Daily Archives: 1 December 2005

Iranian Maoists in Oklahoma in the 1970s

Softskull Press‘s website offers a downloadable sample chapter of Paul Berman’s new book, Power and the Idealists (2005). The chapter is entitled “The Muslim World and the American Left.” One of the people it discusses is Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Nafisi is an Iranian, and she grew up in the gilded districts of Tehran under the shah during the nineteen-fifties and sixties—the daughter of Tehran’s mayor (though he ended up in jail, a matter of pride for the family), with distinguished and cultured ancestors tracing back eight hundred years. Somebody might object that, with her glorious background, Nafisi can hardly be regarded as typical of her part of the world. But who is typical of anything? The medieval ancestry might suggest, at the least, that here is someone with a sharp eye for Iranian traditions. Nafisi went abroad to study—and this, surely, was a typical thing to do, for the educated elite in what used to be called the Third World. She studied in Switzerland and Britain until the serendipities of life and love brought her, in the nineteen-seventies, to the University of Oklahoma, at Norman. She explored American literature at Norman—the only foreign student in the department. The American New Left was at high tide, and Oklahoma did not escape its many currents. All over the American university system in the seventies, clever left-wing students were organizing study groups to pore over the texts of Marx, Lenin, Mao, Lukacs, Debray, and the Frankfurt School—the alternative syllabus of the world of Marxism. These groups formed at Norman, too, and Nafisi took her place among them….

Student leftism back home in Iran grew noisier and more militant over the course of the seventies, agitating against the shah. The shah’s secret police, the Savak, cracked down, and students were killed in terrible massacres. And, as these grisly events took place far away in Iran, the Iranian students in America likewise grew noisier and more militant, and marched in picket lines that, as I remember well (from observing a demonstration in New York, not Oklahoma), were weirdly vehement, radiant with violence, and slightly mysterious, too, with the marchers’ faces wrapped in scarves to conceal their identities from the agents of the Savak and the FBI. Iranian students were especially active at Norman. They were fervent for Maoism. They hung out in the Norman student union, sipping coffee and Coke, and declaiming in favor of Stalin and, as Nafisi remembers, “the need to destroy once and for all the Trotskyites, the White Guards, the termites and poisonous rats who were bent on destroying the revolution.” This, too, expressed the spirit of the age….

In 1979 the revolution broke out for real—not in Oklahoma but in Iran. Nafisi completed her dissertation … [and] set out for Tehran—she and a good many other Iranian radicals, full of enthusiasm for the revolution and for their own opportunity to play a role. The Tehran airport was bedecked with slogans written in black and red: DEATH TO AMERICA! DOWN WITH IMPERIALISM & ZIONISM. She took a position as a professor of literature at University of Tehran, where the Marxists were especially strong. And yet, in those early days after the shah’s overthrow, to be alive was not necessarily bliss, nor was it Heaven to be young. The revolution came to power because Ayatollah Khomeini and his radical Islamists put together a broad front with the Iranian Communist Party (the Tudeh) and the Marxist Fedayin Organization, together with a couple of popular organizations that favored liberal democracy, and the mixture of mosques, Marxists, and liberals turned out to be powerful. The shah fled for his life. But Khomeini and his mullahs stood at the head of this absurdly wide United Front, and, once the mullahs had succeeded in establishing the United Front’s revolutionary government, they and their Marxist allies turned against the liberals and crushed them. Then the Islamists turned against the Marxists. A battle for control of the university and of every institution of Iranian life got underway—mullahs against Marxists and everyone else. And the Islamist victory, as it crept across the landscape, turned out to be dreadful.

Berman writes in a very blunt, engaging, and often poignant style, but everything he writes has the flavor of an epitaph.

Leave a comment

Filed under Iran

Hari on Berman’s Power and the Idealists

In last Sunday’s New York Times Review of Books, Johann Hari reviews Paul Berman’s latest book, Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer, and its Aftermath (Soft Skull Press, 2005), about the ideological split in the generation of ’68 captured by Hari’s title, “The Red and the Green.”

In the years since 1968, the New Left had acquired a sepia glow, with nostalgia mopping up any blood and broken teeth. Now the old conservative criticism – that 1968 and its children staged a thuggish, apolitical tantrum, with no lasting legacy – resurfaced.

If anyone can put this dispute into its historical context, it’s Berman. He is not only an alumnus of the rebellion; he is the keeper of its yearbook and its funeral director. In this free-standing sequel to his superb “Tale of Two Utopias,” he revisits the European graduating class of Rebellion High.

Behind those horrible images [of Joschka Fischer beating a policeman], Berman explains, lies a complex history. These self-styled revolutionaries were the children of a Europe that had failed to resist fascism. Their parents had lowered their gaze and sleepwalked in a Europe littered with gas chambers. So, for this generation, “the way to judge anyone’s moral character … was to pose a hypothetical question…. To wit, what would you have done, in France under the German occupation?” …

Liberal democracy (and capitalism, and Zionism) became, to them, cunning veils for a new Hitler. So when, during the Munich Olympics of 1972, the Palestinian Black September cell murdered 11 Israeli athletes, Ulrike Meinhof (along with much of the radical left) declared herself thrilled. And the deformations of morality multiplied. In 1976, a group called the Revolutionary Cells hijacked a plane, flew it to Entebbe in Uganda, and separated the passengers: Jews and non-Jews. The Jews – “capitalists” and “Zionists” – were selected for death. The leader turned out to be a man named Wilfried Böse, who was much admired on the Frankfurt left. Fischer knew him well. This was the point of Fischer’s desillusionierung.

As Fischer was retreating from his police-beating days, a string of soixante-huitard European intellectuals began to use the vocabulary of the New Left to create nothing less than a political philosophy opposed to all dictatorship, everywhere. Waving his copy of Solzhenitsyn, the French philosopher André Glucksmann tossed a dynamite-packed question to his New Left comrades. If we want to resist every variant of Hitlerism and every streak of authoritarianism, he asked, might we not at least recognize it in the empire to our east, where 20 million people have died in gulags and free speech is a cruel joke?

The conservative pessimists jeered, claiming Glucksmann would be left alone and humiliated. But slowly, steadily, many of the most famous children of 1968 rallied to his side, from Daniel Cohn-Bendit (“Danny the Red”) to Bernard-Henri Lévy. Berman argues that – at this moment – the spirit of the rebellions solidified into its most enduring form: an antitotalitarianism of the liberal-left….

This antitotalitarian ’68 went on to shape the actions of European governments at a turning point for the continent. In the 1990’s, it was the soixante-huitards – now close to the chancelleries and palaces of much of Europe – who led the fight against the New Left’s old fascist enemy when it emerged in the form of Serbian ultranationalism. When a program of ethnic extermination began just two days’ drive from Auschwitz, it was the old barricadier Joschka Fischer who made Germany’s wrenching involvement – its first lurch into postpacificism – possible, explaining to a shocked audience of fellow Greens, “I learned not only ‘No more war’ but also ‘No more Auschwitz.'” In Europe at least, Kosovo was the New Left’s war – the street fight against fascism now directed against a target worthy of the name.

via Cliopatria

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe, philosophy