The Iranian Revolution - Past, Present and Future

Chapter Four - The February Revolution of 1979

During the period of struggle against the Shah the mass movement steadily increased and the working class became increasingly radicalised. The culmination of this process was the revolutionary events of 1979. Revolution is an open measurement of strength between contending social forces in the struggle for power. In the revolution of 1979, the colossal power of the proletariat was immediately revealed. Three million people came onto the streets in the biggest mass mobilisation in Iranian history. Faced with a movement of the masses on such a scale, the Shah’s seemingly mighty regime collapsed like a pack of cards. Overnight, the whole situation took a sharp turn. The so-called strong state fell to pieces at the first serious test. In such a situation the role of the worker’s vanguard party assumed a crucial importance. When the class struggle reaches a critical juncture, fighting for the capture of state power, the question of leadership ultimately decides everything.

The Iranian revolution actually started in early 1977, when civil rights protests by writers and lawyers began to demand more freedom. As always, the intelligentsia is a highly sensitive barometer, reflecting the moods of discontent that are silently accumulating in the deep recesses of society. Sensing danger, American imperialism put pressure on the Shah to carry out reforms and liberalisation. Situations like this are well known to students of history. The pressure from below at a certain stage produces a split in the ruling class. Fearing that they will be over thrown the latter introduces reforms from the top in order to prevent revolution from below. However, as Alexis de Tocqueville explained, the most dangerous movement for a bad government is generally that in which it sets about reform. The Shah announced reforms, including the convening of the majilis (parliament). However, these reforms, far from resolving the problems, opened the way for the overthrow of the Shah’s rule. They prepared the way for direct intervention on the stage of history of the working class, together with the downtrodden masses and the middle class.

The leading role of the working class had been ensured by the whole previous development. The very successes of the Iranian economy led to a colossal strengthening of the proletariat. The growth of oil revenues led to a tremendous development of Iranian industry which accelerated after the 1973 jump in oil prices. Iran’s Gross National Product (GNP) grew by 33.9 percent in 1973-74, and in 1974-75 by a further 41.6 percent. Industry also grew rapidly, and with it the size and strength of the working class. Thus, in developing the productive forces, the regime prepared its own gravediggers in the form of the mighty Iranian proletariat. Not only had the working class enormously expanded, but it also was very young and fresh. But while there was a tremendous growth in industry, all the social contradictions were continually sharpening. Inflation rocketed and provided the background to the development of colossal unrest in 1977. On top of the appalling living conditions of the masses, the government announced in 1976 a programme of retrenchment. When the Shah decided to halt the development programme, projects of industrial expansion were cut down by nearly to 40 percent. That policy alone meant that more than 40 percent of unskilled and 20 percent of skilled workers were affected by unemployment. As joblessness rose, so wages fell sharply and the government took back the benefits which it had previously given to the workers The reaction of the working class was expressed in a growing strike movement in Abadan and Behshahr. The textile workers demanded increased wages and bonuses.

On 8 September 1978 (Black Friday) troops killed thousands of demonstrators in Teheran. In reply, the workers went on strike. That strike was the spark which ignited the dynamite which had been building up all over the country. On 9 September 1978, the Teheran oil refinery workers issued the call to strike to express solidarity with the massacre on the previous day and against martial law. On the very next day the strike had spread like wildfire to Shiraz, Tahriz, Abdan and Isfahan. Refinery workers went on strike everywhere. The economic demands of the workers were rapidly transformed into political one: "Down with the Shah!", "Down with Savak!", "Marg Ber, American imperialism!" Then the Ahwaz oil workers went on strike, followed by non-oil workers in Khuzistan who joined the strike at the end of September. It was above all the movement of the oil workers—the so-called privileged section of the working class in Iran—that decisively undermined the regime. As the rhythm of the strike movement was intensified and prolonged its character also changed. Ever newer sections were being drawn into the struggle: workers from the public sector—teachers, doctors, hospital workers, clerks, postal workers, telephone and television, and employees from transport, railways, domestic airports and banks all joined the mainstream. White-collar workers with little or no experience of struggle were also drawn into the general movement. The strike of the Central Bank of Iran was particularly effective. This followed the burning of hundreds of banks by the enraged masses. When the bank clerks went on strike, they revealed that in the last three months $1,000 million had been spirited abroad by 178 members of the ruling elite, including the Shah’s relatives. Now busy making preparations for a comfortable exile, having sent his family abroad, the Shah had transferred $1,000 million to America (this was in addition to the $1,000 million or so which was held in banks in Bonn, Switzerland and other parts of the world). The Iranian treasury had been plundered by the autocracy and its watchdog, the hated Savak. The tidal wave of strikes paralysed the state machinery; the civil servants were on strike. But it was the magnificent 33 days oil workers’ strike that crippled almost everything. This fact alone showed the colossal power of the Iranian proletariat: a single strike of the oil workers caused the government losses of no less than $74 million a day in lost revenue. Oil workers cut the main artery of state revenues.

