Home Articles The Iranian left in an era of breaks and transition Mohammad Reza Shalguni
The Iranian left in an era of breaks and transition Mohammad Reza Shalguni Print E-mail

It has been a difficult two decades for the Iranian left. The 20 years since the revolution have been a the worse in its entire existence [1]. Not just because of the hell of the Islamic Republic, which knows no left or right and burns all in its way regardless, but also because of the trials and contradictions with which the left itself had to grapple. The enormous political and theoretical challenges which confronted the left during this period, have brought about such enormous inconsitencies in its intellectual apparatus, and imposed such repeated ruptures that, if only for a time, all currents on the left have gone through a deep crisis of identity.

This has been an era of breaks for the Iranian left. It had to break with some of its most cherished traditions and principles, ones which on the eve of the 1979 revolution had been considered vital elements of the left’s identity. The slightest questioning would be seen a betrayal of the left. The revolution also marked another break, one separating the generations before and after the revolution.

In order to comprehend the meaning and breadth of the immense breaks and disruptions of this period it helps to compare the era with the preceding 25 years. In the period separating the coup d’etat against Mossadeq in 1953 and the revolution of 1979, despite all the schisms at the national and international level, the left kept its framework of thinking almost intact. This time the changes have been so profound that anyone coming out as left would go out of their way to explain how they repudiate the past. The history of the left in the last 20 years revolves mainly round these changes and repudiation.

The Iranian left experienced the crisis that gripped the left the world over sooner and with more savage blows. The background and reasons for these ruptures are many and cannot all be addressed in this article. Here I will confine myself to two important elements that influenced the thinking and the ruptures of the left: the Iranian revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union. I content that these two elements, although not directly linked, acted in synergy on the Iranian left.

The Iranian revolution

The first confusing blows came after the "victory" of the revolution in Iran. Some certainties were suddenly questionable:

a. In the intellectual apparatus of the left "reaction" and "revolution" were opposites, and their combination impossible, an absolute contradiction. "Revolution" was a synonym for progress while "reaction" meant retreating and turning back to the past. The triumph of the first could not be imagined without victory over the second. And, conversely, "revolution" could only reassert itself by defeating "reaction".

The Iranian revolution, however, showed that this relationship is more complex than previously imagined. Here it was precisely through the victory of a "revolution", and indeed at its zenith (when the monarchic order crumbled under the blows of the people) that another "reaction", one in may ways worse than the first, took over. This intermixing of revolution and reaction, which ended up with one swallowing the other, totally confused the theoretical apparatus of the left. The very acts which they had expected to deepen the "revolution" did the opposite. The "reaction" was strengthened and more triumphant. To escape this bafflement, the left closed its eyes to a contradictory reality, and tried to separate revolution from reaction in an abstract world. They did this in two ways:

First they ignored the question of political power as the key element in any revolution. The revolution was supposedly victorious merely because of there was a mass uprising. Second, they completely ignored the actual leadership of that mass uprising: Khomeini and his circle. But this artificial separation had no connection to what was really taking place on the ground. Not surprisingly every prescriptions the left wrote to deepen the revolution, and to separate the mass movement from its leadership: such as to nationalise key economic units, smash the repressive apparatus of the old regime and annihilate its remnants, in practice only aided the Khomeini circle who were leading the "revolution-reaction".

b. In the theoretical model of the Iranian left, "people" and "reaction" were unlikely to mix, and therefore an unforeseen possibility. Yet in the Iranian revolution not only a large part of the people joined up with "reaction", but bafflingly, this was even more among the lower classes. Furthermore, the "reaction" that had benefited from the revolutionary movement, and was masquerading in the figure of the revolution, maximally used its influence among the people (and in particular the poor) to strengthen its position. They were kept "present on the scene" in a permanent state of mobilisation.

The Khomeini phenomenon gave the left vertigo. It was beyond their comprehension. It was no coincidence that the vast majority in the left, at least in the early years of the revolution, considered the liberals more dangerous than Khomeini. Some even predicted that the liberals would push Khomeini out. Others tried to account for the reactionary nature of Khomeini by maintaining he represented the "affluent petit-bourgeoisie", the adjective "affluent" supposedly explaining his reactionary roots, with emphasis on the crucial role of money!

