Fred Halliday, Iran: Dictatorship and Development (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979).

The Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 was a momentous historical event. It probably involved a greater proportion of any country’s population in direct insurrectionary action than has any previous revolution. In the late fall of 1978 anti-regime demonstrations were absorbing virtually the whole active populations of Iran’s major and not-so-major towns — tens of millions out of a population of some 35 million. This disciplined but unarmed populace virtually dissolved the supposedly loyal, well-disciplined and certainly well-armed forces of a brutal, repressive dictatorship with the firing of hardly a shot.

All those interested in human progress, whether or not they have special interest in the Middle East, will want some answers to the many questions raised by the revolution: How was it that a country, so recently proclaimed by Jimmy Carter to be a bastion of stability in the Middle East, only a short time later exploded in revolution? Why did an oil-rich land, apparently rapidly advancing in wealth and economic sophistication, harbor so much discontent? How did an apparently unorganized population, long deprived of political experience by rigid despotism, topple a fiercely armed dictatorship through sheer display of disciplined determination and courage? What are the prospects for the revolution creating a more just and humane society?

The non-specialist and specialist alike are fortunate in having at hand Fred Halliday’s Iran: Dictatorship and Development, the first book-length treatment in English of contemporary Iranian politics to have appeared after the accelerated popular demonstrations of the later half of 1978. By laying bare the twentieth century background to the recent events, the book answers the foregoing questions, or in some cases provides an intelligent point of departure for doing so.

Halliday shows that while the Iranian state’s expansion of oil revenues from the 1960s on, and especially after the dramatic price rises of 1973, may have looked like an unmixed blessing, Iran has actually been in a desperate race against time — that point in the 1990s when the approaching exhaustion of its oil reserves will initiate a fall in revenues. “The flow of oil revenues to the Iranian state has provided a limited historical opportunity for Iran to develop,” he writes. “It remains to be seen whether and, if so, how far this opportunity will be utilized.”

Halliday’s book is that rarity among contemporary Marxist works — one that maintains a critical and independent intelligence. In assessing how the Shah’s regime had handled the limited historical opportunity to develop an industrial base before the exhaustion of oil revenues, he accepts neither the self-congratulatory and grandiose assurances of the Shah’s regime that it would soon be presiding over another economic miracle of the Japanese sort, nor the opposing but equally unreal assertions of the small left opposition, that all purported development efforts were mere sham.

Halliday shows that the reforms of the “White Revolution” (land reform, literacy corps, workers industrial share participation, and so forth) arose through a combination of pressures originating from reform demands of Iran’s US patron in the Kennedy-promoted Development Decade and from the actual need for the Shah’s military-backed despotic monarchy to provide itself with an economically stable alternative to oil income.

The displacement of landlords, and a large degree of state control over Iranian industry were quite real, but the absolutist regime was caught on the horns of the dilemma created by its repression of all independent political activity (whether in the bazaar, mosque, business office, factory or barracks), and the simultaneous need to enlist the participation of the growing working class in its development efforts. The result was a rise in standard of living for some — bureaucrats, businessmen and sections of the working class — but terrible economic insecurity and inflationary pressures for most, with the added burden of a growing, corrupting influence of black markets and bribery as adaptive mechanisms. The pervasive apparatus of the regime clamped down on rising popular expectations like the lid of a pressure cooker.

Halliday also takes exception to the facile Iranian nationalist view, often shared by the left, that the country’s retarded economic development was and is solely a consequence of imperialist domination. The actual situation, as Halliday points out, was far more complex. Advanced capitalism encouraged certain aspects of industrial development in Iran, and improving terms of trade for Iranian oil allowed the Shah to impose ever more favorable terms on economic relations with the imperialist powers. As Halliday notes, however, the regime owed its existence to imperialist intervention and itself remained the chief obstacle to balanced development.

