Thirty years ago the overthrow of 2500 years of monarchy brought Iran to the attention of the world. However, what many experts, journalists and academics concentrate on is that the Shah left the country forever on January 16 1979, and that on February 1 Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and was greeted by over three million people. This has helped to create the big myth that this was an ‘Islamic revolution’ and a rejection of modernity.
Yet the Shah was driven out by a revolutionary movement of the Iranian exploited and oppressed masses, especially the workers. Theirs was not a revolt against modernity, industrialisation and progress but a revolution against the stunted type of capitalist development that could not provide them with their basic necessities. They did not to replace the royal dictatorship with an Islamic one.
An ‘Islamic revolution’?
What all the pundits conveniently ‘forget’ is that this was a mass movement with a distinctly, though very confused, ‘anti-capitalist’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ character. Its crucial element was the working class, particularly the oil workers, who broke the back of the Shah’s regime by going on an all-out strike. They put forward economic and political demands that spelt the end of the regime that was reconstructed with the close help of the US and Britain after the CIA coup of 1953.
Two key events took place during the 1978-79 period that clearly show that this was not an ‘Islamic revolution’. First, beginning in September 1978 there was a massive strike movement. In this rolling strike movement each victory would spur on other workers to demand more concessions. Often the same factory would go on strike after winning a strike when its workers saw the better gains of other workers! The strikes were organised by strike committees (called shora or council) of workers and not the Islamic movement. The most important was the oil and steel committee in Khuzestan province (in south-western Iran).
This movement developed into a general strike, involving in total 1.5 million industrial, agricultural and white-collar workers. Increasingly the shoras put forward political demands as well as. For example, on October 31 1978 when over 30,000 oil workers went on strike, their demands included an end to martial law (declared on September 7), the freeing of political prisoners and the arrest of General Nasiri, the former head of SAVAK.
Second, on February 10 guerrillas from the People’s Mojahedin and the People’s Fadaiyan (a Guevaraist group) were crucial in supporting the Air Force technicians (homafar) at Doshan Tappeh from attacks by the Shah’s Immortal Guard. During the clashes the homafars opened the arsenal and the people of this working class area in south-east Tehran were armed. The Immortal Guard was defeated and the armed people went on to over-run seven police stations. The next day, February 11, more police stations, SAVAK stations and an army base were taken over, as well as the TV and radio stations and the Shah’s palace. Political prisoners were freed and the Israeli embassy was turned into the Palestinian embassy. Once the army declared its neutrality in this situation the Shah was thrown into the dustbin of history!
At this stage Khomeini, who had to catch up with the armed masses and to try to hold them back, said “We have not given the order for jihad”!
A rejection of development and modernity?
The demands posed by the workers and other exploited layers clearly show that this movement did not represent the rejection of progress, development and modernity by the Iranian masses. In fact, the revolutionary crisis was not due to the rapid pace of development and progress – but the opposite. The revolutionary situation in Iran represented the limits of capitalist development in a country that is dominated by imperialism. It was a development that was fundamentally sluggish, limited and lop-sided in its nature. While destroying pre-capitalist forms of production, the realities of development in a stunted, distorted and backward capitalism meant that millions of people were being driven from their villages towards the cities – and ending up in the overcrowded shanty towns in their periphery. Without any hope of finding jobs, or having basic amenities and social provisions for themselves and their families, many became pauperised rather than proletarianised.
The poverty of a vast section of society, which without the opportunity of having regular work and being able to make ends meet, especially in an atmosphere where any independent working class movement was viciously crushed, created fault-lines within the mass movement which, together with the betrayals of ‘the left’, paved the way for smashing the movements of workers, women, youth, poor peasants, national minorities and so on. This failure to absorb the petty bourgeoisie and the urban poor more fully into the working class gave the revolutionary movement its distinct initial radicalism, which was open to abuse by the most reactionary form of counter-revolution.
