The necessity for workers' autonomy

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June 2021: striking oil workers at a refinery

The widespread protests in Iran may have been sparked off by the murder in custody of a young woman arrested for “bad hijab” by the regime’s morality police, but they express a much deeper discontent throughout the Iranian population, with hundreds of thousands pouring onto the streets and confronting the police. As well as a generalised disgust with the Islamic Republic’s open and legal oppression of women, they are a reaction to spiralling inflation and shortages exacerbated by western-imposed sanctions against Iran and powerfully exacerbated by the heavy and long-standing weight of a war economy swollen by Iran’s relentless pursuit of its imperialist ambitions. They are a reaction, as well, to the sordid corruption of the ruling elite which can only maintain itself through brutal repression against all forms of protest, including the resistance of the working class to stagnating wages and wretched working conditions. The Iranian parliament has just passed new laws sanctioning executions for “political” crimes, and hundreds if not thousands of demonstrators have been killed or wounded by the state’s police and grotesquely misnamed “Revolutionary Guards”.

This reliance on direct repression is a sign of the weakness of the Mullahs’ regime, not of its strength. It’s true that the disastrous outcome of US interventions in the Middle East since 2001 has created a breach which has allowed Iranian imperialism to advance its pawns in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria, but the US and its more reliable allies (Britain in particular) have responded in kind, fuelling the Saudi military in the Yemen war and imposing crippling sanctions on Iran on the pretext of opposing its policy on the development of nuclear arms. The regime has become increasingly isolated, and the fact that it is now supplying Russia with drones to attack infrastructure and civilians in Ukraine will only sharpen western calls to treat Iran, alongside Russia, as a pariah state. Iran’s relationship with China is another reason why the western powers want to see it weakened even more than it is already. And at the same time, we are seeing a concerted effort by US and western European governments to instrumentalise the protests, notably by seizing on the most well-known slogan of the protests, “Women, Life Freedom”:

“On 25 September 2022, the French newspaper Liberation decorated its front page with the slogan ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ in Persian and French along with a photo of the demonstration. During a speech about the repression of protesters in Iran, a member of the European Union Parliament cut her hair while saying the words ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ on the floor of the European Union Parliament”[1]. Many other examples could be given.

What kind of revolution is on the agenda in Iran?

Given the weakness of the regime, there is much talk about a new “revolution” in Iran, particularly by leftists and anarchists of various kinds, the latter in particular talking about a “feminist insurrection”[2], while the more mainstream bourgeois factions stress a more “democratic” overturn, installing a new regime which would abandon its hostility to the US and its allies. But as we wrote in response to the whole mystification of the 1978-9 “revolution”: “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”[3]

In contrast to the 1917 revolution in Russia, which saw itself as part of the world revolution, the current protests in Iran are not being led by an autonomous working class, organised in its own unitary organs and able to offer a way forward to all the oppressed strata and categories of society. It’s true that in 1978-9 we saw glimpses of the potential of the working class to offer such a way forward: “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 struggle of the Iranian proletariat at the beginning of October 1978, most notably in the petroleum sector, not only refuelled the agitation, but posed a virtually insoluble problem for the national capital”[4].

And yet we know that even then the working class was not politically strong enough to prevent the hi-jacking of the mass discontent by the Mullahs, supported by a host of “anti-imperialist” leftists. The international class struggle, although entering a second wave of workers’ movements since May 68 in France, was itself not at the level of raising the perspective of proletarian revolution on a world scale, and the workers in Iran – like those in Poland a year later –were not in a position to pose the revolutionary alternative on their own. Thus, the question of how to relate to the other oppressed strata remained unresolved. As our statement went on to say: “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 with the 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, included 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 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 organisation and political autonomy of the proletariat, which means, in other words, the rejection by the proletariat of all political ‘alliances’ with these strata”.

Today, the mystifications leading the popular movement into an impasse are not so much religious ones – understandably so when the masses can easily see the brutal and corrupt face of a theocratic state - but more “modern” bourgeois ideologies like feminism, freedom and democracy. But if anything, there is an even greater danger of the working class being dissolved as a mass of individuals in an inter-classist movement which has no capacity to resist the recuperative schemes of rival bourgeois factions. This is underlined by the international context of the class struggle, where the working class is only just beginning to rouse itself after a long period of retreat in which the advancing decomposition of capitalist society has more and more eaten away at the proletariat’s sense of itself as a class.

Workers’ militancy and leftist deceptions

This is not to deny the fact that the proletariat in Iran has a long tradition of militant struggle. The events of 78-79 are there to prove it; in 2018-19 there were very widespread struggles involving the Haft Tappeh sugar workers, truckers, teachers, and others; in 2020-21 the oil workers began a series of militant nationwide strikes. At their height these movements gave clear signs of solidarity between different sectors faced with state repression and powerful pressures to get workers to return to work. In addition, faced with the overtly pro-regime nature of the official trade unions, there have also been important signs of workers’ self-organisation in many of these struggles, as we saw with the strike committees in 78-79, the assemblies and strike committees at Haft Tappeh and most recently in the oil fields. There is also no doubt that workers are discussing what to do about the current protests and there have been calls to go on strike in protest against state repression. And we have seen, for example in May 68, that indignation against state repression, even when not initially directed at workers, can be a kind of flashpoint for workers to enter onto the social scene– on condition that they do so on their own class ground and using their own methods of struggle. But for the moment these reflections in the class, this anger at the brutality of the regime, seems to be under the control of rank and file union bodies and leftists, who try to create a false link between the working class and the popular protests, by adding “revolutionary” demands to the slogans of the latter. As Internationalist Voice wrote:

“The phrase ‘woman, life, freedom’ is rooted in the national movement and has no class burden. This is why this slogan is raised from the far right to the far left, and its echoes can be heard from the bourgeois parliaments. Its components are not abstract concepts, but a function of capitalist production relations. Such a slogan makes working women the black army of the democracy movement. This issue becomes a problem for the left of capital, which employs the radical term ‘revolution,’ so they suggest that this slogan should be ‘saved’ by adding extensions. They have made the following suggestions:

  • Woman, life, freedom, council administration (Trotskyists)
  • Woman, life, freedom, socialism
  • Woman, life, freedom, workers’ government”[5]

This call for council or soviet power has been circulating in Iran at least since 2018. Even if it originated in the real but embryonic efforts at self-organisation at Haft Tappeh and elsewhere, it is always dangerous to mistake the embryo for a fully grown human being. As Bordiga explained in his polemics with Gramsci during the factory occupations in Italy in 1920, workers’ councils or soviets represent an important step beyond defensive organs like strike committees or factory councils, since they express a movement towards a unified, political, offensive struggle of the working class, and the leftists who claim that this is on the agenda today are deceiving the workers, with the  aim of mobilising their forces into a struggle for a “left-wing” form of bourgeois rule, decorated “from below” by fake workers’ councils.   

The tasks of the communist left

As Internationalist Voice go on to say:

“Contrary to those on the left of capital, the task of communists and revolutionaries is not to save anti-dictatorship slogans, but to provide transparency regarding their origin and content. Again, in opposition to the demagogues on the left of capital, distancing themselves from such slogans and raising the class demands of the proletariat is a step in the direction of refining the class struggle”.

This is true even if it means that revolutionaries have to swim against the tide during moments of “popular” euphoria. Unfortunately, not all groups of the communist left seem to be immune from some of the more radical deceptions being injected into the protests. Here we can identify two worrying examples in the press of the Internationalist Communist Tendency. Thus, in the article “Workers’ Voices on the protests in Iran”[6], the ICT publishes statements on the protests by the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Workers’ Syndicate, the Council for Organising Protests by Oil Contract Workers and the Coordinating Council of Trade Union Organisations of Iranian Teachers. No doubt these statements are a response to a real discussion going on in the workplaces about how to react to the protests, but the first and third of these bodies make no secret of being trade unions (even if they may owe their origins to genuine class organs, by becoming permanent they can only have  assumed a trade union function) and thus cannot play a role independent from the left of capital, which, as we have said, does not stand for the real autonomy of the class but seeks to use the power of the workers as an instrument for “regime change”. Parallel to this, the ICT also fails to distinguish itself from the leftist rhetoric about soviet power in Iran. Thus, the article “Iran: Imperialist Rivalries and the Protest Movement of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’"[7], while providing some important material regarding the attempts of imperialist powers outside Iran to recuperate the protests, promises a follow up: “In our next note, we will argue for a different alternative: Bread, Jobs, Freedom – Soviet Power!’ We will deal with the workers' struggle and the tasks of the communists, and in the light of that, we will outline the internationalist perspective.”

But we are not in Petrograd in 1917, and to call for soviets in a situation where the working class is faced with the need to defend its most basic interests faced with the danger of dissolving into the mass protests, and to defend any initial forms of self-organisation from their recuperation by leftists and base unionists, is at best to severely misjudge the present level of the class struggle and at worst to lure workers into the mobilisations of the left of capital. The communist left will not develop its capacity to develop a real intervention in the class by falling for the illusion of immediate gains at the expense of fundamental principles and a clear analysis of the balance of class forces.

A recent article in Internationalist Voice points out that there are currently a number of workers’ strikes taking place in Iran at the same time as the street protests:

“In recent days, we have witnessed workers’ demonstrations and strikes, and the common feature of all of them has been the protest against their low level of wages and the defence of their living standards. The slogan of the striking Esfahan Steel Company workers, ‘enough with promises, our table is empty’, is a reflection of the difficult life conditions of the entire working 3 class. A few examples of labour strikes in recent days that had or have the same demand are as follows:  Esfahan Steel Company workers’ strike; Hunger strike of the official employees of oil, gas and petrochemical refining and distribution companies; Esfahan City Centre complex workers’ strike; workers’ strike at the Abadeh cement factory in the province of Esfahan; Damash mineral water workers’ strike in the province of Gilan; Pars Mino Company workers’ strike; Cruise industrial company workers’ strike; National steel group workers’ protest”[8].

It seems that these movements are still relatively dispersed and while democrats and leftists are increasing their calls for a “general strike”, what they mean by this has nothing to do with a real dynamic towards the mass strike, but would be a mobilisation controlled from above by the bourgeois opposition and mixed up with the strikes of shop-keepers and other non-proletarian strata. This only emphasises the need for workers to stay on their own terrain and to develop their class unity as a minimum basis for blocking the murderous repression of the Islamic regime.

Amos, November 2022

 

 

 

 

Rubric: 

Iran