The revolution that began 42 years ago offers lessons for how to beat imperialism and reactionary governments.
Iran is the site of the greatest geopolitical tensions in the world today. The Persian Gulf region is dominated by aircraft carriers, drones, hackers, centrifuges, assassins … yet it is also the site of powerful class struggles: Iran’s multiethnic working class carries out heroic struggles against a repressive government, as do the young people and the women’s movement. These progressive forces face the question: Can they topple the obscurantist regime without playing into the hands of the imperialist powers and their vassals? Could the working class lead a successful socialist revolution and initiate a revolutionary process across the region?
The Iranian Revolution began 42 years ago: on February 11, 1979, the army surrendered after two days of street fighting, putting an end to the regime of the shah (king). And this revolution provides lessons for today. Many will remember the revolution only for bringing the mullahs to power. But it was a great workers’ uprising, which included “classical” features of a revolution like workers’ councils. How could that revolution be defeated? And what would the alternative have been? Iran today offers a clear example of why revolutionaries need a program of permanent revolution. To understand this, we will first look at the history of the revolution.
The material, social, and political roots of the shah’s overthrow can be traced back to Iran’s complex process of capitalist development. Imperialist powers, including Great Britain and the more economically backward Russia, initially propelled Iran into the world market, and it became the site of a proxy conflict between the two powers.
Iran, which was “almost completely a colony,” as Lenin described it in his classic work on imperialism in 1917, became more enmeshed in the global capitalist system after abundant oil reserves were discovered in the south of the country in 1908.[[V. I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Marxists Internet Archive, 1916.]] Shortly thereafter, Iran became an important supplier of energy resources for the imperialist powers, particularly through the establishment of the British-run Anglo-Persian Oil Company — the most profitable British business in the world at the time.
These factors contributed to the uneven and combined character of the social development of Iran. A proletariat, concentrated in urban areas, expanded alongside the oil industry and related sectors, but these sectors were “surrounded by an ocean of rural workers whose life and labor were regulated by pre-capitalist relations.”[[Assef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (London: Zed Books, 1987), 22.]]
Britain enjoyed a monopoly on Iranian oil until 1952, when Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (which had changed its name in 1935). British imperialism retaliated by calling for an international boycott of Iranian oil. They eventually allied with the U.S. to orchestrate a military coup in 1953, to oust the democratically elected Mossadegh and reinstall the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had fled the country. Although imperialism presented the shah as a benign “modernizer,” the authoritarian puppet regime was notoriously brutal and propped up by a secret police force called the SAVAK, which worked in close cooperation with the CIA.
Consequently, the shah’s brutal dictatorship safeguarded Iran’s oil wealth for the imperialist bourgeoisie. As the shah’s own coffers ballooned, discontent was brewing. By the 1960s, the shah launched the "White Revolution” (also known as the Revolution of the Shah and the People) as an aggressive set of social and economic reforms aimed at dissolving the last remnants of feudal relations in the countryside, shifting landlord capital into industry and other urban projects, and facilitating the penetration of foreign capital.
Politically, the shah had intended the White Revolution to build a base of support among workers and peasants through the promise of better living conditions. As the shah famously stated at the time, “The revolution must come from above, otherwise it will come from below.” Yet as historian Ervand Abrahamian noted, the reforms instead had a contradictory effect: “The White Revolution had been designed to preempt a Red Revolution. Instead, it paved the way for an Islamic Revolution.”[[Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 140.]]
Indeed, the shah’s program of capitalist “modernization” and its unequal distribution of benefits exacerbated social tensions, particularly among the traditional petty bourgeoisie and the clergy, whose growing resentment ignited the spark that lit a revolutionary fervor in Iran.
