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Communism in the Islamic World

Abstract and Keywords

This essay explores some of the common patterns in the history of communism in Muslim-majority societies. The most important of these had little to with Islam. Rather, they reflected the impact of European imperialism and nationalist resistance, the uneven tempo of integration into the global economy, the timing of the anti-colonial revolutions and the location of the post-colonial regimes in the great games of geopolitics. However, the other side of this narrative is the interwoven story of the decline of communist movements in most Muslim-majority societies and the rise of their Islamist competitors. It is argued that this trajectory is best explained not by recourse to essentialist explanations about the appeal of Islamist politics to Muslim believers, but by the failures of the post-colonial states on which the communists had pinned their hopes for national liberation and non-capitalist development.

Keywords: national liberation, anti-colonial revolutions, nationalism, Islamism, non-capitalist development

On May Day 1959 two boys were watching crowds throng the streets of Baghdad for the workers’ day parade. Twelve-year-old Hani Lazim was awed by the size of the demonstration: ‘It was just…endless. Whenever we went to see the end of it, we couldn’t.’1 Nine-year old Sami Ramadani, the youngest child in a large family of communist activists living in Al-Waziriyya, saw the march with his mother, sitting on the wall of a mosque in Al-Rashid Street, ‘watching endless streams of people’ until two or three in the morning.2

Decades later both still recalled the Communist Party’s huge presence on the march: echoing in the endlessly repeated slogans calling for communist participation in the government. Lazim remembers that his father, a former party member, was worried by the communists’ open call to share power with General Abd-al-Karim Qasim, the first president of the republic which had been established by the overthrow of the monarchy in July 1958.

I remember my father didn’t like it at all. And I asked him, I said ‘why Dad, why not?’ He said ‘nobody gives you government, you take it. It is a foolish thing to say. You don’t say it. If you want it, go and take it, if you can. But don’t say it, because you are actually antagonizing them and they could hit you back.’ And I remember that very well.3

For the past year, the communists had worked in alliance with Qasim against his Arab nationalist and Ba’athist rivals, mobilizing mass protests against an attempted coup led by a rising in Mosul. Now they claimed the reward of seats in the government. However, Qasim refused and moved quickly to neutralize communist networks within the police and army. Within a few years the Arab nationalists and Ba’athists were in the ascendant, carrying out a coup in 1963 in which Qasim and hundreds of communist activists perished. Asking for power and actually taking it turned out to be very different things.

(p. 269) The events of May 1959 serve as a useful starting point for an exploration of communism in the Islamic world. The Iraqi communists’ dilemma over their relationship with the Iraqi nationalist Qasim was only the local expression of a tendency which went to the heart of what communism usually meant in practice in Muslim-majority societies. Confronted with an unfolding anti-colonial revolution in a society where the modern working class was small, the Iraqi communists chose a strategic alliance with ‘progressive’ army officers who wanted to do away with direct colonial rule and build a strong, modern state. Faced with a message from the leadership of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union (CPSU) which called on them not to upset the geopolitical balance of forces and harm the interests of Soviet foreign policy by toppling Qasim, the Iraqi party’s leaders acquiesced. Yet the experience of the Iraqi communists over the previous decades holds other lessons: long before the emergence of Qasim and the underground networks of dissident army officers, the party had enjoyed considerable success in building an organization rooted in key sections of the working class; and despite its relatively small size, it played a leading role in the mass mobilizations against the British-backed monarchy. The resonance of communist ideas among the rail-workers of Schalchiyyah, the Basra port workers, or the oil workers of Kirkuk during the 1940s and 1950s illustrated the potential for communism to win an audience far beyond narrow circles of intellectuals.4

‘The Islamic world’ is here interpreted to mean Muslim-majority societies, and for reasons of space, only a selection of these will be discussed. However, there are common patterns in the history of communism that link together the experiences of many of these societies. The most important of these had little to with Islam. Rather, they reflected the impact of European imperialism and local resistance, the uneven tempo of integration into the global economy, the timing of the struggles for national independence, and the location of the post-colonial regimes in the great games of geopolitics. Similar factors, in short, to those that shaped the development of communism in large parts of the non-Muslim colonial and post-colonial world. The other side of this narrative is the interwoven story of the decline of communist movements in most Muslim-majority societies and the rise of their Islamist competitors. It will be argued that this trajectory is best explained not by recourse to essentialist explanations about the appeal of Islamist politics to Muslim believers, but by the failures of the post-colonial states on which the communists had pinned their hopes for social change and national liberation.

