Dictatorship Research Paper

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Originally, the word dictatorship had a limited and unambiguous meaning in that it defined an extraordinary magistrature of the ancient Roman Empire. During the nineteenth and, particularly, the twentieth century, the meaning of the term has been substantially modified. In contemporary parlance, ‘dictatorship’ is used to define any means of governing and any type of political regime based upon the unlimited concentration of power in the hands of one individual (or of a group of people, a party or institution) holding it for an indeterminate time and exercising it without being controlled by either the state’s institutions or by its citizens.

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This research paper will trace the transformation of the concept of dictatorship within the main instances of government to which it has been applied and with regard to the principal interpretations of the phenomenon, that is, the governmental types defined as dictatorships produced during the twentieth century when the term first became the object of specific historical research and theoretical analysis.

1. Roman Dictatorship

1.1 Origins And Functions

Dictatorship was probably introduced into the constitutional order of the Roman Republic at the beginning of the fifth century BC, soon after the end of the monarchy. Today, the original interpretation of dictatorship as attributed to the survival of the monarchy tradition has been abandoned. A more plausible interpretation is that which sees Roman dictatorship as being derived of an already existing institution in other cities in the province of Latium (Sterling 1965). The role of dictator could be conferred for the performance of various public duties, the most important being that of the defence of the city and of its rule in situations of serious danger, in the case of external war (belli gerundi causa) or internal turmoil (seditionis sedandae causa). In these circumstances, full civil and military powers (imperium maximum) were conferred upon the dictator for a maximum period of six months. The nomination was made by one of the two consuls in office (who could not, however, nominate themselves) upon the request of the senate, which assessed the gravity of the situation. The dictator stepped down at the same time as the consul who had nominated him. All other magistrates were subordinate to the dictator. He himself, however, did not have the power to repeal them nor to pass or repeal laws, modify the constitutional order, or nominate his successor. Once the duty for which he had been nominated to fulfill was completed, even before the passing of six months, the dictator resigned power to the ordinary magistrates.

1.2 The Transformation And End Of The Roman Dictator

The dictator remained in force until the third century BC. The last dictator to have maximum civil and military powers was nominated in 216 BC during the second Punic war between Rome and Carthage. When reinstated in the first century BC by L. Cornelius Sulla and later by Julius Caesar during the time of the civil wars that led to the end of the Republic, the dictator’s function was radically transformed. The dictatorships of Sulla and Caesar, despite the outward appearance of legality, originated in the force of the army, were conferred for an indeterminate length of time, and were used to eliminate political adversaries and to change the order of the Roman State. Roman dictatorship was legally abolished by Mark Anthony in 44 BC, directly following the death of Caesar (lex Antonia de dictatura tollenda) and was not reinstated again during the Empire. The term ‘dictator’ also was not used for many centuries and was not in any case adopted again until the beginning of contemporary times in order to define new exceptional forms of personal power that appeared in the medieval and modern ages in the form of the ‘Podesta’ of the Italian communes, the Renaissance ‘Signoria’ or Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Protectorate.’

2. From Roman Dictatorship To Modern Dictatorship

2.1 The Model Of Roman Dictatorship In The Modern Ages

The term ‘dictatorship,’ referring exclusively to the Republican magistrature, appeared once again in political writings of modern times such as those by Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes, who cited it as an example of the fulfillment of the principle of Reason of State and of absolute sovereignty. Niccolo Machiavelli made a decisive contribution to that which we may term the ‘apology conception’ of dictatorship, understood as exceptional personal government for the purpose of saving the Republic and defending its liberty against internal and external enemies. The value of dictatorship, according to Machiavelli, was the brevity of its duration. As long as this function should be retained, dictatorship ‘fece beneve non danno alla Republica romana’ (Discourses, I, 10, 33, 35).

This apologetic conception of dictatorship was again proposed in the seventeenth century with the idealization by democratic thinkers of the Enlightenment of republican public spirit. Jean-Jacques Rousseau maintained that in periods of danger the democratic state could nominate a ‘supreme chief who silences all the laws,’ fixing a relatively short period for the fulfillment of this chief’s role without the capacity for its being prolonged, because only in this way would it be possible to avoid the transformation of dictatorship into tyranny (Rousseau 1997, p. 138).

