There is no universal theory of revolutions if only because no scientific theory can be universal. Neither is there even a general theory of European revolutions. But elements of such a theory do exist, including the crucial fact that European revolutions, though very different in time and space, were revolts against the ruling social classes by the rest of the society. Iranian revolts were typically against an ‘unjust’ arbitrary state, and were not resisted by any social class. The two revolutions in the twentieth century shared these basic features, notwithstanding the differences between them as well as with traditional Iranian revolts.

The subject

There have been two full-scale revolutions in twentieth century Iran, which confront the analyst used to applying European models with numerous important puzzles. Neither of them might be described a bourgeois, certainly not a proletarian, much less a peasant, revolution, once the basic facts regarding their participants, their opponents (or rather lack of opponents), their slogans and aims, and their consequences are studied. Nor is it clear at all, in terms of theories of European development, why and how the first revolution aspired to western social and political values, whereas the second – which occurred seventy years after the first – was overtly anti-western.

Such puzzles are – for purely scientific reasons – worth attempting to resolve. But the matter is of more interest, because the resolution of the puzzles would also carry within it a realistic theory of Iranian history, and the logic as well as sociology of modern developments in Iranian politics and society.  It is of more interest still, because it shows that uncritical applications of European theories of history, society and politics should be called into question in the case of other non-European societies as well, and not least among Iran’s close and far neighbours.

After a terse discussion of European revolts and revolutions through two millennia, the paper compares and contrasts their main features with those of revolts and revolutions in Iran, and points out the basic affinity of Iranian revolutions, traditional as well as modern, notwithstanding their many differences.

Revolts against authority

In spite of the colossus of work and energy spent over the past two centuries both in revolutions and on analysing and theorising about them, no one has yet quite produced a general theory of revolutions. I therefore face a dual task within a very limited compass: to try and make some general sense of revolutions as a common and general phenomenon; and to try and put forward a basic outline of the general features of Iranian revolutions.

It is, of course, a truism that wherever there is a structure of authority in human society, that is, wherever there is government of any sort even at the level of the basic household, there is also the possibility – indeed, probability – of revolts and rebellions against it, and as the anti-thesis to it. Cane and Prometheus were the first formal and stylised rebels – putting aside Adam himself – in what makes up the Judeo-Hellenic tradition of Western Christianity. Jamshid was the first rebel in Iranian myth, though he had in fact rebelled against God upon claiming divinity[1].

The first real Iranian rebel from written history was Gaumata or the impostor Bardiya  whom the Greek call Smerdis, and who was triumphally destroyed in a coup led by Darius.[2] However that may be, it is clear that revolts occur against established authority, despite its claim to some kind of legitimacy from a law or tradition, although in the case of Iran such ‘legitimacy’ was more in the authority itself than in any firm and long term right respected by the society.[3]

Before entering the vast area of comparative historical analysis which my subject requires, let us clear an important methodological point away. A scientific theory is ‘general’ only in so far as its predictions are consistent with reality in the circumstances which it sets for itself. It follows that no theory in any science is universally valid. My favourite example is Galileo’s Law of Inertia, which states that, in vacuum, a freely falling body will accelerate at the rate of 9.81 metres per second per second. This is one of the most eventful as well as successful theories ever proposed in the history of science. It is generally valid on earth, but it lacks universal validity. Where in universe there is no gravity nothing will fall. And where – as on the moon – the force of gravity is significantly different from the earth, the theory would be falsified. It follows that, if successful, all theories are generally valid, but they do not possess universal validity[4].

A general theory of revolutions?

I began by saying that there is no general theory of revolutions. I must now qualify that in two ways. First, by a general theory of revolutions I do not mean one that would equally apply to everywhere on the globe. That would be a universal theory, which as I have just explained cannot come out of any science, be it natural or social. Given the supremacy of Europe in science and society in the past few centuries, any general theory of revolutions would in fact be a general theory of European revolutions, which would then be automatically assumed to have universal validity everywhere in the globe. Indeed, this is the story of many a theory in the modern social sciences, and an important reason why they often run into trouble as soon as they are stretched to lands where historical and social reality has been significantly different from European society and its offshoots elsewhere in the world.

Therefore, by saying that there is no general theory of revolutions, I had meant that there was no general theory of European revolutions, which would then have been regarded as being universal.

My second qualification is that, tough a fully developed general theory of European revolutions has not been proposed, the main elements of a theory might be discerned from Marx’s theory of European social development, although a theory with adequate explanatory powers is lacking even in this case. Since, according to Marx, European society develops essentially through a discreet and long term process of class struggle, it could be argued that revolutions are consequences of these class struggles when the relevant set of (Marxian) infrastructural and superstructural factors are ready for them. But at closer examination it would be clear that that would not supply an adequate theory of European revolutions. For it is one thing to say, or even show, that revolts and rebellions have their roots in class antagonisms, and quite another to offer a theory which would adequately explain at least the major European revolts and rebellions as they occurred in the past, and as they might occur in the future.

Referring to Marx’s theory of European history, it does not appear that any specific revolt was the cause of the downfall of slavery in Europe. Indeed, the one such spectacular movement, that of Spartacus, was defeated shortly before the fall of the Roman Republic, and rise of the imperial system; that is, before the birth of Christ, and before most of the power and glory for which ancient Rome is known and admired.

The failure of the Spartacists may be explained, of course, by the argument that it was too early, and that the material conditions for its success did not yet exist. The argument is tautological. But, putting that aside, it implies that at a later, more relevant and more appropriate, time there was such a revolution against Roman slavery, which led to its downfall and the slave-based economic system. The decline of classical Rome in fact was due to the rise of Christianity and the relentless onslaught of the northern barbarians over a long period of time. There was no successful revolution which destroyed the Roman system of slavery.

The next epoch-making revolution in the Marxian scheme, which is due to bring down European feudalism and establish the rule of the bourgeoisie, is the bourgeois revolution. The best and most successful example of this was the French revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, which so much inspired radicals, activists and theorists; and which is probably the most important single historical event both for Hegel’s idealist interpretation of history, and for Marx’s ‘standing Hegel on his head’ in offering his own materialist theory of social development.

