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Leftist Leanings and the Enlivening of Revolutionary Memory

Middle East & North Africa

What role do the Sudanese Communist Party and Marxism more broadly play in Sudan?

Elena Vezzadini: The Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) has been referred to several times within the recent events in Sudan. This is both in terms of historical memory, for the key role that it played in the great revolutionary moment of 1964 (as we will see below), and in terms of what I define here as “cultures of the Left”: a wealth of cultural production—songs, poetry, iconography… —created by artists who were close to the SCP, and that today’s demonstrators are re-deploying.

The Sudanese Communist Party is considered one of the most important and best-organized, not only in Africa, but also in the Middle East. Paradoxically, it is also the party that operated legally for the briefest period. It was repeatedly declared illegal and banned by the state—to the extent that one could say that being underground was its norm for most of its 20th-century history.

The SCP has had highly progressive policies on several fronts, especially in terms of inclusiveness. In 1949, for instance, when one of the very first women doctors in Sudan, Khalda Zahir, was the first woman to join a political party, it was the SCP that she joined. In 1965, the first woman elected to Sudan’s parliament, Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, was an SCP candidate, too. At the time of debates in the 1950s regarding the design of the newly independent state, the Communist Party was the only organization to support the calls by South-Sudan politicians for greater autonomy for the South. From very early on, its leadership included figures from the South1.

At its peak at the outset of the 1970s, SCP membership was an estimated 50,000-80,000— even if these figures should be treated with caution. In 1958, however, two years after Sudan’s independence, the party had only 750 members. When it was founded in the 1940s (officially in 1946), it had only a few dozens.

Within the history of the Left in Sudan, it is important to distinguish the Communist Party from what may be termed more broadly the “forces of the Left”, or “cultures of the Left”. This distinction becomes clearer when the Communist Party and the unions are compared. The trade-union movement witnessed phenomenal growth between the end of the 1940s and the 1950s. In 1951 for instance, an estimated 70,000-120,000 workers were unionized, when the first law to legalize the creation of unions was passed only in 1948. The movement played a crucial role in the struggle against British colonization.

The legalization of unions and union law were obtained through a historic general strike in 1948, led by the rail sector from the industrial city of Atbara. On the one hand, the unions focused on workers’ rights, and did not take part in the country’s constitutional shaping alongside the other political parties. On the other hand, their language was highly-politically shaped by anti-imperialist and Marxist ideas. In the 1940s and 1950s, great union leaders such as Shafie Ahmad al-Shayk and Muhammad al-Sayyid Sallam joined the Communist Party—or were, at least, very heavily influenced by it.

Paradoxically, the thousands who took part in strikes and struggled against “capitalist exploitation” did not vote for the Communist Party. This was for two main reasons.

First, the so-called traditional parties (i.e. those tied to the country’s 19th-century religious and political history,) and primarily to the Unionist Party2 that won the first elections in 1953, began to adopt a radical register, in the wake of strikes and trade-union movements. In a certain sense, it could be said that the unions and the Communists radicalized the political scene of the early 1950s. Second, at its outset, the Communist Party was not perceived as necessarily close to unionized workers or to the rural or urban popular classes. At the time, it was made up of a small elite of the lettered and of highly-qualified professionals, lawyers and doctors, who were quite distant from the lives and concerns of ordinary workers.

Despite its limited electoral success, the Communist Party’s members kept working with union management, and sought to broaden their base by sending “agents” among the urban popular classes and the peasantry. One must remember here that their project was not only an electoral one, but aimed at a process of total social reconstruction, a redefinition of the hierarchies of production, and promoting political consciousness among the “people”. The use of the term “the people” addressed the majority of Sudanese, who had until then been excluded from the political field.

In the absence of electoral success, the Communist Party’s members worked hard to spread their social project. To that end, they multiplied initiatives designed to “elevate the masses”, through education in particular, but also through organizing debates about social and political rights for a mass public, through their many very well-organized branches.

In 1958, General Ibrahim Abboud mounted a military coup, after the two traditional parties, the NUP and the Umma Party3, had failed to resolve the many thorny questions inherited from the colonial period—above all, the question of the South, where the guerilla had been ongoing since 1955. It was in this context that the Communist Party began to gain traction.

