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The political change in democracy and totalitarianism

The Montreal Review, February 2010

Totalitarianism cannot experience reform without the risk of collapse, whereas democracy, if it is a real democracy, cannot experience revolution.



There are two general ways of political change - revolutionary and evolutionary. The features of revolutionary political change are abrupt reversal of political system, accompanied by social, cultural, and economic unrest, swift change of political elites and state laws. The progressive or evolutionary path of political change is opposite to the revolutionary transformation. It is a gradual process of modification in government, laws, social elites, mainstream culture and economy.

Revolutionary change is a result of long-standing suppression of heterogeneous political, social, cultural or economic interests by given central power. An elite who stays long in power and responds to the interests of the masses with oppression has no other destiny but swift and sometimes spectacular end.

There are numerous historical examples that support an objective political law - the oppression can exist and "men of the day" can exercise their authority for a long period of time, but this state of monolith strength cannot last forever. Thus, every elite that exercises its sway unconstrained, without compromises and concessions, who does not share its authority except with its cronies, soon or later, will be deposed by another powerful group or will face the fury of the masses.


The oppressive elite, at one point of its rule, could expect increased internal opposition and conflicts between its own factions, calamities within its own party, and external pressure that usually would support the dissident forces. This could lead to a gradual change of the ruling actors, it may result in some modification of political status quo such as implementation of new laws and temporary and partial liberalization, but not to qualitative reform of political system.

Qualitative change is possible only when the masses (led by their leaders) prevail and took over the power. This we call revolution. Political revolutions happen when the elites are so exhausted and corrupted that their immune system does not function at all. Examples for such situations were the French Revolution that was a clear result of the exhaustion of the absolute monarchy, also the revolutions in Russia in 1917, as well as the collapse of the communist bloc in the end of twentieth century.

The futures of modern democracy as a relatively new system of government and political order is difficult to be predicted but its longevity and vitality is more likely compared with the longevity and vitality of the autocratic or totalitarian political regimes. Basic feature of modern democracy is its flexibility, its ability to depend on the constant and bloodless change of political elites - a change not chaotic, but based on strict and legitimate laws, compromises and mutual concessions.

Therefore, we must be sure that if post-war Iraq were able to achieve an even partially democratic political system, like those in Turkey, it would be more stable than the present Iran under the ayatollahs. We also must be sure that the political and economic calamities in the United States that have started in the last year of Bush's presidency are an intrinsic, typical feature of democratic political system and there is no place for serious concern about the American future. And, actually, the present economic and political stability in China is more dangerous, because it shows all symptoms that were presented in historically failed states. China experiences a swift economic modernization but its centralized political system correspond entirely to the already depicted "oppressive elites," and according to our theory it can expect, soon or later, if not revolutionary change at least factional battles within the ruling party that could bring unpredictable ends concerning not only the future of China but of the world as a whole.

Therefore, democracy, if it is a real democracy, cannot experience revolution. The revolution is the last weapon in political conflict like the war is the last option after diplomacy. In democracy, the political rivals (and the masses) never reach the point where war (or revolution) is the only possible solution for resolving a political conflict. In democracy, there is a constant change of political elites and this change does not modify the basics of political system. Indeed, swift change of political system is more likely in totalitarian states instead in democratic societies. In democracy, we do not need to change the system in order to have new government or elite with different political agenda, whereas in totalitarian or autocratic regimes the transition of power is always accompanied by the threat of deep political restructuring. In totalitarian and autocratic state, we do not have legal instruments that can guarantee a painless transition of the ruling persons or groups. We are all witnesses of the present conflict in Iran. A year after the dubious presidential elections the clashes in the streets of Teheran has been continuing. Moreover, in totalitarian political system "change" is a forbidden word. That is why the Gorbachev Perestroika was a strange and short-sighted project. In the late 1980s the communist elite in Moscow forgot the basics of political survival. The Communist Party attempted to reform a political system that has no intrinsic ability to reform. Totalitarianism cannot experience reform without the risk of collapse. The communists probably expected to stay in power as longer as they can through reforms on surface, but rigidity of the totalitarian system does not permit such intrusion in its political genome.

The expectation of real political change is a feature of totalitarian state. This is a quite strange conclusion. But if democracy means a constant, evolutionary change, and flexibility is its general characteristic, for democratic regimes would be much more difficult to experience deep political reformations over long periods of time, whereas the totalitarian political entities are endangered in any moment of their existence by the threat of huge political collapse and reorganization.


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