How to succeed in communism

Nicu Ceaușescu died on September 26th, 1996. He was the youngest child of Romania’s Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and was a close associate of his father's political regime. He was being groomed to succeed his father eventually. While studying Physics at university, he became First Secretary of the Communist Youth Movement, and then Minister for Youth Issues when elected to the party’s Central Committee.

His career seemed to be going well, despite his reputation as a heavy drinker and his involvement in rape incidents and car accidents. But it was permanently derailed when his parents were executed on Christmas Day, 1989, as the Communist government was overthrown. He was accused of holding children hostage, and of misuse of government funds, and was sentenced in 1990 to 20 years in jail. He was released in November 1992 because of cirrhosis, a disease he died of four years later, aged 45.

He illustrates what is the central problem to every dictatorship, including Communist ones. It is the succession, the transition to another leader when the current one dies or retires. Somewhat surprisingly, one solution is inheritance, the same practice as the kings and emperors of old employed. Ceaușescu had planned to have young Nicu succeed him. Fidel Castro was succeeded by his brother, Raúl. More common is to have a ruling council choose a successor, as happened with the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party.

The transition from one dictator to another is always an edgy time, especially when the changeover is contested, or when the designated successor is not thought up to the qualities of their predecessor. It is common for violence to accompany the attempted changeover to the new regime, as often happened in ancient Rome.

The most successful formula used by some Roman emperors was for the ruling emperor to adopt as his son someone who could be trained to become the natural choice as successor. A string of stoic emperors gave Rome over 180 years of peaceful transition, as Nerva adopted Trajan, who adopted Hadrian, who adopted Antoninus Pius, who adopted Marcus Aurelius. Alas for history, the much-praised Marcus Aurelius nominated his own son, the depraved Commodus, to succeed him. The peaceful transitions and the absence of civil wars led Edward Gibbon to write in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,”

“If a man were called upon to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”

The other successful technique for transitioning peacefully from one ruler to the next has been democracy. Allowing the population to decide periodically who shall rule them enables a changeover to be made, and a replacement installed. It has the other great advantage that the knowledge that they might be replaced acts as a restraint on democratic leaders that is not there in dictatorships. To paraphrase Popper, it’s not the ability to choose leaders that is democracy’s great strength. It is the ability to replace them. It stops them doing too much damage.