But before passing a few comments on that most central revolution of all, let us note that it is a great exaggeration to say that it brought down feudalism. At best, it might be said that it brought down feudalism in a major European country, which in time had consequences for other countries in the continent of Europe. But even that needs some important qualifications.

Feudalism had begun to decline late in the medieval period in all its aspects since at least the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century which took a large toll of the European peasantry, and resulted in a labour scarcity which rendered untenable the continuation of the system of bondage or serfdom. Even earlier than that, the rise of a more secure bourgeoisie in the new free towns had begun to increase the material and social power of that class, and incidentally provide a growingly important social base with which the Renaissance states of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries managed to reduce to size the power of the big feudal aristocratic magnates.

Therefore, the French revolution, epoch making as it undoubtedly was, was not ‘the revolution that brought down feudalism’, but a revolution that destroyed the remnants of an ailing, bankrupt and demoralised feudal aristocracy in that country. It helped industrial capital, and many of the peasantry who inherited the great estates as small farmers. But in England, and later in Germany and Austria, industrial capital grew in size and strength, while at the same time the great estates and much of the aristocratic privileges remained in place.

In France itself, the Restoration of 1815 removed part of what had been achieved, not just in the radical Jacobin era, but even under the dictatorial Bonapartist empire. It took the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, together with the debâcle and defeat of 1870, and the Paris Commune of 1871, for much of the democratic spirit of the French revolution to be incorporated into the constitution of the Third Republic, although even then Charles X’s grandson would have been put on the throne had he not insisted on an implicit repudiation of all the previous revolutions. But by the time, in the 1880’s, that General Boulangé’s populist coup was averted, a whole century of revolution, war, civil war, and industrial development had passed.[5]

Talking about bourgeois revolutions, no mention has yet been made of that Cinderella of the type, the English civil wars and revolution of mid-seventeenth century. They are normally downplayed in the great chain of modern revolutions, whereas in their consequences – both material and intellectual, both for England and elsewhere – they were no less momentous than the French revolution of 150 years later. A great expert on the subject, Christopher Hill, began by maintaining that it was an early and incomplete bourgeois revolution, and ended by arguing that it was a revolt of all the social classes against a tyrannical state.[6]

Both views exaggerate. It is true that the English civil wars had an unusually large social base for European revolutions, which included many of the gentry and some of the  (mainly lower) aristocracy. But, firstly, there was more of the aristocracy on the King’s side, especially in some of the provinces. Secondly, as soon as the civil war ended and the revolution began – highly symbolised by the trial and execution of the King – almost all of his opponents among the nobility and higher gentry turned against Cromwell, his Commonwealth, and his dictatorship. Even Thomas Fairfax’s wife, thinly disguised by a mask, was shouting slogans for the King and against Cromwell from the observers’ gallery during the historic trial[7].

The restoration of 1660 consolidated much of the basic aims of the civil wars, though not of the revolution. And the Glorious Revolution of 1688 established those consolidated gains irreversibly. Paul Mantoux found very significant the fact that the City of London did not lend to James, but did to his successors, William and Mary. He also found it significant that the Bank of England, the first modern bank in history, was founded only a few years after the Glorious Revolution[8]. And let us emphasise the fact that the Glorious Revolution happened a year earlier than a whole century before the French.

There is one other revolution in the historical galaxy of Western revolutions before the French that sits rather uneasily in relation to any general theory of European revolutions. I refer to the successful revolt of the thirteen English colonies in North America. That was indeed a revolt of society against the state, in so far as there was no social class that fought against it. But by then the state had become foreign, so that in truth the revolt was against a colonial power and for independence. But it also had important social implications[9].

It almost looked like the English revolution of the previous century – to which many an ancestor of the American rebels had directly or indirectly contributed – succeeding in a land where there was no feudal aristocracy, no established church, and none of the deep-seated traditions with which these were bound. It looked very much as if the wildest dream of John Lilburne and his Levellers, of a representative republic with equality before the law, had been fulfilled a century later in another land. In its foreign aspects, the American Revolution was a war of independence; but in the same very aspects it was also a democratic revolution, for which, in those special circumstances, almost all that was needed was independence from England.

So much for the French revolutions of 1789, 1830 and 1870-71, and the English and American revolutions which came before them, although I did not manage even to mention, let alone discuss the status of the peasant revolts in medieval Europe and during Reformation.

Looking at the upheavals that came after the French Revolutions, and were greatly influenced by them, how would the great revolutions of the twentieth century fit into a general theory? The February and October revolutions in Russia, though serious and epoch making, do not easily fit into the theoretical scheme based on the French revolution and before it in Western Europe. February was a spontaneous mass revolt, almost unopposed, against a corrupt and inefficient government that had been defeated and humiliated first by Japan and now, much more effectively, by Germany. October can hardly be described as a proletarian revolution in any scientific sense rendered by Marx’s theory of social development, although it certainly involved class conflict.

Indeed, after the three years of civil war consolidated the new Bolshevik regime, without any other socialist revolution occurring anywhere else in Europe, and especially Germany, argument broke out as to whether one might speak of socialist revolution ‘in one country‘ alone; and – as none other than Joseph Stalin put it – a country that was poor and underdeveloped[10]. That was indeed a very difficult theoretical problem, but as Trotsky was to discover for himself, a revolution, party or state does not effectively dissolve itself because of difficulties arising from their scientific status. On the contrary, they bend the science, and the reality to which it corresponds, sufficiently to make it look both scientific and realistic.

By the time we get to the Chinese revolution, or rather its extension away from and in opposition to the Kuomingtong, things have advanced too far to require any explanation at all. For here we are supposed to have witnessed a revolution fought by the peasantry on behalf of a virtually non-existing industrial proletariat, with strong nationalist tendencies which later, in the Cultural Revolution, acquired noticeably mystic and utopian elements, before ending up – since Deng Hsiao-Ping and the rise of ‘Modern Confucianism’ – to look, in the end, increasingly like a successful bourgeois democratic revolution.[11]

I have come a long way through a very fast lane, and I am yet to mention the revolts in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire after the First World War, the Young Turks movement and the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate after the First World War, Free Officers and the rise of modern Arab nationalism, Mexico, the revolt against Maximillian, and Zapata, Panco Villa and whoever, the Ba’thist movements in parts of the Arab lands, and so on and so forth. But what little I have said shows that there is neither a universal theory of revolutions, which in any case would not be possible, nor even a complete general theory of European revolutions, which in principle would be possible.