The experience of the Iraqi communists in the 1940s and 1950s illustrates four different meanings of communism. The first, and least well-developed of these, was communism as the theory and practice of workers’ self-emancipation. Because communist ideas arrived in societies where the modern working class was still in formation, and because the period when communist parties in most Muslim countries were formed came after the consolidation of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, this aspect of communism was generally submerged. Second, communism could also be an ideology of modernization and development, finding a natural partnership with other modernizing political and social forces such as the disaffected army officers who overthrew the colonial-era monarchies across much of the Middle East during the 1950s. Thirdly, the other face (p. 270) of modernization and development was the drive for national independence, and the appeal of communism also reflected its meaning as an ideology of national liberation. For most of the period covered by this chapter, these three aspects of communism interacted with a fourth: communism as geopolitics.

The central argument advanced here is that the history of communism in the Islamic world was shaped by the choices of the generation of communist activists in the era of anti-colonial revolution after the Second World War. In much of the Islamic world, this generation was the first that could work with emerging workers’ movements that had the potential to become a self-organized force of sufficient weight to play an independent role in national politics. The expansion of industry and the modern infrastructure of the state that followed the war provided the social and economic foundations for a kind of politics that had been impossible for the previous generation. The orthodox communist interpretation of the possibilities of this period was that the best outcome of the anti-colonial and social struggles would be the formation of strong, independent, modern states committed to national development, preferably by a non-capitalist path. In the early phases of the anti-colonial struggle, orthodox communists tended to support calls for greater democratic freedoms on a liberal model. However, once the crisis of the anciens régimes had been resolved by others—with the seizure of power by sections of the modern middle class, sometimes in army uniform and sometimes in civilian dress—they moved strongly in the direction of supporting the state-capitalist economic policies and corporatist institutions of the post-colonial regimes. There were some voices that articulated a heterodox interpretation of the period, but these were rarely in a position to reach a mass audience. In essence, the communists of the post-war era attempted to resolve the tensions inherent in applying a theory of working-class self-emancipation to societies where capitalism was still developing by concluding a Faustian pact with those sections of the middle class able to turn the state into the primary vehicle of national development.

This can be seen as a Faustian pact in two senses. Firstly, for the urban working class, there was some real content to this bargain insofar as states that embarked on state-capitalist strategies of import substitution in a period when the global economy was expanding, were often able to improve pay and offer workers a range of benefits via access to health care, education, and housing. Secondly, however, once the state-capitalist model of the post-colonial states entered into crisis in the 1970s, and the communists’ erstwhile allies in the state sought to extricate themselves from their side of their bargain with the working class, it was not the communists who benefited but the resurgent Islamist organizations.

The idea that communism was fundamentally an ideology of state-led modernization and that Islamism was an expression of backwardness and reaction because it articulated its critique of the state and imperialism in religious language, played a crucial role in shaping communist reactions to the contestation between Islamist movements and the state. The idea that the state institutions could be reformed from within and that, as expressions of modernity, they should be defended against Islamism was deeply rooted among those who came to communist politics in the 1950s. Thus during the late 1980s (p. 271) and into the 1990s, large parts of the communist movement in countries as varied as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey stood with the state against the Islamists, accelerating a decline which intensified as the crisis in the Soviet Union deepened. In the case of the 1979 Iranian revolution, some sections of the Left assumed positions towards the rising power of Khomeini and his supporters that appeared on the surface to contradict this pattern. Yet their perspective mirrored that which insisted that the state’s role as a vehicle for national development should override communist objections to working with dictators, the only difference being that the rhetorical emphasis had shifted to the anti-imperialist struggle. Of course, Khomeini’s opposition to the USA was not merely rhetorical: the Iranian revolution represented an enormous setback for US interests in the region. This was reflected in the bloody and protracted nature of the subsequent war between Iraq and Iran, where US backing for Saddam Hussein played a critical role in intensifying the conflict. The common thread, it will be argued, was the attitude of communists to the state, and not whether their failure to act independently of it was justified by the role of state leaders in national economic development, defence of ‘modern values’, anti-imperialism, or a combination of all three.

From the Bolshevik Encounter with Islam to the Second World War

The development of communist organizations in the Islamic world was intimately bound up with the fate of the revolutionary wave that engulfed the Russian Empire and much of Europe at the end of the First World War. Although contacts between political activists and European socialists in some parts of the Islamic world, such as Indonesia, occurred before the war, it was the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 that brought ideas of communism to wider audiences. The consolidation of power by Stalin and the turn towards policies that prioritized the survival of the Soviet Union over the spread of world revolution marked the end of the revolutionary moment of 1917. Within this geopolitical framework, however, other more localized factors were at work. The first was the rise and decline of the anti-colonial rebellions in the Islamic world of the post-First World War era; the second was the emergence in the 1930s of the embryonic Islamist, secular nationalist, and communist movements that would come to prominence after 1945, stimulated by the crisis of the movements which had led the first wave of anti-colonial rebellions.

