Iran: lessons for communists

Iran remains a country of crisis. The reactionary regime of the bloodstained mullahs could fall at any moment. John Bridge spoke to comrade A Irani of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran about the tasks and prospects for the left

What impact did the collapse of the Soviet Union have on the left in Iran and what lessons did your party, the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran, draw from it?

The Soviet collapse produced a great shock throughout the world revolutionary movement, equal in its own way to the defeats of 1848 in Europe and the Paris Commune. In Iran the fall of what we used to call ‘real socialism’ has resulted in far reaching ideological and organisational disarray. There have been countless splits, with many former activists simply drifting out of politics. Correct theoretical lessons must be drawn.

So what lessons has ORWI arrived at?

The bureaucratic, authoritarian and ideological nature of the Soviet state had nothing to do with Marx’s vision of socialism. It was not the self-government or administration of the working class. The October Revolution was a great event, with great aspirations. But from Stalin’s time onwards workers were alienated from both the means of production and the state. They had no interest in working, no control over the product. The state served the bureaucracy, not the workers.

Gorbachev tried to liberalise the state from the top. His reforms were not socialist nor were they revolutionary. Indeed in 1991 the workers, the masses, the nationalities revolted against the regime.

When do you think the Soviet Union began going wrong?

Our party does not hold to a definitive view on this. Personally I believe that from the very moment the Soviet state structure disassociated itself from the interests and movement of the working class, that is when things began to go wrong.

But don’t you have a problem here? After the initial impulse of the revolution, with wars of intervention and counterrevolution, with economic collapse and dislocation, workers’ self-activity virtually disappeared, leaving a vacuum underneath the Soviet state. Lenin sadly noted the formal nature of the soviets even in 1918.

Russia was a backward country. There could be no instant socialism. The Soviet state had to defend itself, but many of the measures enacted were counterproductive. We in Iran would not abolish overnight commodity exchange or money. And even if war communism had to be introduced, we would not continue it for 70 years. Banning opposition parties, ending factional rights within the party was not in the long term interests of socialism. The fall was not inevitable. Nor was it the result of some imperialist conspiracy and Gorbachev being a CIA agent, as some Tudeh Party people say. It was the result of internal contradictions, not least the lack of workers’ democracy.

 I would suggest that the bureaucracy turned against the working class and began systematically exploiting it in 1929. But nothing develops from nothing. The period of Lenin’s leadership was no golden age. He described Soviet Russia as a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations. Moreover, given the deactivation and declassing of the workers, what kept the workers’ state on course was the political determination and authority of the party’s old guard. I would say though that Stalin’s assumption of leadership in 1924 and his flooding of the party with raw recruits marked a rupture with Leninism.

I don’t think there is any disagreement here. But I would still critically question the period even when Lenin was in the leadership. The dictatorship of one party is not the way to build socialism. Marx and Engels stressed that the lesson of the 1871 Paris Commune was that there could be many working class parties and a government in which the communists form only a minority. The communists exercised hegemony. The practice of all the French socialists was the programme of the communists. If the Soviet state had been continued on that basis, things would not have ended as they did.

In the best of worlds, who could disagree? Lenin did not begin with the aim of banning opposition parties and factions. Material circumstances forced these measures upon him and the party leadership. Like NEP they were emergency measures. Would it have been, for example, advisory to allow the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries freedom during what was a major retreat?

Marx’s criticism of the communards was not that they did not ban opposition parties and factions. It was that they did not take power fully, were not aggressive enough, were too defensive. I do not believe that all the Mensheviks or the Socialist Revolutionaries were counterrevolutionary. Their social base in the working class would not allow them to join the forces of white reaction. Making them permanently illegal did not strengthen the Soviet state.

Have you drawn any lessons concerning Stalin’s claim that Russia could build full socialism in one isolated country?

As I’ve said, the fall of the Soviet Union was not inevitable. The isolation of the Soviet Union was not necessary - all manner of concessions to foreign capital could have been made. Socialism in a country like Britain could withstand the onslaught of internal and external counterrevolution if the working class was united in defence of workers’ democracy.

