[Ted Grant] The Colonial Revolution and Civil War in South Yemen

This is a reprint of an article originally written by Ted Grant in 1986. It analyses the civil war in the South Yemen in that period, illustrating the processes that were taking place in the colonial countries at that time: the processes of the colonial revolution. The degeneration of Stalinism and the peculiar character of proletarian bonapartism, i.e. the move to military-police dictatorship on the basis of state ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, were shown clearly during the course of the revolution in South Yemen after 1967. It was on this basis that the revolution was eventually undermined, laying the basis for the barbaric chaos we see in the country today.

- Ed.

The civil war in South Yemen illustrated the processes that are taking place in the colonial countries today, the processes of the colonial revolution. At the same time it shows the degeneration of Stalinism and the peculiar character of proletarian bonapartism, i.e. a move to military-police dictatorship on the basis of state ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

Yemeni demonstrators in 1967 Image العمريYemeni demonstrators in 1967 / Image: العمري

The processes were shown clearly during the course of the revolution in South Yemen since 1967. The overthrow of British imperialism, which was forced to retreat from Aden and South Yemen because of the movement of the masses, marked the beginning of the revolution in South Yemen. However on the basis of bourgeois democracy, with the crisis which exists of world capitalism, a crisis above all in the colonial areas, it was clearly revealed that the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois democrats were incapable of taking action against landlordism and carrying the bourgeois democratic revolution to a conclusion.

Thus the most revolutionary wing of the revolutionary forces was compelled to take power into its own hands. But in order to eliminate feudalism and landlordism they were compelled to go further and eliminate capitalism or rather those elements of capitalism that existed in South Yemen at that time.

South Yemen declared itself a "Marxist" state, i.e. in reality it was a military-police-bonapartist dictatorship, basing itself on a nationalised economy but with the support of the overwhelming majority, especially of the active population. The Yemeni revolutionaries had as their model the revolution in Cuba, in Russia and of course in China.

But South Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite covering an area equal in size to Britain, it only has a tiny population of two million. It had few natural resources, although now apparently oil has been discovered straddling the border between South and North Yemen. Clearly on the basis of the Yemen economy alone it was not possible to solve the problems which faced the workers and peasants, i.e. the people of the Yemen.

When the revolution began there were only 127 miles of paved roads in South Yemen, all but 14 in Aden. Even now the per capita income in South Yemen is little over £350 a year. Life expectancy averages around 46 years and even today in spite of the Herculean efforts to abolish illiteracy more than 60 percent of the population is still illiterate.

Arrest of demonstrators in 1967 Image العمريArrest of demonstrators in 1967 / Image: العمري

Another of the problems of the South Yemen revolution is that it is surrounded by semi-feudal states such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and the Gulf states. Previously it occupied an important strategic position when half of the oil of the non-Stalinist world flowed from the Gulf every day. In 1975, 17.5 million barrels of oil, or 41 percent of the oil of the non-Stalinist world, came through the Straits of Hormuz. Now it is only 15 percent, or 6.5 million barrels of oil everyday. Nonetheless it is still a very important strategic area because 56 percent of the world's oil reserves still remain in the region of the Gulf.

However even on the meagre economic basis of South Yemen, with hardly any industry at all, nevertheless big progress has been made on the basis of the elimination of landlordism and of capitalism. For example, half the food that is needed in South Yemen is now grown in the area in spite of the fact that a great part of South Yemen is desert. The difference that a revolution makes in an area such as this is shown by the fact that in Djibouti, which has a population of 360,000, 80 percent are unemployed, whereas in South Yemen unemployment has been completely eliminated.

