Peyman Vahabzadeh, A Rebel’s Journey: Mostafa Sho‘aiyan and Revolutionary Theory in Iran (London: OneWorld, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Peyman Vahabzadeh (PV): Without a doubt, I was inspired by my previous research on the under-studied and neglected impacts of the Iranian militant left on the country’s politics and society in the 1960s to 1970s, as well as their contributions to political theory. Iran’s grappling with the dilemma of political modernity, as well as its institutional modernization since the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911) and the subsequent authoritarian modernization under the Pahlavi Dynasty, have been thoroughly studied. The 1953 CIA/MI6-planned coup that toppled the democratically elected premier Mohammad Mosaddeq is also well studied.
Scholars have neglected, however, the reaction of a younger, educated, and social justice-oriented generation to the coup and to the Shah’s dictatorship during the revolutionary decades of the 1960s and 1970s. My previous book, A Guerrilla Odyssey, is about that generation. It was eleven years in the making and it meticulously probes the history and theories of one of Iran’s most elusive and popular leftist organizations, People’s Fadai Guerrillas. During that research, I encountered the “case” of Mostafa Sho‘aiyan (1936-1975), a singular and noncanonical leftist theoretician. Although the Iranian left of the 1960s and 1970s generally used Marxist-Leninist jargon, it produced some original theories regarding neocolonialism, imperialism, authoritarian development, national liberation, and participatory democracy in the Middle East and in the periphery of a capitalist world-system. This generation’s leftism was internationalist in its orientation, and strongly identified with the Palestinian liberation, Vietnamese resistance against American imperialism, and other revolutionaries in the Arab and Latin American worlds.
In this context, Sho‘aiyan’s work stood out due to his eccentric views and his unrivaled attempt at building an “indigenous” theory of the rebellious front of liberation. He was a prolific writer; he wrote not just history and theory, but also poetry, fiction, and open letters. A Rebel’s Journey offers an in-depth and restorative intellectual biography. The book emerged out of eighteen years of meditating on this unique thinker.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
PV: In a nutshell, Sho‘aiyan’s works involve constructing an indigenous version of Marxism-inspired liberation theory, with a clear focus on decolonization and internationalist solidarity with the subaltern of the Global South. By contextualizing his works in the historic period of imperial rule in Iran, national liberation movements in Asia and Africa, and militant resistance in Latin America, the book attends to questions of mass mobilization for a national social movement—one that would delink Iran from the capitalist world-system and bring democracy and self-rule to citizens.
Sho‘aiyan called his thought shureshi, or “rebellious” (shuresh in Persian could mean rebellion, revolt, uprising, or defiance), by which he meant a form of defiant thought and action that would challenge not only structures of oppression, but also ideological dogmas (such as Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, etc.). The former qualified his work as a liberation theory, but the latter put him on a collision course with Iranian militant Marxists who may well otherwise have been his comrades-in-arms. By drawing on international and local literatures, he tried to construct a theory of liberation for Iran, while also regarding the country as a bastion for the liberation of the third world.
The book does not lock Sho‘aiyan up in the prison house of history; instead, it tries to show the relevance of his work for today’s world—a world in which inequalities and oppressions have only multiplied, and the gap between North and South, and rich and poor, has dramatically widened. With renewed interest in the works of liberation thinkers, such as Frantz Fanon, I think Sho‘aiyan’s work has, particularly now, a lot to offer.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
PV: I generally pursue two interests in my writing. The first entails my theoretical work that is informed by radical phenomenology. I am interested in the phenomenology of human (individual or collective) action that congeals most clearly in social movement activism. I am also interested in the outcomes of action; my recent work, Violence and Nonviolence: Conceptual Excursions into Phantom Opposites launched a phenomenological and critical gaze that rejects widely-held concepts of violence and nonviolence as mutually exclusive.
The second body of my work entails the study of Iranian social and political movements from the 1960s through to today. I use a combination of historical sociology and phenomenology in conducting my study. A Rebel’s Journey is different from my previous work in this area, as it offers a historically contextualized and intellectual biography that is restorative in approach. In other words, while Sho‘aiyan’s revolutionary theory is in no way unparalleled within the global body of similar literature in the 1960s and 1970s, I think he offers lessons which hold relevance for today. It is important to note that with the 1979 Revolution in Iran and the rise of Islamic Republic, the history of Iranian opposition prior to 1979 has been neglected and generally deemed irrelevant in official and scholarly views. This is reading history backwards. My work aims at restoring that forgotten history.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
PV: I imagine the work will appeal to students, scholars, and any members of the public who are interested in the recent intellectual and political history of Iran. I did not write the book merely to be pitched at those interested in Iran or the Middle East, however. Because I situate Sho‘aiyan within his domestic and international context, the book has a wider reach; I think those who are interested in the revolutionary 1960s and 1970s, and those who find solidarity with the peoples of the South, Tricontinentalism, and revolutionary praxis, will find this book interesting and informative. I must, above all, point out the model of “frontal, rebellious action”, as proposed by Sho‘aiyan and reconstructed by me for the present generation.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
PV: I am now working on two simultaneous projects. One is a second volume to my work on violence and nonviolence, which I will not speak about here. The second is another book project, which is well under way and is connected with both A Rebel’s Journey and my previous work on Iranian militants.
