The following article was originally published in Socialist Voice No. 11 (Winter 1981).
Related article: The Counterrevolution in Iran from Socialist Voice No. 14 (Fall 1981)
The fundamental question at stake in the Iraq-Iran war, for communists, is simple: we defend revolution from counterrevolution, the gains of the working class and the oppressed from the exploiters and oppressors. Therefore, in the present war we defend the Iranian revolution from the attack upon it. In contrast to Iraq, where bourgeois rulers have succeeded in wiping out every gain from the struggles of the past, the revolution in Iran still lives.
Workers’ councils (shoras in Persian) arose during the revolution that overthrew the Shah in February 1979 and have mushroomed since. Many of them have grown independent of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic regime and even hostile to it. Many local shoras control their factories and even the output and production priorities of their industries. Peasants have begun to take over the land themselves. National minorities have forced the Teheran regime to recognize some of their rights. The far left and working-class political organizations can now organize, publish and demonstrate in the face of the regime. All such gains will turn out to be untenable over time unless the working class takes state power, but none of them could have existed for a moment under the Shah’s rule.
Every one of these gains was achieved against the wishes of Khomeini’s various governments. In addition, the regime itself has been forced to take other steps as the price it had to pay the masses in order to hold power. Khomeini cut off Iran’s previously generous oil supply to the U.S., South Africa and Israel. This modest blow to imperialism was accompanied by the removal of 40,000 U.S. military personnel and their bases from Iran, to the dismay of every reactionary in the Middle East.
The gains achieved by the Iranian revolution are not its alone but belong to the working class everywhere. They must be defended against an Iraqi victory which would put back into power friends of the Iraqi rulers, who also happen to be friends of the former Shah.
Why then is the fundamental class line so hard for many on the left to see? To them the situation appears impossibly complex. After all, the Iraqi “Arab socialist revolution” is at the throat of the Iranian “Islamic revolution.” How can one understand the shift from the covert support given Iraq by the U.S. government at the start of the war to the covert support given Iran by the same government later on? How could the “revolutionary” president of Iran publicly embrace unrepentant officers of the ex-Shah who are warring against a state that embraces other officers of the same Shah?
What renders the events so complex in appearance is the deviousness of the contending ruling classes and the illusions and false consciousness of the masses. If there was a revolutionary communist vanguard leading the working class (or even vying for its leadership), the fundamental dividing lines of class versus class and revolution versus counterrevolution would show through the layers of muck. The masses’ illusions in their rulers could be dissipated daily.
A proletarian vanguard would fight to enlist the Iranian masses behind a program to qualitatively deepen the gains of the revolution. It would call for the workers’ seizure of power to establish a proletarian state, based upon the shoras and maintained by an armed people. It would stand for the right to self-determination for all national minorities, including the right to independence. It would call for land to the peasants. It would fight for separation of church and state and couple this with the party’s own efforts to educate against religious mysticism. It would accelerate the struggle against imperialism by aiding the revolutionary struggles in surrounding countries, all of which are powder kegs. It would fight above all for a socialist federation of the Middle East.
In the present war a genuinely communist vanguard, not yet able to take power and overthrow Khomeini, would offer a military bloc to the regime to the extent that it actually fights the Iraqi counterrevolution. But it would not cease its revolutionary political opposition to the regime and would continue to work for its overthrow. It would call for mass mobilizations for the war independent of the regime. If it was represented in the Majlis (parliament), it would vote against war credits to the government to show its lack of confidence in it. It would attempt to fraternize with the discontented Iraqi soldiers and align itself with the masses throughout the Middle East; in particular, it would defend the Kurds against the ongoing attacks from Teheran during the war. Above all, it would warn that Khomeini, while not immediately firing on the revolution as are the Iraqis, will do so at the earliest opportunity.
Such a program would force the underlying class issues to the surface. But the muck keeping them concealed is not the creation of counterrevolutionaries alone. The far left in Iran, as we shall show in this article, has proved unable to find the Marxist road forward. And what passes for the left in the U.S. is no better. We plan to take up the specific obfuscations of American leftists in a subsequent article, but now it must be pointed out that the League for the Revolutionary Party was condemned on all sides for our position on Iran at the outset of the revolution. Leftists who liked the revolution approved of Khomeini (or declined to say otherwise in public); those who disliked Khomeini refused to support the masses in their revolution.
Today, ironically, many of those who claimed that we were not really supporting the revolution have now deserted the revolution’s defense. Others, who were forced by Khomeini’s most blatant anti-revolutionary acts to timorously criticize his regime at long last, reverted in the face of the war to adulation of the regime. And some who supported the Shah’s overthrow now are joining the scabs who opposed the revolution in the first place by turning their backs on the workers’ gains.
Fortunately, there are signs that the Iranian working class itself has begun to learn not to confuse Khomeini’s rule with its own revolutionary aspirations. Workers do not have the class luxury of abandoning the military defense of their gains in favor of purer struggles. It is with them that we take our stand, not with a fraudulent middle-class “Marxism” unable to tell progress from reaction or distinguish between the leaders and the led. The workers in Iran still have the opportunity to sort out the contending socialist forces, make themselves aware of the necessary tasks and build a genuine Trotskyist revolutionary party in time to turn the present war to the advantage of their class throughout the world.
On September 22, Iraq abruptly escalated its incessant border attacks against Iran into a full-scale invasion. In the first few days the Iraqi blitz seemed unstoppable. The Western press reverberated to the trumpets of victory blared in Baghdad: Khorramshahr, Abadan, Ahwaz and Dizful had fallen or were just about to fall. Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq and head of its ruling Baath party, was heralded as the new strongman of the Middle East.
As of this writing, however, Iraqi control over the Iranian cities it has besieged is at best partial and is still hotly contested. The Iranian defense has unexpectedly stiffened and a bitter war of attrition has begun. Saddam Hussein can no longer dream of empire; he must now fight for more limited goals and for the life of his regime. Nor will the desert war continue in isolation. It already has shown the potential to engulf the Middle East and has drawn the military attention of the major imperialist powers. The Iraqis’ hope for a quick victory without external interference has disappeared.
Iraq’s original stated war aims were to seize full control over the Shatt al Arab, the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the key waterway for transporting Iraqi and Iranian oil to the Persian Gulf and the world. The Iraqis also claimed borderlands extending up to 90 miles into Iran. As well, they claimed three supposedly strategic islets near the Straits of Hormuz, the gateway to the Persian Gulf – not for Iraq itself, Saddam Hussein grandly announced, but for the whole “Arab nation.”
But Iraq’s aims were actually far more ambitious. The battleground for much of the war was the Iranian province of Khuzistan, known to the Iraqis as Arabistan. In it live a large number of Arabs who have been in conflict with the Khomeini regime. It also contains Iran’s major sources of oil and its principal refineries. Most significantly, it has been a focal point for revolutionary activity by the working class.
In the first few days of the war, the Iraqis claimed the support of the Arab population of Khuzistan. Saddam Hussein could not expect to win outright control, but he did hope that his troops would be able to oversee a nominally independent Arabistan as an Iraqi protectorate. Likewise, he hoped that the war would give him an increased role in dominating the Persian Gulf, a task once performed by the Shah of Iran with his U.S.-supplied military power. Military domination over the strategic oil route would have placed Hussein on the international stage and would have given Iraq the pre-eminence in the Arab world once held by Egypt under Nasser, a position now vacant.
