A Question Over Iran: Can the People Make History or Not?
By Mike Ely
There is a self-deceptive politics (among some leftists) that seeks to prettify all kinds of reactionary forces that (for one reason or another) are in opposition to U.S. imperialism — including Islamic reactionaries, Kim Jung Il, “hardline” revisionists of the Li Peng and Eric Honecker type and so on.
And in the process they have a real, almost startling, hostility toward sections of the people who rise up in important if still-inarticulate ways.
My sense is that such politics arise from a despair over actually developing our own revolutionary forces — and a resigned assumption that we have no other alternative but to fall behind any forces (ugly, oppressive, reactionary or not) who (one way or another) who seem to be on America’s shit list.
This is not a uni-polar world with only one defining contradiction. Yes, we understand (and must understand) that the U.S. acts as a central pillar of world capitalism… but it is hardly the only pillar or the only reactionary force.
As someone who remembers this Iranian regime murdering our comrades and drenching the people in blood, it is hard not have a far more nuanced sense of such events. I remember so vividly attended parties of celebration with our Iranian communist comrades, from the Iranian Student Association (ISA) at colleges in the U.S., as they went back to Iran (in 1979) to dive into the revolution — so full of hopes and energy.
And I know now, with real sadness that has never gone away, that many of them ended up in the prisons and torture cells of Khomenei, or wasted on the frontlines of the war with Iraq.
I suspect there is a whole generation of radical activists in the U.S. who don’t know how Iran’s Islamic Republic murdered and tortured communists and leftists in large numbers after the 1979 revolution — to consolidate a very conservative-reactionary god-state. And these victims including many who had based their politics (naively) on forming a “united front against imperialism” with those bloody mullahs-in-power.
The importance of revisiting such history is the importance of not repeating it — and not misunderstanding who the theocrats are, and what they are capable of. And at a moment when they are exposed, hated, de-legitimized, targetted among the people themselves, overwhelmingly because of their own crimes, it would be terrible politics to rally to the Islamic theocrats defense simply because they are also being targetted by the United States and Israel externally. In some ways, those external pressures are part of that “perfect storm” that may reawaken politics within Iran.
We have opposed (and must seek to oppose much more powerfully) the U.S. imperialist threats against Iran — and its whole long-term push to fully dominate the central oil fields of the Middle East. We know that the U.S. and Israel will pursue their geo-political strategies here. And we must understand and oppose those moves.
In many ways the only hope the U.S. has had for a “victory” in Iraq involved (somehow) causing a “regime change” in Iran. In the media, all the talk is about Israel’s fear of nuclear weapons, but there is another more-unspoken issue: the Iraq war has long ago morphed into a U.S.-Iranian power struggle over the control of Iraq (and of this region). And so for the U.S. there are very high stakes in the eruptions in Iran.
But our brains are capable of grasping more than one thread and dynamic at a time — it is not just possible (but inevitable) that great events draw into them the attentions of MANY and DIFFERENT players with many different interests. The U.S. hopes to have a pro-U.S. government emerge from all of this. We all know that. They are intevening in countless ways — seen and unseen. This is undoubtedly true.
But who says that a pro-U.S. outcome is the only possibility? Who says this means that the current government should be supported? Who decided that the people of Iran have no agency, no hopes, no possibility of upsetting that whole table of “choices”?
The world is full of very reactionary governments and forces who are in sharp hostility — but there is certainly no reason to believe that we (or the people generally) always just have to pick to side with one reactionary force over another. Sometimes the clash of oppressive forces create great openings through which radical, secular and even revolutionary forces can emerge, learn, organize and act.
The politics of “lesser evil” is often a politics of lowered sights — a politics so desparing of the possibility of revolution, that real, living, hairy, complex revolution possibilities don’t even enter the thinking. They are there, but you don’t even see them.
In essense, this simplistic approach is an approach that pulls toward a cynical view of people, for their ability to learn and develop politics in complex situations, and which seems rooted in a rather strange attraction to any ugly force in the Third World that seems somehow “hard line.” What kind of a world will that create? What kind of evaluation is that of the forces (who are actually in the field)?
