Spartacist League

Iran and the Left:
Why They Supported Islamic Reaction

Workers Vanguard No. 229, 13 April 1979

When mullah rule was established in Iran in early 1979, the vast bulk of the Western left actively supported Ayatollah Khomeini’s seizure of power. Virtually  the only group that refused to bow to the Islamic reactionaries was the  Spartacist League, to which the League for the Fourth International traces its origin and from which founding cadres of the LFI came. At that time, when the SL stood on the program of revolutionary Trotskyism, its newspaper, Workers Vanguard, published the following important article.

In one sense it is now very easy to polemicize against those leftists, especially ostensible Trotskyists, who supported the Islamic opposition to the shah. We said Khomeini in power would seek to reimpose the veil, restore barbaric punishments (flogging, amputation), suppress the national minorities and crush the left and workers movement as ruthlessly as did the shah. Imperialist propaganda, they shouted, Khomeini is leading a great progressive struggle! Thus one self-proclaimed Trotskyist group in Britain charged:

     “The Spartacists make a series of charges against the Mullah-led opposition as a result of which they characterize the movement as one of ‘clerical reaction.’ A number of these charges amount to uncritical retailing of the chauvinist rubbish which filled the American press throughout the Autumn. The Mullahs they claim wish to restore Iran to the 7th century AD.... They wish to introduce savage Islamic law punishments; stoning, public hanging and whipping etc. They wish to enforce the wearing of the veil and the removal of the rights given to women by the Shah.”
    –Workers Power, February 1979


Now every piece of news out of Iran proves the international Spartacist tendency (iSt) was obviously, indisputably 100 percent right. The streets of Teheran are filled with the anguished cries of those, from middle-class liberal women to Guevarist guerrillas, who claim they were taken in by Khomeinis revolution. Tragically, the voice of the revolutionists who warned of the reactionary clericalist aims of the mullahs was drowned in the clamor of opportunists singing the praises of the anti-imperialist ayatollah. It is the Iranian masses who will pay the price.

Unfortunately, our main opponents here and in Europe are so cynical and so removed from the immediate consequences of their support to the mullahs’ revolution that they will not repudiate their position. They will obfuscate or perhaps deny that they supported Khomeini, or concoct elaborate stagiest theories to justify it. However, some subjectively revolutionary element may just be shocked enough by the sight of Khomeini’s marshals shooting down women protesting the veil to reconsider their solidarity with the mullahs? opposition to the shah. But unless such leftists break with the anti-Marxist methodology which led them to support Islamic reaction in Iran, they will end up supporting the Khomeinis of Egypt or India or Indonesia tomorrow.

To polemicize against the methodological arguments of the pro-Khomeini left groups is not so easy, for they didnt raise any. That Khomeini led the masses in the streets is presented as the beginning and end of all argument. Confronting Spartacists at a March 4 forum in New York, Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leader Barry Sheppard shouted:

    “Revolutionists were with Khomeini and this revolution, were with the masses in the streets against the monarchy. Only counterrevolutionaries would stand aside from that fight.... ”

“If it’s popular, chase it” seems to be the motto of these inveterate tailists, whose instincts are closer to lemmings than to Leninism. Such “arguments” do not allow or deserve a serious political reply.

A partial – very partial – exception to the theoretical nullity of the pro-Khomeini “Marxists” is the small British centrist Workers Power group. Its polemics with us on Iran put forth a few arguments which go beyond unabashed tailism of the masses, although in their case as well this is the fundamental motivation. This perhaps bespeaks less of Workers Power’s political seriousness than of its enviable position in the spectrum of British ostensible Trotskyism. As a small, nationally limited centrist formation, Workers Power finds the British section of the iSt a formidable competitor on its left. Unless it can discredit the Spartacist League/Britain as hopeless ultraleft sectarians, Workers Power cannot expect to attract leftward-moving elements from the Pabloist international Marxist Group, the workerist/reformist Socialist Workers Party of Tony Cliff, etc. Still, the not terribly coherent polemics by Workers Power provide a useful foil in attacking those ostensibly Trotskyist groups who supported the mullahs against the shah.

