Unlikely Companions: From Plato to Khomeini, a Gramscian reading of the Iranian revolution and its influences


Gramsci, Khomeini, and Revolution in Iran

The success of the Iranian Revolution has changed the way Islamism is perceived. It had been the subject of many desirers and hopeful Islamist theorists to instigate and implement an Islamic government based on the traditions and laws of Islam, but until 1979 none had succeeded. One could cite Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states as being examples, but the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded as an Islamic state, and some, including Khomeini, argue that the Qur’an does not legitimize monarchies. Thus, the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran is an unprecedented example of Islamic ideology entrenching itself on the governance of a nation.

The question then arises: why was the revolution successful? What sort of factors differentiated Khomeini’s Iran from, say, Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna’s Egypt or Mawdudi’s Pakistan? One framework to examine the process of revolution itself, and apply it to the Iranian Revolution, is Antonio Gramsci’s conceptualisation of the revolutionary process as detailed in his notebooks from prison. Gramsci provides a thorough examination of what factors generate revolutionary sentiment, how that sentiment can be spread to garner support for a cause, and how that cause can turn into a revolutionary movement. By examining Gramsci’s process and inserting Khomeini’s revolution into that framework, it becomes clear that the success of Iran’s Islamic revolution was due to its meeting all of Gramsci’s standards, methods, and requirements. In fact, not only does Islamist Iran emerge as an agent of Gramscian prophecy, Gramsci himself seems to have created a systematic method that suits Islamist movements perfectly.

Gramsci and the concept of the ‘hegemon’

Gramsci’s conceptualization of the revolutionary process begins with his conceptualization of the mechanism by which the ruling, dominant class maintains power. Gramsci holds that, ‘Each individual is fundamentally influenced by the ideas of the ruling Hegemon…This influence is felt unconsciously through the hegemon’s projection of ‘common sense’.[1] Common sense, as applied by Gramsci, is intended to mean the, ‘Unquestioned acceptance of the customs, morals, and beliefs of everyday society’.[2] Through this common sense the ruling hegemon is able to manufacture consent of the masses without resorting to forces of coercion. Butko asserts, ‘As a result, the masses accept the morality, the customs, and the institutionalized rules of behavior disseminated throughout society as absolute truths that cannot or should not be questioned’.[3]

While Marx viewed the state, ‘As an exclusively coercive instrument of the ruling class’[4], Gramsci stipulates that a manufactured ‘consent’ is much more effective and continuous, simply due to the fact that the people have been fooled into believing in their own subjugation and are willing to take part in the system that ensures it. Thus:

Gramsci argues that only by exposing these supposed ‘universal truths’, and assisting the individual in rejecting this so-called ‘common sense’ conception of the world reproduced by the hegemon, can the individual assume the first step in the creation of an alternative hegemon, a new way of thinking free from the constraints of the ruling class.[5]

Islamist theorists of the twentieth century have also argued that human nature is, ‘Malleable and open to influence by the dominant forces of society’.[6] Mawdudi himself argued in The Islamic Movement:

It is clear that mankind can hardly resist moving along the road shown by those who lead, if only by virtue of the fact that leaders control all the resources, hold the reigns of power and possess the means of shaping and molding minds and behavior. They have the power to influence individuals as well as social systems and moral values.[7]

To construct a social order counter to the hegemon’s monopoly of power, Gramsci adds due weight to the ‘collective’ and group, and asserts that the foundations for unity within the group must precede the desire to overthrow the hegemon. Gramsci declares:

An historical act can only be performed by ‘collective man’ and this presupposes the attainment of a ‘cultural-social unity’ through which a multiplicity of dispersed will, with heterogeneous aims, are welded together with a single aim, on the basis of an equal and common conception of the world.[8]

This is where the Islamic experience begins to show its comfort in Gramsci’s revolutionary process. For, though they may not begin as a collected and organized social unit, marginalized and disenchanted Muslims within a society already have the common grounds on which their link as a movement can be based. In fact, there are two links in the Islamist perspective that unite the Muslims of any social order; the first being their identity as Muslims, and the second being their supposed marginalization by colonial and post-colonial powers, which emerged as a key factor in the success of mobilizing Islamist social movements in the Middle East.

‘In applying Gramsci’s framework to the principal contemporary Islamic theorists, there is a clear similarity in aims and tactics…There is common belief in the need to overthrow the ruling elites and to destroy the socio-political order on which their power and legitimacy is based’.[9] The Islamists mobilisation, notably Khomeini, followed the process outlined by Gramsci’s conceptualisation of the revolutionary process and the structure it must follow to reach success.

