Islam, Marxism and Revolution in Iran
Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution is arguably the “modern era’s last great revolution.” How could clergymen, steeped in esoteric medieval writings, incite a popular upheaval in a country with at least half a century of modern development? It is commonly perceived the resurgence of revolutionary Shiʿism in Iran was an indigenous phenomenon, inspired solely by Shia traditions. Alternatively, some experts argue that it was in fact the ramping Marxism in Iran that helped the Islamists fulfill their revolutionary dream. Such an incongruous blend of Islam and Marxism creates more questions than answers. What was the mainspring of the revolt? Did Islamism ride on the rising tide of Marxism or did Marxism, cloaked in Shia rhetoric, flame the revolutionary fervor? How could Marxism foment a popular upheaval in a deeply religious realm? And more importantly, how could Marxists adhere to the leadership of an Ayatollah?
Neither Ayatollah Khomeini, nor his disciples Islamized Marxism. Instead, they derived exceptional benefits from it. During the 1960s as a result of the Shah’s systematic suppression of all political opposition, Marxism was pushed into two distinct directions: guerilla fighting and the intellectual sphere. It was in the hands of leftist Islamic intelligentsia, like Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Ali Shariati that Marxism blended with Shiʿism. The amalgam created a formidable revolutionary force in Iran. Shortly after, the militant-Marxists and the Marxist-Islamists in coalition with Khomeini overthrew the monarchy. Once victory was achieved, Khomeini and his disciples eliminated their Marxist competitors. Nevertheless, the legacy of the paradoxical fusion of Islam and Marxism was to endure three decades after the establishment of the Islamic Republic.
The Red Persians
At the dawn of the twentieth century, as Iran started its slow process of modernization, the specter of Marxism haunted it. The first contacts came through hundreds of thousands of Persian immigrant workers in the Caucasian oilfields of Baku between 1905 and 1907. These workers founded Iran’s first communist party, “The Social-Democratic Party,” on the eve of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. The party was closely associated with the Russian Bolshevik party and drew spiritual support from it. It eventually metamorphosed into the more radial Justice Party (Hezb-e Edalat) in 1917, and then the “Communist Party of Iran” in 1920. That same year, the Soviets invaded the Iranian Caspian port of Anzali, and supported the short-lived “Soviet Republic of Gilan” established on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea by a rebel named Mirza Khuchak Jangali. In the last days of the Qajar dynasty, however, the schemes of the Great Anglo-Soviet Game altered the Soviet’s policy of supporting the separatist-Marxists in Iran and paved the way for the annihilation of the Jangali’s movement by the soon-to-be Reza Shah Pahlavi. A gloomy outlook awaited the Marxists during Reza Shah’s reign. In 1929, he passed a bill through the Iranian parliament, banning all Marxist activities in Iran. The Communist Party went underground.
Marxism resurfaced again in Iran during the Second World War, in September 1941. As the Anglo-Soviet troops marched on Tehran, at the residence of an elderly Qajar prince, Solayman-Mirza Eskandari, a new party, named the Mass Party (Hezb-e Tudeh) was born. The Tudeh Party was to become the most organized and influential party in the history of modern Iran. It advocated a Marxist solution to Iran’s rigidly stratified society and inequitable economic system. The party rapidly spread through middle-class intellectuals and lower-class laborers. In a show of strength on May Day 1946, the Tudeh Party held parades of 80,000 members in the oil-rich city of Abadan and 50,000 members in Tehran. The party’s newspaper had a circulation three times that of Iran’s official newspaper. The golden autumn of Tudeh came to an abrupt end when a party member made an attempt on the Shah’s life in 1949, which resulted in the banning of the party and its affiliates. For the second time, the party was reduced to underground activity, both inside the country and in exile. Marxism, however, remained an obsession for the state and the society in Iran. In the course of the oil nationalization movement, the Tudeh Party benefited from the political tolerance and liberties granted by Mosaddeq and reemerged. However, it was once again suppressed in the aftermath of the 1953 coup d’état that ousted the nationalist premier.
