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The Persians: An Interview with Homa Katouzian (Part One)

by ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI in Oxford

04 Oct 2010 20:15Comments
homamehrnameh.jpg

Why there was no industrial revolution in Iran.

[ IDÉ ] Dr. Homa Katouzian was born in Iran and teaches Iranian history and literature at St. Antony's College and the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. He is the editor of the journal Iranian Studies and author most recently of The Persians: Ancient, Medieval and Modern Iran (2009). Katouzian has been researching Iranian history, society, and literature for more than 40 years and has authored some 30 original books in English and Persian. Katouzian, furthermore, is not a mere bystander and witness to the Iranian scene, but also an important participant through his seminal intellectual contribution to the understanding of Iranian history and society. His ideas have played a crucial role in shaping Iran's post-revolutionary intellectual milieu, providing a critical vocabulary through which Iranian intellectuals can articulate their grievances with respect to entrenched traditions of political authoritarianism and arbitrary rule. And this constitutes only part of his intellectual legacy, which also embraces considerable contributions to Iranian literature and literary criticism.

In this interview, he discusses the broad strokes of his thinking about Iranian society and history, covering a wide and very diverse range of subjects including the political and sociological roots of arbitrary rule in Iran; the legacy of Reza Shah, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, and the 1953 coup d'état; the 2 Khordad Reform Movement; and, more immediately, the aftermath of the June 2009 election and the Green Movement. If the oft-quoted remark of Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," contains the slightest grain of truth, there are few better points of reference for understanding Iran's current predicament than the life and work of Dr. Homa Katouzian.

***

For those not familiar with you or your work could you convey something of your family background and intellectual development? What were your main intellectual influences while growing up and which have stayed with you till this day? Though you were formally trained as an economist, it seems that in recent years you have been largely preoccupied with Persian literature, in particular Sadegh Hedayat and Sa'di about whom you have published several works in both Persian and English. Can they be considered among your most formative influences while growing up? Politically speaking, who shaped your worldview most? You have met and known many Iranian intellectual luminaries over the years, Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Khalil Maleki to name but two. Who among the Iranian intellectual class most impressed you when as an adolescent you began to develop your political convictions and understanding of Iranian society?

First it was the family environment. I grew up among honest and ethical people who set a high store by moral and intellectual standards. Sa'di had an early influence, if only because I began to read him before I was ten. But in my teens I read avidly and almost indiscriminately in history, literature, society, etc., both classical and modern, both Iranian and European. That is probably the main reason why I never took to a narrow path in my later studies, and why I never fell under the spell of an ideology, not even a closed intellectual framework. I did and do discriminate. Not every idea is as good any other. But I learned something from everything and enjoyed dabbling in a wide spectrum of human experience, knowledge, and values.

We had very good teachers at Alborz High School (formerly American College) in Tehran. But one who particularly influenced me was the late Zeilolabedin Motamen, himself an Alborz College graduate, who is one of the most remarkable people I have ever seen anywhere. Not only did he encourage me in my love of literature, but, much more fundamentally, he provided me with a model of intellectual tolerance and critical fairness, despite the fact that we sometimes disagreed in our literary and political taste. I also had a few close schoolmates, each one or two of whom shared in my different interests.

Perhaps I should say that in my formal schooling I specialized in natural sciences and went to the Tehran Medical School. But before the first year was out I realized that, despite my interest in medical knowledge, I was not cut out for the profession, and in any case, would not be able to devote enough time to my literary and socio-intellectual interests if I continued my medical education. So I dropped it and left for London.

It was in that same year of the medical school that I got to know Khalil Maleki and, through him, Jalal Al-e Ahmad and quite a few leading intellectuals of the time. I saw Al-e Ahmad as a writer and intellectual as opposed to a prophet, and later had brushes with him (when he came for a visit to London) over his famous book Gharbzadegi (Weststruckness), which was and remained extremely popular with Iranians of all classes and shades of opinion until the early 1980s. And unlike most of those who hero-worshiped him then and demonized him afterwards, I still think as I did then that he was a considerable writer and intellectual of his time; no more no less.

Maleki, however, was quite an extraordinary political theorist and intellectual, not just because he was very original and far too advanced for his time, but especially because as part of all that, he did not base his political judgments on pure emotion. He approached political questions critically and in light of reason and evidence, he realized the great importance of domestic as well as foreign factors in shaping Iranian political reality, and above all -- something that is extremely rare in Iranian society -- he advocated tolerance, moderation, dialogue, and compromise. All that was far from obvious (at least as worthy intellectual and political traits) even to most of the small number of his supporters, but they were the qualities which I particularly recognized and admired as an 18-year-old, since I only saw him in Tehran for about ten months before I left for Europe, and did not return until after he died in 1968.

