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Protests in Iran: a Marxist analysis

Updated: Feb 12

Ardeshir Mehrdad argues for a New Left in Iran and the wider Middle East that can unite the masses in struggle against imperialism and neoliberalism.

30 January 2020.

Anti-regime protests following downing of Ukrainian airliner.


Interviewer: Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen wild swings in protests in Iran: from the anti-regime protests before Soleimaini’s assassination, through the huge funeral mobilisations, to renewed anti-regime actions following the shooting down of the Ukrainian plane. What does this volatility demonstrate?


AM: The explanation of the contradictory positions taken, and wide swings in the popular response, in recent weeks in Iran has to be sought in the interlocking of a number of elements.


Firstly, they are taking place at a time of severe crisis and with a background of fast-changing, unexpected developments: the sudden hike in petrol prices in Iran, the assassination of Soleimani, the Ukrainian plane crash, the Revolutionary Guards admitting responsibility for the downing, alongside numerous other events. These do not have the same content, and reactions to them are associated with different psychological and mental states.


The tripling of fuel prices was a heavy blow to large sections of the population, confronting them with the threat of widespread destitution. This provided a golden opportunity for these people to express their anger and discontent, while the assassination of a senior member of the Revolutionary Guards (read Gestapo), who had appeared in the eyes of certain sections of the population as a saviour against ISIS-Daesh, particularly at the hands of a foreign power, was a concrete provocation that roused nationalist sentiments within these sections.


Meanwhile, the shooting down of a passenger aircraft by the Revolutionary Guards provided another excuse for that part of the population whose voice had been silenced by the savage repression of the uprisings last November.


Secondly, the apparent contradictory positions taken by people, who in less than two months poured into the streets of various cities of Iran, is not necessarily a sign of their political volatility. It is important to emphasise that the social composition of these movements vary, as do their political or cultural tendencies, and geographic origins.


The November uprising took place in predominantly smaller towns and by the poorest sections of society. It expressed itself in direct opposition to the regime and its policies, and developed into a movement that clearly rejected the ruling system.


The central core of the mass of protestors at the assassination of Soleimani, and those that accompanied his coffin in large cities like Ahwaz, Tehran, Mashhad, and Kerman, mostly consisted of a mixture of military personnel, government employees, the clergy, sections of bazaar merchants and shop-keepers, students and parts of the middle layers of society (some of whom came voluntarily and some out of necessity).


Meanwhile, the protests that followed the downing of the Ukrainian passenger airline predominantly came from universities and students, who came out with fairly radical slogans and were able to bring out some sections of urban middle layers of society, but were surrounded by the repressive machinery of the state before they could realise all their potential.


Thirdly, the uprisings of last November, and again in December, had formed spontaneously, in direct confrontation with the repressive machinery of the security services and police. In contrast, the masses that escorted Soleimani’s coffin were under the direct protection of the military and police and their participation was in total agreement with the regime’s machinery of ideological repression.


In other words, the different directions taken by the successive movements in Iran, rather than reflecting volatility in political, emotional, and belief systems of the same population, was a reflection of the political tensions, class and social divisions, and the crisis conditions facing the country.


Interviewer: What is the political character of the protests? Is there any kind of coherent political programme driving resistance? And is there a self-conscious leftist current within the protests? (As an add-on, if not, why not?)


AM: It is difficult to show a single political character to all the mass movements that took place over the last two months in Iran. Firstly, the essence of those movements that were mobilised in harmony with the positions of the regime and those that took shape in direct confrontation with it are, in political character, on fundamentally opposing poles.


Secondly, it is even difficult to find a single, constant and cohesive political character in the movements that took shape against the regime over the last few months. These movements have been predominantly spontaneous, and hence the people who make up their ranks have different social and class origins with divergent demands and interests.


Thirdly, the slogans and demands of the protesting crowds rarely stayed constant and failed to undergo mutation during the duration of the movement. Movements that began with protest against a single policy or action of the regime, quickly gave space to tendencies within them who wanted to overthrow the ruling political system and moved from a movement wanting ‘reform’ to an uprising demanding structural ‘change’.


The street demonstrations of last November and December, despite their broad geographical extent and their vast explosive potential, have been unable to progress beyond being separate, transient, spontaneous, and short-lived to evolve into movements with deep social and class roots, and with robust organisational structures, stable leadership, means of mobilisation, strategy, tactics, a programme, and a clear ideological framework.


Marxist currents undoubtedly exist among the ranks of these protests, although without clear features, obvious presence, or a clear trajectory that one can make out in the slogans and demands. By limiting the goal of radical politics in these movements to the overthrow of the regime, it is not possible to differentiate the various political and ideological currents within it.


