There is no doubt that Josef Stalin represents the ultimate figure of paradox in the world of communism, as this ‘man of steel’ was early on concurred as the ‘safe gray blur’ yet later acknowledged as the ‘Red Tsar’ of all Russia. How did this pedestrian man, who was illustrated by Leon Trotsky himself as ‘the most eminent mediocrity’ 1 rise to develop into the epithet, ‘the Red Tsar of all Russia?’ The multifaceted and ironic process of his ascension to supremacy defines Stalin as an exceptional phenomenon. His rise to the top is remarkable on the grounds that Stalin was neither a philosopher nor a cogent orator, but managed to administer his way to the top. Many maintain that his rise was a combination of political genius and sheer luck. But when we examine the factors of luck, it can be clearly seen that it was due to this dynamic that Stalin was able to rise to the top.
Without the factor of luck as an underlying basis to his accomplishment in succeeding Lenin, Stalin would not have been able to use his abilities and skills to rise to the top in any case. The perplexities of Stalin’s rise can be narrowed to an inquiry of manageable proportions; from investigating the luck he experienced in securing his grip on the USSR and the extent of his political genius. The foundations of Stalin’s triumph which were laid before Lenin’s death played into his hands, including the luck considerations that embrace the nature of the State, the death of Lenin and another key figure, new policies from which Stalin benefited and Stalin’s nature and skill considerations as an opportunistic politician armed with political and economical pragmatism, correct timing, building of alliances of convenience and manipulation of political resources and available supporting state of affairs.
III. Background Information
Stalin, born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili in 1879 in Georgia, had Slavic, humble beginnings. In 1912 Djugashvili became a member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and changed his name to his famous pseudonym, Josef Stalin, meaning ‘man of steel.’ Lenin had been impressed by Stalin’s organizing ability and blind loyalty, describing him as ‘that wonderful Georgian.’ 2 Stalin played relatively minor roles in the October Revolution and an inconspicuous part in the Civil War.3 After the Bolsheviks secured their position in Russia, Stalin’s non-Russian background proved invaluable, landing him the post Commissar of Nationalities. From there he became the Liaison Officer between the Politburo and Orgburo and Head of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate in 1919, and General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922 until he became ‘the Lenin of his day’ according to his official biography.
4 Stalin’s posts enabled him to know by heart the works of the government and personnel, record Party policy, build up personal files on all members of the Party and appoint supporters and later purge his rivals.5 Lenin died in 1924, at the time Stalin was forty five. At that juncture, Stalin was not in the lead to succeed Lenin. He was considered as less of a threat than Trotsky, who was thought of as a Bonapartist threat who would, if given Lenin’s preeminence, commence a military dictatorship. This led to the alliance between Zinoviev, Trotsky and Stalin that was finalized in the form of a triumvirate in order to marginalize Trotsky by blocking his policies, defeating his debates and preventing his advance.6 By pursuing their policy of ‘Socialism in One Country’ which was based upon the more Leninist approach of the continuation of the NEP in order for the USSR to first focus on the USSR’s problems then build a modern state, the triumvirs were able to outmaneuver Trotsky’s radical ‘Permanent Revolution’ which believed in the export of revolution to achieve true revolutionary socialism.
7 Then between the years 1925-1927, Stalin’s conflict with Zinoviev and Kamanev led to their assembling of a ‘New Opposition’ with Trotsky whom they now considered as a lesser threat. Opportunistic Stalin simply aligned himself with the Party’s rightists Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky. The alliance accordingly secured the expulsion of the New Opposition members. Yet in 1929, the Rightists were in turn attacked, when Stalin removed his them, proving himself as the consummate player in this political chess game of power manipulation. 8
IV.A. Luck: The Nature of the infant Bolshevik State
Unintentionally, the Party had assisted Stalin in assuming supremacy. When Lenin and the Bolsheviks assumed total control of Russia after the 1917 Revolution, they realized that they were not a traditional form of Russian government; they were unskilled and untrained in matters concerning government due to the fact that all their original efforts and actions were inclined towards just pure revolution. When all other forms of government could count upon precedent or tradition as a guide to governing their countries, Lenin’s Party faced the fact that their revolutionary government did not possess such advantages.
Additionally the highly radical degree of the Russian Revolution was a first in history, assuring the chastity of the Bolsheviks in matters of government. This was much supported by the growth of bureaucratism in the Party, whereupon traditional Tsarist practices were becoming standard procedure in the USSR to which Lenin himself had opposed strongly. The Party had no policies in the beginning, thus the Bolsheviks touched and felt their way through, which created opportunities for individual advancement. Stalin’s rise would have been obvious in other traditional forms of government and because of this, perhaps even deterred.9
IV.B. Luck: The Nature of Josef Stalin
Another fortunate factor that enabled the Party to believe that Stalin was the safer alternative was the general perception of him at that time, as he was Slavic in origin and was isolated from the outside world, speaking no other language than Russian and having no contact with European culture. This proved advantageous when Trotsky’s ‘Permanent Revolution’ failed, as seen, for instance, in the short-lived Hungarian Bela Kun regime. This boosted Stalin’s nationalistic and Leninist ‘Communism in One Country’ program, proclaiming that Russia needed to first overcome their agricultural and industrial problems unaided, and by doing so he won the most favor as his pure Russian origins comfortably assured the Russian people.
