Their Engineering Students and Ours: Part 2

Iran: Between Two Revolutions

Abrahamian point outs that the neo-colonial coup of 1953 arrived in a country that had already been through its first two periods of mass politics, mass left movements and something like the beginning of democracy. Not only had the Constitutional Revolution and its aftermath announced the emergence of the Iranian “nation” on the world stage, the cry “long live the Iranian nation” (“Zendebad mellat-e Iran”) first been heard in the first salvos of that movement, but two periods of relative multi party democracy had been enjoyed. First, in the period leading up to the coup d’etat that brought Reza Khan to dictatorial power as the first Pahlavi monarch and then, second, in the preriod after he had been forced from power by the British and their allies, and before the autocracy his son and the American’s wrought after the coup.

This was also a country that had a much older radical Left and Communist movement than any other in the country. The Constitutional Revolution had provided an opening in Iranian history that allowed ideas that were once the preserve almost entirely of a hyper privileged elite, ideas of “nation”, “rule of law”, “freedom of religion” or “freedom of speech and even “socialism”, to find a root to the masses of the people.

In fact Abrahmian spends the first portion of his Iran Between Two Revolutions sketching out just how revolutionary the Consituional Revolution had been for Iran, and what a staggering social history it crowned for the country. Around a century previously, the Qajar Empire lost the first of two disastrous wars with Tsarist Russia. At the same time these consigned a huge section of once “Iranian” peoples to direct colonisation by Russia, whilst at the same time forcing colonial Treatise of Capitulation on Iran proper. Following a brief period of lionisation of the British as a democratic counterweight to Tsarist oppression, the image of Britain in the public imagination changed as Britain and official divided the country in two with Russia, British colonial industries, most importantly Oil, grew in the south west and Britain’s own, even harsher, treatises of capitulation were enforced. As Curzon, viceroy of India, remarked these amounted to the most complete capitulation of one nations interests to another in history.

As Abrahamian point out length, the class structure of Iran at this time falls outside any of the wooden schemata that any of the political groups that have most talked about this period use. In the first instance, both monarchists and, later and for surprisingly similar reasons, Islamists and their neo third worldist defenders have claimed that a “class analysis” is impossible for Qajar, early modern or contemporary Iran. This very clearly, is not the case. In the first few chapters of IBTR for instance, a very clear sketch of the classes that operate across the urban, agricultural and tribal sections of Iran is drawn. More to the point, Abrahmain gives examples of how class struggle operated in the pre colonial period. Peasants for instance, because they were not tied to the land in the same way as the European peasantry, would get up and leave from the land of landords who they deemed to be exploitative and move to the land of another, en masse. There were also uprisings of the rural and urban poor, chiefly articulated through the Babi movement, but sometimes with other religious contexts.

We can also begin to see in this period, the emergence onto the stage of a, at first tiny, section of society, marked by their experience studying European ideas, at first at home as a result of contact with the colonial powers, and later as the highly privileged section of the sone of the aristocracy who could study in Europe. Like the first students to modern wester institutions from many African or Asian countries, such students almost without fail studied subjects that they perceived as useful for overcoming the alleged backwardness of their country, whether law, medicine, military science or modern engineering. This class, that was develop numerically and in terms of political importance in the twentieth century, began to be referred o as Munavvar al fekr (in Arabic) or, more famously, in Persian as the Roshan Fekran, “the enlightened thinkers”, a term with as much moral and political weight in Iran as anywhere else.

As well as this tiny minority the Constituional Revolution affected the much larger swathes of Iranian society. Whether the tiny amount engaged as industrial workers, in Tehran and the nascent oil industry in the south west, the urban poor, what Abrahamian calls the “traditional middle classes” attached to he bazaar, low to middle ranking clergy and landowners, or rural peoples. Just as Abrahamian makes clear that the idea that one cannot apply a class analysis to this society is fallacious, so to he shows how the traditional leftist designation of Iran as a “feudal” country does not hold water; most obviously, social ranking was not primarily tied to land as in classical European feudalism. Indeed, the highest aristocrats under both the Safavid’s and the Qajar’s tended to be drawn from the nomadic confederations of tribes that had brought these families to power.

