Where is the Iranian revolution going?

Last year a powerful movement erupted in Iran that shook the hated Islamic fundamentalist regime to its very foundations. All the conditions were present for a successful revolutionary overthrow of the regime. What was lacking, however, was the active participation of the working class as an organised force and, most importantly, a conscious, revolutionary leadership of the movement.

One year ago Iran entered the road of revolution. Like a thunderbolt form a clear blue sky, thousands of angry people, mainly youth, took to the streets of Teheran to protest against the blatant rigging of the elections. With unbelievable heroism, they braved the organized violence of the state to confront the reactionary regime of the mullahs that has oppressed them for so long.

This movement was a tremendous source of inspiration for the workers and youth of the whole world. It was the final answer to all the cowards, sceptics and renegades who doubt the revolutionary potential of the masses.

This sudden outburst of the masses took many people by surprise. In particularly, the so-called Iranian “vanguard” – those sorry individuals who in the past called themselves “Communists” and “Trotskyists” who have lost all hope in the proletariat and the socialist revolution and have capitulated to the pressure of bourgeois society and its ideology.

Yesterday I received an interesting letter by an Iranian comrade who writes:

“(…) the movement is very combined and uneven in character - for instance it seems like many places the movement is waking up now, or at least continuing upwards while other places have peaked months ago and so on (although this process is different from Russia 1905 in the fact that it is not difference in pace between workers and peasants - there are not many peasants in Iran - but more between Tehran and all other places. Although even this is not exact because there are many places in Tehran where people are increasingly mobilizing and some other cities like Shiraz where there seems to be a very pessimistic mood).”

One would expect this to be the case. In some areas, where the movement reached a high point earlier, the masses are retreating. There are signs of exhaustion and even demoralisation. How could it be otherwise? After months of strenuous exertion, with no end in sight, the masses will be tired and the movement, for a time, will begin to ebb. The less resilient elements will fall into inactivity and the more militant elements will find themselves temporarily isolated.

But this is only one side of the equation. There are other areas where the movement is on the rise. New layers of the popular movement are entering into struggle, and are enthusiastic. In general, those who display the greatest degree of pessimism are the older, more experienced layer, including the so-called “vanguard”. But among the new, fresh layers of youth, the mood is completely different. They are enthusiastic and prepared to struggle. It is on this layer that we must base ourselves.

What is a revolution?

The chief feature of a revolution is the direct intervention of the masses, which begin to take their lives and destinies into their own hands. That is precisely what happened twelve months ago in Iran. Whoever is unable to see that this was a revolution does not know what a revolution is. “Eyes have they, but they see not.” To such hopeless people we have nothing to say. All the conditions listed by Lenin for a revolution exist in Iran at the present time: splits at the top, ferment among the middle class, a powerful working class with revolutionary traditions, waves of important strikes, etc.

Masses on the streets in June last year. Photo by Faramarz.Masses on the streets in June last year. Photo by Faramarz. If the leaders of the movement had shown one percent of the determination and courage that was shown by the masses, they could have taken power with not the slightest difficulty. But the bourgeois reformists did not want to take power. In reality, they were afraid of the forces they had conjured up. They acted as a brake on the movement. A general strike in Iran would pose the question of power. For that very reason the reformist leaders refused to call a general strike.

The absence of a serious leadership is the main reason why the movement has entered into decline. At the moment, there is a depressed mood among some layers. Everybody realizes that we need a new strategy but nobody says what it is and nobody can see a way out. In the present conditions, to send unorganized and unarmed people against the regime is madness. What is required is to give the unorganized and dispersed forces of the revolution an organized character.

The supremacy of reaction is superficial. There is a kind of uneasy stalemate, in which both sides have the idea of “wait and see”. Neither side is satisfied with the position, but neither side has the strength to finish it off.

The economic crisis has hit Iran hard. The regime is faced with the need to cut subsidies from petrol and basic necessities like bread. But Ahmadinejad (correctly) fears this would spark off a new and even more dangerous wave of protests. There are corruption scandals at the highest levels. The leaders are fighting like cats in a sack. All these are symptoms of a regime in decomposition.