The leadership of many of the first wave of anti-colonial movements was formed by an alliance between elements of the landed and mercantile elites which had grown up in the shadow of colonialism, and an emerging Westernized urban middle class in which the ‘liberal professions’ such as lawyers, journalists, and teachers played a critical role. Beinin and Lockman associate this social layer in the Arab countries with ‘the new occupations to which capitalist development had given rise’, such as secondary and university (p. 272) students, teachers in Western-style schools, lawyers, journalists and other professionals, white-collar employees, and lower and middle-level government functionaries.5 These movements generally took Western liberal political ideals as their reference point. Their leaders criticized the colonial powers for advocating liberal democracy at home and refusing to extend it to their imperial dominions. The new popular movements of the 1940s advanced radical critiques of the dominant political system in the West (rejecting or marginalizing the role of parliamentary democracy, for example), and appealed to a mass audience which included not only the lower middle class, but also growing numbers of urban workers for the first time.

In the wake of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the question of the relationship between communism and Islam became a critical issue in the battle for the survival of the new Soviet state. As the large Muslim societies of Central Asia which had been conquered and colonized by Russians in previous generations were drawn into that struggle, the Bolsheviks found themselves confronting a series of challenging questions: what did the slogans of soviet power mean in societies where modern industry was almost absent? How should they, as leaders of a beleaguered, nascent workers’ state, relate to the varied movements that welcomed the downfall of tsarism as the dawn of their own national liberation? What stance should they, as materialists and atheists, take towards Muslim religious practice and religious property? Dave Crouch has argued that the Bolsheviks’ pre-revolutionary attempts to win over members of oppressed religious groups, such as the non-Orthodox Christian minorities, can be seen as providing a basic set of principles to guide their practice.6 At the Congress of the Peoples of the East, organized in Baku in 1920 by the Comintern, Bolshevik leaders appealed to the delegates to see their own struggle for freedom from colonialism as being indivisible from the victory of workers’ revolutions in Europe that would unseat their colonial masters. More than this, they held up the prospect that popular struggles against colonialism could contribute to that victory by increasing pressure on Europe’s rulers and destabilizing their empires.7

However, the ascendancy of Stalin, and the subsequent transformation of the Russian economy and society in the late 1920s and 1930s, recast the relationship between communism and Islam. In place of the approach of the early years of Soviet power in Central Asia, when Muslim religious practice had been supported and even encouraged, the late 1920s and 1930s saw organized campaigns against the veil and purges of ‘Muslim nationalist’ figures such as Sultan Galiev.

Outside the Soviet Union, the pivotal issue at stake was not directly the question of workers’ power, but how to relate to the nationalist movements that emerged to challenge European colonialism. Across the Middle East, into Central and South Asia, a modern working class had very recently begun to form in those sectors of the economy most closely integrated with global capitalism, such as transport and communications, the oil industry, and small pockets of modern manufacturing. However, although this strategic economic role added political weight to workers’ protests, the working class was still at too early a stage of development to play the role in leading society envisaged in classical Marxist theory.

(p. 273) Secondly, the rise of Stalin played a critical role in shaping the theoretical and organizational landscape in which the first communist movements in Muslim-majority societies developed. Although the seeds of communist organization had been sown in many areas of the Islamic world during the revolutionary wave that shook the European empires in the wake of the First World War, many organizations barely survived the re-establishment of the colonial order in the post-war settlement. Thus, although Indonesia, Lebanon, Egypt, and Morocco were countries with majority-Muslim populations where communist groups existed during the 1920s, these organizations remained in general very small, and it was not until the 1940s that they began to attract broader support. With industrialization and collectivization of agriculture after 1928, embryonic communist groups in the Muslim world came to see in the Soviet Union a successful model of economic and social development which, as we will explore in more detail, seemed to offer a route to modernity untainted by colonialism.

Even before Stalin consolidated power, Bolshevik leaders began to devote substantial resources to supporting the political development of communist activists from Muslim backgrounds, through study at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV) in Moscow. Notable KUTV graduates included Yusuf Salman Yusuf (Fahd), who led the Iraqi Communist Party between 1941 and 1949, and the Syrian communist leader Khaled Bakdash. Within the emerging communist organizations in Iraq and Syria in the 1940s, the authority of Fahd and Bakdash in part derived from their experience of study at KUTV. In Egypt, among the small communist organizations emerging in this period there was intense competition to gain a degree of official recognition from the Soviet Union. The dissolution of the Comintern in 1943 changed the mechanisms whereby communist organizations related to Moscow and to each other. In large parts of the Arab world the communist party of the colonial power was often a key link between local communist groups and Moscow, with communists in Iraq, Jordan, and the Gulf liaising with the Communist Party of Great Britain and communists in Syria, Lebanon, and the Maghreb with the French Communist Party.8

