Oil is the key feature of imperialism in the Middle East.
Middle East oil exploitation is fantastically profitable. The cost of producing one barrel of crude oil in the Middle East is only 15 cents, as against $1.63 in the US. The official rate of profit on Middle East oil averaged 67 percent between 1948 and 1960, as against 21 percent in Venezuela and 10.8 percent in the US.
Before the Second World War Britain controlled 100 percent of Iranian oil and 47.5 percent of Iraqi oil; the US interest was only 23.75 percent in Iraq (equal to France’s). Since then the situation has changed radically; in 1959 the US share of all Middle East oil rose to 50 percent, while that of Britain declined to 18 percent (France had 5 percent, the Netherlands 3 percent, others, including local Arab governments, 24 percent).
Oil has had very little beneficial impact on the development of the countries of the Middle East. The distortion of their economic, social and political development caused by feudalism and imperialism has been accentuated further.
Employment in oil is very small: in Iran only 1 percent of the employed population earn their livelihood in the industry; in Iraq 1 percent; in Saudi Arabia 2 percent. Altogether the total employment in oil in the Middle East is less than the employment in textiles in Egypt alone.
The richest oil resources are in countries with the most archaic social regimes. The boundaries between states were imposed by imperial powers to run between the main population centres – by far the most socially and politically advanced – and the main natural resources of the Arab region.
A series of human tragedies brought the Jews to Palestine – pogroms in Tsarist Russia, persecution in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust of Nazism. When they reached Palestine they found it was inhabited by Arabs. Whatever the motivation that brought the Jews in, an increasing conflict between Zionist settlers and the Arabs was unavoidable.
The Arab peasant offered labour and produce at a very low price. How could a European worker find a job under such conditions? The only way was to block the employment of any Arab workers by Jewish employers. In Tel Aviv, which on the eve of the founding of the state of Israel had barely 300,000 inhabitants, there was not one Arab worker nor one Arab inhabitant.
The Zionists prevented the fellahs [peasants] from selling their produce in the Jewish market. And when, under pressure of hunger, a fellah dared to break the boycott, he was beaten.
Every member of the Zionist trade union federation, the Histadrut, had to pay two special compulsory levies: (1) “For Jewish Labour” – funds for organising pickets, etc, against the employment of Arab workers – and (2) “For Jewish Produce”, for organising the boycott of Arab produce. Not one Zionist party, not even the most extreme “left” of Hashomer Hatzair, now Mapam, opposed the boycott of the Arab workers and peasants.
The boycott of the Arabs was inherent in Zionism: without the boycott no European worker or farmer would have survived economically.
In opposing the local Arab population, Zionism had to try and serve the ruling imperialist power. Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, courted mainly the Turkish Sultan and the German Kaiser. After the First World War, Zionism was orientated towards British imperialism. After the Second World War, Zionism switched its attachment to US imperialism.
The Haganah, the main military Zionist organisation in the 1920s and the 1930s, worked hand in glove with the British Army of Occupation and the police.
The Auxiliary Police Force was established in the spring of 1936. An important part of the Haganah as well as some members of Etzei (the other Zionist military organisation) became a legal armed force. In the spring of 1939 this force numbered some 21,000 men. Of course not one Arab was allowed into it. The present Israeli army is the natural continuation of the old British-controlled Auxiliary Police Force.
Are the people of Israel a colonial nation? The Israeli economy is not a backward economy suffering from exploitation by Western imperialism. Altogether between 1949 and 1964 nearly $6,000 million came to Israel via German reparations, economic aid from the US government, and from Jews in the US and elsewhere. This sum comes to some $3,000 per head, or more than £1,000. Even at the height of empire net profit per average Briton from investments in the empire did not come to £10 per head per year!
Is Israel interested in radical land reform? Of course not. Zionism got rid of the Arab fellahs. Agrarian revolution – the restoration of the land to its original cultivators – is the last thing Israel would wish for.
Does Israel have an interest in the unity of the Arab countries into one state? Of course not. Israel is not a colony suppressed by imperialism, but a colon, a settler’s citadel, a launching pad of imperialism. It is a tragedy that some of the very people who had been persecuted and massacred in such bestial fashion should themselves be driven into a chauvinistic, militaristic fervour, and become the blind tool of imperialism in subjugating the Arab masses.
In the same way that the existing social order is to be blamed for the calamity of the Jews, so it is to be blamed for the exploitation of their catastrophe for reactionary, oppressive aims. Zionism does not redeem Jewry from suffering. On the contrary, it imperils them with a new danger, that of being a buffer between imperialism and the national and social liberation struggle of the Arab masses.
