Rich in lessons for today
One of the most important and tragic events in the history of Iraq took place on 8 February, 1963. The left-wing government led by Abd al-Karim Qasim was overthrown in a coup by the military wing of the Ba’ath Party, aided and abetted by the CIA. Qasim had overseen a substantial programme of reforms, raising the living standards of working and middle-class Iraqis, and remains revered to this day as one of the country’s most popular leaders. The events and processes which culminated in the coup, and in particular the role of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), are rich in lessons for socialists, particularly in the neocolonial world. In the period between 1958 and 1963, a huge opportunity existed in Iraq for the working class to overthrow capitalism and imperialism and begin to establish a socialist society with the vast oil wealth publicly owned and democratically controlled for the benefit of all.
A League of Nations mandate divided up the former Ottoman Empire after the First World War into areas controlled by British and French imperialism, creating among other entities, the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. Right from the start there was armed resistance, particularly amongst Kurds, to British rule. But, already before any revolt started the then British ‘Colonial Secretary’, Winston Churchill, was urging the British air force to use “poison gas against uncivilised tribes … (as that would cause) only discomfort or illness, but not death”. However, poison gas did not suppress the resistance and so British imperialism began bombing civilian areas. A British air force wing commander, Arthur Harris – who in the Second World War headed Bomber Command – wrote that “The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.” Thus British imperialism set an example that has been widely followed in many subsequent wars around the world.
The British mandate lasted until 1932. In this period, British imperialism imposed a Hashemite monarchy – the same royal family which rules Jordan to this day – and drew national boundaries as straight lines in the sand with no regard for the existing tribal identities and religious groupings in the region. In 1932, Iraq became formally independent, however, the British appointed royal family remained in place. Faisal II was King from 1939, when he was four years old, until his overthrow by Qasim in 1958. Despite its nominal independence Iraq was neither stable nor free from foreign intervention. During the Second World War, the formation in April 1942 of an Iraqi government proclaiming its ‘neutrality’ in the war was rapidly toppled by a British military intervention, and then British forces effectively occupied the country until 1947.
General Nuri al-Said also remained from the days of the mandate and was prime minister at different times between 1930 and 1958. He was seen by the working class as a puppet of imperialism, executing communists, granting legitimacy to British control of the oil industry and its continued military presence in Iraq, as well as supporting the British-led invasion of Egypt in 1956. The 1950s saw al-Said’s establishment of the Iraqi Development Board, an attempt to accelerate the development of an independent Iraqi capitalist class, with no regard for the living and working conditions of the working class.
Al-Said was despised within the ranks of the military, and opposition groups began to organize in secret, modelling themselves after the Egyptian Free Officers Movement that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. Qasim, an army brigadier, rose through the ranks to become a leading figure in this underground resistance. At the same time, movements against the regime were taking place on the land and in the urban areas, notably including the 1946 Kirkuk oil workers’ strike, which was violently subdued after nine days with ten workers killed by government forces.
This was a time when internationally there was increasing opposition to both direct and indirect colonial rule. The old colonial empires of Belgium, Britain, France and the Netherlands had fundamentally disappeared by the early 1960s, only the Portuguese held on until the mid-1970s. The post-1945 division of the world in capitalist and non-capitalist countries that lasted until the early 1990s meant that it was harder for imperialism to intervene, and there was a widespread understanding that capitalism was not the only road. But while in many countries the situation was objectively rife for revolution, no mass political organisation existed capable of harnessing the energy of the masses for that purpose.
In Iraq the Communist Party (ICP) held a prominent position among the working class, including leadership roles in several important trade unions. However, as with communist parties around the world at that time, the leadership took instruction from the USSR, where the ruling bureaucracy subscribed to a ‘two-stage’ theory: that countries in the colonial and neocolonial world like Iraq needed to pass through a phase of capitalist development before socialism could be established. This meant that the working class should not attempt to follow the example of the Russian revolution and take power themselves. And yet, the chance to overthrow capitalism and bring about socialism existed in front of their very eyes.
Without a revolutionary party existing with a programme to achieve this, the army officers led by Qasim stepped into the breach to overthrow a discredited regime. On 14 July, 1958, Qasim and his comrades took advantage of the dispatch of several units of the Royal Iraqi Army to Jordan to march on Baghdad and take control of the capital. They proclaimed a republic, headed by a Revolutionary Council. Faisal II and his Crown Prince were executed, and al-Said was captured and executed the next day after having escaped. An angry mob dug up his corpse, mutilated it, and dragged it through the streets of Baghdad! Qasim took the positions of prime minister and defence minister, with another officer, Abdul Salam Arif, as his deputy.
Qasim never identified himself or his government as socialist. He was an Iraqi-Mesopotamian nationalist, which resulted in clashes with those officers who supported Pan-Arabism, an idea that was undergoing a resurgence in popularity following the rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. His initial cabinet included a representative of the ICP but also several other organisations including the Ba’ath party which combined Pan-Arabism and socialist rhetoric. Nevertheless, the list of reforms enacted by the government was impressive and made significant improvements to the lives of ordinary Iraqis. The ICP was legalised. The British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company was effectively nationalised through the seizure of 99% of its land. 35,000 new houses and apartments were built for low-income families in a new Baghdad suburb called Madinat al-Thawra (revolution city).
