Nikki R. Keddie, Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran (with a section by Yann Richard) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981).

Many popular explanations of the Iranian revolution of 1979 see those tumultuous events as an anachronistic fluke that hearkened back to mistaken images of medieval Iranian religiosity. Nikki Keddie’s book portrays the revolution as a consequence of the complex social tensions in that country. She does not reduce Iranian society to corrupt bureaucrats, frustrated mullahs, fanatic street mobs or venal monarchs. Rather, she interweaves the major personalities and events of Iran history in the last two centuries with the social forces that ultimately unleashed the mass popular demonstrations against the Pahlavi regime. She presents the major “facts” in a context of class conflict, ethnic and religious heterogeneity, tribal and non-tribal forms of social organization, the subordination of women, foreign interference and intellectual ferment. The result, very simply, is a first-rate introduction to modern Iran and its revolution.

This is a work of synthesis, much of it drawn from Keddie’s own multi-faceted research and writings on Iranian responses to the impact of Western imperialism. Although the book is aimed at non-experts trying to comprehend the complex and sudden changes in Iranian political and social life, it does not oversimplify the complexities of social change. Indeed, this is the first analysis of the Iranian revolution that deals seriously with the religious content of the revolution by relating the role of Shi‘i Islam to the social forces that underlie it.

The earlier sections of the book are devoted to an analysis of the impact of imperialism on nineteenth century Iranian society. She demonstrates the transformation of agricultural and craft production through Iran’s integration into international commercial networks, the economic threat to the bazaari class, the emergence of a Westernized intelligentsia and the concurrent challenge to the traditional religious discourse. She interprets the political tensions that culminated in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907 in the light of these induced changes. Keddie does not provide, however, a convincing structural analysis of pre-capitalist Iranian society. Social classes, ethnic minorities, tribally organized peoples and the state exist side by side as an amorphous collection of events and personalities, a sort of two-dimensional portrait of nineteenth-century history.

Dealing with the rise and fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, Keddie rejects the conventional evaluation of Reza Shah (1925-1940): He “had no interest in fundamental social reform to help the popular classes,” she asserts, “and his reform efforts were mainly measures for centralization and efficiency.” Keddie insists that the development of a limited economic infrastructure and the centralization of governmental and military systems increased opportunities for the wealthy to exploit the poor and did not improve living conditions for the masses. Perhaps an even stronger case could have been made for this interpretation. The monarchy was the most important of the allies of foreign capital in Iran. The story of the Pahlavi dynasty, father and son, is the story of the subordination of all other interest centers to the throne.

The final sections of the book are devoted to a summary of the major intellectual developments leading to the revolution. Discussing the immediate events of the revolution, Keddie develops familiar themes that apply not only to Iranian intellectuals but to thinkers of virtually all non-Western societies beset by the complexities unleashed by imperialism: tensions between secular and religious thought made acute by a simultaneously attractive yet threatening West; the need for reform perceived by a small minority drawn from traditional elite classes; the desire to preserve Islamic values, defined in terms of spirituality and community, while transforming Islamic society; the emergence of activist movements that span the spectrum of modern political thought and practice; the development of a secular literary tradition caught between the desire to perpetuate a uniquely Persian content and fascination with contemporary Western literary style.

Keddie emphasizes the split between high culture and popular culture. High culture is reflected through the work of secularized intellectuals that appeals to the Westernized sectors of the middle and upper classes, while popular culture radiates from Shi‘i Islamic beliefs and practices and is expressed in the daily life of the masses. That the two overlap is never in question, but this exploration of the impact of Western thought within the popular mentality does not go beyond a dualistic analysis of Iranian culture. The French scholar, Yann Richard, writes an illuminating survey of the major ideas of the dominant figures of the revolution. He provides a clear perspective on the varieties of modern Shi’i ideology in an excellent summary of the writings of the Ayatollahs Khomeini, Taleqani and Shariat-Madari, and the lay political-religious thinkers and activists, Bazargan, Bani-Sadr and Shari‘ati.

Some major questions concerning the revolution remain. Neither Keddie nor Richard deal with issues of hierarchy within the traditional sector. If a dynamic Shi’i ideology developed as a response to “westoxification” as Richard suggests, where was its social center, its social base? Did a cultural hegemony exist within a particular social class in the traditional sector which allowed for the shaping or influencing of the actions of Iran’s underclasses? This type of inquiry should lead to a clearer understanding of the complex interactions among bazaaris, mullahs, students, wage laborers, street crowds, shantytown dwellers, ethnic minorities and rural commuters who formed the backbone of the revolution against the shah. This lack of a structural analysis of the social components of the revolution echoes the absence of a theoretical perspective on the structure of pre-capitalist society.

The strength of Roots of Revolution lies in its vigilant attention to the interplay of ideas, personalities and events with the social fabric of Iranian society. Its weakness is the author’s failure to apply a comprehensive theoretical perspective to the dynamic relations among parallel and competing modes of production, distinct forms of social organization, the emergence of the state, and the still incomplete transformation of Iran from a pre-capitalist to a capitalist social formation. On an informational level, the book succeeds brilliantly. It is indeed the best starting place for a study of the process of ongoing change in the Islamic Republic. At the same time, it does not dispel the haunting feeling that a deeper understanding of the Iranian revolution remains a mystery to us all, even to Keddie, one of our most knowledgeable experts on modern Iran.

Leonard Helfgott

How to cite this article:

"Keddie, Roots of Revolution," Middle East Report 113 (March/April 1983).

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