The murder of Mahsa Jina Amini at the hands of Iranian police in September 2022 ignited a wave of protests across the country. The evolution of these protests into a broad revolt against the Iranian regime, one of the most important processes of class struggle in Iran since the Iranian revolution of 1979, sent shockwaves and inspired women and workers around the world. At the time, many on the Left characterized these protests as a new, modern kind of feminist “revolution” led by women. Almost a year later, the protests are now in retreat, and the regime has intensified its offensive against the hijab defiers who threaten the foundations of the clerical regime that was established after the “Islamic revolution.” The concrete development of the movement, and the regime’s suppression of it, raise important strategic questions for the Iranian masses struggling against the dual burdens of an oppressive regime and imperialist sanctions.
Amini, a 22-year-old ethnic Kurdish woman, became the face of Iran’s social crisis and patriarchal oppression. While Mahsa was her official Persian name in the eyes of the government, her real Kurdish name, which could not be registered, was Jina. Having just been admitted to university, she was arrested in September 2022 in Tehran on charges of wearing the traditional female headdress (hijab), as Iranian law prescribes, too loosely. Brutally beaten by Iran’s political-religious “morality” police, Jina died three days later of a brain hemorrhage. This became symbolic of Iran’s “open-air prison,” a political order under a regime that oppresses ethnic minorities by promoting a “Persian-Shi’a” identity. The theocratic Iranian state seeks to regiment the youth by branding their cultural diversions and discontents as pro-Western perdition, starting with the bigoted police climate in schools and universities. It keeps women in a subservient role by relying on the authority of the Shi’a clergy.
This climate catalyzed a movement protagonized by Iranian women, as well as ethnic minorities like the Kurdish and Balochi communities (respectively concentrated on the northwestern border and on the southeastern one), which in the following weeks expanded to involve increasingly large segments of the youth in the cities and universities. As the movement evolved into a full-blown uprising, with illegal demonstrations and strikes, and open demands for the overthrow of the political regime, it provoked an increasingly violent response from the government, often resulting in violent street clashes. To date, at least 500 people have been killed, thousands injured, and at least 20,000 have been arrested. Even these figures fail to fully convey the brutality of the repression: police deploy hangings as a tactic, and have killed at least 70 minors, some as young as nine years old. This reliance on terror and intimidation has been a pillar of the regime, especially during recent uprisings, from the protests against economic reforms in 2017, 2018, and 2019 to the “uprising of the thirsty” in 2021.
The revolt sparked by Amini’s murder, which has come to be known as the Women, Life, Freedom movement, continues this wave of class struggle. Dispossessed urban youth feature prominently in the protests, as do working-class sectors. This reflects a broader trend in which the working class has returned to the political scene around the world, in the context of declining neoliberal-Western hegemony, and the deep crisis of the historical stage of bourgeois restoration, linked with the concept of the “peaceful” globalization since the 1990s.
Even though the Women, Life, Freedom revolt saw only limited working-class action, the reviving of Iran’s combative proletarian tradition continued. One of the most advanced examples was the Crouse autoworkers strike in response to Amini’s murder, organized by more than 300 women workers. Workers’ collectives, such as the Council for Organizing Contract Oil Workers’ Strikes and Haft Tappeh Sugar Factory Workers’ Union, also organized strikes in support of the movement. The auspicious formations of committees in workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods throughout the recent feminist uprising, even though their scope was limited, harken back to the incipient bodies of self-organization (known in Farsi as shoras) that formed starting in 1978.
Despite this, the most recent uprising, even with all its merits, did not make the qualitative leap between a revolt and a revolution — meaning that the uprising maintained an important degree of spontaneity and the sectors involved in the protests were predominantly atomized, lacking the key element of working-class hegemony, in which workers could use their social power and strategic positions to unite all the sectors in struggle and pose a viable alternative to the existing bourgeois hegemony. The lack of development on this level thereby limits the potential for the movement to replace the existing order — as successful revolutions must do. Thus, Iranians see themselves at a strategic crossroads, marked by the ebbs and flows of class struggle: a historic economic and social crisis, and an urgent need to work out a program, strategy, and methods of struggle to bring down the country’s odious regime and replace it with something socially and politically different. This is made all the more urgent in light of the movement’s vagueness about how a postregime democratic society would look, and how to obtain it; much space is left open for liberal, conservative, and even monarchist wings, linked to old sectors of the Iranian ruling class in exile, and to Western imperialist powers, especially the U.S.
