Communism and the Iraqi Revolution

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.

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.

The State and the Crisis of 1936-1941

Nuri Al-Said - Public DomainNuri Al-Said - Photo: Public DomainFrom the occupation of Iraq following the First World War until their departure in 1932, the British succeeded in enmeshing themselves in a series of contradictions in their attempts to build a reliable state apparatus. Whilst trained Iraqi forces were needed to uphold private property, the social basis of capitalism and landlordism, embodied in the newly propertied landlord-sheikhs, mallaks and the monarchy, represented only the thinnest social stratum. Furthermore, the ignorant and narrow-minded ruling elite had neither the experience nor the inclination to involve themselves in state-building. The few “reliable” pairs of hands that the British could find, such as Nuri al-Said who occupied the position of Prime Minister eight times from the 30’s until the revolution of 1958, were little more than undisguised, self-serving cynics who earned the deserved odium of the majority of the population.

It wasn't uncommon therefore for individuals from other class backgrounds, particularly from modest middle class families, to ascend the ranks of the officer corp. With the crisis in society reaching agonising proportions – with distress on the land, backwardness in all quarters and the nation humiliated before British imperialism – the younger officers tended to view the ruling class and its representatives at the head of the state who had adapted to this situation, with well deserved contempt. This state of affairs, which prevailed across the dependent colonial and semi-colonial nations and particularly in the newly partitioned Arab nations, lead to increasing restiveness within the armies, which became hotbeds of conspiracies and plots.

In an attempt to forestall any threat from this quarter, and to limit the power of the monarch, the British undertook a policy of hobbling the standing army from the earliest period of their mandate. Against the central apparatus of the state the British played off the sheikh's bands of personally loyal retainers, granting self-governance to these gangs and creating a scourge for the peasantry. Following the British departure from Iraq however, the king cut out his own course and launched a policy of conscription and expansion of the army, which now stepped forward with its own opinions on how to extract Iraq from its backwardness.

Bakrsidqi - Public DomainGeneral Bakr Sidqi - Photo: Public DomainOn 29th October 1936 Iraq was plunged into a period of disequilibrium when armed regiments loyal to the nationalist officer, General Bakr Sidqi, entered Baghdad. Presented with a fait acompli, the king, who had nationalist inclinations of his own, accepted Sidqi’s dismissal of the old government. Meanwhile, sensing the anti-British mood that surrounded the coup, the closest collaborator of British imperialism, Nuri al-Said, fled the scene.

Despite the fact that Bakr Sidqi had few liberal, democratic or anti-imperialist credentials – indeed Sidqi had been well favoured by the British for his role in butchering restive Shia tribesmen – the liberal bourgeoisie around al-Ahali newspaper immediately pinned their colours to Sidqi’s mast and were rewarded with a clutch of ministries in the new government. The ICP, in line with its "stageist" approach of subordinating its struggle to the methods of the liberal bourgeoisie, also gave its full support to Sidqi as a supposed representative of the "progressive bourgeoisie".

The policy of the ICP from 1936-41 anticipated in a farcical manner the tragic policy that Communist Parties across the region would conduct in the 1950's. Unlike the Nasserist coup of 1952 in Egypt and the revolutionary events that accompanied the coup in Iraq in July 1958, the 1936 events were met with little popular enthusiasm. The support that the ICP rendered Sidqi was duly rewarded when the general launched a blistering ideological attack on the Communist Party. By early 1937 the liberal opposition - having served their purpose of providing Sidqi with a democratic, reforming mask - were also cast aside.(8)

With tumult and disarray within the state, the working class now took its signal to push itself through the cracks that were opening up within the ruling class. In late March 1937 a wave of strike action swept Iraq, the first of its kind. From the ports to the railway workshops to the oil industry; the Iraqi working class gave its first indication of the beginning of an awakening, and it moved not under the leadership of any other class but under its own impulses and direction – principally that of the Communist Party.

