Realizing Revolution in Iran and Nicaragua

My dissertation, successfully defended in December 2020, focuses on explaining the ways in which revolutionary actors try to create meaningful social transformations in a complex, and often hostile, world. I examine the post-revolutionary trajectories of revolutionary societies in Iran and Nicaragua from 1979-1999. In my work, I focus on the role of culture and discourse in guiding, but not determining, the process of change. Drawing on thousands of pages of newspapers and primary sources, this project also introduces a new way to think about revolutions: as cultural formations that shift as they are enacted. The biggest contribution of this work is the development of a way to diagram and chart shifts in these cultures over time.

In addition to the dissertation itself, this project has spawned two “spinoff” papers currently in progress: one on the clash of Nicaraguan Sandinismo and Miskito ethnonationalism in Nicaragua, and the other on a more developed theory of cultural formations and social change. Using the immense amount of data gathered, I also plan to dive more deeply into the Nicaraguan and Iranian counter-revolutions in a future paper.

Realizing Revolution: Culture, Contingency, and Change in Iran and Nicaragua, 1979-1999
My dissertation uses periodicals, archival documents, and secondary sources to examine the intersections of conscious attempts at social revolutionary change with structural realities, contingencies, and political opponents. It focuses on the evolution of revolutionary cultural politics as revolutionaries struggle to make their revolution a reality.

Abstract: In 1979, revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua created openings for social transformation on opposite sides of the world. Though these twin revolutions took very different paths, they also displayed similar patterns of change as revolutionary elites transformed their nations, promising utopia, freedom, and a restoration of national pride. In this dissertation, I explore the similarities and differences in the trajectories of social change in Iran and Nicaragua by comparing the development and implementation of revolutionary political cultures. I develop a theory of dialogic revolutionary change in which a revolutionary cultural formation is articulated by actors into various revolutionary projects, the effects of which then change the cultural formation through a process of social reflection. Using an analysis of newspapers, propaganda, correspondence, and secondary sources, I reconstruct the revolutionary formations that guided the processes of change in Iran and Nicaragua between 1979 and 1999, focusing on their constructions of utopia, freedom, and nationalism. I also track shifts in these formations across four distinct phases of social change: the bounding, building, defending, and reforming of revolution.

The analysis reveals three major similarities between the two revolutions that created a distinctive four-phase process of social change: the process of revolutionary boundarymaking, increasing revolutionary reactivity, and the constant normative and material pressures of the international system of nation-states. It also reveals three factors that differentiated the revolution’s responses to the challenges of each revolutionary phase: the content of the revolutionary formation, the form of revolutionary challenges, and differing modes of revolutionary articulation and reflection. Together, these factors explain why Nicaragua’s revolution conceded defeat to global neoliberal pressures in 1990, while Iran’s revolution was able to reinvent itself and survive its encounter with the neoliberal world order that same year.

By contrasting these two revolutions after the fall of the old regime, I not only work towards the creation of an updated “natural history” of revolutions, but also identify the key factors contributing to the survival and evolution of revolutionary cultural elements as they are challenged and critiqued.  This is an account of how social change itself changes over time, and of how this process changes the shape of revolution.

Revolution for Whom?: Miskitos and Sandinistas in Revolutionary Nicaragua
A very early draft of this paper – a spin-off  of my dissertation – was presented at the 2017 ASA conference in Montreal. It examines the transformation of Sandinismo and Miskito nationalism through their interactions during the Nicaraguan Revolution. Read a working draft of the paper here.
Abstract: The 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution both ended a brutal dictatorship and transformed ethnic boundaries between mestizos on the country’s Pacific Coast and indigenous groups on its Atlantic Coast. Though sometimes praised for its accomplishments on the Pacific Coast, the revolutionary Sandinista regime relegated the nation’s ethnic minorities to passive roles in the revolutionary process, or else excluded them entirely. This paper examines the transformation of ethnic boundaries in revolutionary Nicaragua by examining the evolution of two nationalisms in conflict – mestizo Sandinismo and Miskito ethno-nationalism – through a process of revolutionary boundary-making. By casting Miskitos (and other indigenous groups) as passive recipients of the revolution, the Sandinista regime actually opened up a space for Miskito nationalists to change the course of the Nicarguan Revolution, forcing fundamental changes in revolutionary discourse through periods of possibilistic partnership, paranoid conflict, and grudging cooperation.

Political Culture and Social Change: A Theory of Revolutionary Cultural Formations
This paper is an article-length adaptation of the theory chapter of my dissertation. It outlines my theory of revolutionary cultural formations and extends it to apply more broadly to times of social change.

Abstract: This paper develops a new way of conceptualizing the process of social change in unsettled times: as the articulation of social projects by social actors from a cultural object that consists of a linked set of frameworks, orientations, identities, and symbols. It begins by describing the different types of social projects that actors undertake, and then examines in detail the structure and dynamics of cultural formations and the cultural elements that make them up. It then explores the processes of articulation – how actors put cultural formations into action – and reflection – how this enactment creates shift in the cultural formation. It ends with a brief application of this theory to the early years of the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions, from 1979 to 1984, to illustrate how this theory helps us understand how the process of social change itself changes.