Iran in revolution

Arman Arani of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran on revolution and counterrevolution

I want to elaborate on some essential characteristics and particularities of the Iranian revolution, the lessons of the Iranian revolution for the world revolutionary movement and the question of party - what kind of party are we talking about; how do we construct the kind of party that we envisage today? This is also in respect to the lesson of the defeat of the revolution in Iran and the defeat of the Great October revolution.

The Iranian revolution was one of the most mass-based revolutions of this century. Almost one third of the population came to Tehran to greet Khomeini and throughout the country the whole mass was organised on that basis - over 50% of the population of Iran at the time of February 1979 were on the streets, ready to support revolution and overthrow the Shah’s regime. Shortly afterwards, Khomeini proposed the establishment of an islamic regime in a referendum. According to official figures nearly 99% of those eligible to vote opted for an islamic regime and at this stage those who opposed it were dubbed the ‘one percenters’. We had the honour to be numbered among them.

This deeply mass-based movement contained within itself profoundly contradictory forces, including the most backward forces in society.

Another characteristic of the revolution was that it got its force from the masses in the cities. It was not a peasant revolution. The peasants actually came to the revolutionary process shortly after it had started. However this peasant base was not an even process. For example, in Kurdistan it took place almost simultaneously with the development in the cities because of the specificity of national oppression. But in central Iran the development was much slower, due to the less sharply defined social-economic contradictions in that area. So we can see that the greater the contradiction in the area between the landlords and the peasants, the more radical will be the response of the peasant movement.

The Iranian revolution was essentially a workers’ revolution. It was an unorganised mass workers’ rebellion, in which millions of the destitutes and the ‘underclass’ of the cities played a prominent role. When it comes to understanding the subsequent counterrevolution, we should note that this unorganised and backward segment of the population easily succumbed to populist islamic ideology. This ultimately explains how a working class revolution can create a counterrevolution within itself.

I was personally involved in many activities of the working class around the Tehran industrial sector. At that time we had demonstrations of millions of people, who filled the streets, shouting, ‘Down with the Shah! We also had strikes, which were spontaneously breaking out all over the country. One of the most important strikes took place in the oil industry - the most significant strike in the whole revolutionary process.

Of course, the strikes by millions of workers, the mass demonstrations, the unification of the workers’ and peasants’ movements in the shoras, based in the factories and in the rural areas, were important factors in the downfall of the Shah’s regime, but the most critical - and disastrous - element in this whole process was that neither of these movements were led by a political party with a revolutionary programme. This ensured that the whole movement came under the hegemony of a counterrevolutionary leadership, which did have its own organisation and programme ‘for action’.

The revolution had a contradiction within itself. What was this contradiction? The working class in this revolutionary arena actually contained within itself the embryo of the counter-revolution by Khomeini.

I would like to discuss how this contradiction came about and how we can fight to minimise the effects of this contradiction in Iran - and other places in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where there are similar social-economic structures.

The whole process of the revolutionary development, and the development of the counterrevolution, came as a result of the construction of a social bloc of different social forces in that society. This was a counterrevolutionary bloc, composed of millions of workers, the destitute, petty bourgeoisie and the shopkeepers, and the leading social force - the merchant bourgeoisie or bazaaris. This whole counterrevolutionary bloc was cemented together by an islamic fundamentalist ideology, with the muslim clerics very quickly assuming leadership.

Central components of this ideology consisted of putting muslim workers against non-muslim workers; muslim women against non-muslim women; muslim students against non-muslim students and so on. So the whole society becomes paralysed along the lines of religion, as opposed to class. In this contradictory bloc, Khomeini was able to manoeuvre easily and defeat the workers’ revolution - with the hand of the workers themselves.

At the time of the revolutionary outburst the Iranian left was fragmented and without a party. We had a number of different left groups - including the Tudeh Party, which had very little influence within the working class and was dependent on the Soviet bureaucracy and the so-called socialist countries.

The other more active organisation which had any influence within the movement was the Fedayi organisation. But it had no distinctive programme. It was an alliance of various guerrilla units who had come together in the 1960s and lost hundreds of their most courageous cadres in the struggle against the Shah’s regime. When the regime was overthrown, the Fedayi was unable to organise the mass movement of the workers, because it did not have an organic relationship with the working class. So when the revolution came, the Fedayi organisation splintered into a number of small groups. In addition, a number of small Maoist and Trotskyite groups which sprang up during the revolutionary process also became engulfed in the anti-imperialist populism of Khomeini and so evaporated.

Essentially, the left in Iran was not able to put together a countervailing bloc of forces for socialism and against populist islamic fundamentalism. The left was unable to produce anything tangible at a time when it could have turned the whole movement towards counterrevolution into a revolutionary process for socialism and a worker’ state.

The second part of my discussion is about the lessons of the Iranian revolution. I want to say that the Iranian revolution, contrary to what many academics argued and still do, was a confirmation of the basic Marxian analysis: the Iranian revolution was essentially a classical type of revolution where antagonistic classes clash. The workers had come to the streets to overthrow the regime, but because they were not able to organise themselves into a party, and organise the whole mass of the class, they failed. I am trying to say that this justifies the Marxist concept of class struggle as the motor-force of history. It also justifies the crucial importance of Party and its relationship to the masses.

