Sunday, March 6, 2016

2235. Why You Cannot Learn about the Iranian Labor History from Wikipedia

by Kamran Nayeri, March 6, 2016
A protest rally in Tehran demanding a living wage.  Many labor activists are arrested and tortured by the Islamic Republic regime. 

Why Wikipedia?
I have been a supporter of Wikipedia from the beginning.  After all it is a non-profit volunteer-run open-source online encyclopedia with about 10 billion hits per month that promises to “compile the sum of all human knowledge.” 

So, I regularly used Wikipedia in  my own writing to provide easy access to references when possible even though I have been aware for some time that it does not always include accurate information. I argued that Wikipedia is inaccurate by designed in that it provides an ongoing and permanent corrective mechanism as a critical readership could continuously improved its entries.  I imagined Wikipedia as a democracy from below experiment to bring to the world a free and comprehensive online encyclopedia.  Wikipedia is built on a user-contributor-sustainer model.  I assumed it belonged to all. 

An Wikipedia entry for a central leader of the Iranian labor movement?
That is until I tried to help by providing an entry for Yadullah Khosroshahi, a central leader of the Iranian labor movement over the past half a century. 

Six years ago on February 4, Khosroshahi died of stroke in exile in London. I had the good fortunate of knowing and collaborating with him during the last 10 years of his life. When he died labor leaders and activists Iran and those in exile and some international labor organizations from the French CGT to the Canadian postal workers union as well as more than a dozen Iranian leftist parties and civil society groups joined in celebrating his life. 

At that time, many promised to collect his writings, interviews, speeches in audio and video formats and make them available to the public.  With two notable exceptions—the International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran (IASWI) published an autobiographical interview of with Khosroshahi in Farsi (they did not provide the source or the date but it must have been soon after his arrival in London in 1987) and an English summary of tributes to him and Arash, an Farsi language magazine published in Paris provided a section of its issue 104 (March 2010) for tributes to him and another autobiographical interview with him in 2002—none of those promises have been fulfilled. There is still neither a biography of Khosroshahi or a collection of his contributions in Farsi.  If someone searched under his name on the web, many video clips and some writings can be found, but even some of these are infected with malware (Islamic Republic’s work?) In English there is practically nothing (except my own piece “The Yadullah I Knew: A Tribute to an Iranian Working Class Leader,” 2010) which simply outlines my encounters with him. 

So, I reasoned, Wikipedia could be a first step to introduce Khosroshahi to the world. 

The tyranny of a petty bureaucrat
Writing for Wikipedia is exceedingly and unnecessarily difficult the first time. But I suppose this can be easily addressed.  When I figured it out the hard way problems more difficult to fix surfaced. 

When I finally submitted a first draft imagine my surprise to see it rejected by a Wikipedia editor called One15969 who decided Khosroshahi was “Notable” enough to have a biographical entry! When I asked One15969 about his/her reasoning it came down to this: my biographical sketch relies on  his autobiographical interviews as well as tributes paid to him by fellow labor activists and workers organizations.  One15969 demanded mainstream published sources. 

I brought to One15969 attention that historically repressive conditions in Iran where freedom pf speech, organization and the press do not exists and labor movement leaders and activists have been routinely harassed, imprisoned, tortured and sometimes executed excludes that possibility of mainstream media and academic publications that recount Khosroshahi’s life. The international mass media attention and scholarly research is similarly lacking. One15969 was not moved by my argument.  When I asked how I can appeal his/her decision I received no response.  Apparently, there is not appeal process in Wikipedia.  

One15969 treatment reminded me of the tyranny of a petty bureaucrat in autocratic regimes, including in Iran.  Because the petty bureaucrat holds the “seal of approval” and there is no real “due process” they can deny citizens their rights at will. At least, in Iran the petty bureaucrat wields his power to extract a bribe.  Why would a volunteer editor in a non-profit anarchistic democracy realm of Wikipedia act as a petty bureaucrat? Why Wikipedia review process is so arbitrary and corruptible? 

Which editor has the final word?
After waiting for a few days in the hope of getting a response from One15969, I followed a tip to “consult” with Wikipedia editors on how to improve a given draft. 

