Iran 1979: this was not a revolution
It is 30 years since the so-called ‘Iranian Revolution'. Below we have reprinted a statement that was put out across the ICC press in response to the powerful propaganda that filled the pages of the left and right wing media at the time. It ridicules the notion that some kind of bourgeois or bourgeois democratic revolution had taken place.
It refers to the fact that the autocratic regime of the Shah, who had been installed by the US as a reliable puppet of the western bloc, had sewn the seeds of his own downfall with his brutal repression of all opposition and dissent towards his regime. When the proletariat came to the head of the popular rebellion against him and the state was effectively paralysed, it fell to the Islamic opposition, itself a victim of the Shah's terror, to take a secure grip on the reins of government and gradually restore bourgeois order.
As the text affirms, the struggle of the Iranian working class was a significant demonstration at the time that the working class in the peripheral countries was awakening to the struggle. Indeed it was part of a wave of struggles that was soon to be followed in the heartlands with strikes by public sector workers (‘winter of discontent' in Britain) and by steelworkers' strikes in France and Britain, and not much later by the mass strike in Poland.
In Iran though it wasn't long before the Islamic regime began expelling or eliminating all opposition to itself in the same manner as the Shah. The religious fanaticism of the Mullahs became a tool for imposing state terror via its re-organised secret police and ‘revolutionary guards'.
The hatred for the Shah was transferred onto his main backer the USA after his departure, and the US embassy was occupied by young students inspired by the popular uprising that preceded the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini from exile. It took some time and a botched US ‘rescue mission' before satisfactory terms could be finalised for the release of the Ambassador and his staff. But Iran had definitely quit the American orbit, and this was a major setback for the US bloc. This led to the policy of arming to the teeth another major client in the region, Iraq, and goading it into waging war with Iran. This war would last for 10 years and saw a million killed in circumstances reminiscent of the 1914-18 world war. Owing of its comparative military weakness compared to Iraq, and suffering a much heavier death-toll than its opponent, Iran resorted to conscripting a generation of children to serve in its army. Farcically, Iran claimed a great victory when the war was finally over.
More recently, the massive instability inflicted on the region by the US invasion and 5 year-long occupation of Iraq, has actually worked in Iran's favour. With Iraq in turmoil, Iran has been able to recover its position as a leading imperialist power in the region and is developing the capacity to stand up to Israel. It is with this objective that it has been developing the technology for nuclear weapons. In the circumstances, the US has been unable to do little about it other than stamp its feet. With Russian imperialism newly revived today and assisting Iran with this project, President Obama is said to have sent a letter to the Russian leadership, offering to withdraw the military shield being installed in Poland in return for Russia exercising restraint over Iran. The content of this letter was subsequently denied but it does show the extent of the threat that the US recognises from a resurgent Iranian imperialism.
Alongside this, it is worth mentioning that the Iranian proletariat, having suffered so heavily under this bourgeois religious regime, is still nonetheless beginning to re-emerge into the light of day and participate in the developing resurgence of international struggles. With the deepening economic crisis, the Iranian proletariat will be forced into further struggles to defend its living standards, and to rediscover the revolutionary proletarian traditions that stretch back to the authentic revolutionary period of 1917-23.
After several months of rioting, of strikes, of powerless attempts by the Shah's government to suppress popular discontent through a bloody campaign of massive repression, a new governmental team, previously excluded from the official political arena when it wasn't rotting in prison or exile, has assumed responsibility for conducting the affairs of Iranian capitalism. The breadth of the convulsions suffered by Iranian society, provoking the spectacular and brutal change in the ruling apparatus; the important position occupied by this country in the strategic needs of the world's most powerful imperialist bloc - a factor of gravest concern for the bloc; the wide-ranging international scope of the events in Iran, more for what they are a sign of, than for their consequences; and finally, but most importantly, the part taken by the proletariat in these events, necessitate drawing a certain number of lessons for the struggle of the world proletariat.
1. Contrary to what is claimed in some quarters, whether in the liberal or Bordigist press, there has been no ‘revolution' in Iran, neither a ‘democratic', ‘Islamic', nor ‘Cossack' revolution. The Shah was no more a representative of some sort of ‘feudalism', vanquished by the ‘progressive' forces of the Ayatollah Khomeini, than is the Queen of England or the Emperor Bokassa the First. The main cause of the breach between the monarchy and the Shi'ite hierarchy, by an irony of history, was the agrarian reform undertaken by the monarchy, which harmed the landed property interests of the Mosque. In fact, the new leaders of Iran don't represent any type of ‘progressive' or ‘radical bourgeois' force, either at a political or an economic level. What bourgeois revolution in the past was made in the name of ‘religious tradition', or represented nothing more than a change of clothing for the regime? What revolutionary character is there in the ‘nationalisation' of the oil industry - an industry already nationalised in any case?
What the so-called Iranian revolution does illustrate is the fact that, in decadent capitalism, throughout the world, the time of the bourgeois or democratic revolution of whatever form has long since passed. There no longer exists any country (or ‘area') in the world, no matter how backward in its development, where the tasks posed to society are the same tasks as those accomplished in 1789.
