Third Worldist perspective on protests in Iran

Support rally in LA, Photo: Monica Almeida/Reuters

As practice has shown, this organization has never failed to give an accurate analysis of political events deemed important for the struggle of world proletariat for socialism, from wars on Syria, Palestine and Libya, over the coup in Zimbabwe, aspirations for secession in Rojava, Kosovo and Catalonia, economic pressures on DPRK and Venezuela, to the First world social imperialism of Sanders and Corbyn. That analytical superiority derives as much as from the ability to apply the theoretical knowledge on those events, as from the constant development of that theory, paying attention to notions of time and place and regarding the changes in national and global conditions of the constant economical evolution. Yet, the factor to accentuate is that of the class character of our members in both national and global terms, which gives no room for mistakes or failures, considering the stakes for organizations in neo-colonies are much higher than for those in First or Second world countries.

With responsibilities, therefore, being larger, any sort of speculation denied by the reality on the ground must result in severe sanctions, even to the point of removal from the organization. Which is why we were astonished to find that even some of the Third Worldist organizations who, unable to grasp the role of Greek Syriza a few years ago, after promoting it as “progressive”, never underwent the self-criticism process (a practice long abandoned by the Marxist organizations). On the other hand, unlike Trots and Maoists who are constantly firing blanks, the only other Western leftist organizations not to take part in the imperialist interventions across the Third World are the so called “Stalinists”. When we say “taking part”, it’s obvious we consider the misunderstanding of material reality and mismanagement of available resources and the opportunities of action against imperialism as a direct help to imperialism.

Although wrongfully named, since Stalin was a creative Marxist and they are merely a by-product of Stalin’s compromise with the West in order for the USSR to gain some breathing space after the WW2 and pursue the revolutions in the East (which is why they got stuck in legalism and never developed a parallel apparatus of action), these organizations tended to show the greater understanding of the very nature of imperialism and continuously defended the progressive governments in the Third world under the attack by imperialism. However, that “defense” was merely vocal, and not sufficient to greatly impact those events, since their political achievements at home, even after many decades of organized struggle, are hardly worth a mention. That is, of course, of no surprise, as the theory they rely on hasn’t developed since the 1950-ies and is of little or no relevance today in terms of understanding the mechanisms of world polarization and its economic consequences, which in return shape the aims and methods of class struggle accordingly.

Yet, their continuous rejection of reactionary positions on imperialist interventions and spurs or support of social unrest that often precedes those interventions, tells us the theoretical writings of Lenin and Stalin are almost quite sufficient to adopt the correct attitude towards the events developed out of the imperialist need to partly restructure the world economy after the collapse of the USSR and prevent the tendencies of certain peripheral countries to reject the global division of labor and, partly or fully, delink from the way the global economy is run. That is, if interpreted correctly.

The principle of “primary contradiction” attributed to Mao, actually has its roots in Marx’s views on temporary denying the right of self-determination to certain European peoples whom he perceived as the outposts of the then Russian tsarism.1  Building upon that, Lenin rejected the evaluation of the national liberation movements from the aspect of formal democracy, and judged them from the standpoint of the current results of the state of the struggle against imperialism – not in isolation, but on a global scale.2 That’s where Lenin fully adopted the combination of Marx and Durkheim – emphasizing the class struggle, yet giving priority to whole over parts. Although usually not regarded as a theoretician that further developed Marxism (which is far from the truth) and considered simply a Leninist of a new epoch, Stalin took it a significant step further, with almost a complete disregard for the matters of formal democracy when compared to results of the struggle against the principal contradiction – imperialism. Unlike Lenin, he even considered the monarchist views held by certain national liberation movements as secondary compared to actual results in the general balance sheet of the struggle against imperialism (a very important point for the Third Worldists of today, since a wide specter of mostly Islamists lead the armed struggle against imperialism in the periphery, and even the Western Third Worldists – including the comrades from KAK – failed to understand that there’s no such thing as “reactionary anti-imperialism”), yet classified the struggle of those national liberation movements with high level of formal democracy who fail to deliver outright blows to imperialism and even strengthen it, as reactionary.3

