Yesterday I wrote that the Iranian Revolution has begun . In what sense is this true? Lenin explained the conditions for a revolutionary situation: first the ruling class must be split and unable to rule with the same methods as before. This condition is clearly present in Iran. Second, the middle class should be vacillating between revolution and counterrevolution. That is now the case in Iran, where decisive sections of the middle class have come over to the side of the Revolution and are demonstrating in the streets. Thirdly, the workers must be prepared to fight. There has been a growing wave of strikes in Iran even before the elections.
Only the last condition is absent: the presence of a revolutionary party and a revolutionary leadership, like the Bolshevik Party in 1917. The presence of such a party would give the mass movement the leadership and organization it requires to be successful. It would signify a swift and relatively painless victory. In the absence of such a party, the revolution will unfold over a more prolonged period of months, probably years, with ebbs and flows.
A revolution is not a single act drama. In 1917 the revolution developed over a period of nine months. In this period there were moments of tremendous upsurge, as in February, but there were also periods of tiredness, defeats and even reaction, as in the period that followed the July days. From July to the end of August there was a period of reaction in which the Bolsheviks were driven underground, their printing press destroyed, Trotsky was in jail and Lenin was forced to flee to Finland.
The Spanish Revolution, which is probably a better guide to what will happen in Iran, began with the overthrow of the Monarchy (which was brought about by local elections) in April 1931. This opened up a period of revolution, which lasted seven years, with ups and downs, until the defeat of the workers of Barcelona in the May Days of 1937. In this seven-day period we had the so-called Two Black Years (“El Bienio Negro”), which followed the defeat of the Asturian Commune of 1934 and lasted until the Popular Front elections of 1936.
In the absence of a mass revolutionary party, the Iranian Revolution, like the Spanish Revolution, can be extended over a number of years and will be characterised by a turbulent and convulsive character, the rise and fall of different governments, leaders and parties, before finally the question of power is posed. But the events that are unfolding before our eyes clearly mark a fundamental change in the whole situation. The genie has been let out of a bottle where it has been confined for three decades. And it will be impossible to force it back into its prison.
Many observers have expressed surprise at a movement that appeared to fall from a clear blue sky. But in reality, this explosion has been in preparation for a long time. The anger of the population reflects all the accumulated frustrations and anger of the last three decades. It also reflects the deteriorating economic situation and falling living standards. The economy was the central issue of the election campaign and remains at the heart of most Iranians' concerns, after four years in which there has been sharp rises in inflation and unemployment.
Although under Ahmadinejad the poorer sections of society have benefited from cash handouts paid for by Iran's oil revenues, many others have complained that the increased liquidity has doubled or tripled prices. The parliament has so far blocked the slashing of subsidies on the grounds that it could further fuel inflation, which already stands at around 24 per cent. But the economic crisis means cuts and austerity and Shamsoddin Hosseini, the economy minister, yesterday said privatising state-owned companies would be the "framework" of Iran's next economic policy.
This partly explains the militant character of an angry and determined opposition movement, which has found an unlikely symbol in the 68-year-old Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was previously part of the Iranian Establishment – and still is. When the people begin to lose their fear and are prepared to defy the guns of the police in a country like Iran, it is the beginning of the end. This marvellous mass movement is all the more incredible for being unorganized and leaderless.
Heroism of the masses
The decisive factor has been the sudden eruption of the masses onto the stage of history. The tremendous heroism of the masses is seen in the gargantuan demonstration of yesterday, held in defiance of warnings from the regime that they would be met with bullets. At least one million protesters ignored threats, guns and bloodshed to demand freedom in Iran. Eight people died yesterday and an unknown number wounded. And still the movement continues unabated.
Robert Fisk, one of the finest of British journalists, witnessed what he calls Iran's day of destiny, and sent a vivid report of what happened:
“A million of its people marched from Engelob Square to Azadi Square – from the Square of Revolution to the Square of Freedom – beneath the eyes of Tehran's brutal riot police. The crowds were singing and shouting and laughing and abusing their ‘President’ as ‘dust’.” One student joked: “Ahmadinejad called us Dust, and we showed him a sandstorm!”
