SUPPLEMENT: Preparing for revolution

Yassamine Mather says that the Siahkal incident 50 years ago marked a break with the passivity of ‘official communism’, but the guerrillaist left was hopelessly outmanoeuvred when it came to the reality of revolution in Iran

Fifty years ago this week, the town of Siahkal in northern Iran was the scene of an armed uprising that produced the revolutionary Fadai movement. The young militants who took up arms against Mohamed Reza Pahlavi’s regime were rebelling not just against the shah, but also against the policies of the Tudeh Party - the traditional ‘official communist’ party in Iran, whose name had become synonymous with passivity, compromise and betrayal. It goes without saying that the Soviet Union did not support the Iranian revolutionary movement against the shah, and the Tudeh Party followed the USSR’s line.

In the period following World War II, Tudeh’s policy towards prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh fluctuated from one extreme to another: first they attacked him as an “agent of American imperialism”, and then they gave him support during and after the July 1952 uprising against the shah. Tudeh called for the nationalisation of the British-owned oilfields, but opposed the same policy when applied to those owned and operated by the Soviet Union.

The CIA coup of 1953 marked the end of the nationalist government, but it also destroyed Tudeh, which until then had been the largest left party in the Middle East. Its networks were smashed and most of its cadre were arrested or forced to flee to the Soviet Union: “Between 1953 and 1957, Iranian security forces tracked down the whole Tudeh underground and more than half the party membership.”1

Tudeh had called for broad alliances and the peaceful road to socialism, but by the 1960s there was a rebellion against it amongst the revolutionary youth. The individuals and groups that formed the Fadai were part of this new wave of the radical left. However, to take up arms against the regime in the way it did was suicidal, because it was inevitable that a large number of those who did so would be killed - 13 out of the 19 of what is called the original cell of the Fadai died in armed confrontation and many members and supporters were later executed.

The Fadai was formed through the merging of two groups on the Iranian left, both opposed to Tudeh. One was led by Massoud Ahmadzadeh, who came from a religious family and had become very much influenced by Maoism. His politics were a combination of Maoism and guerrillaism. One of his closest allies was Amir-Parviz Pouyan - someone influenced by the événements of 1968 in France, by Maoism and the need for armed struggle. Ahmadzadeh’s book Armed struggle: both strategy and tactics was for many years the bible of the Fadai. Amir-Parviz Pouyan also wrote a book called The necessity of armed struggle against the theory of survival. The ‘theory of survival’ referred to the line of the Tudeh Party, against which the Fadai were rebelling.

However, Ahmadzadeh also destroyed the illusion that the national bourgeoisie could have a revolutionary or progressive role. Describing the democratic character of the revolution, he wrote: “Struggle against imperialist domination - ie, world capitalism - has some elements of the struggle with capitalism” and therefore “some elements of the socialist revolution are born in this struggle”. On the role of proletariat, he stated: “The proletariat [in Iran] is numerically weak, but its special qualities and capabilities to organise are stronger than any other class.”

Bijan Jazani was another leading figure. He came from a different tendency - the youth organisation of the Tudeh Party, but he rebelled against Tudeh and agreed to bring his small forces into the new organisation.

To summarise the politics which influenced the Fadai in that original period, one could say that a unique version of guerrillaism and Maoism dominated, but there was also a very simplistic attitude of ‘anti-revisionism’, which did not have much theory behind it. The founders were against the changes represented by the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and adopted a line claiming to be independent of both the USSR and China. However, they remained very much influenced by Stalinism.

In debates, for example, with Communist Unity, which was more of a middle-of-the-road student organisation, the Fadai were very clear on where they stood on the Soviet Union. Their position was that until 1962 the USSR was 65% good and 35% bad, which, I believe, is a Maoist interpretation. However, as China adopted the theory of social-imperialism, and later the ‘three worlds’ theory, the Fadai and other Iranian leftwing groups distanced themselves from China and Maoism.

