Communist (Surprise) Parties

Alexander J Groth. Orbis. Volume 34, Issue 1. Winter 1990.

Communist regimes are forever acting in unpredictable ways, baffling Western analysts. For example, consider what leading Soviet specialists expected of Mikhail Gorbachev when he came to power. Konstantin Simis was typical of Western analysts when he observed: “The available evidence labels Gorbachev a staunch defender of the partocracy… Gorbachev has shown no signs of being prepared for political liberalization.” Similarly, Seweryn Bialer and Joan Afferica declared that “Gorbachev’s reformism stresses authoritarian rule, discipline and predictable conformist behavior. Cultural experimentation, not to speak of expanded political rights, has no place in his world… He attaches top priority to supporting orthodoxy and the cohesiveness of the East European empire.” Also in 1985, Thane Gustafson wrote that “the general secretary is obliged to proceed by slow consensus-building negotiation against an invincibly entrenched bureaucracy.” Two years later, Gustafson was marveling at how wrong Gorbachev has proved his analysis. In short, few observers expected the rapid and radical course Mikhail Gorbachev is choosing to follow.

Similarly, a decade ago, Deng Xiaoping’s re-emergence in Peking caught most observers looking the other way. In 1978, for example, Chalmers Johnson wrote of Mao’s designated heir, Hua Guofeng: “On available evidence, it seems that Hua has successfully navigated the succession.” By the end of the year, Deng was effectively in charge.

No year has witnessed more unpredictable events in the communist world than 1989. One major surprise was the Tiananmen Square massacre: A highly promising decade of reform had built up the general perception that Chinese society was finally opening up and settling down; that China was taking on a semblance of normality; and that Deng was a reform-minded, comparatively benevolent leader. Then, in June 1989, the regime crushed the country’s pro-democracy movement and reverted to Stalinist rhetoric and repression.

Conversely, no reform was expected in East Germany, where Erich Honecker had headed the Communist party since 1971. As if to confirm that outlook, Honecker’s government publicly supported the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Yet when Honecker himself confronted mass demonstrations four months later, it was his administration that gave way. (News reports indicate that Honecker ordered a crackdown, but his orders were rejected.) In October, when Honecker’s successor and protege, Egon Krenz, assumed power, a leading West German politician called him “the consummate apparatchik, a true child of the system, surrounded by the oiliest advisers, the sort of people who would do anything.”5 But a second surprise took place a month later, when Krenz announced an investigation into his mentor’s tenure, allowed East Germans to pass freely through the Berlin Wall, and pledged free, secret ballot elections. In yet another surprise, Krenz was stripped of his party leadership less than two months after he took power.

Elsewhere too, change was relentless. In the Soviet Union, nationwide, multi-candidate elections were held for the first time since 1917. In Poland, semi-free elections brought to office a non-communist cabinet. In Hungary, the communist government rehabilitated Imre Nagy, leader of the 1956 Revolution, and laid down a framework for multiparty elections this year. In Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov resigned abruptly after a thirty-five year tenure. In Czechoslovakia, the hard-line Communists resigned, and allowed the formation of a cabinet in which the majority were nonCommunists.

Does all this mean that communist hardliners have seized the reins in China and will guide that country along a predictably reactionary course? Does it mean that a closet liberal has achieved power in Moscow and will bring freedom to the Soviet Union? Perhaps. But analysts would be wise not to infer long-term political developments in China or the Soviet Union or elsewhere from what they now observe. The reason is that sudden policy shifts and reversals of personal fortune are virtually guaranteed in a Communist system.

In analyzing communist states, the most basic mistake is to project Western patterns of incrementalism on a system prone to abrupt reversals. This means assuming that a modification of existing policies is the most likely political change, and that tomorrow will see only a slight variation of today. With communist systems it is wise to expect the unexpected.

Two features in all ruling communist parties account for the recurrence of surprises: prerogative power and clientelism. Prerogative power is power unchecked by either formal or informal devices; clientelism is the practice of rewarding and promoting a subordinate for his favors, rather than for objective professional reasons. To understand how these features produce political surprise, it is instructive to compare them as they existed in a classic communist regime with those features in absolute monarchies. To make this comparison, we shall compare the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1705) in France with the Soviet Union before Gorbachev. These are fitting examples, for each was a consummate example of its type.

