Originally published in Solidarity: A Journal of Libertarian Socialism (London, UK) No.18 [new series] Autumn 1988, under the title “What Iran could do again”.
Assef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran: A Third World experience of workers’ control. Zed Press (c1988).
Few revolutionaries – not counting religious fanatics – would think of looking to Iran for inspiration, now that years of relentless repression have obliterated any optimism engendered by the overthrow of the Shah. It may come as a surprise to many readers that anything occurred there which could plausibly be described as having much to do with workers’ control. But Assef Bayat’s book presents evidence to show that quite a lot did happen, of interest not only to specialists in Iran or the Third World, but to the rest of us as well.
Of course there were problems about conducting field research on such a subject in Iran in 1980-81, and the author had to make the most of limited opportunities. He describes his “guer[r]illa-type tactic of research – ask and run”, evidently not a bad system to judge by results. Even when he arranges the material in figures and tables, its direct human relevance is clear. At the same time, this is not a piece of myth-mongering; Bayat tells us that he was familiar with romanticised views of the Iranian workers’ councils (“shuras” in Farsi), but that his decision to study them in detail arose from observation of what was going on. Likewise, his evident political awareness has not led him to press awkward facts into a rigid framework.
There is a certain amount of theory, for those who need it, orientating the project in the context of workers’ control, as distinct from “participation” and all that. Then we are given the background to the Iranian experience, with analysis of the process of industrial development and “proletarianisation”, emphasising special features like the effects of migration from the countryside, the Shah’s political dictatorship, and the contradictions and contrasts involved. Religion inevitably rears its ugly head, and an attempt is made to explain its role as a cultural form, the point of reference of socio-cultural activities, subject to change and modification in accordance with workers’ own socio-economic and political ends. We are shown how collective action and workers’ resistance developed before and during the revolutionary crisis; the demands made by the workers are examined, and their implications, missed by even workerist-type organisations, are brought out. Real attitudes were complex and various, not to be categorised in a dismissive fashion as merely “spontaneous”. Actions were carefully thought out, planned and put into practice through strike committees and mass meetings, without intervention from outside leaders or instigators, at least until a later stage of the process, when left-wing groups, students, and finally mullahs, began to mix in.
This strike-committee movement remained dispersed and fragmented until the pro-Khomeini ‘Committee for the Co-ordination and Investigation of Strikes’ began to assert itself, whereupon conflicts immediately arose. By the end of January 1979, that is even before the actual insurrection, 118 production units and a few public services had been persuaded back to work, allegedly in the interests of the revolution. Some saw more clearly whose interests were being served: shortly afterwards, the leader of the oil strikers resigned in protest against the “dogmatic reactionary clergy” and the “new form of oppression under the guise of religion”.
According to Bayat, the workers had been in struggle as an oppressed mass, not a unified class force, but the revolutionary crisis had nonetheless furnished the basis for proletarian organisations whose form was present in embryo. There were instances of cooperation between two or three industries, and of non-industrial councils taking over a number of cities and towns and establishing themselves in the armed forces. In one case, twenty-seven industrial groups and trades were linked in a Solidarity Council. From this sort of background the “shuras” emerged.
Shuras, as described here, are shop-floor organisations whose elected executive committee represented all the employees of a factory or industrial group, whose major concern was to achieve workers’ control, and which took the offensive to this end. They were not under the influence of outside leftist groups, and did not see themselves as a vehicle for social change, but for the transformation of authority relations in the industrial area. Such a programme inevitably meant struggle against the post-revolutionary regime as much as (and very soon much more than) against survivals of the old. Internal contradictions as well as external pressures are seen to have been too powerful for the shuras. Each aspect is explored in depth: on the one hand, a catalogue of repressive laws, undermining tactics, and outright attack; on the other, reports and quotes from the factories, for example: “The revolution was made to determine our own destinies… We did not want the situation where one or a few made decisions for two thousand”. Despite such encouraging noises, workers who had been running their own workplaces decided in the end that they really needed managers, and asked for their return.
Apparently almost the entire left was surprised and confused by the shuras, overlooking their real significance while welcoming them with appropriate rhetoric, and assessing them by reference to their members’ political tendency rather than by the extent and nature of the control they achieved. At times the author seems to go to the opposite extreme, glossing over what might have been the more negative aspects of this control in practice, for example when young workers pressed for instance dismissal as a “counter-revolutionary element” of anyone whose face didn’t fit, and claimed to know better than people with specialised (for example, medical) knowledge. The role of women, too, we are left to infer, must have been played largely off-stage; of course there are reasons for this, but they should not be omitted from the analysis.
Not everyone that we see as negative is as bad as it seems, though, given the “culture of insecurity” that goes with prolonged repression, and leads to phenomena like “tactical legalism” – vociferous but often superficial or self-interested “support” for the dominant ideology. This occurs in the use of officially sanctioned chants to disrupt official meetings, or clamoring for time off for prayers as a hindrance to production. Thus any channel is used to advance the convert struggle, and, Bayat says, there will continue to be periodic eruptions, confounding those not on the masses’ wavelength. And a quote to cheer us up: “Just as we brought down the Shah’s regime, we are able to bring down any other regime”.
We may be tempted to ask what they’re waiting for, but of course it’s far from being as simple as that; the point is that the struggle has not been either completely suppressed or co-opted, even after so many and such varied efforts (the Islamic Associations, determined to operate in all workplaces and social contexts, and arguably reaching parts other totalitarian regimes couldn’t reach, deserve and receive particular attention). Still, in 1984-85, two hundred “incidents” concerning pay-rises, delayed wages and such, were reported; there were ninety (illegal) strikes, and in 65% of them workers won their cases, most spectacularly at the Esfahan steel mill, where 27,000 workers won a fifteen-day strike. The book’s prognosis is of continuing self-perpetuating industrial crisis, unless and alternative democratic political form could allow the setting up of the sort of special third-world workers’ control for which the last chapter gives a recipe. Unfortunately the libertarian tradition and historical experience are by-passed in favour of more statist roads. But the core of the book is the Iranian experience, which is certainly worth finding out about, even if it wasn’t quite like Span in ’36 or Hungary in ’56.