Sinking in the jaws of a general crisis

Foreword: Below is an abridged version of Political report of the 5Th Congress of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (Rahe Kargar). The congress unanimously renamed itself the Shamlu Congress in memory of the great Iranian poet who had died e few weeks before. We publish this report in the belief that it may help in the understanding and debate over recent developments in Iran.

1. The crisis

Three years after the Iranian people’s ground-breaking protest against the velayate faghih [1] most of the important questions raised by this event have become clear:

a. The general popular ferment was not so much to support or oppose any individual or tendency as it was in opposition to the main foundation of the Islamic Republic, namely velayate faghih and religious government.

b. The division between the rulers is neither a chance event nor is it temporary. It is a product of the deepening inner and intrinsic crises of the regime that is now pushing it towards disintegration.

c. The reformists within the regime cannot become the dominant force in government while the apparatus of velayate faghih exits and while they oppose its interests or will.

d. The contradiction in the platform of the governmental reformists, which comes out of their contradictory interests and position is itself one of the elements that makes their victory unlikely. They can only overcome the hostility of the velayate faghih by relying on the people, while popular support is conditional to a constant and increasingly candid opposition to the apparatus of the religious ruler. These reformers are looking for public support while trying to protect the velayate faghih.

e. The apparatus of velayate faghih also faces a contradiction. To face up to the spreading popular movement it needs a unified will at the governmental level. For this it must eject the reformists within the administration. Yet the reformists, spurred on by the general protest, have tightened their hold on the structure of power. It is no longer easy to eliminate them, and even if that were possible, it would place a highly brittle regime face to face with an enraged population.

f. The widening rifts above have been highly instrumental in increasing the political awareness of the people, the spread of the struggles and their ability to become organised.

g. The slogan "rule of law" which is central to the reformist platform, fulfilled a positive role at first in that it showed the people how irreconcilable the velayate faghih is to any "rule of law". Now, however, it has become a factor in slowing down the popular struggles.

h. The general confrontation against the velayate faghih has uniquely unmasked the opposition of the regime’s ideological basis to every principle of popular sovereignty. The defenders of the leadership apparatus have been cornered into opposing any political choice by the people, even in theory, in order to escape the consequences of some of the ambiguous articles in the constitution. They conceded that the will of the velayate faghih is above that of the constitution. We therefore now face a regime that has openly admitted a crisis in its legitimacy, and to rely on force and violence to keep itself in power.

i. The popular struggle can move ahead if it continues to focus on the apparatus of the velayate faghih. At the same time it must try to isolate the reformists inside the administration and put pressure those reformists who do not subscribe to the constitution to supporting their demands.

j. The tensions caused by the broad popular protest movement, hand in hand with the regime’s deepening crisis of legitimacy, has exposed the parasitic nature of the Islamic Republic in a more powerful, more naked and more intolerable form than ever before. The social and economic crisis is spreading with catastrophic speed and all the talk of "renewal" and "reconstruction" are becoming forgotten tales amidst numerous foetid scandals. Even the most greedy capitalist sharks now see the system of the velayate faghih as disruptive to any economic activity. The Islamic Republic is not just facing a series of disconnected junctural crises. It is sinking in the jaws of a general crisis.

2. The popular movements

The expanding mass movement of the last three years has achievement much:

a. The movement has broadened to an unique degree with a clearly quickening rate of growth.

b. Mass protests no longer always take place under cover of "legality" or in the guise of supporting the reformists within the regime. It is plain that the weight of independent moves and those ignoring the "law" are increasing exponentially. Mass actions, while still not in direct opposition to the governmental reformists, are taking place against their advice and efforts to curb them.

c. The peoples’ struggles are not confined to the purely political. With remarkable speed they are spreading to other arenas, causing the nation-wide confrontation with the regime to spread with even greater speed, and to have a variety and richness not seen in any previous anti-despotic movement in Iran. We have in progress in actuality three separate but entwined social movements at the mass level: First, the general anti-dictatorial movement of the people of Iran. Second, the movement for the separation of religion and state that has the support of a crushing majority of the people of the country and which has transformed Iran into the heart of the greatest mass movement for the separation of religion and state. Third, the movement for religious reform which has the support of a large and unparalleled section of the believers and has had such a practical role in pulling the rug from under the feet of the velayate faghih and the religious state.

d. Different sections of the population are showing buds of organisation at the nation-wide level, though unevenly. These too are spreading. More importantly, they evolve out of the numerous civil movements rising out of vital and unmet needs of a contemporary society. They therefore provide ideal barricades behind which the people themselves can link up and target their right to equal citizenship.

e. As a consequence of the general social upheaval and the splits between the ruling groups cracks and holes have appeared in a number of state institutions. Popular discontent and protest blossom in these cracks, and give rise to opportunities that have an important role in linking up and disseminating the mass movement across the country. We saw this in the swift nation-wide spread of some labour and student moves and also the rapid spread and dissemination of some news items and revelations.

