The limits of guerillaism: interview with Mohammad Reza Shalguni

Mohamad Reza Shalgouni was a founder-member of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (Rahe Kargar). He spoke to Yassamine Mather about his strategic reassessment as a prisoner of the shah and experience of the revolutionary years of 1978-79.
The interview was made (on the 50th anniversary of the attack on the Siahkal gendarmerie post considered as the beginning of the guerilla era in Iran.

How long were you a prisoner during the shah’s reign?

I was in prison from January 1970 to November 1978. I was charged with being a member of the ‘Palestine Group’ and sentenced to 10 years in prison. And I was also arrested in early 1968 for student political activities and spent four months in prison, but without an official conviction.

When did you change your opinion on armed struggle?

I had doubts about the efficacy of armed struggle from 1972, but it was in 1975 that I became certain on the matter. Through discussions I’d had with some inmate friends in Evin prison – who belonged to different groups and all believed in armed struggle – we reached the conclusion that, separate from the masses, it cannot be successful.

Considering your knowledge and understanding of the subject today, how do you evaluate the armed struggles during the shah’s reign? And if you are critical about it, what other tactics would have been effective in your opinion?

The armed struggle, which began on February 8 1972, was without doubt a turning point in the fight against the shah’s dictatorship and made the people’s confrontation with the shah’s regime all the more clear, and helped take it to a new level. But that struggle did not widen and even started to fade after 1974.

This failure had evident reasons behind it: First, participation in the armed struggle was so costly that only a very small number of political fighters were willing to engage in it. Let’s not forget that the late Masoud Ahmadzadeh had noted that the fighting life of a guerrilla can only be six months. It is only natural that when a movement is unable to replace a fallen or arrested fighter with two, it will cease to move forwards. In prison, we witnessed that those who were arrested after 1974 were less experienced and even younger than before, with little political knowledge.

Second, every successful political fighter must be able to evoke economic, social and intellectual struggles as well – otherwise, they will not be connected with the people. No-one becomes involved in political struggles through mere abstract concepts. It is through tangible and distinctive economic, social, intellectual and cultural struggles and demands that one enters the political sphere. During that period in Iran which saw the start of the armed struggles, the shah’s dictatorship established an incredibly strict security environment, where even non-political activities were difficult to carry out. And therefore the atmosphere of oppression was unprecedentedly intensified in those years.

Third, even though the idea of armed struggle was developed and spread by leftwing activists, this movement (as I mentioned before) was not successful in connecting and blending with the left’s social base: the labourers, manual workers and the poor. It only spread and stayed among the middle class, which restricted the armed struggle to opposing dictatorship, without encompassing any strong or specific concept of the social classes. The consequences of this restriction became more apparent after the revolution. We must keep in mind that urban armed struggles – specifically long ones – disrupt the organisation of the labourers. This is a well-known matter in the Marxist movement, which many (including Lenin in his ‘Guerrilla warfare’ article, published in 1906) have pointed out.

To answer your question about other effective tactics, I believe that more attention should have been paid to the problems and issues of the lower class, and the demands and struggles of the labourers and workers should have been organised. It should not be forgotten that in the 15-year period before the revolution, the urban population of Iran doubled, as the majority of villagers moved to the cities, constituting the helpless populations on the outskirts of cities, and later on played an important role in igniting the flames of the 1979 revolution. They became a major part of the clergy’s forces, led by Ruhollah Khomeini during the revolution.

Since you were in prison throughout 1978-79, could you tell us the extent you were aware of protests against the shah’s regime, and how you evaluated these protests?

The truth is that after Jimmy Carter’s victory in the US election there was a significant change of atmosphere in the political prisons of the shah’s regime. For instance, we, the prisoners in Evin (the prison most directly under the supervision of the Savak secret police at the time), witnessed a sudden reduction of pressure: there was more recreation time in the yard, the quality of food improved, and family visits were gradually allowed.

In early 1977, the shah allowed representatives of the Red Cross to visit Iran’s political prisons and speak with the prisoners directly. This visit was truly unprecedented and speaking with them gave us the opportunity to expose many of the regime’s crimes, their systems of torture and political assassinations. It was after the arrival of Red Cross representatives that our visitors were allowed to bring us books, which were given to us without the former controls and inspections. And it was at that time that our knowledge of the country’s affairs increased considerably, both through receiving newspapers and also the news that was delivered to us by our visitors. I remember that even some foreign magazines such as Le Monde Diplomatique, The Guardian Weekly and Newsweek were brought to us by the visitors at that time and hence we were able to find out about the commotion going on in the country. The inmates jokingly called this change of environment ‘Jimocracy’.

