T. Cliff

The Problem of the Middle East


by Anne Alexander

Mahalla strikers

Striking workers in Mahalla al-Kubra, 1947
Downloaded from Flickr. Picture from Socialist Worker archives, uploaded by Hossam el-Hamalawy

It is entirely appropriate that this book, which was written on the cusp of one revolutionary era, should be published for the first time in full on the cusp of another. The manuscript itself was largely completed in July 1945 and revised in 1946 following mass strikes and protests in Egypt which seemed to offer confirmation of the book’s central arguments.

The book was written in difficult circumstances, while the author bided time in hiding from the police, but despite his apparent isolation, Cliff sketched a prescient picture of a region on the brink of revolutionary crisis. His sense that the old regimes of the Middle East had entered a terminal decline under the pressure both their internal social and political contradictions and geopolitical shifts in the balance between the imperialist powers competing over the domination of the region, was borne out by the events of the following decades.

Cliff’s characterisation of agrarian relations in the mid-twentieth century Middle East as ‘feudal’ would not be accepted by most historians today, but his argument that the political order based on the alliance between the old colonial powers, the landlords and urban merchants was a block on social and economic development across the region remains convincing.

Although the post-1945 crisis did not, as Cliff and other Trotskyists expected, herald the final ‘death agony of capitalism’ on a global scale, in the Middle East, it opened the door to long revolutionary moment encompassing insurrection against French colonialism in Algeria, the Nakba in Palestine, repeated popular uprisings, peasant rebellions and waves of mass strikes across the region and eventually the overthrow of the monarchies in Egypt and Iraq.


Unsurprisingly, a large part of the book focuses on the role of Zionism. Faced with the daily reality of attempting to build a revolutionary socialist organisation in British-occupied Palestine, Cliff was completely convinced that the Zionist leaders’ assertion that Palestinian Arab rights would be protected in a future Jewish state were nothing but ‘lullabies’.

“The Zionist leaders are quite right when they say that Zionism serves imperialism. Their words to the Arabs are pure lies.”

In a detailed analysis of the Histadrut, he concluded that it was difficult to characterise the Zionist labour organisation as a trade union, since it was itself a major employer and that its principal aims were not those of the working class, but those of the wider Zionist movement. An exploration of the social roots of Zionism itself likewise left him doubtful that it could be described as a national movement. On the ultimate futility of the Zionist enterprise he was perfectly clear:

“Zionism does not redeem Jewry from suffering. On the contrary, it imperils them with a new danger, that of being a buffer between imperialism and the national and social liberatory struggle of the Arab masses.”

In the event, Cliff underestimated the Zionist movement’s capacity to turn the Jewish community in Palestine into a powerful state, which would not only dominate the Palestinian Arabs, but act as a pillar in the regional architecture of imperialism. His analysis of the 1936-9 Palestinian revolt could also be said to underplay the significance of Palestinian resistance from below. Whilst Cliff is absolutely correct about the reactionary character of the Mufti’s leadership of the revolt, he is too negative about the impact the armed peasant movement posed to the British Mandate. Recent research has uncovered an impressive degree of independent peasant organisation. Certainly the British authorities were sufficiently alarmed to scrap partition plans and offer a binational state in the 1939 White Paper.

Nevertheless, his assessment of the intertwined interests of the Zionist leadership, the imperialist powers and the Arab ruling classes in perpetuating both the oppression of the Palestinians and the exploitation of the Arab masses, proved far-sighted. The Egyptian revolution of 2011 also raises again, more forcefully than ever, the questions posed by Cliff’s insistence that the road to a liberated Palestine passes through Cairo.

‘An independent proletarian power’

The book’s presentation of the contours of the new political landscape which would be created as a result of crisis from above and struggle from below, was also remarkably accurate, particularly in relation to the emergence of the organised working class as political actor in its own right for the first time. At the heart of the book was the proposal that as in Russia in 1917, the young and small working class could assume leadership of a revolution which would overthrow both the ‘feudal’ regimes and their colonial sponsors.

“The political role of the proletariat in Arab society is determined not by its numbers but by its place in the general economic system—where it holds the key positions in its hands—by its place in the system of relations existing among all the classes of Arab society (primarily its place in the agrarian revolution) and by its place in the anti-imperialist struggle. … The proletariat of the Arab East must travel rapidly through a combined development. Young, raw, inexperienced and unlearned, it must march with seven league boots, skipping many stages which the proletariat of the developed countries passed through and pass through others very rapidly.”

