by Ramin Mazaheri for The Saker Blog
As every journalist and critic knows, the laziest (and fastest) way to describe something is to present it in terms of something else. This is the “new that”, or this is similar to “that combined with this”.
This article, which is part of an 11-part series on Iran written in response to the World Socialist Web Site’s “A reply to a proponent of ‘Iranian Islamic Socialism'” (pamphlet form here), is almost certainly the first objective and leftist analysis of the Basij in Western history. The WSWS made no mention of this 10-25 million-member group, which is so big that it is obviously vital to understand 21st century Iran.
I thought about saving this article in this 4-part sub-series on the Basij for the very last, but I think the Basij is just too unique: some frame of reference is needed for Western readers. I promise that even if you skip right ahead to the second section of this article and only read that, you will agree.
The Basij is not communist, of course, but I think you’ll find the Chinese Communist Party provides a very apt comparison in terms of structure, goal and societal application. I was not able to find a better comparison.Ramin Mazaheri
Since 1979 Iran has followed China in so many ways, big and small – few of them are known or appreciated. For example, Iran is the only other nation which has also had an officially-titled, government-sponsored “Cultural Revolution” (1980-83).
It was obviously modelled on the Chinese experience: Purging Western and un-Islamic thought was the stated goal (and thus imperialism and un-Islamic capitalism), whereas in China it was purging corruption (capitalism) and Confucianism / polytheism / folk culture. This was the time when bus drivers became bosses – something which is lamented by Iranian technocrats in self-imposed exile – because the bus drivers had a more modern & more moral political ideology. Both were, of course, supremely leftist events on the global political spectrum in the 2nd half of the 20th century. This is why the Chinese progenitor is imagined in the capitalist-imperialist West to be a horror-show of rampaging students; the Iranian son is imagined in the West to be a horror-show of rampaging seminary students.
In an 8-part series I wrote this year on China one of the parts was The Cultural Revolution’s solving of the urban-rural divide. Iran, whose revolution occurred 30 years later in the 20th century (and thus at a time of almost universal country-to-city migrations) did not have this cultural divide to the extent of the Chinese. Rather than a Cultural Revolution for the Iranian countryside, during this era it was truly the Great Leap Forward: despite the ongoing war they got things they had never imagined possible under the Shah, such as electricity, indoor plumbing, schooling, health care, literacy, land, infrastructure, etc.
The main point of both Cultural Revolutions were to forbid the promotion of Western capitalist-imperialist thought, to combat corruption in every sense with revolutionary vigour (like it or not), and to promote a revivifying of modern & religious values. (Certainly, for committed communists Communism is undoubtedly a faith-based & messianic religion. They don’t call it “divinely-inspired” but they sure act like it.)
China’s Cultural Revolution was a bit more insular and less-Western focused than Iran’s because China’s huge size, population and geographic situation has always made it more insulated from the West. However, with Vietnam raging and the US helping to create a communist genocide in Indonesia in 1966, we would be wrong to assume that they did not have the same justified fear of invasion and counter-revolution as Iran did.
Both Cultural Revolutions undoubtedly succeeded. In Iran this was when the ideological battle between global Socialism and a finally-liberated political Islam fought it out publicly, politically and physically to wind up creating “Iranian Islamic Socialism”. In China, this was when Maoist economic equality was preserved from corruption, a new generation of youth was given the power to reject the Western siren song, and Western-Russian socialism was definitively changed into “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
Why 4 parts on the Basij? Because almost nothing is known about Iran’s biggest and most important organisation, just as almost nothing is known about the Iranian Cultural Revolution.
The absolute basic fact of the Basij is: Fundamentally, the Basij is an institution which is dedicated to supporting the revolution, the constitution and the government (regardless of the dominant political party).
The Basij students, technically the largest group, were heavily involved in the first Cultural Revolution, and their spectacular growth led to calls of a Second Cultural Revolution in 2005. This is when Ahmadinejad, the first Basiji president, was elected. A Second Cultural Revolution did not materialise, but there definitely was renewed revolutionary activity in Iranian universities.
Why do I bring up the Basij and the Cultural Revolution? Because, in my objective view, the Basij are something of a “permanent cultural revolution”, or a group seemingly designed for that. This will be made clear in the ensuing parts, but let’s return to the Chinese frame of reference to dispel the dominant, narrow idea of the Basij – that it is a “militia” or “paramilitary”.
The Basij and the CCP: Want to join the government? You likely should join
What kind of a militia has enrolled perhaps 1/4th of the country? “Militia” is obviously a false term of propaganda because militias and paramilitary groups are usually not under state control and often opposed to the state. The Basij totally supports the state – that is it’s raison d’être. The Basij is also totally controlled by the state, subject to its laws, and can in no way supersede the police in fighting crime.
