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translation of 1935 speech by al-Hilw

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  • thekoba@aztec.asu.edu
    I have translated this speech given by Yusuf Khattar al-Hilw in 1935 at the Comintern Congress in Moscow representing the Communist Party of Syria. As Arabic
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 10, 2003
      I have translated this speech given by Yusuf Khattar al-Hilw in 1935
      at the Comintern Congress in Moscow representing the Communist Party of
      Syria. As Arabic was not one of the languages used at the Congress,
      the speech was given in French. A Russian translation also exists.
      Until now there has been no known English translation of this speech.
      Al-Hilw was Lebanese, but at the time Lebanon was part of Syria and
      under French colonial rule. This speech is a fascinating, informative
      and moving account of the struggles of the Communist Party of Syria in
      the early to mid 1930s against French colonialism, Zionism, Dashakism,
      national-reformism, and negative tendencies within their own party.

      The speeches at the Congress were limited to twenty minutes, and there
      was much hand-editing of the typed French-language speech. There was
      also a passage that appeared in the Russian translation but not in the
      French translation. The crossed-out passages and the Russian passage
      are included in this translation in square brackets []. French was not
      al-Hilw's native language, and so his grammar was not always perfect,
      and his expressions were sometimes a bit awkward. I have tried to
      preserve the speech in translation as close to the original meaning as

      --Kevin Walsh


      28 July 1935

      Comrades! The situation in Syria imposes heavy tasks and a great
      responsibility on our party. Syria, because of its location between
      Europe and Asia and on the Mediterranean, is a strategic centre of
      primordial importance for the entire system of French imperialism.
      [It is in the Near East especially as it is the supplier of its part
      of the petroleum of Mosul, its naval and air base and a centre of
      concentration of its military forces whose strength or weakness can in
      a large measure decide defeat or victory in the Mediterranean and thus
      the good or poor functioning of its colonial apparatus. Our country
      is also the closest French military base to our socialist country--the
      Soviet Union.]

      Otherwise Syria is, as the Arabs say, the heart of the Arab world.
      [The political and economic development of this country, in general,
      and the development of the national liberation movement in particular,
      are at the centre of attention of all the Arab countries.] Syria is,
      in the end, the only Arab country in which the construction of a
      communist party has gone successfully.

      All these considerations give an importance on the pan-Arab ladder to
      the revolutionary movement in Syria and to the activity of the Communist
      Party [especially for the further development of the communist movement
      in this country and a great meaning in case of international armed

      French imperialism, understanding the importance of Syria, has unleashed
      a savage terror to destroy the revolutionary movement in the country
      and has directed its most cruel blows against the working class and its
      vanguard, the Communist Party, which was reduced to a deep state of

      After the armed insurrection of 1925 to 1927 in which for two years the
      Arab peasants, workers and petit-bourgeois elements showed how they are
      capable of fighting French imperialism, these French imperialists carved
      up the country, in a new spirit giving different forms to its oppressive
      apparatus for each region. In the regions where feudal exploitation
      dominated, where there is not yet industrial development, where the
      influence of national-reformism is very weak, they installed direct and
      open dictatorship of the French military governors (Djbel-druze,
      Alouites). In the other regions where industry is more or less
      developed, where there is a growing proletariat, where the influence of
      national-reformism is dominant, imperialism tried, without much success,
      to hide behind appearances of republican parlimentarianism. So there
      are at present in the little Syria, five governments, including two
      republics with "constitutions, parliments and ministers", two
      independent states, and one autonomous province. This imperialist
      policy strained to use the whole situation to, on the one hand, divide
      the forces of the national struggle of the Arab masses, and on the
      other to strengthen its domination by hiding behind a treaty, like the
      Anglo-Iraqi treaty, of alliance with the national-reformist bourgeoisie.
      But this policy has not thus far given imperialism the satisfying
      results for which it has waited. The new projects of which the French
      imperialist press used to speak of the intent to give Syria a federal
      government have only emphasized these deeds.

      What the imperialist policy has come to achieve is to strengthen its
      military and strategic base and to exploit and starve the large mass
      of workers of the country. French imperialism directly monopolizes all
      the tariffs and indirect taxes on the materials of mass consumption
      which must, so-called, have served to maintain the military forces to
      compensate for the deficits of the foreign monopolists. At the same
      time it imposes ruinous taxes on the labouring masses to maintain the
      bureaucracy and police apparatus of the five governments of Syria.

