The Loneliest Revolution: Intellectualising the lead-up to 1979 Iran

The Loneliest Revolution: Intellectualising the lead-up to 1979 Iran
Book Club: Ali Mirsepassi's memoir is an account of the convulsed years leading up to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Through Ali's testimony, we learn how jostling political contests ended up dividing a seemingly unified revolutionary movement.
6 min read
02 August, 2023
A memoir of life in Iran in the tumultuous years leading up to the 1979 revolution [Edinburgh University Press]

Jacques Mallet du Pan, a journalist and propagandist born in what is now Switzerland, wrote in 1793 that "like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children." Mallet du Pan was reflecting on the French Revolution and the tragic fate of many of the revolutionaries that made it possible.

It is not clear whether Ali Mirsepassi, an Iranian-American sociologist and political scientist at New York University, can be considered a child of the Iranian Revolution.

After all, his political activism in the years before 1979 was not only aimed at ending Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s rule. It also sought to ensure that the fundamentalism of Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers would not carry the day after the Shah’s downfall.

"The Loneliest Revolution can be defined as an intellectual and political autobiography. Mirsepassi’s first-hand experience of the convulsed years leading to the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution, in combination with his scholarly erudition, make him a unique witness and analyst of a revolution the consequences of which reverberate up to the present day"

What is clear, though, is that Mirsepassi was almost devoured by the revolution. As he explains in his recently published memoirs, The Loneliest Revolution: A Memoir of Solidarity and Struggle in Iran, in October 1978 he was stabbed twenty-one times by Khomeini loyalists after he openly contested the Ayatollah’s calls to temporarily halt student mobilizations against the Shah.

He was found by a group of children on the outskirts of Tehran and taken to the hospital. As soon as he recovered, he left for the United States, where he would watch on TV the return of Khomeini to Iran. Mirsepassi explains that he was “far more enthusiastic about the revolution a year before it succeeded than when it happened.”

The author never clearly explains what he means by the concept of The Loneliest RevolutionIt is reasonable to understand it as a reference to how he experienced the culmination of the revolution, thousands of kilometres away from home and his revolutionary companions.

But the title could also have a more general dimension. Although in an atmosphere dominated by mutual mistrust, Khomeini’s followers had been battling the Shah for years in a tacit alliance with the secular left. With the Pahlavi state on the brink of collapse, Khomeini loyalists decided to go the last mile alone and consolidate power on their own and for their own, leaving behind the secular left Mirsepassi identified with. The months preceding and succeeding the overthrow of the Shah were chaotic ones, but factions loyal to Khomeini soon exerted control on the streets.

Mirsepassi’s memoirs culminate in 1979 but start with his early childhood in the 1950s. The son of a public servant employed by the Finance Ministry, Mirsepassi’s family would often move from city to city following the father’s career. There was never a place Mirsepassi could properly call home.

In the book, Iran’s history easily interweaves with the author’s personal experiences. The Iran of Mirsepassi’s youth was undergoing what the author calls a “rushed modernization.” Part of this modernization process consisted of expanding the reach of the state into every corner of Iran, an effort to which Mirsepassi’s father contributed. Mirsepassi grew up in small cities, moving from Dorud to Nahavand and then to Golpayegan, in central Iran.

In this latter city, where he visited high school, Mirsepassi was exposed to a range of intellectual influences from his teachers. There were Mr. Eshraghi and Mr. Amjadi, dogmatic Marxists who found Mirsepassi’s favourite novels full of “naivety and sentimentalism” and recommended he read Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution.’ And there was also Mr. Tavakol, whose classes consisted of listening to the recorded lectures of Mohammad Taghi Falsafi, a campaigner against the Shah and promoter of conspiracy theories and attacks against the Baha’is. 

The Baha’i Faith is a religion with a strong presence in Iran, where it has historically suffered from prosecution, especially under the Islamic Republic. It was around this time in Mirsepassi’s life that a teacher from another high school took advantage of the young student’s intellectual curiosity and willingness to engage in opposition to the Shah. The teacher invited Mirsepassi to a secretive meeting, which he quickly abandoned once he discovered it was dedicated to planning an attack against a Baha’i family inspired by the bigotry of Falsafi’s speeches.

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Mirsepassi moved to Tehran in 1970 and initiated his graduate studies at the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Tehran University. Having been influenced by both religious radicalism and leftist activism until then, he felt he could no longer delay the moment of his political self-definition. He decided to “take (…) a stand and join the secular left.” Still, what transpires from Mirsepassi’s political and intellectual trajectory in the next decade as described by himself is that he was no friend of dogmas.

In some of the Marxist groups he joined, he would resent the disregard for non-Marxist authors Mirsepassi had previously encountered in Mr. Eshraghi and Mr. Amjadi, his high school teachers.

It must be noted that in 1970s Iran before these ideological nuances would become unacceptable, Marxism and Islamism were not necessarily two opposite ideological poles. Mirsepassi did not hold a favourable opinion of the Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati, as he suspected him of either using Marxism instrumentally in the service of Islamism or the other way around. Still, Shariati, with his synthesis of Marxism and Islamism, was arguably the most influential thinker of the pre-revolutionary period.

Mirsepassi contests the widespread narrative according to which Iranian liberals and leftists were under a trance in the run-up to the Shah’s downfall, backing Khomeini and inadvertently contributing to the emergence of an Islamic Republic that clashed with their vision of post-revolutionary Iran. Mirsepassi explains that the secular left groups he belonged to had from early on serious worries “about religious activists who had at their disposal resources we did not dream of.”

The Shah’s repression, embodied by the SAVAK, his secret police, targeted all kinds of opponents to the Pahlavi regime. However, left-wing political activists were treated with particular severity. The mosques often represented a safe haven for the Islamist opposition, which was able to widely distribute tapes of Khomeini’s lectures from exile. As British historian Vanessa Martin has remarked, “the suppression of the left created an opportunity for Shi’i Islamism”.


The Loneliest Revolution is not devoid of self-criticism on Mirsepassi’s part regarding what the secular left could have done differently at different steps of the way.

For instance, Mirsepassi regrets their almost single-minded focus on denouncing the wrongdoings of the Pahlavi state. While this was necessary, in his opinion the secular left failed to, first, appraise its own strengths and weaknesses and second, design and communicate how it would shape the post-revolutionary future.

When the revolution arrived, remarks Mirsepassi, he felt “the secular left fading from the political scene, too absorbed in its own issues and too disconnected from its history to conceive a way forward.”

The Loneliest Revolution can be defined as an intellectual and political autobiography. Mirsepassi’s first-hand experience of the convulsed years leading to the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution, in combination with his scholarly erudition, make him a unique witness and analyst of a revolution the consequences of which reverberate up to the present day.

Marc Martorell Junyent is a graduate of International Relations and holds an MA in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society from the University of Tübingen (Germany). He has been published in the London School of Economics Middle East BlogMiddle East MonitorInside ArabiaResponsible Statecraft and Global Policy

Follow him on Twitter: @MarcMartorell3