Tuesday, 6 October 2009

My Reply to Chandan - "Supporting the Movement, Not the Leaders"

Supporting the Movement, Not the Leaders

This response has been a long time coming and some things have changed or at least become clearer since this debate was begun. However, it is worth returning to this conversation and addressing some of the issues raised by Chandan in his response to my comment on the struggle that was, at the time, taking place in Iran.

Firstly I deem it necessary to try to summarise the position being laid forward by Chandan, which I hope I can do fairly and in such a manner that does not misrepresent his ideas in any shape or form. It is my belief that Chandan tries to portray the internal election crisis in Iran as being about two distinct camps. The first is an anti-imperialist leadership, headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which in all ways is a blow to the western powers in their quest for Middle Eastern domination. The second group, challenging this leadership, is a movement of pro-western middle class protestors who wish to rid the country of Ahmadinejad in favour of Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

All of Chandan’s wrong conclusions stem from this flawed analysis. An analysis which actually echoes the simplicity of the western media, which Chandan is always keen to attack, in their reporting of the situation in Iran. Before I move to reject this bipolar characterization I will first express some sympathy with the view of Chandan. I must be honest and admit that when I first saw the scenes that were unfolding in Iran my sentiments were far closer to that of my colleague. I was immediately suspicious and suspected western interference in Iran and a potential threat of outside instability affecting the country. Indeed this is an understandable first position. When news agencies such as the BBC become cheerleaders for any political movement one must always be wary.

But the understanding and the niceties stop there. Chandan’s analysis is hugely flawed in two ways. Firstly, the Iranian regime is not the progressive anti-imperialist obstacle to imperialism that he hopes it is. Secondly, the movement for change is not a movement for Mousavi, for more neo-liberalism and for western rule. It is far broader than that as a result of a number of factors.

To deal with the first question of Iran as an anti-imperialist block. When we see the bold statements coming from Tehran against The United States, Israel and the west more generally it is very easy to fall into the trap of seeing Iran as a strong anti-imperialist force. But what does it really mean to be an anti-imperialist? Does it mean simply making bold statements or is there more to it? Well yes of course there is.

Real anti-imperialism should be about supporting the struggles of ordinary people against foreign and colonial rule. Obviously in this situation leaderships will arise from such anti-colonial movements, such as Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon and so on. We can and should provide support to these genuine movements. However, Iran is a very different case to both of these groups and it is so for more reasons than simply that the other groups make up opposition forces, where as Iran is a government.

On the question of imperialism the Iranian government is a deeply hypocritical force. It will be more than happy to use the language of anti-imperialism whilst at the very same time do deals with imperialist powers. It is not that well documented that Iran (although not under Ahmadinejad at the time) supported both the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, in order to increase its regional superiority. And this has indeed happened. Even today the Iranian government is happy to make deals with Nour Al-Maliki’s government in Iraq. Are these the actions of a progressive anti-imperialist force? There is of course an impression that Iran is hard against the west, many people you speak to in Arab countries will talk of how they support Ahmadinejad. There is no doubt that Iran is a problem for the west and that is why there is a conflict. At the same time, however, I have spoken to many Palestinians and Lebanese who ask why a country that seems to be so supportive in words can never actually produce the goods when the time comes for resistance.

So the question is why does Iran use the language of anti-imperialism? This has the potential to be a rather lengthy answer, but I shall try to be as succinct as possible. The current Iranian establishment’s origins lie in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, when the Iranian left failed to seize power. The Shah was overthrown but a political vacuum had been left wide open, and due to various reasons genuine workers power could not fill this void. Therefore a different social force was able to cleverly maneuver itself into the power role. This social force was a conglomerate of a middle class intelligentsia, wealthy merchants and the religious establishment and it used a particular tool for consolidating its power. That tool was anti-imperialism.

This middle class movement used anti-imperialist slogans to unite the people behind its banner at a time when the left was flip flopping between a number of bizarre positions. Undoubtedly, it became even easier when Iran found itself in an indirect conflict with the worlds biggest imperialist power, The United States, through the medium of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. However, these slogans were only used to cover the real motives of this middle class movement as it set about brutally crushing all other potential threats inside Iranian society. A point worth noting when activists refer to the current ‘Green’ movement inside Iran as being middle class.

So clearly we can see that anti-imperialist rhetoric is nothing new to the leaders of Iran. It is also nothing new to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was first elected on essentially two platforms. The first was standing up to western rule, but the second was to re-organise internal Iranian society. He portrayed himself as a man of the poor who would redistribute the oil wealth as well as stopping the widespread corruption. After four years in power he has achieved neither. The gap between rich and poor has widened and the level of corruption is higher than ever before. That is why many wanted to vote against the current President. So what has he done to hide his inability to deliver? Once again relied on the anti-western rhetoric to maintain a power base. It is one thing to mess up the internal politics of a country; it is another altogether to unashamedly use the misery of the Palestinians to hide the mess and provide an excuse for repression. Hamas don’t want Ahmadinejad. Hezbollah in Lebanon don’t want him. Even the Mehdi Army in Iraq understands his uselessness. Therefore we should. And so should Sukant Chandan.

The second point to address is on the nature of the movement for democracy. I believe Chandan’s response to my description of the reform movement, as being extremely broad, to be most disappointing. So I shall reiterate some of the points here, whilst also expanding upon them. The reform movement has always been broad. From its conception it has contained many different groups, with various ideas and politics and also from varying social classes.

