Permanent Revolution

In an article for the new issue of Journal of Democracy, Steven Levitsky of Harvard and Lucan Way of the University of Toronto consider why authoritarian governments that first take power in revolutions seem to stick around so long:  By any measure, the long-run durability of revolutionary (and post-revolutionary) regimes is impressive. Several of the ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

In an article for the new issue of Journal of Democracy, Steven Levitsky of Harvard and Lucan Way of the University of Toronto consider why authoritarian governments that first take power in revolutions seem to stick around so long: 

In an article for the new issue of Journal of Democracy, Steven Levitsky of Harvard and Lucan Way of the University of Toronto consider why authoritarian governments that first take power in revolutions seem to stick around so long: 

By any measure, the long-run durability of revolutionary (and post-revolutionary) regimes is impressive. Several of the longest-surviving authoritarian regimes of the last century, including those in Mexico (83 years), the USSR (74 years), China (63 years and counting), Vietnam (59 years and counting), and Cuba (54 years and counting), were born of violent revolution. Outside of a handful of oil-based Persian Gulf monarchies, few other contemporary dictatorships have survived as long.

Since the end of the Cold War, the loss of foreign patrons, unprecedented international democracy promotion, and economic crisis have undermined authoritarian rule in much of the world. Yet revolutionary regimes remain strikingly resistant to democratization. Ten of the twelve revolutionary authoritarian regimes that existed in January 1989 survived through 2013, compared to barely a third (29 of 82) of the world’s nonrevolutionary authoritarian regimes.

Indeed, the only communist regimes that persisted after the collapse of the Soviet Union-China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam-were revolutionary. Likewise, in sub-Saharan Africa, among the handful of authoritarian regimes that remain intact 24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall are three that were founded in violent liberation struggles: Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. And in the Middle East and North Africa, the only nonmonarchies that were not seriously challenged during the Arab Spring — Algeria and Iran — were born of violent struggle.  

So why is this? Levitsky and Way suggest a number of explanations including the fact that revolutionary regimes tend to eliminate opposing power structures in the process of seizing control, tend to have strong ruling parties that for a time at least enjoy the public legitimacy associated with the revolutionary struggle, are relatively invulnerable to coups, and build up "coercive capacity" by fighting against counterrevolutionary resistance movements and hostile foreign nations.

The analysis wouldn’t seem to work as well for authoritarian or semi-authoritarian governments that come to power in non-violent revolutions. While Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood may have been attempting to consolidate political control and marginalize during it’s time in power, the military — the country’s most important rival power structure — remained in place, leaving Morsy and co. vulnerable to challenge.

The authors write, "In most revolutions, preexisting armies either dissolved with the fall of
the dictator (Cuba and Nicaragua) or were destroyed by civil war (China,
Mexico, and Russia)." One big reason why the guys in the photo above are still hanging around. 

Joshua Keating is a former associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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