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When Iran is free

Ideological struggles within the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement

Amid ongoing protests following the death of 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amin in September while in Iranian police custody for several days after being arrested by the morality police, Fred, an Iranian socialist, analyzes the government's harsh response, the different ideological factions that are within the “woman, life, freedom” movement, and where these opposition forces are situated in a future post-regime Iran.

It was only three years ago, on 24 Aban 1398 (November 15, 2019) that an increase in fuel prices led to widespread protests across Iran. These protests were brutally suppressed within a week, leaving 1500 dead and thousands more arrested. Today, the memories of Bloody Aban are fresh in the streets as protests, even if on a smaller scale, continue into the month of Aban. The generation that is now fighting for “woman, life, freedom” is the product of the widespread ethnic, gender, environmental, and class struggles of the past few years. While our campist comrades at Greyzone and on the International Committee in DSA prefers a reformed Islamic Republic, this generation is fighting for its overthrow. But how is the current government going to be overthrown? And what is going to replace it? What does a free Iran look like?

My aim in this article is to present the answers of different factions within the movement to the above questions along with their struggle for ideological hegemony. There are three key groups: 1) the liberal opposition, 2) the revolutionary socialist Left, and 3) the organized working class. For readers who are looking to gain a general understanding of the situation in Iran, I recommend the interviews with Behnam Amini and The Slinger Collective.

The liberal opposition

The liberal opposition communicates its message through a series of very popular news and entertainment Satellite TV channels watched by most people in Iran such as Manoto, VOA Farsi, BBC Farsi, and Iran International. Iran International, for example, is the most popular foreign-based news channel in Iran with over 600,000 subscribers on Telegram and more than 8.5 million followers on Instagram.

According to the liberal opposition, the regime will be overthrown any day now; all we need is a persistent presence in the streets. We don’t need to worry too much about leadership, forms of organization, or freeing our political prisoners; the people will overthrow the government soon and all problems will be resolved. What the people want is also very clear: freedom, a well-functioning (western) democracy, and a robust capitalist economy. As soon as the government is overthrown a provisional government will be formed to democratically elect a constitutional assembly that will embody the will of the people in a new constitution. In a critique, Yahah Moradi summarizes this dominant ideology in five principles:

1. The movement is everything.
2.There is no need for economic or political theorizing.
3. Daily protests are enough.
4. We are all in this together and should not create political divisions.
5. The existing trade associations and syndicates are not suitable for a revolutionary movement. At this juncture, It is meaningless to adopt an explicitly Left (read socialist) position.

The liberal opposition has so far given a platform to Reza Pahlavi, who has a degree of support among the monarchists. For example, they censor one of the popular slogans in the streets that says “death to the oppressor, whether it be shah or the supreme leader” and emphasize slogans with a strong patriotic tone like “We will die for Iran”, “We will fight and take back Iran.” Nevertheless, the liberal opposition has no attachment to Pahlavi and will happily discard him for someone like Hamed Esmaelion, who called the rally in Berlin, when the time comes. There are a few points in Pahlavi’s recent speech (highlights here) that I want to call attention to:

Refusal of leadership:

“I only believe in a democratic secular government and I do not see any role for myself … I have never sought power and I will not be a defender of any form of government in future elections. I respect all forms of democratic government.”

This has been an example of very effective rhetoric by the Liberal Opposition to hollow out the democratic process. There is no need to build independent working-class institutions as spaces for democratic participation. No need to provide the space, the institutional basis for the formation of different parties and viewpoints. When the time comes, people will choose. The liberal opposition does not want to rule but given that no other alternative exists, it will reluctantly accept the throne!

An emphasis on unity is evident throughout the entire speech. For example:

“I emphasize that anyone who in any way thinks of sowing discord in the people’s united front only adds to the life of the Islamic Republic, and intentionally or unintentionally helps this bloody regime take more lives.”

This has been another effective use of rhetoric to suppress dissenting views, particularly those coming from the Left. Any political discussion, debate, and disagreement will divide the movement. We are all on the same side and want the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, so there is nothing to discuss!

There is a strong advocacy of material support for workers:

“The formation of funds to support protest, strikes, and the provision of freedom of communication … I can announce today that several such funds are almost ready and their organizers are working to remove some final legal obstacles before sending them to Iran.”

