[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Articles such as this will appear permanently on www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com. Email us at info@MESPI.org for any inquiries.]
This Essential Reading is the first in a focused series on the The Left in the Middle East. Encompassing a broad range of entry points to researching and teaching The Left, the series emphasizes communist and socialist components.
The history and historiography of Iranian socialism and communism are myriad, plurivocal, and inevitably contentious. Like almost all national histories of socialism, they abound in emancipatory horizons, tales of unstinting bravery, and the unflappable conviction that things might have been otherwise. The first stirrings of social democracy in cities such as Tabriz during the Constitutional Revolution (1905–11), the Soviet Republic of Gilan (1920–21), the creation of the Communist Party of Iran, the activities of the group of 53, the establishment of the Tudeh (Masses) Party in the course of the Allied occupation (1941-1946), and the revolutionary guerrilla campaigns of the 1970s, stand among a multitude of examples. The scholarship collectively attests to the immense importance of socialist intellectuals, parties, organizations, and movements, as well as the role they played throughout twentieth-century Iran’s politics and history. These histories feature various casts of heroes, villains, and renegades. They are imbued with tragic pathos, sectarian polemics, and lost futures. They have been characterized by unparalleled courage, commitment, and sacrifice in the struggle for revolutionary transformation, democracy, and radical equality. Yet they have also fallen foul of dubious trade-offs, miscalculations, intra-organizational violence, and blunders, as well as the perennial challenge of survival in the face of implacable and brutal state repression—first under the Pahlavis and subsequently in the shadow of the Islamic Republic.
Fortunately, a significant literature in English and an even larger one in Persian exists and continues to flourish; produced by diverse knowledge producers, including research institutes with dubious ties to the Islamic Republic’s intelligence community, active participants and defenders of the movements themselves, former cadres turned academics, and a younger generation both captivated and/or critical of the past, while observing the global unravelling of neoliberal hegemony in both Iran and the Global North. To truly map the field, a task for another time, I would need to undertake not only a far more systematic and expansive analysis; one that would break down the different sites of struggle, the disparate stakes involved, and the relations of power at work in the production of knowledge about Iranian socialisms. It would also have to delineate the manifold cleavages within Iran and the diaspora, oppositional circles, assorted subcultures, and the state, which define these sites, stakes, and relations.
A great source of strength characterizing the histories of the Iranian left, has also been a potential source of myopia, insofar as many of those who have written about it were either members or sympathizers of one organization or another—or identified as socialists themselves. This dynamic has on occasion engendered a certain narrowness of concern and almost diagnostic approach, especially, albeit understandably in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution (e.g., What went wrong and why? Why did we lose and what was wrong with our analyses and understanding of historical materialism? Why did our preconceptions about the linearity and forward march of history come unstuck? Did we go “backwards” and why? Who were our political and intellectual forebears and what is our progressive genealogy going back to the advent of the 20th century? Who are the sectarian villains deserving of our condemnation and who has been vindicated and foresaw our tragic fate?) There is a clear sense of ownership at work in almost all of these histories.
More importantly, at least in my mind, is how the provenance of a lot of the scholarship on Iranian socialism has engendered considerable introspection and reflection on questions around gender and patriarchy, problems of internal democracy and lack thereof, the relationship between ethnic, regional identity, and class, to wit, intersectionality, federalism and regional autonomy, statism versus localism, secularism and complacency around the inexorability of secularization, historicism and Eurocentric developmentalism and much else besides. Recent scholarship has benefited from the passage of time and the fact that key questions and conjunctures have ceased to be overdetermined by the same degree and quality of psychic investment and political urgency they once had been. More archival sources and memoirs become available, as once flared tempers simmer and display a readiness to engage and dialogue in a way they previously had not. Just as theoretical and methodological innovations have allowed scholars to foreground questions and aspects of these movements that would otherwise have been neglected or cast aside as inconsequential. It is very much a field of enquiry that remains open-ended and in the process of development and has fed into important debates around Iranian social and labor history, subaltern studies and the categories of the “international” and the “transnational”.
