Faris Kamal Nadhmi and the ‘Historical Bloc’: The theoretical foundations of the Sadrist-Civil Trend alliance

This post features my translation of a very interesting article written in 2010 by Faris Kamal Nadhmi. Nadhmi is a major intellectual leftist figure in Iraq and social psychologist, working out of the University of Baghdad and affiliated with many academic, union, and activist associations. The article lays out the theoretical foundations for the Sadrist-Communist alliance in terms of Gramsci’s theory of the ‘historical bloc’. It is also interesting in the extent to which the article foreshadows the current Sadrist-civil trend alliance and their campaign to install academic and technocratic ministers ahead of party and sectarian appointments. The article generated considerable debate in Iraqi intellectual circles (something I intend to explore in more detail in later posts), and may have exerted considerable influence on current strategies and practices exhibited by the two movements.

Gramsci’s theory of the ‘historical bloc’ reflects his supposed break with what is considered the ‘orthodox’ Marxist segmentation of structure and superstructure into a differentiated model of social reality with a uni-directional causation, structure to superstructure. The ‘historical bloc’ attempts to posit a reuniting of structure and superstructure, in which ideas, theories, values etc. are both constituted by and constitutive of material structure. From this conception of social reality emerges the possibility of the ‘historical bloc’, a political alliance of different social groups bound together by a set of hegemonic (or counter-hegemonic) ideas, becoming a vehicle for social transformation. The formation of the historical bloc depends on what Gramsci terms the ‘war of position’, as Stephen Gill writes:

‘An historical bloc refers to an historical congruence between material forces, institutions and ideologies, or broadly, an alliance of different class forces politically organized around a set of hegemonic ideas that gave strategic direction and coherence to its constituent elements. Moreover, for a new historical bloc to emerge, its leaders must engage in conscious planned struggle. Any new historical bloc must have not only power within the civil society and economy, it also needs persuasive ideas, arguments and initiatives that build on, catalyze and develop its political networks and organization – not political parties as such.’ (Gill, Stephen, Power and Resistance in the New World Order, Palgrave, Macmillan – 2002, p. 58)

The applicability of this theoretical proposition to the Sadrist-Communist dynamic in Iraq is precisely what Nadhmi explores below.


‘The Communists and the Sadrists…. and the choice of the historical bloc’, Faris Kamal Nadhmi, 17th June 2010

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the innovative Italian thinker, developed the concept of the ‘historical bloc’, proposing the establishment of an alliance between the forces of reform, between the Marxists and the liberals in Italy’s advanced industrial North, and the Christian forces who controlled the economically underdeveloped South. This historical bloc would seek a total renaissance to achieve Italian unity. This theory was later passed on, in both supportive and critical fashion, by intellectuals and political figures.

The Sandinistas, who governed Nicaragua (1979-1990), are considered the most prominent contemporary example of the concept of the historical bloc, which formed at the beginning of the 1960s from an alliance of leftist-Marxist forces and Christians supported by the church. They succeeded through military and political struggle in bringing down the Somoza regime in 1979 which was supported by the CIA. The Catholic priest, Ernesto Cardenal, for example, was amongst the most prominent Christian leaders in the Sandinista front and obtained the Nobel Prize for literature and worked as Minister for Culture in the Sandinista government. He proposed the idea that the revolution need not be purely religious as was the case for Martin Luther, but he spoke of a coming together of religious revolutionaries with Marxism, and expected that in the future the Church would witness a class struggle leading to a split between the Church of the poor and the Church of the rich. He said: ‘God has the power of social transformation, and the power of revolutions, and the power of love as well.’

Modern Iraqi history has been characterised by a political convergence between the two trends – the leftist and the religious. Sheikh Abdul Karim al-Maashta contributed to establishing the Movement of Peace Advocators (harakat ansar al- salam), which had a leftist orientation, in July 1954. He gave the closing address at their founding conference in Baghdad. Hanna Batatu, in his book Iraq, showed that around a third of the members of the Central Committee of the Iraqi Communist Party (1955-1963) belonged to established religious families. Similarly, during the 50s and 60s, the cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Kadhimiya witnessed a peaceful juxtaposition, quite unique in its nature, between the communist uprisings against monarchical authority, and the activism of the traditional religious marja’iya, in the same place. Batatu attributes this, in part, to the fact that many of the Communist activists, in Najaf for example, were the sons of the ulema, their close relatives, or religious researchers.