3. Reform or overthrow?

The evidence strongly suggests that the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran is on the immediate horizon of the mass movement of the people of the country. Undoubtedly the mass protest moves continue to be in response to events. Yet without doubt a popular resolve to overthrow the regime is in the process of taking shape at the mass and nation-wide level. On the other hand the rulers are not only disunited in their will to govern, but cannot even close the gaps between their conflicting platforms. It is no coincidence that both in organising a general repression, or in agreeing to effective reforms they face huge, and almost insurmountable difficulties.

4. What comes next

In Iran today, to speak of overthrowing the regime in isolation is to lag behind the de facto mass movement of the country. The question facing the present popular movement is no longer just the need to overthrow, but what form and direction this overthrow should take.

If we could break down the preparation for the overthrow of the regime into three phases: the conceptual, the political and the technical, we can confidently say that once the direct consequences of the blow delivered on May 23, 1997 [2] was consolidated, the phase of conceptual preparation was almost over. We have long moved to the phase of the political preparation. Although we still have a number of theoretical questions that remain unresolved during the present phase (such as a debate with those reformists afraid of revolution), the political atmosphere of the country (and the world) is such that a definitive solution to these questions can come through pressing ahead with political preparations.

The main problematic facing the current phase is how the various sectors, with their different – and at times conflicting – interests can move forwards against the regime together and in step. And how to stop the regime using these differing interests and the uncoordinated actions in its favour.

5. Overthrow and democracy

To overthrow the regime is not necessarily the same as the victory of the people and the founding of a lasting democracy. The experience of the 1979 revolution showed us that a despotic and totally repressive and catastrophic regime can rise out of a mass popular revolution. Therefore, which direction the process of overthrow takes is no less important than ensuring that the necessity to overthrow is understood and aiding its success.

The fact is that the struggles of the Iranian people, facing a religious autocracy, are still in the main anti-dictatorial. Any anti-despotic struggle, while undoubtedly smoothing the terrain for conditions so vital for democracy to form, is of itself not a specific struggle for democracy. What motivates, provokes and brings people together in the present anti-dictatorial struggle, is above all the power of negation.

In the particular conditions of Iran, where democracy has not had an ideological tradition of any note, and where powerful mass barricades to defend citizens’ rights are not yet in evidence, the anti-democratic forces already active in the movement can create serious difficulties for the fight for democracy.

It is thus important to distinguish the three essential levels of the struggle: the anti-dictatorial struggle, the battle for democracy and the struggle for socialism. While all three are interlinked, and effect each other’s fate deeply, each has a different logic and calls for different alliances and organisation. Logically – though not necessarily chronologically – the anti-dictatorial struggle is antecedent to the struggle for democracy and this in turn comes before the struggle for socialism. This is because the struggle for socialism cannot take root without that for democracy, and the struggle for democracy is unimaginable without a struggle against the despotism in power.

Yet, despite strongly held beliefs by many, we do not have to go through these different levels stepwise - first completing the anti-dictatorial struggle and so on, one at a time until the time comes for the struggle for socialism. On the contrary, the backbone of the latter struggle is being formed precisely as the anti-dictatorial struggle is opening up the political atmosphere. For example the experience of "injustice" more than abstract legal concepts and the desire for freedom plays a role in bringing the downtrodden and toiling masses into the anti-dictatorial struggle. It is only in the process of pursuing their specific and immediately palpable interests that working people discover the vital importance of democracy. Supporters of socialism have to become involved at all three levels of the struggle, simultaneously and actively, keeping in their sight the special logic and interconnectedness of each level.

