The prophet and the proletariat, first published in International Socialism in 1994 and later issued as a pamphlet, was one of Chris Harman’s most sophisticated works of political analysis.

This work examined the complexity of Islamist political movements in their historical context. Harman especially drew out the relationships between Western (in particular US) imperialism, national liberation movements and Islamist ideologies. In doing so he avoided simplification and caricature.

His analysis also informed political strategy in ways that proved indispensable, providing a powerful example of how correct theory can inform effective political practice for socialists. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the left was able to initiate a mass movement in Stop the War, which could be broad at the same time as having a radical anti-imperialist core. The movement helped popularise previously obscure arguments.

Harman’s nuanced critique of political Islam was very useful. He examined Islamist movements in relation to the societies they emerged from, and also in relation to the pressures exerted by Western imperialism. He enriched our understanding and helped us steer clear of one-sided explanations, which not everyone avoided, that emphasised only the reactionary elements in Islamism (or, conversely, only the progressive aspects).

A crucial component was Harman’s understanding of how, in a number of countries including Iran, Islamism filled a gap that could have potentially been filled by the Left. In the section we are re-publishing here, he traces how there was a struggle for influence in the 1979 revolution and its aftermath. Alternative outcomes were possible.

That revolution is one of the events which define the Middle East today. This account of the political forces at work, and of how they interacted in the years that followed, is invaluable.

Iran: revolution, Islamism and the left

Chris Harman

The Islamic regime in Iran dominates discussions on Islamic revivalism, much as the record of Stalinism dominates discussions on socialism. And often, even on the left, very similar conclusions are drawn. The Islamists are seen, much as the Stalinists were once seen, as the most dangerous of all political forces, able to impose a totalitarianism that will prevent any further progressive development. In order to stop them it is necessary for the left to unite with the liberal section of the bourgeoisie [1], or even to support non-democratic states in their repression of the Islamist groups. [2]

It is a view that overrates the cohesion of Islamism and ascribes to it an ability to dictate historical events which in reality it does not have. And it rests on an erroneous understanding of the role of Islam during and after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

That revolution was not a product of Islamism, but of the enormous contradictions that arose in the Shah’s regime in the mid to late 1970s. Economic crisis had heightened the deep divisions which existed between sections of modern capital associated with the state and other, more “traditional”, sections centred around the bazaar (which was responsible for two thirds of wholesale trade and three quarters of retail trade) at the same time as deepening the discontent of the mass of the workers and the vast numbers of recent ex-peasants who had flooded into the cities.

Protests of intellectuals and students were joined by the disaffected clergy and spread to involve the urban poor in a series of great clashes with the police and army. A wave of strikes paralysed industry and brought the all important oil fields to a standstill. And then early in February 1979 the left wing guerrillas of the Fedayeen and the left-Islamist guerrillas of the People’s Mojahedin succeeded in fomenting large scale mutinies in the armed forces, so bringing about a revolutionary collapse of the old regime.

Much of the rising movement had identified with the exiled Islamist Ayatollah Khomeini. His name had come to symbolise opposition to the monarchy, and his residence outside Paris had been the point of contact between representatives of the different forces involved – the bazaaris and the clergy who were close to them, the liberal bourgeois opposition, the professional associations, the students and even the left guerrillas. On his return to Tehran in January 1979 he became the symbolic leader of the revolution.

Yet at this stage he was far from controlling events, even though he had an acute sense of political tactics. The key events that brought the Shah down – the spread of the strikes, the mutiny inside the armed forces – occurred completely independently of him. And in the months after the revolution Khomeini was no more able to impose a single authority over the revolutionary upheaval than anyone else.

In the cities various local committees (Komitehs) exercised de facto power. The universities were in the hands of the left and the Mojahedin. In the factories shoras (factory councils) fought for control with management, often forcing out those associated with the Shah’s regime and taking over the organisation of production themselves. In the regions inhabited by ethnic minorities – Kurdistan in the north west and Khuzistan in the Arab speaking south west – movements began to fight for self determination.

