Stalin’s ‘united front’ party
The treacherous role of the Tudeh Party after the 1979 revolution is well known. In the first of two articles, Yassamine Mather shows how the origins of its opportunism were bound up with the diplomatic interests of the Soviet Union.
Sometimes when we talk to trade unionists and leftwing activists about Hands off the People of Iran they ask why there are two campaigns about Iran - not just Hopi, but the Committee for the Defence of Iranian People’s Rights (Codir). After all, both are opposed to war and to Iran’s Islamic Republic.
On the face of it there is some truth in this and, of course, we explain the link between Codir and Iran’s ‘official communist’ party, Tudeh (party of the masses). Here we shall briefly outline the history of Tudeh - its inconsistencies in the 1950s and its support for the Islamic Republic during some of the worst years of repression. Sometimes British comrades respond by suggesting that we forget these ‘historic mistakes’. However, the reaction of most Iranian comrades from the radical left says the exact opposite. The party is referred to as hezb khaen Tudeh - ‘the treacherous Tudeh’ Party - and its slogans in support of the first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, its practical and political support for the new Islamic Republic, do not go unforgotten.
My own position is that, despite the current anti-government stance of Tudeh, it has learnt nothing from its disastrous past. There is no acknowledgement of the treacherous role it played shopping leftwing activists to a brutal religious state: instead there is denial, attempts at rewriting history and, when Tudeh is challenged, it returns to the good old practice of the past, of accusing anyone on the left with whom it disagrees of being agents of the CIA, working for imperialism, etc, etc. If you doubt this, I suggest you visit my Facebook page and use an online translator.
Early this year, in an article based on a talk I gave, I wrote:
As for the Iranian left in exile, it has become so engrossed in regime change that it does not even wish to criticise Trump or US policy. Nor does it take on effective US allies like Mujahedin-e Khalq or the royalists ... Many keep reminding us that the ‘official communist’ Tudeh Party supported the Islamic Republic. But the exiled left is today’s equivalent of Tudeh. It calls for a united front with US-backed regime change elements, so that we can all unite against dictatorship and later we will decide what to do after it has been removed.
Well, that was exactly Tudeh’s attitude to the Islamists with respect to the shah. They formed a united front with Ruhollah Khomeini … and thought they would be part of the new establishment. Khomeini decimated the entire opposition to the new regime - and eventually it was Tudeh’s turn (‘No to war, no to the regime’ Weekly Worker January 16 2020).
I posted part of this sentence in Persian on Facebook - my main aim being to remind those sections of the Iranian exiled left which tell us that the main enemy is Iran’s Islamic Republic and we should ally ourselves with anyone, including pro-Trump, regime-change royalists, that they are following in the footsteps of Tudeh, which took up the same stance against the shah. As one comrade put it, there was a “deluge”. Tudeh supporters from all over the world wrote, ‘How dare I make such accusations?’, ‘Where is my proof that Tudeh called for a united front against the shah?’
Needless to say, this prompted much longer interventions from comrades on the radical left. They posted photos of Tudeh’s paper, Mardom, with slogans in support of electing ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali - also known as the ‘hanging judge’ - who at the time was busy presiding over tribunals that condemned leftwing activists to death. Comrades also posted newspaper headlines from Tudeh in praise of the regime’s anti-US stance at the time. In one such posting the party had called on the government to arm the dreaded Revolutionary Guards with “heavy weapons”.
I was also asked by Tudeh supporters to provide proof that Tudeh’s line of promoting a united front against the shah’s dictatorship was based on the support it received from the Soviet Union. When I cited documents from one the most prominent historians of the Iranian left, Cosroe Chaqueri, I was told he did not count, as he was biased against Tudeh. When I quoted pages from Tudeh’s paper on the infamous “non-capitalist road to development’”, I was told it is irrelevant. Then came the gem from one Tudeh member: you must be an “imperialist spy”, because BBC Persian invites you as a commentator! And you are “probably one of their employees”!
Now this is very interesting. Those of us who opposed Iran’s Islamic Republic from the day it came to power in the early 1980s remember how every time we criticised the regime or exposed Tudeh and the Soviet Union’s support for the clerical regime we were accused of being “CIA agents”. The organisations of the radical left - the Fedayeen Minority, Peykar, Rahe Kargar, etc - all faced such accusations. So the claim that I am a CIA agent is significant, because it shows nothing has been learnt from those dark days, where, in order to justify Khomeini’s repression of leftwing activists, the same accusations were made. History is indeed repeating itself - this time in the form of a comedy. In my mind it proves that Tudeh has learnt nothing from its disastrous politics of the 20th century. It proves that it remains a thoroughly opportunist organisation.
