July 2009  

For Workers Revolution Against Mullah Rule!

Iran’s Islamic Republic in Turmoil –
What Program for Struggle?

Thousands of Iranians protesters defied government bans on demonstrations and massed in the streets
of Tehran July 9, confronting police and paramilitary forces, on the tenth anniversary of student revolt.  
(Photo: Getty Images)

Free Jailed Protesters and Labor Activists!
U.S. Imperialists Hands Off!

JULY 25 –Iran is still wracked with turmoil a month and a half after the hotly disputed presidential elections. Aggressive attacks on demonstrators by police along with the militarized Revolutionary Guard (pasdaran) and paramliitary militia (basij) under the command of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were able to wear down the largest protests in three decades – but only for a while. And they were unable to quell the deep anger that has now spread to millions and shaken the Islamic regime to its core. On July 6, mothers and sisters of the more than 2,000 people who have been arrested protested outside the notorious Ervin Prison, which is overflowing with political prisoners. On July 9, the tenth anniversary of the student revolt at Tehran University, thousands flooded into the streets, stopping traffic, lighting fires and defying motorbike-mounted basiji. On July 13, a general strike paralyzed much of the province of Kordestan and other Kurdish areas, shutting down shops and transportation in Saqez, Mahabad, Bokan, Sardasht and elsewhere.

Then on July 17, the Iranian capital was convulsed by huge roving demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of protesters chanting “death to the dictator” (mag bar diktator) and “death to the coup d’état.” Heavy clashes with the forces of repression were reported at Enghelab (Revolution) Square, Azadi (Freedom) Square and Ferdowsi Square. Protesters surged through avenues and boulevards of central Tehran, and gathered outside the ministry of the interior, the state broadcasting agency and Evin Prison. The demonstrators began from the area around Tehran University where the former president of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, led Friday prayers in a hall jammed with supporters of Islamic “reform” candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who came out of seclusion to attend. After several hours, police and auxiliaries managed to disperse the protesters with tear gas and baton attacks and use of taser guns. At least one death was reported, more than 100 demonstrators were arrested.

Hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators protesting election fraud took to the streets again on July 17. Police and basij militia attacked with tear gas. (Photo: New York Times)

The hasty announcement last June 12 of a landslide victory for the incumbent Ahmadinejad after an election campaign in which the opposition mobilized multitudinous rallies set off a popular upheaval against the hard-line government of Iran’s Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, there is furious maneuvering going on behind the scenes in the Islamic ruling circles. Although there were leftists among the initial organizers, and many of those protesting the rigged vote are secular, the protests carefully hewed to the political limits laid down by the theocratic regime. With green ribbons, headbands, masks and banners to symbolize Islam, as in the 1979 “revolution” that installed the clerics in power, the signature chant of the pro-Mousavi protests has been “allahu akbar” (god is great). An Iranian newspaper reported that when people tried to chant secular slogans, fellow protesters silenced them. Heavy-handed repression may yet stifle the opposition, but if the struggle deepens against an increasingly militarized regime, the Islamist political control of the protests could be called into question. The leaders of the competing camps are well aware of this.

While the crowds today follow Mousavi & Co., this may not be the case if the clerical “reformers” try to call off the struggle. The candidate himself, although theatrically declaring his willingness to be a martyr, bowed to the pressure of the government saying he would no longer call for unauthorized marches. Ayatollah Rafsanjani was Mousavi’s chief backer in the corridors of power, but as he began the July 17 prayer sermon, there were chants of “Rafsanjani, you are a traitor if you remain silent.” The ayatollah called for freeing the prisoners and lifting press restrictions, but he pointedly did not call for overturning the vote. “Doubt has been created” about the results of the election he said. “We need to take action to remove this doubt.” Rafsanjani’s goal was to channel the discontent: “Sympathy must be offered to those who suffered from the events that occurred and reconcile them with the ruling system.” The incumbent Ahmadinejad, in contrast, threatened to crack down even harder, declaring that “As soon as the new government is established,” it will have “ten times more power and authority than before.” Thus the stage is set for further confrontation.

“This is our revolution. We will not give up,” a student demonstrator was quoted by the New York Times (10 July) as saying. Asked what the goal was, he replied: “We want democracy.” In reality, the mass unrest is still far from being a revolution, or even a full-fledged revolt. Contrary to the pro-Mousavi propaganda of the Western media, Ahmadinejad and his faction still have a sizable base in the military apparatus and some support among the urban poor. Many have been influenced by the distribution of a small part of Iran’s oil profits through commodity subsidies and other welfare measures, despite enduring poverty and mass unemployment. For their part, the imperialists constantly wave the banner of “democracy,” by which they mean a pro-Western capitalist government. Yet they have conflicting interests. The White House might desire a controlled “regime change” to a “moderate” Islamic regime in Iran, but doubts it can bring that off. Moreover, Obama and the U.S.’ imperialist allies want to negotiate with Tehran over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capacity, and perhaps reinforce Iranian support in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence Washington’s cautious official posture.

