Habib Ladjevardi, Labor Unions and Autocracy in Iran (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1985).
Over the past few years we have witnessed a welcome development in new books on Iran. Instead of general histories, spanning centuries and big events, a number of books attempt to reconstruct smaller chunks of history but in much richer detail. Ladjevardi’s work is one valuable instance, as it takes up a much ignored and little documented slice of Iranian history — that of the labor movement. Ladjevardi makes extensive use, for perhaps the first time, of the US National Archives (in addition to other more commonly used sources, such as the British Public Records).
The author sets out three interrelated tasks which he follows through his narrative. First, he “questions the proposition that the problems of socioeconomic and political development can be approached sequentially.” Second, he challenges the notion that “strong men rule in certain developing countries because few competent and patriotic citizens are available to participate in their nation’s governance,…that labor unions are not formed because workers lack leaders.” Rather, he demonstrates that such “capable and public-spirited men…were removed by the autocracy from participation in political life…. They were imprisoned or exiled,…harassed…or they were co-opted by appeals to their self-interest.” And third he attempts to dispel an “impression common among upper-class Iranians and foreigners…that Iranians, especially those of the ‘lower classes,’ are like sheep who can be swayed in any direction by the demagogue of the day.”
These goals may strike a reader familiar with the political history of Iran as surprisingly modest. But Ladjevardi’s audience is not the politically convinced. He is doing something that few writers on contemporary Iranian politics and history have attempted in earnest: talking to the Iranian privileged classes (and secondarily to British and American policymakers), those who were in a position to make different political choices at various points in the country’s recent past. In the epilogue, Ladjevardi speaks of himself as “a member of Iran’s privileged class,” and he warns that what he says “may dismay some of [his] Iranian friends.” Ladjevardi’s is a rare voice from the Iranian upper class, the voice of a genuine democrat. This is one of the most refreshing features of this book, breaking through the political cynicism that prevails among such Iranians.
A number of important points emerge from this book. One is the relationship between the Soviet Union, Iranian Communists and the trade unions in the two important periods of trade union activity, the early 1920s and 1941-1946. In both periods Iranian Communists played a central role in organizing the labor movement. In the early 1920s this relation was open and of a political nature. Iranian Communists looked to the new Soviet state for political guidance and inspiration. In the second period, the Tudeh Party exercised near total organizational control over the unions, whose politics became subordinated to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. This is most obvious in the party’s and the unions’ sudden change of orientation in 1944 from a reformist to a militant stance, following the Soviet Union’s new attitude towards its Western allies in Iran. The Central United Council of the Trade Union of Workers and Toilers of Iran, or CUC, first confronted the state not over a labor dispute but over the oil concession demanded by the Soviet Union.
The author also amply demonstrates how the emergence of an authoritarian regime was not an unavoidable historical necessity. At various crucial periods, most significantly 1946-1953 and 1959-1963, important political choices were made by Iranian rulers as well as the British and US governments. The USSR also made one such crucial choice in 1946, when it withdrew support from the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan government, leading to its collapse and suppression by the central government.
Chapters 5, 6 and 7 document the influence of the Soviet Union, Britain, and the Iranian bourgeoisie over the labor movement through case studies of three important industrial centers — Tabriz, Abadan and Esfahan, respectively. In these chapters, Ladjevardi demonstrates how Soviet and Tudeh influence, and later control, was based on their involvement with the genuine concerns of workers, while Britain and the Iranian bourgeoisie used the police and the army to break up strikes and eventually the unions. When they did encourage formation of unions, it was largely in order to break up the Tudeh-led unions. Once the job of breaking up CUC was accomplished, the other unions were no longer needed and were systematically undermined by the government itself.
In the post-1953 period, new attempts were made at setting up unions. These were all structures imposed from above, under the complete control of the government. Nonetheless they were not meaningless. Neither was the two-party system that was set up in 1957. Despite their failure, these structures were meant to mediate and legitimize power in society. By the late 1960s, all such attempts were discarded as unnecessary, replaced by an “authoritarian benevolence” on the basis of petrodollars. The Shah himself said, “As far as the welfare of the workers is concerned, we will always be a few steps ahead of them, giving them benefits they never thought of.”
The important point was not just the Shah’s superior “imagination,” but his control and power. As Grace Goodell has powerfully demonstrated in her discussion of the development plans for the Dezful area, “the plan would raise up society, but it would allow each part of society to be raised only as much as the planners determined it should be, and never for a moment giving the key to those it was uplifting.”
This book has a number of weaknesses. The author repeatedly equates lack of repression with a constitutional government, when referring to the 1941-1946 period. There have been a number of similar periods in Iranian history, most recently from February through August 1979, when the state is in transition, and consequently has little power of enforcement and repression. In neither period did this mean constitutional rule. That certain freedoms existed de facto was mainly due to the inability of the state to eliminate all public space. To view it this way is to emphasize the importance of explicitly fighting for such norms, for creating a public space, for developing a public opinion for democratic rights, rather than using the “free space” until the next bout of repression hits.
Ladjevardi oversimplifies somewhat how class forces lined up at some points in Iranian history — for instance, when Reza Shah took power. The author also relies too readily and uncritically on secondary sources when discussing Lenin’s and more generally the Communist Party’s position on trade unions. Since the point he is arguing is whether a certain policy was in line with the Communist policy, documentation should come from primary sources.
The book loses its richness and originality when it gets to the years after 1962-1963. The primary sources from which Ladjevardi has reconstructed the earlier history are simply not yet available.
Finally, one nagging thought remains as we read the epilogue, where the author speaks “as a member of Iran’s privileged class.” One would have liked to hear, from an insider, why this class behaved as it did: so cynically, so apolitically, and with no social concern.