fisking miller and rachman’s revolutionary check-list

green revolutionThe Economist’s Andrew Miller, a.k.a. Bagehot, has engaged Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times in a backandforth about the building blocks of revolution.  They list criteria that would, if met, point toward revolution in Iran and they conclude that most of these antecedents are present in Iran today, suggesting that revolution is possibly at hand.

Partly because I made such a point of it earlier, but also because I think it is potentially useful both to interested observers and to academics interested in social movements and social revolutions, I decided engage in a friendly academic fisking of their observations.  Bottom line: I end up being a bit less optimistic than they are.  Their points are listed in bold.  My reading of the literature and of how the situation in Iran measures up follows each.

  • Critical mass: 5,000-10,000 people can be beaten up or arrested; 500,000 can’t be.  Opposition leaders need to get big numbers out on the streets, and then keep them there, using interim goals and incentives to maintain interest and morale.

That there is power in numbers is not controversial.  But Miller’s claim that “interim goals and incentives… maintain interest and morale” is.  Hirsch described a bandwagon effect in which early movement success generates a perception that victory is possible which leads to even greater levels of mobilization.  Kurzman’s analysis of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 built on this to conclude that mass protest grew over time, not in response to what was perceived to be the weakness of the Shah’s regime, but rather out of a growing feeling that the opposition was gaining strength.  This is part-in-parcel of Tarrow’s notion of a cycle of protest.

The question is whether this kind of self-reinforcing dynamic is going to take hold in Iran.  Clearly, this is the most critical and precarious problem the opposition faces at the moment.  If the movement is to proceed, it will need a victory to claim ownership of to compel people once again to take to the streets or drive them toward another kind of mass protest such as a general strike.

There is an alternative reading on the question of mobilization which holds that participation is driven — not by incentives — but rather by acquiring an insurgent revolutionary identity which emerges in the course of the movement.  Clearly, the identification of opposition protesters has shifted over time: from Moussavi partisans, to defenders of democracy and perhaps — with the martyrdom of Neda — to a more radicalized opposition.  One element of this literature, though, highlights the importance of leaders in articulating a common revolutionary identity.  So far, I have not seen that coming from Moussavi.  Bagehot mentions that it isn’t necessary to have a charismatic leader citing the lackluster Viktor Yushchenko’s triumph in Ukraine.  But in that case, mounting protests fueled the movement.  The crowds grew as the possibility of victory came nearer.  In this case, the brutality of the regime’s crackdown is forcing Moussavi to position himself as a charismatic leader.

  • Opposition leaders who have served a stint in government.

This assertion is fairly novel as far as the literature is concerned.  There are a number of counter-examples of revolutions led by outsiders (Castro in Cuba, Khomeini in Iran, and Aquino in the Philippines come to mind).  But the claim is that the current situation in Iran bears closest resemblance to the wave of democracy-oriented “colour revolutions” that took place in Central and Europe and, indeed, in each the opposition was led by a former high government official:

  1. Serbia (2000): Vojislav Koštunica had served as President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, before becoming the main opposition candidate to Slobodan Milošević
  2. Georgia (2003): Mikheil Saakashvili had risen to the position of Minister of Justice before joining the opposition to Eduard Shevardnadze.
  3. Ukraine (2004): Viktor Yushchenko had been Prime Minster of the Ukraine before opposing Viktor Yanukovych.
  4. Kyrgyzstan (2005): the movement didn’t have strong leadership but eventually coalesced around two former Prime Minsters: Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Roza Otunbaeva.

I’d be interested in thoughts about what causal mechanisms might suggest that having an insider as leader of the movement would lead to success.  However, the regularity of this pattern has led to at least one counter-argument.  Henry Hale argues that the colour revolutions weren’t revolutions, per se, but simply succession battles which turned to the street.  This is a plausible interpretation of what’s happening in Iran as well with the story being that the public battle between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi is really a proxy for the behind the scenes battle between Rafasanjani and Khamenei.  Hale’s assertion is that this is a result of the particular set of institutions that took hold in the region which he refers to as “patronal presidentialism”.  These countries essentially vacillate between tight political control and brief periods of openness.  The point being that, once the political process calms down, the rules of the game remain in place, only the personalities are different.  Its not clear how Iran would fit into this analysis; its politics and political system seem more mature and more complicated.  But it nevertheless points toward a worry that the flowering of democratic zeal could easily give way — not to democracy — but simply to the installation of an equally closed regime.

