In the fourth book of Frank Herbert's "Dune" series, God Emperor of Dune, a plot device is used that effectively, and perhaps with more much-needed nuance than most depictions of power in science fiction, delineates the metaphysical proposition of different types of central authority. The loyal swordsman of the Atreides family, Duncan Idaho, is now revived in a cloned body on a regular basis, albeit without the memories of his last iteration, and by the time of this fourth book, over 3000 years has passed. He now serves his Duke's grandson, the titular God Emperor, Leto, son of Paul.
The elegance of this particular character (the stupid name aside) is that it allows you two perspectives on the power wielded by Leto Atreides and his son Paul, at the time of Duncan's original life, and Paul's son Leto, through his ascendancy from the politically empowered to the divine. As early in the series as the third book, Children of Dune, Idaho questions if the Atreides family, to whom he is still loyal, is best served and represented by Leto (the younger) and his ambitions. You're left with the questionof whether or not Idaho is simply out of touch with the natural course of power, or if, as he suspects, Leto has strayed from the ideological basis for the rule of his father, Muad'Dib (Paul), who led the Fremen to liberation, and Arrakis to its abundance. It's a question of "What does this make the son of the Philosopher King's son?" in some ways, if you consider the elder Leto the supreme influence over Muad'Dib's own imperial aspirations.
Duncan's loyalty to the Atreides is put to the test in this fourth novel, as I said: Does he trust his instinct that something is deeply wrong with the leadership of the, now immortal, Leto 3.5k years hence and attempt to intervene, or does he trust that the now-divine Leto, indeed, does have a plan for humanity that Duncan (and others in this narrative), himself, is simply too human to understand. There's a point towards the end of the book where a crucial aspect of the resurrection process of the Duncans is clarified: he doesn't remember raising these objections, but he feels as though he has, or at least must have, before. This implies Leto is aware of them, and considers them, even while he dismisses them and driving humanity down this Golden Path.
The flip side of this dynamic is, of course, the next book in the series, Heretics of Dune, which takes place after the death of Leto II, now known as the Tyrant. Duncan Idahos are still being replicated and destroyed. Another 1500 years has passed, and Dune has reverted back to its desert state, as Leto predicted, yet the sandworms are dying out.
The tragedy of Leto II, as it were, is that he can't be said to have, or have had not, vision, just that we know what happened without him; Idaho's concerns, a proxy for that of those who would seek to destroy and usurp his leadership, resulted in this circumstance. It's an allegory for the role of strong central authority in an ongoing political revolution, which the events of the first book undoubtedly were– Paul Muad'Dib retakes power from a corporatist monopolization being gamed by a powerful rival house in the oligarchical, and purely indifferent to the lives of its subject, structure of the empire, on the basis of popular support from the Fremen of Dune; this is a paradigm that doesn't simply get fixed, politically, and stays that way without some deep societal introspection on the part of its principals.
The problem, however, is that too often central authority as a concept, myths of benevolent imperialists, and overt totalitarian dictatorship are conflated into near incomprehensibility, and renders their (substantial) differences moot, rhetorically.
The post-collapse era of the empire in this 5th book bears out the results of persistent corporatist, intra-elite chipping away at the coherence brought by the Atreides; if there were differing motivations and conceptions of justice between the prevailing order and that of Paul and then Leto's leadership, the critique of elites objecting to other elites, deposed by elite interests and not popular revolt, taking power in a popular revolt while maintaining the machinery of governance (Paul effectively maintains a majority stake at the time of Dune Messiah) allows critics to cast the same type of criticism levied at all manner of central authority without working out the contradictions. Leto II loses in the dialetic, simply put.
Asked once about his reading habits, Frank Herbert, replied:
Very catholic. I would follow a line of endeavor, a line of reading, a line of interest, until I had I felt I had exhausted it. Umm I started working for newspapers when I was 17. I had a replacement, a summer replacement job for people who were on vacation when I was 17 at a daily newspaper. I was very lucky. I had a high school instructor who ran his high school journalism class the way a city desk is run so by the time I was 17 I knew how to be a professional journalist and if he catches you young enough, train us early.
