Their Engineering Students and Ours Part 3: The Birth of the Middle Classes

The Tobacco Revolt and The Birth of the Middle Classes

The  Constitutional Revolution was the first revolutionary popular challenge to royal absolutism and imperialism in Iran.  To see how and why this came to be, we have to trace its development, in a the struggle for reform which predated it, in particular the struggle against concession and treaties of capitulation that reached their peak in the Tobacco Revolt.  It is through these struggles that those section of the middle classes come into being that will go on to determine much of Iranian politics in the twentieth century.  In Iran Between Two Revolutions, we begin to meet these dramatis persona, born, as Abrahamian says, in “…contact with the West-through travel, translations, and educational extablishments- created modern ideas, modern aspirations, modern values, and thereby modern intellectual. Although these intellectuals, these Roshanfekran, developed during the twentieth century into the salaried middle class, the constituted in the nineteenth century a mere stratum, for they were too few and too heterogeneous to form a social class: some were aristocrats, even royal princes, others civil servants and army officers, and yet others clerics and merchants. But despite occupational and social differences, they formed a distinct stratum, for they shared a common desire for fundamental economic, political and ideological change.”

In terms of a broad description of how they were coming to see the world they felt that “human progress was not only desirable and possible but also easily attainable if they broke the three chains of royal despotism, clerical dogmatism and foreign imperialism. They abhorred the first as the inevitable enemy of liberty, equality and fraternity; the second as the natural opponent of rational and scientific thought; and the third as the insatiable exploiter of small countries (sic.) like Iran…Thus they claimed to be “enlightened” on the grounds not of a quantitate learning, since the traditional literati could boast more scholastic learning, but of qualitative savour faire to construct a modern society.”

A number of the first generation of these intellectuals are still perceived as national hero in Iran, by Iranians of all different political stripe: Jamal al Din “Afghani”, who took the name “afghani” is a pan Islamic gesture to hide his Shia’ roots and religion from a Sunni world that would be able to easily brush him aside as such, is revered by a disparate collection of Islamists and Khomeinists, Islamic liberals, Left muslims and so on; Malkum Khan, the Armenian reforming minister, newspaper editor and mystical freemason, who was revered as the first constitutionalist but who ended his life in a frail semi-exile in London. Abrahamian, through breaking down their political perspectives shows how,  it is both possible that third world nationalist, Islamist and Marxist Iranians are able to claim them as their own and, for them  to escape typification as some mixture of these three categories. Which is to say, at a point in which Iran doesn’t look anything like a perfectly modern society, it is natural that its intellectual progressives don’t espouse anything like straight down the line modern political ideas. To expect different is tantamount to expecting Newton to have ben a modern scientist rather than someone who combines religious mysticism, natural science and alchemical craziness.

An illustrative example of this complexity is apparent in a quotation from one of Malkum Khan’s Editorial’s, from issue one of his famous Qanun (The Law) newspaper which is worth quoting at length. “We have found that ideas which were by no means acceptable when coming from..Europe were accepted at once with greatest delight when it was proved that they were latent in Islam. I can assure you that the little progress which you see in Persia and Turkey, especially in Persia, is due to this fact that some people have taken your European principles and instead of saying that they come from England, France or Germany, they have said “We have nothing to do with these Europeans; but these are the true principles of our religion (and indeed, this is quite true) which have been taken by Europeans!” That has had a marvellous effect.”

Now, to those who follow one of the traditional political interpretations of the 1979 revolution, this might appear to simply follow the pattern that the “Iranian Left” has supposed to have set up. In a so-called backward country they have, without really believing in it themselves, sought to mask their leftist beliefs in an irrational religious shell, so as to propagate them more effectively. Then, in a cruel twist of history these very irrational metaphors have blow up in their face when the true religious nature of the Iranian masses takes over. Parts of this narrative prop up in Iranian counter revolutionary monarchist tellings, some of the narratives set up by the Iranian left, and some of the narratives set up by western leftists (who mainly want to use it to say that because the Iranian movement didn’t follow their “line” it was doomed to failure from the beginning). We will actually see later how this is just factually incorrect, how the Iranian revolutionary movements, whether Marxist, Muslim or some mix of the two actually, generally, said what they thought.  Its just people didn’t necessarily listen.

At the same time it is interesting to look at this passage, not in the light of what followed it, but in the light of the Islamicate and European intellectual history that preceded and surrounded it. What is immediately striking in the short passage of text is the dual manoeuvre, on the one hand the invitation to see a hidden motive and code behind a method of speech; the way that the people of “Persia and Turkey” must be told that these ideas are not in fact “European”, although there is an implication that they are in some sense. At the same time we are told that the apparently false outer shell is in fact the true hidden meaning; “and indeed, this is quite true.”

