All across the globe, the changing political climate of the mid-1960s led to a growing weariness about the ability of established governments to effectively lead. This disillusionment led to a large number of emerging factions in both developed and undeveloped nations, many of which called for immediate social change. In some cases, such as the Cultural Revolution in China and the antiwar movement in the United States, leftist leanings were transformed into massive movements with the capability to profoundly impact the political climate of a tumultuous era. One decade later, this fervor for political upheaval was captured in Iran, though this time not under the guise of leftist groups and utopic visions of freedom. Rather, the Iranian Revolution promised a new way for its citizens, one anchored by Islamist rule and existing separately from the two Cold War superpowers. 

In evaluating the three movements, one could certainly argue that the revolutionary spirit of the '60s in the United States has faded into nonexistence, and the failure of Mao’s Cultural Revolution is an undeniable fact. Yet, the Islamist government in Iran still survives today, differing very little from the original theocratic regime installed in 1979. In examining the challenges of power within America in the late 60s, China during the mid 60s and early 70s, and Iran in the late 70s, a striking conclusion is reached: When attempting to challenge an existing order, the voice of the discontented masses calling for social change is not nearly as loud or effective as the voice of concentrated power promising stability to the masses, even at the expense of certain rights.

A Cultural Revolution propaganda poster 

The Cultural Revolution of China in 1966 was a social movement led from the top but powered by the bottom. At the age of 72, Mao Zedong temporarily succeeded in mobilizing a tremendous force of youth attracted to the goals of socialism and modernization. Mao identified the enemies as the bourgeois intellectuals, the party cadres, the government bureaucrats, and essentially all those in positions of authority within China. Yet the Cultural Revolution was able to transcend the typical Cold War dichotomies of right vs. left, capitalism vs. socialism, Americans vs. Soviets, by presenting China as a third-world nation in possession of a more promising blueprint for socialism. Opponents of Mao were dismissed as “little Krushchevs,” working for the worst compromiser of them all, party leader Liu Shaoqi, deemed “big Krushchev.” Keeping with the theme of many exhilarating revolutions, such as the later Iranian uprising, Mao offered a third, largely uncharted option for China, one untainted by American imperialism or Soviet revisionism.  

In addition to appealing to individualism and non-alignment within his country, Mao tapped into the youth conscious by infiltrating the cultural landscape. Using big-character posters to occupy formerly public space with Maoist rhetoric, he presented a forum for public communication — provided, of course, that the communication fit within the bounds of Maoist ideology. The appeal of Mao’s message, and perhaps also the cause of the movement’s downfall, was the promise that previously marginalized groups would be given a voice, that peasants and students would be the leaders of the revolution. As Mao explained, “youth is the great army of the Great Cultural Revolution!” 

By 1968 however, Mao had rescinded this rhetoric and began to banish the youth, who he saw as volatile and discordant, to countryside factories far from the revolution. Without the collective energy of the younger generation, Mao’s ambition for mass initiative waned and many felt betrayed by their leader. Despite, or possibly due to, successful entry into the UN and diplomatic breakthroughs with the US, the spirit of the Cultural Revolution had largely subsided by 1973. Although the struggle for modernism and socialism continued, Mao’s Cultural Revolution dissolved, spiritually with the banishment of the youth and officially with Mao’s death in 1976.

A Free Speech Movement protest at UC Berkley 

Meanwhile, the late 1960s saw an explosion of social activism in the United States. Though the Vietnam War and civil rights movement had been going on for some time already, the final two years of the ‘60s marked a significant turn toward violence for the resistance groups. Led by Berkley’s protest movements, a new left emerged to fight back against the established elites. Fueled by the massive increase of university populations, and antagonized by the ongoing brutality of the Vietnam War, the “new left” rejected the peaceful style used in the early part of the decade and turned increasingly toward guerrilla tactics. The Free Speech Movement at UC Berkley provided a template for student groups around the country, one that rested on protests, building occupations, and a willingness to get arrested for a cause.

Interestingly, the movement of the late ‘60s looked to the third world for a model of successful insurgency. Che Guevara and Mao Zedong were hailed as visionaries in the states for their ability to independently threaten the superpowers and provide an alternative option to their citizens. Discussions of class struggle domestically and imperialism abroad took the shape of Marxist critiques in the same vein as the movement’s Third World neighbors.

