Monday, May 16, 2011

326. The Last Iranian Trotskyist: Alireza Ismaeli Nassab (1954-2011)

Alireza Ismaeli Nassab (Behzad Kazemi)
By Kamran Nayeri, May 16, 2011

The afternoon of Friday April 22, I learned from Nasser Rahmani Nejad that Behzad Kazemi (Alireza Ismaeli Nassab’s pen name) was in coma in a London hospital.  Earlier that week, I had shared with Nasser my concern about Alireza’s health.

Early Friday April 8 Alireza had phoned me complaining about what I considered to be a serious digestive problem.  Over the past year, Alireza called me from time to time to talk about his health concerns. He was type II diabetic and was treated for localized cancer of the throat with surgery and radiation last summer. 

After his cancer treatment, Alireza was not quite himself. It took him sometime to regain his voice that remained coarse.  His stream of group emails became sporadic. He began sending “Internet health advice,” including for cancer prevention and treatment that did not even disclose their sources; a kind of street advice that people resort to when feeling powerless in dealing with hard to understand illnesses. Sometimes, I wrote or called to alert him against the bogus nature of such “advice” and chide him for circulating nonsense.

Like many others, Alireza disliked seeking medical care or even following sound medical advice.  Although he injected himself with insulin regularly, he did not follow a healthy diet or any exercise program.

He was so driven by his socialist convictions that neglected his own body’s signals.  He did not sleep well, did not rest enough and was always trying to make something happen. It was not unusual for him to call me well past midnight London time to discuss a project or just talk with his voice betraying extreme tiredness.

Almost each time he contacted me it was to ask me to do something—big or small.  This was despite my repeated explanation that I am following a different path and I could not engage in his projects. He would not take “no” for an answer. He would say “OK.” And a week later, he would call with another request.  

Our last phone call (Friday, April 8) was his way of responding to an urgent digestive problem that had lasted ten days. When I urged him to seek medical help, he assured me that he has an appointment with his General Practitioner the following Monday.  On Sunday, someone (I assume his companion Eva) found him in front of his computer as if he had a stroke. At the hospital, after several days of misdiagnoses, he was found with Herpes Simplex Encephalitis, went into coma and died on Friday April 22.

At 57 with all his vitality and dreams he died too young.

*     *     *

I first met Alireza at his tiny apartment in London, the night before my return to California a few days after September 11, 2001.  I had gone to London to get to know Yadullah Khosroshahi in person—a life long labor activist, he was a central leader of the Iranian Oil Workers Shora (council), part of the workers council movement that swept across Iran after the February 1979 revolution.   Late that night, knowing something about my political lineage Yadullah asked me if I wanted to meet a “young (Iranian) Trotskyist.”

Leon Trotsky, a central leader of the October 1917 Russian revolution, is a key socialist theorist of the twentieth century. His theories of uneven and combined historical development and Permanent Revolution, theories of Stalinism and fascism, and contribution to the revolutionary socialist program, strategy and tactics are indispensable for understanding the history of the 20th century and for radical social change today. After Lenin’s death in January 1924, Trotsky became the chief defender of his legacy in the face of the degeneration of the Russian socialist revolution. 

This put him on collision course with the rising conservative bureaucratic caste headed by Joseph Stalin.  He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1928, sent to internal exile in Alma Ata in Kazakhstan and in 1929 to exile in Turkey.  Eventually, he resided in Mexico, where Stalin’s agent Ramòn Mercader assassinated him on August 20, 1940.[i] 

Since Marx’s time, revolutionary workers and socialists have organized themselves internationally as well as in each country to fight capitalism, a global system. Trotsky and his followers organized the Fourth International in 1938 after the Stalinist degeneration of the Third (Communist) International. In 1943, Stalin dissolved the Third International, as signal to the Allies that Moscow was not interested in fermenting world revolution.

