Polemics with the ICL:
Kurdistan & the Struggle for National Liberation
For a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan!
The Kurdish People and the U.S. Occupation of Iraq
Reprinted from Workers Vanguard Nos. 804 and 805, 23 May and 6 June 2003.
We have put André’s polemic against the IBT in bold face—ed.
[WV introduction] The following is an edited presentation by Workers Vanguard Editorial Board member Bruce André at a Spartacist League/Spartacus Youth Club public educational in Berkeley on May 3.
Colonial occupation of a country always reinforces and feeds on everything that is most reactionary in that society. We are seeing that rule of history played out in Iraq today under the U.S. colonial occupation. Islamic fundamentalists calling for an Islamic republic are on the march in the south, Baghdad is swarming with vermin backed by the Pentagon or the CIA, maneuvering for a share of the country’s wealth. All this against the backdrop of the devastation of the country’s industry and infrastructure by 12 years of starvation sanctions, massive U.S. bombing, and finally widespread looting which U.S. troops allowed to go on while they raced to secure the oil fields.
Meanwhile, ethnic and religious conflicts are threatening to erupt in all-sided communalist slaughter. In Kurdistan in the north, in towns seized by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both of which are operating under U.S. command, thousands of Arabs have been driven from their homes. Human Rights Watch called the expulsions a violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention on war crimes, which prohibits forced population transfers. Arabs in Mosul demonstrated, chanting not only “U.S. Out!” but also “Kurds Out!” U.S. troops fired into the crowds, killing 17 people in two days. The Turkmen minority in that city feels so threatened by Kurdish forces that many are calling for Turkish military intervention. One aid worker declared, “We are going from one war to another” (Washington Post, 17 April).
These ethnic conflicts are the legacy of British imperialist conquest following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The British deliberately created a country divided against itself, with the Shi’ites in the south and Kurds in the north lorded over by the same Sunni Muslim elites who had ruled under the Ottomans. Decades of rule by bourgeois-nationalist regimes further deepened ethnic divides. Saddam Hussein, whose Ba’ath Party came to power in the 1960s with U.S. support, carried out a program of “Arabization,” in which Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians were driven from the oil-producing regions around Mosul and Kirkuk. Today there are 300-400,000 displaced Kurds who wish to return to their homes in Kurdistan. A PUK commander in Kirkuk province declared: “We want it orderly, but the Arab settlers must go.”
Even through the distorting lens of this country’s capitalist media, which parrots every lie put out by Washington, one can see the widespread distrust and anger at the U.S. colonial occupation among the Iraqi population. However, one place in Iraq where there are no doubt widespread illusions in the U.S. occupation is among Kurds in Kurdistan. Kurds were a special target of terror by Saddam Hussein—as many as 100,000 are thought to have been massacred—in order to ensure unquestioned control by the Ba’ath regime of the vast oil reserves located in Kurdistan. The petty-bourgeois nationalists at the head of the KDP and the PUK hoped that their alliance with Washington would win them some form of independent rule in Iraqi Kurdistan and a share of the oil. Unfortunately for them, it’s not going to work out that way. Washington’s claim to act as an ally of the Kurdish people is nothing but cynicism and hypocrisy. The U.S. imperialists—in fact, all the imperialist powers—are dead set against any expression of Kurdish national rights.
The 25 to 30 million Kurdish people in the Near East constitute the largest nation in the world without a state; it stretches from eastern Turkey, through a portion of Syria, across northern Iraq and into Iran (with some Kurds also scattered in the Caucasus). What the imperialists fear—and the local powers as well—is that any serious concession to Kurdish nationalism in Iraq could destabilize the whole oil-rich region by inspiring Kurds in other countries to seek independence. This is especially true of Turkey, which since the mid-1980s has been waging a war of extermination—backed by the U.S. and Germany—against that country’s oppressed Kurdish minority and against the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Actually they changed their name last year to KADEK, the Congress for Freedom and Democracy—that name tells you a lot about where they’re heading politically—but some party leaders have continued to use the initials PKK, which I will do as well in this talk. Some 37,000 people have been killed and several thousand villages in Turkish Kurdistan have been turned into ghost towns. The Turkish bourgeoisie is so intent on stamping out any hint of Kurdish separatism that for years speaking Kurdish in public was outlawed and Kurdish people were officially referred to as “mountain Turks.” Today the U.S. invasion of Iraq has prompted the Ankara regime to reimpose a de facto state of emergency in Turkish Kurdistan. Tanks line the streets; cars are pulled over and searched. Many trade unionists and antiwar protesters have been arrested and beaten.
Petty-Bourgeois Nationalism: Dead End for Kurds
Like all petty-bourgeois nationalists, the KDP and PUK have a long history of looking for allies among the local capitalist powers and their imperialist godfathers. To see where this strategy gets you, take a look at the Palestinians. Under the leadership of the petty-bourgeois nationalists of the PLO, even the politically sophisticated Palestinian people have been simply led from one massacre to another—not just by the racist Zionist butchers but also by supposed allies like the king of Jordan. Today, even as the Zionists gun down Palestinians on a daily basis, the PLO acts as their police auxiliaries in the Occupied Territories.
As evidence of Washington’s good graces, Kurdish leaders point to the fact that since the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan has been essentially autonomous as a result of the “no fly zone” in the north of the country enforced by U.S. warplanes. Actually, that experience could serve as a textbook example of how petty-bourgeois nationalism adds up to betrayal and defeat. After siding with the U.S. in the 1991 war against Iraq, the KDP and the PUK launched an uprising at the call of the CIA’s “Voice of Free Iraq.” But the promised aid from Washington never materialized and the Kurdish nationalists were left to the tender mercies of Saddam Hussein, who drove hundreds of thousands of Kurds from their homes. The KDP and PUK leaders then looked to Turkey for support, helping to hunt down and kill Turkish PKK militants who had sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. By the mid ’90s the KDP and PUK were at each other’s throats over how to divvy up the profits from smuggling Iraqi oil to Turkey. The PUK got Iran to send in troops on its side, so the KDP invited Saddam Hussein to send in his tanks, turning the dirty nationalist feud into a renewed war between Iran and Iraq, paid for with Kurdish blood.
