TitleHannah Arendt on revolutionary civil disobedience

The death of the reformist era in Iran

25 Feb 2011

■ Nima Fischer
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Feb. 21, 2011

The reformist era in Iran, in the original sense envisioned by the followers of Khatami since 1997, has come to an end, even though it might take some time to realize what has happened. The ideals of how to achieve reforms are changing, and moving more so than ever away from the state into society. The idea to effect change through elections, i.e. through the legal procedures made possible by the normal functioning of the state, was essential to the rise of the Green Movement. When people’s votes were stolen, they protested and chanted ‘Where is my vote?’, meaning that they were ready and willing to achieve reform through legal means. Today, with Mousavi imprisoned in his own house, and continuous death threats aimed at him and Karroubi in the highest echelons of the Islamic Republic, let alone the continuous and massive crackdown on dissent, a too legalistic understanding of achieving change in Iran does not make much practical sense. Rather than effecting change through pragmatic cooperation with the state, resistance to the state has become the only alternative, and the word revolution is making a comeback. Hannah Arendt offers an understanding of civil disobedience, and revolutionary civil disobedience, that is useful for interpreting the Iranian case today.

Iranian protesters asking Ahmadinejad ‘Are we dirt and dust?’

The public character of civil disobedience

Arendt’s essay ‘Civil Disobedience’, written in the context of the civil rights movement in the USA and the Vietnam War, made me realize that the Green Movement is not based on a plurality of conscientious objectors. The conscientious objector is the one who, because of private moral beliefs, cannot continue to do something. He is the Basij militia member who cannot stand the torture of fellow citizens, and cannot live with himself if he obeys orders and group pressure. He feels that his being Islamic means that it is the higher law of God that he should choose to obey rather than his peers. The rules of conscience are, as Arendt says, entirely negative. They don’t tell the Basij member what to do, but what he should refrain from doing. “Don’t do wrong, for then you will have to live together with a wrongdoer” (CR: 63).

The Green protestors’ situation is very different. They did not suffer from their conscience, but simply demanded that which was taken from them. As civil disobedients, they do not exist as single objecting individuals. Their subjectivity was created when they joined each other in protest: “… the situation of the civil disobedient bears no analogy to either [a conscientious objector or a single individual] for the simple reason that he never exists as a single individual; he can function and survive only as a member of a group” (CR: 55). What defines them is not each person’s personal moral reasons for joining the Green Movement but their agreement with each other, their action in concert, their capability to unite “into one channel the efforts of divergent minds” (Tocqueville, quoted by Arendt in CR: 98). Arendt does not mean to say that what happens in someone’s mind is irrelevant, but that it can only become politically significant when joined with others. That’s why Socrates and Thoreau, two famous examples of individual civil disobedience, are ultimately not clear examples of what she means with the civil disobedient. The civil disobedient’s opinion is public and depends on enough other individuals to be persuaded as well.

The normal channels of change no longer function

Public opinion can be vague and so Arendt warns for research into public opinion as a technique of evasion (CR: 73). After the elections, so-called objective social scientists concluded that Ahmadinejad could have very well won the elections, based on a ridiculous research where only one thousand individuals were called, after the elections, and asked who they voted for (WorldPublicOpinion.org, telephone survey of Iran, August 27 – September 10, 2009). In the context of Iran, such a research means nothing compared to the reality of street violence and the millions who decided to protest. There is no doubt that there is a divide in the country between supporters of Ahmadinejad and those who want reform, but doing statistical research in this situation completely misses the point. “Civil disobedience [comparable to the situation of the Green Movement] arises when a significant number of citizens have become convinced either that the normal channels of change no longer function, and grievances will not be heard or acted upon…” (CR: 74). Working through these normal channels of change was the reformist strategy of pragmatic cooperation with the state, but after the intensification of state violence since the disputed elections and the unwillingness of the state to budge at all, it has become clear that the reformist era has not only come to an end, but that it has been killed.

It has become clear that the reformist era has not only come to an end, but that it has been killed

Claiming that the protestors did not technically win the election assists the Iranian regime in criminalizing them and prevents the need for strong moral support. In one of his notorious speeches, Ahmadinejad called the Green Movement protestors “khas va khashak,” dirt and dust. What a difference with Ghandi’s interpretation of dust! When people decided to engage in peaceful protests, anger, one of the most natural political emotions, was transformed into something else, what Ghandi called ‘ahimsa’ or nonviolence. The world of Ahmadinejad crushed the dust under its feet, but the people were so modest that they could be crushed by the dust itself (Ghandi: xxviii). But the excessive degree of Ahmadinejad’s contempt has infuriated the multitude more and more. In many gatherings, extending beyond Iran itself, a frequently heard chant was “You are dirt and dust! You are the one who is worse than trash!” and even occasionally “We are not dirt, we are the light … We are the people”. At best, from the perspective of the regime, the protestors are criminals that should be arrested. At worst, they are “muhareb,” enemies of God who may be put to death or worse. Of course, any attempt to confuse one or a few criminals with large groups of resisting citizens betrays ill will. Hannah Arendt’s example of such ill will is an American Vice President’s reference to disobedient and dissenting citizens as “… ‘vultures’ … and ‘parasites’ [whom] we can afford to separate … from our society with no more regret than we should feel over discarding rotten apples from a barrel” (CR: 75). The rhetoric of Ahmadinejad is to equate criminal with civil disobedience. This strategy however was not successful at all because the whole world has seen the open defiance of the disobedient citizens, in contrast to the actions of criminals who must avoid the public eye. Criminals try to get away with something for their own personal sake, but these people acted not just for themselves but also for each other. Arendt is very much annoyed by the accusation of conspiracy, the main accusation repeated in Iran’s show trials, “since conspiracy requires not only “breathing together” but secrecy, and civil disobedience occurs in public.”

