Publications Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’s Internet Archive

Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 175 Contents

Socialist Review, May 1994

Kevin Orr


Tale of two tyrants


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Emperor &
Shah of Shahs
Ryszard Kapuscinski
Picador £6.99

Ryszard Kapuscinski claims to have witnessed 27 revolutions, which is no mean feat. This book brings together compelling accounts of two of them – the last days of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia and the Shah of Iran. The writing is impressionistic and highly evocative, and for all its limited scope and style there is time and again insight and a piercing clarity.

The Emperor records the fall of Haile Selassie as described in the words of the people closest to him: the likes of ‘His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer’, his servants, ministers and sycophants. It can make for a nauseating read. How ‘His Most Benevolent Majesty’ swore publicly to fight the Italian invaders while in fact weathering the storm in the town of Bath; the gluttonous banquets held while hundreds of thousands were starving through poverty, not shortage of food: ‘... it is not bad for national order and a sense of national humility that the subjects be rendered skinnier, thinned down a bit.’

‘It was no accident that the majority of people around the Emperor were mean and servile’, Kapuscinski notes. ‘Meanness and servility were the conditions of ennoblement.’ Corruption and self indulgence on a gargantuan scale existed alongside utter disdain for ordinary Ethiopians. But all the time the revolution was coming.

Kapuscinski is brilliant at revealing where these two revolutions evolve from, the events that individually or out of context would seem meaningless but together spark millions to rise up – even Jonathan Dimbleby had a small role to play in the downfall of Haile Selassie by exposing the emperor’s hypocrisy to the outside world. It was an American Peace Corps fashion show that allowed students to assemble and attack his palace. In Iran the publication of a newspaper article criticising Khomeini was one of the catalysts for demonstrations against the Shah.

The second book in this collection conveys the history of Iran and the Shi’ites as well as the rise of the Shah’s dynasty in a fashion that is almost whimsical.

Yet very effectively he evokes the fear of the Savak, the secret police, the resentment of the ‘petro-bourgeoisie’ and ‘The Great Civilisation’ the Shah talks about.

Kapuscinski writes about the moment that determined the fate of the Shah: previously when a policeman raised his truncheon and shouted, the person on the edge of the crowd was seized by fear and ran. But at that moment it was different:

‘The policeman shouts, but the man doesn’t run. He just stands there looking at the policeman. It’s a cautious look still tinged with fear, but at the same time tough and insolent ... He glances around and sees the same look on other faces ... The man has stopped being afraid – and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution.’

Kapuscinski’s generalisations in Shah of Shahs are occasionally infuriating, and don’t bother to look for mention of the strikes or workers’ councils in Iran. They are not there.

These books read like novels and are filled with swirling ideas and images that evoke the emotions of those involved in the last days of the Ethiopian and Iranian dictators in a way no conventional account could. Well worth a read.

Socialist Review Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 18 April 2017