The question which needs to be asked in Iraq today is the following: ’To what extent is it true to say that the Communists and Sadrists intermingle at the psychological level in terms of a perception of injustice, which would raise the possibility of the emergence of a historical bloc through their alliance, without denying the wide ideological gap between the two sides. It should be noted that what is meant here, fundamentally, is the popular bases and the intellectual elites of the two trends, rather than their official leadership. Therefore, we have separated this question into a number of sub-questions, with the emphasis on the social character of protest for each trend, rather than the narrow political or party frameworks:

  1. Have the Sadrists in their social practice become the Communist class of today, after the Communists of yesterday lost their effective role amongst the ranks of the proletariat and the dispossessed?
  2. Are the Communists (perhaps unconsciously) jealous of the Sadrists because they have taken their historic role in mobilising the masses who dream of change?
  3. Do the Sadrists sanctify the person of Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr in the same way that the Communists sanctify Karl Marx on the level of a charismatic personality?
  4. Is there any convergence in characteristics and trends between the Communist character and the Sadrist character, especially with respect to the youth?
  5. If the Communists decided to adopt the Sadr marja’iyaalongside their current beliefs, and if the Sadrist trend decided to adopt Marxism alongside their current beliefs, would there remain any essential difference between them on the theoretical level of the practice of social reform?

My analysis takes off from a psycho-political basis which says that contradictory ideologies do not necessarily emerge out of contradictory psychologies. For the deprived who are also believers do not differ from the deprived who are non-believers in their damaged emotional construction as a consequence of oppression, poverty, and marginalisation. However, these two differ in terms of how they attribute the causes of their situation and the extent of their rationalisation, or lack of rationalisation, of it. Therefore, I answer in the positive (‘yes’) to the first four questions, and in the negative (‘no’) to the fifth question only.

The Communist and Sadrist characters share a common ground in terms of emotions, ambitions, attitudes, and characteristics in terms of a shared view of injustice in the world. The most important thing that distinguishes them is their rejection of social inequality and their hatred of the prevailing rule, their awareness of social conflict, passion for knowledge and respect for the book, engagement in literature and art, attention to the youth, openness to different ideas, and their romantic loyalty to personal symbols.

Whereas what distinguishes the two, and separates them, is manifest in the ideological outer shell which envelops both characters. For the Communist is materialist, secularist, and positivist in thinking, whereas the Sadrist is an idealist, religious-doctrinal, and metaphysical in thinking. The Communist is interested in advancing ‘practical’, ‘human’ solutions to the dilemmas of the Iraqi situation, whereas the Sadrist is distracted by defending customs and superstitions, which are of more interest to him than the tangible and the specific, despite the modern reformist trend embedded in the practice of the Sadrist trend which, if implemented, would transport it from something like a religious doctrine, into a purely social space.

Despite the truth of this intellectual divergence, the Communists will lose more than they have already lost if they continue to distance themselves from the current flame of Sadrist populism. While the Sadrists will lose, gradually, if they continue to reject Communist rationality. Real social reform in modern history has always come about as a result of a cross-pollination of bold, religious reforming trends with secular enlightenment values, arriving at the production of the best model for a rational state.

I stress, what Iraq needs today is the emergence of an organised social movement which adopts the rights of the deprived majority within a dual framework – political and associative – that will make these rights a daily procedural requirement that transcends the boundaries of religion, sect, ideology, and artificial electoral gains, moving towards the horizon of the state, the nation, and humanity.