Among those disaffected middle-class sectors was the bazaari (a derivative of the word for market in Farsi), which was a heterogenous sector mostly made up of merchants and artisans. This sector faced a diminished role owing to the shah’s “modernization,” which had accelerated the growth of supermarkets and mass-produced goods under the purview of Western capital. The bazaaris had ties to the modern middle class since many Iranian university students came from small-merchant families. Historically, though, the bazaaris had allied with Iran’s Shi’a clergy, known as the ulama, which composed another layer of the traditional petty bourgeoisie. Before the land reforms, the ulama had controlled large swaths of land through several types of religious institutions.
The shah’s reforms strengthened the alliance between these sectors of the petty bourgeoisie, and in response they began to deploy a heterodox Shi’a populism to rally an oppositional coalition against the monarchical dictatorship. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the leader of this opposition movement in the 1960s because of his relentless rejection of the shah’s programs.
The regime’s agrarian reforms also meant that a rapid stream of landless peasants quickly crowded into the cities and thus into the capitalist market. While many of these rural migrants were transformed into urban wage-earners holding unskilled jobs, the inability of Iranian industry to absorb so much labor created unemployment and an urban subproletariat occupying the slums around cities like Tehran. By the 1960s and 1970s, mass protests and demonstrations became a regular part of Iranian society. In 1977, the urban poor set off the chain of events that ultimately led to the Iranian Revolution.
In the summer of that year, a number of slum dwellers protesting the demolition of their neighborhoods were killed by security forces. In the following months, protests won support from a combative student movement. This included many Iranian students who had studied abroad and had been galvanized by anti-imperialist mobilizations taking place around the world. By December, universities closed because of the massive protests.
On August 6, 1978 — the anniversary of the 1953 coup — Cinema Rex, a theater in a working-class district in the city of Abadan, went up in flames, incinerating over 400 people. Though the exact circumstances of the fire remain unclear, most suspected that SAVAK had set the fire. Tensions escalated to a boiling point on September 8, 1978, after what became referred to as Black Friday — the shah ordered the violent suppression of protests, with 1,000 to 3,000 demonstrators shot dead. The working class responded with its full fury.
The day after Black Friday, nearly 1,000 workers of Tehran’s main oil refinery went on strike. The strike quickly spread to other oil refineries and factories and cost the beleaguered regime more than $50 million a day. Strike committees were established in many workplaces to coordinate strike activity. The workers of Iran delivered their coup de grâce when they organized a general strike at the end of 1978 and brought the entire economy to a halt.
After this fourth-month strike wave — culminating in the overthrow of the shah, who fled the country on January 16, 1979 — the emancipatory potential of proletarian class struggle was on full display. In the ensuing vacuum of power, embryonic workers’ councils, akin to Russian soviets, began to develop. These shoras, which grew out of the strike committees, began to exercise their power by expropriating factories and putting them under workers’ control.
Poor peasants in the countryside, inspired by the example of these workers, set up their own rural shoras and began to take over the large estates where they worked. Yet despite this escalation in class struggle, the revolution degenerated into an Islamic republic managed by ruthless clerics. By 1983, bourgeois order had been restored; the shoras, independent trade unions, and all leftist parties were banned and crushed. How was such a defeat possible?
With Iran in turmoil, U.S. imperialism began to fear that capitalism would be called into question. According to historian Nikki Keddie, the State Department was “in contact with secular and religious figures who might enter a governmental coalition with which the American government could deal.”[[Nikki Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of a Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 235.]]
The U.S. found one such potential ally in Khomeini, who had been in exile for over 14 years, at the time in France. Despite promising to secure American interests, the ayatollah maintained a complex relationship with Washington. He recognized that the insurgent masses, whom he aimed to attract, felt a strong hatred toward imperialism.
The takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and ensuing hostage crisis provided Khomeini an ideal opportunity to strengthen his prestige among the masses and brandish his anti-imperialist credentials. Under the cover of this new crisis, Iranian officials maneuvered with Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign to secure a release of the hostages under Iranian custody after the 1980 U.S. elections, thus thwarting the electoral prospects of incumbent president Jimmy Carter. The Iranian regime announced their release of the hostages minutes after Reagan delivered his inaugural address.