Above all, the war aims of Iraq included the establishment of a new regime in Iran which would quell the incessant pressure for revolution in Iraq and other Arab states emanating from the turbulence of Iran. The secular Baathist regime in Iraq is Sunni Moslem in background, in contrast to the generally less privileged Shiite majority of the population. The Iraqi Shiites have been the object both of intensive oppression by the Baathists and of religious and anti-Baathist appeals by the Khomeini forces. However, it is not Khomeini’s propaganda that represents Iraq’s fundamental problem.
For the Iraqi rulers, far more frightening than Khomeini’s strength was his weakness, his inability to prevent the disintegration of Iran. Iran’s revolution had been brought about not by Khomeini but by the masses’ unwillingness to put up any longer with the rule of the Shah. For the year and a half since the Shah was ousted in February 1979, the Ayatollah and all his men could not put Iran back together again. He maneuvered between liberal nationalist subordinates like former Prime Minister Bazargan and President Bani-Sadr and Islamic fundamentalists like Ayatollah Beheshti, head of the Islamic Republican Party which holds the majority in Parliament, and current Prime Minister Rajai, but Khomeini could not prevent the polarization of Iranian society as the masses fought to achieve oft-promised benefits. The large Kurdish minority had moved into open warfare to gain its rights, and other minorities like the Arabs and Azerbaijanis were continually restive. Workers’ councils were expanding rapidly in many industrial areas in Khuzistan and elsewhere and were increasingly coming into conflict with the Khomeini regime.
A free Kurdistan, wrested out of the Ayatollah’s hands by a successful Kurdish struggle, would have had a tremendous impact on Iraq, which also has a large Kurdish minority with a rebellious history. No less was the danger for Saddam Hussein of the workers’ councils mushrooming just over the border among kindred Arabs in Khuzistan – especially for an Iraqi regime that tolerates no independent trade unions internally. Iraq’s main war aim was to smash the Iranian revolution. The fact that Saddam Hussein chose a path different from that of the U.S. or the USSR towards this end (or, for that matter, different from those of the other Arab states or the Iranian ruling class itself) does not mean that the goal was different. It merely proves that capitalists even when uniformly hostile to a common enemy still pursue their normal narrow self-interest.
The uncontained Iranian revolution was constantly threatening to spill over its borders, not least because the Middle East and all of Western Asia have been tottering at the edge of anarchy. In India, Indira Gandhi’s regime has been paralyzed in the face of communal, religious and class struggles including general strikes. In Pakistan General Zia ul-Haq conjures up every reactionary trick in the book to stay afloat on a sea of mass hostility, as Pakistan’s economy labors under a foreign debt totalling 41 percent of its gross national product. In Turkey, the military has just seized power in a desperate attempt to repress and stabilize a country beset by seemingly permanent polarization. In Afghanistan, the Russian invaders have made little headway in pacifying the reactionary-led bands that control much of the country. Nor have they been able to prevent anti-government activity by the left-nationalist Khalq. Saudi Arabia, despite all its oil riches, trembles under the threat of its foreign, though chiefly Arab, proletariat; rebellions are now a feature of life in the oil fields. (To maintain order, the Saudi rulers have brought in Pakistani troops whose primary virtue is their inability to speak Arabic and thus be contaminated by the contagion of revolution.) Likewise Kuwait and the Arab Emirates fear their radical, alien and combustible working classes. Lebanon is no longer a nation but a bloodbath contained within artifical borders by foreign forces. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is growing restless in the absence of the prosperity promised by President Sadat through his capitulation to the U.S. and Israel. Israel itself, the seemingly impregnable colonial-settler bastion of Western imperialism, is rent by political and economic crises and finds it necessary to step up its repression of the Palestinians.
This festering instability is a consequence of enormous class struggles that are emerging throughout the region. They are frequently refracted through the prisms of national wars and religious upheavals. The masses who cannot achieve their goals within the framework of capitalism nevertheless seek every opportunity to do so before trying the only possible successful solution, socialist revolution.
The upheavals throughout Western Asia testify both to the mortal crisis of imperialism and the indomitable struggle of the masses against capitalism. They also demonstrate that these struggles have been thwarted and betrayed by nationalism, a bourgeois ideology in all of its myriad forms.
The reason for this tragedy lies outside of the Middle East. The masses of the colonial world went into struggle after World War II without a proletarian leadership at home and without the beacon of successful proletarian revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries. The Stalinized Communist Parties in Western Europe, still bearing the mantle of the Bolshevik revolution, helped usher the old imperialist regimes back into power and thus betray European and colonial workers. In Eastern Europe, Stalin’s legions ran roughshod over workers’ revolts and destroyed the workers’ revolutionary achievements wherever they appeared. Before the war, Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International had correctly concluded that Stalinism had passed definitively over to the side of counterrevolution and imperialism. Trotsky even underestimated the pace of counterrevolution, for Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy were able to complete the overthrow of the degenerating workers’ state in Russia and reestablish capitalism by 1939.
Because of the worldwide defeat of the forces of proletarian internationalism, the post-war revolutionary movements fell into the hands of anti-working class petty-bourgeois nationalists, who styled themselves as “African socialists” in Africa, “Communists” in China and Vietnam and “Arab socialists” or “Baath socialists” in the Middle East. This was because the weakness of local capitalism in the colonial areas demanded a strong role for the bourgeois states which the nationalists wanted. But the socialist label was necessary above all to harness the power of the working masses who thought that their leaders were breaking with the imperialism they hated and launching the struggle toward communist equality and abundance.
Whatever the labels and differences, each of the new states could only attempt to build a nationally dominated capitalism replacing that of the imperialist masters. The Marxist theory of imperialism is based upon the understanding that no backward capitalist power can rise to the level of the most advanced during the imperialist epoch, the highest stage of capitalism. The dominant imperialists must expropriate surplus-value from the entire world to maintain their own existence, and more backward capitalisms are forced to integrate and submit. (For our elaboration and interpretation of this theory, see Socialist Voice No. 2, pages 20-22.) Inevitably, the petty-bourgeois nationalists brought only squalor inequality, humiliation and a more or less roundabout route back to dependency upon the imperialist powers. China, with once the most radical of such regimes, now seeks to be America’s staunchest reactionary ally. The path from nationalist-led revolution to counterrevolution is nowhere more evident today than in Iraq and Iran.
The nation-state of Iraq was created after World War I by British imperialism; it continued until 1958 as a nominally independent kingdom under the control of businessmen, landowners and tribal sheiks. Under the inspiration of the Egyptian revolution of 1952, a mass uprising broke out in 1958 and toppled the pro-British monarchy. The new government was a coalition among Westernized army officers, the Baath party “socialists” and the overtly bourgeois democratic parties. The previously underground Communist Party also took part. Without an alternative leadership, the masses were tied to a regime that promised much but gave little. The paramount leader, General Kassim, soon reneged on his social promises and attempted to crush all dissidence and mass organizations. He fell from power in 1963; after a series of coups, the radical Baathists seized power in 1968 and Saddam Hussein became the strongman of the new government led by General al-Bakr.
