Mansour Hekmat 1987

Left Nationalism and Working Class Communism

A Review of the Iranian Experience

An unpublished work written in English in 1987. Mansoor Hekmat, who was a founding member of the CPI, left the CPI along with other members of its leadership (the political bureau of the CPI) in November 1991 to found the Worker-communist Party of Iran.

It is astonishing how little is known in the West, even among socialists, about the recent history and the present state of the Iranian Left. Any Iranian communist, who has been part of the immensely rich political experience of the last ten years, cannot help feeling dismayed by the type of commentary on Iran and the Iranian Left that surfaces once in a while in ‘quality’ Left journals. What we usually get here is not only superficial analysis, but blatant distortion of facts. This is distressing, not just because a distorted account is given of a still on-going and unfolding history, but more so because it betrays a degree of political apathy and theoretical mediocrity on the part of Western socialists when it comes to the task of analyzing issues of class struggle outside the boundaries of the developed capitalist world.

It appears that a certain critique of Iranian communism is gaining popularity in Marxist intellectual circles in the West. [1] Certain themes consistently recur as the main elements and tenets of this critique. First, there is the statement, or ‘observation’, that communism in Iran has experienced an utter defeat in recent years, in particular after June 1981 and the massive wave of repression that swept the country. The main task now is apparently to ‘sum up’ the ten-year experience, reflect on the ‘mistakes’ made by Iranian communists and ‘prepare’ for the next historical opening. Secondly, there is the notion that the inability or dogmatic unwillingness of the Iranian Left to united and to create a broad alliance of ‘progressive’ forces in Iranian society in the face of the reactionary Islamic onslaught, not only brought about the alleged decline of the Left itself, but was partly responsible for the horrifying conditions that the Iranian people as a whole have experienced under the Islamic Republic. Thirdly, we are reminded of how little the ideology and practice of the Iranian Left was influenced by ‘democracy’ both as a concept and a vision and as a political objective, of how democracy was subordinated to ‘anti-imperialism’ in the political consciousness and programmatic and practical priorities of Left organisations, and how this defect consciousness lent itself to manipulations by the Islamic regime.

There is nothing new in this emerging critique. It is in fact a mere recapitulation of the positions of a particular section of the Iranian Left itself. Positions which were presented, argued for, and for the most part refuted, during the revolutionary years of 1978-81. It is the voice of the naïve and ineffectual Iranian Left-liberalism that is now being increasingly echoed in Marxist journals in the West, posing as learned considerations and afterthoughts on contemporary Iranian communism. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that such historiography should sum up the Iranian experience as a failure and ignore the remarkable process of evolution and transformation that Iranian communism has undergone since the revolution of 1979.

A Marxist account of the history of contemporary Iranian communism is yet to be written. The issues involved are extremely varied and complex. Here I confine myself to a discussion of few specific questions. First, the ideological and social traits of the radical Left on the eve of the revolution. Second, the crisis of the radical Left. And finally, the new ideological and organisational configuration of the Iranian Left and in particular the development of a revolutionary worker-communist trend.

The Iranian Radical Left: Socialism or Nationalism?

The post-war Iranian Left, from the Tudeh Party of 1940s to the populists of the ’70s must be studied against the background of two historical processes; first, the development of the so-called communist movement internationally, and second, the historical evolution of the Iranian bourgeois-nationalist opposition. The Iranian Left from 1941-1981 was a joint product of both histories, emphasizing at every stage the common inner logic of the two processes, namely, the takeover of socialism as a theory and a political tradition by national reformism.

Perry Anderson, in his Considerations on Western Marxism, notes the ‘structural divorce’ of Marxian theory from ‘political practice’, gradually effected during 1930s, as what gave Western Marxism, as a tradition, its substantive traits. However, Anderson remains, for the most part, essentially uncritical of the actual class content of the theory and the class nature of the political practice which is to form the material social context of communist theory -- an attitude which accounts for his fascination with events of May-June 1968 in Paris and his view of it as a historical turning point. There has in fact taken place a much more deep-rooted and fundamental rupture in international communism that precedes, analytically and historically, the one pointed out by Anderson – one which has altered the whole social and political character of communism in all its major strands. This fundamental rupture, involves the total alienation of communist theory and practice from the working class, not merely as a mass of exploited people, but as the personification of an objective economic position within the political economy of capitalism. For Marx and Engels communism was the ‘doctrine of the conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat’, a means through which workers could protest ‘against the old social organisation’ not as individuals but ‘in their general capacity as human beings[2]. A century later, communism was almost everything but that. It had been changed to an ideological and organisational framework for a wide range of nationalistic, parochial and individualistic expressions of discontent with partial aspects of the ‘old social organisation’.