*     *     *

Alireza was raised in Mollavi section of Tehran, a low-income enclave. Just before the revolutionary movement that led to the Shah’s downfall began to take steam, he went to Britain to study film. In Britain he came across the Iranian Trotskyists who published Kandò Kàv (Investigation), a quarterly socialist magazine, and led the Committee Against Repression in Iran (CARI), which fought for freedom of political prisoners under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s dictatorial rule. As it turned out, by conviction and by his actions he came to be the last Iranian Trotskyist of his generation.

In the 1970s, hundreds of radicalized Iranian student in the United States and Europe and Iran that questioned the policies of Moscow and Beijing learned about Trotsky’s fight, rediscovered Bolshevism, and organized in two groups.  The first group was formed in the U.S. in early 1970s. But almost immediately, a few split over a number of programmatic questions and later joined others in Britain to form a second group. Both groups were affiliated to the Fourth International.

The divided Fourth International conditioned political positions and organizational culture of the two Iranian Trotskyist groups.[ii] The two groups leaderships were too young, too inexperienced and too egoistical to heal these divisions and build a truly united movement focused on addressing the problems of the Iranian revolution, their primary responsibility.

Still, having rediscovered Bolshevism and its continuity by Trotsky and the Fourth International, the Iranian Trotskyist movement was much better prepared programmatically for the 1979 revolution.  On the eve of the February 1979 insurrection, we distributed “The Manifesto of the Workers and Toilers” with the banner headline: “No Power Appointed from the Top Will Bring Freedom to Iran.” We also denounced the Khomeini-Bazargan government as capitalist and called for a constituent assembly based on the mass organizations of the working people and a workers and peasant government.  At that time, the bulk of the socialist currents called for a “democratic revolution,” seeking the “national bourgeoisie” to lead it and gave some degree of political support to one or another faction of the Islamic Republic. 

Soon after the February insurrection, the Iranian Trotskyists fused in Hezb-e Kargaran-e Sosialist (HKS).  The fusion was partially forced by the unifying power of the mass movement, partly by the feeling of solidarity of the rank-and-file that worked together in the streets, and by the leadership of the Fourth International.

Nonetheless, it was only an organizational fusion—not a unification based on a democratic convention and programmatic and political documents and discussion to guide the movement in the next period.  Behind the close door, the “leaders” engineered it from the top. For example, Hormuz Rahimian (from Britain) was coffered the title of National Secretary of the fused organization and Babak Zahraie (from the United States) was given the editorship of its newspaper, Kargar (Worker).  The fusion came apart within 6 months along the old sectarian lines by the government’s counter-revolutionary summer offensive.

I never met Alireza during that fateful six months or at any other time in Iran.

*     *     *

I do not know when Alireza was forced to leave Iran and settle in London. Given that all three Iranian Trotskyist parties[iii] were effectively dissolved under intense repression and crisis of leadership, it would have seemed reasonable for Alireza to join a British Trotskyist organization.

Instead, he tried to link up with the former leaders of HKS in Britain. In 2006 in Cuba, Alireza volunteered to me his deep disappointed in this effort.

Still, for a time Alireza worked in the new CARI—which now had a more challenging political situation. How could a campaign against repression in Iran be organized in an imperialist country when its government is actively seeking counter-revolution in Iran?   Years later, Alirea helped found such a campaign organization in the International Alliance in Support of Workers of Iran (IASWI).

During the 1990s, Alireza worked with various small groups of Iranian socialists in London.  He also began researching for and writing his book Nationalists and the Myth of Democracy. Written in Farsi, this book focuses on the fight for democracy in Iran and how Iranian nationalist movement has historically betrayed it.

With the rise of a new generation of Iranian that had not experienced the defeat of the 1979 revolution Alireza flourished during the past ten years.  He forged a mutually fruitful political relationship with Yaddullah Khosroshahi.  This offered him a direct link to the older and new generations of Iranian working class vanguard that were resisting the government and employer offensive and rebuilding the labor movement.