The new regime was no more capable of fulfilling the masses’ needs than the old; nor was it yet capable of stifling the Kurdish nationalists or its leftist political opponents who reflected popular ambitions. In 1973, the Baathists formed the “National Progressive Front” government which included the Communists and the Kurdish Democratic Party. But agreements with the Kurdish rebels broke down and civil war ensued. While Russia armed its Iraqi ally, the Kurds were sent arms by Syria, Israel, the U.S. and Iran in an effort to weaken the radical, pro-Russian regime in Baghdad. To end the war and the decade-long conflict between reactionary Iran and radical Iraq, al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein signed the treaty of Algiers in 1975 with the Iranian Shah. By this treaty, the border along the Shatt al Arab was readjusted in Iran’s favor and Iran withdrew all support for the Iraqi Kurds, thus ending the rebellion.
The Shah’s new alliance, a subimperialist stronghold of counterrevolution in the Middle East, enabled the Baathists finally to overcome all their leftist opponents and mop up what was left of the mass movements in Iraq. Hussein also eliminated al-Bakr and executed other high-ranking Baathists. The Iraqi Communist Party was forced underground again, and leading Communists were killed. All the vestiges of the popular organizations thrown up during the revolution were wiped out. The now-counterrevolutionary Iraqi regime came to the Shah’s aid directly as well. The Ayatollah Khomeini had been allowed to live in exile in Iraq while directing hostile propaganda against the Shah; in 1978, at Teheran’s request, he was forced out of the country and in 1979 Hussein cracked down harshly on all Shiite groups. As the Shah’s government was toppling, Baghdad gave Empress Farah a royal welcome as a public show of support.
Hussein represents for the Iraqi revolution what Sadat does for the Nasserist revolution in Egypt, its gravedigger. It is both ironical and logical that Saddam Hussein’s most ardent Arab supporter today is King Hussein of Jordan, the former partner of the former Iraqi king in the monarchial federation set up to counter Nasser’s United Arab Republic. Whereas the Arab nationalists once reviled the pro-Western Arab despotisms as much as the West itself (for example, the Yemeni monarchy backed by the Saudis fought a civil war against republican rebels supported by Egypt under Nasser and Sadat), today one cannot tell apart Jimmy Carter’s friend Sadat from King Khalid. And the once-bitter animosity between Baathist Iraq and Saudi Arabia has been replaced since 1978 by the “Baghdad-Riyadh axis.”
Saddam Hussein’s political friendship with the Shah extends beyond the grave. Iraq has been allowing General Oveissi, the army commander under the Shah, to broadcast daily propaganda into Iran and, it is reported, to operate military training camps in Iraq. The Shah’s last Prime Minister, Shahpur Bakhtiar, has given unequivocal support to Iraq in the war and has announced plans for a new Iranian government to be installed after the Iraqi attack forces Khomeini out. The Iraqi nationalists have come full circle in wiping out the Iraqi revolution. Their regime is only one of several counterrevolutionary currents seeking to restore stability to the Gulf, but it is the one that stands in the best position today to attack the Iranian revolution.
If counterrevolution is international in scope, so much the more so is revolution. Underneath the nationalist and religious ideologies, the same class struggle and the same necessities motivate the masses and set up the potential for a solidarity unknown to the bourgeoisie.
The Iranian revolution has had an enormous impact upon the oppressed everywhere. Despite all the propaganda in the Western press, a spirit of exhilaration swept the neo-colonial world as the Iranians crushed the monarchy armed to the teeth by the US. and stood off American threats for two years. Even though the Iranians are not Arabs, popular sentiment in the Middle East for Iran persists despite the current war. Youssef M. Ibrahim, a New York Times correspondent, wrote on October 26:
There is no precise way to gauge the degree of Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence in the Gulf. There are no polls. News organizations print and broadcast what they are told to by governments. Most political dissent is suppressed and kept out of the public eye.
But in many casual conversations two weeks ago in Basra, the large city in southern Iraq and a Shiite stronghold, it was more than obvious that people did not have much sympathy for their government. A typical comment in the dusty bazaar was: ‘If you ask what they really think, people will tell you that in their heart they are all for Khomeini, He is a man of God.’ How can one fight that? This is a feeling that is sensed elsewhere in the Gulf among Shiites and Sunni Moslems almost equally.
Ibrahim added that “there was a clear demarcation between the rulers’ coolness... and the sense of awe and respect of ordinary people” toward the Iranian leadership.
According to this report and many others, it is Islam that accounts for much of the international solidarity in the “third world” for the Iranian revolution. How did this come about? How was it that Islam played such a large role in what was a fundamentally urban revolution, where the Shah was brought down by the modern expedient of a workers’ general strike? This question gets to the heart of much of the confusion over Iran’s revolution.
The most common explanation is that under the Shah’s rule the only institution allowed to exist legally outside royal control was the Mosque. Therefore it had a head start in organizing popular opposition to the Pahlavi regime. But more has to be said. Eric Rouleau, chief Middle Eastern correspondent for Le Monde who evidently has the confidence of various Iranian leaders, has accurately portrayed the revolutionary movement as a political movement with a religious face. No more than the usual proportion of leaders and followers of the Islamic revolution are insincere in their religious beliefs, but there are all sorts of goals on this earth, not in paradise, that the masses expect from Khomeini and Islam. One U.S. correspondent (MERIP Reports, March-April 1979) quoted an Iranian worker: “We want Khomeini. He will take power from the rich and give it to us.”
Throughout history mankind has frequently expressed its political, economic and social strivings through religious superstition. (To a certain extent that phenomenon plays a role in the current Polish struggles.) But such a general observation does not account for the specific popularity of Islamic fundamentalism today.
Throughout the Middle East (and the world) the decidedly secular nationalism of the Westernized classes – the bourgeoisie, the professionals, the intellectuals, the military – has failed in its promise to break the grip of imperialism. As the situation worsens for the masses they search for an answer. Where the nationalist bourgeoisies failed, the pseudo-communists who backed them also showed their bankruptcy. The Tudeh Party (the Iranian pro-Moscow Stalinists) both backed the upper class anti-Shah nationalists and defended Russia’s cooperation with the Shah’s bloody regime; it certainly offered the masses no genuine alternative. Today it tails Khomeini, and the result is the same.
Secularism today is rife with its cynical acceptance of the imperialist facts of life, and its left face is hardly more attractive. That is the source of the rise of militant Islam as a political movement. Through religion it promises an alternative to the corruption and pro-Western betrayals of the traditional nationalists. The mullahs object to the liquor, lifestyle and relative freedom for women that they associate with the West. But what draws the masses is Islam’s promise of equality, prosperity and the end of imperialism. Islam also presents itself as more than simply nationalist; it is Pan-Arab or Pan-Islamic. But it too offers the masses no future.
Islamic nationalism has triumphed so far in two countries, Libya and Iran. While Libya supports Iran in the current war, there is no love lost between Libya’s Qaddafi and Khomeini. “Arab socialism” was previously supposed to link Egypt, Syria and Iraq in a close international unity but it forever broke down upon the shoals of bourgeois nationalism. So too the “internationalism” of the religious variety can not overcome the parochial basis of neo-colonial capitalism to establish a genuine solidarity. The Islamic rulers, just like their more mundane opponents, must also protect their capital base. They too struggle with the West to broker a higher percentage of the wealth that imperialism extracts from their resources and exploits from their working classes.
Iran and Libya, as oil-producing countries, can use OPEC to augment their share of the oil profits, but it is the imperialist oil cartels who control the markets and the industry generally – despite the West’s attempt to blame the Arabs for the economic ruin the world faces. The income of the oil-producing countries depends on the viability of the capitalist world economy. They lose if industrial production in the U.S., Western Europe and Japan winds down; they lose if the dollars they hold become worthless; they lose if the banks they must place their funds in collapse, if the technology they need for oil production and industrial development is no longer generated, if they cannot get the armaments they need to compete with their equally avaricious neighbors.
