Beyond the “mafia-state”: a comprehensive and innovative approach to post-communist regimes

By Gábor Illés

Gábor Illés, Research Fellow at the Department for Democracy and Political Theory of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre of Excellence, reviews The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes: A conceptual framework (CEU Press, 2021) by Bálint Magyar and Bálint Madlovics. Open access copies are available here.

The book by Bálint Magyar and Bálint Madlovics is a substantial work, and not only in terms of its physical characteristics. The authors have created a detailed and coherent conceptual framework for the study of post-communist regimes, which will be indispensable for future researchers. In addition to the theoretical coherence, the numerous conceptual innovations and the deep embeddedness in relevant literature, the sheer professionalism of the execution is also worth highlighting – I personally found it particularly useful that the book’s website allows us to compare the regime trajectories of different countries.

In addition, the work makes a significant contribution to the understanding of contemporary Hungarian politics, both through its comparative perspective (for example, by highlighting certain parallels between the Hungarian and Russian cases) and by outlining the broader historical context of regime change (the role of “stubborn structures”). I also found a number of features that resonate with the book that I co-wrote with András Körösényi and Attila Gyulai, which analyzes the Orbán regime (Körösényi, Illés and Gyulai 2020). To mention only the most important ones: the emphasis on the role of informality in regime classification (above all in the case of “patronal democracies” and “patronal autocracies”), attempts to conceptually distinguish between ideological and pragmatist regime operation, and the aim of describing regimes in dynamic terms (for example, by defining primary and secondary regime trajectories and visualizing regime movements, and the concepts of “stable” and “dynamic equilibrium”).

The book’s triangular chart, naming regimes and juxtaposing them on it, may at first sight appear counter-intuitive. However, the authors are quick to account for this, pointing out that the sides of the triangle “are not axes of a diagram; they do not depict the potential values of a particular (quantitative) variable. Indeed, they are continua between certain concepts, which are defined by a bundle of variables” (14). The analyses in Chapter 7 convince the reader of the analytical usefulness of the regime types developed. The authors categorize Hungary as a “patronal autocracy”, contrasting the latter regime above all with the other two “polar” regime types, communist dictatorship and liberal democracy.

I am only skeptical about one of the aims of the work: its usefulness in university settings (at least in Hungarian higher education, below PhD level).

It is because the book is – to adopt a metaphor from the authors – a full-size dictionary. But such a work is hardly the most useful tool for a beginner language learner.

For the book to have a role in teaching below PhD level, it would be essential to create a learner’s or pocket dictionary, with a proportionately greater role for the application of concepts and more space for storytelling, which the authors treated with some suspicion in the introduction, though they later employed illustrative examples (12). By changing the proportions (by giving more prominence to the illustrative applications of concepts that are present in the book), the didactically very useful illustrations (such as the regime path models already mentioned) could also better fulfil their educational function. This is one of the reasons that I look forward with interest to the forthcoming abridged version of the book.

While recognizing the basic coherence and usefulness of the conceptual framework developed, I have reservations about some of the concepts used – in some cases moderate, in others, more definite. Firstly, the authors, following János Kornai, consistently speak of autocracy rather than authoritarianism (except for the term “authoritarian political elite” – If I am not mistaken, they do this with the aim of distancing themselves from the hybrid-regime literature (and its use of terms like “competitive authoritarianism” or “electoral authoritarianism”). I would like to point out that, although the two terms (i.e. autocracy and authoritarianism) are often used interchangeably in the literature, given their etymological origins, there is a difference between them: while the former emphasizes arbitrary power and a one-way relationship, the latter emphasizes authority, with all its implications: heteronomous, manipulable citizens, but a kind of reciprocal, two-way relationship between leader and followers. It is worth noting that the image of the pyramid, with which the authors describe the informal networks of “patronal autocracy”, is usually associated in political philosophy, following Hannah Arendt, with authority and government based on it (see Arendt 2006).

