Eric Hooglund, Land and Revolution in Iran (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.)

Every student of Iranian society will welcome the appearance of Land and Revolution in Iran. Hooglund’s modest claim—”to fill in some of the gaps in the knowledge about Iran’s land reform”—is more than met. All the information contained in numerous essays, and in hundreds of monographs in Persian and other languages on rural Iran has been synthesized into a succinct, accurate presentation of various aspects of rural life in Iran. Hooglund succeeds in using the results of field reports to interpret statistical data and uses statistics to draw general conclusions from field observations. The book presents us with a fresh, long-overdue synthesis of available material on this subject.

My major disagreement with Hooglund concerns his contention that “the primary motivations for [the Shah’s] land reform program were political, rather than economic or developmental.” This question is important for any assessment of the success or failure of the land reform. When development programs and land reform projects were launched in many underdeveloped countries in the 1950s and 1960s, most radical nationalist, socialist and communist groups in these countries branded them as political frauds. This stemmed partially from resistance to hearing something similar to one’s own program from the enemy’s mouth. In Iran, the land reform of the Shah was far more radical than anything produced on paper by the National Front or implemented during the brief term of Mossadeq’s government. Even Tudeh’s justifications for agrarian reform in the 1940s sounded very much like the 1960s proclamations of development analysts. “After distribution of land among farmers: 1) the purchasing power in general will rise and the market for home products will prosper; 2) agricultural production will increase as a result of the activities of agriculturalists, and the country will overcome the danger of famine and crisis; 3) as a consequence of prosperity of internal market, home industries will advance and the industrial wealth of the country will grow; 4) once the agricultural and industrial wealth has increased, more taxes can be levied and the government’s budget will be covered; 5) the middle class will expand, and as a result class differences and internal social contradictions will be lessened, social equilibrium will become more stable.”

Hooglund summarizes the political reasons for land reform as follows:

First, if the large landowners who traditionally dominated the rural areas could be removed, then the central government could extend its own power into the villages…. Second, since the Shah was aware of his own unpopularity among most of the intelligentsia and urban middle classes, a program which cast him in the role of a reforming monarch who seemed to be interested in the welfare of his people could help improve his image vis-a-vis the very groups of the population who provided the main support of the opposition movement. Third, new bases of popular support for the monarchy could be created among the peasants, who would be grateful to the Shah for giving them land. And, finally, redistribution would certainly appeal to the United States government of John Kennedy which was pushing land reform…with almost missionary zeal as a panacea to developmental problems in Asia and Latin America.

There are several problems with this line of argument. First, Hooglund nowhere specifies who the government represented. There is almost a collapse between the person of the Shah and the government as an institution. Even if all power was in the Shah’s hands, one must explain what this power stood for, assuming that the state did not represent the Shah’s individual interests alone. Without an analysis of the state, it is not clear why a conflict between the central government and the landlords existed to begin with. The Iranian state had long been characterized by the term “feudal” (or pther land-based categories). Since the Constitutional Revolution, the Majles and other government institutions were dominated by landlords. Reza Shah and his son (before he sold off the royal estates in the 1950s) were themselves the largest landowners. Through the 1950s, there was in fact no challenge to the authority of the government by the landlords. After the land reform was initiated, the overwhelming majority of landlords adjusted rather quickly to the new situation, moving most of their wealth to industrial and construction projects. Some clashes which did occur arose as a result of land reform: they did not precede and cause land reform.

Second, it is not clear, even assuming such a conflict between the government and the landlords, why this particular method of resolving the conflict was chosen. Reza Shah established the authority of his central government through military campaigns against tribes and various dissident movements in the provinces, and confiscated the lands of any threatening landlord. Why did his son choose a reform alternative over brute force in the 1950s?

Third, though Hooglund notes that the US government “was pushing land reform…with almost missionary zeal,” he does not relate its occurrence in Iran to its global manifestation in this period. As a result, he fails to explain a number of important features of the land reform. Land redistribution programs, in Iran as well as in other countries, invariably excluded certain categories of the rural population from receiving land. Hooglund poses this as an “unresolved question”: “Why did Arsanjani believe the creation of a class of peasant proprietors from only part of the sharecroppers would be beneficial? What would be the role of the remaining sharecropping peasants and all the rural landless?” Similarly he notes that there was practically no limitation on the amount of mechanized farming land one individual could own. How does this fit with a program to break the power of the landlords through eliminating their hold over landed estates?

