“Khalil Maleki: Nonalignment and the “Third Force

Interview by ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI (doctoral student in modern Middle East studies at Queens College, University of Oxford).

In this interview, Katouzian discusses the life and work of Khalil Maleki (1901-69), one of 20th-century Iran's most interesting and original political and intellectual figures, whose historical importance and profound insights have come to be appreciated only decades after his death.

This outline of Maleki’s political activities and intellectual contribution provides an introduction to a figure who played a decisive role in the evolution and transformation of the Iranian left, and who very much against the current of his time forged a social democratic alternative in the context of the Cold War against and between Soviet totalitarianism and Western imperial machinations. When placed in their appropriate context, his critique of Soviet communism and advocacy of nonalignment are clearly exceptional for their time. Furthermore, the alternative he offered has retained its appeal for many to this day, with its basis in a call for national independence and transformative sociopolitical reform on the domestic front. His progressive cultural criticism and stances vis-à-vis women’s rights and a host of other issues make Maleki of abiding relevance to Iranians and their destiny in the 21st century. The many democratic-egalitarian ideals he espoused passionately during turbulent times remain to be realized in his homeland over 40 years since his passing, giving good reason for a review of his contributions and legacy.

Though the literature in English on Maleki remains very sparse, Katouzian has written several essays about him and has been pivotal, as well, in the republication of his writings in Farsi. Katouzian is supremely qualified, then, to provide an accessible introduction in English to an Iranian thinker, political strategist, and statesman whose name is rarely, if ever, heard in contemporary debates about the future of Iranian democratic and egalitarian politics — a man who symbolizes not only Iran’s rich legacy of social democratic politics, but also a political order Iranians may well strive to realize in the future.

Dr. Katouzian, prior to addressing the life and work of Maleki specifically, could you please explain something of the history of the term “intellectual” (“rowshanfekr,” or “monavvar al-fekr”) and its role in Iranian intellectual life?

It was during the constitutionalist movement of the late 19th century that the modern intellectual elite emerged — that is, thgrowing body of people who were then known as monavvar al-fekran, and, since the 1940s, rowshanfekran. There were two principal outside models for this new elite, even though there were important differences between them. One was the contemporary Russian intelligentsia, whose ideas and attitudes had made a large impact on the thinking and aspirations of monavvar al-fekran. The other — less obvious, but in certain respects more important and more enduring — model was the French intellectual tradition.

In effect, the French are the inventors of modern intellectualism and the intellectual elite in the narrow and specialized senses of these terms employed here. The first discernible body of modern intellectuals in history, although they were not then so called, were the 18th-centuryphilosophes, such men and women as Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert, Helvétius, D’Holbach, Émilie (Marquise) du Châtelet, and Madame de Staël, most of whom were otherwise known as encyclopédistes. The term “intellectual” — as a noun (rather than an adjective), and in the sense meant here — was first used towards the closing years of the 19th century, especially in the wake of the campaign led by Émile Zola and his supporters in the Dreyfus affair. It was applied by Georges Clemenceau — later to become French war leader and nicknamed “The Tiger” — to the men of letters and knowledge such as Anatole France who had signed the manifesto in support of Zola’s campaign against the top French military leaders’ terrible injustice to Captain Dreyfus.

Since then, les intellectuels referred to a fairly well defined elite subject to controversy from various viewpoints. Julien’s Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs (۱۹۲۷) and Raymond Aron’s L’Opium des Intellectuels (۱۹۵۵) are two of the most celebrated critical essays on French intellectuals. It is not unlikely that [Jalal] Al-e Ahmad was aware of Benda’s essay when he first wrote the article “Dar Khiyanat-e Rowshanfekran,” since Benda’s essay also castigates French intellectuals. However, Al-e Ahmad’s critique of Iranian intellectuals (in that article and his later book, Dar Khedmat va Khiyanat-e Rowshanfekran) entirely refers to the Iranian experience.

Like its 18th-century counterpart, the Iranian intellectual elite also were and remained an essentially dissident movement. Hence, in its usage in France, the appellation “intellectual” usually excluded academics and other intellectuals who were either establishmentarian or quietist. When Raymond Aron, the distinguished French sociologist and erstwhile fellow-student of Jean-Paul Sartre at the École Normale, described Marxism as the “opium of intellectuals,” he was obviously excluding himself from the group in the special sense that the term was normally used in that country. In Iran, likewise, the term was used in that sense, and usually excluded nondissident academics and intellectuals. At the risk of overemphasizing the point, it should be stressed that the distinction described here is not intended as anything except to comply with the normal usage of the term at the time and in the countries concerned: it is not based on a definition or a value judgment by me.