The history of the Iranian socialism has also been given a second wind by academic historians’ turn to the “global” and the desire to complicate some of the preconceptions and hidden assumptions of conventional national historiography. In line with recent methodological innovations there has also been impetus to challenge various nationalist verities which socialist intellectuals and movements steeped in internationalism were potentially best placed to disrupt, overturn and challenge. Furthermore, in light of the so-called “decolonial” turn, the impulse to re-examine and retrieve from oblivion those thinkers and movements who have subverted and unsettled the dogmas of Euro-American liberalisms, has been enlivened and pursued with renewed vigor. Undeniably, much of this is driven by the latest academic fads and trends, but this literature and its evolution can hardly be reduced to such or even presentist concerns around spiraling inequality and the devastation wrought by the Washington Consensus or the unfulfilled promises of reformism in post-revolutionary Iran.
Finally, I have sought to be as ecumenical as possible given the considerable gaps which persist in English and thereby cite literature which conveys the broad range and variety of socialist and communist organizations, groups and orientations, ranging from pro-Soviet and Stalinist to democratic socialist critics of communism, independently-minded Marxist-Leninists looking to Latin America, radicals who rejected the binds of Leninist “democratic centralism”, Maoists, and communists who placed the question of ethnic minorities front and center. Despite their differences, they were well aware of their socialist and communist contemporaries, and disputed one another’s analyses of class, state, modes of production, revolution and reformism, mass politics and armed struggle, and the form socialist transition might take. Envisioning themselves in the tradition of Marx and Engels and identifying with one or numerous of their incongruous progeny, they saw themselves in conversation with Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries the world over and practiced internationalist solidarity in multiple registers. They fiercely battled over their respective interpretations of foundational thinkers such as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, “Western Marxists” such as Gramsci and Poulantzas, but also Marxist intellectuals associated with and around Monthly Review, such as Baran and Sweezy, Gunder Frank and Samir Amin, where U.S. monopoly capitalism and imperialism and “the development of underdevelopment” became a pervasive lingua franca.
Sepehr Zabih, The Communist Movement in Iran (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966).
Sepehr Zabih, a liberal nationalist journalist turned scholar, was among the first to write about the history of Iranian communism in English. Though somewhat dated and at times inclined to reprise the prejudices of Cold War confrontation, it still provides a useful account of the origins of the Justice Party (Ferqeh-ye ‘edalat), the organization that in 1920 would become the Iranian Communist Party. He also addresses the Jangali movement led by the legendary Mirza Kuchak Khan and the short-lived Gilan republic, the emergence of the Tudeh Party in 1941, and its development following the Second World War, the brief moment when it enjoyed three ministerial portfolios in the government of the notoriously wily aristocrat, Qavam al-Saltaneh, as well as its proscription in 1949, and repression in the aftermath of the MI6-CIA orchestrated coup against the popular-nationalist government of Mohammad Mosaddeq.
Zabih’s book was also one of the first scholarly descriptions in English of the heady days of mass action and strikes spearheaded by the Central Council of the Trade Unions of Iran during the 1940s, within which the Tudeh came to exert considerable influence. The Tudeh Party’s role in the labor movement is also addressed in depth in chapters 3 and 4 of Habib Ladjevardi’s Labor Unions and Autocracy in Iran (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1985). For more on the Tudeh Party’s role and positions during the 1953 coup Siavush Randjbar-Daemi’s article makes compelling reading: “‘Down with the Monarchy’: Iran’s Republican Moment of August 1953,” Iranian Studies 50, no. 2 (2017): 293–313. Zabih’s book also provides a useful account of the Azerbaijan crisis of 1946, the collapse of the Pishevari government, and the fall out of the crisis from the vantage point of the Tudeh Party, the various splits and debates which ensued within the party at the end of the 1940s, as well as the shift from a broad-based frontal politics to a more vanguardist orientation in the late 1940s-early 1950s.
Cosroe Chaqueri, ed., The Left in Iran, 1905-1940 (London: Merlin Press, 2010) and Cosroe Chaqueri, ed., The Left in Iran, 1941-1957 (London: Merlin Press, 2011).
