Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way on the Durable Authoritarianism of Revolutionary Regimes

Lucan Way and Steven Levitsky
Lucan Way (left) and Steven Levitsky (right)

Lucan Way is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and Co-Director of the Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine. Steven Levitsky is the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies, professor of government, and director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. They are also co-chairs of the editorial board at the Journal of Democracy. They are the authors of the forthcoming book Revolution and Dictatorship: The Violent Origins of Durable Authoritarianism.

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People like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, they basically lashed out at the entire capitalist world and that lashing out created a counterrevolutionary armed struggle, which in turn contributed to their durability. So, it’s that reckless behavior in creating enemies that ultimately led to their creating very strong authoritarian institutions.

Lucan Way

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:45
  • How Recklessness Leads to Authoritarian Durability – 3:17
  • Why Revolutions Abandon Pluralism – 16:53
  • Revolutions and Institution Building – 22:05
  • Why does Durable Authoritarianism Fail – 29:31
  • Is the Era of Revolutions Over – 38:01

Podcast Transcript

About twenty years ago Lucan Way and Steven Levitsky wrote a paper that changed how scholars thought about democracy and authoritarianism. They introduced the idea of competitive authoritarianism as a distinct type of regime. A few years later they published a book based on the concept called Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. It’s among the most influential books in political science in the last twenty years. 

Since then Lucan Way and Steven Levitsky have become well-known names among political scientists. Lucan is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and Co-Director of the Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine. Steven is the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies, professor of government, and director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. They are also co-chairs of the editorial board at the Journal of Democracy. 

They now have a new book called Revolution and Dictatorship: The Violent Origins of Durable Authoritarianism. It’s an impressive work with some surprising findings and an impressively wide range of examples that are explored in depth. I consider it among the best books of 2022 so far. 

If you like this podcast, please consider becoming a supporter. You can join at Patreon to access bonus material or ad-free versions of the episodes for a small monthly contribution. I’ve also set up a donation page at democracyparadox.com where you can make a one-time donation or a monthly recurring donation. This is an independent podcast, so I rely on supporters to provide new episodes every week. Like always you can send comments or questions to jkempf@democracyparadox.com. Here is my conversation with Lucan Way and Steven Levitsky…

jmk

Lucan Way and Steven Levitsky, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Steven Levitsky

Thanks for having us.

Lucan Way

Thanks.

jmk

So, I was really impressed with this new book Revolution and Dictatorship: The Violent Origins of Durable Authoritarianism. I feel that this is one of the best books of 2022 so far. I think that it’s got some of the characteristics that really just set this book apart in terms of the type of literature that I read on democracy, authoritarianism, in terms of regimes and all the other literature in terms of political science. I felt like this was an extremely novel work and it was a very impressive one. One of the lines that stood out to me was, “Revolutionary regimes are among the world’s most durable autocracies. They’re also the most reckless. This is no coincidence.”

For me, that line is completely counterintuitive. Understanding it though, is key to understanding the big picture ideas in this book. Why don’t we start out with an example of how the recklessness of a revolutionary regime actually contributes to durable authoritarianism?

Lucan Way

I think the recklessness contributes by generating huge enemies to the regime. So that, for me, one of the most fascinating discoveries was that when these durable autocracies came to power, we think of the Soviet Union lasting 74 years or China lasting 70 plus years, we tend to think of them as very stable, strong regimes. You know, in Petrograd in 1917, for example, the Bolsheviks barely controlled a few couches in a formal girl’s school. So, the kind of rational behavior for most autocrats or dictators when they come to power in such a circumstance would be to sort of make alliances and make friends to solidify a broad ruling coalition. That’s the standard authoritarian approach. But instead, people like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, they basically lashed out at the entire capitalist world.

And that lashing out created a counter revolutionary arm struggle, which in turn contributed to their durability. So, it’s that reckless behavior in creating enemies that ultimately led to their creating very strong authoritarian institutions, which was our major discovery.

