Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Iran Crisis Today as Yesterday?

The following should be read together with an earlier post, republished from the Socialist Review of August 1951, The Persian Crisis.
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After 1945 a declining British imperialism came under pressure from the government of what was then Persia, but has since adopted the historic name of Iran, to pay higher royalties on oil extracted from that country’s vast reserves. This came as something of a surprise to the British government which had long been used to collaborating with the Persian ruling class in a mutually profitable arrangement. Surprise turning to shock and anger when the Persian government decided to take into state ownership the entire oil industry. What was most surprising about the affair was that the Persian government itself appeared to be reaching out to the impoverished masses of workers and peasants for support. It is this that the author of the article describes as the “strange policy of Mossadiq” and the semi-feudal Persian ruling class.

Strange indeed for a bourgeois politician in the colonial world of those days but a phenomena which would become more and more familiar in the second half of the twentieth century. What confused the situation was that the Persian ruling class was nominally independent, but historically subservient, to British imperialism. Yet had our author glanced at Latin America he might have noticed very similar tactics in operation. For example in Argentina, like Persia, a client of British imperialism, a section of the ruling class had raised Peron to power while manoeuvring between the declining British and rising American imperialists and all on the basis of support from the subaltern classes. Similarly Mossadegh was able to manoeuvre between the relatively weak British and Russian imperialisms by leaning on the support of the workers and peasants.

Clear on the imperialist nature of Stalinist Russia the article correctly pointed out that by opposing both British and Russian imperialisms the Persian government had not only won the support of the masses but had, at least temporarily, undermined the Persian Stalinists of the Tudeh (Labour) Party. It was however a balancing act that could not be sustained once American imperialism became embroiled and backed its declining ally in the hope of grabbing a larger share of Persian oil for itself. We shall return to this point below.

For the now Mossadegh was able to triumph and coerced payments of a larger share of oil revenues from the AIOC, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company later renamed British Petroleum, the principal company involved in exploiting the Persian oil reserves. Having done so he became emboldened and moved to complete statification of the oil industry in April 1951. The question raised for socialists in Britain by the crisis this provoked was how to respond to this unexpected event. Here the article is confusing unless something is known of the Socialist Review Group (SRG) in whose magazine it appeared as an unsigned editorial.

In brief, the SRG was the organisational forerunner of the International Socialists and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of today. But in 1951 it was a tiny fragment of the Trotskyist movement, numbering fewer than 30 members, active in a Labour Party which politically hegemonised a workers movement far larger than is the case today. A Labour Party moreover which was in government, generally popular amongst workers, and able to point to substantial reforms in the form of the statification of entire sectors of the economy and a major expansion of welfare state provision. This explains the pedagogical form adopted in the article when it talks of what a “British Socialist Government” might do in relation to the crisis. Readers would have been well aware that the article was not thereby referring to the Labour government which is described as carrying out “blatantly anti-socialist” measures.

Another interesting aspect of the article is that while it generally outlines an anti-imperialist position of solidarity with the statification of the oil industry by the Persian state, that is the semi-feudal and therefore historically reactionary Persian state as described by our author, it does not dub this action as anti-imperialist. Instead it raises the possibility of the Persian workers and peasants, in the first instance the oil workers, seizing control of the oil industry and of the state itself. It is then the Persian working class who are seen as the genuine anti-imperialists and allies of a Socialist Britain and of the workers movement in this country. For them a perspective of permanent revolution is posited, although not explicitly as this was after all an entrist magazine, as the only real anti-imperialist position.

These positions are very different indeed to those adopted today by the SWP. That organisation rather than fighting for solidarity with the Iranian workers movement makes clear its support for the Iranian ruling class, correctly seen as Bismarkian in its attempts to develop capitalism in that country, which is portrayed as an anti-imperialist force in the region. Which is only true if we reduce the concept of imperialism to its non-Marxist meaning of empire. But this is not the essence of the term as used by Marxists since both Lenin and Luxemburg developed their theories of imperialism which, despite their differences, both located imperialism as a stage in the development of capitalism. It follows that for Marxists an authentic anti-imperialism is not to be found in those forces which oppose the evil empire of the USA, or yesterday of Britain, but in the form of the revolutionary workers movement.

