Democracy versus dictatorships: What works better?




Interview conducted by Jaime Ortega.



Peter C. Caldwell

Peter C. Caldwell. 

Professor Caldwell is Professor of History at Rice University. He is a Humboldt Fellow, and has received grants from the DAAD and the Humboldt Foundation, as well as a residential fellowship at the Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University.



1) People are afraid of autocratic governments because in many cases it subdues the will of the majority. Can dictatorships be a better solution in some cases than seeking a western democratic solution?

Before anything else, we need to clarify what is meant by “dictatorship.” The ancient model of dictatorship involved assigning extraordinary powers to a leader during a crisis: the powers were derived from, for example, a republic, and were intended to be used to restore order. This was the model familiar to the Founders in the U.S., when they granted George Washington extraordinary powers during the crisis of the Revolutionary War.

A second model is the one that Washington himself resisted: a dictator, usually from the military, who holds on to his powers after a crisis—perhaps invoking a permanent crisis as justification.

To these two kinds of dictatorships should be added a third: a dictatorship that emerges out of a revolution, when existing institutions are not yet in place. Revolutionary dictatorships may also be temporary—or permanent. Europe has known all of these kinds of dictatorship over the past hundred years.

The questions that follow assume that “dictatorship” and “democracy” are clearly distinguished; that is possible only if we ignore the transitional dictatorships.

2)  Do some countries need dictatorships to run more efficiently or should all be run via democratically?

We need to be clear: both democracies and dictatorships can be singularly inefficient—and either can function well over a long period of time (depending on how “well” is defined). The argument of those calling for some form of dictatorship, usually on the right at present, is directed against the inefficiencies of democracy. And indeed, democracies in countries with severe disagreements can be not just inefficient, but dysfunctional. Where was the ground for compromise in Germany before 1933? Where in Spain before 1936? Italy, too, was divided before Mussolini came to power.

But to bemoan division—”pluralism” in the terms of mid-century authoritarian thought—is one thing, to conceive of a dictatorship as the solution to pluralism another. Dictatorship does not solve the real divisions that lead to civil strife, it suppresses them. But the divisions remain—and interests continue to express themselves, but in complicated and opaque ways. Powerful interests seek the back channels to power, without having to fear exposure. The Marxist-Leninist claim that the Party could stand above mere interests and rule in the interest of some general will doesn’t accord with the ferocious infighting for influence, or the willingness to provide subventions for one project over another. Dictatorship does not solve pluralism.

Nor does it necessarily provide for peace. The less opinions can be expressed, the less real experience there is in democracy—and the worse the threat to peace over the long run. This is one important strand of the tragic story of the Arab Spring. In China, one wonders: on the one hand, the Party seems to have handled a transition to a more dynamic economy and a more open society with care and without any explosions: but will the result be a greater explosion down the line?

Now, let’s step back for a moment and think about the transitional forms of dictatorship. 1918-1919 in Germany: the old regime crumbles, the Social Democrats are thrust into power, and they know that they are essentially operating via dictatorship.

Their aims are three:

a) to end the war,

b) to maintain domestic peace,

c) to enact a handful of basic social changes,

d) to hold elections of a new national assembly that can draft a democratic constitution.

There are many historians who would disagree with me on this, but I consider their project a reasonable one—they could have gone farther with their dictatorial powers, but they instead bet on democratic representation. Why? In part on principle, in part to avoid an all out civil war.

Here is a second example, with which I do not agree, coming from the late historian Henry A. Turner: in 1932, Germany was falling apart at the seams, and the Nazis were threatening to come to power. Under these conditions a military dictatorship made sense. Turner is relying in part on hindsight to make his argument: what could have been worse than Nazism? He is also possibly putting too much faith in the military leadership, which was hardly a peace-loving group. Under such extraordinary conditions, when a democracy is self-destructing, of course, his argument has some merit. Even here, though, I wonder whether the solution would be a real solution.

But by “dictatorship” I think that you mean a specific form of government: lasting military rule by an individual or junta. Setting democracy and dictatorship up against each other ignored the fact that 150 years ago, democratic republics were a rarity (and not always so “democratic” in our sense). Other alternatives were possible, from constitutional governments based on unequal representation to monarchies to empires with special representative bodies for different groups. It would be interesting to reexamine these 19th century solutions again, instead of staying trapped within a crude model of dictatorship vs. democracy.