  • Independent media.

Asked whether Radio Free Europe and Voice of America helped in the rise of Solidarity in Poland, Lech Walesa replied “Ladies and gentlemen, the degree cannot even be described.  Would there be earth without sun?”  Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia told the VOA staff in Washington, DC “You have informed us truthfully of events around the world and in our country as well and in this way, you helped to bring about the peaceful revolution which has at long last taken place.”  (Quoted in Curzon, note 15)

Unfortunately, neither Walesa nor Havel (nor Miller nor Rachman for that matter) points toward a causal mechanism here. The research suggests a few.  The first has to do with escalation of protest: news media reports on movement activities can spur follow on protests in other cities which helps a movement go quickly to scale.  A second is that reports on corruption or an overbearing use of force can help to radicalize participants who might otherwise be bystanders, but only to the degree that the media are seen as being neutral or even perhaps previously identified with the establishment (see the point on violence below).  A third — which I think is what Walesa and Havel seem to have meant — is that knowing that the rest of the world is behind their efforts can sustain the morale of potential adherents.

The Iranian government’s blanket crackdown on domestic and foreign media would suggest that Iran doesn’t meet this criteria.  Yet, it’s also clear that certain foreign media outlets—including CNN, the BBC and al Jezeera—are reaching the Iranian population.  Then, of course there is the question of whether social networking and new media outlets are playing a significant role.  Brayden made the point earlier that new media may have been more important to mobilizing observers in other countries than in necessarily mobilizing Iranians.  But its important to point out that those new media also bring news of support from outside the country back, potentially providing moral support to the opposition.

  • Strong support in the capital city.

The intersection of urban politics and revolution is a long standing theme in the literature on revolutions and social movements.  Urban protests by workers and students shaped a number of revolutions including the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Nicaraguan Revolution, the Philippines Revolution, the Tienanmen revolts in China and the Colour Revolutions.  The role of capital cities is particularly important in movements built on mass mobilization (rather than a drawn out insurgency) which seems to fit the bill in Iran.

Reports are sketchy on the degree to which the current movement has gained traction outside of Tehran.  And within Tehran, most of the protests seem to be focused in the northern – more affluent – part of the city.  This clearly was important in mobilizing the huge rallies which happened last week.  I’d say this one gets a “check”, for now.  But if — as seems likely — the movement is forced to shift from mass protest to a more protracted insurgency, organization and support outside of Tehran will be more necessary.

  • External help.

Rachman points toward the importance of external help.  However, the research is decidedly mixed on this question.  There are examples where intervention helped to pushed revolutions over the top.  For example, the United States’ withdrawal of support for Marcos and its eventual tacit support for the opposition played a significant role in Philippine Revolution.  But my reading is that this ain’t one of those situations.  Intervention by the United States probably radicalized revolutions in Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Iran and Russia circa 1918. Those have all turned out just great for us. Color (er, colour?) me skeptical on this one.

  • Serious corruption, particularly a rigged election, provides a spark for the revolt.

Margaret Levi showed that states that violate of norms of fairness can spur a “withdrawal of compliance” — particularly among elites — and that this can fatally undermine governments’ legitimacy.  Revolutions ranging from the Philippines to Chile to the Colour Revolutions bring home the point.

The question is: why?

One leading theory has to do with relative deprivation. It is a paradoxical truism that revolutions are more likely to emerge where people’s circumstances are improving.  One possible explanation is that improving economic conditions allow the opposition to mobilize new resources.  But the relative deprivation alternative hypothesis is that improving conditions raise expectations at a faster pace than can actually be delivered by the regime in place.  Revolutions result where the regimes could not satisfy the expectations of the hopeful population.

