A New Left Emerging?
by IAN MORRISON
03 May 2010 21:33
Yassamine Mather is an Iranian socialist in exile in Scotland. Her political activities on the Iranian Left started in the 1980s in Tehran and later in Kurdistan. In exile, she has been a member of the coordinating committee of Workers Left Unity Iran. She is a member of the Centre for Socialist Theory and Movements (Glasgow University) and the deputy editor of the journal Critique. Recently she has been active in the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign (Hopi) and a member of the Faslane academic blockade.
Photo: May Day 2010, Sanandaj, Iran. Written on the sign: Supreme Labor Council represents the [interests of the] capitalists [not the workers]. Homepage photo: LGOIT.com
Ian Morrison: What catalyzed the founding of Hopi in 2007?
Yassamine Mather: There was a feeling inside a number of British groups as well as among Iranian circles that the Stop the War Coalition (StWC), which is quite a large umbrella organization, was uncritical of Islamist movements, particularly the Islamic Regime in Iran. In 2007 the threat against Iran increased dramatically, and at that time there seemed to be an attempt by a section of the British Left to portray the situation inside Iran as acceptable. While we supported their anti-war policies, and their opposition to US intervention in the region, as both Iranian and British leftists, we still thought it deterred a lot of people from joining campaigns like StWC because they were silent about repression committed by Islamist groups. Also, in the particular case of Iran, we were already talking in Workers Left Unity Iran about organizing in defense of Iranian workers. We were of the opinion that one should be anti-war but also pro-labor. And that is how Hopi came into existence.
What are Hopi's main activities? I have read that you are trying to raise money for workers in Iran? And you are also trying to intersect StWC?
Yes and no. Let me be clear, Hopi is by no means an attempt to stymie StWC. In fact we applied to join and were rejected. Many of us, as individuals, are members in StWC. We have always argued that the StWC, as a large organization, which includes labor organizers, Islamists, Marxists, and so on, should also include the kinds of arguments we have. Are we different? People have all sorts of different politics but they should be able to come together around an anti-war platform.
If you were to ask me, 'What would be an ideal anti-war coalition?' I would say that such an organization should be an umbrella organization with different political views which can go beyond ideology and the narrow interest of each individual group. However, I would also add that in Britain in particular, we have to ask ourselves as leftists, including Iranian leftists, Why have we not managed to increase the support of StWC after the massive demonstration in 2003? Many people will tell you that one mistake was StWC's association with Mosques and their whole approach to Islamic societies. Now, it was important to fight and oppose discrimination against the Pakistani, Arab and Iranian communities in Britain, but one could have done that without giving so much prominence to religious ideologies within StWC. So it is by no means my ideal coalition. But as an individual I am a member of it, I have worked for it, I go to protests, and I demonstrate for it, all while maintaining my specific views.
As far as activism was concerned, as Iranians, many of us are also active in whatever contact we still have with the working class inside Iran. We try to listen and publicize what they are telling us, especially the huge number of strikes and protests. Many of those did not have an ideological or political direction in the past, but in the last few months, we are seeing the effect of what I call the anti-dictatorship movement within the workers movement. We hear a more lucid political demand being put forward by workers today, as well as the usual economic demands regarding hours, employment status, and the rest of it. So we see it as our duty to publicize those political strikes as much as we can to the outside world.
Additionally Hopi has decided to support 'Workers Fund Iran,' which is a charity. 'Workers Fund Iran' was not set up by a political campaign but rather sought to navigate around labor unions with various connections to state and government bodies, that were sending financial support to workers in Iran. In our opinion, this endangered the lives of people inside Iran. In 2007, we also thought that various trade-union movements, however good they were at defending works in Britain, the US or Canada, had not yet come up with clear cut statements about the issue of war. Therefore we felt it was dangerous for workers to associate with such trade-unions. I am not putting an accusation against these unions, rather I am trying to be realistic about the situation, because workers in Iran are not just fighting the Islamic Republic, in our opinion, they are fighting capitalism.
