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The inspiring struggles in Iran today are waking people up to the revolutionary potential of the Iranian working class. Some are looking to learn more about the history of Iran, and particularly the revolutionary movement of 1979 that overthrew the Shah. This is a positive development, and we at Socialist Revolution believe that this is precisely what we must do: learn the history and lessons of past movements, as a guide to action for revolutionaries today.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was just a generation ago. For young people in the US today, our parents watched the events unfold on their television screens, but today we are not exposed to this history, except in the form of propaganda. Of course, there are overtly pro-US films like the 2012 movie Argo about the US embassy hostage crisis, as well as more balanced portrayals, as in the graphic novel turned film Persepolis.
But, for the most part, workers and youth in the US are given woefully little real information from the media about the events of the revolution. News outlets often portray Iranians as one reactionary bloc, all supporting mandatory veiling of women and rallying behind a dictator. At other times, they portray all Iranians as monarchists and liberals, who desperately seek US intervention to save them from their current government.
In today’s episode of Socialist Revolution podcast, we’ll aim to provide an objective portrayal of what actually happened in Iran 1979, which is quite different from the stereotypes shown in the movies and on TV.
Hello everyone, welcome to Socialist Revolution podcast. My name is Arman Ebrahimi. I’m an organizer in the Minneapolis branch of the International Marxist Tendency. Growing up, I heard countless stories about the 1979 revolution, but it was the IMT that gave the clearest analysis of what actually happened, which I’ll now dive into.
First, I’d like to summarize the revolution in a few words. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was an incredibly inspiring example of a genuine workers’ revolution. Millions of workers, peasants, students, young and old were involved in this massive revolutionary upsurge. The movement toppled the Shah’s regime. However, the movement was held back and betrayed by the workers’ leadership, and ultimately was hijacked by the Islamic fundamentalists, who set up the Islamic Republic by crushing the movement.
How did a mighty revolution, with the power to kick out a US-backed dictator, come into being? And how did it end up going in this fateful direction? Those are the questions I’d like to really delve into here, and the answers to these questions require some understanding of Iran’s history, going some ways back.
Capitalism came into Iran from the outside, particularly after the discovery of oil in the country in 1908. The British invested significant resources into Iran’s oil reserves, through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. They had a monopoly on the production and sale of Iranian oil. One could characterize Iran as a semi-colonial country. The Qajar royalty which ruled Iran made enormous concessions to both the British and the Russian Tsarist imperialists. The only capitalist development, during this period, was in the oil sector and some factories in the cities. This led to the creation of the working class, that is workers who were reliant on a wage to survive. The imperialists had no real interest in developing the means of production, except in those cases where they could make a profit from Iran’s resources. The local capitalists were connected with the imperialists. Most of the country’s economy was still precapitalist and agrarian, with a nobility and large peasantry.
The introduction of modern production techniques, side by side with quite old methods of farming, meant there was an uneven development of the country’s economy. However, this development was combined—both relations of production coexisted in a sense, and conditioned each other. What you ended up with was an underdevelopment of the country, where the imperialists, the local capitalists, and the landlords all were connected through financial and social ties, and they had a collective interest in preserving the status quo. This prevented further economic development, with the continuation of the precapitalist relations and a limited scope for industrialization of the country.
Now that we understand the basic economic framework, we can understand some of the key political events that flow from this. While Iran was neutral during World War I, the country was effectively divided up between the British and Russian spheres of influence. After the war, the decrepit Qajar dynasty was overthrown by an officer Reza Khan, who declared himself to be the new Shah, or King, of Iran. He deepened the influence of Western imperialism through a series of reforms during his rule. During the Second World War, he attempted to keep Iran neutral, in relation to both Nazi Germany and the Allies. However, he was deemed too friendly with Hitler. Thus, the British and Soviets coordinated an invasion of Iran in 1941, in order to force Reza Khan’s abdication and ensure British supplies to the Soviet Union. Reza Khan’s son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, took the throne. He would later be known simply as “The Shah.”