Trotsky wrote in the History of the Russian Revolution:

"The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business—kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial movements when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into realm of rulership of their own destiny."[1]

This is exactly what happened in Iran in 1979. The material basis of the February Revolution lies in the development of the productive forces and the changes that had taken place in Iranian capitalism in the whole of the previous period. The Shah lost the support of all sections of the masses, the peasantry, intelligentsia, different layers of middle class and most ominously of all the army. The state itself was crumbling under the hammer blows of the masses. Day to day there were continuous demonstrations and mass mobilisation which went far beyond the limits of ordinary life. The masses attacked the embassies of Britain and America and burned thousands of American flags. Effigies of US President Jimmy Carter and the Shah were hanged a thousand times over on every street corner of every Iranian city. The Shah came to symbolise both the hated existing order and the Savak’s bloody repression.

The state in the last analysis, as explained by Marx and Lenin, consists of armed bodies of men and their appendages.[2] In every class society, the army’s composition is drawn from different layers of society, and reflects it more or less faithfully. In ordinary periods the armed forces seem unbreakable, impervious and compact. However, during revolutionary periods, when the armed forces are subjected to enormous stresses and strains, they soon display cracks and fissures, and are inclined to split on class lines in crucial revolutionary moments. The cohesion of the army is not absolute, but depends upon the intensity of the pressure from the mass movement.

As we have seen in every revolution in history, the armed forces can be won over to the side of the masses. The tendency within the armed forces to split on class lines is proportional to the polarisation of class society, as the masses struggle for state power. An article in the American magazine Newsweek commented on an angry mob which had gathered on Jaleh Square reacting against the imposition of martial law by shouting slogans against regime: "When they came close, the armed forces ordered the demonstrators to disperse but instead of retreating, the demonstrators disobeyed the order and went on to cross the warning line, slowly choking from teargas fumes, but unwilling to go back. Finally the troops raised their guns, firing bursts into the air, but even then the mob edged closer to the ranks of the troops. And the troops lowered their sight and, when the crowd kept coming, sprayed the demonstrators with round after round."

Splits in the army on class lines do not arise as a simple process but, on the contrary, pass through a series of processes, leading to inner differentiation. The lower ranks of the armed forces tries to gauge the attitude of the masses, observing their commitment, their utter decision to go to the very end to change the old order, their heroic scarifies. At this juncture, once the soldiers realise that the masses are in earnest, they refuse to obey the orders of their officers and join the ranks of the masses, taking weapons with them. And this was exactly what happened in Iran. When thousands of mourners marched to the gate of Teheran’s Besheste Zahra cemetery shouting slogans against the Shah attacked an armoured car, a major came out and shouted: "We have no intention of killing you! You are our brothers!" and offered his weapon to the mob: "Here, take my gun and kill me if you wish!" The mourners cheered and shouted slogans of unity against regime.[3] There were other such incidents. Several conscripts shot their officers or committed suicide on being ordered to open fire on demonstrations. On other side, many deserters and mutineers were executed by the Savak.

A US Army Officer interviewed in Newsweek said of the Iranian army: "I would not put a lot of faith in their reliability, we do not know where their breaking point would be." An Iranian official was also quoted as saying: "The longer the Shah keeps his army on the streets, the greater the danger of contamination."[4] This general rule applies in all the countries where this sort of situation develops. The question is always the same: where is the breaking point? That is, at what point does quantity become transformed into quality? At what point is the soldier’s fear of the officer with his revolver and stick overcome by his sense of the overwhelming power of the masses? Such a question, of course, cannot be answered in advance, but can only be settled by the dialectic of the struggle of living forces.