The Construction of Ideology and Cause

We see Khomeini approach the concept of Islamic government, and its need, through a Gramscian framework. Gramsci ‘focuses on the role of ideology as a tool to unify divergent interests’.[10] Within the context of Islam, the unifying ideology is already present; all that is needed is the implementation of its principles and system, which the hegemon is preventing, through systems of ‘consent’ and ‘common sense’. Khomeini, then, becomes the agent that is generating the new consciousness; bringing the people to an Islamic awakening. And as Butko reaffirms, ‘The actual world-view and the type of State projected by the revolutionary bloc must be primarily conceived through its opposition to the ruling hegemon’. This fits in well with the Islamist perspective as, being that all Islamist’s calls for an establishing of an Islamic state emerge out of a society that has adopted Western practices, cultures and institutions, the Islamic state becomes the antithesis to the Western state, both in practice and in ideology. Butko continues, ‘A central feature of Islam, as a political ideology, is that it is conceived as both self-sufficient and autonomous in its ability to address and rectify all the contemporary problems confronted by modern Muslim societies’.[11] This is reaffirmed by Khomeini, who declares:

The ratio of Qur’anic verses concerned with the affairs of society to those concerned with ritual worship is greater than a hundred to one. Of the approximately fifty sections of the corpus of hadith containing all the ordinances of Islam, not more than three or four sections relate to matters of ritual worship and the duties of man towards his Creator and Sustainer. A few more are concerned with questions of ethics, and all the rest are concerned with social, economic, legal, and political questions- in short, the gestation of society.[12]

Khomeini is re-establishing the fundamentals of Islam in order to generate its ideological character necessary for its acceptance by the masses. He laments, ‘Islam lives among the people of this world as if it were a stranger. If somebody were to present Islam as it truly is, he would find it difficult to make people believe him’.[13] And Khomeini believes that Islam is, in essence, a revolutionary concept. He emphasizes, ‘We have in reality, then, no choice but to destroy those systems of government that are corrupt in themselves and also entail the corruption of others, and to overthrow all treacherous, corrupt, oppressive, and criminal regimes’. He continues, ‘in order to attain the unity and freedom of the Muslim peoples, we must overthrow the oppressive governments installed by the imperialists and bring into existence an Islamic government of justice’.[14]

Gramsci would attribute all of Khomeini’s statements and declarations as being a part of the formation of identity and cause that follow in the necessity to implement an ideology. Khomeini is not concerned with developing a new ideology. On the contrary, he is declaring a traditional ideology has been displaced from its bearers. He reveals the present day’s hegemon, attacks them, and appeals to the present days oppressed. What is most interesting about Khomeini’s concepts, through a Gramscian understanding of each statement’s function, is that the hegemon present in Khomeini’s texts isn’t simply a national one; rather it is a global, imperialist enemy and its national agents. His ideological war is with the West, but his battle will rage at home:

How can we stay silent and idle today when we see that a band of traitors and usurpers, the agents of foreign powers, have appropriated the wealth and the fruits of labour of hundreds of millions of Muslims- thanks to the support of their masters and through the power of the bayonet- granting the Muslim not the least right to prosperity? It is the duty of Islamic scholars and all Muslims to put an end to this system of oppression and, for the sake of the well-being of hundreds of millions of human beings, to overthrow these oppressive governments and form an Islamic government.[15]

The Organisation of a Revolution

Creating a unified organisational structure is Gramsci’s second essential component for the formation of a strong counter-hegemonic bloc. For Gramsci, ‘it is the political party that must become the concrete expression of such a goal’.[16] According to Gramsci, ‘For a party to exist, three fundamental elements have to converge’.[17]

The first element is the mass element, ‘Composed of ordinary, average men, whose participation takes the form of organizational ability…They are a force insofar as there is somebody to centralise, organise, and discipline them’.[18] This leads to the next element, the principal cohesive, ‘Which centralises nationally and renders effective and powerful a complex of forces which left to themselves would count for little or nothing’.[19] Gramsci recognizes the importance of a leader, claiming, ‘The first element is that there really do exist rulers and ruled, leaders and led. The entire science and art of politics are based on this primordial and irreducible fact’.[20] The third element of organisation is the intermediate, or vanguard, element of a party. The ulema can be considered the vanguard in the Iranian Revolution. Gramsci declares, ‘the second element must necessarily be in existence…The moment when it becomes impossible to destroy a party by normal means is reached when the two other elements cannot help being formed- that is, the first element, which in its turn necessarily forms the third’.[21]