The late Cosroe Chaqueri was arguably the pre-eminent chronicler and archivist of the Iranian left. A one-time central committee member of the Confederation of Iranian Students (National Union), Chaqueri was renowned for the assiduousness and enthusiasm with which he would track down rare documents long forgotten or thought to be irretrievably lost. His service to the study of the Iranian socialism was and continues to be of inestimable value to future generations, even if his interpretations of certain events, personages and controversies can at times be idiosyncratic, polemical and/or controversial. This is particularly in regard to the at times almost prosecutorial tone of his writings concerning the Tudeh Party of Iran as well as parts of the scholarship dealing with the party, which is indissociable from his own political-historiographical project of trying retrieve and revive those Iranian experiments in social democracy during the first decades of the twentieth century before the impact of Stalinism and orthodox Soviet Marxism cast such a long (and in certain respects irreparable) shadow.
The first volume provides an introduction outlining the origins of Iran’s first social democratic organization, the Ferqeh-ye ejtema’iyun ‘ammiyun, as well as the Justice Party and its successor the Iranian Communist Party, all the way through to the Arani Group, which is often regarded as comprising the nucleus of what would eventually become the Tudeh Party. The first volume contains a multitude of translated primary sources such as the “Social-Democratic Manifesto” (1908) and Archavir Tchilinkirian’s correspondence with the famed Marxist theoretician and critic of the Bolsheviks, Karl Kautsky. Throughout the 1920s socialist and labor activism gathered pace and by 1931 was thought to pose significant enough of a threat that in 1931 the Pahlavi regime took the step of banning “collectivist ideologies” altogether. There is, however, a great deal more of interest to be found between its pages and we can hardly begin to scratch the surface here.
Chaqueri’s monograph on social democracy in Iran, Origins of Social Democracy in Modern Iran (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), supplements this volume and provides an insightful history of Ferqeh-ye ejtema’iyun ‘ammi’yun, and the politicization of Iranian immigrants hailing from the Caucasus, which contributed in turn to the a revolutionary groundswell enveloping Tabriz, Zanjan, Qazvin and Rasht, as well as the prominent role of Armenian revolutionary intellectuals and political activists in places such as Gilan, in the run up to and during the Constitutional Revolution. Chapter 7 delineates a comprehensive picture of the Democratic Party of Iran (Ferqeh-ye demokrat-e Iran) during 1909-11, in his words, “the first European-style party created in Iran”, the activities of well-known revolutionaries such as Sayyid Hasan Taqizadeh and Haydar Khan Amu Oghli, and its exceptional newspaper Iran-e now.
The second volume of The Left in Iran covers the period of 1941 to 1957 and delineates in considerable detail the establishment of the Tudeh Party, its First Congress, the “Azerbaijan Crisis” of 1946 and demise of the Pishevari government, the first government in modern Iranian history to embark upon a sweeping program of land reform and approve women’s suffrage. Its historiographical essays continue to be useful, but it should be borne in mind that they are replete with polemic and at times personal vitriol, and thus need be read and handled with care. This volume also contains manifold primary sources of the Tudeh Party through the 1940s and the Musaddiq period (1951-53), and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, US State Department and Foreign Office assessments of the state of the Tudeh and the “threat” it was held to pose to British and American interests.
More contentiously, largely because other researchers have not yet been able to independently verify the claim due to lack of access to the relevant archives, Chaqueri made the argument that “[t]here is now little doubt that the creation of the [Tudeh Party of Iran] as a ‘democratic front’, with a group of Communist cadres as its nucleus, was a plan proposed by the Comintern, and effected by the Political Department of the Soviet Army occupying northern Iran.” It is a claim (originally made in an article published in 1999) whose significance remains disputed. The manner in which it was framed, moreover, raises a slew of historical and analytical problems of its own which we unfortunately cannot parse in requisite detail here. None of this is to deny or under-sell Chaqueri’s immense contribution, which is in many respects exceptional.
Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982).
Ervand Abrahamian’s book is without doubt a seminal contribution to modern Iranian history and works in various registers, beginning with an account of Qajar Iran and the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11 and concluding in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. But crucially for our purposes it also heavily draws upon his brilliant doctoral dissertation of 1969 focusing on the Tudeh Party, and still offers an unsurpassed account in English of the first decade of the party’s existence and its variegated social base, examining in granular detail its support amongst intellectuals and the salaried middle classes, urban working class, peasantry and ethnic minorities. One of the more notable insights which comes through in Abrahamian’s analysis is that in the mid-1940s while the Tudeh had been well-nigh hegemonic amongst the intelligentsia and a large swathe of the working classes employed in the textile and oil industries, it had proven far less successful amongst the petit-bourgeoisie and the rural peasantry.
