Comment: A question to the left on Iran: Can the people make history or not?

By Mike Ely

June 19, 2009 -- Kasama Project -- There is a self-deceptive politics (among some leftists) that seeks to prettify all kinds of reactionary forces that (for one reason or another) are in opposition to US imperialism — including Islamic reactionaries, Kim Jung Il, “hardline” revisionists of the Li Peng and Eric Honecker type and so on. And in the process they have a real, almost startling, hostility toward sections of the people who rise up in important if still-inarticulate ways.

My sense is that such politics arise from a despair over actually developing our own revolutionary forces — and a resigned assumption that we have no other alternative but to fall behind any forces (ugly, oppressive, reactionary or not) who (one way or another) seem to be on the United States' shit list.

This is not a uni-polar world with only one defining contradiction. Yes, we understand (and must understand) that the US acts as a central pillar of world capitalism … but it is hardly the only pillar or the only reactionary force.

Opposition protest at Azadi Square, Tehran, June 15, 2009.

As someone who remembers this Iranian regime murdering our comrades and drenching the people in blood, it is hard not have a far more nuanced sense of such events. I remember so vividly attending parties of celebration with our Iranian communist comrades,  from the Iranian Student Association (ISA) at colleges in the US,  as they went back to Iran (in 1979) to dive into the revolution — so full of hopes and energy.

And I know now, with real sadness that has never gone away, that many of them ended up in the prisons and torture cells of Khomenei, or were wasted on the frontlines of the war with Iraq.

I suspect there is a whole generation of radical activists in the US who don’t know how Iran’s Islamic Republic murdered and tortured communists and leftists in large numbers after the 1979 revolution — to consolidate a very conservative-reactionary god-state. And these victims included many who had based their politics (naively) on forming a “united front against imperialism” with those bloody mullahs-in-power.

The importance of revisiting such history is the importance of not repeating it — and not misunderstanding who the theocrats are, and what they are capable of. And at a moment when they are exposed, hated, de-legitimised, targeted among the people themselves, overwhelmingly because of their own crimes, it would be terrible politics to rally to the Islamic theocrats defence simply because they are also being targeted by the United States and Israel externally. In some ways, those external pressures are part of that “perfect storm” that may reawaken politics within Iran.

We have opposed (and must seek to oppose much more powerfully) the US imperialist threats against Iran — and its whole long-term push to fully dominate the central oil fields of the Middle East. We know that the US and Israel will pursue their geopolitical strategies here. And we must understand and oppose those moves.

In many ways the only hope the US has had for a “victory” in Iraq involved (somehow) causing a “regime change” in Iran. In the corporate media, all the talk is about Israel’s fear of nuclear weapons, but there is another more-unspoken issue: the Iraq war has long ago morphed into a US-Iranian power struggle over the control of Iraq (and of this region). And so for the US there are very high stakes in the eruptions in Iran.

More than one possible outcome

But our brains are capable of grasping more than one thread and dynamic at a time — it is not just possible (but inevitable) that great events draw into them the attentions of MANY and DIFFERENT players with many different interests. The US hopes to have a pro-US government emerge from all of this. We all know that. They are intevening in countless ways — seen and unseen. This is undoubtedly true.

But who says that a pro-US outcome is the only possibility? Who says this means that the current government should be supported? Who decided that the people of Iran have no agency, no hopes, no possibility of upsetting that whole table of “choices”?

The world is full of very reactionary governments and forces who are in sharp hostility — but there is certainly no reason to believe that we (or the people generally) always just have to choose to side with one reactionary force over another. Sometimes the clash of oppressive forces create great openings through which radical, secular and even revolutionary forces can emerge, learn, organise and act.

The politics of “lesser evil” is often a politics of lowered sights — a politics so despairing of the possibility of revolution that real, living, hairy, complex revolutionary possibilities don’t even enter the thinking. They are there, but you don’t even see them.

In essense, this simplistic approach is an approach that pulls toward a cynical view of people, of their ability to learn and develop politics in complex situations, and which seems rooted in a rather strange attraction to any ugly force in the Third World that seems somehow “hard line”. What kind of a world will that create? What kind of evaluation is that of the forces (who are actually in the field)?

