Their Engineering Students and Ours
Three Books by Ervand Abrahamian and Some Others by Some Other People
“I had a dream,
someone will come.
I had a dream,
someone is coming- for sure…
…he can make the Allah neon,
on the top of the mosque, become bright and green again.
…It is so good to go to the park;
And it is so good to have an ice cream;
And it is so good to drink a coke;
And it is so good to go to a movie.
I like all those good things a lot…
…Someone will come,
And will give everyone somewhere to play in the park, let everyone have a glass of coca colat and pour everyone soup,
And will give everybody his share.
He will give me my share too.
Someone will come,
Someone is coming,
I had a dream.”
Forough Farrokhzad from One Will Come.
“During the upheavles, the upper class and the lower classes supported despotism. Only the middle class remained true to constitutionalism.”
Malek e Shuara Bahar, poet and participant in the Constitutional Revolution.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979, remains a historical event that escapes theorisation and analysis by all, apart from those with simple and cartoon shaped concepts of various kinds to stuff it into. For the supporters of Khomeini, though they dwindle in number and erode in coherence and unity, the narrative is one of the culmination of a century’s worth of anti colonial struggle, through to an almost inevitable mass recognition of the clergy as the only true and incorruptible leadership of the moment for national independence, social justice and freedom. For the older nationalist groups, it is the story of yet another betrayal, effectively yet another example of how the pure aspirations of the nationalist movement for national independence, the rule of law and liberal democracy was subverted by clerical obscurantism, the breathless excitement of the left and, at worse, some sort of backwardness in the broad masses of the poorest Iranians.
For the Iranian left, as well as the international left more broadly, it is often simply the story of subjective errors. Whether that is the anti Stalinist groups berating the Tudeh and the Fedayi’an so-called “majority” faction for their allegedly typical Stalinist popular frontism, building an alliance with the Islamic Republican Party and naively sending other leftists to the torture chambers and fire squads before they themselves walk that well trodden path. For the Mojahedin it is either their nature as an alleged “personality cult” around the husband and wife Maryam and Masud Rajavi leadership “team” or to do with a wilful obscurantism that made them introduce what Bijan Jazani, the leading Fedai theoretician and painter, called the very “damoclean sword” of Islamic rhetoric that is supposed to have fallen on left Islamists during the Islamic Republican Party’s consolidation of power, that led to their downfall.
And, of course, there is the main narrative the orientalist colonial-racist one that would have us believe that Iran is a changeless place with a people who are either in thrall to obscurantist religious leaders, ripping itself apart in bloody thirsty “tribal” or “sectarian” conflict, or under the hand of allegedly “benign” civilising dictator (whether this is to be Cyrus the Great, the British and Russians in the colonial period or the Americans and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi). The obviously racist nature of this story doesn’t stop it being an influential one. We can see it stated most obviously in many liberal European accounts of the revolution, not to mention conservative ones. It is at the heart of monarchist accounts, and it even lurks in the background of some reformist understandings within Iran. Perhaps its most obviously internalised form is that expressed in books like Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Not Without My Daughter that Hamid Dabashi described as a “recycled kaffeeklatsch… reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India” in Brown Skin White Masks. The title of Dabashi’s book alone, tells us a lot about how deep this colonial narrative has sunk, not just into the European mind but into the Iranian one too.
In all these cases, especially for those of us of a Marxian bent, it is the lack of any kind of appeal to the objective shape of class and social forces at work that must leave us unsatisfied. The reason I have chose to frame this essay as a review, primarily of these three books is that this is precisely what Abrahamian provides; an account of the major organisations, tendencies and social forces that shaped Iranian history in the 20th Century, particularly in the period “between two revolutions”; from the arresting of the movement around the Constitutional Revolutions to the outbreak of the 1979 revolution. Through an analysis of his Iran Between Two Revolutions I will look at the history of the official left, its offshoots and its competitors (both New Leftist and broadly “Islamicate”). Through a review of his book Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic I will describe the social composition and basic tensions of the victorious faction in the great revolution of 1979. A discussion of Abrahamian’s The Iranian Mojahedin will provide an account of an important mediating factor between these two poles.
The strength of Abrahamian’s work is that he unsettles all these political narratives, and makes a space in which we can try and link the subjective decisions made by political actors to underlying objective shifts in social conditions, particularly in the life of the working and middle classes in Iran. What I want to argue here is that this is a task which allows us to develop a political understanding of the way that the Left was defeated in Iran and the way Khomeinism triumphed that doesn’t rely on those old cliches. I am also claiming that these seems factors are part of the constellation of forces, the understanding of which provides the sine qua non of constructing an account of international developments like the rise of Modi and the BJP and the Arab Spring in the third world.
Let us begin then with a brief sketch of the country under consideration. A country in under the rule of a terrible CIA backed dictatorship. Retarded, as both Abrahamian and Hamid Dabashi have argued, from the moment of post war colonial national liberation but the CIA and MI6 engineered coup against the left nationalist leader Mossadegh. A country, therefore, behind the rest of the third world; without its Nasser or Nehru.