Considering the above mentioned, it may seem that those who name themselves “Maoist”, expressing their support for the Kurdish national liberation movement in Rojava from the standpoint of formal democracy, regardless of their role in strengthening the imperialism in the Middle East, are at odds with Mao’s principle of “primary contradiction”. But they are not. From the Third Worldist perspective, and let us remark that our theory never ceased with Stalin or Mao and is developing even today, it is precisely their primary contradiction they have taken into account whilst directing their vocal and material support to the YPG, alongside the volunteers from across the Western world. For what is a primary contradiction to the Westerner today but Islamism? One might argue that, declaring oneself a communist requires redefining that contradiction and still be wrong. For in reality, one’s primary contradiction is determined according to the class character, whether in national or global terms. Which is why we never saw any of those volunteers hasty to join the Palestinian Intifada(s) against the Israeli settler-colonialism. To be able to redefine that contradiction, as we have been taught by Amilcar Cabral, western communists (in this case) need to commit a class suicide – the only method of arriving at the line of the masses.4

On the other hand, their so called “Stalinist” counterparts almost succeeded in getting there, as we have previously shown. They wouldn’t go as far as openly denouncing the likes of the YPG as reactionary, as Stalin would have done, but they’d pick their allies more carefully and stand by the government under siege by imperialism, almost regardless of its character, understanding that the siege itself has nothing to do with pretexts given and everything to do with not accommodating (partly or fully) the profit making activities of the core countries. That is, until we recently came across their positions on the on-going protests in Iran.5 According to what they’re insinuating, the protests should be supported for the two main reasons: they’re socially driven – targeting the economic policies of the “repressive regime” and the Iranian communists (Tudeh Party) declared their support for the protesters.6 That (KKE) support is also accompanied by the statement of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) who boldly claims that “the alternative to the mullahs and imams doesn’t have to be the Yankee”.7

Although immune to Maoist type liberalism on the one side, it’s clear they’re not resistant to Trotskyist type idealism on the other. Unfortunately, it’s not some junior party members we’re referring to here, but the actual leadership itself – supposed to be the cream of the crop of the modern socialist thought. To briefly address that attitude by both theory and practice, let’s start by pointing out that one cannot be against something and for nothing. Marxism is about dealing with objective antagonisms not imaginary scenarios. More plainly – basing one’s position on the statement by marginal forces is what it’s not about (Tudeh party leadership is based in exile and its influence amongst the Iranians at home is barely worth a mention). And that’s how we got the so called “Stalinists” sharing goals on Iran with Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. But wait, just to be on the safe side, they quickly published another statement by the Tudeh, which expressed the opposition to “any kind of foreign intervention”.8 In a parallel universe Trump and Netanyahu both read it and discussed it over tea, then decided to carry it through as the means of achieving peace and stability in the Middle East.

Now let’s take a look at the historical practice, for unfortunately, to the anti-materialists, etiam repetitio est non mater studiorum. In 2003, amidst the imperialist sanctions and all sorts of pressures on the Iraqi government, just before the Western military aggression, the Iraqi Communist Party called on “social and political forces to take political change into their own hands in order to topple the ‘dictatorship’ and set up a democracy”. However, it announced the opposition to “any kind of foreign intervention”.9 In 2011, after the Trots expressed their support to the Libyan opposition protests, they emphasized the rejection of any foreign involvement, and pointed to some of the protesters with banners upholding similar views.10 And how about a more recent event, when just a few months ago the Communist Party of Zimbabwe, based in South Africa, called for “the people” to march down on government buildings and help the military topple Mugabe?11 As you may know, all of that went down well: the Iraqi Communist Party was rewarded by 1 out of 328 seats in the neo-colonial Parliament of Iraq after the intervention; Libyan opposition succeeded in bringing the country to the state of dependency, whilst their Trotskyist spokesmen transferred their analytical “skills” to Syria; and the Zimbabwean communists are still to release a statement on Zimbabwe applying to rejoin Commonwealth and first cases of “returning” the land to the settler-colonists – except they temporarily run out of ink.

