The Three Myths and Three Lessons of the Iranian Revolution

The following article was written in 2022. It is based on talks given to British socialists near the thirtieth (2009) and thirty-seventh (2016) anniversaries of the Iranian revolution.

Since September 16th 2022 Iran has been convulsed by protests sparked off by the state killing of Mahsa (Jina) Amini. They represent the most significant and sustained protest movements in the history of the current regime. However, after five months of intensified and systematic repression, including many executions, the street demonstrations have abated in most regions – although they continue in the Baluchi and Kurdish areas.

The bold and heroic action taken by women, particularly young women, was joined by the youth, national minorities and many other layers. Workers in many industries – especially in the oil, gas and petrochemical sector based in Khuzestan – also took various forms of action, including going on strike.

Yet, despite the brave and selfless struggles of millions of people throughout Iran, the blood-soaked capitalist dictatorship survived. The lack of a decisive breakthrough once again reiterated the three main lessons of the 1979 revolution: the strategy of socialist revolution, building a vanguard party of the proletariat before the revolutionary upsurge and the complete independence of mass organisations.

The most important task facing the working class and revolutionary Marxists today is to ensure that the consciousness and experiences gained during these struggles and strikes are not lost. Only a clandestine workers’ vanguard party can preserve the recent gains (and historic ones from struggles in Iran and across the world) in the long-term. A Leninist party is the main guarantor of preserving and linking these lessons and theories to new struggles in every industry, in all provinces and mobilising all classes and layers who want to overthrow capitalism. 

We need more clandestine workers’ organisations to take the same positions as the Khuzestan Vanguard Socialist Workers’ Cell and build towards a general strike – a significant step on the road to overthrowing the regime and the capitalist state.

11 February 2023

The 1979 overthrow of 2,500 years of monarchy brought Iran to the attention of people in many parts of the world. However, what many experts, journalists and academics concentrate on are the movements of two figures: that the Shah left the country forever on January 16th, and that on February 1st Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and was greeted by over three million people. This narrow view has helped to create a number of myths about the Iranian revolution. The top three myths are: this was an ‘Islamic revolution’; it represented a rejection of development and modernity; and the clergy and their regime were ‘anti-imperialist’.

Yet the Shah was driven out by a revolutionary movement of the Iranian exploited and oppressed masses, especially the workers. Theirs was not a revolt against modernity, industrialisation and progress but a revolution against the stunted type of capitalist development that could not provide them with their basic necessities. They did not aim to replace the royal dictatorship with an Islamic one. The Islamic regime in fact embodies the defeat of the revolution by the most reactionary form of capitalist rule. 

Let us examine the three main myths of the Iranian revolution in more depth.

Myth No 1: An ‘Islamic Revolution’

What all the pundits conveniently ‘forget’ is that the Iranian revolution included a mass movement with a distinctly, though very confused, ‘anti-imperialist’ and even ‘anti-capitalist’ character. Its crucial element was the working class, particularly the oil workers, who broke the back of the Shah’s regime by going on an all-out strike. They put forward economic and political demands that spelt the end of the regime that was reconstructed with the close help of the US and Britain after the CIA-MI6 coup of 1953.

Two key events took place during the 1978-79 period that clearly show that this was not an ‘Islamic revolution’. First, beginning in September 1978, there was a massive rolling strike movement. In this movement each victory would spur on other workers to demand more concessions. Often after winning a strike, a factory would go on strike again when its workers saw the better gains of other workers. The strikes were organised by strike committees (called shora or council) of workers and not the Islamic movement. The most important shora was the oil and steel committee in Khuzestan province (in south-western Iran).

This movement developed into a general strike, involving in total 1.5 million industrial, agricultural and white-collar workers. Increasingly the shoras put forward political demands as well as economic ones. For example, on October 31st 1978 when over 30,000 oil workers went on strike, their demands included an end to martial law (declared on September 7th), the freeing of political prisoners and the arrest of General Nasiri, the former head of SAVAK (the secret police).