3) Dictatorships are regarded as somehow negative for most people. What is the biggest public misconception regarding dictatorships?

The biggest misconception is that dictatorship as an institution is alien to our own system: see, again, George Washington. There are different kinds of dictatorships over history—and in some cases, e.g. the US South during Jim Crow, local democracy could take on quite dictatorial forms.

4) Democracy allows all voters from different social classes and backgrounds to elect leaders. If the majority of the voters has no idea about national or international policies, and yet have the rights to cast votes, isn’t that equally harmful for a nation than an autocratic run state?

Democracies can work in many ways. Direct democracy, for example, might well be associated with dictatorial actions: the people vote to affirm the extraordinary powers of Napoleon, for example, on the basis of limited information.

Representative democracy is different: voters do not vote with full knowledge of policies and situations, but vote for a person who articulates these for the people—and has to prove his or her ability to understand the policies and situations in practice. Results matter: a disaster in foreign policy may be the kiss of death for a President, a new social policy that has unintended consequences may lead to the decline of a political party.

Once we are clear that at issue is not full knowledge of policies and situations, but a kind of supervisory, control function over those who exercise power in our name, ignorance becomes less of an issue.

And let’s turn back to the model of lasting authoritarian rule: in that case, a single person or group makes major decisions affecting foreign policy, political organization, social policy, culture, environment, etc., etc. Why should we assume that said individual or group has any better insight into policies and situations—especially in the complex world that we live in today? The problem of ignorance is not simply one that pertains to democracies.

Some who support authoritarian rule think that dictators will seek out the best advisers. That is also an odd assumption: a decision on who is the best adviser is a decision that itself requires extensive knowledge of what the adviser is advising about—where does the dictator gain this knowledge? Where does the dictator gain a sense of which issues are more important for the country?

But back to the original question. The voice of the People is not infallible, especially if “It” is given a yes/no vote in a referendum. Neither is the voice of the Leader. Where power originates may not be the most important question. How power originates, how discussion takes place, how interests clash, in other words the form of politics, is much more important than the question of “origins,” of “sovereignty.”

5) Just because a country is run by a pseudo-dictator, or a dictator is that almost always mean its a totalitarian state?

I have already mentioned several examples—George Washington, the Social Democrats in Germany—that show that dictatorships need not aim at total, lasting control.

But if we define dictatorship as a lasting form, then I have a different answer. The clear distinction between dictatorship and totalitarianism is not clear to me, and “totalitarianism” as a term has come under a lot of fire for concealing more than it reveals. In fact, modern dictatorships, with the broad range of techniques for rule at their fingertips, tend to extend their control over society and culture; they tend to be, in this sense, “totalitarian.”

Furthermore, the dictator is at the whim of special interests and personal advisers, who will call for specific kinds of interventions. The tendency of dictatorships in the modern world is toward more “total” in the sense of all-encompassing forms.

6) In your opinion what has been the most catastrophic dictatorship to rule Europe? And what has been the most successful?

German National Socialism clearly had the most awful effect on Europe, with tens of millions killed, economies destroyed, political life wrecked, in some cases for generations. The dictatorship of the four powers occupying Germany in 1945 dismantled that dictatorship and created the foundations for a peaceful central Europe for the next seventy years. That’s clearly a success story, though the means for reaching that success differed in East and West.

7) Dictatorships tend to rely on the military to achieve a successful putsch when its feels threatened by the government. It seems as if the military has a separate agenda than the ruling government and the people. Why do dictatorships depend so heavily on the military? Most democratic forms of government fear giving the military any power relating official verdicts and rely exclusively on parliament (legislature), the executive and judicial branch to make decisions, in your opinion could that backfire at one point in time?

Napoleon Bonaparte represents, in a way, the first modern dictator: operating with a popular base, rejecting a return to the old regime. And most important, he used his connection to the army as a way to claim to represent the nation as a whole. This is exactly what has happened time and time again: the army claims to be a direct representation of the people, united against an external enemy.

