All revolutions are "unthinkable" until they happen: in this way, Iran's literally joined the crowd. One recalls Louis XVI of France, befuddled at the noise of the Bastille drifting into the Palace, asking the Duke of Rochefoucald: "Is this a revolt?" And receiving the reply, "No, sire, it's a revolution." Charles Kurzman seeks to explore this confusion, reiterating the old charge that revolutions amount to kicking down a rotten door.
Kurzman wields an easy expertise on both Iran of the period and the literature on collective action. Like Michael Melancon's study of the February 1917 revolution in Russia, and Lawrence Goodwyn's study of Polish Solidarity in 1980, Kurzman looks at Iran's "breakthrough moment" in 1978 and rediscovers the role of spontaneity in making that moment happen. "Making the scene" becomes a rational motive force. This is substantiated in my own limited experience with Iranians. I personally recall an Iranian student in the US, just off the phone with his brother who was part of the mass demonstrations outside the US Embassy, describing it as a "big party" where "everyone was coming out against imperialism." Within 48 hours, swept by their own momentum, the party got down to business and the Embassy's occupants had become more than symbolic targets.
Yet in recreating spontaneity as a motive - "everybody's doing it" - Kurzman comes to rather opposite conclusions than Melancon. It took grass roots socialist anti-war activists in Russia more than a year of hard organizing and underground agitation - even with the regime floundering in war - to push the right button. This history of dedicated minority activism by a few was necesary before the movement could catch on, while regime repression was an equally requisite catalyst. We see this also in Kurzman's description of Iranian events, as well as the necessary spade work by the mosque activists prior to the mass demonstrations. A consensus is created that things can't go on like this, we're not going to take it anymore, this is the time, and pent-up grievances are released in a special moment: a spark, perhaps dramatically symbolized by one man setting himself on fire as in Tunisia, or a longtime agitator like Lech Walesa jumping the gates at the Gdansk shipyards. All of which shows that revolutionary movements do not *originate* in spontaneity and confusion, but in the grunt work of a committed few and a long list of social resentments whose accumulated pressure finally springs a leak in the dikes of state. Afterward, as in France, "the deluge."
So I must agree that Kurzman's "anti-explanation" is somewhat of a backflip: things happened because they happened. But - as we've recently seen in the Arab Spring - they don't *just* happen, and don't have to succeed. When they do it's not only from a crowd looking for action - a "big party" - but a dedicated core animated by a vision of who they are and what they want, an opposing regime that's lost its way, and a sense of grievance that has at last found its voice. Lenin said that "history is made only where there are millions." Yet history would have been quite different without he or Khomeini on the scene. Such leaders and their core followers become embedded in horizontal relationships with "the crowd," thus making their assumptions of power much more than mere coups or "hijacking."
That most people usually jump into these "springtimes" when the weather's fine is a constant of human nature. They're the field of flowers. But it's a dedicated few who are the true seeds of change. It's up to these to plant themselves so deeply in their native soil that no regime can eradicate them, to sprout in just the right season.