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Why are revolutionary regimes so durable?

UTSC Professor Lucan Way is studying why revolutionary regimes remain so durable. (Photo by Ken Jones).

Revolutionary regimes often suffer from poor economic performance, large-scale policy failures and intense external pressure. They are also remarkably durable. 

Several of the longest-surviving authoritarian regimes of the last century-- Mexico, the Soviet, China, Vietnam, and Cuba, can all be considered revolutionary regimes.

Amidst escalating violence in countries under authoritarian rule, writer Don Campbell spoke to Lucan Way, professor of political science at UTSC, about why revolutionary regimes are so successful at holding onto power over long periods of time.

What is a revolutionary regime?

A revolutionary regime is one that emerges out of an ideological and violent struggle from below that relies on mass mobilization of people to change the existing social order and state structure. Such struggles include decades of guerilla struggle, like that undertaken by the Chinese Communists before taking power in 1949 as well the violent civil war following the Russian revolution.

What makes revolutionary regimes so durable?

Violent and ideological struggle does four things to create powerful authoritarian regimes.  First, struggle promotes the creation of powerful and loyal police and security forces that can be used to crack down on opposition.  Second, the demands of military conflict motivate leaders to create highly unified parties infused with military-style discipline.  Third, unity is enhanced because revolutions seeking to overthrow the old social system, such as bourgeois capitalism in Russia or secularism in Iran, naturally generate enormous polarization. Any challenge to the regime can easily be portrayed as a threat to the fundamental goals of the revolution.

Finally, having successfully taken power through large-scale violence, leaders of revolutionary regimes are more likely to engage in large-scale public violence in order to stay in power even in the face of international criticism. Security forces will stick their necks out to save the regime believing  the opposition threatens their way of life and presents a threat to the social and political order that must be crushed..

Do all authoritarian regimes use violence as a means of repression?

Almost all engage in some kind of violence against opponents behind closed doors, yet many are reluctant to engage in large-scale public violence. Such crackdowns invite international isolation and intervention.  Violent crackdowns also make it more likely that leaders will suffer violent retribution if they lose power.  At the same time, revolutionary origins encourage leaders to engage in such risky behavior.

How important is memory and allegiance in terms of revolutionary regime durability?

Any legacy doesn’t survive forever.  When veterans of a particular struggle are still alive they typically remain loyal because they personally took tremendous risk and made sacrifices to ensure its success. When they die, the bond begins to weaken because the younger generation did not share in the same struggle or make the same sacrifices.  

The transition from a revolutionary generation to a post-revolutionary generation creates uncertainty so the regime must create new sources of cohesion. 

Can any lessons be drawn about the current situation in Egypt?

In Egypt the army is very strong but has shown they are only willing to engage in large-scale opposition that poses an existential threat, such as the Muslim Brotherhood whose religious radicalism has been perceived as a threat to the military’s way of life.   During the 2011 demonstrations that helped spark the Arab Spring, the regime was confronted with largely secular middle class protesters—a clear threat to Mubarak and his cronies. The demonstrations were not seen as a fundamental threat to Egypt or the people’s way of life. As a result, both the police and military hesitated and ultimately backed down – resulting in the fall of Mubarak.    

More recently, however, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood threatened to overturn secularism in Egypt. As a result, the military has been much more willing to crack down.  This threat has also convinced many liberals to support the crack down even though it represented an end to democracy.

What about Syria?

The Syrian regime has been eager and willing to engage in large-scale repression but it’s been based on clear ethnic and religious differences.  The Assad regime is strongly backed by the minority Alawites who dominate the security services.  Ethnic and religious polarization has significantly raised the stakes of conflict.  Confronted with opposition, Alawites in the regime fear not just a loss of privileges, but violence and ethnic cleansing.  This has made them much more willing to engage in large-scale violence even if it threatens US military intervention.

Egypt and Syria are not revolutionary regimes. Both came to power through largely nonviolent coups.  Nevertheless, the analysis of revolutionary regimes tells us that autocrats are only likely to engage in large-scale repression that invites international criticism when the stakes are high. This helps us understand why autocrats have sometimes cracked down, but in other cases have chosen not to.

© University of Toronto Scarborough