Workers' Liberty #2/2


Islamism and the left in the Iranian revolution

In 1979 Iran saw millions on the streets, and a general strike, in the overthrow of the huge, despotic military and police apparatus of the Shah (king), the USA's strongest ally in the region. It was a great anti-imperialist revolution. Or... was it a counter-revolution? Pretty much immediately after the Shah's downfall, the new regime, headed by Islamic clerics, started a drive which soon destroyed the Iranian left by mass executions and jailings; crushed all independent workers' organisations; put the country in the grip of a totalitarian terror worse than the Shah's tyranny; and enmeshed it in an eight-year-long, enormously bloody, war with Iraq. Here a member of Workers' Left Unity Iran and of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran, opens a discussion on the lessons. On some points, readers of Workers' Liberty may question the conclusions. Does our hostility to the totalitarian-Islamic or totalitarian-Stalinist state mean that we can seek a state which is somehow not 'politicised' at all? Does our opposition to the clerical-totalitarian 'party' of the mullahs, and the Stalinist party model, mean that we need a 'new concept' of Marxist party which sees itself as 'uniting disparate groups' rather than democratically centralised? After all, the fact that the Islamists used mass street actions to get their way does not make us renounce our street actions. The discussion will continue.

By Mehdi Kia

The Iranian revolution spewed enough nails on the political road to upend all but the most robust of the left in the country. In the early 1970s the Shah's savage repressive machinery had almost completely broken up the revolutionary left. Those escaping execution were languishing in jail. When the revolutionary waves opened up the prison gates in 1978, the left was small, fragmented and had been kept isolated from social events for the best part of a decade. During the next two years the Iranian left suddenly found itself the focus for all those who were able to foresee the terrible pit the mullahs were digging for all the democratic slogans of the revolutionary masses. Overnight these small organisations ballooned with literally hundreds of thousands of new-found supporters.

Their headquarters were bombarded by workers, students, peasants, and state employees who had taken over control of the factory, office or university, and desperate for direction on where to go from there. In Kurdistan and Turkoman Sahra the left had set up regional administrations and taken over land from absentee landowners and industrial farms. In the universities the left was a major force to be reckoned with. In major cities, hundreds of thousands of votes were cast for candidates from the left in the elections to the first Majles. In the factories left-leaning workers dominated many of the shuras.1

Together with the Organisation of the Peoples Mujahedin the left was a major player in the Iranian political scene in the two years following the victory of the revolution. All those who wanted to keep, and extend, the democratic gains of the revolution looked to them for protection against the gathering dark clouds of intolerant Islam and the thugs of the Islamic Republic Party.

Yet by the middle of 1981 the left, (alongside the Mujahedin) had all but been eliminated from the political scene. Undoubtedly the savage repression was a major factor. Tens of thousands were executed and hundreds of thousands spent years behind bars. But to solely blame the repression is to bypass the question: why was the left taken so unawares?

The left, sunk in an ideology soaked in populism, either did not see the storm, or deprived itself of the tools to confront it. It would be foolish to predict in retrospect the relative contributions of outside terror or internal miscomprehension to the demise of the left. The latter, undoubtedly, played a significant role. While state terror is out of our hands, mistakes are not.

The lessons learnt by some on the Iranian left have implications not only for the unfolding of events in today's Iranian scene but also for the left globally. Indeed large sections of the left both inside and outside Iran continue to remain oblivious to these lessons.

Reactionary anti-imperialism

Lesson 1: A regime can be anti-imperialist and reactionary at the same time. The revolution threw out one of imperialism's most trusted allies, and gendarme, in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The counter-revolution that rode on the back of the revolution, even if its success was oiled by the scheming of Western governments, upset the carefully laid imperialist jigsaw in the region. The West, and in particular the USA lost a close ally. It took another decade and two wars to re-establish Pax Americana.

The Soviet bloc was openly ecstatic. The Iranian revolution had broken the chain of 'containing' states encircling the Soviet block at its most crucial link. The [Stalinist] Tudeh party, always a microphone for the Soviet Union's foreign ministry, had from the revolutionary days endorsed Khomeini. But the Tudeh Party had little support on the ground. It had to win the largest left organisation in Iran, the Organisation of People's Fadai', if its policies were to be actualised. The Fadai', now a large nation-wide organisation, was suffering from theoretical paralysis. In the intellectual apparatus of the left 'reaction' and 'revolution' were opposites. To combine them was an absolute contradiction [see footnote 2]. The Fadai's deeply ingrained populism told it that a regime coming out of a popular revolution which had toppled the monarchical dictatorship, and was being opposed by every imperialist power, must be progressive. Its eyes, however, told it different.

