Political repression

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Political repression is the act of a state entity controlling a citizenry by force for political reasons, particularly for the purpose of restricting or preventing the citizenry's ability to take part in the political life of a society, thereby reducing their standing among their fellow citizens.[1][2] Repression tactics target the citizenry who are most likely to challenge the political ideology of the state in order for the government to remain in control.[3] In autocracies, the use of political repression is to prevent anti-regime support and mobilization.[4] It is often manifested through policies such as human rights violations, surveillance abuse, police brutality, imprisonment, involuntary settlement, stripping of citizen's rights, lustration, and violent action or terror such as the murder, summary executions, torture, forced disappearance, and other extrajudicial punishment of political activists, dissidents, or general population.[5] Direct repression tactics are those targeting specific actors who become aware of the harm done to them while covert tactics rely on the threat of citizenry being caught (wiretapping and monitoring).[6] The effectiveness of the tactics differ: covert repression tactics cause dissidents to use less detectable opposition tactics[7] while direct repression allows citizenry to witness and react to the repression.[8] Political repression can also be reinforced by means outside of written policy, such as by public and private media ownership and by self-censorship within the public.

Where political repression is sanctioned and organised by the state, it may constitute state terrorism, genocide, politicide or crimes against humanity. Systemic and violent political repression is a typical feature of dictatorships, totalitarian states and similar regimes.[9] While the use of political repression varies depending on the authoritarian regime, it is argued that repression is a defining feature and the foundation of autocracies by creating a power hierarchy between the leader and citizenry, contributing to the longevity of the regime. [10] Repressive activities have also been found within democratic contexts as well.[11][12] This can even include setting up situations where the death of the target of repression is the end result.[13] If political repression is not carried out with the approval of the state, a section of government may still be responsible. Some examples are the FBI COINTELPRO operations from 1956 to 1971 and the Palmer Raids from 1919-1920.[14][15][16]

In some states, "repression" can be an official term used in legislation or the names of government institutions. The Soviet Union had a legal policy of repression of political opposition defined in its penal code and Cuba under Fulgencio Batista had a secret police agency officially named the Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities. According to Soviet and Communist studies scholar Stephen Wheatcroft, in the case of the Soviet Union terms such as "the terror", "the purges" and "repression" are used to refer to the same events. He believes the most neutral terms are repression and mass killings, although in Russian the broad concept of repression is commonly held to include mass killings and is sometimes assumed to be synonymous with it, which is not the case in other languages.[17]

In political conflict[edit]

Political conflict strongly increases the likelihood of state repression. This is arguably the most robust finding in social science research on political repression. Civil wars are a strong predictor of repressive activity, as are other forms of challenges from non-government actors.[18] States so often engage in repressive behaviors in times of civil conflict that the relationship between these two phenomena has been termed the "Law of Coercive Responsiveness".[19] When their authority or legitimacy is threatened, regimes respond by overtly or covertly suppressing dissidents to eliminate the behavioral threat. State repression subsequently affects dissident mobilization, though the direction of this effect is still an open question. Some strong evidence suggests that repression suppresses dissident mobilization by reducing the capacity of challengers to organize, yet it is also feasible that challengers can leverage state repressive behavior to spur mobilization among sympathizers by framing repression as a new grievance against the state.[20]


Members of the right-wing Lapua Movement assault a former Red Guard officer and the publisher of the communist newspaper at the Vaasa riot on June 4, 1930, in Vaasa, Finland.

Political repression is often accompanied by violence, which might be legal or illegal according to domestic law.[21] Violence can both eliminate political opposition directly by killing opposition members, or indirectly by instilling fear.


Political repression is sometimes accompanied with intolerance. This intolerance is manifested through discriminatory policies, human rights violations, police brutality, imprisonment, extermination, exile, extortion, terrorism, extrajudicial killing, summary execution, torture, forced disappearance and other punishments against political activists, dissidents, and population in general.

State terrorism[edit]

When political repression is sanctioned and organized by the state, situations of state terrorism, genocide and crimes against humanity can be reached. Systematic and violent political repression is a typical feature of dictatorships, totalitarianisms and similar regimes. In these regimes, acts of political repression can be carried out by the police and secret police, the army, paramilitary groups and death squads. Sometimes regimes considered democratic exercise political repression and state terrorism to other states as part of their security policy.[22]

Direct vs. indirect repression[edit]

Direct repression is a form of repression where the state targets an opposing political actor by obvious violent action. The target is clearly aware of the harm that is caused to their life and livelihood. Direct repression does not exclusively occur within the boundaries of a state, but also across borders.[23] In personalist dictatorships, initiating conflicts with other states and people outside their own borders is more common because of lack of accountability via extremely limited or no competitive elections.[24]

Indirect repression relies on the threat of violence which constitutes harassment, intimidation, and administrative blockages. These tactics tend to be non-violent, yet still are built to control citizenry.[25]

Repressive success and monitoring[edit]

