Laura and Fadwa kindly translated this article of mine from Al-Akhbar.
Arab Communism: Some Reasons for Its Fall, As`ad AbuKhalil
The Arab Left didn’t just collapse of its own accord, and the method of its collapse was not fast or sudden. A generation of Arabs today forget that the Arab communist parties in Iraq and in Sudan, for example, were the biggest Arab parties, and without artificial support from the military establishment in those countries. The communists were deeply embedded throughout Iraq, and the religious schools in Najaf suffered the loss of the youth to the Iraqi Communist Party. All that has changed. Some of the elements of the phenomenon of the fall of the Left were local, and some of them were regional, and some of the others were global. The French Communist Party is about as powerful as the Wa’d Party in Lebanon, and the Italian Communist Party lost its luster some time ago. What has changed?
One can go back to the beginnings. There are those who talk about a delegation from the Comintern, but studies of the beginning of Communism in the Arab world lie in Hanna Batatu’s book (this great man who died unknown in the Arab world) about the class history of Iraq and in the book of Mohammad Dakrub about the deep roots of the Communist Party. American propaganda and even Western academic studies on the spread of Communism in the Arab world exaggerate in the glorification of the role of the Comintern in spreading Communism: this is a conspiracy theory which is not subjected to derision because it came signed from the American State Department and its propaganda systems. It is true that the Soviet Union worked to spread communism, as the United States worked to spread … reaction around the world - and still does, but the seeds and conditions were local. There were prevalent revolutionary and leftist stirrings, and especially in the political and literary spread at the dawn of a bygone century. The Communist movement was promising in the beginning, but its fall was hard before – not after – the demise of the Soviet Union.
It is possible to analyze the reasons for the fall of the Left, but it is necessary to link the fall with announced and secret methods which successive American administrations resorted to in fighting not only Communism, but also ideas of enlightenment and progress and freedom wherever they appeared. And the book “The Cultural Cold War” (which has appeared in Arabic translation) contains a lot about that era, but it doesn’t include information about the Middle East for one simple reason: scrutiny of the American archive hides documents related to the Middle East because the ruling families are the same and the American government wants to protect its alliances and clients from exposure, even though the time of scandals has passed by since Mohammad Dahlan appeared on the screen of al-Arabiyya television. There are some Orientalists (including the late Hana Batatu) who talk about the phenomenon of the past prominence of sectarian and racial minorities in the leadership of the Arab Communist parties. They forget that the Communist members are liberated from the sectarianism within the parties of the Left in spite of the factional schisms that ate away at the body of the Lebanese Communist Party in recent years, as it ate away at Leftist and Nationalist parties before, but most of the time that was by external influence. Then in the era of the 40s and 50s it wasn’t influenced like today by what Gamal Abd-al-Nasser one day called (in a hint towards the pious King of Jordan) “religious seizure.” Secular thought spread and Western Orientalism hesitated perplexed, and American imperialism, hiding behind a fig leaf, nurtured and financed the reactionary religious movements which failed at the time in polarizing the youth.
But it’s possible to sum up the reasons for the fall with the following:
First, the American conspiracy around the world which used houses of worship and governments and cultural offices and the media to fight leftist and communist thought. For example, how it is possible to talk about the failure of Communism in Afghanistan when the American government became allied with the kings of Shakhboot, foremost among the Arabs in financing most of the reactionary gangs in the world and arming them to overthrow the regime there: there was born Bin Laden and his group in the terrorist darkness. And the biography of the former Pope by Carl Bernstein revealed the extent of the cooperation of the church in Eastern Europe with the American intelligence apparatus in fighting Communism. And the United States threatened governments – like Italy – and directly interfered in elections around the world to keep the Left out of power, like the way it interferes today to remove those it doesn’t like in the Islamic movements.
