The Iranian revolution 1978-79 was one of the seminal events of the twentieth century, rich in lessons for working-class socialists. It is a story of class struggle, female self-assertion and the awakening of national minorities. The Iranian workers were the decisive force behind the toppling of the hated regime of Mohammed Reza Shah. Yet this movement was smashed by the theocracy that took the place of the monarchy. That Islamic state ruled by clerics has been a catastrophe for workers, for women and the oppressed. The events had huge repercussions for the politics of the Middle East and the world. In a three part article Paul Hampton tells the story.
Mohammed Reza Shah became the ruler of Iran after his father (Reza Shah, who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in 1921) was forced to abdicate by the Allies in 1941. Then he too was sidelined in 1952 by nationalists led by Mossadeq. In 1953, backed by the CIA, the Shah’s dictatorship was restored in a military coup.
Fuelled by oil reserves and repression, the Shah backed some state-sponsored industrial development and land reform, with dramatic economic consequences. Between 1950 and 1978, according to OECD figures, GDP increased nine-fold while GDP per capita increased four-fold.
In 1962 industrial workers made about just over 20% of the total workforce. By 1977, 33% of the workforce was in industry. In 1977 over 50% of the economically active population (of nearly nine million) were waged workers. Most wage workers were directly involved in industrial activities (2.38 million), such as manufacturing, mining, construction, utilities, transport and communications. However many workers were migrants who still had strong rural ties (Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran). As one historian Ervand Abrahamian put it: “Reza Shah brought the modern working class into existence; Muhammed Shah had nourished it to become the single largest class in contemporary Iran” (Iran between two revolutions).
This period of rapid development of capitalism (known as the “White Revolution”) had other effects. The Shah’s rule was marked by the savage methods of SAVAK — the secret police — where torture and state-sponsored murder was widespread. No opposition, neither a bourgeois parliament nor trade unions were allowed – only the Shah’s National Resurgence Party. The Shah’s policies drove peasants off the land into urban slums, squeezed the middle-class bazaar and challenged the entrenched clergy.
The 1953 coup ended efforts at unionisation and a 1959 labour law proscribed workers’ self-organisation. The Shah also set up SAVAK-run unions known as syndicates. According to Assef Bayat, when the state formed the Organisation of Iranian Workers in 1976, there were 845 syndicates and 20 trade unions with three million members.
In the mid-1970s, after a brief oil boom, the economy began to falter. Members of all classes began to challenge the Shah and it became clear that his rule was under threat.
The Shah was unable to create an adequate social base for his regime. In fact he faced an array of opponents. Firstly the working class a third of which was concentrated in large plants and a few major cities, notably in Tehran. But workers were politically atomised, lacking independent representation and able to organise only secretly in individual workplaces.
Secondly the national minorities. Kurds, Azeris, Arabs, Balushis, Qashquaia and Turkmans constituted at least a third of the population of Iran and lived mainly in the countryside. They suffered regular repression at the hands of the regime and were denied their national, language and cultural rights. There was an armed rebellion in Iranian Kurdistan between 1967 and 1969.
Thirdly, the minority Sunni Muslims, as well as Jews, Zoroastrians and Bahais, who suffered religious oppression.
Fourthly, there were also sections of the bourgeoisie, middle class students and intellectuals opposed to the regime. Some were members of the National Front, the party of Mossadeq. Others were members of the Liberation Movement of Iran, founded in 1961.
Others took part in left-wing guerrilla movements from the 1960s. The most notable group was the Organisation of Iranian People’s Fadaiyan Guerrillas, known as the Fadaiyan, the result of a fusion between earlier guerrilla organisations, which began military attacks on installations and leading figures in the regime in 1971.
The Organisation of Iranian People’s Mujahedin (Marxist-Leninist), known as the Marxist Mujahedin was born out of a Muslim organisation of the same name in 1975. The Tudeh (Communist) Party, had little organised presence in Iran for most the 1970s, with apparently only one branch functioning before 1979 (Maziar Behrooz, Rebels with a Cause).
All of these organisations were heavily influenced by Stalinism, either by particular states such as the USSR, China and Albania, or by its theories of two stage revolution, dependency, “anti-imperialism” etc.
Finally, the most visible group opposing the Shah were the mullahs and the bazaar. Both the clergy and the bazaar had lost out as capitalism developed. The Shah’s land reform had reduced the mosque’s revenue and educational reforms had weakened its influence at schools.