And the decade of the 1990s was merely the most recent chapter in the long history of petty-bourgeois Kurdish nationalists sacrificing the Kurdish national struggle for illusory support from the imperialists or their regional lackeys, who invariably end up dumping the nationalist leaders and slaughtering their people. The KDP was formed in 1946 by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the embodiment of the treachery visited upon the Kurdish people by their supposed leaders. Barzani started his political career during WWII pledging blind obedience to the British, “whatever your orders may be” (David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds ). The British responded by driving Barzani and his followers out of Iraq. When a revolutionary wave swept Iraq in 1958, Barzani launched another Kurdish revolt, but he made an offer to the Ba’ath Party to call a cease-fire if they came to power. The Ba’ath Party took power in a counterrevolutionary coup and profited from Barzani’s cease-fire to attack the Kurds.
Barzani then got support from an unholy alliance of the CIA, the Israeli Mossad and the Shah of Iran. In return, Barzani helped the Iranians by holding back the Kurdish struggle in Iran. When leaders of the KDP of Iran finally refused to continue this suicidal policy in 1967, Barzani began hunting them down and turning them over to the Shah. One of them was executed by Barzani and then handed over to the Iranians, who publicly displayed the body in towns throughout Iranian Kurdistan as a warning to others.
Meanwhile, in 1979 the Iranian KDP hailed Khomeini’s so-called Islamic Revolution. They weren’t alone, by the way. Virtually the entire left internationally, except our tendency, hailed Khomeini. The reformist Socialist Workers Party in this country is currently running a three-part series in the Militant holding up the so-called Islamic Revolution in Iran as an example of anti-imperialist struggle. To get an idea of what it meant for the left to support Khomeini, imagine if Osama bin Laden and the guys who flew those planes into the World Trade Center took state power. You get the picture? The International Socialist Organization (ISO) hailed Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution with the headline: “The Form, Religious—The Spirit, Revolution” (Socialist Worker, January 1979). They went on to hail the mujahedin who fought with the CIA against the Red Army in Afghanistan. This pamphlet that the ISO sells on its lit tables, The Prophet and the Proletariat, explains how reactionary Islamic fundamentalists like the cutthroats in Algeria who murder unveiled women are actually “anti-imperialists.” In Iranian Kurdistan, the groups who came together to form the Komala/Communist Party of Iran also supported the mullahs. Khomeini wasted no time in turning on his leftist and Kurdish supporters, slaughtering some 30,000 Kurds by early 1984.
During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, the KDP got support from Iran while the PUK, which had split off a few years previously, made a cease-fire deal with Saddam Hussein. But in 1983, the fortunes of the Kurds changed radically because Saddam Hussein got a visit from a U.S. envoy—none other than today’s defense minister, Donald Rumsfeld—who informed him that the U.S. was going to throw its support to him against Iran. Now, with arms and other assistance pouring in from the U.S. and Europe—including the technology to develop poison gas and biological weapons—Hussein felt strong enough to move against the PUK and the Kurdish population. The PUK responded by joining a united military front with the KDP and the Iranian army, which drove deep into Iraqi Kurdistan. Hussein responded by launching air bombardment and poison gas attacks, killing Kurdish civilians by the thousands.
Now, that’s a pretty sordid litany of betrayals, but I subjected you to it to make a political point. I gave a talk in Paris a few months ago on the Near East—it was published recently in WorkersVanguard (see “A Marxist Perspective on the Near East,” WV No. 799, 14 March)—in which I emphasized that the Palestinian people can only achieve liberation from the terrible oppression they suffer under the Zionist jackboot if they ally their struggle with that of the working class in the surrounding Arab countries and in Israel itself. The same can be said with regard to the Kurds. It is obvious on the face of it that to win independence for the entire Kurdish nation would require the revolutionary destruction of at least four capitalist regimes—and accompanying imperialist domination—right across this strategically important region. That’s what we mean by the slogan of a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan—a united independent Kurdistan could only come about through the struggle for proletarian revolution.
That means that the motor force for the struggle for Kurdish independence is to be found in the proletariats of the countries which oppress the Kurds—the Arab, Persian and Turkish proletariats. They, in turn, must be won to actively championing the Kurdish right of self-determination. There is no other way that one can even imagine achieving the democratic right of national self-determination for the Kurdish people. Within the nationalist framework, it’s not even conceivable on an abstract level. Which is why Kurdish nationalist organizations almost never even raise the call for independence of the entire Kurdish nation. Instead, they call for things like “autonomy” for the particular piece of territory that’s located in the country they’re in—“federalism” for Iraqi Kurdistan is what the KDP and PUK appear to be calling for today.
The PKK and the Kurdish Question in Turkey
Unlike the other Kurdish groups, the PKK has won mass support not only among the rural population of Turkish Kurdistan but among workers in West Turkey, West Europe and elsewhere. But the PKK nationalists see the proletariat as just another sector of the “people” to be used as a means of pressuring the Ankara regime, or the Social Democrats in Germany, to grant concessions. The PKK emphatically rejects the perspective of independently mobilizing the proletariat to lead all the oppressed to carry out a socialist revolution in the Near East and in the advanced capitalist countries. Consequently, they have ended up making increasingly abject overtures to the archenemies of Kurdish freedom, the Western imperialists and the Turkish state. In the past, the PKK has made repeated calls on the UN, the European Union—even the U.S.—to use their good offices to resolve the Kurdish question. After his capture four years ago, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan called on his supporters to lay down their arms.
