NEWS & LETTERS, March 2004

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Marxist-Humanist Archives

In celebration of Women's History Month

Lessons of the Iranian revolution


Twenty-five years ago the Iranian revolution exploded, which was one of the most important--as well as tragic--revolutions of the 20th century.  In light of the convergence of its anniversary with Women's History Month, we reprint here excerpts of Raya Dunayevskaya's "Iran: Unfoldment of and Contradictions in Revolution." It was written on March 25, 1979, shortly after mass protests by Iranian women tried to prevent the revolution from being usurped by reactionary fundamentalists under the control of Ayatollah Khomeini. The full text of the essay can be found in MARXIST-HUMANIST WRITINGS ON THE MIDDLE EAST (Chicago: News and Letters, 2003).

* * *

A whole host of specters are haunting Khomeini’s "Islamic Republic" before ever it is officially established. There is the specter of a full social revolution in the very unfoldment of the Iranian Revolution which, after all, witnessed a series of the greatest, most powerful and sustained mass mobilizations for months on end before the three days of insurrection. Clearly, Feb. 9-12 had not only driven the Shah and his stooge, Bakhtiar, from the throne, but the manner in which the workers ended their general strike to return to work without returning their guns, as the Ayatollah had commanded, showed that only Chapter 1 of the Revolution had ended. It put a special emphasis on the complaints of his appointed Prime Minister, Bazargan, about lack of production. As the Deputy Prime Minister, Entezan, put it: "Despite the Ayatollah’s commands, none of the major industries in the country are functioning because the workers spend all their time holding political meetings."

As if Workers’ Councils, Neighborhood Committees, anjumeni, many new forms of spontaneous organization, and youth dominant in all, did not take on the apparition of a dual government, there came, with the celebration of International Women’s Day, a mass outpouring of women, bearing the banner, "We made the revolution for freedom, and got unfreedom," which may very well have opened Chapter 2 of the Iranian Revolution. It is true there had been other outbursts of criticism of Khomeini from the Fedayeen. But whereas Khomeini’s friend, Arafat of the PLO, persuaded them to call off the march to Khomeini's headquarters(1) and, instead, hold a rally at Tehran University, the Women’s Liberationists took to the streets.

No doubt Khomeini was ignorant of the fact that March 8 was International Women’s Day and the Iranian women intended to make their celebration of the past a claim on the present and future when he issued the March 7 order for the women to wear the chador. But his mild retreat--the claim that it was a "duty, not an order"--hardly succeeded in exorcising the new specter. Quite the contrary. Though the Ayatollah criticized the goons who attacked the march, tried to stone the women, and shot three, the women felt that those goons were in fact practicing what the Ayatollah preached as "Islamic law"....

Nor was the Ayatollah calmed by the fact that the Women’s Liberationists produced a schism in the Fedayeen (and to a lesser extent also in the Moujahideen). For, while a good part condemned the actions of the women, others formed a human chain on both sides of the march to protect them from further harassment. That certainly was a great advance over the beginnings of the Portuguese Revolution in 1975(2) where the Left males attacked women’s demonstrations with impunity. 1979 in Iran showed, at one and the same time, that male revolutionaries would not permit attacks on women revolutionaries, and women were striking out on their own as a way of deepening the content of revolution.

Finally, the Women’s Liberationists focused on their internationalism, not limited to the invitations to Kate Millett from the U.S. and Claudine Moullard from France (who had come to express their solidarity with the Iranian women revolutionaries). The more crucial point is that the Iranian women felt that LITERALLY MILLIONS throughout the world were with them.

It is this that so frightened the Ayatollah that he dared call the Women’s Liberationists "agents of imperialism"....[It is] a symbol of how he intends to roll the clock backward in his attempt to exorcise all these specters as he must first try to stop those fighting for self-determination with guns in hand--the Kurdish rebels.

Under these circumstances of ever new forces of revolution, for male revolutionaries to disregard how total the revolution must be if it is to uproot the exploitative, racist, sexist society, and once again try to subordinate women’s struggles as a "mere part of the whole" (as if the whole can be without its parts), is to play into the hands of the reactionaries, be that the "secular" Bazargan government, or Khomeini who is trying to "institutionalize" his Islamic "revolution," that is to say, confine it to where he can steal the fruit of the revolution--freedom--and leave the masses who made it at the bottom as in any and all class societies….

