Historicizing Individuals: The Curious Case of Morgan Shuster

by tigermanifesto

W. Morgan Shuster

W. Morgan Shuster

The following is a set of notes that is not properly cited and is more of a throat-clearing exercise preceding the actual work of doing rigorous history. Comment and ask if you want clarifications or a specific source for a claim.

I find myself in an unenviable position. In order to keep my academic career’s wheel spinning forward, I have to complete a large-scale project that, through one twist or another, has ended up focusing on an individual. All of my historical and Marxist instincts run against the idea that history is driven by individuals or collections of individuals who somehow transcend their situation in heroic fashion. I accept that history is a process without a subject, as Althusser would put it, and that in most cases the historical actors who are most successful in effecting change are those who recognize historical necessity. Not in a deterministic way, but in grasping their own concrete situation and recognizing both what must be done and the negative side, that is, what would happen if necessity goes unfulfilled. If this seems abstract, I will attempt to enliven this idea in the following example that pertains to my current research. Add to this one other point I want to make about people sometimes being lost in the plots they’re caught up in and how we can both set them and ourselves a bit straighter though proper concrete analysis.

In the twilight of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, the reconstituted Majlis––parliament––of Iran, having recently regained the upper hand against a counter-revolution and established a shaky security for itself on the basis of an alliance with Bakhtiari chieftains and the heroic efforts of leftist and democratic forces, decided to hire American financial advisors to put their country’s taxation and customs in order. This American delegation included the main subject of my research, William Morgan Shuster, an imperialist prodigy who had taken high administrative positions in the American colonies in Cuba and The Philippines before retiring into a comfortable law practice in Washington, D.C. He sailed for Tehran with a technocratic understanding of his mandate in Iran, and without the backing of the American government in any capacity.

The United States, though verbally sympathetic to the Iranian democratic forces, at all points refused to compromise their airs of neutrality. Great Britain and Russia, meanwhile, had divided the country into two spheres of influence in 1907, and though they were at first willing to suffer these Americans’ attempts to collect Iran’s taxes, quickly proved that they had no intention of allowing even foreign citizens to impede on their self-declared “rights” in Iranian territory. In short, Shuster attempted to expropriate the property of Russian proteges in the Persian court as well as those related to the old deposed shah. Equipped with a small gendarmerie specifically assigned to treasury duties, he forced his way through Russian opposition and seized the properties in question. This provoked a renewed Russian invasion of Iran, culminating in the shelling of the Majlis and the end of a brief experiment in parliamentary rule in the country. It also extinguished the last strength of the democratic forces in the country, at least in any ruling capacity, and set up the country for a decade of chaos culminating in the ascent of comprador ruler Reza Shah in the 1920s––using elements of the army that had been constructed during and just after Shuster’s tenure as Treasurer General. In short, this critical, revolutionary period in 1911 set the stage for the long reign of reaction in Iran throughout the rest of the 20th century, challenged in brief bursts but always triumphant in the form of latent reactionary forces garbed in religious clothing or imperialist meddling.

As I mentioned, Shuster had a strictly technocratic view of his duties. In his memoir, The Strangling of Persia, published in 1912, he paints himself as a friend of the Iranians and a loyal employee of the state who stepped on colonial powers’ toes in the mere exercise of his duties to his employers. He was a middle manager and nothing more. Yet this does not easily square with the vivid tales of sending gendarmes to cow Russian Cossacks, expropriating aristocratic property, and excoriating imperial powers in the pages of the London Times. Nor does it seem routine for a treasurer to send telegrams to the State Department asking for military manuals for the training of gendarmes. But, as it turned out, Shuster’s self-perception as an apolitical actor just going about his business and receiving the unjust hammer of Russian aggression in return is profoundly incomplete. Shuster was no mere functionary, but rather a powerful political actor. Indeed, the Iranian people and sympathetic elements of the Majlis applauded Shuster’s use of force in seizing property over Russian objections. His actions fulfilled the necessity of what must be done within the limits of revolutionary Iran’s capabilities at that time. Those treasury officers, along with Tehran’s police force headed by the Armenian Eprem Khan, constituted the national government’s only reliable armed defense. From the start, the early 20th century Iranian revolution was a guaranteed non-starter because the country it liberated from absolutism had already passed beneath the pall of imperialist power.

