When Lenin passed on in 1924, he left behind his legacy to a select few members of the Politburo, namely Stalin, Trotsky, Rykov, Tomsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev. All of whom were earmarked for the possibility of taking over the helm of the Bolshevik party- some more than others. It was in this time that Stalin managed to manoeuvre himself into this key role, strategically sidelining the other candidates along the way.
The question remains on whether he was able to come to power through careful treading within the constraints of the bureaucracy or whether he was a master manipulator, puppeteering the system while exploiting any loopholes he could find along the way to ease his ascension. In this essay, we will aim to evaluate Stalin’s actions in order to establish which of the pair of causes mentioned above was the key attribute to his success. We will also consider the circumstances through which Stalin was able to use the abovementioned methods to achieve his aims.
During Lenin’s time as head of the Bolsheviks, Stalin had made immense contributions to the party and his reputation was formed upon his role in the Russian Revolution of 1917 as well as the 1921 Red Army invasion of Georgia. He was part of the first Politburo formed in 1918 ultimately resulting in his appointment as General Secretary in 1922. In his initial days, Stalin was careful not to overstep his authority and eked out a career as a subservient follower. He was consistent in his portrayal of being a ‘Leninist’ who was keen to follow in the footsteps of the great leader.
He first supported the denouncement of the Provisional Government for which he was rewarded with the appointment as Commissar of Nationalities. This was also evident as he pointed out in support of the New Economic Policy (NEP) “The New Economic Policy is a special policy of the proletarian state designed to tolerate capitalism but retain the key positions in the hands of the proletarian state. “1 Stalin who was aware of the cult-like status attained by Lenin through his life and chose to portray that continuity immediately after the death of Lenin.
He, as leading mourner, delivered the oration at Lenin’s funeral mentioning “We swear to thee, Comrade Lenin, that we will not spare our strength in order to fulfil with honour thy command! “2 This served to preserve the humble and dedicated servant-like image Stalin had tried through the years to show the people. Stalin was also more aware of public sentiment than the other candidates like Trotsky. While Stalin was pushing for ‘Socialism in one country’, Trotsky strongly believed in ‘Permanent revolution’.
Having just achieving some form of peace in the country, Trotsky’s direction did not bode well with the masses that were tired of fighting and were more interested in Stalin’s call to overcome fundamental problems such as agricultural and industrial problems. From this case in point, it could be seen that Stalin was able to portray the image of being a Russian patriot attempting to save the nation from its problems and dangers at a time of great need. 3 Through careful and strategic planning, Stalin was able to show to the people what they wanted to see.
He was aware of the needs of the masses and worked well within their conservative hopes. Therein shows the attempts made by him to adapt to the system. On the other hand, Stalin was able to exploit the vulnerabilities of his opponents and mask his shortcomings. Such was his masterstroke as he manipulated his foes to nothingness. Stalin had perfected the tools of the system and the recruitment process. Through his power of patronage as the General Secretary, he had strategically placed his associates in key positions within the party who he could rely on to elevate him to the highest office of the party when the time came.
4 Stalin then moved on to eliminate his opposition in order of their perceived threat. He struck out first against Trotsky. Coupled with being a strong orator and brilliant strategist, Trotsky was a thorn in Stalin’s flesh and they could not often see eye-to-eye which probably accounts for him being the first Stalin chose to position within his crosshair. Forming a triumvirate with Kamenev and Zinoviev, Stalin was able to oust Trotsky from the position of Commissar for War by ensuring that the 1925 Party Congress was attended by a pro-Stalin, anti-Trotsky audience.
Having done so, he turned his sights on Kamenev and Zinoviev who suddenly realised their vulnerable position on the left. Their attempt to re-align themselves with Trotsky proved to be too little too late for Stalin had now an iron-fisted control over the party and was able to overturn their vote of no confidence with relative ease. The end result was the dismissal of Kamenev and Zinoviev from the Politburo as well as the expelling of Trotsky from the Party. Having taken care of the left, Stalin simply had to overcome the obstacles that stood in the way of his industrial and agricultural schemes he began to implement in 1928.
Stalin promptly sent Lazar Kaganovich to purge suspected trade unionists. The right unlike the left were not able to mount any significant form of resistance and were soundly trounced beyond recovery. 5 Stalin’s ability to manipulate and look far enabled him to handle any opposition before they could gather enough momentum to mount any form of legitimate threat to his ideologies and plans. It is probably also an important point to note that Stalin had the good fortune of supportive circumstance that enabled him to move as he did.
His opponents though probably exceptional in their contributions to the party, were lacking in some form in their ability to look beyond the current situation. This was true for most of his possible competitors such as Trotsky, who albeit being an exceptional military commander, was at times over confident and unwilling to face up to the hard facts that he would need a strong political base if he wanted to have any chance to compete for power after Lenin’s death. Kamenev and Zinoviev were also shortsighted in their approach to go against Trotsky simply because they had a personal dislike for him.
They quite ironically dug their own grave when they were not able to see beyond the downfall of Trotsky. Furthermore, we now know that Lenin’s relationship with Stalin had deteriorated in the 1920s and Lenin had attempted to undermine him in the document now known as ‘Lenin’s testament’ where he criticized Stalin for his rudeness, hunger for power and excessive power. 6 Lenin even went as far as to suggest the removal of Stalin from his post of Secretary-General. The damning accusations did not see the light however due to criticisms of his opponents which were present in the document as well.
This saved Stalin who might have seen his position being shaken had it been revealed that Lenin intended to strip him of his power. Stalin was also able to exploit factionalism, which had been introduced by Lenin in order to ensure solidarity within the party, to use as a convenient excuse when he needed to oust any opponents he felt were obstacles to his ascension. To sum up, it would appear that Stalin adapted himself to the system in areas that were more conservative that would have been risky to adopt radical change to such as the need to keep congruence with Lenin’s ideals and beliefs due to his god-like influence.
At the same time, he adapted the system to himself after he had laid the groundwork and was sure there would not be any political backlash due to his radical actions. Not forgetting the favourable circumstances presented to him at that time, Stalin was certainly proactive in his actions and while it may be difficult to simply pick out whether Stalin had adapted to the system or adapted the system to suit him, one thing is certain. Stalin was certainly a manipulative chameleon.
(1353 words) excl. footnotes 1 Srinivasan, Archana, Heroes of World War II (Sura Books (P) LTD, 2004) p. 6 2 Grey, Ian, Stalin, Man of History (Sphere, 1982) 3 Carr, E. H. , Soviet Studies Volume V (Taylor & Francis, Ltd. , 1953) p. 4 4 Willerton, John P. , Patronage politics in the USSR (Cambridge, 1992) pp. 27-33 5 Lynch, Michael, From Autocracy to Communism: Russia 1894-1941 (Hodder Education, 2008) pp. 182-199 6 Service, Robert, Stalin: A biography (Pan, 2005).