For Workers Revolution in Iran!

Iran Fake Left: 1979: With the Mullahs Against the Monarchy; 2003: With the Monarchy Against the Mullahs

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 807, 1 August 2003.

Chanting “The clerical regime is nearing its end!” and “Down with the Islamic Republic!” thousands of students and other protesters took to the streets of Iranian cities this summer in another round of mass demonstrations against the bloody theocratic rulers. The protests began at Tehran University on June 10 when several hundred students denounced plans to privatize the universities. Within days they had spread to other cities and drawn in broader layers of society.

The regime cracked down with brutal ferocity, unleashing its police and paramilitary Ansar Hezbollah thugs to arrest at least 4,000. One demonstrator was killed in the southern city of Shiraz, while an Iranian Canadian photojournalist was beaten to death by authorities after taking photos near Tehran’s infamous Evin prison. Another center of protest was Kurdistan University in Sanandaj, where troops besieged and occupied the campus, reportedly killing one student. Faced with the threat of more widespread protests on July 9 to mark the suppression of the 1999 student revolt, the government closed Tehran University and banned all public gatherings.

Twenty-four years after a reactionary Islamic movement led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rode to power on the back of a popular upheaval against the despised U.S.-backed Shah and his SAVAK secret police torturers, Iran is again seething with discontent. The Islamic regime is facing all-sided social unrest, the impact of which will be felt throughout the Near East. In most of the region, the depredations of imperialism combined with the evident bankruptcy of bourgeois nationalism and the betrayals of the Stalinist Communist parties have fueled the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. But in Iran, which has lived through 25 years of “Islamic paradise,” the entire tendency of struggle is away from the forces of religious reaction.

While the deeply corrupt religious leaders live like kings, life is ever more miserable for the working class and urban and rural poor. Real incomes have fallen by fully three-quarters since the onset of Islamic rule. Some 25 percent of the workforce is unemployed while at least a million workers with jobs have not been paid for months, in some cases for years. Despite this desperate economic situation, sections of the working class are becoming restive. Last July, 20,000 workers demonstrated in Tehran against poor working conditions, low pay and a new labor bill that would make firings much easier. Thousands more defied a government ban to demonstrate this May Day. Around the same time, 2,000 textile workers in Behshahr went on hunger strike to protest non-payment of wages for more than two years. Rallies of up to 25,000 workers and their families backed the strikers, leading the regime to declare martial law in the city.

The population of Iran is very young, very highly educated and very repressed. Some 70 percent is under 30, in large measure the result of the slaughter of a whole generation of young men during the sordid 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. That war was fueled by the U.S., which had an anti-Iranian tilt. The struggle against the all-pervasive social restrictions of the Iranian regime finds its most explosive expression in the fight for women’s rights—from being able to walk down the street without having to wear the stifling hijab (veil) to being able to choose your own partner. Barbaric punishments, including death by stoning, have been meted out to women, homosexuals and others for “deviant” behavior. Hundreds of thousands of women have been driven into prostitution which, along with widespread drug addiction, has grown dramatically amid the economic and social devastation. According to the government’s own estimates, two million women are homeless, including many teenage girls who have run away from home.

At the same time, unlike in many other Islamic-ruled states, women are not barred from higher education, and many are integrated in the workforce in fields like education and medicine. Women make up a majority of university students, and many are active in pro-reform movements. This spring, thousands of women defied the regime to publicly celebrate International Women’s Day, and women have played a prominent role in the recent protests. The hold of the mosque over the population has drastically declined. Last year, the regime’s own Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance admitted that 99 percent of the population no longer even bothers to attend Friday prayers.

With the fraying of Islamic rule, wildly diverse forces are now emerging to vie for leadership of the anti-regime struggle. These range from Islamic “reformers” to would-be communists, bourgeois nationalists and right-wing, pro-U.S. supporters of the former Shah. Bush cynically praised the recent student protests as “the beginning of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran.” The Bush administration has vilified Iran as part of its international “axis of evil” and has more recently tried to whip up a furor over its supposed development of “weapons of mass destruction,” demanding “regime change” in Tehran. And over 150,000 American troops are now directly across the border in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. hands off Iran! All U.S. troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan!