Thus the French and the Russians provided the main background for modern Iranian intellectuals, monavvar al-fekran and rowshanfekran. Yet the phenomenon was not unfamiliar from Iranian history, and had a counterpart in various forms throughout the ages. It had existed in the form of thinkers and intellectual critics like Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Razi, or radical poets and campaigners such as Naser Khosrow, or countless mystic thinkers, leaders, and poets such as Bayazid, Abu Said, Attar, Sohravardi, Rumi, and others. Such men and ideas had been traditional vehicles for social and political (including religious) protest and dissent.

One of their obligatory codes of practice was to shun the state and state-related power. It is well known that Shia theory did not regard the state as legitimate unless ordained by God for the anointed Imams, despite the fact that in practice the ulema coexisted with it and some of them drew privileges from it. But the ongoing conflict of state and society in Iran was a familiar phenomenon from much earlier — in fact, since ancient times, arising from the arbitrary nature of government and (corresponding) chaotic trends of the society. Thus, the society saw the state as an alien force, and so did the dissident thinkers, mystics, and poets who expressed, and sometimes articulated, the society’s sentiments.

In the 1940s, the Tudeh Party was formed mainly by Marxist intellectuals, some of whom had just been released from jail. It was not yet a communist party either in name or politics, or in outlook and method. It resembled more closely a popular or democratic front, which was run by Marxist intellectuals and activists, just like those in occupied Europe to resist Nazi rule. In fact, it was from about 1949 that it became a solid communist party in language, ideas, and international allegiance, having put behind it three crucial stages: the Azerbaijan crisis of 1945-46, the ensuing party split of January 1948 (which was led by Khalil Maleki), and the official banning of the party in February 1949.

The story of Iranian intellectuals in the 1940s and ’50s is largely the story of the Tudeh Party, including those who remained faithful to it, those who led its splinter group and founded other left-wing movements, and those who left it quietly and gave up political activism. It would be difficult to find any leading [dissident] intellectual of the 1940s and ’50s, other than Ahmad Kasravi, who had not been a Tudeh member or fellow traveler in the early 1940s, although many of them were later disillusioned with it and some actively opposed it.

Thus, in the ’40s and ’50s, the approach and language of the main body of Iranian intellectuals — whether Tudeh or non-Tudeh — was leftist, though not necessarily communist. There were sometimes major differences among them, for example, over their attitude towards Mosaddegh’s government and towards the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. But, in various degrees, they were anti-imperialist, secular, and modernist. They were poets, writers, critics, essayists, journalists, and translators, though hardly any of them made his or her living from these activities. They either taught, or had lower- or middle-ranking jobs in a public office or institution.

Could you give us some background on Maleki’s childhood and adolescence and how it shaped his worldview? Though he was born in 1901, did the legacy of the Constitutional Revolution have an impact upon his formative years growing up in Tabriz and then Arak?

Maleki was born in Tabriz in 1901 and died in Tehran in 1969. His father — Hajj Mirza Fath’ali — was a well-to-do merchant and supporter of the constitutional movement. As a boy he witnessed the siege of Tabriz after Mohammad Ali Shah’s coup, during which their home was more than once looted by the government forces. The death of his father and subsequent remarriage of his mother found the young Maleki in Soltan-Abad (later Arak) where he went to the traditional schools, maktab and madreseh. In the early 1920s, he attended the German Technical College in Tehran and following that succeeded in winning a highly competitive state scholarship to study in Europe. He had already been attracted to politics and socialism in Tehran and cites, in a series of unfinished autobiographical essays, his somewhat disillusioning meeting with Soleiman Mirza, the then parliamentary socialist leader. This interest was to be widened as well as deepened because of the rising political conflict in Europe (which at the time was probably at its height in Berlin, where he studied chemistry), the reemergence of arbitrary rule in Iran, and his contact with other radical students, notably Taghi Arani.

 The highly prized state scholarship was withdrawn after a student committed suicide and Maleki insisted on a full investigation, which the Iranian Embassy staff were trying to avoid. They branded him as a communist (which he was not) and sent him back to Tehran where he studied philosophy and education (falsafeh va olum-e tarbiyati) to become a secondary-school teacher in chemistry.

In 1937, Maleki was arrested as a member of the famous Group of Fifty-Three. What effect did this have on his ideological predilections and political affiliation?

Early in 1937, he was arrested, tried, and convicted as one of the Fifty-Three. Like most of them, he was not yet a Marxist but became one in prison. By all accounts, notably that of Bozorg Alavi’s Panjah o seh Nafar, he behaved with exceptional courage and dignity while in jail. This included his clash with prison authorities over the prisoners’ rights, which led to his being whipped, sent to the common criminals’ ward, and — after he began to deliver a speech to them — held in a toilet cell for months.

