Solidarity Forever

by Scott McLemee on February 12, 2007

Responding to my interview with Danny Postel about Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, Lindsay Waters writes in an email note (quoted here by permission):

The situation he talks about is same one I know from talking to people about Rawls in US/UK versus the Maghreb and China. For my friends in West, Rawls is as evil as Bush. I don’t buy it, because I have talked to people who live under totally unliberal regimes.

(Yeah, well, never underestimate the lingering appeal in some quarters of the doctrine of social fascism, which led to such exciting results in 1933.)

Not a disinterested comment, maybe: Waters isn’t a Rawlsian, but he is an editor at Harvard University Press, which is bringing out Rawls’s Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy next month. He mentions that he thinks the book will do well internationally—“especially in China, for example” (in part because of the chapters on Marx’s critique of liberalism).

Duly noted. But now I want to turn the conversation back around to where it started. The single most interesting section of Postel’s booklet is the long interview with Ramin Jahanbegloo about the extradordinary audience for philosophy and social criticism in Iran. (The exchange is available here.) The journals publishing critical work there are in a precarious situation, of course, especially now, and Jahanbegloo himself spent part of last year in prison.

So how about if Harvard University Press—or some other institution with comparable visibility, clout, and depth of pockets—puts some resources into creating a website to feature translations of work by oppositional intellectuals from Iran?

Such a project can be justified on a number of fronts. For one, there is the value, at this point, of any gesture of solidarity; morale means something. That’s why such an effort really ought to happen sooner than later. But most of the benefit might come over the long term—simply from making contemporary Iranian thought more available to people who don’t read Persian (most of us, of course).

For what it’s worth, I notice that C. Wright Mills endorses the idea. Very far-sighted of him, what with being dead for about 45 years now. The passage appears in some notes for an unfinished work he was going to call The New Left:

We must become fully comparative on a world-wide scale….We must do so with all the technical resources at our command, and we must do some from viewpoints that are genuinely detached from any nationalist enclosure of mind or nationalist celebration. We must become internationalist again. For us, today, that means that we, personally, must refuse to fight the cold war. That we, personally, must attempt to get in touch with our opposite numbers in all countries….With them we should make our own separate piece. Then, as intellectuals, and as public men [sigh: it was 1962 remember], we should act and work as if this peace—and the exchange of values, ideas, and programs of which it consists—is everybody’s peace, or surely ought to be.

No doubt they read C. Wright Mills in Tehran, too, along with John Stuart Mill. They are probably wondering if we’ll take him seriously about this.



Chris Bertram 02.12.07 at 6:29 pm

_Rawls is as evil as Bush_


Lindsay Waters must have some odd friends.


abb1 02.12.07 at 7:03 pm

Is Iran not a democratic state with political system very close to the US’; a bit more powerful Supreme Court and Koran serving as a constitution? And if it is indeed a political system very similar to the US, then what do these pro-American intellectuals want? To replace Allah with Golden Calf? Big deal.


mcd 02.12.07 at 7:21 pm

Discussions of the future of liberalism are largely meaningless, as “liberalism” has acquired three meanings, at least in the US:

Support of a New Deal/ Great Society welfare state.

A curse word, signifying incest, satanism and communism rolled into one.

A codeword for globalization, and the dismantling of the New Deal/ Great Society welfare state.


theogon 02.12.07 at 7:47 pm

Well, “a bit more powerful Supreme Court” is a bit of an understatement; the Ayatollahs control all the important, say, foreign policy decisions.

(Thank God, at the moment, since Khamenei’s a cooler head than Ahmadinnejad.)

The best analogy I can think of would be England during the Whig/Tory period.


abb1 02.12.07 at 8:05 pm

…the Ayatollahs control all the important, say, foreign policy decisions.

Doesn’t really matter; same three branches of government (assembly of experts is analogous to the US Senate), a whole bunch of checks and balances all over the place, and – unlike the US SC judges – no mortal gets appointed for life to a position of huge power.

If you like US political system, you have to love this one.

Also, the US Constitution is just as sacred as Koran and rarely amended. Sure, it’s a bit more modern, but if you’re a conservative (as most people are), you really have no reason to complain.


Matt 02.12.07 at 8:24 pm

Of course only a fool thinks the _practical_ difference of living in the US or Iran are not quite strong. (I’ll leave it to others to say how that applies to abb1) Why these differences come about is of course complex, but then again only a fool thinks even small differences in institutional design can’t have large results, and only a fool would think that the majority of people here think the US system couldn’t be a lot better.


abb1 02.12.07 at 8:40 pm

Right. So, then, why would a non-fool want to get involved in correcting (alleged) small bugs in institutional design in unfamiliar culture half-way around the world that is being currently under a realistic threat of a massive (possibly nuclear) attack?

