Mass Organisation of the Working Class
Interview with Komonist (central organ of the CPI)
No. 37, March 1988
Komonist: In the first part of the resolution it is stated that the Iranian working class has historically been deprived of its open, mass organisations. What are the main causes of this? And taking these factors into account, why should the council forms of organisation be able to develop widely and on a consistent basis? Is the difference between the council form of organisation and other models of mass organisation so great as to let it overcome these hindrances in reality? Has the council organisation in itself a greater resistance to bourgeoisie's encroachments?
Mansoor Hekmat: Let me say this first that the "historical deprivation" of the Iranian working class of mass organisations is not something absolute. There have been periods in the history of the workers' movement in Iran where there have emerged and developed various forms of workers' mass organisations; for instance in the period before the Reza Khan [The previous shah's father-BM] dictatorship, in the post-WWII era until the 19 August coup d'état, [The coup in Aug. 19, 1953 by which the Shah came to power-BM] and finally, during the 1979 revolution. Nevertheless, if we take the past 20 to 30 years (that is, the experience of the last one to two generations of workers), as our reference period, we notice big differences in the degree of mass organisation of workers in Iran and that of other countries. This is the case in comparison not only with the more advanced capitalist countries but also with many of the dominated.
The reasons for this situation are several and we can talk about them at different levels. The first factors which come to mind are these: firstly, the rapid change in the composition of the working class after the land reforms of the 1960s and the consequential entry of a large part of the rural population into the labour market in towns. This phenomenon both intensified the competition among workers (which subsided only in the mid-seventies with the rise in oil prices and in job availability), and affected the self-consciousness of the working class as a class. The experience of the past trade-union struggles was limited to particular trades and professions, for example textiles and printing, which in the '60s and '70s lost their status both in production and, to a large extent, in the number of workers they employed. The new generation of Iran's wage-workers grew along with new industries, various technologies, and new branches of production. The organisational traditions of the past decades - which were not very significant anyway - were undermined in the new conditions. A young working class, a large section of which had not been schooled in the tradition of organised workers' struggles and which had not been greatly influenced by the history of organised workers' struggles, arrived at the scene. The other factor is the more or less permanent existence of severe political repression and the rule of suppressive police regimes in Iran in the 20th century which only at certain periods - periods of political crises - has declined. The efforts of the workers' movement in Iran to get organised and remain organised has always been met with the most aggressive police suppressions. The leaders and activists of the workers' movement have been persecuted most severely.
These are the general factors which have made the emergence and persistence of workers' organisations in Iran difficult. But they still do not precisely answer the question. We may still ask why the workers' movement has not been able to overcome these limitations. Here then we should speak more specifically about "mass organisations". And this is related to the second part of your question. You talked of councils and unions as "models" of mass organisation, but the truth is that councils, unions, factory committees, etc, are not just "models" of mass organisation. They are not schemes which supposedly meet a single requirement and of which workers can choose the more suitable one. Unions and councils are the alternatives of different social movements and different tendencies in the class movement. In other words, they should not be seen as abstract organisational models and plans, outside of time and place, and lacking a definite history and a socio-historical content. The trade-union movement, the council movement, the factory-committees movement, etc, are distinct movements inside the working class. They represent different political contents and practical horizons. Even their support in various layers of the working class is not the same. So the question should be put more concretely. Why has the syndicalist and trade-unionist movement not succeeded in Iran? Or, why has the-council movement not been able to meet the needs of the mass organisation of workers? Here then we should go beyond the discussion of general obstacles and difficulties. We should examine the dynamism and the problems of these movements themselves.
If we look at the question in this way, we see at once that actual movements for the mass organisation of workers are parts of larger social movements which have their particular alternatives not only regarding the form of working-class organisation but also on the entire economic and political situation in the society. The trade-unionist and council movements are parts of wider movements for making changes in the whole of society in definite directions. We should discard the traditional naive view common in the Left, that supposedly political parties represent the conscious political struggle, whereas workers' organisations express the "spontaneous" activity of workers for improvements in their conditions. The truth is that even if trade-unionism and the trade-unionist movement was, at its infancy in the last century, a "spontaneous" movement (which it was not), it is decades since it has become an integral part of a general social policy, i.e., of reformism and social-democracy. Trade-unionism is the particular alternative of reformism and social-democracy, as a definite, well-defined politico-class current, for the organisation of workers. This alternative goes much further than the workers' and trade-union sphere. With it also comes a definite perspective on the whole state form, on the forms and methods, of economic decision-making, and even particular economic theories and plans. If you delete the other parts of this reformist and social-democratic social alternative, then trade-unionism cannot by itself turn into a large social movement. The trade-unionist movement is the working-class wing of a political-social movement which requires other components: political leaders and parties, economic alternatives for the entire society, its own particular administrative system, etc. The deprivation of Iranian workers of trade-unions is not only because the bourgeoisie has prevented their formation. It is essentially due to the fact that - at least since after the 19 August coup d'état - reformism in Iran has reached the end of a decisive period in its political life and does not, after that time, occupy a significant place in the Iranian political scene.
