Iran: how can the movement go forward?

What we are witnessing in Iran is a full-blown popular revolution. However, in order to set its stamp on the movement, the working class must participate in the front line. The movement will stand or fall to the degree that the working class is able to lead it.

On July 14 1789, a force of nearly 1000 Parisians stormed the Bastille, a medieval prison now used to hold political prisoners. When he heard about the attack, King Louis XVI asked “Is it a revolt?” “No sire,” said a nearby noble, “It is a revolution.”

Slowly but surely the reality is dawning on western commentators that what we are witnessing in Iran is not merely a riot or a protest movement. It is a full-blown popular revolution. Slowly but surely the same frightening thought is penetrating the heads of even the most obtuse reactionaries in the regime of Teheran.

Those most frightened of all of the idea of revolution are the men who are theoretically leading it. Yesterday Mousavi called on people not to demonstrate “in order to save their lives”. The result was another day of street protests. Today he is calling on the demonstrators to go to the mosques today “to mourn the people killed on Monday”. This is a transparent attempt to get people off the streets and take the steam out of the mass movement. But for now the movement shows no signs of running out of steam.

At present, the nominal leader of the movement is Mir Hussein Mousavi, but this is only a historical accident and it will not last. The anger and discontent of the masses, which has accumulated over decades, required a focal point and found it in the protests centered around the leading opposition candidate, who has been pushed by the masses to go further than he intended in his opposition to the government. The current crisis was inspired by common anger over a national election but has developed far beyond that and can end up by posing the question of power.

The revolutionary movement is gathering strength. Every day the authorities warn people to keep off the streets and every day people come out onto the streets. Every day Mousavi calls off the demonstration and every day the demonstration takes place. These mass demonstrations, held in silence, are acting as a powerful magnet that attracts growing support.

The movement started with the most militant and courageous elements, with the heroic Iranian students as a hard core. But to the degree that citizens see that the demonstrations are continuing, and that the authorities they so feared are powerless to stop them, large numbers of ordinary men and women find the courage to join in. Once on the streets, they get a sense of their own power. By degrees they lose their fear. They grow in stature. Their heads are no longer bowed to the ground. Through these silent demonstrations the masses are finding their voice and the silent protests become a deafening roar.

Demonstration in Tehran yesterday, June 17. Photo by .faramarzDemonstration in Tehran yesterday, June 17. Photo by .faramarz That is the reason why Mousavi, having failed twice to demobilize the mass movement, has resorted to the tactic of declaring today a “day of mourning”. But the history of revolutions shows that even days of mourning can be dangerous affairs. Large numbers of people, even when gathered in mosques, can become very angry when they are invited to meditate on the fate of their comrades who have fallen in the battle against a ruthless tyranny. They may listen to Mousavi and go to the mosques. But what will happen when they come out?

The Iranian government tolerated student-led uprisings in 1999 and 2003 for only a few days before unleashing fearful repression, sending Basij vigilantes onto campuses, where they flung a few students from the windows; smashed heads with bricks, chains or truncheons; and jailed many. Immediately after the elections on Friday, they tried similar intimidation tactics but there is little result. This time it is different.

Iranian state news reports of seven people killed in various cities were intended to deter another major antigovernment rally on Tuesday. The result was not the intended and the demonstration on Tuesday was followed further protests on Wednesday. The government will have a lot of trouble bringing about a swift end to the demonstrations as it did on previous occasions. This time the situation is very different. We recall the words of that French aristocrat to the King: “Sire, it is not a revolt. It is a revolution!”

Skeptics on the Left

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 skepticism, 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.

Photo by Milad Avazbeigi.Such people are always present. They were present in Russia in 1917. 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” skeptics 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 skepticism. 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.

Despite the pathetic complaints of the skeptics who do not recognize a revolution when they see one, the real movement is going from strength to strength. Yesterday, Iranian state television even carried brief footage of the mass protests. That detail is significant, providing further proof of splits in the regime. Even more significantly, yesterday: six footballers playing for Iran's national team, including the captain, appeared in a World Cup qualifier in Seoul, South Korea, wearing armbands in the green associated with the protests. Iran is another football-mad country and pictures of the Iranian team members wearing the wristbands were seen by millions on Iranian television.