The continued interference of the British in Iran sparked a mass movement in the 1950s, around the attempt of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh to nationalize the oil of Iran. The Iranian parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry, and Mosaddegh implemented this in 1951. This act gave him immense popularity, as he was seen as fighting the British imperialists, whose property had now been expropriated. There was an enormous movement to defend this nationalization. In fact, you had a pre-revolutionary situation, and a rapid growth of the Communist Party, also known as the Tudeh Party. The American and British spy networks, the CIA and MI6, worked to get rid of Mossadegh. They engineered a coup d’etat to get rid of him. The CIA used $100,000 to bribe members of gangs to overthrow Mossadegh, and repress the Tudeh Party. While the coup initially failed, and the Shah was forced to flee the country for a time, there was a second attempt which was successful. The Shah was restored and oil was passed back into foreign hands, while Mossadegh was put under house arrest for the rest of his life.
From the mid-50s onward, the Shah was able to rule with relative stability. He embarked on an industrialization program. The state’s revenues from oil production were used to reinvest in production and certain modernization projects. As part of this program, he carried out what was called the “White Revolution.” This was an attempt at land reform, which did result in some of the old feudal landlords being bought off and some land given to peasants. However, the majority of peasants saw no changes, causing many of them to leave the countryside in droves, in search of work in the cities. The urban population swelled.
As part of the land reform, the Shah came into conflict with the clergy, whose land in the countryside was under threat of expropriation. This pushed the clergy into opposition to the regime, with large demonstrations. One of the most extreme of these clergymen was Ayatollah Khomeini, who led these protests in the early 60s. However, his movement was defeated and he was forced to flee to Iraq, and later to France.
The Shah continued on with his industrialization program, and things seemed to be working out in his favor. From 1964 and 1978, Iran’s gross national product grew at a yearly rate of about 13%. The rise in oil prices on the world market benefited the Shah’s regime. The Shah made stupendous promises about development of the country, and told the masses that their living standards would rise. More and more peasants streamed from the countryside to the cities, and by 1975, about 40% of adults in Iran were workers. However, the expectations and promises of life in the cities and factories were quite different from reality.
Workers in the factories worked extremely long hours, upwards of 12 hours a day. The main factories had government spies employed to watch the workers and suppress dissent. There was strict discipline in the factories. Unions were outlawed, and working conditions were poor. The conditions in which many of these new workers lived were unbearable. The Shah promised housing, but thousands of these workers who had just left the countryside were forced to live on the outskirts of the main cities, in shacks and slum conditions. They also faced a general problem of inflation of the price of basic necessities during this period, as well as a recession in the mid-70s, which threatened to take away any gains they had made.
Thus, while all appeared calm from the interior of the Shah’s gilded courtyard, the pressure was building up for a social explosion. The regime and its backers were quite deluded as to their prospects of stability. For example, in September 1978, the CIA issued a report saying the Shah would continue to rule for the next 10 to 15 years. In fact, while the Shah viewed this industrialization as a source of stability, it became precisely the opposite. By increasing the numerical and social weight of the working class, concentrated in the oil, gas, and manufacturing sectors, the regime had promoted its own gravediggers. Paradoxically, the force of the working class was strengthened, while the Shah attempted to keep a tight lid on any dissent.
Under the Shah, there was no real democracy to speak of. There was no free speech, no right to protest, and the parliament had no real powers. The Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, carried out brutal suppression and torture on those who dissented: this was especially directed at the left, the communists, and the trade unionists.
This lack of freedom was the immediate prompt for the revolution. Beginning in 1977, when a number of writers and poets published open letters criticizing the Shah for the lack of democracy. Demonstrations began in the first few months of 1978, which the police open-fired at. The funeral processions for those who were murdered became mass demonstrations. The shootings only spurred the masses on. “Death to the Shah” quickly became one of the main slogans. Under the impact of events, the Shah was forced to legalize some political parties and trade unions, and free some political prisoners. This prompted a wave of strikes and unionization, and within a week, the Shah declared martial law and reversed his concessions.
