Communism and the Iraqi Revolution - part three

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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Pan-Arabism, the Communist Party and Dual Power

Like any nationalism, Pan-Arabism was by its very nature capable of encompassing not only divergent but outright antagonistic social forces. The first "Pan-Arab" ideas to emerge under the Ottoman Empire were of a distinctly reactionary character. They were the reserve of semi-feudal, semi-tribal elements and asserted the autonomy of the relatively more backward Arab regions from the Turkish metropolis with its liberal ideas. The leaders of the "Arab Revolt" against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, which included the future king of Iraq, Faisal I, were of this character, and proved to be little more than pawns in the calculations of British imperialism.

However with the growth of capitalism across the post-partition Arab nations in the 20's, 30's and 40's, Pan-Arab nationalism took on a changed class content. The old social classes continued to clothe themselves in the garb of Pan-Arabism: we see for instance the attempts of King Ghazi to "unify" Iraq and Kuwait in the 1930's; the "union" between the Jordanian and Iraqi monarchies in 1958, prior to the July Revolution; and the anti-Zionist demagoguery of the semi-feudal classes across the entire region. This became increasingly difficult to take seriously as the masses saw past the facade to the imperialist masters pulling the strings in the background.

The new social classes instead began to give "Pan-Arab" ideas their own content. For certain layers of the poorest and most oppressed classes of the Arab countries, Pan-Arabism meant taking a stand against imperialist partition. The unification of the Arab nations represented an initial step towards genuine socialist internationalism for the working masses and it is for this reason that Abdul Gammal Nasser was so well loved among the Egyptian poor. In the first hand bills produced by the Iraqi Communist Party we also see a strong strand of Pan-Arabism and there is no reason to assume that these expressed anything other than the genuine feelings, unguided and as yet immature, of Iraq's first communists.

The loose idealist notion of a singular Arab people rising above class distinctions however tended to fit in best with the interests and outlook of the urban petty bourgeoisie. The Free Officers, drawn as they were for the most part from the Sunni Arab layers of the middle class, took a natural affinity to these ideas; as did the Ba'ath Party, which drew its first cadres from the students and middle class intelligentsia. Caught between the struggle of the bourgeoisie and international imperialism on the one hand and the proletariat on the other, the appeal to a super-historical "Arab spirit" and the utopian idea of unifying the whole "Arab people" in the interests of all (i.e. in the interests of the petty bourgeoisie) resonated powerfully.

When tested in power however, the idea of Pan-Arab unity on the basis of capitalism proved to be a utopia and the Free Officer regime proved weak and riven with tensions. On the one hand the urban petty bourgeoisie as a class is unable to play an independent class role and must eventually find itself being dragged in the trail of the capitalist class or else must look towards the working class. In conditions of intense class struggle such as those unleashed post-July 1958, the possibility of any middle course was even further reduced. Furthermore, on the basis of imperialism we see how the national capitalist classes of each nation (and their bosses, the major imperialist powers) have antagonistic interests that rule out their union.

When we add to this the intense personal rivalries that existed among the Free Officers, with many officers feeling that they had been cheated of positions of power by Qaseem and Aref who had thrust themselves to the forefront as the events of the July Revolution unfolded, a crisis and a split became inevitable. It was under these circumstances that Aref, the junior of the two leading Free Officers, began touring the country, powerfully agitating for immediate union with the UAR in speeches that took on a fiery, quasi-socialist character that reflected and resonated with the genuine sympathies of the masses:

"Henceforth there shall be no feudalism, no rich and no poor, no disparities and no classes. You are all God's creatures!" ... "This republic is your republic, a popular, patriotic, socialist republic... Rejoice, therefore O peasant, rejoice O worker, rejoice O son of the country!"(19)

Qaseem meanwhile increasingly became the focus of the "Iraqist" wing within the regime and began posing as a moderate defender of private property. Viewing with increasing anxiety the rising challenge posed by Aref, Qaseem began looking around for other social forces on which to rest, and in typical Bonapartist fashion was inclined to rest on the support of the ICP to bring to heel the nationalist officers around Aref.

The Communist Party for its part had reason to hold the pan-Arab "socialism" of Aref, and the Ba'ath Party which swung behind him, in deep suspicion. The example of Syria’s “unification” with Egypt had shown how socialist and pan-Arab rhetoric could be used as a cover for the brutal repression of Communists and Aref's language by no means precluded his becoming an unwitting tool of the counter-revolution. However, this by no means implied that Qaseem was any less reactionary.

