by Ramn Mazaheri for The Saker Blog
In February the WSWS published a three-part series in response to my criticism of their inflammatory coverage of the protests last winter in Iran, and also to try and rebut the entire concept of “Iranian Islamic Socialism”.
I have waited a few months to read it and respond, but I present this 11-part series in order to: explain the undeniably socialist nature of Iran’s economy, give the first leftist examination in the West of the Basij, and to explain how the religious-cultural roots of revolutionary Shi’ism ultimately creating modern Iranian Islamic Socialism.
I apologise for not responding sooner. However, may I please defend myself by reminding that I had just published a 5-part series which gave a People-centered re-history of the Russian Revolution, was on the brink of publishing a 3-part series which analyzed the structure of the fascinating leftist project in Northern Syria, was preparing an 8-part series which aimed to totally contradict the Western perspective on Mao, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and much else regarding Communist China, and in between I was in Cuba covering their elections from a decidedly leftist perspective (in short: vote cobblers!).
And I also had to do my usual daily hack journalism for PressTV to support the French working class, the Iranian taxpayer and that extremely selfish part of any social class: me, and my opportunist’s desire to pay my bills! And then Ramadan started…but that’s no excuse for not rolling down my sleeves and getting to work on this series – at least it never has been for working-class Muslims. (And contrary to popular belief: Ramadan never hurts, but always helps.)
I also wanted to wait and see what Washington would do with the JCOPA agreement on Iran’s nuclear energy program, as that would dramatically affect any discussion on Iran. Unsurprisingly, the US has maintained their centuries-old policy of not keeping their policies.
I also waited because I focused on a possible silver lining: the obvious injustice of Washington’s decision has – I hope – increased receptivity towards new ideas which analyse Iran sympathetically, instead of so very antagonistically.
Therefore, this series aims to include four things: a response to the WSWS, and one one which provides new ideas, not a mere back-and-forth arguing over the same points of contention; a historical and structural analysis of the Iranian economy, from it’s unique never-colonised era of the Shahs to the modern era, with its totally unique (revolutionary) economic aspects; an analysis of a cultural phenomenon and institution which cannot be ignored, but about which there is almost total Western ignorance – the Basij; and finally an explanation of the religious, philosophical and cultural roots of revolutionary Shi’ism, the dominant ideology of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the modern Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran is in good company: they are unsupported by the WSWS, along with everyone else
When it comes to differences we must start at the end and work backwards, reverse-engineering ourselves into mutual comprehension and cooperation: In the end, the problem is that no revolution exists or has ever existed which was good enough for the WSWS to support, excepting only the Russian Revolution.
So Iran is not alone to be a leftist country which is left hanging at the time of Western “soft war”, as Iran was last winter. In many years of reading the WSWS I have never seen them express genuine support for Iran, Cuba, China, Eritrea, North Korea…anywhere.
What the WSWS does – and what they only do – is condemn capitalism and imperialism. They do it very well, and I’m certainly glad they do it. But we all surely see how such a one-sided approach produces imbalance, and thus a host of subsequent errors.
The WSWS also is politically partisan – they champion the Socialist Equality Party. Iran must be an original sinner to the WSWS, having had their revolution 30 years before this party’s inception. I don’t know what their plans are for starting an Iranian Socialist Equality Party, but they should definitely read this series before launching their recruitment efforts. (And they should be aware that calling for the downfall of the nation is unacceptable and undemocratic sedition which will not be tolerated, much less accepted and then elected.).
“The task of revolutionary socialists is to politically arm the working class in Iran with a socialist and internationalist strategy.”
Daste shoma dar nakoneh – thank you for your troubles (literally: May your hand not hurt). I mean those thanks quite sincerely! But, this series will show how Iranian revolutionaries in the working class – and religious class, and lower class, and other classes – have already shown how very well-armed they are with socialist and international strategies.
The WSWS fails to grasp this.
Their 3-part series also shows that they misunderstand Iran on many fundamental levels. This series hopes to clarify some of their errors.
