Totalitarianism and Authoritarianism Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. Theoretical and Definitional Questions

A. Definitions and Typology

B. Theoretical Approaches

III. Empirical Questions

A. The Origins of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes

B. How Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes Rule and Survive

C. Authoritarian Regimes in an Age of Democratization

IV. Directions for Future Research

V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

In the 20th century, some of the darker consequences of the industrial and political revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries appeared: industrialized slaughter and mass terror organized by powerful states against their own societies. Events such as the Holocaust, Stalin’s terror, and China’s Cultural Revolution challenged political scientists to explain how and why states could govern in such ways. Although the century ended with a wave of democratization in many parts of the world, different types of nondemocratic regimes that had been pervasive outside Western Europe and North America persisted in smaller but still very significant numbers. In the 21st century, political science must continue to analyze nondemocratic regimes and to ask questions that have challenged the discipline for decades (at the very least since the rise of fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism in the period between the two World Wars):

  • How can we most usefully categorize and distinguish the types of nondemocratic regimes?
  • How do such regimes arise?
  • How do they maintain their grip on power?
  • Under what circumstances can they fall?

This research paper explains some of the challenges to adequately defining and describing different kinds of nondemocratic regimes and introduces theoretical perspectives and approaches to their study. It then explores some more specific empirical questions on the rise, performance, and demise of such regimes in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Last, it offers some suggestions for fruitful directions for further research.

II. Theoretical and Definitional Questions

A. Definitions and Typology

Although the theoretical origins of modern authoritarianism may be found in classics of political thought including Plato’s Republic, Hobbes’s Leviathan, and Rousseau’s On the Social Contract, most modern political science analysis is informed, at least implicitly, by Max Weber’s (1947/1964) concept of legitimate authority. According to Weber,

There are three pure types of legitimate authority. The validity of their claims to legitimacy may be based on: 1. Rational grounds resting on a belief in the “legality” of patterns of normative rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands (legal authority). 2. Traditional grounds resting on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them (traditional authority); or finally, 3. Charismatic grounds resting on devotion to the specific and exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns of order revealed or ordained by him (charismatic authority). (p. 328)

Modern liberal democracy is based on legal authority, the legitimacy granted by the results of free and fair elections held according to procedures to which, at least notionally, all citizens have given their assent. Other modern regime types draw on a broader array of justifications for their rule. This does not mean that nondemocratic regimes derive their authority exclusively from traditional or charismatic sources, although both kinds of authority have existed and do exist in nondemocratic regimes, such as in some of the monarchies of the Middle East (for all that they are modern creations, their appeal is to traditional allegiances) or the charismatic appeal of a Hitler, a Franco, or a Peron. Some political scientists have adapted Weber’s concept of traditional rule to develop modern categories of neopatrimonialism or sultanism to describe many of the regimes of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, but not all scholars of authoritarianism use these terms.

Most authoritarian regimes rely on a mix of legitimacy and coercion. The tools available to a regime in control of a modern state both to communicate its legitimacy and to apply coercion far outstrip what was available to historical autocrats, even absolutist monarchs such as Louis XIV of France. Modern states are capable of organizing a whole society, should they choose to, through communications technology, pervasive bureaucracy, and sheer firepower.

Authoritarian systems are nondemocratic systems. Put another way, authoritarianism is the absence of or limit on polyarchy (Dahl, 1979) or even a limit on politics per se:

In authoritarian systems there is only a limited form of politics, for power struggles among factions in one party regimes and disagreements among soldiers or bureaucrats are not the same as real politics, which must operate in the context of a civic culture. (Pye, 1990, p. 15)

Although the absence of democracy is at the heart of the definition of authoritarianism, it is important not to equate authoritarianism simply with the absence of elections. Elections are used as a tool of legitimation by virtually all regimes, given the almost universal need to claim to rule on behalf of the people. There are many techniques whereby an election or referendum can be manipulated to achieve the outcome desired by the incumbents or to limit the outcome to a circumscribed range of possibilities. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, candidates for public office compete in genuinely competitive elections, but the religious authorities exclude many possible candidates from competing. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is banned from operating as a political party, meaning that its candidates must run as independents. Moreover, the process of voting itself is often marred by ballot-stuffing, voter intimidation, bribery, and other practices. In single-party regimes, of course, only candidates of the ruling party may run. It is not the case that elections in all these cases are entirely meaningless. What is crucial is that the ruling elite finds means to insulate itself from effective challenge via the ballot box.

