LESSONS OF THE 1958 IRAQI REVOLUTION
The National Theater in central Baghdad was packed with an
enthusiastic audience waving the Iraqi flag and red banners, July 12. The event,
organized by the Iraqi Communist Party, was a celebration of the 50th
anniversary of the July 14, 1958, revolution that overthrew Iraqs reactionary
monarchy (stamp commemorating the revolution pictured here).
Weekly World reports that in a speech to the crowd, Mohammed Jassim al-Labban, a
leader of the Iraqi Communist Party, hailed the achievements of the 1958
revolution and reminded a crowd that probably didn't need reminding, of lessons
of the July 14 revolution, with special emphasis on the need to uphold national
unity, both political and social, and to discard all forms of sectarianism.
"Political democracy, which was ignored or underestimated after the 1958
revolution, is also indispensable, al-Labban said. There should be no reliance
on foreign powers, whether nearby or far away, because Iraq's problems can only
be solved by Iraqis themselves.
There is more to remember than
Two of the main goals of the 14 July revolution, which had deep
roots in the Iraqi people's struggle, were liberating Iraq from foreign
domination and restoring sovereignty over its vast oil wealth that was plundered
by British, French and US monopolies. Nothing better summed up that stance than
the decision by the revolutionary government to pull out of the Baghdad Pact, a
military alliance with Britain and the United States, as well as limiting energy
exploitation by foreign oil companies to 0.5 per cent of the original oil
concessions they received from the pre- revolution regime and the eventual
nationalization of Iraqi oil.
Al-Ahram writes Iraqis now have to fight
for the same old goals. These include liberating their country and their
national resources from both foreign occupiers and their divided, corrupt
protégés and "stooges" who had carved Iraq into sectarian fiefdoms.
Meanwhile, both McCain and Obama support
this turnover of Iraqs rich oil resources to the same cartel of U.S., British,
French and Dutch companies that had 100 percent control of the countrys
petroleum from the mid-1920s until the 1958 revolution that ended Iraqs first
- "Obviously the deals that Iraq announced last month with three major
American oil companies, including Exxon Mobil and Chevron, to develop some of
its largest fields will affirm suspicions that Iraqi oil was the point of war,
especially with the disclosure that US government lawyers and private-sector
consultants provided template contracts and detailed suggestions on drafting
contracts. With its proven 112 billion barrel oil reserve, the second largest in
the world, along with roughly 220 billion barrels of probable and possible
resources, Iraq's oil seems destined -- if foreign colonial powers get their way
-- to be under foreign control, some 34 years after its
I'd like to just figure that neither of these guys
But I know better.
And so do you!
following article comes the Socialist Worker On Line (Great
Iraqs 1958 uprising
This month marks the 50th
anniversary of a revolution in Iraq that toppled the countrys British-backed
monarch. Anne Alexander writes on a revolt that inspired the Arab
Late on the evening of 13 July 1958, the 20th Infantry Brigade of
the Royal Iraqi Army broke camp at Jalawla and headed south, supposedly bound
for Iraqs border with Jordan.
For hours the convoy of 3,000 men rumbled
through the sleeping towns of Diyala province. But at 2.30am they halted at Bani
Said, just six miles from Baghdad. Instead of swinging west towards Jordan, the
brigade headed for the heart of the Iraqi capital.
A few hours later,
millions of Iraqis awoke to hear over the radio the voice of Abdul Salam Aref, a
young officer, announcing the overthrow of Iraqs Hashemite dynasty and the
birth of a new peoples republic.
The two leading figures in the coup
were Aref and Abdul Karim Qassem, activists in an underground network of Free
They knew they were taking a desperate gamble. Iraqs rulers
had honed their skills in repressing popular protest over many decades. Their
well-trained police force had crushed waves of demonstrations in 1956, 1952 and
a near-uprising in 1948.
Opposition parties even those led by liberal
social democrats and moderate nationalists had been forced underground, while
the Communist Partys key activists filled the jails.
Even the army was kept deliberately short of ammunition to paralyse
would-be mutineers. On the morning of 14 July, the men under Arefs command set
off to seize the royal palace with only two or three rounds each.
although formal British control of Iraq had ended with independence in 1932, the
interests of the ruling Hashemites were tightly meshed with those of
British managers ran Iraqs oilfields. British bombers were
stationed at Iraqs main military airbases. The young King Faisal was a product
of the British public school system.
Iraq was also the centrepiece of the
Baghdad Pact, an anti-Russian alliance of Middle Eastern states that was also
designed to curb the rising influence of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypts radical
Yet the Iraqi monarchy proved to be rotten to the
core. Only a tiny handful of Iraqis lifted a hand in its defence. Following the
assault on the palace, the king, his regent and other members of the royal
family were shot. Nuri al-Said, the pro-British prime minister and architect of
the Baghdad Pact, was killed the following day.
The overthrow of the
Iraqi monarchy created panic in Britain and the US. On hearing news of the
revolution, US president Dwight Eisenhower ordered thousands of US troops to
invade Lebanon to snuff out a growing rebellion against the Western-backed
regime of Camille Chamoun.
