Iran: prospects for revolution: rough notes for a talk
Posted by Bill, June 20th, 2009 - under Ahmadinejad, Capitalism, Democracy, Demonstrations, Fighting back, Imperialism, Iran, Islam, Mousavi, Reform, Resistance, Shoras, Socialism, Strikes, Students, The Left, Tudeh.
These are some notes for a talk that John will be using to develop a talk on ‘Iran – can workers take power?’ on Thursday in Canberra for Socialist Alternative at 6 pm in Room G 039 of the Copland Building at the Australian National University.
It starts off with a brief overview of history by Louise O’Shea on the Iranian revolution in Socialist Alternative, then a piece from Lenin’s Tomb on the Iranian working class and the revolt, and finally some rough out loud thinking notes put together on the same topic. (All 3 are set out below.)
The situation is incredibly volatile, especially now that the ‘Supreme Leader’ has backed Ahmadinejad’s victory and threatened slaughter for the demonstrators.
Louise O’Shea (2002 Socialist Alternative)
People from the Middle East are currently on the receiving end of a vicious campaign of racism led by the Australian government. Portraying these people as mindless terrorists and religious maniacs is a way for the government to justify both locking up refugees and supporting the invasion of Iraq.
But events in Iran in 1979 clearly demonstrate that when workers from any country fight their bosses and rulers, their struggles are strikingly similar. They also face the same difficulties, such as the risk of defeat or counter-revolution, and the pressing need for an effective revolutionary organisation.
In Iran in 1979, no such organisation existed and the counter-revolution took the form of the religious leaders destroying the workers’ organisations in order to establish an Islamic, but still capitalist, state. Nevertheless, Iran remains a powerful example of how the struggle for workers’ power is as universal as capitalism, with the Middle East being no exception.
From the middle of the 19th century, Iran had been ruled by a royal family headed by the Shah. It was primarily an agricultural economy until the turn of the century, when merchant and state capital began to expand with stimulation from foreign investment.
In 1905 a Constitutional Revolution led by religious leaders, the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia forced the monarchy to concede some basic rights such as freedom of speech, association and assembly. A parliament was established which gave the merchants and bourgeoisie some influence over the running of Iranian society, but with the Shah remaining firmly in control.
Oil was discovered in the south-west of Iran in 1908. Due to the growing dependence of world capitalism on oil, modern machinery and construction programmes were rapidly imported. Oil production also required the establishment of more complex infrastructure such as roads and railways.
This rapid industrialisation led to large numbers of workers being concentrated in a few key industries. As a result, oil and transport workers had a strategic importance in the Iranian economy, which would be important in the 1979 revolution.
During the sixties and early seventies, the Iranian economy expanded due to increased state investment and rising oil prices. The state also encouraged foreign investment with concessions for foreign companies. Between 1971 and 1973 the price of oil rose from $1.79 a barrel to $11.65, causing state revenue to rise from $938 million in 1969 to $22 billion in 1974.
But the boom led to a profound crisis in Iranian society. As people left the countryside for higher wages in the cities, agricultural production dropped and food became scarce. Iran’s relatively undeveloped infrastructure was unable to cope, nor was it able to generate sufficient housing for the influx of workers to the cities. Housing prices in Tehran trebled. When the recession of the mid-70s caused a drop in oil prices, unemployment skyrocketed and a revolutionary mood began to set in.
Another factor in the Shah’s growing unpopularity was his close association with the US government, which had the biggest share of overseas oil interests in Iran. Both the middle classes and workers resented US domination of the Iranian economy and opposed the Shah on this basis.
Things finally erupted in June 1977 when the Shah ordered the bulldozing of a shanty town which he regarded as an eyesore in his “imperial” capital. For over a month, around 50,000 shanty town dwellers fought the police until the Shah was forced to abandon his plan. In July, intellectuals wrote an open letter to the Shah calling for an end to despotism, and critical articles and pamphlets began to appear despite a high level of repression.
