by Yassamine Mather
The month of September is known in the Iranian exile calendar as the month to commemorate one of the biggest mass executions of political prisoners in the Islamic republic’s period of power. This year is the 20th anniversary of the massacre in 1988.* The figures are very inaccurate, but I think the government admits that probably 15,000 socialists, communists and some from the Mujahedin were killed in prison. This was ayatollah Khomeini taking his revenge on the Iranian left following his defeat in the war against Saddam Hussein.
These were not the only working class partisans killed in the prisons of the islamic republic, of course: thousands had already been executed since 1980 and many more died in Kurdistan. What is sad about this is not just that so many thousands gave their lives for socialism and Marxism, but there have been very few lessons learned from this whole experience. The commemorations are now almost non-political events – for many doing their duty of paying respect to ‘martyrs’ is the only political activity they now engage in.
Amongst the thousands who died were those who belonged to the Fedayeen, of which I was a member. What I am going to try to do is give a brief history of the Fedayeen, their theory and ideas, and also my own experience in two main areas – in the Kurdistan branch and on the foreign committee, first as a candidate member and later as a member.
The Fedayeen’s origins go back to 1971, to a forest in the north of Iran, where militants took up arms, having taken over a gendarmerie. They were rebelling not just against the shah’s regime, but also against the Tudeh Party, the traditional ‘official’ communist party in Iran, whose name had become synonymous with compromise and betrayal. It goes without saying that the Soviet Union did not support the Iranian revolutionary movement against the shah, and the Tudeh Party followed the USSR’s line. It was for broad alliances and the peaceful road to socialism. So there was a rebellion against the Tudeh Party amongst the revolutionary youth.
However, to take up arms against the regime in such a way was suicidal, because it was inevitable that a large number of those who did so would be killed – 13 out of the 19 of what is called the original cell of the Fedayeen died in the fighting and a number of members and supporters were executed later.
The Fedayeen was formed through the merging of two groups on the Iranian left, both opposed to Tudeh. One was led by Massoud Ahmadzadeh, who came from a guerrilla family and had become very much influenced by Maoism. His politics were a combination of Maoism and guerrilla warfare. One of his closest allies was Amir-Parviz Pouyan, again someone influenced by 1968, Maoism and armed struggle. Ahmadzadeh’s book Armed struggle: both strategy and tactics (!) was for many years the bible of the Fedayeen. Amir-Parviz Pouyan also wrote a book called The necessity of armed struggle against the theory of survival. The ‘theory of survival’ referred to the line of the Tudeh Party, against which the Fedayeen were rebelling.
However, Ahmadzadeh also destroyed the illusion that the ‘national bourgeoisie’ could have a revolutionary or progressive role. Describing the democratic character of the revolution, he wrote: “Struggle against imperialist domination – ie, world capitalism – has some elements of the struggle with capitalism” and therefore “some elements of the socialist revolution are born in this struggle”. On the role of proletariat he wrote: “The proletariat [in Iran] is numerically weak, but its special qualities and capabilities to organise are stronger than any other class.”
Bijan Jazani was another leading figure. He came from a different tendency – the youth organisation of the Tudeh Party, but he rebelled against Tudeh and agreed to bring his small forces into the new organisation.
To summarise the politics which influenced the Fedayeen in that original period, one could say that a unique version of guerrillaism and Maoism dominated, but there was also a very simplistic attitude of ‘anti-revisionism’, which did not have much theory behind it. The founders were against the changes represented by the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and adopted a line claiming to be independent of both Russia and China. However, they remained very much influenced by Stalinism.
In debates, for example, with Communist Unity, which was more of a middle-of-the-road student organisation, the Fedayeen were very clear on where they stood on the Soviet Union. Their position was that until 1962 the USSR was 65% good and 35% bad, which, I think, is a Maoist view. However, as China adopted the theory of social-imperialism, and later the ‘three worlds’ theory, the Fedayeen and other Iranian leftwing groups distanced themselves from Maoism.
The people who lost their lives in the 1971 operation had considerable effect on the youth and student movement in Iran. Not quite what Ahmadzadeh had predicted – that the small motor would make the large motor move and the whole country would rebel. But the student movement became very sympathetic to this new, emerging left and were influenced by it, as were many young workers.