The main importance of Stalin’s consolidation of power, and the political battles that surrounded it, lay not so much in their impact on the emerging communist movements in the Islamic world, as on secular nationalists and populists of many political colours who were attracted to the Soviet model. The dramatic transformation of the beleaguered and impoverished Soviet Union in the 1930s caught the imagination of millions in the colonial world who saw in the breathtaking speed of Soviet industrial and agricultural development a vision of their own hoped-for future. It was with secular nationalist forces that the communist movements of the 1940s often found themselves allying, although at other times they were locked in bitter competition with them. At the same time, the 1930s also saw the birth of mass Islamist movements, with the explosive growth of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna in Isma’iliyya in Egypt.

Despite their apparent differences, Islamist, nationalist, and Stalinist communist movements had much in common in that all three disputed the claim by the older generation of nationalists that their modernizing mission could be achieved through (p. 274) the establishment of liberal parliamentary democracy and the achievement of national independence. The Islamist current, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, argued for a return to Islamic values and warned against cultural and political imports from the West.9 This did not mean a rejection of modernity as such, but rather a path towards it that was culturally defined by reference to Islam. For their part, the communists pointed to the success of Soviet economic development as proof that modern, prosperous societies could come into being without either parliamentary democracy or liberal capitalism. Secular nationalists, such as the Arab nationalists influenced by thinkers such as Michel Aflaq, gravitated towards the state as the means to solve the riddle of economic backwardness and assert national dignity. Crucially, all three currents found themselves competing among the overlapping popular constituencies created by the rapid expansion of a modern lower middle class of government clerks, students, teachers, and journalists, and the emergence of a modern working class.

Communists and the Anti-Colonial Revolutions

The Second World War, like the First, ended in a wave of revolutions. The epicentre was not Europe, however, but the former European colonies in the Middle East and Asia. For the first time, communist organizations emerged on a scale capable of relating to the mass anti-colonial movements of the period, and in a number of countries played highly significant roles in both the revolt against colonialism and the explosive social struggles that accompanied it. As in the previous generation, however, the majority of communists remained orientated towards the Soviet Union, as both a model for economic development and the reference point for their geopolitical allegiances. In contrast to the interwar years, the growth of the modern lower middle class through the expansion of the state bureaucracy and education system, and the birth of a small, but significant urban working class changed the context in which communist movements developed. For the first time, communism in the Islamic world could be both a theory and a practice which connected with workers’ everyday struggles. Egypt, for example, saw the development of Egyptian-owned manufacturing, including the giant cotton mill complex owned by Misr Spinning in Al-Mahalla al-Kubra which by the end of the Second World War employed 25,000.10 Shubra al-Khayma, a northern suburb of Cairo, was also an important textile-producing area, dominated by smaller foreign-owned mills in the 1940s. Shubra in particular proved to be an important recruiting ground for a generation of communist activists who played leading roles in the textile workers’ struggles of the era. In Iraq, the key industries where communist activists established a long-lasting and significant base were transport, including the railways and Basra Port, and the oil industry.11

(p. 275) Leading figures among the Shubra textile workers attempted to make connections between the fight for better wages and conditions (which in their case generally meant confrontation with British or French bosses) and the wider struggle against the British colonial presence in Egypt. Mahmud al-’Askari and Taha Sa’ad ‘Uthman from the Shubra textile workers’ union worked closely with communist lawyer Yusuf Darwish in an underground cell in the mid-1940s. Al-’Askari and ‘Uthman were among the founder members of the Workers’ Committee for National Liberation in 1945. The committee’s founding statement confidently expressed the idea that organized workers should lead the battle against colonialism:

The Workers’ Committee for National Liberation considers it the duty of the working class—now that it is achieving its class characteristics—to put forward a national programme with the object of liberating the mass of the people…from the yoke of imperialism and the internal oppression and exploitation.12

The committee’s demands included: ‘the evacuation of foreign troops from Egypt and the Sudan’, ‘the abolition of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty’, and ‘Egypt to take possession of the Suez Canal’, as well as nationalization of foreign companies, the recognition of trade union rights, land reform, female suffrage, judicial reform, and the abolition of the political police.