Prerogative Power

Prerogative power is characterized by lawlessness, lack of political accountability, and secrecy. These three elements provide the basis for a politics of whim and caprice, and hence for political surprise.

Lawlessness. Prerogative power is not constrained by fixed, publicly known laws that its user considers binding. For Louis XIV, the potential constraints on his rule (principally tradition and precedent) were not as tangible as present-day constitutional proscriptions, and gaining power was thus a more subtle process and in some ways more difficult. But so ardent was Louis to secure unbounded power that, on one occasion, he even attempted to rewrite tradition and precedent. In 1668, he called to his court in Saint Germain a deputation from the Parlement de Paris, a quasi-judicial body that could temporarily check the king by refusing to register a royal edict. The king traditionally was able to overcome this check simply by ordering the Parlement to register his edict.

In 1666, however, the Parlement began to protest this royal override as beyond the king’s authority, a view that had gained some currency during Louis’s minority. In 1668, Louis rejected this protest by ordering the deputation from Parlement to hand over its public registers for 1645-1652. Registrations of private suits and criminal trials were copied, so that the public would not be inconvenienced, but no record would remain of Parliament’s refusal to register the king’s order. “This was eradicating the past with a vengeance, and removing all possible precedents for future resistance.”

In the pre-Gorbachev Soviet model, lack of constraint was achieved by silence and pretense towards the constitution. Although the Party was formally accorded leadership of the state and society, provisions describing how this leadership was to be exercised were not publicly spelled out. The party apparatus was not officially the government, and therefore not included in the constitution. Similarly, the general secretary of the party (the principal leader of the system) was not even mentioned in the constitution. Nor were his powers and responsibilities, or the manner of his selection mentioned in the party’s own statutes.

The lawlessness of prerogative power also has a more conventional sense. Because such power is beyond constraint, behavior at the highest levels tends to defy all conventional rules of propriety. As rulers find themselves unaccustomed to constitutional restraints, they grow ever more annoyed by moral and legal restraints as well.

Louis, certainly, put himself above the moral law. For nearly thirty years, he employed as his minister of war the marquis de Louvois, a man whose methods shocked even war-jaded Europeans of the seventeenth century. At Louvois’s instigation, Louis sent armies into the Palatinate without the customary declaration of war. And when that small, relatively pacific state was conquered, the land and people were ravaged in a manner that (as even an adulatory biographer of Louis admits) “branded France the enemy of all mankind.”7 Nor was such treatment limited to foreigners; all who opposed Louis were at risk. When putting down a tax revolt in Brittany, for instance, Louis’s soldiers “devastated an area four leagues wide, pillaging every house and committing atrocities that surpass [even those alleged by] modern wartime propaganda.”

When discussing Soviet behavior that transgresses moral and criminal law, one hardly knows where to start. Stalin engineered famines, massacres, and purges resulting in millions of deaths. Individual cases include the murders of Leon Trotsky and and Sergei Kirov; the execution of Politburo member A.A. Voznesensky; the predilection of secret police chief Lavrenti Beria for personally inflicting torture on prisoners; and the secret trial and execution of Beria himself. Individual cases from the post Stalin years cannot be as well documented, but Jeremy Azrael observes that

it is difficult not to suspect that [Andropov] may have had a sizable hand in the plague of misfortunes that depleted the ranks of Brezhnev’s likely successors between 1978 and 1980. Certainly, this was the strong suspicion of numerous Moscow “insiders,” who were quick to attribute the … untimely demise of Fyodor Kulakov in 1978 and Pyotr Masherov in 1980 directly or indirectly to the KGB.

Lack of accountability. Absolute power is also free from the less formal pressures and constraints of outside competition for authority. Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, an absolutist thinker, stated the arrangement this way: “The king should render an account to no one for what he prescribes … There is no coactive force against the king. Consequently, when the provincial estates tried to assert traditional rights, Louis crushed them. Most significantly, the power of the Parlement de Paris to legalize the king’s decrees was ended by a direct threat: Louis said that he would “make a striking example either of the entire submission of that company or of my just severity in punishing it.”

Likewise, within the Soviet system, the ruler or ruling clique has traditionally been accountable to few if any outside powers. T. H. Rigby holds that while Stalin obviously was not able to manage everything on his own, he “personally decided anything he wanted to, unconstrained by the power of any individual, group, institution or law.” Since Stalin, the Soviets have not vested such total power in a single individual. But the leadership collective taken as a whole has not had to answer in any way for its actions. Until this year, no communist society had witnessed anything remotely resembling free elections. The opposition parties and the opposition press, if they existed at all, were extremely circumscribed.