Maleki had had social democratic leanings without being a member of any organization. Ironically, however, once in jail he and most of the other 52 prisoners became Marxist. They even managed to smuggle a German copy of Das Kapital, read it, and translate it for other prisoners.

But, as he later explained in numerous places, he was disillusioned and disappointed with many of his comrades because he regarded the attitude of many of them as amoral, opportunistic, unprincipled, or undignified. He therefore decided not to join them if and when they were released and launched a political party.

What was Maleki’s relationship to the Tudeh Party, and why did he decide to part ways with many of his erstwhile colleagues in January 1948? What role did the Azerbaijani crisis and the Tudeh’s proximity to the USSR play in provoking the party split?

That was why he refused to become a founding member of the Tudeh Party in 1941, when Reza Shah abdicated in the wake of the Allied occupation of the country. But within a year or so, some of the party’s leading young intellectuals persuaded him to join the party with the express purpose of helping them to reform its leadership and program. It must be emphasized that it was not yet a communist party but a reformist popular front committed to democracy and constitutional monarchy.

The party opposition thus became known as the Reformist Wing (Jenah-e Eslah-talab). They had growing complaints, which they summarized as (a) the leadership’s bureaucratic attitude within, and conservative policy without, the party and (b) its submissive attitude toward the Soviet Embassy in Tehran. The party somehow managed to survive its ongoing internal conflicts, notably those over the first party congress and the unsuccessful Soviet demand for an oil concession.

But the Azerbaijan crisis brought matters to a head. As the head of the provincial Tudeh Party in Azerbaijan, Maleki had been critical of the attitude and behavior both of the Soviet occupying forces and of Pishevari’s Democrats. He opposed both the Tudeh Party’s formal affiliation with the Democrats in Azerbaijan and its very short-lived participation in Ahmad Qavam’s coalition government — in the latter case, simply because he thought Qavam would ditch them at the first opportunity, as in fact he did.

The catastrophic failure of these policies, and the internal party struggles which followed, heightened the conflict within less than a year of the collapse of the Azerbaijan Democrats. The young reformist intellectuals — led by Jalal Al-e Ahamad — were in contact both with the young and fiery theorist Eprime Eshag and the “elder” statesman of the party opposition, Khalil Maleki. It was they who persuaded Maleki to lead the famous split of January 1948.

The Soviet Union immediately denounced the split and branded its leaders as agents of British imperialism. They therefore abandoned the idea of launching another party and decided to lie low for a time. The time for reflection enabled Maleki to discover the roots of the problem in Soviet Stalinism, on the one hand, and Marxist-Leninist ideology, on the other. He openly denounced the former and grew out of the latter by making it clear that he was no longer a Leninist nor did he subscribe to the Marxist ideology, although he still used Marxian concepts wherever suitable.

What was his relationship with other left-leaning intellectuals and political activists after the split, for instance, Iraj Eskandari or Bozorg Alavi? These were, after all, men with whom he had become acquainted in jail, engendering something of a bond between them. Moreover, his critique of both Stalinism and Marxist-Leninism were indeed very novel for their time; very few even in the West had dared to openly question such pieties in the early stages of the Cold War. What impact did this have upon Maleki’s relationship to the Iranian left, but also the USSR, which had denounced the Tudeh split as a deviationist current and plot hatched by British imperialism?

Originally much of the conflict in the party had been with men like that because of their bureaucratic attitude in the party leadership and submissive position vis-à-vis the Soviet Embassy. They were to be joined by others such as Abdossamad Kambakhsh, Nureddin Kiyanuri, and Ehsan Tabari. Immediately after the split, they joined the chorus of condemnation and signed the statement castigating Maleki and the others. Eprime Eshag told me that he did not join the split, anticipating the hysteria that they would face. Soon after, however, Dr. Fereydun Keshavarz went and asked him to sign a condemnation letter against his splitting colleagues. He told Keshavarz that he would write a statement detailing their grievances and saying they were absolutely right but ending by saying that the split was a mistake. “No, this is unacceptable,” said Keshavarz, to which I replied, “If this is unacceptable, that too is unacceptable.” The pressure was so high that after a few days he resigned from the party.

You must imagine the extreme Soviet popularity three years after winning the war, especially in a third-world country neighbor like Iran, to be able to gauge the amount of courage that it took to clash with it. This was before Marshal Tito’s split with Stalin, as a result of which the entire world communist movement gave him the title Marshal of Traitors. As it happened, Maleki had been the official Tudeh Party contact with the Yugoslav embassy in Tehran, which immediately after the split denounced him.

What was Maleki’s main intellectual contribution? Is it correct to see him as one of the prominent intellectual progenitors of the nonaligned movement?

