Reflections on Iran


Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, I’ve spent a little time pondering what Dave said about the left’s responses to Iran. Now, bear with me, because this may be a little bit of an unstructured ramble. Where I thought Dave hit the nail on the head was that, where the left usually has an instant blueprint for what should be done in the most obscure struggles in the most remote parts of the globe, there’s been rather a lot of bet-hedging going on. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When even someone as impeccably well-informed as Bob Fisk is hedging his bets, it’s probably very sensible.

Maybe it’s because we don’t know enough. Maybe, to put it differently, we’ve a surfeit of information, much of it of dubious reliability (although, in the nature of things, we can’t tell how much), and we have trouble sifting it. Maybe it’s because this isn’t a simplistic struggle of workers against bosses – there are plenty of dividing lines in terms of class, culture, religion and so on, but they don’t really help you discriminate easily between Black Hat and White Hat. It’s just our bad luck that Islamic populism won out over socialism thirty years ago, because it muddies the waters no end.

Not, of course, that you can’t see the old schemata being dusted off. I think immediately of Alan Woods, who seems to reckon that it’s 1905 all over again, with Mousavi in the Father Gapon role. Less melodramatically, there’s been a strong feeling of sympathy with the mass movement, combined with warning against illusions in Mousavi. Sometimes there’s a little bit of the spontaneist politics of “Never mind the politics, look at those demos!”, while I personally would be a little more cautious before leaping to endorse anything in Iran, but the sentiment may well be correct.

But as a rule, I think it’s good that there isn’t as much of the instant blueprint politics as there often is, because too many times the left has fallen on its face making detailed pronouncements about foreign events based on little more than an hour’s background reading, and shoehorning the facts into a pre-existing ideological framework. I remember a large Amnesty meeting on Burma at Queens a couple of years ago, where members of the Socialist Party turned up with a leaflet urging the usual SP policies, like a new mass party of the workers and peasants, a socialist federation of South-East Asia, and the nationalisation of the oil and gas industries. It was unfortunate, then, that the Burmese speaker specifically said that sanctions wouldn’t work because the junta had nationalised the oil and gas industries – in fact, if memory serves, they did that in the 1960s, which is when Ted Grant proclaimed Burma a workers’ state. Still, you have to give them a thumbs up for trying.

So, a little bit of modesty goes a long way. I’ve enjoyed reading Richard this last week, not least because his position is evolving – or, maybe more accurately, he’s been developing a nuanced position by looking at different aspects of the problem.

On the other hand, liberals have a whole different set of triggers from Marxists. And it has to be said, the phenomenology of the left-liberal mind is a never-ending source of fascination. One of the things that always takes me to the fair is how much in thrall they are to the fear of Lord Denning’s Appalling Vista, and the tortuous and self-serving narratives of events – one might even call them voodoo histories – they will concoct to avoid facing the Appalling Vista. The other is that they’re great fans of the idea of democracy in the abstract, always provided that democracy ends up in liberal outcomes; when it leads to illiberal outcomes, they go buck mad, call it “populism”, and denounce the way democracy allows the great unwashed to influence events.

Apropos of elections in the Middle East, we got a little taste of this the other week in Lebanon, when the Hezbollah-led bloc failed to dislodge the Hariri bloc from its parliamentary majority. There were essentially two reasons for this – firstly, the sectarian voting system which seriously underrepresents the Shia, and just as importantly meant that Aoun couldn’t convert his support amongst the Maronites into seats; secondly, that Saudi agents were running around Lebanon like blue-arsed flies buying votes. And yet, the western media not only accepted the results as bona fide (Christopher Hitchens specifically praising them), but argued almost unanimously that this was a spontaneous favourable reaction from the Lebanese masses to Barack O’Bama’s speech in Cairo, in which the man from Offaly made some conciliatory noises to Muslims. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

So, what about Iran? Well, there are some disjunct points that are probably not worth a post on their own, and where my views aren’t necessarily fixed, but are worth flagging up, in no particular order.

Firstly, the nature of the Islamic Republican government. It’s been commonplace to hear talk about a dictatorship, or specifically Ahmadinejad as a dictator, or even explicit parallels with the old party-states of the Soviet Bloc. This is wrong. It’s probably more correct to adopt the modern Russian concept of “managed democracy”, something that even Moscow correspondents have trouble grasping. How, for example, do elections work in present-day Russia? The blatant vote-rigging that characterised the Yeltsin administration still exists in a few areas, specifically the warlord republics of the North Caucasus. But this is the exception rather than the rule. In Russia, the count isn’t the issue – the fix goes in beforehand, when only six or seven parties are allowed to stand, then administrative resources are deployed on behalf of the incumbents. It’s interesting, in geographical terms, that the Red Belt of CPRF strongholds have a much more pluralistic political culture than the regions run by thrusting young technocrats. It doesn’t surprise me, but a lot of western analysts can’t process it.

