1979 Iran revolution – a Marxist perspective

1979 saw the overthrow of the Shah and his absolutist monarchy in Iran. A vibrant array of left-wing parties from liberal to Marxist played a role in the revolution but in swept Ayatollah Khomeini and the mullahs supported by the middle class and rural masses. Not what the Left had hoped for.

Instead of a socialist state, the revolution heralded forty years of theocratic rule – combining a degree of democracy with heaps of repression. Khomeini’s victory made possible in part by the faulty analysis of the Left – some opting to support Khomeini as a ‘progressive’ (sic); others engaging in terrorist assassinations and then those who goaded the Iraqis to invade.

In 1981, the position of most Marxists was that the mullahs had leapt on the revolutionary bandwagon and derailed it. I attended meetings of the Iranian Mojahedin addressed by Labour MPs and trade unionists. The leaflet below is one that I retained from one of these meetings.

Opposition to Khomeini seemed obvious. But not to everybody. There were those on the Left who argued a tortuous line that the Ayatollah was a misunderstood progressive.

The argument normally went along the lines that Marx had failed to understand religion as a revolutionary force and that in 1979 there was no “bourgeoisie, capitalism or class conflict” in Iran. Plus, hey, Khomeini must be progressive because US imperialism hates him so much. Ergo – the Left should support the mullahs.

That said, even within Iran some workers sincerely believed that Khomeini was coming back from exile to his homeland to seize the wealth of the rich and give it to the poor. One worker said as much to an American correspondent. But Khomeini was no enemy of private property and indeed was a staunch ally of the conservative bazaar class.

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Iran Revolution and the Tudeh Party

It’s worth looking at the grim fate of Iran’s Communists to understand the true nature of the theocrats in charge. In the aftermath of the revolution, the Tudeh Party (the Iranian Communists) propped up Khomeini. The wily Ayatollah used them for as long as he had to before choosing his moment to snuff them out in an orgy of executions, torture and imprisonment.

The Soviet Union had hoped to get on the right side of Khomeini having previously – as the above pamphlet details – given support to the deposed Shah. Up until 1983, Tudeh politicians acquiesced in the crushing of other left-wing parties. But then they found themselves isolated and it was easy for Khomeini to wipe them out.

Ultra-Left get it wrong – again

In the pamphlet pictured at the top, Ted Grant argues that the ultra-Left in the 1970s did the revolutionary movement within Iran no favours by supporting terrorist acts. There was a failure to orientate towards the working class, which was often viewed as having been bought off by the Shah. And increasingly the middle class and radicals were forced to meet in the country’s mosques.

The mosques were increasingly radicalised in response to moves by the Shah – such as the expropriation of their property – that made the mullahs more hostile to the Shah.

Iran Revolution: Ted Grant – overly optimistic

However, Grant argued – in the lead up to the revolution – that while Khomeini would probably overthrow the monarchy and establish an Islamic Republic, it would fail to satisfy the demands of workers and students. Simply abolishing interest on religious grounds was no substitute for getting rid of capitalism.

This led Grant into a rather optimistic scenario where he thought the Tudeh Party would then grow massively but then experience a split between working class and middle class factions. The latter would support the theocracy – which kind of happened. But Grant’s prediction that popular support for Khomeini would “melt away” didn’t occur. Instead, a wave of repression in the early 1980s kept the mullahs firmly in place.



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