Halliday on Iran as a Revolutionary State

Fred Halliday in openDemocracy:

[T]he most important (and neglected) factor explaining contemporary Iran, however, is a fact evident in its historical origin, policy and rhetoric: that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a country that has emerged from a revolution and that this revolution has far from lost its dynamic, at home or abroad.

It is not in the imperial dreams of ancient Persia, or the global vision of Shi’a clergy, but in the repetition by Iran of the same policies, aspirations and mistakes of previous revolutionary regimes, from France in the 1790s, to Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s that the underlying logic of its actions can be seen.

The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 was, as much as those of France, Russia, China or Cuba, one of the major social and political upheavals of modern history. Like its predecessors, it set out not only to transform its own internal system – for sure at a high cost in repression, wastage and illusion – but to export revolution. And this Iran did: to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon in the 1980s and now to Palestine and, in much more favourable circumstances thanks to the US, to Iraq again. It can indeed be argued that it is the confrontation between internationalist revolutionary Iran on one side, and the US and its regional allies on the other, that has been the major axis of conflict in the middle east this past quarter of a century. By comparison, America’s war with Sunni, al-Qaida-type, militancy is a secondary affair.

Here, however, Iran has fallen into the traps and illusions of other revolutionaries. Like the French revolutionaries, the Iranians proclaim themselves to be at once the friend of all the oppressed and “a great nation” (a phrase Khomeini used that echoed, whether wittingly or not, the Jacobins of 1793). Like the early Bolsheviks, the Islamic revolutionaries began their revolution thinking diplomacy was an oppression and should be swept aside – hence the detention of the US diplomats as hostages. Like the Cubans and Chinese, they have combined unofficial supplies of arms, training and finance to their revolutionary allies with the, calculated, intervention of their armed forces.

All of this has its cost. The gradual moderation of Iran under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1987-2005) reflected a sense of exhaustion after the eight-year war with Iraq and a desire for more normal external relations with the outside world, like the period of the Girondins in the France of the late 1790s, or the policies of Liu Shao-chi in China of the early 1960s: but as in those other cases, and as in the USSR of Stalin in the 1930s, there were those who wanted to go in a very different direction, and proceeded to tighten the screws of repression, and raise confrontational rhetoric once again. A comparison could indeed be made with the Russia of the early 1930s or the China of the 1960s, and say that Iran under Ahmadinejad is now going through its “third period” or a mild replica of the “cultural revolution”.

While there is much to be said for Halliday’s argument, I think that the comparison obscures a great deal of peculiarties that are important in understaning the scope of political possibilities in Iran’s present and future. Unlike the revolutions of France, Russia, China, Cuba, etc., Iran’s was a revolution that came rather than one that was made. On its surface and in its character–an urban revolution (which it had seen before), with non-violent revolutionaries, topped off by a 6 or so month general strike–it looks more than Rosa Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike than Lenin’s What is to Be Done? The absence of a vanguard (or rather a vanguard that was established after the revolution) as an organizing force, the organization of post-revolution Iran by the state in the conditions of war, and, well, the great irony that the most modern of revolutions was burdened by a relatively medieval social outlook have left different stamps. The last is important when we consider that this outlook finds no hegemonic or dominant complements in Iranian society and culture (like socialist realism in the Leninist revolutions), instead evoking reactions like the new Iranian literature and cinema or even the reportedly open MDMA indulgence of Iranian youth. In his focus on the state, Halliday’s take seems to me to the role and organization of Iranian society, in its parts, as either a partner, an instrument, or a counterforce. And there is evidence that it’s more of a counterforce than what we saw in the Soviet Union during the totalitarian turn after the NEP or during the Cultural Revolution. Certainly, we couldn’t really imagine someone like Shirin Ebadi or Ramin Jahanbegloo working at all in Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China, and that says something about the opportunities for the future of Iran.