Marxist Historiography and the Characteristics of Society and State in Pre-Modern Iran

Document Type : Research Paper


Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran


The Orthodox Marxism approach is one of the main perspectives of analyzing Iranian history from the modern social sciences point of view. The Marxist scholars have sought to understand the logic of Iran's historical transformations based on Marx's theory of Historical Materialism. The main objective of this article is to present a critical investigation of the formation of this approach and identify the main themes of Marxist analysis of Iranian history. The main research questions are as follows: 1. What are the main characteristics of Marxist understanding of Iranian history? 2. What is Marxist scholars’ perception of the characteristics of society and state in Iranian feudalism? 3. What are the merits and weaknesses of this approach for evaluating the history of Iran? In the hypothesis, it is asserted that Marxist scholars based on the general theory of Marx's historical materialism believed that Iran, like other societies, had experienced the primitive communism modes of production, slavery, feudalism, and capitalism, although, in each period, the general characteristics of modes of production had been combined with the specific characteristics of Iranian society, which had led to the formation of the “Iranian” type. Although Marxist explanations and analyses are considerably richer than those of their historical theoretical rival (i.e., the theory of Oriental Despotism), the inadequacy of the Marxist theory prevents it from being a satisfactory and wide-ranging guide for understanding the history of Iran.
The findings of the present study are summarized as follows: the use of the Marxist approach to analyze the history of Iran dates back to the post-constitutional period and the beginning of Reza Shah’s reign (1925-1941). However, the most prominent scholars of this tradition included a group of Soviet academicians. Following the translation of this group’s works and the post-1941 dominance of the left’s discourse in the Iranian intellectual space, the Orthodox Marxist analysis gradually became the dominant approach of analysis of Iranian history until the early 1980s. According to these scholars, Iran, like all societies, has experienced the primitive communism modes of production, slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. However, during each period, the general characteristics of modes of production had been combined with the specific characteristics of Iranian society, and the Iranian particular type had been formed. Therefore, these researchers sought to identify the "general" and "specific" characteristics of the Iranian state and society during the above-mentioned four periods.
Focusing on understanding Marxist scholars' perceptions of the characteristics of society and the state in the period of "Iranian feudalism", the paper showed that in the group’s works 20 characteristics for the Iranian society and 11 characteristics for the Iranian state have been identified. The notable features emphasized in this analysis of pre-modern history of Iran include the domination of subsistence agriculture and social relations based on feudal exploitation, the diversity of forms of land ownership, the existence of a distinct class structure, the description of the state as a tool of the feudal class, the cycle of strengthening state ownership of land at the early stages of the establishment of the state and its weakening and disintegration due to the transfer of Iqta, the decentralized model of imperial administration, the repetitive pendulum of centralism-feudal separatism, the perception of the status of mūlūk al-tawā’if as evolved feudalism, the perception of social movements as class struggles. Such characteristics are fundamentally in conflict with the characteristics that Oriental Despotism theorists consider as the characteristics of Iranian state and society. However, the article showed that a group of Iranian Marxist scholars have attempted to include the themes of the theory of Oriental Despotism to explain Iranian feudalism.
Based on his critical evaluation of the contributions of the Marxist analytical approach to study the history of Iran, the author concludes that this tradition had analytical advantages compared with the rival theory of Oriental Despotism, because of its consideration of historical dynamics, rejection of  static notions as well as highlighting the activism of social forces, and taking into account the complex center-surrounding relations. Despite its merits, the Marxist analytical approach does not have the necessary requirement for a valid analysis of Iranian history, due to its weakness which include the imposition of theory on historical reality, economic reductionism, analytical Westernism, analytical contradiction in the discussion of the position of state in the social system and finally ignoring the pivotal role of tribal actors.