In September 1978, the government murdered at least 100 protestors in a day dubbed “Black Friday.” What followed was an intensification of the revolution, with the oil workers joining the revolution. The oil workers coordinated a general strike across the whole country. It cost the regime $50 million dollars a day, and it was an extended general strike. In October 1978, 120,000 struck in oil, steel, and railways. While some considered the oil workers as the ‘privileged’ higher paid group that would never revolt, the strike of the oil workers proved to be extremely militant. They prompted the rest of the working class to join the struggle. Workers committees were set up in all the major industries, and the oil industry was under the complete control of the workers’ committees. Even the white collar office workers joined the struggle. Office workers, bank employees, and professionals joined in the strikes and mass demonstrations. By December 1978, you had mass demonstrations every single day.
The regime was starting to crack, as lower ranks of the army started to fraternize with the protestors. These lower ranks came from the working class, and began refusing to fire on their own families and neighbors. While the regime appeared as a monolith, it was in fact starting to break down along class lines. Even the strongest of dictatorships cannot prevent this process when a revolution is underway.
The imperialists watched these events with anxiety. The man they backed was losing popularity by the day, and they realized it was only a matter of time before he would be gone. They were afraid of the downfall of capitalism if the workers went further in their strikes and workers’ control. They started turning to Khomeini, the exiled Ayatollah, who was living in France. At a certain point, he was the only one they could trust to save capitalism. Only the Ayatollah could play this role, because he was seen as a legitimate leader of the revolution.
At this point, it’s worth considering how Khomeini was able to develop a base in the movement. First of all, he had already positioned himself against the regime, as being for the overthrow of the Shah. The actions of the masses served to push the rest of the clergy against the Shah. The institution of the Islamic clergy also involved a network of mosques all across the country. There was a stronger connection to the religious institutions for those unemployed youth who had recently moved from the countryside, and now lived in the slums. Mosques played a role in providing legal gathering spaces, for organizing against the regime. The mosques also had a historical connection to the bazaaris in the towns, that is the merchants, traders, and artisans. They had come under attack from the Shah in the previous period, and united with the clergy against the regime. By using populist language about “Islamic Justice” for the poor and dispossessed, the middle-class clergy was able to unite the poor, the unemployed youth, the small shop owners, artisans, as well as a section of the industrial working class.
We should also consider the role of the left parties during the revolution. The Communist Party, or Tudeh Party as it was called, was the historical party of the working class in Iran. Remember, it had played a large role in the events of the 50s. It organized underground during the Shah’s rule, and had links with the industrial working class. Many of the worker-militants in the oil sector were members, or sympathizers, of the Tudeh Party.
While this was an important achievement, what’s crucial here is what strategy they pursued during the 1979 revolution. The Tudeh Party, which was a Stalinist party, had the theory of “two stages.” According to this theory, the revolution must first be a bourgeois democratic revolution, which involved getting rid of the Shah and US imperialism. The “progressive national bourgeoisie” would lead this first stage of the revolution, and develop an independent national capitalism in Iran for a period of time. The second stage is the socialist revolution, which was said to be way in the future. Effectively, the Party abandoned the task of socialist revolution, and gave all of its support to the progressive bourgeoisie. And who was this progressive bourgeoisie? Well, it was none other than the Ayatollah Khomeini and the clergy. The Party leadership put all of its support behind the Ayatollah, effectively acting as cheerleaders for the mullahs. This only served to confuse the working class, and give the Ayatollah a larger base.
The Party could have put forward an independent class policy, pushing forward the revolution with clear transitional demands and building a real leadership that could lead the working class to power. They could have changed the whole situation. But the Party leadership chose not to do this, and betrayed the working class. It assisted the Islamic fundamentalists in hijacking the revolution.
Returning back to our timeline of the revolution, by January 1979, the Shah realized that he could not continue to hold onto power. He fled the country for good on January 16th. He appointed Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar to run the country in his stead. Bakhtiar allowed Khomeini to come back to Iran. When Khomeini arrived, 8 million people were on the streets. Soon after, Khomeini’s representatives met with army officers from the regime, to facilitate a transfer of power. He proceeded to appoint his own Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, and refused to recognize Bakhtiar’s government. In February 1979, there was a mutiny of air force cadets. Bakhtiar attempted to send in the Imperial Guard and crush it. However, this backfired, and it led to insurgency all across the military. The masses came onto the streets, putting up barricades and linking up with the military ranks in rebellion. The military barracks were stormed by the masses, and thousands of guns were distributed. A few of the small Stalinist guerilla groups, like the Mojahedin-e-Khalq and the Fedayeen played a role in this insurrection. After a few days, all the main government buildings, communications and military bases had been seized. Bakhtiar was forced to flee the country.