I’ll come back to this question once more. The Bolshevik programme for Russia depended on spreading the revolution to the west so the Russian revolution could be rescued from the consequences of the country’s backwardness. But if socialism was isolated, even in an advanced country like Britain, surely it would sooner of later turn into its opposite? What collapsed in 1991 was not what was born in 1917. Socialist democracy cannot be separated from the progress of the world revolution.

Imperialism presented a united world front when attacking the young Soviet state. But capitalist development has now taken the form of three centres: Nafta, the European Union and the Japanese sphere in East Asia. The contradictions between these centres - especially since the fall of the Soviet Union - has markedly increased. I believe that a country like Iran can bring about revolution and use the inter-imperialist contradictions to balance one off against another. Cuba and Vietnam, for example, might not be true socialist states, but they are using the contradictions in the world capitalist system. The transition to socialism in Iran will take many years - fifty or sixty years perhaps, but we can only do it with full workers’ democracy.

Putting my last question another way, do you see the revolution in Iran as being ultimately dependent on the world revolution?

Of course. There cannot be a purely national revolutionary process. Seventy years of Stalinism shows that that fails completely - but Stalinism failed for other reasons as well. The revolution must be given a national content. There are some in Iran who conclude from the Soviet collapse that socialism is impossible in a backward country like Iran. Citing the need for world revolution, they say we should not work for a socialist revolution in Iran, because if it is isolated it is bound to fail. Even some comrades within ORWI take such a view. They say the revolution should open the way for capitalist development and a bourgeois democracy. Only when capitalism has fully developed would Iran be ready for socialist revolution, they argue.

But the masses are forcing revolution onto the agenda. There has for instance just been a big uprising in Islamshar near Tehran. The destitute and the workers came out for the overthrow of the Islamic regime. They burnt Islamic banks and institutions, they set up barricades and killed Islamic guards. Through their own shoras, or councils, the revolution must give power to these masses, not the bourgeoisie. There must be a workers’ state.

What about the national question in Iran? Iran is a multi-national state with many oppressed nationalities: Kurds, Azerbajais, Baluchis, Arabs, etc.

Every nation must have the right to secede. There must be self-determination. We do not want another Soviet Union, where after 75 years the nationalities separated, as soon as the lid was lifted. The Islamic regime cannot meet the most basic democratic rights of the minority nationalities. It can only bomb, torture and oppress.

Do you advocate the break-up of the Iranian state?

No. Definitely not - look at Yugoslavia. We have good relations with the Kurdish Democratic Party and Komole. Through our radio stations we broadcast joint programmes with Komole, such as on International Women’s Day on March 8. Communists are the best fighters for the right of the national minorities. Only the working class can realise democracy and only with democracy can there be the right to national self-determination. All minorities, religious or national, are needed in a united fight to overthrow the Islamic regime. So we do not call upon the Kurds to secede from Iran; we call upon them to establish, with us, a socialist state.

How has the left in Iran developed since 1979?

The left in Iran has in the recent historic period been hit by two body blows. One was the collapse of the Soviet Union; the other was the Islamic counterrevolution. There was a short-lived democratic period after the Shah was overthrown in February 1979. The left grew to huge proportions; the workers were organised in shoras; peasants seized the land; even the remotest parts of the country were swept into the struggle. There was a great social upsurge. No party led it, but everywhere masses flooded into the organisations of the left, in particular the Fedayeen.

The establishment of the Islamic regime cleaved the left into two. There was a class break. In the name of defending the revolution and fighting imperialism part of the left came out in defence of the Islamic regime. A large majority of the Fedayeen organisation took the same line as the ‘official communist’ Tudeh Party and lined up behind Ayatollah Khomeini and his regime. With the world balance of forces decisively in favour of socialism, they said, elements like Khomeini could take the non-capitalist road and act as a vehicle for socialism. Many others, using different but equally disastrously wrong theories, took a similar position, including Maoists and Trotskyites. One group associated with the Socialist Workers Party in the USA still has a press which favours the Islamic regime.

