The historical origins of the Iranian Revolution and the tasks of the Revolutionary Marxists – Part Two

After the fall of the Shah in 1979 all the conditions for socialist revolution had matured. The tragedy was the role played by the various left parties and groups, who to one degree or another fostered illusions in Khomeini as a kind of “progressive bourgeois”. This is what allowed the genuine workers’ revolution to be derailed and replaced by a reactionary Islamic regime at the service of Iranian capitalism. [part one]

An “Islamic” Revolution? Revolution and Counter-Revolution, 1979 to 1983

Many "analysts", "historians" and "experts" refer to the Iranian revolution of 1979 as the Islamic Revolution. In reality, however, Khomeini and the clergy leadership represented a bloody counter-revolution. In the final analysis they represented the interests of the old privileged classes and of world capitalism. This is portrayed in the single fact, that in spite of all the thunderous shouts of "death to America" they never did anything to hurt or even weaken the position of American imperialism on the contrary they were later revealed to have borrowed money and bought arms from many western countries, including America.

Khomeini, who was an obscure mullah exiled in Najaf, Iraq, only came to the fore when British, French and American imperialists brought him to Paris, put him under the spotlight with regular appearances in the media like such as the BBC and finally at the Conference of Guadeloupe they decided to support his bid for power. This was in line with the support given by the US to the reactionary Islamists, who had been hitherto very marginal forces, in other countries of the region like Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the aim of building a “Green Belt” of Islamism around the Soviet Union. They had understood the possible leftist and socialist potential of the Iranian Revolution and supported the Khomeini Counter-revolution because of its anti-left, anti-socialist potential.

The true leaders of the Iranian revolution were those worker leaders who lead the general strike. Without the working class going on strike, the Shah would probably not have been toppled and in any case the history of the revolutionary movement would have been many times bloodier, probably ending with a massive defeat or at best a bloody civil war. The main base of the strike was in the oil industry, an industry with strong communist traditions.

These leaders, regardless of whether they were officially members or not, followed the politics, leadership and traditions of the Tudeh party or parties who in the last analysis followed the lead of the Tudeh party. (It is a fact that 35% of the workers’ leaders in the strike called themselves Marxists). The Organization of People Fadayi (Sacrificing) Guerrillas, a petit bourgeois grouping with Narodnik tendencies, had been initially formed, among other groups, in opposition to what it described as the “Betrayal” of the Tudeh and its subservience to the Soviet bureaucracy on every single subject. At the time of the Shah’s fall, the Fadayian were a small group of leftist militants. But in the period of relative freedom following the fall, they quickly grew to at least half a million reliable supporters. We also saw an explosive growth of all leftist organisations which rapidly expanded their base. This proves that the class contradictions were coming to fore and there was massive interest in Socialist ideas. Remarkably, however, at the moment of truth, the large majority of this organization split to form the Fadayian Majority which gave full support to the Moscow-dictated Tudeh, calling it the New Party of the Iranian Working Class. (We will shortly deal with the fate of other Fadayi factions that did not support the Tudeh or the regime).

The Tudeh and the Menshevik theory of stages

Throughout the history of the last century many revolutions, led by so called communist parties, failed and ended in bitter defeat. This is also the case in Iran. This has led many to think that capitalism is too strong, Islam has got a magic hold of the Iranian people, the working class is too weak or that the concepts of socialism, revolution and workers’ power are utopian ideas, that will inevitably lead to defeat. This could not be farther from the truth.

In all the revolutions of the last century, and especially in the Iranian revolution of 1979, there were many opportunities for the workers’ parties to take power and establish a democratic workers’ state. The key to the question is to be found in the Menshevik theory of stages that the Stalinist parties throughout the world adopted, and which in the end led one revolution after the other to bloody defeat.

The logic of this “two-stage” theory is as follows: Since we live in an economically backward country or under a dictatorship, the first task of the revolution is of a bourgeois nature - to implement bourgeois democracy. This must mean that it is the bourgeoisie or the progressive bourgeoisie that must lead the revolution and therefore, we must support these forces first of all.

The problem with this theory, that has been used in many different forms throughout the last hundred years, is that it completely disregards the fact that capitalism on a world scale has lost all its progressive traits and can never play a progressive role. This is even more so in the case of the bourgeoisie in the backward capitalist countries. Without breaking completely with capitalism no real progress can be obtained. The material interests of the bourgeoisie, no matter what parts of it, are completely in opposition to the interests of the masses and the revolution.

