Magazine | July 20, 2009, Issue

Revolutionary Types

Iran's is a peaceful uprising

Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler would undoubtedly have regarded the Iranian demonstrations as not really serious. There was no attempt to seize power, neither tanks in the streets nor the storming of a presidential palace. The demonstrators confined themselves to civil disobedience. Only the authorities used violence and only demonstrators were killed. Indeed, the poster girl for the Iranian democratic resisters is a young woman bleeding from a fatal wound inflicted by a government sniper.

Yet a revolution was assuredly being attempted — indeed, a more genuine revolution than would have been, say, the arrest of Iran’s “supreme leader,” the Ayatollah Khamenei, by Revolutionary Guards acting for President Ahmadinejad. Such a coup would have been little more than a personnel change at the top of the regime. As when one Latin American caudillo replaces another after his tanks shell the radio station, it would have almost amounted to a constitutional process. A revolution is much more than that: It is the replacement of one entire system of government by another — “regime change,” you might say. The demonstrators in Tehran were seeking to replace autocratic rule by religious “guardians” with democratic government by elected representatives. Thus, however peacefully they conducted themselves, they were revolutionaries. 

Some admirers of revolution cannot see this, since Tehran boasted none of the revolutionary symbols familiar from films and posters: clenched fists, red flags, barricades, arbitrary arrests of the rich, and so on. The aesthetics of revolution have been captured by the Left, including the fascist Left, so that we often fail to recognize a revolution carried out on other principles — or we recognize it only in retrospect. But there is more than one type of revolution; indeed, very broadly speaking, there are two.

This was explained, not long after the “velvet revolutions” of 1989 and 1991, by the Italian president (and distinguished classical liberal) Francesco Cossiga, at a New York dinner party given by Henry Kissinger. He astonished the assembled guests, including some Wall Streeters expecting to hear a plea for greater investment in Italy, by presenting a brilliant and passionate analysis of modern history around the theme of five revolutions of world-historical importance.

He divided them into three liberal and two anti-liberal revolutions. The first liberal revolution was England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688. This revolution was, in effect, the founding constitution of the modern British state. It defeated Stuart autocracy, established the supremacy of Parliament over the crown, and entrenched a bill of rights, habeas corpus, and the principle of no taxation without the consent of Parliament. It was a liberal rather than a democratic revolution, but it opened the way to the gradual democratic evolution of the British polity. The Glorious Revolution used to be a central episode in British constitutional self-understanding, but it is now so neglected that its tricentenary in 1988 was celebrated by Margaret Thatcher’s government as “300 years of Anglo-Dutch friendship.” 

1688 may be better remembered in America — it is certainly more discussed. In particular, Michael Barone wrote, in 2007, a fresh history of 1688 with the significant title Our First Revolution. His book was widely and favorably reviewed. It argued that the American Revolution of 1776 was the continuation of 1688 and thus, as Cossiga also had argued, the second great liberal revolution. The principles and even the words of 1776 are the same liberal ones first heard in 1688 — no taxation without representation, freedom from arbitrary arrest, no cruel and unusual punishment — but they are universalized as the birthright of all. To be sure, the 1776 revolution, though compromised by slavery, was more democratic and even more liberal that that of 1688. Its endorsement of religious toleration, for instance, included Catholics — something that would not happen in Britain’s case until decades later. The circumstances of America as an open land with more abundant economic opportunities also made it easier to fulfill the material promises of both revolutions. Essentially, however, the two revolutions are the same liberal thing.

That is emphatically not true of either the French Revolution of 1789 or the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. As Cossiga pointed out, these revolutions were anti-liberal revolutions hostile to the liberties, both real and procedural, central to 1776 and 1688. That is less clear in the case of 1789, because the early French revolutionaries thought they were introducing into France the same reforms they had admired in England and America. But as several scholars have observed, most recently Portuguese professor João Espada in his essay “Edmund Burke and the Anglo-American Tradition of Liberty,” very different conceptions of liberty underlay their reforms. Whereas the Anglo-Americans saw liberty as a system of government that allowed people to pursue different ways of life, their Continental imitators saw it as a particular way of life that, if necessary, might have to be imposed on those mistakenly enslaved to tradition, religion, inequality, or whatever. Eradicating tradition, religion, inequality, or anything else to which people are strongly attached, however, requires abolishing their freedom, usually bloodily. Hence the revolution of 1789 became more plainly anti-liberal and more violent as it ground relentlessly on. 

