Slogans combined

Lessons of Iran

The pendulum of class struggle appears to be swinging in a democratic direction in capitalist Iran. Ever since the Islamic fundamentalist counterrevolution, the struggle for democracy has made very slow progress. There has been growing popular opposition to the old regime and struggle within the bourgeoisie between conservative fundamentalists and more progressive liberals. The latter secured the election in 1997 of President Mohammed Khatami promising democratic reform.

The conservatives fought back using their control of parliament and the state apparatus. Last week about 500 students demonstrated against a new restrictive press law. In response, militant Islamic fascists of the Ansar-e Hizbollah broke into Tehran University and beat the students. At least three were killed and 300 hospitalised. But, far from intimidating the students, this violence produced mass demonstrations.

Over 10,000 students staged a pro-democracy sit-in at Tehran University. The students demanded the resignation of the country’s parliament. The minister of education resigned. Mass action threatened not only the position of the conservatives, but also the liberal presidency of Khatami. “We are taking action because change is not occurring fast enough,” said a student spokesperson (The Observer July 11). Khatami is now openly criticised for not controlling the police who assisted the fascist attack. Latest reports from Tehran indicate major street battles between students and the police, assisted by the Islamic fascist gangs. Khatami was forced to take sides and naturally supported the police. The counterrevolutionary role of liberalism was exposed for all to see.

The struggle for democracy has left narrow, legal-constitutional and peaceful channels and become a mass, revolutionary, extra-parliamentary struggle. Whether this will develop into a full blown democratic revolution only time will tell. But it is clear that the masses have intervened directly and by mass revolutionary action have shifted the struggle onto a new level. Now the workers of Iran must come to the aid of the students. The students must appeal to workers.

How does the theory of revolutionary democratic communism relate to this situation? In the Weekly Worker (May 13 and July 1) I put forward three basic propositions:

  1. Revolutionary mass struggle is the best means to extend democracy.
  2. The democratic revolution is the highest form of that struggle.
  3. The revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat is the highest form of democratic revolution.

The Iranian students have already shown the validity of the first point. But what strategic line of advance leads towards the democratic revolution? The theory says that the party of the working class must become the political vanguard of the democratic movement. The party must put forward a combination of democratic demands and slogans. First there must be agitation for the overthrow of the islamic republic and in favour of a democratic secular republic. Second this requires that the students and workers unite and set up councils of action, or soviets, in the universities, factories and oilfields, and do so now. The aim must be to prepare the ground for a provisional revolutionary democratic government. Such a government would need to take immediate action to suppress the reactionaries and convene a constituent assembly. The future of democracy in Iran must pass into the hands of the people, led by the working class. Of course without a party this remains pure theory.

This programme of action combines democratic demands which are both bourgeois and proletarian in nature. It would need to include other democratic demands such as women’s rights and the right of nations to self-determination. If this programme were fully implemented, it would not take Iran beyond a dual power democratic republic. The demands for a democratic republic and the building of soviets, or workers’ and students’ councils, are not demands for the distant future. They are immediate demands for now.

For the sake of exposition, I will call this type of programme which contains both bourgeois democratic and proletarian democratic demands, a ‘combination programme’. If this was the maximum programme, it would be consistent with centrism or Kautskyism, whose maximum is bourgeois democracy. But the combination programme is a minimum programme guiding us on the first steps of the permanent revolution. Unfortunately the left Trotskyist ignoramuses are incapable of understanding this, despite having had it explained to them time after time.

The rotten and false theory of stageism divided revolutions into two types: bourgeois democratic and national socialist, for which there were corresponding minimum and maximum programmes. According to this, bourgeois democratic demands belong in the minimum, and soviets - or workers’ councils - belong to the maximum programme. The combination programme breaks down the artificial and false barrier between the old minimum and maximum. It combines what was correct about the old Bolshevik minimum with the lessons of the Russian Revolution, including Lenin’s April thesis of 1917. The combination minimum programme is the post-April thesis minimum, not the old pre-April minimum. This type of programme could also justifiably be called a transitional programme.

These ideas are rooted in the experience of Bolshevism. We can locate them in the ideological division between revolutionary democratic communism and economist-communism. Economism manifests itself in centrism and ultra-leftism, which are based on an incorrect attitude to bourgeois democracy and proletarian democracy. The Centrists support the extension of bourgeois democracy and oppose proletarian (or soviet) democracy. The ultra-lefts oppose the extension of bourgeois democracy and crudely counterpose workers’ democracy to it.

The Bolsheviks, or revolutionary democrats, understood from a working class perspective not the simple opposition of one form of democracy to the other, but also their interrelationship through class struggle and the processes of transition from one the other. Consequently, by understanding the class struggle and the consciousness of the masses, the slogans of bourgeois democracy and workers’ democracy can and must be combined in certain circumstances. The dual power republic of 1917 showed exactly the interplay of both types of democratic demands and the class struggle. It is then a tactical question of which slogans should be emphasised at what moment. In general a lower level of class struggle puts more emphasis on bourgeois democratic demands and at a higher level the soviets have more prominence.

Modern revolutionary democracy must base itself on the combination politics of 1917 and not the old-style, purely bourgeois democratic, pre-1917 minimum programme. During 1917 the Bolsheviks practised combination politics by advocating the building and strengthening of soviets, side by side with agitation for the convening of a parliamentary Constituent Assembly. The lessons of this were burned into the political psychology of Trotsky. Consequently Trotsky’s views on future revolutions can be seen from a certain angle as an application of the combination programme.

From 1926 Trotsky wrote a series of letters and articles on the situation facing Chinese communists (see Leon Trotsky on China New York 1976). The Stalinists adopted the theory of bourgeois democratic revolution in the manner of the Mensheviks. They believed that the Chinese bourgeoisie was the only class that could lead the democratic revolution. As a result they followed a policy of joining the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang. Trotsky opposed the dangerous policy of remaining inside the Kuomintang. He urged the Communist Party to organise independently and promote the building and spreading of soviets or workers’ and peasants’ councils. He also argued, especially after the crushing of the communist movement in Shanghai in 1927, for the bourgeois democratic slogan of a constituent assembly.

Dave Craig (RDG)