The Iranian working class was the decisive social force that overthrew the Shah in 1978-79. But workers did not go on to create their own state, but instead came under the rule of a regime no less repressive than that of the Shah.
Workers built organisations and took action in defence of their own interests. The development of independent working class politics was a real possibility in 1979. Yet this potential was not fulfilled — in large part because of the failure of the left, both inside Iran and internationally.
Part of the explanation for the left’s failure lies in its repression at the hands of the Khomeini’s government. For example when the Fadaiyan refused to return the weapons it seized during the insurrection on 9-11 February 1979 and organised a demonstration at Tehran University, Khomeini denounced them as “a group of bandits and unlawful elements” and “non-Muslims at war with Islam”. (Hiro) The left was harassed by Hezbollahi from the beginning — and by other forces of the new state such as the Pasdaran until it was finally driven underground.
But repression does not account for very much — and certainly not for the possibilities in early 1979 that were wasted. It was the ideological confusion of the left, its political disorientation and its organisational mistakes that meant an historic opportunity for working-class power was lost — and Iranian workers subjected to a new despotism that lasts to this day.
The central failure of the left in Iran and internationally, which conditioned all else, was its ideological errors. Almost the entire left was Stalinist, and the impoverished Stalinised pseudo-Marxism prevented any of its constituents from charting an independent working class path.
Almost the entire left lacked any systematic class analysis of the Iran social formation as it had developed by the mid-1970s. Most defined Iran as a backward society with little capitalist development, in line with the Third Worldist dependency theory that was widespread at the time. The left perceived the Shah largely as a puppet of the US, and Iran in general as simply dominated by imperialism.
The result was the “theory” of the two-stage revolution, whereby the Iranian working class was expected to play a subordinate role in a general “democratic” struggle to overthrow the Pahlavi dynasty. It meant that the leadership of such a “democratic revolution” was assigned to other social forces, providing they were sufficiently “anti-imperialist”.
This led the left towards political subordination to the mullahs. Almost the whole of the left failed to grasp the specific character of Khomeini’s movement and the type of state he explicitly envisaged creating after replacing the Shah. At its worst, the Tudeh party peddled the illusion of the potential “non-capitalist” path of development for the regime. But most believed that because the regime was “anti-imperialist” (i.e. anti-American) it was in some sense progressive.
The left did not grasp that, given the forces involved in the opposition movement, the state that would emerge after the overthrow of the Shah could be pro-national capital, independent of global capital and simultaneously viciously anti-working class. The lauding of “militant Muslims” blurred the reactionary nature of Khomeini’s rule.
The absence of a class perspective led to the underestimation of the strike committees and later the factory shuras, built by workers to defend their interests. As Assef Bayat put it: “Almost all of the left was surprised by the sudden emergence of the shuras. Almost all the left-wing organisations, as well as the shuras themselves, were confused about what to do and about what kind of possible role the shuras could play politically.”
The left was also unable to grasp the important dynamic of the struggle for women’s liberation. From the International Women’s Day protests in March 1979 and in the two years that followed, women waged a persistent struggle against the regime. But the left did not understand that the fight against the veil and other restrictions on women were a vital part of the struggle for democracy and for women’s liberation.
Nor did the left fight the right to self-determination of the national minorities. As CARI put it, when Khomeini launched his holy war against the Kurds, “the reaction of the shura and progressive groups left a lot to be desired”.
In short the left lacked a consistently democratic and socialist programme to unite the working class and draw other exploited and oppressed groups behind it, as a bridge towards the fight for workers’ self-liberation.
The central organisational failure of the Iranian left during 1978-79 was its inability to build a revolutionary party capable of leading the working class against the mullahs and for its own self-rule.
Bayat expressed this idea well, when he wrote: “The most important limitation, however, was the absence of an effective political force committed to organising the working class for the strategic objective of socialist construction.”
The largest left organisation, the Fadaiyan, had around half a million supporters. It already had some credibility after its guerrilla campaign against the Shah. This was enhanced by its role in the insurrection on 9-11 February 1979. It was right to boycott Khomeini’s referendum on the Islamic Republic in March 1979.
However the Fadaiyan’s politics were Stalinist and mired in stages theory. It did not sharply attack the new regime until it was attacked in August 1979. Although its members took part in the shuras, women’s organisations and the struggles of national minorities, it did not craft a programme or a strategy for taking on the emerging theocratic state. Nor did the “Marxist” Mujahedin, renamed Paykar in early 1979, which promoted Maoist Albanian Stalinism.
One measure of the Fadaiyan’s ideological confusion was its split in June 1980, when the majority joined the Tudeh party, i.e. the Communist party and representatives of the USSR in Iran.
The Tudeh party pledged its support for Khomeini’s government in February 1979 and remained its staunch ally. This went as far as actually helping the state smash the left. The Tudeh party told its supporters in August 1981: “Uncovering the policies of the counter-revolution in the workplace, in the family and in any place where the masses are present is one of most important duties.” It was clear what this meant when the Fadaiyan Majority and the Tudeh party received letters of thanks from the army commander responsible for suppressing the Kurdish revolt. (Maziar Behrooz, Rebels with a Cause)
There were some small organisations that attempted a more serious analysis and intervention. The Organisation of Workers’ Path, ex-Fadaiyan and ex-Mujahedin supporters who opposed Maoism, argued that Khomeini’s rule was a “religious-Bonapartist” regime composed of the petty bourgeoisie, bazaar bourgeoisie and semi-proletarian population, under the leadership of the clergy. The Organisation of Communist Unity (OCU) was anti-Stalinist and took part in building the women’s movement. (Behrooz, 1999 p.132)
There were also some Iranian Trotskyists. The founders became active in Britain in the 1960s. They formed an Iranian Commission within the Mandelite USFI. Trotskyists in exile in the United States and Europe formed the Hezb-e Kargaran-e Socialist — HKS (Socialist Workers’ Party) in early 1979. It was publicly announced in Tehran on 22 January 1979.
