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The Rise of Socialist and Popular Movement in Iran- Interview with Azar Majedi
12-Mars-2006
Azar Majedi

* The rise of the socialist and popular movement in Iran
Fariborz Pooya's interview with Azar Majedi

Fariborz Pooya: Over the past year, there have been strong, vocal strikes and demonstrations in Iran. We want to explore different aspects of this and the socialist movement's role within this popular, progressive movement. First tell us, what is taking place in Iran?

Azar Majedi: The socio-political climate in Iran is rapidly changing. We are witnessing an increasingly vocal and dynamic protest movement which extends over to different social, political and economic areas. There are different important movements which are active and vibrant: the workers’ movement over wages and rights, the movement for women’s equality, the student-youth movement, and the movement for cultural freedom. We are witnessing a rapid polarisation in society as well. The so-called reformist movement is being side-lined. The society is moving towards the left. There are different elements we could analyse in this regard.

Since September 2004, significant events or protests and demonstrations have taken place, which have changed the socio-political scene in Iran, some more radically and some less apparent. However, when we turn back to one year ago and look at the society as a whole, it is unrecognisable. I believe Iran is at a pre-revolutionary stage. The revolutionary climate and mood is simmering; it is taking shape, and it is in the process of becoming.

Our generation has experienced a great revolution. We have seen how popular movements turn to something greater, become continuous and ever increasingly more uncompromising and radical. We have experienced the sense of unity among the people. You never think of a revolution when it is taking shape; it is only after that you name it as such.

Let us examine some of the most significant recent events which have been a turning point or had an important impact on the general situation:

A large demonstration took place in Tehran on September 10, 2004. A right-wing figure, more of a lunatic and demagogue than a leader, had called upon people via satellite TV to take to the streets. (He had promised to come and conquer the country with 400 planes; he had told people that I would be on the plane with him along with some other political figures or leaders.) The demonstration was called by a right wing, fanatic nationalist. One would expect a crowd with nationalist and right wing sentiments marching on the streets, but to every observer’s surprise, we heard socialist slogans for the first time in a mass demonstration. ”Rise up socialism to abolish discrimination”, “Socialism is our way; it’s the answer to our problems”. These slogans were shouted on the streets of Tehran. (The actual slogan in Farsi is rhythmic.) The fact that in a mass demonstration for a first time socialism was raised as a political solution and alternative in the form of a slogan is very significant and it clearly indicates a move towards the left.

Another important demonstration, which, in my view, was a turning point, was the commemoration of Student day on 6th of December 2004. Traditionally this day had been marked with protests and clashes with the army or police both during the monarchy and more recently under the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the time of the old regime it had an anti-government and anti imperialist, nationalist populist characteristic, a traditional left protest.

Under the Islamic Republic, it has turned politically critical of the regime in the past few years. However, until 2 years ago the so-called reformist student organisations were prominent on this day – those who are the followers of Khatami. Since last year, though, the general mood in the student movement has turned to the left. Last year we witnessed a totally different kind of demonstration and meetings. Some of the slogans were as follows: `Liberty and equality,” “bread and freedom for all,” “women’s freedom is everyone’s freedom.”

The dominant mood was very radical and uncompromising vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic. It was actually so left-wing that it triggered some very interesting comments from the Islamic Republic’s leadership, such as Khatami, the previous president and Rafsanjani, who compared this day’s protest with the student movement at the time of 1979 revolution which was very much leftwing. Khatami was shouting at the University of Tehran students and the students were booing him. He started to threaten the audience, reminding them of what the regime did to left organisations 24 years ago. I believe that was a turning point.

In the past two years there have been many worker’s protests, in the form of strikes, sit ins, and road blockages. According to the government, in the three month period between April to July 2005 around 2000 workers’ protests took place. And I must add that this is a conservative estimate. The main demands have been for the payment of unpaid wages and job security. Teachers and nurses have also been protesting over and over again with similar demands. The number of protests has multiplied in the past year. The form and nature of the protests have changed considerably as well. The move towards calling for solidarity actions from other sections of the working class, and the society in general is a new phenomenon. Two protests in Sanandaj textile and Shahoo factories were good examples of this. Increasingly, workers refuse to restrict themselves to the boundaries of the work place and address their immediate community and society as a whole.

The recent strike in early 2006 by 17000 bus drivers of Tehran changed the scene completely. A protest which was going on for months, with demands for recognition of a workers’ union, pay rise, collective bargaining and dismantling of Islamic councils formed by the state, culminated in a one day strike which led to the brutal arrest of more than 1000 workers, a few of the workers’ spouses and their kids. This strike has attracted considerable sympathy from the general public and was publicised widely, both domestically as well as internationally. In my opinion, the strike by the bus company workers has begun a new chapter in the Iranian working class movement. It has brought the working class to the forefront of the people’s movement against the Islamic Republic. The brutal assault by the government shows the political importance and significance of this protest action.