In November 1977, the Writers’ Association organised a series of public poetry readings which became a focus for dissent, attracting between 10,000 and 20,000 people each night. On the tenth such occasion, police attempted to disband the session and an angry demonstration ensued in which several demonstrators were killed.
In December 1977, the exiled Islamic leader Ayatollah Khomeini called for a demonstration in the following holy month, muharram, to overthrow the Shah and re-establish the 1905 constitution. Khomeini had been a key opposition figure since his exile in 1964, with his main support coming from the small time capitalists of Iran, the bazaari, and landowners.
With the growing crisis in Iranian society, the poor and unemployed also found the religious establishment a source of security and looked to Khomeini to articulate their discontent. Large demonstrations called by the religious establishment occurred regularly from late 1977 right up to the revolution.
But however hostile these groups were to the Shah, they did not by themselves possess the social power to remove him. Only the working class could do this, and they were far from being under Khomeini’s influence.
The number of strikes had been increasing throughout 1978, although most were in defence of workers’ wages and conditions rather than against the Shah. But when on 8 September 1978 the Shah declared martial law and opened fire on a demonstration in Tehran, the workers immediately moved into action.
On 9 September, 700 oil workers in Tehran went on strike, and within 48 hours the strike had spread to Isfahan, Abadan, Tabriz and Shiraz. Print workers and cement workers in Tehran were soon also on strike, and by October 50 major plants were closed. Workers’ demands included wage rises of up to 100 per cent, the sacking of management, the dissolution of the Savak (secret police), an end to martial law and the freeing of political prisoners.
Strikes and street clashes with police had become everyday events by the end of 1978, with a well-organised 33-day strike by oil workers paralysing the economy, at one point costing the government $74 million a day.
The Shah’s violent attempts to contain the mass movement now became less effective, especially as mutinies in the armed forces became more common. In a last ditch attempt to salvage control, the Shah appeared on television to admit past errors and plead for calm. The response was a large demonstration on 11 December 1978 where the slogans “Hang the American puppet” and “Arms for the people” were the most popular.
When even his most faithful backer, the US government, started to express doubts as to his ability to rule, the Shah was in trouble. On 16 January 1979 he fled to Egypt and a power vacuum opened in Iranian society.
The only leading figure to publicly endorse the strikes was Khomeini. He determinedly attempted to put himself at the head of the struggles, despite having little connection to the striking workers. He was however a genuine opponent of the Shah’s regime, on the basis that it was corrupt, pro-US and un-Islamic.
He was also outspoken and willing to seem radical, responding to attempts by bourgeois politicians to make peace between him and the Shah by declaring, “We must not lose a day, not a minute. The people demand an immediate revolution.” In the absence of any viable secular alternative, Khomeini therefore became the widely accepted leader of the revolutionary movement.
But the workers, who were the lifeblood of the movement and the key to its success, showed no signs that they saw their struggle as a religious one. Of the eleven demands drawn up by the striking oil workers, none made reference to religion; instead they included things like rights for women at work, dissolution of the Savak, nationalisation of the oil industry, provision of housing for workers and shorter working hours.
As one participant in the revolutionary events described, “in government offices, private companies, factories and universities, employees, in a riot of participatory democracy, were demanding to be consulted on policies and appointments. Army units refused to accept commanders appointed by the provisional government; newly-appointed police chiefs were arrested by citizens’ committees; governors found the way to their offices barred by revolutionary youths.”
In the absence of managers in many workplaces, workers organised shoras (councils) to run workplaces. Through the shoras, workers effectively controlled much of Iranian industry, deciding who to hire and fire, what to produce and for whom.
The shoras were the expression of workers’ democratic control that could have formed a new basis on which to run Iranian society and presented a real challenge to the religious leadership of the revolution. And like the workers’ councils of other workers’ revolutions, they were the most democratic institutions ever seen. Delegates were recallable at any time and remained working beside those they represented. They were not professional politicians who would promise the world, then turn their backs on their supporters.
