Iraq’s Communist Party (ICP) used to be one of the largest and most powerful organizations in the country. It drew upon nationalist and anti-imperialist Iraqis rather than people who were well versed in Marxist-Leninism. Throughout most of its history it was persecuted first by the British authorities and then the post-independence political elite. At the same time, it flip-flopped on the questions of Iraqi Kurdistan and the Ba’ath Party with the latter leading to its eventual demise. To help explain this complicated history is University of East Anglia’s Johan Franzén, the author or Red Star Over Iraq: Iraqi Communism Before Saddam.
1. You wrote that the emergence of the Iraqi Communist Party was the result of a series of structural changes in Iraq that took place during the British Mandate (1920-1932) and monarchist period (1921-1958). That had to do with the end of patronage politics and the expansion of public education. Can you explain how Iraqi politics and society were transformed during this period, and how that led to the formation of the ICP in 1934?
The emergence of the Iraqi Communist Party in the 1930s was not a direct result of structural changes occurring in Iraqi society since the mid-19th century. It was the result of the political activity of a handful of people who had come into contact with Communist ideas in one way or another. Such ideas had been about in the country at least since the Bolshevik Revolution and the First World War, when Russian soldiers had been stationed in the country. Revolutionary ideas had also entered the country by way of Baku, where an important Congress of the Peoples of the East had been staged by the Communist International (Comintern) in 1920. As a consequence of this meeting, Communist ideas spread to Iraq’s neighbours, Iran and Turkey, where Communist organisations were founded in its aftermath. Communist ideas had also come early to those parts of the Arab world which had a heavy foreign presence, such as Egypt and Palestine. The Palestine Communist Party had its origins in a socialist Zionist group called Mifleget Poᶜalim Sozialistit, which in 1924 was allowed Comintern membership on the basis of changing its name to the Palestine Communist Party (Palestinishe Komunistishe Partei, PKP). Through the PKP, Communist activity spread to Syria and Lebanon, where the first Arab Communist organisation was set up. I have written on this topic in more detail in an article that was published in the Journal of Palestine Studies some years ago (the article can be found here).
It was against this background that activists in Iraq began in the 1920s to prepare for a Communist organisation also in Iraq. A Marxist study group by the name of Mutadarisi al-Afkār al-Ḥurrah was set up by Husayn al-Rahhal in the early 1920s. In 1924, this group began publishing a paper called al-Ṣaḥifah. That journal was, however, quickly closed down by the authorities as it contained vociferous attacks on religion. A similar organisation, whose main purpose was to attack religion, was al-Ḥizb al-Ḥurr al-Lādīnī. The ICP was eventually founded in 1934 by a mere handful of activists.
That event in itself was not particularly noteworthy, and compared to other Arab countries the ICP was a relative latecomer. However, what allowed the ICP to expand so rapidly and become a mass party over the coming decades were undoubtedly those structural changes that had been on-going for decades. Education was no longer the preserve of the wealthy effendiyyah (the old Ottoman elite), but new sections of society now began to reap its benefits. It was undoubtedly from these intermediary sections of society – the ‘new effendiyyah’ or ‘lower effendiyyah’ or whatever one wishes to call them – that the ICP initially drew its main support. Senior members of the party also in their absolute majority hailed from this social section. Modern education was instrumental in shaping this new effendiyyah that came to produce most of the political activists in the monarchical era. The British were acutely aware of this and tried to stop the expansion of the educational sector, but determined Arab nationalists continued its expansion throughout the mandatory period, and following independence in 1932, spending on education again saw a huge increase. I have written more on this topic and how the British responded to the threat posed by Communism in the early stages (the article can be found here).
