Events in Iran have been riveting. The presidential vote on June 12 was rigged to ensure the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or so most suspect. Supporters of Ahmadinejad’s main opponent, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, have rejected the outcome, and for a few heady days they took to the streets in protest.

Although there were clashes with police, the government stepped back and allowed the protests to go forward. On June 19, however, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei gave a sharply worded speech. “Arm wrestling in the street must stop,” he announced. The protesters seem to have taken the warning seriously. And they had good reason. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a history of swiftly crushing dissent.

I am no expert on Iranian politics, but as a student of human nature I find myself engaged and fascinated. In the first place, the naive innocence of the mainstream media amuses. At the outset, the story line has been straight out of the 1960s. Ordinary folks are rising up to protest against injustice and oppression! Spontaneous democratic sentiments are motivating hundreds of thousands!  It’s People Power against The Man!

To this old narrative a new twist has been added. The miraculous, world-transforming power of technology is undermining authoritarian rule! New social networking websites allow all those ordinary folks to communicate and achieve an organic unity over and against the command-and-control apparatus of the Iranian government!  Power to the People—courtesy of Twitter.

Sounds nice, but very unlikely. The Russian revolutionary Lenin recognized that the People often groan and complain, but the masses are harmless because disorganized. Workers, he concluded, could be trusted to spontaneously revolt against their own slavery and usher in the communist millennium. What was required, Lenin argued, was a committed cadre of true believers, an ideologically pure revolutionary vanguard to lead the formless masses with iron-willed determination.

On this point, I think Lenin was correct. Generally speaking, there are no spontaneous mass movements. Even people who suffer a great deal of injustice need to be organized, directed, and motivated. In other words, mass movements require a dedicated, experienced, and organized cadre of leaders. They get going and succeed because of committed and wily operators who know how to get people into the streets and push them toward the kinds of confrontations that will advance their cause.

Needless to say, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is much more informed about Iranian society and politics than I am. I find it interesting, therefore, that he seems to agree with my analysis of mass movements. His warning had a clear focus. Those responsible for what he termed the “street challenge” to the election, he darkly threatened, “will be held accountable.” He was not targeting the students in the streets. He was taking aim at the real threat: the cadre of leaders who have been encouraging, organizing, and directing the popular sentiment of dissatisfaction and unrest.

The Supreme Leader should know. All the major players in the current drama in Iran were part the revolutionary vanguard the successfully carried out the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This same revolutionary vanguard has been ruling Iran (and quarreling with each other) for the last three decades. Beneath them are countless unnamed comrades and fellow revolutionaries, folks who are old hands at the job of organizing street protests and mass movements, the bread and butter of revolutionary politics.

What we have been witnessing in Iran, therefore, is not the easy democratic fantasy of the People against the Man. Instead, the real drama is taking place within the revolutionary vanguard that has dominated Iran since 1979. Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khamenei and his nemesis, the suppressed Ayatollah Mantazeri—they and many other members of the vanguard are fighting for control of future of their Islamic revolutionary movement.

The donnybrook was predictable. Revolutions almost always create an ongoing atmosphere of political uncertainty, and revolutionary vanguards tend to bifurcate. On one side we find so-called moderates. For them, the revolution has largely succeeded, and their political goals therefore evolve in a pragmatic direction to secure the already achieved ideals. On the other side we find the so-called radicals. In their minds the revolution has been only partial successful. Indeed, it remains at risk. The political goal, therefore, is to extend and complete the revolution.

Mark Twain once said, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” If so, then we should expect the radicals to win in Iran. Like Stalin in the 1920s, the fiery Ahmadinejad reassures the hardliners who see their moderate adversaries as potential turncoats who will forsake the ideals of the revolution. In this psychology of revolutionary anxiety in present-day Iran, the United States plays a significant symbolic role. Any break with the radicals is easily interpreted as selling out to the Great Satan. Thus, Ayatollah Khamenei closed ranks with Ahmadinejad in a speech that denounced foreign interference in Iranian politics. It was a rhetorical strategy that allowed him to equate support for the street protests with traitorous subservience to American interests.

Thus, the ascendancy of hardliners is justified by the need to protect the revolution—it’s all very familiar. A few more historical rhymes and we’ll see the usual second stage of revolutionary fervor: assassinations, arrests, and purges. Radical revolutionaries invariably see intra-vanguard conflicts a sure signs of counter-revolutionary tendencies. This reinforces their sense of that the core ideals of the revolution are at risk, encouraging their impulse to purify and intensify. The Great Purges of the late 1930s in Russia and the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s provide obvious examples.

I wish I could be hopeful, but I’m not. Modern history suggests that ideological revolutions rarely become moderate during the lifetimes of the original revolutionary vanguard. The fervor and commitment of the radicals gives them the upper hand. They are able to reassure anxious, ambivalent, and uncertain comrades. Amidst the turmoil and danger of conflict, they can say to their friends in the vanguard who are wavering, “If power remains in our hands, then the revolution will never be betrayed.”

Iran may be different. Islam and the reality of an Islamic culture or Islamic society do not add up to an ideology in the modern sense of the term. The notion of an Islamic Revolution, however, can quite easily become an abstraction capable of underwriting an unlimited exaltation of political power. As Michael Burleigh shows again and again in his doleful history of modern Europe, when sacred causes become indistinguishable from the coercive instruments of the modern state, then the rhetoric of redemption all too easily underwrites the destruction of humanity. When leaders and vanguards really believe that the future of a sacred principle—whether Islam, Christianity, or the triumph of the Proletariat—depends upon winning particular political battles, then both the integrity of the sacred cause and the true purposes of politics are at risk of collapsing into the unholy nether world of ideological totalitarianism.

In the modern era there have been conservative rebellions (Franco) and conservative palace coups (Pinochet). There have been conservative forms of oppression and conservative secret police (Czarist Russia), as well as conservative democratic regimes and conservative defenses of liberty (Victorian England). There can be no doubt, therefore, that a conservative or traditionalist sensibility can take political form. A conservative or traditionalist revolution, however, is an oxymoron, because revolutionary movements invariably invest their hopes in that most modern of gods—political power.

It is an irony that modern Western revolutionary idolatry has intermingled with Islamic traditionalism in Iran. Indeed, it is a cruel irony. Revolutionary movements do not end with moderates softening initial enthusiasms. Revolutions exhaust themselves in the inhumanity of their radicalism. Unfortunately for Iran that particular final rhyme in revolutionary history still seems a ways off.

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