The absence of the organised Left in the political sphere of the country has been the main reason that the presence of elements from the Left in these movements has not gone beyond individuals. The Left has thus been unable to play a decisive role in guiding these movements.

Different protest, different people: pro-regime following assassination of Soleimani.


Interviewer: You talk about the absence of the organised Left in the country. The Left in Iran has a long history and has, at times such as the revolution, been a truly mass force. Like other oppositional forces, it was massively repressed in the 1980s. However, many of those now on the streets were not even alive then. Why hasn’t the Left been able to rebuild? Why was the repression of the mullahs so much more successful than the repression of the Shah?


AM: The weakness and impotence of the organised Left in Iran antedates by years the 1979 revolution and the setting up of the Islamic Republic. It dates back to the 1960s, when the various crises and divisions within the world communist movement split the Left in the country into rival groups and tendencies at odds with one another, which was coupled with waves of repression at the hands of the Shah’s police.


The 1979 revolution changed the situation for a number of months. In a society where progressive values already have deep historic roots, the revolution created an atmosphere favourable to a rejuvenation of Marxist and communist tendencies. It allowed what remained of Left groups after the Shah’s repression to come out of their team-houses, gain a mass following, and have a significant presence in the political scene of the country.


These developments were so terrifying for the enemies of revolution that it drew conservative and reactionary sections within Iran into an undeclared alliance against the danger of the Left with the major powers in charge of global capital. The result was Washington, London, and Paris’s support for the passing on of power to an Islamic regime.


Right at the beginning, and in order to stabilise and strengthen its hold on power, the totalitarian and ultra-conservative regime that took over from the Shah placed at the forefront of its agenda the closure of the political atmosphere, and the breaking up all the parties and organisations belonging to the spectrum of the Left. The most horrific machinery of repression was put in place, and for years the butchering of socialists and communists was central to its mission.


But the defeat of the revolution was not just followed by the brutal suppression of socialist and communist organisations. The repressive arm of the new regime also targeted the social basis of the Left. Not a single sector of the progressive and organised sections of the workers movement, the student movement, progressive movements of nationalities, women, teachers, intellectuals, and artists were spared.


With the establishment of a religious-populist autocracy and by pursuing an anti-Western policy (with an anti-imperialist facade), the regime tried to substitute a line-up based on identity for one based on class: to create religious divisions within the labour camp. With the dual use of repression and integration, the regime was able to remove large sections of the social basis of the Left to outside the influence of the organised Left.


The occupation of the US Embassy and the war with Iraq, which provoked nationalist sentiments and also neutralised some sections of the Left, provided effective levers for the pursuance of this policy.


In those early years, the objective obstacles for the Left were not merely confined to developments within the country. A number of international developments had undeniable effects on the life and survival of the organised Left.


One of the most significant was the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which pulled the rug from beneath the feet of a significant section of the Left and produced an enormous intellectual vacuum. The collapse of the Soviet Union put that model of socialism in question, and caused a sizeable disintegration in some sections of the Left.


There is no doubt that the defeat of the revolution and what happened both inside and outside the country dealt a major blow to the Left movement and made many of them lose hope in a revolutionary transformation and the socialist project.


But what resulted in the marginalisation and disappearance of the Left for decades from the political scene of the country, in my view, went beyond the internal and international factors discussed above.


Inner crises and ideological and theoretical dead-ends are other irrefutable elements, with a long-term role, in the breakup of the political life of the Left in Iran. The appearance of a complicated regime that had brought with it the defeat of the revolution challenged the theoretical and political capability of the Left and tore it apart.


A thinking that put a Chinese Wall between capitalism and imperialism and had the capacity, not only to separate democracy from socialism, but also to sacrifice both on the altars of the anti-imperialist struggle, had effectively become an instrument for a capitalist regime and a reactionary savage dictatorship that is the Islamic regime.


To revive the basis of a Left with such a record and legacy among people whose revolution had been stolen from them would be, if not miraculous, extraordinarily difficult and gruelling.


At the other corner in the Left spectrum, we have supporters of the armed struggle and of ultra-left revolutionism. These are groups addicted to fixed cliché-like ideologies incapable of understanding the structural and social roots of the new regime, unable to comprehend the power of populism in fragmenting the camp of toil and labour.


These are groups unable to grasp the reality that a regime that has risen out of a revolution can for years rely on its ability to mobilise and attack opponents from within these cracks.