      The policy of "tariff protection" has deprived Syria of its contracts,
      has destroyed the artisans by foreign competition, has sharpened the
      struggle among the different imperialists over the Syrian contracts
      that has done nothing but deepen the economic and agrarian crisis. The
      agrarian policy of French imperialism has ruined the large mass of
      peasants and bedoins, has accelerated the loss of the land of the
      poorest peasants, has increased the enslavement of the poor peasants and
      share-croppers and, finally, has worsened the condition of the settled
      strata of prosperous peasants. This is especially true in the villages,
      where the imperialist dictatorship is most hideous. The peasant is
      ruined by the taxes on the crops, the land, the livestock and on his
      person, by the rents and the feudal despotism and suddenly also by the
      inhuman oppression and humiliation by French officers, police and
      detachments of Circassian and Armenian volunteers.

      The whole burden of the imperialist policy in Syria was increased
      especially in the last period, and all signs are that it will continue
      to worsen. The development of the national liberation movement pushes
      imperialism to increase all possible measures of oppression and terror.
      [Apart from savage laws against freedom of the press, of speech, to
      assemble, to associate, and to strike, apart from the law of prevention
      of crimes which punishes with up to two years in prison even making a
      gesture that could provoke "citizens", apart from all of that,
      imperialism imposes new especially repressive laws against the
      proletariat. One law which would permit the lawful dissolution of
      trade-unions which were indissoluble even under Ottoman law is being
      passed in Syria.] Not even satisfied with its attempts to turn national
      minorities, particularly Armenians, against the Arab masses, French
      imperialism began to open the doors of Syria to Zionist immigration
      which by its force in conjunction with world Jewish capital, must play a
      stronger role in the oppression of the Arab national liberation

      Otherwise, the preparations for war, the offensive and terror against
      the labouring population, are directly connected with the contradictions
      which reward the British, French, Italian, Japanese and German
      imperialists struggling to extend their influence over the Arab
      countries. Italian fascist propaganda has greatly increased in recent
      times. Each year Mussolini's agents organise free trips to Italy for
      young Arabs. The station Radio Bari broadcasts Arabic-language
      programmes three times a week about "Italian-Arab friendship" and
      "fascist well-being in Italy." It's the same withe German fascism.
      Hitler has purchased the largest bourgeois newspapers in Syria which
      everyday are full of photographs and articles about Hitlerism, which
      they represent as the "saviour of the German people." Nazi agents try
      to use the national hatred the Arab people have for French imperialism
      to obtain their fascist goals. As for Japan, whose dumping bankrupted
      the artisans, it has recently advanced two projects to send, at their
      expense, Arab intellectuals to complete higher education at the
      universities of Tokyo.

      [After the insurrection of 1925-1927, the promise of the French
      imperialists to give to its mandate a new spirit of liberalism has
      pushed not only the bourgeois and landlords and liberals but even some
      strata of bourgeois intellectuals to follow them. So the party of the
      national-reformist bourgeoisie, Koulta-Watane, after the insurrection
      concentrated their efforts on the demand for a "democratic-
      constitutional" regime which would assure them a more or less large
      share of power and a certain freedom of action for national capital.
      This party tries to turn the anti-imperialist movement into the struggle
      for parlimentarianism and for the conclusion of a Franco-Syrian treaty.]