Lenin explained in 1905:

"The bourgeoisie in the mass will inevitably turn towards the counter-revolution, and against the people as soon as its narrow, selfish interests are met, as soon as it 'recoils' from consistent democracy (and it is already recoiling from it!)". (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 9, p. 98)

Trotsky explained further with the theory of the permanent revolution:

"With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses...

“The dictatorship of the proletariat which has risen to power as the leader of the democratic revolution is inevitably and, very quickly confronted with tasks, the fulfilment of which is bound up with deep inroads into the rights of bourgeois property. The democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution." (Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, 10. What is the Permanent Revolution? Basic Postulates, 1931)

The Tudeh Party in 1979 followed the two-stage theory. Their characterization of the stage of the revolution was formulated in the Party's programme and adopted in its 15th plenum:

"This revolution, at the present historical stage of our society's development cannot but be a popular and democratic one in character. The content of the revolution is to eliminate the domination of imperialism's monopolies from the economic and natural resources of our country, to secure the total economic and political independence, to remove all the remnants of the pre-capitalist social system and adopt the socialist orientation of development, to democratize the political and cultural life in the country. At this stage, the necessary condition for revolutionary development in Iran is the overthrow the old monarchist regime, to break down the reactionary machinery of the government, to end the rule of the big capitalists and landowners and transfer power from these classes to the national and democratic classes and strata, to the workers, peasants, petit bourgeoisie, patriotic intellectuals and also the national bourgeoisie strata, in other words the establishment of the national and democratic republic... The only way to achieve the popular and democratic revolution is by the participation of the masses in the struggle and not by the heroic actions of either individuals or single political group and party." (Documents and viewpoints, p. 690)

At no point did the party take up the need to break with capitalism and at no point did they prepare the working class for the betrayal of Khomeini. On the contrary they provided him with much support and in reality a base within the workers’ movement and partially the broader masses. Even in August 1979 where it was already clear to many that Khomeini was moving against the workers and Communist organisations, the Tudeh still clung to the idea of an alliance with the mullahs:

"With deepest regret, we are witnessing that a turn to the right in the political situation in our country has emerged in recent weeks. This change has dealt a painful and horrifying blow to the basis of the unity of national and democratic forces... Nevertheless, we are facing a reality today that on one hand a major attack has been started to suppress freedom and in the first place the freedom of the true left revolutionary forces who struggle under the banner of Islam ..." (Documents and statements of TPI)"

The falsity of the so-called "democratic and national" character of Khomeini was clearly shown when, after having used the support of the Tudeh to confuse the workers, he then turned against them and massacred thousands of Communist militants and banned the party.

In the end the Tudeh policies of giving support to the mullahs, which they identified as part of the "national democratic" forces, effectively disarmed and confused the workers. What they should have done was to have an independent class line making it clear that the interests of the workers, peasants and poor masses are in direct opposition with the interests of the bourgeoisie. Without doing this they opened an avenue for demoralisation and disintegration of the forces of the left, thus leaving the working class and other revolutionary forces unarmed against the fascist attacks of the clergy and their thugs.

Of course the rank and file communists in the broad term only adopted this policy on the basis of a lack of a clear and sizeable alternative, but for the leaders of the Tudeh following Moscow's line of the two-stage theory was only a means of derailing the revolution as they had done in the past.

The Tudeh leadership (and other mass parties, like the Fadayian Majority that tail-ended it) because of its loyalty to the Stalinist regime of the Soviet Union had no interest in the toppling of the Shah, with whom the Soviet bureaucracy had a good relationship. Furthermore, had a democratic workers’ state been built on the borders of the Soviet Union, this could have inspired the Soviet workers against the bureaucracy.

So while the leaders on the ground were Tudehis and communist, the leading organs and institutions of the party did not provide leadership of the movement on a national level. On the contrary, they maintained a hesitant and even conciliatory stance towards the clergy, who they considered the "progressive" bourgeoisie.

Regardless of this, the workers on their own went even further, extending their strike committees to become committees that practically were in control of the daily running of the factories and in some cases linking them up on a city level. Although this development was mostly accelerated after the Shah left, their formation had started during the general strike.

These committees represented the embryo of workers’ power. Their further development could have lead to them becoming the main organs of a democratic workers’ state. But again the Tudeh leaders failed at the moment of truth. Instead of promoting a massive campaign of workers’ committees and councils (Shoras) in all factories and neighbourhoods, connected at city and national level, their main campaign was for the conversion of these committees into trade unions. In the situation that existed then, this was an evidently reactionary demand! It is a given that Marxists are always in favour of democratic demands like the right to form a union, the right to strike, etc. However, in the situation when workers could have led the movement to overthrow the regime and take the power themselves, abolishing capitalist relations, raising solely those demands was miles behind the objective situation and mood of the movement and it only served to sow confusion among the working class, holding them back from carrying out their burning tasks.