The following months were considered the springtime for the Iranian people. With legal parties and trade unions, and the fall of the regime, the masses took their new freedoms and used them. The trade unions massively expanded. Workers went on strike to get their back wages, with 50,000 strikes in the month after the revolution. Workers’ control of the industries was expanded. In the countryside, the peasants took land from the landlords. In the universities, socialist student circles sprang up and were quite active. In the factories and the neighborhoods, the working class gathered in councils to start running and administering society. These councils were called shuras, and were akin to Soviet councils during the Russian Revolution. In some areas in the north of Iran, the shuras took over the administration of the cities. In reality, power was in the hands of the masses, but there was no party to explain this to them, and complete this revolutionary process.
The organizations on the left saw massive growth. The Tudeh Party grew to hundreds of thousands of members, with support from the decisive section of the industrial working class. The Mojahedin-e-Khalq and the Fedayeen, which had been tiny organizations of just a few hundred members before February, now exploded to become mass organizations with large followings. For example, the Fedayeen started with 200 members before February, and in the months after the insurrection they got thousands of members and 2 million sympathizers. Iran had the biggest May Day demonstrations ever in 1979, with hundreds of thousands attending rallies of the unions and left organizations, as well as those of Khomeini’s party.
The capitalists saw the situation, and decided to pack up and leave. There was large-scale capital flight from Iran, with the capitalists abandoning their factories. The workers’ occupied these factories and took control. In order to prevent further capital flight, and under the pressure of the workers, Khomeini’s government was forced to nationalize the major industries and banks, and institute a state monopoly on foreign trade.
While the new Islamic Republic regime attempted to co-opt the revolutionary movement with left speeches and the nationalizations, they were in fact preparing a counter-revolutionary assault against the movement. They denounced the Communists in their speeches and press, and they worked to shut down the workers’ control of the industries. Under the guise of “Islamizing” the councils, they gained control of some of the shuras, hollowed them out of any progressive content, and turned them into tools for the regime. There was a months-long conflict between the government and the oil workers, who refused to submit and hand power back to the government’s “Islamic management.” Khomeini ordered workers to go back to work, and argued that going on strike was “counter-revolutionary.” The government also attempted to institute a mandatory veiling of women, but this was initially resisted quite strongly by mass women’s demonstrations. So, while the new government attempted to repress the left and the movement, they initially found it quite difficult to do so.
In fact, had there been a correct lead from the Tudeh Party and the other left organizations, the Khomeini government could have been done away with. In the year following the February insurrection, Khomeini lost much of his base, as he came into conflict with the revolutionary movement. With an independent class approach by the left organizations, the workers’ control could have been extended and centralized and a government based on workers’ shuras could have come into being. The course of the world revolution could have been changed. The problem, again, was that all of these left organizations continued to back Khomeini, to paint him as a progressive anti-imperialist.” This was a fatal mistake.
With the backing of the left, Khomeini proceeded to consolidate the counter-revolution. They set up new institutions of power, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, often made up of these unemployed youth who had been the most fervent Khomeini supporters. The Guards and the pro-regime street gangs were used to suppress demonstrations of the left. As Khomeini’s support amongst the students evaporated, he closed down the universities and sent in gangs to kill the student activists. During this period, there were a number of movements for autonomy, in the regions of Kurdistan, Sistan, and Baluchistan. The regime worked with the old landowners to defeat the peasants in Kurdistan who had seized land. They sent in the military to crush the Kurdish self-determination movement. Entire communities were evicted and bombed out of their homes. The regime could only build itself up by crushing all the revolutionary movements.
