Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Iran: Reform vs. Revolution

Iran: Reform vs. Revolution

Ali Asghar Kazemi


“Men do not start revolutions in a sudden passion… Revolutions do not spring overnight. Revolutions come from the long suppression of human spirit. Revolutions come because men know that they have rights and they are disregarded.”

Woodrow Wilson*[1]

* * *

Revolution is an old concept in social theory. It has several distinctive indicators that make it different from other kinds of social events and political phenomena, such as coup d’état, rebellion and insurgency. The first and most obvious is that revolution has a large popular support. Secondly, it has a leadership who directs the movement and social forces. Finally, it aims at a redistribution of political power[2], although social, economic and cultural changes may not accompany this change. How can we explain revolutionary movements in our present international order? How much religious fervor in the Middle East is leading to revolution? Why people prefer revolution to reform?

The Ground for Revolution

Revolutionary writers such as Karl Marx, Frantz Fanon and Regis Debray, believe that violence is an important element of revolution. But, violence is surely not the objective; rather it is the tactic leading to revolutionary goals. History has also recorded “non-violent revolution,” Such as Gandhi’s peaceful movement in India.[3] The truly essential dimension of revolution lies on the rejection of a regime legitimacy and the denial of its right to enforce laws and regulations of the state.

Contrary to the purely Marxian theory of material and economic deprivation, some social scientists (such as e.g. Durkheim and Lasswell), have attempted to establish a thesis that the main causes of revolution is “frustration.” Brian Cozier defines frustration as “simply the inability to do something one badly wants to do, through circumstances beyond one’s control.”[4] But frustration is not believed by many to be the necessary and sufficient ground for revolution. Alienation and justice along with other grievances of social life help to fuel a revolution. Masses should really feel that they are unjustly treated. Aristotle attributed revolutionary feelings to discrepancy between men’s desires and their perceived situation with respect to equality and inequality. He saw revolution springing from a political disagreement over the basis on which society ought to be organized.[5]

The ever widening gap between people’s expectation and actual fulfillment, especially in the third world, is a cause for frustration and alienation, preparing the ground for social and political conflicts. The nature of ideology is also an important factor in helping to resolve social problems or instigate conflict leading to turmoil’s and revolutionary movements.

The purely ideological rationalization of revolution rests upon the vision of a life free from every form of oppression, equally, brotherhood, justice etc. It is on the premises of such beliefs, whether religiously inspired or not, that leaders justify the suffering, terror and chaos which are the usual products of revolution.[6] It is also under the cover of such reasoning that the society begins to nourish totalitarian bureaucrats, dictatorship and tyrant leaders. Thus some scholars have rightly suggested that the intellectuals provide the breeding ground of revolution, but ultimately, themselves become the victim of their own creature.[7]

When people begin to show discontent of the ruling regime which has closed the doors for dialogue, two alternatives remain open to masses. They can openly challenge the existing government or regime in a revolution or for example a secessionist insurrection, depending upon which of the two modes is more ripe or accessible. If on the other hand, it perceives that the first alternative is likely to be countered with force and coercion; usually people can do nothing but accept with humiliation and resignation the dictate of the ruling regime and probably wait for the opportune moment to revenge.[8]

Revolution, meaning an unauthorized and unlawful behavior against socio-political institutions of a state, which includes the use of force against the government, is considered by some as a symptom of national sickness.[9] Outside the more or less traditional ideological confrontation between the two camps of socialism and capitalism, the underdeveloped world is caught in the web of religious heresy which manifest in ideological conflicts.

Religion and Revolution

The new emerging religious-ideological appeal to third world Moslem states is indeed an unprecedented challenge for the international system and world order as a whole. The use of religion as a new ideological tool to change the status quo has led to revolutionary ideas. The lack of democratic political structure in traditionally closed and socially backward societies has given birth to a new set of norms for the third world people looking for change.