Classical Stalinist purge

So how did it happen that a civil war should take place between two factions of the Yemeni Socialist Party, which is the name of the organisation of the Stalinist Communist Party in Yemen? The facts were that President Ali Nasser Mohammed, tried to eliminate members of the opposing faction at a specially convened meeting of the eleven-man politburo on January 13 this year. A detachment of guards opened fire killing Ali Ahmed Nasser Antar, vice-president and an open opponent of President Nasser Mohammed, Mr Salih Muslih Fassim, Defence Minister, and Mr Ali Shaiyia Hadi, Head of the Control Commission. Other opponents of the president were rounded up and some were murdered. President Nasser Mohammed prepared for the purge of his opponents by issuing leaflets in advance of the politburo meeting, claiming success in defeating an alleged attempted coup! But, on January 15 and 16 the middle ranks of the troops swung over to the opposition thus sealing the fate of Nasser Mohammed. And on January 25 a new government led by Mr Haider Abubaker Al-Attas was formed.

The ruling elite in South Yemen imitates China, Russia, Cuba and the other deformed workers' states in carving out privileges for themselves. Fred Halliday who has written a book on the collapse of the Sultans in South Yemen, noted some changes during a visit in 1979. He reported that "top party officials in Aden have received increased material privileges in the form of access to restricted consumer goods shops, and the army has become much more prominent in Yemini life." President Nasser Mohammed, before his overthrow, was head of state, secretary general of the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party, and chairman of the Presidium of the SPC, the Supreme People's Council.

On the road of capitalism there is no way out. Society in the Yemen, as in most of the colonial world at the present time, was at an impasse. Consequently, in a caricatured form, the process was that of the permanent revolution explained by Trotsky and supported by Lenin. The Yemen jumped from tribalism to "socialism". They established a so-called "Socialist Party" with a one-party totalitarian state. How then did the conflict break out? Like the process in Afghanistan, tribal and other cliques were jostling for control within the framework of the only legal party, the Socialist Party. In addition there were differences over policy. Ali Nasser Mohammed, the former President, tried to compromise with the reactionary state of North Yemen and the feudal capitalist states of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. This was done with the full support of the Stalinists in Moscow.

The Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union is trying to arrive at some sort of uneasy compromise with American imperialism and does not want any movement of the masses in the Middle East which could cause friction and complications with the US. Therefore they are opposed to the development of revolution in North Yemen, in Oman, in Saudi Arabia and in the other countries of the Middle East. Like all the other revolutions in colonial countries, the revolution in South Yemen took place in spite of and not because of the existence of Communist Parties and the Soviet bureaucracy.

So there was a struggle inside the Yemeni Socialist Party with one faction opposed to the attempts on the part of Ali Nasser Mohammed to come to an agreement with North Yemen and the other reactionary states of the region and to cease to support the revolutionary movement in these countries.

"Fraternal" clashes

Nasser Mohammed therefore tried the classical methods of Stalinism in launching a purge on Stalinist lines. No trials, but executions, in reality murders of the top leadership of the Political Bureau. It was his failure to succeed completely, with only a partial elimination of his rivals, which led to the outbreak of civil war. Thus in Stalinist regimes a "fraternal discussion" is carried on with heavy machineguns, tanks, rifles, armoured personnel carriers, 130 metres artillery, cannon, gunboats and planes! The deformed workers' states proceed on bonapartist lines rather than on the lines of workers' democracy. Like the bloody battles between Russia and China, like the bloody conflicts between China and Vietnam, Vietnam and Cambodia, they show the national and bureaucratic limitations of the Stalinist regimes.

All these "socialist" countries are dominated by a bureaucratic elite. They are progressive in so far as capitalism and the feudal remnants of landlordism have been abolished but there is no real control by the workers and peasants. Only this control could guarantee the beginning of a transition in the direction of socialism.

Bureaucratic rule results in distortion, corruption and abuse of power. The classical example was the bloody and infamous terror of Joseph Stalin in Russia. Without the check of workers' democracy, control by the workers and peasants and now, in an area like South Yemen, of the tribesmen, the bureaucratic elite takes action against any threat to its hold by bloody purges. Thus Stalin long before conducted the extermination of the leaders of the revolution, of the Bolshevik party and of hundreds of thousands of workers who led the Bolshevik revolution, along with the massacre of the majority of the officer cadres of the Russian army. This prepared the way for the victories of Hitler in the first stages of the war of Nazi imperialism against Russia.

