On Khomeini & Counterrevolution
—Riley to Mikl et al, 28 June 2017
To trace the complicated course of the “Iranian Revolution” requires careful study of the actual events in the spirit of Lenin’s injunction to “make a concrete analysis of a concrete situation,” which he considered to be “the very gist, the living soul, of Marxism.”
Wikipedia’s outline is fairly comprehensive, generally accurate as far as I know, and contains many of the essentials. It might be useful to anyone seeking an overview. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranian_Revolution
Reputable bourgeois and leftist sources tell broadly the same story—beginning with Khomeini’s role as a leading Shiite theologian who was also a historic leader of opposition to the monarchy. Khomeini had a major role in the 1963 upheavals against the shah’s “White Revolution,” which he denounced as a path to “the destruction of Islam in Iran.” Hundreds were killed as the protests were put down with savage brutality. Khomeini spent eight months under house arrest before being exiled, where he remained for the next 15 years. Yet he remained a significant national figure in Iranian oppositional politics, and in the events leading to the shah’s exile in January 1979, he played a central role. Wikipedia’s one sentence summary of the “Iranian Revolution” accurately portrays it as:
“the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was supported by the United States, and its eventual replacement with an Islamic Republic under the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, supported by various leftist and Islamist organizations and student movements”
It is important to appreciate that Khomeini emerged as the undisputed leader of a movement against the shah which “various leftist and Islamist [as well as liberal] organizations” supported. They all sought “unity” with the masses that were mobilized through the mosques. The “radical nationalists, Stalinist guerillas, pro-soviet Communists and secular liberals” who participated in the movement, by the end of 1978, accepted their roles as politically subordinate junior partners of the mullahs. They did not act as genuinely independent political factors—instead they adapted to the overwhelming popularity of the Islamic leadership of a movement that while hostile to the shah’s regime, was completely reactionary in its own right. This should have been obvious to anyone claiming to be Marxist.
The bloc of the shah’s clerical opposition with both the major liberal/secular oppositional organizations and the insurgent urban guerrillas (of both Islamic and leftist varieties) was achieved through negotiations. John Stempel, a senior U.S. diplomat stationed in Tehran throughout the 1970s, reported:
“In August and September  the top leadership in both the religious and secular opposition met several times, in Iran and elsewhere, though mostly in Europe. Decisions taken at these gatherings shaped the challenge to the Shah for the next year, until September 1978. The Mujahidin and Fedayeen groups agreed to rein in their violent inclinations and let more moderate elements step up their peaceful provocation….Thus moderates such as Sanjabi, Bakhtiar, and Forouhar of the [bourgeois nationalist] National Front and representatives of the lawyers and writers groups were the winners at these meetings….The compromise strategy allowed everyone to continue developing their individual organizations while bringing the Moslem clergy into the revolutionary movement as part of the consultation process, a much closer connection than in [the attempted revolt against the shah in] 1963.”
—Inside the Iranian Revolution, p87
Jahangir Amuzegar, an academic who had served as the shah’s economic minister in the early 1960s, depicted a politically diffuse opposition:
“The urban group, basically instrumental in defeating the shah, included individuals of different socioeconomic backgrounds and varied motives who had no single common spiritual ideology; nor, for the most part, had even the faintest inclination toward a theocracy. Among them were, of course, large crowds of demonstrators who were mobilized and financed by the bazaar on behalf of the clergy…. Religious demonstrations for many [non-religious participants] reflected the symbolism, form and façade of the antiregime movement. For them, Islamic fundamentalism—and more specifically the creation of an Islamic republic—was not the prime motive, main goal or a desired outcome. Religious slogans and paraphernalia were an expedient means, a manifest strategy, a popular pretext.
. . .
“It was only in January 1978 that the opposition’s leadership was secured by the clerics…and finally Ayatollah Khomeini. As late as September 1978, the opposition’s main demand was for a stricter observance of the 1906 Constitution. There was no common call for an Islamic government. The concept was later developed during the ayatollah’s short stay in Paris when … the absence of a common platform among the opposition groups) demanded a concrete and positive stand beyond the mere goal of dethroning the shah.”
—Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution: The Pahlavis’ Triumph and Tragedy, pp 30-31
Amuzegar aptly described Khomeini as “a leader with a clear goal, decisiveness and courage” (p31) directing a movement “with a concrete target, recognized and determined leadership, deep-seated indoctrination, large financial support, and an extensive communications network” (p36). The mullahs understood the importance of attempting to unify the opposition and were prepared to temper their language to avoid unduly alarming their partners.
The shah and his advisers (including those in Washington) sought to make a deal with a section of the liberal opposition in order to broaden the base of the regime. But the regime’s attempts to present a more democratic face were undercut by its vacillations and the continuing repression. Despite repeated reshuffling of government ministers and administrative personnel, the shah’s “reform” maneuvers failed to gain traction. In part, this was because Khomeini presented the Islamic republic of the future as democratic, inclusive and socially egalitarian. He also disavowed any role for himself in affairs of state:
“Personal desire, age, and my health do not allow me to personally have a role in running the country after the fall of the current system.”
—Interview with the Associated Press, Paris, November 7, 1978 [cited in http://www.iranian.com/Opinion/2003/August/Khomeini]
He offered bogus reassurances to the millions of Iranians who were nervous about the prospect of theocratic rule:
“In Iran’s Islamic government the media have the freedom to express all Iran’s realities and events, and people have the freedom to form any form of political parties and gatherings that they like.”
—Interview with the Italian newspaper Paese Sera, Paris, November 2, 1978 [cited as above]
He also explicitly endorsed political plurality:
“In the Islamic government all people have complete freedom to have any kind of opinion.”
—Interview with Human Rights Watch, Paris, November 10, 1978 [cited as above]
After the mullahs came to power Khomeini’s message changed abruptly:
“Don’t listen to those who speak of democracy. They all are against Islam. They want to take the nation away from its mission. We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy, and such things.”
—In a meeting with Iranian students and educators, Qom (3), March 13, 1979 [cited as above]
Many who had reservations about clerical rule hesitated to challenge the mullahs on the grounds that the shah was a greater evil. The Iranian left, like their Pabloite, Cliffite and Stalinist counterparts abroad, chose to regard the Islamic ideological pronouncements as merely a façade behind which an anti-imperialist revolution was inexorably moving in a socialist direction. They presumed that Khomeini was an incidental figure—another Father Gapon.
The revolutionary Spartacist tendency took a very different position, and was powerfully vindicated as events unfolded. The iSt made the simple observation that Islamic rule would mean brutal oppression for women, minorities and other oppressed layers and also the destruction of the workers’ movement and the left. The iSt correctly insisted that to open the door to working-class rule, the anti-shah struggle had to include an explicit rejection of theocracy. Otherwise it would all end in disaster.
Mikl and the other comrades have the disadvantage of not having lived through these events and been able to follow the course of their development. This is undoubtedly the origin of the following seriously mistaken assessment:
“The revolution in 1979 in Iran was not Islam revolution, but a revolution against Shah regime which was the imperialist stooge…. It was not destined to but was morphed into Islam revolution after a series of power game in a couple of years of time with Mujahedin, fedayeen and Tudeh which Khomeini faction won….”