The development of the lower effendiyyah was, however, unrelated to patronage politics. Patronage politics was the way the monarchy functioned under the British and later after Iraq’s so-called independence in 1932. Politicians were drawn from a small pool of trustworthy landowners and merchants. Elections were rigged to produce pliable parliaments and ‘effective’ governments (i.e. those willing to execute the orders of the British High Commissioner). This type of patronage politics permeated Iraqi politics right up to the 1958 Revolution (as indeed it did in other Arab countries as well). Parallel to this type of politics, however, the ICP was busy creating their own ‘politics of the street’, whereby popular demands were delivered through massive popular demonstrations. The emergence of ideological politics – a phenomenon that can be dated back to the 1930s with the ‘leftwing’ coup carried out by Bakr Sidqi and Hikmat Sulayman in 1936 through 1941 and the ‘Government of National Defence’ – was something that happened outside official politics, and in spite of the dominance of ‘patronage politics’. However, the events that took place in the 1930s and early 1940s, although of an ideological nature, still very much involved elite politicians, and as such, cannot be said to have been a ‘politics of the street’.
Thus, to answer the question: no, the emergence of the ICP was not a direct result of structural changes, but its development and expansion certainly was.
Banner from a meeting of the Iraqi Communist Party in 2009 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the executions of Party Leader Yusuf Salman Yusuf and other members of the party at the hands of the government (Iraqi Letter)
2. Yusuf Salman Yusuf who was the head of the ICP from 1941-1949 was one of the early pivotal leaders of the group. How did he expand the party?
The significance of Yusuf Salman Yusuf, or ‘Comrade Fahad’ as he was known in the party, was immense for the early development of the ICP. His background resembled those of other early leaders of the party, and reflected the diverse ethnic and cross-sectarian appeal of the party. He was a Chaldean Arab from an impoverished background. Despite poverty, his father had been able to send him to a Christian school in Basra, and later he attended an American mission school in al-ᶜAshshār. As with so many others of the early Communists, it was patriotism and anti-imperialism that had initially stirred his political passions. In Fahad’s case, it was seeing how the country united, Shiᶜi and Sunni, Christian and Muslim, in the 1920 Thawrah against the British.
Several years later, Fahad came into contact with Pyotr Vasili, an Assyrian Christian who had been born in Georgia to Iraqi parents (that is, to parents who originated from what is today Iraq but which at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire). Vasili was a revolutionary who worked to spread the ideas of Bolshevism in the country (something that later got him expelled). This encounter set Fahad on the path of Communism, and over the next few years he tried to organise secret study circles in southern Iraq. In 1929-30 he went on a journey of neighbouring countries to get to know ‘the life of the peoples’. Whilst in Syria, it appears he got into contact with Syrian Communists, and through them he conveyed a message to the Comintern asking them to help him organise a Communist party also in Iraq. Once the party had successfully been established in 1934, he set out on a journey to the Soviet Union in February 1935. Over the coming years he received training in Marxist-Leninist organisational principles and techniques and the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Stalin at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow. Whilst in Moscow he also attended the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern in August 1935. He returned to Iraq in early 1938. It would take him another three years to get his hands on the party leadership.
At the time, the ICP was indistinguishable from other ‘parties’ made up largely of urban effendis. Fahad deridingly dismissed them as ‘Coffeehouse Communists’ as they spent most of their time chatting in cafés rather than organising the masses. However, after much of the old leadership of the party had been arrested in late 1941, Fahad managed to seize the reins. He installed people he trusted to be highly disciplined into the Central Committee and went about revolutionising the way the party operated. Gone was the old naïve fraternising among the urban effendiyyah. Instead, the party became clandestine and was organised along Marxist-Leninist principles, with cells, committees, and sections. Work was now initiated among the poor, the workers, the peasants, students and intellectuals. Over the coming years, Fahad gradually instilled an iron fist discipline, and by the time of the party’s First Conference in 1944 no other member dared to challenge his leadership. Fahad’s leadership style was ‘democratic centralism’ with a certain emphasis on the centralist aspect. This he made clear in a seminal essay he wrote in 1944 called ‘A Communist Party, Not Democratic Socialism!’ (Ḥizb Shuyūᶜī, Lā Ishtirākiyyah Dīmūqrāṭiyyah!).
