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International Relations and the Arab Spring: A Non-Conspiratorial View.

Posted by democratist on April 2, 2012

2nd April 2012,

In my last article I discussed the issue of the idea of “colour revolutions” as a “legitimizing myth” of Putinism, arguing that it is far easier for the current Russian government to blame the revolts which have taken place in the “near abroad” and middle East over the past few years on various invented (usually western-backed) “conspiracies” than to accept the increasing anachronism of their autocratic model of governance in the contemporary world.

To nobody’s surprise, this article naturally resulted in yet more conspiracy theory. Did I not know who was “really” behind these events? Who was my article “cooked up” for, and to what end? Surely I was working for [inserted prefered conspiracy here].

It therefore occurred to me that there exists a contemporary demand for an explanation of why (especially) the Arab Spring has taken place; one which might provide a more rational alternative to the fantasies of those whose stock-in-trade is obfuscation and paranoia. Fortunately, an existing theoretical framework with a long scholarly pedigree already exists; that of historical-sociology.

Historical sociology takes much of its inspiration from The Sociological Imagination, a book by the American Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959), which (drawing on Marxism), underscores the centrality of historically specific social structures (patterns of social relationships over time) for sociology in particular, and the social sciences in general. Within the field of International Relations, the historical-sociological school has been developing since the mid-1980’s.

For the practitioners of the Historical Sociology, the key factors behind the Arab Spring are to be found, not in fanciful foreign plots, but rather in sociological developments which have taken place within societies in the region over recent decades: These include tremendous upheavals provoked by poverty, the evident injustice of “crony capitalism” (abject poverty side by side with decadent wealth), the rising expectations of the (literate and technically savvy) young; the delayed flowering of civil society, and finally the rupturing of corrupt political, economic and social systems dominated by authoritarian cliques (and supported by both Russia and the West in many cases for decades).

The place to look for serious analysis the origins of these events is therefore in the tensions which have occurred within these societies over recent years, rather than in the baseless propagandizing of “foreign interference”. While it may be true that the “great powers” have sought to extend or protect their interests as a result of the initial uprisings (for example, overthrowing Gaddafi in the western case, or seeking to protect Assad in the Russian and Iranian), outside forces were clearly not the initial cause of these uprisings. Indeed, they appear to have taken place despite repeated American hypocrisy on the issue of democratization: The populations in these countries have not been swayed by the fact that the US talks the language of democracy whilst employing the stratagems of realpolitik; rather they are demanding respect and representation at home regardless of (often empty) American rhetoric.

However, this focus on internal developments and rejection of conspiracy-as-explanation does not mean that “international” factors were absent in the Arab Spring. In fact, structural international factors, such as the place of these countries within the global economy, were critically important in the influence they had on promoting the drive for accelerated development witnessed over the last few decades: If these revolutions have been organized through social media; Facebook, Twitter and so on, then the reasons why many of these countries have experienced large expansions in literacy, education, foreign languages and computing skills lies in the positions that they came to assume within global economic and security structures in a globalizing world, and the desire of local elites to improve those positions.

From an even broader historical viewpoint, as Fred Halliday points out in Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power. (Palgrave, 1999), over the last three centuries, the focus of revolutionary upheavals has not been on the most developed states, but rather revolutions have tended to occur in less developed countries, and during periods in which the “conflicts of modernity” were at their sharpest, with these states only subsequently settling down into democratic reformism. It is at this stage of development that the countries of the Arab Spring now find themselves; driven towards revolution, not by conspiracy, but rather by the pressures placed on existing societies by international structural factors, and the subsequent drive for accelerated development at home.

In conclusion, the obvious question to ask is the extent to which this mixture of domestic and international pressures applies to Russia as well? Russia does not lack a corrupt, inefficient and un-innovative brand of crony capitalism, or the rising expectations of the technologically capable and politically-concious young (especially in the urban centers). Nor is the government indifferent to Russia’s position in the world. On the other hand, exploding oil wealth has meant poverty has decreased greatly over the past decade, and Russians are richer and freer than at almost any other point in their history. The demographic situation is different (fewer young people), and “democracy” is associated with the chaos of the 1990’s. As long as the oil price remains high, economic growth will continue, and the Putin systema remain stable. However, a sharp and sustained dip in hydrocarbon prices would certainly make Russian political life much more complex, and potentially lead to greater change as Russian society evolves.