This fool would rather leave this task to local vanguard intelligentsia, at least for the time being.


Tracy W 02.12.07 at 9:21 pm

Abb1 – when has the Koran been amended by a democratic vote since it was first written?

And, if I want to go about amending the Koran the Iranian government uses to rule, how do I do this? Who do I need to persuade? What votes are necessary?


novakant 02.12.07 at 9:27 pm

hmm, I used to make these sort of silly arguments when I was 15 trying to infuriate my grandma


Laleh 02.12.07 at 9:41 pm

as someone who grew up in revolutionary Iran and whose family had been dissidents and political prisoners both before and after the revolution – and as someone who considers herself on the left – i find several things in the discussion problematic (admittedly, i have not yet read Postel, so i can’t comment on that):

a) first, the assumption that the courageous liberal dissidents of iran (and they *are* immensely courageous) represent the whole of the population of iran. they don’t. and frankly i don’t claim to know what the great majority of the population of iran wants either. no one does. most researchers don’t leave tehran (and esp. the confines of posh, westernised, liberal northern tehran). there are no ethnographies of the provinces, no ability to conduct large scale opinion surveys and little sense of the politics of the provincial cities and towns.

researchers often pay little attention to the demands of the millions of iranians who may not care for liberalism, and who voted for ahmadinejad not because they anticipated his (horrendous) foreign policy positions, but rather because of his economic populism. the people who care about the economic situation have an agenda of reform which doesn’t always (or ever) track closely with the liberal political project of brave and intelligent dissidents such as ebadi or jahanbegloo.

b) the question of solidarity and support is left unproblematised. whom am i to support? how am i to support them? whom among the dissidents are worthy of supporting? are the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) to be supported because they are dissidents and because they suffered atrociously and far more curelly than any other group? but the MEK -after being violently ousted from Iran- acted as henchmen for Saddam Hussein and are now willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder (US) to guarantee their return to power in Iran.

are people like Ebadi and Jahanbegloo to be supported? in what form? how do we support them? how do we deal with the dilemma of the necessity for supporting reforms to women’s rights in iran, at the very exact time when women’s rights has been used as the thin end of a wedge for imperial expansion policies (a familiar strategy as far back as the 18th century and maybe before then)?

what does international solidarity entail? these questions are left unanswered. i would like to see a more concrete discussion of options, rather than a (what is fast becoming vacuous) discussion of whether the Euro-American Left is progressive or not, or whether the left has given in to fascism(s of various sort) or not.


abb1 02.12.07 at 10:13 pm

What’s so silly about it, novakant? Tell me.

Tracy, obviously Koran, being a literal message of God, can’t be changed. But that’s a red herring, because it can always be re-interpreted and this is how the US system operates in overwhelming majority of cases as well. The last significant amendment to the US constitution was ratified what – around 1920? Iranian republic was only created in 1979, give ’em a friggin chance.


Bill Gardner 02.12.07 at 10:39 pm

“Rawls is as evil as Bush”

Yes, please, for the outsiders in the audience, wtf is that about?


engels 02.12.07 at 11:36 pm

Who is supposed to have said that Rawls is as evil as Bush?


Tracy W 02.13.07 at 4:07 am

So Abb1, if I was an Iranian and wanted to go about amending the Koran used to interpret Iranian law, how would I do it?

Incidentally, the US constitution was last amended in 1992 (a clause about the compensation for the services of senators and representatives).

The amendment before that was in 1971 and established that eighteen year olds had the right to vote. This strikes me as a reasonably significant amendment, as does the 24th Amendment in 1964 establishing that a poll tax is not required to vote (this was being used by some states to stop poor black and white people from voting). Please note that both of these dates are after 1920.


Matt 02.13.07 at 4:35 am

Tracy- you are assuming that abb1 is engaged in something like a good-faith argument despite being not really knowing what he’s talking about. Saddly enough he’s shown over and over that that’s not the case- his role around here is rather to prevent interesting discussion, to annoy, and so on. It’s not worth trying to engage him.