First, it became popular through its uncompromising attitude towards the Abboud regime. Second, because the SCP was illegal during the colonial period, its members were experienced in techniques of underground struggle. Finally, this underground organization was crucial in organizing the first great Sudanese revolution of October 1964, in which an unprecedented wave of demonstrations and a general strike brought down the Abboud regime. The transitional government that led the country immediately after Abboud’s ouster included many Communists.

The traditional parties were, however, threatened by this wave of popularity. Together with Hassan al-Turabi’s4 Islamist party, they managed to have the CP banned, wielding the pretext of blasphemous statements by some of its members.

In the 1965 elections, then, Communist candidates could run only as independents. The party kept functioning underground, and it was officers close to the Communist Party who brought General Jaafar Nimeiri to power in 1969. Relations between the Communist and Nimeiri quickly deteriorated, however, especially after a coup attempt set up by Communist generals. Nimeiri’s reaction was very violent. He had dozens executed: not only the generals who had led the coup, but also CP leaders including the key leader ‘Abd al-Khaliq Mahjoub, and historical figures of the trade-union movement such as Al-Shafie Ahmad al-Shaykh. This episode marked the beginning of the party’s declining spiral. In 1985, the second civil revolution (termed an intifada) brought about the fall of the Nimeiri regime.

“The language of the Left provided a terminology, an ideological register on which to draw, and a certain kind of social imaginary to draw on.”

The Communist Party was a player in the 1985 intifadaand during the brief period of democracy that followed (1986-1989). The blow to the Party and 15 years of persecution were so violent, however, that it remained a minor player on the political stage. After the third military coup, by Omar Al-Bashir, it was banned once again. Its current leader, Muhammad Mukhtar Al-Khatib, and its previous Secretary-General, the old-guard Muhammad Ibrahim Nugud, who died in 2012, spent long periods either underground or in prison.

Have the Sudanese CP and its activities enabled the spread of a “culture of the Left” in Sudan?

Despite the blow that Nimeiri dealt the Communist Party, and the continuous persecution endured by its members under successive regimes, Communist ideology continued to be influential far beyond the circle of party members.

According to a popular saying that may be heard from diverse social strata in Khartoum and the diaspora, the Sudanese have no need to “become” Communist—since they are already “naturally” so. The saying does not necessarily indicate a political definition, but rather gestures at the widespread idea that Sudanese culture channels certain ideals otherwise associated with Marxism—in particular, ideas of the sharing of property, mutual assistance, equality, and the abolition of hierarches, be these only as regulating aspirations. Even as this collective imaginary represents the Sudanese as a kind of ante-litteramMarxists, in point of fact this type of vocabulary bears witness to a historical process.

Within this process, the language of the Left provided a terminology, an ideological register on which to draw, and a certain kind of social imaginary that spread through a variety of means, among which popular culture was the most important. By “popular culture”, I mean here not only the culture consumedby Sudanese—and especially by Sudanese with no or little education,i.e. the majority of the population—, but also as a tool for them, created with the aim of pulling them up from above, of educating them, and bringing them to consciousness of their situation.

“Certain figures who were often outside the world of politics asserted themselves as “heroes” and standard-bearers of the Left: singers, poets and writers.”

From the end of the Second World War, the unions were the first carriers of the idea that one had to “acculturate the masses”.

The richest testimonies as to how this project was brought about come to us from the city of Atbara, the beating heart of Sudanese trade-unionism—even if it is, of course, not the only example. An inhabitant of Atbara5 who grew up there in the 1950s and 1960s would describe to me with pride and tenderness the number of cultural projects in the city: night-schools, campaigns against female illiteracy, reading clubs, debates, classes open to all on history and global economy—all through Marxist “spectacles”, naturally. Women were as much the targets of these educational projects as men were. He described Atbara as a city that lived to the rhythm of the railway, whose collective timetable was governed by the industry. At the end of the workday, employees hastened to go on to their preferred classes. He insisted upon the fact that everyone felt the need to educate themselves, and that those who had reached a higher level of education had a duty to educate others.