Individuals indirectly exposed to repression self-report higher trust in the leader and ruling party. This phenomenon was observed in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, where the effects of repression increased approaching elections, even with deteriorating social and economic conditions.[26] A large signifier of whether or not repression is successful in a state is evidence of preference falsification– where the preference expressed by an individual in public diverges from their private preference.[27] In North Korea, accused of highly repressive activity in media and public culture, 100% of citizens vote in ‘no choice’ parliamentary elections so the state can identify defectors. Citizens are required to show complete devotion to North Korea's current leader and sacrifice their safety if they choose to speak out.[28] Repressive measures including prison camps, torture, forced labor, and threats of execution are just some of the costs of defection.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Davenport, Christian (2007). State Repression and the Domestic Democratic Peace New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ Davenport, Christian, Johnston, Hank and Mueller, Carol (2004). Repression and Mobilization Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  3. ^ Hassan, Mai; Mattingly, Daniel; Nugent, Elizabeth R (November 30, 2021). "Political Control". Annual Review of Political Science.
  4. ^ Wang, Y. (2021). The Political Legacy of Violence During China's Cultural Revolution. British Journal of Political Science, 51(2), 463-487. doi:10.1017/S0007123419000255
  5. ^ Kittrie, Nicholas N. 1995. The War Against Authority: From the Crisis of Legitimacy to a New Social Contract. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  6. ^ Sullivan, Christopher M. Resistance is Mobile: Dynamics of Repression, Challenger Adaptationm and Surveillance in US 'Red Squad' and Black Nationalist Archives. Volume 55, Issue 2.
  7. ^ Sullivan, Christopher M. Resistance is Mobile: Dynamics of Repression, Challenger Adaptationm and Surveillance in US 'Red Squad' and Black Nationalist Archives. Volume 55, Issue 2.
  8. ^ Hassan, Mai; Mattingly, Daniel; Nugent, Elizabeth R (November 30, 2021). "Political Control". Annual Review of Political Science.
  9. ^ Serge, Victor, 1979, What Everyone Should Know About State Repression, London: New Park Publications.
  10. ^ Johannes Gerschewski (2013) The three pillars of stability: legitimation, repression, and co-optation in autocratic regimes, Democratization, 20:1, 13-38, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2013.738860
  11. ^ Donner, Frank J. (1980). The Age of Surveillance: The Aims and Methods of America’s Political Intelligence System. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-40298-7
  12. ^ Donner, Frank J. (1990). Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05951-4
  13. ^ Haas, Jeffrey. The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther. Chicago, Ill.: Lawrence Hill /Chicago Review, 2010.
  14. ^ COINTELPRO: The FBI's Covert Action Programs Against American Citizens, Final Report of the Senate Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities.
  15. ^ Cunningham, D. 2004. There’s something happening here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI counterintelligence. Berkeley: Univ. of California.
  16. ^ "Justice Department Campaign Against the IWW, 1917-1920". depts.washington.edu. Retrieved 2023-04-13.
  17. ^ Wheatcroft, Stephen (1996). "The Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Repression and Mass Killings, 1930–45". Europe-Asia Studies. 48 (8): 1319–1353. doi:10.1080/09668139608412415.
  18. ^ Hill, Daniel W.; Jones, Zachary M. (2014). "An Empirical Evaluation of Explanations for State Repression". American Political Science Review. 108 (3): 661–687. doi:10.1017/s0003055414000306. S2CID 54908565.
  19. ^ Davenport, Christian (2007). "State Repression and Political Order". Annual Review of Political Science. 10: 1–23. doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.10.101405.143216.
  20. ^ Ritter, Emily Hencken (2014). "Policy Disputes, Political Survival, and the Onset and Severity of State Repression". Journal of Conflict Resolution. 58 (1): 143–168. doi:10.1177/0022002712468724. S2CID 145054180.
  21. ^ "Los Derechos Humanos y la trata de personas" (PDF). www.ohchr.org. Retrieved 2017-05-14.
  22. ^ Patricia., Scipioni, Estela (2000-01-01). Torturadores, apropiadores y asesinos : el terrorismo de estado en la obra dramática de Eduardo Pavlovsky. Edition Reichenberger. ISBN 9783931887919. OCLC 477299442.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  23. ^ Hassan, Mai; Mattingly, Daniel; Nugent, Elizabeth R (November 30, 2021). "Political Control". Annual Review of Political Science.
  24. ^ Frantz, Erica (November 15, 2018). Authoritarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190880194.
  25. ^ Hassan, Mai; Mattingly, Daniel; Nugent, Elizabeth R (November 30, 2021). "Political Control". Annual Review of Political Science.
  26. ^ Garcîa-Ponce, Omar; Pasquale, Benjamin (2015). "How Political Repression Shapes Attitudes Toward the State".
  27. ^ Kuran, Timur (October 1991). "Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989". World Politics. 44 (1): 7–48. doi:10.2307/2010422. JSTOR 2010422. S2CID 154090678.
  28. ^ "North Koreans vote in 'no-choice' parliamentary elections". BBC News. March 10, 2019.
  29. ^ "North Korea: Systematic Repression". Human Rights Watch. 14 January 2020. Retrieved 2 March 2023.

Further reading[edit]

  • Davenport, Christian; Appel, Benjamin (2022). The Death and Life of State Repression: Understanding Onset, Escalation, Termination, and Recurrence. Oxford University Press.
  • Goldstein, Robert Justin, Political Repression in Modern America (University of Illinois Press, 1978, 2001) ISBN 0-8467-0301-7.
  • Jensen, Joan M. Army Surveillance in America, 1775 - 1980. New Haven. Yale University Press. 1991. ISBN 0-300-04668-5.
  • Talbert Jr. Roy. Negative Intelligence: The Army and the American Left, 1917 - 1941. Jackson. University Press of Mississippi, 1991. ISBN 0-87805-495-2.
  • Irvin, Cynthia L. Militant Nationalism between movement and party in Ireland and the Basque Country. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
  • Seigel, Micol. 2018. Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police. Duke University Press.