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

We begin today the publication of a five-part document written by Iranian Marxists on the historical roots of the Iranian revolution. In this part they concentrate on how the Iranian economy developed, leading to an enormous strengthening of the working class and how this led to revolution in 1979. This has already been published in Farsi.

What started in summer 2009 in Iran with the mass movement in the aftermath of the Presidential elections was clearly the beginning of a revolution, obvious by its most indubitable feature, .i.e. the forcible entry of the masses onto the scene of history. This process from the early beginnings has posed the question of power in society. With the radicalization of the movement this question has increasingly gained importance. The Iranian Revolution is already capturing the attention of the masses of the world. In the last few months the movement has taken steps forward into spheres no one thought possible. With its disregard for any authority and its rapidly rising confidence in its own powers, the movement of the Iranian masses is inspiring millions of workers and poor. It is now given that the fall of the Islamic regime is inevitable and will come sooner or later. But that will be only the beginning of a period of sharp class struggle in Iran which can potentially end with the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement by the rule of the workers and masses.

The ruling classes are aware of this and that is why they have also concentrated all their attention towards the struggle. They know that this struggle may at some point turn against the capitalist system as a whole.

So it cannot come as a surprise that the movement is attracting attention from all revolutionaries and Marxists. We aim to bring to the movement a clear Marxist understanding of the tasks that lie ahead and the best strategies to achieve victory. In order to do that, we must firstly study and come to an understanding of the roots of the movement.

How could there be such an explosion based on the outcome of these elections? Every Iranian knows very well that none of the candidates represented any real change. At most they represented different shades of the ultra-reactionary ruling clique of Iran. Even if we disregard this, vote rigging is not a new thing in Iran either. In fact many Iranians believe that Ahmadinejad largely won the previous elections because of widespread fraud. And finally if Mousavi had even won officially he had made it very clear that he was completely loyal to the Islamic regime.

Capitalism in Iran

In the last analysis, the cause behind the revolutionary developments in Iran is to be found in the general crisis of the capitalist system which is no longer able to develop the productive forces and take society forward. On the contrary, the system is becoming the heaviest burden on society dragging it down towards barbarism.

In the early days of capitalist society the bourgeois played a progressive role developing the productive forces and bringing society forward. But Iran’s arrival into the capitalist world came too late for this. Every step Iran took towards capitalism was due to foreign pressure and direct interference of, especially, Russian and British Imperialism. But even with this factor, capitalist relations in Iran remained extremely isolated, limited and mostly stagnant. The geographical aspects of Iran did not help development. Iran is the world’s 18th largest country, covering 1,648,195 square kms (almost as big as Germany, France, Spain and the UK all put together!) and consisting of five mountain chains surrounding one desert. Ervand Abrahamian explains the implications of this in his famous book, Iran - between two revolutions:

"Even at the end of the century [1800 – M.A.] the important road between the south port of Mohammerah (Khorramshahr) and Tehran was so slow that to get from the latter to the former it was quicker to travel from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea by boat, from Erzerum to the Caspian by land, from Baku to Enzeli (Pahlevi) by boat again, and finally from Enzeli to Tehran by land. This lack of transport created periodic crises in which one region could starve from famine while a neighboring region was enjoying a good harvest."

The rugged terrain and the long distances did not allow for any development in trade and commerce. Only after finding vast oil resources in Iran did the industrialization of the country really accelerate and capitalist production became the dominant mode of production. Although this happened more than a century ago there are still many remnants of the old society in parts of Iran.

So Iran did not become a part of world capitalism through a linear process of capitalist development. The country was painfully dragged into the world market by the imperialist countries, especially Britain and Russia who divided Iran up between them. Through a series of major defeats in the eighteenth century the domination of imperialism was consolidated.

It was especially the discovery of vast oil resources in the beginning of the 20th century that finally made Iran an important part of world capitalist production. So although most of the country's inhabitants lived and worked in pre-capitalist relations, the country as a whole developed through the laws of world capitalism. Characterising this development was the fact that the industrial infrastructure, the factories, built in Iran after the introduction of capitalism was not built by and for a rising class of bourgeois, but by and for the narrow needs of Russian and British imperialism. Facing this large scale production and cheap goods of the imperialists, no merchant or shop-owner (or government) had a chance.

