Helen Lackner, P.D.R. Yemen: Outpost of Socialist Development in Arabia, (London: Ithaca Press, 1985).
It is hard to imagine a more timely publishing event than the appearance of Helen Lackner’s new book on the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, given the crisis that engulfed that country this January. Lackner lived in South Yemen for five years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, working as a teacher and conducting the research and interviews that comprise this work. This sympathetic yet critical book stands as the only extended account in English of the accomplishments and shortcomings of the Arab world’s single socialist state.
Lackner’s treatment of the colonial period and the independence struggle is appropriately brief, as they have been treated well in Fred Halliday’s Arabia Without Sultans and Joseph Kostiner’s The Struggle for South Yemen. “The First Ten Years of Independence” relies heavily on documents of the ruling National Liberation Front to explicate the political struggles within the Front, although Lackner judiciously inserts her own more appreciative judgement of Salim Rubaya ‘Ali, who fell from power in the brief, bloody convulsion of June 1978.
We turn to the chapter on “The State in the 1980s” for some clues to the divisions that erupted so destructively in January 1986. Lackner presents the issues comprehensively and concisely, although without the sharpness that a version written today might have. She occasionally exercises a gift for understatement: the arrest and secret execution in March 1981 of former Foreign Minister Muhammad Salih Muti‘, for instance, “illustrate[s] a deplorable absence of acceptable methods of political retirement.” (p. 91)
Lackner is quite critical of the rigid East European model of political party formation that PDRY has adopted. Yet she misses opportunities to illuminate the actual practice of politics. She tells us that the local congresses of the YSP which precede a general congress tackle matters such as schooling, housing and the provision of agricultural machinery. “Discussion of these issues indicate how the YSP functions at a local level,” she writes (p.88), but then fails to convey any concrete sense of how these problems were in fact addressed. Similarly, her references to fighting between the two Yemens in 1978 and 1979 studiously avoid any discussion of PDRY responsibility or initiative.
Lackner’s chapters on social and economic issues go to the heart of South Yemen’s dilemma, and provide a valuable resource for anyone wanting to know the facts of life there. One thing missing in the book is any sketch of the key political leaders, or of ordinary people, to provide a sense of their backgrounds and the social forces they represent. The now-conventional picture of ‘Abd ul-Fattah Isma‘il as a doctrinaire theoretician is corroborated here, as are images of ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad and other leaders. But by and large this remains a book with little immediate feel for the people—leaders, cadre and ordinary folk—with whom Lackner lived and worked. Despite this shortcoming, we owe her much thanks for writing this very useful book, and to Ithaca Press for making it available.