Tony Cliff

The Middle East at the Crossroads



III. The Role of Stalinism

Tony Cliff, Stalinism in the Middle East, Fourth International, Vol. 7 No. 2, February 1946.
Tony Cliff, Imperialism in the Middle East III, Workers International News, Vol.6 No.5, February–March 1946.
Part III of Tony Cliff, Middle East at the Crossroads, London 1946.
Translated from Hebrew by R. Bod.
Transcribed by David Walters.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Below is the third and last section of an extensive survey of the present situation in the Middle East, written by a Palestinian Trotskyist. The first two parts, which dealt with the imperialist interests and with the role of Zionism there, appeared in the December 1945 and January 1946 issues of Fourth International. The translation is by R. Bod.

With the complication of class and national antagonisms, with the deepening of the socio-political crisis, the present situation in the Middle East can lead to one of two things: either the rise of a great revolutionary proletarian power which will lead the masses of peasants in the national liberation struggle, or the bloody victory of imperialist reaction and its allies in the upper classes. If the crisis is not solved in a revolutionary manner, it will inevitably be solved in a counter-revolutionary manner. Either revolution or communal slaughter, pogroms, etc. History itself does not give the young proletariat of the Middle East any possibility of evading the great trial. If imperialism intends to use pogroms and chauvinist incitement as a preventive measure against the coming revolution, the working class must utilise the accumulated wrath of the masses of people for the overthrow of the regime of social and national subjugation. Against chauvinism to pose internationalism. The necessity for the internationalist revolutionary party is a life and death matter. Who can fill this role?

The Second International has only one party in the Middle East. This is Mapai, the Zionist Socialist Party of Palestine, which does not differ one iota from other Zionist parties on major issues (alliance with imperialism, the expulsion of Arabs from work in the Jewish economy, eviction of Arab peasants, etc.). The Second International has no Arab sections as the grave conditions in the East do not suit the growth of reformist parties which seek kid-glove solutions.

The Stalinists have parties in the Middle East in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine (one purely Arab party, one purely Jewish party). In Egypt and Iraq they have a few tiny groups without any influence. In reality the Stalinist leadership is impotent through and through and far from any thought of the revolutionary class struggle. Thus the secretary of the Syrian Communist Party, Khaled Bakdash, writes:

It is evident that the problem of national liberation is a problem of the nation as a whole, and it is therefore possible without discussion to get the compliance of the whole nation around this great slogan, to realise full national unity. National liberation is in the interests of all inhabitants, no matter what sect, religion or class they belong to. It is in the interests of the workers, just as it is in the interests of the employers; and it is in the interests of the fellah just as it is in the interests of the national landowners; it is in the interests of small and big merchants alike. (The Communist Party in the Struggle for Independence and National Sovereignty, Beirut, 1944, p. 74).

He goes on: “Our appreciation and honour of the national capitalist who struggles faithfully for national liberation is not less than our appreciation of the national worker who struggles for national liberation.” (Ibid., p. 75). And without shame he continues: “He who reads our National Programme (the programme which was adopted by the Congress of the Syrian and Lebanese Communist Parties (Dec. 31, 1943–Jan. 1, 1944 – T.C.) will find that it does not mention socialism. There is not one expression or demand which has a socialist colouring.” In accordance with this line the CP decided to do away with the red flag as the flag of the party and the Internationale as its anthem. The flag of the Syrian party is now the Syrian flag and its anthem the Syrian national anthem; and the flag and anthem of the Lebanese party those of Lebanon. And in order to be worthy of sitting together with the “national capitalists and landowners” their form of address changed from “Comrade” to “Mister.” Bakdash is a pocket edition of Stalin. His speeches served as guides to the Arab Stalinists in all the other Arab countries, who do all they can to prove that their nationalist fervour is not less than that of their teacher.

Thus when the “Arab Party,” led by the Mufti, Haj Amin el-Husseini, who acted as the mouthpiece of the Nazis among the Arabs, was revived in June 1944, the Arab Stalinists, organised in the National Freedom League, hastened to send the following telegram to the leadership of the party: “The National Freedom League in Palestine congratulates you on your decision to bring your national party into activity, and we believe that this decision will help us all in unifying our efforts in the service of our dear homeland.”

