Red South Yemen

Analytics

Fri, 22-04-2022 12:01 AM, Aden Time

Fatimah Johnson (South24) 

Revolution came to South Yemen in the 1960s. The presiding order of tribal loyalties, kingship, tolerance of colonial rule, commitment to Islam and Arab fraternity had decayed. The cyclone of violence in the years 1963 to 1967, made revolution possible. As with Russia, the revolution of 1917 could not have occurred without the First World War, so it was in the case of South Yemen vis-à-vis the Radfan Uprising [1]. The new thesis in South Yemen was of Marxism by way of centralized statehood, political autonomy from the UK, nationalization of industry, worker committees, trade unionization, public ownership of property and land, secularism, internationalism and the diffusion of the revolutionary tendency to countries within its compass such as Oman and Bahrain [2].

The paradox is that the fuse had been lit for left wing revolution in South Yemen by Dr. George Habash, a Palestinian, who established the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) in the American University of Beirut in 1954 as a right wing party [3]. The ANM began life as a pan-Arabist and Nasserist organization [4] that did not bear real resemblance to the more obvious left wing path that South Yemen eventually took.  However, it provided a breeding ground for left wing thinking in the Near East. The ANM helped to spawn the future South Yemeni National Liberation Front (NLF) as the leaders of the ANM branch in South Yemen became part of the NLF in time. Egypt’s cataclysmic defeat in the June 1967 war by Israel pushed some leftists in the region into more radical Marxist-Leninist positions as the defeat helped to bring both Nasserism and pan-Arabism into disrepute as effective weapons against imperialism as well as neocolonialism. The South Yemeni branch of the AMN had already fallen out with the organizations over its declared policy program in 1965 which it perceived as too accommodating to counterrevolutionary elements [5]. The rejection of the policy meant a self-manoeuvre towards the outer reaches of the left by which the principles of opposition to the Arab bourgeoisie, militancy of workers and post-ethnicity were approved.  

“Socialism is the power of the proletariat” [6]. This was the view of the Dutch Marxist theorist, Anton Pannekoek (also an astronomer). Pannekoek was famously ridiculed by Lenin himself as an infantile leftist [7]. This was because Pannekoek amongst other mainstream Marxists like Hermann Gorter, objected to the dictatorship of leaders of the Communist Party over the general population in Russia and then later in the Soviet Union. Examination of the reconfiguration of South Yemen from the People’s Republic of South Yemen (PRSY) as it was from 30 November 1967 after independence to the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) as of 22 June 1969 (the date of the “Glorious Corrective Move”) [8] reveals that the country in the form of the PDRY opted for what could be called a right-wing deviation from mainstream Marxism [9]. Maxime Rodinson in Marxism and the Muslim World, schools that “there is not just one Marxism, but several Marxisms”.  Rodinson goes on to write in the same work that, the history of Marxism is best understood as being representative of several types of theories that emerged from preparatory work by Karl Marx. These theories have a “common core”, that social facts are the prime reason for the shaping of history’s progression. 
 
The dispute over what might truly constitute Marxism can be seen in the power struggle between Qahtan Al-Sha’bi (the first Prime Minister for the new state in South Yemen in 1967) and the NLF left. The NLF left wanted to smash the vestiges of the institutions of state left behind by the British, new instruments of political power had to be initiated and economic policy had to mandate against private property [11]. Al-Sha’bi argued against the radical resolutions passed by the NLF’s Fourth Congress in March 1968 on the ground that belief in class conflict was an error and rather society should work to bring all classes into harmony. This was an attempt by Al-Sha’bi to return to Nasserism, that Arab Socialism meant to deny class conflict, that the proper classification of “Arab” was racial rather than linguistic and that such racial ties exempted other Arabs from all criticism by the NLF [12]. Further heresies occurred for example when Salim Rubay Ali favored the adoption of Maoism, revolution in stages and a wider composition for the revolutionary bloc [13]. His faction was defeated [14] and he was executed in 1978.

Other forms of more humane Socialism that accommodate democracy, worker control and spiritual transformation of the kind Rosa Luxemburg (another highly influential “mainstream” Marxist) advocated, were not the defining features of the PDRY from 1969 and throughout the 1970s. Instead the PDRY was highly authoritarian. It cultivated a centralized state that kept South Yemen under the strict party control of the NLF and then later the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). Models of party management used by the Communist Party of the USSR were implemented by the YSP (a Politburo, a Central Committee and a Presidium that supplied the national leadership chosen by an elected Supreme People’s Council). The PDRY was ruled through vanguardism (professional revolutionaries who would work to protect the Socialist revolution by directing the working classes by force and the use of centralized planning to undermine individualism – an idea propagated by Lenin). A Higher School of Scientific Socialism was established for the purposes of indoctrination in Marxism-Leninism. The party was a mechanism for enforcing the decisions of the Presidium [15]. Trade unions were put under party control; the worker committees were monitored by the party and the military and civil staff of government were subjected to what would amount to an inquisition in order to cleanse the government of those who had been trained by the British or with British advice during the colonial era. A secret police agency, a Stasi (Ministerium für Staatsicherheit – Ministry for State Security) was created with the assistance of East Germany for domestic political surveillance and to obliterate any dissent from the revolutionary path being taken [16]. Dr. Noel Brehony, who has completed extensive study of the Near East and who lived in the PDRY in the 1970s, states that in the apologist narrative of the PDRY’s history “the abuses of the early 1970s are glossed over” [17]. This is not to suggest that South Yemen did not benefit at all from its alignment to the USSR, far from it. There was much cultural cooperation as well as technical, financial and economic collaboration. Archived Russian footage reveals that Russians would travel to Aden to instruct South Yemenis in the art of classical music.
           