The Character and Crisis of the Iranian Regime
Before we offer a deeper analysis of the Iranian struggle’s subjective limits and our ideas for overcoming these limits, it will be necessary to develop an objective characterization of Iran’s quasi-theocratic bourgeois nationalist regime. The latter now faces a structural and internal crisis that has been exacerbated by imperialist sanctions, especially the “maximum pressure” sanctions implemented by Trump in 2018 and continued and expanded by the Biden administration. As a recent study shows, “Iran has been subjected to the world’s most extensive sanctions program for the better part of the last decade.” One of the side effects of the attempted economic strangulation of Iran on an international level has been the development of deeper economic and strategic ties between Iran and China; Iran has important geostrategic security implications for China, in addition to its role as a key supplier of energy resources for the expansionist Chinese state.
Since the war in Ukraine began, the military relationship between Russia and Iran has also expanded — Iran has become an important supplier of weapons for Putin’s regime and has been a vocal cheerleader for a Russian victory. This underpins the growing relations among the informal tripartite bloc between China, Russia, and Iran. While this alliance is not necessarily an “imperialist bloc,” as some left-wing currents describe it, it expresses those powers’ imperialist ambitions: from China’s developmentalist-imperialist policies, which aim to challenge U.S. hegemony on a global scale, to Russia’s brand of “military imperialism” in its zone of influence (seen most strikingly in Ukraine). For U.S. imperialism, the rhetoric of a so-called axis of tyrannies that threatens the “democratic” world obfuscates the strategic threat that these powers pose to the interests of the declining hegemon. This is particularly true in regions like the Middle East, where China has shown itself to be an important player, having orchestrated a normalization of relations between the Saudi and Iranian regimes — two of the most important rivals in the region.
Though it seeks to challenge U.S. hegemony, the emerging Chinese-led camp is, itself, far from a “progressive” pole, despite its discourse about a peaceful and prosperous multipolar world. It’s an alliance that seeks, above all, to protect the interests of the national and regional bourgeoisies of these nations. And it has its own contradictions and competing interests: perhaps most notably, Iran and Russia compete as oil suppliers. Despite allying itself closer to the Eurasian powers, Iran continues to find itself subordinated to some degree to the interests of Western capital: the crippling sanctions imposed by imperialist countries not only shut Iran out from the circuits of Western capital, but also curtail its ability to do business with countries like China, which has pulled out of past proposed economic projects to avoid potential U.S. sanctions.
Strategically, then, the Iranian regime and its various wings aim to reverse the Western-imposed sanctions, especially the “maximum pressure” sanctions that were imposed by the Trump administration and continued under Biden. Given these heightened geopolitical tensions, and internal frictions both in the U.S. and in Iran, the diplomatic fantasy of returning to the conditions of the 2015 nuclear deal becomes more complicated. Without important breakthroughs in terms of negotiations, the two countries have tried to win concessions via brinkmanship, engaging in tit-for-tat tactical episodes of escalation and de-escalation (the Strait of Hormuz, for example, being the site of numerous tense encounters). Most recently, the U.S. and Iran negotiated a prisoner exchange deal, in which billions of dollars of frozen assets were to be released back to the Iranian regime. Owing to the conflict in Palestine and the escalation in tensions, however, U.S. officials have stepped back from this deal for the foreseeable future.
Of course, the working class has had to pay the highest price for the dire structural crisis in Iran, while the regime retrenches in order to protect its own interests. Over the last few years, the weight of “maximum pressure” sanctions, IMF-backed austerity plans, and hyperinflation have created a scenario in which even sectors of the regime’s traditional working-class social base have taken to the streets and gone on strike in response to the intensification of class contradictions: from oil and steel workers to teachers, bus drivers, rail workers, and gig workers.
At the same time, Iran’s working class carries the legacy of the 1979 revolution, in which it played a decisive role in overthrowing the brutal Pahlavi regime installed by imperialism, after months of a general strike launched by oil workers who controlled some of the world’s most important oil wells and refineries. Oil workers’ strikes also contributed greatly to the success of other historical turning points, such as in 1946 when the oil workers forced the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry and the eventual departure of all colonial forces in 1951, before imperialism’s retaliation in the form of a CIA-orchestrated coup.