In Iran the tanks were stationed outside the palace for the first time in 25 years. The Shah himself told Newsweek: "We were I think in a very grave situation last Thursday, and it was very close. The people were not abiding by the law. They were not paying the slightest attention to the government’s warnings. As a matter of fact, they could have occupied everything they wanted." So in this way, the army when confronted by the masses at boiling point, a decisive polarisation of society can find its reflection in a split in the army. At the decisive moment, the Iranian soldiers refused to open fire on their own workers and peasants, and turned their rifles against the ruling class. This happened in 1979 on many occasions when soldiers and junior officers refused to open fire on the demonstrators. But due to the absence of a clear revolutionary class policy—the opportunity was lost. The army was split in Iran but lacked a clear sense of class direction.

After the split in the army, the Shah lost all control over it. In a panic move, after some initial hesitation, he made one last attempt to stay in power, appointing Shahpur Bakhtiar of the National Front as prime minister. But that manoeuvre failed and the crisis became more acute. On 16 January 1979, the country was in a state of revolutionary ferment. There was no hope left for the Shah, who in the end had to board a plane for Egypt. Thus, the illusion of invincible military might crumbled to dust overnight. The Iranian revolution smashed the fifth biggest army in the world, backed by the might of American imperialism whose vital interests were involved in this key part of the Middle East. Yet in the moment of truth, the pressure of the masses was so intensive that this great army was broken down in pieces like a glass of wine that has fallen from the table of a drunken party.

American imperialism indeed had been so drunk with its illusions concerning the invincibility of the Iranian army whose loyalty to the Shah and the US interests in the Middle East was supposed to be unshakeable, that it looked at the events in Teheran with blank disbelief. Suddenly shocked by the unexpected turn of events and paralysed with fear of a revolution which had swept aside supposedly unbreakable institutions like a man sweeping aside a gnat, it took some time for Washington to decide how to react. The Iranian army which was trained by the Pentagon was now utterly destroyed by a revolution which burned the American flag and chanted: "Death to American imperialism." This was an extraordinary turnabout that affected the entire world situation. The sound of these chants immediately reverberated throughout the whole Middle East, piercing the eardrums of the Saudi ruling class, like a stream of boiling lead. It interrupted the heart-beat of the American ruling class and provoked a shiver up the spine of the US general staff.

By the time Khomeini returned from his Parisian exile on the first of February 1979, the battle against the Shah was effectively over. The old state had already completely disintegrated and power lay in the streets, waiting for somebody to pick it up. Although the old cleric had played no real part in the Shah’s overthrow, there were people who were anxious to give him a leading role. Consequently, he was met by officers who promised him the support of the key units of the armed forces. The army elite was anxious to reassert control and "order". All over the country desertions were occurring daily, and when Shah Pur Bakhtiar used the army police and the Imperial Guard against a mutiny of air force cadets, fighting erupted. Insurgency spread all over military units. One section of the National Front led by Mehdi Bazargan, Khomeini’s Militant Wing and some ultra-left groups (the Fedayeen and Mujahidin), joined with the insurgents. Within a short space of time they smashed much of the Shah’s war machine capturing weapons factories, military bases, television stations, prisons and the parliament. The top officer corps was paralysed. Shah Pur Bakhtiar went underground and Bazargan, whom Khomeini had declared prime minister, took over.

In the process of the revolutionary mass strikes, the working class organised the shuras (soviets) and other embryonic independent organs of power. These were similar to the workers’ soviets which first appeared during the mass strikes of the Russian Revolution of 1905. These were eventually destroyed by the tsarist state after the defeat of the 1905 revolution. But in 1917 the soviets once again emerged and played the key role in the October Revolution. Moreover, the system of soviets was not, as the reformists claim, an exclusively Russian phenomenon. The November 1918 Revolution in Germany spontaneously threw up similar bodies. They were the embodiment of workers’ self organisation. In every German port, town and barracks, the German workers’, soldiers’ and sailor’s councils were established and held effective political power. Soviets were later established in Bavaria and during the Hungarian revolution of 1919. In Britain also councils of action were established in 1920, which were described by Lenin as "soviets in all but name", and again during the 1926 general strike (committees of action and trades councils). Although the Stalinists and reformists tried to prevent the reappearance of the soviets they re-emerged at every decisive turn in different countries, notably in the Hungarian revolution of 1956 with the creation of the Budapest workers’ council.[5]