And at the top, overseeing this process, was not one body but two. The provisional government was run by Bazargan, a “moderate” Islamist linked to modern sections of the bourgeoisie (he had founded the Islamic students’ associations in the 1950s and then the Islamic Engineers Association). But next to it, acting as an alternative centre of authority, was a revolutionary council nominated by Khomeini, around which coalesced a group of clerics and Islamist intellectuals with links with the bazaars.

The group around Khomeini were eventually able to establish near total power for themselves and their Islamic Republican Party (IRP). But it took them two and a half years of manoeuvring between different social forces which could easily have overwhelmed them.

For most of 1979 they collaborated with Bazargan in an effort to clamp down on the shoras within the factories and the separatist nationalist movements. They used Islamic language to mobilise behind them sections of the lumpen proletariat into gangs, the Hizbollah, which would attack the left, enforce Islamic “morality” (for instance, against women who refused to wear the veil) and join the army in putting down the separatist revolts.

There were instances of brutal repression (the execution of about a hundred people for “sexual crimes”, homosexuality and adultery, the killing of some left wing activists, the shooting down of protesters belonging to the national minorities), as in any attempt to restore bourgeois “normality” after a great revolutionary upheaval.

But the overall balance sheet for the IRP was not very positive in the early autumn of 1979. On the one hand, those successes they had enjoyed in checking the revolution had strengthened the position of the grouping around Bazargan with whom they were increasingly at odds. As a study of Bazargan’s movement has put it:

‘One year after the fall of the Shah it was becoming clear that the better educated middle classes and the political forces they were supporting [ie Bazargan] were rapidly expanding their influence, being dominant in sensitive positions in the mass media, state organisations and especially educational institutions … With the disintegration of the unity of the Islamic forces, the Islamic committees were not capable of having a large majority of the employees of the organisations behind them.’ [3]

On the other, there was a growing ferment that threatened to escape from the Khomeiniites’ control, leading to a massive growth of both the secular left and the Islamic left. The left was dominant among the students, despite the first wave of repression against it in August 1979.

The shoras in the factories had been weakened by this same repression, but many remained intact for another year [4], and the workers’ willingness to struggle was certainly not destroyed – there were 360 “forms of strikes, sit-ins and occupations” in 1979-80, 180 in 1980-1 and 82 in 1981-2. [5]

Khomeini’s struggle for control

The IRP could only regain control itself by making a radical shift in November 1979 – organising the minority of students who followed its banner rather than that of the Fedayeen or People’s Mojahedin to seize the US embassy and hold its staff hostage, provoking a major confrontation with the world’s most important imperialist power.

Another study of this period says: “The fundamentalist student of the ‘Islamic Associations’ who a few weeks earlier had been looked on by their rivals as reactionaries and fanatics, were now posing as super-revolutionaries and were cheered by masses of people whenever they appeared at the gate of the Embassy to be interviewed by reporters.” [6]

The shift to an apparently radical anti-imperialist stance was accompanied by radicalisation of the IRP’s policies in the workplaces. From defending many of the old managers it moved to agitating for their removal – although not for their power to be taken over by the factory councils, but by “Islamic managers” who would collaborate with Islamic councils from which the left and the Mojahedin were automatically excluded as “infidels”.

This radical turn gave new popularity to the IRP It seemed to be putting into effect the anti-imperialism which the group around Bazargan had propagated during their long years of opposition to the Shah but which they were now abandoning as they sought to cement a new relationship between Iran and the US. It was also acting in accord with some of the main and most popular slogans raised in the months since the revolution by the growing forces of both the secular and the Islamic left:

‘The taking over of the American Embassy helped the fundamentalists to overcome some of their difficulties … The outcome helped those groups that advocated the sovereignty of the clergymen to implement their polices and take over the sensitive organisations that were manned and controlled by the better educated middle class. When the students who were loyal to the clergymen invaded the gates of the US embassy, those who had been identified as “reactionaries” re-emerged as the leading revolutionaries, capable of dumping the modernist and secularist forces altogether … It was the beginning of a new coalition in which certain clergy and their bazaari associates were the leaders and large groups from the lower middle class and the urban lower class were the functionaries.’ [7]

The group around Khomeini was not just gaining in popularity, it was also creating a much wider base for itself as it displaced, or at least threatened to displace, the old “non-Islamic” managers and functionaries. In industry, the media, the armed forces, the police, a new layer of people began to exercise control whose careers depended on their ability to agitate for Khomeini’s version of Islamism. And those who remained from the old hierarchies of power rushed to prove their own Islamic credentials by implementing the IRP line.