The movement today is no different. It is plain and simply wrong to identify the whole movement with Mousavi. Chandan’s criticisms of Mousavi are indeed fair, although it is worth pointing to the new wave of privatization in the country; all policies of Ahmadinejad. However, of course Mousavi represents a layer of the ruling class and gained most support from the middle classes who saw an opportunity to make economic gain from his victory. Whether or not he will be any less virulent in support for resistance to the west we cannot be sure on. He claimed he would stand up to the west as much as Ahmadinejad, although this would most likely be in a less confrontational and less obvious way.

Back to the nature of the movement. I have to question whether or not Chandan even watched the footage of the demonstrations in Tehran?! Clearly not everybody on that demonstration was from the middle classes. Very quickly the protests spiraled out of the control of Mousavi and he was left straggling. There were of course many students; in fact students led much of the action. But as the situation developed, wider forces were drawn into action. Anyone with any qualm with the state took to the streets. Speaking to members of my own family in Iran this impression became even clearer. All sorts of oppressed and exploited groups saw this as a window of opportunity, the likes of which they hadn’t seen since 1979. An opportunity for change.

We have to understand the diversity of the movement. For this very diversity led to the chaos and lack of direction that led to the situation becoming so confused. There were those who aligned themselves with Mir-Hossein Mousavi and looked to reformist leaders for change from within. Some saw forms of radical direct action as the answer; hence the blowing up of a government building which Chandan refers to in his reply. I mean the blowing up of a government building! How very middle class! There were even those who argued for mass militant action from the working class and peasantry.

Some of these sections will be questionable in their intentions and their motives but others were genuinely normal people wanting democratic change in their country. The election process had come to symbolize a more endemic problem within Iran. The revolution was only thirty years ago and many will still remember it. It was an amazing and deeply democratic moment when ordinary people worked to create a new society. It had achieved the goal of eliminating western rule, but it did not achieve the other aspect. This was the idea of the Iranian people finally becoming masters of their own destiny. Prior to the election political participation was low and there was no confidence in the state institutions. All of a sudden a dodgy election result was produced and the immediate thought emerged of ‘where is our say in our country?’ We, the Iranian people, created a revolution. So why do we not have power still? The election was merely a spark to the revolt. Not the very reason itself as to why people revolted.

So in addition to the very ‘dodgy’ elements within the protests there was a substantial layer of ordinary people with genuine issues. It was even reported to me that some of the protestors were likening themselves to Palestinians with the government behaving like Israel. In addition there were workers who had seen their strikes attacked as well as students who had faced massive repression throughout the years, such as the 1999 student crushing in which students were murdered in their own halls.

So what is obvious is that many different forces were at play during the demonstrations, some more progressive than others. But would it not be sectarian, what Chandan accuses me of being, to argue against the protests because we don’t agree with some of the politics of some of the participants?

Having attacked the flawed analysis upon which Chandan’s conclusions are based, let me now express the dangers of his conclusions, of which there are too many to go into any great depth. Firstly, not challenging the anti-imperialism of the Ahmadinejad government will mean that it is able to keep a monopoly on anti-imperialism. We do not want Ahmadinejad to embody anti-imperialism, the reasons for which have already been expressed.

Most worryingly we must look at the very scary conclusions that Chandan drew about the state repression. Because he saw the movement as being regressive and the Iranian leadership progressive, he came to a position of supporting the repression. Chandan goes as far as to blame the repression of the students on the students themselves for provocating the state! This is unacceptable. My family was on these demonstrations and I refute this fully. I don’t think Chandan would be likely to argue that the people of Gaza deserved what happened last January because Hamas provoked Israel. I don’t think he would argue that the British police have a right to smash up demonstrations in London because the protestors were behaving in a ‘provocative manner’. He also claims that there were ‘not that many police on the Iranian streets’! This is pure madness. There clearly were! I can’t even make a coherent point about this because it is just blatant misinformation!

Aligning yourself with a state that is using massive repression is just wrong for any left wing activist. It is the same logic that led some on the left to support the crushing of the Tiananmen movement by Deng Xiaoping in China, twenty years ago. Doing this gives a level of legitimacy to the repression but more importantly plays right into the hands of the imperialists. When the Iranian people look to the left for support and solidarity and find only an empty void, where will they turn to? They will look to the likes of the imperialists as being their only voice of support. That has already begun to happen in Iran and it is a hard battle to dissuade many disillusioned and weary activists that outside help is not the answer.

To conclude I could explain the stance of Chandan as being a product of his own political beliefs. At this stage I don’t intend to do this. All I wish to say is that the attitude that he portrays is not progressive. It fails to understand this is not about the west and Iran most crucially. Of course we must always consider the threat of imperialism and understand that its spectre will be looming over any internal struggle. But that is not a good enough reason to dismiss these protests and dismiss the Iranian people. Chandan ends his response with a swipe at my own final remark. I say victory to the Iranian people. He can only refer to the Iranian people as a ‘subsidiary point’. No peoples are subsidiary least of the Iranian people. I am proud that they have stood up to their oppressors and am proud to be Iranian when I see this happen. The Iranian people have forced themselves into the political discourse. And it is with them that I unequivocally stand.

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