Their Engineering Students and Ours Part 5: From the Birth of the 20th Century, to colonial re occupation

The Twentieth Century is Born

In the constituent 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.

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.

The Counter Revolution and Civil War

The way the brief alliance of liberals and moderates collapsed shows the contradictory nature of the traditional versus modern middle class split, and how, in Iranian history, with perhaps one or two notable examples it is never the case that one section constitutes an entirely progressive force, a mistake the Iranian and international Left have famously made with disastrous and bloody consequence. As the Liberal reformers began to try and push through more of their policies through a majles that they did not control, the Royalists saw a chance to act.

On the one hand the clergy and higher ranking bazaaris of the moderate party began to be worried about the speed of democratic and social reforms. Although they passed reforms designed to cut court expenditure and balance the budget, they were not able to pass a new electoral law that was designed to increase the franchise and provide protected seats in the majles for religious minorities. To the moderates this was tantamount to attacks on religion modelled on the “atheist Armenian Malkum” and the “French Jacobins”.

When the more radical liberal press, like the famous Sur-i Israfil published a call for the clerics to have no say in politics and denounced them as money grabbers, when the movement started to build entirely secular schools including ones for girls (the clergy had traditionally controlled education in Iran) and incredibly timid measures were introduced that would help farmers against landlords the fissure between the different sections of the clergy opened. A faction led by Shaykh Fazlallah Nouri declared for the monarchy and called for believing Muslims who supported their Shah and the Shari’ah to march against the majles building.

On the other hand, whilst Shaykh Fazlallah managed to pull a lot of high ranking clergy away form the constitutionalist movement but, very interestingly was unable to break the other important block of the traditional middle class away, and this, ultimately became his undoing. The Tehran Society of Bazaar Guilds, representing the leadership of the bazaar guild, but not the richest merchants and as such as cleaner example of the traditional mercantile middle class as it is possible to identify, declared for the constitution. Along with the nascent armed organisations of the provincial masses, small working class and the radical intelligentsia(e.g. the Society of Azerbaijanis, the Society of Social Democrats and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation), they provided an armed militia to protect the majles from the increasingly angry and large demonstrations that Fazlallah was able to call. In a pattern that the whole of the country would follow, the reactionary clergy and monarchists were able to find their mass support base in not just the old ruling class but in the thousands of the very poorest who had been directly economically dependent on the royal family as peasants, craftsmen, servants and so on. When thousands marched on parliament to stop the blasphemies, it was only armed revolutionaries that repelled them.

What broke this repulsion was a decisive attack by the Shah, the Russian Cossack brigade under the Russian Colonel Liakhoff brought “peacekeeping force”, armed with mortar and canon, and opened fire on the majles and the revolutionaries. The list of those executed, imprisoned or murdered buy the Royalists and clerics after this coup, provides an interesting view into the problems that the constitutionalists had connecting to the very poorest of Tehranis. Whilst merchants, low ranking guild members, civil servants, journalists and some craftsmen are represented, the very poorest of the urban poor are not present, and neither are poorer clergy or seminary students. For one of two brief periods in the twentieth century all three autocratic powers in Iranian society, the monarchy, the clergy and the imperialists where arrayed against the forces of democracy, national independence and social justice.

Whilst the coup succeeded in Tehran, the revolutionaries had the upper hand almost immediately in the provinces. Again, this is an important first in Iranian history; the decisions and battles of the capital did not immediately decide the fate of the government nationally; a nation state was in construction.

This time the provincial radicalism was not just limited to the traditional hotbed of Azerbaijan, but new places as well. Some of these provinces such as the Caspian provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran would play an important role in providing revolutionaries and revolutionary movements for the rest of the 20th Century. The Kurdish minority in Khorassan, and tribal groups who had been frozen out of power by their tribal rivals close relationship with the court also played a decisive role in making the country ungovernable. In the south east the Baluch people also rose up.

The most decisive and radical battle however was still in Azerbaijan. In Tabriz, the Secret Centre “merged with a group of Armenian intellectuals…(and)…voted to build a “proletarian organisation” separate from the democratic movement, formalised its ties with Social Democrats in Baku, and received from the Caucasus some one hundred armed volunteers.”

