Sunday, April 22, 2007

Iraqi Communist Party (Part 1)

"The first reference to Bolshevism in the Abstract of Intelligence, kept by the British political police in Iraq, occurs in an entry dated January 17, 1920. It was a brief note from the officer concerned to the effect that "Bolshevik talk in Baghdad is on the increase."
From Hanna Batatu's "The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq" Saqi Books, 2004 (copyright 1978) page 1,137.

In under 40 years this "talk" in the streets of Baghdad would become a torrent, but in support of the Communists' pressure for "bourgeois democracy".

Creating Iraq

At the time the police officer made the above note, British forces were in occupation of the former Provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul which had been part of the Ottoman Empire. Britain had taken over this combination of territory during the First World War because the Ottoman Empire had allied itself with Germany and Britain was keen to protect its links with part of its Empire in India.

Three months after the police officer's comment, Britain was formally granted a League of Nations Mandate for the new nation of Iraq, with its current borders.

Creating A Proletariat

Britain's economic interests helped it to develop the Port of Basra, extend factories in Baghdad and to start the oil industry in Kirkuk when oil was discovered there in 1927.

To operate this developing structure towns expanded throughout what at one time had been called Mesopotamia - a Greek word for the land between two rivers, used to cover the fertile agricultural land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.

There was a growing momentum amongst the poor to move from their tribal lands (which they did not own) to form a disappointed and impoverished industrial working class.

As there is no shortage of mud between the rivers, the new proletariat used this natural resource as building material which would bake in the heat of the sun. They used the mud to build houses and enclosing walls. They dug channels in the mud for sewage disposal and dug into the mud to make communal wells for drinking water. The areas are known as sarifas.

The Battle For Ideas

As labour was the cheapest of commodities, back power and muscle power was used to compliment machinery. For instance, labourers in the docks and the goods yards carried excessive weights saving the expenditure of capital on carts.

Traditional ethnic, tribal, clan, family and religious links were resorted to by many to find ways of handling this harsh new life. These influences would at times lead to conflict with the authorities. But the authorities could also approach the heads of such categories in order to buy them off or divide and rule.

The Bolshevik tendency noted by our police officer in 1920 was also, however, spreading seeking unity amongst all workers and it was to gain a formal focus in the 1930s.

This clash of ideas still has a contemporary relevance, although we hear much more about the former than the latter.

Founding The Party

In 1932 Iraq had been granted a form of independence, but British troops remained (I was to be one of them in 1955/6) and the newly formed Iraqi Levies were established under the strict control of British Officers.

When the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) was founded on 31 March, 1934 it used two powerful sets of arguments to advance its ideology. It gave its full weight to both opposing British Imperialism and in arguing for an end to the exploitation and impoverishment of working people.

At the time, these arguments had a big appeal as the condition of the Iraqi Working Class had worsened considerably as a consequence of Britain's own economic crisis of 1931.

Yet within only 25 years this newly established body (as we will see) seemed to be on the verge of at least sharing political power at national level.

The Two Sides of Repression

Up to the Iraqi Revolution of 1958, Governments normally attempted to repress the ICP's activities and those of the bodies they were linked with, such as the growing Trade Union Movement. This was a double edged tactic against them. For whilst it hampered the ICP organisationally, it gained sympathy for its cause.

For instance, when Trade Unions were themselves banned for a period from 1936, this led to the ICP's involvement and mobilisation against the repressive legislation itself.

Before the ICP could become a real force in Iraqi politics. however, it need two things - effective organisation and firm use of a clear opening. The man for the job pushed himself to the front.

Organisation Man

The above conditions were fulfilled under the work of Yusuf Salman Yusuf (known as Comrade Fahd) who became General Secretary of the ICP in 1941. He had always criticised what he saw as "coffeehouse communists" and he moved to put himself firmly in control of the ICP. He then revamped the organisation and significantly expanded its membership amongst working class people.

This task was made easier as Russia had moved to enter the Second World against Hitler and was now on the same side as Britain. So the ICP's criticisms of Britain became more muted and its organisation became subject to less rigorous controls by the then pro-British authorities - Britain having re-occupied Iraq in 1941 when their Prime Minister Rashid Ali was deposed for attempting to link Iraq with the Axis powers. The ICP's soft pedaling over Britain made its task of recruiting working class members reasonably free from interference.

Between 1944 and 1946, 16 new Trade Unions were founded with full ICP involvement. Comrade Fahd now had his effective organisation structure and links, all he needed was on opening. It wasn't long in coming.

The Great Leap Forward

In 1948 the Iraqi Government signed the Portsmouth Treaty which updated earlier Anglo-Iraqi Treaties and maintained British influences in Iraq, including the continuation of air bases being held as British Crown Territory.

Industrial Action via the new Unions was now used politically against what was viewed to be an Act of Imperialism. There were widespread demonstrations and further strike activity on the industrial front. 1948 was known as the year of al-Wathbah (the Leap).

The Government reacted with oppressive measures and arrested the leaders of the ICP. When they discovered that Comrade Fahd was still running the ICP from his prison cell, he and two of his comrades were executed.

The Upheaval

The ICP were, however, now strong enough to survive repression and set up the "Peace Partisans" in 1950 in which they argued for a neutral position over the Cold War and linked with other political parties.

This led to demonstrations in Baghdad in 1952 known as Al-Intifada (the Upheaval) and the ICP using the banner of the "Peace Partisans" then united with two other parties in a General Election in a structure which generally blocked political party activity, yet took 14 seats. The Parliament was then disbanded and repression renewed.

Suez Crisis To The Iraqi Revolution

When Britain, France and Israel colluded to invade Egypt in 1956 in an attempt to take over the Suez Canal which Nasser had nationalised, there were immediate demonstrations in Baghdad, Mosul and Najaf advocating anti-Imperialism and a Pan-Arab alliance. The ICP took a leading role in these.

Two years later a popular Free-Officer's military take-over resulted during which King Faisal II was shot and the long influential pro-British Prime Minister Nuri-al-Said fled.

General Qasim became Prime Minister and more then 3,000 British Air Force personnel were obliged to leave the country.

The ICP's High Water Mark

By 1959, the ICP claimed to have 25,000 members and gained election to all the ten seats on the Central Council of the newly established Iraqi equivalent of the British TUC, the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU).

The ICP leadership of the GFTU then organised a May Day Demonstration in Baghdad attended by half-a-million people out of a total Iraqi population of less than 7 million.

Hopes for the future could not have been higher. Since it was formed only 25 years earlier, the ICP's advance had been considerable.

The Remaining Questions

I will move on to assess (a) how the Ba'thists came to power instead of the ICP, (b) what happened to the ICP in that period, (c) what it has been able to achieve in the post-Ba'thist period and (d) what are its prospects for the future,


Anonymous said...

Brilliant, Harry, brilliant!

I'm looking forward to part 2...!

Harry Barnes said...


Thanks, but you will have to give me a few days, given other commitments - there will probably be some bits and pieces in the meantime.

calgacus said...

Very interesting and very will written too. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Azarmehr said...

Really interesting, will use it as a reference