Excerpt from “The Prophet and the Proletariat”


What the group around Khomeini succeeded in doing was to unite behind it a wide section of the middle class — both the traditional petty bourgeoisie based in the bazaar and many of the first generation of the new middle class — in a struggle to control the hierarchies of power.  The secret of its success was its ability to enable those who followed it at every level of society to combine religious enthusiasm with personal advance.  Someone who had been an assistant manager in a foreign owned company could now run it under state control and feel he was fulfilling his religious duty to serve the community (umma); someone who had lived in deep poverty among the lumpen proletariat could now achieve both material security and a sense of self achievement by leading a hizbollah gang in its attempts to purify society of “indecency” and the “infidel Communists”.

The opportunities open to those who opted for the Khomeini line were enormous.  The flight from the country of local and foreign managers and technicians during the early months of revolutionary upheaval had created 130,000 positions to be filled.1  The purging of “non-Islamic” managers, functionaries and army officers added enormously to the total.

The interesting thing about the method by which the group around Khomeini ousted their opponents and established a one party regime was that there was nothing specifically Islamist about it.  It was not, as many people horrified by the religious intolerance of the regime contend, a result of some “irrational” or “medieval” characteristic of “Islamic fundamentalism”.  In fact, it was very similar to that carried through in different parts of the world by parties based on sections of the petty bourgeoisie.  It was the method used, for instance, by the weak Communist Parties of much of Eastern Europe to establish their control after 1945.2  And a prototype for the petty bourgeois who combines ideological fervour and personal advance is to be found in Balzac’s Pére Goriot — the austere Jacobin who makes his fortune out of exploiting the shortages created by the revolutionary upheaval.

A political party based on organising a section of the petty bourgeoisie around the struggle for positions cannot take power in just any circumstances.  Most such attempts come to nothing, because the petty bourgeois formations are too weak to challenge the power of the old ruling class without a mobilisation of the mass of society which they then cannot control.  Thus in the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-5 the Communist Party’s attempts to infiltrate the hierarchies of power fell apart in the face of a resistance co-ordinated by the major Western capitalist powers on the one hand and of an upsurge of workers’ militancy from below on the other.  Such attempts can only work if, for specific historical reasons, the major social classes are paralysed.

As Tony Cliff put it in a major piece of Marxist analysis, if the old ruling class is too weak to hang on to power in the face of economic crisis and insurgency from below, while the working class does not have the independent organisation to allow it to become the head of the movement, then sections of the intelligentsia are able to make a bid for power, feeling that they have a mission to solve the problems of society as a whole:

The intelligentsia is sensitive to their countries’ technical lag.  Participating as it does in the scientific and technical world of the 20th century, it is stifled by the backwardness of its own nation.  This feeling is accentuated by the “intellectual unemployment” endemic in these countries.  Given the general economic backwardness, the only hope for most students is a government job, but there are not nearly enough of these to go round.

The spiritual life of the intellectuals is also in a crisis.   In a crumbling order where the traditional pattern is disintegrating, they feel insecure, rootless, lacking infirm values.

Dissolving cultures give rise to a powerful urge for a new integration that must be total and dynamic if it is to fill the social and spiritual vacuum, that must combine religious fervour with militant nationalism.  They are in search for a dynamic movement which will unify the nation and open up broad vistas for it, but at the same time will give themselves power . . .

They hope for reform from above and would dearly love to hand the new world over to a grateful people, rather than see the liberating struggle of a self conscious and freely associated people result in a new world for themselves.  They care a lot for measures to drag their nation out of stagnation, but very little for democracy . . .  All this makes totalitarian state capitalism a very attractive goal for intellectuals.3

Although these words were written about the attraction of Stalinism, Maoism and Castroism in Third World countries, they fit absolutely the Islamist intelligentsia around Khomeini in Iran.  They were not, as many left wing commentators have mistakenly believed, merely an expression of “backward”, bazaar-based traditional, “parasitic”, “merchant capital”.4  Nor were they simply an expression of classic bourgeois counter-revolution.5  They undertook a revolutionary reorganisation of ownership and control of capital within Iran even while leaving capitalist relations of production intact, putting large scale capital that had been owned by the group around the Shah into the hands of state and parastate bodies controlled by themselves — in the interests of the “oppressed”, of course, with the corporation that took over the Shah’s own economic empire being named the Mustafazin (“Oppressed”) Foundation.  As Bayat tells:

The seizure of power by the clergy was a reflection of a power vacuum in the post-revolutionary state.  Neither the proletariat nor the bourgeoisie was able to exert their political hegemony.  The reason for their inability must be sought in their historical development which is a testimony to the weakness of both.6

Or, as Cliff put it of the intelligentsia in Third World countries: “Their power is in direct relation to the feebleness of other classes and their political nullity”.7

It was because they depended on balancing between the major social classes to advance their own control over the state and a section of capital that the Khomeini group had to hit first at the left organisation and then at the established bourgeois organisations (Bazargan etc) before being able to consolidate their own power.  In 1979 this meant working with Bazargan against the left to subdue the revolutionary wave, and then making certain gestures to the left at the time of the seizure of the US Embassy to isolate the established bourgeoisie.  During the 1980s it meant another zigzag, allowing another Islamic figure linked to the established bourgeoisie, Bani Sadr, to take the presidency and then working with him to smash the bastion of the left, the universities.

