Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 6, 2007

Iran on the Brink, part one

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm


Iranian workers celebrate May Day

If light of the hostility of the United States toward the governments of Venezuela and Iran, should the left draw the conclusion that the social systems are equally progressive? There have been many articles in the bourgeois press about a growing affinity between socialism and political Islam, such as the December 9, 2006 Wall Street Journal’s “Anti-Americans on the March”:

In deeply Roman Catholic Latin America, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has become the exemplar of a new populism that sees common cause with Iran and Hezbollah. Mr. Chávez, re-elected in a landslide last Sunday, has met Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad several times and this summer was given the Islamic Republic Medal, Iran‘s highest honor.

Meanwhile, Chavez has paid tribute to the Iranian president in terms that would indicate some kind of convergence. In a tour of Latin America last year, Ahmadinejad said that Tehran and Caracas had the task of “promoting revolutionary thought in the world” and has referred to Chavez as a “brother” and a “brave revolutionary”. Meanwhile, Chavez Chavez said that Iran and Venezuela are “two heroic nations” with “two revolutions that are giving each other a hand.”

Also militating in favor of a pro-Ahmadinejad outlook is the widespread hostility against him on the “decent left”, from Harry’s Place to Norm Geras. Who would want to have anything in common with these pro-imperialist stooges? If this means attacking the striking Tehran bus drivers because Norm Geras supports them, what’s wrong with that? After all, we’ve had experience with trade unionists acting as cat’s paws for imperialism in the past starting with Lech Walesa. There might be merit to such logic, as long as one maintains an indifference to the facts.

Unfortunately politics does not consist of automatically putting a plus where the bourgeoisie puts a minus, as Trotsky pointed out in his aptly named 1938 article “Learn to Think“:

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.

Of course, there are those who will be satisfied to cherry pick the newspapers looking for any item that supports their own preconceived notions about the revolutionary character of the Islamic republic. For such people, it would be about as daunting a prospect to convince them otherwise as it would have been to convince a CP’er in 1938 that the Moscow Trials were an injustice. One might understand the reluctance of those zealous CP’ers to criticize “actually existing socialism” as they perceived it, but placing the same kind of faith in the Islamic Republic is another question altogether. One might attribute that to the diminished expectations of a radical movement in the aftermath of a collapsed Soviet Union. For those of us who will not settle for anything less than the vision laid out by Marx and Engels, another approach is necessary. As Karl Marx put it in a letter to Ruge in 1843:

If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.

For many leftists, it has not been easy to construct an accurate picture of Iranian society. Notwithstanding the excellent information contained in websites such as the Iran Bulletin, there is no single book that contains the kind of well-documented analysis that the Islamic Republic demands. That is, until now. With the publication of Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian’s “Iran on the Brink: Rising Workers and Threats of War” by Pluto Books, you get a full picture of the oppressive class relations in the Islamic Republic, as well as some indications of how they may be changed.

Since “Iran on the Brink” is divided into two parts–“Workers in Iran” and “Iran in the World”– I will post separately on each one. I will try to communicate some of the eye-opening information found in the book, but strongly urge everybody to purchase the book. It is simply the most important Marxist analysis I have encountered in several years as well as being urgently needed.

“Iran on the Brink” provides historical background on revolutionary movements in Iran, starting in the early 20th century. Attempts to break with colonial domination and the native comprador bourgeoisie kept being thwarted, the most notable example being the coup against Mossadegh in 1953 that led to the Reza Shah dictatorship that was finally overthrown in 1979.

The authors focus on the emergence of shoras that arose spontaneously in factories and oil refineries around the country shortly after the Shah’s cronies fled the country. The shoras started out as strike committees but were then transformed into workers control bodies. They very much reflected the kind of aspirations seen in Venezuela today and target number one of Khomeini and his followers, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad included. A worker at a shoe factory spoke for all Iranian workers when he said:

Nowadays you don’t need to tell a worker to go and work. He works himself. Why? The reason why he didn’t work [under the Shah] was because he was under the boss’s thumb. He couldn’t speak out. Now, he’ll say: “the work is my own. I’ll work.”

Unfortunately, the shoras failed to become the new state power, just as Soviets had become in 1917. Unlike Russia, the Iranians lacked a revolutionary party that could coordinate the shoras nationwide and press the struggle forward. This is not to say, however, that there weren’t groups in Iran that aspired to Lenin’s mantle. There were more than eighty of them, in fact. Unfortunately, they only thing that united them was sectarianism mixed with an eagerness to adapt to political Islam. In 1979, the Iranian left was still stuck in the same mode that would destroy the left in so many countries, namely a dogmatic understanding of what it meant to be a “vanguard”. The particular irony is that Iranian workers would have been more receptive to the leadership of a revolutionary party than anywhere else in the world.

