In 1926 there were only 13,140 workers occupied in industries employing more than 100 people. By 1954 that had increased to over 65,000, with another 80,000 workers employed in light industries (5). By the 1940’s and 50’s, the period in which the ICP became a mass party in Iraq, the working class was emerging as the decisive factor in all major social and political movements.

These formative years of the Iraqi working class and of the Iraqi Communist Party were also dark days of bureaucratic counter-revolution and Stalinist terror in the country of the October Revolution, a fact that would leave a deep imprint on the young party. In 1927, when the first Communist study circles were being formed in Iraq, Stalinist gangsters were engaged in hounding Trotsky’s followers in Russia. The same process of degeneration which had begun in the Russian Communist Party spread throughout the Communist International, which was in the early stages of being converted from a lever for world proletarian revolution into its greatest obstacle.

In a cruelly ironic twist, the perceived connection that the Comintern retained with the dazzling achievements of the October Revolution allowed it to not only hold but strengthen its influence among the most advanced layers of workers and peasants; particularly in the colonial and semi-colonial world. This was the case also in Iraq where from the late 20's and into the early 30's communist study circles began emerging that would lay the groundwork for the formation of a Communist Party.

The Stalinist bureaucracy, driven by their own short-term interests, conducted a bewildering series of shifts to the left and to the right in this period. To crush Trotsky and the Russian Left Opposition - which represented the genuinely proletarian and revolutionary heart of the Bolshevik Party - the bureaucracy first leant sharply to the right, allying itself with the rising class of wealthy peasants. When the kulaks began to flex their muscles and to challenge the power of the state bureaucracy however, the Stalinists were thrown into alarm and made an insane gyration to the left. The kulaks were suddenly subject to the policy of “forced collectivisation” and the Soviet Union was plunged into famine.

Internationally these twists and turns were accompanied by similar gyrations in the policy of the Communist International, which reacted empirically to world events rather than anticipating them. In 1935, the year that the Iraqi Communist Party was formed, the Comintern began another sharp turn to the right; having burnt their fingers in Germany with an ultra-left policy that split the workers' movement just at the point at which workers’ unity was most desperately needed in the face of an ascendant Nazi Party.

The new policy dictated that Communist Parties around the world must form the broadest possible coalitions against fascism through the formation of “popular fronts”, which should also include those “progressive” elements of the national bourgeoisie. In practice this meant restraining the proletariat in one country after another from going beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy so as not to scare the liberal bourgeoisie. Arming the various national Communist Parties with a correct theoretical outlook however had very little to do with this policy; rather the Stalinists were less concerned with the progress of the world revolution and more concerned with ingratiating themselves with the British and French governments so as to quietly secure their own borders.

The new policy fundamentally rested on the myth that in the period of capitalism's imperialist decay there as yet existed a “progressive” wing of the bourgeoisie. In reality this was a theoretical aberration that had little to do with Marxism but which would have the most devastating practical consequences. In Iraq this policy necessarily meant imposing a dogmatic caricature of Marxism upon the young Communist movement, whereby history is mechanically divided into “stages”. As the advanced capitalist countries went through a period of democratic revolutions which cemented the rule of the  bourgeoisie before conditions could mature for socialism; accordingly so must Iraq. Whilst it is indisputable that the tasks of the Iraqi revolution were primarily bourgeois in nature (the creation of a democratic republic; national liberation; rights for national minorities; land reform, etc.), the Iraqi bourgeois and petty bourgeois, being themselves wedded through a thousand strings to imperialism and precapitalist modes of production, were incapable of playing a progressive role in this struggle.

On the one hand the Iraqi national bourgeoisie were wholly dependent on their position with respect to foreign – mainly British and later American – capital. The imperialist powers for their part, as we have seen, had not only accustomed themselves to the existence of semi-feudal relics in Iraq but thoroughly depended on their perpetuation. Furthermore, unlike in England in 1642 or France in 1789, the pre-revolutionary working class in Iraq emerged as a powerful independent factor in events with a clear consciousness of its own interests. The Iraqi national bourgeoisie had good reason to fear this new factor and as such could be guaranteed to play only a counter-revolutionary role in events. The insistence of the Stalinists then that the ICP must channel the working class into supporting the “progressive” bourgeoisie in reality meant subordinating the working class to a chimera. Such a policy could only, and indeed would, spell disaster for the Communist movement.

At this point an important distinction must be made between the rank and file cadres of the ICP and its Stalinist leadership. As we shall see, the ranks of the ICP constituted the bravest and most self-sacrificing elements of Iraqi society and the true flower of the Iraqi working class. It is also important to distinguish between the ICP’s leadership – influenced by the ideas of Stalinism emanating from Moscow – and the Stalinist bureaucracy itself in the Kremlin. Whereas the latter could deal in the fortunes of the ICP like so much small change from a position of perfect safety; there is no doubt that the former deeply and sincerely held their communist convictions and in many instances would make the ultimate sacrifice for their errors in the tragedy that unfolded.

Whilst the Iraqi Communist Party had numerous connections with the Stalinist Comintern, even from its earliest days, it is hard to know the degree to which this or that mistake in those days was attributable to naivety or to cynical manipulation by the Stalinists. Whilst the young party made many mistakes what stands out, in spite of this, is how the party for the most part had an instinctively correct grasp of the tasks that it faced. In the party paper, “The People’s Struggle”, we read the following, fundamentally correct, demands in 1935:

“The expulsion of the imperialists; the granting of freedom to the people, of complete independence to the Kurds, and of their cultural rights... to all of Iraq’s minorities;
“The distribution of land to the peasantry;
“The abolition of all debts and land-mortgages...;
“The seizure of all properties belonging to the imperialists – the banks, the oilfields, and the railway works among others – and the expropriation of the vast agricultural estates;
“The concentration of power in the hands of the workers and peasants; and
“The launching without delay of the social revolution in all other areas of life and the liberation of the people from manifold subjections.”(7)

On this basis – of linking the "bourgeois" tasks of the revolution (land reform, national rights, the struggle against imperialism etc.) to the task of expropriating the imperialist ruling class and bringing the working class to power – the success of the Iraqi revolution could have been assured. Whilst the formula of the "concentration of power in the hands of the workers and peasants" failed to recognise the leading role of the working class in particular, it nevertheless represented a far superior programme to those issued under the clearer influence of Moscow at a later date.

Hardly had the ICP been formed however than Iraq was plunged into a crisis, which would put to the test the policy of supporting the "progressive" bourgeoisie; whilst at the same time bringing to the fore the subjective role of players within the state, and particularly of certain echelons of the officer corp. The combined and uneven character of capitalist development in Iraq not only had a distorting effect on the economic base of society but also upon the state apparatus itself, which now intervened in a peculiar role.

[to be continued...]

1Batatu H “The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq” p244, tables 9-3 and 9-4.

2ibid p267

3ibid p175

4Peter Lieb, 2012, “Suppressing insurgencies in comparison: the Germans in the Ukraine, 1918, and the British in Mesopotamia, 1920”, Small Wars and Insurgencies 23:4-5, pp637-647

5Batatu H p35

7ibid p437