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The Iranian Left, Radical Change, and the National Question

By Thursday 23 January 2020 One Comment

Four decades after the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is beset with a manifold crisis: a socio-economic crisis of nearly thirty years of illiberal neo-liberalisation, a legitimacy crisis due to deepening social inequality and systematic governmental corruption, and a foreign policy crisis resulting from Iran’s regional interventions and the effective demise of the nuclear deal and crippling US sanctions. With the political bankruptcy of the regime-embedded reformists, streets have increasingly become the main site for the expression of popular grievances and political discontent. Indeed, in late 2017, early 2018 Iran experienced a winter of discontent as large numbers of people in numerous cities and towns across the country took to the streets and demonstrated against poverty, unemployment and corruption. There has also been a general strike in Kurdistan and several high-profile labour strikes and workers’ sit-ins over the past year or so followed by waves of police repression. All in all, Iran is arguably approaching, if not experiencing, a general crisis.

Under these circumstances what should a left political strategy look like?

The answer to this question is not straightforward largely because there is no unified Iranian left. However, for the purpose of the present argument two main tendencies could be distinguished: the ‘anti-imperialist left’ and the ‘economist left’.

The ‘anti-imperialist left’ intellectually and politically draws on the legacy of the Stalinist Tudeh party. For this tendency IRI’s apparent anti-imperialism over-determines its broader political strategy towards IRI. This has, for example, led Iran’s anti-imperialist leftists to support IRI’s intervention in Syria in support of Bashar Assad’s brutal regime, and oppose the Kurdish national movement, even in neighbouring countries, as an imperialist plot to partition Iran. The ‘economist left’, which admittedly is not an ideal description, refers to the new left and radical Marxist groups and tendencies that have a strategic focus on anti-capitalist struggle within Iran to the relative neglect of national and gender questions. For this camp, it is the exigencies of fighting the national bourgeoisie that over-determines its broader political strategy. In other words, in political terms the anti-imperialist left is ‘externalist’ while the economist left is ‘internalist’. Given IRI’s severe suppression of dissent, neither camp exists in an organised manner inside Iran but mostly as discursive fields in the public sphere and social media.

What both of these left tendencies share is a basic assumption that the working class is the main socio-historical agency for a radical progressive political transformation in Iran. And relatedly, both tendencies tend to view the national question of so-called ‘minorities’ as a distraction from anti-imperialist and class struggles. This perspective on agency and subaltern national movements in turn rests on a broader theory of capitalist development that is uncritically adopted from classical Marxism. In contrast, I suggest that the articulation of a successful political strategy by the radical Iranian left depends on a critical reflection on this theoretical framework. In what follows I sketch this argument focusing on the national question and how it can be a central element to a successful leftist political strategy in Iran.

The Marxist left’s assumption that the working class forms the decisive revolutionary agency in the capitalist epoch is derived from Marx’s theory of capitalist development. Marx assumed capitalism would progressively divide society into two major classes: proletariat, and the bourgeoisie. For Marx, the proletariat was a ‘universal class’ with ‘radical chains’ and therefore its emancipation amounted to the emancipation of the whole of society. It was therefore the leading historical agency and central to a socialist transformation in capitalist modernity. This view was based on Marx’s study of England as the home of the first systematic development of capitalism. It was rendered universally valid through Marx’s conception of capitalism’s expansion as an essentially transnational process. Marx saw this process unfolding in a temporally differentiated fashion generating essentially similar outcomes in different countries. Interestingly, this stance was in tension with Marx’s own empirical observations of capitalist development in backward European countries and the colonial and non-European world (cf. Anderson 2010). Late in life, Marx (1977: 572) issued a stern warning against turning his ‘sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophic theory of the general path every people is fated to tread …’. Nevertheless, Marx’s belated concerns did not bear on the basic theoretical framework of historical materialism, which subsequent Marxists applied to their local and national contexts.

It is therefore unsurprising that Marxism has been vulnerable to the charges of Eurocentrism and historical unilinearism. The intellectual roots of these problems however lie deeper in the basic assumptions of Marx’s general social theory, namely, historical materialism. More specifically it can be traced to historical materialism’s basic premise of the ‘double relationship’ formulated in The German Ideology, i.e. the claim that ‘the production of life … appears as a double relationship: on the one hand as natural, on the other as a social relationship’ (Marx and Engels 1970: 50; 1993: 87). Marxist social theory therefore elides the intrinsic multiplicity of the social world and hence the whole plane of inter-societal relations. Indeed, Marx’s monumental Capital involves an explicit abstraction from international relations (Marx 1990: 727). Consequently, key theoretical concepts of Marxism, including that of revolutionary agency, are necessarily formed by reference to the internal dynamics of a particular society, i.e. England, and then generalised as universal. Marxist ideas of ‘uneven development’ and ‘imperialism’ implicitly addressed the consequences of this fateful neglect of societal multiplicity. However, both ideas were derived from the internal logic of the capitalist mode of production and therefore reproduced the deep theoretical neglect of societal multiplicity and its consequences of ‘difference, coexistence, interaction, combination, and dialectical change (Rosenberg 2016: 135–141).