What varieties of regime are there? A straight binary division between democracies and nondemocracies is likely to obscure more than it reveals. However, how one develops and applies a typology to regimes that enables fruitful development of theory and empirical analysis is an issue that has yet to achieve a consensus among political scientists and continues to present challenges to theory development. In a recent argument about the problems of regime typology, Stephen Hanson and Jeffrey Kopstein (2005) warn of generating “as many taxonomies as social researchers” (p. 77).

One approach would be to have a finely grained typology that has many separate categories—for example, dictatorship could be divided into autodictatorship (no elections), monodictatorship (noncompetitive elections), and semidictatorship (semicompetitive elections; Brooker, 2000), and then each subtype could be further divided into military, party, or personal rule. Or one might choose a sliding scale from nondemocracy to neardemocracy (Diamond, Linz, & Lipset, 1988). This approach is used by organizations such as Freedom House, which assigns a democracy “score” to regimes worldwide. Another approach would have a few broad categories and then qualify the members of those categories with adjectives, an approach designed to “adequately characterize the diverse regimes that have emerged in recent years [while] maintaining conceptual validity by avoiding conceptual stretching” (Collier & Levitsky, 1997, p. 448). This approach yields concepts such as “soft” authoritarianism and “illiberal” democracy.

How one categorizes different regimes will be informed by which characteristics one believes to be theoretically important. In a 2007 article, Axel Hadenius and Jan Teorell consider institutional variables the most important indicators of which authoritarian regimes are likely to be sustainable and which prone to democratization. Their typology first sets a firm dividing line between democracies and autocracies and then further divides the latter category into monarchies, military regimes, and electoral regimes, whether no party, single party, or limited multiparty. Bradley Glasser (1995), in contrast, develops a typology of Middle East regimes based on access to resources, in order to explain the durability of some authoritarian regimes in the region and the relative liberalization of others.

Identifying which are the most productive typologies remains part of the challenge for future research. For an excellent overview and discussion of work on typologies to date, see Paul Brooker (2000). It may be helpful here to identify certain broad categories of regime, based on institutional structure, before considering the particular problems raised by the term totalitarian.

Party regimes are those in which government is by a sole or dominant party. A single party regime has one party identified with the state and permits no others to operate. Even among this group, there is potentially considerable variation in terms of the ideology through which the party justifies its rule, whether the party has its own security structures or militias, and other variables. A dominant party regime allows limited competition from other parties. Party regimes may be of any ideological complexion, although two common types are of the far left (communist or socialist) on one hand and the far right (fascist or nationalist) on the other. Populist parties might combine elements usually associated with both left and right. Arguably, ideology is less useful in analyzing these regimes than in recognizing the party as primarily an instrument for maintaining power.

Another common kind of nondemocratic system is the military regime, although here again the label covers, theoretically and in practice, a great range of systems. The military may rule directly, through a dictator or ruling council. It may rule indirectly, through alliance with civilian politicians that it chooses and who rule at its pleasure. It may rule through a front party, at which point it of course displays elements of the party and military regimes. A military regime may represent the military as a whole or only one section of it. It may aspire to permanent rule or see its intervention into politics as a temporary measure to redress some severe problem, such as a threat to national security or a threat to the interests of the military itself as an institution.

