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From Siahkal to the People’s Army: The People’s Fedaiyan and Revolution

February 10, 2008


In the late 1960’s the younger generation that had been involved in the Tudeh Party and the National Front became frustrated with the defeatism, gradualism and conservatism of the older generation. After the repression of the June 1963 uprising and the consolidation of the Imperial regimes power and influenced by the Cuban, Vietnamese, and Algerian experiences this generation came to believe that armed struggle was the only option that could lead toward liberation and socialism in Iran. Many of these younger cadres began to form small groups in various cities, mostly around college campuses. Three of these groups merged to form the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedaiyan Guerillas. On February 8, 1971, a group of Fedaiyan attacked the gendarmerie post at the Siyahkal village in northern Iran. The state responded with overwhelming force arresting those that were not killed in the battle. Those that were arrested were executed or died under torture or, in the case of one sentenced to life prison terms. This was a defeat in military terms put an incredible propaganda victory. This event marked the initiation of armed struggle in Iran.

In February 1979, the monarchy in Iran fell to a popular revolutionary movement. The Fedaiyan lost many members to the state in the pre-revolutionary years, but emerged during the revolution as the largest armed Marxist organization, swelling in members and supporters. In the immediate post-revolutionary period the Fedaiyan split into factions and underwent both extreme repression and dissolution. In this essay I hope to provide an analysis of the theoretical ideas of the main Fedaiyan theorists and the debates that took place during the period of intense armed struggle from 1971-1976.

The groups that merged in 1971 to become the Fedaiyan consisted of cells from Mashad, Tehran, and Tabriz. The cell from Tehran was led by Bizhan Jazani (1937-75) and Hasan Zia-Zarifi (1937-75). Jazani was an important member of the Tudeh Youth Organization and the National Front Student Movement. After the coup he formed a group which went underground. After the events of 1963, and events going on around the world, the group eventually accepted armed struggle. Other important members of this group were Ali Akbar Safai-Farahani (1939-1971) and Hamid Ashraf (1946-76). In February 1968, a number of the group’s members, including Jazani and Zia-Zarifi, were arrested by the secret police, SAVAK. Safai-Farahani went to Palestine and joined the struggle there to get weapons and training. He would return to lead the Siyahkal uprising. Ashraf stayed and helped keep the group going and recruited new members. He would become leading organizer of guerilla activity of the Fedaiyan until his death at the hands of the state in 1976.

The group from Mashad was led by Massoud Ahmadzadeh (1947-72) and Amir Parviz Puyan (1947-71). Both of these individuals came from more religious backgrounds and were involved in the National Front. They had founded some religiously oriented political groups in Mashad, and it has been said that they were even involved with the Islamic-Nationalist Liberation Movement of Iran. In 1965, Ahmadzadeh moved to Tehran to go to university, and in 1967 Puyan joined him. By that time both had embraced Marxism and soon came to fully embrace armed struggle as the only option.

This group had soon made contact with another cell in Tabriz. This group included Behrooz Dehghani (1939-73), and the writer Samad Behrangi (1939-68). Behrangi was a schoolteacher who became famous for his stories The Little Black Fish and Twenty-Four Hours Adrift. His mysterious death was attributed to SAVAK and this raised him to a level of a martyr. Behrooz Dehghani would later emerge as a hero to the Fedaiyan when he died under torture. In April 1971 these groups merged to become the Fedaiyan.

As was briefly mentioned above, on February 8, 1971 a group of guerillas led by Ali-Akbar Safai-Farahani, attacked the gendarmerie post at the village of Siahkal in Iran’s northern province Gilan. This event would mark the initiation of armed struggle in Iran and the ascension of the guerilla movement to the center of the opposition movement. It set a new standard for revolutionary groups in Iran and pushed others to armed action.

It also signified a clear break between the new generation of revolutionaries and the old guard of the Tudeh and the National Front. This situation was not unique to Iran, for in other countries during this period similar lines were being drawn between the Old and New Left. The increased militancy of the younger generation and the decision to take up armed struggle was taking place even in the west. The Weather Underground Organization in the United States, the German Red Amy Fraction, and the Red Brigades of Italy were all the result of similar developments. It seems to have been a global phenomenon which is perhaps revealing of the international nature of Capital and the struggle against it; especially the influence struggles can have on each other.

The Fedaiyan were important amongst the new generation of activists for their theoretical contributions. The works produced by some of the founders would have a lasting effect over what was to be referred to as the New Communist Movement of Iran. The first theoretical work, which was to have a significant influence on the rest of the movement, was an essay written by Amir Parviz Puyan entitled, The Necessity of Armed Struggle and the Refutation of the Theory of Survival. This was the first theoretical work written on the armed struggle by an Iranian Marxist. Puyan described the problematic situation that stifled the prospects for revolution was that the working class was overcome by “two absolutes,” the absolute strength of the imperial regime and the absolute weakness of the working class movement.