The strength of Halliday’s book is its depiction and analysis of recent Iranian events against the background of the general features of a third world country’s struggle to emerge from underdevelopment, and the terrible pressures and needs thereby created. This, in my opinion, is also the source of its mis-estimation of the Shah’s staying power. For, in common with most left analyses of the Middle East, Halliday takes up the cudgel against the “Orientalists” and area specialists who argue that

Iran cannot be analyzed in terms of “imported” or “Western” analytic concepts, and in particular in terms of class concepts. Apologists of virtually every regime in the world claim this for their own countries, and with equally little justification: Each society does have specific features, but this does not mean that general theoretical categories are inapplicable in these countries, any more than are the concepts of medicine or engineering.

Halliday does acknowledge the preeminence of the religious movement (which shortly after the book’s first publication drove the Shah from power). But for him the movement can be seen mainly as a reflex of social and economic discontent:

It was not in any proper sense of the word “religious.” Its complaints and demands were eminently materialist. But it did follow the religious leaders and phrase some of its demands in an Islamic form for want of any other alternative. Fifteen years of repression had divided the opposition organizations from the mass of the population, many of whom were newcomers to the town or too young to remember earlier crises. The mosque was the one place where an independent voice was heard, the mullahs the one group who could articulate their protests.

But for all the truth that undoubtedly lies in this derivation of the religious movement from its material wellsprings, such “reduction” turns our attention away from the immediate thoughts and feelings of the mass of Iranians that form the direct impulse to action. In assessing the potential of a revolution (not only for endurance but for betterment as well), “objective conditions” are but the necessary ones. It is precisely the available “alternative” modes of thinking, feeling, and acting on which a people must draw to transform itself. And here, it is now obvious, we are bound to make a long and empathetic examination of the religious movement, not only on our own terms but on its terms too. For it is this alternative, rather than the fragmented and isolated left, that the Iranians have utilized.

Such an examination, I believe, would shed light on a significant impulse behind the revolution: the need to formulate and express an Iranian cultural identity that had been thrown into doubt by despotism, corruption, and the stresses of economic development. It would also show that the popular journalistic notion of the religious movement as a 1,300-year historical regression to be no less a misrepresentation than a contemporary characterization of the Reformation as turning the clock back 1,500 years, simply because the participants felt themselves to be returning to the purity of the early Christians. When Marx declared of the Reformation that it had removed the chains from man’s body only to place them on his heart, he was giving it the credit he felt it was due for advancing the cause of human freedom.

The fact remains, however, that the Iranian religious heritage is an ambiguous one. It provided resources to rekindle Iranian courage, sincerity, and brotherhood where despotism had previously compelled the protective adoption of caution, individualism, and dissimulation, but it has also raised the spector of religious intolerance.

Halliday cautions that “the problems involved in [a revolution] are enormous. In addition to the whole question…of tactics and strategy, there is the further problem of the kind of political system which a revolutionary movement creates.” As he indicates, not only must the movement solve the very same economic problems that wrecked the Shah’s regime, but we must hope it does so in a humane, democratic, and just manner. The book ends with a restrained note of optimism in that regard, stating that “it is quite possible that before too long the Iranian people will chase the Pahlavi dictator and his associates from power, will surmount the obstacles in its way, and build a prosperous and socialist Iran.”

Now that the first part of this hope has come to pass, it remains to be seen whether the second will be realized. It is my view that if, at this historical conjuncture, the Iranians cannot find the moral resources for accomplishing this task in Islam, they are not likely to find them at all. For, while Shi‘ism has long provided ideological and organizational resources for resistance to despotism (even if, for long periods, only at the psychological level), Marxism and other secular traditions of political-social criticism and organization have not, with the exception of certain groups such as oil workers and school teachers, gone beyond the confines of the urban intellectuals. This in turn is a reflection of the relative, historical lack of organized, public political experience and participation. This lack of experience probably poses a greater obstacle to the realization of a successful outcome of the revolution than its dependence upon the Shi‘i religious tradition.

How to cite this article:

Robert Dillon "Halliday, Iran: Dictatorship and Development," Middle East Report 88 (June 1980).

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