Second, on February 10th guerrillas from the People’s Mojahedin and the People’s Fedayeen (a Guevaraist group) were crucial in supporting the Air Force technicians (homafar) at the Doshan Tappeh Air Base from attacks by the Shah’s Immortal Guard.

During the clashes the homafars opened the arsenal and the people of this working-class area in south-east Tehran were armed. The Immortal Guard was defeated and the armed people went on to over-run seven police stations. The next day, February 11th, more police stations, SAVAK stations and an army base were taken over, as well as the TV and radio stations and the Shah’s palace. Political prisoners were freed and the Israeli embassy was turned into the Palestinian embassy. Once the army declared its neutrality in this situation the Shah was thrown into the dustbin of history.

At this stage Khomeini, who had to catch up with the armed masses and to try to hold them back, said “We have not given the order for jihad”!

Clearly neither the general strike nor the armed insurrection were controlled by Khomeini’s supporters. They did not even play a major role in organising them.

Myth No. 2: A rejection of development and modernity

The demands posed by the workers and other exploited layers clearly show that this movement did not represent the rejection of progress, development and modernity by the Iranian masses. In fact, the revolutionary crisis was not due to the rapid pace of development and progress – but the opposite. The revolutionary situation in Iran represented the limits of capitalist development in a country that is dominated by imperialism. It was a development that was fundamentally sluggish, limited and lop-sided in its nature. While destroying traditional forms of production, the realities of development in a stunted, distorted and backward form of capitalism meant that millions of people were being driven from their villages towards the cities – and ending up in the overcrowded shanty towns in their periphery. Without any hope of finding jobs, or having basic amenities and social provisions for themselves and their families, many became pauperised rather than proletarianised.

The poverty of a vast section of society, which without the opportunity of having regular work and being able to make ends meet, especially in an atmosphere where any independent working-class action was viciously crushed, created fault-lines within the mass movement which, together with the betrayals of ‘the left’, paved the way for smashing the movements of workers, women, national minorities, youth, poor peasants and so on. This failure to absorb the petty bourgeoisie and the urban poor more fully into the working class gave the revolutionary movement its distinct initial radicalism, which was then open to abuse by the most reactionary form of counter-revolution.

Myth No. 3: An ‘anti-imperialist’ clergy and regime

The Shia clergy, which had traditionally been a pillar of the establishment, had become marginalised by Iran’s capitalist modernisation and industrial development, particularly following the Shah’s ‘White Revolution’ reforms. For example, the mollahs had once been the country’s main landowners but had lost most of these lands because of the Shah’s agrarian reforms. This reactionary force was also opposed to other aspects of the ‘White Revolution’ – particularly votes for women. 

However, given that the Shah’s dictatorship had smashed all political movements (even those of monarchists asking for reforms), the clergy was able to use its network of mosques and religious establishments to promote itself and become a pole of attraction for many disillusioned and poor people.

The biggest tragedy of the Iranian revolution was that the counter-revolution was able to assume the leadership of the revolutionary movement: the perfect position for its bloody and savage defeat. A movement that represented large sections of all the exploited and oppressed layers of society; a movement involving street mobilisations of ten million people (a quarter of the population!) could only be crushed in this way.

This was achieved through a number of tactics. First, the most reactionary form of bourgeois counter-revolution in history had to adopt a ‘radical’ face and ‘anti-imperialist’ – and even ‘anti-capitalist’ – rhetoric and actions to be able to assume the leadership of the movement. From the targeting of anything that could be called a ‘corrupting western influence’ to seizure of the US embassy; the Shia clergy managed to outflank ‘the left’ and, in many cases, force it to follow its steps. (Unfortunately, illusions about the ‘progressive’, ‘radical’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ character of the Shia clergy and its regime – a unique form of capitalist dictatorship – has been widespread. It has included the Michel Foucault – who called Khomeini “a saint” – and many British ‘Trotskyist’ organisations.)

The bulk of ‘the left’, which was at best a prisoner of its Stalinist two-stage concept of revolution, and at its worst, an active collaborator of the clergy, never gave any importance to the building, development, expansion, and ultimately the unification of independent working-class organisations. At a time when workers set up the shoras, which controlled production and, in some cases, even distribution, these ‘leaders’ were more concerned about stamping their own ‘authority’ on a section of the movement at the expense of its unity and development!