This holds true in the case of the council movement too. The council movement is not a model either. It is the alternative of a particular social current .and a particular tendency within the working class for the organisation of workers. Although, historically, councils have largely been the centre of attention of anarchism; it is a long time that they have increasingly become identified and linked with communism. Events such as the Paris Commune and the October Revolution have linked the idea of councils, and of workers' organising on a council basis, with communist theory and politics. Thus the council movement, too, is part, of a distinct social movement with its own particular political, economic, and administrative perspective.
The state of affairs of the council movement is also precisely related to the state of affairs of communism in Iran. The fact that in the 1979 Revolution the council idea triumphed over the idea of trade-unions, reflects the looseness and weakness of reformism and social-democracy and the overall prevalence (under revolutionary conditions) of general communist ideas and radical politics among workers. The fact that this council movement could not obtain the necessary vigour and scale was due to the particular theoretical and practical limitations of communism in Iran at that specific period.
In short, the discussion about unions and councils is not over choosing one or other "model" of workers' mass organisation. It is, rather, the reflection of the struggle. of the alternatives of two basic tendencies inside the working class: the communist and radical tendency, on the one hand, and the reformist and social-democratic tendency, on the other. If, in our view, councils (compared to unions) have a much more favourable material basis for growth and development in Iran, this is not merely due to the suit-ability of that particular organisational model. The greater suitability of the council form is due to the prevalence of radical tendencies among vanguard workers and workers' practical leaders, and the more favourable material conditions which exist for the spread of communist politics inside the working class, as against social-democratic and reformist politics. This is not just our claim. This is proved by the experience of the 1979 Revolution, the practice of vanguard workers, the state of trade-unionist movements compared with that of council movements, and, today, by the increasing role of workers' general assemblies in workers' current struggles.
Let me say that this does not mean that communists have no place for trade-unions in their politics or that they should not be (or have not historically been) activists of the trade-union movement. The point I'm trying to make is that communists have always seen trade-unions and acknowledged their existence as objective realities in the workers' movement, as the product of the practice of non-communist social tendencies among workers. That is why in communist literature we are always faced with the question of communists' "attitude" to the trade-unionist movement, and rarely with the setting up of trade-unionist movements by communists. (The experience of Comintern's Red Syndicates too was precisely an attempt to form a radical alternative against' the actually existing trade-unionism which was under the influence of social-democracy.) The truth is that trade-unionism is not the special alternative of communism for workers' organisation. The special alternative of communism is the council movement. Nevertheless, on many occasions and under certain social conditions, communists have been faced with the task of active participation in workers' unions and even of attempting to create unions. They have always been the active elements of the trade-union movement; but the history of the workers' movement shows that wherever communist politics has become the overriding politics of the workers' movement, councils have emerged and developed.
So, our defence of the council is not merely because there exists a stronger argument in its favour concerning its practicability or because it withstands the bourgeoisie's attacks more effectively. Even if this was not the case we should try to make it so. We are, as communists, once again putting forward the alternative of our movement for the organisation of our class. I say 'once again', because the history of the labour movement has always been the scene of confrontation of the communist and the reformist alternatives in the field of workers' organisation and workers' action. The fact that trade-unions in advanced capitalist countries have become more efficient. [organisational] forms for unifying the workers (of course, with trade-unionist perspectives and narrowness), this has not been because workers have first pondered over the features of these "models" and then thought the trade-union to be the more suitable form. Rather, with regard to capitalist stability after WWII, with regard to the support the left wing of the bourgeoisie has given to reformism in these countries, and with regard to the formation of successive social-democratic governments in European countries, radical politics as a whole has retreated before reformist politics. We can see this conflict between these two lines better in conditions of revolution and crisis. After the October revolution, the confrontation between the trade-unions and the Soviets and factory committees heightened. Likewise, today, we see how along with the weakening of the trade-union movement in Western Europe, attempts for creating workers' alternatives for mass organisation outside the union structure have increased.
We are again advancing our particular alternative, without turning our backs to the trade-union movement (if one exists) or denying its desirability (with regard to the present situation of Iranian workers). No doubt, if trade-unions existed in the present-day Iran - even reformist ones - this would count as a significant advantage for the Iranian working class. Communists would certainly intervene widely in these unions. The workers' conditions would no doubt be better than now. But the whole point is over this "if". The trade-union movement is even less likely to turn into a material entity than the council movement. Under such conditions there is no reason for the radical-socialist worker not directly advancing his own alternative; the alternative which owing to the specific conditions in Iran, mentioned in the resolution, enjoys even greater sympathy among the workers, and for the formation of which much material has-already been created. We say councils provide more class-oriented methods for workers' organisations; they express workers' direct will better; they create a firmer unity; they do not increase the splits among workers due to trade and craft; they allow less opportunity for the influence of bourgeois politics; they are better forms for the expression of working-class radicalism; they have historically been advanced by communists; they enjoy better conditions for development in Iran, and so on. We therefore consider ourselves the activists of the council movement in Iran and call on the workers to struggle for the formation of councils.
Komonist: Experience has shown that even when workers' organisations impose themselves on the bourgeoisie, and the state is compelled to acknowledge their existence, systematic efforts are made to restrain them from within so that they would no longer function as independent organs of workers' struggle. Is it not possible that workers' council organisation meets the same end, as some unions in Europe and the USA have done?