Any lingering doubts were cast aside when the rulers of the Islamic Republic consummated their anti-imperialist rhetoric by the charade of the US embassy occupation. This and Iraq's invasion of Iran split the left right down the middle. The Tudeh Party used the authority of 'brother' parties to break the will of the Fadai'. The process was assisted by the fact that internationally the left in all its hues, all but a tiny faction, had hailed the Iranian revolution and counselled support for the counter-revolutionary regime that had defeated the revolution. The Fadai' split. A Majority fell into line behind Tudeh and Khomeini. The Minority became fodder for Khomeini's repressive machinery.

The theoretical debate over the nature of the Islamic Republic focused on the class nature of the ruling regime. Was it petit-bourgeois, bourgeois, or 'affluent petit-bourgeois'? The Tudeh camp went for the former, which through the 'non-capitalist road to socialism' was to take the country through to socialism. It was petit-bourgeois - so it must be progressive!

It was left to ORWI, which with a handful of others, pointed to the obvious and observable fact that the new regime (regardless of its class content) was reactionary in its day to day actions and policies. That it was suppressing the working class, destroying the self-governing shuras and systematically taking back all the democratic gains of the revolution. The new ruling cast of Shi'ite clergy was so obviously protecting the capitalist mode of production from the onslaught from below.

It seemed that the left was oblivious to the second part of the central slogan of the revolution: 'independence, freedom, Islamic Republic'. A significant part of the left shared the disastrous illusion of the revolutionary masses that 'independence' flows through the 'Islamic Republic'. Freedoms were to be put on hold.

Importance of democracy

Lesson 2: Defending unconditional democratic freedoms, even of one's opponents, is for the left a central task for all times. The populist left placed a Chinese wall between the struggle for democracy and that against imperialism. Indeed one was subordinated to the other: fighting imperialism took priority. And anyway the 'anti-imperialist Imam' was doing this so well. The battle for freedoms in the streets, in the universities, in the factories - which was a battle against the Islamic rulers - was distracting, nay obstructing, the anti-imperialist struggle, so the argument went. We were to sacrifice everything to a bogus anti-imperialist struggle conducted at the top by the Islamist rulers of Iran.

But even those who did not subscribe to this thesis, in practice, downplayed the democratic struggle. So it was that when women marched in their thousands on that first post revolutionary International Women's Day (March 1979) against compulsory hejab (Islamic covering) for entering government office, the left turned its face away: after all these were 'perfumed' women from the more affluent suburbs. The left was again silent when a few month later thugs ransacked the offices of the daily paper Ayandegan. It was 'liberal' - nothing to do with us. Within a year progressive newspapers such as the Bakhtar-e Emruz were also shut. And finally the left underground press was annihilated. The Iranian press scene went into total darkness for 15 years.

The left saw political democracy as belonging to the bourgeoisie. At best the era of 'bourgeois revolutions' was a ladder to socialism. Personal freedoms, such as the freedom of expression, were 'liberal' demands, either to be ignored or tolerated - for the time being - but not high on the agenda. Indeed liberal was used as a pejorative term, a swear word. The 'anti-imperialist' mullahs were far preferable. It was thus that the left dug its own grave.

Democracy and political freedoms, including individual freedoms, is the air the left breathes. This air is as necessary while building socialism as when fighting for it 3. This debate is not confined to Iran. The European left and the left in the Middle East should take heed. Many so-called 'bourgeois' freedoms would not have been achieved, nor sustained, without the struggle of the working class. Democratic rights are also a product of the era of proletarian revolutions. As such they form the struts of the future socialist society, to be expanded upon and deepened, not discarded.

A most important element in these freedoms is the freedom to associate. Here too the record of the Iranian left was disastrous.