Building support

The people who lost their lives in the 1971 operation and subsequent military operations had considerable effect on the youth and student movement in Iran. Not quite what Ahmadzadeh had predicted - that the ‘small motor’ would make the ‘large motor’ move and the whole country would rebel. But the student movement became very sympathetic to this new, emerging left and was very much influenced by it, as were many young workers.

1971-79 shaped the political thought of the generation which came to the Iranian revolution as leaders of the Fadai. So it is an important period. We are talking about an organisation that was mainly underground, preparing for armed warfare and organising the occasional bank robbery.

Its activities were sporadic - the Fadai killed a couple of American military personnel in Tehran and a number of the shah’s generals. There were losses, particularly because, as an armed organisation, members of the Fadai could simply be killed on the street. On average they expected a new recruit to live six months as a guerrilla. This denied the Fadai a mass base and endangered anyone who supported them, such as university students, academics, etc, because supporters were regarded as part of the armed movement by association. Around 370 leftwingers were executed in this period, of which 60% were Fadai.

Many Fadai spent this period in prison, where a debate developed over the organisation’s line. Jazani moved away from some of the original positions. For example, in his book United front against dictatorship Jazani was clearly rejecting earlier positions taken by Ahmadzadeh and Pouyan. However, in another book, Capitalism and revolution in Iran, Jazani provided a valuable analysis of the shah’s regime.

Jazani was killed in Evin prison in 1975 - the shah’s regime claimed he was trying to escape from the high-security jail. It is therefore difficult to assess whether some of the writings and ideas attributed to him were truly his own opinions. The people around him became leaders of the Fadai. By 1979 there was a mass revolutionary movement in Iran and jailed members of the Fadai got their freedom, some during the February uprising, when people smashed through the prison doors.

During this period the Fadai had become a real force among students and young people, gaining popularity as a result of its past actions (although some of it was actually populist myth). However, it was now very divided, with Jazani’s supporters following one political line and Ahmadzadeh’s another.

There were two debates going on and one was over the armed struggle. Jazani supporters contended that the armed struggle line, as both strategy and tactic, was mistaken, and in that they were right, because it had separated the Fadai from its potential mass base. But, on the other hand, some Jazani supporters were now excusing Soviet foreign policy and saw a positive role for the national bourgeoisie.

What was quite clear was that throughout this period there was very little done in terms of theoretical work. The book that everyone read and which gave them “everything”, according to one of the Fadai elders I know, was Lenin’s What is to be done? It gave the Fadai their stance against sectarianism, economism, syndicalism and anarchism - their whole analysis was based on it. But they did not necessarily understand it properly, especially given the problematic translation into Farsi by the USSR Academy of Sciences, which emphasises centralism over democracy. A recent Persian translation by comrade Torab Saleth has tried to correct these errors.

Throughout this period the Fadai had failed to make any headway in the working class or in Iranian society as a whole. In the universities, however, they had a great deal of support, as became obvious at the time of the revolution. Among the intellectuals - especially the poets, including some of the most famous - there was an amazing amount of praise for the Fadai. One thing is clear, though - they had no strategy about what to do, now that the revolutionary situation had arrived. That was the problem of February 1979.

While the clergy used the period of economic crisis (1974-79) to build their base, to make propaganda, taking advantage of their position in the mosque to organise and mobilise, the Fadai in prison were still debating in very abstract terms such questions as the united front against the dictatorship. In addition, the shah was far more lenient towards the religious groups than he was towards the left, for whom building a mass organisation was much more difficult. They attempted to go to the factories, but all they could do was distribute leaflets and then disappear.

It is not, therefore, a question of the February revolution being hijacked: more the fact that the left was simply not prepared for it. In a way it is a good job that the left did not come to power, because it had no plans, no politics, no strategy and definitely no theory about what to do.

The oil workers were crucial in the February revolution. It was their strikes that broke the back of the shah’s regime. The Fadai had some influence among them, but they were hampered by their lack of experience of working with the class. There was no plan about what to do with the strike, how to move it forward. Inevitably, the Tudeh Party, which did have a base in the working class, was better represented among the oil workers.

