From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Iran: Unfoldment of, and contradictions in, Revolution, parts III and IV

December 10, 2022

From the January-February 2023 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: This is the second half of a March 25, 1979, Political-Philosophic Letter, titled “Iran: Unfoldment of, and Contradictions in, Revolution,” one of a series written by Raya Dunayevskaya during and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. (The first half was published in the previous issue.) Translated into Farsi and distributed by Iranian revolutionaries, the series was published in a pamphlet, Iran: Revolution and Counter-Revolution, and is available in The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #7219, along with the Farsi edition, #7266. Due to space limitations, some footnotes have been eliminated here. This and three of the other letters are published in full in Crossroads of History: Marxist-Humanist Writings on the Middle East.

Continued from the Nov.-Dec. 2022 issue

III. Two Iranian Revolutions, 1906-11 and Today’s

One look at the 1906 Revolution will reveal its two greatest features that today’s Islamic celebrants keep quiet about. One is its inspiration in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Indeed, it was at the height, November-December 1905, that the first general strike broke out in Tehran. While today Iran means oil, in 1905 it was Baku, Russia, that meant oil, and because thousands of Iranian oil workers were in Russia and were inspired by the Russian workers fighting Tsarism, they learned also about a very new form of organization—Soviets. This, then, was what became the form of spontaneous organizations in Iran as well.

The uniqueness in Iran was that what had started out, indigenously enough, as a secret organization, became anjumani, a very nearly dual government—local units organized independently of the Shah and the Majlis (Parliament) by popular elections, defending their independence on the ground that there was too much bureaucratic corruption in the government. By 1907, these anjumani were by no means limited to Tehran but functioned also in Tabriz, Enzeli, and not only in the towns, but spread to rural areas. What is ironic is that W. Morgan Shuster—who was very far removed from any anjumani, much less that of women, revealed the historic role of the women by the mere description of what happened: “The Persian women since 1907 had become almost at a bound the most progressive, not to say radical, in the world. That this statement upsets the ideas of centuries makes no difference. It is the fact” (p. 191).

Shuster describes how “out from their walled courtyards and harems marched 300 of that weak sex; with the flush of undying determination in their cheeks, they were clad in their plain black robes with the white nets of their veils dropped over their faces. Many held pistols under their skirts or in the folds of their sleeves” (The Strangling of Persia, p. 198).

Shuster concludes: “During the five years following the successful but bloodless revolution in 1906 against the oppressions and cruelty of the Shah, a feverish and at times fierce light shone in the veiled eyes of Persia’s women, and in their struggles for liberty and its modern expressions, they broke through some of the most sacred customs which for centuries past had bound their sex in the land of Iran” (p. 192).

It is true—and this uniqueness exists unto today and must under no circumstances be disregarded in coping with the ulamas and ayatollahs—that the religious leaders sided with the revolution, or at least its first stages. As against Russia where, though Father Gapon had triggered the opening of the Revolution when his march to the Tsar’s Palace was transformed into Bloody Sunday in January 1905 by the Cossacks firing into the march, the Greek Orthodox Church sided with the Tsar, the religious leaders in Iran went with the Iranian masses both in opposing Russian domination and demanding the Shah grant a Constitution and allow them to establish a Majlis.

Women march against Islamic counter-revolution in Tehran, Iran, on International Women’s Day, 1979

BUT EVEN HERE WE MUST SEE THE NEGATIVE features. For the first chapter, the one so celebrated now, the December 1906 Constitution, limited the Shah’s power and produced a Majlis. There then followed many spontaneous organizations that worked independently of it. Once the Majlis convened, the religious leaders began moving away from any class struggle. By October 1907, the Amendments the Majlis passed restored many powers to the Shah, especially the supreme command of the armed forces so that one could hardly call him just a figurehead. In any case, Tsarism, which had been too busy putting down the Russian Revolution to be overly involved in Iran, decided to move against it and by 1908 the Cossack Regiment bombarded the Majlis and put down the revolution. But here still another unique feature emerges. Whereas the Russian Revolution was totally crushed in 1908, in Iran it re-emerged, and the Shah was driven from his throne. It took more Cossack brigades and British imperialism as well as the Shah, after three more years, finally to destroy entirely that Revolution.

Now, it is the difference between the December 1906 Constitution and the October 1907 Amendments which point not just to the duality in the Shi’a leadership in various periods within an ongoing revolution. It points as well to today: the March 30 plebiscite staring us in the face. Khomeini-Bazargan must not succeed just because they will have won so fake an “election.” Yet we cannot entertain any illusions. It will be much, much harder for revolutionaries to function. The imminent counter-revolution is being institutionalized.

