Saturday, May 29, 2010

A case of political hypocrisy: the WSWS's 'defense' of jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi

by Frank Brenner
May 29, 2010

The surrealist poet and revolutionary Andre Breton once declared with obvious exasperation that “the intellectual trade is plied with such impunity.” What he meant is that intellectuals often get away with flagrant contradictions and inconsistencies in their positions, which they never bother to account for. Alas, the same could also be said for many supposed Marxists. A case in point is a recent statement by the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) in defense of jailed Iranian film director Jafar Panahi.

Panahi is a world-famous director, whose films include “The White Balloon” and “Offside”, which won the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear award. He was arrested at his home along with family members and friends, and while the others were quickly released, the director has been held now for two months in the notorious Evin prison in Teheran. He was jailed for his support for the opposition protest movement against the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad last year. Panahi has recently begun a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. [1]

(In the latest update on this story, Panahi was released from jail on bail on May 25, clearly as a response to the international outcry over his arrest. However, the unspecified charges against him have not been withdrawn and will be referred to an Islamic revolutionary court for trial.)
Jafar Panahi at his home shortly after his release from prison.
As anyone familiar with our website knows, we have for years provided a detailed analysis of the evolution of the ICFI away from Marxism and towards an increasingly hardened sectarianism. We have long since given up charting every example of this degeneration, though it would be possible to cite articles from the WSWS on a weekly and at times even daily basis that could confirm our analysis. But the article on Panahi is such an egregious case of the kind of intellectual dishonesty Breton was talking about that it deserves a brief comment.

It should go without saying that Marxists defend Panahi and demand his immediate and unconditional release. This the WSWS article does, but it ends with “a word of caution”, stating that “while Panahi and many other artists and intellectuals are sincere in their opposition to the Islamic regime, the Green Movement offers no way forward for the working class and is deeply antagonistic to its social interests. Headed by Mir Hossein Mousavi, a big business politician, this movement represents a section of the Iranian bourgeoisie who are hostile to genuine democratic rights and are seeking a new deal with the US and other imperialist powers.”

This greatly understates the vehemence with which the WSWS denounced last year's mass demonstrations, which posed the most serious challenge ever to the Islamic regime. As we explained elsewhere, [2] while it was necessary for Marxists to expose the bourgeois leadership of Mousavi, it was equally essential to solidarize ourselves with the democratic aspirations of the millions of demonstrators who were risking life and liberty to oppose the hated regime of the mullahs.

But the WSWS coverage of these events was, as we pointed out, “noteworthy precisely for its antipathy to the masses.” The WSWS made no distinction between the leadership and the demonstrators even though there was lots of evidence “even before the election that many of those who backed Mousavi were only doing so because they felt there was no other viable choice and that their opposition to the Islamic Republic went far beyond what their candidate stood for. Those contradictions came out in the demonstrations themselves, which were often organized to a large extent outside the official control of Mousavi’s Green movement and increasingly replaced the approved slogans of reform with the revolutionary challenge of 'Death to the Dictator.'”

The WSWS also insisted on portraying the demonstrations as a purely middle class movement, ignoring reports that sections of the working class were joining the protests. There was also the clear implication that the protest movement was being manipulated, if not directly hatched, by US imperialism.

The WSWS line on the Iranian events was epitomized by the following statement: “To the extent that students, young people and any workers opposed to the regime have been swept up in the opposition movement, they are being exploited as pawns in what can only be described as an attempted palace coup.” [3]

We pointed out that as a consequence of this vilification of the demonstrators as “pawns in an attempted palace coup”, the WSWS “said nothing for months about the brutal repression meted out to the protestors by Ahmadinejad’s thugs, including mass arrests, beatings, murders while in custody and judicial frame-ups.”

Now, in the high-profile case of Jafar Panahi, the WSWS has chosen to end this shameful silence. What accounts for this? There's no indication of any rethinking of the WSWS political line: that's evident not only from the “note of caution” at the end of the Panahi statement but most tellingly from the links to the recommended articles appended to the statement, which includes the same article I just cited, the one that characterizes the demonstrators as “pawns in an attempted palace coup.”