And since they do not understand it – how can they praise it? Ok, don’t praise us, but I go back to my original complaint in this journalistic back-and-forth: the WSWS was piling on Iran alongside the capitalist-imperialists they swear are not their allies. Never allies…except when it comes to Iran?
However, the WSWS would, in their ivory tower journalism, prefer to see an Iran destroyed in the delusion that destruction from looming imperialists would fantastically result in the world’s first Trotskyist state! It’s not that I begrudge the WSWS their idealist fantasies – I have plenty of my own – but I remain disappointed at their choice of targets, because the fall of Iran would have so many negative ramifications for the anti-imperialist movement in the Middle East, and thus the global anti-imperialist movement, and it certainly would be the cruelest loss for Islamic Socialism, which is taken quite seriously in the Muslim world even if atheistic Trotskyism cannot tolerate the very thought of it.
But those two paragraphs are a boring recap of our old arguments and subjects – I promise new ones from here on out.
The tone readers should expect from this series is one of respect, professionalism & goodwill, and not egoistical sniping or the self-aggrandisement of myself or Iran. The narcissism of small differences is seemingly the biggest obstacle leftists have to overcome, and such tones would be proof of such divisive narcissism. The WSWS, as I said from the very beginning, is on the right side of very many issues in a very brave and admirable fashion.
But if I may permit myself only one snipe in order to show my humanity, much like how every Iranian carpet purposely contains one mistake in order to show that only God is perfect:
I noticed that the WSWS did not fail to reprint and directly quote every single word of praise I gave them, LOL?
That’s not very Iranian of ya, FYI! Maybe you shouldn’t get a big head, because ornately lavishing excessive praise on anything in sight is simply what Iranians are culturally compelled to do, LOL!
However, I do not consider this a very serious snipe at the possible self-aggrandising of the WSWS, because they had the exceptional good manners to acknowledge my compliments as “generous”. And also because I meant every word of praise, and I still do: The WSWS is a real fighter against the imperialist aims of Washington, Paris, London, Tel Aviv and other rabid capitalists.
But the WSWS’s claim, just after kindly acknowledging my inadequate generosity, that they are “the pole of socialist opposition to imperialist aggression and war” is a bit too much – they are only “one pole”.
Despite their fine, informative articles the WSWS has not changed my position nor my support for Iranian Islamic Socialism, which is also one pole of socialist opposition to imperialist aggression and war.
What the WSWS may not realize is that Iranian Islamic Socialism is something which was created entirely without any help from me, but sprang from the Iranian working class. (Or the Iranian 99%, or the Iranian 99% minus the so-called “talented 10th”, or the Iranian People, or the “Iranian proletariat plus their housewives” – as you like, the meaning is clear.)
What the WSWS series has done is mainly this: helped educate people about the role of Iranian communists in the 1979 Islamic Revolution; this series also hopes to educate people about certain uniquely Iranian concepts, structures and facets of history which were greater motivating forces in the 1979 Islamic Revolution than the communist Tudeh Party.
The reason for the first article in their series was to, “…reject their attempts to blackguard opposition to rampant social inequality and capitalist austerity as imperialist subversion.”
The WSWS has taken the reason for opposing the protests which Iran broadcast to other nations as if it was the same reason they broadcast within Iran. That is not the case.
Yes, the government talked about the obvious foreign involvement, but within Iran they also acknowledged repeatedly and loudly that the economic reasons for the protests were justified. Indeed, many politicians made much hay over it. Few Westerners imagine than Iran has a vibrant media, but I can assure everyone that many journalists and politicians had a field day over the protests, raking parts of the government over the coals.
But Iran has been subject to an economic blockade for decades, and thus has been forced to tolerate economic protests since at least way back to 1992. Iran is not like Cuba which (likely due to their closeness to Miami) truly tolerates no protests at all excepting the Ladies in White. I suspect that the WSWS believes that the government actually tried to blame it all on “imperialist subversion” because this is was the main, self-centred, largely-ignorant theme of Western coverage of the protests.
The stated reason for their 2nd article was to remedy my lack of applying class perspective to my already-faulty historical analysis – faulty, because I do not give credit enough credit the communist Tudeh Party for their role in the revolution.