Mansoor Hekmat: We have experienced this in the case of unions. But there are few examples of councils which, having become restrained from "within", have still continued to exist. Councils, as we expect them to be, i.e., as organs of workers' direct action and direct democracy, would, as a rule, be disbanded and shut down, with the supremacy of the bourgeoisie. It is of course possible to conceive of a situation where the councils gradually lose their real content. But since for the bourgeoisie, too, the council is not just an organisation-al form but a real radical movement which should be suppressed, the weakness of the councils and the supremacy of reaction has usually led to the crushing and banning of councils and the appearance of more conservative and .manageable forms of workers' organisation.
Komonist: So a logical continuation to this discussion would be the question of whether councils can retain their existence and militancy as workers' mass organisations in non-revolutionary periods, too. In non-revolutionary times and when political repression is the order of the day, workers' conscious representatives and radical leaders practically cannot show up in workers' general assemblies - or do so on a consistent basis. This leaves the field open to compromising and conservative leaders to drag the working masses, even if they are organised in councils, behind the bourgeoisie. Can it really be possible that under a dark repression there can exist mass organisations which by their own definition, "do not want to remain within the framework of the existing laws"?
Mansoor Hekmat: Whether a mass organisation remains militant under non-reactionary conditions depends on many factors. We should see how the social balance of forces is; to what extent the legal framework for struggle has been constrained; how deeply-rooted the traditions of workers' struggles are; what policies the leaders of workers at that period of time are following; and, generally, what the meaning and dimension of militancy under those conditions is. Nevertheless, as the experience of the trade-union movements shows - generally in a negative sense - the continuity and militancy of a mass organisation entirely depends on how long it can keep the working masses in the arena of struggle, how long it can remain an instrument of broad, mass struggle, and how far it can involve the workers in making decisions and policies and in implementing them. Thus the council is still the best suited organisational form, since, unlike the experience of many trade-unions, its raison d'être is the organisation of workers' mass action and their existence as a mass force.
Anyway, this is a very abstract and hypothetical way of putting the question. The Communist Party of Iran is calling the workers to the general-assembly and council movement at a particular time and place, in a particular country, and at a particular juncture of the class struggles in Iran. That dark reaction and non-revolutionary situation, already exists. Workers' current struggles are already being waged not by trade-unions which have accepted bourgeois legality, but by workers who are prepared to exceed the limitation of legal possibilities (which are insignificant in Iran). They are prepared to hold general assemblies illegally, in defiance of state orders and under the nose of its henchmen; they are prepared to strike, demonstrate, etc, illegally. If someone comes along and forms a union in any other way, i.e., in a "legal" way, which, by state approval, has the right to strike legally, reject the labour-law and mobilize the workers against it, shut down all Islamic Societies and Islamic Councils and give the workers' leaders a free hand, we shall be the first people to welcome him! The point is that even such a legal trade-union must be enforced on the state. The existing repression is so tight and severe that any protest by workers is illegal. Under such circumstances, that movement corresponds with reality that is able to lead, organise, and unify the existing, illegal, workers' struggles. A movement which can impose workers' basic rights on the bourgeoisie and its laws. This is a council movement, the general-assembly movement, and not a movement which first presupposes legal recognition by the existing despotic state. The trade-union movement needs a degree of stable bourgeois legality and a degree of legal freedom of action which has seldom existed in Iran and today exists less than any other time. We consider the workers' legal struggles to be of vital significance. But this cannot mean giving priority to trade-union policy over council policy. Let me point out that today no one, save the Tudeh-ist and Fedaieen (Majority) trend, entertains such illusions. Any syndicalist who wants, to any degree, to be realist, and hence radical, would understand that even the building of unions requires a broad "illegal" struggle by workers, with its own ["illegal"] organisation. Thus, some now talk about "clandestine unions", i.e., illegal, secret unionism; unions which are not mass organisations. This, of course is to undermine altogether the initial purpose, since the discussion on councils and unions was supposed to deal with the question of workers' public and mass organisation. What we are saying is that even under the present bourgeois-Islamic despotism it is possible to build open, mass workers' organisations which force themselves on to the state. Such organisations would no doubt have intimate contacts with secret party organisations and clandestine groupings of vanguard workers.
The solution to the problem is neither legal, nor clandestine unions. The first is illusion-breeding and confusing; it expresses the illusions of the defunct reformism in Iran. The second is another confirmation of the incapability of Iranian popular socialism in understanding the needs of the workers' struggle in its mass-public dimension. It is an idealist and intellectualist alternative, irrelevant to the question under discussion. The true path, the communist alternative, is the general-assembly movement and - as it develops - the workers' councils movement. To discuss what would happen to such a movement in the wake of a defeated revolution is not something that helps clarify the point at issue here.
Komonist: In the introduction to the resolution, syndicalist tendencies have been equated with conservative tendencies and mentioned in a negative sense. Independently of the role which syndicalism can play in various historical periods and in different conditions of the workers' movement, is it a negative tendency in the workers' movement?