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. [8] 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. [9] And a prototype for the petty bourgeois who combines ideological fervour and personal advance is to be found in Balzac’s P√©re 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.’ [10]

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”. [11] Nor were they simply an expression of classic bourgeois counter-revolution. [12]

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.’ [13]

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”. [14]

Balance of forces

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. When the IRP suggested sending the Islamic gangs, the Hizbollah, into the universities to purge them of “anti-Islamic elements”, Bani Sadr was happy to comply:

‘Both the IRP leaders and the liberals agreed to the idea of cultural revolution through direct action by the people who were mobilised to march on university campuses … For the liberals it was a means to get rid of the leftist agitators in the public institutions, the factories and the rural areas, so that economic and political stability could be restored to the country …

The gangs of the Hizbollah invaded the universities, injured and killed members of the political groups who were resisting the cultural revolution, and burned books and papers thought to be “un-Islamic”. The government closed all universities and colleges for three years, during which university curricula were rewritten.’ [15]

Yet even at this time the Khomeiniites continued to preserve part of their own “left” image, using anti-imperialist language to justify what they were doing. They insisted the fight to impose “Islamic values” was essential in the struggle against “cultural imperialism”, and that, because the left resisted this, it was in reality working for imperialism.

External events helped them to get away with these arguments. These were the months of the abortive US attempt to recapture the embassy by sending in armed helicopters (which crashed into each other in the desert), of Shiite demonstrations against the government of Bahrin, of pro-Khomeini riots in the oil rich Saudi province of Hasa, of the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by armed Sunni Islamists, and of the attempt by Saddam Hussein of Iraq to ingratiate himself with the US and the Arab Gulf sheikdoms by launching an invasion of Iran.

The Khomeiniites could proclaim, rightly, that the revolution was under attack from forces allied to imperialism, and, wrongly, that they alone could defend it. No wonder Khomeini himself referred to the attack as a “godsend”. The need for all out mobilisation against the invading forces in the winter of 1980-1 allowed his supporters to justify increasing their control, at the expense of both the left and the Bani Sadr group, until in June-July 1981 they were able to crush both, establishing a near totalitarian structure.

But why were the left not able to deal with the advance of the IRP? In retrospect, it is often argued that the fault lies with the failure of the left to understand in time the need for an alliance with the “progressive”, “liberal”, bourgeoisie. This is Halliday’s argument. [16]

But, as we have seen, the liberal bourgeoisie under Bazargan and then Bani Sadr were united with Khomeini in the campaign against the shoras in the factories and the campaign to purge the universities. What divided them was who was going to get the fruits of their successes against the left. It was only when he finally found that he had lost out that Bani Sadr (but not, interestingly, Bazargan, whose party continued to operate legally but ineffectively) joined with the left Islamists of the People’s Mojahedin in an abortive attempt to overthrow the regime.

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. [17] 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.

Weakness of the left

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. [18]

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. [19] 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. Thus the People’s Mojahedin had five “fronts” of activity: an underground organisation for preparing “armed struggle”, a youth front, a women’s front, a bazaari front and, clearly not the top priority, a workers’ front.

What is more, the large left organisations had little to say, even when worker activists did join them. In the vital first eight months of the revolution they made only limited criticisms of the new regime and these consisted mainly of its failure to challenge imperialism. The People’s Mojahedin, for instance:

‘Scrupulously adhered to a policy of avoiding confrontations with the clerical shadow government. In late February when the Fedayeen organised a demonstration of over 80,000 at Tehran university demanding land reform, the end of press censorship and the dissolution of the armed forces, the Mojahedin stayed away. And early in March, when Western educated women celebrated international women’s day by demonstrating against Khomeini’s decrees abrogating the Family Protection Law, enforcing the use of the veil in government offices, and pushing the “less impartial gender” from the judiciary, the Mojahedin warned that “imperialism was exploiting such divisive issues”.