In a critical commentary on Bukharin’s writings, Antonio Gramsci insisted that Marxist polemicists must refute the strongest and not the weakest arguments of their opponents. In trying to carry out Gramsci’s injunction, we are forced to give our reformist and centrist opponents’  positions on Iran a theoretical coherence which they do not in reality possess.

The Islamic Opposition: A Reactionary Mass Movement

In the last weeks before the fall of the shah’s bloody regime, all the forces of the opposition to the monarchy in Iranian society, including the organized proletariat and the left had rallied behind Khomeini. But the core of Khomeini’s movement was the mullahs (the 180,000-strong Shi’ite Muslim clergy) and the bazaaris, the traditional merchant class being ground down by the modernization of the country. This traditional social class is doomed by economic progress, and so is naturally prone to reactionary ideology and its political expressions.

For opportunists it is unthinkable that there could be a reactionary mass mobilization against a reactionary regime. Yet history does offer examples of reactionary mass movements. Adolf Hitler organized an indubitably mass movement which toppled the Weimar Republic. In the U.S. in the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was a dynamic growing organization capable of mobilizing tens of thousands of activists in the streets.

The experience of German fascism has had too shattering an impact on the memory of the left for our reformist/centrist opponents to deny the possibility of reactionary mass movements based on the petty bourgeoisie. But not, they argue, in backward, semi-colonial countries like Iran. Workers Power polemicizes against us:

    “Iran is in Lenin’s terms a semi-colony. The masses, despite all their illusions, are struggling against this imperialism. If the USFI [the revisionist United Secretariat of the Fourth International] draw from this conclusion that [the] working class can simply tail the mullahs. If they refuse to pose the central need for working class independence and leadership then the Spartacists turn this on its head. The mullahs are simply reactionary ... identical to reactionary petit bourgeois movements in Imperialist countries like the Poujadists in France.” [emphasis in original]
    –“Opportunists and Sectarians on Iran,” Workers Power, February 1979 

According to our reformist/centrist opponents, imperialist domination sanctifies the petty-bourgeois masses of the oppressed, backward countries making them immune to reactionary mobilizations. The petty merchants and lumpenproletarians of Germany or France may sometimes do bad things, but not so their Iranian or Indian counterparts. We grant that Weimar Germany was a very different kind of society from the shah’s Iran. But early twentieth-century tsarist Russia was not. As an extreme instance of combined and uneven development, no country in the contemporary world so resembles the Russia which produced the Bolshevik Revolution as does Iran.

One of the central doctrinal elements of Bolshevism was that the proletariat was the only consistently democratic class in Russia. The petty-bourgeois masses, including the peasantry, could potentially be drawn to anti-democratic, anti-working class movements. This was one of the important differences within the Iskra group of 1900-03, a difference which foreshadowed the later Bolshevik-Menshevik split. Lenin strongly objected to Plekhanov’s assertion in the draft party program that the proletariat was in actual political life the petty bourgeoisie’s “foremost representative.” He insisted:

    “The struggle is growing sharper among the small producers too, of course. But their ‘struggle’ is very often directed against the proletariat, for in many respects the very position of the small producers sharply contraposes their interests to those of the proletariat. Generally speaking, the proletariat is not at all the petty bourgeoisie’s ‘foremost representative’...  It happens very often ... that the anti-Semite and the big landowner, the nationalist and the Narodnik, the social-reformer and the ‘critic of Marxism’ are the foremost representatives of the present-day small producer who has not yet deserted ‘his own standpoint’.” [emphasis in original]
    –“Notes on Plekhanov’s Second Draft Program” (February-March 1902) 

Lenin’s insistence that the Russian petty-bourgeois masses could be rallied to reactionary as well as revolutionary democratic movements was no mere theoretical speculation, but found living expression in the Black Hundreds. Addressing a meeting of the Communist International in 1923, Zinoviev likened the Black Hundreds to German Nazism:

    “There was in our country once a strong, utterly reactionary movement which we called the Black Hundred. It was really Russian fascism which used social demagogy very cleverly. The ‘Black Hundred’ movement arose from among the monarchists and supported the monarchy. It had a chapter in almost every village, every city. All the little people, the watchmen, servants, etc., went with them. This movement also used religious conflicts for its purposes. In a way, it was a popular movement, for it knew how to secure the allegiance of broad social strata, which it gathered under its cloak of demagogic pursuit of Jews. It was a big movement which attracted not only the large landowners, not only the aristocracy, but also thousands of petty bourgeois, and was much more a mass party than the Milyukov [liberal monarchist Cadet] party.” [our emphasis]
    –reproduced in Helmut Gruber, International Communism in the Era of Lenin: A Documentary History (1967)

