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

The ups and downs of the Iranian economy, in line with world trends, combined with the peculiar economic development based on large-scale state control, together with widespread corruption, have produced immense urbanisation and a strengthened working class, but also growing conflicts within the regime itself with different factions defending different interests. This has now all come to the surface. [part one]

The Clergy

In Iran there is a Shia Islamic tradition. This goes from the top down to the bottom of society, but Islam is not the same for the Shah, the Supreme Leader or the big capitalist as it is for the peasant or the small shop-owner. Whereas for the supreme leader and the capitalist Islam is a tool for subjugation telling the masses not to struggle for a better life in this world, for the poor it is a manual on how to live a better life here and now. These same tendencies can be found in the ranks of the clergy. Actually, the mullahs have played a big part in both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary movements in the history of Iran.

However, for the most part the clergy, like most other places in history, have played the role of holding back the masses. During the 1960's they were pushed out of the circles of power by the Shah. This forced some layers of the clergy into opposition to the regime. Up until then, the top layers of the clergy had been firm defenders of the Shah.

The clergy does not live in a vacuum disconnected from society. The Mullah is bound to his surroundings in more ways than one. Sometimes even his existence has depended on the donations that his community made to him. This means that all mullahs have not always been able to separate themselves from the surrounding community that they live in. The Shia clergy in Iran represent a part of the middle classes. They are not a homogeneous entity acting in a united manner. In a thousand ways they are connected to different parts of their class.

The main reasons why they could attract large sections of the masses in 1979 were:

  1. The lack of a genuine working class leadership and because the White Revolution had removed them from power. Thus the masses did not associate them with the Shah - the bulk of their organization, however, had staunchly defended the regime up until the 1960's.

  2. Especially the bazaaris - who had close ties to the mosques - but also the rural masses and the urban poor, found the safest and most legal gathering places inside the mosques that were not considered a political danger by the regime. In this context the clergy was the only layer that could provide the petit bourgeois masses with a national organisation.

  3. In the beginning most mullahs even went to great lengths trying to hold back the masses, but the movement wouldn't stop and the clergy was pushed further and further. Especially young Islamic students and poor rural mullahs were quickly radicalized. At this point Khomeini’s faction that had been the only parts of the clergy calling for the fall of the Shah (and who probably consisted of less than 200 mullahs) started to grow a larger base.

The Mullahs in Iran do not constitute a closed and homogeneous entity; they are nothing but a part of the Iranian petit bourgeoisie and the ruling classes, being connected to it in a thousand ways from top to bottom. Therefore, in the last analysis, they reflect the same class interests.

The lower sections among the clerics have always followed the lowest layers of the masses and become radicalized with them in every major conflict and movement. There are many stories from the revolution in 1979 about mullahs who at night studied communist papers and at day agitated with their slogans. However mystified and deformed it may have come out, the poor mullahs were nothing, but a part of the petit bourgeoisie and the rural poor. Therefore on many occasions they also expressed their voices.

The top clerics in the cities and the leaders of the big Friday prayers, on the other hand, are and have always sided with the ruling classes from the time of the Qajars to Reza Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah and of course now. At every movement and in every revolution they have sided with the representatives of privilege and used all their powers and influences to stop the movement. If they have ever opposed the ruling elite, as Khomeini did in the early sixties, this has only been a part of their internal conflict within the ruling elite. It had nothing to do with changing the fundamental pillars of society.

If one does not take note of the conflicting interests within the clergy and the middle classes it is very hard to understand the revolution in 1979. The aspirations of the poor masses have nothing in common with the greedy needs of the top layers of the clergy.

In 1979 the middle class did not have any political organization or focal point of expression. The Tudeh and other workers’ organizations, being mostly parties of industrial workers and urban intellectuals, had very weak links with the countryside and the poor areas of Tehran. So when the oppressed masses started moving, the most natural gathering places were in the mosques. The mosques where the first place the rural masses went to organize and gather.

But these is the first steps of the revolution where class differentiation had not revealed itself. Instead of promoting an independent workers’ movement and preparing the workers and poor for the betrayal of Khomeini, the Tudeh gave Khomeini its wholehearted support. In this way they sowed illusions and practically disarmed not only the workers, but also the poor and oppressed masses in the face of the rising counter-revolution.

Khomeini then used the authority bestowed upon him to slowly undermine the workers’ movement, and defeat the revolution. Instead of Shoras (workers’ committees) he sneaked in the old order through the back door by means of “Islamic Shoras” and reintroduced one man management under the Islamic guise known as the Maktabi. Later when his position had become stronger he introduced militarisation of the factories and severe attacks on wages and working conditions.

The immediate objective of Khomeini was to save capitalism, and with this end in mind he had to take over many private firms, not because he wanted to, but because he had no other choice. The owners had fled and the workers were putting on massive pressure. In fact, even before the end of the 1980's privatization plans were being laid down (and if this hasn't happened yet it is not because there was no desire for it within at the regime).

