A Short Report on a Long Intellectual Journey

In October 2012, at a public ceremony held at Harvard University, Homa Katouzian was presented with SINA’s ‘Outstanding Achievement Award in Recognition of Exceptional Contributions to Humanities’. As part of the ceremony, he had been required to present a talk to the conference briefly describing the development of his academic career:

Homa Katouzian

I am honoured by the honour that SINA has showered on us and proud that I have this opportunity to say a few words to this distinguished audience. The establishment of SINA is quite timely in rewarding and encouraging the intellectual effort of those who are selected as being worthy of recognition in their respective fields. Today, SINA has entered the realm of those great patrons of art, knowledge and science that nourished and nurtured Iran’s cultural development.

   Iranians have always displayed respect for their poets, scholars and literati to a degree which is unusual in many other countries. Ministers were usually highly learned men such as Nezam al-Molk, Rashid al-Din Fazlollah and Shams al-Din Joveini who sometimes even wrote great books and poetry. Poets, writers and artists were patronized by the great and good so they could continue their creative works in comfort and free of material care. It is not only a great achievement by us to be honoured by SINA but also a great achievement for SINA to have established the first independent Iranian institution exclusively devoted to honouring intellectual endeavour and scholarly excellence.

   There is a Persian verse which is particularly apt in describing my intellectual carrier and development:

از مذهب من گبر و مسلمان گله دارد

‘Both Muslims and Zoroastrians complain about my faith’

All of my academic degrees are in economics, yet, apart from economics, I have often taught as well as written and published In Iranian history, sociology of history, politics, philosophy and modern and classical Persian literature. Those who are kind to the scholars who publish in a wide range of subjects at specialist levels describe them as erudite or even polymath; those who are not so kind sometimes regard them as dilettante, although a dilettante by definition is incapable of publishing peer-reviewed articles in respectable academic journals and books by serious publishers.

   I was eight years old when I began to read classical Persian literature, and first and foremost Sa’di. But soon I was to take off, reading liberally in Persian and European history and literature, classics, moderns, society and philosophy. All this while I was a schoolboy and it was the most fruitful as well as  enjoyable period of my life, although later when I looked back I realized that it nevertheless had had certain drawbacks, notably deprivation of much that children and youths must enjoy on the way to adulthood. As a result, psychological growth tended to lag behind intellectual development, or rather there was an imbalance between the two such that before being fully grown up I looked like a little old man.

   The foundations having thus been laid down unintentionally if not unconsciously, there was no real choice but to continue to build on them for the rest of my life. A year at Tehran medical school convinced me that not only was I not made for a medical career, but, much closer to home, it would be virtually impossible to continue and enhance my wider intellectual interests, which were almost part of me, if in addition I tried to build up a successful career in medicine.  I was eighteen when I left medicine and home for England to read humanities and social sciences, many of which at the time were not as developed in Iran as an enthusiast would have desired them to be.

   I knew much less about economics than I did of my other subjects of interest. Hence there was a pull; a curiosity which I felt had to be satisfied. I felt I could not quite tell the rights and wrongs of economic systems, economic arguments, economic policy and so on and so forth, especially given the prevailing environment of cold war ideologies in both developed and underdeveloped world in the 1960s. Besides, I believed with some exaggeration that, outside of literature, I could not fully mature in my other subjects unless I knew economics.  Finally, I believed that I could teach myself those subjects as I had up till then, but, being a difficult as well as technical subject, economics required formal training. So it was economics, although I carried my other interests along with it. It required very hard work but I have not been one who has ever complained about working hard.

  And that is how it was that I taught and wrote on economics for eighteen years in a tenured post while, in the same period, getting visiting appointments in other universities as well as the United Nations.  In that same period, I not only published my Ideology and Method in Economics and The Political Economy of Modern Iran as well as my novel studies of the service sector, but also published an article on philosophy of science and one on sociology of knowledge, while at the same time completing my research on Mosaddeq and the popular movement of Iran, and the life and works of Sadeq Hedayat, both of which were published afterwards, one after the other.

   But this could not last forever. There came a time when I felt that I had run out of original projects in pure economics, and that I had to content myself with routine work to continue my career as a full-time academic economist. The fact that there were financially highly rewarding offers from the public and private sectors as well as the United Nations did not have the slightest attraction for me since I saw myself as having been made for making knowledge not riches. At the same time I had begun to lose heart in the discipline of academic economics and felt that they did not satisfy my lofty scientific ideals. I am sure I exaggerated, but by then I was so immersed in economic theory and influenced by Karl Popper’s philosophy of science that a science which looked more like the description of Thomas Kuhn began to lose its appeal for me. On the other hand, the field was wide open in humanities and the other social sciences. So I ceased being a full-time economist in my early forties and devoted myself to full-time studies of Iranian politics, history, sociology and literature and culture as well as comparative history, which, as noted above, I had been carrying with me all along while I was an academic economist.