6. Anti-dictatorial

a. The exceptional and singular nature of the religious despotism ruling Iran has resulted in an exceptionally singular and incompatible spectrum becoming active in opposition to it. Some of these are themselves a threat to democracy. For this reason the makeup and the line up of the forces in the anti-dictatorial struggle, are strikingly different to the struggle for democracy and socialism. Inattention to this point can be catastrophic. If the struggle for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic is not today actively linked to an active and multi-dimensional struggle for democracy and socialism, opportunities may be lost which may never return.

b. The existence of a large spectrum of reformists fearful of revolution, is another dilemma of the struggle against dictatorship. This dilemma, which is the inescapable result of the discredit of many revolutions, and especially the 1979 revolution in Iran, will not go away without an active ideological struggle with the opponents of revolution. And without a total struggle for democracy.

c. So far the popular protests against the velayate faghih have been transformed into a mass movement over an astonishingly short period of time. It does not, however, follow that the next stages will be as smooth. Those very elements that helped the anti-dictatorial movement may now act as a serious brake. Attention to a number of factors is important:

First, the appearance and rise of the reformers inside the government, has so far acted as a spur to the mass protests. Yet these same reformists know that if the regime were to be overthrown they will, at the very least, lose their present privileged positions. They would be expected to act as a brake to any attempts that directly aim at the survival of the regime.

Second, the rulers of the Islamic Republic (whether ultra-right or reformist) cannot behave towards the crisis of control (or the country becoming ungovernable) in the same fashion that they dealt with the political system’s crisis of legitimacy. They have little room for retreat and have everything to lose with the fall of the regime.

Third, a wide and uneven spectrum of reformers who have played an important role in popularising the protest against the velayate faghih will in the future act as a break.

Fourth, the opposition of many Western powers to the "Islamic fundamentalism" ruling Iran would not necessarily translate to supporting the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Many see another revolution as far more dangerous than a continuation of present circumstances. Their active support for Khatami and the phenomenon of reformism in Iran comes from this.

d. The people of Iran are the decisive force in the anti-dictatorial struggle. It is they who find the continued existence of the velayate faghih, religious government and in short the Islamic Republic intolerable. The fate of the present anti-dictatorial struggle will ultimately be determined by their abilities or weaknesses. The point to emphasise is that a decisive majority among them are moving towards an overthrow of the regime with a single-minded resolve. More than at any time in our history they feel the necessity for light, for democracy and for citizens’ rights. These can be seen from their inclinations, reactions and moves. And they benefit from a powerful mass-historic memory, and a rich experience of failures and victories. Their independent organisational ability should be the goal of all those wanting to overthrow the regime.

7. Struggle for democracy

a. It is necessary for democratic forces to focus now on creating conditions allowing democracy to take root. The first, easiest, but at the same time most essential component is to organise the broadest ideological debates in order to implant the logic of democracy and its fundamental laws. We have no appreciable tradition of democracy in our history. Moreover, most of us have only recently acceded to the logic of democracy. Many of those who think of themselves as seasoned democrats still consider the right of nations to self determination in a multinational country such as Iran as debatable. Or worse, they adorn the right to universal suffrage and the unconditional right to political freedoms with numerous "ifs" and "buts".

The second link critical to the pursuit of democracy is to organise the broadest co-operations among the pro-democracy forces. These supporters are neither homogeneous, nor all work along the same lines. They possess ideologies of various hues and political, social and class interests that are different, or even conflicting. Thus to work together in the democratic struggle they would need to adopt highly flexible non-constraining forms, in answer to specific political needs. In these conditions a political party or democratic front can itself become an obstacle to democracy taking root. The idea (so common among the Iranian left and right) that co-operation over democracy precludes any simultaneous active and organised political and class struggle for socialism should be countered. This makes any effective and widespread co-operation for democracy practically impossible.

b. Pro-democracy forces should have a clear and vigorous line of demarcation with anti-democratic ones. At the same time in order for the label "anti-democratic" not to be an excuse for sectarian exclusion a clear definition of minimum of democracy is required.

c. Pro-democracy forces should support the necessity for the independent organisation derived form the immediate demands and needs of various groups of people, and in particular the toilers, downtrodden and deprived – who have such a key role in the formation and rooting of democracy.