In Iran, the mullahs have a particular tie to the bazaar merchants who seek more political and economic influence for themselves at the expense of the big bourgeois compradors enriched by the Shah’s favoritism. They do not wish to eliminate the upper bourgeoisie but to join it. The mullah’s link with a section of the bourgeoisie is organic, unlike their appeal to the masses. For the masses Islam is false consciousness. It is an obscurantist lie which accepts bourgeois secularism’s self-identification, with science and materialism in order to reject both. It reflects some of the masses’ aspirations and distorts others in order to deflect the workers and their oppressed allies from their material potential. This can only be achieved by the workers’ fighting for their real interest, an internationalist revolution to establish a scientific socialist society which could overcome both the middle-class secular and religious superstitions of bourgeois life
The Iranian revolution gave rise to a prolonged struggle between the capitalist and pro-capitalist classes and the workers of Iran. It began when the workers’ general strikes and revolutionary councils played the major role in destroying the Shah’s regime. Mehdi Bazargan, the first prime minister of the new government, attacked those who “say that the army must be destroyed and councils run the affairs of the nation, and that people must be in a state of revolution all the time. If this goes on we will have no alternative but to resign.” (This was cited in an important article, “Workers’ and Peasants’ Councils in Iran” by Shahrzad Azad in the October Monthly Review.) Another Khomeini aide was more direct: he damned militant workers as “prostitutes.” Khomeini himself repeatedly warned the workers that they would be dealt with harshly. Azad summarized the situation: “The position of the new regime was that councils should be formed by the government.”
From the outset the regime attempted to strengthen its control over the workers and other mass movements. It waged a month-long campaign to take control of oil production out of the hands of the councils and try to pressure the workers into raising production. It began a bitter war against the Kurds and attacked Azerbaijanis, Arabs and other national minorities as well. Iranian women, who played a large role in the uprisings against the Shah, were faced with measures aimed at imposing the veil as an obvious prelude to even more restrictive steps. This attempt was met in March 1979 with a mass demonstration by women in Teheran, which succeeded in stalling the attack but only for a while.
The regime’s central assault was against the working class. Many of the shoras were taken over initially by instrumentalities like the “Imam’s Committees” and the Pasdaran, the revolutionary guards loyal to the clergy. Religious workers were pitted against the non-religious, and the left bore the brunt of the purges. So long as people believed that the Islamic regime could deliver on its promises, the struggles favored the government.
But as conditions worsened and the government took harsher measures, the struggle reignited. It is easy to see why. Nearly 4 million people (out of a population of 35 million, of whom 10.4 are “economically active”) are unemployed, and the number is growing. The annual inflation rate is 50 percent. Industrial investment and production are down sharply. Oil income, the foundation of the economy, was very low even before the war, bringing in at best half of the projected $23 billion annually.
By August 1979 the workers’ struggle was resurgent and shoras began to flourish among both the workers and the peasants, especially in minority areas. The clash between the Kurds and the regime reached a climax with the military defeat of the Khomeini forces. The December 1979 issue of Kar (Labour), the English-language publication of the leftwing Fedayeen organization, published an analysis written in late October:
The class consciousness of the workers has rapidly increased. ... It must be noted, however, that the majority still believe that the clergy and the government cannot meet their demands “because of their current difficulties,” and they still hope that something will be done, but it is true to say that since the uprising, most of the hopes, ideals and beliefs have gradually disappeared. Many workers now know that neither the government nor the clergy intend to meet the principal demands of the working class.
With all due consideration paid to the mixed consciousness of the masses, it is indeed true that the regime was in considerable trouble, unable to reorganize the economy and unite the contending classes behind its bourgeois program. At this conjuncture, the “Students Following the Imam’s Line,” a militant Islamic group linked to sections of the Islamic Revolutionary Party (IRP), seized the U.S. embassy and held its staff hostage, demanding the return of the Shah who was then hospitalized in New York. They also demanded the wealth he stole, an apology for past U.S. interference and other concessions. The Khomeini leadership seized upon the resulting showdown with America to enroll the fervently anti-imperialist masses once again under its banner.
For the masses had come to distrust the regime’s anti-imperialism. Oil workers had held down production – to the dismay of the regime – both to safeguard Iran’s major resource and to prevent it from being shipped to particularly hated reactionary states such as South Africa and Israel. Shortly before the embassy seizure it was reported (U.P.I., New York Daily News, October 29, 1979) that the Joint Oil Workers Syndicate had issued a statement quoted in the Teheran Times saying:
We warn that if the Iranian government fails to act in demanding the extradition of the hated Shah, or the United States refuses to heed their demand, the bold workers in south Iran will reconsider the export of oil to America and will in fact cut the U.S. oil supply.
The Teheran Times added that the union charged that the Shah’s admittance to the U.S. “has not taken place without the blessing of the Iranian foreign ministry.” The oil workers were entirely right to be suspicious. Unfortunately, Khomeini was able to support the embassy seizure in order to divert the struggle into a nationalist confrontation; his support was aimed at preventing the masses from linking their anti-imperialist consciousness to a struggle to overthrow capitalism in Iran. Nevertheless, the seizure was a distorted product of the class struggle that also diverted Khomeini’s regime from its attempted compromise with imperialism.
The embassy affair and, later, the abortive American raid on Iran did rally mass support for the regime, but this could not overcome deteriorating material conditions and a polarizing class situation. In March of this year the regime began its crackdown again. In his well publicized message to the nation on March 21, Khomeini announced that strikes would be prohibited and that strikers could be hauled before the Islamic courts as “counterrevolutionaries.” He further pronounced inhibitions against peasant land seizures and inaugurated a witchhunt in the universities. He condemned the left explicitly and announced that the coming year would see the restoration of “order” and “security.”
Khomeini’s speech initiated an attack on the workers, peasants, national minorities and the left in defense of capitalism. The regime needed to reduce its “International isolation” – its distance from the imperialist powers and their pawns. To restabilize the Iranian economy it needed not only passivity from the masses but American and Western help. The imperialists were likewise willing to cooperate in such a stabilization by anyone, including Khomeini, because of their fear of the spread of revolution.
Fully half of the Iranian army as well as the Pasdaran were hurled once again into war against the Kurds. The Kurdish Democratic Party, itself moderate and nationalist, had been in conflict with the more revolutionary Kurdish peasants over land seizures, but Khomeini’s attack forced the Kurds to unite behind their more conservative leaders.
The regime also moved to “Islamicize” and close down the universities. Increasing strength by campus leftists and the growing chasm between them and the regime’s supporters reflected the deepening class struggles beyond college walls. The regime not only moved to expel leftist groups but sent the thugs of the IRP, the Hezbollahs (Followers of the Party of God), to physically attack every leftist demonstration in Teheran for a period of months. There were murders as well as beatings that resulted, and the thugs, lumpenproletarians and patronage dependents of the mullahs, were frequently abetted by the Pasdaran.
As the political climate shifted, John Kifner reported in the New York Times (May 30) that “In the street, complaints against clerical rule are increasingly open and the word ‘akhound,’ a derogatory term for the Moslem clergy, is often heard.”