Shaken by the threat posed by Aref, Qaseem gave his support to the arming of ICP members into People’s Resistance units and gave license to an open demonstration of force by the Communist Party. The ICP took the opportunity and on 6th August 1958 500,000 people flooded the streets of Baghdad behind the banner of the ICP.

Qaseem, politically moderate and known for his personal modesty, might have seemed an unlikely candidate for a political strongman in whose hands all the power of state would now concentrate itself. Aref meanwhile was a pious yet fiery and passionate individual with genuine sympathy for the poor - perhaps an unlikely figure behind whom the forces of counter-revolution might attempt to unify. And yet events were taking on a logic that was beyond the control of either man and gave the clash between the two a far deeper significance.

For the ruling class the most important task was now one of crushing the revolutionary movement and in particular of breaking the ICP. The tendency of Qaseem to seek protection from his rivals in support from the ICP was thus completely intolerable. The ruling class was inclined to throw its lot in with any party or group of officers which now came into opposition to his rule - including the “socialist” Aref and, of course, the Ba’ath Party.

Towards the end of 1958 and the beginning of 1959 the Communist Party and its affiliated organisations underwent an explosive growth. Communist led trade unions, women’s organisations, student unions, Peace Partisan committees, peasant committees and Communist militia units now drew around them hundreds of thousands of supporters. A situation of dual power – where the old state persists through inertia alongside the growth of a new power, in this case around the working class and the Communist Party – now became an established fact. Batatu relates how in late 1958 an ambassador of the UAR complained he could not travel more than 3 km in Baghdad without being stopped nine times by patrolling units of the People’s Resistance(20). In workplaces and government ministries too, “Committees for the Defence of the Republic” were springing up and establishing de facto workers’ control(21).

Rather than use the splits now developing in the state and their burgeoning influence among the poor and working classes to prepare the seizure of power, the ICP continued along the path that flowed logically from its stageist theoretical outlook. On the understanding that the initial tasks of the July Revolution were national democratic in character, and the false conclusion that it must therefore be lead by the national bourgeoisie, the ICP declared Qaseem to be the representative of the “progressive” wing of the bourgeois and raised the slogan of full support for the "sole leader" Qaseem. Meanwhile Aref was denounced as a dangerous ultra-leftist whose position threatened to split the "progressive" forces in Iraq(22).

In reality however, there was no “progressive bourgeoisie” in Iraq for Qaseem to rest on. Qaseem's power represented a careful balancing act between the classes. Such a tightrope act was only made possible on account of the temporary stalemate that the revolution had established.

On the one hand the forces of counter-revolution now arraying behind the nationalist officers (the sheikhs, landlords, merchants and capitalists) were unable to deal a decisive blow against the revolution on account of the overwhelming strength of the ICP. On the other hand the working class and poor peasants were unable to seize power as they were being held back from the task by their leadership.

By temporarily leaning on the ICP, Qaseem easily dealt heavy blows against Aref and the nationalist officers. In November Aref was arrested and in December an attempted nationalist coup unraveled. In March 1959 a more serious attempt to seize power was carried out by officers in Mosul. The lines of division brought out in sharp relief how the nationalist officers had fallen to the position of an open tool of counter-revolution. All the forces interested in the defeat of the revolution gathered behind the coup: local merchants, landlords and sheikhs found themselves on the same side as the middle class officers; the Ba'ath Party found an ally in the Muslim Brotherhood; and internationally Anglo-American imperialism and the UAR both pinned their hopes on the conspirators. On the other side of the barricades stood the workers, peasants, rank and file soldiers, and the Communist Party.

Once more, the plot was smashed by the revolutionary mass of peasants, workers and urban poor. Having got wind of the plot, the Communist Party organised a mass demonstration of 200,000 Peace Partisans through the city in the days prior to the coup. As the plot began to unfold it found itself checked at every turn by the bitter resistance of the masses. Ultimately the coup collapsed amid a violent scramble between revolution and counter-revolution.

In his classic, "The Old Social Classes of Iraq", Batatu describes the scenes thus: "no matter how one apportions the responsibility [for the violence], one cannot help feeling [...] that at the root of much of the aggressiveness in the days of March at Mosul was a common fear to which all the sides of the conflict seem to have succumbed: the fear that failure at that crucial historical point might well entail destruction at the hands of their adversaries." That is to say, despite the ICP's attempts to smooth over the contradictions between the possessing classes and the working classes, each were now locked in a mortal struggle and civil war loomed. Mosul gave a foretaste of the orgy of violence that the ruling class would unleash were they to gain the upper hand.

