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In his earlier book, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran (2004), Charles Kurzman reviewed the most common economic, political, and cultural explanations for the Islamic Revolution and found them lacking. He argued that even participants in the revolution could not predict what they were going to do from one day to the next, and that no amount of "objective" knowledge on the part of later observers would allow them to "retroactively predict" the fall of the shah in 1979. In this book, Kurzman is likewise skeptical of the way both contemporary observers and later scholars have approached a series of early twentieth-century democratic revolutions. Democracy Denied is in some respects a debate with V. I. Lenin and Barrington Moore about the crucial importance of the industrial working class or the landlord class or the bourgeoisie in twentieth-century social change; but perhaps more importantly, Kurzman contends that the six revolutions he examines can be seen as part of a global movement with local variations, rather than phenomena strictly tied to local conditions and problems.
The revolutions in question (in Russia, Iran, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Mexico, and China) all began between 1905 and 1911; all were consciously democratic in their aspirations, at least insofar as democracy was understood at the time; all succeeded in obtaining effective parliamentary elections; and all the revolutionary regimes, [End Page 537] except Portugal's, had failed before World War I broke out. Yet, as Kurzman says, even though more than a quarter of the world's population was affected by this wave of democratic revolution, it has seldom been treated as an international event.
Kurzman believes that the revolutionaries of 1905–1911 were responding to factors that transcended national boundaries. Perhaps the most important was the adoption by people who had received an advanced modern education of the social/class identity of "intellectual," a word and a concept that had come into use in France and elsewhere in connection with the Dreyfus affair in 1898. For decades past, the recipients of modern education had been sympathetic to the Comtean idea that progress in society depended upon them and their specialized knowledge. International enthusiasm for the Dreyfus cause now led them to add a democratic element to the older positivism. The new intellectuals, after Dreyfus consciously reflecting a worldwide tendency, came to believe that democratic constitutionalism would make them leaders of a movement that would not only transform society for the better, but enjoy genuine mass support from other classes—industrial workers, peasants, bourgeoisie, even landlords.
Surprisingly, the other classes did for a time defer to the educated, even though the class identity was relatively new and their numbers were small. Even in Iran, where modern intellectuals were a tiny group and had to carefully negotiate with religious leaders and even invent Persian terms for democracy and constitutionalism, those concepts were taken up by groups whose original dissatisfactions had nothing to do with democratization. In all the countries surveyed, debate in the press, practical leadership initiatives, and election results show that the intellectuals were in a very influential position at the beginning of the revolutionary period. Encouraged by this support, intellectual groups began to implement a positivist agenda that benefited them as a class—for example, more money for education, especially teacher education, was seen as essential for national progress.
The idea that what was good for the intellectuals was good for the nation did not last very long. Three common problems weakened the democratic regimes. First, demands by other dissatisfied groups, for instance workers in Russia, were not satisfied by constitutionalism alone, and the new regimes were unable or perhaps unwilling to meet them. Second, in some countries widespread disorder undermined support for democracy; in China democrats lost power to the army, which in fact was not very successful in restoring order. Third, the great powers, though in some cases supportive of democratic movements at the [End Page 538] beginning, turned against the new regimes when imperial and particularly commercial interests seem to be threatened...