Unfortunately for the party, just as it was beginning to reap the benefits of Fahad’s reorganisation and emerge as a true mass party in the aftermath of World War II, he was arrested in early 1947 along with other leaders. In a highly political trial in which he was accused inter alia of having worked for a foreign power and receiving monies therefrom, he was sentenced to death by hanging. However, following a campaign by British and other international Communist groups, and questions raised in the British parliament, the British government leaned on their Iraqi counterpart to commute the sentences to life imprisonment. Yet, when the country erupted into protests and rebellion during the 1948 Wathbah, the Iraqi government once more pointed an accusing finger at the ICP. In a travesty of justice, Fahad and the other ICP leaders were brought anew before a court, this time accused of having led the protests from prison! Ostensibly this had been done through smuggled messages from Fahad. They were once more convicted and this time the British government did not intervene. In the mornings of 14 and 15 February 1949, Fahad and his comrades were hanged in different public squares around Baghdad to deter potential troublemakers.
Arrested members of the Communist Party in Kut Prison 1948 including Party Leader Yusuf (Al-Nnas)
Communist Party Leader Yusuf and Politburo member Zaki Bassim in Kut Prison (Al-Nnas)
3. From the 1930s-1950s the Communists were seen as threats to the government. How did the military officers who took power in coups and premiers like Nuri al-Saᶜid deal with the ICP?
Nuri al-Sa'id who served as the premier of Iraq fourteen times relentless persecuted the Communists (AP)
The ‘threat’ of Communism had initially very little to do with the ICP as a political party. It was a British obsession that was imported to Iraq by paranoid British officers. They perceived ‘Communism’ as a worldwide conspiracy directed at their empire by evil linchpins operating out of Moscow. This, indeed, was the original Cold War. Already from day one, the Communist bogey was raised by British officers in Iraq. Atatürk’s Turkish nationalist movement was initially interpreted as a Communist plot to extend Soviet influence in Iraq and the wider Middle East. Iran under Reza Shah was similarly said to be going red. Iraq was encircled. Despite the fact that there was no organised Communist party in the country, and the people who could be said to know even the basics of Marxism-Leninism probably could be counted on one hand, there was nevertheless a fear of Communism.
Later this evolved so that ‘Communism’ became a label that could be attached to anyone who did not accept the British-installed order and who did not ‘play by the rules’. Established politicians and right-wing nationalists such as Rashid ᶜAli al-Gaylani, Hikmat Sulayman, and others, were painted with the Communist brush. Following the failed nationalist revolt of 1941, and some Iraqi nationalists’ flirtation with the Axis Powers, British officers even invented the appellation ‘Communazi’ to describe oppositional politicians. Pro-British politicians from the Iraqi elite inherited this worldview. Members of the Old Guard, such as the notorious Nuri al-Saᶜid – who served as Iraqi Prime Minister under the monarchy no less than 14 times! – were aggressively, and, dare I say, pathologically, anti-Communist. When Nuri was called on to form a new government in January 1949, following the Wathbah of the previous year, he famously stated that his government would ‘combat Communism to the last breath in this country’.
As Iraq became entangled in the Cold War in the 1950s, this original British-inspired anti-Communist attitude was realigned with the equally paranoid worldview of the emerging American Superpower. I have written on Western anti-Communist propaganda in Iraq during the early Cold War period in an article that was published in Historical Research (the article can be found here). With the pretext of securing Iraq from Soviet ‘imperialism’, Iraqi politicians, such as the notoriously anti-Communist Fadil al-Jamali, signed up the country to the so-called Baghdad Pact. Such was the extent of anti-Communism among the Iraqi elite, that they were prepared to go against popular opinion on the matter and as the only Arab country be a member of this NATO-style defensive pact, which in reality was an instrument with which to wean countries off anti-Western nationalism and Soviet influence. The Egyptian leader Gamal ᶜAbd al-Nasser (Jamāl ᶜAbd al-Nāṣir), who had emerged as the undisputed hero of the Arab World following the 1956 Suez Crisis, was a vociferous critic of the pact. There is no doubt that the decision by Iraqi elite politicians to enter the pact and align the country with the U.S. was a major cause of the Revolution of July 1958 that overthrew the monarchy and the pro-Western Old Guard.