This pattern of truth, where the apparent outer false shell is in fact the hidden inner meaning when articulated at a higher level has more than the immediate Hegelian connotations. We can easily think for instance of the Shia’ concept of taw’il the form of esoteric exegesis of the Quran that developed into much more elaborate forms amongst the radical forms of Shii’ism in early modern Iran. From the 19th Century mystical social reformers of the Babi movement, back to the early modern/late middle age apocalyptic radicals of the Hurufi movement, the return of a text to its true inner meaning was something, unlike the classical Sufi masters, to be given to the “avvam” or mass of the people. The inner meaning was to become the outer.

At the same time we can not forget the effects of the rebirth of European mysticism or the so-called “Magical tradition” on European leftists and progressives, of the kind that Malkum Khan must have met in Europe. The mystical life of the Carbonari of the rissorgimento, for instance, was not mere decoration, and neither were the freemason banners that hung from the walls of the Paris Commune. Is it not reasonable that the reason that figures like Malkum can be seen as a proto nationalist, proto socialist or proto Islamist precisely that they were all this, and more? Early in his return to Iran, Malkum Khan had set up the first indigenous freemasonic lodge in Iran. By indigenous, I mean that it did not follow an existing rite, or model itself on western degrees, but adorned itself with Zoroastrian, Shia’ and eastern Christian symbolism. To ignore what Malkum Khan called his Faramoush Khaneh (House of Forgetting), is to forget the context and reality of what it meant to be a nineteenth century radical intellectual and liberal.

At the same time the 19th Century, in the period leading up to the constitutional revolution sees the development of another important section of Iranian modern society, that will play, a decisive role in the 10th century, particularly during the 1979 revolution.

Abrahamian describes a dual process that creates what we can, following him, call the “traditional propertied middle class”. Pre colonial Iran contained a number of disparate social layers, some tied to the (re)production of a clerical class and some to the bazaars, who did not rely directly on either tribal rank, agricultural labour or military/court position economically. Before the arrival of the British and the Russians on the scene, these constituted very disparate social strata, particularly with regards geography. In the case of the bazaaris for instance, the bazaars of Shiraz and Tabriz, separated by deserts and mountains, tribal areas and language, were only connected to each other for the richest and most powerful merchants who could move between them.  But the arrival of the Russian and British interests meant the tying together of these establishments into a national market, so that the imperialist powers could more easily liquidate their goods, and seize primary resources. At the same time the preferential treatment the colonial powers extracted, at the barrel of the literal and proverbial gun, began to coalesce a national consciousness in the mind of these sections of the population for the first time.

When the British and Russians demanded lower rates of import duty, tax , monopolies of sale and distribution and so on this ruined the indigenous system of distribution and trade. Whilst richer and more powerful bazaaris could apply for British or Russian citizenship, the lower and middle orders of the bazaar began to see common interests.  At just the same time that they were being physically and economically linked together.  For British and Russian capital it made absolute sense to have a properly “Qajar Empire wide” system to organise their colonial trade in the bazaars.  So, Shiraz and Tabriz, Tehran and Zanjan did begin to become linked.  The problem for the colonial powers, of course, came when this class started to express itself.

Their interests were pressed, not only through the leadership of the bazaar guilds, but also a spiritual articulation through a clergy worried about the ecroachment of European missionaries and educationalists, the traditional middle class was born.  Thus an ideological link was created in this class at birth, which echoed the traditional economic link, between the bazaar and the clergy.  (In terms of everyday life examples of this can be given aplenty from the pre colonial period- whether the sponsorship of student clergy by bazaaris, the complex land arrangements between bazaari and clerical families, the system of religious tithe collection etc)

As the colonial vice tightened further around Iran, two marked differences begin to appear to appear in the life of its peoples. On the one hand a new found poverty, largely as a result of the colonial looting of the country. As Abrahamian describes it, during the pre and early colonial period yoghurt, fruit, rice, bread, meat, milk and cheese provided part of the regular diet, but by the end of the nineteenth century wide scale food poverty is rife, exacerbated rather than caused by occasional famine and poor harvests. At the same time there is also a rise in “hostility towards the West, the Qajars and the communities closely associated with the West.” Where as “in the first half of the century, Europeans such as Ouseley, Morier and Sheil, freely attended mosque services, passion plays and even Muharram flagellation ceremonies…:” and :one missionary even received thanks from the ‘ulama for initiating a theological debate between Islam and Christianity”, the mood changed “gradually as a result of the foreign wars, and particularly after the humiliating Turkomanchai treaty. Immediately after the treaty,” for instance, “the Tsar sent Griboyedov, a dramatist notorious for his contempt for all Asians, especially Iranians, to implement its degrading clauses. After arriving in Tehran, Griboyedov permitted his Cossack bodyguards to roam drunk through the streets; insulted the court by refusing to take off his riding boors; and ordered his troops into private homes to “liberate” former Christians who were now Muslim slaves. The consequences were not surprising.” As the colonial concessions extracted by the British and Russians grew more humiliating and more severe, so did the xenophobia and sense of religious disenfranchisement of the majority.

