WeeklyWorker

11.02.2021
The horrendous Iran-Iraq war bore similarities to 1914-18 Europe: trenches, poison gas and human waves, and an estimated one million lives were lost

Principle, confusion and hope

Having looked at the birth and early years of the guerrillaist left in her first article Yassamine Mather turns to the internal struggles within the Fedai

Splits in the Fadai started in 1979, following the Islamist revolution, and are still going on. It is impossible to cover every one of them, but the main ones should be mentioned. The first, immediately after the Fadai leaders’ release from prison, was between the supporters of armed struggle and those who said that armed struggle could not be both a strategy and a tactic, and that clearly it could not work.

The problem was that the myths surrounding the Fadai guerrilla struggle did influence the uprising of 1979. On the other hand, many Fadai were becoming aware of their organisation’s weaknesses - not least its total divorce from the mass movement.

The supporters of the armed struggle as ‘tactic and strategy’ were in a small minority, but survived and still survive. To this day their slogan is: ‘The shah was the running dog of imperialism and so is the Islamic republic’. No theory, no analysis, but they still exist as a small group in exile, where clearly armed struggle against the Islamic republic is not practical.

The main division, however, obviously came with the minority-majority split, revolving around the analysis of not only the Islamic republic, but a whole set of issues, such as the nature of the current era. The majority held that it was one of imperialism versus socialism, as represented by the USA and the USSR. On Iran’s regime, they said that, although it was Islamic, the government was objectively moving Iran towards the ‘socialist camp’ and therefore should be supported. The main question in the minority-majority split concerned the nature of the Iranian government: was it progressive or counterrevolutionary?

The majority was led by those who claimed to have been close to the Fadai’s leading figure Bijan Jazani in prison. They were called Fadai Majority only because they constituted a majority on the central committee, although it soon became clear that they did not command a majority amongst supporters of the organisation. They considered the regime as anti-imperialist and gave it at first conditional and later full support.

Things became much more tense after the spring of 1979, with the government consolidating its power and being able to repress opposition forces. For that reason we see a number of specific events - not least the takeover of the US embassy by Islamic students. This was hailed by the Fadai Majority and most of the left outside Iran as an anti-imperialist act, but for the radical left in Iran it was a deliberate diversion, an attempt to stop the wave of political strikes and other forms of opposition to the Islamic regime.

It was this event that really brought the arguments within the Iranian left to a head. The Fadai Minority had walked out of the central committee, but drew in support from thousands of leftwing students and youth who did not want to follow the Islamic republic into the abyss. However, it was also true that the Fadai Majority retained some support among the working class.

The embassy incident was also significant, in that the government declared that anyone who did not support it must be a counterrevolutionary or a CIA agent. Counterrevolutionaries could be arrested and even executed - a danger that grew, once the Iran-Iraq war - which government supporters portrayed as a war against imperialism - started. Some on the left, including the Fadai Minority, adopted the line, originally put forward by ‘line three’ ex-Maoists, that the Iran-Iraq war was a reactionary conflict.

That meant you could now be arrested for being a member of the Fadai Minority - you were part of the US aggression against Iran, you were a traitor and you could easily be killed. By contrast, at this time the Fadai Majority might be invited into ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani’s office for consultations over the organisation of this or that event. Obviously by this stage we are talking about revolution and counterrevolution.

Both the Majority and the ‘official communist’ Tudeh Party definitely supported the government in repressing the rest of the left. By now the Majority was totally following the Moscow line and was very close to Tudeh. The Minority was telling workers that, while we defend Iran, we also have to fight the regime. But the Majority was saying, ‘Produce more - there is an anti-imperialist war and a war economy, and Iran is moving towards the socialist camp.’ One of the worst ‘Majority/Tudeh’ slogans of this period was: ‘Give heavy weapons to Pasdarans’ (Islamic Revolutionary Guards who were waging vicious attacks against the radical left). Let me also say that the very small Iranian Trotskyist groups were divided along very similar lines.

From this point on we are talking about two very different organisations. The Majority was able to operate openly until at least 1984, with offices in Tehran until 1982-83. The Minority, on the other hand, was considered a proscribed organisation, with the houses of leading figures raided and a lot of deaths in those first two years.

The first congress of the Fadai Minority shows the diversity of forces that had taken a united position against the Majority. For example, there was another split in this congress. Those in favour of joining the Mujahedin in the National Council of Resistance departed. There was also a Trotskyist Tendency and debates about entryism.

Apart from these political difficulties, it was a bad time generally for the Fadai Minority. Its secret printing press was discovered by the government and a lot of supporters were killed. Political debate became confused with security issues and formed a terrible backdrop of militarism and centralism within the Fadai - some of the blame was put unjustly on the Trotskyist Tendency. This marked the beginning of what I call total centralism in the Fadai Minority - a complete disregard for democracy by people who were preserving the organisation for the sake of preserving the organisation.

