[Marxism] Reflections on Iran

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 21 12:29:46 MDT 2006

In an MRZine attack (http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/pourzal190706.html) on 
Akbar Ganji, a prominent Iranian dissident aligned with American 
imperialism, Rostam Pourzal writes that "like the ultra-right former 
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her guru Friedrich von Hayek, 
Ganji extols Karl Popper's elitist philosophy of freedom throughout his 

In a Logos Journal interview with jailed Iranian dissident Ramin 
Jahanbegloo conducted by Danny Postel, the Popper connection pops up again:

Danny Postel: You’ve talked about a “renaissance of liberalism” taking 
place in Iran. Can you talk about this “renaissance”? Where does liberalism 
stand in Iranian intellectual and political life today?

Ramin Jahanbegloo: Thanks to the recent discovery and translations of the 
schools of liberal thought dominant in the Anglo-American world, as found 
in the works of Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls and Karl Popper, and an 
appreciation of older traditions of liberalism (Kantian, Millian or 
Lockean), a new trend of liberalism has taken shape among the younger 
generation of Iranian intellectuals. Iranian liberals today do not deny 
that the liberties appropriate to a liberal society can be derived from a 
theory or stated in a system of principles, but their view of a liberal 
society is related to a view of humanity and truth as inherently 
unfinished, incomplete, and self-transforming. The principles of Iranian 
liberalism cannot be grounded in religious truth, because the very idea of 
free agency, as it is understood today by Iranian liberals, goes against 
any form of determinism (religious or historical).

Full: http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_5.2/jahanbegloo_interview.htm

For those who have been keeping an eye on "civil society" type 
interventions in countries whose development model does not pass muster 
with the U.S. State Department, the positive references to Karl Popper 
might be expected. George Soros's Open Society, which habitually meddles in 
the internal affairs of such countries on four continents, operates on 
Popperian principles.

Danny Postel is a professional propagandist operating in the liberal 
imperialist thinktank/foundation world, largely under the auspices of 
www.opendemocracy.net, a well-funded website that is a focal point for 
defenders of all these "revolutions" that keep cropping in places like 
Lebanon, the Ukraine and Iran. Using phraseology about "democracy" and 
"civil society", their real agenda is to create environments that are less 
hostile to Western multinational corporations.

Lately Iran has become the focal point of liberal imperialist outrage in 
much the same manner that Milosevic's Yugoslavia was in the 1990s. A day 
does not go by without some website wringing its hands over the latest 
purported outrage of the Iranian government.

A couple of months ago, the cause célèbre were the bus drivers of Tehran 
whose strike was championed by AFL-CIO John Sweeney, who would not lift a 
finger to help the transit workers in NYC.

We are also aware of Doug Ireland's nonstop crusade around gay rights in 
Iran, which mostly focuses on the hanging of two men who were being 
punished allegedly for simply being gay. Long-time gay rights activist 
Leslie Feinberg, a member of the Workers World Party, has a different take 
on the case. Human Rights Watch, no friend of the Iranian government by any 
stretch of the imagination, claims that the rape charge had been 
mistranslated from Farsi. According to Scott Long, the HRW’s LGBT Rights 
Project director, “There is no evidence that this was a consensual act. ... 
A whole tissue of speculation has been woven around mistranslations and 
omissions and this has been solidified into a narrative that this is a gay 
rights case.”

The most recent incident in Iran that has attracted the attention of the 
liberal interventionists involved a woman's liberation demonstration that 
was attacked by the police. About whether an attack took place, there seems 
to be little doubt, based on photos supplied by the circulators of an open 
letter who took exception to another article by Rostam Pourzal on MRZine 
minimizing the repression. Referring to published photos, a correspondent 
to Pourzal informed him "that some demonstrators were taken away by 
policewomen, but except in one case they were not physically abused." Even 
if the demonstrators were carried away on velvet palanquins, there is no 
excuse for breaking up a demonstration for the right of women to dress as 
they like. Nobody should support the right of the French government to ban 
the wearing of scarves in school. By the same token, the Iranian government 
does not have the right to enforce wearing them.

