As mass protests continue in Iran, what are the lessons of the 1979 revolution?

Armed revolutionary forces, Iran, 1979 (Photo: CC/public domain)

The current mass movement in Iran by women and the working class is taking place against the regime that came to power in the revolution of 1979. What lessons are there for today’s revolutionaries from what happened in 1979? 

In February 1979 the hated monarchical dictatorship of Mohammed Reza Shah was finally swept away by a general strike, with oil workers in Khuzestan in south-west Iran at its heart. Millions of protesters poured onto the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities.

This mass movement ended the so-called ‘Peacock Throne’ and Pahlavi dynasty. It was described by eyewitness Edward Mortimer in the Spectator as “a genuine popular revolution in the fullest sense of the word: the most genuine, probably since 1917.”

But unlike the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Iranian working class lacked a Bolshevik-type party and leadership that could act independently and decisively for the working class, and a socialist programme which could show a way forward. Without such a leadership a religious movement came to the fore to direct political opposition to the Shah and take power.

Background to revolution

The history of the Iranian working class is full of heroic struggles. Under the impact of the 1917 Russian revolution the Gilan Soviet Republic was set up in northern Iran. But this was butchered by Reza Khan, the Shah’s father, who came to power through a military coup in 1921. Khan was always a pawn of British imperialism, which replaced him in 1941 with his more malleable son.

The Iranian working class has suffered from tragically inadequate leadership. The main workers’ party prior to the revolution, the Tudeh (Communist Party), was formed in 1941. Leading massive strikes, it built tremendous support during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Azerbaijan in northern Iran, while Britain occupied the south. Khuzestan oil workers led what was called the largest industrial strike in Middle Eastern history in 1946, and the Central Council of Iranian Trade Unions became the largest union federation.

By 1951 a popular movement, led by the radical nationalist prime minister Muhammad Mossadeq and his National Front, ejected Britain from the oilfields and nationalised them. The ‘mighty’ Shah fled into exile in 1953. But as Iran was an oil-rich and strategically important country, US and British imperialism instigated a coup to return the Shah. The leadership of the 100,000-strong Tudeh effectively did nothing and fled to its Stalinist masters in Moscow.

To secure his rule, the Shah began crushing all organised political opposition, and trade unions were banned. During the Cold War, the US wanted to build Iran as a capitalist fortress for the West against the Stalinist Soviet Union, massively supporting its rearmament. Backed by the CIA, the horrendous Savak secret police organisation, formed in 1956, became increasingly indiscriminate. After the Shah’s fall, one grisly cell was discovered with bed frames adapted into human cookers and with a bacon slicer-type contraption for hands and arms.

Terror alone was not enough to preserve the regime. There was another rebellion in 1963. Thousands were slaughtered, and religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini was exiled, not to return until 1 February 1979 when a crowd of five million greeted him.

In 1963 the Shah launched his ‘White Revolution’ of massive industrialisation, including a transformation of the countryside. Using oil revenues to buy out and enrich the mainly absentee landlords, his aim was for them to invest in industry, so transforming them into a capitalist class. Imposing capitalist farming techniques, over 1.2 million peasants were driven from the land, flooding into the urban areas to live in appalling living and work conditions.

The Shah’s economic policy was borrowed from the National Front and explains why their support ebbed way. The Tudeh party suffered repression, but was politically incapable of laying the basis of a workers’ movement to overthrow capitalism, hankering only for a new Mossadeq.

Growing oil revenues fattened the opulent Peacock throne. During the 1973 Israel-Egypt war, imperialism’s puppet cut some of its strings, becoming one of the most militant members of OPEC (Organisation of Oil Exporting Countries). Oil embargoes quadrupled the price of oil. In 1976 Iran produced 295 million tonnes of oil, 10% of world production.

Breakneck industrialisation was creating a working class that was beginning to feel its strength and demand its share of the new wealth. Anger was fermenting and a reckoning was on the horizon.

US imperialism appeared blind to the growing prospect of unrest. President Jimmy Carter in December 1977 toasted the Shah, calling his “great leadership” “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world”. The CIA reported in late 1978 that the Shah would continue to hold power for at least the next ten years. But the economy was moving into crisis. The price of oil dropped after 1976 and inflation was rampant. Austere economic measures created increased unemployment and suffering for workers.

