Iran – neither Ahmadinejad nor Mousavi but workers’ revolution
Iranian workers have the opportunity to change history – not just of Iran but of the world. The protests in Iran today contain within them the seeds of a workers’ revolution.
The demands of the protestors are political and include the freedom to organise, to express themselves, to have their vote counted fairly, for women’s rights and now, opposition to the dictatorship which is the Islamic Republic.
Yet given the poor state of the Iranian economy, merging these demands with basic economic ones like massive real wage increases, jobs for all and workers’ control of industry, has the potential to bring in the working class as the force to destroy the dictatorship. Having won the battle for political freedom the battle for economic freedom can then begin and deepen.
The Iranian economy is in crisis. Official unemployment is 13 percent, almost certainly under-reporting the real rate. Among women and youth the figure is much higher, perhaps reaching over 30 percent.
Estimates are that Iran needs to create an extra 1 million jobs a year to mop up all the young people coming on to the job market. Last year there were only 300,000 extra jobs.
Inflation was 26 percent in 2008.
The economy depends on petrochemical exports. Oil and gas revenues make up 80 percent of all export income and over 50 percent of all Government revenue. Iran has ten percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and 15 percent of the natural gas reserves.
The splits in the ruling elite are over future directions of the economy. Both Ahmadinejad and Mousavi favour privatisation. Supreme leader Khamenei has pushed an extensive privatisation program since the mid 2000s, a program that Ahmadinejad has followed through.
The Governor of the central Bank indicated last year that the aim was to sell of 80 percent of state-owned enterprises by 2010. To date about $60 billion of the $120 billion in assets earmarked for sale have been privatised.
Prior to this program up to 80 percent of the economy was in Government or quasi-Government hands. One estimate is that that figure as a result of the privatisations carried out over the last 4 years is now 40 percent.
The split is personalised over who will benefit from these privatisations – the basiji and state security apparatus around the hard right of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei or the entrenched capitalists around Rafsanjani and Mousavi.
The elite have also split in part over the use of oil and gas revenue.
One of the gains of the working class revolution of 78/79 (apart from state control of the economy which under capitalist conditions is more about form than substance) has been a range of subsidies on food, water, housing and energy. These subsidies cost the Government around US $100 billion a year. This in a country which had a GDP of $830 billion in 2009.
Ahmadinejad has attempted to ‘reform’ the subsidies and re-direct the savings to benefit low income earners (at least initially). Inflation would eat away those benefits in a short time.
At the same time capital investment in the oil and gas industry is low. For example, Iran’s refineries are inadequate and inefficient. The country imports refined petrol and subsidises its purchase price at about 8 cents per litre or 33 cents per gallon.
Mousavi wants more investment in oil and gas, including at the expense of the subsidies.
Iran’s capitalist development began late in the history of capitalism – with the discovery of oil there in 1908. Yet even today, although agriculture makes up only 10 percent of the Iranian GDP, it employs 25 percent of the workforce.
Heavy industry accounts for 45 percent of GDP and over 30 percent of the workforce.
Workers in the oil and gas industry, given it earns over $50 billion a year for the Islamic state, hold the key to any major changes in Iranian society. There are 250,000 workers in the industry and they have a proud history of struggle.
In 1978 mass demonstrations and strikes by workers and the urban poor destroyed the Shah and his regime.
Oil workers struck against the Government killing demonstrators and the Shah imposing martial law. Over 33 days they cost the government about $74 million a day.
The strikes spread across the country and into the service industries. Army units refused to follow orders to kill demonstrators or suppress demonstrations and strikes.
On 11 December, 2 million marched in Tehran under the slogans ‘Hang the American puppet’, ‘Arms for the people’ and ‘The Shah must go’.
Workers began to set up Shoras or democratic workers councils to manage their workplaces. Democracy began to spread and workers across the country demanded to be involved in the development of policy and who was appointed to institutions of control.
Initial but limited attempts were begun to link the councils on city and regional bases.
At the same time the forces of the petit bourgeois and national capital swung their support behind Khomeini to defend capitalism.
Because the left did not believe Iran was developed enough for revolution and adopted the the Stalinist stages theory of revolution, many supported Khomeini as a progressive force and aligned themselves with the Islamic revolution.
Even those who opposed this development did not, because of the influence of stalinism, understand the significance of the shoras as the embryo of workers organs of state rule and the potential for the overthrow of capitalism in Iran.
A further weakness was the failure of the left during the period of repression under the Shah to build an organisation in the workforce modeled on the Bolsheviks. Without such a revolutionary organisation with real roots in the working class, the reactionary Khomeini was able to win power on the back of the workers’ movement.
The lessons for today seem clear. It is the Iranian working class which has the power to destroy the present dictatorship and win democracy. But having won political freedom through their own power why would they then disengage from the battle for their economic freedom?
The Iranian left must orient to the working class as the agent for change and develop working class political and economic demands to lead the revolution in a democratic and socialist direction.
The alternative is the continued rule of capital in the brutal form of the right wing under Ahmadinejad and the free marketeers and the clerics or under the right wing of Mousavi and the free marketeers and pro-imperialists.
The position of the Left in Iranian society is unclear. Certainly the dictatorship has destroyed independent union organisation and activity, and has imprisoned or killed thousands of union and political activists.
The idea and actuality of strikes in response to the the killings and arrests and to win better wages could take hold in major sections of the Iranian working class, just as it did in 1978 and 1979.
But without an independent revolutionary organisation already on the ground in Iran, or one being built now, with a real orientation to the working class and its struggles and demands, the prospects for real change let alone socialist change in Iran are diminished.
Replacing Ahmadinejad with Mousavi will not be a victory for democracy – it will be a victory for the pragmatic right in the regime and thus eventually for the regime itself.
It appears that the demands of the demonstrators are going beyond the limited reforms Mousavi has suggested, i.e. from change within the Islamic republic to its overthrow. Mousavi might become a follower rather than a leader.
The Iranian left must begin the urgent task of building now by linking to workers as workers and being the radical wing of the democracy movement.
We in the international left must support the democracy movement and the Iranian left when it strives to move the revolution leftward.