There were still other famous artists, intellectuals, and politicians whom I met in my late teens, including Simin Daneshavar, Mehdi Akhavan Sales, Bahram Beizaei, Forugh Farrokhzad, Gholamhossein Sadighi, Mehdi Bazargan, and Allahyar Saleh.

Where were you when the Islamic Revolution took place? How did you react and how did you assess the situation upon Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Iran? Had you anticipated that an elderly cleric would one day return to lead a revolution?

I was and remained in England.

I had been a critic of the former regime on many counts, especially its arbitrary rule, its violations of the Iranian constitution and human rights, and its misguided and damaging strategy of economic and social development. And, although not politically active, I had been quietly helping Amnesty International in their defense of lawful government and human rights in Iran.

On the other hand, having by then been involved in serious and realistic studies of Iranian history and society for 15 years -- which had given rise to the concepts of arbitrary rule, rentier state, petrolic despotism, etc. -- my view of Iranian social and political problems were very different if not quite the opposite of all of the prevailing main ideologies, particularly their Marxist-Leninist and Islamist varieties.

And apart from that, I belonged to that very rare species (at least for someone of my age in those fervently emotional revolutionary years almost everywhere on the globe) who believed in freedom, parliamentary democracy, as well as social welfare, and so I was often described by the revolutionaries as a "bankrupt liberal."

Remember that, in November 1978, many if not most Iranians everywhere -- and not just the Islamist and downtrodden, but also the secularist and well-off -- were saying that they had seen Ayatollah Khomeini's image on the moon. Remember also that almost anyone you asked what kind of society they were hoping for if the Shah went, they would reply (often in a loud an offensive tone): Let him go and let there be flood afterwards (in beravad va har cheh mikhahad beshavad).

In a small gathering at a friend's home in Oxford I told Edward Mortimer, then The Times' Middle East editor, that anyone you asked would refuse to tell you what they wanted rather than just what they did not want. One of the most sophisticated Iranian intellectuals who was then visiting Oxford reacted by saying that I was Weststruck gharbzadeh, since I had used the word "strategy."

You do not have to ask me what I thought would come out of that deluge. What I thought was in fact what happened.

It is well-known that as the secretary of the London-based Committee for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights in Iran, you unilaterally and in your own name issued a declaration in no uncertain terms condemning the seizure of the American embassy by a group of radical students know as the Muslim Student Followers of the Line of the Imam (Daneshjuyan-e Mosalman-e Peyro-e Khatt-e Emam). You did this while Iran was in the throes of an ongoing revolution, when few voices dared to condemn the act publicly. It's a deed which has come to be lamented and subject to criticism by many of its formerly most ardent supporters and advocates, who have come to critically review those days and the legacy of the incumbent prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, who resigned after the hostage taking was endorsed by Ayatollah Khomeini. What do you take from those days and the historical reappraisal with respect to the hostage taking and Prime Minister Bazargan which has been taking place over the last 15 years inside Iran?

The hostage taking was something genuinely Iranian. On the surface, it seemed to be something very much modern and contemporary, even chic, namely a bold and daring manifestation of anti-imperialism. In fact, more than anything else, it reflected the age-old Iranian habit -- both of the state and society -- of disregard for law.

It happened on 4 November 1979 and, perhaps even more than the Revolution itself, was frantically supported by Iranian masses of all colors and creeds except for the handful of "liberals" like poor Mehdi Bazargan who were under attack by all and sundry. There were even demonstrations in its support by Iranians in London and Manchester. Leading Iranian intellectuals, poets, writers, etc., signed petitions in its support both in Iran and in the West.

An Iranian Ph.D. student in sociology at a British university (who later become a professor at a respectable university) told me at the time that he did not care at all if this was a violation of international law, especially because it had led to the "exposure of the friends of American imperialism." He was referring to the shredded papers found in the American embassy in Tehran which included a letter by an American diplomat to Abbas Amir Entezam, government spokesman under Bazargan, which had addressed him as "Dear Mr. Amir Entezam." This was used as evidence in the revolutionary court that subsequently tried Amir Entezam for treason that he was "dear to American imperialism." He was lucky to escape execution, but has languished in various jails and "secure homes" ever since.