As described above, the political opposition to the shah was comprised of many elements—most of which did not, at least initially, advocate Islamic rule. But between mid-1977 and late 1978 the Khomeinites gradually established themselves as the effective, and virtually unquestioned, political leadership. This became clear in the course of two days of gigantic mass protests (10-11 December 1978), the events which many observers consider to have constituted the point of no return for the monarchy:
“…the Islamic movement turned out about 1.2 million followers in Tehran for the Tassua commemoration December 10….On Ashura, the following day, over five million people turned out in approximately 20 cities—including about 1.5 million in Tehran—for ceremonies which were much more political. The massive crowds heard speakers who attacked the government and asked the people to ‘approve’ a 17-point program, including the following:
—recognition of Khomeini as the imam (leader) of Iran and of the march as the ‘sincere vote of confidence of the nation’
—abolition of the Shah’s regime and the monarch and the end to all foreign exploitation
—establishment of a ‘just Islamic state’ on the basis of democratic vote”
—Inside the Iranian Revolution, p150
The unprecedented scale of the December demonstrations signaled that the Khomeinites had succeeded in polarizing Iranian society, and, for many, reducing the options to either the monarchy or an Islamic Republic.
“The Tassua-Ashura demonstrations also affected the Shah. Though violent, open confrontation had been avoided, the size of the marches and the depth of the feeling displayed finally convinced him that his political stock had reached an all-time low….After the Ashura [11 December] march it was clear to all but a handful of the imperial faithful that here was no chance of the Shah remaining on the throne in other than a titular capacity, and precious little chance of that unless he brutally and completely repressed the revolutionaries.”
The online Encyclopedia Britannica summarized the course of the struggle that brought down the shah as follows:
“From the mid-1970s Khomeini’s influence inside Iran grew dramatically owing to mounting public dissatisfaction with the shah’s regime. Iraq’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, forced Khomeini to leave Iraq on October 6, 1978. Khomeini then settled in Neauphle-le-Château, a suburb of Paris. From there his supporters relayed his tape-recorded messages to an increasingly aroused Iranian populace, and massive demonstrations, strikes, and civil unrest in late 1978 forced the departure of the shah from Iran on January 16, 1979. Khomeini arrived in Tehrān in triumph on February 1, 1979, and was acclaimed as the religious leader of Iran’s revolution. He appointed a government four days later and on March 1 again took up residence in Qom.”
The tumultuous welcome accorded Khomeini (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldvwY5fFzQ0) when he returned from exile reflected his overwhelming popularity. (Middle East Monitor has suggested that as many as 7 million people participated in that event, roughly a fifth of Iran’s population at that time).
The fact that Khomeini was in a position to effectively “appoint a government” four days after arriving from a 15 year exile is enormously significant. It should make it obvious that, at that moment, he was the preeminent political figure in the country. The fact that the Fedayeen, Tudeh and most of the rest of the Iranian left, as well as the liberals in the National Front and other secular elements in the anti-shah movement endorsed his proposal demonstrates the unquestioned political dominance of the mullahs.
The capitulation of the shah’s leftist and bourgeois opposition to Khomeini meant that, contrary to Mikl’s speculation, there were virtually no “power games” with the mullahs in the critical period during which the Islamic Republic was consolidated. Had any such competition occurred it would have been well documented in both the left and bourgeois press. There is no documentation of any significant and sustained challenge to Khomeini for the simple reason that there were none.
What happened instead was that, one by one, the Khomeinites denounced their former leftist and secular bloc partners as “counterrevolutionary” and crushed them—in many cases with the cowardly endorsement of those not yet targeted. There was resistance, in the early period, to the consolidation of Islamic state, but it was episodic and lacked coordination. (Between 14-18 February 1979, only days after the final collapse of the old regime, Mujahedin units loyal to Khomeini was engaged in an intermittent gun battle with Fedayeen fighters who had resisted government instructions to vacate the U.S. embassy—see Stempel pp 167, 193.)
On several occasions the Khomeinites encountered sufficient resistance to force a (temporary) retreat on particular issues. But over time, using what Stalin called “salami tactics,” all vestiges of democratic space were gradually eliminated and the workers’ movement was strangled. Leftist academic Haideh Moghissi describes how Iran’s potentially powerful leftist-secular organizations, which had the sympathy of millions, were crushed by the Islamic “revolutionaries” without being able to mount serious resistance:
“It can, of course, be argued that due to Khomeini’s enormous personal popularity and his hold over the masses, any resistance against clerical rule was a battle already lost….This is a defeatist reading….It disregards two important historical facts. First it overlooks the enthusiasm and respect enjoyed in the initial stages of the revolution by Left organizations outside the Tudeh Party and by other secular forces….Indeed, by lending support to the Ayatollah, these groups gave the revolution more credibility. This is the reason why Ayatollah Khomeini, while still in Paris, repeatedly assured Iranians that neither he nor any of the clergy aspired to holding any state positions in post-revolutionary Iran. Secondly, the fatalistic view forgets that the clerics assumed state power and re-established the state’s coercive apparatus through a violent, protracted process directed against its secular contenders….
“Perhaps most important, political and theoretical divisions among liberal and Left oppositional forces, and particularly within the Left, developed into irreconcilable conflicts. These fierce political and ideological divisions, more than anything else, allowed the clerics to separate and suppress each group, one at a time, and to emerge as the paramount power under Khomeini’s sacrosanct leadership. Left organizations participated in this process through their active support of Khomeini or through an equally affirming silence and complicity. Confused about clerical xenophobia, they mistook the regime’s ‘anti-non-Islamism’ for anti-imperialism. The regime, for its part, through its appropriation of the socialists’ anti-imperialist theory and revolutionary rhetoric, stripped this language of its distinctive character, eliminating the socialists as a political alternative.”
“Indeed, there are reasons to believe that, at least in the initial stages of the revolution, a determined and united front of secular and non-fundamentalist religious forces could have defended the democratic achievement of the 1979 revolution and pushed back effectively the fundamentalists’ offensive. The retreat of the Islamic government after the women’s protest marches in February 1979; its attempts to pacify protestors by interpreting the Ayatollah’s declaration on Hejab as a recommendation not as a command; the retreat of Hezbollah [pro regime thugs] and the government in the face of progressive opposition in the conflict (May-June 1979) over closure of the Tehran daily Ayandegan—all are cases in point…..Only a few months later, however, the paper was closed down…without major resistance on the part of the opposition, reflecting the disunity of the anti-clerical forces. The Fedayeen and the Mujahedeen [after a third of the group—those most committed to Khomeini—left to help create the regime’s Revolutionary Guards, aka Pasdaran—see Stempel, p 200] , the two strongest oppositional organizations, refrained from supporting the National Democratic Front’s protest march against the strangulation of the free press….This episode, widely referred to as a clerical coup d’etat, extinguished the relative freedoms of the press and of expression still surviving after the revolution, and constituted a decisive turning point in the post-revolutionary democratic struggle.”
— “Troubled Relationships: Women, nationalism and the Left movement in Iran,” Haideh Moghissi, in Reformers and Revolutionaries in Modern Iran: New perspectives on the Iranian Left, pp 210-212
There was a tendency among leftists at the time, which Mikl and other comrades perhaps share, to view Khomeini as a resolutely anti-imperialist fighter locked in an implacable struggle with a servile lackey of Washington. But the picture was not quite so simple. The shah’s regime was dependent upon and closely allied with U.S. imperialism, but it was also the instrument of a major component of the Iranian bourgeoisie. It was not simply an agent of Washington. At points where their interests diverged—for example in 1973 when OPEC jacked up oil prices —the shah’s policies were opposed by his patron. These sort of tensions are of course entirely typical in neo-colonial regimes.