From this general approach flows the attitude of the Stalinists to the class interests of the workers and peasants. The clause in the National Program of the Communist Party in Syria and Lebanon which deals with the fellaheen is formulated thus: “Attention must be paid to the position of the fellah and his liberation from poverty, illiteracy and backwardness.” What do “attention” and “liberation” mean? Khaled Bakdash gave a clear answer to this in his speech of May 1, 1944:

We assure the landowners that we do not demand and will not demand in Parliament the confiscation of their estates and lands, but on the contrary we want to help them by demanding the construction of large-scale irrigation enterprises, the facilitation of the import of fertiliser and modern machinery! ... All we demand in exchange – for this is pity on the fellah and that he be taken out of his poverty and illiteracy and that knowledge and health be spread in the village! These are our economic, or, if you can say so, social demands. They are democratic and very modest. (The Communist Party in Syria and Lebanon: its National Policy and its National Program, Beirut, 1944, pp. 24–).

Bakdash is right on one point: the plea for pity is really a very modest “demand.”

The Stalinists in other Arab countries follow the same line and also do not think about division of the feudal estates.

In regard to the class struggle of the worker, the line of argument is the same: “We are very modest, very conciliatory, ready with all our hearts to defend your capital, Arab bourgeois. You, too, be modest and conciliatory.” ... Instead of an appeal to the workers to struggle and organise independently for their demands comes the appeal to the conscience of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois state. Thus for example, when the workers in the soap factories of Tripoli went on strike, Saut u-sh-Sha’ab, Stalinist daily (Beirut July 15, 1944) wrote: “We hope that the employers will agree to the demands of the workers as they do not demand a lot, and that the government will intervene between the employers and the workers and solve the question in a just way.” In August 1944 the municipal workers of Beirut went on strike. They were savagely beaten by the police, and many were dismissed by the municipality. Saut u-sh-Sha’ab appealed to the government asking it to intervene in the interests of the workers August 2–3, 1944. Apparently the police is not an arm of the government!

On August 11, 1944, Saut u-sh-Sha’ab described the terrible conditions of the silk workers. The conclusions? The government must send an investigation committee.

In a steadily increasing number of cases the workers are coming to ask for support in a strike or other economic struggle, and the party always mollifies them in order not to violate “national unity.” At a meeting of the Communist Party of Lebanon, Faraj Allah el-Hilu, secretary of the party, severely attacked those who try to lead part of the Lebanese astray and to create a spirit of doubt about the government. And if Saut u-sh-Sha’ab said that at this meeting (January 1944) “the workers and the employers, the fellaheen and the landowners sat side by side,” one wonders whether the words of el-Hilu weakened the doubts of the workers and peasants about the government, or whether they increased their doubts about the Stalinist leadership which tails behind the employers and landowners and their government.



Stalinists follow Kremlin’s zigzags

This tailing is a product of the Stalinists’ dependence on the foreign policy of the Kremlin which caused them to lose any backbone they may once have boasted and to change their colours with chameleon rapidity.

A leaflet issued in October 1939 by the Central Committee of the Palestine Communist Party (at that time composed of Jews and Arabs combined) said: “The Hitler against whom Chamberlain is fighting is not the same Hitler he led against the Soviet Union. This Hitler who cannot conduct a campaign against the Soviet Union, but must obey (no more, no less! – T.C.) the instructions of Moscow is today no more the gendarme of Chamberlain and Daladier.” Apparently he is the gendarme of world peace!

The Stalinists reached their peak during the time of Rashid Ali’s coup d’etat. It could be seen by even the blind that Rashid Au was a plaything in the hands of Germany, even without knowing the exact connections between him and Nazis. At this time the Middle East in general was not ready for any mass uprising against British imperialism. The German army was threatening to enter the Middle East. In Syria hundreds of German agents were working hand-in-glove with the Vichy administration. Under such conditions obviously no Iraqi movement could exploit the antagonism between the rival imperialist powers for the liberation of the country, and all that could evolve from the situation was that the weak Iraqi movement beaded by Rashid Ali, the butcher of the Assyrians, be exploited by one imperialist power for its advantage over another.

The question of who would take advantage of whom, whether the national movement could benefit from the antagonism between the imperialist powers, or one imperialist power from the antagonism between another imperialist power and the oppressed nation, is decided by the relative weight of the three. Any analogy, therefore, between Rashid Ali’s “movement” and the mass movement of liberation of the Indian millions, backed up by the Chinese colossus, is entirely out of place. Decisive proof of Rashid Ali’s being a German agent without any popular support whatsoever, was given, when, after the effortless overthrow of his government by the British, he fled to Germany.

