I would like to know the key points to achieve a strong and durable dictatorship.

From an internal but also (extremely important!) an external point of view where most of the advanced democratic country are a threat

  • I ask more for a scientific answer. Is that even possible to keep running a dictatorship indefinitely in this world ? What are the weaknesses of north Korea ? – johnjohnj Sep 15 '15 at 17:51
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    I suspect this is too broad a question. I think there are multiple books written on the topic. I also think that "most of the advanced democratic country are a threat" takes this out of the realm of history and into perhaps worldbuilding.SE or politics.SE, or something else. Analyzing the effects of foreign policy on governmental legitimacy/stability is not trivial; it is probably a doctoral dissertation. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 15 '15 at 18:06
  • North Korea first was backed by USSR. And now by China. This is 99% of success. – Matt Sep 15 '15 at 18:19
  • @MarkC.Wallace Agreed. OP, this question deviates pretty far from the SE History help center guidelines (see link below). Please review and post a more constructive, specific, and measurable question pertaining to dictatorships in history, assuming you are still looking for an answer. history.stackexchange.com/help/dont-ask – Kanapolis Sep 15 '15 at 18:23

I will try to answer, even though this question probably won't have an objective answer.

Can you keep a dictatorship indefinitely? My answer is "practically impossible."

The reason is, in my opinion, that there is only one thing that will keep a government afloat, democracy or dictatorship, and that is legitimacy. If you cannot explain your legitimacy, why should I or anybody obey you?

A democracy's legitimacy is self-evident - from the consent of the governed. The most representative is the gridlock in the US Congress - you cannot just go arrest and shoot these congressmen doing the obstructing, because their constituent electorate elected them to do precisely that.

For a dictatorship, it's the same deal. let's take a look at the Soviet Union. There were only really two strongmen - Lenin and Stalin. Lenin won his legitimacy by right of conquest - he toppled Kerensky's government (not personally, but everyone who did it calls him leader). Stalin derived power ultimately from Lenin - going as far as doctoring a photo of him sitting next to Lenin, keeping his body on permanent display, and practically pushing that point in every piece propaganda during his day. Stalin's legitimacy was later buoyed by world war II - you might argue about his real contributions, but to the Soviet people at the time (and even much of Russians today), Stalin was the leader that defeated their greatest enemy Nazi Germany. This is why there were almost no credible challenges to their power.

However, after Stalin, nobody in the Soviet Union had that kind of legitimacy. Beria, despite being Stalin's terror chief, was executed almost immediately. This is why terror is not effective without legitimacy - even if he was still Chief of the NKVD, still had the equivalent rank to a Marshal of the Soviet Union, none of that meant anything. He derived power from Stalin. Without Stalin, he has no legitimacy, and nobody, not even the NKVD, really has to obey him - especially if they could potentially replace him. Khruschev was ousted, because he didn't defeat Kerensky or Nazi Germany or was the ordained successor - Lenin was long dead by then, and he repudiated Stalin. After that the Soviet Union adopted a "collective leadership" scheme to share power - because Brezhnev was in an even weaker position - now it's proven that the leader could be ousted.

Looking at China, it's practically the same thing. Mao's legitimacy was that he defeated the Nationalists, so he could assemble his cult of personality. During the height of his power it was a crime to think about his death - even though everybody knew he will die someday. Deng was a member of the Army that defeated the Nationalists - there's a rumor that he could have been Marshal if he stayed in the Military (his partner, Liu Bocheng, did in fact make Marshal). That's why he could control power from behind the scenes without an official title and well past his retirement in 1992. Hu Jintao? He passed on all his power to Xi and basically fell off the edge of the Earth, and there are rumors of the Jiang Clique trying to assassinate him during his reign. Under Mao, Air Force Chief of Operations Lu Min purposely made himself admitted to a hospital rather than participate in any assassination plot.