Since the notions of social change, justice, and equality are perceptual, people often fail to realize that they are unjustly treated or their human rights are being disregarded. In such circumstances, masses need a leadership or somebody to make them aware of their situation and to take their cause to the street. Indeed, it is a bitter fact that in many cultures and religions inequalities and injustice are accepted as facts of life, a heritage of fatalism. For example, Brahmin-Parish caste in India has tended to consider as just the flagrant great inequalities in the life and treatment of people.[10]

For the intellectuals the problem presents other forms. These latter become gradually alienated from the system and being to lose confidence in themselves. Thus, they tend to move from “mere criticism to a withdrawal of political loyalty.”[11] They too need an organizer or a political leader in order to make known their position. In this case, party politics is an important factor in shaping public opinion and challenging a regime’s legitimacy.

Religion can serve as a unifying element to supplant political parties. The objectives would no longer be to promote the states or national goals through a rational dialogue but to change the status quo by uprising and revolution. In such circumstances, reform in socio-political and economic institutions and structures, through gradual reform and democratic process, do not satisfy the wishes and unleashed desires of people for change. They are prepared to much less of a stake, but to get it through a revolution. This is the case where means overshadow the objectives, and uncertain revolution is preferred to a sure evolution and reform.

Revolution and Social Change

Many social and political scientists who adopt a macro approach to human phenomena and social change tend to regard conflict and revolution as a normal concomitant of group existence.[12] They view conflict as serving positive social purposes.[13]

With regard to the phenomenon of “revolution”, contemporary social scientists have provided various explanations depending on the area of their expertise or research. On the whole, they seem to agree that certain social factors serve as source of human conflict leading to turmoil, upheaval and revolution. They are: socio-economic discrepancies, the aggressive impulse resulting frustration, dissonance between the actual and the ideal, withdrawal and alienation from existing social structures etc.[14]

Thus, for example, the social and political development in traditional Iran, which otherwise simply meant the process of “Westernization” did not produce the necessary ground for a gradual evolution and reform toward a modern democratic state. But it did produce a “cultural shock” to certain layers of the society deeply attached to the prevailing religious and traditional norms. In other words, what the imperial zealous dictator, the Shah, wanted to achieve through rapid-but unbalanced- socio- economic and political development, in fact counter- produced the desired effect.

A partial explanation for this failure, which led to what later became the now Islamic fundamentalist revival and revolution, is that the economic boom of the seventies provided the people with the necessary means to acquire without much thought or effort what they could purchase from the West. This dimension of development did not pose unbearable difficulties, but the missing part of the puzzle was the whole gamut of cultural, technical, political and bureaucratic gap along with other aspects of the development which could not be easily bought by money (at least not in the short and medium term).

The acquisition of superficial comforts of the West with petrodollars, without an understanding of how the West arrived at this stage of welfare and consumption, produced a sense of euphoria mixed with alienation.

Revolution and Alienation

Alienation is a very difficult concept to define in political process of a society. It is usually described as a state of mind or perception of people who lose touch with their norms, culture and feel no affinity for their environment.[15] In such situation, people perceive the society or government as being hostile or indifferent to their true causes, wishes and their very existence. They are convinced that no matter what they think, say, or do has no bearing upon the course of events and no one cares about their position, beliefs, action or reaction.

There are several causes for alienation. They are rather complex depending on the nature of the society about which one is talking. But generally they can be grouped into certain broad categories with regard to Third World states; they are cultural, socio- economic and political.

Backwardness, illiteracy, poverty, ill health, inequality, injustice, moral deficiency, religious fanaticism, fatalism etc… are among principal elements which count for alienation. It is to be noted that alienation may occur despite economic and material prosperity. This is especially true for developed nations of the West, where people feel bored and alienated due to lack of challenge and monotonous life. It was also true in the case of pre-revolution Iran, where at least this dimension of life was more or less satisfied. But immature political structure, illiteracy, lack of justice and to some extent religious precepts created an environment which could no longer accommodate with the exigencies of a rapid economic development.