It was the nationalisation of Marxism in the Soviet Union of the late twenties and early thirties and the subsequent theorization of nationalism and reformism as the content of Marxism that initiated this historical break. However, the seclusion of the theorists of Western Marxism notwithstanding, for the mainstream of communism and its major offshoots the chief outcome of the Soviet experience under Stalin was not a divorce between theory and practice, but a reorientation of theory towards non-proletarian political practice, and hence a metamorphosis and degeneration of the theory itself. The social and class re-orientation of socialism as a theory and as a political movement was further reinforced in the practice of those traditions, Trotskyism, Maoism, Euro-communism, the New Left, Latin American and third world populism, etc. which took shape in formal opposition to Soviet ‘communism’. In Eastern Europe, ‘socialism’ was employed as a doctrine for building state capitalist economies and ensuring working class obedience. In the West, it served as an ideological dressing for student democratic and anarchist militancy; intellectual philosophical and aesthetic discourse; middle class cultural and educational reform; Left wing parliamentarian politics; Keynesian crisis management and class compromise. In the ‘Third World’, where early industrial achievements of the Soviet Union and, later, Maoist glorification of nationalism found their most widespread appeal against a background of ruthless exploitation and oppression by Western imperialism, ‘socialism’ was taken up as a useful framework for nationalist anti-imperialist mobilisation by the more militant sections of indigenous bourgeois and petty bourgeois class forces. The history of communism and the history of working class struggle -- not merely mass working class upsurges, but the ‘constant, uninterrupted, now hidden, now open’ opposition of workers to capital which Marx saw as the dynamism of capitalist society -- became two separate histories.

If for the communist movement in the West this separation represented a detour and a negation of the original unity of communism and the class, for the Iranian socialism that emerged in 1940s and evolved in the ’60s and ’70s it was an original state, a condition consubstantial with its existence as a tradition within the Iranian opposition. It received and employed socialism as a doctrine for realising national sovereignty, economic development, bourgeois democracy and social reform. As such, socialism came to represent the radical and militant tendencies within the well established nationalist, reformist and liberal traditions of the bourgeois opposition, and was readily embraced by the growing urban intelligentsia. Iranian socialism was born structurally separated from working class practice and alienated from socialism of Marx and Lenin.

Formally, the history of Iranian communism dates back to the turn of the century and the formation of social democratic circles in Tehran and Azerbaijan, with links with Russian social democracy and in particular with Baku Bolsheviks. In 1920, the Communist Party of Iran (CPI) was formed. The party was active for around a decade, playing an important part in dissemination of socialist thought and organisation of the then tiny urban wage workers and poor peasants, and the formation of a short-lived Soviet Republic in the Caspian province of Gilan (June 1920 to October 1921). It suffered serious setbacks in the late twenties and was eventually crushed by Reza Shah’s dictatorship.

However, the real history of contemporary Iranian Left begins later, with the revival and development of the opposition movement in the volatile period 1941-1953. Two major organisations emerged in this period, the pro-USSR Tudeh Party (formed in October 1941) and Mossaddiq’s National Front (formed in October 1949), a loose coalition of diverse groups and politicians ranging from liberals and social democrats to Pan-Iranists and Muslim conservatives. Between them, the Tudeh Party and the National Front summed up the most enduring political aspirations of the 20th century Iranian intelligentsia: bourgeois democracy, national economic development and political independence. It was the synthesis of the National Front and Tudeh traditions, and not the legacy of the revolutionary CPI, that shaped the ideological and social traits of the Radical Left during ’60s and ’70s.

The National Front was a self-declared nationalist alliance, but the Tudeh Party was taken to represent the socialist Left within the opposition. It was formally a non-Marxist anti-fascist alliance (following the popular frontist line taken by the seventh Comintern Congress). It represented the convergence of two currents, one indigenous and the other external and international, Iranian national reformism and pro-Sovietism. Initially, the two tendencies appeared not only compatible but mutually reinforcing. To the Iranian middle class intelligentsia, the Soviet Union presented a model of national reconstruction and reform, a bulwark of anti-fascism, an enemy of poverty and national oppression, and a force capable of safeguarding Iran against oppressive designs of British imperialism. However, with the unfolding of Soviet foreign policy towards Iran the two tendencies began to diverge, and the unswerving loyalty of the leadership of the Party to the Soviet Union increasingly alienated the nationalist element within the party. The first open and organised dissention along nationalist lines occurred in 1948 when a number of the Party’s cadres and activists led by Khalil Maleki left it on account of the Party’s subordination of national interests to the priorities of Soviet foreign policy and its hostilities towards nationalist forces outside the Party. However, it was Tudeh Party’s reluctance to wholeheartedly support the nationalist government of Mossadiq and in particular to rise to its defence against the American sponsored coup of August 19, 1953, that marked the final break of Iranian nationalism from the Tudeh party.

The radical Left originated in the void left by the abandonment of the nationalist cause by the Tudeh Party and the demise of the National Front in the early ’60s. The radical Left of the ’60s and ’70s was first and foremost a product of the nationalist critique of the fiasco of the Tudeh Party and its ‘betrayal’ of ‘the movement’. In other words, the ‘historical break’ of the radical Left from the ‘traditional organisations’, amounted, in substance, to nothing but a reassertion of the tradition itself, a reaffirmation of the primacy of nationalism as the central theme of Iranian socialism. But this was only achieved through a radicalisation of Iranian nationalism itself and a corresponding shift in its social and class basis.