May Day 1959 - The High Tide of the Revolution

1958 revolution in Iraq-public domain1958 revolution in Iraq - Photo: Public domainWith the counter-revolution now badly beaten, the initiative lay wholly with the ICP with May Day 1959 marking the high point of their power. One million people (out of a total population of just 5 million) now marched behind the banner of the Communist Party. Alongside a huge presence from the People's Resistance militia, the Peace Partisans and numerous Communist-led mass organisations, the demonstration also revealed the extent of the party's infiltration into the army. No fewer than 15 blocs on the demonstration were made of delegations from the army, the air force and even the police. In the air force support for the Communists ran particularly high, with almost every pilot being either an ICP member or else a sympathiser. Even by comparison with other revolutions in history, the degree of ICP penetration into the state ran exceptionally deep.

On few occasions have revolutionary parties succeeded in not only winning a large part of the ranks of the armed forces but of also capturing significant officer positions. Communist sympathisers now occupied commanding positions in the 1st Division, the 2nd Division, the 20th Brigade of the 3rd Division, the 6th Armoured Brigade and four tank regiments, among others and the total number of senior Communist officers now outnumbered the number of officers aligned to the Free Officer movement at its decisive moment in July 1958(23). With such crushing strength not only could a transfer of power been effected, but the overwhelming balance of forces in favour of the revolution meant that it could have been achieved in a relatively peaceful manner.

The conquest of power was far from the horizons of the ICP leaders however who limited themselves to petitioning Qaseem for ministerial portfolios in the government. Qaseem though refused and the ICP was now faced with a stark choice. Despite trying to dodge the question of power, it now posed itself point blank: either the party must acquiesce to Qaseem's refusal or else it must seize power on its own initiative. The whole past policy of the ICP now stood as an obstacle to bold action: if it chose to seize power into its own hands now it would have to contend with the illusions that the party itself had sown in Qaseem among the masses.

Such a sharp turn would doubtless have involved risks, but with a bold agitation in favour of an Iraqi October, the huge reserves of support that the ICP enjoyed would surely have guaranteed its victory. A Socialist Workers' and Peasants' Republic of Iraq based upon collective ownership of the land and the big businesses would have shone like a beacon across the Middle East and the world. The Soviet bureaucracy however saw such an outcome as a nightmare scenario, and in the debate that took place it was the Moscow bureaucracy which swung the decision.

Arguing from the point of view of their own narrow geopolitical interests, the Stalinists were more concerned with preserving friendly relations with other regimes in the region which they understood would be implacably hostile to a Socialist Republic of Iraq. The USSR made explicit that in the case of such a seizure of power there would be no attempt to come to the assistance of the Iraqi Communists by Russian forces. All history has shown however – and particularly the history of the Arab world – that a revolution in Iraq would not remain confined within the limits of that country but would have found points of support across the entire region. The Arab Spring of 2011 showed how revolutions have no respect for national boundaries – much less artificially imposed colonial boundaries – and in practice tend to spread like wildfire.

The Reaction and the Ba'ath Party

Aref with Qasim-public domainAref and Qasim - Photo: Public DomainIndecision and weakness at key historical junctures almost invariably bears a heavy cost for any revolutionary party. Having let slip a key opportunity to seize power, each new event now rebounded against the ICP. In July 1959, on the event of the anniversary of the July Revolution a deadly clash occurred between Kurds and Turkmen in the city of Kirkuk. Blame was cast on the ICP in psychological preparation for an onslaught against the party. After a period of hesitation the party eventually condemned the violence but then went one further and subjected itself to public humiliation.

In the name of conducting an "orderly retreat" the party now publicly recanted its previously stringent demand for a role in the government. Qaseem, moving with the prevailing wind, took the opportunity to lean from the left foot to the right in order to deal blows against the party. Communists occupying senior civil service or military positions were removed and an edict was issued ordering the disarmament of the People's Resistance. To prove its loyalty to the government the party now took a disastrous step that would leave it completely defenceless in the face of reaction: it declared that it was freezing activity within the army. Such displays of weakness did little to change Qaseem's course however.

After a botched attempt by the Ba'ath party to assassinate Qaseem on 7th October 1959 the fortunes of the ICP received a temporary fillip. Such tactics of individual terror illustrated that the forces of reaction as yet had no serious social base and would take some time yet to become consolidated. Rather it was from the state itself that the most significant blows continued to be struck against the ICP. Starting with the removal of the ICP's license whilst Qaseem was still coalescing in his hospital bed, the government began fixing elections against the Communists in the unions and the mass organisations, and shut down the most implacably pro-Communist organisations. The landlords and capitalists, interpreting the passivity of the ICP as a sign of weakness, were now emboldened to go on to the offensive.