The rapid expansion of secondary and tertiary education was another critical factor in shaping the composition of the mass movements of the era, including the communist movement. In Egypt the number of secondary school pupils increased by 327 per cent between 1940 and 1951, while the number of enrolments in the modern university sector expanded by 410 per cent over the same period. In Iraq, there were 28,000 secondary and university students by 1948, up from 2,000 in 1927. An even bigger leap took place over the following decade with combined numbers rising to 136,000 by 1958, of which 8,500 were in higher education, and 11,000 in teacher training. Students played an important role in communist organizations in both countries. Sa’di Yusif joined the Iraqi Communist Party while at teacher-training college in Baghdad: decades later he recalled the camaraderie of communist student life, including educational picnics complete with communist songs and red flags. Communist students organized within the elected student administrative committees which helped to manage the halls of residence, canteens, and sanitary facilities. For student activists who aspired to leading roles within the Communist Party’s underground organization there was a long process of education and development. Through recruiting new members, collecting funds for the party, and organizing protests they would prove their loyalty and commitment.13 The nexus between worker and student activism around the anti-colonial struggle took a particularly organized form in Egypt 1946. On 9 February the police attacked a march by student protesters and this triggered a wave of mobilization that saw the formation of the National Committee of Workers and Students which brought together delegates from the student movement and the trade unions, and called a successful national general strike on 21 February.14

(p. 276) In accordance with the ideological framework already discussed, most communist leaders considered that even where the working class played an important role in the anti-colonial movements, communist parties should not think of challenging for state power, but work alongside other social forces to achieve a democratic revolution and national independence. Among themselves, communists drew an analogy between the tasks of the coming national revolution, which they believed was the only way to secure even mild social reform and basic democratic rights, and the situation facing the Bolsheviks in Russia under tsarist rule. Taking their cue from the perspective outlined by the Comintern at its Sixth Congress in 1928, which saw the possibility in the colonies of the revolution passing from a bourgeois-democratic stage to a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, the Egyptian communists posed three tasks: ‘the establishment of a democratic republic (in which equality of rights and full freedom of self-determination would be granted to all nationalities), confiscation of the estates of the big landowners, and application of the eight-hour day’. Communists in Egypt and Iraq, however, assumed a broader alliance would be necessary than that between the working class and peasantry. An internal document sent by Egyptian communists to the Communist Party of Great Britain put it like this: ‘The people’s democracy we want to establish in Egypt is not a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We aim to establish a democratic dictatorship of all the classes struggling against imperialism and feudalism.’15

It was precisely this understanding of the balance of forces within the national movement that led the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (DMNL), the largest communist organization in Egypt, to work in alliance with the Free Officers who overthrew the monarchy in 1952 and the Iraqi Communist Party to champion Qasim as ‘sole leader’. There was, however, a complex interaction between communism as geopolitics and communism as a current within the mass movements of the day, as the gyrations of the Egyptian communists in relation to Gamal Abd-al-Nasser and the Free Officers illustrate. The DMNL, for example, faced stern criticism from leading figures in the British and French communist parties for its initial support for the Free Officers, partly because Soviet leaders were concerned that the Free Officers might be pro-American.16 Instead, the CPGB argued for a common front with other opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which it had previously characterized as fascist.17 However, following his confrontation with British, French, and Israeli forces over the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, the Soviet leadership revised its assessment of Abd-al-Nasser, claiming him as the leader of a ‘victorious national revolution’.18 The Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU in the same year acknowledged that national independence was possible under the ‘national bourgeoisie’ and subsequently a theory of ‘non-capitalist development’ was fleshed out which argued that a transition to socialism was possible under nationalist regimes that had Soviet support.19 Ironically for the Egyptian communists, Abd-al-Nasser’s approval by the Soviet Union coincided with a fierce wave of repression against the newly unified Egyptian Communist Party which saw hundreds arrested and tortured. Over the next few years, however, Abd-al-Nasser moved closer into the geopolitical orbit of the Soviet Union and adopted a strategy for economic development that borrowed heavily from the Soviet model of the era. In 1961 most of the (p. 277) non-agricultural economy was nationalized, including private banks. Taxes on incomes above £E10,000 were set at 90 per cent, joint-stock companies were required to spend 15 per cent of their profits on workers’ housing and community projects, and workers and clerical staff were guaranteed representation on the board of directors. The working week was reduced and a minimum wage announced. Abd-al-Nasser created new representative and legislative bodies, but demanded the dissolution of political parties and called on social classes to renounce mobilization for their own interests. The Egyptian communist movement—in general—acquiesced in this, preferring to work for change from within a regime that appeared to have imposed a large part of the communists’ own economic and social programme from above.

The Crisis of the Post-Colonial State-Capitalist Regimes and the Rise of Islamism

The 1960s marked the high tide of the state-capitalist economic development that underpinned a large number of the post-colonial regimes of the Islamic world. In many case, these regimes followed the lead of the Soviet Union not only in economic policy, but also gravitated into its political orbit. The exact nature of the relationship between, for example, the new rulers of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Algeria, and the Soviet Union, was shaped by a range of factors, which provided more or less room for manoeuvre and independent action. Despite the fears of successive US administrations about growing Soviet influence in the Middle East, these were far from being client states of the Soviet Union.

