Iran: Crisis, Revolt and Workers’ Strikes
More than ten thousand deaths in one year; day after day, month after month, endless demonstrations, unceasing repression; the whole country paralyzed by the quasi-general strike by oil workers, by hospital, bank, transportation and newspaper workers; warnings and even threats by the great powers; evacuation of foreign personnel; endless comings and goings between the army, the Shah, the religious opposition and the National Front: all these events have shown up the social decomposition, the political crisis, the paralysis of Iranian capital. They are also the illustration in one country of the characteristics and perspectives of the present situation of world capitalism as a whole.The world crisis
On the economic level, the myth of Iran, which for a longtime was put forward as an example of a developing nation (the Shah promised that it would be fifth in the world league table by the end of the century), has collapsed like a house of cards.
In 1973, for the first time, the chronic foreign deficit of Iran was paid off, and in 1974 exports exceeded imports by 52 per cent. This led many to believe that Iran was ‘taking off’ economically, as was supposed to be the case with Brazil. At last, it was said, a third world country is showing that it is possible to break out of underdevelopment. But the illusion was quickly dissipated when the export surplus fell to 23 per cent in 1975. In fact, dependent as it was on oil for 96 per cent of its exports, Iran was simply benefiting from the purely conjunctural quadrupling of oil prices. This had nothing to do with profiting from the sale of a product which had suddenly become ‘rare’ on the market, as all the noise about the ‘oil shortage’ tried to make us believe. It was the result of a price rise which was favored by the USA and its big companies, who wanted to bring some order to a market over-saturated with black gold, so that they could defend their own profits. Through the price rise, the USA, itself one of the main oil-producing nations, was increasingly able to put its allies and competitors -- Europe and Japan -- on rations. This made American production more competitive on the world market, while making its allies pay for the arming of the oil producing countries (with Eurodollars supplied to OPEC through oil purchases).
The ‘new wealth’ of the oil-producing countries was soon battered down under the hammer blows of bitter competition on the world market, the result of overproduction in all areas, including oil. Iran had to moderate its grandiose ambitions and concentrate its efforts on the vital sectors of the national economy. The ‘take off’ of Iran had had its day: it wasn’t a youthful surge of health for the national economy but a brief flicker in the general agony of world capitalism. From now on there was no question of prosperity any more: all that was left was a growing debt incurred through massive purchases of ultra-sophisticated arms and ready-built factories which the bourgeoisie never really managed to use properly.
On the political level, the Iranian bourgeoisie -- its power based entirely on the army, the only force in an underdeveloped country capable of providing the state with a minimum of cohesion -- now had a smaller and smaller margin of maneuver. The monarchy of the all-powerful Shah wasn’t a form of backward, anachronistic feudalism which the bourgeoisie could get rid of in order to make progress. It was a form of concentrated state capitalism, resulting from the historic, structural weakness of the national capital. The evolution of Iran has been based on the attempt to ‘modernize’ the economy and pare down the archaic sectors of the productive apparatus. It has been oriented entirely towards the war economy: arms and oil have been the only real areas of ‘development’ and profit. This is an irreversible evolution.
No policy of the bourgeoisie today can call into question the preponderant role of the army and the orientation of the national economy around the one meager resource that it does have within the world market. Under such a regime, so characteristic of underdeveloped countries, everything has to be imported and ‘business’ gets done with money supplied by exports, with all that this implies in deals, frauds, diversion of funds, etc. This gives rise to oppositions within the bourgeoisie, but none of them can really question the source of revenues and the overall functioning of the system. No policy of the bourgeoisie can really be against the elimination of non-profitable sectors of the productive apparatus, because that’s the only way of avoiding further bankruptcy.
For these reasons, there is no really stable, long term alternative to the crisis which has provoked such ferment among all classes and strata of the population. In the last analysis, the only thing the bourgeoisie can offer the poverty-stricken insurgent masses are machine guns and massacres. The only thing that can be done by the opposition forces from the mullahs to the National Front is to dispute over how to use the state and the army to do the one thing that the whole bourgeoisie needs: getting the economy going again.