4. The Communist Party eventually adopted the concept of Arab nationalism based upon both events in Iraq and the wider Middle East and the Soviet Union’s alliance with General Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt. How did the party integrate Arab nationalism into its universalist and class based ideology, and how was that shaped by internal and external factors?
It is not correct to assert that the ICP ‘adopted’ Arab nationalism, or that they should have done so on the instigation of the Soviet Union. Most members of the ICP had very little ideological understanding of Marxism-Leninism and concepts like ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. Like other parties, the ICP had its origins in the urban effendiyyah. As such, members of the ICP shared the same general worldview as other effendis. They were patriotic (i.e. adhering to an Iraqi Waṭaniyyah), anti-British, and nationalist (i.e. believing in some sort of pan-Arab dream). On the socio-economic front, they favoured social justice, land reform, and a redistributive economic system – it was far closer to Social Democracy of the Northern European variety than Soviet style Communism. People like Fahad, and others that had received schooling in the Soviet Union, did what they could to instil Marxism-Leninism into the ICP membership, but to little avail. Up until the 1950s, there were not even in the country proper Arabic translations of Marxist works. This meant that only those versed in English (certainly a small number at the time) could actually read those few books that were available in English at the time (and given the British hatred of Communism these were not many). Thus, most people who joined the ICP did so not out of a deep understanding of Marxist-Leninist theory, but because they adhered to a general anti-imperialist nationalism. In the early days, there was great overlap between the various nationalist parties, and many ICP members had earlier been members of Jamaᶜat al-Ahāli, al-Ḥizb al-Waṭanī, or in the case of the Kurdish members, organisations like Shurish, or later, the KDP.
The ICP did thus not ‘adopt’ nationalism, but its members were to varying degrees adherents of patriotic Waṭaniyyah and pan-Arab Qawmiyyah. With the creation of the Israeli state in 1948 and the subsequent war, the issue became even more pronounced. The Soviet Union urged Arab Communist Parties to accept the U.N. partition. Arab Communists were, however, very reluctant to do so since they shared the belief of other Arab nationalists that the Zionist movement was a colonial project utilised by Western imperialism to subdue the Arab World. After initial resistance to the Soviet decision, they did eventually come out in public in support of the Soviet position, something that cost them dearly. The accusation of not being sufficiently nationalist and even anti-Arab (shuᶜūbī) was thrown at the Communists. This label stuck and was something Nasser and other nationalists like the Baᶜth Party used to great success to attack the ICP and other Arab Communist Parties.
The fact that the ICP and other Arab Communist Parties eventually ended up supporting Nasser and the Baᶜth Party was unrelated to the issue of Arab nationalism. Here the ideological impact of Soviet Communism came into the picture. From about the mid-1950s, things had begun to change somewhat in the ideological training of the ICP’s cadres. By then, many of the party’s senior leaders were behind the bars of Baghdad’s Central Prison. There they organised themselves into study circles, and set about translating Marxist works and studying them. This meant that by the time of the 1958 Revolution, the ICP leadership had become relatively well versed in Marxism-Leninism, and were following developments in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the Socialist world. By the 1958 Revolution, the Soviet theory of the ‘national bourgeoisie’ had been firmly entrenched in the ICP leadership. This taught that in the Third World where for socio-economic reasons there were insufficient proletariats to sustain large Communist parties, these parties ought to form alliances with the so-called ‘national bourgeoisie’. This bourgeoisie was said to be different from Western bourgeoisies as it was dependent on Western imperialism, and hampered by local remains of feudalism. Thus, just as Marx had described the historical role of the Western bourgeoisie as revolutionary in its struggle against the landed aristocracy and the European feudal system, so the ‘national bourgeoisie’ was argued to play a revolutionary role in the Third World as it sought to get rid of feudalism. In the determinist Marxist economic theory, historical progress had to move from feudalism to capitalism before it could reach the socialist stage. Hence the ‘national bourgeoisie’ had a historical role to play in getting rid of feudalism before the Communist parties could come into their own and lead the country to socialism.