The various reasons for this state of affairs can be summed up in one thing: The worker considers the power of the enemy as absolute, as he considers his own inability absolute. When absolutely powerless, how can one think of liberation from an absolute power?

The dictatorship’s brutal suppression of all dissent and especially any forms of independent working class organization created a situation in which workers saw themselves as powerless in the face of the overwhelming power of the state. This has created a culture of passivity and apathy toward politics, which is encouraged by the regime in order to contain dissent and political action. The initiation of armed struggle would shatter these illusions. It would demonstrate to the people that the regime can be fought, shattering the illusion of the “absolute” power of the state–“The spell is broken and the enemy appears as a bankrupt magician.” In a situation where no form of democratic political life exists the only method of mobilizing people is through armed struggle.

Contacts with the proletariat which aim at drawing this class into political struggle, cannot be established but through the destruction of these two “absolutes” in their mind; thus, under present circumstances, in which no democratic possibilities for contact exist raising the level of political consciousness, and organization of the working class, proletarian intellectuals must establish ties with the masses through revolutionary power. Revolutionary power establishes moral ties between the proletariat and the proletarian intellectuals, and the application of this power in its continuity shall lead to organizational ties.

Puyan attacks groups which, by rejecting armed struggle, advocate what he termed the “theory of survival.” This meant organizations, in particular the Tudeh, which limit their activity to working within the system hoping to gain legitimacy, or criticizing the regime from exile. They refrained from taking offensive action in order to not cause the regime to crush what little gains have already been made. The idea that one must follow this path and wait for the opportune objective revolutionary conditions to arise was just a cover for these groups weakness. Puyan believed that this was tantamount to accepting defeat. It is not sufficient to just find the right political line and study theory, a revolutionary group must tie their theory to actual revolutionary practice, or else the group is not contributing to the growth of the revolutionary movement.

And we must demonstrate that the theory of (Let us not take the offensive in order to survive!) is in fact no more than saying (We shall allow the police to destroy us in embryo without the slightest resistance). If defeatism is the same as liquidationism, then there is no room for asking, “Why should we survive?” All the same, the posing of the question helps us much recognize the opportunistic nature of the above theory. The idea of “refraining from offensive” signifies the negation of all and any constructive endeavor aiming at the increasing the possibilities of revolutionary forces. Such a theory wishes to limit the struggle for meager possibilities not controllable by the enemy; that is, a simple gathering of elements not significant in numbers, in fact not exceeding one’s fingers; and then occupying oneself with the study of Marxism and history in total secrecy.

Amir Parviz Puyan’s short essay is important because it is representative of an important historical moment; it is theoretically expressive of the birth of the guerilla movement. It states its position and shows where it stands in relation to the traditional opposition. It is an effective propaganda piece in that it is both a declaration of war against the regime and a clear break with the Old Left. The essay marks a moment when, as Maziar Behrooz writes, “Right or wrong, for better or worse, the communist movement went on the offensive.”

And should secrecy together with revolutionary power be our conditions of survival, we must inevitably refute the theory of “survival,” that is the principle of refraining from the offensive.

Thus the theory of (Let us not take the offensive so as to survive) gives way to the policy of (In order to survive, we must take the offensive).

Another important theoretical work, which was to have an important effect on guerilla movement, was Massoud Ahmadzadeh’s Armed Struggle: Both a Strategy and a Tactic. It is a detailed study of the socio-economic conditions of Iran, and its class structure. Ahmadzadeh begins with an analysis of the land reform taking place under the “White Revolution,” and the effects it was having on Iranian society, in particular it’s class composition. His position is that the land reforms have not eased class conflict, but changes have taken place in the class composition. The reforms have broken down feudal relations and rapidly introduced capitalist relations.

In this brief examination we will show that the objective of the Land Reform has been the expansion of the economic, political and cultural domination of bureaucratic comprador capitalism in the rural areas. Its goal was not that of remedying any of the numerous ailments of the peasantry (so as to eliminate the grounds for revolutionary potential in the rural areas by directing peasant support toward the regime). Rather, due to its nature, the regime can only suppress the grounds for revolution in the countryside through the ever-increasing economic, political and cultural suppression, through the branching of its influence into the rural areas and through the expansion of the dominance of the corrupt bureaucracy.

The introduction of capitalist relations integrated Iran into the world capitalist system. But unlike the progression from feudalism to capitalism that took place in Europe, the Iranian national bourgeoisie is weak and could not be in a position to lead a revolution. The national bourgeoisie, in the sense of an industrial capitalist bourgeoisie, was defeated and undergoing a phase of decomposition. The new ruling class in Iran was the comprador bourgeoisie, united with the state and closely tied with the centers of international capital, with the peasantry was being pushed into the ranks of the proletariat.