A logical complement was to build an international labor solidarity movement with the workers of Iran. Yadullah Khosroshahi was leading this effort for a decade when in Canada a few Iranian labor activists formed the IASWI.  In the beginning, this new organization did not have a clear strategy.  One view was to build an appendage of the Canadian and Western labor officialdom that worked with their respective governments to pressure the Islamic Republic for labor rights.  This approach would make the labor solidarity movement a pawn of the foreign policy of imperialist powers. 

Thanks to Farid Partovi, a co-founder of IASWI, and other labor and socialist activists like Yadullah and Alireza, the organization adopted a revolutionary labor strategy to rely on rank-and-file and independent working class actions to support labor activists and labor rights in Iran.  Like Yadullah, Alireza was a key figure in this work in Britain.

Aside from organizing a strong IASWI affiliate in Britain, Alireza worked with others to organize Ettehad-e Sosialist-ha (Socialist Unity), a Farsi language virtual forum using the Paltalk technology.  The forum became a twice-weekly event and hosted speakers on topics of interest to the socialist and labor movements.  It gave a platform to the leading labor activists in Iran to speak to a broader Farsi speaking audience at home and abroad.  Popular forums attracted audiences of 100 or more.

In 2006 in Cuba, Alireza shared with me his assessment that the potential for Ettehad-e Sosialist-ha was exhausted and it was time for him to spend his energy on establishing a socialist journal.

Recently, he reminded me with some pride that his vision has come true in Saamaane No, a web-based quarterly Farsi socialist journal that has now been published for three years. 

As he included me in his email communication with his potential collaborators in its formative stage, I observed up close how Alireza went about initiating the project, building an ad hoc editorial board and figuring out the shape and content of the new journal. I did not join this effort but others who did have spoken highly of the role he played.

Today after his untimely death, Saamaane No appears to have feet to walk on its own.

Finally, through all these efforts, Alireza was able to reach perhaps his higher goal towards rebuilding a revolutionary socialist party in Iran. He built a network of contacts with Iranian workers, students and intellectuals in Iran who became his collaborators to varying degree.

 *     *     *

In late April 2006, Alireza and I spent three weeks together in Cuba.[iv]

We begin with participation in the Third International Conference on the Work of Karl Marx and the Challenges of the 21st Century at the Palacio de Convenciones (Convention Center) in Havana.  Alireza and I had a paper on the lessons of the Iranian revolution of 1979. Before leaving for Cuba, I wrote a draft and sent it to him. He offered one or two small changes.  I also presented a second paper on the critical socialist theories of the class nature of the Soviet Union.  Alireza presented our paper on Iran on the first day of the conference.

We also attended the last day of the international organic farming conference held in Hotel Nacional

On May Day, we went to Plaza de la Revolucion for the mass rally organized by the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba  (confederation of Cuban workers) and heard Fidel Castro speak. We had no idea that we were witness to his last May Day speech. Fidel fell ill the same year and has handed over his responsibilities to others leaders of the Cuban revolution.

In Havana, Alireza had an opportunity to visit notable political and cultural sites, including the Museo de la Revolucion (Museum of the Revolution).  He also visited Cienfuegos and Trinidad in central western Cuba and Vinales in northwest.  In Cienfuegos we stayed with my colleague and friend Antonio Armas, professor of philosophy.  In Vinales, we roomed with a humble family that I knew that operated a Casa Particular (bed and breakfast). On a Sunday, Alireza spent a day in Varadero, a world famous beach resort.  I have a photo of him fast sleep while getting a massage on the beach. I jokingly threatened to post the photo on the Internet so everybody could see him indulge in a “bourgeois moment” in Cuba.  It is almost unavoidable not to enjoy great Cuba music when in Havana.  In particular, Alireza liked the song Commendante Che Guevara. Wherever we went and there was a group playing music, he asked for this song. On his request, a friend of mine Dr. Rosa Jimenez translated the lyrics for him into English.