One of the events that may be most familiar to Americans is the US embassy takeover in November 1979. Organized by a pro-Khomeini student organization, the embassy was seized and the staff was taken hostage. In a situation where Khomeini was losing popularity by the day, this was a perfect opportunity to use his anti-imperialist demagogy and rebuild support. There were mass rallies held outside the embassy. This action was used to further isolate any opponents of the Islamic Republic.
While Khomeini was busy attempting to suppress the left, the revolutionary movement expanded beyond the country’s borders. The movement spread to neighboring Iraq, with protests against Saddam Hussein’s regime. With the backing of US imperialism, in April 1980 Saddam invaded Iran. This was an attempt by imperialism to crush the revolution, and bring a US-subordinate regime back into power. Khomeini used the war effort to rally the country behind him and crush the revolution once and for all. Workers’ control in the factories was crushed, the different left organizations were banned one by one, and the state was strengthened and centralized. Khomeini assumed dictatorial powers, as the Supreme Leader of Iran.
During the war, the main left organizations continued to support the government, and backed Khomeini, even as the government began cracking down on them. While a Marxist position would have defended the Iranian revolution against an invasion by US imperialism’s proxy, there was no logical reason to support Khomeini, who used the war for his own ends. Marxists would explain that the workers must fight US Imperialism with their own forces and methods. Khomeini’s government could not defeat imperialism and really was looking to make a deal with it, if it could secure one.
Through the early 80s, the left organizations were picked off one by one. The Tudeh Party was the last to be banned, in 1983. Their leaders were arrested, tortured, made to give false confessions, and ultimately executed. In 1988, thousands of political prisoners were executed by the regime, in one of the largest anti-communist massacres in history. This period marks the completion of the counter-revolution.
The Iranian Revolution was crushed, but that does not mean we must forget. We must learn the lessons from this important workers’ revolution. Above all, what we can learn is that without a clear revolutionary leadership built up before a revolution, the revolution will inevitably be defeated. Unless such a party has roots in the masses beforehand, it will not have an effect on events. The Tudeh Party and the other left organizations had the chance to lead the revolution, as they had some links with the working class already built up beforehand. There was a golden opportunity to lead the formation of a workers’ state, based on the already developing workers’ shuras, and defeat Khomeini’s counter-revolution. However, their theory of “two-stage revolution” and their support of the “progressive national bourgeois” doomed them. Rather than leading a campaign to win over the poor, the unemployed, and the middle class who were Khomeini’s base, the Tudeh Party instead chose to tail end an Islamic fundamentalist leader. They betrayed the revolution, and in turn were betrayed by Khomeini, who wiped them out.
These are lessons for workers both in Iran and the US. Some on the left in the US, particularly Stalinists, believe that the current Iranian regime is an anti-imperialist and progressive state. It’s anything but that. It was built on the bones of the working class. It is a reactionary clerical theocracy, presiding over a decrepit capitalist economy. At various times, it has made deals with the US. While Marxists in the US must stand against any imperialist measures against Iran, we must be under no illusions that the regime has any progressive content. If we are to link up with Iranians both here in the US and in Iran, then we need to know the real history of the revolution and the nature of the regime.
The mass revolutionary youth movement in Iran today shows that the revolutionary traditions of 1979 live on. The students are playing a key role in this situation, as many of their parents did in the previous generation. They have the opportunity to win over the working class to the side of revolution. One of the latest developments, the strikes of oil workers, has the potential to bring down the regime, just as the oil workers’ strike in 1979 which broke the back of the Shah’s regime. Neighborhood committees have formed in many cities as well. All of these developments show tremendous potential, but we have to remember that there is not yet a revolutionary party that can give the movement a lead. Now more than ever, we need to build a revolutionary organization in Iran.
We also need to build that organization in the US. American imperialism is a real threat to any revolutionary movement in the Middle East. The Iranian regime also uses the threat of US intervention in order to scare people away from protesting. If we are able to get rid of capitalism here, then imperialism will suffer a massive blow, and it will make it easier to organize in the rest of the world. Socialist Revolution is organizing for this in branches all across the country, in conjunction with our class siblings all over the world, organized in the International Marxist Tendency. I hope you join us in the fight. The fight for women, life, freedom, and for socialist revolution.