The mullahs by calling themselves revolutionaries would not change anything. In fact it was not a new thing for the counter-revolution to dress itself up as revolutionaries. But with no organized opposition they could soon consolidate their forces and show their real face. The revolution was then drowned in a river of blood. Workers’ organizations were prohibited and no opposition was tolerated.

The War - “a gift from heavens”

Iranian forces capture Khorramshahr in 1982. Photo by forces capture Khorramshahr in 1982. Photo by The Iran-Iraq war was an important factor in defeating the revolution. The war started by Iraq attacking Iran - officially because of a land dispute. That might have been one of the objectives, but it wasn't the reason they had to. In fact, what forced Iraq to attack was fear of the revolutionary waves spilling over its borders. Especially the suppressed Kurds and Shia minority in Iraq were being affected and beginning to move. This left no choice for Saddam (who was also pressured by US imperialism) but to attack. The important thing to remember is that the attack was not against Iran as a nation, or even the Clergy. The attack was aimed at stopping the movement of the masses. It was an attack against the revolution.

This in fact was a helping hand to the mullahs. The regime in Iran used the war to divert attention towards their “foreign enemies”. With this excuse they stressed the need to calm things down and demanded order while at the same time consolidating their armed forces. Needless to say that the Tudeh leaders again stabbed the revolution in the back and gave their full support to the regime sending the party’s forces to the front without a clear and independent class stance.

Here again we see how the clerics and US imperialism shared the same interests. First of all, both America and the Soviet Union sold arms to both parties in an effort to prolong the war, secondly the Iranian regime itself contributed greatly to its unnecessary prolongation. After 1982 Iran had won all the land that it had lost, but it turned the war into an offensive and continued it until 1988, without winning an inch of land. In fact what both countries were fighting was not each other, but the revolution.

Massacre of Iranian civilians. Photo by of Iranian civilians. Photo by But even after slaughtering up to half a million people, the people’s movement began to rise again just after the war. What had become of all the promises of the revolution? Why did we have to be in a war for such a long time? But this time the regime had built its forces and bases throughout the country and, without any significant divisions within its top layers, it could respond resolutely and crush a movement that had been worn out and disillusioned by the mistakes of its leaders. Therefore an Islamic court was established for all leftist and opposition leaders. Within a period of a few days this court sentenced thousands of political prisoners to death and killed them minutes after their 10-minute trials. These killings of thousands of Revolutionaries, Communists and Marxists in the summer of 1988 stand as one of the most abhorrent anti-communist massacres of the 20th century. The new upsurge was drowned before it could reach the surface. In the final act the counter-revolution had literally beheaded the revolution.

Development of economy and classes under the Islamic republic

The 1980s in Iran was a period marked by war and economic disintegration. Many of the old industrial complexes were destroyed or simply went bankrupt because of mismanagement. At the same time the war with Iraq disrupted all economic activities.

Many large companies were expropriated and nationalized or centralized in the Bonyads (Islamic foundations controlled by unelected mullahs). The huge bureaucratic apparatus inside the state and the Bonyads, developing due to the complete lack of democratic control or supervision, resulted in the deterioration of many of these companies. The narrow and short-sighted mentality of the backward petit bourgeois meant that many of the companies under the Bonyads were greatly mismanaged in the hands of the brothers, cousins and friends of the clergy and top bazaaris. Facing strike waves and economic recession it was much easier just to sell the machinery in the company and make a large one-off profit.

Counteracting all of these negative factors was the total control over the law and the state apparatus which created enormous advantages for these companies in competition with others that had been left outside the regime. This again accelerated inefficiency and a fall in investments. In general, the large manufacturing companies grew after the revolution, but in a one sided and inorganic way. The amount of workers employed in large manufacturing enterprises doubled from 271,000 to 509,000 between 1976 and 1986. Again this was not followed by an equal rise in investments. On the other hand there was a collapse in the development of medium sized manufacturing companies and an explosion in small manufacturing companies.

The working class in the eighties decreased as a percentage of the active population. Going from 40.2 percent of the active population in 1976, it fell to 24.6 percent. Although this tendency was reversed later, by 1996 it still only amounted to 31.1 percent of the population. But the decrease of the working class in percentage terms did not make it less powerful, as the remaining workers were employed in larger companies who in many cases have a monopoly in their field. At the same time, a huge army of unemployed rose all over the country. These layers moved to the cities in search of jobs, but mostly they were caught in the growing informal economy of Iran. Whereas in 1950 30 percent and in 1979 50 percent of the population lived in the cities, by 2008 80 percent of the population was living in large cities. This includes a significant layer that is caught outside the economy, constituting marginalized communities.

The rural areas no longer offered sustainable life for the population. Even if one is lucky enough to own a piece of land in Iran, more than 75 percent of land owners own less than the 7 hectares estimated to be a minimum to sustain a rural family. Therefore many peasants either have a second job in the cities or they move to the city and leave their land behind.