Secrecy. Prerogative power thrives on obscurity. For Louis, such secrecy was easy, for after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661 he truly ruled alone. To keep hidden the processes by which decisions were made, he had only to remain silent. And Louis kept quite mum about his decision-making. “Do not risk annoying me any more,” he wrote to Jean-Baptiste Colbert when that minister, an intimate advisor, had disputed a decision. “For after I have heard your arguments and those of your colleagues, and then decided on all your requests, I never want to hear another word on those subjects.”

In the days of Stalin, the situation in the Soviet Union was comparable. In Winston Churchill’s description, Russia was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Not even Politburo status enabled a party member to question the country’s foreign policy, the government budget, or the party’s agricultural policy. After Stalin, the situation became more complicated but not much more open. Legislative powers were constitutionally vested in an elected Supreme Soviet; yet actual power was traditionally exercised by the Presidium, whose modus operandi remained a public mystery. The procedures of the even smaller Presidium of the Council of Ministers, which was responsible for the bulk of Soviet legislation, were also unknown. Above all, little was publicly known about the relationship between the Politburo of the Communist party and the executive and legislative organs of government. Even the relationship between the party Secretariat and the Politburo was a subject of speculation.

Secrecy in the Soviet Union was also pervasive on a personal level. Since party members did not have to commit themselves publicly to policy positions, it was possible—and often necessary—to conceal motivations and opinions. This has led to many political surprises. Despite the best efforts of the secret police, individuals brought into top party organs were often unknown quantities to their superiors, and so they often acted in unexpected ways. Stalin would have been surprised to hear Khrushchev denouncing him after 1953, and Khrushchev was indeed surprised in 1964 to find Leonid Brezhnev—whom he had brought to the Kremlin, seizing the reins from his hands. Indeed, Khrushchev (according to his son) had suspicions of a plot only one month before it actually happened. And, according to his son-in-law, Khrushchev did not know the blow was falling until, summoned by the Politburo from his Crimean vacation, he got off the plane in Moscow and “there was only one man awaiting him at the airport—KGB chief Semichastnyy.”

Thus, as prerogatives in the reign of Louis were guided by nothing but the king’s whim, so in the Soviet Union they were guided by nothing but the inner dynamics of the ruling clique. Inevitably, in both polities, this caused surprises. For example, when one of Louis’s illegitimate sons, the duc de Maine, proved a coward in battle, the king took out his disappointment by bombarding Brussels, with no thought of taking the city—an act of wanton destruction that disgusted all Europe. As for the Soviet Union, the list of surprises produced by its rulers’ prerogative power is well known. Major examples include the Hitler Stalin pact, the Lysenko Affair, and the invasion of Afghanistan.


Clientelism is the other source of political surprise in communist systems. As arbitrary power eliminates the formal structures that tend to make public actions predictable, so clientelism eliminates the substantive goals that enhance predictability. Specifically, clientelism tends to eliminate the interests of the state as the dominant force in public actions and substitutes the less predictable forces of private and factional interests—in other words, corruption.

Of course, patronage and favoritism are hardly unique to communist systems, nor are the corruption and factionalism that result. In a pluralistic system, however, these phenomena are checked by outside forces. In the United States, for example, the president is free to nominate those who have supported him, which is clientelism. But when he nominates high officials, he must contend with publicized (and often politicized) Senate hearings. As John Tower’s bid to become secretary of defense made clear, these hearings can turn out badly for the president even when the candidate is qualified. Where formal checks do not exist, media attention can bar the corrupt elevation of incompetent friends and associates. All this discourages clientelism. Conversely, arbitrarily applied power encourages clientelism.

In Louis’s court, the process was simple. Because all status was conferred by royal fiat, those who were close to the king, such as his mistress and second wife, Francoise de Maintenon, possessed substantial derivative power. Those who had Madame de Maintenon’s ear were, in turn, only somewhat less influential than she; and so on down through the ranks of courtiers. Each person in the patron-client series was, to those below, as arbitrary as the king himself, and thus even solid public accomplishments could not guarantee a person the traditional rewards of honor and stature. One could not earn the right to have a superior’s influence used one’s behalf. One could only persuade such a person through whatever means proved effective (and more often than not, this meant some sort of long-term service).

