Platypus Review 49 | September 2012
DESPITE THE CREATION OF AN AUTOCRATIC and anti-Semitic regime after the Khomeneiite revolution of 1979, the European Community and later the European Union continued to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran; and even with new, insufficient sanctions in place, trade with Iran continues until today. It is the capitalist state’s primary task to allow the further realization of capital, but there is a certain sense in which politics surpasses this function. Government policy is indeed not indifferent when it comes to the choice of whom it trades with. Accordingly, the U.S. and Israel, who are considered forms of Satan in the eyes of the Iranian regime, have banned large-scale transactions with Iran. Capital and state do indeed follow their own logic of commercialization and domination. However, the Left, which is critical of the state and capitalism, must not be indifferent to the different results of this logic. As important as the critique of state and capital may be, it is also crucially important whether business is done with Iceland, Ireland, Italy, India, or Iran.
For Iran’s government, every success in business means progress and a further step in its jihad against emancipation and enlightenment. With the pursuit of nuclear bomb technology in mind, its agenda has to be understood as a political program of annihilation. If liberal and radical leftists want to be serious about Adorno’s imperative, formulated in his Negative Dialectics—that in the state of humanity’s unfreedom, thought and action must be arranged in a way so that Auschwitz may never repeat itself—then they should do everything to prevent the Iranian regime from realizing its murderous ideology and facilitate its overthrow. It seems apposite, and it is not by coincidence that, as the motto for the second part of his collection of aphorisms, Minima Moralia, Adorno quoted F. H. Bradley, “Where everything is bad, it’s good to know the worst.”
When Adorno and Horkheimer debated the necessity of a new Communist Manifesto, the representatives of critical theory had in mind that the critique of the late capitalist society was possible only as long as they listed “the reasons that make it possible to keep on living in the West” at the very same time. The bourgeois ideal of the individual pursuit of happiness now appears to be ideological, because the capitalist mode of social relations limits its realization materially. The Islamist ideal of a “simple and just life,” in contrast, solely points towards absolute barbarism. In order to grasp the distinction between bourgeois capitalist society and its negative dissolution, as it was effected by Germany’s National Socialism and as it is—historical and ideological differences aside—also aimed at by Islamism, one must understand one decisive difference: a difference between a social mode of production, whose purpose is the realization of capital and where the death of a human is shrugged off as a part of the business, while having never been originally intended; and an economy of death that, as a paranoid reaction, originates from instrumental reason, but does not coincide with it entirely, as it declares annihilation an end in itself.
The confrontation between Iran and the West, and Israel in particular, represents an existential and therefore hardly negotiable conflict. It is a conflict between, on the one hand, states whose social structure systematically betrays the individual pursuit of happiness, but nevertheless defends the individual against repressive collectives; and on the other hand, those powers who consider the destruction of Israel merely a prelude for turning the rest of the world into a jihadistically “liberated” hell.
Therefore, and not for bellicosity, a materialist critique in the tradition of Marx and critical theory must defy any kind of appeasement towards those protagonists of a barbarism that originates in enlightenment and the process of civilization, but is by no means identical with it. The fight against the Iranian regime and its allies deserves the support of anybody who is not indifferent to the ideas of enlightenment and universal emancipation as envisioned by Marx—even if this fight is not led by the Left, but, for example, by liberal or other forces, which may have opposing views on any other subject.
German flyers by an anti-Deutsch group protesting against the observance of “Al Quds Day”—first established by Khomeini in 1979 to express solidarity with the Palestinians.
The state of Iran is neither a dictatorship nor simply an authoritarian version of a capitalist society. For more than 30 years, the Islamic Republic has been ruled by a regime that exerts terror intensely at home and abroad, ideologically based on a religiously motivated claim to global power. Considering the state of affairs, the regime tries to develop nuclear weapons that threaten the existence of Israel and that could reach Europe. Labor unions are banned in Iran, and labor disputes and student protests have been brutally squashed alike. The systematic persecution of religious minorities like the Baha’i, the execution of homosexuals, and the omnipresent oppression of women who do not want to submit to the Islamist code of ethics, are part of the nature of this regime. The same is true for the continued threats of annihilation towards Israel and the denial or relativization of the Shoah. What also distinguishes this regime from other Islamic despotisms is the combination of messianic and apocalyptic ideology, anti-Semitism, and the desire for the technology of mass destruction. Despite fundamental differences, the regime’s hatred towards communism, materialism, liberalism, Western plutocracy, Judaism, and Zionism, resembles German National Socialist ideology.
The Iranian dictatorship’s aim is to annihilate Israel. It exhibits no interest in actually improving the lives of Palestinians, a two-state solution, or any sort of compromise and balanced settlement of the Middle-Eastern conflict. This stance is neither new nor merely president Ahmadinejad’s individual point of view: Since 1979 the destruction of Israel has been part of the Islamic Republic’s official policy, and it is promoted by the fanatic supporters of Ahmadinejad, by conservatives, and also by those who are deemed by the West to be pragmatist or reformist mullahs and ayatollahs.
In Iran, it is not a state secret that the regime will never accept a Jewish state in the Middle East: The slogan “Death to Israel!” is a constituent part of the Islamist state propaganda since 1979 and is emblazoned on rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv, regularly displayed at military parades. This claim was repeated incessantly in a May 2012 announcement by Fars News, a regime-controlled news agency with ties to the Revolutionary Guards. There Hassan Firouzabadi, the chief of staff of the Iranian army, proclaimed the aim of the Islamic Republic to be “the full annihilation of the Zionist regime of Israel,” while the supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei, once again called the “Zionist regime” a “cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut.” In August of this year, a few weeks after the EU had refused to list Hezbollah officially as a “terror organization,” Walid Sakariya—Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament and former general—declared of his Iranian allies’ nuclear program on the television station Al-Manar, “This nuclear weapon is meant…to finish off the Zionist enterprise.”
Considering these statements, Wahied Wahdat-Hagh described the program of the Iranian regime as “eliminatory anti-Zionism.” With that in mind, it is not at all surprising that anti-Zionist leftists pose as protectors of the Iranian regime and, worst of all, some Trotskyite groups even defend “Iran’s right to nuclear weapons” while the international neo-Nazi scene cheers on the Iranian regime.
Demonstration against Ahmadinejad’s visit in Copenhagen, Denmark in December 2009. Keine Unterstützung für das iranische Regime translates to “No support for the Iranian regime.”
The rule of Islamist rackets
The Iranian regime’s aggressive foreign policy, which is characterized simultaneously by pragmatism and a mania for annihilation, corresponds domestically with a social form of organization that is characterized by the rule of competing gangs or “rackets.” Drawing from Max Horkheimer’s theory of a racket and Franz Neumann’s study Behemoth, Gerhard Scheit analyzed the Islamic Republic as a “non-state.” According to his analysis, the Islamist revolution of 1979 represents “the opposite of the bourgeois revolution, which triumphed in France. Both revolutions lifted the state’s monopoly on the use of force and replaced it with the power of terrorist groups. However, in one case, the terror results in the rule of law that is guaranteed for the sake of capital’s realization by a new monopoly on violence. And in the other case, terror continues undiminishedly in the different forms of Sharia and sees itself shielded by the name of Allah and oil revenues.”
Since Khomeini’s accession, the Iranian regime has been characterized by a rivalry of rackets hostile to each other while the supreme religious leader reigns above all and acts as a mediating authority. In this way, the whole Iranian constitution cannot be understood as a form of bourgeois law: “The complex structure of the constitution is merely there to provide room for the disparate activities of these rackets, who declaredly prefer the state of emergency.” Since 1979, parallel to the state’s organs, additional institutions have been formed in Iran. The influence of the regular courts of justice is restricted through the existence of numerous special courts. Beyond those military tribunals that are common in other countries, there exist so called “Revolutionary Courts,” the “Court for the Justice of Bureaucracy,” the “Special Court for the Clergy,” and “Press Courts.” Besides the national army, the Pasdaran has been established as an alternative revolutionary military force, which today is one of the most influential and probably the most dangerous racket within the regime’s power structure. The Revolutionary Guards not only represent the regime’s military elite unit, but also one of the most important economic conglomerates in Iran, which provides its members with economic and social gains. For several years now, the Pasdaran have used their military power to gain control of crucial branches of Iran’s economy, particularly in the realm of foreign trade.
Similar to German National Socialism, but in a different way, the Islamic “non-state” of Iran is capitalist and anti-capitalist at the same time: “Its position on ownership of the means of production is different in the respect that in the form of an industrialized mode of production this kind of ownership only exists to a minimal extent. Universal law and contract have disappeared here as well, replaced by the rackets’ arbitrary course of actions.”
A central difference to National Socialism, however, is its position on labor. The affiliation with the Islamist collective, different from Nazi Germany, has almost nothing to do with labor as a commodity: “In such a collective, even somebody, who does not have any prospect for a job, can feel useful and not superfluous, even when he does not expect the umma to provide him with one. Everything beyond the racket system that threatens and exposes the individual to superfluousness, the individual projects on a total enemy, the Gegen-Volk (‘counter-nation’, ed.).” These projections culminate in a suicidal desire for annihilation that concentrates on the State of Israel, that includes self-sacrifice, and that is virtually invoked by the Iranian Islamists’ ideology of martyrdom.
What is to be done?
How can a regime that carries on with the National Socialist’s ideological mania for annihilation, albeit under totally different conditions, be confronted? First, it should be remembered that with respect to Iran’s disregard of security council resolutions dealing with Iran’s uranium enrichment, even the UN Charter points out the possibility of “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air… and the severance of diplomatic relations.”
More severe and urgently necessary sanctions should not be understood as a contribution towards further negotiations with the regime and, in this way, should neither offer it a way out of its crisis, nor be misunderstood as a ploy to spur Ali Khomeini or the Pasdaran to undertake voluntary reforms. Instead, they must be designed as a decisive contribution to its weakening and to prospectively destroy the regime, which marks out an extended moment of regression in world history.
Of course, sanctions will to some degree always have a negative effect on the population of Iran. But firstly, nobody demands sanctions of food, medicine, and necessities. The focus lies on sanctions on the gas and oil exports as well as financial transactions, which represent the regime’s nerve center, and sanctions against the import of high-end technological products that are provided by companies of the German middle classes in particular. Secondly, the Iranian population has proven over the last few years that it does not blame the West for the sanctions, but rather blames the aggressive policy of the regime. Thirdly, everything that deprives the regime of financial means helps the Iranian opposition, since the regime’s aim is not the accumulation of capital, but to acquire financial resources for a political agenda that has already cost the lives of tens of thousands of Iranians and driven millions into exile. And finally: We should consider why sanctions are rejected by those leftists who zealously mobilize against any kind of military confrontation with the anti-Semitic Iranian regime.
Nobody can predict with certainty which decisions on sanctions will gain momentum during the coming weeks and how successful or unsuccessful the Iranian movement for freedom will be; however, such considerations should not to rule out the possibility of a military escalation. It is certain that Iran’s feverish nuclear program forces Israel to prepare for future confrontations. Within the solidarity movement for the Iranian freedom movement, this issue has been and is being far too much neglected—particularly by the Left and radical left-wing groups.
Many of those leftist organizations that have been chiefly involved in organizing solidarity events in exile after the faked elections of June 2009 were the ones who contributed to the mullahs’ accession to power in 1979. Many Marxist-Leninist and anti-imperialist Iranian leftists supported the Islamists above all because they erroneously, as Danny Postel emphasized in the forum hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society on the Iranian left, understood “liberalism as part of a toxic, global, colonial project rather than viewing it, as Marx himself did, as being necessary but insufficient—or, better, insufficient but bloody necessary—to the project of socialism and liberation.” The Iranian left, primarily the Marxist-Leninists, also supported Khomeini out of a shared hatred of Zionism and U.S. imperialism. To this day, not much has changed in that respect. In Germany and Austria left-wing demonstrators who march in solidarity with Israel were repeatedly expelled from rallies that support the Iranian freedom movement. Simultaneously, nobody there took offence when those Trotskyites who made common cause with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah at conferences in Beirut marched at the same rallies.
The radicalization of the freedom movement in Iran went hand in hand with a de-radicalization of some of its activists in exile. To prevent the radicalization of demonstrations they posed as stewards at rallies. Those who appeared as firm opponents of the regime and, for example, shouted “Down with the Islamic Republic” instead of “Down with Ahmadinejad” were expelled from demonstrations not only in Vienna and Berlin, but also in several cities in the U.S., especially during the first phase of protests in the summer of 2009. The slogans of the Marxist-Leninist cadres and their reformist Islamist allies even fell back behind those demands that were voiced by protesters in Tehran at the risk of their lives. While the opposition movement’s slogan “Where is my vote?” was taken up on many solidarity rallies, people in Tehran were already chanting “Freedom, independence, Iranian Republic.” While in Europe great pains were taken not to confront the regime’s ideology offensively, Iranian protesters clearly renounced support for Hamas and Hezbollah as well as the Iranian nuclear program: “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran” and “A green and blossoming Iran does not need nuclear arms,” ran the chants. And while reformist Islamists in the West warned that open declarations of support for the opposition in Iran by Europe and the U.S. would bring opponents of the regime into disrepute, the Iranians were already pondering out loud: “Obama! Obama! Either on our side or theirs!”
The coalition “Stop the Bomb” was formed in Austria in late 2007 and Germany in 2008 in order to oppose domestic business deals with Iran and to challenge their political endorsement. Both countries have developed intense economic and political ties with the Iranian regime for the last 30 years. Established leftist groups, such as part of the antifascists, were greatly involved in setting up Stop the Bomb in both Germany and Austria. With an international petition and numerous other activities, Stop the Bomb targets supporters of the Iranian regime and received prominent support itself by nazi-hunter Beate Klarsfeld, the literary Nobel prize laureates Elfriede Jelinek and Imre Kertész, and Nobel peace prize laureate Elie Wiesel. Today, Stop the Bomb is active in Great Britain, the Netherlands and Spain as well, and it would be desirable to see similar organizations or initiatives arise in other countries, too—particularly with the help of the Left.
Despite their initial skepticism about the markedly Green Movement in Iran, Israeli diplomats have not only been trying to convince Europe, Russia, and China of the urgency of severe sanctions, but Israeli politicians, including the prime minister, have also repeatedly called on the West to support the Iranian freedom movement, and members of the Iranian opposition have been received and welcomed by the Israeli president. It should be clear that the fight for the freedom of the people in Iran is not separable from the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
There is a consensus in Israel that unilateral military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities represent an extremely risky option. Nevertheless, they are an option.
That the awareness of the Iranian threat and possible countermeasures is omnipresent in Israel’s society, a society which hardly ever arrives at general agreements like this one, is demonstrated by a left-leaning liberal and former party leader of Meretz, Yossi Beilin. He has shown to the public that, in this matter, a member of the so-called “peaceniks,” even in the choice of his words, does not differ from Likud’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “The military option represents the last resort, but they should not be taken off the table. Sanctions might be much more successful.” Unfortunately, it is doubtful that U.S. foreign policy makers understand the gravity of the threat a nuclear-armed Iran poses, at least in the same way as the Israelis from nearly all camps do.
In the final analysis, the Israeli state can therefore only rely on itself, since Iran is only a strategic threat to the U.S., whereas it is an existential threat to Israel. The U.S. is rather willing to withdraw its support for the Iranian opposition in exchange for a murky agreement with the regime on its nuclear program. Were the Iranian freedom movement to fail, were it unable to regroup the impulses of 2009’s mass demonstrations again, the lack of support by the states of the West as well as the international left will certainly be a reason for its failure. That would be an even more unwelcome development. The overthrow of the Iranian regime would definitely be the best solution. Yet as Michael Rubin, a notoriously hawkish neo-conservative, observes, rather than military strikes on the nuclear facilities, only a victory of the secular and democratic opposition that envisions a constitutional society can ensure that the threat of a nuclear Iran will be banished in the future.
The Left should fight on the front line against the regime in Iran. And if the West, as much criticism as it deserves, engages against this regime, the Left should not oppose that by simply following a myopic anti-imperialist reflex, but instead greet and support these actions—without deluding itself for a second about the character and the primary interests of the states of the West. An overthrow in Iran would not at all have a merely national or regional impact. One might hope that it would be a starting signal to stop the global advance of Islamic jihadism. And it would recall the rallying cry, which tens of thousands of Iranian women shouted for days as they demonstrated against the introduction of forced veiling in 1979, “Emancipation is not Western, emancipation is not Eastern, it’s universal!” |P
. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Towards a New Manifesto (London: Verso, 2010), 57.