Among the most prestigious of the revolutionary organizations was the Fediyan that had conducted a guerrilla struggle against the Shah since 1971. Its main rival was the Tudeh, the official Communist Party. Both groups were heavily influenced by Stalinist top-down methods and were hardly in a position to engage with so profoundly a bottom-up phenomenon like the shoras. It should be added that the Tudeh did have an interest in the shoras, but it could be described as the kind of interest that the Democrats had in Ralph Nader. The Tudeh’s goal was to replace the shoras with conventional trade unions of the sort that they had operated in historically. Eventually, the Tudeh made a bloc with the Majority faction of the Fediyan that shared its hostility to the shoras and its belief that political Islam was progressive. With the two most powerful groups on the left holding such beliefs, one might conclude that the rise of Khomeini-ism had more to do with the bankruptcy of the left than its own dubious merits.

Khomeini soon developed a substitute for the shoras that was called the shora-ye eslami, or “Islamic council”. Rather than operating on the basis of class struggle, the new bodies would stress Muslim brotherhood. This was a brotherhood that first and foremost would put a ban on strikes, effective in March 1980. Strikes were now considered haram, or sinful. Just to make sure that nobody lapsed into sinful behavior, the government set up Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) that would break strikes and enforce discipline within the workplace. One metal factory worker described the kind of punishment Pasdaran meted out to the unruly:

They flogged one of my colleagues to death. They accused him of having cursed Imam Ali. First they brought him to prison, but then they dragged him to the factory and bound him to a machine. All production was stopped and we were ordered to appear in front of the scene. I could only stand to have my eyes on him for two lashes. Then blood was gushing from his wounds. He died after 50, 60 lashes. He was about 50 years old.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 represented a bloc of different classes and social layers, all united against the Shah and a comprador bourgeoisie. While the workers had their own class interests at heart, they basically assumed that they could be furthered by uniting with the ‘bazaari’ and the clerics, who agreed with each other on the need to rein in the workers.

The bazaaris were merchants who had been conducting business under the Shah in the same way that their parents and grandparents had done. They resented the Shah’s fostering of multinational retail business in Iran that would eventually crush them, if left unchallenged. In some cases, the crushing was literal as bulldozers were sent in to demolish the stalls and small shops. In the bazaar districts of every city in Iran, there are mosques that serve as assembly places where grievances against the state could be mounted. It was natural for the clerics and the bazaaris to find common ground there.

When the comprador bourgeoisie fled the country, the bazaari and the clerics became the new ruling class. But such social layers lacked the muscle to police the country, so it became necessary to create a shock troop from poorer layers from the shantytowns in Tehran and elsewhere. Deeply religious, unemployed former peasants were recruited into the Pasdaran to keep the workers, women and oppressed minorities in line. If religious fervor and muscle were not sufficient, the Tudeh could be relied upon to keep the workers in line. Stating that “Islam is the ideology of the anti-imperialist revolution,” the Communists supported a ban on strikes, arguing that they were in the service of the counter-revolution.

Once the workers were bullied into submission, the new ruling class could go full speed ahead with capitalist development along new lines. Primarily, this took the form of using petrodollars to fund national industrial or infrastructure projects through something called the Oil Stabilization Fund. The fund is also used to keep the Pasdaran going and to provide for charitable outlays in keeping with Shiite beliefs. The general goal is to make Iran self-sufficient, using “import substitution” techniques associated with the UN economists of the Prebisch mold. Within this framework, the needs of the workers matters little. Despite rapid growth in the recent period, the workers’ share of the pie has diminished.

Class formation in Iran emerges through state-owned enterprises, just as was the case in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and FLN-ruled Algeria. In countries whose economies have been heavily distorted by imperialism, the only recourse for capitalist growth is through public ownership–a contradiction that eventually resolves itself in favor of greater and greater doses of old-fashioned capitalism, just as recent privatizations in Iran attest to.