This was quite apart from the publishing scene: before 1948 already, the workers produced a local newspaper on working life, one of the city’s many publishing activities. These projects were all strongly marked by Marxist pedagogy. They should not, however, be seen as imposed by the Communist Party. Quite the contrary: the initiative was often bottom-up, from workers and students. It is, however, undeniable that Communist Party “agents” played a key role in the transfer of organizing techniques and strategies for these cultural projects.

Another expression of the spread of Leftist culture was a certain type of popular music, here too in the double meaning of by and for all Sudanese. Certain figures who were often outside the world of politics asserted themselves as “heroes” and standard-bearers of the Left: singers, poets and writers who condemned political and economic injustice—and who often paid for it dearly.

Could you discuss some example of these popular-culture figures who became symbols of resistance to the Sudanese government over the last few decades?

Since I cannot provide an exhaustive list here, I would like to concentrate on three especially striking artists associated with the Left: the singer Mustafa Sid Ahmad, the singer Muhammad al-Wardi, and the poet and writer Mahjub Sharif. These are three men, not because women were not activists, but because music wasn’t really an option available to them in becoming politically active. The female voice was likened to “private parts”, and the position of women singers was quite marginal within Sudanese society.

Mustafa Sid Ahmad was born in 1953 to a peasant family a few miles from Hassahissa, on Gezira Island, the capital of the agricultural production of cotton. He attended a technical primary and elementary school. It was the sudden death of his elder brother, who was devoted to his studies and who became a singer and writer, that brought Mustafa to writing and to composition. He began singing in 1971. After a few years as a teacher, he entered the National School for Arts and Music in Khartoum. There, he explored his own musical style, and became increasingly close to a young generation of Leftist symbolist poets.

This was at the outset of the most repressive period of the Nimeiri regime, and this generation was searching for a means to express the disappointment, malaise and oppression of the time. He left Sudan in 1980, and lived between Cairo and Doha until his death in 1996, aged only 43.

In line with another great anticolonialist and nationalist musician, Khalil Farah, to whom he is often compared both for his musical innovations and for his activist stances, Mustafa Sid Ahmed was a tormented musician who sang of his love for his country and for the Sudanese.

The central subject of his work is the condition of the popular classes, crushed by dictatorships. Likely one of the best-known songs of his repertoire, “‘Amm ‘Abd al-Rahim”,  Uncle Abd al-Rahim6, is one example: it tells of the death of a peasant ruined by the expropriation of his lands, who leaves for work in the morning on his chariot pulled by a tired beast. He is absorbed by his thoughts about his family that he loves dearly, but whose needs he is unable to provide for: he thinks of his children’s overly worn clothes, and of his wife’s face as she seeks to console him about their misery. So lost is he in these preoccupations that he fails to hear the sound of the train that crushes him.

The song was and remains a symbol of the situation of oppression in which the popular and peasant classes live, and mentioning it was already a means of situating oneself within the political opposition.

From the beginning of mobilizations, walls of Khartoum has been covered up with paintings and graffitis (4/6). Here, a representation of Ayman Mao, a sudanese rapper and reggae singer known for his lyrics against Al-Bashir regime. ©Ali Jaffar

The work of another great musician, Muhammad Wardi (1932-2012), is better-known internationally—perhaps because his life and career were longer. Born in Wadi Halfa to a Nubian family7, he lost his parents at a young age. Educated as a schoolteacher, in 1953 he traveled to Khartoum to represent teachers from the Northern state. It was his encounter with the scene in the capital that led him to decide to become a professional singer. A wholly autodidact musician, he was musically pioneering on several fronts.

He sang in both Arabic and Nubian, bringing together Western and local instruments. If at the outset his songs were not of a political nature, the Abboud regime’s development into a dictatorship pushed him to join the then-banned Communist Party. He therefore began to be known as a singer of the Left—and to be regularly imprisoned.

