Review of The Persian Revolution: 1905-1909

Kavian Milani


Review of The Persian Revolution: 1905-1909

The classic text of one of the earliest and most sympathetic Western accounts of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution has been recently republished by Mage Publishing (1995).  The Persian Revolution: 1905-1909 is a more or less contemporary account of the events of 1905-1909 that Browne maintained through his correspondence with the “active” elements within Persia.  The text is therefore on par with other classic accounts and in some sense may be seen as a “primary” source compilation by Browne.  This is attested by Amanat’s reference to this book and the Iranian classic Tarikh-I-Bidaryi- Iranian by Nazim ul’Islam.  In fact Amanat argues that”proximity” in content and perspective exists between the two, which he identifies as “intertextuality.”  The Persian Revolution: 1905-1909 is an excellent text with a wealth of information.  It should be critiqued at least from three perspectives.  One is the “Orientalism” charge that could potentially be leveled against Browne (as Said does in Orientalism 224).  The other is related to the first and concerns Browne’s Eurocentricism.  Third, and also related to the first and second items is that Browne has close ideological and philosophical links to the liberal strand of the Persian Constitutional movement and not to the other two strong aspects of the movement, such as the Russian “Social Democrat” influences especially in the Azerbaijan and Gilan or the Shi’ite influences by the Ulama.  Therefore he seems to present an apology for the “liberal” strand (loosely defined) and attributes significant “agency” to their actions.

There is little doubt that Said has been over utilized and over analyzed especially in the area of Middle East studies.  As such one may say that “Orientalism” is old hat.  Nevertheless it is useful to apply Said’s criticism to Browne (yet again).  In short Said essentializes Orientalism (and its modern day heir “area studies”) as colonial and imperialistic projects imposing discourses of power unto an inferior Orient.  Knowledge according to Said is utilized as power to sustain and advance itself.  No doubt Said’s discourse for the subaltern has definite benefits and allows for a richer analysis.  Nevertheless one wonders if the reader of The Persian Revolution: 1905-1909 can honestly accuse Browne of creating a discourse of “power” over the “Orient.”  Amanat successfully argues this point in his introduction to the new edition (X).  Clearly Amanat is dismissive of the Orientalism critique in general as he categorizes it as “negative stereotype” and “indiscriminate condemnation.”  Amanat’s misgivings about Said aside, his point is valid anyhow; that Browne in the text under consideration does not demonstrate the traits of Orientalism, with power using knowledge to advance itself.

The second point concerns Browne’s Eurocentric approach.  No doubt Browne is coming to his topic with a Western romantic master narrative.  The struggle of the late nineteenth century Iranians and the early twentieth century ones are part and parcel of the same master narrative that begins in Greece and Rome and travels westward to England and gives rise to the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the United States Bill of Rights.  Browne sees the Iranians as driven by the rational and democratic spirit that is found in its most pristine form in the West.  This is acknowledged even by Amanat who suggests that “there was a moral undertone to Browne’s entire endeavor which appealed to Europeans” (X).  It is perhaps here that Browne is most susceptible to analytical errors.

The second point leads directly to the third point No doubt Browne was highly sympathetic to the Western Liberal thread involved in the Constitution.  Accordingly he appears to dismiss other prominent “players” in the Constitutional Revolution.  Little is mentioned of the Russian Social Democrat connections among the revolutionaries, and especially the Azerbaijan and Gilan movements.  For instance it appears that he presented an attenuated picture of Taqizadeh.  Furthermore his correspondence and sympathy with the likes of Nazim ul-Islam (inadvertently) made him present a more favorable aspect of the Western inspired “liberal” revolutionaries.

There are also a series of inaccuracies in the book that are inadvertent.  These may also have been typographical such as the dating of the Reuter concession to January 1889 (31).  Browne also seems disinterested in social and economic analysis.  We don’t find out if the Bourgeosie was a strong one or was it fragmented and not unified.  What role exactly did the peasants play?  Did an intelligentsia exist with its own journalism?  In short, even though the book is excellent in that it preserves some firsthand data through correspondence and interaction with exiled revolutionaries it has significant analytical weaknesses compared to most modern works.

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