Marxist South Yemen was ambitious. Not content with revolution at home, South Yemen threw itself into support for revolt in Oman, a country with no political parties or legislature, that continues to retain the death penalty and where the chief of state was and still is a sultan who operates as an absolute ruler [18]. The repressive, suffocating character of Oman was clearly provocative to the exponentially more radical South Yemen. More potently, Oman was a British colony in fact if not in law and fronted by a stooge: 

Only writers blinded by a fog of legalism and imperialist ideology can doubt that Oman has been a de facto British colony in that the regime depended on Britain, and Britain imposed its will when it wanted to [19].

Morally, it is easy to see why South Yemen backed revolt in Oman. The Sultan of Oman from 1932 to 1970 (Said bin Taimur) can safely be described as a despot. At the end of his rule, Oman had only three primary schools, only one hospital, there was no press and the literacy rate was at 5 per cent [20]. He passed a law which designated all people of African descent in Oman as slaves and he is known to have kept an arsenal of weapons at his palace in Salala that included rockets [21]. Before he was deposed (officially by his son Qabus bin Said but in reality by the British Government of 1970 under the Conservative Party of Edward Heath) he had made the sickening decision to close the three primary schools on the ground that they were centers of Communism but was prevented from doing so [21]. The Omani revolt eventually came in the form of the People’s Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) in the late 1960s. The PFLOAG was alternatively known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf and eventually splintered into different organizations. PFLOAG had deep roots, emerging out of the ANM like the NLF and a backdrop of armed struggle in Oman that had begun in 1957.  South Yemen gave all manner of support to the PFLOAG, including fire cover for its guerrillas. The PFLOAG’s weekly news bulletin entitled Saut Al-Thawra (Voice of the Revolution) was issued from its office in Mualla, Aden and even posted from there to Members of Parliament in Britain. One edition, declassified by Britain in 2004 and made available by the Arabian Gulf Digital Archives, from 10 November 1973 after the Yom Kippur War reads:

The People’s Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf announced and warned more than once against such moves by the American Seventh Fleet and its continuous threat to peace in this area and great traitorous role carried out by the puppet Sultanate in this connection [23]
  
The Government of Oman’s war against Socialism still reverberates in the contemporary period long after it eliminated the threat posed to its system of autocracy by the PFLOAG in and around 1976 [24]. In April 2020, Oman finally acceded to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of 16 December 1966. However, it made a reservation to Article 8 of the ICESCR which deals with the rights of workers.  The reservation in practice means Omanis are forbidden from forming trade unions and from taking industrial action in the form of strikes [25].

After war against the British had succeeded in 1967, the next war South Yemen fought was against poor living standards and domination from other nations.  Prosperity and continued independence had to become the new rallying calls in its post-colonial existence: 

The triumph of the NLF in November 1967 led South Yemen into a situation of conflict with its neighbors and with other states of the region, in a pattern of antagonism similar to that which other revolutionary countries have experienced, from France in 1789 onwards [26]
  
In 1967, only 18% of the population was literate. In an attempt to raise this, South Yemen emulated a Cuban literacy program. By 1977, 73,000 South Yemenis had taken literacy courses. The number of people in the schooling system was raised from 64,500 to in excess of a quarter of a million. Boarding schools were also set up. Enrollment into university rose from 362 in 1970 to 1,700 in 1977. 7.4% of the country's gross domestic product was spent on education by 1975. A College of Technology was developed with assistance from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 1979, 75 of its 560 engineering students went on to complete a master’s degree [27]. Progressive measures were taken to liberate the female population. Legal changes in 1974 forbade child marriage and polygamy. Efforts were made to add more women to the labour force, particularly to jobs in the urban economy and greater access to healthcare, educational services and the right to vote was afforded to South Yemeni women [28]. In the battle for development we see an obvious tension and contradiction between the official internationalism of the PDRY and the practical concerns of the nation, namely which had primacy, national or Marxist values?