This leads one to wonder whether it might not have been a better choice to talk about authoritarianism in the book, or at least to better differentiate between different forms of “patronal autocracies” based on the relative role of arbitrary power and violence in maintaining the regime.

Secondly, I would like to highlight the normative charge of certain concepts. As the authors emphasize in the introduction, their interpretative framework is “value-free but not tradition-free”, and their basic aim is to provide a “positive description” of phenomena (20). They also reflect on the fact that some of the concepts they use are also used with a normative content, but they nevertheless state that “the way we present them serves the sole purpose of providing unambiguous means of expression for the region’s phenomena” (21).

One possible problem with value-freedom is that in some of our concepts, description and moral evaluation are inevitably intertwined. In the field of ethics, these are what Bernard Williams has called “thick” ethical concepts (cf. Williams 2006, 129–131, 140–145), but the phenomenon is hardly limited to that particular field. In certain cases, this problem can be addressed by authorial self-reflection and conceptual clarification of concepts through which their “thickness” can be somewhat “diluted”. The concept of “regime” or even that of “criminal state” used by the authors belong to this category (since anyone who repeatedly breaks the law can be called a criminal, and this is a defining phenomenon in the authors’ description of “patronal autocracies”, which are associated with the “criminal state” as a type of state).  In this sense, it can rightly be argued that “the accusation of criminality is done not from an external moral position but according to the regime’s existing (criminal) law” (108), which is not even respected by the regime’s beneficiaries.

However, I feel that for some concepts the intertwining of the descriptive and normative dimensions is too close for such precautions to be sufficient. And that is perhaps mainly due to the fact that such concepts capture our imagination, and we treat them as analogies, despite the authors’ intentions. The notion of the mafia state seems to me to be such a concept.

In fairness, it should be noted that the authors take the precautions mentioned above. They point out that although the journalistic usage of the term is that mafia states “have close ties to organized crime” and “use brutal, »mafia-like« methods to keep up their rule” (106), the term is nevertheless used not as a historical analogy, but as a description of a sociological phenomenon. The mafia state does not have to live off crime, nor “engage in illicit activities typically associated with mafias”, nor use bloody methods (106).

However, it seems to me at least that the concept of the mafia is inextricably linked in our imagination with Don Corleone and the bloody horse’s head, arbitrary violence and the showdowns. Hence the concept, as I said, works as an analogy despite the authors’ intention. This is reinforced moreover by the fact that at two points in the book the authors themselves use it in this way, evoking the film The Godfather (210, 405).

Another more general problem that confronts all social scientists who choose the Weberian path of constructing ideal types is how exactly to form those. How much initial empirical realism is needed before the formation of those ideal types can begin and which exact features should be emphasized during that step? Throughout, the authors take a methodologically conscious approach to this problem (they also quote from Weber’s relevant methodological writings – 13), and a significant number of the ideal types they form are indeed illuminating. Let me give two extreme examples from the book: one may be called an example of realistic ideal type formation; the other is a case of insufficient realism.

The first example is about the ideal types of parties in the three polar regimes (liberal democracy, patronal autocracy, communist dictatorship). The ideal type party in liberal democracy is called “governing party” by the authors, who point out that “a governing party’s actions are determined by those in the party’s de jure decision-making hierarchy” (153). In contrast, the “transmission-belt party” typical of “patronal autocracies” typically “does not make decisions but only represents and executes in the formal institutional realm the decisions made informally by the adopted political family” (155). From a political science perspective, the authors have adopted a realistic way of constructing the ideal type of the “governing party”: they could have highlighted public policy responsiveness and the mandate-bound nature of parties (which necessarily limits the scope for governance), too.[1] However, according to empirical summaries based mostly on data from the United States, this kind of public policy responsiveness can be observed only to a limited extent: which demands are taken into account by parties and which are not is essentially part of a top-down process (Shapiro 2011; Achen and Bartels 2017).