      But nevertheless no force has been able to oppose the rapid
      radicalization of the labouring masses of the country. [In Syria we're
      participating in a popular revolutionary movement which includes larger
      and larger strata of the Arab masses and which often expressed itself by
      direct and violent revolutionary actions against the forces of
      imperialism.] If the national-reformist bourgeoisie took from the
      insurrection of 1925-1927 the opportunistic and defeatist lesson of the
      impossibility of fighting French imperialism and gaining national
      independence by force of arms and by "diplomatic" methods, nonetheless
      the Arab workers have proved these seven years that they deserve the
      heroic heritage and traditions of this revolution, and they are moving
      in the same direction. During the large and bloody demonstrations in
      the course of the parlimentary elections of 1933, some Arab workers
      heroically resisted even against the machineguns of French imperialism,
      which had been fired freely upon the unarmed masses, and established a
      state of siege for weeks. [During the demonstrations of tens of
      thousands in Damascus against the Franco-Syrian treaty that imperialism
      wanted to impose upon Syria in 1933 and also during the demonstrations
      against Zionism in the same year, the masses had attacked the police
      stations and had freed the imprisoned demonstrators after having
      sacrificed many dead and wounded. In these actions our communist
      orators, having formed a united front with the revolutionary
      nationalists, had managed to thwart police attempts to transform the
      anti-imperialist movement into a pogrom against the Jewish quarter.]
      During the general strike that broke out in January 1935 in Zahle, a
      major agricultural centre, against the taxes and the despotism of the
      administrative authorities, more than 15,000 demonstrators were engaged
      in street battles for five days and disarmed the police and held the
      town and the town governor's residence for an entire day. Our comrades
      were in the front lines of battle, they led the street demonstrations
      with an exemplary courage, and among the thirty arrested were seventeen
      communists. If one adds to this the struggle by the peasants against
      the taxes and their violent resistance, sometimes in large groups,
      against police and judicial confiscations, the actions of the petit-
      bourgeoisie and their frequent clashes with the police, some aggressions
      by groups of peasants supported by entire villages against the cars of
      tourists and French civil servants, all this testified to the growth of
      an anti-imperialist movement of the Arab masses. The revolutionary
      nationalist movement in Syria grows rapidly and can lead decisive
      battles and unexpected explosions against French imperialism, which we
      can incite to prepare ourselves for the combat that draws near. [One
      quite common characteristic of recent anti-imperialist activity is the
      development of illegal revolutionary groups formed by intellectuals and
      petit-bourgeois elements having terrorist or putschist goals, found in
      almost every city and many villages.]

      The most important stage in this popular uprising is the development of
      activity of the Arab proletariat.

      The strikes and the workers' actions which five years before were rare
      and passed unnoticed have actually come by their duration, their mass
      political character, and their violence, to the centre of the political
      life of the country. The strikes of Syrian workers held for trade-
      union freedom, against the imperialist customs policy, against terror,
      against monopoly, their participation for the first time in the Near
      East in parlimentary elections in 1934, with their special platform of
      national liberation and their proletarian candidates who obtained a good
      number of votes, all this shows that the Syrian proletariat has entered
      into the practical and direct struggle to assure its leadership of the
      national liberation struggle. The actions of the advanced elements of
      the Syrian proletariat haven't only awakened the most backward strata
      of workers and led them into the arena of economic and political
      struggle, but these actions were often the trigger of very active
      popular movements. Several strikes by these thousands of taxi drivers
      against the tariff policy and the privileges of foreign monopolists
      leading the large masses of shopkeepers and small businessmen to the
      struggle against the taxes placed entire regions of the country in a
      state of uprising and almost in a state of siege.

      We see in all of this that comes to be said, that the imperialist
      domination of Syria, contributed largely to prepare the possibilities
      and conditions necessary for the revolutionary reversal of this
      domination. The objective conditions for the first stage of the Syrian
      revolution, the stage of a general revolutionary national uprising of
      the great masses against imperialism are in fevered preparation. At
      the same time the subjective condition essential for the victory of
      this pressure also prepares itself by the rapid consolidation of the
      vanguard of the proletariat, our communist party.