You have something similar in Iran, with the way the Guardian Council disqualifies most candidates before a vote is cast. In fact, Iran is much less managed than Russia, thanks to its multiple centres of power. (This is inherent in Shia culture, where you pick which ayatollah you want to follow, the same way that Hasidic Jews pledge themselves to a particular rebbe and accept his rulings.) What’s also notable is that the president’s main role is to be a human shield for the Supreme Leader – he has very little power of his own. On the other hand, Mr Ahmadinejad has in the last four years overstepped the usual limited remit of the president, which is important to bear in mind.

This is a crucial point, because what we’re talking about here is a split between different sectors of the Islamic Republican leadership. There’s a school of thought in the clerical establishment that has resisted having a non-clerical president as such, an antipathy that’s been strengthened by the way Ahmadinejad has been visibly increasing the political clout of the Pasdaran at the expense of the clergy. This overlaps with the antipathy of the bazaari class, who are not only sceptical about Ahmadinejad’s economic policies, but more importantly have been targeted by his (largely ineffectual but very popular) anti-corruption campaign. In particular this has greatly annoyed Rafsanjani, and it’s plain to see that the official opposition is essentially bankrolled by Rafsanjani. The open question is how far Rafsanjani and Mousavi, deeply reactionary figures both, are prepared to go in their challenge to Ahmadinejad, especially now that Supreme Leader Khamenei has got involved. In the meantime, there are plenty of people, from pro-American “student revolutionary” types to the Tudeh Party, who are using the split as cover to push their own agendas. It would be nice if the left could make some headway, though I’m not holding my breath.

Secondly, the question of what possibilities are opened up by the mass movement. If it was just a matter of the two different camps, there wouldn’t be anyone you could support. Nobody has yet convinced me that a government led by the corrupt plutocrat Rafsanjani and his proxy, the mass murderer Mousavi, would be any better than a continuation of the Ahmadinejad government. Arguably, it would be worse. If we’re going to endorse anything, it would be the possibility of the mass movement bypassing Rafsanjani-Mousavi altogether and going straight to something better.

The question will be largely one of class. What I’d like to see is the working class moving into action, but as things stand – at least if Hopi reports are anything to go by – the working-class movement in Iran is desperately weak, and there are good reasons – which I’ll get to – why working-class Iranians may find Ahamdinejad an attractive candidate.

Thirdly, the western media, which has been more or less openly campaigning for regime change. I know the BBC got caught out using a photo of a pro-Ahmadinejad rally and billing it as an opposition rally, but there’s more to it than that. There is the sampling issue, whereby journalists are most likely to talk to people they feel comfortable with, and that means prosperous Anglophone people rather than illiterate slum-dwellers – and one can tell just from looking at the way Mousavi supporters are dressed that they tend to come from the more well-heeled social strata. It can’t be pointed out often enough that north Tehran is not Iran, any more than vox pops taken in south Dublin can be taken as representative of Ireland. (And we, too, have plenty of experience of journalists relying on those local people who tell them what they want to hear.)

There are also, as I’ve pointed out, the often misleading dichotomies between “pro-Western” and “anti-Western”, or “hardliner” and “reformist”. It’s quite ironic that, if anyone in the Iranian political class stands for Enlightenment values, it’s Ali Larejani, who’s an acknowledged authority on Immanuel Kant. But Larejani long since had his card marked as a “hardliner”. You might wonder how it is that Mousavi gets to be hailed as a “reformist”, but that makes sense if you understand “reformist” to simply signify that the candidate meets the approval of those applying the label.

There’s also been lots of wishful thinking bordering at times on cognitive dissonance, like last year’s Georgian war only more so. (And if Mikheil Saakashvili can be a “democrat”, why can’t Mir Hossein Mousavi be a “reformist”?) Certainly, the BBC news seemed for four or five days to go into pure Berlin Wall mode. And the most likely outcome of this situation is a reshuffling of the power players within the regime, but that doesn’t provide the required drama.

Also, there’s no doubt that Iranian oppositionists have been playing up to this. This isn’t necessarily dishonest. You don’t have to scratch an Iranian Shia very deeply to find the Zoroastrian underneath – Iranians have a very strong belief in the tangibility of good and evil, which fits in very nicely to the media requirement for well-defined good guys and bad guys. Beyond that, the raising of slogans in English rather than Persian is obviously consciously designed for foreign TV consumption. One doesn’t blame Iranian oppositionists for doing this – it makes sense from their point of view – but the job of the journalist is to bring some critical faculties to bear.

Fourthly, the issue of the involvement of foreign powers. Nebojša makes an important point, which is worth quoting at some length:

You see, it looks very much like a “color revolution” scenario: the US-favored candidate contests election results, claims victory, and his supporters riot till the government caves in. But then, couldn’t the incumbent actually steal the election knowing full well that he can paint the resulting opposition protests as a CIA/NED coup attempt, whether that is actually true or not?

I freely admit that I haven’t a clue what’s actually true in the reports coming from Iran, whether Ahmadinejad or Mousavi actually won the vote, who stole what (or not). Given the track record of the mainstream Western media when it comes to the Balkans (as a rule, their reports are almost entirely false), why should I believe anything they say about Iran? Especially since the Empire is so determined to have a war with Tehran, one way or another.