`Class understanding'?

Some have argued that supporting the people in Iran’s streets lack a certain “class understanding”. Presumably that is because the demonstrations in Iran have drawn in the urban middle class (but not so many of Iran’s working class and even less of the peasantry). But is that how we understand class? If “the workers” support a US war and “privileged college students” oppose it — should we be confused by that? Is that kind of crude reductionist “class analysis” we want to uphold?

If Iranian students and urban middle classes are the first to strike out against a brutal and theocratic regime, even if they bring their prejudices and illusions with them — is that so bad or unusual?

History is packed with examples to discuss. (Is the Chinese Revolution imaginable without the heavily urban, heavily educated intellectual movement the 1919 May Fourth Movement. Were the trade union apparatuses automatically correct in the French May-June 1968 events?)

It is a good thing when university students take to the streets against a repressive government (with or without some workers). It is a good thing when secular, urban youth and women march against a theocratic regime that enforces medieval morality, and the veil, and much more (with or without some peasants). It is a good thing when people find their voice in a society that stifled them. And such openings are the path by which radical politics stirs even more widely — including precisely among the working people (who are sometimes slower to move).

A class analysis has many components: One is to approach the countless political questions of our world from the communist point of view of ending all oppression (a view that ultimately is in the interest of those most oppressed and stripped of property). It also looks at the actions of all class in terms of the revolutionary process.

And, finally, what is the “class understanding” in a view that seems to say we are limited to a choice between various capitalist and feudal forces, i.e. that the people of Iran are  forced to pick between US or their own ugly, hated ruling class. Is that a “class analysis”?

Revolutions in real life

Someone said to me: “People opposing these demonstrations have no sense of how revolutions unfold in real life.”

I think there is a lot to this. Often revolution emerges from cracks like this. And revolutionary forces (that will have a role in the future) reach new audiences and forces in events like this. And the forces who drag the people into political life — the Rafsanjanis and Moussavis of history — aren’t always the one who inherit the results.

Will forces within the Iranian establishment try to tame this movement with compromises? Yes. Will they order that demands remain within frameworks of the current system? Yes. Will they send marshals in green armbands into the mass marches to isolate and threaten the more radical, secular and revolutionary forces? Of course.

A great movement is not defined by those who “called it into being”. It is not limited by the forces who officially or temporarily claim to lead it. Its course is not set by those who try to control it. And in all of this, we look for, we popularise the most radical, secular, revolutionary and intransigent forces who ultimately represent the best interests of the people.

In many ways, the people churn up their own interests and programs in great upheavals. They congeal into organisations and trends that will influence a whole generation for decades. They will form the kinds of verdicts (in their own hearts and minds) that forge “a revolutionary people” — for greater challenges and even more sophisticated actions in the future.

We have given up on that future if we were to adopt a narrow, shortsighted politics of always picking between this or that bourgeois player on the scene.

Kasama has just posted this from Reza Fiyouzat:

The Iranian people sensed a deep fracture within the ruling establishment – something that was clearly expressed in astonishing language and tone, in the televised-for-the-first time live debates between the candidates – and they have ceased their chance to use the divide between their rulers to their own advantage.

The people may have taken to the streets under the excuse of the elections, and may have been encouraged by the rhetoric of the ``reformist'' camp in favor of some breathing room in the suffocating political and cultural atmosphere imposed on them, but they have forced the debate further. They are openly, and in millions across the country, questioning the legitimacy of the establishment, represented at the moment by Ahmadinejad. The people, in short, have moved beyond Mousavi and the reformists, but are still willing to go along with the tactics formulated by reformist leaders; for the moment.

This jibes with both my impression of these events, and my hopes for these events — though we will all learn over time the details of what is happening far below the visible screen. But I do know this: if you look at Iran, any future hope for radical change lies among the people in the streets, not in the bloody military and religious forces running the government.

[Mike Ely is a participant of the Kasama Project, which is seeking to reconceive and regroup a revolutionary movement within the United States. This article first appeared on the Kasama Project's website and has been posted at Links International Jourmal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 06/23/2009 - 08:57


Monday, June 22, 2009

A question of solidarity.


