The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906-1911 by Janet Afary.

Published by Columbia University Press, 1996.

Reviewed by Richard Abernethy.

The Iranian revolution of 1906 to 1911 attempted to introduce democratic freedoms and set the country on a path of independent development. It briefly established government by a Majlis or parliament and transformed a despotic monarchy, the tail end of the Qajar dynasty, into a constitutional one. The contradictions that emerged included the clash between secular demands for intellectual and personal liberty and the demands of the powerful clergy that Islamic law should prevail. It was eventually crushed with military force, by the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II, aided and abetted by Britain’s Liberal government. One of the important revolutions of the early twentieth century, it had much in common with events in Russia, China and Mexico around the same time, but is comparatively little known.

Janet Afary has written a comprehensive account of this crucial period in Iran’s history, based on copious original research. While giving due attention to the actions of governments and parties, political, military and religious leaders, foreign diplomats and financial advisers, her main emphasis is on the grassroots of the revolution, peasants, artisans and fishermen, and women revolutionaries. She explores the diversity of social groups, political tendencies, religious beliefs and ethnic and linguistic backgrounds that composed the revolutionary movement. Another major theme is the form of direct local democracy that the people created for themselves, the anjumans.

Shaped by imperialism, the economy of Iran was heavily dependent on cash crops (including opium) and the export of raw materials (not yet oil). The Qajar court favoured foreign companies by granting them monopolies. While indigenous merchants were hurt by foreign competition, the peasants suffered from high rents and taxes and the breakdown of traditional village institutions. The first successful popular protest occurred in 1891-2, a boycott of tobacco that prevented a monopoly in that commodity being granted to an English capitalist.

Discontent at despotic rule and foreign domination came to a head in the years 1905 and 1906. Adopting a traditional form of protest known as bast, many townspeople of Tehran gathered at religious shrines, and later at the British legation, and claimed sanctuary. At this time, Russia was the imperialist power with the strongest presence and was most resented; Britain was expected to be sympathetic to the call for constitutional government. Yielding to popular pressure, Muzaffar al-Din Shah agreed to the formation of a Majlis. This body was elected by a limited male franchise depending on property and professional status, but included some representatives from the craft guilds.

Assemblies, known as anjumans, were created everywhere. Initially formed to monitor elections to the Majlis, they quickly took on other functions including raising bodies of armed volunteers to defend the Majlis, and became the main form of political expression for the masses. Afary shows that the anjumans were very diverse in status, social composition and ideological direction. Some had official standing within the constitutional order; others were unofficial or even illegal. Some, especially in Azerbaijan and Gilan, were radical and welcomed the participation of ethnic and religious minorities. The important Tabriz anjuman was situated in the city’s Armenian quarter, and the Armenian community regularly visited the anjuman and supported it on many issues. Others were dominated by conservative ‘ulama (clergy) or governors, and hostile to non-Muslims.

In a society permeated by traditions of male domination and female subordination, women seized hold of the revolution as an opportunity to win their own freedom. Women formed their own anjumans, published journals attacking such practices as veiling and polygamy, and took the initiative in setting up schools for girls (sixty were founded in Tehran alone during the revolutionary period). At the same time as the militant campaign for women’s suffrage was underway in Britain, Iranian women demanded the right to vote and participate in political life. In his eyewitness account, The Strangling of Persia, Morgan Shuster wrote
`The Persian women since 1907 had become almost at a bound the most progressive, not to say radical, in the world. That this statement upsets the ideas of centuries makes no difference. It is the fact.’

Some of the revolution’s supporters were influenced by socialist ideas, in particular the orthodox Marxism of the Second International. The journal Iran-I-Naw provided a forum for such ideas. It denounced imperialism, especially Tsarism, and called for an anti-imperialist alliance of the peoples of the East. It spoke out against anti-Semitism and other forms of ethnic and religious chauvinism. It theorised that Iran was breaking with its feudal past and would have to pass through an era of capitalism (although this could be mitigated by unions and legislation in favour of workers’ rights) before achieving socialism. In line with this perspective, rather than forming their own party the Iranian social-democrats joined forces with the liberals to form the Democrat Party, which sought to establish a centralised and secular state in order to modernise the country.

The foes of the revolution included the new Shah, Muhammad ‘Ali, the reactionary cleric Shaikh Fazlullah Nuri, who declared that ‘freedom is heretical in Islam’ and called for a ‘theocratic government’, and the government of Imperial Russia. In June 1908, the Cossack Brigade, a unit organised on Russian lines and commanded by Russian officers, carried out a coup d’├ętat in Teheran. Despite brave resistance by the volunteer militia, the Majlis was bombarded into submission. While the Shah’s autocracy was restored in Teheran, Tabriz held out for the constitutionalist cause. Civil war ensued. Revolutionary fighters from the Transcaucasian lands within the Russian Empire, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, came to the aid of their Iranian comrades. Eventually Russian forces occupied Tabriz, but revolutionary armies succeeded in re-conquering Teheran. This victory inaugurated the second constitutional period, which lasted for just over two years. Russian troops continued to occupy the north, and the constitutional government came under increasing pressure from the two great powers, Russia and Britain, who had agreed between themselves in 1907 to divide Iran into ‘spheres of influence’.