Steven Levitsky

The key is… I mean, it’s enemies, but it’s also war, sometimes civil war, sometimes external war, sometimes both. But it’s the reckless behavior that triggers the wars that although sometimes kill regimes, like in Cambodia, in most cases actually serve to strengthen the regimes.

jmk

There doesn’t seem to be a leader who’s any more reckless in my mind than maybe Mao Zedong and yet China is among one of the most durable authoritarian regimes that has lasted to this day and doesn’t seem to have an end in sight. What were some of the reckless activities, some of the reckless decisions that Mao took that actually contributed to the durability of China’s authoritarian regime today?

Lucan Way

So, this really began in the 1920s and one of the interesting contrasts that I found was between two revolutionary leaders of the 1920s. One was Chiang Kai-shek and the other was Mao Zedong. Now Chiang Kai-shek was anti-imperialist and he was the first to try to create in the 20th century a unified Chinese state. We have to remember about China that while now it’s one of the most durable, strongest regimes in the world, in the 1920s and 1930s, China was basically like Afghanistan. It was this sort of warlord driven, incredibly weak state that had been divided up by foreign imperialist powers.

So, Chiang Kai-shek seeks to sort of create a unified China out of this in the 1920s and he does it the most rational way, which is by making alliances with a lot of these warlords which allows him to build the state relatively quickly in the 1920s. Now, Mao, who’s also anti-imperialist, decides that he is not just going to create a unified Chinese state against the wishes of the imperialist powers. He is also going to challenge the established gentry class who are allied to Chiang Kai-shek. So, this almost results in the annihilation of the Chinese Communist Party. If you were to rerun this somehow in the 1920s, 1930s, we might have never heard of Mao. The Chinese Communist Party very likely would’ve been totally wiped out in 1935. They managed by hook or crook to survive.

But in the meantime, this sort of life and death struggle against both the nationalist Chiang Kai-shek as well as the Japanese creates this enormously cohesive elite that survives into power until the 1990s. So, it was that sort of reckless behavior of attacking both the foreign powers as well as the sort of land-owning class that ultimately created this revolutionary war that in turn led to intense levels of unity within the Chinese Communist Party that hadn’t existed before

jmk

Now, Steven, when we’re talking about revolutions today, we’re talking about specific types of revolutions. I’ve had on Mark Beissinger a few months ago and he was talking about urban civic revolutions that are much more common and much more frequent today. But in this book, you’re not really talking about those at all. You’re talking about much more drastic, dramatic social revolutions. Can you describe what those are?

Steven Levitsky

Yeah. We are talking very specifically about social revolutions. I mean, with all due respect to Mark Beissinger who does extraordinary work, for us those are popular based regime changes. Social revolutions involve not only regime change, not only the fall of the previous regime, but mass uprisings led by figures outside of the state, meaning not coups, that bring about both a collapse and reconstruction of the state itself and at least an effort to dramatically reconfigure the social order. So, social revolution involves the collapse of the state and an effort to radically transform society whether it’s racial hierarchies or property ownership or the dominant religion or culture. So, these are efforts to thoroughly reconfigure the state and society.

By our count, obviously there are different ways of measuring this, there are 20 of these in the 20th century, so that that’s a pretty rare event. Our argument is that these have an impact on political regimes that you don’t see with political revolutions or popular uprisings that bring about regime change.

jmk

Now for you, a social revolution always brings about an authoritarian regime. Do I understand that right?

Steven Levitsky

Yes. It’s not by definition. But empirically that’s the case and it’s not surprising. Right? When the old state collapses and a group seizes power through violence and rebuilds the state, they’re going to build their own army. You’re going to have what is almost invariably a partisan army and a partisan state. It’s pretty rare that rebels who overthrow the old regime, destroy the old state, and build their own state that those folks then build a democracy. They’re going to have an awful lot of power, resources, and in particular guns at their disposal. So, almost invariably, at least empirically, the result is in authoritarian.

jmk

Now, I know that you only talk about the 20th century, but the French Revolution started out as a republic, but turned into a military dictatorship. So, is the French Revolution the exception that proves the rule?

