Two Interpretations of Religion: The Tudeh Party and Iran’s 1979 Constitution

By Kelly Skinner

After Iran’s 1979 “Islamic” Revolution, Foucault noted that Islam was pervasive throughout Iran’s political discourse, rendering secular political options obsolete (Behrooz. Foucault in Iran, 82). This was largely due to the association of Islam with nationalism during the Revolution as it was used as a symbol of resistance against both the Shah and Western imperialism (Mirsepassi. Intellectual Discourse and the Politics of Modernization: Negotiating Modernity in Iran, 100). This left the secular-identifying political groups in a difficult position– would secularism remain central to their ideology or would they forge political alliances based on other factors? In mid-1979, as Iranian leaders were in the midst of creating a constitution which would define the new Islamic Republic, the political stakes could not have been higher. One of these secular parties, the communist Tudeh Party of Iran, forged an interesting path in their approach to this question, ultimately putting their economic goals above any other consideration. The Tudeh Party’s response to the growing presence of political Islam included identifying multiple interpretations of religion and espousing one interpretation as aligning with the party’s own goals. This also included identifying which versions of an Islamic Economy mostly closely aligned with their own economic platform. The Tudeh Party publicized these ideas in various interviews and articles published at the time, including those printed in Mardom, Ettelāʿāt, and recorded in the international press by the FBIS-Daily Service.

In early June, before the official June draft constitution was published, the Tudeh Party published their goals for the new constitution in Ettelāʿāt. Secretary General Nurredin Kianuri stated:

… the new constitution must include the following principles: full national independence and sovereignty in all political, economic, cultural, social and military affairs, democracy meaning the provision of all freedoms and fundamental rights, the right of the masses (tudeh mardom) to participate in determining their own destiny through strong social institutions, ensuring the national rights of the peoples (hoquq-e melli-ye khalqhā) and nationalities living in Iran within the framework of our unified and indivisible homeland, social progress that guarantees the comprehensive industrial, agricultural, and cultural progress of society, its dynamics and its people and the flourishing of human character, moral values, and spirituality. Public welfare for all the toilers (zahmatkashān) and the provision of the right to work, education, treatment, rest and housing etc. The health of the country’s economic construction in order to secure the interests of the vast majority of people and cut off the possibilities of plundering the natural and human resources of our country. (Ettelāʿāt 12 Khordād 1358/ 2 June 1979)

After the publication of the June draft, the Tudeh Party’s positions changed very little though the draft had included little of what they had argued for. However, their goals for the new document did have one significant shift, the inclusion of a cooperative sector of government in their ideal economy. In late August, the Tudeh Party published an article in their party paper, Mardom, stating,

The economic system of the Islamic Republic of Iran should be based on three sectors: public (dowlati), cooperative (ta’āvoni), and private (khosusi), with regular government planning. The governmental sector is the main economic factor of the country and is the basic device for its dynamics and the advancement of the economic objectives of the revolution. (Mardom 29 Mordad, 1358/ 20 August 1979)

This new part of the Tudeh’s platform was repeated in another instance in which a Tudeh Party spokesman qualified their advocacy for these types of ownership by adding that this was what the party believed, “under the current circumstances” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. Tehran Ayandegan in Persian 1979. “Tudeh Gives Views on Constitution.” 2 August 1979). This is interesting, because while cooperative ownership is not featured in the June draft, these three types of ownership are popular in many conceptions of an Islamic economy, including in the ideas of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani, and Mas’ud Rajavi. 

This shift can be explained by the Tudeh Party’s new support for leftist conceptions of an Islamic Economy. In late July 1979, Tudeh Party published an article in their party paper, Mardom arguing that there are two different interpretations of Islam. What the Tudeh Party claimed to be the modern interpretation was the Islam that Ayatollah Khomeini and other revolutionaries followed. This interpretation supported the same economic goals as the Tudeh Party. The article states:

In this regard, we should especially name Imam Khomeini and also other Islamic thinkers such as Ayatollah Taleqani, Doctor Ali Shariati, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, and others. This Islamic ideology, political and societal, that thanks to their efforts and the appearance of collective other Islamic thinkers of our country and was named “Monothesistic insight” (binesh-e towhidi), was a very important spiritual flag in the first stage of the of the victorious Iranian revolution against the Pahlavi dynasty and for  the establishment of an Islamic Republic and still in in the current revolutionary phase plays a progressive role in expanding and spreading the achievements of the revolution (Mardom 8 Mordad, 1358/ 30 July 1979)

In the same article, the Tudeh party also claims that in this new interpretation, Islam had become a social ideology, “Imam Khomeini by preserving his strict loyalty to all Islamic beliefs and Shi’ism, has given a new impetus to this trend and today Islam in countries is more and more formulated as a social ideology” (Mardom 8 Mordad, 1358/ 30 July 1979).

Not surprisingly for a communist party, the Tudeh Party’s support for Islam and an Islamic Economy only mentions the leftist proponents of an Islamic ecnomy, perhaps except for Khomeini. However, in his speeches during the Revolution, Khomeini too, often spoke of lifting up the oppressed, something the Tudeh party seems to have taken note of as they even adopted Khomeini’s rhetoric. In a press conference given on October 9th, 1979, Kianuri lays out the “content of the revolution” that the Tudeh party would support. These points include the following: “Fundamentally changing for the better the living standards of millions of plundered people, i.e., the working classes or, to use the term coined by Imam Khomeyni, the Mostaz’afin [the deprived]” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. Tehran Bamdad in Persian 1979. “Kianuri Press Conference”). Notably, Mostaz’afin, originally a Qur’anic term, was first used to talk about economic class in Shariati’s translation of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth into Persian as Mostaz’afin-e Zamin (The Oppressed of the Earth) (Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic, 47). Khomeini’s use of this term shows, at least to the Tudeh, that he is combining Islam with class struggle. 

On the other hand, the Tudeh party’s use of Mostaz’afin also attempts to show the Iranian people that although they often use different language to express their agenda, it is remarkably similar to Khomeini’s own goals. This is also evident a month later when in an interview a German newspaper Kianuri states, “The Shi’ite religion has democratic roots and in history it was linked with popular national and anti-imperialist forces… We are making every effort to find a common language with Khomeyni, because objectively he is playing a progressive role in Iran’s development” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. East Berlin 1979. “Interview with Tudeh’s Kianuri” 16 November 1979). Kianuri justifies this position by saying, “between scientific socialism and the social content of Islam there are no unbridgeable differences rather, many common aspects” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. East Berlin 1979. “Interview with Tudeh’s Kianuri” 16 November 1979).

Following this strategy, the Tudeh Party, although not agreeing with the form of government instituted by the new constitution, did support the overall constitution due to the leftist economic principles in the document. In November 1979, Kianuri stated:

Some articles of the constitution are positive and others negative… We support the articles relating to the structures of the economy in the Islamic Republic. The economy will be based mainly on the national sector… despite the great resistance shown by the bazaar. (FBIS-Daily Service 20 Nov. 1979)

This is interesting because Khomeini has historically been an ally of the bazaar in the lead up to the Revolution and relied on their support to oust the shah (Abrahamian, Khomeinism, 41).  In the view of the Tudeh party then, the final constitution marks a victory of Khomeini’s revolutionary rhetoric over his more conservative tendencies. However, the economic focus of the Tudeh Party may have been shortsighted as the party would be banned by the new government only a few years after the Revolution, in 1983.

Secular political groups in Iran had to adapt to the changing meaning of Islam during and after the Revolution. The Tudeh Party did this by accepting the fact that Iran’s constitution would include principles for an Islamic Economy. Following this acceptance, the Tudeh Party then identified the proponents of an Islamic Economy whose ideas were most similar to their own economic beliefs. This included Shariati, who was known as the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution, though he died before its fruition and Khomeini, the leader of the Revolution, as well as Bani-Sadr and Taleqani whom the party endorsed for the Assembly of Experts. Even after the final draft of the constitution was published, the Tudeh Party still supported the document, which famously included theocratic elements such as Velāyat-e Faqih, due to its inclusion of leftist economic principles.

Image obtained from Tudeh Party of Iran