I will now give a brief history of how the party was formed, why it lost the trust of the masses in the 1950s and how its politics at the time of the Iranian revolution are unforgivable.
Why were Soviet foreign policy and Tudeh hated so much? To understand this, one has to consider the history of the Communist Party of Iran, its demise in the 1930s and the establishment of Tudeh as a “patriotic, democratic” united front.
The birth of the communist movement in Persia can be traced back to the development of the capitalist mode of production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although underground cells were set up in many major urban areas, including Tabriz, Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz, the most important activists involved in the anti-dictatorial protests were to be found in the northern provinces close to the Russian border.
The seasonal workers in the Caucasus and in Baku’s oil industry were amongst the first to become familiar with social democracy. They established a number of leftwing groups in Baku, Tabriz, Mashad and elsewhere, which played a vital role in the 1905-11 constitutional revolution. Their membership grew considerably between 1905 and 1917. The downfall of tsarist rule in Russia gave rise to the formation of the Justice Social Democratic Party (Edalat) in Baku.
The uprising in Gilan and the congress of Iranian social democrats in Bandar-e Anzali in June 1920 led to the founding of the Communist Party of Persia (later Iran). It played a crucial role in setting up workers’ and women’s organisations - amongst them the Union of Iranian Oil Workers, Peyk-e Saadat-e Nesvan (Voice of Women’s Prosperity) and Bidarye Ma (Our Awakening). By 1922, some 15,000 Iranian workers were members of trade unions, while the Communist Party had around a thousand members. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the party bore the brunt of Reza Shah’s repression. Its publications and organisation were forced deep underground, its activists were imprisoned, its leader was murdered in prison and many cadre fled to the Soviet Union.
There is little information about the plight of party members and leaders in the USSR during the purges; however, we learn something of their situation in the research of Cosro Shakeri. Shakeri quotes a letter from the cadres section of the Comintern to Iranian leftwing author Abdol-Hosein Noushin:
… most Iranian communists had perished in the purges; a few, such as the communist poet, Lahouti, had been living in exceptional comfort in Moscow or in the Asiatic republics, no doubt due to their collaboration with the Soviet secret police against their compatriots persecuted by the NKVD.1
But Shakeri lists a number of prominent Iranian exiles who were held by the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs).
Rise of fascism
In 1936 the Nazi government issued a special decree exempting Iranians from the restrictions of the Nuremberg racial laws. This was done on the grounds that they were “pure-blooded Aryans”.2 In various pro-Nazi publications, lectures, speeches and ceremonies, parallels were drawn between the shah of Iran and Hitler, and the charisma and virtue of the Führerprinzip was highly praised.3 By 1941, Reza Shah had cemented an alliance with Nazi Germany and, as a result, on August 25 the Allied forces entered Iranian territory. The north of Iran was occupied by the Soviet Union and the south by the British and Americans. Reza Shah was forced into exile and the British brought his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, to power.
In the first years of his reign, while his grip remained weak, a large number of political prisoners were released. These included communists who appeared to be unaware of the plight of their comrades in the USSR. Establishing the Tudeh Party clearly happened with Soviet encouragement and on September 29 1941 its founding conference was held in Tehran under the chairmanship of Soleiman Mohsen Eskandari. There are conflicting opinions about the role of the Soviet Union in this. Cosro Chakeri has summarised these arguments in his article, ‘Did the Soviets play a role in the founding of Tudeh?’4 He quotes a report by colonel Seliukov, a leading figure in the Red Army intelligence unit, about his meeting with Eskandari. They discussed setting up a “national-democratic party” to “obtain democratic liberties and an easier life for the Iranian people”.5
It is clear from further reports that details of the new party’s programme and the offer of financial help from the Soviet Union were discussed at subsequent meetings. According to Chakeri’s research, the Red Army intelligence officer told Eskandari that the new party’s programme was in accordance with “our” opinion at a meeting on October 10 1941, but he seemed to hesitate regarding the request for legalisation of the party (presumably because of the need to maintain good Anglo-Soviet relations at the time).