Lucan Way

Well, first of all, I mean, the French Revolution certainly did not result in democracy in the near term. It resulted in a military dictatorship. You know, it does not fit our case in the sense that it did not create a durable regime. It had to do with various factors. It was very much the kind of reckless behavior creating counterrevolutionary struggle, but this is an example more like Cambodia in our book or Afghanistan in which it was kind of wiped out as a result of this reckless behavior. So, Robespierre, you know, engages in these massive purges and they basically result in a counterattack by moderates and he gets wiped out.

Steven Levitsky

Now, over time, in the longer run it’s certainly possible that revolutions can have a democratizing impact particularly if they take place (and they usually do) against oligarchy or highly unjust and undemocratic systems. Revolutions topple those systems. So, the Mexican revolution toppled a highly inegalitarian land structure and dictatorship, but did not produce a democracy initially. It did not produce a democracy for 80 years. But eventually by the late 20th century created the conditions for democracy. To a lesser extent, in a less stable way, Bolivia and Nicaragua didn’t initially give rise to democracies, but a few decades down the road gave rise to pretty unstable democracies, but democracies nevertheless. And in France as well you can make, as Barrington Moore has, the argument that eventually the French revolution did create conditions for democracy. But initially, as Lucan said, it gave rise to a dictatorship.

jmk

So, what about Cuba? It seems like Fidel Castro started with a political revolution that seemed to turn into a social revolution. Is that a template that sometimes happens?

Steven Levitsky

We view it as a social revolution from early on. I mean, the state collapses. It is true that Castro’s socioeconomic project was vague, but by May 1959 they’ve already launched a land reform that puts them in conflict with economic elites in the United States. So, for us, this is a social revolution from year one.

jmk

So, Lucan part of the argument here though is that the revolutionaries have to radicalize. They’ve got to be able to take a hardline stance. We’ve talked about some of those examples. I mean, Russia is a perfect example. China’s a perfect example. Cuba is a perfect example. What happens when the revolutionaries decide to moderate, decide not to take such a hardline stance, and decide to make accommodations with other groups within society?

Lucan Way

A perfect example of this is the case that everybody wants to know about which is Guinea-Bissau. That was a joke. Okay. So, Guinea-Bissau was a small Portuguese colony that became independent in 1974. Unlike other cases, they had sort of divided into a radical faction and a moderate faction. So, basically when they came to power, the radical faction began to make efforts to nationalize land, create a command economy, and the like. So, that’s why we call it a social revolution. But quickly the tables turned. The moderates took power and they made alliances with the Portuguese, the former colonizers. They didn’t attack the major interests. So, as a result you have none of the cohesion that kept other revolutionary regimes in power in equivalent cases in Angola and Mozambique which were also under Portuguese colonial rule.

So, the interesting thing is that initially in the 1970s, Guinea-Bissau was considered the more stable one. It didn’t face any external threats. It didn’t have any kind of insurgency like you had in Angola and Mozambique. But the result was the regime, in so many words, became soft. Quickly the party divided. There was a coup in 1980 and eventually the state was incredibly weak and the regime fell in 1999. So, that’s in a sense, sort of a, I guess you could say a cautionary tale of the dangers of taking a more moderate accommodationist stance.

Steven Levitsky

The paradox is that this accommodated behavior is entirely rational. You don’t go to war with powerful foreign enemies, don’t trigger an internal civil war like the Russians or the Cubans did. You can achieve short term peace and stability through accommodation, but you’re much less likely to develop the cohesion as Lucan said, much less likely to build the powerful coercive apparatus the way the Cubans and the Russians had to survive or the way the Iranians had to survive. You don’t need to, so you don’t do it. You don’t build a powerful, cohesive coercive apparatus and eventually that makes you a more normal authoritarian regime prone to the kinds of divisions and oppositions that can bring regimes down.

