Avoiding the Succession Trap: Leadership Change

inSurvivor Communist Regimes

Gerald M. Easter

**Draft paper presented to Post-Communist Workshop, Davis Center (January 28, 2013)

**Dear Post-Communist Workshoppers:

Sorry the paper arrives solate, I had some laptop problems. The paper is a work in progress, which presently includes 3 out of 4 cases (North Korea is missing), reads a bit rough, is missing a lot of endnotes, and lacks a conclusion. But there is, I hope, enough here to get some useful feedback. It will not be difficult to see where it is going with the missing case.

It is not a long-term research project, but rather a paper that grew out of a lecture. The main questions for the workshop are: (1) which journal/s would be appropriate as an outlet (when I started writing it, I was thinking PSQ perhaps?); (2) aside from a more systematic presentation of elite distribution of politburo-central committeememberships and inter-regionl/bureaucratic budgetary transfers, are there some other indicators that would be useful to include?; (3) are there any articles or books that do this already, or something similar (I did check a bit and found plenty of individual case studies and a few comparative cases, but nothing that systematically compared the process of leadership change in all communist survivors)?


“You are like blind kittens,” Stalin told his successors, “what will you do without me?” It was, in fact, a reasonable question. In the 1950s, communist regimes had yet to work out a mechanism for the orderly transfer of power when a leader exited the scene. Instead, communist leadership successions were characterized by crisis for ruling regimes: protracted uncertainty over divisions of power, internecine conflicts within the elite, and radical shifts of policy. Communist regimes were particularly vulnerable to instability and change at times of leadership succession. Indeed, the ultimate demise of the East European communist bloc can be traced back to the leadership succession that brought Mikhail Gorbachev to power, in 1985, in the Soviet Union. Thus, we are presented with a puzzle regarding the small set of survivor communist regimes, which have maintained the political status quo despite having experienced momentous leadership changes.So far, at least, expectations of fundamental regime change “after Deng” or “after Fidel” or “after Kim” have not been realized. This paper seeks to explain how survivor communist regimes managed to avoid the “succession trap.”

Arethe survivor communistregimesdoomed anachronisms, temporarily delaying an inevitable demise, or are they viable authoritarianisms, demonstrating a capacity for adaptation and long-term survival? There are multiple factors, varying by case, to consider when answering the question. This paper focuses on one particular factor regarding theendurance of survivor communist regimes – leadership succession. Leadership succession presents an opportunity for change of some sort in most anypolitical regime, although not usually on the scale of fundamental transformation. Concerning communist regimes, the historical record shows that they were especially vulnerable to major policy and institutional changes during leadership successions, whichexposed and politicized divisions withinthe ruling elite. Thus, this paper examines the succession strategies devised by survivor communist regimes meant to contain elite conflict and perpetuate the political status quo. To do so, the paper focuses on leadership successions that followed the reigns of dominant top leaders, in whom political authority was personally embodied. The paper elaborates ontwo distinct successionstrategies: corporatist succession in China and Vietnam, anddynastic succession in Cuba and North Korea.

I) Leadership Succession and Regime Change in Communist States

It was once said, and oft repeated, that totalitarian regimes can only change through defeat in war. This assertion, perhaps, applied to fascist variants of totalitarianism, Italy and Germany, but it certainly was not the case with communist variants, of which there were many more examples. It was not external, but internal forces that caused the sudden and unexpected collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Despite their monopoly over the instruments of power, communist regimes by the late twentieth century were vulnerable to implosion as a result of long-term structural forces - economic contraction, social change and political sclerosis. Still, it was not inevitable that communist regimes should have fallen when they did, and in the way they did. On this point, the most decisive conjunctural factor that precipitated the demise of communism in Eastern Europe was leadership change, more specifically, the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, expectations were high that the remaining communist regimes would also succumb to forces of democratization and breakdown. So what explains the persistence of the surviving communist regimes? Economics might help to explain communist regime survival in China and Vietnam, but it does not explain Cuba or North Korea. The disposition of the international community might also be a factor, yet while China and Vietnam are globally engaged, Cuba and North Korea are isolated. An indigenous revolution again might help to explain China, Vietnam and Cuba, but then there is the fate of the Soviet Union, Albania, Nicaragua and Mongolia to consider. Another possible explanation for communist regime survival is patterns of civil military relations. All the communist survivors are similar in that the military is especially influential in high level politics, in some cases even eclipsing the influence of the communist party. Of note, this particular pattern of civil-military relations contrasts with fallen communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where the military tended to be subordinate to civilian party leadership. Still another notable point of contrast regarding the survivor communist regimes was the way in which they managed leadership succession. Because of the systemic tendency to concentrate so much power in the top man,political leadership was among the most influential factors shaping the character and stability of communist regimes. This tendency began with Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the first communist regime in Russia in 1917. Lenin’s leadership claim was that it was “his” party. To be “the leader” did not mean to hold a particular formal position per se, but rather to be recognized more generally as “head” of the communist party. Formal positions and titles were fluid. Lenin was prime minister, Stalin was general secretary, Gorbachev was president, Deng Xiaoping was chairman of the central advisory commission. They were all, however, acknowledged to be the head of the party, or “top leader,” which had personalistic as well as bureaucratic meaning. The top leader in a communist regime was invariably the most influential individual on matters of policymaking and personnel promotion. But the extent of that influence was checked by a dynamic configuration of power resources in high-level political bodies, which fluctuated across policy issue, institutional setting and individual personality.[1] This dynamic constraint on the powers of the top leader was a product of the ongoing tension within communist regimes between the leader and the elite. Within communist regimes, top leaders were constantly engaged in a process of consolidating power. The process required that a leader build a support coalition from among various bureaucratic constituencies across the ruling elite by selective manipulation of personnel promotions. This process, known as “circular flow of power,” was an essential feature of leadership succession in communist regimes.[2] A leadership candidate sought to promote individuals into positions of elite status, who in turn supported the candidate’s bid to become recognized as the head of the party, or top leader. In this way, the power of the ruling elite (which was bureaucratically defined by membership to the party’s central committee) was ascendant, but then declined after the new leader was chosen. And, here came the source of leader-elite tension. Especially in the early history of communism, the tendency was for a newly selected party chief to try to free himself from the preference constraints of his elite support coalition, and to consolidate unchecked personalistic rule.[3] Lenin made it easier for his successor to do such, when he successfully lobbied for an official ban on intra-party factions.[4]

Leadership successions were times of uncertainty and flux in communist regimes. In communism’s early period, leadership successions were protracted and openly antagonistic affairs, often with lethal consequences for the losers. “The passing of the ruler inevitably produces a crisis in leadership,” observed Myron Rush.[5] The classic succession crisis was the first one, after Lenin’s death, which went on for nearly five years in the Soviet Union and eventually brought to power Josef Stalin. Stalin’s Great Purges and Mao’s Cultural Revolution are the best-known examples of leader-led coercive campaigns to smash elite constraints and consolidate personal dictatorship. In the aftermath of these ruinous episodes, communist regime elites sought to construct institutional protections against unbridledpersonal dictatorship. As a result, in communism’s later period, leadership successions became shorter and more discreet, with the contest settled behind closed doors. Successions came with less risk of violence, but still high risk of volatility. “The consequences for the political system are profound,” noted Seweryn Bialer, “the succession period is conducive to sudden switches in policy and offers a high potential for disrupting the inertia characteristic of the way the business of government was conducted.”[6] Communist regimes were most vulnerable during a leadership succession because it was an exceptional and temporary moment, when competition among diverse elite preferences prevailed over a central leadership’s imposed status quo. Out of this elite competition might come the opportunity for fundamental regime-changing reforms, intentional or otherwise. In Eastern Europe, Nikita Khrushchev’s victory in the Stalin succession ushered in a set of policy changes that effectively constrained coercion and promoted reward as instruments of compliance, leading to the emergence of a “post-totalitarian” politics. In China, Deng Xiaoping’s victory in the Mao succession forever transformed Chinese communism by dismantling the command economy. And, Mikhail Gorbachev’s subsequent victory in the Brezhnev succession provided the opportunity for reform experiments that stirred movement politics and undermined the ruling capacity of Soviet communism. Yet despite the risks to political regime and personal legacy, it was the exception, not the rule, for a communist dictator to try to orchestratehis own leadership succession. Lenin’s final testament found fault with all his would-be successors and endorsed no one, while Stalin was too egotistical and paranoidto anoint a successor. Mao is famously quoted for telling Hua Guofeng that “with you in charge, I am at ease,” but apparently no one else was.[7]Mao’s transfer of leadershiptitles to Hua, who had no power base among the main elite factions, was overturned soon after the Chairman’s death. However, at leastsome high-level political actors in the survivor communist regimes were keenly aware of the dangers of leadership succession and the failed efforts of previous leaders to influence succession outcomes. Accordingly, they devised new strategies for leadership change that minimized the opportunity for intra-elite conflict, and thereby helped to assure regime survival.To maintain the authoritarian status quo, a top leader must transfer his personalistic political authority to a legitimizing entity, such as the party or a family, not simply to a favored individual. Moreover, regardless of if the entity is the party or the family, a set of rules should be followed to reduce the risk of destabilizing elite conflict.

II) Rules for Avoiding the Succession Trap

If elite conflict is the key to avoiding the succession trap, then how does a communist regime successfully navigate the precarious period of uncertainty that accompanies leadership change? Even a well-ordered dictatorship cannot prevent the existence of latent cleavage lines (generational, professional, regional, personal) within its ruling elite. Thus, it is necessary to minimize and contain intra-elite competition so to prevent the opportunity for a radical or renegade from taking power.In contrast to fallen communist regimes, survivor communist regimes managed to do this by adhering to four informal rules of leadership succession: (1) know thy successor; (2) keep the military close; (3) share the spoils, and (4) abide by the code.These rules guard against the rise of a rogue leader and the outbreak of a protracted factional power struggle. They are intended to assure the self-preservation of the regime elites.Brief elaboration of each rule follows, using the Soviet Union as illustration, usually as a negative example. example. In the case sections, we see that the rules apply to both corporatist and dynastic succession strategies.


Know Thy SuccessorTo begin, the most basic rule is thatthe candidate should be known and trusted within the ruling elite in three ways: position, policy and personality. First, position, or professional background of the candidate, should show that they possess first-hand experience with the practical operation and bureaucratic culture of the major command centers of the state. Most importantly, in this regard, are the top councils in charge of national security, but may also include economic management and party apparatus. Participation in these high-level bodies allows a future leadership candidate to cultivate authority-enhancing professional expertise as well as trust-building personal acquaintances. Gorbachev’s promotion to top leadership is a good example of the violation of the “know thy successor” rule, in that his professional path to the top was much more insulated than previous leaders. He was a regional party official, who did not have experience outside his agriculture-dominated region, and more importantly, as it turned out, in the non-Russian regions. Second, policy refers to knowing a priori the reform preferences of the candidate; although it is certainly true that a candidate’s policy preferences have been known to dramatically change after he becomes top leader, as occurred with Gorbachev and Khrushchev. Still, to the extent possible, self-interested elites will try to define the parameters of acceptable policy options for a new leader. Third, personality should be considered as well, in order to gauge the likelihood that a new leader’s style of rule, dictatorial tendencies or personal vindictiveness will pose a threat to the regime in general or the elite in particular. The lesson of Stalin’s reign of terror on the Bolshevik elite is a grim reminder of the importance of personality, when choosing a successor.

Keep the Military Close Second, leadership candidates should be well known to and trusted by the state’s coercive elites. The surviving communist states are distinctive in that the military played, at least at times, visible and active domestic political roles. The military was engaged in various state building projects, well beyond national security. Civilian or party control of the military profession was on occasion, if not routinely, was compromised. This was not the case in the Soviet and East European communist regimes, where military elites generally assumed a more professional corporate identity and remained under civilian party control, especially in the final period of communist rule. In the succession process, the concerns and interests of military elites should be taking into account and accommodated. Again, the case of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union presents a useful negative example. Gorbachev’s relationship with the regime’s military and security elites became so strained that they eventually organized a coup to thwart his policy changes.

Share the SpoilsThe third rule for avoiding the succession trap is to share the spoils, similar to the operating principles of machine politics. For example, Chicago’s long-time political boss, Mayor Richard Daley, lasted as long as he did by observing the rule: “nobody gets nothing, nobody gets everything, everybody gets something.” Thus, to minimize the possibility of destabilizing elite conflicts, leadership successions should not become zero-sum competitions, by which some elite factions are shut off from access to power and wealth. Instead, various elite actors must be given concrete incentives to continue to support the regime, most commonly through representation in high-level political bodies, allocation on bureaucratic fiefdoms or opportunities for enrichment. Once again, the Soviet Union provides the case study of how not to do it. While Gorbachev’s economic reform policies offered prospects for material gain, the opportunity for such required maneuvering outside the institutional framework of the state rather than within it, leading to the phenomenon of elite defection, or as Stephen Solnick characterized it, a “bank run” on the state’s most valuable resources.

Abide by the CodeThe final, more general rule is not to violate the informal norms of elite competition, that is, to abide by the unwritten rules of succession politics. Several informal norms are consistent across all the cases, with some variation in practice. The most common informal norm is to be discreet about one’s ambitions in succession politics. It is not that there is no politics in the succession process; on the contrary, it is a highly political and contentious game. Successful candidates, however, should not make it too obvious that they are competing. Elite competition should remain discreet, rather than spill over to the broader political elite, rank-and-file party membership or, even worse, the public. Of this point, Vietnam is the relatively more open regarding elite competition than the other cases. Another informal norm concerns making threats to the elite privileges and status. While particular individuals may be targeted for removal because of egregious behavior or political retribution, any threats that concern the elite more broadly, such as a serious and widespread anti-corruption campaign, are a violation of informal norms. This informal norm is reminiscent of Brezhnev’s “trust in cadres” policy, which provided assurance to the elite that the top leader would not threaten the ruling elite with either Stalin-like purges or Khrushchev-like reshufflings.