One doesn’t have to look as far back as the Black Hundred movement of tsarist Russia to find a reactionary mass movement, analogous to Khomeini’s, in a backward, semi-colonial country, Look at Indonesia in 1965. The political reaction which overthrew the bourgeois-nationalist Sukarno and annihilated the Communist Party (then the largest in the world not holding state power) was not simply a military coup. The murder of half a million Communists and leftist workers and peasants (as well as many Hindus) was mainly carried out by petty-bourgeois Islamic fanatics led by the mullahs.

An “Anti-Imperialist” Bourgeois Revolution?

Since it is not so easy to portray Khomeini as a bourgeois democrat (he would be considered a reactionary by Henry VIII or Peter the Great), the favored leftist adjective is “anti-imperialist.” This all-embracing term is the code word for class collaborationism in Asia, Africa and Latin America. We are presented with the view that the entire people of the colonial and semi-colonial world, except for a handful of traitors and foreign agents (like the shah), have been revolutionized by imperialist domination. In this view the petty bourgeois masses are always progressive while a section of the bourgeoisie is also progressive (i.e., “anti-imperialist”). Verily imperialist domination ennobles all social classes in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The idea of all-class unity against imperialism finds its expression, for example, in the fictitious notion of the Arab Revolution.” Here we have a “revolution” embracing an entire people,, extending over decades and countries, a “revolution” which is directed not at overturning the existing Arab governments and ruling classes, but externally against the U.S. and Israel.

As Leninists, we fully recognize that the advanced capitalist countries, centrally the U.S., dominate, oppress and exploit backward countries like Iran. This fundamental historical fact imposes a particular program, strategy and tactics on proletarian revolutionaries in the colonial world. In these countries, the struggle for democratic rights and against feudal reaction is inextricably bound up with the struggle against foreign domination. Popular movements against domestic reaction and imperialist domination are often led by bourgeois nationalists.

The particular problems of proletarian revolutionary strategy and practice were first posed at the Second Congress of the Communist International in July-August 1920. Here it was recognized that the communist vanguard should at times support and seek alliances with “revolutionary bourgeois-nationalist movements.” But the condition laid down for such support was a very strong one. In his report on the Commission on the National and Colonial Questions, Lenin insists:

    “There has been a certain rapprochement between the bourgeoisie of the exploiting countries and that of the colonies, so that very often – perhaps even in most cases – the bourgeoisie of the oppressed countries, while it does support the national movement, is in full accord with the imperialist bourgeoisie, i.e., joins forces with it against all revolutionary movements and revolutionary classes. This was irrefutably proved in the commission, and we decided that the only correct attitude was to take this distinction into account and, in nearly all cases, substitute the term ‘national-revolutionary’ for the term ‘bourgeois-democratic.’ The significance of this change is that we, as Communists, should and will support bourgeois-liberation movements in the colonies only when they are genuinely revolutionary, and when their exponents do not hinder our work of educating and organizing in a revolutionary spirit the peasantry and the masses of the exploited. If these conditions do not exist, the Communists in these countries must combat the reformist bourgeoisie....” [our emphasis]

Can support to Khomeini against the shah be justified with reference to the Comintern’s position on bourgeois national liberation movements? To begin with, the Khomeiniite opposition was not a revolutionary bourgeois-nationalist movement. As a matter of fact, in 1920 the Comintern did deal with the kind of movement which has just conquered power in Iran, but not exactly in the spirit of possible support and cooperation with it. Here is what Lenin had to say about movements like Khomeini’s:

    “With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind....
    “...third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc....”  [our emphasis]
    –Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions (June 1920)

Furthermore, Khomeini never even pretended that he would “not hinder” communists from organizing and educating the exploited. If Iranian leftists believed they would enjoy democratic freedoms under an “Islamic Republic,” they duped themselves. Khomeini was always clear that he hated communism even more than he hated the shah. In a widely publicized interview in Le Monde (6 May 1978), the Ayatollah stated:

    “We will not collaborate with Marxists, even in order to overthrow the shah. I have given specific instructions to my followers not to do this. We are opposed to their ideology and we know that they always stab us in the back. If they came to power, they would establish a dictatorial regime contrary to the spirit of Islam.”

