Philosophy and Iran’s revolution: Where to now?

February 12, 2011


by Raha

Recollecting Raya at the end of the Dunayevskaya Centenary is intertwined with the Iranian Revolution at its 1979 high point and as it suffered through three decades of counter-revolution, and now, as it searches for a new beginning.

One year ago, the unprecedented turnout of millions throughout Iran on the 31st anniversary of the 1979 Revolution revealed something new that has not yet been brought to light: the deep desire to reclaim that Revolution as one that belongs to the people as its true creators (see “Iranian workers enter the fray,” March-April, 2010 N&L). Thereby the instrumental use of the Revolution by the Islamic Republic as but a means to terrorize people into submission became undermined. While the oppressive state has unleashed an ongoing absolute terror to suppress what it calls a “velvet revolution,” it has, at best, only managed to drive it underground. Nevertheless, what the year-long sustained mass mobilizations brought to center stage is the historic divide between continuity and discontinuity with that 1979 Revolution, its unfulfilled goals, and its meaning for today. It is here that Dunayevskaya’s theoretic contributions become indispensable.


Let’s admit it: the Left completely screwed up in 1979. We were shattered. In 1979 I went back to Iran having encountered the Marxist-Humanist ideas of Raya Dunayevskaya and having met her on my way there. I became active with unemployed workers. It was a massive movement, given the factory shutdowns, departure of capitalists, etc. Those who took control of the movement were all Left intellectuals, but were wearing working-class clothing and acting as if they were the workers. One day, at the end of a march, we gathered at the Ministry of Justice. The workers heard speeches, then were divided up into committees to write up demands to be presented to the provisional government. I got involved with one of those committees. Workers themselves were open-minded and were attentively listening, discussing different points of view. I spoke about workers’ control, that you need to shape your own destiny through workers’ councils. Here then comes this Fedayee (a Communist group) intellectual who grabs me by my collar and says intellectuals are not allowed among the workers! He threw me out.

Women in the 1979 Revolution“Women’s Liberation is society’s liberation” was a slogan women carried on the March 8th, 1979, demonstration.

Dunayevskaya singled out “new passions and new forces” within the Iranian Revolution that no one else had seen. She was the only Marxist who comprehended at the time the significance of women on March 8, 1979, as opening a new chapter of the revolution (see “Iran: Unfoldment of, and Contradictions in, Revolution,” March 25, 1979, included inWomen’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution). Moreover, she singled out these forces as also Reason. She had immersed herself in Iran’s history, not as an “historian,” but history as ongoing and future. This history recollected, revealed also the world context, i.e., the two Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. The 1917 Revolution leading to the Gilan Republic[1]–a truly forgotten page in Iran’s revolutionary history–and women’s Anjumans (committees) as the extension and deepening of the soviets.

As she intervened in the 1978-79 Iranian revolution, Dunayevskaya projected a recreation of Hegel’s Absolute Method, which is not an external reflection of objective reality, but is immanent within reality. This internal development revealed in an ongoing revolution what Lenin meant by his aphorism: “Cognition not only reflects the world but creates it.” Here Idea is Power in the concrete because it is not “applied” but recreates dialectics for that particular situation.


Thus, at the outset of the Iraq-Iran war, when some even within the Iranian Marxist-Humanist tendency wanted to apply Lenin’s slogan “turn the imperialist war into civil war,” Dunayevskaya warned against skipping history and its process. The concrete, she showed, in the Hegelian sense of the concrete and total, would reveal that Iraq’s attack on Iran in 1981 was, in essence, an attack on the revolution. Therefore, revolutionaries should fight it on that ground even as the grave contradictions within the revolution reached a counter-revolutionary turn. Never did she lose her confidence in the masses who had achieved that revolution against the Shah and U.S. imperialism, and who had made revolution, not oil, what defines the Middle East.

I recently re-read Dunayevskaya’s Introduction to the Farsi edition of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts[2] with which she armed young Iranian Marxist-Humanists during the revolutionary upheaval. I find it, as well as her Introduction to the series of “Political-Philosophic Letters” she wrote on Iran, of great value for today as a summation of the revolution and of Marx. Absolute Method, as practiced by her, allowed for no divide between philosophic mediation and the new self-mediating forms of social solidarity, the workers’ councils.

The point for today is that we cannot reappear on the scene with the same symbols, banners, language and political sloganeering and pass it off as “radicalism.” Islamists proved to be more “radical” in pursuit of their fundamentalist demands. They were even more “anti- this and that” than the Left.

To me, the present moment in Iran bears out in life the indispensability of Dunayevskaya’s path-breaking approach: projecting what Hegel called the Self-Thinking Idea as what immanently unfolds within the revolutionary movement. She “translated” this Self-Thinking Idea as Marx’s revolution in permanence. This speaks loudly, at least in my view, to the dialectics of action in Iran now, when the masses seem to have gained self-confidence in the actuality of their power and the non-actuality of the existing reality. The immanence of the Idea can no longer be left at the level of abstraction Lenin reached when he said “Notion = Man.” We need to go further by trying to grasp the Notion in-and-for-itself in order to appreciate how it is the concrete in an actual revolution. Otherwise, “the day after revolution” we will, yet again, remain stuck with the objective, material restructuring alone and not the free release of human creativity and totally new human relationships.