8 Socialism

a. The struggle for socialism must still, inevitably, move in an intellectual space and value system which is not just unfavourable but hostile in Iran and globally. We still have to confront widespread preconceptions that sees any form of socialism, as ultimately another version of the Stalinist model. To win this battle we need major mental spring cleaning and well thought out political reorganisation, both rapidly and in comprehensively.

b. Acknowledge unconditional political freedoms, not just as a means to socialism, but as an inseparable component of socialism itself. This is the most vital factor of any departure from Stalinism. Any evasion from actively defending democracy on the excuse of a better and deeper socialist democracy is to ignore the logic of the socialist struggle. While there is no doubt that socialism needs a deeper and better democracy than "bourgeois" democracy, we cannot defend a system that does not even guarantee that minimum of outward democracy.

c. We know from experience that the struggle for socialism can only take place by the working class itself and not in lieu of it. And that the working class can only understand its general and class interests and discover the road to socialism through struggle and organisation around the immediate needs and demands of its various sectors. Emphasising this point will make indefensible many of the organisational models which were influenced by the Stalinist tradition. These reduced the working class party (or parties), with all their vital importance, to the level of a tool, and merely a tool for the organisation of the proletariat.

d. At present, because of a set of structural and junctural conditions, if the working class movement of Iran remains confined to the large industrial units, it will neither strengthen the social basis for a struggle aimed at socialism, nor sustain the democratic movement. The labour movement must be able to co-opt and activate the struggles of working people and the deprived in their living neighbourhoods, on the one hand, and workers in vital service sectors (transport, electricity etc).

e. In a country rising to free itself from the nightmare of an obscurantist religious autocracy, the struggle for socialism can only gain ground if, while relying decisively on the class solidarity of workers and toilers, it actively backs a broad range of democratic movements. It must support the women’s movement, which has evolved into a marvellous rebellion against obscurantism and male domination, and has become the backbone the struggle for freedom and democracy. It must espouse the separation of religion and state. Must defend the international solidarity of working people while advocating the right of oppressed nations to self-determination and the equal citizens’ rights for all national, religious, cultural minorities. Raise awareness of people on environmental issues and organise for it. And guarantee that enlightenment and freedom of thought remains secure and durable.

f. In a country with a large young population and the vast age, ideological and communications, and organisational gap between socialist activists, the battle for socialism will require special considerations. First, realistically acknowledge the abilities and limitations of the younger generation of socialist activists – which make up the overwhelming majority and the backbone of the movement. Second, while aware of the valuable store of experience (positive and negative) in the older activists, avoid dogmatically insisting on past models and traditions of work and organisation.

g. The unprecedented supremacy of bourgeois ideology in the intellectual atmosphere of Iran and the world today means that the socialist struggle needs a huge ideological leap. This is impossible without actively attracting healthy intellectuals who subscribe to the great ideals of socialism. Therefore the immediate task of the struggle for socialism is the ever greater organisation of links, exchange of views among the various currents of the socialist struggle and efforts to raise the general level of knowledge of socialist activists and encourage the budding of their specialist skills.

9. Our tasks

Our organisation addressing all three avenues of the liberation-seeking struggle of the Iranian people believes that in the current juncture:

a. The anti-dictatorial struggle has progressed to an extent that the pivotal link in the platform of the governmental reformists – the "rule of law" has become a break on the general popular movement. Emphasis should switch to the sovereignty of the people. The existing constitution can be confronted with the slogan of a referendum on the kind of regime the people want. This will unmask the demand for the overthrow of the regime with greater candour. This idea has already being mooted widely in a variety of ways. Even some of the more radical tendencies in the reformists, under pressure from below have in different ways, and naturally ambiguously and in conservative terms, mooted it. The exact formulation of this slogan is unimportant since it is only provocative. The apparatus of the velayat is unlikely to accept it even in its most conservative formulation. Being by its nature outside the "law" undoubtedly a large majority of the governmental reformists would also oppose it. By tabling it the anti-dictatorial movement can put pressure on the entire reformist movement, and split the reformist camp.

We must of course not ignore the contradictions within the governing elite. People continue to point out the velayate faghih’s direct repudiation of the constitution. Or by pointing to the impossibility of putting into practice the constitution, indirectly, or occasionally directly, address the need to change it.

b. The right of the people to organise, the right of independent organisations to exist, and even more important to give practical help to such organisation are important tasks. Again these are unacceptable to the velayate faghih but the pressure of the idea and its active promotion will in practice create a more congenial atmosphere for the spread of independent popular organisation. Many unofficial organisations will in practice be imposed on the regime. Such are the Freedom Front and the Iranian Writers’ Association. Of course such examples cannot be generalised – especially to party associations. Yet a weakened regime may be forced to retreat, even if these concessions are non-disruptive and temporary.

c. Another act for which a maximum amount of energy must be given is to fight for the formation of the large alliance of the supporters of socialism. This too is above the law and hence calls for the necessary prudence.

Political report of the 5th Congress of ORWI: The Shamlu Congress August 2000, (abridged)