This new book studies the way in which artists in Iran in the 1970s, who were critical of the Shah’s regime and state censorship, used artistic and literary imagery to promote the myth of the immortal fighter. They rendered the Iranian underground urban guerrillas relatively popular in the eyes of educated public figures, thus elevating militant action to the embodiment of older struggles. Iranian and Muslim traditions are full of figures of fighters for dignity, those who gave up their lives for justice. The Iranian guerrillas were few in numbers and limited in their reach, but they truly became popular within the couple of relatively open post-1979 years—a period known as the “Spring of Freedom.” Immediately after the revolution, for example, the People’s Fadai Guerrillas quickly grew into Iran’s largest political party on the left, winning ten percent of the popular vote in the only free parliamentary elections of March 1980. Readers would understand how staggering such a post-revolutionary rise in their popularity actually was when they learn that, on the eve of the Revolution, only around twenty members remained in the ranks of the Fadai Guerrillas; they were later joined by around one hundred recently-freed Fadai prisoners. Of course, the university students and the educated middle class immediately embraced this small group, to the extent that the old regime had not quite been toppled when the Fadai Guerrillas created their first ever open headquarters in the School of Technology at University of Tehran on 10 February 1979.
Observing this situation, I asked myself, how did such quick rise in popularity happen? I looked back at the period from the late 1950s through to 1979, and found my answer: poetry, fiction, play, film, soundtrack, and songs. I found a thread in all of them; dissident artists, poets, filmmakers, and writers used the imagery of the immortal fighter and spoke about fictional characters in order to produce a public discourse that alluded to the actual young men and women who manned the guerrilla organizations. My new book, tentatively titled The Art of Defiance, explores how a public discourse celebrating the militants was built through the arts.
J: Why do you think it is important to go back to the 1960s and 1970s and retrieve the works of people like Sho‘aiyan. Is their time not over?
PV: It is true that Sho‘aiyan lived in a postcolonial time, when the world still recognized the freedom fighter as a rebel with a cause. Third world solidarity was championed by non-aligned states and social movements and liberation fronts alike. Just like the bipolar world of the Cold War era, the Middle East was divided between the allies of American imperialism—Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, above all—and the (authoritarian) states and liberation movements that defied imperialist incursions into the region—a struggle symbolized by the Palestinian resistance. Sho‘aiyan wrote in the domestic and international context of this time. The time has changed indeed. For one thing, the activists of our region now form new kinds of movements, such as the Arab Spring. But Sho‘aiyan’s contribution to the vision of building a global solidarity through a “rebellious front” against exploitation and neocolonialism, in my judgement, has unwittingly and inadvertently produced insights that, with modifications, could allow for the building of frontal-solidarity politics across the Global South. That is why I think Sho‘aiyan is, in many ways, still our contemporary.
Excerpt from the book
From the introduction
The study of Sho‘aiyan’s works is, of course, a worthwhile exercise in its own right, and it constitutes legitimate scholarship as a part of registering the Iranian intellectual history in the twentieth century. And yet, as a scholar from Iranian origins teaching classical and modern European thought in the West, I have become increasingly weary of the way the contributions of the thinkers of the Global South (Iran, in this case) have been systematically relegated to the limited fields of Iranian Studies and Middle Eastern Studies. Such a trend—that is, to deploy the study of the non-Western Other to the designated realms of scholarship and ‘area studies’—reveals the often surreptitious orientalist epistemologies that have become hegemonic in the academy, and, precisely because of the hegemonic status of such orientalism, it goes unnoticed by those who find a niche in the ‘area studies’ of the South. In this hegemonic epistemological universe, as Walter Mignolo has shown, the South produces the case while the North provides theory and analysis.4I therefore emphatically want this book to offer an analysis of the works of Sho‘aiyan as an international and internationalist thinker and to bring to light his potential contributions to the revival of the Left in this age of savage globalised capitalism, democratic pretense, mass surveillance, pacified resistance, digital slacktivism, and common despair.