What he is describing is that process of working out contradiction, admitting facts, the sort of scientific thinking you do when working over a sociopolitical component. In On Contradiction, Mao writes:
When man attains the knowledge of this common essence, he uses it as a guide and proceeds to study various concrete things which have not yet been studied, or studied thoroughly, and to discover the particular essence of each; only thus is he able to supplement, enrich and develop his knowledge of their common essence and prevent such knowledge from withering or petrifying. These are the two processes of cognition: one, from the particular to the general, and the other, from the general to the particular. Thus cognition always moves in cycles and (so long as scientific method is strictly adhered to) each cycle advances human knowledge a step higher and so makes it more and more profound. Where our dogmatists err on this question is that, on the one hand, they do not understand that we have to study the particularity of contradiction and know the particular essence of individual things before we can adequately know the universality of contradiction and the common essence of things, and that, on the other hand, they do not understand that after knowing the common essence of things, we must go further and study the concrete things that have not yet been thoroughly studied or have only just emerged. Our dogmatists are lazy-bones. They refuse to undertake any painstaking study of concrete things, they regard general truths as emerging out of the void, they turn them into purely abstract unfathomable formulas, and thereby completely deny and reverse the normal sequence by which man comes to know truth. Nor do they understand the interconnection of the two processes in cognition-- from the particular to the general and then from the general to the particular. They understand nothing of the Marxist theory of knowledge.
The irony that Herbert was a critic of the Soviet Union isn't, necessarily, incompatible with his use of the dialetic to drive the plot of the Dune novels– the characters in the novels sometimes fail to do this (only by Heretics is Leto II being reconsidered critically, based on not only a questionably-sourced manifesto, but his journals and records that resurfaced int he previous book), Herbert uses the novel itself to do this work.
A core feature of the franchise's chronology is the Butlerian Jihad, which through the elimination of thinking machines, the divinity of mankind is held up as a precept of the coming millennia covered in the series. This is important for two reasons: first, it allows the mechanics of how the state is structured (CHOAM, the Spacing Guild, the Houses, etc.) to take a recognizable form in an impossibly distant future for humanity, and that it fundamentally does put people and the roles they inhabit in a society into context, where material conditions are, as a result, a first order concern, and a huge reason Dune plays out the way it does for Paul Muad'Dib.
Herbert said in the same interview:
No they’re not really simple changes. We’re just going to have to bite the bullet on some things and say this is going to cost us. I say frequently that I do not want to be put in the position, I refuse to be put in the position of having to tell my grandchildren, and I have grandchildren, that we do not have a world for you, we used it all up.
This is in reference to the material abundance in which we live in the imperial core, yet things like poverty and renewed reinvestment in unsustainable power sources, etc. are considered necessary evils, and ones that become more entrenched the more they are regarded as real and vital to another abstraction, the economy, over that of the material needs of the public. He was saying this in the 1970's– Dune, in this way, proves itself an almanac, not a how-to manual.
Herbert's views of the Soviet Union aside, his main concerned seemed not to be anti-communism, but a concern over power and how it is expressed. In the final book of the series, he writes: "All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted."
Whether or not this was the case in any communist regime, to say nothing of one like the USSR, is highly debateable (and unlike Herbert, I firmly reject that this was a potential issue at the time), but the metaconcern is an interesting one that I think Dune seeks to answer:
Can two things sharing so many common features (for example, totalitarianism and merely a strong central authority) be considered truly mutually exclusive to the point where corruption is never truly a possibility? Herbert argues no, and he depicts a legitimacy crisis in the series over just such a concern, only for, surprisingly, critical re-evaluation of said regime to occur millennia later, after it is too late. One gets the impression Herbert wants to be wrong, but he knows if he's right, it does little good for anyone. Interestingly, Herbert comes to the same conclusion many Marxists do with regard to how to build a healthy society– it must be founded on solidarity:
John Calloway: How did you learn about all of these things? You didn’t study at the universities for 22 years and you don’t have 5 PhDs. I don’t even know if you have a BS or an MA
Frank Herbert: I have a hand which is capable of knocking on doors
He was referring to, specifically, having been a reporter and knowing that the simplest way to get an answer from someone (or a community) is to ask, and in so doing, exercising basic humanity, citizenship, whatever you want to call it. Back at the beginning of the series, the Emperor and the powerful (and corrupt) Harkonnen family conspire to assassinate Leto Atreides and his family– viewed superficially, the difference between which family wields political power and influence with the Emperor and corporatist administration is nebulous and probably doesn't matter, or have much to do with the average citizen under their rule. So, viewed similarly, Paul creating alliances after his father's death with the Fremen, whose sworn warriors for their morality serve Paul in deposing the corrupt emperor and his co-conspirators, doesn't seem like much of a difference either, until you inspect the particulars.