Khomeini’s success in 1979 was in large part due to the role of mosques in providing material support for the working class. From the 1960s, with the financial support of merchants and traders, mosques became the independent institutions of the oppressed that provided food, financial aid, and educational resources to the working class. Mosques became centers of debate where Islamic intellectuals, adopting Marxist rhetoric, talked about the right of the oppressed to conquer the world. They were in many ways similar to the Soviets during the Russian Revolution. Today, no such institutions exist and in their absence, the promise of material support will certainly appeal to many sections of the working class even if they are wary of the monarchists. This is ultimately no different than the current strategy used by the Islamic Republic, which on October 16 announced increased wages for retirees and government employees.

​​A large number of Iranian women in casual dress, not wearing hijabs or head coverings and with many raising their fists take over a public street in Tehran.
An International Women’s Day protest in Teheran on March 8, 1979, against the Islamic Republic’s announcement the day before to begin requiring women in Iran to wear a hijab (veiling) in their workplaces. Photo Credit:

These rhetorics of the liberal opposition can also be gleaned from many statements issued by a group called The Youth of Tehran Neighborhoods (جوانان محلات تهران). No one really knows who they are, whether they are inside or outside of Iran, but they have been very effective at distributing their statements, chants, and calls to action. Their Instagram and Twitter accounts were created in early October and have grown steadily now claiming over 50,000 followers and 125,000 followers, respectively. Their biographical statement reads:

“We are no one, we are you, we are the voice that had been silenced all these years, we are the continuation of #Mahas Amini. We are not with any group or party and will remain in the streets until Iran is free.”

On October 17, For their 12th statement, they published a Q&A that illuminates their ideological position. We read that they are a group of country-loving youth inside Iran and independent of any party; their goal is to overthrow the Islamic Republic; their values are humanity, human rights, democracy, and patriotism; their plan, beyond street protests, will be shaped by the people; their goal after the overthrow of the government is to set up a referendum and submit to the will of the people; they have no claim on leadership and only wish to strengthen the protests.

As can be seen, their rhetoric is almost identical to that of Pahlavi. They have published 15 statements so far all of which praise the bravery of the Iranian people, call for a continued (twice a week) presence in the streets, emphasize unity and give tactical advice for street protests. The core message is that victory is nigh and will be achieved by our unity, bravery, and persistence alone. Similar Instagram and Twitter accounts have been created for different cities all with the same bio and very similar statements. Compare their rhetoric to, for example, the 6th statement of the Revolutionary Youth of Sanandaj Neighborhoods (Sanandaj is the capital of Kurdistan with a rich revolutionary history), published on October 20, which reads:

“After one month of street protests, we must preserve our achievements and prepare for future advances. We must recognize that the most important tool in our struggle is our organizing capacity. It is only by organizing our forces in the workplace and outside that we can realize our true power. It is time to consolidate the relationships we have built in the streets, universities, and schools into higher forms of organization. We must think about the formation of councils in neighborhoods, universities, and schools. We call on the people inside and outside the workplace to form councils. The formation of these councils helps to coordinate our protests and make them more effective. A clear organization and leadership will also increase the confidence of the other sections of society (read workers) in our movement and encourage them to join us.”

They continue to write about the significance of leadership and organization. Of course, popular channels such as Iran International publish every statement of the Youth of Tehran Neighborhoods but never mention the Revolutionary Youth of Sanandaj!

The revolutionary socialist Left

Three key journals of the Socialist Left are Naghd (Critique), Naghd e Eghtesade Siasi (Critique of Political Economy), or NES for short, and Manjanigh (Slinger Collective in English). Two popular Left news channels are Akhbar Rooz and Radio Zamane (not explicitly socialist). Socialist groups active on Telegram and Instagram are Sarkhat, Alternative, BlackFishVoice, and Collective 98. Sarkhat has the highest number of subscribers with over 95,000 on Instagram and more than 11,000 on Telegram, but is small compared to Iran International’s presence on these social media platforms.

