by Torab Saleth
On the eve of the 1979 revolution, the Iranian working class was relatively young in terms of its history. By 1977 there were probably about four million workers, more than half of whom had joined the workforce only in the early 1960s, after the shah’s series of reforms known as the ‘white revolution’. The industrialisation that took place after the white revolution increased the population of the working class tremendously. Most of these were migrants from rural areas.
So it was a relatively young working class without a lot of experience, without much of a tradition of struggle. For the first 10 years after the white revolution, the economy was booming – there was 8% or 9% growth every year and the number of jobs was on the rise. So, for example, there were hardly any strikes.
But then the economic crisis of 1975 happened, which is when the industrialisation model of the white revolution reached its limits. So gradually unemployment began to increase and we first encountered the phenomenon of large shanty towns. Migrants from the countryside could no longer find jobs. In Tehran alone there were 500,000-700,000 people living in shanty towns.
During the economic crisis there were the first signs of workers’ economic struggle. Gradually, as they gained confidence, there was wave after wave of strikes, each one involving greater numbers, until, just before the insurrection that took place in February 1979, there was a general strike involving over three million workers, which lasted for more than three months. During this struggle, strike committees were formed in almost every industry and these often linked up with the neighbourhood committees that had also developed.
However, there was no political leadership as such. Because of the political repression under the shah, mosques became centres where the latest news was exchanged, where advice was given and where some kind of action could be coordinated – the mosque was the main meeting place even for striking workers. So many of the most militant and active leaders of the strike movement became very closely associated with the mosque. That is not to say that the working class movement was dominated by Islamic ideology or leadership. During the general strike there was great confusion, reflected in the slogans and demands that the working class was raising. There was no single focus: everything depended on the nature of the local strike committee, the individuals leading it and the nature of the industry of which it was a part – how old it was, how traditional, and so on.
But there were some radical demands raised by the working class during the general strike, including freedom for political prisoners and what have been called ‘transitional demands’, such as a sliding scale of wages. But there was hardly any organisational focus because the working class movement was lacking political leadership.
When the insurrection took place, in Tehran it was mostly members of the strike and neighbourhood committees who were involved. Many of these committees had access to arms – some actually had their own militias – and, because many owners and managers had fled, workers basically took over industry. Of course, workers’ control is different from workers’ management, but in Iran that kind of distinction was very blurry and in most factories workers would elect someone from amongst their own ranks to act as manager. There was also a very interesting tendency towards control of distribution: this put workers in direct confrontation with the bazaari merchants. For example, factory committees would set up stalls in the middle of Tehran and sell their products directly to the public.
Unfortunately there was not a huge tendency for these strike committees, known as shora, to come together on a geographical basis: they tended to remain attached solely to particular factories and so did not act as a political force. It is impossible to arrive at a situation of dual power without winning political control over cities or sections of them. I would not call something which remains purely at the factory level a soviet-type movement. Soviets for me must be geographically based.
This distinction was, however, realised by the Islamic currents, including the students ‘following the imam’s line’ based at the Tehran polytechnic, who would later organise the takeover of the US embassy and provoke the hostage crisis. These students came up with a plan to unite the councils at the city level. Unfortunately the left did not take this up. The major forces of the left were organised mostly in the smaller industries and just did not know how to cope with larger industries, in which there were many different currents, including Islamic forces.
Tragically the organisational form of the workers’ vanguard that had emerged during the crisis was left to those Islamic forces. The left was incapable of organising the working class to control distribution. Nobody took up this challenge – to help develop it, to make it more widespread in the major cities.
Nor did the working class itself really challenge the new regime politically. The only strike committee that protested against the formation of the secret ‘revolutionary committee’ – it was set up by ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, basically controlled power and oversaw the change of government – was that of the oil workers, which pointed out that there was no workers’ representation on the revolutionary committee.
But the most important factor was the urban poor. They must have numbered around 700,000 in Tehran, with its population of three or four million – it was a huge force. In fact the shock troops of the counterrevolution were recruited from the urban poor. The working class made no serious attempt to take up any of their demands, let alone actually lead them. The working class neither challenged the political change that had taken place above, nor did it unite the organisations it had developed during the strike. The urban poor were abandoned to the counterrevolution.