The articles on MRZine have generated a lot of controversy. A frequent 
commenter on my blog named Poulod, an Iranian-American high school student, 
asked me to forward this to Marxmail a while ago:

"I'm not a Marxmail subscriber, but could you somehow convey this to the 
list? I'm a little sickened by the stuff Yoshie and others have been 
spouting about Ahmadinejad and 'liberation theology' the past few weeks. I 
don't have time to put together a detailed response, but as an 
Iranian-American leftist and the child, friend and relative of a number of 
Iranian leftists, can I just emphatically say: Ahmadinejad is NOT 'Iran's 
Chavez'. Saying so is just embarrassing. He's a fake populist standing at 
the head of an Islamist regime. If the Western Left gets as starry-eyed 
about liberation theology now as it did in 1979, it might not be forgiven 
altogether this time around. Supporting Khomeini was idiocy bordering on 
treason to the Iranian Left. I hope the same mistake doesn't get made 
again. Iran has to be defended from imperialism, but that doesn't mean 
embracing yet another venerable bearded 'anti-colonial' leader."

In some ways, the debate over how to assess Ahmadinejad reminds me of those 
I have had over figures such as Robert Mugabe or some Eastern European 
politicians who have been dragging their feet on privatization. As a rule 
of thumb, I don't automatically put a plus where the U.S. State Department 
puts a minus. I spent considerable time and effort researching the history 
of Yugoslavia in order to put Slobodan Milosevic into some kind of context. 
That was because I saw him as a link to the Titoist socialist legacy, no 
matter how flawed. Titoism *was* progressive and worth defending against 
the George Soros's of the world. Mugabe is another story entirely. 
Throughout his political career, he has made deals with the IMF. When Great 
Britain decided that he had to go and imposed sanctions toward that end, he 
decided to stay in power by attacking the imperialist's main social base in 
the country, the rich white farmers. This, of course, has nothing to do 
with our socialist agenda. But it does mean that we should have opposed 
British meddling. Something similar is required for Iran.

Understanding the Iranian revolution has been a real challenge for 
Marxists, including those in Iran. A range of opinion has existed, from 
characterizing it as a clerical counter-revolution to critically supporting 
the Shi'ite clerics as anti-imperialist populists.

For a useful introduction to these issues, I strongly recommend Val 
Moghadem's "One Revolution or Two? The Iranian Revolution and the Islamic 
Republic" that appeared in the 1989 Socialist Register 
She is a former professor of sociology and director of women's studies at 
Illinois State University who currently works in Paris.

As the title of her article implies, the Iranian revolution combined 
clerical and secular components. Rather than trying to dismiss the clerical 
elements as some kind of illegitimate intrusion, Moghadam makes the case 
for their genuine but uneven radicalism. She also makes the case that at a 
certain point, the clerics destroyed the revolutionary fiber that was 
present at the outset and turned Iran into a rather backward-looking 
theocracy despite the government's fitful efforts on behalf of social justice.

In her analysis of the class forces of the 1979 revolution, she points out 
that the ruling class that backed the Shah was effectively overthrown, and 
that a middle layer of 'bazaaris' and small-scale industrialists replaced 
it acting in an alliance with the Shi'ite clergy. Although resentment 
toward imperialist domination gave this layer an affinity with 
anti-imperialist politics, it also held Iran's trade union movement with 
its strong socialist presence at arm's length. Marxists tend to see the 
class struggle in terms of society's dominant classes, but in Iran the 
petty-bourgeoisie was equally important and even gained hegemony after a 
fashion. As has been the case historically, middle layers are unstable and 
tend to gravitate to the classes beneath or above it. With the flight of 
the Iranian big bourgeoisie after 1979, it is inevitable that imperialism 
will fill that role as the overtures to it by the liberal intelligentsia 
including Ramin Jahanbegloo and Akbar Ganji makes clear. In the current 
period, it seems obvious that the clerics and their government allies 
(described as "conservatives" in the bourgeois press) are moving in the 
opposite direction, but as the Iran-Contra arms deal would point out, this 
is not necessarily a permanent condition.

Despite the temptation to look at the Iranian clerics in 1979 as a 
monolithic bloc, Moghadem identifies four different currents:

1. the 'radical Islam' of the young intelligentsia

2. Kohmaeini's 'militant Islam'

3. the 'liberal Islam' of Bazargan

4. the 'traditionalist Islam' of the ulama.

Not only were there divisions within the Shi'ites, the left was divided as 
well. There were two guerrilla groups, the Fedayeen and the Mojahedin. 
There was also Tudeh, the Communist Party that had been ousted in a CIA 
coup in 1953, and Paykar, a dogmatic split from the Mohahedin with as 
pronounced a hostility to the clerics as the Workers Communist Party. As 
should be obvious, the divisions on the left were exploited by the Shi'ites 
who picked them off one by one.

