The Excess of the Left in Iran

Maziar BehroozRebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran.  I.B. Tauris, 2000.

Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran
The role of the left in the Iranian Revolution is complicated, what Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Žižek would call the ‘vanishing mediator’ of the event.  The fact that at their peak Iranian Marxists commanded the loyalty of millions, and their interventions proved a minor but necessary key to the possibility of a mass uprising, was erased by Ayatollah Khomeini’s revisionist history of the 1979 revolution, which dubbed it a solely Islamic uprising.  The question of how this revision happened is what drives Maziar Behrooz’s investigation into the misfortunes of the Iranian left in the 20th century.

It’s not a happy story.  Up until the formation of the guerrilla movements of the Fidayeen and Mujahideen in the 1970s, the central leftist organisation, the Tudeh Party, operating from outside the country, had renounced direct revolutionary activity and was tainted by its failure to oppose the CIA sponsored coup against the democratically-elected nationalist leader Dr Mossadeg in 1953.  The Tudeh Party, owing a slavish allegiance to Joseph Stalin, initially opposed Mossadeg’s project of nationalising Iran’s oil companies, thanks to a bizarre interpretation of what the Soviets’ wishes would be about the balance of power between British and American imperialism.  By the time they eventually realised an imperialist coup was underway and an alliance with the nationalist bourgeoisie was essential, they failed to act decisively, and thus the Pahlavi monarchy was imposed upon the country, until its fall in 1979.

The memory of this decisive failure has framed the trajectory of the left in Iran.  Deprived of credibility amongst the urban working class and despite fanciful ideas by the Maoists (ROTPI) of rallying the peasantry to encircle the cities, the left operated as a free-floating intellectual vanguard.  Beneath debates over slogans lay deep schisms in strategy and ideology.  The respective slogans of the two major theorists of the Fidayeen, for example — Ahmadzadeh’s suggestion being ‘Down with imperialism and its running dogs’ and Janzani’s ‘Down with the Shah’s dictatorship and his imperialist protectors’ (p55) — revealed a fundamental ambiguity about who made up the party’s base, and the nature of its enemy.  Was the entire global capitalist matrix playing the fiddle of Iran’s oppression (Ahmadzadeh) or was the Shah an autonomous agent only propped up by his American backers (Janzani)?  The distinction was never obvious, and as its leaders were assassinated and killed in action the Fidayeen swung precipitously from one position to another on countless related issues in the 1970s.

And they were not alone.  Take the [Marxist] Mujahideen, who started as an Islamic-Marxist group but then suddenly converted to a straightforward Marxist guerrilla organisation in 1975.  They forced the re-education of their members to correct their faulty belief that Islam could be combined with Marx, even after they had repeatedly approached Ayatollah Khomeini with their eclectic fusion ideology.  Internationally, the student groups in the UK and United States coalesced around a Trotskyist ideology, but they were completely separated from the working classes in Iran, and interpreted Trotsky as little more than the intellectual vehicle for a critique of the Shah’s human rights record.  The Tudeh Party languished in a rut of reverence for Stalinism and so-called ‘scientific socialism’, which declared, citing Lenin, that the objective conditions did not exist for revolution in Iran.  They repeatedly denounced the rival leftist factions and made overtures to the Shah’s government to become a ‘responsible’ party of opposition.

What increasingly becomes clear in this history is that it was not an allegiance to the ‘barren ideology’ of Stalinism which defined the Iranian left from the 1960s onwards but rather an excess of ideas, factions and international trend-following, a tendency that only quickened pre and post 1979.  As Behrooz describes it:

While prior to the revolution there had been perhaps a dozen such groups, after it their numbers grew to perhaps over 80, and this number increased as Marxist groups began to fragment into smaller units.  (p 105)

Doesn’t the moral of this story read counter to Behrooz’s conclusion?  Take Behrooz’s description of the debate on this very matter within the upper echelons of the Tudeh Party:

The dispute between the two centred on the problem of a working-class party.  Qasemi, the dogmatic and tough Stalinist theorist, took the orthodox line that in any given nation only one working class or communist party could exist.  Forutan, on the other hand, came to the conclusion that there could be two or more.  (p 90)