Communist movements often took the role of junior partners to the ruling party in countries where new regimes aligned themselves with the Soviet Union geopolitically and modelled their economic policies and political systems on those of that country. Leaders such as Gamal Abd-al-Nasser in Egypt, Abd-al-Karim Qasim in Iraq, Houari Boumediene in Algeria, and Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia were among those whose socialist rhetoric and ambition to build modern, industrial societies seemed to justify communist collaboration with the new regimes. The role of the state in expanding women’s rights by revising personal status codes governing marriage, inheritance, and child custody laws, and encouraging women to join the workforce and higher levels of education provided another practical focus for cooperation.

Despite the hopes raised by the first signs of economic and social transformation in the 1960s, by the end of the decade, cracks were beginning to appear. The 1970s was marked by the return of economic crisis on a global scale and an international shift in economic orthodoxy away from state-led development towards neo-liberalism. Islamist movements reaped the long-term political benefits of the crisis, while communist movements found it difficult to extricate themselves from the embrace of the post-colonial regimes. In many cases, the communist movement itself fragmented, as (p. 278) dissident groups critical of the alliances with the nationalist regimes emerged, but these were unable to dominate the landscape of opposition. In Iraq and Syria, for example, a part of the Communist Party remained in formal alliance with the Ba’ath Party until the end. Other sections chose different routes into opposition, including in the Iraqi case engaging in the armed struggle in Kurdistan. In general, the Islamists benefited from having been excluded from alliances with the regimes, and this enabled them to seize some of the terrain of opposition now vacated by the communists. The long-term shift away from state-capitalist economic policies also created opportunities for Islamist movements to engage with large constituencies among the urban poor through charity work, in the shadow of the state’s retreat from providing universal welfare services. Finally, the changing geopolitical context propelled Islamist movements into the front line of resistance to the USA, bolstering their anti-imperialist appeal and winning part of the audience that communist movements had attracted in previous generations.

The first phase of the crisis of the post-colonial regimes climaxed in the late 1980s in a series of popular rebellions driven by frustrations over mass youth unemployment and rising food prices, but also by anger at the political failures of the nationalist regimes. Algeria was engulfed in riots and protests in 1988 and it was the rising Islamist forces of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) which were the main political beneficiaries, winning municipal elections and then taking the majority of seats in the first round of the 1991 parliamentary elections. As is discussed in Allison Drew’s essay, in this volume, the rise of the FIS intersected with the almost complete collapse of the Algerian Left. Hugh Roberts argues that a large part of the appeal of the FIS lay not in its rejection of the nationalist legacy of Boumediene and the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) but in its transformation and reappropriation: ‘Algerian Islamism embraces both Boumediène’s Islamic opponents and many of his political children since they became orphans.’20

The most important factor shaping the geopolitical environment for communists in the Islamic world was, of course, the long-term decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. These were long-term processes, which did not work themselves out in a neatly ordered sequence. The events of 1979–80, for example, saw the USA excoriating the Islamist ascendancy in Iran, while aiding Islamist guerrillas resisting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, just over a decade after the Soviet withdrawal, the USA would find itself mired in an equally unwinnable conflict with some of its former Islamist allies in Afghanistan following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and other US targets by the al-Qaida jihadist group on 11 September 2001.

The Iranian Revolution: Variation on a Theme?

The Iranian Left faced a profound challenge in the popular revolution of 1979 which overthrew the monarchy and established an Islamic republic. Iran had a long history of (p. 279) left-wing organization and a sizeable pro-Soviet Communist Party, the Tudeh. During the mid-1940s the Tudeh boasted a newspaper with a circulation of 120,000, organized rallies with up to 100,000 in attendance, and created a dense network of local party organizations and trade unions in Tehran and the provincial cities.21 The coup against nationalist prime minister Mohamed Mossadegh in 1953, which was supported by the CIA and turned the relatively weak constitutional monarchy into an authoritarian state, brought an end to the period of popular mobilization in which the Tudeh had flourished. Despite this repression, and the emergence of new challengers on the Left who advocated guerrilla warfare as a strategy to bring down the regime, the Tudeh remained a significant force on the Iranian Left into the 1970s.

