From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Contradictions in Iranian Revolution

November 10, 2022

From the November-December 2022 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: This is the first half of a Political-Philosophic Letter titled “Iran: Unfoldment of, and Contradictions in, Revolution” (second half next issue), one of a series written by Raya Dunayevskaya during and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The series was published in a pamphlet, Iran: Revolution and Counter-Revolution, available in The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #7219, along with its Farsi translation distributed by Iranian revolutionaries, #7266. Due to space limitations, most footnotes have been eliminated here.


March 25, 1979

1. A Whole Host of Specters Haunting Khomeini’s “Islamic Revolution”

Dear Friends:

A whole host of specters are haunting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s “Islamic Republic” before even it is officially established. There is the specter of a full social revolution in the 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 to 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, anjumani, 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, Yasir Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), persuaded them to call off the march to Khomeini’s headquarters 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.”

FOR FIVE STRAIGHT DAYS THE WOMEN CONTINUED their marches, and not only against Khomeini, but against Prime Minister Bazargan, and on March 10 held a three-hour sit-in at the Ministry of Justice. Nor did they tolerate the mass media’s autocratic choice of what they would photograph, whom they would give voice to, whom they would focus on. Instead of letting their protests go unrecorded, the women marched upon the mass media, thus exposing the fact that the censorship there is now almost as total as it was during the Shah’s dictatorship. Think how quickly those bourgeois and petty-bourgeois opportunists changed sides. They waited two days after the insurrection started before they came to the radio to announce that they will not oppose the people but be “the voice of the revolution.” That was Feb. 11. The very next day they snuck in an adjective; they now called themselves the “voice of the Islamic revolution.”

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 Mujahideen). 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 where the Left males attacked the 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 Mulard 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” (to which we’ll return later). The expulsion of Kate Millett is but an example 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 the Ayatollah 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.

Part of the women’s march in Tehran, Iran, on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1979

The schisms within the ruling class are not as irreconcilable as between labor and capital. Nor are they only a question of secular vs. theocratic rule. The fact that Khomeini nevertheless tried to keep some distance away from the planned March 5 celebration of the 12th anniversary of Mossadegh, who was the first to nationalize the oil industry and shake up the Shah’s throne, throws a glaring light on what he intends to do with his so-called Islamic Revolution. Bazargan, who did sit on the platform, was not recognized as any voice of the 1951-53 revolt and thus was in no position to serve as any bridge between the dissident bourgeois liberal factions. Instead, the person who spoke first was Mossadegh’s grandson, Hedayat Matine-Daftari, who criticized Bazargan’s attack on the extension of democratic rights.

More significant was the voice of the Ayatollah Taleghani, who had broken with the Islamic Revolutionary Committee in late February, approving instead elected, not appointed, workers’ committees, thus making sure that the revolution does not stop at its very first step, the overthrow of the Shah.

There is no point in underestimating the power of the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom many are now treating as an Imam even if he has not exorcised those specters haunting his revolution. That 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. 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, 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, Paris Commune, Communist Manifesto, What Is to Be Done?, State and Revolution, Imperialism, Wretched of the Earth, Black Skin, White Masks, Dying Colonialism.”[1] A further account reported a new translation of Marx’s 1844 Essay on Alienated Labor and innumerable leaflets.

How idiotic indeed is the bourgeois press that keeps repeating old official (SAVAK [the Shah’s secret police]?) figures that Marxists number but 2% of the population!

2. The Main Enemy Is Always At Home

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. Listen to Mohammad Javad Katemi’s appeal “To All Oil Workers and Those Who Fight for Freedom”:

After 90 days of our heroic strike, during which we have cut off all supplies of oil—the livelihood of the reactionary regime and of its imperialist backers—and by the bloody struggle of the people we have succeeded in overthrowing the Shah…

As a representative of the oil workers—the heart of our industry—and as one of the initiators of the strikes in the oil fields….I am resigning because I can see that reactionary elements working under the banner of Islam are consciously suppressing the people’s freedom and rights…

It was you workers who fought and suffered from sackings, imprisonment and the burnings of our homes and still we did not give up because we all felt a responsibility to the whole of the people of Iran. Myself and other representatives who were responsible for leading your struggle know better than anybody that it was you yourselves that made the victory, not anybody else…

We do not accept any dictatorship and will always support those who fight for freedom…We must remember and understand the nature of imperialism which still has everything in its hands. We must remember what happened in Portugal, Argentina and especially Chile. Until imperialism is completely smashed such things can happen again.

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 and 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 Number One. 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, 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.

The first thing Khomeini declared on Feb. 19, when the Kurds took up arms to fight for the autonomy they had been promised when they participated in the revolution against the Shah, was: “I will not tolerate this uncultured behavior. I shall regard this as an uprising against the Islamic revolution.” Now that he has anointed himself as the “revolutionary” and all those who died for freedom and now live for it as “counter-revolutionaries,” he had his words given an old military voice. The Shah’s General Gharehnay, now speaking as the Ayatollah’s General, tried yelling above the din of the Kurdish arms: “The military will never allow any part of the country to secede.” But the Kurds continued the struggle, claiming, however, that it was not secession but only autonomy they were demanding. For the time being there is a truce.

As for the Iranian masses, they surely have no need of statistics to attest to their miserable conditions of labor and life It is the urban poor, 70% of whose miserable wages—where they have them—go for rent, who were after all the ones to explode on Feb. 11 in Tabriz. What I am pointing to is that the Iranian Revolution started before the days of insurrection. The poor and the workers were also the very ones who were pivotal when the Army, too, folded and many rank-and-file soldiers joined the masses and gave them arms, while Bazargan and Khomeini had the assurance of some generals that they indeed would change sides if they had assurance they would once again command! The Revolution started long before the Ayatollah Khomeini emerged to lead and mislead.

UNFORTUNATELY, ALL THOSE POWERFUL MASS MOBILIZATIONS, and deaths of thousands, which culminated in ending the Shah’s and SAVAK’s (CIA-trained in torture) despotism and terrorism and exploitation, are but the merest beginnings of anything new, that is to say, worker-controlled. Unfortunately, Khomeini still remains very nearly unchallenged, that is, seriously unchallenged, as if his intransigence in demanding “Death to the Shah!”, which had acted as a unifying force when the weak National Front was still bargaining with the Shah, was, in fact, what had begun and deepened the revolution. 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 recent Middle East treaty was induced precisely by the fear of the consequences of the Iranian Revolution. 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 Millet 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.”

Let us, instead, turn to the genuine indigenous roots of a most unique revolution, the very one that is now being so bandied about as if the only point involved in it, great though that was for that year, was the Constitution of 1906. The Revolution lasted from 1906 to 1911. We turn to this period not only for nationalism but internationalism, and not only for the past but the present.

To be continued next issue…


[1]. 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. It has amazed both revolutionaries and reactionaries. In every city and village you can find all kinds of self-created committees, councils, associations and other forms of organizations, such as Kanoon (which means focus) or Anjumani (soviets). Every strata has its own organization: students, writers, lawyers, teachers, bazaar merchants, bank and government staffs, and workers. Workers Committees have discharged all the government-made unions and called for formation of a ‘Confederation of Iranian Workers.’” See also the eyewitness account in Intercontinental Press (Feb. 26, 1979).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.