by Raza Naeem
“Lenin, O Angel of Mercy
Come quickly, without any formality
Your place is in the pupil of my eye
Come, that this home is your own, aye”
(Ode to Lenin by Iranian poet Aref Qazvini, 1917)
Walter Benjamin once wrote that “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy if he is victorious.” When counterrevolution succeeds so thoroughly, on local and global scales, even the memories of what once had been a great revolutionary uprising in a small region are erased. And that erasure gets reflected in even the left-wing writings of a later time. Amidst the chronicles of revolutionary initiatives immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and, not least, of modern Middle Eastern revolutions, from Iran and Berlin, Munich, Budapest, Turkey in 1919 and to the Turin soviets of 1919-20, the revolution of what can broadly be termed “Gilan”, occupies a normally marginal – when not almost wholly unrecognised – place. This episode was separated from the mainstream of Middle East politics in the period immediately after World War I and the establishment of the first workers’ state in Moscow and framed by regional and internal concerns that few observers – even those from elsewhere in the Middle East – analysed.
In fact, the events that spanned 16 months from the establishment of the Republic of Gilan a hundred years ago this month on June 5 to its destruction by the central government in October of the following year, were of immense importance: both in the history of the modern Middle East and also in the annals of 20th-century radical upheavals. In fact, what occurred in Gilan ought to be understood as a vital landmark in the history of revolutions themselves.
Yet, much of this history may remain obscure, for lack of reliable documentary and other evidence. Many of those involved are now silent, dead or reincorporated into local states. To restore historical accuracy about this period of modern Iranian history, and to draw out the lessons of this period, a retrospective analysis of this revolution is certainly called for.
The relevance of this revolution is, however, based on something more important than the considerations mentioned above. The fact is that this revolution remains of immense importance today. In fact, none of the tasks which this revolution set itself – and few of the issues it was intended to resolve – have been settled. The same applies to the aforementioned radical upheavals in Germany, Hungary, Turkey and Italy immediately after 1917: relations between socialist and nationalist forces, between secular and religious oppositions, between regional and national forces, and, not least, between Iran and its northern neighbour, the place of the agrarian question in the revolutionary struggle, the forms of class alliance appropriate in colonial and semi-colonial countries, the links between anti-imperialist and socially revolutionary struggles, the problem of converting a regional revolt into a nation-wide movement, the relationship to the Islamic religion and to the Muslim clergy and perhaps most importantly, the relationship between the revolutionary struggle in one country and the policies of an already established revolutionary state– all of these issues, posed first in dramatic form in the June 1921 upheaval in Gilan, remain on the agenda of the 21st century in Iran.
Much as contemporary authorities and public opinion may seek to escape from the memory and legacy of that first explosion in Gilan, the agenda it posed, pertinent and unfulfilled, lives on. My brief essay is thus, hopefully, a timely attempt to understand the historical roots of the current unrest in Iran, initiated against the ayatollahs in the unfulfilled promise of the old republic in Gilan, on the occasion of the centennial of the Gilan Republic and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of Iran – Asia’s first communist party. It also focuses on revolutionary upheaval and state consolidation in revolutionary Gilan (1920-1921) and on analytic issues following from these events and from a retrospective analysis of the events of these months.
These observations may serve to provide a corrective to the prevalent ahistorical accounts of Iran rife in the mainstream media today, which rest on simplifications about (Shi’ite) Islam, oil, Iranian resistance to reform and the like – portraying Iran as some sort of Orientalist fairyland, part beauteous and part dangerous, caught in some sort of time warp, each imam armed with multiple weapons, each ayatollah and group at everyone else’s throat.
How the Bolsheviks abandoned Tsarist Russia’s imperialism in Iran
“My ‘Persian tale’? There were a few hundred of us ragged Russians down there. One day we had a telegram from the Central Committee: Cut your losses, revolution in Iran now off. But for that, we would have got to Tehran.”
(Yakov Blumkin, Comintern envoy, quoted in Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, London, 1963, p256.)