But in order for the shoras to consolidate their power, they needed to extend beyond individual workplaces. They had to create a centre of power that could defeat the counter-revolution led by Khomeini. This partly happened at the beginning of 1979 with the formation of the Founding Council of the All-Iran Workers’ Union.
But the new provisional government, appointed by Khomeini, was no longer interested in workers’ power now that the Shah had fled. Khomeini ordered workers back to work “for the revolution” and denounced any opposition to the provisional government as counter-revolutionary.
At this key point, either workers’ control of production had to spread, or Khomeini’s religious followers would triumph as the new ruling class. Unfortunately, there was no organisation on the secular left that was calling for all power to the shoras, which meant Khomeini faced very little resistance when he eventually moved to crush the revolutionary movement.
At the time of the revolution, no organisation on the Iranian left had a significant base in the working class. Of the left-wing organisations that did exist – the largest being the pro-Russian Tudeh party – the influence of Stalinism meant that none thought Iran was ready for a socialist revolution because of its relative backwardness. They thought that all they could hope for was the removal of the Shah.
So when a real opportunity for workers’ power arose, they were unable to recognise it and credited Khomeini with being progressive when in fact he represented the counter-revolution which would restore capitalism. This led them to make disastrous compromises with him. For instance, thousands of left wing women donned the veil to march on International Women’s Day! This kind of confusion and compromise opened a space for Khomeini to roll back some of the gains of the revolution. Taking advantage of this ideological confusion, he was able to crush the shoras.
And Khomeini did his best to disguise the counter-revolutionary nature of his own struggle for power. He was at pains to emphasise the issues over which he could muster mass support, such as anti-imperialism and sympathy for the oppressed, while carefully avoiding thornier issues like sexual equality or the rights of religious minorities.
Khomeini’s opportunity to consolidate his power and finally defeat the workers’ movement came in November 1979. On 4 November, the American Embassy was occupied by Islamic students protesting against imperialism. Large demonstrations in support of the students were organised and any opposition branded as pro-American.
The left, especially the Tudeh party, who partly believed Khomeini’s rhetoric, could not respond and Khomeini capitalised on their confusion by announcing plans for a referendum to endorse his Islamic Constitution. This constitution enshrined certain rights such as freedom of speech and religion, within the confines of the “Islamic standard”. It enforced the wearing of Islamic dress for women and banned alcohol and music. Widespread fear of being branded Zionist or pro-American, as well as a general erosion of revolutionary confidence, meant the constitution was ratified and the process of establishing Khomeini’s counter-revolutionary Islamic regime began.
But there was nothing inevitable about this outcome. The Islamic clergy were only able to fill the gap left by the Shah because there was no secular organisation that understood the situation of dual power and the central role the working class must play in building a new society.
Other than a few small Marxist groups, no-one on the left recognised the importance of the secular shoras as a basis for this new society, and as a result they were destroyed by Khomeini, who could see that they threatened his ability to rule Iran. Similarly, the influence of Islamists in struggles in the Middle East today has more to do with the failures of the secular left than with any natural predisposition of Palestinians or Iraqis to religious fundamentalism.
The events of the Iranian revolution show that Iranian workers, just like workers everywhere, can be driven to challenge their rulers for control of society. It also shows that they can be defeated at great cost if they are not organised and prepared for a revolutionary situation by learning from their own past struggles and those of their fellow workers all over the world.
Note: This was written in 2002 so the world has changed somewhat since then but the history is valuable to understand what is happening today.
The Iranian working class and the revolt posted by lenin
It was a commonplace in the build-up to the elections that Ahmadinejad would hold the working class vote. This had been the case in 2005, and it was assumed it would be the case in 2009. The reason given was that Ahmadinejad had supported the working class with various benefits paid for from oil profits. And of course he is himself a working class kid made good, as it were: the son of a blacksmith who got himself a PhD, joined the right-wing in the revolution, and eventually became president. Finally, it was inferred that the workers were socially conservative and had little time for middle class people who wanted more liberal legislation. This picture, while touching on important truths, is also rather patronising in its assumption that the workers only care about bread and butter issues and that they tend toward sullen bigotry when it comes to issues of democracy and womens’ rights.