2.2 Dictatorship And Revolutionary Power

The term ‘dictatorship’ re-entered political language at the end of the eighteenth century with the democratic revolutions in America and Europe. In France, following the experience of the Public Health Committee, nominated by the National Convention (1793–5) both a new conception and practical experience of dictatorship emerged. This was identified by the advent of revolutionary power as a form of absolute government, exceptional and temporary, yet personal, which claimed its legitimacy on the basis of the principle of popular sovereignty, the wish to create a new constitutional order and a more just society. After the fall of the Jacobins, François-Noel Babeuf theorized the necessity of dictatorship by a small revolutionary minority in order to seize power by means of insurrection with the aim of realizing a ‘society of equals.’ After the failure of his insurrectionary attempt (1796) the concept of revolutionary dictatorship was taken up by Filippo Buonarotti, a disciple of Babeuf.

3. Dictatorship In The Nineteenth Century

3.1 ‘Bonapartism’ And ‘Caesarism’ In Europe

In the course of the nineteenth century, the term ‘dictatorship’ was used in its original meaning by the military leaders of the national revolutions. Simon Bolivar proclaimed himself dictator in 1813, and Giuseppe Garibaldi assumed the power of dictator in 1860 during the expedition of the Thousand. The idea of dictatorship was often associated, within nationalism, with the idea of exceptional government for national liberation. Most important, for the history of dictatorship and the transformation of the concept were the new forms of personal regimes founded in Europe by Napoleon Bonaparte (1799–1814) and later by his grandson Luigi Bonaparte, becoming Napoleon III (1851–70). Their dictatorship originated in a coup d’etat. However, they attempted to legitimize their personal power later with a popular plebiscite and with the transformation of the monarchy without formally reneging on the principles of the French Revolution.

These two experiences of government gave rise to the term ‘Bonapartism,’ from then on used to define the new type of dictatorship imposed by a coup d’etat, but claiming a democratic legitimacy by means of plebiscites. The introduction of the term ‘Caesarism’ was also used in the definition of this new type of dictatorship, in that Julius Caesar was considered the prototype for the modern dictator, emerging victorious after a period of serious social and civic conflict and imposing his personal power using military strength, but also with the support of the masses, presenting himself as the pacifier of the classes, above parties, restorer of stability and of the unity of the State, the incarnation and the interpreter of the national will.

3.2 Dictatorship In Latin America

A particular demonstration of a South American version of ‘Caesarism’ can be found in the presidential dictatorships installed in the majority of the Latin American Republics emerging after independence. These dictators were politicians or military men who elected themselves president and perpetuated their personal power for decades while, nevertheless, paying homage to liberal ideology, allowing for the survival of the constitutional order and, above all, imposing the centralization of state power against the caudillos, the local leaders who, in the first years following independence, instituted personal control with the help of the army, the personal fascination with virility, and the support of the indigenous and mestizo populations. Other president-dictators, followers of positivism, justified their dictatorship with the formula ‘order and progress’ as a necessary means for reinforcing the unity and cohesion of the state, as a pedagogical tool for the education of the people, and as a principal factor in the renovation of society and progress. This new version of the apologetic conception of dictatorship remained one of the principal formulas of populist self-legitimation for the dictators that successively dominated South America.

3.3 Apologists For And Critics Of Dictatorship

Other versions of the apologetic conception of dictatorship were elaborated in romantic culture, in Catholic reactionary thought, and in positivism: the dictator was variously exalted as the supreme guide of the people, the interpreter of God’s will, or the political genius who actuated the laws of history and of progress. Liberal culture, on the other hand, held that the same possibility of conferring absolute power upon a single individual was incompatible with the concept of the modern state founded upon the liberty of citizens, on the sharing of power and on the principle of majority rule. Duclerc and Pagnerre’s Dictionnaire Politique of 1848 explicitly refuted the treatment of dictatorship as ‘an element of modern politics’ because ‘invoking dictatorship means invoking violence’ and annihilating ‘the most sacred principle of democracy, that of majority rule.’

