Islamic revolution or counterrevolution

On the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Torab Saleth examines its historical roots

The revolutionary movement in Iran, which culminated on February 10 1979 in an insurrection against the US-backed monarchy, coincided with a crisis of Iranian capitalism which had already emerged as early as 1974. In the sense that it was a direct reaction to that crisis, this was an anti-capitalist revolution.

This can be demonstrated by the actual dynamics of the unfolding revolutionary crisis that begins with riots by the urban poor in the shanty towns of south Tehran in the summer of 1976 and ends up with a general strike of around four million workers from September 1978 to February 1979. The revolutionary period, especially during the general strike, led also to a rapid rise in those forms of organisation such as workers’ strike committees, factory councils, regional and industrial coordinating committees and myriads of neighbourhood associations - all of which are usually associated with such anti-capitalist revolutions.

At the time, there were some heated debates within the left as to the nature of Iranian society. Today, 30 years later, hardly anyone still claims that it was anything but capitalism which dominated Iran in 1979. It was, however, a capitalist system with a political regime closer to Asiatic despotism than even the most backward forms of bourgeois parliamentarism. The shahanshah (‘king of kings’ - as he used to call himself) ruled over a totally corrupt police state kept in power by the USA. In this contradiction alone, the entire crisis of Iranian society could be observed. When all the usual propaganda about the benefits of the new world system was removed, layer by layer, the only stark fact that explained the Iranian condition was that the longevity of despotic monarchic rule went hand in hand with US domination of Iran. It was thus only natural for the revolution to also develop an anti-monarchic and anti-imperialist character.


The insurrection on February 10 came about in a way not predicted by anyone. It was in no way organised or led. None of the bourgeois politicians, pro- or anti-shah, had expected it. The supporters of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were so surprised that, many hours into the insurrection, they were still telling their people to go home because, “The imam has not ordered an uprising”.

When the insurrection took place, the shah had already been dispatched abroad by his US backers and forced to appoint Shapour Bakhtiar, a bourgeois nationalist politician from the National Front,1 to form the next government. The new government had promised a return to “constitutional rule” and had made a number of concessions in its first few days. Soon after, Khomeini was allowed to return to Tehran. The US administration had also made it publicly known that the Iranian army would “refrain from intervention” in the mass movement.

The catalyst was the revolt of the Royal Guards stationed in north Tehran. They rejected Bakhtiar’s concessions, which they viewed as a threat to the established order, and marched south with their tanks towards an airforce base they regarded as a centre of ‘anti-shah conspiracy’. The people of Tehran soon heard about this and mobilised to stop their advance. The airforce technicians at the base opened up the arsenals. The armed people soon defeated the Royal Guards and moved on to every known centre of Savak, the secret police. Within eight hours the regime was overrun in Tehran.

The next day, February 11, following a statement from the armed forces declaring their neutrality, the shah’s last government fell and a ‘provisional government’, headed by Mehdi Bazargan and nominated by a secret committee appointed by Khomeini,2 took power. The new government presented itself as a liberal Islamic capitalist regime based on a coalition of bourgeois nationalist parties, both Islamic and secular, alongside the pro-Khomeini wing of the Shi’ite hierarchy and its backers within the Iranian bazaar.

Bazargan’s government fell a few months later, but the same forces that appointed and dismissed him still rule Iran today. The new power soon shed its liberal pretence and started referring to the Iranian revolution as an Islamic one. They even changed its anniversary to February 1, the date of Khomeini’s return to Iran.

Well worn

How did this revolution - which in terms of the degree of mass participation was one of the most important of the 20th century - end up becoming ‘Islamic’? Indeed what was the ‘Islamic revolution’?

One common interpretation has been based on the well worn model of ‘anti-colonial struggles in the countries of the periphery’, popular within the left since the early 1920s. A model, it must be said, which was inadequate even then. By this reasoning, the Islamic revolution becomes an anti-imperialist revolution led by bourgeois nationalist forces. The politics which flow from this differ only in shade - from shameless collaboration to so-called ‘critical’ support. For adherents of this model, the revolution lived on, despite the leadership.

