Past and present
Some on the left seem to have learnt something. But, argues Andrew Bowker, the fight for anti-imperialist solidarity must be stepped up - particularly in the Labour Party
Emily Thornberry: awful
One of the most striking things about the latest developments inside Iran is how disingenuous much of the mainstream English-language commentary has been. As Yassamine Mather makes clear elsewhere in this paper, the situation on the ground is far more complicated than the dominant (mis)representation of the demonstrations as either the latest stunt on the part of the disgruntled ‘principalist’ faction of the regime, or an imperialist plot hatched in conjunction with the royalists or the dodgy, marginal sect known as Mujahedin-e Khalq.
The highly skewed reporting of the inspiring protests in Iran makes it all the more important for the left outside of Iran to provide an accurate account of the rapidly unfolding situation, as well as to raise solidarity with those affected by the regime’s brutal crackdown. In what follows, I wish to provide a brief overview of how sections of the British left have responded to a wave of anger and defiance perhaps not seen in Iran since the revolution of 1979.
As readers may be aware, in the recent past the British left’s politics on Iran have, with a few exceptions, certainly been found wanting. In order to illustrate this point, let us turn the clock back a decade or so to recall the revealing relationship between this country’s main anti-war campaign, the Stop the War Coalition, and Hands Off the People of Iran (Hopi).
Founded a decade ago, the latter group had two related aims: to oppose all imperialist intervention (including sanctions) against Iran; and simultaneously to support those fighting against the theocracy: in particular workers, but also leftwing students, women’s campaigns and so forth. The sharp and principled message of the campaign garnered extensive support from various strands of progressive opinion in Britain. The PSC union and Aslef both affiliated and the campaign’s honorary president was none other than one John McDonnell MP, who did some sterling work in getting out the message into the wider workers’ movement.
Soon after its foundation, however, the campaign found itself embroiled in a rather heated controversy, which sheds some important light on the British left’s attitudes towards Iran. As an anti-war grouping, it was quite natural that Hopi would affiliate to the Stop the War Coalition, which had been responsible for coordinating some huge demonstrations against the Iraq war in particular. It was headed by Andrew Murray (now Unite’s chief of staff) and Lindsey German, who at the time was still a leading light in the Socialist Workers Party (she eventually split away with her co-thinker, John Rees, to form the Counterfire grouping in 2010). The coalition consisted of a broad range of different parties and campaigns, which - for all their differences on various issues - all came together in opposition to the military adventures of the US/UK governments.
At least until 2007, that is, when Hopi’s affiliation to the coalition was rejected. Adding insult to injury somewhat, at the particular conference where this decision was made, an Iranian exile spoke against Hopi’s continued affiliation on the grounds that a lot of misinformation and lies were being spread about the Islamic Republic. (This was, of course, quite true - particularly because, at that point in time, Iran was directly in the crosshairs of imperialism and the propaganda campaign demonising the country was being ratcheted up). However, what our Iranian exile then proceeded to offer was, well, little other than misinformation and lies. To much applause from SWP comrades mobilised to vote against Hopi’s affiliation, she argued that Iran is not a repressive or undemocratic country and that, while there is some persecution of homosexuals, for example, there is a much higher rate of sex change operations there than in Europe.1
The reasoning - if one can call it that - behind this intervention went something like this: Iran is a supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ country and, as such, even progressive, leftwing criticism of the regime can only confuse people, thereby playing into the hands of warmongers George W Bush and Tony Blair. For this reason, there is no way that a campaign such as Hopi can possibly become an affiliate of the Stop the War Coalition.
Hopi comrades patiently countered these criticisms and - against the smears of being soft on imperialism - made a strong case that anti-imperialism and internationalism must go hand in hand. Remaining silent on, or apologising for, the crimes of the Islamic Republic can only weaken our exposition of the crimes of US/UK imperialism. Over and again Hopi attempted to affiliate to the coalition, but over and again the application was rejected - often in a bureaucratic and dishonest fashion, which sought to avoid having a fully informed debate on the issue at all costs. Indeed, looking back on this whole torrid affair, I cannot help but feel that the arguments Hopi activists were bringing to the anti-war movement at this time were never really had out in full. For this reason, it is difficult to gauge the precise impact the campaign has had on the politics of the left in this country.
Shifts and tensions
There are, however, some encouraging signs that sections of the left which once rejected Hopi’s arguments are now coming to similar conclusions. Although the Stop the War Coalition is yet to comment on unfolding events in Iran, the SWP seems to have had a welcome change of approach. In an interview with two Iranian socialists in Socialist Worker,2 for example, Nick Clark asks how the left should respond to those such as Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu, who have recently proffered their bogus solidarity for the demonstrations (Bush once did something similar in relation to striking Iranian bus workers, it should be recalled). The responses given by both comrades are sensible and principled. Nima, for example, replies as follows: “The left has to take a side with those who are on the street, but definitely warn against the role of imperialism.” Massoud (not his real name) expands on this point:
It’s unprincipled for the left not to support the protests. This just leaves it to the right to influence such a movement … These are real working class people fighting. When you are silent or say you are suspicious, they put their hopes in the bourgeois opposition and imperialists.