Too much Tudeh from the Trotskyists
Well, I know a little bit about the Tudeh – my uncle was jailed by the Shah in 1954 for protesting on their side!
The bulk of their 3-part series is devoted to describing Tudeh’s involvement, and all I can say is…they have a right to focus on what they wish. I thank them for giving time to present Iran’s history from a sympathetic perspective.
But I am not much interested in retelling the history of the Tudeh Party. Every Iranian knows the role it played; every Iranian sees the impact they made in government policy, even if they lost; and every Iranian knows why they absolutely deserved to lose, democratically, despite the efforts of people like my Amoo (uncle on father’s side).
After World War II, the communists were always confined to two small groups – the students ands the intellectuals. I think I can quite easily hang the WSWS with their own words:
“(Other Stalinist and Maoist parties in Iran) Like the Tudeh Party, they were taken unawares by the explosion of mass opposition to the Shah’s rule in 1978…”
How could the communists be so unaware if they were truly a grassroots, mass movement? This quote shows how out of touch with the average Iranian the Iranian communists were, and why democracy forbid their victory.
To compare Tudeh to the the communists in 1917 Russia or 1949 China is absurd – even at the height of the revolution Tudeh had perhaps 5,000 members, after all. The Tudeh’s main influence was informal – by influencing discussion for decades – and not in a real, grassroots, tangible, organisation-driven – and thus truly revolutionary – way.
As far as students: One must know that there were not many universities in Iran until after 1979 – the idea that the students came from a broad cross-section of society, as they do now, is simply not true: middle- and upper-class families were privileged in university selection…clearly not enough to win or deserve democratic support of a nation.
Compare all of this with the mass grassroots presence of Islam and it should be clear how and why Islam was – and continues to be – democratically chosen to be Iran’s primary revolutionary force. It was the mosque which was the grassroots centre of revolutionary activity, and not the Tudeh Party local headquarters.
We should not underestimate the influence intellectuals have in shaping the talking points and water-cooler discussions of a culture, but during the Iranian Islamic Revolution Tudeh was a party for the intellectuals and not the People. That is not stating an opinion, but an obvious fact.
However, considering their much larger postwar role, their decades of political presence, and how they advanced the political modernity of Iranians, it is commendable and natural that the WSWS wants to tell their history. But the facts show that it is easy to exaggerate their influence among the average Iranian who, polls repeatedly show, overwhelmingly reject atheism to the tune of 95%. (Of course, most of the communists in Iran were devoted Muslims – this is a reality many Westerners cannot handle intellectually.)
The communists did not win – Iranian Islamic Socialism did.
(A similar (pro-Iranian yet) nationalist Islamic-communist coalition just won parliamentary elections in Iraq…and I am about as surprised by that as when I saw the sun come up last week during Ramadan. We should expect a very similar Iraqi Islamic Socialism to ensue…assuming Western imperialist meddling is eliminated, as it was in Iran, which is a rather hopeful assumption, I’ll admit.)
Given this fact of the Tudeh Party’s lack of grassroots presence and support, it makes the WSWS’s standard Trotskyist explanation of “when in doubt, blame Stalin” seem woefully inadequate when discussing Iran:
“It was the vacuum of working class political leadership created by the decades of betrayals by the Stalinist Tudeh party that enabled Khomeini to cast himself as the Shah’s most indefatigable opponent, and for he and his clerical followers to develop a mass following, extending from the bazaar to the urban and rural poor, between 1975 and 1979.”
This falsely implies that Khomeini came out of nowhere in 1975 and co-opted the revolution like some sort of political opportunist. That is terribly, terribly inaccurate.
Apart from actually being implanted for decades among the working class, many in Iran’s clergy had long ago abandoned the status-quo quietism which is what the clergy in Western Europe practices today. The two are simply not comparable; the Western tendency to assume a Western-oriented universality is not at all applicable, yet again.
Politically-progressive clergy in Iran were exiled, imprisoned and killed pre-1979, and the failure of Western leftists to acknowledge that the clergy can play a positive role in political liberation dooms, I believe, their chance to successfully implement any of their policies which have nothing to do with religion. Indeed – it is all or nothing with Western leftists, and they want to control God as well.