In Mosul, with the ICP now only semi-legal, the fundamentalist Islamic Party was given legal license and a "Black Terror" was unleashed against the workers – a tradition that reactionary forces have revived today. Fatwahs were issued by the clergy and material rewards of 10 dinars per head were offered by local merchants to encourage the murder of communist activists(25). Nationalists and lumpen gangsters threw themselves into the orgy of violence that left hundreds of communists dead and thousands wounded. Across the country Ba’ath party thugs and organised criminal elements backed by local elites took on with gusto the role of auxiliaries in assisting the “disarmament” of the ICP and the People’s Resistance.

It is important to note that until the 1960's – some months after the point of inflection of the revolution – the membership of the main party of reaction, the Ba'ath party, was extremely low numbering little more than a few hundred members in the whole country. This fact is indicative of a historical law that operates in the upward curve of all revolutions: that in the first instance the petty bourgeoisie tends to look towards the working class and its organisations, in this case the ICP, to solve its problems.

The element of time, however, does not favour revolutions, which are tremendous devourers of human energy, and the longer the impasse persisted the more the conjuncture of forces tended to favour the counter-revolution until such point as a tipping point was reached. The failure of the ICP to capitalise on a historic opportunity to seize power frustrated the unstable middle classes. Several years of chaos and heavy sacrifices had not led to any tangible concessions for the middle classes who yearned for stability and a resolution. Having seen the vacillation of the ICP, they were no longer impressed by it and looked elsewhere for a strong leadership. A section of these layers now shifted its hopes towards the Ba'ath party, which through its bold policy of street confrontations appeared to represent a far more action-inclined and decisive political alternative.

By late 1962 Qaseem's balancing act had unravelled to the favour of the counter-revolution. Under the cover of a Ba'ath organised student strike beginning at the end of that year, a coup was launched on 8th February 1963. Key ICP strongholds were targeted in the attack, including the grounding of the Communist-majority air fleet. Taken by surprise Qaseem held a council with his key supporters in the military at which the Communists urged him to arm the masses now streaming into the streets from the working class districts. Qaseem refused however and the ICP was at last forced to look upon his role with sober senses. The party dropped any reference to Qaseem from its proclamations and appealed to the masses to come to arms, but it was too late.(26)

The masses were now disarmed and completely miseducated and continued raising the old ICP slogan of full support for "the sole leader Qaseem," whilst Qaseem himself directly impeded the arming of the people. Only here and there were communists able to acquire weapons by storming police stations. In the words of the party's First Secretary, ar-Radi, the party had become "like the revolver of one of the comrades, which, being unoiled and uncleaned, had rested and no longer fired."(27)

In acts of tragically doomed bravery, the masses threw themselves unarmed at tanks and machine guns and were mown down. After begging Aref, his former comrade, to spare his life Qaseem surrendered on 9th February and was quickly dispatched by firing squad. The fighting however raged on through to the 10th in Baghdad, with the hardcore of the Communist Party putting up a fierce resistance to the very end. It wasn't until the 12th that the rebels were able to extend their control to Basrah.

The ICP had pulled back from the opportunity to seize power in part to avoid civil war but this was precisely what was now upon the party. In the months following the Ba'athist coup a one sided civil war was unleashed against communists, the working class and the revolutionary peasantry. To the same degree that the pendulum had swung in favour of the revolution, it now swung sharply towards counter-revolution in a bloodletting that left the post-Wathbah repression in the shade. According to the King of Jordan (himself a CIA agent) arrests were conducted on the basis of pre-prepared lists supplied by US intelligence agencies. To the thousands killed in the coup itself was now added the wholesale torture and massacre of thousands more.

The Unfinished Revolution

The defeat of the Revolution of 1958-63 represents one of the most tragic episodes of 20th Century history. Properly speaking it is impossible to speak of the July Revolution as the "Iraqi" Revolution. Rather it formed one link in the chain that was the huge revolutionary wave of the Colonial Revolution, which involved hundreds of millions of people in its tremendous sweep.

The stakes could not have been higher. A victory for the Iraqi working class would have struck a catastrophic blow against imperialism that would have provided a launch pad for ejecting imperialism from the entire region. Victory over capitalism and feudalism in Iraq would have sounded the death knell for the reactionary regimes across the Middle East. Defeat however has reaped a bitter harvest for the people of the entire region that continues to be felt to this day. Imperialist meddling, war, poverty, sectarian violence and national oppression, all of which should have been buried long ago, have taken on horrific proportions.

