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Homa Katouzian on Khalil Maleki | Part 2: Debunking Conspiracy Theory


16 Apr 2012 18:46Comments

Part 1: Nonalignment and the "Third Force"


Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a doctoral student in modern Middle East studies at Queens College, University of Oxford. IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine.
[ IDÉ ] What was the ideological/political vision Maleki adhered to at this time [when Mohammad Mosaddegh was prime minister]? A form of parliamentary socialism? What was his attitude to the effervescent nationalism percolating during the Mosaddegh era?

Maleki was both a socialist and a democrat, and firmly believed in parliamentary democracy. For example early in 1951, in the wake of the nationalization of Iranian oil, he wrote that oil nationalization had been a great achievement, but that it was just the beginning for fundamental political development: "The popular forces must be organized in order to establish real parliamentary democracy based on political parties, so that the people will really and genuinely be able to govern the country through their parliamentary deputies."

In the period 1951-53, when Mosaddegh was prime minister, Maleki led a systematic campaign for major social reforms. The political atmosphere then was such that almost no other political force or leader -- either pro- or anti-Mosaddegh -- offered concrete proposals (as distinct from millenarian slogans) for long-term reform. The Tudeh Party looked forward to radical and comprehensive change achieved by an imminent revolution led by them. The Popular Front parties other than Third Force were preoccupied with the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute and were not so concerned about long-term social development.

If by "nationalist," you simply mean anticolonial, he as well as Mosaddegh were such. Otherwise they are best described as patriotic democrats.

What was his relationship with Mosaddegh and Mossadegh's government during the nationalization era? In your mind, did Maleki play a constructive role with his advocacy of social reforms, specifically women's rights, during this time?

Maleki was conscious of the fact that as long as the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute continued -- indeed went on escalating -- there would simply not be sufficient domestic peace and strength to make major reform possible. Therefore, both in the interest of domestic and international peace and stability and for the sake of long-term political and economic progress, he, as no one else in the Popular Movement, advocated the best possible settlement of the oil dispute, even though this would inevitably be short of the ideal.

But even before such a settlement, he thought it necessary to remind both the state and society of the urgency of such reforms. They included a number of fundamental measures, but the two most important from his own point of view were land reform and equal rights for women. He advocated a comprehensive reform of Iran's land tenure system -- "the liberation of 80 percent of the population from bondage and deprivation" -- both for reasons of justice and morality, and in the interest of social and economic development. On the question of women, he did not miss an occasion to advocate (a) the full franchise and integration into civil society of "the one-half of the society which brings up the other half on its lap," and (b) the need to mobilize the country's full capacity by bringing women into the sphere of public life and social activity. Indeed, in his long and important open letter to Ayatollah [Abolghasem] Kashani, written in October 1952 just after some of the latter's activists had helped Baghaei's men to evict the Maleki wing of the Toilers Party forcefully from the party premises, he wrote:

I seek honor in what I have written about women's' rights, and state with utmost courage that -- in our time, and in the prevailing conditions of the world -- it will not be possible to keep more than half of the society in a state of paralysis. Every nation in the world is now using the whole of its human resources, whether for peace or war. If we do not manage, or do not want to, involve women in social life, with regard to all aspects of the management of society, we shall not be able to defend our independence.

When, in January 1953, Mosaddegh was considering the enfranchisement of women through a comprehensive election reform, and some very influential ulema let it be known that they would not tolerate it, Maleki and the Third Force launched a relentless and vociferous campaign in favor of the vote for women. In the end, the government had to shelve the proposed bill because it lacked the strength to face a populist opposition to it on religious grounds.

After the 1953 coup d'état which overthrew the Mosaddegh government, Maleki was arrested and jailed without charge for a year. Upon his release, what was Maleki's relationship with the Shah's regime and what did he make of the Shah's creeping sultanism?

What came after the coup first was a dictatorship, which between 1953 and 1960 tended to intensify, a government of the minority backed by the political and religious establishment and headed by the Shah. There followed a series of power struggles which ended with the Shah's triumph when he restored arbitrary rule, or sultanism, from 1963 onwards.