The revolution of 1979 created opportunities for communist ideas to reach a mass audience among workers, the urban and rural poor, and wide layers of Iranians radicalized by the eruption of enormous popular protests and strikes. The combination of rapid industrialization and uneven modernization in the 1960s had created social tensions that proved impossible to contain within the authoritarian political structures of the monarchy. A brief period of liberalization by the shah in 1977 opened the door to a flowering of discontent by middle-class activists and intellectuals who began to raise demands for democracy. Yet the urban working class was the revolution’s ‘chief battering ram’.22 Strikes over economic demands multiplied during 1978, but their intersection with the rising tide of street demonstrations against the shah ‘changed the dynamism of the revolutionary process’.23 Strikes by workers in critical economic sectors, such as oil and transport, paralysed the state during October and November, raising explicitly political demands. At the head of the oil workers’ grievances in the strike of 15 October 1978 was the call for the cancellation of martial law, followed by demands for the release of political prisoners and the dissolution of the shah’s secret police.24 After the shah fled Iran in January 1979 workers in hundreds of companies formed factory committees (shuras) which in many cases began to exercise democratic control over production. Popular neighbourhood councils were formed in some areas, taking responsibility for food and fuel supplies, law and order, as well as organizing local demonstrations and protests.

The shah’s regime finally collapsed on 11 February 1979, following a two-day battle between sections of the armed forces loyal to the monarchy, opposition guerrillas, and troops supporting the revolutionary provisional government. The leading clerical opponent of the shah, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, returned from exile in Paris on 1 February, and was able to establish himself as an extremely powerful figure in the new structures of the republican state. This did not mean that Khomeini and his supporters were yet in a dominant position, or that their political theory of clerical rule (Velayat-e Faqih) was hegemonic, even among Islamists. Intense struggles between Liberals, Islamists, and the Left were played out over the following years at all levels of society and the state. Val Moghadam argues that this process is best understood as two revolutions, not one, while Peyman Jafari sees the consolidation of the Islamic Republic as a populist counter-revolution which preserved capitalist relations of production within a new framework of state-capitalist development.25

(p. 280) Three features of the early revolutionary period were critical to Khomeini’s success: the vacuum within the state and wide sections of the economy created by the flight of local and foreign managers and technicians after the fall of the shah, Khomeini’s establishment of a parallel structure of clerical authority within the state, and his deft use of anti-imperialism to rally his supporters and divide his rivals. The exodus of managers and officials propelled the provisional government into a massive programme of nationalizations to save the economy from collapse, and created opportunities for Islamists to entrench themselves in the state. The Khomeinist faction created parastatal institutions that provided welfare services and jobs and thus the material underpinnings for the ideology of clerical rule.

The consolidation of the Islamic republic was accompanied by a purge of the Left. The Tudeh was banned, the left-wing guerrilla factions defeated and driven into exile, and 12,000 opponents of the Islamic republic killed or executed between 1981 and 1985.26 Moreover, the establishment of a form of clerical rule led many on the Left to draw the conclusion that the revolution had propelled Iranian society in a reactionary direction. The initial response of much of the Iranian Left to Khomeini had, however, been largely positive, adding to the confusion. The Tudeh supported Khomeini’s anti-imperialist gestures, and hoped that his traditional lower-middle-class supporters would move into alliance with the working class, confront the big bourgeoisie, and shift the Iranian state into the orbit of the Soviet Union.27 The guerrilla organizations, such as the Left Islamist People’s Mojahedin, emphasized the need for internal unity against the potential threat of imperialist intervention or royalist restoration, and thus urged their supporters not to challenge Khomeini’s attacks on women’s rights or workers’ organizations.28

On the surface, these positions appear radically different to those adopted by communist organizations elsewhere in the Islamic world which, as we discussed earlier, often supported existing secular regimes against ‘reactionary’ or even ‘fascist’ Islamist challengers. Yet, as Jafari argues, there was a common source which linked the pro- and anti-Islamist positions: a belief that only after the successful completion of a struggle for national independence and democracy could communists begin to raise the possibility of the conquest of state power by the working class. For the Tudeh, the adoption of economic policies setting Iran on the road to ‘non-capitalist development’ would ease the transition from the first revolution to the second.29

After the Fall: Communism in an Era of Neo-Liberalism and Revolution

The collapse of the Soviet Union was profoundly disorientating for the remaining communist organizations in the Islamic world, and the period after 1991 was marked by the rapid decline of membership and political influence. Spectres of the civil war that engulfed Algeria after the military aborted the parliamentary elections in order to (p. 281) prevent a victory for the FIS haunted the Arab world. During the 1990s, other states in the region stepped up their campaigns against the Islamist opposition, and in some countries it was the rump of the communist movement that provided some of their most vociferous supporters. Although the conflict in Egypt never reached the same violent proportions as the Algerian catastrophe, Rifaat al-Sa’id of the Egyptian Tagammu’ Party, and a veteran of the communist movement in the 1940s, played an important role in articulating a critique of Islamism that emphasized the need for the Left to defend the existing structures of the state, despite its criticisms of the regime’s social and economic policies. In Iraq fragments of the Communist Party followed their different trajectories: the pro-Ba’athist section supported Saddam Hussein until his defeat and overthrow by US-led forces in 2003, while the section of the party that had broken with the Ba’athists returned from exile to Iraq and even served in the government installed by US troops.