Due to this complex reading of history and economic development, the ICP and other Third World Communist Parties voluntarily chose not to try to launch revolutions themselves, but to support other groups that they defined as ‘national bourgeois’. The problem in the Iraqi case was that there was very little industrialisation or capitalist development, and if there was a ‘national bourgeoisie’ this was at any rate too weak to enact any change. Instead, it was nationalist middle-ranking officers from humble origins that actually carried out the coup that overthrew the monarchy on 14 July 1958. Due to the shackles of their Marxist-Leninist ideology, the ICP leaders chose to interpret this phenomenon as a ‘democratic revolution’ led by the ‘national bourgeoisie’. For that reason, they sided with ᶜAbd al-Karim Qasim. At the time, they were actually enemies of Nasser and were at the receiving end of much nationalist abuse. The old accusations of being shuᶜūbīs and ‘agents’ of Soviet imperialism were dusted off and levelled at the ICP and Qasim.
5. The ICP flip flopped on the issue of Kurdistan, Mulla Mustafa Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). How did the Communists’ view of Kurdish rights change over time, and how did that shape relations with the KDP?
I have dealt with this topic at length in an article that was published a few years ago in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (the article can be found here). Essentially, the Communists’ view of Kurdish rights was rather static and remained more or less the same through time. On the ground, however, the ICP’s relations with the main Kurdish political parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – were much more fluid. The ICP’s relationship with Mulla Mustafa’s KDP was a clear case of an ideological blueprint clashing with reality. In theory, the Communists supported Kurdish nationalism because as a ‘national liberation movement’ it was an anti-imperialist force. However, as anyone familiar with the Kurdish political scene at the time knows, Kurdish politics was dominated by tribal power politics, primordial loyalties and division. As the dominant political personality, Mulla Mustafa Barzani was able to command the greatest following after Qasim had allowed him to return from the Soviet Union. The ICP leadership were fully aware of Barzani’s flaws – they even characterised him as a feudalist in their analyses.
However, following the 1958 Revolution, the ICP was keen to cement the relationship with the Kurdish nationalists and convinced the KDP leadership to join it in a front in November 1958. Nevertheless, relations soon worsened as the KDP grew increasingly anti-Communist under Mulla Mustafa’s leadership. At first, the ICP moved closer to ᶜAbd al-Karim Qasim, but after falling out with him in 1959-60, they again swerved towards the Kurds. The war that broke out between Qasim and the Kurds in 1961 put the final nail in the coffin of the ICP-Qasim alliance, and the Communists came out in support of the Kurdish uprising – even though it could hardly have been said to have been a particularly ‘progressive’ uprising as it contained many tribal factions and wealthy aghas that were disgruntled with Qasim’s Agrarian Reform Law.
Following the toppling of Qasim in February 1963 and the subsequent wholesale massacre of Communists carried out by Baᶜthists keen to avenge the Communist atrocities against Arab nationalists in Mosul in March 1959, many Communists fled to areas of Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by Mulla Mustafa and the KDP. There they were protected from the new regime’s persecution, but they had to defer to Mulla Mustafa’s authority. When ᶜAbd al-Salam ᶜAref came to power in November 1963 – after ousting his Baᶜthist partners – the ICP leadership remained in Kurdistan and in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This dependence on Mulla Mustafa obviously had an effect on the ICP’s policies. ᶜAref signed a peace agreement with Mulla Mustafa in February 1964. This deal was heavily criticised by other Kurdish factions – including the one led by Jalal Talabani and Ibrahim Ahmad. But the ICP supported it. When fighting broke out again the following year, the ICP again sided with Mulla Mustafa. When Mulla Mustafa threw out Ibrahim Ahmad and Jalal Talabani from the KDP in 1964 and forced them to flee with their supporters into Iran, the ICP sided with Mulla Mustafa even though the left wing Ahmad-Talabani faction on paper looked like a much more natural ally for the ICP.