Did they think history will not hold them accountable?

But enough with references to “infantile disorders”. Shall we give a few accounts on protests in Iran ignored by the pro-imperialist left? Most of the protests included chants “bless your soul” and other slogans praising Reza Shah whose dynasty was deposed in the Iranian Revolution.12 Protesters also shouted slogans praising Reza Pahlavi, Crown Prince of Iran.13 Other dominating slogans include “Let go of Palestine”, “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I’d give my life only for Iran” and “Leave Syria, think about us”.14 Are these not all pro-imperialist slogans? And how do “socially driven” protests with “large sections of working class” end up aiming at re-establishing the pro-imperialist monarchy and supporting Israeli settler colonialism? The answers are quite simple.

Yes, the protests were initially socially driven, and have started as a gathering instigated by the younger opponents of Rouhani in the conservative city of Mashhad in eastern Iran, caused by the general rise in prices and draft budget, presented to parliament in December, that would have cut subsidies for the poor, if adopted.15 Although at first not aimed at a radical change, once the protests spread and gained momentum, by inclusion and dominance of other social strata, they gradually became political and tended to misinterpret the causes of financial hardships of the bottom layer as consequences of the anti-imperialist aspect of the government’s policies. Whether it’s the CIA and Mossad operatives that should claim the credit or the organized liberal groups constituting the “pro-American” element is hard to tell, but what’s easy is concluding who the objective forces are and aren’t. Since then, the demands shifted to “down with dictator”, “let go of Palestine” and “bless Reza Shah”. So, there’s the answer, if it insofar wasn’t clear, whether the “alternative to the mullahs and imams has to be the Yankee”.

As we haven’t seen any concrete analysis from the statement of the General Secretary of TKP, except plain claims that the “regime” protested is itself “reactionary”, it’s difficult for a proper Marxist not to wonder – compared to what objective force? Or have the so called “Stalinists” finally adopted the Trotskyist slogan of “Neither NATO nor Gaddafi” and “We support the (imaginary) people”?

So what would an objective opposition force need to represent in order to be classed as “progressive” in Iran? Let’s take a look. Iran has a mixed economy with a large public sector. About 60% of the economy is centrally planned and another 10-20% is in the hands of five semi-governmental foundations.16 These “bonyads” were set up after the revolution chiefly to administer property confiscated by the state, for charitable purposes. Although under the US sanctions since 1979 and under the UN sanctions since 2006, an estimated $40-100 billion was paid every year to keep Iranians supplied with cheap energy, water, fuel and basic food, even in the most remote villages – the huge cost of subsidizing the growing population of 77m.17 Iran is classed as a middle income country and has made significant progress in provision of health and education services in the period covered by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). 70% of Iranians own their homes.18 The literacy rate is over 85%, with 68% of university entrants being women and some 234,000 new engineers graduating every year.  Iran has a very low debt: net government debt to GDP is a mere 4%.19 Interestingly, Iran ranked first in scientific growth in the world in 2011 and has one of the fastest rates of development in telecommunication globally.20

The Library of Congress study from 2008 complains that the allure of the country to foreign businesses and investors as a field for profit-making remains unfulfilled, and the public sector squeezes out opportunities for private investment.21 Even the Western press was losing patience with Iran’s protectionism openly demanding cuts to subsidies to allegedly help privatize the country’s uncompetitive industries.22 Additionally to sabotaging Iran’s economy by sanctions for more than a decade, imperialism forces Iran to divert critical resources to its military and self-defense. That’s the part of a low-level campaign of warfare in order to goad a civilian population into pressuring its government to change the policies the West objects to – the policies which deny Western banks, corporations and investors access to Iran’s markets, labor and natural resources.23