. See Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Government (New York: Manor Books, 1979), available online at <http://www.al-islam.org/islamicgovernment/>, a collection of lectures held in 1970, which contains paragraphs that read like extracts of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (München: Eher Verlag, 1933).
. See Yossi Melman and Meir Javedanfar, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran (New York: Carroll & Graff, 2007), and Emanuele Ottolenghi, Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the Bomb (London: Profile Books, 2009).
. The Holocaust denial conference in Tehran in December 2006, which gathered the international who’s who of Holocaust deniers, was inaugurated by Iran’s then foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki. See Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, “Iran: Islamist Holocaust Denial.” Available online at <http://antisemitism.org.il/article/71621/iran-islamist-holocaust-denial>.
. “Top commander reiterates Iran’s commitment to full annihilation of Israel,” <http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9102112759>.
. Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, “Die Herrschaft des politischen Islam im Iran. Ein Überblick zu Struktur und Ideologie der khomeinistischen Diktatur,” in Der Iran: Analyse einer islamischen Diktatur und ihrer europäischen Förderer, eds. Stephan Grigat and Simone Dinah Hartmann (Innsbruck: Studien Verlag, 2008), 44.
. Michael Pröbsting, “Zu den Waffen! USA und Israel drohen mit neuen Krieg gegen den Iran,” available online at <http://www.arbeiterinnenstandpunkt.net/>. A more recent text demands “Military victory for Iran!” <http://www.rkob.net/international/nordafrika-und-der-arabische-raum/kein-angriff-auf-iran/>.
. See Heribert Schiedel, “Heiliger Hass: Zur rechtsextrem-iranischen Freundschaft,” in Iran im Weltsystem: Bündnisses des Regimes und Perspektiven der Freiheitsbewegung, eds. Stephan Grigat and Simone Dinah Hartmann (Innsbruck: Studien Verlag, 2010), 165–173, and Stephan Grigat, “Mein Feind und Freund. Rechte Parteien in Europa entdecken das iranische Regime als Partner,” Die Zeit 14, available online at <http://www.zeit.de/2012/14/P-Rechte-Parteien-Islam>.
. With his “sociology of rackets“ Horkheimer wanted to supplement his Sociology of Class Relations. In contrast to the theoretical model adequate to liberal bourgeois society, conspiring cliques of rackets characterized by unconditional allegiance and anarchic competition with each other became the central protagonists in the phase of monopoly capitalism. See Max Horkheimer, “Soziologie der Klassenverhältnisse,” in Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 12 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbush Verlag, 2009), 104. See also Christoph Türcke and Gerhard Bolte, Einführung in die Kritische Theorie (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1994), 49.
. All of the quotations in this passage have been translated into English from Gerhard Scheit’s essay “Der neue Vernichtungswahn und seine internationalen Voraussetzungen: Wodurch sich Ahmadinejads Islamische Republik von Hitlerdeutschland unterscheidet,” in Grigat and Hartmann, Der Iran, 58–78.
. Scheit, “Der neue Vernichtungswahn,” 63.
. See Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, Die Islamische Republik Iran. Die Herrschaft des politischen Islam als eine Spielart des Totalitarismus (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2003).
. Scheit, “Der neue Vernichtungswahn,” 68.
. Ibid., 70.
. Available online at </2010/02/18/30-years-of-the-islamic-revolution-in-iran/>.
. See Javad Asadian, Stephan Grigat, and Simone Dinah Hartmann, “Solidarität mit Israel gehört dazu,” Jungle World 32 <http://jungle-world.com/artikel/2009/32/36916.html>.
. See Fathiyeh Naghibzadeh and Andreas Benl “Nachholehnde Säkularisierung: Bilanz und Perspektiven der iranischen Freiheitsbewegung,” in Iran im Weltsystem, eds. Grigat and Hartmann, 28, and Fathiyeh Naghibzadeh and Andreas Benl, “The Peace Train,” Jerusalem Post, April 16, 2012, available online at <http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=266297>.
. See “Netanjahu rät zu Twitter-Propaganda,” Spiegel Online, December 7, 2009, available online at <http://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/netzpolitik/konflikt-mit-iran-netanjahu-raet-zu-twitter-propaganda-a-665649.html>.
. See “Fiancé of Slain Iranian Protester Neda Soltan Meets Peres,” The Jerusalem Post, March 23, 2010, available online at <http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=171614>.
. Understandably, the discussion on possible military strikes against the Iranian nuclear program has been a part of Israeli daily politics for months now, and nobody, including the supporters of military action, takes that debate lightly. On the dissensions between the Israeli leadership and the U.S. administration about this issue see Stephan Grigat, “20 Jahre Friedesprozess gegen Israel: Von Oslo zur iranischen Bombe,” Sans Phrase. Zeitschrift für Ideologiekritik, 1 (2012), available online at <http://www.sansphrase.org/>.
. “Indirekte Nahostgespräche sind idiotisch,” Der Standard, February 17, 2010, available online at <http://derstandard.at/1266279099007/Indirekte-Nahostgespraeche-sind-idiotisch>.
. Since 2000, when the legitimacy of the “Islamic Republic” was being questioned by the Iranian population, numerous U.S. officials have spoken about the necessity of “mutual respect” and the regime’s “legitimate interests”: if only Iran would keep its hands off a nuclear program. Inevitably this kind of talk is detrimental to Iran’s opposition. On the misguided U.S. policy of the past 30 years towards the Iranian regime see Hassan Daioleslam, “Der gezähmte ‘Große Satan:’ US-amerikanische Iran-Politik und der Lobbyismus des Regimes,” in Iran im Weltsystem, eds. Grigat and Hartmann, 105–113.
What began as an exhilarating dawn of possibility in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt has turned, a year later, into a sobering revelation of limitations on change and deepening dangers ahead. How has the Left received the democratic upsurge in the Arab world, and how can greater progressive potential be realized? How does the Arab Spring fit into the rising uncertainty in global politics, and how can a conservative reaction be avoided? What are the needs to be met, and how is the Left able (or not) to provide a critical contribution to the course of unfolding events?
Siyaves Azeri is the spokesperson of the Committee of International Relations of the Worker-communist Party of Iran. He is also a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Philosophy, Queen's University, Kingston Canada. Azeri has taught as an assistant professor at Koc University in Istanbul; he has also taught at University of Ottawa and as a guest lecturer at Istanbul Technical University.
Maria Rohaly is a coordinator for Mission Free Iran, an international organization that emerged during the 2009 uprising in Iran to amplify the demands and struggle for the goals and objectives of the revolution: freedom, equality, and humane society. These objectives are the line that divides the revolution from the counter-revolution in Egypt, Iran, Syria, Tunisia and beyond. Mission Free Iran places special emphasis on the radical demands of students, workers, refugees, and fundamentally women. Mission Free Iran recently launched a special campaign to save Sakineh Ashtiani, the Iranian who was to be stoned to death on basis of allegations of adultery.
Platypus Review 33 | March 2011
THE UPRISING IN EGYPT, which followed soon after the toppling of the old regime in Tunisia, succeeded in bringing down Hosni Mubarak on February 11, the 32nd anniversary to the day of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Already, before this timely coincidence, comparisons between the Iranian Revolution and the revolts gripping the Arab world had started to be made. But other historical similarities offered themselves: the various “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Central Asian states and Lebanon in recent years, and the collapse of Communism in the Soviet bloc and beyond (the former Yugoslavia) starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Behind these revolutions on the pattern of 1989 stood the event of which 1989 itself had been the bicentennial, the great French Revolution of 1789. The Bastille is to be stormed again, anew. Who would not welcome this?
A more pessimistic, if no less invidious comparison offered itself, especially prior to Mubarak’s ouster: the equally dramatic but failed Green Movement in the election crisis in Iran that marked 30 years of the Islamic Revolution in 2009. Just as the Green Movement posed the question of reforming the Islamic Republic, events in Egypt have raised the specter of authoritarianism continuing, despite everything, albeit without Mubarak as tyrant. Indeed, comparisons of Egypt with Iran in both 1979 and 2009 are telling in several different respects. To be sure, the emancipatory prospects in Egypt today are even more remote than in Iran in either 1979 or 2009. If there is a more fruitful comparison to be made it is with Iran not in 1979 but in 2009.
The destruction of the Left, historically, has been naturalized more completely in present-day Egypt than it had been in Iran by 1979. Going back to the 1950s, because of Nasserism’s subordination and suppression of the Left, the strongest opposition movement in Egypt today is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a longer history and is much stronger than Khomeini-style Islamism had been in Iran on the eve of the Islamic Revolution. While the Khomeinite Islamic Republic has destroyed the Left more completely in Iran since 1979, it is also the case that the reform movement in the Islamic Republic has had a longer history of organization—almost 20 years now—than the opposition in Egypt has at present. The prospects for organized reform, in other words, ran deeper in Iran at the moment of the Green Movement election crisis in 2009 than is the case in Egypt today. This poses both more radical possibilities and dangers for Egypt than in Iran two years ago. The Green Movement could beat a retreat in the face of defeat in ways that the unfolding crisis in Egypt might not be so controlled. But this spiraling out of control that has raised much greater radical prospects in Egypt, as opposed to Iran in 2009, may prove to be the case at least as much for ill as for good. The military has been able to come to the rescue of the state in Egypt, and this has been met with joy not angry disappointment. What links both eruptions of democratic discontent, in Iran and Egypt, then, is their authoritarian outcome.
Putting aside the rather superficial narratives that emphasize how events in Egypt and Tunisia disprove the supposed intractability and lack of “democratic” spirit in the Arab or Muslim world—as if this needed proving—we must nevertheless ask about the legacy of the history of the Left—its defeats and failures—that condition present possibilities. The history of the Left, both locally and globally, and reaching back for generations, is important, perhaps not so much for the obvious reasons—a relative lack of “democratic institutions” in one or another part of the world, or indeed globally today, by contrast with the past—as that it raises the question of history per se. What resources does history provide to the present? For the comparisons—however invidious—with the situation in and for Egypt are all historical in nature. So the question of history and its effects presses for consideration. Whether one approaches the matter of historical precedence with hope or anxiety, still there is the question of how appropriate to the present any reach for such precedence may truly be. Like any event, the massive popular uprising in Egypt is in important ways unprecedented and new. This is its power. It demands its moment in the sun and refuses all comparisons, insisting upon its sui generis character, which it cannot be denied, even if it is not yet fully revealed. What impresses itself is how much this moment will be allowed to realize itself—to make its departure from previous history. Or, conversely, how it will be drawn back into and subsumed by history’s ineluctable force. Why should we care about history, when emancipation makes its attempt at escaping its dead hand? How is the unfolding present already history?
Gamal Abdel Nasser during the 1956 Suez Crisis.
Beneath the elation—if not euphoria—of the international Left at the popular overthrow of Mubarak is the fundamental ambiguity and so radical ambivalence of democratic revolution in our time. But this has been so not only since 1979 or 1989, but since 1789. However, unlike the French Revolution of 1789, whatever its tortured career and the opposed judgments about it, democratic revolutions since then have been dogged by the specter of failure. One thing that cannot be said of 1789 is that it failed, however ambiguous was its success. Yet a repressed, largely unknown, and importantly failed moment has haunted the history of modern revolutions: the event that prompted Marx’s famous phrase about history “weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living”: 1848. “The Spring of the Nations” in 1848, that is, the revolutions in France, Germany, and beyond, has completely escaped the imagination of present considerations of the moment of democratic revolution. This present absence is itself quite revealing, and needs to be addressed. For it may be that the comparison with 1848 is the most obscure but important of all.
For Marxism, 1848 is the canon of failure. What once made Marxism—whose founding political statement was 1848’s Communist Manifesto—such an important force in the world was its awareness of the problem of 1848; or, why 1789 has kept repeating itself over and over in modern history, but without success. The converse of the Manifesto’s rousing call to action, to treat history as the “history of class struggles,” was Marx’s writing the history of his present moment, the culminating climax and failure of the 1848 Revolution in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. But these two of Marx’s most widely quoted writings were documents of both promise and defeat.
What made the 1848 Revolution so important to Marx and subsequent Marxism was the light that it shed on the history of the bourgeois revolution. 1848 was both the last of the classical bourgeois revolutions and the first of the socialist revolutions that have marked the modern, bourgeois era. Henceforth, the fates of liberalism and socialism have been indissolubly tied—even if their connection has been extremely fraught. Liberalism could not do without socialism, nor socialism without liberalism. Every democratic revolution since 1848 has faced this two-fold task—and has, without exception, foundered on the shoals of its contradictions. Marxism was the attempt to transcend the antinomy of individual and collective freedom—or of liberalism and socialism in “social democracy”—to realize both, by transcending both. Marx and Engels emblazoned this demand in their Manifesto with the slogan of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need!,” which was to be realized in the “freedom of each” as the “precondition for the freedom of all.” Importantly, Marx and Engels were the originators of neither of these catchphrases for what “communism” meant. The twin fates of liberalism and socialism after 1848 have shared in the failure of this Marxist vision for emancipation.
An Egyptian military officer cheered on by demonstrations in Cairo.
What explains the undemocratic outcomes of democratic revolution in the modern era? Certainly one can take only so much comfort in Thomas Jefferson’s saying that a revolution every generation or so is a good thing—as if frequent revolutions are necessary to restore democracy. Or, if so, the reasons for this must still be explained, beyond “corruption,” the perennial complaint of the subaltern. Whence does this recurrent “corruption” of the democratic moment spring? And why does it manifest itself so much more dramatically at some times than others? Perhaps revolution is not always such an unambiguously good thing. Especially if, as Marx put it, it threatens to be the “first time as tragedy” and the “second time as farce.” What comes of revolution if it is taken to be fate? There is nothing so “revolutionary” as capital itself.
The 1848 Revolution had secured universal suffrage and established the 2nd Republic in France, but at the price, wryly observed by Marx, of bringing an authoritarian demagogue, Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew), to power—to the horror of liberal democratic sentiment at the time—as its first elected President, promising to “save society.” It is because Bonaparte overthrew the 2nd Republic and established a 20-year 2nd Empire that followed at the end of his term as President less than four years later that the massacre of the workers in June 1848 did not become forgotten as a historical footnote and regarded as merely a bump in the road of democracy, for it came to presage the authoritarian repression of society that followed, in which members of the bourgeoisie became subject to the same treatment first meted out to the rebellious workers. Marxists used the term “Bonapartism” to describe this phenomenon of suppression of democracy with popular assent, which has repeated itself so consistently in history after 1848—for instance in “Nasserism” in Egypt and other forms of Arab nationalism (the so-called “Arab Revolution”) in the 1950s–1960s. Such Orwellian reality of all subsequent history has its beginning, with Marx, in 1848. The soldier held aloft triumphantly on the shoulders of democratic demonstrators in the streets of Cairo already wears the mask of Bonaparte—not the greater but the lesser. For such turns of modern revolution, after 1848, do not vouchsafe progress, however dubiously, but rather wager its foolhardy chances, mocking them. As Horkheimer put it in the 1920s, after the ebbing of the failed world revolutionary wave of 1917–1919, “As long as it is not victorious, the revolution is no good.” So, the question becomes, what would be the conditions for true victory? What success can we aspire to win?
Marx attempted to capture this problem in his demand that the revolution “take its poetry from the future” rather than the past. But if this is more than the banal statement it appears at first glance to be, then it raises a rather obscure difficulty: In what way can present revolution draw upon the emancipatory energy of the future? And Marx’s dedicated follower Walter Benjamin’s caveat echoes closely behind, that faith in the future sapped the strength of the revolution, which, Benjamin wrote, needed to be “nourished with the image of enslaved ancestors rather than liberated grandchildren.” But we may need both imaginations—of emancipation and redemption—today. The question is, how so?
Marx and the history of Marxism still speak, even if their voices are drowned out in the clamoring din of the present. In history after 1848, Marx understood a world—the present—caught between past and future. Marx’s term for this historical world, “capital,” refers to the radical ambivalence of the present: its being already past, accumulating all of history and annexing the future, continually crowding the moment off stage; and its constant liquidation of that history, the incessant consumption of the moment in light of a future that never arrives. Past and future seem to recede infinitely beyond the horizons of a present that is as perpetual as it is empty and futile, trapped, static but constantly in motion. So we resign ourselves to the present’s eternal passing and recurrence, in which “everything changes” and yet “remains the same.”