He certainly was one of the earliest theorists of nonalignment. He coined the term Third Force (as distinct from the first — Western — and the second — Eastern — blocs), long before the term “third world” came into existence. Not only did he create the concept but he also based a theory on it. He introduced two principal concepts: “The Third Force in General” and “The Third Force in Particular.” The “general” concept referred to the desire and/or efforts to break free from the two (Western and Eastern) stereotypes everywhere in the world, outside the U.S. and USSR. The “Third World in Particular” referred, in addition, to anticolonial and social democratic aspirations and campaigns in the third-world countries, such as the Popular Movement of Iran. These were countries which “neither feel free in Mr. Truman’s free world, nor do they see any sign of socialism in in the Soviet Union’s socialist camp.” It was clear at the outset that the Third Force theory went well beyond a mere articulation of the foreign policy of nonalignment, though this itself was quite an original idea at the time and formed a small part of Maleki’s theory. I have discussed the Third Force theory at length in my introduction to Maleki’s political memoirs, which I edited and published in 1981.

What led to Maleki’s founding of the Toilers Party of the People of Iran (Hezb-e Zahmatkeshan-e Mellat-e Iran) with the political activist and newspaper editor Mozaffar Baghaei?

The campaign, at the close of the 15th Majles, against the Supplemental Oil Agreement (better known as the Gass-Golshaiyan agreement) quickly widened into a movement for free elections and democratic government, shortly to be known as the Popular Movement (Nehzat-e Melli). This happened almost at the same time as the banning of the Tudeh Party after the attempt on the Shah’s life in February 1949. The popular democratic forces closed rank and began to form a broadly based coalition. Mosaddegh, who was not a 15th Majlis deputy, was brought out of his self-imposed “political retirement” to lead the movement. The National Front was formed during the struggles for free elections in Tehran. Baghaei was leading his very effective Action Group for Free Elections (Sazman-e Nezarat bar Azadi-ye Entekhabat) when, in September 1949, he launched his weekly newspaper Shahed.

Shortly afterwards, Jalal Al-e Ahmad joined its voluntary staff and persuaded Maleki to write for the newspaper. The immediate result was the series of articles later published in a volume entitled The Clash of Views and Ideas. The cooperation with Shahed continued until May 1951, when — in the wake of Mosaddegh’s assumption of office — Maleki and the remnants of the Tudeh splinter group and Baghaei and his Action Group formed Hezb-e Zahmatkeshan-e Mellat-e Iran, or the Toilers Party (“mellat,” incidentally, here meant “people,” not “nation”). This was to become a serious rival for the Tudeh Party in attracting students, youths, and working people — especially after Baghaei’s split and the creation of the Third Force Party — although it was inevitably a considerably smaller organization.

What provoked the break with Baghaei and the emergence of Maleki’s party, Niru-ye Sevvom?

The relationship between Baghaei and Mosaddegh began to run into difficulty within the first year of Mosaddegh’s premiership. But their public cooperation was to endure until after the successful revolt of July 1952 against Ahmad Qavam’s short-lived ministry. Baghaei’s view at that time that the Toilers Party should declare war on Mosaddegh’s government was rejected by Maleki’s wing of the party, whereupon Baghaei arranged the party split of October 1952, and the Maleki wing continued under the Third Force title. They were the only Popular Movement party that discussed government policy critically but, unlike Baghaei, they would not enter a destructive opposition against Mosaddegh’s government.

Afterward, the Third Force grew at a rapid rate, while the government’s position tended to weaken, not least because of the split within the movement’s leadership, with Baghaei, Kashani, and a few others attacking it. The conflict came to a head on February 28, 1953, when the movement’s splinter group supported the riots against Mosaddegh upon the Shah’s announcement that he intended to go on a trip to Europe. In the event, the Third Force played a visible role in saving the situation, and Mosaddegh formally thanked them by inviting Maleki and 30 of the party activists to his home.

When, in July of that year, Mosaddegh decided to hold a referendum to close the 17th Majles and hold fresh elections, Maleki and his party tried to dissuade him from it on the ground that the recess would offer a golden opportunity for the openly anticipated coup attempt. Many other Popular Movement leaders also thought that it was an unwise move. Mosaddegh disagreed, so that — in a meeting witnessed by Karim Sanjabi — Maleki spoke the now famous, prophetic words, “The path which you are treading will lead straight to Hell; but we shall accompany you to it, nonetheless.”