And this is perhaps the ultimate irony: Iranian socialists have said all this for years: It is possible to be Muslim and socialist!
The WSWS even quotes the marriage between socialism, the Tudeh Party and Islam…and yet they also deny that it happened?
Caught unawares by the revolutionary upsurge of 1978-79, the Tudeh Party emerged, in the aftermath of the February 1979 overthrow of the Shah’s regime, as the staunchest supporters of Khomeini, anointing him the leader of the “national-democratic revolution.” Kianuri, now the Tudeh General Secretary, hailed Shiism as “a revolutionary and progressive ideology which we shall never encounter blocking our road to socialism….”
Strong stuff from Tudeh’s Kianuri, but the WSWS apparently imagines that the Tudeh’s alliance with revolutionary Shi’ism was also one of political opportunism, when it was the loving marriage of socialism and Shi’ism after decades of courtship. Again, this concept breaks the rigid brains of Western leftists.
Iranian Islamic Socialism, unlike Tudeh, is not out of touch with the working class
This ideological marriage is something which has been discussed for decades in Iran already, and obviously formed the basis for the entire 1979 Revolution, but I will address it for modern readers in parts 9 and 10 of this series: Cultural & Permanent Revolution in Revolutionary Shi’ism & Iranian Islamic Socialism, and then ‘Martyrdom and Martyrdom’ & martyrdom, and the Basij. Regular WSWS readers may be especially interested in these concepts.
Why are these ideas largely not new, Ramin? Well, it’s because Iranians think about God, and they also think about socialism! Our brain does not explode by holding these two ideas in our head at the same time, nor are we hypocritical, nor doctrinally unsound – in our context (open-minded people) we even pass for normal!
Iranians for decades had been discussing how to marry socialism with Islam in a manner exactly similar to the historical progression of socialism in pre-1917 Russia. Both revolutions were nearly bloodless, and the reason is because the anti-reactionary forces had worked hard for decades to win over the People. Neither of these were “10 days that shook that world” – mere explosions of violence – both were “many decades of struggle that shook the world”.
Therefore, it should be easy to see: how Iranian Islamic Socialism has been preceded by decades of grassroots preparation, why it has taken such firm root, and why 40 years of near-total global opposition has been unable to dislodge it.
Iranian Islamic Socialism, however, does not pass for normal in modern global politics…and I’m very glad for that, considering what does pass for normal in the neoliberal, neo-imperialist age. This is good for Iran, but quite sad for the rest of the world.
But Iranian Islamic Socialism is not going anywhere, and its failure would be a reactionary-inspired human rights disaster no less lamentable than what befell the people of Russia after the fall of the USSR. And, LOL, not make Iran Trotskyism’s very long-awaited first victory.
Why do I use the phrase ‘Iranian Islamic Socialism’?
This is not haphazard – it is in this particular order for a reason.
“Iranian”: People have this absolutist idea that Iran aims to follow the Koran to the letter in every instance, and that Iranian society aims to be an exact replication of the time of Prophet Mohammed.
What they fail to realize is that Khomeini was unequivocal: the imperatives of the state must take precedence over the needs of Islam.
He made it completely clear: good temporal governance on behalf of the inhabitants of the country must take precedence over Shariah, and may God forgive us. This debate was public and went on for years during and after the Iranian Cultural Revolution (one of only two official cultural revolutions ever) and yet it is still not appreciated by non-Iranians.
In these public and democratic debates over what the new Iran “should be”, what won out was an idea often associated with Abdolkarim Soroush: “religion” and “religious knowledge” are two different things; the former is sacred and immutable, the latter evolves and changes so that societal solutions can be found. Make no mistake: The Islamic Republic of Iran is based on the latter – religious knowledge which is used to promote democracy, pluralism and equality and Islam.
Obviously, many of the more religious did not like making religious injunctions secondary to politics, but the idea of a government designed to promote only Islam simply did not win out, just as the Tudeh did not win out democratically. It does not mean these ideas are not present, however, as Iran is a democracy – religions proponents are well-represented in Iran, of course.