The figurehead and driving force of the mullahs was Ayatollah Khomeini. Expelled by the Shah in 1963, Khomeini spent most of the next fifteen years in Najaf in Iraq, developing his ideas on theocratic rule. It was his forces that led the movement to overthrow the Shah and ultimately replaced him.
The overthrow of the Shah
Most accounts of the overthrow of the Shah emphasise the role of intellectuals and of the clergy in undermining his rule. But the social force that turned their challenge into a real threat was the Iranian working class.
In June 1977 police were sent in to clear slums in south Tehran. Thousands of the urban poor clashed with the police for weeks, refusing to allow the work to take place. On 27 August 1977, 50,000 demonstrators drove the bulldozers and the police from their streets, forcing the regime to abandon its plans. This was the first successful mass protest against the Shah since the 1950s and showed that the regime could be defeated.
After years of industrial peace, workers in modern factories began to assert themselves. In July 1977 workers set fire to the General Motors plant in Tehran. Over the following three months there were over 100 more fires, in what was one of the largest workplaces in the country.
Intellectual and religious opposition became more assertive. In November 1977 writers, lawyers and poets began public readings. The following month religious opposition began to mount. It began with a call by Ayatollah Khomeini for the overthrow of the Shah in December 1977.
Khomeini was able to develop a network of clerics inside Iran to keep his message alive — for example using cassette tapes smuggled into the country. Crucially he developed his ideas on the kind of state he wanted to replace the Shah with.
Religious demonstrations started in the holy city of Qom in December 1977. After demonstrators were killed, Khomeini called for 40 days of mourning, to be followed by another demonstration, sparking a cycle of protest where repression was turned into a reason to march again. These religious-inspired protests, mobilising the petty bourgeois from the bazaar and the lumpenproletariat, continued through spring and summer 1978.
As Ramy Nima points out, “The upheavals from October 1977 to June 1978 rarely involved the industrial working class, the urban poor or the newly recruited ‘migrant’ workers; and only seven major strikes were reported during this period” (The Wrath of Allah).
The industrial working class moves
At this point, the industrial working class imposed itself — although mainly for its own economic interests rather than for wider social and political goals.
In March 1978 workers at the Azmayesh plant in Tehran went on strike against redundancies. In the same month six hundred gardeners employed in the oil industry stopped work demanding a pay rise. In April, 2,000 workers in the brick industry in Tabriz came out (Bayat).
As Nima put it: “By mid-summer 1978 the situation had drastically changed; the number of strikes rose sharply as the economic crisis deepened, real wages fell and the number of unemployed increased. As the regime’s campaign against high wages and low labour productivity took effect, the working class entered the arena of struggle.
“The first wave of strikes in June 1978 was still mainly concerned with economic issues, especially bonus payments, overtime and wages... Water workers and some industrial units in Tehran also stopped work. From July to September, the number of strikes multiplied. In Abadan, 600 sanitation workers demanding 20 per cent wage increases, annual bonuses and a health insurance scheme went on strike in early July. Towards the end of July, over 1,750 textile workers at Behshar struck over wages; they questioned the role and nature of the state unions and demanded free elections for union representatives.
“In August a number of strikes took place in Tabriz, the most important of which was that of 2,000 or so workers at the main machine tool factory. The strikers stayed out of two weeks demanding higher wages, annual bonuses, as well as better housing and social conditions. In September workers came out in a number of major strikes in Tehran, in the provinces of Fars and in Khuzestan, particularly the city of Ahwaz; car assembly plants, machine tool factories, paper mills all became scenes of struggle.”
The religious mobilisations and the industrial struggles began to shake the regime. The Shah’s response was more repression. He declared martial law and then ordered troops to attack a demonstration in Tehran on 8 September 1978, known as “Black Friday”, when thousands were killed.