This experience was like joining a chatroom with a number of editors and potential contributors like myself.  The monitor screen was filled with a number of conversations going on all at the same time—imagine about two dozen volunteer editors are talking to a similar number of potential contributors all at the same time!

To add to the madness, I received responses to my questions from more than one editor and sometimes they differed. Kikichugirl opined that a biography must be from a “neutral” point of view and wanted me to address that concern. She also seemed to agree with One15969 that I must draw on “secondary” “reliable” sources and “original research.”

LaMona wanted me to cite sources other than Khosroshahi to support statements such as "In 1968, Khosroshahi was elected as a delegate of the Abadan refinery workers" and that he had “arrive[d] in London and subsequently received political asylum.”  I have used Khosroshahi’s two autobiographical interviews—one published after his arrival in London in 1987 and another published in a reputable magazine in Iran in 2002— and confirmed by accounts from other Iranian labor activists for these and similar non-contentious statements.  LaMona also wanted me to cut the draft by 80%!

As I told some of these editors, there are many Wikipedia entries that do not follow their stringent demands. For example, the entry for the Islamic Labor Party of Iran which was formed and quickly set aside by the clerical capitalist Islamic Republic Party of Iran has no references at all.  Or, the Marxist-Leninist Labour Party of Iran has only one reference with a non-working linkNeither is notable and both are clearly self-serving entries.  The entry for George Meany, praise the man who presided over the bureaucratic control of the American AFL-CIO for decades as having “had a reputation for integrity and consistent opposition to corruption in the labor movement” with just one reference in the California Management Review! Critical point of view is cited.  Clearly, despite their best intentions these editors interpreted Wikipedia’s rules in a way they preferred and there is no mechanism for appealing their judgement. Had I come across a sympathetic editor, she/he could have signed off on my draft and it too could have become a Wikipedia entry. 

I signed off in despair to let myself cool off and consider my options.  I decided to address as many of these comments as possible even if it would make the draft excessively referenced. Also, I cut down the draft to bare bone. At the same time, in the opening summary section I quoted a number of Iranian and International labor leaders who spoke in praise of Khosroshahi’s contributions and referenced to well over a dozen Iranian leftist political parties and civil society groups that did the same. 

No Wikipedia editor could read Farsi sources
The submission was rejected again. But not because Khosroshahi was not “notable.” Two editors had already accepted that he was indeed a “notable person.”  So, I singed on the Wikipedia chatroom to see why the submission is rejected again.  After more than an hour of back-and-forth an editor named Huon told me that he/she cannot read my reference which were either not available online or were in Farsi.  Therefore, he argued, he cannot discuss the draft. He thought an editor that read Farsi was needed. Huon suggested I consult the Farsi section of Wikipedia. When I examined the Farsi Wikipedia I found it sparse and I found no option for submitting an English entry (or a Farsi entry for that matter). I felt I was in wild-goose  chase.

One idea that crossed my mind and I discussed with two Iranian-Canadian labor activists who are also former collaborators of Khosroshahi was to begin a petition drive to demand that Wikipedia provide a biographical entry for Khosroshahi. The conduct of volunteer Wikipedia editors were arrogant and discriminating against the labor movement particularly from the Global South (to deny a labor leader from Iran is not “notable”), unreasonable (to demand that routinely acceptable often personal facts be back up by “third party” sources), unprofessional (none of the editors I encountered showed any interest or expertise either in labor history or Iranian history) and none could read original sources in Farsi and still denied them (except for one editor who admitted to it). Both my labor activist collaborators of Khosroshahi welcomed the idea. We thought a petition could easily get dozens of signatures within a week from labor leaders in Iran and internationally as well as Iranian academics. 

