Totalitarian Regimes Relax the Pressure, and Now the Roofs Blow Off

<i> Arnold Beichman is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution</i>

Things were pretty quiet in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito. There were problems here and there among the different nationalities--Serbs, Slovenes, Croatians, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Albanians--and Muslim religionists, but Marshal Tito ran a tight ship as president of the republic and president of the League of Communists. Tito died in May, 1980, and there was no successor. The country has been staggering from crisis to crisis to crisis. What’s happened?

For a quarter of a century, all was quiet in the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. A man little known to Western statesmen, Ne Win, was chairman of the State Council and president. There was one party, the Burma Socialist Program Party, run by Ne Win. Nobody much objected, at least as far as an outsider knew, to Ne Win’s one-party rule. Suddenly, Ne Win leaves office standing up and the roof caves in. What’s happened?

Whoever heard of Nagorno-something-or-other in somewhere called Azerbaijan next door to Armenia? Suddenly there are general strikes, mass demonstrations, shoot-ups in Nagorno-Karabakh. Mikhail S. Gorbachev orders an end to glasnost as far as foreign correspondents are concerned. What’s happened?

For 40 years, the Baltic peoples--Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians--behaved themselves as Soviet citizens. They weren’t very happy to be victims of the Stalin-Hitler pact but what could they do about it? Nothing. Suddenly, there are marches, protests, cries for independence from Big Brother, linguistic nationalism. What’s happened?


Things are beginning to pop all over the place. What explains the outpouring in thestreets of Rangoon of people shouting for democracy in the face of musketry? Why didn’t they shout before? Or in Yugoslavia, or in Algeria, or in the Soviet Union? Pre-revolutionary France may have the answer. On the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, France was basking in relative prosperity. Why then the revolution? Here is the seminal explanation from a masterwork, “The Old Regime and the French Revolution,” by Alexis de Tocqueville:

“It was precisely in those parts of France where there had been most improvement that popular discontent ran highest. This may seem illogical--but history is full of such paradoxes. For it is not always when things are going from bad to worse that revolution breaks out. On the contrary, it oftener happens that when a people which has put up with an oppressive rule over a long period without protest suddenly finds the government relaxing its pressure, it takes up arms against it.”

The salient phrase ". . . suddenly finds the government relaxing its pressure” helps explain why, from the standpoint of regime stability and endurance, Yegor K. Ligachev, reputed leader of the Politburo opposition to Mikhail Gorbachev, is correct and Gorbachev, if he is sincere, is wrong. A totalitarian regime cannot afford to relax its pressure except cosmetically. It is either a cemetery for the people or, if the regime relaxes its pressure, it will be a cemetery for its leaders.

Josef Stalin died in early March, 1953. Three months later there was an uprising in East Germany against Soviet “oppressive rule.” The Berlin construction workers saw their chance. Their uprising had to be put down by Soviet tanks. Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech against Stalin in February, 1956, was not so secret after all. The U.S. State Department made it public in June of that year, but even before its publication the damage had already been done. The Polish auto workers in Poznan demonstrated against Soviet “oppressive rule” and in October, 1956, Hungarians rose up against Soviet “oppressive rule.” In came the Red Army. In 1968, Czechoslovakia had its Prague Spring. In came the Red Army and the Prague Spring became a Siberian winter. And now, despite the threats from the regime of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, phoenix-like Polish Solidarity flies again.


A little freedom brings hope, always a danger to “oppressive rule.” That is why there is a Berlin Wall. Had freedom of movement between the two Germanys continued much longer after August, 1961, Walter Ulbricht, the East German dictator at the time, would have been the last East German remaining to put out the lights. And if the Berlin Wall ever comes down, which it won’t, then Erich Honecker will be the last East German left.

Stagnation, oppression and Western capital are the only methods by which a totalitarian regime can survive. The only perestroika that a people subject to an ideological rulership, whether Marxist or Marxist-Leninist, seeks is the perestroika of freedom. Glasnost is the road to counter-revolution against a ruling class. The “revolution of rising expectations,"which is what the passage from Tocqueville means, is worldwide in its application.

No matter what Gorbachev does to shake up his Politburo in his attempt to move perestroika forward, this is certain: In the age of information and communication satellites in the sky, there is no place for Soviet colonial satellites on the ground. Yugoslavia, as now constituted, can no longer go on in the old Tito way. For, as Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, “the ruin of states is brought about because they do not modify their institutions to suit the times.” Marxist-Leninist dictatorships are inherently incapable of modifying their institutions without endangering their authority. It is the usual case that the values cherished by a Politburo are rarely the same as the values cherished by their subjects.

Peculiarly, authoritarian or personalist regimes--Franco Spain, Salazar Portugal, Peronist Argentina, Greece under the colonels--have demonstrated an ability to convert their institutions fundamentally with or without a revolution. The reason for such flexibility may be that while totalitarian regimes demand control of society as well as the state, authoritarian regimes are satisfied, reluctantly, just to control the state. It was Lenin who once said: “We recognize nothing private.”

It may be that we are witnessing one of those great revolutionary transitions in world history. They occur when peoples who, to paraphrase Tocqueville, have put up with oppressive rule over a long period without protest suddenly find a government relaxing its pressure, and take up arms against it.