A forthcoming article by Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, “The Tudeh Party of Iran and the Peasant Question, 1941-1953” however, seeks to complicate this picture, laying out in detail the true extent of the Tudeh Party’s activities amongst the peasantry and the considerable reaction provoked in conservative quarters in a bid to coopt and soften the edge of popular agitation and rural grievances.
Younes Jalali, Taghi Erani, a Polymath in Interwar Berlin (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).
Jalali’s recent political and intellectual biography of Taqi Erani has filled a palpable gap in English regarding the study of Iranian socialist ideas and intellectuals during the 1920s-1930s. And though evidently not the work of an academically-trained historian, for what it lacks in precision and rigor it makes up with its upbeat and entertaining narrative which at times reads like a crime novel. He traces Erani’s childhood in Tabriz, intellectual prowess as an adolescent at the Dar ol-fonun, eventual move to Berlin to study chemistry during the Weimar era where he allegedly attended the lectures of Albert Einstein and Max Planck. The book also charts his transformation from “integrative nationalist” (a term Ervand Abrahamian has used to describe a contemporary of Erani, namely, Ahmad Kasravi) to proponent of cosmopolitan socialism. As a veritable polymath, Erani wrote on a range of topics ranging from Einstein’s theory of relativity to linguistics, Persian literature and Islamic mysticism. Doctorate in hand, Erani would return to Iran to become a respected figure, while at the same time gathering around him a group of young intellectuals and writers, to publish the seminal modernist journal Donya (The World) between 1934-35. Jalali also describes in detail the lead up to Erani’s eventual arrest, where he and his comrades would be placed on trial and find themselves immortalized as the “Group of Fifty-Three” (several of whom would go on to establish the Tudeh Party, while half of those swooped up by Reza Shah’s security services were simply unlucky bystanders). Erani was tragically murdered in prison at the age of 38, but for many continues to represent an intellectual ideal of an independently-minded socialist and cosmopolitan intellectual. Afshin Matin-asgari has also covered this period with flare in chapter 3 of his book, Both Eastern and Western: An Intellectual History of Iranian Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Homa Katouzian, Khalil Maleki: The Human Face of Iranian Socialism, Radical Histories of the Middle East (London: Oneworld, 2018).
Homa Katouzian’s biography of the socialist, Khalil Maleki, who famously broke with the Tudeh Party in 1948, is not only the first biography of a unique political activist and thinker, but is also based on direct knowledge of the man and close observation of the vicissitudes of his political career as well as studious engagement with his often-prescient writings. Katouzian edited Maleki’s memoirs and letters in Persian and in this monograph draws upon his deep familiarity with Maleki and the different organizations he led e.g. the Toilers Party, Third Force and Socialist League, in order to draw a compelling picture of his courageous struggle for democracy and defense of the national movement at the height of the oil nationalization crisis (1951-53), in addition to his understanding of democratic socialism, critique of conspiratorial thinking, and advocacy of non-alignment.
In a co-authored article with Yaacov Yadgar, “Jalal’s Angels of Deliverance and Destruction: Genealogies of Theo-politics, Sovereignty and Coloniality in Iran and Israel,” Modern Intellectual History (August 2019), I critically examine Khalil Maleki’s assessment of socialist Zionism alongside those of other socialist intellectuals such as Dariush Ashuri and Jalal Al-e Ahmad, in order to bring out some of the deeper presuppositions underlying his own theorization of the transition to socialist society in so-called “underdeveloped” societies and the occlusion of coloniality.
Stephanie Cronin, ed., Reformers and Revolutionaries in Modern Iran: New Perspectives on the Iranian Left (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004).
This volume edited by Stephanie Cronin, a pioneer of Iranian history from below, contains a range of pertinent chapters on the Iranian left from a variety of perspectives by some of the most prominent scholars working in the field of modern Iranian history. Pezhmann Dailami’s chapter on the Iranian Soviet Republic of Gilan and the Jangali movement based on his doctoral research undertaken at the University of Manchester is a must, Stephanie Cronin’s chapter on the great communist poet, Abulqasim Lahuti, and his role in the Tabriz insurrection of January 1922 is similarly a classic, and Touraj Atabaki’s remarkable account of Iranian communists who fled persecution in Iran only to perish in Stalin’s purges of the mid-1930s, is equally illuminating. All have profoundly advanced our understanding of not only the varieties of Iranian socialism and their mixed fortunes, but also their challenges and internal contradictions, defeats, tragedies and afterlives.