As you know, after the uprising of February 1978 in Tabriz, the protests entered a new stage and I remember that inmates turned the Nowruz (Iranian new year) of 1979 into a real celebration. And from the beginning of the new year, with the expansion of protests and memorials and Chehelloms (the 40th day of mourning the deceased in Iran) of victims in various cities, the majority of political prisoners believed that the regime could no longer return to its previous state. By the end of spring 1979, our circle in the Evin prison (which became one of the founding groups of Workers Way) concluded that the country was heading at full speed towards a ‘state of revolution’. We formulated our reasons for this evaluation in a small pamphlet and handed it out to our trusted friends in the prison.

Did your assessment of the protests change when you were released from prison?

Yes. After being released, our assessment definitely changed. When we were out, we realised that the influence of the clergy was much greater than we had anticipated. In the mid-autumn of 1978, you could see the influence of Khomeini’s supporters increase rapidly among people, and it was then that we (the groups that would later form Workers Way) grew more concerned about the regime that might replace the shah’s.

How did you assess the position of the radical left towards these protests, and has this assessment changed?

Before the uprising of February 1979, almost all leftwing parties supported people’s protests and participated actively in them. I can’t remember a single leftist group being opposed to the mass protests at that time. The truth is that, due to the oppressive environment that was created, especially in the last 15 years, the shah’s regime had practically no active supporters.

Do you evaluate the tactics of your group at that time as positive?

Before the victory of the uprising in February, there was no organisation called Workers Way. Its definitive formation as an independent group took place in the summer of 1978, and its core members were mostly prisoners who were released during the revolution. Most of them did not want to form such a group initially and mainly participated in the protests, along with the Organisation of People’s Fadai (Majority), during the uprising.

In the days following the uprising, our relationship and negotiations with the leader of the Fadai took a more orderly and regular form. But the leader’s confusion while evaluating Khomeini and the clergy told us that we could not cooperate with that organisation and inevitably had to organise ourselves as an independent group.

I must note that the first issue of Workers Way was published after the US embassy was occupied by Muslim students, followers of the imam’s line. Of course, we believed that the clerical government would be a reactionary and oppressive one for sure, and, once established, it would be a ruthless, fascist regime. We formulated this assessment in March 1979 in a pamphlet titled On perspectives. And, even though it was not widely distributed, one was given to the leader of the Fadai organisation, which unfortunately elicited a very upset reaction, since many of them – including some comrades who would later on lead the Organisation of People’s Fadai (Minority) – were still optimistic towards a regime led by Khomeini, and their view was reinforced after the occupation of the US embassy.

In your opinion, did we ever face a situation of dual power?

I think that after September 8 1978 a dual power was practically formed in the country. Of course, the situation wasn’t the same in every city and after the shah left on January 16 1979, the dual power situation was established and the uprising reached its peak in February.

How do you assess the reasons behind the religious groups’ success in organising the protests?

The religious groups’ ability to organise people, especially the lower classes, was greater than that of left and other groups.

First, contrary to popular belief, the Shi’ite clergy was never completely under the control of governments, even during the Safavid dynasty. Since believing in the reign of the 12 infallible imams is one of the principles of the Shi’ite religion, during the period of ‘absence’ (of the 12th imam) the Shi’ite clerics considered themselves ‘deputy imams’ and therefore they would avoid integration into the government of the sultans and shahs in various ways.

During the reign of Reza Shah and especially with the start of his authoritarian ‘modernisation’, there was a clear gap between the monarchy and the clergy. This gap was significantly narrowed in the first 12-year period of Mohammad Reza Shah’s rule (September 1941 to August 1953) as a result of the expanding influence of the left and the oil nationalisation movement led by Mosaddegh; therefore, a sort of alliance was formed between the monarchy and the clergy. However, with the shah’s announcement of the ‘White Revolution’ in the winter of 1963, the gap widened once more, and on June 6 1963 it resulted in a bloody confrontation between the government and that part of the clergy led by Khomeini. With the rise of Khomeini as the main opponent of the shah’s ‘reforms’, a powerful political current was formed against the shah’s dictatorship, which continued its activities semi-secretly on a mass scale, under the guise of religious ceremonies.