   Already as a young economist in the late 1960s I had discovered that oil revenue was rent, i.e. almost a windfall which, in the oil-exporting countries of the third world, accrued to the state, greatly enhancing its power vis-à-vis the society, and influencing the strategy of economic and social development in ways that would harm long-term economic and political progress. Two other economists made the same discovery more-or-less at the same time but they stopped pursuing the matter further. The concept was either rejected or ignored by economists and sociologists for almost two decades because it did not fit in well into their existing development theories and models, and was thought to be unpalatable to the governments of oil-exporting countries. However I persisted against my career interests until little by little the idea filtered through so that it is now common among development economists and sociologists, and household knowledge in the oil-exporting countries.

   However, from the early 1960s when I was twenty the question of the nature of state and society in Iran, its characteristics and especially its differences with the West began to preoccupy my thinking and curiosity. It was the land reform which provided the first stimulus for this. In a country that according to Western theory was supposed to be a feudal monarchy, the ease and speed with which the state managed to change the land-owning system and eliminate the landlords puzzled me. According to both Marxist and non-Marxist western theory, the state after all was believed to be representative of the landlords. And if not, in a situation that most of the middle classes were also critical of the state, whom did the state most represent in society; the peasants?  Almost at the same time the two social bases of the state, the political and religious establishments were eliminated from politics such that they no longer carried any significant weight in political decision making. In this way politics ceased to exist and personal rule was established.

    Thinking and reading against the tide, I suddenly saw the significance of the fact that the Constitutional Revolution of Iran in early twentieth century had been fought for law itself. There had been no precedent for this in European history and European revolutions. European society and politics had always been based in law, however discriminatory or unfair the law might have been.  Even the absolutist or despotic European states which ruled over Europe for only four centuries for the continent taken as a whole were bound by written and unwritten rules and could not take any and every decision which it was in their power to take. Princes, ministers etc., could not be killed or jailed at a clap of the hands, and the state was not allowed to violate private property without due processes of law.

   Therefore, European revolutions did not aim at establishing law itself since it already existed, but to change and improve the law so that more people would benefit by it. They were not revolts of the society against the state, but only parts of the society against the higher parts which the state most represented.   Whereas the Iranian Constitutional Revolution was a revolt of the entire society against the state and its most common objective was to abolish estebdad or arbitrary rule and establish law in order to limit the power of the state. Historically, arbitrary rule had been regarded as the natural form of government, there being no alternative in sight or imaginable for it. Thus traditional Iranian revolts were aimed at removing an ‘unjust’ arbitrary rule and replacing him with a ‘just’ one. But in the mid-nineteenth century the window of Europe showed the Iranian elite, including the shah himself, that there indeed was an alternative and that was government based in law. Thus the constitutional movement which began in the latter half of the nineteenth century led to the revolution of 1906-1911.

   Back in the 1960s this provided a significant clue for my original question as to why and how it had been possible to bring down the landlords so easily, and more importantly, eliminate the political and religious establishments from politics, proving the weakness of both the law and the upper classes. In feudal Europe and long afterwards, there existed long-term aristocratic classes, which, together with the church, made-up the main social base for the state and confirmed the king’s legitimacy from the social side. From the corresponding legal side however, the king drew his legitimacy from the law of primogeniture, i.e. the fact that only the first male in line to the throne was entitled to accede to it. That is, upon a king’s death the first in line would by law succeed to it, the departing king or anyone else having no say in it. Thus in Europe it was the king and state that represented the ruling classes which bestowed legitimacy on the state and allowed power-sharing to the ruling classes.

  Whereas in Iran the shah drew his legitimacy from farr-e izadi or divine grace, the upper classes were not rooted in a long-term aristocracy and were short-term phenomena whose membership would normally change within a couple of generations; they did not have any independent rights from the state, and could only enjoy their privileges as long as the state wished them to, so that from this point of view they were not much different from the lowest peasants in faraway places. That is how the king could order taking the life and / or property of a person no matter how high he was in the social hierarchy.