This plays to all our prejudices that there is something scandalously authoritarian in Qasemi’s insistence that there be one party to express the left.  Given the contemporary reverence for pluralism, difference and enlightened tolerance, it is Forutan’s position that sounds on the right side of postmodernity.  But one of the key reasons the left failed seems to be exactly because of the free-wheeling explosion of leftist groups, which represented every possible ideological position and revolutionary tactic of the international left.  What marks Iran’s left as radically different from the left in other iconic revolutions, such as in Russia and China, is that in the absence of a hegemonic party to act as a site of difference resolution, the left in Iran came to a standstill.  Whilst absorbing the theoretical developments from China, Algeria, Vietnam etc. these developments were not incorporated but fuelled a horizontal fission of parties and guerrilla groups, all adopting their preferred ideologies.  In the absence of an overriding power to force mediation upon these groups, the excess of unincorporated variants of Marxism resulted in a zero-sum game of political cannibalism.  Of course, this was premised on Iran’s leftist groups acting freely from the constraint of actually having to mobilise any particular constituency, and reflect concrete conditions in their ideologies.

This free-floating ideology accounts for the bizarre turn of events preceding the revolution and subsequent establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) in March 1979.  The ‘Stalinist’ Tudeh party quickly sold out by cosying up to Ayatollah Khomeini’s government and informing on the Fidayeen and Mujahideen.  The ‘Maoist’ ROTPI enthusiastically sided with the Islamic liberals.  The Mujahideen, who only converted to pure Marxism from their Islamic roots in 1975 and produced no historical record of theoretical work, were the only group to embark on uncompromising urban guerrilla warfare against the IRI.  The Fidayeen were the most influential group after the revolution and shot to international stardom by defending the women’s protests against the [Iranian] Hizbullah, earning the respect and publicity of international feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir and Valerie Moghadam.  But in primarily defending an upper-middle class feminist movement, the Fidayeen was forced into an identity crisis, and that, combined with the contentious Kurdish separatist movement and their newfound oppression under the IRI, forced the group to split into factions.  A so-called majority faction of the Fidayeen joined the Tudeh party in cosying up to Khomeini’s radical clerics, for which they were rewarded with liquidation and a wave of televised humiliations in 1983, whereas the more uncompromising minority faction was gradually decimated and marginalised to its destruction.

The two lynchpins to understanding this story are then why an excess of leftist factions emerged, and why following the revolution so many of the groups seemed content to view the Khomeini regime as fundamentally progressive and acquiesce to the IRI?  The bridge provided by theorists like Ali Shari’ati and Jalal a’Ahmed, through their radical identity politics, was not just between the left and Islam however, which we know the Mujahideen also pursued pre-1975 and then abandoned, but rather between two asynchronous lefts.  The left so far discussed, and focused on with pinpoint precision by Behrooz, as that of the traditional Marxist vanguard party in all its variants.  The other left grew out of Western Marxism’s disillusionment with reason and the dialectical method: Jean-Paul Sartre’s influential Critique of Dialectical Reason or Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, and culminated in the search for ‘Communism without Marxism,’ the birth of which Michel Foucault believed he was witnessing in the Iranian Revolution, and which would emerge fully developed in the work of Alain Badiou and Antonio Negri.

There was thus an excess of the left at work in the Iranian Revolution, of free-floating Marxist ideologies, and two typologies of the left: Marxist and postmodern, irreconcilable with one another, and effecting a dizzying disorientation.  Behrooz understates the matter when he takes it on:

Because of the anti-imperialist paradigm, Iranian Marxists were ultimately unable to distinguish between the political independence of the IRI, vis-à-vis foreign powers, and the Islamists intention of creating a theocracy.  (p 137)

Or, in others words, the entire Iranian Marxist movement simply suffered a catastrophic and inexplicable error of judgement.  But what if Behrooz is blinding himself to the obvious fact that the gap between these ‘dogmatic’ Marxist theorists and Islam had been irrevocably closed by the New Leftist philosophies?  How else do we explain the fact that in regard to the Tudeh party:

Ehsanollah Tabari, the chief ideologue of the party until 1983, seemed to have become a devout Moslem, and published books on the superiority of Islam over Marxism.  (p 130)

It is facts like this that render his portrayal of the museum-piece Stalinists of the Iranian left even more incredible.  At the level of official pronouncements they may have been locked into a traditional Marxist discourse, but the effect of the Islamist discourse had encroached on their notion of leftist resistance, and scuppered their attempts to articulate a critique of the IRI operating along new axises of values.  In other ways too, the Iranian Marxists were a product of their time, no different from their Western counterparts in minority terrorist organisations such as the Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and ivory tower Marxists and post-structuralist resistance theorists.  Behrooz could be talking to our contemporary situation when he writes: ‘One look at the literature of this period shows how difficult it is, even for the educated reader, to follow the arguments’  (p142).  Is this not also the predicament of our time?  An ever more elaborate and complicated leftist discourse accessible only to a highly educated ‘elite,’ which, completely separate from any constituent or mass base of political agency, ends up operating in parallel to a really existing political situation of the rise of cultish messianism, racist nationalism, ethnic conflict and millenarian environmental and religious agitation.

Central however to Behrooz’s argument is that the left in Iran just couldn’t escape their Stalinist mindset.  He draws upon a curious definition of Stalinism to capture the spirit of Iranian left:

Stephen Cohen has defined Stalinism as ‘not simply nationalism, bureaucratic rationalisation, absence of democracy, censorship, police repression and the rest in any precedent sense. . . .  Instead Stalinism was excess, extraordinary extremism, in each’.  (p 159)

But in response, the parties of the Iranian left, if they were Stalinists, were poor ones.  Unlike Ayatollah Khomeini, exiled from 1963-1979 and exerting a potent charismatic leadership even in his absence, none of the Iranian left’s leaders managed to establish himself anything equating to a cult of personality.  Their ability to control the parties with an iron fist was generally limited to watching troublesome members break away and form new groups, and even their ability to control the factional infighting within groups seemed weak.

Perhaps there could be a more controversial conclusion: that the excess of the Iranian left was not in their Stalinist practices but rather precisely in the lack of a decisive leader, Stalinist or otherwise, to unite the unruly factions and prevent their fracturing into countless rival groups.  So too, in terms of ideology, perhaps it was not a dogmatic allegiance to Marxist-Leninism that undid them but instead their lack of fidelity to a core set of principles and sense of duty towards establishing a working class base.  Under the influence of Third-Worldist revolutionary theory and later postmodern identity politics, they ceded their moral mission to the Islamists.

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Editor’s Postscript:

So, where does Maziar Behrooz himself stand politically today?  In his own words (at a panel discussion held at the University of Chicago on 5 November 2009, the discussion sponsored by an organization whose leading figure holds that “Iran was not suffering from U.S. imperial oppression” in the 1970s):

Behrooz: Regarding the socialist revolution, I am not for it.  I am not a political activist, but an academic.  The best I can do is attempt to understand what is going on from my point of view.  I am content to leave the revolution to the revolutionaries.  I am halfway through my life, so I am not sure I would do it much good anyway.

Regarding what the role of the Left outside of Iran should be, I think we must first understand what the Left outside of Iran is.  It seems to me that the Iranian Left in exile is divided into two camps: There are the ones who stick to their guns, saying, “Not much has changed, there has been a bump in the road, but it can be overcome, the working class can do it.”  We might call this the classical approach.  This camp is strong in Europe and America.  The other group is the Left that, kind of like the reformers in the Islamic Republic, have come to conclusions similar to some expressed here.

From excess to absence, the “vanishing mediator” has vanished twice.   The first time as tragedy. . . .

Nathan Coombs is a PhD candidate in Political Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London.  His research project is entitled ‘Evental Hermeneutics: Russia China Iran.’  This article was first published in Culture Wars on 17 July 2008 under a Creative Commons license.  See, also, Nathan Coombs, “Christian Communists, Islamic Anarchists?  Part 1” and “Christian Communists, Islamic Anarchists?  Part 2.”

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