In the countryside, the Pasdaran have come to the aid of beleaguered landlords when the peasant struggles for land heightened. The regime also turned increasingly hostile to the workers’ shoras in the cities. Azad points out that “The policy of the Islamic Republic has been to discredit, deform or dismantle these councils; and in recent months, certain factory councils, peasants’ councils and students’ councils have been the target of verbal and physical attacks.”
The shoras are highly heterogenous in nature, many being entirely working class while others include some managerial personnnel as members as well. Some still favor the regime while others are independent and antagonistic. Few accurate statistics are available to us at this time, but it is clear that the shoras are widespread in the major industrial centers. In some cities there are central shoras coordinating and responsible to the local factory and industry councils. In the months prior to the war, the proletarian shoras were spreading throughout Iran and radicalizing.
In an interview in Socialist Worker of September 1980, an Iranian leftist, Shirin Rani, reported that the government has “lost control over the ‘Islamic’ workers councils” in the vital oil industry. “Two days after a national meeting of 1000 oil workers delegates, the Revolutionary Court ruled that the councils must be disbanded. Yet they have been unable to make their order effective.” Rani also points out that the IRP recently lost control over the shora at the huge Ahwaz rolling mill. It immediately set up an Islamic Association of only 12 to 20 people to counter the shora. “Yet three weeks ago two members of the IA were expelled from the factory when it was proved that they had been members of the old secret police, SAVAK.” He added: “A few days later they ejected Ayatollah Jannati, head of the Revolutionary Court, who attempted to intervene. In the past in Iran it was enough to bring in a mullah to quell a dispute.”
Another victory: in July, Teheran’s water workers discovered that their wages had been suddenly cut in half. 7000 went on strike and 2000 occupied the offices of the Water Board. The workers forced a meeting with President Bani-Sadr and won all their demands.
But the picture is by no means entirely rosy. Government workers, notably women, have been forced to retreat. The regime still retains its grip on many shoras. And, as Azad describes it: “In May the most militant of the Tabriz factories, the pro-Fedaii machine-tool plant and the farm tractor plant, were physically attacked by the ‘black gangs’ of the Islamic Republican Party and forced to dismantle their councils.”
Despite all the setbacks and the continued influence of the clergy, the direction of the working class and its institutions has been clearly positive. Equally clear has been the motion of the regime. Indicative facts summarizing the first year of Khomeini’s rule were given by Michel Rovere in Intercontinental Press of August 4:
Last year 7 billion rials were spent for workers’ housing and 4 billion rials went to unemployed persons. On the other hand, the total aid to industrialists was 80 billion rials. Industrial debts benefitted from a one year moratorium, while the banking reform and the lowering of interest rates represented another gift of 300 billion rials to investors.
Although the regime is undoubtedly capitalist, fundamentally defending the interests of the Iranian bourgeoisie, Khomeini’s role cannot be so openly unambiguous. He acts as a Bonapartist figure, balancing between the competing wings of the bourgeoisie and upper petty bourgeoisie in order to appear as the spokesman for the “national interest” of both the capitalists and the working masses. He projects a populist egalitarian appeal on the one hand and attempts to rebuild bourgeois order and discipline on the other. This is the source of his frequent unwillingness to be specific, his incessant demagogy which is expressed through overriding religious generalities.
Within the ruling groups, Khomeini most comfortably spoke in pre-war days for the upper strata of bazaaris and petty bourgeoisie who see their salvation in a strong nationalist movement which would have a great appeal throughout the neo-colonial world. This would give them bargaining power within the world market which, although dominated by the imperialists, contains some room for maneuver because of the inevitable imperialist rivalries. To accomplish this, they require the resumption of orderly oil production, general stability and the obeisance of the working class and all of the discontented masses. They have tried to whittle away at the nationalized character of vital industries. The regime’s use of the Islamic appeal is designed to accomplish all this, but even Khomeini’s charisma has been unable to overcome the fundamental class struggle and establish the order and disciplined unity that they see in Islam.
The moderate wing of the bourgeoisie, represented currently by Bani-Sadr and Ghotbzadeh and formerly by Bazargan, is made up of those in the bourgeoisie who see that there is no hope for capitalism in Iran except through a restoration of commercial relations with imperialism. It has much in common with pro-Shah elements like Bakhtiar, who was a political associate of Bazargan in the old National Front, many of whose adherents are in Bani-Sadr’s camp today. The Moderates’ greater willingness to end the crisis over the American hostages reflects this attitude. This wing also includes the top layers of the military, only a small portion of which was purged by the new regime. Its Western-trained and U.S.-oriented political and technological leadership may or may not be loyal to the monarchy but will act for restoring imperialist ties under whatever government.
While Khomeini balanced between the class forces in Iran in order to defend capitalism, various pseudo-Marxists held that his class interests were different. The most common current believed that Khomeini’s populist Islamic rhetoric represented a major step towards socialism; this variety of opportunist leftism surfaces in every mass revolutionary event. But the uniqueness of the Iranian events brought out another species, represented by the Spartacist League in the U.S., who took Khomeini’s religious rhetoric seriously and warned that he was about to restore “feudalism” and return the country to the 7th century! No doubt many of Khomeini’s ideas are medieval; no doubt he did subject women to the chador and he did see to it that homosexuals, adulterers and others he called deviants were stoned to death. But he did not restore pre-capitalist society (which in Persia was not feudalism but oriental despotism) nor did he destroy any capitalist institutions. Modern-day capitalism is more than happy to tolerate such acts as long as bourgeois social relations are untouched.
Unlike the Western feudal lords who held political and economic power in their own hands, the bourgeoisie generally does not rule directly. The finandal and industrial oligarchs delegate political authority to special officers who form an executive committee for the management and defense of capitalism. There is usually a close fraternal relationship between the bourgeoisie and its political minions, but in a crisis this is not always the case. Thus reformist working class leaderships like the British Labour Party have run capitalism for the capitalists; so have Nazi petty-bourgeois thugs. Given the revolutionary and anti-imperialist sentiments of the masses, the Iranian bourgeoisie had to turn to Khomeini, and Khomeini has frequently had to turn away from the openly bourgeois types like Bazargan and Bani-Sadr to the religious “fanatics.” He uses the religious ideas as an opiate to satisfy and restrain the masses, as well as the Hezbollahs to discipline them. Indeed, the fanatical thugs have even been used against bourgeois elements themselves to keep them from demanding too obvious bourgeois rule and thereby risk the survival of their own system. Khomeini is a fanatical obscurantist but he is not the crazy fool depicted by American chauvinist commentators.
When the mass struggles gained in strength, Khomeini played his Islamic card to divert them. When he felt that the workers and national minorities could be successfully attacked, he allowed himself to link arms openly with the bourgeoisie through its “moderate” politicians. Also, he favored the moderates when it became clear that Iran’s decaying economy needs Western assistance. The West’s most far-sighted spokesmen have approved. When Khomeini’s attacks against the masses this past spring became evident, the New York Times wrote in an editorial (June 12):
Important revelations can come in ludicrous ways. In a midnight conversion to the views of Jimmy Carter, Ayatollah Khomeini declares that ‘the masses cannot any longer govern’ Iran, that the revolution has become its own worst enemy, that the nation needs a government to address its terrible problems and finally end the distraction of the hostage game.
Whenever Khomeini endorsed Bani-Sadr he was also compelled to slap his wrist in order to maintain his above-the-fray credentials. He had no intention of alienating his mass base in the petty bourgeoisie and more backward sections of the working class. He could afford no flat-out deal with the West such as the masses suspected Bani-Sadr of favoring.
