Iran: The past will not return to the future
Iran has arrived at a moment of explosive but contradictory developments and the people have become aware of a break with normal life. These are characteristics of a revolutionary eruption. Society is rapidly gathering its forces for the final showdown with a system that combines a particularly extreme form of bandit capital accumulation under the administration of an extremely authoritarian, and corrupt regime with a reactionary ideology. The system in its current formation is an entity belonging to the past and whatever replaces it will form the core of the most momentous development in current times.
Even though the theoretical cover of the 1979 revolution have been torn apart under the crushing blows from a wide section of society, ranging from women, to oppressed nationalities and blue and white and collar workers and even though actual living experience has exposed its most invasive economic, political and cultural face, yet none of these is enough to provide a clear picture of the future. The recent developments are no guarantee that we can predict the direction the revolutionary energy that has been released will take, nor provide us with an ability to know to what extent the revolutionary process is shielded from the machinations of either victorious or the defeated reactionary forces.
The birth and formation of the new system takes shape in tandem with the collapse of the ruling regime and the battle for today is at the same time a battle for tomorrow. The directions and the outlook for these simultaneous processes is a vital question the answer to which we must seek within the process of realisation and inner developments of the revolutionary subject, on the one hand, and the response of the opposing forces, in the other, in the context of its historic-junctional bed – read the governing order within the country and the global powers outside.
A look at current events shows three obvious facts:
Firstly, developments are so rapid as to make any predictions on its future trajectory difficult. There are too many unknowns. Even the popular demands are somewhat vague and have not acquired a clear political and class expression. The hegemony of the middle layers of society among vague and general slogans are open to various interpretations. The slogan “Women. Life, Freedom”, with all its ability to break through the foundations of the ruling order and move beyond the reactionary ideology of the paternalistic and male dominated culture, does not necessarily have the ability to paint a clear picture of the future political and social order. This slogan is an umbrella for a wide range of interpretations allowing tendencies from the left, to the liberal democratic, populist, ultra-right and reactionary nationalist, and even those leaning towards foreign intervention to shelter under it.
Secondly, the persistence of the revolutionary uprising has pushed the crisis within the ruling class to an unprecedented degree. Structural rifts are rapidly widening and are even spreading to the main centres of power. All previous policies and actions are being questioned as never before and the objectors are busy recruiting in order to oppose or revise these strategies. The so-called reformists are still hopeful that they might come in useful as a way out of the collapse of the system. But the closure of all legal routes to internal reform within the regime reduces daily their chances of regaining any influence again. It is in such conditions that resorting to violence and coup-like efforts to transfer power to save the entirety of the system is not an unreasonable supposition. There is evidence that attrition from the social base of the regime right up to its very core is on the rise. Maintaining the ability to crush the uprising then becomes a vital question for those in power. The rulers are resorting to greater and greater violence, and bloody repression, fearing a gradual exhaustion of the machinery of repression should the revolutionary process continue. It is precisely for this reason that in the immediate future, maintaining the ability to continue with the revolutionary struggle and to stand up to repression, is such an important challenge.
Thirdly, the current revolutionary uprising is in the most part spontaneous with a mass of faceless protestors without a definable identity or any interconnected and interlocking organisational structure. The resistance to date of this uprising against the machinery of repression is owed to the explosive discontent that has been stored over the years within it and a structure that is non-consistent in which its components, linked through horizontal networks, become a single whole. Under such a structure, explosive uprisings, while having the ability to manoeuvre successfully against the machineries of suppression, run the real danger of becoming prey to adopting identities that are “loaned” from outside and being absorbed into projects that are being hatched above their heads, unless they are able to overcome their limitations.
The current revolutionary process is threatened by a powerful force from outside and from above. Under the shadow the evolving events the right-wing and reactionary opposition is actively organising a replacement regime to their liking by subtly and cautiously using commentary and interpretation. in the guise of “all together” and “unity” and “solidarity” the right is attempting to dissolve the different trends within the movement into an amorphous whole. By relying on the hegemony of the middle layers of society and hiding behind the primacy of overthrowing the existing regime, it attempts to close all routes to unwanted alternatives, while facilitating the path to alternatives to its own liking. Their target is to obstruct any route that leads to the formation of socio-political blocs with clearly defined and cohesive foundations, and which could empower the people to advance along the path of a structural transformations that promises both freedom and equality. They aim to prevent the labour force of today uniting with the work force of tomorrow – school and university students – and the downtrodden and destitute in a liberational historic-class alliance.
