In spring 1906, Iran was being autocratically ruled by the Qajjar dynasty of Shahs who had been auctioning the country piece by piece to Britain and Russia. Howver strikes and a protest movement from the merchant community in Tehran had forced the Shah to accede to the formation of a parliament (Majles) which would write a constitution for the country.
To supervise the elections to the Majles, local councils (anjumans) were set up. But they would accept no straitjacket, remained in session after the elections, opened their proceedings to the populace, and took on such activities as construction of schools, health clinics and roads.
At the Tabriz anjuman people participated in radicalised daily meetings which forced the price reduction of basic commodities and expropriated the stock of non-compliant landowners and merchants. The Constitutional Revolution had released a genie of a very different concept of democracy, one implemented through daily participation by peasants, artisans, workers and petty traders, including women.
Britain's consul in Tehran, Sir Cecil A Spring-Rice, wrote in consternation: “In every town there is an independent Assembly [anjuman], which acts without consulting the Governor or the Central Assembly at Tehran.
One after another, unpopular Governors have been expelled, and the Central Government and the Tehran Assembly have found themselves powerless to resist. The danger of universal disorganisation seems to be a real one. A spirit of resistance to oppression and even to all authority is spreading throughout the country. The leaders are unknown.”
All this came to an abrupt end in 1911, when Russian forces occupied northern Iran . The monarchy was restored, free of restrictions.
The spirit returns
In March 1977, the Shah of Iran boasted, “The difficulties of the West are due to the lack of discipline and the way work is managed; whereas in Iran there is not one minute of workers' strikes”.
Twelve months later, the Shah's kingdom was in crisis. A general strike had shut down the national economy. Strikes tentatively appeared in the spring of 1978 and by autumn tens of thousands of machine-tool workers in Tabriz had walked out, followed by workers at Esfahan and Ahwaz's steel mills and the Tehran oil refinery. Strikes were happening everywhere, from copper mines to film studios. One October day, 65 new strikes were reported; on the next, another 110.
The general strike---one of the most all-encompassing in world history---had sprung up from nothing: Iran had had no labour movement, no trade unions or any other organisations.
Learning from others--but first and foremost as a response to their own practical needs--workers in an enterprise would assemble in mass meeting, formulate demands, and elect their representatives. It was these thousands of spontaneously formed strike committees that handed the death sentence to the autocratic regime.
Two days after the fall of the Shah's regime, the strike committees were instructed to disband. However, nothing could remain the same in the workplaces. The returning workers were jubilant, energised after decades of apathy, amazed and euphoric over their own power to destroy despotism.
Taking over the factories
Upon their return they found many factories empty. Their horrified owners had fled the country in panic, taking with them as much money as they could.
Whether the managers were absent or present, compliant or un-co-operative, the logical outcome and only practicable arrangement was the same: the workers gained control over production. The strike committees were not dissolved, but institutionalised, and now adopted the title shora.
A shora comprised the whole workforce of a given enterprise, manual workers and professionals, men and women, and constituted itself through general assemblies. In the majority of factories, the shoras wielded power on their own and were in full control.
During the months after the revolution, Iran thus entered the most comprehensive experiment in workers' control in the Third World seen to this day. Whereas their past equivalents in more advanced economies (that is, in the West) belong to the canon of radical political history, only one volume is exclusively devoted to the study of the shora movement, Assef Bayat's Workers and Revolution in Iran.
During the spring of 1979, the idea of the shora as the cornerstone of a new national administration travelled on the revolutionary wind.
Attempts to articulate such demands were made by gathering delegates from shoras all over the country. These gatherings took place in a Tehran building that would come to play a very different role a few years later: the Khaneye Karegar, or “Workers' House”.
With slogans such as “workers' democracy is limitless”, Khaneye Karegar unleashed a massive demonstration on the streets of Tehran on May Day 1979.
These “seeds of a new order” possessed a number of fatal weaknesses. Administering one's own factory proved to be within the capabilities of the shoras. Administering the country did not. No one knew how to implement ongoing coordination between workplaces.
Perhaps even more noxious than the atomised character of the shoras was the influence of the parties of the left. Far from contributing to unification, leftist agitation in the factories -- naturally effective in a revolutionary situation like this -- served to further fracture the councils.
At first, the nascent Islamic state tolerated the shoras, since they were at the hub of society. At its innermost core, however, the Islamic state sensed the existential danger of the shoras from day one.