The United Nations "development decade" will go down in history not as a period of spectacular economic growth but as one of sluggish and laggard progress, marred by socio-economic chaos, political upheavals, coups d'états and mass discontent with the entrenched establishments. Political upsets in Algeria, Syria, the Congo, Nigeria, Ghana and Indonesia have been some of the outstanding cases. Others less conspicuous and less internationally significant have occurred all over South America, Africa and Asia.

Many political analysts have been too ready to explain these overturns in terms of internal political shifts toward socialism or capitalism, the left or the right, the West or the East. Often they have linked them to power plays between the United States, the Soviet Union and Red China, with the outcome frequently interpreted as a "clear gain" for one and a "serious setback" for others.

Oftentimes, however, when a Western-oriented régime in a country receiving American aid is toppled by internal subversion or disguised foreign aggression, the presence or continuation of American aid is held responsible. On other occasions, when a similar pro-Western régime which has not been aided by the United States is overthrown by opposition from within or without, the absence or lack of sufficient U.S. support is considered the villain. In the one case, the United States and other Western countries are blamed for inadvertently or irresponsibly fomenting dissident elements by supporting an unpopular, illegitimate, dictatorial, militaristic and corrupt government; in the other case, they are blamed for failing to support progressive, democratic, liberal and occasionally anti- monarchical forces.

The purpose of this article is, first, to question simplified explanations of recent revolts in terms of ideological orientations or big-power machinations; second, to bring into sharper focus some of the more fundamental factors which may not seem immediately responsible and are perhaps more easily overlooked; and, third, to discuss certain conditions under which a developing country can combine an ideologically neutral course with progressive economic policies to achieve a measure of political stability over a relatively long time.


The frequent socio-political upheavals in recent years (52 coups in a short span of ten years) fail to show any distinct political shift to the left or to the right. Nor do they reveal an easily recognizable connection with political rivalries among the big powers. Instead, they seem to manifest a fairly consistent pattern of internal discontent against intolerable social conditions and genuine frustrations resulting from too slow a climb up the economic ladder of progress and prosperity. Each coup, regardless of its outward appearance, represents essentially a desperate attempt to find new means of coping with the same stubborn, age-old problems. While the coup leaders attribute the unsatisfactory situation to the evils of the entrenched establishment, their real intention is to move up to a higher economic plateau and not sideways to the political left or right.

Brazil, Nigeria, Syria, Ghana and Indonesia in the first half of the 1960s present fascinating examples of political upheavals having essentially similar purposes, but apparently moving in quite different directions on the political spectrum. In Brazil, the military under the leadership of General Castello Branco ousted a conspicuously leftist government in favor of a middle-of-the-roader. In Syria, early in 1966, military forces under Major General Jadid toppled a relatively moderate régime in favor of one conspicuously further to the left. In Ghana and Indonesia, Generals Ankrah and Suharto took initial measures toward restoring greater political freedom. In Nigeria, the revolution of General Aguiyi-Ironsi in early 1966 pushed this "model" of African democracy toward more centralized public control and discipline. Revolutions in the smaller African and Latin American states have been even more confusing in their political orientation.

In the light of these experiences it seems reasonable to argue that the dramatic disorders of the recent past (and most likely the impending crises of the future) in the underdeveloped world are not the result of a philosophical choice between socialism, capitalism and other "isms." Such abstract political ideologies are generally incomprehensible to the rank and file and are only vaguely understood by their more articulate spokesmen, whose preference for a certain "ism" may be only an expedient means of getting the "in" group "out." If the existing order is "socialistic" and has proven incapable of satisfying the people's expectations, then "capitalist" reformers become heroes (as in Soleiman Demirel's Turkey). If, on the other hand, the establishment is oriented toward "free enterprise" (as in postwar Iraq, Egypt, Syria) but problems remain unsolved, or excesses and inefficiencies continue, then the capitalists are pushed over.

