Yesterday in a meeting in London, a young Iranian student criticized me for being too hard on Mousavi, who he considered to be the indisputable leader of the opposition and “the bravest man in Iran.” I replied that, while the Marxists supported the protest movement, it could not succeed in its aims unless the street demonstrations were backed by a general strike of the Iranian workers. I pointed out that Mousavi had only made vague references to a general strike, but that no call for such a strike had been made.
The student said that the demonstrators did not want revolution but only reforms. I answered that while this may be true, the only way to obtain the things the protestors want was by revolutionary means, and that the power to change society depended above all on the active participation of the working class. I do not know if I convinced the student, but at least it made him think.
Many people in Iran are thinking now about many things. Unfortunately, it seems that many of our western intellectuals have lost the ability to think at all. One of the saddest things I have read for a long time was an article written by James Petras in Global Research on Monday, June 22 with the title Iranian Elections: The ‘Stolen Elections’ Hoax. It is particularly sad because James Petras is a penetrating analyst who often writes very good articles. Unfortunately, he has fallen into the trap of comparing phenomena that have nothing in common and from an erroneous comparison he inevitably draws wrong conclusions. In this article we read the following:
“Almost the entire spectrum of Western opinion makers, including all the major electronic and print media, the major liberal, radical, libertarian and conservative web-sites, echoed the opposition’s claim of rampant election fraud. Neo-conservatives, libertarian conservatives and Trotskyites joined the Zionists in hailing the opposition protestors as the advance guard of a democratic revolution.”
Petras repeats the scandalous accusation of the Iranian regime that the protests on the streets of Iran are organized by imperialism. He does not produce a shred of evidence to back up this calumny. He calmly asserts it and uses the old Stalinist method of the amalgam to link together the Trotskyists with - the CIA and Zionism. This is the language of Vyshinsky, not Marx or Lenin. It is the language of a man who has lost his bearings to such an extent that he does not know how to distinguish between revolution and counterrevolution.
The fact that US imperialism has plans for regime change in Tehran does not mean the movement is controlled or has been created by the CIA, as Petras and some other “Lefts” claim. There is not the slightest doubt that the U.S. is covertly trying to effect regime-change in Iran, and has been doing so for the last three decades. We know that Washington has set up a special fund for this purpose. We know that the imperialists have been trying to demonize Iran, presenting it as a threat to world peace and the stability of the Middle East. But the curious thing about the present situation is how circumspect the Americans have been. They have been very cautious over the elections, as have the Europeans. The only European head of state who has accused the Iranian regime of rigging the elections is President Sarkozy of France.
Contrary to what Petras writes, the right wing neo-Conservatives in the USA are saying that Ahmadinejad won the election. This seeming paradox is easily explained. These reactionaries wish to show the hopelessness of dealing with the Iranians at all, except by bombing them from a great height. What about the Zionists, who Petras claims are also behind the protesters? Not so! Like the US Neo-Cons, the Zionists also say that Ahmadinajad won fair and square! And why is this? Because the Israeli reactionaries want to provoke a war with Iran in order to destroy its nuclear capability and weaken it militarily.
So there we have it. It is not the Trotskyists who are in a united front with the reactionaries in the USA and the bellicose Zionists. They agree wholeheartedly with James Petras’ assessment of the Iranian elections. As the saying goes, necessity makes strange bedfellows! However, we do not use the method of the Stalinist amalgam and we would not like to accuse comrade Petras of being in a united front with these the reactionaries in the USA and Israel. Rather, we assume that he has made a lamentable mistake.
The cause of this mistake is obvious. Petras and others have noted (correctly) that US imperialism has interfered in the internal affairs of states like Venezuela, Bolivia, Georgia, the Ukraine, Lebanon etc. and has not hesitated to encourage, organize and finance opposition movements, which take to the streets, often using the excuse (justified or not) of rigged elections to destabilize governments that are not to the liking of Washington.
This is perfectly true. It partly explains the reaction of many people in Venezuela (not just Chavez), who have drawn a parallel between the reactionary movements of the middle class escualidos trying to destabilize the Bolivarian government and the Iranian protests. Similar parallels have been drawn with the semi-fascist gangs that have organized violent street protests against the government of Evo Morales in Bolivia.
However, there is a fundamental error in this reasoning. The government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia are progressive governments that are faced with opposition movements of the reactionary oligarchies that have ruled these countries for generations and are seeking to re-impose their dictatorial rule with the open support of US imperialism. These are the concrete facts and that is why the Marxists have always denounced the attempts of the reactionary opposition to overthrow the elected governments of Venezuela and Bolivia by right wing oppositions masquerading under the false flag of “democracy”.