Today, the PKK has gone so far as to embrace the U.S. colonial occupation of Iraq! The Financial Times (15 April) reported that a PKK leader “said the movement had shelved its ambitions for a unified state for all Kurds” and now “wants to establish a dialogue with Washington on joining its campaign of democratisation in the Middle East.” A 25 April English-language posting on the “Kurdish Observer” Web site quotes a KADEK (PKK) statement as follows: “The [U.S.] intervention will be successful only if it paves the way for improving the common values of humanity.... Therefore for [the] USA the only way is to give [an] opportunity to democratic regimes to be establish[ed] and support them.” The PKK’s long list of democratic demands that follows that quote does not even hint at calling for the withdrawal of U.S. and other imperialist forces from the Near East—which is not surprising since the PKK looks to the imperialists as the instrument for implementing their program!
The Worker-Communist Party of Iraq/Iran (WCPI), which we intersect particularly in Canada but which has a certain base in Iraqi and Iranian Kurdistan, also published a list of democratic demands they want to see implemented in Iraq (WPI Briefing, 28 April). Typically for them, they simply ignore the Kurdish question. And to whom do they look to implement their demands? The WCPI calls for the withdrawal of U.S. and British forces but wants them replaced by “the intervention of the United Nations” to “safeguard free and secure conditions.” From the Korean War of 1950-53 to the 1991 Persian Gulf War against Iraq, the UN is nothing but an instrument serving the interests of the great imperialist powers. The Iraqi people were starved by 12 years of economic sanctions imposed by the UN, they were bombed almost daily by U.S. warplanes operating in the “no fly zones,” and UN weapons inspectors spied on Iraq and helped ensure it was as defenseless as possible in the face of the U.S. onslaught. Now the WCPI looks to the UN to bring democracy to Iraq!
During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union faced hostile encirclement by the imperialist countries, petty-bourgeois nationalist forces like the PLO or the South African ANC were often politically and militarily backed by Moscow, giving them some room to maneuver. The PKK got a modicum of military support from Soviet-friendly Syria. After the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92, however, the petty-bourgeois nationalists were left suspended in mid-air. The PLO responded by looking ever more closely to Washington to broker a deal, which has not relieved the suffering of the Palestinians one iota. In South Africa, the now bourgeois-nationalist ANC presides over a system of neo-apartheid in which the black masses are just as exploited and oppressed—by the same white ruling class—as they were under apartheid. In the very unlikely event that the PKK ever succeeded in cutting a deal with the Turkish bourgeoisie, it would simply use its new position of authority to exploit its own people and serve as Kurdish gendarmes for the Turkish state. That’s the program of petty-bourgeois nationalism.
There is plenty of historical experience to show that our perspective of united class struggle by the multinational proletariat in the Near East is not simply a pipe-dream. We ran a two-part article in WV Nos. 740 and 741 (25 August and 8 September 2000) which I would recommend in this regard; it shows the rich tradition of proletarian class struggle in the Near East in the decade and a half following WWII and gives an idea of the enormous possibilities this held out for national and ethnic minorities as well as women.
One example of united class struggle not dealt with in that article was shown in 1991 when 48,000 coal miners in the Turkish city of Zonguldak went on strike at the very moment that the Turkish government was gearing up for the U.S.-led assault on Iraq. The strike went beyond economic issues by demanding “No to the war!” Solidarity strikes occurred in Kurdish eastern Anatolia and among Turkish workers; miners reportedly raised the demand for the right of Kurds to use their own language.
The Kurds are not simply pathetic victims of repeated betrayals, although if you looked only at the history of Kurdish nationalism you might get that impression. There is a sizable Kurdish working class with a history of militant struggle in the oil fields of Kirkuk and other strategic centers. But for the most part the Kurdish proletariat is to be found outside of Kurdistan in such industrial centers as Istanbul and the mining regions of southern Turkey, as well as Baghdad—at least before it was starved by sanctions and bombed to rubble. It is in the urban centers, among the industrial proletariat, that the power exists to lead the Kurdish people to freedom.
Hundreds of thousands more Kurds are dispersed throughout West Europe together with the Turks in the coal mines, metal plants and chemical works of Germany and West Europe. In Germany, tens of thousands of Kurds are members of powerful trade unions together with their German and Turkish class brothers and sisters. Throughout Europe, immigrant workers have been the target of racist campaigns launched by the “left” no less than right-wing governments, seeking to use racism to divide the working class and demoralize it. When a cargo ship loaded with 900 Kurdish refugees ran aground off southern France two years ago, the popular-front coalition government at the time composed of Socialists, Communists and Greens threw all the Kurdish refugees into concentration camps guarded by the army. Turkish leftist and Kurdish nationalist groups, including the PKK, are banned in Germany. Even after two or three generations in the country, many of those of Turkish or Kurdish origin cannot become German citizens under the racist citizenship laws.
Our comrades in France, Germany and elsewhere have insisted on the fact that immigrant workers are a strategic component of the proletariat. We fight for mobilizing the power of labor to block deportations and we fight for full citizenship rights for all. Immigrant workers in Germany and throughout West Europe are a living bridge between the struggle for the emancipation of the Kurds in a socialist Near East and proletarian revolution in imperialist West Europe. The key lies in forging an internationalist leadership modeled on Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, which liberated the oppressed nationalities of the tsarist autocracy’s “prison house of peoples” by leading the proletariat to power in the 1917 Russian Revolution.
The Legacy of Imperialist ‘Divide and Rule’
As I mentioned, the carving up of the Kurdish nation dates back to the close of WWI, when the British and other colonialist powers drew the borders of Iraq and the other countries of the Near East. It is useful to review this history, not only in laying bare the workings of imperialist domination; it also shows the tremendous impact the Russian Revolution had on the peoples of the Near East and how that impact helped shape the modern Near East. The guiding principle for the imperialists was “divide and rule.” The Arabs of Palestine, including what is today Jordan, wanted to be united with the Arabs of what is now Syria and Lebanon; they were divided into separate countries. In what is now Iraq, Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims and Kurds and Turkmens wanted to live separately; they were forced to live under a single roof.
