In the 1970s, when Iran’s Fedayeen and Mojahedin1 groups were engaged in an urban guerrilla struggle against the former Shah’s dictatorial regime, a faction of the Iranian Student Association (ISA) in the United States called Ehyaa2 had managed to convince some in the US Left, in particular America’s Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), that a nonexistent group called the “Union of Iranian Communists”3 was intensely engaged in organizing workers, students, and intellectuals in Iran.
Thirty odd years later, I was reading a letter of the “Revolutionary Marxists of Iran” on the online magazine Venezuelaanalysis.com criticizing Hugo Chavez for his support of the Islamic Republic regime. While praising Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution, the letter implied that Chavez’s support for Ahmadinejad undermined the efforts of Iran’s supporters of the working class. Somehow, the carefully crafted letter, full of half truths and distortions, took me back to the days of the mythical “Union of Iranian Communists” and reminded me of the degree of efforts that Iran’s (upper) middle classes make in their attempts to win the support of the international community for their own class interests.
Our “revolutionary” Don Quixote here, for example, condemns President Hugo Chavez from the comfort of his flat in London, speaking for the unspecified “revolutionary Marxists in Iran,” and is too simple-minded to see that Venezuela’s relations with Iran go way beyond Chavez’ support for Ahmadinejad and include hundreds of actual projects that undermine the influence of US imperialism, none of which seems to matter anyway to our Iranian champion of “freedom and democracy.”
The unfortunate truth is that, in contrast to these “revolutionary” Marxists’ intimations and inferences, there really are no organized leftist or Marxist groups inside Iran rallying workers, students, or other sectors of the Iranian society. Contrary to such claims, I suggest that, since the 1953 CIA coup which toppled the democratically elected government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, there has been no successful effort on the part of the Iranian Left to engage in grassroots organizing (with some minor exceptions4), and that Iranian leftist intellectuals, by virtue of their class roots in my opinion, have no idea what grassroots organizing is and have little understanding of the interests, needs, or desires of the Iranian working masses.
This does not mean that there are no Marxists or left-leaning intellectuals inside Iran. Au contraire, in countries such as Iran, many students, artists, and intellectuals tend to gravitate towards left culture, as capitalist culture (if you can call it that) is obviously so devoid of any human values.
Many of our intellectuals, however, have either been greatly influenced by the West or have been educated in Europe or the United States and tend to be devoutly secular and generally have a great deal of contempt for the poorest of the poor who also happen to be the most uneducated and the most religious.5 Imagine their rage when these very same “rootless villagers” (“dehaati bi sar-o paa” and many other such derogatory names commonly used against the poor in Iran) are telling them how to dress and behave in public.
Of course, I am not by any means defending the Islamic Republic regime’s strict rules on dress code and public behavior. The fact is, however, that many of those hurt by these rules are the “Westernized” folks from the middle and upper classes as those from South Tehran and other poor areas had been observing such strict religious edicts since the days of the Shah.
Freedom and democracy for Iran is the main (if not the sole) slogan of these Don Quixotes. This is such a middle-class (or even upper-middle-class) slogan. Before anything else, the working people need jobs, living wages, affordable healthcare, and free education for their children. Of course, if you point out to our “leftists” that the Monarchists or the counterrevolutionary Cuban gusanos also operate under the same slogan, they respond: “Naturally, our understanding of freedom and democracy is much deeper than theirs”; or, “We really mean what we say, but they don’t.”
Social justice? Struggle against neo-liberalism? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Guantanamo? Visit their websites or read their journals or online articles. Hardly any mention of these issues. The “hard-line communists” usually include some general talk against capitalism, but most don’t even see these issues on their radar screen. Half of these “leftists” I have dealt with support privatization as a Western measure that brings about “economic growth.”