In late March when zealous club wielders attacked the offices of the anti-clerical paper Ayandegan, the Mojahedin said nothing. They opposed a boycott of the referendum over the Islamic republic and Kurdish struggle for autonomy. If the nation did not remain united behind Imam Khomeini, the Mojahedin emphasised, the imperialists would be tempted to repeat their 1953 performance.’ [20]

In August the Mojahedin kept silent when armed gangs attacked the Fedayeen headquarters, and they avoided challenging IRP candidates in the 1979 elections for the Assembly of Experts. After the occupation of the American embassy, the left became even less critical of Khomeini than before. Khomeini ‘was able to split the left opposition completely. Khomeini now declared that all problems arising in the factories, among women and among national minorities were due to US imperialism. It was US imperialism that was fighting the government in Kurdistan, in Tabriz, in Torkamansahra and in Khuzistan. Women opposing Islamic laws were US and Zionist agents. Workers resisting shoras were imperialist agents.

The Tudeh party fell in behind Khomeini’s argument and backed his line. The biggest left organisations – the Fedayeen, the Mojahedin and the Paykar – also broke away from the struggle, abandoning the militant workers, the women and the national minorities, among whom they had some significant presence.’ [21]

The Tudeh (pro-Russian Communist) Party and the majority of the Fedayeen continued to support Khomeini until he had fully consolidated his power in 1982, whereupon he turned on them.

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. [22]

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.

The victory of Khomeini’s forces in Iran was not, then, inevitable, and neither does it prove that Islamism is a uniquely reactionary force against which the left must be prepared to unite with the devil (or rather, the Great Satan) of imperialism and its local allies. It merely confirms that, in the absence of independent working class leadership, revolutionary upheaval can give way to more than one form of the restabilisation of bourgeois rule under a repressive, authoritarian, one party state.

The secret ingredient in this process was not the allegedly “medieval” character of Islam, but the vacuum created by the failure of the socialist organisations to give leadership to an inexperienced but very combative working class.


[1] This is the view put forward by F. Halliday, The Iranian Revolution and its Implications, New Left Review, 166 (November December 1987). It was the view put forward in relation to Stalinism by Max Shachtman and others. See M. Shachtman, The Bureaucratic Revolution (New York, 1962), and, for a critique, T. Cliff, Appendix 2: The theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism, in State Capitalism in Russia (London, 1988).

[2] The position of much of the left today in both Algeria and Egypt.

[3] H.E. Chehabi, Iranian Politics and Religious Modernism (London, 1990), p.169.

[4] For details, see A. Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (London, 1987), p.101-102, 128-129.

[5] Figures given in Ibid., p.108.

[6] M.M. Salehi, Insurgency through Culture and Religion (New York, 1988), p.171.

[7. H.E. Chehabi, op. cit., p.169.

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

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

[10] 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.

[11] Still less did they represent, as Halliday seems to contend, “the strength of pre-capitalist social forces”, op. cit., 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.

[12] As P. Marshall seems to imply in an otherwise excellent book Revolution and Counter Revolution in Iran (London, 1988)

[13] A. Bayat, op. cit., p.134.

[14] T. Cliff, op. cit.

[15] M. Moaddel, Class, Politics and Ideology in the Iranian Revolution (New York, 1993), p.212.

[16] F. Halliday, op. cit., p.57.

[17] 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).

[18] According to M. Moaddel, op. cit., p.238.

[19] A. Bayat, op. cit., p.42.

[20] E. Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin (London, 1989), p.189.

[21] M Poya, op. cit.

[22] M. Moaddel, op. cit., p.216.

From International Socialism Journal 2:64, Autumn 1994.
Copyright © 1994 International Socialism.
Later published as a pamphlet by Bookmarks, London.
Copied with thanks from REDS – Die Roten.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Original online article:The prophet and the proletariat

Tagged under: