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How good it is to be bad: a history of dictatorships

In the early 1980s, the great scholar of democracy Robert Dahl observed that “in much of the world the conditions most favorable to the development and maintenance of democracy are nonexistent, or at best only weakly present.” Barely had Dahl penned these pessimistic words when it became clear that democracy was on the verge of its greatest historical efflorescence. 

During the late twentieth century, a democratic wave engulfed the globe, toppling dictator­ships in Africa, Asia, Latin America, southern and eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union. By the beginning of the present century, the world had more democracies than ever before.

If Dahl turned out to be overly gloomy about the future of democracy, however, many of his successors would be far too optimistic. Francis Fukuyama’s often misunderstood concept of “the end of history”—positing that the world had reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”—captured the era’s Zeitgeist. Many other social scientists produced books and articles seeking to fathom this democratic wave and whether the democracies it created would endure. Since Dahl and his counter­parts in the previous generation had not anticipated the wave, the scholarship that arrived in its immediate wake focused less on the preconditions supposedly associated with successful democracy and more on the process of democratic transition. This perspective, which came to be known as “transitology,” argued that the origins of democratic regimes—that is, the way they transitioned from dictatorship to democracy—critically affected their development and chances of success.

In fact, despite the extraordinary number of countries that embraced democracy, this democratic moment inevitably came to an end. As was the case in previous such waves in 1848, 1918, and 1945, the late-twentieth century democracy wave was followed by a strong undertow that pulled in the opposite direction. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, more countries were moving in an authoritarian direction than were democratizing. Consider Hungary, Thailand, and Turkey, where once promising democratic regimes have turned into de facto authoritarian ones. In response, scholars have again followed the historical cycle and are trying to determine whether the world is entering a new age of autocracy.

Into this debate step two of the most prolific and respected scholars of democracy and dictatorship, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. Levitsky, an expert on Latin America, and Way, an expert on the countries of the former Soviet Union, bring together their immense regional and theoretical expertise in their new book, Revolution and Dictatorship. For those trying to understand where history is headed, their approach offers useful insights and lessons.

The book makes two related arguments. The first concerns the staying power of authoritarian regimes. To figure out whether the world is at the dawn of a new autocratic era, one needs standard criteria by which to assess contemporary dictatorships and determine which ones are likely to last. But since political scientists have largely neglected the study of authoritarian governments and what made some “successful” during the late-twentieth-century expansion of democracy, few scholars have discussed such criteria. Levitsky and Way address this gap, offering an argument about the political and institutional structures necessary for what they call “authoritarian durability.” The second argument they put forward concerns where these structures come from. Here Revolution and Dictatorship harks back to the perspective that transitologists adopted not that long ago: namely, that a regime’s origins critically affect its development and durability.

At a time when authoritarian states such as Russia and China are not only proclaiming that their regimes are superior to Western democratic ones but also becoming increasingly aggressive abroad, the debate about the durability of dictatorships is of more than passing interest. If these and other similar regimes share underlying features that can predict their longevity, as Levitsky and Way suggest, it is crucial that strategists and policymakers learn to recognize them.


Levitsky and Way begin their analysis with a commonsensical yet underappreciated insight: durable dictatorships, like durable democracies, require strong states capable of defending and controlling their territory, solving problems, and dealing with challenges to their stability. (Here and elsewhere, Revolution and Dictatorship echoes a classic study of the relationship between revolutionary regimes and state building, Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions.) Scanning the history of modern dictatorships, Levitsky and Way identify three features in particular, or what they call “pillars,” of long-lasting authoritarian regimes.

The first is a cohesive ruling elite. This is necessary because authoritarian regimes are commonly undermined via internal schisms. Such divisions hinder a dictatorship’s ability to deal forcefully and effectively with problems, and they provide opportunities for opposition movements to entice elite defections from within the regime. As examples of this dynamic, Levitsky and Way offer the ruling parties in Georgia, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal, and Zambia, all of which were weakened or destabilized by intra-elite conflicts and/or suffered large-scale defections. By contrast, durable regimes such as Enver Hoxha’s Albania, communist China, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and the Islamic Republic of Iran “suffered virtually no defections, often for decades.”

