Revolution and Counter-revolution in Iran: A Marxist View - Part One

Twenty five years after the 1978 revolution that overthrew the Shah, Iran is once more witnessing a reawakening of the mass movement. The regime no longer has the same grip on society as it did in the past. The lessons drawn, both from the 1978 revolution and its later defeat and hijacking by the reactionary Mullahs, must be remembered and made available to the new generation of workers and youth who are looking for a way out in Iran today. This article written in 1983 by Iranian Marxists who had actively participated in the revolution gives an excellent analysis of the whole process.


The following document was published by "Socializm va Enghelab" (Socialism and Revolution) in 1984. It was written in early 1983 by Saber Nikbeen, then a member of the International Executive Committee of the USFI (United Secretariat of the Fourth International, the most well-known leader of which was Ernest Mandel), as part of the pre-world congress discussions and represented the views of the now disbanded Iranian Socialist Workers Party (HKS). The authors of this document were very critical of the USFI as they had de facto supported a grouping that had developed illusions in the Khomeini regime.

A resolution based on the recommendations of this document was passed by the IEC (International Executive Committee) of the USFI immediately following the world congress of that organisation, which called for the expulsion from the USFI of the supporters of the American SWP in Iran who had collaborated with the Khomeini regime, public self criticism by the USFI of its mistaken positions on the Iranian revolution and support for the regroupment project initiated by the Iranian comrades. To this day, the USFI has not yet published that resolution.

We are publishing this document as we believe it is a very good analysis of the processes that unfolded during the 1978-79 revolution that overthrew the Shah's regime. As it was written by comrades who had participated in the revolution, it gives a very detailed and precise analysis of all the different class forces in Iran in that period. It also substantially confirms the analysis of our tendency at the time. (See The Iranian Revolution, by Ted Grant, February 9, 1979).


Part 1

The Present Situation

Almost five years after the overthrow of the Shah's regime, the fundamental features of the present reality of the Iranian revolution all indicate a complete reversal of the revolutionary movement which began in the 1976/77 period and resulted in an armed insurrection in February 1979. The results are clear: the loss of all The gains of the exploited and toiling masses, the re-establishment of a vicious dictatorship more barbaric than the shah's rule, the re-emergence of a brutal capitalist "order", and the reintegration of the Iranian economy within the world imperialist system. For those who in order to justify their refusal to break from Khomeini, still talk about the "gains" of this revolution, let us review these main features of the present situation.

1. The Situation of the Masses

a. Organizational Gains

The Iranian revolution was marked, above all else, by the fact that it represented the beginnings of a period of direct intervention of the masses in their millions in determining the fate of the social order. The extent and depth of this intervention was not comparable to the entire previous historical period in Iran or indeed for that matter to any other revolutions in recent history. In fact, the Iranian revolution would always remain an excellent example of how a mass movement in its development can overthrow the political and military power of a vicious bourgeois dictatorship.

Furthermore, the revolutionary upsurge resulted in numerous forms of self-organization of the masses. The fate of the revolution, in fact, depended on the extension and development of these organs: the workers, peasants and soldiers shoras (councils), neighbourhood committees, etc. Many sections of the population which had been inactive for a long period were brought into the struggles; including the women's movement in defence of equal rights, the movement of the oppressed nationalities for self-determination, the struggles of the unemployed for jobs and social security, the student movement for the independence of the educational system, etc.

The shora movement which despite all its shortcomings was the most significant of all these and resisted the attacks of counter-revolution the longest, is now completely crushed. Its "legal' fate has been left to the future decisions of the Islamic Assembly which has already constitutionally limited its powers to an "Islamic", "consultative" and "collaborative" body with the participation of the bosses and under the direct control of the state. If they are ever revived under such limits, they would obviously not differ greatly from the Shah's corporate "syndicates", i.e., the tools of capitalist repression in the factories. Today, however, no organizations of the working class are permitted to exit, by the laws of the Islamic Republic.

b. Economic & Social Gains

The revolution was in its basic social aims, a revolt against the injustices of the Shah's "White Revolution" and the economic crisis it had brought about by the late 70s. It did bring immediately in its wake many social and economic gains of importance for the vast majority of the masses.