The electoral coalition around Mousavi, by contrast, was seen to be middle-class, based disproportionately among professionals and students, with the loot provided by ruling class interests. (As one dyspeptic analyst called it, the “Gucci crowd” in alliance with Iranian capitalists). Mousavi was pushing an austerity agenda, with privatization and counter-inflationary measures at its core. To broaden his appeal, therefore, he touched on the progressive concerns of a layer of the population which has had enough of the basij militias and the media clampdowns and the political prisoners. He didn’t actually offer much reform, but all was in the branding. (It is telling that, in much of the Anglophone media coverage, these concerns are emblematized by the status of the chador – as if the major issue is the right to expose one’s hair). So, when these protests began, it seemed a reasonable assumption that it was overwhelmingly a middle class revolt – perhaps not for neoliberalism as such, but against what they saw as an electoral fix-up and the obviously undemocratic system behind it. If Mousavi’s base was so middle class, however, it would be difficult to see how he could possibly have been in the lead. If the protest movement were exclusively middle class, it probably couldn’t win, and could be expected to dissipate.
Some liberal analysts disputed the idea that Ahmadinejad had decisively won the working class vote. Robert Dreyfuss, reporting from Tehran, claimed that it was almost impossible to find a supporter of Ahmadinejad even in the poorer areas. Juan Cole, disputing the primacy of class in interpreting Iranian elections, pointed out that neoliberal reformers such as Khatami had won 70% of the vote in 1997, and then over 78% in 2001. Khatami obviously had to win support far beyond his business supporters. This did not prove that the reformers had a majority in 2009, of course – we aren’t going to get proof, whatever the truth of the matter is – but it does mean that caution is called for in the assumptions that we make. Reza Fiyouzat makes what seems to be to be a far more compelling point, though: “The most class-conscious, the most politically active of the Iranian working classes, are by far the most anti-government. How do we know this? We know this because they invariably end up in jail.” Well, quite.
The issue of class is important here, not because the workers are angels with whom we may not ever differ, but because their organised power is necessary to make even these democratic demands effective. Even if the protesters were all middle class, I would want them to win. Truth be told, I would want them to win even more than they bargained for – to win so comprehensively that they gave a shot in the arm to the working class and facilitated their rapid self-organisation outside of the Islamic Labour Council approved unions. Never mind a general strike: what is urgently needed is the reappearance of the shoras. And we have seen the riots spread chaotically to working class areas of Isfahan (see also), where the protesters drove out the police, and the southern city of Yazd. The protests have spread to workers districts in southern Tehran. Reports of working class turnout are appearing, albeit infrequently, in some of the English-language press.
There is an understandable tendency to think of this upheaval in terms of the ‘colour revolutions’. I have even seen reports quoting figures from the March 14th movement attempting to associate themselves with the revolt. It’s fatuous on their part, since there is clearly a lot more going on here than just another ‘Cedar Revolution’, with the upper and middle classes (and their much abused Syrian maids) turning out to be admired by photographers. The demonstrations have not been restricted to middle class areas or richer parts of Tehran. They have not been orchestrated set-piece protests with glory days in the sun and an atmosphere borrowed from a Coca-Cola commercial. At any rate, what the self-styled cedar revolutionaries typically neglect to mention is that Hezbollah’s protests were far bigger than theirs. That isn’t the case in Iran, where Ahmadinejad’s supporters have plainly been outnumbered by far more militant protests.
The movement – precis of what has happened. Some rough notes.