Khomeini cleverly made use of this confusion in the left to get the liberals out of the way first, before turning in on that bewildered left. This is how the so-called second revolution – the occupation of the US embassy - was masterminded.

c. Except for a few tiny groups with little influence, political democracy had little priority in the armamentorium of the left. At best it was seen as a tool for reaching socialism, but not particularly compatible with the latter. Democracy was a phenomenon belonging to the bourgeoisie, or the era of "bourgeois revolutions". The adjective "democratic" was normally used synonymously with "bourgeois", especially when applied to personal freedoms. Indeed, most left groups, even when they emphasised democracy, were far less concerned with individual freedoms. Freedom of expression, for example, was in practice considered a liberal demand. The disaster which befell the left during the process in which the revolution of the Iranian people was metamorphosed into an "Islamic revolution" owed much to this warped view of democracy. All the labours of the left to challenge the "Islamic revolution" while ignoring democracy were not unlike the efforts of a drowning man.

d. Finally the Iranian left was being crushed in the coils of a deep populism. It could not imagine a reactionary anti-imperialism. Thus when Khomeini’s supporters occupied the US embassy in by means both "revolutionary" and without precedence, and Khomeini turned the struggle against America into his central slogan, the left sank into a totally paralytic crisis of identity. At the very moment Khomeini began his greatest onslaught in his bid to install his vision of velayate faqih (the rulership of a religious jurisprudence on the whole of society) the left was paralysed in mounting a serious opposition against the "Islamic revolution".

Collapse of Soviet Union

This was a global event with global repercussions. The shock wave in Iran was particularly ferocious. First, it opened wounds that the "Islamic revolution" had created and were still fresh. Second, the intellectual models of the Iranian left could be grouped under "Soviet communism". The "new left" in Iran had had a brief and passing bloom in the form of the armed struggle movement in the decade preceding the revolution. With the crushing of the Fadai’ movement the new left had in practice withered. Unlike its neighbours, Iran had no significant social democratic movement. With the closure of the dossier of Soviet communism, the theoretical structure of almost the entire left currents in Iran fell apart. The most important grounds for this blow were as follows:

a. The blind alley of "soviet communism" showed that socialism without democracy, whatever its achievements, creates a climate from which people want to escape. Furthermore, in such a system before everything, and more than anything, these very socialist values become discredited. The desire for equality and solidarity pale. Individualism and greed attain the attraction of forbidden fruit and reach epidemic proportions. Lying and deception become the main weapon for survival.

We witnessed how all attempts to deepen democracy or "go beyond bourgeois democracy" is doomed to failure if individual freedoms – or more accurately – negative freedoms are trampled. It ends in an all-embracing despotism. Indeed the seeds for the defeat of Bolshevism were sown at the moment the leaders of the October revolution, in their efforts to defend the young workers state ignored the main nature of modern democracy.

Modern democracy, which historically took shape with the rise of capitalism, unlike older models is based on the principle of "individual autonomy". In the older versions the individual in its modern sense did not exist. While it is true that liberalism emphasises "individual autonomy" because it mistrusts democracy and fears that a broad social will would normally interfere with the rich. Yet supporters of socialism must not ignore the vital role of negative freedoms as complementary to, and a decisive factor for, positive freedoms [2].

b. With the final bankruptcy of the "communist" party-states it became clear that no party could consider itself the representative of the working class through the silence of that class. This remains true regardless of what the party stands for, or what services it has performed for the working class, or continues to do so for that class.

In the ideological moulds of "Soviet communism", the proletariat appeared in practice as an allegorical being, or at least a rational totality independent of the sum total of mortal workers. This semi-mythical entity was manifested in the "communist party".

This was a party that knew what route the historic march of the workers towards liberation had to take. Therefore the historic will of the working class could only be expressed through this party. And since one of the conditions for liberation is the unity of the working class against capital, only one "single" party could be the "historic party of the working class".