This quasi-socialist radical nationalism produced a variety of trends and organisations, from the Maoists and the urban guerrillas of the late sixties and early seventies to the ‘political-organisational’ [3] groups of 1978-1981 known as the Third Line. Maoists, helped by the excessive nationalism inherent in Maoism and the Chinese version of communism, managed to incorporate the whole nationalist critique and the whole history of bourgeois nationalism in Iran into their own system of thought and their own history. They perfected and consecrated this nationalism and made it the true essence of their ‘socialism’. Their theory of Russian ‘Social Imperialism’ was a theorization of the old National Front’s mistrust of the USSR. Their characterisation of the Iranian economy as ‘semi-feudal, semi-colony’, though evidently a cheap mimicry of the Chinese, served to glorify the so-called ‘national bourgeoisie’ as part of the ‘revolutionary popular alliance’ and argue for the necessity of independent capitalist development under a nationalist regime as a ‘stage’ on the road to socialism. The Fedaii [4] achieved more or less similar results via a different theoretical route. They distanced themselves from the USSR, though not as dramatically as the Maoists. The vehemence with which the founders of the movement denounced the USSR varied, from Ahmadzadeh and Pouyan, who questioned the very existence of socialist relations of production in the Soviet Union and branded post-Stalin CPSU as revisionist to Jazani who was less critical in his views. However, there was unanimity in the condemnation of the Tudeh Party as a traitor to the national cause and to the National Front government of Mossadiq that symbolised it. Furthermore, the guerrillas and some Maoist groups, borrowed the concept of ‘dependant capitalism’ from the Latin American development debate and applied it in the same spirit as the majority of Maoists had used the ‘semi-feudal, semi-colonial’ characterisation, that is, to exclude Iranian capitalism from the general laws of motion of capital and to pose ‘independent’, ‘proper’ capitalism as a just and progressive cause. Here, the mythological ‘national bourgeoisie’ was hailed not as the antithesis of the feudal landlord (the chief ally of imperialism for Maoists), but of the ‘comprador’ bourgeoisie, seen as the indigenous personification of imperialist oppression and exploitation of the ‘Iranian people’.

Nevertheless, the radicalised nationalism of the new trends contained a number of significant theoretical reinterpretations and practical reorientations.

First, there was a shift from the concept of ‘nation’ (mellat) to the concept of ‘people’ (khalq). The latter referred to a more limited entity, consisting of certain classes and layers in the ‘Iranian Nation’. This shift implied a more explicit recognition of social divisions within the Iranian society. Nationalism now involved not merely an anti-colonial struggle, but also a struggle against the ‘anti-people’, the indigenous classes or layers that represented and reinforced imperialist domination. The anti-imperialist struggle of the people was defined as the driving force in society and as the essence of ‘true’, radical, nationalism.

Second, the Left’s conception of democracy changed accordingly. The traditional organisations had a clearly liberal interpretation of democracy. They had advocated bourgeois-democratic individual and civil rights and the establishment of a constitutional regime. The radical Left on the other hand defined democracy as the rule of popular anti-imperialist classes. The actual political form of this popular regime, its constitution and citizens’ rights under this regime was regarded as secondary and was hardly ever elaborated. Anti-imperialism dominated bourgeois democracy in the ideology of the radical Left.

Third, the question of political power was inevitably brought to the fore. The ‘contradiction between people and imperialism’ could only be resolved by the overthrow of the monarchy, the ‘puppet regime’ of imperialism. An uncompromising anti-monarchism and a fervent advocacy of violent and revolutionary methods against the state was what the radical Left’s anti-imperialism in the final analysis boiled down to. This was a clear departure from the practice of the traditional parties and their essentially parliamentarist and legalist approach. [5]

Fourth, in the realm of economics, the radical Left advocated active and direct state involvement and massive nationalisation of ‘dependant’ capitals, whereas traditional nationalism did not go beyond the goal of creation and expansion of the home capitalist market combined with a modest degree of income redistribution. In both cases the prime objective was industrialisation and economic self-reliance. But for the naïve and utopian radical Left self-sufficiency was turned into an ideological principle, an index of anti-imperialism or even of socialism.

Finally, the radical Left turned to the working class in its political theory, and crowned it as the leading force in the national struggle against imperialism and dependency. Nevertheless, it continually emphasized, in various theoretical formulations, the necessity for subordination of socialist and class demands to the cause of popular revolution.