1971-79 shaped the political thought of the generation which came to the Iranian revolution as leaders of the Fedayeen. So it is an important period. We are talking about an organisation that was mainly underground, preparing for armed warfare and organising the occasional bank robberies.
Its activities were sporadic – the Fedayeen killed a couple of American military personnel in Tehran and a number of the shah’s generals. There were losses, particularly because, as an armed organisation, members of the Fedayeen could simply be killed on the street. This denied the Fedayeen a mass base and endangered anyone who supported them, such as university students, because supporters were regarded as part of the armed movement by association. Around 370 leftwingers were executed in this period, of which 60% were Fedayeen.
Many Fedayeen spent this period in prison, where a debate developed over the organisation’s line. Jazani moved away from some of the original positions. For example, in his book United front against dictatorship Jazani was clearly rejecting earlier positions taken by Ahmadzadeh and Pouyan. However, in another book, Capitalism and revolution in Iran, Jazani provided a valuable analysis of the shah’s regime.
Jazani was killed in Evin prison in 1975. It is therefore difficult to assess whether some of the writings and ideas attributed to him were truly his own opinions. The people around him became leaders of the Fedayeen on their release from prison. By 1979 there was a mass revolutionary movement in Iran and members of the Fedayeen were released from prison, some of them during the February uprising, when people broke down the doors of the jails.
During this period the Fedayeen had become a real force among students and young people, gaining popularity as a result of its past actions (although some of it was actually populist myth). However, it was now very divided, with Jazani’s supporters following one political line and Ahmadzadeh supporters another.
There were two debates going on and one was over the armed struggle. Jazani supporters contended that the armed struggle line, as both strategy and tactic, was mistaken, and in that they were right, because it had separated the Fedayeen from its potential mass base. But, on the other hand, some Jazani supporters were now excusing Soviet foreign policy and saw a positive role for the ‘national bourgeoisie’. That was a different issue.
What was quite clear was that throughout this period there was very little done in terms of theoretical work. The book that everyone read and which gave them “everything”, according to one of the Fedayeen elders I know, was Lenin’s What is to be done? That was their bible. It gave the Fedayeen their stance against sectarianism, economism, syndicalism and anarchism – their whole analysis was based on it. But they did not necessarily understand it properly, especially given the problematic translation into Farsi by the USSR Academy of Sciences, which emphasises centralism over democracy.
Throughout this period the Fedayeen had failed to make any headway in the working class or in Iranian society as a whole. In the universities, however, they had a great deal of support, as became obvious at the time of the revolution. Among the intellectuals – especially the poets, including some of the most famous – there was an amazing amount of praise for the Fedayeen. One thing is clear, though – they had no strategy about what to do, now that the revolutionary situation had arrived. That was the problem of February 1979.
While the clergy used the period of economic crisis (1974-79) to build their base, to make propaganda, taking advantage of their position in the mosque to organise and mobilise, the Fedayeen in prison were still debating in very abstract terms such questions as the united front against the dictatorship. In addition, the shah was far more lenient towards the religious groups than he was towards the left, for whom building a mass organisation was much more difficult. They attempted to go to the factories, but all they could do was distribute leaflets and then disappear.
It is not, therefore, a question of the February revolution being hijacked: more the fact that the left was simply not prepared for it. In a way it is a good job that the left did not come to power, because it had no plans, no politics, no strategy and definitely no theory about what to do.
The oil workers were crucial in the February revolution. It was their strikes that broke the back of the shah’s regime. The Fedayeen had some influence among them, but they were hampered by their lack of experience of working with the class. There was no plan about what to do with the strike, how to move it forward. Inevitably, the Tudeh Party, which did have a base in the working class, was better represented among the oil workers.
Nevertheless, the first rally called by the Fedayeen in Tehran in 1979 after the overthrow of the shah attracted 500,000 people. Despite reservations, they stood in the elections to what was a sort of constituent assembly and got a couple of million votes.
The splits in the Fedayeen started in 1979 and are still going on. I will not bore you with all the details, but the main ones should be mentioned. The first, immediately after the 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 Fedayeen guerrilla struggle did influence the uprising of 1979. On the other hand, many Fedayeen 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.