Before WWI was even finished, the British and French imperialists divided up the spoils of their impending victory in the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916. The publication of that document by the Bolshevik workers state exposed the imperialists’ machinations and had an electrifying effect across the region. Simultaneously, the British secretly promised Sharif Hussein of Mecca that he could be king of a united Arab state in return for siding with the British. This so-called “Arab revolt” against the Turks was important propagandistically for the British, because the troops that were essential for controlling the British empire, the armies of India and Egypt, consisted mainly of Britain’s Muslim colonial subjects; many of them saw the war against the Ottomans as a war against Islam.
Obviously, all these cynical promises—the British even promised in the Balfour Declaration to grant the Zionists a Jewish homeland in Palestine—were mutually contradictory. The Kurds were also promised their own state—albeit a truncated one—in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. But they never got even that deformed expression of national self-determination. By 1920, it was becoming clear that the former Ottoman vilayet (province) of Mosul, which had been assigned to France under the Sykes-Picot Treaty, had much more oil than was originally thought. So Britain decided to keep it, creating a new country called Iraq that basically corresponded to the concession of the British-controlled Turkish Petroleum Company. Incidentally, you may find this interesting: in deciding how Iraq would be compensated for its oil, the precedent used was “the way in which the United States government had dealt with the sale of the lands of the Osage Indians” (Edith and E.F. Penrose, Iraq ). The splitting of Kurdistan was duly approved by the League of Nations, which Lenin called a “den of thieves.” It served—as the UN does today—as a fig leaf for imperialist interests.
Meanwhile, the Bolshevik Revolution—and its extension to largely Muslim Central Asia in the course of the bloody three-year Civil War against the imperialist-backed counterrevolutionary White armies—triggered a series of national revolts and popular uprisings in the broad swath occupied by British forces from Egypt through the Fertile Crescent to Iran. The Turks, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (a/k/a Atatürk), waged a national war—backed by the Soviet power under Lenin—to drive out the British-backed Greek army and secure the borders of the modern Turkish state, including northern Kurdistan. (By the way, Atatürk was backed by the Kurds in Turkey, who were rewarded with merciless repression.) In Egypt, as strikes and demonstrations swept the country in 1919, one observer reported that “news of success or victory by the Bolsheviks” in the Russian Civil War “seems to produce a pang of joy and content among all classes of Egyptians” (Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq ). Also in 1919 open rebellion broke out in the Punjab in India; hundreds were shot down by British troops.
That same year, the Kurds rose in revolt against British occupation. One Kurd declared: “We will have no foreign power over us, we are Bolsheviks and will rule ourselves” (David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds ). The British crushed the Kurdish revolt, using air bombardment against civilians for the first time in history. One of those who got his start bombing Kurdish families was Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the ghoulish war criminal who later oversaw the firebombing of Dresden. Anticipating Rumsfeld by 80 years, Winston Churchill, at the time secretary for war and air, hailed the use of air power against Britain’s colonial subjects for allowing “a very large reduction to be made in the size and consequently the cost of the garrison” (Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Volume IV ).
The following year, the Arabs of Mesopotamia (southern Iraq) rose in revolt and stood up to the more than 130,000 British troops, costing the British 2,500 casualties before their revolt was drowned in blood. Churchill clamored for using mustard gas bombs against the Iraqi rebels; it was decided instead to bombard them with poison gas artillery shells. Maybe that example helped inspire Saddam Hussein when he in turn gassed the Kurds.
Meanwhile, a debate was raging behind the closed doors of the British government over how to administer the Near East territories occupied by British troops. The debate was framed by the revolts sweeping the region and by the victories of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War against the counterrevolutionary White armies and the imperialist troops sent to crush the Russian Revolution.
Some colonialists like Churchill were arguing that it would be less costly and more stable to set up formally independent states and impose imperialist domination through indirect rule. But the rulers of British India who held sway opposed any concession to rising nationalism, which they feared would set a dangerous example in India and the rest of the empire.
It is fascinating to trace this debate in Churchill’s personal papers. Churchill was obsessed by the danger of what he called the “bacillus” of Bolshevism infecting India. He wrote to the secretary of foreign affairs: “The ruin of Lenin and Trotsky and the system they embody is indispensable to the peace and revival of the world” (Aaron Klieman, Foundations of British Policy in the Arab World ).
The British had been counting on Georgia and other British client states in the Caucasus to serve as a buffer between the Russian Revolution and the lands under British colonial occupation. With the Red Army driving against the troops of British-supported General Deniken, Churchill wrote frantically in February 1920 that British forces in Iraq were “totally insufficient to...enable us to offer effective resistance to a Bolshevik advance short of the main frontiers of India.” In April, the Red Army destroyed Deniken’s forces; a soviet republic was declared in Baku. Churchill wrote: “Are we to defend Persia or not? If we do not, Persia will be demoralized by Russian Bolshevism.... If we do we shall, in all probability, find ourselves drawn into a very considerable and indefinite entanglement.”
Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks, counter-attacking against an invasion by Pilsudski’s Poland, drove to the gates of Warsaw, hoping to draw the Red Army up to the German border and touch off socialist revolution in Germany. But the Red Army was driven back. In October, Churchill wrote with relief: “We well know the shocking dangers from which we were miraculously rescued by the Battle of Warsaw.” By the end of the year, almost all the foreign and White armies had been driven from Soviet soil. The rebellion in southern Iraq had been crushed. The British now moved swiftly to create a new line of formally independent states in the Near East. The minutes of the December 31 cabinet meeting report that the government now took up a proposal to make Sharif Hussein’s son, Faisal, king of Mesopotamia:
“His advent would serve to satisfy national sentiment for a year or two and to keep the country contented, in which case the Army of Occupation might be reduced....
“It was pointed out that if Feisal was made King with the assent of the Arabs, ...Mesopotamia would probably settle down and would then be comparatively easy to administer.”
— Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Volume IV
In March 1921, the successful but exhausting Civil War concluded, Lenin launched the New Economic Policy, conceived as a temporary retreat and stabilization. The same month, the lines of the new order in the Arab Near East were drawn at a conference in Cairo. With Churchill, now secretary for colonies, chairing the session, the final division of the Near East was carried out: the kingship of Iraq was turned over to Faisal. A piece of the British mandate in Palestine was chopped off, named Transjordan (today it’s Jordan) and offered as a kingship to Abdullah, Faisal’s elder brother. The previous year, France had split off Lebanon from Syria. The map of the Near East had been drawn pretty much as it is today.
The Kurds and the Leninist Position
on the National Question
The policy of “divide and rule” worked wonders in the Near East by turning the colonial subjects against each other instead of against the imperialist masters. As Arab nationalism developed in the 1920s and ’30s, it took as its model not the Great French Revolution of 1789, but rather Bismarck’s unification of Germany. (The Zionists hark back to Bismarck, too—that’s “nation-building” in the epoch of imperialism.) Every Arab strongman, from Iraq’s King Faisal to Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt to Saddam Hussein, put himself forward as the Arab Bismarck, who would unite the Arabs in a single state. Thus the so-called “Arab Revolution” was not directed against the imperialists or the capitalist ruling classes in the Near East. Instead, it boiled down to power plays by Arab countries seeking to dominate their neighbors, all the while carrying out vicious repression against the working class and national, religious and ethnic minorities.
As everywhere, attempts in the Near East to consolidate homogenous nation-states under capitalism meant “ethnic cleansing” of national minorities like the Kurds—forced assimilation or armed terror to drive them out. The Ba’ath Party—classic Arab nationalists represented by Assad’s Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—was all in favor of an independent Kurdish state—but in Turkey and Iran, not in lands they claimed for the Arab nation: “The generous Arab nation has taken all these minorities under its protection...to leave them the choice of either remaining within the Arab homeland or else of emigrating” (Uriel Dann, Iraq Under Qassem ).
Of course, that’s also the position of Arab nationalists concerning the Jews of Israel, or to be more precise, the Hebrew-speaking people. In a recent polemic against us, the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP), whose position on the Near East is an almost word-for-word parroting of the Arab nationalists’, expressed it this way: “It can be said that Israelis unwilling to live in a Palestinian workers’ state will have the right to leave” (Proletarian Revolution, Spring 2002). The LRP article does not so much as mention, much less defend, the rights of women in the Arab countries or of non-Muslim minorities or non-Arab ones like the Kurds.
This blindness to the Kurdish question is not an accident and it is not limited to the LRP. The Kurds are largely invisible to most of the left internationally. It’s not like the Kurds have not been in the news. For example, in 1999, PKK leader Öcalan was arrested—with a key role being played by the CIA—and sentenced to death by a kangaroo court in Turkey. Tens of thousands participated in emergency protests around the world against his arrest and, later, against the verdict. The ICL organized contingents in those demonstrations and widely distributed a declaration issued by our comrades of the Spartakist Workers Party of Germany published in Turkish, German, Italian, French and English. But other left groups were conspicuous by their absence at many of those demonstrations. WV ran a series of front-page articles demanding “Freedom for Öcalan!” But you can search in vain in the back issues of the LRP’s Proletarian Revolution for any headlines about these events.
One group even comes out in opposition to independence for Kurdistan, the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT), a clot whose founding leaders dropped out of our organization in the 1980s under the pressure of Reagan’s anti-Soviet Cold War campaign. Claiming to uphold the “right of self-determination” for the Kurds, the IBT in 1993 declared that the PKK’s call “for an independent capitalist Kurdistan against the wishes of the feeble Kurdish bourgeoisie, and with the bulk of the Kurdish people indifferent, makes no sense at all” (1917, 1993). The IBT lectured that an independent Kurdistan “would be a society characterized by backward, pre-capitalist social structures. Because of its underdevelopment, an independent Kurdistan would find itself at the mercy of the regional as well as imperialist powers.”
This is such an open capitulation to the designs of the imperialists and to the national chauvinism of their client states that it almost leaves one speechless. Let me point out that the IBT’s article was reprinted from the press of their comrades in Germany, where the bourgeoisie—and their social-democratic lieutenants in the labor movement—are virulently hostile to Kurdish nationalism. Even displaying the Kurdish national colors is illegal in Germany, as it is in Turkey. To answer the IBT, let’s go back to basic Leninist principles:
We are opposed to nationalism as an ideology, a bourgeois ideology that is counterposed to the principle of class struggle; nationalism means unity of all classes in defense of the nation. But we are far from indifferent to national oppression. In fact, on this as on all questions of oppression, we Marxists are the most intransigent fighters for liberation. Our starting point is the strict equality of nations; we defend the right of all nations to national self-determination; that means the right to secede and form an independent state. This applies to all nations. We don’t pose preconditions as the IBT does in the quote I just read, demanding that, before the Kurds can be independent they must be free of “backward” social structures and not be at the “mercy” of imperialist powers—which is impossible in any case for small countries in the epoch of imperialism.
First and foremost, we want to take the national question off the agenda. We say to working people of oppressed nations: The revolutionary proletariat fights for your democratic national rights; break with your capitalist oppressor and join us across national lines in common class struggle against our joint enemy, the capitalist class. As a general rule, our approach on this question is essentially negative. We are against national oppression and we fight for the right of national self-determination. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are for the exercise of that right, i.e., the setting up of an independent state. Lenin compared this to divorce: we are for the defense of the right of divorce, but we are not necessarily for a particular couple getting one.
However, there are cases in which we are for national independence. Again, our starting point is the question of what is in the interests of the struggle for socialist revolution—remember, we want to take the national question off the agenda. A case in point is Quebec, an oppressed nation confined within Canada (which is the IBT’s home territory, by the way). There, the national divide has poisoned relations between the working class of English Canada and of Quebec to such a point that the recognition by the workers of each nation that the enemy is their respective capitalist rulers and not each other can only come through the setting up of an independent Quebec. This question was not decided in a referendum; it was basically decided back in 1970 with the introduction of French-only language laws in Quebec. (If you want to follow up on this question, we dealt with it in depth in Spartacist No. 52, Autumn 1995.) The IBT opposes independence for Quebec, which is an open capitulation to Anglo chauvinism in English Canada.