The youth who spearheaded mass protests against the hated Shah 25 years ago overwhelmingly considered themselves leftists, avidly reading Lenin and chanting slogans against U.S. imperialism. The pro-Moscow Tudeh (Masses) Party had a mass base among the working class, notably the powerful and strategic oil workers, while the more left-wing guerrillaist Fedayeen attracted tens of thousands of student youth to its banners. But these organizations literally handed the working masses, oppressed nationalities, women and youthful leftists over to the new torturers of the Islamic theocracy. Upon coming to power, the Khomeini regime embarked upon the mass slaughter of the Baha’i religious minority, Kurds and other national minorities, unveiled women, militant trade unionists and all oppositionists. An entire generation of left-wing militants was wiped out. Having waded through the blood of their comrades killed by a regime they helped to bring to power, the remnants who made it into exile were defeated, broken, demoralized and most became burnt-out cynics.

Criminally, the re-emerging Iranian left today has gone from supporting Islamic reaction against the monarchy to blocking with monarchist and other pro-U.S. forces against the Islamic rulers. Many of the recent international protests in solidarity with Iranian student demonstrators, particularly in the U.S., saw leftist groups march alongside royalists and other pro-imperialist reactionaries. If you reject the possibility of bringing the working class to revolutionary consciousness, then you necessarily end up tailing one alien class force or another.

Uniquely, the International Communist League (then known as the international Spartacist tendency) warned from the outset of the 1978-79 upheaval that, absent a decisive break by the working class with the Islamic forces, the struggle would have a disastrous outcome. We raised the call: “Down With the Shah! Don’t Bow to Khomeini! For Workers Revolution in Iran!” Today, again, we underscore that the only road to freedom for Iran’s working people, women and oppressed nationalities lies in the independent mobilization of the working class and the fight for socialist revolution.

The 1979 “Revolution”: Mass Struggle and Left Betrayal

The new generation entering into struggle today in Iran has a frame of reference vastly different than that of the 1970s. The Soviet Union, the world’s first workers state, which bordered Iran and provided a global counterweight to U.S. imperialism, has been destroyed through capitalist counterrevolution, throwing back the consciousness and struggles of the working class and oppressed internationally. This effect is magnified in Iran, where Islamic terror physically annihilated the left.

If their struggles are to go forward, the most farsighted elements among today’s young Iranian activists must assimilate the bitter lessons of the 1979 “revolution,” including the betrayals of a whole host of leftist organizations in Iran and internationally.

In an article in International Socialist Review (August-September 2000), the International Socialist Organization (ISO) writes: “The failure of the left was also crucial in allowing Khomeini’s forces to take power. The workers and the left could have challenged both the Shah’s regime and the mullahs’ leadership based on the power of the workers’ strike committees. But their political strategy made this impossible.... Much of the left subordinated workers’ interests to building a coalition with the clergy and liberals who were hostile to the working class. They argued that the main task was to maintain unity in the movement in order to get rid of the Shah’s dictatorship.”

The ISO’s analysis is both correct and utterly cynical. The fake left in Iran and internationally—including the ISO—promoted the mullah-led reactionary movement, whose most prominent slogans were “God is great!” and “Death or the veil!” They dismissed the emancipation of women, along with every other revolutionary perspective, because they all, to a greater or lesser extent, liquidated into the reactionary Islamic mobilization, putting forward justifications such as “anti-imperialism” or claims that the “mass movement” encompassed a “revolution within a revolution” through which the “progressive” forces could “later” come to power!

The January 1979 issue of the ISO’s Socialist Worker unabashedly hailed Khomeini’s “mass movement” which aimed to enslave women and throw back social progress centuries, headlining one article: “The Form—Religious, the Spirit—Revolution!” In this, they were far from unique. Today, an editorial in the Militant (7 July), newspaper of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP), squirms: “Some of the Militant’s past coverage may have also conveyed the impression that the current Iranian regime, in a warped form, is a defender of the remaining gains of the revolution.” Wonder why! The SWP has touted the Tehran regime’s “gains” for years. When the mullahs came to power, the SWP, then associated with the fake-Trotskyist United Secretariat (USec), ran the banner headline: “Victory in Iran!” (Militant, 23 February 1979), and declared some months later that “women are freer than ever before in Iran” (Militant, 14 December 1979)! Meanwhile, European USec leader Brian Grogan boasted of chanting “God is great!” in the streets of Tehran.