The hostage taking took place on 4 November. Our Committee issued the statement condemning it on 12 November, when it became clear that it was not a passing affair. It was, as usual, under my own signature and academic address since, as the secretary, I was, and still remain, its only publicly known member. I had drafted the statement myself and convinced the Committee that we should publish it despite their concern over my own personal safety. As you know, the emphasis was not just on human rights and diplomatic and international law, but -- given the country's history and traditions -- the danger of arbitrary rule and behavior. What happened afterwards is history.

You are perhaps best known for your analytical insights into Iran's historical development, in particular the inveterate structural impediments to capital accumulation and long-term political development which have long characterized Iranian society. For those unfamiliar with your work, could you explain the conceptual framework which guides your understanding of Iranian history and society?

This is a long story as you know. I shall try to offer its gist in as short a summary as possible, but I am sure you will agree that for a fair knowledge and understanding of my theories of Iranian history and the historical sociology of Iran some of my books and articles on the subject must be read at length -- to mention but two of them, The Persians and Iranian History and Politics.

I developed these theories over 47 years, that is, since 1963 when I was 20, and until recent times this was done in complete isolation. I was either ignored, or ridiculed, or accused of being an agent of the bourgeoisie and imperialism, or of being an "Orientalist" or, in more recent years, an adherent of postmodernism.

When people encounter a new intellectual discourse which puts in doubt the very basis of their beliefs -- be it in religion, ideology, or science -- they will use almost any means to dismiss and/or discredit it and its authors rather than seriously considering the argument and evidence. In fact, the more convincing the argument and evidence, the more upset they are likely to get. Examples of this abound in the history of knowledge and science, and the subject itself has been studied at length in various theories of sociology of knowledge.

Back in 1963, Iran along with most third world countries was known as "semi-feudal and semi-colonial," and the Shah was universally believed to be the representative and symbol of Iranian feudalism. Suddenly, this alleged agent of the feudal class launched his White Revolution and, with little difficulty, overthrew the so-called feudal system. There were all sorts of more or less fanciful explanations for this, but what struck me most was the fact that, on top of it, the political establishment (landlords and higher ulema) were eliminated from politics and, even more strikingly, they were not replaced by other -- e.g., the urban middle -- classes, as the social base of the state. In fact politics was abolished and one-person (arbitrary) rule replaced the dictatorship (i.e., government by the minority) which had prevailed since August 1953.

This would have been unthinkable in Europe, from what I knew of its history. At the same time, the puzzle suddenly enlivened me to the significance of the fact that the central aim and objective of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of the beginning of the 20th century -- which, apart from various sectional agendas, was shared by all of its participants, in fact virtually the whole society, -- had been to abolish arbitrary rule (estebdad) and establish law (qanun) as such.

No revolution for law itself had ever happened in Europe, since European governments of highly different varieties had all nevertheless been based on a legal framework or on entrenched and inviolable long-term traditions. If this was some kind of "bourgeois revolution," which was by far the dominant view, then -- I asked of myself -- why was it supported by many landlords and higher ulema, and would in fact have been unlikely to succeed if the great ulema, tribal chieftains, and provincial magnates had not actively fought for it.

And, no less important, why were landlords its biggest political and economic winners?

This set me on an odyssey which led to the discovery of various concepts and categories -- arbitrary state and society, the dialectic of state and society (of dawlat and mellat), the rentier oil state, the arid-isolatic society, etc., and, finally, the short-term society, all of which interrelate to solve the great puzzles of Iranian society past and present.

I say they solve the great puzzles of Iranian history and society because they provide credible answers to questions such as why Iranian people have been alienated from their governments throughout their history; why, despite being very good at arts, letters, religion, myth, legend, etc., they have not been anywhere nearly as good in philosophy, science, politics, economics, and so on; why did no social class oppose either the Constitutional Revolution of the early 20th century or the Revolution of 1979 seventy years later; why was the earlier revolution generally pro-Western and pro-modernist and the much later revolution generally anti-Western and anti-modernist.

In fact such puzzles may be innumerable, including the fact that as late as the 20th century the state could kill great ministers and expropriate people's property without regard for law, and that as late as the 19th century the state could even sell magnates and dignitaries to each other.

There are two (closely interrelated) ways of looking at the logic and sociology of Iranian history as compared to Europe: the legal and the structural.

Take the legal approach. Since the foundation of Greek cities, European governments have all been based in law, whether written or unwritten. The law obviously changed from ancient through medieval, Renaissance, absolutist, and modern social and political systems.