Second, Arab Bakdashism broke the back of the Left. There is no doubt that the early model in the 20s and 30s of Arab Communism was the romantic goal which differed from the era of the 40s and after, when Arab Bakdashim prevailed. And the personality of Khalid Bakdash who personified the characteristics of contemporary Communism: he who received Stalinist training in the age of Stalin in Moscow and returned with the intention of spreading the influence of the Soviet Union more than his interest in spreading Communism or Leftist thought. And he had a narcissistic personality (Maxime Rodinson wrote about him in his book about his experiences of Communism in Syria and Lebanon, Qadri Kala’ji also wrote about him, but the latter cannot be trusted. The first Former Leftist in the Arab world changed from an enthusiastic Communist and supporter of the working class to carrying a suitcase of Kuwaiti money to buy newspapers in Lebanon, as Ibrahim Salamah related in his memoirs which is appropriate because it’s a biography of the contemporary Arab media and its corruption) in addition to his outstanding Leninism in organizing, devoted to a model to be followed in Arab Communist organizing, from Morocco to Lebanon. And Arab Bakdashism brought together a number of characteristics, among them:
Khalid Bakdash considered himself to be the proper authority to correctly decide the Arab Communist position in considering himself the connecting link with the home of Communism.
The insistence on a rigid Marxism – Leninism – Stalinism not accepting any modification or addition or even slight local interpretation. And the Moscow translations of the Marxist tradition not only suffered from very bad translation but also suffered intentional changes to some of the meanings (review the translated introduction of al-A’fif al-Akhdar - before he turned to Liberalism - of the book “The Communist Manifesto.”) Bakdashism never accepted or benefitted from the Marxist inheritance of Trotskyism or Maoism or Korsch or even later the new Leftist currents. The program which was decided in Moscow was the one followed and whoever tried to veer away was denounced as an apostate, or forced to admit his fault as happened with Salam.
Bakdashism considered the local and international interests of the Soviet Union to be above the interests of Arab Communism. And the biggest example here is represented by the state of the Egyptian Communist Party itself in 1965 honoring Abd-al-Nasser according to the orders of the Soviets which cannot be refused (analyzed in Joel Benin’s book about the history of Egyptian communism). This solution gives the worst example in being subjected to the interests of the Soviet Union, in addition to a decrease in principles. How can the party be convinced to dissolve itself with conviction? And the mortgaging of the party to Moscow effectively damaged the party’s reputation, especially after the unjust decision to partition Palestine. The Soviet Union prioritized its interests and alliances with repressive regimes hostile to communism over the interests and even lives of local Communists as happened in Egypt and Iraq.
Arab Bakdashism depended on a model laid out by the central goals of Lenin: the leader here alone possesses the leadership of the party and that was to make it easy for the passing of decisions of Soviet intelligence which dealt with the regular citizens over the heads of the members. And if differences got out of control within the party, they could return to Bakdash, and if the conflict deteriorated and spread, the matter could be referred back to the Soviet leadership, as happened with the Syrian Communist Party (go back to the book – the source – “Secrets of Divisions in the Syrian Communist Party”).
Arab Bakdashism opposed revolutionary action of the communist parties in anything related to the issue of the struggle against Israel, and it paid the price. And the Lebanese Communist Party refused to adopt armed struggle against Israel until the 70s, and under pressure from the southern and student base, and in competition with the Palestinian revolutionary organizations.
And the phenomenon of Arab Bakdashism wasn’t limited to the experience of Syrian communism, where Bakdash tried to organize it to stop its’ offspring. And he interfered in appointing leaders in the body of the Arab communist parties, as happened in Lebanon where the two Bakdashist [Niqula] Shawi – [George] Hawi rose up after the third conference in 1972. Third, that the departure of the leadership of the Arab communist parties (Bakdash left early to Prague in the 50s) from the Arab world because of closing in, oppression and exile and the distance between this leadership and the people. The model of Aziz Al-Haj (the one who bears the responsibility for the beating and killing of the leadership of the Iraqi Communist Party as a result of his confessions and acceptance of and work as an informant for the regime of Saddam Hussein). It’s very obvious: how could an Arab communist leader turn into a propagandist for Bush’s wars and one of the writers in the Wahhabi media?