The impact of new polarisations in the international communist movement on the development of the Iranian radical Left in this period is very evident. The strongest influence came from the Chinese experience and Maoism, although the influence of other nationalist and popular movements, in Latin America, Vietnam, and even Algeria should not be discounted. Mao’s metaphysical simplifications of Marxism and in particular his two ‘philosophical’ works, ‘On Contradiction’ and ‘On Practice’, shaped the whole mode of theoretical articulation of the radical Left. They complemented the mechanical historical outlook already inherited from Stalin’s ‘Short Course’. Maoism provided a version of Marxism, a methodology, and a set of categories and formulations that could readily be employed by radical nationalists of an economically backward and politically oppressed country. On a more practical level the Chinese break with the Soviet Union on the basis of an apparently more radical interpretation of Marxism, helped the radical Left to separate itself from the experience of the Tudeh Party. Its inherent nationalism and its militant rhetoric appealed to the new generation of activists frustrated by the failure of the traditional parties and the oppressive political regime.

But here again ideological and theoretical shifts at the international level provided a conceptual framework for a development which was essentially indigenous. The political defeat of 1953 was a serious setback. But it was the agrarian reforms of the ’60s that sealed the fate of the traditional nationalist and liberal opposition. Politically, the reforms disarmed the conventional nationalist opposition and marked the virtual end of the National Front as an active political force. Furthermore, they helped to consolidate the autocracy and give it a modern police-state character. Economically, it dissolved all pre-capitalist forms of production and created a massive army of urban wage labourers. It marked the triumph of capitalism and integration of all sections of capital into a unified home market, eliminating the last appearances of a division within the economy between a ‘national’ and a ‘dependant’ bourgeoisie. An accelerating process of accumulation began which totally absorbed the bourgeoisie and its intellectual representatives. The bourgeoisie left the cause of liberalism and reform to the dissatisfied petty bourgeois, only to return to it later when the danger of a revolution was seriously posed. The militant Left represented this shift in the centre of gravity of national reformism from the bourgeois to the petty bourgeois. The political content and the social objectives of the struggle remained unchanged -- social reform, political liberalisation and nationalist anti-imperialism. The radical left of the ’60s and ’70s could best be described as militant national reformism -- nationalism and reformism adapted to the vision and political capacities of the petty bourgeoisie.

The Revolution and the Crisis of the Left

The revolution brought with it both a rapid expansion and a deepening politico-ideological crisis for the radical Left. All main trends entered the revolution in a state of ideological uncertainty and political confusion. The guerrilla tradition was under attack even by many of its prominent imprisoned cadres. Practical failure in Iran, disillusionment with the failed Latin American examples, and to some extent a recognition of the incompatibility of Marxism with the original conceptions of guerrillaism, definitely contributed to the emergence of this critical trend. However, the main force for a change of outlook came from the mass political movement outside prison gates, a movement which appeared to refute the fundamental premises of guerrillas’ elitist and conspiratorial politics. The Maoists were already discredited as a theoretical trend and virtually excommunicated by the main body of the Left for their blatantly Rightist positions and for their adherence to an international bloc that had hailed the likes of the Shah as symbols of ‘Third World’ stance against ‘superpowers’. Furthermore, their peasant-oriented theories and anti-feudal rhetoric were clearly being discarded by the evidently urban character of the revolution. The radical populists of the Third Line, for their part, were struggling with the problems arising from their break from the other two. They lacked a positive theoretical profile. Their recourse to Stalin and his postulations to achieve some theoretical stability proved insufficient in the face of the vigorous intellectual and theoretical upsurge of the Left during the revolution.

However, the revolution shook militant national reformism at its foundations. Within less than three years, from the winter of 1979 to the summer of 1981, the whole conceptual system of the Left had collapsed, bringing down with it its organisational edifice. No aspect of the Left’s nationalist ideology and anti-imperialist political theory escaped unscathed. The ‘dependant capitalist’ characterisation of production relations, the notion of ‘progressive national bourgeoisie’ and ‘anti-imperialist petty bourgeoisie’, the theory of revolution in stages, with a democratic revolution first dissolving the ‘pre-capitalist’ relations that allegedly dominated Iranian agriculture, old cliché classifications of an alliance of popular classes, etc. were all hastily abandoned and buried with no trace. Even ‘authorities’ such as Stalin and Mao could not be saved. By 1981, the beliefs and conceptions of 1978 seemed like superstitions of an ancient and forgotten age.