Posted in Arab Spring, Fred Halliday, Historical Materialism, Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR) | 13 Comments »

Revolution, democracy and the West.

Posted by democratist on July 28, 2011

28th July 2011,

Perhaps the strongest intellectual case made for the domestic benefits of democratic governance over authoritarianism was set out by the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994). Popper believed (see Popper by Bryan Magee, Fontana, 1973) that democracy was the best form of government because it allowed for the critical examination and correction of governments and their policies, and that it was therefore most able to correct previous policy mistakes, and more effectively address the social, political and economic problems a given society encounters than any other form of governance.

In order for this essential criticism to be assured, democracy must consist, not just of regular genuinely competitive elections, but critically also of the establishment and maintenance of “free institutions” (especially the rule of law), which enable the ruled to continue to criticize their rulers regardless of the government of the day.

Even in established democratic states, the threat from anti-democratic elements may remain considerable. Paradoxically therefore the free institutions which facilitate criticism must be protected from those who would use the very freedom they provide to destroy them. This is the responsibility of civil society, the media, an independent legal system, the police and security services. Many countries which formally claim to be democracies because they hold regular elections have weak institutions and therefore do not constitute democratic polities within the definition we are using here.

However, once institutional democracy has been established over a period of time, as noted by democratic peace theorists such as Michael Doyle, the democratization of formerly authoritarian states has proved beneficial for pre-existing democratic countries because democracies have very rarely (if ever) gone to war with one another. Entrenched internal democratization leads to increased international stability, and democratic countries therefore have an interest in the promotion of democratic governance.

Given the advantages outlined above, and the growing number of examples of relatively politically and economically successful democratic states over the past 70 years, as well as the current weakness of ideological alternatives, the democratic model has become an increasingly desirable one for many individuals and social movements in developing authoritarian states.

Recent examples of the trend towards democratization include the fall of communist regimes in 1989 and 1991, and revolutions in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Lebanon (2005), Kyrgyzstan (2005), Moldova (2009), as well as the “great Arab Spring” of 2011.  However, it is important to remember that revolutions by themselves by no means signal an automatic shift to democratization without an entrenchment of free institutions over a lengthy period, and indeed very many of the cases cited above have been witness to subsequent setbacks.

From a historical sociological perspective Democratist would suggest that this process of revolution and democratization has been partly one of attraction towards an ideal manifested externally (the relative political and economic success of a growing “core” of democratic states), and partly of internal economic, technological and social developments, and the inevitable social tensions capitalist modernity provokes.

But since specifically internal political and economic developments play a critical role in the spread of democracy, it is foolish for western states to believe that it is possible to export democracy at the barrel of a gun (as the US has attempted in Afghanistan and Iraq), or that they can have any overall control of the democratization process in developing countries. Instead, the West should try to carefully balance the gradualist facilitation of democratic development (through diplomatic, trade, media and other initiatives) with necessary realist policies so that when revolutions (almost inevitably) occur in developing authoritarian states, they can retain at least some influence with the social movements and political parties constituting the new regime, and can press for the introduction and development of the critical democratic institutions.

Posted in Democratization, Historical Materialism, Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR), Historical Sociology of IR, Karl Popper, Liberalism, Revolutions, Revolutions in IR Theory, Western Foreign Policy | 5 Comments »

The Arab Spring and “Structural Power.”

Posted by democratist on March 31, 2011

March 31st 2011,

A few days ago we noted Michael Cox’s recent restatement of the argument that, despite the current debate about it’s supposed decline, the US has managed to retain a great deal of “structural power.” However we did not explain this concept in any detail.

The notion of structural power was first put forward by the British academic Susan Strange in the 1970’s. In her classic States and Markets (1988) she defined it is as;

“the power to shape and determine the structures of the global political economy within which other states, their political institutions, their economic enterprises and (not least) their scientists and other professional people have to operate…Structural power in short confers the power to decide how things shall be done, the power to shape frameworks within which states relate to each other, relate to people, or relate to corporate enterprises.”

Essentially in Strange’s view, “structural power” is the power of a state to shape various kinds of international frameworks: For her, the advantages for the US of the dollar as the key post-War currency for international trade was the central example of structural power at work, because it allowed the US to run large deficits at reduced cost (a feature of the International Monetary System which continues to this day).

However, it has occurred to Democratist that beyond the realm of economics, the “Arab Spring” we are now witnessing may well represent the strengthening and maturing of a new and potentially far more important form of structural power, one that may well confer considerable advantages for the US, and the wider West over the coming years.

