Clive Thomas, The Rise of the Authoritarian State in Peripheral Societies (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984).

Anthony D. Smith, State and Nation in the Third World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983).


At the heart of political life in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the modern era lies a painful paradox. A popular yearning for political democracy was a driving force behind movements for national independence, and has remained powerful ever since. The nationalist elites’ commitment to democratic practices and principles has been rhetorically strong. Yet, with a few exceptions, dictatorship has become the rule. Instead of representative institutions, governmental accountability and respect for individual rights and freedom, there is widespread repression, terror and gross violations of human rights.

Strangely enough, there is very little by way of explanation beyond a few works on authoritarianism in Latin America, and even fewer essays on Asia and Africa. This paucity seems related to an enduring consensus in modern political theory since at least the 19th century, that the concept and practice of democracy is alien to non-European societies. Democracy in the Third World does not exist as an analytical or political problem. Popular theories such as “oriental despotism” did not bother to consider the complex social dynamics which, in fact, made for highly decentralized and pluralistic polities. Today the influential modernization theorists are convinced of the inevitability, perhaps even desirability, of authoritarian rule in the Third World. As Clive Thomas points out, Marxists too often dismiss political democracy as a purely “bourgeois” deception. “This, allied with vulgar interpretations of what a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ represents, has paved the way for a very dangerous brand of left authoritarianism” (p. x).

Thomas argues that the authoritarian state appears at a particular moment as a specific response to a configuration of historical and structural forces. These are related not only to local “internal” conditions but also to global economic and political developments.

Thomas relates the development and forms of the state to changing economic compulsions, from colonial slavery to the subsequent era of “free” labor and “classical” imperialism. Colonialism bequeathed highly developed administrative and repressive institutions, but underdeveloped participatory and democratic ones. The exclusion of the people, absence of separation of powers and the dominance of the executive over other branches of government—these were inherent in the logic of the colonial state. This state was an imposition from the top designed to introduce forcefully capitalist accumulation. The external orientation of capitalist development inhibited, with a few exceptions like India, the growth of strong indigenous bourgeois or working classes, which could become driving forces for political democracy. Instead, the colonial state produced a relatively large petty bourgeoisie, which eventually led the nationalist struggle.

Since independence, the power of the state and the authoritarian tendency inherited from colonialism has grown. Thomas argues that the petty bourgeoisie, large in number but politically weak, comes to rely entirely on the state for its survival and growth. This ruling class has little social base outside of itself, which makes democratic procedures risky and encourages reliance on authoritarianism.

This tendency is reinforced by crises and interruptions which are integral to capitalist accumulation and have been a key feature of the capitalist world economy since the mid-1970s. The authoritarian state emerges as a response to the exhaustion of primary product exports and import substitution industrialization as models of accumulation. The state’s task is to cut the growth of real wages and the standard of living, and at the same time maintain productivity, profits and social and economic domination. This role is facilitated by massive military and economic aid from the metropolitan countries. Finally, the ideology of “development” and “modernization,” so popular among the ruling elites and their ideological mentors in the West, itself encourages etatist tendencies. Thomas’ discussion on ideology unfortunately does not sufficiently dwell on the deep legitimacy crisis of the authoritarian state. This crisis has been the Achilles’ heel of the state in the periphery.

Thomas’ book goes a long way in helping us understand the rise of authoritarian states. Unfortunately, his compulsion to theorize often results in tiresome repetitions which tend to smother his more interesting and valuable insights.

Ideological and political forces shaping the state in Africa in particular are the focus of Anthony Smith’s book. He aims to “complement” both the modernization and Marxist theorists who neglect the “autonomous” influence of political and ideological forces by seeing them as being determined either by “overarching cultural values” or an economic base.

In contrast to Thomas, Smith argues that the colonial state owes its origins not simply to the economic compulsions of capitalist penetration, but perhaps more to the dynamics of the European interstate system. The state in the Third World comes into being as a “more or less” deliberate creation by European statesmen and officials.

For Smith, the rise of nationalism and emergence of the post-colonial state had more political than economic roots. Colonialism, by introducing arbitrary territorial divisions and “bureaucratic homogenization,” produced an “intelligentsia” with a stake in the state it sought to control. Smith’s “intelligentsia” includes intellectuals, skilled technicians, diploma holders and professionals of all sorts, including bureaucrats and military officers.

According to Smith, this elite is caught in a dilemma. In order for it to consolidate the territorial state, it needs not only to centralize power but also to mobilize popular support and loyalty for the state. But because the state is an alien imposition, popular mobilization often highlights cultural, ethnic and class grievances and undermines the position of the elite and indeed imperils the existence of the state itself.

Smith’s focus on non-economic dynamics whets our appetite but leaves us unsatisfied. First, by stretching the concept of the intelligentsia as widely as he does, he misses the opportunity to pursue a promising, hitherto neglected discussion of the crucial role of intellectuals in defining ideological and political life in the Third World. His category conveys a misleading sense of homogeneity. There is a wide cultural, political and social gulf between professionals educated and trained locally in vernacular languages and poor colleges, and those educated and trained in European or American schools at home or abroad. Thus Smith cannot account for the fact that in much of the Third World today, lawyers, teachers, writers, artists, poets and the like are engaged in bitter, protracted struggle against generals and bureaucrats.

Smith sets out to avoid economic determinism, but ends up as a cultural and political determinist. He does not consider some real economic bases for the popularity of socialism. It does not cross his mind that settler-colonialism in places like Angola and Mozambique could have created a social and economic milieu especially congenial to the spread of socialism, as it did in Algeria. In the case of China, he neglects the important work of Lucien Bianco, which reveals the social bases of communist success.

Third, while the roots of ethnic conflict in the periphery may not always be economic, neither does it spring from the quest for “self-identity.” Nor can it be said that the existence of ethnic groups necessarily creates “unpropitious circumstances” for “forging genuine political communities.” (126) In fact, the history and tradition of most Third World societies reveal that political cohesion, integrity and central power have prospered when multiple peoples and communities have been accommodated in a decentralized polity.

How to cite this article:

Iftikhar Ahmad "Authoritarian States in the Third World," Middle East Report 141 (July/August 1986).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This