The whole ideology of the Fadai had always been dominated by talk of professional revolutionaries, heroes, the elite - dedicated people who have no other life, no other concern (and never meet anybody else either, because they might become ‘confused’ and do something not in the interests of the organisation). My personal experience of the Fadai began at that time, in the middle of this difficult period. But, for all its faults, the Fadai Minority remained for many years the main left organisation opposing the Islamic republic.

The Majority also suffered when a CIA plant in the Soviet embassy in Tehran gave the names of many Tudeh Party members to the Islamic government. Many leading members of the Majority were arrested too. It was the beginning of the end for those two organisations inside Iran - now what remains of them survive in exile. The workers who had illusions in the Majority had by then given up. By 1982 leading oil workers, who had gone with the Majority or Tudeh in the period of debate over whether the government was revolutionary or counterrevolutionary, left these organisations.

Kurdistan base

As for the Fadai Minority, we were forced to move most of our leading members to Kurdistan. The central committee kept one person in Tehran and ironically, as a woman, she could not be recognised by the regime. Although the government posted her photo on every lamppost, showing her without a headscarf, in real life she was totally covered up! She managed to produce a leftwing paper in the middle of Tehran until 1985. Despite the fact that the paper featured mass work among the class more prominently, the image of the heroic guerrillas persisted as a strong element for certain figures in the Fadai Minority.

So basically the organisation as a whole moved to Kurdistan, leaving some key figures in various cities - people who had not been involved in the various security scares. The Kurdistan period was both a good and bad time for the Fadai. It was a safer place than Iranian cities, but here was a Marxist organisation forced to work in the countryside amongst the peasantry, who hardly wanted to build socialism and to whom Fadai ideas were quite alien.

They were hospitable towards us, although I suspect this resulted from their hostility to the regime - which was based on Kurdish nationalism rather than any understanding of what the Fadai actually stood for. Quite clearly they were not religious in the way that the Islamic republic was, and that is true of the peasantry all over Iran - they have their own ways of expressing their religion. I felt we were a bit like aliens there, especially we women Fadai, who wore men’s clothes and carried a gun. The peasant women did not really take to us and the peasant men thought us very strange.

In Kurdistan the organisation needed a lot of backbone to survive such serious hardship. The winters were terribly cold and the summers very dry. Later, as the government mounted its offensive against us, we had to move from bases in villages to more mountainous areas, where the people were much more tribal and there were no real villages.

I think the beginning of corruption within the Fadai Minority came during the Kurdish period, when everyone had pragmatic reasons for demanding the right of passage through Iraq. The way many of us travelled to Kurdistan originally was via the southern part of Turkey. In winter it was hell - cold, mountainous, terribly dangerous - and, of course, there was a much easier way through Iraq. All the political organisations of the Iranian left, not just the Fadai Minority, agreed to accept the right of passage via Iraq - at a cost.

Later on there came the idea that in order to feed and clothe people it was necessary to accept financial aid, including from dubious sources. The Fadai were amongst the last to accept such aid, but it began in Kurdistan. So an organisation based on such high principles, whose heroes were supposed to be beyond criticism in the way they behaved, took the first small step of accepting money from Iraq, and so it went on. Today some organisations on the Iranian left see no contradiction in accepting US ‘regime change’ funds or money from Saudi Arabia or certain Israeli institutions (I assume on the basis that the end justifies the means).

Debate in our Kurdish base was very limited. It was not that there was no debate at all, but most people had to ask questions in writing. As the situation became more difficult, the central committee became even more centralised, so that dissent from the political line was seen as equivalent to treachery. Dissidents were not expelled, but were treated less favourably.

An example: four months after a congress, we found out about a pamphlet written by the Trotskyist Tendency - but only thanks to a superficial book, Leninism or Trotskyism, written by a central committee member, who denounced the tendency mainly through insults. The book made a wonderful U-turn regarding one of the Fadai’s longstanding positions: “In a future revolutionary Iran the Soviet Union will help us build heavy industries in order to achieve socialism.”

When in a written question some of us asked the author what the difference was between this and the Tudeh Party’s ‘non-capitalist road to development’ - the line that our founders had rebelled against - his comment was: “We are not treacherous like Tudeh!” Of course, the majority of members did not share his opinions, but we were never given the chance to debate such issues or hold another congress.

Another corrupting influence was the interference of Jalal Talebani’s group in Kurdistan - Talebani is now president of Iraq, of course. His group was one of those that controlled not just Iranian Kurdistan, but bordering areas in Turkish Kurdistan and part of Iraqi Kurdistan. There is a place known as the ‘valley of the parties’, between Iran, Iraq and Turkey. With high mountains on all sides, it was a safe place to locate your base, training schools, radio stations and so on.

