In the western world, dictatorship or despotism is commonly thought of as a great evil, where a country’s people live under the control of an all-powerful person who has ultimate control in deciding the fate of others below them. Whilst this might be true, a dictatorship can play an important part in the forming of a country.
For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to polarise the various forms of government into only two.
Despotism: is defined here as a form of government whereby an unelected person or small group rules a country with supreme power. This type of government often limits freedom of speech, controls the media, limits opportunities for education, and actively squashes any criticism of itself.
Whilst despotism can be good – when a person rules for the good of their country and its people rather than for personal gain and the enjoyment of power – it can easily turn bad if there is no one to hold them to account for their decisions.
This type of government includes an absolute monarchy (where a monarch holds supreme control and whose power is not limited by law), an autocracy (where a single person holds supreme power, i.e. a dictator), and an oligarchy (where a small group of people hold supreme power).
Democracy: is defined here as a form of government whereby a group of people (government) are elected by the citizens to represent them in the running of the country. Essential to the ideology of this type of government is ensuring fair elections, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
A democracy can take different forms, like a republic (which I struggle to define, for there are so many different types) or a constitutional monarchy (where the monarch is the head of state with limited power and rules alongside an elected government).
I initially began thinking about this concept of government formation when I read a line from North and South (1855), by Elizabeth Gaskell. In this excerpt, Mr John Thornton – a business owner – talks about his ideas about how people should be governed.
..we are all – men, women and children – fit for a republic: but give me a constitutional monarchy in our present state of morals and intelligence. In our infancy, children and young people are the happiest under the unfailing laws of a discreet, firm authority. I agree with Miss Hale so far as to consider our people [the workers] in the condition of children, while I deny that we, the masters, have anything to do with the making or keeping them so. I maintain that despotism is the best kind of government for them; so that in the hours in which I come in contact with them I must necessarily be an autocrat.
Miss Margaret Hale, the heroine of this story, believes that workers should be encouraged to be intelligent, rather than having “a blind unreasoning kind of obedience”. While Mr Thornton does not object to this, he believes that he should make decisions concerning his business without having to explain his reasoning to his workers.
Whilst business owners rarely conduct their business in the form of a democracy (with the exception being maybe businesses that have shareholders, as the shareholders are allowed to vote as to who can take positions of leadership in the company), this did get me thinking about how forms of government can be dependant on the state of the people.
The government of a family is a very simplified example. When children are small, parents do not usually run a democracy in their household. Parents in this stage have a firm authority and they make decisions on behalf of their dependants, very much as an autocrat. However, as children grow older, more independent and more mature, they are able to contribute to family decisions and have more of a say as to what they desire for their life.
There are many examples in history of the development of democracy from despotism. What I find interesting is that this usually occurs alongside a change in the state of the people, for instance, the community’s ideas change about people’s equality, rights, and freedoms in making decisions that affect their lives. For these changes to happen, the availability of literature and education also usually increase.
In the American Revolution (1763-1783), the American colonies wished to gain independence from the British State. The colonists had been refused representation in the British Parliament, yet were still required to submit to the King’s demands. They declared the King a tyrant (or dictator) when they were refused their rights as British subjects and revolted against the Crown. The writings of John Locke, Montesquieu, Thomas Paine (among others) had a large impact on the emerging American ideology. As a result, the American people formed their constitution on a very different set of values compared to the historic British ideals.
In the French Revolution (1789-1799), the French people overthrew the French monarchy. The people had become disillusioned by an absolute monarchy that seemed indifferent to the harsh realities they were suffering under. The resentment built and the resulting violence caused the deaths of a large number of the Royal Family and French aristocracy. This enormous change was also influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. Interestingly, this period was followed by the rule of the dictator Napoleon Bonaparte (1799-1804). France was to have several monarchy restorations and several more revolutions before finally settling in to their newfound democratic state in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Russian Revolution (1917) involved the overthrow of the Tsar autocracy, an absolute monarchy that had developed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Russia had suffered a series of severe losses in World War 1 (1914-1918) which had created a dissatisfied and mutinous army. The people were also suffering through shortages of food, high inflation, and a large number of worker’s strikes. When the Tsar required the army’s support to squash the people’s rebellion, he lost their allegiance and was forced to abdicate. The ideas behind the Enlightenment had taken a lot longer to develop in Russia, but with an increase in populations of cities, the transmission of new ideas had become easier. After the abdication, a civil war was waged and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was created in 1922. Vladimir Lenin, strongly influenced by Marxism, led the communist party that controlled the USSR until 1924. He believed that a socialist revolution was required, where his political party would lead the working class in taking over the leadership to form a communist country. Instead, his rule effectively replaced the dictatorship of the Tsar, as his party killed those who were in opposition and stifled dissent. Joseph Stalin took over after Lenin’s death, and communism in Russia did not dissolve until 1991.
The movie A Royal Affair depicts the Danish struggle with the changes in ideas brought about by the Enlightenment. In 1769, Christian VII sacked the very conservative privy council and employed his doctor, Johann Struensse, as privy councillor. Together they wanted to bring about reform to the country, which had tight censorship controls and operated with a strong feudal system. In the space of 13 months, Struensse passed 1069 cabinet orders and, while all of them would today be considered as positive reform, they were not received well by the public. Struensse was eventually arrested and beheaded, and it was not until 1784, when Christian’s son – Fredrick VI – became Prince Regent, that many of these reforms were reintroduced. This particular instance seemed to indicate a case of too much reform too fast, and when it was instigated by a foreign (German) person in authority it was opposed by the Danish people, even though many of the changes would have benefitted them.
In these examples, a successful change in the form of government happened at the same time as a change in the ideas and state of the people. In addition to this, such a change seems to be often accompanied with quite a lot of violence and struggle.
There have been some very well known dictators in recent decades. Sadam Hussien in Iraq, Mubarak in Egypt, Colonel Gadaffi in Lybia, the Kim family in North Korea, to name a few. Some of these have been overthrown by their peoples in quite violent circumstances, leading to the beginnings of revolution. Others remain firmly in power.
I have been intrigued by the western perception (in the media, at least) that they are incredibly bad people. Now, granted that they have been accused (and in some cases found guilty of) atrocious crimes against their own people, and often actively inhibit free speech and freedom of the press. But one positive thing that can be said of dictators is that they can usually keep their country under a level of control. This control is important for the proper daily functioning of trade, business, education, health and family life, and often countries that have been unstable in the past have needed the strength and stability provided by a despotic leader. After all, the choice between the rule of a dictator and anarchy doesn’t seem that difficult.
However, as people within a country change, developing and communicating new ideas about their equality, freedom, and rights, suddenly a revolution has the power to occur. As a country grows in this way, they are then able to throw off their despotic leader and form a government of the people. But the birth of such a nation is often extremely violent and uncertain.
The development of the different types of government is quite a complex study, and my knowledge of it is not all that detailed. I have simplified it a lot for the purposes of this discussion, but political history is something I would love to learn more about in the future!
Sources and Relevant Links
North and South (1855) – read online
A Royal Affair – the movie