The fact remains, however, that the technique of “democratic coup” pioneered by the Empire in Serbia – and applied elsewhere since – has made it effectively impossible to judge whether any election, anywhere, is actually legitimate. Even if we somehow possessed the knowledge to make an informed decision, there is still the matter of the Empire insisting that democracy is whatever it says it is. As a consequence, “democracy” has become just about meaningless. And that, regardless of what happens in Iran, is something definitely worth thinking about…

Iranians will of course remember that the original colour revolution was Operation Ajax, the CIA’s plot to overthrow Mossadeq in 1953, which began with “spontaneous” mass demonstrations calling for the return of the Shah.

But is this a colour revolution, like we’ve seen rolled out in Eastern Europe? One might say that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. The Guardian is in no doubt – with the exception of token leftie Seumas Milne, they love their colour revolutions, and they’ve been virtually orgasmic over the “Green Revolution”. But I’m not sure. The Yanks may have raised the colour revolution or soft coup to a fine art, but they don’t hold any copyright on the tactic. If the Russians decided to get rid of some of the useless governments in the Near Abroad, in Georgia, Azerbaijan or even Latvia, there’s no reason they couldn’t deploy the same tactics. And there’s no reason Rafsanjani couldn’t do the same.

On the other hand, one can’t simply regard this as purely domestic. It’s safe to assume that certain foreign powers have been running interference – the CIA may not have much on the ground, but it’s very well documented that Mossad, the Pakistani ISI and Saudi intelligence have been seriously involved in trying to destabilise Iran since the Revolution. Furthermore, American forces in Iraq have been involved in providing material support to the MKO, which is no longer designated by them as a terrorist organisation. These are things worth bearing in mind.

Publicly, though, the O’Bama administration has been playing it very cautiously. This is despite Joe Biden running his yap, pressure from those folks on the Hill who think passing abominations like the “Belarus Democracy Act” is the sort of thing the US Congress should be spending its time on, drum-banging from the commentariat, and intense lobbying from Iranian exile groups with links to the State Department. Young Mr O’Bama would be well advised to be cautious of the latter. As an opponent of the Iraq war, he will know how the Bush administration was led up the garden path by Ahmed Chalabi; there’s also the consideration that, in good KGB style, the Iranian secret service runs much of the foreign-based opposition, as an insurance policy against regime change. (Parenthetically, Decents might like to note how both the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan have welcomed Ahmadinejad’s election.)

Finally, I want to consider Juan Cole’s polemic against what he terms the North Tehran Fallacy. Juan knows a good deal more about Iran than I do, but while I defer to his knowledge of detail, I’m not convinced by his categories. And, as noted, the north Tehran factor has certainly been present in media coverage, although I’m not suggesting that Juan is personally in thrall to it.

Juan musters a fair bit of circumstantial evidence suggesting that there’s been something dodgy about the election. He may be correct about that. What he doesn’t convince me about is his thesis that there’s no way Ahmadinejad could have a majority, unless there was a mass boycott from the reform camp.

Juan’s thesis, as I read it, is based on taking the Khatami victories of 1997 and 2001 as paradigmatic. He is unmoved by claims that, as Ahmadinejad’s appeal is to the poor and religious, and the majority of the population is poor and religious, Ahmadinejad might plausibly win a majority. As against this, Juan draws the line of demarcation between the forces of modernity and the forces of fundamentalism. He points to the involvement of women and youth in the Khatami landslides, and on the basis that women and youth are a majority of the population, there should be an unstoppable demographic advantage to the reform camp, as long as a reformist candidate is allowed to stand.

I don’t find this entirely persuasive, because it relies on a more or less static concept of people’s allegiances. People’s identities are complex and not simply defined by one factor such as class, language, culture or religion – all these factors are present, and different ones may come to the fore at different times. And, while I appreciate the investment Juan made in the Khatami movement, things have changed quite a lot since then. I’m not a great fan of Mr Ahmadinejad, but there are legitimate reasons why he might have a mass popular base, which are worth enumerating.

The most important of these have to do with, yes, class. The president hasn’t spent four years in office without cultivating his constituency. And Iran is not Tehran: it has thirty provinces, all of which have been visited by Ahmadinejad, disbursing goodies as he went. The Mousavi camp’s attacks on handouts to the poor could almost be designed to deter support from the poor. Specifically, we could mention attacks on inefficiency and overmanning in the bonyad, the religious foundations that dominate the non-energy economy. There’s a lot of truth to that, but it’s maybe not the cleverest electoral stance, considering the enormous numbers working in the bonyad sector.

On the other hand, Ahmadinejad’s man-of-the-people pose, epitomised by his crumpled wardrobe and his small house, may grate on north Tehran sophisticates, but it’s his electoral USP. It’s how he got elected mayor of Tehran in the first place. Against that, Rafsanjani is virtually a byword in Iran for political corruption, and Ahmadinejad’s attacks on him would appeal to the base. Rafsanjani, of course, is constitutionally barred from standing again for the presidency, which is why he dragged Mousavi out of retirement to act as his proxy.

