Persian proletariat

Issue: 115

Naz Massoumi

Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian, Iran on the Brink: Rising Workers and Threats of War (Pluto, 2007), £17.99

There are two predominant images of Iran in the West. One is a racist depiction of Iran as a backward country of religious fanaticism. The other sees the principles of Western liberal democracy lying underneath the confines of a religious government. This image is often used by those urging war against Iran, but also by some who want to counter the -one‑dimensional view of a Muslim country. But it would remain a complete distortion of the truth to use this element as the sole representation, despite the admiration of Western culture that exists.

The first half of Iran on the Brink aims to paint a different image, drawn “from the point of view of the poor and workers”. The principal argument of this book—that a new labour movement in Iran is being suffocated by Western interference and threats of war—is more than welcome. However, the analysis has shortcomings (not surprising, given that the authors are journalists from Arbetaren, an Swedish anarcho-syndicalist newspaper) and fails to fully take into account the processes that have changed Iranian society over the past three decades.

Iran possesses a rich history of struggle from below, from the protests against the British monopoly over Iranian tobacco in the 1890s through to the creation of anjumans (local councils) during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. The power of the Iranian working class was first realised during the mass strikes and unionisation of the 1940s. The most profound working class intervention was in 1978, when mass strikes, particularly by oil workers, brought about the revolution that overthrew the Shah’s military dictatorship. Committees were set up to coordinate the strikes, and these led to the creation of new democratic forms—factory councils known as shoras.

The book quite rightly highlights the negative impact the Iranian left had on this process during the revolution. The powerful legacy of Stalinist Russia was particularly damaging. A dominant theory was that of “dependent” capitalism, which regarded Iran as purely an agent of foreign capital.

There’s no doubt that the Shah, as the US’s policeman in the Gulf, gave foreign (and particularly US) capital an easy ride. But this was less significant than the domestic sector. The state remained the principal driving force of industrial growth and it was this process, begun by the Shah’s father at the start of the century, which had brought about the uneven development of Iranian capitalism. The Shah was not simply an agent of imperialism—the indigenous bourgeoisie had their own interests in maintaining Iranian capital. The theory of “dependent” capitalism meant seeing the “national bourgeoisie” as somehow more -progressive than the “reactionary” agents of imperialism. Such a model also placed the Iranian working class in a secondary role, and the majority of the revolutionary left, looking to other forces, ended up with minimal roots inside the working class. Yet while the authors recognise such errors, they rely on the same theory and categorise the Shah’s ruling classes as “compradors”.

The left’s failures meant the shoras never managed to develop into workers’ councils able to act as a pole of attraction to other sections of society such as the urban poor. A space opened up for other forces. Khomeini, who had led an effective movement with anti-imperialist slogans against the Shah, entered this void. A shrewd political operator, he played secular nationalists and the left (religious and secular) off against one another before crushing them brutally and, with the start of the Iran-Iraq War, the shoras too. The process is charted in Phil Marshall’s book, Revolution and Counterrevolution in Iran.

The prospect of a cleric leading a revolution confused most analysts at first. But Khomeini was a nationalist, albeit a religious one. As Dilip Hiro’s recent book, Iran Today, points out, the social character of the clerical leadership was not very different from the military officers who led the nationalist revolutions of Egypt and Iraq. It’s important to recognise this to appreciate the contradictions that lie at the heart of the Islamic Republic. The authors of Iran on the Brink rightly quote Iranian historian Ervand Abrahamian’s definition of populism: “a middle class movement that mobilises the masses with radical-sounding rhetoric against the external powers and entrenched classes. But in attacking the establishment, it is careful to respect private property and avoid concrete proposals that would undermine the petty bourgeoisie.”

This explains the political factions that immediately surfaced during the 1980s. There were the “leftists”, who favoured a strong centralised state with welfare and social programmes for the poorer sections of society; and the “right”, who represented the bazaari (mercantile capitalists). Their divisions were held together under the intense nationalism of the eight-year war with Iraq and by Khomeini’s tactical support for each faction. But with the end of the war and the death of Khomeini, Iranian capitalism came under increasing pressure to move away from an economy of self-sufficiency and adapt to global -capitalism. A group of conservatives known as the “pragmatists” under Rafsanjani (as president) and Khamenei (as supreme leader) emerged to take that process forward. The reformist Khatami took up their programme of economic liberalisation—privisatisation, deregulation and the influx of foreign capital—after his election in 1997.