Within a year or so you could say that the Islamic regime had more or less taken over the factory councils. The Tehran polytechnic students who ‘followed the imam’s line’ set out to unite the shora movement – in Tehran, for example, 400-450 different factories or industrial complexes were brought together in this united, Islamic, shora movement. Later on they were to play a crucial role in establishing new managers, who were actually appointed by the government, in these industries. The factory councils were transformed into ‘Islamic societies’ which acted as a police force inside the factories.
By 1981-82, a couple of years after the insurrection, it was obvious that the working class had been defeated. Every democratic gain of the revolution had been more or less destroyed by the Islamic regime. So there was a period of retreat.
During this time there was a debate within the Iranian left as to what to do. There were calls for the creation of new factory committees, for mass assemblies at the factory level, as one way to revive the movement. But, obviously, during a period of defeat it is not possible to undertake that level of activity, so that idea fizzled out. There was also the call to build trade unions. After all, there wasn’t much else that could be done, was there? But, again, for a newly created working class with no tradition of trade unionism, how could unions be established in clandestine conditions?
At the time some of us were looking at the model of the Portuguese and the Spanish movement just before the overthrow of the dictatorship in those countries: factory commissions based on small, clandestine groups of workers in each workplace, with the aim of national coordination rather than separate, individual trade unions. Something like Solidarity in Poland perhaps. It is easier under a dictatorship to organise in that way than to opt, as most of the Iranian left did, for the formation of trade unions – we do not have much to show for 30 years of struggling to build them. In fact, the few trade unions that have come into existence are more or less in the well established sectors of the Iranian economy, where there was a tradition of trade unionism from before the 1952 coup: print, transport, oil. But in most of the new industries where there was no such tradition, we have hardly succeeded in building anything over the last 30 years. As soon as any trade union activity begins to get off the ground, the Iranian state intervenes to destroy it. It determined not to allow any form of workers’ organisation of this type.
Although over the last 10 or 15 years there has been a huge upsurge in the struggles of the working class, in organisational terms there is hardly anything to speak of. A lot of committees have been set up by worker activists and socialists in order to help the formation of trade unions, but that has not got us anywhere either.
Lately amongst some of the statements of worker activists there actually seems to be more of an understanding of the necessity of the kind of strategy I have just outlined: for clandestine committees inside the factories; for an attempt to create a national organisation rather than working within the individual unions. It is a lot easier to recruit someone to a national union than it is to a union in a single factory, which is more susceptible to repression.
There is another tendency which is very significant amongst some worker activists – the understanding that without a party we cannot get anywhere. Individual struggles of workers are more easily defeated in the absence of a workers’ political party; and that question is being raised now by worker activists.
So these three phenomena – the need for clandestine factory commissions, an approach towards overall organisation rather than trade union organisation, and the understanding of the necessity for political organisation – together indicate grounds for optimism.
We are entering a dangerous new era in the politics of the region, which could go either way. The forces opposed to any US deal are very strong, but there are also indications that a strong section of both the American and the Iranian ruling class wants a deal. In a sense we are returning, after 30 years, to a period like that before the Iranian revolution, in that European and American capital actually prefers to rely on Iran to control the region rather than anyone else – in that earlier period the shah was being promoted as a sort of sub-imperialist. Today Iran has plenty of skilled labour and it is a huge country with a lot of resources.
The state bureaucracy has grown and become quite sophisticated. It is no longer a case of feudal mullahs in control behind the scenes: there is now a technocracy that has taken over that role. Neither is the Iranian government what it was 30 years ago. It is now a lot more professional – a whole layer of younger people have been recruited into the state apparatus.
It is important to remember that, despite everything, any deal would mean that Iran has been recognised as a ‘legitimate state’ – this in itself would be a major achievement for the regime. A few years ago the International Monetary Fund produced a paper on the investment possibilities in Iran – projects which would require something like $700 billion in order to get off the ground were mooted. Even if only a fraction of that was to happen, it would still be a huge boost for the Iranian regime. Virtually every European foreign minister has been in Tehran – nobody wants to be left out in the cold.
