Worker Communist Parties of Iran and Iraq: The dangers of radical Stalinism

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This article, written by a close sympathiser, examines the origins of the political current represented by the ‘Worker-Communist Party of Iran’ (WCPI) and its sister party in Iraq, and looks more closely at the political positions it defends, in order to determine its class nature.

This question is important to understand because this grouping is widely advertised as somehow representing a proletarian alternative in Iraq and Iran. For example, Trotskyists like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) support the WCPI as representing a so-called ‘third camp’ position: that is, opposed to the US-UK occupation but also to the Baathists, Sunni-sectarians and jihadis who make up the so-called ‘resistance’ in Iraq; and supporting independent working-class politics and struggle, for example by putting forward demands for ‘free trade unions’, the right to assembly, freedom of the press, etc. (see, for example, http://www.workersliberty.org/node/view/902 5 May 2003).

For the Trotskyists, this is part of their support for the state capitalist programme of bourgeois democracy and pro-western factions of the bourgeoisie in Iraq. But it is not only reactionary Trotskyists and leftists like the Alliance for Workers Liberty or Workers Weekly who spread illusions in this current. Many libertarians also are tempted to see something progressive in the WCPI (see, for example, the discussion in the Libcom discussion forum about the Iraqi resistance, articles in the Anarchist Federation’s Organise, and links to the WCPI from other sites which are clearly looking for communist positions, e.g. Riffraff in Sweden).

It is understandable that those genuinely interested in communist politics should search for some sign of real proletarian resistance in the midst of the hellish inter-imperialist conflict in Iraq today, and if the WCPI really is a proletarian organisation it clearly needs to be supported; but if it’s a group of the left of capital, it needs to be exposed as an obstacle to the development of proletarian positions in the Middle East. To understand this question more deeply we need to go back to the WCPI’s origins.

The origins of the WCPI – the unholy alliance of Iranian Stalinism and Kurdish nationalism

The origins of the WCPI lie in a group called the Unity of Communist Militants (UCM), which was formed in Iran in 1979 at a time when a huge proletarian movement was shaking the country. As a reminder to today’s readers, this ferment included massive strikes and demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of workers in key sectors of the economy against austerity, the war economy and state repression. Workers in the in oil refineries, for example, formed their own independent committees, inspiring class solidarity and attempts to fraternise with soldiers sent in to crush the movement (see WR 23 for an analysis of Iran at this time). The subsequent ‘Islamic revolution’ and the regime of Khomeini which replaced the Shah were in no way an expression of this movement; on the contrary, this was capital’s principle means for overcoming it.

Some of the elements who helped form the UCM may have been an expression of this movement. But whether or not some proletarian elements were involved at the beginning, the programme defended by the group and its actual practice were entirely reactionary even at this time.

Due to its radical-sounding denunciations of the Islamic state, and its agitation among militant workers with ‘democratic’ demands, e.g. for the freedom to organise and the separation of religion and state, the UCM won some support within the working class. Essentially, faced with a militant proletariat, the radical Stalinist language of the UCM, under its founder Mansoor Hekmat, was an adjunct to the efforts of part of the Iranian bourgeoisie to deflect the class struggle into demands for democracy. But in the face of the ensuing repression by the Islamic state in the cities, the group lost its potential political base, and in the context of a deepening reflux in the class struggle the group sought influence with the left-wing of the Kurdish nationalist movement, entering into an alliance with Komala (the ‘Toilers Revolutionary Organisation of Iranian Kurdistan’) in 1981.

Komala was actively engaged in mobilising workers and peasants for a local imperialist war. Its goal was to carve out a slice of the existing state in return for policing their own workers and peasants. In other words it wanted a bourgeois proto-state similar to the Palestinian nationalist factions. It was also, to this end, involved in a front with the Stalinist Kurdish Democratic Party – a party even the UCM admitted was bourgeois (see WR 57). The alliance with Komala in the ‘liberated’ areas of Kurdistan offered a political base for the growth of the UCM after the massive repression launched in June 1981.