The idea of a ‘1789 Revolution’ in Iran, which is being put forward by the whole propaganda machine at the service of a crisis-ridden bourgeoisie, is just a deception. When the entire world capitalist system is in crisis, there’s no room for prosperity and development within the framework of capitalism. The history of Iran over the last fifty years has been entirely marked not by feudalism (if that were the case then the bourgeoisie today could offer a progressive way forward) but by capitalist decadence, by the counter-revolution which followed the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 and the division of the world which came after the Second World War. When the Cossack General Reza Khan, father of the present Shah, took power in 1921 and proclaimed himself emperor in 1925, the epoch of bourgeois revolutions had long been over. The regime was installed with the blessing of the Allies on the ruins of world war and on the defeat of the international proletariat. The regime tottered during World War II because of its leanings towards the Axis powers, but was put back on its feet by the western victors after the Yalta agreement between east and west. Order was restored to the advantage of the west, which supported the Shah against Mossadegh, whose nationalism wasn’t sufficiently bent to western interests.
The present crisis in Iran is from all points of view -- historical, economic, political -- an integral part of the world crisis of the capitalist system.Social decomposition, political crisis and workers’ struggles
By hitting at the whole means of subsistence of the classes and strata who compose Iranian society, the crisis has led to the dislocation and decomposition of social life. More and more forced to hang on to the things that simply keep it in power, the bourgeoisie can offer no material remedies to this situation. On the contrary, the bourgeoisie is forced to throttle wages and jobs, to slash subsidies to the unemployed workers and sub-proletarians, to cut down on jobs for students, on the profits of small traders, on unprofitable investment. Social contradictions thus break out openly. On the one hand, within the ruling class itself, the resort to corruption, rackets and ‘bakshish’ by the governing clique has kindled the anger of those excluded from the centers of power. On the other hand, poverty increases and the mass of pauperized elements swell larger and larger, aggravating their discontent and forcing them to revolt. When all these conditions converge and the population is faced with a state power that is identified with a narrow clique, the mass uprising is that much more determined and extensive. The more the foundations of class rule are weakened by the crisis, the more cruelly and arrogantly the domination is imposed.
As with the movement against the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, in Iran mass anger and recrimination have crystallized against the Shah, his family, his political police. As in Nicaragua, the whole ‘people’ has been regrouped in demonstrations demanding the departure of the tyrant, and the regime has again and again replied with military repression, which has littered the streets with corpses (in Tehran last September 3-5,000 were killed in one da). But when the workers’ strikes broke out, first in the oil industry and then in other sectors, the bourgeoisie had to give in to the workers’ wage demands (rises of up to 50 per cent) in order to get production going again. In order to ensure this, the army was sent into the oil towns, martial law was installed, meetings were forbidden and the ‘ringleaders’ of the strikes arrested. But strikes then broke out against repression, against the army, blocking production once again, and giving a new impulse to the whole social movement.
This time, contrary to what happened in Nicaragua, the attack on the symbol of capitalist rule was backed up by a movement which paralyzed the very foundations of that rule. The demand for the Shah’s departure, which at the beginning was a pious wish used in the maneuvers of the mullahs and the National Front, and to which the government’s response was just more repression, became a vital question for the bourgeoisie as soon as its profits were threatened by the strikes. Distinct from the ‘people’, the working class showed that it had the capacity to resist the attacks of the bourgeoisie. Alongside the demands of classes and strata with widely differing, interests and motivations -- the ruined merchants of the bazaars, capitalists sucked dry by the Shah’s clique, poverty-stricken sub-proletarians, students with no future, the indecisive and fluctuating petty bourgeoisie -- the working class began to defend its own collective, material interests, while at the same time concretizing the aspirations of all the pauperized strata of society.
The petty bourgeoisie and the intermediary strata are scattered in a multitude of particular interests and, by themselves, can only end up submitting to capital or revolting desperately against it. The working class on the other hand, grouped as a collective body at the heart of capitalist production, can mount a real resistance to poverty and repression, and thus open the way to the only historic alternative: the destruction of capitalism. It is this reality which is unfolding in Iran despite the smokescreen of appeals to Allah and his prophet Khomeini, or the wheelings and dealings of the National Front.
