International Newsletter of Communist  Studies XX/XXI (2014/15), nos. 27-28

81

Cosroe Chaqueri (ed.): The Left in Iran. 1905-1940, London, Merlin Press, 2010.

(Revolutionary History. 10/2). 458 pp. – ISBN 9780850366723;  

Chaqueri, Cosroe (ed.): The Left in Iran. 1941-1957, London, Merlin Press,

  1. (Revolutionary History. 10/3). 520 pp. – ISBN 9780850366563.

Ramin Taghian

Vienna, Austria

In today's world, when hearing of the Middle East most people would primarily think of terms like war, oil, Islam, Islamism, terrorism and, in recent years, the “Arab spring”. Apart of the superficiality of this kind of generalisation which gives testament to either widespread ignorance or rather geopolitically motivated be nding of information, very few people would know about a Middle Eastern “Left” or its history. More informed people might still know about “Arab socialism”, i.e. those authoritarian political systems which were established in the 1950s and 1960s in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria, and which followed an anti-colonial developmentalist course. Another instance which could come to mind is the role of the Iranian Left in the revolution of 1979 which was finally brutally crushed by the ascending Islamic Republic of Iran. But apart of these cases little is known about this region's Left,

particularly before the Second World War. Nevertheless the Left's history in the Middle East is a rich and fascinating one and its study could also help to de-orientalise the discourse about this region as well as unearth forgo tten experiences which might inform current progressive movements in a region marked by turmoil. 

In regard to Iran, the two volumes of “The Left in Iran”, both edited by Cosroe Chaqueri as special issues of the journal Revolutionary History , are an important contribution to this task and will be of high value for historians of Marxim as well as for historians of modern Iran in the future. Each volume includes a rather brief introduction into and discussion of the history of the Iranian Left in the respective time period.

 Additionally one finds articles which deal with certain aspects of the history of the Iranian Left such as specific groups or biographies of particular political activists or theoreticians. Included in these more general discussions one can find valuable comments on the historiography of the Iranian Left, particularly an article by Chaqueri in the second volume specifically dealing with  this issue (vol. II, p. 231-347). The core of the volumes, though, is a wide collection of documents on the Iranian Left. These documents give a rich insight into a history not well known and hitherto full of misrepresentations, as will be briefly discussed below.

The first volume, which covers the time period between 1905 and 1940 and therefore goes back to the very beginnings of socialist politics in  Iran, starts off with an introduction into the social and economic background to the left's ascension at the beginning of the 20th century, i.e. the crisis of pre-capitalist Iranian society, the multilayered imperial penetration of the country by Russia and Britain, and finally the transnational labour migration from Iran to then Russian Caucasus. This is important since the first socialist oriented movements in Iran must be analysed in the context of Iranian and Russian reciprocity and were highly influenced by Russian Social Democracy. This connection also becomes apparent in many of the presented documents. Some of the documents are articles or reports written by Russian Caucasian socialist militants like the Armenian Khachaturian (vol. I, p. 131-135) or the Georgian Tria (vol. I, p. 141-149), who fought on the side of the revolutionaries during the Constitutional Revolution in Iran and gave first hand accounts of their experiences. These accounts attest to the intricate linkage between militants on both sides of the border and to International Newsletter of Communist

 Studies XX/XXI (2014/15), nos. 27-28

82

the hopes many revolutionaries of Russia had in the Constitutional Revolution in Iran.

Regarding the Constitutional Period before the First World War there also some declarations

and appeals by Iran's first well established Soci

al Democratic group, the transnationally

organised Social Democratic Party of Iran (

Firqah-ye Ejtama'iyun-e Amiyun-e Iran –

Mojahed

). Especially the appeal made to the Internat

ional Proletariat at the dawn of the coup

d'etat against the Iranian parliament and the subs

equent Russian invasion of Northern Iran at

the end of 1911 makes the internationalist perspective of these early socialist organisations

clear. Similarly the correspondence between me

mbers of the Tabriz Social Democratic

group, a young and small organisation predominantly made up of Iranian Armenians, and

Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov, two of the most fa

mous leaders of the Second

International, points to the international network

s already at play in this early stage of the

Iranian Left (vol. I, p. 123-127, 131-139). The prot

ocols of the conference held by the Tabriz

group in the second half of 1908 attest to the high level of Marxist theoretical debate

regarding the state of Iranian society and the

political tasks at hand (vol. I, p. 128-130).

