Thursday, November 2, 2023

Review The Iraqi Revolution Of 1958, The Old Social Classes Revisited

Fernea, Robert & Louis, Wm. Roger, The Iraqi Revolution Of 1958, The Old Social Classes Revisited, London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 1991


Hanna Batatu’s The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq is one of the most famous and thorough books on Iraqi History. It covers the emergence of the Iraqi state and society from British colonialism to the 1960s. This release The Iraqi Revolution Of 1958, The Old Social Classes Revisited came out of a conference in 1991 where papers were submitted to discuss what led to the 1958 coup in Iraq and its aftermath using Batatu’s work as the basis for their analysis. It is remarkable because every chapter is interesting something that is usually challenging to find in an anthology. The authors cover a variety of issues from British, American and Soviet policy towards the monarchy before its overthrow to the coup’s connections to other political movements in the Middle East to tribes and the development of Iraqi politics and culture. Some are straight forward histories while others are more theoretical. Each provides a very interesting look at how Iraq was transformed during this important period.


The Iraqi Revolution of 1958 begins with foreign views of Iraq. Norman Daniel for example was living in Iraq at the time of the coup. Iraqis told him that they considered the monarchy aligned with British colonialism. The Iraqi elite were also unwilling to carry out any reforms fearing they would threaten their power and that of the landlords that controlled much of the economy. That united a diverse group of opposition parties from the Communists to nationalists to pan-Arabists which would then lead to the military seizing power in 1958. Daniel along with Wm. Roger Louis, Nicholas Thatcher, and Frederick Axelgard all noted that the British and Americans were aware of the precarious situation of the ruling classes and yet they never really contemplated a different approach. The status quo ruled supreme and many were caught by surprise when it collapsed. This gives an insight into how the monarchy was able to last from 1920-58 in part because of its foreign support. It also highlights that there was no real push from other countries to make Iraq carry out reforms which might have saved the system.


Marion Farouk-Sluglett, Peter Sluglett, Robert Fernea, Roger Owen, and Sami Zubaida all attempted to expand upon or add to Batatu’s social, class and political analysis of Iraq. The Slugletts focused upon the middle class and capitalist development. Fernea wrote about tribes and their interactions with the state. Owen wanted to discuss how laws reflected and shaped the class differences between the landlords and peasants in rural Iraq. Zubaida discusses the development of politics from communalism to the formation of parties based upon ideology and how the two co-existed.


Each one makes interesting findings. The Slugletts for instance found that Iraq was divided between a traditional, semi-feudal agricultural system in the countryside and an emerging capitalist one in the cities largely owned by the middle class. The latter would form and join many of the opposition parties who were pushed underground by the government leading them to revolution. The officers that led the coup were largely from this class as well. Owen’s research went through the history of how tribal sheikhs were made the foundation of the new Iraqi state by the British and then became so entrenched within the government that laws couldn’t touch their power. By the 1950s for instance Baghdad was under pressure from within and without to carry out agricultural reform and several land distribution laws were passed but the sheikhs were able to manipulate the system to actually increase their holdings. Agriculture was unproductive and the peasants were treated as serfs leading to a large migration to the cities. This became part of the complaints the opposition made against the monarchy which would lead to the military take over.


Abdul-Salaam Yousif in “The Struggle for Cultural Hegemony during the Iraqi Revolution” looks at how culture changed from before and after 1958. Under the monarchy there was an explosion of writings on a variety of ideas from social realism to social democracy to Marxism. By the 1950s the government attempted a crackdown on Leftists firing some from the government and banning and exiling others. After the coup however there was a rebirth of cultural expression as restrictions were lifted and there was a new flood of books, plays, sculpture, etc. Eventually that was curtailed as well as the new leader General Qasim turned on the Communists who were his largest supporters and Iraq went back to repressive measures.


All of this makes The Iraqi Revolution Of 1958 a good discussion of the many issues that led to the 1958 coup and how it changed Iraq afterward. That’s because it deals with so many different topics with a variety of authors giving their opinions. As many of them point out 1958 was a turning point for Iraq as it not only replaced the government but wiped out the ancien regime. It offered Iraqis the hope for a new future which was then stamped out. This book provides a lot of insights into those events.


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