There is no point in underestimating the power of the Ayatollah Khomeini....[THE] COUNTER-REVOLUTION IS RIGHT WITHIN THE REVOLUTION. He knew how to hit at the women, mobilizing a few thousand to march with their chadors against the women who were protesting a great deal more than dress.(3) What the Women’s Liberationists learned here was that not all women are sisters. It is, after all, a slander to make it appear as if it were a mere question of women against men. "Sexual politics" is anything but that; the male chauvinism exposed, AND THAT INCLUDED OF THE AYATOLLAH KHOMEINI, was the limitation of the freedom of humanity, the abrogation of the civil rights--political, social, economic, intellectual, CLASS.

In the latter case--THE most worrisome for the Ayatollah--it was the way the workers, in this case the printers, united with the Youth on what seemed most abstract--works on philosophy of revolution, on politics, strategy, on internationalism, to satisfy their thirst for knowledge of all to do with revolution. Thus, in the very midst of revolution when the general strike was at its height, the printers decided to work double shifts so that they could satisfy that thirst. As one eyewitness report describes it: "Books are flowing at the people as fast as soldiers’ bullets…they read everything about revolution. All Marxian books that have been translated into Persian are being reprinted and spread hand to hand and house to house:

"CAPITAL, THE CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE, COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, WHAT IS TO BE DONE?, STATE AND REVOLUTION, IMPERIALISM, WRETCHED OF THE EARTH, BLACK SKIN WHITE MASKS, DYING COLONIALISM."(4) A further account reported a new translation of Marx’s 1844 Essay on Alienated Labor and innumerable leaflets....


The workers in revolution need no "vanguard parties" to tell them that the main enemy is at home, that the conflict between labor and capital is irreconcilable, and that native capital has such overwhelming tie-ins with imperialism that, if its life is threatened, the capitalists will certainly ask for imperialism to come to their aid in bringing on full counter-revolution. But under no circumstances does that mean any slackening of the workers’ own self-activity, self-organization, self-development, thus deepening the revolution. Thus, no sooner had Bazargan tried to reassert his full authority by a takeover of the oil industry than some of the workers’ leaders at once resigned from the workers’ committees in protest....

This type of worker opposition, if it will once again develop a mass base, is the way to stop the attempted counter-revolution, PROVIDED that we, as revolutionaries, in turn, do not forget that to speak only of anti-imperialism as if imperialism alone was responsible for the counter-revolution in Chile, in Argentina, or anywhere else for that matter, is a deviation. IT IS A DEVIATION VERY WELCOME TO AN INDEED CALCULATED BY THE INDIGENOUS CAPITALISTS.

THAT IS TO SAY, NATIVE RULERS WILL SAY ANYTHING, ANYTHING AT ALL, SO LONG AS THEREBY THE CLASS STRUGGLE AT HOME CAN BE SUBORDINATED TO FIGHTING EVERYTHING "FOREIGN" AS ENEMY NO. 1. What World War II showed us was that, outside of Hitler himself, none were more adept at playing the nationalist game than Peron, and, contrary to Hitler,(5) he succeeded in so fooling the Left with his "anti-imperialism" that many hailed him as a "revolutionary." To this day, Peronism has so brainwashed the trade union movement that it followed him to the end.

Or look at the Trotskyists this very moment in Iran who, while correctly fighting U.S. imperialism, are so blinded by their position that Russia is still a "workers’ state" rather than the OTHER nuclearly armed power reaching for single world domination, that they only lay the ground for "The Vanguard Party"--Tudeh--who are even louder in their declamation against U.S. imperialism, as if it weren’t Stalin’s Russia that had occupied Iran at the end of World War II as U.S. imperialism and Great Britain helped keep Iran in tow during World War II.

Or look at how Khomeini is using the slogan of anti-imperialism to usher in his bourgeois Islamic republic, to keep Kurdistan within Iran rather than granting the Kurds, and the many other minorities hungering for self-determination, their freedom….

And, unfortunately, the Left, too, had unfurled no new banner of freedom, and some are willing to settle for much, much less, being part of State Administration, that is part of the new ruling bureaucracy while shouting "anti-imperialism."