But I have omitted more. I did not mention the Nazi revolution, which, although now universally hated, displayed many of the basic characteristics of the rise and decline of a revolution. I did not mention either, a revolution quite contrary to that from every point of view. I refer to the Thatcher revolution in Britain, a bloodless yet very fundamental revolution in one of the most advanced countries of the world, which set both to overthrow an elite social and political culture and, at the same time, to reduce the most advanced welfare state the world had yet seen. And it generally succeeded in doing both, the imminent reform of the House of Lords being rather an epitaph than a preamble to it, as is the low bargaining power of British labour, which had not been experienced since before the Second World War. However one would explain this radical, but bloodless and truly bourgeois, revolution at the end of the twentieth century in the first bourgeois society of the world, the difficulties it poses for theories of revolution, even theories of European revolution, are themselves difficult to contemplate.

Iranian revolts and revolutions

The methodological justification for attempting to formulate a general theory of Iranian revolutions is already in the simple fact that there cannot be one that would apply to all times and places. It is further in the fact that, as argued above, there has not yet been an adequate theory of European revolutions, although there is no doubt that elements of one such theory exist both in sociological analysis and in vast historical studies. But, apart from the formal, methodological argument, the substantive, sociological, reason is that Iranian revolutions have not been quite like any of the European revolutions, old or modern.

If there is one thing which is true of all European revolts and revolutions, it is that they have been revolts of a part of the society against the rest, that is, against the part which makes up the more prosperous and powerful social classes, and which therefore is strongly represented by the existing state. Whether the Spartacist, Medieval and Reformation peasant revolts, the English revolutions of the seventeenth century, the French revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Russian revolutions of the twentieth century, or any other – except those which have been fought solely against foreign domination – European revolutions have all this feature in common.

The reason for this is well known and it is implicit in the fact itself. European society consisted of functional and autonomous social classes on which European states depended. Since the classical times – since the Greeks and Romans – European states have been bound by law, that is, by a tradition, code or contract which has been hard to break and difficult to change. Functional and autonomous social classes, a dependent state, and a seemingly inviolable law and tradition were the origins of long term development in Europe.

Development requires not only acquisition and innovation, but also, and especially, accumulation and preservation, whether of wealth, of rights and privileges, or of knowledge and science. Turgot and Adam Smith believed that it was not so much technical progress, but saving and investment, making its application possible, that was the cause of industrial development. Following in their footsteps, Marx’s gigantic and fundamental historical generalisation in the concept of ‘primary (or original) capital accumulation’ was a major contribution to our understanding of modern economic development.[12]

European society was a long term society. Major change, whether the fall of feudalism, the rise of capitalism, and the emergence of the liberal state, whether the rejection of Aristotelian physics and Ptolemic cosmography, the Greco-Roman political thought, or the Roman Catholic hegemony – all of these took a long time and a great deal of effort – usually even struggle – to occur, but when they finally did, the change was irreversible, and a new social framework, a new law, a new science, even a new religion was established that would once again take much time and effort to change, even to reform.[13]

The long tem society makes possible long-term accumulation, precisely because the law and traditions that govern it, and its institutions, afford a certain amount of security by making the future reasonably predictable. At the same time, and for the same reason, it makes major change in the short run very difficult. In the long-term society, revolution is a rare and extraordinary occurrence, but when it does happen, whether in society or science, it has a long-term effect.

Iran was a short-term society. It is a society even at the moment that declares any sound and solid building as a ‘pickaxe building’ – sakhteman-e kolangi as soon as it has become thirty or even twenty years old. For that reason, I have also called it ‘the pickaxe society’ (jame’eh-ye kolangi). Its main historical features have been quite the opposite of the long term European society. I have described these features at length in other works, in relation to the concepts of the arbitrary state and arbitrary society[14].

Here I shall just point out that rather than the social classes, it was the state that was functional, that the higher the social classes the more dependent were they on the state, that although both wealth and privileges, and knowledge, science and technology existed, sometimes at very high levels, they did not persist through long-term development. And that while there were perennial attempts at accumulating them, little long term accumulation did in fact take place.  There was no law, no long term code or tradition that governed the relationship between the state and society, or within the society itself.

Virtually every change was possible in the short run, and therefore little lasting real change was possible over the long run. Indeed it is difficult to speak of the long run, as we know it from the European history and society. History was a series of short runs, one succeeding the other through short-term cycles. To give but one important example, at any moment in time there were people with great power, privilege and property, but it was virtually certain – and they knew it themselves as the stomach knows the laws of digestion – that their grand-children, perhaps even their children, would have none of it unless they would manage to be successful in their own short run.

It follows that the function, meaning, causes and consequences of revolutions were different from Europe. These were not revolts only of the underprivileged social classes against the privileged ones that controlled the state, in order to change the law and the social framework. They were revolts against rulers who were not bound by any law outside their own will, and who were deemed to be or to have become ‘unjust’.

According to the ancient concept of Farrah-ye Izadi, or God’s Grace, God anointed rulers to rule on earth. They were intrinsically superior to all human beings and were not answerable to any of them for whatever they did. They were thus in complete charge of the person and property of their subjects, however high they might have been. The only limit to their power was that they were bound to rule justly. If they did not, God would withdraw His Grace, and they would then be overthrown by the society, although in practice, many a ruler that was deemed to be unjust by the society did not suffer that fate.[15]

Justice itself is, of course, society-bound, culture-bound and time-bound. But the abstract notion of the Just Ruler – finding its most famous examples in Khosraw I (Anushiravan) and Abbas I – referred to a strong ruler who made the borders secure, social life stable, and hence short term security and prosperity possible. Revolutions were therefore revolts against rulers that were perceived to be unjust, which usually meant weak and /or unusually predatory rulers who did not fulfil expectations pertaining to security and prosperity, and who allowed ruthless, even cruel, state officials to behave as they wished towards the society.