A third kind of nondemocratic regime is the personalist regime. This is the dictatorship of an individual and is more likely than the two previous types to be based on traditional or charismatic, rather than legal, authority. One key distinction between this and the previously discussed types is that the basis of the regime’s claim to rule is the person of the ruler or rulers, whether they are in power as a result of their own nature or achievements or via descent or other connection to revered authority.

One of the enduring classics on authoritarian regimes is Hannah Arendt’s (1951/1973) The Origins of Totalitarianism. Yet there has been much debate about whether the term totalitarianism has much analytic utility separate from the broader notion of authoritarianism. Written in the aftermath of World War II, Arendt’s work was primarily an attempt to explain the cataclysm that had overtaken Europe at the hands of the Nazi regime. How could human progress have become so badly derailed? At least part of the answer was in the unprecedented ability of modern movements and states to dominate society and individuals utterly: “Totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within” (Arendt, 1951/1973, p. 325). Another part was the rise of mass politics; of the rule of the mob and the failure to uphold the rights of minorities and individuals; and of the attempt to impose uniformity on people, to make them into a whole, a total unity.

Another classic arguing for the distinctiveness of totalitarian regimes is Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s (1965) Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. They argue that all totalitarian dictatorships possess the following characteristics:

1. An elaborate ideology, consisting of an official body of doctrine covering all vital aspects of man’s existence to which everyone living in that society is supposed to adhere. . . . 2. A single mass party typically led by one man, the “dictator,” and consisting of a relatively small percentage of the total population. . . . 3. A system of terror, whether physical or psychic, effected through party and secret police control. . . . 4.A technologically conditioned, near complete monopoly of control, in the hands of the party and of the government, of all means of effective mass communication. . . . 5. A similarly techno logically conditioned, near complete monopoly of the effective use of all weapons of armed combat. 6. A central control and direction of the entire economy. (p. 22)

They did not present this list of six traits as exhaustive but argued that they had “been generally acknowledged as the features of totalitarian dictatorship” (p. 23).

A totalitarian regime is one that successfully controls all aspects of society, abolishing the distinction between public and private, aspiring even to control the most intimate aspects of individuals’ lives and thoughts. Powerful literary portrayals of such regimes can be found in Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, and other works. One objection to the application of the term in political science is that arguably such societies have not existed historically, even if regimes have aspired to such levels of control. If there have been totalitarian regimes, at most the term could be applied to the Third Reich, the Soviet Union under Stalin, arguably Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and possibly North Korea. Fascist Italy should not be included:

Fascism had aspirations to be “totalitarian”; Mussolini virtually invented the term. But . . . it is clear that Mussolini’s grip on Italian society was not as firm, his influence so pervasive, as that of a Hitler or a Stalin. Fascism left huge areas of Italian life practically untouched. (Lyttelton, 1987, p. 1)

Some question whether even the Hitler or Stalin regimes, with their pervasive propaganda and state terror, did not themselves still leave significant areas of life untouched. Saddam’s regime and leader cult aspired to invade all areas of life, to turn children against parents, to make everyone an informer, and succeeded to a remarkable extent (al-Khalil, 1990). And it is hard to make any firm assessment of North Korea since it remains the “hermit kingdom”—a closed society ruled by a paranoid dynasty through many of the tools used by the other named regimes but very difficult for outsiders to investigate and assess (Daniel Gordon’s documentary A State of Mind is a rare window on the tools used by the secretive regime to manage society).

Some have objected to the term totalitarianism as theoretically empty, for instance on grounds that it is simply a particular instance along the spectrum of authoritarianism (Barber, 1969), while others want to apply it quite widely in recognition of the ambitions of many modern authoritarian regimes, even if they ultimately fall short of total management of society (Friedrich, 1969). But one of many important contributions to the field by Juan Linz (1975) argued for a threefold distinction between totalitarian, authoritarian, and democratic regimes (setting aside anomalies such as sultanistic regimes), arguing that totalitarian and authoritarian were distinctive types of nondemocratic regimes rather than instances along a continuum. For Linz, the characteristics of authoritarian regimes that distinguished them from totalitarian regimes were the presence of limited political pluralism and either demobilization of the population or limited and controlled mobilization.

