Revolutionary Continuity & Islamic Reaction
From Khomeini in the 1970s to the Muslim Brotherhood Today
—Riley, 15 January 2017
One of the most important political legacies of the revolutionary Spartacist tendency was its steadfast refusal to go with the flow in the February 1979 political revolution that toppled Iran’s hated shah. The Pahlavi regime was a vital pillar of imperialist rule in the Middle East and Washington’s gendarme in the Persian Gulf. The Iranian military had 400,000 members with a U.S.-trained officer corps. The CIA had mentored the regime’s ruthlessly effective secret police, the SAVAK, and in 1978 there were an estimated 40,000 U.S. advisers on site.
On 31 December 1977, during a visit to Tehran, President Jimmy Carter congratulated the shah for making Iran an “island of stability” in the Middle East. A few months later a rolling wave of mass protest commenced that ultimately brought down the Pahlavis and opened the door for the Islamic republic. The protests began among traditionalist small merchants, the social base of Iran’s Shia clerical establishment, but soon spread to increasingly broad strata of the population. A turning point came in October 1978 when a series of powerful strikes by Iranian workers effectively paralyzed the economy. The strikes were launched around demands for higher wages, but soon included calls for an end to martial law and the release of the regime’s thousands of political prisoners.
By December 1978 demonstrations against the regime were attracting millions of participants. The shah’s gun thugs murdered thousands of these protesters (and wounded many thousands more) but instead of quelling opposition, the brutality of the security apparatus enraged the population and propelled millions into action. As the protests grew elements of the repressive apparatus became unreliable, and dozens of enlistees and junior officers were executed to maintain discipline.
The mullahs’ “Islamic Revolution” was conducted under a democratic façade with promises to abolish censorship, shatter the shah’s police state, free political prisoners and institute some sort of parliamentary system. Many leftists welcomed it as an “anti-imperialist” blow that brought down a key U.S. asset in the Middle East.
As events came to a head Workers Vanguard observed:
“In this situation the establishment of a stable parliamentary regime is well-nigh impossible. The alternative now being posed to the shah’s pro-Western form of military dictatorship is the establishment of a Muslim theocratic state, which at the very least would be heavily dependent on a section of the military, if not actually headed by a Persian version of Libya’s Qaddafi or Pakistan’s Zia, both fanatical ‘soldiers of Islam.’
“Oil Strikers’ Offensive
“The disintegration of the military, however, is not yet a reality. It is the Iranian working class which has destroyed the shah’s ability to rule. Repeated strikes by government, transport, communication, banking and oil industry employees have had a powerful effect on the Iranian economy. Most recently air traffic controllers at Teheran airport have gone out, crippling the evacuation of the remaining U.S. civilian and military personnel from the country.
“It has been the oil workers’ strike, however, which has been the decisive factor in drastically undermining the Pahlavi regime. By the beginning of December, the daily production of crude oil had reached 5.8 million barrels, a little short of normal production figures. Since then, the output of oil has plummeted. After the assassination of an American oil company official in the southern town of Ahwaz on December 28 and the withdrawal of foreign oil workers, production reached a virtual standstill. By the 28th only 400,000 barrels were pumped out, and after a few days even this was halved.
“The impact of the oil strike indicates the importance of Iran for the class struggle in the Middle East. Here is a three-million-strong industrial proletariat, the largest in the region. Workers revolution in Iran could serve as the signal for a proletarian upsurge which could cut across all the national and communal antagonisms of the Near and Middle East. But while there are apparently trade unions or semi-clandestine workers committees involved in the current strikes, the Iranian proletariat has no independent political expression. Rather than posing a political alternative to the mullahs, the Iranian working class has been sucked into the orbit of the religious leadership in the name of a class-collaborationist ‘unity’ against the shah.”
—“Shah’s Death Agony,” WV 222, 5 January 1979
In October 1980, when Khomeini’s American apologists in the SWP attempted to justify siding militarily with the Islamic republic against Iraq, they touted the democratic space that existed for Iranian workers and contrasted it to the situation of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein:
“Iraq is governed by a brutal military dictatorship that has eliminated all open political opposition, that has prevented the growth of independent workers organizations, opposition newspapers, or opposition parties.
“However much the Iranian capitalists would like to follow that example, and whatever repressive steps the Iranian government has taken, the fact remains that it has been unable to achieve the same results.
“Gains of Workers and Peasants
“Thousands of political prisoners were released due to the Iranian revolution, and the shah’s secret police and torture apparatus was dismantled. Attempts by the new government to jail socialists and other working class activists have met with widespread opposition, and the regime has frequently been forced to back down.
“Political parties, including workers parties, function openly in Iran despite attempts to intimidate or repress them. Groups like the Tudeh (Communist) Party and the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party (HKE) put out legal newspapers and maintain public headquarters. The leftist Fedayeen and Mujahedeen have organized big rallies and demonstrations.
“Most important of all are the gains made by the masses of workers and peasants because of the revolution. In the villages, the peasants have organized their own popular committees and in many cases have taken over the land and redistributed it. Workers have set up committees in the factories and have won considerable control over working conditions and production. Although top government figures have repeatedly complained about the activities of these popular committees, the regime has been unable to put a stop to them.”
