The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran

Charles Kurzman

Harvard University Press 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran presents a chronological account of the Iranian Revolution, starting in 1977 and focusing on the street protests, but it does that incidentally, as part of an evaluation of different explanations for the Revolutiion. The structure is somewhat artificial, with each chapter covering events from a particular time period but also tackling a class of explanations that is not temporally localised. This works surprisingly effectively, however.

Largely unexpected and in many ways sui generis, explaining the Iranian Revolution is a challenge which has seen a broad range of sociological theories invoked. One is that a protest movement arose when given an opening, following liberalisation and opening up of the state to allow some dissent. The liberal opposition followed that pattern, but the Islamist protests started just as the shah, buoyed by support from US President Carter, began a crackdown.

"If revolutions were like pressure cookers, exploding when the lid is lifted, we would expect the steam to start coming out of the opening. Instead, the Islamists' aggressive demonstrations were directed at the part of the lid that hadn't been opened. ... Their comments at this time suggest that they were paying more attention to public opinion than to state reforms."

Beginning in late 1977 and early 1978, revolutionary Islamists started to commandeer the mosque network. They "challenged reformists and pressured them with public invitations to join the revolutionary movement, with the reformists being pulled somewhat reluctantly along" and convinced to cooperate or step aside. So the mosque network was appropriated by the revolution rather than being a foundation for it.

The existence of seven and forty day mourning cycles allowed new martyrs to be created in the suppression of rites for previous ones. But this, and the cooption of regular religious festivals, was actually a break from tradition. The Shi'i also have a long tradition of respect for martyrdom, but few individuals were eager to seek out martyrdom in practice — and the actual numbers killed were relatively small.

Strikes played a major role in the revolution, leading up to a general strike in autumn 1978, and various economic explanations for it have been proposed. But poverty, relative deprivation and an oil boom and bust all had non-revolutionary outcomes in other Islamic states, other countries with oil booms, and Iran itself in the earlier 1975-76 recession. Economic explanations also have to explain why villagers and poor urban migrants were slow to join in protests, while relatively well-off bazaaris and university students were in the fore. Kurzman touches on the problems with Iranian statistics, but suggests that

"observing Iran in early 1978, economic data would probably not have led us to predict that a revolution would soon occur."

With the move to military government in November 1978, Kurzman considers the failure of force. The Shah's illness and lack of leadership played a role, as did the military's divisions and the risks of troop fraternization. But military options were constrained by the simple impossibility of controlling everywhere all at once: strikers for example could be coerced back to work, but only temporarily.

"It is almost unheard of for a revolution to involve as much as 1 percent of a country's population. ... Yet in Iran, more than 10 percent of the country marched in anti-shah demonstrations on December 10 and 11, 1978."

Turning to theories of crowd behaviour, Kurzman suggests that "critical mass" theory best matches the Iranian experience. Problems with surveying attitudes and likelihoods of participation may make prediction — before or after the event — impossible, with a movement's viability depending on people continuously monitoring others to evaluate what is happening. In Iran, the snowballing movement brought support from outside Islamist ranks: liberals cooperated despite being marginalised; the student movement was appropriated; left movements started generating their own mass following but not fast enough to compete; and even some feminists and Iranian Jews joined in.

"The point is not for some social scientists to look back, after the fact, and declare a movement to have been viable. The point is that people make such judgments in real time, during moments of confusion, and that these judgments can be self-fulfilling."

Kurzman briefly describes the dramatic denouement — the flight of the Shah, the entry of Khomeini, the final two days of violence — but he stops there and doesn't cover subsequent events at all.

An epilogue recapitulates both his rejection of traditional explanations and his own approach, which he describes as an "anti-explanation".

"Anti-explanation means abandoning the project of retrospective prediction in favor of recognizing and reconstructing the lived experience of the moment. ... this experience is dominated by confusion [and] the goal of anti-explanation is to understand the variety of responses to confusion."

(Using completely different language to Kurzman, one might describe this as a system of heterogeneous agents whose behaviours depend on one another's in such a way as to make the system chaotic.)

The actual text of The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran barely comes to 170 pages, with another 110 devoted to ancillary material, which includes an excellent ten page essay "About the Sources" as well as detailed notes, a bibliography, and an index. But it manages to combine readability with considerable density, integrating description of events with theoretical analysis and using short quotes from participants, observers and theoreticians along with succinct summaries of events and ideas.

The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran is an unusual but effective synthesis of social history and sociology. Even those who aren't convinced by Kurzman's concept of "anti-explanation" may find it a provocative study in the use of sociology in historical explanation.

May 2010

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%T The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran
%A Kurzman, Charles
%I Harvard University Press
%D 2004
%O paperback, notes, references, index
%G ISBN 0674018435
%P 287pp