Without doubt, progress in the revolution is dependent on resisting the repressive power of the state simultaneously with a struggle against the reactionary right-wing opposition and its imperialist allies, and for the working masses to obtain a decisive role in the movement. It should be emphasised that the greater the resistance against the blows delivered by the repressive organs, the greater the ability to withstand the future storms created by capital and their political representatives to protect their interests.
For those at the bottom of society today, considering the limited resources they have at hand and the limitations and threats to their meagre livelihood, the question facing them is how to take the leadership of the revolution and establish a system of their liking. How do they prevent the experience of the 1979 revolution recurring, albeit in a different form? More specifically, how do they counteract outside players with huge financial resources, widespread possession and control of the means of communication and the support of dominant global powers from taking over the direction of the uprising and set up their own replacement system that, no matter how different from the existing political order, will be equally repressive, exploitative and unequal? The regime the downtrodden want to overthrow will reappear in a different guise, adding one more chapter to the list of defeats by those who live by their labour and toil.
But the living being and actual practice of the current uprising shows that despite the efforts from outside and above, a popular and progressive tendency is clearly visible, which is trying from below and inside to crack the existing political, social and economic structures and to open up new horizons for the popular movement. The dispossessed who have stepped into the fray, are finding an organisational structure that is horizontal, autonomous and self-expanding, with a non-hierarchical structure, and huge potential.
Today, on route to the political transformation of the country and to define the content of the new system, these two different strategies are engaged in a battle for hegemony. Two strategies trying, within the same movement, to present two conflicting and rival political and social models of replacement. One strategy wants to create a tomorrow which is a reproduction of yesterday in a new guise and with different forms of submission. The other is seeking a tomorrow that is free from exploitation, oppression and despotism and based on freedom, equality and the rule of the people.
Clearly the questions of the ways and the resources that Iran needs for that tomorrow has more than one answer. These range from mobilisation, organisational ability, demands, tactics, and class hegemony and collective identity. Where it comes to the question of the political and social alternative, the methods of mobilisation and the organisational ability of the existing uprising becomes the point of departure for many of the prerequisites.
The right-wing and reactionary opposition’s answer to the question of organisation has been clear for a long time: to ride the tide of popular anger and discontent and concentrate on negative slogans and to mobilise the mass of disaffected in a shapeless mass around a charismatic character. That is, to channel the revolutionary energy into leader-centred structures as a suitable bed for the emergence and growth of political models based on individual power and extreme nationalistic and populistic conservatism. Resources are plentiful: a complex web of traditional and social media, access to huge funds, think tanks, expertise in creating illusions and deception, and all this in the total security of functioning far from the regime’s police and security services.
But for activists who want to the create a collective subject and move beyond the slavery of capital, the challenges for the revolutionary movement are numerous. One challenge is an organisational structure that can not only resist the machinery of repression but be able to create an alternative self-governing political entity and an independent peoples’ regime.
From this perspective a two-pronged mobilisation is on the agenda: firstly, to wear out the forces of repression, altering the balance of power against the ruling power, in such a way as to reduce the cost of joining the movement and opening the way for participation of ever larger sections of discontents. Secondly, altering the class make-up of the uprising and ending the hegemony of the middle classes. Both these aims require the ability to mobilise into the depths of the more passive disaffected population, to mobilise those lowest sections of society that have not already been active, and to bring to the scene workers and semi-workers who have been driven to the margins. Here is a sea of resentment that once on the move will create a needed safe environment for people working in every official and semi-official institution to actively participate in the movement.
How to resist the machineries of repression, rather than a theoretical issue, belongs in the sphere of action. Obviously, a deep knowledge of the machinery of repression, its capacities and limitations are of great value. A long list of already tested methods and tactics exist, such as closing up the cracks to infiltration and intelligence gathering by the enemy, mobilising the inner potentials in the movement for cyber-attacks, providing false information, and where possible infiltrating and disrupting their intelligence banks.
But in order to stand up to the physical and ideological machines of repression, a popular movement needs much more than technical or intelligence capabilities. A resistance movement, in the final analysis, must overturn the balance of power between the forces of repression and the revolutionary movement if it was to succeed. This is a two-pronged process where weakening the machinery of repression goes hand in hand with mobilising the huge reserve energy hidden within faceless and document-less masses in the depths of society who are yet to rise up.
Mobilising this potential and converting their individual struggles to a mass action is not merely dependent on the extent they blame their personal experiences as unjust and cruel and are resolved to change it. Nor is it necessarily dependent on how confident they are that their joint actions will succeed. It is also dependent on the mobilisational ability of the revolutionary movement and effectiveness of its resources.
