The first Occupier
Though Persia was theoretically an absolute monarchy, the Zoroastrian priesthood, as representatives of the official religion of the state, had long been a power unto themselves. So too were the noble land-owning families, who collected their own taxes within their territories, and even maintained their own standing armies. With the King, state, and national army in weakened straits, the nobility were now more inclined than ever to throw their own weight around.
One interest group had no voice at all: the Persian masses. The lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the royal court, the priests, and the nobility alike, rested on the labor of millions of peasants. Taxation existed not only to pay for services and infrastructure, but more importantly as a classic expropriation of the economic surplus to keep a largely parasitic ruling class in luxury. In this respect, Îrânshahr was typical of most pre-modern states. What happened next, after the final straw landed on the camel's back, was not typical.
That final straw took the form of an all-out war between the two most powerful of the noble land-owning families, the Mihran and the Karin. King Kavâd had encouraged their rivalry to undermine the nobles' power, but the result now was disaster -- the fighting left much of the empire's territory a wasteland of blackened fields and wrecked villages. The peasants' lives had been burdensome enough, but now millions faced utter destitution, their crops and animals and homes destroyed. The situation was unendurable.
Comes the hour, comes the man.
Mazdak son of Bâmdâd is a difficult figure to assess. All the historical material we have about him was written by his enemies. Zoroastrian, Christian, and (later) Muslim commentators alike poured scorn and vitriol upon him. Yet through it all we can still see something of who he was, and why the powers-that-be so deeply feared what he stood for.
We do know he started as a Zoroastrian priest, and thus must have had a comfortable life under the existing order. We don't know what first turned him against the religion he served. It may have been as simple as a genuine sense of justice.
Brushing aside the establishment priesthood's dedication to formal ritual, Mazdak preached that justice and equality were what mattered. Class differences and the grossly unequal distribution of wealth, not sin or disobedience, were the truly great evils. Class differences were to be swept away and property redistributed; ultimately all the wealth of Îrânshahr should be owned collectively by all its people. At a time when asceticism was on the rise, he preached hedonism. He rejected eating meat and it has even been suggested that he favored the abolition of slavery. His teachings coalesced into a genuinely new religion, Mazdakism. In the ruined countryside, it found an eager audience.
Already some peasants were abandoning the land and turning vagabond. Now, as Mazdakism spread, their numbers exploded and outright rebellion broke out. Unstoppable hordes overwhelmed the granaries and estates of the nobility, seizing by force the stockpiled wealth to which they had now been taught they were entitled and which, in the last analysis, had originally been produced by their labor. They called themselves "the Adherents of Justice".
Peasant revolts have erupted here and there throughout history, but have usually died down quickly due to lack of leadership and the superior organization and armament of the authorities. In this case, by contrast, the rebellion was fueled by a coherent program and philosophy, of which it indeed constituted merely one arm, if the most active and fearsome one. Mazdak's teachings have been called the first Communist Manifesto.
The strength which Mazdakism quickly acquired may be judged from the fact that King Kavâd himself became a convert. Historians disagree about why he did this. Some think he merely wished to encourage the destruction of the landed nobles' power by the rebellion; others believe he had some genuine sympathy for the peasants' plight (and since Mazdakism took a religious form, it may be that he simply came to believe Mazdak was right about what God willed). At any rate, he empowered Mazdak to carry out social and economic reforms to help the poor, though nothing so radical as actually implementing full communism.
One other matter must be mentioned. Some sources say Mazdak advocated collective "sharing" of women (presumably replacing the concept of marriage); it is even said that Kavâd demonstrated the sincerity of his conversion by offering to share his queen with Mazdak. Modern historians are divided about whether these claims are true. On the one hand, many pre-modern societies did look upon women more as property than as persons with rights of their own, so it's conceivable that the Mazdakites might have viewed them as just another form of property to be collectively rather than privately held. On the other hand, all our sources about Mazdak were written by those who sought to demonize him and his ideas, and would certainly not have been above accusing him of any outrage they could think of. We'll probably never know the truth for sure.
In the end, Mazdakism was defeated. The priests and the nobility joined forces to restore the old order while they still had the strength to do so. They overthrew Kavâd and imprisoned him. Several years later he escaped and regained power, but was sufficiently intimidated to distance himself from Mazdak. Later he set out to suppress the heretical new religion entirely; Mazdak and thousands of his followers were murdered. Kavâd did continue with some reforms to help the poor, but Mazdak's radical ideas were never implemented and the old social order survived.
One can only wonder what might have been achieved even back then, fifteen centuries ago, if Mazdak had refused to be seduced into partnership with the King, and taken the path of all-out revolution instead.