Egyptians may be driven today by the specter of enslaved ancestry, provoked by the force of what Benjamin described as the “hatred” and spirit of “self-sacrifice” necessary to make a bid for history. But they are also certainly prompted, as Benjamin put it, to “activate the emergence brake” on the “locomotive” of history that would otherwise condemn posterity. They may be motivated not only to redeem past sacrifice but to prevent future loss that could yet be rendered unnecessary. It is not that Mubarak’s rule became too long or old, but that it threatened to become indefinite—the leering face of the son—that provoked the demand for its end, precisely at the risk of the present. “I don’t care if I die,” the sentiment widely expressed around Tahrir Square, is the signal moment to which Benjamin’s philosophy of history attends: to bring time to a halt. But such resolve expresses the will to live, although not merely to continue life unchanged.
Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal cast their votes in the last Egyptian election.
The problem we must face is that the imagination of emancipation—which defines the “Left” as such—is today divided between the desperation of wishing for the unprecedented new and desiring for return to the missed moments of opportunity, the potential embodied in past attempts, however failed: attempts at both the escape from and the redemption of history. 1789, 1848, 1871, 1917, 1979, 1989: they will not return—thank God! But we mourn them nonetheless. What was lost with them? Perhaps nothing. An emancipated future beckons; however, it eludes our grasp, outrunning us in the onrush of time. “Time waits for no one.” The future grants no refuge. There is no peace, not even of the graveyard. As Benjamin put it, “Even the dead are not safe.” But history remains. It may be unavoidable—as much as the future is. So the question is, what are we going to do with it? If we are trapped between past and future, perhaps we will not be crushed but can bring them together and galvanize their force even more powerfully in the present: we are pulverized all the more surely for trying to slip the vise. Past failures may dispirit, and bewildering, dystopic futures may threaten. Or, history and utopia can both be enlisted to the aid of the present. If only.
“What now?,” Egypt asks us. We do not ask it. This question should be posed, not as it is wont, as a hope or a fear, but as a task, however exclaimed or whispered. It is not to be answered with exuberance or resignation, but determination: the resolution that not only are we, inevitably, history, but the future will be. |P
. See Danny Postel, Kaveh Ehsani, Maziar Behrooz, and Chris Cutrone, “30 Years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran,” Platypus Review 20 (February 2010), available online at </2010/02/18/30-years-of-the-islamic-revolution-in-iran/>. See also my “Failure of the Islamic Revolution: The Nature of the Present Crisis in Iran,” Platypus Review 14 (August 2009), available online at </2009/08/24/the-failure-of-the-islamic-revolution/>.
. See Hamid Dabashi, “The False Anxiety of Influence,” Al Jazeera English, February 12, 2011. Available online at <http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/02/201121215216318526.html>. Undeniably, as Dabashi writes, “From Tehran to Tunis to Cairo and beyond, our innate cosmopolitan cultures are being retrieved, our hidden worlds discovered, above and beyond any anxiety of influence.”
. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Originally published in 1852. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/>.
. See my “Marxist Hypothesis,” Platypus Review 29 (November 2010), available online at </2010/11/06/the-marxist-hypothesis-a-response-to-alain-badous-communist-hypothesis/>.
. Max Horkheimer, “A Discussion about Revolution,” in Dawn & Decline: Notes 1926–31 & 1950–69 (New York: Seabury, 1978), 39.
. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969), 260.
. Benjamin, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’,” in Selected Writings vol. 4 1938–40 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 402.
. See Leszek Kolakowski, “The Concept of the Left,” in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove, 1969), 144–158.
Platypus Review 30 | December 2010
IN A STRANGE WAY, the debate over whether the American left should support the Green Movement in Iran resembles the arguments that took place in progressive circles before the 2008 presidential elections in the United States, and that reemerged in the recent midterm elections. Those in the Obama camp either believed him to be their savior, taking his every word as gospel, or, if they had a more sober political outlook, simply resorted to some version of the tired “lesser of two evils” argument. If elected, this crowd contended, Obama would at least be more open to the progressive perspective than McCain, which was reason enough to vote for him. It was argued that the threat posed by a Republican victory was so great that the various factions on the Left needed to put aside their differences until after Obama was elected. At that point, he would reveal his true progressive self, and if that did not happen, at least there would be a more reasonable partner to negotiate with in the White House, who could be pressured to move to the Left. Meanwhile, anyone who decided to critique Obama from the Left by saying that his proposed policies—which left much to be desired, to put it mildly—should have had a greater bearing on one’s behavior in the voting booth than his elocution, were seen by Obama’s supporters as traitors or idealists totally out of touch with political reality.
In the end, many on the Left begrudgingly cast their ballots for Obama even though he consistently moved to the right during the campaign—backing the massive, hugely unpopular bailout of Wall Street, withdrawing his support for a single-payer universal health care system, and calling for a larger military, with more troops in Afghanistan and more Predator drone attacks in Pakistan. The results of this compromise are now evident. Since Obama was elected he has, not surprisingly, continued down the treacherous path he campaigned on and the sense of hope and change that was ever-present during his ascent is now difficult to find. Indeed, as seen during the midterm elections last month, most leftists fell into a pattern of recrimination and resignation similar to the lead-up to the presidential election, only this time a widespread melancholy had replaced the euphoric hope of 2008.
Mir-Hossein Mousavi at a Green Movement rally in Iran, 2009.
The differences between the candidates in Iran’s presidential election last year were far starker than the differences Americans faced when voting for Obama or McCain in 2008. President Ahmadinejad is a world-class demagogue and his government has been extremely repressive, committing widespread human rights abuses and imprisoning, torturing, and killing those who voice dissent. Mir Hossein Mousavi, on the other hand, has generally advocated for greater political and social freedoms for all Iranians. Given this contrast, many argued that the Green Movement should be uncritically supported because, if nothing else, getting Mousavi in power would at least give the Iranian left some “breathing room” to organize. In turn, little tolerance has been shown by many supporters of the Green Movement for those who chose to point out the faults of Mousavi or the other presidential contenders. When it comes to economic policy, the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi is particularly opaque. Though 60 to 70 percent of the Iranian economy is still nationalized, there is little evidence to support the position, argued by some on the American left, that Ahmadinejad is a bulwark against the destructive forces of neoliberalism. On the contrary, as critics have documented in extensive detail, since assuming the presidency in 2005 Ahmadinejad has crushed organized labor, enthusiastically privatized state assets, and courted foreign investment.
The leaders of the Green Movement, to the extent that there are leaders, have said remarkably little—apart from supporting the right of labor to organize, which would be an important victory—about what they would do differently. In fact, the little that is known about their positions would seem to indicate that, if not true believers, they are at least open to the ideology of neoliberalism. While supporters of Mousavi have pointed favorably to his record on economic issues during his tenure as prime minister in the 1980s, his most influential financial backer during his run for president last year was Hashemi Rafsanjani, the billionaire cleric and former president of Iran, who is an outspoken advocate of “free market” reforms. Medhi Karroubi, another presidential candidate who is now a leading figure in the Green Movement, embraced neoliberalism even more openly during the campaign. According to Iranian political analyst Rostam Pourzal, the centerpiece of his economic platform “consisted of suggested first steps towards de-nationalization of Iran’s oil industry. The scheme was devised by the candidate’s chief economic advisor, a self-described Milton Friedman devotee named Masoud Nili.”
Despite these ominous signs, many supporters of the Green Movement held that pushing Mousavi to clarify his economic ideas would only further split the Iranian left, so that any concerns with his political shortcomings should be dealt with only when the democratic movement prevails. However, ignoring where Mousavi and Karroubi fall short in the name of unity, and failing to push them to emphatically reject neoliberalism, reveal misguided and dangerous politics. Indeed, the most advantageous time for everyday citizens to get politicians to address their concerns is while they are running for office or leading a movement for political reform, as this is when politicians are most vulnerable and in need of broad support. Once they have gained power—especially if they’ve done so without addressing the demands of a particular sector of society—there is little incentive for them to change course.
There is no better time for Iran’s working class to make its voice heard than now. Mousavi and the Green Movement are in desperate need of a boost. At the end of last April, Mousavi released a video statement urging workers and teachers to join the cause, but any attempts to recapture the momentum of the summer of 2009 have proven unsuccessful. Along with this, leftists internationally have by and large lost interest, with reports of developments in the Green Movement becoming fewer and farther between. For precisely this reason, the Iranian labor movement is poised to pressure Mousavi by making their support for him contingent on his publicly rejecting neoliberalism and seriously addressing the demands of the working class. If he refuses, Iranians should begin promoting new leaders that more fully embrace their goals, or better yet, start creating alternative economic institutions themselves.
In recent decades, many nonviolent movements that have successfully brought down repressive governments or overturned fraudulent elections have made the mistake of not paying due attention to economics, and paid a heavy price. When Solidarity came to power in Poland in 1988, for example, its leaders abandoned the progressive economic program that they had promoted since the beginning of their struggle, which included converting state-run industries into worker cooperatives, and adopted a toxic mix of neoliberal economic reforms. These included eliminating price controls, slashing subsidies, and selling off state-owned mines, shipyards and factories to the private sector. As a result, the country’s economy took a nosedive: industrial production plummeted, unemployment soared, and the percentage of the population living in poverty rose dramatically. Hence, Solidarity’s victory was only partial. Polish workers gained political freedoms, but only by constraining their economic freedom in many ways.
If the Green Movement hopes to avoid irrelevance, on the one hand, and a problematic “victory” won only through a Faustian bargain, on the other, those involved must make the interests of working people much more central to their struggle by explicitly raising the banner of economic justice. The ultimate defeat of the Green Movement in the elections deepens, rather than diminishes, the significance of this lesson. Otherwise, Iranians may establish a government that is more democratic on the surface, only to be quickly disappointed to find their lives constrained anew by corporations, which are profoundly undemocratic institutions. To take but one example, freedom of speech, and especially a free press, cannot truly exist when a handful of corporate giants with an interest in maintaining the status quo control of virtually everything read, heard, or seen in the media. As those involved in the Green Movement continue their struggle for political and social freedoms, they should not downplay the importance of having democratic control of the workplace.
To ignore questions of economic policy is not a wise strategic move for the opposition in Iran, but is evidence of a lack of understanding regarding the true threat that neoliberalism poses to real democracy. Now is the time, both in the U.S. and Iran, for leftists to draw a line in the sand, to stop making concessions at every turn in the interest of “pragmatism,” and to struggle for the society they truly want to live in—not some uninspiring, deeply compromised alternative. |P
 Rostam Pourzal, “Iran’s Business Elite, Too, Is a ‘Dissident,’” MRZine, June 27, 2009 <http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/pourzal270609.html>.
ATTENTION, LOCATION CHANGE: Tisch Hall, 40 W. 4th St. (4th and Mercer, on the South side of the street) Lower Level 2, Room. LC11.
A teach-in on labor, human rights and prospects for a Left in Iran with Ervand Abrahamian
The Platypus Affiliated Society, in collaboration with United for Iran, Amnesty International and the Network of Iranian Unions (NILU) has organized a teach-in on Iran for May 2nd, from 1-5pm at the Tisch Hall, 40 W. 4th St. (4th and Mercer, on the South side of the street) Lower Level 2, Room LC11. The keynote speaker for the evening will be historian on Iran and outspoken voice on the recent events, CUNY professor Ervand Abrahamian. The day will consist of an opening informational (1-2pm) panel, a workshop (2-3pm), a break with refreshments provided (3-3:30pm) and the keynote address with Ervand Abrahamian followed by an audience Q&A (3:30-5pm).
We would like to raise questions about the direction of the Green movement in Iran, with an especial, though not exclusive, focus on labor organization in Iran, the role it's playing and what it may achieve in the future. This teach-in will produce political discussion around these questions and inform students, faculty, and the public at large of the ongoing events in Iran. We would like to brainstorm (during the workshop especially) what kind of political response would further possibilities in our time for a progressive leftist movement.
This event was organized by the platypus affiliated society with the help of united for iran, amnesty international and the network of iranian labor unions (NILU).
Platypus panel at the Left Forum 2010 in New York City, Pace University, March 20, 2010.
Rather than asking what the Left thinks of Iran, this panel will pose the question, what does Iran reveal about the Left, its limitations and failures? This panel will address the crisis of the Islamic Republic and the historical task of the Left to clarify its role regarding the current Green Movement today. The 1979 Islamic Revolution continues to weigh on the political imagination of the Left. Perspectives on the Left either focus on Green Movement’s electoral and civil rights struggle, ignoring its Islamist leadership by Mousavi and others, or, in some cases, tout Ahmadinejad as a progressive “anti-imperialist,” denying the discontents expressed in the Green Movement. The 1979 Islamic Revolution continues to haunt the present, in the form of an impoverished imagination of what is possible. We will look more deeply at the political question of Islamism and how the Left can best understand Iran’s revolutionary past. What deeper failure on the Left allowed Iran to develop as it has? Whatever claim the current movement has to being secular in form -- that is, popular in discontent, and pluralist in that it possesses no elaborate program -- the legacy of the Islamic Revolution in the current crisis represents the unresolved failure of the Left to achieve greater freedom that cannot be reached through religious or populist means.
Laura Lee Schmidt (Chair) – Platypus Affiliated Society; History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture, MIT
Siyaves Azeri – Worker-Communist Party of Iran
Hamid Dabashi – Columbia University
Christopher Cutrone – Platypus Affiliated Society; University of Chicago
Platypus Review 20 | February 2010
Given the recent election crisis and continuing protests in Iran and in light of the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, The Platypus Affiliated Society on November 5, 2009 hosted a panel discussion at the University of Chicago entitled 30 Years of the Islamic Revolution: The Tragedy of the Left. Panel participants included Danny Postel, journalist and author of Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism; Kaveh Ehsani, editor of The Middle East Report (MERIP); Maziar Behrooz, historian and author of Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran; and Chris Cutrone of Platypus. This supplement to issue #20 of the Platypus Review consists of an edited transcript of the discussion, beginning with the panelists’ prepared remarks, followed by their responses to each other, and ending with a series of questions and answers.
Danny Postel: The central question, which I will approach indirectly, is whether the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was a tragedy for the Left.
In the conventional narrative of the Iranian Left the answer to our question has long been, “Yes.” The 1979 Revolution was a failure insofar as it was hijacked by one faction of a broader coalition that included the Iranian revolutionary Left. The faction in question was the Islamist or Khomeinite faction, which, once it gained control, proceeded to decimate, destroy, murder, imprison, and drive into exile its erstwhile comrades. There is a lot of truth to this leftist narrative, but it is only part of the story. It is largely self-exculpatory and elides the role the Iranian Left played in its own immolation. An account of this self-defeat can be found in Maziar Behrooz’s book, Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran, a salutary and, indeed, definitive reconsideration of the history of the pre-revolutionary Iranian Left.
As Maziar explains, the Iranian Left, or at least certain key fractions of it, helped fashion the noose the Islamists ultimately hung them with. According to Behrooz, the Khomeinites were able to do this in large part because the Tudeh party, the Fadaiyan Majority, and many other Iranian Marxist parties, whatever their differences with the Islamists, shared with them a profound hostility toward liberalism. Like [Ruhollah al-Musavi] Khomeini’s followers, dominant trends on the Iranian Left viewed democratic rights, civil liberties, and women’s rights as no more than elements of what they described interchangeably as “western,” “colonial,” or “bourgeois” ideology.
On the basis of Behrooz’s analysis of the critical failings of the Iranian Left, I would say we must revise the Iranian Left’s usual answer to the question and answer it instead in the negative. No, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was not a tragedy for the Left, for tragedies befall innocence; they happen to people who have no idea of, and are not responsible for, the fate that awaits them.
This raises another question: Is it in fact a tragedy that the Stalinists and Maoists who made up the great majority of the left in Iran in the 1960s and 1970s did not take power? After all, virtually all Iranian leftists of the 1960s and 1970s were either Stalinist or Maoist. In light of this, I would argue that what followed in the wake of the 1979 Revolution was not so much a tragedy for the Iranian Marxist “Left” then in existence, as it was a tragedy for the project of the Left per se. For the genuinely leftist project of internationalism and human emancipation, the profoundly authoritarian, repressive, reactionary, and proto-fascist regime that emerged out of the Revolution and has ruled Iran ever since is certainly tragic but also, and more accurately, catastrophic. But what are the lessons to be learned?