Mansoor Hekmat: The preamble to the general section of the resolution makes no direct reference to trade-unions. Perhaps you mean the introduction to the last part of the resolution (section "D" on trade-unions). But even there syndicalism as a whole has not been mentioned as a negative tendency. It is a question of observing an already experienced course where the weak points of the trade-unions stand out. The experience of trade-unions to date, i.e., the syndicalist history, is not the history of the intentions of trade-unionists. It is the history of the trade-unions themselves. Such facts as: the inability to create a broad class unity; drawing close to, as far as an intimate relationship with reformist, social-democratic parties and politics; abandoning direct democracy; the creation of a bureaucratic administrative system (as far as appointing life-long bosses in some unions, and the powerlessness of rank-and-file meetings and sessions), etc, which have been briefly mentioned in the resolution, are characteristic features of trade-unionism as it has practically been up to now. But none of these is enough to justify the claim that syndicalism as a whole is a "negative tendency". The role of trade unions should be assessed in a particular social and historical setting. Most often trade-unions have been the workers' only instruments of struggle. Today the British miner in effect has no other means than the NUM to defend his rights. In South Africa unions play a much more advanced role than unions in Western Europe. Whatever their faults may be, these organisations at certain junctures are workers' instruments of struggle. The question, however, is how we are assessing the trade-unionist form of organisation? In comparison with which alternative? In what context? After the October revolution the trade-unions in Russia became, for a certain time, a refuge for compromising and reformist tendencies. For Iranian workers today the existence of one effective union - even if it defends the rights of only one section of workers - is a positive and valuable gain. But if we are talking at a time when such unions do not exist, when the general-assembly and council movement provides more realistic alternatives, we cannot any longer orientate the axis of the policy of a workers' party to building unions, with' the argument that "after all, union is better than nothing".
Komonist: The trade-union supporters' attempts to build unions in circumstances where workers lack any form of mass organisation, does not necessarily mean that they want to remain within the limits of capitalist society. Their argument may be: "If organising workers on a mass basis is the chief issue then we ought to choose this known form of organisation, for it is easier to make the state accept its existence. This can be done, and we have many examples which show that it is practical. Obviously, when society and the working class turn to revolution, the union too will assume a non-standard function, a function which corresponds with the new circumstances." What do you say in response to this argument?
Mansoor Hekmat: Let us first settle one question. Is the union a "known form of organisation", or is it an organisation which changes by the whim of its founders?
I think the first is true. Union is a known form of workers' organisation. Thus, there is little practical value in the promises of the ad hoc committee of our hypothetical trade-union that its method of work would change in revolutionary times; that it would become, for instance, more radical or work in other capacities and in other ways. Just as we cannot build a reformist party today, on the grounds that there is repression, and promise that we would in time, on the eve of the revolution, convert it into a communist party, so the trade-union advocates cannot form a legal union (i.e., one which may be enforced on the state) today and promise that the day after the political crisis they would turn it into an organ of direct mass power and action. The course of the class struggle does not accept such scenarios. It is not the founders of unions who determine the union's future. It is, rather, the features of the union movement itself and the union's capacities as a "known form of organisation" which condition the scale of its future political action and struggle, and determine its leaders and the workers organised in it. The trade-union movement, to the extent that it is anyway capable of contributing to the development of workers' political consciousness, trains workers in a trade-unionist spirit and perspective. It is the trade-union's own definition of itself and its social position which brings to the foreground and trains the people and activists appropriate to it. I don't know if' any group has actually advanced the hypothetical argument in defence of the union which you mentioned, but, anyway, my reply would be that such an argument is based on a subjective and voluntarist conception of the characteristics of social movements in general, and of the workers' movement, in particular.
However, the main point I'm making is that such reasoning basically does not solve the problem, since, in my view, the suitability of a mass organisation in Iran today is not judged by whether on the morrow of the revolution it would definitely function as workers' organ of revolutionary action. Even a workers' cooperative and a workers' fund has its value for us. So this is not the issue. The issue is whether this alternative is realistic and serious with respect to the existing level of workers' struggles and their demands and the social-political situation; and how valuable it is, compared with the radical socialist alternative, even for the current situation. We have not become advocates of councils because "tomorrow" they will act revolutionary, while unions will not; but because already the council and general-assembly movement has the capacity to organise workers for the defence of their rights and interests. Of course, I should again point out that the syndicalists who really want to act in a revolutionary way tomorrow, today speak, unlike the example you mentioned, not of legal mass unions, but of clandestine unions. And as I said, this means going against the original purpose' and avoiding the question of Iranian workers' need for mass organisations with capacity for extensive public-legal struggle; something which we think the general-assembly movement can meet.
Komonist: With regard to what you have said, please elaborate a little more, in the practical aspect, on the point in the resolution which says that we support workers' attempts to build unions. Does not the simultaneous attempt to form council organisation, and active support to workers who want to build unions, pose practical problems?