The U.S. also gave encouragement and weapons to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to attack Iran, launching an eight-year war that resulted in over half a million dead. This was intended to tie down the masses in revolt, but it also allowed Khomeini to consolidate a clerical dictatorship, founding the Islamic Republic.
In the process, the United States lost one of its strategic bases that had been key to ensuring its dominance in the region. To restore bourgeois order, with a greater distance from imperialism, the new clerical-led bourgeois-nationalist regime began a period of political and social repression against its political opposition, in particular the Left and oppressed nationalities fighting for self-determination, like the Kurds.
Consolidating the new regime also meant destroying what the working class had built in 1979: the shoras. These workers’ organizations had fought defiantly for workers’ control and the expropriation of factories. They objectively represented an initial form of dual power, even if they lacked coordination. Initially, they ignored Khomeini’s order to disband, instead demanding increased wages, improvements in living conditions, and the nationalization of different industries. But as the counterrevolution advanced, the shoras were put on the defensive. By April 1980, the process of “Islamization,” which had been inaugurated after the passage of a theocratic constitution a year earlier, entered the workplaces and destroyed autonomous workers’ organizations.
Khomeini’s role, as a reactionary figure with a Bonapartist orientation, was demonstrated by his strong reliance on the repressive apparatus, but also on a populist Islamic rhetoric that sought to reconcile the class divisions between the bourgeoisie and working masses. As Iranian sociologist Val Moghadam wrote, Khomeinism’s unifying discourse weaved “a radical–populist Islamic discourse that would prove very compelling — a discourse which appropriated some concepts from the Left (exploitation, imperialism, world capitalism), made use of Third Worldist categories (dependency, the people) and populist terms (the toiling masses), and imbued certain religious concepts with new and radical meaning.”[[Val Moghadam, “Socialism or Anti-imperialism? The Left and Revolution in Iran,” New Left Review 166 (November/December 1987):14.]]
Khomeini based much of his radical Islamic rhetoric on the writings of Ali Shariati, who many consider to be the true ideologue of the Islamic Revolution. The French-trained sociologist was inspired by postcolonial theorists such as Frantz Fanon and introduced an “Islamist version of ‘liberation theology,’” as Claudia Cinatti writes.[[Claudia Cinatti, “Islam político, antiimperialismo y marxismo,” ft-ci.org, July 7, 2007 (our translation).]]
Yet the Iranian Revolution, despite its religious dimension, could not be explained by its cultural facets alone, as postmodern thinkers like Michel Foucault have tried to do.[[Janey Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).]] Instead, this paradoxical revolutionary process can best be understood through the lens of class struggle. More precisely, it was the insurgency of the working class, the middle classes, and the urban poor in response to an uneven process of capitalist development, against the hated and dictatorial, U.S.-backed shah, that generated widespread social unrest directed at the monarchy and imperialism.
Thus, the Iranian Revolution had a profoundly democratic character. But as it developed, it increasingly developed features of a workers’ revolution. If the working class was not able to take political power, this was due to the political weaknesses of the Left and the absence of a revolutionary leadership capable of advancing a program of socialist revolution.
The largest organizations of the Left in Iran were tied, in different ways, to the idea that the Iranian Revolution could not be socialist.
Iran’s largest left party was Tudeh (Masses), which had at least 100,000 members and had an important influence among workers. Tudeh was oriented toward the Soviet Union at a moment when the center of world Stalinism was heading toward collapse. The party believed that the revolution could create a more progressive bourgeois government, similar to the one that had been toppled in 1953 — an alliance with the nationalist wing of the bourgeoisie was seen as a necessary stage on the road to socialism. Based on this theory of a revolution in stages, they supported Khomeini, even as his regime began to repress ever-greater sections of the Left.