* * *

The Khomeiniites were able to out manoeuvre the allegedly “liberal” section of the bourgeoisie because, after beating the left, they were then able to use anti-imperialist rhetoric to mobilise sections of the urban poor against the established bourgeoisie.  They could play on the obvious gap between the miserable lives of the masses and the “un-Islamic” lifestyles of the well to do.  The left could not resist this manoeuvre by lining up with the well to do Westernised section of the bourgeoisie.

The key to genuinely undercutting the Khomeiniites lay in mobilising workers to fight on their own behalf.  This would have thrown both the allegedly “liberal” section of the bourgeoisie and the IRP on to the defensive.

The workers’ struggles played a central role in the overthrow of the Shah, and in the aftermath there were major struggles in the large factories between the factory councils and the management.  But once the Shah was removed, the workers’ struggles rarely went beyond the confines of individual factories to contest the leadership of all the oppressed and exploited.  The factory councils never became workers’ councils on the pattern of the soviets of Russia in 1905 and 1917.8  And because of that failing they did not succeed in attracting behind them the mass of casual labourers, self employed, artisans and impoverished tradesmen — the “lumpen proletariat” — who the Khomeiniites mobilised against the left under religious slogans.

This weakness of the workers’ movement was partly a result of objective factors.  There was a division within the working class between those in the modern sector of large factories and those in the traditional sector of small workshops (many operated by family members or their owners).  The areas that workers lived in were often numerically dominated by the impoverished sectors of the petty bourgeoisie: there were 750,000 “merchants, middlemen and small traders” in Tehran in 1980, as against about 400,000 workers in large industrial enterprises.9  Very large numbers of workers were new to industry and had few traditions of industrial struggle — 80 percent came from a rural origin and every year 330,000 more ex-peasants flooded into the towns.10  Only a third were fully literate and so able to read the left’s press, although 80 percent had televisions.  Finally, the scale of repression under the Shah meant that the number of established militants in the workplaces was very small.

But the inability of the workers’ movement to take the leadership of the wider mass movement was not just a result of objective factors.  It was also a result of the political failings of the considerable left wing forces that existed in the post-revolutionary months.  The Fedayeen and People’s Mojahedin boasted of meetings many thousands strong, and the Mojahedin picked up a quarter of the votes in Tehran in the elections of the spring of 1980.  But the traditions of the Fedayeen and the Mojahedin were guerrillaist, and they paid little attention to activity round the factories.  Their bastions of support were the universities, not the factory areas.

* * *  

As time went on, the left compounded one mistake with another.  While the majority of the Fedayeen dropped all criticism of the regime after the takeover of the US embassy, the People’s Mojahedin eventually moved in the opposite direction, coming out in open opposition to the regime by the end of 1980 (after the regime’s attack on its supporters in the universities).  But its guerrilla strategy then led it to play straight into the regime’s hands by joining with Bani Sadr to launch a direct struggle for power which was not rooted at all in the day to day struggles of the mass of people.  When mass demonstrations failed to bring the regime down, its leaders fled into exile, while its underground activists launched armed attacks on key figures in the regime: “The bombing of the IRP’s headquarters in June 1981, which resulted in the death of Ayatollah Beheshti [IRP chairman] and many other leaders and cadres of the IRP, provided the ulama [i.e. clergy] with the excuse to unleash a reign of terror against the opposition unheard of in contemporary Iranian history.11

The left was uniting with a representative of the established bourgeoisie in a campaign of assassinations directed against figures who the mass of people saw as playing an anti-imperialist role.  It was hardly surprising that the impoverished petty bourgeois and lumpen supporters of the IRP identified with its leaders in the onslaught against the left.  These leaders found it easy to portray the left as working hand in hand with imperialist opponents of the revolution — an argument which gained even greater credibility a couple of years later when the People’s Mojahedin joined in the onslaught against Iran waged by the Iraqi army.