Groups advocating against the war and groups advocating for civil rights were one and the same. Despite class differences between wealthy white students and predominantly black civil rights groups, both shared the same idea of the future and were willing to take radical measures to achieve their goals. As an alliance developed between these like-minded youth, the chasm widened between the established, conservative elites, and the revolutionary youth. Antiwar movements, beginning in Berkley and spreading across the country, mirrored the brutality of Vietnam, with constant confrontation with police forces and soldiers. Demonstrations in Oakland and Washington resulted in army deployment and massive arrests, giving the radical youth the attention of the nation. Urban riots were also breaking out across America, beginning in 1965 and culminating in an enormous uprising following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that, “turned the structure of power in society upside down."

But for all the national attention and momentous gains of the movement, the majority of Americans desired right side up structures of power. Excessive force could be used on the radicals in America for the same reason it could be used on insurgents abroad — the demand for stability trumped all other considerations in the eyes of the government and many of the people. While the civil rights movements undeniably contributed to gains for minorities in the ‘60s, the decade ended with many groups unsatisfied with the progress they had made. Similarly, the youth-led antiwar movement certainly shaped public opinion concerning Vietnam, but ultimately failed to achieve the lofty goals many had envisioned. Nixon’s election in 1970 proved that the American populace was not ready for revolution, and the war dragged on for another five years under the conservative President. The spark of youthful energy that so polarized the late ‘60s in America never developed into a sustainable flame, and traces of that revolutionary spirit among the masses are muted, if not entirely absent, today.

The Cultural Revolution in China and antiwar movement in the United States differed greatly, in terms of goals and organization, but they both failed for the same reasons. While China’s revolution was orchestrated by a single person, the movement against the Vietnam War lacked a clear leader. Nevertheless, both movements depended on the support of the youth and the collective desire of a country to overthrow a long-established nation-state. The energetic youth succeeded in garnering support in both examples, but each faltered in presenting the older, more conservative citizenry with a template for future stability. The legitimacy of the long-standing nation state was challenged across the globe, but without the support of those unwilling to follow the hot-blooded youth into uncharted territory, the revolutions eventually dissolved and the elite establishments retained power. Nearly a decade later, Iran would avoid these pitfalls and prove the necessity of stability in establishing a new regime.

When significant resistance began to develop against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, it was not from one faction of disaffected peoples but many. The Shah’s regime naturally angered clergymen and conservatives for its secularism. His willingness to provide the United States with oil appalled groups across the political spectrum, who saw his association with an imperial power as evidence of a complete disregard for Iranian cultural autonomy. Additionally, rising inflation rates of 1975, increasing economic inequality, and strict price controls created enemies within all classes of Iran. By September of 1978, growing discontent erupted into rioting and it became clear that Leftists could work alongside Islamists to achieve their shared goal of disposing the Shah. Three months later, when the marches of Moharram took on a religious nature and the exiled ayatollah Khomeini began to take on a prophet-like status, the revolution defined itself as one spearheaded by the increasing number of Islamists in Iran.

Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Ruhollah Khomeini achieved success by framing the revolution as one for, and defined by, the people. According to one student activist, “The Islamic republic…favours all free and independent governments which are for justice. It is the kind of government that people wanted and that they have created themselves." While movements in the US truly were created from the bottom, and revolution in China was at least powered by the bottom, Khomeini had no intention of handing power down to the masses. The Islamic order, handed down by God and thus irrefutable by design, was specific enough to retain order and yet mystically vague enough to create illusions of political freedom and personal autonomy. Khomeini didn’t offer a third way in the likes of Mao, but rather a supernatural one, seemingly resting in clouds above the political spectrum.

The success of the Iranian Revolution can be attributed to numerous factors, but it is perhaps most greatly due to Khomeini’s ability to appeal to large groups initially, and centralize his position after acquiring power. After the Islamic Republic was democratically voted for, Khomeini and his party became the established power, and no longer had to appeal to the diverse population of Iran. Despite promises of extended freedom, the new regime cracked down on civilian rights, imposing harsh restrictions on women and persecuting religious minorities. Opposition groups were quickly squashed by the republic and, despite an upcoming war with Iraq and conflicts with the U.S., Khomeini created a long-lasting regime.

Where the revolutions of China and America failed, Iran succeeded due the people’s illusion of security. Islamic law, as promised by Khomeini, would save Iran from the clutches of imperial powers and conflict at home as well. The revolution was built on faith, but sustained by the Islamic regime’s ability to suppress dissidence and opposition. By centralizing authority quickly and maintaining a consistent base of followers, Khomeini was able to accomplish what the youth of America and Mao were not. Through the examples of China, America, and Iran, it becomes clear that in order to successful overthrow a government and retain power, it is of the utmost importance to appeal to the people’s desire for stability through any means necessary.