The Duck of Minerva

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Revisiting Skocpol on Iran’s Revolution


June 25, 2009

I happened to be consulting the triangle on page 83 of Skocpol’s Social Revolutions in the Modern World for an article I’m drafting, and came across her chapter “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution.” I decided to take a closer look to see if there were any insights that might help put recent events into a broader context. Indeed there were.

Now, Skocpol, a leading scholar of social revolutions before she was a scholar of health care reform, was commenting on the 1979 Iranian Revolution in 1981. It is striking how many of her insights could be useful today. On the context necessary for a revolution:

I have stressed, following Charles Tilly, that mass, lower-class participants in revolution cannot turn discontent into effective political action without autonomous collective organization and resources to sustain their efforts. Moreover, the repressive state organizations of the prerevolutionary regime have to be weakened before mass revolutionary action can succeed, or even emerge. Indeed, historically, mass rebellious action has not be able, in itself, to overcome state repression. Instead, military pressures from abroad , often accompanied by political splits between dominant classes and the state, have been necessary to undermine repression and open the way for social-revolutionary upheavals from below. In my view, social revolutions have not been caused by avowedly revolutionary movements in which an ideological leadership mobilizes mass support to overthrow an existing system in the name of a new alternative…

Currently missing in the current Iranian politics: open fracturing of the state security forces. Recent reports indicate that they are stacked (intentionally so) with Ahmadinejad loyalists. There is rampant speculation that there are rifts among the ruling elite, but no confirmation that any political splits between dominant classes and the state have actually emerged in a public fashion around which revolutionaries could mobilize.

Skocpol believed that

Revolutions are not made. They come.

The 1979 revolution challenged this wisdom, in that it was “made” to a certain degree. However, today, her original insight seems again prescient. Moussavi did not run as a revolutionary candidate, rather, his initial platform seemed much more of a modest reformer, and he has only radicalized post-election. Reflecting on the making of the 1979 revolution, Skocpol observed:

it was made through a set of cultural and organizational forms thoroughly socially embedded in the urban communal enclaves that became the centers of popular resistance to the Shah. Even when a revolution is to a significant degree ‘made,’ that is because a culture conducive to challenges to authority, as well as politically relevant networks of popular communication , are already historically woven into the fabric of social life. In an of themselves, the culture and networks of communication do not dictate mass revolutionary action. But if a historical conjuncture arises in which a vulnerable state faces oppositionally inclined social groups possessing solidarity, autonomy, and independent economic resources, then the sorts of moral symbols and forms of social communication offered by Shi’a Islam in Iran can sustain the self-conscious making of a revolution. No innovative revolutionary propaganda retailed to ‘the masses’ overnight, in the midst of a societal crisis, can serve this purpose. But a world-view and a set of social practices long in place can sustain a deliberate revolutionary movement.

In 1981, she was talking about the cultural resources of Shi’a Islam. Superimposing “the Internet” as the social network already woven into public life (as Iran has a rather high penetration of the internet and Farsi is one of the fastest growing languages in use on the web and blogosphere), and perhaps the infrastructure exists to sustain a deliberate revolutionary movement. As Gary Sick reminds us, don’t expect instant resolution to Iran’s political crisis. The 1979 revolution unfolded over the course of a year, with fits and starts, ebbs and flows, before the old regime collapsed.

Skocpol offers a useful reminder to temper our bold assertions made in the heat of the moment that any one particular event is necessarily a ‘game changer’ but at the same time, provides a framework for assessing how profound Iran’s political challenge are.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.