You dedicated your second book, The Political Economy of Modern Iran (۱۹۸۱) to Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh — the man who famously nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and was overthrown by a coup d’état orchestrated by the CIA and MI6. You have also written a seminal contribution to the historiography of that era, Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran (۱۹۹۰) and coedited Mosaddegh’s memoirs in English. In your view, what remains of Mosaddegh’s legacy today and was the coup of 1953 really Iran’s single best hope for secular democratic government as some writers like Stephen Kinzer have since alleged? Also, what do you believe are the main reasons for his and the National Front’s elision by the leadership of the Islamic Republic and official historiography?

It was just after the Revolution of February 1979 that, before submitting it to the publishers, I pointedly dedicated the book to Mosaddegh “for his belief in democracy and long-life struggle for its realisation.” That was very much intentional, because in those circumstances very few Iranians cared at all about democracy and liberty (contemptuously describing it as Western or bourgeois democracy if it was mentioned at all). And if any credit at all was given to Mosaddegh and his legacy, it was to “his anti-imperialist struggle.”

Whereas, you will find, that despite my praise of his commitment to democratic government as well as clean politics, I was critical of the fact that Mosaddegh did not oblige his rightist and communist opponents to observe civil and criminal laws, and he did not settle the oil dispute in the best way which was possible and realistic at the time — above all, by eventually turning down the World Bank’s offer of mediation, being fearful that not just the communists and rightists but even some of his own supporters would call it a “sell-out.”

In fact I concluded my political biography of Mosaddegh by saying that he was much better cut out for the leadership of the opposition than government, and that he should not have accepted the premiership: In fact, he had refused the offer of premiership time and again even a few months before he accepted it with great reluctance, for he himself knew where his points of strength and weakness lay.

Incidentally, I have been, and still am, vehemently attacked personally for such critical assessments by many Mosaddegh worshipers, including some of his relatives, and this says something about the chances of bringing democracy to Iran even by those who claim to espouse it.

As only a very few of Mosaddegh’s supporters, notably Khalil Maleki, kept pointing out, without the settlement of the oil dispute, which would have ended the unequal foreign conflict, and the establishment of law and order on democratic lines, which would have removed a growing sense of insecurity around life and properly at home, neither Mosaddegh’s government nor the existing weak and incipient parliamentary democracy would have survived in the long run.

This is not to condone the 1953 coup. On the contrary, it is to say that, if those conditions had been met, that coup would simply not have happened.

As for the Islamist historiography, to put it in a nutshell, Mosaddegh was a “liberal” (to them, a highly pejorative term) and therefore did not agree with Ayatollah Kashani’s view that he should establish an Islamic government. That was what caused the rift between them, and ultimately led to Mosaddegh’s downfall. You may find it difficult to believe, but according to one of the variations on this theme, Mosaddegh himself was actively involved in planning the 1953 coup.

In fact it was only the group of young and militant Fada’iyan-e Islam (who sometimes resorted to assassinating people they thought were undesirable) who demanded the establishment of an Islamic government, which Mosaddegh and Kashani had neither promised nor even wanted. It may amuse you to know that in the very early days of Mosaddegh’s premiership, Kashani published a statement in his own handwriting in which he said that those who were demanding the expulsion of women from government offices, making hejab compulsory, and shutting down the liquor shops were either stupid or agents of Britain.

It was not just Kashani but also a few of his secular associates as well, notably Baqai, who fell out with Mosaddegh, not in May 1951, but as late as January 1953, and the reasons for that were both personal and political. It had absolutely nothing to do with religion and religious government. In fact, the Fada’iyan went on vehemently attacking both Mosaddegh and Kashani until the 1953 coup, in which they actively participated. Kashani and his people also supported the coup for a while but fell out with the new regime not long afterwards.

In recent years, it seems you have moved towards reassessing the initial years of Reza Shah’s ascendancy in the aftermath of the coup d’état of February 1921. This period has traditionally been rife with polemic and bias, comprised of those who heartily endorse Reza Shah’s authoritarian program of modernization from above and others who decry his kleptomania and violent efforts to blunt the power of the clergy and extirpate public signs of religiosity and piety, such as his much-resented banning of the veil. It seems you have tried your best to get out from under the all-too familiar diatribes and hagiographic retelling of that period. What should the present generation take from the Reza Shah period in terms of both its achievements and excesses?

Putting aside inevitable variations in nuance and tone, my view of Reza Khan/Reza Shah has not undergone basic change since I wrote The Political Economy of Modern Iran more than 30 years ago. If you go back to the 1970s you will find that — putting aside the official propaganda, which hardly anyone took seriously — virtually the whole of Iranian society was convinced that Britain had brought Reza Khan/Reza Shah to power and that he was their paid agent and puppet for exploiting the country.