Non-ideological associations

Lesson 3: Mass-popular associations and organisations must be de-ideologised. Where the left felt itself most at home was helping people to organise. They interpreted this mission, however, as setting up popular organisations as fronts for their own group and organisation. These associations acted as recruiting ground, and a vehicle for realising the 'party programme'. Women's organisations were set up espousing this or that version of Marxism. Universities were studded by a variety of student bodies. The left would have extended this ideologo-centric vision of popular associations to trade unions where they able to organise these. They indeed, did split the Shuras along ideological lines.

So when the scimitar fell on women, they had already been fragmented along ideological fault lines 4. And when the mullahs purged 60,000 teachers they faced not one, but several teachers associations who could hardly resist. And when in April 1980 thugs, supported by security forces, and hailed by president Bani-Sadr, attacked and closed Iran's universities as part of the 'Islamic cultural revolution' there were almost as many student organisations as there were political groupings5. After putting up a valiant and bloody fight they capitulated with many dead and wounded.

The Iranian left had inherited the tradition of the left everywhere to set up front organisations, mere appendages of the parent body. Thus where it came to defending the common interests of the social group which they were nominally representing, they found themselves locked in ideological battle with their counterparts as to what ideologically correct path to take. Social groups were fragmented into supporters of this or that interpretation of Marxism.

'Maoist' women confronted 'Trotskyist' women. And in Iran, women supporters of this version of Islam lined up against women defenders of that version of Marxism. Nowhere did women as women stand together. Not even secular women against the encroachment of the Islamist state. When women's groups called for unity they implied capitulation of one group to the conditions of another 6.

Mass-popular organisations and trade unions, should by their very nature remain above ideology. They unite people on basis of their immediate and direct democratic demands. They should combine over what unites them - trade, profession, gender, ethnicity, sexuality - rather than what divides them - ideology. Political groupings need to operate within these structures, formulating demands and arguing for changes in policy and direction, all within the framework of the raison d'etre of the mass organisation. Ideological issues, whether political, religious or cultural, must be kept out unless it has direct bearing on the purpose of the association.

Civil liberties and trade union rights can, and often will, come into conflict with the interests of the state and of political parties. The independence of these institutions of civil society from both political parties and the state are vital if the struggle for democratic rights is to have any concrete meaning. This applies as much to after, as before, the revolution. There is certainly much work that needs to be done to unravel the relationship between the party and mass-popular organisation and the relationship of both with the state.

The Iranian left tragically mirrored the Islamic rulers who split all institutions of civil society. The mullahs went on to amalgamate civil society into the state.

Non-ideological state

Lesson 4: The struggle for a non-ideological state is inseparable from that for socialism. The Iranian left experienced the disaster of the ideological-state and the party-state twice over: once in the Islamic Republic and again in the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The Islamic regime had annulled civil society, physically destroying what it did not like, and amalgamating the rest into itself. All institutions and organisations were 'Islamised'. None were allowed to exist outside the state. The Works Shuras, the Islamic Societies, women's organisations, the myriad cultural, charitable and economic bonyads (foundations), are all part of the state apparatus.

Once the bloody repressions of 1981-3 had achieved this goal, the ideologically 'homogenous' state found itself splitting along ideological lines - this time over this or that interpretation of Islamic rule. The ideological state was behaving true to form. This kind of state defines itself by its beliefs. It is exclusive by excluding all non-believers. It is divisive and fragile because it fragments the 'self' through different interpretations of the ideology - the 'self/non-self' debate going on to this day.

And paradoxically it is all-inclusive: by placing an ideological block to social participation, the state expands to encompass the whole of society in a frenzy of bogus ideological posturing. Anyone wanting to enter university in Iran will have to take a religious exam, which they will memorise parrot fashion. Everyone who wanted a job in the old Soviet Union claimed to be a Marxist and joined the party. Dishonesty and corruption becomes institutionalised and engulfs the whole state apparatus.

A further tragic consequences of politicising the state is the corruption of society. It is not only that dishonesty is sanitised and 'normalised' - that kids will brazenly lie when asked by teachers if they have a [banned] video at home. The total politicisation of society, including the politicisation of culture, has two damaging effects on the longer term health of society.

Firstly it moves the battle between above and below into the cultural arena. Listening to jazz in the former Soviet Union or to pop music in today's Iran, or having a satellite dish, or exposing a few strands of hair becomes an act of defiance against the government. But paradoxically it fragments society in that opposition becomes an individual act, or at best that of a small group such as family and friends.

