Part of the forgotten story of the Middle East is that in the 1970s a working class revolution in Iran overthrew the old regime and there were a number of secular, socialist organisations commanding large support writes Liam Mac Uaid. Iran briefly hovered between a workers’ revolution and counter- revolution. Today the whole world is living with the consequences of the Iranian working class’ defeat.
Regime change was different in the 1950’s. Back then there was no wringing of hands when a British or American sponsored coup overthrew the secular and liberal government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. His mistake had been to start nationalising the oil industry and the imperialists preferred a Shah, or “Emperor” who relied on a group of cleric-led thugs.
For the next twenty-five years the new government relied heavily on flogging, torture and murder to deal with dissenters. Naturally they wouldn’t dream of helping put such a person in power today.
In the 1960’s the monarchy decided to modernise the economy and the state. The United States was already selling them state of the art military technology with the dual aim of policing the population and acting as a frontier guard against the Soviet Union. This industrialisation, which along with the weapons, was paid for by petro-dollars, created enormous strains in Iranian society. One early consequence was that a cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, criticised the Shah. He didn’t approve of women being given the vote and accused the government of “abdicating national sovereignty” by collaborating so closely with US.
In recent years Bin Laden, who served his apprenticeship as a hired killer for the Americans in Afghanistan, combined a similar pseudo anti-imperialism with equally reactionary ideas. Like Bin Laden, Khomeini too was forced into exile, though in his case it was a very pleasant French chateau. During his period of exile he elaborated his programme for the overthrow of the Shah. He was to be replaced by a supreme leader who would be a specialist in Islamic law, faqih, who would lead a theocratic state, velayat-e faqih. Too modest to say so himself, Khomeini was perfectly qualified for the job. At the time majority clerical opinion considered this a theologically impure point of view. The arrival of the Messiah was how the world would be changed.
At the same time a new working class was being created. However it was being created from illiterate peasants drawn from the countryside. They had no trade union tradition and the Communist Party, Tudeh, suffered severe repression during the 1960’s and 70’s. In addition it was utterly reliant on Moscow for direction and the Moscow Communist bureaucracy was more interested in regional stability than in helping support a revolutionary process. There also existed in the cities a large population of slum dwellers unable to find work in the factories and refineries. In the urban centres were tens of thousands of merchants and small traders, bazaari. These groups were given some cohesion by the Shi’ite clergy who ran schools and charitable foundations for the poor which were funded by donations from the bazaari. This gave the clergy access to the slum dwellers and allowed them later to help organise them.
Another element in the mix was the large number of students in the new schools and universities. In the early 1970s there were Marxist groups in Iran and much of the rest of the Muslim world crossing the spectrum from Trotskyist to Maoist. Their weakness was that they were largely recruited through the universities and there was a chasm between them, the working class and the urban poor.
There was a drop in oil prices in 1975 creating an economic crisis. As part of its anti-speculation measures the government jailed and flogged several merchants for profiteering, actions which turned this group against the regime. The liberal middle classes entered the battle against the regime for the first time in 1977 and began organising protest meetings against the government. They had been emboldened by US President Jimmy Carter who had criticised the government’s human rights violations. They were too weak a force to give leadership to Iranian society and it was only when the working class joined the battle that the regime began to totter.
Strikes and factory occupations against the regime became commonplace and the oilfields, on which the economy depended, shut down. In the factories committees or shoras struggled for control against the management. There was an extensive takeover of private and state-owned industries accompanied by the introduction of workers’ control. In the cities komitehs ran some districts. Both these institutions, which allowed the workers and urban poor to run society had strong similarities to the workers’ council or soviets in the Russian, German and Spanish revolutions. In the shoras the secular left competed for leadership against the clerics and the result was not a foregone conclusion. In the countryside peasants seized the large estates on which they established co-operatives and distributed land through village committees.
However Khomeini’s record of intransigent resistance to the Shah was paying off. His home was seen as the headquarters of the revolution and he acted as the bridge between the different political groups, including the leftists. He became identified as the revolution’s figurehead with even the leader of the Communist Party recognising Khomeini as his “guide”.