In the early nineties when oil prices began to raise the tendency of deterioration of industry was halted. The working class grew and investments rose, but the easy money in the oil industry drew all forces to it. In this way even the upswing was shown to be uneven and unsustainable. Other industries that grew, for example housing, only did so in an inflated and short term manner as a bubble.

In the new millennium everything indicates that the concentration of workers and industry has increased, driven by the world economic upswing. But at the same time, rising unemployment levels and migration to the urban areas also reveal the falling apart of the rest of society and possibly even the further relative decrease of the working class.

This does not necessarily indicate a weaker working class. Its increased concentration and extreme monopolisation of Iran have created potentially powerful groups of workers. For example the highway between Tehran and Karaj, the Vyborg of Iran, is packed with industrial plants employing hundreds of thousands, maybe even more than a million industrial workers. The Iran Khodro plant is virtually a small city with more than 25,000 workers.

This working class concentration, if mobilized, has enormous potential. At the same time the rest of the Iranian masses, as they partially were in 1979, are not at a far distance, neither geographically nor culturally. As opposed to 50 percent during the late Shah years, today 80 percent of the 75 million Iranians live in the cities. This compares to a working class of only 3 to 5 percent in Russia at the time of the Revolution in 1917! Iranian conditions in 2010 are much more favourable for taking power by the working class compared to Russia at the time of October revolution.

Huddled in their millions, the newly arrived peasants and rural people, now working in the informal sector, are forced to assume many of the traditions and traits of the working class. So even if the Iranian working class has not grown at the same speed as the rest of society, their potential power and authority has grown immensely.


The 1990's were a decade that was heavily affected by the huge defeat of the revolution and then the collapse of the Soviet Union which in turn lead to an international demoralisation of the left. But in Iran, it was also the decade that prepared new explosions. The economic situation of the country was in just as bad a shape as before the revolution. From 1993 to 2001 average inflation was above 23% per annum and unemployment was hovering at about 16% (officially!). The reasons that had given rise to the revolution were still as valid as before. At bottom, the revolution was a question of bread and that question had not been solved. The only change was in the faces and head-wear of the oppressors.

Ayatollah Khamenei. Photo by Khamenei. Photo by The Islamic Republic represented the old order but it brought with it new people. Most of the Shah’s men had fled and most companies had been nationalized of course not in a democratic manner under workers’ control and producing for the benefit of society. At the head of the nationalized companies were placed the clerics and their friends from the bazaar. And along with them they brought the bureaucratic methods of the marketplace, where the aim is not production but quick money and shady hustling. This had very severe implications for all industry and production.

The bureaucracy that grew in the Islamic republic would make any Stalinist regime look like an angelic corps. This development had disastrous effects on the economy, as billions of dollars disappeared from the state budget and hundreds of companies went bankrupt because of gross mismanagement. Many times a new manager taking over a factory would just sell all the machines to a foreign company at low prices getting the real sum for himself under the table. By these methods of grotesque mismanagement, big parts of Iranian industry were destroyed leaving thousands unemployed and society deteriorating. This meant that the oil industry became by far the biggest industry in Iran, not through modernization and investments, but through more exploitation of the workers and the oil fields. This industry fitted well with the buy-cheap-sell-expensive bazaari mentality of the clergy and their allies. In fact Iran never built the capacity to refine petrol for internal use. Oil is only sold raw and unprocessed - it is then exchanged for refined fuel.

Much of the tendency for industry and production to fall apart was counteracted through the enormous construction bubble in the late nineties, but as the word bubble might suggest, this was only temporary. The outcome was that the millions of people migrating to the cities could do nothing but join the army of unemployed, cab-drivers, small shop owners and service personnel who live off the informal economy of Iran and survive on an almost day to day basis.

Rafsanjani. Photo by Mesgary.Rafsanjani. Photo by Mesgary. Throughout the nineties there was also a development within the regime. Different factions started to emerge, representing different interests within the regime. One such faction had accumulated large amounts capital and slowly moved towards privatizations to gain complete control over the companies they were heading and to create possibilities to invest the money they had channelled out of the state and accumulated for themselves. This faction had Rafsanjani and many Liberals of the "Reformist" movement as their main leaders. And naturally they also had closer relations with the World Bank and the IMF and therefore also the US.

On the other side there was a conservative faction consisting of the Revolutionary Guards, who are now the largest business conglomerate in Iran, and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The Revolutionary Guards are in fact one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, economic entities in the Middle East controlling hundreds of billions of dollars. Most noticeable is their control over the main Bonyads (semi-public foundations who enjoy all the perks of state ownership, but who are not controlled by any state institution) that own most of Iranian industry. The latter factions had their base inside the regime and in that way were in opposition to some privatizations, but still took part in most of the privatization schemes.

The fight between these factions is nothing, but a fight about who can get the biggest slice of the famous pie. As the economic situation deteriorated the struggle between these elements also took a more serious character, but basically they still represent the same regime.

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Website of Iranian Marxists: Mobarezeye Tabaghati (Persian)