Nobody can say how long the present situation will last, but it probably will not last for long. In order to keep the masses under control, repression alone is not enough. The regime is using up al its reserves, and is regarded with hatred and contempt by an increasingly wide layer of society. Although the May Day demonstrations were less numerous than last year, they were also more national in character, spreading to almost every town and city. This fact indicates the beginnings of an awakening of the Iranian workers. The 24-hour general strike in Kurdistan was a successful act of mass defiance, which humiliated the regime and showed the limits of its power.

Who will fight for democracy?

The objective tasks of the movement are democratic. The masses want to fight for democratic rights. But the bourgeois and petty bourgeois reformists are not capable of conducting a serious fight for democracy. In the best case, they saw the mass movement as a kind of bargaining counter to put pressure on the regime to grant some concessions, like a merchant haggling in a bazaar. But they had no intention of fundamentally changing the regime, of which they had been an integral part until recently.

Who will fight for democracy?Who will fight for democracy? All history – and especially the history of the Russian revolution – shows that the bourgeois Liberals are not capable of carrying out the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution in countries like Iran. These people talk about democracy but in the last analysis are always ready to compromise, to surrender, in a word, to betray. The only force in society that is capable of waging a consistent fight for democracy is the revolutionary people: the workers, the peasants, the urban poor, the revolutionary youth, the women and the oppressed nationalities.

These are the forces that came onto the streets and risked their lives in June 2009. They were not called out by the reformist leaders, who initially opposed the demonstrations and only began to participate under the pressure from below. They organized themselves and proceeded to go further than the leaders had intended. But the lack of leadership, the absence of a clear perspective and plan of action eventually undermined the movement. Thus, the central question of the Iranian revolution is the question of leadership.

Reactionary role of scepticism

It is said that the first European explorer who saw a giraffe exclaimed: “I don’t believe it.” This was precisely the reaction of our “erudite Marxists” when they were confronted with the revolutionary upsurge in June 2009. They did not recognize the significance of what was taking place.

To carry out a revolution would be a very simple matter if everything proceeded in a straight line. But life is not so simple! Temporarily, the movement has been set back. Ah! Say the “erudite Marxists”, you see! We told you there was no revolution! It is all nonsense. The regime is firmly in the saddle. There is no hope!” And they return to the nearest café where they continue to weep in their herbal tea, a place we can safely leave them.

Those people refuse to accept that there was a revolution in Iran were blind to the developments unfolding before their eyes. They did not expect a revolutionary movement to develop out of the electoral fraud in June. It took them completely unawares. They had absolutely nothing to say about the election campaign, although it already involved very big mass meetings of the opposition in Teheran. They reacted with astonishment to the mass demonstrations that provoked a deep crisis in the regime. Consequently, they failed to react in a decisive way to these events, in which they played a marginal role, if they played any role at all.

On 18 June, 2009, I wrote the following:

“Strangely enough, there are some people on the Left, even some who like to call themselves Marxists, who do not understand this. After so many years in which nothing seemed to be happening in Iran, many of these Lefts, who had been very radical in their youth but in middle age have succumbed to a comfortable scepticism, have given up all hope in the revolutionary transformation of society. They did not expect the present upheaval because they had no confidence whatsoever in the revolutionary potential of the masses. And now, even when the movement is taking place before their very eyes, they still refuse to believe it.”

In the same article I recalled that Trotsky compared the Russian Mensheviks to a tired old schoolteacher who for many years taught his students what the spring is. But then one morning, this old professor opened the window to let some fresh air into his stuffy classroom. Suddenly, he saw a blue sky, with the sun shining and the birds singing, whereupon he immediately slammed the window shut, declaring the spring to be some monstrous aberration of nature.

Our “left wing” sceptics are just like that moth-eaten old professor. They like to talk a lot about a revolution and remind us of when they were young in Paris in 1968 or Teheran in 1979, but in reality they have not a single atom of revolutionary spirit or a gram of Marxist understanding in them. Such people are an obstacle in the way of the revolution, infecting the youth with poisonous scepticism. Fortunately, they have no influence with the new generation in Iran, which has no need of such clever ‘professors’ to teach them how to fight.

It was the duty of all genuine Marxists to support the mass movement, despite all its defects, errors and limitations. It was the duty of a genuine vanguard to strive to the utmost to mobilize the workers in support of the students, to set up action committees and to agitate for a general strike. Only in this way would it have been possible to expose the vacillations of Mousavi and the other bourgeois leaders, to prove in practice the superiority of a proletarian policy, and to win the leadership of the movement.