Now in South Yemen there is a new government of Mr Haider Abubaker Al-Attas with Salem Baleh as secretary of the Socialist Party of Yemen. They are the new strongmen who are giving lip-service to collective leadership, but inevitably the new regime will also result in the domination of one new "leader". That is the method of proletarian bonapartism, the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual.

Yemeni Socialist Party Flag Image MrPenguin20Yemeni Socialist Party Flag / Image: MrPenguin20

There has been an enormous mumbling and embarrassment at the events in Yemen, on the part of the British Communist Party and of the hard-liners around the Morning Star. On January 27, the Morning Star contained an article saying that a meeting of the Yemeni Socialist Party Central Committee, following the appointment of the new government of Haider Abubaker Al-Attas, had:

"... declared 'the commitment of the Yemen Socialist Party to the ideas of scientific socialism [!?] and the principles of proletarian internationalism' and it further called upon the people to 'rally around the party in defence of the country's national independence and sovereignty.'"

The British Stalinists in common with their mentors abroad, because Moscow in the beginning was backing Nasser Mohammed, initially succeeded in backing the wrong horse. However very quickly they changed over to support the winning side. But not a word of explanation of how it happened, how it could happen under "scientific socialism", has been given. The Morning Star goes on:

"The Yemeni party's central committee accused Ali Nasser Mohammed of 'masterminding a criminal bloody plot to physically liquidate the party's collective leadership and establish a terrorist dictatorial regime.'"

Wringing its hands in anguish at this "disagreement" between "comrades", the Star reproduced the comments of Pravda of January 24:

"'These events cannot but cause deep regret, especially considering that they are taking place in a friendly country with the Yemeni Socialist Party at the head.' Noting democratic Yemen's 'considerable socio-economic successes', the Soviet Communist Party daily attributes the present problems to 'the traditional existence of many socialist structures and the tribal disunity of society inherited from past epochs.' They were the result also of 'subversive action of foreign reactionary, imperialist forces.'"

Although how these had their effect on the regime in Aden is not explained.

Two bureaucratic factions

As a commentary on the events the Morning Star on January 24 reviewed an article by Nasser Mohammed written well before the civil war in the October 1985 edition of World Marxist Review:

"In a detailed and frank article, published in World Marxist Review - 'Problems of Peace and Socialism', the President spoke of 'armchair administration' and attempts to 'belittle the role of the leadership of the party.'

"Writing as general secretary of the Central Committee of the Yemen Socialist Party and chairman of the presidium of the Supreme People's Council, the president pointed to clear conflicts in the run-up to the party's congress, which was being planned for the near future."

The Morning Star continues:

"... in the conflict... there has been confusion over the cause. Speculation has ranged from personal rivalries, to tribalism, centralism versus local autonomy, disputes over the relations between the party and state, as well as over relations with neighbouring Arab states... Democratic Yemen's embassy in London... said... 'the causes go back to the heritage of social backwardness,' adding, 'the situation exploded for purely internal reasons.'"

"President Ali Nasser Mohammed's [the overthrown president - EG] article does confirm that in his view severe political differences were being debated in the country following the plenary meeting of the party's CC... Arguing that the status of the Yemen Socialist Party differs from any ruling bourgeois party the president said: 'Together with state authority it represents not a privileged minority but all the working people!'"

This argument has been crushingly refuted by events. Workers' democracy contains the normal checks and balances whereby decisions will be taken on the basis of a majority through democratic discussion through the organisation of the revolutionary pa... rty itself. This was the case in Russia before the degeneration of the revolution. However, having seized power, Stalin declared as early as 1927 that "these cadres [i.e. bureaucrats - EG] can be eliminated only by civil war... ", a statement he then went on to verify by waging a one-sided civil war against Bolshevism. Now two bureaucratic factions in South Yemen have tried to crush each other. Certainly elements of the past, personal enmities, tribal groupings, do loom large in the conflict. But the model for both factions is the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe and China, a one-party state with no real democracy. Backwardness of course made the development of industry and of the economy very difficult in South Yemen. In the Soviet Union the isolation of the genuine democratic socialists, of Marxism, arose from the isolation and backwardness of Russia with the failure of the revolution in other countries. That is why the Marxists, the real Bolsheviks who reflected the needs and the interests of the working class and the peasants, and of world socialism, were defeated in the struggle in the Soviet Union.