Interestingly, the ideas of privatization in Iran come, not from “uneducated” Mullahs but from Western-“educated” university professors and professionals, such as Dr. Sadeq Zibakalam of Tehran University and superrich capitalists, such as Hashemi Rafsanjani. In contrast, people such as Ahmadinejad, with their hard-line rhetoric against the United States and in favor of “distributing the wealth of the country among the poor and the needy,” have knowingly or unknowingly become an obstacle to such rapprochement between Iran and the international capitalist system and its institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. If you think Ahmadinejad has been so demonized by Western imperialist media, I should tell you he has been equally demonized by Iranian middle and upper classes. They make fun of his cheap clothes, his beard, his (what they call) handouts to the poor.
Animosity towards Liberation Movements
When your sole demands and slogans are “freedom and democracy” and of course, according to imperialist media propaganda, countries such as Cuba don’t have that, you can imagine what these people’s attitudes are towards Cuba or Venezuela. Add to that these countries’ support for the regime of the Islamic Republic. The Don Quixotes who have accomplished zero in their political lives, in terms of grassroots organizing, give themselves the right to extend all sorts of accusations of “revisionism,” “dictatorship,” and so on . . . against countries such as Cuba or Venezuela. In contrast, ask them about Chile or Brazil or South Korea where international finance institutions continue sucking the blood of the people. They will quickly respond with their support and admiration for their democracy. This reminds me of another country, Argentina, where the people suffered and struggled for so many years against the dictatorship. The generals were finally routed and the dictatorship replaced by some form of social democracy. It didn’t take the people long before they could see the shadow of a much bigger monster, the World Bank and the international capitalist institutions that brought them to the point of starvation and destitution.
What do these “leftists” think about Hamas or Hezbollah? Forget about them. In the first place, they are guilty by virtue of being religious. The fact that they are being assisted by the Iranian regime makes them doubly guilty.6 In my opinion, judging a movement for its religious ideology rather than its class character is nothing but outright racist.
The real truth is that this section of the Iranian Left is much more forgiving of US imperialism than the world’s liberation movements. If you ask them why, their typical answer is that the crimes of US imperialism are obvious (and therefore need no mentioning).
Iranian Presidential Elections of 2009
It would be interesting to note that, in the period leading up to the presidential elections, there were two groups that promoted boycott of the elections: the CIA-sponsored television stations beaming out of Los Angeles and large sections of the Iranian Left. Of those in the United States, the only person I am aware of that encouraged the people to participate in the elections was Dr. Morteza Mohit. His fear was that Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric might facilitate a US invasion of Iran during the dangerous Obama period, so Ahmadinejad should be voted out of office.
After the elections and during the protests, however, the “Left” outside the country, along with the Los Angeles TV stations, joined the protests of the voting opposition in demanding the annulment of the elections, and the “Left” continued their support even in the face of such racist slogans as “Death to Russia, Death to China” (and others condemning support for Palestine and Hezbollah) adopted by the protesting crowd in Iran.
Today, the whole world is aware of the rift between the so-called conservative faction within the Islamic Republic regime represented by President Ahmadinejad and Leader of the Revolution Ayatollah Khamenei on one hand and the so-called reformists represented by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Hashemi Rafsanjani (Iran’s richest capitalist) on the other hand, who, in my opinion support a speedier integration of Iran into the world capitalist system. Lately, however, observers of Iranian politics were witness to disagreements between the supposedly conservative Ahmadinejad on one hand and Ayatollah Khamenei and other members of the conservative faction on the other hand. Who would have predicted such contradictions? Certainly not the majority of the Iranian Left residing in Europe or the United States. These Don Quixotes are so far off base that they have a hard time distinguishing between the Islamic Republic regime and the Taliban, and I am not being humorous. Many times, I have seen and heard those who consider themselves leftist reduce their credibility to zero by comparing the Islamic Republic regime to Taliban. Would you honestly expect leftists of such an outlook to make any meticulous studies or accurate observations about their own country?
What Is to Be Done?
In my opinion, what constitutes a progressive or regressive movement in Iran is not its support of or opposition to the regime of the Islamic Republic. What constitutes a progressive or reactionary movement is its opposition to neo-liberalism or support for it, on issues such as privatization and the country’s relations with world capitalist institutions as well as US imperialism and other Western imperialist powers. I do believe there are forces within the Islamic Republic regime that oppose neo-liberalism from their own viewpoint.7 Based on this perspective, two-thirds of the Iranian Left (conveniently located outside the country) end up as regressive liberals (i.e. the kind favored by George Soros’ Open Society Institute).