When the Revolution broke out in 1963, he took part in it through singing a revolutionary poem, Uktuber al-akhdar, “Green October”8, one of the many musical compositions of the time that celebrated the revolution, part of a body of poems and songs sometimes called “Uktubariyyat” (“Octoberisms”). Subsequenrly, al-Wardi at first supported Nimeiri’s rise to power. He then quickly joined the opposition, and was arrested for two years. He also took part in the uprising of 1985, by composing the revolution’s hymn, Ya Sha‘aban Lahabat Thawritak, “O People, your revolution has been ignited”9, an injunction to the Sudanese to take their fate into their own hands. When Omar Al-Bashir came to power, Muhammad Wardi went into exile between Cairo and the United States. He eventually returned in 2002, when the regime began to open up partially to a certain opposition. Thanks to his huge celebrity, he was relatively tolerated until his death in 2012.

Mustafa Sid Ahmed and Muhammad Wardi are linked to a third great figure of the cultures of the Left, Mahjoub Sharif (1948-2014), a Sudanese writer and poet, several of whose poems they set to music. Mahjoub Sharif was born in a rural area of the Gezira, but he grew up in Omdurman in a relatively poor family of petty traders, who did not have the opportunity to pay for further schooling for him. He therefore opted to train as a primary-schoolteacher, and became one in Khartoum.

His poetry’s development was impelled by the Revolution of October 1964. Inspired like many other intellectuals by Leftist ideals, he joined the Communist Party and was active in the teachers’ union. He supported Nimeiri’s rise to power, but, like the other two figures discussed above, he swiftly became opposed to the regime. More so even than these other two, he became the victim of regime persecution. Accused of plotting against the government, he was sacked from his school and imprisoned from 1971 to 1983, then again between 1973 and 1974. In 1976 he was arrested during his honeymoon—for two years. He was arrested a fourth time in 1979. By 1996, he had been arrested ten times, for periods ranging from a few months to three years, in very harsh conditions that led to his health deteriorating.

This level of persecution was due to Mahjoub’s poetry. Not only did he keep spreading his ideas during the spells in which he remained free: he was also renowned for his compositions and performances during his spells in prison, and by the links that he was able to weave with fellow prisoners and the prison warders. Even while he was forbidden pencil and paper, he managed to acquire pens, and had the habit of writing everywhere—on his clothes especially. One of his most famed poems was smuggled out of the prison on a jallabiya (a traditional Sudanese garment) woven by one of the prisoners, who was a needleman.

His poems were written in colloquial Sudanese Arabic. Their language is simultaneously simple and direct but powerful, conceived of such as to be understood by the greatest audience possible. His repertory was highly varied, and included both nursery rhymes for children and poetry collections. His themes were not merely activist ones: they hewed close to daily life and to the everyday difficulties faced by the Sudanese: masons at work suffering beneath the beating sun; an overwhelmed mother’s attentiveness towards her child; friends having intimate conversations over tea. His stories displayed the frustrations of the poor; the agonies of an entire society taken hostage by violent regimes; and the power of love, sharing and mutual assistance as shields against alienation. It was this subversive simplicity that made his poetry so disturbing to the regime—and that made Mahjoub Sharif such a target for persecution.

How do this culture of resistance, and the representations inherited from the two great revolutions of 1964 and 1985, influence today’s protests?

It strikes me as important to emphasize the cultural and popular dimension of the memory of these two revolutions. This revolutionary memory is not new, and it was not suddenly rediscovered today, but it has remained alive in the collective imagination. This is both thanks to those who participated in it and who are still alive—and also through the abundant cultural production that marked these two moments (see the Uktubariyyat), and that remains very much present in popular culture. At the sit-ins today, they sing the famous songs against colonialism composed by such musicians as Khalil Farah (such as ‘Azza fi Hawk, “Azza I Love You”), or those written during the October 1964 Revolution by Muhammad Wardi or by Muhammad al-Amin, another musician of the revolution10. Iconic photos of past revolutions also circulated widely on social media, such as the women’s marches during the intifada of 1985.

What strikes me as important in this reusing of the past is not so much the transposition of situations or of protest techniques, but especially the transfer of a certain number of symbols that were already used during the previous revolutions, and that have an emotional and federating character. These are emblems that are metaphors of struggles against oppressive regimes and of the capacity of Sudanese to unite against injustices, as well as of certain positive values that are imagined as being “traditional” qualities of the “Sudanese people” (to follow the local terminology).

