Michael Copestake reports on HOPI’s successful weekend school
“The only thing that is certain is uncertainty,” said Labour MP John McDonnell in his talk at the April 21-22 weekend school organised by the Hands Off the People of Iran at the University of London Union.
Given the negotiations between the five members of the United Nations security council plus Germany and Iran that have just completed in Istanbul and are due to resume next month in May in Baghdad (of all the places to talk peace in the Middle East, could there be a more ironic one?) and the decline in the number of those mobilised on demonstrations and marches against war, the truth of this statement should be well noted by all. The continued threat of direct military action against Iran combined with factors such as the US electoral cycle constitute a heady and unpredictable brew.
The weekend school was part of the continued efforts of Hopi to reorientate the left against both the imperialist war drive and the sickening anti-working class regime of the Iranian state itself. Aiming to provide an analysis of the forces driving to war and the general condition of the Iranian state and society, Hopi brought together a range of speakers, including Iranian activists and exiles, National Union of Journalists president Donnacha DeLong, as well as comrade McDonnell himself.
The speaker for the first session on the Saturday was CPGB’s Mike Macnair, who sought to explain what he judged to be the increasingly irrational military adventures of the United States and its imperialist allies. These tend to end in social chaos, as in Iraq, rather than the imposition of some pax Americana, and comrade Macnair linked them to three distinctive cyclical tendencies within capitalism.
The first of these is the business cycle, which in its upswing phase imbues a sense of optimism and belief in progress, while a period of downturn or stagnation provokes attempts, including through war, to distract attention from the ensuing crises of capitalist legitimacy.
The second cycle is much longer-lasting and relates to the rise and decline of the hegemonic capitalist state itself. Giving examples of this process from history, comrade Macnair referred to the Netherlands, the British empire and now, in the present day, the United States itself. Here the qualities which create the success of the new pretender in stealing the crown from the previous declining hegemon breed their own failure over time. These take the form of the loss of previously world-beating industrial production, which provokes the use of brute military force to maintain ‘top dog’ status – irrational adventurism in order to maintain credibility and deter potential successors.
Lastly there is the general decline of capitalism itself, said the comrade. This expresses itself in the fact that United States intervention has not stimulated the significant economic development of capitalism in the states where it has intruded that was seen in the case of previous imperial powers. Taking patterns of immigration as a measuring stick, comrade Macnair noted that previous empires led to an exodus of the population of conquering powers to the new colonies, whereas today the reverse is true – people from the oppressed countries are driven to seek a better life in the core countries.
It is the failure of much of the left to understand these factors that leads it down the dead end of calling for the bourgeoisie, in essence, to act more rationally: it should desist from starting wars and spend the money on the welfare state or whatever. But that fails to grasp the wider – perfectly rational from the point of view of imperialism – imperatives that drive the seemingly crazy waves of destruction.
This interpretation proved controversial for some in the debate that followed, with speakers questioning the category of ‘irrationality’ and suggesting it was lacking in explanatory power. Others pointed out that the war on Iran has been a long time coming, with sanctions going back over 30 years, when capitalism was, presumably, still more ‘rational’. The connection between the business cycle and general political ideology was questioned by one speaker, as was the phenomena of a ‘cyclical hegemon’, while another comrade wondered exactly why China might not be a legitimate rival to the US for this position. During the following exchanges comrade Macnair offered a robust defence of his thesis and expanded on many of its elements in relation to the points being made.
Iran working class
Iranian trade unionist and former political prisoner of the Iranian regime, Majid Tamjidi, gave an illuminating and hard-headed assessment of the plight of the Iranian working class, caught as it is in the vice of imperialist sanctions and neoliberal Islamic despotism.
What came through in comrade Tamjidi’s talk was the nightmarish coincidence of the needs of the US and Iranian states, which serves to push both further down the road towards military conflict. The bluster and bravado with which the Iranian regime responds to sanctions and threats of war feed US portrayals of Iran as intransigent and in need of a swift and harsh remedy. The missing element in the narratives of both the imperialist and Iranian governments is the masses themselves, yet they are being crushed under the weight of both sanctions and the neoliberal policies of the theocratic state, resulting in 60% of Iranians living below the poverty line, 12 million on insecure ‘instant dismissal’ temporary work contracts, and at least 30,000 deaths per annum in workplace accidents.
This focus on the desperate economic situation of Iran and the Iranian working class was picked up in a session on the second day on the political economy of Iran, addressed by Mohamed Shalgouni of the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers in Iran and Hopi chair Yassamine Mather.
The audience was straining to hear the words of comrade Shalgouni, not just because he was so quietly spoken, but because of the great interest in the things he had to say. He provided a compelling dissection of the role of the regime in the economy of Iran, of which 70% is directly or indirectly controlled by the state and its related bodies, increasingly under the auspices of utterly phoney privatisations that give ownership of companies to state and military officials technically at ‘arm’s length’ from the government in a kind of pocket-bursting, oligarchic give-away, last seen on a such a scale in the crash privatisations undertaken in the collapsing Soviet Union. That there can be such a bonanza for state bureaucrats and heavies is a legacy of the revolution, which resulted in the expropriation of the holdings of the royal family and a series of nationalisations. This self-interested gangsterism by the state, taken with three decades of increasingly severe sanctions, has led to the ruin of much of what remained of the Iranian economy and, with the possible closure of French car plants under the pressure of the United States, the situation grows more and more dire.