The end for Sidqi came on 11 August 1937 when he fell under the bullets of an assassin. This did not settle the crisis in the regime however. On 4th April 1938 King Ghazi – who had been a thorn in the side of the British due to his sympathetic attitude towards the nationalist officers and his agitation for unification with Kuwait – died in mysterious circumstances, most likely at the hands of the British. He was succeeded by his son, Faisal II, who would reign as King of Iraq until the 1958 revolution. Being still a boy his uncle, Abdul Ilah, a faithful ally of the British took the reigns as regent and soon Nuri al-Said himself was returned to power with the assistance of a further coup. British interests seemed firmly back in the saddle but the nationalist officers, who remained in their positions, had other ideas.

In 1941 a group of four nationalist officers availed themselves of the discontent with the rule of Nuri and the regent, and the conditions of the World War, to depose the pair. Whereas Nasser would, after his 1952 coup in Egypt, use the classical Bonapartist method of resting upon the mass movement to cut a semi-independent course, Iraq's officers could rest on no such movement and so instead looked towards Hitler and German imperialism as an alternative point of support. The regime however was doomed to a short lived existence. The British undertook to reoccupy Iraq, depose the nationalist officers and reinstate Nuri and the regent, ushering a new period of occupation that would last until well into the 1940's.

Iraq was once more under the jackboot of British imperialism. The army was again reduced and conscription brought to an end as the British reasserted their control. The contradictions that riddled the Iraqi state were far from diminished however. The monarchy emerged from the crisis more undermined than ever and a dangerous precedent had been set for a new generation of officers to intervene in the national political scene.

More importantly however, the period beginning in the early 40's saw class antagonisms in Iraq heated to boiling point and all of this would reflect itself in continuing discontent in the ranks of the armed forces. The exploitation of the country’s newfound oil wealth propelled an economic boom in the 40's which enriched a thin stratum of the population whilst the general conditions for the majority continued to decline. The main effect of the oil boom for ordinary people was the influx of huge amounts of money into circulation and the resultant inflation of prices.

With no Chinese wall isolating the army from the rest of society, the moods of the different classes inevitably found their reflection with splits in the armed bodies of the state as well as the penetration of revolutionary parties into the ranks. The results of galloping inflation on the lives of soldiers and their families were only compounded by the British policy of reigning in the state, the net result being the creation of a parlous state of affairs that produced an ideal ground for the spread of revolutionary and conspiratorial ideas.

In the cities the migration of peasants continued to swell the ranks of the reserve army of labour, whose pressure combined with inflation to bear down on wages. Ironically the source of Iraq’s huge natural wealth became the fount of further impoverishment and oppression for the masses. Economic distress was coupled with humiliation by the British dictatorship. With few moments of reprieve during the course of the “democratic” British occupation, the period was one of repression and clandestinity for worker and peasant activists.

The Wathbah and its results

The simmering discontent within society inevitably began to express itself with the growth of strikes, protests and political agitation of all hues picking up from the mid-40’s. For a brief period of months the British experimented with the legalisation of trade unions and workers' organisations. However, this only led to the working class immediately going on the offensive with huge strikes in Basrah's port and the railway workshops in the environs of Baghdad. Far from taming or channelling the mood of discontent building up in the depths of society, legality only served to reveal the full extent of Communist influence in fierce outbursts; with the Schalchiyyah railway workshops of Baghdad now emerging as a major center of Iraqi communism - similar to the role the Putilov works in Petersburg played for Russian revolutionaries 30 years before.

In panic the imperialists quickly clamped down and once more illegalised the unions. Communists were swept up in a wave of repression, hundreds of political prisoners being left to languish in Kut jail including the party's general secretary, Fahd. The British imperialists and their Iraqi agents could see the storm clouds coalescing on the horizon and set upon reaffirming the 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty, which granted the British unlimited rights to intervene in Iraq’s affairs as a bulwark against revolution. To ease the way for the treaty the hated British stooge, Nuri al-Said, stepped aside as prime minister and gave way to Salih Jabr in early 1947; the two travelling to England to begin negotiations in December of that year. The masses were not about to be deceived by a slight shuffling at the top of the pack however, and the negotiations served to blow sparks onto the bone-dry tinderbox of Iraqi society.