What has this got to do with the situation in Iran? The government of Iran is not a progressive pro-working class government but a reactionary theocratic dictatorship, which has systematically repressed the workers’ movement, denied trade union rights, arrested, tortured and executed trade union activists, for decades. In Venezuela, when workers occupy factories, the government often nationalizes them and accepts the workers’ demands. In Iran, if workers occupy factories they would be brutally repressed and imprisoned, if not worse.
These are facts, and facts are stubborn things. The facts show that there is nothing progressive about the rule of the mullahs in Iran, and there is no basis whatsoever for comparing it to Venezuela and Bolivia. By recognizing the “victory” of Ahmadinejad, President Chavez seriously damaged the image of the Bolivarian Republic in the eyes of the people of Iran. And in the last analysis, the only real friends of the Bolivarian Republic are the masses. The Marxists will always be on the side of the masses of any country in their struggle against injustice and oppression. That is true of Venezuela and Bolivia – and it is also true in Iran.
What is a revolution?
In his great masterpiece The History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky gave the following definition of a revolution:
“The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” (History of the Russian Revolution, Volume One, Preface)
Are these words not applicable to the dramatic events we see unfolding before our very eyes in Iran? For the last week, hundreds of thousands of brave men and women have flooded onto the streets of Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan and other cities. It is true that this mass movement lacks leadership and has a confused character. But the early stages of a Revolution are always characterized by an incoherent and confused situation.
What I wrote in my second article on Iran was not that “there is a Revolution”, but that the Iranian revolution has begun. I explained that a Revolution is not a one-act drama, but a complicated process, which may be prolonged in time and will go through all kinds of ups and downs. I specifically compared what is happening in Iran with the Spanish Revolution, which lasted for seven years, from 1931 to 1937, with periods of great revolutionary upsurge, but also periods of defeat and even two black years of reaction (1934-6).
What we have witnessed over the last two weeks is only the first act in the revolutionary drama. It is a scenario that is very familiar to all students of the history of revolutions. At the beginning of every revolution, when the working class does not play the leading role but is submerged in the “masses”, the latter bring their prejudices into the movement, creating a phase of “democratic illusions.” This is an absolutely inevitable phase in the Iranian Revolution, as was the February Revolution in Russia, April 1931 in Spain and even the first eighteen months of the Great French Revolution.
In the period of “democratic illusions” the powerful thrust of the mass movement creates the idea that victory is in sight. Everything seems possible and the processes seem very simple. There are naturally big illusions in the “democratic” leaders. This was very clearly expressed yesterday by my young Iranian friend. It will be necessary that the movement must pass through a period of great difficulties, defeats and suffering before receiving a harsh education in political realism, which will finally enable it to leave its illusions behind.
The beginning of the Revolution is marked by a general reawakening of the masses, who are seeking a way out of the impasse. The movement will naturally have a confused and incoherent character. But during a revolution the masses learn quickly. In the early stages, when the class differentiation is not yet clear, it is the bourgeois democrats who come to the fore. There is no doubt that after 30 years of the dictatorship of the mullahs, there is a burning desire for change, and this desire is shared by many people with different class interests. However, as the struggle unfolds, it will become increasingly clear that some are more serious about fighting than others.
The “reformers”, despite all their brave speeches, are preparing to retreat. Already they have cancelled the mourning rallies in Tehran planned for today. Mousavi, Rafsanjani and Rezaei have held a meeting with officials from the National Security Committee of Iran. But there is no news as to the issues debated or decisions made. What do these reports signify? They indicate that the regime is intriguing with the “reformers” to arrive at a rotten compromise behind the backs of the people with the aim of bringing the protest movement to an end. Meanwhile, the regime is intensifying its repression.
The upsurge of protest has had a powerful effect. It has brought millions to their feet and deepened the crisis of the regime. But it has not solved any of the problems that it posed and it is beginning to reach its limits. In the absence of a general strike and a nationwide insurrection on the lines of 1979, the movement lacks the focal point necessary to overthrow the regime. Faced with the might of the state, the protesters have no clear plan or strategy. The latest tactics of the opposition suggest desperation. The chants of Allah o Akbar in the night and the flying of green balloons will have little effect. The regime is stepping up repression.
We have just received this report from inside Iran:
“It is quiet in the streets. Still some youth come onto the streets but in a disorganised manner. They get some info in Facebook or other media and come onto streets. They are attacked by police. The police do not allow large gatherings. Many reformist journalists have been arrested. It is reported that in many offices there is a witch-hunt against those who have voted for Mousavi. Many of his supporters have been fired.”
