Any form of human political organization larger than the tribe always fails in the long run, for basic sociobiological reasons: We’re primates; we’re built to live in baboon troops. As history shows, if you want your regime to survive, make it as close to a monkey troop as you can — ancient Egypt survived on this model for many thousands of years, as did the Chinese Empire. Both were so successful at preserving their character, in fact, that some of the longest-reigning dynasties in both cases were composed of foreigners who’d gone native — the Ptolemids; the Qing. Both got really weird towards the end, but ya gotta admit, a few centuries is a hell of a run.
If this is true, you’d expect purely ideological regimes to be the shortest-lived, as ideology is by definition contrary to human nature, and therefore the most ideological regimes would implode the fastest… which, yep, seems like that happened across the board. The world’s first purely ideological regime of any significance was England’s Protectorate — a mere six years, followed by a return to monarchy.* Given the dependence of their ideology on war, we could say that the Third Reich was even more ideological than the various Communist regimes; they famously lasted 12 years. The longest-running ideological state still in existence (North Korea) dates from 1948; the overall longevity champ, the USSR, made it 74 years.
Even there, longevity seems to be directly correlated with reducing ideological conformity. Whatever they’re doing in China and North Korea, it ain’t Communism in any but the loosest nominal sense; the same was true with the late-stage USSR (and isn’t it the Left themselves who keep insisting that “real Communism has never been tried”?). I suppose it’s possible there are some “pure” Communist regimes still out there somewhere — Angola or some such — and if you want to make that case, be my guest, I’m Sgt. Schultz, I know nossink. So I’m going to go ahead and say that the law holds: “Regime survival” and “ideological conformity” correlate inversely.
Whatever their ideology, then, dictatorships seem to follow a predictable pattern. (I’m assuming here that the very word “dictator” contains at least some ideological content, as even the most brutally instrumentalist dictators — your Kim Jong-uns and whatnot — still seem compelled to go through the sham of “elections” or something similar every now and again, to pretend they embody the People’s will). They all seem to end in palace coups, though (or military defeat, like the Nazis, which are uninteresting), so it’s worth taking a look at how they function when in power, and the steps they take to prevent being overthrown.
The riskiest anti-coup measure seems to be “making the dictatorship hereditary,” North Korea-style. This buys you all the trouble of a hereditary monarchy, but with the added instability of ideology. Since the son will almost inevitably be a lesser man than the father, and the grandson a pale shadow of either, by keeping the ideology you hand your disaffected “nobles” a ready-made reason to overthrow you. If I had to guess, this is how North Korea’s end will come — some disaffected general overthrowing the Kims in the name of Communism. See also: The Ba’ath Party in Iraq. Does anyone think either of Saddam’s goofy playboy sons would’ve inherited the purple when the old man finally kicked the bucket?
The Tao of the Politburo seems to be a safer choice. The Soviets, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. seemed to make this work, with the above-noted caveat that they move hard away from ideology the minute the dictator is in the ground (the North Vietnamese, as they were then, were doing that while Ho Chi Minh was still alive; smart move, boys). The problem, though, as we’ve noted before, is that there comes a time when the last of the dictator’s enablers are themselves in the ground. At that point, ideology can rear its ugly head again. Nikita Khrushchev, for instance, was a true-believing Communist, but he also came up in the hardest possible school and knew exactly how far to push ideology. When he kicked, the mantle devolved on a guy like Gorbachev, who was a true believer without all the hard experience. It didn’t end well.
The best case scenario seems to end with your Politburo Chairman being more or less a Renaissance Pope — an affable nonentity that’s no threat to any of the organization’s real players, but who is an acceptable face to the monarchs who matter. It’s a tough needle to thread — get it wrong, and you end up with schisms, antipopes, Bablyonian Captivities, the whole Avignon schmear, not to mention stuff like the Reformation. China’s doing ok so far, but watch what happens when their economy collapses… which is, in all likelihood, just around the corner. Fun stuff. See also Mexico, where the collapse of the PRI — the Institutional Revolutionary Party, let us note — coincided with the collapse of central government authority, making the whole place a narco-state controlled by various cartels.
There’s a third case: Actual reform, and a transition to constitutionalism. Russia arguably went through this; Chile less arguably. It happens, and it’s interesting in the world-historical sense, but does anyone want to bet it’ll happen again, anywhere in the world? We like to joke about Trump as the American Pinochet, but Pinochets are one-offs.
But then there are those fascinating cases where the dictator seems to make no provision at all for the succession. You can forgive someone like Hitler, I suppose, for not making any plans, given that he was determined to do or die for the world revolution, but you’d think that even the goofiest of Los Caudillos del Momento would have some sort of plan for handing off the generalissimo outfit to his heir-designate….
[to be continued]
*Leaving aside Calvin’s Geneva, which while intellectually fecund was politically insignificant, and anyway didn’t survive the leader’s death (see the discussion of hereditary dictatorships, above).