Much of the background to the 1979 showdown involved competition between the different sections of Iran’s ruling class under imperialist domination. As in Turkey, rivalry between secular and clerical authority in Iran had a long history:
“In every generation, some groups and individuals have turned toward new ideas and modernization while others have retained traditional fundamentalist beliefs. Occasionally, disagreements between these two basic views have even erupted into armed conflict, as happened during the struggle to imposed a constitution in 1906-1908.”
—Inside the Iranian Revolution, p12
While publicly denouncing the shah as a lackey of U.S. imperialism, as events came to a head, Khomeini was busy signaling that he was wanted to find a modus vivendi with Washington:
“On 27 January, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, the man who called the United States ‘the Great Satan’ – sent a secret message to Washington.
“From his home in exile outside Paris, the defiant leader of the Iranian revolution effectively offered the Carter administration a deal: Iranian military leaders listen to you, he said, but the Iranian people follow my orders.
“If President Jimmy Carter could use his influence on the military to clear the way for his takeover, Khomeini suggested, he would calm the nation. Stability could be restored, America’s interests and citizens in Iran would be protected.”
—BBC, 3 June 2016 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36431160
The BBC report, based on recently declassified U.S. documents, points to the discrepancy between Khomeini’s public and private attitudes toward American imperialism:
“In the official Iranian narrative of the revolution, Khomeini bravely defied the United States and defeated ‘the Great Satan’ in its desperate efforts to keep the Shah in power.
“But the documents reveal that Khomeini was far more engaged with the US than either government has ever admitted.”
The BBC also reported an earlier attempt to reach out to the U.S. rulers after his 1963 arrest:
“In 1963, the ayatollah was just emerging as a vocal critic of the Shah. In June, he gave a blistering speech, furious that the Shah, pressed hard by the Kennedy administration, had launched a ‘White Revolution’ – a major land reform programme and granted women the vote.
“Khomeini was arrested. Immediately, three days of violent protests broke out, which the military put down swiftly.
“A recently declassified CIA document reveals that, in November 1963, Khomeini sent a rare message of support to the Kennedy administration while being held under house arrest in Tehran.
“It was a few days after a military firing squad executed two alleged organisers of the protests and ahead of a landmark visit by the Soviet head of state to Iran, which played into US fears of Iran tilting towards a friendlier relationship with the USSR.
“Khomeini wanted the Shah’s chief benefactor to understand that he had no quarrel with America.
“‘Khomeini explained he was not opposed to American interests in Iran,’ according to a 1980 CIA analysis titled Islam in Iran, partially released to the public in 2008.
“To the contrary, an American presence was necessary to counter the Soviet and British influence, Khomeini told the US.”
Khomeini, as the leading oppositional figure to the Pahlavis, represented the interests of that section of the Iranian ruling elite which opposed the shah’s western-oriented agenda. But merely opposing the reactionary monarchy did not change the fact that the mullahs were deeply counterrevolutionary—they simply had a different program for the Iranian ruling class. Similar divisions within neocolonial ruling strata are common—as is the tendency for the dissident faction to pose as “revolutionary” challengers to the status quo.
In 1917 No. 36 (2014) we briefly discussed the 1951 nationalization of Anglo-Iranian Oil (today BP) by Iranian prime minister Mossadeq. Initially the Tudeh had opposed Mossadeq while Ayatollah Seyyed Kashani (a leading cleric who happened to be Khomeini’s father in law as well as speaker of the national parliament) supported him. Within a few years the two had changed positions. As we noted, Kashani “played a key role in the successful 1953 coup organized by the CIA which restored the Pahlavi monarchy.” An interesting account (based on contemporary U.S. diplomatic reports) of Kashani’s falling out with Mossadeq can be found in a 1991 MA thesis by Wolfgang Kressin, an American military cadre:
“At 8 AM on 19 August  a huge pro-Shah rally exploded out of the bazaar in south Tehran. Consisting of 3,000 chaqu kishan [Islamic thugs] wielding sticks and clubs, they had been mobilized by Ayatullah Bihbahani with CIA dollars (to be known as Bihbahani dollars). The mercenary mob joined other spot demonstrations all over the city and headed towards Mossadegh’s residence. The security forces did not interfere, as they were not oriented or inclined to stop pro-Shah rallies. Key regimental commanders and the police chief were actually privy to the plan.
“Concerning Kashani’s role in the coup, the evidence is not clear. Faghfoory contends Kashani had no role. This is not supported by evidence. Gasiorowski contends that Kashani probably accepted $10,000 from the CIA on the morning of August 19 to distribute to the chaqu kishan. And on the other end of the spectrum, Diba argues the possibility that Kashanl was a British agent. The explosion of chaqu kishan out of south Tehran certainly seems to have been set off by a rapid infusion of a lot of money, but Kashani probably had only a partial role in mobilization.”
—http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a239339.pdf pp 136-7
In the 1917 article we noted the irony that Khomeini who, mentored by Kashani, participated in the overthrow of Mossadeq and the restoration of the monarchy, eventually emerged as “the leader of a mass reactionary movement that deposed the pro-American Shah….”
Just as Khomeini had a record of occasional contact/collaboration with U.S. imperialism, the shah, like various other neo-colonial rulers, did not always march in lockstep with his patron. Stempel relates how tensions developed when the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s suggested that the Iranian regime launch a campaign against graft. The shah resisted this proposal, according to Stempel, because “he didn’t want to probe too deeply into the financial holdings of his relatives and other affluent supporters”:
“After this tug-of-war with the United States, the Shah sought to improve relations with the Soviets. He initiated economic talks, and pledged that no foreign (i.e., American) missiles would be permitted on Iranian soil. The unrest within his country the previous two years had convinced the Shah that he needed to build a stronger political base in order to better resist pressure from his American allies.” p67
One factor in the Eisenhower administration’s decision to proceed with the CIA’s proposal to overthrow Mossadeq (a plan which had previously been rejected by the Truman administration) was because he had opted to play the Soviet card:
“At the end of May , Mossadegh had sent a letter to President Eisenhower requesting a large increase in financial aid. The letter claimed that intrigues of the AIOC, British government, and their Iranian allies were defeating Iranian aspirations. It also had subtle threats of turning his country towards communism if Eisenhower did not respond positively. In Mossadegh’s mind, such posturing was appropriate. In the oil negotiations, he had shown the U.S. his preference for American moral and financial support, and he thought he could suppress the Tudeh when he so desired….
“While Eisenhower took the entire month of June to study the letter, Mossadegh gave some meaning to his subtle threats. He held high-profile negotiations with the Soviet ambassador concerning a barter trade agreement and the satisfaction of various mutual claims. The Iranian press was overly optimistic about Mossadegh’s ploy. The [U.S.] embassy summarized that, ‘a number of newspapers of varied political stripe share the fond hope, so characteristically Iranian, that in some way Iran will be able to play the United States and the U.S.S.R. against each other and to profit from their rivalry.’ On the other hand, the news of potential Iranian-Soviet cooperation reignited vehement charges by Kashani’s opposition that Mossadegh was a communist stooge.”