Jim Johnson 02.13.07 at 4:51 am

Scott, I am unsure how your inital post unleashed this torrent of non-sensical replies, but your suggestion is a very good one … One sort of model might be Words Without Borders which is a web site that is doing translations of literature (They published an anthology last year called Literature from the Axis of Evil)… Unfortunately, at this juncture I think it is more likely that Bush and company are planning to start lobbing missiles into Tehran (see the Guardian reports this past weekend).


Tracy W 02.13.07 at 5:16 am

Matt – I don’t expect to change Abb1’s mind. Actually I’m arguing for the sake of anyone else reading these comments who thinks that Abb1 may have a point.


abb1 02.13.07 at 7:25 am

Tracy, you’re making too much of the literal text of the law; in fact it means nothing or next to nothing, it’s all in practice. Of course we can have an equivalent of poll tax. People get arrested for reading Declaration of Independence in the US Capitol; enough said.

Koran is even easier to interpret any way you want: it’s a document in Arabic in a country where people don’t speak Arabic. At any given time it only means whatever the group of wise men says it means.


magistra 02.13.07 at 7:34 am

I not sure a US publishing house would be allowed to publish work by Iranians. Aren’t there US laws forbidding such things as ‘trading with the enemy’? There have certainly been cases such as this reported. I don’t know if there are get-out clauses on this legislation – can anyone who knows more about the regulations explain?


abb1 02.13.07 at 8:19 am

#6 Of course only a fool thinks the practical difference of living in the US or Iran are not quite strong.

Come to think of it, one strong practical difference appears to be that in Iran progressive intelligentsia and students go to jail while in the US it’s mostly the inner city folk (in much greater numbers). Sure, it’s a difference and obviously smart educated people (like Matt upthread) strongly identify with the former group and probably don’t care that much about the latter. Fair enough.


Daniel 02.13.07 at 1:38 pm

from Scott’s interview, with something of a “what have the Romans?” feel …

assembling a book of conversations he’s conducting with the likes of Habermas, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor, Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen, Robert Bellah, and Nancy Fraser, among others.

… but apart from them, what has the American left ever done for us?


Matt 02.13.07 at 3:36 pm

I really, really ought not feed the trolls here, but this is just too good of an example of abb1’s method of discussion- he just makes something up with no justification at all. Really, it doesn’t matter what he’s talking about or the subject, you can know fully well that this is what he’ll do- just make crap up.


abb1 02.13.07 at 4:07 pm

What did I make up, Matt? You pointed out to the practical difference of living in the US and Iran, I thought about it for a while and decided to expand on your one-liner.

In Iran a liberal intellectual is likely to spend time in jail, incarceration rate: 194 per 100K. In the US a member of the underclass is likely to spend time in jail, incarceration rate: 714 per 100K.

Thus, if you are a liberal intellectual, you would definitely prefer the US version of democracy, if you’re a member of the underclass – not necessarily.

What exactly do you find so annoying here, and how does it warrant a string of insults? Are you well?


roger 02.13.07 at 5:59 pm

It is a splendid idea to use non-state means in the way that Scott suggests. This is why detente between the U.S. and Iran should be pressed by human rights advocates. The structure of government in Iraq has democratic possibilities even if the government in Iraq is oppressive. Only after detente will there be leverage inside Iran, leverage from extra-state forces, that could really help to make Iran more democratic – and perhaps, going in the other direction, make the U.S. more democratic too. Although I don’t know whether international pressure will ever get the Americans to give up that Electoral college, which is, of course, a thin figleaf for America’s perennial racism.

Oddly, although the U.S. government’s sponsored state in Iraq is a thorough theocracy, an Islamic Republic relying, openly, on the advice of Ayatollah Sistani to pass laws, nobody pundit- speaks about the Mullahs of Najaf. Perhaps after Iranian intellectuals get a course of Rawls, Iraqi intellectuals could receive the same treatment.

The problem with that, though, is that Iraqi intellectuals are most likely to be found outside Iraq. Iranian intellectuals face house arrest and prison – Iraqi ones face kidnapping and the dentist’s drill to the eyesocket.


Tracy W 02.13.07 at 8:37 pm

Abb1 – I note how you still have not come up with any statement as to how an Iranian can change the Koran through a democratic process.

A bunch of “wise men” changing their minds is not a democratic process.


abb1 02.13.07 at 9:01 pm

Tracy, their democratic process led them to democratically ratify their democratic constitution that (I presume) stipulates that they democratically choose to follow the Koranic law that can not be democratically altered.

Does this make their democratically expressed democratic will somehow democratically invalid in your democratic opinion?

It does, doesn’t it.


