Asef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran: A Third World Experience of Workers’ Control (London: Zed Press, 1987.)
The participation of workers in the anti-shah struggle, the rise of factory councils in 1979 and 1980, and their battles with the new Islamic state over workers’ control and other aspects of industrial relations has sparked interest in the structure and consciousness of the Iranian laboring classes.
The particular strength of this book is the extensive fieldwork which Bayat undertook in 1980 and 1981, prior to the regime’s crackdown on the left and liberals. The material he collected includes interviews with workers and council activists, and observation of factory conditions.
Did a working class culture exist in Iran? The answer appears to be no — at least not in the sense of working class culture developed by E.P. Thompson in his classic study The Making of the English Working Class. Rather than awareness of themselves as part of a distinct class, workers displayed diverse cultural identities defined along regional, ethnic, national, religious and gender lines. There were also divisions between skilled and unskilled workers, educated and uneducated workers.
Bayat contends that proletarians in the Third World are more capable of anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-state militancy than are the working classes of the advanced capitalist countries. The question is, though, whether a workers’ movement can be sustained under the conditions that obtain in many Third World countries. In Iran, while workers were clearly anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-state, they were not necessarily pro-socialist (or even pro-democratic), and could not sustain an autonomous workers’ movement.
In concentrating on structural factors, Bayat neglects “subjective” elements — notably the role and importance of socialist parties, and the culture and consciousness of workers. His essential thesis is that the workers’ councils declined as a result both of external contradictions (political pressure, repression) and internal contradictions, but the latter are not explored. He mentions tensions between workers and managers, but what about divisions among the workers themselves? Workers were not able to unite around a common program for modernization and democratization. The central and strategic weakness of Iran’s industrial workers and of the workers’ councils, I would argue, is the absence of a socialist vision and ties to socialist parties genuinely committed to workers’ control.