SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 130 - July/August 2009

Where now for the Iranian revolution?

Iran will never be the same again, however the revolutionary crisis unfolds in the coming weeks. This massive movement for change marks the beginning of the end of the existing dictatorship. TONY SAUNOIS writes.

THIRTY YEARS after the 1979 revolution, Iran has again erupted in revolutionary convulsions. Millions have taken to the streets to protest against the undoubted rigging of the presidential election, in which president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cohorts in the theocratic dictatorship claimed a sweeping victory.

The mass protests mark a crucial turning point. Defying the ‘law’ and brutal repression by the state security forces, the protests show that the masses have begun to lose their fear of the regime and are prepared to challenge it. This represents a decisive change in the psychology of the masses.

In the face of the deployment of the vicious paramilitary force, the Basiji, demonstrators in Tehran took up the chant: ‘Tanks, guns, Basiji, you have no effect now’!

Thus far, it has undoubtedly been the students and youth who have been to the forefront of this movement. Educated and cultured layers of the youth have been seething with discontent at the suffocating, repressive nature of this theocratic regime which has denied choice in dress, music, personal relations and communication.

In a population where an estimated 60% to 70% are under the age of 30, such restrictions were impossible to enforce indefinitely. Important as these factors are, however, this movement surpasses them, demanding all democratic rights and reflecting a yearning for change throughout Iranian society. This is reflected by the widespread participation and support for the movement which exists amongst older sections of the population.

Added to this is the accumulated frustration and disappointment of big sections of the population during the last few years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. He was elected in 2005 and has maintained an important base of support, especially amongst some sections of the poor and in the provinces.

Even in this election, there appears to have been a certain split between the larger urban areas and the rural areas, although how wide is far from clear. Iran now has massive urban centres where most of the population now live, with important family links remaining with the countryside.

Reactionary populist

AHMADINEJAD’S SUPPORT amongst the poor was built upon a reactionary populist basis, denouncing corruption and the rich liberal elite, and advocating a strident nationalist policy which denounced western and especially US imperialism.

During the 2005 election, he took up one of the slogans of the 1979 revolution, ‘a republic of the poor’. Following the revolution, important sections of the economy had been taken into state hands. But rather than a republic for the poor, a republic of rich, corrupt Mullah oligarchs emerged.

In 2005, Ahmadinejad’s campaign also featured the demand to redistribute the oil wealth more equally to the poor, and for subsidies on basic commodities. Following his election, a series of infrastructural projects were initiated. This rhetoric was in contrast to the ‘reformist’ Rafsanjani, whom he defeated in 2005, renowned for his corruption and links to the rich oligarchs.

Yet Ahmadinejad’s populist championing of the poor did not prevent his regime from brutally attacking Tehran bus drivers and others when they took strike action to defend their interests.

However, with rampant inflation reaching 30% and rising unemployment which stands at approximately 25% among under-thirties, and the recent ending of subsidies on petrol and some food products, frustration and anger has increased in the recent period.

Ahmadinejad has also militarised the government at national and local level, leading to increased repression. A former officer in the Revolutionary Guards, Ahmadinejad appointed fellow former officers to 14 ministerial positions out of 21. The paramilitary Basiji has also been given rights relating to oil extraction, fomenting allegations of corruption, which he allegedly was going to root out.

The power of the movement so far has forced the regime into zigzags in its response and opened up splits and divisions within it. Initially, the Guardian Council merely endorsed the results and dismissed demands for a recount. It then back tracked and conceded that a partial recount could take place of ‘disputed’ ballots. Now it has backed the official result.

What type of revolution?

THE ENTRY OF the masses into the arena of struggle is one of the hallmarks of a revolution. In this sense, a revolution is unfolding in Iran. But there are different types of revolutions. Historically, there were the bourgeois democratic revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, which swept away feudal society. There is also the socialist revolution which, for example, unfolded in Russia in 1917, which resulted in the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism and the establishment of a workers’ democracy. This was followed by a political counter-revolution, when the bureaucratic Stalinist regime emerged and robbed the working class of political power.

Revolutionary upheavals can also take place which result in a political change of power but where the former social and property relations remain.

In Iran at the moment, a political revolution is taking place, within the framework of capitalism. Revolution, however, is a process and during it social questions and demands can emerge, bringing the movement into conflict with the social system of capitalism. The debates and clashes which took place on TV during the election campaign between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad played a central role in arousing the youth especially, who then were drawn into the movement in an active way. They have become a motor force driving the struggle since the election results were announced.

The crucial question now is how this movement develops and what type of regime will emerge from it? At this stage, it is unclear how the current crisis will unfold. Will the working class emerge into the forefront of the struggle to take it forward? What is clear, however, is that a new era has begun. The process of revolution will develop over a lengthy period of time, with many crises and turns in the situation.

Lenin outlined four main conditions for the development of the socialist revolution. Firstly, splits and divisions amongst the ruling class and its political representatives are necessary. Secondly, the middle class needs to be vacillating with a significant section of it supporting the revolution. Thirdly, the working class needs to be organised and clearly willing to struggle – putting itself at the head of the revolutionary process. Fourthly, a mass revolutionary socialist party with a clear leadership is necessary with broad support for its ideas amongst wide sections of the masses – especially the active layers of workers.

Certainly, the first two of these conditions exist in Iran today. However, it would be light minded to simplistically argue that these conditions have matured in Iran at the present stage of the movement.