Are there traditionalists who want the former – yes: they want “Islamic Iranian Socialism”. The 7th century Revolution of Islam was a political revolution in large part because Prophet Mohammad ended tribalism, and by extension nationalism. Thus, many want just “Islamic Socialism”. But they have a very tough convincing job to do, considering Khomeini opposed them, and that we have had decades of subsequent hardening of this “Iran is based on religious knowledge and not religion” concept; but they certainly have many of supporters among the Iranian people. I realize that on a global level the idea that Iran is insufficiently Islamic may seem surprising, but on a domestic cultural level it remains a genuine issue. It is also a guaranteed-acceptable method and safety valve for Iranians to criticise their government whenever they are having a bad day, LOL.
Regardless of that, I think many have not taken this long-standing reality into account when they talk about Iran’s government, but it should radically reorient anyone who doesn’t realize what is the top priority of Iran’s Islamic democratic government: the nation.
And, of course, we should remember that those who want “Islamic” first are not anti-Iran in the slightest – they just want more religion in Iran.
Therefore we see that Iran is definitely “nationalist” above all, like China or Cuba, and the opposite of the formerly independent nations of the European Union and especially the Eurozone.
This is all why “Iranian” is the first term.
“Islamic” comes second, because it has clearly and democratically been placed there. We see that Iran’s system is truly not the fundamentalist, everything-is-religion government it is portrayed as – it is clearly a modern system, based on nationalism, is an edifice built upon the most modern ideas of governmental structure available in 1979, and all while being hugely inspired by Islam.
“Socialism” is the final term, and the most contentious, mainly because socialism has yet to shake its original association with destructive, undemocratic, state-enforced atheism.
Socialism is clearly based on two fundamental precepts: empowering the long-oppressed with democratic rights, and massive state-organised economic redistribution, which is anathema in capitalism. Thus, socialism is both a structure of government and an economic policy. Therefore, Iran certainly has socialism.
Calling Iran ‘capitalist’ is misinformed, duplicitous, lazy or all 3
Part Three of the WSWS’s series is dedicated to Trotskyist propaganda – indeed, this is what the final part of every single WSWS article does (and I admire their ideological discipline). But that means deliberately denying realities and subverting the commonly-held definitions of words. This required me to write Part 2: How Iran got economically socialist, and then Islamic socialist.
The reality is that some of the Tudeh Party’s socialist ideas were indeed integrated into policy – the proof is clear from their years of cooperation with other revolutionary groups, but also quite easily found in the pudding which is Iran’s state-run, welfare-state & redistribution-and-not-profit-oriented economy.
Iran’s economy is something which is rarely appreciated properly and not because the WSWS is purposely obscuring accepted definitions: it is because Iran has a unique (revolutionary) structure which is not easily comprehended. This is the impetus for part 3, What privatisation in Iran? or Definitely not THAT privatisation.
I do not believe that Iran – nor China, nor Cuba, nor a few others – can be talked about as “bourgeois” states when they have had and have sustained anti-bourgeois revolutions: new rules regarding discussion of them must therefore apply. I think those nations are revolutionary because they have fundamentally changed their class structures, and thus makes Trotskyism anyone else unable to answer “in advance” which classes will bring democracy and socialism.
This is the reason why I have included something which I think may be unprecedented in a Western language: an objective analysis of the Basij, which is what is discussed in parts 4-7.
While few Westerners know or can explain why or how the 1979 Revolution handed 10-15% of the entire Iranian economy in the hands of charities (the bonyads, or state charity cooperatives, explained in Part 2) I think it is impossible to understand Iran without understanding the 10+ million member organisation the Basij. The WSWS series makes no mention of it. Therefore, I have made a 4-part sub-series on this institution.
In Part 4 I compare them with the only parallel I can find in the modern world: Structural similarities between Iran’s Basij and the Chinese Communist Party. The idea that the Basij is some sort of neo-Nazi Brownshirt militia is total nonsense, and I think readers will be interested to see the many parallels between the CCP and the Basij.
The reason I think it’s important to talk about the Basij now is: because it could reduce the chances of war.