When the Baᶜth Party seized power in 1968 a new era in KDP-ICP relations opened up. Despite the previous massacre of Communists carried out by Baᶜthists five years earlier – which may have killed as many as 5,000 ICP members and Communist sympathisers – the new Baᶜthist regime promised to turn a new leaf in their relations with the Communists. Weary from years in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan and Eastern Europe, the ICP leadership was keen to believe that the regime did represent a new beginning. As the Baᶜthists opened up to the Soviet Union – signing a treaty of Iraqi-Soviet friendship in 1972 – the Communists gradually re-evaluated the regime. A Baᶜthist ‘National Action Charter’ that contained many of the Communists’ political demands was published late in 1971. This was followed in 1972 by the announcement that the regime would nationalise the oil industry. The rapprochement was concluded in 1973 when the ICP and the Baᶜth Party entered into a National Front together.
As Communist-Baᶜthist relations thawed, ICP-KDP relations became decidedly frostier. Due to the close relationship with Mulla Mustafa, the ICP generally tried to act as a broker between the Baᶜthist regime and the KDP prior to the signing of the National Front in 1973. However, as the Baᶜthist-Communist alliance was cemented, the ICP gradually turned on the Kurds. When negotiations between the regime and the Kurdish nationalists over Kurdish rights and potential autonomy broke down, and the regime unilaterally promulgated its March 1974 Autonomy Law, the Communists came out fully in support of the regime. This was preceded by growing tensions between Communists and Kurds in Kurdistan, where armed contingents of Kurds had attacked and killed Communists in 1973-4. Yet, despite such transgressions on the ground, the ICP leadership were still reluctant to overly criticise the Kurds. The KDP leadership, while described as having feudalist inclinations, was still just about conceived to be in the ‘progressive’ fold. Increasingly, however, the Communist stance hardened. The ICP leadership accused the KDP leaders of pandering to the Kurdish bourgeoisie and of ‘fearing progress’.
In April 1974, all-out war between the regime and Mulla Mustafa’s KDP broke out. Despite having supported earlier Kurdish rebellions in the 1960s, the ICP now wholly took the side of the government. One of the ICP leaders even described the revolt as ‘an armed uprising against the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan’. Another ICP leader, himself a Kurd, said the rebellion was ‘propped up by imperialism and reaction’, adding that it was only ‘natural’ that the ICP helped the government to quell it. The superiorly equipped and manned Iraqi army was eventually able to crush the uprising (especially following a deal with the Shah of Iran that resulted in the Iranian borders being closed, thus cutting off the Kurdish rebels’ supply routes). The Kurdish peshmerga were forced to flee to Iran with their families.
A few years later, in 1978-9, the Baᶜthists again turned on the Communists. Now it was their turn to experience the ‘progressive’ repression of the Baᶜthists that they so enthusiastically had supported a few years earlier. In 1979, Saddam Husayn took over the Baᶜth Party following Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr’s (forced) resignation, and usurped all the powers of the state into his own hands. He swiftly moved on to crush any dissidence or opposition and the Communists quickly learnt that in his Iraq there was no room for plurality. Ironically, many of the leading Communists once more had to flee to Iraqi Kurdistan and join forces with the Kurdish nationalists.
6. It seems like the Communist’s ideology betrayed it in the end. Its constant decision to align with Iraqi governments starting with Gen. Qasim that it believed were moving the country towards socialism took precedent over not only the party trying to lead Iraq on its own, but its own preservation as it joined regimes like the Baathists. Is that a fair assessment of where the party went wrong?