And the other thing Ahmadinejad has going for him is his aggressive nationalist stance. Khatami spent his two terms being emollient to the Americans, and not only failed to get a normalisation of relations, but ended up with the Americans in military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, while categorising Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil”. Not much of a return for his effort. Ahmadinejad’s denunciations of the US and Israel might cause more Americocentric Iranians to cringe, but why should you suck up to relentlessly hostile foreign powers? Not to mention that his naval humiliation of Britain wouldn’t have hurt, nor his cultivation of relations with Russia, Venezuela and other countries.

As I say, Juan may well be right that there’s something dodgy afoot. But I don’t agree that a result that goes against Juan’s expectations is inherently implausible.

Sin é. You can get more up-to-the-minute reporting on the Hopi blog, and I like this from Gabriel.


  1. charliemarks said,

    June 21, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    The paradigm shift in Iran has been US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and Gaza. This immediately puts Ahmedinajad, fierce opponent of the US, in a better place than those who favour conciliation.

    I was always curious about Chavez friendship with wee Mahmoud. Given that during the Iranian election, Ahmedinajad has been attacking the country’s richest man… A left-populist turn?

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 21, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Chavez has all sorts of interesting friends. I know he’s big mates with Lukashenko.

    Yes, and if the Yanks and the Israelis keep threatening your country, why bother to support the conciliationists? It’s not like the conciliation policy worked well for Iran in the past.

  3. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 22, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Hmmm… left populist? More FF at the height of clerical power (and even then Iran is quite some way beyond that) than Tony Gregory, I’d have thought Charlie, and more the left can be beaten, imprisoned and extirpated than it can wait. Mousavi isn’t much better, perhaps worse, but I’d guess the space for the left to operate might open up – as best it can given the very very constrained limits it has to operate with, although one wonders if it had won out would it have prohibited expressions of political Islam in quite the same way as political/populist Islam prohibited it – with him there if only because he doesn’t present himself as of it.

  4. Dr. X said,

    June 22, 2009 at 10:41 am

    A good post. Nice to see what Splinty can do when he drops the codology.

    About Ahmadinejad’s appeal to the religious poor; what exactly has he done for them, apart from handing out buckshee potatoes? He may say he’s for the poor, he may even genuinely believe that, but the system he runs will keep them poor for the duration. . .

  5. johng said,

    June 22, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    I get the impression of a wierd convergence between those who believe in a stalinism without stalinism involving imaginary geo-political alliances stretching from Beijing to Venezuela and on the other hand those who spend most of their ideological time, honourably enough, campaigning for a reproachment between the ‘west’ and iran, and were rather hopeful about Obama. In different ways this is all rather spoiling things (and may account for what I think is a rather cautious political response from sections of the establishment). I happen not to think that the events in Iran are a reprise of the Ceder revolution etc and wrote this earlier:

    posted on the tomb:

    I think its good that we continue this debate. Contrary to Yoshies blithe claims about the “western left” this is an argument going on all around the world, from Cairo to Calcutta. I do however want to reproduce an argument I had in the wee hours on Petras style assertions about the Gucci classes because I think it might be relevent.

    Much of the argument relates to something real. This is the way in developing countries you find an overlap between class differentiation and culture, often connected to ideas about who is modern and who is traditional etc.

    This explains a persistant connection between populism and communal, ethnic and linguistic passions in very many post-colonial countries. Much of the argument relates to the ability of Ahmadinajad to capitalise on these kinds of divisions and their relationship to social class (a relationship which in many case causes problems for traditional Marxist notions about the ‘middle classness’ of identity politics). In academic literature this relates to the widespread problem many had in ’slotting’ the Iranian revolution and counter-revolution.

    Some bitterly joked that in the one country in the region where you had a genuine popular revolution, very unfortunately for the left, it turned out to be led by the wrong people (Gellner in his critique of Marxism was to call this the ‘wrong address theory’).

    Now I think there are important truths here about the particular form that social tensions often take in countries like Iran (although perhaps it dovetails rather too closely with middle class paranoia about the uneducated masses, a paranoia which can become an affirmation in a certain kind of middle class radicalism).

    But rather oddly, as Lenin points out in the post above, if you look at voting patterns, historically one finds that these uneducated masses have often voted for the reform wing. Its also true, as one commentator above suggested, that the social classes are not as hermetically sealed as might be thought.

    So it is that the bazaris have in the recent past actually gone on strike AGAINST Amadinajad’s measures around taxation: this section of the middle class being an important bridge to the popular classes, whose culture is closer to them then the culture of many of the western educated middle class.

    On top of this such accounts ignore the way in which often ‘traditional’ culture is more complicated then such analyses suggests.

    In Iran for example large sections of the clerical class are really quite hostile to the regime. Qom has to be watched carefully by the regime. Amongst the religously devout, these currents also have an influence. All of this makes analysing the politics of the popular classes and their relationship to other social groups a very complicated business indeed: a few soundbites won’t do.