Talebani’s group was dominant there. He had already moved well beyond anything to do with the left and this was more than 25 years ago. He was a bourgeois politician even then with a tribal, feudal background. He would meddle in the affairs of political groups, supporting one faction of this or that group against its central committee. The whole situation was pretty bad.

However, amongst the positives was the fact that people who wanted to fight the government arrived in numbers in Kurdistan. They had no history of involvement with the Fadai, no theoretical background, but unfortunately there was no real attempt to give them a political education. Most members and cadres only read the works of Lenin or of ‘martyred’ Fadai comrades.

One of the worst events was the battle for control of the Fadai radio station. Ordinary members wanted a congress and the central committee refused to organise one, because it knew it would lose power. It had coopted members who agreed with its line and there were many complaints about the lack of democracy. The political line of the people who attacked the radio station in order to take control of it from the central committee was pretty dodgy, and they moved gradually further to the right as time went by. (Later they were in discussions to rejoin the Fadai Majority, which gives you some indication of their trajectory.)

However, the central committee delayed the congress and stopped everybody having a proper discussion about our strategy and tactics, and our current political theory. Where did we stand now? We were no longer guerrillaist or Maoist and the Trotskyist Tendency had been expelled. Clearly some in the central committee did not see anything wrong with the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. But none of this was discussed. This situation threw into relief the political decline of the Fadai Minority.

Even with all these disasters in Kurdistan, even with the fact that the Fadai had not managed to gain much support inside Iran, they remained a very powerful force outside the country. When I was sent to the foreign committee in 1984, we had about 1,000 supporters in the US and around 100 in several European countries.

These supporters were doing a lot of work for the Fadai - fundraising, publicity, producing their own publications, including a student journal. But Fadai membership was totally different. Remember, this was an organisation of professional revolutionaries, and because recruitment had slowed considerably and many had died, there were probably only around 40 Fadai Minority members left, compared with 60 at the first congress.

Supporters had few rights. They could elect their own representatives, but these representatives had no influence on the organisation. At the end of the 20th century this model - a body of professional revolutionaries aided by supporters - was alien to most people, but we still kept it.

Most importantly, the Fadai still worked on a ‘need to know’ basis, so supporters had a distorted view of both the theory and practice of the organisation. It was very hard to do much to change this, because members like myself were not allowed to divulge ‘secret information’.

There was very little serious political discussion on the foreign committee. If in Kurdistan there was the excuse that we were fighting a war and did not want the enemy to take prisoners who knew too much and so on, in Europe that argument was really redundant.

Most of us were given so much to do and were literally so exhausted that we could not even read or study properly. It was not unusual to be sent to another continent at a few hours’ notice, so it was really a very disruptive time.

Many of us by 1985-86 had come to the conclusion that we could not work effectively, but you cannot just leave such an organisation. I resigned three times and was told each time that my resignation was not accepted! The central committee discussed my resignation and threw it in the bin. Eventually I just stopped working and went into hiding.

Lessons

What are the main lessons? First of all, one has to remember that it is easy to criticise all of this in retrospect, just as it is easy to underestimate the repression of the shah and the Islamic republic. The influence that the Fadai had in the birth of the new left and on the Iranian revolution is historic and cannot be taken away, though a very heavy price was paid for it.

But there were many mistakes - militarism, Stalinism, centralism, the culture of the heroic guerrilla and the professional revolutionary. As the organisation disintegrated, not surprisingly heroes suddenly became villains in the eyes of many supporters.

A lesson that I personally learnt is that without debate, without democracy, without the ability to discuss every aspect of theory, your organisation will end up as a sect rather than a serious force capable of leading a revolution. I also came to the conclusion that the end does not just justify the means. I know some people think I am very dogmatic and uncompromising, but my experience with the Fadai has made me very vigilant about the betrayal of principles. We started by being pragmatic on minor things and ended up compromising on very big issues.

The main Majority-Minority split had been inevitable. The two opposite lines - supporters of the Islamic Republic and those calling for its overthrow - could not survive in the same organisation. However, in the absence of proper debate even at that time, the Minority was a broad front, encompassing those who “wanted to build socialism with the help of the Soviet Union”, Trotskyists and a number of tendencies in between.

These differences were never debated properly, members and supporters decided their allegiance to various tendencies based on their personal connections, often unaware of what was being debated. Ironically, both in the Majority and Minority, most of those who were die-hard supporters of the Soviet Union are currently flag-bearers of ‘regime change from above’ (irrespective of who paves the way for this: Trump or Biden).

At the end of my stay in Kurdistan I was in a base with about 40 people and, apart from one other, I am the only survivor. That gives me a responsibility. I cannot just give up on the revolutionary struggle, because, whatever you think of the Fadai’s various leaders, the 38 people who died in that base were all Marxists: they all believed in and wanted to achieve socialism, though they knew they would not see it in their lifetime.