However, I would also like to highlight a point where I feel that their ideal-typification does not fulfil the methodological role Weber intended it to. It was surprising to me that the authors, generalizing János Kis’s argument about the neutrality of the state, define liberal democracy as anideology-neutral regime (581). On one hand, because they themselves had earlier described liberal democracy as having an ideology, which they call constitutionalism (4.2.2); on the other, because they also emphasize the hegemonic aspirations of other regimes, such as conservative autocracy (65, 190).

The authors bridge this tension by stating that the definition of ideology includes the need for political actors to use it to gain support, but – as they argue – in liberal democracies, everyone accepts constitutionalism and so it cannot be used to gain support, ergo itis not an ideology. Conclusion: the regime of liberal democracy is ideology-neutral, and I would add, the regime need not seek a struggle for hegemony, since there is consensus on the core values.

The problem with all this is that it marginalizes the existence of anti-regime political forces (whether left or right) that seek to gain support by rejecting the existing constitutional framework of the liberal democratic regime. Against such forces, I would argue, the claim of defending the constitution may well be used to gain political popularity.

In my view, it would have been possible to create an ideal type with a broader horizon, capable of accounting for these phenomena. Here the results of contemporary realist political theory could be applied to regime analysis. To deliberately cite an example from a liberal author rather than a critical leftist, Matt Sleat argues that “[l]iberalism is a partisan political position grounded in contestable and contested normative values” (Sleat 2013, 137), and that the elite of a liberal regime will inevitably have to exercise dominance over those who contest its legitimacy.

Applying Sleat’s thinking to regime analysis, we can say that liberal democratic regimes also exercise hegemony, but unlike other regimes, they have the peculiarity of being inherently moderate, their elites being “restrained masters” (Sleat 2013, 152) who tolerate a high degree of pluralism. I believe it would have been more fortunate to highlight this element.  

The authors have formulations to this effect (e.g.: “Naturally, as the leading political elite itself is (centrist) ideology-driven, the institutions it controls will follow its ideology, but—unlike in extremist or totalitarian regimes—not in an exclusive manner.” – 581), but from there they slip into a position which is much more difficult to defend, i.e. claiming the ideological neutrality of liberal democratic regimes.

The next point I would like to touch upon is the description of populism as a popular legitimation of “patronal autocracy”. Here, the authors come to conclusions that are in many respects similar to ours in the analysis of the Orbán regime, both at the level of the ideal type and the specific Hungarian case: the regime (type) is characterized by flexible pragmatism, which we tried to capture with the concept of bricolage, while Magyar and Madlovics describe “patronal autocracy” as an “ideology-applying regime”.  True, the goals for which the Hungarian regime flexibly employs ideological panels are somewhat different in the two descriptions: while we have identified the maintenance of the capacity to act as being the goal, for Magyar and Madlovics the primary criterion of selection is whether “the particular ideologies help him [Viktor Orbán – G.I.] fulfill the twin goals of power concentration and personal-wealth accumulation” (190).

My only comment is that if we think of the relationship of actors to ideas as so instrumental, then it would have been worthwhile to step outside the ideological approach to populism. After all, the latter approach, even if it only sees populism as a “thin ideology”, still assumes it as a factor that actually influences the thinking of actors.

As Michael Freeden – on whom Cas Mudde, cited by the authors, also draws – writes aptly in his short introduction, summarizing his methodological stance: ultimately, “we are all ideologists ” (Freeden 2003, 1). That is, there is no position which is entirely outside ideological frameworks, and the latter cannot be manipulated along purely strategic lines.

By contrast, as I understand it, Magyar and Madlovics see the relationship of ideology-applying regimes to their own ideology as just such. From this perspective, recent literature that define populism as a political style or a storytelling template and give more space to the strategic considerations of actors (Casullo 2020; Moffitt 2016) are theoretically closer to the description that the authors give of ideology-applying regimes.

Let me continue with a few comments on two Weberian notions employed in the book: those of plebiscitary politics and charismatic leadership. Since the authors rely on the concept of populism to describe the legitimacy of “patronal autocracy”, the mentioned Weberian notions – the central categories of our analysis in The Orbán Regime – are not emphasized in their ideal type. However, the concepts are mentioned briefly, and I found the authors’ relationship to them somewhat contradictory.

