Iran: Origins of Social Democracy in Modern Iran

By Bayat, Mangol | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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Iran: Origins of Social Democracy in Modern Iran

Bayat, Mangol, The Middle East Journal


Origins of Social Democracy in Modern Iran, by Cosroe Chaqueri. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2001. 197 pages. Chron. Appendix to p. 219. Illust. to p. 257. Notes to p. 327. Refs. to p. 343. Index to p. 352. $40.

Reviewed by Mangol Bayat

Cosroe Chaqueri's new book is yet another monographic study of the 1905-1911 Iranian Constitutional Revolution to be added to a number of works on the subject published in the last decade. Chaqueri is best known for his multi-volume publication of documents and primary materials related to the history of social democracy in Iran. Specialists have judiciously consulted them, corroborating information thus gathered with other sources, and giving their own respective analysis from within a broader historical context.

In the present book, Chaqueri proposes to study social democracy as a "decisive component" of the 1905-1911 Revolution. His self-appointed task is to set the "record straight by restoring to its veritable proportions the history of the social-democratic contribution...doing away with the mystification that have, from all sides, veiled and thereby distorted" its role (p.18). In seven chapters, he discusses the political and socio-economic system (viewed in the singular form) prevailing in the country, and the "dysdevelopment" of the domestic economy resulting from European colonial encroachment, which caused mass emigration to the Caucasus and the rise of socialdemocratic movements outside Iran. Following a brief summary of the Constitutional Revolution, he describes the genesis of three distinct social-democratic groups: the ferqeh-ye ejtema'iyun ammiyun mojahed (Muslim Social-Democratic Group, or FEAM), the Armenian social-democratic groups, and the Democratic Party of Iran (DPI).

Quoting Ann Lambton and Maxime Rodinson, the author argues that traditional Iranian society experienced neither feudalism nor a class struggle in the European sense of the terms. Instead, he explains, there was widespread social mobility and "intraclass" struggle that periodically propelled the rise to power of ambitious individuals of humble origins. There also existed in premodern Iran several "means of control" and "checks and balances" that successfully prevented the Shah's autocratic rule from "exceeding a certain level of oppression" (p. 43). The traditional economic system also had developed its own traditional self-protecting mechanisms, such as rural "collective self-management." This "democratic instinct," however, degenerated with the advent of European imperialism and the disintegration of domestic manufacturing industries.

Yet, relying mostly on European consular and travel reports, and some Western secondary sources, Chaqueri offers no new research finding of his own to substantiate this thesis. His refutation of some scholars' contrary view of economic prosperity in the second half of the 19th century (G. Gilbar, V. Nowshirvani), and some others' depiction of the wealthy merchants as imbued with a sense of "professional solidarity" (ft Adamiyat, H. Nateq), is thus seriously weakened. The merchants, he simply writes, lacked concern for their own long-term interests or for their country (p. 67). Carrying on with the same polemical undertone, and equally devoid of solid new research, Chaqueri severely criticizes Soviet and "some contemporary Iranian" historians (F. Kazemi and E. Abrahamian) for their portrayal of Iranian peasants as non-revolutionary. Relying on a few cases of peasants' protests in Azerbaijan and Gilan, as reported in British consular reports and some Irano-Armenian articles published in Tblisi, he concludes that the peasants had proven their ability to rise against tyranny and control their own affairs. The revolutionary peasants, he claims, were in fact deprived of support, as the constitutionalist leaders of the Tabriz and, eventually, Rasht anjomans were dominated by the "merchantry's vested interest in agricultural land" (p.

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