Under Soviet centralism, with its repression of political life, power also passed from the top downward in return for services. The public articulation of opinions and preferences within the party was sacrificed in favor of highly structured, disciplined participation by the rank and file. The organizational model was closer to that of a military formation than a Western political party. The party system put a premium on keeping one’s thoughts and reflections to oneself, while skillfully meeting demands presented from above. In effect, the ruling party was a hierarchy of patrons and clients laboring under an implicit contract: rendering services brought privileges, including elite status and the potential to be chosen or co-opted for positions of top political leadership of the country.

Clientelism need not involve corruption, but the more arbitrary and unchecked the power in a patron-client relationship, the more freedom from corruption depends upon personal conscience. In pluralist systems, a conspicuously dishonest client attracts peer and media attention. Under the glare of such publicity and public pressure, the patron may well be forced to fire him or he may be removed by legal proceedings. By contrast, arbitrary rulers are nearly immune to outside checks. They do not worry about elections or falling polls.

There may be internal checks, of course. Because Louis identified himself with France, his clientelism often rewarded objective service to the state with great honors; the honors he showered on Colbert prove that. Still, Colbert’s reward were bestowed for serving Louis, not for serving France. Whenever the king’s conscience permitted, equally great rewards might be lavished on those who merely charmed him. For example, when the king’s illegitimate daughter, Madmoiselle de Nantes, was married at the age of thirteen, he gave her a dowry of one million livres, approximately 1 percent of the national budget. Further, the identification of self-interest with state interest tended to fade rapidly as one descended the hierarchy of patrons, although accountability to those above grew, thus offsetting somewhat the tendency toward corruption.

The clientele system begun under Stalin was quite similar to that of a monarchy’s. Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr M. Nekrich write:

During the First Five-Year Plan a state was built up on the basis of very complicated system of privileges and fear of their loss … Everyone depended on a higher benefactor, just as in the feudal system vassals depended on their suzerain. One need only give a nudge to one “benefactor” to nudge an endless series of favor seekers and favor granters.

This system caused corruption in the Soviet regime to become endemic. Again, at low levels, a degree of accountability does exist — but only to higher levels of power. At lower rungs, therefore, the patron-client relationship is more likely to be based on rational criteria of performance; a risking party official wishes to appoint people who help him do his job well and thus make him look good to his superiors. At the higher levels of authority, however, the absence of a need to depend one’s actions before a potentially hostile, selection of appointees tends to become an idiosyncratic matter. Khrushchev observed that Stalin did not like to surround himself with tall people who could tower over him; with this, he almost certainly identified an important criterion for selection to the Politburo between 1929 and 1953.

(Of course, just as Louis identified with France and often used a rational clientelism to make it prosper, so high-level communist officials may identify with their system and use a rational clientelism to make it prosper. The anti-corruption campaigns of Andropov and Gorbachev could be examples of this. But such a check against corruption and self-indulgence at high levels must come from within; it is not institutional.)

The forms of favoritism that thrive in the communist states are many: common family ties, ethic bonds, geographic origin, cultural similarities, age, sex, friendships, institutional connections, and shared patrons. Even the cultivation of corrupt exchange relationships can be more important than competence or qualifications in determining who fills the vacant posts in the communist hierarchy.

Also, patron-client relationships tend to form ladders up to the highest authorities. In Louis’s system, the king was the sole source of advancement, and only a few had great influence with him. Consequently, the patron-client system coalesced into a handful of major, semi-permanent divisions. By the late seventeenth century, four distinct groups existed, each centered on a member of the king’s family. This factionalism brought a rigidity that magnified shifts in power. When the chief of a faction died or fell from grace, his many followers suffered as well. When Louis’s son and heir took ill with smallpox and died within the week, his passing caused an abrupt and major reversal in the fortunes of his own clients. They had nowhere to go, for the other three factions would not incorporate them.

The Soviet system is not quite so extreme. Personal networking is crucial, given the absence of impersonal criteria for advancement in the nomenklatura and in alternate sources of political strength. Still, individuals who begin in one faction can usually find new patrons or clients when the need arises. The system is more open to shifting alliances than Louis’s later reign—more like a lattice than like separate ladders. As a result, it tends to exhibit surprises but rarely cataclysms.