Second, by saturating and exhausting society in a constant political combat which reaches into the recesses of the home, it can wear society down. An exhausted de-politicised society is the paradoxical potential consequence of the total politicisation of an ideological state. We see this happening in the former Soviet bloc and to some extent among the youth in Iran today. The long term damage to society and social cohesion can only be guessed at 7. The experience of ideological states in the 20th century has been unequivocal: it corrupts the state apparatus and erodes society.

Much work needs to be done in understanding the relationships of ideology, embodied in the party, and the rule of class(es) embodied in the state, the party and the class it claims to represent, and the triangle of the party(ies) the state and mass-popular organisations.

The left and the working class

Lesson 5: The left's commitment to the working class must go beyond lip-service. The left everywhere acquires its identity through its self-identification with the working class as the 'historic class' - the class through whose self-emancipation the whole of society is emancipated. Yet the seeping of populist ideas into the left's world-view meant that often this allegiance was no more than a lip-service. Time and again the working class was turned into an appendage of other classes. This is particularly true in countries with either a small working class or one that had not entirely cut its roots from the village. Iran was a good example.

The Tudeh spectrum had no doubts: the working class should support the anti-imperialist Imam and his government. Production was to be at the service of an 'anti-imperialist' government on the non-capitalist road to socialism hand in hand with the international proletariat. The latter was idealised into an abstract entity: the socialist bloc.

The revolutionary left, deeply imbued with the populism of the Tudeh tradition8, had spent years arguing why it should not organise the working class even while it was forcefully rejecting the reformist path of the Tudeh party in the 1960's. Even when it witnessed the central role played by the working class in toppling the Shah9 the revolutionary left went about organising almost every class but the class with which it self-identified. When it recruited workers, it was to organise them outside the factories - selling papers, demonstrating, speaking at street corners. For much of the left trade unions, or fighting for immediate working class demands, was out and out reformism.

The Islamic revolution has more than one lesson here: what had triggered off the revolution was a deep social-political-economic crisis which shook the apparently impregnable monarchy to its foundations10. The slogans of the revolution had been freedom and independence. Indeed the Islamist movement in the Middle East had been the direct response to the profound crisis of Iranian and other Middle Eastern countries were undergoing in the 1970s. In societies with such deep crisis - where the international division of labour had marginalised an increasingly larger section of society, newly won political freedoms, even by revolutionary means, cannot be consolidated without a corresponding move towards economic equalisation.

For this reason it is obvious that lasting democracy in Iran requires that the direct producers have a stake in their produce. In short, a revolution with democratic slogans cannot be consolidated in the context of Iran today, without a tangible move toward a workers' state. For individual freedoms to last it is necessary to move towards self-rule at the point of production.

Pluralistic workers' state

Lesson 6: A workers' state is the government of the workforce in its totality. In Iran today, as in most countries of the world, the working class - defined not just as the industrial proletariat but as all those whose labour contributes to the production of surplus value (all wage-labour) - are a majority. The state the left should be fighting for is one in which this majority exercises its self-directed rule. The shape of this self-government can be open to debate, and indeed a number of models have been tried since the Paris Commune of 1871.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the last two decades for the left, including the Iranian variety, is the concept of pluralism. I will refer the reader to the article by Shalguni for a detailed expose of this point [footnote 2] and will confine myself to a summary:

The working class becomes a 'class' only through the active participation of the entire workforce. Yet the working 'class', like the 'people' is not homogeneous and has to be understood by the totality of its individuals and groupings. Class solidarity is achieved by incorporating the normal differences and dissensions among workers. These differences are expressed in a plurality of political parties, labour organisations and associations. No political current has the right to claim special rights as the bearer of the 'historic' consciousness or the interpreter of the 'historic' will of the proletariat.

The workers state has therefore to be understood as just that: the state of the social forces of production working for society in its entirety. Hence this state will be pluralistic. The shape of this state, the relationship between its forces, its classes, etc are open to debate and to experimentation. There are no ready-made golden answers.

Left party

Lesson 7: New concepts of the party need to be developed. Pluralism in the working class inevitably means pluralism within the left. The fragmentation of the left in Iran has made it imperative to find a model of working together. Events today make this even more urgent. The largest class is being sidelined in the momentous developments of the country.