As Halliday argues in Revolutions and World Politics (1999), in addition to expressing the tensions that occur within societies in transition, revolutions are also a result of the pressures placed on traditional societies by international factors.

And over the last 20 years the international trend towards democratization – which therefore increases pressure on others to democratize – has strengthened markedly; the end of Communism, the enlargement of the EU, the continued democratization of Turkey,  the revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon – and now Tunisia, Egypt and (possibly) Libya.  These will all add to the already considerable domestic problems faced by developing autocratic states as an additional, and now heightened structural pressure for domestic reform, if revolution is to be avoided.

This trend has in turn been encouraged by a developments in IT and globalization;  Al Jazeera, Twitter, Wikileaks, Wikipedia and Facebook are all a part of this process.

But while the US has consciously (and sometimes counterproductively) sought to export democracy for much of the last century, a great deal of the attraction of democracy – its equation with modernity for increasing numbers of people throughout the world – has been partly independent of the United States’ actions. Rather the desire for freedom and egalitarianism which informed the French and American revolutions has taken on something of a life of its own – regardless of (for example) the US invasion of Iraq, or support for Hosni Mubarak.

Nonetheless, since democratization represents the development of an international framework within which states relate to each other, and one which seems likely to disproportionately favour the democratic West (no two democratic states have ever gone to war with each other), whilst placing an additional pressure on authoritarian competitors, this democratization has to be seen as a burgeoning form of Western structural power.

Posted in Democratization, Egyptian Revolution, Historical Materialism, International Political Economy, Jasmine Revolution, Libyan Revolution, Orange Revolution, Revolutions, Russia 2012 Elections, wikileaks | 4 Comments »

The Great “Arab Spring” of 2011: Causes and Consequences.

Posted by democratist on March 28, 2011

28th March 2011,

As the “Arab Spring” rolls onwards through Libya, and towards Yemen and Syria, Democratist – like many others (not least a number of red-faced foreign policy professionals), has been looking to get some sort of an explanatory purchase on recent events in the middle East. Why there? And why now?

For Democratist,  the key factor lies in the interrelationship between globalization (Al Jazeera, Twitter, Facebook, Wikileaks and the rest), and a number of other historical-sociological factors that have been perhaps slightly less eagerly grasped upon by (especially the US) media.

These include the rupturing of corrupt political, economic and social systems dominated by authoritarian cliques (and supported by the West) for decades; tremendous social upheavals provoked by poverty, the evident injustice of crony capitalism (abject poverty cheek by jowl with decadent wealth), the rising expectations of the (literate and tech-savvy) young; and the delayed flowering of civil society.

Looking at the broader, global context, a superbly insightful, if so far largely ignored framework for understanding these events is to be found in Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power. (Palgrave, 1999) by the late Professor Fred Halliday of the LSE (1945-2010).

One of the main conclusions of this 300-page comparative study of revolutions and their international aspects is that over the last three centuries, the focus of revolutionary upheavals has been, not (as Marx had hoped) on the most developed states, but rather in the contrary direction; that revolutions have historically tended to occur in less developed countries, and during periods in which the “conflicts of modernity” were at their sharpest, with these states only subsequently settling down into democratic reformism.

In other words, the historical pattern has been one in which revolutions take place in societies that have embarked on, but are at a comparatively early stage of economic and political development: One of Halliday’s key insights is the idea that, in the contemporary world, revolutions express the pressures placed on traditional societies by international structural factors, in addition to the tensions that occur within societies in transition, and the drive for accelerated development.

All three elements have been present in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. They are also present to a very considerable degree in a large number other less developed countries – including Yemen, Syria and Iran, and throughout much of the former Soviet Union.

What the revolutions in the middle East represent therefore, are the increasingly inevitable consequences for states which refuse to meet their citizens expectations, after a certain level of development has been attained, in an increasingly integrated world.

While not linear, or liable to easy prediction, this trend has become all the more evident since 1989; in the collapse of the USSR itself, in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Lebanon (2005), Kyrgyzstan (2005). Moldova (2009), and now with the great Arab Spring of 2011, whereby the democratic agenda has been firmly set for much of the rest of the developing world.