Quite correct. The German-Rees Counterfire split from the SWP has also published its own article on the events in Iran, written by Naz Massoumi. It makes some solid points regarding the diversity of the protests and why some of the more marginal Iranian nationalist or ‘pro-Aryan’ slogans should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, the article draws a slightly different conclusion to Massoud and Nima in Socialist Worker:
But the consequences of these protests should not be underestimated. We have, in neighbouring Syria, an example of where a genuine social revolutionary uprising seeking to overthrow the Assad regime, in the context of a civil war and foreign interference, quickly came under the tutelage of imperial powers. As such, the left in Britain must avoid the twin errors of simply supporting the protests in Iran without adopting a critical perspective on its political direction or, conversely, uncritically backing the Iranian government against US imperialism (my emphasis).3
It is quite right that international solidarity is not the same thing as uncritical cheerleading. Solidarity means engagement, criticism and the attempt to outline clear perspectives. But it is precisely on this score that the article’s conclusion is clearly wanting. The article seems to sit between two stools. On the one hand, there is a call for support for the demonstrations. Yet it also seems to imply that if sections of the protestors should come under the tutelage of ‘regime change from above’, then we will have to side with the Iranian government - albeit critically, of course.
So perhaps not much has changed in the Counterfire camp. After all, what is wrong with arguing that we should, as a matter of basic principle, look to promote and support those - genuinely anti-imperialist - forces inside Iran which are fighting against their own government and are opposed to regime change from above? Isn’t this precisely the kind of “critical perspective”, the “political direction” which the Iranian left should be fighting for?
Somebody who seems to have grasped this fundamental point is the commentator and Labour activist Owen Jones. In response to Zac Goldsmith’s newly found ‘support’ for the Iranian people, Jones tweeted:
I support a democratic Iran and anyone who fights for it. I also oppose the calamitous western interventions you supported. Also, your racist failed mayoral campaign means you should be treated as a pariah in public life.
Further: “Solidarity with any Iranian protestors who are fighting for democracy and freedom, both from a vicious regime and from US domination.”4
What is interesting about comrade Jones is that, 10 years ago, he had initially joined in with the chorus of lies against Hopi, portraying the campaign as a pro-imperialist organisation along the lines of the left-Zionist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. But, not least because of Hopi’s sharp condemnation of the AWL and its soft-peddling on imperialism, Jones saw the error of his ways and apologised to Hopi comrades. Hopefully the stance he has taken on the recent protests will be adopted and taken up by others in the Labour Party.
Silence and confusion
For the role played by the Labour Party leadership has hitherto been incredibly disappointing. While he is not exactly wet behind the ears when it comes to the politics of Iran, John McDonnell has, as far as I can gather, not yet commented on the situation. The same goes for Jeremy Corbyn - something which the rightwing press is keen to exploit. It goes without saying that Corbyn and McDonnell should be defended from such criticism by the pro-imperialist press. They have no lessons to learn from such people.
But their refusal to take a clear stance is only adding fuel to the fire of the right. It would be much better if they were to condemn the mendacity of the imperialist press and come out in opposition to the Islamic Republic’s treatment of the social movements. Instead, however, they appear to have let shadow foreign and commonwealth secretary Emily Thornberry take the lead on this matter. Given that she recently argued that the colonial-settler state of Israel is a “beacon of freedom, equality and democracy”5 in the Middle East, the outcome of this has been predictably dire.
Her statement on Iran recognises that there are
clearly large, spontaneous public outpourings within the protests that we [it is not entirely clear who she means by ‘we’ - AB] can all understand and support: trade unionists campaigning for workers’ rights; women fighting against arcane laws governing their clothing and sex lives; working class communities protesting about unemployment and the cost of living; and young people appealing for greater political freedom.6
However, she is rather more guarded when it comes to voicing actual solidarity for these forces as the basis of longer-term, radical change. She feels that such a move, especially when the exact nature of the protests is supposedly still so unclear, would not amount to the kind of “sensible, cautious, thoughtful foreign policy our country needs”. Concluding, she writes:
So it would be easy to say: let’s throw our weight behind the Iranian protests, even if we don’t fully understand what they are; let’s pursue the overthrow of the Iranian regime, even if we don’t know what would replace it; and, as for the future, let’s just assume it will all work out for the best. Yes, that would all be very easy and probably quite popular, but it would also be totally reckless and irresponsible.
But why can she not simply call for support for progressive demands and an end to the repression? Her response, insofar as it is one, seems to be informed by the notion that taking a clear line is tantamount calling for western invasion or regime change from above. (“We were promised the same thing [ie, progress and change - AB] about Iraq and Egypt and Libya and Syria”, she writes, in a quite remarkable amalgamation of vastly different episodes in recent history.)
She is, of course, correct to point out that ‘regime change from above’ can only bring disaster for the Iranian people. The human tragedy created by western sanctions, wars and regime change in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is obvious - not least to the Iranians who witness the arrival of desperate refugees in their country.
It would seem that our future foreign secretary’s main goal regarding Iran is to bank on upholding the nuclear deal, and use this to get the supposedly more ‘liberal’ mullahs around the negotiating table, facilitating reform and democratisation. As she puts it, the nuclear deal must be a “bridge to something better and broader”.
Perhaps the ruthless behaviour of Hassan Rouhani’s ‘reformist’ government in cracking down on the protests since she penned her statement will cause her to rethink this approach. At any rate, the workers’ movement can, and must, do much better than this. In order to break with the false dichotomy between defending a reactionary regime and/or expressing illusions in the imperialist world order, anti-imperialism and international solidarity must be combined. It is a matter of some urgency that principled anti-imperialist solidarity finds its way into our trade union branches, as well as into the politics of the Labour Party from the CLPs upwards.
The fundamental message must be: No to imperialist intervention! No to the Islamic Republic! Hands off the People of Iran! l
1. A transcript of this remarkable speech, which includes citing the success of an Iranian female racing driver to undermine the notion that Iran is a misogynistic society, is available online: http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/695/lie-number-five-iran-is-undemocratic.