Rewriting history

Official communists and some leftists supported the reactionary Khomeini regime. Homayoun Azad examines the division in Iran's left three decades ago

In mid-February, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, the BBC Persian service interviewed a number of Iranian political figures and activists - amongst them the renowned poet, Esmail Khoi, who lives in exile in London. The interview re-ignited controversies surrounding the role of the left in the revolution and its aftermath that still have implications for the present day, including the role of Hands Off the People of Iran in the anti-war movement.

During his interview Khoi referred to the early years of the revolution when, as a supporter of the Fedayeen Minority, he was forced into hiding. He reminded the Farsi-speaking audience of the collaboration of the Fedayeen Majority with the regime. He talked of the period when he was forced to seek refuge in the homes of friends and fellow poets and singled out one poet, Nassim Khakssar, for his special support.

Khoi added that Khakssar’s help was much appreciated because, despite his association with the Majority, which was at the time supporting the repressive policies of the regime, he did give Khoi refuge in his house. In this televised intervention, Khoi was uncompromising in his condemnation of the politics of the Majority, a group that not only supported Khomeini’s supposed ‘anti-imperialism’, but went as far as giving the names of left activists to the regime.

This sparked a major effort by the Majority to ‘denounce’ the accusations and try once again to rewrite history. The BBC (committed to impartiality!) gave equal time to Behzad Karimi of the central committee of the Fedayeen Majority to defend the indefensible. Other members of the Majority central committee have since spoken and written defending the record of their organisation.

This reprise of the divisions of the Iranian left in the immediate aftermath of the revolution reveals the glibness of those sections of the Trotskyist left in Britain that claim that ‘the Iranian left’ then supported the regime. In fact, Iranian leftist groups rapidly polarised into two camps: pro and anti the government. Many organisations, such as the Fedayeen, split into two and the ‘centrists’ were rapidly forced to chose between these two camps.

Immediately after the revolution, the new Islamic government showed its true character. It began with attacks on women’s demonstrations against forced veiling in March 1979. Liberal opposition newspapers were then attacked and closed down. In the summer of 1979 the government intervened militarily in Kurdistan to suppress demands for autonomy. Workers’ shoras (councils) were dismantled and workers’ strikes and protests were attacked by the army and the Islamic guards.

The pro-Soviet Tudeh Party had begun by uncritically supporting the ‘anti-imperialist’ regime. But now, together with its new allies in the Fedayeen (the majority of the central committee of the Fedayeen), and in a classic piece of wooden Marxism, it increasingly supported the ‘petty bourgeois’ line of Khomeini against both the ‘bourgeois liberals’ and against the regime’s opponents on the left. Indeed, the left was denounced as counterrevolutionary. The ensuing occupation of the US embassy by the ‘students of the imam’s line’ and the outbreak of war with Iraq would see the crystallisation of this approach and its suicidal effects.

When the staff at the US embassy were taken hostage, Tudeh and Majority, together with some Trotskyist groups (who considered the regime progressive for its anti-US stance), all called for unconditional support for the ‘imam’s line’. When the war with Iraq broke out, all these groups called on workers to stop their strikes and for all opposition forces to rally behind the ‘anti-imperialist’ government.

During the bloodbath of 1981, when the regime launched an all-out attack on the Mujahedin and all opposition groups, Tudeh, the Majority and sections of the Fourth International continued to support and defend the Islamic government (this marked the defeat of the revolutionary movement). The attacks lasted until 1983, when, in a classic piece of political farce, members of Tudeh, Fedayeen Majority and the pro-state Trotskyist groups were themselves arrested.

The division within the Iranian left was not simply 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 on the basis of their anti-US rhetoric. It was this analysis that led political groups as diverse as the Majority and sections of the Fourth International to name activists of the left in their publications, accusing them of siding with imperialism for opposing Khomeoni and the Islamic regime. These forces endangered the lives of communists and socialists and Esmail Khoi is right to be upset by this latest attempt of the Majority central committee to excuse their shameless politics.