—Kressin, pp 121-2
In 1978-79 Khomeini was able to take advantage of mass popular opposition to the monarchy because of his reputation as a historic antagonist of the shah. Khomeini skillfully rode a wave which he was able to guide but not completely control. In an illuminating retrospective, written a few years after the mullahs had extinguished all resistance, the Mandelite HKS (USec section in Iran) discussed the revolutionary impulses that had animated the masses:
“It is extremely simplistic to portray the mass movement as having a homogeneously confused consciousness with total illusions in Khomeini. Despite Khomeini, the workers organised shoras (councils), threw out the capitalists and their managers, including those appointed by Imam’s government. The peasants occupied the land, despite a call to wait for the Revolutionary Council’s permission. The national minorities began to organise themselves, despite the open repression of the new regime. Women demonstrated for equal rights in direct opposition to Khomeini himself. Students took over the running of all the educational establishments, despite the appeals by the ‘leaders’ to return to their studies. The masses did not give up their arms, despite the call by Khomeini himself. The soldiers resisted attempts by the new regime to dissolve their shoras and themselves began to purge the army of the old officers.”
The 1983 HKS document (much of which is reprinted in Appendix No. 1 below) identified the key failure of the Iranian left as its fatalistic acquiescence to Khomeini, and insightfully described the disorientation that resulted from its acceptance of the mullahs’ “revolutionary” posturing as good coin. The HKS auto-critique does not explicitly endorse the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution encapsulated in the iSt’s three point call: “Down with the Shah!”, “No Support to the Mullahs!” and “Workers to Power!”, but it makes clear how siding with the mullahs against the shah disoriented the working class and facilitated the subsequent destruction of the workers’ movement:
“When Khomeini’s faction was imposing its own slogans on the mass demonstrations against the Shah, the left did not protest. When Khomeini appointed his Provisional Revolutionary Government, the Fedayeen, Mojahedeen, Tudeh Party and many other groups gave it support. When the newly set up Islamic Courts were issuing sentences of execution in secret trials against the members of the old regime, the left was hailing this. When the regime began to attack the rights of women under the banner of ‘down with the Westernised prostitutes (sic)’, the left at best ignored it as being a ‘women’s’ problem and having a secondary importance. When the freedom of the press was under attack, because it at first affected only the bourgeois press, the left did not resist. But soon afterwards, the left press was also shut down.
“When the working class came under attack by the new regime, it was under the banner of ‘the Islamic shoras’. Many militant workers who had themselves radicalised under the influence of the earlier mobilizations dominated by Khomeini’s leadership, could not by their own experience realise what exactly was happening. They did not resist these attacks because they involved a section of the working class itself. The memory of the earlier ‘united’ mass movement still haunted everybody….
“Later on, when the counter-revolutionary designs of Khomeini’s forces had become clear to everyone, it was, however, too late. Khomeini had by this time lost most of his mass base, but what was left was a lot more efficiently organised and well tempered into a strong instrument of repression.”
The following is an extensive except from the 1983 HKS retrospective, it was published in English on the International Marxist Tendency’s website in September 2003. Emphasis added.
Revolution and Counter-revolution in Iran: A Marxist View
The Lessons of the Revolution
The facts of the present situation [IMT Editor’s note:1983] in Iran indicate that the revolutionary mass movement has subsided, and is unable to confront the counter-revolution, which has taken complete hold of power, based on a reconstructed and a more formidable repressive bourgeois state. These facts show that the new regime is rapidly creating all the necessary conditions for the reestablishment of an even more corrupt and exploitative order integrated into the world imperialist system.
How has the Iranian revolution resulted in such an outcome?
1. Victory of the Counter-revolution
a. Counter-Revolution in Iran
The newly established counter-revolution has in fact come out of the revolution itself. This is the peculiarity of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The very same forces which claimed the leadership of the February overthrow have now taken total control of a repressive state and are leading the counter-revolutionary drive of the Iranian bourgeoisie and world imperialism. There must be no confusion on this. The imperialist, the ousted bourgeois factions, the internal forces of the old dictatorship, have only been able to intervene and influence the course of events in Iran indirectly and through Khomeini’s leadership. He is, and has been throughout this period, the leader of the counter-revolution.
To hold, therefore, that because of the dislike for the Islamic regime by imperialism, revolutionaries must give it support, is to commit a grave mistake. The logic of such a position would inevitably lead to capitulation in the face of the actually existing and presently active counter-revolution. The path of real struggle against imperialism goes through the overthrow of this regime, not simply because this regime is blocking the path of revolution but because it is in fact placed, kept and supported there by the imperialists themselves.
The Islamic Regime is not just some bourgeois nationalist regime which has come to power as a result of a national liberation struggle, albeit (because of its class character) an inconsistent “anti-imperialist” force; it is the actual counter-revolution against a revolution which should have and could have resulted in the first truly workers state in Asia. If anybody can claim that this regime poses a threat to imperialism, they must either also simultaneously prove that imperialists are not the main beneficiary of the counter-revolution or say that the Iranian Regime is not the active representative of this counter-revolution in Iran.
To say also that, because the regime which has “come out of the revolution” has not yet been overthrown by imperialism or the monarchist bourgeoisie, hence the revolution is still continuing, albeit in a distorted form, is to entirely misjudge the fact that the actual establishment of this Regime represented the first and some would say decisive victory for the counter- revolution. This was led by Khomeini’s faction, and now that this faction has concentrated all power in its hands, we must say that the counter-revolution has been victorious, the very same force which came out of the leadership of the revolution.
It is also now absolutely clear and well documented that long before the February insurrection, important sections of the army, the secret police and the bureaucracy went behind Khomeini. U.S. imperialism also directly intervened to bring about a negotiated settlement between the chiefs of the armed forces and the bourgeois-clerical leadership, not to mention many of the biggest bourgeois entrepreneurs who gave Khomeini huge sums of money to organise his “leadership”.
Given the broadness of the mass movement and its radicalism, the only way that the bourgeois counter-revolution could have succeeded in defeating the revolution was by “joining” it. This could have been possible only by supporting a faction within the opposition to the Shah that could ensure a degree of control over the masses. This was one of the most (if not the most) important factors in placing Khomeini at the head of the mass movement.
The reasons why the Shiite clergy, especially Khomeini’s faction, was well suited for this task should be obvious. The clergy has always been an important institution of the state, well trained in defending class society and private property. After all, the Shiite hierarchy has been the main ideological prop of the state. Khomeini himself had come from a faction which had already proven its loyalty to the ruling class by helping it in the 1953 coup.
It was also the least hated instrument of the state, because it was not a structural part of what it was supporting. Unlike the Catholic Church, it had always kept its distance from the state. Especially because of the post-White Revolution period of capitalist development, the clergy had been relegated to a secondary position. Indeed, because of this, a growing faction within the hierarchy had been forced into a position of opposition to the Shah’s regime. This could now be utilised as a passport inside the mass movement.
Given the weakness of the bourgeois political opposition, which was not allowed to operate under the Shah, the clergy, with its nationwide network of mullahs and mosques, provided the strong instrument-cum-party necessary for “organising” and channelling the spontaneous mass movement. It could also provide the type of vague populist ideology needed to blunt the radical demands of the masses and to unite them around a veiled bourgeois programme.
Given the predominance of the urban petty bourgeois and the peasant migrants in the early stages of the mass movement, the call of the clergy for “Islamic Justice”, “Islamic economics”, “Islamic army”, and “Islamic state” could immediately find a willing mass base.