While there was high inflation and unemployment in the 1980s, the government had provided health and education to the majority, dismantled shanty towns and redistributed the Shah’s property to some of the poorest sections of society. By the late 1990s inflation, unemployment and inequality had grown, while some of those welfare institutions had turned into large capitalist organisations. One consequence was disaffection and the rise of working class struggle, which is well documented in this book. The bloody repression of strikes and sit-ins after the sacking of 250 construction workers at a copper smelting plant in the village of Khatoonabad in January 2004 led to labour unrest across the country. There were strikes by teachers for higher wages, textile workers against unfair dismissals and workers at Iran-Khodro (the largest automobile manufacturer in the Middle East). Most notable was the bus workers’ strike for union recognition and collective bargaining in December 2005.

Another consequence was electoral. The election of Ahmadinejad in 2005, with his promise to redistribute oil wealth to the poor, was regarded as a return to the Khomeiniism of the 1980s and a rejection of the economic policies of the 1990s.

However, the most interesting development, the Second Khordad Movement, later also known as the reform movement—came earlier. It was a result of a number of factors. The participation of religious women in civil society and the labour force during the 1980s raised gender consciousness, challenged the sexist ideology of the state and precipitated demands for social and political equality. There was an expansion of the education system (where over 60 percent of students are now women). Finally, many participants in the revolution returned to the question of its ideals with the end of the suffocating conditions of war with Iraq. A movement led by women and students, many from within an Islamic framework, demanded change.

Unfortunately, the authors make no attempt to understand this movement, even if they recognise the significance of what came along with it—the relaxation of press censorship, the growing strength of civil society, and increasing political and social freedoms. But they point to the conservative backlash as proof that the project was always doomed to fail and that the regime could never be reformed.

This is far too simplistic. Whatever their shortcomings, Khatami and the reformists made some progressive changes. At the height of the student movement the conservatives were on the back foot, so there is nothing to suggest that the success of the conservative backlash was inevitable had Khatami not held the movement back.

More importantly, the authors fail to recognise how the political fractures from which the likes of Khatami emerged were a product of social processes which would not have happened without the intervention of a courageous movement led by women and students. The day of Khatami’s election was comparable to the anti-war demonstrations that shook the British ruling class on 15 February 2003, but harnessing even greater hope and expectations.

It is likely that the embryonic labour struggles drew inspiration from these movements. For example, the teachers’ strikes cannot be seen in isolation from the student and women’s movement when 80 percent of Iran’s teachers are women.

Although suffering setbacks and splits, the movement has certainly matured and radicalised. The question of neoliberalism is the most important test. Having failed to deliver on his promises to create jobs, reduce inflation and redistribute wealth, Ahmadinejad is now facing opposition even within his traditional constituency of support. Under pressure from an alliance of moderate conservatives and reformists, he has gone as far as vowing to follow through the process of privatisation that he once promised to reverse.

With the reformist leaders hell bent on privatisation, an effective grassroots opposition to neoliberalism is needed that unites the fight for women’s equality, and social and political freedoms, with the economic demands and struggle for better workers’ rights and conditions of the labour movement.

Over the past few months hardliners have attempted to quell a new wave of social unrest. The arrest of 32 women activists on 8 March failed to prevent International Women’s Day celebrations. In the same month teachers staged a number of protests demanding higher wages (nearly 90 percent are paid below the official poverty line). More recently May Day celebrations organised by the official government union Khane Kargar (Workers’ House) saw slogans against the government and privatisation. Some, including union representatives, were detained.

The crackdowns come on the back of intensified threats from the US, the subject of the last chapter of this book. Here the authors point to Iran’s geopolitical position, and its huge oil and gas reserves, rather than its nuclear programme, as the main reasons behind Washington’s hostile rhetoric. The detailed US plans for an attack and its funding for dissident groups give Iran’s hardliners a favourable climate in which to quell dissent.

Iran on the Brink is an accessible guide to Iran’s recent history and the questions that this history has thrown up. But while it recognises the important emergence of a new radical economic struggle, it ignores the significance of a political movement which could potentially take that struggle forward.