As Halliday notes;

“Revolutions are moments of transition which, once passed, may not need replication. Instead, they lay down an agenda for political and social change that through reform, struggles and democracy may take decades or centuries to be achieved. This is at once evident from the programmes on rights of the American and French revolutions, the radical egalitarianism and the international programme associated with each; the point is not whether America or France always, or ever, lived up to these ideas, any more than Russia was to do after 1917, but rather how ideas and aspirations that emerged from these revolutions retain their validity in subsequent epochs.”

2011 may then therefore eventually come to mark the decisive point at which among the populations of developing states, democractic reformism ceased to be seen as essentially a restrictedly “Western” phenomenon, and became recognized as a potentially universal one.

See also my pieces:

Russian Autocracy and the Future of the Arab Spring

Revolution, Democracy and the West.

The Arab Spring and Structural Power

The Egyptian revolution and the precariousness of autocracy.

Posted in Democratization, Domestic NGOs, Egyptian Revolution, Fred Halliday, Historical Materialism, Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR), Jasmine Revolution, Libyan Revolution, Moldova, Russian Corruption, Soviet Union, Ukraine, Western Foreign Policy, wikileaks | 12 Comments »

Russian “Re-Sovietization” versus global capitalism: Who’s going to blink first?

Posted by democratist on October 20, 2010

20th October 2010,

Today, Democratist has been listening to a podcast of a lecture given by Professor Niall Ferguson (Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the LSE) on “The Political Economy of the Cold War.”

It explores the competition that existed between the US and Soviet economic systems during the Cold War, and how far the outcome of the Cold War was economically pre-determined.

Among other things, Ferguson demonstrated in detail that, from the high hopes of the 1950’s, the Soviet economy stagnated, and from 1975 negative productivity growth was a clear sign it was on the critical list;

  • Growth rates declined dramatically after Khrushchev, and total factor productivity plummeted to the point that Soviet factories eventually became value subtracting.
  • The planned economy did not work, because in the absence of market signals, resources were misallocated.
  • Corruption was endemic to the planned economic system because incentives were completely misaligned.
  • The only thing that kept the Soviet show on the road after 1969 was the subsequent rise of the oil price on international markets.
  • The Chernobyl disaster demonstrated the USSR’s inadequate allowance for depreciation of the capital stock.
  • By the end of the Cold War Soviet GDP was 36% of US GDP. In order to match the US, the Soviets had to spend a significantly larger portion of GNP on the military: 14% by 1991.
  • Life expectancy rates flatlined from the 1960’s (followed by a collapse after 1990).

From Democratist’s perspective, what is most interesting about this analysis is the opportunity it presents to examine the continuities from the Soviet period, and the trend of “partial re-Sovietization” of Russia since 2000;

  • Whereas the command economy is long gone, corruption has had a considerable continuing influence on the misallocation of resources/lack of diversification.
  • But, from the late 1990’s until 2008, high raw materials prices (accounting for 70% of exports) again came to act as a mask to cover deeper structural problems.
  • Inadequate allowance for depreciation of the capital stock has continued, noticeably in relation to Russia’s military (and broader military-industrial complex), and also resulted a number of disasters linked to antiquated infrastructure.
  • National resurgence remains a key aspect of official ideology, and the government is currently planning to embark on a new round of defence spending.
  • Life expectancy crashed in the 1990’s, partly as a result of social dislocation, but also as a result of inheritance of Soviet social trends (alcoholism, smoking). Demographic decline is set to remain a problem.

But, as we have argued repeatedly, despite the fall in hydrocarbon prices over the past three years, there has been little indication the regime has any serious intention of changing course: What we have seen so far remains essentially a superficial invocation of the need for change through the offices of the “liberal” President, designed to drum up additional investment from the West, while the regime waits for a resurgence in commodity prices.

But there is currently little indication that the oil price will revert to 2007 levels any time soon, and foreign investors appear to be getting wise to the Kremlin’s game (why invest in Russia, when there are so many more attractive options?).

It must surely be slowly be dawning on at least some in the nomenklatura that just “going through the motions” isn’t going to be enough.

In the contest between Re-Sovietization and global capitalism then, the question is therefore increasingly, “Who’s going to blink first?”

Posted in Historical Materialism, Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR), International Political Economy, Russian Economy | 1 Comment »

Notes from “The Islamic Republic after 30 years.”

Posted by democratist on August 28, 2010

“The Islamic Republic after 30 years.”

Notes on the lecture given at the LSE on 23rd February 2009 by Professor Fred Halliday.

