24 July 2012

The first Occupier

It was the late fifth century CE, and a mighty realm was cracking under unprecedented strain. The vast Persian Empire, known as Îrânshahr to its people, had been ruled for more than a quarter millennium by the Sasanid dynasty of kings; its territory stretched from deep within what is now Afghanistan to the frontiers of Byzantium, to which it had long stood as a rival and often a full equal (or even superior) in military power.  Now, though, Persia had fallen on harder times.  King Kavâd I was young and untested.  The empire was still reeling from a massive military defeat  in which the barbarians beyond the northeastern frontier had wiped out much of the Persian army and killed Kavâd's father, King Peroz.

Though Persia was theoretically an absolute monarchy, the Zoroastrian priesthood, as representatives of the official religion of the state, had long been a power unto themselves.  So too were the noble land-owning families, who collected their own taxes within their territories, and even maintained their own standing armies.  With the King, state, and national army in weakened straits, the nobility were now more inclined than ever to throw their own weight around.

One interest group had no voice at all:  the Persian masses.  The lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the royal court, the priests, and the nobility alike, rested on the labor of millions of peasants.  Taxation existed not only to pay for services and infrastructure, but more importantly as a classic expropriation of the economic surplus to keep a largely parasitic ruling class in luxury.  In this respect, Îrânshahr was typical of most pre-modern states.  What happened next, after the final straw landed on the camel's back, was not typical.

That final straw took the form of an all-out war between the two most powerful of the noble land-owning families, the Mihran and the Karin.  King Kavâd had encouraged their rivalry to undermine the nobles' power, but the result now was disaster -- the fighting left much of the empire's territory a wasteland of blackened fields and wrecked villages.  The peasants' lives had been burdensome enough, but now millions faced utter destitution, their crops and animals and homes destroyed.  The situation was unendurable.

Comes the hour, comes the man.

Mazdak son of Bâmdâd is a difficult figure to assess.  All the historical material we have about him was written by his enemies.  Zoroastrian, Christian, and (later) Muslim commentators alike poured scorn and vitriol upon him.  Yet through it all we can still see something of who he was, and why the powers-that-be so deeply feared what he stood for.

We do know he started as a Zoroastrian priest, and thus must have had a comfortable life under the existing order.  We don't know what first turned him against the religion he served.  It may have been as simple as a genuine sense of justice.

Brushing aside the establishment priesthood's dedication to formal ritual, Mazdak preached that justice and equality were what mattered.  Class differences and the grossly unequal distribution of wealth, not sin or disobedience, were the truly great evils.  Class differences were to be swept away and property redistributed; ultimately all the wealth of Îrânshahr should be owned collectively by all its people.  At a time when asceticism was on the rise, he preached hedonism.  He rejected eating meat and it has even been suggested that he favored the abolition of slavery.  His teachings coalesced into a genuinely new religion, Mazdakism.  In the ruined countryside, it found an eager audience.

Already some peasants were abandoning the land and turning vagabond.  Now, as Mazdakism spread, their numbers exploded and outright rebellion broke out.  Unstoppable hordes overwhelmed the granaries and estates of the nobility, seizing by force the stockpiled wealth to which they had now been taught they were entitled and which, in the last analysis, had originally been produced by their labor.  They called themselves "the Adherents of Justice".

Peasant revolts have erupted here and there throughout history, but have usually died down quickly due to lack of leadership and the superior organization and armament of the authorities.  In this case, by contrast, the rebellion was fueled by a coherent program and philosophy, of which it indeed constituted merely one arm, if the most active and fearsome one.  Mazdak's teachings have been called the first Communist Manifesto.

The strength which Mazdakism quickly acquired may be judged from the fact that King Kavâd himself became a convert.  Historians disagree about why he did this.  Some think he merely wished to encourage the destruction of the landed nobles' power by the rebellion; others believe he had some genuine sympathy for the peasants' plight (and since Mazdakism took a religious form, it may be that he simply came to believe Mazdak was right about what God willed).  At any rate, he empowered Mazdak to carry out social and economic reforms to help the poor, though nothing so radical as actually implementing full communism.

One other matter must be mentioned.  Some sources say Mazdak advocated collective "sharing" of women (presumably replacing the concept of marriage); it is even said that Kavâd demonstrated the sincerity of his conversion by offering to share his queen with Mazdak.  Modern historians are divided about whether these claims are true.  On the one hand, many pre-modern societies did look upon women more as property than as persons with rights of their own, so it's conceivable that the Mazdakites might have viewed them as just another form of property to be collectively rather than privately held.  On the other hand, all our sources about Mazdak were written by those who sought to demonize him and his ideas, and would certainly not have been above accusing him of any outrage they could think of.  We'll probably never know the truth for sure.

In the end, Mazdakism was defeated.  The priests and the nobility joined forces to restore the old order while they still had the strength to do so.  They overthrew Kavâd and imprisoned him.  Several years later he escaped and regained power, but was sufficiently intimidated to distance himself from Mazdak.  Later he set out to suppress the heretical new religion entirely; Mazdak and thousands of his followers were murdered.  Kavâd did continue with some reforms to help the poor, but Mazdak's radical ideas were never implemented and the old social order survived.

One can only wonder what might have been achieved even back then, fifteen centuries ago, if Mazdak had refused to be seduced into partnership with the King, and taken the path of all-out revolution instead.


Blogger Ahab said...

This is fascinating. I plan to read up more on this revolutionary movement. I wonder why this wasn't touched upon in my ancient Near East classes in college, or my religion classes in grad school?

24 July, 2012 08:27  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ahab: Unfortunately, trying to fit Near Eastern history into a few college classes is a bit like trying to fit an encyclopedia into a tea-cup -- things will get left out.

Anything to do with Zoroastrianism gets short shrift since it's practically extinct today. But it and Iran had far more influence on the development of the existing Abrahamic religions than the official histories acknowledge.

24 July, 2012 08:58  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Interesting read Infodell ... history repeat's itself over and over on some thing's eh? ... and those who rule us still depend on the labour of the masses, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh. They had some beautiful artwork at a time (anciect Persia) that I viewed out of those region's too.

25 July, 2012 03:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC: I thought of history repeating itself while I was researching this -- I suppose the parasite class's citadels on Wall Street will never be stormed by the masses like those granaries and estates of fifth-century Persia, but a guy can dream.....

25 July, 2012 05:21  
Blogger goatman said...

Seems the Persian masses still have no voice. . .

25 July, 2012 13:34  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

GM: It's certainly being brutally suppressed.

25 July, 2012 14:28  
Blogger mendip said...

Excellent posting, I was unfamiliar with this movement. Thanks!

27 July, 2012 02:23  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mendip: History is vast and full of fascinating stories outside the familiar mainstream.....

27 July, 2012 02:48  

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