There was an extensive takeover of the largest sector of the private and the state owned large-scale industry by the workers, and the beginnings of an imposition of workers' control of production and distribution, the level of which has not been surpassed in recent revolutions in the underdeveloped capitalist economies. The peasants' seizure of most large estates, the independent village committees' distribution of land, the establishment of peasants' cooperatives, and the cutting off of the "middle men" usurers and profiteers were important features of the revolutionary period.

These developments marked the dynamics of the continuing revolutionary struggles after the overthrow of the Shah's regime. None of these gains have been consolidated. Today it can be clearly stated that no social layer of the exploited and oppressed feels that it has gained anything out of the "revolution". Even the most basic improvements in the standard of living of the masses have either been eroded or pushed back - e.g., the more or less general increase in minimum wages, the shortening of the working week, the improvements in the social securities, housing for the poor, etc. Instead, we now have runaway inflation, massive unemployment, longer working hours, more homeless, and an ever increasing migration from the countryside to the cities. The depth of the economic misery for the vast majority of the masses cannot be compared even to the worst years of the last 3 decades.

c. Democratic Rights

The political pattern of all the revolutionary upsurges in Iran's modern history indicate that the central political demands of the masses have always been around the question of democratic rights. The February insurrection brought about many democratic rights, the struggles for which have marked the entire history of the last 80 years of political movements.

For the first time, the Iranian masses enjoyed the basic rights to freedom of expression and organization, the right to engage in political activities, to demonstrate and strike, the right to elect officials, etc. All these gains have also been brutally suppressed. They do not even exist at the level of the so-called "new revolutionary" Islamic Constitution. The present degree of the democratic rights actually practised or recognised by the state is only comparable to what existed before the beginnings of the 20th century.

The only "right" recognised by the clerical rulers is that of complete subjugation of everything to the arbitrary rule of the mullahs. The repressive form of the "republican" state is such that now the new ruling bourgeois factions can intervene even in the private lives of citizens. What the masses are allowed to believe, wear, eat or drink are all decided by the state. The central demand of the Iranian revolution for a truly democratic and constituent assembly representing the will of the masses has not been realised.

Instead of the sovereignty of the people we now have an Islamic Council of Guardians appointed by the clergy that can overrule any decisions that it may consider to contradict the Islamic code. Indeed, for almost a century, Iran has not been as undemocratically run as it is today. The fact that the Islamic state is a lot more repressive than an ordinary capitalist dictatorship is also clearly indicated by the way women are treated in Iran. The reactionary religious attacks on the most basic rights of women cannot simply be explained as being caused by the crisis of capitalism. It has a lot more to do with the specific clerical rule and its antiquated ideology.

2. The Reconstruction of the State

a. Democracy & Dictatorship

The actual regime that has replaced the Shah's dictatorship and that has now taken hold of all reins of power has proved to be more willing and better equipped to unleash the most barbaric inhuman repression against the oppressed and toiling masses.

The historical task of the Iranian revolution in democratising the state has been pushed back by a regime that even in its demagogic "legal" expression openly claims that all power rests with one man who is completely outside all forms of secular control. In Khomeini's Islamic "Republic" no representative body can make any decisions that contradict his wishes as the chief faghih (top mullah). He can decide on who may become a candidate in an election, overrule the actual results of any elections, change and alter any social or political institution, control and distribute all the social resources as he pleases, etc.

In the place of a monarchist dictatorship, there is now established in Iran a clerical dictatorship which claims to have a far more unlimited absolutist "divine" power. The separation of the mosque from the state which has been the most elementary demand of the movement for democracy for over a century is now pushed even further out of reach than it was before the Constitutional Revolution of 1907-09. Capitalism, which in its period of growth under the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran was forced to remove certain functions of the state from the hands of the Shiite clergy, has now resorted to a theocratic form of rule to defeat the revolution. The Islamic Republic is nothing more than a form of government in which a clerical sect considering itself outside the "earthly" control of the masses has proclaimed itself the supreme ruler of the fate of society.