B. Theoretical Approaches

Brooker has argued that there can be no theory of authoritarianism per se. Rather, we can study different kinds of authoritarian regimes and attempt to account for different aspects of them—how they come to exist, how they maintain power, and what can cause them to fail. Nevertheless, in the attempts made to date to explain these different aspects, we can discern several broad approaches, including those rooted in psychology, in the analysis of ideas and ideologies and in structures and institutions.

One older approach is based in psychology, particularly associated with the Frankfurt School, blending elements of Freudian and Marxist thought. The classic work here is that produced by Theodor Adorno and collaborators (1950), The Authoritarian Personality. This approach takes individual characteristics as the enabling condition of the rise of mass movements, explaining those characteristics themselves as produced by the social conditions of modern life. Wilhelm Reich (1970) offers a flavor:

“Fascism” is only the organized political expression of the structure of the average man’s character . . . the basic emotional attitude of the suppressed man of our authoritarian machine civilization and its mechanistic mystical conception of life. It is the mechanistic mystical character of modern man that produces fascist parties, and not vice versa. (p. xiii)

Another approach is interpretive, treating ideas and ideology as having explanatory power. Arendt’s (1951/1973) work, while also sociological and historical, certainly pays attention to this dimension. More recently, Lisa Wedeen (1999) has applied an interpretive lens to the Syrian leader cult, drawing striking conclusions about how its very implausibility and absurdity make it a powerful tool for retarding the emergence of an effective civil society.

The historical-institutional approach, or historical sociology, which ultimately draws from both Marx and Weber, has produced much fruitful work in this domain. Skocpol’s work on social revolutions is a very influential example of this approach, but there are many others, including Linz and Guillermo O’Donnell. Recent exemplars include the contributors to the special issue of Comparative Politics in January 2004 on “Enduring Authoritarianism: Lessons From the Middle East for Comparative Theory” and the work of Jason Brownlee (2007), who studies ruling parties.

Brooker (2000) proposes a forensic approach to the study of the rise, maintenance, and fall of nondemocratic regimes; in other words, their analysis must consider motive, means, and opportunity. This is a broad comparative historical approach that does not commit the researcher a priori to favor agency over structure or vice versa, for example, and is designed to allow a broad range of comparison among nondemocratic regimes and between them and their democratic counterparts. It is a useful open framework within which more specific questions can be considered.

III. Empirical Questions

A. The Origins of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes

Many modern authoritarian regimes have emerged as the result of revolutions, beginning with the Terror that followed the French Revolution and including the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia and the later revolution in China led by Mao Zedong. This last established an authoritarian regime that has persisted into the 21st century in the world’s most populous country. The Iranian Revolution from 1977 to 1979 ushered in a unique form of partially democratic rule, the Islamic Republic.

Theda Skocpol (1979) established a structural and comparative historical framework for the analysis of revolutions in States and Social Revolutions, which remains required reading in the field. She concluded that the classical Marxist prediction of revolutionary change driven by class conflict did not pay sufficient attention to state power, failing to “adequately explain the autonomous power, for good or ill, of states as administrative and coercive machineries embedded in a militarized international states system” (p. 292). Revolutions largely came about due to the weakening of the state’s ability to maintain its monopoly on the legitimate use of force, frequently due to a combination of international pressures—war, above all— and socioeconomic pressures within. She also argued that in direct contradiction to the Marxist prediction of the withering away of the state after a successful revolution, rather “the new-regime states that emerged in France, Russia, and China alike were stronger and more autonomous within society” (p. 285). While the ideological and socioeconomic complexions of these three postrevolutionary regimes were quite different, the strengthening of the state was a common outcome in all. In the latter two cases, as in many other 20th-century examples of authoritarian regimes, the state’s authority was seen as a necessary tool to apply to the problem of “catching up” with more economically developed countries.

