Newsletter #48: Iran’s “Passive Revolution,” with Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi and Golnar Nikpour

By Mack Penner

“Passive revolution” is one of the animating concepts in The Dig’s third of five episodes on the modern history of Iran. It comes up as a way to think about the “White Revolution” and the Shah’s attempt to build a “great civilization” from 1963 to 1979, in part by borrowing ideas from the Left — and undercutting the Left’s general appeal. For the Shah, passive-revolutionary tactics were a tool of legitimation and a ticket to some political security.

The idea of passive revolution was developed by Antonio Gramsci. For Gramsci, as David Forgacs describes, it describes “any historical situation in which a new political formation comes to power without a fundamental reordering of social relations.” Sadeghi and Nikpour explain how this happened in the context of the White Revolution, but for Gramsci, the idea can be applied across contexts.

In his work on the Canadian passive revolution from 1840-1950, historian Ian McKay stresses that the concept is not without its potential application risks. McKay worries that the concept can be wielded too loosely, as mud to sling at any political enemy that we find “buttering up its opponents and recruiting former oppositionists into its ranks.” Instead of a mere accusation, then, passive revolution is a concept that requires rigorous historicization — something we try to do constantly here at The Dig. If we understand passive-revolutionary episodes as part of how and why our politics have been prone to co-optation and dilution by oppositional blocs, then we can put the concept to work. In this way, as McKay puts it, “revolutionaries may discover many complicated but rich opportunities.”

Why does this matter? Think about electoral politics. In many countries, socialists face serious dilemmas on this front. In the US, the UK, and Canada, many socialists engage in mainstream electoral politics even though established parties are hostile to them. This problem may be most acute in the US with the Democrats, but even in the UK and Canada, with ostensible labor parties in the mainstream (the Labour and New Democratic parties, respectively), socialists have few real electoral allies. In these contexts, political pressure from the Left is often undercut by antagonistic ruling classes in friendly poses.

The trick, then, is to avoid taking up the idea of passive revolution as a sort of profound-sounding complaint about our situation and instead think of it as an invitation to think rigorously about the dynamics shaping passive-revolutionary developments. By understanding those dynamics, we might turn the tables.

Further Reading and Listening Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are an epic reading project. Better to work with something like The Antonio Gramsci Reader, edited by David Forgacs. If you have access, McKay’s article discussed above is excellent reading on passive revolution in particular.

There might be no better example of using Gramsci to think through a contemporary political moment than Stuart Hall on Thatcherism, available in excerpted form from Verso.

Finally, if you’re into intellectual history, check out Perry Anderson’s essay on “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci.” It was recently published in book form with a new preface by Verso, but if you have access, you can find it in the New Left Review archive, too.