Posted to www.marxmail.org on July 21, 2006
In an MRZine attack on Akbar Ganji, a prominent Iranian dissident aligned with American imperialism, Rostam Pourzal writes that “like the ultra-right former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her guru Friedrich von Hayek, Ganji extols Karl Popper’s elitist philosophy of freedom throughout his writings…”
In a Logos Journal interview with jailed Iranian dissident Ramin Jahanbegloo conducted by Danny Postel, the Popper connection pops up again:
Danny Postel: You’ve talked about a “renaissance of liberalism” taking place in Iran. Can you talk about this “renaissance”? Where does liberalism stand in Iranian intellectual and political life today?
Ramin Jahanbegloo: Thanks to the recent discovery and translations of the schools of liberal thought dominant in the Anglo-American world, as found in the works of Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls and Karl Popper, and an appreciation of older traditions of liberalism (Kantian, Millian or Lockean), a new trend of liberalism has taken shape among the younger generation of Iranian intellectuals. Iranian liberals today do not deny that the liberties appropriate to a liberal society can be derived from a theory or stated in a system of principles, but their view of a liberal society is related to a view of humanity and truth as inherently unfinished, incomplete, and self-transforming. The principles of Iranian liberalism cannot be grounded in religious truth, because the very idea of free agency, as it is understood today by Iranian liberals, goes against any form of determinism (religious or historical).
For those who have been keeping an eye on “civil society” type interventions in countries whose development model does not pass muster with the U.S. State Department, the positive references to Karl Popper might be expected. George Soros’s Open Society, which habitually meddles in the internal affairs of such countries on four continents, operates on Popperian principles.
Danny Postel is a professional propagandist operating in the liberal imperialist thinktank/foundation world, largely under the auspices of www.opendemocracy.net, a well-funded website that is a focal point for defenders of all these “revolutions” that keep cropping in places like Lebanon, the Ukraine and Iran. Using phraseology about “democracy” and “civil society”, their real agenda is to create environments that are less hostile to Western multinational corporations.
Lately Iran has become the focal point of liberal imperialist outrage in much the same manner that Milosevic’s Yugoslavia was in the 1990s. A day does not go by without some website wringing its hands over the latest purported outrage of the Iranian government.
A couple of months ago, the cause célèbre were the bus drivers of Tehran whose strike was championed by AFL-CIO John Sweeney, who would not lift a finger to help the transit workers in NYC.
We are also aware of Doug Ireland’s nonstop crusade around gay rights in Iran, which mostly focuses on the hanging of two men who were being punished allegedly for simply being gay. Long-time gay rights activist Leslie Feinberg, a member of the Workers World Party, has a different take on the case. Human Rights Watch, no friend of the Iranian government by any stretch of the imagination, claims that the rape charge had been mistranslated from Farsi. According to Scott Long, the HRW’s LGBT Rights Project director, “There is no evidence that this was a consensual act. … A whole tissue of speculation has been woven around mistranslations and omissions and this has been solidified into a narrative that this is a gay rights case.”
The most recent incident in Iran that has attracted the attention of the liberal interventionists involved a woman’s liberation demonstration that was attacked by the police. About whether an attack took place, there seems to be little doubt, based on photos supplied by the circulators of an open letter who took exception to another article by Rostam Pourzal on MRZine minimizing the repression. Referring to published photos, a correspondent to Pourzal informed him “that some demonstrators were taken away by policewomen, but except in one case they were not physically abused.” Even if the demonstrators were carried away on velvet palanquins, there is no excuse for breaking up a demonstration for the right of women to dress as they like. Nobody should support the right of the French government to ban the wearing of scarves in school. By the same token, the Iranian government does not have the right to enforce wearing them.