I think that is an inescapable conclusion. Some previous observers have downplayed the role of ideology, and have tried to explain the ICP’s policies through the lens of Realpolitik or as downright opportunism. However, having studied the ICP for the last decade and having tried to understand the Communist ‘psyche’, as well as the domestic and international contexts, it is my conviction that the leaders of the ICP acted within a fundamentally ideological framework. That is not to say, however, that they were unaware of the political context in which they lived and operated. Far from it, in some cases they were the most astute observers and political commentators. Certainly, in the post-war period until the early 1960s, I think it is fair to say that they were the people in Iraq with their fingers on the pulse of the nation.
Nevertheless, they were also very much confined by their Marxist-Leninist ideology. While clearly an independent party, operating wholly on its own without interference from Moscow, it is obvious that the IPC leaders’ worldviews or, as the Germans put it, their Weltanschauungen, were shaped by rather rigid Marxist-Leninist tenets that had to be adhered to at all costs. Thus, what some have interpreted as Communist opportunism when switching allegiances back and forth (especially supporting the Baᶜth Party in 1973 when the same party ten years earlier had massacred their members), I see as desperate devotion to an incongruous ideology.
Marxism-Leninism, an ideology forged in the class struggles of 19th century Europe and early 20th century Russia was not particularly suited for mid-20th century Iraq. While talk of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ might have made sense to the workers of 19th century Europe, it was harder to fathom in Iraq where there was only a minute working class (in the Marxist sense) at the time. Even in Lenin’s Russia the ‘proletariat’ was distinctively in the minority. This was solved by the invention of the alliance with the peasantry. This way, the Bolsheviks could claim to represent the majority of the population. In Iraq, however, the peasantry was of a different kind. It consisted mostly of sedentarised tribal populations that had been converted from nomadism to settled agricultural production over the preceding centuries (or even as late as under the British). These peasants were still very much under the sway of their tribal leaders – the shaykhs – who had transformed themselves into wealthy landlords. Tribalism was still rife in the country, and an age-old division between a tribal countryside and a ‘modernised’ urban population still existed, and had been exacerbated by British policy, which had formalised tribal customary law so that legally the countryside operated under a different law from the townspeople. Consequently, the ICP had not managed to penetrate the countryside to any large extent (although there were areas in which they had been more successful). For that reason, the ICP (like other parties) had to concentrate most of its policies on the urban classes (of whom workers were a tiny minority). Thus, a Marxist-Leninist strategy of pursuing an alliance between the workers and the peasants was rather futile in Iraq at the time.
Another major Marxist-Leninist tenet that shaped much of the ICP’s policy was, as mentioned before, the notion of the so-called ‘national bourgeoisie’. This concept had been developed in the early decades of the 20th century by (mostly) European Communists trying to grapple with the problem of the lacking proletariat in the Third World. Through various twists and turns, the Comintern had eventually agreed that as a general rule of thumb, Communists in Third World countries should not try to go for power themselves, but should support the ‘national bourgeoisies’ of their countries as they were seen as anti-imperialist and anti-feudalist. What the Comintern had not anticipated, however, was that many of these so-called ‘national bourgeoisies’ were also intensely anti-Communist. This is something that was seen in the following decades in many countries throughout the world where Communists were massacred by ‘national bourgeois’ regimes – despite the Communists arguing that they were fighting a common enemy and for the same cause. In Iraq, this can clearly been seen by the Communists’ analyses of not only ᶜAbd al-Karim Qasim’s regime (1958-63), but also ᶜAbd al-Salam ᶜAref’s (1963-66), his brother’s, ᶜAbd al-Rahman ᶜAref (1966-68), and the Baᶜthist regime under Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (1968-79). All of them were to varying degrees supported in an ideological sense, because the Communists were convinced that these regimes – ideologically – were fighting against the bigger ‘evil’, namely ‘imperialism’, and hence were ‘progressive’. Such assessments must of course be understood as part of a particular international political context where the Soviet Union at the time looked like the stronger of the two superpowers and where it looked like half the world was going socialist. It was only natural in such circumstances to believe that Marxism-Leninism was a ‘scientific’ ideology that was ‘objective’ and ‘true’. There are countless articles written by Iraqi Communists at the time extolling the virtues of ‘Scientific Socialism’, published not in the political or editorial sections of journals and newspapers but in their science, philosophy or economy sections.