The national move for raising the minimum wage to 4 times that of the official figure, which is still gathering support from different sections of workers, is also a new phenomenon. By doing this, for the first time, the working class has come to the fore as the leader and spokesperson of the whole impoverished masses and working people. At present, the minimum wage for workers is determined separately from other sections of the working population.

A few other important events that must be mentioned which demonstrate the change in balance of power between the regime and the people are the cancellation of the execution orders for Afsaneh Nourozi and Leila Mafi and the stoning order for Hadjie Esmailvand.

Afsaneh Nourozi is a woman who was in prison for 7 years for killing, in self-defence, a security agent who attempted to rape her. Even though the court knew that the killing had happened as an act of self-defence, it had sentenced Afsaneh to hanging. This sentence caused an outcry in the society; the case got into the papers; the women’s movement began to object; and international solidarity was mobilised behind her case. Finally, after a few trials and retrials she was freed. This was a clear victory for the people and the movement for the defence of women’s rights.

We were also able to stop the stoning of Hadjieh Esmailvand, a woman in Azerbaijan, who had spent a few years in jail, and was going to be stoned for having sex outside of marriage. A very intense campaign by the Worker-communist Party of Iran, the International Committee against Stoning and the Organisation for Women’s Liberation succeeded in stopping this brutal sentence.

An event which marked a great cultural and social change in the society was the 'Festival of the Snowman' in the cities of Kurdistan in defence of children’s rights, for the promotion of the status of a child in society, in defence of the rights and well-being of homeless children, for the abolition of child labour and child execution, and in defence of the right of a child to a happy and safe life.

8th of March was another big day. In most cities and towns there were some sort of commemoration of the day, from rallies to meetings and small gatherings. In the last few years, 8th of March has been observed particularly in Tehran and Sanandaj. But this year, even though security forces were present everywhere and cancelled some events, 8th of March was commemorated on a massive scale.

1st of May also brought big rallies into the streets of some cities; in every town there were gatherings and meetings with clearly announced workers’ demands. Workers turned an official May Day meeting in Tehran, which was to launch Rafsanjani’s presidential campaign, into an anti government meeting, shouting slogans against Rafsanjani, and forcing him to cancel his speech and turn back mid-way from the stadium. Resolutions distributed at many meetings had a clear anti-capitalism character and demanded the right to organise and strike. This year, a working class aware of its class identity presented itself and objected and protested against the anti-worker character of the regime. We could witness a significant transformation in the class identity and manifestation of the Iranian working class at this past May Day.

In the weeks before the presidential election too, there were many demonstrations - the most important one being 8 June when thousands took to street to celebrate the Iranian victory in a football match, and this turned into an anti government demonstration where many women took off their veils and some set them alight. Slogans against the government and the election, the tearing down of election campaign posters, clashes with security forces, and breaking gender apartheid laws were the obvious manifestations of these protests.

The large meeting and rally of 12 June in defence of women’s rights was a historical event. An anti government, anti election rally demanded “freedom and equality are our undeniable rights” and “freedom and equality and the abolition of sexual discrimination.” Condemnation of misogynist laws, sexual discrimination, and the desire for freedom and equality were on banners everywhere.

And last but not least, were the demonstrations calling for the release of political prisoners which went on for days. The sit- ins at Evin prison were called for by families of political prisoners. Clashes ensued with the regime's security police.

From the time Ahmadinejad has taken office as the president of the Islamic Republic, we have witnessed constant clashes between women and youth with the security forces over dress code, the veil, gender apartheid and so on. In fact 3 student girls were killed by the Islamic thugs over veiling and as an intimidation tool to force girls back into their homes.

The student protests of last November, took place under heavy security, in a smaller scale but very radical and with apparent left-socialist characteristics. The resolution of this event was very significant.

Here, we must also point to the socialist or worker-communist movement which is apparent in all these demonstrations and protests. Be they workers’ protests, women’s rights meetings, the student movement, we clearly see the worker-communist movement present, with its demands and slogans, influencing the general movement.

I tried to mention briefly some of the most important events of the past one and a half years. There have been many more significant protests. I just tried to draw a picture of the radical and protest movement in Iran which is aiming to overthrow the regime, which seeks freedom, equality, justice and prosperity. It is secular, anti poverty, anti oppression and censorship, anti discrimination, and anti misogynist. It is left and modern.

I must point here to the important role played by the New Channel in promoting these protests and movements, leading it to acquire different and new dimensions, increasing their political and social impact - an unknown phenomenon before this.

Fariborz Pooya: The dimensions of the popular, progressive, left, socialist movement are very strong. We see this actually coming to the fore. I want to first explore the possibilities of how this movement actually presents itself as a unified force and is able to shape the future of the society of Iran. Before we discuss that, what’s been the role of the International TV and the New Channel TV? How successful and influential has that been?

