Review of Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran

Picking up this tiny book from a little-known university press, I am reminded of Thomas Paine, Karl Marx, and their fellow pamphleteers of revolution. Even the cover, with its pale blue and declarative font, looks like samizdat. Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore would like to think of themselves as dissident writers in a totalitarian state, but their polemics are widely available and sell by the bucketload. Moore, in particular, has added considerably to Rupert Murdoch’s fortune. But Danny Postel is the real deal.

The first half of Postel’s little book comprises a series of essays in which he attempts to answer the question: why is the Left of the rich world ignoring comrades in the poor world?

Iraq tore the Western left in two. Everyone agreed that the invasion might be catastrophic and that its motives were not the finest. Far-left sects organised massive demonstrations against it. But a large part of the Iraqi left felt that the war was a good idea for the sole reason that, whatever happened, Saddam would go. Their viewpoint was ignored by the antiwar parties but given a voice in the West by a disparate group of writers, journalists, academics, bloggers and trade unionists, who chose to stick by their comrades and, after the war, and unlike much of the antiwar movement, chose to stick by them against the fundamentalist ‘resistance’. This caused a monstrous schism that reverberates to this day.

As Postel makes clear, Iranians tend to be in favour of basic liberal values rather than radical anti-imperialist projects. There are two reasons for this. One is that, under faith-based totalitarianism, the urgent need is to get the rights of free speech, free elections and gender equality before you can embark on any ambitious economic schemes. Another is the example of the Tudeh Party, a Communist organisation that allied with Khomeini to organise the revolution only to be murdered along with thousands of their friends when they had outlived their usefulness to the theocrats. The Tudeh Party have a British equivalent in the Socialist Workers’ Party, recently allied with a reactionary Islamic organisation.

In effect, the Tudeh Party sold itself and its comrades down the river. Postel quotes the journalist Afshin Molavi:

Iranian youth largely dismiss the radical ideas of their parents’ generation, full of half-baked leftism, Marxist economics, Third World anti-imperalism, Islamist radicalism and varying shades of utopian totalitarianism. ‘We just want to be normal,’ is typical of what hundreds of students have told me. ‘We’re tired of radicalism.’

Yet hardly anyone on the planet, aside from a few crazed neoconservatives, is in favour of an attack on Iran. Surely we can agree on that? And Postel gives some fairly convincing reasons it probably won’t happen:

The rhetoric of looming showdowns and enemies at the gate is pumped up by and serves the interest of both regimes. Posturing aside, Bush and Ahmadinejad are in fact involved in a symbiotic dance, a game of Schmittian shadowboxing, if you will, in which each needs the other as an enemy and feeds on the other’s rhetoric.

I’d go with that, and would add another reason: liberal internationalism is dead. Derided by both the right and the left (in my country, the conservative press takes the same line as its liberal counterpart: that Iraq is a waste of our time and money) no leader will be able to get elected by advocating war. Already the tide is turning. Kissinger has been visiting the White House, and Bush’s recent talks (read ‘deals’) with the Iranian regime signifies that we are back to the old Cold War routine of selling weapons to dictators rather than overthrowing them. And this is a sad thing, I think.

Yet most of the Western left still sees the world through what Postel calls ‘the prism of American imperialism, which is no less an American prism for being critical, as opposed to uncritical, of US foreign policy’. Whatever America is against, it will defend. Throw in a puritan instinct to defend faith-based regimes, and a creepy servility towards foreign tyrants, and that is the majority Left position in a nutshell: and one that doesn’t seem to realise its parochialism in putting its own domestic political preferences over the lives of the oppressed.

In a way this book is like an easy introduction to where the Left has gone wrong over the past few years. Postel discusses the great betrayal of Michel Foucault, who went to Iran after the revolution and praised its ‘different regime of truth,’; the pernicious idea that freedom of speech and separation of church and state and the right to vote comprise some kind of imperialist conspiracy; the silence from Western leftists at the regime’s executions, torture, imprisonment and beatings of Iranian feminists and trade unionists and its crackdown on student demonstrations. Antiwar activists claim to speak for the Iranian people, but cannot name a single Iranian dissident – let alone the philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, a former political prisoner who gives an interview to Postel in the latter half of this book.

All this can be summed up in a single anecdote, which is worth extensive quotation:

[Shirin Ebadi, Nobel laureate and human rights lawyer] went on a speaking tour in the spring of 2006 to discuss her recently-published autobiography, Iran Awakening. As someone who every day of every week defends the victims of the regime’s brutal abuses – indeed as someone who has done jail time for engaging in that work – the issue of the Islamic Republic’s human rights practices tends to figure centrally in her scheme of things. Which is not to say that it’s the only issue on her agenda, or that it in any way blunts her criticisms of the United States and its foreign policy – quite the contrary. She has spoken out in no uncertain terms against the Iraq War, the detainee base at Guantánamo, and the torture inflicted by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib – and has made it utterly clear that she opposes any US intervention in Iran. And yet, at a public event for her book in London, an antiwar activist instructed her that she should not denounce Iran’s human rights record – indeed not discuss it at all – explaining that doing so only plays into the hands of the warmongers, and fuels the fires of imperialism.

Emphasis is of course mine. This was Ebadi’s reply:

Leaning over the lectern and waving her finger at the activist, she made plain that any antiwar movement that advocates silence in the face of tyranny, for whatever reason, can count her out.

We should be able to unite on opposition to war with Iran. But, as Postel explains, opposition is not enough. We know what we’re against: what exactly are we for? If you can’t answer that, you can count yourself out of any serious debate about the future of the Iranian people.

Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran, Danny Postel, Prickly Paradigm 2006

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