The second pillar of dictatorial durability is a powerful and loyal coercive apparatus. Authoritarian regimes often collapse as the result of mass uprisings or mobilized opposition. If the military, the police, or other arms of the state have interests that are independent of those of the regime, they are less likely to use violence against their fellow citizens to defend the regime when it has become unpopular. Therefore, strong dictatorships need armed forces, police, and intelligence agencies that are controlled by or fused with political authorities—for example, by being integrated into the ruling party or elite or by being overseen by political commissars or other party institutions. This is the case with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Similarly, authoritarian regimes often fall prey to coups, which are best guarded against by ensuring that the military’s interests coincide with those of the regime. Pakistan provides a classic example of the dangers of an independent military, with the country’s armed forces regularly intervening in politics and even overthrowing governments. During the Arab Spring, Egypt’s military abandoned longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in the face of growing mass mobilization and foreign condemnation; two years later, it also toppled the semidemocratic Muslim Brotherhood regime that succeeded Mubarak once that government appeared weak and unable or unwilling to defend the military’s interests and prerogatives.

The third pillar of dictatorial durability is a weak and divided opposition. This helps prevent the planning of sustained mass protests and other forms of political activity that can undermine an authoritarian regime or force it to engage in violence against its own citizens, which would further feed dissatisfaction and dissent. In communist Vietnam, the authors note that by the 1960s, “all independent sources of power outside the state had been crushed, leaving opponents without a mass base.” Scholars and observers have also pointed to divisions between secular and Islamist oppositions as a key factor underpinning dictatorial durability in parts of the Muslim world.


Despite their importance, Levitsky and Way argue, these sustaining features do not alone determine a regime’s longevity. It also matters how autocracies come to power. Revolution and Dictatorship asserts that dictatorships with revolutionary origins are “extraordinarily durable.” According to Levitsky and Way, such regimes last on average nearly three times as long as their nonrevolutionary counterparts; 71 percent of them survived for three decades or more, compared with only 19 percent of nonrevolutionary regimes. Although many authoritarian regimes collapsed at the end of the Cold War, some revolutionary governments, such as those of China, Cuba, and Vietnam, remained intact. Levitsky and Way define “revolutionary” regimes as those whose origins lie in mass movements that violently overthrow the old regime, subsequently produce a fundamental transformation of the state, and engage in radical socioeconomic and cultural change. The authors claim that 20 such regimes have existed since 1900.

Somewhat confusingly, however, they then differentiate within this category. They note that not all revolutionary regimes embark on radical paths after toppling the old regime. Some pursue moderate, or what they call “accommodationist,” courses instead, entailing more restrained state transformation and socioeconomic and cultural change. (Out of their 20 revolutionary regimes, three—Bolivia, Guinea-Bissau, and Nicaragua—fit in this category.) Levitsky and Way argue that this accommodationist path may seem sensible in the short term, as it creates less instability and chaos, but proves counterproductive in the long term because only radicalism triggers the “reactive sequence” they assert is necessary for authoritarianism to endure.

The key feature of this process is violent domestic and/or international counterreaction. The authors observe that “from revolutionary France to Communist Russia and China, to postcolonial Vietnam, to late twentieth-century Iran and Afghanistan, revolutionary governments have often found themselves engulfed in war” or other types of violent conflict. Sometimes a new revolutionary regime cannot survive such intense internal or external resistance: four of the 20 regimes they cite—the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, post–World War I Finland and Hungary, and the first Taliban regime in Afghanistan—did not. But by Levitsky and Way’s count, for a large majority of these regimes, the violent counterreactions created the conditions necessary for building the pillars of dictatorial durability.

Wars can help autocracies destroy alternative power bases.

Here is where the reactive sequence—a concept the authors borrow from the scholar James Mahoney—comes into play. First, the existential threat that violence and war pose to a new regime leaves no room for division or disunity; elite cohesion is the result. This cohesion is further cemented by the memory of war and the suffering it entailed, as well as by the ideological component of revolutionary regimes, which, Levitsky and Way argue, tends to “lengthen actors’ time horizons” and inhibit “short-term egoistic behavior.” In their view, “In Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, Mozambique, and elsewhere, fear of annihilation amid civil or external wars generated a powerful and often enduring incentive to close ranks.” And this “siege mentality” helps explain why elites remained committed to the regime in these countries even in the face of economic and other crises.

Second, confronting the challenge of war on the heels of the old regime’s collapse pushes new revolutionary regimes to quickly construct a large security apparatus, as the Castro regime did in the face of a persistent U.S. military threat. By building such security forces from scratch, revolutionary leaders are in turn able to “penetrate the armed forces with political commissars and other institutions of partisan oversight and control.” And finally, Levitsky and Way find that counterrevolutionary conflict almost inevitably leads to the weakening or destruction of alternative power bases, not least because wars “provide revolutionary elites with both a justification and the means to destroy political rivals.”