During the summer break Democratist has been watching the LSE’s podcast recording of our friend and mentor, Fred Halliday’s last public lecture in the UK, given at the LSE on the subject of “The Islamic Republic after 30 years.” (

We have enjoyed listening to it so much, and there is so much to be learned from what was said, especially in relation to the comparative study of revolutions, that we decided to make some (careful, but not verbatim) notes and present them here, along with a link to the podcast.

We hope that some readers might take an interest ın the lecture, and decide to explore some of Fred’s many published books (also mentioned in our other piece about him).

We especially recommend The World at 2000, and Rethinking International Relations, as introductory texts.

“We need both the heart and the intellect in order to understand revolutions”.

Hannah Arendt suggested that the twentieth century was a time of “wars and revolutions”. Both wars and revolutions pose the challenge of explaining their causes and outcomes.  Were these outcomes structurally inevitable, or politically contingent? Constructive or destructive? Positive or negative? An especially important question for Halliday (and IR theory); how far did international factors play a part in the onset of such conflicts, and what are their international consequences?

The ongoing debates and controversies surrounding recent major wars (WWI, WWII the Spanish Civil War) apply to an even greater extent to major social revolutions. Revolutions are in many ways similar to wars; times of mobilization combat, uncertainty. Revolutions exhibit the best and worst of human nature. They are times of aspiration and cruelty; times of hope, and of the destruction of millions of lives. Revolutions are times of idealism, but (in a usage of the term that contrasts with current concerns) we should recall that the term “terrorism” was originally invented by the Jacobins during the French revolution in 1792 to describe their own revolutionary violence;  a violence of the state against its own people.

Halliday points to the pathos of the hope and tragedy of revolutions: Few writers on the subject try to capture both sides: both the aspiration and the betrayal. The moments of emancipation and the recreation of repression.  Most who grasp this pathos have tended to express it through literature; Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities. Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Arguably the finest of all commentaries is Albert Camus’ The Rebel (1951). Camus work, written more than 50 years ago, tells us as much as any particular account about what was to follow; in China, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Algeria and Iran. Camus also pointed out that the red flag (symbol of revolution throughout the twentieth century) was originally adopted as a banner justifying the application of martial law in 1792.

Herein, in the recognition of this necessarily dual moral and psychological character of  revolutions lies an important lesson for our own times. It has become much easier, since the collapse of communism in 1989 to argue that revolutions are illusions and are dangerous; gods that failed; utopian projects that, thank heavens, the world is now rid of.

But this is to mistake the two-sided dimension of revolutions, the profound and idealistic reasons why people engage in, and are willing to die and kill for them, and why there is a necessary place, as much in the unequal and uncertain world of the twenty-first century, as in the ideological set-battles of the twentieth, for the emergence of utopias and ideals: The age of ideologies may well (as Fukuyama has claimed) have passed away, but the age of human anger, of revolt, of the sense of injustice and entitlement, of peoples and classes, religious communities and others now driven by information technology and the fantasies of globalization, has not.

The academic analytic literature on revolutions does much to illustrate these points, but little to resolve them. Most accounts of revolutions are singular historical narratives. Little attention has been paid to the comparative sociology of revolutions. The rightly dominant example of existing comparative work is Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (1978).  This (and Halliday’s subsequent) Revolutions and World Politics (1999) highlighted that, for all their domestic causes and consequences, revolutions are necessarily international in four respects;

  • They have some international causes.
  • International influence on the formation and consolidation of post-revolutionary regimes (in the Iranian case, as a result of the Iraqi invasion).
  • The radical foreign policies revolutionary regimes pursue.
  • The inexorable constriction and decline of the revolution at home under international pressure.

Yet Skocpol’s central argument about the structural determination of revolutions was soon challenged by the examples of Iran and Nicaragua – (which both point to the importance of agents, not structures). Also her point about the international weakening of the state did not apply in the Iranian case – because the Shah’s regime was not challenged internationally.

The collapse of the most ambitious and sustained revolution of modern times (a collapse that was in its own way also revolutionary) that of the USSR was also a challenge for writers such as Skocpol and E. H. Carr, who had rested the main part of their arguments on the progressive role of revolutions as locomotives of history etc, and their presumed durability.

Halliday’s own Revolutions and World Politics puts forward his own comparative study of the “five great revolutions” –  France, Russia, China, Cuba and Iran; In this work he tried to set revolutions in their international context, and to assess the role of social Revolutions in the period 1789-1989. In some ways, his student’s Phds on the themes of this topic were more successful than his own work because they were more focused in approach, and more sensitive to the changes of historical context.