With the protesters, or with the state? The charge of some on the left is that by backing the protesters, one is de facto drafted into the camp of the crooked neoliberals behind Mousavi's campaign. Moreover, it is claimed, since there has been no proof as yet of an electoral fraud, it is also to support a movement that rejects the popular will. Such is the gist of the post that appears immediately below this one and, though I don't think the manner of putting this argument reflects well on those who are making it, this does need to be discussed. We admit that there can be no conclusive verdict on fraud in the Iranian elections short of a full and impartial investigation conducted by the Islamic Republic itself. That such an investigation is not forthcoming, and that the only concession in this direction was prompted by the protests, suggests that the interests of veracity in this matter are best served by the popular revolts we have seen. And if we decline to join those who are absolutely convinced that fraud was perpetrated, until matters become far more clear than they presently are, we equally refuse to align with those who take the contrary position as an article of faith.

The truth is, almost everything we are hearing on this topic from either side of the argument is hearsay and speculation. We are told that a poll predicted the results, though it seems it didn't, and was at any rate taken before the campaign had really begun. We are told that secret pre-election polling by the Iranian government predicted a massive win for Mousavi, though we have no way of telling how true this is, any more than we can verify the document circulating that purports to be a letter to Khamenei from the interior ministry confirming Mousavi's win. We are told that many of the regional results are hard to credit, but also that any statistical analysis at this point is inconclusive. A preliminary analysis by a team led by Iranian historian Ali Ansari for Chatham House suggests that in two provinces, the supposed turnout was higher than 100%. The report asserts that to believe the results we have to make improbable assumptions about Ahmadinejad's support. In many areas, he gained not only all conservative votes, all new votes, and all centrist votes but additionally almost half of previously reformist voters. Again, highly suggestive (and I do recommend a thorough reading of the document), but not conclusive proof. One could go on - secret polls, open polls, documents, pre-election violence, alleged irregularities, etc. Plenty of grounds for concern, nothing conclusive. Still, uncertain about the status of the recent elections, we are surely quite capable of discerning the grievances that led people - perhaps an overwhelming majority, we don't know - to support the Mousavi candidacy, and which now leads them to risk their physical integrity by taking to the streets even after veiled threats from Khamenei.

What do the protesters want? We know what Mousavi wants. There is no doubt that Mousavi stands for neoliberal economic policies, while also offering some political liberalisation to inspire progressive supporters. Mousavi, who bore substantial political responsibility for pushing through the nationalisation programme in the 1980s, now supports further privatization, and is in favour of constitutional amendments to make this easier. We also know that while Ahmadinejad initially expressed reservations about the agenda of liberalising state enterprises, one of his major planks of reform during his term was the proposal to privatise 80% of state assets, half of the shares of which were to be distributed through the stock market, and half to be distributed to those with low incomes. According to Kaveh Ehsani, despite the decision to distribute shares to the poor, the likely result is the radical reconstitution of wealth and political power on the Russian model post-1990. In 2007, under Ahmadinejad, the scale of privatization reached a record high, with total sales of $5bn. So, the main difference between the candidates on this question has been over the nature and pace of the reforms. It is also true that Mousavi wants to rein in the expansionary spending policies that have characterised Ahmadinejad's government, in a bid to cut inflation. It has been a complaint of some analysts that Ahmadinejad's spending amounts to 'bribery', and of his internal critics that it was unsustainable splurging that led to stagnant growth and such high inflation rates that any benefit to the poor from such spending was immediately negated. In truth, what Ahmadinejad's development projects have entailed mainly enriching those sectors of Iranian capital most closely imbricated with the state. His opponents think it more pragmatic to divert those oil profits into developing a more sizeable private sector. That is the basis of this division.