Although such views have long since been discredited, given the current conflict with the USA/Israel it has been rebranded by a number of left currents and has once again become a justification for all sorts of opportunist overtures towards the Iranian regime. Yes, they say, it is a corrupt, clerical-capitalist regime - but look at how the anti-imperialist aspect of the Iranian revolution survives to this day! (Now not only via Ahmadinejad’s government, but also by its support for Hezbollah and Hamas).

But this interpretation of the revolution as ‘Islamic’forgets a few simple historical truths. Firstly, the label itself was invented later - after the fact, as it were. It obviously came from outside the revolutionary movement. To put it crudely, no-one went on strike or demonstrated against the shah’s regime shouting, ‘For an Islamic revolution!’ Not even those following the Islamic currents ever said that. Khomeini himself, even as late as February 1 1979 in an interview on the plane returning home, made no such claim. In fact in his first speech in Tehran he promised he would personally have nothing to do with government work and would shortly be returning to his religious studies in Ghom. The masses were only ‘persuaded’ later that the revolution they undertook was in fact ‘Islamic’. It was, therefore, something so far removed from reality - something imported from the outside - that it had to be concealed from the masses by its creators and leaders.3

Of course, anyone who reaches the heights of the Shi’ite hierarchy is already a master of demagogy. Now backed up by political power, the demagogy carried with it imprisonment and even execution for those refusing to be ‘persuaded’. Just two years after February 79, even to relate the facts about the revolution was tantamount to sacrilege and punishable by death.

It cannot be denied that on the eve of this revolutionary change, sections of the masses, including important sections of the working class, were ready to be persuaded. Khomeini had become the unchallenged leader of the anti-shah opposition, but does this prove that the ‘Islamic revolution’ was identical with a genuine, popular revolution? Just because the masses had illusions in Khomeini, it does not automatically follow that the Islamic leaders were in turn expressing the will of the masses, albeit in a distorted clerical way.

The second obvious fact which disproves this interpretation is that under the flag of the Islamic revolution stood those forces that in reality were organised in active combat with the genuine revolution. Attacks on revolutionaries by mobs associated with Khomeini’s leadership started even before the new regime was established. With the mullahs in power, attacks became open and daily, right from day one.

First the strikes were ordered to end. Then secret courts immediately executed a few of the pro-shah politicians, whilst mysteriously letting others escape or even stay and work behind the scenes for the new government. Soon after, the veil was forced on women. The free press was shut down, one by one. National minorities were attacked - first the Arabs in the south and then the Kurds. Socialist oppositionist parties were banned. Scores of revolutionary activists were arrested. Instead of the promised constituent assembly, a phoney referendum was quickly organised, in which the only choice offered was between the already overthrown monarchy or an Islamic republic (as yet undefined).

Thus, from the first day in power, the Islamic regime began not only a total rollback of all the gains of the revolution, but also a retreat into Iran’s reactionary past - crowned a few years later with the execution of around 40,000 political prisoners.

This does not follow the usual pattern of bourgeois nationalist movements - either previously in Iran or elsewhere. The ferocity of the repression against the masses and the depths of reaction into which the new government has pushed back Iranian society have not been witnessed anywhere else in the world in recent history. Thirty years on, the conditions of the vast majority of the population are many times worse than they were during the worst period of the shah’s rule. All the indices by which you may judge a nation’s social and economic well-being have worsened.

Whatever interpretation one may place on the events of 1979, the fact remains that the masses did succeed in overthrowing the monarchy - but only to find their struggle hijacked by a theocratic regime which has established an even more vicious police state, defending an even more reactionary system of capitalism.

Historical roots

How did a defeat on such a scale become possible? To answer this question one must, of course, look into recent Iranian history and highlight those developments which led to the specific conditions and the unique alignment of class forces in 1970s Iran.

Even a cursory glance at this history reveals two glaringly obvious features. The first is one of continuous defeats for the progressive movements; and the second is the ever present hand of foreign (imperialist) intervention in ensuring such defeats. Indeed, the 1979 revolution was not the first revolution in the country’s recent history. During the same century we had already witnessed one full-scale revolution and at least two other important periods of revolutionary upsurge.

In 1906, Iran went through the Constitutional Revolution, which was very similar to the 1905 revolution in Russia. It led at first to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and an elected parliament, but was soon defeated (in 1911) with the help of the Russian Cossack army brought in by the new shah. Asiatic despotism was soon re-installed, maintained and managed jointly by the embassies of tsarist Russia and Britain. The only reason Iran escaped direct colonisation was the rivalry between these two powers.

