“May I choose Margaret Thatcher as an authoritarian leader?”

This came from one of my cheekier students.  After we finished units on Lenin and Stalin, I thought I would try an experiment and allow students to choose their own authoritarian regimes.  I was expecting a number of different examples but this was far from what I expected to hear.  And he asked not once, but twice.  And yes, he’s English.

As I was trying to patiently explain why Thatcher would not be considered an authoritarian leader (in a democracy, voted into power legally, had support of party, etc.) it occurred to me that, without the previous limitation of Single Party status, that it might not be as easy to determine whether or not a leader was authoritarian or not.  It also made me wonder – Julius Nyerere was always an interesting example of a Single Party State; where would he fall under authoritarian regimes?  While the move to Authoritarian regimes made perfect sense to me, I could see how this could confuse students.

The history guide does not provide a definition of an authoritarian regime, so that left it for me to provide a definition myself.  In an attempt to give the definition some gravitas I went to my mouldy yellow notes from back in the day when I was studying different political systems and found the work of Juan Linz  (NB: after I went to fact check my old notes, I found the Internet littered with Linz’s work on authoritarianism and totalitarianism) and found that to be even more confusing for a student.

Then, it was on random definitions in the hopes that I would find a clear and concise definition. A quick perusal of definitions found that certain key words and phrases recurred, and when they are cobbled together,  I came up with the following definition:

An authoritarian system is one in which decision-making is made by a leader or oligarchy and the intention of those decisions is to serve the needs of the state.  The needs of the state supersede those of the individual.  There is no clear known terminus for the regime, and the role of the population in leadership is, at best limited.

Beyond this, it is difficult to find further common ground.  Linz distinguishes authoritarian regimes from totalitarian ones, but it is equally easy to argue that totalitarianism is a form of authoritarianism.  Linz sees authoritarian states as allowing some private organizations and encouraging depoliticization of the population, but it is easy to find authoritarian states that contradict this.  Many are military dictatorships, but not all.  Some have centrally planned economies, but others warmly embrace capitalism.

So – how do we ensure that we are teaching our students about a genuine authoritarian state?  One answer is to stay with the usual suspects: no one is going to challenge Hitler,  Stalin or Mao as authoritarian rulers.  It would be equally difficult to argue against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as an authoritarian state.  At times the public’s view of some states is affected by emotion or admiration.   Poles would bristle at including Josef Pilsudski as an authoritarian ruler, as would Turks if Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is added to the list.

Ultimately, the choice is yours.  When deciding which states and/or leaders you are going to include in your curriculum, make sure that they are defensible and that students would not be confused by your choices.  After all, it is the students who will need to defend the choice of leader in their essays. Consider the prescribed content on page 34 of the subject guide, and be sure that you teach all of those topics so that the students have reasonable options, and make sure that you have at least 3 examples from 2 regions.