There are both external and internal factors in the destruction of the Iranian Left. The external factors are obviously the brutality of the Islamists who took over and Iran’s strategic position in the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and USSR. These factors are certainly important, but Behrooz’s book rightly zeroes in on the internal factors. Of these, he considers the Left’s tunnel-vision anti-imperialism most essential. Khomeini’s gang may have disdained professedly secular, rational socialists, but on the Left the argument went that, because they were anti-American and anti-imperialist, the Khomeinites were “objectively progressive.”
We now know that the Left’s was a demented, disfigured, ultimately catastrophic argument, one that had lethal consequences for those who propounded it. There was nothing progressive about Khomeini’s anti-imperialism. It was authoritarian and regressive, as is [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s anti-imperialism today. Whether Khomeini’s rhetoric was truly anti-imperialist is open to debate—but to the extent it was, it amounted to no more than an anti-imperialism of fools.
What were some of the consequences of the Iranian Marxist Left’s view that the anti-imperialist, anti-American rhetoric of the Khomeinites was “objectively progressive”? As mentioned earlier, it led to a rejection of the demands for human rights advanced by feminists, democratic liberals, and nationalists. Rather than sympathizing with and advancing their demands, many on the Left in Iran in 1979 regarded feminism as a bourgeois colonial ideology. Because of this many Iranian Marxists sided with extreme reactionary forces within the new Islamic government as they repressed feminism, beating women and suppressing their demands. Similarly, when newspapers were shut down, many Iranian Marxists defended not their right to publish their views, but the regime’s supposed responsibility to close them down! Here again the logic was the same: Liberal and nationalist newspapers were neo-colonial and bourgeois. Such actions, justified in the name of anti-imperialism, constituted a catastrophic turn down the dark ally of anti-liberalism. The Left mistakenly viewed liberalism as part of a toxic, global, colonial project rather than viewing it, as Marx himself did, as being necessary but insufficient—or, better, insufficient but bloody necessary—to the project of socialism and liberation.
The anti-liberal “radicalism” the Iranian Marxists shared with the Khomeinites was reactionary. But what can this teach us today, as we watch the protests in the streets of Tehran? After all, less than 24 hours ago, we witnessed the largest protests since the fall of the Shah. Clearly, we are again living in a historic moment, and so we should discuss some of the parallels and discontinuities between 1978–79 and today, the most obvious similarity being that, once again, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Iranians have taken to the streets to voice their demands.
Where there has been some affinity between Platypus’s perspective and my own is in our shared critique of the authoritarian Left, the myopic anti-imperialism of those like MRzine, the online organ of Monthly Review magazine, or an organization like international ANSWER, which held a demonstration in solidarity with the Islamic Republic of Iran in June here in Chicago, defending Hugo Chavez and his position that the demonstrations in Iran are tools for imperial intervention, that the elections were wholly legitimate, and that Ahmadinejad is a revolutionary comrade that deserves the Left’s support.
Where my perspective diverges from Platypus’s is in our respective angles on what is happening in Iran today, particularly with respect to the Green or democratic movement that has developed in response to the June election results. As Chris Cutrone made clear already in his article in the August 2009 issue of the Platypus Review, he dismisses the Green Movement in Iran as still too...something. Actually I do not think Chris developed any definite criticism, but made only rhetorical gestures. So, I hope to hear an argument about where he stands now on the Green Movement in Iran. But from what I have heard so far from him, he shares the tunnel-vision anti-imperialism of the Left that supports Ahmadinejad and rejects the Green Movement. No doubt, be has reasons of his own for rejecting the Green Movement, but what he shares with the defenders of Ahmadinejad is a hostility to the pluralistic, democratic liberalism already articulated by the Green Movement. Though it is true that this movement remains somewhat inchoate, a work-in-progress, and is even now still forming its platform or agenda, the broad ideological outlines are clear.
I think there is a real danger in failing to recognize the emancipatory potential—not the fully articulated emancipatory program, granted, but the clear emancipatory promise and potential—in the Green Movement. It is a mistake to blind oneself to this promise or to reject it simply because it is articulated within the logic and framework of the Islamic Republic, or because it does not speak the anti-capitalist language of the Western Left and lacks a developed critique of neoliberalism. This latter point, which I take to be Platypus’s position, represents a species of left imperialism. To decline to sign on and support the Green Movement because they do not speak the language of socialist revolution is to cram the complex and fluctuating on-the-ground reality in Iran today into the preconceived categories of the Western Left. Such an attempt to fit that movement into our agenda constitutes a disfigured left imperialism that fundamentally misunderstands Iran today.
Kaveh Ehsani: Another question we are here to debate is whether the creation of the Islamic Republic was revolutionary and, if so, what aspects of society were transformed, and how. The Iranian Revolution was the largest political event of the 20th century. After a mass strike lasting more than a year and a half, mass revolution suffused the fabric of Iranian society. A major regime in the region was brought down and another one put in its place. By any standard this was revolutionary, but the question we on the Left debated at the time was this: Is the Iranian Revolution merely a political, or was it a real social revolution? By Lenin’s standards a real revolution smashes the state, creates a new one, and transforms the relations of production. By these criteria, I think this revolution was a hybrid, as is the regime that derived from it.
This said, I do not think we gain much by adducing abstract criteria by which to judge historical reality. This was not the kind of revolution the Left and the secular forces expected or wanted, but it was a revolution. If we reexamine the slogans of the revolutionaries in 1978 to 1979—“Independence! Freedom! Islamic Republic!”—they evidently have little to do with anything we might consider “left.” But, beyond this, the question remains, What do these slogans actually mean?
Time and again Iran has been in the vanguard of major social transformations in that part of the world—the developing world, if you will—first in 1906, then in 1953, and again in 1979. As with the French tradition of public protest, challenging the authority of the state is now woven into the fabric of modern Iranian society. In a profound way, Iranian society is still fighting the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, still fighting to limit the power of the state and render it accountable to society.
Beyond those that came as a result of the 1979 Revolution or the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, there have been other important social transformations. Indeed, perhaps the biggest social transformation of Iran’s history was brought about by the White Revolution instituted in the 1960s by the monarchy with the support of the United States. A revolution from above, the White Revolution programs nevertheless profoundly transformed rural Iranian society. Through them, the state eliminated the rural landowner class, turned their tenants into small peasant proprietors, and transformed the old aristocracy and landlords into an urban bourgeoisie deeply beholden to the comprador state. This opened the road to 1979.
So we risk losing sight of the complexity of Iranian history if we insist upon simplistic questions such as “Was this a revolution or not?” and “Was it leftist or not?” Instead we ought to be asking, Was there an Islamic Left and, if so, where did it stand in 1979 and where does it stand today? For all practical purposes, in 1979 the Marxist Left was in competition not only with right-wing Islamism but with the Islamic Left. Both the Marxists and the Islamic Left believed in violence as a midwife of history, both sought to capture state power, and both sought to engineer society in accordance with abstract principles. Opposition candidate and leader of the Green Movement Mir-Hossein Mousavi is a product of the Islamic Left, as is Ahmadinejad.
As for the slogans of 1979, “Independence” was fairly straightforward. It meant independence from imperial powers that had long interfered in Iranian affairs. More particularly, it meant independence from the United States whose influence had grown steadily since the 1950s. But what did “Freedom” mean? Did it mean individual freedom, or something else? I think, more than anything, it meant freedom from censorship, freedom from the police state then controlling and stifling civic and public life. Of course, this is not the same thing as political freedom in the sense we mean today. In that sense, the Left was not being hypocritical by calling for freedom. Nor were the Islamists when they denied individual freedom, because that was never what they intended either.
Comparing Islamism in Iran and in Egypt, Asaf Bayat has recently shown how, in Iran, what one finds is really a revolution with an Islamic movement. In 1979, for the first time in Iran’s history, more then 50 percent of the population became urbanized, literate, and integrated into the market economy, that is, they became “modernized” in the Weberian sense of the word. But there was no Islamic movement to speak of. The Revolution resulted from a confluence of various forces, of which Khomeini’s uniquely charismatic leadership is only one. The Left participated in the movement together with nationalists, the urban working class, and provincial populations. This was not a particularly “Islamic” movement. In Egypt, by contrast, there has long been an Islamic movement with deep roots in society, yet no revolution ever came of it.
Prior to the Revolution, Iranian society was a typical case of uneven development, which was then subject to what Ervand Abrahamian has described as a kind of hyper-modernization. There was rapid capitalist development, but without the political freedoms accompanying it. Because the Shah choked off the political articulation of demands arising from society, politics gravitated toward violence. That is the reason for the guerrilla warfare that occurred during the lead-up to the Revolution.
The old Iranian Left was basically a spin-off of the old nationalists. But with so many of them in exile or underground, the younger generation took a new course in the 1960s, adopting Guevarist and Maoist tactics. This came back to haunt us in the post-revolutionary period, by which time violence was accepted as a way to obtain political goals.
A revolution is a bizarre process. You feel completely empowered and powerless at the same time. No doubt, few of you have had this experience, but some of us on this platform have. We have become exiles, our lives have been in danger, and we have felt very empowered by it. It is a unique experience and allows for a sense that history is being made. Michel Foucault was accurate about this aspect of what he saw going on in Iran. A profound transformation was taking place, history was changing, and nobody held the reins.
My analysis is that 1979 was a revolution of the periphery. It was a provincial revolution, not an Islamic Revolution, because if you look at the new elite, the new population that eventually captured and refashioned the state, these were people coming out of what had been the periphery of the society: provincial, uneducated migrants who had been left out of the uneven modernization that took place under the monarchy. This is not the social revolution that the Left might have wanted, but it was nonetheless a social revolution in that it socially integrated the majority of Iranians who, since the 1940s, had been on the receiving end of authoritarian social engineering. The 1979 Revolution gave them a voice, and that voice proved deafening. In the economic sphere, a vast amount of public land and public housing was privatized. People simply squatted, took over public land, and constructed their homes on it. After the Revolution, the stock of housing doubled from what it had been before. Millions captured some private property in the process. So, to revert to the old terms, underlying 1979 was a petit-bourgeois process, one that empowered a large swath of the population. That is why the regime has its own legitimacy, rooted in its own claim to social justice. It has been tremendously successful in bringing about certain social welfare and developmental changes.
So what is happening in Iran now? Since the end of the war with Iraq in 1988, the leaders of the Islamic Republic have had to face an exhausted economy and population. The regime has not realized the revolutionary ideals of justice for all, equality, and the Islamic Republic as a godly community on Earth. The leaders had to improvise an alternative model. The one they came up with has two pillars: First, create a middle class that, being the product of the regime, will be loyal to it. Expand the university system, shape the curriculum, and create a professional class that will comprise our experts, run our economy, and allow us to rebuild. Second, allow the existing propertied class to accumulate wealth in the cities unmolested. This was the strategy pursued under [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani in the 1990s and by [Seyed Mohammad] Khatami and the reformers until 2005.
What we are seeing now is the byproduct of provincial people, rural people, sending their kids to school in the post-Revolution period; or, if they had a small house, suddenly gaining the right to break the zoning laws, build multiple stories, and, with the money they make, send the next generation to university. In other words, what we are witnessing is an emerging middle class demanding a voice in politics through the Green Movement. This is one of the reasons why the international Left criticizes it. But these people are not middle class in the American, global sense of the world. They come together to make a very different sort of animal. The result is very much more organic than, for instance, a movement of American university students would be.
Let me conclude by saying that if the Left wants to assemble any sort of project in Iran, if it wants to challenge the hegemony of the market and allow working class people a way to envision their future, it can do so only in a more democratic space. It cannot do so by monopolizing political power, because the society is too diverse and complex for that. Right now, there is a predominantly middle class popular movement. At some point soon, it will come to incorporate elements of the commercial and working classes as well. But to have a chance it needs greater freedom of movement. Without an expansion of democratic space, a space that is lacking under the existing police state, the movement cannot grow.
Maziar Behrooz: Before addressing the issue of the Left in Iran today, I would like to add just a bit to what Ehsani said about the 1979 Revolution.
The Revolution of 1979 was not a revolution in the sense that the ruling class was completely displaced. The ruling class moved to Los Angeles. It left the country and its property was confiscated. In that sense the Revolution witnessed a major displacement of the haute bourgeoisie. The highly educated accents of the pre-revolutionary period are gone. Nowadays there is not a single member of the Parliament of Iran who does not speak with some slight rural accent. This is because, as Ehsani pointed out, a movement of villagers from the countryside to the city accompanied the expulsion of the haute bourgeoisie. The population of Iran has doubled in the past 30 years, and the vast majority of this population growth has taken place in the cities. This brings me to another point that bears stressing: 1979 was definitely a cultural revolution. The Islamists, the leaders of the Revolution, more than anything else point to this aspect of the Revolution, because they were intent on preserving a culture they thought to be under assault from the Shah. So religion comes back; the ceremonies, get-togethers, associated values, and other aspects of cultural life closely linked with religion all make a major comeback after 1979.
Regarding the Iranian Left, in my assessment it was the largest in the Middle East. It had both the deepest roots and the widest appeal. Also, rather than being rooted mainly in the peasantry, in Iran the Left was composed primarily of workers, the urban poor, and the middle class. Taken together and compared to Communist movements in Arab countries or in neighboring Pakistan, the Iranian Left can only be described as enormous.
But this movement was effectively uprooted three times. First in 1920, then in the repression of the early 1950s, and then for a third time in the early 1980s. The first two times, the movement suffered very considerable and violent repression, yet it still managed to recover. But the last time it did not. So one question we must ask is, Why was the Left not able to recover a third time? But before I go into that, let me say a few words about the Left’s impact on the Iranian Revolution.
The Left in Iran had only a modest influence on the Revolution as it unfolded in 1978–1979. Of all the Marxist and revolutionary groups in Iran, only one can be said to have been effectively functioning at that time, and it had only a small number of guerrillas. These Fadaiyan were active, but their impact was modest. However, in the period between the collapse of the regime and 11 February 1979, the Left certainly grew.
The rest of the leftist groups in Iran, from the pro-Soviet Tudeh party to Maoist groups to Trotskyites, were really groups in exile, whether in Western or Eastern Europe. They made an impact by working against the Shah in news and propaganda, highlighting the dictatorship’s abuse of human rights. In fact, they were quite effective in doing this and thus formed a crucial voice for the Iranian opposition. But, as I say, inside Iran there was little in the way of real organization. Only the most hardcore, underground organizations were capable of evading the political police. The Fadaiyan were the only such group and they had been largely contained by 1979.
So the impact of the Left was not just in street battles, but also in maintaining steady pressure on the Shah from the outside. In that sense, it was very important. The Tudeh Party, or Iranian Communist Party, succeeded in mobilizing the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc resources against the Shah. Such propaganda helped to sustain the Iranian opposition’s morale. Resistance needs morale, and the Left kept it from flagging. When we were teenagers growing up, and the Shah claimed to be the all-powerful, benevolent ruler, guiding Iran to its civilizational destiny, we knew, “This is not the whole truth.” We also knew that the people resisting his rule were not what he said they were. They were not saboteurs, but were Robin Hood-type figures who gave up their lives and livelihood to struggle against the Shah.
The most famous of these figures was, of course, Khosrow Golesorkhi, who was put on trial on national television. Golesorkhi, alongside Karamat Daneshian, was defiant, and used the occasion to put the regime on trial, accusing it of torture and human rights violations. He said, “You animals, you have tortured me, I accuse you” of this and that. So, here was this character on live television. Seeing him when I was fourteen or fifteen years old shook me to my foundation. Before that time, I did not believe such a person could exist in Iran. I thought nobody could challenge the Shah. Thus, as I say, the Left kept up morale. At the same time, it set the terms of what would become the debate inside the Revolution. In crucial respects, it provided the vocabulary and set the agenda, though not the outcome, of that debate.