After October 1917, a new revolutionary period opened up in Iran - which even resulted in the establishment of a soviet republic in Guilan, in the north. This time, the revolutionary movement was defeated by a British-backed military coup which placed Reza Khan (an Iranian officer in the Cossack division stationed in Iran and now under British tutelage) on the Iranian throne - and thus the Pahlavi dynasty. Imperialism required a ‘strong state’ to withstand the ‘threat of Bolshevism’. Asiatic despotism now acquired a very ‘modern’, British-backed, militaristic face. This was to be the Iranian version of a modern bourgeois state, but, thanks to the power of that state, Reza Shah ended up becoming the biggest landlord in Iran. His military dictatorship lasted right up to World War II.

After the removal of Reza Shah (by now a Nazi collaborator!) by the Allies, a new revolutionary upsurge unfolded, leading to the nationalisation of the oil industry and the escape of the new shah to Italy. This time, in 1953, the CIA came to the rescue of the Iranian ruling class and, by utilising a very ‘novel’ combination of the army and urban gangs, overthrew Mossadegh’s government and placed the shah back on the throne. The summary execution of the leaders of the political opposition after the coup deservedly earned him the title, ‘butcher of the Middle East’.

The 1979 revolution could not, therefore, appear just as a revolution against Iranian capitalism. It carried within it the ghosts of all the previous defeats. Not only had none of the demands of the constitutionalists (rule of law, freedom and security for all citizens) been resolved, but new ones were added after every defeat. For example, the establishment of Reza Shah’s ‘strong state’ from above could only be achieved by the creation of a Farsi national bureaucracy and army and thus by the suppression of every other nationality living in its border areas. Since then, ending national oppression has been added to all the other tasks of the Iranian revolution.

History has thus given a combined character to the Iranian revolution. But a combination of tasks produces a combination of classes which participate in the revolutionary process. It is thus not accidental that Iranian revolutions appear more like bourgeois popular revolutions than workers’ ones. Almost the entire petty bourgeoisie and even large sections of the ruling class had grievances against the shah’s regime too. The Iranian working class amounted to no more than 4.5 million, but at the height of the revolutionary process more than 10 million people were actively involved in day-to-day struggles.4

Furthermore, this combined character was also an important feature of the counterrevolutionary classes/layers and political forces/institutions. The weight of the previous defeats could best be described by the strong presence in Iranian society of all the previously defeated counterrevolutionary layers/classes. The Iranian revolution had not only kept piling up unresolved tasks, but accumulating a counterrevolutionary opposition.

Capitalism in Iran

This composite character of the situation in Iran cannot be separated from its socio-economic system. By the 1970s, capitalism was dominant, but not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘normal’ type of capitalism.

As it actually existed in 1979, Iranian capitalism was itself a product of foreign import, grafted on from above by the shah’s bayonets, under the leadership of imperialism and for the benefit of imperialism. This was, of course, not imposed in a vacuum, but within a complex society already in transition to capitalism and already retarded in its tracks by continuous interventions from outside. In fact, without understanding the specific way Iran was integrated into the world capitalist system, its entire modern history is incomprehensible. The means by which capitalism became dominant and the type of capitalism it produced was the prelude to the Islamic counterrevolution.

Before the Constitutional Revolution, indigenous capitalist growth had already been hampered - first by the direct plunder of the entire region by various colonialist powers, and then by the domination of international trade routes by a few western European capitalist countries, which drastically reduced the share of major Asiatic countries like Iran in foreign trade. This dealt a major blow to the internal process of primitive accumulation, which had been boosted during the Safavid period (1502-1736) with the sudden increase in world trade. By the 18th and 19th centuries Iran suffered the destruction of most of its handicraft or small manufacturing industries in the face of competition from cheaper European imports. During the 15th and 16th centuries the Iranian economy (or for that matter the Indian or Chinese) had been on a par with any of the more advanced European countries, but by the 18th the huge gulf was already evident.