Malm and Esmailian describe Iranian capitalism as a kind of “family affair”:

One particular millionaire mullah stands above the others: Hashemi Rafsanjani, generally believed to be the richest man in Iran. His family’s list of connections would delight a bazaari-ulama family of the 1970s. Rafsanjani’s cousin is managing director of the company that dominates the lucrative pistachio export market, a brother is governor of Qom, a nephew is a member of the Majles energy commission overseeing oil and gas policies. Rafsanjani’s oldest son manages the company building Tehran’s subway – one of the country’s major ongoing infrastructure projects – while his youngest son has devoted his life to a stud farm in one of the must luxurious areas of northern Tehran. A nephew has a key position in the Ministry of Oil, a brother-in-law is a governor of Kerman province, home of the clan, where Rafsanjani himself has stakes in a factory assembling cars in a joint venture with Daewoo. Another son resigned from his post as a director of National Iranian Gas Company to run a unit linking the natural gas suppliers with the auto industry. And so the list goes on – according to Iranian street gossip, all the way to bank accounts in Switzerland, resorts in Goa and smuggling rings. Rafsanjani is a true millionaire mullah: one who epitomises the fusion of bazaari and ulama, of Iranian capital and Shia Islam, that has taken place over the last 25 years.

The conditions of the working class in Iran are terrible. An estimated 40 percent live under the international poverty line and according to the Iranian Central Bank itself, more than 50 percent live beneath the government’s designated poverty line. In May 2005, the state-run Iran Daily published some statistics that dramatize the growing poverty:

Figures collected during the past 30 years indicate that per capita income in Iran has declined 120 per cent [!] based on fixed prices. The income-expense deficit for the urban family during March 2003-04 stood at a 3,300,000-million-rials deficit, up from 2,500,000 between March 2002-03 and 2,300,000 rials in 1997. The gap between the rich and the poor has also been rising, increasing by a minimum and maximum of 1.2 and 3 times during March 2003-04.

Unemployment (estimated by some to be at 30 percent), job insecurity, forced unpaid overtime and low wages are prevalent throughout the country. Through the use of temporary contracts, an Iranian boss is free to ignore previously enacted labor legislation, including the right to a minimum wage. Emboldened by the mullah’s decades long assault on the working class, the bosses have recently begun to refuse to pay workers back wages. Frequently it takes workers anywhere from 9 months to 2 years to collect what is owed them. One commentator believes that at least one million construction workers, a traditionally super-exploited sector, have engaged in physical confrontations with the boss in order to get paid.

Given the widespread discontent that must arise from such conditions, it is no surprise that Iranian workers are beginning to fight back.

In January 2004, a state-owned copper-production company in a joint venture with a Chinese corporation fired 1250 out of the original 1500 workers who had just completed a new copper-smelting plant in the province of Kerman, despite being promised that they would have permanent jobs at the plant once it was completed.

After 8 days of strikes and sit-ins, the Islamic Republic sent in the cops who fired their weapons at the workers. Between 7 and 15 were killed, and up to 300 were wounded. At least 80 were arrested and later released, showing clear signs of torture.

The carnage outraged the Iranian working class and inspired a new mood of resistance. Enough was enough. Just as the bazaari used the mosques as a place to agitate against the shah, workers began to organize “hiking clubs” and other recreational clubs to discuss their grievances and to gather money for a strike fund. A welder describes how they operate:

It is a pretence for meeting. Workers gather in an assembly and decide to start a fund. They agree upon the mandatory deposit and the sum everyone is eligible to withdraw in cases of need. The point is to spare workers from having to beg the foremen for some extra money if, for instance, a child is sick and needs to see a doctor. Instead, he can go straight to his mate currently handling the fund and demand due payment – it’s a form of independence, and it’s the mutual trust that makes it work.

New shoras are springing up everywhere in Iran with the goals of defending the economic interests of the workers as well as challenging state policies that affect the workers. Since 2004, strikes are becoming more and more frequent despite being illegal. The textile workers at the Asia Wool Spinning plant in Kerman walked out in July 2005, after not having been paid for 14 months. When they blocked a nearby highway, security forces attacked them. One woman was hit by a car and suffered a broken leg, while another pregnant woman was kicked and dragged along the road.

According to one estimate, there were 140 strikes in October, 2005 and followed by 120 the next month. Ground down by economic privation, the workers only recourse is to use their collective power to fight back.

Workers have begun to communicate with each other through “workers bulletins” that are produced clandestinely and distributed by hand at the workplace and in working class neighborhoods. They include Karegar-e Pishro (Progressive Worker), Karegar-e Andishe (Worker’s Intellect), Laghv-e Kar-e Mozdi (Abolish Wage Labor) and Shora.