There were of course rebellions which had less popular motives, the most frequent being over succession. But that too was consistent with the logic of the short tem society, the arbitrary society. Since there was no entrenched law or tradition that guaranteed succession, the will of the ruler on its own did not carry much weight after he was dead. Just as no rich and powerful man expected his son to be also rich and powerful as a matter of course, no ruler was certain that his heir-designate would succeed him. When Sir John Malcolm expressed amazement to Fath’Ali Shah at the scope of the power of Iranian rulers, the latter agreed but – just like the stomach that unconsciously knows the laws of digestion[16] – pointed out that, at the same time, Iranian rulers never quite knew who would succeed him.

He himself made his grandson, Mohammad (son of Abbas Mirza, the Prince Regent) his heir. But no sooner had he died that many of his sons rebelled against his will. And after they were defeated, one of them died soon in jail, another was ordered to be blinded in both eyes by his nephew Mohammad Shah, who also blinded two of his own brothers, and together with a few other princes had them imprisoned in the Ardablil Castle.[17].This is just one example, deliberately chosen from very recent times, in the case of a meek and moderate ruler, who was an ardent admirer of sufis and dervishes. Otherwise, the issue of legitimacy and succession has a long and turbulent history, dating back as far as Gaumata, the impostor Bardiya, mentioned above.

Putting aside the specific question of struggle over succession, I said that revolts were led by the society against the state when it was deemed to be unjust as well as weak. In such situations, the ruler was normally abandoned to his fate, so that not only no important social class defended him, but even many of his own civil and military officials defected to the other side. This is contrary to European history, because the Iranian upper classes did not see the revolt as being essentially aimed at themselves, since the state was not their representative, and stood over and above them as well as all the rest of the society. And for the same reason they knew that as long as they were not tainted irrevocably by their association with it they might even share in the fruits of victory.

A thousand years ago, the rebellion of Mas’ud son of Mahmud of Ghzana against his younger brother Mohammad whom their father had done so much to secure in the throne was a conflict over succession. He won the contest, typically after a couple of sharp and short battles, and the mass defection even of those notables and officials who did not have much to hope for. But the rebellion of Khorasan, which included much of present-day Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, was caused by the wholesale injustice of the governor appointed by Mas’ud for the province[18].

Baihaqi who witnessed it all relates a courtier to whom Mas’ud had praised the governor as a ‘good lackey’, adding that if he had a couple of other lackeys like him his financial situation would be sound. The courtier told Baihaqi that he had confirmed the Sultan’s opinion, adding that he did not have ‘the guts’ to tell him that ‘it is the Khorasan subjects, high as well as low, who must be asked as to how much suffering he must have caused them…and the future would show what the consequences of his action would be’.  Baihaqi confirms that opinion, adding that it was in the face of this injustice that the ordinary people prayed to God against the Sultan, and the notables invited the Seljuq Turks from Transoxiana to come and rid them of Ghaznavi injustice.[19] That of course was the origin of the Seljuq empire in Iran and beyond, and the later formation of the Ottoman empire.

Incidentally, this example lays bare the role played by Iranians themselves in bringing down their unjust and/or incapable and ineffective rulers with the help of foreigners. Not much historical material is available, but it may be suspected that deep-seated discontent and disloyalty made a contribution to the swift and complete defeat of Darius III at the hands of Alexander.[20] More can be claimed in the case of the even more swift and devastating defeat of the Sassanians at the hands of Muslim Arabs: the country had been exhausted by Khosraw II (Parviz)’s long campaigns and wasteful as well as underhanded style of ruling. Both he and many other rulers before and after him had been overthrown, blinded and/or killed over a short period of time, by continuous rebellion, before the onslaught of the Arabs.[21]

The battle of Qadesiya was won with incredible ease, and the battle of Nahavand was a forgone conclusion. Yazdegerd was abandoned even by his own military and civilian officials, had to run away as far as Merv, and there he was murdered, very likely by a high official, as Darius III had been long before him.[22] The ideology of Islam must have been highly instrumental, not only in motivating and energising the conquerors, but also the willing losers among the Iranians. But much of the explanation for the otherwise inexplicable collapse of a great empire must go to the lack of will to support the decadent and incompetent regime.

How else can one explain the swift and ignominious fall of the great Safavid empire in the first half of the eighteenth century, not against a great army led by an even greater general such as Alexander, nor against an extremely potent ideology and revolutionary movement that was Islam, but in the face of rebellion by the Ghaljeh tribe, some of its poorest and most backward subjects in the eastern reaches of the empire?[23]

There not being a framework of law and tradition of legitimacy, the fall of an arbitrary state let loose the arbitrary society. There followed anarchy, the traditional Iranian terms being fetneh, fesad, ashub, khan-khani, harj-o-marj and even enqelabat. There were now many centres of arbitrary power, each trying to eliminate the others and impose its exclusive rule. The resulting chaos, removing normal stability – i. e. the one good thing in the absolute and arbitrary state which was taken for granted until it disappeared with the fall of absolute power – made ordinary people long for its return and restoration. That is why when one of the contesting factions eventually triumphed, it was welcomed by the people, who did not really care who and what it was, so long as it brought a measure of normality and stability with it. This explains why, despite the ruthlessness and cruelty with which Aqa Mohammad succeeded in establishing Qajar rule after decades of persistent conflict and chaos in the eighteenth century, he was welcomed especially by the ordinary people who had suffered so much during the years of civil war and plunder.