“Not since the 1979 Iranian Revolution have massed protesters gathered in such numbers, or with such overwhelming popularity, through the boulevards of this torrid, despairing city. They jostled and pushed and crowded through narrow lanes to reach the main highway and then found riot police in steel helmets and batons lined on each side. The people ignored them all. And the cops, horribly outnumbered by these tens of thousands, smiled sheepishly and – to our astonishment – nodded their heads towards the men and women demanding freedom. Who would have believed the government had banned this march?”
Here we see the real face of Revolution. The masses are confronted with the feared riot police and merely ignored them. The police, confronted with a massive movement, vacillates, and gives way, “smiling sheepishly” and nodding their heads in approval. This incident is an almost exact repetition of what Trotsky describes in his History of the Russian Revolution:
“The workers at the Erikson, one of the foremost mills in the Vyborg district, after a morning meeting came out on the Sampsonievsky Prospect, a whole mass, 2,500 of them, and in a narrow place ran into the Cossacks. Cutting their way with the breasts of their horses, the officers first charged through the crowd. Behind them, filling the whole width of the Prospect galloped the Cossacks. Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously, in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers. ‘Some of them smiled,” Kayurov recalls, “and one of them gave the workers a good wink’ This wink was not without meaning. The workers were emboldened with a friendly, not hostile, kind of assurance, and slightly infected the Cossacks with it. The one who winked found imitators. In spite of renewed efforts from the officers, the Cossacks, without openly breaking discipline, failed to force the crowd to disperse, but flowed through it in streams. This was repeated three or four times and brought the two sides even closer together. Individual Cossacks began to reply to the workers’ questions and even to enter into momentary conversations with them. Of discipline there remained but a thin transparent shell that threatened to break through any second. The officers hastened to separate their patrol from the workers, and, abandoning the idea of dispersing them, lined the Cossacks out across the street as a barrier to prevent the demonstrators from getting to the centre. But even this did not help: standing stock-still in perfect discipline, the Cossacks did not hinder the workers from ‘diving’ under their horses. The revolution does not choose its paths: it made its first steps toward victory under the belly of a Cossack’s horse. A remarkable incident!”
The Iranian protesters' bravery was all the more impressive because many had already learned of the savage killing of five Iranians on the campus of Tehran University, shot down by pistol-firing Basiji militiamen. Fisk describes the scene:
“When I reached the gates of the college yesterday morning, many students were weeping behind the iron fence of the campus, shouting ‘massacre’ and throwing a black cloth across the mesh. That was when the riot police returned and charged into the university grounds once more.”
Here is Fisk again:
“At times, Mousavi's victory march threatened to crush us amid walls of chanting men and women. They fell into the storm drains and stumbled over broken trees and tried to keep pace with his vehicle, vast streamers of green linen strung out in front of their political leader's car. They sang in unison, over and over, the same words: ‘Tanks, guns, Basiji, you have no effect now.’ As the government's helicopters roared overhead, these thousands looked upwards and bayed above the clatter of rotor blades: ‘Where is my vote?’ Clichés come easily during such titanic days, but this was truly a historic moment.”
Those citizens who did not participate on the demonstration expressed their solidarity from the windows and rooftops, as Fisk describes:
“[…] one man collapsed on the road, his face covered in blood. But on the great mass of people moved, waving their green flags and shouting in joy at the thousands of Iranians who stood along the rooftops.
“On the right, they all saw an old people's home and out on to the balcony came the aged and the crippled who must have remembered the reign of the loathed Shah, perhaps even his creepy father, Reza Khan. A woman who must have been 90 waved a green handkerchief and an even older man emerged on the narrow balcony and waved his crutch in the air. The thousands below them shrieked back their joy at this ancient man.