Now, what about Kurdistan? You’re certainly not going to see a democratic referendum on this question in any country of the Near East. How can one determine if the road is still open to assimilation of Kurds into the dominant Arab nation or if the national lines are too deeply drawn? To simply ask the question is to answer it! The Kurdish people’s history of tenacious rebellion against their oppressors—at the cost of incalculable human losses—goes back more than 80 years. Iraqi Kurds fought almost uninterruptedly against the British and their quisling regimes from 1919 through the 1930s. Despite the betrayals by their nationalist leaders, the Kurds continued their revolts against savage repression at the hands of the Ba’ath Party after the British-backed monarchy was overthrown in 1958. In Iran, Kurds fought the British following World War II, leading to the establishment of the independent Mahabad republic in Iranian Kurdistan; they took up the revolt again against Khomeini’s Islamic Republic.
In Turkey, a series of Kurdish revolts continuing from the 1920s into the late ’30s was crushed with more than 1.5 million Turkish Kurds either massacred or deported. The repression was so intense that it would be 30 years before any significant political struggle reasserted itself in Turkish Kurdistan. Since rebellion was renewed in the 1980s, more than three million Kurds have been driven from their homes. This is a nation that has dearly earned the right to form an independent state. Only self-satisfied great-power chauvinists like the IBT could make the obscene statement that the Kurdish people are “indifferent” to the question of national liberation.
The Iraqi Revolution of 1958
Now, I indicated earlier that there was rich historical experience of joint class struggle between Arab and Kurdish workers. I want to talk a bit about the high point of that tradition, the Iraqi revolution of 1958. That revolution was triggered on Bastille Day—July 14—1958 when the overthrow of the hated British-installed monarchy by Iraqi Free Officers touched off the most powerful demonstration of revolutionary capacity in the Near East. Armed and highly organized, the Iraqi working class, led by the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), stood on the brink of seizing power. And a vanguard role in the revolution was played by Kurdish workers in the oil fields and industries of Kirkuk and Mosul. According to Uriel Dann: “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” (Iraq Under Qassem).
Within weeks, a peasant insurrection was sweeping across the agricultural plains of Iraq as peasants burned landlords’ estates, destroyed the account ledgers and seized the land. The ICP controlled the labor unions, peasant organizations, the union of students. Mammoth rallies, some drawing over a million participants, were staged in Baghdad under ICP leadership. President Eisenhower responded to the revolutionary explosion by sending Marines to Lebanon and preparing for a possible invasion of Iraq. The Wall Street Journal (16 July 1958) candidly declared: “We are fighting for the oil fields of the Middle East.”
The 1958 revolution had an enormous impact throughout the Near East, not only on workers but on the Kurdish people. One measure of the revolutionary turmoil in Iraq is that the new constitution cited the Kurds as equal partners with Arabs in society (without of course recognizing the Kurds’ right to independence). David McDowall, in his A Modern History of the Kurds, declared that the Iraqi revolution of 1958 provided “easily the most critical impetus to Kurdish feeling” in Turkey.
The Iraqi Communist Party was not only the most proletarian of the Communist parties in the Near East; from its inception it had a large number of members from national and ethnic minorities, including Jews. In the period from 1949 to 1955, every general secretary of the ICP was Kurdish, as was nearly one-third of its central committee. From its inception, the ICP had called for the Kurdish right to independence. However, in 1955, as the Stalinists were capitulating to Nasser and Arab nationalism, the ICP criticized its previous position and now declared that “the fraternal Kurdish people has no interests which are incompatible with the interest of any of the Arab countries” (quoted in Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq).
From the outset of the 1958 upsurge, the ICP threw its support behind the government headed by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qassim, whom the Stalinists hailed as “sole leader.” This was the fruit of the Stalinists’ dogma of “two-stage revolution.” That meant putting off the aim of socialist revolution to the distant future while today casting about for “progressive” capitalist and imperialist “allies” to help them achieve a bourgeois-democratic revolution. This idea of unity with the so-called “progressive” bourgeoisie has repeatedly served to disorient and demobilize the working class and set it up for bloody defeat, from China in 1927 to Spain in the 1930s to Allende’s Chile in the early 1970s.
The high point of the revolution came in early 1959 when the ICP mobilized a quarter of a million people in Mosul, many of them armed, to suppress a coup by Nasserites and counterrevolutionary officers. This triggered several days of street fighting in which Communist-led workers and soldiers mopped up the conspirators and their bourgeois backers, arresting many and hanging others from lampposts. Armed militants of the People’s Resistance Force (PRF), a popular militia that had been set up by Qassim in July 1958 and quickly taken over by the Communists, essentially took power in the city.
At this point, the ICP had more support among military officers than the Free Officers movement had had when it took power on 14 July 1958. According to Batatu, whose book is the standard work on the history of the ICP, pro-ICP officers controlled the strategic First Division in Basra and Nasiriya, the Second Division in Kirkuk, a brigade of the Second Division in Mosul, and a number of other army units. The commander of the air force was an ICP supporter, as were almost one-quarter of the pilots. A number of these military commanders were pleading with the ICP leadership to take power, which gives you an idea of what the climate must have been among the ranks.
Above all, the People’s Resistance Force, which had just demonstrated its power in Mosul, numbered, by a conservative estimate, 25,000 in May 1959.
Here is how the Militant (20 April 1959) of the Socialist Workers Party, at the time the Trotskyist party in the U.S., described the situation:
“Far from obliging the Kassim regime by disappearing back into their wretched hovels, the common people of Baghdad—the ‘mob,’ as the American newspaper correspondents call them—remain in control of the capital.