The Islamic Republicans, on the other hand, used their anti-imperialist credentials through the popular hostage incident to win control of the Majlis (the Iranian parliament) and nibble away at Bani-Sadr’s powers; they succeeded, for example, in forcing the president to accept their candidate for prime minister, Rajai. For all its victories, however, the IRP has reached a dead end. Even the petty bourgeoisie relies on foreign trade. The most nationalist elements would go so far as to rupture friendly relations with the West but they would not want to see the economy sink. There is no independent route for the petty bourgeoisie; ultimately its top layers must come to terms with the dominant sectors of capitalism (which in the world today means imperialism and in Iran means the pro-imperialist bourgeoisie) unless it is displaced by socialism. Indeed, the increased verbal and physical attacks by the IRP’s thugs as well as the introduction of more anti-working class laws testify to the growing chasm betwen the IRP and the masses. The logic of events was pushing the workers’ shoras and their allies to the left and into confrontation with all wings of capitalism, including the Islamic reactionaries.
The Iraqi attack was a godsend for the Ayatollah. At first it helped lock together the various polarizing class forces behind Khomeini. Workers, peasants and students, feeling that the issue was the defense of the revolution as a whole, flooded government offices to enlist. Even though the Western press at the outset of the war favored Iraq, it nevertheless communicated the amazement of the American intelligence officers and the reporters themselves at the unexpected spirit and defense put up by the Iranians. The contrast with Iraq was striking, for the Iraqi military has been very careful to rely on heavy weapons rather than infantry assaults out of fear that a large death toll would ignite anti-war rebellion at home. The Iraqis have got little or no response from the Arab people of Khuzistan to their “fraternal” appeals against Teheran.
But Iran, despite its much larger population and potentially stronger army, seems incapable of mounting an offensive. The regime’s unwillingness to arm the masses and the past decimation of the Shah’s army (and its current use as a political weapon) are the key factors. A Le Monde dispatch cited in the September 30 New York Times pointed out that the “authorities have had to turn many men down. In fact, radio broadcasts have discouraged people in certain cities, such as Tabriz, from signing up, saying that so far they have enough volunteers.” Tabriz, it should be noted, is the capital of Azerbaijan where Khomeini is not exactly popular.
In the first days of the war, the KDP announced its support for Teheran, and Kurdish forces blew up an Iraqi oil pipeline. Nevertheless, shortly afterward an Iranian dispatch announced the suppression of a Kurdish rebellion in Iran. It later became clear that the Iranian regime had taken advantage of the war to treacherously attack the Kurdish city of Mahabab: Michel Rovere’s article in the October 30 Inprecor (French-language edition) quotes articles in Le Monde of October 15 and 16. 20,000 Iranian troops are maintained in Kurdistan away from the front with Iraq to keep the Kurds under suppression.
The bulk of the fighting in the besieged cities of Khorramshahr and Abadan has been carried out by the Pasdaran and irregular militia (some if not most of them organized by the leftist Fedayeen and Mojahedin). The French Press Agency (cited by Rovere) reported that the fighting in Abadan featured street barricades and actions by numerous neighborhood committees. It is not Teheran’s army which is bearing the brunt of the war.
French reporters covering the second Iraqi offensive of October 15 to 22 noted the almost total absence of artillery, helicopters and anti-tank missiles on the Iranian side defending Abadan. Rovere quoted Le Monde’s correspondent Eric Rouleau, who recalled how Iranian guerrillas had asked of him and Iranian journalists: “But where are our ground forces? Why are we not receiving heavy weapons and munitions? ... During the conflict with the Kurdish rebels we promptly received reinforcements and arms at the slightest request. But for three weeks our anxious appeals have gone unanswered.” It seems apparent that the regime is willing to let militant guerrillas perish heroically against Iraq rather than strengthen the workers of Khuzistan who have learned not to trust Teheran. In the same October 16 dispatch, Rouleau refers to the “almost total absence of the ground forces in the oil triangle” where the major fighting is taking place.
Behind the front it is the masses who are mobilizing to defend the revolution. In July, the Central Council of Islamic Shoras representing 900 factory councils called for the general arming of the population. Obviously the regime has not complied. Leftists report from Iran that shoras are raising militia and have set up schools to train fighters. Rovere indicates that neighborhood committees are now organizing rationing of goods and suppression of the black market, with even more autonomy from the clergy than in the February 1979 uprising against the Shah.
There is method to the regime’s seeming madness. The army is avoiding battle because it is being rebuilt for another purpose – and it is being rebuilt. The regime had begun before the war to release from prison former SAVAK agents and pro-Shah officers; once the war started, this trend was accelerated. Some 200 airmen jailed for counterrevolutionary plots were freed along with a large but unspecified number of army officers. The air force officers were probably not pro-Shah like the army top brass; in fact, air officers had been in the forefront of the insurrection that toppled the monarchy. But they did constitute an upper-class elite, trained in the West, whom the government apparently wants to have available for use.
President Bani-Sadr was closely identified with the release of the officers. His stock has gone up during the war: for example, the Ayatollah awarded the Supreme Defense Council which he heads full power over the press, radio, television and all interviews by government officials. Technocrats and modern bourgeois elements like him appear to be the only “practical” people around, able to mobilize the armed forces and the wartime economy. Bani-Sadr has made little attempt to hide his willingness to deal with nonrevolutionaries. According to Rouleau of Le Monde, he said: “As far as I’m concerned, competence and patriotism come before fidelity to the regime.” (Washington Post, October 10).
Bani-Sadr’s attempt to rebuild the Iranian army’s officer corps, together with the limited fighting tasks given to it, show that the army’s strength is being saved to smash the revolutionary forces (the workers, peasants, minorities and many Pasdaran militants). This task also requires an alliance with imperialist forces outside Iran. Thus the president has been trying for some time, cautiously, to get the American hostages released in exchange for the approximately $350 million worth of military equipment and spare parts owed to Iran and the unfreezing of its assets held by Americans. In this venture Bani-Sadr has been joined by successive waves of defectors from the IRP, braving the anti-imperialist hostility of the masses. Still, a significant sector of the IRP has withstood the pressure placed on it by the regime and resisted any deal. But they fundamentally have no alternative to the re-establishment of solid bourgeois power based on an alliance with one or another imperialist force.
Given the Byzantine character of Teheran’s ruling class politics, it is impossible to predict who will emerge as the chief Khomeini lieutenant or government leader in the future. However, if capitalism is to survive, power must rest more squarely with the dominant bourgeoisie. A military attack on the masses’ gains will be needed and is being prepared. The army will not permit differences over whether the Shah or the new regime should have been supported in 1979 to prevent it from smashing the proletariat when all other measures have failed. It is not only the Iraqis who seek a military coup in Teheran. They differ from Khomeini and Bani-Sadr only in that they are firing their guns today while the latter are getting ready to do so tomorrow. If the Iranian working class does not come to understand these fundamental relationships of forces it will be crushed.
The U.S. had long maintained its alliance with the Shah to safeguard imperialist exploitation of the Middle East. Not only did the imperialists wring oil profits out of Iran’s resources and workers, but they built up the Shah as a subimperialist military strongman to protect the entire Gulf region from revolutionary “anarchy.” When the Shah was ousted, the U.S. and its allies quickly decided that Khomeini, however distasteful he appeared, was the only hope for a new stabilization. Thus arms were sent to Iran in mid-1979 to strengthen Teheran’s war against the Kurds. And even after the hostage seizure, the U.S. government hoped Iran’s divided rulers would find a solution so that normal relations could immediately resume. But the U.S. also recognized that Khomeini could not assume the Shah’s pacifying role in the Gulf – indeed, the Ayatollah was stirring up trouble for imperialism by widening the aspirations of Persian nationalism even more than the Shah dared in his last years.