Now, Lucan being Lucan could have talked about Algeria or Nicaragua, but went right for Guinea-Bissau, but there are other cases as well. Algeria is a classic case. The Algerian revolutionaries in the 1960s had a regime that ended up surviving for a very long time, but was much less stable or much less durable than regimes in say Cuba or Vietnam. The Algerians basically made peace with the French early on. Other than nationalizing the properties left by white settlers in 1962, they didn’t get engage in a lot of redistribution. So, the Algerian revolutionaries didn’t really face much war after 1962-63. Using Lucan’s term, it was a softer regime. It ended up being pretty stable, but a softer regime than those we seen in say, Vietnam. A similar story occurs in Bolivia and Nicaragua. Two very short-lived regimes.

jmk

The impression that I get is that to build a durable authoritarian regime, you need to eliminate any other alternative sources of power and effectively make sure that pluralism doesn’t exist within the regime. Because pluralism seems to be a source, like it’s not a sufficient condition for democracy, but it seems to be a necessary condition to be able to eventually democratize. So, I’m kind of reminded of the conversation I had with you Lucan just a few weeks ago where you really emphasize that part of the reason why Ukraine was in this unstable form of democracy was because you had different divisions within the country. Is that really a source of a durable authoritarian regime? The fact that they eliminate those different divisions within the country due to a variety of reasons, but at the end of the day, those divisions just don’t exist.

Lucan Way

Yes, absolutely. So, I think one of the benefits of these wars is they provide an opportunity for the ruling party to sort of wipe out alternative centers of power. So, in Russia, for example, they wipe out the church. They wipe out the land-owning class. They wipe out the old monarchy. So, in a sense, the regime, if they survive, which they do in the Russia and China, is basically the only one left standing. So, this actually gives these regimes enormous room for error.

So, one of the striking things about Russia and China, for example, is that they really wreak total havoc and chaos, famine and whatnot on their societies. But because there was no organized force to challenge them, they were able to survive. So, it’s wiping out these alternative centers of power that really provides a key source of stability in almost all of these cases.

Steven Levitsky

And when you don’t do it, eventually, as you said Justin, pluralism creates… It doesn’t automatically democratize. It doesn’t automatically bring down the regime. But when the regime gets in trouble, it creates a powerful resource for opponents. So, when Algeria’s economy starts to go bad in the 1970s, there are Islamic organizations that the regime did not wipe out that were a key basis for opposition mobilization. In Nicaragua when the Sandinista are compelled to hold elections, unlike Cuba, unlike Vietnam, there is a church and a private sector still there able to provide an infrastructure for what had seemed like a very weak opposition.

jmk

You just mentioned the private sector and that’s something that’s always on my mind when I think about pluralism. The fact that by having a market economy, you have just a natural source of alternative forms of power simply by having wealthy people within the country. Can durable authoritarianism coexist with a market economy?

Steven Levitsky

Sure, it can. I mean, all things equal, I think you’re right. That a capitalist economy and private ownership disperses resources. It’s a source of pluralism that’s a potential challenge to any authoritarian regime. But we have seen that in the medium to, I would say, long run, regimes that are able to either forge an alliance or co-opt the private sector can coexist with capitalism and the private sector for a long time. We see it in Singapore, Malaysia, Mexico. We see it now in Vietnam and China. Can it last forever? We don’t know. Can it last bordering on a century? Yes.

Lucan Way

So, this is what we see right now in China. There is a capitalist class with private property who has an enormous stake in the existing regime. So, they are not in any way a force for democracy. They have no interest in overthrowing the Communist Party.

jmk

But in the case of China and Vietnam, I feel like those capitalist classes evolved after durable authoritarianism was already in place. So, maybe it’s a little bit different when the authoritarian regime can create those new institutions and create those new sources of power because it kind of puts their fingerprints on it. Do you feel like part of the reason why China’s able to have the type of market economy that it does, to the extent that it does, coexist with durable authoritarianism is due in part to the fact that Mao effectively eliminated all the alternative sources of power before China allowed those to start to be reconstructed?