The parallels to the situation in Iran on this score are apparent.   The oil boom generated expectations of economic prosperity which were not delivered by the Ahmadinejad administration while the unusual openness of the Presidential campaign may have raised expectations that something close to real democracy might be at hand.  It is plausible that the expectations were so high that they radicalized not only the electorate, but Moussavi himself.

  • The use of violence by the authorities can either make or break a revolution.

Rachman hedges this one without offering much insight into what tips the role violence plays one way or the other.  In this respect, he’s perfectly consistent with the literature.  As Jack Goldstone puts it:

Acts of state repression against protesters may be seen as necessary peacekeeping or conversely as unjustified repression; kidnappings, arson, and bombings may be painted as reprehensible and cowardly terrorist acts or as patriotic measures for liberation of the oppressed. Which interpretation prevails depends on the ability of states and revolutionary leaders to manipulate perceptions by relating their actions and current conditions to existing cultural frameworks and to carefully constructed ideologies.

The literature offers a few ideas:

  1. Timing: cracking down early in a revolution can have a chilling effect and can stem the process of insurgent identity formation.  Cracking down late—once insurgent identities have already taken root—can help to solidify identities and draw audience members from the sidelines.
  2. High profile targets: violence against a group perceived to be well out of the mainstream or which is seen as extreme in its views or tactics is typically tolerated.  Violence which is seen as unjust or against high profile targets who enjoy a large popular following can have a radicalizing effect.
  3. As implied in Goldstone’s comment, the skill with which partisans on either side link the violence to the felt narratives of observers.

It is unclear how the authorities’ use of force in snuffing street protests has been interpreted inside Iran.  Beyond that, the two most important acts of violence which could make or break the revolution are the alleged bombing of the Imam Khomeini mausoleum and the killing of Neda Soltan.  Both the opposition and the  government are actively trying to shape the interpretation of these two events.  Neda certainly seems like it has the potential to radicalize, but its unclear at this point whether the government’s efforts to neutralize her story will succeed.  I don’t think we have enough data on this one to offer a conclusion on whether violence is working in favor of the government or of the opposition.

  • A history of rebellion from which lessons can be learned.

Research supports this assertion.  Foran argued that revolutions must draw on a “culture of rebellion” from a history of prior conflicts.  The Sandinista revolt in Nicaragua, for instance, drew on the story of Sandino’s fight against US domination of Nicaragua at the beginning of the century. Similarly, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico identified with Zapata, the leader of the Mexican Revolution of 1910.  Iran experienced two serious revolutionary moments within living memory before the current crisis: the U.S. backed overthrow of the Mossaddeq government in 1953 and, of course, the successful Iranian Revolution of 1979.  I’d say this one holds.

  • Weak or divided security services and divided ruling elite.

This claim forms the core of what is referred to in the literature as the “state-centered” approach.  Skocpol’s argument, the most famous in this vein, was that revolutions are the result of a conjuncture of (1) state organizations susceptible to administrative and military collapse when subjected to intensified pressures and (2) sociopolitical (mobilizing) structures that facilitated widespread revolts.

The allegiances of the security services don’t seem to be much in question, so I would cast my lot with Rachman on this one.  There are numerous reports on the battle between Rafsanjani and Khamenei.  What isn’t entirely clear (to me at least) is whether these are rooted in a conflict of personal ambition or of ideology.  A split that emerges from differences in ideology can be particularly important if it undermines the willingness of certain factions of the government to put down a revolution from below.  A decay of belief in the divine right of kings, for instance, contributed to the fall of the ancien régime in France and similar forces were at play in the fall, first of the Soviet Union and then subsequently of its client states.  News trickling out about the power-battle among the clerics happening behind the scenes is sketchy at best, if intriguing and in some ways encouraging.

  • A sense of revolutionary momentum from events overseas; Europe in 1989 and 1848 show that revolution can be catching.