It was the betrayals of the left that ensured that the workers did not challenge both the Shah and the mullah leadership. The Shah’s brutal regime remained in power solely through naked terror and the backing of American imperialism. Its days were numbered; the only question was, what would replace it—workers rule or Islamic reaction. It was powerful proletarian struggle, such as a sit-down strike by 37,000 oil workers, that led to the toppling of the tyrannical Shah. We stressed at the time:

“The hundreds of thousands who are now marching behind the mullahs are by no means all Muslim fundamentalists. Many are primarily motivated by hostility to the real crimes of the shah. Many leftist workers have probably joined what they view as a potentially successful opposition to the hated regime. But the masses, particularly the workers, who are now supporting the Khomeinis and the Shariatmadaris can and must be won away from the present Islamic reactionary offensive in favor of a social revolutionary opposition to the shah.”

— “Iran in Turmoil” WV No. 215, 22 September 1978

As it does today, Iran in 1978-79 exemplified the Marxist conception of combined and uneven development. Alongside a sizable, militant and strategic industrial proletariat, particularly in the oil industry, were thousands of rural villages and impoverished urban shantytowns under the sway of the Shi’ite clerical caste. A chauvinist “prison house of peoples,” Iran oppressed non-Persian nationalities like the Kurds and Arabs, who together make up nearly half the population. At the very bottom of the social ladder were millions of hideously oppressed peasant women. In these respects Iran resembled the tsarist empire on the eve of the Russian Revolution of 1917. But it lacked a revolutionary leadership like the Russian Bolsheviks, acting as a tribune of all the people in the struggle to lead the working class to the conquest of state power.

All wings of the bourgeoisie in Iran and other countries of belated capitalist development are too backward and dependent on imperialism to play any progressive role. Only the proletariat leading the urban plebeian and peasant masses can lead a struggle for liberation from imperialist subjugation and reactionary traditionalism. In seizing state power and establishing their own rule, the workers will be compelled to institute socialist measures, expropriating the means of production and establishing a planned economy. At the same time, a victorious workers revolution in Iran would be immediately besieged by the imperialist powers. It could only survive and flourish by being extended internationally, not only throughout the Near East, but most crucially to the advanced imperialist powers of West Europe, North America and Japan.

The “Islamic revolution” of 1979 represented a negative confirmation of Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution. In countries like Iran, whose economic and social development has been retarded by imperialist enslavement, the historic tasks posed by the bourgeois revolutions of West Europe and North America remain on the agenda: equality for women, freedom for national minorities, agrarian revolution, social and economic modernization. From this, many self-styled leftists draw the utterly false conclusion that there must be a “two-stage revolution,” with the first stage led by “anti-imperialist” elements of the bourgeoisie and limited to “democratic” capitalist rule. For much of the Iranian left, “anti-imperialism” meant unity between the working and oppressed masses and the “progressive” (and not so progressive) elements of the bourgeoisie. The outcome of this schema is that the “second stage” invariably means not the ascent of the workers but the massacre of communists and trade unionists, as happened in Iran. (See “Iran 1979: Proletarian Revolution or Islamic Reaction,” WV No. 784, 12 July 2002.)

As we wrote in our “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program”:

“The 1979 ‘Iranian Revolution’ opened up a period of ascendant political Islam in the historically Muslim world, a development which contributed to and was powerfully reinforced by the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union. Khomeini’s seizure and consolidation of power in Iran was a defeat akin to Hitler’s crushing of the German proletariat in 1933, albeit on a narrower, regional scale. The international Spartacist tendency’s slogan ‘Down with the Shah! No support to the mullahs!’ and our focus on the woman question (‘No to the veil!’) stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the left’s capitulation to mullah-led reaction.”

Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 54, Spring 1998

Washington’s current war on “Islamic terror” was preceded by decades of support to Islamic terror in the name of the war against “godless communism.” Osama bin Laden and his fellow mujahedin are creatures of U.S. imperialism. Faced with a U.S.-backed Islamic insurgency on its southern flank in Afghanistan, in late 1979 the Soviet Red Army intervened on the side of the left-nationalist Kabul government that had tried to implement such reforms as lowering the bride price and setting up literacy programs for girls. We Trotskyists proclaimed: “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” and called to extend the gains of the Soviet October Revolution to the peoples of Afghanistan. But rather than fighting to win, the treacherous Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1988-89 to appease the U.S. imperialists, directly paving the way for the victory of Washington’s Muslim fanatics and opening the door to capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR itself.