Tactically, the radical Left faltered on two closely related and central issues: first, the attitude towards the Islamic Republic and its Liberal and Pan-Islamic factions and, second, the Iran-Iraq war. The official Maoists and the Tudeh Party showed much more consistency in their tactics than the radical Left. The Maoists soon found in the liberals the very personification of their beloved ‘national bourgeoisie’ and were eventually incorporated into the ‘Coordinating Office of the President’ -- a guise for an unofficial alliance of politicians and groups united around Banisadr to fend off the Islamic Republic Party. The Tudeh Party embraced the Khomeini regime essentially for its demagogic anti-American rhetoric and remained a staunch follower of the ‘Imam’s Line’. It went to a great length to appease the hegemonic Islamic faction, to the extent of condoning and aiding the regime of terror, torture and mass executions after June 81. But for the organizations of radical Left, the Islamic Republic posed a dilemma. The problem arose from the Left’s characterization of the pre-revolution Islamic opposition as a political movement of the ‘traditional petty bourgeoisie’, a layer which in the Left’s anti-imperialist frame of thought was part of the ‘revolutionary popular alliance’. This formulation was in itself thoroughly mechanistic and non-Marxist. However, once the same characterisation was extended to the bourgeois state after the revolution, it turned into a theoretical and political catastrophe. The majority of radical Left organizations, notably the Fedaii, Peykar [6] and Razmandegan [7], hesitated and wavered, shifting from one formulation to another to resolve the contradiction between their theoretical assessment of the Islamic current and its anti-democratic, anti-communist and reactionary practices. Events such as the occupation of the American Embassy and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war added to the confusion.

The war revived the Left’s nationalist sentiments. In general, all those who harboured strong illusions in relation to the ‘anti- imperialist’ character of the state, took nationalistic and defensive positions. This position was primarily taken by organizations sympathetic to the USSR. Those organizations that had adopted more radical attitudes towards the regime generally condemned the war as a reactionary inter-capitalist one. Peykar and a number of smaller organizations close to it adopted the slogan of ‘Turning the War into a Civil War’. This position certainly showed Peykar’s determination to preserve its radicalism in the face of a general shift to the Right. But it also had a dual advantage. Firstly, it would help short-cutting the problem of the attitude towards the regime. A call for ‘civil war’ was equal to a call for the overthrow of the Islamic regime, a slogan that Peykar could not derive from its analysis of the state itself. Radical tactics could now be adopted without a radicalisation of the theory. Secondly, the position could be defended more easily by drawing simplistic parallels with the First World War and the attitude taken by Lenin and the Bolsheviks towards it. This position postponed the culmination of the ideological crisis within this line, but did not resolve it.

The organizational crisis took the shape of continuous splits and regroupings within all major trends leading to an almost total organizational disintegration. The first split within the Fedaii tradition occurred over the question of urban guerrillaism. Soon after the uprising a small section, associated with Ashraf Dehghani [8], split on the ground of the organization’s break with ‘armed struggle’ and went on to be further divided into a number of smaller un-influential groups. The second split concerned the question of the attitude towards the regime and the organization’s growing attraction towards Tudeh Party. A substantial minority, later to be joined by the ‘Left Wing of the Majority’, split in June 1980, after the editorial in the central organ, Kar, No. 59, made the shift to the Right open and explicit. The ‘Majority’ soon adopted, wholesale, the positions of the Tudeh Party and entered a process of unity with it. The ‘Majority’ suffered successive splits after 1981 and effectively disintegrated into several small groups, some a handful of people, each claiming to be the true heir of the Fedaii and fully submerged into their domestic sectarian feud. Razmandegan, already plagued by inner theoretical and political tensions, plunged into a deep crisis when its leadership took an openly pro-war stand, in 1980, in the central organ, Razmandegan, No. 35, against the generally radical tendency of its rank and file. The pro-war leadership and cadres were purged six weeks later but the organization could not avoid splits and disintegration. Peykar’s crisis came to a head with the publication of Peykar, No. 110, in July 1981. The editorial, dealing with the heightened tension within the Islamic Republic between Banisadr and the IRP, took a position favourable to the liberal faction. The article was hastily withdrawn, but the organization was already in disarray. All efforts to stage some kind of organizational restructuring or orderly factional splits failed in the absence of any factions or circles with some kind of theoretical consistency and organizational authority. Other radical Left organizations met with more or less the same fate. Vahdat-e Enqelabi (Revolutionary Unity), a broad unity of Maoist inspired Third Line organizations to the Right of Peykar, crumbled before it could really get stated, leaving behind a trail of demoralized and confused activists.

The crisis and disintegration of the main radical Left organizations was not, as it is usually claimed, a result of the massive repression of June 1981 and after. Nor was it a product of the Left’s tactical mistakes or disunity or even its alleged neglect of the political value of ‘democracy’ [9]. It was, rather, rooted in the transformation of the Iranian political economy during the last two decades. If the radical Left despite its numerical strength and political militancy appeared as a marginal force in Iranian politics during the revolution, it was because it represented the ‘socialism’ and the political practice of marginal classes. The crisis of petty bourgeois socialism and militant national reformism that formed the social essence of the radical Left was in fact long overdue. Consolidation of the capitalism after the agrarian reforms, the accelerating process of accumulation with the oil boom of the ’70s and the rise of a massive urban working class, had already turned any non-proletarian socialism into an impotent utopia. Pahlavi autocracy, intent on the suppression of any form of political intercourse, had hindered the unfolding of the inner contradictions of the radical Left. With the political crisis of 1977 and the revolution of 78-79, politics eventually ‘caught up’ with economics. Dormant contradictions were brought into the open and found their resolution in the crisis of the radical Left and its disintegration in the face of the theoretical radicalisation and social reorientation of Iranian communism. The repression of June 1981 and after once again slowed this process and prevented it from taking its full course. Nevertheless, by 1981 the ideological complexion and the organizational configuration of the Iranian radical Left had been entirely changed.