      Our party, formed shortly before the Sixth Congress of the Comintern,
      was obliged until 1930 to struggle against opportunism and the club
      spirit which not only didn't want to go with the masses, but didn't
      even want to show itself to the masses. This period before the march
      toward the masses began, the leadership of the party was dominated by
      elements coming from an enemy camp by elements coming from an enemy
      camp, from the camp of counterrevolutionary Zionism. These elements,
      not satisfied with having prevented the development of a fraternal
      party in Palestine, also infiltrated in Egypt and Syria to also prevent
      the development of a communist movement. Gangrenous with Zionist
      ideology and racism, these elements introduced into our party such a
      line that prevented its transformation into a party of the masses, into
      a party having a base in the masses of the Arab proletariat. Their
      lack of confidence in the Arab masses, in the revolutionary
      possibilities of the Arab national liberation movement, prevented them
      from seeing the bourgeois-democratic tasks of the Syrian revolution
      and oriented them toward the Armenian national minority. They denied,
      under cover of phony internationalism, the special role of this minority
      in the conditions of Syria in which this minority politically opposed
      the Arab masses, that imperialism with the help of the Armenian
      bourgeoisie and by some minor privileges tried to use against the
      national liberation movement of the Arab masses. These semi-Zionist
      elements, supported by their Armenian comrades, fell under a strong
      Dashnak chauvinist influence and sabotaged the Arabisation of the party.
      They sabotaged the transformation of the party into a mass party, which
      by its national and social composition, by its righteous policy on the
      national liberation movement and the workers' movement would be capable
      of winning the confidence of the Arab workers and of assuming a
      proletarian leadership in the national revolutionary struggle.

      It was only in 1933, in its fourth enlarged plenum, in which our party
      has been able to take a correct line, putting as the basis of its
      policy the line of Arabisation. It has put forward this line in the
      national movement, taken a correct line toward the national minorities
      whose labouring masses have direct interests in the national and
      agrarian Arab revolution. It has liquidated anti-party groups and
      driven Zionist and Dashnak elements from the leadership. Since then
      the party has obtained some serious successes. It has won some
      important positions in the working class and has established for itself
      a solid base in the heart of the Arab proletariat. It has won the
      confidence of the large Arab masses who begin to see in the communists
      the most courageous, the most sincere, and the most consistent in the
      grand cause of all the Arab people, the cause of complete national
      independence, and the destruction of the hideous imperialist bondage.

      It's especially in the trade-union movement, in the strike struggle of
      the working class, that our party has scored some serious gains. Having
      placed as the basis of our activity the entry into the daily struggle of
      the workers, we have been able to show them by their own experience that
      our party is the true fighter for even their least demands. In this
      manner we have been able in large measure to take into our hands the
      push towards unionizing the working class and helping it to find some
      forms of organisation and methods of struggle that are effective in
      the conditions of increased imperialist terror. Only during the years
      1933 and 1934, in the 45 strikes which involved 50,000 strikers, we were
      able to entirely lead the 15 most important strikes, while participating
      in all the others through our orators, our militants and our trade-union
      groups. In helping the strikers (typographers, textile workers,
      cobblers, etc.), in working out their platform, in the organisation of
      illegal or semi-legal meetings, in the formation and leadership of
      strike picket lines, we have won a great confidence among the masses
      as organisers and leaders of their struggles. In 1933 we organised and
      led the typographers' strike for trade-union rights, which had a large
      echo in all the Arab countries and which not only increased the
      authority of the party, but also raised the morale of the whole Arab
      working class. For ten days the country was deprived of its largest
      daily newspapers, and in this way all public attention was concentrated
      on the strike. The destruction of the printing office of the newspaper
      <L'Orient> by the strikers, a newspaper which wanted to break the strike
      and which was, because of this, unable to operate for 15 days, set a
      shining example of the revolutionary manner in which the advanced
      proletariat defends its actions against strike-breakers. The sympathy
      strikes which broke out among the typographers of several places, the
      refusal of newspaper hawkers to distribute newspapers of companies that
      were able to operate because of police protection, the sending by the
      tobacco workers of cigarettes to the strikers, the telegrams of
      solidarity from several villages, all this showed popular support
      which had gathered around this strike led by our party.

      During the last strike of the 10,000 taxi drivers in April 1935, which
      lasted 13 days and took on such a violent character that the country was
      almost in a state of siege and in which the drivers burned and destroyed
      tens of cabs belonging to strikebreakers, we participated very actively
      in the action which unfolded nearly under our influence. In the course
      of the struggle against the scabs, we had one death, a communist taxi
      driver, to whose funeral came drivers from distant places, on foot so
      as not to violate the strike. The funeral turned into a major
      demonstration and clashes with the police. Despite the betrayal by the
      strike committee, formed mostly by garage owners and reformist elements,
      which wanted to end the strike on the eleventh day, the strike continued
      undiminished for two more days under our influence and didn't end until
      after the reopening of the taxi drivers' trade-union, closed by the
      authorities during the strike, and the acceptance of a major part of
      their demands.