Iran’s revolution posed a challenge to this understanding of social revolution, as Skocpol (1982) conceded in an article published not long after her 1979 work. In contrast to her account of those earlier revolutions, she found herself having to recognize a larger independent causal force for ideas and ideology and to stress agency over opportunity. The Iranian revolution came about not in a state weakened by war, but in one where the U.S.-backed regime of the Shah had at its disposal significant military, police, and intelligence resources. This revolution did not simply “come” but was definitely “made” by a coalition of dissatisfied social forces.

Capturing the state and then using its institutions as machines to transform and better society are common goals of revolutions, whatever the details of their mobilizing ideology. Rather than pay attention to ideology, then— to “motive,” in Brooker’s approach—it is possibly more fruitful to consider the questions of means and opportunity.

Opportunity has often emerged through the breakdown of the existing social and political order, such as via wars, economic disruption, and failure of institutions, as seen in Italy and the Weimar Republic of Germany between the two World Wars. In these circumstances, revolutions can be genuinely social in the sense that they are driven by a broad movement of citizens seizing power, although it is usually a rather small group of people who seize the moment to knock out the previous regime. But in the latter half of the 20th century, the dynamic was different because state institutions, and the instruments of state coercion above all, were stronger than in earlier times. Regime change tended to be imposed through military force, from within or without: “Once decolonization was completed, with modern military establishments successfully installed, then social revolutions became much less likely—although military coups of various sorts have become very frequent” (Skocpol, 1979, p. 290). The ability of states to maintain order, to prevent mass mobilization against themselves, has developed, particularly as a result of technological advances. The prospects for social revolutionaries have correspondingly diminished such that some recent analyses more or less exclude any significant role for ordinary citizens in the rise of authoritarian regimes, seeing authoritarianism instead as the outcome of elite decisions, with citizens more or less innocent bystanders who would on the whole prefer democracy (e.g., Bermeo, 2003).

One variation is bureaucratic or elite “revolutions,” an idea particularly associated with O’Donnell’s (1973) concept of bureaucratic authoritarianism, based on his studies of South America and developed and refined in his subsequent work. But this kind of top-down revolution has a longer pedigree, as Ellen Kay Trimberger (1978) found when she studied the Meiji Restoration in 19th-century Japan, the Ataturk regime that founded modern Turkey in the early 20th century, the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in mid-20th-century Egypt, and the Peruvian military junta that took power in 1968. These were examples of what she terms revolution from above, to distinguish them from regimes produced either by mass-based revolutionary movements or by straightforward military coups. Revolutions from above, she argues, were revolutionary in that through force or the threat of force a new group took over the central state apparatus and destroyed the economic and political power of the previously dominant social group. But revolutions from above were distinctive in that those taking over were senior military and civilian bureaucrats; that along with little or no mass participation, there was relatively little violence; and that there was little appeal to radical ideology, but rather pragmatic, gradual change. Where Trimberger parts company with earlier thinkers on revolutionary change, such as Marx and Weber, is in making the bureaucracy an actor rather than a tool of other actors (dictators, parties, mass movements) and arguing that while many bureaucracies in industrializing countries may tend to be conservative, some can become forces for change rather than continuity. In this she supports O’Donnell’s emphasis on state bureaucrats—military and civilian—as the architects of state-driven social change. The regimes he studied in South America, a region in which many countries had long histories of democracy since independence, often followed the pattern of a military coup’s leading to either direct rule by the military or indirect rule through a front political party or organization. Like Turkey, but unlike Egypt, those regimes have now given way to democracies once more, as has South Korea, once also described as a bureaucratic-authoritarian regime.