    Now the killings and repression of the last week will have had a huge impact right across Iranian society. Unlike bloggers in the west, ordinary people tend to become upset by these things. Its vile. Ordinary people also have experiance of the everyday corruption and venality of the regime, even if only at the hands of its local representatives as it where (because of the tensions mentioned there is often a large gap between the official rhetoric of politics and how it gets translated on the ground. This is also important if you look at the demonstrations and street fighting. These things can aquire a localised logic of their own, which will not reflect the crude catagories being circulated, ironically both in western media and by supporters of the regime).

    If Yoshie or some stalinist throwback thinks they have privilaged access to the consiousness of the popular masses, I would suggest they’re being a bit presumptious.

    But above all, understanding the material basis for the forms that politics take, doesn’t mean accepting them. It means challenging them more effectively. In all this commentry from Yoshie and others I see nothing which involves any engagement with any ideas but comfortably familiar ones. In this deep crisis that is an extraordinary thing: for Marxists and otherwise.

    Its very unlikely that ferment across society in Iran itself at the moment, this kind of complacency is a feature. One thing is ignored in all this talk of parrallels with Venezuela and colour revolutions. In the Friday sermon huge masses of people were told that the demonstrations were led by counter-revolutionaries and basically exhorted to stand by the regime. Where are they? Despite the fact that confrontations with the state have continued we do not see any popular mobilisation against these supposed ‘Gucci protesters’ whatsoever.

    What we see are the forces of the state and its paramilitary wings. Given the kinds of quasi-cultural and sociological divides referred to, this is a vanishingly unlikely situation if the protesters were really isolated in Iranian society.

    Sadly, its unlikely that there will be any kind of informed response to this post. Because those like Yoshi and others who think like her, have decided to avoid engagement, and bot-like, simply repeat standard regime propaganda over and over again. On the fraud issue, I would simply say this. One reason to think there might be something to it is because sufficiant numbers of Iranians believe this to risk their lives, that the Islamic Republic is experiancing the most serious political and social crisis of its long history.

    I think that socialists should be really careful about assuming that this is all a kind of hysterical silliness. And I’m afraid the one thing I disagree with in Lenin’s excellent post is the curious idea that we will only know the truth when the Islamic Republic conducts an enquiry. The only knowledge we would get from such a thing is the balence of forces inside the regime. I think the way we would find out would be rather different…

    As stated though, I think its mistaken not to imagine that a language of populism exists which does hook onto social reality to a limited extent. But as Richard argues in a ‘Question of Solidarity’ this populism is a shifting quantity and statistically it seems likely that a problem faced today by Ahmedinajad and the regime as a whole is that they are caught between a constituency they have let down and a constituency which was always somewhat dubious. One reason for the survival of the Islamic Republic over a long period of time was the way in which this populism was hooked into certain real material benefits during an earlier period of its existence (thus for a period the dissolution of the Shah’s regime did mean an expansion of opportunity for those lower down the scale of society, particularly in terms of access to jobs in the state sector and also in terms of the award of contracts to circles wider then a few of the Shah’s cronies). Ahmedinajads rhetoric about a return to the pure principles of the revolution (they were often called the principilists) reflected an attempt to cash in on the disapointments of people who wanted to move further as well as the slowing down of this process. But statistically as Richard demonstrates it yielded very little. And reading other reports it does seem that this populism, when it became ranged against other elite elements in the regime seems to have backfired spectacularly. The incredible accusations of corruption levelled at other members of the elite had the unintended result of putting up for public discussion the whole period of the existence of the Islamic Republic. This was unheard of in public contexts and it seems that this split in the elite allowed for a degree of discussion at different levels of society never seen before. This was exciting. But his triumphal announcements raised the prospect of a return to normality. This was unbearable. Populism can be a dangerous game. In that sense this really was a form of populism. But an immensely unstable one.

    This also explains the eerie resemblence between some of the forms of protest and the language of the Iranian revolution itself. Whatever the shifting social composition of the protests there is nothing culturally alien for the popular classes about these forms. The night time protests in particular. Oo-er one imagines Ahmedinajad thinking. I’ve heard this before somewhere.

  6. skidmarx said,

    June 22, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Stalinism without Stalin would be a better phrase.

    The obviously fake story of the attack on the Khomeini shrine doesn’t inspire anything but disbelief in the regime’s capacity for veracity.

    On colour revolutions: in the last twenty years of more unipolar imperialism, there has been an understandable tendency to paint any opposition movement with pro-Western ideas as CIA stooges. But when your oppressors have been attacking the US as the Great Satan, or the equivalent in Eastern Europe, it shouldn’t come as a shock that many of those protesting beieve that America is more free than they.

    The Cedar revolution I don’t think is a great example as it was in favour of the sectarian carve-up which denies rule to the popular majority.

  7. johng said,

    June 22, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    Well no, my point exactly SkidMarx. Its not like the Ceder revolution. No I’m sticking with stalinism without stalinism. there is something just peculiar about seeing people adopting the same method of argument seen during the cold war about such entirely disparate regimes as China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela. I find Andy Newman’s long quotations from the Peoples Daily particularly poignant. I don’t think they’ll ever give him a column. Which is unjust obviously.

  8. ejh said,

    June 22, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    But when your oppressors have been attacking the US as the Great Satan, or the equivalent in Eastern Europe, it shouldn’t come as a shock that many of those protesting believe that America is more free than they.