As I mentioned at the top, the notion of protest cycles is central in the resource mobilization literature social movements.  I’ve sort of run out of steam here to get into it in detail, but it seems like a relatively easy point: adopting the name “green revolution” implies the potential at least that Iranians see their movement as related somehow to the pro-democracy “colour revolutions”.  There has been some discussion too that tactics may have spread from those revolutions to this one, particularly when it comes to the fact that Twitter played an important role in the Ukraine as it seems to be in Iran as well.  Finally, its perhaps worth noting the proximity of the Iranian situation to the anniversary of Tienanmen Square.  I have no evidence, but one has to wonder if the anniversary got any attention in Iran and whether this might have inspired people to action in any way.


Going through the list, I’d say that Miller and Rachman are a little ahead of themselves in claiming that all of the pieces are set for revolution.  Their observations on the makings of revolution are mostly supported in the literature.  But my arm-chair quarterbacking of the evidence that those conditions actually exist sheds a little more doubt.  The most problematic thing right now is what will sustain the protest movement.  The lack of some kind of a victory over which the opposition could claim credit and the apparent success the regime has had in blunting the mass protests since Saturday is clearly worrying.

Moreover, the relative isolation of the Iranian regime means that it lacks the kinds of external ties and resource dependencies that, for instance, the Philippines had to the US in the 1980s in which the U.S.’s decision to switch sides was both a major victory the opposition could claim and a major blow to the resources of the Marcos regime.  External moral support is important, but it will not carry the day and the degree to which Iran is already in the dog house due to its nuclear weapons stance means that other governments have very little diplomatic leverage.

The Guardian Council’s announcement that 3 million votes were cast incorrectly seems to outsiders like an admission of culpability, but it’s not clear that that interpretation holds inside Iran.  In the absence of some kind of short-term victory, the opposition would need to articulate some kind of a unifying identity—most likely by embracing a strong ideology.  But to this point, the opposition has largely embraced the ideology of the revolution.  The claim has been to return to the revolutions democratic aspirations.

At the same time, Khamenei’s decision to take a hard line may have come a few days too late to blunt the movement from gaining a toe hold.  But it may have come early enough to keep massive numbers of people — currently on the sidelines — from shifting into the opposition.  They have been scrupulous in their attempts to spin the killing of Neda, an event which has the potential to be radicalizing.   So, all in all, it looks like the regime has read the play book on revolutions and is taking the kinds of actions that could ensure its survival in the short run.

As for the unity of the state, this is where it seems no one has a strong handle on this question.  But one thing a reading of the literature would seem to make clear is  the central role that Rafsanjani plays at this juncture: if the crisis really boils down simply to a power battle between Rafsanjani and Kahmeni, rather than a struggle over the democratic ideals, it could easily unravel.  Even if it didn’t fall apart, it is not clear that the Iran that would emerge from this crisis would be any more democratic than it was before the crisis.

It also gets to a central set of questions in orgTheory right now.  The organizational take on social movements is that they have been… well… organized.  But this movement, like a few other recent revolutions, seems to have emerged relatively spontaneously.  Networks and identity formation processes are emerging in real time before our eyes (which, remarkably, we can watch in real time through Facebook and Twitter).  If it had sustained itself through the weekend, this might have been enough to force a political confrontation; no formal organization needed.  At this point, it doesn’t look like that’s happening (though I could easily be reversed by events on that).  But if the street protests don’t re-emerge (or something similarly dramatic like a widespread general strike), then this identity-and-networks-based revolution will have to give way to an insurgent movement built around organizations.  Fascinating stuff for any organizations scholar.  Harrowing stuff for lovers of democracy.  Stay tuned.

Written by seansafford

June 24, 2009 at 2:24 am

11 Responses

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  1. […] about Mexico Violence as of June 23, 2009 Tuesday, June 23, 2009 fisking miller and rachman’s revolutionary check-list – 06/24/2009 Andrew Miller, of Bagehot Blog at the Economist engaged […]


  2. […] know he’s your bog-standard liberal). UPDATE: Also related, Sean Safford of OrgTheory gives a friendly fisking of Gideon Rachman and Andrew Miller’s revolutionary checklist applied to […]


  3. Robin Wright wrote over the weekend about parallels to the 1979 revolution:,8599,1906049,00.html

    She talks about the importance of martyrdom and the fact that Sunni practice calls for remembering the dead at specific intervals (i.e., 3 days, 7 days, 40 days, etc.). These practices may provide an underlying rhythm around which the nascent movement can structure itself and might require an add’l bullet point in your list.


