Skip to content
More About Us
The Lost Tradition
Feature Article by Sabby Sagall, July 2003
There is a rich history of workers' struggles in Iraq.
'There was no alternative' was the familiar mantra of liberals supporting the US and British juggernaut as the only force capable of ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein's tyranny. However, even a cursory examination of 20th century Iraq reveals an alternative - a working class whose combativity was belied by its youth and small size.
In 1920, having defeated the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the First World War, Britain occupied Iraq under a League of Nations mandate. Its aim was to strengthen its control over the Suez Canal and the imperial lifeline to India and, crucially, over the supply of oil that was discovered in large quantities in 1927. When news of the mandate reached Iraq, it sparked a major rebellion against British rule and its excessive taxation which lasted four months and was brutally suppressed. Britain's long term response was to devise an 'Arab solution' - the imposition in 1921 of a puppet monarchy that was to rule until the revolution of 1958.
Concentration of wealth
In the countryside, Britain's colonial administration re-established the wealth and power of the traditional large landowners, whose authority had been eroded under the Ottomans. The result was that in 1958 2,480 landowners, or 1 percent of the total, owned 55 percent of all agricultural land, whereas 64 percent of landowners held only 3.6 percent of cultivated land. Out of a rural population of 3.8 million, some 600,000 heads of households were landless. This huge concentration of rural wealth found its parallel in a similar pattern of commercial and industrial ownership among city dwellers.
However, during the colonial period (1920-32) the urban bourgeoisie was overwhelmingly commercial and tied to foreign capital. Gradually economic and political power shifted from the countryside to the urban areas. Part of this process was the creation of a new urban petty bourgeoisie, running small shops and workshops, and filling the lower levels of the state bureaucracy. These groups were dependent on the expansion of the state and of the trading and manufacturing sectors, and felt resentment at control by Britain and the parasitical local ruling class. Despite Iraq's economic underdevelopment, its labour movement revealed its strength and potential as early as 1927, as Baghdad witnessed the first major organised strike by railway workers demanding freedom of trade union organisation. Its success greatly influenced the development of the Iraqi labour movement.
The world slump of 1929 led to a major political and economic crisis, sparked off by the collapse in world prices of grain, still Iraq's main export. The Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) - the consortium of Anglo-Iranian, Shell, Mobil and Jersey Standard - became the government's only source of revenue. In return for an advance on future royalties, the IPC demanded an expansion of the territories under concession from 192 to 35,000 square miles. This was to lead to its monopolisation of the entire country by 1938. There was deep popular resentment at these extortionist terms and at the government's capitulation, as well as at the imposition of new taxes on small merchants. In addition there was widespread anger at the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930, whose provisions included the maintenance of RAF bases in Iraq and the retention by Britain of considerable political and administrative control.
Something akin to a general strike broke out in July 1931, the day after King Faisal left the country to spend the summer in Europe. In Baghdad shops were closed, no buses ran, and there were marches and demonstrations. A few days later the strike spread to Basra and the towns of central Iraq. In 1932, in an attempt to restore tranquillity, Britain granted 'independence'. However, the following year the Workers' Trade Union Federation was formed, which led a boycott against the British-owned Baghdad Electric Light and Power Company following a rise in charges. The fact of British ownership gave the boycott strong nationalist overtones but, although the government was forced to lower prices, the union was banned and its leaders imprisoned.
The labour movement was forced underground for the next ten years. However, the resilience of the opposition was revealed in 1934 with the foundation of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). Over the following decade its strength and adherents grew steadily and, although it suffered numerous setbacks, it played a major role in the politicisation of large segments of the population. At its height, during the revolution of 1958-59, it had around 25,000 members.
The early 1940s saw the beginnings of industrialisation as a result of wartime protection and high demand. However, an endemic economic crisis set in after the war. Steep inflation, which began during the war, benefited the merchant and landlord classes but drastically hit the living standards of the rural and urban masses, including the petty bourgeoisie. Moreover, high unemployment among the urban population resulted from the withdrawal of the British army, a major employer of labour, at the end of the war. Given that Baghdad's population had doubled between 1922 and 1947, greatly increasing the number of workers, and that industry was concentrated in the capital and Basra, the result was an explosion of militancy.
There was a clear link between the economic and the national struggle, as revealed by the fact that the most notable displays of workers' mobilisation occurred in Iraq's three major enterprises, all of which were under varying degrees of British control - Iraq Railways, Basra Port and the IPC. The large concentrations of relatively well paid workers in these companies (and in the textile mills), led mainly by the ICP, were thus able to arouse widespread popular support. There was an intensifying spiral of strikes, demonstrations and repression.