A self-proclaimed “vanguard” that is not capable of recognizing a revolution when it is taking place under their noses is fit for nothing. By refusing to intervene decisively in the revolution, it has shown itself unfit to lead. We predict that the new revolutionary wave, which is inevitable, will pass these gentlemen by, without even noticing them.

Lenin on revolution

Our critics can see only defeats and black reaction. They say: “revolution, what revolution?” These people, having no faith in the revolutionary potential of the masses, are anxious to deny or belittle each and every revolutionary manifestation. These “erudite Marxists” proceed, not on the basis of the real movement, but on the basis of abstract formulae. They have a vision of a chemically pure proletarian revolution, perfect in every detail, in which the workers lead the revolution, and the “erudite Marxists” (of course) lead the workers.

LeninLenin Unfortunately, life is not perfect, and the mass movement does not always correspond to ready made schema. When the real movement contradicts their schemas, these gentlemen do not draw the conclusion that maybe their preconceived idea was incorrect, but rather they conclude that reality is all wrong, that there is no revolution at all, but something else altogether (they do not know what). In other words, they behave as scholastic idealists and not at all as dialectical materialists.

Lenin long ago answered those doctrinaires who are hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon when he wrote:

“Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.

“The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a bourgeois-democratic revolution. It consisted of a series of battles in which all the discontented classes, groups and elements of the population participated. Among these there were masses imbued with the crudest prejudices, with the vaguest and most fantastic aims of struggle; there were small groups which accepted Japanese money, there were speculators and adventurers, etc. But objectively, the mass movement was breaking the back of tsarism and paving the way for democracy; for this reason the class-conscious workers led it.

“The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible—and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for different reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately ‘purge’ itself of petty-bourgeois slag.” (Lenin, The Discussion on Self-Determination summed up, July 1916)

Here we have the real essence of revolutionary Leninism, not the miserable caricature of doctrinaire sectarians who, out of a comical misunderstanding, call themselves “Marxist-Leninists” and thus discredit the very idea of Marxism and Leninism in the eyes of the revolutionary youth of Iran.

Ebbs and flows inevitable

The author of these lines was born on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in my beautiful South Wales. I remember the vast expanses of sand on the beaches, and the huge waves that swept over them twice a day. If you walked on these beaches at low tide, you could see a large number of curious creatures: dead and dying fishes stranded in pools. Then the tide would rush in once more and sweep away all this rotten debris, bringing fresh oxygen and new life.

There is a close analogy between the ocean tides and the class struggle. Revolutions do not occur twice a day, of course. On the contrary, they are rare events in history. A revolution is not a single event, a one-act drama. It is a living process that contains many contradictory elements. By definition, the revolution is confronted with the forces of the counterrevolution. In this gigantic trial of strength there will inevitably be ebbs and flows. We see this in every revolution in history.

Marxists base themselves on the real situation, not on ready-made schemas. We immediately recognized that what was occurring was a revolution, and hailed it with every enthusiasm. We followed events through all their twists and turns. On 26 June 2009 I wrote the following:

“The regime, having partially recovered its nerve, is cracking down very hard, brutally repressing demonstrations, which means that less people are coming onto the street. This is natural. People cannot continually go onto the streets to get their heads cracked unless they see the possibility of a decisive outcome. Although there may be other waves of anger and protest, if the movement is not taken to a higher level, there will inevitably be a tendency for it to go into decline, at least for a while.”

These lines are clear enough for anyone who wishes to understand them. The revolution is not a one-act drama. It will go through many phases, with periods of great upsurge, as we saw in June 2009, and again in the days of Ashura and Tasua. But there will also be periods of lull, retreats, and even defeats. Whoever does not understand this does not understand the nature of a revolution.

For the time being the movement has been forcibly suppressed. But nothing has been solved. The contradictions in Iranian society have not been resolved but only suppressed. It is the equivalent of clamping down the lid of a pressure cooker by removing the safety valve. By such means it will be possible to keep the lid on for a time, but only by increasing the pressure to such a point that the explosion, when it finally comes, will be a hundred times more violent. By smashing the reformist wing, the reactionaries have removed any possibility of a gradual and peaceful solution. The bitterness and anger will be driven into the depths of society, where it will increase and become more intense.

