Sunday, June 14, 2009

Returning to Ryszard Kapuściński's _Shah of Shahs_

Ryszard Kapuściński, who died last year, was an extraordinarily 
gifted journalists. So much so that he became known in the 
West for his coverage of events, especially in Africa, even 
though he was (until 1981) a member of the Polish United 
Workers' Party and reported under the strictures of the Polish 
Press Agency (PAP).  

His specialty was revolutions, and in 1979 the revolution of the moment was in Iran, which he recounted in his book The Shah 
of Shahs (1983), which again seems pertinent given what is 
going on in Iran right now, not just because it is about Iran, but 
because it gets at the anatomy of revolutions more effectively 
than any book I know. For example he reminds us that a 
revolution is not just a large political event it is one experienced by individuals, who when faced with the threat of the violence 
by authorities suddenly change their standard behavior by not 
being afraid.  At the same time, even as revolutions are about 
high ideals, individual expectations about the meaning of change are also far more mundane, like an expectation of a better job or new shoes.  Finally, he points out that when revolutions succeed there is all too often a lack of practical vision, or helplessness 
among the supporters, which makes revolutions vulnerable to 
suppression by the powers that be on the one hand and hijacking by zealots acting in the name of the new revolutionary order on 
the other.  (My paraphrases do not do justice to Kapuściński's 
presentation of these points, so if you haven't check out the 

In as much as Kapuściński was writing about a successful 
revolution, the explicit story is how the Iranian Revolution 
came about, and more obliquely how how the Islamic 
radicals ended up taking power. Yet implicit throughout the 
book is a story of what happened in Poland in the 1970s that 
led to the Solidarity revolution of 1980-81, and the 
disorganization among Solidarity's supporters (though I hasten 
to add, not necessarily its more realistic leadership) that created
conditions that made the proclamation of Martial Law possible 
without widespread active resistance.

As I write, it is very much unclear whether supporters of reform 
in Iran have the power to turn anger at the stolen election, for 
which a very knowledgeable observer has shown there is ample 
empirical evidence, can be turned into a successful revolution.  
Juan Cole (link above) seems to think Mousavi's experience of 
the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution makes him unlikely to be 
ready and willing to lead an outright rebellion. At the same 
time, the hard-liners who are backing Khamenei cannot shut 
down cell phones and internet access for very long without 
disrupting the lives of their supporters. What is more the
prospect of a serious and organized rebellion once 
communications blackouts are lifted may yet lead more 
pragmatic conservatives to find dealing with Mousavi preferable 
to continuing to back Mousavi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah 
Khamenei. That result would then be akin to the Polish 
roundtable talks which were provoked by the Polish Communist 
leaders' decision that talking to Walesa and Co. was better than 
facing the radical leaders of the wave of strikes in the Spring of 
1988. At the same time, Mousavi should not be confused with 
Walesa, who lead a reform movement from the outside. If there 
is a comparable figure, it is probably Alexander Dubcek, who 
had been an insider and leader, but as a link to the reform
movement of Prague Spring was useful to the leaders of the 
Velvet Revolution, but then easily discarded, a fate that could
befall Mousavi if his opponents hold off on dealing with him
too long. But that is the optimists scenario, at least for those 
on the west. The alternative is the path chosen by the Chinese 
in 1989, hoping that support in the countryside and relative 
lack of awareness of what supporters of Mousavi really want 
will allow a the crackdown to be successful, but then 
Ahmadinejad and Khamenei do not have the same positive 
record on economic development to fall back on.

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