Fourth, indeed the failure of the Arab regimes that were falsely called developing (in Egypt and Syria and Iraq and Yemen and Libya) reflected on the reputation of the Arab communist parties, and especially since some of the leaders of these parties allied with these regimes – like the alliance of Bakdash with the Syrian regime, or the alliance of the some of the symbolic figures of Egyptian communism with the Egyptian regime or Aziz Al-Haj’s television program. As for the Lebanese Communist party, it didn’t ally with the Lebanese regime, but it did form alliances through the years with the Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan regimes, especially during the Hawi – Shawi era. And the alliance with regimes hostile to communism (even though they used the slogans of the Left). This damaged the reputations of the parties and tarnished them with opportunism as they gave legality to oppress the people in these parties and were showered with popular legality in repressing these parties, and especially since the repression was accompanied by the confessions (like the appearance of the Secretary General of the Tudeh Party on Iranian television) that Arab intelligence were very skilled in extracting. These confessions changed the communist leadership into a model of submissiveness and surrender, in addition to deadly ignorance in alliances (the Iraqi Communist Party was proud of its alliance with Saddam’s regime, as the Tudeh Party defended Khomeini).
Fifth, the Arab communist parties (Stalinist – Bakdashist and even revolutionary) didn’t try to build a type of Communism independent of Moscow, for they became agents of intervention on behalf of Western communist intelligence. And the KGB controlled the traditional communist parties while the revolutionary communist parties built (like the Wadi’a Haddad organization and the Socialist Arab Action Party and others) father/son relationships with East German intelligence and Bulgaria. And these relationships only served to alienate the masses from the ideas of these parties because they depended on outside orders even for matters of party education. It’s true that George Habash tried in the beginning of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to create its own brand of Asian Marxism, but the first contact with Moscow killed those attempts as it frustrated some of the revolutionism of the Popular Front, because Moscow opposed “in principle” any Arab project to get rid of Israel. And the bad slogan “remove all consequences of aggression” was the furthest that the Soviet Union would go.
Sixth, the behavior of the Arab communist parties suffered from political practices characterized by fluctuation, fickleness, vacillation and opportunism. Yasir Abd-al-Rabbu, for example, changed from a former Leftist before he split from (accompanied by his driver and escort) the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. And the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine which started out as a “pure” Leftist Arab organization, possessing a revolutionary breath, in no time joined the Arafat organization, and they started to theorize for the benefit of this deformed entity before the Fatah movement openly declared this. Preferring the phenomenon of useful former Leftists – from Qadri Kala’ji to Jalal Kashak to Nasib Namr, who wrote for the newspaper of the party of Camille Chama’on at the peak of the civil war – followed by Karim Marawwah the Hariri propagandist and Elias ‘Atta allah, the activist in Sa’d and Nadir Hariri’s entourage.
Seventh, the Arab communist parties suffered from disgraceful negligence on the main issues of concern in the Arab world. For on the issue of liberating Palestine, the communist parties clung to Moscow’s position, which cannot be forgiven in spite of the passage of time, also they didn’t raise the slogan or adopt the practice of armed struggle until much later. The Arab communists didn’t join in the ranks of the resistance until the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s., which gave the reactionaries and nationalists to manipulate the slogan. Also the Arab communists did not join the battle for freedom and they had to bow to Soviet Union policies in the Middle East. And the communist parties - who unlike the ostracized Maoists had strict orders from the Soviets - they disregarded the peasant element in the struggle, even their programs lacked any hint of an agricultural reform program, while Akram al-Hourani and Nasser understood the importance of this issue. And these parties also disregarded the women’s issue and the role of these women in these parties was much weaker than the role of women in some Islamic movements.
Eight, money from Arab oil (reactionary and progressive) and from the Soviets to the Arab communist movement hurt them, not only because of buying consciences and people and writers but also because of the many members who had connections to the organization moved away as happened in the Palestinian revolution and the Lebanese national movement and organizations. They turned into (in the best cases) mercenaries. Also the secret work . . . was very effective in attracting elements that were very ideologically enthusiastic in the 50s and 60s. Also a large part of the Arab oil money, especially after the death of Nasser and the rise of oil in the 70s, was used to fight ideas of liberation and enlightenment and communism. And also to spread the ideology of the dark Wahabism which bin Laden grew up in while he was under the care of the royalty.
Nine, the Islamic Revolution in Iran changed the political map in the Arab world. The people who were resigned to depending on changing governments that dragged us to defeat looked with admiration at this experience in the heart of one of the most powerful governments in the area. A model of religious mobilization filled the vacuum which the failure of nationalist and Leftist ideologies had left in the Arab world.