Civil disobedience or revolution?

Arendt complicates the definition of civil disobedience by explaining that it is not so easy to distinguish a civil disobedient from a revolutionary in the same way that we can easily distinguish a criminal from a civil disobedient. Now that one of the important chants has become “Ben-Ali, Mubarak, now it’s your turn Seyed Ali [Khamenei]”, it has become even harder to distinguish the civil disobedient from the revolutionary. Even though civil disobedience is characterized by non-violence, the civil disobedient can turn into a revolutionary. If he uses violence, rather than the power that is generated through actions in concert, then we can call the revolutionary a rebel, which is not what Arendt has in mind as true civil disobedience. Her example of a revolutionary civil disobedient is Ghandi (CR: 77). In Iran too, the protestors did not start out as revolutionaries. They simply wanted their votes back or their civil rights, those that they already possessed, honored. They did not reject the Islamic Republic, but simply asked for a more fair application of its laws. But when the crackdown began and the violence increased, the protestors rapidly radicalized as well. Now they are not just asking for their votes, but chanting “death to the dictator”. State violence is forcing people more and more to the conclusion that resisting the system as a whole is the only way. The election was in the first place not the true cause of the massive uprising of the Green Movement. The crackdown ignited the passions that had been building up for years and some people were already turning into revolutionaries rather than just civil disobedients back in 2009. There were some moments of anarchy: protestors created fires, chanted, ran away from the police, threw rocks at them, etc. Eventually the government’s forces succeeded in restoring order. But it has become clear to all that this order is lawless and based on violence: “The net result … is criminalization of the whole governmental apparatus, as we know from totalitarian government” (CR: 80). To what extent the governmental apparatus is criminalized in Iran is hard to tell, but obviously the legitimacy of the regime has been dealt the hardest blow since its existence.

This shows how vague the difference between civil disobedience and revolution, a reformist and a resister, can quickly become in Iran, how quickly dissent is transformed into resistance. Even those who still call themselves reformists, sometimes demand freedoms that, if truly granted, would mean nothing less than a revolution or a radical change. In Iran, there is no such thing as a right to civil disobedience or an effort on the part of the government to institutionalize dissent. Mousavi’s attempts to sharply separate reform and revolution, by showing how the regime does not even uphold its own laws, do damage its legitimacy but in the end civil disobedience that would lead to change can only have the character of “extra-legal action”, action that transcends the existing laws and regulations and their ordinary, in this case inconsistent, enforcement (CR: 80). In one of his lectures at the New School, a university where Arendt taught philosophy and where she still is very present, Alan Badiou suggested to make a distinction between two types of transformation of the law. The first would be a simple change of the law and the second would be the creation of a new law through an Event. But an Event, in the sense of Badiou, is always extra-legal because it implies the destruction of the old law. Institutionalizing dissent in Iran, not only on paper but also in practice, would mean making the old law disappear so that a new law, i.e. a new order, can appear. But the metaphor of destruction cannot be imagined without violence: “finally destruction is destruction … construction must be primary.”

The question is not anymore whether Iran needs a revolution or not, the question is what kind of revolution

This is where Arendt’s account of the American Revolution, compared to the French Revolution, becomes more important. The question is not anymore whether Iran needs a revolution or not, the question is what kind of revolution. Hannah Arendt deeply respected America’s founding fathers for their tolerance, pragmatism and respect for the plurality of human beings. Where the French Revolution ended in extreme violence, the American Revolution succeeded in laying the foundations for a new, democratic, order, one that has succeeded in continually reforming itself. The death of the reformist era in Iran is giving birth to a new revolutionary consciousness, a mindset that benefits fundamentally from the reformist era’s emphasis on the civil rights that play such an important emancipatory function in the United States. There cannot be a return to the original reformist attitude any longer.


Hannah Arendt (1972). Crises of the Republic. Harcourt Brace & Company, San Diego, New York and London.

Hannah Arendt (1963). On Revolution. Penguin Classics (2006, with an introduction by Jonathan Schell), London.

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