Where now for the Iranian revolution?
Working class must decisively enter struggle
Tony Saunois, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)
Thirty years after the 1979 revolution Iran has again erupted in revolutionary convulsions as millions have taken to the streets to protest against the undoubted rigging of the Presidential election. Within a few hours of polls closing, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cohorts in the theocratic dictatorship claimed a sweeping victory of 64% of the votes cast based on an 85% turn-out.
This pronouncement was enough to bring hundreds of thousands onto the streets – according to some reports up to three million participated in the largest protest which has taken place in Tehran. Students, the middles class and sections of unemployed, the poor and white collar workers have flooded onto the streets demanding that they reclaim their “stolen votes” and that Ahmadinejad is driven from office. However this revolutionary crisis unfolds in the coming weeks, it is clear that Iran will never be the same again. This massive movement for change marks the beginning of the end of the existing dictatorship.
Although a precise analysis of the election result is obviously impossible, the study of the details of the regime’s own figures by the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland give some incredible results. In some areas, turnout was 100%. Ahmadinejad mobilised apparently enough support to increase his vote by 113% compared to 2005. For the regimes numbers to add up, he would have needed to win the votes of all those who did not vote in 2005, all the votes that went to the “centrist” candidate Rafsanjani and 44% of all the votes which went to a more reformist candidate, Karrubi, in that election.
A striking feature of this movement and the build up to the elections has been the emergence of young women into the arena of struggle – unprecedented in recent Iranian history. This was reflected during the election campaign. For the first time in Iran, Mir Hossein Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, played a leading role and drew massive crowds, especially of young women, demanding “equality”.
Press censorship and restrictions on assemblies have not prevented news of this movement being broadcast. The youth especially have used Facebook and Twitter to organise their protests and publicise their cause and the repression being used against them. Iran has the highest number of ‘bloggers’ per head of the population of any country.
The mass protests which have swept Iran following the announcement of the election result mark a crucial turning point. Defying the “law” and brutal repression by the state security forces they illustrate that the masses have begun to lose their fear of the regime and are prepared to challenge and defy it. This represents a decisive change in the psychology of the masses in any movement against a dictatorship. In the face of the deployment of the vicious para-military force, the Basiji, demonstrators in Tehran have taken up the chant “Tanks, guns, Basiji, you have no effect now”!
Thus far, it has undoubtedly been the students and youth who have been to the forefront of this movement. Educated and cultured layers of the youth have been seething with discontent at the suffocating, repressive nature of this theocratic regime which has denied choice in dress, music, personal relations and communication. A dress too tight, hair too spiky or the wrong choice of music brought the wrath of the Basiji’s batons down upon young people in the streets. In a population where an estimated 60 to 70% are under the age of thirty, such restrictions were impossible to enforce indefinitely. Important as these factors are, this movement surpasses them, demanding all democratic rights and reflecting a yearning for change throughout Iranian society. This is reflected by the widespread participation and support for the movement which exists amongst older sections of the population.
Added to this is the accumulated frustration and disappointment of big sections of the population during the last few years of Ahmadinejad Presidency. He was elected in 2005 and has maintained an important base of support, especially amongst some sections of the poor and in rural areas. Even in this election, there appears to have been a certain split between the larger urban areas and the rural areas. The scale of this division is not yet fully apparent. The International Herald Tribune, for example, has carried a report from one small village, Bagh-e-Iman, near the south-western city of Shiraz. This report claims the majority of the villages’ 850 voters backed Mousavi only to find that the reverse was declared at the count. This was despite Ahmendinejad’s supporters being booed at election rallies. Car loads of the villagers then attended the protest rallies in Shiraz. Moreover, Iran now has massive urban centres where most of the population now live, with important family links remaining with the countryside. According to recent estimates, approximately 70% of the population lives in urban cities.
His base amongst the poor was built upon a reactionary populist basis, denouncing corruption, the rich liberal elite and a strident nationalist policy which denounced western and especially US imperialism.
During the 2005 election, he took up one of the slogans of the 1979 Revolution, “a Republic of the poor”. Following the revolution, important sections of the economy were taken into state hands but rather than a Republic for the poor, a Republic of rich, corrupt Mullah oligarchs emerged. In 2005, Ahmendinejad also featured the demand to re-distribute the oil wealth more equally to the poor and introduced subsidies on basic commodities. Following his election, a series of infrastructural projects were also initiated. This rhetoric was in contrast to the ‘reformist’ Rafsanjani, who he defeated in 2005, renowned for his corruption and links to the rich oligarchs.