A New Polarization

The crisis of the radical Left, therefore, in no way indicated a retrogressive development. On the contrary, it marked a significant transformation and a major historical turning point. Out of the crisis of the traditional radical Left there emerged a new polarization based on trends with more stable theoretical and social characteristics:

1. A new pro-USSR pole has emerged. It endeavours to supplant the Tudeh Party in relation to the Soviet Union, reach a reconciliation with Iranian nationalism, and to gain some kind of political prestige for the pro-USSR line after the scandalous policies of Tudeh and Fedaii Majority in supporting the Islamic Republic. The most outspoken, though not the most consistent, representative of this line is Rah-e Kargar (Worker’s Path), formed during the revolution as a theoretical and political pressure group in relation to the Fedaii. This trend further includes a breakaway identified with its leader Ali Keshtgar; and also the ‘Iranian People’s Democratic Party’, recently split from the Tudeh Party. Both organizations broke to adopt more nationalist positions. All organizations belonging to this trend regard the Soviet Union as the’ fatherland of socialism’ and generally endorse its foreign policy, with the exception of cases where it concerns their own ‘fatherland’. Here, they wish to remain independent. This is their fundamental demarcation with the Tudeh tradition and their only hope for accommodating Iranian nationalism. So far, the tainted past of the Keshtgar group and the IPDP has prevented any concrete move towards unity in this line. However, it is an important pole in that it may become the core of another generation of statist national reformism, this time perhaps of a more labourist character. Recent developments in the Soviet Union will definitely have decisive consequences for this trend.

2. An intellectual ‘Iranian New Left’ has emerged among Iranian exiles who have, somewhat belatedly, rediscovered the debates and polemics within Western Marxism and the New Left [10]. Western Marxist influence was vaguely represented during the revolution by Vahdat-e Kommonisti (Communist Unity), but enjoyed only a marginal influence among the main organisations of the radical Left. The CU originated in the radicalisation of the youngest generation of National Front activists. The organization was formed in 1970 and was essentially active among Iranian students abroad. Prior to the revolution it was in contact with, and supported, guerrilla organisations inside the country, trying to reach unity with Fedaiis. They distanced themselves from the Fedaii in 1976, objecting to the latter’s ‘more pronounced Maoism and Stalinism’. During the revolution and after, CU maintained a rather stable liberal Left position, arguing against the Left’s ‘sectarianism’, Third Worldist outlook and its reluctance to unite with Mojahedin and the Left wing of Iranian bourgeois liberalism against the clergy. While emphasizing its commitment to socialism in principle, in practice and in its few programmatic proclamations, the CU never went beyond a struggle for immediate and limited political rights. It did not concern itself particularly with working class struggle and issues arising from it, did not pursue a policy of organisational expansion and remained a theoretical and propagandist group with some influence among Left intellectuals.

The Iranian ‘New Left’, while influenced by the CU, exhibits essentially different characteristics. It is much more subjectivist in theory, pessimist in outlook, and strongly adverse to practical communist activity. It signals the break of the Iranian intellectual, hitherto spontaneously leaning towards Marxism, with militant communism. It has its roots in the failure of the traditional radical Left in Iran and finds its main audience among the disillusioned and frustrated former radical Left activists. This trend is politically insignificant at the moment. But it does prepare the ideological ground and create a hard core of cadres for a possible future Right wing social-democracy.

3. A radical and militant communism has taken shape which may be characterized by its ideological and political independence from existing international poles of ‘communism’’, its reorientation towards the classical Marxian and Leninist traditions and its strong emphasis on political and organizational work among the working class. Organizationally, this trend is represented by the Communist Party of Iran. But it also includes a whole spectrum of militant workers’ circles and their informal networks. The formation of this new trend is the most significant positive result of the evolution of the Iranian radical Left during the last decade.

The Communist Party and the Prospect of Worker-Communism

The revolution initiated two important developments. First, a growing critique of ideological and theoretical premises of the petty bourgeois radical Left from a Marxist standpoint, and second, an unprecedented upsurge of the working class movement. Together the two elements created conditions most conductive for the emergence of a revolutionary Marxist organizational trend distinct from the existing radical Left.

The revolution of 1978-9 was the first major political upheaval arising from the contradictions of Iranian capitalism. It provided the first real historical opportunity for the working class to gain in the political arena the same weight it had already acquired in social production. The working class movement played a crucial role in the overthrow of the monarchy. Workers’ strikes, particularly in key industries such as oil and manufacturing, formed the backbone of the mass movement, paralysing successive military governments and inspiring mass resistance. Working class protests continued after the revolution and remained one of the central themes of political confrontation in society.