It seems that the two concepts are first integrated into the ideal type of “patronal autocracy”, and then shortly afterwards excluded from it (236–237). However, the justification for this exclusion was not convincing enough for me: the authors argue that for Weber challengeability was a necessary condition for charismatic leadership and plebiscitary politics, which “patronal autocracies” cannot meet. On the contrary, it can be argued that in Economy and Society, Weber also cites examples of charismatic leadership and plebiscitary politics that hardly fulfill that condition (for example, Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis Napoleon – Weber 2019, 406). Therefore, challengeability can be understood as a kind of minimal normative criterion that distinguishes the more democratic from the more authoritarian forms of plebiscitarianism rather than as a general characteristic of plebiscitarianism (Illés and Körösényi 2021).

Finally, one further comment: at the end of Chapter 7, besides the country-specific structural features (capitalist dependence, ethnic composition, natural resources etc.), the country-specific attributes of political leadership are not discussed in a detailed and systematic way. Yet such an analysis would have made it possible, for example, to see not only the similarities between the leaders (Putin, Gruevski, Plahotniuc, Kuchma, Yanukovych, Nazarbayev, Orbán) who, according to the book, have established or have attempted to establish “patronal autocracies”, but also to better identify the differences between them, and thus to judge the specific cases more accurately and fairly.

I am thinking here, for example, of the relative weight of the authority principle and manipulation, on the one hand, and that of arbitrary power and violence, on the other. The balance sheet of the above-mentioned leaders, it seems to me, is fairly different in this respect. One can speculate that the concepts of charismatic and plebiscitary leadership might have helped to bring these differences into focus (e.g. the more leaders are able to construct a credible charismatic image and effectively manipulate voter perceptions, the less need there is for the use of violence or systematic electoral fraud).

Notwithstanding the issues raised above, I would reiterate that the book is a voluminous and original work that helps us see the functioning of post-communist regimes in historical perspective and on a broad comparative canvas. If not as a textbook to be read in its entirety, it will still be an indispensable part of the reading list for courses on its subject.

In collaboration with Ferenc Laczo and Hannah Vos


Achen, Christopher H. and Larry M. Bartels (2017) Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Arendt, Hannah (2006 [1961]) Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. Intr. Jerome Kohn. New York – London: Penguin.

Brito Vieira, Mónica (2020) Representing Silence in Politics, American Political Science Review, 114(4): 976–988.

Casullo, María Esperanza (2020) Populism and Myth. In The Populist Manifesto, eds Emmy Eklundh and Andy Knott, London – New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 25–38.

Freeden, Michael (2003) Ideology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press.

Illés, Gábor and András Körösényi (2021) From the theatre to the hippodrome: A critique of Jeffrey Green’s theory of plebiscitary democracy and an alternative. Contemporary Political Theory, epub ahead of print 6 October. DOI: 10.1057/s41296-021-00525-6

Körösényi, András, Gábor Illés and Attila Gyulai (2020) The Orbán Regime: Plebiscitary Leader Democracy in the Making. London: Routledge.

Moffitt, Benjamin (2016) The Global Rise of Populism. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Shapiro, Robert Y. (2011) Public Opinion and American Democracy. The Public Opinion Quarterly 75(5): 982–1017.

Sleat, Matt (2013) Liberal realism: A realist theory of liberal politics. Manchester – New York: Manchester University Press.

Weber, Max (2019 [1922]) Economy and Society: A New Translation (ed. and trans. Keith Tribe). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, Bernard (2006 [1985]) Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. With a commentary on the text by A. W. Moore. London – New York: Routledge.

[1] It is worth mentioning that political theory speaks of the “transmission belt theory” of political representation in the latter sense (Brito Vieira 2020): here, it is obviously not the preferences of the political family that are being adopted, but rather the wishes of the electorate.

Contact Us