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  • Resurrecting Sultanism
  • M. Crawford Young (bio)
Sultanistic Regimes. Edited by H.E. Chehabi and Juan J. Linz. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. 284 pp.

This ambitious and important volume aims to establish Max Weber’s concept of “sultanistic regimes” as a serviceable category of comparative political analysis. The project has been long in gestation; the book originated in a 1990 conference at Harvard University. Nearly a quarter of the volume consists of a stimulating pair of theoretical chapters by Juan Linz and his collaborator, Iran specialist H.E. Chehabi. Richard Snyder, a young Latin Americanist, contributes another excellent comparative chapter, analyzing exit routes from sultanistic regimes. The balance of the volume consists of case studies of regimes nominated as exemplars of “sultanism”: those of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Batista in Cuba, the Somozas in Nicaragua, the Duvaliers in Haiti, the Pahlavis in Iran, and Marcos in the Philippines.

If the concept of sultanism is granted heuristic power, the specimens placed on display seem well chosen to demonstrate its application. A number of other examples are treated at some length in the theoretical chapters. The editors note with regret their inability to recruit an author prepared to illustrate the conceptual purchase of sultanism as applied to several African candidates; their own chapters, however, draw extensively on African examples. In particular, the departed spirit of Mobutu Sese Seko can rest secure in the knowledge that his own contribution to the concept of sultanism has not been neglected. [End Page 165]

In the rich repository of illuminating categories bequeathed by Weber, sultanism had long gathered dust. Linz gets the credit for exhuming the concept in his seminal contribution on “Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes” in the 1975 Handbook of Political Science. A number of writers then picked up the term as a useful metaphorical characterization of such regimes as Congo (Zaire), the Central African Republic, Haiti, or the Philippines, although generally without giving it systematic exposition. Chehabi and Linz now endeavor to put flesh on the bones.

Weber’s original notion receives only brief treatment in Economy and Society. It is presented as an extreme case of patrimonialism, a form of traditional legitimation of authority in Weber’s classic three-fold categorization of modes of legitimacy (traditional, rational-legal, and charismatic). Citing Weber, Chehabi and Linz note that sultanism arises when “traditional domination develops an administration and a military force which are purely personal instruments . . . [operating] primarily on the basis of discretion” of the ruler (p. 4).

Initial problems arise from the manner of its derivation. Weber derived the label from the Ottoman state, but his study of that regime appears to have been less thorough than his celebrated inquiries into China, India, and the ancient world. In fact, the Ottoman state was a highly sophisticated construct, with its separate palace, military, scribal, and religious hierarchies, and its millet system for management of non-Muslim religious communities. To reduce the entire system to mere unbounded personal rule is seriously misleading. The concept of sultanism, as Chehabi and Linz acknowledge, must do without the Sultan.

Another troublesome aspect follows from the source of the term. Chehabi and Linz concede that some perceive it to have an “Orientalist” subtext. This danger is indisputable. They argue that the office was not a religiously mandated one. Yet a sultan is the commander of the faithful; the Islamic connotations of the word are inescapable. At a 1995 conference on the dilemmas of democracy in Nigeria, application of the term to the late venal military autocrat General Sani Abacha, who did indeed closely fit the definition of sultanism as formulated by Weber and Linz, evoked a strong reaction from northern Nigerians otherwise equally hostile to this colossally corrupt dictator. The use of a classificatory terminology with inevitable Islamic associations thus has liabilities, even if no such meanings are intended. None of the cases explored except for Iran under the Pahlavis are Muslim societies, and the Shahs were indifferent servants of Islam.

In their elaboration of sultanism, Chehabi and Linz define the system as one “based on personal rulership,” where “loyalty to the ruler is motivated not by his embodying or articulating an ideology, [End Page 166] nor by a...