I have described this process as the recurring cycle of arbitrary-rule-chaos-arbitrary rule.[24] Almost a thousand years ago, Nezam al-Molk-e Tusi described it in his own words and style in his Siyar al-Muluk or Siyasatnameh. He did not say that injustice – i. e. the ruler’s transgression from God’s Grace – was the cause of rebellion, though he knew very well that such  was the theory. Instead, he said that it was the people’s transgression against God that would result,

in the disappearance of a good ruler (padeshahi nik), a number of swords would be drawn, and much blood would be spilt – and whoever has more power would do whatever he pleases – until all those sinners would be destroyed amidst all the chaotic rebellions (fetneh-ha) and blood-lettings …And in consequence of the bad omen created by these sinners many an innocent person would be destroyed in those chaotic rebellions.[25]

So much for the causes and consequences of chaos in Nezam al-Molk. But he is also aware (along his natural sense of digestion) of the fact that this would be brought to an end by one of the forces of chaos, who brings stability by stamping out all other power besides its own. And he describes the winner as the Just Ruler. It is almost as if he is describing Malekshah, who was later to arrange his own death at the hands of the Isma’ilis, and through the good offices of his successor Taj al-Molk, according to the good maxim of the arbitrary state that an able and powerful vizier must be removed and killed before he even began to contemplate treachery. He writes, repeating the ancient theory of God’s Grace, the Farrah-ye Izadi, in the case of a Muslim Turkic ruler, even using the term Izad for God:

In every age, Izad Almighty will choose one person from the midst of the people, and will bestow upon him the qualities of rule, and will rest upon him the interest of the world and stability of the lives of His slaves (bandegan), and through him He will shut the door to sedition, chaos and rebellion (fesad va ashub va fetneh), and will spread his fear and pomp in the hearts and eyes of the people, so that the people will live under his just rule, and feel safe and wish that his governance will be permanent.[26]

The two revolutions in the twentieth century

But there were two revolutions in the twentieth century, which on the surface – that is, with regard to some of their slogans, terminology, etc – looked almost every bit like those experienced by western societies. Yet, once one penetrates the edifice and looks for the detail in a realistic light, one will find that, in their basic features, these revolutions too were almost every bit like traditional Iranian revolts against unjust rulers.

Writing exactly twenty years ago, I made a close comparison between the Constitutional Revolution and the revolution of February 1979, and concluded that – notwithstanding otherwise great differences in the aims and slogans of most of their participants – they were both revolutions against arbitrary rule. Subsequent developments in the real world and further studies have, if anything, tended to agree to that conclusion.[27]

For a long time it used to be taken for granted that the Constitutional Revolution was a ‘bourgeois revolution’, comparable to the French revolution of 1789. I have argued at length elsewhere why this model is entirely inapplicable for the Constitutional Revolution. There had been no feudalism, nor any accumulation of capital worthy of note, and the economy had been steadily declining in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, with rapidly increasing inflation and trade deficits. Furthermore, the movement was not led against the existing social framework together with the law that upheld it. There was no law, and the movement’s central aim was precisely to overthrow arbitrary rule and establish a state bound by an independent legal code, and run by a responsible, answerable, government. For the first time in Iranian history, the window that had opened up to European politics and society in the nineteenth century had shown that arbitrary government was not a natural phenomenon and that a legal, constitutional, framework could ‘condition’ government power[28].

Various features of the system of arbitrary rule in Iran and elsewhere in the East, though not so named, have been noted in modern times by thinkers as diverse as Marx, Engels, Richard Jones, Hegel, James Mill, and especially Montesquieu and Adam Smith. But some of its aspects had already been noticed by Iran’s classical Greek neighbours. For example, in Aeschlyus’ famous tragedy, The Persians, when Attosa, sister of Cyrus, wife of Darius and mother of Xerxes, asks the Chorus ‘Who shepherds [the Greeks]? What master do their ranks obey?’, it answers ‘Master? They are not called servants to any man’. [29]

The nature of any revolution may be discerned by a study of its aims, its supporters, and its opponents. Here, the central objective – indeed the very desideratum and password – was mashruteh, that is government ‘conditioned’ by law, before the coining of which the Persianised word ‘qonstitusiun‘ was almost invariably used.  Regarding the social structure of its supporters, almost all the merchants, shopkeepers and artisans, most of the ulama and religious community, many if not most of the landlords and nomadic chieftains, most of the ordinary urban public, and the entire intelligentsia, many of whom were educated religious types, either actively or passively supported the revolution.

In particular, the triumph of 1909 would not have been possible without the full support of the great religious leaders such as Hajj Mirza Hossein Tehrani, Akhund Mullah Kazem Khorasani, Shaikh Abdollah Mazanderani and others, as well as such powerful landlords and nomadic chieftains as Sepahdar-e (later Sepahsalar-e) Tonokaboni, Sardar Mansur (later Sepahdar-e Rashti), Aliqoli Khan Sardar As’ad and Najafqoli Khan Samsam al-Saltaneh. What is more revealing perhaps is that no social class (qua class) resisted the revolution, in total contrast to the minor as well as major European revolts since the Greeks. And finally, the most important achievement of the revolution was mashruteh itself, that is, constitutional government as it had been understood by its campaigners and supporters.[30]

That at any rate was what they achieved on paper and in appearance. What happened in reality after the revolution is fascinating evidence for Tocqueville’s generalisation that revolutions normally repeat the old structures in a new garb. That of course is an exaggeration even from the Iranian experience. Or, putting it in other words, the new garb itself is much more than mere façade, mere window dressing.  For any new form – in art, science as well as society – is bound to have consequences for the substance.

But it is true that, rather than creating a constitutional system as it was known from the history of Europe, the society began to display growing signs of chaos, exactly as it had always done upon the fall of an arbitrary state. Indeed, in these basic elements, it was once again the arbitrary society, relieved from the shackles of the arbitrary state to divide power and reduce government to an ever-changing ineffectual group of men, euphemistically described as ‘the executive’.

It is sometimes thought that this was mainly, if not wholly, a product of chaos in immeasurable distances, at the borders, in outlandish regions, and among unruly nomads. But this is far from the full picture. There was chaos in towns, in the capital, in the very centre of politics, among the political factions, parties and magnates, and within the Majlis itself. Indeed, without such chaos it is unlikely that there would have been chaos in the regions, as in fact there was none for as long as Naser al-Din was at the helm. [31]

That comparison was made at the very time by the people whose unconscious knowledge of biology was good. That is how they became deeply disappointed with the revolution they themselves had made, and attributed it to a British conspiracy. And that is also how the hated Naser al-Din became ‘the Martyr Shah’ (Shah-e Shahid), not unlike how decades later Mohammad Reza became the Blessed One (Khoda Biyamorz) after a very popular revolution which many of its participants later began to discover had been made by America.