The articles on MRZine have generated a lot of controversy. A frequent commenter on my blog named Poulod, an Iranian-American high school student, asked me to forward this to Marxmail a while ago:
“I’m not a Marxmail subscriber, but could you somehow convey this to the list? I’m a little sickened by the stuff Yoshie and others have been spouting about Ahmadinejad and ‘liberation theology’ the past few weeks. I don’t have time to put together a detailed response, but as an Iranian-American leftist and the child, friend and relative of a number of Iranian leftists, can I just emphatically say: Ahmadinejad is NOT ‘Iran’s Chavez’. Saying so is just embarrassing. He’s a fake populist standing at the head of an Islamist regime. If the Western Left gets as starry-eyed about liberation theology now as it did in 1979, it might not be forgiven altogether this time around. Supporting Khomeini was idiocy bordering on treason to the Iranian Left. I hope the same mistake doesn’t get made again. Iran has to be defended from imperialism, but that doesn’t mean embracing yet another venerable bearded ‘anti-colonial’ leader.”
In some ways, the debate over how to assess Ahmadinejad reminds me of those I have had over figures such as Robert Mugabe or some Eastern European politicians who have been dragging their feet on privatization. As a rule of thumb, I don’t automatically put a plus where the U.S. State Department puts a minus. I spent considerable time and effort researching the history of Yugoslavia in order to put Slobodan Milosevic into some kind of context. That was because I saw him as a link to the Titoist socialist legacy, no matter how flawed. Titoism *was* progressive and worth defending against the George Soros’s of the world. Mugabe is another story entirely. Throughout his political career, he has made deals with the IMF. When Great Britain decided that he had to go and imposed sanctions toward that end, he decided to stay in power by attacking the imperialist’s main social base in the country, the rich white farmers. This, of course, has nothing to do with our socialist agenda. But it does mean that we should have opposed British meddling. Something similar is required for Iran.
Understanding the Iranian revolution has been a real challenge for Marxists, including those in Iran. A range of opinion has existed, from characterizing it as a clerical counter-revolution to critically supporting the Shi’ite clerics as anti-imperialist populists.
For a useful introduction to these issues, I strongly recommend Val Moghadam’s “One Revolution or Two? The Iranian Revolution and the Islamic Republic” that appeared in the 1989 Socialist Register. She is a former professor of sociology and director of women’s studies at Illinois State University who currently works in Paris.
As the title of her article implies, the Iranian revolution combined clerical and secular components. Rather than trying to dismiss the clerical elements as some kind of illegitimate intrusion, Moghadam makes the case for their genuine but uneven radicalism. She also makes the case that at a certain point, the clerics destroyed the revolutionary fiber that was present at the outset and turned Iran into a rather backward-looking theocracy despite the government’s fitful efforts on behalf of social justice.
In her analysis of the class forces of the 1979 revolution, she points out that the ruling class that backed the Shah was effectively overthrown, and that a middle layer of ‘bazaaris’ and small-scale industrialists replaced it acting in an alliance with the Shi’ite clergy. Although resentment toward imperialist domination gave this layer an affinity with anti-imperialist politics, it also held Iran’s trade union movement with its strong socialist presence at arm’s length. Marxists tend to see the class struggle in terms of society’s dominant classes, but in Iran the petty-bourgeoisie was equally important and even gained hegemony after a fashion. As has been the case historically, middle layers are unstable and tend to gravitate to the classes beneath or above it. With the flight of the Iranian big bourgeoisie after 1979, it is inevitable that imperialism will fill that role as the overtures to it by the liberal intelligentsia including Ramin Jahanbegloo and Akbar Ganji makes clear. In the current period, it seems obvious that the clerics and their government allies (described as “conservatives” in the bourgeois press) are moving in the opposite direction, but as the Iran-Contra arms deal would point out, this is not necessarily a permanent condition.
Despite the temptation to look at the Iranian clerics in 1979 as a monolithic bloc, Moghadam identifies four different currents:
1. the ‘radical Islam’ of the young intelligentsia
2. Kohmaeini’s ‘militant Islam’
3. the ‘liberal Islam’ of Bazargan
4. the ‘traditionalist Islam’ of the ulama.
