Iran: the Re-Turn of Radical Social Democracy?

There has been an ongoing tension between radical and liberal understandings of social democracy, equality, justice and the right to dissent in Iran’s political discourse at least since early 20th century. This tension is expressed in multifaceted ways, and in particular through demands put forward by Iranians in their various attempts to bring about sociopolitical change to the country. This panel traces the genealogy of the highly contentious competition between radical and liberal readings of social democracy, and explores its significance and implications for social, political and cultural dissent in Iran. The first paper entitled “The Limits of Liberal Paradigm for Iran’s Democratization: Towards a Social Democracy from Below?” highlights the lack of social elements of democracy in Iran’s post 2009 election calls for democratization and underscores the limits of liberal paradigm for thinking about the possibility of an egalitarian future for Iran. The second presentation, “From Marx to his Specters? Phenomenological Encounter with Philosophy of Marx in Iran,” explores the return of radical thought to Iranian political discourse, mainly through the translation of Marx’s canonical literature. This panel member poses the questions of why philosophy of Marx began to be re-introduced in Iran, while all Marxists' voices were being suppressed. The third presentation, “The Cartography of Gender in Liberal and Conservative E-Diasporic Communities,” analyzes the complicity between liberal and conservative narratives around women’s rights debate as they get articulated by Iranian diasporic communities in cyberspace. This paper contends that in both these paradigms, the figure of the Iranian woman is digitally represented and circulated as to serve Iranian male-elites with neo-liberal and liberationist political agenda. The final paper entitled “Social Justice and Democracy in Today’s Iran: In Search of the Missing Link,” investigates the absence of a social justice component of the people’s demands in post-2009 Iranian social uprising. The panelist explores the intellectual conditions of the renewal of a Left that would articulate the nexus between social justice and civil and human rights.


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Over the past one-and-a-half centuries, modern Iran has been a pioneer of progressive political changes in the Middle East: the home to the first Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), the first post-colonial nationalist and parliamentary democratic movement (1950-1952), the first anti-despotic revolutionary change (1977-1979), and the first civic post-Islamist movement, known as the Green Movement (2009-present), in the Middle East. These four historical democratic waves introduced Iran to constitutionalism, democratic nationalism, anti-despotic revolutionary change with elements of an Islamic discourse, and a new historical era towards post-Islamism, respectively.

This paper suggests that Iran’s current wave of democratization is overly loaded with (neo) liberal discourse, undermining the social elements of democracy and democratization. The paper is an attempt to problematize the limits of (neo) liberal paradigm; it proposes that two social elements of democracy, namely societal empowerment and social justice are central to the success of a genuine, bottom-up radical social democracy. To this end, in the first part of the paper, theories of Radical Democracy (Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, among others) and Deliberative Democracy (Jürgen Habermas) will be examined to explore the twin pillars of social elements of democracy. The second part of the paper is devoted to a critical examination of the discourse of an authentic egalitarian democracy in the works of a few Iranian intellectuals (Mohammad Nakhshab, Khalil Maleki, Mostapha Shoa’ian and Ali Shariati).

The conclusion is twofold: first, it sheds lights on the conditions and possibility of materializing a radical social democracy from below in the current Iranian context. Second, it examines the extent to which the intellectual legacy of a genuine egalitarian democracy, represented in the works of the Iranian intellectuals, contributes to Iran’s quest for democracy and overcomes the limits of liberal paradigm for Iran’s democratization.

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This paper poses the question of why the philosophy of Marx was introduced to Iran, into a situation in which all Marxists' voices were suppressed. To elucidate, this paper refers to the encounter of Iran's political activists, intellectuals and philosophers with Marx: (1) from 1880, the year in which the first article with a Marxian theme was published in Iran, to the formation of the Party of the Masses of Iran in 1941; (2) from 1941 to the Iranian Revolution of 1979; (3) from 1979 to the suppression of Marxist groups and the banning of the Party of the Masses of Iran by the Iranian government in the 1980s; and (4) from the 1980s to the present.

Submitting these stages to a phenomenological investigation, I argue that neither Marx's philosophy nor his central messages were introduced during the first three stages, mostly due to the domination of Russian Marxism in Iran and the propaganda behind the ideology of Neoliberalism that was echoed by some Iranian intellectuals and journalists. Interestingly, however, the philosophy began to reveal itself in the 1980s when there was no strong voice to represent Marxism. During this last stage, many of Marx's works and some works about Marx were translated into Farsi in an academic way, and the necessary conditions for the possibilityof knowing Marx were provided.

I argue, by referring to Derrida’s influential book Specters of Marx, that although Marx's ideological thought, which is based on historical determinism and social class struggle, is irrelevant to Iran today, Marx’s unseen call for social democracy and his specters are alive and present in Iran. I call this the ‘processes of exclusive inclusion’, meaning that while some of Marx’s central ideas must be disregarded and excluded, some of his ideas are relevant to Iran today and should seriously be considered and included in the literature of 'democracy to come.'

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This research paper traces the complicity between liberal and conservative narratives around women’s rights debate as they get articulated by Iranian diasporic communities in cyberspace. My research is grounded in a theoretical framework that registers subjects-actors as deeply embedded in a transnational, hyper-connected network of discursive communities in which systems of gender representation are constantly negotiated and circulated. My research investigates the extent to which both liberal and conservative male elites with neo-liberal and liberationist political agenda inform diasporic narratives and imageries around the figure of the Iranian “woman,” especially her role in Iran’s social and political transformation. These diasporic narratives, in turn, reinforce transnational politics around the visual representation of the “third world woman.”

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Taking the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11 as the marker of Iran’s entry into political modernity, a movement inspired by the spirit of democracy and for the realization of civil society and accountable government, we can observe that Social Democracy has also been an inseparable component of political modernity in the country. This means that the struggle for democratic sovereignty has been concomitant with the struggle for social justice and equality of conditions for the Iranian peoples. The Green Movement of 2009, according to most scholars, is a return to the democratic spirit of the Constitutional Revolution, but despite staggering social and economic inequalities in the country, the social justice component of the people’s demands has had little opportunity for discursive articulation, partly due to the absence of the organic intellectuals of the subordinate classes—a function that has been traditionally fulfilled by the Left. It seems as if at the current nexus of politics in Iran, the struggles against tremendous social inequalities have been discursively overdetermined by the language of constitutionalism and rights. This paper discusses the intellectual conditions of the renewal of a Left that would articulate the nexus between social justice and civil and human rights.