Diminishing opportunities for social revolution as a result of stronger states may direct us to pay particular attention to the means employed in building nondemocratic regimes. Revolutions are almost always achieved through the application of military force, conventional or unconventional. For example, Thomas Hammond (1975) concluded that from the Bolshevik Revolution onward, Communist regimes came to power only with the aid of significant military force. This is clearest in the case of exported revolutions, in which the Soviet Red Army either annexed territories directly to the Soviet Union or installed Communist regimes in other states, many in the immediate aftermath of World War II, but also including the counterrevolutions in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968). These are not, of course, the same as the social revolutions analyzed by Skocpol in that they were not the overthrow of a weakened political and economic order by organized social forces from below. But indigenous takeovers do more closely resemble the classic social revolutions and also rely on military force. The most common pattern, contrary to classical Marxist predictions of the industrial proletariat as the motor of revolution, is of takeovers starting in the countryside and then spreading to the cities. Examples are Mao’s China, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Vietnam (Hammond, 1975). Almost all cases of both indigenous Communist takeovers and exported revolutions occurred during or soon after international wars that weakened the existing order. In other cases of newly emerging authoritarian regimes, the military coup was the most common pattern, particularly in Latin America and much of postcolonial Africa.

B. How Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes Rule and Survive

In order to understand how nondemocratic regimes maintain their power, we might think the obvious place to start would be with coercion and fear—images of the Soviet gulag or South American death squads or pervasive insecurity generated by secret police forces. We do indeed need to understand the workings of these technologies of power and control, but we must recognize that the range of tools available to modern authoritarian states is broader than those that are directly coercive. And we should understand also that even in regimes that are capable of startling brutality toward their own population, the surest way to stay in power is legitimacy, that is, the consent of the governed.

Although, by definition, nondemocratic regimes do not have the legitimacy that comes as a result of free and fair elections, it is typical and important that they claim to rule in the name of and on behalf of “the people.” Arendt (1951/1973) and others speak of mass politics, in contrast to democratic pluralism: Authoritarianism often rests on the notion of the citizenry as a single, homogeneous body that finds its expression in the regime, party, or leader. Taken to an extreme, as in the Third Reich, this can lead to programs of expulsion or extermination of the “other.”

How do authoritarian regimes acquire and sustain legitimacy in practice? Sometimes a charismatic leader or one claiming legitimacy through descent or religious sanction may be the source of the regime’s claim to power. But more common is a claim by performance, the regime’s keeping its side of an implicit or explicit bargain—obedience on the part of the population met with the provision of services on the part of the state, whether this be in the form of development, social welfare, or the provision of security. There may also be the provision of what we might think of as psychological goods, such as national pride. We might naturally associate this idea of state provision of benefits in return for obedience with regimes of the left. But one historian of 20th-century fascism points out that regimes of the right also tended to seek legitimacy through performance, by promising to deliver rapid industrialization and national independence without the social dislocations associated with the earlier industrializing states, thus appealing to social conservatism and people’s attachment to order. Adrian Lyttelton (1987) describes Italian fascism in these terms:

It aimed at modernization without modernity. In other words, it aimed to appropriate the advantages of technical and economic progress, while rejecting the political, cultural, and social changes that had been associated with industrialization in Britain and the USA. . . . Fascism started from modernist premises (futurism) and ended by espousing policies of a much more traditionalist kind (ruralism); national socialism started from anti modernist premises (“Blood and Soil”), but ended up by promoting rapid industrialization and urbanization. (pp. 437 438)

Similar appeals to “modernization without modernity” have marked many regimes of the later-developing global South. Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, among others, is well-known for his espousal of a doctrine of “Asian values,” by which he meant his regime would deliver economic development without political liberalization, which, he argued, was not in keeping with his society’s values and traditions. This approach has had some support from Western economists, politicians, and institutions, although certainly not all (Robison, 1996).