I wrote in that book that, although some British military and diplomatic personnel then stationed in Iran had played an important role in the 1921 coup that brought Reza Khan to power, the British government had not been a party to it. In my later studies, I produced massive primary evidence (largely official British documents) to prove this and, besides that, to show that there was no British hand at all in Reza Khan’s later accession to the throne. For that and my other myth-breaking arguments, extremist Islamists have described me as an “agent of the British espionage service” (amel-e servis-e jasusi-ye ingilis) and a “marked agent of imperialism” (amel-e neshandar-e amperialsim). Even a small number of Mosaddegh worshipers joined the chorus.

In fact, I wrote in that same old book that if Amir Kabir had survived, Iranians were likely to have become convinced that he was a Russian or British agent, and if Reza Khan had been assassinated in 1923, they would have said forever that he would have led Iran to the millennium had not the British arranged for his assassination! (Incidentally, there is much in all this that is characteristic of Iranian history and society: the alienation of society from state, cult of worship of martyrdom, conspiracy theory of politics, and so on.)

In fact the comparison is quite apt (putting aside Reza Khan’s “kleptomania,” as you describe it). Answering a question on whether Iran would now be a developed country had Amir Kabir survived, I said in a recent interview that Reza Shah managed to do ten times as much as him (since he had much more time and money, and the times were better for Iran), but Iran is not yet a developed country. This is not to mention the fact that almost 40 years after Reza Shah’s abdication Iranian society experienced an anti-Western revolution and 98 percent of its members voted for an Islamic republic.

Even if this was the work of Britain and America, as conspiracy theorists of all hues believe, the question is how they managed to convince 98 percent of a supposedly advanced country to do that. Would they be able to do something similar in a small advanced country such as Norway or Finland?

This brings us to the core issue of the meaning and implication of modernization. Apart from the central objective of demolishing arbitrary rule and establishing government based on law, in which all the supporters of the Constitutional Revolution, i.e., virtually the whole of the society, were united, the main hope and dream of the emerging modern middle classes was to go for modernization and development. However — putting aside a few sophisticated intellectuals — they paid little attention to the country’s existing capacities, be they social, political, cultural, economic, or whatever. And because the triumph of the Constitutional Revolution resulted in instability and disorder rather than stability and democracy, they lost hope in constitutional monarchy and increasingly began to wish for the rise of a dictator who, in their mind, would turn Iran into, say, France within a short period of time. This is what I described as pseudo-modernism: they just scratched the very surface of modern society without understanding its history, logic, and sociology, i.e., what it meant, and how and why it had come about. “Just give me France or America here and now,” you can hear them saying even at present.

They found their dictator in Reza Khan and presented to him their blueprint for “modernization.” The results are well known and I have documented them at length in my latest book, The Persians.

We don’t have sufficient time here to discuss the results of Reza Shah’s approach to modernization and development, which I must emphasize had been largely determined by the modern elite even before he came to power. But the fact remains that the country was nowhere nearly developed at the time of his abdication in 1941, when he had very few friends left in the country — and not even by the time his son was overthrown in 1979, who, on the basis of the same vision of modernization, and thanks to large amounts of free oil rents, had done a hundred times more than his father.

Contrast this with a country such as South Korea, which between 1960 and 1980 managed to become a developed country under a dictatorial regime. It was not dictatorial government that prevented real and lasting modernization under Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah. Most of the countries that are now modernized developed under dictatorial or absolute governments, not democracy.

Dictatorship is government by the minority in which, however limited they may be relative to democracy, there is rule of law and participation in decision making. Dictatorships, I repeat, are governments by the minority, but not just by one person alone, which is arbitrary rule (estebdad).

This takes us back to the comparison between Amir Kabir and Reza Shah. We do not know what Amir Kabir had thought of the system of arbitrary rule, but in any case it was given to him. Whereas the modern intellectuals following him, such as Malkam Khan, had hit upon the discovery that the root cause of backwardness and injustice in Iran was the age-old arbitrary government (and its dialectical opposite, social disorder), not least by observing the fate of men like Amir Kabir himself.

And that is how government by law as opposed to government by fiat became the desideratum and password for all those who campaigned for the Constitutional Revolution.

Thus, by far the most important reason why neither Reza Shah nor his son managed to modernize and develop Iran was not that their regime was dictatorial, but that in the latter parts of their rule (Reza Shah, from around 1930 to 1941, and Mohammad Reza Shah, from 1963 to 1977), they turned from dictators to arbitrary rulers, having restored the age-old system of estebdad and short-term society — which would never allow Iran to become an advanced modern society. Most modernizing countries began with or went through a period of dictatorship before they became fully developed. But there has been no such experience under arbitrary government anywhere in the world.

