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

The 1954 oil agreement with an international consortium was correctly seen as maintaining profits and foreign control that essentially lasted until the early 1970s. But opposition was barely heard in the 1950s, as the military and police worked overtime to ferret out dissident workers, Tudeh activists and militant nationalists. They were soon assisted by a secret policy agency, savak, whose task was to ensure workplace discipline and general subordination to the new authority. In December 1953, Tehran University students—members of the Tudeh youth club and the National Front Students’ Association—protested at the visit of us Vice-President Nixon. Three were killed. Subsequently many National Front and Tudeh sympathizers moved to Europe and the United States—following the flight of Tudeh leaders and top cadres to the ussr and Eastern Europe—and both political groups became active in exile. From 1959 numerous opponents and critics of the Shah’s regime were able to tune avidly if surreptitiously into a Tudeh radio station, Peyk-e Iran, and the National Front also beamed broadcasts that could be picked up in Iran. In the early 1960s the Tudeh Party and the National Front were among the founders of the European-based Confederation of Iranian Students, a ‘democratic’ (that is, pluralist and non-ideological) organization devoted to continuing the national and anti-imperialist struggles of the Iranian people. In 1961 this Confederation and the us-based Iranian Students Association held their first joint congress in Paris, and formed the cisnu or Confederation of Iranian Students (National Union). At the next annual congress, convened in Lausanne, a delegation from the University of Tehran Students Association (affiliated with the National Front) presented a slogan ‘Unity–Struggle–Victory’ that was officially adopted by cisnu.footnote6

The year 1960 saw a challenge to the Shah and the government. Elections had been underway for the 20th session of Parliament, but people in the provinces protested at attempts to rig the elections. A discredited election and failing economy triggered demonstrations by ten thousand Tehran students, led by the National Front. In May 1961 teachers across the country went on strike to protest their low salaries. In January 1962, prodded by the Kennedy Administration, the Shah signed a land reform bill crafted by the populist Minister of Agriculture in the liberal-leaning Amini cabinet. This was followed by strikes and protests on the part of students and teachers demanding that the Parliament, which had been closed for months, should convene. Instead, the Shah announced a six-point reform package and put it to a referendum in January 1963. This White Revolution, as he called it, provided for the vote for women, profit-sharing for workers, privatization of forests, and electoral reform. This was the beginning of the capitalist reorganization of Iran.footnote7