Veteran Iranian socialist Ardeshir Mehrdad calls for class politics and the mobilisation of the lower depths of society
Iran has arrived at an explosive but contradictory moment. The people have become aware of a break with normal life that heralds 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. The system with its current reactionary ideology is an entity belonging to the past and whatever replaces it will be a momentous development.
The ideological cover of the 1979 revolution has been torn apart by protests from wide sections of society, ranging from women to oppressed nationalities and blue- and white-collar workers. Actual lived experience too has exposed its true economic, political and cultural face. Yet none of this is enough to provide a clear picture of the future. Recent developments do not guarantee the direction that the revolutionary energy that has been released will take. Nor can we know to what extent the revolutionary process is free from the machinations of either the victorious or the defeated reactionary forces.
The birth and formation of a new system will take 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 direction and outlook of these simultaneous processes are vital questions. We must seek the answer within the process of realisation and inner development of the revolutionary subject, on the one hand, and the response of the opposing forces, on the other, in the context of its historic-junctional basis - ie, the governing order within the country and the outside global powers.
A look at current events shows three obvious facts:
1. Developments are so rapid as to make any predictions about the future 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 and vague and general slogans are open to various interpretations. The slogan ‘Woman, life, freedom’, with 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 paint a clear picture of the future political and social order. This slogan is an umbrella for a wide range of forces, from the left to the liberal-democratic, to the populist, ultra-right and reactionary-nationalist, and even to those leaning towards foreign intervention.
2. The persistence of the revolutionary uprising has caused an unprecedented crisis within the ruling class. Structural rifts are rapidly widening and are spreading into the main centres of power. All previous policies and actions are being questioned as never before. The so-called reformists are still hoping to play a useful role in preventing the collapse of the regime. But the closure of all legal routes to internal reform is daily reducing their chances of regaining any influence. In such conditions, violent and coup-like efforts to transfer power in order to save the system is not an unreasonable supposition. There is plenty of evidence of widening cracks, from the social base of the regime right up to its very top. 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 revolutionary struggle and standing up to repression is such an important challenge.
3. The current revolutionary uprising is, in the most part, spontaneous, with a mass of protestors without a definable identity or any interconnected and interlocking organisational structure. To date, the resistance of this uprising against the machinery of repression is owed to the explosive discontent that has been stored up over years and a structure 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 risk of becoming prey to adopting identities that are ‘loaned’ from outside, and being absorbed into projects that are being hatched above their heads.
The current revolutionary process is threatened by a powerful force from outside and from above. Under the shadow of the evolving events, the rightwing 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 mass. By relying on the hegemony of the middle layers of society and hiding behind the primacy of overthrowing the existing regime, they attempt to close all routes to unwanted alternatives, while facilitating the path to alternatives of their own liking. Their target is to obstruct any route that leads towards 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 transformation that promises both freedom and equality. They aim to prevent the labour force of today uniting with the labour force of tomorrow - school and university students - and the downtrodden and destitute, in a liberational historic class alliance.
Progress in the revolution is dependent on resisting the repressive power of the state simultaneously with struggling against the reactionary rightwing opposition and its imperialist allies, and for the working masses to obtain a decisive role in the movement. The greater the resistance today 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.
The question facing those at the bottom of society today, considering the limited resources they have at hand and the threats to their meagre livelihood, is how to take the leadership of the revolution and establish a system to 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 setting up their own replacement system that, no matter how different from the existing political order, will be no less 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 of those who live by their labour.
But the living and actual practice of the 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. Those amongst the dispossessed who have stepped into the fray are finding an organisational structure that is horizontal, autonomous, self-expanding and non-hierarchical, which has huge potential.
Two 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, with different forms of oppression. 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 question of the ways and resources that Iran needs for that tomorrow has more than one answer. These range from mobilisation, organisational ability, demands, tactics, class hegemony and collective identity. When it comes to the question of the political and social alternatives, the methods of mobilisation and the organisational ability of the present uprising become the point of departure.
The rightwing 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 disaffected in a shapeless mass around a charismatic character. That is, to channel the revolutionary energy into leader-centred structures as a suitable basis 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 create a collective subject and move beyond the slavery of capital, the challenges for the revolutionary movement are numerous. One challenge is how to develop an organisational structure able not only to resist the machinery of repression, but also 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 in such a way as to reduce the cost of joining the movement, opening the way for participation of ever wider strata of the discontented. Secondly, altering the class make-up of the uprising and ending the hegemony of the middle classes. Both these aims require the ability to reach deep into the more passive disaffected population, to mobilise those lowest sections of society who have not yet become active, and to bring into play 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 much-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 being a theoretical issue, belongs in the sphere of action. Obviously, a deep knowledge of the machinery of repression, its capacities and limitations, is 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 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 machinery 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 is to succeed. This is a two-pronged process, where weakening the machinery of repression goes hand in hand with mobilising the huge reserve of energy hidden within the depths of society of those who are yet to rise up.
