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Imperialism & the Yemeni Revolution

(PART ONE: THE DYNAMICS OF THE ARAB LIBERATION STRUGGLE)



As Washington and Westminster use their imperial might to protect their vast trade and commercial interests in the Middle East,  they are upscaling their narrative that the primary source of the regional conflicts is to be found in the machinations of Tehran and its alleged proxy forces. This is echoed by a recent statement of Netanyahu decrying the supposedly Iranian-led “axis of evil” intent on destroying the Israeli state. 


As with their previous wars in the region, this current assault - on Yemen in particular - completely turns things upside down, They would have us believe that US and British imperialism, and its monstrous Israeli garrison, have almost ceased to exist or have been supplanted by a new superpower. 


This crude inversion of reality is facilitated in part by the complex history of the Yemen and the Islamist character of the Houthi rebels who emerged out of the most recent civil war as the dominant force controlling the Yemeni capital and most of the country’s northern region. 


However, no amount of demonisation of the Houthis, Hamas or Hezbollah – however merited elements of such a critique may be - can disguise the fact that these forces are  deeply rooted in conditions spawned by Western imperialism. This is clearly illustrated when we examine the history and dynamics of the Yemeni revolution leading up to and following independence from Britain in 1967.  


Beginnings of Arab liberation struggle

Beginning with the 1962 overthrow of the reactionary Imamate in the North, the Yemeni revolution was part of an upsurge of the colonial revolution which swept through the Arab world and Iran in the aftermath of World War II.  A domino effect was clearly at work as each of the pro-Western monarchical regimes fell one after another. 


The Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in 1952-53, and the continuing radicalization in Egypt was symbolized by the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956. During the same period, the Shah of Iran almost lost his throne in 1953, followed 5 years later with the1958 overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy.  Moreover, after a war of liberation that lasted eight years, the Algerian masses finally threw off the yoke of French rule in 1962. 


The Arab revolution was on the march, and the Yemeni workers and peasants would soon be in its vanguard.  


Imperialist underdevelopment in the Yemen 

Both historically and today, the Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite being the second-largest Arab sovereign state on the Arabian Peninsula, the UN reported in 2019 that Yemen had the highest number of people in need of humanitarian aid, serving nearly 75% of its population. As of 2020, it ranked highest on the Fragile States Index and came second on the Global Hunger Index, surpassed only by the Central African Republic.  


As with many Third World countries, Yemen was the victim of the battles between competing empires which coveted its strategic position in the Red Sea. Foremost amongst these were the Ottoman and British empires, resulting in Britain settling the southern area of Aden and the Ottoman empire taking the North. The legacy of this  colonial carve up and the fostering of tribal divisions has stamped its mark ever since. 


As a thriving entrepôt staging post in the long sea journey between Asia and Europe, the port of Aden was the jewel in British imperialism’s Arabian crown. By the time of the Second World War, it had already become the second-busiest port in the world after New York City.  


Whilst Aden guarded hugely lucrative trading ventures and spawned the seeds of industrialisation serving the port area, none of this brought any benefits to the Yemeni people. The bustling colonial port left the semi-feudal social and economic relations in the arid rural hinterland virtually untouched. About two-thirds of all employment in South Yemen was tied to agriculture, yet it accounted for only 7 percent of the gross domestic product. The profits accrued from servicing the Red Sea trade were mostly repatriated to Britain.  


1962: Opening chapter of the Yemeni revolution in the North

Yemen is a predominantly youthful country, meaning there are even fewer Yemenis today who lived during the revolution. For the new generation, and for all those around the world interested in the liberation of the Arab world, the Yemeni revolution provides a rewarding study. It may not give up the sparkling treasure of the Indiana Jones variety but, once uncovered, its hidden history offers some real gems. 


The brightest of all these is the very real defeat of imperialism in the region based upon the vanguard role of the working class.  Conversely, this treasue chest of struggle  provides glowing evidence of the hopeless inadequacy of the Islamist forces who have stepped into the vacuum once filled by the post-World War revolutionary nationalist movements.  