Many tendencies in the European and American left, have argued that in February 1979 we were looking at a situation of ‘dual power’ in Iran, while others have disagreed. The truth is that the Islamists were powerful before the uprising and their coming to power was inevitable. They had faced far less repression under the shah than the left had endured. Meetings in mosques and other religious institutions were tolerated by the regime and the Islamists were much better off financially, benefiting from donations from the bazaar.

In stark contrast, the left and other secular forces were hampered by being the last to be released from prison. Perhaps this disadvantage could have been overcome, but the left then crippled itself with its strategic confusion and a myriad of tactical mistakes that allowed the Islamists to outmanoeuvre them.

An interview we are also publishing with Mohammad Reza Shalgouni, founder-member of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (Rahe Kargar), gives us a valuable insight into the thinking of leftwing activists and prisoners released just before the uprising.

1979 Iranian revolution

The uprising was a direct result of the failures of the shah’s regime to respond to the economic crisis that followed the economic boom of the early 1970s. Most skilled workers faced a drop in their living standards in 1976. The ‘White Revolution’ in agriculture rendered huge numbers of peasants landless, forcing them to seek seasonal jobs in major cities. Recession in the Iranian economy left them unemployed and destitute in shanty towns.

Additionally, the small independent producers had been forced out of business (bankrupted) by the decision of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce to shore-up the already privileged position of big capitalists. Corruption and the rule of a clique around the royal court meant that many traditional merchants, often associated with the bazaar, were deprived of the large profits available to the better connected sections of the ruling class. Such decisions, exemplifying the arrogant dictatorship of the royal family, fuelled widespread political discontent. In the absence of any financial support for the peasantry, the shah’s ‘land reform’ had impoverished the countryside, while the massive exodus to the big cities created sprawling shanty towns.

Two parallel universes existed - not just in income and standards of living, but also in terms of culture. The secular upper classes in north Tehran looked down on the poor and even the lower middle class. The term chadori (the long cloak worn by religious women) was used by westernised, upper-class woman in a derogatory manner. In the words of Pierre Bourdieu, certain forms of “cultural capital” were valued over and above others - they helped or hindered social mobility just as much as income or wealth.

Far from being a “conspiracy by the west to depose the shah because of his growing power”, as one commentator put it, the uprising was a direct result of the failures of the shah’s regime to respond to the economic crisis that followed the boom of the early 1970s.

The clergy had made compromises with the regime, which allowed it to survive the repressive measures of the shah’s dictatorship. Thus, it was in a much better position to benefit from political discontent than secular and socialist groups, which had lost many in their ranks through execution and imprisonment. In the summer of 1978, religious demonstrations in major cities were led by the clergy, financed by the bazaar and supported by independent producers, the urban poor and students.

Contrary to the kind of analysis proposed by many on the left outside Iran, the division within the Iranian movement was not simply between reformists and revolutionaries. Nor was it between Stalinists and anti-Stalinists and it did not centre on the classic issue of ‘stages’ of revolution, bourgeois or socialist. Rather the issue of division was the supposed existence of a ‘socialist camp’ led by the Soviet Union and the extent to which the politics of ‘third world’ regimes were judged by their anti-US rhetoric.

After the revolution, as protests against inequality and for better wages and working conditions continued in factories and throughout the oil industry, the new Islamic government attacked protestors and labour activists. Defence of private property became paramount for the regime, whose main pillars of support were based in the bazaar and amongst small capitalists.

In addition, the non-homogeneous (multi-class) mix in the Islamists’ camp necessitated a policy of denying class struggle - or at least marginalising it and removing it from the political agenda. This social bloc, united under the umbrella of religious culture, had no other way of surmounting the class antagonisms within itself between the impoverished shanty-town dwellers and the much better-off bazaaris.

The suppression of leftwing and all secular opposition during the shah’s time allowed sections of the clergy and the Islamic movement to mobilise class discontent using the language of religion. The clergy was in a much better position to benefit from political discontent than secular, socialist groups, which had lost so many cadres.