Second, where demagogy did not work, the mollahs set up their ‘revolutionary guards’ and various other paramilitary bodies to smash the workers’ and other movements. It is very important to remember how they smashed these movements: by having their own rival movements among women, students and so on. These in themselves have created a precedent, in terms of mass mobilisations throughout various layers in society, which will come to haunt this regime when its guns, tanks and helicopters can no longer contain the next revolutionary tide.

The Iranian revolution has also provided the proletariat with important lessons for the next revolution. The three main lessons include: the strategy of socialist revolution, building a vanguard party before the revolutionary upsurge and the independence of mass organisations.

Lesson No.1: The strategy of socialist revolution 

The vast majority of the Iranian ‘left’ before the revolution were Maoists. They not only did not consider Iran to be a capitalist country but called it a ‘semi-feudal semi-colony’. They did not see the oil industry, or the car and other industries, and did not see that the proletariat had developed into a major class in society. When the revolutionary situation developed, therefore, some of them even said that it was an ‘imperialist plot’! They just could not comprehend what was happening in society. According to their viewpoint the class struggle in Iran could not inherently produce such a revolutionary situation. 

The Iranian ‘left’ generally did not think that Iran was ripe for a socialist revolution, that the working class was strong enough to carry out a proletarian revolution that could smash the capitalist state and form its own state. They were aiming for a democratic revolution (in one form or other) and therefore had illusions in the ‘national bourgeoisie’ as a progressive and even revolutionary class. This led to their defeat and, unfortunately, to deaths of many of their members. (Sadly, most of the Iranian ‘left’ still believes in a democratic revolution; using quotes from Lenin before 1917 to justify this bankrupt strategy. They are now using newer formulations to pursue the policy that failed so catastrophically in 1979.)

But revolutionary Marxists long ago saw the shortcomings and betrayals that result from this type of theory, which is basically a Menshevik policy. Even in 1937, in The Lessons of Spain: the Last Warning, Trotsky wrote that in Spain there were two programmes: “the programme of saving at any cost private property from the proletariat” and “the programme of abolishing private property through the conquest of power by the proletariat”. Nearly all of the Iranian ‘left’, except one Trotskyist group, tried to do the first: they were trying to save private property (even though they were not necessarily aware of it themselves). But following the strategy of a democratic revolution meant precisely that. In that article Trotsky also says that even when there are many democratic tasks that a revolution has to carry out, it must still be a socialist revolution, since these tasks can only be solved by the proletariat. It is necessary that the proletariat seizes power to carry out the democratic demands that the bourgeoisie is totally incapable of realising.

Some of the Iranian ‘left’ justified the democratic revolution strategy, i.e., the two-stage theory of revolution, because the Iranian proletariat had a supposedly low level of consciousness. First there had to be a democratic revolution – which can include a section of the bourgeoisie, even in the leadership. Once bourgeois democracy was established, the proletariat could raise its consciousness and become more politically active and so on. Then in the distant future there could be a socialist revolution. But of course, every time, in every country, the two-stage strategy has led to only one thing: defeat.  

The Iranian ‘left’ never considered the conquest of power in a serious way. As Lenin said in April 1917: “The basic question of every revolution is that of state power.” This never really occurred to the various Maoist, guerrillaist and Stalinist organisations in Iran. They were just hoping that after getting rid of the Shah somehow everything would work out for the better.

Therefore, the strategy of the proletariat has to be, right from the beginning, that of a socialist revolution. In no way should we talk about a democratic revolution. In today’s Iran there are many democratic tasks that need to be carried out, including some very basic demands that workers in Europe take for granted. But it is only the working class that can carry out these democratic tasks to the end.

Lesson No.2: The revolutionary vanguard party

The proletariat needs to have its own revolutionary and independent leadership -distinct from all other classes and layers in society.

