Sunday 7 June 2009

The Iranian Revolution

It was back to business as usual at this Thursday's branch meeting of Stoke Socialist Party after the frenetic campaigning of the European election. Brother G commanded our attention with a lead off on the Iranian revolution.

He kicked things off with a potted history of Iran for the century up to the 1979 revolution. The country emerged from the high colonial period of the late 19th/early 20th centuries independent, but suffered constant interference and distortion at the hands of Tsarist Russia and the British. Against a backdrop of tribal chaos, uprisings and deep divisions in the elite, modern Iran could be said to begin with the assumption of power by Reza Shah. Backed by Britain he had consolidated his autocratic rule by 1925 and spent the next 16 years developing Iran's infrastructure and industrial base. Unfortunately, the Shah's attempt to preserve neutral status during the Second World War fell foul of Allied plans. With Reza ousted and his son installed as a puppet, the country was temporarily partitioned between the USSR and Britain for the duration of the war.

In 1951 Mohammed Mossadegh assumed the prime ministerial office and won mass support after he moved to nationalise Iran's significant oil industries. This was not to the taste of the British or the Americans - they collaborated with the Shah to dismantle the constitutional monarchy and had him removed in a coup two years later, replacing the nascent liberal democracy with the autocracy of the pre-war years. Like his father's regime the new order was repressive but made significant strides forward in its development. This culminated in a six-point reform plan in 1963 (under pressure from the Kennedy White House), which, among other things, enshrined rights for women. This 'white revolution' was opposed by the growing Islamist movement led by Rudollah Khomeini (later Ayatollah) who denounced the reforms and was later forced into exile.

Winding forward to the end of the seventies, by then the Shah's regime was in trouble. Development had encouraged large scale rural-urban migration, which proved combustible as the world economy slid into crisis in the early part of the decade. Under the pressure of a massive strike wave the Shah dissolved parliament and released political prisoners - which was a crucial error. These intelligentsia managed to bring about an alliance of striking workers, radicalised Muslims and nationalists that went on to depose the Shah. This was not a Muslim uprising per se, but rather the founding of the Islamic republic came after power struggles among the victorious revolutionary elite.

Moving on to the discussion, P admitted his knowledge of Iran was extremely limited and referred to the treatment of the revolutionary period in Marjane Satrapi's
Persepolis. As the daughter of well to do and well connected parents, her biographical tale relates a convincing sense of the post-revolutionary struggles and the subsequent crackdown on the communist party (the Tudeh) and any other element opposed to the nascent theocracy. P also recalled a few articles he'd read in the past about the Tudeh - while it is true it had borne the brunt of the Shah's repression (its leading cadre were mostly dead, imprisoned or exiled) the party's political strategy was hampered by a misunderstanding of the class relationships in Iranian society. It believed the so-called democratic uprising against the Shah should be led by nationalist and "objectively progressive" Islamist parties who would complete the unfulfilled "democratic tasks" of Iranian capitalism, and then it would be the turn of the organised working class to make its mark. The Tudeh did not have the leadership of the revolution to begin with, but being wedded to a strategy that conceded it to other classes doomed it to the role of a subordinate partner that could be easily disposed of after it had outlived its usefulness.

For A the outcome of a revolutionary process cannot be determined in advance. It all depends on the class forces underpinning revolution and counterrevolution, and a successful revolution from a socialist point of view is extremely difficult without a revolutionary party being in the mix. In Iran's case the revolution opened in 1978 after and accumulation of contradictions exacerbated by the oil crisis. In its opening phase it was the mass of the workers who moved into action, many of them led by Tudeh activists. This movement grew by leaps and bounds and in some areas threw up embryonic workers' councils and administrative committees - but unfortunately a decisive workers' leadership was lacking. This enabled capital via the medium of the Islamic parties to win revolutionary momentum, put down the workers' movement and carry out their reactionary programme.

Brother F said Iran shows how an unsuccessful revolution can lead to the strengthening of the ruling class. But it is also demonstrates Islam is no more a barrier to class consciousness than any other religion. The popular tendency to see Islamic countries as swivel-eyed jihadist monoliths overlooks that fact that each are capitalist countries with the same basic set of class relationships and struggles undergirding their national and cultural peculiarities. The founding of the Islamic republic was the triumph of the counterrevolution within the revolution, but nevertheless there are positives to be taken from it.

A outlined a couple of these. The revolution demonstrated to the whole world of the latent power the working class possesses everywhere. Despite repression how the Shah was toppled by the labour movement remains well within living memory, providing a rich vein of militancy the working class can draw on as it enters into battle with the mullahs.

Part of the problem for Iranian leftists, said G, is how an otherwise unstable regime is constantly strengthened by the moves of outside actors. Iraq's abortive invasion of Iran in 1980 served only to strengthen Khomeini. Likewise the crude sabre-rattling of the Bush years enabled the government to divert attention from increasingly serious domestic problems. By way of contrast Obama's commitment to hands off diplomacy could more effectively undermine the mullahs than any raft of sanctions or UN-sponsored denunciations.

But unfortunately, P noted, there is a tendency among some on the revolutionary left to wear anti-imperialist blinkers when it comes to Iran. George Galloway, for example, is eloquent in his denunciations of US and UK policy in the Middle East and towards Iran, but that's where it ends. He is studiously silent about the character of the Islamic republic and its internal struggles. Likewise with the
Socialist Workers' Party and their consistent opposition to the affiliation of Hands Off the People of Iran to Stop the War, seemingly on the grounds that criticising the Iranian is tantamount to lining up with the US and UK. Socialists should go beyond putting a plus wherever our masters place a minus and analyse Iran as it is. In P's opinion Iran's regime now resembles Imperial Germany prior to the First World War - an authoritarian and unelected state bureaucracy with liberal democratic window dressing and limited political freedoms. Very far from ideal but certainly not the jihadist-talibanite hell the media portrays it as. Concluding, A felt the job of socialists in Britain is not to cheer lead the Iranian government nor line up with pro-war liberals but call for and do our best to support independent workers' organisations in the country.

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