Unwitting of the scale of the events they were about to usher in, the bourgeois nationalist Independence Party took the initiative in calling the first demonstrations. On 5th January 1948 they called for student protests against the secret negotiations. Intending to march from Baghdad Law School to the royal palace, the students were met by mounted police and live ammunition. Many were injured. On the 6th January a new demonstration was called, this time in protest at the police repressions and drawing in students from all the opposition parties, including other bourgeois nationalist parties and the ICP’s student wing. (10)

It was clear that the embers of protest, now lit, were waiting for the next gust to burst into flames. On 16th January the humiliating results of the treaty were made public and events began moving at lightning speed. Under the initiative of a Communist-organised front of opposition parties, a three day student strike and continuous demonstrations took place. The mobilisations peaked with a huge march on 20th January. Now the working class threw its tremendous social weight onto the scales. Students were accompanied by railway workers, the proletarian hard core of the ICP, and thousands of impoverished mud hut dwellers from the periphery of the city. Police fired once more with live rounds into the crowd. Students fell dead; more still were murdered at the hospital where they attempted to accompany their fallen comrades to the morgue.

Suddenly anger turned to rage – before evening the streets were streaming with vast numbers of Baghdadi workers and youth, and at the head of every throng were Communists. The ruling class immediately took fright and on 21st January the king’s regent renounced the treaty in order to diffuse the movement. The bourgeois nationalists, up to this point actively involved in the demonstrations, similarly took fright when presented face to face with the stirring masses. The Independence Party, whose actions had ironically initiated the events, declared that their aims were met with the repudiation of the treaty by the regent and called for protests to end. The “left” nationalists of the National Democratic Party (the successor to al-Ahali) continued to verbally call for the resignation of the government of Salih Jabr but in practice they too urged for “calm” and a cessation of protests.

The Iraqi national bourgeois were weak and dependent upon British imperialism from their very inception and it ought to come as no surprise that in the decisive moments they acted with utter cowardice and fled the field. They entered the streets in the early days of the Wathbah with the intention not of overthrowing the government but of frightening the regime and imperialism with the prospect of unrest so as to receive concessionary crumbs from their table. However, at the first show of strength by the working class, and when confronted with the tasks of a genuine social revolution they immediately pulled back and cowered behind the monarchy and imperialism.

The movement shrugged off the flight of its fair-weather friends and continued to gather momentum. The only ones willing to fight through to the end were the workers lead by the Communists, and behind them all classes of the urban and rural poor, and the lower layers of the middle classes. These forces, in themselves, were more than sufficient to bring down the regime and establish a revolutionary government. This lesson was now being learnt by thousands of individuals, not through books but through the school of revolution itself.

Within the ranks of the Communist Party the most farsighted cadres were rapidly drawing the conclusion that the task of leading the Iraqi revolution fell to the working class alone, and that this meant the seizure of power by the Communist Party, not only without the assistance of but directly against the bourgeois nationalist parties. On 1st February 1948, days after the peak of the movement, an internal ICP circular entitled “The Essence of Our Movement for Independence” denounced the “politically and economically weak national bourgeoisie” who were “disposed to come to terms with the imperialists at the expense of the masses” out of fear of “the growing over of the democratic into the socialist revolution” (11).

These remarks precisely expressed the actual situation of the Iraqi revolution. Had these correct theses been taken to their logical conclusion the ICP would have been politically equipped for the historic tasks now upon the party. However, the Menshevik-Stalinist position of the leadership of the ICP continued to prevail. As the principal tasks of the revolution were bourgeois-democratic (repudiation of the imperialist treaty, democratic elections, land reform and so on) the ICP leadership persisted in the false conclusion that the leading role in the revolution must therefore be taken up by the national bourgeoisie, and that the ICP ought therefore to seek out an alliance with the bourgeois nationalist parties at any cost.

On 23rd January huge demonstrations were convoked by the Communist Party. New, more radical slogans began to be heard that went far beyond scrapping the Treaty and the miserably low horizons of the bourgeois democrats: “For a people’s revolution!”, “Long live the unity of the workers and students!” and “Long Live the Republic!”(12) The Communist leaders however repudiated these slogans as the work of provocateurs and limited their demands in an attempt to bring the bourgeois democrats back on board. They were not fighting for Communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or even a Republic, they insisted; they only wanted the repudiation of the treaty, a free, democratic environment and the formation of a “democratic” government of all the “patriotic” parties; including the very same parties that had withdrawn from the struggle and opposed it in the preceding days!