The Fedayeen were conciliatory to Khomeini and even displayed his portrait 
at their meetings. When the government demanded that they disarm, they 
declined to do so, saying that it was necessary to defend the revolution 
with gun in hand. They also were critical of the 'pasdaran,' or 
revolutionary guards that included the young Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 
revolutionary guards proved adept at breaking up leftist meetings that were 
organized to protest attempts to create a new constitution for Iran that 
would effectively turn it into a theocracy.

Since the organized left had a strong presence on Iranian campuses, the 
government took the extraordinary measure of closing the universities for 9 
months in 1980-1981. Led by the Mojahedin, who combined radical politics 
with Moslem piety and who supported the 'moderate' president Bani-Sadr, the 
left clashed with the pro-government revolutionary guard repeatedly. The 
uncritical support for Bani-Sadr was symptomatic of a certain myopic 
opportunism on the part of the Iranian left which could never effectively 
differentiate its enemies from its friends:

 >>Iranian President Abol Bani-Sadr Tuesday declared a victory for 
government attempts to rid the campus of Tehran University of leftist 
groups and proclaimed a "great cultural revolution" designed to spread 
Islamic ideology through all spheres of Iranian life.

Spearheaded by fundamentalist student groups, Bani-Sadr's Moslem clerical 
rivals had made Iran's universities a battlefield last week in their 
efforts to revamp Iranian society and undercut Western-educated leaders 
such as Bani-Sadr.

Revolutionary Guards and Moslem fundamentalist students succeeded during 
the night in ousting the last remaining leftists from Tehran University in 
fighting that left at least three persons dead and hundreds injured over 
several days.

In aligning himself and his government with the Islamic drive, Bani-Sadr 
appeared to be trying to take the issue away from his clerical rivals 
within the Revolutionary Council.<<

Washington Post, April 23, 1980

In the initial years of the revolution, despite such repression, much of 
the left--with the exception of Paykar--was still willing to cut the 
clerics some slack. Using formulations drawn from Kautskyism, the Tudeh 
hailed a 'democratic revolution'. For the Fedayeen, it was a "national, 
anti-imperialist" revolution. The left was torn between standing with the 
government against imperialism and pushing its own class demands. This 
contradiction was deepened when the clerics appeared to act resolutely, as 
was the case with the seizure of the American Embassy. It was of course 
possible that such a gesture was intended to burnish the government's 
reputation than to really break with imperialism, as the arms deal with 
Reagan would serve to counter-indicate.

I must say that my initial reaction to the MRZine articles was a bit on the 
cool side if for no other reason that I was deeply involved in defending a 
far more deep-going revolution in Nicaragua at the time. The idea of Oliver 
North delivering a chocolate cake in the shape of a key (to unlock future 
relations) and a Bible to Ayatollah Khomeini was one of the most nauseating 
in a most nauseating period.

Whatever the foreign policy vagaries of the Islamic Republic and its 
repression of the left within its borders, there is no doubt about its 
willingness to attack class inequality. Moghadem points out:

"Two crucial institutions created to alter economic relations and effect 
social justice were the Housing Foundation (created to provide housing for 
the poor, particularly in urban areas) and the Reconstruction Crusade 
(established to provide rural areas with electricity, water, feeder roads, 
schools, health clinics, housing, and other social and infrastructural 
services). Legislation was passed to reduce the gap among wage rates as a 
result of which the workers' wages were raised by 60 percent. A policy of 
price support in the form of subsidies for basic needs items were 
instituted to protect the poorer groups from the rampant inflation that had 
followed the economic decline during the revolution. Modifications were 
proposed in the tax system to make it more progressive and prevent 
excessive concentration of wealth. Nationalization of major industries, 
banks, insurance companies, and foreign trade were meant to weaken further 
possibilities of emerging large-scale private accumulation."

With all of Ahmadinejad's flaws, there can be no doubt that he is trying to 
keep these traditions alive. Against elements of the 'bazaari' and the 
clergy that adapt to it, he seeks to promote the interests of and gain the 
allegiance of the workers and the peasants who have become fed up in recent 
years with growing class distinctions. (For a film representation of these 
divisions, I strongly recommend Jafar Panahi's "Crimson Gold" that I 
reviewed here: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/CrimsonGold.htm).