Indeed there were occasional rebellions and revolutions to change it, some of which were successful and others not. The point, however, is that in all these cases the power of the state was bound and limited by a legal framework outside its own will. Take, for example, the absolutist or despotic European state, which, let us emphasize, governed Europe only for four centuries for the continent taken as a whole: in England for about two centuries, roughly between 1500 and 1700; in France, almost three centuries: 1500-1790; in Germany and the Austrian (Holy Roman) Empire between 1500 and 1848; in Russia until 1905, and so on.

The absolutist European state was both much more powerful and far more centralized than the feudal state which it had succeeded. Nevertheless, and unlike Iranian governments, even at the peak of their power they were not able to do anything and everything which was within their physical power.

For example, the absolutist king was physically able to order the execution of his son, his brother, his minister, etc., and the confiscation of a landlord's or merchant's property. Such a thing was extremely rare, but even then -- and this is the crucial point -- it could only be done with recourse to due process of law. Whereas, in Iran, the shah or anyone acting on his authority, could kill or blind his father, his son, his minister, or appropriate any person's property at will and without any legal trimmings so long as they had the physical means to carry it out.

Take the example of Shah Abbas I, the great Iranian arbitrary ruler between 1588 and 1629. He came to power via a successful coup against his father, whom he later blinded, and he killed one of his sons and blinded the remaining two without facing the slightest legal impediments. He killed and blinded his sons on suspicion of their plotting to do to him what he had done to his father.

As I wrote in 1978 to show the basic contrast between the two regimes, "The [European] absolutist state had the power of laying down the law, but it did not have the power of exercising lawlessness." However, let us note that right in this very example we can see the two sides of the coin: Abbas killed or blinded his sons because -- however wrongly -- he suspected that they were going to do to him what he had done to his father.

This introduces the problem of legitimacy and succession in Iranian history.

In Europe, the "first in line to the throne" was the legitimate successor, the first in line being the king's first living son, or if he did not have a son, his first living brother, etc. (in a very few cases, which happened only in England, Scotland, Austria, and Russia, a princess was recognized as the first in line).

Not even a prince of the blood could be recognized as a legitimate successor if he had come to power by a palace coup, let alone a minister, a general, or any other rebel. The European king knew in his own lifetime who his successor was going to be, since it was not up to him to choose his own successor, and no one else was the rightful and legitimate successor except the first in line to the throne.

Incidentally, this was also true of the landed aristocracy: the duke's, the count's, etc., successor was also the first son, brother, etc., who thus inherited both the title and the whole of the estate (indeed, feudalism would simply have not survived without that rule).

In Iran he who had the divine grace or farr-e izadi would be the legitimate ruler or successor to the throne, and he might or might not be the first in line or indeed a prince of the blood. According to the myth of farr-e izadi, the ruler was anointed by God, was God's vicegerent on earth, was answerable only to Him, and would fall at His will if he did not rule justly. Not only the people or society had no role in any of this, but -- as is obvious -- there was no earthly law that determined succession and legitimized arbitrary rule (estebdad).

Hence the fact that the ruler could do what he liked -- e.g., kill or expropriate anyone regardless of rank and position -- so long as he had the physical means to carry it out, since his will was not bound by any law or entrenched tradition which was independent from his own will. The other side of the coin, of course, was that since there was no law governing legitimacy and succession, anyone who managed to take power could claim to have the farr and be legitimate. That is why no one could ever know with any degree of certainty who the next ruler would be, and often there were palace coups and civil wars following the ruler's death.

It was not just the ruler -- anyone who directly or indirectly drew his authority from him could exercise arbitrary power over those under his rule, for example a provincial governor-general or the governor of a town. Thus, life, possessions, state and social positions, etc., could be lost without any legal ceremony. If the shah could lose his throne (even his life) as easily as he had gained it, this was also true of everyone and all orders of the society. And since almost anything was possible almost nothing was predictable. This explains the extent of regicides, parricides, filicides, fratricides -- there is no similar term for killing ministers in English, but the Persian for it is vazir-koshi -- in Iranian history.

Naturally, however, this state of insecurity did not stop at the level of the government and upper circles. It led to a state of insecurity regarding lives, positions, and possessions which ran through the whole society and made long-term developments both for individuals and families and for the society at large extremely difficult.

Hence my designation of Iran as a short-term society as compared to Europe's long-term society.