Khoi’s poetic and colourful text on this subject is beyond my translating capabilities. However, I will try to convey the gist of parts of his text in English. Khoi talks of these na rafighan (non-comrades) who destroyed a “young revolutionary organisation, with their slavish attitude towards the oldest form of Islamic reaction”. He reminds us that “by denying history, lying about their own past, the Fedayeen Majority prove they have learnt these lessons from their allies and teachers, the Tudeh Party of Iran, shamelessly claiming, ‘Who was it? Who was it? It wasn’t me!’ They claim it was not their fault that some of the best and bravest revolutionaries in Iran were identified by the regime, arrested and subsequently executed in prisons.

“A couple of days after my BBC interview, a friend phoned to tell me, ‘You have really rattled their cage; they are claiming they will sue you and the BBC for defamation.’ I laughed and replied: ‘Well, they are the ones who should be tried - selling human life is not a crime that has a time limit. These unpaid slaves of reactionary forces will have to be tried one day’.”

Responding to Khoi, Behzad Karimi from the central committee of the Fedayeen Majority told the BBC: “We never gave any names, never endangered any lives.” As Khoi points out, old issues of Kar, available in libraries, contradict this claim.

A regular column in the 1981 issues of Kar was entitled: ‘Let us expose counterrevolutionaries!’ This column tried to link leftist opponents of the regime with the US. As an example, let us look at one issue highlighted by Workers Left Unity member Ali Sh. In Kar No118 (July 1981), under the title, ‘Arrest the treacherous tribal leaders’, the paper names a number of activists of the Marxist-Leninist organisation Ranjbaran, identifies their whereabouts and calls on the Islamic regime to inflict maximum punishment on them!

Behzad Karimi claims that the Majority did not defend the execution of political opponents by the Islamic regime. What do the documents tell us? In Kar No117 (June 1981), after two members of a nationalist group are executed by the Islamic regime, the paper writes in no uncertain terms: “The execution of Karim Dastmalchi and Ahmad Javaherian by the central Islamic Revolutionary court has our decisive backing.” In Kar No122 (August 1981), the Islamic revolutionary courts are advised to separate the plight of misguided members of leftist and anarchist groups from that of their leaders, calling for severe punishment of the leaders. The paper advocates “uncompromising repression of political forces that have embarked on opposing the regime and taken up arms against the [Islamic] revolution”.

However, the most farcical part of the whole story is how they even gave the names of their own comrades to the regime. When Kar (Majority) finally published an unsigned article containing mild criticism of the extent of the executions, according to Behzad Karimi and Farrokh Negahdar (both members of the central committee of the Fedayeen Majority at the time), Lajevardi (Iran’s vicious religious prosecutor) phoned them and asked for the name of the author of the article. According to Karimi, speaking to the BBC in 2009, Mohamad Reza Ghebraii - the paper’s editor - voluntarily went to Evin prison, but he was arrested and executed two years later.

Farrokh Negahdar, writing in the journal Arash 97, has a slightly different version of the same story: “When Lajevardi phoned us to ask for the name of the article’s author, we decided that comrade Ghebraii who was the paper’s editor and who had already been introduced to the government, should go to answer. Lajevardi took him hostage, demanded the name of the author and executed Ghebraii two years later.”

The Fedayeen Majority were not the only group who were both cheerleaders for Islamic terror in Iran but also ultimately its victim. The US Socialist Workers Party, a section of the Fourth International’s unity project in Iran, actually wrote articles worse than the above examples in defence of ‘revolutionary Islam’. In the early 1980s, one of their leading members, Babak Zahraii, walked into Evin prison to advise the Islamic authorities, only to be arrested himself. As he was considered to be the leader of a rather harmless group he was spared execution and released at the end of his sentence in the 1990s.

Although most of these events happened 25-30 years ago all have a contemporary relevance. The Majority’s and Tudeh’s current defence of the ‘reformist ‘ factions of the Islamic government and their activities as shame-faced defenders of the Islamic regime (via groups like the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran) illustrate a simple fact: denying history inevitably leads to repeating the same mistakes, albeit in a different context.

The Majority now portray themselves as a ‘mature’ political force that has learnt from the ‘mistakes’ of the left. The reality is they were never part of the radical left in Iran. As Esmail Khoi rightly points out, they only brought disgrace to the Marxist opposition in Iran. Maybe it is time they gave up trying to rewrite their shameful history.