On a warm summer afternoon in 2008 in a café in Paris, Professor Chaqueri related an anecdote to me: he told me he had published Sho‘aiyan’s Revolution in 1976 in a print run of 1,000 and had taken the copies with him to various Iranian venues and opposition gatherings in Europe. The book was sold out within a year, but not a single review of the book was ever published anywhere. This is the extent, Chaqueri reflected, to which Sho‘aiyan’s work was systematically ignored by the activists of the Left (SOLI 16). It is interesting that no one took Sho‘aiyan’s Revolution seriously but Momeni’s rejoinder to it, also published as a book, was reprinted many times. In other words, the activists only became aware of Sho‘aiyan through Momeni’s refutation of his ideas. Interestingly, Cosroe Chaqueri (Khosrow Shakeri, 1938–2015) himself was a rather marginalised figure within the leftists. He was a student activist with and co-founder of the National Front branch outside Iran in 1961 and a leading figure of the Confederation of Iranian Students-National Union (CISNU), elected to its Central Committee between 1965 and 1968. Later, in 1982, he received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. Chaqueri was the publisher of over twenty volumes of ‘Historic Documents of the Workers’, Social Democratic, and Communist Movement.’ Through his father’s export business based in Florence, he had established Edition Mazdak. He told me that when he received Sho‘aiyan’s works, mailed to him anonymously with unsigned instructions on how to get in touch with Sho‘aiyan’s contact in Europe, he was immediately impressed by his work, and although he remained unwaveringly critical of several aspects of Mostafa’s work he decided to publish them under the alias Rafiq Sorkh (Red Comrade or Comrade Red). Monajemi told me that when Sha‘oiyan received Chaqueri’s critique he wanted to write a serious rejoinder but then changed his mind when Monajemi discouraged Mostafa, reminding him that at the time, when no one would publish his writings, Mazdak’s willingness to bring Sho‘aiyan’s ideas to the public was a unique opportunity not to be jeopardised by theoretical disagreements.
In any case, in a handwritten note that I have seen, Mostafa conferred upon Chaqueri the exclusive right to publish his writings, a right that led to Chaqueri’s conflict with some of Sho‘aiyan’s comrades when they published some of Mostafa’s works in post-revolutionary Iran. Chaqueri was an equally controversial figure among the activists and shunned by them. He was known for his blunt criticisms and uncompromising positions. Life is curious: by a twist of fortune, the two maverick activists crossed paths and become comrades without ever having met one another.
Sho‘aiyan led no party and he was not a member of one. The two small underground groups he co-founded were discovered and dismantled by security forces before they had a chance to carry out any significant operations. He never wrote within the established jargon of the Left. I shall show in this book that one of the most genuine aspects of his work was that his ideas must have been affirmed through his experience. As such, he remained a singular figure, only to be misunderstood and labeled by the leftist activists, if they ever bothered to read him at all.
All of Sho‘aiyan’s major works were published in the mid-1970s by Mazdak in Florence and were mostly distributed among the dissident students in Europe and the United States, although a limited number of these books were taken to Iran after the Revolution. Within a few years after Sho‘aiyan’s death, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 changed the country’s political scene forever. Some of Sho‘aiyan’s works were also published by his dedicated comrades around 1980 who founded the short-lived Nashr-e Enqelab (Revolution Press). With the Revolution, after a short period of the Left’s flourishing in 1979–81, there came the dark decade of the 1980s in which leftist and other dissident activists of all shades and inclinations, including the Muslims outside the state orbit, were purged in their thousands in Iranian prisons, while tens of thousands more fled the country, becoming self-imposed exiles, and many more sought refuge in the anonymous layers of society. With the repression of the women’s movement and national minorities that preceded the purges and the continued crackdown on intellectuals and silencing of writers, the Iranian social and cultural scene grew very quiet in the 1980s and 1990s. A few copies of Sho‘aiyan’s works survived this decade, thanks to hiding places of Mostafa’s loyal comrades. These were mostly but not exclusively members of the group Sho‘aiyan and Nader Shayegan had founded, but their connection with Sha‘oiyan and his legacy is personal: they loved him and believed in him. They revered Mostafa’s intellectual feats and praised his personality, his attentiveness and kindness in particular. When I talk to them more than forty years after Mostafa’s death, they still speak of him as if he is alive, with great love and admiration.
In light of the reactivation of Sho‘aiyan’s works, a task to which this book is dedicated, it no longer seems plausible to seriously consider the twentieth-century intellectual history of Iran—let alone the history of the Iranian Left—and overlook Mostafa Sho‘aiyan. This book intends primarily to bring his theories of revolution and frontal politics, and in conjunction with that, his political thought, to the fore, to show how in response to his existential and historic frames Sho‘aiyan succeeded in offering a political theory that is still vibrant and relevant in our age of homogenising and globalised injustices.
This article is part of the new Jadaliyya Iran Page launch. To inaugurate the Iran Page, its co-editors are pleased to present the following articles, interviews, and resources:
"Jadaliyya Launches New Iran Page" by Iran Page Editors
"Covering Race and Rebellion" by Naveed Mansoori
"The Systemic Problem of 'Iran Expertise' in Washington" by Negar Razavi
Extended Iran Media Roundup
New Texts Out Now (NEWTON) Interviews
Houri Berberian, Roving Revolutionaries: Armenians and the Connected Revolutions in the Russian, Iranian, and Ottoman Worlds
Nile Green, The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca
Narges Bajoghli, Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic
Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, Revolution and its Discontents: Political Thought and Reform in Iran
Golbarg Rekabtalaei, Iranian Cosmopolitanism: A Cinematic History
Peyman Vahabzadeh, A Rebel’s Journey: Mostafa Sho‘aiyan and Revolutionary Theory in Iran
Engaging Books Series: Cambridge University Press Selections on Cosmopolitanism and Political Reform in Iran
Jadaliyya Talks: Arash Davari and Sina Rahmani on "Divorce, Iran-America Style"
"Essential Readings: Post-Revolutionary Iran" by Arang Keshavarzian