Afshin Matin-asgari, Iranian Student Opposition to the Shah (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Pub, 2002).
Matin-asgari’s book is the definitive work in English on the Confederation of Iranian Students (National Union) formed in 1962. The CISNU went on to become one of the most effective oppositional organizations abroad in the struggle against the Pahlavi regime, which despite its ban, ultimately achieved a membership of around 5000-6000. Its influence ranged far and wide across Europe and the United States, from politicians and the nascent human rights NGO sector to Afro-Asian liberation movements. The Confederation also acted as a crucial arena where political activists from across the ideological spectrum could test their mettle and seek to impact the broader politics of the anti-Shah movement. Matin-asgari’s account of the radicalization of the student movement and its adoption of an increasingly revolutionary political platform encompassing Marxist-Leninists of various stripes, Maoists, Islamists and others, remains indispensable for understanding the period.
Maziar Behrooz, Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999).
Behrooz’s book is based on his doctoral research conducted under the supervision of one of the doyens of modern Iranian history, Nikki Keddie, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the Iranian left. One of its chief strengths is its breadth and brevity, covering many of the various parties, organizations, movements and tendencies which emerged during the second half of the 20th century. It thus covers the emergence of the Tudeh Party, the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, as well as the succeeding generation’s turn to armed struggle following the uprising and repression of the protests of June 1963. Improved relations between the Pahlavi regime and Soviet Union, at least two devastating SAVAK infiltrations of the Tudeh Party, as well its muddled response to the Shah’s “White Revolution” in tandem with a process of authoritarian upgrading and consolidation, only went to galvanize the fury of a new generation of militants.
Importantly, the book analyses the respective genealogies of the Organization of the Iranian People’s Fada’i Guerrillas, the People’s Mojahedin (M-L), the Revolutionary Organization of the Tudeh Party of Iran (Sazman-e enqelabi-ye hezb-e Tudeh-ye Iran) (former Tudeh activists inspired by the Cuban Revolution and under the sway of the Sino-Soviet split and who condemned the Soviet Union for “social imperialism” and accused both it and the Tudeh Party of “revisionism”).
In the latter chapters it discusses the fate of these groups, amongst others, following the collapse of the ancien régime in February 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. In the final chapter entitled “Why the Failure?”, Behrooz attempts to diagnose the reasons behind the left’s weakness and why it ultimately proved incapable of resisting its seemingly inexorable extirpation at the hands of the Khomeinists. In the words of Behrooz, “[b]ecause of the anti-imperialist paradigm, Iranian Marxists were ultimately unable to distinguish between the political independence of the IRI, vis-à-vis foreign powers, and the Islamists’ intention of creating a theocracy.” An argument which was also mounted by Val Moghadam in her “Socialism or Anti-Imperialism? The Left and Revolution in Iran,” New Left Review, no. 166 (Nov.-Dec. 1987).
It should be added that chapter 6 of Ervand Abrahamian’s brilliant, Radical Islam: The Iranian Mojahedin (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 1989), is also illuminating with respect to what was effectively a coup by the Marxist faction within the People’s Mojahedin, resulting in the assassination of Majid Sharif-Vaqefi, one of the prominent leaders opposing such a takeover.
Haideh Moghissi, Populism and Feminism in Iran: Women’s Struggle in a Male-Defined Revolutionary Movement (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1994).
Moghissi’s book pursues a kind of autocritique of the Iranian left and its perpetuation of patriarchal culture and mores and how this created a climate of myopia with respect to the Islamist political program and its implications for women’s liberation. In her own words, the book endeavors to uncover what she contends were “the left’s anti-feminist perceptions, discourses and actions”. Furthermore, she makes the case that the “sexism and masculine values that dominated the Fedaii Organization were a problem of the Iranian political culture” and its confluence with “macho guerrilla culture”.
