Iran: the need for a revolutionary programme

The movement against the Iranian regime continues on the streets, despite heavy-handed repression by regime forces. Having spread to more than 140 cities, towns and villages across the country, what started as a protest against the killing of a young Kurdish woman has turned to a powerful revolutionary movement of the youth against the regime as a whole. The question remains however, where does the movement go from here?

Having initially been caught by surprise by the speed and radicalism of the movement, the regime is now resorting to increased violent repression. Upon returning from the UN general council, Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi warned on Sunday that the authorities would “deal decisively with those who oppose the country’s security and tranquillity.” Since Saturday night, scores of students have been arrested across the country, and according to some reports the number of those killed on the streets has reached 180. Meanwhile, the internet has been severely restricted, and all face-to-face university lectures have been replaced by online classes so as to hinder the students from gathering in greater numbers.

Nevertheless, at the moment of writing, it is not clear if the repression has been successful. In Tehran, a video circulated on Monday showing crowds defiantly chanting: “we will not return home, until we have made a revolution”. Due to internet restrictions, credible information is hard to come by, making it difficult to gauge the real situation on the ground. But videos and images continue to circulate of crowds of youth attacking the security forces and burning their cars, as well as the burning the offices of religious and security authorities and regime propaganda posters.

After raids on student dorms and campuses in which hundreds of students were arrested, student unions reacted by calling a national student strike, demanding the release of political prisoners. The strike was reportedly supported by 15 student unions including those at Sharif University of Technology, Al-Zahra University, Khawaja Nasiruddin Tousi University, Tehran Rehabilitation Sciences, Khwarazmi, Sourah, Chamran Ahvaz, Sahand Tabriz and Boali Sinai Hamedan. In Tabriz, all dental students, except for those working for the university’s emergency services, have also gone on strike. Amongst the calls for student strikes and protests, there were also calls for university staff to join in, a call some professors on individual campuses adhered to.

Iran Hijab protests Image DarafshSince Saturday night, scores of students have been arrested across the country / Image: Darafsh

On Sunday, the Coordination Council of Iranian Teachers’ Trade Associations also announced a strike for Monday and Wednesday (Tuesday was a public holiday), demanding an end to the violent repression and the release of all arrested students. In Shiraz, Isfahan, Teheran and Khuzestan, the local teachers unions called for their members to join the street protests. Fearing the impact of the strikes, authorities in some cities, such as Shiraz and Qazvin, as well as Alborz province, preemptively closed schools on Monday using the excuse of “excessive air pollution”.

The Council for Organising Protests of Oil Contract Workers, a body which has organised several national strikes in the past years, has also threatened to call a strike if the regime does not halt its violent repression.

Groups of workers coming onto the scene on an organised basis is an important step forward. But the situation right now demands more than threats and limited strikes. The only thing that can decisively stop the repression is an all-out general strike, which can paralyse the regime and pose the question of power in society. The call for such a strike has been raised locally in a few areas, as well as by a group of unknown activists on social media. This must be taken up and made the rallying cry of the whole movement.

Such a strike must be organised and prepared by the setting up of committees and councils of struggle in every neighbourhood, school and workplace, which must be connected on a local, regional and national level. While the youth on the streets have shown enormous bravery and will to self sacrifice, they cannot topple the regime on their own. For that, the entrance onto the scene of the working class as an organised force is crucial. That is the only way to stop the repressive apparatus in its tracks and regain momentum for the movement.

Breaking the isolation

The heroic struggle of the Iranian youth, and in particular the women of Iran, has captivated the imagination of millions of people around the world. Their attitude stands in direct contradiction to that of the liberal-democratic Reformists who led the Green Movement in 2009, and who presented themselves as the champions of democracy, but who have spent years grovelling at the feet of the hardline factions of the regime for meagre crumbs. Whilst the Reformists have been used by the regime as a means to channel the struggles of the masses down safe paths, today the youth on the streets have struck terror into the hearts of Khamenei and co.

But as inspiring the present movement is, the numbers on the streets remain relatively low and it is yet to a draw in the active support of the mass of workers and poor, which would allow it to take decisive steps forward. While the majority of the Iranians are sympathetic to the movement, they are hesitant to throw their weight behind it because they do not feel that it provides them a credible alternative to the present system.

The past five years have been the most turbulent in the history of the Islamic Republic, the regime that replaced the hated monarchy in 1979. Since 2018, we have seen a series of national and local struggles on a wide variety of questions, from water shortages to inflation, corruption, the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, the oppression of national minorities and attacks on other democratic rights, attacks on healthcare and education, pensions, wages, privatisation and more.

This period has seen the biggest strike waves since the 1979 revolution, and on an almost weekly basis, new struggles have erupted in different corners of society. Nevertheless, these struggles have remained isolated from one another, although they are not isolated phenomena. What they all reflect and are ultimately caused by is the absolute dead end of capitalism in Iran, a system which is unable to satisfy the most basic needs of society. The task of revolutionaries is precisely to draw this lesson and put it into practice, by unifying all of these struggles into one movement, striking at the root cause of the problem.