Anderson, Perry. (2013) Gozār az ahd-e bāstān b’feodālism (Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism), trans. Hassan Mortazavi. Tehran: Sāles. [in Persian]
Arnova, M. R.; and K. Z. Ashrafian. (1978) Nāder Shāh’s Government, trans. Hamid Amin. Tehran: Shābgir [in Persian]
Aryanpour, Amir Hossein. (1972) "Ghoftego bā mir hossein āryanpour, (A Conversation with Amir Hossein Aryanpour)," in majmoe’-ye mobāhese’hā-ye ali asghar-e zarābi (A Collection of Discussions, comp. Ali Asghar Zarabi). Tehran: Bāmdād. [in Persian]
———. (2003) "Tarhi āzmāyeshi dar shenākht-e marāhel-e tārikh-e  Īrān (Experimental Plan in Understanding the Stages of Iranian History (A Lecture Delivered at the Iranian Center of Leningrad University in 1965)," Ketāb-e toseʿ (Development Book) 12: 45-53.  [in Persian]
Bottomore, Tom; et al. (2009) Farhang-e andishe’hā-ye mārxisti (Dictionary of Marxist Thought), trans. Akbar Masoum Beigi. Tehran: Bāztāb Negār. [in Persian]
Belyaev, E. A. (1978/2536) “Ghiyām-e zangiān dar rozegār-e abāsi (The Zanj Rebellion in the Abbasid Era),” in Ce maghāleh darbāreh-ye bardeghi (Three Articles on Slavery), trans. Sirus Izadi. Tehran: Amir Kabir [in Persian]
Cronin, Stephanie. (2015) “Edward Said, Russian Orientalism and Soviet Iranology,” Iranian Studies 48, 5: 647-662, <DOI:10.1080/00210862.2015. 1058633>.
Da Graca, Laura; and Andrea Zingarelli. (2105) “Introduction to Studies on Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production: Debates, Controversies and Lines of Argument,” in Laura da Graca and Andrea Zingarelli, eds. Studies on Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.
Dandamayev, Muhammad A. (2010) Tārikh-e siyāsi-e hakhāmaneshi (A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire), trans. Farid Javaherkalam. Tehran: Fārzān Rooz. [in Persian]
———. (1984) Slavery in Babylonia- from Nebopolassar to Alexander the Great (626- 331 B.C). Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press.
Diakonoff, Igor M. (1966) Tārikh-e Mād (The History of Medes from the Earliest Times until the end of the 4th Century), trans. Karim Keshavarz. Tehran: Bongāh-e Tarjomeh va Nashr-e Ketāb. [in Persian]
———. (1972) Ashkāniān (Parthian). Tehran: Payām. [in Persian]
Draper, Hal. (2003) Nazarieh-ye Enghelāb-e mārx (Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution) Vol. 1 State and Bureaucracy, trans. Hassan Shamsavari. Tehran: Markaz. [in Persian]
Dunn, Stephen P. (1989) Soghot va shive-ye tolid-e āsiyāi (The Fall and Rise of the Asiatic Mode of Production), trans. Abbas Mokhber. Tehran: Markaz [in Persian]
Engels, Frederick. (1989) “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels Collected Works: Vol. 24, 1874-1883. New York: International Publishers.
Ensafpour, Gholamreza. (1977/2535) Tārikh-e zendegi-ye eghtesā-ye rostāiyān va tabaghāt-e ejtemāʿi-ye Īrān (History of Economic Life of Villagers and Social Classes of Iran). Tehran: Andisheh. [in Persian]
Fashahi, Mohammad Reza. (1975) Az gāt’hā tā mashrotiyat: gozāreshi az tahavolāt-e fekri va ejtemāʿi dar jāmeʿeh-ye feodāli Īrān (From the Gathas to the Constitutional Revolution: A Report on Intellectual and Social Transformations in Feudal Society of Iran). Tehran: Gutenberg. [in Persian]
———. (1978) Vāpasin jonbesh-e ghoron-e vostā-i dar dorān-e feudāl (The Last Medieval Movement in the Feudal Era). Tehran: Javidan. [in Persian]
Foran, John. (2001) Moghāvemat-e shekanandeh: Tārikh-e tahavolāt-e ejtemāʿi Īrān (Fragile Resistance: Social Transformation in Iran from 1500 to the Revolution), trans. Ahmad Tadayon. Tehran: Rasā. [in Persian]