During these three weeks, I got to know Alireza better personally and politically. I found him a compassionate man with a tender side that was not cultivated and that he almost aimed to hide. He suffered from mood swings that he attributed to the change in his blood sugar levels due to diabetes.

In Vinales, he woke up one day in a sour, agitated mood wanting to return to Britain early.  He said that he was “exploiting” Juana, the woman who ran the bed and breakfast and worked hard from early in the morning to late at night, to accommodate us and her own family.  After breakfast, his mood improved and he changed his mind about going back early. That evening, he was a different person, drinking rum and having fun with the family and our neighbors who held a farewell party for the two of us.

I witnessed similar states of agitation a number of time.  Aside from possible physiological reasons, I think his occasional bad mood in Cuba was partially due to the disparity of what he expected to find in Cuba and what he actually came across in this short visit.

I had similar feeling the first night of my first visit to Cuba in June 1994. Then Cuba was in the depth of an economic depression caused by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the loss of trade and credit relations with the Comecon countries.

Supporters of the Cuban revolution who have never been to the island often have a romantic and rather static idea of a good society that matches to some extent with their preferred abstract model of “socialism.”  However, Cuban is a society in transition to socialism and still carries many problems inherent from the past or caused by current intervening factors.  An astute socialist observer would place the present-day Cuba in its historical context and judge its achievement and problems in relation to historical tasks the revolution aimed to tackle and extent to which it has succeeded in doing so.  She would also examine if and how Cuban working people have organized themselves to meet these challenges.  In short, without a proper methodology that should be historically informed and theoretical developed, it is easy to get discouraged with sometimes painful detail of the great social experiment we call the Cuban revolution. [v] 

Alireza and I discussed these issues a number of times.  At one point, I shared with him my own understanding of the history of socialism in Cuba. He seemed interested to learn more.

Surprisingly, we talked little about our experiences in the Iranian Trotskyist movement. He did not seem knowledgeable about this history and I felt it was more important to talk to Alireza about more immediate issues in our short time together. Instead, I began a discussion with him about ecological socialism and my newly discovered love and respect for all beings and the Earth.  Alireza and I continued this discussion on and off.  He was interested and I believe he would have considered himself an ecological socialist had he lived longer and read more about it. From time to time, he publicized the ecosocialist blog I initiated and edit, Our Place in the World.

*     *     *

More than anything else Alireza was a socialist organizer.  He was good in getting people together to work on a common political project.  However, at times I found his methods objectionable.  For example, soon after our return from Cuba, Alireza asked me to present my study of the history of the Cuban socialist movement leading to the formation of the present-day Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) at an Ethehad-e Sosialist-ha forum.  After much hesitation, I gave in.  He served as the moderator for the event.  After my presentation, Alireza announced that he wants to share some of his observations from our trip to Cuba. Obviously, this opened up an entirely different topic of discussion.  Neither the history of the Cuban socialist movement nor the current situation in Cuba was adequately discussed as a result. He put me in such binds a number of other times—I am not sure why. But I figure he meant well.

At the same time, I criticized Alireza mercilessly. Last summer, I had chided him for circulating an unsigned accusation about supposed cozy relation of Mehrangiz Kar, a reform-minded Iranian attorney, with “CIA institutions.”  The list included some bourgeois think-tanks and even a few Ivy League universities, such as Harvard University. I reminded him of the Stalinist slander campaigns and why we as the Trotskyist movement opposed them.  After this conversation, Alireza stopped contacting me for more than a month.  I was in Costa Rica that he Skyped me.  When I responded, he warmly asked: “How are you Old Man?”  We were again best of friends!  Lately, he was calling me the Old Man; I am not sure why. He was only 4 years younger.
*     *     *
Alireza was a valuable revolutionary socialist. Perhaps, he was fortunate to get close enough to the Iranian Trotskyist movement to benefit from its political legacy without getting involved in its factional struggles.  He was one of the few active Iranian socialists I know that had a good command of the history of Bolshevism, the Russian revolution and its aftermath.  He was the only one I know that actively worked to promote this literature among Iranians by supporting translators, holding forums, and lately through Saamane No.  In this sense, he was the last Iranian Trotskyist.  There are no others today and pressing ecological crisis in a globalize world requires a shift of paradigms, from socialism to ecological socialism. My conversations with Alireza convinced me that he too was aware of this necessary and challenging advance in theory, program, strategy and tactic. 