      During all our actions, we worked especially to strengthen our organised
      base in the working class. Our party created new cells in enterprises
      and trades. It created new trade-unions there, where they hadn't
      existed, such as those of the more or less large oppositions in the
      national-reformist trade-unions, and organised some illegal or semi-
      legal trade-union groups in several professions no longer having
      trade-unions and which worked for the creation of their corresponding
      trade-unions. In 1934, we held a trade-union conference in Damascus,
      in which the representatives of 14 professions participated, following
      a larger one in Beirut. As a result of the work of these two
      conferences, a manifesto containing the platform of the general demands
      of the working class was published and a trade-union council was elected
      to lead the trade-union work in all of Syria.

      In 1933 we were established in two or three villages and in others
      very weakly. During this period, we succeeded in creating organisations
      in more than 25 villages, some connections and some groups of
      sympathisers in tens of villages. We had started to enter the life of
      the peasantry and to organise its resistance to imperialist pillage
      and oppression. In 1934, through a lot of agitation, we organised a
      delegation consisting of representatives of 14 villages, elected in
      meetings of 15 to 60 peasants. This delegation presented the demands
      of the region to the authorities, of which the most important were:
      nullification of the tax on land and inheritance, weekly payments to
      destitute peasants, suspension of debts for four years. If our comrades
      leading the regional organisations hadn't committed the sectarian error
      of shunning the strata of more or less wealthy peasants who were ready
      for action this campaign could have involved tens of villages.

      In the anti-imperialist popular movement, our party has obtained some
      success. It participated in all the demonstrations and actions,
      including those led and launched by the national-reformists, and it
      greatly influenced the direction of these actions by the intervention
      of its militants and orators. In July 1934, on the occasion of the
      anniversary of the armed struggle against the French occupation, we
      organised a successful action on the battelfields of 1920 and debated
      the heroic traditions of the fighting with the national-reformsits.

      We succeeded in organising a party press and in publishing a central
      organ whose following increased every day and had created a legal
      theoretical organ which succeeded in attracting a growing number of
      revolutionary intellectuals in all the Arab countries.

      Our party participated in international actions. Dimitrov and Thaelman
      became very popular among the Arab masses. We engaged in much activity
      in the struggle against imperialist war and for the defense of the
      Soviet Union. There was almost no campaign led by the party that
      wasn't conducted by these tactics. On the occasion of the entry of
      the Soviet Union into the League of Nations, the party explained by
      proclamations and brochures the proletarian policy of our Soviet
      government and unmasked the calumnies of the bourgeois press and of
      renegades of the communist movement in the Arab countries who cried
      "Treason!" by the USSR to the principles of the Third International.

      The most important progress obtained by our resident party is that in
      this last period it has placed as the basis of all its activity and
      especially in the anti-imperialist struggle the tactic of the united
      front. It managed to concentrate the attention of all its members, to
      orient the work of the whole organisation towards study of the basis
      of forms and methods of application of this tactic and its application
      in the practice of their daily work. It has already made some small
      practical steps in that domain. It participated in the popular anti-
      imperialist actions in alliance with the national-revolutionary elements
      and groups. In different campaigns it was able to organise some popular
      committees: the committee of the struggle against Zionism, against the
      war and for the defense of Abyssinia {Ethiopia, --K.W.}, for the
      defense of the rights of the peasants. In connection with the
      imperialist project to establish a tobacco monopoly, and the popular
      anger which it provoked, the central committee gave the directive to
      work on the basis of the united front, even with the Arab manufacturers
      who were unhappy with the monopoly, on condition that they meet some of
      the tobacco workers' demands. In the work among the masses of the
      Armenian national minority where after Arabisation, our influence
      rapidly augmented the application of the tactic of the united front,
      also registered some success. Our comrades linked themselves with the
      Hintshak (Armenian Social Democratic Party) and had organised with them
      a committee against the fascist Dashnak Party of the Armenian
      bourgeoisie, which party was active and collaborating with the
      imperialist police.