But at the time the Stalinists could not see all this, since the Russo-German pact was then still in force. And so, Ra’if Khoury, one of the Stalinist “theoreticians” in Syria, wrote about the Rashid Ali coup: “I think I shall not be exaggerating if I say that this movement is the first strong, serious Arab movement aiming at the liberty and independence of the Arabs, and the strengthening of their common existence” (Principles of National Conscience, Beirut, 1941, Arabic, p. 91). “We have written out, with pride and satisfaction, the declarations of His Excellency, the Prime Minister (Rashid Ali), that his government is not in the service of anyone, as the money-grabbers make out.” (Ibid., p. 92). “We have for the first time seen an Arab government carrying arms shoulder to shoulder with its people.” (Ibid., p. 93). And as for Germany: “We are astonished why the grand Axis power did not officially recognise independent Iraq and its government, notwithstanding the power’s help, which demands our thanks, as official recognition is of particular value.” (Ibid., pp. 23–24). With such sentiments he ended his thoughts on Rashid Ali.

But after a while Stalin gave a hint and the line abruptly changed.

If up to now the whole East was the foe of imperialism and “the masses of Indians and Arabs were on the eve of open revolts against imperialist rule” (Kol Ha’am, Hebrew organ of the Palestine Communist Party, June 1940), now a decisive change occurred in the situation: “the government must understand that it has an important region of friends in the Middle East” (Kol Ha’am, Dec. 1942). Up to now, the “British Government in Palestine represented the regime of subjugation, exploitation, repression and black reaction. This regime is the same regime of Hitler and Mussolini with whom the British-French imperialism struggle for the monopoly over the exploitation of the proletariat of the capitalist countries and the oppressed nations of the colonies.” (Kol Ha’am, July 1940). From now on the British High Commissioner is the representative of democracy, and “we keep in our hearts his good personal features ... the manifestation of his true social characteristics.” (Al-Ittikad, organ of the Arab Stalinists in Palestine, Sept. 3, 1944).



Stalinists laud Churchill

And if the British army is sent to suppress the Greek proletariat, then “we consider ... that the British government will understand that its behaviour (in Greece) is not free from shortsightedness and it will change it ... as Mr. Churchill is a man who did a lot for democracy, and it does not stand to reason that he will insist on the suppression of the Greeks. That is the meaning of Mr. Churchill’s and Mr. Eden’s voyage to Greece ... The visit to Greece of Mr. Churchill and Mr. Eden, whose efforts are directed to the solution of the Greek question, made a good impression on all circles.” (Al-Ittihad, Dec. 31, 1944).

But of course the efforts of Bakdash and his friends were of no avail. The Arab masses who are denied the most elementary democratic rights-freedom of organisation, assembly, speech and press-who live in conditions of cruel servitude, cannot believe that the World War, which did not bring any improvement whatsoever in their conditions, was a war for democracy. They understand simply that charity begins at home, and so despite all their efforts the Stalinists did not succeed in infusing any enthusiasm for the war. Instead spontaneous hunger demonstrations, strikes and clashes with imperialism and the local bourgeoisie (not reported in the world press) took place.



The tasks of the revolutionary movement

In Palestine the bankruptcy of the Stalinists received its dearest expression in connection with Zionism, in relation to the reactionary feudal leadership in the Arab national movement and the anti-Jewish terror. The 1936–39 upheaval was diverted from its real aims by the feudal leaders who were agents either of British imperialism or of Germany and Italy, and sometimes the two together (as for instance, Haj-Amin el-Husseini, Mufti of Jerusalem, who from 1917 to the Second World War was a British agent, and from 1941 lived in Berlin). At that time the Palestine Communist Party not only opposed Zionism-which is correct-but also wrongly and blindly supported the anti-Jewish terror without understanding that there is a great difference between communal terror and an anti-Zionist struggle. Thus a PCP leaflet of July 10, 1936, said: “By destroying the economy of the Zionist conquerors by acts of sabotage and partisan attacks, the Arab liberation movement wants to make the continuation of Zionist colonisation impossible.” In a circular to its branches of July 7, 1936, the Stalinist Central Committee writes: “The bomb thrown on the Workers’ House in Haifa (Histadrut House – T.C.) was thrown by members of the PCP by order of the Central Committee of the Party.” In the same days the Arab paper of the PCP (Saut u-sh-Sha’ab) published without commentary the declarations of the Mufti and supported his propaganda for anti-Jewish terror openly.

With the 180 degree swing in the policy of the Stalinists, when they became enthusiastic supporters of the “war for democracy,” the Jewish Stalinists began, with a few reservations, to support Zionism, servant of imperialism. Obviously the Arab Stalinists could not stomach this, and so the party split into two. The Jewish one (which does not have a single Arab member) continues to bear the name Palestine Communist Party. The Arab one, which according to its statutes may include only Arabs, is called National Freedom League. A race of patriotism between the two began. On V-Day the PCP went under the blue-and-white Zionist flag with the slogans of “Free Immigration,” “Extension of Colonisation,” “Development of the Jewish National Home,” “Down with the White Paper.” [1] The National Freedom League participates in the Arab National Front, which includes feudal and bourgeois parties and fights “Against Zionist Immigration,” “Against Transfer of Land to Zionists,” “For the White Paper.”