In this explosive situation, revolutionary Marxists must first warn against and combat all imperialist intervention in Iran. We defend Tehran’s right to obtain nuclear or any other weapons necessary to defend against the Western powers who have plagued Iran since the turn of the 20th century, installing and removing rulers at will in order to subjugate the impoverished masses. At the same time, we put forward a program to mobilize the Iranian working people independent of and against all the factions of the theocratic regime. Communists politically oppose any form of religion-based government, be it an Islamic “republic” such as Iran (or an Islamic monarchy such as Saudi Arabia) or the “Jewish state” of Israel or avowedly “Christian” regimes such as Franco’s Spain. While fighting against the “electoral coup d’état” by which the Islamist hardliners want to secure their perpetual dominance, Iranian workers should  seek not to install Mousavi in office but to raise democratic demands, including for a revolutionary secular constituent assembly, as part of a struggle to establish their own class rule, by bringing down the clerical capitalist Islamic Republic and establishing a workers and peasants government that initiates socialist revolution.

We have detailed how Mousavi is a longstanding component of the Islamic regime. His hands are covered with workers’ blood. As prime minister of Iran during the 1980s, he  presided over a criminal war with Iraq and the bloody massacre of thousands of leftists. Today he is a staunch supporter of “free market” capitalism – as is Ahmadinejad (see “Mass Protests Rock Iran – No to All Wings of the Mullah Regime,” The Internationalist, June 2009). Iranian workers will only suffer further under a “liberal” Islamic government, as they did under “reform” president (and Mousavi ally) Sayed Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005, whose privatization policies produced mass layoffs and set off the resurgence of labor militancy. Under “liberals” and “conservatives” alike, the Iranian clerical capitalist regime has been a star pupil of the “neo-liberal” policies of the International Monetary Fund. Leftists who politically back either side in the fight among the Islamic rulers are condemning the Iranian working masses to further impoverishment amid a worldwide capitalist economic crisis. It’s necessary to break with all wings of the mullah regime.

Apologists for Ahmadinejad

The situation in Iran today cries out for revolutionary working-class leadership, yet the left is largely divided between a minority who tail after Ahmadinejad and the hard-line clerics in the name of “anti-imperialism,” and the majority who hail the pro-Mousavi “movement” in the name of “democracy.” In fact, neither of the contenders in Iran opposes the imperialist system or is in favor of even bourgeois democracy. All the leaders are committed to the Islamic Republic, a regime of clerical capitalism whose very existence required the wholesale extermination of the Iranian left. In 1978-79, even though the social upheaval that overthrew the shah’s bloody monarchy was spearheaded by workers’ strikes, self-proclaimed socialists and leftists capitulated to the Islamist movement led by Imam Ruhollah Khomeini. Today the inveterate opportunists are still tailing after one or the other camp among the feuding ayatollahs. This is not a game. The future of millions of Iranian working people is at stake.

Dealing first with the apologists for Ahmadinejad, they were led off by leftist academic James Petras, who dashed off an article on “Iranian Elections: The ‘Stolen Elections’ Hoax” with the same lightning speed as the Iranian Ministry of the Interior declared the incumbent president the hands-down victor. Noting “the West’s universal condemnation of the electoral outcome as fraudulent,” showing that the imperialists had a common line, which was true enough, Petras declares that “not a single shred of evidence in either written or observational form has been presented either before or a week after the vote count,” which is simply false. (For a discussion of the evidence, see the box on “Election Fraud? Undoubtedly, But Media Ignored Ahmadinejad Support” in our article on “Mass Protests Rock Iran.”) Petras’ main “proof” that the election was not rigged is what he called “a rigorous nationwide public opinion poll conducted by two US experts just three weeks before the vote, which showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin....” Since this survey is cited by all leftist supporters of Ahmadinejad, let’s examine it.

For starters, this poll was financed by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, which in other circumstances would hardly have elicited the description “rigorous” from the likes of Petras. Second, the “2 to 1 margin” was actually 34 percent for Ahmadinejad to 14 percent for Mousavi, with 27 percent responding “don’t know” who they would vote for and 22 percent giving no answer at all (i.e., no preferences from 49 percent of the respondents). Moreover, according to the report’s authors, the large majority of the undecided gave other answers placing them in the “reform” camp. The poll takers concluded that most likely none of the candidates would win an outright victory, forcing a run-off. This is a far cry from the 62 percent for Ahmadinejad claimed by the Iranian government and upheld by Petras. And a poll of those with listed phone numbers by a polling firm calling from a “neighboring country” would be suspect on various counts. In a place like Iran where you can easily land in jail for opposing the government, many people would be naturally reluctant to express their political choice to an unknown caller.