As Postel has noted, one discursive element the Left supplied was anti-liberalism: “These liberals need to be isolated, we cannot work with them. They are crooks. If they are democrats, they are at best bourgeois democrats.” Such rhetoric was invented by the Left and picked up by the Islamists. The same is true of women’s rights, the loss of which was the most palpable consequence of the Revolution. After 1979 the veil was increasingly mandated, before finally becoming law in 1982. Though, of course, the Left opposed the forced veiling of women, here again the issue was marginalized as being, at best, liberal and therefore secondary. The Left was unwilling to break with the Islamists over what they took to be merely a women’s issue.
So, what are some of the lasting social and political consequences of the 1979 Revolution for the Left today? As has been noted already, in the 1980s the Left paid a very steep price for its alliance with the Islamists, as thousands of comrades were killed or forced into exile. This crushing defeat of the Iranian Left was followed by another historical event, one that crucially shapes the future not just of an Iranian Left, but of the international Left as a whole. I mean, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union, marking the failure of the Bolshevik project. Once the Bolshevik Revolution failed, revolutions that saw themselves as rooted in that Revolution—the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cuban Revolutions—collapsed like dominoes. Today, there is nothing of Marxism left in China—a lot of Leninism, but no Marxism. So by the end of the 1980s the whole thing collapses. The collapse of the Iranian Left and its failure to regroup are, therefore, rooted both in the repressive character of the Islamic Republic and in a much wider history.
To my mind, this raises the question of the definition of “Left” today. What are you talking about when you say “Left”? Are you talking about a Marxist Left or a Marxian Left? A Marxian Left takes Marx, applies it selectively, and tries to understand where it has utility. A Marxist Left makes out of Marx a totalizing ideology. Whatever else it was, the collapse of Bolshevism was the collapse of the Marxist Left, at least in the second sense.
Chris Cutrone: I would like to pose the question: What can the history of the Islamic Revolution in Iran teach the Left?
The 30th anniversary of the toppling of the Shah of Iran witnesses the controversy over the election results in the Islamic Republic, in which the incumbent Ahmadinejad claimed victory over his opponent Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and mass protests against this result were subject to brutal, violent repression.
These two historic moments, those of the birth and of the potentially fatal crisis of the Islamic Republic, communicate over time, and can tell us a great deal about the nature and trajectory of the contemporary world, and the role of the demise of the Left in it.
We in Platypus approach the history of the Islamic Revolution in Iran as a specific story in the overall history of the death of the Left—its historical decline and disappearance. The self-destruction of the Left in Iran is a good entry into an investigation of the death of the Left internationally, over the course of at least the past generation.
It is instructive that, where once the Left in Iran was the most vital and potentially significant in the Middle East or Muslim world, today the Left has been completely eradicated in Iran. Whereas the Shah simultaneously sought to repress and co-opt the Left, the Islamic Republic has brought about its entire elimination in Iran (and has sought to do so elsewhere, for instance in the Lebanese civil war, through proxies like Hezbollah). It is in this sense that one can meaningfully talk about the reactionary, right-wing character of the Islamic Republic, relative to what came before it under the Pahlavi dynasty. There are fewer possibilities for Iranian society today than there were 30 years ago. This bitter fact is something most try to avoid confronting, but is where I want to focus attention in my presentation.
The Left is defined by potential and possibility, the right by its foreclosure. The Left expresses and reveals potential possibilities, while the right represses and obscures these.
For this reason, the role of the Iranian and international Left in repressing and obscuring the true character of social possibilities in Iran, during the period leading up to the Islamic Revolution, is crucial for grasping, not only how the Left destroyed itself, but also, and more importantly, how it destroyed itself as a Left, and thus contributed to the construction of a new right. Only justice for past crimes committed by the Left can recover old and open new possibilities in the present. Only by confronting its problematic historical legacy can the Left today be a Left at all. But this is something virtually no one wants to do.
Slavoj Žižek, in his recent book In Defense of Lost Causes, cites Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism and Foucault’s embrace of the Islamic Revolution in Iran to demonstrate the importance and necessity of what Žižek calls “taking the right step in the wrong direction.” Žižek is eager, as he expressed in his writing on the recent election crisis in Iran, to find the “emancipatory potential” of “good Islam.” He thinks that a more radical emancipatory potential was grasped, however uncertainly, by Foucault in 1979 (and by Heidegger in 1933!) I wish to argue the contrary, that Foucault’s—and the rest of the “Left’s”—embrace of Islamism was and continues to be a conservative move, thinly veiled by claims to more radical bona fides. They have lied.
This phenomenon of seeking the “emancipatory potential” of “good Islam” can be traced all the way through the recent election crisis in Iran, if we examine the trajectory of supposedly “Left” Islamist discontents and opposition to the Shah’s regime leading up to the Islamic Revolution, and how this plays out for the continuers of such politics in the Islamic Republic in the present.
The New Left Islamist figure Ali Shariati is key to understanding the relation of the Left to Islamism, both around the 1979 toppling of the Shah and the political divisions in the Islamic Republic today. For instance, opposition presidential candidate Mousavi, and especially his wife Zahra Rahnavard, were students of Shariati who worked closely with him politically in the 1960s and 1970s. The largest political organization on the Left in the 1979 Revolution was the MEK (Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or People’s Mujahedin of Iran), who found inspiration in Shariati’s approach to Islam.
The fact that Mousavi and Rahnavard eventually joined the Khomeini faction, and that there is a significant likelihood that Khomeini’s agents were responsible for Shariati’s untimely death in 1977 at age 44, should not obscure the New Left Islamist roots of the Khomeinite Islamic Republic, of which Mousavi was Prime Minister from 1981–89, under Khomeini’s “supreme” leadership. The present controversy in the Islamic Republic establishment is not to be understood in terms of new wine in old bottles, but rather the old in the new. The Islamist politics on both sides is a right-wing phenomenon, now as before. Mousavi as standard-bearer for discontents in the Islamic Republic is a phenomenon of political confusion, to which any Left must attend. There are significant problems to be addressed in the relation of ideology to social and political reality. The point is that Khomeini’s supremacy in the Islamic Revolution is not to be explained by his superior insight and grasp of realities, but rather his successful navigation of them, which is a different matter. The present dispute between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi amounts to this.
Khomeini did not lead a revolutionary transformation of Iranian society, but rather the reconsolidation of Iran after the crisis and fall of the Shah. The phenomenon of the so-called “Left,” for the most part, calling black white, does not change the fact that Khomeini represented a right-wing response to the discontents and crisis of Iranian society in the 1970s. The Left’s support of Khomeini expresses its disorientation and confusion theoretically, and its right-wing role practically. There is no mystery here: Telling women to cover themselves is not an emancipatory act!
The collapse of the Shah’s regime did not increase but ultimately decreased the possibilities for Iranian society. The Khomeinite Islamic Republic was not the expression but the repression of potential, in the context of diminished possibilities. To understand how this was so, it is useful to consider the historical trajectory of Iran in global context. The developmental states of the post-colonial world underwent a severe crisis starting with the global downturn of the 1970s. The 1970s were the period in which so-called “Third World debt” manifested itself as a serious problem for these states. This also manifested in the so-called “Second World,” as the IMF called in its loans to countries such as Poland and Yugoslavia, setting the ground for the long-term crisis and disintegration of these states.
Oil revenues could provide no remedy in the case of Iran, because what was encountered throughout the world in the 1970s was the crisis of the transformations that went on under the mantle of “modernization.” In Iran, this was carried out through the Shah’s White Revolution, in which he had been goaded, beginning in the early 1960s, by the U.S. Kennedy Administration, and continued to be by those subsequent. Khomeini’s rise as a politician originated in protest against the policies of modernization—and liberalization—implemented by the Shah, under pressure from the United States. Khomeini was always clear about this in ways the “Left” has not been. The Left abdicated from providing an emancipatory response to the changes in Iranian society. The Shah stood between right- and left-wing discontents, but the Left steadily liquidated its own concerns.
Indeed, despite the fact that discontents with the Shah were channeled into New Left “anti-imperialist” politics, the Shah indeed was bucking the “Great Satan” on his own accord. Not only was the Shah’s regime prompted to transform Iranian society through the White Revolution reforms of the 1960s–70s, exacerbating social and political discontents, but indeed responsibility for the ultimate demise of the Shah can also be laid at the door of U.S. policy, for President Carter refused to support the Shah against the tumult of protests that broke out in 1978. The U.S. not only supported the Shah’s regime but significantly undermined it as well. This was not a mistake on the part of the U.S., but expressed the differing interests of U.S. policy as against the Shah. A salient example of this was the U.S. attitude towards the Shah’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, which he pursued. The U.S. firmly opposed this—as it opposes the IR’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technology today.
So much for “anti-imperialism.” So, what happened in Iran? Certainly, the close if not always happy relationship between the Shah’s regime and the U.S. became symbolic for discontents in Iran. But symbolic in what sense? The New Left conception of “imperialism” got in the way of a sober perception of the problems facing Iranian society in the 1970s. Iran was not suffering from U.S. imperial oppression. Rather, Iran faced a crossroads in its development in which an insurgent Islamist politics found purchase. The nature of this Islamist politics was obscured by the Left’s conceptions of the potential social-political divisions in Iranian society and in its greater global context.
Iran was the site for the most significant political Left in the Middle East and Muslim world. Many thousands of Iranian students with leftist inclinations studied abroad in Europe and North America. In their encounter with the metropolitan New Left, they were encouraged to embrace the supposed Muslim roots of Iranian society and find potential there for emancipatory politics. But emancipation from what, for whom?
The issue of Islamist politics looms. Already in 1965, the Communist Party of Indonesia was completely wiped out, with hundreds of thousands of its members and those associated with it (such as ethnic Chinese) butchered, by Islamist political groups in a popular movement. Communists were hacked to death by enraged masses, in numbers sufficient to clog rivers. In the 1970s, Pakistan under Bhutto charted a so-called socialist Islamism that paved the way for the U.S.-supported Islamist military dictatorship of Zia and Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Mujahedin in Afghanistan and cultivation of the Taliban to the present. What all of these phenomena have in common is the repression—the slaughter—of the Left. This is the political significance of Islamism, and nothing other than this.
The New Left Islamist Shariati considered himself a follower of Frantz Fanon. Others, including Khomeini, also found resonance with Fanon’s writings (on Algeria and Africa), on what they considered to be the problem of “cultural imperialism.” So, according to this view, Iran suffered, not from structural and political problems in modern historical context, so much as from cultural problems, of so-called “Westernization,” which was pathologized. The problems of modernization became the problem of Westernization, which thus needed to be eradicated. Islamist politics was the means by which the cure for this “disease” has been attempted, all the way to banning kite flying in Afghanistan.
To this day, the Islamic Republic is premised on a culturalist conception of politics. Ahmadinejad and others speak of Iran’s “political frontiers” as if they were just lines on a map. Their “Islamic Revolution” is civilizational and global in reach. It is not about Iran. Ahmadinejad wrote an “open letter” to President Bush chastising the failure of “liberal democracy” and urging the embrace of the principles of Islamist politics instead.
Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, whose legitimate mantle was in dispute between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad in the recent election, is premised on the idea that the entire Iranian population, suffering from the illness of “cultural imperialism” by the West, needed to be held as minority wards of the mullahs. This is why there is a Guardian Council and a Supreme Leader above all elected officials. When Ahmadinejad referred to the election protesters as “shit,” this was the social imagination behind it: he considered them to be religiously fallen, culturally corrupted, and hence evil, in a disqualifying, dehumanizing sense. The powers-that-be of the Islamic Republic, still pursuing the Islamic Revolution, have moral contempt for the people of Iran—as any right-wingers do for their subalterns.
This is why it is worse than tragic, indeed, I would argue, criminal, for the Left to continue to embrace today, in whatever form, the presuppositions of such right-wing politics of Islamism—as the Left did in the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago. It was worse than a mistake then, and it continues to be so today. It is part of the deliberate obscuring of social realities behind bad ideology and worse politics. The history of the past 30 years proves that when European and North American political activists and professors on the so-called “Left” in the 1970s encouraged their Iranian students that Islamism was a way to address their discontents and ameliorate the problems of Iranian and indeed Muslim society, this was not only a lie, but a crime. It remains so today.
Postel: I would like to address something Chris said about Foucault. What you are saying is that the Left itself, in embracing Islamism, was making an objectively right-wing move. That is what I want to take issue with. Foucault’s particular relation to Islamism and the Iranian Revolution was quite different from most contemporary leftists.
Most leftists supported the Iranian Revolution writ large, but not specifically the Islamic fraction. They made a variety of arguments about needing to support the regime once the Islamists solidified their hegemony, and there was a lot of pretzel logic on the Left about how to relate to the new Islamic Republic. But during the Revolution itself most international leftists did not specifically support the Islamists. They either supported the Marxists, or they simply held some vague notion of the Iranian Revolution as a blow to the American Empire. Foucault is distinctive in this respect. He not only supported the Islamists but he was hostile to the secular forces in the Iranian Revolution. When Foucault was writing about the Iranian Revolution he was writing against the secular Western Left. What he loved about the Iranian Revolution is that it was no mere national liberation movement cum Marxist-Leninist revolution, but that it had a religious dimension. In one of his more poetic flights of fancy, he wrote that what the Iranian Revolution promised was not a new regime or new set of constitutional arrangements but a “new regime of truth.” Precisely because the Western Left was so secular, according to Foucault, it was blind to the Iranian Revolution’s emancipatory potential.
Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson have dissected what was wrong with Foucault’s arguments. But it does bear repeating here that, in supporting the Islamist wing of the Revolution against the secular forces, Foucault was not in fact emblematic of the international Left, the Western Left. He got into all sorts of hissing matches with French Marxists like Simone de Beauvoir and Maxime Rodinson on account of his bizarre and problematic position. This is not to exculpate in any way the majority of the international Left, which did indeed get all sorts of things wrong about the Iranian Revolution, but not the way Foucault did. The international Left saw it purely through the prism of anti-imperialism and, for this reason, it failed to identify the Revolution’s reactionary, authoritarian elements, as expressed in its hostility to liberalism, feminism, human rights, and democratic values.
Chris, you still have not laid out an argument against the Green Movement in Iran today. You hint at it, but I would like us to get into this matter in greater detail. To the extent you make an argument, you shut Mousavi up into an ahistorical time warp as Khomeini’s Prime Minister and a reactionary Islamist in the 1980s. But we are now in 2009. Mousavi today is not the same Mousavi of the 1980s. This is not to say that I am an uncritical supporter of Mousavi, but I think we must also be clear as to what we are talking about. The Mousavi of 2009, particularly post-June 12, 2009, is a very different creature. Anyway, the Green Movement itself is not all about Mousavi. It may have been generated through his presidential campaign, but it has now transcended Mousavi the individual. In many ways Mousavi is following rather than leading the Green Movement.
Ehsani: Let me say, first, that I really welcome this unexpected gathering. For many of us on the Iranian Left, both inside and outside Iran—and for the past decade I have mostly worked in Iran—contact, interaction, and dialogue with the American and global Left has not been part of our experience. Nobody cares about Iran. Nobody pays any attention to the Left there, to the extent that there is a Left. The Left internationally has been uninterested, uninvolved in issues having to do with Iran. Conversely, the Iranian intellectual community inside and outside Iran has been uninterested in what is going on globally, except to the extent that it involves its own interest. So I welcome this important dialogue.
On the other hand, if we want to be serious and lay claim to being of the Left, we need to take our subject seriously. Iran is a complex place. My main criticism of the majority of the Iranian Left is they have no idea of Iranian society. They start from a set of metaphysical ideas and ideological-theoretical criteria, and then see if reality fits it or not. You mentioned Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson. They are good friends of mine, but only one of them has been there, has been to Iran, in the past 30 years, and I do not think they have an adequate grasp of the complexities of that society. Let me give you an example.
We keep speaking of it but never ask ourselves, what is Islamism? Islamism is not Stalinism. Stalinism was a totalitarian ideology with the machinery of the Party controlling the state and society, engineering it according to a set of teleological formulas. It left no room for debate. Soviet planning set out to shape and mold society. Eventually, it collapsed in the face of reality and realpolitik. But Islamism is different. In terms of economic, social, and cultural policies, the Iranian regime is a spectrum spanning from arch-left to arch-right. It has been constantly changing over time. Look at the issue of the hijab for women. It is rather more complex than what Cutrone said. When, in 1979, the arch-right faction of the coalition that had brought Khomeini to power wanted to ban women from public life, Khomeini himself said, “Look, they are already there.”
