Who can speak about Iranian society without speaking for it? How can one engage in critical reflection on the Iranian revolution at forty, without claiming the right to force Iranians’ will into crystallized categories and fallacious lines of reasoning? The meaning of the Iranian Revolution and its legacies for society are too complex to be tackled by a single definition. Therefore, it is worth bearing in mind two aspects. First, the events that led to the success of the 1979 revolution revealed a wide ideological and social base. Second, although at the beginning of street protests and labor strikes in 1978, the main grievances were economic, a few months later the demands became clearly political. Through a process of solidarity building, a polyphony of voices within the revolutionary body (students, intellectuals, clergy, merchants, employees, workers) began to chant slogans with a single goal: removing the Shah.
Although often referred to as merely Islamic, the 1979 revolution was primarily Iranian. In society’s revolt against the state, a plethora of ideas was represented. The religious element took to the streets along with the purely Marxist tendencies of several groups, as well as Islamic-Marxists and others who were not strictly bound to any of these ideological frameworks. It was a mass revolution against an arbitrary system that actually lacked political and social legitimacy towards the end. The revolution happened in the name of the downtrodden, the oppressed. It was strongly driven by a class-antithesis sentiment between the lower and upper classes (tabaqeh-e payin and tabaqeh-e bala), oppressed and oppressors (mostaz’afin and mostakberin), poor and rich (foqara and sarvatmandan).
Forty years after the proclaimed “victory,” the class discourse is still paramount. Nevertheless, over the past decades a stronger middle class has gradually cast a shadow over the downtrodden. The rift between classes has actually widened, as the difficulties in differentiating the economy persist. In fact, starting from the nineties, when the dowlat-e sazandegi (literally “Construction government”) had to bear the burden of reconstructing the economy after eight years of war with Iraq, the Islamic Republic shifted its focus from the masses of mostaz’afin to the middle classes.
After years of implementing new liberal measures aimed at raising productivity, the top-down rhetoric somehow customized the dictum “produce and consume”. This process went along with the ceaseless quarrel among the diverse factions within the state apparatus. It also generated a political and social fragmentation within society itself, as well as harsh contrasts between some groups of society and the state, due to economic problems, lack of representation and freedom.
Yet, this does not mean that these interactions can be simply ascribed within a dichotomous pattern of state versus society. On the one hand, both the state and Iranian society have profoundly evolved, as new protagonists emerged in the social sphere. On the other, the modes of mobilization, for instance regarding the recent protests of women, workers or the impoverished middle class, shed light on some crucial ruptures and transformations that are now occurring. Therefore, while looking at the legacies of the 1979 upheaval for society, it is crucial to analyze contemporary dynamics in terms of the erosion of the social system established in the aftermath of the revolution. In fact, this process has made room for the new political subjectivities that have emerged, such as the 90s generation that has no experience of the Islamic Republic’s foundation, nor of the war, and the 2009 Green movement.
Accordingly, a crucial question – rather than reproducing the idea that Iranians are incapable of reforming their system from within - is how to frame and assess the new trajectories of resistance and pressures for reforms, which are coming from several sources within the social and political body.
Going back to the 1979 revolution, as the historian Ervand Abrahamian noted, if “the traditional middle class” (merchants and clergy men) “provided the opposition with a nationwide organization, it was the modern middle class that sparked off the revolution, fuelled it, and struck the final blows”, and “the urban working class” constituted “its chief battering ram.”
Given the experience of 1979 and its consequences in political and social terms, how has Iran transformed since then? What does class mean today? While tackling the connections and disconnections within Iranian society that made the revolution possible and the contemporary ones, the analytical debate can surely benefit from three reflections. First, it is worth going beyond the dominant discourse that considers middle classes as the only legitimate actors for driving change. Second, instead of fostering a view that opposes a “vibrant” society to a “backward” state, it is useful to understand how Iranians are now confronting and changing this dichotomy in terms of relations with the state. Third, as 1979 already taught us, the revolution was clearly framed on a class basis. Tackling this point can be an opportunity for reframing Iranian politics and better understanding internal dynamics.