Maleki was a schoolteacher, and while he was being held without trial, the ministry of education simply expelled him from service, which was against the law. Some time after release from jail, Maleki took the ministry to court and forced them to change the expulsion order, whereupon the ministry forced him to retire immediately.

Although the ropes were tightening over the period 1953-60, Maleki quietly campaigned for freedom and democracy, social reform and social welfare by writing articles first for the intellectual journal Nabard-e Zendegi, and after this was banned for the occasional intellectual publication Elm o Zendegi, both of them with very low circulation, which is all that the regime would tolerate him to do.

From 1960 to 1963 when, due to the regime's domestic as well as international problems, it became possible once again to indulge in a certain amount of political activity, Maleki and his organization once again became active. In the same period, the Second National Front came into and went out of existence largely due to its own follies. They gave up, but Maleki continued with the Third National Front until he was arrested, charged with the vilest possible crimes, and subjected to military trial. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment, of which he had served half when he was released, partly due to continuous pressure on the Shah by European socialist parties, and partly because of his heart disease "so as to avoid creating another martyr," as the SAVAK wrote cynically, fearing his death in prison.

In the remaining two years of his life, he lived a life of poverty, loneliness, and depression, and died in 1969 at 68.

What were his criticisms of the Second National Front and why did he decide to join the Third National Front? What was the impact of his arrest and military trial in the summer of 1965? This would be the third time he was arrested.

The Second National Front that suddenly came into being in the summer of 1960 had a popular following almost solely because of the past association of its senior leaders with Mosaddegh and his government. Although Maleki gave them general support, he was critical of the fact that they did not have a proper organization, effective leadership, and political program. While, as noted, opportunities for real reform offered themselves during the 1960-63 opening, they did not seize any of them and simply adopted a negative position, characteristically showing what they did not want rather than offering policies for social and economic change. And when Ali Amini, a reformist politician, formed a government in spite of the wishes of the Shah, whom he despised, they faced him with an attitude of destructive opposition much as the Shah and the Tudeh Party were doing. They were describing Amini as an agent of American imperialism and even saying that he was lying about his decision to reform the land tenure (without however suggesting a land reform policy themselves, for fear of the landlords and the clergy), although he proved that he was honest about it.

The story of the Second National Front -- at once farcical and tragic -- is a long one and I have covered it extensively in my introduction to Maleki's political memoirs and Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran. Briefly, by the time that all the opportunities had been lost, the great majority of the Front's supporters wised up to their leaders' follies and appealed to Mosaddegh. And with Mosaddegh (who was banished and could not leave his estate) castigating its leadership via secret correspondence, they resigned and conveniently withdrew from politics, which by then had once again become a dangerous occupation. But Maleki, Bazargan, and the others took Mosaddegh's lead in forming the Third National Front. It was too late and just after the publication of two statements by the new Front, Maleki and his colleagues were arrested and put on military trial, as mentioned above. This was the fourth time Maleki was imprisoned; the third one had been a short period in February 1961.

What of Maleki's relationship with the famed novelist and public intellectual Jalal Al-e Ahmad? What did Maleki make of the call for a "nativist turn" and the idea of "Westoxification" advocated by his long-time disciple? The valorization of the clergy as Gramscian "organic intellectuals" was another view common in these intellectual currents of the 1960s and 1970s.

Al-e Ahmad was and remained Maleki's most committed disciple, despite the fact that in the last few years of their lives (Al-e Ahmad died two months after Maleki, and many thought that he had died of grief) they did not always agree in their intellectual diagnosis of the fundamental ills of Iranian society. Al-e Ahmad not only regarded Maleki's towering intellect and selfless honesty with awe and admiration, but often said that (by leading the Tudeh Party split) Maleki had saved him from living in exile in Eastern Europe like many Tudeh leaders and intellectuals.

Unlike the growing multitude of Iranians of every hue, Maleki did not receive Al-e Ahmad's Westoxication or West-struckness joyfully. Al-e Ahmad himself said in his biographical essay on Maleki that he sometimes told him -- no doubt to tease rather than offend -- "Jalal, you have become an akhoond!" [mullah].