These are groups unable to understand this simple equation that to welcome a premature confrontation with such a regime is an irreparable folly whose only result will be thousands of deaths and years of disappointments and disillusionment.


In short, the defeat of the revolution added a chain of acute ideological, political, and organisational issues to those that the Left had accumulated in the previous period. The crises in theory and enslavement in ideological dogmas for years confronted the rebuilding of the Left with internal obstacles and left large sections incapable of answering such basic questions as:


· How do you explain a right-wing totalitarian regime, yet with slogans that are ‘anti-imperialist’, portraying itself as a ‘protector of the poor’ and with deep roots among the most deprived people?


· Or on a more abstract and programmatic level, what understanding do you have of such dual entities as capitalism and imperialism; socialism and democracy; the working class and the middle layers of society?


· What about the relationship between the fight for gender equality and that for socialism; or the struggle for national, ethnic, and religious equality and the struggle for socialism?

It was in such a setting that the organised Left splintered and melted away, and reappeared in the shape of closeted rusting sects that only found their identity in confrontation with one another.


We can therefore summarise that the faint and ineffective presence of the organised Left in today’s political developments in the country, and the objective-historic background surrounding it for decades, in part influenced their marginal effectiveness on the mass protest movements. However, the entwined ideological, political, and organisational paralysis that grew from its very midst cannot be belittled.


Still, after a long absence, there are encouraging signs that the Left-current in Iran is in the process of shedding its skin and re-emerging. Numerous Marxist circles, nuclei and study groups, artistic, literary, legal centres, and growing networks of Marxist researchers are forming among the student, worker, women, and ecological movements that give one hope of the appearance of a new Left, with new organisational structures, and with a fresh political and ideological approach.

Fuel-price protest in Iran, December 2019.


Interviewer: Where do you see this oppositional movement going and why?


AM: If the protest movement does not succeed in overthrowing the regime, it will stop at a bifurcation of either being absorbed or repressed. The alternative of getting concessions from the regime does not exist. The regime doesn’t even have the potential to accept some of the demands of the protesting people and use that as a lever for reforming itself.


This is a reality we have experienced for four decades. This regime is terrified of repeating Gorbachev’s experience and following the fate of the Soviet Union, and assumes that the smallest retreat in front of the people is tantamount to its collapse and annihilation.


When it comes to the imperialist powers, however, it takes a different approach. Despite its rhetoric, whenever it feels confident that its security is assured, it is ready for any compromise with the ‘Great Satan’.


It will persist on using the anti-Western and anti-American positions in so far as, and as long as, they act as a barrier to hold back the pressures and threats by domination-seeking global powers, that is, while it sees its existence as an ‘unordinary regime’ threatened.


Otherwise it has fulfilled its role as a ‘capitalist state’ in keeping with the interests of the powers controlling the world of capital. It has not only been perfectly adept at fulfilling the ‘general condition of capitalist reproduction’, but has faithfully followed the neoliberal model of capitalist development and accumulation by freeing and commodifying the country’s economy and fully integrating it in the neoliberal global capitalist economy.


Efforts to extend the regime’s influence in the region and also its nuclear and missile projects are, in the main, part of its project of survival. I believe that if the security of its national geographical boundaries of sovereignty is guaranteed, it may well abandon its current resolve in maintaining a ‘strategic depth’.


The real enemy of the political system ruling Iran is internal: the people who have risen to defend their trampled rights against oppression, dictatorship, and corruption. The regime is ready to ally itself with any foreign power if that helps bring the people’s uprising to its knees.


Once this is understood, the future of the protest movement is, in the first place, to overcome all hesitations and fully unite under a movement for overthrow. This is a necessary condition.


But a sufficient condition for the movement is to replace the regime with one that has the interests and aspirations of the majority of the deprived and exploited in the country. The sufficient condition is the creation of an alternative based on fundamentally different social roots, where political liberation is combined with social liberation, where freedom, equality, and social justice are institutionalised.


Otherwise, once again a counter-revolution will arise from within a popular revolution. One cruel anti-popular regime will give way to another of the same ilk. This argument applies regardless of whether the new regime is dependent on imperialist powers, takes place through a restructuring within the regime and the transfer of power from the mullahs to the military, or even a combination of the two.


Interviewer: What are the regional implications of these overlapping crises within Iran?


AM: I have to admit that, in my view, conditions are far too complicated for me to paint a clear picture of the effects of the various entangled crises within Iran and the region. Neither the current strength not extent of these many crises are stable entities, nor their reciprocal effects on each other.