Mansoor Hekmat: We support workers' efforts to build unions since the mere expression of support by the party to the council form of organisation, and the mere orientation of radical and communist workers to the general-assembly movement and the council-movement's alternative, would not result in all workers rallying behind us. Our class will continue to build strongholds against the bourgeoisie in different forms. One such form is the attempt to build unions, whether secret or public, etc. We support and endeavour to strengthen all such attempts by the working class. We will not undo the slightest organisational advance by workers in the course of struggle. Rather, by our intervention, by our support, and by our sacrifice in the ranks of every class battle, we shall endeavour to push these efforts in a direction in which we believe workers' genuine interests are realized. Our objective is to make the workers' movement as strong as possible against the bourgeoisie. We are sure that the day our politics becomes the main tendency inside the working class, the workers' power will find its greatest manifestation. But as long as, alongside us other militant tendencies inside the class movement are engaged 'in creating other forms of unity, we shall offer them our help. At the same time we will try to make the council and general-assembly movement win even greater influence and following among the workers; for, we believe, that in this way workers will attain their real power in the current struggles and in the struggle over political power. If today some workers decide to form unions, we shall certainly draw their attention to the advantages in working to form councils through stepping up the general-assembly movement. But if some people have already made progress in this direction and have really taken a step forward towards building the union they want, then they can count on communist workers as their defenders and supporters. Of course, even in such a situation, as it has been stated in the resolution, we shall try to make sure that the union movement is not overwhelmed by the traditional weakness of the unions; we shall encourage them to use the positive experiences of the council movement, such as relying on direct democracy and workers' will, avoiding bureaucratism, keeping off the reformist currents, etc.
Furthermore, it is stated in the resolution that in special cases we shall ourselves directly work to build unions, but we shall make sure that such unions become in future intimately linked to the council movement, on the basis of defined rules.
Komonist: In the section of the resolution entitled "the main points of our policy" it has been said that the incorporation of capitals and the existence of state ownership result in the fact that a better organisation of workers would be one which is based on factory-regional organisations. Now the point is that in the economic struggle the worker is not directly faced with the owner, since the capital of an enterprise may belong to many share-holders who may not even have met their employees. ... The daily economic struggle takes place against such an apparatus: For example the oil worker is faced with the oil company, the electrician with the electricity board. An organisation which wants to place the workers against these opponents, in a unified and direct way, of course cannot be a trade or craft organisation. But it cannot be a regional organisation either. If the workers in Tehran and Shiraz oil refineries were joined immediately in a single organisation, then they would have a sharper weapon in their economic struggles, than if they were unified by the medium of regional organisations. Does the council-form of organisation correspond with this type of economic struggle? Take this as an example and, generally, explain how the general-assembly movement described in the resolution meets the different and diverse problems involved in the struggle of the working class, apparently without needing to modify its structure.
Mansoor Hekmat: What the resolution is saying is that with the concentration of production and the development of large state and monopoly ownerships, and also with the emergence of the state as the chief organ with which the workers are faced directly, the problems which affect workers' living and working conditions, as well as the means by which they attempt to improve their standard of living and freedom of political action, increasingly assume a general character, outside of craft limitations. If you look at the struggle of the Iranian working class in the past several years, you will plainly, see this reality. The labour law, the plan of job classification, working hours, unemployment benefit, etc, were the main issues during this period. In Iran every worker's protest, even in a small private workshop, immediately involves the state as the protector and guardian of the employer. Here, there have seldom existed private employers' federations in particular branches; instead, the state chiefly performs this function for the private sector. The Iranian worker is rapidly confronted with the state, the labour ministry, and state rules and regulations.
However, what you are saying puts the finger on a correct point. There are and there will be many instances where workers in a particular branch of production are faced with common issues which cannot be immediately generalized to other branches. Every mass organisation of workers must be able to provide the leadership of the struggle in these cases. The trade unions - of course in their more familiar forms - traditionally take care of this job. But they do it at the expense of isolating the struggle at a particular branch from other branches. The experience of the miners' or the print-workers' struggles in Britain during the past few years is a classic example of this weakness of the unions. To save their jobs, the miners heroically went on strike for a whole year, tens of thousands of families and, at times, even whole mining communities experienced unprecedented poverty, but the transport union, the electricians' union, etc, since they did not find themselves immediately endangered, sat by idly; even worse, they served to break the strike. Putting too much stress on the' specific trade or craft identity of workers undermines their struggles.
The council movement does not have this weakness. It bases itself on workers' class identity and local-regional concentration. One may be worried, however, that it may not show the same sensitivity which the specific unions do towards the particular problems of workers in a specific branch or trade. Something should be done about this. We think the council movement and system has the capacity to adapt to this situation. The main structure and the backbone of the council system is the local, regional structure. But this does not prevent it from accommodating other patterns which coordinate and lead the struggle of workers' councils in a particular branch. The national or district councils can have special commissions and committees to focus on the affairs of workers in different branches of production within the sphere of their activity. The district or national council can define the powers of these commissions and committees in such a way that they meet the needs of the leadership of the struggle in these cases. At any rate, we should define the point of reference and the chief structure, and base ourselves upon realities. The trade-union movement takes as its basis the workers' identity and position as determined by the division of labour. It then tries - usually with little success - to give a kind of unitary leadership for all workers through alliances and combined formations between different unions. For this reason, achieving class solidarity, beyond trades or crafts, is a constant problem of the trade-union movement. In contrast, the council movement relies on the common position of workers as exploited wage-labourers against capital. I.e., it begins from workers' class identity, and tries to meet workers' specific needs in different branches and sectors of production. Both forms have their difficulties. But in our view this second one is the more class-based and principled method.