That’s an assertion with an  extraordinarily strong symbolic value: the army is not a part of the nation, it is the nation. And it’s armed. There is no question that such an argument can be mustered against a democracy that is divided into parties; there is no question, however, that rule by the military means rule by an institution based on hierarchy rather than democracy, decision-making from above rather than responsibility through representatives and public opinion below. That is also why the U.S. Founders were so concerned about keeping the military under civilian control, as were the great theorists of (inegalitarian) liberalism in Europe like Benjamin Constant.

It is worth noting, however, that neither Hitler nor Mussolini, neither Lenin nor Stalin nor most of their successors in Eastern Europe (Tito excluded), were from the military. In all of these cases, the dictatorship made use of the military, but resolutely kept the military under civilian—albeit dictatorial—control. Among these dictators, as among democrats, there was a well founded fear of the potential political power of the military.

8) Spain represents an interesting political paradox. Spain using democracy voted for the Popular Front party to combat CEDA (Spanish conservative movement), right before the civil war which consisted of an alliance of UGT, )the socialist party) the CNT-FAI Anarcho-Syndicate, the POUM a Marxist Party and the Communist party that swept during elections. The Spanish Generals overseeing the problematic results rebelled against the new system in what turned out to be a brutal civil war. Given the political circumstances, General Francisco Franco won the war and executed all his enemies. The dilemma is that Spain during Franco’s reign made Spain financially one of the most prosperous countries in the world, a growth never to be replicated again in that country. If Franco would have not intervened in the Civil War, would Spain ended like the Soviet Stalin or in total anarchy? Is it safe to conclude, Franco’s dictatorship was justified to oppose democracy by preventing a greater evil?

I take issue with your account of Spanish economic history. Spain was in terrible shape for two decades after the end of the Civil War, and only began to recover in the early 1960s, when Franco’s government began to accept the loss of power associated with joining international economic organizations (OECD, IMF, World Bank), the limits on violence associated with developing international tourism, and the importance of expert advice.

Yes, the growth rates in the decade up to 1974 were high, but that reflects a pretty low starting point, related not only to the damage of the Civil War, but also—maybe primarily—to an autarkic economic policy, a bloated and inefficient government, and monopoly.

After the oil crisis (not the fault of democracy!) and the messy transition to democracy, of course, the economy was hardly strong. Only in the 1980s did a government develop—within a democracy, with broad, open discussion—a concerted plan for economic development.

And it paid off. Even after the recent years of turmoil, Spain’s economy is at a qualitatively different level than it was under Franco, with a far more careful and systematic set of economic policies. So I don’t buy the economic argument.

For those who want to pursue it further, a better example might be Fascist Italy or more recently South Korea. In both cases, the arguments about a “developmental dictatorship” are, however, anything but uncontested.

There is no question that Spain was a mess in 1939. But Franco was part of that mess. Any bloody victor in a civil war can point to the relative peace that follows as a success. The National Catholic ideology made a point of playing up anti-Communism, of pointing out all that went wrong in the Soviet Union, but what would have happened had the left won, with all of its different factions, is not clear to me.

– Unlike Franco, Adolf Hitler used democracy as a tool for his sweeping election. Hitler resembled the attributes of a dictator. Germany was recovering from WW1, and the previous government had poorly managed Germany. Unlike the former councilor, Hitler ended unemployment right away. Despite Hitler’s delusional expansionist dogmas, his national policies succeeded with incredible effectiveness. He even made Germany a safer place. Was Germany an example of how democracy and dictatorship type leaders can work together for a greater national good?

Absolutely not. Let’s take the different parts of the questions separately.

First, Hitler did not win the election. His party was the biggest, but it took machinations among the old elite leading the country to bring him in—then he took over in a series of moves. This is an important moment, an example of how a populist politician uninterested in democracy can use democratic forms to destroy the institution, but one should not cast Hitler as a democratically elected leader.

Second, the Weimar era governments actually did a reasonably good job in recovering from the huge losses of the war. What they couldn’t recover from was the impact of the burst bubble in the United States, which broke the flow of capital and the economic connections upon which the Weimar Republic’s economy rested. The crisis after 1930 was a difficult one: not every crisis, however, is the fault of a regime, whether dictatorship or democracy (see the oil crisis in Franco’s last years!!!).

Third, Hitler didn’t end unemployment. His party had little in the way of actual economic policy. He was able to find a bunch of plans already developed and put them in place—and to profit from an upswing that had already begun. The myth that Hitler somehow saved the German economy needs to die. There is much more on this issue in Adam Tooze’s book, The Wages of Destruction.