Iran was in transition to capitalism, but a transition from an Asiatic mode of production and not a feudal system. If in Europe the ‘third estate’ had already taken shape within the feudal system, in Iran even the appearance of an ‘independent’ landlord class belongs to the period of transition itself. A major characteristic of the Asiatic mode of production was indeed the dominant role of the state in social production. Thus almost all of the irrigated land and the monopoly of foreign trade belonged to the state. This made it very difficult for an independent bourgeois class to take shape - even during the Safavid period, when Iran’s exports in glassware and textiles had witnessed an enormous increase. The state was the ruling class and it simply did not tolerate any other independent source of power.

With the break-up of the all-powerful Asiatic state, however, a number of layers, institutions and individuals from within the ruling elites gradually lost their ties to the state and created what could be called an ‘independent’ ruling class, composed initially almost entirely of military and tribal chiefs, high-ranking functionaries, local notables, merchants, landlords and Shi’ite clerics. The crumbling state, in need of cash thanks to an ever decreasing source of taxation, fuels this process itself by the sale of state lands, international monopoly trade rights and large sections of the internal distribution system. Many simply take advantage of the central government’s weakness by taking over whatever assets they controlled. Thus we see, for example, a process whereby the endowment lands previously provided by the state for the upkeep of the Shi’ite hierarchy become the private property of the Shi’ite institutions. Similarly, local governors, military commanders and tax collectors take over huge tracts of land, mines, the local markets and even sections of the internal trade routes.

This break-up was then hugely speeded up by the intervention of British and Russian interests in Iran (which by the 18th century had more or less seen off all other competitors). Local warlords, tribal chiefs and notables willing to serve them were helped and encouraged to privatise the previously state-owned properties under their control.

The appearance of pro-British or pro-Russian sections of the ruling class is the outcome of this period. If you wanted to progress within the ruling elites, you had to have either British or Russian backing. The British in particular created a whole layer within the ruling class totally subservient to their interests - it has been called a ‘state within the state’. The British set up schools in India, by now a colony, to train functionaries, military officers and even Shi’ite clerics for work in Iran.

By the end of the 19th century, having run out of assets to sell internally, the Iranian state started granting wholesale concessions to foreign companies. The famous ‘tobacco revolts’ of the late 19th century, a precursor to the Constitutional Revolution, were a direct reaction of the new ruling elites to the rapid erosion of their newly gained monopoly powers because of the state’s collusion with foreigners. The split that subsequently took place within the ruling class - a split carried over to the Constitutional Revolution a few years later - is very indicative of the specific character of class conflicts in Iran. Unlike the clear-cut class division of a bourgeois nation against the combined power of the nobility, feudal lords and the clergy that we witness in most bourgeois democratic revolutions, in Iran we see powerful groups of merchants, landlords and even Shi’ite clerics on both sides of the divide.

This division sometimes produced comical results. Although, on the whole, both the British and the Russians were fully committed to the status quo, there were merchants and clerics associated with both camps on either side of the barricades. During the initial phases of the Constitutional Revolution there were still pro-British clerics defending it, while the pro-Russians were by now fully behind the shah. As the revolution gathered force and became more radicalised with the entry of the urban petty bourgeoisie, both sides swung fully behind the shah. But there were still merchants, landlords and clerics in the leadership of the revolutionary camp. In fact the Islamic ideology of Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, goes back to a division within the Shi’ite hierarchy which developed during the Constitutional Revolution.

Khomeini was, since his youth, a supporter of Sheykh Fazllolahe Noori, the leader of the Islamic opposition to the Constitutional Revolution. After the victory of the revolution, Noori was sentenced to public hanging in front of the newly established parliament. Basically, he was against all democratic reforms, calling them “a western conspiracy to undermine Islam”. He accused Mozaffaredin Shah, who had signed the new constitution, of being a “weak doubter”, who was foolishly opening up the floodgates to this conspiracy.

The infamous slogan of the Islamic fundamentalists then was: ‘Constitutionalism - no! Islamic legitimacy - yes!’ (ie, all secular laws must be derived from Islamic jurisprudence - meaning themselves). They actively collaborated with the pro-Russian wing of the ruling class, and even the Cossack army, against the constitutionalists. Not dissimilar to the initial reaction of the Catholic church to bourgeois democratic revolutions in Europe. Also, as with the divisions in Europe, a ‘progressive’ wing of the clergy - ie, pro-democratic reforms - took shape in Iran. The defeat of the Constitutional Revolution, and the establishment of Reza Shah’s rule later, did not, however, allow this wing to develop much further.