Underlying most of the upheavals is dissatisfaction among the opposition groups with seemingly unbearable economic conditions, political misrule and social injustice. The opposition's dissatisfaction may be real or fancied. But in either case, it often has little to do with Western or westernized choices between planning and free enterprise, one-party system versus Western democracy, socialism versus conservatism. Instead, it is frequently symptomatic of frustrations caused by the failure to realize widely-held expectations of rosier times to come. Any detectable "ism" in these upheavals, if it is not realism or pragmatism, often turns out to be emotionalism and nationalism.[i]

Expectations, too, may be legitimate or wishful. But regardless of their true nature (and despite some official pronouncements to the contrary), they are not rooted in a greater desire for freedom, justice and democracy in the abstract Western sense, but seem based mainly on a desire for certain concrete, down-to-earth issues that are nationally relevant-such as improved standards of living, better jobs and greater self-respect. It is the postponed realization of these expectations that creates popular discontent and the ensuing military or civilian uprisings.


Obsessed by the exigencies of a passionate nationalism that demands the assertion of political independence, and forced to rely on the resources and generosity of the old imperialists and colonialists to achieve a semblance of economic viability, the newly-independent countries of Africa and Asia are often tossed on the horns of a tormenting dilemma which they can neither forget nor resolve. These slowly emerging nations are bent on catching up with their former colonial masters by following the same path to national salvation, i.e. rapid economic growth, aided by foreign resources without sacrificing hard-won political independence. Compared to this primary objective, everything else to them seems secondary.

The nationalism of the developing countries today, like that of their counterparts in the nineteenth century, is a protest against economic deprivation, social confusion and political dependence. But unlike a century ago, legitimate aspirations for a better life cannot be fulfilled through territorial expansion, commercial subjugation or gunboat diplomacy at the expense of other nations, countries or continents. The struggle has to be won by the combined efforts of the people themselves and a generous inflow of external assistance from their richer uncles. Accepting charity and maintaining pride, however, do not always go hand in hand. Indeed, the smaller the country and the scantier its resources, the greater, ironically, is the desire for having both nationalism and economic progress at the same time.

Most of the new nations have found great difficulty in coping with their development problems. They have had to solve their essentially short-run problems of providing employment for the increasingly urban and increasingly articulate labor force; enlarging public and private investments; finding extra revenues to combat increasing budgetary deficits and threatening inflation; and correcting institutional deficiencies in their land, tax and administrative structures. Simultaneously, they have had to prepare to deal with such long-run problems as increasing agricultural and industrial productivity; raising efficiency in the service industries (particularly the government); importing and adapting foreign capital and know-how-in sum, making ready for the day when they can stand on their own feet.

The social and economic obstacles to the solution of these problems, short and long-run alike, are familiar: basic poverty as evidenced by the low standards of food, health and literacy; shortage of domestic savings; small inclination on the part of private entrepreneurs to invest in long-term productive enterprises; limited markets; paucity of foreign private and public capital; and the continuing deterioration of external earnings. There are other and more specific obstacles in each case.

To the extent that the politico-economic salvation of an emerging country rests in its own resources, initiative, organization and leadership, it faces an inherently destabilizing dilemma: the necessity of choosing between irrational nationalism and rapid economic growth. The dilemma often presents itself in the choice between the grandiose, popular and prideful manifestations of independent nationhood, on the one hand, and the rigid, often painful and seldom popular dictates of efficient and rational economic development on the other. Passionate nationalism may dictate an outright rejection of outside assistance.[ii] It may also bring about unduly extensive investments in nationally prestigious projects of questionable value from the standpoint of immediate economic growth. Instances would be Nkrumah's grandiose facilities for African conferences, Sukarno's immense building for meetings of an Asian rival to the United Nations or the perpetually-losing airlines of half a dozen poverty-stricken countries. In less obvious cases, the nationalists may press for heavier industrial investments than organizations such as the World Bank are willing to finance. And there is the perennial dispute between the aid- givers and aid-receivers over estimates of national defense needs.

To the extent, also, that the process of economic growth is to be helped by foreign assistance, there is the difficulty that foreign aid often comes with real or imaginary "strings" attached to it. This is bound to irritate some sensitive nationalistic nerves as a breach of national sovereignty. An example is the insistence by the United States on "self-help" as a condition for offering economic assistance, or the pressure for signing a status-of-forces agreement as a necessary condition for receiving military aid. The bulk of the foreign aid offered by the old established nations to peoples overflowing with national pride is thus badly handicapped before it starts.

The delicate task of the national leader as a promoter of internal growth under these circumstances lies in his ability to strike the proper balance between (1) the exigencies of domestic development schemes within the framework of national independence; (2) tolerance on the part of those who will be adversely affected by the necessary reforms; and (3) reasonably satisfactory progress toward the better and fuller life that has been promised. A few leaders have been able to achieve this feat, and a few may yet do so; but there is no standard recipe.

The pivotal elements of development-fierce nationalism, impatience for progress and the need for outside aid-may thus lead to dissatisfaction, opposition and revolt.

The drama ordinarily begins when insatiable expectations beyond reasonable possibility of fulfillment meet insurmountable obstacles, and the whole development effort bogs down in nerve-wracking frustration. The resulting discontent finally erupts in a bloody or bloodless coup against the established order. Whether the revolt is of the military against the civilians (as in Algeria, Indonesia or Nigeria), of civilians against the military (as in Sudan and Ecuador) or civilians against civilians (as in Saudi Arabia), the essential cause usually remains the same: in the course of slow and painful socio-economic development the hero, however earnest, seldom succeeds in catching up with the villain, and by failing to achieve the unachievable he ends up with the boot. Audience and participants alike give their loudest cheers to the new hero or the pseudo-hero-the ambitious young militarist, the crafty old messiah or the plain charismatic demagogue- who promises to bring about the long-delayed heaven on earth. The seed of their downfall in turn is sown in the promises that they cannot fulfill. And the drama of showmanship versus statesmanship repeats itself.


The question arising from the foregoing discussion is whether or not there is an escape from the game of musical chairs. The answer is yes, but not always and not for all developing countries. It depends on how reforms are conceived, presented and carried out.

In an analysis of different journeys toward socio-economic progress, Professor Hirschman lists the major ingredients of a reform as: a dormant crisis, shift of politico-economic power from one group to another, resistance on the part of the losers accompanied by violence, and the emergence of new problems that may aid (or hinder) the reform.[iii] All major reforms in the Hirschman model are revolutionary in essence, with some revolutionary destructiveness; nationwide in their sweep, with some sectionalist logrolling; mutually agreed upon by opposing interests, with some mutual sacrifices; and involve shifts in allegiances resulting in some degree of political instability.

It is the contention of the present writer that a country with good development potential, farsighted leadership, continuity in governing institutions, and a patient population willing to pay the full price of economic development can, even within the framework of Hirschman's analysis, achieve major socio-economic reforms without violent upheavals and with other unfavorable concomitants reduced to a tolerable minimum.

Among the emerging countries with these characteristics, Iran offers an interesting example. For well over a decade now, a curious assortment of dissident groups-Cassandras, self-appointed redeemers and other ill-wishers for the régime-have been predicting an imminent political crisis in the country, and the resulting downfall of the present establishment. Yet not only has Iran continued to enjoy relative political stability amidst unbelievably far-reaching socio-economic reforms, but it has managed to experience a fairly decent rate of economic growth. And, despite some well- publicized examples of stress and strain, the political fabric of the government and the socio-economic structure of the country have held together. In direct contrast to the Iranian situation, bloody revolutions, military coups and experiments with various kinds of socialism and capitalism among Iran's neighbors to the west and southwest have failed the tests of survival or success.

Iran's Six Point Reform Program[iv] (which the Shah has called "white revolution" from the throne) and other measures such as administrative reorganization, improved taxation and the democratization of society, all seem to contain the kernel of Hirschman reforms. That is, they are revolutionary both in concept and in application; nationwide in coverage; more or less accepted by the majority of winners and losers alike; and responsible for significant changes in the composition of political institutions and political allegiance. The land reform program has affected in one way or another more than 95 percent of Iran's 50,000 villages. The Literacy Corps, consisting of more than 30,000 young secondary-school and college draftees, has taught more than 400,000 men, women and children in upward of 10,000 villages. Women have been given the right to participate in nationwide elections for the first time in Iran's history. Workers have been given varying shares of profit in their industrial establishments. The cornerstones for basic industries have been laid.