The constitution was rewritten to promote the participation of women in government and public life, and other reforms aimed at achieving equality for women included equal inheritance rights and a ban on child marriage. Naziha al-Dulaimi became the first female minister in the Arab world. The 1958 Agrarian Reform dismantled the old feudal system in the countryside and redistributed the land on a more equal basis to small farmers, as well as guaranteeing those who continued to work on large agricultural holdings the right to keep a larger share of their crop.
By March 1959, the new government had aligned itself internationally with the Soviet Union. More ICP members were given cabinet posts. Qasim attempted to lean on the support of the ICP against those within the army who believed in Pan-Arabism and wanted to align Iraq with Egypt. He was attempting a dangerous balancing act, and on 30 September, 1958, removed Arif as his deputy. Arif was sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment) in January 1959 for attempting to assassinate Qasim.
Qasim also failed to correctly handle the question of the right of self-determination for the Iraqi Kurds. On paper he declared Kurdistan “one of the two nations of Iraq”, however, the demands of the Kurds for self-government went unfulfilled, resulting by 1961 in Kurdish rebellions breaking out against the Qasim regime. In the meantime, the Ba’ath party had been growing, and believed that the only way to prevent the ICP taking power was to remove their ally in the government, Qasim. On 7 October, 1959, a group of Ba’ath activists, including future dictator Saddam Hussein, attempted to assassinate Qasim. He survived the attempt on his life, according to some reports because Saddam started shooting before receiving the signal, disrupting the whole operation! At the start of 1960, Qasim began to attempt to distance himself from the ICP, after ethnic violence broke out at an ICP rally in Kirkuk.
By 1962, both the Ba’ath party and the CIA had started to plot a coup against Qasim. They made their move, starting in the morning of 8 February, 1963, with the assassination of Jalal al-Awqati, an ICP member and chief of the air force. Tanks took control of the Abu Ghraib radio station. Workers and ICP supporters took to the streets to attempt to fight the plotters, and a gruelling battle took place over two days, in which the better-equipped Ba’athist forces prevailed. Qasim was executed in the afternoon of 9 February by the Ba’athists, who spent the next three days scouring Baghdad for civilian supporters of Qasim or the ICP, and murdered at least 1,500 people, possibly as many as 5,000.
This first Ba’ath government, in which Qasim’s former deputy Abdul Salam Arif held the role of president, lasted only nine months. They were to return to power in 1968 however, with Saddam Hussein as second-in-command. He was to become president in 1979. According to Hashim Jawad, former foreign minister under Qasim, “the Iraqi Foreign Ministry had information of complicity between the Ba’ath and the CIA. In many cases the CIA supplied the Ba’ath with the names of individual communists, some of whom were taken from their homes and murdered.”
Qasim’s government implemented reforms which greatly improved the lives of working-class Iraqis. However, because the regime did not break from the straitjacket of the capitalist system, ultimately its enemies in the form of political reaction and US imperialism were able to organise to bring about its downfall. Qasim paid with his life, as did thousands of his supporters. So how could the situation have turned out differently? After all, Qasim let loose a widespread revolutionary mood in society, with workers and young people expecting an end to poverty, capitalism, and imperialism. The ICP was a powerful force at this time, with deep roots in the workers’ organisations, which themselves had achieved an important status in society. Its activists were committed and courageous. However, its leadership, under false guidance from Moscow, saw the revolution as one to bring about ‘democratic capitalism’, postponing the struggle for socialism until the indefinite future. As a result, ICP members participated in the Qasim government which, despite its reforms and conflicts with imperialism, did not break with capitalism. While it was necessary to be prepared to fight against counter-revolution alongside Qasim and his supports, it was vital for the ICP to have a strategy of campaigning to mobilise to take the oil industry and key means of production into democratic control and ownership under a government of workers and the poor based upon workers’ and popular organisations. Ultimately, the rank-and-file members of the ICP paid for the mistakes of their leadership in blood, after the downfall of Qasim in the 1963 coup.
Revolution was in the air in Iraq after 1958. The working class was well organised, ready to fight, and expecting to take the struggle for socialism through to its conclusion. Sometimes anger exploded to the surface in an unorganised way – large businesses were looted, stooges of the old regime suffered lynchings, and groups of armed peasants chased their former landlords from the land. But the working class needed a political lead, which wasn’t forthcoming from the ICP leaders. The last century has shown that, in the neocolonial world, capitalism is not capable of providing stable democratic societies, or even lasting political reforms, as imperialism assists the forces of political reaction to achieve its objective of economic subjugation of underdeveloped nations.
Instead, as Leon Trotsky explained in his essay Results and Prospects in 1906 and his 1929 book The Permanent Revolution, the working class, leading behind it the poor peasants and other oppressed masses in society, has the power to bring about socialist change, in Iraq and across the neocolonial world. The ICP, however, took its lead from the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow, whose ‘two-stage’ approach reflected their fear of socialist revolution breaking out in other countries, especially one in close vicinity to Russia such as Iraq. Such a movement would have inevitably spilled over into the USSR itself and threatened the Soviet bureaucracy’s own privileged positions. It’s vital for socialists around the world to learn the lessons from the tragedy of the revolutionary movement in Iraq between 1958 and 1963, and make sure that when the opportunity to change society comes around in the future, it is grasped with both hands.