While identifying the qualities that make autocracies last is a worthwhile goal, Levitsky and Way’s emphasis on revolutionary origins leaves some important questions unanswered. Unavoidably, scholars will differ over which regimes belong in the revolutionary category. It is not clear, for example, why regimes such as Bolivia’s or Nicaragua’s—which adopted moderate or “accommodationist” positions and accordingly achieved less than transformative social and economic change after taking power—should be considered “revolutionary.” Conversely, Levitsky and Way omit a number of regimes that fit the definition better than some they have included. Most interesting here are Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Adolf Hitler’s Germany, which the authors leave out on the grounds that these regimes came to power “through institutional means” that did not involve state collapse. Yet both were obviously revolutionary and transformed their states, societies, and cultures at least as much as and perhaps more than other regimes the authors include. Both also created cohesive elites, employed vast security forces, and successfully eliminated opposition groups. Nonetheless, rather than being strengthened, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were undermined by the violent counterreaction—World War II—they triggered. This outcome challenges the causal chain that Revolution and Dictatorship posits. Also worth noting, as Levitsky and Way do, is the question of whether the “revolutionary” regimes discussed in Revolution and Dictatorship reflect in part the forces that were in play during a particular historical era: from the great ideological clashes that preceded World War II through the Cold War that followed it.


Today, pessimism about democracy is once more widespread. As noted above, however, the authoritarian resurgence should not come as a surprise: all previous waves have been followed by backsliding and the disappointment that inevitably accompanies it. Yet the authoritarian undertow of the past decade or so has been weaker than those that followed the previous waves. More of the new democracies created in this most recent wave have survived than did their counterparts in previous waves. And although the world has fewer democracies today than a decade ago, it has many more democracies than when the wave began in the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps, just as Dahl’s pessimism in the 1980s turned out to be unwarranted, so, too, will be recent assertions, such as that made by the Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban, that “the era of liberal democracy is over.”

Nonetheless, the number of countries becoming authoritarian has undoubtedly been growing. A crucial task for scholars, accordingly, is figuring out whether this trend will continue and whether the dictatorships produced by it will prove resilient. One way to tackle this question is to again focus on transitions. Indeed, the origins and early phases of a new regime’s existence critically shape the development of its institutions, power structures, international standing, and more. But transitions are only one piece of the puzzle. As with people, a regime’s birth can influence but not entirely determine its fate.

Dictatorships with strong state institutions may last longer.

One difficulty with Revolution and Dictatorship’s argument about revolutionary regimes is that few of them exist today. Instead, the most common type of contemporary dictatorship is what is often called “electoral autocracy.” Regimes such as Orban’s Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, and Narendra Modi’s India do not engage in extensive violence or in radical socioeconomic or cultural experiments. What they do instead is hold tainted elections and severely restrict critical features of liberal democracy such as a free press and civil society, checks on executive authority, an independent judiciary, and respect for civil rights and liberties. Levitsky and Way’s emphasis on revolutionary origins can explain only so much about these new autocracies. But the authors’ identification of the three pillars that make dictatorships work can help determine how likely they are to endure.

In this regard, Revolution and Dictatorship adds to a growing body of work. Scholars such as Roberto Foa have argued that in recent decades, the state capacity of dictatorships has generally increased, at least when compared with democracies. Levitsky and Way’s analysis suggests that such strong states are better able to meet the social, economic, and external challenges they face and therefore are more resilient. In other words, the greater the number of strong-state dictatorships, the more durable the current autocratic wave will be. Even without the radicalism and extensive violence characterizing Levitsky and Way’s revolutionary regimes, dictatorships that can create cohesive elites and strong but politically subservient militaries and police forces while keeping opposition movements weak and divided are more likely to be resilient.

Thus, present-day revolutionary regimes such as communist China and the Islamic Republic of Iran possess cohesive military and political elites, and their opposition is practically nonexistent. This is surely why these regimes have been relatively stable over the past few decades. Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin, although his regime does not have revolutionary origins, also seems to have the military firmly under his control, has tied the country’s oligarchs to his rule through a web of corruption, and has eliminated all organized opposition. These factors may lead us to predict further stability. They have also likely helped persuade Putin not just that he could survive but that he could enhance his and his country’s standing by leading Russia into a war in Ukraine. The war has turned out to be far more difficult than he expected, however, and it remains unclear whether this military adventure will ultimately strengthen or weaken Putin’s hold on power. Levitsky and Way contend that violent conflicts during the early phases of a revolutionary regime are likely to strengthen it; perhaps we need more study of the factors or contexts that determine how well dictatorships can withstand violent conflicts that come later in their development.

Sheri Berman