This lecture is therefore part of a much wider, and necessarily open work of research, comparison and evaluation, and is offered in that comparative, and analytic light.

Thirty years ago in 1979, the world witnessed with surprise, anxiety, and on the part of some, expectation the dramatic culmination of the Iranian revolution; with the collapse of the hitherto powerful regime of Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, the return from exile of ayatollah Khomeini, and the establishment in the following weeks of the Islamic republic and the ratification of a new constitution on 1st April 1979.

Thirty years is not a long time in the lifetime of a revolutionary regime. Cuba has just celebrated 50 years of revolution; the Russian revolution managed 70. But it is time enough to look with some calmer perspective at one of most unexpected, dramatic, and in the Middle East at least, influential events of modern times.

In dealing with social revolutions (also wars, terrorist attacks), it is often wise to begin with some comparison. Revolutions are in many ways often similar, not unique. They permit of broader causal explanation. Such comparison also allows to identify their truly unique and individual aspects.

In six respects, the 1979 revolution in Iran bears comparison with its historic forbears; France (1789), Russia (1917), China (1948) and Cuba (1959).

  • First, the 1979 Iranian revolution occurred because a broad coalition of opposition forces came together to overthrow dictatorial and authoritarian regime. This built on longstanding social grievances, but also mobilized nationalist sentiments against a state or ruler seen as too compliant to outside influences (the Shah had been installed in a coup in 1953): It was a classic populist alliance.
  • Secondly, the victory of the revolution also required and was facilitated by the fragmentation of the leadership within the state itself; without this fragmentation the state could certainly have survived – but the Shah was ill, his advisors uncertain, the Americans were distracted. Hence the weakness of the state and the comparison with Louis XVI and Nicholas II. Many of the middle classes fled the country.
  • Thirdly, the revolution was not just political in the sense of changing the elite, but also had profound social and economic consequences. It is these social and economic changes that differentiate social revolutions from mere coups d’etat: Iran now has an Islamist nomenklatura (of about 5000 people), united by ties of power, business and marriage – who control state revenues and the armed forces.
  • Fourth, while the revolution proposed a new radical and egalitarian order – the “time of the Imam,”  it also drew on pre-existing ideas in Iranian history – above all secular nationalism – especially true after Iraqi invasion of 1980.
  • Fifth – the role of non-dominant (Persian) ethnic groups. Here there is a comparison with cases where the formation of revolution within the dominant ethnic group has encountered hostility among the smaller ethnic groups. An initial proclamation of the fraternity of all Peoples is often followed by violence as the result of the centralizing tendency of the center: There is a  near-universal tendency of revolutionaries to cast the leadership of smaller ethnic groups as agents of foreign powers. Examples can be found from Turkey (1908) and from Russia/Soviet Union (1917). Iran was a partial exception and has been a relatively successful multi-ethnic state. But the revolution has produced conflict with minorities. The main problems in the Iranian case have not been with the Azeris (who make up 25 percent of the population), but with the Kurds and Arabs.
  • Sixth. As with France and Russia in particular, the Iranian revolution, seeking to promote its state interests, and export revolution, soon acquired the characteristics of a revived empire, and in so doing, both mobilized support among some forces of the regime, and antagonized others. At the same time it was the International consequences of the revolution (especially the 1980-88 war with Iraq), rather than the revolution itself that shaped the politics and defined the state institutions of the Islamic republic, and steeled its will. It is clear that 20-30 years after the revolution, ıt (as ın other revolutions) comes into question. Ammedınajad is currently seeking to recreate and recapture the revolutionary purity of the early years of the revolution, which is now perceived to be lacking.

The foreign policy of the regime was (as E.H. Carr pointed out as common to revolutionary regimes) a dual policy; a mixture of both diplomacy and revolution. Revolutionary rhetoric, and an element of nationalist arrogance led the Iranian leadership to overplay their hand on three important occasions; firstly, the taking of the American hostages in 1979 which turned the US into an almost permanent enemy; secondly, the failure to accept Saddam’s peace deal in 1982, which would have led to a more advantageous peace for Iran, and third; the failure to support the Communist regime in Afghanistan which lead to the rise of the anti-Iranıan Taliban.