By 1917, the Bolsheviks had seen the logical necessities that flowed from imposing perfect freedom. They were anti-liberal even before the revolution began and brutally violent once in power. No system of government has ever been given such a free hand to reshape its subjects. Yet, after more than 70 years of such government, their subjects rose up in the velvet revolutions of 1989 and 1991 waving the Federalist Papers and quoting the 1688 Declaration of Rights. That was Cossiga’s third liberal revolution.

Where does the Iranian Revolution of 2009 fit into this picture? Is it liberal, anti-liberal, or in some third category we cannot now see? Ultimately these are questions that can be answered only in retrospect. But there are certain litmus tests that allow us to make an educated guess. The most important of these are violence and orthodoxy. 

Both before and after taking power, anti-liberal revolutions tend to use and even to idealize violence. Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh — the list of anti-liberal revolutionaries who gloried in violence, employing it against their comrades as well as against “enemies of society,” is all but endless. Anti-liberal writers from Sorel to Fanon justify violence on almost romantic grounds. Their regimes rely on it fundamentally, since it is required to coerce reluctant subjects to embrace their ideas. For that reason, there is no obvious stopping point for it other than the exhaustion of the ruler. 

On the other hand, liberal revolutions use violence sparingly, within rules, and only for the duration of the conflict. The Glorious Revolution was not entirely bloodless, but all the factions maneuvered carefully to avoid a civil war. America’s revolution involved a hard-fought war, but in the main it was fought honorably (we know all the exceptions), and its result was accepted quickly. And there is a reason the 1989 revolutions are called “velvet.”

Orthodoxy is an even surer test. If a revolutionary regime seeks to impose a particular way of life on reluctant subjects, then it is anti-liberal almost by definition. The “Islamic Republic of Iran” declares its orthodoxy in its very name, and it enforces codes of dress and moral behavior by methods up to and including the death penalty. A liberal regime, on the other hand, ultimately rests on the principle of “live and let live.” It prefers social peace to political or religious conformity. And it imposes restraints on rebels only on matters of first importance or for reasons of security. Thus the continuing anti-Catholic discrimination in post-1688 Britain is explained largely by the mistaken but reasonable fears of most Protestants that Catholics, like Communists in 1950s America, were a security risk. 

If violence is the test in Iran, it points clearly to two conclusions: The 1979 Iranian Revolution was an anti-liberal revolution and the 2009 demonstrations may be at least the start of a liberal one. The first point scarcely needs arguing — Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution used violence to topple the shah, violence to entrench its rule, violence against original supporters whom it exiled, and violence against the Iranian people at regular intervals. Its current use of violence against people demonstrating peacefully in opposition to the stealing of an election merely underlines its anti-liberal nature. 

What is less clear is whether the 2009 revolution is liberal in character. Khomeini’s 1979 revolution established what an earlier age would have described as “a mixed regime.” It combined a limited democracy with a supervisory system of religious guardians. These ensured that any political debate or reform would take place within the regime’s rules of Islamist orthodoxy. Thus, candidates were allowed to compete in this year’s presidential election only on condition that they were supporters of the Islamic revolution. If there was a difference between them before the election — and there was — it was over economic topics, on which the main challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, represented a pragmatic approach and Ahmadinejad a more populist one.

That was before the election, however. Since then the street demonstrators have shouted slogans that clearly indicated a rejection of the current Islamist rule in favor of some sort of moderate liberal democracy (probably one with Islamic tinges, on the model of the AKP government in Turkey). The supreme leader’s brutal rejection of these complaints has liberalized the crowds still further. It looks as if they now want the end of the anti-liberal Islamist regime. And Mousavi, a moderate revolutionary in the anti-liberal camp, finds himself marching at the head of a liberal revolution.

He has played this difficult hand quite cleverly, claiming to represent the decent revolutionary middle position between a supposedly Western-inspired “velvet revolution” and the corrupted betrayers of Khomeini’s 1979 orthodoxy. In other words, he presents himself as the true heir of Ayatollah Khomeini. This is a rhetorical device to get him over a difficulty. It is doubtful that he believes it himself at this point. And it is certain that his followers don’t, since, if they did, they would cease following him. 

But questions of ideological sincerity are very secondary at present. Mousavi has to keep moving with the crowd if he is to remain their leader, even if it is marching him to the gallows.


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