Second, Khomeini was clever about presenting his completely reactionary ideas under the guise of countering American influence and defending the country’s independence, while refusing to give any concessions to progressive groups. Thus, he formed a practical alliance with the strong anti-imperialist opposition groups in Iran (which were widespread after the coup d’état of August 19 1953).

It should not be forgotten that Khomeini’s tricks stemmed from his reactionary fundamentalism: the belief in the irreconcilability of Islam with western culture. In any case, that is how the clergy following Khomeini was able to carry on with its utterly retrogressive policies, under the guise of opposing dictatorship and defending the country’s independence – which also weakened the progressive anti-imperialist currents in Iran’s politics.

Third, while the shah’s government did not allow any independent political parties to operate and suppressed every one in the last 15 years of his reign (any tendency towards the left was nipped in the bud due to anti-left paranoia). By contrast religion was seen as the biggest support of the government. But under the cover of the same religious apparatus, the shah’s religious opponents were able to organise themselves and even establish private schools to train their followers.

Fourth, as I mentioned before, in the 15-year period before the revolution, unprecedented internal immigration took place and the urban population more than doubled as a result of the shah’s land reforms and increased oil revenues. A large number of these people who had left their villages constituted helpless populations in the outskirts of the cities and played an important role in igniting the 1979 revolution. Their everyday struggle for survival fused with religious ideas and they became the clergy’s main strike force during the revolution. Suffice to say, at the beginning of the 1970s there were 30,000 active religious groups in Tehran alone and the highest print circulation belonged to a prayer book called Mafatih Al Jinan (over one million copies), while there were no more than 3,000 copies of Ahmad Shamloo’s poetry books – the most popular in our literature.

Were the clergy less oppressed compared to the left during Pahlavi’s rule, and was there a large gap between the common people and the guerrillas?

The oppression of the religious currents was basically non-existent, compared to that of the political currents – and especially the leftwing groups. Before the arrest of People’s Mujahedin Organisation activists (who in fact distanced themselves from the traditionally religious and were in practice considered part of the left by the shah’s regime, which even called them ‘Islamic Marxists’ at times), the religious prisoners in the shah’s prison were very few in number. Moreover, the arrest of some religious individuals or groups did not mean that the religious apparatus was prohibited from being active by any means and, as I mentioned before, many of the political/religious activists were able to continue their activities under the guise of religious ceremonies and rituals. And, on the other hand, armed struggle certainly limited, or even blocked, any means of communication between the common people and the guerrillas.

In your opinion, which social classes supported the armed struggle movement and the People’s Fadai Organisation?

I think in the era of oppression the shah’s regime created, most people admired a guerrilla who dared to stand up to it. Under those circumstances, the action of each guerrilla was truly epic and heroic. But, for this very reason, people were afraid of taking the same path. However, for political resistance to spread among the masses the gap between the fighters and the ordinary people should not be wide. To be more exact, the valiant heroes should offer the people a path that does not cost them gravely in the end.

For this very reason, when circumstances changed during the revolution (mid-1978, for instance) and the per capita cost and danger of participating in the protests was lowered for the people, we witnessed the People’s Fadai become a truly mass organisation (one could even call them the largest political opposition), which demonstrated the fact that people were truly supportive of it. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that even at that time, the active supporters of the Fadai organisation mainly came from the middle class and not the lower class (with whom communication should have been a priority for the left).

Did the radical left have supporters among the working class?

The radical left had a significant number of advocates among workers, for sure. However, first, these supporters were more significant among the workers who were aware of class conflicts. Second, it was only with the prevalence of the mass struggles and the decreasing of the cost of participation in movements that the radical left supporters began to increase among the working class. And, third, the increase in radical left advocates among the working class was only accelerated with the commencement of economic and social struggles, since the labourers can only enter the political arena on a mass scale through these economic and social movements.

How did this support affect significant days, such as February 11 1979, when the shah’s regime finally fell?

Studying their actions at that time leaves us no doubt that the workers will support the radical left mainly by organising economic and social struggles. We witnessed labourers accompanying and supporting the radical left through forming workers’ councils and going on strike, and it was in these areas and movements that the power of the left was more clear and visible, compared to Khomeini’s supporters, on the streets. The power of the left was so significant in the workplaces that the clergy which had just come to power had to make concessions to their leftwing rivals.

Posted on Weekly Worker February 4, 2021

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