Aspectre is haunting the Iranian Left—the assembled ghosts of orthodox Communism, Maoism and populism. Together these had converged, on the eve of the Revolution, to construct a Third Worldist discourse and practice that stressed the evils of dependent capitalism and imperialism. Agribusiness, transnational corporations, military expenditures, the oil companies, the corrupt royal court, savak, the comprador bourgeoisie, consumerism—in short, imperialism and its internal base—were the targets of the propaganda and agitation of all left opposition groups. The trouble was that they were high on the list of the religious opposition as well. Eventually, sometime after the collapse of the Pahlavi state and in the course of the Left’s struggle for its rightful place in the political arena of the new Republic, it became clear that two strategic mistakes had been committed: namely, neglect of the question of democracy, and underestimation of the power of the Islamic clergy. It is now widely accepted that this blindspot was due to an inordinate emphasis on the anti-imperialist struggle and an almost mechanical application of the dependency paradigm. The all-too-general model left little scope for considering the highly uneven development of class and production relations, the power of the pre-capitalist classes or the political–cultural project of the clerics (which, contrary to what some foreign observers thought, was decidedly not the same as liberation theology). Above all, it led to a downgrading of the importance of a democratic-socialist (not merely ‘national’) alternative to the Shah’s regime.

The outcome of the Iranian Revolution recalls Marx’s observation that we make our own history but never under conditions of our own choosing. It recalls also, only too painfully, his comment about the ‘dead weight’ of the past. Finally, it demonstrates that not every anticapitalist or anti-imperialist action is an advance towards socialism. But these lessons have been learnt at enormous cost: the stunning defeat of the Left in the mini-civil war of 1981–83, its displacement from the arenas of political and cultural struggle, extreme disillusionment, retrenchment, a wave of depoliticization—and, of course, the deaths of many, many worthy comrades.footnote1 Must Iranian leftists today are extremely—one might say, excessively—critical of the whole period from 1970 to 1978, often bordering on self-cancellation and repudiation of the efforts of an entire generation. But it should be pointed out that the general theoretical problems which they faced were shared by left organizations, particularly ‘ml’ Maoist groups, everywhere. The focus on guerrilla activity was not the sole reason for the marginalization of the Left in Iran—after all, a guerrilla strategy was used with great success by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. More importantly, the Left was not isolated after the overthrow of the Shah in February 1979: on the contrary, it had a huge following. The Fedaii, for instance, had some 150 offices throughout the country and one of their rallies was attended by five hundred thousand people. But if the numerical strength of the Fedaii, Tudeh, Mojahedin and Peykar added up to considerable political potential, unity was sadly never near the top of their priorities.

In placing the problems and mistakes of the Iranian Left in proper perspective, we should also bear in mind that the Revolution—and clerical rule—came as a complete surprise to many observers, including those who made a profession out of studying Iran; and that many foreign scholars and activists on the Left were supportive of the new Islamic Republic precisely for its anti-imperialism and its defiance of the us government and capital.footnote2 Nevertheless, an examination of seventies Third Worldism—of its assumptions, aims, language, methods and consequences—is an imperative task in any analysis of the Iranian Left and of its praxis during and after the Revolution.footnote3 Such, at any event, is one of the main purposes of this essay, together with an assessment of prospects for regroupment around a new emancipatory vision. Let us begin by tracing the link between the Mossadegh experience and the origins of the Iranian New Left.

After a period of genesis and growth between 1906 and 1929, when it developed as a revolutionary communist movement with strong ties to the emergent working class, the Iranian Left was driven underground and subjected to severe repression. The ending of dictatorship in 1941 was followed by a new period of Communist reorganization and growth around the newly formed pro-ussr Tudeh Party, until the Shah–cia coup of 1953 against the nationalist government of Dr Mohammad Mossadegh ushered in a second round of dictatorial rule. For the New Left, especially students abroad, Mossadegh was a genuine hero, while the Tudeh Party was held to have betrayed Iran by prioritizing Soviet interests.footnote4 The reality was somewhat more complex.

In 1951 Mossadegh was elected prime minister with a mandate to implement the oil nationalization law that had been passed under his predecessor. As this remained his primary concern, overriding other issues such as workers’ rights and land reform, he incurred the disdain of the trade unions, many of which were linked to the Tudeh Party. To make matters worse, the Ministry of Labour ceased to register labour unions after May 1952, presumably in an effort to limit the growth of communism. Mossadegh remained firm in opposing Soviet requests for an oil concession, and the Tudeh Party’s animosity towards him grew in proportion to the links that Washington established with the police and military under the auspices of the Truman Administration’s Four Point Program. But Mossadegh’s government also came under attack from the Shah and an increasing number of religious figures. The British too, incapable of graciously accepting the nationalization of ‘their’ oil companies, took to fomenting dissent, as did the Americans (though in their case Mossadegh appeared quite oblivious). When Tudeh supporters demonstrated against monarchy and for a republic, they were attacked by the police. Finally, in August 1953 when Mossadegh rejected the Shah’s dismissal of him as illegal, the government was overthrown in a coup. In one fell swoop, the nationalist government, the Tudeh Party and the trade union movement were defeated and suppressed by the combined forces of the Shah and his conniving twin sister Ashraf Pahlavi, the pimps, prostitutes and thugs of downtown Tehran, a two-bit general, and the cia. At least two major ayatollahs, Kashani and Behbehani, gave their religious blessings.footnote5