After the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, left organizations around the world adopted the guerrilla strategy inspired by Che Guevara. There were two such organizations that emerged in the 1960s in Iran. The first was the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (POIM, or MEK in Persian), which tried to combine a leftist reading of Islam with Marxist ideas. The second, the People’s Fedayeen, were more traditionally “Marxist-Leninist,” that is, Stalinist. These, which had each taken up armed struggle under the shah’s regime, mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters during the revolution.
The weakness of these guerrilla groups was not just that they identified small armed units, by nature isolated from the masses, as the decisive revolutionary subject. The theory of protracted people’s war as developed by Mao Tse-tung, or that of the foco as elaborated by Che Guevara, were never intended as strategies for beating capitalism and building socialism. Rather, these were fundamentally stagist strategies employing military means to create governments uniting the workers and peasants with supposedly “national,” “progressive” wings of the bourgeoisie.[[See Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello, Estrategia socialista y arte militar, chap. 6 (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).]]
So while the Mujahedin and the Fedayeen had an infinitely more “militant” appearance than Tudeh, they shared the same strategic goal: the establishment of a “progressive” bourgeois government. These guerrillas represented an armed form of class collaboration — reformism with the gun. They were constantly divided by the question of which wing of the bourgeoisie was supposed to be “progressive.” The Mujaheddin originally identified Khomeini as progressive but soon switched their allegiance to more pro-imperialist wings of the ruling class. The MEK later defected to the pro-imperialist regime in Iraq. The Fedayeen split between a majority that critically supported the new regime and a minority that began a new guerrilla war against it. Even this minority, however, stuck to its stagist conception.
There was an alternative to stagism, which Stalinism had adopted from social democracy and imposed on the international communist movement. Trotskyism in Iran was represented by two different organizations. The Socialist Workers Party (HKS) was founded by Iranian students who had joined the United Secretariat of the Fourth International while studying in Britain. The HKS was aligned with the USec’s European leadership around Ernest Mandel. The Revolutionary Workers Party (HKE), in contrast, was formed by Iranian students who had been in the United States and were closer to the Socialist Workers Party, the U.S. fraternal section of the USec, whose leaders were beginning to break with the program of permanent revolution (though they only took this step publicly a few years later).
These two tendencies differed on how to relate to the anti-imperialist movement that had been co-opted by the mullahs. The HKE was ready to abandon any socialist principle to maintain its support for the new regime. It even gave critical support to the decree requiring women to wear Islamic dress. Why? “The real question is the … the struggle of the entire society against American imperialism.”[[Interview with Masha Hashemi, a leader of the HKE,” Intercontinental Press 18, no. 30 (August 4, 1980): 830–32.]] The HKE’s support continued even as the regime cracked down on the Left, including the Trotskyists.
The HKS, in contrast, denied that Khomeini represented “real anti-imperialism”: they declared, presciently, that “real anti-imperialism means … the establishment of a planned economy.”[[HKS statement, Intercontinental Press 18, no. 29 (July 28, 1980): 805–7.]] The HKS was able to gain a certain political weight, particularly among the Arab workers of Khuzestan Province, who were fighting for their own national as well as social demands. Yet this weight attracted the regime’s attention, and HKS members were arrested and sentenced to death as early as 1979.
Ultimately, the Trotskyist tendencies — founded by exiles who returned to Iran as the revolution broke out — were not organized enough to withstand the ever-more murderous repression. By 1983 they had been crushed and forced into exile. That year, members of the USec drew up a balance sheet criticizing their tendency’s support for pro-Khomeini positions, since the HKE was an official section.[[Their resolution, “Revolution and Counter-revolution in Iran,” is available on Maziar Razi’s website and on Marxist.com, of the IMT.]] But it would seem that the decades in exile led to their dissolution. We are not aware of Trotskyist tendencies in Iran today — with one exception we will deal with in the next section.[[For more on the history of Iranian Trotskyism, see Robert Alexander, International Trotskyism, 1929–1985: A Documented Analysis of the Movement (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 558ff. For a recent defense of the HKE, see Barry Sheppard, The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960–1988, A Political Memoir, Volume 2: Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1998 (London: Resistance Books, 2005), 143–78, 220–31.]]