And, this is why this part had to come first: the Basij IS the state, or it’s getting there quickly…and certainly not in the way many realize.
In China, Communist Party members are an estimated 75-80% of government workers – from the village to the top, and including their state-owned enterprises – per Jeff J. Brown, author of the irreplaceable China is Communist, Dammit!. In 2003 the number of Basij members among government workers was 65%; the Public Servants’ Basij is the biggest Basij of them all.
The Chinese Communist Party’s economic clout is well-known, although the control is technically the state’s. (The Iranian government undoubtedly has a greater percentage of control over the economy than the Chinese government – this is not as well-known, but hopefully I debunked that in Part 3 of this series: What privatisation in Iran? or Definitely not THAT privatisation.) The Basij Cooperative Foundation is a huge entity which oversees all Basij operations, veterans included, including over 1,400 companies and firms as of 2007. Subsequent years of so-called “privatisation”, especially during the “Golden Year” in 2010, saw the Basij get even more economic clout. The Basij is overseen by the Revolutionary Guards (often referred to as Sepah or Pasdaran) which has even more economic clout than the Basij.
All of China’s state-owned and private companies must have a Communist Party committee. Iranian law says any company with more than 30 employees must have a Basij.
The People’s Liberation Army is 100% communist, as are China’s police forces. In Iran the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij combine to fill the function of the PLA, but there is also a national army, while 80% of new police in 2008 were drawn from the Basij.
Huge numbers of Chinese public educators are communists; in Iran the University Professors’ Basij is probably the most influential Basij in shaping public policy.
Being in the Chinese Communist Party is undoubtedly a boon for Chinese university admissions: In Iran, 40% of undergraduate and 20% of post-graduate university admissions are legally reserved for “active-level” Basij members.
The CCP obviously benefits from massive public funding. In multiple 5-year plans all firms, factories and pubic companies have been ordered to allocate 1-2% of their profit to development of the Basij.
I hope I have gotten your attention! Still think the Basij is just a “paramilitary” with all that?
The Basij, contrary to popular belief, is not a bunch of armed thugs: it is obviously a huge part of the government, and thus a huge part of society.
Clearly, the Chinese Communist Party and the Basij have so many things in common that if there is something fundamentally wrong about the CCP, Iran’s Basij likely must share many of the same flaws. The same logically goes for the fundamental positives the two obviously share. Of course, only the Chinese and Iranian opinions matter in terms of final democratic judgment.
There are no shortage of similarities which prove rather objectively: These are two institutions which have a TON in common, and it’s obviously better to be a member if you want to rise in these respective governments. That necessarily has tremendous implications on how these two countries are run, and what their guiding ideologies are.
What is the Basij, exactly? It’s an “apolitical Islamic socialist union NGO”, in my view…but proving that requires the next three parts. I would like to keep this article about the political and cultural similarities between Iran and China.
‘Neither East nor West’…but giving a cold shoulder to the West implies facing East
It’s almost as if Iran knew they had to eventually turn East, but wanted to create and preserve a new sovereignty first. The similarities show the attraction is natural.
They had the only two Cultural Revolutions; anti-imperialist support (Vietnam & Korea – Palestine & Syria); long-range central planning (both operate under 5-year plans); a vanguard party (Communists – Shia Islam mullahs); a government with open concerns for social morality (as opposed to the “anything goes” West); economic redistribution (as opposed to neoliberal capitalism); tremendous success in socioeconomic redistribution (China #2 in increasing UN Human development Index from 1970-2010, Iran #2 from 1990-2014) and much, much more.
The primary demand of the 1979 revolution was to immediately de-couple Iran from the West completely, but the East was never viewed so very negatively. Economically, Iran’s democratic desire meant de-coupling from the global capitalist system at any price; Iran did exactly that, and have paid quite a price ever since. Unfortunately for the West, this price has never been enough to seriously attempt a counter-revolution.
From 1979 Iran’s trade immediately turned towards the global south and east as Iran abandoned Western ties. The view from Iran was likely: “Certainly better than the West, and China has no oil.” I imagine the Chinese view of Iran since 1979 has developed along these lines:
“Well, they have some good ideas, but they are really religious and Communism is not a religion, don’t exaggerate.” And then 10 years goes by. “Well they beat off Western-backed Iraq, that’s not bad. If they get their oil system back up and running, take their calls.” And then more time goes by: “These guys still aren’t folding. And you say they had a Cultural Revolution, too? Really? Hmmmmmm. Our economy is really booming and we need to start thinking bigger. Get Tehran on the phone.”