The working class takes
The response of workers was to take industrial action, both for their own immediate interests but also for social and political demands. Nima again describes the events vividly:
“[On 9 September] about 700 workers at the Tehran oil refinery struck not, as previously, just for higher wages, but as a protest against the imposition of martial law and the massacre at Jaleh Square. Two days later, on 11 September, the strike, the strike had spread to the oil refineries of Isfahan, Abadan, Tabriz and Shiraz. On 12 September, 4,000 print workers and other staff at two leading newspapers in Tehran walked out in protest against the renewal of censorship ordered by General Oveissi, the military governor. On 13 September, cement workers in Tehran went on strike demanding higher wages, freedom for all political prisoners, and the ending of martial law. The wave of strikes hit most towns and cities: cement workers in Behbahan, bus drivers in Kermanshah, workers at the tobacco factory in Gorgan, teachers, bank employees, and even workers in some of the luxury hotels (including, for example, the Tehran Hilton).
Assef Bayat, author of the most detailed book in English on the role of workers in Iran during this period, reported that, “According to the available data, in recorded strikes (fewer than the real number) at least some 35,000 workers at different factories stopped work in September, putting forward both economic and political demands, organising demonstrations and releasing resolutions.”
But in October the situation was transformed. As Bayat puts it: “When 40,000 oil-workers, 40,000 steel-workers, 30,000 rail workers had put down their tools within three weeks, the dynamism of the revolutionary process changed dramatically.”
Bayat cited the liberal newspaper Ayandegan reports from the time:
“On 6 October alone railway-workers in Zahedan, 40,000 steel-workers in Isfahan, workers in the copper-mines of Sar Cheshmeh and Rafsanjan, at Abadan Petrochemical, at Isfahan Post and Telegraph Company and all the branches of the Bank of Shahriar went on strike. The day after was the same: all the refineries, the Royal Air Services, the Iranit factory in Ray, the customs officers in Jolfa, the Department of Navigation and Port Affairs of Bandar Shahpour, Tractor Sazi in Tabriz, radio and TV stations in Rezayeh, 80 industrial units in Isfahan, a steel-mill in Bafgh, employees of the judiciary throughout the country and employees of the Finance Department in Maragheh joined in. The next day it was the turn of the Zamyad plant in Tehran, General Motors, the Plan and Budget Organisation and the railway-workers in Zahedan (again). The next day (11 October 1978) the largest daily newspapers went on strike. The Canada Dry factory, the ports and shipyards in Khorramshahr, the Iran Kaveh plant, the fisheries of Bandar Pahlavi, Minoo factory, Vian Shre plant, Gher Ghere-i Ziba, all workers in Gilan province, 2,000 brick-makers in Tabriz, oil-workers in Abadan and Ahwaz, in the pipe plant and Machin Sazi in Saveh, 40,000 workers of Behshar Industrial Group throughout the country, bus-drivers in Rezay and communications workers in Kermashah joined the strike in rapid succession.”
The most important strikes in October were those in the oil industry, which were organised by militant strike committees. Nima described how, “The oil workers in Khuzistan elected a strike committee to organise the strike and link the struggles of workers in the oil fields, the refineries and the administration. Their political demands, formulated on 29 October, included the abolition of martial law, freedom for political prisoners, and the dissolution of SAVAK. Oil production was completely stopped. At the important oil terminal of Kharg Island, dock workers and other employees had joined the strike, halting all movement of oil off the island.
A number of unsuccessful attempts were made to end the strike and finally the army was used to force the strikers back to work.”
Mariam Poya described some notable elements of these struggles. Customs workers allowed the entry of medicines, baby food and paper. Tobacco workers came out against the import of American products. Coal miners struck in support of teachers and students.
“Every few days a new section of the workforce came out on strike or joined the streets demonstrations and protests. Every night for an hour communication workers blacked out the regime’s radio and TV propaganda. Railway workers refused to allow police and army officers to travel by train. Atomic energy workers struck, declaring their industry had been imposed on Iran by the great powers in the interests of nuclear war rather than creative industry. The Russian-built steel complex was completely shut down. Just about every industrial establishment was closed, with the exception of gas, telephones and electricity: here workers explained they were continuing to work to serve the public, but that they supported the strikes and demonstrations to overthrow the regime. Dockers and seamen only offloaded foodstuffs, medical supplies and paper required for political activity.” (‘Iran 1979’, in Colin Barker ed, Revolutionary Rehearsals)
Oil workers take centre stage
The oil workers strike was especially significant, given its strategic place in the economy. The strike in October lasted 33 days and paralysed the economy.