Azar Majedi: The role of both International TV and New Channel in general has been tremendous. It is the first time that such a radically left TV channel has existed in Iran - I actually think even in the world. This is a satellite TV broadcasting into Iran, the Middle East and Europe. It has many viewers - I believe millions. Over the past 2 years of its existence it has become very popular. When I have live programmes, I get many calls from Iran; the youth, women, and workers phone in and express their grievances and their hatred for the Islamic Republic. It is very exciting.

New Channel has had a great impact on the socio-political climate and movements. This is a New Channel not only because it is new in the scene of satellite TV or media outlets, but also as a new concept. It is new in every sense of the word. It is new because it portrays a whole new picture, a whole different perspective, a new vision of the society. It represents libertarian and egalitarian values; it represents the atheist and secular movement and aspirations; it is very modern. It gives voice to workers demands and struggle, a phenomenon previously unknown to a 24 hour TV and a mass media with so many viewers. It is opposed to so-called Easternism as a framework of cultural values and traditions. It promotes women’s rights and equality. It promotes abolition of capital punishment. It challenges any and all taboos.

The role of the media is incredibly important. A media can make or break news. This is what we are doing. Protest and left movements have always been censored in Iran and also internationally. They never get into the Guardian or BBC - not even in the BBC Persian service that gives so much coverage to any minute action of the so-called reformist movement, and the national-Islamist movement. For example, BBC produced a false report of the Election Day in Iran saying it was warmly received by people. A young woman phoned me on the live programme, outraged by the BBC, crying out against their lies. Workers’ demands and struggle, the protests organised by the left and communists never found their way into the international media. New Channel tries to fill this gap, this large hole created by the international and the state run media.

This is the first time a radical communist party has access to a 24 hour TV channel which has so many viewers. There is total censorship in national and local press and media in Iran. New Channel broadcasts 10 hours of news and views, social, political and cultural programmes and 14 hours of film, music and entertainment. It broadcasts debates and live programmes about different issues. These new and challenging views and the truth about the society find their way to the living rooms of the people. According to the Islamic Republic’s own statistics, half the population of Iran have access to satellite TV which is broadcast from the US or Europe. It is said that New Channel has gained a position of being among the top 3-4 Satellite TVs that are watched in Iran and is attracting more and more viewers every day.

As soon as there is a strike somewhere, there is a protest somewhere, there is an execution order in another place, there is abuse here, abuse there, the news is broadcast on New Channel. People hear of it; millions watch it.

Fariborz Pooya: This is the first time in the history of the left in Iran and possibly internationally that the left and progressive movement is actually in contact with millions of people without compromising its positions. It is breaking the walls of silence and censorship imposed by the Islamic government and actually having a real influence on what is going on politically in Iran. For example, the live programmes you mentioned. I know that people engaged in various struggles have actually been in contact; they have aired their views live on the programme. That is significant. So, this is shifting the left from the margin to the mainstream of Iranian society. How do you see this progressing?

Azar Majedi: We owe this to Mansoor Hekmat. One of the most important contributions of Mansoor Hekmat to Marxism and communist theory was to find, explore and expound social mechanisms that allow a communist movement and party to move to the centre of the society (I do not mean political centre) and lead the class struggle vis-à-vis the bourgeois state as well as mainstream bourgeois trends and movements. To be always present and manifest the worker-communist views and traditions and to engage in actual struggle for both improving the conditions of the working class and people in general, and to organise the social revolution. To be accessible to the population at large, to gain leadership of the social movements for progress and equality is a part and parcel of such theory and approach. Having access to a mass media, in the contemporary world is a must. He, himself, worked hard and tirelessly for this aim.

Mansoor Hekmat once said people and society seek its left and glorifies its left because they seek justice. That’s exactly what’s happening. People in Iran want justice; they want freedom, they want equality, they are sick and tired of Islamic despotism that has lead millions into sheer poverty, misery and despair. Worker-communism as a movement and as a party is becoming more and more popular among the people because of its stand on social, political and economic issues, because of its uncompromising stand against the Islamic Republic of Iran and reactionary movements and trends, because of its relentless struggle for people’s rights, freedom and equality. However, the role of the TV has been explosive. It has changed the whole scene. It has influenced the mood of the society and the climate of unrest.

Many people talk about New Channel, about worker-communism or International TV as their saviours. I think never in world history has communism in opposition and in such a large society like Iran, enjoyed the status that worker-communism now enjoys. Even Bolshevism did not acquire a similar status in Russian society before the Russian revolution.

We are standing in a very good position to become the real leader of the next revolution that is taking shape. The ball is in our court now. It is up to us to move, to be aware of the whole situation. Not to lose any opportunity that arises.