In Tunisia the fall of Zein-al-Din Ben Ali from power on 14 January 2011 in the face of a popular revolutionary mobilization that had begun in the impoverished towns of central Tunisia at the end of 2010, triggered the greatest wave of revolutionary upheavals the Arab world had seen since the 1940s. Eleven days later, mass demonstrations in Egypt raised the Tunisian slogan: ‘The people want the downfall of the regime.’ After a series of protests mobilizing millions, and a wave of strikes across the country, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was removed from power by his own generals on 11 February. The revolutionary wave continued to wash across the region, with uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

The revolutions represented an opportunity and a massive challenge for the remnants of the communist movement in the Arab world. Tunisia and Egypt presented the most obviously fertile ground for a revival of the revolutionary Left, because of the critical role played by workers’ strikes and protests in the revolutions there. However, they operated on a terrain shaped by the presence of far larger Islamist forces. In particular, the question of how to relate to the success of reformist Islamists in winning votes and support from the working class and wider layers of the poor, remained a pressing one. The revolutionary crisis in both Tunisia and Egypt continued long after elections brought the major parties of the Islamist opposition into government. The Ennahdha movement, led by Rachid Ghannouchi, won a plurality of seats in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary Constituent Assembly in October 2011. The Freedom and Justice Party, founded by the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, dominated the first parliament elected after the fall of Mubarak, with the Salafist Al-Nur Party in second place. The Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi also won a bitterly fought presidential election in June 2012. Despite claims that ‘Arab Spring’ had turned into ‘Islamist Winter’,30 the challenges facing these new Islamist governments were immense: during 2012 continued strikes and protests buffeted the Islamist governments in both countries.

Tunisia witnessed a significant regroupment of the left during 2012, with the Workers’ Party (formerly the Communist Workers’ Party) playing a leading role in the Popular Front. In Egypt, the secular Left in general saw a modest revival in the wake of the revolution, although the communist element in it faced a strong challenge from non-Stalinist (p. 282) revolutionary socialists, who had emerged as the core of a ‘New Left’ in the 1990s. The continuing salience of debates over the relationship between communists, Islamists, and the state was evinced in the crisis over the constitution of 2012. Communist activists, including Rifaat al-Sa’id, joined a secular alliance spanning the Left, liberals, and some elements of the old ruling party, in order to confront the Muslim Brotherhood’s newly-elected president Mohamed Morsi and to oppose the constitution drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly. Other revolutionary activists responded with fury to the idea that protecting the ‘civil nature’ of the state from violation by the Brotherhood was more important that rejecting elements of the old regime. The outcome of these struggles remains uncertain, but the revival of secular activism and the crisis of the Islamist parties suggest that it is perhaps too soon to write the obituary of communism in the Islamic world.

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                                (3) . Lazim, interview.

                                (4) . Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Bathists, and Free Officers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

                                (5) . Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile? Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882–1954 (London: Tauris, 1988), 10.

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                                (8) . Anne Alexander, ‘Leadership in the National Movements of Egypt and Iraq 1945–1963’ (Exeter University PhD, 2007); Selma Botman, Oppositional Politics in Egypt: The Communist Movement 1936–1954 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984); Gilles Perrault, A Man Apart (London: Zed, 1987), 114.

                                (9) . Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 242–4.

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                                (15) . CPA CP/CENT/INT/56/03, ‘Note on Communist Policy for Egypt’, n.d.

                                (16) . CPA, CP/CENT/INT/56/04, ‘MDLN’s Political Position’, n.d.

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                                (20) . Hugh Roberts, The Battlefield: Algeria 1988–2002 (London: Verso, 2003), 19.

                                (21) . Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 301–2.

                                (23) . Assef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (London: Zed Books, 1987), 79.

                                (24) . Abrahamian, Workers and Revolution, 81.

                                (25) . Val Moghadam, ‘One Revolution or Two? The Iranian Revolution and the Islamic Republic’, Socialist Register, 25 (1989), 74–101; Peyman Jafari, ‘Rupture and Revolt in Iran’, International Socialism Journal, 124 (30 September 2009), 105, <>.

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                                (30) . Washington Times, ‘Editorial: From Arab Spring to Islamist Winter’, Washington Times, 25 October 2011, < spring-to-islamist-winter/>.