Personnel Surprises: The Soviet Union

The politics of communist surprise are well illustrated by the rise of the Soviet Union’s two most recent leaders, Konstantin Chernenko and Mikhail Gorbachev; and by the fall during the Mao era of two very prominent Chinese leaders: Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. In addition, we may consider the surprise involved in Gorbachev’s emergence as a liberal reformer, and in Deng Xiaoping’s more recent incarnation as a hardliner.

When Yuri Andropov died in 1984, Chernenko was seventy two years old and sick. He would wheeze and run out of breath in the middle of a sentence, sometimes even in the middle of a word. He could not hold routine receptions, attend conferences, or participate in meetings. Zhores Medvedev was on the mark in observing that “it was incomprehensible how this obviously sick man would be able to do the job for which he had been chosen.”

Further, Chernenko was an undistinguished figure, lacking in experience for the top position. With only five years’ background as a voting member of the Politburo, his credentials compared unfavorably with those of every previous Soviet leader. All things considered, Chernenko had the least distinguished record of any member of the Politburo in 1984. His name was not linked to any past event, program, policy, or decision which could give him, even implicitly or tangentially, any kind of stature. Even his military record was marginal.

There has been much speculation about how, despite all these drawbacks, Chernenko made it to the top post. Some analysts saw his selection as the last stand of the Kremlin’s aged leadership, an attempt to preserve power for the generation that Chernenko could plausibly personify and Gorbachev could not. Yet two of the oldest members of the Politburo that chose Chernenko—Andrei Gromyko (age seventy-four) and Dmitriy Ustinov (seventytwo)—are generally presumed to have backed Gorbachev. Other commentators suggested that a power struggle between Brezhnevian traditionalists (such as Chernenko) and Andropovian reformers (such as Gorbachev) resulted in Chernenko’s elevation. Yet Mikhail Solomentsev, a veteran and lackluster apparatchik, is widely believed to have been in the Gorbachev camp.

In the end, therefore, we can say only this: the selection of Chernenko was not based on any criteria readily identifiable to outside observers. It was probably based on elusive factional relations within the Politburo of early 1984, and better! fits with an idiosyncratic, arbitrary conception of the Soviet high command than any functional-rational conception.

In some respects, Gorbachev’s ascension would seem to contradict the thesis put forward here, for it looks like the success story of a hard-working executive. Born in 1931, Gorbachev joined the Communist party in 1952 and was active in the Komsomol at Moscow University. After graduation, he worked full-time for the Komsomol in his native Stavropol region, near the Black Sea. Ten years later, he went to work for the regular party apparatus, specializing in agricultural affairs. In 1966, he became first secretary for the city of Stavropol. He became the second secretary for the Stavropol region (kray) in 1968 and first secretary in 1970. A year later, he was accordingly given membership in the party’s Central Committee, to represent his region. In 1978, Gorbachev was brought to Moscow to become the Central Committee secretary for agriculture and, once in the capital, his career took off. The very next year, he advanced to candidate membership on the Politburo; one year after that, he was a full member. By 1984 he was under consideration to become the strongman of the USSR, a status he assumed in March 1986.

Until 1978, Gorbachev’s biography appeared to be that of a young man rising to head the party in his native region thanks to a combination of natural ability, hard work, luck, and ideological caution. After 1978, a quite different set of factors evidently began operating. First, his move to Moscow derived from the patronage of two Politburo members, Mikhail Suslov and Yuri Andropov. He won their favor in part because of his performance, in part because of their idiosyncrasies. Suslov had commanded partisan forces against the Nazis in the Stavropol region, and so favored party members from there. Andropov had taken rest cures in Stavropol, and so he tended to meet and favor party members from that area.

Second, Gorbachev achieved full voting membership in the Politburo in 1980 even though he was in charge of agricultural production, and Soviet agriculture had conspicuously failed to meet the grain production targets in 1979. The reasons for his promotion in the face of failure remain obscure to outsiders.

Third, the cause of Gorbachev’s elevation to general secretary is also far from clear. He appears to have achieved nothing of substance from 1980 to the time of his election in 1985. Without a discernible institutional or functional reason, he was the one assigned to make a number of well-publicized trips to foreign countries. The publicity attached to his foreign missions suggests that he was being groomed for further advancement by Andropov and others. After Andropov’s death in 1984, Gorbachev’s designation as heir-apparent seems to have been part of the deal that made Chernenko general secretary. But one can only speculate on why such a deal had to be made, and why Gorbachev was the deal’s beneficiary.