Non-Iranians need to realize that any foreign invasion of in Iran implies the mass, grassroots involvement of the Basij. Certainly not all of them, as only a small percentage of this volunteer group are involved daily in security operations (contrary to popular belief), but very certainly invasion would involve a lot of them. I think that if people learned about the solidity of this group – whether one condones or condemns them, and I remain 100% objectively neutral in my examination and refuse to either condone or condemn them on my part – one must simply accept that they are a huge force to be reckoned with in any war.
However, there is quite nearly zero scholarship of the Basij. What little exists is sensationalist nonsense or based on the decades-ago beginning of the Basij during wartime. Hopefully the four-part sub-series clarifies the Basij, and it is certainly the first leftist analysis of the Basij available in the West.
However, not everyone wants to understand modern Iran via discussing in detail their economy and their socio-political institutions. Therefore, Parts 8-10 attempt to do describe Iranian Islamic Socialism via religion and culture.
Part 8 talks about the “Cultural Revolution” of Imam Ali and Part 9 talks about the “Permanent Revolution” of Imam Hussain, via historical-political examinations of their lives in the Revolution of Islam.
Islam, unlike Christianity, was indeed a sweeping political revolution: therefore, these two religious figures of the early Islamic era can also be viewed in a completely areligious and historical-political fashion; the post-revolutionary culture & era, while having been initiated by Prophet Mohammad, is thus incredibly similar to the post-revolution eras of other global revolutions such as the Russian & Chinese revolutions.
The ideas represented by Ali and Hussain are so firmly lodged in Iran’s collective unconscious and current political reality that, like the Basij, they simply must be understood – and they provide quite superb revolutionary models for non-Muslims, too!
Part 11 explains the Iranian Islamic Revolution via the greatest Iranian movie of all-time – The Death of Yazdgerd – which is also the greatest political movie of all time.
That is a very bold statement, but merited. If I may say so humbly: Iran is widely considered perhaps the greatest pound-for-pound cinema-producing nation; so if we also consider that Iran has produced one of the the greatest political human dramas since the advent of cinema, is it not out of the question that they also produced the greatest political drama within cinema?
This relentless moral machine-gunning of the institution of monarchy – something which every society can relate to, adding to its genius – is truly unparalleled in film, and it is even available with English subtitles for free on Youtube here. For a fascinating and whirlwind two hours – and to see what your ancestors endured (unless you have a royal lineage) – I encourage you to watch it.
The 11th and final part discusses the future of Iranian Islamic Socialism in the context of a (possibly) post-JCPOA world.
I hope readers find this series informative and enjoyable. I also hope it will answer many questions about modern Iran which are shrouded in mystery for non-Iranians.
I did not intend for this series to begin publication on Eid Al-Fitr – the day after the end of Ramadan – but that is an auspicious coincidence!
But as somebody smarter than me once said: We may disagree on what goes on beyond the sky, but here on earth our political choices should be quite morally obvious by now.
Eid Al-Fitr Moborak! Happy End of Ramadan!
This is the 1st article in an 11-part series which explains the economics, history, religion and culture of Iran’s Revolutionary Shi’ism, which produced modern Iranian Islamic Socialism.
Here is the list of articles slated to be published, and I hope you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!
The WSWS, Iran’s economy, the Basij & Revolutionary Shi’ism: an 11-part series
How Iran got economically socialist, and then Islamic socialist
What privatisation in Iran? or Definitely not THAT privatisation
Structural similarities between Iran’s Basij and the Chinese Communist Party
Iran’s Basij: The reason why land or civil war inside Iran is impossible
A leftist analysis of Iran’s Basij – likely the first ever in the West
Iran’s Basij: Restructuring society and/or class warfare
‘Cultural’ & ‘Permanent Revolution’ in Revolutionary Shi’ism & Iranian Islamic Socialism
‘Martyrdom and Martyrdom’ & martyrdom, and the Basij
‘The Death of Yazdgerd’: The greatest political movie ever explains Iran’s revolution
Iran détente after Trump’s JCPOA pull out? We can wait 2 more years, or 6, or…
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.
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