3.4 The Dictatorship Of The Proletariat

In socialist thinking, the concept of dictatorship as revolutionary power was developed. Louis-Auguste Blanqui theorized the necessity of the dictatorship of a revolutionary minority for the realization of communism. This conception was criticized by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels because their idea of revolutionary dictatorship had to be the impersonal power of the working class. The Paris Commune of 1870 represented for Marx the first concrete attempt at proletarian dictatorship. In that in a society divided into classes every type of state is no other than the dictatorship of the dominant class, according to the idea sketched out by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), ‘proletarian dictatorship’ was understood as the organization of the working class at the level of the state following the conquest of power in the transition period from capitalist to communist society.

The concept of ‘proletarian dictatorship’ was first elaborated with the conquest of power in Russia in 1917 by the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin. Lenin was a convinced and tenacious advocate of the necessity of dictatorship intended as an unlimited, inflexible, and implacable power in the repression of enemies of the proletariat because, in the absence of this power, the transition from capitalism to socialism would be impossible (‘The immediate duties of Soviet power,’ April 26, 1918, in Lenin 1971). However, against Marx, Lenin claimed that dictatorship of single individuals, endowed with unlimited power for the realization of the socialist revolution was not in fact incompatible with proletarian dictatorship, exercised by the Bolshevik Party as the vanguard of professional revolutionaries and interpreters of the historical role of the proletariat.

The Leninist conception of dictatorship and its practical activation were criticised by other revolutionary Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg who claimed that proletarian dictatorship should consist of ‘a means of applying democracy, not of its abolition,’ and ‘the work of the class, and not of a small minority of leaders in the name of the class’ (Luxemburg 1970 pp. 570–94).

4. The Twentieth Century: A Century Of Dictatorships

4.1 The Epidemic Of Dictatorship In Europe Between The Two World Wars

‘In the Victorian era,’ wrote Winston Churchill in 1930 in the introduction to one of the first attempts at the historical and theoretical analysis of dictatorship (Forst de Battaglia 1930), ‘dictatorship was at once a monstrosity and an anachronism.’ The triumph of parliamentary democracy in Europe in the aftermath of World War I was ephemeral. In 1922, the ‘crisis of democracy’ and the ‘crisis of parliamentarism’ were already being talked of (Guy-Grand 1922, Schmitt 1923), while with the affirmation of absolute power by the Bolshevik Party in the USSR a new type of dictatorship as a regime by a single party was being affirmed for the first time. The fascination with the Bolshevik experiment excited masses of European workers and prompted the birth of communist parties with the aim of violent conquest of power for the establishment of ‘proletarian dictatorship.’ Nevertheless, no attempt at communist conquest of power was successful. On the contrary, the fear of Bolshevism generated reaction on the part of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes in many countries which led to the creation of authoritarian, nationalistic, and anti-Bolshevik governments. After 1922, almost every year, more or less durable dictatorial nationalist governments emerged in Italy, Spain, Turkey, Poland, Greece, Portugal, Austria, Germany, the Baltic States, and the Balkans.

4.2 The Model Of Fascist Dictatorship

At the end of 1922, with Mussolini’s coming to government in Italy (28 October), for the first time a nationalist revolutionary movement organized around a new form of party, the ‘party-militia,’ conquered power in a country governed by a liberal democracy with the declared object of destroying it. This gave rise to the establishment of a regime that antifascists were the first to call a ‘one-party state,’ ‘totalitarian system,’ or ‘totalitarianism,’ defining a new type of dictatorship founded upon the predominance of a single party, the centralization of power in the hands of the party leader, the imposition of a singular ideology with the aim of realizing the subordination of society to the state by means of control by the singular party and its organizations (Gentile 1995).

Until the middle of the 1920s, fascism, and not Bolshevism, was considered the real threat to parliamentary democracy (Martin 1926). Italian fascism effectively became the model for other nationalist movements that proclaimed their dictatorial vocation, openly opposing the ideals of the French Revolution. At the beginning of the 1930s, Europe was invaded by an ‘epidemic of dictatorship’ (Sforza 1931). Initially, the dictatorial disease was considered to be exclusive to less developed countries (Cambo 1930). This interpretation was proved wrong after the rise of National Socialist dictatorship in Germany. In the second half of the 1930s, however, the ‘seduction of fascism’ seemed to grow (Drabowitch 1934). During World War II, most of Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe was governed by dictatorial systems.

