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From The Socialist newspaper, 23 June 2009

Where now for the Iranian revolution?

Working class must decisively enter the struggle

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.

Tony Saunois, Committee for a Workers' International (CWI)

However this revolutionary crisis unfolds in the coming weeks, it is clear that Iran will never be the same again. This massive movement for change marks the beginning of the end of the existing dictatorship.

A striking feature of this movement and the build up to the elections has been the emergence of young women into the arena of struggle - unprecedented in recent Iranian history.

Press censorship and restrictions on assemblies have not prevented news of this movement being broadcast. The youth especially have used Facebook and Twitter to organise their protests and publicise their cause and the repression being used against them.

The mass protests mark a crucial turning point. Defying the 'law' and brutal repression by the state security forces they illustrate 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 have taken 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, 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 rural areas.

Even in this election, there appears to have been a certain split between the larger urban areas and the rural areas. However, the International Herald Tribune, for example, has carried a report from one small village, Bagh-e-Iman, near the south-western city of Shiraz, which claims the majority of the village's 850 voters backed the opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi only to find that the reverse was declared at the count!

Moreover, 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, the rich liberal elite and 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 were 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 introduced subsidies on basic commodities. Following his election, a series of infrastructural projects were initiated. This rhetoric was in contrast to the 'reformist' Rafsanjani, who 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. Ahmadinejad, a former officer in the Revolutionary Guards, has appointed 14 former Revolutionary Guards officers to 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.


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.

Also revolutionary upheavals can 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 the social questions and demands can emerge which bring it into conflict with the social system of capitalism.

The crucial question now in Iran is how this movement develops and the type of new regime that will emerge from it. At this stage of events, it is unclear how the current crisis will unfold and develop. Will the working class emerge into the forefront of the struggle to take it forward?

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 and irresponsible 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 amongst the ruling elite.

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.

The working class

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, have issued a declaration supporting the movement and supporting those fighting repression by the regime. They have also called for a day of protest on 26 June. There are also reports now emerging that the car workers in Khodro have imposed a strike of 30 minutes at the beginning of each shift in protest against the repression against the 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. There are also reports of discussions taking place about a general strike.

Revolution is a living process and develops hour by hour and day by day. Many revolutionary movements have begun with the university students and sections of the middle class. They have then been joined by the working class, which has taken the entire struggle onto a newer and higher level. This was the case in France in 1968 and also during the Iranian revolution in 1979.

The question now, when faced with increased repression, is will the movement be prepared to fight right to the finish and take the necessary steps to confront and overthrow the regime?

Should the movement gain greater strength then the various wings of the state machine could split and fragment. Important sections of it could go over to the side of the protesters. This is undoubtedly the fear important figures in the regime have.

This movement has exposed the massive social and class divisions which exist in Iranian society. Should the crisis continue, and if the revolution does not take decisive steps forward and eventually result in the working class, with the support of the middle class, youth and poor peasants taking over the running of society, then other divisions can also begin to emerge.

There is a strong Iranian national consciousness. Yet the population is made up of a series of ethnic groupings. An estimated 52% are Persians, 24% Azeris, 8% Gilakis and Mazandaranis and 7% Kurds. Mousavi himself has spoken in Azeri at some rallies. This is a further fission which could also open up at a certain stage.

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 ideological retreat about the idea of a socialist alternative which has taken place internationally 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 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, form political parties, 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.

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In The Socialist 23 June 2009:

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