After I learned about Alireza’s death, I wrote to some of our common friends in Cuba. Fernando Funes Monzote, a second generation Cuban agroecologist, who was our host in Havana for a few days wrote back:

“It is very sad to see how he passes away so soon. But we will never forget his warm and charming character, his contagious smile and proximity with our feelings. In my memory I will stay with him drinking in the glass of friendship in the dining room of our house but crossing the borders of countries all over the world. He will be always in our thoughts as ephemeral but very meaningful and inspiring friendship.”

[i] “Trotskyism” was a slanderous charge Stalin and other opponents used to discredit Trotsky’s defense of Lenin’s revolutionary heritage.  However, like the term “Marxism” that Marx himself disowned, “Trotskyism” became widely used even if Trotsky saw himself mainly as the leading proponent of Bolshevism after Lenin.

[ii] Those of us in the United States looked up to the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) with its origin in the early Communist Party that joined the Third International founded in 1919.

At the time, the SWP and some other parties in the Fourth International had formed the Leninist Trotskyist Faction (LTF) to fight against the newly adopted “strategy of guerrilla warfare in Latin America” favored by the International Majority Tendency (IMT) led by Ernest Mandel (Belgium), Pierre Frank (France), and Livio Maitin (Italy).

The LTF leadership argued that IMT is bending to the ultra-left guerrilla movement in Latin America and is replacing the “strategy of Leninist party building” with a focus of the working class and mass movement with the armed struggle tactic elevated to strategy that focused on a handful of Latin American guerrilla groups. The factional contentions spread to other issues.

By the mid-1970s, these Latin American guerrilla groups were either in disarray or had abandoned the Fourth International. The IMT conceded to committing an error. The 1979 World Congress turned attention of the Fourth International to the world capitalist crisis. Anticipating mass radicalization of labor movement, it called for a turn to industrial unions.
[iii] The HKS split along the old factional lines in the summer of 1979.  It resulted in two new parties—one headed by Hormoz Rahimian that maintained the old name (HKS) and another headed by Babak Zahraie named Hezb-e Kargaran-e Enghlabi (HKE). In 1980, two factions from HKE and one faction from KHS were expelled. These united after a process of written discussion and democratically held convention in early 1981 in the Workers’ Unity Party (HVK)
[iv] The visit was structured around my program of conferences, meetings, and research activities in conformity with the U.S. regulations.  As opposed to the rest of the world, American citizens and residents are barred from visiting Cuba except under restrictive rules. All my visits to Cuba were allowed due to their scholarly nature related to my academic work.
[v] I noticed the contrast in Alireza’s approach to the Cuba revolution and that of Yadullah that I have related in another essay I wrote about him after his death last year (see Arash March 2010).  Yadullah, a lifetime oil worker and labor leader, initially was suspicious of the condition of Cuban workers. He had learned about the condition of workers in the Soviet Union and other “socialist” countries and expected to find a similar situation in Cuba.  The visit with Yadullah was on the invitation of the confederation of Cuban workers  (CTC).  It quickly familiarized Yadullah with life in Cuba’s workplaces where he met with and talked to Cuban trade unionists.  He truly enjoyed his visit and often times told me how he wished the Iranian workers had a similar measure of power as the Cuban workers.

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