—“War in the Middle East: Why Socialists Back Iran,” Intercontinental Press (ICP) 20 October 1980, p1058
What the SWP chose to ignore was the fact that, from the beginning, the Khomeinites had moved as quickly as they could in the direction of imposing theocratic rule. The revolutionary Spartacist League stressed the danger of any bloc with the mullahs and their mass movement against the bloody shah:
“Again and again the Spartacist tendency, alone on the left, has warned that this false unity poses a deadly threat to the Iranian proletariat. The rule of the mullahs means the suppression of all working-class organizations and struggles. Decades of Stalinist betrayals and the shah’s brutal repression have left the Iranian workers leaderless. But how Khomeini would deal with any mass leftist organizing is shown by the example of Indonesia in 1965, when Muslim preachers collaborated with the army in whipping up an anti-communist assault on the Communist Party of Indonesia.”
—WV 222, 5 January 1979
Those left organizations that hailed the mass movement against the shah generally downplayed the significance of the reactionary Islamist ideology of its leadership, and focused on the supposed revolutionary possibilities created and the democratic freedoms achieved. The SL, by contrast, treated Khomeini’s “democratic cover” as a fraud and pointed to the profoundly reactionary character of his program:
“Our reformist/centrist opponents assert that the iSt slogan ‘Down with the shah! Down with the mullahs!’ meant political abstentionism in this period of revolutionary turmoil. This is their bottom-line argument. While the masses were toppling the shah, they fulminate and in part believe that Spartacists advocated that Iranian revolutionaries stay home and perhaps study Capital. For opportunists, of course, political activism is always synonymous with tailing the mass movement. Not so for revolutionaries. We have in reality put forward an active and interventionist political line at every stage in the Iranian crisis, from the mass Islamic demonstrations last summer through the strike wave which paralyzed the economy late this year to the beginnings today of leftist and democratic protests against Khomeini’s first steps in erecting his Islamic Republic.
“The main action of the Islamic opposition consisted of a series of mass demonstrations under the slogans ‘God Is Great’ and ‘Long Live Khomeini.’ The program of these demonstrations, which was utterly transparent, was to replace the shah’s autocracy with a theocratic state under Khomeini. Participation in these demonstrations could be nothing other than support to the rule of the mullahs, that is, support to the kind of regime which now holds power.”
. . .
“Where the reformists simply lie, centrist tailists like Workers Power resort to pseudo-orthodox confusionism:
“’Whilst we in no way hide that the positive goals of mullahs are not and cannot be those of the working class we do argue that Trotskyists must participate in the actions against the Shah and the Generals.’”
—”’Opportunists and Sectarians on Iran,’” Workers Power, February 1979
“Any left group which attempted to participate in the ‘Long Live Khomeini’ demonstrations with slogans opposed to an Islamic Republic would have received a swift lesson in Koranic justice.”
—WV 229, 13 April 1979
WV called for “the construction of an Iranian Trotskyist vanguard party steeled in combat against Persian chauvinism and Muslim reaction, opposed to all varieties of Stalinist class collaboration.” This meant a policy of flat opposition to both the shah and the reactionary Islamic opposition—not a military/political bloc with the latter against the former:
“Thus while the legions of opportunists calling themselves Marxists were enthusing over the Muslim masses taking to the streets, the international Spartacist tendency was unique on the left in giving no support to the religious opposition. Instead we raised the slogan: ‘Down with the shah! Down with the mullahs!’”
—WV 223, 19 January 1979
In the same article WV observed: that “the religious opposition’s attitude toward women—a key social question in backward, especially Islamic, societies—is more reactionary than the shah’s superficially modernizing regime.” The problem of Islamist reaction has not changed since Khomeini’s time. It is not likely a coincidence that under Erdogan, “In the past 10 years the number of gender-related homicides has tripled in Turkey” or that “2003 and 2013 domestic violence has increased more than 1,400%”. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/17/turkey-women-battle-oppression-protest
The AKP’s reactionary program is naturally reflected in its spending priorities:
“While Erdogan’s government has increased the Directorate of Religious Affairs’ budget more than 20 times during its tenure and constructed 17,000 mosques, Turkey has, according to Bulan [a member of a women’s rights group], a total of only 120 official shelters [for battered women] with capacity for 3,110 people. For the 28,000 women in need of protection last year, the burden is picked up by a small number of NGOs running shelters.”
The issue of women’s oppression has been a major factor in the deep and ongoing polarization in Turkish society between the AKP and its Islamist supporters on the one hand and more liberal Muslims and secular elements on the other:
“But gender violence is such a widespread and deeply rooted problem that it can only be improved via efforts that transcend ideological lines. Turkey, however, is so deeply politicised and polarised that no one is willing to do that.
“In the meantime, a social transformation is taking place. A change that many analysts, focused primarily on politics rather than culture, are failing to notice. Turkey’s women are becoming more openly politicised than its men. Half of the protesters at the Gezi park demonstrations were women. In social media most of the critical campaigns are led by women. Women’s bodies and lifestyles have turned into an ideological battleground.
