T. Cliff

The Problem of the Middle East

Part IV
The National Movement in the Arab East

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Chapter XVIII
The National Movement in Iraq

The national movement of the Iraqi Arabs is very different from the national movement of the Egyptian, Palestinian or Syrian Arabs or indeed from the national movements in other colonies in general. Let us analyze the social forces in the national movement in Iraq.

The national movement in general is the product of the rise of capitalism which unites the different parts of the country in a broad economic and cultural unity and in this way makes of the people – viz. the group which inhabits one territory and speaks one language – a nation which also feels a consciousness of the economic and social ties between its different parts. If the building up of the national state – the form of state which gives the best possibilities for the development of rising capitalism – comes up against obstacles from without, a national movement is created, and then only can it have a durable basis, whether under bourgeois or proletarian leadership. On the other hand, if the oppressed people is not in a process of transition to capitalism, if it is still in the stage of primitive feudalism without any economic bonds connecting its different parts, then the external pressure of imperialism may arouse a movement of opposition, which, however, will inevitably be sporadic, defective, short-lived and under the leadership of the feudal class. The national movement of Iraq is a combination and merging not only of the two above-mentioned kinds of movement – the movement of a nation and the movement of a people as well as the movement of a people which is not yet a nation – but also of a third kind – the movement of nomads who have not yet become a people, as they have not yet settled on a fixed territory. So to the question: are the Iraqis a people or a nation no one-word answer can be given. Their position is more complicated, as, in part they are in a process of the construction of a nation from a people and in part in a process of the construction of a people from nomadic tribes.

This determines the character of the national movement in Iraq.

Whereas in all the colonies the feudal class meets imperialism at the beginning of its penetration with antagonism, owing to its introduction of changes in the life of the country, which the feudal class desires to remain as it is, in Iraq, most of the feudal lords have but recently arisen, they being in the main sheikhs who have become landowners to a great extent under imperialist auspices.

The Iraqi bourgeoisie is poor and small and in the main a commercial bourgeoisie. The majority of the big bourgeoisie are not Arabs, but Jews. The independent weight of the bourgeoisie is therefore very small. And seeing that the Bedouins do not incline at all to being its storm troops, it has really no power whatsoever.

As far as the Bedouin tribal chiefs are concerned, they may be divided into two categories: those who have already become, or are in the process of becoming, feudal lords, and those who still preserve their natural state. The former are faithful allies of imperialism as they are to a large extent settled and maintained by it, while the latter are liable to rise up against it as it ruins their livelihood (which they get from plunder and camel transport) or imposes taxes upon them. But the very factor which makes them liable to rise up against imperialism may also throw them into its very arms: the withering away of the chiefs’ sources of livelihood is liable to strengthen their dependence on the subsidies and bribes which the authorities distribute. Sir Arnold Wilson writes about the sheikhs who were elevated by the government to the rank of mudir or government representative:

‘once selected, soon appreciated the value of an official position, they attached a value to the position, usually of 15 sterling pounds a month, that went with the title of Mudir … and were willing to obey any order sooner than risk losing it …’ (Loyalties, Mesopotamia, 1914–1917, p. 295, cited by M.F. Jamali in The New Iraq, New York 1934, p. 59).

Even if the tribal chiefs display some opposition to the authorities this has no countrywide, encompassing national character, and much less so has it any political character. The Bedouin chiefs, and especially those not in transition to feudal estate ownership and not government representatives, <p. 159> do not desire any national state, but rather the eradication of all state authority.

The masses of peasants, who are most deeply antagonistic to their feudal lords, are incapable of any independent revolutionary activity and require the leadership of another more progressive, urban class, not only for the same reasons applying to peasants throughout the world (dispersion in small villages, internal class division etc.) but for two additional reasons: a large portion of them being semi-Bedouins, firstly they are much split up into different tribes and clans, and secondly, their uprising against their sheikh-feudal lords is apt to take on (and already has in various uprisings which broke out at the end of the last and beginning of this century) a ‘Luddite’ – machine-wrecking – form that is an endeavour to return to nomadic conditions.

The Iraqi proletariat is too small and weak, leaning on the very unstable forces of the semi-Bedouin peasants who are yet bound up in their clans and immersed in their religious prejudices, to be able to solve that complex of problems which is the fruit of a combination of economic, social and cultural forms belonging to historical periods thousands or perhaps myriads of years apart. But on the other hand, seeing that only the proletarian revolution will be able to solve all the grave problems confronting Iraq – irrigation, settlement, industrial development etc. – therefore under pressure of the revolution in other countries, primarily the more developed centres of the Arab East, the Iraqi proletariat may come to have great weight.