To deny, therefore, even today, that Khomeini’s counter-revolutionary drive coincided with its efforts to place itself at the leadership of the revolution, is to go against all the facts now known to millions of Iranians themselves. To deny also that from the beginning it was helped in these efforts by the ruling classes and their imperialist backers is to misunderstand the main course of events in the Iranian revolution.
b. Bourgeois Factions
It is, therefore, a total mystification to characterise the Iranian revolution as a “popular anti-imperialist revolution led by bourgeois nationalist forces”. This completely misses out the specific counter-revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie and its political tool within the revolution.
The political and economic crisis of the 1976-78 period, which set the scene for the mass unrest, was made up of different and contradictory factors. Alongside the mass movement of protests against the Shah’s dependent capitalist dictatorship, there were also important rifts inside the bourgeoisie as a whole, both within the pro Shah sections and between the pro and anti-Shah sections.
These bourgeoisie oppositions to the Shah’s rule were transformed as the revolutionary crisis grew and deepened: There was, firstly, a movement for the reform of the Shah’s state from within the top “modernist” bourgeoisie, which favoured the limitation of the Royal Family’s absolute powers and was for a certain degree of rationalisation of the capitalist state. The requirements of further capitalist development themselves necessitated these reforms.
This faction had already formed itself within the Shah’s single party (rastakhiz – Resurgence) before the revolutionary crisis. It had the support of an important section of the technocrats and bureaucrats inside Iran, and of influential groups within the U.S. establishment. As the crisis deepened, this faction became increasingly vociferous in its opposition to the Shah. It began to use the threat of the mass movement as a leverage in its dealings with the Shah. The ousting of the Hoveida’s government and the formation of Amouzegar’s cabinet was a concession to this faction.
The development of the mass movement was, however, pushing other bourgeois oppositionists to the forefront.
This faction knew that, in order to ride the crisis, it had to hide behind bourgeois politicians less associated with the Shah’s dictatorship. In no other way could it hope to enjoy a certain degree of support inside the mass movement. The reemergence of the corpse called the National Front and the rise of newly created bourgeois liberal groupings, (e.g. the Radical Movement) were linked to this trend.
There was also an opposition to the Shah from within the more traditional sectors of the bourgeoisie (the big bazaar merchants and the small and medium sized capitalists from the more traditional sectors of the industry).
The White Revolution and the type of capitalist growth which followed it had also enriched these layers. Nevertheless, they were more or less pushed out of the main channels of the state-backed capital accumulation (monopolistic positions within the foreign licensed consumer goods production) and hence out of the ruling class.
The structural crisis of the Iranian capitalism in the mid-70’s had resulted in the sharpening of the attacks by the Shah’s state on these layers which still had control over a section of the internal market. This hold had to be weakened, to allow the monopolies to resolve their crisis of overproduction. The consumer goods oriented and technologically dependent industrialisation meant a strong tendency for bureaucratic control of the internal market through the state.
To these layers, opposition to the Shah’s rule was a matter of life and death struggle. They could in no way be satisfied with the type of reforms that were being proposed by the other factions. They demanded a more radical change within the power structures. Whilst the reformist factions vehemently opposed any radical change that could shake up the power of the ruling class as a whole, this faction’s interests were in no way harmed by demanding no less than the removal of the Shah’s regime.
As the mass movement grew, it became obvious that this faction could decisively outbid the others. Through the traditional channels of the bazaar economy, it could draw on the support of the urban petty bourgeoisie and the enormous mass of the urban poor linked to it. This faction had, in addition, many links with the powerful Shiite hierarchy. Ever since the White Revolution, the traditional bourgeoisie and the Shiite clergy had drawn closer and closer together.
An important lesson drawn by a section of the bourgeoisie after its defeat in 1953 was precisely that, without an Islamic ideology and without the backing of the mullahs, it could never ensure enough mass support to enable it to pose as a realistic alternative both to the Shah and to the left. Bazargan’s and Taleghani’s Freedom Movement represented this trend. This “party” was now offered an opportunity to save the bourgeoisie in its moment of crisis.
The formation of Sharif Emami’s cabinet represented a move by the Shah’s regime to also include this faction in whatever concessions it had to give. “The government of national conciliation” as it called itself, could, however, neither satisfy the two bourgeois factions, nor quench the mass movement which by now had gathered a new vitality because of the gradually developing general strike.
Throughout his period, Khomeini was popular because he appeared to be consistently calling for the overthrow of the Shah. But at the same time he was preparing to reach an agreement with the regime. In fact it was precisely in this period that, with the help of powerful forces within the regime itself, Khomeini’s “leadership” was being established over the mass movement. By September 1978, a certain degree of control was exercised which could have allowed a compromise at the top. What put a stop to this was the developing general strike.
The stage was thus set for the opening of the pre-revolutionary period of September 78 to February 79, marked by the further isolation of the Shah’s regime, demoralisation of the army and the police, the radicalisation of the masses and the complete paralysis of the entire bourgeois society because of the very effective general strike.
c. Bazargan’s Government
U.S. imperialism and the pro-Shah bourgeoisie were now forced to go a lot further in giving concessions to the mass movement. The removal of the Shah from the scene and the establishment of the Bakhtiar government was in its time and in itself a very radical concession by the dictatorship. It was hoped that in this way the reformist faction, which was already made to look more acceptable, would be strengthened and thus force the more radical faction into a compromise. It was, however, already too late for such compromises. The mass movement was becoming extremely confident of its own strength and the prevailing mood was that of not agreeing to anything less than the complete ousting of the Shah. Furthermore, any politician who tried to reach a compromise with the Shah, immediately lost all support. In fact, even the National Front was forced to renounce Bakhtiar.
This explains the so-called “intransigence” of Khomeini’s stand. By denouncing Bakhtiar (with whom his representatives in Iran were nevertheless holding secret negotiations) and supporting the mass movement, he was strengthening his own hand vis-a-vis both factions of the bourgeois opposition. He was forcing the more popular figures within these factions to accept his “leadership” and preventing them from reaching any compromises without his involvement.
The military circles and the imperialists were also by this time prepared to give up a lot more. There was a growing restlessness within the army. The pro-shah hard liners were preparing for a coup against Bakhtiar. This would have completely finished off the army and with it the last hope of the bourgeoisie in maintaining class rule.
It was becoming obvious that a compromise had to be reached with Khomeini. And that was exactly what took place. Secret negotiations between Beheshti and Bazargan on the one side and the heads of the army and the secret police on the other side were held in Tehran. The arbiter was the U.S. representative General Huyser, whose job was to ensure that the army would keep its side of the bargain. Major sections of the ruling class had been pushed by the course of events, and the encouragement of the Carter administration, to accept sharing power with the opposition. What was hoped was a smooth transition from the top to a Bazargan government.
Bazargan had emerged as the acceptable alternative because he was the only one who could bring about a coalition involving both major bourgeois factions, whilst at the same time being more associated with the by now more powerful Khomeini leadership. Khomeini was also forced to accept such a deal because this provided the best cover for the clergy’s own designs for power.
At that time the clergy could not make any open claims on political power. Khomeini, to alleviate the fears of the bourgeoisie, and to keep his own options open within the mass movement, was constantly reassuring everybody that, once the Shah was gone, he would go back to Qom and continue with his “religious duties”. Khomeini was thus allowed to return to Iran from exile and his appointed provisional government was preparing to take over from Bakhtiar.
The February insurrection was, however, not part of the deal. Some of the now staunch supporters of the Shah within the chiefs of the armed forces who opposed the U.S. backed compromise, tried to change the course of events by organising a military coup. This resulted in an immediate mass response and insurrection, which was initially opposed by Khomeini. But his forces had to join in later, because otherwise they would have lost all control over the mass movement and with it any hope of saving the state apparatus.