“President Erdogan slammed the women who protested against domestic violence and sexual harassment in Turkey for singing songs and dancing together.”
—Guardian, 17 February 2015
In an 8 August 2016 contribution cde. Josh rejected the idea that the Iranian experience is relevant to Erdogan in Turkey today:
“As we’ve indicated several times, we don’t accept the analogy of Iran 1979, since in that case the existing government (the Shah) was already a dictatorship, and it was a question of an equally undemocratic movement (the mullahs) attempting to replace it. You begin by equating the two sides in Turkey, and then work backwards to say that Iran 1979 is the precedent for determining our position on this sort of thing – except that that assumes what needs to be demonstrated, i.e., that we are comparing apples with apples and not oranges.”
The revolutionary Spartacist League in fact explicitly equated Khomeini’s Shia Islamist “apples” with those of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s National Salvation Party:
“Khomeini enjoys near-universal popularity among the ranks of the anti-shah forces. The core of his movement, however, is identical to that of other Islamic fundamentalist groupings in the Near and Middle East such as the Jaamat-i Islam of Pakistan, the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab-speaking world or the National Salvation Party of Turkey: the economically declining petty bourgeoisie of the bazaars.”
—“Shah’s Death Agony,” WV 222, 5 January 1979
To Josh’s contention that Iran is not a useful precedent because “the existing government (the Shah) was already a dictatorship, and it was a question of an equally undemocratic movement (the mullahs) attempting to replace it” I responded “it might be easier to make a case for Khomeni’s movement in January 1979 representing democratic rights than Erdogan’s in July 2016.” Having looked into it I think that is indeed the case. I think it may be useful to review how wide open things were in Iran after Khomeini’s victory.
A useful source is the fairly detailed and left-oriented contemporary reportage in Intercontinental Press, which is now available online. Unlike Stalinists or Healyites the Hansenite press was generally factually accurate, although it had a tendency to omit information that did not “fit” their line.
The Iranian working-class revolt resulted in a situation of effective dual power in many enterprises that in some cases persisted long after the February 1979 insurrection. Elements of the workers’ leadership also expressed overt opposition to the principle of clerical supremacy:
“One of the questions the workers are discussing is whether to end their strike…. the strike coordinating committee set up by Khomeini has urged many of the strikers to go back to work.
“This drew an angry response from some leaders of the oil workers’ strike. On February 1 Mohammad Javad Khatemi, first representative of the strike committee in Ahwaz, resigned to protest efforts by what he called ‘nonprogressive’ religious leaders to impose policy decisions on the oil workers…
“In an open letter, Khatemi blasted the ‘oppressive atmosphere in Ahwaz and the usurpation of the responsibilities formerly held by the representatives of the striking oil workers by Ayatollah Khomeini’s delegation headed by Mehdi Bazargan.”
. . .
“Khatemi also said there must be workers’ control of the oil fields.”
—“Workers Organize Committees, Discuss Politics,” ICP 19 Feb 1979 pp 133-4
Rouge (9 February 1979) reported how leftist printers took advantage of the fall of the Pahlavis to produce Marxist literature:
“Since September  the struggles of Iran’s blue-collar and wage workers have become the backbone of the mass movement.
“While these battles began around strictly economic questions, directly political demands quickly became the main focus….
. . .
“Here in Tehran, since the Ministry of Information is at present in no condition to impose the slightest form of censorship, printers have decided to work double shifts, day and night, to make available as rapidly as possible the works of Marx and Lenin, which have been banned for twenty-five years.”
—“Iranian Workers Take Over from Bosses”– ICP, 26 Feb 1979, p168
Workers made substantial material gains in this period:
“The [6 December 1979 Wall Street] Journal reports that many workers have had their pay doubled since the February revolution that overthrew the shah. Their rents have been cut in half.”
—“Carter’s Real Target: Gains of Iranian Workers”– ICP, 24 December 1979, p1266
The immediate objectives of the victorious Khomeinites were to restore social stability and put together a functional state apparatus. A key element in this was to try to round up the arms distributed to the population during the insurgency. Other top priorities were getting workers to resume production and reasserting management authority. This took time, and much maneuvering. The liberties enjoyed by the masses after the fall of the shah were gradually extinguished, but only over a considerable period of time. A year after the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty the Economist (23 February 1980) was still complaining of the “chaos created in industry by workers seeking to run their own factories” and the fact that since the shah’s fall, “the parties of the extreme left have fared better than the parties of the centre” (quoted in ICP 24 March 1980, p297).
Khomeini proceeded carefully initially. In an attempt to reassure Iranians who were not comfortable with the idea of a theocracy he appointed 72 year old Mehdi Bazargan as premier. Bazargan was a well-known liberal Islamic academic who had run Iran’s nationalized oil corporation under Mossadeq and subsequently spent years as a prisoner of the shah:
“the fact that his own world-view was poles apart from that of Bazargan did not matter to Khomeini, at least in the short term. He recognized the difficulty of dismantling a secular regime and replacing it with the rule of God overnight, so at first he was content to view Bazargan as a facilitator—an intermediary between the reality of the present and the dream of the future. He recognized that the potential threat to an Islamic future from the military, the nationalists, the liberals and the leftists was a real one, especially since those elements aroused a more sympathetic resonance in the West. It was important that these potential threats be neutralized, but equally important that these groups not be provoked into coalescing against him. Bazaragan was the ideal vehicle.”
—Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah, Baqer Moin, 209
The new prime minister’s initial task was to try to reign in the turbulent workers’ movement:
“By February 19 , Bazargan was compelled to again go on television, this time to polemicize against the specter of ‘soviets” haunting his regime….
“….there is a ‘dangerous logic’ if the workers begin thinking they should elect their own leadership—either at the factory level or higher.
“After all, he explained, if workers elect representatives to run the factories, why not elect representative to run the cities…. the provinces, and the central government as well? For that matter, why not elect the leader of the revolution itself?
“’Ah, but this cannot be,’ Bazargan insisted, ‘for we already have our national leader—Imam Khomeini.”
. . .
“The Bazargan government has also resorted to censorship in the media in a desperate attempt to bring the country under its control. Like other attacks on democratic rights this has met with anger.
. . .
“There was a rebellion among the television workers who threatened to strike if the censorship continued….
. . .
“These protests forced the government to back down part way….
“The result has been a compromise with lectures by mullahs broadcast side by side with some fine examples of revolutionary journalism.
“The other most serious invasion of civil liberties has been a ban on public demonstrations issued by Khomeini.”
. . .
“A week later [after 17 February], Khomeini made his sharpest attack on democratic rights to date by banning a planned march by the [leftist] People’s Fedayeen guerrilla group….
“Faced with the possibility of a violent confrontation, the Fedayeen cancelled the march and held a public meeting at Tehran University…. More than 100,000 people turned out in a massive show of defiance for Khomeini’s antidemocratic policies.
“The meeting was an important test of the relationship of forces between the masses and the government.… [which] is in no position today to launch a real crackdown on the people.”
. . .
“Under pressure Khomeini was forced February 19 to issue a statement declaring people’s right to disagree with his government…. ’In speech, in writing, in journalism, there is perfect freedom.’
“The very next day, however, he launched his diatribe against the Fedayeen.”
—“Workers Form Committees to Run Plants and Offices,” ICP, 12 March 1979, p240-3
Khomeini sought to gain democratic legitimacy for his new regime through a referendum allowing voters to endorse the idea of replacing the monarchy with an “Islamic Republic.” In order to make such a prospect as attractive as possible, no details were provided on the actual operation of Islamic rule:
“On 1 March , a month before the referendum was scheduled to take place, [Khomeini] warned the people:
‘’’To achieve real independence we have to remove all forms of American influence, whether economic, military or cultural….Soon a referendum will be held. I am going to vote for an Islamic republic, and I expect the people to do the same. Those who are opposed are free to vote accordingly.’
“But, within weeks of the revolution, it was already quite clear that, whatever the form of the words, ‘those who are opposed’ could expect to suffer damaging consequences. Not surprisingly, on 30 and 31 March, 97 per cent of the electorate, including most of the secularist political organizations, voted ‘yes’ to an Islamic Republic whose actual form had never been spelt out for them.”
—Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah, Baqer Moin, p213
The fact that there was negligible support for retaining the monarchy did not mean that there was a lot of enthusiasm for an “Islamic republic.” Recognizing that the left had a considerable popular base, liberal elements in the Khomeini camp decided to engage their socialist critics. This provided the SWP’s Iranian affiliate with an amazing opportunity in April 1979:
“Two weeks after the [March 30-31, 1979] referendum on the ‘Islamic Republic,’ it is already clear that the attempt to use this plebiscite to reconsolidate a strong capitalist government in Iran is running into trouble.
“In the first place, the referendum did not arouse general enthusiasm among the broad masses of Iranians. A large percentage of the population apparently did not vote at all.”
. . .
“Shortly after the vote, Prime Minister Bazargan delivered a major speech over all-Iranian television…. He then proceeded to devote about half his talk to the ‘danger’ such people [opponents of the Islamic republic] represent. He paid special attention to the Trotskyists.”
. . .
“On that date [11 April], Trotskyist leader Babak Zahraie, editor of Kargar [HKS paper], debated government partisan Abdul Bani Sadr [an economist who in 1980 was elected the first president of the Islamic Republic] over all-Iranian television. The debate became a major political event.”
. . .
“The Trotskyist spokesman explained that the only way the Iranian anti-imperialist revolution could succeed was to overturn the capitalist economy.
“Bani Sadr prefaced his contributions with the phrase ‘In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful.’ But Allah apparently could not help him offer any concrete answers…..he was obviously floundering about.”
. . .
“The two major Iranian dailies, Kayhan and Ettela’ai, ran the full text of the debate along with editorials about the importance of public discussion of these problems.
“The debate has focused public attention on the HKS….”
. . .
“Bani Sadr had challenged all Marxists to a debate, but none of the other groups took him up….Although the editors tried to avoid giving the debate any but the most minimal advance publicity, the word got out and an estimated 22 million persons viewed the program.”