More broadly, the revolutionary movement in the city flocked behind Sattar Khan and Bager Khan. Sattar Khan was a supporter of the moderate party who had been radicalised by the coup, he was a former luti. A traditional bazaar based gangster that would defend the interests of a patron merchant or cleric, the luti groups have their own interesting twentieth century history, with a transformation from a group attached to particular patrons, to one more able to articulate its own interests, and in particular play an important role in the anti democratic movement against Mossadegh, finally through to their transformation, destruction and elevation into groups of chomaghdaran or chaghokesh (“club wielders” or “knife pullers”) as the enemies of the Islamic Regime see them, or “young men who love their country” as their supporters would call them, who have a much more normal “cold war” style plausible deniability style relationship with the government and regime.

When a group of Azeri speaking radicals formed a Jami’yat e Mujahedin (Association of Fighters), and affiliated with the Social Democratic Party in Baku they issued an extensive programme, that finding a base in the Azerbaijani and the Caspian province based revolutionaries (especially amongst the fighter who supported Yeprem Khan the Armenian whose led an uprising in Rasht and Anzali) became Iran’s first meaningful Socialist movement. Peculiarly however, in Tabriz this movement did not find its first adherents in the poorest wards, but rather in the ones that had a little more wealth.

We could broadly call “middle class” the forty four constitutionalists that were executed by the Russians during the counter revolutionary siege of Tabriz for instance, which included shopkeepers, civil servants, tailors, coffee house owners, theology students, jewellers, barbers and apprentices. What this fails to take into account is two important things however. First, that in general “middle class” can mask a variety of class positions form a Marxist point of view. Indeed, to think of sections the intelligentsia as something separate to the working class is to regress behind even the British Labour party’s famous clause four, that describes the workers “by brain or by hand”. Indeed, this mistake is basically the one that led the British left to misread the class composition of the Green Party in the period succeeding the so-called Green Surge.

Second, in a country where modernity, and modern political ideas arrive at the point of a colonial bayonet, rather than through enclosures acts or industrial revolutions, it makes sense that those sections of society that are most involved in production outside of the most traditional spheres, whether tribal or agricultural are those who first fight for Left ideas. The more traditional, and indeed poorest, sections of society also happen to be those ones that are most riven with direct patriarchal relations of domination, with personal relationship to landlords, tribal khans and so on. This direct relationship means that modern reformist and revolutionary ideas, that come out of the kind of impersonal class struggle that colonialism and capitalism lead to are less meaningful practically and emotionally.

As the siege of Tabriz was broken uprisings spread to every province and two great revolutionary armies marched on Tehran. Soon the Royalists fled in disarry, the government could not pay the Cossack guards, the Russians and British withdrew support and the Shah was forced to seek bast at the Russian legation. The revolutionaries had won.

At their arrival in Tehran, the revolutionries, rebel tribes, bazaaris and liberals from the court formed a Grand Assembly to function as a constant assembly and deposed Muhammad Ali Shah, replacing him with his son Ahamd. They elected a liberal royal regent to oversee the boy king’s reign and tried counter revolutionaries. Huge democratic reforms were called for and passed. Tehran’s allocation of seats was lowered, as was the property qualification for voting. Seats were created for religious minorities. The counter revolutionaries where sentenced and Fazlallah the pro Russian traitor, royalist and supporter of dictatorship was executed. Years later, in Jalal al Ahmad’s (a self described anti colonial thinker, claiming descent from Fanon as much as Islamic tradition) described, in his famous book Gharbzadegi (West-toxification or “Occiden-tosis”) Fazlallah as a martyr who tried to protect Islam from the likes of “Malkum Khan the Armenian and Taliboff the Caucasian Social Democrat”. Abrahamian quotes him as saying “to my mind…the corpse of that great man dangling on the gallows is like a falg raised to signify the triumph of this deadly disease” (that of falling for the “west-toxification of western thought). That an intellectual who was so important to the formation of the ideas of a generation of intellectuals and radicals drawn from the traditional middle class in the post 68 years, was basically regurgitating the line of the most obscurantist and despotically reactionary section of the high clergy is tragic and brutal irony of Iranian history, the analysis of which reveals the most important moments of class recomposition in Iran in determining the course of the 1979 revolution. We will see a story of an increasing middle class and intelligentsia, growing with each generation, in number and as a consequence of the brutality with which their demands for democracy are met, in violent and apocalyptic radicalism.

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