This move by the Tudeh leaders effectively disarmed the workers, who were not given the opportunity to develop their natural weapons for political struggle and power. So when the Shah finally fled there was no developed apparatus within the working class that could take power.

At every single major turning point in the revolution the Tudeh leaders were miles behind their rank and file. In fact the Tudeh did not declare the situation a revolutionary one, before mid January. Instead of being at the head of the movement, the Tudeh leadership were acting as its tail. But by January the revolution was not only beginning, it was reaching or had passed its climax. To declare then that the situation of Iran was revolutionary was too little, too late. Of course there were speeches, declarations, resolutions, but curiously enough the Tudeh leaders never took any practical steps to defend an independent revolutionary stance for a united working class.

Instead the Tudeh leaders took the opportunist stance of support for the "progressive" (petit) bourgeoisie in the form of the mullahs. As always with sectarians or opportunists, they face the movement of the petit bourgeois either by embracing the whole movement and subjugating the working class to it, or rejecting it all together. Of course either way the working class loses because it is isolated while the initiative and the leadership over the broad mass of people is left in the hands of their so called “leaders”. The truth is that the middle classes in Iran, also influenced by the Shia clergy, constituted a broad mass of people with conflicting interests. The true revolutionary policy would have been to build an independent and united workers’ movement while at the same time appealing to the masses within lower layers of the middle classes, driving a wedge between them and the insignificant top layers who in a thousand ways were interlinked with the ruling elites and in all cases represented the same interests.

In Iran the bourgeoisie long ago lost any progressive attributes. The bourgeois, no matter how much in opposition to the ruling cliques, cannot play any progressive role. The reason is not the lack of will, but because the system that they represent long ago stopped playing any progressive role. At every step the advanced decomposition of capitalism will force it to oppose progress.

This process quickly crystallized in Iran after the fall of the Shah. In the months and years following his fleeing the country, the new regime manoeuvred to crush all the forces that had brought it to power, first attacking the Turkman autonomy movement in March 1979 (which was led by the nominally Marxist Fadayian), then attacking the Arab autonomy movement in July and the Kurdish in August. In all these attacks the regime also leaned on the old landlords to crush the movements that also had ties to the peasants now demanding land reform.

It is to be noted that the atmosphere after the fall of Shah was very much to the left and class contradictions were coming to the fore. We have already referred to the massive and explosive growth of leftist organisations, which between them had hundreds of thousands of supporters (not counting the Mojahedin, an Islamic leftist group, with equal strength and influence all over the country). But we should not forget that Khomeini and his regime themselves gained popularity only by resorting to leftist talk and “anti-imperialist” demagogy. Instead of talking about Islamic principles and the like, that you would except from them, they actually promised amnesties and social justice. They borrowed all the socialist terminology from the left. They adopted slogans like “Islam belongs to the oppressed, not to the oppressors”, “Islam represents the slum-dwellers, not the palace-dwellers”, “the oppressed of the world, unite”, “We are for Islam, not for Capitalism and Feudalism”, “Islam will eliminate class differences” and alike. The height of this “anti-imperialist” demagogy was on November 4, 1979 when a group of Khomeini-supporting students occupied the US embassy in Tehran. Khomeini called this “The second revolution” and used this to crush more opponents within the regime and consolidate the ruling clique to crush the opposition that was already apparent in different movements.

By 1980 the support for Khomeini in the universities had also disappeared. Those who occupied the American embassy, with support and probably leadership of Khomeini, introduced themselves as Students “in support of Imam Khomeini’s line”. But the reality was that the majority of students in Iran were supporting the leftist and communist groups or Islamic leftist Mojahedin. The Universities more and more resembled a centre of opposition to the regime as illusions in Khomeini disappeared among the revolutionaries. For this reason the regime chose to close all universities for two years from April 1980. After reopening, no communist or person who was suspected of having communist sympathies were allowed to attend or work at the universities.