The systematic repression of the Marxists during the 1960s had two distinct outcomes. It pushed part of the Marxist activists towards the intellectual circles and it also drove the more radical members towards armed struggle against the Shah’s regime. Inspired by the successful armed uprisings in Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam, the radicals came to believe that the only way to smash the comprador bourgeois police state was through guerrilla warfare. Of the many armed groups that appeared in Iran, the most important were the People’s Devoted Guerrillas (Cherikha-ye Fedayan Khalq) and the Organization of the People’s Fighters (Sazman Mojahedin-e Khalq). While the former was a militant Marxist group that advocated a class struggle against imperialism and the Shah, the latter saw their struggle as a nationalistic-religious one. Between 1971 and 1977, these organizations lost at least 371 members under torture, before firing squads, and in shootouts with the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK.
Witnessing the carnage, some intellectual opponents of the Shah with leftist tendencies devised a new strategy to spark a mass uprising. They realized that, ultimately, Marxism could not succeed in capturing the government in Iran by itself. Its atheistic nature deprived it of the s
piritual force essential to mobilize the masses in Shia Iran. Thus, Marxist ideology was to be blended with the Shia creed. The new synthesized religious ideology was to eventually bring the demise of the world’s oldest monarchy.
The Unholy Alliance
In his last book, Answer to History, the Shah branded the union of his Marxist and Islamist foes as the “Unholy Alliance of the Red and the Black.” The Shah, however, never realized the unintentional but cardinal role he played in forging this alliance. His unrelenting crackdown of Marxists throughout the 1960s and suppression of the 1963 religious uprising had two consequences. First, by imprisoning his irreconcilable opponents together in the dark, hot cells of Evin prison, he provided an avenue for ideological diffusion and absorption that would have never happened naturally. The clergy regarded the Marxists to be ritually unclean (Najis) and the Marxists considered the clergy to be reactionary. Second, when the Shah ousted the opposition from the political arena, they were obliged to move into the intellectual sphere. It was there that a new revolutionary brand of Islam was born.
“Third Worldist” ideologies of the 1960s held that liberation from despotism and imperialism required the politicization of native identity. Armed with this idea, trailblazers like Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Ali Sharitai, Mahmud Taleqani and others combined Marxism and Shiʿism to create a new religious ideology. Al-e Ahmad, the son of a cleric and former Marxist, invented the concept of “Weststruckness”, a powerful call for redeveloping a romanticized Islamic identity. It became the rallying cry of an entire generation. He launched an all-out verbal assault on Western intrusion in Iran and preached a return to Persian language and Shia Islam to restore Iranian cultural identity.
Ali Shariati met Al-e Ahmad in Mashhad one year before Al-e Ahmad’s death in 1969. While Al-e Ahmad educated Iranians about their cultural alienation, Shariati prepared them for revolution. Also the son of a cleric, he became the master ideologue of Shi’ite radicalism. Inspired by Frantz Fanon, he reinterpreted Shia political thought, striped Shiʿism of the moribund religious scholars (ulama) and shaped it into a systemized ideology of revolt. He depicted Shia history as a revolutionary struggle best captured in the paradigmatic representation of the martyrdom of the Third Shia Imam Hossein, in Kabala in 680. He argued that the just rule to be delivered by the Hidden Imam was the same as the Marxist utopia, only better and more complete. His new brand of Islam, which he called “Red Shiʿism,” closely paralleled Marxism, even in its color. Shariati’s mix of Marxism and reformed millenarian Shiʿism contributed to the popularization of a modernist and militant view of Islam that influenced a wide spectrum of Iranian youth.
To counter the threat of Marxism, with the recommendation of his American allies, the Shah launched a series of social reforms entitled “The White Revolution.” In opposition to these reforms Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini instigated an uprising in 1963. Although it created the emotional crucible out of which Khomeini’s charisma found a national following, it was nothing to compare with the number and the fervency of Al-e Ahmad and Shariati’s followers. The failed revolt of 1963 and the popularity of the Islamic left drew Khomeini to absorb and incorporate their language into his discourse. Before his exile, he read Al-e Ahmad’s Weststruckness and met with him several times. Al-e Ahmad’s influence on Khomeini can be perceived in his message to the pilgrims in 1971: «The poisonous culture of imperialism is penetrating to the depths of towns and villages throughout the Muslim world, displacing the culture of the Qur’an, recruiting our youth en masse to the service of foreigners and imperialists.»