One has a right to ask: if this characterization is still valid, then on what grounds is the WSWS defending Panahi? After all, if Panahi is just another of the “pawns in an attempted palace coup,” isn't there some legitimacy to the Ahmadenijad regime's jailing of these “pawns”?

But listen to Panahi, in a message he sent from prison, thanking those who were working for his release: “Your voices are joined with those of my wife, my children, and those of all of my compatriots working for my freedom, that reach me from beyond these prison walls. But let us not forget the thousands of defenseless prisoners here, who have no one to pass on the message of their distress. Like me, they have committed no crime. And my blood is no more important than theirs.”

But the WSWS has indeed forgotten these “thousands of defenseless prisoners.” Panahi is right – “my blood is no more important than theirs” – which means that anyone who fails to defend them isn't really defending Panahi. But that is exactly the sort of 'defense' of Panahi the WSWS is putting forward.

Defending these prisoners doesn't mean endorsing Mousavi and the bourgeois leadership of the Green movement. To anyone not blinded by sectarianism, it should be evident that Marxist politics has to work on two fronts – solidarizing ourselves with the democratic aspirations of the demonstrators while doing everything we can to show them that those aspirations will only be met through a politically independent movement of the working class for a socialist Iran. The WSWS is happy to issue calls for socialism in Iran but it completely isolates those calls from the living struggles of the masses, which means that its calls are nothing more than empty rhetoric.

To go back to the question of why the WSWS chose to issue a statement defending Panahi, it is clear that factors other than political principle were involved. One doesn't need to be a Sherlock Holmes to figure out what is going on here.

Panahi's case had become a cause celebre within the film community. Many prominent filmmakers, actors and intellectuals had come out with statements demanding Panahi's release. At the Cannes film festival earlier this month, his case was raised time and again: renowned Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami praised Panahi at a news conference, actress Juliette Binoche told the audience at the closing night ceremony that Panahi's so-called crime was “to be an artist, to be independent,” and since Panahi's jailing prevented him from participating as a judge for the prestigious Palme d'Or, the other judges left one chair empty during their deliberations as a sign of protest.

The WSWS has worked for many years now to develop ties in the film community, especially through regular attendance at various film festivals. Arts editor David Walsh covers film festivals in North America, Richard Phillips (who wrote the Panahi statement) does the same in Australia, Stefan Steinberg has the German beat.

(For a tiny movement this is an extraordinary investment of resources, to what end it's hard to say. How endless reams of film reviews are supposed to raise the cultural consciousness of the working class – or contribute to a Marxist theory of art – is very much a mystery. Nor has this work produced anything noticeable in the way of recruitment among filmmakers or actors. What it has done is given the WSWS a superficial credibility as a commentator on cultural issues. And that matters in a movement that has little contact with workers and exists almost solely as a website.)

In any case, if you spend a lot of time at film festivals, you can't avoid responding to the pressures emanating from these circles. The Panahi case was a big deal in those circles, and for a supposedly revolutionary socialist website to say nothing on this matter would have raised a lot of eyebrows. In other words, the decision to make a statement on Panahi had less to do with defending the democratic rights of a jailed filmmaker and more to do with 'practical', i.e. cynical, considerations. The statement amounts to a fig leaf to hide the unpleasant truth about the WSWS's reactionary vilification of the Iranian masses.

Even at that, the WSWS waited an unconscionably long time – two months – to make its statement, though WSWS film reviewers like Walsh and Phillips undoubtedly heard about Panahi's arrest soon after it happened. In other words, grudgingly and only in the case of someone too famous to ignore, would the WSWS come out in defense of one of the “pawns in an attempted palace coup.”

(The contrast between this slow-motion reaction on the Panahi case and the rapid response of the WSWS in defending famed film director Roman Polanski – who is facing extradition to and imprisonment in the US – is striking. To be sure, the defense of Polanski is justified, but there is nothing overtly political about the charges he is facing, though of course there are many political implications to his case. With Panahi, however, the politics are front and center – and that's precisely why the WSWS waited so long before commenting.)

Sectarians have often been known to combine ultra-left rhetoric and reactionary politics. Underlying this apparent contradiction is the sectarian's distrust of, and even hostility towards, the living struggles of the masses. That is really what is behind the WSWS stance on Iran. While wanting to be on record as defending Panahi, the WSWS has actually served as a de facto apologist for the regime that put him in jail. To call this hypocrisy is an understatement.

