Thursday, June 18, 2009

Iran and Hungary

As events unfold in Iran, the analogies fly fast and furious. Some are obvious to a person of my generation. Is this like Eastern Europe, 1989, or like Tiananmen Square? Some older ones raise the obvious analogy of Iran, 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah. But another analogy rings true for me, one that took place before I was born, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

I mean this, not has some people have offered the analogy, as a warning for the US to stay out or a mandate for the US to get involved. To me, what is most significant about the comparison is what it says about the internal dynamics of revolution.

The revolution we are seeing underway in Iran was not, at least at the start, an attempt to overthrow the Islamic Republic, but merely a revolt on behalf of a reformist figure within the limits of the political system. Likewise, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 did not begin as an attempt to overthrow Communism, but as a revolt on behalf of a reformist Communist, Imre Nagy. But once revolution begins, once people take to the streets, the situation become very fluid. Expectations change rapidly. Events spin wildly out of control, and what seemed impossible yesterday seems inadequate today.

In Hungary, large-scale anti-government demonstrations broke out. The government responded, first with repression, and then with concessions, always too little, too late to placate the crowds. (A book I read recounting events described the government as constantly about 48 hours behind the public mood. 48 hours is a long time during a revolution). In the end, the dam broke, the whole Communist system was swept away, and Nagy was left with two choices -- try in vain, to hold back the waves, or be swept along with them. He chose the latter.

It is, of course, much too early to see the overall pattern of events in Iran, but certainly what began as a revolt on behalf of a reformist within the limits of the system is growing into something much larger. The government is combining repression with some limited (so far, very limited) concessions that the street indignantly rejects. Mousavi, though probably alarmed at the scope of events, is allowing them to sweep him along. He is what Nagy was, not leader, but a convenient symbol.

Of course, the analogy is imperfect. The Communist government of Hungary was an artificial creation, propped up and held in place entirely by a foreign power. The government of Iran stands on its own feet. Governments entirely dependent on a foreign power are uniquely weak and illegitimate, so much so that they lack legitimacy even in their own eyes -- and in the eyes of their own coercive forces. The government of Hungary fell, partly because it had so little legitimacy in its own eyes that it was not willing to use brute force to crush the revolt, and partly because the army was unwilling to do so, and the secret police were not match for the combined strength of the people and the army. Instead, it was that foreign power, the Soviet Union, that invaded and bloodily crushed the democratic revolution. In 1989, once the threat of Soviet intervention ceased, Communism in Hungary and across Eastern Europe (except Romania) fell without firing a shot in its own defense.

Such is not the case in Iran.* A government that knows no foreign power will protect it is far more likely to be willing to protect itself. At best, this will be no Velvet Revolution. Enough blood has already been shed to make that clear. At worst, it may end in tragedy, with a mass democratic revolt bloodily crushed. Here, too, the example of Hungary 1956 is telling. Stories like this do not always have a happy ending.

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*Disturbing thought. The Shah, too, fell in the end without a bloody showdown. Could that be because he, too, was too dependent on a foreign power (in this case, the US) to be willing or able to fight for his own power?

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