Of course, in order to fulfil its mission, this "single historic party of the working class" has to get the real mass of workers to support it: through persuasion before attaining political power and through ensuring their obedience after power. It was thus that the "historic representative" of the working class was transformed into the guardian of that class [3]. The discrediting of such thinking imposes major modification on the way the left views the working class, with enormous consequences.

First, the simple truth that workers as a "class" can only be meaningful through the active participation of the entire work force and not through their silence or absence.

Second, the more the actual the presence of workers, the more the myth of their unanimity and rock-like unity loses its sheen. It is now evident that the class solidarity and unity of the working class is not achievable by melting down the various differences, and even some dissension, among workers but only in parallel to these differences and dissensions. The working "class", like the "people" are understood by the totality of their individuals and groups. Normally these do not forget their special identities and particular interests.

Third, the class solidarity of workers is not negated by a plurality political parties, labour organisations and associations. Indeed, under certain conditions, the organisational plurality of workers might give elbowroom to the varied tendencies in the labour movement and better ensure the class solidarity of workers against capital. It might even help reduce the risk of bureaucratisation of labour organisations – an affliction which turns labour representatives into their bosses.

Fourth, with the epoch of thought-freeze finally over, it is difficult to be blind to the fact that any concept of the "historic" route the working class has to pass to reach its liberation can only be taken seriously if carried out at the level of a scientific examination. And scientific predictions can only be conditional, and have little in common with prophet-like prophesies. Moreover, something that is scientifically obvious is not always politically obvious. No political current has the right to claim special rights as the bearer of the "historic" consciousness or the interpreter of the "historic" will of the proletariat. Now, even though gradually, everyone will be forced to humbly admit that "everything is known by everyone, and everyone has not been born yet".

c. "Soviet communism" relied on a very crude and simplistic understanding of ownership relations. It always valued public over private ownership, whatever the circumstances. Furthermore, it saw public ownership predominantly, and even occasionally exclusively, in the form of state ownership. Almost under every circumstance the plan was considered better than the market. A planned and state controlled economy was inherently a socialist attribute and therefore a measure of progress.

But experience showed that economies that were built on these premises neither brought material welfare, nor guaranteed the steady growth of labour productivity. They could neither satisfy consumers’ needs, nor encourage the creativity of the producer. Finally, by concentrating all the potentialities of production and distribution in one powerful state-run planning centre, they inevitably end up in a ubiquitous despotism. The totalitarianism that the "Soviet communism" produced was not only because it ignored political freedoms. Its grasp of socialist economy could not avoid ending up in the absolutism of the state.

The discrediting of the Soviet model of communism gave impetus to a rolling debate on socialist economy. While a clear conclusion has yet to be reached, significant unanimity over some important issues have appeared. Most self-identified supporters of socialism agree that the complete statization and planning, and even more, its control by a single centre is not essential for socialism. Indeed, it is contrary to some of the most fundamental socialist values – such as participatory democracy, popular self management, mass control of political power etc. There are many currents who believe that the socialisation of ownership does not necessarily require total negation of the market. Some see economic autarky as a calamity which breeds nationalism, regionalism, statism and even obscurantism. While the Iranian left has yet to address these issues, they will undoubtedly receive its global echo in time.

The generation break on the left

Although the theoretical breaks in the left movement is global, in Iran it is exceptionally sweeping. Moreover, for the Iranian left, the break is not just in theory. A doubling of the population since the revolution has meant that today over 70% are below 30. [4] These are people who were either absent in the revolution or too young to have a clear personal recollection of events.

Moreover, since the 1980’s the left in Iran, like other political opposition groups, have suffered a bloody suppression and deprived of any organised presence inside the country. Therefore, during the rule of the Islamic Republic a complete generation break has taken place between activists on the left. Older left activists who had been active during the revolution have been cut off from activists who became active after the bloody repression of early 1980’s.