For these reasons the United States initially “tilted” in favor of Iraq. The Western press played wish the idea of a Bakhtiar-Oveissi regime in Teheran inspired by Iraq, and the imperialists certainly were pleased with the idea of a quick war to choke off the disruptive effects of Iran’s revolution. At the very least they hoped Iraq would take over the Shatt al Arab and thereby lessen the chances of bottling up the oil supply. So for the first period of the war the U.S. expressed its “neutrality” by supporting Iraq’s phony cease-fire proposals that did not call for troop withdrawals and therefore could not have been accepted by Iran. Even more ominously, the U.S. took the opportunity of the war to greatly strengthen its naval forces near the Gulf. As well, it secured additional military bases in the region to the relief of pro-imperialist regimes. And AWAC (battlefield headquarters) planes were sent “for defensive purposes” to Iraq’s friend Saudi Arabia.
But as the war continued, the U.S. reconsidered. Saddam Hussein won no lightning victories, Khomeini’s rule was not undermined, and, worst of all, the belligerents did not refrain from bombing each others’ oil installations. If the war were to spread to other countries, its effects on world oil supplies could be disastrous. Thus the U.S. warned Jordan and Oman not to give aid to Iraq and demanded that Iraq limit its war aims to the Shatt al Arab. At the same time, the U.S. began making overtures to Iran: Iraq was labelled the “aggressor” in public, and Carter said that the military spare parts ordered by the Shah could be freed if the hostage question was settled. This was not simply an electoral ploy by Carter but a logical consequence of imperialism’s quest for stable allies in the Gulf region. Brzezinski had always favored a counterrevolutionary alliance with Islamic reaction, and the new moves recognized the careful steps toward accommodation being made by Bani-Sadr and Khomeini in Teheran.
The Russian imperialists played the diplomacy game in similar fashion. At the outset of the war Russia had a “friendship” treaty with Iraq but little real influence there since Baghdad had begun looking Westward for support. At the same time, the invasion of Afghanistan had confirmed Khomeini’s distrust of the superpower on his northern border. But Russia still preferred Khomeini to an overtly pro-Western ruler, even though it had lived quite easily with the Shah. Anything would be better than the alternative of destabilization and possibly revolution just over the frontier.
As we have demonstrated many times before (most recently in analyzing the Afghan events in Socialist Voice No. 9), Russia, like the West, is committed to the support of imperialist stability in the Middle East as elsewhere, and only desires a greater measure of influence for itself. A heightened role in the Middle East would enable the USSR to better defend itself in its inter-imperialist rivalry and would also be a bargaining point with the economically stronger West on which state capitalist Russia depends for vital capital and technology imports. So the Russian rulers tried to use their arms deal with Iraq to temper Hussein’s war aims and thus curry favor with Iran. Replacements continued to be supplied to Iraq through Jordan when the Shatt al Arab became unsafe for shipping, but transport of arms to Iran through Russian territory was also permitted.
Russia’s attitude was made clear by the pact concluded between the USSR and Syria during the war, an agreement that went beyond any the Russians had been able to secure previously in the Middle East. Syria was at swords’ points with its fellow “Arab socialists” in Iraq, and the new alliance enabled the Syrians to support Iran openly against its rival. Like Libya, which also backs Iran, Syria is not a Russian puppet, but the new pact is an indication of Russian diplomatic gains as a consequence of the war.
The imperialist powers are maneuvering to keep the area as stable as possible under the volatile conditions of outright war. That is their intent; however, their national self-interest could easily lead one or the other to fear that its rival was gaining too much influence with the local potentates and could thus precipitate a wider conflict. The lesser capitalist powers too are frightened by the regional volatility. The Arab states of the Gulf, for example, have publicly condemned but privately welcomed the increased U.S. and Western European forces sent in. And Israel is openly gleeful over the war because its enemies are killing each other, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, its primary foe, has lost favor with all sides by trying to mediate. Israel fears that the U.S. might not take proper advantage of the situation while the Russians advance, but its main fear is that Khomeini will collapse and Iraq will be greatly strengthened. Thus it has leaned towards Iran throughout the conflict. The diplomatic interplay that puts Israel together with Libya and Syria on the side of Khomeini is quixotic but only the result of the necessary absurdities of capitalistic logic. Given that their own survival is at stake, the Israeli subimperialists have a sharp eye out for their interests. An aide to Prime Minister Begin summed up the situation accurately and concisely: “Khomeini is Kerensky” (New York Times, November 1). The Israelis and the more powerful imperialists offer support to Iran the nation, not the revolution; that is, they support the nationalist capitalist forces in Teheran out of fear that their weakness before the masses will result in their fall and the beginning of the collapse of imperialist power in the Middle East. For everyone knows what happened to the weak provisional government of Kerensky in 1917, when the masses would take no more and a revolutionary leadership was on the scene.
The question of the leadership of the Iranian working class is absolutely crucial, both for determining the outcome of the immediate events and for the future of the revolution. Its power and revolutionary consciousness already established, the Iranian proletariat is facing decisions that will determine the fate of the masses throughout the Middle East. If it can find the route to proletarian revolution, the history of the world will be altered.
However, to our knowledge no organization on the Iranian left is following a genuine Marxist and Leninist strategy towards the revolution. The capitalist logic penetrating the radical petty bourgeoisie and even the most advanced sections of the working class has not yet been overcome. The Bolshevik position must be based on the following fundamental principles:
These fundamental Marxist principles of this epoch are derived from Lenin’s analysis of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism characterizing its epoch of decay, and Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. They have been deepened and validated by the success of the Bolshevik revolution, and confirmed in a negative way by the Russian counterrevolution and the rotting of all the petty-bourgeois nationalist “anti-imperialist” revolutions ever since.
Along with the basic principles, a number of necessary tactics were tested in the 1917 events and are applicable in other revolutionary situations that follow the same general laws. For example, the Bolsheviks offered a tactical military bloc to Kerensky against counterrevolution while maintaining their absolute political hostility to his government. In the current war, the proletarian military policy requires defense of Iran against the Iraqi attack. If Iran falls, the revolutionary gains and the shoras will be destroyed.
However, such a military bloc means above all the independent mobilization and arming of the workers based upon their shoras. It means warning the workers that although the Iraqis are the ones firing on them now, their own rulers will be doing so tomorrow – thus not one iota of political support to Khomeini. If and when the regime uses the war as a cover for attacking the masses – as the Khomeiniites attacked the Kurds – then fire back and use the episode to open the social revolution against all the counterrevolutionaries. Such a revolutionary defense of Iran will prove to the masses that it is indeed the communists who are the best defenders of their interests rather than Khomeini who betrays them.
The greatest danger on the Iranian left today comes from the petty-bourgeois “socialists” who give political support, with criticisms or not, to the Khomeini regime. Such opportunist leftists hope to profit from the initial patriotism of the masses who are flocking to the defense of the regime. But as the war continues and the government’s counterrevolutionary activities become clearer, the working class will rapidly learn who are its leaders and who are its betrayers.