Moving on to a very different era in Iran’s contemporary history, prominent reformist figure Alireza Alavi-Tabar, in an interview recently published in Professor Ali Mirsepassi’s Modern Democracy in Iran (New York University Press, 2010), has stated that your work was amongst the most influential intellectual influences upon reformists based at the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran during 1990s — a period of much intellectual activity and the flourishing of a critical consciousness of sorts amongst one-time stalwart revolutionaries, many of whom fought and witnessed firsthand the devastation wreaked by the eight-year conflict with Iraq. Such high-profile figures as Saeed HajjarianMohsen ArminBehzad NabaviAbbas Abdi, and Mohsen Kadivar were linked either directly or indirectly with the Center, and it’s fair to say that many of the themes in their writings share a common concern with many of the arguments found in your own work. How do you see the broader intellectual impact of your work on the contemporary intellectual milieu inside Iran, particularly that of the reformists and the intellectual class which advocates publicly on their behalf?

The reformist movement which began to emerge from about 1990 very soon began to take notice of my theories via The Political Economy of Modern Iran, Mosaddegh’s biography, and the historical and theoretical essays and essay collections which I began to publish directly in Persian. I was personally absent from the scene but was nevertheless exerting growing influence in the thinking and attitude of these men and women.

I had not been to Iran since 1977 and did not return until 2004, towards the end of Khatami’s second term. In the words of one leading reformist intellectual, “Having read your works, we were relieved to learn that it was possible to analyze Iranian society and politics in ways that made sense, unlike the theories and explanations which we had been used to, and which could not resolve many social and historical puzzles which we faced.” In the words of another, “Your work did not just make us see things in a sensible and realistic light, but also taught us realism and moderation in our political attitude and behavior.”

I won’t say any more on this, but you can see for yourself that the approach of most Iranian reformists, whether religious or secular, particularly those schooled in the social sciences, is now based on the theories, analyses, and methods which I have systematically devised and advocated in the last 40 years.

The political platform which swept reformist candidate President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 certainly echoed your critique of arbitrary rule in its demands for the rule of law and the impartial administration of justice. In your latest book, The Persians, you open a chapter with a quote by Khatami stating, “Arbitrary rule (estebdad) and chaos (harj-o-marj) are two sides of the same coin.” Does this discourse find its origins in the intellectual developments preceding the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11)? One thinks, for instance, of the writings of Malkam Khan or Mostashar al-Dawleh’s Yek Kalameh (One Word) — or was there something novel about the demands for the “rule of law” (hakemiyyat-e qanun) and “legality/lawfulness” (qanunmandi) presented to the Iranian public by Khatami and his administration? What did you make of the reformists at the time of Khatami’s electoral victory and what were the chief reasons for their failure to deliver on their campaign promises?

Indeed it does, and, as I mentioned, it was 47 years ago when I was alerted to the great importance of the issue, and it led to the theories, histories, and methods which I have been advancing in subsequent decades.

Khatami did not stop repeating those words in his speeches when he was president, the words themselves coming directly from my text “Arbitrary Rule: A Comparative Theory of State, Politics and Society in Iran” (BJMES ۱, ۲۴, ۱۹۹۷), which was quickly translated and published in Iran, and which I repeated in following books and articles.

In the rise of Reformism and election of Khatami, I saw a hope which I had not seen since I was 20 years old — that there might be a chance after all for peaceful and continuous long-term development in Iran — though I was by no means overoptimistic.

I saw better than Khatami’s voters and many of the reformist intellectuals who backed him that (despite what they described as the “epic of the second of Khordad” — i.e., the day of Khatami’s first landslide victory), the opposition to Khatami’s reform policies was well-entrenched and extremely strong, virtually in all the organs of the state.

That was the main reason for the eventual failure of those policies. But another very important reason for it was the fact that his own voters and supporters could not see this and — in a typically Iranian fashion — they expected him to deliver the moon.

Ultimately, Khatami did not succeed since, like the other two reformist Iranian leaders in my adult life — Ali Amini (۱۹۶۱-۱۹۶۲) and Mehdi Bazargan (۱۹۷۹) — he was despised by the ruling powers, while at the same time his actual and potential supporters were blaming him for failing to take them to the millennium.

As you know, Iranians have always been awaiting a savior or hero and, by definition, these must deliver the perfect society within a short period of time.

You have spoken much of the Iranian penchant for conspiracy theory, also famously satirized in Iraj Pezeshkzad’s novel Da’i Jan Napoleon (My Uncle Napoleon), and dubbed by one of modern Iran’s most longstanding statesmen, Hassan Taghizadeh, as the Iranian people’s “melancholia epidemic.” In your opinion, what is the provenance of this tendency to displace blame onto “foreign elements” and “hidden enemies,” and why does it continue to play such a prominent role to this day in the public domain and even the privacy of people’s homes?