Regardless of what we do, to a great extent the objective conditions for a revolution will mature by themselves. Briefly the objective conditions for a revolutionary situation are: one, that the ruling class is in crisis – it cannot rule as before, and because of this mass discontent is bursting through, and the bourgeoisie cannot decide its policy for getting out of this crisis. Two, that the suffering and depravation of the of the exploited and oppressed masses is becoming more acute and reaching unprecedented levels. Third, when you put the maturing of these two together, there is a very high level of activity among the masses. The political crisis in the ruling class and the general economic and social crisis compel the masses into taking independent historical action.

The task of revolutionary Marxists is to add the one element – the subjective factor – that is obviously missing from this situation. An independent and revolutionary party that can lead the proletariat in a revolutionary situation. A Leninist party, a party that within it concentrates the vanguard of the proletariat: the best elements in the working class, the strike leaders, the most advanced, conscious, combative and experienced workers. And armed with a revolutionary programme that is based on the Bolshevik revolution and the first four congresses of the Comintern, as well the experiences of revolutions in Germany, Spain and so on, and of course 1979 in Iran.

It is also important to bear in mind that building the revolutionary vanguard party of the proletariat cannot wait until the repression has eased off. It cannot wait until the regime is falling apart, when the secret police is incapable of carrying out its dirty deeds like smashing strikes. 

We have to be among the workers to start building the clandestine base of the party with them. Our most natural place is to be among the workers. We must get them to trust us and to start building the party together right from the beginning. This must start now, even though the repression continues unabated.

The workers have to see us, get to know us and to trust us. So that when we present a policy or a position because of the trust and credibility we have gained, they will take us seriously. We must take part in the day-to-day struggles of the working class and have our roots within it long before any revolutionary upsurge takes place. 

While the basic cells of the party have to be present within the working class during the most basic daily struggles, at the same time, we must not forget that the ultimate aim and strategy is to overthrow the regime and the whole capitalist system in Iran.

Once it has the trust of the proletariat, the party can start to lead the other social movements of other exploited and oppressed layers in society: women, national minorities and so on. The working class has to be able to offer an alternative programme to the ones that the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois oppositionists provide.

Lesson No.3: Independent workers’ and mass organisations

Another mistake of the Iranian ‘left’ was the attempt to stamp its own label, programme or authority on the shoras and other types of independent workers’ and mass organisations (like women’s organisations or poor peasants’ councils). Rather than combining all the shoras together – regardless of which group had a majority in a particular factory – their sectarianism weakened working-class unity and the whole class struggle against the bourgeoisie. 

We must trust the masses themselves, to be active, to be radical, to be independent, to fight capitalist exploitation and oppression. There is no good reason why the different socialist and anarchist tendencies cannot be active together in a committee or council, in unity against the capitalist class, while also having their political differences and discussing them democratically.

The working class must have its independent organisations. Depending on the situation, these could be factory committees, Soviets that try to control cities, or in some circumstances, even trade unions. By insisting on having these organisations under a single group’s control, they were all weakened and eventually destroyed. This tactic strengthened the counter-revolution, allowing it to smash all shoras and organisations, not just those under the control of any specific group. 

All mass movements, whether of workers, women, national minorities, and so on, must be encouraged to develop their own independent organisations in the form of committees, councils and any other formula that best suits their struggles. The left has to abandon its sectarianism and defend the independence of all social movements. 

From survival to upsurge: Looking to the next revolution

The defining feature of the Iranian working-class movement since the Islamic regime was established has been its lack of basic trade union and democratic rights. After the shora movement of the 1978-79 revolution was crushed, the workers were forced to continue their activities in small clandestine circles. These circles managed to continue their struggle throughout the counter-revolutionary wave of repression, the Iran-Iraq war, various ill-fated attempts at political ‘reform’ and economic ‘reconstruction’, and then, improved relations with European imperialism and international institutions (representing combined imperialist interests).

There is no doubt that these clandestine circles served as a vital form of organisation, particularly at the height of the repression during the war. They continued their struggle and taught the lessons of decades of struggle to a new generation of younger workers. Since May 2001, however, the movement has taken many steps towards bigger mobilisations. Many trade unions were re-launched (e.g., Vahed bus drivers and Haft Tappeh sugar workers). Often struggles over unpaid wages (a widespread problem) escalated to calls for “general anti-capitalist united action”, taking over production and workers’ control.