“Their organized units of young men and young women—for the revolution is liberating the Arab women from their centuries of bondage—patrol the streets and maintain public order. Moreover, the Kassim government is reluctantly giving in to mass demands that the People’s Resistance Forces should retain their weapons. Heretofore, weapons had to be turned back to army depots after each day’s drills....
“In Iraq, the workers and peasants now have an extremely favorable opportunity to carry through a socialist revolution which would put them on the road to ending the backwardness and poverty of their country and would make Iraq the inspiration and attractive power for the masses of all Mideast countries.”
The Iraqi Communist Party
Amid the revolutionary turbulence, the possibilities were enormous for even a relatively small Trotskyist organization to intervene and split the ICP, winning revolutionary-minded workers and intellectuals away from their Stalinist misleaders. The ICP made such spectacular gains that in January 1959, it was forced to declare a recruitment freeze because the flood of new members was overwhelming its ability to integrate them. The SWP remarked perceptively (Militant, 20 April 1959) that because the ICP had mushroomed so quickly since July ’58 “it may not be under the firm control of a bureaucratic machine.”
I have some indirect evidence of the kind of tensions that were tearing at the ICP—and probably at CPs throughout the Near East at the time. It is from an article written in early 1959—when the Iraqi revolution was at its height—by Maxime Rodinson, a French Marxist intellectual specializing in the Near East. At the time, Rodinson was a member of the French CP or was just in the process of breaking from it and was in contact with many CP members in the Near East. He wrote:
“We find ourselves faced with the same sort of dilemma that was the subject of very bitter controversy among the Russian social-democrats before 1917. As Trotsky realized at the time, and Lenin also as can be seen from the April Theses, the question is: Should the socialist revolution follow immediately after the antifeudal revolution (and anti-imperialist, here)? Or should allowance be made for a long period of construction of the economic independence in between the two stages, in the context of relations of capitalist production?
“The social forces needed for the socialist revolution do exist.”
— Maxime Rodinson, Marxism and the Muslim World (1981)
Rodinson continues here to accept the Stalinist dogma of revolution by stages, but he is certainly chafing within the limits set by it. I can’t prove it, but I’m quite sure that this quote reflects, in an indirect way, the gigantic contradictions within the Stalinist parties of the Near East at the time.
In July, attention was centered on Kirkuk, where an ICP-led demonstration degenerated into a communalist massacre of Turkmens, who were prominent in the city’s commercial elite. There was no evidence then or now that the ICP leadership had fomented or supported the communal slaughter. But Qassim used the Kirkuk events as a pretext to repress the ICP. He ordered the CP-led militia, the Popular Resistance Force, disbanded, arrested hundreds of Communist supporters and sealed the offices of the General Federation of Trade Unions. A plenum of the ICP Central Committee responded with an obsequious self-criticism declaring that its demand for participation in the government had been “a mistake” because it “led to the impairment of the party’s relations with the national government”—in other words, it displeased Qassim. The plenum declared a “freeze” on Communist work in the army, and informed the ranks that it was carrying out an “orderly retreat.”
Coincidentally, the very same day the plenum report was published, it was announced that Khrushchev was going to visit the U.S. the following month for a summit meeting with Eisenhower. Batatu underlines how Khrushchev sold out the Iraqi proletariat to make his Camp David meeting with the U.S. president more congenial:
“Perhaps the factor that had the greatest weight in the decision to beat a retreat was the pressure that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union appears to have brought to bear upon the Iraqi Communist leadership. According to Adnan Jilmiran, the then member of the Mosul Local Committee, the Russians sent at this point to Baghdad George Tallu, a member of the Iraqi Politbureau, who had been undergoing medical treatment in Moscow, with an urgent request to the Iraqi party to avoid provoking Qasim, and withdraw its bid to participate in the government. The Russians apparently had no wish to cut all their bridges with Nasir, or jeopardize their new policy of ‘peaceful coexistence,’ or wreck the chances of a visit to Washington which Khrushchev contemplated and which he would eventually make in September.”
In February 1963, the Ba’ath Party was able to broker a military coup that brought down Qassim and unleashed the counterrevolutionary furies. Using lists of Communists supplied by the CIA, the Ba’ath Party militia, the National Guard, launched a house-to-house search, rounding up and shooting suspected CPers. An estimated 5,000 were killed and thousands more jailed, many of them hideously tortured by Saddam Hussein and others.
The CIA’s role in the 1963 Ba’ath coup has been widely documented. King Hussein of Jordan told the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram shortly after the coup that he knew “for a certainty” that U.S. intelligence services provided names and addresses of Communists to be killed. Edith and E.F. Penrose, in their Iraq: International Relations and National Development (1978) report that a number of Iraqi officials, including Ba’athists, told them of the CIA’s role. And Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett state in Iraq Since 1958 (1987):
“A high-ranking former official of the State Department has confirmed to us that Saddam Husain and other Ba’thists had made contact with the American authorities in the late 1950s and early 1960s; at this stage, the Ba’th were thought to be the ‘political force of the future,’ and deserving of American support against ‘Qasim and the Communists’.”
Meanwhile, the ICP’s record of betrayal went on: when Kurds rebelled against the Qassim regime in 1961, the ICP had denounced the revolt as “serving imperialist designs.” In 1972, when Saddam Hussein allied for a while with the Soviet Union, two ICP leaders who had not had their eyes gouged out in his prisons joined his government. Last month, what’s left of the ICP greeted the U.S. colonial invasion with a banner in Baghdad that read: “A Free Country for Joyful People.”
For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!
Even in defeat, the Iraqi revolution of 1958-59 shows the potential for the working class to take power and lay the basis for the liberation of all the oppressed. The positive example of this is, of course, the Russian Revolution of 1917. The world’s first workers state served as a beacon of liberation to the oppressed masses in the former tsarist empire and the world over. Because the Bolsheviks were determined to solve the many national questions by fighting resolutely for national and democratic rights, the Soviet proletariat was able to win to its side the myriad oppressed nationalities and peoples in the former Russian empire. This was a powerful factor in the workers’ victory over the White counterrevolution in the Civil War. Lenin insisted that the Soviet Union be a free union of peoples. In the early years of Bolshevik power, many Soviet republics, autonomous oblasts, and other regional entities were established—the living realization of the Bolshevik program of national self-determination.
