The Durability of Revolutionary Regimes

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Lucan Way wants to explain why revolutionary regimes endure.

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

Lucan Way, professor of political science at UTSC, is looking at why these regimes are so successful at holding onto power over long periods of time.

Born out of an ideological and violent struggle from below, a revolutionary regime relies on the mass mobilization of people to change the existing social and state structure. Several of the longest-surviving authoritarian regimes of the last century such as Mexico (83 years), the Soviet Union (74 years), China (63 years and counting), Vietnam (59 years and counting), and Cuba (54 years and counting) can all be considered revolutionary regimes.

Working with Steven Levitsky of Harvard University, Way focuses on four factors that make powerful authoritarian regimes successful at holding on to power.

First, these regimes have a strong state-security organization that creates a bond between the ruling elite and the police and security forces on the ground. Second, they create a strong, cohesive, disciplined ruling party. Third, they are able to eliminate internal opposition. Finally, having successfully taken power through large-scale violence, the leaders are likely to engage in large-scale violence to stay in power.

Once established a revolutionary regime is willing to engage in very public – and often violent – acts of coercion against anything it can frame as an existential threat, even if it’s something as seemingly harmless as a peaceful protest. 

The existence of a “revolutionary generation” also plays an important role. When the veterans of a revolutionary struggle are still alive they have tremendous loyalty to the ruling elite because they took tremendous risks to ensure its success. When that generation dies off the bond begins to weaken because the younger generation did not share in the same struggle. This is often a difficult transition period for the regime.