Historically both parts of the Yemen had been united under the Imams – a form of religious autocracy based upon semi-feudal relations. When the South broke away in 1728, this division was reinforced by the British occupation of Aden and much of the South in 1839. 


The North was governed by the Imams who systematically prevented any modernisation of the country. Under the Imamate, not a single modern factory was allowed to operate. There was little-to-no investment in education and health to the extent that in 1962 there were only fifteen doctors—all foreigners—and 600 hospital beds in the whole country, most of which were reserved for the ruling elite. 


For the masses of poor peasants and sharecroppers, the Imamate constituted a kingdom of backwardness, where illiteracy, disease, and hunger ruled supreme. With around eighty percent of the poor peasant's crops being expropriated in the form of feudal levies, the North Yemen was beset by a series of peasant uprisings. 


The people yearned for change and modernisation and on September 26, 1962, a group of junior army officers took it upon themselves to topple the Imamate and establish the Yemen Arab Republic. The coup rapidly acted as a catalyst for a revolutionary nationalist insurgency which opened the door for workers and peasants to press for a broader social revolution.  


The following account of its impact was provided by the journalist and author, Fred Halliday: 


“The coup’s popularity was immediate. In Ta’iz a civilian popular committee took power when the Republic was proclaimed in San’a. The Shafei merchants enthusiastically backed the Republic, as did the former Free Yemenis. Crowds swept through San’a, Ta’iz and Hodeida. In the country areas near Ibb, peasants ousted sheikhs who were known for their cruelty and who had flogged peasants who did not pay their taxes. In Aden the 80,000-strong Yemeni working class demonstrated in favour of the Imam’s overthrow.” 


Enter the Yemeni working class 

Already, both the social and geographical spread of this insurgency  was in evidence when the  British attacked Egypt following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956. By that time a new class – the Yemeni proletariat – had entered the scene and rapidly began to stamp its mark on the burgeoning nationalist movement. Initially, this was registered with the establishment of some twenty-one trades unions with a membership of more than 20,000 in Aden alone. In one of its first battles, the port workers came out on strike against the Suez intervention.  




1956 was also the year when the Aden Trades Union Congres  (ATUC) was formed. From the outset, it combined social struggles for better working conditions with support  for unity and independence. 


A wave of nationalist strikes began to shake the colony. A strike by refinery workers paralyzed the port for more than a month, forcing commercial shipping to seek other sources of fuel. Following a general strike in 1958, British Petroleum workers in Aden struck again in 1960 and halted activities in the port for ten more weeks. 


As Westminster sought to shore up its Aden colony through the establishment of a Federation of South Arabia, this provoked a further strike wave including the general strike in 1962 which welcomed the establishment of the republic in the North. 


British imperialism was facing a war on two fronts. On the one side, they did their utmost to support the royalist forces opposed to the revolution in the North, forces which they themselves labelled, as “out-of-date and despotic”. On the other side, they were faced with a growing armed insurgency in the South led by the National Liberation Front (NLF).


Evolution of the National Liberation Front

At that time, Arab nationalism was heavily influenced by the Nasser government in Egypt which had not only toppled the monarchy but enacted a series of nationalisations. However, despite radical appearances, Nasser and the group of officers around him were socially conservative and avowedly anti-communist.  Whilst using the levers of the state to shelter an indigenous capitalist industry, it actively opposed mass action by workers and peasants.


It’s armed intervention on behalf of the north Yemeni republic reflected this. 


The vanguard role of the Yemeni working class in this revolution opened a breach within  the mainstream of Arab nationalism.  This was reflected in the evolution of the NLF whose founding force was the South Yemeni branch of the heavily Nasser influenced Arab Nationalist Movement. 


As the struggle deepened in the south of Yemen, the NLF had begun to recruit from the ranks of the People’s Socialist Party whose main base of support was amongst labourers in Aden. By the end of 1965, half of the 12 major unions, led by the oil workers, were supporting the NLF. The split between the right and left wings of Arab nationalism were codified when the Nasserite forces backed an explicitly pro-capitalist nationalist organisation known as FLOSSY,  (Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen) in direct opposition to the NLF.  