In Iran the shura (soviets) emerged in 1979 but unfortunately were not developed to the level of the October 1917 Revolution. Nevertheless, the potential for workers’ power was present. Assef Bayat wrote that the revolutionary crisis had furnished the material basis for such organisation and the organisational and functional forms of workers’ power already existed in embryo. (Lenin made a similar point about the soviets in Russia in 1905, when he characterised them as embryonic forms of workers’ government.) At their inception, however, all that the soviets are is extended strike committees. There were already elements of dual power in the situation. Management could not pursue its "normal" functions without the permission of the workers, and neither could the administration. Thus, representatives of the Isfahan Steel Mill had to negotiate with the railway workers requesting the latter to carry the coal they required from Kirman to keep the plant’s boilers heated. A similar agreement was reached between oil workers and the railway workers to carry the fuel necessary for domestic consumption when all other production was at a standstill. These were already the elements of a rudimentary form of working class social administration.[6]

In December and February, the people took control of a number of cities and towns, particularly in the Northern Azeri and Caspian Sea provinces, including Zanjan, Orumich, Salmas, Ardabil Maraghel and Ajabsheer. The very idea of the shuras came from the direct and immediate experience of the workers themselves. The working class learns through its direct action and experience to advance its struggle beyond the elementary limits of economic demands, and begins to question the fundamental principles of capitalist domination and legality. Three days after the insurrection, on the 14 February 1979, Khomeini ordered all workers to return to work. But the resistance of the oil workers forced Khomeini to resort to threats: "Any disobedience from, and sabotage of, the provisional government will be regarded as opposition to the genuine Islamic revolution."[7] Despite these threats, the movement continued unabated. In the very first month after the provisional government came to power in February at least some 50,000 workers went on strike. This industrial unrest was fuelled by the radical transformation in the workers’ consciousness that had occurred in the course of revolution and particularly after the insurrection. The workers demanded the payment of delayed wages and resisted lockouts and layoffs.

In a number of northern areas the people formed shuras in order to run their day-to-day affairs. For the same sort of administration, shuras were also formed after the insurrection the in air force—the shuras-e-home faram (councils of air force servicemen). These workers’ organisations and factory shuras which had sprang up after the revolution persisted for some time, fighting stubbornly for survival under difficult conditions. But in the absence of a genuine working class revolutionary party, they were fighting a losing battle. As soon as the new state had consolidated itself, a national campaign of intimidation, harassment and terrorism began against the workers’ shuras. After the invasion of Kurdistan and the gradual restoration of the government’s policy of management from above, the elements of workers’ power in the factories were brutally suppressed. After this setback, there was a general downturn in the worker’s movement. In all this, the Tudeh Party was solidly behind the government and backed Khomeini.

It is necessary to analyse the real class content of the revolution and the tendencies involved in it. Khomeini and the fundamentalists could never have come to power had it not been for the movement of the workers. In particular it was the heavy battalions of the working class in the key economic sectors which played the decisive role in breaking the back of the state. However, the industrial proletariat is not alone, but surrounded by other layers and social classes. The complex class composition of Iranian society, with its numerous layers of urban poor, semi-proletarian and petit-bourgeois elements, means that the proletarian advanced guard was hemmed in on all sides by more backward and less class-conscious layers. This fact enormously complicated the revoltuionary equation and left the door open for the penetration of the mullahs and clerical demagogues like Khomeini.