Starting in 1978, these workers led a heterogeneous process of self-organization under incipient workers’ councils that grew out of the strike committees of the general strike. They eventually led the expropriation of most of Iran’s large industrial factories. The shoras also incorporated peasants’ and neighborhood councils, especially in the regions where Iran’s oppressed minorities are concentrated. Some Kurdish regions went as far as to stage an outright rebellion. Paradoxically, this process was stifled by Khomeini’s consolidation of power under the covert backing of imperialist powers that feared a workers’ revolution in Iran in the context of the Cold War. Against this backdrop, the subjective weaknesses of the Iranian Left became evident: it was unable to propose a political alternative independent of bourgeois forces; more often than not, it promoted a policy of class collaboration and political populism.
The devastating Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), one of the deadliest conflicts of the 20th century, helped consolidate the reactionary regime in Iran after the U.S. put forward a policy of “dual containment,” sending arms to both sides, hoping simultaneously to tie down Saddam Hussein’s hostile regime and to destabilize the revolutionary process in Iran. The war economy of the 1980s led to a process of “statization” that formed the foundations of a new ruling class in Iran, whose economic power rests on its management of the country’s vast oil wealth, organized under various para-state organizations called bonyads that act as business conglomerates, with strong links to the military.
Before the revolution, the shah’s regime under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who came into power after a U.S.-led coup, was a pillar of Yankee dominance in the Middle East and was able to build a strong army with sophisticated weaponry. The shah’s regime served as the gendarme of the Persian Gulf for U.S. imperialism, as evidenced by the deployment of Iranian forces to quell the nearly decade-long Marxist-led Dhofar rebellion in Oman. This same repressive apparatus allowed the shah to murder 3,000 demonstrators on the 1978 “Black Friday,” the key event that galvanized the democratic aspirations of the masses and triggered the revolution. Ironically enough, the forces of this repressive apparatus, now in the hands of the Islamic regime, were expanded using the country’s oil wealth.
These contradictory factors help explain Iran’s features as a regional power — one that has a relatively weak, mostly oil-based economy that is still very much subordinated to global financial capital (as demonstrated by its loan request from the IMF during the pandemic) but a relatively strong military due to historical factors. Importantly, Iran was able to politically and militarily strengthen its regional influence after the events of U.S. imperialism’s adventurist wars in the region. And, in the wake of the Arab Spring, Iran has further consolidated a regional “sphere of influence” that includes the Iraqi government, the Syrian regime, the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, among others. Beyond these geopolitical factors, how can we understand the class content of contemporary Iran?
From the start of the thwarted revolutionary process in Iran, the peculiar characteristics of the subsequent Islamic regime have been subject to debate. On the one hand, postcolonial analysts of the postrevolutionary Iranian state tend to theorize social and historical phenomena with reference to the “internal” and cultural characteristics of a regime. In that sense, Foucault (who witnessed the revolution in Iran firsthand) put forward a postmodernist prescription for the nascent Iranian regime by romanticizing and giving hierarchy to the new regime’s anti-imperialist rhetoric.1Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution : Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 39. By doing so, his analysis propelled the myth of a progressive national bourgeoisie, which not only disregards or downplays the class character and reactionary nature of the regime, but also denies the powerful role of Iran’s multicultural working class in the process. Even today, a small sector of the Left clings to the idea that the Iranian regime or political Islam offers a discursive counterpoint, or even a progressive alternative, to Western imperialism.
On the other hand, a much larger sector, influenced by the discourse used by Western liberalism, assesses the Iranian regime as “medieval” or “Islamofascist,” with little regard for the antagonistic class interests that set the backdrop for the revolution. This characterization flattens the revolution onto a generalized plane of struggle that seeks to pit “fascism” against “democracy.” In effect, a hatred for Iran’s odious and reactionary regime is channeled into a class-conciliatory perspective, which puts faith in a more “democratic” bourgeoisie inside or outside Iran. As for the definition of fascism itself: in the Marxist tradition, fascism refers to a reactionary movement on behalf of imperialist capital, which is undoubtedly more concentrated than capital in peripheral countries, to liquidate any possibility of a workers’ revolution in the face of intense class struggle. One does not need to make any apologies for the Iranian regime to recognize that it does not fit this characterization. Proper fascist regimes were markedly less democratic than the Iranian Islamic Republic, lacking elections of any kind, and concentrating political power within the singular figure of the dictator. This is in contrast to Bonapartist regimes, which balance between the competing wings of the bourgeoisie in order to appear as the spokesman for the “national interest” of both the capitalists and the working masses and other types of reactionary regimes.