Certain features of the Iranian working class movement must be noted here. First, due to constant repression during the previous two decades and also the continuous influx of poor peasants into the ranks of workers, traditions of organized struggle were extremely weak within the Iranian working class. In the absence of mass organizations, the day-to-day struggle was led and organized by networks of circles, composed of local practical leaders and worker-agitators. Second, until the revolution, the class movement was hardly affected by the developments within the radical Left. The working class remained aloof from the intellectual and student-based socialist tradition which had subordinated the class struggle to the ‘people’s cause’ and had very little to offer in terms of policy or practical guidelines for the workers’ movement. Thirdly, by the same token, Iranian workers were not under the influence of any revisionist or reformist party capable of harnessing their spontaneous militancy. They were, and still are, on the whole much more politics-oriented than the working classes in the metropolitan capitalist countries, more concerned with the question of the state and political power and more prone to adopting militant forms of struggle.

In the course of the revolution a very favourable environment was created for the dissemination of communist ideas and even for communist organization in the working class. Many practical leaders of the workers’ movement became communists and even took up organizational activity. However, on the whole they kept their distance from the organizations of the radical Left. Many supported them, as workers inevitably do in the absence of real workers’ parties, as the more radical section of the opposition. But they did not join them on any mass scale. Despite the growth of a strong communist tradition within the working class that encompassed a very substantial number of practical leaders of the class, the radical Left remained dominated by student politics and kept its essentially intellectual character. This gulf exerted a constant pressure on radical Left organizations and was a major contributing factor in their eventual disintegration.

A parallel development could also be observed at the ideological and organizational level. Principled and revolutionary Marxism grew rapidly in the course of the revolution, questioning and criticising the whole ideological foundation of Iranian petty bourgeois socialism. This process affected all organizations of the radical Left and in particular those of the Third Line. This radicalism could be identified by a return to Marxist classics and the works of Lenin, an emphasis on the primacy of class struggle, a re-orientation towards work among the working class, and the advocacy of radical tactics. The most vocal and consistent exponent of this break with the populist Left was Ettehad-e Mobarezan-e Kommonist (Unity of Communist Militants). The UCM, formed in December 1978 and initially called Sahand started a vigorous theoretical campaign against the nationalist and populist theories and conceptions of the radical Left. It called the ‘national bourgeoisie’ a myth and the development of an ‘independent’, ‘national’ capitalism a reactionary utopia. It rejected the concept of a democratic revolution with the task of solving the agrarian question and developing forces of production, and saw the task of the current revolution as creating political and social conditions necessary for a socialist mobilization of the working class and an uninterrupted march towards a socialist revolution. It rejected the radical Left’s critique of imperialism as nationalist and anti-monopolist and endeavoured to present a critique based on the concept of class exploitation. Basing itself on an analysis of the specific characteristics of the bourgeois state in periods of revolutionary crisis, UCM characterized the Islamic Republic and both its inner factions as bourgeois and counter-revolutionary. Furthermore, UCM regarded the formation of a Leninist Party as an urgent task and saw its own theoretical polemics against populism as a means for arriving at a solid programmatic foundation for such a party. In March 1981, UCM published its programme, in which it emphasized its commitment to a communist revolution and summed up its appraisal of the urgent tasks of the communist movement. The programme, on which the CPI programme was later based, also included extensive immediate democratic and economic demands.

The ideas of UCM had a great impact on the radical Left and especially on the activists of the Third Line. Many directly joined UCM, but its real influence went much further. While UCM itself was branded as ‘leftist’ and ‘Trotskyist’, its terminology and its analyses were increasingly borrowed by the main Left organizations in their search for some theoretical consistency and in the course of their tactical turn to the Left. Strong pro-UCM factions and currents emerged in almost all major Third Line organizations, namely, Razmandegan, Peykar and Vahdat-e Enqelabi. All later joined UCM and, through it, the Communist Party.

The breakthrough, however, came from an unexpected quarter. In March 1981, the Second Congress of Komala, a communist organisation with mass support in Kurdistan and already a main pillar of the Kurdish armed resistance against the Islamic Republic, adopted positions similar to those of the UCM and openly referred to it as a vanguard of the anti-populist campaign. Komala had been formed in 1969 as an underground network of Maoist-inspired activists with a firm commitment to political work among the masses. In 1974, SAVAK arrested a large number of its leading members, but the organization was not destroyed. With the outbreak of revolution and the release of its leaders from prison, Komala soon put itself at the head of the mass movement in Kurdistan. In August 1979, only six month after the fall of the monarchy, the Islamic regime launched its military offensive against the Kurdish people. Komala called for mass armed resistance and set out to organize Pishmargeh (partisan) units. By the time of its Second Congress, it had become the natural party of the Kurdish working people and enjoyed massive support in both urban and rural areas. It not only resisted the Islamic regime, but also challenged the hegemony of the bourgeois-nationalist Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and its narrow-minded nationalism over the Kurdish movement.

