Revolutions and Durable Authoritarianism
Revolutionary governments capture the imagination. Their origins have mythic qualities. Those involved become heroes and villains of epic proportions. Moreover, the regimes they establish frequently survive for generations. Indeed, most of the revolutionary regimes of the twentieth century exist to this day. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way refer to this phenomenon as durable authoritarianism. They find, “Authoritarian regimes that emerged out of violent social revolution survived, on average, nearly three times as long as their nonrevolutionary counterparts. Revolutionary regimes broke down at an annual rate that was barely a fifth that of nonrevolutionary regimes.” Some of their examples of lasting authoritarian regimes include China, Iran, and Cuba.
Most authoritarian regimes are highly unstable. They struggle to build institutions and fail to establish cohesive political elites. The depend on fragile coalitions that may last decades, but rarely generations. In contrast, “revolutionary regimes are among the world’s most durable autocracies,” write Levitsky and Way. “They are also the most reckless. This is no coincidence.” Mao and Stalin brought about famines on their people. Iran held Americans hostage in 1979. Most revolutionary governments engage in violent wars. Levitsky and Way argue the durability of revolutionary regimes is not despite this recklessness but a direct cause of it.
The durability of revolutionary regimes has three foundations. It must establish a cohesive elite, loyal army, and eliminate alternative sources of power. Violent conflict creates the need for a loyal army. It also establishes a cohesive elite as a necessity for regime survival. Finally, they eliminate alternative sources of power. It is a brutal combination that is difficult to replicate. Moreover, the consequences almost always lead to tragedy for countless people.
Levitsky and Way are possibly the most important political scholars of their generation. This is the book to read for 2022. It’s absolutely essential reading.