      All this shows that we have already taken a great step forward by the
      complete abandonment of the sectarianism of the past when similar
      attempts at common action were considered to be pure opportunism and
      Arab nationalism. In this period the party put forward its positions
      without concerning itself whether or not the masses supported them.
      But occasionally it tried to impose its positions on the masses. In
      1934, the situation was very favourable for convening a popular congress
      for national liberation. Instead of basing this action on the position
      that the large masses against submitted to the national-reformist
      influence, we decided that it was essential to convene a congress where
      all of our platform and especially the agrarian party would be accepted
      without taking into consideration the general character of the mass of
      the congress. So we succeeded in gathering up in the congress a small
      number of workers and intellectuals, most of whom were not sympathetic.

      In preparing the typographers' strike in 1933, we tried to send a list
      of 15 demands, whereas there were only three demands which interested
      the workers: freedom for their dissolved trade-union, eight hours of
      work, and regular payment of salaries. It's true that we succeeded in
      submitting our list to a vote in the strike meetings, but in practice,
      it was only on the basis of the three demands that the workers struggled
      for ten days. In working in the national-reformist trade-unions, we
      tried to create only red oppositions which had to have as their primary
      condition for existence, the struggle to change the national-reformist
      leadership or to attack the bosses and the contractors if it concerned
      mixed trade-unions. In the work for the creation of new trade-unions,
      we tried to ensure that from the start they be purely class unions and
      even that the entire leadership be in the hands of our partisans. In
      1933, we tried to organise a union of the Beirut longshoremen. The
      workers wanted to put a contractor whom they highly esteemed at the head
      of the organising committee. In mobilising our partisans against these
      attempts, we provoked a sharp split, and as a result, the failure of the
      organisation attempt. This in comparison with a similar situation which
      was our last success has a very great importance.

      Presently our task is to push and enlarge our successes to practically
      capture the large masses again under the influence of conciliators or
      reactionaries to pass rapidly to the creation of a block of the
      proletariat with the revolutionary bourgeoisie, this central task which
      has come in front of us colonial communists, as Comrade Stalin has said
      for six years in his speech programme at the communist University of
      the East.

      [Our party, as compared with 1929, after its Arabisation, has risen by
      600%, making 80% of its members Arabs, of whom 60% are workers and 25%
      peasants.] {This is the passage that appeared only in the Russian
      translation. It was translated into English by Muhammed abu Nasr.

      We already have a cadre of tried militants and of professional
      revolutionaries, armed with the revolutionary theory of Marx, Engles,
      Lenin and Stalin who have definitively given to the cause of the
      revolution and who will be capable of consolidating our progress, and
      taking it as a solid base for greater success, for the true Bolshevik
      success. This elite of our cadre raises the flag of communism not only
      in the actions and the street battles but also in the tribunals and in
      the imperialist prisons. Our 35 imprisoned comrades are actually leading
      an heroic struggle against the horrors of the imperialist gaols and
      mobilising in the struggle of the mass of the prisoners. In the
      prison in Damascus, our comrades have organised a hunger-strike against
      the tyranny and mistreatment by the French director of the prison, in
      which they have won over some of the prisoners of the uprising of 1925
      and all the 200 prisoners of common right. For three days the prison
      was entirely in revolt. The placing of our comrades in solitary
      confinement didn't stop the action of the prisoners, who have made
      the first condition for the end of their strike the return of their
      comrades to the general population, and that all their demands be met.
      In effect under the leadership of the communists, the prisoners have
      obtained their demands.

      With a correct line and under the leadership of our International, this
      cadre will be capable of satisfying the needs of the revolutionary
      masses and of accomplishing the tasks devolving upon them by the
      situation of the country, to mobilise all the forces capable of fighting
      the main enemy, the hideous enemy of the Syrian people, French

      We, the communists, are the most consistent fighters in Syria, fighters
      to the very end against this enemy. We're the most devoted fighters
      for the independence of our country, for the liberation of our people
      from oppression, from darkness, and from poverty. To fight this enemy,
      to end the domination of French imperialism, we're ready to unite our
      efforts with all those who want a free and independent Syria.

      We have a great confidence in our forces and in the guidance of our
      International. It's under its leadership and by its effective aid that
      we have obtained our past successes, and it's by its effective aid and
      under its leadership that we're going toward the decisive victory [of
      the proletariat.] We hope that by this stubborn and Bolshevik struggle,
      we will always hold high the flag of our glorious Communist
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