    Yeah, but I also think it more than possible that in the present age a lot of young Iranians know a great deal about the United States and that their belief is based on their knowledge. And it’s not as if they’d be wrong.

    I think as a rule that young people of generally middle-class origin do put a very high value, when they become interested in politics, in values of personal and political freedom. I don’t wish to imply that other social groups aren’t interested: I just think it’s rather higher in this particular set of people. And so absent a powerul labour movement (which we had in Europe in the Sixties and which hence took young a lot of protestors towards socialist politics) and present a large degree of social backwardness and personal repression, this is going to express itself pretty straightforwardly in favour of greater social toleration and genuine political democracy.

    This strikes me as a good thing. There’s not much point in complaining that it doesn’t have much leftist content (though there’s every point in taking a step backwards and considering the complexities of the situation rather than just shouting hurrah for the goodies and boo to the baddies) because that won’t happen anyway, I don’t think ,unless there’s a social movement of that type to influence the young protestors’ minds. If such happens, and I suspects readers of this blog would like it to, then we’ll see.

    (PS John – you couldn’t just link, could you? Cut-and-pasted multiparagraphing is a bit wearing on the eyes.)

  9. johng said,

    June 22, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    Just worked out how to link to comments. The world will never be the same…

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 22, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    It’s a question, I think, of whether you think geopolitics has any role to play. The SWP tradition as enunciated by Cliff seeks the overthrow of every government in the world, and refuses even critical support to any government. That’s why, on the few occasions when I’ve seen Prof Callinicos writing on Venezuela, he always seems to be banging on about what Chavez is doing wrong.

    The strength of this politic is that it puts your central emphasis on siding with the oppressed against whoever is in power. But that means ignoring geopolitics altogether. I don’t think it’s impossible, especially for dialecticians, to criticise the domestic policies of the Cuban or Venezuelan governments while appreciating what they do on the international stage. And Chavez, whatever his weaknesses, is a genuinely principled anti-imperialist, not least because the imperialists keep trying to kill him.

    This is sort of where I part company with Skidmarx, who I think is a bit blase about colour revolutions. In the cases of Serbia and Ukraine, I seem to remember the line in SW as being roughly “Lots of people are in the streets, this is a good thing, it opens up all sorts of potentialities.” The trouble is that it didn’t quite work out that way. And I submit it was not entirely irrelevant that Otpor, who lots of people hailed as genuine radicals, turned out to be bought and paid for by Washington.

  11. James said,

    June 23, 2009 at 2:30 am

    ” Beyond that, the raising of slogans in English rather than Persian is obviously consciously designed for foreign TV consumption.”

    Interesting how you don’t consider that your own selection bias might not be at play here: the vast majority of signs could be in Farsi, but the ones which get high quality photos taken of them are the ones in English. Because Anglosphere media wants pictures with signs its readers can understand…

  12. ejh said,

    June 23, 2009 at 6:10 am

    Yeah, but it’s still interesting that the signs are in English. Actually I’d rather like some correspondent to ask the kids why they have lots of signs in English – not because I have some hidden agenda, but because it’s on the face of it a curious thing and I’d much rather hear the answer from the people carrying the placards than have words put in their mouth. (Quite probably somebody has asked this already, but if they have I’ve missed it.)

  13. ejh said,

    June 23, 2009 at 8:49 am

    The SWP tradition as enunciated by Cliff seeks the overthrow of every government in the world, and refuses even critical support to any government.

    Insofar as it’s interesting, I’m not sure that last bit’s right. I’m pretty sure I can remember the contrary being the case as regards – coincidentally – Iran. But this would be twenty-odd years ago now.

  14. skidmarx said,

    June 23, 2009 at 10:22 am

    There are street signs in Tehran in English.

    Callixte Kalimanzira could be your next name for the Prof.

  15. ejh said,

    June 23, 2009 at 10:42 am

    There are street signs in Tehran in English

    Blimey. I look forward to the Telegraph piece deploring this insidious example of multiculturalism.

  16. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 23, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    I knew the British embassy was on Bobby Sands Street, but I always assumed that was just to wind the Brits up.