Instead, a Marxist understanding of Iran’s postrevolutionary state is tied to the country’s process of capitalist development, and the capitalists’ class interests, which in turn help explain some of Iran’s exploitative and oppressive features as a capitalist economy. The current regime in many ways is a product of the internal and external crises of the 1980s. The defeat of the Iranian revolution itself a factor for the strategic defeat of a cycle of class struggle from the late 1960s to late 1970s around the world, along with an exhaustion of the postwar cycle of capitalist accumulation, and the devastation of the Iranian economy due to the Iran-Iraq War. The dialectical relationship between these internal and external factors created the objective conditions for a sector of the ruling class (which eventually consolidated into the “moderate wing”) to view integration into global value chains of Western (and, particularly, European) capital, structural adjustment, and market-oriented development as an alternative developmental strategy to generate economic growth.
Against this backdrop, in June 1990, a joint delegation of the IMF and the World Bank visited Tehran for the first time, a decade after the revolution. That same month, the regime launched its first Five-Year Development Plan, kicking off an uneven process of neoliberal reforms under the two successive governments of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (president from 1989 to 1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005). In 2005, the “hardliner” faction returned to power under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: as a former Revolutionary Guard, Ahmadinejad was closely tied to the repressive forces of the state apparatus, and he won a popular base by denouncing the dominant elite that visibly enriched itself under the neoliberal offensive.
Under Ahmadinejad, the neoliberalization process shifted to favor the traditional bourgeoisie and military forces. Due to rising oil prices, Ahmadinejad was able to implement subsidy expansions for the poor while also expanding the powers of the repressive apparatus. In 2009, however, the Green Movement exposed a great rift: on one side, the old guard and traditional defenders of the Islamic Revolution; on the other, the Western-oriented bourgeoisie, which channeled the democratic aspirations of those middle-class elements who took to the streets in protest of Ahmadinejad’s reelection. In the context of this crisis, the regime’s Bonapartist features were strengthened, demonstrated particularly by the role of the Basij paramilitary force, which was used to crush the movement, in the face of growing radicalization. In 2013, Hassan Rouhani, a cleric linked to the Green Movement opposition, was elected, and the nuclear deal he helped architect, promised to bring economic relief to the masses. Yet under Rouhani, Iranian neoliberal doctrine and highly exploitative working conditions only intensified, especially after the nuclear deal, in an attempt to make Iran an attractive environment for foreign investors. By some estimates, 97 percent of workers in Iran are employed on temporary contracts, without benefits, legal rights, or formal organizations like unions.
The Limits of Left-Wing Populism
Iranian-American sociologist Asef Bayat is among the most prolific scholars studying social movements in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries. In his book Revolution without Revolutionaries, Bayat counterposes the Iranian Revolution to the processes that emerged during the Arab Spring. He unpacks the revoltist character of the various Arab Spring movements to grapple with the nature of the processes of class struggle that have emerged since the end of the Cold War. He calls these processes refolutions: mobilizations that, instead of proposing an alternative vision to the institutions they were rising up against, demanded that the state reform itself. Bayat’s analysis correctly compares these processes to insurrectionary revolutions with more “classical” features like the ones in the 20th century, in which revolutionaries “like Lenin or Trotsky had an intellectual resource and had in their ideological package an analysis of the state,” as well as political organizations and revolutionary programs informed by socialist and anti-imperialist movements, as Bayat elaborates.2“Asef Bayat — Revolution without Revolutionaries,” YouTube video, 10:03, uploaded December 10, 2017, by Critical Voices in Critical Times.
Despite engaging with Marxist revolutionary strategy, Bayat’s work goes on the offensive against what he calls “reductionist Marxism,” a view that, to him, limits a class-based analysis to economic struggles at the expense of questions of oppression. This concern in many ways is a reaction not only to distortions of Marxism (like Stalinism, which betrayed oppressed groups by reversing the progressive policies instituted by the Bolshevik revolution), but also to the ideas put forward by a sector of the Jacobin wing of the DSA, which promote a kind of economism that emphasizes economic demands.3Editors, “Trump’s Kryptonite: How Progressives Can Win Back the Working Class,” Jacobin, June 13, 2023. In problematizing class reductionism, however, Bayat falls into another kind of reductionism — one that reduces working-class identity to the category of “ordinary people.” As Matías Maiello elaborates in his book, De la movilización a la revolución (From mobilization to revolution), these variants of left-wing populism share similarities with the ideas of post-Marxist thinkers like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. These theorists put forward a populist reductionism that adapts to one of the main strategic problems faced by class struggle movements, particularly since the 2008 crisis: the absence of working-class hegemony.