On the other hand, Al-e Ahmad was misunderstood and misrepresented when "Westoxication" was turned into a slogan against Western culture and society, and against anything or anyone its proud advocates did not like. As you say, Al-e Ahmad was the first Iranian to introduce Gramsci in Iran. He ended the very book Westoxication mentioning Nabokov's Lolita and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, which had just been published and screened. I myself told Al-e Ahmad what I thought was wrong with it when he gave it to me just after it had been printed (but not allowed to be published). There are things both right and wrong in that book but, unlike the masses of his followers, Al-e Ahmad cannot rightly be described as a nativist. When Al-e Ahmad returned from Hajj, Maleki wrote in a letter that, after this experience, "Jalal is beginning to revise his views."

What was your own personal relationship with Maleki and how did you first come to know him?

I first met Maleki when I was barely 18 and had just entered the Tehran Medical School. My direct contact with him and his colleagues took less than a year when I gave up medicine and went to England to study the social sciences. I found him several cuts above the leaders of the Second National Front, some of whom I also knew personally. He was a dedicated political intellectual of the first order, a publicly spirited, fearless, and self-sacrificing thinker, writer, and activist. What impressed me most about him was his rational approach to politics, and his lack of sentimentalism, obscurantism, as well as ambitiousness and opportunism.

How has he impacted your own thinking and understanding of Iranian politics and history? And what lessons can Maleki's life and thought contribute to our understanding of the present?

To be honest and avoid false modesty, the most fundamental sides of Maleki's originality and uniqueness for his time were not known even to his followers until I laid them bare in my writings, though I am not even sure that they have been yet absorbed. It was more a case of my discovering how much we shared in ideas and attitudes rather than his direct impact on me, since I discovered these by studying his long-forgotten works after he was gone.

Maleki was the most outspoken opponent of the conspiracy theory of politics, of whom they were very few. As early as 1949, and in the midst of the oil nationalization movement and public indignation against the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the raging cold war and international anti-imperialist movements, Maleki launched a campaign against conspiracy theory as a most destructive barrier to the country's social and political development. He said that he did not at all wish to underrate the power, influence, interference and unequal position of the great powers past or present, in Iran or in other colonial and semicolonial countries. But he opposed the view (a) that all the country's ills were due to colonialism and imperialism, (b) that all the (sometimes even minor) events in the country's affairs were due to the underhanded machinations of these powers, (c) that all the main actors in the Iranian government, politics and opposition were agents of one or another great power, (d) that it was not possible for the country to develop and progress except by joining one or the other Cold War bloc, and (e) that all seemingly independent efforts and achievements were bound to be smokescreens motivated by a great power so as to throw dust into the people's eyes and get their way through the back door.

In his 1949 article "The Nightmare of Pessimism," Maleki described the conspiracy theory as the main cause of pessimism among the intelligentsia about the country's future prospects:

[They] have turned the British empire -- which is in a process of decline, and is losing her bases one after the other -- into an omnipotent, supernatural, and irresistible power.

In a following article on "Maraz-e Estimar-zadegi" (the disease of imperial-struckness), where for the first time in the language of politics he made use of the Persian suffix zadegi to indicate a pathological affliction (cf. Al-e Ahmad's Gharbzadegi), he said that a terrifying specter had been made of British imperialism and this had resulted in the Iranian people's complete loss of self-confidence. The society was "struck," he wrote, by the illusion of British omnipotence, and this had led to the belief that the Iranians were no more than puppets in the hands of foreign powers, utterly incapable of improving their own lot:

Some...individuals who suffer from imperial-struckness...do not even think in terms of reform, let alone take any steps toward it. This group of politics-mongers and intellectuals who suffer from the paranoia of the omnipotence of imperialism and the impotence of Iranians (and similar peoples), must justly be called imperial-struck. It is very difficult to argue with those who suffer from this sickness.

"The aggrandizement of the strength of imperialism," he wrote in the subtitle to his article, "today serves Britain's interest and tomorrow the Soviet Union's, but it will never serve the interest of Iran."