Many of the polices of the Islamic regime (within the confines of a religious character) are nonetheless following policies outlined by the IMF and the World Bank in terms of privatization, subsidies cuts, increased temporary jobs, and so on. The threat of war and sanctions are also significant here. The US administration, the Israeli government and others are involved in providing funds for regime change from above in Iran. Iranian workers are victims of economic sanctions imposed by Western government and the Iranian government uses the threat of foreign intervention for increasing repression against workers in Iran. Under these circumstances, anyone expressing solidarity with Iranian workers both in terms of motions and/or financial support should have clear cut anti-war policies. That is why 'Workers Fund Iran' was set up. A number of individuals, many from inside Iran, set up the fund to support Iranian workers as an explicitly anti-war charity, one that would not be tainted by US/Israeli "regime change" funds. It was inevitable that Hopi would support this project because for us that was the ideal situation. Whenever we can raise funds we send it to this particular charity.
Can you explain more about your view on the relationship between political Islam and class? How does an anti-war group focused on labor navigate this issue?
There is a problem of definition. Up until June 2009, the Islamic Republic was treated by many on the Left in Britain, Europe and the US as an anti-Imperialist country. This definition is used repeatedly by the StWC. Those of us who had experienced Iran in the 1980s and Iran-gate felt that anti-Imperialism must also have elements of anti-Capitalism. In the twenty-first century one cannot talk about the Islamic regime as an anti-imperialist force and, despite its relative isolation, it is impossible to think of Iran as outside of the world capitalist order. We have argued that political Islam has no economic arguments beyond an illusion of creating national capital and the time for that is obviously gone. In the absence of a clear Islamist economic policy (i.e. an alternative to capitalism or socialism) Iran became just another third-world capitalist state, with all the limitations that entails. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism had a lot to do with the envy of the merchants of the bazaar who could never match the colossal fortunes gathered by the industrial bourgeoisie around the court and the state in the previous regime. This envy of "monopoly" capital led them to back the clergy, their traditional ideological representatives. Yet once in power, in order to survive and prosper in an international capitalist order, this bourgeoisie inevitably had to replace the very capitalists they despised. In some cases, where expertise and international capital were necessary, the Islamic state invited the previous capitalists to return. In other cases they themselves tried to replace the old capitalists. The very people who argued against Western consumption and accumulation became the consumers, and indeed as modernity is irreversible and universal, the bazaar merchants of Iran who were so vehemently anti-Western in the late 1970s, became, despite their rhetoric, pro-Western capitalists in the late 1990s.
In the US, the Cold War has cast a long shadow over the relationship between trade-unions and foreign policy. How does Hopi view these types of issues within the international labor movement?
I have held a position in Workers Left Unity Iran against organizations like the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center [which receives funding from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Labor]. Looking at the situation long term, and not just as a short term alliance which says "anything is better then the Islamic Republic," we have pointed out that a further rightward drift is by no means an imposable effect of regime change. When we first started Hopi, Bush was setting up an organization called 'Regime Change Iran,' which still exists only with less funding today under Obama. The Solidarity Center was involved with that. Some of the softer sections of the Left were taking a liberal view regarding this. I felt that on Left wing-principles this was a betrayal of the demands of the Iranian workers. And in addition to that, from a very practical point of view, it endangered Iranian workers. The Iranian Regime is very cruel, especially, with anyone close to foreign powers. Now people have wised up to this. No Iranian worker should be arrested and sent to prison under accusations that they were receiving funds from the Solidarity Center.
In England the situation is somewhat different, but of course Gordon Brown's government is Labor, and has associations with trade-unions. Some of those trade-unions, not all, but some of the major unions are now affiliated to Hopi. At the beginning we had to stress to trade unionists that it was not simply a question of solidarity with Iranian workers to set up unions. We were also fighting for something a bit more important than that. The question was, Are you in defense of Iranian workers struggling against Capital? The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and ASLEF [union for train drivers and operators] have both past motions affiliating. The Union of College and University Lectures of Scotland has passed a motion recently to cooperate and learn more about Hands off the People of Iran.
Almost all observers seem to agree that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased Iranian influence across the Middle East. How should a more coherent anti-war position grapple with these regional shifts?