Partly to appease the imperialists and partly driven by the class interests of the wealthy landowners and merchants in the Majlis, the constitutional government did much to curtail the very revolutionary forces that had restored it to power. The mujahidin (revolutionary fighters) were forcibly disbanded and disarmed; while this decision was being enforced, thirty of them were killed and three hundred wounded in a shooting incident at Teheran’s Atabeg Park. As there was no scheme to offer them alternative employment, many became destitute and some took to banditry in desperation. Unpopular taxes, aimed at the lower classes, were imposed, and disillusionment with the constitutional government grew. This was a chaotic period marked by factional strife, assassinations, widespread tribal revolts and banditry, and anti-Semitic outbreaks stirred up by reactionary clerics.

The conservatism of the first and second Majlis was most apparent in their determined opposition to calls by the peasants and their supporters for a radical land reform. The character of the class struggle in the countryside, and the creativity of the peasants in developing their own institutions of self-government, were sympathetically described by the Russian social democrat Mikhail Pavlovitch, who wrote

‘The peasants of several villages expelled the overseers, refused to pay taxes, and proceeded to form local anjumans - local councils - in their villages. No government officer, landlord or overseer dared to enter such villages in order to collect taxes. The local anjumans, to cover the expenses of the state, collected one tenth of the crop and sent it to the town anjumans’.

The Majlis discouraged, and later banned, these village anjumans, often sending troops to close them down. When the constitutional government did abolish the tuyul (roughly, feudal) system of land holding, it transferred the revenues of the villages from individual landlords to the state, instead of giving the peasants themselves the right to the land and its harvest.

Afary identifies this failure to address the needs of the peasants as an important cause of the eventual failure of the Constitutional Revolution.
After an attempted comeback by the deposed Shah was thwarted, the balance of power swung to the left, to the Democrats, and their ally, the American financial adviser Morgan Shuster. A more democratic electoral law was ratified, providing for universal male suffrage and direct elections. One radical deputy, Vakil al Ru’ayu, made a speech in support of women’s suffrage.

At this point the Tsar’s forces intervened to stifle Iran’s fledgling democracy.

In an unconstitutional coup, the Regent and his Cabinet ordered the Majlis to disband, imposed martial law and banned all meetings of anjumans and publication of newspapers. Nicholas II ordered his troops to ‘act quickly and harshly’. Like Russia itself in the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, Iran now underwent a savage counter-revolutionary repression marked by purges and executions.

The author’s approach is dialectical and multi-dimensional, drawing critically on the ideas of a wide range of anti-determinist and humanist Marxist writers, theoreticians and historians.

Afary contests the common Western perception of predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries such as Iran as ‘inherently rigid, unbending and unreceptive to progress’. This view, she argues, ignores ‘decades of Russian, British and U.S. domination of Iranian politics and the impact of their imperialist policies on the democratic movements of twentieth-century Iran, when, in fact, two attempts to build a more democratic society in Iran, the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, and the post-World War II nationalist government of Mohammad Musaddiq, were undermined through direct imperialist interventions’. She points out the contradictory nature of Iran’s relationship with the West. Within the imperialist world system, Iran’s economy and politics were distorted to serve the interests of Western capitalism, yet the West was also a source of progressive and liberatory ideas, democracy, socialism and feminism. Not all international contacts were with the West however: there were also significant exchanges with Turkey, India, Russia and the Transcaucasian countries.

The barriers to progress, Afary argues, were both external and internal. Her analysis looks at many strands within Iranian society, and the involvement of each in the revolutionary process, taking into account ‘ethnic complexities, class and gender divisions’ as well as ‘the problematic role of religion’. She recognises the importance of culture and ideology as active factors shaping historical development, and not mere ‘reflections’ of the economic base. In particular, she stresses the importance of ideas, and the dynamic interrelation of the theories of the intellectuals, as expressed in the books and newspapers of the time, and the consciousness of ordinary people. She proposes that an understanding of the 1906-1911 revolutionary period, its achievements and limitations, can help to guide today’s freedom movements in Iran.

A chronology of major events and a glossary of Farsi words are helpful features that support the text. Unfortunately, there isn’t a map (read it with an atlas to hand), and I also felt that the book could have done with a set of biographical notes on the major personalities, as Iranian names can get somewhat confusing to a Western reader (like me) who does not have a background in Iranian studies.

Richard Abernethy. 1999