WCPI Calls for “Dialogue” with Monarchists

Today, the mullah regime in Tehran is widely despised, and the question of who will rule Iran could soon be posed again. Faced with broad unrest, the regime has fractured between hard-liners around Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Khomeini’s successor as the Islamic “supreme leader,” and “reformers” around President Mohammed Khatami. The latter was first installed in office six years ago as a pressure valve to contain discontent. But popular illusions that Khatami would institute significant reforms have dissipated, as he works alongside the hard-liners to suppress discontent and enforce the stifling restrictions on social life. A spokesman for the main reform student group, the Office for Consolidating Unity (OCU), told Middle East Report Online (15 July):

“Previously, the students distinguished between the reformers in government, whom the students helped to elect and with whom they shared many concerns, and the hardliners, whom they had not elected and who were intent on maintaining their authoritarian grip on power....

“At a minimum, we want to ensure civil and social rights and liberties, and we want a democracy. But the students have lost any illusion that working for reforms within the system can bring this about.”

But if Iranian student activists have lost their illusions in the Islamic “reformers,” there are from all evidence widespread illusions that an idealized form of Western bourgeois democracy can provide an answer. Some look back to the bourgeois-nationalist Mossadeq regime in the early 1950s, which was propped up by the Tudeh Stalinists, who channeled a working-class upheaval against the Shah and the imperialists into support for the “progressive” Mossadeq. But Mossadeq called on the army generals, who were working with the U.S. to bring him down, to crack down on Tudeh. The army, in league with Mossadeq’s former Islamic allies, then brought him down (see “Near East, 1950s: Permanent Revolution vs. Bourgeois Nationalism,” Part Two, WV No. 741, 8 September 2000). If the Mossadeq interlude demonstrates anything, it is that in a country like Iran, whose economic and social development has been stunted by imperialism, there can be no stable bourgeois democracy; under capitalism, Iran can never look like Western Europe or North America. Only workers rule can begin to lift Iran from its economic and social backwardness.

Today the fraying of illusions in Islamic “reformers” has provided an opening for the monarchists around Reza Pahlavi, exiled son of the former Shah, to sharply increase their activities toward and in Iran. These monarchists are based among the hundreds of thousands of mainly right-wing Iranian exiles in Southern California. Their Farsi-language satellite TV stations and Web sites are a major source of information for many Iranians, given the widespread media censorship within the country. But these pro-U.S. royalists face major obstacles to winning widespread support in Iran. Iranians can look next door to Iraq and Afghanistan to see that the real face of Washington’s vaunted “democracy” is naked colonial brutality. And memories of the CIA-organized coup that overthrew Mossadeq in 1953 run deep. In his Middle East Report Online interview, the OCU student leader commented, “For the students, at least, a monarchist alternative is taken as an insult.... Why should they go back to a monarchy, even a constitutional one, where a hereditary sultan is set to rule over them as subjects?”

Yet the Worker-Communist Party of Iran (WCPI), which appears to be the largest and most influential force among the Iranian left today, openly seeks to accommodate such monarchist forces. The WCPI rightly denounces any idea of allying with any wing of the current regime, and is also unique on the Iranian left in its emphasis on women’s rights, including forthright opposition to the veil. However, the WCPI accommodates prevalent social conservatism; while, for example, saying that the decision to have an abortion rests with women alone, the WCPI nevertheless calls for state counseling to dissuade women from the procedure. And far from upholding a perspective of proletarian class independence, the WCPI are in fact anti-clerical reformists who foster terrible illusions in “democratic” Western imperialism.

For years, one of the WCPI’s main campaigns has been for imperialist governments in Europe and Canada to shut down the Iranian embassies in their countries. By raising this demand, the WCPI lends credence to the democratic pretensions of these imperialists and calls on them to act as cops of the world. The WCPI has also repeatedly called on the United Nations to intervene on behalf of the oppressed in the Near East. Its sister group in Iraq is currently agitating for a UN military intervention in that country, calling for the U.S. and British forces to be replaced by “the intervention of the United Nations” to “safeguard free and secure conditions” (WPI Briefing, 28 April). As was shown by its decade-long starvation embargo of Iraq, which killed at least a million and a half men, women and children, the UN is nothing more than an instrument for upholding the imperialist status quo against the oppressed masses of the underdeveloped “Third World.”