Yet Ahmadinejad’s populist championing of the poor did not prevent his regime from brutally attacking Tehran bus drivers and others when they took strike action to defend their interests.
However, with rampant inflation reaching 30% and rising unemployment which stands at approximately 25% among under-thirties and the recent ending of subsidies on petrol and some food products, frustration and anger has increased in the recent period.
Ahmadinejad has also militarised the government at national and local level, leading to increased repression and also growing hostility from the youth especially. Ahmandinejad, a former officer in the Revolutionary Guards, has appointed 14 former Revolutionary Guards officers to ministerial positions out of 21. The paramilitary Basiji has also been given rights relating to oil extraction, fomenting allegations of corruption, which he allegedly was going to root out.
The power of the movement so far, unseen in Iran since the 1979 revolution, has forced the regime into zigzags in its response and opened up splits and divisions within it. Initially the Guardian Council merely endorsed the results and dismissed demands for a recount. It then back-tracked and conceded that a partial recount could take place of “disputed” ballots. More recently it accepted that just over six hundred disputed ballots could be recounted. However, even a full recount, if in the unlikely event of it being conceded, would in reality be meaningless. Who after all would check the checkers? According to British journalist, Robert Fisk, a fist-fight broke out amongst the reactionary members of the parliament about how to respond to Ahmadinejad’s dismissal of the protestors as “dirt and ash”.
The entry of the masses into the arena of struggle on the scale currently being seen, as Trotsky points out in his epic ‘History of the Russian Revolution’, is one of the hallmarks of a revolution. In this sense, a revolution is unfolding in Iran.
What type of revolution?
However, there are different types of revolutions. Historically, there were the bourgeois democratic revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, which swept away feudal society. There is also the socialist revolution which for example unfolded in Russia in 1917 which resulted in the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism and the establishment of a workers’ democracy. This was followed by a political counter-revolution when the bureaucratic Stalinist regime emerged and robbed the working class of political power.
Also revolutionary upheavals can take place which result in a political change of power but where the former social and property relations remain. In Iran at the moment, a political revolution is taking place, within the framework of capitalism. Revolution however, is a process and during this development the social questions and demands can emerge which bring it into conflict with the social system of capitalism. The debates and clashes which took place on the TV during the election campaign between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad played a central role in arousing the youth especially, who then were drawn into the movement in an active way and have become a motor force driving the struggle since the election results were announced.
The crucial question now in Iran is how this movement develops and the type of new regime that will emerge from it. At this stage of events, it is unclear how the current crisis will unfold and develop. The question now is whether the working class emerges into the forefront of the struggle to take it forward. However, it is clear that a new era has begun in Iran and the upheaval and revolution will develop over a lengthy period of time, with many crises and turns in the situation.
Lenin outlined four main conditions for the development of the socialist revolution. Firstly, splits and divisions amongst the ruling class and its political representatives are necessary. Secondly, the middle class needs to be vacillating with a significant section of it supporting the revolution. Thirdly, the working class needs to be organised and clearly willing to struggle – putting itself at the head of the revolutionary process. Fourthly, a mass revolutionary socialist party with a clear leadership is necessary with broad support for its ideas amongst wide sections of masses – especially the active layers of workers.
Certainly the first two of these conditions exist in Iran today. However, it would be light minded and irresponsible to simplistically argue that these conditions have matured in Iran at the present stage of the movement. The third condition â€“ of a willingness to struggle by the working class is not clearly evident at this stage. The working class has not clearly put its stamp on the movement, acting as an independent force. The fourth condition of Lenin of a mass revolutionary socialist party and leadership is yet to be built. The degree of willingness to struggle by workers needs to be tested in elected committee of struggle and independent unions which still need to be built.
The absence of a mass consciousness by the working class of its independent role and the absence of a revolutionary leadership become objective barriers to the revolution. Without a precise estimation of these issues it is not possible to accurately estimate the perspectives and prospects for the revolution in Iran which is now beginning to unfold.
Splits within the regime
There is clearly a major split within the ruling regime in Iran. This exists even within those forces supporting Ahmadinejad, which have apparently reached the level of fist-fights and centre on how to deal with the mass movement which seems to have caught it by surprise. The arrest of family members of former President Rafsanjani, indicate how deep the splits have gone amongst the ruling elite.