A further cause of Iraq’s weakness is the presence of a large national minority in the country – the Kurds. According to one estimate the number of Kurds before the war was about 700–800 thousand or more than 20 per cent of the total population. They earn their livelihood mainly from agriculture and pastoral farming. The conditions of the Kurd peasant are not different to that of the Arab fellah – the conditions of the feudal order. A Kurd proletariat and intelligentsia also exist. The Kurd population of Iraq is concentrated in a continuous area in Mosul. There are besides, about 1½ million Kurds in Turkey, about 600 thousand in Iran, about 250 thousand in Syria and about 50 thousand in Russia.

Already in 1919 political independence was promised the Iraqi Kurds by England and France. But as the interests of the English petroleum companies demand the annexation of Mosul to Iraq, the promise was not fulfilled. The Kurds protested and demanded independence at least within the borders of Mosul, but to no avail. Their frequent risings were also fruitless. Despite the government of Iraq’s pledge to establish a wide network of schools in the Kurdish medium, only a negligible number of elementary schools was established. The pledge to recognise Kurdish as an official language was also not fulfilled. In addition the Kurds are discriminated against in appointments to government posts. All their sanguinary and extended uprisings were suppressed by the collaborating Iraqi and British armies.

The feudal Kurds with their special interests disrupted the Kurdish movement which rose in Iraq, Turkey and Iran causing it to fail in its attempt at unified action. Owing to disunity among the leaders the Kurdish rebellions in Iraq broke out at entirely different times to those in the other countries, and on the other hand, when the big Kurdish rebellion broke out against Turkey in 1925, the Kurds in Iraq remained quite quiet. More than this, even in Iraq itself unity among the Kurds is an unknown thing. To cite an instance, in the plebiscite on Faisal’s coming to the throne (1921) the Kurds in Kirkuk voted against Faisal, in Sulaimaniya they boycotted the plebiscite and in Mosul supported Faisal. But although the Kurds may have been too disunited entirely to throw off the yoke of the states which oppress them they are yet strong enough to be a source of trouble, especially in the case of Iraq where they are relatively most numerous and which in any event is weak. The harassing power of the Kurds against the oppressive Iraqi government was strengthened with the increase of Russian activity in Iran, the achievement of autonomy for Azerbaijan and the erection of a Kurdish state bordering on it. The establishment of an independent Kurdistan is quite clearly in the vital interests of the Arab masses, for only in this way will the Kurds turn from being a factor which weakens the Iraqi state and assists imperialism to subjugate it, to a link in the chain of liberatory forces in the East: the Arabs will not be free of imperialism as long as they subjugate other peoples. But it is absolutely clear that army officers and state officials living on the subsidies drawn from the oil companies will not dream of granting independence to the Kurds especially if such a thing is undesirable to British imperialism.

<p. 160> Until now there has been only one broad anti-imperialist uprising in Iraq, in 1920. This uprising clearly showed the lack of a general national Iraqi movement and the presence only of a number of communal, religious, personal and other antagonisms which are liable to break out and injure imperialism somewhat. In this uprising, which the Iraqi national leaders so much glorify, Amara or Basra, and the whole southern Tigris remained absolutely calm. In Baghdad, the capital, there was almost complete calm. The main movement was one of Bedouins in the south of the country. What action did take place in the north was also the work solely of the Bedouins. At the head of the movement in its centre, the Euphrates region, stood, not a party or group of parties, but the Higher Religious Council composed of 13 men, 10 of them sheikhs and two sayids (high-ranking clergymen)

It is self evident that such a movement would be rent with internal friction, for how can independent tribal chiefs combine in a true unity? It was the common grievances of all the tribes against British imperialism which gave the revolt, despite its leaders, such an encompassing character. They grumbled firstly because the British authorities compelled the tribal districts to pay many more taxes than they had been made to do by the Turks. In Muntafiq, for example, the tax income per head rose from less than a fifth of a rupee in 1916 to more than 5 rupees in 1922. Secondly it was the policy of the British authorities to favour some sheikhs above others. The unfavoured sheikhs saw in nationalism a surety of freedom both from taxes and also from the autocracy of the government sheikhs (and it is a fact that in the 1920 revolt the ire of the revolting sheikhs in many places was poured less on the British than on the government sheikhs who in many cases, were forced to flee the towns.)

The most grandiose effort of the national movement in Iraq – if the term ‘national movement’ can be used for the activity of tribes which have no political-national aims – was this revolt of 1920! Is there need of additional testimony of the inner weakness and negligibility of the ruling classes in Iraq – a land only now emerging from it’s completely barbarian state?