Among classical Marxist thinkers Leon Trotsky was arguably alone in implicitly but directly addressing the theoretical omission of societal multiplicity in Marxist social theory through his idea of ‘uneven and combined development’ (UCD). ‘Unevenness’ represents and foregrounds the ontological condition of societal multiplicity, and ‘combination’ captures its consequences leading to a conception of ‘development’ as intrinsically interactive and multilinear. In other words, ‘external’ and ‘internal’ are mutually constitutive and dialectically reshape each other precluding unilinear social change. UCD’s recognition and comprehension of societal multiplicity and therefore inter-societal relations entails a dynamic conception of historical agency that is not derived solely from the dialectic of capital and labour. A particularly illuminating site of this argument is the phenomena of the nation and nationalism whose theorisation has been correctly described as ‘Marxism’s great historical failure’ (Nairn 1975: 3). I have shown elsewhere (Matin 2019) that rather than being an ideological by-product of capitalism or a form of false consciousness – as Marxists have tended to assume – the nation and nationalism are in fact constitutive of historical capitalism. I will sketch this argument before briefly commenting on its crucial implications for the political strategy of the Iranian left amidst the current crisis in Iran.

The nation is an abstract community whose historical specificity lies in its political form of capitalist sovereignty. But it has a double-life. It first emerged in England (later Britain) as a re-enchanting response to the disenchantment of imperial capitalism. However, the uneven and combined nature of this process precluded its modular replication elsewhere through reversing the key moments of its original formation. Within late-comer societies, that is, later than England/Britain, nationalism forges the nation before capitalism, which geopolitically over-determines the process from without.

Thus, in non-capitalist societies which directly or indirectly experienced the pressure of capitalist Britain, nationalism, rather than capitalism, forged the nation as the political-ideological unification of still socially concrete individuals; a process for which the violent construction of a ‘national’ identity from a particular ethnicity or language was the most possible, and hence most common, route (cf. Dirlik 2002: 436). In multi-cultural and multi-ethnic contexts (that is, most of the world) this by default meant the formation of subalternised ‘minorities’ which, unless granted substantive autonomy, launched their own mimetic autonomist or irredentist nationalist projects against emerging unitary nation-states (cf. Hobsbawm 1977: 16-17).

This process is precisely what happened in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and most other so-called ‘late-comer’ countries. In Iran, Persian language and culture came to form the ideological core and consciousness of the modern state and its unitary conception of national identity. This involved the subordination of the pre-existing political-cultural configurations of non-Persian peoples and their ruling elites, which hitherto had high levels of autonomy in a decentralised, semi-confederal system. This pre-national polity had no territorial definition as was the case with all pre-capitalist polities which were essentially dynastic and tribal in structure. The project of defensive state-formation which the Iranian ruling classes embarked upon under colonial and imperial pressure from European powers therefore involved the construction of a culturally defined political hierarchy, i.e. the modern Iranian nation state. In this new polity the nation and its interests were defined in terms of only one of the several cultures, languages and religions that existed within its geography, i.e. Persian (Twelver) Shi’ism. It was this Shi’i-Persian state that led Iran’s subsequent industrialisation and capitalist development. As a result, and from the start, the capitalist socio-economic hierarchy contained an inbuilt ethno-cultural hierarchy that co-determined its dynamics and consequences as well as the terms and forms of resistance to it. Thus, class divisions were embedded in a complex cultural-political field giving rise to a pattern of regional inequality and uneven development that to a considerable extent coincided with the distribution of non-Persian ethnolinguistic communities. These communities therefore turned into subaltern ‘minorities’ due to their politically and culturally subordinate status within the new unitary nation-state. The often-cited centre-periphery inequality in Iran only partially reflect this condition.

Under such circumstances, class formation and class divisions involved a level of ethno-cultural definition that makes any hegemonic political project that centres on class struggle alone highly limited in its popular appeal and political efficacy. For example, the 2009 ‘green movement’ failed largely, or at least partly, because its strategic focus on liberal-democratic demands neglected the question of national minorities as well as class and gender. Few cities outside Tehran participated in the protest movement beyond its early stages. The main cities in Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Khuzestan and Baluchistan largely remained bystanders during Iran’s 2009 summer of protests since the movement failed to effectively engage their culturally sharpened political sensibility. Conversely, the recent labour strikes failed to spark any wider political movement and protests. The reason was that their leaders, but especially some sections of leftist activists and intellectuals outside these strike actions tended to deny any link between the workers’ demands and broader political demands, particularly the question of the oppression of national minorities. To be sure, more severe state repression might have been a reason for this stance. However, one can also detect a deeper intellectual reason for this avoidance of the national question.