When I write this, I account it strange because I am normally a proponent of the view that all revolutions’ relation to failure or success is determined internally by the revolutionary situation itself. External interventions can exacerbate problems, as did the USSR’s attempts to keep pace with the American arms race, but the failures of a revolutionary movement/party/state can be traced to internal contradictions. But, in considering the fate of the revolutionary constitutional state of Iran, 1906-1911, I cannot help but group the British and Russian interventions as internal rather than external factors because Iran itself was not a free nation capable of maintaining its own order at any point during that time. Its prior integration into the capitalist world system mandated that its rulers, whose personal venality was only matched by their shortsightedness, concede their national sovereignty to European powers, the metropolitan areas of world capitalism. This provoked a series of intensifying popular revolts that won the country its first constitution and even a successful defeat of a counter-revolution. At the very point where the revolutionary forces attempted to extend national sovereignty in a direction that endangered what Russia and Britain considered their interests (and that the Americans recognized and even supported implicitly) they were unable to do so. Deprived even of the ability to manage their own taxation, they had relied on incompetent, grasping Belgian and French officials beforehand, and the Americans were different only insofar as they aligned themselves with the democratic forces and attempted to fulfill their mandate, to disastrous results.

Shuster was, therefore, aligned politically with one side and against another. In breaking his neutrality, which was the only way to put Iranian finances on a sound basis, he had to confront Russian and British imperialism, as well as the indifferent complicity of his own government. One argument that I have seen repeated by several British commentators, including both diplomats and historians of the matter, is that Shuster would have been able to fulfill his duties had he kowtowed to the British and Russian interests in Iran. Of course, this is ridiculous, since recognizing those interests in the way the British and especially the Russians wanted would have prevented him from performing his duties. What we have here is the odd case of a zealous imperialist becoming a de facto ally of an anti-imperialist revolution––this position being facilitated by perceptions of American neutrality shared by all sides––and pushing the constitutional cause to its utmost limit before it collapsed. Russia and Britain would never tolerate a strong government in Tehran with an independent streak, even if that independence in fact depended on the work of American citizens whose jobs bear some resemblance to the hated troika in Greece. In a situation produced by crippling debt, military weakness, and geographical proximity to two competing empires, the constitutionalists may not have been able to hope for a better result.

Of course, that is not to exonerate the progressive forces of the time either. Their own largely condescending attitude toward the mass forces of the revolution, their lack of internal coherence or unity, and that crucial problem of having no control over their own country either militarily or economically made realizing their goals impossible. Considering that their goals were often contradictory and that no singular party was able to capture the revolutionary spontaneity of the Iranian people and educate and form it into a lasting state project is a testament to the fragility of the whole affair. At the same time, those people themselves proved themselves heroic actors, documented with equal heroism in Janet Afary’s book on the subject. Shuster, meanwhile, almost immediately got involved in petty bickering over his lost paycheques. At the same time, he was not unchanged by the encounter with the revolution, and his book proves this. It hardly made him into a committed critic of imperialism, and his typical devotion to American exceptionalism meant he never, as far as I know, repudiated his work in the American colonies, but he instilled into Iranians the strong and false impression that Americans were willing to stick up for the oppressed and colonized. America, too, even at this late date, retained some of that sensibility, which has not been wholly discarded to this day. Indeed, I think we can see the Shuster affair as generating sentiments in the American press and among the American bourgeoisie that remind me of those whipped up in favor of “humanitarian interventions.”

In closing, we come back to the problem of necessity and the related problem of writing about individuals without transfiguring them into transcendent heroes. We can return to Marx’s old aphorism about people making history but not in the conditions of their choosing. But in writing history and theory about real revolutionary moments we have to be willing to enter into that tension and investigate both the people and their conditions, the what must be done and whether it was done and why or why not. A properly materialist and dialectical view of history might view it as a process without a subject but it also behooves us to understand the uneven and strange tectonics and dynamics of that process. How can the continent of history suddenly slip and create tremors, forcing up new mountains and slashing new valleys in its own surface? In writing about Shuster I have to write about his place in that terrain, situating him objectively while also learning about the way he, often erroneously, thought of his own position. Learning about the past and instrumentalizing it in the present means that we not only have to discover what happened and why but why people were wrong or right about their own roles, and, by extension, what the source of our own illusions might be.