In fact, as a result of the expansion of comprador capital into the rural areas, a closer relationship between the peasantry and the proletariat has developed. In the town, too, the brutal rule of comprador capital more than ever has caused the contradiction between the proletariat and the national bourgeoisie and specifically the petit bourgeoisie, to be overshadowed by the contradiction between them and comprador bureaucratic capitalism and imperialist domination. This process has developed through the confinement of any capitalist mode of production to that of comprador capitalism and through the bankruptcy and gradual elimination of the national bourgeoisie caused by the imperialist monopolies.

Since the comprador bourgeoisie was not an independent bourgeoisie, and could not rule by itself, it was dependent on imperialism. It relied on the imperialist powers to maintain their power and gained wealth acting as a conduit for imperialism’s exploitation of Iran, while the lot of the proletariat and peasantry worsened. This was not just the situation in Iran, but all over the Third World. In the historical context of anti-imperialist struggles taking place the world, reaching its most brutal confrontation in the United States war against the Vietnamese resistance, it was even more evidence of the principle contradiction being between the people and imperialism, which was overshadowing all other contradictions. Making the primary task at hand the struggle against imperialism.

In fact, with the establishment of imperialist rule, all the internal contradictions of our society were overshadowed by one contradiction—the contradiction that spreads the world over, the contradiction between the people and imperialism. In the last half century, our country has witnessed the expansion of this contradiction: the daily augmentation of imperialist domination. Any form of transformation must resolve this contradiction. The resolution of this contradiction means the establishment of the people’s sovereignty and the downfall of imperialist domination.

After laying down the background, Ahmadzadeh goes on to explain the theoretical development of his group and how, as a result of their analysis of the socio-economic development, they arrived at their political line. He goes through an examination of the Cuban experience in particular through the ideas of Regis Debray, who’s work Revolution in the Revolution?, he pays particular attention to and was highly influenced by. He adopts Debray’s concept of the “little motor, big motor,” and the “fish in water,” to describe the relationship between the armed guerilla vanguards and the popular classes. Ahmadzadeh concludes by stating that it is the duty of the communist groups to engage in armed struggle against the state. Armed struggle has both a military and political aspect. It attacks the state’s military structure, but also serves a propaganda purpose in its actions. Through these action people will be drawn to the struggle and will result in the growth of the People’s Army; it is “both a strategy and a tactic.”

If we wish to conclude, we can propose the following general line for the revolutionary groups of Iran: Under the present conditions, armed struggle constitutes the major form of struggle.

Massoud Ahmadzadeh’s theories were the dominant ones accepted by the Fedaiyan for most of the pre-revolutionary period under discussion. The Fedaiyan engaged in a number of armed actions against the state during this period. With very little attention paid to political organizing. The armed actions were the organizing. The main opposition to Ahmadzadeh’s theories, within the Fedaiyan came from Bizhan Jazani. As was briefly mentioned above, Jazani was arrested in 1968 and was in prison when the remnants of his cell merged with the Mashad and Tabriz cells to form the Fedaiyan in 1971. From prison he continued his activity, organizing fellow inmates and producing theoretical works that were then smuggled out.

He was older and had more practical organizing experience than Ahmadzadeh and Puyan. He also had a very deep knowledge of Marxian theory and Iranian history, perhaps as a result of his youth in the Tudeh, or because at the time of his arrest he was a graduate student of philosophy at Tehran University. Being behind bars, he was not in a strong position to defend his arguments, though he did engage in theoretical debate with fellow Fedai prisoners who held Ahmadzadeh’s line and also in written works. Ahmadzadeh’s line was the dominant one until 1975, when the group shifted toward Jazani’s line. By this time both were no longer alive.

There were many points of similarity between the two theoretical positions. They both came to the conclusion that the land reform had created deep changes in the socio-economic structure of Iran, that feudalism had been replaced by a dependent capitalist development. It created a system where the comprador bourgeoisie was intertwined with the state and its ever-growing bureaucracy, and was rapidly integrating Iran evermore into the world capitalist system, so the reforms were fundamentally reactionary. But they differed on some fundamental points. Ahmadzadeh believed that the reforms had intensified the class contradictions and created objective revolutionary conditions in Iran. The reason behind the lack of revolutionary working class movement was suppression by the state, and the main role of the vanguard was to attack the state militarily. He believed that the reforms were imposed by U.S. imperialism, and the Shah’s regime was installed and kept in place by imperialism. Jazani on the other hand believed that while the Shah’s regime was subservient to imperialism and supported and maintained by it, the regime had some autonomy in relation to the U.S. He felt that a combination of both external and internal factors had resulted in the reforms. In his view, the main push for reform came because Iran’s pre-capitalist economic relations had reached a point of crisis, with imperialism’s role being secondary.