The Transformation of Agriculture

Analysis must be based on more than the specifics of Iranian society. I would argue that the overriding motivations of the land reform programs were economic rather than political. After World War II, the gradual buildup of an internal market and the changing structure of the international economic order made it possible and desirable to initiate an accelerated expansion of commodity production in many Third World countries. The agricultural sector was seen to have a very special role to play in the initial phases of capital accumulation, providing the surplus for accumulation and releasing the labor for the industrial sector. This required breaking up the old pre-capitalist agrarian relations, introducing money into previously self-sufficient primitive economies, producing for the market, and expanding the internal market for the products of home industries. Land reform programs were aimed at such transformations.

In many countries, and definitely in Iran, the drive for land reform and other development schemes did not come from native capitalists, but rather from outside agencies such as the UN and the US Agency for International Development. In certain countries, the state had to carry a heavy burden of initial capital expenditure: citizens of wealth had to be virtually coerced into becoming capitalists. The major factors underlying this shift in the pattern of capital investment from the production of raw materials to the manufacturing sectors can be summarized:

  • Modern methods of producing raw materials inside the industrialized countries themselves tended to reduce the margin of superprofits from production of these materials in Third World countries.
  • The slow spread of monetary relations in Third World countries gave a new significance to these regions as markets for consumer goods. The best way to secure these new markets was to move production to these countries.
  • Most important, the accelerated growth of technological inventions and the growing role of the capital goods sector in the industrial countries led to increased exports of capital goods to Third World countries.

The political context of this period—the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949, and the continuing rise of anti-colonial revolutions—spurred this search for new “strategies.” The kind of changes proposed “to ameliorate mass poverty and reduce social tension,” such as land reform, were compatible with and required by these changes in the relationship between underdeveloped and advanced capitalist countries.

Agriculture occupied a dominant position, both in terms of production and the percentage of population engaged in it. No development strategy could ignore this sector. With an increase in the urban population, local demands for food would increase. Furthermore, most underdeveloped countries depended on the export of agricultural produce to earn foreign exchange for importing machinery, and other items, as well as for servicing foreign loans. Agricultural surplus was to provide a significant share of the capital available for industrialization, through state taxation, rents (including payment for land received through land reform), farmers’ savings, and unfavorable terms of trade for agricultural products relative to manufactured goods. Land reform was designed to create the necessary preconditions: giving land to only a portion of those engaged in agriculture would “free” the remaining labor from land. This “freed” labor could then migrate to industrial centers. The increase in urban demand would encourage the owner-cultivators to increase production for the market. Their cash incomes would expand the market for home industries. Finally, giving land to a discontented peasantry was to remove the most explosive issue of “social unrest,” thereby creating the social and political stability for decades of development.

Land Reform and the State

These development models were presumably based on observations about the classical development of capitalism in Europe. As such, they ignored one important factor, which has proven to be their Achilles’ heel. The classical process of accumulation of capital could be considered an autonomous one, that is, the economies in question could be considered as a closed unit, except for simple trade links. In other words, no already established world economic structure determined the characteristics of capital accumulation in these countries. This was obviously not the case for underdeveloped countries in the post-colonial period.

The post-colonial states were seen to have an important role in this process. Already with the latecomers to capitalism, Russia and Japan, the state played a more “conscious” and active role in the process of primitive accumulation. It became the more efficient, if more brutal, vehicle through which the old order gave birth to the new. The state’s overwhelming and all-encompassing “desire” to extend its authority to every pore of society stems from the necessities of the development of capitalism. The history of Iranian land reform can be traced within this global context. American technicians arrived in Iran shortly after the end of World War II, as part of a Middle East Foundation project to set up a modern agricultural center in the village of Varamin, near Tehran. Large-scale agricultural extension programs began after President Truman announced the Point IV program in January 1949. By 1952, Point IV teams had established themselves in all the major towns of Iran. The program could not really accomplish much in that period of deep crisis and instability, opened up by the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941. The country had witnessed a momentous rise of mass struggles, particularly in Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and the working-class centers such as the oil fields of Khuzistan. The movements in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan were defeated, but from 1949 onward a new movement, focused around the issue of oil nationalization, constituted a severe challenge to the old ruling apparatus. The most immediate priority was to contain and defeat this movement and stabilize the old order.

The coup of August 1953 began a new period of repression; economic recovery was still very far off. The new Iranian administration was not very successful in attracting foreign capital. AID and Ford Foundation research teams worked on reports dealing with the ratios of population to land, the structural obstacles to the extension and technical assistance programs, and so on. These reports argued for land reform as a prerequisite to effective technical assistance. The main conclusions stressed the importance of the following factors for the agricultural sector: capital formation and capital absorption; movement of the unproductive portion of the population engaged in agriculture (judged to be more than 50 percent of the total in that sector); land distribution with a fairly liberal limit on holdings, “to stimulate increases in production more quickly since the holder of such lands would now be dependent upon efficiency of production” rather than the number of villages owned, and to introduce the stimulus of the cash wage; compensation payments in bonds exchangeable for industrial and development loans and credit; “a good agricultural credit and cooperative system…to introduce more capital into agriculture”; increase peasants’ spendable income to furnish domestic outlets for industry and trade.

The land reform law originally drafted in September 1959 by the AID mission on the confidential request of the minister of agriculture has its origins in these reports and recommendations. Hooglund thoroughly discusses this initial law, passed in 1960, and the subsequent changes and modifications that resulted in the final version of the land reform legislation. What I wish to emphasize is not the role of American advisers but the developmental and economic goals of the reforms rather than the political. This is what was common to many Third World countries in this period, whether such programs were carried out by regimes under the immediate political influence of the United States or by radical nationalist regimes such as Nasser’s in Egypt. Too often people seem willing to accept such goals for the latter regimes but to deny them, because of political taste, to the former. In this context, the exclusion of the khushnishin from land redistribution no longer seems to be an “unresolved question.” They were the “overpopulace” that had to be “freed” from agriculture and absorbed into industrial and construction projects. The unlimited land left to the owners under the “mechanized farming” clause, or the vast tracts of good lands allocated to agro-industrial projects were most suitable for “absorption of capital” and extension of wage and monetary relations to the countryside.

Successes and Failures

Hooglund’s book, as well as other sources, provides a basis for evaluating the success of the land reform program in these terms. At the level of changing the structure of agrarian relations, the land reform has broken up the large landed estates or changed them to capitalist farms. Sharecropping is no longer the predominant form of landlord-peasant relations. Land reform has been only partially successful in expanding the internal market. A large portion of agricultural production is still for self-consumption, while the monetary demand of peasant family budgets has increased only slowly. Productivity represents the greatest failure of the land reform. Production of certain industrial crops has increased, but in the traditional crops it has either stagnated or barely kept up with increases in aggregate consumption. Labor productivity remains abysmally low.

These problems are largely due to the character of industrialization, primarily the problem of an industrial structure that lacks a producer goods sector. The emerging manufacturing sector has little capacity to generate long-term industrial employment. The problem is aggravated by machinery displacing labor in the agricultural sector under circumstances where the machinery is not produced locally, thus its production cannot absorb the displaced labor. Assuming that the 1973 level of technology and the consequent capital-labor ratio in industry had continued over the Five-Year Plan period (1973-1977), the industrial sector would have been able to absorb some 300,000 to 400,000 workers only. During the same period an estimated 1.5 million workers would have been added to the labor force. Such a large proportion of the population remaining on the land can only turn to subsistence production from small and shrinking plots. A large portion of the population “released” from the land often turn into “unpaid family workers.” In Iran, this category of the rural population increased by over 123 percent in five years (1966-1971). The perpetuation of such a high labor-to-land ratio is primarily responsible for stagnating production and productivity.

Hooglund shows that a very large percent of rural migrants are not permanent migrants. The limitations and fluctuations of urban industrial employment make it very precarious to leave the land altogether and en masse. The level of urban wages is not sufficient to feed a whole household. Consequently, one or two young male members of the household go to seek urban employment, often returning during harvest time. This phenomenon is indeed, in Hooglund’s words, “the principal social manifestation of the lack of growth and development.”

This layer of the population made the political upheavals of 1977-1979 a truly “nationwide” affair. Millions of these people had connected Iran’s villages into a network of political turmoil. As Hooglund points out, “migration did not mean an ‘uprooting’…. This continued association of migrants and villagers served as an important means through which information about the city was disseminated in the villages.” A rather similar layer of first generation workers/peasants took social democratic ideas into the Russian countryside at the turn of the century. Their Iranian counterparts took Islamic politics. Hooglund vividly describes the character of village politics in this period. During the summer of 1978, “the commuters brought new interpretations of religion to their villages…. This politicization of religion was accepted by village youth. In this process, they acquired a new interest in religious personalities and practices.” Visits to villages became occasions to pass on information about the latest political developments and to organize support for the movement.

Since 1979, Iranian villages have continued to be involved in various struggles. In areas of ethnic and national struggles, land seizures and other rural activities have been tied to the general political upheavals. In other parts, disputes over land rights and other issues have continued. Any future study of these struggles and the agrarian policies of the regime will find Hooglund’s work an essential and rich beginning.

How to cite this article:

Azar Tabari "Hooglund, Land and Revolution in Iran," Middle East Report 113 (March/April 1983).

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