Of course, U.S. imperialism is the most gigantic, militaristic, nuclearly armed Titan in the world. Of course we, as American revolutionaries, must work to see that it never reestablishes itself in Iran or anywhere else. And, of course, we must point to the fact that the rush to the present Middle East treaty was induced precisely by the fear of the consequences of the Iranian Revolution.(6)

Nevertheless, we must not permit the indigenous Iranian counter-revolution to hide under the slogan of anti-imperialism, as some in the Left are trying to do by branding not only U.S. imperialism but Kate Millett and, indeed, the whole women’s revolutionary movement as if they are "agents of imperialism." Nothing could assure the victory of the counter-revolution more than that kind of "anti-imperialism."

Each revolution discloses something new and unique and challenging. The new in the Iranian Revolution reveals both new strength and new weakness. Surely the sustained mass mobilizations in so despotic a land, armed to the teeth and primed by Nixon since 1972 to take over the U.S. policeman’s beat for the whole Middle East, was nothing short of a miracle, especially when you consider that the Shah extended that Great Illusion to believe he would be pivotal to the final confrontation between the two nuclear Titans: the U.S. and Russia. Moreover, they were so spontaneous that even the Left that always likes to take credit for vanguardism had to admit that not only were they not organized by any party, but they seemed to be organized by "nobody."

Yet it would be wrong to think either that it was only spontaneity that was at work, or that "nobody" organized it. Were it so, Khomeini, for whom one million poured out to welcome back, could not proceed so brazenly and so rapidly to try to saddle the Revolution with what he calls "Islamic Republic" and "Islamic moral code," and we already saw it at work not only against the women but against the lifestyle of a whole new generation of revolutionary youth who are the very heart of this revolution.

Nor should we entertain any illusion about the "superiority" of the secular middle-class intellectuals who think that because THEY see Khomeini as "symbol," not philosopher of revolution, that some "greater intellectual" than he will win in the end. There is but one grain of truth in that pretension, and it concerns not intellectuals, but theory. There is no doubt that the great weakness of the movement now, and not only in Iran, is the lack of theory, a theory stemming from a philosophy of total liberation such as was and is Marx’s Humanism, his whole new continent of thought from the moment he broke from bourgeois society in 1843 until his death, 1883, that is to say, from his HUMANIST ESSAYS through CAPITAL and the Paris Commune to his ETHNOLOGICAL NOTEBOOKS....

We have, after all, 62 additional years of experience, have seen Russia and China also become transformed into their opposite, with both vying for U.S. imperialism’s alliance! Surely we cannot behave as if nothing had happened in all those decades of maturation, aborted revolutions as well as revolutions transformed into opposite….

Let us extend our solidarity to the embattled revolutionaries--the new generation of revolutionary students as well as workers; Women’s Liberationists as well as national minorities fighting for self-determination. Let us extend the activities here to stop the interfering hand of U.S. imperialism hungering for oil and the strategic location for its nuclear global aim.

The struggle continues.


1. That this is not the first time Arafat helped stifle an ongoing revolution was seen clearest in Lebanon. See Political-Philosophic Letter No. 6, August 1976, "Lebanon: The Test Not Only of the PLO but the Whole Left." [Available in MARXIST-HUMANIST WRITINGS ON THE MIDDLE EAST (Chicago: News and Letters, 2003)--Editor.]

2. See "Under the Whip of the Counter-Revolution: Will the Revolution in Portugal Advance?", N&L, Jan.-Feb. 1976.

3. See NEW YORK TIMES (3-11-79) which lists eight of the demands.

4. See "Eyewitness report: Iran’s ongoing revolution" (N&L, March 1979) which further describes "the self-activity, self-organizing and creativity of the masses of the people."

5. Some in the Arab world were so desperate about ever ridding themselves of Western imperialism that they couldn’t resist even Hitler’s blandishments. See "U.S. and Russia Enter Middle-East Cockpit," by Raya Dunayevskaya (NEWS & LETTERS, Detroit).* Lucien Rey, in "Persia in Perspective" (NEW LEFT REVIEW, Summer 1963) rightly calls attention to the fact that there is a "counter-revolutionary anti-imperialism."

6. See the Editorial "Egypt-Israel: U.S. Imperialism’s Middle-East Outpost" (N&L, April 1979).

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