Despite the bloody repression, protests exploded in the workplaces, mosques and universities, among the poor masses, and in the myriad of stalls and traders in the bazaars.

Revolutionary explosions

In 1977, 50,000 urban poor people blocked bulldozers sent to clear slums in Tehran. The shooting of theology student protesters in the holy city of Qom in January 1978 sparked a general strike.

After mid-summer the situation escalated dramatically as textile, machine tool, sanitation, car assembly, paper mill and other workers took action. Major strikes took place in Tehran, in the province of Fars and in Khuzestan, and especially in the city of Ahwaz.

Increasingly demands went beyond pay and redundancies, calling for democratic rights, ‘Death to the Shah’, ‘Vengeance against… his American imperialist friends’. Others wanted a ‘socialist republic based on Islam’. October saw the steel workers from Esfahan in central Iran call for the expulsion of all Savak and military personnel from the plant.

Striking Khuzestan oil workers were only producing fuel for necessary uses. A desperate Shah sent in the troops and 3,000 protesters were massacred in Jaleh Square, Tehran.

Workers responded by widening the general strike. Rail workers stopped the army elite and others from travelling. Customs workers only allowed essential products like medicines and baby food into the country. The masses were rallying behind the oil workers’ call for regime change and for the Shah to go. With the army increasingly fraternising with the crowds, the monarchy was doomed and it fell on 11 February 1979.

Workers’ leaders

So how did a movement led by right-wing political Islam prise power away from the Iranian working class? Comprising three to four million among a 35 million population, the working class was numerically bigger than it was in Russia in October 1917. Crucially, the Tudeh had not grasped the lessons of Trotsky’s theory of the ‘Permanent Revolution’, that was confirmed by events during the Russian revolution, relating to semi-industrial countries like Russia and Iran.

Trotsky explained that a weak national capitalist class, reliant on landlordism and imperialism, was incapable of carrying through the historical tasks of its own capitalist revolution, ie introducing democratic rights, a representative parliament, land reform, etc. This task would fall to the working class, bringing the peasantry with them. But once achieved, workers would not want to hand over power to the capitalists but would want to struggle to bring about a workers’ government and socialist society.

Instead of leading the Iranian working class in a struggle for power, the Tudeh were in the straitjacket of the Stalinist ‘two-stage’ theory. It argued that the struggle for socialism was postponed to a future date after the establishment and development of a capitalist state. Subsequently the Tudeh only called for a ‘Democratic Islamic Republic’ and rallied behind the capitalist Islamic clerics. Their leader was even nicknamed “Ayatollah”.

Other significant left radical groups also failed to organise within the ranks of the working class. The Fedayeen came from youth supporters of the Tudeh, who took up armed struggle with guerrilla tactics after the failure of the 1953 coup.

Suffering military defeat in the mid-1970s, they re-emerged on 10 February 1979 to defeat the Shah’s Immortal Guard and drive the final nail in his regime. The Islamist Mojahedin-e Khalq guerrillas called for an Islamic society without the clergy. Neither group could show a way forward by coordinating the movement nationally and disarming the Islamist clerics politically and militarily.

Religious movement

The failure of the Stalinist bureaucracy, along with left Arab movements, aided the growth of political Islam. They aped those capitalist nationalists who portrayed themselves as playing a progressive role by advocating ‘Arab socialism’, while not fundamentally challenging the capitalist system.

So when the Shah’s ‘White Revolution’ started to dispossess one of the biggest landowners, the Islamic church, of its land, it was forced into opposition to the regime and a process began which enabled the clergy to eventually take power.

With all political organisations banned under the Shah, opposition tended to gather in the mosques. The clergy had a well-organised network, with 10,000 mosques, 180,000 members, 90,000 mullahs and 50 ayatollahs. Khomeini’s letters and tapes were smuggled in, copied and distributed. With half the population living in rural areas and two-thirds illiterate, the poor and dispossessed were stirred by the radical sermons.

They interpreted the call for the overthrow of the Shah as a struggle against totalitarianism and the demand for an ‘Islamic Republic’ as for a ‘republic of the poor’. Even an oil worker commented to a US correspondent: “Khomeini… will take power from the rich and give it to us”. An image was portrayed of an Islamic state where freedom and democracy would replace corrupt western and non-Islamic influences.