At the core of this failure, as I have been trying to argue, lies a conception of agency that is monadic and that does not correspond to the developmental specificities of modern Iran and the nature of its social and political contradictions. The remarkable success of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey further supports this argument. HDP entered the 2015 general elections in Turkey with a radical progressive agenda that was multi-focal in nature and hence rich in its hegemonic potentials. It appealed to the working classes, subaltern national and religious minorities and marginalised groups including LGBTQ groups, and crucially, women. In effect, HDP re-embedded the Kurds’ longstanding struggle for cultural and political self-institution in a wider radical political programme that foregrounded social, economic, ethnic, religious and gender inequalities. This enabled HDP to attract large numbers of voters outside its Kurdish heartland. Indeed, the strategy was an instant success and despite the Turkish government’s relentless subsequent suppression, HDP retained its status as the third largest party in the parliament in the last general election. Furthermore, it played a decisive role in the defeat of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in recent municipal elections.

A more radical version of HDP’s project in Turkey is the project of ‘democratic confederalism’ in Syrian Kurdistan better known as Rojava. Democratic confederalism is a dynamic process of state-deformation in which popular and communal councils systematically hollow out existing state structures, replacing their hierarchical and patriarchal relations of authority with horizontal, gender-egalitarian relations of self-administration based on a use-value oriented and environmentally sensitive cooperative economy. The project places national, class, gender and environmental questions at its political and strategic core. As a result, the conception of radical agency is by default plural and horizontal. The speed with which the project became a mass-movement with remarkable degrees of success under most unfavourable (geo-)political and economic circumstances is testimony to the efficacy of the movement and its approach to transformative agency. In addition, the ferocious violence and deep enmity with which the Turkish state and other reactionary forces in the region have assaulted this experience is a measure of the historical threat it poses to the status quo in the region.

To be sure, circumstances in Iran are rather different than in Turkey and Rojava. To start with, there is no constitutional democracy, party politics, or fair elections in Iran comparable to those of Turkey’s. Nor is Iran experiencing a breakdown of central state authority due to war as was the case in Syria. Nevertheless, there is huge political energy and dynamism in Iranian society today for which the natural political and discursive channel is the radical left. And yet, the single-track nature of the left’s political and ideological discourse prevents it from strategically engaging and absorbing this political energy and dynamism, which has multiple sources irreducible to the contradiction between capital and labour alone.

A new left that seeks to have real impact on Iran at a time when the country is beset by a general crisis and craving for change must reframe its political strategy through a sustained and critical reflection on its intellectual foundations. Due to the effects of Iran’s experience of uneven and combined development, class struggle has no inherent priority over the struggle of oppressed national minorities, marginalised groups and women. Any political strategy that focuses on only one of these aspects or organises their significance hierarchically is unlikely to attract subaltern masses and effectuate radical, progressive change in Iran. Given the ethno-linguistic demography of Iran and the degree to which relations of political and economic subordination are openly charged with Persian-cum-Iranian nationalism, the explicit integration and advocacy of equal status, rights and recognition of Iran’s subaltern nationalities is indispensable to an effective and successful left political strategy in Iran.


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Dirlik, Arif (2002), ‘Rethinking colonialism: Globalization, postcolonialism, and the nation, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 4(3): 428–448.

Hobsbawm, Eric (1977), ‘Some reflections on the break-up of Britain’, New Left Review, 1(105): 3–23.
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Matin, Kamran (2019), ‘Deciphering the modern Janus’, Globalizations, https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2019.1673615, forthcoming.
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Rosenberg, Justin (2016), ‘International relations in the prison of political science’, International Relations, 30 (2): 127-153.

Kamran Matin is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Sussex University, UK, where he teaches International History, International Theory, and Middle East Politics. His research interests include the international dimension of historical change, critique of Eurocentrism, modern state-formation, nationalism and Iranian modernity, and Kurdish politics and history. He is the author of Recasting Iranian Modernity: International Relations and Social Change (Routledge, 2013) and co-editor of Historical Sociology and World History: Uneven and Combined Development over the Longue Durée (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), and co-editor of Palgrave’s Minorities in West Asia and North Africa (MWANA) series.
[email protected]

First published in Aga Khan University, Abdou Filali-Ansary Occasional Paper Series, Issue no. 1, December 2019