But in answer to your question, I would like to pull out two main crises from among the maze of developments, and present some hypotheses on their effects on the region, depending on the route taken by them.


These two are the tension between the people of Iran and the regime, and crisis and tension between the regime and imperialist powers in the region.


The outcome of the confrontation between the regime of mullahs and the people who have risen against it is to a great extent linked to the outcome of the regime’s confrontation with US imperialism and its regional allies. The two also reciprocally affect one another.


To state the obvious, a popular uprising in Iran that succeeds in overthrowing the regime and takes a leap towards profound social and political change will not have the same effect on the region as one that ends in the defeat of such a movement.


The first outcome would have the potential to inspire and rekindle revolutionary movements across the region and breathe new life into the project of linking up the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movements. Such an outcome would put a brake on the activities of religious and ethnic groups that fuel the rise of the ultra-conservative, nationalist, and racist right, which encourages imperialist interference.


The second outcome will exacerbate the already tragic conditions existing in the region – war, destruction, destitution, and terrorism – and will have negative psychological effects on other revolutionary movements in the region. It will permit other anti-popular, dictatorial, and corrupt regimes to continue their existence with greater ease, and make it easier for imperialist powers to sacrifice the prosperity and the living standards of the people of the region for their own benefit and domination.


However, subjugation or achieving a victorious social revolution are not the only fates awaiting the protest movements of the people of Iran. A real danger, considering the enormous resources that are being invested to this aim, is to be submerged into the imperialist project (led by US imperialism) and being channelled towards their desired alternatives.


On this path, whether the popular protest is used for ‘regime change’ or as a way of wheeling and dealing and getting concessions out of the regime, the end result would be the same – the creation of either a new regime equally corrupt and equally authoritarian (and of course servile to imperial interests to its core) or a continuation of what is already there.


Whichever path the imperialist project takes, the consequence would be an atmosphere of passivity and disappointment among people who had paid a heavy price for their uprising only to find more of the same. This is an effect that could reverberate throughout the entire region with its destructive consequences for the psychology of resistance and movements.


The outcome of the crisis and conflict between the regime of the ayatollahs and the Trump regime, in its bare bones, is either compromise or military confrontation. Allow me not to enter a discussion of which of the two is likely. In order to provide a brief reply, I propose that either outcome would be the same.


Any agreement between the two regimes, whatever the cost of achieving this might be, will reduce economic pressure inside the country. This would reduce both the frequency and severity of popular protest. Meanwhile, it would change the balance of power within the regime in favour of the factions that want some transformation, thus opening the way for change within the regime.


At a regional level, this compromised agreement would reduce the influence of the regime and dampen down and reduce the explosive potential of the conflicts between the Iranian regime and others in the region. It is obvious that such developments could act as a double-edged sword for popular movements with a liberation agenda.


On the one hand, it could place a check on ethnic, national, and religious feelings and reduce the level of identity, religious, and ethnic tensions that pollute the political atmosphere and even create conditions for supra-national solidarity.


However, in the short term, it could also give more scope for regional regimes and imperialist powers to act with greater ease and greater cooperation against movements for liberation and deny them the opportunity to find a breathing space using the divisions between these powers.


Military confrontation, irrespective of whether it ends up as an all-out war, changes the Iranian regime, or even sparks a civil war with a possible breakup of the country, would hurt the very people who are fighting for a system based on popular sovereignty, consultation, and equality.


It is clear that war is destructive. But for those who are trying to create a society that is built from below based on the interests of people of toil and labour, war is worse than death, disease, ruin, and displacement. War can bring the loss of dreams and the collapse of hopes. A new war, no matter what its extent, will doubtless not remain limited, either geographically or in duration, nor respect boundaries.


A military conflict between the Islamic Republic and the US, at whatever level, without doubt will spill outside. Regional countries, especially Iran’s neighbours, cannot remain immune to the shrapnel of war. A war spells a real threat for the region, its people, especially those that oppose war and outside interference and fight for a better and more just life.


A final word. Whatever directions the internal crises of Iran take, and whatever effect they will have on the countries of the Middle East, one cannot imagine the prospect of a stable and inspirational growth for the popular movements of the region without them linking up in solidarity and cooperation, without them overcoming ethnic, national, linguistic, religious barriers, and developing into truly regional movements.


Ardeshir Mehrdad is a scholar and veteran political activist who has been a political prisoner of both the Shah and the Islamic Republic. A former editor of Iran Bulletin-Middle East Forum, he has written extensively, in Farsi and English, on the nature of political Islam and the structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He is a regular contributor to Middle East 4 Change.

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