1979.02.14: Some Thoughts on the Iranian Revolution (Unpublished Essay, UMass-Boston)

Unpublished Essay, UMass-Boston
Feb. 14, 1979
By Michael Letwin

The Iranian revolution has moved a rapidity and direction that was impossible to predict, and which, as it continues, remains difficult to completely unravel. But despite the level of uncertainty, it is possible to begin to identify some of the fundamental issues and dynamics of the revolution.

One of the most important unknown quantities is the nature of the presently dominant Khomeini forces. Khomeini himself went from being a virtually unknown, but long­time opponent of the Shah to become the symbol and central figure of the revolution. Khomeini has called for the creation of an “Islamic Republic,” a regime based presumably on the Koran.

Theoretically, this law would include a prohibition on interest-charging loans and banking institutions, on alcohol consumption, pornography, excessive individual wealth and a series of restrictions on the role and position of women.

So far, however, the statements made by Khomeini and his government have concentrated not on the implementation of the Koran, but rather on defining the new regime in terms of a modern oriented “national” capitalism, somewhat anti-imperialist in terms of the old level of direct western domination, but quite willing to continue to be integrated into the world capitalist economy (with the stated exception of dealings with Israel or South Africa). The new regime’s willingness to play ball with the West was certainly behind the defense given to the U.S. embassy while under attack on February 13 and 14.

Rather than regime dominated by religious figures, the government of Mehdi Bazargan is composed primarily of secularist ministers. Only time will tell if, and to what degree, “Islamic” program of Khomeini will be carried out, but it seems clear, given the new regime’s recent statements supporting the rights of private property, and its perspective of creating a solid national capitalism and bourgeoisie, that any religious program will take a subordinate position when the two goals clash, and that whatever the end product, Khomeini may very well dub it an “Islamic Republic.”

Another central question has to do with the composition of the revolutionary movement that came together to overthrow the Shah and his puppet Shapur Bakhtiar. Though Khomeini served point for all the anti-Shah forces, it is quite clear that Khomeini represented more of a figurehead than a unified or undisputed ideology and movement.

The National Front, for example is the long-time secular and pro-capitalist opposition to the the Shah. Though it has paid lip-service to Khomeini’s program, it is hard to know what real commitment it has to anything approaching a true Islamic state.

On the other extreme of the revolutionary movement are the left-wing elements of the working class, particularly in the oil fields. The oil workers have played a distinctly independent role in the revolution, to the degree that when Khomeini tried in January to convince the oil workers to produce enough oil for Iran’s own needs, the workers refused to comply. It took a visit from Bazargan to convince even a few to resume production.

In addition, the demands of the oil workers seem to have had little to do with religion, but rather were concerned with the removal of the Shah, freedom for political prisoners, higher wages and better working conditions. Other elements of the working class seem to lean in the direction of the oil workers, including sections of the civil servants, and airline, bank and construction workers.

Alongside the leftist workers are the university students, most prominently at Tehran University, many of whom appear to consider themselves Marxists and have no loyalty to Khomeini, his program or government.

Between the poles of left and right (or, objectively speaking, workers and capitalists) are the millions of workers. soldiers, peasants and de-classed urban slum dwellers who are not clearly aligned as a whole with one side or another, although it is reasonable to assume that a large mass, possibly a majority of the participants in the revolution, now feel some loyalty to Khomeini, who is seen by many as the leader of the revolution.

However, the balance of forces within the revolution are in a state of extreme flux. The dramatic defeat and demoralization of the blatantly counter-revolutionary pro-Shah forces seems to make a counter-revolution extremely unlikely in the near future, so in many ways, time is on the side of a left, continuing revolution.

If the left elements can survive any immediate attempts by the new regime to physically destroy it (and it is not clear that the new government has the ability to do that), it may be able to gain support. The left’s advantage lies in the fact that the overthrow of the Shah and his regime was the result of long-term struggle directly involving millions of people, particularly in the cities and towns. Not since the Revolutions in 1917 have so many directly participated in a revolution of any kind.

It was the scale and determination of the revolt in Iran that led to the toppling, within a year, of what was considered to be one of the most powerful regimes in the world, armed to the teeth with the most modern weaponry, the murderous SAVAK (secret police), unlimited oil funds and the very concrete backing of the U.S. A year of determined mass action ended the Shah and his machine.

In the process, the masses of revolutionary participants acquired an enormous sense of self-confidence, an unlimited supply of modern arms, and despite divided loyalties and uneven levels of political consciousness, an extremely high level of expectations for the future.

From the supporters of Khomeini to the revolutionary left, the population has come to expect a completely different society, in which material needs are met and where real power is exercised by those who made the revolution. All rhetoric aside, it is also unclear as to whether all Iranians will be willing to live under strict Islamic law in practice. In short, the masses who made the Iranian revolution have come to expect the world.