The generations differ in the social space in which they took shape and hence their system of values. Their political experience and psychology is obviously at variance. And most important of all a regular and organised dialogue between the two is not a practical possibility. A large part of the older generation of activists have been massacred by the Islamic Republic and a substantial section have emigrated abroad. The vast majority of those who remained behind, hunted and under constant pressure of repression as they are, avoid any organised activity.

The left in Iran is no stranger to generation gaps. This is an old problem damaging the handing on and accumulation of experience, and making the political maturity of the left more difficult. During the 1978-79 revolution for example, the majority of the left forces were led by thirty or at most 35 year-old activists. These were only children during the coup e’etat of 1953 [5].

This time, however, the generation break has had a deeper meaning: because of the unprecedented theoretical breaks, the huge population growth, the mass physical annihilation, and unprecedented emigration of left activists. The weight of the older generation of the left inside the country has been drastically cut.

Big challenges for the left

The breaks I alluded to, have undoubtedly faced the left with major difficulties and disorder. For some years everywhere in the world, the left has faced a deep crisis which we may call the crisis of reformation. Yet a crisis of reformation, no matter how deep and all embracing, is not the same as a crisis of existence. The left has not lost its raison d’être. On the contrary, the developments of the last two decades, while causing major upheavals, have also released the left from the shackles and moulds which wear it out.

In Iran, precisely because of the last two decades, the duties of the left are heavier. Today the need for a powerful movement of the left is so palpable, that even some of the left’s opponents and "wise enemies" cannot deny. Twenty years of rule by the Islamic Republic has deepened the long-standing structural crisis of the economy. The country, even by the measures of a peripheral country, is poverty-stricken. Class inequality has reached unbearable proportions. Official figures show that in 1996 the poorest tenth of the population possessed only 1.4% of the national income, while the richest tenth netted 39.8%, a ratio of over 28! The same source estimated that the bottom half took only 16.8% of the national income. Put another way, the top ten percent pocket twice as much as half the population [6]. Things have got worse since. Could the raison d’être of the left have disappeared in such a society?

Today all the opponents of the Islamic Republic claim to defend democracy. Most, however prefer to remain silent on the political economy of the democracy of their choice. Even more, some want to create conditions for a durable democracy in Iran using the prescriptions of Friedman and Hayek. But a democracy that cannot defend even the mere right to live of the vast majority of the population will quickly collapse. This majority craves not just for bread, but also for human dignity and equal rights for the citizens.

In today’s world, democracy is not sustainable if a minimum of equal and universal citizen’s rights is not granted – that is a glimmer of hope, no matter how small, with a vista of being able to achieve equal social opportunities. To achieve liberal democracy even, Iranian society needs a powerful left movement. Those who ignore this forget that the deprived and trampled majority, if not allowed to stand on its own feet and fight for equal citizens’ and social rights, will not remain idle. That majority will become the tool for crushing democracy and for building other dictatorships. And even if these dictatorships appear distinctly anti-religious, their basis would be to rule in lieu of people – just like the present velayate faqih.

The Iranian left is once again being called to the forefront of historic acts. Yet mere reappearance on the scene does not in itself ensure success. It all depends on how the left solves the "crisis of reformation", or once again lose all the opportunities. Only this time with results even more tragic than those during the ebb and flow of the 1979 revolution.

Realisable prospect

Twenty years into the hell of the Islamic Republic, all signs are that this regime is on a downslide. Yet the same signposts leave no doubt that its burial, and more importantly, the task of raising a democratic system in its place (one based on equal citizen’s rights and social opportunities), is no easy task. To cross this gorge the left should be able to regroup, in a short space of time, forces strong enough for the big battles ahead. For this it needs at least the following critical qualities:

a. A permanent and unwavering commitment to democracy. Democracy is not a means to socialism, but the condition for the solidity and expansion of the socialist movement. It is also the most vital condition for the survival of socialism itself. Democracy does not belong to the bourgeoisie, but a phenomenon imposed on it. Even liberal democracy, is more the achievement of the proletarian struggles, rather than of bourgeois efforts. The interest of the bourgeoisie dictates that it does not go beyond a superficial and limited democracy. Yet the proletariat cannot acquire the level of class solidarity needed to confront capital without a permanent struggle to deepen democracy. The Iranian left can only become the voice of the voiceless and the standard bearer of the class struggles of the vast majority if it squashes all doubts in defending unconditional freedoms.