Ten, the element of mercenaries and benefiting from this element, as we have explained before, played a very important role. As in the East and the West, for a lot of the Communist leaders who worked in the media and in publishing and in literature and education. But Saudi money, especially in the second Saudi era which followed the Kuwait invasion in 1991, overwhelmed all the media and publications and research centers. And the money of Rafiq Hariri and his successors was unlimited. And the media that was financed by Libya and Iraq disappeared. Many writers chose to be subjected to and to co-exist and cooperate with the Saudis. And the two brothers of George Hawi concentrated on writing about the co-existence between the communist thought of George Hauoi and Hariri-Wahabi thought.
Eleven, the Israeli Communist Party and those Arabs who joined the Arab Communist Movement harmed communism because they marketed the model of co-existence with the Zionist state. Because all the Arab world public opinion rejected it and still rejects it. The scene of members of the Communist Party sitting in the Israeli Knesset was and still is something infuriating to opinion in the Arab world. And the marriage, in people’s minds compared communism and subjugation to Zionism.
Twelve, Arab communism, unlike Spanish communism or the Frankfurt School or the French Left, did not create any theory or local school for its’ Leftist model and they were satisfied with having examples from Abi Dhurr and some folklore proverbs from the Arab tradition. It’s true that Hadi al-A’laoui and al-A’fif al-Akhdar and Husayn Muruwwah - Who killed Husayn Muruwwah? And why don’t we raise the issue of the knowledge of the killer wherever he is? - It’s true that they tried to dig into the Islamic and Arab traditions to find a kind of common ground between Marxist and religious tradition but all the attempts were by individuals. The concerns of some parties were more militia, intelligence or those who work for themselves.
Thirteen, the Arab communist movement could not deal with the Soviet Union’s collapse. Some of them collapsed, some hid in the corner ashamed, and Naif Hawatmah started visiting Amin Gemayyel to greet him and praise him for his deep-rooted history in fighting for the Palestinian people. And the Lebanese Communist Party started hiding their picture of Marx and bringing out only the picture of Guevara because he was handsome, and some Arab communists turned to Hariri and Wahabi activists.
It was possible for Arab Communism to rise again and re-write its ideology based on international developments. There was a possibility of spreading Marxism again, and the ideas of the Communist Manifesto are especially still vital and current. The Arab communist movement was using repeated words about democracy and development without criticizing the two ideologies from a Leftist perspective.
Fourteen, the Arab communist parties turned a blind eye to the “complex” of religion as Yasin al-Hafiz called it. It contained individuals from different ethinc and religious backgrounds, but it did not stand up against the consequences of the material ideology which “in theory” they followed. Elias ‘Atta allah, for example, calls on the Lebanese people to follow the ideas of the Maronite patriarch who has one of the most rigid rightist ideologies in the country, and most of the communists followed a policy of not going against religious ideologies often to protect their own necks.
Fifteen, no political or ideological movement faced what the Arab communist movement did. Because all the enemies from all over fought the Communists, from the Ba’th to Nasserism and Wahabism and the American empire and Liberal thought (which is always cooperating with colonialism in different forms, and with modern Wahabism) in addition to Zionism and all the Arab governments. What made Arab communism’s tragedy worse over the decades was that those who fought against it used groups of former communists who occupied very high positions in Rightist governments and their media.
Sixteen, these communist parties lacked the charismatic/magical personalities and the George Habash experience remains very unique. If it wasn’t for him, the communist ideology wouldn’t have spread in the Palestinian refugee camps, because the personality of Abu al-Nouf was very effective among people whose numbers were not more than one hand. Of course, the need for charismatic leadership is not a main condition, but it is very effective in all societies. The personality of Shawi was like the personality of Qasim Hashim, it was hurtful to the idea he carried and it limited its spread.
This is not a call for desperation. On the contrary. From Lebanon to Morocco, there is still a unique chance to reactivate the Arab Left and revive it, especially in the shadow of the world economic crisis, of the alliance between Wahabism and Liberalism and in the shadow of the very shallow thought of the Islamic fundamentalist organizations. But a revival has to free itself from the remains of Liberal thought which unites progress and welcome in different forms and doesn’t hide from colonialism, as it allies with the American – Saudi – Israeli axis. As for the Left, if it re-emerges, it won’t depend on any soldiers: it forms a special camp, which doesn’t include countries but the poor, and those who are crushed and tortured and marginalized everywhere.