“Labor” is such a distorted and misunderstood category, especially among those who shout the loudest about labor in the context of today’s mass movement in Iran. Yet Raya makes one so “smart” when it comes to opposing other Left tendencies that one can easily harbor the illusion that “I know all there is to know,” without actually knowing! Imagine a 23-year-old like myself, who had translated Marx’s essay on “Alienated Labor” in the midst of the Iranian Revolution in 1978, and done the same with Georg Lukacs’ “What is Orthodox Marxism?” and yet kept labor and dialectics in two separate compartments. That’s precisely the point, because by the time Dunayevskaya wrote her Introduction to the Farsi edition of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, addressing revolutionaries in an ongoing revolution, I had already become too “familiar” with Marxist-Humanism and too involved with practice to really grapple with the “negation of the negation” as the meaning of the challenge issued by Dunayevskaya in that Introduction.

When it comes to labor, the vanguard parties deify labor and mythologize it in their “revolutionary art” and symbolism, even calling it the “Universal Class,” while in truth they regard it as but a Force in need of a consciousness injected from the outside. Lukacs, despite his Hegelianism, actually elevated the concept of the vanguard to a philosophic level. He made a categorical opposition between the class “in-itself” and the class “for-itself,” which the Left never stopped repeating because this opposition is mediated by the Party as the historic “bearer” of the class consciousness of the proletariat. This Hegelian par excellence actually did not even come close to Lenin in his encounter with the dialectic in-and-for-itself, let alone how it unfolds in an actual revolution. Naturally, no new unity of Force and Reason can be achieved when theoretic discourse is based on such a great divide between the self-determination of labor and the Idea.


Contrast this to how Raya practiced Absolute Method in engaging labor during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, specifically the oil workers. She highlighted their achievements, from the political general strike to their opposition to the counter-revolution ordering them to go back to work. Yet precisely at their high point she revealed a duality within labor when it came to their perception of “anti-imperialism,” in which they did not fully distinguish themselves from the counter-revolution’s appropriation of that concept.[3]

In other words, she did not leave the universal of labor as an abstract generality. On the contrary, she demonstrated that there is differentiation within labor, that class consciousness is an internally manifold totality, which contains its “Other” within itself. Only through the negation of this “Other”–i.e., through the “negation of the negation”–does that universal become concrete for-itself.

Thus, when Dunayevskaya projects the power of the Idea as it shapes the course of the actual, it is wholly immanent because it reveals that the impulse to transcend the duality is within the revolution itself. Workers who achieved the overthrow of U.S. imperialism in Iran, opposed the counter-revolution when it sent them back to work, even if they were not able to fully deal with that counter-revolution’s pseudo anti-imperialism trying to consolidate power against them. Therefore a theoretic articulation is needed to reach a new determination of self and reality so that workers can transcend the Other. Isn’t this how theory and practice merge into a new unity to usher in a new beginning also the day after the revolution?

Every revolution discloses something new and unique. The new in Iran at the end of the 1970s found articulation in what was then Dunayevskaya’s book-to-be: Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. Suddenly the question of women’s liberation, spontaneity, Luxemburg’s “Mass Strike,” the 1907 London Congress of Russian tendencies, and organization–all became life and death questions pertaining to and interwoven with an ongoing revolution.[4]

Yes, the masses proved, once again, how all-powerful they are as they unfurl the banner of freedom. But Iran’s greatest tragedy was that it was without a philosophy of liberation, and therefore did not disclose the path to total freedom. Thirty-two years later, that’s still where we are. Can the Iranian roots of Marxist-Humanism be rediscovered? Will Dunayevskaya’s relentless engagement with that revolution and her new theoretic points of departure be made known in today’s movement? Moreover, will all this be treated as the immediately given, or will we be able to respond to the challenge of “Where to Begin?” as she posed it in that undigested Political-Philosophic Letter “What is Philosophy? What is Revolution?” The task remains to be done even as she left all the doors open for our generation to engage with her body of thought as what can make a difference in an actual revolution.



1.The Socialist Republic of Gilan, the Iranian province, lasted from June 1920 until September 1921. See Dunayevskaya’s Political-Philosophic Letter “Iran’s Revolutionary Past–and Present,” Nov. 13, 1978. Several of those Letters are available from News and Letters as Iran: Revolution and Counter-revolution.

2.Included in Iran: Revolution and Counter-revolution.

3.See Dunayevskaya’s discussion of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and the holding of the employees hostage, in “Grave Contradictions of the 1979 Iranian Revolution,” included in Iran: Revolution and Counter-revolutionand reprinted in the December 1999 N&L.

4.As Dunayevskaya put it in 25 Years of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S. (News and Letters, 1980): “Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution greatly illuminated the events of 1979 and 1980. History had paid little attention to the 1905 Russian Revolution’s extension to Persia…though especially the women’s Anjuman(soviet) was a true historic first. Suddenly, however, another element of that revolution in Persia–its first constitution–became a focal point for the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But what the Islamic fundamentalists meant by it and what the young revolutionaries related to, were absolute opposites.”

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