Perhaps the most brazen leftist defender of the Iranian government over the election is the Workers World Party (WWP), an outfit with a predilection for “Third World” nationalist strongmen like Ahmadinejad. (WWP founder Sam Marcy defended the Stalinist suppression of the Hungarian workers uprising of 1956 and the massacre of Chinese workers around Tienanmen Square in 1989.) The WWP also cites the Rockefeller Brothers poll (without saying who financed it, or giving the actual numbers). But it goes further, seeking to deny that the Iranian regime killed protesters. A bizarre editorial titled “Who killed Neda Agha-Soltan?” (Workers World, 2 July) concocts a whole scenario of a “CIA-trained sharpshooter” taking position on a rooftop, with a contact waiting below with a camera who calls to say “She just got out of the car. A perfect target.” The assassin takes aim, shoots, disappears. Within an hour videos of the young woman bleeding to death arrive at the BBC and VoA. “Is that what happened to Neda Agha-Soltan?” it asks, adding, “We don’t know. But you don’t know either” and declaring their pure invention “more reasonable and more believable” than the media account.

Government security men beat man protesting vote fraud in Tehran, June 14, as supporters rush to his aid.  (Photo: AP)

The Marcyites have spent so much time singing paeans to the Kim dynasty in the North Korean deformed workers state that they have gone positively delusional. Could something like their scenario happen? Sure. But in Venezuela in April 2002 when government sharpshooters fired on a pro-Chávez crowd, killing several, and the news media then blamed the chavistas, there was an immediate chorus from eyewitnesses who reported what actually happened. In this case, there isn’t a single piece of evidence to back up the WWP’s hallucinations. The WWP’s justification for backing Ahmadinejad is that, while they might have some differences over the class struggle and ideology, and even though “some of the anger in the streets may reflect legitimate demands to improve workers’ and women’s rights,” in this conflict “his side is more anti-imperialist.”

This sliding scale of “anti-imperialism” is light-years from a Marxist class analysis. Not only do they give political support to anti-worker nationalist demagogues like Ahmadinejad and Mugabe in Zimbabwe, using the same methodology of “progressive” vs. “reactionary,” they end up organizing for liberal capitalist politicians in the imperialist countries. One of the most vexing problems for opportunists is to keep their audiences apart. They try to practice what in capitalist business schools is called market segmentation. So when Democratic doves in Marcyite-led “peace” coalitions learn of Workers World support for the Stalinist bureaucrats of North Korea or the Islamist rulers of Iran, they go bonkers. And what about the WWP’s posture as the best defenders of LGBT rights, which they highlight in the same issue of their paper where they support Islamic hardliners in Iran? If the WWP lifted a finger to defend lesbian, gay, bi- and trans-sexual rights in Tehran they would be thrown into the mullahs’ dungeons in a flash. But with their segmented marketing, the Marcyites tiptoe around such issues.

Social Democrats Hail Mousavi “Movement”

If “Third World” nationalists and Stalinoid tendencies like the Marcyites line up with the hard-line Islamist Ahmadinejad, the larger social-democratic leftist groups take their place in the Mousavi camp. They dutifully reflect the propaganda coming from the bourgeois media about a drive for “democracy” in Iran, just as they regularly do elsewhere, particularly when the “movement” is directed at regimes on the outs with liberal imperialists. Seeking recruits from the milieu of the Democratic Party in the U.S., the Labour Party in Britain and mainstream Socialists and Social Democrats in Europe, they may oppose crude calls for a war for oil resources from a right-winger like Cheney, or calls for a “crusade” from Republican Bush, while being soft on the “human rights” war cries emanating from the Democratic Clinton or Obama administrations. Hence the reluctance of “antiwar” coalitions like United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) to mobilize against the war in Afghanistan (as opposed to Iraq) or to protest war threats against Iran.

In the U.S., the pro-Mousavi demos in Tehran were strongly backed by the Communist Party (CPUSA) and Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CDDS – a 1991 split from the CP), both of which openly support the Democratic Party and who together run the UFPJ, tying the “peace movement” to this partner party of American imperialism. While hailing the protests in Tehran, CDDS leader Carl Bloice’s main concern was Republicans trying to force the White House to denounce vote fraud in Iran, saying they were out to “destroy the Obama Presidency” (Black Commentator, 25 June). The CPUSA mainly published statements by Tudeh, Iran’s erstwhile pro-Moscow CP, which issued “Ardent Greetings to the Heroic People of Iran” in the “Glorious Demonstration Against the Velayate Faghih (Theocratic) Regime” (Tudeh CC statement, 15 June). Tudeh’s choice of slogans is deliberate. By focusing on the faqih, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, it makes clear that it does not challenge the Islamic Republic as such, only “the reactionary, dictatorial and free market clique” currently running it.