From June 1977 up to February 1979, the intervention of the proletariat played a key role in the overthrew of the Pahlavi regime. However, in the initial stages (up until mid 1978), one could say that the movement was dominated by backward layers of the working class: the unskilled workers, accompanied by the petty bourgeois (the bazaaris) and the urban poor (lumpen-proletariat). Since many of these had come relatively recently from the villages and lacked a firm class consciousness, they were easily influenced by the mullahs. This partly explains why the leadership of the movement fell into the hands of the mullahs and to some extent the National Front; it reflected the heterogeneous and amorphous class character of the movement of masses who were only beginning to be awakened to consciousness. Trotsky wrote that the most exploited the least skilled or the most political backwards layers of the proletariat are frequently the first to enter the arena of struggle and in case of defeat are often the first to leave it.[8]

It was the entry of the heavy battallions of the proletariat that played the decisive role in the anti-Shah revolution. When after mid-1978 the skilled workers issued the call for strike action, the strikes spread like a colossal tidal wave, causing the collapse of the state machinery. This it was that provided the revolution with the necessary sweep and depth. Without the participation of the advanced layer of the working class, the Shah would probably not have been overthrown at that time. Without the leadership of the of the proletariat, the undisciplined masses would not have been able to sustain the struggle against the state. The mullahs would have betrayed them, as they had done on previous occasions. Let us remember that already in 1963 the fundamentalists had won the political support from these backward sections of society, yet they failed to overthrow the regime. Soon after their defeat, they had compromised with the ruling class. This exposes the myth of the "revolutionary" Khomeini.

However, in order to understand what happened in 1979-80, it is not sufficient merely to refer to the class balance of forces. In Russia in 1917 the proletariat was infinitely weaker than the Iranian working class in 1979. Yet under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party (which, let us not forget, only had 8,000 members out of a population of 150 million in February 1917), the workers and peasants were won over to the programme of socialist revolution. The reason why this did not take place in Iran was not the objective situation but the false policies and the cowardly conduct of the leaders of the Tudeh Party. Due to the absence of the vanguard party of the working class, the movement was hijacked by the mullahs. All the so-called lefts were either behind the mullahs or else supported the National Front. Not one of them followed an independent class policy, explaining to the workers the need to take power into their own hands, as Lenin and Trotsky did in 1917.

This was the tragedy of the Iranian revolution of 1979. In reality, only the active participation of the proletariat led to victory in 1979. The supposedly invincible Shah was defeated and forced into exile. Power was really in the hands of the Iranian working class, but, in the absence of a real revolutionary party and leadership, they did not know it, and nobody explained this to them. Thus, power slipped through their fingers and was immediately seized by Khomeini and the mullahs. They did not lead the revolution, but merely exploited it for their own ends. They did everything in their power to stifle and crush the independent movement of the working class, leaning on the most backward and ignorant layers of society to install themselves in power. And as soon as the lava of revolution had cooled, they set about ruthlessly to crush the movement of the masses.

The October revolution was only victorious because the Russian proletariat was led by a party and a leadership which gave the correct programme and timely slogans which led the workers towards the conquest of power ("all power to the Soviets"). In this way they brought the revolution to a successful conclusion. The working class in Iran was—and still is—a far bigger proportion of the population than the Russian working class was before the October Revolution of 1917. But in the February 1979 revolution in Iran the revolutionary party was lacking. The shuras (soviets) sprang out during the strike movement, but it required a farsighted leadership to place the question of workers’ power clearly on the order of the day. Without a perspective of taking power, the shuras inevitably withered and perished.

Long ago Karl Marx explained that, without organisation, the working class is only raw material for exploitation. Ted Grant writes: "True, the proletariat possesses enormous power. Not a wheel turns, not a light bulb shines, without its permission. But without organisation, this power remains as just potential. In the same way, steam is a colossal force, but without a piston box, it will be harmlessly dissipated in the air. In order that the strength of the working class should cease to be a mere potential and become a reality, it must be organised and concentrated in a single point. This can be only be done through a political party with a courageous and far-sighted leadership and a correct programme."[9]


1. Leon Trotsky from Trotsky’s preface to The History of the Russian Revolution, translated by Max Eastman.

2. Lenin, The State and Revolution, The Essential Left, p. 154, Unwin Books.

3. Newsweek, October 1978.

4. Newsweek, 25 September 1978.

5. Ted Grant, Russia from revolution to counter-revolution, p. 59.

6. Assef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran, p. 96.

7. Ettelat (daily evening paper), 15 March 1979.

8. Trotsky, Rhythm of Struggle, p. 25.

9. Ted Grant, Russia from revolution to counter-revolution, pp. 55-6.