And call Iran they did: the result is that Iran is the main hub of their trillion dollar New Silk Road, or One Belt-One Road project, which sets the stage for many trillions in Eurasian trade for many decades.
Iran and China have obviously come to an arrangement: China accepts that Iran is Islamic, yet also rock-solid modern revolutionaries they can rely on & who is actually capable of long-term planning; Iran looks the other way on the drinking, gambling and pork-eating. Iran and China have not only a 10-year plan worth $600 billion, they have a 25-year strategic plan. Conversely, Iran and the EU had just $20 billion in trade in 2017 and just $200 million with the US. Iran does not need Western technology when they get the same level from China, and China will always need oil.
Part of the arrangement is also: when it comes to national defense, Iran is on its own. However, if the new Silk Road gets up and running China can’t possibly let it’s main hub get disrupted, attacked or invaded: a formal mutual defense treaty seems very possible, even if far off. Boy oh boy, imagine that day for Iran – gonna be a mighty big exhale.…
Indeed, Iran has always been the crossroads of caravans, but China obviously has tapped Iran for such importance because there is a large sense of trust. And they should trust Iran: due to Iran’s anti-Western, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist stances, they are undoubtedly the most similar nation to China ideologically and culturally among non-Yellow people.
(Heck, Iran is nearly as Yellow as it is Arab, ethnically, and that is no joke – the Turkmen ethnicity are 20% Mongol, genetically. Just visit Iran and you’ll see countless Iranian faces whose ancestors were clearly from parts north & east of Afghanistan. )
You probably think Iran is pretty pleased about all this is – you don’t know independent Iranians!
Many in Iran are so devoted to “Neither East nor West but the Islamic Republic of Iran” that they don’t accept these (mostly) mutually-beneficial and certainly not “neoliberal” terms of partnership – they want fewer Chinese goods and more Iranian-produced ones. Iran may not be have the population capabilities to be a genuine superpower like China, the US, the EU or Russia – but we’re big enough to stand alone! This strain of defiant patriotism is considered totally absurd in the West – they cannot believe that Iran will not run into China’s arms like a scared child if only China would shelter them…just as they couldn’t believe that Iran ran out of the West’s arms 40 years ago like a child fleeing a pedophile.
China is not viewed as an all-knowing guru and with some suspicion in Iran – modern Iran has had only bad experiences with superpowers – but they can certainly be a partner and a friend. The West is only just starting to whisper about being partners…but will the European West even hold up their end of the JCPOA? Friendship is out of the question due to their Islamophobia and their many wars in Muslim countries – who needs such persons as friends? Iran and the West may not be partners in my lifetime, but they are already firm partners with China and hopefully friends who watch each other’s backs soon.
Socially, Iranians don’t need friends because they have such vibrant and extended family lives, LOL. But everyone needs friends – what are we, self-centred and selfish capitalists like Emmanuel Macron? He recently said, “I don’t have friends”. I’m not surprised, Manu….
Iran & China – Asian similarity at home and in public
The social similarities between the two precede the creation of socialism: Iran and China are familistic (and patriarchal) states, and this binds them as much as their shared economic and anti-imperialist outlooks.
Compared to Westerners the role of individualism is “suppressed”, yet it is also “freed” because your place in the family hierarchy assures you a stable role and a stable social life. You will not die alone, nor live that way either.
English does not even, for example, have defined names for their extended family members – they care not for them, nor do they want them over even for Christmas. In Asia there is no dominant history of absolute primogeniture, as in England, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Belgium even today, where being 2nd born means you need to look elsewhere (invade elsewhere) for wealth and status. This idea reminds me of essentially killing – and certainly in a psychosocial manner – your 2nd born son, just as all societies used to often kill newborn daughters because they were too much of an economic burden. You cannot will your entire estate to one person and have it hold up under Islamic law, nor could you give all your farmland to just one member of your family in China.
Both Confucian China, Communist China and Iran agree that it takes more than just force to govern – China has the “Heavenly Mandate” and Iran has religious authority going back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism. It also takes more than just “rule of law” (Which “law” anyway? The law of aristocratic capitalist lawyers, as in the bourgeois (West European) model? LOL, no thank you.) It also takes much more than Hillary Clinton’s village – it takes a central authority.
In another important cultural similarity Islam, Confucianism and socialism all view man as perfectible. In Christianity, this is not the case – Roman Catholics focus on the original sinning state humans are born into. The Calvinistic idea of predestination is perhaps even more negative, as one is simply born into the “elect”, and thus by nature are supposed to be in charge. Being the “elect” does not explicitly enforce any moral requirements or laws on those who are elected – they simply have been born with a God-given moral prestige to lead (residing in their DNA or their advanced consciousness or more-moral souls or wherever) and the rest must follow. Few Protestants are aware of just how much their religion dovetails with their dominant neoliberal political thought….