The HKS faced repression from the outset. Its first public meeting on 2 March 1979 was suspended when Islamic students and Maoists attempted to break it up. (Robert Alexander, International Trotskyism) However its leader Babak Zahraie held two televised debates in April and May 1979 with Khomeini’s spokesman Bani-Sadr, who later became president of the regime.
The HKS was active among oil workers in Khuzistan and in the women’s movement. After a series of strikes, workers in the oil and steel industries were rounded up in May 1979, including 16 HKS members. In August 1979, 14 HKS members were tried by the local “Imam’s Committee”, with 12 sentenced to death — later suspended*
Zahraie led a split from the HKS in the autumn of 1979, to form the Revolutionary Workers’ Party (HKE). The HKE effectively offered critical support to Khomeini’s regime, as did another Trotskyist group, formed in January 1981, the Workers’ Unity Party (HVK). But they suffered the same fate as the HKS, and were finally snuffed out by 1982.
But even the HKS was unable to develop the programme and strategy needed to oppose Khomeini’s rule. It failed to warn the Iranian working class of the nature of the new order. It lacked the necessary implantation in workplaces. It was therefore powerless to resist the onslaught of the state.
Failure of the international left
The international left, especially the USFI, bears a heavy responsibility for the defeat of the Iranian left. Repression was not a factor and it had access to the history of past mistakes (such the crushing of the Chinese Communists by Chiang Kai-shek in 1927). The international left had the necessary materials to analyse the Iranian social formation, the nature of mullahs and the lessons of past defeats — but it largely failed to do so.
Hardly any group on the international left came out of the Iranian revolution with any credit.
But the group that deserves particular ignominy is the US Socialist Workers’ Party (US SWP). Once the pride of the Trotskyist movement, by the mid-1960s it was a Castroite, semi-Stalinist sect. The US SWP deserves particular dishonour because it had close relations with HKS and the other Trotskyist organisations — and was the intellectual author of the political line of critical support for Khomeini.
The US SWP defined Khomeini’s regime “an anti-imperialist government” (The Militant, 10 July 1981), exaggerating the “gains” of the revolution and downplaying or simply denying the counter-revolutionary nature of the regime towards the working class.
Even in late 1981 the US SWP claimed “these shuras continue to exist under the Khomeini regime” and that Iranian Trotskyists continued to operate openly in the factories and by publishing newspapers. They argued: “Efforts to stifle debate and roll back the gains won by Iran’s workers and farmers have not succeeded. Efforts to disband the workers’ committees, roll back land reforms, or eliminate political parties have failed.” (Janice Lynn and David Frankel, Imperialism vs the Iranian Revolution)
The Khomeini regime was a bourgeois government, resting on the sections of national capital, the bazaar bourgeoisie and the substantial financial power base of the mosques. It was a form of “reactionary anti-imperialism”, opposed to the domination of foreign capital but utterly hostile to the Iranian working class. It is not an abuse of language to describe it as a form of clerical fascism, given its destruction of the labour movement.
Khomeini led the mass movement against the Shah and disguised his programme for a theocratic state beneath vague, liberal-sounding phrases. However the left failed to analyse the nature of his plans or predict the likely form of his rule. As Nima put it: Khomeini’s “rhetorical allusions to freedom were unfortunately misunderstood by many within the anti-Shah opposition, including many on the left.”
The left failed to prepare the Iranian working class and warn of what to expect. Instead the left used spurious analogies to incorporate Khomeini’s movement within a mechanical parody of “permanent revolution”, which was far from Trotsky’s original theory.
For example, the religious nature of the leadership was rationalised with reference to historical figures, such as Father Gapon in the 1905 revolution in Russia. But whereas Khomeini was a central figure in the Shia hierarchy, Gapon was a maverick priest in favour of the separation of church and state. Khomeini made it clear about the kind of state he wanted from the beginning; Gapon at least called for a constituent assembly in 1905. And of course despite his opposition to the Tsar, Gapon was not lauded by the Bolsheviks as a “progressive clergyman” – whereas Khomeini was awarded progressive credentials by wide sections of the Iranian left.
To call for opposition to both the Shah and the mullahs would not have been to equate the two and ignore the differences between the two regimes, nor to swallow the propaganda against the whole movement as simply religious reactionaries, as portrayed in much of the western media. It was simply to draw conclusions from the facts about Khomeini’s movement.
Nor would opposition to the mullahs have implies a passive, abstentionist strategy for the Iranian left. It would have meant active involvement in the factory committees that shook the Shah’s regime. It would have meant active involvement in the workers’ shuras, in the women’s movement and in the struggles of national minorities.
It would have meant fighting for democratic demands such as for a constituent assembly. It would have meant preparing the left to defend itself, forming workers’ militias. It would have meant joining the women’s demonstrations. It would have meant fighting for workers’ self-management in workplaces and for linking up the network of shuras to take control of whole sectors of industry, with the aim of control over the whole economy.
It was precisely the left’s failure to do these things, which gave Khomeini’s regime the opportunity to consolidate itself and then cement its rule. An active, interventionist third camp approach was exactly what was missing in Iran in 1978-81.