Added to this, the bazaars tended to flourish around the mosques, paying a zakat (tax) to them. When the Shah attacked the bazaars, blaming them for rampant inflation, Khomeini exploited the situation and drew in their support.

Social centres also gathered around the mosques and they played a crucial role in offering support and food to the dispossessed peasants streaming into the cities. This pushed some clergy in a left direction, with one cleric calling for public ownership of industry and a classless society.

Workers’ councils

But across Iran workers had taken matters into their own hands, occupied their workplaces and organised strike committees or shoras. Before the collapse of the regime, a committee representing the Khuzestan oil workers demanded “workers’ participation in the political affairs of the country,” as the only way for a “genuine construction” of an Iranian republic.

Delegates from shoras across the country met in Tehran at Khane-ye-Karegar or Workers’ House, organising a massive demonstration on May Day 1979. But there was no real national coordination among the different sections of workers. The Tudeh party even actively agitated against the shoras’ existence.

In the poor urban districts, shora-ye mahallat or ‘neighbourhood councils’ appeared, organising such things as delivering bread to the elderly and infirm. In spring 1980, 70% of Esfahan was run by shoras. Homeless families and poor tenants occupied luxury hotels and villas, setting up shoras. While in Kurdistan and the Turkomen area of Golestan, peasants reclaimed land.

As the spiritual leader of the Shi’ite masses, and with the militant clergy the only force with clear political aims, organisation and a strategy, Khomeini was able to take the leadership of the revolution, imposing his newly formed Islamic Republican Party (IRP). Mehdi Bazargan, leader of the liberal capitalist National Front, was named as prime minister for a few months, and with the backing of the Tudeh, the clerics organised a new regime.

Within two days Khomeini had ordered the shoras to disband. But he had to tread carefully. As one metal worker put it: “After the revolution, the workers noticed that the country belonged to them.” Khomeini was forced to adopt radical left phraseology and an anti-imperialist stance, especially towards the US. Returning from exile he announced “a government for the people”. In effect dual power between the shoras and central authority existed.

Khomeini balanced between the classes; he was compelled to make concessions to workers, introducing free transport and medicine and subsidising essential goods, but he was determined to smash their organisations. In March, women were ordered to wear headscarves. Protests followed this decree. By April Khomeini had achieved a 99% victory in a national referendum, where the only choice was ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to an ‘Islamic Republic.’

Regime tightens grip

In July 1980 with state finance in crisis and unemployment at 25%, the first nationalisation decrees were issued, leading to the majority of industry being taken into state ownership, although private property was still ‘respected’.

‘Revolutionary courts’ were established, with executions of military and political leaders, police and Savak agents from the Shah’s regime. But up to ten-year jail sentences could be imposed “for disruptive tactics in factories or worker agitation”.

Shora-ye eslami or Islamic councils were developed under strict central control and established alongside the shoras. Strikes were banned, and by late 1980 the Pasadaran or ‘Revolutionary Guards’ toured the factories crushing the shoras.

Ethnic minorities make up a third of Iran’s population; severely repressed under the Shah, this continued under Islamic rule. In the Turkomen region of Gorgan, the Arabic speaking oil region Khuzestan, and especially the Kurdish Kordestan region, rebellions broke out and were brutally put down.

Despite strikes and other actions, by 1982 the new regime had secured its grip. Khomeini suppressed all opposition as traitors to the revolution. The regime exploited the 444-day occupation (and hostage crisis) of the US embassy by Islamic students started in November 1979 and the Iran-Iraq eight-year war, after the US-backed Iraqi regime invaded in September 1980.

Khomeini used the war to whip up fervent nationalism, and thereby strengthen his power. Tens of thousands of opponents were executed, hundreds of thousands imprisoned. By 1983 the Tudeh and Fedayeen parties were totally crushed.

In the initial stages after the revolutionary wave and against a world backdrop of the distorted planned economies of the Stalinist states, Iran’s regime had to adopt a left character. But as the revolution faltered it moved in an increasingly rightward direction, and nationalised sectors were privatised.

The Iranian working class is again showing its strength. But without the building of an independent workers’ party with a determination to struggle for a socialist society, as part of a socialist federation of the Middle East, there will be no end to the war, poverty and repression that blights the country.

This article was first published on the revolution’s thirtieth anniversary in February 2009.

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December 2022