The WCPI’s grotesque accommodation to the Iranian monarchists was clearly seen at a 4,000-strong rally in support of Iranian students in Toronto on June 9, which featured a sea of monarchist and Iranian national flags interspersed with WCPI banners and placards. A WCPI representative spoke from the official platform and, far from even criticizing the monarchists, the WCPI’s own statement for the event, titled “Resolution in Solidarity with the People’s Struggle to Overthrow the Islamic Regime of Iran,” avoided all mention of these royalists or of U.S. imperialism. For the occasion, the WCPI even dropped the last part of its customary slogan, “Freedom, Equality, Workers Rule,” as its banners in Farsi and English solely called for “Freedom, Equality!”

This transparent opportunism aimed at accommodating deeply reactionary forces is no accident. Two years ago, in an interview in International Haftegi (10 August 2001, summarized in English on the WCPI’s Web site), WCPI founder-leader Mansoor Hekmat (since deceased) characterized the WCPI and “the pro-West nationalist current which has primarily gathered around Reza Pahlavi” as the “two main currents in the opposition demanding the ouster of the regime.” While rejecting “unity” with the monarchists, Hekmat continued:

“What can be done is to establish an official dialogue among the opposition currents demanding the regime’s overthrow. We do not have a problem with this. We invited all the opposition, from Left to Right, to our Third Congress. Not only do we not have a problem with setting up an official dialogue with any organisation opposing the Islamic Republic, we welcome it and think it necessary.”

The forces around Reza Pahlavi are the literal heirs of the bloody Shah and his henchmen who butchered Iranian workers, leftists and minorities by the thousands. In the late 1970s, the Iranian left allied with Islamic reaction against the hated Shah, with horrific results; now the WCPI wants a “dialogue” with the Shah’s forces against the Islamic regime! Such a perspective expresses profound political bankruptcy. It would prove literally suicidal for a new generation of Iranian leftists.

For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

Iran today is in the throes of a profound social crisis. The only road to genuine social emancipation, to freeing Iranian women from enslavement, to winning national self-determination for the Kurds and other oppressed nationalities, lies through the smashing of capitalist class rule. An Iranian workers revolution would send shock waves throughout the Near East, showing a way forward for the beleaguered masses who chafe under the grip of Islamic theocracies, military dictatorships and bloody imperialist overlordship. It would act as a spur to struggle, as well, for working people in the United States and throughout the imperialist world, who must be won to the perspective of proletarian opposition to their “own” ruling classes.

In the countries of the East, the question of women’s oppression is one of the most powerful motor forces of socialist revolution. Indeed, when the Bolsheviks arrived in Central Asia in the years following the October Revolution, it was among women that they found the main point of support for their program and won their key cadres. The same holds true for Iran. A Leninist-Trotskyist party, championing women’s rights against the age-old stranglehold of religion and the family, will find its most loyal and courageous fighters among women.

In the wake of the mullahs’ rise to power, we held forums across the U.S. under the title “No to the Veil! Down With Khomeini! For a Workers Revolution in Iran!” Defying attempts by Iranian Muslims and pro-Khomeini leftists to violently disrupt these meetings, the speaker, a Near Eastern Trotskyist of Muslim origin, told the simple truth that the veil is a prison, “a symbol of women’s oppression under Islam and an instrument of that control” (“Fatima Khalil Tells the Truth on Iran,” WV No. 230, 27 April 1979).

The emancipation of women not only from the veil but from the daily drudgery of hearth and home will only come about when the proletariat conquers state power and establishes a socialist society, which will lay the material basis for the replacement of the institution of the family through collective childcare, kitchens and other social institutions. As we wrote in Women and Revolution (No. 18, Spring 1979) following the first challenge to mullah rule in 1979, with the outpouring of 100,000 women in Tehran on International Women’s Day:

“The Iranian masses today urgently need an independent, working-class revolutionary party, capable of struggling in its own name against the reactionary social program of the mullahs. In this task, the question of women’s oppression will play a major role. We salute the masses of outraged women who took to the streets in defiance of Khomeini, in defiance of 1,300 years of brutal institutionalized repression, in defiance of those ‘leftists’ who hail as liberators the clerical reactionaries who would keep women gagged, locked away and enslaved from birth to death. But unless the defiant women find a programmatic base of support in a class-conscious proletarian opposition to the mullahs, their militancy will be dissipated or smashed by the clerical reaction.... Only the perspective of a new, socialist order can show the way forward for the militant women. It is as cadres of a vanguard party of the Iranian working class, armed with the fighting program of revolutionary Trotskyism, that the courageous women of Iran will win their liberation and the liberation of all the exploited and oppressed.”

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