From the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Iran–Unfoldment of, and contradictions in, revolution

January 30, 2018

From the January-February 2018 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: Due to the importance of beginning anew from revolutionary high points, we excerpt Dunayevskaya’s March 25, 1979, Political-Philosophic Letter “Iran: Unfoldment of, and Contradictions in, Revolution,” minus footnotes. The whole can be found in Crossroads of History: Marxist-Humanist Writings on the Middle East.

A whole host of specters is 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, 1979, had not only driven the Shah and his stooge, Shapour 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 Khomeini 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, Mehdi Bazargan, about lack of production. As the Deputy Prime Minister, Abbas Amir 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….

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 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

On Jan. 29, 2018, in one of Tehran’s busiest squares, a woman tied her head scarf on a stick and waved it in protest. Photo: Mojtaba Nariman.

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….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, A Dying Colonialism.” 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 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 no. 1….

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 nuclear-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….

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, 1979, 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….

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

Unfortunately, all those powerful mass mobilizations, and deaths of thousands…are but the merest beginnings of anything new, that is to say, worker-controlled. Unfortunately, Khomeini still remains very nearly unchallenged….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, nuclear-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.

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, were nothing short of a miracle….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….

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.

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.”…

The plain facts of how the April Theses 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…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—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…and only after that could Lenin “rearm” the Party….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….

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.

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