Lucan Way

Yeah, I think that probably has something to do with it, but you have other cases. Our longest surviving authoritarian regime is Mexico which had a private sector. I mean, I think, you know, all things equal, if I were sort of in an evil lab wanting to create the most durable authoritarian regime, I would definitely eliminate the private sector. But, you know, Iran’s another case in which they weren’t interested in overthrowing capitalism. They’ve also managed survive for 40 plus years without eliminating the private sector. That’s another example.

Steven Levitsky

A more recent, somewhat less developed case is Rwanda. There is nothing anti-capitalist about that revolution. It’s been pretty durable for a quarter century.

jmk

So, Steven, we just got done talking about pluralism and talking about different forms of pluralism within durable authoritarianism. And I feel like that’s something that I see in Lucan’s work, but something that I saw that was just very distinctive to me as a part of your work was the idea of strong institutions. The way in which durable authoritarian regimes seemed to rebuild institutions. Something that I really wanted to ask you about was do revolutionary regimes build strong institutions?

Steven Levitsky

I think very often they do. The first scholar who famously pointed that out was Sam Huntington many, many years ago. He argued in his book, Political Order and Changing Societies, that revolutions very often give rise to strong institutions. So, we cannot take credit for any discoveries here. Not in all cases, but in most cases, yes. Most revolutions, not all, but most revolutions occur in places with pretty weak states and pretty weak preexisting institutions. So, in most cases whether it is Russia or China or Vietnam or Cuba, even Nicaragua, the regimes that emerge afterwards tend to have stronger institutions. Now it varies by institution. The institutions are strongest, I think, often in areas of security and policing. They are not always so strong, often relatively weak and unstable, in terms of economic institutions and in the rule of law.

But by and large, yes, Violence, a cohesive elite, stability, external threat, these are conditions that tend to give rise to stronger institutions.

jmk

Do you feel that that’s distinctive for revolutionary regimes when we compare them to more personalistic dictatorships?

Lucan Way

Yes. I mean, I think one of the striking things about revolutionary regimes, most not all, certainly not in Iran is the other institution they create is a strong party. So, what’s interesting is that the sources of durability really change over time. We see in the Soviet Union in the first 30 years, the Bolshevik Party wasn’t really that strong. The cohesion really came out of the fear of counterrevolution. The fear of annihilation, because literally they’re the first socialist country in the world. They are surrounded by capitalists, sort of what they call capitalist encirclement. Now by the 1950s after World War II, no one’s concerned in the Soviet Union about annihilation. So, that sort of siege mentality is mostly gone. But what they have is a very strong and well institutionalized political party.

So, that in a sense becomes the source of durability in the 1960s and 1970s. They begin to look much more like a quote unquote normal authoritarian regime that’s less driven by ideology and fear of annihilation and more by these institutions of redistribution that scholars like Barbara Geddes and others have talked about.

jmk

But what you’re saying is that during those early years they’re tearing down all the institutions, not all of them, but a lot of them. They’re tearing down a lot of the alternative sources of power and acting reckless. But once they kind of reach a certain point, like once we get past that first generation, they’ve established new institutions that are the foundation of what offers them durability into the future, so that when those next few generations don’t act in quite the same way, don’t act recklessly any longer, it seems like it’s the institutions that they’ve constructed within that first and even second generation that provide the durability. Am I understanding that right?

Steven Levitsky

I mean, it varies a bit by case, but yes. Certainly, there is a process of institutionalization in Mexico, in Cuba, to an extent in China, in Russia, where the party and the new state bureaucracies that are created in the generation after the revolution have a self-sustaining effect or a self-reinforcing effect. I don’t think it’s the bureaucracies or the institutions themselves that ensure the durability of the regime, but they’re more likely to help if they’re accompanied by say economic growth as we saw in Mexico, as we see in China and Vietnam.

But revolutionary regimes have periods of high levels of personalism. Certainly, we saw in Cuba and in the Stalinist and Maoist periods, but most revolutionary regimes, in part because they’re fairly ideological, because they often face years of existential threat, become collective projects. They’re not just regimes, like say the Somoza regime or the Batista regime in Cuba which are really at the whim of an individual leader, even the regime in Iran before the revolution. Personalistic dictatorships almost invariably weaken or fail to strengthen institutions. It’s very, very rare that you see a truly personalistic regime build strong durable institutions. But most revolutionary regimes do.