There can be little doubt that the revolutionary atmosphere dominating Iran has penetrated certain sections of this mass and woken up the spirit of action, movement and hope, particularly in the youth. But the main body of this sector has yet to leap into the revolutionary arena. The success of this will depend on the demands and organisational capacity of the movement.
The deeper you delve into poverty, the heavier is the weight of economic demands. The deprived masses, even once they have overcome their doubts and disbeliefs, will only mobilise and enter the foray under slogans which target more concrete demands: slogans that reflect the priorities they face in their everyday life and existence.
These priorities for the downtrodden and destitute in today’s Iran represent a struggle for survival. What can motivate the deprived masses into mass action is the promise of satisfying of their immediate material and social needs.
To penetrate the depths of society and mobilise the deprived masses requires the revolutionary movement to link such slogans as “Woman, Life, Freedom” to the real life of these people.
The concept of “Woman” becomes a means of mobilising millions of women imprisoned in sweatshops and in enslaved in housework where it becomes a flag of protest against “unpaid work”, in protest at “more work for less pay” and against a “poverty that has become feminised”, in protest at a characterisation when their human identity is reduced to “a machine for reproduction” or a “sex commodity”. Similarly the concept of “Life” will only attain mobilising power in the ocean of deprivation when it is accompanied and reinterpreted as protest at “the pain of street vendors” or “yearning of rubbish-collectors” or the “bent backs of porters” and “the aching body of those sleeping in graveyards”. And “Freedom” has to include “freedom” to fight against the despotism of profit and capital and the market, the “freedom” to fight against work slavery, and “freedom” to struggle for the expropriation of the expropriators.
Such an understanding means a call for a struggle for decommodification of the reproduction of the worker and toiler. It means mobilising around slogans that make the refusal to pay the bills for water, electricity, gas, telephone, public transport a right. Slogans that make occupation of empty land and buildings a natural right for those without land and home, and the right of the hungry and the ill to occupy the stores of hoarded food and medicines.
Expropriation of the expropriators also means mobilising to occupy mines, factories, large productive and service companies and ousting their owners and directors. It means mobilising for the occupation of large agricultural companies turning them into consumer co-operatives. It means taking back the right to water and disempowering the rentiers and corrupt managers of water resources. It is only such radical interpretation of slogans that can mobilise the forces that can truly and effectively confront the forces of repression and strengthen the class character of the current revolutionary movement and ensure its anti-capitalist direction.
There are other preconditions for success against the machinery of repression. To become geographically static in an uprising that aims at overthrowing the ruling power, confining itself to a limited commotion or a defined geographic space, invites encirclement and ultimate failure.
Similarly, attention should be paid to the dialectic of demands and methods, the dialectic of local and national acts, the dialectic of individual and collective acts, and the dialectic of the human price paid and the ends achieved are matters that will reduce the likelihood of missing opportunities and wasting the energy of the movement. There is an obvious inverse power relation between those who want to break up the current order and a repressive machinery whose sole purpose is to maintain the existing order. The survival of one is dependent on the death of the other. If you cannot tenaciously and creatively find ways of encircling or destroying this machinery, sooner or later you will find yourself encircled. If in this confrontation you cannot advance, you will be forced to retreat.
Equally important are the means used to mobilise the passive section of society. Here, the range of collective action used, particularly if such factors as “cost” and “time” enter the considerations, are the key components that create conditions to encourage ever wider sections of the masses to join. This is particularly important if we consider that the further we move down the ladder of deprivation and poverty, the greater the decisive role of such issues of “cost” and “timing” in the ability of these layers to participate and their potential for activism.
It is in such a framework that the variety of ways used to publicize the slogans, such as wall writing, printing and distributing leaflets, gatherings and street demonstrations, to sit-ins and occupation, to employing a myriad of artistic, media and other forms of communication have equal value in encouraging he participation of different groups. It is this kind of flexibility that encourages the broadest participation, and where those within the poorest section of society will find it easier to make a contribution.
The next challenge facing the movement is organizability, the structure that can channel the discontents and demands into a purposeful direction. The structure that allows the millions of dispossessed to participate, and at the same time resist the repression at minimal personal cost, and to pave the way to its independent, self-governing presence.
The organizability of the ever-expanding atomised masses in the shape of a collective subject has become, more than ever, a practical and theoretical challenge. With the increasing number of people from the labour force entering short-term, part-time and contract employment, alongside constant adjustments in manufacturing and service industries and the continuous enlargement of surplus labour to the reserve army of labour, conditions for the organizability and class war have experienced important transformations.