Contrary to Ahmadzadeh, Jazani believed that the reforms had smoothed over some of the class contradiction and as a result objective revolutionary conditions did not exist in Iran, but as a result of the nature of the system that the conditions would arise. As a result they differed on how to approach the armed struggle. Whereas Ahmadzadeh and Puyan saw that the primary concern should be to attack the regime militarily in order to show the reveal to the people the revolutionary conditions, Jazani believed that military methods alone could not bring about a revolution. He believed that it was important to pay attention to the political side of the struggle, which he saw as the movements “second leg,” and to prepare and organize the revolutionary vanguard.

For all the importance laid on action, the role of theory was important to the founders of the Fedaiyan. Their theoretical conclusions had practical consequences. From 1971-1975, Ahmadzadeh’s line was the one followed. The Fadaiyan made many sacrifices during those years, as the full weight of the regime’s repressive apparatus was brought down on the movement. Much of the original leadership was killed or imprisoned during the first few years of the group’s existence. This includes Amir Parviz Puyan, who was killed in 1971 during a shootout with police, and Massoud Ahmadzadeh who was executed in 1972. From then until his death in 1976, Hamid Ashraf was the main organizer of guerilla activity in Iran. He was a skilled organizer who was far more a practitioner than a theoretician. In 1975, Bizhan Jazani was assassinated in prison along with eight other leaders of the guerilla movement. This was likely in revenge for some assassinations by the Fedaiyan. In 1976, after rethinking of their position and strategy, the organization officially adopted Jazani’s line. This helped pay some more attention to political organizing just as unrest against the regime beginning to pick up momentum and more opportunities for organizing were opening up.

During the revolutionary period their numbers swelled as the Fedaiyan held open rallies recruiting and training new members. The Fedaiyan, along with the Mujahideen, provided the force for the final uprising in February 1979, which sounded the death knell for the Shah’s regime. Many splits occurred during the revolutionary period and after. The main split occurring between a Minority and Majority faction. The Majority decided to discontinue the armed struggle, dropping the word guerilla from the organizations name, and along with the Tudeh, sided with the Khomeinists organized in the Islamic Republican Party, who they saw as anti-imperialist and progressive. They hoped to serve as a loyal opposition party, and did so until 1983, when they and the Tudeh were banned. The Minority faction saw the IRP as reactionary and refused to renounce armed struggle immediately bringing them into conflict with the new government. Both factions renounced the Islamic liberals in both the Provisional Government and in the administrations of Abol-Hasan Bani-Sadr as being “bourgeois liberals.”

These splits would severely weaken the left in the face of a new regime that was growing ever more repressive. In the period between 1971-1977, the Fedaiyan lost 172 members to the regime, this would be a miniscule amount compared to the numbers that would be lost to the Islamic Republic. Many reasons can be attributed to the failure of the Fedaiyan in ascending to power during the revolution, and to the reasons for their demise. An analysis of which would be too extensive for this essay. But a few brief observations may be made, at least from a theoretical perspective.

Although the Fedaiyan were able to break from some of the dogmas of the Tudeh party and develop some fresh insights toward revolution in Iran, they retained much of the ideological baggage of Leninism. The Fedaiyan were highly faithful to the “vanguardism” of the Leninist party. This was not unique to the Fedaiyan but was characteristic of the entire Iranian left. And their devotion to Leninism was, for all its claim of being scientific, almost of a religious nature. Although some criticisms of the Stalin era could be found, there was never any critique of Leninism and its method of revolutionary organizing. Those that did were perhaps dismissed as “reformist,” “revisionist,” or “petty-bourgeois.” One consequence of this allegiance to the path of Lenin was perhaps, the inherent authoritarianism of such a method and its organizational structure. Without any internal democracy the organization fell to rigid theoretical dogmas and was not in a position to develop new theories in light of rapidly changing circumstances during the revolutionary period. The authoritarianism of the “vanguardist” path toward revolution was also partially responsible for them not being able to see the autonomy of various social movements, of women, ethnic minorities, and workers’ councils, that were rising during the revolution and coming into conflict with the new regime. The left either encouraged them to compromise with the regime for the sake of “revolutionary unity,” or if they claimed to support the movement wanted to bring it under the control of the true “vanguard.” There was no attempt to support the social movements on their own terms. Although there were criticisms of the Soviet Union as a social-imperialist nation, particularly in regards to Soviet policy toward the Third World, there was never any criticism of the authoritarianism or the maintenance of capitalist relations in Soviet society.

Regardless of the criticisms, the Fedaiyan hold an important place in Iranian history and in the history of the left in general. Although they were defeated as a revolutionary force, their experience holds many lessons. It is important to reflect on these experiences in order to gain clarity and perspective when faced with new challenges. For those interested in radical social change these lessons continue to gain importance as history continues to develop, and if we don’t learn from the lessons of the past we might be condemned to repeat the same mistakes.

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