The only way to divert the insurrection was to “lead” it. The army chiefs and the bureaucracy were prepared to give their allegiance to Khomeini and his Revolutionary Islamic Council, since this alone could save them from the insurrectionary masses. It was thus that the Bazargan’s Provisional Revolutionary Government, as it was called, replaced Bakhtiar’s. The blessings of Khomeini, therefore, ensured the establishment of a new capitalist government over the head of the masses. In this way, it is obvious that what appeared as “the leadership of the Iranian revolution” basically played, from the beginning, the role of an instrument of bourgeois political counter-revolution, imposed from above in order to roll back the gains of the masses and to save as much of the bourgeois state apparatus as was possible under the given balance of social forces. The ruling class was as yet in no position to resort to further repression.
d. The Clergy
Khomeini was, however, not doing all this service to play the second fiddle. He was simply preparing for the take over of all power at a more favourable moment. He represented a faction of the clergy that was bent on establishing a more direct role for the Shiite hierarchy ever since the Mosadegh period. This faction, in cooperation with the then head of the secret police, made a move in the early 60s for power, but failed. History was now providing it with an opportunity that it could not allow to slip away, especially given the fact that the bourgeois class was extremely weakened and hardly in a position to put up any resistance. The latter, with the approval of the imperialist master, had called on the clergy to save it in its moment of trouble by sharing power. What followed next in the post revolutionary period can only be understood if the designs of the clergy for power are taken into account.
In the beginning, the clergy did not have the necessary instruments for exercising power. The Khomeini faction did not even have hegemony inside the Shiite hierarchy. Many clerical heads opposed the participation of the clergy in politics. It could not rely on the existing institutions in the state either, since they were entirely unsuitable to clerical domination. Amongst other reasons, the bureaucracy itself was all opposed to clerical rule anyway. Even the Prime Minister designate, who was the most “Islamic” of all the bourgeois politicians, resisted any attempts by the mullahs to dominate the functions of the state. A period of preparation was thus necessary.
With the direct backing of Khomeini, this faction first organised a political party: The Islamic Republican Party. This was simply presented as one newly formed party among others. Later on, however, this party pounced on all others and it has now replaced the Shah’s single party. Through the networks of pro-Khomeini mullahs, it established an entire organisation of neighbourhood committees and Pasdaran units supposedly to help the government to keep law and order and to resist the monarchist counter-revolution.
Revolutionary Islamic Courts were also set up to punish the Shah’s henchmen. These courts quickly executed a few of the most hated elements of the old regime, but only in order to save the majority from the anger of the masses. The Imam’s committees, the Pasdaran Army and the Islamic Courts, rapidly replaced the Shah’s instruments of repression .
All these moves were initially supported by the bourgeoisie, which realised that it was only through these measures that it could hope to finish off the revolution and begin the “period of reconstruction.” The newly created “revolutionary institutions” were serving well the Bazargan government, constantly reassuring it of their allegiance to it. Later on, however, they became instruments of the clergy in ousting the bourgeois politicians from the reins of power and indirectly dominating the state apparatus.
Khomeini also forced an early referendum on the nature of the regime to replace the Shah: Monarchy or the Islamic Republic? Despite the grumbling of the bourgeois politicians, they had to accept this undemocratic method of determining the fate of the state, because the other alternative was the formation of the promised constituent assembly. The election of such an assembly during that revolutionary period would of course have created many threats to bourgeois rule.
The referendum was thus held and of course the majority voted for the Islamic Republic. The mullas knew that the masses could not very well vote for the monarchy! It was later claimed that, since 98 percent of the people had voted for an Islamic Republic, hence the constituent assembly must be replaced by an assembly of “experts” (khobregan) based on Islamic law. The small assembly, which was therefore packed with mullahs, had of course a majority who suddenly brought out a constitution giving dictatorial power to Khomeini as the chief of the experts.
The clause of velayat-e faghih (the rule of the chief mullah) was resisted by the bourgeois politicians, but the clergy pushed it through by a demagogic appeal to the anti-imperialist sentiments of the masses and through the controlled mass mobilisations around the U.S. embassy. The masses were told that now that we face “this major threat from the Great Satan” we must all vote for the Islamic Constitution. With an almost 40% vote, this became nevertheless the new constitution
Hence, Khomeini’s clerical faction co-operated with the various bourgeois groupings in joint efforts by the ruling class to prevent the total destruction of the bourgeois state and in diverting and suppressing the Iranian revolution, whilst at the same time, always strengthening its own hand and trying to subordinate other factions to its own rule. It used its advantageous position within the mass movement to bypass the bourgeois state whenever it suited its own factional interest. But it was also forging a new apparatus of repression that was being gradually integrated into the state as the competition with other factions was being resolved in its favour.
2. The Defeat of the Mass Movement
a. The Revolutionary Movement
Despite Khomeini’s Islamic counter-revolution, the mass revolutionary movement developed and broadened after the overthrow of the Shah’s regime. The fact that Khomeini had his own designs and was already serving the bourgeoisie, did not, of course, deter the masses from pushing forward with their own demands. In fact another myth of the Iranian revolution is that Khomeini held complete sway over the masses.
The fact that Khomeini has never consented to any free elections, even immediately after the insurrection which was the period of his high popularity, shows that he himself did not believe this myth. He did certainly have a mass base and its hard core was the best organised and the more active section of the masses. But, it in no way did this section of the masses reflect the mass movement as a whole.
The vast majority of the revolutionary masses knew why they were against the Shah and what could satisfy their needs. The experience of the revolution itself had also taught them about their own strength and the necessity for getting themselves organised. Even when they were submitting to Khomeini’s leadership, which even before the insurrection was imposed by the use of force, they had also their own projects.
It is extremely simplistic to portray the mass movement as having a homogeneously confused consciousness with total illusions in Khomeini. Despite Khomeini, the workers organised shoras (councils), threw out the capitalists and their managers, including those appointed by Imam’s government. The peasants occupied the land, despite a call to wait for the Revolutionary Council’s permission. The national minorities began to organise themselves, despite the open repression of the new regime. Women demonstrated for equal rights in direct opposition to Khomeini himself. Students took over the running of all the educational establishments, despite the appeals by the “leaders” to return to their studies. The masses did not give up their arms, despite the call by Khomeini himself. The soldiers resisted attempts by the new regime to dissolve their shoras and themselves began to purge the army of the old officers.
Only a few weeks after the insurrection, mass demonstrations in opposition to the Khomeini’s appointed government were being organised in many cities. The first leftist May-Day demonstration in Tehran drew over 300,000. Within the first few months, the Fedayeen and the Mojahedeen were seen by the masses to constitute forces to the left of the Khomeini’s leadership and because of that closer to their aspirations. These groups rapidly developed a mass base, if not more numerous in some important sections of the masses, at least comparable to that of Khomeini’s within the working class. Even the bourgeois liberal groupings had a considerable base in the beginning.
Thus, there certainly was mass support for the left. Whilst for the regime, despite all its machinations, there never really was a majority. Other than the first presidential elections, every other election organised by the Islamic regime has been boycotted by more than 60% of the electorate.
By the summer of 1979, Khomeini had lost all support amongst the oppressed nationalities (i.e. the majority of the population), and in the populated Northern provinces. In all major industrial centres, e.g., Tehran and Ahwaz, Khomeini’s support was minimal. Among the students, the new regime could barely count on the support of 10 to 15 percent. Within the lower ranks of the army, a similar situation existed.