Chaqueri makes it clear that this dimension,

 i.e. a certain depth of Marxist theoretical

thinking, is quite unique in the history of the Iranian Left.

1

 He is very outspoken in his

criticism of the shallowness of many leftist currents in the 20

th

 century, particularly pointing to

the Tudeh party in the 1940s and 50s, whic

h degraded itself to generally repeating the

foreign political line of the Soviet governm

ent and in consequence was unable to develop its

own theoretical and political concept, regarding the challenges in Iran as well as the political

nature of Soviet Russia. The same criticism is

further extended to the whole historiography of

the Iranian Left, as will be

discussed further below.

The second part of the documents of the first volume deals with the period which can be

identified with the establishment of the Communi

st movement at the end of the First World

War until the outbreak of the Second World War. In regard to Iran this covers first the

establishment of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Gilan or the Jangali Movement, on which

Chaqueri wrote an important and extensive monograph in the 1990s,

2

 secondly the Iranian

Communist Party. The latter existed from 192

0 until the 1930s when it was crushed by Reza

Shahs repression against all forms of oppositi

  1. As so often, an important source of

information on political movements in the non-European and semi-colonial world, particularly

regarding those movements which had to operate in the underground and in opposition to

the established power system, stems from the

reports written by prop

onents of the various

imperial powers, being either Russian, American

or British. Therefore Chaqueri also included

several documents with a specific reference

to Britain at the end of the first volume.

The second volume more or less starts where the

first volume ended, with the year 1941, i.e.

the year of Reza Shahs abdication and Iran’s

occupation by the allied forces, up until 1957.

Its focus, in regard to the historical overview offered at the beginning as well as to the

documents in the second part, deals much more narrowly with one single organisation, the

Tudeh party. Chaqueri discusses the development of

 this organisation from its inception

during the Second World War and ends in the period of the aftermath of the 1953 coup d'etat

against the democratic nationalist government of Mohammad Mosaddegh. Chaqueri

provides an intense discussion on the question of

 the relationship between the Tudeh party,

which only in 1949 established itself as a Marxis

t party and prior to this point declared itself

1

In his earlier works Chaqueri gave a lot of attenti

on to the forgotten or consciously marginalized role

of Iranian Armenians in the Ir

anian Left. See: Cosroe C

haqueri (ed.): The Arm

enians of Iran. The

Paradoxical Role of a Minority in a Dominant Cult

ure, Cambridge, Harvard

Center for Middle Eastern

Studies, 1998.

2

Cosroe Chaqueri: The Soviet Socialist Republic of

 Iran, 1920-1921. Birth

of the Trauma, Pittsburgh

and London, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.

International Newsletter of Communist

 Studies XX/XXI (2014/15), nos. 27-28

83

to be a popular democratic-nationalist party, and

the Soviet government in Russia. Based on

his archival research, Chaqueri comes to the

conclusion that the Soviets were from the

beginning instrumental in founding the Tudeh part

y and remained the main force in directing

its policies. Several incidents highlight this fact, particularly the support for a Soviet-Iranian oil

agreement, the support for the Autonomous Government in Iranian Azerbaijan in 1945-46 as

well as the support given to t

he government of Premier Ahmad Qavam in 1946. In all cases

the main reason for the support given by the T

udeh party to these projects, often despite the

original opinion of many Tudeh leaders, were

 the geopolitical interests of the Soviet

government which exerted pressure by its agent

s inside the party. Additionally the party

gained very little through these policies. Quite t

he opposite, they lost a lot of common ground

with the Iranian masses because they were increasingly identified with Soviet interests in

Iran and therefore outside of the nationalist ca

mp fighting against any form of imperial

penetration.

Chaqueri therefore is clear in his judgement

regarding the Tudeh party, being highly critical

of its Soviet compliance. Similarly he casts doubt on the historiography of the Iranian Left.