Eskandari and Seliukov had monthly meetings, during which every aspect of preparations for the new party was discussed. Opponents of the bourgeois-democratic, anti-fascist, united front party were also contacting Moscow, seeking support. Historical archives make it clear that Georgi Dimitrov informed Joseph Stalin and his associates of this. They approved of Tudeh being a so-called united front and were against any separate, specifically communist initiatives. Iranian communists were instructed to “work in the Popular Party of Soleyman Mirza … At the present stage [they] must not display socialist and Soviet slogans; [they] must not abandon the framework of the democratic platform.”6
At the same time, Comintern embarked on a plan for setting up “united, anti-fascist fronts” not only in Iran, but also in other countries. Towards that goal groups of specially selected cadre were designated to go to Iran for training and instruction. One key task was to organise lines of communication with the ‘official communist’ parties of the eastern Arab world (Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq), as well as India.
In 1942 Tudeh gained official recognition and launched its paper Siasat. The worsening economic situation helped the party to make a large number of recruits in a very short period of time. Cells and trade unions were formed in industrial centres in many provinces. Regional organisations were set up in Azerbaijan, Esfahan, Gilan, Mazandaran and Khorasan. Chakeri concludes that Tudeh was a creation of the Soviet Union and that it was primarily set up to suit Moscow’s interests in Iran. The range of documents Chakeri produces confirms this conclusion; however, it should not be forgotten that Iranian communists who had survived prison in Iran and those still alive after the Stalinist purges also supported the establishment of this so-called united front party.
On November 26 1945, the Soviet troops occupying north-western provinces of Iran prevented the Iranian army from reaching Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, where Soviet-backed groups had taken control and declared independence. The declaration of two breakaway republics in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, headed by left nationalists, took Tudeh members by surprise - although one assumes that those members of the leadership close to the Red Army intelligence had some prior warning of the independence declaration.
In response to a complaint submitted by Iran, Andrei Vishinsky, the Soviet representative to the United Nations, asked the security council not to interfere with ongoing bilateral talks between the USSR and the UK (whose Anglo-Russian 1907 Entente had already divided Iran between two spheres of influence, installing puppet regimes in the oil-rich areas). The Soviet Union prompted the formation of the Azerbaijan People’s Government in 1945 and was clearly considering granting official diplomatic recognition. A People’s Republic of Azerbaijan would be protected by the Soviet military presence in five provinces in the north of Iran.
Even by early 1945, Tudeh had gained considerable support with an estimated 2,200 members and tens of thousands of sympathisers in its student and women’s organizations. It also claimed 100,000 supporters in affiliated trade unions. Its main newspaper, Rahbar, boasted a circulation of more than 100,000 - triple that of the ‘semi-official’ Ettela’at. British ambassador Reader Bullard called it the only coherent political force in the country and the New York Times reckoned its allies could win as much as 40% of the vote in a free and fair election. However, since its inception Tudeh had portrayed itself as the champion of patriotism and constitutional liberties. The enemy was not capitalism but imperialism and the threat of royal dictatorship. Naturally, however, Tudeh had to support the partition of northern Iran and the oil concessions granted to the Soviet Union. Predictably, many members resigned.
In Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, Tudeh branches were dissolved and members were instructed - presumably by Soviet controllers - to join either the Azerbaijani Democratic Party or the Kurdish Democratic Party - both outwardly left-nationalist organisations. Ja’far Pishevari, a founding member of the Communist Party of Persia and the Tudeh party, became president of the republic. His government nationalised banks, instituted land reform and promoted the previously suppressed Azerbaijani language. The old police force was dissolved and a new militia created.
In April 1946 the Iranian government of prime minister Ahmad Qavam signed an oil agreement with the Soviet Union and agreed to appoint Tudeh ministers in exchange for a promise of Soviet troop withdrawals from the country’s northern provinces. Partly as a result of pressure from the United States and Britain, Soviet troops withdrew from Iranian territory. Qavam took three Tudeh members into his cabinet. Later the same year, however, he was able to renege, using the excuse of a tribal revolt in the south to dismiss Tudeh cabinet members.
When the shah’s troops arrived in Azerbaijan in December 1946, the people’s government, deprived of Soviet support, collapsed and Ja’far Pishevari, fled to the Soviet Union. Stalin’s letter to a bitterly disappointed Pishevari sheds light on his carefully calculated global outlook:
May 8 1946
To comrade Pishevari,
It seems to me that you misjudge the existing situation, inside Iran, as well as in the international dimension.
First, you wanted to meet all the revolutionary demands of Azerbaijan right now. But the existing situation precludes realisation of this programme. Lenin used to put forth revolutionary demands as practical demands, only when the country experienced a grave revolutionary crisis aggravated by an unsuccessful war with an external enemy. Such was the case in 1905 during the unsuccessful war with Japan and in 1917 during the unsuccessful war with Germany. You here want to emulate Lenin. This is very good and laudable.