Six months before the ousting of President Bani Sadr, over 2 million people demonstrated in Tehran in defiance of the Khomeinist forces, whilst Beheshti could only draw less than 150,000 in a rival assembly. In the first round of the Majlis elections, at the height of Khomeini’s anti-imperialist demagogy, and despite the rigged machinery which controlled the polling stations, the left on its own gathered over 1.5 million votes. (Add to this another 2 millions if you include Mojahedeen.) The masses did have illusions in Khomeini, but not for long, and in no period was this true of the majority of the struggling layers; even the regime itself has been forced to admit that it is not relying on majority support amongst the workers, poor peasants, national minorities, women, soldiers, students, etc!
b. The Schism of the Mass Movement
The weakness of the revolutionary mass movement was based on another factor, the fact that it was immediately split by the imposition of the Khomeini leadership. There was after all, alongside the popular revolutionary upsurge, an Islamic counter-revolution led by Khomeini. The latter, which was well organised and had the backing of the state apparatus, was mobilised not only against the forces of the old regime but also against the revolution. Especially in the decisive early stages, when the boundary between the two was unclear, the revolutionary masses could not put up the necessary resistance against what appeared to many of them as a part of themselves. The fact that the majority of the groups on the left also fell for this, of course, did not help.
When Khomeini’s faction was imposing its own slogans on the mass demonstrations against the Shah, the left did not protest. When Khomeini appointed his Provisional Revolutionary Government, the Fedayeen, Mojahedeen, Tudeh Party and many other groups gave it support. When the newly set up Islamic Courts were issuing sentences of execution in secret trials against the members of the old regime, the left was hailing this. When the regime began to attack the rights of women under the banner of “down with the Westernised prostitutes (sic)”, the left at best ignored it as being a “women’s” problem and having a secondary importance. When the freedom of the press was under attack, because it at first affected only the bourgeois press, the left did not resist. But soon afterwards, the left press was also shut down.
When the working class came under attack by the new regime, it was under the banner of “the Islamic shoras”. Many militant workers who had themselves radicalised under the influence of the earlier mobilizations dominated by Khomeini’s leadership, could not by their own experience realise what exactly was happening. They did not resist these attacks because they involved a section of the working class itself. The memory of the earlier “united” mass movement still haunted everybody. When bands of thugs organised by the Islamic Republican Party began to openly attack any independent meetings or demonstration, the usual tactic of “resistance” was to call on them: “unity, unity, the secret of victory!”. They were after all the very same people who had participated in the fight against the Shah.
Later on, when the counter-revolutionary designs of Khomeini’s forces had become clear to everyone, it was, however, too late. Khomeini had by this time lost most of his mass base, but what was left was a lot more efficiently organised and well tempered into a strong instrument of repression. Furthermore, Khomeini’s faction was never a passive observer of the erosion of its base. It used all the forces of the state under its command (the completely controlled mass media, the institution of Friday Prayers, made-to-order demonstrations, etc.) to demagogically whip up support around vague anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist rhetorics. The occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran was probably the best example of this method.
Having been defeated in Kurdistan and having become extremely unpopular after the first eight months of attacking the Iranian revolution, the U.S. embassy takeover provided a good cover. Khomeini’s faction blamed everything on Bazargan’s pro-U.S.A. policies, took over the state and diverted the masses’ attention from their actual struggles to a mullah show in front of the U.S. embassy. When the workers fighting for their independent shoras were forced by other workers to abandon their struggle in the factory and go to the “den of spies” to hear the latest exposes about the “liberals” and the speeches of pro Khomeini mullahs, it was not easy to resist.
Gradually the masses were, section by section, in successive waves of attacks, beaten into submission to the rule of the Imam. Whilst the revolutionary masses did not have any leadership and were not united, the forces of the Khomeinist counter-revolution were directed from a well placed and well-organised centre, which could command all the instruments of repression and stupefaction. The outcome of this struggle was clear, especially when it is considered that many political organisations claiming to represent the interests of the masses were in fact the mouthpieces of the counter-revolution.
c. Khomeini’s Base
The composition of the mass base of Khomeini itself was also a major factor in contributing to the confusion of the masses and their defeat. Khomeini’s instruments of repression fed from the social forces that were the most downtrodden and least privileged sections of the population. “Khomeini’s soldiers” were recruited from the huge layers of the urban poor (the unemployed peasant migrants) and the pauperised petty bourgeoisie. Thanks to the Shah’s White Revolution many peasants were forced to come to the urban centres looking for jobs, whilst the limited industrialisation could only absorb a small proportion of them. The consumer-goods-oriented industrialization was also gradually eroding the petty bourgeois share of the internal market and forcing these layers into increasing reliance on family labour. The average size of the urban petty bourgeois family had increased to 7.6 members in the 70’s.
These two layers represented an enormous reservoir for the instruments of repression. The urban poor alone represented around 20 percent of the population of most major cities. In Tehran, for example, they numbered over 700,000 in 1976. The Iranian petty bourgeoisie represents by far the largest single social layer. These layers were extremely atomised under the Shah’s rule and were left without any independent social outlook. Their vague ideas of social justice could easily be diverted by Shiite demagogy. To them, even the poorest sections of the industrial proletariat appeared privileged. The phrase coined by the Shah’s bureaucrats to designate the shanty towns inhabited by the urban poor – “out of bounds” – described also their social status. As far as the Shah’s dictatorship was concerned, over 5 million were out of the boundaries of “civil” society.
For many individuals within these layers, to become even a member of a vicious hezbollahi gang was an enormous social progress. To become an armed Pasdar was to become “the king of the neighbourhood”. To be actually recruited into the various instruments of repression meant to be able to go and beat the “hell out” of “those privileged heathens”; and to get duly paid for it too. The Islamic regime has obviously not bettered the situation of the majority of these elements. Nevertheless, even “promoting” a few individuals in each neighbourhood was enough to make the rest hopeful. These layers were for a long period actively and fanatically falling behind Khomeini’s demagogy en masse.
The only way they could have been won to the side of the revolution was by being shown a better way to achieve their demands. This necessitated independent organizations and a fight against the capitalist state. This could not have come out of these layers by themselves. An example had to be offered for them. And the only class capable of this was the working class, led by the revolutionary proletarian party.
If the working class could have taken the lead inside the mass movement in confronting the state and gaining improvements in their conditions, the way would have been shown to these layers. There was no objective social reason why they should have become a tool of Khomeini. Especially if the working class had taken up their demands for jobs and housing.
The working class demonstrated its objective strength and its potential for leading the entire mass of the workers and oppressed during four months of general strike which was what really broke the back of the Shah’s dictatorship. It did not however, develop its own nationwide independent organization or the political leadership to enable it to pull behind itself the underprivileged layers. It was instead pulled down by these sectors.
3. The Failure of the Left
a. The Absence of a Revolutionary Party
The basic cause of the failure of the Iranian revolution was, however, the absence of a revolutionary proletarian organisation with a revolutionary strategy and programme rooted in the vanguard layers. There was not even one revolutionary organization of any significance which had a programme reflecting, albeit in a distorted way, the objective necessities of the Iranian revolution or providing a consistent and clear perspective for the revolutionary masses.