Following these developments, the geography of resistance has spread from the arena of production to that of reproduction (consumption and distribution), from factory and workshop to neighbourhood, district and city. Struggles relating to work and class have undergone a transformation and strikes, sit-ins and occupation at the workplace have also expanded to gatherings, marches and occupation of public places. In keeping with these changes, unionisation in the places of production had to additionally find ways to adapt to the requirements of the places of reproduction and the geography of neighbourhoods and towns, such forms as clubs and committees to local and city councils and a variety of co-operatives and self-help and aid organisations have taken shape.
Revolutionary organizability during an uprising is by its very nature difficult. The main difficulty is gathering sufficient resources to both protect and expand its structure. This problem is particularly more acute when the deprived masses are involved, and the issue then becomes the ability to organise from below upwards. The resources necessary for such an enterprise are obviously impossible to foretell. All one can predict is that in the search for a suitable model it would be a mistake to confine oneself to what is currently active in the field. This would undoubtedly lead to disappointment. The path to achieving that goal is only though mobilising the reserve army, or at least a significant part of it, that until now have been disheartened and passive. To realise those potentials can create miracles that makes the impossible possible.
Looked at from this perspective, a close analysis of the situation in Iran shows that here, in the lower layers of society, there lies a huge hidden potential for organizability by revolutionary forces.
Thousands of social and political activists, operating as individuals today, form part of this potential. Across the country, there is a large population who possess the incentive, skills and experience, and who can, in a co-ordinated act create networks of small, independent and self-governing neighbourhood cells. The backbone of these activists are millions among both the religious and non-religious who are ready to actively join a general movement for a better and more human life.
Following developments in the past two decades, a new generation of activists has also appeared among the lowest layers of society with a wealth of social knowledge and day-to-day experience. Already there are countless cells of likeminded people in neighbourhoods in the process of linking these activists which, were they to take the form of an organic body, would be capable of leading the masses that have risen at local level. These cells are an important resource in the process of organizability, once they can redefine their existence by combining political activism with addressing the immediate and real needs of people in their geographic locality. And where possible boosting their inner cohesion by persistently strengthening their shared political and social affinities and aiming at building an expanding collective identity. Moreover, through using carefully considered and co-ordinated tactics they can ensure the creation of a lasting entity and extending the network to neighbouring regions.
Independent cells at the neighbourhood level can use social media to create forums and through these co-ordinate their struggle for common demands. In this way, the atomised local population of activists can crystalise and organise in real networks around common needs and demands. Ultimately, they can become clusters of independent cells in a specific geographical location that gain their identity through similar social (not necessarily political) goals and belonging to the neighbourhood.
The avalanche-like collapse of the middle layers of society into the population of urban poor, arrive with considerable practical and political experience and add significantly to the resources for mobilisation, organisational ability and activism of that population. Teachers, students, social workers, sportsmen and women, artists, revolutionary intellectuals who live or work in poor areas of towns are a part of this resource capital. These groups with their skills in modern information and communication technologies have a free hand in laying the foundations of the networks that can co-ordinate and organise the shapeless mass movements and provide them with a single identity. These are resources, each of which can be the axis around which different forms of local organisations can gel and act as a ring in creating chains which connect with trade union, civil and political organisations.
Extending these developments, if the local and national organisations can crystalise around specific demands, they will have the potential to operate as a guiding structure that is independent, democratic and downward facing. This is a structure where workers can act alongside teachers, women activists and the retired, while students, writers, artists and intellectuals can also participate in leading the revolutionary movement. What gives such a prospect hope is the large number of the leaders and pioneers that have appeared through protest movements over the last few years. These are people who made up the foundation of the various political and revolutionary uprisings of the past years and today are acting as an important component of the leadership resources in the mobilisation of people taking place today.
The necessity for the revolutionary uprising to become organised is not just because of immediate demands of the uprising, but also targets longer horizons and the requirement for structural orientation. Organisation is not only a response to immediate needs of the revolution and overthrowing the ruling system, but also to give shape to its political substitute, the power that will replace it, and tomorrow’s society.
The new regime will undoubtedly arise through the process where the revolutionary movement will become institutionalised and thus adopt its main features from that movement. The ruling power that looks to those below, whose mission is to put an end to destitution and to overcome inequality, oppression and dictatorship, and to set up a society worthy of free and equal humans will not allow the past to reappear in new guise.
Translated from Farsi
The original Farsi article appeared in نقد اقتساد سیاسی naqd eqtsad siasi (Critique of Political Economy) in November 2022