4.3 Totalitarian States

In the period between the two world wars a new apologetic myth of the dictatorial figure as the ‘strong man’ who emerges in times of crisis to rescue the State and re-establishes order, discipline, and efficiency was diffused (Seche 1924, Beraud 1933, Massis 1939). At the same time, the first attempts at comparative analysis aimed at elaborating a unitary perspective on the phenomenon of dictatorship were begun. Already, by the second half of the 1920s, several analogies between the dictatorship of Bolshevism and that of fascism came to prominence, later compared also to the dictatorship of National Socialism. The classification of these new types of dictatorship under the category of ‘totalitarian states’ appeared at the end of the 1920s and was already consolidated by the 1930s and 1940s when the first comparative analyses of fascist, communist, and national socialist regimes were carried out (see Kohn 1935, Hoover 1937, Sturzo 1938 1972, Borkenau 1939, American Philosophical Society 1940, Neumann 1942, Aron 1946).

These studies analyzed the new form of dictatorship from the point of view of its most original aspects, neatly distinguishing it from both Roman and nineteenth-century dictatorship. These aspects included:

(a) the peculiarities of the original phenomena of dictatorship, attributed to the legacy of war, the embitterment of class war, the radicalization of politics, and the incapacity of the parliamentary system to adapt itself to the tumultuous growth of mass society and to provide an effective solution to social and economic conflicts;

(b) the interest of the masses living through the turmoil of a society undergoing transformation and looking for simple and reassuring solutions by subordinating themselves to the command of a ‘strong man’ who promised to resolve the crisis with brutal yet efficient methods;

(c) the novelty of contemporary dictatorship as a one-party regime, created by a mass movement that used parliamentary channels, violence, and terror to conquer and maintain power, rendering permanent its own dictatorship and institutionalizing it as a fundamental pillar of a new political system;

(d) the personalities of the dictators brought to power by these parties such as Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler, that is, ‘new men’ emerging from anonymity and rising to power solely due to their political capacity, exalted and revered like demigods by their followers and by the masses;

(e) the fanaticism and missionary spirit of the new dictators who endowed their ideology and action with the character of a secular religion;

(f ) the use of methods of technological and organizational modernization for the mobilization of the masses and the development of an intense and constant activity of collective indoctrination; and

(g) the ambition of subordinating the collectivity and society to the permanent and capillary control of a single party with the aim of creating a new species of human being.

4.4 The Dictatorial Phenomenon After The End Of World War II

In the aftermath of World War II, while parliamentary democracy was being re-established in Italy and Germany, liberal democracy was definitively consolidated in Western Europe and, after 1945, there were no new dictatorships in this part of the continent. From among the nationalist dictatorships emerging from the interwar period, only the Salazar regime in Portugal and that of Franco in Spain remained standing, both of which returned to democracy after the death of the two dictators in the second half of the 1970s. The only new dictatorship was that of the Colonels’ regime in Greece (1967–1974).

The phenomenon of dictatorship, nevertheless, enjoyed a new and intensified period of expansion in almost all continents. Only North America and Australia remained uncontaminated by the new dictatorial epidemic. Directly after the end of World War II, East Germany, all of Eastern Europe, and the Balkans were put under the control of the new communist dictatorial regimes, the so-called ‘popular democracies’ (Fejto 1969), completely subordinated to the political and military hegemony of Stalin’s USSR from which only the communist regimes of Yugoslavia and Albania escaped. From 1949, with the victory of the communist revolution led by Mao in China, the world’s most densely populated country became governed by a dictatorial regime with its own characteristics, different to the European communist dictatorships and to those of the USSR. During the ‘Cold War,’ the communist model, with variations original to each country, inspired the construction of several dictatorial regimes, both civilian and military, in Central America, Asia, and Africa with the help of the two largest communist countries, the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, becoming, since the 1950s, rival and antagonistic states both for ideological reasons and for those concerning territorial conflict.