Now again, it’s not always the institutions that provide the durability and in cases like Iran and Cuba there are stronger institutions built, but you also have a powerful, external threat that continues to provide a source of cohesion for the elite for decades after the revolution. So, the sources of durability vary. But you’re right. In most cases, revolutions give rise to institutionalized parties, more institutionalized bureaucracies that themselves are a source of longer term stability.

jmk

Yeah, you’re right that a lot of these revolutionary regimes begin as personalistic dictatorships in a lot of ways. When we look at Mao Zedong, we look at Vladimir Lenin, these are personalistic leaders and it seems like it’s the personalism that is part of the reason why they’re tearing down the institutions. But I really think it’s fascinating the way that you emphasize the revolutionary nature that changes the dynamics of the regime itself. It changes the dynamics of the personalistic type of regime that eventually leads to some kind of institution building that allows it to go beyond that personalistic leader into oftentimes a second or third generation, if they can establish what you describe as durable authoritarianism.

Lucan Way

So, first of all, I want to correct something. Lenin was not personalist in any kind of normal way. In fact, he was constrained to a rather significant extent by the party. But you’re absolutely right that both Stalin and Mao were highly personalistic. Policy making in China oftentimes happened around Mao’s pool where he liked to swim and with Stalin, all major policy decisions were made around the banquet at Stalin’s summer house where everybody drank vodka, except for Stalin. There were incredibly personalist elements to these regimes, but it was more than that. There was also the party and the security apparatus. It wasn’t simply personalism like what you find in the sort of more sultanistic regimes in the Dominican Republic in the 50s and 60s.

So, I think it is a little bit confusing, because it’s hard not to think of Stalinism and Maoism as being highly personalistic, but it wasn’t simply that. I think there was also this major institution building at the same time.

jmk

What causes revolutionary regimes even after they become what you describe as durable authoritarianism, what causes them to eventually fall and to eventually fail?

Lucan Way

Well, there are a variety of causes. I mean, first of all, a lot of them have survived and actually, I think, the collapse of the Soviet Union was in many ways a collapse by suicide. You had a very undeniably strong regime with no opposition. I mean, the opposition in the 1980s in the Soviet Union was limited to a few dissidents in their kitchens periodically showing anti-Soviet placards in Red Square for two minutes before they were quickly arrested. The party was incredibly unified.

So, what happened essentially is that the General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev decided for reasons that are a mystery to destroy the party and create pluralism. It’s only when he begins undermining the party and reducing censorship that you see the wave of protests as Mark Beissinger shows in his work, The Collapse of the Soviet Union. But before Gorbachev’s liberalizing reforms, the regime would’ve lasted for a very long time. Steve can speak to Mexico, which is another case. In Yugoslavia, it had to do with the particular sort of nationalities policy. I’m not sure there’s a sort of single path to collapse for these revolutionary regimes.

Steven Levitsky

A couple of points, first of all, it’s striking how small a sample we have. The reason why Lucan can’t come up with a generalized theory is there are really few cases leaving aside the early burnout cases like Cambodia and the regimes like Bolivia and Nicaragua. Revolutionary regimes in the 20th century that consolidated, most of them are still around. Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, Eretria, Iran, Rwanda, Angola, Mozambique, most of them are still around, so it’s hard to generalize.

So, I’m generalizing, bordering on speculation. What occurs and maybe I’m slightly different regarding the Soviet Union than Lucan, but certainly this is the case in Mexico, when the revolutionary generation passes and there’s not a real existential threat, the regime gradually evolves into something that’s more similar to a standard authoritarian regime. They become less cohesive, less able to respond to crisis, and more reliant on traditional sources of durability whether it’s cooperation or economic growth and performance. You can’t rely on the old cohesion. So, while they grow, they are likely to survive.

