Iran and The Anatomy of Revolution

(Note to President Obama at the end.)

In (CNN) A rare moment of public self-criticism by former president Obama on Iran, I asserted, with reference to Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, that Iran is not in a pre -revolutionary state. I’ve referred to Brinton a lot, yet he never claimed to predict revolution — “It always comes as a surprise.”

Prediction is an unsolved problem, vexing the CIA in particular. In 2013, the unmet need was partly responsible for a number of intel crowd-sourcing efforts, of which this blog is a personal spin-off. If there is a  solution, it will not come from a single analyst. It will result from the AI mediation of the unconscious minds of a large civic sample.

So how is Brinton useful? Histories come in various flavors — chronicle, political, conflict, economic, cultural…  Until recently, historical works tended towards lengthy chronicle, short on analysis. The shift towards analysis began with the intrusion of sociology, of Marx, towards pithy, short oversimplifications, long on specious certitude.  Brinton doesn’t fall for this trap. Convinced that analysis is still worth doing, he is the studious pathologist. Before microbiology and molecular medicine, autopsy  was the primary means of understanding disease. As well, Brinton is a clinician, analogizing revolution to a “fever” — his word, of the body politic.

It’s a tough problem. Brinton is one of the few to try, with only four case studies, which exclude coups and insurgencies.  The use of his studies in contemporary comparisons, such as Venezuela, immediately result in “yes, but” elaborations. In Revolution in Venezuela I wrote,

As noted, the accession of the extremists would be facilitated by rural sanctuary.  But “melting away” of the rebels into the countryside may be hindered by rural majorities of Maduro supporters…

In Revolution in Venezuela, Redux I wrote,

Revolutions have almost without exception had a strong geographic bias in support.  The French and Bolshevik revolutions were of urban origin, as was Hitler’s putsch.  In the First Indochina War, the Vietnamese refuge was rural. The  Cuban  was agrarian; the Red China revolution advantaged an agrarian base. In each case, a revolution had to subdue the other geography; urban against rural, or rural against urban.

The palace coup, entirely different, is not the subject of either Venezuela or Iran.  Lack of sanctuary, not one of Brinton’s considerations, was enough to frustrate Venezuela. Yet  Brinton’s prodromal description of a popular revolution is not easily contradicted. In Iran,  geographic bias, if not strict divide, dates to 1979.

The aspiring revolutionaries in Iran  are urban and sophisticated. They are the legacy of an amalgam of cultures, Persian and Safavid, which results in the paradox of pious clergy who revere  erotic poetry, and a limberness that contains a suppressed,  secular intelligentsia with a Western tint. Though spanning the social strata, they are at the bottom of the power pyramid. 

A dual society, one religious and one secular, under religious totalitarian control, reminds that totalitarian regimes vary widely in “penetrance”, intrusion of the state into personal space. One  opinion, citation missing, is that Stalinist Russia had the least personal space, with Nazi Germany allowing somewhat more. Iran, perhaps in result of cultural amalgam, has institutionalized hypocrisy, with low penetrance into private space, with severe control of the public sphere. This shows in the character of the protests. For the importance of hypocrisy as the glue of Iran, see Robert Baer’s book The Devil We Know.

We could get lost in this, or refer to Brinton. In atomic physics, a particle can transition to another energy state if it is not forbidden by a conservation rule — of charge, spin, energy, or usually , a symmetry rule. Brinton’s characterization of the  prodromal phase of revolution implies forbidden transition, in the absence of:

  • A period of  increasing prosperity, followed by sudden reversal. Not in Iran, where the economy has gone from bad to worse.
  • Incompetent use of power. Brinton’s meaning is power against internal opponents. In 1979,  the Shah met this criteria, killing just enough people to irritate the rest. Not so under Khamenei, whose government is liberal with torture and death.
  • Involvement of the masses with Brinton’s stereotypical grievances. A weak, qualified yes. Urban and rural protestors are dissatisfied for different reasons; urban protests are cultural, while the rural poor want jobs. There is no evidence of coordination between these groups.

Page 65 of the 1965 edition of The Anatomy offers an additional checklist:

  • Transfer of allegiance of the intellectuals.
  • Conversion of many members of the ruling class to the  belief that their privileges are unjust or harmful to society.
  • Intensification of social antagonisms.
  • Stoppage of the career path open to talent.

My interpretation is that it is almost impossible for a popular revolution, a revolution from below, to succeed if a single factor is missing. The display of these factors:

  • Allegiance. Secular intellectuals were silenced in 1979. If there are Shiite dissenters, they are very quiet. Sunni clerics have always made a little noise.
  • Conversion. About a decade ago, there were rumors of a reformist movement in the Qom seminaries, but there are no voices in evidence now.
  • Social antagonisms have been intense since 1979. No change.
  • Career stoppage exists; Iran is not a place of equal opportunity, but the bigger issue is lack economic opportunity.

After the presidency of Mohammad Khatami,  in 2005,  Iran gelled as a totalitarian theocracy, with weak consultative organs of what was formerly a dual religious/secular system.  The roots of the theocracy are unchallenged from within, with bedrock in the rural poor.  Challenges from without are dis-unified by the urban-rural divide. Venezuelan geography.

Except for the oil workers, economic recruitment is absent. The oil workers are worth watching, though their protests have tapered since the middle of the month. Will intensifying poverty result in an unholy alliance, urban/rural/economic? It bears watching.

Note to President Obama. So don’t feel bad about 2009.








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