“Walking beside this vast flood of humanity, a strange fearlessness possessed us all. Who would dare attack them now? What government could deny a people of this size and determination? Dangerous questions.”
Fisk points out that the protestors were not only middle class people and students:
“this was not just the trendy, young, sunglassed ladies of north Tehran. The poor were here, too, the street workers and middle-aged ladies in full chador. A very few held babies on their shoulders or children by the arm, talking to them from time to time, trying to explain the significance of this day to a mind that would not remember it in the years to come that they were here on this day of days.”
The mass demonstrations are an exact replay of those of the 1979 revolution, which was subsequently hijacked by the ayatollah Khomenei and his reactionary gang. The Shah possessed a colossal apparatus of repression, but once the masses confronted it, it crumbled like a child’s sand castle. Earlier the hated Basiji attacked the students. But by the evening, the Basiji themselves were being chased by hundreds of protesters in the west of the city. After dark shooting was crackling around the suburbs. Those who were fatally too late in leaving Azadi, were fired on by the Basiji. The final death toll was eight, with an unknown number of wounded.
This splendid movement of the masses has changed everything in 24 hours. The arrogance of power displayed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just one day earlier has evaporated. Instead there are signs of panic in the regime. On Saturday and Sunday there was repression, violence and bloodshed, but by Monday everything had changed. The authorities must have felt they had gone to bed and woken up in 1979. This is how the Shah was overthrown 30 years ago, with mass demonstrations and the possibility of a general strike.
They now fear there could be violent clashes and even civil war, which they are not sure they would win. When the ruling class fears it may lose everything, it is always prepared to make concessions and offer something. Now the authorities are offering a recount but not new elections. The decision to retreat comes from the Supreme Leader, the real power in the state, who initially confirmed the election result.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has agreed to enquire into the election results, perhaps to look over a polling statistic or two. But these concessions are too little and too late. They will not pacify the protesters but will achieve the opposite. Every step back of the regime will be seen as a sign of weakness and spur them on to further action. Mousavi has asked for the annulment of the elections, while the regime is offering only a partial recount.
The seriousness of the crisis is affecting the economy. The Iranian bourgeois are voting with their feet. There was panic in the business community at the result of the election. The Financial Times reported today:
“Iran's business community was yesterday unequivocal in its reaction to Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad's re-election as president. The Tehran Stock Exchange fell sharply, while influential bazaaris threatened to shut up shop today in protest.”
The fact that the bazaaris, who were formerly solid supporters of the regime, are threatening to strike is a further indication that the scope of the revolution is constantly expanding. However, the absence of a serious leadership means that the final denouement may be postponed. The Financial Times, that most astute organ of international Capital, writes:
“The wave of anger could soon subside, particularly if the crackdown turns more brutal. But analysts are watching to see if it provokes instead campaigns of civil disobedience from segments of society that had backed Mr Moussavi – including businessmen in Iran's bazaars who have threatened to strike today, trade unions and students – or protests from clerics who had also supported his candidacy.
"‘There will be many sporadic riots over various things from now on as people think there is no peaceful way any more to make change,’ says one analyst.”
Weakness of leadership
This perspective is similar to the one I put forward in my first article yesterday . Even the stormiest strikes and street demonstrations cannot resolve the central question: the question of state power. It is not enough that some policemen smile at demonstrators. Unless the police and army move over to the side of the people, the weapons of the Islamic Republic remain in the hands of Ahmadinejad's administration and his clerical protectors. The question of leadership is still paramount.
Back in 1999, the regime suppressed a wave of student unrest within days: this time, the protesters appear more strong-minded. The attempts at repression have had the opposite result to that intended. There is an angry ferment in Teheran University after the brutal assault of the armed thugs of Ahmadinejad. About 400 pro-reform students, many wearing green face masks to conceal their identity, gathered earlier at a mosque in Tehran University and demanded Ahmadinejad's resignation. Some said members of a religious militia had attacked their dormitory. "They hit our friends and took away at least 100 students. We have no news about their whereabouts," said one. 120 university lecturers have resigned in protest.