The semi-colonization of Iran gave a combined and uneven character to the social development of the country. By the time the Iranian petite bourgeoisie, being itself brought to the fore by imperialism, was ready to make a capitalist revolution it was too late. The Iranian Constitutional Revolutions (a bourgeois revolution in 1905-1911) challenged the landed aristocracy and their power over the state. It had the goals of creating a parliamentary democracy, a new constitution, to throw imperialism out of Iran, to separate the Islamic institutions from the state and to carry out land reforms. Although it did give a fatal blow to the old modes of production, the main aspirations of the revolution did not crystallise. Capitalism on a world scale was in a period of rising imperialist antagonisms. It could not give any concessions - not even a puppet parliament or a mock constitution. The country entered the capitalist world fully engulfed in crisis. Besides, the middle classes who led this revolution were too entangled with imperialism to be able to seriously challenge it. At every step of the revolution the movement would split internally. In the end the movement did not even succeed in breaking completely with the old modes of production in much of the rural areas. Although the landed classes were weakened they kept power until they themselves changed their base and became industrialists 50 years later.

With the working class too young and weak to play a role, the revolution had many difficulties in holding on to its victories. After a civil war and a period of immense instability, the vicious dictatorship of Reza Shah rose in the late 1920s.

A century of revolution and counter-revolution

Mohammed Reza Shah and US President Truman in 1949Mohammed Reza Shah and US President Truman in 1949 Since the Constitutional Revolution stability has been a rare thing in Iranian society. The last 100 years have seen an almost constant shift between periods of totalitarian dictatorships and revolutionary or pre-revolutionary movements. Periods of "tranquillity" and "peaceful" coexistence have mainly been the result of harsh repression. Iranian capitalism, being completely dependent and submissive towards imperialism, could not afford any concessions to the masses. This in turn meant that any struggle of any part of the masses, if sustained, would quickly be turned into a struggle against the regime itself - and the reaction would therefore be equally explosive.

These conditions held Iranian society into an almost constant deadlock interrupted by the most massive explosions. Big movements occurred in the late 1920s, late 1940s to the mid 1950s, mid sixties, late 1970s and the present movement dating its roots to 1999. All of these, except for the first, could be characterized as revolutionary or pre-revolutionary. The present situation is fully in accord with the previous ones and basically reflects the same underlying causes. The main characteristics separating each movement from the previous was the growing working class setting its imprint as a more and more the leading social force.

Roots of the 1979 revolution

The Revolution of 1979 occurred at a time when Iran had undergone a massive period of industrialization. In the sixties the Shah had completed the "white revolution" which was supposed to be a land reform in the interests of the millions of landless peasants. This was an attempt to introduce reforms from above to prevent revolutionary explosions from below. But in practice it had the effect of consolidating and strengthening the position of the royal family and its closest allies. Helped by the US, the reforms also helped shift the base of this clique towards industrialism.

In this process, and through other laws passed in this period, the layers immediately beneath this small group were heavily attacked; especially the clergy - who had always been a loyal supporter of the Shah - and the bazaaris were also hit hard. Besides the massive amounts of mosque-land that was confiscated, the Shah set up his own religious institutions to challenge the authority of the clergy. The bazaaris were attacked by heavy price dumping, uneven taxation and by the setting up of state supermarkets that bought products directly from the manufacturers cutting out the natural middle man - the bazaari.

Besides attacking the top layers of the petite bourgeoisie, the reforms decisively cut the bonds of millions of people from the rural areas and pushed them into the cities. From the 1950s through to the late 1970s the urban population grew from 20% to 50% of the total population.

At the same time the ruling clique tried to shift their economic base from land to industrial mass production. High oil prices, protectionism and military aid from the US, together with the post-war economic boom created conditions where they felt that they could build and consolidate a strong position for Iran in the world market. Oil revenues alone rose from $34 million in 1954-55 to $437 million in 1962-63, to $5 billion in 1973-74, to $20 billion in 1975-76.

Mass demonstration during revolution of 1979Mass demonstration during revolution of 1979 This income was the backbone for the heavy industrialization that the country went through in this period. Staggering sums where channelled into the economy through cheap loans and direct investment, but this by no means meant that all the people of Iran benefited from it. This is illustrated by the fact that a group of only 1000 individuals owned, not only the big industrial farms, but also 85 % of all major private firms.

Although the Shah also spent some money on patchy welfare plans, inequality was still rising. The huge palaces and extravagant lifestyles of the Iranian oligarchs were in stark contrast to life in the shanty towns or even the middle class neighbourhoods of Tehran. In 1973 the total urban household expenditure of the poorest 50 percent of the population accounted for 16.8 percent of total expenditure. Ten years earlier, in 1960, the percentage had been 19.7. In the same period the richest 20 percent of the population went from accounting for 51.7 to 55.4 percent of total urban household expenditures. This happened at a time, when GNP was rising by up to 15-20 percent each year. Yet this does not tell the whole story. The statistics only show the how much people spend. One has to remember that big capitalists rarely spend all their money while ordinary workers and poor mostly have no other choice!