The history of the Left in the 20

th

 century has been the subject of many controversies. One

main reason for this was the effort of Stalinist

or Soviet historiography. Its aim was mostly to

construe a version of history which didn't strive

 to bring light into the shadows of the Left’s

history in order to understand and learn, in

stead serving the purpose of ideologically

fostering Soviet hegemony. The historiography

of the Iranian Left has therefore been the

victim of ideologically motivated research, either by its adversaries, such as bourgeois,

monarchist or Islamist forces,

or by its affiliates of the Stalinist camp. Chaqueri as an Iranian

leftist historian tried to face this situation throughout his works and relentlessly attacked

Stalinist misconstructions of Iran's history.

 His accomplishments in this effort are

tremendous.

Nevertheless, Chaqueri also pushes the boundaries in this context. As a more or less self-

proclaimed militant academic highl

y critical of Iranian historio

graphy, at times he seems to

exaggerate the task of confronting different histor

ic interpretations. His fierce attitude left him

many times in a difficult position, sidelining

him from the historiographical discourse and

therefore marginalizing him in the academic field. One example is given in the second

volume by himself, pointing to the conflict with Stephanie Cronin, editor of a volume on the

history of the Iranian Left, around the question

of the inclusion of a paper by Chaqueri.

Finally he rejected the inclusion of his paper

since he was confronted with the wish to tone

down his criticism as it appar

ently was “tending sometimes to the abusive.” (vol. II, p.231).

The pity in all of this is, that his criticism of

many aspects of certain historians of the Iranian

Left are as valuable as his wordings offensive. A good example for this dilemma is the

aforementioned article dealing wi

th the historiography of the

Iranian Left (vol. II, p. 231-347).

In this piece he confronts certain historians,

particularly the well-k

nown Ervand Abrahamian,

for their uncritical handling of St

alinist narratives about the Irani

an Left. This criticism is well

grounded, but the tone truly leaves little room for a true and respectful discourse in the

historic field. In a way this reproduces a certain problematic aspect of the Iranian Left,

criticized by Chaqueri himself, i.e. the

personal rivalry and petty competitiveness between

certain historic figures of the Iranian Left with

 the aim to distinguish oneself from the others

(vol. II, p. 284).

To sum up, with “The Left in Iran” Chaqueri succeeded in collecting highly valuable

documents on the Iranian Left, some of them transla

ted for the first time into English. Even

though some important documents seem to

be missing, such as the programme and the

International Newsletter of Communist

 Studies XX/XXI (2014/15), nos. 27-28

84

statute of the early Social Democratic Party of Iran,

3

 in general he did a magnificent job and

proved again to be one of the most competent hi

storians of the Iranian Left. The wide range

of documents at his disposal which he collected

through decades of research in archives all

over the world sometimes leads to an inflationary use of primary sources inside his own

texts. Therefore at times documents seem to be

not properly marked as original documents,

which makes it hard to find and identify t

hem, even though they nevertheless are of high

value for historians. But in the end this does

not belittle the overall achievement in Chaqueri’s

effort.

At the end there remains the necessity to mour

  1. Cosroe Chaqueri died after a long illness

on June 30 2015. This illness had

already slowed him down many times, leading to long

periods in which he was rarely able to publish.

His final record attests to his qualities as an

outstanding historian of

the Iranian Left. In regard to the volumes “The Left in Iran” it must be

mentioned that his passing away leaves his

task incomplete. After the first two volumes

Chaqueri together with

Revolutionary History

 announced the last part of the series which

would have dealt with the Iranian Left up until the revolution of 1979. This task will have to be

picked up by other historians of

Iran, even though it will be diffi

cult to find somebody with

similar qualities as a diligent archival

 researcher as Co

sroe Chaqueri. 

3

To my knowledge they were reprinted only in German in the 1970s by Schapour Ravasani:

Sowjetrepublik Gilan. Die sozialistische Bewegung im

 Iran seit Ende des 19 Jh. bis 1922, Berlin, Basis

Verlag, 1973. In my published thesis I also r

eprinted these insightful documents in: Ramin Taghian:

Grenzgänger des Sozialismus. Die transnationale Dimension der frühen sozialistischen Bewegung im

Iran (1905-1911), Wien, Promedia, 2014.