After becoming general secretary, Gorbachev began the process all over again, quickly bestowing power on the basis of favoritism. Eduard Shevardnadze took the position of foreign minister without any remotely related prior experience. The advancement in September 1988 of Vadim Medvedev, an obscure figure, to full membership of the Politburo and to chief party ideologist was completely inexplicable.

Personnel Surprises: China

The fall of Liu Shaoqi exemplifies especially the lawlessness of communist rule, while the several falls and rehabilitations of Deng Xiaoping provide striking testimony to the role of faction and favoritism. Liu Shaoqi joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921, agitated among workers during the 1920s, and later headed the CCP underground in the northern part of the country. After the revolution, he became a member of the first Politburo and his power was understood to be second only to Mao. In 1959, when Mao’s Great Leap Forward was turning into one of the world’s great famines, resulting in 15 to 30 million deaths, Liu replaced Mao as chairman of the People’s Republic of China. Nominally, this made Liu the head of state, and soon he also became head of the party faction that (in contrast to Mao’s faction) wished to pursue a more realistic economic strategy. (One factor that exacerbated this struggle was “the jealousy harbored by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing against Liu’s wife Wang Guang-mei, who apparently outshone her in social grace, education, and beauty.”)

For several years, these two factions duelled for control of Peking’s policies, with Liu’s group generally the more successful. Finally, in the fall of 1965, Mao struck back at Liu’s growing power by creating an instrument that would act outside the party and indeed outside all established institutions and procedures. This was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and its shock troops, the Red Guards. The idea, which proved successful, was that Lis’s faction of party stalwarts could neither control nor defend themselves against these irregular forces.

In addition to being extra-constitutional, of course, the Cultural Revolution was a legal and moral horror. As Laszlo Ladany has written, Red Guards

burst in upon middle-class families, destroying books and furniture, and tying up and beating people… They went into schools about which they knew nothing, and brutalised, and often killed, the teachers… As one of them said, the first sight of a person being killed is shocking; later you get used to it. These rampaging youngsters felt they were on top of the world.

Once this chaos undermined Liu’s faction, Mao hurriedly called together a plenum of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, attended by only 80 of its 120 members but “augmented” with “revolutionary teachers and students.” This body dismissed Liu from the Politburo’s Standing Committee. His dismissal from his Job as head of state was, if possible, even more irregular. Constitutionally’ Liu was subject to dismissal only by the National People’s Congress, which had not met in years. But on July 1, 1967, the party’s ideological journal Hung Ch’i simply announced that he had been “overthrown.” In October 1968, the twelfth plenum of the Eighth Party Central Committee congress, meeting in Peking with Mao as chairman, unanimously—but quite clearly post facto and again illegally—voted to purge Liu and dismiss him from all his posts, government as well as party. By this time, Liu had been in prison for several months.

Deng Xiaoping’s life offers a study of factional power in communist regimes. Born in 1904, Deng had long toiled for the CCP, serving as the Red Army’s chief of staff in 1930 and participating in the Long March in 1934-36. Following the revolution, he assumed a sequence of powerful positions: vice-chairman of the National Defense Council in 1964; member of the Politburo in 1955; and secretary general of the party in 1956. As the Party’s chief operating officer, Deng naturally favored the regular party apparatus as the instrument of the Revolution, and in the mid-1960s this made him the mortal enemy of such extra-party forces as the Red Guards. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guard bulletins repeatedly attacked Deng as the No. 2 top party capitalist roader, after Liu Shaoqi. In January 1967, he lost all his offices, and was jailed for two years before being put under house arrest for several more years. Early in his incarceration, Deng reportedly attempted to commit suicide.

For some reason, Deng was never openly attacked in the public press, although he was referred to as “that other top party person in authority taking the capitalist road.” Then, in 1973, he was suddenly freed from house arrest, rehabilitated as a communist in good standing, and given a responsible position. Even more astonishing, Deng’s reinstatement was marked by a sudden appearance at a reception for Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, with the status of a vice premier of China. What had happened, apparently, is that anti-party factions in the military and elsewhere had lost much ground in the intervening years. Most notably, the radical military faction around Mao’s designated successor, Lin Biao, had been driven from the field after Lin (sensing a loss of Mao’s support) failed to carry off a coup. The subsequent decimation at the top created a need for experienced leaders, and that meant the party. Many analysts believe it was Zhou Enlai who convinced Mao to bring Deng back to Peking.