—“Iran—Masses Shifting to Left,” ICP, 23 April 1979, p404-5
An audience of 22 million, in a country with a total population of 37.5 million is astounding. Not only did virtually the entire adult population apparently watch the debate, but a complete transcript was published in the country’s two leading daily newspapers. This is obviously something that no stable capitalist regime would ever permit.
The mullahs decided that it would not be prudent to repeat the experiment, at least on television:
“Iranian radio and television were to have carried a series of debates between Khomeini’s top ideologist, Abu al-Hassan Bani Sadr, and representatives of currents critical of the ‘Islamic republic.’ But the series was abruptly dropped after the first debate—with Trotskyist leader Babak Zahraie—aroused immense interest.”
—“Tehran Regime Seeks to Reimpose Censorship,” ICP, 28 May 1979, p525
The consolidation of the Iranian theocracy took place incrementally and was only achieved in piecemeal fashion. In consolidating their rule the mullahs employed salami tactics. Not long after the referendum on the “Islamic republic,” Khomeini’s inner circle began to systematically undercut Bazargan:
“By late spring  the determination of the Revolutionary Council and the Islamic Republican Party to exclude other elements from power was already beginning to show. The country once again had two governments: an official one led by Bazargan and an unofficial, but far more powerful one, led by Khomeini….Bazargan, as he put it himself, had become ‘a knife without a blade.’”
—Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah, Baqer Moin, p215
On several occasions the regime was forced to retreat in response to popular opposition. The HKS and other leftists were naturally quite active in opposing attempts to muzzle dissent. In its 11 June 1979 issue ICP reported that: “At a demonstration of 100,000 persons on May 19 protesting attacks on press freedom, HKS activists sold 10,000 copies of a special issue of the party’s newspaper, Kargar (Worker). “
In late May the HKS had another high-profile debate with Bani Sadr—although this time it was not televised:
“Seventy thousand persons gathered at Teachers Institute in Tehran on May 30 to hear HKS leader Babak Zahraie debate top ‘Islamic republic’ ideologist, Abu al-Hassan Bani Sadr on the topic ‘Property, National Independence and the State.” The three main daily newspapers in Tehran plan to print the transcript of this meeting.”
—“HKS in Center of Political Ferment,” ICP, 11 June 1979, p565
In an ominous development, on the same day Zahraie was debating Bani Sadr in Tehran, nine HKS cadres were arrested in Khuzestan, a predominantly Arab region as part of “an extensive roundup of workers from the oil and steel industries of the province and other political dissidents of various kinds in the area” (International Trotskyism, 1929-1985, Robert Alexander, p 561). The next day (31 May 1979) seven more HKS members were picked up. “On June 24 the HKS held a successful news conference in Tehran to protest the new arrests and demand release of all sixteen Trotskyists in jail” (ICP, 2 July 1979). In August the local “Imam’s Committee” in Khuzestan convicted the HKS members of “criticism of the central government for being undemocratic” and “dissemination of ‘poisonous ideas’” and sentenced 12 of the defendants to death.
In addition to the activities of its Islamic kangaroo courts the new regime also employed the goon squads (known as Hezbollah—“Party of God”) of the Islamic Republican Party, which had been created by a regroupment of Khomeini’s core supporters:
“Within days of Khomeini’s arrival [in Tehran on 1 February 1979, video footage at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1PdGQzADkE] it [the ‘Coalition of Islamic Societies’] had, with the help of Beheshti [a cleric close to Khomeini], gathered all those who accepted his leadership unconditionally—the bazaaris, seven Islamic guerrilla organisations…and a large segment of the politically active clergy—under the banner of the Islamic Republican Party….
“In subsequent weeks the Islamic Republican Party evolved under Beheshti’s supervision into a tightly organized authoritarian instrument….And it operated on every level of society, from government offices to almost all city quarters, as well as in some villages.
“In the street it wielded power through organised gangs of strong-arm thugs known as the Hezbollah, the Party of God who were, it later emerged, supervised by a young protegee of Khomeini, Hojjat al-Islam Hadi Ghaffari. The Hezbollah attacked demonstrators who challenged Khomeini’s position, the offices of newspapers critical of the direction in which the post-revolutionary government was moving, and the premises of opposition organisations.”
—Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah, Baqer Moin
When Khomeini’s enforcers met resistance from leftists or other targets the police would often step in and arrest the victims, but otherwise they generally stood aside.
In reporting on the HKS defense efforts, ICP noted that two press conferences had been held in Tehran without being attacked:
“The [HKS] held a news conference October 21 in Tehran. HKS leader Babak Zahraie protested the frame-up of members of the party (twelve men have been sentenced to death and two women given life terms) in Khuzestan Province.
. . .
“The news conference was front-page news in Baamdad and Ettela’ai, two major dailies. Ettela’ai, headlined its story ‘Socialists Imprisoned for Beliefs.’”
. . .
“There was no attempt by rightist thugs to disrupt either news conference—a contrast to the free rein given these pro-government gangs by Khomeini and Bazargan only two months ago.
“A rally of 10,000 at Tehran University organized by the Tudeh party also took place without any attacks.”
. . .
“The regime also beat a retreat from the all-out attack it launched against freedom of the press last August 18, when dozens of newspapers and periodicals were shut down.