   It was from the long story based on decades of persistent search and study in the history and historical sociology of Iran as well as Europe that my concepts of arbitrary rule, the pre-legal as well as pre-political society, the cycle of arbitrary-rule-chaos-arbitrary rule, and the process of the short-term society, emerged. To give but one recent and important historical example, it will not be possible to make realistic sense of Iranian developments in the twentieth century without resort to these concepts and categories.

   So much for the theory of Iranian history and society. However at the same time I applied these concepts generally to the whole of Iranian history, and in particular to the period from the Constitutional Revolution to Reza Shah, and to the political career of Mohammad Mosaddeq and the oil nationalization movement. When I wrote on Mosaddeq he was more of an icon that he still largely is. I showed his patriotism, love of democracy and incorruptibility, but I also pointed out some of the weaknesses of his government and how it could have avoided failure by settling the oil dispute in the best possible way and maintaining law and order in society. And as early as 1978, I argued that the 1953 coup had not just been the work of foreign powers alone but also that of Mosaddeq’s conservative opposition who carried it out. But my greatest sin, perhaps, was the fact that for the first time I pieced together the direct and circumstantial evidence to show that all his life Mosaddeq had suffered from a long-term neurological illness. I was severely punished for all these sins, although many of them are now common knowledge.

   My other sins in reading important historical events related to the Constitutional Revolution and the rise of Reza Shah. There is no doubt that the Constitutional Revolution was an epoch-making event in Iranian history, and I showed that, far from a Marxist-style class revolution, it was a revolt of the whole society against the state which led to the triumph of landlords, merchants and clerics, in that order. But I also pointed out the destructive tendency towards the age-old politics of elimination, where not only the state but also rival revolutionary factions were trying to eliminate one another and monopolize power rather than compromise in creating a civil society. The result was not democracy but a familiar chaos both in the centre and in the provinces until the 1921 coup quickly put an end to it, although this was immediately preceded by the saga of the Anglo-Iranian 1919 agreement.

   At the time it had been universally believed that that agreement which in fact was meant to bring order and stability to Iranian society had been intended to turn Iran into a British protectorate, despite the fact that there was nothing in the agreement itself to support that belief. And the opposition was so vocal and strong among virtually all orders of the society that the agreement was unilaterally withdrawn even before its terms were put into practice. Even now, many of those who still remember this agreement are adamant that had it succeeded Iran would have become a British protectorate. Using the entire corpus of the relevant Iranian and British documentary and other evidence, I showed that virtually the whole of the Iranian society had made a mistake and that the 1919 agreement had been aimed at ending the chaos and saving the country from breakdown and disintegration.

     This indeed was achieved by the 1921 coup. However the persisting strong legend among the people right to the top of the society was that the British government had planned and executed this coup with the express purpose of bringing down the Qajars and replacing them with the Pahlavis. It may be hard to believe, but both the Pahlavi monarchs themselves are on record in subscribing to a version of this view, let alone their detractors who saw in it something highly sinister if not treasonable. My great sin here, for which I am still punished from time to time, is that, once again using the direct and circumstantial evidence I showed that this had not been the case, and that a few British personnel in Iran had assisted with the coup without the knowledge and approval of the British government which not even subsequently had any hand in the fall of the Qajars and accession of Reza Shah.

   All this while I was also continuing my studies and publications in Persian literature, modern as a well as classical. I had avidly read Sadeq Hedayat from childhood and found both his life and literature fascinating.  Hedayat had had a varied career. When I was a child he was a great legend, almost a myth among the contemporary intellectuals, especially in the 1950s which saw a heyday of the cult of suicide. Characteristically, any fact or legend attributed to Hedayat was sacred and incontrovertible. But from the mid-1960s with the growth of Marxist-Leninism, Islamism and third-worldism he began to be forgotten and replaced as a hero by other contemporary writers and intellectuals.

   By the time I began my project of studying Hedayat’s life and work, he was all but forgotten among leftist and popular intellectuals. My work consisted of a comprehensive study and critique of his life and the whole of his literary corpus as Iran’s leading modern writer and, using evidence, breaking most of the myths and legends surrounding his name and career.  By the time my first book on Hedayat saw the light of day, he was just beginning to be once again seriously noticed by the critics and intellectuals. He did not quite return to his erstwhile legendary status, but became sufficiently prominent for being described as a British agent in an Iranian television programme as recently as a few months ago.

   Further, my interest in modern Persian literature took me, not only to a comprehensive critique of Jamalzadeh’s fiction, but also studies of the poetry of the Constitutional Revolution, early twentieth century Persian satire, and such major poets as Poet-Laureate Bahar, Iraj Mirza and Forugh Farrokhzad.