Komonist: If the idea of councils is to become a reality, then all its aspects should be given practical, tangible expressions, as it is the case with the trade-unions where there exist fully-defined plans of union organisation, of its various institutions, of the rules for working in these organisations, and even of their internal regulations and statutes. Will the Party elaborate the council idea in its practical and administrative aspects, or has it left this to the movement itself?
Mansoor Hekmat: Let me point out once again that in my view "fully-defined, plans of union organisation, institutions, rules, codes of practice, statutes, etc." is not only not a point of strength of the union movement any more, but an important obstacle to its relating to workers' militant struggles. Any trade-unionist today who wants to identify with radical, militant workers' struggles has to declare a part of these "fully-defined" schemes, rules and codes as void. This is particularly true in the case of Iran. "Fully-defined" schemes and rules for unions are the very schemes of legal unions in capitalist Europe and U.S.A. To rely on these in Iran certainly does not bring one even a step closer to any kind of union. For this reason, today the more militant elements of the trade-union movement start not from these "defined" codes but from their own revisions of them. For instance, the notion of a general-assembly with far-reaching powers is not part of the defined standards of unions. The more radical advocates of unions in Iran are prepared to base their unions on general-assemblies. Accepting to limit oneself to an economic struggle within the existing laws is one of these "defined and recognized" standards which no militant unionist is prepared to follow. Therefore defining the necessary schemes and codes is also an issue for the trade-union movement itself. The Iranian trade-unionist at the end of the 20th century and under the Islamic regime can make very little use of the legacy of the trade-unionist movement in the field of union standards, rules, and regulations. He himself has to come up with new definitions of the union and its codes of practice. In fact if we look at it more carefully we see that the views of present-day trade-unionists are much more ambiguous than the ideas of the council advocates.' From the Fedaieen (Majority) and the Tudeh Party down to the left wing of popular socialists, they are all supporters of forming unions, but their schemes - if such basically exist - bear very little resemblance to each other.
But does the party have a better defined plan regarding councils? Yes it does. Up to now we have talked a lot about councils and their characteristics. We can emphasize the following points about the structure of the workers' council system:
1- The base-council is the general-assembly of the workers of a unit or of sections of a (larger) economic-production unit. Every worker is a direct and full member of the council, not on account of paying dues and receiving a membership card, but on account of being a worker.
2- The council follows a regional structure, not a trade or craft one. I.e., the higher council is one comprised of the representatives of the base-councils of a defined region. This hierarchical structure is followed as far as the formation of the national council.
3- Council representatives in higher councils may be revoked and recalled whenever their electors decide.
4- The general assembly, at all levels, from the base-council to the council of representatives, is the highest decision-making body of every council. The general-assembly selects its executive units and officers for the period between its sessions. These authorities too will at all times be revocable and changeable by the general assembly.
5- The rules and codes of the councils do not limit them to an economic struggle. The councils regard themselves as having the right to intervene in any social, political and administrative issue within their domain and resort to protest measures concerning any issue they find necessary.
6- Workers' councils may affiliate other workers' organisations to themselves, whether locally or nationally. The councils themselves will determine the criteria for such affiliations, depending on the case.
These points give a general picture of the structure. of a council system. But the more, practical and concrete aspects will be defined by the movements itself, in the course of its development. The actual field of action of the councils will in the last I resort be determined by the balance of class forces. No advance regulations or statutes should restrict this field of action.
I should add another point about councils and the council movement which is necessary in order to explain the basis of party's position. In capitalist society the worker must be able to defend his immediate rights and improve his position as the seller of labour-power; he should also organise his revolution against capitalism, prepare himself for the conquest of power, for workers' rule and for demolishing the basis of power of the exploiting classes. To the extent that the Left basically acknowledges any function for workers' mass organisations, it has usually entrusted the first task to the unions and the second to councils. This conception is certainly connected with the course of events so far in the workers' movement; in non-revolutionary periods we have seen union activity and the absence of councils, and in revolutionary periods, councils have assumed a prominent role. But this is not a preconceived law. Unions and councils are not models to either of which workers resort, according to a predetermined decision and plan, depending on whether we are in a time of revolution or a time of depression. As I said, councils and unions represent two different political and fighting perspectives which are either reinforced or weakened in different periods. Otherwise, as a rule, unions ought to withdraw in favour of councils in revolutionary periods, and the councils should officially dissolve themselves in favour of unions in conditions of revolutionary reflux. But the truth is that such laws and arrangements do not exist. In revolutionary conditions, too, unions remain and try to maintain and extend their influence. As much as the history of revolutions bears witness, under such conditions rivalry between the council movement - or factory committees - and the unions, over the leadership of the workers' movement, heightens And. when the counter-revolution gains the upper hand, the councils for their part, resist attempts at their dissolution and banning. Therefore the relation between unions/councils and the political stages in society is not a theoretical one; it does not have a fixed recipe. The question then is if the council movement and councils can adjust themselves to the needs of workers' struggle in a non-revolutionary period - just as the unions try to come to terms with the new realities in a revolutionary time. We think this is possible. Councils are not doomed to activity only in revolutionary periods. Workers can make use of councils as a means of defending their interests [even] as sellers of labour-power. We believe that in the case of Iran this is not only feasible, but that the absence of social and political grounds favourable to trade-unionism obliges the council movement to fill in this gap. This movement enjoys suitable material conditions in today's Iran to carry out this task. There is no doubt that under the present conditions the council movement will not fulfil the whole of its perspective of struggle. No doubt in its early stages the council movement will suffer from many limitations. For this reason, at the beginning and as a first step, we are speaking of a movement of general-assemblies. This is a movement for giving shape to base-councils and establishing a kind of immediate, unofficial relationship among them which would in later stages make the creation of higher councils possible.