“Twenty-one newspapers are now published legally. Among them are Mardom, the daily paper of the pro-Moscow Tudah Party, and Voice of the People, a pro-Peking journal.
“The HKS is pressing for the right to resume publication of its weekly paper Kargar….”
—“Rise in Class Struggle Forces Concessions from Iran Regime” (ICP 5 November 1979, p1068)
Kargar was permitted to resume publication and in the March 1980 elections for the Islamic parliament various leftists ran for office, including members of the Tudeh, the HKE (a pro-SWP split from the HKS), the guerrillaist/New-Leftist Fedayeen and the left-Islamic Mujahedeen. ICP reported that during the campaign Mujahedeen rallies drew as many as 300,000 people.
In July 1980 the “anti-imperialist” Khomeini regime claimed to have thwarted a coup by pro-shah military officers:
“The Iranian government appears to have succeeded in breaking up a large-scale U.S.-backed coup attempt by army officers, the Iraqi government, and followers of Shahpur Bakhtiar. Bakhtiar was the shah’s last premier….
. . .
“The officer caste of the Iranian army, riddled with former servants of the shah, has long been a source of opposition to the revolution…..
“A detailed version of the coup plans appeared in the July 14 Christian Science Monitor.
“’The plotters planned to set up a military junta in Iran,’ stated correspondent Leslie Keith. ‘They would then have installed former premier Shahpur Bakhtiar as president.’
. . .
“’The most important of these [targets for bombing] was the home of Ayatollah Khomeini….
“’Another target was President Bani Sadr’s office in central Tehran….
. . .
“’The Phantoms [aircraft] were also to have bombed and totally destroyed the Park Hotel in Tehran and a teacher’s club where most of the deputies in Iran’s new parliament are staying, thus wiping out in a stroke the majority of the members.’”
—“U.S.-Backed Coup Attempt Foiled in Iran,” ICP, 28 July 1980, p785
It was hardly surprising that the SWP, which had backed Khomeini against the shah a year and a half earlier, sided with the new regime against the coup (which it equated with direct imperialist military intervention):
“In the event of imperialist military intervention in Iran or a military coup by the former regime’s henchmen, the task of the revolutionary Marxist vanguard would be to call on the workers, peasants and the oppressed to come to the defense of the regime with their own methods of action and organization, as long as they are not strong enough to establish their own regime.”
—“Iran: the Contradictions of a Bourgeois Nationalist Leadership,” ICP, 25 August 1980, p865
The Spartacist League clearly distinguished between imperialist military intervention (which the workers’ movement had a duty to vigorously oppose) and a struggle between Pahlavi loyalists and Khomeini. In the first instance the iSt leadership proposed to defend the mullahs; in the second they considered that the workers’ movement had no side. 
Among the many parallels between the Khomeinites’ struggle for an Islamic Republic in Iran and that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt 30-odd years later was the willingness of the Islamists to initially cooperate with more moderate, or even secular, opponents of the regime. At the outset of the Tahrir Square mass protests against Mubarak the Brotherhood sought to assume the role of mediator between the military and the youthful protesters. After Mubarak’s removal, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) granted the Brotherhood formal legal status. The Brothers immediately moved to set up a “Democratic Coalition” with some 30 smaller parties to run in the 2011 election. Carey Rosefsky Wickham described the coalition’s charter as “an uneasy mix of liberal democratic and Islamist themes.” Calls for fair elections, freedom of association, an independent judiciary and a free press were combined with an affirmation of Islamic Sharia as the primary source of legislation:
“In addition, it [the charter] asserts that the freedom of the press must be balanced against its ‘obligation to respect the general values and morals and norms of society according to the law’; likewise, it calls for respect for human rights according to international documents and conventions, in so far as they do not contradict the principles of Islamic Shari’a and the preservation of Arab identity’ (emphasis added).”
—The Muslim Brotherhood, pp192-3
Wickham asserts that “In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood had made it very clear that, despite the fact they had been democratically elected, they had no intention to maintain a democratic system.” She reports a May 2010 interview in which Morsi told her:
“an individual is free to question basic precepts of Islam as a matter of private conscience, but once he or she begins to promote these ideas in the public domain, they cause harm (darar) to the public interest, and therefore the right to free expression can be legitimately curtailed….The public interest has also been invoked by Brotherhood leaders to justify the censorship of intellectual, creative and artistic works; regulate the content of the media and school curricula; and oppose legal reforms that infringe on male prerogatives in terms of marriage, divorce and inheritance.”
After first winning a majority in parliament, and then winning the presidency, the Brotherhood sought to consolidate its position by appointing a committee (with an Islamist majority) to draft a new constitution. When negotiations broke down and representatives of secular parties and Coptic Christians walked out, the Brotherhood abandoned any pretense of compromise and clumsily attempted to proclaim Morsi’s right to rule by decree. Borrowing a tactic from Khomeini’s Hezbollah, they dispersed protests with armed thugs:
“Steaming ahead regardless, the Guidance Bureau [of the Muslim Brotherhood] directed Morsi to issue a constitutional declaration, on November 20 , that protected their cherished assembly from dissolution, and placed the president above the law.