What side did ORWI take?

ORWI was small. But we did from the very beginning of the Islamic state analyse it as counterrevolution. Neither the workers nor the bourgeoisie was able to exercise power. That is what enabled the clergy to act like a bonapartist caste. Capitalism was reorganised to serve its special interests and that meant crushing all opposition. The first edition of our paper led with the headline, ‘The revolution is dead - long live the revolution’. We were not alone. There was a trend in the left that organised itself to fight liquidationism and Islamic reaction. As the Islamic regime began to consolidate power and its killing machine was unleashed, the division between the two trends on the left deepened.

ORWI developed itself initially through a threefold polemic: against the Tudeh spectrum, against the guerrillaism of the Fedayeen, against Maoism. Revolution, we insisted, would come through the self-activity of the working class. Capitalism is the dominant mode of production. Socialism would not come through workers leaving the factories and taking to the hills with an AK47. Nor would socialism come through tailing the nationalist diplomacy of China or the Soviet Union. ORWI had to be independent of that.

How did ORWI react to Khomeini’s terror?

I was active in Tehran at the time. ORWI with great difficulty went underground. Some comrades proposed to close down activity altogether; others sought sanctuary by joining the pro-Khomeini left. Fortunately this liquidationism within the organisation was rebuffed. We told our comrades to either leave or go underground and operate within workplace cells. With hindsight we went too far. Most intellectuals could not make the transition. Nevertheless there had to be a move from the organisation of left polemic, which could never survive Islamic terror and which could never organise a revolution. We had to organise the workers. After the brief spell of democracy everybody knew everybody else. Supposedly doing their Islamic duty, parents informed on children; brother informed on brother. But we rooted ourselves in the working class and survived.

What was the picture like in other left organisations?

The picture in other parties was essentially the same. There were those who wanted to fight the Islamic regime and were prepared to take the consequences. There were others who moved rapidly to the right or deserted. However mass arrests and executions not only produced crisis organisationally. There was a deep political crisis, above all for those leftwingers who had supported Khomeini and were now targets for the Islamic terror. There was a general fragmentation and split endlessly followed split. The collapse of the Soviet Union added to and speeded up this process.

Though we were very slow to begin with, ORWI has managed to attract principled elements from these splits and we now act as a focal point, around which the genuine socialist left can rally. We were, I think, too afraid of being overwhelmed from the right. More could have been won; more could have been organised. Of course this was a time of great debate within ORWI itself over the Soviet Union question.

Now bourgeois forces are readying themselves to replace the Islamic regime. The working class too must prepare its revolutionary alternative. There has already been a coming together of eight left organisations - including ORWI - around a united socialist platform (and Komole has expressed its interest in the project). But we must go further. Iran needs a mass revolutionary workers’ party.

Can that party be built simply by everyone dissolving themselves? Or does ORWI recognise the necessity of minorities having their voice and rights if there is to be a coming together?

No party can grow and survive in the long term if it tries to eradicate dissension within it. If there is only one view, there is a sect not a party. Ideological sects are very widespread. None of them have genuine democratic centralism. None of them have basic democracy, which allows opposition from below or from within the leadership. It is either accept the dogma of the sect or leave. To organise the party we have to overcome such sectarianism.

ORWI’s 2nd Conference, just two years ago, accepted that minorities in the party were inevitable and should be allowed their own platforms, which they can present to the entire membership. They also have the right to organise open meetings within the party. The central committee has to make financial provision for the activity of factions. But beside, and flowing from, democracy we have centralism. Every faction and every member must submit to the line of the leadership in action.

The existence of factions keeps the leadership on its toes. Disagreement is not unhealthy. It tests everything. Without minority factional rights there would never have been a Bolshevik Party, because on many occasions Lenin and his comrades found themselves in a minority. The history of the Bolshevik Party itself shows that, when it had factions, it was healthy and strong. That is the sort of party we will build in Iran.