A couple of weeks ago, I argued that it was unfair to describe President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic as a conservative because, in reality, he is a radical revolutionary. However, I did not mean to say that his rivals within the Khomeinist establishment could be regarded as conservatives in the mainstream meaning of the term.
Nevertheless, the article provoked a great deal of controversy, drawing criticism from both the mullahs who dislike Ahmadinejad and Iranian democrats who dislike the Khomeinist regime as a whole. To complicate matters further I also drew fire from the remnants of the Iranian left with claims that describing Ahmadinejad as a revolutionary was almost sacrilegious.
Let me first deal with this last charge because it is easier to refute.
There was a time when the term “revolution” had a certain romantic aura, especially in rich and conservative Western societies. In the 1960s, when we were students, a part of the Western youth smoked hashish and wore T-shirts decorated with the image of ‘Che’ Guevara, an Argentine-born adventurer and killer, who roamed Latin America and Africa killing people he did not agree with.
As far as I am concerned, however, the term revolution is neither romantic nor sacrosanct. For I regard revolutions as moments of madness in human history. If you kill one man, you are a murderer. If you raise one fire, you are an arsonist. If you rob one bank, you are a thief. However, if thousands of people do those things together they become revolutionaries, because crimes, committed collectively, are dignified as revolution. Revolution is about killing people in large numbers. It is about destruction and looting. It is about locking up hundreds of thousands of people and forcing millions out of their homes. Every revolution generates war, mass poverty, oppression, and terror.
There are no good revolutions. All revolutions, though they may be products of historical necessity, are ultimately evil. Men who have an ounce of decency and humanity left in them cannot survive within revolutionary elite for long. Think of Danton in France or Kamenev in Russia or our own clueless Mehdi Bazargan in Iran. They were too decent to remain at the centre of the revolutions they had helped bring about. The quintessential revolutionary is someone like Robespierre, Stalin, Hitler, Kim Il-sung, Lin Biao, Fidel Castro, Pol Pot and Ruhallah Khomeini.
Thus, when I described Ahmadinejad as a revolutionary I was not paying him a compliment. All I wanted to point out was that he is a more legitimate product and representative of Khomeini’s revolution than a wily businessman like Hashemi Rafsanjani or a confused mullah like Khatami.
Some readers have asked what I actually meant by conservative. In the context of the Khomeinist regime, mullahs like Rafsanjani and Khatami may be regarded as conservatives in the sense that, fearing the loss of power and privileges, they do not support any major structural change in the system. They dislike Ahmadinejad because he threatens their power and privileges by advocating policies that could lead to structural changes in favour of military-security elements to the detriment of the clergy.
In the broader political sense, however, neither Rafsanjani nor Khatami could be described as conservative.
A genuine conservative is opposed to all revolutions, denying the legitimacy, though obviously not the reality, even of those that have already happened in history. Neither Rafsanjani nor Khatami, however, would be prepared to do what Boris Yeltsin had the courage to do: that is to declare the revolution as a national historical tragedy and invite the people to move beyond it.
A genuine conservative is bestowed with the gift of what one might call strategic patience. He knows that change brought about by violence and terror is always worse than no change at all.
Supporting reform rather than radical social and political surgery, the true conservative wants to preserve what is worth keeping and gradually abandoning what is no longer useful, relevant or dignified.
While revolutionaries are pessimists, in the sense that they cannot trust human beings to have the intelligence or the will to look after their own affairs, a genuine conservative is an optimist. He trusts people to discover their own best interests and choose the wisest way to organise their individual and collective affairs. The key point is to keep the people informed, providing them with as many of the elements as needed for making their own judgment. A genuine conservative wants a relatively weak state alongside a very powerful society.
For the conservative, the best economic policy is one that encourages individual enterprise, private property and free trade. He is against handouts and subsidies. He knows that giving a hungry man a fish would feed him for a day while teaching him how to fish could keep his table replenished for a lifetime. The conservative is also against high taxes. Because he wants a small government with a few limited but vital tasks, he opposes putting a large chunk of national wealth under state control.
The conservative attaches great importance to allowing, and helping, the individual to make his voice heard. For him, freedom of expression is the baseline of all liberties. This is why he rejects political correctness, which is hypocrisy disguised as multicultural decorum.
While the revolutionary dreams of world conquest and tries to “export” his ideology, the conservative is all for diversity within the human family. The revolutionary’s dream of expansion always leads to war. The conservative’s recognition of the rights of all peoples to manage their own affairs as they see fit, on the other hand, could promote peace.
As always in human affairs, the ultimate difference is between war and peace.