The political and economic crisis of 1976-78 created the objective conditions for a revolution. All the social and economic problems that brought about the revolutionary crisis have not been resolved. They have all become exacerbated, mainly due to the limits of this country’s stunted and lop-sided capitalist development, but also the short-termism, nepotism and limitless greed and arrogance of the ruling clerical families that overshadow even the corruption of the Shah’s family and courtiers. There are also many new social problems, as well as old problems that have taken on a new scale because of their entrenchment. When the next revolutionary crisis happens, therefore, the mass mobilisations will include many more people who will be pulled into the revolutionary movement. 

Despite the current repression being much worse than during the Shah’s regime, in the past few year there have been many thousands of strikes and struggles: from teachers, nurses, municipal workers, doctors and medical staff, to transport workers (bus, metro and train network), to the food industry and even different mines, heavy industry, oil and petrochemical workers and so on. Pensioners have also been holding regular protests on Sundays. These are a reaction to the long-term dire economic situation, corruption, repression and sanctions. In addition, the incompetent and callous handling of the pandemic has increased social inequalities even more.

There is also the perennial problem of unpaid wages, which seems to have become an integral part of Iranian capitalism. These effectively break the contract between capital and labour, where the worker sells his labour power and doesn’t get paid! It is usually at least two or three months’ pay, but can easily be 12 or more months of unpaid wages. And most of the culprits are not small businesses struggling to pay workers, but state-owned or other big companies – including many owned by the Pasdaran – or recent privatisations, where relations of the regime’s leaders have bought the companies at a fraction of their true value! 

Although these strikes start with a very modest demand, because the state – particularly the Intelligence Ministry and the riot police – intervenes to crush them, there can be a rapid escalation. Confrontations that include blocking roads, rallies in town and other forms of struggle take place. The explosive socio-economic situation can quickly push these strikes on to very radical tactics and demands.

The series of strikes at the Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane complex have been the most important development in the Iranian workers’ movement since this regime crushed the revolution. What makes them particularly significant is how during the past two to three years their level of consciousness has developed, based on their own struggle. And their latest strike began on July 13th 2021.

They have forced the regime – so far in words only – to revoke privatisation. Now they want the authorities to carry this out. They have also posed workers’ control as an alternative, both to privatisation and to the usual form of state ownership. For example, on November 8th 2018 Esmail Bakhshi, one of their representatives, said that the workers had two options: “One is that Haft Tappeh is run entirely by the workers. We will form a committee and run Haft Tappeh consultatively. Don’t worry. We have all the specialisms. Who else has managed Haft Tappeh so far? Have confidence. Have faith in yourself. We can manage Haft Tappeh ourselves.” The second option was that the state takes over: “… but the state must do [all] … things under the supervision of the workers’ council and under the general supervision of the workers.” 

Therefore, workers’ control is a real and living demand in today’s workers’ movement – after an absence of four decades. It is important to emphasise that it has come out of the workers’ bitter experience of the past few years and not from reading any specific Marxist material.

We should also highlight how they’ve been organising the strikes: using both clandestine and open organisation; equality between male and female workers; unity among Persian, Arab and Lor workers; challenging the authorities (at all levels) and the media (inc. BBC Persian, which has spread misinformation about them more than once!); holding rallies in Shush; and co-ordinating some protests with other workers in Khuzestan province, particularly the Ahvaz steelworkers.

These are all obviously positive steps in consciousness and united struggle that the workers have to keep developing before they can mobilise a general strike like that of 1978-79. However, yet again the separate strikes and protests highlight the need for the revolutionary party of the vanguard of the proletariat that can unite all of these struggles with the ultimate goal of overthrowing capitalism, smashing the bureaucratic-military machine of the bourgeois state and enabling the workers to become not their own masters, but the masters of a society in transition to a classless civilisation.

Morad Shirin 

11 February 2022 

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