PRE-20TH CENTURY HISTORY The Political Economy of Iran under the Qajars: Society, Politics, Economics and Foreign Relations 1796-1926, by Hooshang Amirahmadi. London: I.B. Tauris, 2012. 400 pages. $98.50.
Reviewed by Rudi Matthee
This book seeks to understand and explain Iran's 20th-century underdevelopment by analyzing the country's political economy during its "transition from quasi-feudalism to a proto-capitalist mode of production," that is, the period from the accession of the Qajar dynasty at the turn of the 19th century to the fall of that same dynasty and its replacement by the Pahlavis in 1926. Iran's "transitional" period, the author insists, began around 1800 and "should have" ended in the 1920s but in reality persisted until the 1960s. In seven substantive chapters, he examines the pre-capitalist character of traditional Iran, the Qajar political system with its class alliances and power struggles, the country's demographic and infrastructural features, and the nature of foreign trade and intervention, all with an eye to the transformation Iran underwent in the period under discussion.
Harnessing his material to a developmental, dependency-oriented Marxist view of history suffused with a whiffof Karl Wittfogel, Amirahmadi attributes Iran's 19th-century stagnation to a combination of oppression by internal forces - the quasi-feudal order composed of corrupt and greedy landlords, politicians, and 'ulama' - and the intervention and meddling of the Russians and the British, who reduced Iran to a state of dependency, blocking its development as an industrial nation. Theoretically, the book inhabits - indeed incarnates - the 1960s and 1970s. A belated, seemingly barely modified incarnation of a dissertation submitted in 1982, it employs a terminology - class, feudalism, economic base, and superstructure - that is as redolent of a bygone era as is the teleological nature of its Marxist discourse uninflected by the more nuanced and penetrating theoretical models that have been proposed in the last few decades. This comes out, for instance, in the author's tendency to look at the state as the pivot of a unified country and hence as the fount of all power and patronage, and to treat Iran's economy as a national economy, overlooking the fact that, even at the turn of the 20th century, the country's various cities and hinterlands constituted their own economies while many rural parts still operated at the subsistence level, using barter or, at best, locally struck copper coin to exchange goods and services.
The author follows Marxist conventions by distinguishing between "classes in themselves" and "classes for themselves," but applies the entire concept of class unevenly. An example is the messianic Babi movement of the 1850s, which is (briefly) discussed yet not explained in class terms (nor, for that matter, in terms of modernization). Neither does Amirahmadi place the high-ranking clergy, a social force he pays little attention to, in a proper class setting. He has no eye for the powerful coalition the Qajar state forged with the 'ulama' against both foreigners and a threatening movement like that of the Babis, and so overlooks its powerful long-term consequences, which resonate until today. Class, inter alia, may not be the most appropriate and instructive organizing principle for Qajar Iran, a society whose household-centered economy and status orientation seems much more amenable to some type of (neo-)Weberian analysis. …