The sole responsibility for this defeat lies at the feet of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow whose spineless betrayal stood in sharp relief to the bravery and heroism of Iraq’s workers and poor. The theoretical cloak for this betrayal was provided by the Stalinist theory of revolution by “stages”, which insists on tying the workers' movement to the "progressive" wing of the bourgeoisie. However, the Iraqi bourgeoisie was reactionary from its very inception and at every key juncture, as we have seen, played the most deplorable role.

In casting around for a representative of the non-existent “progressive” bourgeois the ICP settled on the person of Qaseem. The reforms carried out by his government (arming the People’s Resistance, breaking up the biggest estates, investment in social programs, etc.) seemed to justify this approach. In reality however, these concessions were wrung under the pressure of the revolutionary masses who at any moment threatened to completely overwhelm the regime.

Qaseem’s policy was not based upon any “progressive” bourgeois class, which was implacably counter-revolutionary, but on a balancing act between the classes - what Marxists refer to as “Bonapartism”. By leaning first on the workers and peasants and then the capitalists and landlords Qaseem was able to deal blows against threats to his power proceeding from both directions. Ultimately however his power rested on the social base of rotten Iraqi capitalism.

Under rapidly alternating conditions of revolution and counter-revolution such a balancing act is like walking a tightrope whilst being buffeted in all directions by fierce winds. The consolidation of a democratic regime was ultimately impossible without a genuinely revolutionary class definitely seizing power and dealing a decisive blow against the counter-revolution. Only the seizure of power by the working class, at the head of the mass of poor peasants, the urban poor and the lower layers of the middle class, could have laid the basis for such an outcome.

With the ICP paralysed by its own Stalinist outlook, the only other possible outcome was the victory of the counter-revolution. This now played itself out over the course of years, leading to the destruction of the Communist Party and the consolidation of the brutal Saddam Hussein dictatorship. The collapse of Stalinism has created an effective vacuum at the head of the working class. This is true not only in Iraq but across the entire Arab world, which was once home to some of the world’s most powerful Communist movements. Such a vacuum must be filled and, as we can see today, the danger exists that all manner of accidental elements such as the religious clerics may succeed for a time in filling this gap.

Seemingly the task is now one of beginning from scratch. As we have said once before, however: history wastes nothing. The 1958 revolution laid down a revolutionary, secular and communistic tradition that remains within living memory. If the modern Iraqi working class can rediscover those traditions on a higher level today, freed from the distortions of Stalinism,  then no force on Earth will be able stop it. Today the working class of Iraq stands infinitely stronger than it did in the 50's and 60's. In 1957 the urban population represented 38.9% of the population, whereas today that figure stands at 69.5% - a figure which does not give a full picture of the increased specific weight of the proletariat as a class within Iraqi society.

Under the contradictions of capitalism building up on a world scale today, and the particularly acute expression that these find in Iraq, a new generation is growing up. For this generation power cuts, crumbling infrastructure, collapsing services, joblessness, poverty and terrorism are daily plagues. The ruling class meanwhile has long ceased to take society forward. They are synonymous with greed, privatisation, corruption, sectarianism, incompetence and parasitism. The conditions in Iraq today cry out for the socialist reorganisation of society. The contradictions will permit no other solution. Sooner or later the young generation will be forced to take the revolutionary road once again. If a genuine Communist Party basing itself on the real traditions of Bolshevism can be built in time, its victory shall be guaranteed. In the words of Marx commenting on France's June Insurrection of 1848:

“Proletarian revolutions [...] criticise themselves constantly; constantly interrupt themselves in their own course; come back to what seems to have been accomplished, in order to start over anew; scorn with cruel thoroughness the half measures, weaknesses and paltriness of their first attempts; seem to throw down their adversary only in order to enable him to draw fresh strength from the earth, and again, to rise up against them in more gigantic stature; constantly recoil in fear before the undefined monster magnitude of their own objects—until finally that situation is created which renders all retreat impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out:

'Hic Rhodus, hic salta!' (Here is the rose, dance here!)” (28)


19Batatu H p833

20ibid p857

21ibid p892

22ibid p834

23Alexander A, "Political opportunities and collective action in the Iraqi revolution 1958-59", International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies V2 No.2, p256

24Batatu H p927

25ibid p951

26ibid p979

27ibid p980

28Marx, “The Eighteenth Bumaire of Louis Bonaparte”