The second component here is the historical imaginary. The narratives of the revolutions of the past, the stories about constant mutual assistance among protestors, the massive mobilization surrounding them, the cooperation with the police and the army, and so on. These are narratives that are in part idealized, but that were also described by outside observers of the time. They provide a revolutionary imaginary that enables the idea of defeating an unscrupulous repressive power. What has already occurred once can happen once again.

A train carrying demonstrators arrives from Atbara to Khartoum and is welcomed by the cries of jubilation of fellow demonstrators. ©Elsadig Mohamed.

Like all protest movements, the revolutions of 1964 and 1985 were marked by a highly symbolic choreography of protest. Everything was endowed with significance: the ways in which one dressed, the food distributed to the protesters, the way in which order was maintained during rallies—or even the way in which music was used during demonstrations.

The photos of the demonstrations of 1964 and 1985, for instance, show groups of women dressed in white tobes, the usual dress for women in certain kinds of professions. Like them, today, certain activists dress in white to draw the link with this feminine activist past. The train that came in from Atbara on 23 April 2019 was a reference to the train that came in from Kassala to Khartoum in October 1964. At the time, the message was that all Sudanese needed to be united in the struggle against Abboud, and so the provinces sought to help out the activists who were seeking to enter the Presidential Palace.

“The deep anti-authoritarian, egalitarian and progressive message contained within revolutionary memories identified with cultures of the Left constitutes part of the inheritance of imaginaries of the possible and of the symbols of struggle utilized by today’s activists.”

Today, too, the Sudanese converge from the provinces towards the capital using all means of transport (minibus, cars) to take part in the struggle. However, the fact of bringing an entire train packed with passengers, in an explicit reference to the October revolution, was such a powerful act that it provoked a wave of emotion. Despite the weakening of the rail sector, this train, a symbol of the trade-union past and of resistance to all governments from colonial times to the present, demonstrated the power of the past in the present.

It is also important to emphasize here that these historical imaginaries do not belong to the Left only, and have not been produced exclusively by the Left—notwithstanding the leading role of Leftist artists within the cultural sphere. As early as 1964, Hassan al-Turabi’s Islamic movement played an important role in the revolutionary events. This was more obvious yet in 1985, when the Left was weaker. A second component here is that, during revolutionary moments, “cultures of the Left” spoke to all social classes and ideological stances, and participated in bringing them to work together.

This federating impact dissolves in post-revolutionary moments. Historically, once the enemy has been defeated and freedom has been recovered, Sudanese social blocs have disaggregated once again, in spite of calls for unity.

What is nonetheless undeniable is the deep anti-authoritarian, egalitarian and progressive message contained within revolutionary memories identified with cultures of the Left. This constitutes part of the inheritance of imaginaries of the possible—and of the symbols of struggle utilized by today’s activists.


  1. The North-South civil war began in 1955, a year before independence, when politicians from the South had their demand for the creation of a confederal system refused, while those in the North maintained that the South should be annexed and Arabized. ↩︎
  2. The National Union Party was the party linked to the Khatmiyya Sufi Brotherhood, that at the time was the country’s most important. During the 19thcentury, this became predominant through Ottoman-Egyptian domination. ↩︎
  3. At the time, this was linked to ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, the descendant of the Sudanese Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad, the founder of the Mahdist state in the 19thcentury (1885-1898). ↩︎
  4. At the time this was called the National Charter Front, and was later renamed the National Islamic Front. ↩︎
  5. Thiswas the late Dr. Anwar ‘Abd al-Majid Osman (1952-2017). After growing up in Atbara, he continued his studies abroad as an archaeologist and archaeobotanist. He became the director of Khartoum University’s Archeology Department, but was sacked for his political opinions. We shared many years of tea-and-discussion at Bergen University’s Center for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. This article is dedicated to his memory. ↩︎
  6. https://www.sm3na.com/audio/9f8259f0f167or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJ-LKQkNGhc ↩︎
  7. Nubia is a region in the North of Sudan, characterized by a distinctive group of languages. ↩︎
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9F1v9lX0UU ↩︎
  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RJ5viiAO9A ↩︎
  10. For a fine presentation and subtitles, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDP0QGb0VfE&t=176s ↩︎