I said above that the subject may be discussed both from a legal and a structural standpoint. This brings us to the sociological side. It was a society in which change -- even important and fundamental change -- tended to be a short-term phenomenon. And this was precisely due to the absence of an established and inviolable legal framework which would guarantee long-term continuity. Over any short period of time, there could be military, administrative, and property-owning classes, but -- unlike the aristocracy and gentry in Europe -- their composition would not remain the same beyond one or two generations. In Iran, property and social positions were short term, precisely because they were regarded as personal privileges rather than inherited and inviolable social rights.

The situation of those who possessed rank and property -- except in very rare examples -- was not the result of long-term inheritance (say, beyond two or three generations before), and they did not expect their heirs to continue in the same positions as a matter of course. The heirs could do so only if they managed to establish themselves on their own merits -- merits being the personal traits necessary for success within the given social context. There thus was a high degree of social mobility, unthinkable in medieval and much of modern European history.

And, as noted, this did not exclude the position of the shah himself, since legitimacy and the right of succession was nearly always subject to serious challenge, even rebellion. In principle, anyone could become a great minister or landlord, and any great minister or landlord could suddenly lose both his life and everything he owned without ceremony.

Take the issue of capital accumulation, which you have very intelligently singled out. If there is one point on which all the major theories of economic development are agreed, it is that the industrial revolution occurred as a result of long-term accumulation of first commercial, then industrial capital. Long-term accumulation of capital was a necessary condition for modern industrial development.

The simple but highly acute point about the necessity of long-term accumulation of capital was discovered by early classical economists, who observed that in order for the firm to expand it needed to accumulate, and in order for it to accumulate, it had to save first. Yet, to save continuously and at a significant rate would be rational only in a social framework where there was no endemic fear of plunder and confiscation.

Even in Europe, long-term capital accumulation was greatly encouraged, first by the emergence of free towns -- burgs, etc. -- which afforded protection from feudal encroachments; and, secondly, by the rise of the Renaissance and absolutist monarchies, with the full blessing of the commercial and middle classes, which gave them protection vis-à-vis the great aristocratic magnates.

There used to be a puzzle posed by classical economists, and later economic historians and development economists, to which apparently no solution satisfactory to themselves and others has been offered. It was this: Why did the process of capital accumulation not begin in societies like Iran in their rich and technologically advanced times, say in the early medieval period?

The clearest answer to that question is that it was not safe to engage in long-term saving for fear of plunder and confiscation; and that in a small number of cases where such attempts were made, or for other reasons a very large commercial fortune was amassed, later plunder and confiscation put an end to the process.

Max Weber's solution to that old puzzle was that the other, nonaccumulating, societies lacked something corresponding to Protestant ethics. However, in the context of our inquiry, the question is whether such ethics could have become widespread in societies where, at least in practice, there was no right of long-term property ownership; and, if they did, and even lasted, for reasons which are difficult to envisage, whether they would have resulted in the long-term accumulation of capital.

For even if significant savings had taken place in such highly discouraging circumstances, they would not have resulted in long-term accumulation when property was perennially plundered. There can be little doubt that Protestantism, and especially its more radical sects, actively encouraged frugality and hard work, but would they have been effective in conditions of total insecurity of private property?

Thus in answering the fundamental historical question as to why the industrial revolution did not take place in countries like Iran, I wrote in 1978 in an attempt to explain the chief reason for lack of long term capital accumulation in Iranian history:

The Iranian landlord...enjoyed no...right to his title, or security of his income. If European capitalist property involved an inviolable ("natural") freedom, and feudal property involved an inviolable ("natural") right, Iranian landed income and wealth were an alienable (arbitrary) privilege.... The same state of insecurity of income and wealth applied to merchant capital, both in the merchant's lifetime and after.

Capital accumulation requires postponement of present consumption, i. e., saving; and saving necessitates a minimum degree of security and certainty concerning the future. In a country in which money itself -- let alone financial and physical assets -- has been under the threat of confiscation and expropriation...it is impressive that financial capital was accumulated and trade was carried out to the extent that they were.... The entire course of Iranian history and the existing chronicles of its events are crowded with examples of this state of insecurity and unpredictability.

Development requires not only acquisition and innovation, but also, and especially, accumulation and preservation, whether of wealth, of rights and privileges, or of knowledge and science. European society was a "long-term society." Major change, whether the fall of feudalism, the rise of capitalism, and the emergence of the liberal state, whether the rejection of Aristotelian physics, Ptolemic cosmography, and Greco-Roman political thought, or Roman Catholic hegemony -- all of these took a long time and a great deal of effort and struggle to occur, but when they finally did, the change was irreversible, and a new social framework, a new law, a new science, even a new religion was established that would once again take much time and effort to change, even to reform.