For Iran and China, the government has an obligation to morally educate. In the West, this is something which practically a father and mother have no right to do anymore – all is an adult’s individual choice, especially in Protestant societies; all choices are now “relative” and valid (supposedly). Indeed, the phrase “moral prestige” is never heard in the West anymore, and there I think it is presumed to no longer be possible? No senior citizen could invoke that phrase with any Western teenager without being laughed out of the room. The West, of course, honors youth and not age.
But moral education is embodied by the Quranic commandment of “forbidding the wrong and promoting the good” – a ubiquitous phrase in Islam, and which is actually in Article 8 of the Iranian constitution, which calls on people to apply it in their everyday life. To read Confucius’ indispensable commentaries on the I Ching is to read literally the same thing. If we read Gua 14, in his commentary on the symbol for the concept of “Great Harvest” Confucius wrote: The superior person represses evil and promotes good, Carrying out the glorious virtue of Heaven. Everybody knows China’s farmers have been the most effective & most efficient (and also the most co-operative) for millennia – how did they get there? Well…it sure didn’t hurt to promote good and forbid evil great harvest after great harvest (1,000+ famines aside).
I’m sure if I dig deep there is a Western cultural parallel to “forbidding the wrong and promoting the good”, but there is certainly nothing explicitly like this in modern Western government structure. Such moralizing from Western governments is totally absent and often violently resented in the post-1960s West. But while the idea that the government exists to improve societal morality does not exist in these neoliberal capitalist societies, it has obviously not been abandoned in Iran and China.
One should read the penultimate chapter in Brown’s China is Communist, Dammit!: He includes, describes & interprets 60+ pictures of a local government “propaganda” campaign which is 80% moralising and 20% socialism / patriotism. At first it seems like the book’s most boring chapter, but then it becomes the one you can return to and enjoy repeatedly. In Western societies such moral-advertising campaigns would certainly immediately discredit the government which put them up, LOL. Signs are only for advertising consumerism, after all. In Cuba, there is no advertising and the only signs are the very occasional “Local Farmers Committee #___ Will Defend the Revolution”.
The point of this section is: it should be little wonder that both Chinese and Iranian societies are governed by a vanguard political party which is prone to public moralising and which have insisted (and proven) that “modernisation” is not synonymous with “Westernisation”, and that “modern morality” is certainly not synonymous with “Westernisation”, either. But the West ain’t all promoting evil and forbidding good….
The similarities between the Chinese and Iranian views of intellectuals
A problem for Western leftists, in my eyes, is that they have been unable to conceive of a domestic moral role for their government.
Quite hypocritically, Western leftists view their governments as capable of enforcing morality (human rights) abroad, but they feel they should not be seen or heard at home! LOL, please start choosing something else to export to the developing world.
Philosophically, Western leftists have been deceived by moral subjectivity which, while being a quite important lens to view an issue through, does not mean that discussions of the issue have stopped and that a final judgment cannot or should not be levied.
When it comes to domestic morality, Western leftists are ultimately supportive of the neoliberal view of it – i.e., no government regulation. They absolutely fail to make this parallel; I assume because the worth and necessity of secularism and laïcité is an article of faith and not based on scientific, universally-verifiable proof. This is also an example of why fake-leftism thrives in the West, and not true leftism – the assume they are “left” without questioning what modern leftism is or if it has changed.
“No government regulation” in the realm of morality is simply not the view in Iran or China. What the adherents of the CCP and the Basij believe – and also many Chinese and Iranians in general – is also that the government should have a huge, huge, HUGE societal role: a role in promoting religion/ideology, a role in the economy, a role in the press, a role in stopping offensive displays of immorality, a role in stopping financial immorality, a role in truly everything important, a role even in – to varying degrees – the personal lives of citizens.
Calling for this moral involvement by the government is usually labeled “conservatism’ in the West…and yet both China and Iran are both undoubtedly leftist revolutionaries?
The failure is clear: on the part of the West – their definition of both “conservatism” and “left revolutionary” is obviously schizophrenic and riddled with holes. This is obviously a mass failure in the West, but it is an especial letdown on the part of their intellectuals.
This letdown may indeed occur because there is barely any role for the government in Western intellectualism, as well as barely any role for intellectuals in the government. Occasionally you’ll have a Vaclav Havel, but such types are the exception which proves the rule. The two are not supposed to meet (just as religion and government are not supposed to meet) -true intellectuals are supposed to be elite, artistic, rare, apart.