While Khomeini was developing these new ideas in his Najaf exile, he was conspicuously silent, rarely gave interviews, sermons, or pronouncements. During the early seventies, some of Shariati’s terminology began to appear almost verbatim in Khomeini’s speeches. Avoiding the usage of Marxist terms such as «bourgeoisie,» and «proletariat,» Khomeini instead opted for Qur’anic expressions such as mostakbarin (oppressors) and mostaza’fin (oppressed) when referring to capitalists and the dispossessed. Shariati’s ideas were channeled to Khomeini in exile through several of his disciples such as Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, Ayatollah Taleqani, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, who either knew Shariati or worked with him. The imprisonment of clerics with Mojahedin activist and members of the Tudeh party had a similar effect. It was in prison that the militant clerics read, wrote, discussed, and learned the art of constructing an ideology. By the mid-1970s, tensions between the state and society had reached a breaking point and the scene was almost set for the last act.
Fueled by Marxist-Islamist militants and radicals, the Iranian revolution was in full swing in the last days of 1978. Confident of imminent victory, in an interview from his exile in Paris, Khomeini declared «Those who are like a drop in the ocean in view compared to these gigantic people’s masses cannot, and must never be allowed to, presume to impose their will on the people.»
He was vaguely referring to the Marxists. He formulated the principle of «Neither West, Nor East» not merely as a political struggle against the superpowers, but as an ideological struggle to keep Islam uncontaminated of all foreign ideas. Nonetheless, the Tudeh Party’s leadership met in Leipzig, East Germany in January 1979, just before the fall of the Shah, and affirmed its full support for the Revolution and Khomeini.
The Shah’s regime was overthrown on February 11, 1979. The disillusionment followed rapidly. Despite the transient coalition Khomeini forged with Marxists and the Islamic left to remove the Shah, he found their views anathema, and purged the erstwhile “allies” one by one. The revolutionary Mujahedin and Fadayan were denounced as «deviators» and «mixers» of Islam with Marxism. Their eradication from the political scene was a lengthy and violent affair that ended in a bloodbath.
The Tudeh Party continued to unequivocally support the “anti-imperialist” regime and its consolidation. They even sided with Khomeini and the fundamentalists against both the “bourgeois liberals” in government and against the regime’s opponents on the left. Finally, in February 1983, after using the Tudeh Party to help eliminate the remainder of the leftist opposition, the Islamic regime targeted the party itself, accused it of conspiracy, arrested its leadership and many of its members, and disbanded it. Iran’s oldest and most powerful party was no more. Khomeini pursued his anti-Marxism policy and went as far as sending a letter to the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, stating “the main problem in the Soviet Union was spiritual, not economic nor social” and advising him that “the solution was Islam rather than capitalist-style reform.”
Despite all the anti-Marxism fervor of the Islamic Republic, the new regime was, and still is, greatly inspired by a Marxist worldview. Like the concept of “classes” in Marxism, Islamic ideology defines its constituencies as “Ummah” and not as a nation. The leader in both systems is not only the head of the state but must assume a global leadership role for followers around the world. The Islamic Republic’s “Monotheistic (Tohidi)” economy is modeled after the Soviet system where more than 85% of the Iranian economy is state-controlled. In the aftermath of the 2009 disputed presidential election, the Iranian government organized mass trials for the opposition, evoking Stalin’s tribunals. Ironically, Iran’s allies today are mostly communist countries such as China, Venezuela and Cuba.
In the absence of the coercive operations by Marxist guerillas against the Pahlavi regime and without the zeal and the vast organization of the Marxist-Islamist, Khomeini and his cohorts would have never been able to carry the day. Marxism empowered revolutionary Shiʿism, which was ultimately responsible for its destruction. Yet, the legacy of Marxism survived and instituted a pernicious worldview for the Islamic Republic. Economic failure, international isolation, and moral collapse of the Islamic Republic can be traced back to this worldview. The ineluctable irony of Iranian history is that the lasting legacy of Marxism may perhaps bring about the demise of revolutionary Shiʿism.