The book comprises a comprehensive range of crucial documents showing the foundation of left and socialist organisations in Iran in the wake of the Constitutional Revolution, and the early 1920s.

Revolutionary History, volume 10, number 2 (2010), The Left in Iran 1905-1940 (Merlin Press), 457pp.

During the revolutionary months of 1917, the most insistent slander launched against the Bolsheviks, and against Lenin in particular, was the charge of complicity with the German state. It was even said at the heights of anti-Bolshevik propaganda in July and August that Bolsheviks were paid agents of Germany. There are few charges that can be as damaging as that a political party is the plaything of foreign powers. Imperialist domination of and aggression against Persia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has made this problem particularly acute in Iran. By the end of the nineteenth century it was Britain and Russia which played the greatest part in destabilising Iran. However it was from Russia that a third and potentially more positive influence developed at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Revolutionary History, volume 10, number 2, is largely given over to Cosroe Chaqueri’s survey, analysis and collection of documents on the Iranian left between 1905 and 1940. This makes accessible in English a comprehensive range of crucial documents showing the foundation of left and socialist organisations in Iran in the wake of the Constitutional Revolution, and through the defining years past the world wide revolutionary ferment of the early 1920s.

The early social-democrats saw the lack of a proletariat, in the strict sense, as the central problem for politics in Iran, yet it was apparent to many nonetheless that a social democratic movement was needed. Imposed by imperialism, capitalist economic relations were battering Iranian society, forcing the dissolution of the old structures without filling the gap with new social forces grown from Iranian society itself. The existing ruling class squeezed the population to fund its increased expenditure on western bourgeois lifestyles. Any members of a ‘new merchant’ class were really just compradors (agents of foreign imperial interests) dependent upon western industry and patronage (p.13). Effectively Iran was being sold off piecemeal to western powers by the existing elite. This provoked the contempt and disgust of most social layers, inspiring a widespread movement for reform, in a development paralleled elsewhere in the world.

The Constitutionalist Revolution of 1905 was led by merchants and reform-minded clergy, but these groups in themselves were not able to act as an effective national bourgeoisie, or even the nearest substitute, and a vacuum of social and political power remained. By 1925 the constitutionalist period had ended with the seizure of power by Reza Shah, and while there was a controversial period of development thereafter, the imperial grip on Iran had been merely troubled, not shaken off. Worse, under Reza Shah the identification of modernisation with forces hostile to the popular classes, their traditions and religion, had become well established.

No viable Iranian popular movement was able decisively to take the lead in this period. It was the failure of a more radical revolution to emerge compared to that of the moderate constitutionalists which left the path open to authoritarian rule. The left persistently failed to adopt a strategy which would even ensure that socialism could put down strong roots in the Iranian population. Chaqueri argues that ‘at every decisive historical moment . . . when the left was to adopt a reasonable strategy that would help to provide the socio-political development of Iran . . . the leaders made decisions that either disregarded the question of democracy or sacrificed the question of a socialist orientation’ (p.17). Yet Iranian conditions did in fact provide a basis for a revolutionary socialist orientation.

By the second half of the nineteenth century Iranian peasants were producing for the world market (p.11), were subject to price shocks, loaded terms of trade and in short many of the worst aspects of capitalist relations of production. Ruined peasants migrated in huge numbers to central Asian and Middle Eastern cities, as well as America. Most importantly for the left, many went to nearby Russian centres, especially Baku. There they came across the workers’ movement, and through them socialist ideas spread back into Iran.

The moment workers and intellectuals began to apply Marxism to Iran, the character of Iranian society and its relation to developed capitalism became the crucial issue. A doctrinaire determinism typical of Second International Marxism led the way in proposing that socialism was inapplicable to Iran in the absence of a modern proletariat. Yet it was precisely capitalist imperialism that prevented the development of modern industry in Iran, and therefore the development of a proletariat (pp.138-9). A socialist politics of consistent anti-imperialism was from the start essential to a healthy development of the left. Without that, for poor peasants and semi-industrial workers the charge would always be that the left was a foreign implant into Iran, and would not effectively resist the country’s oppressors.

The first documented social democratic organisation, founded in Tabriz in 1905, immediately ran aground on these problems. One wing argued for collaboration with bourgeois democracy while the other argued that an independent socialist politics based on Iranian workers was necessary (p.14). The second group argued that the Iranian poor were sufficiently subject to capitalist market relations to make working class based socialist politics both viable and necessary.

One key organisation that emerged after 1905 was the ‘double-decker’ of FEAM and Mojahed. At its core were social-democrats but it was intended as a wide organisation whose immediate goal was a democratic Iran, combining land reform for the peasants, universal suffrage, and trade union rights for workers (p.18). Despite an important contribution to the revolution in Iran, this group, originally based in the Caucasus, soon dissolved. Its successor organisation, the ‘Adalat party, became the core of the Communist Party of Iran in 1920.

As the left wing of Iranian social-democracy was feeling its way to the creation of the CPI, the right wing were crucial in the formation of the Democratic Party of Iran. The only trade union apparently existing in Tehran around 1910, that of the printing workers, was close to the DPI. However the party was soon paralysed by the crisis of the constitutionalist revolution, and had ceased to exist by the time of the 1921 pro-British coup. At least one of its leaders drifted into the orbit of Reza Shah.

Despite the fifteen years of revolution and popular ferment, none of the organisations on the left had developed strong organisation at the grassroots. Chaqueri attributes this to organisational dependence on western models, (pp.31-2). While this is clearly true up to a point, the failure surely also arose from a passive theoretical framework which assumed there must be a ‘bourgeois’ Iran before there could be socialist leadership of the labouring strata in general, let alone socialist revolution.

The original dilemma of the left resurfaced almost as soon as the Communist Party of Iran was founded, just after the declaration of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran in the northern province of Gilan. The debate upon a programme created a serious division between the ‘national-revolutionary’ faction and the ‘pure’ communist faction (pp.34-5). The former were pledged to support even the khans (landowners) if they were ‘useful’ in the struggle against the British. In hoping to effect a ‘bourgeois’ nationalist revolution, this faction, Chaqueri points out, artificially transplanted models of European class structures onto Iran. Moreover, they risked discrediting the left in the eyes of the poor by insisting that ‘no demonstrations should be tolerated against the landlords or the bourgeosie’. Apart from cutting the communists off from the real class struggles internal to Iran, the favoured elements were of course those most likely to be bribed by imperialism. Moreover, they could not in any case accept ‘national-revolutionary’ slogans such as ‘Down with the government of the Shah’.

The ‘pure Communists’ by contrast favoured the ‘sovietisation’ of Iran, aiming to expel the British and overthrow the Shah, but through struggle against the big landlords. This had more potential, and there was to a degree an agenda of co-operation with other serious anti-imperialist constitutionalists, but this wing was undermined by some ultra-leftist tendencies. A pledge to avoid offending the religious sensibilities of the masses is undermined in the same breath by describing those ‘masses’ as dominated by ‘backwardness and ignorance’ (p.37). It seems some ill-advised anti-religious propaganda contributed to the unravelling of the soviet republic in Gilan. The mass of poor peasants and artisans were hardly likely to rally to a political banner which apparently despised them.

The divisions among Iranian communists had very serious consequences in relation to the popular Jangali movement centred in Gilan. There was at this stage a genuine opportunity for the Jangali to become an anti-imperialist force capable of changing the whole balance of forces in Iran. The Communist Party needed to have a clear and consistent strategy, neither tail-ending other forces, nor isolating itself through ultra-left posturing. In relation to the Jangali, Iranian communists ended up committing the faults of both ends of the spectrum rather more than they exploited the potential for moulding anti-imperialist forces in a socialist direction.

Chaqueri identifies the problem of land redistribution as the key issue for the soviet republic in Gilan. Prevarication over the issue led to the communists and left Jangalis carrying out a coup. On the face of it, this may have been the only hope for bringing the poor peasants into the revolution, and extending it to the rest of Iran. However, the situation remained confused, with the communists internally divided, and the break up of the revolutionary coalition followed soon after. Chaqueri finds evidence in these events of disastrous Russian meddling, originating from Stalin himself. Whoever was most at fault, the Jangali movement was wiped out in 1921, and the drift towards military dictatorship was well underway (pp.38-40). Thereafter, for all the brave and independent spirit shown by various Iranian communists, the dominance of Stalinism sabotaged most opportunities for the left to organise fruitfully, even apart from the arrest of PCI members during the Stalinist purges.

Iran certainly suffered immeasurably from the chauvinist and self-interested behaviour of the Soviet Union from early on, given Stalin’s role in the Caucasus. Yet, it was not only Stalinism which persistently discredited the left. Iranian socialists themselves sometimes made the mistake of thinking that since Iran was ‘less developed’ than the west, anti-imperialism was not ‘progressive’. Even those who supported the revolution did not always clearly see imperialist capital as the clear enemy (p.124). No genuine mass basis for the Iranian left could possibly develop unless it was done on the basis of consistent and uncompromising anti-imperialism. Any equivocation would be seen as a betrayal by too many ordinary Iranians. This is as true today as it was in the 1920s and 30s.

The present volume ends in 1940, but the problems this history raises echoes down the post-war history of the Iranian left. From the coup against Mossadegh through to the Iranian revolution of 1979, the issue of anti-imperialism has remained central to the trajectory of the Iranian left. Tragically in 1979 the left, as a result of Stalinist influence, allowed the Khomeinists to lead on the opposition to imperial capital and ultimately, by abandoning working class politics, the revolution too. The relative success of the Iranian revolution in forging a national independence from imperialism has led to an Iranian ruling class which (at least outwardly) has a monopoly on anti-imperialist politics, not just in Iran, but in the region. The struggle for the left today is to form a democracy movement which has at its heart anti-imperialist politics that call the government to account on its own supposed anti-imperialism and simultaneously recognises the working class as key to bringing about social change.

In 1911, Iranian social democrats published an international appeal stating that ‘the whole international band of rapacious reactionary governments block our path. At no price do they wish to see a free and independent Persia, since for their colonial and capitalist exploitation it matters that the Persian people remain enslaved and ruled by a venal criminal, so that they could subjugate and ruin our country more efficiently’ (p.150). Iran barely escaped the rule of the venal criminal in the twentieth century, but remains blocked by rapacious and vindictive imperial powers, determined to reduce Iran once more to a complaint client state. The left, whether in Iran or internationally, will lose all credibility with the Iranian people, all over again, if it does not firmly and absolutely oppose imperial aggression with all its energy. Again, as the Iranian social democrats said in 1911:

‘Protest against the policies of your governments concerning us. But protest above all against the iniquitous policies of Russian and British governments that are preparing to strangle the Persian people! Even if your indignant cries and protests will not help modify the policies of our enemies, we will hear them and they will fill our hearts with courage in our struggle.’

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