Michel Foucault: - The Mythical Leader of the Iranian Revolt
by Michel Foucault
Published in Corriere della Sera, November 26, 1978
Tehran – Iran's year-long period of unrest is coming to a head. On the watchface of politics, the hand has hardly moved. The semi-liberal September government was replaced in November by a half-military one. In fact, the whole country is engulfed by revolt: the cities, the countryside, the religious centres, the oil regions, the bazaars, the universities, the civil servants, and the intellectuals. The privileged rats are jumping ship. An entire century in Iran – one of economic development, foreign domination, modernization, and the dynasty, as well as its daily life and its moral system-- is being put into question.I cannot write the history of the future, and I am also rather clumsy at forecasting the past. However, I would like to try to grasp what is happening right now, because these days nothing is finished, and the dice is still being rolled. It is perhaps this that is the work of a journalist, but it is true that I am nothing but a neophyte.
Iran was never colonized. In the nineteenth century, the British and the Russians divided it into zones of influence, according to a pre-colonial model. The came oil, the two World Wars,and the Middle East conflict,and the great confrontation in Asia. At one stroke, Iran moved to a pre-colonial position within the orbit of the United States. In a long period of dependency without direct colonization, the country's social structures were not radically destroyed. These social structures were not completely overturned, even by the surge of oil revenue, which certainly enriched the privileged, favoured speculation, and permitted an over-provisioning of the army. The changes did not create social forces, however. The bourgeois of the Bazaar was weakened, and the village communities were shaken by the agrarian reform. However, both of the survived enough to suffer from the dependency and the changes that it brought, but also enough to resist the regime that was responsible for these changes as well.
This same situation had the opposite effect on the political movements. In the half-light of dependency, they too subsisted, but could not sustain themselves as real forces. This was due not only to repression, but also to their own choices. The Communist Party was tied to the USSR, was compromised by the occupation of Azerbaijan under Stalin, and was amphibious in its support of the 'bourgeois nationalism' of Mossadeq. With respect to the National Front, Heir of this same Mossadeq, it has been waiting for fifteen years, without making a move, for the moments of a liberalization that it did not believe to be possible without the permission of the Americans. During this time, some impatient cadres from the Communist Party were becoming technocrats for the regime. They were dreaming of an authoritarian government that would develop a nationalist politics. In short, the political parties had become victims of the 'dependent dictatorship' that was the shah's regime. In the name of realism, some played the card of the independence, others that of freedom.Because of, on the one hand, the absence of a colonizer-occupier and, on the other, the presence of a national army and a seizable police force, the political-military organizations, which elsewhere organized the struggle for decolonization and which, when the time came, found themselves in a position to negotiate independence and impose the departure of the colonial social phenomenon. This does not mean that the rejection is confused, emotional, or barely self-conscious. On the contrary, it spreads in an oddly effective manner, from the strikes to the demonstrations, from the bazaars to the universities, from the leaflets to the sermons, through shopkeepers, workers, clerics, teachers, and students. For the moment, however, no party, no man, and no political ideology can boast that it represents this movement. Nor can anyone claim to be at its head. This movement has no counterpart and no expression in the political order.
The paradox, however, is that it constitutes a perfectly unified collective will. It is surprising to see this immense country, with a population distributed around two large desert plateaus, a country able to afford the latest technical innovations alongside forms of life unchanged for the last thousand years, a country that yet languishing under censorship and the absence of public freedoms, and yet demonstrating an extraordinary unity in spite of all this. It is the same protest, it is the same will, that is expressed by the doctor from Tehran and a provincial mullah, by an oil worker, b a postal employee, and by a female student wearing the chador. This will includes something rather disconcerting. It is always based on the same thing, a sole and very precise thing, the departure of the shah. But for the Iranian people,this unique thing means everything. This political will years for the end of dependency, the disappearance of the police, the redistribution of oil revenue, an attack on corruption, the reactivation of Islam, another way of life and new relations with the West, with the Arab countries, with Asia, and so forth. Somewhat like the European students in the 1960s, the Iranians want it all, but this 'all' is not a 'liberation of desires.' This political will is one of breaking away from all that marks their country and their daily lives with the presence of global hegemonies. Iranians also view the political parties – liberal or socialist, with either a pro-American tendency or a Marxist inspiration – or, it is better to say, the pontifical scene itself, as still and always the agents of these hegemonies.
Hence, the role of this almost mythical figure, Khomeini. Today, no head of state, no political leader, even supported by the whole media of his country, can boast of being the object of such a personal and intense attachment. These ties are probably the result of three things. Khomeini is not there. For the last fifteen years, he has been living in exile and does not want to return until the shah has left. Khomeini says nothing, nothing other than no – to the shah, to the regime, to dependency. Finally, Khomeini is not a politician. There will not be a Khomeini party; there will not be a Khomeini government. Khomeini is the focal point of a collective will. What is the unwavering intransigence seeking? Is it the end of a form of dependency where, behind the Americans, an international consensus and a certain 'state of the world' can be recognized? Is it the end of a dependency of which the dictatorship is the direct instrument, but for which the political manoeuvres could well be the indirect means? It is not only a spontaneous uprising that lacks political organization, but also movement that wants to disengage itself from both external domination and internal politics.
After I left Iran, the question that I was constantly asked was, of course, 'Is this revolution?' (This is the price at which, in France, an entire sector of public opinion becomes interested in that which is 'not about us.') I did not answer, but I wanted to say that it is not a revolution, not in the literal sense of the term, not a way of standing up and straightening things out. It is the insurrection of men with bare hands who want to lift the fearful weight, the weight of the entire world order that bears down on each of us, but more specifically on them, these oil workers and peasants at the frontiers of empires. It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane.
One can understand the difficulties facing the politicians. They outline solutions, which are easier to find than people say. They range from a pure and simple military regime to a constitutional transformation that would lead from a regency to a republic. All of them are based on the elimination of the shah. What is it that the people want? Do they really want nothing more? Everybody is quite aware that they want something completely different. This is why the politicians hesitate to offer them simply that, which is why the situation is at an impasse. Indeed, what place can be given, within the calculations of politics, to such a movement, to a movement through which blows the breath of a religion that speaks less of the hereafter than of the transfiguartion of this world?