Hammed Shahidian, “The Iranian Left and the ‘Woman Question’ in the Revolution of 1978–79, International Journal of Middle East Studies 26, no. 2 (May 1994): 223–47.
This article by the late Hammed Shahidian, a one-time sympathizer of the OIPFG (Minority), published in the same year as Moghissi’s monograph is a classic analysis of the “woman question” and the theoretical and political shortcomings of Iranian Marxist-Leninist organizations on this score. While acknowledging leftist movements’ decisive role in championing women’s rights and highlighting the plight of working-class women in the course of the 20th century, he provides a sophisticated analysis and explanation for the OIPFG’s rather lackluster response to the violent repression of women who objected to and mobilized in the face of the authoritarian imposition of mandatory veiling and the highly detrimental Bill of Retribution (layehha-e qisas) following the 1979 Revolution. Shahidian also delves into the reasons why the Iranian left was at times wont to derisively underplay or slough off altogether the question of women’s liberation as an epiphenomenal concern. Such demands were at times regarded with suspicion and accused of “bourgeois deviationism” or acting as vessels of “cultural imperialism”. They were also often rebuffed, and it was insisted upon that women’s legitimate grievances would only be resolved with the triumph of proletarian revolution. Shahidian describes how women cadres in militant organizations were urged to de-sex themselves and expected to dress modestly in loose clothing and thereby represent a counterpoint to the crass consumerism and the objectification of women prevailing during the decades of late Pahlavi capitalist authoritarianism. Shahidian is clear that this ideological world-view was quite specific to the 1960s and 1970s and by no means characterized all of Iran’s socialist and communist organizations and thinkers and should be seen in relation to other political forces at the time, which almost invariably harbored an even more problematic and retrograde stance on the question of women’s equality. Moreover, one has to be careful not to overlook or occlude the pioneering work of socialist women activists from the late 1920s through to the 1950s which advanced the cause of women’s rights, as well as their access to education, healthcare and general welfare in unprecedented fashion and long before Mohammadreza Pahlavi’s state feminism found itself touted in western capitals.
Peyman Vahabzadeh, A Guerrilla Odyssey: Modernization, Secularism, Democracy and the Fadai Period of National Liberation, 1971-79 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010).
While Maziar Behrooz and Ervand Abrahamian had previously written noteworthy histories of the Organization of the Iranian People’s Fada’i Guerrillas, Peyman Vahabzadeh, was the first to pen a full-length English-language monograph about them. Apart from providing a survey of the OIPFG’s history, with its origins in the “Jazani-Zarifi Group” and “Ahmadzadeh-Puyan-Meftahi Group” and discussion of when exactly it evolved from more of a platform for diverse militant groupings to an actual unified and singular “organization”. Vahabzadeh also delineates a demythologized account of the iconic guerrilla assault on the gendarmerie at Siahkal in February 1971, and furnishes an elaborate exegesis and analysis of the writings of its leading thinkers and theorists such as Bijan Jazani, Mas’ud Ahmadzadeh, Amir-Parviz Puyan, and Mostafa Sho’aiyan. He also covers the People’s Fada’i Guerrillas intra-organizational assassination of a handful of members, some of whom wished to leave the organization and were deemed a security risk and at least once instance where an “illicit” love affair with another comrade had been cited as the reason. Apart from this final case, there continues to be serious debate as to whether these intra-organizational assassinations ought to be viewed as ideological purges or put down to security breaches. A matter we cannot possibly resolve here. In any event, it demonstrates the organization’s history is more complicated than some of its supporters are prepared to admit.
The scholar Ali Rahnema is set to publish a major addition to the literature on the OIPFG in English in the coming year. Call to Arms: Iran’s Marxist Revolutionaries, Radical Histories of the Middle East (London: Oneworld, 2021) is a vast and granular history stretching over several hundred pages and reaching up to 1976, the year in which the incumbent leader of the organization, Hamid Ashraf, was killed in a raid by the SAVAK.
Vahabzadeh recently developed his initial article-length studies of the “maverick theorist” and one-time OIPFG member turned critic, Mostafa Sho’aiyan, and his conception of “frontal politics” into a comprehensive political and intellectual biography, A Rebel’s Journey: Mostafa Sho’aiyan and Revolutionary Theory in Iran, Radical Histories of the Middle East (London: Oneworld, 2019), examining not only his fascinating retelling of the Jangali movement and profound contribution to radical thought inside Iran, but also his continued relevance for emancipatory anti-capitalist struggles and Global South solidarity in the present.