“Immediately afterwards, the Brotherhood flogged the assembly to approve the new constitution in a marathon 16-hour session, on November 30, and pass it through a popular referendum in 15 days. Massive protests erupted, and thousands camped outside the presidential palace only to be cleared off, on December 6, by a band of armed Brothers. Very few had a chance to read, let alone comprehend, the 230 articles in the hastily conceived document. Less than a third of registered voters bothered to show up for the referendum, and only 63 percent granted their approval. Brothers were undeterred by the slimness of their popular mandate….As Brothers seemed incapable of compromise, civil activists now resolved to undermine the Brotherhood rule, even if it meant receiving help from their old regime enemies. A two-pronged attack ensued….
“That being said, the Brotherhood’s opponents could not have fielded enough protesters to legitimize a military intervention, had the common folk abstained. It was the Brotherhood’s incompetence at government and the fact that they had no concrete plan to offer that drove millions into the streets on June 30. And it was the Brotherhood’s decision to turn a political clash into a full-fledged religious war, through inflammatory rhetoric made convincing by dispersed acts of violence, that guaranteed the public’s blanket endorsement for their brutal repression. Brothers had not fully appreciated how practical their countrymen were, even if they were practicing Muslims….Disillusioned with the Brothers, Egyptians preferred risking backsliding into functioning secular autocracy to the certainty of sliding into what they saw as incompetent religious rule.”
—Hazem Kandil, Inside the Brotherhood, pp141-2
In Egypt, as in Iran, a large section of the population supported one of the two contending reactionary forces chiefly out of loathing and disgust for the other. In both cases most of the left tailed the false consciousness of the masses.
Confronted by two qualitatively equally reactionary formations, the revolutionary iSt refused to side with either and advocated a policy of independent working-class intervention:
“the millions of anti-shah workers and peasants, instead of relying on their own independent strength to settle accounts with the murderous Pahlavi dynasty, continue to follow the lead of the mullahs, the rank and file of the reactionary landholding Islamic clergy. The goal of the fundamentalist Muslim leaders is clear: the creation of an ‘Islamic Republic,’ which is to say a dictatorship of the clerical hierarchy.”
—WV, 5 January 1979
The revolutionary iSt correctly labelled the Muslim Brotherhood, the Khomeinites and similar advocates of Islamic rule as the enemies of the workers and oppressed whose victory would not represent an advance on the rule of their reactionary rivals:
“It is excruciating that none of the leftist groups in Iran are presenting this fundamental truth and absolutely vital program to the students, the oil workers and others who have been caught up in the religious-led opposition in the hope of escaping from the unrelieved terror of the shah’s rule…..
“In this vacuum of revolutionary leadership, even a small propaganda group might gain influence and grow rapidly if it could stand up to the pressure of the popular religious movement. But it would take some of the stuff of the 1914 Bolsheviks who were stoned by the Vyborg workers for their antiwar agitation. Three years later they had transformed this district into a revolutionary bastion because of their courage.
“It is downright criminal that none of the leftist groups will tell their own members or supporters the truth that is looming up ominously in front of their noses, namely that this movement is reactionary and a threat to anyone labeled a leftist or a communist.”
—WV, 2 February 1979
As a rule, Marxists would tend to side with a mass popular uprising against a brutal, right-wing, imperialist-backed dictatorship, but there is no simple default setting. In every case it is necessary to carefully assess the actual social content of the contending sides.
In general we defend elected governments against extra-legal attempts to forcibly remove them, but in the 2014 confrontation in Ukraine we refused to militarily back a democratically-elected president against an imperialist-promoted, fascist-infested insurgency. Instead we proposed that leftists should have intervened “to direct the anger of the participants to the root of the problem—capitalism.” We explained our position as follows:
“Yanukovych and his cronies were corrupt and self-serving, but their EU-oriented rivals, personified by Tymoshenko, were no better. By linking opposition to Yanukovych to demands to expropriate the oligarchs, restore social services and reorient economic activity to meet the needs of working people, socialists could have sought to turn the protests in a revolutionary direction…. In the absence of any significant challenge from the left, the protest remained a dispute within the parasitic oligarchic elite over whether to tie themselves to Russia or the EU.”
—1917 No. 37
Similar considerations led us to reject the SL’s “correction” of their initial refusal to take sides in Yeltsin’s 1993 coup against Russia’s elected parliament. The SL decided that it had been mistaken to propose a workers’ mobilization “independent of both camps,” because Rutskoi and his backers “at that moment were viewed by Yeltsin and his imperialist sponsors as an obstacle to the consolidation of a strong counterrevolutionary regime” (WV, 5 November 1993). We responded:
“If parliament was ‘an impediment to the consolidation of power in Yeltsin’s hands’ the presidency was surely no less an impediment to the consolidation of power in the hands of ‘Rutskoi/Khasbulatov and the fascist-infested “red-brown” coalition that supported them.’ In this fight between two gangs of counterrevolutionaries, neither side deserved support.”