Tudeh accuses Ahmadinejad and Khamenei of aiming at “putting an end to the ‘Republic’ system and establishing an Islamic Caliphate1 with absolute rule and reliance on military forces” (People’s Weekly World, 23 June). In the July 12 elections, Tudeh called to support Mousavi, the former prime minister who presided over the execution of hundreds if not thousands of their own comrades! Tudeh now opposes the “theocratic regime,” but when Khomeini instituted it, the Stalinists went all out to support the establishment of clerical rule, voting for the Islamic Republic, supporting the Islamic courts and denouncing leftists as “CIA agents” for belatedly criticizing these organs of Islamic dictatorship. Prior to that, Tudeh called not for socialist revolution but for a “national democratic” (bourgeois) revolution, and (on orders from Moscow) did nothing to bring down the shah, even though it had strong support in the Iranian working class and led the key oil workers unions. Today Tudeh has become thoroughly social-democratized, and is as shamelessly reformist as ever, capable only of sabotaging revolution.

The International Socialist Organization (ISO), currently the largest left group in the United States, likewise waxed enthusiastic that “the mass movement that took shape around Mousavi's election campaign has already been transformed into a broader fight for democracy” which “will not dissipate anytime soon” (Socialist Worker, 23 June). It’s pretty hard to present Mousavi himself as a democrat – he was, after all, prime minister of the Islamic Republic for almost a decade, 1981-89 – so the emphasis is on the “movement” around him. A week later (Socialist Worker, 1 July) this is referred to as a “mass democracy movement” and a “pro-democracy movement” that has the “potential” to morph into “a new movement for democracy and revolutionary change.” This is later elaborated, in an article by Saeed Rahnema, a professor at York College in Canada, as “the genuine movement within the vibrant Iranian civil society” whose “strategy is to gradually and non-violently replace the Islamic regime and its hegemony with a secular democratic one” (Socialist Worker, 15 July).

There are a number of problems with this construct. First, there is the presidential candidate himself, a thoroughly establishment figure in the Islamic regime, whose main backer is Ayatollah Rafsanjani, the quintessence of the “millionaire mullahs” (in his case, billionaire) and poster boy for corruption in this clerical capitalism. The ISO tries to get around this by presenting Mousavi as the standard-bearer of the “Islamist left,” as opposed to an “Islamist right” whose candidate was Ahmadinejad. This is ludicrous. As head of government in the ’80s, the supposed Islamic leftist Mousavi not only “oversaw extensive state control of Iran’s economy,” he also oversaw the execution of more than 10,000 leftists! Currently he is pushing hard to accelerate privatization of Iran’s economy and slash subsidies of consumer goods for the poor.

Families visiting unmarked graves at Khavaran grave site in south Tehran. Khavaran is the burial place for many of the thousands of political prisoners who were executed in 1988 when Mir-Hossein Mousavi was prime minister. In January, authorities sent bulldozers to cover the graves with soil and plant trees, destroying numerous ad-hoc grave markings placed there by families, in an attempt to eliminate evidence of the massacre. 

During the election campaign in May, students at Babolsar, Qazvin and Zanjan universities demanded of Mousavi, “Where were you in 1988, and how many people did you kill?” A placard read, “Khavaran's soil is still red.” Mousavi evaded answering the questions. 

The claim that Mousavi was an Islamist leftist is a repetition of the alibi offered up by much of the left in 1978-79 for capitulating to the mullahs – the idea that the “movement” would somehow slough off its established political leadership. There is no left-right difference between the hard-line Islamists and the “reformers” who want to loosen up a little on the infuriating social regimentation in order to preserve the system.

Then there is the question of “democracy,” and what is meant by it. Marxists always underline the class character of democracy, stressing that bourgeois democracy defends the rights of exploiters against the working people they exploit. By talking of democracy in classless terms, liberals and social democrats like the ISO play the imperialists’ game: Reagan and Bush claimed to be defending “democracy” against “communism” or “terrorism.”

Moreover, in Iran today, whatever demonstrators may privately wish, the pro-Mousavi protests did not call for democracy, and certainly not secular democracy. This is not by accident. They called to overturn the announced election results, which is quite different. The ideologues of the regime insist that Islamic rule is “religious democracy” based on the will of allah. This is the basis of the system of velayat-e-faqih, in which the Supreme Leader has veto power over everything. The minute the demonstrations call for “democracy,” they will confirm what the Islamist hardliners have been saying all along, that they are really protests against the Islamic Republic itself, and thus they are apostates, to be crushed.