These are inspiring events that should fill the hearts of every class conscious worker and revolutionary youth with joy. As for the skeptics, let them continue to weep in their herbal tea and live in the past when they still had some faint semblance of a revolutionary idea in them. “Let the dead bury their dead.” We have more important things to do!

Limits of demonstrations

The present campaign of demonstrations has played a most valuable role in bringing the masses to their feet and providing them with a focal point for action. But it also has limitations and the danger is that those who are propelling the protests do not understand this. Despite the colossal energy and courage shown by the demonstrators, they will not be able to maintain the present level of activity indefinitely. Unless the struggle is taken to a higher level, people will tire of endless processions and the movement will begin to lose steam. The danger of selective repression will then increase, as the state picks off the most active elements.

There is a contradiction at the heart of the movement. It is simply stated: Mousavi wants to reach a compromise with the regime while the demonstrators want to topple the system. In fact, Mousavi and other leaders have tried to keep the chants focused on the election result in order to divert the movement into “safe” channels.

Wounded protester. Photo by .faramarzWounded protester. Photo by .faramarz There is a question mark on how long Iran’s rulers will tolerate the demonstrations, and also how long the protesters will stay in the streets if there is no prospect of a decisive outcome. Some analysts are talking of a “Tiananmen scenario.” They fear a repeat of the Chinese government’s rolling out tanks to ruthlessly crush pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989.

“I expect the situation to polarize further, and given the character of this regime, I think it is a matter of time before they roll in the tanks,” said one analyst. This view, at first sight, seems to be confirmed by certain facts. Ahmadinejad’s thugs are continuing their attacks on students, who are seen as the main instigators of the protests. This is meant to create an atmosphere of terror. Overnight, members of Iran's Basij volunteer militia reportedly raided university dormitories in several Iranian cities. The Basijis stormed compounds, ransacking dormitories and beating up some students. Several arrests were made, our correspondent says, and the dean of the university in the city of Shiraz has resigned.

But these actions have not succeeded in dampening the mood of protest. Rather, they pour petrol on the flames. Despite all the attempts of the authorities and Mousavi to head off Thursday’s protest, we can safely predict that there will be further protests today. The view that the uprising is about to be suppressed leaves out of account the scope of this movement and its effects on the state. If the latest reports are to be believed (and we see no reason to disbelieve them) the regime’s hold on the repressive apparatus is beginning to weaken. Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, who has been tracking the upheaval on his Informed Comment blog, writes:

“This is an order of magnitude different from those earlier demonstrations. In the earlier student demonstrations, people were saying that the hard-liners were doing things that were wrong. What these demonstrators are saying is that the regime has become so corrupt and so dictatorial that it has become rotten to the core.”

In the earlier protests, the middle class extended something like drive-by support, honking their horns or flashing their high-beam headlights as they drove past the chanting students. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke like a rueful patriarch, saying he regretted the few student deaths and that people who criticized him should not be chastised. After the initial spasms of violence the president at the time, Mohammad Khatami, fearing wider bloodshed, declined to call his followers out in support.

The general sentiment was that everyone should go home and try to solve problems through the ballot box, noted Ervand Abrahamian, an expert on Iranian opposition movements at Baruch College. But the chance of that kind of compromise has been soured by the sentiment that Friday’s election was stolen.

“Those arguments don’t work now because the ballot box has proved to be a cul-de-sac,” said Mr. Abrahamian.

How to go forward

A real Marxist, as opposed to a pretentious windbag, is always on the side of the revolutionary masses. Our duty is to march shoulder to shoulder with them, to build links with them, and, taking as our starting-point their present level of consciousness, to try to fertilize the movement with clear revolutionary socialist slogans. In the case of Iran, this means that we pose the boldest and most consistent revolutionary democratic slogans, combining them with transitional demands that raise the question of a complete revolutionary transformation of society.

Demonstration in Tehran, June 16. Photo by Milad Avazbeigi.Demonstration in Tehran, June 16. Photo by Milad Avazbeigi. Our aim is the establishment of an Iranian Workers’ and Peasants Republic. But at this point of time, the revolutionary movement has a very heterogeneous character. The working class is beginning to move, but has not yet managed to find a voice of its own. In order to set its stamp on the movement, the working class must participate in the front line. In order to put itself at the head of the Nation, the proletariat must prove to the whole revolutionary movement that it is fighting energetically for democratic slogans with revolutionary methods.