The common characteristics of the communist dictatorships were (a) the adoption of Marxist- Leninism as their official ideology; (b) the supremacy of the Communist Party as the single and dominant party; (c) the exaltation of the party leader resulting in the institutionalization of the ‘cult of personality’; (d) the policed repression of any opposition or dissidence, including the recourse to mass terror; (e) the nationalization and planning of the forces of production and of the economy; (f ) the submission to control by the Communist Party of all political and social activities; and (g) the development of a particular form of ‘communist patriotism,’ centered upon the myth of the historical mission of the proletariat.

During the ‘Cold War,’ anticommunism was the motive and principal ideological justification for the establishment of right-wing, civilian, and, more often, military dictatorships sustained by the USA. These dictatorships, especially the military ones (Nord- linger 1977), when not based exclusively on terrorist repression and the arbitrary use of power in the interests of the dictator, his family, or acolytes, attempted to relate policed repression to a demagogic politics of nationalist populism all the while linked to programs of modernization and development. In the second half of the twentieth century, dictatorship in the Third World became ‘the normal form of government’ (Roy 1977). Almost all the new states emerging in Africa and Asia after the fall of the colonial empires were governed by dictatorial regimes, generally military with a single party created from above, a charismatic leader, and a populist ideology of national socialism with programs of secularization and modernization. In the second half of the 1970s, in several Islamic countries, religious fundamentalism became the matrix and ideology for new dictatorial governments.

The tendency towards the proliferation of dictatorships came to a halt in the last two decades of the twentieth century (Hamon 1982). The number of dictatorships—or governments considered as such— has notably diminished. In Latin America, parliamentary democracy has been reinstated in the grand majority of states previously governed by dictators. The fall of the USSR brought about also that of the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe that it sustained. The promotion of human rights has acquired new determination, albeit not always effective, in contesting antidemocratic, repressive, and terrorist governments and in the defeat of the various apologetic conceptions of dictatorship. Nevertheless, it would be too optimistic to use the above to declare the definitive death of dictatorship in the contemporary world and the victory of the democracy of human rights (Hermet 1993).

5. Contemporary Dictatorship: Problems Of Definition And Interpretation

5.1 Definitions And Typologies

Contemporary dictatorships are extremely heterogeneous: civilian or military, personal or collective, conservative or revolutionary, traditionalist or modernizing, bureaucratic or charismatic, authoritarian or totalitarian. Moreover, not only do contemporary dictatorships have nothing in common with their ancient predecessor, apart from the concentration of power, they also differ extensively among themselves according to the geographical, historical, and cultural contexts in which they emerge and owing to the economic, political, and social situations that give rise to them. Furthermore, they differ as regards the social origins of their protagonists as well as the latter’s political formation, the modes in which power and methods of action are organized, the ideologies they profess and the aims they propose. Finally, differences exist relative to the historical development of their emergence, the results they have achieved, and the legacies they have left.

Given the variety and complexity of the phenomenon of dictatorship in the twentieth century, it is very difficult to elaborate a general, unitary theory of dictatorship. Several fundamental problems therefore remain unsolved, particularly those which concern the specific nature of contemporary dictatorship with respect to other forms of absolute personal power. There are various definitions and typologies for classifying the numerous forms of unlimited concentration of power appearing during the course of the twentieth century, commonly adopting the term dictatorship albeit with a meaning varying widely from the original (see especially Schmitt 1928, Friedrich and Brzezinski 1956, Neumann 1957). There are some scholars, however, who prefer to use the term dictatorship in reference only to its original meaning, finding the term ‘antidemocratic regime’ more appropriate for defining the modern forms of unlimited concentration of power, be they authoritarian or totalitarian (Linz 2000). The identification of contemporary dictatorship with antidemocratic regimes is, however, only one aspect of a much more ambiguous relationship between contemporary dictatorship and democracy, understood as the affirmation of the principle of popular sovereignty and mass participation in political life. Contemporary dictatorship in fact ‘belongs to the post-democratic era’ (Kohn 1935), that is, it presupposes the democratic process yet nonetheless searches for its own formula of legitimation within the principle of popular or national sovereignty (Duverger 1982).