[1] “Jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi on hunger strike,” WSWS, May 24, 2010:

[2] The Downward Spiral of the International Committe,Conclusion:, p. 210, n. 11

[3] “For workers' power and a socialist Iran,” WSWS, June 17, 2009:


Anonymous said...

Mr. Brenner,

I visit your blog on a regular basis, but I am far from convinced by your analysis. With regard to the WSWS coverage of Iran, they did an excellent job of pointing to the class basis of the Green movement that was ignored by virtually all "leftist" news outlets. To ask that they sympathize further with the Iranian "masses" (of what class?) seems to reek of the ultra-leftism you accuse the WSWS of perpetuating. The WSWS has consistently called for the Iranian working class to assert itself independently of other class interests, such as those expressed by Mousavi.

However, the main contention you express that I would like to express disagreement over is your assertion that the SEP is "a movement that has little contact with workers and exists almost solely as a website." Among the various interventions into the working class that the SEP has carried out recently, one of the most noteworthy is the formation of the Dexter Fire Inquiry and afterward the creation of the Committee Against Utility Shutoffs. It is obvious that you read the WSWS very closely, so this statement seems to be somewhat disingenuous. I appreciate your efforts to ensure that the SEP remains loyal to Trotskyist principles and Marxist analysis, but statements like this seem to take away from this goal.

Mark said...


With regard to Frank's critique of the WSWS coverage of Iran, it seems that you need to read his statement and also the statement in the concluding chapter of the "Downward Spiral" more carefully. In covering the situation in Iran, the WSWS was anything but sympathetic to the struggle of the Iranian working class. The workers involved in the opposition movement were described by the WSWS as "pawns" being exploited in "an attempted palace coup." The WSWS took up a sectarian position by ignoring the democratic aspirations of those workers who were involved, and ignoring the class tensions within the opposition movement itself, calling a uniformly a "middle class" movement. The call for the "Iranian working class to assert itself independently" is meaningless without an intervention into real movement of the Iranian working class as it actually expresses itself, in this case as part of the opposition movement to the regime of Ahmadinejad.

The recent actions of the SEP in regard to the Detroit utility shut offs, do not make up for its decades long absence in the struggles of the working class. The SEP is still "a movement that has little contact with workers and exists almost solely as a website." One would hope that these recent actions are an encouraging sign, but if past experience is any guide, these are most likely a temporary pragmatic turn by the leadership, very conscious of the fact that the movement has little contact with workers. I don't want to diminish these efforts, but where is the SEP when workers independently express their opposition? The WSWS coverage on the opposition movement in Iran, the WSWS coverage Mexican protests of 2005, the coverage New York city transit strike of 2005, the absence of leadership given to the Iraqi working class, these actions or lack of action paint a far better picture of the real relationship between the SEP and working class. The SEP has shown in practice, in so many cases, to turn its back on the working class just at the moment when it is involved in a real struggle.

Antonio said...

Comienzo alabando el interés de “anónimo” en la notable crítica de Frank Brenner( y Alex Steiner) sobre la posición del WSWS en relación a Irak. Este es un inicio de apertura al viento fresco de la dialéctica que están desplegando con éxito Brenner y Steiner y que alguien como “anónimo” se ve obligado a tomar en cuenta. Pero a la vez considero de que a pesar de la lectura “regular” del sitio web de Revolución Permanente- según lo declara “anónimo”- no hay rasgos que permitan pensar de que esto sea verdad puesto que manifiesta de forma muy abstracta y demasiado general, que “but I am far from convinced by your analysis”. Los temas tratados en la crítica al WSWS son demasiado vastos para que puedan de forma vaga- y yo diría irresponsable- expresar, “but I am far from convinced by your analysis”.
Sólo quisiera referirme al punto concreto de “anónimo”,
“The WSWS has consistently called for the Iranian working class to assert itself independently of other class interests, such as those expressed by Mousavi.” Brenner y Steiner han demostrado hasta la saciedad la ruptura de la línea de la revolución permanente y su defensa del nacionalismo irakí por parte del WSWS en el curso de más de un año. A la vez que el abandono de la dialéctica implícito en este desarrollo y el desprecio por las manifestaciones de masas.

El artículo de Brenner sobre el cineasta iraní Jafar Panahi es otra confirmación del antidialéctico y pragmático tratamiento del WSWS sobre el encarcelamiento de este artista por parte de régimen fundamentalista de Amanediyah y del desprecio hacia las masas del movimiento Verde que se han movilizado en contra de la dictadura de los mullahs fundamentalistas. Brenner determina con absoluta claridad cómo la presión de clase pequeño burguesa ha influenciado para que el WSWS salga en defensa de Jafar Panahi. Pero a la vez denuncia cómo el WSWS trata a los manifestantes como “peones para un golpe de palacio” sin poder hacer la diferencia entre las masas revolucionarias y los liderazgos reaccionarios de Mousaví y Anmanideyah. Pero cuando Panahi pide la excarcelación de todos los presos políticos porque él no es “más que nadie”, marca la diferencia con los redactores del WSWS que salen en defensa de Panahi sólo porque él es un artista famoso y no porque en realidad lo hagan por convicción de clase. De hecho siguen defendiendo- de manera antidialéctica y antiobrera- al régimen y a los líderes nacionalistas fundamentalistas. La misma línea de Irak sigue el WSWS en Irán, lo que significa que el abandono de la dialéctica por el WSWS está cobrando factura

Anonymous said...

It is a shame that a man who once wrote something as insightful and evocative as "Mental Illness and the American Dream" (which I came across via the WSWS) is now engaged, in tandem with the insufferable Alex Steiner, in a reckless and futile vendetta against the international socialist movement and its Marxist foundations.
Of course, such political and intellectual degeneration/disorientation has not been an uncommon phenomenon in the historical course of the movement - some of its most enduring figures have, at one time or another, fallen prey to various shades of opportunism and adaptation. But to continuously slander and so dishonestly represent the principles for which the Fourth International fights is not only treacherous in these times; it is downright dangerous and stupid. You are taking it upon yourself to attempt to misguide and confuse a new generation of youth and workers who seek a genuine political alternative.
There is so much more I could say about this, but in my eyes, I would only be revisiting ground well-covered by SEP comrades in relation to the attacks waged by yourself and Mr Steiner. The pair of you deserve each other, and no doubt your revisionist brand of pseudo-Marxism will find history's dustbin readily, and that well before the decisive hour arrives. In any case, Mr North and others have responded to your facile accusations thoroughly and far more profoundly than anything that appears in this blog. I can only hope that your readers investigate the issues at stake for themselves - the more far-sighted of them will reach the same conclusion.

Alex Steiner said...

Posting of comments to this blog are moderated for obvious reasons. Generally I do not publish comments that are pure vituperation without substance. However this second post by "Anonymous" (and I do not know if this is the same "Anonymous" as in the first post) is a good example of a knee-jerk reaction to criticism that seems to have upset some people. Perhaps there is something to be learned from this post.

"Anonymous" says that we are "trecherous" and "dangerous" not to mention "stupid" and that we are attempting "to misguide and confuse a new generation of youth and workers who seek a genuine political alternative."

Yet there is not a single example that "Anonymous" can cite to justify these epiphets. He refers to "ground well-covered by SEP comrades" as if that is the end of the matter.

Has "Anonymous" read our critique of the IC and our deconstruction of the misrepresentations of David North in "Marxism Without its Head or its Heart"? Has "Anonymous" read my reply to David North's smear campaign against me, "The Downward Spiral of the International Committee of the Fourth International"?

Leaving all that aside why can't "Anonymous" write a reasoned reply to our short comment on the hypocrisy of the WSWS in relation to the Panahi case?

The comment by "Anonymous" and its inflamed but empty rhetoric reminds me of nothing so much as the response socialists and radicals got from anti-Communists in the 1950s - "Go back to Russia". It is a good example of how blind loyalty can lead to a paralysis of all critical faculties.

Alex Steiner

Mark said...

I was in the SEP, and the comments by the second "Anonymous" are fairly typical. The only things these people understand about your polemic is that North and company have in someway refuted your arguments. Ask them more and they will probably repeat the same lies conjured up by North and company. It is unlikely that they have read even a small fraction of your material let alone attempted to comprehend it. The emptiness of their rhetoric testifies to this fact.