The difficulty with performance-based legitimacy is, of course, that the regime must perform. In the 1950s and early 1960s, there was significant support in political science and related disciplines and in the worlds of policy and politics for the idea that authoritarian regimes could aid in the process of catching up to the more advanced industrialized states. While modernization theory, popular in the early part of the cold war, posited that economic and political development moved hand in hand in the direction of greater liberalization, the idea that a more directive, interventionist state could produce more rapid economic development became accepted, not only among authoritarian regimes themselves and their supporters, but also among some development economists and political scientists, particularly those who studied the Asian Tigers—states such as Taiwan and South Korea that achieved rapid growth under illiberal, interventionist regimes. However, for every Singapore there was a Zaire, the latter being a classic example of a predatory state, where the dictator and his cronies stripped the country of resources and impoverished rather than developed it (the World Bank has termed predatory states transfer economies, that is, those in which political power determines the transfer of resources extracted from society to a particular, nonproductive group or class). Many military regimes pinned their legitimacy on outperforming the allegedly inefficient civilian regimes they had replaced, but as early as the 1970s, cross-national analysis already showed that military regimes varied as widely as their civilian counterparts in their performance, that there was no reason to expect that military regimes would deliver more rapid or more effective development than civilian regimes as a general rule, even while individual regimes of both kinds might perform well (McKinlay & Cohan, 1975). For arguments about the circumstances under which state intervention is developmental rather than predatory, see in particular the work of Peter Evans (1995).

The planned economies of the Soviet Bloc did achieve rapid industrialization and were able to compete militarily with the earlier-industrializing West. But ultimately many projects of state socialism built on the Soviet model ended up providing neither bread nor freedom, neither prosperity nor liberty. An American Political Science Association president noted the following in his annual address as Soviet Communism was collapsing:

There is a growing awareness that authoritarian rule, whether Leninist or not, can be a liability in achieving progress. The idea that centralized authority enhances the state’s ability to shape society has been dealt a blow by the record of performance of the states that have tried to carry the idea to the extreme. (Pye, 1990, p. 9)

Ideology and cultural authoritarianism are also useful tools for authoritarian regimes. While not even the totalitarian states have achieved the nightmare vision of Orwell’s 1984 in terms of constant and ubiquitous surveillance and propaganda, of language stripped of meaning and citizens’ very thoughts controlled by the state, most authoritarian regimes have intervened significantly in the domain of culture and public expression, through censorship and propaganda, to mold the environment and channel public discourse in useful directions. A striking instance of this is the mass spectacle, whereby regimes command masses of people to perform complex displays, providing both a sign of the regime’s power and a disciplining exercise for the performers themselves. The German Marxist critic Siegfried Kracauer discussed the meaning of such displays in his essay collection The Mass Ornament (1995), and they can be seen in filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will, documenting the Nazi rally at Nuremburg in 1934. More recent North Korean and Syrian examples are shown in A State of Mind and discussed in Wedeen’s (1999) Ambiguities of Domination. Other, more day-to-day conditioning of populations can be achieved through mass organizations such as political parties, regime-controlled trade unions, and similar institutions that function to discipline populations but not necessarily to mobilize them (see Kasza, 1995; Unger, 1974).

The tools of fear and coercion are an important complement to the tools of legitimacy and mobilization. Military and paramilitary forces, secret police and intelligence services, prison camps and torture chambers have all been key instruments of 20th-century authoritarian regimes and remain important. The eternal puzzle of quis custodiet ipsos custodes?—who guards the guards themselves?— applies here. Saddam Hussein maintained a complex system of rival intelligence agencies, spying on each other as well as the general population, the military, and so forth, and ultimately reporting only to him. The interesting questions are not so much about the functioning of such institutions but about how and why they break down in some circumstances while continuing to perform in others. Why did the Shah’s forces stop firing on revolutionary crowds but People’s Army troops did not refuse to crack down on protesters in Tiananmen Square a decade later?