Asef Bayat, “Historiography, Class, and Iranian Workers,” in Workers and Working Classes in the Middle East: Struggles, Histories, Historiographies, ed. Zachary Lockman (Albany: State University of New York, 1994).
Asef Bayat’s chapter in this important edited volume is an insightful reflection on the historiography of the Iranian working classes. He provides a useful survey and assessment of Tudeh writings on political economy, Iranian capitalist development and its corresponding class structures, as well as these accounts attendant deficiencies, substituting a selective history of the party organization and communist movement for the realities of working class life, everyday experience and practices and consciousness in all its empirical richness and diversity. He adds in this vein that, “the [Tudeh] historiographies seem to have, albeit in varying degrees, a teleological and essentialist conception of the working class”. By contrast, Bayat’s own approach takes its point of departure from and adapts to the Iranian case the theoretical and methodological innovations of several luminaries of British labor history, including E.P. Thompson and Gareth Stedman Jones, amongst others. It was also written in light of the pioneering scholarship of individuals associated with the Subaltern Studies collective such as Guha, Chatterjee, Spivak and Chakrabarty, who from at least the mid-1980s, had been challenging in fundamental ways many of the preconceptions and premises of more conventional Marxist histories of South East Asia.
Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, “The Origins of Communist Unity: Anti-Colonialism and Revolution in Iran’s Tri-Continental Moment,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 45, no. 5 (2017): 796–822.
In this article I provide the first scholarly account of the Organization of Communist Unity, a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary organization which coalesced out of the National Front of Iran and its Organizations abroad. In the aftermath of the MI6/CIA-orchestrated 1953 coup d’état, a new generation of political activists left Iran for Europe and the United States to pursue their higher education. While politically active in the Organizations of the National Front Abroad, they gradually turned to revolutionary Marxism-Leninism against the backdrop of the torrential waves of decolonization and resistance to imperial military interventions undulating across the Global South. This same constellation of activists was not only fiercely anti-imperialist, but also opposed any form of dependence on the U.S.S.R. or the People’s Republic of China. They would move from Europe and the United States to establish themselves in several locations across the Arab world, and pursue political activism and their advocacy of guerrilla warfare, as part of their ambition to launch a national liberation struggle against the Pahlavi regime. By examining Communist Unity’s predecessors and their manifold transnational ideological, political and logistical networks with like-minded revolutionary movements across the Middle East, this article brings to the fore hitherto underexplored South–South connections and situates Iran’s revolutionary opposition within the global moment of ‘1968’.
Naghmeh Sohrabi, “Remembering the Palestine Group: Global Activism, Friendship, and the Iranian Revolution,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 51, no. 2 (2019): 281–300.
In this article Naghmeh Sohrabi provides a fascinating account of the Palestine Group, a loosely connected group of anti-Shah activists who were arrested while crossing the Iranian border into Iraq en route to receive military training from the Palestinian fedayeen. The activists were publicly tried in 1970 for the crimes of acting against the Pahlavi monarchy and Iran’s national security, and emerged as a cause célèbre attracting the support of world-renowned intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre. Indeed, one of the tried activists, Shokrollah Paknejad’s court defense in which he describes his arrest and torture would be smuggled out of prison and go on to achieve an iconic status for Iranian radicals around the globe. Sohrabi also provides a compelling account of the Palestine Group’s profound investment in myriad struggles raging across the Global South and in which solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian liberation played a central role and was seen as intertwined with Iran’s own liberation, as well as highlighting the centrality of “friendship circles” to radical activism during this period and how the latter relate to more conventional forms of organizational politics.
Abbas Vali, “The Formation and Structure of the Komalay Shoreshgeri Zahmatkeshani Kurdistani Iran (The Revolutionary Association of the Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan),” in The Forgotten Years of Kurdish Nationalism in Iran (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
This chapter by one of the leading scholars of modern Kurdish politics and nationalism in Iran, analyses the establishment of the Revolutionary Association of the Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan on the eve of the 1979 revolution and the early tensions between its professed advocacy of revolutionary socialism and a more narrowly conceived ethno-populism. In Vali’s words, “the political basis of the KSZKI’s ethnic populism in Kurdistan grew in an inverse ratio to the political basis of its communist class discourse in Iran.”
