Their Engineering Students and Ours 4: The Constitutional Revolution

The Constitutional Revolution

This is not the place to provide a full narrative account of the Constitutional Revolution, and the reader will be able to find really strong historical or poetic accounts in either the books I am talking about here or historical novels such as Amin Malouf’s Samarkand. Unfortunately, this is not the place for those stories of swashbuckling Armenian revolutionaries, heroic tribal leaders, American and European volunteers fired by love for the country they had lived in, ordinary people who had discovered the ideals of the French Revolution or decrepit clerics, venal courtiers and their foreign backers. Instead we must limit ourselves to a broad over view of events and a sketch of how the forces at play fit into our developing schemata of the classes that played a leading role in the events of twentieth century Iranian history, and the 1979 revolution in particular.

Soon after the Tobacco revolt Nasser al Din shah was assassinated by a follower of Jamal al Din al Afghani. His successor, Muzaffar al Din Shah, pushed onto the end of the regime with renewed vigour by pursuing policies that were at once contradictory and unpopular. He took more loans and gave more concessions to the colonial powers, and relaxed police controls on the national political life. Part of this relaxation involved the lifting of the ban on the formation of civil society and political associations.

Taking advantage of this, both the intelligentsia and the traditional middle class sprang into life. The traditional middle class formed the country’s first statewide stock company and various newspapers, whilst the modernisers and intelligentsia, as well as their increasing support amongst the poorer section of the bazaar and poorer clergy, as well as amongst religious minorities especially the traditionally radical Babis and Bahai sects, formed secular schools, the first national library and numerous political secret societies including the Revolutionary Committee, the Secret Centre (Maarkaz-i Ghaybi with Shia’ connotations, the alternate rendering of “Ghaybi” being “Occult”), the Social Democrat Party (Hizb-i Ijtima’yun-i Amiyun), the Society of Humanity, the Revolutionary Committee and the Secret Society (Anjuman-i Makhfi).

This period is also noteworthy for the arrival of another social force on the seven of Iranian political history. The ethnic and linguistic minorities in the Caucasian provinces in and around Azerbaijan, where Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, and most notably so-called “Azeris” vastly outnumbered people who held Persian as their mother tongue. These provinces, that had been of immense political importance as the birth place of the Safavid and Qajar empires has stagnated, and lost importance when the Safavid’s had moved their capital to Esfahan and, later, the Qajar’s theirs to Tehran. But now, with the rise of, first, Tsarist modernisation and, second, the October Revolution in the colonial border directly to its north, they would again play a crucial role in the political life of the Iranian plateaux.

The Social Democratic Party of Iran was formed in early 1904. It started in Baku as an emigre organization that sought to organise the one hundred thousand emigre Iranian workers, mainly from Iranian Azerbaijan, that worked in the Baku oil fields. As such, it is a marker of two important things. First, the emergence of the working class onto the field of Iranian history. Second, its explains why, contrary to western colonial, Iranian monarchist or Iranian Islamist narratives why the first mass political organisations in Iranian history where of a Socialist and not Islamic or Monarchist character.

As Abrahamian says; “Their program, which was mainly a translation form the economic demands of the Russian Social Democrats called for the right of workers to organise and strike; an eight hour day; old age pensions; a progressive income tax; distribution of land among those who tilled it; housing for the homeless; free schools; reduction of consumer taxes; freedom of speech, press and public meetings and the toleration of all religions acceptable to the shari’a”. The Secret Centre soon lined up with this programme.

Other sections of the intelligence and emergent modern middle class where ran to the more liberal approach of other European thinkers. We see here a divide in the modern middle class that after the coup against Mossadegh becomes impossible; there is basically no such thing as an Iranian liberal between 1953 and 1979. However these early liberals were attracted to the ideas of figures like Comte and Saint Simon, and found some support by harnessing the ideas of Malkum Khan. The composition of these leaders, both liberal and left, is interesting insofar as they tended to be of quite high class birth and, apart form an Azerbaijani contingent form the Persian speaking cities of Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Kerman. They included “fifteen civil servants, eight educators, four translators and writers, one doctor, fourteen clergymen who had some knowledge of modern sciences, one tribal chief three merchants and four craftsmen”, with presumably only the three merchants and four craftsmen being from the lower classes.

The traditional middle classes found their political statement in the Secret Society. Whilst it two claimed to fight for “an end to all oppression”, it began meetings with prayers, looked to Japan for a model of anti colonial development and sought links with high ranking clerics that it thought of as principled as its first political move. It found them in the shape of Ayatollahs Beheshti and Tabatabai, both perceived as honest men, patriots and moderate reformers. For a brief period the traditional and modern middle class intelligentsia, the low ranking bazaaris and craftsmen and the emergent Iranian working class had the same enemies; the decrepit Qajar dynasty and the British and Russian imperialists who kept them in power.