2. If the Iranian events confirm that the conditions for the bourgeois democratic revolution exist nowhere in the world today, and certainly not in the underdeveloped countries, they also illustrate equally well that in such countries the army constitutes the only force in society capable of guaranteeing a minimum of unity - to the benefit of the national capital. Immediately upon taking power, the Bazargan-Khomeini regime was obliged to appeal to the very force that only a few weeks earlier had been the main support of the Shah. And the execution of certain generals, done in an attempt to calm the anger of the masses, will change nothing about the reality of how the army has been left intact; both the army as an institution and the military hierarchy. As in all countries where the capitalist state cannot root its power in a strong, historically developed, economic base; where the ruling class doesn't have at its disposal juridical institutions and a political apparatus flexible enough to contain within the confines of ‘legality' and ‘democracy' the conflicts which tear it apart and throw all strata of society into turmoil, developments in Iran underline a fundamental lesson in regard to the army. Since it represents the hierarchical, centralised violence of social relations based on exploitation and oppression, and expresses the entire tendency in decadent capitalism toward the militarisation of society, the army constitutes, in a practically constant fashion, the only guarantee of the survival and stability of the bourgeois regime, whether it calls itself ‘popular', ‘Islamic', or ‘revolutionary'.
3. Once again, the events in Iran serve to demonstrate that the only revolution on the agenda today, in the backward countries as much as in the rest of the world, is the proletarian revolution. In opposition to the legend so often upheld by those who have a stake in maintaining it, the events in Iran have decisively proven not only that the proletariat exists in the backward countries, but that it is equally capable of mobilising itself in a combative way and on its own class terrain as the proletariat in the advanced countries. Coming in the wake of workers' struggles in different countries in Latin America, Tunisia, Egypt, etc... the strikes of the Iranian workers were the major, political element leading to the overthrow of the Shah's regime. Despite the mass mobilisations, when the ‘popular' movement - regrouping almost all the oppressed strata in Iran - began to exhaust itself, the entry into the struggle of the Iranian proletariat at the beginning of October 1978, most notably in the oil sector, not only refuelled the agitation, but posed a virtually insolvable problem for the national capital, in the absence of a replacement being found for the old governmental team. Repression was enough to cause the retreat of the small merchants, the students and those without work, but it proved a powerless weapon of the bourgeoisie when confronted with the economic paralysis provoked by the strikes of the workers. Thus, even in a country where it is numerically weak, the proletariat in Iran showed what an essential strength it has in society, owing to its position at the heart of capitalist production.
4. The events in Iran, while reaffirming the fundamental strength of the proletariat, also demonstrated that the proletariat is the only force in society able to oppose itself to the one solution capitalism has for its crisis, the solution of imperialist war. Indeed, because Iran occupies an essential position in the military deployment of the western bloc, it has become the recipient of great attention on the part of the bloc. And the difficulties created by the movement of the class, not only for the national capital, but also for the essential war preparations of the imperialist bloc, makes it obvious why the action of the proletariat today constitutes, as it did in the past, the only obstacle, but a decisive obstacle, standing in the way of the bourgeoisie pursing its own course toward imperialist war.
5.The decisive position occupied by the proletariat in the events in Iran poses an essential problem which must be resolved by the class if it is to carry out the communist revolution successfully. This problem centres on the relationship of the proletariat to all the other non-exploiting strata in society, particularly those without work. What these events demonstrate is the following:
- despite their large numbers, these strata by themselves do not possess any real strength in society;
- much more than the proletariat, such strata are open to different forms of mystification and capitalist control, including the most out-dated, such as religion;
- but in as much as the crisis also hits the working class at the same time as it assaults these strata with the increasing violence, they can be a force in the struggle against capitalism, provided the proletariat can, and does, place itself at the head of the struggle.
Faced with all the attempts of the bourgeoisie to channel their discontent into a hopeless impasse, the objective of the proletariat in dealing with these strata is to make clear to them that none of the ‘solutions' proposed by capitalism to end their misery will bring them any relief. That it is only by following in the wake of the revolutionary class that they can satisfy their aspirations, not as particular - historically condemned - strata, but as members of society. Such a political perspective presupposes the organisational and political autonomy of the proletariat, which means, in other words, the rejection by the proletariat of all political ‘alliances' with these strata. It is not by placing its weight behind their specific demands that the proletariat will draw these strata behind it. On the contrary, history has shown that they tend to follow the most dynamic force in society. Therefore, only the decisive affirmation of its own revolutionary goals will allow the proletariat to attain its objective of drawing them behind its struggle, initially by splitting apart those sectors of the other strata closest to the ruling class from those closest to itself.
6. If there has been no bourgeois revolution in Iran, neither has there been a proletarian revolution. Despite its indisputable combativity, the working class has not asserted its real autonomy. It has not vied for power with the bourgeoisie, nor has it set up its own unitary organisations of struggle - the workers' councils. And it is here that another lesson of the events in Iran can be found. Despite the weaknesses of the proletariat, numerical as well as organisational and political, which allow the bourgeoisie today to retain overall control, nonetheless the struggle of the workers has had a decisive influence on the evolution of the world political situation. The events in Iran are in this sense a prefiguration of the future. After a period of eclipse following the wave of class struggle which took place between 1968 and 1973, today the workers' struggle is tending more and more to assert itself, and to generalise. The working class progressively occupies the front of the political stage in society, to the detriment of all the internal contradictions wracking the capitalist class (its economic and political crises, the military reinforcement of the blocs). But for the proletariat in Iran, as for the proletariat in all the underdeveloped countries, the problem could only be posed, not resolved. Only the action of the entire world proletariat in the strongest countries will resolve the problem, by generalising the assault on capitalism and destroying the whole system.