Reports on twitter confirm the existence of widespread repression and brutality in Iran. The Green Brief reported today:
“Protesters continued to swarm the streets of Tehran today, however, the number of security forces deployed to stop them from gathering in large numbers proved effective. We had previously reported that large numbers of motorcycles have been brought into Tehran by the government and given over to Basij and other security forces. They are being used very efficiently to mobilize the security forces and protesters are being hunted down wherever they are suspected to be. In the mess, several people who aren't protesters have also been beaten as the beatings have turned to indiscriminate persecution of citizens of Iran.”
An earlier report from the same source says:
“The city of Tehran was literally crawling with Basijis and police. There were roadblocks everywhere and the streets were heavily patrolled by the security forces. Most sources complained that going outside was dangerous for anyone – even if the person wasn’t a protester as security forces continued to beat up anyone they could get their hands on.
“There was also sickening news of security forces asking the families of protesters who’d been killed for large sums of money – typically between 3-5 thousand dollars - as a ‘bullet fee’ if they wanted the bodies of their dead relatives back.”
On Tuesday, the following report was posted:
“1. The event of the day was the protest held at Baharestan Square in the late afternoon. Although the exact number cannot be fully known, my sources claimed somewhere between 5,000-10,000 people tried to join the rally. Things got violent when security forces that had been waiting there for hours moved in as soon as a small crowd had managed to gather. They used force to brutalize the protesters and scatter them faster then they could regroup. Police were also patrolling the areas around Baharestan and people were attacked even as they fled Baharestan and go to the outer edges of the area. This continued for at least two hours.
“2. Force was utilized without discrimination; however, media reports about a complete massacre cannot be confirmed by my more reliable sources. What I can confirm is at least 3 people were killed; the police used batons to beat people quite viciously - leaving dozens injured, not just in Baharestan but also in the areas around Baharestan. Shots were also fired and at least 2 of the fatalities were as a result of gunfire. Tear gas was also used to disperse them. We cannot confirm the use of axes on protesters. It could have been isolated incidents. But a wide-spread use cannot be confirmed. There were reports of killings at Lalehzar as well. Lalezhzar is a park in Tehran which has been completely taken over by security forces and is being used as a quasi-de fact base. Pictures are scarce and videos cannot be confirmed at this point either. The police were checking cell phones throughout the area as well as in other parts of the city and deleting images or videos or confiscating the phone altogether.
“3. The area was surrounded also by vans and cars belonging to the security forces. Injured protesters and those protesters the police could hold onto were promptly thrown into these vehicles and moved to undisclosed locations. It has been suggested that Evin prison is being used to house most of the prisoners, but the sheer number of protesters easily could mean that make-shift prisons have been built around Tehran to house these people. Some sources indicated as well, but this cannot be confirmed right away. Most shops around Baharestan were closed so people had nowhere to hide. Cell phone service was also jammed so no help could arrive for those stranded and the vicious and wide-spread beatings and arrests could continue.
“4. The security forces were being heavily helped by helicopters. They flew all over the city and informed security forces of places where people had gathered. Security forces arrived in minutes and dispersed crowd. However, people were extremely persistent. Gatherings and small rallies took place in several places and the quicker they were dispersed the quicker more sprang up. This continued late into the night until people dispersed on their own. The sheer tenacity of the protesters is heartening and many twitter sources indicated that no matter what happens they will go to streets and protest. Hezbollah e Ansar were also spotted from time to time. Plainclothesmen also did their part of the arrests as they drove around the city in motorcycles.
“5. There were also other arrests in Iran today. At least 70 university professors and other professionals held a meeting today with Mousavi at the end of which, all of them were arrested as they exited the meeting area. Reports also confirm that Mousavi's chief lawyer, Ardsher Amir Arjman has also been arrested. There is no real confirmation of whether Mousavi has been arrested or he's free. However, there are strong indications and SOME sources that claim he is currently under house arrest.”
Reports from Tehran say that the authorities have arrested 70 members of the Islamic Society of University Professors after a meeting with an opposition leader on Wednesday afternoon. Although it seems that they were later released. The same afternoon, riot police and militiamen used clubs and tear gas near parliament at Baharestan Square to disperse protesters who numbered either several hundred or more than a thousand, according to different witnesses.
Last weekend there were reports of clashes between demonstrators and the forces of repression. In some cases it was stated that the police were forced to flee. Government sources now confirm that eight Basijis have so far been killed in the protests, although the number cannot be confirmed. So far, even the most impartial twitter sources have not confirmed that any protester has succeeded in taking the life of a Basiji, although many would show great joy if it were the case.
The masses have the passive sympathy of many of the ordinary policemen and soldiers. Most of the repression seems to be the work of the Basiji thugs. Some reports state that Basijis are receiving extravagant amounts of money in order to secure their loyalty. We have no doubt that these reports are true. But the courage of the unarmed demonstrators is no match for the bullets, tear gas and batons of the repressive apparatus. The only way to get the police and soldiers to rebel is if they are confronted not just by protest demonstrations but a national insurrection. But this is impossible without the active participation of the working class.