FOR THAT VERY REASON we must stop another moment at the 1905 Russian Revolution, this time not either as it actually occurred or how it inspired the Iranian Revolution, but as it was discussed at the 1907 London Congress of the Russian Marxists—Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Leon Trotsky who was in neither tendency then, and Rosa Luxemburg-Leo Jogiches, that is, the Polish Marxists who had in that Revolution joined the Russian party. This cannot be discussed here in any detail; that I will do elsewhere.[1] Here it is sufficient to single out from Rosa Luxemburg’s speech what is relevant for today. I am not referring to her famous theory of the General Strike, which is certainly applicable, and indeed we just saw it in Iran developing into the outright insurrection.

No, what we have to hold in mind for further development is her attack on the Mensheviks who, on the ground that Russia was a technologically backward land, wanted to confine the Revolution in the context of the very start of the 1848 German Revolution, rather than at the end of that revolution when Marx, in his March 1850 Address to the Communist League, called for the permanent revolution. Rosa insisted, instead, that not only was it right for the ground of the Russian Revolution to be the end, not the beginning of 1848, as Marx analyzed, but, above all, we had to start with what was new in the 1905 Revolution:

The Russian Revolution was not so much the last act in the series of bourgeois revolutions of the Nineteenth Century as the forerunner of a new series of future proletarian revolutions, in which the conscious proletariat and its vanguard, Social Democracy, are destined historically to play the leading role.

IV. Where to Now?

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, 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 at the 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 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.

It took nothing short of the First World War and the collapse of the established Marxist (Second) International before V.I. Lenin recognized that, without philosophy, without the dialectics of liberation in thought as well as in fact, a Marxism reduced to economics was inadequate. In any case, what is most relevant for today, and not only for Iran, is to do away with elitism and such quick slogans as the need for an “April Theses” to “rearm the party,” as if that meant Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution with its built-in underestimation of the revolutionary role of the peasantry.

Trotsky’s illusion that the April Theses meant Lenin’s “acceptance” of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution notwithstanding, the real relevance of an “April Theses” for the transition period now in Iran is not the forced identity with that theory that Trotsky built up. Rather, the plain facts of how it came to be are what we hope will help the Iranian comrades work out on the basis of the indigenous and the new, their revolutionary national and international forces of revolution, their path to social revolution, their move from “February” not only to April but to “October.”

IT WAS THE SHOCK of the simultaneity of the outbreak of World War I and the collapse of the Second International that compelled Lenin to return to Marx’s origins in the Hegelian dialectic and see that, without it, Marxism was reduced to vulgar materialism. He refused to stop with mere exposure of the betrayal. Rather, with Capital in hand as well as the political thesis of the need to “Turn the Imperialist War into Civil War,” Lenin delved into Hegel’s Science of Logic. Of all the revolutionary Marxists—Luxemburg, Trotsky, and many, many others—Lenin alone decided that first of all he must reorganize his own method of thinking and doing.

In a word, before the April Theses were and could have been written, there came, first, Lenin’s Philosophic Notebooks (precisely, his Abstract of Hegel’s Science of Logic). Then he worked out his theory of imperialism[2]—his confrontation with the new state of economy—monopoly capitalism on the way to state-monopoly capitalism, not outside of its relationship to the proletariat but as related to the transformation into opposite of a section of the proletariat that did gain from capitalism’s extension into imperialism. Thirdly, and above all, came a real live revolution—the Irish Easter Rebellion, 1916—which gave a new dimension to the “National Question” as self-determination, as the “bacillus” of proletarian revolution.

FINALLY, THE DETERMINANT EMERGES for that proletarian revolution—State and Revolution (originally called “Marxism and the State”)—and only after that could Lenin “rearm” the Party. Far from that producing any sort of debate about dictatorship of the proletariat or dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, what resulted—and where we should begin—is “All Power to the Soviets,” that is to say, all power in the hands of the masses, their forms of organization, their control of production and the state, their smashing of the bourgeois state, and by working out a new relationship of theory to practice, and the movement from practice to theory, the establishment of new human relations. 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.

There is no way to extend and deepen the revolution if Bazargan is allowed to reduce to a consultative role the function of the committees organized by the workers to run the plants and offices. The fact that the Prime Minister feels impelled to take to the airwaves to declaim against what he calls “the dangerous logic of soviets” further exposed his capitalistic fear of the elemental passion for freedom released by the ongoing revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini’s stopping the revolutionary tribunals against the Shah’s most powerful and vicious henchmen in the SAVAK and in the government has focused on just how rapidly he is turning the clock back, and by no means only at the expense of the women’s freedom. Those acts of retrogression are not only dangerous logic. They are acts of outright counter-revolution. 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]. I will develop this in my book-in-progress, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, which will include the translation of the speeches by Rosa Luxemburg from the Congress.

[2]. More relevant than Lenin’s book Imperialism are his heftier Notebooks on Imperialism (Collected Works, Vol. 39, Moscow, 1968), pp. 719-28, which show that Lenin referred to both Shuster’s and Browne’s books (cited above).

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