Perhaps most crucially of all, in my view, is that Western intellectuals are never openly considered to be in public service – that would be apologism, sycophancy, jingoism and even corrupt opportunism. And so Western intellectuals are content t o be merely public critics…and are thus detested, like all who only criticise, and are never seen by the masses as being part of the solution (rightly or wrongly). Western intellectuals, the Western People understand, are only in it for themselves.
For an intellectual to be openly in public service would mean they are creating propaganda. And yet, stunningly, there is NO propaganda in the West. “Government propaganda” in the West is like a hammock in the North Pole – it simply does not exist.
I repeat: Western governments do NOT do propaganda…unlike all non-Western-friendly governments. This is an appallingly naive yet universal opinion among Westerners! The ramifications are quite enormous; so enormous they cannot even broach the question of, “Is our Western government feeding us ideological propaganda with this line?”
Ultimately, Westerners view themselves – and their Western democratic systems – as “too smart” for, propaganda, and thus their government could never even try it, much less get away with it. Westerners know when non-Western governments are trying to “pass off propaganda”, but never from their own governments and especially never from their preferred camp of their own government (LOL). All I can say is: appallingly naive, politically unaware & culturally destructive.
Arts and intellectualism is a fine thing, but when nihilism & individualism or capitalism & imperialism are seen as the goals (as they undoubtedly are by many in the West), then promoting persons with proper ideology certainly becomes more important than independence; and more important than class as well, because it is absurd to think that all poor people are leftists and that all rich people are right-wing. Look at American rappers and Lenin for examples of these class-defying examples; class prejudice is as much of a wrong as racial prejudice – intelligent people don’t assume.
I think the average (revolutionary) Iranian implicitly supports Mao’s view here, which is taken from John King Fairbank’s, the “West’s doyen on China,” (mainly because he was a right-wing imperialist and anti-socialist) China: A New History, which is the top Chinese history book in English-language universities:
“Once the intellectuals had been shown by the Hundred Flowers fiasco (1957 – when Red China tried “glasnost” and immediately stopped before it went too far, unlike the USSR) to be of dubious loyalty, Mao moved to the idea that a new generation of intellectuals should be trained up verily committed to the party because they were of good proletarian-class background. In the contradiction between merit and class status, he saw it necessary to emphasize the latter. He warned the intellectuals that they were simply teachers employed by the proletariat and laboring people to teach their children….”
China’s Cultural Revolution is so important because it initiated the process of pulling teachers and intellectuals down from their lofty Brahmin status; while a PhD is still feted like a city-state monarch in Germany, thinkers in China had to prove their social utility by doing more than just saying, “I studied something for a long time, don’t question me”. As China progressed in this modern reassessment, Deng Xiaopeng correctly noted that intellectuals are part of the working class – and they certainly should be.
Intellectuals should not be a separate elite, but that’s what they are in the West – the negative consequences are obvious to absolutely everyone regardless of formal education.
It is partially because Iranian and Chinese intellectuals take an open part in supporting and working with their governments that the intelligence of government policy is so superior than in the West: This is proven by their twin silver medals in the UN HDI since 1970 – what else can you call that but the result of intelligent government policy. Pure luck?
We should see quite clearly: intellectualism (and what could be considered both “immoral” and “positively intellectual”, but that is another issue) in China & Iran should aim to serve the People, whereas in the West they should only follow their own lights and somehow this will ultimately prove to be a benefit to all…but it mostly only benefits the intellectuals themselves, and their elite class.
Certainly, the works of Tolstoy and the 1917 Revolution show which camp Russia has historically preferred.
In the end, I feel pity for Western intellectuals but especially the leftist ones: they have no government which they feel they can morally support, nor one which supports them. They are all alone in the world, LOL! No wonder they are so disagreeable…it’s like they never heard a revolutionary could be happy. And no wonder they give up their leftist ideals – it’s hard to feel one must do everything alone.
As China’s & Iran’s governments continue to support affirmative action policies for the intellectually-politically-morally inclined members of the CCP & Basij, their societies will only get better and better governance…at least theoretically. Certainly, they will get more revolutionary government. “More revolution” – or at least “more of this unique system” – is what the CCP and Basij appear to have as their guiding lights, and that makes for the many, many similarities.