When the workers cannot be mobilised behind a revolutionary strategy which aims to overthrow the class enemy, the workers will be used by counter-revolutionary forces against the long-term interests of the ‘workers themselves. Look at Le Pen in France, who got 20% of the vote. If there was a working class party which had any connection with the workers this could not happen. So for this reason I am saying that it is important that the working class should have its own party.

It is that it is not enough to have one or two, or a handful of revolutionary organisations which call themselves ‘this or that revolutionary organisation’. It is necessary that these organisations have a material relationship with the workers’ movement. In our experience of Iran, the mass movement was doing one thing; the organisations were doing another.

For this reason I am insisting that it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the process of building the Party within the masses. Just having organisations here and there of intellectuals, even revolutionary intellectuals, is completely inadequate.

A cardinal lesson we must draw - and this is possibly the greatest lesson we can learn - is that after the establishment of the islamic regime the left utterly forgot to struggle for democracy in Iran. We forgot to fight for freedom of the individual. We forgot to fight for the rights of women. We also overlooked the national question and the struggle against national oppression.

This was due to the left’s misconception about the content of ‘anti-imperialism’ and its connection with the class struggle and the workers’ movement in Iran. Although the regime had, and still does have, some conflicts with imperialism, this is more an anti-western, anti-modernity reflex than any real anti-imperialist sentiment. This has nothing to do with the supposed revolutionary content of the regime. The important factor that the left should concentrate on is to understand whether the islamic regime’s policies have been serving the interests of the working class or the capitalist class.

What was the regime doing shortly after the revolution? Was it benefiting the working class? - no. It was destroying the workers’ movement. It destroyed the shoras, it destroyed social organisations which advocated democracy and freedom of expression.

But the defeat of the workers’ movement in Iran and in other parts of the world also taught us some important lessons. We on the left should learn from the experience of those who were not in opposition, as the left was in Iran, and pay attention to those who in the name of the working class were in power for 70 years.

An important lesson for the left is that if you are in opposition, as we were, fight for freedom, fight for democracy, fight for workers’ self-determination and fight for socialism and a workers’ state. If you are in power, as in the Soviet Union, fight to extend democracy, fight for mass workers’ self-determination, so they can create their own society. That is why I am concerned about the type of party and the type of state we are going to have in the future.

In Iran we cannot organise a revolution around a number of small grouplets who call themselves ‘this or that’ - us included. We will lose the next round if we are not careful.

This brings me to the third section of my discussion: the Party question and the workers’ bloc for socialism.

Firstly, a disorganised and disunited class will be used as part of an arsenal of counterrevolution and will be used against socialism and the class itself. Secondly, in order to organise the mass of the class, we must first start to comprehend the concept of the Party and its relation to the masses; and the workers’ state and its relationship to the Party and the class. Thirdly, the question today is not ‘to have or not to have a Party’ but what kind of Party we want to build. Fourth, the Communist Party cannot be built over the head of the workers but can only survive as a Party if it has an organic link with the class. Fifth, there is a difference between the dictatorship of the class and the dictatorship of the Party, even the dictatorship of the revolutionary segment over the class itself - it will lead nowhere in the long run, as the defeat of the October Revolution demonstrated.

Some people defend the dictatorship of the Party, the dictatorship of the revolutionary segment over the class itself. I want to say this has nothing to do with Marxism, has nothing to do with the Communist Manifesto and with communism. I would refer you to the experience of the Paris Commune and the October Revolution itself. Those who say that we have to create the dictatorship of part of the class over the class as a whole argue that because the class is reformist, has bourgeois ideology within it, if you have the dictatorship of the whole class you will have reformism in the form of social democracy. I want to argue that if you call yourself a Marxist then you should compare your views with those of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto:

“The communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement... In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality” (Progress Publishers 1973, p61).

What are the essential duties of the communists within the workers’ movement during a revolutionary process? Lenin has given us an historic example of some of these duties in his April Theses, written during the heat of the class struggle which led to the October Revolution. He called for peace, bread and land and all power to the soviets. These were not abstract, ideological phrases, but simple, historical demands which related to the struggles of millions against the bourgeoisie and the landed aristocracy in Tsarist Russia.

The Party must fight courageously for the immediate and long-term interests of the class as a whole. The defeat of the Iranian Revolution and the Great October Revolution has led us to the realisation that at the present stage of the struggle it would be almost impossible for one small group of revolutionaries alone to win the battle against capitalism and counterrevolution in Iran. There is no single left group which has the necessary theoretical, organisational and political capability to turn the tide against islamic reaction and establish socialism.

Therefore we call for a workers’ bloc for socialism and democracy, composed of all partisans of the class - organisations and individuals - to unite around four essential principles:

This is already taking shape in the form of an embryonic alliance of 10 small organisations in which we are playing an active part.