When Reza Khan captured power and brought order to society, increasing numbers of people – including Mosaddeq, of all men – appreciated his work. But when he began to establish dictatorship and later restore arbitrary rule in a modern form, a growing number of people began to discover that he had been put there by Britain as their obedient servant.[32]

Up to a century and a half ago hardly anyone attributed perceived injustice to the machinations of western powers or their paid Iranian agents. But since then, because of the growing weakness of Iran vis-à-vis imperial powers, almost all injustice emanating from arbitrary states was attributed to imperialism.  Imperialism was real enough, but it did not create the arbitrary system of government in Ira, but it clearly did what in the circumstances it thought would serve its interest best.

At any rate when the Allies came to Iran in 1941, the entire society rejoiced at Reza Shah’s abdication, and then, true to its historical form, it quickly reverted back to the politics of chaos, of disintegration, of irreconcilable conflict, and of a wish to eliminate, as of almost every party against every party.  The chaos ended by the 1953 coup, organised by American and British governments, but executed by a strong coalition in the Iranian politics of chaos. It established an authoritarian or dictatorial, but not arbitrary, regime. That was restored in the 60s and 70s.[33]

Twenty years ago I argued that if the US hold over the Shah had not weakened in the 60s and especially 70s because of the growing and then exploding oil revenues which he could spend at will, making him independent of American foreign aid, and much stronger vis-à-vis the domestic social classes, then the consequences of his arbitrary regime would have been much less fatal to himself as well as the society. Power would then have been both less absolute and less arbitrary.[34]

But the matter was perceived very differently by almost all the social classes, not least the educated, well-to-do, privileged modern middle classes, most of whom were clients and dependent beneficiaries of the arbitrary oil state, or of what I then described as ‘petrolic despotism’. They all it all as the work of the hated imperialism, although hardly anyone of them bothered to study and assess its true consequences for the country.

The reason was that the real imperialism and its deeds did not matter much for mellat, the society, the opponents of the state. What mattered was the very strong emotional conviction that western imperialism was behind all the doings of the modern arbitrary regime. If the Soviet Union had had a similarly close relationship with the regime, it would have been hated as much. Indeed, it was also disparaged to the extent that it had good relations with the regime, just as did China the minute it changed its attitude towards it.

The reality of the very strong feelings against the United States in particular can hardly be ignored. And there were many reasons for it. But the central reason was that it was perceived as the real power behind, and the daily instructor of the absolute and arbitrary state. Just as Britain had been under Reza Shah who in fact disliked Britain, quite unlike his son, who, though not a helpless puppet of the United States, loved and admired that country and valued its support and approval.[35]

The slogans against arbitrary government were some of the most prominent during the revolution of 1977-79. But they did not appear to be so unique and central as they had been during the Constitutional Revolution. This was partly because, as noted, some of the anti-arbitrary objectives had found expression in anti-imperialist slogans. It is also true that various ideologies and programmes such as various concepts of Islamist state, Marxist-Leninist system and democratic government were represented, just as similar radical, moderate and conservative agendas had been represented within the general framework of the Constitutional Movement.

What bound all of them together, nonetheless, was the determination to remove one man at all costs. The most widespread slogan which united all the revolutionaries and supporters regardless of party and programme was ‘Let him [the Shah] go and let their be flood afterwards’ (In beravad va har cheh mikhahad beshavad).

It is not just that the leading political organisations and movement were united behind this slogan. The sociology of the slogan is even more impressive than its politics. That is, the fact that almost every class and rank in the society, both rich and poor, both modern and traditional, both educated and uneducated, were united behind it. Apart from that, there was not a single social class as such that took one step against the revolution, whatever the misgivings of some of their members might have been regarding a swift and ignominious collapse of the regime.

Those who lost their lives in various cities throughout the revolution certainly played an important part in the process. But the outcome would have been significantly different if the commercial and financial classes, who had benefited from the oil bonanza certainly no less than any other single social class, had not paid for it, and – more especially – if the Oil Company employees, civil servants, judges, lawyers, university and school teachers, students, etc. had not declared an indefinite general strike, or if the military had united and resolved to crush the movement.[36]

Thus the pattern reveals itself to be very similar to the Constitutional Revolution, although, instead of constitutionalism and modernism, now authoritarian and anti-western agendas of different brands had much the upper hand. Many changed their minds afterwards and at various stages, but they did not and would not have changed their minds so long as the objective of removing the absolute and arbitrary ruler had not yet been achieved. Indeed, doubts and conflicts quickly resulting from the intra-revolutionary clashes after the triumph of February quickly disappeared for a crucial period following the hostage-taking of November 1979, because – certainly in the minds of those masses of people who frenetically supported it – the hatred of the arbitrary ruler, and the fear that America would somehow bring him back upon them was very great.

There were those in both revolutions who saw that total revolutionary triumph would make some, perhaps many, of the revolutionaries regret the results afterwards, but very few of them dared to step forward. In the one case they were represented by Shaikh Fazlollah; in the other by Shahpour Bakhtiyar. But they were both doomed because they had no social base, or in other words they were seen as having joined the other side, however hard they protested that they had the best of intentions. It is a rule in a revolt against an absolute and arbitrary ruler that whoever wants anything short of his removal is branded a traitor. That is the logic of the slogan ‘Let him go and let there be flood afterwards’.

A summing up

There is no universal theory of revolutions, since, in any case, scientific theories are not and cannot be universal. There is no general theory of European revolutions either, which is likely to have been regarded as universal, and uncritically applied to all revolutions, as this has been done in the case of many other theories of European history. Yet there do exist many elements of a general theory of European revolutions.