There is no socialist organization in Iran, but many workers and students have been influenced by socialist ideas over the past decade. They are active in universities and workplaces and have played an important role in developing radical consciousness among certain layers. When the protests began on September 16, many of these individuals were in prison. Over the last six weeks and particularly in the early days of protests, the government made a systematic effort at targeting such activists and arresting them at their homes before they could play any significant part in the unfolding events. Many were in Evin when the fire broke out, they were shot by the guards, and are now in critical condition.

A colorful piece of digital art with several scribbles of the phrase "Women, life, freedom" written in Persian.
A digital piece of art made by online user Farzan44 featuring the words “Woman, life, freedom” in Persian was made in support of the main slogan for the protesters in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amin in September. Source: Farzan44.

The socialist Left was slow to react. Originally it was simply in awe of the movement and simply praised it with theoretical jargon. The first article to have the courage to break the silence appeared in Naghd on September 23. The authors, while emphasizing the explosive and emancipatory nature of the slogan ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’, argue that it does not necessarily “reveal the class character of the dictatorship. It challenges the dictatorship but not the dictatorship of capital”. If, however,

“The advocates of the socialist revolution understand the deep connection between the democratic and socialist aspects of this revolution … If their understanding of democracy does not remain limited to European parliamentary democracy but transcends it to encompass forms of direct radical democracy in both the political and the economic arena, then the possibility may arise for them to play a significant role from within the movement towards the radical transformation of society.”

The authors show that it was the organizing and leadership capacities of Kurdish parties that allowed them to quickly rally the people and call for a general strike. The same point is made in an article by Manjenigh on September 26. It highlights the importance of existing infrastructures of resistance and the leadership capacity of Kurdish groups in uniting different layers of society and resisting government crackdowns. The next day, on September 27, an article on NES warned:

“Calling for the final battle when we have not prepared its requirements is a mistake with dangerous consequences … The decisive day does not descend from the sky but is an opportunity that arises on the groundwork that is laid throughout the previous struggles.”

These articles opened up the space for a more critical look at the protests but found very little hearing at the time. The next wave of articles concretized the meaning of leadership and tried to put forward tangible next steps. On October 4, Naser Pishro articulated a socialist perspective on leadership:

“Leadership is the bottom-up, collective, and democratic capacity of a movement for coordinated and united activity towards a certain goal … socialist leadership means an effort to advance a movement towards emancipation through conscious and purposeful action.”

In what has been an influential article published on October 6, Farangis Bakhtiari, a well-known writer due to her work on the conditions of the Iranian working class, directly attacked the liberal media and the old Left (who claims to lead from outside), argued for the centrality of the struggle to free political prisoners as an immediate goal for the movement:

“The ideologies of a ‘revolution without leadership’ and ‘quick overthrow’, by denying the need for organization and leadership can only breed modern dictators. In these conditions, the only ones who can fill the leadership void are the activists who, over the past two decades, despite threats, imprisonment, and torture, remained by the side of the people and helped them build their own independent institutions such as syndicates and trade associations. People have got to know them over the past twenty years, trust them, and will only listen to them. Most of these activists are now in prison.”

A week later, on October 14, a statement by Iranian activists in exile and former political prisoners was published on Naghd (English translations appeared on Verso and Tempest) calling for the freedom of political prisoners. The next day, October 15, the Evin prison was set ablaze with the guards firing on prisoners. The true extent of casualties remains unknown but we know that some of the most influential political activists are in critical condition and may not survive.

Over the past few weeks, more articles have appeared criticizing the liberal opposition, emphasizing organizing, and deepening the meaning of freedom beyond the limits of western democracy. It is difficult to assess the influence of these articles but they do appear on Telegram channels and are most certainly read by the more conscious layers of workers and students.

The organized working class

As Bakhtiari describes in detail, the vast majority of Iranian workers are informal or marginalized workers with few legal rights, poverty wages, no insurance, temporary contracts (if they have contracts at all), and miserable living conditions. Many work for large merchants either by producing goods at home or selling them on the streets. Others work in small manufacturing workshops of five or ten under a supervisor that is either running his own business or is tied to a larger firm. They live at the margins and many are slum dwellers. A key difference between the ongoing protests and those of Bloody Aban has been the lower levels of participation of these workers, particularly those working in small manufacturing workshops. This is also why the government crackdown was more severe during Aban with 1,500 dead in little more than a week.

