Dramatic events in Iran, as weeks of tumult turn into months, seem to reproduce archival images of the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, as well as images from the Chinese democracy movement of 1989. Ordinary people have taken to the streets in angry masses, risking their lives and dying, to protest the tyrannical rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the clerical dictators who support him.
But as Iranian demonstrators and sympathetic foreigners swing between pessimism and euphoria, the probable defeat of the Iranian insurrection--like that in China 20 years ago--poses a question: Why do democratic movements fail? Is the superior strength of repressive systems the only explanation?
Charles Kurzman is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina and expert on Iran, who has distinguished himself with his work on "liberal" and "modernizing" Islam. This new study is uniquely valuable, as well as suddenly relevant, in bringing together three topics, two of which have been lately neglected, and one that is widely (but so far inconclusively) debated. These issues involve history, sociology, and religion.
Kurzman discerns an important pattern in early 20th century events: a "chain of revolutions" beginning in czarist Russia and in Persia (later Iran) beginning in 1905; in Turkey in 1908; in Portugal and Mexico in 1910; and, as the most enduring challenge to world order, in China in 1911. That is the historical aspect. Sociology emerges here because of the special role of intellectuals in each upheaval. That term is defined somewhat differently now than it was then, when it referred primarily to working journalists and other participants in the open marketplace of ideas, rather than to academics and established authors. Faith assumes a role because all six examples were culturally dominated by traditional, backward-looking religious hierarchies: Russia by Orthodox Christianity, Persia and Turkey by conservative forms of Islam, China by Confucianism, and Portugal and Mexico by decrepit forms of Roman Catholicism.
For today's reader, the most absorbing sections of this book are likely to be those taking up Iran, since common wisdom, both among critics of Islamic society and enemies of the neoconservative vision for Iraq and Afghanistan, holds that the faith of the Prophet Muhammad and democracy are incompatible. In reality, as Kurzman records in detail, numerous partisans of change in the Muslim empires embraced a modernizing, rationalist, reformist, and positivist Islamic vocabulary. Turkish enlighteners, in particular, equated progress with a Muslim spirit, finding inspiration in the Koranic principle of enjoining good and avoiding evil. Islamic clerics were more active in the democratic movement in Iran than in Turkey. Still, years before the imposition of militaristic secularism by Mustafa Kemal (who called himself "Atatürk," or "father of the Turks"), progressives forced the Ottoman state to reduce the salaries of Islamic religious functionaries.
Of course, the democratic revolutions of 1905-1915 were doomed, and for reasons that had nothing to do with religion. Reading Democracy Denied, you have to wonder if democracy was denied or stillborn. Russia eventually succumbed to Leninism, Turkey to Kemalism, Iran to the monarchy of the Pahlavis and then to the Islamic Revolution of Khomeini, Portugal to the authoritarian Salazar regime, Mexico to the pseudo-democracy of the (ironically named) Institutional Revolutionary Party, and China to Maoist Communism.
Kurzman outlines some factors that would make these failures inevitable, including the hostility of the great powers. The supremacism of rich nations clearly provided one obstacle to the consolidation of democratic rule. In a citation that should make any American wince, but which echoes the arrogance both of Islam-baiters and neo-isolationists during the Iraq war, an American diplomat said this about the Iranian constitutionalist movement of 1905: "[T]he [Iranian] people are not in a condition to appreciate the benefits of a constitutional form of government, and are much less fit to govern themselves than are the Filipinos." This was elaborated at a time when many Americans considered the Filipinos little more than savages! Fortunately, few opinions like this have been heard during the present Iranian convulsion.
Some of these countries, with Iran in the forefront, show that the consequences of unsuccessful democratic revolutions remain with us. Russia has come under the command of a new aspiring strongman, Vladimir Putin, and may be said to have suffered multiple failed democratic transformations. The fall of the Ottoman sultan had consequences in the Middle East and the Balkans that are still felt, and remains a matter of convoluted and acrimonious debate in Turkey today. The Mexican Revolution led to the undeniable, if contradictory, modernization of our principal Latin neighbor, but Mexico is also a center of widespread criminality. The Chinese Revolution, in some sense, never ended--although it passed through and exhausted its (brief) democratic and (long) Communist phases, the process of modernization remains turbulent, with consequences for the rest of the world.