The Jewish population in Israel is divided into classes and a class struggle rends the country. But this in itself does not mean that any significant number of Israeli workers are ready to join forces, or will be ready to join forces, with the Arab anti-imperialist struggle.
The white workers of South Africa have gone on strike many times. One need only remember the 1922 white miners” strike which was suppressed only after Smuts used planes to bombard the strikers. But the white workers never joined the black workers in struggle against their oppression!
In Algeria many of the 1 million European settlers supported the Communist Party in 1945.
But all this changed with the Arab national rebellion. One account records:
… the further down one went in the social scale, among Algeria’s Europeans, the greater the fear of the Muslim masses, ready to step into unskilled jobs and deprive even the poorest Europeans of their living. 
While the Jews were the underdogs of Europe, in the Middle East the Arabs are the underdogs, and the Israelis the privileged and oppressors, the allies of imperialism.
The Arab national movement
The rulers of the Arab countries are divided, by and large, into two separate groups: first, the feudal kings and sheikhs – King Feisal of Saudi Arabia, King Hussein of Jordan, the Sheikh of Kuwait and other rulers of Persian Gulf dukedoms. They, together with the state of Iran, are reliable allies of imperialism.
The Arab countries with relatively more progressive social and political regimes are Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Iraq.
Of course no Chinese wall separates the regimes of the two groups of countries, but there is a significant difference between them. The first group can get (together with Israel) arms from the United States and Britain. The second does not.
It is not an accident that Adeni workers, probably the most advanced section of the Arab working class, do not keep pictures of King Feisal or the Imam of Yemen in their homes, but of Nasser. (Of course it would have been far better if they had pictures of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.)
However inconsistently and haltingly, Nasser has carried out some measures against imperialism and feudalism. Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956. Bank Misr and the National Bank of Egypt were nationalised in February 1960.
In June 1960 the press was nationalised, and the Cairo bus services were municipalised. All banks and insurance companies were nationalised, and about 300 industrial and trading establishments were taken over either wholly or partly by the state.
Between October 1961 and February 1962 the property of 600 of Egypt’s wealthiest families was sequestered by the state.
In August 1963 there was a further series of nationalisations. About 300 concerns were affected, including the Dutch-British Lever Brothers, 14 partly nationalised shipping companies and 29 land transport companies. In April 1964 the Shell-BP interests were nationalised.
In 1958 a maximum land holding of 300 acres was decreed for a single family. This was further reduced to 100 acres in June 1961. The result was that, while peasants who had less than five acres owned 33.2 percent of all cultivated land in 1943, in 1964 their share rose to 54.7 percent. However, the land reform – although it eliminated the very big landlords – was far from being radical enough.
Two million peasant families remained with less than one acre each, while many landlords remained with 100 acres (some even found loopholes to get round this upper limit). The number of landless agriculturists had not decreased at all, but has increased since 1952.
In Syria the Ba”ath regime has been more radical than Nasser’s regime in the field of land reform. But neither Nasser nor the Ba”ath can ever become revolutionary, or grow beyond their middle-class social basis. Their social base is the army officers, civil servants and teachers, sons of merchants and prosperous artisans, better-off peasants and small-scale landowners.
This section of Arab society stands between the feudal lords and the big bourgeoisie on the one hand, and the workers and peasants on the other. The lower middle class is as far from the latter as from the former. A breakdown of urban class division in 1958 is shown in the table below.
% of total population
Relative per capita income
(industrial workers = 100)
Bourgeoisie and aristocracy
Lower strata of the middle class
A) Middle officials, professions
(B) Artisans (employees)
(C) Low grade officials
(A) Industrial and transport workers
(A) Permanently-employed unskilled
(B) Domestic servants
(C) Permanently unemployed
The characteristics of “Arab socialism” spring from this equivocal position.
Nasser and the Ba’ath accept a criticism of feudalism, imperialism and monopoly capitalism. They reject bourgeois parliamentary democracy as a fraud. They accept the need for radical change in order to break the power of the landlords and the big capitalists.
They advocate the transfer of key parts of the economy to state ownership and are enthusiasts of planning. But Nasser rejects the agency of the working class, so his state ownership and planning have nothing to do with socialism.