The postwar years witnessed the emergence of a new era of reconstruction and growth in the industrialised countries. This called for a rapid expansion of oil production. The Iraqi government's revenue rose from $1.75 to $5.50 per ton, its oil income as a proportion of the total jumping from 10 percent to over 60 percent. Between 1950 and 1958, total oil revenues leaped from 5.3 million Iraqi dinars to 79.9 million Iraqi dinars. One of the most important displays of labour solidarity occurred in the Kirkuk oilfields in 1946. The workers requested permission to form a union, but this was refused. A strike was called in July against the company's refusal to grant higher wages, and a peaceful demonstration of 5,000 workers marched through the city on 3 July. After nine days on strike a report-back meeting of strikers in a park was attacked by armed police, who killed ten workers.
But the most significant postwar event was the great national rising of 1948 known as al-Wathba (the Leap), a massive protest against the Portsmouth Agreement, an arrangement which would have perpetuated the hated Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930. It coincided with the greatest rise in the cost of living since the war. Hence mass anger at deepening deprivation was combined with profound resentment at a government willing to endorse continuing subordination to Britain. On 27 January some 400 people were killed in the streets of Baghdad, but the government was eventually forced to renounce the treaty. The next months witnessed virtual anarchy in parts of Iraq. A crucial event was a strike by over 3,000 oil workers and clerical staff, led by the Communist Party. After two and a half weeks the government and the IPC cut off supplies of food and water. Neighbouring villages shared their food with the strikers, but they then decided to march on Baghdad, some 250 kilometres away. In the first two days they were fed and housed by the small towns and villages on the way, but the police finally intervened, arresting the strikers near Fallujah.
The remaining years of the monarchy were marked by popular uprisings, both rural and urban, prompted by deepening poverty and directed against the regime and its British allies. In 1952, inspired by the Egyptian Revolution, there were marches in Baghdad, during which 40 people were killed, and strikes at British bases and at the ports of Basra and Fao were equally suppressed with great loss of life. 1956 also witnessed popular uprisings inspired by Egyptian leader Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal the previous year, and the consequent Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt.
The revolutionary coup of 1958 cannot be understood separately from the mass radicalisation of the 1940s and 1950s. Carried out by the Free Officers led by Brigadier Kassem, its achievements were significant. The monarchy was abolished and a programme of land reform inspired by the ICP was carried out, breaking the power of the landowners. In addition, the power of the big bourgeoisie was broken, though the main beneficiaries were the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie. The ICP emerged from clandestinity to lead the largest revolutionary mass movement in Iraqi history.
Despite its exclusion from the government, the ICP continued to be the most influential political force in the country. In the first year a quarter of a million workers joined trade unions. In addition, Iraq left the US-inspired anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact. The ICP can, however, be criticised for confining the struggle within the limits of nationalism rather than seeing it as part of a potential Middle East wide social revolution.
In February 1963 Kassem was overthrown by a coup carried out by the right wing nationalist Ba'ath Party. In Baghdad tens of thousands came out of the poorer districts to defend the revolution. But Kassem refused their demand for arms and his regime fell. The ICP, though, did organise armed resistance to the coup, and battles raged in Baghdad and other towns for several days. However, the Ba'ath were themselves ousted by a military coup in November. During the years 1965-68 the military government proved unable to solve Iraq's urgent problems, mainly the economy and the Kurdish question. Nor could it contain popular opposition to its rule which expressed itself in large-scale workers' strikes. It was against the background of the deepening crisis of the regime and growing resistance that the Ba'ath again seized power in 1968.
The Ba'ath leadership was aware of the influence of the ICP and of socialist ideas. In 1972, faced with intransigence on the part of the Iraq Petroleum Company, they nationalised the company. Then, in 1973, seeking to assuage popular feeling, they entered into alliance with the ICP, thousands of whose members they had murdered in 1963. Even a cursory examination of Iraqi labour history reveals a rich tradition of struggle and organisation. Of course, the movement suffered severe repression under Saddam Hussein. But it was also greatly weakened by UN economic sanctions, whose principal effect was to strengthen his Ba'ath regime. Was Saddam Hussein too powerful to be overthrown by popular uprising? The very same argument was put forward by liberals prior to the overthrow of the Iranian Shah by the Iranian workers in 1979, as it was about Somoza's Nicaragua before the Sandinista revolution of 1979 and about Ceausescu's Romania prior to 1989. This analysis, however, indicates that an alternative social force was present and potentially capable of carrying out the task of overthrowing the regime and creating a popular democracy.
Revolutionaries in the Arab and Islamic world can take heart from the traditions of the Iraqi labour movement as they plan their strategy for the struggle against imperialism and Zionism in the coming months and years.
Access to this website is free - help us keep it that way. Please make a donation.