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Insight on workers’ struggle in Iran
Iran on the Brink: rising workers & threats of war
By Andreas Malm & Shora Esmailian
Pluto Press, 2007, £17-99
Reviewed by Per-Åke Westerlund
IN 2004, workers’ struggle in Iran entered a new stage, signified by waves of action and new formations being set up. The Islamic regime has replied with harsh repression. Iran on the Brink gives an excellent background explanation to recent developments. The authors, Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian, are reporters at the syndicalist newspaper Arbetaren (The Worker) in Sweden. Their book is based on an extensive visit to Iran and many interviews with workers there and in exile: "We stumbled straight into a teeming new underground of militant labour activism", they explain in the preface.
In early 2004, up to 15 workers were massacred at a copper smelting plant in Khatonabad, and another 300 workers were wounded. The same spring saw strikes of teachers, car workers at Iran Khodro, and in textiles, where a series of strikes at the Kurdistan Textile factory in Sanandaj won important concessions.
On May Day 2004, the workers in Saqez, Kurdistan, had planned their own demonstration. Security forces viciously attacked it and the organisers were arrested. However, this initiative was a prelude to independent actions on May Day by workers in many cites in 2005-07. Following May Day 2005 and an attack by state forces on the bus drivers’ union, an all-Iranian day of strikes was organised for 16 July. Even "the holy city of Qom was reduced to chaos when transport workers joined the strike". October 2005 saw 140 strikes, with 120 in November.
This is the strong point of the book: reporting on the situation for workers and their struggle. Most capitalist media concentrate on youth from wealthy families wanting to have their own social activities and admiring the US. Iran on the Brink, in contrast, reports how families in Saqez took mortgages on their houses to bail out the workers’ leader, Mahmoud Salehi, from prison.
The bus drivers’ strike in early 2006 was provoked by the arrest of their leader, Mansour Ossanlou, in December 2005. Ten thousand bus drivers responded to the call. The strike was crushed, however, with 1,200 bus drivers arrested, along with many family members. An international day of action, 15 February 2006, played a role in getting a number of the leaders released from prison.
The strikes resulted in two different coordination committees emerging: Hanahangi, based in Saqez; and Peygiri, with links to the former communist party, Tudeh. Hanahangi, according to the book, argues that workers need only their own shoras – the name of the councils in the revolution 1978-79 – and no trade unions or parties. This committee has therefore become sidelined from some of the key struggles, including the bus workers.
This book gives a very good, short account of the history of workers’ struggle in Iran: the revolution, counter-revolution and civil wars in 1906-11; the movements in Gilan and Kurdistan which established ‘soviet republics’ in 1920 and 1945 respectively; the strong trade union movement and Tudeh – the Communist Party in Iran – following World War II; and the US and UK-led coup against president Mossadeq in 1953 – during which the Tudeh, with 100,000 or more members, effectively did nothing.
The working class had a strong history of struggle which they carried into the revolution of 1978-79. In 1978 "on one October day, 65 new strikes were reported; on the next day another 110". This massive movement eventually overthrew the great friend of the west, the Shah, and his enormous repressive state apparatus. Workers built shoras at every workplace, but lacked a clear revolutionary class organisation. Ayatollah Khomeini arrived from exile with a reputation as an enemy of the Shah and US imperialism, and a friend of the poor. The workers went back to work in February 1979 on his request, but "for most of 1979, the shoras ran the national economy of Iran". There was, however, no national or even regional coordination of the shoras. The strongest political infrastructure was the 10,000 mosques led by Khomeini.
The Tudeh party followed orders from Moscow, and gave Khomeini support as an ‘anti-imperialist’. These Stalinists even declared strikes counter-revolutionary when the confrontation with Washington was stepped up by the occupation of the US embassy (with the staff held hostage). The other main left organisation, the Fedayin, split, with the majority supporting the Tudeh. The minority subsequently supported Tehran when Saddam’s Iraq attacked militarily in 1981.
The capitalist class had a much clearer idea than the so-called workers’ leaders. They saw a dual power that could not last, "it was either the new state or the shoras". There was no left party that showed a way forward: to coordinate the movement nationally and disarm the Islamists, politically and militarily. The fundamental rule of any working-class organisation, its independence, politically and organisationally, was completely lost by the Iranian left. Malm and Esmailian criticise the left for an "ignorant concept of democracy", but more important was its false concepts of capitalism, imperialism and revolution. Any study of the Russian revolutions in 1905 and 1917, or the Spanish revolution in the 1930s, shows that the working class has to prepare for taking power or it will be defeated. In 1982 the last shoras were broken up. In 1983 the Tudeh and Fedayin parties were totally crushed.
Iran on the Brink gives a good account of how the ‘reformist’ president Khatami (1999-2005) created illusions, which he almost immediately broke. Khatami never supported economic or social justice, only market reforms and closer links to global capitalism, the reason he was praised in the west. When protesting students were shot down he was completely silent.
On president Ahmadinejad since 2005, however, Malm and Esmailian seem to have an unclear view, separating his reactionary domestic policies from the conflict with US imperialism. They raise the question: "How far must we go to close our ranks… keep a united front, when our nation is in the throes of a fighting foreign tyranny?" They declare support for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, and the ‘Sunni resistance’ in Iraq because these organisations "engage in securing the premise for all political progress", and "an occupied people must unite against the enemy". Malm and Esmailian say that Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would make "Israel less ruthless", "level the balance of terror", but would "not diminish the prospects of a democratic revolution".
It is true that the atomic balance of terror (mutually assured destruction) held back US imperialism and Stalinist Russia from a nuclear confrontation. But it did not hold back US imperialism from the Vietnam war nor stop repression by the Stalinist dictatorship in Moscow. It did not assist any revolutionary struggle, but was used by the regimes as propaganda against opposition. To look at the nuclear issue solely as a conflict between states is wrong. Today, Ahmadinejad and the mullahs attempt to block opposition in Iran with references to the need for ‘Islamic national unity’.
This in no way implies that workers and socialists should be neutral in the face of the war threats from the US. Workers in Iran are already organising against the risk of military attacks. They have seen the results of the invasion of Iraq and fear for the lives of their families. The war has to be stopped by workers’ action in Iran, the US and globally. This will not take place if workers are subordinated to the regime in Tehran.
The book is unclear over the character of the coming revolution in Iran. Without doubt, the coming revolution will have democratic issues and demands at its forefront – workers’ rights, women’s rights, the national question, etc. But these will be intimately linked to those of economic power, the state apparatus, and internationalism, all key parts of a socialist revolution. In this struggle, the working class, supported and allied with the peasants and urban poor, women and youth, will play the decisive role.
Any attempt to create artificial stages for the revolution can be fatal. Malm and Esmailian are in danger of making this mistake, stating that "the moment imperialism is defeated, a thousand new issues arise". The authors also write: "Iran itself has come up with a promising suggestion: a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East". In a capitalist world that is a truly utopian proposal. It is only possible to reach through socialist movements and parties being built in Iran and elsewhere in the region, fighting for a socialist society.
Despite these criticisms, this is a rich book, to be read by everyone interested in Iran. It gives a lot of basic facts for further studies and struggle.
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