The ultra-centralised state, which was formed with the help of the imperialist powers after the Russian Revolution to block the advance of Bolshevism, had to be based on a system of national privileges for the Farsis and the total suppression of the national rights of all other nationalities. The Islamic rulers who claim Iran recognises no sacred borders or nationalities have, however, faithfully followed the Pahlavi path as far as the rights of oppressed nationalities in Iran are concerned. Any victory in the struggles of these nationalities for their national rights is considered a major threat for the centralised state apparatus. The Iranian Kurds who are heroically defending their rights to self-determination are threatened with total physical annihilation. From military occupation of the Kurdish areas, the Tehran regime has now "advanced" to forced eviction of entire communities by the use of systematic bombing of villages and the destruction of crops, which has led to the devastation of entire regions.

b. Repressive Forces

Despite the importance thus placed on the so-called ideological apparatus of the state, the repressive instruments of the state have also grown to frightening proportions.

The destruction of the Shah's secret police, the army, the military courts, etc., were the most immediate objectives of the revolutionary movement. Even before the actual overthrow of the Shah's regime, its instruments of repression were weakening and disintegrating under the blows of mass mobilisation. Five years later, however, not only have all these been reconstructed to almost their pre-revolutionary strength, but also, there has appeared in addition, new and even more formidable instruments of repression, which claim legitimacy because of having "grown out of the revolution".

Besides the rebuilt army and the secret police, there is now a whole network of the so-called "revolutionary institutions" (nahads) incomparable in their brutality to anything that existed before. The Islamic Pasdaran (Guardians) Army, the Imam's Komitehs (neighbourhood police), the Islamic Anjomans (associations operating in every factory or institution), the Islamic courts, the paramilitary forces of the hezbollah (supporters of the "Party of God"), etc., have together meted out the worst repression seen in recent history anywhere in the world. Any opposition to the "unity of the word" (the word of Khomeini) can result in the execution of the culprit. In the last two years alone, the Islamic regime has executed 50 times more socialists than the Shah's regime did in its 30 years of rule. The number of political prisoners has increased at least tenfold, mostly held without any charges and without any information about their whereabouts. The moral, psychological and physical destruction of political opponents practised by Khomeini's regime has scarcely been surpassed by Hitler.

c. The Bureaucracy

The enormous size and power of the state bureaucracy has been a focal point of popular struggles in Iran. During the Shah's rule, its dimensions grew to unprecedented levels (almost over 1.5 millions). The largest part of the social wealth was in fact unproductively swallowed up by this bureaucracy. Many institutions were created to simply legitimize "official" bribery for the "social base" of the dictatorship. Today, the size of this bureaucracy living off the back of the masses has more than doubled. The integration of the instruments of clerical rule into the reconstructed bourgeois state apparatus has resulted in one of the largest bureaucracies in the backward countries. In addition to the over 1.8 million "normal" state employees, there is now a clientele base of over 1.3 million paid mercenaries of the regime. Furthermore, in addition to the so-called "mass revolutionary base" of the regime (consisting of over 200,000 Pasdarans, 300,000 committee men and all the other more loosely set up associations like the Basij - mobilization corps - or the Islamic anjomans), a large proportion of the Shiite clergy itself with its entire network of mosques and hangers-on is now also either directly paid by the state or indirectly living off the proceeds of nationalised industries.

There is now in Iran an absurd economic situation in which, despite the fact that the oil revenues are back to their high levels ($23 billions last year), and that much of the more openly corrupt consumption of the military-police apparatus of the Shah have been stopped, the real expenditure on development has dropped to a fifth of the pre-revolutionary period, whilst the various "charitable" foundations of the mullahs divert twice that amount for the wellbeing of the clergy and its henchmen.