But the belated Iraqi bourgeoisie, the bourgeois intelligentsia which aspired to greatness and the army officers who desire the laurels of greatness, do not dare to look the facts in the face. And moreover, the self-glorification which is displayed to hide the emptiness must be in direct ratio to the futility of those who display it. Therefore, while the whole Iraqi military machine has but a few score of aeroplanes, the army is bedecked in much more magnificent uniforms than those of the British or American armies; the construction of a few police stations, a small number of roads and some bridges has received the title of ‘Five-Year Plan’; the imposition of an income tax of 15 per cent on the foreign companies has been proclaimed a stunning national victory!

This abyss between theory and practice that flows from the abyss that exists between the world outside of Iraq and the economic, social and cultural relations within got its clearest expression in the Iraqi code of law. As it is codified, it is indeed very democratic. Thus it lays down equality ‘before the law, whatever differences may exist in language, race or creed.’ (Article 6 of the Organic Law) This did not prevent the massacre of the Assyrians, nor the bestial suppression of the Kurds! ‘Liberty of expression of opinion, of the press and of association’ (Article 12) did not prevent the existence of the most severe censorship or the prohibition and break-up of trade unions; it even did not prevent the publication of the deliberations of the Chamber of Deputies from being prohibited (only the short official communiqué sent by the government is permitted publication). Article 7 prohibited deportation from Iraq, but when in 1933 the authorities wished to expel the Assyrians, this article did not check them at all, as a most suitable remedy was easily found in a special law declaring the Assyrians no longer Iraqis. Article 64 declares the ministers to be collectively, as a cabinet, and individually, responsible to the Chamber of Deputies which could force their resignation by a majority vote of confidence. No cabinet has ever fallen as an result of the putting into practice of this article!

In order to show how far this grand façade of ‘democracy’ is merely a cover for a not at all democratic regime, we shall cite one more example: how elections to the Iraqi parliament are arranged.

<p. 161> In capitalist countries, too, democracy does not give equal representation to all the classes, and where the economic and cultural standard of the masses is low and their organisations weak, democracy is even further from giving expression to their needs and interests. Where society is to a large extent feudal, the dependence of most of the people – the masses of peasants – on the landowners, the village notables and the religious sheikhs, makes democracy even more devoid of its content. Thus in the elections in Egypt, Syria and the Lebanon, the direct corruption by the capitalists, and the cultural and spiritual influence of the exploiting classes over the masses of workers combines with the slave mentality inculcated in the peasants by their feudal lords. In Iraq formal democracy is even further emptied of its content, so that the very notion ‘democracy’ becomes a farce. Thus Nuri Sa’id-Pasha, former Iraqi Prime Minister, told a correspondent of Al-Ahram (20/7/44) how the elections to parliament are conducted. They are based on the form practised since 1932 that

‘the nominations to the elections for every Chamber of Deputies are arranged to include the names of all former prime ministers and ministers who took part in the government more than twice, the heads of parliament, famous lawyers, eminent officials getting a pension from the government, prominent communal heads and tribal chiefs … and various notables who became prominent for important social services. These make up nearly 60 per cent of the members of the Chamber, and as far as the remainder is concerned it will be left to the will of the government holding the reins of authority and to Iraqis who wish to stand for the elections.’

Thus, even the ‘opposition’ members are appointed by the government! In sooth, this is not the dictatorship on a single man: but it certainly is the dictatorship of a small group of people. Are we, after this, surprised if the Iraqi consul in Egypt declared (in an interview with the correspondent of the weekly Akhir Sa’a, no. 498) ‘The existing order in Iraq is like the socialist order’. Yes, exactly like the socialist order!

The Marxist concept that ‘law can never be higher than the economic structure and cultural development of society conditioned by that structure’ is thus further exemplified. And it is clear that in a county of total and semi-Bedouins with small and primitive handicrafts, subjugated by imperialism with its giant oil enterprises with a tangle of tribal and communal antagonisms, and with a large state apparatus which in no wise conforms to the degree of development of the forces of production or national wealth, there is an excellent background not for democracy but for autocracy, for the conspiracies of the army chiefs, the bureaucracy of the state and tribal chiefs, corruption and treachery.

These conditions explain that network of international conspiracies and intrigues of the agents of different Powers. In such conditions a Rashid Ali Gailani could rise from being a Waqf official, to become member of parliament, head of the royal court and private secretary of Faisal, prime minister and butcher of the Assyrians under the British wing, and finally a puppet ruler under the wing of the Axis. It is these conditions of Iraq which have born the endless coups d’état, the permanent intervention of the army in determining the composition of the government, and the incessant communal and tribal uprisings.

Last updated on 28.5.2011