Ahmadinejad's clientelism obviously is not genuine defence of working class interests, nor has it been particularly effective as palliation. Apart from the fact that the suppression of trade unionism does tend to somewhat diminish the bargaining power of labour a bit, the redistribution hasn't really benefited Ahmadinejad's supposed supporters in the rural poor whose incomes have stagnated. Absolute poverty has not declined under Ahmadinejad, although it did under previous administrations - even under the neoliberal Khatami - while relative poverty has certainly increased. (It's possible that a slight change in inequality in 2007 favours Ahmadinejad's regime, but equally possible that the change is nothing to do with Ahmadinejad's policies, any more than the problems caused by high oil prices are necessarily his fault). Overall, there is little to suggest that workers or even the very poor have a deep material interest in electing Ahmadinejad, any more than his opponent.

Does this mean that the protesters, or those who voted for Mousavi, wanted a neoliberal strategy rather than the conservative 'populism' of Ahmadinejad? Does that range of options exhaust the range of popular opinion? There has been an assumption thus far that Ahmadinejad does well among the poor and working classes, while Mousavi's supporters are 'middle class'. But one begins to see a problem with such terms as soon as you investigate what is meant by 'middle class'. According to this analyst, 46% of the Iranian population is now middle class - but he defines "the middle class as being in a household with at least $10 per person per day expenditures (PPP dollars) and with at least a basic education (primary)." Now, if this reflects the common way in which the term is used, then marxists should be saying that what is actually happening is that large sectors of the working class backed the Mousavi camp. Indeed, we have already seen the most politicised and organised sectors in the trade union movement also back the protesters (they declined for obvious reasons to back any one candidate). So, at the very least, the lazy assumptions about the class basis of the vote and of the protests merit re-examination. In fact, the same analyst argues that a substantial layer of this supposed middle class vote comprises young unemployed people. If you're unemployed, by my book, you probably shouldn't be called 'middle class'. As far as this layer goes, we're talking about young, educated workers who are suffering in the economy and who lack the democratic right to do anything about their situation. They see no future from themselves in the current set-up. That is certainly a class grievance, but it can hardly be reduced to a petulant middle class cultural complaint - it's not the Gucci crowd, because you can't buy Guccis on $10 a day. While we appreciate the scepticism that some people entertain about these protests, and understand the reasons for this, the condescending claims and gratuitously nasty language about them does not bear examination. It actually redounds to the massive discredit of those using such rhetoric when the protesters are being murdered in the streets, with far less money and social power to their being than any of those who are deriding them as yuppies.

Further, from all that we are able to glean about the protests and their demands, the focus is overwhelmingly on changing the undemocratic nature of the Iranian state, going much further in their demands than Mousavi or his elite backers are prepared to go - abolishing the apparatus of repression, stopping the death penalty, stopping political imprisonments, democratising the state, abolishing the Council of Guardians. All these are the demands that we have seen repeated during this period, and none of them were adocated by Mousavi. The idea that the protests are just a flash mob for the crooked neoliberal sector of the elite is unsustainable. The question of whether, in practise, all these protests do is strengthen one faction of the ruling class will be decided to a large extent by the protesters themselves. There is a huge generational shift underlying these protests, and that means that even if the present wave were to fizzle out - which I don't think is likely - it is likely to recur in even more militant forms. So, the question is whether the protesters can take the independence in ideas and action that they have already exhibited and turn it into lasting movement. It is true that the left should have no illusions about this. There is no necessary reason why such a movement will take on a leftist hue. It hasn't so far. Only by engaging in the movement could the left hope to shift it in that direction. Far more important, however, is that the democratic demands and the bravery of those pushing for such changes, are worthy of support and solidarity in themselves. It isn't good enough to say that because Mousavi is a neoliberal, therefore the protests deserve no support. It isn't good enough to sniffily denounce the 'western left' on behalf of the supposedly univocal figure of the Iranian worker, the poor, or - as in the post below - Muslims. Especially since Muslims, the Iranian working class, many poor Iranians, can not be counted on as allies of either Ahmadinejad or the Iranian state.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 06/23/2009 - 09:03


The Communiqué of the Central Committee of the Tudeh Party of Iran- Number 5

The language of force and threat will not stop people in their rightful struggle!

The Vigilant People of Iran!