Thus the general-assembly movement is both a reply - in its own right and independent - to the needs of the current struggles, and a fundamental corner-stone for the council movement as a whole. The supporters of other forms of workers' mass organisation - for instance the advocates of militant trade-unions - can and are justified to regard the general assembly movement the basis of their future advance for building trade-onions. We not only do not see anything wrong in this, but think that if there exists such a degree of convergence [of views between the militant sections of the workers' movement, independent of their longer-term perspectives, the general-assembly movement and, consequently, the workers' current struggles will develop at a faster rate. But for our part we are sure that the general-assembly movement will be more suited to the future formation of a network of workers' councils than trade-unions; it will be a guarantee for the greater reliance of future mass organisations of workers, of whatever kind, on direct workers' democracy.
Komonist: We used to talk about councils as a type of organisation, while in the resolution we are clearly talking about a "general-assembly movement". What is meant by this movement? What features characterise this movement? What other objectives does it follow apart from giving rise to a particular form of organisation? Where is it supposed to lead?
Mansoor Hekmat: Our propaganda on the general assembly up to now has been focused on explaining the desirability and efficacy of the general assembly as an organ of struggle for workers. What we are saying today is that we should speak of a general-assembly movement. In the history of workers' struggles there are periods which are defined by the appearance of particular movements. For example, the factory-committees' movement in Russia, the trade-union movement in Iran at the beginning of the century, the council movement during the 1979 Revolution, the movement for workers' control, etc. The difference between agitating for general assembly as a useful organ, and the effort to create a general-assembly movement is that in the latter case we want the struggle for assemblies to become an orientation and a distinguishing feature of a period of workers' struggles. These struggles should be fused with the general-assembly movement; these organs should be formed in ever-increasing numbers; they should be strengthened and should assume central roles in working-class protests. The general-assembly movement is our immediate and practical answer to the organisation of workers' mass protests in the present juncture. Councils and a genuine council movement can only be the result of a certain degree of progress of the general-assembly movement.
We put forward the idea of general assembly a long time ago. Then the whole intellectualist and phrase-mongering populist Left called this idea on idealist and foreign one. A few years of workers' struggles in Iran demonstrated that what was idealist and foreign was the conception of the popular socialism of Iran of workers' mass movement. Not only did workers set up these assemblies on an increasing scale, using them in their struggles, but the very idea and slogan of general assembly became part of the mentality of Iran's vanguard and conscious worker. Today, fortunately, many have accepted the correctness of this idea, or have submitted to it. We say that communist workers must be the activists of the general-assembly movement, since this is the only real way of organising workers on a large scale and for filling the vacuum of organised, working-class public-mass activity. The populist and intellectual Left can do without this problem, it can call this preoccupation of ours Economism, it can leave the settlement of everything to when the Islamic regime has been overthrown. The likes of Fedaieen (Majority) and Tudeh Party can enter the Islamic Councils; they can send their self-appointed representative of Iranian workers to the 18th Congress of trade-unions in the USSR! The traditional trade-unionists can wait for the arrival of a situation where the Islamic state would grant them permission to build unions. The "clandestine" syndicalists can for the time being resign from the idea of organising workers' mass action.. But we see the question differently. We believe that both communism and the essential ideas of the council movement, as well as the present experience of Iranian workers from the recent years of struggle, have shown us the method of mass working-class struggle under the existing repressive conditions. One should just open one's eyes to see it. This method is to set up a workers' general-assemblies' movement. The mass struggle of hundreds of thousands workers can under no circumstances be a secret one. Workers' central leadership may be secret, but the manifestation by working-class masses - which calls for a continuous intervention by workers' immediate/public leaders and the holding of many kind of meetings - cannot but be a public one. The workers' party must show the real, practical path of organising the action of working-class masses. The general-assembly movement is this real path.
Komonist: In the resolution, only a few tasks have been outlined for the activists of the general-assembly movement. Can you give us a more concrete and comprehensive picture of the activist of this movement? And to train competent and tireless leaders for this movement, what other subjects and issues should be agitated and taught, apart from the immediate objectives of the movement itself?