After the strike committee met the head of the National Iranian Oil Company, workers reported that he would “consider the economic demands but that the others were outside his sphere”. Their response was, “We told him we were not going to make any distinction between our economic and non-economic demands. We told him we had only one set of demands” (Nore in Nore and Turner, Oil and Class Struggle).
After the political demands were put and negotiations with the government failed, 1,700 delegates from various workplaces staged a mass meeting in the Abadan refinery in front of military forces, deciding to stay all night in the administration department. They were attacks by tanks (Bayat).
The Shah responded by sending in the army. But the workers did not give up. On 4 December 1978 they began an all out strike, bringing production to an absolute stop.
Across Iran, workers set up strike committees, occupied their workplaces or brought production to a halt. However there was limited coordination across industries. The best examples were when oil and rail workers discussed transporting fuel for domestic use, oil workers discussed production levels for other priorities and steelworkers at Isfahan and rail workers negotiated to carry coal to the furnaces. (Nore)
Although these struggles were not the result of the conscious leadership of revolutionary organisations, they were not simply “spontaneous”. Bayat found evidence that some workers had been organising secret nuclei in their workplaces for as many as eight years before these events (Bayat).
The overall significance of the workers’ action was not lost on bourgeois commentators at the time. The Shah left Iran on 16 January 1979, never to return.
As the Financial Times, put it on 17 January 1979: “Once strikes really applied pressure in key areas such as customs, banking and of course the oil fields, their’s proved to be the most effective weapon to bring the Shah to the realisation that he had to go.” (Nima )
The role of the clergy
Although it was the power of the working class that brought the Shah to his knees, it was not working class organisations that led the overall opposition movement to his regime. Although the slogans on December demonstrations, “Hang the American puppet”, “Arms for the people” and “The Shah must go”, were secular, the organisation of these protests was in the hands of Khomeini supporters.
As Bayat put it: “While the workers indeed controlled all revolutionary activities within the workplaces, they did not and could not exert their leadership upon the mass movement as a whole. This leadership was with someone else: Khomeini and the leadership associated with him.”
Khomeini’s followers had nurtured a well-organised network of cadres throughout the country, especially in the urban centres. Throughout the struggle the mosques received funds from the bazaars, which were used for political ends. Nima describes the social forces behind the religious leaders:
“No other opposition organisation could muster a network of 180,000 members with 90,000 cadres (mullahs), some 50 leaders (ayatollahs), 5,000 ‘officers’ (middle clergy), 11,000 theological students and a whole mass of ordinary members such as Islamic teachers, preachers, prayer guides and procession organisers.”
Khomeini called for strikes on 17 October and again on 18 December as part of his campaign to bring down the regime. Despite receiving funds from the mosques and bazaar merchants, the oil strike committee rebuffed proposals by Khomeini’s representative Bazargan (later his first prime minister) to call off the strikes and simply stop exports. (Campaign Against Repression in Iran, The Iranian Workers’ Movement) According to Poya, some oil workers sent an open letter to Khomeini, expressing their support but also demanding workers’ participation in the future government.”
It is notable for example that the oil workers’ demands did not include the call for an Islamic Republic. And as the development of shuras (factory councils) from the beginning of 1979 showed, there was a clash of interests between the clerical leaders and the workers’ movement — and the potential for an independent working class struggle against both the Shah and the new theocratic regime.
Could the nature of Khomeini’s rule have been foreseen? It was clear from the slogans used on demonstrations (such as “Victory to the just rule of Islam”, “Death or the veil”, in Tabriz in February 1978). It was clear also from the book burnings, attacks on cinemas had a reactionary rationale — for example in a campaign against a bank because it had a Bahai capitalist as a shareholder. (Workers’ Action 24 November 1978)
Khomeini’s made it clear that he was hostile to the left. In Le Monde 6 May 1978, he said: “We will not collaborate with Marxists, even in order to overthrow the Shah. I have given specific instructions to my followers not to do this. We are opposed to their ideology and we know that they always stab us in the back. If they came to power, they would establish a dictatorial regime contrary to the spirit of Islam.”
And it was also clear from his writings that he was intent on theocratic rule. In particular Khomeini formulated the idea of Velayat-e Faqih, the vice regency or government of Islamic jurists. In his 1969 lectures he argued that, “the real governors are the Islamic jurists themselves” (Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs).
In short, had the left been paying attention, there were obvious signs about the kind of regime Khomeini wanted to create.