Context for Revolution in Iran


SamInMpls tweets “@mattyglesias I have this weird expectation that you’ll write something on the events in Iran within the historical context of revolutions.”

I’m not sure how well I can do on that score, but I have read Theda Skocpol’s 1979 study States and Social Revolutions which I’m sure is outdated by now but can plausibly shed some light on the situation. One of the major preoccupations of the book is to try to take down Marxist or quasi-Marxist accounts of revolution that see these upheavals purely in terms of class. Skocpol maintains, in a way that I think is very relevant in the Iranian case, that to understand revolutions you need to understand the importance of the state as a more-or-less autonomous coercive apparatus.

As I recall, her argument, to simplify a bit, is that in key revolutionary cases you have a state that’s faced with a hostile international situation. In the face of that situation, it attempts to implement a series of reforms that will that will strengthen state capacity and make it easier to deal with the situation. That, however, alienates key elites (think the nobles in immediately pre-revolutionary France) and sets the stage for a potential collapse of state authority in the face of unrest. If you want to try to place what’s happening now in Iran into that context, you would note the key role in the current opposition movement being played by what were very recently regime figure—Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karoubi, etc.—who nominally want to “restore” the Islamic Republic to some purer, more original pre-Ahmedenijad form. Meanwhile the regime, as currently constituted, has as its real base not Shiite clerics and religious authorities, but military and security organizations that the revolution brought into being.

That said, I’m not really sure how much this kind of analysis supplies. On a basic level I think what we’re seeing is a struggle for the hearts and minds of the “everyday” members of the regime. When you have a bad government in place, that doesn’t mean that every single local cop, train conductor, or corporal in the army is a bad person. Even under a bad regime most people don’t become “dissidents” they just keep their heads down and try to plug along. Patriots feel their country needs a military, that crimes need investigating, that trains need to run, etc. A regime can count on special, ideologically formations to do its dirtiest dirty work for it, but it needs lots of ordinary people to go along too. The protestors’ pitch is “hey, we—here in the streets—are Iran; if you want to serve Iran you have to not collaborate with the regime’s efforts to violently disperse us.” The government’s pitch is that the protestors are tools of foreign powers who hate Iran.