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 questions in the Minority-Majority split concerned the nature of the Iranian government: was it progressive or counterrevolutionary?
The Majority consisted of those who claimed to have been close to Bijan Jazani in prison. They were called Fedayeen Majority only because they constituted a majority on the central committee, although it soon became clear that they did not have majority support in the country. 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 strengthening itself and being in a position to impose repression on opposition forces. For that reason we see a number of specific events, not least the takeover of the US embassy by students. This was hailed by the Fedayeen Majority and most of the left outside Iran as an anti-imperialist act, but was seen by the radical left in Iran as a deliberate diversion to stop the wave of political strikes and opposition to the islamic regime.
It was this event that really brought the arguments within the Iranian left to a head. The Minority had walked out of the CC, but drew in support from thousands of leftwing students and youth who did not want to follow the islamic republic into the abyss. But it was also true that the Fedayeen 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 situation that intensified once the Iran-Iraq war, which the government portrayed as a war against imperialism, started. Some on the left, including the Fedayeen Minority, adopted the line, originally put forward by ‘line three’ Maoists, that the Iran-Iraq war was a reactionary war.
That meant you could now be arrested for being a member of the Fedayeen 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 Fedayeen Majority might be invited into ayatollah 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 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 the Tudeh Party. 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.’ Let me also say that 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 their houses raided and a lot of deaths in those first two years.
The first congress of the Fedayeen Minority shows the diversity of forces that had taken a united position against the Fedayeen Majority. For example, there was another split in this congress, with those in favour of joining the Mujahedin in the National Council of Resistance leaving. There was also a Trotskyist Tendency and debates about entrism.
Apart from these political difficulties, it was a bad time generally for the Fedayeen Minority. Its secret printing press was raided by the government and a lot of people were killed. Political debate became confused with security issues and formed a terrible backdrop for what I would call militarism and centralism within the Fedayeen – some of the blame was put unjustly on the Trotskyist Tendency. This marked the beginning of what I call total centralism in the Fedayeen 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 Fedayeen 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 that is not in the interests of the organisation). My personal experience of the Fedayeen began at that time, in the middle of this difficult period. But for all its faults, the Fedayeen 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, had left these organisations.
As for the Fedayeen 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 among certain figures in the Fedayeen 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. Kurdistan was both a good and a bad time for the Fedayeen. 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 Fedayeen ideas were quite alien.
They were hospitable towards us, although I suspect this resulted from their hostility to the regime based on Kurdish nationalism rather than any understanding of what the Fedayeen 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 Fedayeen, 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 the real 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 was no real village.
I think the beginning of corruption within the Fedayeen Minority came during the Kurdish period, when everyone had pragmatic reasons for demanding the right of passage from 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 Fedayeen Minority, agreed to accept right of passage from 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 Fedayeen 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 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.
For 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 Fedayeen’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 of debating such issues or holding 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 with a tribal, feudal background even then. 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 Fedayeen, 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’ Fedayeen comrades.
One of the worst events was the battle for control of the Fedayeen radio station. Ordinary members wanted a congress and the central committee refused to organise it, because it knew it would lose power. It had coopted members who agreed with its line and there were many complaints about 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 (now they are in discussions to rejoin the Fedayeen Majority, which gives you some indication of their trajectory even then).
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 Fedayeen Minority.
Even with all these disasters in Kurdistan, even with the fact that the Fedayeen 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 Fedayeen – fundraising, publicity, producing their own publications, including a student journal. But Fedayeen membership was totally different. Remember, this was an organisation of professional revolutionaries, and because recruitment had slowed to perhaps one a year and many had died, there were probably only around 40 Fedayeen 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 Fedayeen 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 any secrets.
There was very little serious political discussion in 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 just 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.
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 Fedayeen 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 have also come 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 Fedayeen 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.
At the end of my stay in Kurdistan I was in a base with about 40 people and, apart from one other person, I am the only survivor. That gives me a responsibility. I just cannot give up politics, because, whatever you think of the Fedayeen’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. Tens of thousands of Fedayeen died.
Our task is to ensure that their lives were not lost in vain.
Yassamine Mather is currently the chair of the British-based Hands Off the People of Iran organisation; the above is an edited version of a speech she gave in September 2008.