But in the case of Mexico, for example, the country slid into a pretty serious economic crisis in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. That brought the regime down. It was a typical end to a regime that began almost a century earlier in a very atypical way. So, eventually these regimes grow old and as they grow old, they begin to get more similar to other authoritarian regimes and they die for more similar reasons. Of course, regimes die for multiple reasons.

jmk

So, China’s a regime that has been around for a long time. They’re about to have their 20th national Congress. Xi Jinping is looking to attain his third term as President and also continue on as chairman of the CCP. Xi Jinping is interesting, because he’s had this almost Maoist revival within China. Some people call it a Neo-Stalinist wave. Is Xi Jinping trying to fight back against losing some of that ideological fervor? Is he trying to bring that back to be able to revitalize the Chinese regime in some way?

Lucan Way

Yeah, I think there’s certainly been an attempt by Xi to eliminate corruption and to some extent he’s been successful. The Chinese elite is very aware of the Soviet experience. I think now sort of Brezhnevism is kind of on their mind. by Brezhnevism we mean this very stable, but incredibly corrupt regime that’s sort of vulnerable to defection and the like. So, some scholars a few years ago, like Andrew Walter, sort of compared contemporary China to Chiang Kai-shek under the nationalists which was also sort of insanely corrupt, but sort of driven by factions. I think that’s misleading, because I think that the Chinese communist regime today has a much stronger coercive apparatus, has much greater control over the army and the security services certainly than Chiang Kai-shek did and most strikingly, reaches far deeper into Chinese society than Chiang Kai-shek ever did in the 1930s.

There was talk about five or ten years ago of China’s looming regime crisis. I don’t see any evidence of that right now. I think there’s zero opposition. The business sector is fully under the regime’s control such that they can even survive these sort of policy disasters such as the zero Covid policy that has led to near starvation in certain cities. So, it’s a very stable regime by any measure.

jmk

That’s actually a theme in the book, the idea that revolutionary regimes regularly survive policy disasters. And I think that there’s no better example of that than maybe Iran. You’ve described how Iran makes regular mistakes within how they kind of set up their policy and have a lot of popular dissatisfaction of the regime by the general populace. But at the same time, it seems impervious to any kind of policy mistakes. Can you kind of explain why revolutionary regimes seem to be impervious to poor governance?

Lucan Way

Well, there are a few reasons. Iran’s a particularly interesting case, because a lot of our cases are very much Bolshevik in the sense that they have a very strong party that’s top down. It’s hard to think of a less Bolshevik regime than Iran. Within the regime itself, there’s enormous pluralism and you have semi-competitive elections. I mean, the candidates are filtered. Certainly, not anybody’s allowed to run for President. But a couple of things we found really maintain stability in Iran. The first is that you have incredibly strong and loyal coercive apparatus in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. The IRGC was strengthened enormously during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. It’s deeply loyal to the Supreme leader Khomeini.

The second factor, which I think is sort of less obvious and was something that really came out of the research. Well at one level, it seems like there is sort of pluralism and you have a quote unquote opposition in Mousavi in 2009. What we found was that even the quote unquote opposition, the forces that led the sort of failed Green Revolution of 2009, are in fact loyal to the clerical regime. They weren’t really willing to go into full scale opposition. They felt an ideological commitment to clerical rule which really hampered their ability to challenge the regime.

Because as you know, you can speak to a lot of Iranian from Tehran and these sort of restrictions on dress and separation of males and females are incredibly unpopular. But there’s basically no one to really tap into that or who’s willing to take advantage of those issues.

Steven Levitsky

Revolutionary regimes show us something that we already knew which is that public support and public legitimacy are nice. They’re helpful, all things equal, but they’re not necessary for a regime at least under certain circumstances to survive for quite a while. Particularly if you wipe out independent power centers, as we discussed earlier, if you have a powerful, cohesive, and effective coercive apparatus. So, if you maintain a cohesive elite, you can ride out some pretty unpopular policies and poor governance. Now, this is most likely in the context of external threat like Cuba and Iran have faced, like China faced for many years, because that helps to maintain the cohesion.