Fariborz Pooya: The election process late last year and Ahmadinejad's election as president has been taken as a turning point according to many commentators. What impact has it had and will it have on the development of the popular socialist movement in Iran?

Azar Majedi:
As every serious observer of the Iranian political scene knows, the election in Iran is not an election in the proper sense of the word. Ahmadinejad is the choice of the so-called right wing faction of the Islamic Republic (the regime is so right wing that to call one faction of it right seems inappropriate, as though there is a left wing too. However, I am using the term rightwing as opposed to the so-called reformists). The election was boycotted by many. There were many irregularities, fraud and so on.

Since 1997 when Khatami became the president there have been two factions in the Islamic Republic, one is known as the reformists and the other as the rightwing or hardliners. The socio-political changes in the society and the rise of a new generation which expressed its aspirations for a freer society, freer social, political and cultural norms, has resulted in the growth of a tendency in the regime inclined to so-called liberalisation of the restrictive codes imposed by the state. The aim of both factions was to maintain and preserve the Islamic state. But one believed that the restrictive codes for the Islamisation of the society would lead to the deepening of discontentment and opposition, and the other faction maintained that any loosening of restrictions would lead to the dismantling of the Islamic state altogether. All through these years these two factions have continuously collided with each other and made compromises. Finally, in the face of the rising popular protest movement, the hardliners took the upper hand and put their man in the presidential post.

It is as a result of this process that Ahmadinejad came to power. The push to further Islamicise the society, carry out harsher suppression, and silence the society to an even greater extent is the aims of Ahmadinejad and those he represents. This policy has not been very successful. People have resisted and waves of protests have continued. The choice of Ahmadinejad by the state shows the desperation of the Islamic Republic vis-à-vis the opposition movement in the country.

As for the Socialist movement, we are witnessing a continuous growth of this movement. The society is polarising and the left is becoming more popular and gaining more strength. The strike by the Vahed Bus workers is a great show of strength by the working class, and manifests the fact that despite the brutal attacks by the regime, the popular and workers' movements are forging ahead.

Fariborz Pooya: I want to ask you to lead the discussion to more important point. There is a strong popular, progressive movement in Iran. There is a difference between having a popular movement in opposition and being able to actually achieve political power and organise the society differently. How ready is the worker-communist movement to take power? What are the in-between actions you need to take? Clearly, the Worker-communist movement has influence in the political scene in Iran. But, are you as a movement ready to change the society to the extent that it could be irreversible? What are the conditions for that?

Azar Majedi: I think we are ready. Whether our future achievements will go so deep that they become irreversible, it is difficult to predict. The main point is that we have all the tools necessary to move in that direction. We have a solid, comprehensive and guiding programme, strategy, the theoretical means, the vision, and a large party with dedicated cadres, and experienced leadership who are well-known political figures in the society and even in the international arena. We are becoming increasingly popular. We have a strong and far reaching mass media.

We are talking about a movement that has been very active and always pushing forward, always finding new ways for the past 27 years. We are the same age of the Islamic Republic, as our movement came into being along with the revolution of 1979. We moved forward. We have developed in many different ways. Our left movement is very different. This is thanks to Mansoor Hekmat as the theoretical and political leader of this movement and party which has actually put many aspects of our struggle into perspective as our programme “A Better World”, our tactics and strategies for gaining power. Furthermore, the socio-political conditions are maturing for a social revolution. The Islamic Republic is getting increasingly weaker.

It is an immense task before us. We are aware of that. We are ready to take the responsibility.

In 1978, nobody in Iran or the whole world imagined that one day the Iranian people would be able to topple the monarchy with its incredible machinery of suppression and dictatorship. No one could even, in their wildest dreams, imagine that an Islamic state would come to power in Iran and stay in power for 27 years. The 1979 revolution did take place, did topple one of the most oppressive dictatorships. However, it was defeated in its aims, aspirations and dreams, and an Islamic dictatorship came to power.

Now the situation is so much more ripe and ready for a revolution to topple the Islamic Republic, and worker-communism is in a much better and favourable situation to lead this revolution to victory, to build a better world, to establish freedom and equality for the people, to create a Socialist Republic. I am optimistic.

Fariborz Pooya: This is an exciting time for the socialist movement, workers' movement and progressive movement in the Middle East. There is a movement which actually has an immediate impact on the day-to-day lives of the people and has influence on the political scene in Iran. People are gaining confidence in this movement as the only solution to bring about positive change. We see how US intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East has brought misery. We know that the political Islamic movement actually as soon as its gets power or is in opposition creates the most barbaric and backward environment and imposes the most reactionary conditions. In this situation, we have a progressive movement, socialist movement becoming the hopes of millions of people in Iran and in Middle East to create a just society with peace and prosperity.

The above is adapted from a International TV English interview.

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