History 2084: Russia in War and Revolution, 1894-1953
Account for Stalin's rise to power in the period 1922 to 1929
Stalin's ascent to the leadership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was neither easy nor inevitable. Following the incapacitation and subsequent death of Vladimir Lenin, there were many legitimate claimants to this leadership: Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin and, particularly, Leon Trotsky, Lenin's right-hand man and heir apparent. Among such company Stalin - the bureaucrat from humble origins in the Slavic republic of Georgia - seemed unlikely to fill the political vacuum left by Lenin's death. This essay examines Stalin's rise to power. It argues that a combination of factors, including the disorganised structure of the Communist Party, the deficiencies of his political rivals, particularly those of Trotsky, and Stalin's own particular skills of ruthlessness and his ability to manipulate political situations - in short, opportunism - all combined to underpin his rise to power.
The organisational structure of the Bolshevik Party was dominated by its fabled leader, Lenin. Following his death, it became obvious that the Party had little pragmatic understanding of how to rule a country the size of Russia. Most importantly for the succession battle, Stalin, as well as being a member of the politburo, also held four vital posts to which he had been appointed between 1917 and 1922: Commissar for Nationalities, Liaison Officer between the Politburo and the Party's organising body, Head of the Workers' Inspectorate, and General Secretary of the Communist PartyÃ¯Â¿Â½. The combination of these offices made Stalin the indispensable link in the party and government network. Service argues that holding these positions, allied to the high centralisation of the Party, was the reason why Stalin gained powerÃ¯Â¿Â½. Simply, his control over the party files meant he knew everybody, and that nothing could go on without his being aware of it. Related, he wielded the power of patronage: "the key posts in the party were within his gift"Ã¯Â¿Â½. This combination of powers had certainly not been intended by Lenin and the other Bolsheviks, nor had it been planned by Stalin himself. Rather it is attributable to the inexperience of a revolutionary party which suddenly found itself in power in 1917 without having developed a systematic form of government. The Bolsheviks' response was to learn how to govern as they went alongÃ¯Â¿Â½. The Soviet regime's power structures thus emerged independently of its constitutional structures, which were weakly formulated in any case, and Stalin stood at the focal point of this limited development. "Circumstances ensured that inside the mutating power of the party-state he (Stalin) would succeed and his rivals fail"Ã¯Â¿Â½. Arguably then, as Ward posits, Stalin's rise could be seen as a failure of the Party's organisation rather than the triumph of the individual.
OPPORTUNISM AND STRATEGY
Stalin was both an opportunist and an excellent strategist. Examples abound. Immediately following Lenin's death, through not at all favoured by Lenin as discussed below, Stalin took advantage of Trotsky's lack of attendance at Lenin's funeral to deliver the Oration, appearing in public as the chief mourner. Subsequently, when Trotsky openly criticised Stalin and his loyal bureaucrats, Stalin drew on Lenin's work - 'On Party Unity' - to claim Trotsky was attempting to split the party. In contrast, Stalin presented himself as a man of the Party rather than as an individualist. He also played on his peasant background, contrasting it with Trotsky's wealthy, Jewish upbringing. These, and other, actions led Wood to conclude that Stalin "out manoeuvred his arch-rival on every possible front, not least through his skilful manipulation of the 'cult' of Leninism"Ã¯Â¿Â½. This corresponds with the view of McCauley who felt Stalin had a superb grasp of tactics, could predict behaviour extremely well and had an unerring eye for personal weaknesses, all of which helped him secure powerÃ¯Â¿Â½. Certainly these combined skills helped him to crush his rivals.
Trotsky was the most prominent of the seven members of the Politburo. Initially he was viewed as the natural successor to Lenin but a series of ill-fated blunders saw the prestige from his leadership of the Red Army dissolve. His inability to perceive and respond to the threat posed by Stalin played right into Stalin's hands. Arguably, the most prominent example of Trotsky not taking Stalin seriously was his refusal to highlight Lenin's famous letter to the party elite, known after his death as his Testament. In it, Lenin identified the main danger facing the Party as a possible split. He thought that Trotsky and Stalin were most likely to precipitate such a split. Lenin even argued Stalin should be removed from his position of power as party secretariat: "Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution"Ã¯Â¿Â½. Trotsky's failure to take the opportunity to undermine his rival remains a puzzle. The historian James Harris observes: "at the Twelfth Party Congress, in 1923, with Lenin's explosive note on the national question in his pocket, which could have blown Stalin out of the water, he remained silent"Ã¯Â¿Â½. Birt is more succinct: "Stalin was saved, in fact, by luck alone"Ã¯Â¿Â½.