So for all these reasons I think we are entering an interesting new period in the activity of the working class movement in Iran. I myself am optimistic in two senses. Firstly, there are new elements in the Iranian working class, pointing to a more fruitful strategy in terms of workers’ organisation. Secondly, the working class is growing in confidence and the Iranian state is now less able to suppress it.
Interview with Torab Saleth
The following interview with Torab Saleth, a leading activist in the Iranian Workers Left Unity current and a prominent figure in the British-based Hands Off the People of Iran (HOPI) campaign, was conducted by Philip Ferguson back in 2008 and first appeared in the revolutionary monthly The Spark.
Philip Ferguson: Could you tell us a bit about Workers Left Unity – how it came into existence and what work it does?
Torab Saleth: Workers Left Unity was formed in exile in the early 1990s, as one of the earliest responses to the crisis of the Iranian left (following its decimation in the early 80s at the hands of the counter-revolutionary theocratic regime). WLU is an independent organisation based on individual membership and an agreed minimum uniting all radical socialist currents cooperating towards a new regroupment of the socialist left. We come from many different traditions, principally from backgrounds in the Fedayeen minority and in Iranian Maoism and Trotskyism.
I cannot claim we have succeeded in our objectives, but we were aware even at the start that it will not be easy to do so, especially in exile. We do, however, still firmly believe that the only viable solution for the radical left inside Iran is to start a similar type of project. We are hoping to be in a position to participate in and influence such projects if and when they begin to take shape inside Iran.
WLU has thus been active abroad for many years initiating or participating in solidarity campaigns with the struggles of Iranian workers, women, students and nationalities. It has also organised many discussions and debates around major programmatic issues facing the left. It publishes a regular bulletin and has a site which comrades can visit for further information.
PF: Could you tell us about the state of the class struggle in Iran at present?
TS: Immediately after the February 1979 insurrection, the masses were on the rise whilst the new counter-revolutionary capitalist regime was trying to re-consolidate the shattered bourgeois state. This was alas a short-lived period, which ended with a victory for the ruling classes and a wave of state repression beginning as early as the summer of 1981. The new Islamic Republic managed to roll back every gain of the revolutionary movement and unleash one of the most vicious repressive regimes seen in modern history. This lasted well into the 1990s when in the face of a deepening economic crisis a new wave of protests demanding reforms began to take shape.
A faction within the theocratic regime itself, which had been calling for reforms from within since the presidency of Rafsanjani, managed to rise to power on the back of this new mood of the masses and dominate both the presidential and parliamentary elections. The new period of expectations opened up many avenues for a resurgence of the struggles against theocracy. But this period was also short-lived as the new liberal reformist faction proved unable to even confront, let alone break with, the Islamic regime.
The masses, having rapidly lost their illusions in this leadership, have become increasingly radical in their demands and a lot more ready to confront the authorities directly. But on the other hand the Islamic regime has become once again totally dependent on naked repression in its dealings with the masses.
Under the cover of a US threat of war the more hard-line factions of the regime, particularly forces associated with the repressive apparatus (the pasdaran army and the security services) have now taken over most levers of political and economic state power.
For such a regime, a threat of war or even the war itself can become “a godsend!”, as Khomeini described the 8-year Iran-Iraq war. Under that war the theocracy established itself. Using the threat of this new one it is defending its life against the rising tide of the revolution and readjusting the levers of power in its own favour.
In this, the latest period, we are witnessing a sharper political break with the regime. On the one hand, a further radicalisation of the masses and a new rise to political influence of socialist currents. On the other hand, a further shift of power towards the most fascistic factions of the capitalist regime. This is undoubtedly going to throw open huge socio-economic confrontations in the near future, whatever the outcome of the current war threats from the United States.
While the opposition within Iran has no voice and no leadership, it is numerous. Dissatisfaction more or less includes everybody; even some of those directly the employees/receivers in the religious side of the state apparatus itself. Thus the potential for a new revolutionary crisis in Iran is growing to explosive dimensions.
PF: What is the position of women’s rights and the rights of national minorities in Iran?
TS: Ever since the defeat of the revolutionary movement at the hands of the new clerical regime, the Iranian masses have faced a brutally repressive political order many times more vicious than the Shah’s Savak [secret police] state.