Meanwhile the East German Stasi achieved the greatest amount of population surveillance ever known to man - but that didn't save East Germany once Gorbachev recalled Soviet troops. One should also remember that surveillance itself is only a tool of terror, and terror has always failed once legitimacy is removed.

You cannot create a cult of personality or enforce terror without legitimacy, and that's why, invariably, dictatorships will fail and why in 1984 Oceania is in a state of perpetual war - the war refreshes Oceania's legitimacy.

As for specifically why North Korea is holding on - the reason is the Kims have legitimacy - Kim Il Sung did fight the Japanese during World War II, you can't say the same for South Korea's leaders - Rhee Syngman spent the War in the United States and was for all intents and purposes para-dropped in and installed by the Americans. His successor, Park Chung-hee was a lieutenant in the Manchuko Army - the collaborationist government to Japan in Manchuria. This is why the Kims can hold onto North Korea and have sympathizers in the South - they have the legitimacy of having fought for their country instead of turning tail or collaborating.

If you look at the Worker's Party of Korea emblem - there's the hammer and sickle, but in the middle there's also a calligraphy brush - because unlike the CPC of old, pushing old values especially Confuscianism was the original aim of the party. Confuscianism teaches, more than anything, the legitimacy of succession and knowing your place - rulers will always be rulers, slaves will always be slaves - thus refreshing Kim Il Sung's legitimacy in his grandson Kim Jong Un. And that's why despite his apparent youth and inexperience, Kim Jong Un was able to purge powerful people like Jang Sung-taek and Ri Ying-ho - the Lord giveths and the Lord taketh away.

So how long will North Korea endure? Potentially for hundreds of years - Dynasties in the hundreds of years is not unusual in China or East Asia in General - but it won't be forever. Eventually either it will die out or encounter inner conflict between rival descendants of Kim and thus dividing and eroding the legitimacy.

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Speaking about "external democracy threat", if you can't defeat your enemy you should make friends with him. Although monarchy is not really the same as dictatorship but Saudi Arabia can serve as a good example for any non-democratic state trying to survive in the modern world.

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  • Saudi is a dictatorship not a monarchy? That is a curious conclusion. Can you cite research to back up this opinion? And how does this answer the question? – Mark C. Wallace Sep 15 '15 at 18:08
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    Sorry for my English, I had in mind "example of making friends with an advanced democracy" suitable for any non-democratic form of rule. – Matt Sep 15 '15 at 18:13

It sounds a lot like you are looking for The Arab Tyrant's Manual. Its observational, but contains a lot of real-world strategy tips for dealing with pesky democratic agitators at all levels.

There's also of course the classic The Prince, by Machiavelli. It was arguably a bit more serious, however, it didn't have to deal so much with competition from democratic ideals.

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  • Actually Machiavelli was a republican. He might have written the book too illustrate to the commoners how their Lords actually ruled them, which would explain why he wrote it in Italian and not Latin. – Jeroen K Sep 15 '15 at 20:49
  • @JeroenK - I looked and there's actually a fascinating debate as to Machiavelli's exact motivations. But that's more than enough that I ought to edit out that part. – T.E.D. Sep 15 '15 at 21:09

I suppose you measure a dictatorship success by its stability and durability. The key point of a long time and durable dictatorship is the transfer of power. History shows that this is an almost unsolvable problem for most successful dictatorships. Roman empire is a prime example. It enjoyed long periods of internal tranquility and prosperity under some emperors, and then almost always there were troubles after the ruler's death. They tried hard to make the transition smooth. Some succeeded others failed.

One solution of this problem is monarchy. But as we know it does not always work.

Of course I did not mention the main necessary condition: you have to make some influential group of your subjects happy. Every dictatorship needs some power base. Otherwise a dictator is just displaced (frequently simply killed). But this condition was frequently satisfied. There were many examples of long living dictatorships, but most of them lived only while the dictator was alive.

EDIT. History seems to show that "external democracy threat" is not a serious threat.

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