The most prominent left organization is the Tudeh party already mentioned. Because of its past betrayals, the Shah’s repression and its pro-Moscow line, it was unable to play any significant role in the revolution. Subsequently it has subordinated itself to Khomeini in every way: it was the only left group to vote for the Islamic Republic in the March 1979 referendum, and it proudly identifies its program with the Ayatollah’s. We have seen no reports on its activity during the war, but there is not the slightest reason to expect even a wobble in the Bolshevik direction.
Of the groups that consider themselves oppositionist and revolutionary the most significant at the moment are the Mojahedin (Organization of Freedom Fighters of the Iranian People) and the Fedayeen (Fighters, or Organization of Iranian People’s Fedayeen Guerrillas). We note that the translation of these names varies in the English-language press; we are using the most common spellings. The Fedayeen are also sometimes referred to by the initials OIPFG. Both of these groups waged guerrilla struggles against the Shah and have lost numerous martyrs in the struggle. Both are influential in the workers’ shoras. The principle ideological difference is that the Mojahedin considers itself to be radical Islamic, while the Fedayeen is “Marxist-Leninist,” that is to say, pro-Stalinist, in its historical orientation and in its present policy.
The Mojahedin policy towards the Khomeini government has been confused and ambiguous, reflecting its ideology that mixes devoutness with elements of Marxism. Its anticlericalism has gained it some support among the Westernized nationalists, including, some reports say, Bazargan and former foreign minister Yazdi. More recently there have been indications that Bani-Sadr is sympathetic towards a bloc with the Mojahedin. Such a link with the ruling bourgeoisie which is at the threshhold of counterrevolution would be complete betrayal of the working class.
The Fedayeen are smaller than the Mojahedin but more important in the shoras, even though they are primarily a student-based group like the rest of the far left. Because of their radical opposition to the regime, they suffered assassinations and tortures at the hands of Khomeini’s thugs – as well as the Shah’s. Even so, they hold to the old Menshevik and, later, Stalinist conception of the two-stage revolution: first a bourgeois, anti-imperialist revolution and then ultimately a socialist revolution. The overthrow of the Shah would at first sight appear to represent the first stage, so that now socialist revolution would be called for, but when the Fedayeen were forced underground by Khomeini’s repression in the summer of 1979, they inserted what in practice amounted to an intermediate stage: the eventual replacement of Khomeini’s regime by bourgeois democracy. However sincere their opposition to the present regime, their politics makes them left-wing supporters of nationalist capitalism.
In June 1980 the Fedayeen split, with the majority changing its position to critical support of the Khomeini government; the minority holds something akin to the old position outlined above. The majority’s shift is a logical adaptation of the Fedayeen idea of an anti-imperialist people’s capitalism; when Khomeini made one of his leftward oscillations, the majority jumped aboard, declaring that anti-imperialist bourgeois democracy did not require his overthrow. Although it would prefer that the “anti-imperialist movement” be led by the proletariat instead of the confused and frequently anti-democratic petty bourgeoisie, under the existing circumstances the majority sees no alternative but to align with Khomeini and the IRP in order to direct its primary attack (“the spearhead”) against the “liberal capitalists” around Bani-Sadr who are capitulating to imperialism. (The special Summer issue of Kar (Labour) contains documents giving both the majority and minority views.)
The Fedayeen majority’s surrender to the Islamic petty bourgeoisie was a factor in disorienting the advanced workers. It ill prepared the workers for the attack launched by the regime against left students at the universities, including the “godless” Fedayeen. It also helped prevent workers from perceiving the inevitable role of Khomeini and the IRP marching in lockstep with Bani-Sadr in his attempt to override the anti-imperialist attitude of the masses during the war with Iraq. Worse yet, it politically disarmed the masses and attempted to blind them to the increasing counterrevolutionary acts of the Khomeini/Bani-Sadr/Rajai regime.
When the war broke out (according to Shahrzad Azad in the November 26 Guardian), the majority flocked to the colors and eventually signed up with the anti-working class Pasdaran! This is a consequence of its line of giving political (not just temporary, independent military) support to Khomeini and the ruling class.
The Fedayeen minority avoids giving support to any of the wings of the present regime, but it has a difficult time squaring this with its Stalinist-Menshevik theory of stages. The majority criticizes the minority (which it accuses of “leftism” and “Trotskyism”) for labelling all wings of the government “capitalist” without distinguishing between the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie; this is done, the majority argues, to avoid having to support the IRP, for the minority attributes “revolutionary and progressive characteristics to the petit bourgeoisie which only belong to the proletariat.”
The criticism seems to be accurate, although genuine confusion in both majority and minority documents makes it difficult to be certain. The minority has by no means reached the “Trotskyism” it is accused of because it still bears the scars of Stalinism and its class origins. The drive to the left cannot culminate in a truly communist position until it overcomes the idea that the alternative to the present state can be an anti-imperialist state ruled by the petty bourgeoisie and not a workers’ state in transition to socialism. According to Shahrzad Azad the Fedayeen minority does not call for the government’s overthrow because the masses support it and “the regime has some contradictions with imperialism.” This appears to be a strategic, not simply a conjunctural tactical line based on the immediate relationship of forces, because it coincides with the Fedayeen’s advocacy of a genuinely anti-imperialist capitalist state. As such, it helps prevent the advanced workers from learning that any form of capitalist government must ultimately be dealt with by revolution, for it is the capitalist state which is the enemy.
On the war, Azad reports that the minority is defending Iran through independent combat forces along with the Mojahedin. This is a step forward compared to excerpts of the minority position (some of which were very confused) published in the U.S. by Young Spartacus and Workers World, where it appeared that minority supporters were condemning both sides in the war equally. At best, such a line will confuse revolutionary workers who have seized arms to defend their gains; at worst, it allows the banner of revolutionary defense to pass into the hands of Khomeini and Bani-Sadr, who will use it to promote counterrevolution.
The fact that newly developing leftists in Iran have so far been turned away from genuine Trotskyism is due in no small part to the abjectly opportunist mockery of communist politics presented by the pseudo-Trotskyist groups in Iran. The HKE, or Revolutionary Workers Party, is affiliated to and trained by the American SWP. It has continually apologized for Khomeini’s religious obscurantism, it backed the Islamicization of the universities against the student left, it champions the wearing of the veil – and never even mentions the elementary Leninist idea that socialism requires the revolutionary overthrow of the present bourgeois regime (let alone the state!). It points to the danger of counterrevolution but never suggests that Khomeini might have a hand in it. When war broke out, the HKE urged the masses to jump onto Khomeini’s bandwagon: “Now for the defense of the revolution, it is necessary for the toiling masses of Iran to mobilize for war against imperialism as one united family, to close ranks, and to strike as one fist.” (Militant, October 10)
One united family indeed! The idea of ceasing to oppose the capitalists during any kind of war is an abomination to Bolsheviks. The fist will smash the workers if the HKE has its way.
As elsewhere in the world, the workers of Iran are moving forward almost in spite of their pretended leaders on the left. In the process they are laying the basis for a new leadership, a genuinely Trotskyist Fourth International, that will face the coming days of war, revolution and counterrevolution by following a clearcut line towards the socialist revolution. This is the only answer to imperialism and its servants, the nationalists of all stripes – secular and religious, bourgeois and petty bourgeois, Stalinist and phony Trotskyist. The shoras are an important start. Arming the masses will also be crucial. The decisive step will be the creation of the revolutionary proletarian party, in Iran and throughout the world.