I had always regarded the conspiracy theory of politics both as scientifically wrong and sociopolitically harmful, and first put it openly and extensively in writing in The Political Economy of Modern Iran ۳۲ years ago, when the Revolution (most of the ideas behind which were of that type) was raging in Iranian streets as well as across the global media.

I not only attacked the conspiracy theory of politics as such, but also exploded a few epoch-making conspiratorial myths about modern Iranian history such as beliefs that the Constitutional Revolution and the downfall of the Qajars and establishment of the Pahlavis were all due to British conspiracy, or that the Shah was a paid agent of the United States, and that even his role in the oil price revolution of 1973-1974 had been ordered by “his foreign masters.”

There are both long- and short-term causes for this extremely damaging sociopolitical affliction. Its very origins must be rooted in the endemic sense of insecurity, and near-total unpredictability of both individual and social life. And as part of that, feeling totally helpless in planning one’s life — for example in deciding upon a professional career — with a longer view.

I have written on a few occasions that not much more than a century ago an Iranian man leaving home in the morning could not tell whether, come the evening, he would be a minister, or be hung, drawn, and quartered. I have also written on a few occasions that in Iran a person may be a merchant this year, a minister next year, and a prisoner the year after. These are fairly moderate exaggerations, though by no means impossible, to make the point in a simple and clear way. When you cannot have much of a role in reasonably predicting your life, you would inevitably tend to attribute things that happen to you and the society to hidden hands, even to genies and fairies, as I used to say.

Much of this has been found in the perceived conspiracies of the Russians, the British, and the Americans in the last two centuries because of the varying degrees of influence which they used to have in domestic Iranian politics. The Russians had gone out of fashion in this respect but recently made a short comeback when some opponents of Ahmadinejad claimed that the presidential election of June 2009 and its aftermath had been a “Russian coup d’état” in Iran.

Many of those who had marched in the streets of Tehran to bring down the Shah later joined the Shah in claiming that the Revolution of 1979 had been an American and/or British conspiracy. But perhaps the British still have pride of place in this, since many ordinary Iranians at this very moment believe that the Islamic Republic is run by Britain.

Reza Shah used to see a British agent behind every tree, and his son firmly believed that Mosaddegh was an agent of Britain who had ordered him to nationalize Iranian oil. All this while the Iranian people were certain that Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah were themselves paid agents of Britain and, in the case of the latter, also of America.

To look at all the causes and consequences of such an approach to personal and social life would take volumes. Suffice it to say that it is a most crippling factor in both spheres, the social and the individual, because the person and society are convinced that what will happen to them is entirely out of their hands, and they are naught but helpless pawns in the games of others. That is why you often see them shaking their heads in resignation and quoting the (suitably corrupted) verse by Hafez: “May a hidden hand rise and do something” (dasti az gheib borun ayad o kari bekonad).

In your view, were the protests which erupted in the aftermath of the June 2009 elections a watershed moment or just another moment in the dialectic of state (dawlat) and society (mellat)? Is there a solution by means of which the much-feted Green Movement could break the cycle of chaos and arbitrary rule you have so eloquently analyzed over the course of your academic career? Is the Iranian “middle class” the answer, as some prominent commentators have contended?

The protestors made up a large part but not the whole of the society as had been the case in full-scale Iranian revolutions, e.g., of those in the 20th century.

Reformists and secularists had twice acted together by voting for Khatami in 1997 and 2001. This time they revolted in unison. If the Khatami experience had been a crisis of authority, this time it was a crisis of legitimacy, since the two Islamist poles began to cast doubt on each other’s legitimacy, the one side accusing the other of instigating a coup, the other side claiming that they had been planning a “velvet revolution” with the aid of outside powers.

The Green Movement aroused a lot of hope, but the view that it was the “beginning of the end” was, as usual, a product of wishful thinking. The main problem facing the serious analyst is that it is not clear what the Green Movement now is, what its basic aims and objectives are, and how it intends to work for their realization. The only thing that is clear is that most if not all the opponents of the regime, verbally and/or otherwise, support the Green Movement, so that, once again, it is clear what the whole of the opposition do not want, but not what they want.

The Iranian middle classes have been the most important forces in revolutions and protest movements since the late 19th century. No doubt they will be again. But I cannot be highly optimistic about the consequences of their short-term ways and views (even for themselves), unless some important lessons of Iranian history and politics are learned and put to good use in deciding their agenda and future course of action.

published in:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2012/04/homa-katouzian-on-khalil-maleki-part-1-nonalignment-and-the-third-force.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2012/04/homa-katouzian-on-khalil-maleki-part-2-debunking-conspiracy-theory.html

 

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