Ali Nasir Muhammad right Image Olga BandelowaAli Nasir Muhammad (right) / Image: Olga Bandelowa

Now in South Yemen it is a struggle between two bureaucratic cliques. In a poor country like South Yemen with a small population it is clear that they could not stand on their own without the support of the other deformed workers' states. In the economy and in cultural life backward elements still loom large. Low standards of living, cultural backwardness and actual illiteracy, all these have undoubtedly had an effect. But they are not the explanation of why the civil war took place in South Yemen.

The Morning Star continues in this long article:

"But although the building of the state apparatus had been completed during the past few years 'there were weaknesses and negative aspects.' He [the former President, Nasser Mohammed, now overthrown - EG] went on to talk of 'inflation of personnel [i.e. bureaucracy - EG], inadequate knowledge of the scientific principles of leadership, miscalculations in the placing of cadres' bureaucratic propensities in the actions of some executives and a low level of executive discipline.'"

As Lenin would have observed, what a high-flying Stalinist formula to cover his own "bureaucratic propensities", "solving" problems by machinegunning opposition members of the Political Bureau!

"Some executives, he said, were promoted 'not on the basis of objective criteria but on family-tribal, parochial and other considerations.' These practices, he added, represented 'a burp of outworn social relations.'"

In reality it was the classical nepotism of Stalinist regimes in all the deformed workers' states which has reached scandalous levels in the Soviet Union, China and the other bonapartist workers' states. In South Yemen Nasser Mohammed objected to other leaders behaving in this fashion while no doubt doing the same thing as far as his own tribe was concerned!

"In some cases party organisations acted instead of the state apparatus. Attempts were also made to 'use administrative measures in order to belittle the role of leadership by the party. Instead of harmony and efficiency there were conflicts, lack of coordination.'"

Moscow's role

These conflicts were settled by machineguns precipitated by the writer of this article in World Marxist Review! No doubt had he been replaced the same process would have taken place for him and his clique of supporters in the Yemeni Socialist Party leadership and among the bureaucracy.

"The President also claimed that many of the Yemen Socialist Party members were 'still susceptible to influence of non-proletarian, often pre-capitalist ideas and notions.' In that context he made the point that the party's membership 'has grown visibly in the past five years to some 30,000. But... in the state sector 'the most advanced and organised contingent of the proletariat - factory workers - remains numerically small.' He also argued that there was a danger of a breakdown between democracy and centralism - 'not two different concepts but two sides of one and the same principle.' He went on to warn that disregard of either is 'fraught with serious consequences. A formal interpretation of party democracy may generate organisational and ideological looseness, negligence and a weakening of the party's militancy. On the other hand, excessive centralisation kills initiative, and gives party work the features of administration and turns party organisation into a purely executive authority.' Phenomena of this kind, says the President, 'formalism and armchair administration were to be observed in some Yemeni Socialist Party organisations'... Despite a new social consciousness taking shape 'old reactionary customs and values still retain their influence, thus reflecting the social-economic and cultural backwardness inherited from the epoch of colonial slavery,' he argued."

The Morning Star then goes on to say:

"The tragic events of the past two weeks indicate that the divisions behind some of these arguments have developed into deep and bitter chasms. [!] But to what extent the article reflects the reasons behind the conflict will only be known if and when Abdul Fattah Ismail [who was murdered in the first days of the struggle by the overthrown president! - EG] makes his position clear."