A glance at the basic Comintern documents on the colonial question is enough to convict as opportunists those self-styled “Leninists” who supported the Islamic opposition – and those in Iran as suicidal opportunists. But this does not resolve the general question of support to bourgeois-nationalist movements in the colonial world. In 1920 proletarian revolutionary (communist) parties were new on the scene. Mass bourgeois-nationalist movements were also a relatively recent development. It is therefore understandable and in a sense correct that Lenin’s Comintern posed the relationship between the communist vanguard and the bourgeois-nationalist movement in an algebraic manner.

Particularly the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, when the bourgeois-nationalist Kuomintang butchered their Communist would-be allies, and all subsequent experience shows that the colonial bourgeoisie will never “not hinder” revolutionaries from organizing and educating the exploited masses. It was the Chinese revolution which caused Trotsky to generalize the theory of the permanent revolution from tsarist Russia to all backward countries in the imperialist epoch. Trotsky recognized that the Stalin-Bukharin China policy was simply the old Menshevik two-stage revolution transposed to the colonies. As he wrote in his 1927 polemic, “The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Comrade Stalin”:

    “The old Menshevik tactic of 1905 to 1917 ... is now transferred to China by the Martynov [ideologue for Stalin/Bukharin] school.... The arguments are the same, letter for letter, as they were twenty years ago. Only, where formerly the word autocracy stood, the word imperialism has been substituted for it in the text.... The struggle against foreign imperialism is as much a class struggle as the struggle against autocracy. That it cannot be exorcized by the idea of the national united front, is far too eloquently proved by the bloody April events [Chiang Kai-shek’s Shanghai massacre], a direct consequence of the policy of the bloc of four classes.”  [emphasis in original]
    –Problems of the Chinese Revolution

Imperialism is in its very essence the subordination of the weak propertied classes in the backward countries to the powerful bourgeoisie of the metropolitan centers. As Trotsky put it:

    “Imperialism is a highly powerful force in the internal relationships of China. The main source of this force is not the warships in the waters of the Yangtze Kiang – they are only auxiliaries – but the economic and political bond between foreign capital and the native bourgeoisie. The struggle against imperialism, precisely because of its economic and military power, demands a powerful exertion of forces from the very depths of the Chinese people.”

There is no anti-imperialist bourgeoisie and therefore can be no anti-imperialist bourgeois-democratic revolution as such. In the imperialist epoch the historic tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, including national liberation, can be realized only through proletarian socialist revolution.

United Fronts in the Struggle Against Imperialism

For Leninists, a united front is a specific, episodic agreement for common action: “March separately, strike together” was the way the early Comintern expressed the united front as a slogan. This was sharply distinguished by Trotsky from a political bloc for propaganda. Moreover, united-front tactics cover a broad range and are not all interchangeable. Thus there is a fundamental distinction between military support to bourgeois-nationalist forces (e.g., for the Algerian FLN against the French army and colon terrorists) and political (e.g., electoral) support. The tactics of critical electoral support can sometimes be applied to social-democratic (e.g., British Labour) or Stalinist (e.g., French Communist) parties based on the organized working class. Such a tactic, used to expose the reformist misleaders, can be justified as representing at least a first step toward the political independence of the workers, by drawing a class line against the bourgeois parties. But revolutionaries never give such political support to bourgeois formations, however radical or “socialist” their rhetoric or extensive their popular support. In contrast to reformist labor-based parties, bourgeois-nationalist movements (e.g., Chinese Kuomintang, Algerian FLN, Argentine Peronism) are not just misleaders but class enemies – they can turn on and destroy their working-class support without themselves committing political suicide.

There are, to be sure, specific partial struggles against imperialist domination (e.g., for political independence) which are progressive and are often led by bourgeois nationalists. Bourgeois nationalist regimes sometimes carry out measures against foreign capital (e.g., Cardenas’ nationalization of Mexico’s oilfields in 1937, Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal) which revolutionaries will support and if necessary defend. An Egyptian revolutionary vanguard, for example, would have given Nasser military support against the 1956 Anglo/French/Israeli invasion in retaliation for nationalizing the Suez Canal.