3. The Return of the Capitalist Order

a. The New Capitalist Class

What could be considered the specific feature of this revolution as compared to the previous ones in Iran, was its obviously social anti-capitalist character. The largest share of native capital was expropriated after the revolution. Five years later, still over 60 percent of the Iranian large scale industry remains "nationalised". The suppression of the mass movement and the re-establishment of the bureaucratic state apparatus has, however, rapidly created the necessary conditions for the return of a capitalist "order", harsher, more corrupt and more backward than before. A new layer of capitalist profiteers has moved in to replace the Shah's entourage. This layer, with the backing of the clergy (to whom it has political and social-familial links) and through the channels of the state, has rapidly amassed enormous wealth. This new capitalist ruling class, which is extremely backward in its outlook, has come out of the Bazaar merchants and is marked by a penchant for hoarding and speculation. "Quick profits" is the motto of this new "nationalist" bourgeoisie. It has no qualms about the barbaric forms of accumulation it uses in its rush to gain what was denied to it under the Shah.

The scarcity in most basic necessities, the runaway inflation and super-exploitation of workers and poor peasants are the only noticeable characteristics of the "new" Islamic economics. Under the banner of Islam, the worst aspects of backward Iranian capitalism have become inviolable "sacred" laws. The proposed new Labour Codes leave the capitalists a free hand in deciding the duration of the working day, as long as the individual worker has agreed to it according to a "contract". Given the fact that there are now over 4 millions unemployed, this fact alone means that capitalism can extract as much surplus out of the individual workers as it may see fit. A committee in each factory in which the representative of the bosses and the Ministry of Labour sit beside the "representatives" of the workers (not freely elected by them), can terminate even this so-called "contract" if the bosses demand it. No form of collective bargaining is considered to be Islamic.

The Council of the Guardians of the Islamic Constitution has declared capitalist or landed private property to be sacrosanct and not subject to any limitations. The much publicised but meagre land reform laws which provided for compulsory sale of land by large landlords to the landless peasants has, therefore, been annulled because it was considered to be against Islam. Already, forced evacuation of the peasants from lands they occupied after the revolution has been more or less completed. Where this was not possible, a crop sharing arrangement, reminiscent of the period before the Shah's land reforms, has been enforced.

The other equally demagogic proposal for the nationalization of foreign trade has turned into a law facilitating the monopoly of not only foreign trade but also the internal trade for a group of pro-regime capitalists. Being granted an import licence and the permission to have foreign exchange is the surest way of becoming a member of the ruling capitalist clique. The benefits from the difference between the "official" rates of exchange and the actual market prices alone can turn a lumpen merchant into a tycoon.

Khomeini's Islamic regime, whatever grudges it may have against any specific group of capitalists, is proving daily that it is in the service of private property and class rule, based on exploitation of the majority by a handful of reactionary profiteers. If anything, the concentration of property and the rates of exploitation today, are higher than ever before.

b. Anti-Imperialism

The anti-imperialist rhetoric of the Iranian regime has attracted much attention. The reality shows, however, that today the economic, political and military dependence on imperialism is, if not deeper, no less than before. The Islamic rulers have shown that to remain in power they are prepared to be as servile as may be required and to pay as high a price as may be demanded.

Of all the exploitative and oppressive secret treaties which the Pahlavi regime signed with various imperialist powers, only one which was known to the public and much hated has been actually declared annulled by the new regime. Even in this case, the actual content of the treaty remains to be published. In order not to upset U.S. Imperialism, the Iranian regime did more. It also, at the same time, cancelled another entirely different treaty: the 1921 treaty with the Soviet Union.