    David K

    June 24, 2009 at 5:21 am

  4. […] post examining the debate on whether Iran is headed for revolution gets my vote for post of the year in both orgtheory and foreign affairs: It also gets to a central set of questions in orgTheory […]


  5. Thanks for this.



    June 24, 2009 at 12:03 pm

  6. […] chastening – to have journalistic musings subjected to academic examination. Sean Safford has performed this service, by taking a look at the Miller-Rachman list of revolutionary pointers. He thinks we are both too […]


  7. Are you trying to write my comp for me?


    R. Pointer

    June 24, 2009 at 10:52 pm

  8. long live independent media..



    June 25, 2009 at 10:15 am

  9. Just to add a point to an already long post; the point at the end about the tension between an identity/network based social movement and one built on social movement organizations. This one, clearly, started mainly as an identity and network based movement. But this really only works with the opposition is equally disorganized (or disorganized is probably too strong a word–lacking organizational coherence?). The protesters are full of ideals. But they have lacked the ability to communication, coordination and control; the hallmarks of any organization.

    This video is both inspirational (for the spirit and courage of the protesters) and an indication of what I mean (for the lack of a coherent plan of attack and execution).


    Sean Safford

    June 25, 2009 at 9:31 pm

  10. Gideon Rachman posted a link to this post and it elicited this interesting comment from one of his readers:

    14. Opposition leaders who have served a stint in government.

    The above applies to Iran because anybody who is outside the system has been successfuly eliminated, banished or marginalised. Over the past 30 years, the leftists, nationalists, monarchists and supporters of the terrorist lunatics (MKO) have been very harshly dealt with.

    Moreover, the legal requirement for the candidates to be approved by the Guardian Council has allowed a further winnowing of the candidtates to eliminate all of those who may take an independent line from the conservative establishment.

    Khatami was allowed to run as he was considered a no-hoper (he was the head of the national library at that time and before that, he was a rather ineffective minister of Islamic guidance). Mousavi has impeccable conservative credentials but is a fairly morose and gruff character who was out of the limelight for 20 years and, at least at the time that he declared his candidacy, largely unknown to the majority of population who are under 30 years old. Hence, it was not thought that he would make any impact.

    Interestingly, even with such limited choice, Iranians opted. in both cases, for the candidate that was less attached to the establishment and in the latest case, the regime decided to stuff the ballot boxes (whether or not it was decisive, it surely took place as confirmed by the Council of Guardians in the case of at least 50 voting centres, out of a total of about 370). .

    This in itself is a major commentary on the true feelings of the citizens about the regime in Iran and the desire for change.

    I have not heard previously that Mousavi was head of the library, but in some ways this makes sense. What I have not quite understood about the whole thing is why the government would have gone through the charade of having such an open election in the first place. Apparently Khamenei has been obsessed with avoiding an Iranian pro-democracy “colour” revolution for some time. But the play book on those revolutions is well known: they all began with a fairly open political process which then was rigged.

    This NPR story suggests that the clerics were quite open about handing the election to Ahmadinejad.

    But if so, why even take the chance of raising expectations only to have to put them down. Very basic reading of relative deprivation theory suggests this is a very very bad idea. Seems like extreme incompetence.

    Rachman’s reader suggests an answer: they never expected Mousavi to have been capable of leading a movement. And, his uneven (and I would say lackluster) performance in the aftermath shows them to have been partially correct. I suppose it means they underestimated the degree of grievance among the population. Mousavi’s candidacy was not about Mousavi; it was a mobilizing vehicle for a restless population.


    Sean Safford

    June 26, 2009 at 3:28 pm

  11. […] first is my post “Fisking” Andrew Miller and Gideon Rachman’s dialogue on the factors that lead […]


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