The recent struggles of the most organized sections of the Iranian working class are documented here in English. These are workers with more stable contracts, relatively higher wages, and a certain degree of legal protection. Tehran bus drivers, Haft-Tapeh sugar-cane workers, contract oil and gas workers, and teachers are amongst the most organized, each with their own telegram channels with over 3,200, 3,000, 2,200, and, 28,000 subscribers respectively. These workers have been very hesitant in joining the protests. Sporadic solidarity strikes have been organized by contract oil workers, sugar-cane workers, and fuel truck drivers amongst others but none have lasted more than a day or two. Contract oil workers faced a heavy crackdown with hundreds arrested who have received very little support from the broader movement.

Teachers have been very active on social media, condemning the actions of the government, particularly the ongoing assault on students. While they support the protest, the brutality of the regime has pushed them to adopt a more radical tone, they have avoided the language of ‘overthrow’ in their statements. On October 19, in response to the murder of Asra Panahi they announced (in English) their first organized action which was a two-day nationwide strike:

“By holding these sit-ins, the CCITTA (teachers’ union) once again declares its solidarity with the people. It also declares to the government that the basic demands of the teachers are the recognition of the people’s right to protest, and the unconditional release of all the arrested students.”

The call was mostly heeded by teachers in Kurdistan, many of whom have been threatened with wage cuts ever since.

Tehran bus drivers and Haft-Tapeh sugar-cane workers have been in support (of the protests but their Telegram and Instagram channels are mostly concerned with their political prisoners, a few of whom received heavy sentences last week. The Telegram of the syndicate of Tehran bus drivers is filled with pictures of imprisoned workers activists and their only major statement (in English) has been to condemn the prosecution of striking oil workers:

“The working class is empowered by unity, organization, and independence, and without that, it is nothing but a victim in the hands of the ruling classes. The Iranian state is aware of this and that is why it uses all its oppressive forces to prevent the formation of independent workers’ organizations by ensuring that workers are deprived of job security, socio-economic facilities, and the ability to organize. Some of the independent workers’ organizations such as the Vahed Syndicate have been permanently dealing with arrests of and threats toward their members over recent years, while protesting against the privatizations and the spread of contracted employment and temporary job contracts. In Vahed Bus Company, new bus drivers have increasingly been employed by contracting companies and lack even a minimum of job security. The Vahed Company has either retired the senior drivers or sent them to other sectors such as the terminals to prevent them from any protests.”

This emphasis on independent working-class institutions is evident in two very interesting recent statements by Haft-Tapeh sugar-cane workers. The first, published on October 3, is titled ‘a page from Iran’s labor history’ and explains how they formed an independent syndicate in 2008 despite expulsion threats. However, the statement claims,

“The enemies of the working class, by arresting, imprisoning, and expelling our elected representatives were able to halt the growth and expansion of the syndicate and prevent the formation of a general assembly.”

After explaining that the inability to form independent working-class institutions has been a weakness of the Iranian labor movement, they go on to argue that:

“In such a situation where our children and oppressed people are on the streets, where the schools, universities and the streets have turned into the bastions of struggle, where we are witnessing strikes by teachers and workers in different sectors, there is a renewed hope for workers to create their own independent organizations. Because without having an organization, the workers cannot withstand the attacks of our class enemies.”

While the youth on the streets are calling on the workers to join them to end the regime, the workers are viewing the protests as an opportunity to organize themselves. This is made more explicit in their second statement titled “Our Progress Depends on Organizing”:

“Any fundamental change in the current situation requires a more organized form of protest … Workers need fundamental and lasting organizations in the workplace so that they can achieve their demands. The demands of the workers are the demands of the majority of the people … we can win only if we organize!”

One can see from these statements and conversations with workers that there is a distance between them and the ongoing protests in the streets. While students are fighting to end gender segregation in their canteens, their parents are struggling to put food on the table. On the other hand, the youth on the streets have no patience for workers’ syndicates and their organizing methods. Yet the revolutionary potentials of the movement depend on its ability to unite the struggle for freedom with the one for bread.

Featured Image credit: Photo from; modified by Tempest.

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Fred is an Iranian socialist.