To those familiar with the Third Worldist terminology, the economic policies of the Iranian revolution aimed at exploiting the limited possibilities of transformation within the capitalist world economy. Conscious and deliberate movement towards achieving a different position in the world hierarchy of production, profits and consumption doesn’t mean avoiding the inevitable dependency nor the rejection of the world division of labor, but may demand a partial restructuring of the world economy at the expense of the core countries. It is in the interest of such a movement of the semi-peripheral country to reduce foreign trade, even if it is balanced, as one of the main ways in which the overall profit margin can be increased is to win high percentage of its domestic market for its domestic products. One way to expand the market for national products is to control the access of other manufacturers to that market: hence prohibitions, quotas and customs. That may (or may not in case of China) lead to the common structural response of economic pressure and isolation.24 Accordingly, Iran’s exports grew from $8.5bn in 1987 to $70bn in 2006, representing an 824% increase.25

But Iran’s response to exclusion from the world financial markets was equally efficient. Although initially burdened by sanctions, that exclusion actually helped Iran to avoid recession in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. To continue on the path towards becoming upwardly mobile, even under sanctions, the country transferred its strategy from “seizing a chance” to “development by invitation”, which is why the net flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) into Iran has grown. That was made possible by Iran’s successful and increasing reliance on ‘South-South’ trade, which effectively translated into its own sanctions against the West.26 It’s former strategy, as Third Worldists should know, also carries some of the inherent problems, given that industrial development suggests to import both machinery and semi-finished reproduction materials from the core countries, essentially replacing the old dependency with a new one. That’s how Germany became Iran’s key trading partner, and even Iran’s nuclear program depended mainly upon German products and services (for example centrifuges used to enrich the uranium are controlled by multi-purpose automation hardware and software made by Siemens).27 Yet, as interdependence would have it, the economic sanctions against Iran were to cost more than 10,000 German jobs and have a negative impact on the economic growth of Germany,28 which beamed for a shift in German business ties with Iran from long-term business to short-term and from large to mid-sized companies.

But, each strategy being targeted by new rounds of sanctions, and with no backing in the UN SC from Russia and China, the country was pushed towards developing plans for a partial delinking. The supreme leader Ali Khamenei and ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad both revealed the government’s plans to build a self-reliant economy,29,30 recognizing there’s no other alternative in fighting isolation. The decision wasn’t taken well in the Western diplomatic circles for two reasons: 1. The historical practice proves the “self-reliance” strategy as the most efficient (out of the three) way of transformation within the capitalist world economy for the underdeveloped countries (Tanzanian Ujamaa),31 2. Juche socialism turned North Korea to impenetrable by the world counter-revolution and easy to manage amidst the isolation,32 3. The larger the country, with wider specter of resources, the better the forecasts for achieving the self-reliance.33 Being an energy superpower, with 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves and 15% of its gas reserves, Iran’s economy was dominated by oil and gas production.34 But the road to self-reliance leads through diversification of the industrial base – the first step almost completed by Teheran.35 That in time led to over 40 industries being directly involved in the Tehran Stock Exchange, one of the best performing exchanges in the world over the past decade.36

It is important to note that the strategy of self-reliance wasn’t the first choice of the Iranian government nor an ideological decision to delink from the world economy for the purpose of building socialism. The government of Iran was simply pushed into it. In countries based on private entrepreneurship (which Iran partly is) it leads to what we call a “development federation”, since it includes a temporary convergence and the gathering of industrial bourgeoisie and urban workers in the search for certain forms of state action. That inevitably leads to different and more progressive modalities of internal profit sharing.37 The program of cash transfers to the working class under Ahmadinejad’s government should be viewed from this perspective.38

Has Iran succeeded in defeating the effects of isolation by managing to build a self-reliant economy? Not exactly. But the possible effects of that strategy surely accelerated the P5+1 efforts to secure the deal with Iran which would reintegrate it into global economy. So actually, the West thought it might and Iran thought it mightn’t. The so called “Nuclear deal”, which reduced the country’s uranium stockpile by 98% and directed it to Russia39 and China40 for its nuclear energy, pretty much assured that Iran would not relink into the world economy on its own protectionist terms as a self-reliable economy nor as a military super-power. The new administration of Hassan Rouhani and the IMF both had a role to play in that process,41 and are managing the so called “transition to the market economy”.42 In return, the transition slowly takes its toll on the bottom strata, recreating “healthy” conditions for the class struggle in national frame, which the latest protests were a fruit of (well, at least initially).