Arguably, his rivals grossly underestimated Stalin and, along with others in the Party, considered him as little more than a "grey blur"Ã¯Â¿Â½, as someone who was a good administrator but lacked personality, and was not a contender to succeed Lenin. They soon learned otherwise. Stalin initially focused on removing Trotsky, the leading contender to succeed Lenin. He engineered a dispute with his rival on a point of political doctrine. Trotsky took the view that communism in Russia could never be entirely secure unless there were communist revolutions in other countries: "Without the direct support of the European working class we cannot remain in power and turn temporary domination into lasting socialism"Ã¯Â¿Â½. Stalin joined with other potential leaders Kamenev and Zinoviev to convince the Party to view this idea of 'Permanent Revolution' with suspicion because of its undesirable Menshevik connotations. As a former Menshevik, Trotsky was an easy target for his rivals. This was merely one of a catalogue of Trotsky's errors that ultimately led to his downfall.
After the initial defeat of Trotsky, the second phase of the 1920s power struggle opened. Stalin turned on his former allies Kamenev and Zinoviev who had become impatient with the New Economic Policy (NEP) initially set up by LeninÃ¯Â¿Â½. They called for an end to private enterprise farming and insisted on the need for rapid industrialisation. Supporting them was the discredited Trotsky. Together, the three were referred to by Stalin's followers as the 'Left Opposition'. With a fierce anti-Left Opposition campaign, Stalin, backed by Bukharin, accused the 'Left Opposition' of recklessnessÃ¯Â¿Â½. Kamenev and Zinoviev soon found themselves increasingly isolated. Ultimately, the fragile alliance broke and all three were expelled from the party by Stalin.
The third and last phase of the leadership struggle saw the defeat of Bukharin. Stalin reversed his policy on NEP in 1928 and 1929, and began to argue for a policy of rapid industrialisation. "He became a more extreme super-industrialist than members of the 'Left Opposition' had been"Ã¯Â¿Â½. Bukharin and his supporters were routed. They were labelled the 'Right opposition' by Stalin's supporters. Bukharin was subsequently forced off the Politburo. Stalin was now the clear leader of the USSR.
By 1928 Stalin had effectively defeated both the Leftists and Rightists of the Politburo to assume supreme power within the USSR. His ascent was based on a range of factors: his various positions within the Party, particularly his position as Party General Secretary which allowed him to build up a large patronage network; his relentless and ruthless drive for power built around an alliance of opportunism and a shrewd sense of strategy; and the political errors and failures of his rivals, particularly Trotsky, including a failure to comprehend the threat posed by Stalin or to form alliances to attack him. Ultimately, these rivals faded into obscurity leaving Stalin as the undisputed supreme Soviet leader.
Birt, Raymond, 'Personality and Foreign Policy: The Case of Stalin', Political Psychology, Vol. 14, No. 4 (1993), pp. 607-625.
Carr, E. H., 'Stalin', Soviet Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1953), pp. 1-7.
Deutscher, I., Stalin: A Political Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949).
Felshtinsky, Yuri, 'Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and the Left Opposition in the USSR 1918-1928', Cahiers du Monde russe et soviÃÂ©tique, Vol. 31, No. 4 (1990), pp. 569-578.
Figes, Orlando, The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin's Russia (London: Penguin, 2007),
Fitzpatrick, Shelia, The Russian Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Harris, James, Stalin: A New history (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
Kennan, George F., 'The Historiography of the Early Political Career of Stalin', Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 115, No. 3 (1971), pp. 165-169.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich, 'Lenin's Testament' in Fitzpatrick, Shelia, The Russian Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Lynch, Michael, Trotsky: The Permanent Revolutionary (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995) .
McCauley, M., Stalin and Stalinism (London: Longman, 1995).
Service, Robert, A History of Twentieth Century Russia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999)
Ward, Chris, Stalin's Russia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Wood, Alan, Stalin and Stalinism (Routledge: New York, 1990).
Ã¯Â¿Â½ See Deutscher, I., Stalin: A Political Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949).
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Service, Robert, A History of Twentieth Century Russia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 23.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Service, (1999), p.24.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Carr, E. H., 'Stalin', Soviet Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1953), pp.5-6.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Ward, Chris, Stalin's Russia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 83.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Wood, Alan, Stalin and Stalinism (Routledge: New York, 1990), p.29.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ McCauley M., Stalin and Stalinism (London: Longman, 1995), pp.17-39
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich, 'Lenin's Testament' in Fitzpatrick, Shelia, The Russian Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.120.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Harris, James, Stalin: A New History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 89.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Birt, Raymond, 'Personality and Foreign Policy: The Case of Stalin', Political PsychologyÃ¯Â¿Â½Vol. 14, No. 4 (1993), p. 609.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Fitzpatrick, Shelia, The Russian Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.109.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Lynch, Michael., Trotsky: The Permanent Revolutionary (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), p. 55.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Kennan, George F, 'The Historiography of the Early Political Career of Stalin', Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 115, No. 3 (1971), p.166.
Ã¯Â¿Â½ See Figes, Orlando, The Whisperers: Private Lives In Stalin's Russia (London: Penguin, 2007),
Ã¯Â¿Â½ Felshtinsky, Yuri, 'Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and the Left Opposition in the USSR 1918-1928', Cahiers du Monde russe et soviÃÂ©tique, Vol. 31, No. 4 (1990), p. 573.
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