The problem was that despite all the moderation of the Communist leaders, the national bourgeois could see the force that stood behind them: the workers and poor. Any revolution which achieved genuine democracy could do so only by the revolutionary action of this class and, just as the aforementioned internal ICP circular explained, it could not be assured that these classes would not go on to expropriate the bourgeoisie themselves. On 26th January, upon the return of Nuri al-Said and Salih Jabr from England, the people again surged onto the street. That night protesters were met with machine gun fire as the government resolved on ending the unrest. The ICP called for demonstrations across Baghdad the morning after and were met by huge, seething crowds. Two crowds coalesced on opposite sides of the Tigris: on the West huge numbers of students and railway workers; on the East thousands of poor mud hut dwellers. The police set up sniper nests and brought in armoured units to keep the two demonstrations from merging and becoming an uncontrollable mass. Whilst the throngs in the West were hemmed into a city square, the crowds in the East made a tremendous surge across the Mamum bridge in an attempt to link up with their comrades on the other side of the river. The police mercilessly opened fire across the bridge and dozens began to fall. Shortly after the demonstrators in the West broke out the police cordon and were met by the same armoured units that had massacred the people minutes earlier. Again they opened fire and dozens more fell. 300-400 people fell dead that day on Mamum bridge. (13)

Facing the magnitude of their crimes and the furious, mourning crowd, the police took flight in panic. Salih Jabr, sensing mortal danger, fled for his life to England. The regime now stood in mid-air and power lay in the street. All it would have taken would have been for the conscious and organised revolutionary masses to declare themselves as the power and the regime would have been powerless to resist. However the ICP completely rejected the perspective of taking power alone. Had the party put forward a clear and decisive plan for taking power it would rapidly gain the necessary support to organise a successful insurrection. Powerless to repress the movement further, the regime was now prepared to make any concession necessary simply to retain power. The regent now brought in Muhammed al-Sadr to form a government, a leader of the 1920 revolution and a perceived reformer, with the hope of deceiving the masses and calming them down.

Whilst the leaders of the ICP remained incarcerated in Kut prison, the party began rapidly expanding its activities in the wake of the revolutionary upturn. The student movement continued to simmer; strikes broke out among the most important layers of workers in the railways, ports and oil pumps (14); in the provinces agrarian revolt broke out here and there; and everywhere streams of workers joined the Communist Party's organisations.

However, as must occur if the class struggle is not fought to a decisive victory, the momentum of the revolutionary movement ebbed and the ruling class - having waited in the aisles - now impatiently sought their revenge. After just six months, the government of al-Sadr was dismissed and Nuri al-Said was brought back to the premiership to complete the job of crushing the embers of revolution. As the Arab-Israel war broke out the militarisation of Iraq gave ample scope for the ruling class to begin clamping down on its domestic enemies.

In this job the Stalinist bureaucracy now gave tremendous assistance to the triumphant reaction: despite the historical anti-Semitism of Stalin and the ruling clique in Moscow, the Soviets now gave criminal support to the partition of Palestine in an attempt to wheedle their way into the diplomatic good books of the newborn state of Israel. The ICP were given orders to adopt the same party line. This meant that, the last shred of sympathy that the non-Communist masses had for the ICP evaporated. This served to divide and diffuse the revolutionary movement sufficiently that the counter-revolution could turn the situation to their bloody advantage.

Everywhere communists were rounded up; police spies broke up every Communist organisation of significance; in Kut prison communists were quietly murdered; and Fahd and two of his comrades were retried and sentenced to death. This time the sentences were carried out and the bodies of the condemned men were strung up publically in the city squares of Baghdad as a direct message to the poor and working classes.

At first glance the defeat of the revolution opened up the most pessimistic perspective. All of the democratic gains of the revolution were undone and once again the counter-revolution had established itself firmly in power. Furthermore the Communist Party was in disarray, dispersed and crumbling; its historic leaders were either dead, in exile or in prison. However, as the saying goes, history wastes nothing. The Wathbah – or “The Leap” – as it came to be known, represented a decisive turning point in Iraq’s history. Although the Hashemite monarchy survived the revolutionary shock of 1948, the last drop of moral authority had completely evaporated from the regime and whilst the ICP was initially shattered by the triumphant counter-revolution, the bonds between the masses and the Communist Party as their organised expression were now sealed in blood.