C. Authoritarian Regimes in an Age of Democratization

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes, and the wave of liberalization in Latin America that together make up what Samuel Huntington (1993) described as the “the third wave of democratizaion,” much attention has been paid to transitions from authoritarianism to democracy. However, contrary to some who saw in the end of the cold war an end to ideological competition and the beginning of an age in which liberal democracy and free-market capitalism would spread worldwide, political scientists interested in authoritarianism have plenty of material to study in the 21st century. There are aborted or semitransitions, yielding what Fareed Zakaria of the Cable News Network calls “illiberal democracies” or semiauthoritarian regimes, such as Russia. And while there have been very real transitions to democracy in parts of the world, authoritarianism persists in China, North Korea, Central Asia, much of the Middle East, and many countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Explaining the resistance of the remaining autocracies to global pressures toward liberalization, or, on the other hand, resisting the “end of history” mind-set and analyzing the authoritarian regimes on their own terms rather than as aberrations, has provided interesting challenges for students of comparative politics. Many of those specializing in the Middle East, for example, have been concerned with these questions. Syrian analyst Aziz Al-Azmeh (1994) argues for the importance of ideas and discourse in understanding the persistence of authoritarianism in the Arab world. The discourse of democracy has been co-opted by accident or design in a way that doesn’t engage with core democratic ideas or values. Rather, a “populist discourse on democracy” (p. 121) has come to dominate, and populism is an ally of authoritarianism, not least because of the identification of “the people” with the state. Brownlee’s (2007) cross-regional analysis takes institutions, rather than discourses, as the basis of its explanation of the resistance of regimes to democratizing pressures. His argument is that in the cases he studies, the key to regime survival is the creation of a dominant party that provides incentives to elites to stay aligned with the regime and can punish those who defect. The absence of such an institution in the case of Iran, for example, means elite politics are more fractious and politics in general more dynamic and open than in Egypt. This institutional approach deliberately compares Middle Eastern cases with those outside the region, rejecting any exceptionalist explanation for its relative lack of liberal democracy. Nevertheless, scholars continue to try to explain the particular problem of the Arab states as “the world’s most unfree region” (Schlumberger, 2007, p. 5). Contributors to Oliver Schlumberger’s edited volume consider state–society relations, the structure of the regimes themselves, the interaction of economics and politics, and the interaction of states with the international arena in their search for explanation. The field remains rich in research possibilities.

IV. Directions for Future Research

Areas in which future research will be necessary include, but are not limited to, questions of transitions from authoritarian rule and, conversely, its persistence; state–society relations and the role of civil society under different regime types; civil-military relations; ideology; discourses; propaganda; censorship; and cultural authoritarianism.

Some important issues to explore in the area of transitions and persistence include international pressures and effects. Is there a domino effect for democratization, as U.S. cold warriors once feared regarding communism? Is it possible to impose democracy successfully, as has been attempted in Iraq? What is the role of international institutions and international nongovernmental organizations? Civic culture, or civil society, the presence of public activities, opinion, and organized life outside the control of the state or regime are now considered essential to the healthy functioning of democracy. This has led many donor organizations, governmental and otherwise, to devote considerable resources to building civil society organizations in nondemocratic states, with mixed success, particularly given how easily authoritarian or semiauthoritarian regimes can paint such efforts as sinister “outside interference” (Grodsky, 2007). This is an area in which policy-relevant research is needed.

Economics may also matter a great deal, as it has in 20th-century authoritarianism. What is the relationship between economic liberalization or, conversely, protectionism and political liberalization or authoritarianism? Is it effective to liberalize in one domain but not the other? The question of performance legitimacy in the economic domain persists.

Under the broad heading of state–society relations under authoritarian rule, one key area is civil–military relations, particularly important for societies making a transition away from military rule. Other issues that remain incompletely understood include the effectiveness of propaganda and censorship and the way emerging technologies, particularly in the domain of media and communications, are affecting the ability of regimes to dominate populations and, conversely, the extent to which they might enable the growth of more autonomous and effective civil society organizations.

V. Conclusion

Nondemocratic regimes persist and offer challenges to political science. They vary widely in institutional structure, source of legitimacy, ideology, and degree of openness, which makes developing theories of authoritarianism per se difficult. But the core questions of how such regimes arise and stay in power, how they perform, and the circumstances under which they become vulnerable to challenge offer interesting, policy-relevant research pathways susceptible to more than one methodological approach.


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