Indeed, the size of the ‘black economy’, much of which is controlled by state, army and militia bureaucrats, and includes imports, currency and the trade in alcohol, is estimated at being worth $60 billion a year: about the same as Iran’s official imports. As comrade Yassamine Mather elaborated, domestic industry, including the production of agricultural staples at a price affordable to the Iranian proletariat, has been deliberately run down by the mercantilist, middle-man interests of the state and bourgeoisie, as it is easier to extort money from the masses when all of the country’s needs are met by imports controlled by the collective state gangster rather than from domestic production.
Aware of the basket-case economy and a desperate, volatile society it has created, the Iranian state, whilst it slashes subsidy and welfare for everyone else, continues to subsidise around five million supposedly grateful economic dependants who can potentially act as extra-military brownshirts against Iranian workers when society inevitably produces explosive protests.
Speakers from the floor wondered how the supposedly deeply religious government of the clerics justified its privatisations, though the answer was provided quickly that this was done with great ease – and was typical of theologians throughout history, whenever god gets in the way of fistfuls of hot cash. Other questions ranged from the role of the military in exploiting the economy and the possibility of conflict between them and the clerical wing of the state.
More focused on the immediate situation facing the wider world and its working class movement was the talk given by comrade Moshé Machover, co-founder of Israeli socialist party Matzpen. This was also the case with the panel discussion led by left-Labour stalwart John McDonnell MP, who humorously referred to himself and Jeremy Corbyn as the “parliamentary wing” of Hopi, Sarah McDonald, a runner in the previous weekend’s Vienna marathon in aid of Workers Fund Iran, and NUJ president Donnacha DeLong.
Comrade Machover focused on the relationship between Israel and Iran. He believed that the recent Istanbul negotiations with Iran had produced a vaguely positive outcome despite Hillary Clinton’s hawkish rhetoric. Attempting to identify exactly why Israel was so pro-war, the comrade identified two main factors. The first was that an Iran with nuclear arms, or nuclear potential within the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, reduces the relative power of Israel in the region and its ability to be the watchdog of the United States.
The second reason was that the Israeli state is seeking a pretext in order to engage in a further ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, thus solving the so-called ‘demographic problem’ of the growing Arab population of Israel. The acceptance by the Israeli military in its own documents and in the words of some of its own leading figures that the ‘Iranian bomb’ is not a serious threat disproves the notion that this issue is about Iran’s nuclear capability. It is more about provoking a situation of such turmoil that the mass expulsion of Palestinians could be more conveniently undertaken.
The panel discussion made up the final session of the weekend, with comrade De Long recounting his experience of the Iranian regime during his time as an Amnesty International worker and gave an example of the power of the social media in spreading cutting criticisms of the regime than can serve as morale boosters and potential incitements to action for ordinary Iranians.
John McDonnell reported that the word in the Westminster village was that, should there be an attack on Iran, it may be around September time, though the Israelis were suffering from an itchy trigger finger and he did not discount them acting alone. Comrade McDonnell emphasised the correctness of Hopi’s line against imperialism, sanctions and the regime itself and that it was essential that these ideas be spread more widely into the labour and trade union movement as a whole. Whether this took the form of meetings with individual trade union general secretaries and MPs, of cultural events and campaigns such as the film screenings in aid of Jafar Panahi, of direct action or of good, old-fashioned marches and demonstrations was not important: what matters is spreading the message.
The comrade also emphasised another part of what Hopi stands for as particularly important: support for working class and progressive forces and for socialism in the Middle East. We absolutely must not, the comrade insisted, ever refrain from stating plainly that the only progressive force in Iran (and elsewhere) capable of combating imperialism and overthrowing the neoliberal clerics is the working class, and that the only way to lasting peace and prosperity in the whole region is through socialism.
Describing her experience of practical solidarity with the Iranian working class was CPGB member Sarah McDonald, fresh back from the Vienna marathon. She, along with others, had raised almost £1,000 for Workers Fund Iran. Comparing the project of transforming the left into a healthy and principled anti-war force to a marathon rather than a sprint, the comrade emphasised how the act of having to ask others for support and sponsorship for the marathon had itself been a very useful form of political activity: it provided the opportunity to explain the aims of Hopi and its stand against any war against the people of Iran.
During the ensuing debate comrade McDonnell was asked what the atmosphere in parliament was like at the moment, given that earlier in the year he had reported that it felt like a rerun of the lead-up to the Iraq war. He replied that the atmosphere had calmed somewhat, but that in the EU Britain remains the most hawkish state. Donnacha DeLong, by this point proudly wearing his cap decorated with anarchist badges, suggested that Hopi might be able to use the Levenson inquiry to expose the collusion between the Murdoch press and the government to bring the Iraq war to bloody fruition.
Others from the floor emphasised that, despite real anti-war sentiment – for example, around the Afghanistan debacle – the conclusion that many had reached from Iraq and the endless ‘numbers are everything’ marches organised by the Stop the War Coalition was that war cannot be stopped. That is why it is so essential to link the struggle against war to a rounded, working class politics and that is what Hopi will continue to do.