In fact, the Mojahedin was displaying all the faults which characterise the radical new petty bourgeoisie in many Third World countries, whether it is organised in Islamist, Maoist or nationalist parties.  It sees the political struggle as dependent upon a minority acting as a “vanguard” in isolation from the struggle of the masses.  The battle for power is reduced to the armed coup on the one hand and the alliance with existing bourgeois forces on the other.  With “leadership” such as this, it is not surprising that the most radical workers were not able to build the militant struggles in individual factories into a movement capable of uniting behind it the mass of urban poor and peasants, and so left a vacuum which the IRP was able to fill.

Not all the left were as bad as the Mojahedin, the Fedayeen majority or the Tudeh Party.  But these constituted the major forces to which those radicalised by the revolutionary experience looked.  Their failings were a very important factor in allowing the Khomeini group to retain the initiative and to rebuild a weakened state into a powerful instrument capable of the most bloody repression.

Finally, even those on the left who did not make mistakes on the scale of the Mojahedin, Fedayeen and Tudeh Party made mistakes of their own.  They had all been brought up on Stalinist or Maoist traditions which made them search for a “progressive” section of the bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie to lead the struggle.  If they decided a certain movement was of the “progressive” or “anti-imperialist” petty bourgeoisie, then they would dampen down any criticism.  If, on the other hand, they decided a certain movement was not of the “progressive petty bourgeoisie”, then they concluded it could never, ever, engage in any conflict with imperialism.  They had no understanding that again and again in Third World countries bourgeois and petty bourgeois leaders who are pro-capitalist and extremely reactionary in their social attitudes have, despite themselves, been drawn into conflicts with imperialism.  This was, for instance, true of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, of Grivas and Makarios in Cyprus, of Kenyatta in Kenya, of Nehru and Gandhi in India, and most recently of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  This has often given them a popularity with those they are intent on exploiting and oppressing.

The left cannot undercut that either by extolling them as “progressive, anti-imperialist” heroes, or by pretending that the confrontation with imperialism does not matter.  Instead the left has at all costs to preserve its own political independence, insisting on public criticism of such figures both for their domestic policies and for their inevitable failings in the struggle with imperialism, while making it clear that we want imperialism to be defeated much more than they do.

Unfortunately, virtually the whole of the Iranian left flip flopped from one mistaken position to another, so that they ended up taking a neutral stand in the final months of the first Gulf War when the US fleet intervened directly to tilt the balance against Iran.  They did not understand that there were ways of taking an anti-imperialist stance that would have strengthened the fight against the Iranian regime at home (denouncing the refusal of the regime to make the rich pay for the war, criticising the barbaric and futile “human wave” tactics of sending lightly armed infantry into frontal attacks on heavily defended Iraqi positions, condemning the failure to put forward a programme that would arouse the Iraqi workers and minorities to rise against Saddam Hussein, denouncing the call for war reparations as making the Iraqi people pay for their rulers crimes, and so on).  Instead, they adopted a position which cut them off from anyone in Iran who remembered what imperialism had done to the country in the past and who could see that it would do so again if it got the chance.

1  The figure is given in D Hiro [Islamic Fundamentalism (London, 1989)], op. cit., p.187.

2  See ch.3 of my Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, 1945-83 (London, 1983).

3  T Cliff, “Deflected Permanent Revolution,” International Socialism, first series, no.12 (Spring, 1963), reprinted in International Socialism, first series, no.61.  Unfortunately, this very important article is not reprinted in the selection of Cliff’s writings, Neither Washington nor Moscow, but it is available as a pamphlet from Bookmarks.

4  Still less did they represent, as Halliday seems to contend, “the strength of pre-capitalist social forces”, op. cit. [“The Iranian Revolution and Its Implications,” New Left Review, 166 (November December 1987)], p.35.  By making such an assertion Halliday is only showing how much his own Maoist-Stalinist origins have prevented him understanding the character of capitalism in the present century.

5  As P. Marshall seems to imply in an otherwise excellent book Revolution and Counter Revolution in Iran, op. cit.

6  A. Bayat [Workers and Revolution in Iran (London, 1987)], op. cit., p.134.

7  T. Cliff, op. cit.

8  Maryam Poya is mistaken to use the term “workers’ councils” to translate “shoras” in her article, “Iran 1979: Long Live the Revolution . . . Long Live Islam?” in Revolutionary Rehearsals (Bookmarks, London, 1987).

9  According to M. Moaddel [Class, Politics and Ideology in the Iranian Revolution (New York, 1993)], op. cit., p.238.

10  A. Bayat, op. cit., p.42.

11  M. Moaddel, op. cit., p.216.

Chris HarmanChris Harman was a member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and the editor of International Socialism and Socialist Worker.  He died in Cairo, Egypt last November.  The text above is excerpted from “The Prophet and the Proletariat” (International Socialism Journal 2:64, Autumn 1994).  The full text of “The Prophet and the Proletariat” is available at <www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1994/xx/islam.htm>.

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