It is, of course, highly unlikely that the new regime can meet these expectations, since it is concerned with the development of a modern independent capitalist state, a goal predicated on the economic exploitation of  the workers and peasants, and at best a formal bourgeois democracy with real power in the hands of the capitalists. It is not at all clear that the government has the ability or the will to deal with the enormous dislocation and urban unemployment and poverty that has come about as a result of the Shah’s policies.

On the contrary, it seems likely that only socialism — working class control of the productive and natural resources and the state, in alliance with a peasantry in control of the land — can satisfy the expectations now held by the Iranian masses. It may be too early for the majority of the revolution to have come to this conclusion, particularly given the hold of other ideologies, but as the government continues to demand “business as usual,” and time goes on, the limits of the new regime will become clearer.

There are already the first signs of a rift between the new regime and the revolution. Khomeini’s demand that everyone turn in their arms has gone unheeded, even by his own followers. There probably are different reasons for this. The majority feels the need to retain the ability to physically defend the revolution against the extreme right and the army, while the more conscious elements of the left realize that they must protect themselves against the new regime. On top of all of this, many revolutionaries simply seem unwilling to give up the first taste of popular power they have ever experienced.

Unfortunately, little is known in this country about the politics, strategy, class roots and size of the organized Iranian left. The only organization about which information is readily available is the Tudeh (Communist) Party. The Tudeh Party is reported to have a among the oil and other workers, and is closely aligned with Moscow. Moscow, in turn, despite the barrage of American cold war propaganda, has little reason to support anything but the immediate stabilization of the Khomeini/Bazargan regime. Russia relies heavily on deliveries of Iranian oil and natural gas, and revolutionary ferment on its southern borders cannot but constitute a threat to the internal political order in Russia itself.

Russian support for Iranian stability is not a new policy toward Iran. Moscow long supported the Shah, in both economic and military terms. Now, Russia was the second country to recognize the Khomeini regime. The Tudeh Pary has continually praised Khomeini as a “progressive anti-imperialist.” It therefore seems unlikely that the Tudeh party will play a revolutionary role against the new regime, though it may attempt to enter the government, and will certainly do all it can to control the leadership of the trade unions and other organizations.

It is even harder to identify other left groups with any precision. The other organization that has been widely mentioned is known as the Peoples Fedayeen, a group which for the last decade has carried on urban guerrilla struggle against the Shah’s regime, and which by all accounts won a lot of respect for its daring and central role in the armed struggle of the last few weeks. However, aside from the urban guerrilla strategy of the Peoples Fedayeen, it is hard to know if the group has any orientation towards, or roots in, the working class, or what its present perspective is.

Despite the incredible poverty of information about the left in Iran, the last few weeks in particular have seen the emergence of an open and growing “Marxist” wing of the revolution, which may represent a whole number of organizations and politics that we know nothing about, but which time will probably shed light on.

There is no question but that class struggle will continue under the new regime as the needs of the workers and the other propertyless classes conflict with the goals of the ruling classes. But while class struggle in the new situation is a given, a mass successful socialist movement moving toward workers’ revolution is not. The only hope for such an development lies in the development of revolutionary socialist parties prepared to take the lead in the immediate struggles against the extreme  right and the new regime, and at the same time build the movement for socialism.

Victorious revolution would not only include winning over a majority of the Iranian working class and but also would require the immediate expansion of the revolution across national  boundaries and the development of socialist revolution on an international scale — permanent revolution. Only then would a socialist regime in Iran be safe from the pressures of the world capitalist economy and counterrevolution.

Certainly it is not as hard as it once was to imagine such a process in southern Asia and the Middle East — the so-called of “Crescent of Crisis.” The ruling classes of the region, as well as the major powers (U.S., W. Europe, Russia) are trembling at the possibility of spreading revolution, as the effect of the Iranian revolution on the surrounding world sinks in. Certainly the lesson of the revolution has not been lost on sections of the working class and peasantry in such countries as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, or Pakistan, to name a few.

Though revolution is not immediately pending in an obvious way in any of these countries, it would have been hard to predict an Iranian revolution as recently as a year ago. It is not for nothing that the U.S. is promising to intervene militarily against any extension of the Iranian revolution.

Permanent revolution, however, is not the only or inevitable direction of  the Iranian revolution. Unless a socialist movement begins to gain strength and move in the direction of revolution, the increasing intensity of the class struggle will only serve to bring about some degree of counterrevolution, either from the present regime, or if necessary, from forces further to the right allied with western imperialism. No course is automatic or inevitable.


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