These ideas arise out of a sociological reality: since the neoliberal offensive, the working class has become much more heterogeneous and fragmented. That is to say, the caricature of a working class composed largely of industrial workers, still seemingly etched into our collective consciousness, only partly reflects today’s working class. In reality, the working class includes a variety of different “identities”: those from precarious sectors, both unionized and nonunionized workers, the unemployed, women, queer folks, racial and religious minorities, among other categories. In that sense, the relationship between the working class and questions of oppression are actually more organic and evident today, contrary to what both economic reductionism and populist articulations affirm. Thus, it is crucial to develop a perspective that takes into account the demands of the various subaltern classes, but that still identifies the working class as the most strategic social force for socialist transformation. Only the working class has both the intrinsic interest, and the decisive power, to paralyze capitalist society from the “strategic positions” that keep it running, from transport to big industries.
Bayat further develops his version of populist subjectivity, which has characterized the strategy of most contemporary social processes, by appropriating Gramsci. He does so, in his own words, to conceptualize revolution as entailing “relentless struggles in civil society to build hegemony in favor of a new social order.”4Asef Bayat, Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021), 17. Put another way, for Bayat, the key to challenging ruling-class hegemony is to organically develop progressive, counterhegemonic discourses embedded in popular movements. This approach to hegemony leaves movements open to the interests of other classes and thus falls into the same traps as “third world populist” or “left populist” discourses, which have historically adopted class-collaborationist strategies, including the top-down strategy that characterized the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath.
By contrast, a bottom-up conception of hegemony requires a clear articulation of the role of the working class. In his book Hegemony and Class Struggle, Juan Dal Maso reconnects Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to the tradition of revolutionary Marxism, defending its connection to class. Dal Maso thus recovers the idea of a bottom-up working-class hegemony that puts forward politics to unite oppressed groups behind it. A hegemony of this sort has the potential to disrupt the alternative articulations of hegemonic projects linked to the ruling class, and eventually to spearhead the transformation of society.
One of the more advanced examples of this idea can be found in a little-known historical experience from the Russian Revolution, which grew out of the Bolshevik government’s audacious attempts to link the causes of workers and oppressed minorities by adopting a policy toward Muslim women for the organization of the “‘most oppressed among the oppressed,’ those women who faced multiple chains of patriarchal oppression, exploitation, colonialism and religious prejudice.”5Diana Assunção and Josefina Martínez, “Revolucionar el mundo y transformar la vida: mujeres, revolución y socialismo,” interview by Andrea Robles, Contrapunto, March 5, 2023.
During the first years of the Russian Revolution, Clara Zetkin traveled to Tiflis, Georgia, to visit the Muslim women’s club, founded by women revolutionaries in the Caucasus region. These clubs and organizational spaces aimed “to encourage the self-organization of women, help their political formation and promote their conscious participation in the struggle for socialism, in regions where patriarchal and religious prejudices weighed heavily.”6Clara Zetkin, “En el club de mujeres musulmanas,” El Salto Diario, June 21, 2023; first published 1926. Even though this orientation was not without its contradictions (and was eventually destroyed by Stalinism), it did show how the working class can win over the oppressed popular masses as allies, and that democratic tasks are inseparable from workers’ power and socialist measures.
Applying the Logic of Transitional Demands
So far, we have advocated for the emergence of the Iranian working class as a political hegemonic subject. With its strategic force and its ability to unify many subaltern groups around it politically, the working class could help the uprising evolve into a proper social revolution. But how? With which method, and with which program? The evident difficulties in raising a unifying program for the ongoing movement proves just how vital that task is for the movement’s very survival. Such a program must not only unify the workers and oppressed sectors, but also be used as a tool to marginalize those bourgeois and monarchist sectors that try to assert a counterhegemony with politics that suit their ends.
This is evidenced by the joint charter of minimum demands released in February by 20 prominent independent Iranian trade unions, feminist groups, and student organizations. The charter calls for “a new, modern and humane society in the country,” devoid of class content, and calling for solutions “from above,” such as the normalization of foreign relations. Strategically, the content of this program implies the logic of forming a popular front with a more “democratic” bourgeoisie, either through a parliamentary strategy that reforms the institutions of the capitalist state in Iran or through imperialist-led regime change, as advocated by some expatriates and exiled activists.
Similarly, the program recently released by a grouping of six regional revolutionary committees — Youth Revolutionaries of Sanandaj neighborhoods, Gilan Revolutionary Committee, Javad Nazari Fatahabadi Committee, the Red Revolutionary Youth Committee of Mahabad, Jian Group, and Zahedan Revolutionary Youth Core, all of which formed during the recent waves of class struggle in Iran, also falls short of presenting a clear strategy to lead from the present situation to the installation of a socialist workers’ government. In other words, they leave open the task of clarifying which political and organizational tasks these objectives pose to the masses, on one level, and to the revolutionary vanguard, on another level. These comrades propose the addition of “bread, work, freedom, council administration” to the existing slogan “woman, life, freedom,” and they demand workers’ control and the socialization of the economy but socialists’ agitation and political work within the movement and among the masses cannot limit itself to repeating that we need workers (and popular) councils and socialism.
In that sense, raising the political consciousness of the masses, to the point that the majority of people will support a socialist workers’ government, is indeed our objective as communists, but we must find a way to practice mass politics through a transitional method, setting forth demands adequate for the evolving conditions of daily agitation together with the radicalization of the masses themselves. This includes, in our opinion, not withdrawing ourselves from political struggle around radical-democratic demands, as this program does. Instead, we must take up these demands as tools to push the consciousness of the Iranian masses and challenge the regime’s legitimacy.
We need a large share of the popular masses — not just the fraction that has already joined the rebellion — to have political experiences organizing against the regime, struggling for demands that they can grasp and for which they can mobilize now. This can only be accomplished if the movement makes that program its own through these experiences, and creates the organs of self-organization and self-defense capable of imposing it.
As Marxists, we claim the transitional method adopted by the Communist International, led by Lenin and Trotsky before its bureaucratization, and then systematized by Trotsky himself in 1938. Today, this method is not just useful but necessary for revolts, rebellions, and uprisings to find a successful path to revolution.7Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program (1938). The emergence of the transitional method, in advancing demands and an overall program, is a result of the critique and the overcoming of the disjunction between everyday, limited, “minimal” demands and the overall goal of the socialist movement, namely, a communist society with none of the social classes, exploitation, systemic violence, and oppression that characterize capitalism.
Bayat himself poses the “analytical disconnect between works on contentious politics/revolution and those devoted to everyday life and popular politics.”8Bayat, Revolutionary Life, 2. But it is not merely a rhetorical task to build a bridge between the present consciousness of broad layers of the working class to an outright struggle for socialism: it’s a strategic one. As Matías Maiello outlines in De la movilización a la revolución recalling Trotsky’s transitional program:
Hence the prominent place occupied by the so-called “transitional” or “transitory” slogans, whose function is to build “a bridge to the level of workers’ knowledge and, later, a material bridge to the socialist revolution.” This “double” function is fundamental. It is a question, so to speak, of “two bridges” united: one that refers to the “level of consciousness,” and the other, “material” — of action and organization — towards the struggle for power.9Matías Maiello, De la movilización a la revolución (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2022), 73.
Therefore, the transitional approach, rather than being a “manual of procedures or a set of formulas,” can be a tool that’s meant to be used in political practice.10Maiello, De la movilización a la revolución, 13. Rather than adapting to the ideas and methods that reinforce bourgeois class interests and hegemony, a transitional method is meant to push the revolutionary consciousness of the masses as class struggle develops, increasing the perception of its own strength, not only in revolutionary situations. In other words, it’s the art of relating and uniting the real politics of various social struggles to the need for independent organization, the seizure of proletarian power, and the socialist reorganization of society.
What has been and still is at stake during this first year of Iran’s rebellion is precisely the question of linking immediate and limited demands, to the question of challenging both the Iranian regime and capitalism itself. This would make the demand for a society without oppression more concrete and based in the real expression of existing social movements, giving reality to the struggle for a government of the working class and the people. Thus, a transitional program would aim to include minimal working-class demands (such as for the eight-hour workday and wage increases), democratic demands (from democratic questions like civil rights and full self-determination for oppressed peoples and minorities, to democratic-structural ones that, in oppressed countries, have to do mainly with imperialist oppression), demands that ask for a transition beyond capitalism toward socialism (like those for the abolition of trade secrets, workers’ control of industry, nationalization of the banking system, and for workers’ and peasants’ governments), and organizational demands in order to make the fight successful on the political and on the military level of struggle against capitalism (such as self-defense pickets, the creation of a workers’ militia, and for workers councils or soviets).
The Need for a Revolutionary Party
As we’ve argued, Iran has a particularly rich history of self-organization, and the reemergence of workers’ councils, students’ councils, and neighborhood councils is a progressive aspect of recent waves of class struggle. While some debates have opened up among the Iranian Left around the question of a revolutionary party, the question of revolutionary organization holds different meanings and implications for various sectors of the Left: some sectors go so far as to reject leadership of any kind by perceiving leadership as synonymous with dictatorship as a reaction to Khomeinism and the bureaucratic influence of Stalinism.
In response, several variants of autonomism express themselves in Iran. Autonomist workerism linked to the contemporary council movement in Iran emphasizes or substitutes unions or workers’ councils for party organization. Autonomist movementism, which is deeply influenced by postmodern ideas, rejects the idea of a party on the basis of an “erosion of individuality,” substituting the individual activism of movements for the need for a party. Bayat’s appropriation of “everyday resistance” reflects this concept of collective resistance as the atomized individual resistance of unorganized individuals. Meanwhile, sectors influenced by the anarchist tradition prioritize questions of organization over politics, downplaying political struggle in favor of horizontalist organizing as the primary way to protect the movement from cooptation and institutionalization.
In response to the risk of bourgeois deviation of class struggle processes, both on an organizational and political level, we highlight again the revindication of a soviet strategy. This approach is rooted in councils and bodies of self-organization among the masses, to bring together all the groups in struggle “for the leadership of the soviets on the basis of the broadest democracy,” as well as the political intervention of a revolutionary party that can build revolutionary fractions and win mass support by articulating a consistent policy of class independence, a socialist program linked to a plurality of struggles and demands, and a clear strategy based on workers’ strategic power.11Trotsky, Transitional Program.
Far from leaving the question of political leadership open, the subjective strength of revolutionary parties becomes a decisive question. The 1979 revolution showed the necessity of a revolutionary leadership, one that is capable of taking political advantage of unfolding struggles and preventing the energy of the masses from being dampened by reformism or cowed into impotence in the face of reaction. In recent years, Iranian workers may have had the strength and good fortune to be able to build a nucleus of coordination in a few cities, but a coordination of councils is not enough to win mass support against hegemonic bourgeoisie forces.
In the face of the political radicalization of the today, the Iranian masses, from retirees to schoolchildren, are becoming politically radicalized, and they are doing so in the context of a convulsive situation in Iran, in the region, and around the world, marked by a reactivated trend toward crises, wars, and revolutions. Thus, it’s imperative now more than ever to struggle for the task of building a working-class party that fights for socialism for Iran’s multicultural working class, which is entangled with patriarchal oppression, imperialist oppression, environmental catastrophe, and economic subjugation. On the heels of the diasporic solidarity movement launched last year, marked by the formation of international groupings like Feminists 4 Jina, a regional and international perspective is needed to further the debates and clashes around questions of strategy and program, in hopes of going beyond the intermediary situations like revolts to a permanent revolution, based on continued independent working-class struggle, until a socialist transformation is achieved in Iran and beyond.
|↑1||Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution : Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 39.|
|↑2||“Asef Bayat — Revolution without Revolutionaries,” YouTube video, 10:03, uploaded December 10, 2017, by Critical Voices in Critical Times.|
|↑3||Editors, “Trump’s Kryptonite: How Progressives Can Win Back the Working Class,” Jacobin, June 13, 2023.|
|↑4||Asef Bayat, Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021), 17.|
|↑5||Diana Assunção and Josefina Martínez, “Revolucionar el mundo y transformar la vida: mujeres, revolución y socialismo,” interview by Andrea Robles, Contrapunto, March 5, 2023.|
|↑6||Clara Zetkin, “En el club de mujeres musulmanas,” El Salto Diario, June 21, 2023; first published 1926.|
|↑7||Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program (1938).|
|↑8||Bayat, Revolutionary Life, 2.|
|↑9||Matías Maiello, De la movilización a la revolución (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2022), 73.|
|↑10||Maiello, De la movilización a la revolución, 13.|
|↑11||Trotsky, Transitional Program.|