If only we had a time machine so that you could democratically go there and warn that democratic demos against making this tragic democratic error before they overwhelmingly voted for that democratic-and-yet-so-appallingly-undemocratic political system.


Tracy W 02.13.07 at 9:46 pm

Abb1 – Yes, it makes their democratically-expressed democratic will democratically invalid in my opinon. A dictatorship installed by democratic means is still a dictatorship.

There is no reason to believe that any Iranians who voted back to install that form of government had a right to bind future Iranians for all time. For example, what about the rights of those Iranians who were too young to vote, or hadn’t even been born?

This is of course a major and highly important difference between the US constitution and the Iranian form of government. The US constitution makes explicit allowance for itself to be changed.

Again, how does an Iranian go about amending the Koran through a democratic process?


Tracy W 02.13.07 at 9:52 pm

I will also note, that on a practical level, there are reasonable arguments against binding yourself for the rest of your life. Even if one has a right to do that, it can have negative consequences. Even if one does consider the Iranians around in the 1970s had every right to bind themselves and future Iranians democratically to a constitution requiring laws to be according to a Koran that cannot be amended, they may still wind up worse off than those Americans back in the 18th century who bound themselves to a constitution that allows for amendments.

And a reasonable person may therefore think that the American form of government is better than the Iranian one because the practical benefits of a constitution that can be amended democratically.


abb1 02.13.07 at 10:29 pm

An Iranian who doesn’t like prevailing interpretation of the Koranic law votes for the candidate to the Assembly of Experts whose interpretation of the Koranic law he/she likes the most.

In the US you can (very rarely and very laboriously) get to vote to amend the constitution, but you can’t vote to destroy the political system. Amending the Koran is an equivalent of destroying political system – that is an Islamic republic.

If Koran is anything like the Christian bible, I have no doubt that in practical terms it can be used to resolve any controversy in a million different ways. In fact, every Iranian I know tells me that the Iranian regime now is much more liberal than it was 20 years ago, so there you go – it does change; there is, obviously some sort of a feedback mechanism there, which is what the amendment process is all about.

Why is it so difficult for you, guys, to recognize something as ‘democratic’ even when it all is based on elections? Is it because it doesn’t have a huge McDonalds on top of it?


Tracy W 02.14.07 at 1:12 am

So, in other words, abb1, you agree an Iranian can’t democratically amend the Koran. The only process for change is the hope that a bunch of wise men will interpret the Koran in a way that you like. If an Iranian decides that they’d instead like the constitution to completely dump the requirement to be consistent with the Koran, then the only option for them is a revolution.

That strikes me as adequate reason to consider the US constitution as better than the Iranian one.

It is perfectly possible for me to recognise a system as ‘democratic’ and yet think that some changes may make a system better. I don’t know what you think McDonalds has to do with it.


abb1 02.14.07 at 8:26 am

Think of it this way. The US has the Declaration Of Independence, it’s a declaration of general principles.

The DOI goes something like this: God is Great and we, a bunch of rich American landowners, know what He wants: for all men to be treated equally and to be entitled to certain things, some which follow, etc.

To dump this requirement you’d need a revolution. But you can re-interpret it (though not easily), like this, for example: the concept of “men” (prophesied by revered Rich American Landowners) includes the men with dark skin too; we didn’t think so at first, but that was misunderstanding. Yeah, and it also includes the women. Yeah, and for the purpose of voting (but not buying a six-pack) it includes all those older than 18. Etc.

How is it different?

See, to dump all this nonsense and finally elect Abb1 to be your absolute infallible ruler forever (which is what we all want) we’ll need a revolution too. Same thing, dammit.

And it’s always like this; I bet every political system is based on some religious or quasi-religious (communist manifesto?) prophesy.

Admit it: you’re just being stubborn here. Don’t resist, don’t try to fight my ironclad logic, Tracy. Embrace the Abb1ism, the only true doctrine. It’ll make you happy, without having to pursue anything.


oli 02.14.07 at 2:09 pm

I would recommend if you’re looking for some Chinese solidarity. Particularly amusing is the recent video interview with a popular Beijing blogger/journalist.


Chris Williams 02.14.07 at 2:24 pm

Given what Noske and Ebert had done to the left in 1918/19, the doctrine of ‘social fascism’, while wrong, wasn’t all that hard to justify during the 1920s.


Pithlord 02.16.07 at 4:56 am

Noske and Ebert resisted a Communist putsch. If only Kerensky had had equivalent ovaries.

Comments on this entry are closed.