The legitimacy of such united-front tactics depends entirely on the progressive content what is concretely being fought for and not at all on the “anti-imperialist” posture of the bourgeois forces involved. In fact, in defending genuine national rights against imperialist attack, we are willing to make common cause even with extreme reactionaries. Haile Selassie, for example, was a feudal autocrat. Yet revolutionary Marxists gave him military support in defending Ethiopia against conquest by Mussolini’s Italy. Another example: Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s was a reactionary butcher compared to whom the Iranian Pahlavis come off like saintly humanitarians. Furthermore, Kuomintang China was at least as closely tied to U.S. imperialism as was the shah’s Iran. Yet when Japan launched a war of conquest against China in 1937, Trotsky exhorted his Chinese followers to participate actively in the national resistance to imperialist Japan despite Chiang’s leadership.

For opportunists, on the other hand, united fronts in the ex-colonial countries are based on the supposed progressive (“anti-imperialist”) character of the bourgeois forces they are tailing after. Thus Khomeini’s movement was presented as “anti-imperialist,” and conversely the shah was portrayed not as a representative of the Iranian bourgeoisie but as a direct agent of U.S. imperialism, sort of a high-class CIA operative. Polemicizing against us, Workers Power writes: “The Spartacists position would in practice rule out an anti-imperialist united front against the shah in Iran” (Rights and Wrongs of the Spartacists,” Workers Power, January 1979).

Even if Khomeini were a bourgeois nationalist espousing a democratic program (which he decidedly is not), we would reject what Workers Power means by an “anti-imperialist united front.” This slogan was first raised at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922, where it was associated with agitation for “temporary agreements” with bourgeois nationalists in the struggle against imperialist domination. Even at that time it was used to justify capitulation to the bourgeois nationalists. In the debate over the “Theses on the Eastern Question” where the slogan was first raised in the Comintern, a Chinese delegate argued:

    “On the assumption that the anti-imperialist united front is necessary to get rid of imperialism in China, our party has decided to form a national front with the national revolutionary party of the Kuomintang....  If we do not enter this party we shall remain isolated, preaching a communism which is, it is true, a great and sublime ideal, but which the masses do not follow.”
    –quoted in Jane Degras, ed. The Communist International 1919-1943, Documents, Vol. I

Within the Political Bureau of the Russian Communist Party Trotsky had opposed the entry into the Kuomintang from the outset. The tragic Shanghai massacre of April 1927 was the bloody consequence of this entry. And those who call for political support to the Islamic opposition betray the same capitulationist impulses that led to the KMT entry – only worse, for at least the party of Chiang Kai-shek was “progressive” relative to the warlords. It wanted to unbind the feet, cut off the pigtails, etc. Not so the mullahs, who want to reimpose the veil.

There can be specific united-front actions of an anti-imperialist character between proletarian revolutionaries and bourgeois nationalists, such as a march on a colonial military base. Naturally, communists would join in a pro-independence mass uprising, advocating that it go father than its bourgeois or petty bourgeois leaders wish in breaking with imperialism. But what the pseudo-Trotskyist revisionists wish to do with the slogan of an “anti-imperialist united front” is exactly what Stalin-Dimitrov did with the slogan of a “united front against fascism” at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935: use it as a codeword for a political bloc with a section of the exploiters, actual and aspiring. The essentially Stalinist concept of “the anti-imperialist united front” amounts to supporting those bourgeois groups which stand for (or claim to stand for) a less pro-Western foreign policy than their main opponents. In practice “the anti-imperialist united front” means supporting Indira Gandhi against Janata in India, Ethiopia’s Colonel Mengistu against everyone, etc.

The reactionary, anti-democratic content of the “anti-imperialist united front” is well illustrated in Peru. On a scale of “anti-imperialism” Peru’s General Velasco Alvarado outdistanced Ayatollah Khomeini by light years. The Velasco junta (1968-1975) carried out an extensive land reform and nationalized several of the country’s major industries, including the big U.S.-owned copper and oil (Texaco) companies. It reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba and developed close ties to the Soviet bloc, which is quite unusual for a country located in U.S. imperialism’s backyard.