When the British were granted a monopoly on all Tobacco in Iran, the liberal newspaper Akhtar began a campaign against it that only caught fire when the traditional middle class got behind it. The shutting down of the bazaar in Shiraz spread to bazaars all over the country. This became a general strike, and was encouraged, by a religious fatwa that forbid any use of tobacco until the monopoly was lifted into a full on national campaign. Even the Shah’s wives refused to bring him his shisha pipe in the harem. As Abrahamian says “The crisis revealed the fundamental changes that had taken place…it demonstrated that local revolts could now spread into general rebellions…that the intelligentsia and the traditional middle class could work together..”  Where I think Abrahamian misses something in this account is that this is not just the emergent modern and traditional middle classes working together, but rather a complex relation between the two.  A campaign started by the modern section, inspires the shutting down of the bazaar in one of its first modern strikes.  Not entirely modern to the extent that it was a “national strike”, employers and employees in some cases striking together against the imperialists.

This strike, basically the action of the poorest to upper middle sections of teh traditional middle class finally catches the ear of an Ayatollah Shirazi (as an Ayatollah a member of the very top echelons of the traditional middle class).  The first example of generalised national dissent against the Shah and his imperialist allies the intelligentsia have to wait for the arrival of the traditional middle class on the scene for their anger to truly reach national and mass proportions. It would not be before the development of a truly modern middle class of intelligentsia, and the emergence of a mass industrial working class with which they could make a crucial alliance for them to be able to act on their own.  The traditional middle classes, are absolutely crucial in a country like Iran at this period when the working class is so numerical small that it cannot act decisively.

So in what is, to say the least, a fairly competitive field, we can say that one of the most stinging ironies of Iranian history is that this traditional middle class, were the decisive weight that landed the first blow against the Imperialist powers and Royalist absolutism, in the Tobacco Revolt, not the intelligentsia.

In the second instance, their is a question for practical political Marxists that, to some degree, still applies in non European countries.  The fact is, that in so-called backwards economies, direct relationships of domination still exist, a result of the inability of these countries various ruling classes to develop production patterns that integrate a majority of the working and middle classes into industrial production.  When wages, such that they are, must be supplemented with work in the informal economy, when young graduates find it easier to do odd jobs for their father than get a salaried job, when whole families rely on say one uncle to fix them jobs at a workplace or institution, the standard Marxist account of what policies appeal to the working class, or how to intervene in their struggles come up against problems.

This is especially true when we look at the case of gender.  A recent article in AL monitor  described changing attitudes to virginity and marriage in Iran, and found that ostensible “religiosity” was not a good guide to a young man’s views on whether or not he would “want to marry a virgin”.  In fact, the decisive factor relates to parental control over marriage.  Again, it is surprising and shameful how much left discussion of Islam boils down to a discussion of its supposed essence, without looking at the specific instances of direct power within which a given practice instanced.  For example, the article quotes from “a 24-year-old religious man who runs his father’s successful business in central Tehran and says he is ready for marriage. In response to whether or not virginity is a significant element for making his decision about marriage, Nassir told Al-Monitor, “I think virgins in this day and age are dirty. I would much rather marry a normal girl with real characteristics…But my mother says I must marry a virgin. I thought of lying to my family in case I want to wed someone who is not a virgin, but then I thought my family would be really pissed off when they found out. I don’t want to piss them off. After all, they’re my family, not to mention that I make my living off my dad’s business.”

The fact of the matter is that for large sections of Iranian society, then as well as now, earning a living and getting on in life is tied to family, ethnicity, tribe and so on, in a way that it is not in the west.  As well as these objective factors, there are the subjective ones as well.  We would do well as leftists to remember that we are the weirdos, and most people are not willing to break familial connections, even on grounds of political principle. In fact, it is these bonds and these kinds of issues that the group I call “their engineering students” were able to confront much more successfully than “ours” in the period leading up to the 1979 revolution.  The question of the 1979 revolution, is basically the question of negotiating these obstacles.  But the obstacles are in the future, and the engineers haven’t arrived on stage yet.

As Abrahamian says; “the tobacco protest, in fact, was a dress rehearsal for the forthcoming Constitutional Revolution”.  Its time to open the first act.  

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