You aren’t going to rise in the Basij or the Chinese Communist Party without being revolutionary
After 30 years of long marches to win over the Chinese People, the Chinese democratically demanded that the Chinese Communist Party govern. The Basij have now had 30 years since their inception, and 10-25 million Iranians are willingly choosing to volunteer and play a part; however, they are not being demanded to govern. They are getting there, though, and that may be the fundamental rub…
The victory of the Basij is very far from certain, and they are not a political party, but the Basij may reach a democratic critical mass where their members are elected into so many positions of power that they effectively dominate Iran’s pluralist government just as the CCP dominates China’s pluralist government (30% of seats in the largest national legislative body – the National People’s Congress – are held by non-Communist parties), with non-Basiji parties there mainly to keep the government honest. It is certainly trending in that direction.
As an Iranian civil servant who is trying to present the first objective view of the Basij in the West ever: I pass no judgment – I only note the trends, and remind that trends change.
I think it’s quite worthwhile to note the striking structural similarities between the Chinese Communist Party and the Basij.
Firstly, the Chinese Communist Party – despite being a “vanguard party” and having just 90 million members in a nation of 1.4 billion people – is indeed a mass organisation.
Just as the Basij is one-third students, the Communist Youth League – separate from the Party but obviously affiliated – has 90 million members. Furthermore, all public school students are enrolled in the CYL’s junior corps, the Young Pioneers, with around 175 million members. Clearly, both the Basij and the Chinese Communist Party are first ways to get youth involved in politics and to shape their political ideology. However, kids in such groups are mainly going on field trips, playing sports, only barely enduring serious school-like discussions, possibly marching around with toy guns or something like that – compared to serious politics this is mainly day care, but with revolutionary cartoons instead of Disney (and Disney, too).
Serious politics is serious business, and these two serious groups take being a truly serious member quite…seriously. When we compare the selection processes for prospective members, we find that they are nearly identical.
From Brown’s book on China, talking about how to join the Communist Party:
“You will be assigned a mentor…. You have to fill out an application and write an essay on why you want to become a member of the Party. Your first essay could easily be rejected…. Obviously, reading and learning the Chinese constitution, Party documents, Marx, Lenin and Mao are essential…you take an exam on communism and the CPC….
…you will get a thorough background check. Through local Communist committees, your family, friends, neighbors and colleagues will be contacted. There is not much notion of ‘Western’ privacy in Chinese society in general, and in the CPC specifically.
One of the final steps is a meeting with you, your mentor and people who know you. It could be colleagues, family or friends. You are not told in advance who will be there. Your dossier is fully discussed in your presence. The good, the bad and the ugly are all laid out on the table for you and everyone to see. You will be told your strong points. You will be criticised for all areas where your peers think you should improve. It is all a very slow, arduous and humbling experience, and you are not even a member yet.
If one does finally convince the work/school/local Party Committee that you have the right stuff, you are accepted on a one-year probationary period…. At this point, a lifelong journey and commitment has begun for the new member. Your surrounding fellow members are educating and observing you the whole time. Are you sincere or just out for yourself? Are you patriotic, hard-working and selfless, or merely selfish and venal?”
And now the application procedure into the Basij, taken from Saeid Golkar’s rather obviously disapproving book (and the only Western one available on the Basij) Captive Society: The Basij Militia and Social Control in Iran. (I should note that many of the previous statistics I listed came from his book, which I describe in detail in the next part of this series.)
“… it’s members are classified into five groups: potential, regular, active, cadre, and special. (Before 2010, the Basij membership consisted of three groups: regular, active and special.) These categories are based on the training that members undergo, the extent of their cooperation with the Basij, and their level of ideological commitment to the IRI (Islamic Republic of Iran).
“The regular Basij… has little connection to Basij bases; members only undergo basic training. Legally, a regular Basij member must be at least eleven years old. Beyond the age limit, there is no other limitation for a person to join as a regular member.
Members who are at least fifteen years of age, have been a regular Basij for at least six consecutive months, and have participated in ideological sessions can apply for ‘active membership’ status.”
After initial approval by their base commanders, two separate bureaus in the Basij regions review their requests. The Deputy of Confirmation of Ideological Qualification, a branch of the Representative of the Supreme Leader, reviews their ideological-political qualifications. Their applications are also reviewed by the Counterintelligence bureau to check their security backgrounds. According to a Basij member, these committees ‘are investigations on everything. It starts with your school, where you went, the kinds of things you did, how you dressed, what your personal opinions and views are, whether you go to the mosque or not, your reputation around your neighborhood, and so on. They investigate all these things.’
According to the new Basij regulations, active members should spend at least six hours per week in their bases and three hours per week in special ideological and political training courses. (I detail this intellectual training in Part 6. Spoiler: it is Iranian revolutionaries, just as the CCP expects their members to know Chinese revolutionaries like Mao.)