However, the situation in Iran today is totally different. There is no profound revolutionary crisis in Iran. There are few workers in Iran and they are poorly organised. The Iranian peasantry still does not show any serious activism. Iran is not waging a war with an external enemy that could weaken Iran’s reactionary circles through a military failure. Consequently, there is no such situation in Iran that could support the tactics of Lenin in 1905 and 1917.
Second, certainly, you could have counted on a success in the cause of the struggle for the revolutionary demands of the Azerbaijani people, had the Soviet troops continued to remain in Iran. But we could no longer keep them in Iran, mainly because the presence of Soviet troops in Iran undercut the foundation of our liberationist policies in Europe and Asia. The British and Americans said to us that if Soviet troops could stay in Iran, then why could not British troops stay in Egypt, Syria, Indonesia, Greece, and also the American troops - in China, Iceland, Denmark. Therefore we decided to withdraw troops from Iran and China, in order to seize this tool from the hands of the British and Americans, to unleash the liberation movement in the colonies and thereby render our liberationist policy more justified and efficient. You as a revolutionary will certainly understand that we could not have done otherwise.
Third, all this said, one can come to the following conclusion with regard to the situation in Iran.
There is no profound revolutionary crisis in Iran. There is no state of war in Iran with external enemies, and, consequently, no military failures which could weaken the reaction and aggravate the crisis. So long as Soviet troops stayed in Iran, you had a chance to unfold the struggle in Azerbaijan and organise a broad democratic movement with far-reaching demands. But our troops had to leave and did leave Iran. What do we have now in Iran? We have a conflict of the government of Qavam with the Anglophile circles, who represent the most reactionary elements of Iran. As reactionary as Qavam used to be in the past, now he must, in the interests of self-defence and the defence of his government, carry out some democratic reforms and seek support among democratic elements in Iran.
What must be our tactics under these conditions? I believe we should use this conflict to wrench concession from Qavam, to give him support, to isolate the Anglophiles thus, and to create some basis for the further democratisation of Iran. From this assumption stems all our advice to you. Of course, one could adopt a different tactic: to spit on everything, to break with Qavam and thereby ensure a victory of the Anglophile reactionaries. Yet this would not have been a tactic, but stupidity. This would have been in effect a betrayal of the cause of the Azerbaijani people and Iranian democracy.
Fourth, you, as I found out, say that we first raised you to the skies and then let you down into the precipice and disgraced you. If this is true, it surprises us. What has really happened? We used the technique here that every revolutionary knows. In the situation similar to the situation of Iran today, if one wants to achieve a certain minimum of demands pursued by the movement, the movement has to run ahead, to progress beyond the minimal demands and to create a threat for the government, to ensure a possibility of concessions on the part of the government. Had you not run far ahead, you would not have had a chance in the current situation in Iran to achieve these demands ... that the government of Qavam has to make now. Such is the law of revolutionary movement. There could not be even mention of any disgrace for you. It is very strange that you think that we could have let you down in disgrace. On the contrary, if you behave reasonably and seek with our moral support the demands that would legalise essentially the existing factual position of Azerbaijan, then you would be blessed both by the Azeris and by Iran as a pioneer of the progressive, democratic movement in the Middle East.7
Dismantling the Communist Party in Iran in favour of Tudeh followed by the breakaways in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan resulted in confusion, anger and frustration. In 1948 the Tudeh Party faced a large split under the leadership of Khalil Maleki, who blamed the central committee for the Azarbaijan crisis.
In my next article, I will look at the role of Tudeh following the 1953 CIA coup.
1. C Chaqueri, ‘Did the Soviets play a role in the founding of the Tudeh Party in Iran?’ Cahiers du Monde September 1999, p1.
2. G Lenczowski Nazi Germany and Persia 1944, p160: http://world-news-research.com/ngerm.html.
3. M Rezun Nazi Germany and Persia 1982, p29: http://world-news-research.com/ngerm.html.
4. C Chakeri op cit pp497-528.
5. Transcriptions of conversations with Solayman Mirza, November 8 1941, Rossiiskii Tsentr Khraneniia Izucheniia Dokumentov Noveishi 495/74/192.
6. Letter from Dimitriov, December 15 1941 to Artashes, Avanessian, RtsKhIDNI 495/74/192.
7. NI Yegorova The ‘Iran crisis’ of 1945-1946:a view from the Russian archives New York 1996.