  17. johng said,

    June 23, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Geo-politics does have a role to play. However it is rather odd (I have just seen Andy’s rediculous and belittling statement about Iranian bus workers, no doubt penned in an imaginary government house) to see people imagining that some alliance between China, Iran and Russia is a substitute for the socialist motherland. These regimes share more with their opponents then they do with us. Iran found itself at one time in a position where it had to fight for its life against the major imperialist powers. Since then it has osccilated between strengthening itself against the major powers and trying to find accomodation with them. Its contradictory relationship to struggles in Iraq, where it has mixed resistance with accomodation (the relationship with Lebanon is far harder to decode) is not dissimilar to the relationship many Arab regimes used to have with the Palestinian movement: ie entirely instrumental. Hence, as in the old Arab nationalist regimes, many in the population are deeply cynical about its revolutionary regional pretensions. As indeed they should be. If it had not been for 9/11 and the American response, I have no doubt that Iran would now be cruising somewhat inelegantly into that pleasent club called the ‘international community’. Indeed I think this was probably the post-election plan in both Tehran and Washington. Unfortunately the long standing organic crisis inside the regime interacted with both the tense geo-political and economic crisis (which effects all the regimes in the region) to upset all these plans. The notion of Iran as some kind of revolutionary beacon has I think been pretty well killed off by the last week. And I strongly suspect that in the future those who take to the streets in other parts of the region will draw a very different kind of inspiration from Iran. But these are early days. The cliched picture of the crisis: essentially those who had benefitted from the developmental state and its lopsided neo-liberal policies against those left behind, is just that, a cliche. In reality footage of the Ahmadinajad’s victory rallies showed as well-heeled an attendence as those who initially engaged in the protests. Those alluded to in populist speeches (whether of the serious kind like Ahmadinajad’s or the sorry hand me down variety coming from some sections of the western left) did not initially make an appearence. There were no mass mobilisations of these people against the protest either. There are signs that some of this is changing (latest unconfirmed reports are saying 30 per cent of workers in Iran are on strike: I have no way of judging the veracity of this, or indeed what this means exactly) and I very much doubt the bulk of the population looks upon the killing of students with equinamity. In the first place some of the welfare policies of the regime mean that not all these students are ‘elite’ (whatever that means). In the second place, in my experiance, the working class and poor don’t generally regard the killing of young people as good fun. There is also in countries like Iran an enourmous respect for education and indeed the educated (not always a progressive phenomenan of course) blended by memories of the leading role students (both islamist and non-islamist) played in the revolution itself. ‘why are they killing our children?’ is as likely a response as some imaginary sociology dreamed up on a British blog or by a retired sociology professor who apparently represents the masses in Latin America. Basically I think geo-politics has many faces and one feature of geo-politics is the vulenrability of all the regimes in the region to challenges from below. That this should have happened in Iran is an ominous portent. And I think this aspect, neglected here, is unlikely to be neglected in the longterm in the region itself. Iran is very similar in many respects, in the nature of its problems, the domestic nature of the regime etc, to many of the western backed dictatorships in the region.

  18. BalkanGhost said,

    June 23, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Just curious is this “revolution” in Iran staged?

    If so for whose consumption? USA? Isreal, EU? Russia? Arab World (Shia&Sunni)??

  19. Cian said,

    June 23, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    And I think this aspect, neglected here, is unlikely to be neglected in the longterm in the region itself. Iran is very similar in many respects, in the nature of its problems, the domestic nature of the regime etc, to many of the western backed dictatorships in the region.

    Bollocks. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in Iran at the moment, but that statement is simply not true.

  20. skidmarx said,

    June 23, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    I don’t have a lot of time to be coherent right now, but here goes:

    I saw some street signs in English on the TV. Maybe the BBC were faking them like they are everything else. I think they amy have changed Bobby Sands Street back to its previous name when they weren’t trying to wind the British up so much (pity).

    ss-I think you’re wrong about the SWP not giving even critical support to those fighting imperialism. The last time I saw Mike Gonzalez do a meeting on Cuba his summing up started with an unconditional defence of Cuba against the Americans. I did have a copy of the party’s pamphlet on Venezuela which I’m sure was similar.

    Incidentally I seem to remember reading that the SWP had had four different positions on the Iran-Iraq war, opposition to Iraq’s initial attack, neutrality during much of the war, then support for Iran again when the Americans got involved in ’88 (and one more). I’m sorry I don’t have time to talk about colours, maybe tomorrow.

  21. johng said,

    June 23, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    What do you mean its not true? Egypt faces exactly the same kinds of tensions. On the one side those benifitting from opening out but wanting more and on the other side those left behind, and the co-ordination of these different currents in society.

  22. johng said,

    June 23, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    A member of the Muslim Brotherhood interviewed stated ‘we are SO jealous’.

  23. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 23, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    The party had at least four positions on Afghanistan, and according to Jonathan Neale they were all correct.

    As I recall it, the distinction was always between defending a country threatened by imperialism, which we could do, and offering critical support to a government, which was considered treif unless (hypothetically) it was an undegenerated workers state. Of course I’m simplifying here, but the broad outlines make sense even though they can be a bit schematically applied at times.

    There’s another distinction, one of whether you would oppose the overthrow of a government even though you give no political support to that government. It’s fairly clear that you would oppose the overthrow of a parliamentary government by a military coup, even if it was a pretty rancid government – Pakistan would be a good example. But I still think the colour revolution or “democratic coup” is badly under-theorised.

    Moreover, just because a government isn’t a great bastion of anti-imperialism by our lights doesn’t mean the imperialists aren’t out to get it.

    As for Iran, I’m really just being cautious. In the case of Yugoslavia there were some pretty shocking instances of western leftists going with their own pet schemata and not bothering with empirical facts. I don’t know enough in this case to be confident about some of the confident assertions being made. What Richard has been saying on the Tomb appeals to me, but I notice he’s leaving some caveats in, and I would be more cautious again.

