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Can Iran Learn from French, Russian and Chinese Experiences?

Can Iran Learn from French, Russian and Chinese Experiences?

Tuesday, 12 February, 2019 - 07:45
Iranian people carry umbrellas during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2019. (Reuters)
London - Amir Taheri
In Persian folklore the figure 40 is often associated with metaphysical concepts such as a second youth or, paradoxically the threshold of mature wisdom. Sufis go into “cheleh”, that is to say 40 days and nights of withdrawal from the outside world during which they try to purify their souls. The Great Flood associated with the story of Noah was produced by 40 days and nights of constant rain. In old Iran annual 40-daylong jousts of horsemanship and man-to-man combat attracted numerous contestants. For the poet Sa’adi a man at 40 has reached the peak of his wakefulness, that is to say his awareness of the universe, parenthesis that could close within a decade.

That is, perhaps, why the clerics who today hold the reins of power in Tehran have tried to turn the 40th anniversary of their revolution into a special occasion. Their Republic has mobilized all its resources to put on a great show with numerous parades, exhibitions, festivals and conferences hailing the many “successes” of the revolution.

So, what about a quick comparison between where the Khomeinist Revolution stands today and where other revolutions stood at their respective 40th anniversaries? Because the Khomeinist Revolution has messianic ambitions on a universal scale, that is to say because it wants to “export” itself to the whole world, it is only fair to compare its performance with that of other revolutions that harbored similar ambitions. In those terms, three revolutions merit the comparison: The French Revolution of 1789, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and Communist revolution in China in 1949.

The first two pretended to have a model suitable for the whole of mankind, and all tried to expand their ideological space through war, repression and propaganda with varying results.

In its 40th year, the French Revolution had become a closed chapter in the history of a nation that, while taking stock of the past, looked to the future. Much water had passed under the bridge from 1789. The Bourbon Dynasty, overthrown by the revolution, had been restored and the King Charles X was trying to claim despotic power, thus provoking the mini-revolution that, a year later, swept Louis Philippe, a prince from the rival family the Orleans, to power as the new king.

However, by 1830 France had ceased to be a vehicle for revolution and resumed behaving like a state with the traditional ambitions of a rising power. The emphasis was on the consolidations of the democratic institutions that the French leadership knew were needed if France was to reemerge as a major European power. Thus, the powers of the parliament were enhanced while the press, labeled the fourth pillar of democracy, was allowed to develop into a major force for progress.

By 1830 France had also understood the importance of building a modern capitalist economy as a source of national power and far more important for winning influence abroad than any ideological propaganda. That new cultural topos was to nurture liberal economists, such as Francois Guizot whose advice to those who wished to serve their nation was simple: “Get rich!”. That also marked the start of a major infrastructural modernization that was to include the building of the first railways, modern ports and major new industries across the country. Forty years after the revolution and despite years of Napoleonic war and occasional internal disorder, France had managed to double the size of its economy.

In the political sphere such concepts as the rule of law, separation of powers and national sovereignty were striking deep roots.

French influence, formerly limited to matters of protocol, fashion and luxury, now started to extend to politics with such concepts as human rights, equality and social solidarity finding audiences throughout the world. The Napoleonic Code was imitated by many countries across the globe and French educational institutions, notably the Polytechnic, were adopted as a model by many.

Having normalized relations with its major rivals, notably England and Prussia, France was able to join the then fashionable European quest for building empires. The starting point of a colonial drive that was to turn France into the second largest empire of the 19th century was the capture of the North African port city of Algiers.

Forty years after the revolution France had reemerged as a major literary and artistic power. Budding new writers such as Stendhal, Honore de Balzac and Victor Hugo were to become famous far beyond France’s borders. French art blossomed, producing such giants as Eugene Delacroix and French music was to become a credible rival for German and Italian music thanks to Lully, Faure, Rameau, Puccini and Bizet. The post-revolution theater established its credentials with Mirabeau, Labiche and Feydeau among others.

France’s salvation and later success as a nation was partly due to the realization that a revolution is a means of achieving power and not an instrument for exercising it. What matters was to close the chapter of the revolution and reopen the chapter of statehood as the framework of national life.

Forty years after the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd, Russia, now put at the center of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, experienced a similar transition from revolution to state. In 1956 as First Secretary of the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, had exposed the crimes committed by the revolutionary regime under Josef Stalin, thus closing the chapter of the revolution. The emergence of a troika of power, with Nikolai Bulganin as Prime Minister and Kliment Voroshilev as President, plus Khrushchev as party boss, indicated a return to state-like behavior.

In that context, the USSR started normalizing relations with neighbors near and far. A joint statement was signed with Japan, ending he state of war between the two nations without an actual peace treaty. A process of holding “summits” with United States presidents was launched and inviting foreign leaders, including the Shah of Iran, to Moscow for state visits signaled the intention of Soviet leaders to cease behaving as gurus of an ideological sect.

The launching of the Soviet nuclear power arsenal, symbolized by the first atomic and hydrogen tests, indicated Moscow’s intention to compete with capitalist rivals as a state rather than as a revolution. The satellites Sputnik 1 and Sputnik II, that carried the dog Laika in space around the earth, indicated the USSR’s determination to become a major industrial power with global ambitions.

Internally, closing the chapter of revolution made a general amnesty that covered millions of people. Whole nations such as Chechens in north Caucasus and the Tartars of Crimea were allowed to return from exile in Siberia and Kazakhstan.

The USSR had achieved some success in “exporting” its ideology by using state resources to support Communist movements throughout the world. In 1949 the Chinese Communists had completed their conquest of China while Communism was striking roots in the Korean Peninsula and Indochina. Eastern and Central Europe had been turned into a galaxy of satellite states not thanks to ideology but due to Soviet armor. In Western Europe and Latin America, Communist parties, often directly financed by Moscow, had found big audiences and, in some cases, Italy for example, came close to winning power through elections.

Forty years after the revolution the USSR was also opening space for literary and artistic creation, albeit with many ideological constraints still in place. Nevertheless, the so-called “thaw” made it was possible for Boris Pasternak to create his “Doctor Zhivago” and for works by Mikhail Bulgakov, Anna Akhmatova and Ossip Mandelstam to be published. And soon, a new generation of poets, spearheaded by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Varlam Shalamev were able to break the iron limits of ideology fixed under Lenin and Stalin.

By 1957 Russian cinema, ballet and music had also regained the place they had lost as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution and decades of terror under Lenin and Stalin.

Forty years after its revolution Russia had become one of the world’s two superpowers just as France had become Europe’s number-two power four decades after its own revolution. The revival of Russia, 40 years after its revolution, as a nation-state was a key factor in its ability to survive even the huge shock of the disintegration of the USSR.

A similar case could be made for the Chinese Revolution of 1949. By 1989 China had closed the chapter of the revolution and opened a new chapter as a nation-state thus repeating the experiences of France and Russia in its own way.

France, Russia and China managed to close the chapter of the revolution, and achieve rebirth as nation-states, something that Iran, now marking its 40th birthday, is yet to do.

That Iran today is still uncertain of its future and plagued by economic under-achievement, diplomatic isolation and socio-cultural waywardness may be due to the failure of its key leaders to understand that a revolution is something short-term, while a state is a long-term project. Maybe it is time to seek knowledge even if it is in France, Russia and China.

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