The entire population was in the streets in 1979. It was never a matter of Islamism simply imposing its will. Khomeini rode atop a very cacophonous, anarchic situation in Iran. The takeover of the American Embassy and, later, the Iran-Iraq War came to his rescue, but still Khomeini was never completely able to impose his own agenda, to take control over state and society. And things have stayed in flux ever since. If you look at the range of debate over and within Islam in Iran, you will find it is quite remarkable. One must see how far the Islamists have come, how they are changing.
Now to return to the issue of women: When I was doing my fieldwork, I lived in rural Iran in 1988 for two years in a war zone, right by the Iraqi border. It transformed me. Before that, I thought a little bit like Cutrone. But this village did not fit any of my criteria. It was a small village of 300 people, quite poor. All women were either working in the market or traveling to the city. They were completely present in public life. When they traveled to the city, where the black chador was obligatory, for them it was great, because they did not seem like bumpkins. As a uniform, it made them look like urban people so they did not stand out. They could go to school in an Islamic society, high school, and some to university. Women are second-class citizens, but they are very much present in public life. What does this mean for a Left project? I am not certain, but I am trying to say it is a complex society. We need to understand Iran’s sociology before judging its ideology.
Behrooz: I would like to mention that Iran’s nuclear program is not weaponized, and so there is no evidence that it is a nuclear weapons program. As far as we know, it is a civilian nuclear program, as was the Shah’s. When the Shah ruled, Iran was a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as it remains to this day. There is accusation but there is no proof.
Regarding Mousavi, I spent three months in Tehran last spring and did an interview on him for a major daily newspaper. I do not know where even to begin if the question is, Is the group around him leftist? What does that mean? These are people who are living in Iran who are confused. In what sense is it “Left?” Everything depends on what you mean by “Left.” I do not want to debate what “is” is, but you have to define “Left” in order to ask, “Is Mousavi leftist or not?”
What I told the interviewer in Tehran is this: In terms of his economic program, Mousavi has changed from a statist, state-capitalist, latter-day Nasserite in the 1980s to a kind of European-style social democrat today. Instead of the state owning the means of production, Mousavi would tax the owner to provide for society. That is the major change. Politically, he has actually turned away from being a Shariati type, a Shia-Bolshevik if you will, into somebody who believes that there is much greater scope for individual and artistic freedom within the framework of the Islamic Republic than what the people enjoy today. Of course, he does not speak of exceeding the confines of the Islamic Republic and it would be foolish for him to do so.
Because Mousavi stays within the context of the Islamic Republic, he cannot be considered a democrat per se, by any international definition of the word. Still, he is pulling that way. This guy is not a democrat such as one might find in Sweden, but he is much more of a democrat than the current president. So, being a democrat is relative.
Cutrone: I need to respond to Postel since he has addressed me directly twice now: I do not have an argument against the Green Movement. What I have is a critique of the perception that it is all right that the Green Movement is in flux and inchoate, that this is good because being inchoate is a kind of pluralism. I also emphasize the ideological impoverishment of having to pose discontents within the framework of the Islamic Republic, just as I would challenge how the issue has been framed by commentators outside Iran like Žižek. So, I am interested in highlighting the issue of confusion. I am sympathetic to the protests, but I am critical of what I take to be their ideological problems.
As regards to what Ehsani and Behrooz just put forth in terms of complexity and ideological criteria, it is not a matter of ideological criteria being imposed on a complex reality. Rather, I do not think anyone either in 1979 or in the present is thinking about the problems in Iranian society that a Left could articulate. If we are talking about democratization in the Islamic Republic, we are already breaking with Left politics to accept something much more impoverished. Finally, to say, “Mousavi has moved” and, at the same time, “Mousavi is not leading but following the movement,” is simply to restate the question. Mousavi will move the degree to which he is trying to take advantage of discontents and articulate them through the framework of the Islamic Republic. I am concerned that the discontents remain within the restraints of the Islamic Republic. I think that the Islamic Republic, especially in this crisis, needs to be seen as an obstacle, not as a framework.
1) I’m affiliated with the Spartacist League. To say that the international Left uncritically supported those seeking to overthrow the Shah is not true. We said at the time, “Down with the Shah, and no support for the Mullahs!” and “No to the Veil! For Worker’s Revolution!” We understood that only the proletariat could break the chains of reactionary traditionalism in the Middle East. But the workers were led into the arms of the Ayatollah as the Left cheered. So today the Spartacist League defends Iran’s right to nuclear weapons, especially given the threats made by imperialist armies like the US and Israel. So, my question is, do you believe Iran should have nuclear weapons to defend itself?
2) My question is more a request for clarification. Professor Ehsani, you mentioned that you thought the events of this past June were in fact a repetition of the 1905–1906 flare up. Could you explain further what the issue was in 1905, and how you see 2009 as a continuation of that Revolution?
Ehsani: Yes. I meant the following: The 1906 Constitutional Revolution did not seek to overthrow the Qajar monarchy, but to subject it to the rule of law. It was a liberal-democratic revolution. Though initially defeated, it eventually succeeded in winning its aims. But these were again lost when the country collapsed around the time of World War I. A new autocratic dynasty, the Pahlavis, emerged to replace the Qajars in the 1920s.
What the Green Movement is demanding is an end to public space being colonized by the state. At present, it is very difficult to organize and mobilize. The movement’s success so far has been due to its fragmentary nature. It is a movement based on a rejection of the elections. Many people in the movement do not accept the legitimacy of this government, and some may even seek to go beyond the regime of the Islamic Republic itself. But, apparently, many in the movement do not want to go beyond this regime. Some are religious, and others are not. We have no way of knowing the precise anatomy of the movement because the numbers are not there. There is no way to determine who is in the majority, who is in the minority, or even to hold sustained democratic debate under present conditions. The only common denominator of the movement—and this has been its greatest strength and the most palpable sign of its tremendous political maturity—is that it is a minimalist movement. Despite all the differences of opinion, it coalesced around this issue of demanding that votes be counted.
The reason I compare this to the Constitutional Revolution is because it is a demand for rule of law. It says,
“Look, we have this Islamic Constitution that many of us reject. Still, we came out and voted under it and this is not being respected.” In this sense the Green Movement is constitutionalist.
Postel: I would also like to address this question. As Ehsani just mentioned, the Constitutional Revolution was principally liberal, democratic, constitutionalist, and therefore, in some Marxian sense, “bourgeois.”
But it also contained strong elements of feminism and social democracy. The aforementioned historian Janet Afary has written an entire book on this subject, entitled The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906–1911: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, and the Origins of Feminism. I think this connection between liberal democracy and feminism remains relevant today. And this gets to part of the problem I have with Cutrone’s analysis.
It is true that the Green Movement at present situates itself within the parameters of the Islamic Republic. This is all that what you are calling the Green Movement’s “ideological limitations” actually amount to. But the fact is simply that, as Ehsani mentioned, we do not know. We do not know exactly what the full-blown ideological spectrum within the Green Movement really is. What we do know is that one of the most recent slogans coming out of this movement is “Iranian republic, not Islamic Republic.” Now, how can you argue against a slogan like that? Is this constrained or trapped by the logic of the Islamic Republic? How can leftists around the world not see millions of Iranians taking to the streets—trade unionists, women’s rights activists, dissident intellectuals, and civil society actors, particularly the trade union movement, which is at the core of left internationalism and has been for over 150 years—how can we as leftists see trade unionists in the streets of Iran participating in the Green Movement and not support them?
1) I take issue with both the trivializing and romanticizing view of the chador, and also with the notion that liberalism can ever deliver the liberation of women. I think the greatest advancement of women’s liberation occurred during the Communist revolutions, particularly in China under Chairman Mao. How can you speak of the emancipation of women, in the past or the present, without talking about the history of these revolutions?
2) Might not the situation be like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, where a mass movement was exploited by pro-Western politicians to achieve a shuffle at the top, without very much actually changing? In Iran there are people who want to get rid of the more theocratic elements of the regime. But others are upset that Ahmadinejad subsidizes fuel and runs social programs in the countryside. So Mousavi might pull back.
3) How does one have a vibrant public sphere that, at the same time, does not respect individual autonomy of thought? The Islamists first demanded the expansion of debate within the public sphere, only to clamp down, in many respects even more brutally than the Shah, after they came into power.
Cutrone: First of all, I want to respond to Postel’s claim that the Green Movement is already stepping outside the framework of the Islamic Republic, or is somehow only superficially Islamist. I do not oppose the Green Movement. Rather, I’m pointing to the necessity for ideological clarification. The role of the Left should be provocation to clarification, to move the conversation forward and more fully politicize it.
The second question brings up the issue of different interests and how those might play out in the Movement. To state my concern polemically: There is every likelihood of a replay of the 1979 moment. While Foucault is an extreme example of the Western Left on the Iranian Revolution, he condensed the idea that what is happening is outside the framework of the Left, and that this, in itself, is good. What I have heard here is that, if the Left brings any criteria of judgment to bear or provokes any issue of clarification, then ideology is being imposed on a complex reality and we have a case of “left imperialism.” It is not true that, if you paint things in a negative light or raise issues, the movement will scatter to the winds. I take for granted that there are discontents in the Islamic Republic and that there is a movement that has broken out against the election result. The question for me is whether there is a need for ideological clarification, not from a set of prescriptive criteria, but rather are there issues the Left can raise in light of this movement?
Postel: As to female liberation, the on-the-ground reality is that the main expression of the struggle for gender equality in Iran is a campaign called the Million Signatures Campaign. If you want to be a Marxist feminist and say that this campaign is only presenting liberal demands, and is therefore insufficient, you can do so. But this vibrant, promising, and profoundly emancipatory movement is the only game in town right now. Although they do not describe themselves in this way, it is a liberal campaign, in that they want to reform the legal architecture of the Islamic Republic so as to allow for greater gender equality and women’s rights. Is this enough? Will it lead to full emancipation and the end of capitalist exploitation and alienation? No. But to oppose it is reactionary.
This gets back to the question of liberalism more generally. I do not believe that liberalism is sufficient. However, I do believe it is necessary, and that anti-liberalism is reactionary. We do not need to struggle against liberalism, but against oppression and exploitation. We need to struggle for liberal-democratic, “bourgeois” rights, and, at the same time, go beyond them. But going beyond them does not mean struggling against them. I am what would be called here in America a “democratic socialist.”
Ehsani: The Million Signatures Campaign is not the only game in town. There are Islamic feminists who are quite active and in some ways more effective. It is a very rich scene. Some 70 different feminist groups mobilized women’s votes during the election.
In terms of women’s rights more generally, I was not romanticizing anything, but am talking about an experienced reality. Many women in Iran view the matter with reference to this question: Is the imposition of the hijab on women by the state the best way for women to fully interact with the rest of society, or not? What I was trying to get across is that, in at least some rural areas, the Islamicization of the state actually opens up a public space for women outside of family and community. Indeed, in some cases the state actually stepped in and made universal education for women obligatory. So what do we say about this? After all, this is the same state that imposes the hijab. So we cannot approach this complex reality with simplistic formulae. Women are being oppressed by the state while, at the same time, they are being empowered in unexpected ways. We need to be flexible in our understanding, in order to grasp how both are possible.
I welcome the question raised about what, if any, are the grounds for emancipation in the Islamic Republic. So, regarding the possibility of a Left, and being someone of the Left working in Iran under conditions of oppression and censorship, I still think the possibilities for opening up the political imaginary in a country like Iran are far greater than in a place like Egypt. For example, one main argument of the reformists in Iran has been to privatize public assets, in response to the nationalization that occurred in the wake of the 1979 Revolution. The issue is how to privatize. The reformers think the only way is to accept the neoliberal prescription and reduce the power of the state. In Iran, we on the Left have had the opportunity to say, this is not the way to go. We had an opportunity to say, privatizing all public assets is not the way to diminish the power of the state. If you want a private sector, fine, but the public sector is public and should remain so. This argument, which is essentially putting forward a socialist project, is possible in Iran. It can become part of the political agenda because the process of neoliberalization is still in its early stages. Neoliberalism is not an accepted dogma in Iran at this point, but remains an open question. The fact that the Islamic Republic remains an unfinished political, economic, ideological project opens up possibilities for debating what its content should be.
1) It was interesting to hear that the Left was marginalized at the beginning of the 1979 Revolution, but then grew exponentially after it. This occurs often historically, I believe. But what I would like to hear more about is what the panelists think the role of leftists outside of Iran should be today. How must the Left outside Iran change? What should we be doing, in light of the situation in Iran?
2) You guys are leading the working class into a dead end once again. What you all agree is that you reject the political independence of the working class and the socialist revolution.
Behrooz: Regarding the socialist revolution, I am not for it. I am not a political activist, but an academic. The best I can do is attempt to understand what is going on from my point of view. I am content to leave the revolution to the revolutionaries. I am halfway through my life, so I am not sure I would do it much good anyway.
Regarding what the role of the Left outside of Iran should be, I think we must first understand what the Left outside of Iran is. It seems to me that the Iranian Left in exile is divided into two camps: There are the ones who stick to their guns, saying, “Not much has changed, there has been a bump in the road, but it can be overcome, the working class can do it.” We might call this the classical approach. This camp is strong in Europe and America. The other group is the Left that, kind of like the reformers in the Islamic Republic, have come to conclusions similar to some expressed here. This portion of the Iranian Left has come to realize that they must be looking for other ways, that the old ways are not working.
About the Green Movement, what Ehsani said is true: It formed around minimalist demands. What Chris said is also true: It has divergent interests. Which is to say the movement remains inchoate at this stage. There is a Green mishmash in front of us, which we are trying to understand. One of its salient features is that it is here and it has resilience. We do not know if it is a majority, but we do know that it is a determined, angry movement. Mousavi is trying to provide this movement with leadership, in order to prevent it from committing suicide, and to help it build structure, leadership, and a programme. Mousavi is planning for the long term.
So when the Movement, either spontaneously or deliberately, says, “We want an Iranian Republic,” this means they are asking, whether they know it or not, for the toppling of the Islamic Republic. But you cannot topple the Islamic Republic without organization, leadership, and structure. Otherwise you are simply committing suicide. The same is true of the fledgling labor unions.
In the face of oppression, one needs to rein in and give the movement some direction, because right now it can easily destroy itself. This has happened again and again. On the one hand, the resilience of the supporters of the Green Movement is certainly very impressive, as is the coordination among Mousavi, Khatami, Karroubi, and even Rafsanjani. Without going for a head-on confrontation, they are trying to open up space. This would allow for the development of leadership, which would in turn allow for structure, and structure would mean endurance to fight to another round. This is all about the next round. This round is pretty much finished.
Postel: In response to the man who thought that the Green Movement was selling short the working class, I would ask why are there thousands of Iranian trade unionists in the streets supporting the democratic movement? The Iranian working class does not quite fit the ossified fantasy world that so many Marxist-Leninists inhabit. The Iranian trade movement sees itself and its interests as being intricately intertwined with the interests of other democratic struggles in Iran. So, for example, Iranian Trade-Unionists have very much embraced the slogan, “Workers’ rights are human rights.” When Iranian Trade Unions are organizing and articulating their demands, they often frame them in the language of rights: the right to organize trade unions independent of state sponsorship or supervision; freedom of assembly; the right to publish independent magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.; the right not to be abducted in the middle of the night, tortured, and subjected to mock show trials. These are democratic rights, and it is no accident that the Iranian Labor Movement has found common cause with other democratic struggles in Iran.
Now I want to respond to something Cutrone said earlier. It is not because the Green Movement is inchoate that I support it, but because the Green Movement has mobilized millions of Iranians, including trade unions, feminists, democratic intellectuals and writers, and student activists. It has brought them into the streets in order to set the stage, as Behrooz suggested, for a new democratic, secular Iran that I, personally, would very much like to see. We do not know where it is leading, but I resist the notion that somehow my solidarity with the Green Movement is uncritical. As you know, Fred Halliday has this notion of critical solidarity, of engaging in a dialogue with struggles around the world, by which one sees the need to support and participate, but also to engage in a critical dialogue. So, for example, when the Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji was in Chicago in 2006, one of the things I made a point of doing was to bring him to Loyola University to sit down for a three-and-a-half hour conversation with the Marxist political philosopher Prof. David Schweickart, who has written a series of books on the future of capitalism. The point of this dialogue was to get the Iranian dissident movement thinking about what kind of Iran might come next. Ehsani nailed it: If there is going to be socialism in Iran, it is going to have to come about as a result of democratic struggle in an open political space, which is the first step. Socialists in Iran have to be part of the democratic war of position that we see unfolding now. They have to argue for their positions in a democratic and pluralistic polity, and I hope they win: I would like to see a democratic socialist Iran. I think that is part of the role of the International Left, to engage in critical solidarity, not to accept the Green Movement as it is, nor to fetishize it, but to see the potential there and try to harness it.