What is given heightened importance is the ability for the leadership to maintain morale and in, ‘instilling a belief in the masses about the truth and worth of their cause and a willingness to sacrifice everything- even their lives- for the movement’s objectives’.[22] When current Secretary-General of Hezballah Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah proclaimed during a speech, ‘I thank God Almighty for his bounty in turning his gaze upon my family and choosing a martyr from among them…I used to feel embarrassed in front of the martyrs’ fathers, mothers, wives and children…I wish to tell these families, there is now something in common between us’, he embodied the essence of his party.[23] He had just revealed his eldest son had been killed in battle, and it reminded his followers that the ultimate sacrifice is a matter of pride and that there exists equality among them. He continued, ‘The martyr Hadi’s martyrdom is the proof that we in Hezballah’s leadership do not spare our own sons; we take pride in them when they go to the frontlines, and hold our heads high when they fall as martyrs’.[24]

The charisma of a leader has hefty implications for the movement’s success. It can sway the emotions of the people in favour of the movement’s programs. Leading to another aspect of Gramsci’s organizational structure that is highly present in the Shiite ideology: obedience to the leadership. Gramsci states ‘that obedience must be automatic’ and ‘must be unquestioning’.[25] The unquestioning status of the ulema and fuqaha is a staple of the Twelvers ideology. It characterizes both the traditional system of Shiite thought and Khomeini’s principles of wilayat-al-faqih.

Furthermore, Gramsci stresses on the importance of ‘individual traits such as loyalty, faith, and a firm conviction in the ultimate aims of the movement’.[26] He states, ‘the most important element is undoubtedly one whose character is determined not by reason, but by faith’.[27] Alas, the very word that epitomises religion has been mentioned by Gramsci himself. Islamist movements are rooted in the very conviction that their faith is being undermined, religion must be revitalized, and the successful movements have stopped at nothing to fulfil their objectives. Faith in a movement’s objectives must be unconditional and unquestioned, and seeing as how the same can be said for faith in Islam, it is unsurprising to see political Islam manifest itself as such an unbeatable force.

To an effective end, through an effective strategy

The final component in Gramsci’s construction of a counter-hegemonic bloc is the need for a well-developed strategy.[28] Gramsci’s perception of strategy is that it is the divulging of the counter-hegemonic culture at precisely the right time.

The underlying assumption will be that a collective will, already in existence, has become nerveless and dispersed, has suffered a collapse which is dangerous and threatening but not definitive and catastrophic, and that it is necessary to reconcentrate and reinforce it…And a definition must be given of collective will, and of political will in general, in the modern sense: will as operative awareness of historical necessity, as protagonist of a real and effective historical drama.[29]

Planting the seeds of revolution, ‘preparing the ground for revolutionary activity’, is central to Gramsci’s model of strategy.[30]

The paramount aim in a ‘war of position’ is to infiltrate civil society through the dissemination of new ideas and, in the process, to intellectually and culturally prepare the ground for the revolutionary movement’s assault on hegemonic dominance. Consequently, it is only by demonstrating to society in general that its conception of the world is superior to the ‘common sense’ view of the current hegemon that such a force can ‘win over’ the masses to the counter-hegemon’s cause.[31]

The many speeches Khomeini gave in Iran, along with the other ulema, reveal that they employed such a strategy. In Khomeini’s speeches, he clearly outlines exactly what is wrong with the pro-Western government, its ties to Israel, and the materialism destroying the Islamic character of Iranian society. The first real seeds of discontent were spread in the early 1960s, around the time of the proposed land reforms and women suffrage by Mohammed Pahlavi Shah around 1962, and the consequent waning strength and influence of the ulema.

What instigated the back and forth conflict between the religious leaders of Iran and the Shah’s regime began with the clerical opposition to the two reforms; though of course, the clerics had been in a constant state of dispute with the regime since its illegal inception in 1953 and had some had even called for an end to the unconstitutional rule of the Shah. But the reforms sparked a bitter tug of war that divided the public across two lines: the nationalist and religious movement versus the loyalists to Pahlavi Shah and his Prime Minister Alam.