What are the unique features of the Iranian revolution? Most obviously in regard to the leadership, ideology and goals of the Islamic revolution. Here we did not have the secular radicalism of the earlier revolutions since 1789, but rather a revolution under the banner of Islam, with the goal of returning to the pure model of the time of the prophet. Unlike these other revolutions, the Iranian revolution did not promise material well-beıng; Khomeini stating, “We did make this revolution for melons!”. In that sense the apparent goal of the revolution contrasted with others.

But they did have the other following aspects in common with these other modern social revolutions;

  • An appeal to the mass of the poor against “the corrupt”.
  • The cult of the leader.
  • The mobilizing of nationalist sentiment in a country that had been invaded in both world wars.
  • The redistribution of wealth for social programmes.
  • Analysing the world in terms of “the oppressed” versus the dominant power (Khomeini did not use the word “imperialism”, but instead “global arrogance”).

For all the Koranic appearance, the message was a modern populist and nationalist one, in Islamic garb, and the same applies to other Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda. For all the apparent difference, the Islamic revolution of 1979 did what all revolutions do, namely after overthrowing an oppressive government to seize power and crush, not only their opponents, but all dissidents within the regime, and then impose an intrusive and authoritarian order.

This prevalence of secular, modern concerns is evident in other respects, and we can give an example here in terms of foreign policy; the constitution of Iran commits it to supporting struggling Muslims around the world, but where a clear state interest clashes with Islamic solidarity, it is state interests which prevail. Hence Irans support for India over Kashmir, for Beijing against the Muslims in Sinjan, for Russia over Chechnya, and for Armenia against Shiite Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.


Against this background, in which is debated whether the Iranian revolution was, or was not similar to others, the Iran of today appears as another case of a revolution approaching its middle years but far from abandoned or defeated.

Domestically, in a post revolutionary climate freer and more diverse than that seen in any of the other revolutions discussed, but with violence and intimidation never far away, and political and social pressure growing, a wide range of opinions and interpretations of the revolutionary programme can be heard. The presidential elections this June will in this regard be important, but given the plurality of power centers and opinions, they cannot be definitive, even if Khatamı is re-elected.

Internationally, Iran, exactly like its other post-imperial counterparts; France, Russia and China pursues its dual foreign policy; one that combines aspirations of regional and military influence with the continued promotion of radicalism in neighbouring countries.

The people of Iran, of he Middle East and the world have not yet heard the last of the Islamic revolution, and of this great nation.

Posted in Fred Halliday, Historical Materialism, Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR), Revolutions in IR Theory | Leave a Comment »

Fred Halliday (1946-2010) and the Enduring Relevance of Historical Materialism

Posted by democratist on June 28, 2010

28th June 2010

Fred Halliday (1946-2010) was, among his many other achievements, Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics (2005-2008) and latterly ICREA research professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies.

He was an extraordinary polymath and linguist; able to work in at least 10 languages (Persian, Arabic, French, German, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, and English – and with considerable knowledge of many others – his self-imposed definition of “competence” in a language was the ability to use it to write a book review and give a lecture.

Over the course of a 40-year career he produced 20 books, including Arabia without Sultans (Penguin 1974), Iran: Dictatorship and Development (Penguin 1978), Rethinking International Relations (Macmillan, 1994) Revolution and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power (Macmillan,1999) The World at 2000: Perils and Promises (Palgrave, 2001) and The Middle East in International Relations. Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). His output of high-quality work was truly impressive; and as of June 2010, at least five new books are still in the process of publication.

Professor Halliday was a great inspiration and mentor for Democratist, both in terms of his dedication to rationality, democracy. human rights, universal values, internationalism and “complex solidarity” with the developing world, and also in relation to the importance of “doing the work” as he put it – the need to study the history, politics and language of the countries concerned (often overlooked by academic International Relations theorists).

Halliday fully understood (in opposition to Waltz and the “Neo-realists”) the importance of looking at both the internal level of analysis (the domestic character of states), as well as the external “systemic” level (state-to-state relations).

In Rethinking International Relations, he proposed elements of  a reformulated historical materialism (shorn of its teleological and other less palatable aspects) as an alternative approach to interpreting the contemporary world.

While Democratist does not consider himself a Marxist, Halliday’s four suggested themes of reconfigured historical materialism certainly bear repeating for those of us who wish to “do the work” of analysing and explaining the historical and political development of the countries we study, and how this influences their international relations;

Determination by socio-economic factors (“material” determination).