But if you maintain a cohesive elite, a powerful coercive apparatus and you have wiped out alternative centers of organizing and resources, you can survive a long time despite unpopular policies. The Cubans showed that. The Iranians showed that. The Vietnamese who had a very, very crisis ridden unification in the late 1970s is a similar case.

jmk

So, as I went through your data set, the regimes that you classify as revolutionary, I noticed that they’re all in the 20th century. That you kind of stop in the 1990s, classifying them. Like I said, when I talk to other people about revolutions, they emphasize the changing nature of revolutions. That now we have these more urban civic revolutions. Should we continue to expect to see new revolutionary regimes that are more of the social revolutionary type in the 21st century?

Steven Levitsky

Yes. The conditions that give rise to social revolutions are weak states and radical ideologies. And although Marxism may well be dead, we may not see any more 20th century communist revolutions, but state weakness is likely to create permissive conditions for revolution. So, as long as you get organized groups driven by radical ideologies of some type or another, the potential for social revolution persists. We saw an effort at that ultimately unsuccessful with the Islamic State and we just saw what looks like a new revolution or a second revolution in Afghanistan which suggests to me that although revolutions will continue to be rare… Because the conditions that have to come together to produce a social revolution are unusual conditions.

So again, twenty revolutions in the 20th century. These are not going to happen every day. But the conditions that gave rise to 20th century revolutions seem to me to still exist in the 21st.

Lucan Way

You know, I think what people like Mark Beissinger have rightly pointed out is that Communism or Marxism no longer has the salience that it once did. But there are other types of radical ideologies. I mean, we see this particularly in the Middle East. I mean, these are quite relevant and new ideologies will almost certainly emerge. For every theorist of social revolution, the first and most important factor is state collapse and there’s still plenty of that around. Not to mention new forces of the internet which allow for the more rapid spread of radical ideologies. You know, history never repeats itself verbatim, but I really have a hard time seeing the end of social revolutions.

jmk

Well, Steven and Lucan, thank you so much for joining me today. I can’t say enough. Praise for the book, Revolution and Dictatorship: The Violent Origins of Durable Authoritarianism. I definitely recommend everybody to pre-order it and to have that ready to go on the bookshelf. It’s a fascinating read. It’s so encompassing. It just touches on so many different parts of history and brings it together and I just think that it’s one of the best books that I’ve read in quite some time. Thank you so much.

Lucan Way

Thank you.

Steven Levitsky

8 thoughts on “Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way on the Durable Authoritarianism of Revolutionary Regimes

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    1. Thanks for your question, Julie. The Iranian revolution is widely regarded as a social revolution because it involved a violent takeover of the government that tried to fundamentally change society. Another example would include the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It’s not just a change of a political process, but a change in society as well. The one in the 21st Century that I think you are referring to was ISIS. I was surprised at this one and I think it’s a lot more controversial. It really depends on whether you believe ISIS established a state or not. In some ways it fits the profile, but it’s hard for me to get beyond them as a terrorist organization. Keep in mind that all of this involves definitions and Levitsky and Way have a pretty dark definition for social revolutions.

  1. Thanks, I was referring to ISIS. One more question- How does Organski’s syncratic alliance fit into all this? I have found his work very useful for many years.

    fyi- I am just finishing an article on Tajikistan contrasting the national level (autocratic) with the local level (more pluralist, due to survival of Mahallas, and spread of the internet among young people. ) I could not travel there this time, but used skype interviews. Its an update on the Tajikistan portion of Importing Democracy: the Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina, published in 2013 by the Kettering Foundation.

    1. I don’t have a good answer on Organski. Levitsky and Way don’t reference him in this book, but I did notice they cite a 1981 paper by him and two other coauthors called “The Paradoxical Nature of State-Making: The Violent Creation of Order” in their earlier collaboration Competitive Authoritarianism. I’m not familiar with his work so I don’t have a good answer, but I’ve seen his name come up often.

      Tajikistan is absolutely fascinating. Best of luck on the paper. Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili has had similar findngs in Afghanistan. It’s always interesting when local institutions differ from the national level. Sounds like a great topic.

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