At the same time thousands of British troops
landed in Jordan. King Hussein of Jordan the cousin of the Iraqi king feared
that he too would be swept away in the wave of revolt.
of thousands of Iraqis streamed onto the streets of Baghdad to celebrate the
overthrow of the regime. They shouted defiance against Britain and the US and
called for an end to colonialism. Within hours Qassem became president with Aref
Far from ending the revolutionary process, the Free
Officers coup marked the beginning of a deeper crisis. The huge demonstrations
which greeted the news of the July coup set the pattern for the next
Throughout this period the Communists and their allies dominated
the streets of the major cities. As the political crisis gathered pace, signs of
social revolution followed in its wake.
New laws cut rents by 20 percent.
The price of bread dropped by a third. An eight-hour day was established.
Labourers wages rose by as much as 50 percent in the first year of the new
These changes were a direct response to the growing
confidence of organised workers. Although trade unions were not formally
legalised until 1959, activists started reconstituting union committees and
reorganising underground networks immediately after the coup.
dominant force in the trade unions was once again the Communist Party, which won
leadership of most of the legal trade unions by early
Land reform limited the power of the big
landowners and organised the redistribution of thousands of acres of land to the
peasants. In some regions, such as Kut and Amarah, peasants began to seize the
land for themselves.
Events outside Iraq contributed to the growing sense
of crisis. Nasser was locked in a bitter struggle with the Communist Party in
Syria, following the establishment of the United Arab Republic (UAR), a
short-lived union of Syria and Egypt, in February 1958.
revered as a hero across the Arab world. He was someone who had defied the old
colonial powers over the Suez Canal in 1956. In that period he also moved closer
to Russias government, despite his persecution of Communists in
As soon as the Free Officers seized power, radical nationalists
including the Baath Party launched a campaign for Iraq to join Nassers
Qassem, however, had no desire to hand the presidency of Iraq to
Nasser. The Communists also opposed the demand for total unity, arguing that
joining the UAR would mean the end of Iraqs hard-won democratic
The Iraqi Communists organised huge demonstrations proclaiming
Qassem as the sole leader of the Iraqi Revolution, hoping to build him up as a
counterweight to Nasser.
When Qassem clashed with Aref, who supported
closer relations with the UAR, the Communists threw their weight squarely behind
Qassem despite the fact that Aref called for the nationalisation of the Iraqi
In September 1958 Qassem removed Aref from power. By
November the former vice-president was on trial for his life. These tensions
flared up in March 1959, when officers stationed in Mosul attempted a coup
against Qassem with the support of the UAR.
The Communists played a
leading role in crushing that revolt. They mobilised their biggest show of
strength a few months later, when the party brought hundreds of thousands to a
march to mark May Day in Baghdad.
Yet when Qassem rejected Communist
demands for seats in the government, the party retreated from confrontation with
the sole leader. Qassem seized his chance to launch a comprehensive attempt to
break the party. He legalised a tiny rival faction in place of the real
Communist party and mounted an attack on its leadership of trade
Party publications were banned and Communist activists targeted
by nationalist hit squads. Communist sympathisers in government were dropped
from the cabinet one by one.
Despite a brief respite in the autumn of
1959, the partys influence continued to ebb away. Meanwhile the Baath Party
grew more confident. A young Baath activist, Saddam Hussein, took part in an
attempt on Qassems life in 1959. Although it failed, within four years the
Baathists were able to overthrow Qassem and massacre thousands of Communist
Why did the Iraqi Communists come so close to power, yet still
fail? A crucial role was played by Russias leadership. In 1959 an emissary
arrived from Moscow to tell the party leadership that they could expect no help
from Russia if they seized power.
Despite this pressure, a minority of
the partys political leadership still favoured breaking a policy of daring
for victory breaking with Qassem and taking power.
The problem they
faced was that the Communists had made no political preparations for such a
struggle throughout 1958. It had mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers and
peasants under the slogans of support for Qassem, rather than behind their own
Viewed from the perspective of Iraq alone, the Communists
appeared to have little choice but to maintain their alliance with Qassem and
the nationalist officers. Iraqs small working class, on its own, could not set
about building a socialist society.
But the crucial
factor was not the absolute size of the working class. Events in Iraq were part
of a much wider pattern of anti-colonial revolt and working class struggle
across the Middle East.
This wider struggle did have the potential to
develop into a systematic challenge to the capitalist system. And that potential
existed despite the original aims of the anti-colonial movement, which focused
on issues of national liberation and democracy.
Broadening the struggle
in Iraq beyond the limits set by nationalism would have deepened and
strengthened the mass movement.
The Communists in Iraq found out to their
cost that while the revolution remained within those limits, it could neither
preserve its democratic character, nor put up any effective resistance to
Once the mass movement ebbed away, Qassems isolation was
exposed and he was soon deposed. Now in power, the Baath Party proved far more
attentive to the interests of imperialism than its predecessors, despite its
rhetoric about socialism and Arab unity.
Examining the events of 1958
is not an exercise in nostalgia. All of the questions thrown up by Iraqs
revolutionary crisis are still being asked in the Middle East today.
is the key force in the struggle against imperialism? How is the fight for
national liberation related to the struggle against capitalism? How can the
ordinary people of the region defeat both their own repressive rulers and the
The lesson of 1958 is that both workers organisation
and revolutionary leadership play a crucial role in turning nationalist and
democratic demands into a movement that can challenge the imperialist order as a