Communism in the Middle East

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origins of middle eastern communism.

Communism reached the Middle East shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Armenians, Azeris, Greeks, Jews, and Kurds were among the first to form trade unions and organize communist parties. But the transmission of Marxism was not purely an intellectual project of minorities, nor did minorities ultimately comprise the majority of communists in any country.

Formation of the Communist Parties in the Middle East

Turkish workers and students in Germany participated in the uprising of the Spartakusbund in January 1919. Some of them subsequently established the Workers' and Peasants' Party of Turkey. The first Iraqi Marxist, Husayn al-Rahhal, was a student in Berlin at the time and discussed the events with children of the participants. Iranian migrant workers became familiar with socialist ideas in Russia. The first communist parties in the Middle East were in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iran.

Joseph Rosenthal, a Palestinian-born Jew, emigrated to Egypt around 1898 and became active in the trade union and socialist movement in Alexandria. Rosenthal, Mahmud Husni al-Urabi, and Anton Marun founded the Egyptian Socialist Party in 1921. Al-Urabi then traveled to Moscow for a course in Marxism. After returning he transformed the Socialist Party into the Communist Party of Egypt (CPE) in 1923 and expelled Rosenthal for "right-wing deviationism" in the first of many struggles between Jews and Muslims and Copts in the Egyptian communist movement. After leading an adventurous series of strikes in Alexandria in 1924, the CPE was destroyed by the newly installed nationalist government.

Communism in Palestine was born of the disaffection of a small number of Jewish immigrants from socialist Zionism. The Communist Party of Palestine (PCP) was officially recognized in 1924. Despite their anti-Zionist stand, the party's new-immigrant Jewish members were isolated from the country's Arab majority. Arabs began to join the PCP in the late 1920s. Radwan al-Hilu spent three years training in Moscow and upon his return in 1934 became party secretary general. As a result AlHilu's rise to the party leadership was due to the directive of the leadership of the Comintern, the international organization of communist parties, to Arabize the PCP. During the Arab Revolt of 1936 to 1939 the party suffered the first of several splits along ethnic lines. Another split in 1943 resulted in the establishment of the National Liberation League (NLL) in 1944 by young Arab intellectuals led by Bulus Farah and trade unionists of the Federation of Arab Trade Unions and Labor Societies. Jewish party members claiming to uphold internationalism reorganized the PCP in 1944 under the leadership of Shmuʾel Mikunis. However, the post-1944 PCP was mostly a Jewish national communist group parallel to the NLL.

Palestinian Jewish communists encouraged the formation of the Communist Party of Syria and Lebanon. Fuʾad al-Shamali, a Maronite tobacco worker, led a Lebanese Workers' Party in Alexandria that was affiliated with the Egyptian Socialist Party from 1920 to 1922. He was deported in 1922 to Lebanon, where he joined forces with Yusuf Yazbak. In 1924 the Comintern dispatched PCP member Joseph Berger to meet with Shamali and Yazbak. The next year Elie Teper, a PCP member and Comintern emissary, connected the ShamaliYazbak circle with a circle of Armenians. The two groups formed a Provisional Central Committee for the Communist Party of Syria and Lebanon.

The Communist Party of Iran was established in 1920. The next year the communists and the Jangalisa guerrilla movement of small landowners led by a Muslim clericbriefly established a Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran in Gilan. After their insurrection collapsed, the communists extended their activities to the interior of the country. Together with the Socialist Party they established a Central Council of Federated Trade Unions. Reza Shah Pahlavi destroyed the trade union federation and the Communist Party between 1927 and 1932. Party leaders in exile in Moscow were liquidated in the Stalinist purges.

The Growth of Middle Eastern Communism, 1930s to 1960s

From the mid-1930s on, continuing Anglo-French colonial and semicolonial rule, the Arab revolt in Palestine, the global challenge of communism and fascism to a capitalist world mired in protracted depression, andafter June 1941the prominent role of the Soviet Union in the antifascist struggle enhanced the appeal of communism. The young intelligentsia and urban working classesthe principal social base of communismgrew substantially, while their standards of living declined. Unlike socially conservative nationalist leaders, the communists embraced the economic, social, and cultural changes in the region. In several countries they became the leading force for modern political organization and action, demanding both national independence and social justice. In the 1930s the Egyptian communist movement was revived and the Algerian communists became independent from the Communist Party of France, which equivocated on the question of Algerian independence. New parties were established in Tunisia (1934), Iraq (1938), and Morocco (1943). Communism became legal in Palestine in 1944, allowing both the NLL and the PCP to achieve some modest successes. In the same year the Communist Party of Syria separated from its Lebanese base. Its leader, the Kurdish figure Khalid Bakdash, became the most prominent orthodox Arab communist.