The regime, having partially recovered its nerve, is cracking down very hard, brutally repressing demonstrations, which means that less people are coming onto the street. This is natural. People cannot continually go onto the streets to get their heads cracked unless they see the possibility of a decisive outcome. Although there may be other waves of anger and protest, if the movement is not taken to a higher level, there will inevitably be a tendency for it to go into decline, at least for a while.
The “reformers” only want a cosmetic change, which means no change at all. The bourgeois Liberals want a change that will place them at the helm of power and protect their privileges by more efficient means of control through a regime of formal bourgeois democracy. But for the mass of poor people, workers, peasants and unemployed youth, the struggle for democratic rights is indissolubly linked to the struggle for bread, for jobs, land and houses.
It often happens that the intelligent strategists of Capital come to the same conclusions as the Marxists. A few days ago the Financial Times expressed the following judgment on the situation in Iran: “Change for the poor means food and jobs, not a relaxed dress code or mixed recreation... Politics in Iran is a lot more about class war than religion.” (Financial Times Editorial, June 15 2009). This is one hundred percent correct!
Despite everything, the movement is continuing to display remarkable resilience. In addition to continuing protests in Tehran, there are reports of protests in Shiraz by university students and a strike in Tabriz. The only way to carry the movement forward would be a general strike, which, under prevailing conditions would put the question of a national insurrection on the order of the day. Mousavi has made vague references to a general strike, but no concrete proposal has been made, no day has been named, no preparations begun. People are going to work for the simple reason that no one has asked them to stay at home.
No one has called for a strike. But strikes could still break out. One report says: “The mood is tense and the environment for strikes is actually there. There is a lot of talk about it. Everyone is discussing the possibility of strikes. But so far no one has gone on strike. The banks are open for business. All the stores in the Bazaar were open.” Here we see the vital role of leadership. According to The Green Brief: ”There were sporadic reports of a more successful strike in parts of the Kurdish-inhabited areas of north-western Iran. In Kurdistan province, the cities of Sanadanj and Seqqez were reported to have had half their shops closed.”
The Iranian Workers’ Solidarity Network reported that the workers of the service line unit of the Ferdowsi branch of the Sanandaj Communication Office went on strike on June 22, 2009 near the office. The workers struck when they were told that they were about to be sacked and that a new workforce with lower wages would replace them. Reports like this indicate that the Iranian workers are beginning to enter the struggle, putting their class demands to the fore. What is needed is to generalize the strikes and link them up into a national strike, together with mass demonstrations.
The Iranian Marxists have produced an excellent leaflet signed by comrade Maziar Razi which puts forward a number of apposite transitional demands:
“It is necessary to form clandestine strike committees for general co-ordination. By coordinating together these committees can organize the day and time of factory strikes, and stop work together in various parts of Iran and put forward workers’ demands. You have had very significant experiences. These experiences must be used. A few years ago there were the experiences of the Baresh factory in Esfahan and Kashmir factory, and last year the protests of the workers of the Haft Tapeh factory, Kurdistan textiles and Iran Khodro factories, and so on, all of these can be put to use.
“The right to strike is your absolute right. This slogan can be put into effect until all your demands have been achieved. Trade union demands like: payment of back pay, pensions and so on. Democratic demands like: the release of all political prisoners, freedom of speech, assembly, press and the right to strike and to form independent labour organizations and so on. These demands can be combined with transitional demands like workers’ control, the sliding scale of wages in line with inflation and so on. If the government blocks these basic demands, you can occupy the factories and bring them under the control of the workers themselves and throw out the useless managers. Control over production and distribution can be implemented by the powerful hand of the workers themselves. The experience of the revolution against the royal despotism proved to the workers that within a few weeks, without any previous experience, they can form workers’ councils and bring about workers’ control. In the present crisis, when the capitalist government is split and a huge mass of people that is independent of the ruling establishment is in the streets every day, the honourable workers of Iran can quickly achieve their demands.
“Your actions will show the ways and means of anti-government struggles to the youth. In the presence of a workers’ leadership, the youth will quickly break with the reformists and move towards more radical demands. Action by you, the workers, can today bring about a different future to the present movement. Your active presence in the organization of a general strike with the aim of defending yourself and supporting the democratic rights of millions of Iranian people is the most important action that is on the Iranian workers’ agenda today.”
Here we have the basic elements of a programme that, if it were taken up by the Iranian workers, would provide the necessary formula for victory. In the end, the Iranian Revolution will triumph as a workers’ and peasants’ revolution or it will not triumph at all.