The clash between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi also represents a division amongst the rulers. While the masses on the streets have rallied to Mousavi and have great hopes and illusions in him he and his leading supporters formed a part of the theocratic regime itself. Mousavi, himself a former Prime Minister at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, was responsible for repression against left-wing activists and did nothing to oppose the ‘fatwa’ issued by the then Spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie.
What he promised during the election was reform of the existing system, greater economic liberalisation, reduced unemployment and “greater equality” for women, but all within the existing clerical theocratic regime. His programme in essence is reform from the top to prevent revolution from below in order to preserve the existing order.
Yet this important and significant division has opened the door through which the masses have poured into the arena of struggle. The determination of Ahmandinejad and his supporters to cling to power has forced the split between them still wider. The endorsement of Ahmandinejad, and demands for the protests to end or face greater repression by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, threatens to heighten the conflict and take it to new levels. Having begun with demands to reform the system, the movement now finds itself confronted with direct defiance of Khamenei, bringing it into direct collision with the entire theocratic state.
At the beginning of the Spanish civil war, Trotsky explained that Berenguer in 1931 had acted as the doorman, opening the gate through which the masses poured into struggle. The same can be said for Mousavi, who having opened the gate is now try to shut it again. Despite his attempts the pressure to burst it open will remain.
At the time of writing, it is not yet clear if the masses are prepared to go even further in taking the movement forward to such a direct confrontation. However, the indications of those interviewed and the reports emerging on Twitter and Facebook, which have been a feature of the movement, are that Khamenei’s declaration have enraged a significant layer. Students at Tehran University have declared a permanent occupation following his declaration on Friday 19 June. They have called for a strike on Tuesday 22 June. Yet, faced with a massive deployment of the security forces the demonstrations on Saturday 20 and 21 June seemed much smaller. While the students have showed great heroism during this movement, the level of repression seems to have intimidated others sections to stay away from the protests. This would not have been the case if the working class had put its stamp as an independent force in an organised way on this movement.
It is now possible that the movement in face of brutal repression will temporarily pause for a period of time. This is especially the case if the working class does not decisively enter the struggle. Should this happen then it is certain to erupt again in the not too distant future.
However, the growing protests which have occurred so far are despite the attempts of Mousavi to demobilise the mass mobilisations – even calling off one mass protest. Despite this, hundreds of thousands took to the streets, illustrating that the movement is developing from below despite the leadership’s attempt to prevent it. Mousavi, like Ahmandinejad is terrified of the mass movement – especially an independent movement of the working class.
The working class
The crucial question now posed is – is the working class prepared to enter the struggle in a decisive manner. If it does, then it the prospect of the Ahmadinejad regime being overthrown will be clearly posed. Although, according to reports, unemployed and significant sections of the poor joined the protests in north Tehran (a more middle class area) and building workers cheered the opposition march as it passed, as yet there have not been reports of workers declaring a strike or forming their own organisations of struggle. However, there are some indications that this may now be beginning to take place.
The Tehran bus workers, with a long history of struggle against the regime, have issued a declaration supporting the movement and supporting those fighting repression by the regime. They have also called for a day of protest on June 26. There are also reports now emerging that the car workers in Khodro have imposed a strike of 30 minutes at the beginning of each shift in protest against the repression against the demonstrators.
Moreover, the bus workers, whose leader, Mansour Osanloo, is serving a five year jail sentence for his role in organising strikes in the past, while supporting the protests, did not support either candidate in the Presidential election because neither represented the interests of the working class. There are also reports of discussions about a general strike taking place.
Revolution is a living process and develops hour by hour and day by day. Many revolutionary movements have begun with the university students and sections of the middle class. They have then been joined by the working class which has taken the entire struggle onto a newer and higher level. This was the case in France 1968 and also during the Iranian revolution in 1979. The question now when faced with increased repression is if the movement prepared to fight right to the finish and take the necessary steps to confront and overthrow the regime.
Should Ahmadinejad and his regime move to a policy of even more brutal repression involving widespread deaths, then this could ignite the workers into struggle. According to some reports more than a dozen were killed by the security forces on 20 June. Khamenei’s declaration and deployment of the state apparatus was a high risk strategy. Had bigger clashes taken place, involving deaths of hundreds or a few thousand, this could have been a trigger for the working class to enter the struggle in a more conscious and decisive manner.
Many of the students are from poor backgrounds and have benefited from grants and assistance to get to university. Faced with an explosion from the working class together with the youth it is far from certain that the repressive forces of the state machine would remain intact.