Key to Cliff’s analysis was the rise of independent workers’ organisations in Egypt, and it is easy to imagine his excitement as the arguments he advanced in a relatively abstract fashion in the first draft of the manuscript, appeared confirmed by events in February 1946 when the new Egyptian trade unions were catapulted into the leadership of a mass movement demanding British military withdrawal. Thanks to the help of Arabic-speaking comrades, in particular Gabriel Baer (credited as S. Munir in the acknowledgements), he was very well-informed about the dynamics of workers’ struggles in Egypt. In addition to citing numerous Egyptian publications, his knowledge of the activities of the Egyptian Trotskyists, including quotations from their leaflets and details of the balance of political forces on the Alexandria branch of the National Committee of Workers and Students, point to the interconnections between his small group in Palestine and a much wider network of revolutionary activists.

One group which particularly caught his attention was the Workers’ Committee for National Liberation, which counted among its leadership a number of key trade unionists and published a weekly paper, Al-Damir. Cliff was full of praise for Al-Damir’s insistence on the “economic and political independence of the working class”, and noting “it does not refrain from attacking the leaders of the national movement and its stand on the national question is in open contradiction to the Stalinist theory of national unity.” Moreover, the paper’s line on the leading role of the working class in the struggles to come echoed Cliff’s own:

“The words of Al-Damir of 24th October that ‘the working class, which during the revolt of 1919 fought and was led has today become the fighter and leader’ proved absolutely true a few months later.”

Cliff’s description of the huge protests against British military occupation in February 1946 vividly convey his excitement at the dramatic turn of events (and contain striking echoes of scenes in Tahrir Square in February 2011).

“On the 21st. February, ‘Evacuation Day’ … about 100,000 workers and students made a strike and demonstration in Cairo. The spirit of the demonstrators was clearly revealed in the fact that none of the traditional parties had any sway over them. When Ahmed Husayn, the leader of the fascist party ‘Misr al-Fatat’ tried to worm his way into the midst of the turbulent masses, he was greeted with cries of ‘Down with Fascism!’ and was forced to retire without speaking. The solidarity of Moslems, Christians and Jews was an oft-repeated slogan throughout the demonstrations. Sudanese students studying in Egypt who called for a common struggle against British imperialism were carried shoulder high.”

Permanent revolution

One of the most important lines of argument in the book was Cliff’s insistence that the struggles for national liberation, social justice and democracy could not be divided neatly into boxes or separated artificially into stages. The revolutionary process was intensified by struggles in one domain acting on, and deepening struggles in another. The role of foreign capital in manufacturing, for example, created an intimate connection between workers’ battles over economic demands and the movement for national liberation. He rejected categorically attempts to relegate the working class to a subordinate role in a broad cross-class ‘national front’ against imperialism.

“This conception is based on the consideration of imperialist rule as a mechanical external frame which suppresses the colonies. In reality imperialist rule is connected with every fibre of the body of colonial economy and society and it by no means objectively weakens the class differentiation in the colonial people but on the contrary strengthens it.”

Rising levels of intertwined social and political struggles led by the organised working class would naturally force the Arab bourgeoisie ‘further into the arms of imperialism’, Cliff believed, opening the road to a revolution which, following Trotsky’s theory, would immediately place the struggle for socialism on the order of the day.

“Having but just experienced a difficult birth, the Arab trade unions will be faced with the necessity of organising soviets. Every economic struggle can easily grow into a political clash and the electrified atmosphere of the political struggle will generate a great series of partial economic struggles. Mass organisations will not be mainly a precondition for the struggle but its result. In a short time the working class will be compelled, in the fire of struggle, to build its mass revolutionary party, its fortified trade unions, its soviets.”

Unfinished revolution

Both the book and the revolution in the Middle East remained unfinished. Cliff moved to Britain in 1946, taking the precious manuscript with him. He continued to make hand-written annotations, and from time to time sections from the book would appear in his writings, but abandoned the idea of publishing the manuscript as a whole.

Probably the principal reason for this was that, although his prediction that a revolutionary wave would engulf the region was proved right, the outcome was not the one he hoped to see. Army officers in Egypt and Iraq seized power on the back of the struggles from below, but were able to deflect the revolution onto a track of state-capitalist economic development and crush independent workers’ organisations, a process Cliff would explore in his later writings.