The Communist Party’s punishment

Youssif Salman Youssif - Comrade Fahd - Public DomainYoussif Salman Youssif - Comrade Fahd - Photo: Public DomainAll of the efforts of the regime to exorcise the spectre of communism from Iraq were doomed to failure from the beginning, irrespective of how many cells were broken up or how many cadres were arrested or murdered. The fact is that it was Iraqi conditions that fed the growth of the Communist Party. This was fully revealed in each upturn in the class struggle and each revolutionary explosion that developed in the period of the 50's, each of which tended to begin where the Wathbah left off. The first of these explosions came in 1952 with the Intifadah, during which the Communist Party once more shrugged aside all other parties and emerged clearly as the leader of the poor, the working class and the youth.

However, in the early 50's a new "leftist" tone emerged in the propaganda of the party. As is so often the case, ultra-leftism was the punishment that the ICP had to suffer for its earlier opportunist mistakes and in the early 1950's an amateurish left emerged in the leadership of the party lead by the new general secretary, Hamid Uthman. Turning away from the old policy of compromise with the national bourgeoisie, which had brought disaster on the head of the party, the leadership of the ICP looked around for an alternative and – like many Communist Parties during this period – found an apparently more "radical" alternative in Maoist China.

In point of fact however, Mao's China represented no real alternative to the line dictated by Moscow. On the one hand Mao too had held to the Stalinist "stageist" approach and believed that China would have to pass through 100 years of capitalist development before the socialist transformation of Chinese society could seriously be placed on the agenda. It was only “unconsciously”, as it were, that the Maoists came to expropriate capitalism after the flight of the Kuomintang – and with them the majority of the national bourgeoisie – to Taiwan.

Nevertheless, the apparently uncompromising attitude of the Red Army who had expropriated the ruling class in a "People's Revolution" looked like a plausible alternative to a Communist Party reeling from a defeat that had been compounded by its earlier opportunism. In the conditions in Iraq however, with its increasingly combative working class and labour movement, a turn to a peasant "people's war" and direct, immediate confrontation with the state could only spell disaster for the party.

When the party leadership ordered party cadres to enter the streets in opposition to the Baghdad Pact of 1955 and to engage in continuous running battles in the street, without a concomitant mass movement, the results were predictably disastrous for the party.(16) Had an opposition to the Stalinist-Menshevik line of collaboration with the national bourgeoisie existed in the early 50’s that based itself on a return to the traditions of genuine Marxism, as represented by the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, it may well have been possible to politically rearm the party in this period. As it was, the disaster created by the ultra-lefts only served to swing the party once more into the arms of Stalinist opportunism. (17)

The Shifting Balance of Power in the Middle East

One of the most important outcomes of the Second World War was the emergence of a new balance of forces on a world scale. The old powers of Britain and France were now in sharp decline, with the United States filling the vacuum as the dominant imperialist power on a world scale. With the emergence of Israel in the region, all these fluctuations had the most destabilising impact on social and political relations throughout the Middle East. At the same time Stalinism emerged immensely strengthened and appeared as a serious alternative to imperialist subjugation.

In 1952 the crisis in Egypt, one of the most industrialised and populous countries of the region, found its expression in the Free Officers' coup against the British-backed Farouk monarchy. The populist, nationalist rhetoric of the coup struck a deep chord and unleashed a mass wave of enthusiasm. With the mass movement on the street pushing the Free Officers to the left it was the leftward-moving and self-proclaimed Pan-Arabist, Gamal Abdul Nasser, who came to the fore with his ideas of Arab unity and an increasingly brazen defiance of British imperialism.

Increasingly the Nasser regime turned in the direction of the Soviet Union for political and military support and, basing himself on the popular mood of the mass of workers and poor, nationalised much of the property of the imperialist powers. In Syria too the regime began facing in the direction of the USSR and by the 1960’s even went as far as completely expropriating the ruling class and creating the first planned economy in the Middle East, albeit on a bureaucratic and Stalinist basis.

