Kurdish Workers in the Iraqi Revolution of 1958-59
By Reuben Samuels, reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 370, 11 January 1985.
1 November 1984
To the editor:
The Spartacist greetings to a recent Kurdish conference in Central Europe (“For a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan,” Workers Vanguard No. 362, 14 September 1984) state: “While there are many Kurdish workers, most are working outside of the geographical regions with a predominantly Kurdish national identity”; and “the Kurdish proletariat exists primarily in the diaspora.” This may well be true today due to the policy of “Arabization” of Kurdistan conducted by lraq’s Ba’athist regime. According to the book People Without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan (1980), edited by Gerard Chaliand, more than 200,000 Kurds have been removed from the strategic oil region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Historically this was not always the case, however. Communist-led Kurdish workers concentrated in these oil fields played a vital, if contradictory, role in the revolutionary period following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958.
Iraq, like most of the states of the Near East, is an artificial creation of the post-World War I imperialist partition of the Ottoman Empire. Under the Ottomans Iraqi Kurdistan was the vilayet (administrative division) of Mosul. Victorious Britain incorporated Mosul into a common state with the vilayets of Baghdad and Basra both to gain control of this petroleum-rich region and to give its newly created Iraqi protectorate something resembling a viable economy. Until recently Kirkuk province in the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan supplied 90 percent of Iraq’s oil production. Even with the development of the Basra fields in the south, during the late 1970s Kirkuk continued to supply more than 70 percent of the country’s petroleum output.
Around the oil fields of Kirkuk there developed a militant, Communist-led proletariat that was in its majority Kurdish. As Uriel Dann wrote in Iraq Under Qassem (1969): “The thousands of workers at the oil installations, the majority of whom were Kurds, had nurtured a local communist branch with a fighting record unrivalled in Iraq.” However, this Kurdish working class was recruited directly from the agrarian and nomadic mountain people who were (and still are) governed by feudal and tribal rulers and custom. Although militant, the class consciousness of this proletariat was rudimentary. As the July 1959 Kirkuk massacre demonstrated, membership in the Iraqi Communist Party, which was at best equivocal about Kurdish self-determination, did little to break Kurds from nationalism.
The ICP was not only the most proletarian of the Stalinist parties in the Near East, it always had a large number of members from national and ethnic minorities who played an important and often leading role in the life of the party. In the period up to the 1958 revolution, Kurdish Communists spearheaded the revival of a party decimated and driven underground by the savage repression of the 1940s. Hanna Batatu, in her exhaustive study, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (1978), notes that during 1949-55 every general secretary of the ICP was Kurdish, as was nearly one third of its central committee, and the party was run from Kurdistan rather than Baghdad.
This period was marked by a significant rise of class and national struggle, fueled by the infamous U.S.-backed, anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact between Britain, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. While resented by all sections of the region’s oppressed, for uniting the principal enemies of the Kurds it was particularly hated by them. On the other hand, the Soviet Union’s generous treatment of its own small Kurdish minority and its support of the short-lived Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in Iran after World War II gave it enormous prestige in Kurdistan, so that in the 1950s even Kurdish nationalist parties claimed to be “Marxist-Leninist.”
Thus the entire Kurdish nation and especially its urban working class enthusiastically welcomed the 1958 revolution, which was made as much against the Baghdad Pact as against the corrupt, decrepit and repressive British-backed monarchy. The unstable bonapartist regime of General Qassem, leader of the 1958 revolution, sought at first to consolidate its rule by relying on the ICP, which though small was the unchallenged leader of the Iraqi working class, both Arab and Kurdish. Instead of pursuing this rich opportunity for proletarian revolution. the ICP subordinated itself to Qassem through the “United National Front” with three bourgeois parties (soon joined by the Kurdish nationalists). The betrayal of the Iraqi revolution was ordered directly from the Kremlin, in the name of cementing the “Spirit of Camp David” with Eisenhower (whose answer to the 1958 revolution was to land 10,000 Marines on the coast of Lebanon). Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher noted at the time:
The contradictory role of the Communist-led Kurdish proletariat in this period was demonstrated by the events in Mosul of March 1959 and the Kirkuk massacre in July of that year. At the beginning of 1959, Qassem’s rejection of “pan-Arab” unity with Nasser and his modest land reform program created an unholy alliance between the old reactionary classes and the Nasserites, who plotted a right-wing coup. The coup was to begin with an army revolt in Mosul. Anticipating this revolt, the ICP called a mass rally: from all over Iraq 250,000 youth, many armed, flocked to Mosul. The ICP was able to unite Kurd and Arab soldiers against their officers; the poor laborers of the Muslim Arab quarter were augmented by Kurdish tribesmen and Armenian peasants who swept in from the countryside. The coup was suppressed, and the popularity and revolutionary opportunity of the ICP grew to its height.
This makes the Kirkuk massacre of July 1959 all the more tragic. In the aftermath of the 1958 revolution the ICP concentrated in its hands control of many local governments, militias and even army garrisons. The largely Kurdish ICP branch in Kirkuk used this control to escalate a squabble over the celebration of the first anniversary of the revolution into an intercommunal bloodbath, particularly directed against the Turkomans who made up much of the city’s commercial and middle classes. One month later in a central committee plenum called to deal with the consequences of the Kirkuk massacre, the ICP in referring to its own membership was forced to condemn “the dragging of bodies, torture of detainees, looting and trespassing on the rights and liberties of citizens.”
The Kirkuk massacre was a tragic turning point for the ICP and the Iraqi working class. It generated an enormous erosion of support for the ICP and Qassem used it as a pretext to repress the Communists. The revolutionary opportunity was squandered, and with it the opportunity to forge a class-conscious Kurdish proletariat. Leadership of the oppressed Kurdish toilers reverted to sheiks, khans and mullahs, as the subsequent Kurdish national revolt demonstrated. For that revolt, led by mullah Mustafa Barazani, was as much in defense of feudal relations in the countryside as it was against the Arab chauvinism of Baghdad. In 1958-59, the proletariat of this divided nation, carved up by four oppressive capitalist states, lost a unique opportunity to be the vanguard of social emancipation, not only for the rest of Kurdistan, but for the entire Near East.