Rethinking the Durability of Revolutionary Regimes – By Anne Meng and Jack Paine


Revolutionary regimes have long been considered to be a durable form of authoritarian rule. The PRI regime in Mexico, for instance, ruled the country for 83 years, and the USSR remained in power for 74 years. Revolutionary regimes in China, Vietnam, and Cuba have been in power for 71 years, 68 years, and 62 years, and remain in power today. Existing scholarship offers two main explanations for this pattern. First, high levels of elite cohesion that results from ideological affinity or partisanship developed during the war. Second, control over mass society, including the radical transformation of state.


In a new working paper, we provide a different narrative of the durability of revolutionary regimes. We argue that revolutionary regimes derive their stability from peaceful powersharing between the ruler and military elites. During the process of fighting for power, rulers in rebel regimes enjoy a unique opportunity to transform the military and elevate favored members of their rebel group into top governmental positions. These allies are typically able to make credible commitments to each other, due to years of experience and interactions. Revolutionary regimes derive their stability from peaceful powersharing between the ruler and military elites.


We thus differ from existing theories by stressing that ideological affinity and partisanship alone are not sufficient to ensure stability. A dictator has no friends, and his trusted allies can still turn on him if marginalized from power. Thus, co-conspirators from the rebellion pose a grave threat to the leader unless he shares power and spoils with them.


Moreover, in our account, revolutionary regimes are durable due to elite powersharing, and not because of mechanisms related to control over mass society. In fact, many revolutionary regimes fail to achieve proclaimed goals of radically transforming the state and society. This is especially true in Africa, where factors such as low population density, legacies from colonial rule, and high ethnic fractionalization prevented many revolutionary regimes from consolidating control over the entire national territory. All these issues are compounded by serious disagreements over coding: existing datasets of conflict regimes do not agree on what cases are considered truly “revolutionary.”


Furthermore, our theory of elite powersharing extends beyond theories of revolutionary regimes: we argue that the conditions that allow for peaceful elite powersharing applies to all rebel regimes with origins in violent conflict, as opposed to only social revolutionary movements with a strong ideological component and desire to transform society. All autocracies born out of violent rebellion benefit from the same key condition that promotes long-run regime stability—transforming the military, which facilitates peaceful elite powersharing—even in cases where the rebel group did not aim to transform state and society.  


We show evidence of our theory using original data from Africa between 1960 and 2017. We first show that all rebel regimes (including those not coded as “revolutionary”) exhibit a significantly lower probability of regime failure. Non-rebel regimes are more than twice as likely to fall compared with rebel regimes.


Second, we demonstrate evidence of the mechanism: rulers of rebel regimes more frequently and peacefully share power with military elites. We compiled original time-varying data on cabinet appointments, which shows that leaders in rebel regimes appointed a Minister of Defense in 83% of years in office. We also compiled biographical information on these ministers: 87% of the Ministers of Defense were an important member of the rebellion. By contrast, non-rebel regimes appoint an independent Minister of Defense in only 56% of years. In fact, presidents in non-rebel regimes commonly appointed themselves as Minister of Defense, and in some cases, shut military elites out of the cabinet entirely.


These results reinforce the idea that simply partisan affinity or ideological ties are not sufficient to sustain rebel regimes after the fighting ends. If revolutionary regimes rely primarily on loyalty for elite cohesion, then why share power at all? If elites from the liberation struggle are highly partisan and committed to the regime, then there would be no need to share power in order to credibly deliver spoils. By contrast, we find very clear patterns of powersharing between leaders and elites in revolutionary (and all rebel) regimes.


Finally, we also show that most rebel regimes in Africa did not achieve control over the countryside, nor did they radically transform state and society. In fact, many of these regimes have persisted despite state weakness, rather than because of state power. In contrast to Samuel Huntington’s well-known aphorism, “he who controls the countryside controls the country,” the durability of revolutionary regimes lies in stable political interactions among elite actors.

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