The Shia clergy, which had traditionally been a pillar of the establishment, but not directly tied to the state, had become further marginalised by capitalist development, particularly following the Shah’s ‘White Revolution’ reforms. This reactionary force was opposed to some aspects of these reforms (e.g., votes for women) and with the smashing of all political movements (even those of monarchists asking for reforms) by the Shah’s dictatorship, used its network of mosques and religious establishments to become a pole of attraction for many disillusioned and poor people.
The biggest tragedy of the Iranian revolution was that the counter-revolution was able to assume the leadership of the revolutionary movement: the perfect position for its bloody and savage defeat. A movement that represented large sections of all the exploited and oppressed layers of society; a movement involving street mobilisations of ten million people (a quarter of the population!) could only be crushed in this way.
The most reactionary form of bourgeois counter-revolution in history had to adopt a ‘radical’ face and ‘anti-imperialist’ – and even ‘anti-capitalist’ – rhetoric and actions to be able to assume the leadership of the movement. From the targeting of anything that could be called a ‘corrupting western influence’ to seizure of the US embassy; the Shia clergy managed to outflank ‘the left’ and, in many cases, force it to follow its steps.
The bulk of ‘the left’, which was at best a prisoner of its two-stage concept of the revolution, and at its worst, an active collaborator of the clergy, never gave any importance to the building, development, expansion, and ultimately the unification of independent working class organisations. At a time when workers set up the councils, which controlled production and, in some cases, even distribution, these ‘leaders’ were more concerned about stamping their own ‘authority’ on a section of the movement at the expense of its unity and development!
And where demagogy did not work the mollahs set up their ‘revolutionary guards’ and various other paramilitary bodies to smash the workers’ and other movements. It is very important to remember how they smashed these movements: by having their own rival movements among women, students and so on. These in themselves have created a precedent, in terms of mass mobilisations throughout various layers in society, which will come to haunt this regime when its guns, tanks and helicopters can no longer contain the next revolutionary tide.
The working class movement
The defining feature of the Iranian working class movement since the Islamic regime was established has been its lack of basic trade union and democratic rights. After the workers’ councils movement of the 1978-79 revolution was crushed the workers were forced to continue their activities in small clandestine circles. These circles managed to continue their struggle throughout the counter-revolutionary wave of repression, the Iran-Iraq war, various ill-fated attempts at political ‘reform’ and economic ‘reconstruction’, and then, improved relations with European imperialism and international institutions (representing combined imperialist interests).
There is no doubt that these clandestine circles served as a vital form of organisation, particularly at the height of the repression during the war. They continued their struggle and taught the lessons of over thirty years’ struggle to a new generation of younger workers. Since May 2001, however, the movement has taken many steps towards bigger mobilisations. Many trade unions have been re-launched (e.g., Vahed bus drivers and Haft Tapeh sugar workers). Often struggles over unpaid wages (a widespread problem) escalate to calls for “general anti-capitalist united action”, taking over production and workers’ control.
The political and economic crisis of 1976-78 created the objective conditions for a revolution. All the social and economic problems that brought about the revolutionary crisis have not been resolved. They have all become exacerbated, mainly due to the limits of this country’s stunted and lop-sided capitalist development, but also the short-termism, nepotism and limitless greed and arrogance of the ruling clerical families that overshadows even the corruption of the Shah’s family and courtiers. There are also many new problems, or old problems that because of their sheer scale have taken on a new importance. Unpaid wages for as long as 32 months, unemployment at between 20 and 30% (and set to rise with the current wave of layoffs and planned privatisations), official inflation of nearly 26%, and so on, all point to a new revolutionary situation. There will, sooner or later, be an even bigger mass movement with the working class as an even clearer leader.
But the subjective factor – the revolutionary party of the vanguard of the proletariat – can only be created by the conscious intervention of the workers’ vanguard and militant revolutionaries within the mass movement of the working class over a prolonged period. What is needed is a fighting party, one which is armed with a clear understanding of the theoretical gains of the international working class movement, and tries to draw the programmatic lessons of this theory in relation to the daily and ongoing struggles of the class, and steers it towards the ultimate goal of overthrowing capitalism, smashing the bureaucratic-military machine of the bourgeois state and enabling the workers to become not only their own masters, but the masters of society in the transition to a classless society.