A similar trend to the left was already manifest in the Algerian liberation struggle, which resulted in the workers and farmers government headed by Ahmed Ben Bella in 1962. In both cases, the influence of the Cuban revolution inspired the nationalist fighters to look towards socialist solutions. Cuba’s ability to provide an alternative, radical pole of attraction was underlined in 1963 when it sent a battalion of 22 tanks and several hundred troops to assist the Algerian government to defend itself against a Moroccan led counter-revolution.  


As with Cuba and Algeria, it was the class struggle which became the driving force behind the Yemeni revolution. Only the working class and poor peasants were capable of rising to the historical challenge of overcoming Yemen’s yawning underdevelopment.  


British kicked out 

Following Egypt’s defeat in the 6 Day War with Israel, Egyptian forces in Yemen were withdrawn and FLOSSY was left stranded. With civil war still raging in the North, and the NLF advancing in the South, the days of British colonialism were clearly numbered.  


The British recorded 286 guerrilla actions in Aden in 1965. This figure was up to around 2,900—almost ten actions a day—in the first ten months of 1967. The NLF also built up its urban base of support hy leading strikes and demonstrations in Aden, such as the January 1967 general strike commemorating the first British attack on the port.  

There was nothing left for the British rulers but to get out. On November 30, 1967, the People's Republic of South Yemen was declared, and 128 years of British rule came to an end. 


When the British fled the Yemen, they left it in a state of complete backwardness. At the time of independence there were only 127 miles of paved roads in South Yemen, of which all but 14 were in Aden. Because of the lack of rain and rivers, 65 percent of the country was covered by desert and wasteland. Warehouses, electricity, refrigeration, schools, and hospitals were also either nonexistent or practically nonexistent outside of Aden. 

 

With most of the land being held by sultans and sheiks, the peasant masses were subject to extreme servitude. Tribal identification, which the sultans and sheiks used to uphold their social domination, continued to be widespread. The immediate focal point of the Yemeni revolution was an agrarian reform that would both redistribute land and ensure water and other basic supplies to cultivate it. Without solving this question there could be no way forward for the workers and peasants of South Yemen. 


A similar choice faced the insurgency in the North. From the outset, the revolutionary movement there had two possible courses: one being towards the destruction of the power of the landlords, merchants and tribal leaders ; alternatively, opening Yemen to world capitalism through the medium of the supposedly more enlightened merchants and tribal leaders. Under the influence of Nasser and the incipient commercial bourgeoisie, the new regime chose the latter course. 


Until 1967, this latter policy was endorsed by the fledgling communist organisation, the People’s Democratic Union (PDU). acting under the instructions of the Kremlin which had awarded Nasser with Russia’s highest honour, Hero of the Soviet Union.

     

When the NLF took power in south Yemen in 1967, it was led by the pro-Nasser President Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi who pursued the NLF’s initial programme based upon:

 

“building of a national economy on a new and healthy basis compatible with the principles of social justice....”  in which the private sector could “play an important role . . . provided it avoids exploitation and monopoly and limits itself to the areas allocated to it by the law.” 


Such a commitment to a mixed capitalist economy proved impossible, due in large measure to the fact that most of the private sector fled the country along with the British. 


A state of workers, poor peasants and soldiers 

Within the space of 18 months ,Muhammad al-Shaabi was ousted and replaced with a new leadership, headed by Salim Rubai, who favoured an anti-capitalist direction and a more radical agrarian reform based upon mass action.  


This left wing considered itself Marxist. An example of its stance was contained in a March 1968 issue of the weekly ash Sharara (Spark), published in Mukalla. (capital city of Yemen's largest governorate, Hadhramaut) : 


“Making the socialist revolution means transforming existing social relations and installing revolutionary social relations, in other words destroying the old state apparatus and building an entirely new one in its place . . . Shouts of indignation will rise from the ranks of the worried and hesitant petty bourgeoisie: but where are the competent personnel? By 'competent personnel' they mean people with university degrees. Our reply is straightforward: what we need are not bourgeois competences but devoted workers. The great historical experience of the workers' councils is there to prove that the working class can govern themselves without difficulty, without bureaucracy and without bourgeois 'competences.' 