Not only were there divisions within the Shi’ites, the left was divided as well. There were two guerrilla groups, the Fedayeen and the Mojahedin. There was also Tudeh, the Communist Party that had been ousted in a CIA coup in 1953, and Paykar, a dogmatic split from the Mohahedin with as pronounced a hostility to the clerics as the Workers Communist Party. As should be obvious, the divisions on the left were exploited by the Shi’ites who picked them off one by one.
The Fedayeen were conciliatory to Khomeini and even displayed his portrait at their meetings. When the government demanded that they disarm, they declined to do so, saying that it was necessary to defend the revolution with gun in hand. They also were critical of the ‘pasdaran,’ or revolutionary guards that included the young Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The revolutionary guards proved adept at breaking up leftist meetings that were organized to protest attempts to create a new constitution for Iran that would effectively turn it into a theocracy.
Since the organized left had a strong presence on Iranian campuses, the government took the extraordinary measure of closing the universities for 9 months in 1980-1981. Led by the Mojahedin, who combined radical politics with Moslem piety and who supported the ‘moderate’ president Bani-Sadr, the left clashed with the pro-government revolutionary guard repeatedly. The uncritical support for Bani-Sadr was symptomatic of a certain myopic opportunism on the part of the Iranian left which could never effectively differentiate its enemies from its friends:
Iranian President Abol Bani-Sadr Tuesday declared a victory for government attempts to rid the campus of Tehran University of leftist groups and proclaimed a “great cultural revolution” designed to spread Islamic ideology through all spheres of Iranian life.
Spearheaded by fundamentalist student groups, Bani-Sadr’s Moslem clerical rivals had made Iran’s universities a battlefield last week in their efforts to revamp Iranian society and undercut Western-educated leaders such as Bani-Sadr.
Revolutionary Guards and Moslem fundamentalist students succeeded during the night in ousting the last remaining leftists from Tehran University in fighting that left at least three persons dead and hundreds injured over several days.
In aligning himself and his government with the Islamic drive, Bani-Sadr appeared to be trying to take the issue away from his clerical rivals within the Revolutionary Council.
Washington Post, April 23, 1980
Iran’s Pasdaran, or revolutionary guard
In the initial years of the revolution, despite such repression, much of the left–with the exception of Paykar–was still willing to cut the clerics some slack. Using formulations drawn from Kautskyism, the Tudeh hailed a ‘democratic revolution’. For the Fedayeen, it was a “national, anti-imperialist” revolution. The left was torn between standing with the government against imperialism and pushing its own class demands. This contradiction was deepened when the clerics appeared to act resolutely, as was the case with the seizure of the American Embassy. It was of course possible that such a gesture was intended to burnish the government’s reputation than to really break with imperialism, as the arms deal with Reagan would serve to counter-indicate.
I must say that my initial reaction to the MRZine articles was a bit on the cool side if for no other reason that I was deeply involved in defending a far more deep-going revolution in Nicaragua at the time. The idea of Oliver North delivering a chocolate cake in the shape of a key (to unlock future relations) and a Bible to Ayatollah Khomeini was one of the most nauseating in a most nauseating period.
Whatever the foreign policy vagaries of the Islamic Republic and its repression of the left within its borders, there is no doubt about its willingness to attack class inequality. Moghadam points out:
Two crucial institutions created to alter economic relations and effect social justice were the Housing Foundation (created to provide housing for the poor, particularly in urban areas) and the Reconstruction Crusade (established to provide rural areas with electricity, water, feeder roads, schools, health clinics, housing, and other social and infrastructural services). Legislation was passed to reduce the gap among wage rates as a result of which the workers’ wages were raised by 60 percent. A policy of price support in the form of subsidies for basic needs items were instituted to protect the poorer groups from the rampant inflation that had followed the economic decline during the revolution. Modifications were proposed in the tax system to make it more progressive and prevent excessive concentration of wealth. Nationalization of major industries, banks, insurance companies, and foreign trade were meant to weaken further possibilities of emerging large-scale private accumulation.
With all of Ahmadinejad’s flaws, there can be no doubt that he is trying to keep these traditions alive. Against elements of the ‘bazaari’ and the clergy that adapt to it, he seeks to promote the interests of and gain the allegiance of the workers and the peasants who have become fed up in recent years with growing class distinctions. (For a film representation of these divisions, I strongly recommend Jafar Panahi’s “Crimson Gold” that I reviewed here.