1) Mousavi once said to the protesters, “The Basiji are your brothers.” This is not good. As long as that movement remains cast within, as Cutrone said, the framework of the Islamic Republic, it will only continue to come up against the same repression.
2) I would like the panelists to comment specifically on the diversity of the Green Movement, considering that it is led by three people: Khatami, Mousavi, and Karroubi. There are differences, ideologically, in terms of economic and social programs, among these three. We have people who come from more of a developmentalist wing, and others who represent more of a pro-privatization, neoliberal agenda. How are we to understand these differences?
Behrooz: If I understand Iran correctly, the country wants no more violence. Certainly, the Green Movement is not violent. Nor is it revolutionary. The young generation in Iran rarely talks about revolution. Vague as it may sound, their goal is to make the Islamic Republic more liberal by providing a breathing space for politics. This breathing space is necessary, because, although the supporters of Khomeini and Ahmadinejad are in the minority, and have been shown to be a minority consistently in elections, they are a consistently potent minority. They are 10–15 percent of the population, but they are armed, committed, and organized. They are willing to fight and die. The other side lacks all of these characteristics. If the Shah had 15 percent in 1979, we would not have had the Revolution, but by 1979 he barely had 15 people supporting him. The current regime has a small yet very powerful minority propping it up.
There are two ways to deal with this powerful minority. We could remove them through a massive civil war, a revolution. This would remove the tumor. But in order to treat surgically the cancer now afflicting Iranian society, you may also have to remove part of the liver, the heart, and the lung. If this occurs, the patient may not survive.
The other way to deal with the current regime is to open space so that there can be a dialogue among the 15 percent of the ruling regime, the 75 percent of the general public, and the 10 percent who simply do not care. This space could also include many Iranian exiles, people who are outside of Iran. These people all should talk to each other and do a lot of convincing. When Mousavi says that the Basiji are our brothers, he is addressing them, saying, “I am not your enemy, and you are not my enemy. I do not want to overthrow the Islamic Republic, but to make it more livable for us all.” Of course, he could say the Basiji are his enemy. Then he would be abducted and taken to prison, where they would beat him. Eventually, he would be forced to go on TV and say it was all part of a Stalinist or Zionist plot. I do not blame Mousavi for declining to adopt this course. The Green Movement is trying to be prudent, soberly navigating this hostile, mine-riddled terrain. The very attempt to do this, though it may not seem as radical as other political movements, is nonetheless a historic new stage in Iranian politics.
Ehsani: Is the Islamic Republic a theocracy? No—it is a theocracy and a republic. Moreover, it is a functioning republic, for political power is distributed among a political elite that has organic roots in the society, though this is only a small sector of the population. Power has been circulating among this elite for the last 30 years. These elites hold different political beliefs, and the way that power circulates among them depends on popular vote, which decides the presidency, the parliament, as well as local councils. Compare this to a country like Egypt, where you have a leader who is “President for Life,” and has been for the last 30 years. In Iran you have circulation of power among elites, a division of power that is generally determined by a rational voting process. This game has been undermined now by Khamenei and the military, who have stepped in and said, “Enough of this. We see where things are going. If we continue with this popular merry-go-round, this republican cycling of people through various positions of executive and legislative power, eventually a society that has been really empowered, that is becoming more diverse, and that has so far been putting up with this game, will start demanding more.” It is a matter of political survival. What has happened is that the theocratic element, which had been like a monarch standing above the fray of the political process, supposedly the neutral father of the nation, has now stepped overtly into the political process, saying, “I want all the power.” This has shattered his image. Part of what the Green Movement is about, then, is the demand that the Constitution, which is a very contradictory document, be implemented in full. Particularly, people want freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. There are both democratic and theocratic elements of the Constitution overlapping uneasily in many places. It is not a matter of people suddenly believing in the Constitution, but a question of along what lines and in what way does one support this Constitution?
The Green Movement is about mobilizing and changing the balance of actual political power. This is no more legalistic tussle, but a fight in the streets over rival interpretations of the Constitution. Ultimately, the movement aspires for the Supreme Leader, who happens to be a theocrat because of the system he heads, to cease holding executive power and instead become a figurehead, like the Queen of England or Sweden—someone irrelevant to politics.
Are these demands paltry? I do not think so. Iran was the place where political Islam won, bringing down a keystone regime in the Middle East and putting another in its place. It basically opened a chapter in history, which has, from Afghanistan to Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria, transformed the face of politics. What happens if, through a popular movement, that system shifts to a post-Islamist, democratic polity, which is what the population is increasingly demanding? I think this opens a range of possibilities, certainly in the realm of politics which, as I see it, is what Cutrone was asking for. Even 30 years ago, we did not have in Iran this range of discourse about equality for women and minorities—among leftists, among the religious, among anyone, really—the way we do now. In some ways, this discourse of equality is more advanced among the Islamists than among the secularists. This is because the secularists have been occupied with the fact that we were victims of history—and we were. But, on the other hand, these people have been engaged in this battle, and there are a lot of important debates and arguments about religion, God, politics, Islam, and what the future is going to be. Even in the recent past, this was not so. This is why the political situation is now open, not closed.
Cutrone: I wanted to say something about the issue of ideology and imposing ideological formulae. I do not think politics is a matter of formulae, or strict criteria, but a matter of judgment. Judging possibilities and pushing the envelope of possibilities is the work of the Left. There is a dangerous situation unfolding in the Islamic Republic that could escalate to the point of civil war. The Revolutionary Guards and Basiji are not simply the state power; they are not a group of people that can be neutralized by putting flowers in their rifle muzzles. Rather, they are an ideological-political movement, and have a vested interest in maintaining certain aspects of the status quo in the Islamic Republic. I am not sure it is possible to imagine a thoroughgoing crisis of the Islamic Republic that does not potentially lead to civil war. The question is, What is the role of Mousavi in terms of reining in the movement? I think what is necessary is precisely not to hold back the movement, but to prepare it and push it forward. This will necessarily entail risk, but the argument I have been hearing here tonight is that the risk is too great. Well, what if the risk is posed, regardless? What if the state loses legitimacy and unravels completely, anyway? The Left cannot be in a position arguing against any danger or risk that is posed. If Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have pushed the envelope too far in the other direction, what will result? The Basiji and Revolutionary Guards could get their way without the pretense of “parliamentary” mediation. We have to face that reality.
Postel: I think, of all the statements Chris has made tonight, those are the ones I most agree with. They are keen observations I find myself in broad sympathy with. The scenario you just conjured, of a very dark turn in which there is a theocratic structure without a republic, is a very real danger. But I think it would not last long in Iran, for reasons to do with the characteristics of Iranian civil society and history that Ehsani has invoked tonight regarding, for instance, the Constitutional Revolution in the early 1900s. Take the example of the Parliament. This institution predates the Islamic Republic. It was constituted more than one hundred years ago, precisely through the Constitutional Revolution, and it survived the Islamic Revolution, albeit in a tattered, besieged form. Iranian civil society always seems to find a way to reassert itself. On the Left, one argument that has been articulated against our position goes, “Why are you so worked up about the stolen elections in Iran, when there are so many places around the world, such as Egypt, where there are no elections to steal in the first place?” The difference is that with Iran, as Ehsani has pointed out, there is such a vibrant democratic history and civil society that millions of people took to the streets over the appearance of a fraudulent election.
Postel: I appreciate the opportunity to explore these issues tonight; it has opened some fertile ground for further debate. Although there are some serious differences among us, we share an opposition to the hegemonic, majority position of the international Left, particularly in the anti-war movement. There are a lot of people on the international Left who openly sympathize with Ahmadinejad, and thus with the most reactionary, authoritarian elements of the Islamic Republic. This is what we are up against. Our differences and disagreements are important, but we should not allow this to occlude the fact that all of us here actually represent a minority on the international Left, in terms of looking at the dynamics in the Islamic Republic in the way we have done tonight.
Ehsani: We on the Iranian Left who have been engaged deeply with what has been going on in Iran face a serious challenge. We must explain a lot of things, but also listen to criticism and consider the legitimate questions that have been raised tonight. We have been doing much of our work in isolation. But you also have your work cut out for you, if you want to be interlocutors. We are all involved in a political struggle that we may lose. But given what I have seen, even in the past 10 or 12 years in Iran, what makes me hopeful is how engaged people have become in this movement right now. I think this bodes very well for the future of politics in Iran, and in the Middle East generally.
Behrooz: I am assuming that we are looking at the Iranian case to better understand issues of revolution and social change in a very important part of the world. This audience tonight, as intellectuals, students, and political activists, should have interest in Iran. Rather than talking about Iran, though, in closing I would like to talk more broadly about the Left. We who care about the concept of the Left—in terms of social justice, accessibility, better division of wealth, standing up for people who are otherwise in misery—we need to have a serious dialogue over the meaning of the Left after the Bolshevik experience. It does us no good to stick to our guns and say, “We were right,” or “Trotsky was right.” We need to open up discussion over what it mean to be “Left” today, especially in a mega-capitalist country like the United States. How do we relate to a country like Rwanda, Iran, or South Africa? Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, everything was set, to the point that even those who cursed the Soviet Union are now ambivalent about its collapse. For, in the presence of the Soviet Union, everything seemed clear in terms of who one liked and did not like. At least the lines were clearly drawn. Now all that is gone. The Titanic has gone down, and it is unclear what to like or dislike. The Left needs to be redefined, or else it is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Because of this I have been trying to urge the younger generation in Iran to look to the successful examples of the Left, to moments the Left made a positive difference in the lives of people. I urge them to build on that, rather than looking at the unsuccessful examples of the Left, and romanticizing its failures. This is a more general discussion that I would like to see take place.
Cutrone: Regarding the question of the successful history of the Left versus the romanticization of failure, it is true that either poses a danger. On the other hand, to go back to the question of the inchoate character of political events, there is the matter of street protests as a model for political action. As the election protests unfolded, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, but this may actually be a sign of weakness rather than strength. In the absence of the possibility of organization, you instead have this broad discontent being expressed in a way that is certainly impressive at the level of spectacle, but that may not have much political content or staying power. The year 1979 saw street protests and huge demonstrations, as did Europe in 1989, but they had in common a fundamentally inchoate political imagination, which opens itself up to opportunism, such that people like Khomeini come in and take advantage of the situation in order to cement themselves in a position of power. So my point is not to romanticize failure, but to consider the history of the Left in terms of when, in that history, there were moments of coherence—that is, a coherent view of social and political reality in a global context, a view that was not provincialized by geography or social sector. Speaking of the failure of the Left in 1979, the Tudeh Party in the 1950s was much better on the question of women’s emancipation than it was in the context of the Islamic Revolution. In the 1950s they had women’s organizations that posed politics very differently than in 1979. What does it mean that the political imagination of one moment may actually fall below that of a moment that came before? While we should not be deterred by failure, the history of the Left should be understood not in terms of “success,” but in terms of clarity of vision. |P
Transcribed by Watson Ladd and Nathan L. Smith
Join Platypus members this Wednesday, February 17th at 7:30pm for a teach-in on the Iranian Revolution and a discussion on the current situation in Iran led by Platypus Review editor Pam C. Nogales C.
This event will be held at the New School, 80 Fifth Avenue, Rm. 802
Undoubtedly, the Left today should demand the overthrow of theocratic regimes; the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran is no exception. However, how the regime is overthrown, who participates in this act and how they understand their political practice, has irreversible effects. In 1977-79, the international Left overlooked this consideration by uncritically supporting those seeking to overthrow the Shah. In so doing, the Left helped a right-wing popular movement establish the theocratic dictatorial government the protesters fight against today. How are we as leftists to make sense of this political failure so as to help rebuild an emancipatory Left today? How do the current protests challenge the Islamic Republic? What are the prospects for overthrowing the Iranian regime and what would take its place?
Platypus Review 19 | January 2010
Despite unrelenting state repression, there have been rumblings throughout the 2000s of renewed labor organizing inside the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). One result of this upsurge in labor organizing was the May 2005 re-founding of the Syndicate of Workers of the United Bus Company of Tehran and Suburbs, a union that has a long history, albeit one that was interrupted by the 1979 “Revolution,” after which the union was repressed. The unions’ leader, Mansour Osanloo, was severely beaten and thrown in the Rajaei prison where he remains in a state of deteriorating health. Osanloo is an Amnesty International “prisoner of conscience.”
Another important result of the new labor organizing has been the emergence of the Independent Haft Tapeh Sugar Workers Union which launched an aggressive 42-day strike in June 2008 over wage-theft and deteriorating working conditions. In 2009, the regime imprisoned five union leaders in an attempt to smash the union for “acting against national security through the formation of a syndicate outside the law.”
Since the dramatic street demonstrations that so captured the international media’s attention beginning on June 12 of this year, the direction of events inside the IRI has sparked considerable debate as well as confusion. The continuing rivalry between various power factions within the government lends itself to no easy predictions, while little is known of the internal dynamics of the Green Movement responsible for the demonstrations. The fate of an already vulnerable organized labor movement in this volatile environment is likewise unclear. Whatever the outcome of the current power struggles, the future of Iranian organized labor is now an international issue. Its right to organize is in desperate need of support.
Following the U.S. Labor Against the War Conference, and in order to better grasp this situation, Platypus Review Assistant Editor Ian Morrison sat down with Homayoun Pourzad, a representative from the Network of Iranian Labor Unions, to discuss the current crisis and the effects of “anti-imperial” ideologies on understanding the character of the IRI. Morrison conducted this interview, which has been edited for publication, on December 3, 2009.
Ian Morrison: Before we get into the current situation, could you explain the organization of which you are a part, the Network of Iranian Labor Unions (NILU)?
Homayoun Pourzad: The idea for the NILU first arose about three years ago. Some of us already had union experience dating from before the 1979 Revolution. It upset us that, with millions of workers, there were no Iranian unions independent of the state, but only the semi-official Islamic Workers’ Councils. What gave NILU its initial impetus was the Tehran bus drivers’ actions led by Mansour Osanloo and his friends.
There was a nucleus of independent labor organizations in various trades, but the government always moved quickly to stifle that independence. Iran’s Labor Ministry and the Ministry of Intelligence have standing directives to crush independent workers’ activities, regardless of which faction is running the country. The government is very brutal in its attempts to destroy the nascent labor movement.
On the surface it looks like not much is happening with union labor activity in Iran, but even in the face of government oppression, many workers are secretly engaged in organizing underground unions. These efforts have not yet peaked. Also, organizers have to walk a fine line, since once you get too big you are more easily detected. So labor organizers have to be careful how they recruit, and how many workers meet together at once. But the nucleus of the movement is in place and once the situation allows for it there will be a huge mushrooming of independent labor unions. The NILU operates in two different trade associations. We are also doing our best to start publication of a national labor press. The task is to make labor news available and to begin to provide some political analysis.
IM: Could you explain the political crisis in Iran that has unfolded since the election and how it is affecting your efforts to organize labor?
HP: First of all, anybody who tells you that they have a full picture is lying, because the situation is very crazy.
There are at least five dozen, semi-autonomous power centers, factions, and groups vying for influence. Not even [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali] Khamenei knows for certain what will happen tomorrow. But this does not mean there is complete anarchy. Speaking generally, there are at present four major centers of power, or rather, three plus one. The first three are Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guards, while the fourth, the nascent popular movement, is of an altogether different character though is still remains somewhat amorphous. It is still finding its own voice, needs, and strengths—but it continues to evolve. For the foreseeable future, the first three powers will more or less effectively determine how things will turn out. This said, Khamenei is already weakened. This is for two reasons: He apparently has health problems and, more importantly, he has had made huge political blunders. In another country, people would probably say, “He’s only human.” But, in Iran, he is not only human. He is somewhere between human and saint, at least for his supporters and propagandists. But saints are not supposed to make blunders, at least not so many in so short a time!
IM: What is the relationship between the NILU and the nascent popular movement?