Exposed all the contradictions and tensions in Iranian society – conflict among rulers and anger from below (economic and political)
What should socialists say
- we have nothing in common with the advocates of western imperialism who back the movement
o they don’t have any interest in the rights of Iranians
o we have defended Ahmadinejad against the lies and slander hurled at him by imperialism and zionism – and we don’t resile from that.
- But we don’t think Ahmadinejad is some anti-imperialist fighter, or a hero of the poor.
o He runs a right wing, authoritarian regime that is an implacable enemy of Iranian workers, and of democracy.
- Nor can we offer any support to Mousavi, the main opposition leader
o He is not a “liberal”, even in the narrow sense of being a genuine advocate of basic democracy, let alone a friend of the working class and the poor.
o He is firmly a part of the authoritarian establishment of the Islamic state. He was PM from 1981-89
§ Presided over mass killings, some 60-80,000, many of them leftists
§ Was PM when the draconian laws curtailing the rights of women were introduced.
§ He was for a “statised” version of capitalism, but now he attacks Ahmadinejad from the right economically – championing the discredited policies of neo-liberalism
§ He advocates a greater reproachment with US imperialism
§ The core of his support comes from the ranks of the middle class and the rich
· These facts explain why Ahmadinejad has been able to hold on to substantial support, particularly from sections of the urban poor and in some of the rural areas.
But the fact that Mousavi is a reactionary, and is backed by reactionary elements in the West, does not mean we just write off the movement which he currently heads.
Chris Harman wrote something relevant to this, when he was discussing the so-called “Orange revolution” in the Ukraine:
[From the point of view of the West] There is always the danger that a popular movement formented by on set of ruling class or imperialist interests to damage their rivals can take on a life of its own and damage them both. As rulers pour abuse on each other, exposing each others crimes, there can, on occasions, be an opening for independent forces to emerge to challenge both. That is why you cannot simply write off every movement against a regime the US dislikes as operating at the behest of the CIA.
There is considerable potential for this movement to have such a dynamic.
In the first place, this conflict is not being driven by the US. It is not a repeat of the CIA backed coup against Mossadeq in the 1950s that installed the Shah. The movement is, in the first instance, being driven by a conflict within the Iranian ruling class, not a conflict between Iran and US imperialism.
- In fact, the US has been reserved in its support for the opposition, both publically and, as far as you can tell, privately. The Obama administration has clearly being working towards some kind of raproachment with the Iranian regime, and believes that it could work with either Ahmadinejad or Mousavi. It is important to note that although Mousavi advocates a greater level of co-operation with the West, both wings of the Iranian establishment are for raproachment – it is simply a matter of degrees.
- What the US is most concerned about is not which faction of the Iranian ruling elite holds power, but that stability is maintained. What they most fear is a movement that gets out of hand and starts to turn into a genuine popular revolution.
Mousavi wants an orderly transfer of power – not a revolution, not an end to the Islamic republic and the rule of capital and the clerics.
But there are already signs that the movement is moving beyond his control
- Monday demonstration. After it was declared illegal he called it off. Then as people started turning up, he initially went to ask people to leave, preach calm. It was only when it became clear that millions were on the streets that he put himself at its head and claimed to endorse it.
- Mousavi has tried to emphasis the narrow demand for a new election, and has opposed any move to broaden out the movement to be a challenge to the Islamic state. But this has not been wholly successful
o Attacks on the Basaji militia, which he has repeatedly and specifically opposed.
o Chants against Khameni
o Demonstrations outside Iran, sporadic reports of strikes.
The regime is in a bind. The real divisions in the ruling class led to a certain democratic space being opened in the leadup to the elections, which saw both sides staging huge demonstrations of hundreds of thousands.
But while the official debate was meant to be kept within very narrow limits, the fact of mass participation in politics – the opportunity people were given to stand up for change, however tightly defined, engaged people in a manner that laid the basis for the explosion of anger that we have seen this week.
The experience of a week of mass protests, of staring down the power of the security forces, of beating back the pro-government militias, cannot but have had a transformative effect on the consciousness of the millions who have taken part.