However, in conclusion, we should never lose sight of the fact that our goals are different. I’ll let the ever-eloquent Val Moghadam have the last word on that:
On the Recent Elections in Iran
Iranian elections can be full of surprises – or can they? Was the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unpredictable or part of a pattern?
Mohammad Khatami’s landslide victories in 1997 and 2001 were won on a reformist campaign, and his presidency — along with a majority reformist parliament — raised expectations of social transformation and political change. But when the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Council of Guardians blocked reform, the movement lost its momentum and citizens became disillusioned or angry. Municipal elections brought in a conservative majority, as did the February 2004 parliamentary elections. In the run-up to the recent presidential elections, the reformists’ choice had been Mostafa Moin, but he did not receive enough votes in the first round. After that, everyone was sure that former president and “pragmatic conservative” Hashemi Rafsanjani would win. Indeed, many reformists decided to back Rafsanjani, leading to spirited debates among liberals and reformists in Iran and in the diaspora as to whether this was the correct tactic or not. But instead of a victory on the part of the rich and well-connected Rafsanjani with a daughter widely known as a feminist (former parliamentarian Faezeh Hashemi), it was Ahmadinejad who won in the run-off.
Voter turn-out was lower than in the past, and many citizens boycotted the elections altogether. Boycotting elections is one way that Iranian citizens show their lack of confidence in the system – and the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi announced that she too was joining the boycott. Perhaps close to 40% of eligible voters did not cast their ballots in the recent elections. The feeling for many is that as long as the Council of Guardians remains on the scene to vet candidates, the whole process is compromised, and “Islamic democracy” Iranian-style is either a pipe-dream or a highly managed form of democracy. In the run-off, the choice between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad seemed for many to be far too limited (rather like the choice between a Republican and a Democrat in the United States). And so many citizens who desperately want reform of the system did not vote. Those who did, voted for Ahmadinejad because he put the spotlight on something that both Rafsanjani and reformists have neglected: the country’s socio-economic problems, including high unemployment and an absurdly inflated housing market.
This underscores the main deficit in the reform movement: in classic liberal fashion, the emphasis has been placed on civil and political liberties while socio-economic conditions and rights have been marginalized. As important as it is to argue for removal of social restrictions on dress and recreation, these issues may be most pertinent to the well-off in northern Tehran rather than to those who struggle to find jobs and housing. Issues of social justice were never very important to the reform movement, and now they have been hijacked by Ahmadinejad.
In the past, women and youth were Khatami’s main constituents and indeed the major social base of the reform movement. They are now the main losers. Iran’s feminist movement may have recognized this threat when its leaders organized an historic demonstration outside the gates of Tehran University on 13 June. They were protesting the disqualification of women candidates from the election, but their fundamental grievance is with a constitution that limits their role to that of mothers — and not as workers or political actors — and rules out their self-determination. Ahmadinejad may not be the monster that some of the (largely U.S.) press makes him out to be, but he is a religious conservative and a moralist. Whether he can overturn the cultural liberalization of the Khatami era is unclear, but certainly he will not expand it. Whether he can succeed in addressing the country’s socio-economic problems is also doubtful, given that he is located squarely within the political establishment, if not its economic elite.
Marxists understand class conflict well (and some of the liberal reformists would have done well to draw on the insights of their past Marxism), but even so, cross-class alliances are possible and desirable, as well as very much part of Iran’s collective action repertoire. If Iran’s reform movement is to be revived, it needs to develop a platform that includes a holistic agenda for social transformation – one that will resonate with middle-class, working-class, rich and low-income women and men alike. This means that along with our insistence that mandatory hejab be rescinded and family law reformed, that young people be allowed to listen to music and dance, that all political prisoners be released and civil liberties established – we need to establish the concept of the socio-economic rights of citizens, and insist that the redistribution of the country’s wealth, through an economic policy based on social justice and human rights, should be the priority of any government