Giddens, Anthony. (1981) A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism: Vol. 1 Power, Property and the State. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Grantovskiĭ, Edvin A.; et al. (1980) Tārikh-e Īrān az rozegār-e bāstān tā emroz (History of Iran; from Ancient Times to the Present), trans. Kaykhosrow Keshavarzi. Tehran: Morvārid. [in Persian]
Halliday, Fred. (1979) Dictātory va toseʿ dar Īrān (Iran: Dictatorship and Development), trans. Fazlollah Nikayin. Tehran: Amir Kabir. [in Persian]
Hindess, Barry; and Paul Hirst. (1977) Mode of Production and Social Formation: An Auto-Critique of Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hobsbawm, Eric. (2019) Darbāreh-e Tārikh (On History), trans. Hassan Mortazavi. Tehran: Lahita. [in Persian]
Ivanov, Mikhail S. (1978) Tārikh-e novin-e Īrān (Modern History of Iran), trans. Houshang Tizabi and Hassan Ghaempanah. Tehran: Tudeh Party. [in Persian]
———. (1978) Enghelāb-e mashrotiyāt-e Īrān (The Constitutional Revolution of Iran), trans. Kazem Ansari. Tehran: Jibi Books. [in Persian]
Jazani, Bijan. (1980) Nabard bā dictātory-e shāh b’masābeh-ye niro-ye omdeh-ye emperiālism va zhandārm-e mantagheh (Fighting the Shah's Dictatorship as the Driving Force of Imperialism and Regional Gendarme). Tehran: Māzyār. [in Persian]
———. (2009) Enghelāb-e mashrotiyāt-e Īrān; niro’hā va hadaf’hā (Iranian Constitutional Revolution; Forces and Goals). Paris: The Union of People's Fedāiān of Iran. [in Persian]
Katouzian, Homa. (1994) Eghtesād-e siyāsi-ye  Īrān (The Political Economy of Modern Iran), trans. Mohammad Reza Nafisi and Kambiz Azizi. Tehran: Markaz. [in Persian]
Kazemi, Hojjat. (2021, Fall-Winter) “Nazarieh-e estebdād-e sharghi va māhiyat-e dolat va jāmeʿeh dar Īrān-e pishā’modern (The Theory of Oriental Despotism and Nature of State and Society in the Pre-Modern Iran),” Faslnāmeh-ye Siyāsat Nazari (Research in Theoretical Politics) 28, 12:  329-367. .
Kemper, Michael. (2011) “Introduction: Integrating Soviet Oriental Studies,” in Michael Kemper and Stephan Conermann, eds. The Heritage of Soviet Oriental Studies. London: Routledge.
Khonji, Mohammad Ali. (n.d.) Baresi-ye tārikh-e mād va manshaʿe nazarieh-ye diyākof (A Study on the History of Mede and the Origin of Diakonov's Theory). Tehran: Hekmat. [in Persian]
Kuznetsova, Nina A.; et al. (2003) Pajohesh-hā’i pirāmon-e Tārikh-e novin-e Īrān (Research on the Modern History of Iran), trans. Sirus Izadi and Mitradat Izadi. Tehran: Varjāvand. [in Persian]
Lukonin, Vladimir G. (1971) Tamadon-e Īrān-e sasāni (Culture of Sasanian Iran: Iran in the 3rd-5th Centuries CE), trans. Enayat-ollah Reza, Tehran: Bongāh-e Tarjomeh va Nashr-e Ketāb. [in Persian]
Marx, Karl; Friedrich Engels. (2007) Ludwig feuerbāch va ideology-ye ālmāni (Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy), trans. Parviz Babaei. Tehran: Cheshmeh. [in Persian]
Marx, Karl. (1999) Grundrisse: mabāni-ye naghd-e eghtesād-e siyāsi (Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy), trans. Baqer Parham and Ahmad Tadayon. Tehran: Agah, Vol. 1. [in Persian]
Nomani, Farhad. (1979) Takāmol-e feudālism dar Īrān (The Evolution of Feudalism in Iran). Tehran: Khārazmi. [in Persian]
Petrushevsky, Ilya P. (1965) Keshāvarzi va monāsebāt-e arzi dar Īrān (Agriculture and Land Relations in Mongol Iran), trans. Karim Keshavarz. Tehran: The Institute of Social Studies and Research, Vol. 2. [in Persian]
———. (1972) Nehzat-e sarbedārān-e khorāsān (The Sarbedaran Movement), trans. Karim Keshavarz. Tehran: Payām. [in Persian]
———. (1975) Eslām dar Īrān (Islam in Iran in the 7th-15th Centuries), trans. Karim Keshavarz. Tehran: Payām [in Persian]
———. (1978) “Pirāmon-e Tārikh-e bardegi dar khalāfat-e tāziān (On the History of Slavery in the Arab Caliphate),” in Ce maghāleh darbāreh-ye bardeghi (Three Articles on Slavery), trans. Sirus Izadi. Tehran: Amir Kabir. [in Persian]