In 1956 things reached crisis point when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. The British and French, imagining that they could strike a quick blow against Nasser and remove a thorn in their side, quickly occupied the Suez Canal Zone but were forced into a hasty retreat by the Americans. The British were completely humiliated but so too were all the powers of the Baghdad Pact, which constituted the Anglo-American "sphere of influence", with Iraq at its centre. Nasser however emerged tremendously strengthened. When a union with Syria was declared in early 1958, and the United Arab Republic (UAR) was formed, the move was met with huge popular enthusiasm across the Arab world as the beginning of a much yearned for socialist unification of the Arab peoples.

The reality, of course, was more complicated. Whilst resting on the mass movement to deliver blows against the imperialists, Nasser never completely broke with capitalism. Meanwhile his regime operated along classical Bonapartist lines, with Communists and trade unionists frequently subject to brutal police repression. The unification with Syria meanwhile was seen on the Egyptian side as a means to expand the market for Egyptian goods; and on the Syrian side as a chance to liquidate all political opposition within the country, and particularly the mass Syrian Communist Party. (18)

Nevertheless these tumultuous events throughout the region had a tremendous effect within Iraq and added to the explosive cocktail that was developing. This was also the case within the army. Since 1952 cells of Free Officers, directly modelled on those in Egypt, began to take form, beginning among the most proletarian section of the military, the engineering divisions. The events in 1956 tremendously quickened the spread of conspiratorial cells within the middle layers of the officer corp and by 1958 the conspirators were waiting for the opportune moment to strike.

The July Revolution

Abd al-Salam Arif - Public DomainAbdul Salam Aref - Photo: Public DomainOn the morning of 14th July 1958, after a tense and sleepless night, Colonel Abdul Salam Aref led a division of troops on a march towards Baghdad. His orders were to march onward to the Jordanian border, a maneuver that would necessarily involve passing through the capital. Upon arriving in Baghdad a little after 4am however, the units swiftly moved into action and occupied the key tactical positions in the city including the radio exchange, key ministries and the royal palace. In the confusion that reigned, the royal family was mowed down by the machine gun fire of a nationalist officer only vaguely aware of the nature of the unfolding events. Nuri al-Said briefly fled but was later found and killed. The radio now announced to the world what had happened: Iraq was officially a Republic, it had been liberated from imperialism by the revolutionary officers and the people were called upon to support the armed forces!

The response of the people was overwhelming and quickly caused jitters among the instigators of the coup. By mid-morning hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants, slum dwellers, housewives, students, government clerks and rank and file soldiers flooded the streets. What had begun was no mere repeat of 1941 – this was the start of a genuine revolution. If, as Trotsky explained, a revolution can be defined as one of those exceptional periods in human history when the mass of ordinary people begin to take their destiny into their own hands, then this was the start of a revolutionary process that would extend and continue to unfold over several years. First in numbers, energy and standing among the organised forces that mingled with the crowds was the ICP. Workers, peasants, women, students and young people flooded into its organisations.

In the early days of the July regime, the mass outbreak of euphoria that accompanied the fall of the hated monarchy masked the heterogeneity of the officers that had now been thrust to a position of power. The weakness and internal division of the new regime however soon came to the fore and centered on a conflict between the two key conspirators of the 14th July overthrow; Brigadier Abdul Karim Qaseem, now at the head of the government and the armed forces; and his second-in-command, Colonel Aref.

To the extent that any ideology can be said to have given a semblance of unity to the Free Officer movement in Iraq prior to the July Revolution it was fundamentally the same ideology that motivated the officers involved in the 1952 coup in Egypt and the initiators of the 1941 coup in Iraq; namely nationalism and in particular the outlook of Pan-Arabism. It is worth now making a brief detour to consider the nature of "Pan-Arabism" as an ideology and the role that it played in the revolutionary period that opened up from July 1958.

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)

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

7ibid p437

8ibid p443

9ibid p30

10ibid p548

11ibid p562

12ibid p553

13ibid p555

14ibid p559

15ibid p669

16ibid 688

17ibid p709

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”