With Iran rapidly becoming the new demon for the West's war on terror, I figured that some background to the country was in order. One of the most important events was the 1979 revolution that kicked out the Shah, who was firmly backed by the US and ended up with the religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini in power.
This revolution is oft described as a Islamic revolution. But Phil Marshall's short book, first published in 1988, tells a different story. The book is now dated - but the Iranian history contained inside is very relevant and the analysis stands the test of time. Firstly Marshall traces the development of Iran. Originally very much on the periphary of modern capitalism, Iran started to develop rapidly in the early 20th Century. Much of this of course was linked to the huge oil resources there. Britain took control of these, taking the oil and most of the profits, which limited the development of Iran further, but increasingly Iran's own developing capitalist class developed their own interests.
The last Shah took power as a representative of these forces, and his autocratic rule was very muich in the interest of emerging capitalism. His repression of workers and his drive to develop Iran's industry wasn't allowed to continue unhindered. Marshall traces the development of workers organisations, often underground networks, and shows that the Iran working class has been prepared to stand up for its own interests from the earliest days.
The revolution of 1979 itself was a complex affair. Mass demonstrations and strikes took place, uniting the workers with the poor, unemployed and lower middle classes from the Bazaar. The strikes grew in scope and scale, economic demands over pay and conditions mixing with more political demands such as the right to organise, or calling for the Shah to go. Given what some say about how the country is oppressive against Women, it's interesting to note that equal rights and pay for women was a central demand during some of the strikes.
Marshall argues that this interplay between economic and political demands is a classic example of what happens during a mass strike. Yet the next stage - the co-ordination of strike committees and activities failed to occur. The workers' committees that did arise, the Shoras, did not advance beyond the immediate needs of the strike in all but a few areas. It is precisely the development of a more co-ordinated strike, with workers starting to take control of workplaces, communities and towns - that has led to revolutionary moments in the past. This led to a power vacuum, and lacking effective leadership from left wing parties or organisations, the Ayatolla was able to use his influence and the network around the mosques to put himself at the head of the anti-Shah revolution.
Once in power, with the Shah in exile, the working class and liberal movement was isolated and undermined by Khomeini, leading to a new form of tyranny. Khomeini was able to skillfully manouevure different factions and forces. He talked the language of anti-imperialism and helping the poorest, while destroying the gains of the revolution. Yet Marshall argues that much more was possible, and the outcome was by no means inevitable. The lessons of the 1979 have much to offer the workers movement today.
Twenty years after it was written this book still has value, sadly it is out of print. For those who want to read more about Iranian history and the current period, this article is an excellent starting place.