But the bravery of the protesters is not a characteristic of the leaders. Men like Mirhossein Mousavi are not leaders but come under the heading of historical accidents. Kerensky and father Gapon belong to the same philosophical category. Such individuals rise rapidly to the surface, impelled by the tide of great historic events, achieve a borrowed fame for a short time, and then disappear without trace, swallowed up like the foam on an ocean wave, engulfed by other, more powerful currents. A prime minister in the 1980s, he had disappeared from public view and dedicated his time to his favourite pursuit – abstract painting. Now history has seized him by the collar and thrust him to the front of the stage, where he presents an uncomfortable spectacle.
Yet, despite his attacks on the regime's domestic and foreign policies, Mr Mousavi has never been an opponent of the Islamic Republic. Indeed, he had styled himself, just like the president, as a "principalist" who sought a return to the real values and principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution. But he had laced his message with demands for more democratic freedom and a pragmatic management of the economy.
His candidacy, moreover, was almost accidental. He was reluctant to run for president but had been urged, time and again, to stand by Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president. Once in, he quickly received the backing of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a leading political figure from the conservative camp who now heads both the Expediency Council, a senior body that drafts macro policies, and the Experts Assembly, which appoints the next supreme leader.
While both might have expected him to be a centrist, gradually Mr Mousavi's campaign adopted the same slogans as the reformists, with even greater vigour. He refocused his message during rallies to appeal to the educated urban middle class, lambasting the president's extremism and ridiculing his populist economic policies.
But while young reformists – many of whom took to the streets of Tehran again yesterday for peaceful protests which ended in violence – are looking to him to bring about a fundamental change, Mr Mousavi has other ideas. Fisk writes about the demonstration: “Mirhossein Mousavi was among them, riding atop a car amid the exhaust smoke and heat, unsmiling, stunned, unaware that so epic a demonstration could blossom amid the hopelessness of Iran's post-election bloodshed. He may have officially lost last Friday's election, but yesterday was his electoral victory parade through the streets of his capital. It ended, inevitably, in gunfire and blood.”
Here Fisk’s keen eye gives an accurate and penetrating psychological portrait of the reformist leader, “unsmiling, stunned and unaware” of the vast powers that he had conjured up and which, like the Sorcerer’s apprentice, he is unable to control. Mousavi’s vacillations have been noted by the bourgeois press. The Financial Times says “he has appeared torn between calling on protests to continue, and halting them to prevent the violence and loss of life witnessed last night. […] Mr Moussavi initially called off yesterday's protest fearing fresh violence – but then joined the demonstrators on the streets. The dilemma he faces is that the demonstrations mark the biggest public outcry since the 1979 Islamic revolution.”
Mousavi has called on those who support him not to attend a planned rally in the capital today, his spokesman said. "Mousavi… urged his supporters not to attend today's rally to protect their lives. The moderates' rally has been cancelled," the spokesman said. But as I write these lines the radio is reporting that large crowds are again gathering on the streets of Teheran, and the reports claim that the demonstrations will be even bigger than they were yesterday.
The possibility of a bloody clash is always present. Here are the comments of a journalist: "The anger and hatred in the eyes of both sides – whatever the result, it will anger some people, […] The police have been trying to remain as civilised as possible, but not everyone is listening to police commanders. […] It's not easy to calm them down. What happens when the chain of command is broken, when both sides are going rogue and not listening to their commanders? This is going be a very dangerous situation."
However, given the level of popular anger, the effect of such a situation will not be what was intended. One bloody clash, and the whole situation will explode. The idea of a general strike has already been put forward. A large-scale act of state terrorism will be met by a wave of strikes and protests that could easily become transformed into an insurrection on the lines of 1979. Mousavi is desperate to avoid this. He is quoted as saying: "As someone who likes the police, I recommend them avoid harsh reactions towards people's self-motivated actions and not let the people's trust to this worthy organ be damaged."