It is easy in hindsight to point out that the ICP leadership was utterly wrong in its assessment of the Baᶜth Party as a ‘progressive’ party. At the time, however, reality must have appeared so different. Not only was it clouded by the ideological veil, but the Baᶜth Party of course implemented many measures and pursued policies that would have appeared ‘progressive’ at the time. Foremost of these was the increasingly close relationship that they nurtured with the Soviet Union and other Socialist states. Secondly, the nationalisation of oil in 1972 was a truly momentous event in the modern history of Iraq. Its success – no doubt brought about with the help of the Soviet Union – made possible an unprecedented spending on socio-economic development. Free education and free healthcare, better working conditions, legislation to protect the rights of women, and so on – all of these things contributed to the feeling (not just among the Communists of course) that the Baᶜthists were ‘objectively’ heading in the right direction.
The Soviet Union also has to take its responsibility for the demise not only of the Iraqi Communist Party, but of other Arab Communist parties as well. Given the close cooperation between the Baᶜth in Iraq and Syria, Nasser in Egypt, Ben Bella in Algeria, and other Arab regimes, with the Soviet Union it seems only logical that the Arab Communists assumed that they would be protected from persecution by the Soviet influence. In reality, while the ICP and other Arab Communist parties interpreted political events through a thoroughly ideological lens, it appears that the Soviet leaders in Moscow were keener to protect their ‘national interests’ than to support Arab Communist parties in peril or to spread the world revolution. Thus, when Nasser threw the Egyptian Communists in prison, or when Saddam executed them on the gallows, Moscow did little to alleviate their plight so as not to offend their allies. This, in a sense, was the real betrayal.
So, if the conclusion that the ICP acted from an overly ideological reading of the Iraqi political scene is inescapable, I think it is also important to remember the benefits that this ideologically motivated politics brought with it. The ideology in itself, while dogmatic and rigid at times, undoubtedly helped the ICP to become the disciplined and highly motivated political party that it was. Its clandestine organisation and strict discipline – two essential factors in Marxist-Leninist organisational theory – was the reason that the ICP enjoyed so much success in the 1940s and 1950s when all other political parties were but loose associations of ill-disciplined effendis who were easy prey for the monarchy’s political police. The general policy of anti-imperialism, anti-monarchism, and anti-Britishism worked very well for the party before the 1958 Revolution. After the revolution, however, other political groups and parties – the Baᶜth Party foremost among them – started to emulate the Communist approach by organising in a more disciplined manner and by appropriating many of the policies that had made the Communists so popular, such as anti-imperialism, land reform, nationalisation, and social justice.
Ultimately, while the ICP certainly were decimated in numbers by the Baᶜthist massacres in 1963 and the persecution that followed their seizure of power in 1968, this is not what caused its ultimate demise. The Communists had come back from almost complete obliteration in the past (following the clampdowns after the 1948 Wathbah, for instance, when the party in effect ceased to exist because almost all its members were behind bars). In actual fact, the most detrimental blow occurred when the ICP leadership was lured into the alliance with the Baᶜth Party in 1973. This was particularly damaging– not only because it meant that the party opened itself up for future attacks by coming out of its clandestinity – but in particular because of its ideological endorsement of the Baᶜth Party. The fact that the Communists genuinely believed that the Baᶜth Party was building socialism is what lost it the most popular support when the Baᶜth later showed its true nature.
Franzen, Johan, Red Star Over Iraq: Iraqi Communism Before Saddam, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011)