The attitude of the middle class to state enterprise and planning is very ambivalent indeed. As part of the state bureaucracy, they are interested in a rapid advance of state enterprise. However, as sons, brothers and cousins of small property owners they are quite willing to let the private sector milk the state sector. Hence the Egyptian economy suffers from both the bureaucratic inertia of state capitalism and the speculative working of private capitalism.
The social position of Nasser has prevented him getting rid of the old bureaucracy inherited from the Farouk period prior to the coup by Nasser’s Free Officers. On top of this bureaucracy a new expanded one had risen.
These shallow roots in the masses make Nasserism very brittle, very prone to factionalism – hence the break-up of the UAR in 1961 (this short-lived attempt at unity between Egypt and Syria fell apart when the Syrians objected to their second class status within the union), the bitter conflicts with Qasim’s Iraq, and so on.
Because of its social base Nasserism vacillates between republicanism and the obscene embrace of “our Arab brothers” King Hussein in Jordan or King Feisal of Saudi Arabia. Nasserism also vacillates between an attack on the “Muslim Brotherhood”, including the execution of their leadership, and Islamic fervour.
One of the main lessons from the collapse of Ben Bella in Algeria and Qasim in Iraq is that the Bonapartist regimes in backward countries, trying to balance between the working class and the peasantry on the one hand and imperialism on the other, are extremely unstable.
For a really successful anti-imperialist revolutionary struggle, Nasserism is found wanting: it is too far removed from the self-initiative of the masses. For such a struggle it is necessary for the national revolution to be intertwined with the social revolution, for the workers to take over the oilfields and factories, and for the peasants to carry out a revolutionary land reform.
The Communist Parties
One of the shabbiest roles in the situation in the Middle East has been played by the Communist Parties. Instead of keeping independent from the Bonapartist regimes of Nasser, the Ba’ath and previously of Qasim, they completely capitulated to them.
The Communist Parties – following the Moscow guidelines – accepted the peaceful transition to socialism in the “Third World”, rejecting the Marxist-Leninist analysis about the need to smash the bourgeois state machine. The Communist Parties followed the line of “national unity”, the line separating the national struggle against imperialism from the struggle for social emancipation.
Khaled Bakdash, the General Secretary of the Communist Parry of Syria, has for decades been by far the most important Communist leader in the Middle East.
In a key guideline on the general policy of Arab Communists, he stated in 1944:
It is evident that the problem of national liberation is a problem of the nation as a whole and it is therefore possible without discussion to get the compliance of the whole nation around this great slogan for the realisation of full national unity. National liberation is in the interests of the national landowners; it is in the interests of small and big merchants alike.
Our appreciation and honour of the national capitalist who struggles faithfully for national liberation is not less than our appreciation and honour of the national workers who struggle faithfully for national liberation.
And without any shame he said:
He who reads our National Programme, the programme which was adopted by the congress of the Syrian and Lebanese Communist Parties, will find that it does not mention socialism. There is not one expression or demand with a socialist colouring.
In accordance with this line, the Communist Parties in Syria and Lebanon have long since done away with the Red Flag and the Internationale as their anthem, and adopted the national flags and anthems.
Bakdash reassured the landowners:
We do not demand and will not demand in parliament the confiscation of their estates and lands, but on the contrary we want to help them in demanding the construction of large-scale irrigation enterprises, the facilitation of the import of fertiliser and modern machinery … All we demand in exchange for this is pity on the fellah, that he be taken out of his poverty and illiteracy, and that knowledge and health spread in the village … These are our economic, or if you can say so, our social demands. They are democratic and very modest.
All we demand … is the introduction of some democratic reforms that all speak about and all agree are necessary. Our demand is not, nor will be and it is not on our programme, to confiscate national capital and national factories. We promise national capital and the national factory owner that we will not look with envy or hate at his national factory, but on the contrary we desire his progress and flourishing. All that we demand is the amelioration of the lot of the national workers and the realisation of a democratic labour legislation which will regulate the relation between the employers and the workers on the basis of justice and national solidarity.
This line has led the Syrian Communist Party to cringe before the Ba’ath in Syria. It led the Iraqi “Communist” leaders to support General Qasim uncritically until he suppressed them in 1959, and his heir, General Aref, massacred many of them, and imprisoned and tortured many others.
The same opportunist policy led the Egyptian Communists to splits and vacillations, and at last to the dissolution of the most important of the Communist splinters which joined Nasser’s “Socialist Union”.
The 1967 war
The recent war between Israel and its Arab neighbours followed an illuminating sequence of events. The anti-imperialist struggle in Aden has been rising.