Contemporarily, the workers’ movement was taking shape. Councils (shoras) were formed in major industries, where workers were organising strikes and go-slows, initially around economic demands. However, the workers gradually became more political - for example, with demands for the expulsion of agents of the secret police (Savak) from the factories.

This movement, although supported by various left groups, had no clear leadership and remained subordinate to the Islamist movement. Some of the most important shoras were formed in Khouzestan province in the oil and steel industries, where major strikes shook the regime in the latter part of 1978 and early 79. However, these shoras never became nationwide working class forums, although at times they took up political slogans.

Conspiracy theories

Royalists and similar opponents of the Islamic Republic have peddled various conspiracy theories about US general Robert Huyser’s secret mission of January 1979. However, the published documents show the confusion emanating from the administration of president Jimmy Carter, which was trying to manage events thousands of miles away, in circumstances where it had failed to understand the reasons behind mass protests against its favourite Middle Eastern tyrant.

One of Huyser’s main tasks was to encourage the shah to leave the country and to stop a potential military coup by top generals. According to BBC World Service journalist Kambiz Fattahi, who has studied the state department’s declassified documents, 10 days after the shah’s departure, Khomeini sent a message to Washington offering a deal: if Carter could use his influence on the military to clear the way for his takeover, Khomeini suggested, he would calm the nation. Stability could be restored, while America’s interests and citizens in Iran would be protected.2

Khomeini’s note to the president was declassified in 2016, but it was only in 2019, on the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, that comments and analysis of it became well known - shedding more light on the Carter administration’s secret negotiations immediately after the shah’s flight from Tehran. While Huyser’s main mission was to stop pro-shah generals from organising a military coup, he had in fact given the generals the green light for such a coup if the left was in a position to take power. The secret deal demonstrates that the US administration was more fearful of the left than the Islamists - particularly the working class, whose strikes had paralysed the country. In the true tradition of US foreign intervention, not least during the cold war, it was better to ally with the Islamists against secular and leftwing forces.

The plan agreed between the Carter administration and Khomeini (via his secular advisors) was to organise a smooth transfer of power to his regime. What shattered those plans was the involvement of the homafar (technicians and junior flight crew) in the Iranian airforce, who took up arms against their commanders in support of the Organisation of Iranian People’s Guerrillas on February 11-12. In those last days of the ancien régime, in Tehran and in other cities across the country there were violent clashes between revolutionaries and the shah’s supporters. The military imposed a curfew, but most Iranians ignored it. Supporters of leftwing revolutionary groups occupied parliament, the television broadcaster and other state-run institutions.

The coincidence of the pro-Fadai demonstration celebrating the anniversary of the Siahkal operation (February 10 1979) with the battle between the Imperial Guard and the homafar, which had begun on the night of February 9, allowed the Fadai cadres, as well as hundreds, or maybe thousands, of their supporters, to play a decisive role in the armed uprising that led to the downfall of the monarchy on February 11 1979. This was an uprising for which the leaders of the revolution were not prepared at all, but they were quick to act. On February 11 the end of the monarchy was announced.

The Organisation of Iranian Peoples Fadai Guerrillas (OIPFG) took over Savak’s headquarters in north Tehran. Suddenly the organisation had tens of thousands of supporters, many from the middle and upper classes. In February 1979 in Tehran it had become fashionable to be a supporter of the modernist Marxist Fadai organisation, as opposed to the obscurantist clerics. The OIPFG boycotted the referendum that installed the Islamic Republic of Iran in March 1979 - a move very popular with their supporters.

The first rally called by the Fadai in Tehran in 1979 after the overthrow of the shah attracted 500,000 people. Despite reservations, they stood in the elections to what was a sort of constituent assembly and got a couple of million votes.

In the second part of this article I will look at the role of the left after the revolution.

  1. E Abrahamian A history of modern Iran Cambridge 2008, p122.↩︎

  2. bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-36431160.↩︎