There has been resistance, to be sure. There have been riots, demonstrations, attempted assassinations and continued grumbling on the part of the big landlords, orthodox clergy, fanatic Moslems and those for whom nothing short of a Swiss democracy will do. But the feared resistance of landlords has been surprisingly slight. The Literacy and Health Corpsmen, despite some apprehension that they might agitate the villagers against the central government, have done their jobs faithfully and responsibly. The profit-sharing plan, contrary to the unfavorable predictions and thanks to its flexibility, has not stopped private (domestic or foreign) investments in the country. In short, the grave that was supposed to be dug by the reforms so far seems to have been a cradle for their orderly development.

There have been sacrifices, hardships, dislocations and shifts in allegiance, too, resulting in unfortunate and unnecessary rifts among national leaders, disunity among progressive elements and meaningless dissidence among the élite. Yet compared to the enormity of these revolutionary tasks (and matched against many less successful and far more costly experiences in other countries), these have not been an impossible price to pay.

Why has this been the case? What fortunate set of conditions has enabled Iran to avoid, or minimize, the heavy costs of its reforms? The answer lies in a combination of favorable internal and external factors which, while satisfying the requirements of what the Shah has called "positive" nationalism, also met the exigencies of a steady, though not spectacular, economic growth. First, the reforms were conceived and brought about from the top, instead of the middle or the bottom as is generally the case. Second, historical choice and foresight took the place of "historical necessity" and "the blindness of the ruling class." Third, economic hardships of the so-called "losers" (e.g. landlords) were smoothed out by the government's ability to compensate them out of its revenues from oil. Fourth, entrepreneurial decision-making by the villagers, and agricultural credits to the newly established coöperatives, were facilitated by a combination of domestic and foreign efforts. And, fifth, external aid, both financial and technical, provided the supporting links without playing the decisive role in the formation of the policies themselves, thus minimizing nationalistic resentments.

While the success of some of these measures has been grudgingly admitted even by the opposition, the Iranian experience could have been still more outstanding under still better circumstances. Uncertainties about the results of the reforms have made some cautious capitalists reluctant to take risks in new productive ventures. The extra incomes of the new landowners and profit-sharers have gone into extra consumption instead of increased savings, thus reducing the size of private investment. The small number of trained villagers has delayed the creation of multi-purpose coöperatives. The speed with which the reforms have been put into effect has not met with the total approval of those who favored more extensive debates, deliberations and plain democratic bargaining. Admittedly, not all the agricultural laborers, sharecroppers and city workers have enjoyed equally the benefits of land reform or other schemes. To expedite the distribution of land among peasant cultivators, each peasant has been given the plot he previously tilled rather than an economically optimal lot capable of supporting a peasant family. Thus the relative shares of some cultivators may have been too large or too small from the standpoint of equity or economic efficiency.[v]

The reforms have also been hindered by exogenous factors. Toward the end of the 1950s, the Iranian economy faced, for the first time in its almost 40 years of continuous growth (with varying amounts of inflation), a recession of the Western and industrial variety caused by over-investment and excess capacity in certain vital sectors of the economy. Although the origin of this recession was unrelated to the reforms and was aggravated by a continued period of drought, its continuation into the '60s and up to 1964 did have adverse effects on the "white revolution." A good part of the government budget had to be devoted to sustaining the drought-stricken farmers in several parts of the country, and a good deal of aid had to be allocated to faltering industrial establishments. Another sizeable portion of the country's national resources had to be appropriated for the national defense budget in order to combat the actual and potential threats of agitators in and out of the country.

Yet despite pessimistic forecasts about the repercussions of these and other unfavorable events on the country as a whole, no crisis has so far materialized. The economy, from the middle of 1964 onward, has picked up enough speed to augur another upward trend. Increased foreign private investments, both from Europe and the United States, are indicative of foreign confidence in the favorable long-run economic prospects of the country. There are also indications that private hoarding is finding its way into productive investments once again.[vi] Increased oil revenues continue to guarantee a steady rise in domestic investments. In fact, the buoyancy of public and private activities in the last few months has renewed the dangers of inflation once again.