Mansoor Hekmat: We should talk about this point a great deal and repeatedly. I take the opportunity here to touch on a number of points. The activist of the general-assembly movement is one who starts not from an abstract ideal about general assembly but from the workers' ongoing struggles. Whatever the discussion on councils and trade-unions amongst the Left may be, workers' protests are already in progress and demand suitable organisation and leadership, and a perspective for immediate advance. If instead of seeing ourselves as the "council faithful", we regard ourselves as advanced workers who are to solve the problem of organising specific protest actions in specific workplaces, then we shall better grasp the value of striving to hold general assemblies and of the role of these organs. A general-assembly activist is he who calls the workers to make use of the general assembly as an effective organ of struggle in the current protests; who tries to make sure that it is implemented in other workplaces too; who endeavours so that these assemblies acquire greater continuity, join up with one another, and give rise to executive leaderships. The activist of the general-assembly is less pre-occupied with the problem of adjusting the assemblies to a previously worked-out scheme, than with building and expanding them. The activist of the general assembly is he who continually makes use of his influence as an advanced worker to convince other workers and practical/immediate workers' leaders to rely on this organ; he shows them the merits of the general-assembly and tries to win ever greater number of militant workers and workers' circles to a coordinated action to set up these assemblies. To train the activists of the general-assembly movement, the party must more than anything else emphasize the relation between this movement and the current struggles. In my opinion the leaders and activists of this movement will essentially emerge from amongst the practical leaders of the existing protest movement.
An inseparable part of our agitations should be the explanation of the fact that even under repression it is possible to organise open and mass working-class activity. The clandestine relations among advanced workers, the secret, party relations among communist workers are not, on their own, enough to organise the current struggles. They are vital, but not enough. Once you deprive workers of the possibility of collective protest, nothing is left of the workers' movement.
The shop-keepers can, in response to the secret calls of a particular authority, all close down their shops on a specific day as a gesture of protest]. Workers, however, need physical concentration and collective exertion of power in their struggles. Only in this way do they feel strong. And only in this way can advanced workers perform their role at the head of workers' ranks. Therefore ideas about mysterious centres leading isolated individual workers should be discarded. We should create the possibility for workers' collective, united struggle. He who claims repression does not let us do that, should go home and rest. We say that the general-assembly is the tested and tried instrument of this struggle. Our agitations should increase the confidence in general-assemblies and their effectiveness.
Komonist: And finally, can you say a few words about the relation between the party and party activists and these mass organisations, and the practical problems they may face.
Mansoor Hekmat: A full answer to this question can be provided only in the future and by the practical course of our activity. Many practical questions have not yet really presented themselves. Therefore I'll here only touch upon some of the general aspects of the problem. The issues we are really faced with are these: the consolidation and education of the idea of councils, setting up a genuine general-assembly movement, and establishing a sound and creative relationship with the advocates of other forms of mass organisations.
There is no ambiguity in the first case. We must continually explain the correctness and soundness of the council idea and the council movement with a vivid reference to the essential features of the council, such as the ability to organise the maximum mass energy of workers, give scope to the work of experienced and known practical leaders of workers, apply direct democracy, and prepare workers for the seizure of power. I have already talked about the second point, the general-assembly movement: we should break the purely agitational shell and begin to actually build these assemblies, extend them and link them together. But I would add and emphasize another point; as I have said, the general-assembly movement is a movement to make the workers' broad mass action possible. This does not mean that this movement is totally based on a public and mass activity. Communist workers and the movement's activists should organise their own intimate and - for the purpose of the executive work - secret contacts so as to direct this movement. Behind the general-assembly movement stand the inter-connected networks of workers' centres and circles and the party organisation of advanced workers. We have previously talked about the various aspects of the question of merging secret work with open, mass activity (For instance, the articles in the Komonist on public agitators, our policy of organisation among workers, etc.) I just want to stress that such secret activity is vital for the success of the general-assembly movement and for leading workers' protests through general-assemblies.
With regard to the final point - our relations with the advocates of other forms of mass organisation, such as trade-unions, etc. - I must refer the comrades to the previous discussions of the party on the critique of sectarianism. We belong to the trend of communist and radical workers. We are' the organising and active element of this trend. The internal relations of this trend and its relationship with other tendencies inside the working class are based on an understanding of the fundamental interests of the whole of our class, at the centre of which stands the unity and strengthening of workers' rank in the struggle against the bourgeoisie. We agitate our views, our policies and alternatives with all vigour; we try to turn them into the views and policies of ever larger sections of workers, their leaders and their advanced circles. But at the same time wherever there is an activity in progress which serves as a tool for workers' struggles, which increases their unity - even if in one section - which reclaims any one of workers' denied rights, ... we ourselves will he the first ones to take part in this action. There is no working-class effort to whose fate we are indifferent. We build up our alternative with the participation of ever greater number of advanced and militant workers. We explain constantly and under all circumstances the preference of our practical policy. But at the same time we shall be the active elements of every genuine action by workers. The important point is to distinguish between workers' true actions to unite and to struggle (in whatever form) and those which are unreal, imaginary, and harmful to the cause of workers' struggles. To make such distinctions in every specific case is not hard for a communist and advanced worker who is in close touch with workers' activity and who has the interests of the whole class in mind; provided, of course, that our activists study and analyse each specific case with the necessary sensitivity and sympathy.
Our policy is to step up the general-assembly and council movement. Our policy is not to weaken the efforts of other tendencies to build unions and other mass organisations. We hope that with our efforts the general-assembly and council movement will attract ever greater sections of working-class forces towards itself for organisation and unity.
The above interview has been translated from Komonist (central organ of the CPI), No. 37, March 1988.
Bolshevik Message No 13, September 1988