The actual dynamics of the Yemeni revolution pointed in the completely opposite direction to that favoured by the mainstream of Arab nationalism and its Kremlin apologists who sought to limit the revolution to purely national or democratic goals. Thus, at its 4th Congress in Zinjibar, the NLF leadership declared: 


A state capable of implementing the program of the socialist revolution is a new state built on the ruins of the old state apparatus. ... It is a state of workers, poor peasants, and soldiers. who exercise their dictatorship against the feudalists, rich peasants, and local and foreign capitalists. .. . To follow the path of bourgeois development is to fall into the trap of neocolonialism and counterrevolution. All the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America that followed that path after their liberation from classical colonialism still remain subject to class exploitation from world imperialism and from the local bourgeoisie allied to imperialism. . .” 


Like the Cuban revolution before it, the Yemeni revolution revived the perspective of Lenin and Trotsky who had insisted that a socialist revolution was the only way forward out of the historical backwardness conditioned by imperialist penetration. In particular, the task of ending the mediaeval social relations in the countryside. - in the case of the Yemen, a mixture of serfdom and sharecropping – which would ordinarily have been swept away by a modern capitalist economy, could only be undertaken now by the working class in alliance with the poor peasants.  


This irresistible dynamic of the revolution in the age of imperialism had already been proven negatively by the meager land reform in Naser’s Egypt. It now fell to the working people of the Yemen to prove it positively.  


Agrarian revolution and nationalisations 

One of the first acts of the NLF government in the South - now renamed the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen - was to initiate a deep-going agrarian reform.  


During the course of the liberation struggle against the British, the NLF had already begun to form village committees consisting of members of the peasant movements. These then became organizing centers for a broad based rural insurgency which proceeded hand in glove with a radical land reform. The committees surveyed land to identify the big landlords  and rich peasants, including a census of landless peasants and farm laborers.  


A new agrarian reform law was then adopted in November 1970 and enacted by the peasant committees. Naturally, the big landowners resisted, resulting in fierce armed classes. Peasants armed with scythes responded by occupying their estates and using peasant committees to administer the reform. 


One  NLF cadre described this process in his province as follows: 


 "We persuaded the peasants that the exploiters would never change and they had to act. They took their hatchets and sickles and immediately arrested all the Sheikhs, sada and other feudalists — eighty-two in all. The population were stupefied. They thought that these people were untouchable and that whoever lifted a hand against them would die on the spot. When they saw that the lords remained in prison and that the town was not struck by any cataclysm, all tongues were loosened and all the other peasants joined those who had taken part in the risings and came into the peasant leagues. ... It was important that the peasants themselves took the people to prison.” 


All land owned by the sultans, their followers and larger landowners was confiscated and redistributed, with limits on how much land, both irrigated and unirrigated, could be owned by a person or a family. Cooperatives were set up, some later becoming collective farms. Around half of the country’s cultivated area was allocated to 26,000 people. Water, so vital in such a hot, arid country with no natural year-round rivers, was nationalised, with the government taking control over the drilling of wells. 


Prices of basic foodstuffs were subsidised through state control of internal trade, and a Price Stabilisation Fund, set up in 1974, fixed the prices of all basic foodstuffs such as wheat, flour, rice, sugar, milk powder, ghee, cooking oil, and later tea. 

None of this would have been possible if basic industry, finance, trade and investment were in private hands. 


Consequently, the government  nationalised 36 foreign owned banks and insurance companies, and created five national companies dealing with internal trade, external trade, shipping, petroleum and the docks, and a National Bank. In 1972 privately owned buildings owned by absentee landlords were taken into state hands without compensation. 


It was on this basis that the new government was able to marshall the resources to enact a series of deep going social reforms to build new houses, tackle illiteracy, provide a free health service and carry out a fundamental transformation in the lives of Yemeni women. 