On further reflection, I decided to not pursue this idea.  Who in Wikipedia should this petition be addressed to?  Even if we could find someone to received the petition and they acted as One15969 how would we escalate our campaign? To be sure Wikipedia itself include an entry for on Criticism of Wikipedia. Among such criticism is “uneven handling, acceptance, and retention of articles about controversial subjects” as well as 
“the factual reliability of the content; the readability of the prose; and a clear article-layout; the existence of systemic bias, of gender bias, and of racial bias among the editorial community that is Wikipedia. Further concerns are that the organization allows the participation of anonymous editors (facilitating editorial vandalism); the existence of social stratification (allowing cliques); and over-complicated rules (allowing editorial quarrels), which conditions permit the misuse of Wikipedia.”
In brief, what I have recounted above is nothing new and others have written about them well before my time.

So, I published my draft as “A Biographical Sketch of the Iranian Socialist Labor Leader Yadullah Khosroshahi” in Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism which I edit. I plan to work with others to create a web-portal for Khosroshahi in the near future. 

The historical weakness of the Iranian labor movement
While reading and collecting material for my sketch of Khosroshahi’s labor activities I came across contributions made by other labor activists that unfortunately were void of anything concrete.  Tribute that praised Khosroshahi as if out of duty than offering any insight what made him the labor leader he was known to be—a subject of repression by two regimes and much loved by many labor and socialist currents that he did not always agree with. Other more helpful writings include inaccuracies or even lacked routine editorial attention.  Iranian labor and socialist journalism and research are still in their infancy.  The fact remains that the Iranian labor movement is still unable to learn from its own history because of a lack of systematic literature about labor struggles and leaders over the course of the past hundred years. 

Khosroshahi attributed the weakness of the Iranian labor movement to its lack of independent organizations. It should be obvious that independence of the labor movement presuppose a board knowledge of Iranian workers with their own history.  The fact remains that the Iranian labor movement has been overshadowed by the Iranian socialist movement from it's beginning in the aftermath of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906.

The history of the Iranian workers in the oil industry began with the discovery of oil in southwest of Iran in May 1908 and with migrant Iranian workers who worked in Baku’s oil fields. The latter were influenced by the Bolsheviks and the Iranian Edalat (Justice) Party that was reconstituted as the Iranian Communist Party in 1920. Given the fuzzy concept of the relationship between the Bolsheviks and the labor movement and in the conditions of War Communism the Communist Party (Bolshevik) essentially took over the control of workplaces to defend the revolution.  After the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist Party this approach to the labor movement became standard practice across the world. In Iran, the Stalinist Tudeh Party made the trade unions its axillary formation.  All independent labor activity was suppressed not only by the capitalist dictatorship but also by the Stalinist leadership. The same attitude towards the Iranian labor movement was followed by many split-offs from the Tudeh Party.  IN vanguavanguardistrdist parties of all kinds, it was common to assume “the party knows the best.” 

Khosroshahi represented a generation of trade unionists in Iran that emerged in the 1960s and the 1970s when no party controlled the labor movement because of the post-1953 consolidation of bloody repression against the leftist and nationalist forces and rapid capitalist industrialization doubled the size of the industrial working class in 15 years to 2.5 million by 1979. 

The demand for labor created a space for labor movement to organize itself and for leaders like Khosroshahi to help lead struggles that won concessions from the Shah’s regime. This gave the newly radicalizing working class self-confidence.  When the 1979 revolution arrived, it was on the basis of strike committees build on this basis.  However, neither the labor movement nor its leaders were ready to challenge Ayatollah Khomeini and his theocratic capitalist Islamic Republic.  Iranian labor leaders still lacked experience and self-confidence in realms of theory and history fell back on the Stalinist and centrist leftist parties for political guidance. Thus, the Islamic Republic was able to divide their ranks by organizing and mobilizing Muslim workers against the worker council movement that arose out of the strike committees of the pre-February 1979 period. The councils themselves were influenced by the leftist parties that were either giving political support to Khomeini or falling into the trap of armed conflict with the regime.  Thus, the workers council movement was crushed before it could understand and overcome its own internal problems. 

Today 37 years after the 1979 revolution, the Iranian labor movement has not recovered from its bloody defeat at the hands of the Islamic Republic.

To overcome marginalization by Wikipedia and the like, we need to build the Iranian labor movement using its own resources. 

Related post:
A Biographical Sketch of the Iranian Socialist Labor Leader Yadullah Khosroshahi

No comments: