Monday, February 16, 2009

30 years since the mullahs grabbed power in Iran

In 1979, two unfortunate political events took place. One was the election of the Thatcher government here in Britain. The other, and more important event on a global scale, was the seizure of power by Khomeni and his allies in Iran.

The late 1970s had seen an upsurge of popular opposition to the Shah. However, when his autocratic regime fell, it was the Islamists that took power – not the Left. Why was this?

There are a number of different arguments for why this was the case. However, a few key points stand out. The Iranian left – weakened by repression – was not able to reach out to the rural poor and to unemployed slum-dwellers in the shanty towns. The working-class was a minority of the population and, as such, any left movement needed strong support among the jobless and the rural population if it wasn’t to become too narrowly-based a group.

Additionally, the national question posed problems for the left. The Shah’s regime had been a ‘Persianising’ regime. This caused problems for the national minorities such as the Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchi and so forth. As always, if unchecked by a strong left, nationalism and nationalist sentiment can divide the working-class. And, of course, the left itself is often divided over the national question.

Khomeni was thus able to seize power by riding on the sympathies of some army officers, the merchant class and some religious fanatics. Also, the left was not clear enough in their opposition to him. Many on the Iranian left saw him a ‘bourgeois’ cleric who had taken up politics and whose regime would prove as short-lived as some of the Shah’s last governments.

The left underestimated him and the power of political Islamism. They saw elements of the Islamist movement as ‘anti-imperialist’ and as part of a ‘progressive national bourgeois’. In fact, of course, they weren’t anti-imperialist. The Islamists might have been against US imperialism – but they favoured their own kind of imperialism. They favoured Shi’ite imperialism; they favoured Persian imperialism. And it is arguable what is meant by the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Marxist term of ‘progressive national bourgeois’. That term may have been appropriate to apply to Mossadeq in 1953 – but was it appropriate for clerics whose minds were sometimes stuck in the 7th century? The Shah’s regime from about 1963 onwards had engaged in what was dubbed ‘the White Revolution’ and had aimed to modernise the country and its industry. This had benefited a new clique of businessmen and had harmed some landowners and the bazaar merchant class. As such, arguably the role of a ‘progressive’ bourgeois regime of making a society less feudalistic had already been achieved.

Khomeni outmanoeuvred the left and then was able to turn the repressive apparatus of the theocracy on them. He was helped in this by the aggressive war waged by the Ba’athist Arab nationalist regime of Saddam Hussein. Its attack on Iran meant that people “rallied around the flag” and so were less willing to oppose the Islamist government.

And we must bear this in mind when we read of plans by the US to impose sanctions or even carry out military strikes against Iran. Such actions would be terrible – not just for the deaths and injuries they will cause – but for their political effect. The 1980s Iran-Iraq helped the reactionary clerical regime to cement itself in power in Tehran. An American attack on Iran would do the same.

The only hope for Iran is a rebirth of the left and a mass movement that can challenge the regime from below.

Venezuelan constitutional referendum on removing term limits

The provisional results of the Venezuelan constitutional referendum are out . The referendum was on removing term limits on the number of times people can stand for re-election.

The referendum was seen as one on Hugo Chavez's government and, as such, it is good that more than 54% of the voters voted Yes. The right-wing opposition in the country - which were campaigning hard for a No vote - have been defeated. This is also a defeat for the foreign powers who are opposed to Venezuela's government - such as the US and Columbia.

The Right have accused the government of turning the country into a dictatorship. This is clearly false as the fact is that the electorate were able to vote freely. And they freely chose to support Hugo Chavez - as they have done on a number of occassions before.

Lula, the Brazilian president, points out that much of the criticism of this referendum by right-wingers outside Venezuela is inconsistent. He pointed out that they didn't oppose the Columbian leader Uribe amending the constitution to extend his term of office and so it is inconsistent to criticise Chavez for wanting to do the same.

However, one thing we on the Left need to bear in mind is that we must not associate the political movement to the left in Venezuela with just one individual. The Left needs to be strong enough to be able to win elections and win people over even without Chavez as a figurehead. If Chavez stands down at the next election or after a third term if winning it, then left-wing forces need to be able to build roots in the population which will ensure a continued support for the achievements of the last decade - and a support which is based on ideas and ideology rather than on personality.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Nationalise the banks!

I thought I would break the long silence on this blog by posting on the need to nationalise the banks. The banking sector is in crisis. It can not service the short-term loans it has taken out and it lives in fear of untold losses from reckless dealing in mortgage-backed securities and other such instruments.

Some would say that the banks have made their bed and so should lie in it. However, the failure of banks has huge knock-on effects. Many other companies need credit from banks and not to have it would mean that they would have to close down and lay off staff.

The Government has recognised the need for a functioning banking sector by taking some equity stakes in banks and by offering them insurance for some of their new loans. However, this is not enough. RBS and Lloyds/HBOS are now 'neither fish nor fowl'. They are not nationalised nor fully-private companies. This is an untenable situation as it means that the state has part ownership but no control of organisations that could be racking up huge losses that the taxpayer could have to pick up through the recapitalisation mechanism or through the insurance scheme proposed.

After dithering for months, the Governemnt eventually nationalised Northern Rock and the mortgage arm of Bradford & Bingley. It now needs to bite the bullet and throw free-market dogma away and extend this nationalisation to RBS and Lloyds/HBOS. There is a petition calling for bank nationalisation and I urge people to sign it.