5.2 Dictatorship, Tyranny, Despotism

In contemporary speech, dictatorship is often associated with tyranny or despotism. Terms such as dictator, tyrant, and despot are often used as synonyms or alternated between. The first students of the phenomenon of dictatorship in the interwar period, while maintaining that the concept of dictatorship is linked to the Roman model of an extraordinary, yet constitutional and temporary magistrature, preferred to speak of a ‘new age of despots’ (Spencer 1927), or of a new ‘ere des tyrannies’ (Halevy 1938). In more recent studies also the term ‘tyrant’ is preferred over that of dictator for defining the numerous ranks of those holding absolute personal power, dominating, in the second half of the twentieth century—and still in some cases dominating—in many countries of the Third World (Rubin 1987, Chirot 1994). In fact, contemporary dictatorship evokes some of the characteristics of Greek tyranny (Stoppino 1976), but there are also substantial differences. Above all, the origin of contemporary dictatorship is not always illegitimate. For example, Hitler came to power in 1933 through legal channels and many presidents who became dictators in Latin America were legally elected. Furthermore, the majority of modern dictatorships have a very complex structure of organization and exercise of power due to the mass dimension of the societies in which they operate, the methods they adopt, and the aims they propose. All the above makes contemporary dictatorship substantially new and different to tyranny. Therefore, the thesis that holds that the difference between tyranny and contemporary dictatorship as a form of absolute personal power is not substantive, but regards solely the form, technique, and method of government should be forcefully rejected (Hallgarten 1957).

5.3 Dictatorship And The Dictator

Several scholars consider the figure of the dictator an essential and fundamental element in the definition of dictatorship (Cobban 1939). A large part of the general history of dictatorship consists of collections of biographies that sometimes link, in more or less chronological succession, Greek tyranny and the Roman dictators, Cola of Rienzi and Geralomo Savonarola, Cromwell and Robespierre, the two Napoleons, the ‘caudillos’ and the authoritarian and totalitarian dictators of the twentieth century (Funck-Brentano 1928, Bainville 1939, Hallgarten 1957). Some scholars maintain that governments in which unlimited power is not concentrated in one individual cannot be defined as dictatorships in the proper sense of the term (Sartori 1971).

The identification of dictatorship with the figure of the dictator is certainly justified in the majority of the cases in history. In almost all contemporary dictator- ships, the dominant personality of one man emerged at the outset or was subsequently imposed, often surrounded by a charismatic and sacred fascination with the cult of the personality (Schweitzer 1984). At the same time, dictatorial governments exist without the figure of the dictator, for example, the USSR following Stalin’s death and the dictatorial regimes governed by military juntas. Moreover, not even in totalitarian regimes that appear to be internally controlled by the personal power of a dominant and charismatic figure, can the nature and character of the dictatorship as a system of power founded upon the single party be identified in the personage of the dictator (Tucker 1972, Schapiro and Lewis 1970, Gentile 1998).

5.4 Conclusion: General Characteristics Of Contemporary Dictatorship

The diversity in the experiences of power defined as dictatorship in the contemporary world, the variety of definitions and typologies and the problems remaining controversial regarding the nature of dictatorship do not, nonetheless, impede us from being able to identify at least some common characteristics enabling the definition of the specificity of the phenomenon of dictatorship in the modern era in their formative or stabilizing phases.

According to the definition given at the beginning of this research paper, all types of government and regime in which a single person, a group of people, a party, or a military or religious institution (a) conquers the monopoly over political power, by legal or illegal means, and maintains it for an indeterminate length of time; (b) suppresses, reduces, or impedes citizens’ enjoyment of their civil or political rights; (c) forbids or represses the activities of dissidents or of the opposition with the use of force and with recourse to terrorist means; (d) excludes de facto the possibility of the legal and pacific repeal of the rulers by the ruled even while allowing for electoral consultations and plebiscites to take place, may be included under the category of contemporary dictatorship. Contemporary dictatorship is, thus, the antithesis of democracy understood as a representative political system based upon the division and balance of power, a respect for the personal and public rights of citizens, on freedom of speech and of association, and on the periodic election of the government by the electorate, by means of a free and peaceful political contest and according to legal procedures guaranteed by the constitution.


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