—1917 No. 13
In Russia 1993, Egypt 2013 and Ukraine 2014 we considered the conflict to be between two qualitatively similar bourgeois rivals—in none of these cases was there any threat from below. In these intra-bourgeois confrontations workers had no interest in the victory of either, because whichever side came out on top the conditions for the masses were not going to be significantly different. In Turkey the working class also had nothing at stake in the struggle between the Gulenist/Kemalist officers and Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood over which side got to purge the other. The fact that both of them claimed to stand for the defense of democracy against the danger presented by the other is neither here nor there.
Marxists do not advise the working class to take sides in intra-ruling class conflicts simply on the basis of bourgeois legality, electoral legitimacy or even necessarily, as the Iranian example illustrates, on how much “democratic space” is likely to exist after the victory of either side—although these can all be important considerations. What is decisive in such confrontations is whether or not the working class has anything essential at stake. In Spain in 1936 and Chile in 1973, when military coups were carried out against elected popular-front governments in order to crush the left and organized workers’ movement, we defended the regimes against the insurgents.
The Khomeinites headed an amorphous mass movement temporarily united by a shared hatred for the shah’s dictatorship and an eagerness to be rid of it. The mullahs put forward supportable democratic demands and initially tended to soft-pedal their theocratic project. Khomeini’s victory meant that, for a time, Iran was wide open to leftist intervention—it was certainly a society where there was a great deal more democratic space than could be found in Turkey even prior to the July 2016 coup.
Yet the leadership of the Spartacist tendency distinguished itself by refusing to climb aboard the mullahs’ bandwagon and instead warned of the “deadly threat to the Iranian proletariat” posed by a movement “identical to that of other Islamic fundamentalist groupings in the Near and Middle East such as…[Morsi and Erdogan’s] Muslim Brotherhood.” Instead of backing the mass anti-shah mobilizations the SL counterposed the revolutionary call “Down with the Shah! No Support to Khomeini! Workers to Power!” This approach is every bit as applicable in Egypt and Turkey today as it was in Iran in the 1970s. It is an essential component of the revolutionary heritage we claim as our own. It must not be abandoned.
[The comrades who advocated a bloc with Erdogan against the 2016 coup did not respond to this document.]
⇑  Egypt’s deposed president Morsi was a long time member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan’s Wikipedia entry notes that: “In 1976, he became the head of a local youth branch of the Islamist National Salvation Party.” When the NSP was banned as a result of the 1980 coup Erdogan and most of its cadres formed the Welfare Party, an Islamist formation that was subsequently illegalized in the 1998 coup for threatening Turkey’s secular character. In 2001 Erdogan, who had risen to prominence as Istanbul’s Welfare Party mayor from 1994-98, had a key role in launching the AKP.
⇑  According to Dilip Hiro: “The government needed to recover the 300,000 weapons distributed to young revolutionaries in the capital between 9 and 11 February….” Iran Under the Ayatollahs, p105.
⇑  Sungar Savran noted the emergence of similar formations in Turkey: “Ever since the  Gezi uprising Erdoğan has systematically been building an array of paramilitary forces, ranging from the so-called ‘Ottoman corps’ through reactionary Kurdish forces being prepared to fight the Kurdish movement to hardly disguised relations with notorious figures of the crime world” (“Turkey: A War of Two Coups”). These formations, along with the MHP fascists, attacked leftists, Kurds and HDP premises in the run-up to the November 2015 election while, in some cases, “the police looked the other way.” (Ibid.)
⇑  The 16 February 1979 WV did, however, make it clear that in the event the shah’s army had attempted to drown the protests in blood by unleashing its immense firepower on millions of unarmed civilians, revolutionaries would have sided militarily with the “popular forces rallied by the mullahs” (despite their reactionary leadership):
“The Imperial Guard was ready and willing to carry out His Majesty’s kill-crazy orders. Had such a confrontation erupted into civil war, Marxists would have militarily supported the popular forces rallied by the mullahs against an intact officer caste, even as our intransigent political opposition to the reactionary-led movement sought to polarize the masses along class lines and rally the workers and lower strata of the petty-bourgeois masses, around the proletarian pole.”
⇑  The Muslim Brotherhood, even though formally illegal, had run “independent” candidates in elections under Mubarak. In 2005 88 members of the Brotherhood were elected, making it the largest opposition party (see: http://www.cfr.org/egypt/muslim-brotherhood-egypts-parliamentary-elections/p9319,) In the 2010 election they originally fielded candidates but subsequently withdrew as a protest against gross electoral fraud.
⇑  Morsi was elected president “after securing 51.7 per cent of the vote in the second round, compared to 48.2 per cent for his rival, Ahmed Shafiq,” Mubarak’s last prime minister who was supported by the military as well as many secular voters. The vote was much closer than expected and Morsi’s victory hinged on turning out the Brotherhood’s rural base (see The Muslim Brotherhood, Beverley Milton-Edwards, p45).
⇑  By comparison the March 2011 interim constitution put forward after Mubarak’s fall by the military (with the support of the Brotherhood) had a 41 percent participation rate with 77 percent voting approval (The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt, Mariz Tadros, p 42).
⇑  See: Sungur Savran, “Bonapartist Coup in Egypt!”, 4 July 2013 http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/848.php. The Guardian published an informative account of Morsi’s fall: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/01/mohamed-morsi-execution-death-sentence-egypt