The real threats to Iran's present economic prosperity and the success of its reforms do not stem from the lingering poverty of the peasants or the wretchedness of the urban proletariat or a crisis of confidence among the capitalist-entrepreneurs. One of the obstacles to Iran's continued stability and material welfare lies in the machinations and misleading propaganda of the disgruntled opposition, of whom the majority are not the underprivileged peasants and workers but rather comfortably-placed groups of intellectuals who crave greater political power, wealth and social status than they enjoy under the present régime.

These groups are by no means homogeneous. In fact, the only common bond among them is their opposition to the present system of reign and rule by the Shah. The so-called liberals among them advocate a wholesale embracing of Western goals and techniques, whether or not they are relevant to the Iranian situation. Many of these "liberators" raise their voices of opposition from safe havens in foreign countries. Some of them are fanatics of the right or left who wish to turn the clock back to the "golden" past or speed it impracticably forward. And there are naïve visionaries who wish to reduce the complex process of development to simple formulas and slogans- who want revolutionary changes without infringement of their own status; orderly transition without established institutions; legitimacy of one government over another without a legitimate base.

Another and perhaps more significant threat to orderly socio-economic development comes from some loyal groups who, in their aggressive and dynamic earnestness, may push forward too fast and commit the country beyond its rising resources, thus overheating the economy in a manner resembling the 1957-60 period and jeopardizing orderly growth in the years to come.


If the foregoing analysis is correct, then the following conclusions may be reached. First, the so-called "flurry of takeovers" in developing countries in the first six years of the 1960s can hardly be shown to have followed a distinct ideological pattern either to the left or to the right. Whatever role the West or the East has played in bringing them about, foreign intervention can scarcely have been the determining factor either in the long-run survival of an otherwise faltering government or in the inevitable demise of a broad-based and ideologically entrenched régime. Second, from the standpoint both of mid-twentieth-century realities and in the perspective of postwar political history as a whole, the interplay of nationalistic pride, an unrealistic craving for rapid material welfare and the insufficiency or impropriety of foreign assistance can easily produce the preconditions for a political upheaval. And, third, a proper balance between national aspirations, economic sufficiency and carefully selected external assistance can stave off such volcanic eruptions indefinitely, or at least for a long time.

As an example of propitious circumstances, both internal and external, conducive to relative political stability, Iran is a good case in point. Compared to many a developing country, Iran has been fortunate in having fewer problems and more extensive resources to cope with them. The country has also been able to institute a series of significant reforms with less difficulty than many of her neighbors. By restraining exaggerated nationalistic ambitions, making fairly good use of domestic resources and securing foreign assistance from East and West, a fair rate of economic growth has been maintained. The opposition, so far, has been articulate but ineffective. In the snags that have developed so far, external factors (including the erratic nature of foreign aid) have had their share of the blame. In the future, however, any real threat to economic stability and growth is more likely to come from the effective doings (mistakes, excesses, overzealousness) of the chauvinists among the "in" groups, rather than the ineffective undoings (ramblings, denunciations and threats) of the "out" groups.

[i] A candid admission of the irrelevance of socialist dogma to the realities of life in a developing country is to be found in Mrs. Indira Gandhi's speech to the nation late in April 1966 when she said: "This government is fully committed to the objectives of a socialist and democratic society. But our socialism is one that is related to the reality of the Indian situation. It is not wedded to any dogma. What we want is a better life, with more food, employment and opportunities."

[ii] As was the case in Syria in the early 1950s when that country refused Point 4 aid from the United States.

[iii] A. O. Hirschman, "Journeys toward Progress." New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1963.

[iv] Land reform; nationalization of forests; sale of state-owned industries to the public; profit-sharing by workers in industrial enterprises; electoral reforms including franchise for women; and the establishment of a literacy corps out of military conscripts to teach in the villages.

[v] The reformers have not had any illusions about the possibility of a regrouping of present small land-holdings and the emergence of new landlordism in the future. Future land-holdings, they argue, will follow a process of rational selection, and will be based not on heredity or feudal aristocracy but upon the strength of individual initiative, capability and entrepreneurship.

[vi] The confidence of Iranian capitalists in the long-run politico- economic stability of the country is reflected in an enormous accumulation of private savings deposited in domestic banks during the 1960-64 recession, and a surprisingly small amount of capital flight from the country in the same period-as evidenced by the stability of foreign- exchange rates in the Iranian "free" market.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now