Although there have been shootings and brutal attacks on the students at Tehran University, especially by the Basiji, there have also been other reports of the Basiji refusing to attack protestors. The social composition of the Basiji makes it an extremely unreliable force to be used against the protestors. The government boasts it has a membership of 12 million. Many commentators claim that this is an exaggeration and that the real figure is less than half this amount. It is a relatively easy organisation to join and in the main requires little training and it is not a full time commitment. The hardcore force numbers, according to one report, only approximately 90,000. The rest are drawn from their families many of whom have participated on the opposition protests.
Should the movement gain greater strength, especially if the working class should enter the struggle in an organised and determined manner, then the various wings of the state machine could split and fragment. Important sections of it could go over to the side of the protestors. This is undoubtedly the fear important figures in the regime have.
This movement has exposed the massive social and class divisions which exist in Iranian society. Should the crisis continue and if the revolution does not take decisive steps forward and eventually result in the working class, with the support of the middles class, youth and poor peasants taking over the running of society, then other divisions can also begin to emerge.
There is a strong Iranian national consciousness. Yet the population is made up of a series of ethnic groupings. An estimated 52% are Persians, 24% Azeris, 8% Gilakis and Mazandaranis and 7% Kurds. Mousavi himself has spoken in Azeri at some rallies. This is a further fission which could also open up at a certain stage.
The eruption of the movement in Iran represents a turning point in the struggle of the masses. It is at its early stages still but is an advance on events in 1999 and is developing rapidly. It remains to be seen if this revolutionary crisis with important elements of a pre-revolutionary situation is more comparable with the Russian revolution in 1905 or that of 1917. The revolution in 1905 was defeated because it did not enjoy the support of the peasantry in the rural areas. It was an anticipation of the 1917 revolution. The revolution in 1917 were led by the working class, with the active support and involvement of the peasantry. This difference between 1905 and 1917 may also prove to be present in the crisis unfolding in Iran today. In 1905 the masses, especially the working class in St. Petersburg moved into action. Initially they petitioned the Tsar, led by a priest Father Gapon. In Iran today the masses have demanded democratic rights and reform of the existing system and chanted religious slogans as well. However, in Russia 1905, the workers formed their own organisation of a Soviet (council) which was crucial and re-emerged during the great revolutions of 1917. This or similar developments do not seem as yet to have taken place in Iran.
However, the 1905 revolution was defeated and a period of counter-revolution and repression followed. Yet 1905 was a decisive pre-cursor to 1917 which eventually resulted in the working class taking power.
Iran 2009 may only be anticipation for an even greater movement later. Should this be the case, even if the current regime hangs on for period of time, the social crisis and antagonisms will remain and intensify and are certain to lead to further revolutionary upheavals. The absence of a genuinely revolutionary socialist party and leadership and the undoubted political confusion which exists after thirty years of a theocratic regime and the ideological retreat about the idea of a socialist alternative which has taken place internationally will mean the revolution in Iran takes a more protracted development.
The fact that the “socialist” President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has scandalously supported and endorsed Ahmadinejad can only add to the confusion. Those on the left who have opportunistically remained silent about the wrong policy of Chavez towards Ahmadinejad and other regimes and other questions have not assisted the masses in Iran in finding the right road and embracing the idea of a genuine socialist alternative.
The crucial task in Iran now, to defeat Ahmadinejad and take the movement forward, is to ensure that real democratic organisations are formed to conduct the struggle. Committees of struggle need to be elected in every workplace, university and district involving the middle class. These need to be made up of elected delegates who can be recalled at any time by mass assemblies. Above all such committees need to prepare to call a general strike and appeal to the rank and file of the army, Revolutionary Guard and Basiji and other repressive organisations of state, to join the movement, remove their officers and form their own committees.
The call for a recount by the existing state machine will not resolve the crisis and cannot have any confidence from the people. Elected committees of struggle could form the basis for the convening of elections to a revolutionary constituent assembly to determine the future of the country. Democratically elected committees should over-see the counting of all votes to such an assembly. The establishment of a workers’ and peasants government with a revolutionary socialist programme to break with capitalism is way forward to ensure the introduction genuine democratic rights and equality for all the Iranian people exploited by the existing system and capitalism. Such demands would include the right to free assembly, form political parties, independent trade unions, to produce newspapers and TV programmes without state censorship and the release of all political prisoners and those arrested for struggling against the regime. The new era which has opened in Iran opens the prospects of workers and youth reaching the necessary conclusions of what programme and organisation is needed for them to secure a lasting victory and end the dictatorship and poverty they suffer under the current system. The role of revolutionary socialists is to assist them in finding this road.