Are such nonentities as Bakdash and his Arab friends, or the Jewish Stalinists, capable of leading an international revolutionary struggle against imperialism, against the British, French, American, Arab and Jewish exploiters and thus putting an end to the bloody provocations of the reaction?

There is a tremendous disproportion between the ripening of the objective conditions in the world and in the Middle East driving towards a revolutionary struggle, and between the building of the revolutionary party in the Middle East. If this disproportion is not overcome in time, a terrible catastrophe will threaten the masses in this region. But there is no place for pessimism or defeatism. The problem will be resolved not through one battle, but in a series of battles which can give even small revolutionary nuclei great possibilities of development.

In the Arab East the initial nuclei of class organisations exist. The Trade Unions in Egypt have about 200,000 members, in Syria and Lebanon about 40,000, in Palestine (excluding the Histadrut, which is mainly a Zionist and not a trade unionist organisation) 10-12,000. There are thus about a quarter of a million workers organised in trade unions. This is a small but by no means insignificant, minority.

The Russian Revolution of 1905, and even more the Chinese Revolution of 1925–27, proved clearly that the idea that strong organisations are a precondition for the class struggle is the product of a mechanistic, undialectical approach. Sometimes, and especially where the masses are deprived of the most elementary rights, organisations are forged in the fire of the struggle. Thus during the Chinese Revolution the trade union movement increased from 200,000 to 2,000,000, and tens of millions of peasants followed it. Furthermore, the trade union movement had hardly been born when the creation of soviets was put on the order of the day. If in the conditions of cruel servitude, only a small minority is organised in trade unions, and of this minority, very tiny nuclei dare to struggle for the class independence of the trade unions from the employers, their parties and state, then in conditions of tumult, of the shaking of the domination and prestige of the ruling classes by national and social uprisings, the workers organised in trade unions become self-confident, straighten their bowed backs, and struggle courageously for the independent class action of their organisations. Hundreds of thousands who knew nothing of organisation stir from their deep torpor, dare to organise and struggle. The electricity in the air turns every minor economic conflict into a large-scale political explosion, and every political explosion, increasing the general tension, in turn begets widespread economic struggles.

In such conditions the revolutionary political organisation, no matter how weak during the former “peaceful” days, can increase swiftly, and become the decisive factor. The first nuclei of Fourth Internationalists exist in Egypt and Palestine. The primary task at the moment is to strengthen and unite them into one party of the Arab East.



Main tasks of proletariat

As against the imperialist policy of “divide and rule” the proletariat of the Arab East must build up an international front of the class struggle. The main tasks before it are: the agrarian revolution and achievement of national independence, and the unity of the Arab countries divided by imperialist and dynastic interests. These tasks are very closely connected. They are combined with the task of overcoming the inner partition between communities and the abolition of all national privileges, with the struggle against discrimination against minorities, and for their full equality of rights. It is clear that any national inequality will be wholly uprooted by the agrarian revolution and the nationalisation of the enterprises of imperialist capital which will open wide the path for the economic and cultural rise of all the masses without distinction of community and nation.

In order to frustrate the efforts of reaction and to exploit all revolutionary possibilities in the Arab East, the working class of the Middle East needs the help of the English worker. The English worker must understand what happens in the East, the role of the different powers acting in it, and the real interests of big finance capital which motivates imperialist policy in the East. He must understand that any communal clashes in the East are only the product of imperialism, that the imperialist policy of alternately supporting and limiting Zionist activity has as its real aim the incitement of national hatred, and that

Zionism is a real enemy of Arab and Jewish masses alike. He must understand that only the taking of the British occupation army out of the East will enable the artificial differences and conflicts between the different communities (from differences in the standard of living and national competition to bloody clashes and pogroms) to be abolished. Only the overthrow of imperialism will enable the masses of the East to free themselves from economic and political subjugation and will free the English masses from the necessity of being cannon-fodder for finance capital.



1. In January, 1940, Kol Ha’am wrote: “The stopping of Zionist immigration which breaks through into the country, which lowers the standard of living of the masses, and which complicates the political and economic affairs of the country and its regulation according to the White Paper that in general must be the path along which a devoted and honest people must go.”


Last updated on 3 February 2017