The Islamic regime has granted over-generous compensation for all the foreign capitals which it was forced to nationalise, despite the fact that most of the companies involved owed many times their assets to Iranian Banks. It has also completely written off the so-called "loans" that the Shah had been forced to give to U.S. friends. This alone accounts for $9 billions. It has not seriously pursued its claims on a $20 billion arms deal with the U.S.A., the money for which was already paid by the Shah. It has capitulated before the exorbitant claims of many U.S. companies, including the Chase Manhattan Bank which owes $3 billions to Iran. It is also estimated that only because of the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran, the "anti-imperialist" Khomeini has paid up to $9 billions.

The value of Iranian imports from the major imperialist countries is back at its highest levels under the Shah. These now account for over 90 percent of the total, the largest portion of which is spent on raw materials and basic foodstuffs rather than machinery. Joint ventures with imperialism are once again flourishing. Almost without exception, all the consumer goods produced in Iran under licence from international monopolies are being paid for as under the Shah. All that has changed is the names of these goods.

Many foreign capitalists are openly declaring their joy at the opportunities for huge and quick profits available in Iran. The only thing which is keeping the direct involvement of imperialist countries at a low level is the still unstable political situation, especially because of the Iran-Iraq war.

The dependence of Khomeini's regime on imperialism for arms is now a well known fact. Other than the usual American and West European suppliers, Israel, South Africa and South Korea have been added to the list. It is now clear that even during the "hostage crisis", the flow of U.S. arms never stopped.

c. International Alliances

The foreign policy of the Iranian regime is the best indicator of its international alliances. Every concrete measure that it has undertaken internationally, leaving the empty rhetoric aside, has been within the framework of defending the interests of reaction. It has openly offered an anti-communist united front with Turkey and Pakistan. The Iranian regime is already cooperating with these military dictatorships in suppressing Kurdish and Baluchi movements. It has offered lucrative trade deals to induce these two most important allies of U.S. imperialism into a revival of the old treaty between the three countries under the Shah.

The policy of "neither East nor West" has meant in the Middle East a convergence of Iranian policies with the interests of some imperialist powers, despite its contradictory aspects. Within the non-aligned movement, they are in agreement with the anti-communist bloc.

Nevertheless, some petty-bourgeois nationalist factions within the Iranian regime have developed, alongside of their deep hatred of Communism and the USSR, a call for the non-intervention of the U.S.A. in the region and a rejection of all "Western values" including democracy. This has resulted in a tendency to agitate and campaign against "the Great Satan" (U.S.A.) and its allies in the Middle East, in a way which has influenced some of the activities against the U.S.A., Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf Sheikdoms, particularly in Lebanon. These have, however, been mostly within the context of creating room for manoeuvre and have also, been directly reactionary and pro-capitalist in their local effects.

The last claim of Khomeini's regime to the anti-imperialist mantle is its "holy war" against the Iraqi regime, which is presented as the tool of U.S. imperialism and a Zionist stooge. This war is, however, serving best the interests of U.S.A. and Israel, both of which are directly or indirectly supplying Iran with arms, ammunition and spare parts. Military presence of U.S. imperialism in the region is directly linked to this war.

Thanks to Khomeini's regime, the U.S.A. has built; four military bases in this region and is openly collaborating in joint military manoeuvres with the reactionary sheikdoms in the Gulf. The war has also been instrumental in strengthening Israel which, after the overthrow of the Shah's regime has become the only strategic ally of U.S. imperialism.

The consolidation of the bourgeois state in Iran and the political strengthening of the Iraqi Baathist regime are both the results of the war. The destruction of human lives and of economic resources has deeply weakened both countries while imperialism is reaping the benefits. Both regimes are, therefore, provided with enough support to continue the war without, however, either side being allowed to gain a decisive superiority.

Four years of war has decisively shifted the balance of forces in the region in the interests of U.S. imperialism. The Iranian regime is at present the main instrument in bringing this about. Khomeini's interests in continuing this war are clear. The militarization of social life, the justification of suppression of all legitimate demands of the masses, the consolidation of the most cynical factions within the regime and, most important of all, a return to the situation of becoming a dependent capitalist regime under the cover of having to get help from any possible source.

See also Part Two.