Amid the escalation of the protest movement in the recent days and the continuing mass demonstrations in large and small cities in Iran, in this week’s Friday mass prayers in Tehran (19th June) the Supreme Leader (Velayat-e-Faqih) not only distorted the truth and openly defended the coup d’état of his own puppets and overtly supported Ahmadi-Nejad’s administration, but also threatened the people and the presidential candidates of the 10th elections. His position and his emphasize on this point that the election and its outcome is considered the “absolute victory” of the regime and “illegal novelties” are not allowed [referring to the call for annulment of elections], indicate the fact that the powerful movement of people has seriously petrified the regime, and the regime is exploiting all it resources and power to curb this movement. What Ali Khamenei stated in the Friday’s prayers in Tehran as the official policy of the Velayat-e-Faqih regime, was not unexpected. This policy has in fact been followed and meticulously implemented since the first day of mass protests and demonstrations. Bloody suppression of people, vast and purposeful arrests, attempts to weaken the strength of the movement in various ways, and efforts to divide the reformist and freedom-fighters and to disconnect the resistant pro-reform individuals from the popular movement, are various elements and parts of the aforementioned policy.

Reform seeking, Freedom-loving and Progressive Parties and Forces!

The current powerful protest movement has challenged the ruling reaction and despots. The eternal power of people is the most  Significant support for realizing the people’s demands, i.e. to annul the election outcome and to scrap “approbation supervision”. It was for a reason that in his sermon on Friday the Supreme Leader stressed on this factor, i.e. the power of people, more than anything else, and by openly threatening the pro reform leaders asked them to part themselves from the people and send them home. There is a very important point in this stance, or devious tactic of the Supreme Leader, which could not be neglected. The goal of the perpetrators of the coup d’état under the leadership of the Supreme Leader is to create a divide between the reform seekers who by their splendid resistance so far, have effectively helped to reinforce the popular movement and to defeat the plots of the ruling reaction. That’s why the people and millions of perturbed Iranians rightfully call for perseverance and unity and strengthening of the alliance and solidarity among the pro reform forces and freedom fighters. Any divisive action must be avoided by all means; calls for demonstrations or any shape and form of protest must be coordinated and united, and any kind of dispersion must be confronted with.

The power of the movement is in its united action. The plot of the Supreme Leader to divide the pro reform forces and to distance them from each other could only be defeated by coordination, unison and united action. The seemingly tough plots of the Supreme Leader and the coup d’état perpetrators under his leadership must be defeated vigilantly and by relying on the power of the masses. It is this  relentless and powerful presence of masses in protest to the clear violations of the laws and rights by the regime that will force the regime to retreat. The piercing voice of rightful protest of the people movement is echoed more than ever, both internally and across the world.

The will of our combative people calls for this voice to be resonated louder and louder.

The Combatant People of Iran,

The Supreme Leader has threatened to suppress. These types of threats are not new to our people. They know the true suppressive nature of the regime and it is with this knowledge that they have stepped into this struggle for rights. The experiences of all the nations around the world in struggle, including the heroic people of Iran, prove that suppression, killing, and using force is not an indication of power. By using violence and killing people, dictators show their weakness. The official position and policy of the Supreme Leader which was outlined in this Friday’s prayers is not an exception to this point. The Supreme Leader threatening to suppress the people and the reformist candidates (Mousavi and Karrubi) in no way stems from a strong position. The position of the Supreme Leader and the coup d’état agents, despite the vast resources that they have in their disposal against the powerful wave of people, is extremely weak.

Therefore, with a combination of peaceful struggle and resistance through various avenues, including demonstrations and sit-ins that are rooted in the popular and revolutionary traditions of our nation, the reaction could be forced to retreat.

Hand in hand and united we will continue the struggle and confrontation with the Supreme Leader and dark-minded coup perpetrators to demand the annulment of the recent presidential elections, scrapping “approbation supervision”, freedom of those who were arrested in the recent events and also other political prisoners, trial and punishment of those who ordered the killing of people and those who  executed the killings, and reporting and putting to trial of those who planned and executed the elections coup.

Central Committee of Tudeh Party of Iran
19th June 2009

The Tudeh party’s analysis of the election result is here (PDF)