This, together with the revolutionary struggle against the Imam of Yemen, threatened Feisal, the King of neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In addition, a dispute blew up between Syria and the Iraq Petroleum Company [a cartel of Western oil companies covering much of the Middle East].
After the nationalisation of the oilfields in Syria itself in December 1964, the IPC suffered a further blow at the end of 1966. The Syrians demanded (and obtained) a 46 percent increase in charges paid by the IPC for use of the pipeline crossing their territory.
In addition, Syria wanted to raise the loading tax from 1s 1d to two shillings per ton. IPC was only willing to agree to 1s 7d. Everything seemed close to agreement. Syria also claimed that payments on the basis of the former agreement of 1955 had been wrongly calculated and that it had lost 110 million Syrian pounds.
In the course of the negotiation the Syrian authorities reduced their demands to £40 million for the years 1956-65. IPC, however, apparently agreed to change its calculations for the future but adamantly refused to discuss the payment of arrears. As a result, the Syrian government stopped the flow of oil.
In reply, the US and Britain poured arms into Saudi Arabia. An Islamic League was formed on 15 May by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan. The Prime Minister of Israel announced that if raids on Israel continued the Israeli army would march on Damascus.
The next steps followed suit in terrible tragedy. The Egyptian army concentrated in Sinai, and a “Jihad” (holy war) of all Arab states – republican and monarchist alike – was declared. The rest is history.
Who benefited from the Israeli victory? Above all, Western imperialism.
The Daily Telegraph, in an editorial entitled Israel’s triumph, made it clear why the West benefited from the defeat of the Arab states:
As a result of Israel’s amazing victory, the whole balance of power in the Middle East has decisively changed … On the whole the West must be profoundly grateful to Israel … President Nasser had long been a danger to the West and to world peace. He may not be so much longer.
Peregrine Worsthorne of the Sunday Telegraph really waxed poetic in an article entitled Triumph of the Civilised:
Last week a tiny Western community, surrounded by immensely superior numbers of the underdeveloped peoples, has shown itself able to impose its will on the Arabs today almost as effortlessly as the first whites were able to do on the Afro-Asian native in the imperial heyday.
And the City reacted in consonance: sterling has been stronger than for a long time. The Economist put it well: “The brilliant speed of the Israeli advance saved the pound.”
The way ahead
Only people who wholeheartedly support a colonial people in rebellion against imperialism are justified in being severe critics of their leaders” policies and tactics. It is right to be very severe in criticism of the Arab national movement as led by Nasser.
The strength of any anti-imperialist liberation movement is in the masses of workers and peasants mobilised, in their self-activity on the one hand, and the correct choice of the weakest link in the imperialist chain, on the other. Hence the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Vietnam is absolutely right in relying on mass guerilla bands and armies, and harassing the US army and its hangers-on.
The potential strength of the Arab anti-imperialist movement lies in the mass of workers and peasants. The targets of attack should be the oilfields, the oil pipelines and refineries. The peasants should carry out revolutionary land reform, thus creating the base for a guerilla war. Nasser’s military confrontation with Israel is exactly the opposite of the policy and tactics of the NLF.
Israel, being modern and privileged, is an even stronger bastion of imperialism than Saigon. Furthermore, an anti-Israeli campaign quite easily degenerates into a “Jihad”, in which the most reactionary regimes save themselves by channelling the struggle into racial channels.
Nasser of Egypt and the Ba’ath of Syria are incapable of following the policies of the NLF in Vietnam, not to speak of the Bolsheviks in Russia.
Hence no guerilla war or workers” attack on the oilfields can be led by the Nasserites.
The Russian leaders are hardly good friends for a mass colonial liberatory movement. Their tanks, planes, missiles and technicians supplied to Nasser were no help at all to the Arab national movement, but an impediment, helping the Nasserite military caste to divert the movement to a wrong path.
The Arab workers and the peasants who suffered oppression over a long period of time need both social and national revolutionary policies.
National emancipation and social emancipation are inseparable. The theory of Nasser, Khaled Bakdash and their ilk about stages separating the one from the other is completely reactionary and utopian.
Only when the workers take the key industries and the peasants take into their hands the land can a really victorious struggle against imperialism and its hangers-on be carried out, however long, bloody and tortuous this struggle may be.
The only possible solution to the needs of the Middle East is the workers’ and peasants’ revolution aimed at the establishment of a socialist republic, with full rights for Jews, Kurds and all national minorities.
1. E. Behr, The Algerian Problem (1961), p.214.