In Mao’s China (1957), and later in Deflected Permanent Revolution (1963), Cliff argued that the expectations of the generation of the forties that other classes beside the working class could not lead the revolutions which shook the colonial world had proved incorrect. Despite his hopes in 1945, it was not workers who would strike the final blows against the old order in Egypt and Iraq, but dissident army officers. The Free Officers were drawn from, and representative of, a rapidly growing modern urban lower middle class which would, like the workers, rise in rebellion against a political system which excluded them and tried to restrict social and economic development within narrow limits. It was from this layer, rather than the old landlord class that the leaders of the new wave of Arab nationalist organisations, such as the Ba’th Party in Iraq and Syria would be drawn. In Egypt, the Free Officers’ seizure of power opened the possibility of using the state to accelerate economic development, and provided the lower middle class intelligentsia with an opportunity to make a new world in their own image.

“They hope for reform from above and would dearly love to hand the new world over to a grateful people, rather than see the liberating struggle of a self-conscious and freely associated people result in a new world for themselves. They care a lot for measures to drag their nation out of stagnation, but very little for democracy. They embody the drive for industrialisation, for capital accumulation, for national resurgence. Their power is in direct relation to the feebleness of other classes, and their political nullity.” [Deflected Permanent Revolution]

Cliff never explored in detail the question as to why the workers’ movement in the Middle East, which had showed such promise in 1945, proved incapable of playing the leading role assigned to it Trotsky’s theory. The positions taken by the largest Stalinist organisations in Egypt and Iraq during the revolutions of 1952 and 1958, would have certainly figured strongly in such an analysis. Tragically, at pivotal moments in both revolutions, the largest organisations of the revolutionary left, Egypt’s Democratic Movement for National Liberation (DMNL) and the Iraqi Communist Party, swung behind the new military regimes, arguing that workers’ interests could only be advanced under the leadership of a national front against imperialism. In the case of Egypt this meant abandoning striking textile workers to the gallows at Kafr al-Dawwar, while in Iraq, the Communist Party brought a million people onto the streets of Baghdad on 1 May 1959, only to step back from the brink of seizing state power.

A revolutionary generation

The Problem of the Middle East underlines the importance of Cliff’s membership of the generation of Marxists which emerged in the region in the 1940s both to his own life and to the organisation he founded. That he was part of a generation of revolutionary socialists shaped by an organic connection to the mass movement from below and schooled in the struggle against imperialism, shines out from every page. Some of this generation would tragically fail a crucial test when it came to the question of independent working class leadership of the revolutionary movement, but there were others, like Cliff himself, who remained utterly committed to this principle.

Yusuf Darwish was one of those who kept alive the best traditions of the forties until the end. A leading figure in the Marxist group which worked with Egyptian trade union activists to found the Workers’ Committee for National Liberation, he played a pivotal role in building both the new unions and the struggle against the British in Egypt. Cliff never met Darwish, but his excitement over the activities of the WCNL and the arguments made in Al-Damir during 1945 and 1946, is testament to the common ground between them. [1]

That shared commitment to building revolutionary organisation founded on an organic connection to workers’ struggles from below can also be seen, it could be argued, in their influence on a significant section of the Egyptian revolutionary left today. Fifty years after Cliff left the Middle East for good, his writings found a new audience in Egypt, and played an important role in rebuilding revolutionary socialist organisation during the two decades before the fall of Mubarak. Many of the same activists who were reading and translating Cliff’s works also spent hours with Yusuf Darwish, as he passed on his experience to a new generation of socialists, lessons which they would put to good use in the struggle to build a new generation of independent trade unions out of the strike wave since 2006.

It remains to be seen whether, this time round, the revolutionary potential of the Egyptian working class, which Cliff made the heart of The Problem of the Middle East will be fulfilled. What is certain, however, is that the awesome power of the uprising against Mubarak in February 2011, in which Egyptian workers played a pivotal role, demonstrates the urgency of addressing the questions of revolutionary organisation which Cliff poses here.


Anne Alexander
London, June 2011


1. Cliff and Darwish were also both from a Jewish background, as Darwish’s family came from the Karaite sect.

Last updated on 23.6.2011