For a revolutionary programme

The present movement sprang out of the struggle for women’s rights, the rights of national minorities, and democratic rights more generally. These must be concretised into the demand for an end to all oppression, and for full equal rights before the law for all people regardless of gender, sexuality and nationality. To this we must add the dissolution of the morality police, the basij and revolutionary guards paramilitary groups along with the intelligence agencies; the release of all political prisoners, full freedom of speech and press, freedom to organise; and the convening of a constituent assembly with free and fair elections organised by democratic councils set up by the masses themselves.

The demand for equal rights for national and religious minorities must also go hand in hand with the demand for the right to receive education in their own language should they choose, as well as an urgent and immediate programme of investment and development in marginalised areas.

Morality police Iran Image Satyar EmamiThe present movement must call for the dissolution of the morality police, alongside other demands / Image: Satyar Emami

Democracy in and of itself, however, will not solve the burning needs and aspirations of the masses. It is not by chance that the slogan ‘bread, jobs and freedom’, one of the main slogans of the 1979 revolution, has resurfaced recently. The movement must connect the democratic struggle to the struggle for economic and political demands.

First of all, the demand must be raised for the eradication of all so-called blank contracts, under which more than 90 percent of the workers are employed, and for their replacement by permanent contracts. This must be combined with the demand for a living wage, set by the workers’ organisations themselves, which will immediately make up for the decades of declining wages and guarantee a decent living standard for all, including pensioners. This must be on the basis of a sliding scale of wages, to ensure wages are not eaten up by inflation. At the same time, working hours must be reduced to 30 hours a week to start with, thereby allowing for employment for all.

To fund all of this, all major privately held companies must be nationalised and all privatised companies and banks must be renationalised. All state-owned companies must also immediately be put under the control and management of the workers themselves. The profits of these companies must be used to develop society and raise living standards, rather than line the pockets of the corrupt regime insiders who control them now. The books of these companies must be opened to the public, and the wealth of all those who have been funnelling money out of them immediately seized. The same goes for all those who have built astronomical fortunes on the basis of stealing from state coffers.

The nationalised economy must be organised on the basis of a national and democratic economic plan, to be voted on and ratified by the working masses through their own organisations. In this way, the foundations can be laid for rapid development and industrialisation and the lifting of the majority out of a state of desperate misery.

Such a programme needs to be developed, fleshed out, and changed where necessary via the masses’ own organisations of struggle. On this basis, the movement would be able to draw in the majority of the Iranian workers, youth and poor who are suffering under the dead weight of capitalism, unify their struggles in order to overthrow the regime, and install a new one based on the power of the proletariat itself.

The question of leadership

In the absence of a revolutionary leadership and a programme, the only alternative that has been presented to the masses is Reza Pahlavi, the son of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown by the 1979 revolution. The influence of this would-be prince has been greatly exaggerated in western and Saudi-backed media, who have paraded him as the only hope of the Iranian masses. He has presented himself as a liberal democrat whose only concern is the wellbeing of the Iranian people, egging them on to fight on the streets, to overthrow the regime and install a constitutional monarchy.

Reza Pahlavi Image Gage SkidmoreThe only alternative that has been presented to the masses so far is Reza Pahlavi, the son of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown by the 1979 revolution / Image: Gage Skidmore

This, however, raises a nauseating stink of hypocrisy. Pahlavi attempts to portray his father ruling over an open, liberal society, where the rights of people were guaranteed; ignoring the fact that the old Shah presided over a notoriously brutal regime where thousands were imprisoned, tortured or killed for for the slightest disagreement with his status quo.

The younger Pahlavi’s would-be democratic credentials also belie the fact that he is supported by the Saudi regime, which is based on the most reactionary form of Islamic fundamentalism, one that excludes almost all basic democratic rights for the majority of people.

His main backers, however, are to be found within western imperialism, which for decades held Iran in a stranglehold as a semi-colony. To its countless crimes should be added the present sanctions regime, which are the harshest set of sanctions in history. In effect, they amount to a brutal siege, the effects of which are no less than warfare, making the men in Washington responsible for the worst crimes against the Iranian people. They have wrecked the Iranian economy and thrown millions of people into a state of desperate poverty.

Reza Pahlavi’s only response to these vicious economic attacks has been to criticise the West for negotiating with the Islamic Republic, offering sanctions relief in return for curbing its nuclear activities. In reality, the only point of contention between the monarchists and their western masters, on the one hand; and the present regime on the other, is over who should reap the benefits of the exploitation of the working people of Iran.