Significantly, it was precisely in this period of defeat for the Iranian proletariat, with part of the population in Kurdistan fleeing the cities for the mountains, that in 1983 the UCM / Komala absurdly pronounced the formation of a party – the ‘Communist Party of Iran’. Under Hekmat’s leadership, the new CPI oriented itself towards organising the nationalist forces (‘peshmergas’ or fighters) as part of the inter-imperialist struggle in Kurdistan. Essentially the working class and any continuing struggles in the cities were used as an adjunct to the nationalist struggle of Komala, and the peshmerga force was seen by the CPI as ‘the military wing of the working class movement in Kurdistan’.

The unholy alliance between the Kurdish nationalist tendency and more ‘workerist’ faction proved an uneasy one, and flared into an open faction fight within the CPI, which ended in 1989 with the departure of the workerists around Hekmat to form the Worker-Communist Party of Iran in 1991. This in no way represented a break with the reactionary political positions previously defended by the UCM and CPI, but essentially a change of political strategy and tactics. The counterpart of the WCPI in Iraq was formed two years later.

The confusions of the proletarian milieu

There is a precedent for the present confusion about the bourgeois nature of the WCPI; in the 80s, there were real confusions in the proletarian camp about the UCM/Communist Party of Iran.

The fact that the UCM defended some positive-sounding positions such as attacking the myth of the so-called progressive national bourgeoisie, insisting that the working class was the only revolutionary class and calling for workers’ councils, led WR to cautiously greet the appearance of ‘communists in Iran’ and to publish its manifesto, but it later recognised that this was premature and, based on discussions with the UCM’s supporters and a reading of the group’s texts, the ICC drew the clear conclusion that the UCM was a radical bourgeois group. We were able to show that this current had not broken with leftism, essentially on the grounds of its links to Kurdish nationalism and its advocacy of a popular front policy disguised as the demand for a ‘democratic revolution’ in Iran.

Unfortunately other groups of the revolutionary milieu failed to see the dangers of this radical bourgeois group. In Britain the CWO engaged with the ‘Student Supporters of the UCM’ (SUCM) in a fraternal debate about the ‘democratic revolution’, which managed to avoid any mention of the UCM/Komala’s direct involvement in the military struggle in Kurdistan. The CWO invited the SUCM (with the ICC) to attend its congress, where it shouted down ICC comrades who attempted to raise the issue of the presence of Iranian Stalinists at a proletarian congress (see WR 60).

The groups that went on to form the IBRP even held a fourth conference of groups of the communist left with the SUCM. At this conference, the interventions of the SUCM repeated the bluff that the formation of the CPI was a “determining factor” in the situation in Iran: in the historic conditions of 1982, a political current with such an influence could only be bourgeois, despite its declarations in favour of the communist left. But the CWO and its sister organization in Italy, Battaglia Comunista, did not want to take heed of our warnings…

In fact the bourgeois nature of this political current is amply clear from its position at the conference on the question of the “democratic revolution”, which is presented as a ‘necessary stage’ “to remove the obstacles to the free development of the class struggle of the proletariat for socialism.” In reality this is a justification for supporting factions of the bourgeoisie and calling on the proletariat to divert its own class struggle into support for state capitalism under a ‘democratic’ cover (see the article on the farce of the 4th Conference in International Review 124).

The bourgeois politics and practice of the WCPI today

The radical appearance of the WCPI of today is undoubtedly enhanced by the alleged reason for the 1989 split - the predominance of Kurdish nationalism - and its ability to appeal to any elements critical of nationalism and of the Islamic Republic, and to the working class. Hekmat also evolved a ‘theory’ of ‘worker communism’, which even made reference to revolutionary figures like Rosa Luxemburg and proclaimed a more ‘humanist’ and ‘libertarian’ vision of Marxism. The term ‘worker communism’ is also confusingly reminiscent of left communism, as in the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany, the KAPD (but significantly the WCPI has explicitly rejected left communism, using rambling pseudo-philosophical language for squaring the circle between its “principled rejection” of bourgeois nationalism and its support for the so-called “right to self-determination”).