Historical analogies

There are many historical analogies to the present situation in Iran. The closest historical analogy is the 1905 Revolution in Russia, which we have already referred to above. When the Russian proletariat first came onto the stage of history in that year, it was in a peaceful demonstration led by a priest (who was also a police agent), Father Gapon.

Demonstration October 1905 as perceived by Ilya Repin.Demonstration October 1905 as perceived by Ilya Repin. It is quite amusing today to read the statements of our “vanguard” friends in Iran, who are always complaining about the alleged “low level of consciousness of the working class”. At the beginning of the first Russian Revolution, on the mass demonstration of 9 January, the workers carried, not red banners, but religious icons. The purpose of the demonstration was to present a petition to the Tsar (the batyushka, or Little Father, as the workers called him).

It would be very easy to talk of the low level of consciousness of the Russian workers at that time. They were mainly peasants who had only recently migrated to the towns from the villages. They were deeply religious; few could read or write; they drank vodka and beat their wives. Politically, they were completely illiterate. When the Russian Marxists attempted to distribute leaflets calling for a republic, the workers (many of whom were monarchists) often tore up the leaflets and sometimes beat up those who were giving them out.

But all this changed in a few hours after the massacre of Bloody Sunday, when the repressive forces of the tsarist regime slaughtered unarmed demonstrators. On the evening of the 9th January, the same workers came to the Bolsheviks (who were very few in number) with one demand: “give us arms!” In a few hours the consciousness of the workers was completely transformed. A similar process is now taking place in Iran, as the workers and youth draw the lessons from their recent experiences.

Over a period of months, Russia was convulsed by a revolutionary wave, in which the working class played the main role. However, the workers at that time were a small minority. The peasantry, which made up the overwhelming majority of society, was slower to move. By the time the revolution had spread to the rural areas late in 1906, the movement in the towns had been crushed. The uprising of the workers of Moscow in December 1905 had been drowned in blood. The revolution entered into decline.

For four years the counterrevolutionary terror raged, until a new revolutionary upswing commenced in 1911-12. Another example is the Spanish Revolution, which lasted seven years, from 1930 to 1937. But in this period there were many ups and downs, periods of tremendous advances, but also periods of tiredness, retreats, defeats, and even periods of reaction, like the “two black years” that followed the defeat of the Asturian Commune in October 1934.

This was a period of ferocious repression, with thousands of people killed and hundreds of thousands imprisoned. But in the end it proved to be only the prelude to a new revolutionary upsurge with the election of the Popular Front in 1936.

Of course, every historical analogy has its limitations. There are similarities but also differences. In Russia and Spain the working class was a minority of society. The big majority were peasants. In Iran this is no longer the case. The majority of Iranians now live in towns and cities, and the peasantry, though still a significant force, is a minority. The enormous importance of the Iranian working class was shown in 1979, when the Shah was overthrown by the combination of a popular insurrection and a general strike.

The tasks of the communists

It is unlikely that the present state of unstable equilibrium will last for long. There is a profound crisis at all levels of Iranian society: political, economic and social. Nobody is happy with the outcome. When the new upsurge occurs – as it must do – it will be on a qualitatively higher level than before. The spontaneous strike and mass demonstration against the execution of five leftist activists in the Kurdish areas and the organization of May Day pickets and demonstrations in many Iranian cities were an indication of the explosive nature of the situation and the revolutionary potential of the working class.

What is the duty of the Iranian communists in such a situation? The answer to this question was given by Leon Trotsky, who wrote in 1930:

“When the bourgeoisie consciously and stubbornly refuses to take upon itself the solution of the tasks flowing from the crisis in bourgeois society; when the proletariat appears to be still unprepared to undertake the solution of these tasks itself, then the proscenium is often occupied by the students... The revolutionary or semi-revolutionary activities of the students mean that bourgeois society is passing through a deep crisis...

The Spanish workers displayed an entirely correct revolutionary instinct when they lent their support to the demonstrations of the students. It is understood that they must do it under their own banner and under the leadership of their own proletarian organization. This must be guaranteed by Spanish Communism, and for that it needs a correct policy.