But not so fast. Additionally to the obstructions by the parliamentary opposition and remnants of legal obstacles to carrying out the transition in full, unfortunately for Rouhani’s clique, the new “dotard” led US administration has its own geopolitical reasons for prolonging the economic warfare on Iran. Iranian Privatization Organization (IPO) complains to be granted inadequate authority in the process of privatization and can’t overcome the pressure from the officials and the Parliament, nor the resistance of the state-owned companies.43 According to the IPO, merely a small fraction of state-owned enterprises, estimated at about 5%, have actually been divested to what would be regarded as the real private sector. On a broader, structural level, the private sector still only makes up roughly one-fifth of the economy. Meanwhile, 80% of fiscal spending is allocated to state-owned enterprises.44 Foreign investors can bid in Iranian privatization tenders, but need permission from the Economy Ministry on a case-by-case basis.45 After the threat of new US sanctions and a clear warning by Rex Tillerson to Europeans not to invest in certain Iranian businesses,46  a stream of major international corporations announced a departure from the Iranian market. For instance, the French company Total withdrew from developing the South Pars gas field, which is in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard. China National Petroleum Corporation replaced the French company but pulled out as well, and withdrew all its experts and workers from Iran’s Assaluyeh region.47 Additionally there’s the military threat to Iran’s regional interests conducted by the US/EU proxies, whether in Yemen, Syria or Palestine which Iran, unlike the West, cannot sustain on the long run and needs relatively quick victories in order not to endure significant damages to its budget.

It’s not that hard concluding that if Iran’s going to relink, it’ll happen on the terms set up by the structural imperialism or it’s not going to happen at all. What to non-Marxist observers may seem as a paradox, which it is by no means, is that the process of delinking inevitably produces more progressive, both internal and external politics, and vice versa. In Lenin’s language, “the bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we support”.48 That’s exactly what the Syrian communists understood perfectly in their determination to support the government under the attack by imperialism.

The latest protests and the world’s response are a clear sign to Iran’s political actors of which direction the country should take in order to secure its sovereignty, independence and social progress. The fact that Khamenei stressed that those with legitimate complaints about Iran’s economy should be heard, differentiating between the “righteous and honest demands” and “barbaric and disruptive moves by different groups” is a sign the events were understood properly.49 Eshaq Jahangiri, first vice president of Iran, admitted that there is an increase in the prices of some products and the government is working on fixing causes of high prices.50

As we have shown, Iran’s recent push towards the market economy opens up space for organized class and political struggle. That may take part on the streets, inside the parliament, even within the government, but most importantly it is the global class struggle that defines the objective political options inside the country at present. If leftists are going to engage it must be done by correctly interpreting the material reality from the anti-imperialist position and physical presence inside the country. Otherwise, if “the alternative to the mullahs and imams” is idealism of the marginal forces, then we’d rather have mullahs and imams”.


Bonus Info:

Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) claimed the Kurds have played an important role in the protests in Iran saying they’re “expecting help from the US”.51

The other country to watch is the Sudan. After the accusations against the US that it’s intending to split the country into 5 states, Sudanese president openly required military help from Moscow. In our opinion, the US may very soon increase funding to the rebel groups in the west of the country or stir up larger opposition protests in the capital.52






















  21. The Library of Congress. Iran: A Country Study. 2008.  



  24. Wallerstein, I. (2002). The capitalist world-economy: essays. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press  







  31. Wallerstein, I. (2002). The capitalist world-economy: essays. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press  


  33. Amin, S. (n.d.). Imperialism and Unequal Development. Harvester P.  




  37. Wallerstein, I. (2002). The capitalist world-economy: essays. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press  
















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