The bill published on 8 September 1962 that allowed women to vote was when, ‘Ayatollah Khomeini made his first appearance on the national political scene’.[32] The bill was eventually dropped, but, ‘Because of the continuing opposition of religious leaders as well as the nationalist middle class, the shah decided to outmanoeuvre them by calling for a national referendum to demonstrate that the Iranian people favoured the reforms’.[33] As a result, ‘The National Front, other political parties, and religious leaders ordered their followers to boycott the referendum’.[34] After a series of conflicts and demonstrations, ‘the unrest finally led to an attack by government forces on 23 March 1963 on the Faiziyeh theological school in Qom. Many students had gathered there to commemorate the death of Imam Ja’far’.[35] The government began to attack the ulema, deeming them ‘a hindrance to the country’, and ‘the ulema replied by printing and secretly distributing pamphlets attacking the government and shah’.[36]

An interesting phenomenon that is highly unique to Islamist movements is the locations of such strategical awareness awakenings. The program is usually transmitted through society in religious schools, at mosques, and in speeches, especially during important religious days, evident in a letter sent by Ayatollah Milani to Khomeini that read, ‘all honourable preachers must use the occasion of the Moharram mourning days to enlighten the Muslims on the subject!’[37] On the day Khomeini received the letter he delivered a very antagonistic speech in Qom, rallying the people with passionate rhetoric:

Khomeini asked his audience why it was that the tyrannical government of Iran opposed the ulema…told his audience that this was because the government opposed the foundations of Islam and its ulema, because it did not want this moral foundation to exist…Khomeini spoke about harassment by government agents who yelled at the ulema and students that they were parasites. He asked his audience who were the real parasites… The real parasites were those who were filling foreign banks with their ill-gotten gains and who build big palaces.[38]

Khomeini was arrested the following day. The next year he was sent to Turkey and did not return until 1979. The strategy employed in those early days was very different from what occurred in 1978. One understanding of the difference between the events in the early 60s and what took place in the late 70s goes as follows:

The ulema’s failure to combine efforts with those of the political opposition also suggests that their position was not aimed at radical change…The main difference now appears to be that all opposition forces worked together [77-79] until power changed hands, because of a parallelism of interests. Apparently the lesson of 1963 was not lost upon them.[39]

Khomeini had a very limited role in the political arena before and after the unrests of 1962-64, but he emerged as the face of the Iranian Revolution fifteen years later. Therefore, we can conclude his mission to reawaken the spirituality and faith of the Muslims did not halt with his exile from Iran. If we analyse the events of 1963 within a Gramscian framework, we can divulge two things: that the ideology, organization, and strategy were beginning to take shape, but that the system and the masses were not ready to assume control. Gramsci offers an explanation for the latter, best summarized by Butko:

The final component in Gramsci’s long-term strategy involves judging the precise moment when the ‘war of position’ has reached its climax and must necessarily be transformed into a ‘war of movement’. It is at this juncture that the ruling class, although still dominant (i.e., force and coercion), is no longer hegemonic (i.e., ideas and consent). At such a crisis point a power vacuum emerges in which the discredited moral and intellectual leadership of the hegemon leads to a loss of consent, and erosion of support, from the subordinate classes. It is also at such a moment that the counter-hegemonic force is afforded its most propitious, and perhaps only, opportunity to supplant the dominant ideology of the time that has become incidental, if not irrelevant, to the real needs of the people.[40]

Knowing exactly when to strike, when to mobilize in full force, is the key to Gramsci’s methodology. For coming at the government too early can be counter-productive, while waiting too long can have disastrous consequences; as Marx notes, ‘A resistance too long prolonged in a besieged camp is demoralising in itself’.[41] The leftist revolutionary figure Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara lends some thought on the this concept, stating in Guerrilla Warfare, ‘It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist; the insurrection can create them’.[42]

In the shadow of Khomeini

Ayatollah Khomeini’s legacy as a political thinker can be split in two; on the one hand, he helped manifest the seeds and eventual forces of revolution, but on the other hand, he implemented a system of government never before established. His revolution fits into the Gramscian perspective on all accounts. But the post-revolution character of Iran was not one Gramsci, as an Italian communist writing in the fascist age of Mussolini, could have ever anticipated; nor one he would admire, for I have applied a system of political theory to a wholly independent mode of political action, and the two can never be viewed in the same light. Gramsci would have never accepted that religious doctrine dictate the systems of a nation, but his application here is on the process, not the outcome, of revolution. For Gramsci, the masses are intellectuals; all individuals possess the intellect to define their identity, their followings, and their beliefs. In that light, why can’t they determine the realm they live in? Certainly, in an Islamic state, especially one constructed by Khomeini, the character of society rests in historical texts and divine dogma; nothing has been reinterpreted to dismantle the exploitation of the modern age. Where Gramsci sees the process of revolution being a process of evolution and the awakening of an inherit agency to determine one’s own destiny, Khomeini views Islamic revolution as a duty; outside the realm of self-satisfaction and benediction.