With 1917, Russian imperialism had left the scene and the British created Reza Shah, the ‘iron man’, who went on the rampage in his drive to ‘modernise’ Iran. The creation of a nation-state from above by military dictatorship soon brought the new order into direct conflict with the Shi’ite hierarchy. Those who wanted to survive had to comply. The more moderate and liberal clerics were either totally silenced or integrated into the new arrangements, whilst the fundamentalist currents found a new lease of life in ‘opposition’. Islamic fundamentalist radicalism in Iran dates back to those days. After all, they had been proved right, they would claim, pointing to the erosion of clerical powers during Reza Shah’s modernisation. The shah’s repressive rule kept the lid on all these developments, which only came back to the surface once he was deposed.

It should be noted that the capitalist world system is an imperialist one, in which the role carved out for Iran within the division of labour is one of an importer of foreign capital and exporter of raw materials. Yes! Oil. We thus have a nation-state, but without any significant role for the bourgeoisie. The composition of the ruling class hardly changes during the shah’s reign. The new royal family itself becomes one of the biggest landlords in Iran, also heavily involved in monopolistic foreign trade. Iran remains an agrarian society, in which absentee landlords dominate agricultural production and merchants rule the market and the internal distribution network. There is, however, a limited growth of industries during the same period - mostly state-owned, but also on a smaller scale developed by small private capitalists, especially in textiles and food production.

The emergence of a bourgeois nationalist opposition to the shah is also a product of this period. This was very different from the clerical opposition. Its earlier politicians even hailed Reza Shah’s modernisation. But this opposition was also totally suppressed, only to re-emerge after World War II.

The difference between the two showed itself nowhere better than during the events leading to the 1953 CIA-backed coup. Whilst at first the Shi’ite hierarchy allied itself to the more influential bourgeois nationalist movement under Mossadegh, towards the end it lined up behind the shah. What a number of observers of the history of that coup forget is the fact that it happened twice. The first attempt failed, but a few days later a second one was undertaken, this time successfully. The change in fortune was entirely due to the Shi’ite hierarchy switching sides and backing the coup. Although the radical fundamentalist wing was as yet insignificant, the entire hierarchy that had emerged after Reza Shah’s ‘modernisation’ was itself a lot more backward-looking than at the time of the Constitutional Revolution. Khomeini, who was at that time advocating the need for an “Islamic government”, was thus happy to toe the line of the clerical leadership.

Whilst the bourgeois nationalist politicians were seeking a capitalist redistribution of ownership in favour of the indigenous bourgeoisie, the clerics were really only concerned with the erosion of their own role in the face of capitalist secularisation of the state and economy. The Shi’ite hierarchy, this integral part of Asiatic despotism, thus felt closer to the monarchy than to secular bourgeois nationalism. But the shah’s white revolution was soon to change all that. With the defeat of Mossadegh’s project by the combined force of the pro-shah army, gangs of urban thugs and a coalition of bazaari merchants and Shi’ite clerics, the Iranian bourgeoisie lost its last chance to develop a ‘normal’ bourgeois state.

White revolution

At the core of the shah’s ‘revolution’ was a US-initiated programme for a limited industrialisation of Iran. It followed a ‘development’ model based on ‘joint ventures’ between the indigenous bourgeoisie and western capitalism to replace goods previously imported from the west with home-produced products.

Similar schemes had already been carried out in a number of other dependent countries. In fact, it was not even a US invention - Germany, during World War II, had embarked on similar plans in Latin America. The initial drafts for this ‘new’ US policy had already been made public during the implementation of the Marshall plan in Europe. This was indeed its appendix for the third world.

It is important to note that the same programme was already being worked out with Mossadegh’s government before the 1953 coup. As early as 1949, teams of US consultants were in Iran investigating the ways it could be implemented. In so far as Mossadegh’s government announced any long-term economic strategy, it did not go beyond repeating the same US plan. Indeed the shah’s implementation of this plan went much further than the bourgeois nationalist government had ever imagined possible. The shah envisaged a degree of protectionism, land reforms and modernisation of political structures that was much too radical for Mossadegh. Indeed, when the plan was announced, many National Front politicians were saying, ‘The shah has stolen Mossadegh’s policy’. It was not accidental that some of them even joined the shah’s regime in implementing it.