By the late 1930s, Iranian Marxism spread beyond its initial base among Armenians and Azeris to the Persian-speaking intelligentsia. They were the principal founders of the Tudeh (Masses) Party in 1941. The Tudeh became a mass movement after the deposition of Reza Shah Pahlavi, with some 100,000 members by 1946 and regional allies in the Democratic Parties of Kurdistan and Azerbaijan. It led a trade union federation of 355,000 members. The party was repressed between 1946 and 1950 but rose to prominence again during the oil nationalization movement of 1951 to 1953. It was all but destroyed after the CIA-sponsored coup in August 1953.

The Communist Party of Iraq (CPI) grew out of the Association against Imperialism established in 1935. Led by Salman Yusuf Salman (known by the nom de guerre Fahd), the CPI became a mass movement and the only truly national political force in Iraq from 1941 to 1949. Many Jews joined the party in the 1940s and three served briefly as secretary general in 1948 and 1949. The fortunes of the party declined sharply with the arrest of Fahd in 1948 and his execution the next year. It recovered and became a substantial force in the 1952 popular uprising and the 1958 coup that overthrew the pro-British monarchy.

The revival of Egyptian communism was fraught with factionalism and contention over the Jewish leadership of several of the organizations. Three JewsAhmad Sadiq Saʿd, Raymond Douek, and Yusuf Darwishemerged from a circle of minorities and resident foreigners in Cairo to establish the New Dawn group (after the magazine they published in 1945 and 1946). In the 1950s their organization became the Workers' and Peasants' Communist Party. Darwish's work as legal counsel for many trade unions gave his comrades a foothold among textile workers and others in Cairo's northern suburbs.

Between 1940 and 1943 three other Jews established rival communist organizations: Marcel Israel (People's Liberation); Hillel Schwartz (Iskra); and Henri Curiel (the Egyptian Movement for National Liberation). From 1947 to 1948 the three factions united briefly under Curiel's leadership as the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (HADETU).

Curiel's unorthodox political style and his opposition to the open ideological confrontation with Zionism favored by Iskra and the New Dawn group made him suspect even before HADETU endorsed the UN partition plan for Palestine. The rebellion against Curiel's leadership in 1948 expressed both the desire of young Muslim and Coptic intellectuals to Egyptianize the movement and the tensions over Zionism that affected every Arab communist party. The Communist Party of Egypt was established in 1949 in opposition to the existing communist organizations and it excluded Jews from membership.

The nucleus of the future Communist Party of Sudan was formed in 1946 by Sudanese in Cairo under Curiel's patronage. In the 1950s and 1960s the party established a strong base among the intelligentsia, railway workers, and farmers in the Jazirasectors of society that grew rapidly with capitalist development. Unlike in several other countries, foreigners and minorities were insignificant in the party. Hence, its national character was unassailable. It was nonetheless banned in 1965.

The Decline of Middle Eastern Communism, 1960s to the Present

Many assert that communist prospects in the Arab world were fatally undermined by support for the establishment of the state of Israel. Far more damaging in the long run was the ascendancy of authoritarian populist nationalist regimes favored by the Soviet Union. The Communist Party of Algeria dissolved itself in 1956 and directed its members to join the National Liberation Front, which became an ally of the Soviet Union after it came to power in 1962. The Egyptian communists enthusiastically supported Gamal Abdel Nasser's Arab Nationalism and Arab Socialism, even as they languished in jail. In 1964 the two principal Egyptian communist parties disbanded. The Soviet Union courted Iraq's Abd al-Karim Qasim even after he turned on his erstwhile communist allies. The CPI was decimated by a CIA-facilitated massacre during the Baʿth's brief rule in 1963. By the 1970s the Iraqi and Syrian communists became appendages of regimes allied to the Soviet Union. The failure of the 1971 coup led by the Communist Party of Sudan and supported by the Soviet Union marked the last serious possibility for communists to achieve significant power anywhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Communist Party of Israel split largely along national lines in 1965. The emergence of the New Communist List (RAKAH) ultimately allowed the Arab communists to establish an electoral front (HADASH) that became the leading force among Arab citizens of Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, in sharp contrast to the downward trajectory of communists elsewhere in the Arab world.

see also curiel family; labor and labor unions; national progressive front (syria); qasim, abd al-karim; tubi, tawfiq; yusuf, yusuf salman.


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Bashear, Suliman. Communism in the Arab East, 19181928. London: Ithaca Press, 1980.

Batatu, Hanna. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Baʿthists, and Free Officers. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Beinin, Joel. Was the Red Flag Flying There?: Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel, 19481965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Botman, Selma. The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 19391970. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1988.

Budeiri, Musa. The Palestine Communist Party, 19191948: Arab and Jew in the Struggle for Internationalism. London: Ithaca Press, 1979.

Joel S. Beinin

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Communism in the Middle East

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