Women and the revolution 

Women themselves were at the forefront of this effort through their organisation the General Union of Yemeni Women. Founded in 1968 as part of the NLF, it was instrumental in drafting the equality provisions in the new constitution and in mobilising women to take advantage of the new employment, health and educational opportunities. 



A focal point of these advances was the Family Law of 1974 which prohibited the long-established practices of polygamy, child weddings, dowry, and unilateral divorce. The law took steps to guarantee women's rights in and out of wedlock. Women could no longer be bought and sold or denied all rights. 


They now had clear political rights established by the constitution, as well as the right to education, work, and social benefits such as equal wages and a minimum 50-day paid maternity leave. By 1979 women made up 31 percent of the school enrollment, up from almost zero in colonial days. By the end of the 1970s, women were also being integrated into the work force, accounting for 14 percent of the industrial workers. 


This was confirmed in a dispatch from the Yemen by Marvine Howe  in the May 28, 1979, New York Times: 


"Women can be seen here working in a spare parts factory, driving tractors and building roads as well as in the usual women's jobs of teaching, nursing and secretarial work and, of course, in the fields." 

                                              ------------------------------------------------ 


The international context 

The Yemeni revolution was part of a new rise of world revolution, beginning with the Cuban revolution in 1959 through to the Vietnamese and Portuguese revolutions  in the mid-1970s, followed by the Nicaraguan, Grenadan and Iranian revolutions of 1979. New forces, to the left of the tradtional Communist and Socialist parties, were being brought into motion, seeking fresh ideas on how to tackle imperialist underdevelopment and capitalist exploitation.  


Apart from the Yemen itself, this global trend was first registered in the Arab world with the defeat and ousting of French imperialism in Algeria. The resurgence of the Palestinian liberation struggle then occupied centre stage following the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1972. 


All of these revolutions confronted huge obstacles, most notably in the form of covert and overt military and economic aggression by Washington and its local allies. In the face of this, the Soviet Union appeared to stand out as a staunch ally, offering vital openings for trade, investment and limited arms supplies. But there was a heavy political price to pay for this as the Soviet bureaucracy used its economic clout and army of advisers to try and mould these new forces around its narrow foreign policy objectives.

  

Cuba points the way 

Only the Cuban revolution managed to survive these obstacles. However, it could only do so by effecting a revolution within the revolution by waging a conscious political battle against the corrosive influence of Kremlin and its local cronies. 




This cleansing operation in Cuba was carried out under the banner of “rectification of errors and negative tendencies”. Cuba, said Castro, had gone through “ten grey years” in which the Soviet model of economic development had encouraged bureaucratic privilege, corruption and competition between dependent enterprises. Two diametrically opposing forces were at work: the world of the self-seeking bureaucrat, careerist and opportunist looking to feather their own nest; and the world of the workers, farmers and youth who had fought tirelessly both at home and abroad to defend and extend the revolution. 


This class solidarity, upon which the Cuban revolution was founded, was being eroded to such extent that Castro felt that Cuba was heading towards “a society that was worse than capitalism”. 


The rectification process resurrected the original principles of the revolution, particularly under the guidance of its most famous martyr and internationalist exponent, Che Guevara. Key figures were removed from leadership positions, with some being tried, imprisoned and executed. There was a fundamental rethinking of economic management based upon workers’ control, a mass revival of volunteer labour and a rejection of capitalist methods as a primary economic stimulant.  


Without this, the Cuban revolution would not have survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the intensification of the US blockade which followed in its wake. Others, including the Yemeni revolution, were not so fortunate.  


(The second part of this article will chart the course of the Yemeni revolution as it imploded under the combined weight of imperialist aggression and Stalinist subterfuge. It will analyse the 1990 unification of the North and South and the fatal consequences this held for Yemeni’s workers, peasants and women. Lastly, it will look in more detail at the emergence of the Houthis following the “Arab Spring” of 2011, and the continuing struggle for liberation.)

 

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