The fact that they now try to portray themselves as the defenders of human rights and the supporters of revolution in Iran only serves to weaken the present movement, and sow doubt amongst the wider population as to whether to support it or not. In this way, they are playing into the hands of the regime, which for decades has used the idea of an external threat posed by western imperialism to whip the masses into submission and blackmail them into accepting the rule of the clergy.

In an interview with Iran International, one of several Saudi-backed Iranian media outlets, Reza Pahlavi called for the unity of all political forces against the regime, saying that “the world should know that an alternative exists and this is an action that political forces can cooperate beyond the streets. We may have different political tastes in Iran tomorrow, but at this stage we must unite for our common goal to unite to save the country.”

Some activists have echoed such calls for unity of all political forces, including the monarchists and the liberals, within the present movement. That is a reactionary demand that will only lead to defeat. The interests of the masses and those of the western-backed Iranian bourgeois are diametrically opposed. Unity on such a basis simply means the submission of the interests of the workers and the poor to those of the ruling class, albeit its clean-shaven faction. Furthermore, it will push some layers of the masses into the arms of the regime, thus isolating the radical youth. We also saw this during the Syrian Revolution, where the demand for western intervention by some of the leaders of the movement repelled the working class and strengthened the hand of the Assad regime.

In the past week, the chant, “Death to tyrants, be it the Shah or the Leader [referring to Khamenei],” has been raised in several protests. This is an absolutely correct slogan, which must be incorporated into the programme of the movement, along with the demand for a struggle against imperialism.

Across the Middle East, the imperialists and their reactionary puppets have left behind a trail of chaos and barbarism. The only true allies of the Iranian Revolution are to be found in the workers and poor of the region, who suffer under similar conditions, as well as their brothers and sisters in the western proletariat who have been cheering on the present movement.

We have already seen how the present movement has stirred widespread sympathy in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. But the ground for revolutionary movements have been prepared everywhere in the region. If a call for a united struggle against the rulers goes out, it will no doubt receive a huge echo amongst the Middle Eastern masses.

What is the alternative?

In the absence of a clear revolutionary leadership of the movement, the western-backed monarchists have been able paint themselves as the only organised alternative to the present regime. This has been used by some on the Iranian left, in particular those from the Stalinist tradition, as an excuse to refrain from supporting the present movement. What is the alternative, they ask; where is the leadership? This is a correct question. But they go on to draw all the wrong conclusions.

1979 revolution Iran Image sajedirThe revolution against the former Shah in 1979 was carried out on a capitalist basis / Image: sajedir

It is true that, as yet, there is no clear and organised alternative to the present regime aside from the monarchists. But the youth who have come onto the streets, and the masses supporting them, have not come out at the call of the Pahlavis. They have come out under the impact of the intolerable conditions which they live in. The monarchists are merely trying to hijack the movement and turn it into its opposite.

But in refusing to support the struggle these so-called communists and leftists are merely leaving the stage open to the monarchists to carry on their takeover attempt, opening the door to the regime to crush the movement. By standing on the sidelines and decrying the plots of the monarchists, all one achieves is to alienate the movement from the left and push it into the arms of western-backed reactionaries. The task of true communists and revolutionaries is precisely to assist the movement in developing a programme and in building a leadership where none exists.

Is not the best time to build a leadership precisely now, when the most radical elements are on the streets gaining experience and learning rapidly? But you can only do this by supporting and following the movement in its development, and, in doing so, attempting to educate the best elements. Even if a leadership is not built in time, before the movement is defeated, the question will continue to be posed until it has been dealt with.

Funnily enough, these same ladies and gentlemen have put forward this position in the context of every protest movement over the past five years, making it a perpetual self-fulfilling prophecy.

We Marxists give our full support to the revolutionary youth of Iran. But we do not see ourselves as mere cheerleaders. The task of Marxists is to follow the movement at every step and draw the conclusions flowing from it. This movement has given us a glimpse into the power of the Iranian masses. But on the present basis, without an organisation and a revolutionary programme, it risks allowing the regime time to regroup and strike back.

In the final analysis, the problem can be reduced to the lack of revolutionary leadership. This problem will remain whether the movement manages to advance or whether it is defeated. The whole experience of the past period has made this abundantly clear. The main task of Iranian communists is precisely to build such a leadership; that is, to build a revolutionary organisation on the basis of Marxist theory.

The time for this has never been more ripe. Every day, new layers of workers and youth are entering the path of revolutionary struggle and looking for ideas to guide them in this. Marxism offers the only set of ideas that can provide such a guide.

For one hundred years, capitalism, in all its shapes and through all its transformations, has proven itself incapable of taking Iranian society forward. That was the basis for the revolution against the former Shah in 1979, and that is ultimately the basis of the present movement. The time has come to build a leadership that can decisively rally the working class and the poor to excise this malicious cancer and the ruling class that defends it.

Bread, jobs and freedom!

Death to the dictator!

Build a revolutionary leadership!

For a socialist revolution!