Stalin, Mao and turbulent transitions in authoritarian regimes

Review: Joseph Torigian chronicles the chaotic transitions of power following the deaths of Stalin and Mao with a diligent and analytical eye.
stalin dead power struggle torigian book
The casket of Joseph Stalin. By his side stand Kliment Voroshilov, Lavrentiy Beria and Georgy Malenkov. Credit: RBM Vintage Images / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Joseph Torigian, Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), $65, pp312.

The periods in which an authoritarian regime transitions to a new leadership after a dominant former leader passes from the scene are truly fraught times for dictatorships, since they rarely follow any clear rules. Indeed, a peaceful, orderly transfer of power is one of the key defining traits of democracies — and one of the reasons why President Donald Trump’s behaviour during the 2020 transition was so dangerous. Authoritarian regimes, in contrast, generally face painful transitions, ones dominated by contingent factors and damaging uncertainty for the people living in the country and for the neighbours of the regimes. This problem formed, for example, the basis of director Armando Iannucci’s satirical 2017 movie The Death of Stalin. This successful popular film vividly demonstrated how such transitions can disintegrate into petty rivalries, in this case among the Stalin’s former subordinates, all jockeying to replace him in the wake of his sudden and unexpected passing. Joseph Torigian, who teaches at American University, has wisely chosen to focus his research efforts on such critical moments in his work Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao (the book version of his PhD dissertation which he undertook at MIT). To shed a scholarly light on these difficult transitions, Torigian investigates key episodes from the history of both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The book also includes a very detailed chronology of key events in both Chinese and Soviet history at the end. This is a particularly useful addition which helps non-specialists to follow the detailed historical summary in the body of the book.

Torigian tests a series of hypotheses against the evidence from these episodes. Is it the leader who provides the best patronage the one who wins the succession struggle? Or is what really matters the ‘defined group [that] is enfranchised to choose their leader’? What role do ‘power ministries’ play? How important are sociological ties and prestige? Which bureaucratic organ makes the final decision? He examines all of these questions in the context of detailed case studies, addressing their applicability in a nuanced way.

As a general caveat, the author readily admits to ‘the difficulty that not only outside analysts but even party insiders face when trying to understand elite politics in Leninist regimes.’ Sinologists in particular ‘have always struggled to see inside the “black box,” and the track record is not strong’. But, as Torigian rightly points out, moments of transition between leaders are useful times to examine because they are ‘when politics are at their most “visible,” and thus they allow us to theorise about limitations and possibilities for the future.’ Put differently, the desire to seize power causes insiders to break with normal patterns of discretion, providing opportunities for outsiders to glimpse motivations and rivalries normally kept hidden.

Taking advantage of such visibility, Torigian concludes, convincingly, that ‘the historic failures of the Soviet Union and China to truly institutionalise politics even within their own ruling parties is one of the many tragedies of these grand political projects’. Because of these failures, the transitions after Stalin and Mao fell prey to ‘the flawed characteristics of elite politics’ rather than following any clear institutional rules or structures.

As a consequence, the ‘lack of real institutionalisation meant that it was easy for Deng [Xiaoping] to ignore dissenters, even senior party leaders such as Chen Yun‘. In place of institutionalisation, Deng insisted that “‘any leadership collective must have a core; without a core the leadership is unreliable.”’ And, of course, the definition of the core of leadership was up to Deng himself. Indeed, he thought that it was ‘strong centralised leadership’ that made the Chinese Communist Party powerful and effective.

Deng’s success in creating a core of power, controlled by himself, enabled him to remove opponents from their positions and to take dramatic action when desired. As Torigian rightly puts it, ‘most crucially for the fate of the PRC, Deng engineered a violent solution to the protests centred in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. Deng was able to force this decision despite widespread opposition in the party, state, and military’.

The result was the horrific bloodshed of June 1989, when the Party turned the weapons of the nation’s military on its own people. The exact number of dead remains unclear to this day, and the Party has made enormous efforts to suppress the knowledge of what truly happened on the streets of Beijing and other Chinese cities. But the events in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere nonetheless cast a long shadow, forever placing a question mark over the legitimacy of the Party’s subsequent rule.

Torigian’s approach to these issues even proved to have predictive power. As he put it, ‘in January 2017, drawing the findings of the research presented here when it was still in dissertation form,’ he published an article that correctly called in advance a contemporary development in Chinese politics. The current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has decided that he does not want to face a transition at all, and so will (as of the time of writing) ensure that he continues in power, presumably for life. As Torigian argued in 2017, ‘since Deng had not actually achieved real institutionalisation’ during his time in power, if Xi decided to break with established practice and not choose a successor but instead retain power, then ‘Xi would probably not face real constraints.’ The events of 2022 (to date) have shown that Torigian was accurate in this prediction.

In short, specialists will find much to ponder in this careful, detailed examination of a critical question in the functioning of authoritarian regimes.

Mary Elise Sarotte

Professor Mary Elise Sarotte is the Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravitz Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and Associate at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University.

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