Inside the Soviet Union, the small population of some 200,000 Kurds was granted full equality with other nationalities. In 1923, the young Soviet state created an Autonomous Republic of Kurdistan roughly situated between Armenia and Azerbaijan—the so-called “Red Kurdistan”—which, according to Gerard Chaliand’s People Without a Country (1980), was “a beacon to the entire Kurdish people.” While some 70 to 80 percent of Kurds in Turkey or Iran remain illiterate, among Soviet Kurds illiteracy had been completely eliminated by the 1930s. 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 WWII gave it enormous prestige in Kurdistan. For years, even Kurdish nationalist groups like the KDP based on traditional clans claimed to be “Marxist-Leninist.” When I gave this talk in New York, a comrade spoke of an Iranian woman leftist he knew whose mother was pro-Soviet because the only reason she learned to read and write was the occupation of Iranian Kurdistan during World War II by the Soviet Army.
The experience of the Russian Revolution is vitally relevant to the Kurdish question for yet another reason, the liberation of women it achieved in the Muslim lands of Central Asia. As the Red Army swept through Central Asia in the early years after the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks undertook the enormous task of trying to liberate women in that historically Muslim region. When they spoke of “martyrs fallen on the women’s liberation front,” they were talking about the dedicated and heroic activists from the Department for Work Among Women (Zhenotdel), who put on the veil to bring to the women of the Muslim East news of the new Soviet laws and programs that would change their lives. Many of these women lost their lives at the hands of enraged husbands, fathers and brothers. I was in Soviet Central Asia in the 1980s. In Samarkand, part of a former madrassa (religious school) had been converted into a museum honoring these women. The Bolsheviks had abolished the death penalty after the revolution, but they made an exception and reinstated it specifically for murders of this type. They put a stop to it.
A political counterrevolution leading to the consolidation of the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy stood between what I saw in Uzbekistan and the liberating ideals that animated Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks and the courageous Zhenotdel women. Yet the progress that had been achieved was astounding. In all the time I was there, I never saw a woman wearing a veil—even by women who had been born in the days before the revolution was consolidated in that region. Contraception and abortion were freely available. Unlike any Muslim country in the world, I was able to speak freely and naturally with women strangers in public places, in airports, in factories. A reflection of the excellent educational level was that most people I met there—women as well as men—spoke English or another West European language in addition to Russian and Uzbek.
Today, after the restoration of capitalism and the destruction of the Soviet Union, I hate to think of the fate of those women—or the men I met there too for that matter. The societies of Central Asia have been thrown back light years. Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise, the mosques are full. Disease is rampant, the modern health care system I observed has been destroyed.
The question of women’s liberation cuts right across the claims of Kurdish nationalists to stand for freedom and emancipation. They all capitulate to the patriarchal traditions of the tribes and clans—in fact, in cases like the KDP and the PUK they themselves are nothing but a guise for domination by a particular clan. The PKK criticizes women’s oppression in its public statements and is known for placing women under arms in its guerrilla groups, but its nationalist outlook leads it to find common cause with some of the most reactionary forces in the Turkish political landscape; it even included representatives of the Sunni clergy—sworn enemies of women’s liberation—in its exile parliament.
Many Kurdish nationalists pride themselves on the supposed fact that Kurdish women are more liberated than other women of the Near East because they wear only a light headscarf instead of the abayya, the heavy, black head-to-toe gown worn by traditional Arab women in Iraq. Well, I can tell you that Kurdish women do not live a life of “liberation.” You might remember the widespread press coverage last year of a case in Sweden where a Kurdish immigrant shot and killed his daughter because she had refused an arranged marriage and had spoken publicly about women’s oppression. Such so-called “honor killings” are not uncommon in Kurdistan—or in many other parts of the world. This was dramatically portrayed in Yilmaz Güney’s 1983 film Yol, which centers on a husband’s murder of his wife as punishment for adultery (we published an interesting review of this film in Women and Revolution No. 27, Winter 1983-84). In the late ’90s, when the KDP and PUK set up de facto states in Iraqi Kurdistan under U.S. protection, they did nothing to stop this practice; the KDP refused to even pass a formal law making “honor killings” a crime.
Another thing shown in Güney’s film—this is quite common in Kurdistan—is a young couple who are forced to flee in order to get married because the parents disapprove; in the film, the bride’s family hunts them down and kills them. According to one academic study of Kurds in Turkey (where family law is formally much more advanced than elsewhere in the Near East), only one marriage in four was arranged by the couple themselves, and even in these cases agreement by the families was often a precondition. Over 60 percent of the Kurdish women interviewed indicated that their husbands had to pay a bride price for them, essentially buying them from their families as chattel.
Women’s oppression is rooted in class society, centrally through the institution of the family. Even in the most advanced bourgeois societies only the overthrow of capitalist class rule can lay the material basis for the full emancipation of women in an egalitarian, international socialist society. But in those countries where bourgeois revolutions never occurred—which happens to be the case in the Muslim countries of the Near East—the question of women’s liberation is literally one of life and death—a fight for such basic needs as literacy, education, an end to forced marriages, freedom from the veil and the enforced seclusion and subjugation it represents.
The Russian Revolution showed in practice the road to liberation not only for women but for all the oppressed. The difference between the experience in Russia in 1917 and Iraq in 1958-59 is that in Russia there existed a party—Lenin’s Bolsheviks—capable of leading the working class to power. That’s the central point of my presentation today. What’s necessary—not just for the liberation of the Kurds but of all the oppressed—is to forge revolutionary working-class parties on the model of the Bolshevik Party, in the Near East and throughout the world. That’s the task that the International Communist League is dedicated to accomplishing.