———. (1980) Īrān’shenāsi dar shoravi (Iranian Studies in the Soviet Union), trans. Yaghoob Azhand. Tehran: Niloofar. [in Persian]
Pigulevskaia, Nina; et al. (1974) Tārikh-e Īrān, az dorān-e bāstān tā payān-e sadeheh hejdahom-e milādi (History of Iran, from Ancient Era to the end of the 18th Century A.D), trans. Karim Keshavarz. Tehran: Payām. [in Persian]
Pigulevskaia, Nina. (1993a) Arāb hodod-e marzhā-ye rome’sharghi va Īrān (The Arabs on the Borders of Eastern Rome and Iran), trans. Enayat-ollah Reza, Tehran: Institute of Cultural Studies and Research. [in Persian]
———. (1993b) Shahr’hā-ye Īrān dar rozegār- pārtiān va Sāsāniān (Cities of Iran in Parthian and Sasanian Periods), trans. Enayat-ollah Reza, Tehran: Elmi va Farhangi. [in Persian]
Quliyev, Ali Ovset. (2009) History of Azerbaijan , trans. Hossein Mohammadzadeh Siddiq. Tabriz: Yārān. [in Persian]
Rasulzade, Mahammad Amin. (1982) “Tanfiz-e fergheh-e etedāliun bā ejtemāʿiun āmiyon (The Critic of the Party of Etidaliyyun (Moderate),” in Mansoureh Ettehadieh (Nezam Mafi), ed. Marām’nāme’ha va Nezām’nāmeh-ye Ahzāb-i Siyāsi-ye Īrān dar Duvvumin Dawreh-i Majlis-i. Shu'rā-yi Milli (Political Party Codes of Conduct and Instructions in 2nd National Consultative Assembly). Tehran: Tārikh‐e Īrān. [in Persian]
Ravasani, Shapour. (2009) Dolat va hokomat dar Īrān dar doreh-e tasalot-e estemār-e sarmāyedāri (State and Government in Iran during the Period of Capitalist Colonial Domination). Tehran: Amir Kabir. [in Persian]
Rodionov, Mikhail. (2011) “Profiles under Pressure: Orientalists in Petrograd/ Leningrad, 1918–1956,” in Michael Kemper and Stephan Conermann, eds. The Heritage of Soviet Oriental Studies. London: Routledge.
Shakeri, Khosrow; et al. (2004) Naghsh-e arāmaneh dar sosiyāl democrāsi-e Īrān (The Role of Armenians in the Social Democracy of Iran, 1905-1911), ed. Mohammad Hossein Khosropanah. Tehran: Shirāzeh. [in Persian]
Sodagar, Mohammad Reza. (1980) Nezām-e arbāb-raʿiāti dar Īrān (The Lord- Servant System in Iran). Tehran: Pāzand. [in Persian]
———. (1990) Roshd-e ravābet-e sarmāyeh’dāri dar Īrān (The Growth of Capitalist Relations in Iran, the Expansion Phase, 1963 to 1979). Tehran: Shole-ye Andishe . [in Persian]
Soltan-zadeh, Avetis (2004) Enkeshāf-e eghtesādi-ye Īrān va emperiālism-e engelestān (Economic Development of Iran and British Imperialism), trans. F. Koosha, Tehran: Maziār. [in Persian]
Tabari, Ehsan. (1979) Shemeh’ī  darbāreh-e Īrān va jahān (A Brief Introduction of Understanding Iran and the World). Tehran: Tudeh Party. [in Persian]
———. (1981) Īrān-e du sadeh-ye vāpasin (Iran for the Last two Centuries). Tehran: Tudeh Party. [in Persian]
———. (2001) Beyhaqi va jāmeʿeh-ye Ghaznavid (Beyhaqi and Ghaznavid Society). Berlin: Tudeh Party. [in Persian]
Vali, Abbas. (2001) Īrān-e pishā’sarmāyeh’dāri (Pre-Capitalist Iran), trans. Hassan Shamsavari. Tehran: Markaz. [in Persian]
Vardasbi, Abouzar. (1977) Elal-e kondi va nā’payvasteghi-e takāmol-e jāmeʿeh-ye feoldāli-e Īrān (Causes of Slowness and Discontinuity in the Evolution of Feudal Society in Iran). Tehran: Chāpār. [in Persian]
Volkov, Denis V. (2015, March) “Individuals, Institutions and Discourses: Knowledge and Power in Russia’s Iranian Studies of the Late Imperial, Soviet and Post-Soviet Periods,” Middle East- Topics & Arguments 4: 61-79, <DOI:10.17192/meta.2015.4.2521>.
Wheeler, Geoffrey E. (1981) “Tārihk’negāri-ye ros’hā da zamineh-ye tārikh-e novin-e Īrān (Russian Historiography in the Field of Modern Iranian History),” in Tārihk’negāri-ye  dar Īrān (Historiography in Iran), trans. Yaghoob Azhānd. Tehran: Gostareh. [in Persian]
Wood, Allen. (2007) Karl Marx, trans. Shahnaz Mosamaparast. Tehran: Ghoghnoos. [in Persian]