The logic of “the anti-imperialist united front” called for support to Velasco’s 1968 coup against the right-center parliamentary government of Belaunde Terry, and support to the junta in power against the pro-Washington bourgeois opposition parties (the CIA-connected, rightwing pseudo-populist APRA and the conservative Popular Christian Party). Naturally the pro-Moscow Stalinists supported the “progressive” generals in just this way. The revisionist “Trotskyist” international bloc of Guillermo Lora and Pierre Lambert – the Organizing Committee for the Reconstruction of the Fourth Internationalalso offered its hand to the Velasco junta for an “anti-imperialist united front.” Because of its support to the oppressive, though anti-imperialist,” military bonapartist regime, the pro-Moscow Communist Party is today justly discredited among the Peruvian toiling masses. And Khomeini’s Islamic Revolutionary Committee promises to make the Peruvian junta look like a bunch of bleeding-heart liberal do-gooders by comparison.

A Revolutionary Policy in Iran

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 year 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.

Shameless reformists like the American SWP simply resort to “black is white” subterfuges, arguing that the veil is a “symbol of resistance to the shah” (dixit Cindy Jaquith) rather than an expression of purdah, the Muslim traditionalist seclusion of women; that to the masses an Islamic Republic meant a workers and peasants republic (according to Barry Sheppard); or that “allah akbar” (god is great) really meant the people were stronger than the shah’s army (Brian Grogan’s contribution). 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

Ha! 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.

Workers Power argues that participation in the Khomeiniite demonstrations amounted to “a de facto anti-imperialist military united front” (ibid.). But these demonstrations were not civil war, in which victory for the shah’s army would mean obliteration of the popular forces, and thus a policy of revolutionary defensism on the side of the mullah-led forces would necessarily be posed. The demonstrations were essentially a pressure tactic for the Islamization of the existing state apparatus. The Khomeini leadership was clearly looking forward to a coup against the shah by a Persian equivalent of Pakistan’s “soldier of Islam” General Zia. The demonstrations for an Islamic Republic were just that.

Our principled opposition to participating in the Khomeiniite demonstrations was not an option for political quietism. Depending on its resources and the concrete military situation, a Trotskyist organization in Iran would have used the opening created by the eruption of a mass Islamic opposition, and the occasional hesitancy of the shah’s repressive apparatus, to agitate for revolutionary-democratic demands and its full class-struggle program. A Trotskyist vanguard would also have sought to break the ranks of the leftist groups, centrally the Fedayeen, from Khomeini by proposing to these organizations a series of united-front actions against the shah independent of the mullahs’ movement and politically opposed to it.

The shah was brought down not only by the “Long live Khomeini” demonstrations, the reformists/centrists will argue here, but also by the workers’ strikes, especially in the economically decisive oilfields. True. But whereas our tailist opponents amalgamated the reactionary petty-bourgeois protests and the proletarian strike wave into a single classless “anti-shah” movement, we drew a fundamental line between them. The strikes were certainly blows aimed at the monarchy, although initially they had a very considerable economic component. Significantly, the key oil workers’ strike did not call for an Islamic Republic, even through undoubtedly the workers supported the Khomeiniite opposition to some extent.

A revolutionary party in Iran would, of course, have vigorously supported and done everything in its power to strengthen and extend the strikes, while demanding that the workers give no support to the Islamic opposition. As we wrote a month before the shah fled:

    “The strike battles now being waged by the Iranian workers could be the basis of the independent mobilization of the proletariat as a competitor for power with Khomeini, not as cannon fodder for the mullahs. In the imperialist epoch, the democratic tasks of freeing oppressed nationalities, agrarian revolution, and breaking down imperialist domination can be carried out only under the leadership of the Iranian proletariat. But these urgent demands require the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship for their success, not the dissolution of the working class into the petty bourgeois masses.”
    –“Down with the Shah! Don’t Bow to Khomeini!” Workers Vanguard No. 221, 15 December 1978