Prior to its Second Congress, Komala had stood aloof from the ideological debates within the Iranian Left, concerning itself primarily with organizing and leading the movement in Kurdistan. Komala’s Second Congress tilted the balance in favour of the anti-populist trend and turned it into the strongest pole of attraction for Marxist activists. Komala and UCM began a close cooperation for the formation of the Communist Party. They drafted a joined programme, called the Programme of the Communist Party, and urged all organizations and groupings sympathetic to it to join in the struggle for the formation of the CPI. In September 1983, the Constituent Congress of the Communist Party, comprised of communist cadres with diverse organizational backgrounds, was convened in Kurdistan and the CPI was founded.

The formation of the CPI marked the final ideological and organizational break of Iranian socialism from the nationalist and populist tradition. The CPI reaffirmed class and class struggle as concepts central to its ideology and practical work. This entails a return to pre-Stalin Marxism orthodoxy. For CPI, as for Marx, socialism is primarily identified by communal ownership of the means of production and the abolition of wage labour, and not merely by the development of forces of production or state planning. The Soviet economy is characterized as state capitalist. Indeed, the CPI does not recognize any ‘socialist camps’ and does not identify with any so-called communist international poles or trends. In tactics, it emphasizes independent class action and class mobilization. It sees the working class mass movement as the main pillar of any struggle for revolutionary change. It advocates a council-ist structure for the working class mass organization and pursues the policy of strengthening the workers’ general assembly movement as the most effective means for an immediate mass organization. Unlike the populist tradition, CPI attaches great importance to the day-to-day struggle for improvements in the living and working conditions of the working class.

During the last five years the CPI has succeeded in establishing itself as the mainstream organization in Iranian socialist Left. However, its real political value lies in the part that it can, potentially, play in the development of a genuine and strong worker-communist tradition in Iran.

No amount of theoretical and political radicalisation can in itself change the social character of present-day communism and bridge the gulf that separates it from the working class. What is needed, if the proletarian communism of the Communist Manifesto is to become a reality, is a real social shift. Communism must be taken back from all those who employed it throughout the twentieth century to reform capitalism, and returned to the working class to be used against capital, for real human emancipation. A worker-communist movement must be shaped; one in which communism is once again an expression of class protest and class activity. The Iranian revolution has created the material necessary for this transition. The emergence of a vast layer of socialist and radical worker-leaders, the ideological and political bankruptcy of national reformism and petty bourgeois socialism, and the emergence of a radical Marxist party that can potentially be taken over by the working class and used as an effective instrument in the class struggle, all are decisive developments in this direction. Much still depends on the practice of the present generation of Iranian revolutionary Marxists and their ability to remain on course in the critical political turns that lay ahead. This is the test the CPI has yet to face.


1. See for instance, Val Moghaddam, ‘Socialism or Anti-imperialism? The Left and Revolution in Iran’, and the interview with Fred Halliday, ‘The Iranian Revolution and its Implications’, both in New Left Review, No. 166, November/December 1987.

2. Engels, F., ‘Letter to Marx in Paris’, October 1844. Selected Correspondence, Progress, 1975, p. 19.

3. ‘Political-Organisational’, as distinct from ‘Military’, was a term used by the advocates of this line to denote their opposition to urban guerrilla tactics.

4. Fedaii (Organisation of People’s Devotee Guerrillas) was the main urban guerrilla organisation active since 1971.

5. This point was emphasized by most radical Left organisations as their most important break from the Tudeh tradition. Indeed, the organisational differences within the radical Left were primarily centred around the tactical question of how autocracy could be overthrown.

6. Peykar (Organization of Struggle for Emancipation of the Working Class) from a split, in 1975, in Mojahedin, an Islamic guerrilla organization. A section, proclaiming itself Marxist-Leninist, practically took over the whole organization and purged those who resisted this ideological turn. In 1977, it abandoned and renounced urban guerrillaism. On the eve of the revolution it suffered further splits following a leadership crisis. The leadership was purged and the organization was split to form Peykar and two much smaller groups, Nabard and Arman. Peykar went on to become the main organization of the Third Line.

7. Razmandegan (Organization of Combatants for the Emancipation of the Working Class) originated as an M-L circle in early 1970s. It was a typical radical populist organization and for a short period during 1979-80 constituted the Left wing of the Third Line.

8. A former guerrilla, well known for her heroic resistance under torture and her escape from the Shah’s prison in early 1970s.

9. If anything, the radical Left was too ‘democrat’. The whole practice of organizations such as Peykar and Razmandegan amounted to nothing more than a continuous confrontation with the Islamic Republic over democratic demands. The radical Left’s inability to realize any democratic gains was because it was not socialist enough. It lacked any real power base within the working class to enable it to exert a real pressure on the Islamic regime.

10. This trend is not politically significant enough to be categorized as a pole in the strict sense. I include them here for two reasons. First, they represent the wave of political passivity that drowned a considerable number of ex-activists. Second, it is their account of the experience of the Iranian revolution that has gained currency in socialist journals in the West.