The workers’ movement was not forgotten by the regime. The fall of the Shah had not erased the problems of the workers. So from the very beginning tensions started building up. After a brief period of no strike activity many workers moved back towards a higher level of militancy. It was actually after the revolution that the workers’ councils (Shoras) really started to develop. Partly because of the vacuum of power, but also because there was an accelerating degree of class differentiation. The "national democratic" phase of the revolution had not brought fully developed capitalism, but it had brought to the fore the fully developed crisis of capitalism and magnified its contradictions. The workers could see that their problems needed independent political solutions and for that they required independent political tools. The workers’ councils were the embryo of these tools.

But as the councils were quickly growing in influence and power, they were also becoming too big a factor for the regime to ignore. Already on May Day 1979 there were workers’ demonstrations clearly standing in opposition to the regime. And in July the first workers’ leaders from the oil industry were jailed. In June organising industrial action became punishable with 2-10 years of prison. In March 1980 there was an all out ban on all strike activity. But the strikes continued.

The main attack finally came after the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980, when the regime placed military representatives in all the factories, for "recruitment" purposes. In reality this was used to physically crush the councils and their leaders.

The real “birth” of the regime, .i.e. when it completely suppressed and defeated the revolution, took place on June 20, 1981. This was a bloody counter-revolutionary assault which ended the relative freedom that had existed since the fall of the Shah. For this to happen there were daily executions of 300 to 500, banning of all the opposition newspapers and gatherings, and a very violent assault on any show of resistance. This was effectively the start of a civil war with the Mojahedin, a quasi-leftist Islamic organisation, which subsequently assassinated many heads of the regime. All the leftist groups that had opposed Khomeini (including the Fadayian Minority and other anti-regime Fadayian splits and Pro-Hoxaite Peykar, which had split from the Mojahedin, and a lot of other smaller socialist groups) fled to Kurdistan, parts of which were free from the regime’s control and its Liberated Areas were being ruled by local anti-regime parties, and joined the armed struggle against the regime for a few years before being crushed and wiped out of Iranian Kurdistan during the years of the Iran-Iraq War.

In all the above mentioned cases, the main leaders of the Tudeh and Fadayian Majority (the majority split of the mass party, Fadayian, which actually was larger than the Tudeh, but followed the Tudeh’s Moscow-dictated line on each and every matter) had a completely friendly approach towards the regime. Instead of using the attacks to win new bases of support they alienated themselves from it and split all the best social elements of the revolution.

A lot of other left groups that courageously opposed Khomeini and fought against him suffered from other problems that did not allow them to lead a mass movement of workers against the Islamic regime. We have already mentioned that the majority of the Guerrillaist Fadayian split and went over to support the Tudeh Party. However, the Fadayian Minority and other splits still adhered to a lot of guerrialist and Stalinist ideas (such as the two-stage theory that was widely shared) that prevented them from effectively leading the workers and masses. It is to be noted that the dominant ideas of these groups were very backward and pre-Marxist. To use the analogy of the Russian Revolution, the dominant Fadayian ideas were not even Menshevik but Narodnik! (Individual “terrorism”, guerrillaism, etc.)

Also failing were the then followers of the so-called United Secretariat of the Fourth International under the political leadership of Ernest Mandel. There were two groups of Trotskyists formed in Europe and the United States that initially united to form the Hezbe Kargaran Sosialist (Socialist Workers’ Party) and had a more or less correct understanding that led them to grow to a few hundred members and open offices in a few cities. But the line of defence of Khomeini as an “anti-imperialist” and the idea of uniting with the “progressive bourgeoisie” came to dominate this party as well, represented by people like Babak Zahrayi, and this led to splits where the majority wing effectively became proponents of a left version of the same Pro-Khomeini position as the Tudeh.

In this process of crushing the left groups, the regime rested firmly on different layers. One was made up of sections of the bazaaris who were incorporated into the regime and rewarded with many lucrative concessions. Another was a wing of the bazaaris who were actually supporters of the liberal National Front who led the provisional government. Lastly they rested on huge layers of the urban poor. The shanty dwellers being completely crushed and left to rot at the bottom of society for years were now being made to feel that they could become someone. This layer was the most loyal and most useful to the regime in its attempt to crush all other classes.

But even the honeymoon with the liberal bazaaris did not last long. After pushing them out of government they were attacked with the same weapons used by the Shah. By the year 1983 they too were crushed and their main leaders jailed.

The revolution was defeated by the clerical leaders leaning on different classes and layers to crush others and being the only one standing at the end. The so-called Communist leaders in the Tudeh, Fadayian Majority and anyone else who followed their line played a treacherous role in supporting the regime in every attack before they were themselves attacked and jailed in 1983.

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Website of Iranian Marxists: Mobarezeye Tabaghati (Persian)