The central activity of any society is economic production, and the main analytical questions should be considered in this context: Firstly, what is the “level of production”? Secondly, what are the systems of property and effective control that define ownership of these forces (what are the “relations of production”)? These forces (level and relations of production) combine to form a particular society – feudalism, capitalism etc – and ideas, institutions and events within a social formulation do not take place in isolation from this context.

Seen in this light the study of International Relations is best defined as the study of relations not between states, but between social formations: States should not be seen as an embodiment of national interest, but rather the interests of a specific society or social formation. The history of each state is the history of forms of social power and its legitimization. The contemporary interstate system emerged in the context of the spread of capitalism across the globe, and the subjugation of pre-capitalist societies. The socio-economic system underpins both the character of individual states and their relations to each other.

Historical determination.

The events or character of any society can only be seen in their historical context. Just as society has to be seen in a socio-economic context, so the conditions of the generation of that context, and their contingent location are central to any analysis: To understand a particular contemporary capitalist society, one has to see how it originated and what the problems and tendencies conditioned by the past are, how it limits what people consider their options, and leads them to be influenced by illusions and identifications derived usually unwittingly from the past.

The centrality of social movements in political life, both domestic and international

Classes are defined by reference to their ownership and control of the means of production; a power that is seen as defining the other forms of social power that they excercise. If within a particular state classes act to control those less powerful than themselves, they act internationally to ally with groups similar to themselves when this is beneficial, and to compete with them by peaceful or military means when rivalry is prefered.

Conflict and Revolution

Underlying the myriad events of international affairs lies social conflict, within and across frontiers; the pursuit of wealth and economic power is an important source of these events. Taking the historical determinants of specific states into account, it becomes necessary to enquire out of what historical conflicts they emerged.

Fred will be sadly missed, but the ideas he helped revive and transform will prove highly useful analytical and explanatory tools for those wishing to analyze domestic and international politics for many years to come (its influence should be fairly immediately apparent in many of the articles in this blog, not least Springtime for Dima?).

As he pointed out in Rethinking International Relations, “…historical materialism may prove to be just as relevant as it ever was as an explanatory system, and one that, in origin and development, takes as its starting point and focus of analysis that phenomenon that now more than ever dominates the world, namely capitalism.”

Posted in Book Reviews, Fred Halliday, Historical Materialism, Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR) | Leave a Comment »

Modernization, Property Rights and the Russian Middle Class

Posted by democratist on June 20, 2010

20th June 2010

Last Friday (June 18th) President Medvedev used the annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum as a platform for the official launch of his much-anticipated reform programme, which has been designed to attract foreign investment as a basis for the modernization and diversification of the domestic economy.

As such the following reforms have been unveiled; capital gains tax is to be abolished for FDI from 2011; tax breaks will be introduced for innovative companies and educational institutions; the number of firms deemed “strategic” will be cut five-fold (to allow for greater foreign participation); a more relaxed visa policy will be introduced for foreign businesses; and finally assurances have been made that the legal basis needed to fight corruption will be strengthened.

While this is all fine liberal stuff – as far as it goes – those already familiar with this column will not be surprised to hear that Democratist remains profoundly sceptical about the long-term viability of Medvedev’s project. The dominant barrier Russia faces in attracting foreign investment is its extraordinary record on corruption; in 2009 it ranked at 146th (out of 180) in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – putting it on a par with Zimbabwe or Sierra Leone, and the idea that the current government is about to seriously tighten up the legal basis for combatting this problem is questionable, to say the very least.

As Sergey Mitrokhin, leader of the marginalized extraparliamentary liberal Yabloko Party recently noted his article Modernization or Stagnation? (June 15th – any measures taken under the current regime are likely to remain superficial and short-lived; firstly because a large part of the Russian elite is afraid of change because of the threat of losing property and income accumulated over the last 20 years, and more fundamentally because Russia has not yet managed to develop the kind of politically mature middle class needed to drive any modernization programme forward over the longer-term.

As Mitrokhin states; “The structure of property rights in Russia is reminiscent of an upside-down pyramid; the higher up one is on the social hierarchy, the more property, and the rights to guarantee it one has. The lower one is, the less one has of both…with such an upside-down pyramid, there is no niche for the development of a full-fledged middle class in the country, which in most of the transformed countries was the main social bearer of the modernization project… the elite must give the first impetus, but if this impetus does not have a strong social bearer, then modernization will prove to be “elite-oriented,” and will quickly die out.”

Posted in Historical Materialism, Russian Corruption, Russian Economy, Russian Middle Class, Russian Politics | Leave a Comment »