If the WCP in Iraq today appears radical it is because it presents itself as a ‘third front’ against the ‘terrorists of both sides’, denouncing both the US/UK occupation forces and the Islamic militias. In fact it criticises the US-led occupation for not being hard enough against ‘political Islam’:

“From the very beginning, after the US forces entered Iraq, we stressed the importance of freedom, human rights, and secularism for Iraqi society and the importance of restraining political Islam’s movements and prevent them from setting up reactionary emirates where they implement their reactionary policies and rule. However, the occupation forces appeased religious reaction, hoping that they can be subdued…” (WCPI statement on the current crisis in Iraq, 3 April, 2004)

In other words, for the WCPI in Iraq the problem is that the US is not interested in establishing a ‘genuinely secular’ bourgeois regime. Using the same justification, the WCPI has also hailed the French bourgeoisie for banning the hijab in schools, in the name of defending secularism and pushing back ‘political Islam’, even criticizing the legislation for not going far enough. The WCPIraq is more bourgeois than the bourgeoisie…

For its own part, the WCPI calls for the immediate withdrawal of the US-led troops in Iraq, the disarming of the militia forces and the establishment of “an alternative government which stems from an inclusive conference for the representatives of all political organizations and mass organizations” (Workers’ Liberty, 12.9.04). Given the state of disintegration in Iraq this is likely to remain a political fantasy, but even if it came true, such a regime would be nothing but a bourgeois popular front. It is a replay of the CPI’s bluff in the 1980s that it was a ‘determining factor’ in the situation in Iran: the only ‘mass organizations’ in existence in the historic conditions of Iraq today are bourgeois, including the western-backed trade unions and the Iraqi Stalinist party – the left of capital’s political apparatus. Meanwhile, the WCPI’s proposed alternative to US troops - a multinational UN force to provide ‘security and stability’ - would simply replace US-British imperialism with no less predatory French, German or Russian imperialist powers, who would not hesitate to crush genuine proletarian struggles.

Recognising that its immediate seizure of political power is a fantasy, the WCPIraq is attempting to build up a power base by creating front organizations of unemployed workers and unions to agitate for ‘democratic’ demands. Far from representing something progressive in the situation, the WCPI’s activities act as a potential block on the development of any genuine proletarian struggle by channelling it into support for a popular front government. Given the support of the official Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions and its backer the Iraqi Communist Party, for the occupation regime, and the outbreak of strikes and protests by workers in Iraq against repression and appalling conditions (e.g. in the electricity, textile and oil sectors in Nassiriya, Basra, Kerkuk, Baghdad and Kut in 2004), it is understandable if these activities have some echo.

If there have been further splits in the WCPI, far from representing the emergence in any way of proletarian expressions, these have essentially been about strategy and tactics towards the existing regimes in Iran and Iraq, usually with a ‘right wing’ more openly advocating frontist work with the ‘bourgeois’ parties, and a ‘left’ more directly offering itself as a ‘revolutionary’ organ capable of taking charge of society. In Iran, with the Islamic regime showing signs of weakening, the various factions of the bourgeois opposition there are certainly jockeying for position. After the 2004 split, the minority tendency, which left the WCPI and took the name ‘WCPI – Hekmatist’, rejected any participation in a provisional government and called for the creation of a workers’ state founded on the power of the workers’ councils, criticising the majority as ‘right-wing’ and talking about leading the socialist revolution in Iran.

But neither of these factions have ever challenged the bourgeois – and essentially Stalinist - origins of the UCM/CPI current: the obsession with Iran and Iraq, the absurd personality cult around Hekmat, the open support for bourgeois positions such as national self-determination, trade unionism (spiced up with a pretence of setting up workers’ councils), and the setting up of all kinds of fronts that appeal to human rights and democratic values. Basically, the WCPI sees itself as an organ that can set up a new secular state when the present regimes in Iran and Iraq collapse – as a state in waiting.

It is a dangerous illusion to think that this current can directly give rise to proletarian organisations, or to support it with the claim that ‘there’s nothing better’, as some of the anarchists seem to do. Proletarian currents in Iran and Iraq can only emerge by breaking with this nationalist tradition and linking up with the international traditions of the revolutionary movement.   MH 1/4/6