How the Anti-Democratic Iranian Left Paved the Way for Khomeini


[Following are remarks by Danny Postel at a November 5, 2009, conference in Chicago entitled "30 Years of the Islamic Revolution: The Tragedy of the Left" hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society. Postel is a progressive activist in Chicago with a long-time interest in Iran. He is the author of Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism. His comments are important in highlighting the hostility toward democratic institutions of an important section of the Marxist left, which, as Postel says, "helped fashion the noose the Islamists ultimately hung them with." I am indebted to Norman Geras' Normblog for calling my attention to this conference.]

* **

In the conventional narrative of the Iranian Left the answer to our question has long been, "Yes." The 1979 Revolution was a failure insofar as it was hijacked by one faction of a broader coalition that included the Iranian revolutionary Left. The faction in question was the Islamist or Khomeinite faction, which, once it gained control, proceeded to decimate, destroy, murder, imprison, and drive into exile its erstwhile comrades. There is a lot of truth to this leftist narrative, but it is only part of the story. It is largely self-exculpatory and elides the role the Iranian Left played in its own immolation. An account of this self-defeat can be found in Maziar Behrooz's book, Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran, a salutary and, indeed, definitive reconsideration of the history of the pre-revolutionary Iranian Left.

As Maziar explains, the Iranian Left, or at least certain key fractions of it, helped fashion the noose the Islamists ultimately hung them with. According to Behrooz, the Khomeinites were able to do this in large part because the Tudeh party, the Fadaiyan Majority, and many other Iranian Marxist parties, whatever their differences with the Islamists, shared with them a profound hostility toward liberalism. Like [Ruhollah al-Musavi] Khomeini's followers, dominant trends on the Iranian Left viewed democratic rights, civil liberties, and women's rights as no more than elements of what they described interchangeably as "western," "colonial," or "bourgeois" ideology.

On the basis of Behrooz's analysis of the critical failings of the Iranian Left, I would say we must revise the Iranian Left's usual answer to the question and answer it instead in the negative. No, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was not a tragedy for the Left, for tragedies befall innocence; they happen to people who have no idea of, and are not responsible for, the fate that awaits them.

This raises another question: Is it in fact a tragedy that the Stalinists and Maoists who made up the great majority of the left in Iran in the 1960s and 1970s did not take power? After all, virtually all Iranian leftists of the 1960s and 1970s were either Stalinist or Maoist. In light of this, I would argue that what followed in the wake of the 1979 Revolution was not so much a tragedy for the Iranian Marxist "Left" then in existence, as it was a tragedy for the project of the Left per se. For the genuinely leftist project of internationalism and human emancipation, the profoundly authoritarian, repressive, reactionary, and proto-fascist regime that emerged out of the Revolution and has ruled Iran ever since is certainly tragic but also, and more accurately, catastrophic. But what are the lessons to be learned?

There are both external and internal factors in the destruction of the Iranian Left. The external factors are obviously the brutality of the Islamists who took over and Iran's strategic position in the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and USSR. These factors are certainly important, but Behrooz's book rightly zeroes in on the internal factors. Of these, he considers the Left's tunnel-vision anti-imperialism most essential. Khomeini's gang may have disdained professedly secular, rational socialists, but on the Left the argument went that, because they were anti-American and anti-imperialist, the Khomeinites were "objectively progressive."

We now know that the Left's was a demented, disfigured, ultimately catastrophic argument, one that had lethal consequences for those who propounded it. There was nothing progressive about Khomeini's anti-imperialism. It was authoritarian and regressive, as is [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's anti-imperialism today. Whether Khomeini's rhetoric was truly anti-imperialist is open to debate‰ÛÓbut to the extent it was, it amounted to no more than an anti-imperialism of fools.

What were some of the consequences of the Iranian Marxist Left's view that the anti-imperialist, anti-American rhetoric of the Khomeinites was "objectively progressive"? As mentioned earlier, it led to a rejection of the demands for human rights advanced by feminists, democratic liberals, and nationalists. Rather than sympathizing with and advancing their demands, many on the Left in Iran in 1979 regarded feminism as a bourgeois colonial ideology. Because of this many Iranian Marxists sided with extreme reactionary forces within the new Islamic government as they repressed feminism, beating women and suppressing their demands. Similarly, when newspapers were shut down, many Iranian Marxists defended not their right to publish their views, but the regime's supposed responsibility to close them down! Here again the logic was the same: Liberal and nationalist newspapers were neo-colonial and bourgeois. Such actions, justified in the name of anti-imperialism, constituted a catastrophic turn down the dark ally of anti-liberalism. The Left mistakenly viewed liberalism as part of a toxic, global, colonial project rather than viewing it, as Marx himself did, as being necessary but insufficient‰ÛÓor, better, insufficient but bloody necessary‰ÛÓto the project of socialism and liberation.