Despite encountering these reservations about the Iranian future, I returned from Iran deeply impressed by having touched ‘the live tissue of revolution.’ There was an extraordinary feeling of societal unity and solidarity that seemed to embrace the whole population, at that moment surmounting divisions of class and ethnicity, and even leading those with religious identifications to bond with liberal secular elements. It was a moment of historic mobilization, and although the future was unknowable, the release of positive energy that we experienced was remarkable. It included walking in a peaceful and joyous demonstration of several million in Tehran to celebrate the departure of the Shah and the victory of the revolution. Such an outpouring of love and happiness lent credibility to our hopes that Iran as a liberated society would go forward to produce a humane and distinctive form of governance.
It was not long afterwards, that what had seemed so promising degenerated into a process that was deeply disturbing, a new disposition toward severely abusing opponents and the emergence of a new religiously grounded autocracy that seemed as unscrupulous as its predecessor. Khomeini surfaced as the supreme leader of this kind of harsh regime, acknowledged as such without ever being elected. To be sure, there were violent counter-revolutionary forces at work in Iran, and there were suspicions that the United States was maneuvering behind the scenes to repeat its coup of 1953. There is no doubt that the United States encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in 1980, hoping at least to detach the oil province of Kuzistan from the country, and possibly even toppling the Khomeini government. However, these developments are interpreted, there seemed little likelihood that the values that underlay the courageous campaign against the Shah would ever again achieve the spirit of unity and liberation that we found in Iran during our visit in early 1979.
I had written and spoken publically about my impressions of the revolution that we experienced before it encountered these reactionary troubles. Ever since, I have been sharply criticized for my early show of support for Ayatollah Khomeini, and my subsequent misgivings, even active opposition, were ignored. Such a pattern is not unusual, and I might try to give my side of the story at some later point, but now I wish to concentrate on another part of the experience, and talk about the relation between my positive perceptions in phase one and my disillusionment in phase two. I want to raise the question as to whether my enthusiasm in phase one was itself a misguided indulgence in utopian longing that necessarily ends in a reign of terror. Such is the essential thesis of Crane Brinton’s influential Anatomy of Revolution. This view is partially also endorsed by Hannah Arendt’s Revolution with its admiration for the American Revolution because it did not attempt to achieve a social transformation beneficial to the poor and its demonization of the French Revolution because it did insist upon the achievement of a just society, which led in her view to a bloody struggle with the threatened privileged classes and to revolutionary terror.
Such a question was posed for me with stark vividness when I read recently the brilliantly provocative essay of Slavoj Zizek entitled ‘Radical Intellectuals, or, Why Heidegger Took the Right Step (Albeit in the Wrong Direction),’ and especially the short section, ‘Michel Foucault and the Iranian Event,’ published in his breathtaking book, In Defense of Lost Causes. Zizek’s basic support for greeting such historically charismatic events with approval is based on the idea that the faith in liberating the moral potential of human society is the only alternative to being complicit in the exploitation and demeaning of the multitudes and passive in the face of pervasive structural injustice. Zizek makes an important distinction between Heidegger’s temporary embrace of Nazism and Foucault’s of the Iranian Revolution, although he takes note of the similarities, especially the attractive quality of the transcendent moment of collective unity and its associated visionary embrace of a just future for the entire people. He seeks to distinguish the appropriateness of the enthusiasm and longing, and the actual deformity of the events.
In this assessment, Zizek sides with the outlook of the French philosopher Alain Badiou and the Irish playwright Samuel Becket: “Better a disaster of fidelity to the Event than a non-being of indifference toward the Event…. [O]ne can go on and fail better, while indifference drowns us deeper and deeper in the morass of imbelcilic Being.” Of course, it is a radical claim to insist that the deformed societal structures face us with such a stark choice between revolution and complicity via indifference. Such a view rejects reformism and liberal perspectives because of their acceptance of the structures in place, and rejection of more radical challenges on behalf of justice.
Rethinking after more than 30 years my own sequence of enthusiasm, disillusionment, and opposition I am assisted by Zizek’s disquisition although I would not pose the issues of choice so starkly. What seems to me important is to side with the revolutionary impulse, although I am not sure that our historical experience gives us any confidence that revolutionaries are learning to ‘fail better’ although they are definitely learning to ‘fail differently’ (for instance, compare the Arab Spring with the Iranian Revolution, or Mao’s cultural revolution with the Soviet experience with Stalinism).
Was it a mistake of perception, a radical form of wishful thinking, to underestimate or fail earlier to apprehend the negative potentialities of the Iranian Revolution when I visited the country in late 1978, and again in early 1980 in the aftermath of the hostage crisis? Or was it correct to give voice to the positive potentialities that seemed to surface so compellingly during those moments of collective excitement and unity, as well as were expressed by most of those with whom I spoke during the 1979 visit to various Iranian cities? Are Zizek and Badiou correct to separate so sharply the revolutionary vision from its actual dismal human results, or is this an incriminating instance of the irresponsibility of radical thought that has an infantile appreciation of revolutionary ideals while ignoring the conservative wisdom of serious conservative thought that warns us about the demonic outcomes every effort to ditch abruptly existing institutions and class relations? Are we as a species destined to see our dreams of a just and sustainable future always shattered by the deforming effects of struggles for and against new arrangements of governing authority and class relations? Are we condemned, in other words, to banish our dreams from the domain of responsible politics and confine our efforts to marginal reformist initiatives?
Posing such questions is easier than resolving them. I am inclined to think that my response to what took place in Iran was authentic at its various phases, reflecting my best understanding of the unfolding circumstances, adjusting my evaluations phase by phase. I prefer such a view, even in retrospect, to indifference to the Shah’s oppressive regime, while realizing that drastic change, especially in a country endowed with abundant oil reserves, is almost certain to be a rocky road. Should I have been immediately more suspicious of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic dimensions of the revolution? Probably, but it was not clear at the time, because the leading religious figures in Iran were articulating a vision of a just future for Iran even if the future made it clear that their preference was for some kind of theocracy. It should also be pointed out that some religious leaders did seem to envision a humane sequel to the Shah’s Iran that would be inclusive, humane, and sensitive to the human rights of all Iranians, but their voices did not prevail.
I continue to believe that despite the dangers of visionary politics, it is the only hope we have as a species of creating a sustainable and just future for humanity. In ending, I should be clear that I have consistently supported reformist efforts in Iran over the years since the ouster of Banisadr and others, including the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and the more recent Green Revolution. As with the days of the Shah, Iran urgently requires an emancipatory politics that liberates from within, and regenerates the hopes of the Iranian people. What Iran does not need is an Israeli-American military strike or destabilization moves funded and promoted from without. Intervention by way of military attack, or even in the form of strong economic sanctions (as present), stabilize the regime in Tehran and impose added hardships on the Iranian people. As I have argued in the past the best and only acceptable way to address the questions of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is through establishing a nuclear weapons free zone that includes Israel. To avoid even the discussion of such an option illuminates the strategic submission of American foreign policy to Israeli governmental priorities even in cases such as this where the Israeli public is split and the response to an attack, if it happens, is likely to inflict severe harm on Israel, as well as to risk transforming the entire region into a war zone.