The massive election protests in Iran are an inspiring example of human courage and the power of ordinary people to affect powerful institutions. At the time of going to press, we do not know what the outcome of this clash is going to be.
One possibility is that there will be a replay of the 4 June 1989 massacre in China. One of the most thoughtful reflections on Tienanmen Square came in the Financial Times, where James Kynge (who reported the demonstrations first-hand) argued that to say “the demonstrations were to ‘demand democracy’ is an oversimplification”.
The students (and workers) in the square “had only the haziest understanding of western-style democracy”. The protests were against “corruption, nepotism, inflation, police brutality, bureaucracy, official privilege, media censorship, human rights abuses, [and] cramped student dormitories” as well as “democracy”.
Kynge points out that the protests were “directed at abuses of an existing system by an emerging elite… motivated more by outrage at the betrayal of socialist ideals than by aspirations for a new system”.
Something similar may be true of many of those involved in the protests in Iran, centred as they are on the figure of Mir Hossein Moussavi, former prime minister in the Islamic republic and long-time insider.
To what extent are the protests for the development of the present system, rather than its overthrow? Time and again, the western media assumes that “reform” means western-style parliamentarianism, capitalism and economic and financial “liberalisation”, all inextricably rolled up together. The trick is to assume, without providing evidence or argument, that democracy and capitalism go hand in hand. That is the way to embed propaganda.
There’s another aspect to this. Something that the British mainstream media has not remembered in its lengthy reflections on Tienanmen Square is the way that the British government subsequently betrayed the protesters, with the collusion of the British mass media.
After 4 June 1989, Margaret Thatcher expressed “utter revulsion and outrage” and said “normal business with the Chinese authorities cannot continue”. Nevertheless, the £3bn China-Britain trade deal agreed in May 1989 was finalised by a government-supported trade delegation to China in October 1989, just four and a half months after the massacre.
For less high-profile initiatives, the indecent interval was shorter. The China-Britain Trade Review reported in July 1989 that “virtually all of the British companies with representative offices in Beijing have now [the beginning of July] sent their staff back”.
The truth is that in China, US – and British – capitalism has helped to bolster tyranny, as so often in the global south. It was US and British capitalism that put an end to democracy in Iran in 1953, by financing and organising a military coup that is only now being acknowledged.
The next step is to apologise. The step after that is for governments and the mass media to stop exploiting – and betraying – grassroots movements for social change around the world.
To get that, we will need a green mini-revolution of our own, here in Britain. In that struggle we can be inspired by the example of Iran.