The basic lesson of the Iranian revolution is indeed the fact that, unless such an organization already exists before the revolutionary upheaval, it would be extremely unlikely that it can come about in the course of the revolution itself. Given the rapidity with which the revolutionary crisis changes and transforms, given the complexity of social class formations and alliances in the more developed of the backward countries and given the relative strength of the bourgeois formations, it is extremely difficult for a revolutionary force of any considerable size to grow out of the revolution itself, unless it has already established roots and traditions within the masses.
There were small nuclei of revolutionaries who fought for a revolutionary programme and who even grew rapidly in influence and strength within the first few months of the revolution. But this was hopelessly insufficient to affect the course of events. In each wave of repression or in sudden turns of the political situation, every revolutionary group lost most of what it had accumulated in the previous period. The first open attacks of the new regime led to opportunist capitulationist deviations. Within the first year, there were splits in almost all the revolutionary groups.
In countries like Iran, where the revolutionary periods are usually sandwiched in between long periods of severe repression in which mass organizations cannot develop, the importance of a revolutionary organization capable of offering a political and organisational lead to the masses becomes more acute. Any organization that does not already have a base inside the mass movement before the revolution cannot develop its forces rapidly enough to enable it to assist the masses to organise themselves.
The semi-Stalinist Fedayeen organization and the neo-radical bourgeois Mojahedeen who had fought the Shah’s regime, rapidly grew into mass organizations of enormous dimensions. Neither, however, had a revolutionary leadership based on a revolutionary strategy. Neither was capable of understanding the actual dynamics of the Iranian revolution. Both ended up by betraying the revolution. The former fell victim to a class collaborationist counter-revolutionary strategy of the pro-Moscow Tudeh party, the other returned to its origins and became part and parcel of the bourgeois liberal opposition.
The experience of the Iranian revolution proved once again that, in our epoch, unless the revolutionary leadership fights consistently for a clear strategy of working class power, it will inevitably end up in the camp of reaction. Class collaboration was the death knell of the Iranian revolution. Without an anti-capitalist proletarian strategy, compromises with the bourgeois counterrevolution were inevitable.
The only way the mass of oppressed and toilers could have been won over to the side of the proletarian revolution was by the proletariat itself showing in action that it alone could defeat the bourgeoisie. The Iranian left was, however, trying to win the mass base of Khomeini by dampening a clear-cut class struggle and offering the compromise of a democratic republic with the bourgeois and petty bourgeois layers.
No other group epitomises this better than the Tudeh Party. This group, which is the oldest and with the longest-standing traditions, had divided the Iranian revolution into three stages: the anti Shah people’s front, the democratic anti-imperialist front and the non-capitalist “path of development” which was to lead peacefully to socialism.
The Tudeh Party, which was even prepared to include in its fronts anti-Shah monarchists, found the actual alignment of class forces in the revolution beyond its wildest dreams. It immediately capitulated to the counterrevolutionary coalition of the bourgeoisie and the clergy.
When the rift between the two developed, it hailed Khomeini’s faction as the truly revolutionary anti-imperialist force, giving it unconditional support. It dismissed the protests of the masses against the undemocratic practices of the Islamic regime by labelling it “a bourgeois liberal craving for democracy”. The bourgeois counter-revolution was establishing itself by suppressing the democratic rights of the masses, but the Tudeh Party was hailing the temporary imprisonment of a few U. S. Embassy personnel as the greatest forward step of the revolution.
Without the active support of the Tudeh Party, which had many professionals in its ranks, it would have been a lot more difficult for the clergy to crush the mass movement. The Tudeh Party provided the clergy with many managers and foremen for the nationalised industries, propagandists within the state-controlled newspapers, T.V. and radio and even political interrogators in Khomeini’s jails. The present fate of the Tudeh Party itself is the best proof of what such a policy can lead to.
b. Capitulation to Khomeini
Not having a revolutionary strategy, the left failed to understand the driving forces of the Iranian revolution and the character of the contending forces inside it. In every phase of the rapidly changing revolution, it made fundamental mistakes. In the decisive early period, these mistakes ensured an easy victory for the counterrevolution.
In the period leading up to the February insurrection, the left as an independent tendency within the mass movement did not exist. It simply merged with the Khomeini dominated movement, tail ending the reactionary leadership.
The only left group in Iran (and we are not exaggerating!) that criticised the appointed government by Khomeini was the HKS. Otherwise, no left tendency was distinguishable from the Khomeini leadership.
The left should have called on the masses to resist any attempt at appointing a government from above. It could not have won, but this would have placed it in a better position at a later period.
Immediately after the insurrection, the left heeded the calls of the joint army-clergy military revolutionary command (which was later proved to have been headed by a CIA agent). Many of the members of the old regime arrested by the masses were handed over to the clergy. The “Revolutionary Islamic Courts” were hailed by the left. The first declarations of the majority of groups on the left hailed Imam Khomeini for leading the revolution to victory.
A few months later, it was absolutely clear where the main danger against the revolution lay. The bourgeois government was rapidly pushing back the gains of the masses. The only proper course of action was to organise for the defence and extension of democratic rights and against all attempts by the new regime to curb them. The central slogan for that period was the call for the immediate convocation of a Constituent Assembly.
Most groups ignored all this. These were considered “subordinate” demands, whilst the so called “class demands” were reduced to purely economic reforms. The counter-revolution, however, succeeded in blocking the anti-capitalist dynamics of the Iranian revolution by limiting precisely the democratic rights of the masses.
The left were also less interested in helping to organise the independent organs of the self activity of the masses than they were in their own badly put-together groups. No real efforts were made to extend the independent organization of the masses or to fight to democratise them and prevent the clergy’s zealots inside them from imposing the will of the counter-revolution.
The Stalinist traditions of the Iranian left and its bureaucratic approach to the mass movement strengthened substitutionist tendencies whereby each group was trying to form its own “mass organizations” kept “pure” and “independent” from any admixtures.
In this way, instead of patient and consistent intervention in the actually existing Shora movement and instead of struggling for their nationwide unity as a basis for the more general fight for a workers’ and peasants’ government, all the major groups were at best trying to form their own “real” shoras.
This proved fatal for the course of the revolution. In the favourable early periods of the revolution, the Shora movement was left at the mercy of the Khomeinist forces. By the time the counterrevolutionary nature of the new regime had become an obvious actuality, the forces of reaction had already built a nationwide network of emasculated shoras which were utilised to crush the resistance of the working class.
The stagist concept of the Iranian revolution accepted by the vast majority of the left, meant that it always looked for alliances with the bourgeoisie rather than concentrating its efforts on building the independent force of the Iranian proletariat. The left in effect was tail-ending bourgeois politics throughout the revolution.
It went behind Khomeini in fighting the Shah and behind bourgeois opposition to the Shah in fighting Khomeini. It never offered a clear independent programme. Hence every demagogic manoeuvre by the counter-revolution caught the left off-guard. The U.S. embassy takeover, for example, completely out manoeuvred the left, not to mention the hysterical chauvinism which drowned the left in the early stages of the Iran-Iraq war.
It is not an exaggeration to say that, as far as the fight for democracy was concerned, bourgeois liberal opposition or even the monarchists appeared to be more radical than the Stalinist left, whilst in anti-capitalist demands, Khomeini’s counter-revolution went a lot further than the left, which stuck to its minimum programme geared to the democratic stage.
“Khomeini and the ‘Anti-Imperialist’ United Front” from Trotskyist Bulletin No. 3 which was appended to Document No. 4 above was also attached to this document.