The most elementary obligation of history is, as Herodotus put it in the 5th century BC, “to ensure that great and marvellous events are not forgotten.” More recently the English radical historian Edward Thompson wrote that it was a duty “to rescue the past from the immense condescension of the present.” Both of these wise and enduring observations apply to the Iran of today.
When the Bolshevik Revolution occurred in Russia in 1917, the freedom-seekers in Iran were emboldened, so Edward Browne, the anti-Soviet historian of the Literary History of Persia writes:
“The socialist revolution of Russia was the dawn of a new chapter in the history of humanity. This revolution had a deep impact especially on the fortune of the country of Iran and on its political and economic conditions. In fact, this revolution was one of the causes of influencing the independence of Iran and its internal and external politics. The Russian Revolution actually proved to be the reason for the security of Iranian independence. Had this revolution not occurred, nobody can say what calamities Iran would have to bear and there would not even be a trace of Iran and Turkey today.”
No wonder, then, on the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, one of Iran’s distinguished writers, the poet Farrokhi Yazdi, could recite a ghazal in praise of the Revolution in Moscow, where he had been invited. This ghazal was published very conspicuously by a Moscow newspaper along with the translation:
“At the workers’ celebration
When I sought an omen for revolution
I saw the present and future of the revolution is fruitful
On Iran’s behalf, to the leaders and workers of the revolution, I am grateful”
The Bolshevik Party, whose conduct right from the beginning was the total independence of colonized and semi-colonized countries, rejected the secret agreement between old Russia and Britain in December 1917. In fact, Soviet Russia withdrew from the privileges which old Russia enjoyed in Iran by the terms of this agreement. Russian armies stationed in Iran were called back. Iranian debts were cancelled and Russian instalments in Iran like railways, telegraph and others were given to Iran without payment.
Iranians were expecting that British forces would also leave Iran following these decisions by the Soviet Union and the British government would desist from interfering in Iranian politics. But the socialist revolution was a very great threat to British colonialism. Therefore the British made Iran their permanent base for their counter-revolutionary activities. British forces would enter Iran through the Caucasus and assist the Tsarist (White) side of the civil war that now engulfed Russia.
All of the issues that were first posed in dramatic form in the June 1921 upheaval in Gilan remain on the agenda of the 21st century in Iran
Iran was totally under British subjugation. In Tehran, the government of Prime Minister Hassan Vossug-ed-Dowleh danced to the tunes of British advisors, who were appointed the guardians of various departments in their thousands. In August 1919, the British sent the sovereign Ahmad Shah abroad for recreation and made an agreement with Vossug-ed-Dowleh by which Iran attained the same status which Egypt and Iraq had. But there were grand protests against this agreement in Tehran, Tabriz, Rasht and other places and everywhere there was the outcry of “Death to the English, death to the state of Vossug which is the most respected by the English state.”
The reaction to the Anglo-Persian Agreement was extreme in the provinces of Gilan and Azerbaijan. In Gilan, a nationalist group had been active since 1916 under the leadership of Mirza Kuchak Khan. This group, which was composed of poor peasants and farm-labourers, had been fighting hidden in the jungles of Gilan and owing to this connection, Kuchak Khan was born in Rasht, the capital of Gilan. He had been trained in armed struggle in Baku and Tbilisi, but he was no socialist, but rather professed to be fighting for the unity of Islam.
When the Jangalis saw that the government in Tehran was now just a slave of the British, they captured Rasht on the 4th of June 1920 under the leadership of Mirza Kuchak Khan, Ehsanullah Khan and Khalu Qurban. There they made an organization named Enqilab-e-Surkh (Red Revolution) and declared the independence of Gilan. Meanwhile, Haydar Khan Amoughlu along with his 50 comrades joined the Jangalis. On the 20th of June, the congress of the Adalat (Justice) Party (the pioneering socialist organization in Iran) was held in Rasht, in which 48 representatives of Gilan participated. In the same congress, the name of the Adalat Party was changed to the Communist Party of Iran. This essay was first published in The Friday Times weekly magazine, Lahore
(To be continued)
Raza Naeem is a social scientist and an award-winning translator currently based in Lahore. He has been trained in political economy from the University of Leeds in the UK and in Middle Eastern history and anthropology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, USA. He is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in Lahore. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org