Now the regime faces danger no matter what it does. Attempts to repress the movement could lead to a full scale revolution. On the other hand, making concessions gives the movement confidence and legitimacy.
Most likely they will try to steer a middle path – but this has the danger of being the worst of both worlds – creating more anger alongside hope.
On the other hand there are three major factors that make it possible for the regime to stabilise the situation.
- Most importantly, the working class has not decisively entered the battle.
o There have been sporadic reports of strikes, and of demonstrations more working class in composition outside of Tehran, but there is no denying that the core of the movement so far has been students, and more middle-class laayers. The sheer size of the protests in Tehran over the last few days means that undoubtedly a large number of them must be workers and the poor, but that is different to the working class entering the movement as a social force.
o In 1978, in the months leading up to the Iranian revolution, there were huge protests in Tehran, led by students, intellectuals and the clergy and pulling in sections of workers and the poor. But it was only when the great strike movement took hold that the downfall of the Shah became inevitable, and the movement transformed into a genuine revolution.
o We simply do not have enough information to judge the state of things now. Many of the labor organisations are backing the opposition, but there is clearly nothing like widespread strike action yet. Whether or not that emerges will be a fundamental factor in future developments.
- The second factor is the hegemony of Mousavi over the opposition. While clearly many are on the streets because they are hostile to the regime in its entirety and want fundamental change, this has not yet found a political expression. It will have to do so at some point. Mousavi may shift in a more radical direction in response to pressure from below and from the intensity of attacks from Ahmadinejad – it is impossible to tell at this point how the divisions in the ruling class are playing out. But he is committed to capitalist rule in Iran, and there is no section of capital committed even to a genuinely democratic reform program, let alone one that would provide a solution to the social grievances that underpin so much of the anger on the streets.
There is every likelihood that if he is not crushed by Ahmadinejad, he will be the means by which the upheaval is put down.
- The third point flows from this – there is no left capable or willing to give voice to the aspirations of workers and the poor, and pose a genuine revolutionary challenge to the ruling establishment.
o The left in Iran is not only small and disorganised, it has not broken with its fundamentally flawed politics that led to defeat in the past – both in the National Front era in the 1950s, or in the 1979 revolution.
§ In both of those instances, they refused to try and build a movement independent of the so-called progressive capitalist forces, and orient to the working class as the fundamental force of revolutionary change.
· In the 1950s the Tudeh Party (essentially the Communists) would not break with Mossadeq and the bourgeois nationalists who were determined to constrain what was an insurgent workers movement.
· In 1979 not only the Tudeh party, but also the more radical leftist groups the Fedayeen and the Mojahedin, would not orient to the strike movement of the workers, or to the Shoras, workers councils, that emerged after the downfall of the Shah. These later two saw guerrilla warfare, rather than workers industrial struggle, as the key revolutionary element.
As well, they were either uncritical of, or at best accomodating to, Khomeini and the Islamists who had put themselves at the head of the movement and who in the end systematically destroyed all that was revolutionary and democratic about it.
So the situation is filled with contradictions. But there are two things we can clearly say, which I will finish with.
First, that the explosion of mass protest on the streets has proven again what socialists always argue: that the collective action of masses of people has the power to transform even the most impossible seeming situation, and re-write the political landscape in a fundamental way.
Second, that none of the factions in the ruling class go even part of the way to addressing the fundamental economic grievances and political wishes that have brought people onto the streets. The only way such a solution can be found is if the popular revolt is transformed into a movement for popular power. For this to be possible, the working class has to take the leading role in the struggle, and break with the pseudo-reforming “official” opposition.
The role of the left has to be to argue for such an independent movement, and for the need for a revolutionary challenge to the whole system of Iranian capitalism that has been propped up by the Islamic regime since it crushed the revolution 30 years ago.
For all the weaknesses I have pointed to, the inspiring heritage of revolutionary working class struggle in Iran makes that an argument that has the potential to once again grip the minds of millions.