We predicted this
The present protests were predicted in advance by the Marxists. Almost ten years ago we said that the big student demonstrations were “the first shots of the Iranian Revolution.” Few people paid any attention to that prediction. But Iran has continued to be in the forefront of the perspectives of the IMT. In a speech to the world congress of the IMT in August 2008 I said the following:
“Iran is ripe for revolution. There we have all the conditions listed by Lenin for a revolution: splits at the top, ferment among the middle class, a powerful working class with revolutionary traditions, waves of important strikes, etc. The only factor missing so far is the subjective factor – the revolutionary party. The work of our Iranian comrades is of great importance to the IMT. We must give them assistance.
“The situation in Iran is very similar to pre-1905 Russia. Once the Iranian masses start to move, look out. The coming revolution can take different paths but there is one thing we can be sure of: it's not going to be a fundamentalist uprising! 28 years of the mullahs in power have totally discredited them among the masses and youth. The majority of the population is young and fresh; they will be open to revolutionary ideas and Marxism. The Iranian revolution will change the entire situation in the Middle East, showing that genuine anti-imperialism needn't be fundamentalist. It will have an impact on the whole region.”
These words have been vindicated by the recent events. The Iranian Revolution has taken a long time to mature, but it has emerged all the stronger for that. Previous uprisings of the heroic Iranian students have been smothered by bloody repression and the arrest of the leaders. But, as we predicted at the time, these setbacks would only be temporary:
"Given the lack of leadership, repression may have the effect of postponing the movement temporarily, but only at the cost of causing an even more violent and uncontrollable explosion later on." (The First Shots of the Iranian Revolution , 17 July 1999.) This prediction has now been fully confirmed by events. The struggle will continue, with inevitable ebbs and flows, until a decisive settlement is reached.
On the urgent tasks of the revolutionary movement I wrote at that time:
“The workers and youth of Iran have repeatedly shown a great revolutionary potential. What is required is to give the movement an organised form and a clear programme and perspective. Along the road of compromise and class collaboration no way out is possible. The prior condition for success is the independent movement of the working class, together with its natural allies, and a decisive break with the bourgeois Liberals. It is necessary to set up action committees in order to organise and co-ordinate the movement on a local, regional and national scale. It is necessary to prepare for self-defence against the vigilante thugs, while appealing to the rank and file of the army to come over to the side of the people.
“Above all, it is necessary to work out a concrete programme to link the struggle for democratic rights with programmatic demands to solve the most pressing problems of the working class, the peasantry, the unemployed and the women and youth. Such a programme will necessarily imply a radical break with capitalism and will place on the order of the day the struggle for workers' power and a movement in the direction of socialism in Iran. The prior condition for the success of the struggle is the active participation of the working class, particularly the decisive section of the oil workers. Once the working people of Iran have the power in their hands, they can begin a movement that will spread like wildfire through the region. It would have an even bigger effect than the Russian revolution of 1917, especially if it were led by a conscious revolutionary Marxist party. The creation of such a party is therefore the most urgent task before the vanguard of the Iranian workers and students. Armed with the correct ideas, programme and strategy, the Iranian working class will be invincible.”
There is not much more we can add to that. We are no longer discussing abstract perspectives but facts. The marvellous movement of the workers and students of Iran are the final answer to all the sceptics and cowards who doubt the ability of the working class to change society. The Revolution in Iran has begun and is destined to go through a whole series of stages before it has finally run its course. But in the end we are sure that it will triumph. When that moment comes, it will have explosive repercussions throughout the Middle East, Asia and the whole world.
We appeal to the workers of the world to come to the aid of our Iranian brothers and sisters.
Down with tyranny and repression!
Long live the Iranian Revolution!
Workers of the world, unite!
London, 16th June