Khomeini also views the post-revolution age differently. He applies the concept of wilayat-al-faqih, the guardianship of the jurist, to be the ruler of the nation; much like Plato’s Philosopher-King, who is characterised by a love of knowledge and wisdom, and a continued search for justice. Khomeini declares, ‘Since Islamic government is a government of law, those acquainted with the law, or more precisely, with religion-i.e., the fuqaha– must supervise its functioning’.[43] He continues, ‘We deduce…that the fuqaha are the legatees, at one remove, of the Most Noble Messenger’, ‘the Commander of the Faithful…was able to appoint rulers and judges not only for his own lifetime…This indeed he did, naming the fuqahas rulers’.[44]

Khomeini equates the faqih with justice and knowledge of justice and laws, thus making him the best suited to rule over the people during the Twelfth Imam’s period of occultation. Plato’s philosopher stands as a sketch for Khomeini’s rule. Thus, we see another dimension of political theory that can be applied to an absolutely separate realm of political implementation. The effect Gramsci had on Khomeini and the Iranian revolutionaries was not a direct one, but the revolutionary process they undertook illustrates his theories outstandingly. The same indirect relationship can be made between Plato and Khomeini. Conceivably, it can be said that the three will continue to influence the political sphere, in intellectual and practical ways. Khomeini’s legacy will surely find a way to haunt the West for decades to come. 

Works Cited

Butko, Thomas J. “Revelation or Revolution: A Gramscian Approach to the Rise of Political Islam.”

British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (Taylor & Francis, Ltd. ) XXXI, no. 1 (May 2004): 41-62.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selection from the Prison Notebooks. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey

Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Guevara, Ernesto Che. “Guerilla Warfare.”

Keddie, Nikki R. Religion and Politics in Iran. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and revolution: writings and declarations of Imam Khomeini. Translated

by Hamid Algar. Berkley, CA: Mizan Press, 1981.

Nasrallah, Hassan. Voice of Hezbollah. Edited by Nicholas Noe. Translated by Ellen Khouri. London:

Verso, 2007.

[1] Thomas Butko, ‘Revelation or Revolution: A Gramscian Approach to the Rise of Political Islam (Taylor & Francis: 2004), p. 43.

[2] Ibid., 43.

[3] Ibid., 43.

[4] Ibid., 47.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] Ibid., 44.

[7] Ibid., 44.

[8] Ibid., 45.

[9] Ibid., 41.

[10] Ibid., 49.

[11] Ibid., 50.

[12] Ruhollah Khomeini, Islam and Revolution (Berkley: Mizan Press, 1981), p. 29.

[13] Ibid., 28.

[14] Ibid., 49.

[15] Ibid., 50.

[16] Thomas Butko, ‘Revelation or Revolution: A Gramscian Approach to the Rise of Political Islam (Taylor & Francis: 2004) p. 51.

[17] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 152

[18] Ibid., 152.

[19] Ibid., 152.

[20] Ibid., 144.

[21] Ibid., 153.


[23] Hassan Nasrallah, Voice of Hezbollah (London: Verso, 2007), p. 173.

[24] Ibid., 173.

[25] Thomas Butko, ‘Revelation or Revolution: A Gramscian Approach to the Rise of Political Islam (Taylor & Francis: 2004) p. 54.

[26] Ibid., 55.

[27] Ibid., 55.

[28] Ibid., 56.

[29] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 130.

[30] Thomas Butko, ‘Revelation or Revolution: A Gramscian Approach to the Rise of Political Islam (Taylor & Francis: 2004) p. 56.

[31] Ibid., 57.

[32] Nikki R. Keddie, Religion and Politics in Iran (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 84.

[33] Ibid., 88.

[34] Ibid., 88.

[35] Ibid., 88-89.

[36] Ibid., 89.

[37] Ibid., 90.

[38] Ibid., 90-91.

[39] Ibid., 94.

[40] Thomas Butko, ‘Revelation or Revolution: A Gramscian Approach to the Rise of Political Islam (Taylor & Francis: 2004) p. 58-59.

[41] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 239.

[42] Ernesto Che Guevara, ‘Guerilla Warfare’, p. 1.

[43] Ruhollah Khomeini, Islam and Revolution (Berkley: Mizan Press, 1981), p. 59.

[44] Ibid., 95.