HP: There is no organic relationship between them, just as there are no organic relationships to speak of between the different elements of this movement. Mousavi does not even have an organic relationship with his own followers because of the pervasive power of repression. So, the nascent labor movement’s relationship with the popular movement is tenuous by both necessity and because of the way things have evolved. That said, we fully support their goals and will participate in all demonstrations. We even support Mousavi himself because he has remained steadfast at least up until now in defending the people. So long as he continues to do this, he deserves our support. Of course, if he changes tack, that is a different story. We think this is a truly democratic movement such as we have not seen in Iran before, including during the Revolution. Every group involved with the Iranian Revolution, without exception, believed only in monopolizing power; democracy was nobody’s concern. But now there is a very mature movement in that sense, particularly among the young people, and the fact that it has withstood so much violence in the last few months shows that it is deeply rooted. Many people were worried at first that the protests would fizzle out, but the continuance of the actions up to this day vindicate our support. The Iranian government has really gone overboard with stopping the protestors—it has been very bloody and violent—and still they have been unable to squash the protests entirely.
IM: But do you think Mousavi stands for workers’ rights at all? He seems to have a checkered political history.
HP: We do not know what his stance is. He seems generally favorable to workers’ rights, but, at any rate, our platform is not identical to his. The movement supporting Mousavi is a broad national-democratic front; we are all working with a sort of minimum program. The movement has formulated no long-term plans, and it is now in danger of being decimated. We do not have any illusions that anyone in the leadership of the Green Movement is 100 percent on board with workers’ rights, but this is not the time to discuss that. Right now, we are fighting a dangerously reactionary dictatorship. Things will become clearer as time goes on, but right now we do not seek to magnify the differences among those opposing the dictatorship.
IM: There are some who see Ahmadinejad, because he is so anti-American, as anti-imperialist, and thus as leftist. What is your response to such characterizations?
HP: Well, the problem with this argument is that it assumes everyone in the world who rants and raves against the U.S. or Israel is somehow progressive. Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Sada’am Hussein, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—these men are all more truly anti-American than any leftist. But the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad and his ilk is all demagoguery, as far as we are concerned. Either it is in the service of power politics, or else it is just a fig leaf to hide the disgrace of their own politics, which in all these cases is profoundly anti-Left and anti-working class.
IM: Still, in the peace movement here some people are uncomfortable taking a stand against Ahmadinejad or policies in Iran because they think that this is tantamount to supporting American policy.
HP: Well, I can tell you how every democratically minded person in Iran would reply: Ahmadinejad is essentially creating the ideal situation for foreign intervention. He is deliberately provocative. For instance, there is no need to use the kind of language he uses against Israel; it is genuinely odious, his frequent comments about the Holocaust and the like. But he speaks like this for a reason: He is a right-wing extremist seeking to rally his people through fear and hatred. That is what he is doing. To us it is actually incomprehensible how anyone could support Ahmadinejad just because he rants and raves about America. It really makes no sense to us. When I tell people in Iran that there are some progressive groups in America that support Ahmadinejad, they think I am pulling their leg. It makes no sense to them. But I know that this goes on and, to the extent it does, it gives the Left a bad name.
IM: What is your take on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is very popular on the Left in America? He is interviewed in progressive organs such as The Nation, for instance. He appears on the mass media as leading a front against America together with Ahmadinejad.
HP: We really do not know. We are really confused as to why Chavez is Ahmadinejad’s buddy. It makes no sense to us. It has made it almost impossible in Iran to defend his Bolívarian Revolution. When you have people being beaten or tortured, and so on, and then tell them, “Well, there is this government that supports your government, but these guys are good guys,” it is difficult to fathom, really. We hope that Chavez changes his policy, because when there is a change of government in Iran it will be accompanied by a total rupture with everyone who supported Ahmadinejad.
IM: What in your view is fueling the current crisis?
HP: Well, let me go back to a point I was making earlier. Ayatollah Khamenei, because of his errors, has seen his status diminished. He no longer has about him the mystique that once so terrified and intimidated people. Then you have Ahmadinejad, who has turned out to be a rogue element for the regime, one that is perhaps doing more damage than good for them right now. Then there are the Revolutionary Guards, who have the bulk of the real power in Iran. They have made a power grab all over the country, so that now they control the economy, the political situation, and the Parliament. Still, Khamenei, Ahmedinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards are in an ongoing struggle for power. They unite only in the face of common enemies, whether internal or foreign, and not always then.
The current crisis in Iran is best understood as a set of concurrent crises: First, there is the legitimacy crisis, which I discussed just now with reference to Khamenei; second, is the political crisis where the various factions within Iranian “politics” cannot agree on anything; third, is the economic crisis which the ruling class is utterly incapable of addressing. The country was in recession even before the election. What will bring the economic crisis to a head is Ahmadinejad’s plan to cut all the subsidies, which are quite big, between 15 to 20 percent of the GDP (though nobody really knows for sure the exact amount, due to the lack of transparency in the administration). The supposed populist Ahmadinejad intends to cut the subsidies for transportation, utilities, energy, and even for staples such as rice and wheat. After this happens, there will be spiraling inflation, of course. The cut in subsidies for energy and utilities will force factories currently operating at a loss and/or below capacity to engage in massive layoffs. That is when we will see a number of labor actions. There may also be short-lived and violent urban uprisings. But rather than these riot-like urban uprisings, we are focusing on organizing labor to bring the country to a halt if need be.
Iranian labor is in a really awful situation, arguably the worst since its inception a century or so ago. With millions of workers in the formal sector, we still lack official, legal independent unions. On the other hand, the situation is ideal for organizing. The labor force is ready for independent assertion, though they need the kind of support that only comes from dedicated organizers.
Iran’s spiraling political and economic crisis coincides with another crisis that is only just beginning, the international crisis regarding the nuclear problem. Diplomatic talks are failing, as was inevitable. We feel that the regime is trying to build a bomb, but probably not testing it for a while. There is a clear danger that this might lead to an air attack or to some other form of major military intervention, which would divert attention from the internal situation. Indeed, as I said above, this is what this regime is hoping for. It would be a monumental mistake if there were to be an attack against Iran, since the nuclear program can only truly be stopped if the popular movement becomes more substantial and is able to change the government, or at least force changes in its policies.
IM: So your sense is that, with the nuclear program, Ahmadinejad is actually trying to provoke aggression?
HP: Indeed. We condemn any kind of foreign intervention, but we also condemn Ahmadinejad’s provocative policies, in part because they are geared toward provoking just such an intervention. Anyway, we do not think the military route is the way to go with this, because it is not likely to succeed even in halting the nuclear program. We think the labor movement in Iran is poised to play a strategic role, even on the international stage, because once the working class organizes itself, it really can cripple the regime, especially given the current economic crisis. And, as I say, a major strike wave is looming in Iran.
The situation for Iranian workers right now is dismal. For the last 4 or 5 years the demand for labor has dropped. There is also the mania for imports that Ahmadinejad has encouraged for the last 5 years. The result is that across the country factories are facing shutdowns and bankruptcy. There is also an immigrant Afghan labor force of roughly seven hundred thousand, with whom we sympathize, and whose expulsion from the country we oppose just as we oppose the many forms of coercion and discrimination this government levels against them, but it is a fact that their acceptance of as little as 50 to 60 percent of normal salary exerts downward pressure on everyone’s wages. So, if you look at all these factors, you see that things are really awful for Iranian workers; their bargaining position is weak. In the current environment, once you go on strike or you have some sort of shutdown, they can easily fire you and find someone else.
The labor status quo has also changed. Few people are aware of this, but Iran once had very progressive labor laws. In the aftermath of the Revolution, it was very hard to legally fire workers. But now, 65 or 70 percent of the labor force consists in temporary contract workers who lack most basic rights. They can now get fired and be deprived of their benefits quite easily. This is what makes the situation so very ripe for organizing, and makes organization necessary, despite the regime’s brutal repression. They do not allow for any labor organizations independent of the state, and they are ruthless. The least that could happen to an exposed labor organizer is that he gets fired and thrown in solitary confinement for several months.
This year is critical for the Iranian labor movement in many ways, and we need support of all kinds. Iran is in great danger. The government acts like an occupying army. It treats the country’s ethnic minorities—Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs—as though they were foreign nationals. The resulting national disintegration grows worse day by day. At the same time, extremist groups are finding it increasingly easy to operate. Among the Sunni minority, fundamentalism is growing.
There is nothing to be said in favor of this regime, after the election. Before the election, there were perhaps some disparate elements within the government working toward reform, but this has ceased to be the case. All that remains is extremely retrograde: the government is ruining the country’s culture and economy, while sowing discord among the people. They are turning minorities against each other and against the rest of the country—Shia against Sunni, not to mention men against women—all because the Islamic Republic state wants to retain and expand power. When these methods fail, they turn to brutal and undisguised repression.
IM: I am wondering about the comparison of what is happening today to the 1979 Revolution. There were mass mobilizations then, with various leftist groups and parties involved, but when the Shah fell, it left a power vacuum that was filled by reactionaries. First, is the comparison salient? Second, is there the possibility of there emerging a power vacuum, and what can the labor organizers do in this situation?
HP: You are wondering if, because there is not a clearly formulated platform for the movement, that it may go awry, and extremist groups come to power? Of course, this is a possibility. But I think there are reasons to be optimistic. Thirty years of this sort of psychotic, pseudo-radical extremism has really taught everybody a lesson. You have to be either extremely naive, or a direct beneficiary of the system not to see that the country has been harmed. In general, the young people are more mature than their parents’ generation. The youth do not have the same romanticization of revolutionary violence, which was one of the reasons things got out of hand in 1979. It was not only the clerics that were extremists, practically every group endorsed revolutionary violence of one kind or another; it is just that in their mind their violence was justified, whereas everyone else’s violence was “reactionary.” The new generation does not hold those beliefs. Iranian society has a strong extremist strand, but I believe that is changing now. There is a belief in tolerance, in wanting to avoid force, and in trying to understand one’s political opponents rather than just crushing them. This is something extremely important and not altogether common in much of today’s Middle East.
Let me also say, along these lines, that Islam has never really undergone a Reformation. But we are seeing signs of this happening in the IRI today. It is happening very quietly in the seminaries. It could only happen where Islamists have actually come to power and shown beyond all doubt the inadequacy or even the bankruptcy of their ideas and their ideologies. This forces healthy elements within the clergy—not those who are out there to enrich themselves, but those who are religious because they are utopian-minded—to go back to their books, to the Koran, to revise the old ideas. Such clerics are not in the majority yet they are sizable and they are spread throughout the clerical hierarchy from grand Ayatollahs to the lowest clergy. Earlier, the idea of reforming the medieval interpretations of the Koran and Islam came mainly from Muslim intellectuals, but now a considerable part of the religious hierarchy is coming to the same conclusion. Some are operating in very dangerous circumstances. There is a special court of clergy, similar to the Inquisition courts, that want to silence them. But such ideas cannot be silenced so easily.
If there is a military attack on Iran, it will set back the progress of many years. This is exactly what the regime wants, at this point, which is why Ahmadinejad is so provocative. He wants the Israelis to launch an air strike. The West cannot simply bomb a few installations and think that it will all be done. The current regime would strive to escalate that fight. Even if Obama verbally condemns an intervention in Iran by another nation, Iran will use it as a pretext to expand the fight and things will rapidly get out of hand. It would provide him with a new recruitment pool, which is drying up, because right now the best and the brightest of Iran do not go into the Revolutionary Guards. Their recruits today are opportunists or those who simply need the money. The people are turning against the regime. What could change all this is if we came under attack, if, as they would claim, “Islam is threatened.” The regime might then successfully stir up nationalistic sentiments, perhaps not so much in Tehran, but that is only 14 million or so. Most of the country lives in smaller towns, and the only news they get comes from state broadcasts. These people could become recruits, leading to all sorts of awful things. In the meantime, at the very least we will continue to see street fighting, riots, and so on. The youth will only endure torture and being kicked out of schools up to a point. As it is, the regime opens fire on peaceful street demonstrations—I have seen it myself. The government’s hope is that some of the young people will arm themselves and fight back. That is one of the dangers here.
IM: You are here for the U.S. Labor Against the War Conference. What sort of relationships do you hope to build with other labor unions in America and around the world?
HP: First, I want to communicate to them what is happening in my country, that there is a labor movement and that it needs support. More specifically, even though there is no guarantee that this will change what this government is doing, we hope with the help of our American friends to put together an international committee of labor unions in defense of Iranian labor rights. The Iranian state does not even pretend to care what the international community or the general public thinks of them. Still, they are weaker now than ever before, and the regime is concerned about what might come after a military action or major sanctions. So, for the first time it looks like they are going to be sensitive to what trade unions, especially those against intervention, have to say, or what they will do. In fact, Ahmadinejad’s government has been sending envoys to the International Labor Organization (ILO) and courting it assiduously. They go out of their way to placate them, whereas ten years ago they did not give a damn what the ILO thought. So there may now be some scope to pressure the regime to release imprisoned labor organizers. In addition to that, we would like to inform the American labor movement and the public at large of the dangers of any kind of military intervention.
IM: Do you think there are any possibilities for a party of labor in Iran? That is a problem all over the world. Different labor organizations meet up, and there are groups that believe in various trade union rights, and they release statements to that effect. But there is no political body that consistently stands up for working people.
HP: I may have sounded too much of an alarmist, for I emphasized the dangers. But the opportunities are also great. Like I said, you have almost eight million workers in need of organizing. They will even be able to organize themselves, if the situation changes. The Green movement holds promise, I think. It came totally out of the blue; no one expected it, from the Ministry of Intelligence to the opposition and the foreign governments. This means there are elements that could coalesce into a progressive and democratic labor party. It should not be forgotten that Iran not only has a huge working class, but also a tradition of left-wing activity going back some 100 years. The working class in Iran, moreover, is not semi-proletarian as it was during the Iranian Revolution. This generation of workers has advanced political skills and a mature political worldview. You are no longer dealing with peasants just come to the city. Iran is fairly industrialized in many ways and these workers have their own subcultures. We have a good situation in that sense. So yes, there is a good possibility that we will have a strong labor party. The conditions are there, but none of this will materialize without a strong, deeply rooted labor movement.
So what needs to be done? We must put across to other sectors of society what the working class stands for. The protest movement is now primarily middle class. That is its primary weakness. But once labor strikes get underway in the next few months, we hope they will change how the Green movement sees the workers, themselves, and their moment. It is our job as labor activists to put across a genuine working class platform and to familiarize the country with working class demands.
We cannot, as some Left groups do, start condemning the Green Movement just because it lacks a strong Left component. It is the Left’s job to influence the movement and to see that its demands and wishes are incorporated--not just with respect to Mousavi, but to the movement as a whole.
We cannot start condemning the movement even if and when it starts lurching to the right, because, again, it is the Left’s job to be there side by side with it. By being there, I mean, for example, our press must also reflect their concerns and their needs. We should not be supercilious, but rather have a healthy dialogue with all the different contingents within it. Above all, we should not speak from above in a condescending manner. Only when we are side by side with the people who are fighting on the streets will they listen to us. In the last six or seven months, there has been an incredible growth of interest in the Left. This has been very spontaneous, among young people. If anything, the old generation mishandled their political situation and turned young people off by looking down on them.
If the labor movement gets its act together, it could really help the present popular movement, which, on its own, lacks the muscle to stand up to the regime. With the workers on board there can be economic strikes. In 1979, for months there were people yelling and clamoring in the streets, but it was only when the oil workers entered the picture that the Western governments told the Shah to leave.
Because of all this and because of the fact that the labor movement, by its nature, tries to avoid extremism or revolutionary romanticism, there is reason to hope. The labor movement’s pragmatism allows it to stave off the dangers of extremism from both Left and right. The two main labor unions, the sugar cane workers and bus drivers, are resolute in protesting against the status quo and advancing their political and social agenda. They are supported by over 90 percent of the work force. If you talk to bus drivers in Tehran they are all upset about what has happened recently, but you never hear anything disparaging about the union leadership and what they have done. This shows the kind of work organizers have done. This was not a spur-of-the-moment thing. They organized over several years and held many sessions with intellectuals who taught them constitutional rights, economics, and so on. But, of course, there have been mistakes, as is to be expected. But those mistakes were necessary in some ways, so that the rest of the labor unions will not repeat them. |P