In keeping with working class traditions, the Iranian proletariat has opted to use May Day to raise its demands. When a new and entirely inadequate minimum wage was announced in Spring, 2005, workers raised the demand for a $550 monthly minimum wage. This demand developed into a national campaign that culminated in job actions at the massive auto plant Iran Khodro. Some 10,000 factory workers downed their tools in Golestan and 17,000 rallied in Ilam. Even in the holy city of Qom, chaos ensued after transport workers joined in.

When the workers of Saqqez gathered in support of a May Day resolution for a minimum wage, they were attacked by the cops. Seven were held in solitary confinement and charged with the felony of “illicit gathering”. Mohsen Hakimi, an Iranian intellectual, and Mahmoud Salehi, a baker and leader of labor groups in Saqqez, described the reaction of the workers’ friends and co-workers:

Families in Saqqez decided to mortgage their houses to obtain the sums for our bail-out. The total value of their houses was enough, so they had to let us go. People came to meet us at the prison with flowers in their hands, and they drove us in a procession through the town, honking, singing, celebrating. It was a show of defiance against the regime.

These are the kinds of actions that are taking place at an ever quickening pace in Iran today and we owe a debt of gratitude to Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian for bringing them to our attention.

Eventually, the workers will find a way to unite and complete the revolution of 1979 that was interrupted by the bazaari and their mullah allies. It is incumbent on the left to reach out to such forces and not line up behind their enemies in the Islamic Republic.


  1. Interesting post; looking forward to Part 2. One problem with “Learning to Think” to me seems to be that there is also a counterweighting need for unity. The reason why there were 80 competing Iranian leftist groups prior to the revolution was that 80 smart, energetic leftists with good leadership skills all decided to “learn to think” and came up with 80 different answers concerning which decisions “correspond best to the interests of the proletariat”, more specifically about how to relate the working class’s interest with Islam, the bazaari, etc.

    Comment by eugene — May 6, 2007 @ 10:27 pm

  2. Good article. Looking forward to reading the 2nd part.

    During the recent May Day protest in Tehran, workers carried a big banner that said “We do not want nuclear energy.” In the same banner they demanded higher wages. Also, They said “we work to live; we don’t live to work.” This banner in many ways shows the high level of class consciouness among working class in Iran.

    Comment by Mahmood Ketabchi — May 7, 2007 @ 11:49 pm

  3. […] Unrepentant Marxist has a long and fascinating post on the growing workers revolt in Iran against an increasingly repressive monied elite of religious […]

    Pingback by Politics in the Zeros_archi »Blog Archive » Iran on the brink — May 8, 2007 @ 11:42 pm

  4. Good analysis. Maybe in part 2 you can look at the politics of the Fedayeen and the 79 other groups that aspired to Lenin’s mantle? (OK, maybe not all 79 of them…)

    Comment by Binh — May 9, 2007 @ 4:02 pm

  5. I hear that there is much abuse of workers in the New Orleans area. Why isn’t Proyect down there organizing them? Or is revolution only for People in Other Countries?

    Comment by Tony — May 10, 2007 @ 12:45 pm

  6. Thank you for the report on the persecutions of Baha’is in Iran. But please be aware that the late Ogden Nash was not a member of the Baha’i Faith. Nash, a remarkable man, was aware of the Baha’is, because he had a writer’s great curiosity about thee world and the people around him.

    As you probably read at one time, he mentioned the Baha’i Faith in one of his poems, “The Seven Spiritual Ages of Mrs. Marmaduke Moore”. That, as far as I know, is the full extent of Nash’s interest in the Baha’is; when you reada the line, it is not an endorsemeent or any sort of praise of Baha’i, but a humorous comment in his inimitable style, with just a little bit of gentle bite.

    Dizzy Gillespie, however, was an enthusiastic and supportive adherent of the Baha’i Faith for many years. So were Hollywood actress Carole Lombard, TV star Bill Sears, and quite a few others.

    Living Baha’is whose names you might recognize include Khaleel Greene of the San Diego Padres and TV actor Rainn Wilson.

    Comment by Bill Dunning — March 11, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

  7. […] This led me to write a multi-part review of a book titled “Iran on the Brink” in 2007, a book I recommend highly, especially to Herman and Peterson who evidently are rather virginal when it comes to Marxist analysis of Iran. Here’s an excerpt from part one of my review: […]

    Pingback by In response to Edward S. Herman and David Peterson « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 10, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

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