In December 1979 hundred of thousands of Iranians, at Khomeini’s behest broke the curfew by going onto their rooftops and shouting “Allah akbar”. This had been preceded by large demonstrations of students and intellectuals which ended in battles with the police and army. The city dwellers were not demanding a return to a medieval legal system. They wanted higher salaries, houses instead of slums and the confiscation of the property of speculators. Then, just as happened in Russia in 1917, the army mutinied against the Emperor, an event largely due to the left-wing guerillaist Fedayeen and the left-Islamist Mojahedin. This mass protest was the coup de grace for the regime. Five weeks later the royal family went into exile and Khomeini was the acknowledged leader of the revolution. The Communists and the liberals of the National Front had not tried to lead this mass movement. The far-left was too small to provide an alternative leadership and so the clerics, with all their infrastructure, were able to win ideological control.
When Khomeini returned to Iran in February 1979 a crowd of three million people greeted him. Yet it would still take nearly two and a half years before the Islamists had a secure hold on power as they defeated their opponents one by one. Khomeini showed a great tactical astuteness as he made temporary alliances with various factions to help smash the non-Islamist currents and he was aided by those politicians who would later suffer torture and murder at his hands.
In March 1979 Khomeini decreed that women had to wear a veil in public. A day later 20 000 women were on the streets protesting. The Communist Party denounced them as bourgeois and would argue that criticism of the new regime was pro-imperialist. They also refused to support the Kurds and Turcomans who were fighting the Iranian army for self-determination. The liberals and left Islamists were no better. Their leaders Bazargan and Bani Sadr were used to help shut down the universities and factory shoras as centres of opposition to the regime. When the Islamists secretly executed members of the old regime much of the left raised no protest and so permitted the precedent for their own murders.
In a masterstroke which allowed him to cut the ground from the left Khomeini’s supporters occupied the American embassy in Tehran. This put him into a fight with American imperialism which gave him near total control of the mass movement and silenced virtually all criticism from the left.
The exception to this rule was the Mojahedin. They began an armed struggle against the clerical government but with very little mass support. When
they blew up the headquarters of Khomeini’s Islamic Republican Party the clergy set about physically eliminating them. They had made a very serious error of judgement in assassinating figures the masses still identified as anti-imperialist. It virtually destroyed their organisation and allowed the Islamists to further consolidate their position. Less than two years later, when Iraq invaded Iran, the Mojahedin fought on the side of the Iraqis.
The Tudeh’s grovelling to the clerics didn’t save them either. They followed the same route to prison and torture that the far left, Kurds and Turcomans had gone while they had gloated at the purging of the “ultra-lefts”. Their leaders, who had been tortured horribly in prison, appeared on TV, repented their socialism and proclaimed Islam’s superiority over Communism. Those socialists who hadn’t repented were executed in their thousands.
Armed by the British, American, French and Germans Iraq invaded Iran. Khomeini called the invasion “a godsend” and more than one million Iraqis and Iranians died. The human wave tactics that the Iranians used resulted in the needless deaths of thousands of their young conscripts. These conscripts were the urban poor who had been the backbone of the revolution and their deaths, combined with the executions of revolutionary militants deprived the revolutionary process of its base and its potential leadership. What followed has been a quarter century of poverty and theocracy for
the Iranian working class.
Khomeini’s “Islamic revolution” was in fact a counter-revolution which deprived the workers, urban poor and peasants of their economic and democratic rights. It succeeded in defeating the real revolution by “joining it”, supporting a faction within the opposition to the Shah which would give it some authority among the masses. Some socialists at the time, such as the Tudeh interpreted the Khomeini leadership as middle class nationalists leading a popular anti-imperialist revolution. It was nothing of the sort. Its purpose was to defeat the working class and peasantry and ensure a stable bourgeois state. Those small groups on the Iranian left which did understand this at the time were hopelessly insufficient to make a real impact on events and the larger organisations were hopelessly unclear about what Khomeini represented. Their collaboration with him was the death knell of the Iranian revolution.
The Iranian revolution shows that there is nothing historically inevitable about the victory of reactionary Islamism. The political compromises the secular left made with the clerics eased the way for the counter-revolution. If there had been an independent working class leadership headed by a mass revolutionary party the result would have been different.