b. An immediate and unbroken struggle for socialism. The raison d’être of the left is to confront capital and fight for socialism. To shut this down, or postpone it to a future date, leaves the left without identity. The struggle for socialism cannot be put on file, waiting for the victory in the struggle for democracy. The two are inseparable: a struggle for a free and equal citizen. The large majority in society usually discover the vital significance of democracy and basic freedoms through their struggle against capital and not vice versa.

c. Abandon the role of guardianship of the working class once and for all. The socialist movement is nothing if not "the independent movement of the vast majority for a vast majority". This "vast majority" is not here to line up to perform the schemes of the left. It is the left who should serve the self-liberation of this "vast majority". The parties of the left are a means – and nothing but the means – to form and reinforce class solidarity of workers and toilers. To convert the means into an end is to turn the left’s big assignment into a kind of bourgeois task. In the final analysis the success of the left will be measured by whether an ever increasing mass of conscious and organised working people enter the arena, and not by the noise made by self-serving political parties.

d. Attention to the multi-coloured nature of the movement for the liberation of the "vast majority". The socialist movement is nothing except the struggle for a large human congregation where "the free development of an individual is the condition for the development of all". People are not supposed to discard all their individual and group tastes and attachments. Socialism is not the Resurrection Day where everyone collects looking alike. It is a congregation of free individuals who respect each others tastes and attachments.

The class solidarity of workers and toilers is possible, despite their differences in gender, age, culture, ethnicity, religion, and beliefs, and in fighting against prejudices and discriminations resulting from these differences, and not by ignoring them. This issue is particularly important in Iran.

The Iranian left must move with the independent movement of women against gender inequalities. It must support Iran’s numerous nationalities against national oppression. It must defend religious, ethnic and religious minorities against the dominant cultural and religious oppression. It must espouse the freedom of belief and non-belief. It must champion the freedom of cultural values and defend the boundaries of personal life. Finally the left must bridge across the generations, and especially give space for the passions and life-force of the young.

e. Accept pluralism of thought and organisation among the left itself. The uniformity of views among the left is neither possible nor necessarily desirable. But pluralism is not the same as fragmentation. Sects do not tolerate plurality and therefore encouraged splits. A left devoted to building socialism and the class solidarity of working peoples accepts this pluralism, carefully and responsibly evaluate the reasons and breadth of these differences, and not allow them to stop its efforts for class solidarity and unity. Class unity for socialism is only possible with a plurality of views and organisations of those supporting socialism.

Mohammad-Reza Shalguni

April 1999


1. I use the term "left" and the "left movement" in the traditional way it is used in Farsi, which is used as a crude equivalent of supporters of the socialist movement.

2. Marxism never ignored the role of individual freedoms in giving shape to a free association of humans. We need only refer to the slogan of the Communist Manifesto "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all".

3. Many opponents of Marxism and even some of its supporters seek the source of this guardian-like understanding of the role of the party of the working class in classic Marxism and even in the writings of Marx and Engels. They particularly refer to some Hegelian interpretations of early texts by Marx and Engels. Yet the clear and repeated emphasis of both Marx and Engels on the principle of the self-liberation of the proletariat leaves no doubt that in their view it is not the "historic party of the working class" but the working "class" itself that can overthrow the rule of capital and give socialism meaning. As the agent and subject of this act, workers can gel as a "class", and the extent and speed of this, only if the mass of workers understand their common interests "against" capital and create an effective solidarity, despite their differences and dissension.

4. Iranian State Statistics Annual 1996, p 34.

5. the CIA-engineered coup which overthrew the nationalist premier Mossadeq and was followed by the massive suppression of the Tudeh Party apparatus in the country. Thereafter for more than 15 years the left had no real presence in the country.

6. Dr Ahmad Seif. Gozaresh November 1998 quoting the magazine of the Islamic Consultative Assembly Majles and Research no 18, February-March 1997.

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