This leads us to accept the argument that any society is part of an evolutionary process which proceeds by means of two seemingly contradictory mechanisms.[16] On the one hand, the span of possible adaptation which is constrained by the physical environment, the internal structure, i.e. social, cultural, political set up, and above all, by previous choices (i.e. the built- in beliefs, norms, and customs).[17] On the other hand, evolution proceeds not in a straight line but through a series of variations which appear anything but obvious to the chief actors.[18]

History, tradition, values, religions, cultures and other pressures from natural or artificial environment- domestic or international- accumulate in the process of change and evolution. Any rupture in this chain in the hope of making the change possible may create the risk of doing more harm and violence to the whole structure of the society.[19]


The life in our modern societies is becoming more and more unbearable and people are becoming increasingly restless, feeling alienated and alternating between faith and doubt, hope and anxiety. The demand for social, economic and political change and expectation of a world different from the existing one, have caused people to look for alternatives. In the Middle East and elsewhere, religion is re-emerging as a source for hope, inspiration and salvation. At the same time a trend toward fundamentalism is clearly observable.

People are losing faith in their political system and politicians; they are seeking refuge to religions in the pursuit of their cause. Religion is now fueling social unrests and serves as a pretext to legitimizing the canalization of social forces toward revolution. Gradualism and reform no longer satisfy the increasing appetite of people for rapid change. Revolution is being used by frustrated groups to embark upon unconventional and sometimes irrational actions such as terrorism, in order to gain recognition and make their cause known.


[1]* Quoted in C.L.Sulzberger, Unfinished Revolution: America and the Third World (New York: Athenaeum, (1965), p.5.

[2]. CF. Thomas B. Crassey, “Some perspectives on Revolution,” in [U.S.] Naval War College Review, vol.XXIX, No.3 (Winter 1977), pp. 19-29, at p.20.

[3]. CF. Thomas B. Crassey, Ibid, and p.20.

[4]. Brian Cozier, The Rebels (Boston: Beacon press, 1960), pp.15-16; also quoted in Ibid. p.21. See also: Ted Robert Gurr, “Psychological Factors in Civil Violence, “World Politics, XX (January, 1968), Passim.

[5]. Aristotle, Politics, translated by Benjamin Jewett (New York: Random House, Modern Library, 1943), Book V, Chapter 2, p. 212. See also e.g. Chalmers Johnson, Revolutionary Change (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1966); Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Wiking Press, 1965); Crane Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution (New York/; W.W. Norton and Company, 1938).

[6]. CF. Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff, op. cit. p. 238.

[7]. CF. James H. Meisel, Counter-revolution: How Revolutions Die, (New York: Atherton Press, 1966, pp. 3-16, 209-220.

[8]. Interestingly there is a tradition in Shiism called taqieh which has exactly the same connotation. It means that if the Shiite following perceive danger in their opposition and struggle against the usurping power, they may remain silent or concede to the illegitimate authority by expediency until the opportune moment.

[9]. Kulski, op.cit. p. 467.

[10]. Mao Tse-Tung’s biggest problem in 1928 was getting the peasants to realize that something was wrong with Chinese society and something better could be achieved.

[11]. James E. Dougherty / R.L. Pfaltzgraff, op.cit. p. 239.

[12]. CF. Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff, Contending Theories of International Relations, op. cit. p. 233.

[13]. See e.g. Lewis A. Coser, The Function of Social Conflict, (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964); Jessie Bernard, “Parties and Issues in Conflict,” Journal of Conflict Resolution I (March, 1957).

[14]. Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff, op. cit. p.236.

[15]. See e.g. Theodore A. Couloumbis and James H. Wolf, Introduction to International Politics: Power and Justice, (New Delhi: Prentice Hall of India private Limited, 1981), p. 372.

[16].Henry Kissinger, “Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy,” op. cit. p. 44.

[17]. This is my interpretation of Kissinger’s statement.

[18]. Kissinger, Ibid. p. 45.

[19]. CF. Idem.