Mobilising this potential, converting individual struggles into mass action, is not merely dependent on the extent to which they blame the system for the injustice and cruelty of their personal experiences, nor their resolve 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 the effectiveness of its resources.
There can be little doubt that the revolutionary atmosphere dominating Iran has penetrated certain sections of this mass and has woken their spirit of action, movement and hope, particularly the youth. But the main body of this sector has yet to enter the revolutionary arena. This will depend on the demands the movement makes and its organisational capacity.
The deeper you fall into poverty, the heavier is the weight of economic needs. The deprived masses, even once they have overcome their doubts and disbeliefs, will only mobilise and enter the fray 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 their immediate material and social needs.
To penetrate the depths of society and mobilise the deprived masses, the revolutionary movement must 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 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 their human identity being 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, capital and the market, ‘freedom’ to fight against work slavery, and ‘freedom’ to struggle for the expropriation of the expropriators.
Such an understanding means
calling for a struggle for de-commodification of the reproduction of the worker and toiler. It means mobilising around slogans that make refusal to pay the bills for water, electricity, gas, telephone, public transport, etc a right. Slogans that make occupation of empty land and buildings a natural right for those without land and a 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 to oust their owners and directors. It means mobilising for the occupation of large agricultural companies, turning them into consumer cooperatives. It means taking back the right to water, and disempowering the rentiers and corrupt managers of water resources. Only such radical interpretations of slogans can mobilise the forces that can truly and effectively confront the forces of repression, 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. This 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 the repressive machinery whose sole purpose is to maintain that 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, the range of collective actions, used to mobilise the passive section of society. Consideration of such factors as ‘cost’ and ‘time’ are key to creating conditions which encourage ever wider sections of the masses to join in. The further we move down the ladder of deprivation and poverty, the greater the decisive role of such issues as ‘cost’ and ‘time’ in the ability of these layers to participate and their potential for activism.
The variety of ways used to publicise the slogans - from wall-writing, printing and distributing leaflets, gatherings and street demonstrations, to sit-ins and occupations, to employing a myriad of artistic, media and other forms of communication - have equal value in encouraging the participation of different groups. This kind of flexibility encourages the broadest participation, where those within the poorest section of society will find it easier to make a contribution.
The next challenge facing the movement is organisability - finding a structure that can channel discontents and demands in a purposeful direction, a structure that allows the millions of dispossessed to participate, and to resist repression at minimal personal cost, paving the way to their independent, self-governing presence.
The organisability of the ever-expanding atomised masses into the shape of a collective subject has become, more than ever, a practical and theoretical challenge. With the increasing number of people in the labour force entering short-term, part-time and contract employment, alongside constant adjustments in manufacturing and service industries and the continuous enlargement of the reserve army of labour, conditions for organisability and class war have undergone 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: strikes, sit-ins and occupations at the workplace have expanded to gatherings, marches and occupations of public places. In keeping with these changes, unionisation in the places of production has had to find ways to adapt to the requirements of the places of reproduction and the geography of neighbourhoods and towns. Clubs and committees, local and city councils and a variety of cooperatives and self-help and aid organisations have taken shape.
Revolutionary organisability 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 of organising the deprived masses is particularly acute, 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. That would undoubtedly lead to disappointment. The path to achieving that goal is only through mobilising the reserve army of labour, the unemployed, or at least a significant part of it, which until now has been disheartened and passive. To realise that potential can create miracles that make 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 organisability 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 incentive, skills and experience, and who can, in coordinated acts, 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 appeared among the lowest layers of society, with a wealth of social knowledge and day-to-day experience. Already there are countless cells of like-minded people in neighbourhoods in the process of linking these activists. 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 organisability, 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 coordinated tactics they can ensure the creation of a lasting entity and extending the network to neighbouring regions.
Independent cells at neighbourhood level can use social media to create forums and, through these, coordinate their struggles for common demands. In this way, atomised local populations of activists can crystallise 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 brings with it considerable practical and political experience and adds 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 all resources. These groups, with their skills in modern information and communication technologies, have a free hand in laying the foundations of the networks that can coordinate 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 organisation can gel and act as a ring in creating chains which connect with trade union, civil and political organisations.
Through extending these developments, if the local and national organisations can crystallise 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 are now 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, but also targets longer horizons and the requirement for structural orientation. Organisation is not only a response to the 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 a process in which the revolutionary movement will become institutionalised, and it will thus adopt its main features from that movement. A new 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 a new guise.