The chasm between the Shah and his people had become glaringly obvious. What was less clear, but equally important, was a chasm between the communist and socialist visions for the country of the secular intellectual elite and the middle-class professionals and the hopes of the ardent lower-class followers of Khomeini. At least the chasm was misunderstood by the secularists. Among the secular agitators against the monarchy, clerics and their followers were widely regarded as harmless hangers-on to the great bandwagon of revolution. The secularists failed to perceive both Khomeini’s true intentions, and the surging momentum—and force in numbers—of the backing for him among the teeming urban and rural lower and working classes. The exploding numbers of urban factory workers had no infatuation with the ideologies that fascinated the middle class; Khomeini’s populist call for freeing Iran of dictatorship and spreading the oil wealth among the population is what appealed to them.
Azar Salamat studied at Berkeley in the late 1960s, and there joined radical Iranian students agitating against the Shah. When she went back to Iran in the late 1970s she was determined to do Lenin’s work, spreading the gospel of communism, organizing the working class, and setting Iran on the path to a communist revolution. With comrades in tow she would visit factories on the outskirts of Tehran looking for the proverbial proletarian laborers to convert to the cause. Workers on their lunch break listened politely to the Marxist harangue, humoring the young idealists, but understood little about dialectical materialism or capitalist exploitation. Communism was an alien tongue; so “when we turned to leave,” remembers Salamat of one telling lunchtime encounter, “one of them called to us, waving his hand. ‘Bye bye,’ he said in English, grinning with amusement. Nothing seemed to express more clearly the foreignness of our contingent to those workers whom we thought our natural allies.”
It was as if years of thinking secular thoughts and following secular ideologies had blinded these secular activists to reality. They correctly perceived that their support for Khomeini was vital in building widespread support for a revolution. Leftist jargon did not percolate down into society very well, and the revolution needed the support of larger numbers—of the poor and traditional Iranians who looked to the clergy for moral and political leadership. But the secularists failed to appreciate the intensity of Khomeni’s mission to establish an Islamic state, or to think through what would be in store for them if and when the clergy took power.
Secular revolutionaries stayed deliberately silent on the issues of Islamic government and Islamic law, hejab and women’s rights, and engaged in little discussion of how individual liberties, economic aspirations, and democratic goals could be affected by clerical rule. This absence of serious discussion in speeches, rallies, meetings, manifestoes, media, and everyday conversations is astonishing on reflection. So strong were their opposition to the Shah and their trust in the clergy—their conviction that the only issue that mattered was ridding Iran of the Shah—that they forgot all about those other hard-earned cultural freedoms that were so vital to their lives and future. When they did finally wake up to the reality of the revolution, it was too late….
With the revolution triumphant throngs of class warriors banded together in revolutionary committees and militias, and backing Khomeini’s cause, came out of slums and working-class neighborhoods, bazaars, and poorer quarters of the city to claim their prize. They were quick learners. None knew what dialectics of history was about or what Marx had penned in his Das Kapital. Khomeini had taught them it was not necessary to convert to Marxism to be a revolutionary; it was more important to make the revolution Islamic.
The middle-class pro-communist and pro-democracy protestors were shocked by the numbers of Khomeini’s forces and their zeal, and they quickly came to understand they were outgunned. The clergy drew large crowds to demonstrations day after day, and even larger numbers to voting booths for a national referendum and constituent assembly elections that were to decide the fate of the revolution. The middle class cringed at the takeover unfolding, and efforts were made to better organize and resist. But leftist and pro-democracy rallies were disrupted by club-wielding thugs, who also stormed Tehran University to purge it of leftists. When in March tens of thousands of middle-class women poured into the streets to demand freedom of dress, vigilante thugs attacked them. Pro-democracy forces formed a new party, the National Democratic Front, and at first large crowds showed up at its rallies. But after only a few confrontations with Khomeini’s stone-throwing and club-wielding mobs, the Front melted away.