'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Iran and the Left: Some Random Observations 

Iran, like Honduras, is no longer newsworthy. The protests have abated as the government has apparently successfully suppressed popular opposition to Ahmadinejad'a reelection as President. Dissatisfaction instead makes itself known through factional disputes within the governing elite.

As explained here in late June, many on the left were surprised by the eruption of public protest in the wake of Ahmadinejad's announced landslide victory, resulting in a contentious, and frequently acrimonious, debate. Now is a good time to revisit the subject as the intensity of feeling has subsided.

With the benefit of contemplative reflection, several important themes come into view. First, despite their alignment in the anti-globalization movement, as well as their opposition to the US imperialism in the Middle East, the schism between anarchists and Marxists remains. By and large, anarchists were uniformly in support of the protesters. Conversely, some Marxists supported the protesters and others did not. There were even Marxists who initially condemned the protesters while defending the election returns in Ahmadinejad's favor as legitimate. Old lines of division reemerged: anarchist hostility to the state and religion, and its embrace of spontaneous protest, counterposed by Marxist pragmatism and the attempted application of class and anti-imperialist analysis to perceived facts on the ground.

Second, the left response revealed some enduring sources of confusion. While both anarchists and Marxists generally had the right line (foreign non-intervention, deference to the decisions of the Iranian working class, such as it is), some Marxists, as already noted, attempted to justify it by reference to what they described as the credible results of the Iranian presidential election. Of course, this lead to a vigorous, and, to this day, unresolved argument over the credibility of the vote count. Rarely did anyone mention the incongruity of this perspective, given the historic Marxist contempt for the electoral processes of liberal democracy, as given concrete form by the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917.

Given their rejection of the state generally, anarchists had little interest in the election results as they related to the protests, and, by extension, identified with the protesters because of the threat that they posed to the institutional structures of Islamic social control. As'ad Abukhalil was, quite rightly, hostile to elite efforts to limit the protests to liberal demands for fair elections and legitimate political representation within an Islamic society, even as he implicitly celebrated the attempt to dismantle this system under the banner of such protest. Both anarchists and Marxists feared the potential for neoliberal exploitation of unrest.

The initial willingness of some Marxists to accept the election result is connected to another doctrinal dilemma: what is the composition of the Iranian working class, and how can anyone purport to know what it is, much less purport to ascribe a political posture to it? Naturally, Marxists on both sides of the Iranian divide emphasized the importance of acting in the best interests of the Iranian working class. Marxists that accepted the election result therefore contended that much of the Iranian working class voted for Ahmanijedad, while those who rejected it asserted the opposite. But, after 35 years of the Shah, and another 30 years of Islamic rule, how does one define the Iranian working class, especially given the decimation of the left that occurred after the 1979 revolution?

Of course, this raises a question that has bedeviled the left for decades: what, in the wake of the restructuring of the global economy as a result of neoliberalism, is the proletariat, and what are its defining characteristics? Clearly, the industrial proletariat as envisioned by Marx and Engels exists in places like China, Mexico, Japan, Brazil, Taiwan and India, if it can be said to exist anywhere at all anymore. In other words, in the export platforms facilitated by neoliberal policy, as well as the remnants of industrial production within the US and Europe. Certainly, there is such production in Iran and economic sectors associated with it, like transport, but can we say that it exists as an independent subject capable of projecting an ideologically coherent vision of society?

To be fair, Marxists did implicitly recognize the problem, but had little to say about it, other than that the Iranian working class might, at best, exploit developments to gain more freedom to organize and increase its influence. The opportunity to address the more profound dilemma was missed. Anarchists, not being as class conscious, recognized an affinity with socially marginalized groups, such as unemployed and underemployed people, young people and women, valuing their rejection of the governmental instruments of religious oppression, and did not, as Yoshie of the MRZine did, deny their historical agency. Yet, paradoxically, the anarchists (and here, I include myself) and their Marxist allies, like Richard Seymour of Lenin's Tomb, face the prospect that their perspective can be expropriated by neoliberals because of the Marxist failure to give ideological coherence to the class nature of the conflict. After all, secular democracies in Europe and the Americas were part of a process by which capitalism replaced feudalism and the religious controls associated with it.

Finally, the economic development aspect of socialism was completely ignored in relation to the Iranian developments. It is fair to say that the urgency of anti-imperialism has nearly eradicated this essential strand of socialist thought. One gets the sense that people on the left have forgotten that socialism, whether anarchist, Marxist-Leninist, or Social Democratic, was promoted by their advocates as economically more rational, more efficient and more just, than capitalism, with all of its excesses and brutalities. Yet, I do not recall anyone making the effort to develop an analysis that would clarify the nature of the Iranian working class while also explaining how they could empower themselves through the economic development of Iran.

Admittedly, there have been some enlightening efforts to explain how the Islamic Revolution has brought about a more equitable distribution of resources within the country, but socialism is more than Keynesianism, it is an ideology of economic development and worker empowerment, an ideology whereby workers take control of the state and the means of production (communism, Social Democracy) or, alternatively, dismantle the state while transforming the means of production into a collective form of social organization (anarchism), and the larger question as to whether Political Islam, such as the example on display on Tehran, can facilitate such radical social change remains to be engaged.

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