The best books about Middle Eastern communism and leftist movements

Johan Franzen Author Of Red Star Over Iraq: Iraqi Communism Before Saddam
By Johan Franzen

Who am I?

Growing up during the Cold War, I became interested in Communism early. I read about how the Communist International worked to spread the world revolution. Despite its Eurocentrism, Communism appealed to people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. However, it failed to make meaningful inroads in the Middle East. I wanted to know why. When I trained to become a historian, my curiosity turned towards the Arab world. I decided to combine my two interests and research the history of Arab Communist movements. I discovered a fascinating world of firebrand activists struggling against the tide of nationalism, fascism, and religious bigotry. I hope you find these books as gripping as I did.


I wrote...

Red Star Over Iraq: Iraqi Communism Before Saddam

By Johan Franzen,

Book cover of Red Star Over Iraq: Iraqi Communism Before Saddam

What is my book about?

This book tells the story of one of the most important Communist Parties in the Arab World. Despite its size and influence on Iraqi politics, especially in the 1950s and 60s, the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) never seriously attempted to seize power. Instead, it was ideologically committed to supporting what it termed the “national bourgeoisie”. That conviction led the ICP down a maze of increasingly impossible political positions as smaller and less scrupulous political groups took to power in the 60s and 70s. Due to its ideological rigidity, the Communists were eventually outmaneuvered by other parties. When Saddam Hussein rose to power in 1979, their days as an important player in Iraqi politics were effectively over.

The books I picked & why

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The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba`thists and Free Officers

By Hanna Batatu,

Book cover of The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba`thists and Free Officers

Why this book?

This immense book, which in reality is three books in one, is what first attracted me to Iraqi communism. I had long been interested in the history of the Communist movement, but none of the many books I had read on the topic had ever dealt with Communism in the Arab world. Batatu’s book was a revelation. It is a tour de force of the history of Iraqi social movements of the early twentieth century. Despite many detours along the way, Batatu masterfully tells a gripping narrative of the disparate groups who ended up in the Iraqi state that was created after World War I and how they made sense of this new reality. 

The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba`thists and Free Officers

By Hanna Batatu,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The book description for the previously published "The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Ba'thists, and Free Officers" is not yet available.


Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948

By Zachary Lockman,

Book cover of Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948

Why this book?

The relationship between Communism and nationalism has always been tricky since both ideologies rose to prominence in the nineteenth century. Nowhere has this been truer than within the Communist movement in Palestine, where Jewish activists from Eastern Europe founded the Palestine Communist Party. Palestinian Arabs who were coopted into the movement struggled with nationalist tendencies within their own community that opposed Jewish immigration and Communist ideas about building a socialist society for everyone. As shown exceptionally well in Zachary Lockman’s book, working-class Jews and Arabs fighting for a new world ended up in an impossible situation, at times working together as comrades and, at others, opposing each other as bitter enemies. 

Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948

By Zachary Lockman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Comrades and Enemies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In "Comrades and Enemies" Zachary Lockman explores the mutually formative interactions between the Arab and Jewish working classes, labor movements, and worker-oriented political parties in Palestine just before and during the period of British colonial rule. Unlike most of the historical and sociological literature on Palestine in this period, "Comrades and Enemies" avoids treating the Arab and Jewish communities as if they developed independently of each other. Instead of focusing on politics, diplomacy, or military history, Lockman draws on detailed archival research in both Arabic and Hebrew, and on interviews with activists, to delve into the country's social, economic, and…


Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954

By Joel Beinin, Zachary Lockman,

Book cover of Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954

Why this book?

I first came across this book as an undergraduate student many years ago. I was drawn to the book because it covered a topic that was not very common at the time, namely the Egyptian working class. Beinin and Lockman’s study of how the working class navigated the three major intellectual currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—nationalism, religion, and Communism—opened my eyes to social history as no other book had done. Workers on the Nile analyses how Egypt brutally is drawn into the global capitalist system in the nineteenth century and how this process produced a native working class (alongside a large community of European ex-pat workers). Gradually the working class comes of age by organising its labour, and eventually, this gives rise to more radical politics in the shape of Communism, Islamic activism, and nationalist tendencies.

Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954

By Joel Beinin, Zachary Lockman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Workers on the Nile as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Description for this book, Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954, will be forthcoming.


A History of Egyptian Communism: Jews and Their Compatriots in Quest of Revolution

By Rami Ginat,

Book cover of A History of Egyptian Communism: Jews and Their Compatriots in Quest of Revolution

Why this book?

I found this book very interesting as it re-examines the early period of the Communist movement in Egypt. The history of Egyptian Communism has been extensively studied, but Ginat’s book was able to bring something new to the discussion by analysing previously unstudied Soviet archives. He demonstrates the important role Eastern European and native Jews played in the movement's early days—a role that subsequent generations of Communist historians had largely edited out. The book is rich with detail and provides a genuine insight into the motivations and hopes of those Jewish activists who thought they were building a better world on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean.

A History of Egyptian Communism: Jews and Their Compatriots in Quest of Revolution

By Rami Ginat,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A History of Egyptian Communism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Communist Movement in Iran

By Sepehr Zabih,

Book cover of Communist Movement in Iran

Why this book?

This is the go-to book for the early Communist movement in Iran. Unlike the Arab countries of the Middle East, where Communism slowly spread in the early decades of the twentieth century, Iran experienced Communism as Soviet foreign policy in a direct manner. Bordering the Soviet Union, northern Iran was the subject of early attempts to spread the Communist creed in the aftermath of the October Revolution. Zabih’s book tells the story of those early inroads and the Iranian activists supporting the new ideology. The early attempts failed, but by the 1940s, the Communist Tudeh Party had emerged as a popular mass party. Zabih’s narrative is lucid, and his research is based on Soviet and Iranian materials. 

Communist Movement in Iran

By Sepehr Zabih,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Communist Movement in Iran as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


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