Thirty Years of Islamic Iran - A Warning from History

The Strikes Against the Shah

It is now thirty years since the triumph of Khomeini’s so-called “Islamic Revolution” in Iran. We say so-called because for us the replacement of one brutal regime (that of the Shah) by another (that of the mullahs) doesn’t constitute a real revolution. If revolution means anything for Marxists it means a genuine political transformation which transfers power from one social class to another. This can only come about through the establishment and consolidation of a new mode of production. Iran, like the rest of the world was a capitalist country in 1979. It had a growing working class which was proportionally greater than the working class in Russia in 1917. And it was Iranian workers, headed by the oil workers who began the strike wave of 1977-8, who finished off the Shah. In the course of these strikes the workers set up strike committees which in the wake of the fall of the Shah were often transformed into “shuras”, or councils. These councils were to spread to almost every factory and workplace in Iran. They demanded workers’ control of production, the forty hour week, the sacking of management, reinstatement of sacked workers, new labour laws which did not criminalise workers who struck, the disbandment of SAVAK, the Shah’s notorious secret police, equal rights for women, and more. Some shuras actually took over the factory, checked the bosses’ books and increased the workers’ wages. Management could not function without consulting the workers and between December 1978 and February 1979 workers were in virtual control of towns particularly in the Northern Azeri and Caspian Sea provinces, including Zanjan, Orumich, Salmas, Ardabil Maraghel and Ajabsheer.

The working class had thus done most of the fighting and dying against the army to get rid of the Shah, so that when Khomeini returned in February 1979 he walked into a power vacuum. The oil workers’ councils demanded from him a role in the government of Iran for the working class and in organising the economy. Khomeini responded with a denunciation of the strikes which had brought down the Shah, and called for a return to work. He was ignored. 50,000 went on strike in that first month but within two years the movement had ceased to exist and many of their most prominent activists were either in gaol or executed. How do we explain this?

Why Did the Working Class Fail?

The first point is that the capitalist state had not collapsed. Faced with the prospect of mass desertions by their largely conscript army, the Shah’s generals saw that they had no alternative but to accept Khomeini. They advised the Shah’s last Prime Minister to depart and offered safe passage for Khomeini’s return from exile. Khomeini had also, through the mosques, cultivated his own grassroots support and was supported by Islamist groups like the Hezbollahi, as well as the openly bourgeois National Front.

In the face of this what weapons did the working class have? In the first place the the shuras were only pale imitations of the soviets in 1905 or 1917 centralised around one major body such as the Petrograd Soviet. This meant that, although many of them saw the clear need to defend the working class, they did not in fact pose the question of dual power. In fact shuras were set up in every walk of life in Iran (and shuras are even envisaged in the Koran), so their class character was watered down and weakened.

At the same time, there was no proletarian party which actively advocated workers’ power. The Shah’s repressive regime had ensured that organising inside the working class was extremely difficult and thus no real revolutionary minority emerged let alone one which was sufficiently united and organised to make a major impact on the situation. There were of course a number of leftist parties but they fully revealed that they had long ago thrown in their lot with counter-revolution. Few bothered to have any links inside the working class and the most influential (although not originally the biggest), the Moscow-supported, Tudeh Party, openly supported Khomeini as an “anti-imperialist” The fact that he was total reactionary was irrelevant to the Kremlin who saw him as a potential ally in the Cold War (just then entering one of its most dangerous phases). The biggest party, the People’s Fedayin was also Stalinist (of the Maoist variety). It too was seduced by the “anti-imperialist” argument and split, with the Majority joining the Tudeh Party. One of the biggest weaknesses of nearly all the parties and groups in Iran was their belief in the “stages” theory of development. Most of them saw Iran as needing a “democratic revolution” before there could be any talk of socialism. But one thing that the Russian Revolution of 1917 had proved was that the democratic revolution was “a programme for the past” (1) supported only by Mensheviks and Stalinists. In the epoch of imperialism there is only one world - not a series of independent national capitalist states - in which the international capitalist class and their local agents confront the universally exploited working class. As we now know, this delusion was to cost these parties dearly, as their support for Khomeini was rewarded with torture (of an even more brutal kind than the Shah), imprisonment and execution. Even so, they were no loss to the working class since their programmes had nothing to do with the abolition of wage labour but rather represented capitalist and imperialist ideology.

The Future

The shuras, on the other hand, although embryonically a potential way forward for the working class, lacked not only a central organising body but also a revolutionary party fighting inside them for both that centralisation and for a programme which was truly proletarian. Without a programme the councils will inevitably fall prey to bourgeois movements. Reactionary political forces (like the Hezbollahi) also played a part in the demise of the shuras by getting their programme across and taking control of some of the councils.

The revolutionary programme has to be developed and fought for by an organisation which bases itself on the past lessons of the workers’ struggles and is part of the class. This is the independent and international revolutionary workers’ party. As the Iranian experience shows, such a party cannot be the product of the last minute but must be present inside the working class before the revolutionary situation arises. The Iranian working class have suffered much for the illusions and weaknesses of 1979, but they have at least one gain. The council idea has not been lost from Iranian workers’ revolutionary consciousness as they have often been formed, if only as strike committees, in struggles since 1979. The next time, however, these strike committees must be transformed into real bodies representing a working class alternative and the next time they must be part of a world-wide struggle for communism. The Iranian working class will need to have taken part in the creation of an international revolutionary party. As an Iranian comrade recently wrote to us

“Thirty years ago, the workers in Iran left an uncompleted historic task to the coming generation of the proletariat: to create and set up its own Internationalist vanguard and perspective.”


(1) This was the title of an article we wrote in 1982 (published in Revolutionary Perspectives 20 (£3 from CWO address) in debate with the Iranian students of the SSUCM who claimed to be acting along “Leninist” lines.

Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.