Thursday, July 28, 2016

Behrooz Ghamari, Remembering Akbar

This blog focuses on the Soviet experience with revolution, but the Russian Revolution should frequently be put into historical context by comparing it with other revolutions, both European and non-European.  With little background in Iranian history, I’ve seldom ventured to make any comparisons between 1917 and 1979.  However, this summer I participated in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Global Studies Research Lab.  The lab included access to the university’s wonderful library collections, as well as access to some of the country’s foremost experts in globalization, including Dr. Antoinette Burton, co-author of  Empires and the Reach of the Global, 1870-1945 and dozens of other highly influential books and articles about empire, globalization, and related topics.  In my meeting with Burton, she recommended one of her colleague’s books, Remembering Akbar:  Inside the Iranian Revolution.  The book, published under the pen name Behrooz Ghamari, offers a strikingly intimate portrait of life before, during, and after one of the twentieth century’s most important revolutions.

Ghamari’s account of revolution suggests that revolutions should perhaps rarely be described as anything other than plural phenomena.  In other words, it’s clear from Ghamari’s account that the Iranian Revolution, like the Russian Revolution, happened in stages.  Unrest in the country built up gradually, and unpredictably, and its success in overthrowing the Shah happened unexpectedly.   Ghamari also makes it clear that the Iranian Revolution, like the Russian Revolution, was all about discourse.  The Revolution was an explosion of speech acts taking place in dozens or perhaps hundreds of different settings or contexts.  The Revolution was performed.  It was communicated.  It took place whenever the disgruntled formed discussion groups, passed along revolutionary books, put on radical plays, printed critical pamphlets, marched, sang, or joined a crowd. 

Remembering Akbar also helps us to see that the Russian Revolution had an enormous direct influence on the course of events in Iran in 1979.  Although Islamic revolutionaries ultimately prevailed over their communist counterparts in the struggle against tyranny, Iranian students were inspired by example of the Russian Revolution.   As late as 1979, and even afterward, many of the Shah’s diverse opponents felts that Lenin and Marx offered one of the clearest alternatives to oppression.   Akbar, the author’s revolutionary pseudonym, treated Lenin’s works, especially What is to be Done?, as if they contained the same magical formula for liberation that the Bolsheviks already claimed they did.  Akbar also read the Russian authors Shokolov and Gorky for inspiration, but also made room for Mao and various other Yugoslavian and Italian communist critics of the Russian communist canon.

Ghamari’s account of revolution is a tragic one, revolving as it does on the fact that the Iran’s new governing class, the Islamic theocrats, imprisoned and executed thousands, targeting leftists, religious minorities, and many other vulnerable groups.  In fact, Ghamari’s time in one of Iran’s most terrifying prisons inevitably conjures up comparisons with Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and Bukharin’s own novel, written as he awaited execution at the hands of Stalin.   In each case, the Revolution is betrayed, and the lack of democracy in the movement leads to unimaginable repression.

 Incredibly, Akbar and other bourgeois intellectual students took to the streets because they felt that they would be able to enter factories and lead a revolutionary proletariat on the victory against a murderous king.  In some ways, the book seems anachronistic.  Could 1917 really be repeated in 1979, the age of Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev?    But it’s hard to say what’s more anachronistic, the idea of a revolutionary proletariat, or the idea of an absolute monarch.  Of course, the Islamic dimension of the Iranian Revolution somehow managed to make both proletariat and monarch obsolete.  Although reviving certain ancient symbolism, the Islamic State was somehow distinctly modern.