In the second half of the 1970s these factors became magnified by recession and spiralling inflation. The burdens of the economic crisis under capitalism are always unloaded onto the backs of the working class and the poor masses. Iran in the 1970s was by no means an exception. Getting a minimal benefit from the boom, the workers and poor were now pushed down into poverty with accelerating force.

From 1971-76 rents in residential parts of Tehran rose by 300 percent. A middle class family could be spending up to 50% of their yearly income on rent alone. All social programs were stopped or cut substantially; unemployment exploded. The living standards of the masses were quickly deteriorating.

Trying to defend his position in recession conditions, the Shah started attacking the middle classes even harder. Harsh laws against "corruption" and "profiteering" were drawn up. In reality they were aimed at the bazaaris and even some of the allies of the Shah himself. At the same time growing social tensions were becoming evident to many parts of the ruling clique. This created splits at the top over how to act against this. The American presidential candidate at the time, Jimmy Carter, stated that America should do more to protect civil and political liberties in Iran ‑ a statement that should be put into the context of three decades of adamant and wholehearted American support for the regime.

These splits within the ruling clique created a possibility for the masses to push through the cracks like a wedge. Demonstrations and strikes increased dramatically. Especially writers, poets, intellectuals, students and middle class bazaaris were in the front line at the beginning.

Especially the Bazaaris, some of whom were hard hit by fines for "profiteering", were quickly able to create some momentum. With all of them being located at central areas of each city and having a network throughout the country made them very dangerous for the regime who came down hard against demonstrations. The bazaaris used the mosques and the mullahs, with whom many of them had good ties, to gather and mobilize their forces. The mosque was one of the few places one could gather during the period of the Shah. Although they resisted much to begin with, the mullahs were soon pressured to play an organizing role on a national level. Where the Bazaar had networks in every city the mosque had one throughout the country.

Beginning in early 1978, strikes and demonstrations were on the order of the day. Democratic demands such as the release of political prisoners and freedom of expression, especially for the press that had been raised for a long time were now driven to the forefront and the movement kept gathering momentum.

Seeing that they could not stop the movement the regime chose to loosen its grip and let a little steam out of the growing dissatisfaction. A new prime minister, Jafar Sharif-Emami, was installed in late August. Activity by political parties was legalized — of course the left was excluded. The army was pulled off the streets and a lot of political prisoners were freed. But as always, when a revolutionary wave is rising, neither reform nor repression can stop it.

The loosening of the regime’s grip therefore only fuelled the movement that had been brewing below the surface. Immediately the formation of trade unions started and strike activity accelerated. To begin with the demands of the strike movement only affected isolated companies and were limited to economic demands like higher wages, but this was soon to change.

In the beginning of September a strike movement started, that would lead to a decisive general strike. After some demonstrators were gunned down, machine-tool workers in Tabriz and oil refinery workers in Tehran came out on strike. This was the spark that lit the flame. At the Isfahan steel mills 30,000 men came out on strike; and throughout the country hundreds of thousands of industrial workers took strike action.

Of special importance were the oil-workers. Their strike, spreading to almost all installations, was the most famous and also the most crucial. It cost the regime more than $50 million dollars a day.

The general strike crippled the regime, cutting of all supplies of money and goods. This was the decisive factor, bringing the regime to its knees. The strike not only crippled the regime economically; it also posed the question of power in society in the most concrete way. Who had the right to rule? This was now an open question that would be resolved through further struggle. At the same time the strike opened up more room for the mass protests to grow even stronger.

The regime, in a last desperate effort, decided to hand power to a military government in November 1978. But the military government only succeeded in holding down the uprising for a few days after which strike activity began anew. By the end of November victory was evident. From this point on, all acts by the government were aimed at buying time to move as many assets as possible out of the country.

The economic effects of the strike combined with the demonstration of power by the working class and the millions on the streets every day, created the conditions where some soldiers in the army began to cross over to the side of the revolution. This was the final blow that made the last remaining defenders of the regime capitulate or flee in January 1979. The tops of the army, advised by the US administration, promised not to interfere in politics. In return they avoided both disintegration and dissolution.

The gravestone of the totalitarian dictatorship of the Shah had been laid and it was signed by the working class and the poor masses of Iran. The Shah left Iran in the middle of February 1979.

The vacuum of power created by his fall could have been filled by the working class, but the mistaken policies of the main working class organizations allowed for the revolution to be defeated.

Part two »