But most important: how can one say that Hitler made Germany a safer place? For whom? For leftists or other political enemies? For defenders of free speech and basic rights? For Jews or Gypsies? For gays or the mentally disabled? Immediately after he took power, concentration camps developed across the country, camps where prisoners were not protected by the law, where they could be beaten to death with impunity. The story of the Nazi regime is the story of increasing rather than decreasing legal insecurity, and increasing rather than decreasing arbitrary violence against regime enemies. Unless one is willing to agree with Hitler that all the groups he hated were not part of the nation, there is no way to say that his regime contributed to the “greater national good.”

9) The United States is tried to set western standards in Iraq, removed Saddam Hussein who wheeled a tight authoritarian grip over Kurds, Sabians, Shias, Sunnies, Yaziris, Christians, and other ethnic and religious tribes. After the removal of Saddam Hussein, the country emerged into total sectarian and tribal chaos, proving a complete disaster for democracies sake, leading to what is now the Islamic State. Do you believe Saddam’s tyrannical reign proved more effective than western democracy?

The story here is also more complicated. Many of these groups had suffered tremendously under Saddam’s tyranny; it is no surprise that violence broke out afterward Saddam’s fall. Democracy is not at fault in this case; abstract forms like democracy and dictatorship cannot describe well the specific, concrete events that lead to chaos and bloodshed.

Deeper, though: in what sense was Saddam more “effective”? In maintaining order? Maybe. But we should not forget how incredibly destructive his dictatorship was at the same time, during both the Iran-Iraq     War and the First Gulf War. In both cases, he took actions that led directly to horrific consequences. The entire region has been suffering from tyranny and bloodletting for decades now, and no end seems to be in sight—no matter what regime form one would like to see in place.

10) The Arab Spring, originally praised by most western governments became a wider turmoil after the overthrow of most dictatorships. Why did Democracy fail, and should have the dictatorships of Gaddafi, Ben Ali, Mubarak, Assad… and others remained?

I don’t know whether they could have remained. The revolutions of the Arab Spring were indeed revolutions, and revolutions are primarily a reaction to repressive governments. Whatever the EU or US forces did, for example, Gaddafi’s regime was against the wall; the same holds for Assad. It’s furthermore notable in the latter case that Assad’s regime itself is engaged in mass killing. It HAS remained (partially) in power, and is actively contributing to the ongoing turmoil.

Dictatorships are not stable systems over the long run. There is no direct path from dictatorship to democracy, either. But betting that they will provide order and keep chaos at bay—a bet that underlies many of the questions that you have posed—doesn’t seem to me supportable by historical events. Especially the dictatorships founded on sectarian difference, slaughter, and ongoing violence are not stable over the long run.

11) Socialism seems to have worked better under the right dictatorships than with any other political system. Do you agree with this?

Just like democracy, socialism is a term that describes a lot of different phenomena, from calls for workers’ rights and social democracy to experiments with communes to state-socialist dictatorship.

Social Democracy has been very successful in raising the standard of living of the working class and also preserving representative democracy and civil rights in western Europe. Many of their specific policies, from equal educational opportunities to social insurance to union rights, were part and parcel of socialist movements in the 19th century. In terms of long term effect on the actual lives of the lower classes, I’d say that they have been remarkably successful within a democratic framework, even as they have shed policies that could not find a majority, such as nationalization of basic industries.

State socialism in Eastern Europe, meanwhile, presumed from the start a party dictatorship. Their systems of state planning developed as part and parcel of the dictatorships: it would be hard to distinguish economic from political system in these cases. To say, then, that Marxist-Leninist state socialism functioned best under dictatorship is a little bit circular, since it presumed dictatorship as a condition of functioning.

12) Will Europe one day go back to the old days of dictatorial states given the present rising of economic upheavals? What would it take for the US to ever encounter a autocratic run state?

I have no idea. We can only hope not. But if people are given the sense that they have no input into policy decisions, if they are suffering economically, and if populist leaders, left or right, suggest dictatorship as a magic weapon to solve their problems, then dictatorship—as a relatively lasting political form rather than as a transitional form—is always a possibility.

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