Kurzman correctly points out that the Russian uprising of 1905 was "the first revolution covered 'live' by international telegraph services." This phenomenon was repeated in each of the crises, and created connections among the political struggles in all six countries, where local journalists found parallels with distant colleagues. Portuguese dissidents called themselves "Young Turks" in emulation of Ottoman reformers. "Thus began," writes Kurzman, "a global wave of democratic revolutions." In addition to democratic ferment in the press, the general populace in each country was suddenly drawn into debate about the future. Once the term "democracy," translated into the various languages, began to be discussed, ordinary people took it up, sometimes resulting in popular stories and jokes. A poor Iranian thought democracy was a kind of food, and complained he had received none; a Mexican allegedly explained that Democracia was the name of a certain politician's wife.
But the sequence of transformations that began in Russia in 1905--and continued, mainly through the east by way of the Muslim empires as far as China, and in the other direction, toward Portugal and Mexico--has not previously been described in such a general and useful historical survey. Russian socialist theoreticians, including Lenin and Trotsky, paid close attention to the "chain of revolutions," which led Lenin to proclaim a new alliance of radical labor movements in the West with anticolonial revolutionaries, and Trotsky to view the planetary sweep of radicalism as the underpinning for his theory of permanent revolution. But while it is folly to recommend a rereading of Russian radical leftist thinkers, they did perceive something that Kurzman has not, and explain both the collapse of the revolutionary upsurge of 1905-1915 and the likely failure of today's mass movement in Iran. Kurzman notes that Lenin called these early phenomena "bourgeois-democratic revolutions," but Kurzman also observes that Iran had almost no bourgeois class, that elsewhere the bourgeoisie failed to assist democratic movements, and that, in many cases, the bourgeoisie opposed democratic efforts.
The paradox of "bourgeois-democratic revolutions" without well-organized, self-conscious bourgeois classes and parties lies at the heart of the stillbirth of these doomed democratic revolutions. Lenin and other Marxists did not use the term "bourgeois-democratic revolution" to mean that the business classes would necessarily lead a democratizing struggle or consolidate a new, liberating regime. Instead, the concept proposed that such movements would aspire to "bourgeois-democratic" reforms rather than socialist revolutionary demands. To be sure, every commentator at the time believed that for a revolution to reach bourgeois democracy it had to produce a credible bourgeois leadership. Even Japan achieved its "capitalist revolution from above" in the late 19th century because of the role of its ruling elite.
Charles Kurzman affirms that the six countries analyzed here produced a resurgence of democracy, with varying degrees of success, at the end of the 20th century. Portugal was the first significant society after World War II to overthrow an authoritarian regime and replace it with a stable, democratic, and, yes, bourgeois system, beginning in 1974. But in all the countries where regime change has succeeded, there had to be a genuine alternative to the former dictatorship, and it had to be based in the business class. Such was the case in Spain after Franco's death, in Greece with the fall of the colonels, in the Philippines when Marcos was deposed, in South Korea as military rule ended, and even in Muslim Indonesia following the removal of Suharto.
We can hope that the Iranian struggle against clerical rule will end in an order based on entrepreneurship, accountability, and popular sovereignty--the essence of "bourgeois democracy." But Mir-Hussein Moussavi has failed to organize a separate political party, much less one with significant support from the commercial elite. If this Iranian uprising ultimately fails, the reason will be obvious: As in the first decade of the past century, the Iranian business class, sapped then by underdevelopment and today by the Islamist/socialist economic system imposed by Khomeinism, is too weak to follow in the steps of its Spanish, Greek, Filipino, Korean, and Indonesian counterparts and to grasp power from the faltering hands of Iran's oppressors. The primary lesson of 1905-1915 will be relearned, with tragic results, in the streets of Iran's cities: With all their faults and baggage, only business leaders can genuinely transform societies.