Once the shah fled, popular fury turned against the police and especially the hated SAVAK, they were hunted down and killed by angry mobs. The Islamic leadership opposed these spontaneous reprisals against the shah’s torturers because they were seeking a rapprochement with at least a section of the generals and also feared “chaos in the streets.” A revolutionary party in Iran would not only have participated in the attacks on SAVAK, but sought to organize them on a united-front basis through popular tribunals. As we wrote in January;

    “Thus the mullahs correctly see the popular mobilizations against SAVAK as counterposed to building up their jurisdiction and keeping up good relations with the officer corps. People’s tribunals to punish the SAVAK torturers could be the beginning of revolutionary dual power, directed against both the religious hierarchy and officer corps.”
    –“Shah Flees,” Workers Vanguard No. 223, 19 January 1979

During the Bakhtiar interval, especially after Khomeini returned from exile, it was quite possible that the generals might have attempted to drown the mass opposition in blood. This was the shah’s last message to his senior officers. As we wrote just after the mullahs’ victory:

    “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 a proletarian pole.”
    –“Mullahs Win,” Workers Vanguard No. 225, 16 February 1979

Such a revolutionary-defensist policy would be justified and necessary not because Khomeini is more progressive or anti-imperialist than the shah. As in any war the decisive question was the line-up of class forces and the consequences of the victory of one side or another. If the generals won such a civil war, they would have crushed not only the Islamic fanatics but also the advanced elements of the Iranian proletariat and the organized left.

In the period of the Spanish Civil War Trotsky explained to those ultra-leftists who argued that since Marxists would not give political support to the Popular Front of Negrín in the elections, therefore to give it military support against Franco was “degeneration into the swamp of ‘lesser evil’ Popular Front politics...”:

    “Let’s take an example: two ships with armaments and munitions... – one for Franco and the other for Negrin. What should be the attitude of the workers?...

“We are not neutral. We will let the ship with the munitions for the Negrin government pass. We have no illusions: from these bullets, only nine or every ten would go against the fascists, at least one against our comrades. But out of those marked for Franco, ten out of every ten would go to our comrades.... Of course, if an armed insurrection began in Spain, we would try to direct the ship with munitions into the hands of the rebellious workers. But when are not that strong, we choose the lesser evil.”

The civil war between Negrin and Franco does not signify the same thing as the electoral combination competition of Hindenburg and Hitler. If Hindenburg had entered into an open military fight against Hitler, then Hindenburg would have a ‘lesser evil’.... But Hindenburg was not the ‘lesser evil’ – he did not go into open warfare against Hitler....”
–“Answer to Questions on the Spanish Situation (A Concise Summary),” September 1937

Trotsky here repeatedly emphasized the decisive difference between a civil war and the pressure tactics of bourgeois democracy (elections, etc.). By trying to pretend that the mullah-led anti-shah demonstrations are equivalent to civil war, Workers Power is simply masking their political support to Khomeini and his Islamic Republic.

After Khomeini, Us?

It has become commonplace among the pseudo-Trotskyist groups to liken Khomeini’s role to that Alexander Kerensky between the February and October revolutions in Russia. Barry Sheppard of the American SWP said at the previously cited NYC forum, “To say ‘Down with the Shah, Down with the Mullahs’ is the same thing as saying in Russia in 191[7], ‘Down with the Tsar, Down with Kerensky!’.” Likewise the British partner, the Mandelite International Marxist Group, states: “If anything he [Khomeini] bears a closer resemblance to Kerensky, though analogies by their nature are never exact” (“Iran’s February Revolution,” Socialist Challenge, 15 February). This particular analogy is not merely not exact, but is so off-the-wall it is hard to deal with in a politically meaningful way. Analogies between the Russian February Revolution and what has happened in Iran would be valid only if the tsar had been overthrown by a movement led by Metropolitan Tikhon of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Kerensky was an accidental figure thrown up by the revolution. He was insignificant before February 1917. It was precisely Kerensky’s lack of political definition and strong party ties which made him an acceptable “leader” to the bourgeois liberal Cadets, the petty-bourgeois populist Social Revolutionaries and labor reformist Mensheviks. Khomeini was anything but an accidental figure in the overthrow of the shah. He was the established leader of the dominant religious sect. He went into opposition to the shah precisely over the monarchy’s superficial attempt at Westernization (the 1963 “White Revolution”), especially over the land reform, which damaged the economic interests of the mosque and legal rights for women.

