Iran: A revolution stolen from the working class

WHEN CIA experts wrote a report in September 1978 on the political health of the pro-western monarchist regime in Iran, they concluded that despite his autocratic rule, the Shah presided over a stable dynasty that would last for at least another decade.

A mere four months later, he was forced to flee from a popular revolution that defeated one of the most vicious regimes on the planet.

His secret police, the 65,000 strong SAVAK, had penetrated every layer of society, borrowing from and ’refining’ the fiendish measures of the Nazi Gestapo. Even the Chilean dictator Pinochet had sent his torturers for training in Tehran.

Despite these colossal obstacles the workers overthrew the Shah and set in train a process of revolution that would terrify both the reactionary regimes across the Middle East and the imperialist powers in the West. Not least, this popular uprising alarmed the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, which was engaged in lucrative trade with Iran.

Yet the workers were not to be the beneficiaries of their revolution as power passed from the Shah into the grasp of right-wing political Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Within three years all secular laws were declared null and void. Women’s dress codes were enforced in line with a harsh interpretation of Islamic custom. 60,000 teachers were purged and thousands of working class oppositionists murdered or imprisoned. The Iranian Communist Party, the Tudeh, which had enthusiastically embraced Khomeini upon his return from exile in 1979, was itself banned in 1983.

Revolutionary mood

A TOTALITARIAN regime maintains itself through terror and oppression and is successful while the masses remain cowed and inert. But the horror of daily life finally brings revolt. Once the working class loses its fear of a regime and moves into action, the secret police and all their grisly apparatus are often shown to be impotent.

Mass illegal demonstrations enveloped Iran between October 1977 and February 1978. Demanding democratic rights and their share in the nation’s wealth, the students and then the working class braved the bullets on the streets.

Following the shooting of hundreds in the holy city of Qom in January 1978, a general strike of two million in Tehran spread to Isfahan, Shiraz and the Shrine City of Mashad. Placards called for: "Vengeance against the brutal Shah and his American imperialist friends," while others demanded: "A socialist republic based on Islam".

Increasingly, the soldiers began fraternising with the crowds, calling out: "We are with the people".

Even the capitalist class led by Mehdi Bazargan’s National Front, which had previously limited its ambitions to getting the Shah to share power with them, was forced in the developing red-hot atmosphere to adopt a ’semi-socialist’ programme.

The Iranian revolution was unfolding on a higher level than the Russian revolution in 1905 with which it possessed so many parallels. Then, the mass of the people had initially trusted their destiny to silken-tongued ’democrats’ who promised they would make the Tsar listen to their grievances. Now, in Iran, the cry could be heard everywhere that the Shah must be brought down.

Civil service and bank workers played a crucial role in exposing the rottenness of the rich. Bank clerks opened the books to reveal that in the last three months of 1978, £1 billion had been taken out of the country by 178 named members of the elite, aping their Shah who had salted away a similar amount in the US. The furious masses responded by burning down over 400 banks.

Class, party and leadership

WHEN MOHAMMED Reza Pahlavi, the self-proclaimed true son of Iran’s 2,500-year-old Peacock throne, ignominiously fled the country for the last time on 16 January 1979, the struggle had gone beyond seeing his abdication as a victory. Now it was a question of the abolition of the absolutist state and what form the new Iran would take.

The working class had spearheaded the struggle against the Shah, through demonstrations, a four month long general strike and finally an insurrection on 10/11 February. The old order was swept away for ever. In this struggle it had become conscious of its power, but not conscious of how to organise the power it now held in its hands.

Revolution tests all classes and for the working class the key question is that of whether it possesses the decisive leadership equipped to move from popular insurrection to socialist construction.

In Iran, despite the heroism of the workers, students and youth, there was an absence of Marxist leadership and no mass party capable of drawing the necessary conclusions from the course of the revolution. It was the task of a Marxist party to explain the necessity for the working class, in alliance with the national minorities and poor peasants, to consciously take state power into its hands and carry through the tasks of the socialist revolution.

The largest left forces in Iran at the time were the Communist Tudeh Party, the ’Marxist’ Fedayeen Khalq guerrillas and the Islamist Mojaheddin guerrillas.

Although enjoying a large membership and wider support and possessing armaments, they critically suffered from programmatic confusion. They did not pursue an independent working class policy but instead they sought to link up with Khomeini in spite of the clergy’s attempts to suffocate an independent workers’ movement.

The shattering of the autocracy revealed a power vacuum. Now at a critical moment in the destiny of the masses, when real power lay in their hands, the Tudeh unveiled the proposal for the setting up of a ’democratic Muslim republic’. This meant, in reality, the Tudeh renouncing its claim to leadership of the revolution and instead tail-ending the Mullahs political agenda.

The rise of right wing political Islam

RELATIONS BETWEEN the Western-leaning Shah and the Islamic mosques had long been strained. When the Shah dispossessed the Church of its lands, Muslim clerics reacted furiously and preached against the godless regime. The spiritual leader of Iran’s Shiites, Ayatollah Khomeini, had been bundled off to exile in Turkey and later Paris, following a revolt against land seizures in 1963 when thousands were gunned down.

