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.


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Volume 51, Issue 4 - Serial Number 4
February 2022
Pages 1091-1063
  • Receive Date: 23 October 2020
  • Revise Date: 11 June 2021
  • Accept Date: 10 April 2022
  • First Publish Date: 10 April 2022