What the Iranian Left needs to engage in is an honest self-criticism and analysis of why it was unable to take power in the period prior to and upon collapse of the Shah’s regime. Their simple and knee-jerk response has so far been “dictatorship,” as if the revolutionaries in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Argentina, Chile, etc. did not have to endure that and still continue organizing.
The religious forces, on the other hand, were able to conduct serious grassroots organizing and win power. In dealing with its own class roots, the Left needs to rediscover the meaning of grassroots organizing and the real interests, desires, and needs of the lower classes, not its own (upper) middle-class aspirations.
Short of that, it will continue to be marginalized, becoming a pariah among the progressives of the world and a pawn in the hands of such imperialist institutions as the National Endowment for Democracy.
1 The Marxist “Organization of Iranian People’s Fedayee Guerrillas” or Fedayeen (OIPFG) and the religious Organization of Mojahedin Khalq (MKO) promoted urban guerrilla tactics against the Shah’s dictatorship. They were mostly popular among university students and recruited from their ranks.
The biggest leftist group after the 1979 revolution, OIPFG split into two major factions (the so-called Majority and Minority) and, having no deep working-class roots, could not withstand the Islamic Republic’s suppression of the left groups and dissolved and disappeared. Supporters, mostly outside the country, continue carrying the name in a number of factions up to this day.
The religious MKO, which had a larger base and which was the only group (aside from the Monarchists) that seriously considered taking power, openly confronted the regime and was crushed. Members and supporters fled Iran and moved to Iraq, where they were regularly used by Saddam Hussein in his anti-Iran propaganda. Today, the MKO has turned into a mercenary force at the service of the United States and Israel (still based in Iraq).
2 “Sazeman Daneshjooyan Irani Baraye Ehyaa-e Jonbeshe Daneshjooyee” — Iranian Students Association for the Resurrection of the Student Movement. This was the Maoist faction of the Iranian students outside the country, staunchly anti-Cuban and against any form of urban guerrilla warfare.
3 “Etehadieh Komonist-haaye Iran” (Union of Iranian Communists) — perhaps a creation of the very same Iranian Students Association outside the country — for all practical purposes did not exist in Iran (if it existed at all outside the minds of the cousins or aunties of these same students). After the 1979 revolution, even any talk of such a group or claims of its existence vanished.
4 In the period leading up to the 1953 CIA coup that toppled the nationalist regime of Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, the Tudeh Party of Iran (Iran’s CP) was able to extensively organize workers in Iran’s major industrial cities. That level of mass organizing was never again seen in Iran with the exception of some regional efforts by Iranian nationalities. An example of that was the popular support for the Kurdish Democratic Party in Iran’s Kurdestan.
The biggest organizing activity on the part of the Left after the 1979 revolution was done by the Fedayeen group, which, as mentioned before, was mostly among university students and intellectuals. There was some attempt on the part of the Left to organize in factories which failed because of the Left’s inexperience and infighting as well as due to suppression by the regime.
Any other claims of organizing by “secret” or unnamed groups should be questioned and looked at closely.
5 I suggest seeing the animation movie Persepolis to get a gist of what values these individuals consider “leftist” and their general contempt of the “religious, uneducated poor.” In one scene, condemning the Islamic Republic regime, Ms. Marjane Satrapi laments something to the effect: “our neighborhood window-washer has been put in charge of the passport office.” I still have respect for Ms. Satrapi as she continues to claim her leftist outlook while other former “leftists” such as Abbas Milani have been selling themselves out to imperialist foundations such as the Hoover Institution or the National Endowment for Democracy.
6 An example of the “Iranian Left’s” kinder treatment of Hamas: during the Israeli invasion and genocide of Gaza, this article condemns both sides as many George Soros liberal groups did:
“هردو طرف را محکوم نکردن اشتباه است! ” [Not Condemning Both Sides Is Wrong!] (Akhbar-e Rooz, 5 January 2009).
Bizhan Pouya may be contacted at <email@example.com>.