How is it possible to take the movement to a higher level, to pass beyond demonstrations and move towards a decisive solution? The working class has a power that can paralyze society and the state. Without its permission, not a light bulb shines, not a wheel turns, not a telephone rings. We refer to the general strike. The idea of a general strike has been raised but it has not been carried out. This is the key question!

The Iranian workers have many problems of their own: low wages, bad conditions, inflation, denial of union rights. These class demands can and should be linked to the general democratic demands to launch a broad campaign for a revolutionary general strike. Given the extreme restrictions on trade union activity, such a campaign can only be carried out by shoras – action committees elected in the workplaces. Similar action committees can be established by the students, the peasants, the women and all other sections of society that wish to voice their specific complaints and demands. The committees should be linked up on a local, city-wide, provincial and national basis.

Some will say: but this is difficult! Yes, life is full of difficulties and we do not underestimate the problems. But it is necessary to give some kind of perspective to the movement, some kind of coherent policy and tactics that can point the way forward. And who can say that there is no objective basis for this proposal? The sheer size of these demonstrations shows that people are longing for change and looking for a way out.

Moreover, the protests are not limited to students, but have drawn in people from all generations and increasingly from the working class. It may be said that the revolutionary movement is still confused and nebulous, that it lacks a proper leadership. Yes, that is true. But these things are inevitable at the beginning of any revolution. We can say that the masses do not know exactly what they want. But they know exactly what they do not want. They are no loner willing to tolerate the status quo and are fighting against it. That is quite enough to begin with!

As for leadership, this does not drop from the clouds. The Iranian Marxists have correct ideas but are a tiny minority. In order to win the majority two things are needed: the experience of the masses, who always learn very quickly in the course of a revolution, and our ability to put forward opportune and correct slogans that connect with the real movement.

A demand that expresses the needs of the moment is that of a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly. It is not a question of recounting rigged votes. It is not even a question of new elections – for who can guarantee us that new elections will be any fairer than the previous ones? It is now a question of a complete change. Nothing else will suffice. Away with the old regime, its corrupt politicians, and its reactionary constitution! We demand a complete reshaping of the political landscape on the basis of a new and completely democratic Constitution.

I have always opposed the misuse of this slogan, which some people foolishly regard as a panacea for all the ills of society. It was inappropriate for a country like Argentina, where a bourgeois democracy of sorts has existed for some time. It was inappropriate for Bolivia at a time when the proletariat could have gone far further and taken power. But it is completely appropriate for Iran, where the masses are struggling to overthrow an anti-democratic regime.

As in tsarist Russia, the struggle against autocracy is the first task of the socialist revolution. But as in Russia it is not the last task. In fact, the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in both cases are linked inseparably to the tasks of the socialist revolution. As in Russia, so in Iran, the bourgeoisie is rotten and reactionary. The bourgeois Liberals have shown that they are not capable of fighting seriously against the forces of reaction. If they take any step forward, it is only because they are compelled to do so by the movement of the masses. And as soon as the movement ebbs, they will rush to reach a rotten compromise with the ayatollahs. No trust whatsoever can be placed in these gentlemen!

The Iranian proletariat is much bigger and stronger than the Russian working class in 1917. It has powerful allies in the peasantry, the urban poor, the oppressed women, the revolutionary students and intellectuals. These are the real, living forces of the Iranian Revolution! In the first stages of the Revolution, when the democratic tasks are on the order of the day, the proletariat must strive to put itself at the head of the Nation by the most energetic defence of democratic slogans, particularly the Constituent Assembly.

However, the proletariat must not subordinate its class interests to the demands of the petty bourgeois democrats but must press forward with its own class demands. The cowardly and reactionary Iranian bourgeoisie will stand exposed as an obstacle to the democratic aspirations of the people. Only the working class can win the battle for democracy, as a by-product of the revolutionary struggle for socialism and an Iranian Workers and Peasants Republic. The movement will stand or fall to the degree that the working class is able to lead it.

London, 18th June, 2009.