One model designed to unite disparate groups and the large number of left individuals is that adopted by the Workers' Left Unity. Organisations and individuals collect around the principles of the programme. Each grouping within this block maintains its autonomy and the right to expound its programme while uniting to work for the agreed goals11. We believe that this and similar models are applicable to the non-Iranian situation.

Any model should simultaneously address (a) the need for plurality (b) the need to have a common will - an ability to make decisions (c) ensure the autonomy, and right to agitate for their views of the individual constituents of the whole is not compromised, (d) a structure that can combine open activity, which is essential for organising the working class, with clandestine underground, work which is essential for survival in a repressive state.

International solidarity

Lesson 8: The international left must create its own grass-root human rights movement. Iranian revolution showed the importance of international solidarity. 20 years on, the unipolar world has lost some of the international levers that allowed revolutions to breathe. Pax Americana is being imposed by a blatant militarism using various international institutions such as the UN, Nato, international courts etc. under a carefully selected use of the banner of human rights.

US imperialism has hijacked the slogans that properly belong to the left to punish 'rogue' states. We need to pull the rug from under its feet. The Iranian left has taken the first step in proposing to launch a campaign to try the rulers of the Islamic regime for crimes against its own people. This is a plea for a grass-roots movement organised on a global scale to stop crimes committed by states against their own people 12. It is a movement of the same nature as the green movement, the feminist movement and the trade union movement. It aims to destroy the legitimacy of criminal states such as the Islamic Republic of Iran. It also aims to erode the legitimacy of the highly selective human rights concerns serving the new world order.

We hope to get support from all progressive forces for this campaign. We also hope that similar moves can be made for other criminal governments. Again the theoretical and practical aspects of this campaign need debate on a world scale. We open our pages to this, and related debates.

Finally the lesson of the Islamic Republic of Iran and that of the last 80 years is that you cannot drag people against their will even to paradise.


1. Shura: factory, work-place and university committees, in places with management function. See Asef Bayat Workers and revolution in Iran. Zed Books 1987.

2. Mohammad Reza Shalguni: The Iranian left in an era of breaks and transition, iran bulletin 21-22, Spring-Summer 1999.

3. See Shalguni ibid.

4. Etahade Melli Zanan (National Alliance of Women), Sazman-e Democratik-e Zanan-e Iran (Democratic Organisation of Iranian Women), Sazman-e Rahi-e Zan (Organisation for Women's Emancipation), National Democratic Front (women's section), Women's Solidarity Committee and many others.

5. At one stage there were over 50 left organisations. The most important, not counting such 'national' organisations as the Kurds, Turkoman and Arab were: Ettehade Chap, the Fadai' Organisation (which split into majority and minority - the former later splitting in two), Fadai' Guerrillas, Razmandegan, Sazman-e Peikar, Rah-e Kargar (later ORWI), Tudeh Party, United Communists (an alliance of five organisations), The Union of Communists, Vahdat-e Komunisti.

6. Eg Women's Solidarity Committee. See for example Parvin Paydar. Women and the political process in 20th century Iran. Cambridge Middle East Studies 1995 p249-256.

7. For a more detailed exposition of these and other effects of radical Islamism on society see Ardeshir Mehrdad in iran bulletin.

8. Tudeh means 'mass' and the party began life during World War II as a party of 'popular' classes.

9. The mass street demonstrations had apparently reached a stalemate, when at the instigation of the universities a mass general strike was initiated which culminated in the crippling strike by oil workers. It was this that finally broke the back of the Shah's regime. See Asef Bayat ibid.

10. See Fred Halliday, Iran: dictatorship and development. Penguin Books 1979; Nikkie R Keddie. Roots of revolution. Yale University, 1981; Ervand Abrahamian, Iran between two revolutions. Princeton University Press 1982.

11. Workers' Left Unity invites organisations and individuals to join it on the following platform: For the struggle to overthrow of the Islamic Republic Regime in Iran; for the overthrow of capitalism and the formation of a workers' state relying on the self governing organs of workers and toilers; for the establishment of the socialist alternative capable of expanding democracy in all political, social and economic spheres; for the establishment of social ownership relying on the self rule of producers; to defend unconditional political freedoms, as an integral part of the struggle for socialism; for organising workers' struggles on the basis of the confrontation between capital and labour.

12. See iran bulletin no 20 Winter 1998 and 21-22 Spring-Summer 1999.

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