Still, Deng was not without fierce opposition, most especially from the radical faction led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. By April of 1976, following demonstrations in Tiananmen Square honoring the memory of Zhou Enlai, this faction was able to have Deng purged once again, allegedly on instructions from Mao. Again, he was stripped of all his posts. Yet by July 1977, with Mao dead and Jiang arrested, Deng was back again, this time as vice premier and as vice chairman of the party.

In the absence of intervening public occurrences (elections, referenda, legislative deliberations, or indeed a public trial), the only reasonable explanation for Deng’s appearances and disappearances is the fluctuating politics of the elite. As the influence of the factions or cliques around Mao Zedong and his successors swirled this way and that, the fortunes of top party leaders such as Deng swirled along with them. Positions within the party and the state were won and lost without any credible changes in public opinion or any actions (except post facto ones) from a responsible body such as the Central Committee of the party or the National People’s Congress.

Policy Surprises

Policy surprises flow sometimes from personnel changes, as with the reforms begun by Gorbachev. But sometimes the same individuals change policy; the hard-line attitudes recently adopted by Deng Xiaoping illustrate this pattern.

One might suppose that Gorbachev rose to become general secretary because he was known as a reformer and was favored by a reform faction, which he then proceeded to promote. But this is wrong; Gorbachev was not known as a reformer, at least not a reformer of the sort he became. He was, after all, the leading protege of KGB chief Yuri Andropov, whose idea of reform was harsher discipline, and the first years of Gorbachev’s reforms, with the crackdown on alcoholism and corruption, reflected this approach. Moreover, according to Yegor Ligachev, it was another KGB chief, Viktor Chebrikov, who helped put Gorbachev in power—along with Gromyko and Solomontsev, among the oldest of the Politburo’s old guard. Prior to his elevation, Gorbachev had manifested no proclivity for economic innovation and openness. Likewise, it was not until the eve of his succession in 1985 that one could perceive any difference between Gorbachev and the official line in foreign policy.

Western analysts who study China are now trying to explain a policy shift in the opposite direction, one unaccompanied by a personnel change. Why did Deng Xiaoping, long considered a leader of the moderate faction in China, sanction the massacre in Tiananmen Square? Why did he oust his own protege Zhao Ziyang? Why is he now presiding over a burst of Stalinist rhetoric?

No one knows. Some point to the fact that Deng has always been a committed communist; perhaps ideological commitment explains his willingness to kill students seeking democracy and freedom of speech. Others note that Deng has suffered much—and seen China suffer much—during times of turmoil; perhaps he acted to prevent greater chaos. Yet others point to Deng’s age and suggest that the old naturally tend to favor stability.

Some analysts point to the pressures of clientelism. According to an analysis in The Wall Street Journal, “the central government has perhaps 20 million staff jobs too many. Most are held by party cadres, and some by sons, daughters and proteges of the elders.” In addition, it seems, a new form of patronage has developed in China, characterized less by status than by influence, in keeping with the country’s mixed economy: “Ironically, the free-wheeling economic climate that Mr. Deng and his reformers have created has spawned pressures for the old guys to hang on longer. The pressure comes from sons and daughters and hangers-on who have found that the old men’s influence is easily converted to that ultimate perk—cash.”

All of these explanations are plausible, but appear only after the fact. Because the behavior of communist states is largely determined by unchecked prerogative power and the untraceable forces of clientelism, it is difficult to say in advance which motive and which faction will prevail.


So long as communist states are maintained on the principles of prerogative power and clientelism, surprising changes are likely to recur. This simple observation has significant long-range policy implications for the non-communist world. It suggests that only substantial reforms within Marxist-Leninist parties can bring stability to the policies of communist states. Reforms that do not bring diversity and conflict into the open and provide a competitive, public process for resolving internal differences will not be sufficient.

This means that the democratization of ruling Marxist-Leninist parties is a process worth encouraging. On the other hand, Western policy makers must not succumb to the bursts of euphoria that often accompany the latest changes in policies and personnel. However radical such changes may be, they can be considered promising only to the extent that they alter the fundamental forms of the Communist-party’s power structures. Without that, all improvements are written in sand.