When an economic crisis broke out in 1905 protests began, aimed at Qajar autocracy, foreign influence, and imperialist rapacity. As the demonstrations grew in intensity, with even calls for a national house of justicee and democratic assembly being heard the government responded by claiming that those who did not like Iran should emigrate to “democratic Germany (sic.)”. A general strike was declared in Tehran by the bazaar guilds, the intelligentsia and the lower ranking bazaaris, leaving only the clerics (which would include justice officials) at work. The government gave way, and agreed to negotiate. The name of the Mellat-e Iran (The Nation of Iran) became of historical significance again in those demonstrations, used more widely than before; Iran was a nation because of the alliance of these classes.

When the regimes counter attack came all hell broke loose. The Cossack guard, that had been trained, armed and led by the Russians to protect their interests in the north, intercepted protesters demanding that the courts refomrs be put into action. The response was quick and brutal. Now these martyrs seperated the court form the people. As Abrahamian says a crowd of “emotional theology students” had caused huge problems for the ruling regime and imperialist powers. This would certainly not be the last time that the emotional elements of the traditional middle class would pose such a problem.

The fact that theology students had been attacked in this way meant that the last block of the Qajar city joined the general strike. With even arch conservative clerics such as Fazlollah Nouri joining the strike, their was no functioning civil service, traditional or modern, left to the regime.

As a result of this the repression on the dissidents increased in tehran and so elements, especially of the traditional bazaar middle class, sought to open channels with the British, whom they perceived to be the more libreral than the Russians and the court. The letter they wrote asked if the traditional Iranic notion of bast, namely appeal to sanctuary, would be provided by the British, The British were at once taken aback by this, confideed as to whether it was in their advantage, and excited at getting one over on the Russians. When the most progressive section of the Tehran Bazaar did in fact seek bast at the British embassy grounds in Tehran, the Biritish were taken by surprise when the new arrivals converted the legation into “one vast open-air school of political science by giving lectures on European constitutional systems and expressing ideas that had been too dangerous to express in Iran.” The occupiers soon gave rise to a whole new method of organising and lexicon in iranian political history. Inspired, presumably, but the politics of the Social Democrats, money was collected form the higher ranking bazaaris to pay striking craftsmen and lower ranking bazaaris a wage. The Persian phrase “Saresh booy e ghormeh sabzi mid” (His/her head smells of mutton and herb stew), a phrase to describe political dissidents who, as they say, don’t know what is good for them, was coined, owing to the regular meal cooked at the legation communally, every evening.

“At first the court dismissed the protesters as a “bunch of traitors hired by the British”” Abrahamian says. But given their constant demands, mass support, general strikes in the major cities, telegrams from Tifilis and Baku threatening to send armed volunteers and a widening gap between liberals and conservatives at court, Muzaffar al Din Shah had to fold. And col he did. He appointed a senior official with liberal views as prime minister, and promised to calls a Constituent National Assembly to draft a constitution.

In reality though, the short lived celebrations masked three important realities. First, the British were no friends of Iranian liberty. Second, the constitutional revolution was a prelude to a constitutional civil war. Third, there was as much to divide the traditional from the modern middle class as there was to unite it.

In the con assembly elected just after the revolution the class battle lines were already drawn. Whilst the majority of people tied to the land, women, the illiterate and even some poorer craftsmen did not receive the franchise, three main groups appeared. The Mostabed (Royalists), the Moderates (Mo’tadel) and the Freedom seekers, or Liberals (Azadikhah). Where as the Islamic Republic would like to claim that the clergy has always been the most intractable enemy of royalist autocracy in Iran, the reality is that the traditional middle class and clergy tended to support the majority Moderate faction in parliament, where as the modern intelligentsia formed the bulk of the Liberal faction. However, I will look more at the complex nature of the clergies political affiliations in a later section.

A constitution was drawn up, the process boycotted basically by the Royalists, and involving a funding of differences by Liberals and Moderates, so that though it was based on a Belgian model it left a place both for revolutionary assemblies thrown up by the proceeding period (and thus allowing both modern middle class liberals and social democrats to stay in touch with their small popular bases of support) and some acknowledgment of Shii’ism as the state religion and the Sharia’ as a divine source of law (allowing the Moderates to claim vicory and stay in touch with their base).

Nevertheless, the shah ultimately saw in these demands the demise of his power and started ti denounce the most outspoken leaders of the majles (Iranian parliament) and opposition. He chose to throw the accusation of religious heresy at them, denouncing them as Babis and Bahais (two heretical schisms from Shia Islam). This obviously would have been aimed to split moderates from liberals, the traditional middle class form the modern intelligentsia. In some ways this strategy worked, in some it failed.

In the immediate term it utterly failed. The assassination of his prime minister, yet another general strike in Tehran and the threat of the whole of Azerbaijan to secede should the new consituion not be accepted (including telegrams signed by the Mellat e Azerbaijan in another historical first), meant that not only did Muzaffer al Din Shah accept the constitution, but that he and a large section of his courtiers felt it necessary to join one of the moderate secret societies. Nevertheless the dissension that this gesture had sewn would bare fruit.

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