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Professor discusses alternative perspective to dictatorships

| Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Professor Graeme Gill gave a lecture in the Hesburgh Center on Tuesday about famous dictators Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.

Gill, who specializes in Soviet and Russian politics, used the two famous dictators to make an argument against common perception of how dictators rule. Authoritarian and dictatorial rule are usually characterized as arbitrary and uncontrolled with power bestowed on one person rather than an institution or collective governing body. Gill argued that dictatorships have far more rules and structure than previously thought, using examples the regimes of Mao and Stalin to support his argument.

“Ever since Aristotle, people have been interested in trying to distinguish between political systems,” Gill said.

At the beginning of his lecture, Gill set out the criteria he uses to analyze and understand the structure of a government or political system.

Gill focused on two different categories of rules. The first category he termed “decision rules” and the second he called “comportment.” Decision rules are the rules of a political system which govern who, in the case of an executive, or what, in the case of a legislative or other collective government body, make decisions for the system as a whole. Comportment rules were defined as rules that had to do with how people — especially oligarchs and the close colleagues of the dictators being looked at — within a political system were expected to behave, they outline what things were acceptable or unacceptable to do such as criticize or even oppose the person in charge.  

After defining these concepts, Gill applied them to Stalin and Mao’s regimes in order to gain insight into how they worked.

In both the Soviet Union and the early People’s Republic of China, Stalin and Mao both became the undisputed executive leaders of their countries. Mao did so by virtue of his position as the chief leader of the communist revolution, and Stalin did so by outmaneuvering and eliminating political competition after Vladimir Lenin’s death to become head of the country’s Communist Party.

Though Mao and Stalin were definitely their countries’ leaders, there also existed political institutions called the “Politburo,” which was ostensibly the chief policy-making committees for their respective countries.   

“The key decision-making body in the system atrophy over time,” Gill said.

In the Soviet Union, the Politburo was convened less and less as Stalin’s time in power went on. In the People’s Republic of China, Mao eventually replaced the Politburo with a Standing Committee made up of a few key policymakers.

Gill argued that this atrophy of the official political decision-making institutions did not mean that the dictators were making all policy decisions, but rather that they also relied heavily on the oligarchy that surrounded the dictatorship. Both Stalin and Mao had neither the time, expertise or inclination to make every decision for their countries, Gill said. In order to effectively govern they consulted on issues and discussed policy plans regularly with colleges that made up the country’s elite.

Gill went on to demonstrate that these members of the oligarchy around Stalin and Mao wielded significant autonomy over specific topics and policy. In Stalin’s case, especially later in his life, he spent a lot of time on vacation and though he had final say on all policy decisions, those decisions were being made by the circle of oligarchs Stalin was close to.

“What’s quite clear is that they [governing oligarchs] knew they had autonomy but when they sought to things, they were always aware of the fact that Uncle Joe had the final say,” Gill said.

With this degree of autonomy of the oligarchy, there also seemed to be a precedent for discussion or even criticism of policies that the dictators supported. Gill said the political elite were not explicitly prohibited from or guaranteed to be punished for disagreeing with their leader, provided the criticism was not perceived as an overstep or challenge to the dictator’s authority.

“By and large, criticism of policy was fine provided it remained within certain guidelines and that it did not call Mao, or Mao’s position, into question,” Gill said.

Gill ended his lecture by highlighting the fact that in the dictatorships of Mao and Stalin, while each wielded enormous power, there did seem to be a set of precedents or loose rules that structured the way the system worked. This perspective shows that dictatorships have a far more intricate structure than the common perception of them as a system where one strongman wield absolute power and makes all decisions. 

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