Basically, in that particular part of the Middle East, in regards to control over the Persian Gulf, Iran and Iraq were historically the two major power brokers. The destruction of Iraq has subsequently given Iran an unusually powerful position even with the Iraqi government itself, which is Shia dominated. Both Ahmed Chalabi and Nouri al-Makiki before 2003 were closer to Iran then Saddam Hussein was. Many Shia political figures were exiles in Iran before the war. Also, many of them have close connections to clerics in Iran, which has produced strong connections in the Shia cities of Najaf, Karbala, etc. Therefor Iran's influence is now, I would say, almost total in Baghdad.
In terms of Afghanistan, Iran has had a long history of conflict with the Taliban and that has continued. I know that in the US every now and then there are accusations that Iran sends arms to Al-Qeada. In many ways Al-Qeada and Iran are more apposed to each other than the United States because of conflicts over Islamic tradition. The disappearance of the Taliban government in Kabul also helped Iran. Iran gave air space to the US for military attacks in Afghanistan and it has close connections with the Northern Alliance. I do not think Iran's relationship with Hamid Karzai started off particularly well, but they have improved over the years; as you must know, Karzai is now Iran's best friend. Of course it is extremely complicated. Iran is at the same time supporting the Karzai government's war efforts while not necessarily as closely associated with the US as Karzai is. And for example, Iran has always had close relationships with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and it has some general relationship with Abdul Rashid Dostum. So in that way, Iran can play a role in strengthening the Karzai government or weakening it. From that point of view, the future of Iran and the region are tied together.
But there is another aspect to this. The establishment of an Islamic State and Government starting with Khomeini in 1979 -- something which is nothing like the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example -- is being challenged. The threat leveled against the first Islamic State in the Middle East, and in the world for that matter, has made the 2009 demonstrations a very serious issue for the future of the region. My guess is that the United States and its allies would like to be able to control how that collapse is organized. I do not think that many people, even people within the government who want to maintain the status quo, believe that the Islamic Regime can stay as it is. Perhaps the current leadership will last a couple more years, but the Regime is approaching the end of this particular stage.
For those of us who are dependent on the Left, we would like to see the socialistic or working-class aspects of the 1979 revolution return. This could transform the whole region for the better, rather then returning Iran to a dictatorial king. What I found interesting about the recent protests was that no one in these demonstrations were in favor of foreign intervention or sanctions. You do not hear people saying "US, come and save us." And it is inevitable why that is happening. It is not because of the leadership of either the Left or the right, people look at the two countries on their border. People consider the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan much worse since the US intervention.
The Revolutionary Guards made the demagogical accusation that this would become a colored revolution, as in Eastern Europe. What is your view of the socio-economic factors?
I have argued that a lack of democracy, repression, and election fraud, were not new in 2009. In the previous presidential election, when Mehdi Karroubi stood against Ahmadinejad in 2005, there were all sorts of accusations about voter manipulation, even though the election of that period was a very lackluster event. What was different in June 2009 was a combination of factors. First of all, there was a false hope given to people that change is possible in the Islamic Republic. Inevitably not everyone wants to have a revolution in order to have change. They are tiered. And so it is understandable that the majority of the population looked to the presidential election within the Regime as a glimmer of hope -- this hope was dashed.
There is also the fact that the economic crisis and the political crisis have coincided. While the government is implementing wage and subsidy cuts, unemployment is rising to unthinkable levels. The large number of people who have received secondary education, however, are part of a generation with expectations of full employment -- or at least employment at some point, with reasonable wages. Yet young people are facing temporary jobs with wages at the poverty line. These factors changed the character of the protests. Instead of remaining concerned with the presidential election people are starting to challenge the entire regime.
This element was absent in the first months, but I think, as the repression has increased, as the demonstrations have become much more sporadic, demonstrators have been forced to find different opportunities to raise their voice. You do not have the same opportunities with the current levels of repression. For this reason workers protests have become much and more important. It is not just the Left saying this, if you listen to what Moussavi said on April 8th, for the first time he is claiming that the protests are not challenging the foundations of our system. He is now paying a lot of attention to teachers and workers. This is a realization that the many sit-in's, and protests outside of factories, throughout dozens of cities and locations -- which have been growing -- have become more political. When a factory owner invites the Basij to stop a protest outside his factory gates the crowd starts shouting "Death to Dictator!" This is the change one sees in terms of the the politicization of strikes and workers' protests. This had not existed previously.