However, in conclusion, we should never lose sight of the fact that our 
goals are different. I'll let the ever-eloquent Val Moghadem have the last 
word on that:

On the Recent Elections in Iran
Val Moghadam

Iranian elections can be full of surprises - or can they? Was the election 
of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unpredictable or part of a pattern?

Mohammad Khatami's landslide victories in 1997 and 2001 were won on a 
reformist campaign, and his presidency -- along with a majority reformist 
parliament -- raised expectations of social transformation and political 
change. But when the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the 
Council of Guardians blocked reform, the movement lost its momentum and 
citizens became disillusioned or angry. Municipal elections brought in a 
conservative majority, as did the February 2004 parliamentary elections. In 
the run-up to the recent presidential elections, the reformists' choice had 
been Mostafa Moin, but he did not receive enough votes in the first round. 
After that, everyone was sure that former president and "pragmatic 
conservative" Hashemi Rafsanjani would win. Indeed, many reformists decided 
to back Rafsanjani, leading to spirited debates among liberals and 
reformists in Iran and in the diaspora as to whether this was the correct 
tactic or not. But instead of a victory on the part of the rich and 
well-connected Rafsanjani with a daughter widely known as a feminist 
(former parliamentarian Faezeh Hashemi), it was Ahmadinejad who won in the 

Voter turn-out was lower than in the past, and many citizens boycotted the 
elections altogether. Boycotting elections is one way that Iranian citizens 
show their lack of confidence in the system - and the Nobel laureate Shirin 
Ebadi announced that she too was joining the boycott. Perhaps close to 40% 
of eligible voters did not cast their ballots in the recent elections. The 
feeling for many is that as long as the Council of Guardians remains on the 
scene to vet candidates, the whole process is compromised, and "Islamic 
democracy" Iranian-style is either a pipe-dream or a highly managed form of 
democracy. In the run-off, the choice between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad 
seemed for many to be far too limited (rather like the choice between a 
Republican and a Democrat in the United States). And so many citizens who 
desperately want reform of the system did not vote. Those who did, voted 
for Ahmadinejad because he put the spotlight on something that both 
Rafsanjani and reformists have neglected: the country's socio-economic 
problems, including high unemployment and an absurdly inflated housing market.

This underscores the main deficit in the reform movement: in classic 
liberal fashion, the emphasis has been placed on civil and political 
liberties while socio-economic conditions and rights have been 
marginalized. As important as it is to argue for removal of social 
restrictions on dress and recreation, these issues may be most pertinent to 
the well-off in northern Tehran rather than to those who struggle to find 
jobs and housing. Issues of social justice were never very important to the 
reform movement, and now they have been hijacked by Ahmadinejad.

In the past, women and youth were Khatami's main constituents and indeed 
the major social base of the reform movement. They are now the main losers. 
Iran's feminist movement may have recognized this threat when its leaders 
organized an historic demonstration outside the gates of Tehran University 
on 13 June. They were protesting the disqualification of women candidates 
from the election, but their fundamental grievance is with a constitution 
that limits their role to that of mothers -- and not as workers or 
political actors -- and rules out their self-determination. Ahmadinejad may 
not be the monster that some of the (largely U.S.) press makes him out to 
be, but he is a religious conservative and a moralist. Whether he can 
overturn the cultural liberalization of the Khatami era is unclear, but 
certainly he will not expand it. Whether he can succeed in addressing the 
country's socio-economic problems is also doubtful, given that he is 
located squarely within the political establishment, if not its economic elite.

Marxists understand class conflict well (and some of the liberal reformists 
would have done well to draw on the insights of their past Marxism), but 
even so, cross-class alliances are possible and desirable, as well as very 
much part of Iran's collective action repertoire. If Iran's reform movement 
is to be revived, it needs to develop a platform that includes a holistic 
agenda for social transformation - one that will resonate with 
middle-class, working-class, rich and low-income women and men alike. This 
means that along with our insistence that mandatory hejab be rescinded and 
family law reformed, that young people be allowed to listen to music and 
dance, that all political prisoners be released and civil liberties 
established - we need to establish the concept of the socio-economic rights 
of citizens, and insist that the redistribution of the country's wealth, 
through an economic policy based on social justice and human rights, should 
be the priority of any government.



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