Thinking of Mao and also of a discussion last month on this site, I came across this article from the History News Network on dictatorships and democracies. The article argues that dictatorship is a phase–a rather common one really–that societies pass through on the path from monarchical rule to democracy.
Evidently great cultural changes occur from monarchy to democracy which create dictatorships. Most of the historical monarchs imposed great restrictions upon freedom of speech and action. This was customary and largely accepted so the subjects of such regimens felt that to raise questions outside of the permitted topics was improper if not disloyal.
Loyalty to the king was ingrained in folk feeling. Above all, a monarchial people often had considerable confidence in the king and his family with the prestige of generations of royalty behind it. The solemn ceremonies of coronation, public anniversaries and burial, place royalty before the people as the symbol of folk unity. He is human like the peasant but his acts of state approach divinity.
Even when a wretched king was replaced by revolution, the creation of a republic was a shock to a large portion of the people. The republic brought numbers of ideas which had previously been suppressed. The political horizon was unfamiliar and difficult to understand. No king was present as the single and certain source of authority to reassure the people.
The people had no republican traditions to fall back upon and the early problems of the new radicals caused many people to question the validity of the democratic process. Thus, after the first enthusiasm of the new era had passed, the people often became disappointed in the republic.
It was easy for them to flee from their new liberties. Their flight was not back to the king, however, since they still remembered his particular failings and the people had enjoyed the exhilaration of republican unity. The more confident spirits had experienced the joy of self-government as well as the freedom of speech and press.
Thus the citizen was caught between the older pattern of thought instilled into him by generations of rulers and intellectual convictions that had as yet little root in the experience of the masses. This conflict of states of mind tended to produce a restlessness in the body politic. The political atmosphere is surcharged with tension, much like the heavy atmosphere before a violent electrical storm.
The author is basing his arguments on observations of modern Europe and I question whether we can say that there are any ‘inevitable’ stages of history, but I do think his description could be used as a useful jumping off point for how this process has played out/will play out in China in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.