  24. Cian said,

    June 23, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Almost any country in the world faces those tensions (certainly in the third world), so the similarities don’t seem terribly useful. However there are a wide range of ways in which Egypt and Iran are different, and obscuring those differences doesn’t help anyone.

  25. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 23, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    On the Slate podcast last week their editor made a point which perhaps tallies with your thoughts Splintered in number 23 where he suggested that a democratic (or faux-democratic) coup over this election result when there was a possibility that result of the election might indeed be a victory, either slight or great, for Ahmadinejad is also problematic, even if one accepts the proposition that the fix is in in general terms – re the electoral context, the nature of power in the society – from the start. In other words the overthrow, or toppling, of the system isn’t necessary an unmixed blessing if its a process unmediated by democracy, and is particularly not so if the idea that this is elite conflicts played out by proxy (which certainly seems to be an element of it). However, that works both ways and I think it’s also reasonable to posit that if the dynamics we’ve seen are societally influential, and it would seem that they had during the first week considerably greater support than if they were simply an expression of an elite (and johng’s point about students is an interesting one and perhaps worth mapping to other groups), then that influence will have to be assimilated by the regime. Whether the regime can do so, or is unable to, is perhaps key to this.

    On the old imperialist yardstick I think Iran isn’t behind the door in its own ambitions in these terms, which complicates matters still further.

  26. johng said,

    June 24, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Cian could you be more specific? What wide ways are these? I’m not suggesting there are not any differences just that it would be useful to be more precise. My point is that the contradictions of Iranian society are not fundementally different to the contradictions of other societies in the region. The kind of movement we’ve seen emerging is not therefore something on another planet which might not be replicated elsewhere. Certainly the protests in Eygpt have had similar social constituencies involved off and on. But on this question of social constituencies. This is a fascinating article despite its publishers. The suggestion is that the wierd combination of Petras and the State Department in the spontanious sociology invoked by liberal media (westernised middle class face government based on lower class bigotry: which finds its reflection even in Marxist accounts discussing ‘bonapartism’) may in fact not only be fictional but demographically IMPOSSIBLE:

    If this is the case turning upside down fictional accounts might not be the best way to proceed sociologically. The challenge to the idea of Masauvi as a neo-liberal is rather interesting here as well.

  27. chjh said,

    June 24, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    The SWP tradition as enunciated by Cliff seeks the overthrow of every government in the world, and refuses even critical support to any government. Didn’t a couple of German lads say much the same thing in the 1840s?

    I think the more important point about the SWP tradition is that for us it’s axiomatic that you don’t support a government against it’s own people. I’ve always thought of this as one of the great strengths, operationally, of the theory of bureaucratic state capitalism. When we see demonstrators battling the riot police, our heads follow our hearts. We don’t have to rein in our instincts worrying about whether the riot police represent an advance on capitalism or are objectively anti-imperialist.

  28. chjh said,

    June 24, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    …with apologies for the formatting (a preview facility would be useful for the hard-of-HTML like myself).

  29. johng said,

    June 24, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Actually I think the ‘anti-riot police’ deserve a pay rise. Did anyone SEE some of that footage? Sheesh. :).

  30. skidmarx said,

    June 24, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    After listening to a Washington Times reporter abuse the BBC moderator on “World,Have Your Say” and David Cameron[a leader of a conservative party on an insignicant island off the West coast of a continent on an insignificant planet in the unfashionable Western spiral arm of the galaxy] say that the protestors have the same aspirations as him, it’s tempting for socialists to see their first task as differentiating themselves from such. More interesting is when John McCain said that America was a beacon of hope to such people during the Cold War. Leaving aside the fact that they were backing the Shah to the hilt at the time, there is a grain of truth there. Yes bourgeois democracy is a cover for the capitalist system, but the freedoms promised are often real if limited.The dead weight of stalinism has encouraged the left to be blind to any denial of freedom in states the US dislikes, it is no surprise that is another generation in former Russian satellites where it is difficult for socialist arguments to gain any purchase. While there are case where the US has invented popular support to justify imposition of its own puppets, most of the colour revolutions don’t quite fit this pattern.

  31. ejh said,

    June 24, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    When I host Socialist Just A Minute, I shall encourage contestants to buzz one another whenever “the left” is used as a catch-all phrase.

  32. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 24, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Er basically, in terms of the thing, you might be onto something there.

  33. johng said,

    June 24, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    My favourite is “the western left”.

  34. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 24, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    It varies from group to group though, doesn’t it? Like the AWL with the “kitsch left”, or the Sparts with the “ostensibly revolutionary groups” or the Healyites with the “middle class radicals”. Terms which by this point have no meaning except to indicate that the group speaking disapproves of the group spoken of.

  35. johng said,

    June 25, 2009 at 3:24 am


  36. ejh said,

    June 25, 2009 at 6:37 am

    Wait for “Trotskyist Mornington Crescent” in which everybody knows exactly how to get there but nobody ever arrives.

  37. skidmarx said,

    June 25, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    I think everyone is being ultra-correct today.

  38. johng said,

    June 28, 2009 at 1:03 am

    Interesting piece on populism, privatisation and neo-liberalism in the Islamic Republic.

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