 The Communists and the Sadrists (urban and rural, elites and the masses) taken together almost constitute two radical, unified, political movements deeply embedded in the social terrain of Arab Iraq, and have both achieved a genuine and precise organisation in the life of the oppressed in contrast to the other trends that emerged from the elites, or are artificial, or seek to advance their interests via coup d’état. Without omitting their mistakes on the level of thought and practice, it is the Sadrists and the Communists that are called upon to take the choice of political convergence and coordination between themselves, within the project of the compressed historical bloc, rejecting any militarily organised framework for political action and seeking, gradually, through its program of wide social demands, to realise the following fundamental objectives:

  1. Re-orienting the compass of today’s fierce political conflicts on the basis that the desirable direction towards which we must always be directed is that of human rights for the crushed Iraqi people, not the interests of the political elites who live in luxury, and towards a civil-national identity not sectarian or ethnic belonging which are a prelude to civil strife.
  2. A rebalancing of the dysfunctional relationship between the secular and religious trends in Iraqi life that has arisen because of the politicisation of religion.
  3. Treating the effects of bloody political violence (fascism, the occupation, sectarianism, terrorism) which the Iraqi individual has suffered from.

It is also possible that other secular and religious trends will be attached to this embryonic bloc with the passage of time, making this the most rational choice for the saving of the Iraqi sociology.

The deceased Moroccan intellectual, Muhammad Abed al-Jabouri, called for similar historical blocs within the framework of the Arab states in his study The Historical Block… What does it mean?, saying: ‘Any movement for change in current Arab society cannot contain by itself the causes of change… Rather, it must emerge from the Arab reality, in that it takes into consideration all of its components, the contemporary and the traditional, the elites and the masses, the minorities and the majorities, the ranks of the workers, the ranks of the students, and before and after this, the ranks of the mosques and those who pray’ … ‘What is required is the establishment of an historical bloc on the basis of the single objective interest which propels, in the structure, and from the structure, all the trends that succeed in making reverberations that echo amongst the ranks of the people: the objective interest that is expressed in the slogans of freedom, authenticity, democracy, consultation, justice, and the rights of those who practice ijtihad, the rights of the weak, the rights of the minorities and the majorities… and without establishing a historical bloc of this type, it is not possible to inaugurate a new historical phase that includes growth, continuity, and stability’ … ‘a [historical] block gathers a wide array of groups from society around clear goals that are concerned firstly with freedom from colonial and imperial domination – political, economic, intellectual – and secondly, with establishing balanced social relations governed to a great extent by the just distribution of resources.’

For certain, the Sadrist movement does not currently lack popular momentum. However, what it does lack is the organised, rational, theoretical analysis which the Communists possess, for reasons connected to the concentrated popular character of the Sadrist movement. On the other hand, while the Communists possess these high intellectual possibilities, they lack the sufficient social base to transmit their ideas to a particular reality, for reasons connected to the psychological foundation of the masses. Therefore, each side is in need of the other. Not on the level of an artificial and unrealistic merging of the two, but with the intention of consultation, coordination, cooperation, an exchange of expertise in the area of political planning for the protest and reform practices, so long as they are brought together by an oppositional consciousness to injustice, as well as providing a not insignificant number of possibilities for the emotional/spiritual convergence that is necessary for the success of any political activism, since we know that important elements in the Sadrist base have Marxist and leftist roots, at least.

For the Sadrists are no longer the ‘class enemies’ of the communists who have themselves left behind hackneyed, unreconstructed Marxism decades ago. While the communists are no longer the ‘enemies of God’ in the eyes of the Sadrists, where some of the enlightened elites of the movement have demonstrated their ability to undertake a positive and tolerant intellectual interaction even with respect to atheists.

This call, at first glance might be described as fanciful or utopian, however, the human experience, and the particularities of the Iraqi situation, all indicate that only creative political solutions (or what is called the modernist political trend) are able to recover societies, suspended in the mud of crises and collapse, back towards something marvellous. Does saving Iraq not deserve a brave and fundamental approach of this type? It for the bases and leaderships of the Communists and Sadrists, from the intellectual elites and influential social personalities, to themselves proceed with innovating the approaches of this political reform practice which is infused with hope. The initiative lies with the Sadrists to prove the seriousness and authenticity of the Sadrist political bloc in parliament through its program calling for the formation of a ministry of experts and academics, by nominating leftist and technocratic ministers rather than party officials. This would be a first step leading towards the formation of the grand Iraqi historical bloc, – secular-religious –, seeking to reform the deformed relationship between the society, the state, and authority, taking us towards the dream of establishing the Iraqi nation [al-uma al-araqiya].

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