Furthermore, the class structure of this period was cut across in two dimensions. On one axis by a complex web of religious and sectarian affilatiions. With the codification of twelver Shia’ism in its Usooli form only really taking shape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the period leading up to the constitutional revolution was marked by Iranians adhering to one many relgioys identities. Almost every twelver shia in a major city would subscribe to one of two, perpetually warring, Sufi orders. Other smaller orders dominated in the country side. At the same time certain sections of the clergy were securing strong followings, both inside and outside these order and Iran;s numerically and culturally important religious minorities had their own internal and external divisions.

On the other axis a complex of linguistic, so-called “tribal” and geographical set of properties also divided the country, A series of important shifts in alliance and military power rocked the politically preeminent tribes and some tribesmen and Khan’s fought on the side of the Qajar’s and imperialists, but others fought for the constitution. Sometimes “tribal” affiliation trumped religious or sectarian affiliation, and sometimes vice versa. This complex series of allegiances both provided the Qajar kings with a way to rile the country, and also acted as a way that power could sometimes be exercised by lower class groups, and flow upwards. Speaking to the first point Abrahamian quotes The travelogue of an early British colonial diplomat; “The Qajars…ensure their own safety by nicely balancing and systematically fomenting mutual jealousies. They preserved their presence in distant regions and placed their princes as provincial governors by continually taking advance of local rivalries- between Haydaris and Ni’matis in Shushta, Isfahan and Qazvin; between Shaykhis and Mutashar’is in Tabriz; between Karimkhanis and Mutashar’is in Kerman; between Shahsavens, Afshars, Kurds, Turkomans, and Persians in the northeast: between Lurs, Afshars, Bakhtiyaris, Persians and Arabs in the south west.”

At the same time this complex series of affiliations actually provided a root for the desires and views of some sections of the lower classes (whether tribal, urban or rural) to flow back up through society to the top, for pressure from below to be exerted. In the villages the “Kadkhuda” system provided a way in which at certain times there was a semi democratically elected counter weight to local landlords. Tribesmen could change and shift allegiance and had semi democratic structures of tribal affiliation in some cases. And the urban guilds around the bazaars had some structures, not to mention the “terror of urban revolt” the Qajar’s lived in, anytime the harvest was bad; “An Iranian official recounts in his memoirs that Naser al-Din Shah, years later in appointing his own son governor of Tehran warned him that he would be personally responsible if food prices rose: “You will hang on the public gallows so that everyone can see I am prepared to sacrifice my own son for the public good.” Thus Qajar intervention in the market economy, especially through price controls and grain storehouses, was not a sign of their absolutism- as claimed by nineteenth century liberal Europeans- but a direct product go their impotence in dealing with public disturbances.” That is to say, a result of pressure from below, not unlike the politics of food rioting in eighteenth century England.

On the way past this argument then we can say that Abrahamian shows that the more wooden models of “oriental despotism” and the “asiatic mode of production”, whilst historically providing a placeholder, a kind of cover of orthodoxy under which more creative Marxists have been able to pull the analysis of societies like pre and early colonial Iran out of the sterile game of “proving the Party right” about their nature as feudal societies, it is clear that the more literal readings of it mask the a more complex reality below the surface.

All of which underlines the staggering change Iran has gone through by the times of the staging of the 1953 coup. A constitution has been fought for, one and practically abrogated by the rise of Reza Khan’s new dictatorship, women have been “freed” from wearing the hijab, and indeed their are some anti hijab laws, the clergy have all been sent to Qom, two generations of Leftist militants have taken up struggle against the Shah and the imperialist powers and mass politics, namely the first mass communist party in the middle east, the Tudeh Party, has been born. For the vast majority of urban dwellers, the old sectarian inter Shia’ identities, and some of the tribal affiliations have fallen away and been replaced by hardened up ethnic or linguistic identities.

By setting out an account of how these massive changes came into being, we can see the emergence of the political ideas and the social forces that shaped Iran in the 20th Century, most famously in the 1979 revolution.  More importantly we can see the relationship between these two things.

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