A special mention belongs to the tendency around Mansoor Hekmat, whose legacy is continued by different “worker-communist” factions in exile and the Komalah in Iranian Kurdistan. As the Iranian Revolution appeared on the horizon, Hekmat broke with a central dogma of all the Stalinist-influenced currents when he correctly declared that the idea of a “progressive national bourgeoisie” was a myth. Yet Hekmat simultaneously defended an equally prejudicious dogma that Stalinism had adopted from the reformist Marxism of the Second International: the idea that Iran was not “ripe” for socialism. Combing these incompatible theses, Manzoor developed an interesting hypothesis similar to what V. I. Lenin postulated for Russia in 1905: the Iranian working class, constituting itself as an independent political pole, could lead the democratic revolution that the Iranian bourgeoisie was too weak and too cowardly to carry out. And such a profound democratic revolution in Iran, led by the working class, would be a spark for socialist revolutions in more advanced countries; and these, in turn, would allow Iran’s radical democracy to move forward to socialist construction.[[In 1978, Hekmat maintained that “the revolution in Iran is not immediately a socialist, but a democratic revolution.” But simultaneously that it was “an inseparable part of the world socialist revolution.” Mansoor Hekmat, “The Iranian Revolution and the Role of the Proletariat (Theses),” 1978, Marxists.org.]] This is very similar to Kautsky’s hypothesis for Russia in 1905.[[In contrast to the majority of socialists at the time, who thought Russia’s next revolution would inevitably be bourgeois and democratic, Kautsky wrote in 1906 that Russia’s “promise is rather the ushering in of an era of European revolutions that will end with the dictatorship of the socialist society.” Karl Kautsky, “Revolutions, Past and Present,” 1906, Marxists.org.]]
This elaboration is most interesting for its inadequacy — it highlights the necessary theoretical breakthrough first articulated by Leon Trotsky in 1906: the working class, placing itself at the head of the struggle for democracy and establishing its own power in the form of a workers’ government, cannot possibly limit itself to a democratic program. Even if the workers’ party attempted that, they would be met with obstruction, sabotage, and ultimately bloody counterrevolution by the bourgeoisie. How could the workers hold political power, and yet leave the economy in the hands of their exploiters?
Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution accurately predicted the course that the next Russian Revolution would need to take in 1917 — while the Finnish socialists applying the program of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in their own revolution of 1917–18, hoping to get the capitalists to submit to a democratic government of the working class, were trapped in its contradictions and led to bloody defeat.[[See Nathaniel Flakin, “When the North Star Turned Red,” Left Voice, May 12, 2019.]] The revolution thus becomes “permanent” in its transition from democratic to socialist tasks — and becomes “permanent” in a second sense by spreading from a national to an international framework.
The theory-program of the permanent revolution is relevant for Iran today. The workers of Iran fought valiantly against the shah’s dictatorship, but no lasting democratic gains could be won without a break from imperialism and the socialist reorganization of society. The Iranian bourgeoisie had fought tepidly against the shah, but when their privileges were threatened by the mass movement, they unleashed their full fury. This is why it is necessary for the working class, in alliance with other oppressed sectors, to fight to destroy the economic and political power of the capitalists (at home and abroad). That is the only path to securing democracy.
Looking at the balance sheet of 1979–80, it is clear that the revolutionary socialist Left must avert two mistakes.
The first mistake would be to place any hopes whatsoever in any wing of the ruling class — be it “reformers” hoping for more cooperative relations with the imperialist powers, or “hard liners” with a more confrontational tone. Ten years ago, we saw large swaths of the young people and the Left placing their hopes in “moderate” figures in the regime in the Green Movement. But such figures offer only modified forms of imperialist domination — a dependence that will need to be enforced by new forms of internal repression.
The second mistake would be to let justified opposition to the clerical regime morph into support for the imperialist powers. This has happened with multiple tendencies of the Iranian Left, most famously with the MEK, who today exist as a bizarre cult that is taken seriously only by Washington’s most unhinged hawks. But aside from such extreme examples, there is a much more widespread tendency among Iranian leftists to take a neutral position toward conflicts between imperialism and the Iranian regime. As an example of this, we will quote from the article “Considerations on the Open Letter to Mogherini” from a group calling itself the Iranian Bolshevik-Leninists’ Tendency. They start with a statement of principle that sounds correct:
In our opinion, protecting the political independence of the working class from different factions within the ruling capitalist regime of Iran and, at the same time, from imperialism is a question of life and death for the labor movement. Our task is to do away with the capitalist state (whatever the governmental forms it takes) once and for all.
Yet they draw the worst possible conclusion:
Faced with the threat of an imperialist military attack, we side with neither the “domestic” bourgeoisie nor the “external” force. Instead, in this case, our immediate task is to paralyze their war machine and turn the war into a revolution against both reactionary sides of this conflict by forming a third revolutionary front; a front consisting of the working class of Iran, the region and belligerent countries. Our task is then to expose the reactionary nature of both sides of this capitalist war and their infantries.
This group claims the heritage of the Bolshevik-Leninists, the Left Opposition of the Communist International led by Leon Trotsky, yet it seems to know nothing of Trotsky’s anti-imperialist positions. It is perfectly true that the regimes of the United States and of Iran are both bourgeois, capitalist, reactionary, repressive … but do these descriptors mean we can simply put an equal sign between Washington and Tehran? U.S. imperialism is the largest apparatus for mass murder ever constructed. The Islamic Republic, in contrast, is a chronically unstable regional power that can barely intervene militarily on its immediate borders. It is not hard to find an analogy. Marxists never gave an ounce of support to the pro-imperialist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Yet the U.S. was able to inflict mass death at a scale that was simply impossible for Hussein — while the latter massacred 15,000 people with poison gas, the former exterminated 500,000 people with “peaceful” sanctions.
Let us try to imagine a war by U.S. imperialism against Iran. A victory by imperialism against Iran would imply a defeat for working and oppressed people around the world. The defeat of a U.S. attack — even a defeat at the hands of a reactionary force like the Islamic Republic — would give an enormous boost of confidence to liberation struggles everywhere. Trotsky sketched this anti-imperialist perspective in a discussion in 1938:
In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally — in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat.
The Left, both in Iran and internationally, needs to be part of any anti-imperialist mobilization against U.S. aggression, while refusing any political support for the mullahs. It is precisely this kind of mobilization that will expose the incompetence and the sabotage of the corrupt clerical regime. This is the moment when the working class can present itself as a potential leader of all working people in the struggle for democracy — which includes freedom from imperialism. Any kind of “third campist” or “anti-anti-imperialist” position — while it might be understandable as a reaction to the regime’s fake anti-imperialism, and as a product of the demoralization of exile — will only leave this progressive struggle in the hands of reactionary struggle.
Iran’s powerful working class can reappropriate the methods of 1979. The Iranian revolution was one of the last great struggles of the international working class before the bourgeois restoration unleashed its assault on the international working class. The defeat of Iran’s workers thus opened the way for the triumphant march of neoliberalism. A successful revolution in Iran would have dealt a heavy blow to imperialism and its lackeys throughout the region, and would have inspired workers around the world.
Today Iran’s working class can again be a vanguard for the workers of the region, subjected to a menagerie of reactionary cliques subordinate to imperialism. But such a perspective requires building up a new revolutionary leadership — on the basis of a balance sheet of the previous revolution.