Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985).
Phebe Marr’s The Modern History of Iraq spans the period from the inception of the modern nation-state in 1920 to 1984. Marr has consulted, among others, the authoritative works in Arabic of the Iraqi chronicler ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Hasani and the recent “official” biography of Saddam Hussein by Amir Iskandar. She also draws on the standard works by Hanna Batatu, Majid Kadduri, the Penroses, and above all makes use of extensive interviews with a number of informed Iraqis.
Marr organized her book around two themes. The first is the process of constructing, out of diverse religious and ethnic groups, a modern state with a distinct cultural Iraqi identity that is not incompatible with the larger Arab world. Her second theme concerns the process of economic and social development. She suggests that both processes are far from over.
Investigating economic and social change under the monarchical and republican regimes, she identifies the middle class as the grouping that benefited the most from the revolutionary changes. Marr points to the emergence of a new affluent class that is intimately and intricately linked to the higher echelons of the Baath Party. She fails, however, to discuss the relationship of this class to state power, or the implication of its rise to the subsequent polarization of classes. “The future of the regime hinges on Saddam,” Marr states. Does the fate of this affluent class hinge on him, too?
The most valuable chapter in the book is “The Arab Nationalists in Power, 1963-1968,” especially its treatment of the 1964 Nationalization Laws. Marr’ interviews with Khayr al-Din Hasib, the architect of these laws, enrich our knowledge of that critical period of Iraqi history.
The book includes several inaccuracies and inconsistencies, but its main weakness is the failure to discuss the role of class struggle. The result is to exaggerate the role of the “nationalist” (qawmi) forces and to downgrade the role of the leftist, “national” (watani) forces. Her interviews include no one from the National Democratic Party or the Communist Party, or the Qasim regime for that matter. Marr glosses over the role of the Communist Party in the 1952 intifada (which she calls “riots”) and the 1956 urban uprisings at Najaf and Hayy. She makes no mention of the peasant uprisings against the feudal sheikhs at Suleimaniya (1947), ‘Amara (1952) and Erbil (1953); the historic march of the K3 oil workers (1948); the 1953 massacres of political prisoners at the Baghdad and Kut prisons; and the League Against Zionism. Her account of the 1948 wathba makes no mention of the role of the Communist Party as the main force of the uprising. One cannot help but wonder why, after Hanna Batatu’s authoritative book, a study that purports to be the modern history of Iraq should downplay the role and contributions of the Iraqi left to the revolutionary struggle of the Iraqi people.