The accommodations of the early 1980s were therefore a reflection of an overall limitation of the revolutionary trend in the South Arabian region, but involved, at the same time, a consolidation of the post-revolutionary regime in the one state where the old order had been most completely overthrown [29]

Fast-forward, and it is now 32 years since PDRY ceased to exist. Despite the passage of time, the restoration of a separate South Yemeni state has clear popular support from many residents in South Yemen and from the diaspora of the former state. Firefights have ensued against the regular forces of the united Yemeni Government and the question of Yemen fragmenting has definitely entered the arena of contemporary history.  Internationally, astute observers of the region recognise the “Southern” dimension to Yemen’s makeup that led to the movement for restoration, known as Al-Hirak and then to the formation of the Southern Transitional Council (STC). What is not clear, is the future internal structure of an independent South Yemen and upon what ideology it will be based other than nationalism itself.  In an interview with Al Jazeera, Ali Salim Al-Beidh (steeped in the history of the PDRY as General Secretary of the YSP, former leader of the NLF and who faced the northern war against South Yemen) proposes a tabula rasa:

We merely demand to restore our state which earlier had concluded a voluntary agreement for union with the Yemen Arab Republic. This agreement was made voluntarily on May 22nd 1990. When we headed to Sanaa we did not find anyone appreciating this huge achievement, which we had always dreamt of, one unified Yemen. We demand to restore the Southern state of Yemen which existed before 1990 but not in the same form it had at that time, but rather a formula acceptable to all segments of the fabric of society in the South not under the earlier constitutional system but under a new system built on the demands of people at the grassroots level so that it will embrace all segments of society to let all the people have a final say with a respect to a constitution and their own future [30].

To twist the delicious opening of Marx and Engels’s 1848 Communist Manifesto, the spectre of Communism is not (according to Al-Beidh anyway) haunting South Yemen.

London-based journalist (the opinions expressed in this article are thus of the author)
Photo: The revolution monument in Aden 1985 (Archive) 

References: 
[1] South Yemen, A Marxist Republic in Arabia, Robert W. Stookey, Routledge, New York, 2019, p61
[3] South Yemen, A Marxist Republic in Arabia, Robert W. Stookey, Routledge, New York, 2019, p60
[4] The Republic of Lebanon – Nation in Jeopardy, David C. Gordon, Taylor and Francis, U.K., 2016, pp91-95
[5] South Yemen, A Marxist Republic in Arabia, Robert W. Stookey, Routledge, New York, 2019, p60
[6] Non-Leninist Marxism – Writings on the Worker Councils, Gorter, Pannekoek, Pankhurst, Ruhle, Red and Black Publishers, St Petersburg, Florida, 2007, p5 
[7] Non-Leninist Marxism – Writings on the Worker Councils, Gorter, Pannekoek, Pankhurst, Ruhle, Red and Black Publishers, St Petersburg, Florida, 2007, p7
[8] Why Yemen Matters – A Society in Transition: The role of the PDRY in forming a South Yemen identity, Noel Brehony, Saqi Books, London, 2014, p126
[9] Marxism and the Muslim World, Maxime Rodinson, Zed Books, London, 2015, p5 
[10] Marxism and the Muslim World, Maxime Rodinson, Zed Books, London, 2015, p6
[11] Arabia Without Sultans, Fred Halliday, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1974, p230
[12] Arabia Without Sultans, Fred Halliday, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1974, p234
[13] Arabia Without Sultans, Fred Halliday, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1974, p233
[14] South Yemen, A Marxist Republic in Arabia, Robert W. Stookey, Routledge, New York, 2019, p105
[15] Why Yemen Matters – A Society in Transition: The role of the PDRY in forming a South Yemen identity, Noel Brehony, Saqi Books, London, 2014, pp126-127
[16] South Yemen, A Marxist Republic in Arabia, Robert W. Stookey, Routledge, New York, 2019, pp66-67
[17] Why Yemen Matters – A Society in Transition: The role of the PDRY in forming a South Yemen identity, Noel Brehony, Saqi Books, London, 2014, p129
[18] South Yemen, A Marxist Republic in Arabia, Robert W. Stookey, Routledge, New York, 2019, p99
[19] Arabia Without Sultans, Fred Halliday, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1974, p271
[20] Arabia Without Sultans, Fred Halliday, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1974, p275
[21] Arabia Without Sultans, Fred Halliday, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1974, p279
[22] Arabia Without Sultans, Fred Halliday, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1974, p276
[23] agda.ae
[24] South Yemen, A Marxist Republic in Arabia, Robert W. Stookey, Routledge, New York, 2019, p99
[25] Amnesty International Report 2020/21: The state of the world’s human rights, Oman, Index Number: POL 10/3202/2021, 7 April 2021, p277
[26] Aspects of South Yemen’s Foreign Policy 1967-1982, Fred Halliday, Department of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London, Doctoral Thesis submitted April 1985, p307 
[27] South Yemen, A Marxist Republic in Arabia, Robert W. Stookey, Routledge, New York, 2019, pp86-87
[28] Why Yemen Matters – A Society in Transition: The role of the PDRY in forming a South Yemen identity, Noel Brehony, Saqi Books, London, 2014, p129
[29] Aspects of South Yemen’s Foreign Policy 1967-1982, Fred Halliday, Department of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London, Doctoral Thesis submitted April 1985, p312