The central feature of almost all western revolts and revolutions has been the fact that they have been manned and – with some exceptions – led by the underprivileged classes against the privileged ones which were much more closely represented by the state.

Revolts, rebellions and revolutions in Iran have had various motives and causes, one frequent cause being conflict over succession. Succession was usually a subject of dispute because, unlike Europe, legitimacy was not based in some long term and binding law or tradition. And this was a consistent feature of the arbitrary state.  The arbitrary state certainly tried to fulfil such of its major obligations as defending the realm against foreign invasion or intrusion and creating stability, that is, preventing anarchy in society. But, rather than being dependent on important social classes, it was the latter that were dependent on the arbitrary state.

Apart from succession, however, there were perennial – partial or total – revolts against the arbitrary state, when it was deemed not to be ‘just’, or, more often, to be too ‘unjust’. And when it looked as if the contest had a fair chance, no social class as such – sometimes not even the state officials – fought against the rebellion. This was also true in many cases when the enemy of the state was foreign. The collapse of the state led to chaos and disintegration, until one of the power centres in the chaos managed to form a new absolute and arbitrary rule.

The Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1909 and the revolution of February 1979 were different in many of their aims and slogans, although they both contained a variety of specific programmes and ideologies. But they both shared the basic features of traditional Iranian revolts inasmuch as they were aimed at the overthrow of the state – indeed the person of the ruler – at all costs, they had the support of the entire political society, and they were not resisted by any social class. And they were both followed by conflict and chaos, the forms of which were somewhat different between them, and between them and the states of anarchy which followed traditional revolts. With all the differences among them, there has been a familiar pattern in the revolts of society against the state since ancient Persia.

Notes and references

[۱] See Homa Katouzian, ‘Farrah-ye Izadi va Haqq-e Elahi-ye Padshahan’, Ettela’at Siyasi va Eqtesadi, nos. 129-130, July 1998.

[۲] See, for example, R. Ghirshman, Iran from the Earliest Times to the Islamic Conquest (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1954).

[۳] This point has been extensively discussed in Homa Katouzian, ‘Arbitrary Rule, A Comparative Theory of State, Politics and Society In Iran’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (1997), 24 (1), 49-73 (reprinted in this volume).

[۴] See further Homa Katouzian, Ideology and Method in Economics, (London and New York: Macmillan and New York University Press, 1980), especially Ch. 7.

[۵] Sources for the above observations are virtually unlimited. See, for example, H. A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe (London: Edward Arnold and Co, 1936); R.H.C. Davis, Medieval Europe (London: Longman Group Limited, 1970); J. M. Roberts, The French Revolution (Oxford, New York, etc.: Oxford University Press, 1978); Leo Gershoy, The Era of the French Revolution (1789-1799) (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand,  ۱۹۵۷); E. L. Woodward, French Revolutions (London: Oxford University Press, 1965); A. Goodwin, The French Revolution (London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1956); Melvin Krazberg (ed.), 1848, A Turning Point? (Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1959); Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France (1841-1850) (London: Martin Lawrence, n. d.); Alfred Cobban, A History Modern of France: Volume 1: 1715-1799, Volume2, 1799-1945, Volume 3, 1871-1962, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961-1965); Irene Collins , The Age of Progress, A Survey of European History between 1789 and 1870 (London: Edward Arnold, 1964).

[۶] The contrast is especially striking in his following two books: The English Revolution, 1640 (London: Lawrence and Wishart Ltd, 1940), and A Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 (London: Sphere Books, 1969).  See also His Puritanism and Revolution (London: Panther History, 1968), and God’s Englishman, Oliver Cromwell and The English Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972).

[۷] See further, C. V. Wedgwood, The King’s Peace, 1637-1641 (London; Collins, 1958), The King’s War, 1641-1647 (London: Collins, 1958), The Trial of Charles I (London: Collins, 1964); R. H. Parry (ed.), The English Civil War and After1642-1658 (London: Macmillan, 1970); E. W. Ives (ed.) The English Revolution, 1500-1660 (London: Edward Arnold, 1968).

[۸] See Paul Mantoux, The Industrial Revolution the Eighteenth Century: an Outline of the Beginning of the Modern Factory System, New and Revised edition with a preface by Thomas Ashton  (London: Jonothan Cape, 1961).

[۹] See, for example,  John R. Alden, The American Revoltuion, 1775-1783 ( New York, Harper and Row, 1962); Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1967);  The Unfinished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism and and the American Revolution (Durham, N. C, and London: Duke University Press, 1990).

[۱۰] Thus he argued in his Foundations of Leninism (1924), but he changed his mind in the revised and expanded editions that were later published under the new title of Problems of Leninism. See, for example, Isaac Deutcher, Stalin ( Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977) especially Chs. 5 and 7; and E. H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-1926 , 3 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1958-1964).

[۱۱] See, for example, Birthe Arendrup, China in the 1980’s, and Beyond (London: Curzon, 1986); Ban Wang, The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China (California: Stanford University Press, 1997); Jerome Ch’ên, Mao and the Chinese Revolution (London, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1965)

[۱۲] See Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,  E. Cannan (ed.) (London: University Paperbacks, 1961), especially, Book 2, chapter 3. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1(London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1977) parts vii and viii. Homa Katouzian, Ideology and Method in Economics, and Adam Smith va Servat-e Melal (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1979).

[۱۳] This discreet and long- term process of change in science as well as society had been well known. In the case of society it had been well documented and subjected to much theorising. In the case of knowledge and science, it had once been discussed in the original Hegelian and Marxian concepts of ideology. Thomas Kuhn offered a new model in the case of ‘scientific revolutions’, though he overlooked the fact that it was equally valid for the history of all (not just scientific) knowledge, and implied that it was necessarily the best procedure for the advancement of science. See his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970); Homa Katouzian, ‘T. S. Kuhn, Functionalism and Sociology of Knowledge’, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, June 1984, ‘The Hallmarks of Science and Scholasticism, A Historical Analysis’, The Yearbook of the Sociology of the Sciences (Dordrecht, Boston and London:, D. Reidel, 1982), Ideology and Method in Economics, Ch. 4.