The xenophobia was such that while the former regime's opponents thought that it was no more than a puppet first of the British then, of the United States, the Shah and his entourage -- and, later, many who themselves had supported the Revolution -- believed that the Revolution of February 1979 was engineered by the British and Americans. There were very few men of public affairs such as [Hassan] Taghizadeh who did not believe in the conspiracy theory, but they were (albeit reluctant and unhappy) members of the establishment, and, in any case, were themselves unjustly believed to be foreign agents. Putting those very few aside, it would be difficult to think of anyone -- certainly anyone in opposition -- apart from Maleki who did not see foreign agents almost everywhere in Iranian politics.

Maleki's political paradigm was complex and largely of his own making. He was a socialist, but at the same time he firmly believed in personal freedoms, the people's free vote in parliamentary elections, and parliamentary democracy itself. Early in 1951, in the wake of the nationalization of Iranian oil, he wrote that oil nationalization had been a great achievement, but that it was just the beginning for fundamental political development:

The popular forces must be organized in order to establish real parliamentary democracy based on political parties, so that the people will really and genuinely be able to govern the country through their parliamentary deputies.... The people must be taught and educated so as to be able to earn and protect both bread and freedom.... In other words, measures must be taken to enable every cook to learn the art of government and of participation in government.

And he went on to add that a system had to be created where it would be possible to have both bread and freedom, and to serve the society's interest without sacrificing the rights of individuals:

In my view, the National Front's most important historic duty is to create...a civilization in which neither the society shall be sacrificed to the individual nor shall it be forgotten that the society in not an abstract entity, but is the sum of its individual members.

In September 1952, in an article whose central point was the need for public order and political discipline (which had been very rare commodities since Reza Shah's abdication in 1941), as well as social and economic legislation [to promote] development, he wrote that "democratic discipline must replace chaos and indiscipline." "Yet," he went on to emphasize,

the great difference between disciplined work based on social planning and priorities suggested by us, as compared to totalitarian systems, is its democratic nature. We must not sacrifice individual freedoms to public institutions, nor must we allow absolute dominion of such institutions over personal liberties.

Years later, he was to write on the front page of an issue of Elm o Zendegi, "Communists sacrifice freedom for bread, while reactionaries sacrifice bread for freedom; we hold that bread, freedom, and social welfare are not incompatible."

This was in 1960 when the post-coup regime was at its weakest point and radical idealism was exceedingly rife among its opponents. But Maleki still believed that the country's best chance was in the establishment of the rule of law and peaceful political and economic reform. Here is a short selection of Policy Point IV of the Socialist League's manifesto published in September 1960:

It seems that the substance of a social system is more important than its form.... The League shall respect the present constitution and try to establish the rule of law. With land reform and the abolition of remnants of the moluk al-tavayefi [estate holding] system it may be possible to create social stability and equilibrium, and give real meaning to the right to vote. If we succeed in securing the essence of parliamentary constitutionalism by obtaining the [true] right to vote for all the people of both town and country, we shall be able to hit major targets.

But democracy and freedom, the manifesto emphasized, were far from chaos: "Some people confuse libertarianism with lawlessness and chaos. The Socialist League regards this kind of freedom as a necessary prelude to dictatorship." On the other hand, there must be serious respect for individual freedoms, and decentralization of administration across the country:

While the League regards as necessary government intervention in the economy and elsewhere, it also puts a premium on personal freedoms and private initiative. Government intervention or control should never be at the expense of individual freedoms. For the same reasons, the League...believes that, gradually and as far as possible, central government functions must be relegated to the local authorities.

This material was written more than 50 years ago, but its clear lessons are not yet quite learned. Maleki paid the heavy price of reason, moderation, tolerance, and belief in dialogue in a society in which the regime's response to any criticism was ruthless suppression, and the opposition's only aim was to overthrow the regime. The former accused him (in the military prosecutor's indictment) as "a born adventurer and anarchist who would abuse the susceptible sentiments of the country's youth in order to achieve his filthy ends, and would not shy of using any ugly means." The latter regarded him at best as a "split-monger," but more often as a stooge of the Shah, SAVAK, the British, and then American imperialism.

see also | The Persians: An Interview with Homa Katouzian (Part One) | The Persians: An Interview with Homa Katouzian (Part Two)

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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