The first few years after the 1953 coup were spent bolstering up the shah’s rule, in particular by strengthening the apparatus of repression: the army and the secret police. But, as soon as the new and by now totally US-dependent regime consolidated its power, a ‘seven-year plan’ of ‘infrastructural development’ was put into practice; followed in 1962-63 by a whole basket of socio-economic measures, which were later bombastically referred to as the ‘shah’s white revolution’. The shah himself modestly referred to it as a ‘modernisation and industrialisation plan’, which would place Iran “on the verge of great civilisation”.

Encouraging indigenous capitalist formation and growth, which was at the heart of this programme, baffled the Iranian left of the day. What was behind this change of heart by imperialism, which had earlier prevented the national bourgeoisie from doing precisely that? The pro-Soviet Tudeh Party called it a “retreat” by world imperialism in the face of successes for the “socialist camp”, whilst the pro-Chinese wing denounced it as “phoney propaganda”, designed to head off the “oncoming peasant revolution”. In reality what motivated imperialism in this drive for ‘joint ventures’ with the national bourgeoisie was its new desire/need to utilise third world markets as a huge dumping ground for their overproduced and outdated technological goods.

The development, by leaps and bounds, of the armaments industry during World War II had signalled the beginnings of a new era in capitalist development, appropriately called the age of ‘permanent technological revolution’. Superprofits were now to be gained in technological innovations. We had, therefore, by the late 50s and early 60s, a runaway growth in the sectors producing the means of production. Crises of overproduction now increasingly took the shape of overproduction of capital goods. The sudden interest of the west in ‘development economics’ and the increasing calls for ‘modernisation’ or ‘industrialisation’ of this or that country of the periphery in the 50s was the natural outcome.

But selling means of production to the ‘natives’ calls for an entirely different set of relations between the centre and periphery. The same imperialism which had until then considered indigenous industrialists as competitors, to be denied any share in political control, now had to actively intervene not only to create an entire class of these competitors out of thin air, but also to transform them into a ruling class. To sell capital goods you need capitalist buyers. We thus enter a new phase in imperialism, whereby the west intervenes directly to transform the same old ruling classes - which had propped up its interests in the colonial age - into ‘modern’ capitalists.

These plans were vehemently denounced by the more fundamentalist currents within the Shi’ite clergy and an important section of the bazaari merchants. They opposed import tariffs introduced to protect home-grown industries, as this weakened the monopolistic control of the merchants over the economy. They denounced land reforms, designed to provide a labour force for the new industries free from ties to the land, as they were themselves amongst the biggest landlords in Iran. They also opposed local government reform, as this would have undermined their local power base in the provinces; and votes for women, because that would undermine their very ideological authority.

Khomeini first emerged as a known public figure during those protests and soon became the leader of that movement. In a fiery sermon he declared that the “evil intention” behind the white revolution was to hand over Iran to “Jews, Christians and the enemies of Islam”. He denounced the shah as an “infidel Jew”. It was in fact his arrest after this speech which triggered in 1963 a whole series of mass protests, leading to clashes with military forces in a number of cities. As these revolts were not supported by any other major sections of the population, they were easily crushed by the shah, and Khomeini was exiled to Iraq. Not a lot more was heard of this coalition of bazaari merchants and Shi’ite clerics until 15 years later, when the crisis of the shah’s ‘modernisation’ opened up a new revolutionary period.


1. The National Front was a coalition of a number of bourgeois nationalist currents set up in the late 1940s and originally headed by Mohammed Mossadegh.
2. This committee had been set up in October-November 1978 in Neauphle-le-Château in France. Subsequently it was given the name ‘Council of the Islamic Revolution’ - invented after the event to ‘prove’ that Khomeini had planned the whole thing.
3. It is interesting to note, as revealed in president Carter’s memoirs, that it was even concealed from the US administration during negotiations with Khomeini’s representatives.
4. This can be roughly estimated as around three-four million workers, two-three million urban and rural poor, and four-five million urban and rural petty bourgeoisie (internationalist.webs.com).