As I suggested, Herbert is asking what the son of the philosopher king's son becomes, and in so asking, says the Platonic inference changes with the material circumstances of the state under disparate regimes, essentially to go beyond the Platonic conception of hereditary (or simply inherited) power– Leto II even transcends human form in an effort to save humanity from its limitations becoming desperative amidst ineveitable reversion of Dune back to its desert state, requiring new paths for humanity to prosper, because this had all happened before, with only contradiction resolution driving humanity further (not necessarily, correctly so). Dune presents an interesting premise if you're attempting to read it from that perspective: it's an empire that operates in harmony with its oligarchical, corporatist, elements– a fascist economics that synthesized from historical elite conflict with imperial power.
Particularly relevant today is the variable of a leader from power, deposed by a peer, because they simply can't be trusted to represent the right entrenched class interest, even if Paul wouldn't have gone on to lead the Fremen uprising and assume control of the empire. These are questions that, for example, Heidegger asks of any reading of Plato– it's a place to start, but no place to finish; something Heidegger would likely argue given, amongst others, Kant and Hegel's work in similar space.
I don't want to get too much further down the rabbit hole of philosophy Herbert may, or may not, have read (but probably did, apparently) or was influenced by; this was all just to say that this is a story that carries little in the way of endorsement or ideological function, but much in methodology. The certitude of the first two books' ideology gives way to the arrogance, but uncertainty of the Leto II reign and fallout of his rule's collapse indicates that this was less a story about idealism than it was an arc about process and contradiction and synthesis.
At this point, I've discussed very little of the religious, almost theocratic elements of state function in Dune, which cannot be understated, however, conceptually, it is another competing interest between corporatism, imperialism, and the prevailing order of a belief in, what we call in our time, western liberal democracy. The religious elements are important to making the distinctions I've described above; a God Emperor has different connotations from an emperor who takes his political cues from a society's oligarchs, for example, just as a strong central authoritarian figure doesn't necessarily make a tyrant, just as being a tyrant doesn't enumerate the concerns or ideological motivations for assuming control of the state.
In the final installment of the Frank Herbert-authored segments of the series, Chapterhouse: Dune, the Bene Gesserit, present the entire arc of the narrative, as mystical order with some influence over the events of the preceding books, and demonstrate supernatural ability and are widely mistrusted and feared for their powers. "Those who would repeat the past must control the teaching of history" is the opening of this entry in the series, by way of explaining this is a core tenet of their order's political order– by the time of the last book, the houses, CHOAM, the Spacing Guild, etc. are all fallen political orders, these are now "Bene Gesserit worlds". This quotation, and the circumstance leads to one conclusion drawn by Herbert, and that is a belief in the demonstrated reality, and demonstrated applicability, of historical materialism.
The arc of the narrative includes all of the above, but the binding thread is that material conditions in a post-technological universe, whether or not Herbert intended it to be this way, dictated the flow of political supremacy. The old order produced material conditions ripe for Paul to organize and usurp power, just like the conditions brought on by Leto II, even if his ideals were sincere, brought about his own usurpers, and like them the post-empire era through with the Bene Gesserit persisted through each of, their machinating and background actor work through this point millennia later, now find themselves at the seat of absolute power. With the notion of Muad'Dib, and then his son, the God Emperor, as religious figures, the historical materialist elements of Dune cannot be understated. Walter Benjamin says of historical materialism:
To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
Through this lens of understanding the succession of leaders philosophically, but also what conditions made this succession possible, and where the application breaks with theory in this franchise. This is also where the author's own efforts to labor through condtradictions become apparent, and you are left with a series as potentially resolute in the understanding that there is a Marxian vocabulary to virtually anything. One could be, perhaps even passively, seeking to mirror real-world economic, material conditions and the relationship of marginalized classes to it.
As I said, the books represent (narratively, over a span of millennia, but just a few decades in Herbert's life) conflicting conclusions about political reality, orthogonal is the religious aspect (at least initially), and what the reactionary positioning would be (to the point where even the protagonist lineage becomes the subject of reactionary ire, yet again). By the time of the last book, the only prominent element still in existence much as it existed at the time of the first book are the historical materialists. They are those who understand how the arc of history is constructed and propelled. As a result of this understanding, they should, but do not, recognize that ceasing to become of an observer, and becoming that which is observed and analyzed ans recorded, does not make power that much easier to wield without reactionaries of your own.