Some have argued that supporting the people in Iran’s streets lack a certain “class understanding.”
Presumably that is because the demonstration in Iran have drawn in urban middle class (but not so many of Iran’s working class and even less of the peasantry). But is that how we understand class? If “the workers” support a U.S. war, and “privileged college students” oppose it — should we be confused by that? Is that kind of crude reductionist “class analysis” we want to uphold?
If Iranian students and urban middle classes are the first to strike out against a brutal and theocratic regime, even if they bring their prejudices and illusions with them — is that so bad or unusual?
History is packed with examples to discuss. (Is the Chinese revolution imaginable without the heavily-urban heavily-educated intellectual movement the 1919 May Fourth Movement. Were the trade union aparatuses automatically right in the French may 1968 events?)
It is a good thing when college students take to the streets against a repressive government (with or without some workers). It is a good thing when secular, urban youth and women march against a theocratic regime that enforces medieval morality, and the veil, and much more (with or without some peasants). It is a good thing when people find their voice in a society that stifled them. And such openings are the path by which radical politics stirs even more widely — including precisely among the working people (who are sometimes slower to move).
A class analysis has many components: One is to approach the countless political questions of our world from the communist point of view of ending all oppression (a view that ultimately is in the interest of those most oppressed and stripped of property). It also looks at the actions of all class in terms of the revolutionary process.
And, finally, what is the “class understanding” in a view that seems to say we are limited to a choice between various capitalist and feudal forces. I.e. that the people of Iran are forced to pick between U.S. or their own ugly, hated ruling class. Is that a “class analysis”?
Someone said to me:
“People opposing these demonstrations have no sense of how revolutions unfold in real life.”
I think there is a lot to this. Often revolution emerges from cracks like this. And revolutionary forces (that will have a role in the future) reach new audiences and forces in events like this. And the forces who drag the people into political life — the Rafsanjanis and Moussavis of history — aren’t always the one who inherit the results.
Will forces within the Iranian establishment try to tame this movement with compromises? Yes. Will they order that demands remain within frameworks of the current system? Yes. Will they send marshals in green armbands into the mass marches to isolate and threaten the more radical, secular and revolutionary forces? Of course.
A great movement is not defined by those who “called it into being.” It is not limited by the forces who officially or temporarily claim to lead it. Its course is not set by those who try to control it. And in all of this, we look for, we popularize the most radical, secular, revolutionary and intransigent forces who ultimately represent the best interests of the people.
In many ways, the people churn up their own interests and programs in great upheavals. They congeal into organizations and trends that will influence a whole generation for decades. They will form the kinds of verdicts (in their own hearts and minds) that forge “a revolutionary people” — for greater challenges and even more sophisticated actions in the future.
We have given up on that future if we were to adopt a narrow, shortsighted politics of always picking between this or that bourgeois player on the scene.
Kasama has just posted this from Reza Fiyouzat:
“The Iranian people sensed a deep fracture within the ruling establishment – something that was clearly expressed in astonishing language and tone, in the televised-for-the-first time live debates between the candidates – and they have ceased their chance to use the divide between their rulers to their own advantage.
“The people may have taken to the streets under the excuse of the elections, and may have been encouraged by the rhetoric of the ‘reformist’ camp in favor of some breathing room in the suffocating political and cultural atmosphere imposed on them, but they have forced the debate further. They are openly, and in millions across the country, questioning the legitimacy of the establishment, represented at the moment by Ahmadinejad. The people, in short, have moved beyond Mousavi and the reformists, but are still willing to go along with the tactics formulated by reformist leaders; for the moment.”
This jibes with both my impression of these events, and my hopes for these events — though we will all learn over time the details of what is happening far below the visible screen. But I do know this: If you look at Iran, any future hope for radical change lie among the people in the streets, not in the bloody military and religious forces running the government.