There is, however, an ulterior political logic in the fake-Trotskyists’ fixation with the nonsensical Khomeini-Kerensky analogy. Everyone knows Kerensky was but a transitory figure, easily overthrown by the Bolsheviks after a few months in power. In making the Khomeini-Kerensky analogy our revisionist “Trotskyist” opponents are expressing their belief – or at any rate hope – that (soon) “After Khomeini, us.” Here we come perhaps to the underlying reason why leftists supported a manifestly reactionary religious movement in Iran. It was a cynical maneuver to support the mullahs against the shah on the assumption that the “inevitable radicalization” (“the objective dynamic”) of the revolution would bring the left to power. Much of the left’s effort to prettify this backward-looking religious fanatic as some kind of radical democrat was undoubtedly a hypocritical gesture to ingratiate themselves with Khomeini’s Iranian followers.

Perhaps the most sophisticated defense for supporting the mullahs against the shah is an amalgam of cynicism and objectivism. It runs something like this: granted Khomeini is a religious reactionary; if he comes to power and consolidates his rule, this might even be more reactionary than the shah, at least in its domestic policies. But a reactionary Islamic Republic in Iran today is very unlikely. In order to overthrow the shah, Khomeini had to unleash popular forces which he cannot control and which will prevent him from carrying out his program. In the political chaos which must follow the shah’s fall, the left will gain over Khomeini. Although leftist support for Khomeini is an opportunist policy, there is a certain methodological similarity here to the ultra-left Third Period Stalinist position expressed as, After Hitler, us.”

The German Stalinists had it all the arguments worked out: Hitler stood at the head of an unstable collation of big capital and ruined petty bourgeois, which would soon explode; he could never deliver on his demagogic social program. But with the combined strength of a fanatical mass following and the armed forces Hitler built his Third Reich over the broken bones of the organized workers movement. The cynical policy of supporting Khomeini against the shah, figuring he can then be overthrown on the morrow of his victory, is like playing Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber. Khomeini now has in his hands, though not yet securely, the resources of state power. He will certainly command the loyalty of the still-intact officer caste in any showdown with the left or workers movement. Furthermore, Khomeini enjoys enormous popular authority, especially among the backward, rural masses, not only as the imam of the faithful but as the conqueror of the hated shah.

As revolutionaries, we are never fatalistic about the victory of counterrevolution. When Hitler was appointed chancellor in early 1933, Trotsky called on the German working class to insurrect against him. Likewise in Iran today we call for a united-front defense of the workers movement, the left and secular democratic forces against the imminent terror of Islamic reaction:

    “From the Fedayeen to the women in the streets, every non-Islamic sector of society is under the gun of the Muslim fanatics. The Fedayeen’s protection of the women’s protests in Teheran is an encouraging sign that the basis for a united-front defense of the left, proletarian and secular democratic forces exists.
    “Revolutionaries in Iran would agitate for the formation of workers militias based on factory committees and trade-union organizations as the backbone of such a united front against the mullahs’ rule!”
    –“No to the Veil!,” Workers Vanguard No. 227, 16 March 1979

But we recognize that the political and military advantages now lie with the Islamic Revolutionary Committee and not with the suicidal opportunists of the Iranian left and the tragically misled working class. Khomeini is not engaging in empty bombast when he threatens:

    “If the united leadership is not accepted by all groups I shall regard this as an uprising against the Islamic revolution, and I warn these bandits and unlawful elements that we were able to destroy the shah and his evil system, and we are strong enough to deal with them.”
    New York Times, 20 February 1979

And how did Khomeini acquire the strength to destroy the shah? It was provided not only by the mosque’s traditional petty-bourgeois base, the bazaaris and similar social strata. It was also the support of the Iranian left (the pro-Moscow Stalinist Tudeh Party and eclectic Stalinoid Fedayeen) which gave Khomeini the weapons he will now turn against them. And the foreign leftist cheerleaders for the mullahs in the streets – the Jack Barneses, Ernest Mandels and Gerry Healys – they too bear responsibility for the gathering reactionary terror in Iran. Every unveiled woman who is beaten, every petty malefactor who is flogged, every worker militant who is tortured by an Islamic SAVAK will be right to curse all of those who helped bring to power their new tormentor.

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