[۱۴] See, for Example, Katouzian, ‘Arbitrary Rule’, ‘Problems of Political Development in Iran: Democracy, Dictatorship or Arbitrary Rule?’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 22, (1995) (reprinted in this volume) Estebdad, Demokrasi va Nehzat-e Melli (Tehran: Nashr-e Markaz, second impression, 1998), The Political Economy of Modern Iran (London and New York: Macmillan and New York University Press, 1981).

[۱۵] For a an extensive exposition of this myth mainly form Ferdawsi’s Shahnameh, and its comparison with the European theory of  ‘the divine right of kings’ which purported to justify absolutist monarchy, see Katouzian, ‘Farrah-ye Izadi’.

[۱۶] Marx once observed that, although the stomach did not know biology, it nevertheless carried out its digestive functions precisely according to its laws.

[۱۷] See, for example, entries for  ‘Hasan ‘ Ali Mirza Shoja’ al-Saltaneh’, and  ‘Khosraw Mirza’, in Mehdi Bamdad, Sharh-e Hal-e Rejal-e Iran dar Qarn-e 12, 13 va 14e Hejri (Tehran: Zavvar, vol. 1, 1992), and, further, under Hossein ‘ Ali Mirza in the followign volumes.

[۱۸] See Abolfazl Baihaqi, Tarikh-e Baihaqi, Ali Akbar Fayyaz (ed.) (Mashad: The University Press, 1971); Homa Katouzian, ‘The Execution of Amir Hasanak The Vazir’, Pembroke Papers, 1990, pp. 73-88 (reprinted in this volume).

[۱۹] See Baihaqi, Tarikh, pp. 530-531.

[۲۰] After the assassination of Xerxes by his son, the Achaemenid state seldom experienced noraml stability, when most of his descendants likewise succeeded, and were destroyed, by assassination and treachery. And this would have been the fate of Darius III as well, had he not managed to make Bagoas – the killer of his father and brother – drink first of the poison that he had intended for him. After being defeated by Alexander, he was murdered by two of his own satraps. See, for example, Ghirshman, Iran from the Earliest Times, and Alessandro Bausani, The Persians form the Earliest Days to the Twentieth Century (London: Elek Books Ltd., 1971).

[۲۱] Ferdawsi’s Shahnameh is an excellent source for all this.

[۲۲] The legend is that he was killed by a miller who robbed him of his clothes and jewellery, but there is strong suspicion that the governor of Merv, Mahuy Suri, was the real culprit. Indeed, the Shah was refused any help, sometimes even hospitality, by his own civilian and military governors all through his long flight from the west of his empire to the east. For the classic sources, see Ferdawsi’s Shanameh, Tabari’s Tarikh, Bal’ami’s Tarikh, etc. For a general discussion of the legends by a modern historian, see Mohammad Ebrahim Bastani Parizi, Asiyab-e Haftsang (Tehran: Bastani Parizi, 1988).

[۲۳] See, for example, Lawrence Lockhart, The Fall of the Safavid Dynasty and the Afghan Occupation of Persia Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958). Mohammad Hashem Asef Rostam al-Hokama, Rostam al-Tavarikh, Mohammad Moshiri (ed.) (Tehran, 1969).

[۲۴] In several books and articles; see, for example, ‘Arbitrary Rule’, and  ‘Demokrasi, Diktatori va Mas’uliyat-e Mellat’ in Estebdad, Emokrsi va Nehzat-e Melli.

[۲۵] See his Siyar al-Muluk, Hubert Darke (ed.) (Tehran: Bongah-e Tarjomeh va Nashr-e Ketab, 1961), pp. 13-14 .

[۲۶] Ibid., p. 13.

[۲۷] See Political Economy, Chs. 4 and 18.

[۲۸] See Homa Katouzian, ‘Liberty and Licence in the Constitutional Revolution of Iran’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3, 8, 2, 1998, pp.159-180, and Political Economy, Ch. 4.

[۲۹] For a longer quotation, see Bausani, The Persians, p. 31.

[۳۰] See further, Katouzian, ‘Liberty and Licence’.

[۳۱] See Homa Katouzian, The State and Society in Iran, The Eclipse of the Qajars and the Emergnece of the Pahlavis (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2000), Ch. 3.

[۳۲] See ibid, Chs. 9-11, and Homa Katouzian, Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1990) Ch. 3.

[۳۳] See further the interview  with Homa Katouzian on factionalism in modern Iranian politics, in Saïd Barzin, Jenhbandi-ye Siyasi dar Iran (Tehran: Nashr-e Markaz, 1998), pp. 98-125.

[۳۴] See Political Economy, Chs. 11-16.

[۳۵] Lest there be any doubt left that the Shah was not a helpless (or wanton) American puppet, see Asadollh Alam, The Shah and I, ed. Alinaghi Alikhani, London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1991.

[۳۶] The above analysis has been more widely presented and discussed in several of my works, including ‘The Pahlavi Regime in Iran’, in H. E. Chehabi and J. Linz (ed.), Sultanistic Regimes (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1997), ‘Arbitrary Rule’, and Political Economy, Chs. 17 and 18.  For other studies of the subject, see, for example, John Foran (ed.) A Century of Revolution (Mineapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994); H. E. Chehabi, Iranian Politics and Islamic Modernism: The Liberation Movement of Iran under the Shah and Khomeini New York: Cornell University Press, 1990); Valentine Moghadam, ‘Populist Revolution and the Islamic State in Iran’, in Terry Boswell (ed.) Revolution in the World System (New York and London: Greenwood, 1989), and ‘Iran: Development, Revolution and the Problem of Analysis’, Review of Radical Political Economics, 1984, pp. 227-40; Said Amir Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Mansoor Moaddel, Class, Politics and Ideology in the Iranian Revolution (New York; Columbia University Press, 1993); Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982) Ch. 11; Nikki Keddie, Roots of Revolution, with a section by Yann Richard (New Haven and London: Yale University press, 1981) Ch. 7.


Published in Homa Katouzian, Iranian History and Politics: The Dialectic of State and Society, London and New York: Routledge, paperback edition, 2007

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