As noted, the long-term society makes possible long-term accumulation, precisely because the law and traditions that govern it, and its institutions, afford a certain amount of security by making the future reasonably predictable. At the same time, and for the same reason, it makes major change in the short run very difficult. In the long-term society, revolution, whether in law, politics or science is a rare and extraordinary occurrence, but when it does happen it is nonreversible and therefore has long-term effects.

To summarize, the "short-term society" was both a cause and an effect of lack of continuing structures in Iranian history. This lack of structure, in turn, was a consequence of the arbitrary state, which represented personal arbitrary rule, and the arbitrary society, which tended towards chaos whenever the weakness of the state loosened its grip over it. Hence the long cycles of arbitrary rule-chaos-arbitrary rule. Compared to the long term society of Europe, the three main features of the short-term society were: the problems of legitimacy and succession; the tenuous nature of life and possessions; and the great difficulty of long-term capital accumulation as a necessary condition for modern social and economic development. Therefore, history was made up of a series of connected short terms.

Outside of chaos, in every short term there could be absolute government, estate-holding privileges, accumulation of commercial capital, and developments in education, art, and science. But this would normally not last for long, it being followed by decline and/or chaos. Therefore, while landed possessions, capital, education, etc., could accumulate in every short term, the highly tenuous nature of life and possessions and the extreme insecurity and unpredictability of the future did not encourage long views of life, since all posts, titles, landed privileges, and merchant wealth were likely to be lost, if not by the person himself, then within the following one or two generations.

I am sometimes asked if this is the same thing as "Oriental despotism" or its Marxian variety, the "Asiatic mode of production." First let me explain that, despite popular belief, such theories were not originated by Hegel and Marx. Their origins go back to Greek and Roman thinkers and historians, even dramatists such as Aeschylus, author of the great classical drama The Persians.

Their most important exponents in recent centuries were Montesquieu, Adam Smith, James Mill, and quite a few others before Hegel and Marx. Their common point of agreement is over the scarcity of water in Eastern countries, which is also true of Iran. Basically they argue that the origins of "despotism" in the East are in the fact that water was scarce and that therefore there was need for a "functional state" to control and distribute the waters that run through the great rivers such as the Amur (in China) and the Nile in Egypt. And although they are based on little (and shallow) comparative studies of Eastern and Western history, they make bold and categorical generalizations for the entire Orient. Indeed Wittfogel (Oriental Despotism, 1957) goes as far as generalizing them to North Africa, Spain, and the whole of Latin America, as well!

There are a few useful points in what they say but much of the rest is fanciful, ahistorical, and scientifically untenable. As briefly described above, my theories of Iranian history and society are in no way dependent on the truth or otherwise of Oriental despotism or the Asiatic mode of production. I have even proposed a much more realistic hypothesis (one cannot claim more than that) about the influence of environmental and climatic aridity in the case of Iran.

Theorists of Oriental despotism including Marx claim or imply that there was no change in the history of the Orient. How can you claim that there was no change, and especially no technological change, between Achaemenid, Safavid, and Pahlavi Iran? The reason for this seemingly absurd claim is that the theorists regard as historical change only the type of long-term changes that -- according to their own theories -- have occurred in European history, whether in their progress towards the "perfect state" or "absolute idea," as in Hegel, or the "classless society," as in Marx.

When you say that, in its long history, European society normally had long-term and independent social classes, and that its governments were normally based in law, you do not mean that therefore there was no change in European history. Likewise, when I say that, contrary to Europe, Iran's social classes were normally short term and dependent on the state, and that government in Iran was normally not constrained by an inviolable law outside of its own will, I do not mean that there was no change in Iranian history.

Please click here for Part 2.

Homa Katouzian teaches Iranian history and literature at St Antony's College and the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. He is the editor of the journal Iranian Studies and author most recently of The Persians: Ancient, Medieval and Modern Iran (2009), published by Yale University Press. Some of his other notable works include Iranian History and Politics: The Dialectic of State and Society (2003), State and Society in Iran: The Eclipse of the Qajars and Rise of the Pahlavis (2000), Sa'idi: The Poet of Life, Love and Compassion (2006), Sadeq Hedayat: The Life and Legend of an Iranian Writer (1991), Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran (1990), and The Political Economy of Modern Iran (1981).

Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a doctoral candidate in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Queen's College, University of Oxford, and Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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