Looking at the Middle East, Iran has one of the richest Left-political traditions. Yet it seems extremely controversial to focus attention on Iran today among anti-war circles. Is part of the problem simply that is is so hard to actually form a Left organization in Iran and therefore solidarity can only really be symbolic, or is there an ideological issue?
You are correct that the Left in Iran has a long history. In my view, the Iranian Left has had many different political lives, and not just in terms of did they or did they not support the Islamic Revolution. Iran has had all sorts of political organizations, Tudeh [Soviet aligned], militarist guerrilla organizations, Moaists, Trotskyists, etc., and within each of these movements there were splits. The result was a serious and major defeat for the Iranian Left in the 1980s. Many people were arrested and killed. Moussavi was Prime Minister during that time and he wasn't any less repressive against the Tudeh and Fedayeen as he was to Paykar and to my organization.
The defeat of the 1980s Left was a major defeat. No one single organization has come out of it. However there are places one can show solidarity with. There is a new Left growing in Iran and this Left has less baggage. It is not connected to any of those various old groupings. There are people in exile who will say, "these are our comrades." But the reality is that this is not the case. Some of the organizations set up, such as The Coordinating Committee to Help Form Workers' Organizations in Iran, have people who were associations with one or another of those past political organizations, but now they are in a completely new organization, with new ideas, which are much more practical. In this respect there are places to show solidarity but many of them are not expressing themselves in the language of solidarity campaigns and quite a lot of that work is done in Farsi. One of the disappointing things is that, at least in Europe, Iranian Leftists, now some thirty years into exile, still do not speak the language of the country they live in. The result of this is that although support is growing amongst the exile Left for these new formations inside Iran, the historical lessons are not being translated to the Left in Germany, the Left in France, the Left in Britain, etc. This is one of the reasons Hopi started campaigning in Britain as one of the few groups trying to draw attention to the post-1990s Left in Iran.
Can you explain more about the New Left which has been growing since the 1990s?
First of all, the older Left defined itself in term of the Soviet Union. The influence of the Bolshevik Revolution in Iran was quite serious. The definitions of the post-68 Left in Iran were demarcated in terms of how people viewed the Soviet Union, and later it also became about the Sino-Soviet split, and even within Maoist groups one could find four of five different -- deeply contradictory -- positions in terms of the cultural revolution and so on. Today we are seeing new formations setting up strategic demands for the Iranian working-class that are free of those ideological tags. You also see a whole generation of Iranians who did not experience 1979 and the early 1980s. I should add that the whole 1980s were intertwined with the Soviet Union and some groups supported the Islamic regime because the Soviet Union said it was imperialist and vice versa. Some of these differences became extremely violent, which had a tremendous effect in the 1980s.
The generation born in the 1980s is free of that. That generation is what I would call the New Iranian Left. Many of these people were politicized in the mid to late 1990s or in the early 2000s if they are younger. Some of them are people who were associated at one time or another with the reformist Islamist movement. The failure of the Mohammad Khantami presidency, in terms of delivering tangible political changes, radicalized those of the younger generation. I remember in 1998-9 a lot of Iranian students that I spoke to, some of whom I met in Turkey, were all talking about Karl Popper. This philosopher interested them at the time because political repression in Iran had created a sense that one needed to explore the question of democracy. At this time, not just western leaders but also people in Iran, were also talking about "The End of History." The idea that the collapse of the Soviet Union was equivalent to the end of socialism. What changed that was the war. I really think that the United States by invading Iraq and Afghanistan radicalized a generation of Iranians who had become pro-democracy but then took a look at the devastation super-power democratic countries can impose on the region. This made them look at other ideologies. Suddenly people who had been previously talking about Popper were asking about Marx. They were looking for the latest discussions on Imperialism. People were asking about the economic crisis. They were talking about feudal capitalism. I am always impressed how in the middle of protesting this generation spends a great deal of time discussing and arguing.
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