A small group of active Basij can be promoted to the fourth-ranked called the cadre Basij…. After passing these (ideological-political courses), cadre Basij, who are employed by the Basij organization, become the main part of the Basij base organizations and can occupy sensitive positions. The cadre members are full-time Basij members under short-term contracts (usually three to five years), meaning that they are on the Basij payroll.
Special Basij are members who possess military skills and ideological qualities similar to those of IRGC (Revolutionary Guard) members. They become part of the organisation after passing special military and ideological courses, and are committed to serving in the IRGC full time…. All the special Basij members also need to take part in ‘consistency or refreshing trainings’ offered every year, usually lasting for 5 to 15 days.”
The similarities between the Chinese Communist Party and the Basij should be obvious: They start off as youth programs, and then the serious youth can make these community service-oriented organisations a part-time hobby, and then those really committed to their society and government can join the government bureaucracy full-time.
Governments sponsor pro-government organisations…that’s what they all do
You don’t have to be a rabid anarchist to realize that all governments first exist to protect their own power, eh? (Some use it to raise up the People, some to raise up only a few.)
For the West, and for Golkar, this all terrifying – it’s “an invasion of privacy”, it’s “indoctrination”, it’s “only for the special forces of the military”.
But for Iran and China politics is serious, and probably because they have to be; if Iran and China had spent centuries meddling in European affairs, I imagine Westerners would be taking the exact same precautions. Furthermore, membership in both of these groups have both responsibilities and privileges, and you don’t hand such things to the unworthy, undeserved and unverified. If these groups are allowed to exist, democratically, then they also require standards to ensure proper public service.
So what we have here are essentially two mass organisations, which via internal selection winnow themselves into a “vanguard party” at the higher echelons. For China, the Communist Party will be seen as a natural continuation of their millennia-old civil service examinations. Are all CCP members 100% devoted communists? No, but you can bet at the top they are, a few very-slippery exceptions aside, perhaps; it’s obviously designed to be the same with the Basij.
The Russian Communist Party was something of a hybrid: Khrushchev opened the membership floodgates to change it from a vanguard party to a mass party, and this was likely a major reason for their subsequent corruption – ideologically unsound people joined and created niches where corruption flourished, expanded and then dominated. Along with the Black Market itself, glasnost, Gorbachev’s decision to end central planning of the economy, the expansion of the Communist Party is seen by many as a primary – if slow-acting – cause of the USSR’s implosion.
Both the CCP and the Basij obviously need to have strict human resources tests for their members, and it sure seems that they do. Quite intelligently, President & General Secretary Xi has moved to make CCP membership more selective, and it is now harder to get into the CCP than the US Ivy League university group.
It is my objective analysis that the Basij – not having had any Long Marches like the CCP had during which they won their People over – has been made a mass membership organization in order to gradually win over the entirety of the Iranian People to the Revolution. The Iranian Islamic Revolution is also clearly even more revolutionary (unique) than the Chinese Communist Revolution, after all – beyond counter-revolutionaries, scepticism of such a bold enterprise would naturally be higher in Iran than in China, which was following in the USSR’s footsteps. If Iran ever gains the international stability and respect afforded to China, I would imagine that the Basij would – like China – start drastically scaling back its membership; I can imagine that some people would not join the Basij for socioeconomic benefits – as some now undoubtedly do – if said stability and respect finally allowed Iran to fully harvest and share its wealth & resources with all citizens regardless of Basij membership.
Now whether or not this will translate into the Basij becoming a vanguard party like the CCP, that I don’t know – the similarities may never reach that point. I note that the clergy already fulfils that role in Iran. It’s possible that the Basij will openly serve as their bureaucratic arm…but this paragraph is mostly speculation.
The Basij appears to have one advantage: if the Chinese do not believe the Party is always watching, Basiji certainly believe that God always is (at least at the top levels, one would assume). I certainly think it is fair to assume a higher degree of ideological rigour on the part of the Basiji versus the Russian Communist Party members post-Kruschev.
The security roles of the Basij, the Revolutionary Guards & the Chinese Communist Party
I think I have demonstrated how the Basij is more than a mere “militia”, but they do have a security component just like the CCP.
Iran and China are two countries who insist on rigid political control of their armed forces (not their regular army) and tolerate nothing like the essentially extra-legal yet highly-political CIA or FBI. Both are also totally against the professionalisation of the army, which the West now insists on (it’s hard to control and perversely order an army which is truly drawn from the People) and which eventually occurred in the USSR.
Unlike the USSR, the Chinese Communist Party has total control of the military. I return to Brown:
“Chinese leaders have been careful to keep control of the commanding heights of politics through the party’s grip on the ‘three Ps’: personnel, propaganda, and the People’s Liberation Army.
