Seminar Rationale

The idea for this seminar arose in our conversations with each other as scholars of the Middle East and Latin America who focus on interdisciplinary studies of revolutions. Initially we were struck by a series of commonalities we had observed in our fields. First, it seemed that a large number of revolutions had occurred around roughly the same time in these two regions. Second, the coeval nature of many of these revolutions was not lost on the participants: revolutionaries in Latin America or the Middle East made references to each other’s movements (and were sometimes in direct contact with each other), suggesting deeper intellectual and sociological connections between these regions and their revolutions than we had previously known. Third, there are striking similarities in how revolutionary actors in these countries made sense of their own times and referenced common historical events. Fourth, we noticed that some events that were clearly understood as revolutions in their own times were not seen as revolutions by later scholars, and were thus named differently and treated separately from other revolutions.

Our first reaction was to explain this pattern through a common reference to the “larger” revolutions that these “smaller” ones were supposedly emulating. Thus, we asked, did these revolutions we were studying intersect because they were all in conversation with the French, Russian, Chinese, or Cuban revolutions? This appeared to be a plausible hypothesis, one shared by generations of scholars who have given each of those revolutions an almost mythic ontological status. Interpreting third-world revolutions in light of the “big four” revolutions has been a common practice among academics of various disciplines for some time now. For example, Crane Brinton’s 1938 The Anatomy of Revolution used the English, French, American, and Russian revolutions to delineate revolutionary “life cycles,” cycles that, in turn, are still being applied to revolutions as diverse as Portugal, Sri Lanka, and Iran. The sociologist Theda Skocpol’s seminal 1979 States and Social Revolutions used the French, Russian, and Chinese cases to discuss how and under what circumstances social revolutions succeed or fail, a model that was then applied to a whole series of other revolutions. Interestingly in 1982 Skocpol published “The Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution” (Theory and Society, May 1982) to address the challenges Iran’s revolution posed to her model. In looking to “global” revolutions to explain patterns in our more “local” ones, we were in many ways following a rich scholarly tradition that encompassed a variety of fields from political science, to history, sociology, literature, and art history.

As we delved deeper, however, we realized that this common explanation comes up short. How, for example, to explain why so many pamphlets and revolutions of the second half of the twentieth century invoked “the Algerian revolution” or the “Vietnamese revolution” rather than the French or the Chinese? Or why in interviews with Iranian revolutionary activists — even those with Islamic ideologies — Oman, Grenada, and Nicaragua are raised as places that they were looking at in the revolutionary period, while the French revolution was conspicuously absent? In the case of Iran and Oman, the forgotten link was particularly striking; the intervention in Oman of the Shah of Iran in 1972-75 (a period of intense guerilla activity in Iran) was directly connected to the end of the Dhofar revolution, indicating a tangible link between the two country’s revolutionary activists. And so our inquiry became more fundamental: What have we, as scholars of revolutions, been missing in our current explanatory paradigms of revolutions? And are there ways to conceptualize these revolutions that take into account their interconnectivity and their own sense of revolutionary genealogies? This seminar is among the first attempts to systematically pose these types of questions in a multi-disciplinary framework, and to recover revolutionary events, like that of Oman, in the context of their more famous revolutionary counterparts.

Our choice of case studies reflects the connections we observed in primary sources, connections that are generally rendered tangential when not entirely missing from later scholarship on revolutions. For example, both the Dhofar rebellion in Oman and the war of independence in Algeria are notable for being called revolutions in Arabic (ثوره) but not in the English literature, where the words rebellion and war are used respectively. This renaming means that in later studies of comparative revolutions, events that were experienced as revolutions in their times are disaggregated from other revolutions that were in conversation with them. To take Algeria again, by renaming the events in Algeria as a war of independence (which was merely one aspect of it) and categorizing it in the context of the post-WWII era of decolonization, we lose the crucial role it played as a revolutionary model for many important “third world” revolutions of the late twentieth century. In the case of the Dhofar revolution in Oman, the revolutionary significance of the event itself has been erased by its labeling as a “rebellion” that is then only examined in the context of Omani history and the centralization of power in Oman’s post-independence history. Part of the argument for this relabeling of the Dhofar revolution has been that the movement was crushed by the central government after ten years, making it either a failed revolution or a rebellion. This argument ignores the fact that the actors in Oman themselves (and revolutionaries in the region)  could not have predicted the end, and thus treated and experienced at the time as a revolution.

Similarly, while historical documents and interviews with former revolutionaries from the Middle East show the interconnections among the Grenada, Nicaragua, and Iran revolutions (for example in their self-definitions as anti-US, anti-imperial movements), the scholarship has subsequently treated them separately (with a few exceptions that have compared Iran and Nicaragua) based primarily on the forms of their post-revolutionary states (“failed” socialist revolution, Marxist, and Islamic respectively). Scholarship on the Grenada revolution of 1979 and the Bolivian revolution of 1952-1966 continues to locate these events in relation to supposedly more important historical developments like the 1959 Cuban revolution. The problem here does not begin with retroactive naming, but instead with expectations of what twentieth century revolutions should look like in Latin America and the Caribbean. What continues to be forgotten, however, is that Bolivia’s revolution overlapped with revolutions in Oman and Algeria. Thus why must we seek to understand Bolivia only in relation to a great revolution of Latin American history, but never in relation to revolutions that were occurring simultaneously in the Middle East? We know, for example, that in addition to communicating with revolutionary governments in Nicaragua and Cuba, Bernard Coard, the deputy Prime Minister of what was called the People’s Revolutionary Government in Grenada, referred to 1979 as the “International Year of the Fall of Dictators” citing the Iranian, Grenadian, and Nicaraguan revolutions, as well as revolutions in Uganda and Cambodia. Given that some of these revolutions were not Marxist and others not solely Marxist, the political solidarities that Grenadian revolutionaries saw in Iran and Nicaragua cannot be understood as deriving from or being solely inspired by the “core” revolutions of the twentieth century.

Yet as the title of one of the most recent and best investigations of Grenada and Nicaragua reveals (Brian Meeks’s, Caribbean Revolutions and Revolutionary Theory: An Assessment of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Grenada), these “smaller” revolutions continue to be anchored to the revolutionary histories of Russia, China, Cuba, or France. The effect of this is that revolutions that cannot be anchored in these larger revolutions become illegible to later scholars, and are thus renamed. The result of this enduring framework of comparison is that scholars produce studies of these revolutions that leave the impression that they were only regional events (i.e. pan-Caribbean, pan-American, or Middle Eastern) or that they were solely projects of national-liberation. Part of the rationale of our seminar is to examine the ways in which social movements or political events such as these were experienced as revolutions in their own time and without the benefit of hindsight.

By thinking about twentieth century revolutions in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East alongside each other and in discussion with one another we aim to bring a more expansive understanding of transnationalism to the study of revolutions, one that is not hindered by expectations that revolutions in the late twentieth century ineluctably follow the revolutionary programs and politics of their more “successful” and more “global” predecessors.