Viewpoint: The Death of a State


Libertarians are, of course, determined opponents of the Leviathan State. They are also "idealists," believing in the power of ideas to move mountains, to make history, to transform society. Even to overthrow an entrenched coercive despotism. And yet, libertarians have displayed curiously little interest in the process by which such social transformations can and do take place. How do ideas force a change in social institutions, even those that seem to be deeply entrenched?

In the first place, it is clear that ideas do not float around or influence historical events by themselves, in a vacuum, as it were; they must be adopted and carried forward by people. In short, new or radical ideas must be embodied in a self-conscious movement of people who have adopted them. Second, it is impossible for everyone to adopt a new idea at the same time; it is adopted by one or a few people, and then, if conditions are right, it will spread to other groups or persons in the society. One of the major functions of a movement, then, is to carry forward the new idea and to convert as many others as possible.

But everything is not a rose garden. Apart from the intellectual vested interests that any new idea will confront, an idea which opposes an existing power elite will inevitably come into some sort of clash with that power.

Most people, including many libertarians in their pessimistic moments, are despairing of any possible way to overthrow a dictatorial and despotic State. How can the mere power of ideas win out over a totalitarian tyranny that has all the guns?

Again, the flaw in this despair is thinking of ideas as floating abstractions, instead of as animators of a growing and determined movement. But how can such a movement win out?

The recent revolution in Iran illustrates in classic fashion how such a victory can be attained. The regime of Shah Pahlevi seemed to be irresistible. It had been in power for decades. The shah's father had proclaimed himself monarch and had grabbed about half the land area of the country for his own personal use and ownership. From taxes and the proceeds of such ownership, Pahlevi built up a formidable military machine, fueled by enormous military, political, and psychological aid from the United States. The shah's engine of internal terror was equally impressive; anyone who looked like a dissident or opponent was subject to torture, a torture so widespread and systematic that Amnesty International deemed the shah's regime to have the worst human-rights record of any regime in the world. Until the very end, the United States stood ready to back the shah to the hilt. Until the very end, also, the CIA insisted on pronouncing the shah's rule among the most stable and trouble-free in the world.

So what happened? Opposition to the shah had been bubbling for years, but it had no institutional structure to represent it, and it had no guiding idea of any positive alternative. "You can't beat something with nothing" is a cogent motto, and it rules in political affairs. This doesn't mean that an anti-shah opposition movement had to spell out its alternative in detail; to the contrary, any such specification would have been likely to alienate large parts of the opposition coalition. But some guiding theme, some vision, some idea, must be there to energize the public and to unify the various strands of opposition. In Nicaragua, a popular movement seemingly united last year to overthrow the hated Somoza dictatorship fell apart and is now further away from triumph than ever. What the Nicaraguan coalition lacked was any kind of positive idea or unified leadership; hence, the propensity for the coalition to fall apart even before victory was achieved.

Whether libertarians like the fact or not, religion has always proved to be one of the most animating and energizing ideas that mankind can adopt. In the case of Iran, it was religion—or rather, religion as embodied in the institutional structure of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his "Islamic Republican" movement—that provided the vision and the guiding idea that managed to topple the shah's tyranny in an incredibly brief period of time. The Khomeini movement started with no guns at all; it began only with a figure deeply venerated by the Muslim masses of Iran, a figure who had been exiled for many years for his opposition to the shah. Institutionally, the movement had the other ayatollahs and a host of the younger mullahs—in short, they had the Muslim religious structures ready to roll and to activate their flock. The Muslims were deeply aggrieved by the shah's assaults on their religious ways. Once the masses were convinced that it was Islam versus the shah, and that Khomeini was the embodiment of Islamic teachings, the shah, for all his money and might, didn't stand a chance.

The Iranian masses did it, until the very end, without guns. They did it with a repeated series of strikes and demonstrations, each reinforcing the other with cumulative effect. Crackdowns and shootings by the army only succeeded in inflaming the masses and intensifying the revolutionary movement. Finally, when guns appeared at the end, they were only minor auxiliaries to the weight of nearly the entire populace. At the last, it was the masses versus the army, with its virtual monopoly of firepower.

But what happens in all successful revolutions is that finally the army, too, becomes "subverted"—it is either swept up in the revolutionary ideology, or the soldiers refuse to fire upon their own families or upon people very like themselves. And so it was in Iran. While the higher officers remained faithful to their royal patron to the end, the troops and the lower officers began to break off. Finally, the death of the shah's surrogate regime, of Prime Minister Bakhtiar, was spelled the night before the end, when the army announced publicly that it would take no further part in the struggle, that it would let the people decide the nature of the regime. That was it, and the very next day the revolution triumphed. Another mighty and seemingly invincible State had been slain.

And this is how even a mighty and despotic State gets toppled. This is how ideas effect social and political change—through movements, through alternative visions, through struggle. And this is a change that should especially gladden the hearts of libertarians, for it shows that a Leviathan State, even a particularly brutal and dictatorial one, can be vanquished—that the human spirit, the spirit of liberty, can triumph over oppression, no matter how great the odds may seem to be. But it can only be done by strategic thinking and by self-consciously building a dedicated movement.

Now notice what I am not saying. I am not claiming that the Khomeini republic will be particularly libertarian. There is, in fact, no reason why it should be; after all, neither Khomeini nor his aides claim to be libertarians. Judging by the ayatollah's selection of Mehdi Bazargan to be prime minister, the new republic will probably be considerably less oppressive than that of the shah (Bazargan was the head of the Iranian Society for the Defense of Liberty and Human Rights and, for his pains, had been jailed by the shah). The ayatollah's victory is also remarkable in being the first successful non-Communist revolution since the Mexican revolution of the early part of the 20th century.

But none of this is to the point. Libertarian rejoicing has nothing at all to do with whatever State replaces the shah. It celebrates the fact that a powerful, dictatorial, seemingly impregnable State can be and has been overthrown by the force of an idea. The Khomeini revolution vividly incarnates in the real world the abstract notion that ideas are ultimately more powerful than mere weapons, that the pen is truly mightier than the sword.