September 7, 2020

How do leaders win power struggles in Leninist regimes? Many political scientists emphasize the importance of institutions in such regimes. Such institutionalization allegedly provides a mechanism for distributing patronage and debating policies, stipulates rules that delineate a group that selects the leadership, and prevents the military and secret police from playing a special coercive role. This dissertation instead argues that the defining feature of one-party states is weak institutionalization. Power struggles are therefore determined by prestige and sociological ties, the manipulation of multiple decision-making bodies, and politicized militaries and secret police. Leaders with legacies as successful warfighters are especially capable of dominating such systems. Institutionalization can only explain why elites do not pointlessly and unnecessarily violate ambiguous rules, losers rarely defect from the party or resist decisions after suffering defeat, and the coercive organs never blatantly wield force against united civilian leaders. These arguments are based on a theoretically rigorous examination of the power struggles fought by Nikita Khrushchev, Deng Xiaoping, and Kim Il Sung. The historic failure to institutionalize leadership selection had a tragic legacy: its absence is crucial for understanding the origins of Soviet stagnation, the tragedy at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the Kim family multi-generational personality cult.

Torigian, Joseph. 2016. “Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles and the Fate of Three Revolutions.” Ph.D. diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At, accessed June 26, 2020.--

Photograph of Joseph Torigian

I study the politics of authoritarian regimes with a specific focus on elite power struggles, civil-military relations, and grand strategy. My philosophy as a scholar is to select topics based on the widest gap between the under-utilization of available documents and their theoretical and empirical importance, extract broader lessons, and use those lessons to help us to understand two nations of crucial geopolitical importance – Russia and China. My research agenda draws upon comparative politics, international relations, security studies, and history to ask big questions about the long-term political trajectories of these two states. In particular, I am interested in how leaders in those countries create security against threats from within the elite, their own people, and other states. Previously, I was a Stanton Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton-Harvard’s China and the World Program, a Postdoctoral (and Predoctoral) Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), a Predoctoral Fellow at George Washington University’s Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, an IREX scholar affiliated with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, a Fulbright Scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai, and a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. My research has also been supported by the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation, MIT’s Center for International Studies, MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives, the Critical Language Scholarship program, and FLAS. I am also a Global Fellow at the History and Public Policy Program at the Wilson Center.