Marx once described religion as "the sigh of the oppressed". Because of the prohibition of all the organisations in opposition to the Shah, opponents of the regime tended to gather around the mosque where radical sermons were delivered. Increasingly these were interpreted as a struggle against totalitarianism.

Khomeini’s message in exile was distributed through music cassettes smuggled into Iran in very small numbers. Once there, they would be reproduced and spread.

Khomeini and the other Mullahs painted a picture of freedom and democracy, calling for a return to the pure fundamentals of Islam, purged of all Western and non-Islamic influences which they argued had corrupted the culture and led society astray.

In economically semi-backward Iran, with large-scale illiteracy levels and over half the people still living in the countryside, the Mullahs’ words became a powerful source of attraction to the peasants and sections of the middle class, even workers. Whereas the National Front sought compromises with the dynasty, Khomenei called for its overthrow. The masses interpreted his call for an Islamic Republic as a republic of ’the people’, not the rich, where their demands would be met.

Upon Khomenei’s triumphant return from exile on 1 February, the Tudeh immediately proffered their full support for the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Council and urged him to join with them in a United Popular Front.

Revolution and counter-revolution

’DUAL POWER’ prevailed in Tehran in February 1979. The rulers had fled, while the workers, who held the factories and refineries, organised democratic workers’ committees and seized weapons from the fractured armed forces.

Khomenei however was the beneficiary of this revolutionary wave. A strange hybrid which combined contradictory and opposed class interests, his movement obtained the acquiescence of secular and non-clerical forces because he spoke the rhetoric of radical populism: an Islamic republic which would favour the oppressed against local tyrants and US imperialism.

The militant clerics were in a position to hijack the revolution because they were the only force in society with definite political aims, organisation and a practical strategy.

On 1 April Khomenei obtained a landslide victory in a national referendum in which people were offered the single choice – Islamic Republic: ’Yes’ or ’No’.

He was nonetheless forced in the early days to tread carefully. On the one hand, clashes broke out between Revolutionary Islamic Guards and workers who wished to hold on to their recently acquired arms.

Meanwhile Khomenei denounced those who wished to continue the general strike as "traitors who we should smash in the mouth".

Balancing between the classes, he simultaneously made big concessions to workers. Free medicine and transport were introduced, power and water bills were cancelled and essential goods were heavily subsidised.

With state coffers plundered and unemployment scaling 25%, nationalisation decrees were unveiled in July. These were accompanied by the setting up of special courts with the power to impose two to ten year jail sentences "for disruptive tactics in factories or worker agitation".

Only gradually was Khomenei able to establish his power base. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 setting off a bloody war that would last for eight years, the masses rallied to the defence of the revolution. By then however, the revolutionary embers had cooled.

The Islamic Republican Party established by the clerics of the newly formed Revolutionary Council was connected to the old petit bourgeois (small capitalists) and the bazaar merchants who wanted order and private property defended.

While aiming to represent these conservative strata, Khomenei dealt blows against Western imperialism, through the nationalisations of the oil sector.

Hybrid regime

THE IRANIAN Islamic State is a capitalist republic of a special type – a clerical capitalist state. From the start, two opposing tendencies emerged within the clergy. One group around Khomenei argued that the Imams must hold power through a semi-feudal capitalist state with numerous centres of power. US imperialism represented the ’Great Satan’ in their eyes and encouragement was to be given to the exporting of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Muslim world.

Other leadership figures, including a more pragmatic wing within the clergy, wanted to establish a modern, centralised capitalist state. Whilst remaining resolute in their verbal denunciations of the US, they have sought especially in the last decade to put out feelers to the west.

The conflicts between these tendencies and the periodic political crises they have brought about, have never been resolved and are presently being fought out between Ayatollah Khamenei and the reformist President Khatami, elected by a big majority in 1997.


THE EVENTS in Iran sparked the growth of militant political Islam throughout the Muslim world. On the surface they demonstrated the power of the masses to strike a blow against imperialism.

But Marxists have to be clear. Islam is not intrinsically more radical or reactionary than any other world religion and Islamic fundamentalism is not a homogeneous phenomenon.

It was the past failures of secular Arab nationalist movements and the betrayals of the Communist Parties that ultimately created the conditions for the rise of right wing political Islam. It reflected in Iran and elsewhere since, the impasse of capitalism in the region and the need for the oppressed masses to find a way out.

The later variants of political Islam lack even a tinge of the radicalism that Khomenei was forced to embrace in the early months of the Iranian revolution.

The Taliban and the terrorist methods of al-Quaida and Osama bin Laden offer no solution to the struggling masses oppressed by capitalism and landlordism but, on the contrary, splinter the working class and rob it of its distinct and combative identity.

Today 20% of Iranians own half the country’s wealth. Class struggle regularly breaks out. The stultifying edicts of the Imams increasingly clash with the desire of young people to live their lives in liberty.

Huge crowds took to the streets of Tehran to welcome the successful football team in 1998. Revolutionary Guards stood by helplessly as brave young women defied the restrictive dress code.

These are portents of Iran’s stormy future. A new party of the working class must be built on solid Marxist foundations, capable of learning why the revolution was stolen from it in 1979.

With the country’s income from oil exports halving since then, the voice of the working class will come to the fore once again allowing the unfinished business of the last revolution to be successfully completed.

Capitalist development before the revolution

PRIOR TO 1979 imperialism saw Iran as a crucial ’front line’ buffer state against Soviet encroachment on the Middle East and South Asia. Its fabulous oil reserves were vital to Western interests.

In 1953 a radical nationalist movement led by Prime Minister Mosadeq’s National Front had sought to nationalise the country’s oil industry, triggering widespread demonstrations and elements of a popular uprising. The Shah was forced into temporary exile by the mass movement on the streets.

The response of imperialism was decisive. Britain and the US demanded Mosadeq’s arrest and dispatched covert forces to create mayhem and force the Iranian army to deal with the threat to their profits.

The Shah was re-installed and ruled Iran with an iron fist for 25 years. His return saw all organised political opposition crushed and trade unions declared illegal. The security forces were re-organised with the assistance of the CIA.

After 1953, Iran embarked upon a frenetic period of industrialisation, largely pre-empting the economic programme of the capitalist National Front and thus eroding its popularity. The idea was to transform the nobility into a modern capitalist class, a ruling class on the model of the west.

Land reforms were introduced enriching the dominant absentee feudal landowners. They received enormous compensation, which they were encouraged to invest in new industries.

Ruthless exploitation

THE REAL casualties were the poor peasants. Over 1.2 million had their lands stolen, leading to starvation and a relentless exodus to the cities where they provided obscenely cheap labour for the new capitalists.

Before the revolution, 66% of carpet workers in the town of Mashad were aged between six and ten, while in Hamadam the working day was a staggering 18 hours. In 1977, many toilers earned just £40 a year. Although a nominal minimum wage had been granted by the regime, 73% of workers earned less than that.

Iran’s factories resembled Dante’s Inferno and comparisons with pre-revolutionary Russia were striking. There too, a breakneck process of industialisation had been undertaken by a weak capitalist class trying to unshackle itself from a feudal past, creating in Marx’s words "its gravedigger" in the form of a militant working class.

As peasants flooded into the cities, the urban population doubled to reach 50% of the total. Tehran grew from three million to five million between 1968 and 1977, sprouting 40 shantytowns around its sprawling suburbs.

In 1947 there were just 175 large enterprises employing 100,000 workers. 25 years later, 2.5 million workers worked in manufacturing, one million in the construction industry and nearly the same number in transport and other industries.

Iran was in transition, half-industrialised and half-colonial. A mighty working class had been forged in just a generation. In Russia the working class had numbered just four million out of a total population of 150 million. Yet armed with Marxism, they had pulled the peasantry behind them and in 1917 had broken capitalism at its weakest link.

By comparison, the specific social weight of the Iranian working class was much greater – over four million workers in a population of 35 million.

Never invade a revolution

US IMPERIALISM watched impotently as the Shah’s last days in Iran were played out. Although voices in the Pentagon urged the sending of aircraft carriers and marines to the Gulf, the wiser heads in the US ruling class cautioned that ’you never invade a popular revolution’.

Moreover, America was still smarting from the wounds inflicted upon it in Vietnam. There the social struggle of the peasants and workers to throw off the chains of oppression had brought the superpower to its knees.

A US-led invasion of Iran would have had incalculable repercussions on a world scale, especially in the colonial world where the Shah stood for all that was most rotten in the eyes of the masses.

The Iranian revolution made America tremble. US president Jimmy Carter was humiliated when the Ayatollahs fomented street movements leading to the storming of the US embassy in Tehran and the taking of 66 hostages.

In 1983 Ronald Reagan was forced to withdraw from the Lebanon after US troops suffered losses at the hands of the Tehran-backed Shia Hizbollah movement.

A yawning chasm

IRAN WAS the second biggest exporter of oil in 1978 and the world’s fourth largest producer. When oil prices quadruped between 1972-1975 as a result of the Arab-Israeli war, Iranian GNP leapt by 34% in one year alone. Enormous billions fell into the lap of the Shah for further investment.

But with the top 45 families owning 85% of medium and large firms and the richest 10% spending 40% of the money, the chasm between the classes was growing daily.

Over a quarter of Iranians existed in absolute poverty, yet displaying the characteristic arrogance of an absolute monarch, the Shah thundered in 1976, "We have not demanded self sacrifice from people. Rather we have covered them in soft cotton wool. Things will now change. Everyone shall work harder and should be prepared for sacrifices in the service of the nation’s progress".

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, CWI in England and Wales

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June 2003