The KSZKI’s rejection of the progressive role of the national bourgeoisie and thus the Islamic Republic due to its alleged “bourgeois character”, and its concomitant repudiation of the anti-imperialist left consensus, which included the Tudeh and Fada’i (Majority), who had pledged their support to the new regime, would form the backdrop of its later merger with the Communist Party of Iran. Vali also highlights the problems of the newly constituted Kurdistan Organization of the Communist Party of Iran-Komala, which despite its commitment to Kurdish self-determination partook in crude class reductionism vis-à-vis the national question contending that “socialist revolution was not only the historical condition of possibility of the ‘bourgeois’ doctrine of national rights but also the legitimate means of its realisation.”
Ervand Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1999).
Ervand Abrahamian’s remarkable history of confinement and prisons and the practice of torture in modern Iran from Reza Shah to the Islamic Republic is another landmark of scholarship. The book’s relevance here is its extensive use of memoirs and recollections from Iranian socialists who found themselves persecuted, chased and hounded throughout the 20th century and under the regimes of both the Pahlavis and the Islamic Republic. Chapter 5 addresses the circumstances leading up to the forced confessions of leading Tudeh Party figures, some of whom such as Noureddin Kianuri and Ehsan Tabari, were approaching their seventies at the time, and Tabari’s infamous “conversion” to Islam under duress in prison. The humiliation and degradation were exacerbated even further in view of the fact that for almost four decades Tabari had served as the Tudeh Party’s pre-eminent intellectual and ideologue. Chapter 6 provides one of the earlier descriptions in English of perhaps the most harrowing chapter of the Islamic Republic’s judicial history, the mass prison executions of 1988, in which approximately 3000-4000 political prisoners, many who were slated for release, were peremptorily executed. Though the overwhelming majority of those executed hailed from the Islamist People’s Mojahedin, many radicals from across militant socialist groups were also indiscriminately executed in the course of the massacre. Nasser Mohajer’s forthcoming book, Voices of a Massacre: Untold Stories of Life and Death in Iran, 1988 (London: Oneworld, 2020), reconstructs the events of that bloody summer by bringing together decades of scholarly research, oral testimony and other primary sources for the first time in English.
Due to limitations of time and space, I have had to leave out several illuminating pieces of research shedding invaluable light on various aspects of the history of Iran’s socialist and communist movements. As previously intimated, an adequate appraisal of the current state of the field would necessitate a far more elaborate overview and would require serious consideration of the scholarship in Persian as well.
There are still, however, a great many issues and areas which require further research in the coming years. These include the ongoing exploration of Russian archives alongside those of other former Soviet republics, accessible archives in the Arab world and Arab-Iranian connections in Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, Maoism in Iran and the experience of those Iranian radicals who travelled to and lived in China, socialism and its profound impact on popular culture from at least the 1940s through to the revolution, post-revolutionary Iran’s left-wing melancholia and nostalgia both in European exile and Iran itself in the aftermath of years of brutal suppression, imprisonment and forced escapes, ethnographies on how leftist iconography and keywords have been imbibed by a new generation and manifested in various café and sub-cultures, but also virulently attacked by a nouveau riche class and set of self-styled “technocrats”.
Indeed, one could make the case that the history of Iranian socialism continues to haunt the present, from the revival of Sa’id Soltanpur’s “Aftabkaran-e jangal” anthem in the wake of the defeat of the 2009 Green Movement (Soltanpur was executed in June 1981 by the Islamic Republic because of his support for the Minority faction of the Fada’i Guerrillas, which subsequently advocated armed struggle against the newly established theocratic-populist regime), to the steady uptick in radical labor activism exemplified by the coming to prominence of the Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane Mill Labor Syndicate, and the charismatic trade unionist, Esma’il Bakhshi, as well as the longstanding and sophisticated interest in Marxian social theory and socialist politics among Iranian university students, even prompting conspiratorial comments from Ayatollah Khamenei himself.
Thus, not only are the histories of Iranian socialism and communism open to investigation, their future is open-ended as well and will continue to be articulated and rethought through disparate sites of struggle going forward.