“This road pre-supposes on the part of the Communists a decisive, bold and energetic struggle for democratic slogans. Not to understand this would be the greatest mistake of sectarianism… If the revolutionary crisis is transformed into a revolution it will inevitably exceed the bourgeois boundaries, and in the event of victory, will have to transfer the power to the proletariat.” (Leon Trotsky, The Problems of the Spanish Revolution, my emphasis, AW)

Reaction appears to be in the saddle. Photo by Reaction appears to be in the saddle. Photo by At the present time, reaction is apparently in the saddle in Iran. But the reaction is not at all solid. The conflicts and splits between the rival tendencies are gradually undermining the regime from within. We do not underestimate the difficulties. The Iranian regime is monstrously repressive. But it is no more repressive than was the tsarist state, and all history has shown that even the most powerful state can never withstand the masses, once they are organized and mobilized for the transformation of society. We saw this in France in 1789, in Russia in 1917, and in Iran in 1979. And we will see it again in one country after another in the period that now opens up.

Given the temporary lull in the mass movement it is obviously correct to start out from the most elementary democratic demands: the release of all political prisoners, the right to assembly, organize and demonstrate, punishment for those responsible for repressive acts against the people, etc. But as the movement begins to revive, it will be necessary at a certain stage to pose the question of mass revolutionary actions, up to and including a general strike.

If the workers’ vanguard is to be a real revolutionary vanguard, and not just an empty phrase, it must find a way of connecting with the mass revolutionary movement, boldly taking up the most advanced democratic slogans, and linking them to the central idea of an all-Iranian general strike to overthrow the regime. In order to prepare for this, it will be necessary to assist in the building of organizing committees in the factories and neighbourhoods. That was what was missing in the big movements of the last 12 months. It is the only way forward.

Support the Iranian section of the IMT!

Once the Iranian masses start to move, they will shake the world. The coming revolution can take different paths but there is one thing we can be sure of: it will not be a fundamentalist movement. 28 years of the mullahs in power have totally discredited them among the masses and youth. The majority of the population is young and fresh; they will be open to socialist revolutionary ideas and Marxism. The Iranian revolution will change the entire situation in the Middle East, showing that genuine anti-imperialism need not have a fundamentalist character. It will have an impact on the whole region.

A new upsurge is being prepared in Iran. The most important element in the equation is the fact that a layer of the youth is thinking over what has happened, analysing, questioning and criticising. The question is being insistently posed: if we had such a powerful movement, why did we fail? And the answer to this question is increasingly clear: we failed, in part because we needed the active participation of the workers – as in 1979. But mainly we failed because of the lack of a determined revolutionary leadership.

In reality, the only factor that is needed to guarantee the success of the Iranian revolution is a determined and far-sighted leadership. The forces of Marxism in Iran are as yet numerically weak. But we are strong in ideas. The Iranian section of the IMT is conducting serious work and obtaining good results. The launching of the impressive new website, Mobarezeye Tabaghati ("Class Struggle") was a big step forward. The work of our Iranian comrades is of great importance. We must give them every assistance.

The smallness of our numbers does not dishearten us. At the beginning of the first Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks were also a very small minority. But on the basis of clear ideas, which correspond closely to objective reality and historical necessity, we can grow very quickly. And we are growing and maturing together with the real movement.

The main problem is not objective but subjective: in the psychology of the masses. There are different moods among different layers: some are demoralised – especially the Lefts; but other activists in the green movement, especially the youth are enthusiastic and open to our ideas. This is natural: they are young and fresh, and untainted by the sceptical moods that are the product of past defeats.

Napoleon said that defeated armies learn well. On the basis of experience thousands of the best and most revolutionary youth are acquiring a level of consciousness that is needed to carry through the revolution to the end. They understand that half measures are useless, that there can be no compromise with the regime, and that leaders who pursue this line will inevitably betray.

Increasingly, a layer of the youth is looking for a fundamental change in society. They are impatient with the reformist leaders. They call themselves socialists and show a growing interest in the ideas of Marxism. This is the real future of the revolutionary movement in Iran. The pessimistic psychology of the “vanguard” reflects the past. That of the new generation of young fighters represents the future. We stand with the future of Iran, not its past. And to those who are always clutching their heads and saying “this is the end”, we reply: Not so, my friend, this is not the end. It is only the beginning!

London, June 11, 2010