And how exactly would this struggle against election fraud by the clerical-bonapartist state become a movement for “revolutionary change”? No doubt many of those protesting the rigged vote could be won to the need for revolutionary struggle against mullah rule. But that requires that revolutionaries drive home that it is a deadly illusion to think they can “gradually and non-violently replace the Islamic regime.” While denouncing the repressive electoral putsch, and defending the demonstrators who have bravely confronted the regime’s thugs and murderers, revolutionary Marxists explain that in Iran today even formal bourgeois democracy is impossible not only in an Islamic “republic” but more broadly within the confines of capitalist rule. In many semi-colonial countries, a minuscule ruling class faces a vast mass of poor and working people such that it cannot hope to maintain its power by anything resembling democratic means. That is one reason why throughout the Near East military dictatorships, monarchies and oligarchical regimes abound. Iran under the iron heel of the shah or the mullahs is no exception.

Communists do not belittle the struggle for democratic rights – on the contrary, we call for a fight for full equality for women, for free abortion on demand, for self-determination for national minorities, for full rights for homosexuals, for freedom of religion and separation of mosque and state, for free public secular education for all, for unions and workplace organizations free of state/clerical control, and for a revolutionary secular constituent assembly. But each and every one of these democratic demands  poses a frontal clash with the Islamic dictatorship, and can only be won by bringing it down through revolutionary action. As Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution holds, in the imperialist epoch, in countries of belated capitalist development, the tasks of the great bourgeois revolutions can only be accomplished by the seizure of power by the working class, supported by the urban and rural poor and led by an authentic communist party, which proceeds to expropriate the bourgeoisie and extend the revolution internationally. That is what Lenin’s Bolsheviks did in Russia in 1917. It’s what must be done in Iran today.

Thus we of the League for the Fourth International fight for a workers and peasants government that initiates socialist revolution, in Iran and beyond. The ISO, in contrast, tails after Mousavi and a wing of the Islamic rulers. And not for the first time. In an article on “The roots of Iran’s revolt” (Socialist Worker, 1 July), Lee Sustar briefly recalls the 1978-79 “Islamic Revolution,” highlighting the general strike against the shah, the factory occupations and factory councils or shoras. He adds laconically, “But the central leader of the revolution wasn’t the left, but the clergy and middle-class elements who looked to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.... These forces dismantled working-class organization and divided the left – and later, violently smashed it.” What Sustar doesn’t say is that the Khomeiniites had some help from the left that hailed the mullahs’ “revolution” – and that includes the ISO. Socialist Worker of January 1979 headlined “The Form Religious, The Spirit – Revolution!” The accompanying article declared, “Khomeini stands for the masses of the urban poor and the poorer bazzaris...” (click on image at right  to see larger version of illustration).

Today the ISO is singing a different tune, but their methods are the same. They’re just tailing after another “movement.” Opportunists not only require segmented audiences, but also short memories. Revolutionaries, on the other hand, “tell the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter” (rules of the Fourth International), even if it makes them highly unpopular at the time. The truth is that the “Islamic Revolution” spelled death and oppression for women, national minorities, workers and leftists – and the opportunist left supported that because they believe that to fight for socialist revolution is “sectarian,” and impossible.

In the Soviet Union, Iran, Afghanistan or the U.S.,
State Caps Trip Over the Class Line

The ISO in the United States was formed in the mid-1970s by sympathizers of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) led by the late Tony Cliff. In particular, they embraced Cliff’s characterization of the Soviet Union under Stalinist rule as “state capitalist.” (This is not so much a “theory” as a justification for his split from the Trotskyist Fourth International at the height of the anti-Soviet Cold War, refusing to defend North Korea and the USSR against the U.S./U.K./U.N. onslaught in the Korean war.) The Cliffites’ refusal to recognize the class line separating the Soviet bureaucratically degenerated workers state from capitalist imperialism also blinded them to the nature of Islamic clerical reaction in Iran under Khomeini ... and today. In the recent upheaval in Iran, the British SWP responded even more enthusiastically than its now estranged cousins in the ISO. “People Power Rocks Iran” proclaimed the British Socialist Worker (20 June): “There is a new popular power sweeping Iran.” The next issue included no less than seven articles on Iran, starting out: “Iran is in the grip of a popular rebellion, the like of which has not been seen since the 1979 revolution.”

If the ISO tried to explain away, downplay or ignore the Islamic character of the recent protests, the British Cliffites revel in it. “For the majority of ordinary people it has become a battle to reclaim the spirit of the 1979 revolution,” they write. (How they know what the majority of protesters believe is left unexplained.) A third piece says: “The majority now believe the solution for Iran is for a separation of religion from the state.” But, they caution, “This does not, as some suggest, spell the end of political Islam.” Rather, it is a “call for secularisation of the state by an Islamist reform movement” (Socialist Worker [UK], 27 June). To be sure, they say this “opens up space for more radical forces to emerge.” But not if those “radicals” seek to gain favor with the “green wave” demonstrators by hiding the chasm separating Islamism from socialism – which is exactly what the British SWP does. It is also what Cliff & Co. (and a host of others) did in 1979, with horrific consequences for the Iranian left and workers movement.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran was created by a mighty, popular revolution,” they write today. But, they add, “the powerful left believed that Iran was not ready for socialism and argued for alliances with ‘progressive’ capitalists to modernise the country. This was disastrous.” Indeed it was, and the Cliffites share responsibility for that disaster. Back when these events were unfolding in real time, the SWP put out a pamphlet by Joanna Rollo, Iran: Beginning of a Revolution (1979), which waxed lyrical:

“It is almost as though the masses have seized on a tradition that is embodied in their history – the tradition of religious opposition – the one thing they know is common to all, understood by all, and hammered this religion of theirs into a mighty weapon, that has nothing to do with godliness, or holiness and everything to do with mass power.”

In a 30-year retrospective on “Iran’s 1979 revolution” (Socialist Worker [UK], 24 January), the Cliffites cited another key moment in the consolidation of Islamic rule in Iran, the occupation of the U.S. embassy beginning that November by students “following the imam’s line”:

“Khomeini ordered an occupation of the US embassy, and moved against allies considered ‘moderate.’ This helped to seal Khomeini’s domination of the post-revolutionary state. Khomeini and his allies argued that national unity was needed to defeat the US. Any dissenters were enemies of the revolution. The left didn’t know how to respond.”

Actually, the opportunists vociferously hailed the embassy takeover, while Khomeini used phony “anti-imperialist” ploy in order to jail hundreds of leftists. But revolutionary Trotskyists, then organized in the international Spartacist tendency, which included the founders of the Internationalist Group, were not taken in by this maneuver, writing:

“The Teheran embassy seizure and hostage-taking was a diversion. It was fundamentally an attempt to refurbish Khomeini’s anti-shah credentials in a period of growing disillusionment with, and opposition to, his clerical-reactionary rule.”

–“Iran Embassy Crisis,” Workers Vanguard No. 244, 23 November 1979

Meanwhile, U.S. imperialism was stoking reactionary opposition to moderate social and land reforms next door in Afghanistan, provoking Moscow to intervene militarily (in January 1980) to prop up the weak Kabul government under attack. As Trotskyists, we strongly defended Soviet intervention against imperialism and the CIA-backed Islamic mujahedin (holy warriors), saying “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” and calling to extend gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples. The Cliffites (and a host of pseudo-Trotskyists) instead joined the imperialist chorus demanding “Soviet Troops Out of Afghanistan!” And when Moscow did pull out nine years later, the British SWP declared: “The Mojahedin victory will encourage the opponents of Russian rule everywhere in the USSR and Eastern Europe” (Socialist Worker, 4 February 1989). The Kremlin’s Afghan withdrawal was in fact a key factor accelerating counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in 1991-92, a world-historic defeat for the working class which Cliff et al. greeted.

This was the bitter fruit of these “Socialists Following the Imam’s Line.”

Communism vs. Imperialism and Islamism

The “state capitalist” epigones of Tony Cliff are hardly the only ones to line up politically in the camp of the Islamist “reformers” led by Mousavi and Rafsanjani. The same line is taken by the United Secretariat (USec), followers of the late Ernest Mandel, which for decades has masqueraded as the Fourth International. The same Iranian academics are quoted, and the same arguments about a “dynamic of popular mobilisations” that “deeply destabilises the edifice of the Islamic Republic” are repeated (Babak Kia, “Crisis of the Iranian regime and popular mobilisation,” International Viewpoint, July-August 2009). Again, this is hardly the first time that the Mandelites have made common cause with the Cliffites: they had virtually identical positions over Afghanistan and Polish Solidarność in the 1980s, supported Yeltsin’s counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in 1990-91, and have been doing a mating dance in Euroleft conferences for years, without ever quite getting around to marriage. This only shows that the USec has long-since become reformist – now codified in the formation of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France which makes no pretense of Trotskyism, and in which the heirs of Mandel and Cliff comfortably cohabit.

In Britain, virtually the entire panoply of the Labourite social-democratic left has politically climbed aboard the pro-Mousavi protests, while coyly trying to distance themselves from their “reform” Islamist leadership. Each tendency has its own particular formula. The Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) of Sean Matgamna, latter-day followers of the anti-Trotskyist Max Shachtman, proclaimed “the birth of a new political movement” and called “For a secular democratic Iran” (Solidarity, 25 June). With this purely bourgeois program the AWL had no qualms about supporting the June 26 international “labor” solidarity rallies carried out in league with the pro-imperialist union federations. The Socialist Party of England and Wales, the leading section of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) of Peter Taaffe, proclaimed the mass demos in Tehran a “massive movement for change” and declared “a revolution is unfolding in Iran” (“Where Now for the Iranian Revolution,” 25 June). But rather than posing the need for a class opposition to mullah rule, they call for “real democratic organisations” in “every workplace, university and district involving the middle class.” Again, it’s a bourgeois program.

We have already discussed at some length the even more effusive accolades of Taaffe’s former comrade Alan Woods and his International Marxist Tendency to the “Iranian Revolution,” which “has begun!” we are assured, although for about the third time in the last decade. With the repression unleashed by Ahmadinejad, however, Woods is no longer saying we are in a “1905 Revolution” which will prepare a “1917,” but rather that in “the next round (which is inevitable)” the “revolutionary ferment” (which “has inevitably expressed itself first among the students”) will be on “a qualitatively higher level” and “The Iranian equivalent of 1905 is being prepared. When that hour strikes the whole world will shake!” (“Iran: The defiance continues,” In Defence of Marxism, 10 July). Behind the bombast, all the talk of inevitability, like the USec harping on a “dynamic of popular mobilization,” is an objectivist justification for not fighting for an independent revolutionary vanguard and instead tailing the mass movement. If Lenin and Trotsky had that line, there never would have been a Bolshevik Revolution.

What position Marxists should take toward Islamism has been at issue in the left for decades. The current upheaval in Iran poses the question point blank, but it is also vital in formulating a revolutionary program for struggle throughout North Africa, the Near East, elsewhere in Asia and in imperialist countries like Britain. In Egypt, for example, since 2007 there has been a series of strikes of textile workers, miners, postal workers and other government employees, along with protests over U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Palestinian struggle against Zionist occupation. In all these issues the question of what attitude to take toward the Muslim Brotherhood is unavoidable, as it is the largest opposition force under the dictatorship of Mubarak. Cliffite supporters mouth a few phrases about not relying on the Brotherhood, but then seek political alliances with these extreme Islamic reactionaries, even though they are notorious strikebreakers who would jail and execute communists just as quickly as Mubarak’s military-based dictatorship. Trotskyists must warn against making political blocs with the Islamists and sharply combat their influence in the working class.

Elsewhere in the Near East, Cliffites and Mandelites have both supported making political alliances with Hezbollah in Lebanon. British SWP leader John Rees prominently participated in a November 2006 “anti-imperialist” conference in Beirut sponsored by the Shiite fundamentalist party. (Also in attendance was Workers Power/League for the Fifth International, presumably in the name of an “anti-imperialist united front,” its excuse for supporting the mullah-led Iranian “revolution” in 1979.) Rees is a regular attendee of the annual Cairo peace conferences, which he praises as a place where “senior people from Hamas, Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood, people from the revolutionary left and people from the anti-war movement around the globe” can hobnob (Al Ahram Weekly, 5 April 2007). In Britain, the SWP played a key role in building the Respect coalition, whose most prominent spokesman was the former Labour MP George Galloway, until it blew up as Galloway attacked the SWP last year. In order to make common cause with bourgeois Islamic organizations (including some with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood), who constituted the bulk of Respect’s electoral base, the SWP went so far as to oppose including the right to abortion in its platform.

Likewise, in Iran today, giving political support to the pro-Mousavi mobilization means accepting the limits imposed by the clerical bonapartist regime. Such is the price of admission to a political bloc with Islamic reaction: as in classic “popular fronts,” it is the bourgeois component which determines the “lowest common denominator” program. Yet every genuinely democratic demand requires breaking the mullahs’ stranglehold on the state. Marxists combat the attempts to demonize Islam by various pro-imperialist ideologues, from Vietnam war hawk Samuel Huntington, with his talk of a “clash of civilizations,” to ex British SWPer Christopher Hitchens, who popularized the notion of “Islamo-fascism” taken up by “neo-conservative” backers of the Iraq/Afghanistan war. However, the Cliffites’ campaign against “Islamophobia” goes beyond this to give political support to various bourgeois Islamic and Islamist forces. Trotskyists, in contrast, defend Iran under the Islamic Republic – as well as Iraq under Saddam and Gaza under Hamas – against imperialist attack and threats, while politically fighting Islamism.

Various opportunists justified their capitulation to Khomeini by arguing, as did the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, “Socialists do not fight against religion” (Intercontinental Press, 17 September 1979). This is (a) not true (as atheists, Marxists oppose all religion; the question is how to fight the influence of this “opium of the people”); and (b) not the issue. Islamism is a political doctrine for a theocratic state which communists fight tooth and nail as we insist on the separation of church and state. Christian fundamentalists oppose this fundamental bourgeois-democratic principle as well, as do Zionists with their anti-democratic proclamation of a Jewish state. But “integrist”2 tendencies are strong in Islam which predominates in regions and countries that have not yet had a bourgeois revolution. In the West under feudalism, when the Holy Roman Empire dominated Europe, as well as under the reformers Luther and Calvin, the unity of church and state was as pronounced as in the Muslim caliphates. Capitalism in its ascendant phase overcame this medieval political order; today, decaying capitalism fosters such reactionary currents.

What is striking about the political response of the left to the Islamic regime in Iran is the phony ingenuousness. “Who knew” Khomeini would end up slaughtering leftists, they argue. When there are new developments in the class struggle, Marxists respond, as scientists do, by a series of approximations as they work out a program. This was the case with the rise of imperialism, the appearance of fascism and the popular front. In the post-World War I period, communists were very tentative in responding to bourgeois-nationalist and pan-Islamic movements, with little prior experience to go on. But by 1979 this was not a novel question, and the answer was no mystery for genuine Marxists.

Rather than conciliating and politically allying with backward-looking forces that seek to “modernize” their capitalist economies while imposing a medieval political system, Trotskyists fight to achieve the democratic gains of the bourgeois revolutions the only way possible in this epoch – by overturning capitalism through international socialist revolution. As early as the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, the question of what attitude to take toward Islamist forces was hotly debated. While there were distinct weaknesses in the theses on the colonial question, notably ambiguity about temporary alliances with national-revolutionary forces in colonial and semi-colonial countries, Lenin (who drafted the original theses) was emphatic about “the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements”; and even more so about “the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with a strengthening of the position of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.”

This was specifically in response to the efforts by the Dutch Communist Maring (Henk Sneevliet) to join with the Sarakaat Islam movement in Indonesia. Maring later, on Stalin’s instructions (and over Trotsky’s objections), ordered the Chinese Communist Party to join the bourgeois nationalist Guomindang led by Chiang Kai-shek. By then Stalin had adopted the Menshevik policy of “two-stage” revolution, directly contradicting the Bolshevik program of the October 1917 workers revolution. This led to the 1927 Shanghai massacre when Chiang’s nationalist army slaughtered over 30,000 communists and labor militants. Yet with the Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern, communists around the world were indoctrinated with the stagist program. They kept on making alliances with bourgeois nationalists and strongmen for decades.

One of the most tragic examples was in Indonesia, where the world’s third-largest Communist party, closely aligned with Mao’s China, subordinated the workers and peasants to the nationalist Sukarno government. The result was the 1965 bloodbath in which the army, together with Islamist death squads, murdered an estimated one million Communists, trade unionists, members of the Chinese minority and others. This massacre, actively aided by the CIA, brought to fruition proposals by Cold War Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that U.S. imperialism use Islamist groups as a “bulwark” against “atheistic communism.”

By 1979 the Iranian Stalinists and Stalinist-influenced leftists almost reflexively ceded power to the Islamic reactionary Khomeini, even though it was the workers who brought down the shah with their general strike. The Islamists proceeded to suppress the left and workers movement, picking off the various organizations one by one.

The defeat of the Iranian workers uprising of late 1978 and early 1979 was the result of Stalinism, but not just of the treachery of the Stalinist Tudeh party that sold out to Khomeini as it had earlier sold out to the shah in the interests of Kremlin foreign policy. It was also due to the adoption of Stalinist/Menshevik conception of “two-stage revolution” held by militant guerrilla groups like the Fedayeen, and de-facto by the whole host of fake Trotskyist groups that hailed Khomeini even as his minions were using blacklists supplied to the shah’s secret police, SAVAK, by the CIA in order to track down leftists to be jailed and killed.

This included members of the HKS (Socialist Workers Party) affiliated with the United Secretariat, even though they supported the proclamation of the Islamic Republic and supported Iran in the war with Iraq. Against this suicidal capitulation, genuine Trotskyists stand for permanent revolution, holding that in countries of late capitalist development, “the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all its peasant masses” (Leon Trotsky, “What Is the Permanent Revolution” [1929]).

In Iran today, this means fighting against the electoral coup of the hardline Islamists Ahmadinejad and Khamenei at the head of the repressive forces (police, pasdaran, basiji) and defending the protesters while making no political alliances with the “moderate” Islamists led by Mousavi and Rafsanjani, and raising a series of democratic demands as part of a program to bring down the Islamic Republic through workers revolution. The key is to begin cohering the nucleus of a Leninist-Trotskyist party that draws the lessons of the disastrous experience of the past, in order to open the way to a victorious struggle for an Iranian workers republic in a socialist federation of the Near East. 

1 This is a direct appeal to Shiite Muslim clerics. Shia Islam rejects the legitimacy of the first three caliphs (khalifa) – rulers of the community of believers – who are considered by Sunni Muslims to be the successors of Muhammad. The caliphates were the traditional Sunni Islamic religious and governmental organization up until Kemal Atatürk abolished the institution in 1924 in establishing the secular Turkish republic. In Shia tradition, the fourth caliph, Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and  son in law, was the rightful heir, whose succession was passed down through religious leaders (imams) who exercise ultimate clerical authority over temporal government.

2 From the time of the French revolution, Catholics who rejected the authority of the secular republic and preached obedience to the Papacy were known as integrists.

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