    As for the classics, over long decades I studied, read and enjoyed classical Persian literature, from Ferdowsi and Beyhaqi to Hafiz and Rashideddin, and beyond. Sa’di, however, was a childhood passion. He too, rather like Hedayat but even more intensively and extensively, had had a varied career. Entitled Afsah al-Motakallemin or The Most Eloquent Poet, until early to mid-twentieth century scholars and critics had thought of him as the greatest Persian poet of all time, and he was so popular among people at large that some of his poems and sayings had become common expressions, as were those of Hafiz whose name was often mentioned at the same time as Sa’di, although after him.  However, from the mid-twentieth century onwards some well-known Iranian poets and critics began to lead an onslaught on him such that within a fairly short period of time his name became taboo, not to be mentioned except in contempt, to the point that one critic who was unlikely to have read much of Sa’di’s works described him as a ‘preaching mullah’, and a poet who likewise could not have read much by him compared his poetry with ‘aubergine pickle’, lending support to the view that moderation is not an Iranian virtue.

   In my books on Sa’di I argued that, all told, he was a most accomplished classical poet and writer who not only produced gems like Golestan and Bustan, but wrote upwards of seven hundred love-songs, the great majority of which related to worldly and corporeal, not other-worldly and mystical love, the love of flesh and blood.   In fact no classical Persian poet was a greater and more passionate lover than Sa’di. One may even make the higher claim that he was the greatest lover, certainly the greatest lyricist of human love, in classical Persian poetry. Yet the impact of Bustan and Golestan had been so great that they had overshadowed the work of Sa’di as a singer of love-songs.  Not only had they been translated seldom into western languages relatively to those two books and especially Golestan, but even in Iran Sa’di’s ghazals had never been appreciated as much as they deserve, except in vocal singing in traditional Persian music:

همه عمر بر ندارم سر از این خمار مستی

که من آن زمان نبودم که تو در دلم نشستی

Stop being drunk all my life, I will not

For I was not yet born when you entered my sight

 یک امشبی که در آغوش شاهد شکرم  

 گرم چو عود برآتش نهند غم نخورم 

This one night in my beloved’s embrace

If they put me on fire it will leave no trace

سر آن ندارد امشب که برآید آفتابی

چه خیال ها گذر کرد و گذر نکرد خوابی

The sun does not deign to rise upon this night

What thoughts traversed the mind and no sleep in sight

من بی مایه که باشم که خریدار تو باشم

حیف باشد که تو یار من و من یار تو باشم

         Who am I, worthless me, to ask for your hand

         Wrong of me to be your lover, you my beloved

هزار جهد بکردم که سر عشق بپوشم

نبود بر سر آتش میسرم که نجوشم

I tried hard to hide the secret of desire

It was not possible to stop boiling on fire

And so on and do forth.

   And now, having reviewed sixty years of intellectual experience within a few minutes, I stand before this distinguished society humble as a child who is playing with pebbles on the shores of a great ocean. For although I too might have acquired a certain degree of knowledge over a lifetime, I maintain with Karl Popper that ‘in our ignorance we are all equal’.

مطالب مرتبط

Mosaddeq and the intervention of the International Bank

Published in The Middle East in London, Volume 10. Number 1, December 2013-January 2014 Homa Katouzian sheds light on a missed opportunity for averting the oil crisis in Iran some sixty years ago The 1953 coup and failure of the Popular Movement of Iran (Nehzat-e Melli-ye Iran) were not inevitable. Mosaddeq and many of his colleagues repeatedly [...]

Literature and Politics in Iran: 1919–۱۹۲۵

  Homa Katouzian Published in Iran Nameh, A Quarterly of Iranian Studies, 30, 2, pp.xx-xlxii, Summer 2015   Abstract The Constitutional Revolution of Iran (1905–1911) opened up literature to the general public and assigned it a great role in making or breaking politicians and political ideas. However, not long after the victory of 1909, [...]

A Short Report on a Long Intellectual Journey

Delivered on 12 October 2013 at Harvard University on the occasion of receiving the Outstanding Achievement Award in Humanities from SINA Homa Katouzian I feel honoured by the honour that SINA has showered on us and proud that I have this opportunity to say a few words to this distinguished audience. The establishment of SINA is quite timely [...]

Sayyed Hasan Taqizadeh: Three Lives in a Lifetime

Homa Katouzian Published in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 32, 1, April 2012 Sayyed Hasan Taqizadeh was a revolutionary leader, a politician, an intellectual journalist, a diplomat, a university teacher and a scholar of Persian classics both in history and literature. Through a long and often turbulent career [...]

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