The third condition – a willingness to struggle by the working class, is not clearly evident at this stage. The working class has not clearly put its stamp on the movement, acting as an independent force.

The fourth condition – a mass revolutionary socialist party and leadership – is yet to be built. The degree of willingness to struggle by workers needs to be tested in elected committees of struggle and independent unions which still need to be built. The absence of a mass political consciousness by the working class of its independent role, and the absence of a revolutionary leadership, become objective barriers to the revolution.

Splits within regime

THERE IS CLEARLY a major split within the ruling regime in Iran. This exists even within those forces supporting Ahmadinejad. The arrest of family members of former president Rafsanjani, indicate how deep the splits have gone.

The clash between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi also represents a division amongst the rulers. While the masses on the streets have rallied to Mousavi and have great hopes and illusions in him, he and his leading supporters formed a part of the theocratic regime itself. Mousavi, a former prime minister at the time of the US hostage crisis in 1979, was responsible for repression against left-wing activists.

What he promised during the election was reform of the existing system, greater economic liberalisation, reduced unemployment and ‘greater equality’ for women, but all within the existing clerical theocratic regime. Mousavi, like Ahmadinejad, is terrified of the mass movement, especially the independent movement of the working class. His programme in essence is ‘reform from the top to prevent revolution from below’ in order to preserve the existing order.

Yet this important and significant division has opened the door through which the masses have poured into the arena of struggle. The determination of Ahmadinejad and his supporters to cling to power has forced the split between them still wider.

The endorsement of Ahmadinejad by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and his demands for the protests to end or face greater repression, threaten to heighten the conflict and take it to new levels. Having begun with demands to reform the system, the movement now finds itself confronted with direct defiance of Khamenei, bringing it into collision with the entire theocratic state.

While the students have showed great heroism during this movement, the level of repression seems to have intimidated other sections to stay away from the protests. It is now possible that the movement in the face of the brutal repression, will temporarily pause for a period of time. This is especially the case if the working class does not decisively enter the struggle.

Is the working class prepared to enter the struggle in a decisive manner? If it does, then the prospect of the Ahmadinejad regime being overthrown will be clearly posed.

According to reports, unemployed and significant sections of the poor joined the protests in north Tehran (a more middle-class area) and building workers cheered the opposition march as it passed. But as yet there have not been reports of workers declaring a strike or forming their own organisations of struggle. However, there are some indications that this may now be beginning to take place.

The Tehran bus workers, with a long history of struggle against the regime, issued a declaration supporting the movement and those fighting repression by the regime. There were also reports that car workers in Khodro organised a strike of 30 minutes at the beginning of each shift in protest against the repression of demonstrators. The bus workers, whose leader Mansour Osanloo is serving a five-year jail sentence for his role in organising strikes in the past, while supporting the protests, did not support either candidate in the presidential election because neither represented the interests of the working class.

The eruption of the movement in Iran represents a turning point in the struggle of the masses. It remains to be seen if this revolutionary crisis, with important elements of a pre-revolutionary situation, is more comparable with the Russian revolution in 1905 or that of 1917. The revolution in 1905 was defeated because it did not enjoy the support of the peasantry in the rural areas. It was an anticipation of the 1917 revolution. The revolution in 1917 was led by the working class, with the active support and involvement of the peasantry.

Iran 2009 may only be an anticipation of an even greater movement later. Should this be the case, even if the current regime hangs on for a period of time, the social crisis and antagonisms will remain and intensify and are certain to lead to further revolutionary upheavals.

Socialist alternative

The absence of a genuinely revolutionary socialist party and leadership, the undoubted political confusion which exists after 30 years of a theocratic regime, and the international ideological retreat from socialism as an alternative are likely to mean the revolution in Iran takes a protracted form.

The fact that the ‘socialist’ president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has scandalously supported and endorsed Ahmadinejad can only add to the confusion. Those on the left who have opportunistically remained silent about the wrong policy of Chavez towards Ahmadinejad and other regimes and other questions have not assisted the masses in Iran in finding the right road and embracing the idea of a genuine socialist alternative.

The crucial task in Iran – to defeat Ahmadinejad and take the movement forward – is to ensure that real democratic organisations are formed to conduct the struggle. Committees of struggle need to be elected in every workplace, university and district. These need to be made up of elected delegates who can be recalled at any time by mass assemblies. Such committees need to prepare to call a general strike and appeal to the rank and file of the army, Revolutionary Guard and Basiji and other repressive organisations of the state, to join the movement, remove their officers and form their own committees.

The call for a ballot recount will not resolve the crisis. Elected committees of struggle could form the basis for the convening of elections to a revolutionary constituent assembly to determine the future of the country. Democratically elected committees should oversee the counting of all votes to such an assembly.

The establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government with a revolutionary socialist programme to break with capitalism is the way forward, to ensure the introduction of genuine democratic rights and equality for all the Iranian people exploited by the existing regime and capitalism.

Socialist demands would include the right to free assembly, to form political parties and independent trade unions, to produce newspapers and TV programmes without state censorship, and the release of all political prisoners and those arrested for struggling against the regime.

The new era which has begun in Iran opens the prospect of workers and youth reaching the necessary conclusions of what programme and organisation are needed for them to secure a lasting victory and end the dictatorship and poverty they suffer. The role of revolutionary socialists is to assist them in finding this road.

A fuller version of this article is available on the CWI website:


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