Roundtable: Rethinking the Iranian Left: History, Diversity and Prospects

For at least a century, Leftist intellectual and political trends have contributed significantly to the making of Iran’s modern culture and politics. Yet the Left continues to suffer the double burden of systematic state repression and marginalization/vilification in mainstream historiography. Bringing together leading specialists on the subject, this roundtable revisits the Iranian Left’s century-long controversial legacy from multiple critical perspectives. Our areas of investigation include historiography and intellectual history, labor and working class studies, sociology and social theory, gender studies, intellectual history, ethnic and religious minority studies, and studies of elite and popular culture. The Left is broadly defined to encompass all those committed to social justice, including socialists and communists, left-leaning Muslims, liberals and nationalists, as well as independent public intellectuals concerned with class and gender equity.
Specifically, brief individual presentations will invite audience participation in the following discussions. First, “The Muslim Left: Social Justice and Spirituality,” is a critical examination of the Muslim Left, from the 1950s Movement of Theist Socialists and Ali Shariati to the appearance of new Muslim Leftist trends in post-revolutionary Iran. Second, “Revolutionary Violence or Terrorism?” will revisit the legacy of 1970s Iran’s guerrilla movement in light of current debates on “terrorism” and its relation to “legitimate” revolutionary violence. Third, “Marxist Theory and the Left's Praxis,” reexamines the “failure of the Iranian left” in the wider international context of disjuncture between Marxist theory and the practice of non-Western leftist movements; Fourth, “The Left and Gender: Past Record and Current Prospects,” will survey the Iranian Left’s contributions and failures with respect to women’s rights and gender equality, while proposing future paths considering developments in various Muslim countries. Fifth, “Does The Iranian Left Have a Future?,” will focus on post-revolutionary Iran’s new intellectual generation that has abandoned the Russo-Marxist tradition in favor of more flexible, identity-oriented movements inspired by a pluralistic and egalitarian social imaginary.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Matin-Asgari, Afshin
California State University, Los Angeles


Atabaki, Touraj
International Institute of Social History


Room 23
Wed, 2016-08-03 10:30 - 12:00


by Mojtaba Mahdavi / University of Alberta

The contribution of this presentation is twofold: first, it will contextualizes and problematizes the discourse, diversity, and dynamism of the Iranian Muslim Left from Mohammad Nakhshab’s Movement of "Theist Socialists" to Ali Shariati’s trilogy of “Freedom, Social Justice and Spirituality”.

Second, it will shed light on new developments in the discourse of the Muslim Left in postrevolutionary Iran: it asks how post-revolutionary socio-political context has contributed to the rise of new thinking about Iranian social democracy, post-Islamist and post-structuralist trends among the contemporary Leftist Muslims.

This presentation will generate discussion about the new generation/trends of the left inside Iran (Vahabzadeh, Behrooz, and Maljoo), future prospects of the Left (Matin-Asgari, Matin, Vahabzadeh), and the intersection of gender, religion and social justice (Moghadam).

by Peyman Vahabzadeh / University of Victoria

A new generation of Iranian leftists, coming of age during and after the Reform era in the late 1990s and early 2000s, have clearly turned away from Iranian Left’s traditional Russo-Marxist origins. While adhering to the fundamental tenets of Marxist-enabled theory, they prefer more lucid, flexible, creative, and identity-oriented engagements. Reading Gramsci, Althusser, Marcuse, Fanon, Butler, Zizek, Hardt & Negri, Badiou, and Laclau & Mouffe, the rising young, post-revolutionary leftist intellectuals have turned to new social movements oriented activism through which they construct a pluralistic and egalitarian social imaginary. With their creative use of technology media and alternative, "invisible" self-organization, they disregard every limitation imposed on the by the State.

by Kamran Matin / University of Sussex

This contribution seeks to problematize the idea of the 'failure of the Iranian left' by critically re-contextualising it in the wider international context of the recurrent disjuncture between Marxist theory and the practice of non-Western leftist movements. It will suggest that the root of this consequential disjuncture lies in the fact that in the construction of his social theory Marx attributed a 'contingent' - rather than 'constitutive' - status to the international', i.e., 'that dimension of social reality which arises specifically from the co-existence within it of more than society'. This theoretical circumstance, I will argue, lies at the heart of political and praxis-related dilemmas and defeats as well as innovations and revisionism of the left across the world. A glaring example of this circumstance was the encounter of the Iranian left with eth 1979 revolution. The contribution then reflects on the implications of this circumstance for contemporary reappraisals of Marxism. It therefore speaks to the other contributions to the round-table addressing the 'political history' and the 'gender' practice of the Iranian left.

by Maziar Behrooz / San Francisco State University

The advent of guerrilla movement in Iran in the 1970s ushered a period where use of violence against state violence became an integral part of revolutionary discourse. What came to be called the “armed struggle” movement has often been labeled “terrorist” by its detractors. This presentation examines “armed struggle” as it was theorized and justified by the Fadaiyan movement within the historical context of the time. It will also examine and discuss "terrorism" as a concept without precise definition which has been used as an politicized instrument of power relations rather than one of any utility for understanding political/social movements.

by Azadeh Kian / Professor of Sociology, University of Paris 7-Diderot
by Naser Mohajer / Independent scholar living in France