The PLA is the party’s military, not the country’s. Unlike in the West, where controversies often arise about the potential politicization of the military, in China the party is on constant guard for the opposite phenomenon, the depoliticization of the military. Their fear is straightforward: the loss of party control over the generals and their troops.”
After all, the Chinese Revolution put the Communist Party in charge – NOT the military. That would have made it a commonplace “coup”, and not a “revolution”.
The same “the revolution did not put the military in charge” goes for Iran, where the Army is a separate but parallel organisation with the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and the IRGC is placed in oversight of the Basij. The Basij and the Revolutionary Guards are essentially the same thing as the PLA: apart from the army, highly politicized, there to preserve the revolution & the constitution, and thus the important role of the vanguard party (Shia clerics).
Both the PLA and the Revolutionary Guards are about 0.2% of the entire population. They are highly-political and elite posts, whereas the Basij is a mass membership organization.
Essentially, the Basij and the IRGC serve a very similar function to the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA – they are a “new branch” which goes beyond the usual executive, legislative, judicial and military; they are “revolutionary” in that they are unique among the average political system in the world today, and also because each one of them is dedicated to preserving their modern, popular, 20th century revolutions.
The IRGC and Basij are under the overall Armed Forces General Command, who report to the President and Supreme Leader: What this also means is that they were not allowed to become separate and independent from the government (and thus beyond the reach of democracy), like the CIA or KGB; in these latter situations these “ministries” become rivals to the party and/or the government.
I have not and will not talk much about the IRGC – an 11-part series is long enough, eh? But I can sum them up quickly here:
As, you have read – the IRGC are ranked above the Basij in the government hierarchy, and the most-committed Basij members achieve status in the IRGC. The IRGC is an organisation which, while being part of the Armed Forces, is not at all the same as the regular army. The IRGC, like the Basij and the charity cooperatives (bonyads), and unlike the army, have been given significant control over economic resources in so-called “privatisation” (which I described in Part 3). The IRGC has been given minority parts in the most important & most sensitive sectors (but not oil) – they are Guard(ing) the Revolution, after all. They have increasingly become politically involved, with many former members in Parliament. Their main political affiliation – as I will emphatically demonstrate with the mass-member Basij – is to the Revolution and not the Principlist or Reformist camps.
Conclusion – Expect an increase in similarities between Iran and China
For the Chinese Communist Party the process went: fighting, victory, consolidation, corruption purge, rebalancing ideologically, success, and now more corruption purges & hopefully greater success.
The Basij have not had as much revolutionary experience, and they may not even get that far – who knows?
We can say that fighting began in 1980, victory was achieved in 1988, and that consolidation occurred when many of them emphatically backed Ahmadinejad during the 2009 protests following his re-election.
However, this article has not really explained what the Basij truly is. Nor has the reader been given enough information to decide many things: Should the Basij be supported in a democratic majority internally? Are they worthy of foreign support and emulation? Are they worthy of Chinese Communist Party-like prominence in Iran’s government? Do they need a corruption-remedying cultural revolution because they have lost the ideals of they Iranian Islamic revolution?
This series will be just the first truly objective English-language, objective examination of the Basij ever: Therefore, I do not want to answer any of those questions – laying a solid & informative groundwork for the opinions of others is what is clearly more needed.
The upcoming three parts are to inform, and not to sway or render judgment. I am simply trying to remedy the lack of available objective scholarship on the Basij with these articles.
One cannot understand Iran in 2018 without understanding the Basij – I think all Iranians will agree with that this is a fair guiding principle of this 4-part sub-series. I think everybody will agree that they have many similarities with the Chinese Communist Party.
This is the 4th article in an 11-part series which explains the economics, history, religion and culture of Iran’s Revolutionary Shi’ism, which produced modern Iranian Islamic Socialism.
Here is the list of articles slated to be published, and I hope you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!
Structural similarities between Iran’s Basij and the Chinese Communist Party
Iran’s Basij: The reason why land or civil war inside Iran is impossible
A leftist analysis of Iran’s Basij – likely the first ever in the West
Iran’s Basij: Restructuring society and/or class warfare
‘Cultural’ & ‘Permanent Revolution’ in Revolutionary Shi’ism & Iranian Islamic Socialism
‘Martyrdom and Martyrdom’ & martyrdom, and the Basij
‘The Death of Yazdgerd’: The greatest political movie ever explains Iran’s revolution (available with English subtitles for free on Youtube here)
Iran détente after Trump’s JCPOA pull out? We can wait 2 more years, or 6, or…
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.