If then the SWP of today has moved away from a Marxist understanding of imperialism and the necessity of a social revolution in Iran, in its politics if not in the pages of its theoretical journal, it is ironic that the possibility of such a revolution is far greater now than it was in 1951. For since 1951 the Iranian bourgeoisie has developed the productive forces many times over with the result that it has now produced its antithesis in the shape of a many mullioned urban proletariat with a proven capacity for struggle for was it not this class that overthrew the Shah in 1979? Moreover there is a vacuum of leadership amongst the working masses in Iran as a result of the collapse of Stalinism and the repression of the theocratic regime. A vacuum on the left, to steal a phrase from another time, which the SWP refuses to address itself to preferring to denigrate the small confused groups of the Iranian left as sectarians rather than engage them in discussion.

The Persian crisis of 1951 was but the prelude to the CIA managed coup which overthrew the Mossadegh regime the first and last democratic government that Iran has known. That coup marked the replacement of Britain by the USA as the major imperialist power in the region a position which it has held to this day despite being challenged by smaller powers such as Iraq and Iran which have sought to bolster their relative positions at the expense of their neighbours in the region by any means that came to hand including main force. But unlike the situation in 1951 Iran today cannot manoeuvre between rival imperialist powers but is largely isolated receiving only some marginal support from such smaller imperialist states as China. Although the military and political weakness of the USA and its allies, including Britain, suggest that unless a collapse of the economy takes place its rulers can maintain stability in the face of and largely because of American hostility.

In 1951 the SRG, despite being minuscule, was clear that only a social revolution could save humanity from what was seen as an oncoming Third World War and they were confident that as a result of their opposition to all forms of capitalism they could find their way to the leadership of the working class to achieve that aim. In the event the war to not take place and they did not succeed in winning the leadership of the workers movement. But they did lay the foundations for the later achievements of the International Socialists as a small but vital part of the massive workers struggles of the early 1970’s and of the SWP as the leading force in the defeat of the Nazional Front later that decade.

In 2007 the far larger SWP by its opportunist policy lays the foundations for later defeats and setbacks in Iran and Britain. Rather than adopt a policy of military support for a minor capitalist state threatened, as is Iran by the USA and Britain, it uncritically lauds the theocratic regime in that country as anti-imperialist when in fact it is a prison house of nations itself. Rather than provide a balanced account of the Iranian regime oppressive social policies which systematically discriminate against women it hails that regime for introducing women into the workforce as if they did so out of the goodness of their hearts and not because of labour shortages because of the cruel war waged with Iraq! Rather than indicate the road to power for the Iranian masses lies through the overthrow of the bourgeois state in Iran they opportunistically support that regime against the British ruling class. A shame that the Iranian working class cannot afford to do likewise.

In Britain too the SWP lays the foundations of its continued decline into a sect outside the ranks of the working classes. But that groups turn to a flaccid electoralism based on a populist alliance with an erratic demagogue and marginal layers of petty bourgeois communalists is best told another time. Suffice for now to say that by adopting such a campist politics which conflates the unique revolutionary potential of the international proletariat with the undifferentiated and vague category of the anti-globalise movement, that multi-headed hydra known to mythology but not reality, it negates its own history and I so doing any possible future as an element in the revolutionary ferment of tomorrow.
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The above was due to be posted last week but was delayed awaiting for grammer and punctuation errors by neprimerimye blogs specialist staff. Which has not been done due to sickness. At a later date the version posted above may be replaced with a second version appropriately checked.

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Very interesting post.

I wonder if terms like subjectively anti-imperialist and objectively applied. When the Iranians nationalized the oil industry, it was anti-imperialist enough to anger the CIA.

I agree with you about the SWP/UK of today.

I dislike the term imperialist used describing Stalinist Russia. It wasn't capitalist, so it couldn't be imperialist.
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