This regime has accepted no bounds in its butchery. Mass arrests and summary executions are its bread and butter. No dissidence whatsoever, not even an Islamic opposition, is allowed. Islam itself has now become a singular state religion. What the last two Shahs tried against the mullahs and never achieved has now become official by the mullahs themselves.
This regime has so far executed more than 30,000 political prisoners. There are, therefore, no independent voices and no legal representations of such voices. In a way no-one knows what people think. People are not allowed to express what they think; at least not in an organised form. Of course there are protests but these are only tolerated insofar as the given balance of force does not yet make feasible their suppression. But suppression is always the eventual outcome.
No-one has therefore any rights whatsoever in Iran, including women and national minorities. You could without exaggeration call Iran a totally lawless capitalist theocracy. Any section of society which dares to stand in the way of the ruling class, which is linked to a myriad of more or less mafia-type organisations, is simply crushed.
It was not accidental that the first attacks against the Iranian masses were precisely against women and national minorities. Like every other counter-revolution in history it first picked on the weakest links inside the male-chauvinistic Iranian society as only a counter-revolution knows how to gather up all the dark forces of history. First it enforced the Islamic hijab on women and then more or less immediately sent troops to crush the Arab and Kurdish minorities.
Today, the very same counter-revolution does not even tolerate dissent within its own loyal supporters, let alone the opposition to its rule.
PF: Do you think a US attack on Iran is really likely given the quagmire Washington is in, both in Iraq and Afghanistan?
TS: It is difficult to predict if and when the current occupation of the Middle East by the US army may extend inside Iran. After all, given the experience of Iraq, US imperialism does not need reasons. It cooks them up when it needs them. Given this mentality of the American ruling class which is now facing an even worse prospect of decline than prompted it into the Iraq war, my simple answer would be – why not? The world that capitalism has dug out for us can enter wars at any time and anywhere. Iran is just another example. Of course, both sides could make a deal; as they have been trying hard for so many years to do.
Don’t forget that without a deal with Iran and the help Iran gave to the occupation of both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US Army would have failed even more miserably and much earlier. In fact the mood of the vast majority of Iranians can be expressed as “no to USA-led war, and no to an international peace with the Islamic Republic!” This explains what the Iranian regime itself is trying to achieve out of the current stand-off on the question of nuclear development. The best outcome for the Iranian regime would be a kind of international recognition of its legitimacy.
The fact that the Iranian masses oppose this war does not mean that they want this brutal regime to be internationally legitimised. My own prediction is that the latter will prevail, and in the short term they will make that deal. But even deals do not necessarily stop wars. A unilateralist, crisis-ridden and declining USA cannot tolerate an independent military force in the Middle East. This contradiction can easily lead to wars. The rest is just window dressing for the mass media. In a way war is already there in the region as a whole. And within that region, the USA is already at war with Iran, directly, on many fronts. But it is difficult to see how the USA can invade Iran itself. After spending billions and billions on a velvet revolution that has so far failed miserably, it knows that with its current strength it cannot stomach another long-term occupation and at least not in Iran.
This pragmatism can also drive it towards a military campaign solely reliant on aerial bombardment. This indeed is, according to leaked documents, what the US military is actually planning. The order on their table is not to plan an invasion but an aerial bombardment which disables Iran’s capabilities of retaliating and prevents its army from reaching the Gulf. Such a policy, if put into action, will undoubtedly strengthen the Iranian regime for decades to come at the expense of probably total economic devastation for the Iranian masses and probably over two million dead.
PF: Some people on the left in the West argue that defence of Iran against threats and various measures by the US and other Western powers means defence of the existing regime in the Iran. Some even argue that the regime is a product of a revolution and so is at least partly progressive. What is the WLU view of these things?
TS: These are my own personal views. We do not have “an official” WLU line on these questions. But as far as I am concerned, and I think this is a view we share not only in WLU but also in Hands Off the People of Iran, the defence of Iran against imperialist war is nothing but the defence of Iranian people. These very people are right now under brutal capitalist repression by the clerical regime in Iran and its henchmen in the pasdaran army and its embodiment in government in the shape of Mr Ahmadinejad. Many leaders of this regime should be tried in independent international tribunals for crimes against humanity.