The mumbling and stammering of the Morning Star hard-liners, taking their cue from Moscow who originally backed the wrong horse and then switched back to the people who were victorious, shows how far they are from a Marxist analysis of events. It echoes the old days of Stalin when the Moscow bureaucracy said "turn" and they turned 180 degrees. This was because of the slavish dependence of the Communist Parties of the world on Moscow.

The Morning Star goes on to say that "the conflict will delight only the imperialist camp." No explanation is given of how it could happen in a so-called democratic state moving in the direction of socialism. However the Observer on January 19 had the comment:

"The Soviet Union is pursuing a policy of conciliation in the Arab world. It has encouraged South Yemen to improve relations with all its neighbours and to ditch its image of a dangerous exporter of revolution."

Aden and South Yemen are important to the Soviet Union as a port and because of their strategic situation. The Soviet Union has largely replaced colonial Britain, with the difference that it is a voluntary arrangement between the South Yemeni and the Soviet bureaucracy. Nevertheless South Yemen is still completely dependent on the Soviet Union. This did not enable the Soviet Union to prevent civil war. In the beginning the Soviet bureaucracy was backing President Nasser Mohammed, who in reality was carrying out the policy of agreements with the other states in full collusion with Moscow.

The peculiar relationship between the superpowers is such that while the USA is an exporter of counter-revolution, revolutions - even in a caricatured form - are carried out without the support of Moscow. The Kremlin then is compelled to accept the fait accompli as it did in the case of Cuba, China and Vietnam. Imperialism is well aware of this but at a time when relations with Moscow are estranged it conducts demagogic attacks that Moscow is trying to export revolution. In reality the bureaucracy wants to arrive at a compromise with imperialism and therefore has no desire to "export revolution". But whatever the policy of the Moscow bureaucracy and of the Stalinist parties in the colonial countries they will not be able to prevent the enormous storms and stresses of revolution which opens up at the present time on three continents.

In Asia, Africa and in Latin America the coming decade will be a decade of revolution. In some cases where revolutionary Marxism has not got a basis it is possible that new deformed workers' states could be set up on the model of Cuba, South Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria, Burma, China and Vietnam. Such regimes would be relatively progressive in the sense that they were developing the productive forces at a far faster pace than would be possible under capitalism. In fact under capitalism now the productive forces in the under-developed world tend to stagnate or even go backward.

No stability in Middle East

The "new" government in South Yemen will in reality be compelled to pursue the same policy as the old government. It is possible that the leaders of the tendency who were assassinated by Nasser Mohammed wanted to extend the revolution to Oman, above all to North Yemen and even to Saudi Arabia. But now with the virtual destruction of Aden - following the street to street and even window to window fighting - with according to the Morning Star itself, billions of dollars now needed in Aden for the purpose of reconstruction, it will be completely dependent on Moscow and therefore the foreign policy of the new government will be exactly the policy of the old. They will be compelled to try to conciliate North Yemen, Oman and Saudi Arabia. However this will only mean an uneasy "peace" between these countries. The inevitable development of the revolution in the Middle East and on the Arabian Peninsula will mean that all attempts of this sort will be in vain. As with Asia, Africa and Latin America, the Middle East also will be an area of enormous colonial revolution.

Embed from Getty Images

Despite the civil war and its destruction the South Yemen revolution will still be a beacon to the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula and even to the Middle East as well. The elimination of landlordism, of capitalism and of the power of the sultans and chiefs, will be an example which will have echoes throughout Arabia whatever the policy of the South Yemen government might be.

As a result the new rulers of South Yemen will probably consolidate their rule and perfect a one-party totalitarian state which would not allow for any further opposition to develop within the framework of the ruling party. Thus the fate of South Yemen is the fate of all the countries where deformed workers' states have been set up - progressive on the one hand with the abolition of landlordism and capitalism - but reactionary in the setting up of one-party dictatorships without democracy for the workers and peasants. The final fate of South Yemen will be decided during the course of the revolution in Asia, in Europe and in the industrialised countries of the world.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.