Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982).
A major lesson of the Iranian revolution was how poorly students of the Middle East understood the social and political forces there. This was a country which had been the object of more official and academic study than perhaps any other state in the region except Israel. Yet even four years after the revolution, the dearth of first-rate studies of Iranian society remains apparent.
Fortunately, an excellent political and social history of twentieth century Iran is now available. Iran Between Two Revolutions can be compared only to Hanna Batatu’s The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements in Iraq for its impressive grasp of the class and ethnic conflicts that lie behind the political developments of these many decades. It is an extraordinary study, based on nearly 18 years of research and thinking about Iranian social groups and their political organizations in the years from the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1909 up to the culmination of the Islamic Revolution of 1977-1979.
Ervand Abrahamian sees three distinct historical eras in contemporary Iran’s history. Part one of the book discusses the first four decades, from the Constitutional Revolution to the fall of Reza Shah. Part two, covering the 1941-1953 period, is in many ways the heart of the book. It was in this period that Iranian society experienced considerable political liberty, as different political groups competed with or confronted one another in struggles over control of the state. The third part of the book concentrates on the socioeconomic developments and political underdevelopment of the last monarch’s dictatorship, after 1953.
Abrahamian argues that certain political issues stand out throughout these three periods. He characterizes these themes as: dictatorship versus democracy; secularism versus religion; centralization versus regional autonomy; and resistance against versus cooperation with the interference of diverse foreign powers. He argues convincingly that the persistence of these issues stems from the inability of Iran’s leaders to resolve the many political, social and economic conflicts among Iran’s ethnic groups and classes.
Abrahamian’s most valuable contribution is to document the formation of the salaried middle class and the industrial working class in Iranian society. The former had its origins in the turn of the century intelligentsia, heavily influenced by European ideas of constitutional government and secularism. It emerged as a distinct class during the reign of Reza Shah (1926-1941), when the expansion of the bureaucracy and the creation of modern industries necessitated the widespread employment of educated personnel. Members of this new class included teachers, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, engineers and managers. They were differentiated from the old propertied middle class of bazaar merchants not just by their professional occupations and sources of income, but more importantly by their ideas and interests.
The industrial working class also began to emerge during the rule of Reza Shah. It too was formed largely as the result of the economic and social transformation which Iran underwent in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1941, this class was still relatively small, although there were great concentrations of workers in certain cities and in specific lines of manufacturing, especially textiles. A separate part of the Iranian working class in this period was comprised of the workers in the oil refinery and related facilities, located in Khuzistan but wholly owned and operated by the British.
Both the salaried middle class and the working class became the focus of attention for Iran’s first mass political party. The Tudeh was formed in 1941, following the forced abdication of Reza Shah in the wake of the joint Anglo- Soviet invasion and occupation of the country. For the next 12 years, it had a major influence on Iranian politics. Abrahamian’s detailed examination of the Tudeh’s formation, expansion, activities and bases of popular support represents the first scholarly assessment of one of the most important communist parties in the Middle East. Based on extensive research of primary sources, Abrahamian convincingly refutes many inaccurate perceptions of the Tudeh’s role in pre-1953 Iran, misinformation which has been widely disseminated in both academic texts and general accounts.
For instance, one common charge against the Tudeh has been that it supported and/or engineered a separatist movement in Azerbaijan province. Abrahamian’s research reveals that this was never a separatist movement, and that the Tudeh itself was taken by surprise by the Azerbaijan crisis in 1945-1946. The crisis was prompted by a combination of ethnic resentments and economic grievances. The Azeri Democrats demanded provincial autonomy. They never advanced a plan for an independent state, and continued throughout the crisis to negotiate with Tehran on the issue of regional autonomy. Furthermore, most Tudeh leaders were ethnically Persian, and had little sympathy for either linguistic diversity or decentralization. The leaders of the Azeri Democrats and Tudeh leaders had not been friendly. When the Azeri Democrats seized control of the provincial government, they even forced the local Tudeh branches to dissolve. Developments in Azerbaijan were thus as much a crisis for the Tudeh as for the government.
Abrahamian’s most interesting information concerns the social bases of support for the party. The party consciously tried to appeal to diverse groups: office workers, factory workers, shopkeepers, craftsmen, and peasants. Its greatest success in terms of recruiting members was among the salaried middle class. Presenting statistical data on the occupations of members, Abrahamian shows that a majority of both Tudeh leaders and rank and file belonged to the salaried middle class. Abrahamian argues that there were objective reasons why the appeal of the Tudeh should be so strong among this class: War and post-war inflation hit this class severely, and as a group the salaried middle class resented the continued social privileges, political power and economic benefits enjoyed by the old ruling class of landowners, military officers, wealthy merchants and the royal family.
Even though the Tudeh was solidly based in the salaried middle class, as much as 36 percent of the rank-and-file membership was made up of urban workers. Top Tudeh leaders also held leading positions in the Central Council of Federated Trade Unions, which joined together the principal industrial, craft, service and professional unions in the country. In this way, Tudeh leaders actively helped to organize numerous strikes. Many of these strikes ended with workers obtaining wage and benefit demands which had been formulated in cooperation with Tudeh leaders. The influence of the Tudeh was feared by many groups: royalists who did not want the position of shah to be reduced to that of a constitutional figurehead; landlords who opposed the very concept of land redistribution; industrialists who desired to have docile workers. In addition, Tudeh reform ideas were having an effect upon other political movements, particularly the National Front. Like the Tudeh, the National Front drew much of its support from the salaried middle class. The Front did not, however, unite around any common reform program. The internal contradictions of the Front, plus its mutually suspicious relationship with the Tudeh, paved the way for the royalist coup d’etat in August 1953.
After 1953 the Shah, with the support of key elements of the old ruling class, was able to establish a royal dictatorship. The regime brutally suppressed the Tudeh, reducing it to a clandestine party with a few cells. The National Front also was attacked, but far less severely. The effective elimination of all independent political parties left both the salaried middle class and the working class without any legitimate political voice. At the same time, the Shah’s socioeconomic development plans greatly expanded both classes. Abrahamian shows that during the last 15 years of the monarchy the salaried middle class doubled in size while the urban working class increased fivefold. The growth of the working class was largely the result of a massive rural-to-urban migration.
The Shah never succeeded in alleviating the alienation that both classes felt from this regime. Abrahamian shows how the economic policies of the 1970s began to threaten the interests of the propertied middle class, a group which previously had accommodated itself to the regime. The more secular-minded salaried middle class and the religiously inclined, propertied middle class began to unite gradually in opposition to the shah. Even more important, the clergy proved to be very effective in organizing the discontent of the leaderless working class.
Iran Between Two Revolutions is extremely rich and detailed. It is essential reading not just for people interested in Iran, but also for anyone interested in the development of class formations throughout the Middle East, and the relationship of classes to political processes.