Of course, the amount of damage Iran’s rulers could do in the world is nothing compared to the damage already being done by our so-called democratically-elected President Bush. But this does not justify us in abandoning the international support for the struggles of the Iranian masses against this regime. Just because there is a threat of war, it does not mean the class struggle has stopped. The Iranian regime has used this threat to intensify repression. It now imprisons and tortures known oppositionists with the trumped-up charge of “endangering national security”. This has been the regime’s answer to workers demanding independent organisations and to women, students, nationalities, and minorities demanding liberty and equality. The overwhelming majority of the population went into a revolution demanding the overthrow of precisely such types of regimes. If modern history has shown anything it is the fact dictatorships don’t last forever. Repression cannot eventually stop the rise of the next Iranian revolution.
PF: One major reason for the rise of so-called political Islam, or Islamic fundamentalism, appears to be the compromises made by secular nationalism with imperialism, for instance the case of the PLO and others. How would you analyse that growth and what prospects do you see for either rebuilding or creating a new secular left in the Middle East?
TS: In Iran, the Shiite hierarchy has always been part of the ruling class. Both inside the Iranian and international left there have always been apologists for Khomeini’s leadership, trying to paint this so-called political Islam as a kind of petty bourgeois movement, conveniently forgetting that since the 18th century right up to the present day the Shiite hierarchy in Iran has been the biggest landlord. The reason they managed with the help of their traditional allies/twins, the bazaari merchants, to take over political power in Iran in 1979 had nothing to do with religion but politics.
Firstly, the bankruptcy of other major political currents (in the Middle East mainly either bourgeois nationalist or pro-Moscow currents) has transformed them into a viable alternative. Helped of course by the fact that in a region under political repression for decades, the religious hierarchy has had the economic backing and the orgnisational muscle to take over the leadership of mass movements.
But secondly, and I think this is more important, the main reason why the more traditional layers of the ruling classes appear to be on the rise in the whole region is to do with imperialism itself. Imperialist-dominated capitalist growth which reproduces and strengthens backwardness has not weakened these traditional layers, as opposed to the more modernist bourgeois currents – it has actually given them a lot more economic room for manoeuvre. Like everybody else in our global age, the clergy can also finance globally!
Furthermore, imperialism itself has increasingly, over the last half a century, turned to such currents to safeguard its interests in the region. For example, without the direct help and intervention by US imperialism in 1978-79, Khomeini could not have taken power.
PF: What do you think progressive people in the West can do that would be of most assistance to the working class and oppressed of Iran?
TS: The best help progressive people in the West can give the whole of humanity is to turn any war abroad into a civil war at home. Until the world capitalist system is overthrown the threat of another devastating war is always there. In terms of the current campaign I think us socialists should emphasise two points rigorously.
One, that it is capitalism which is causing these wars and, instead of tail-ending various “humanitarian” sentiments, offer a clear socialist critique of this war.
Secondly, that the Iranian regime is right now one of the most viciously repressive capitalist regimes anywhere in the world, daily imprisoning and torturing Iranian people. Thus we must say no both to the imperialist war and to the Islamic republic This is why we chose Hands Off the People of Iran for our campaign.
There are two tendencies within the current anti-war movement for which we should watch out. The Iranian regime itself has mobilised its lobbies abroad, and in a number of countries various anti-war coalitions have either knowingly or carelessly accepted them as legitimate currents. To have some credibility these would admit that certain criticism can be levelled against the Iranian regime, but always such criticisms are very muted and presented as a means of then turning and saying, “But the main danger is now the imperialist threat and we must therefore concentrate on defending Iran rather than criticising its government.” This type of argument, even though blatantly silly, is actually similar to the so-called anti-imperialist line of some organisations in the West which even call themselves socialists.
Hidden under such opportunistic arguments is the fact of forgetting the urgent need for defence of actual struggles inside Iran. The comical outcome of such a policy is to make someone like president Bush look more democratic than some of our so-called anti-war currents.
And, of course, the second danger is falling for the lines of Western media and various institutions which have suddenly become interested in the plight of the Iranian people. These are all simply preparations for a later media velvet revolution.