“(the working class) has no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old, collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.” (Marx, Third Address of the General Council of the IWA on the Paris Commune of 1871)
This movement accentuated the political crisis and broke the fragile equilibrium of the Iranian state. The state first responded to its difficulties with open repression. The Shah received repeated support from the USA, and even after the September massacre President Carter continued to talk about the ‘liberal’ nature of the regime, thus showing that all his talk about ‘human rights’ is nothing but hot air. The USSR maintained a benevolent neutrality. The British Minister of Foreign Affairs (David Owen) pledged firm support to the Shah. China also gave its support with the visit of Hua Kao Feng. Everyone believed that the only hope was in the Shah’s regime and his army. No one had any alternative proposal. But the growing ‘chaos’ pushed the bourgeoisie to look for other options. France, the best agent of western foreign policy, was already keeping the religious opposition under its wing and had given a warm welcome to Ayatollah Khomeini after his expulsion from Iraq. The Shah freed members of the National Front from prison. But any attempt to restore order can only be based on the support of the army; this is why the government has had to resort to martial law, and the opposition has had to issue repeated calls to the army to go over to its side. At the same time, the bourgeoisie has had to find some way of justifying itself in front of the population, of rallying together those fractions of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie who are neutral, passive or opposed to corruption. That’s why it has been looking for ‘men of integrity’ who haven’t compromised themselves with the regime. Ayatollah Khomeini and the National Front have kept up the radical facade which is needed to prevent things getting out of hand, crying louder and louder for the departure of the Shah and the end of his regime. At the very same moment, the National Front was supplying the man most likely to start the ball rolling -- Bakhtiar -- and Ayatollah Khomeini was setting up an oil commission in order to ask the workers to go back to work in the interests of ‘popular consumption’.
This is no easy task as long as the ‘people’ are still in the streets. And when the workers are mobilizing and organizing themselves, the appeals of the opposition -- even the most credible and resolute ones -- can rebound back in its face. Thus, the workers were effectively controlling essential supplies. The army had to intervene to stop this and the Ayatollah said nothing about it. For these phantoms of the past, ‘the people’ is just an empty word used to serve the national interest. If it has any meaning for the proletariat, it can only refer to the workers’ solidarity with all the poverty-stricken masses, and real solidarity can only be based on the autonomous power of the working class. It can never have the same meaning it has for all the humanists, democrats, and populists, who offer their services for the defense of the national capital and see the ‘people’ as a mass to be manipulated for their own ambitions.
This illustration of the political crisis shows that the bourgeoisie in Iran -- as will more and more be the case all over the world -- has no way out of its crisis. The bourgeoisie’s ‘political men’ can more and more be seen as men of transition, as technicians who, as far as the needs and possibilities of the bourgeoisie allow, act as a cover for the real men of the bourgeoisie -- the men of the army, the police and all the other repressive forces of the state. In Iran, the alternative isn’t Khomeini or the army or Sandjabi or the army: as long as the capitalist state exists, the army will always be there, with Khomeini, Sandjabi or the Shah. The change of governmental teams can only be a new mask for the army and its role of containment, because it’s the only force the bourgeoisie can base its power on. Historically, the only two forces who will confront each other in a decisive manner are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the army and the workers.
In the immediate future, the bourgeoisie will try to deal with the working class by dissolving it into the whole population, demobilizing the class in order to perpetuate the dictatorship of capital. All the political discussions and maneuvers within the bourgeoisie -- government, opposition, army -- is aimed at controlling the revolt, at getting the workers and the insurgent population to make a distinction between the Shah and the state; thus they have shown their willingness to get rid of the Shah in order to protect the state.
“The revolution until the Shah leaves” was the cry of the Tehran demonstrators. If the overturning of the Imperial throne is enough to bring the workers’ struggle to an end, the bourgeoisie will do everything it can to arrive at that point, to make the workers believe that the overthrow of the monarchy is the final goal of their movement.
For the bourgeoisie, no real perspective is opening up, either in the short or long term. The overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of a new government mean only the perpetuation and acceleration of the same conditions of crisis, misery, war and repression.
For the proletariat in the long term, the perspective is the destruction of the system through the communist revolution, which will come about through the extension and generalization of its struggle throughout the world, above all in the big industrial concentrations. The struggle of the working class in Iran is a moment in this general struggle. It isn’t limited to Iran; it’s a struggle which has opened up new experiences of the possibility of extending and generalizing the struggle; new experiences of class organization, of the relation of the working class to the poverty-stricken masses. It has shown to the proletariat of the whole world that, in a country situated in the front line of inter-imperialist antagonisms, the working class can forestall the attacks of the bourgeoisie.
For the working class in Iran, the immediate danger is that it will allow its interests to be diluted into those of the whole population by entering into an unnatural union with a particular faction of the bourgeoisie. Such an alliance could only bring more repression and exploitation. But the strength of the class is its capacity to keep fighting on its own class terrain.