IV.C. Luck: The Death of Yakov Sverdlov (1919)
One of the decidedly significant pillars of Stalin’s successful rise to power is the death of Yakov Sverdlov, a highly respected influential Bolshevik who continually supported Lenin and developed a reputation as one of the Party’s most excellent orators. Sverdlov was reputed as one of the supporting pillars of the armed uprising of October. Sverdlov’s role proved significant in the Party as he persuaded leading Bolshevik figures to put down the lid on both the Constituent Assembly and to sign the Brest-Litovsk Treaty despite its controversial nature.
“Despite his young age, Sverdlov was expected to be Lenin’s choice as the party’s next leader.” 10 This was most almost certainly due to his nature as an influential Bolshevik whom Lenin had laid his trust upon to the extent that Lenin had an eye for Sverdlov in promoting him as the next General Secretary. Yet Yakov Sverdlov died aged thirty-three in March 1919. Had Sverdlov not died in 1919, Stalin would not have stood a chance to become General Secretary, a highly significant post in which Stalin exploited and manipulated to gain supporters and purge his rivals.11
IV.D Luck: The 1921 ‘Ban upon Factionalism’ Policy
One luck aspect that was in Stalin’s favor was the 1921 ‘ban upon factionalism,’ a policy issued by Lenin in order to ban organized factions at the Tenth Party Congress which sprung up due to the Party’s squabbling over the perplexities over the civil war, revival of capitalism through the issuing of the NEP and the shock of the Kronstadt rising. 12 When scratching beneath the surface of this action, we can see that this frustration over criticism inevitably meant that any form of criticism towards the party was extremely condemned, furthermore suppressed. This is definitely a noteworthy luck element in Stalin’s rise to power as this issue provided him with the means to readily resist challenges to his criticism-inviting authority.
IV.E Luck: The 1923-1925 ‘Lenin Enrolment’
Another luck factor that played into Stalin’s hands was the ‘Lenin Enrolment,’ a recruitment campaign made to increase the number of true proletarians in the Party.13 Whereas at the Tenth Congress the Party had only 732,000 members, by 1930 this had grown nearly to a million members.14 As supervisor for the enrolment in the years 1923 to 1925, Stalin purged members that were potentially hazardous to his campaign. With his power of patronage, Stalin admitted ‘workers at the bench,’ ill-educated people who were less ideologically aware of their beliefs and surroundings.
New proletarian party members favored and supported the more down-to-earth Stalin who ‘spoke their language’ with practical and understandable directives rather than his scholarly comrades. 15 What was impressed on the new members was that that blind loyalty and absolute obedience was required to achieve privileges. This was inclined to come from loyalty to those who had first admitted them into their appointed positions, and in that case, General Secretary Stalin. E.H Carr described this as being a change from the elite party of Lenin to the mass party of Stalin. 16 With this knowledge, Stalin was able to control the current of support in the Party; carefully choosing new members that he was aware would support him.
IV.F Luck: Stalin versus Lenin, Lenin’s Death (1924) & the Failure of Demoting Stalin
Another fact that can be counted as luck involves the certainty that Stalin would have been demoted on the basis that he had proved himself a power-exploiting danger to Lenin himself due to his criticism-inviting actions. Stalin, whom Lenin had previously respected aroused Lenin’s distrust which led to a conflict between the two. Lenin allegedly believed that Stalin was as responsible as anyone for the bureaucratic existence of traditional Tsarist elements in the Party’s standard procedures. 17 When in 1922 Stalin supported the idea of independence of Transcaucasian Georgia, his homeland, that sought to become an autonomous republic, Stalin was in fact dismissive and discourteous towards his national spokesmen to the extent that Lenin himself was obliged to intervene to resolve the situation and even sided with the injured party of the Georgians, when in fact as the Commissar for Nationalities Stalin was essentially responsible for relationships with local bodies within Russia.
Exacerbating his head-to-head clash with Lenin, Lenin dictated a letter to Stalin warning that he would break off relations if he did not apologize to his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, whom he had personally insulted, calling her a “syphilitic whore” for allowing Lenin to write a letter to Trotsky four days after the Central Committee placed Stalin in charge of Lenin’s health. 18 Stalin’s actions could lead us to a perception that Stalin did want power badly and that he did have tendencies of rebellion despite being referred to a pedestrian. However, again luck seemed to favor Stalin. If Lenin had not been ill and died in 1924, Stalin could have been relieved of his post, absolutely ruling out any possibility to his rising up to power.
The failure of reading out Lenin’s Testament a year before Lenin’s death in 1923 as he had requested and its neutralization after his death in 1924 definitely played a significant role in the failure of having Stalin removed from his post. Concerned of what might happen after his death, Lenin wrote a Testament in which he acknowledged the strengths and weaknesses of Central Committee members. Reflecting back on Stalin’s policies towards national groups, most significantly Georgia, Lenin was clearly concerned over the power that was currently in Stalin’s hands and how he had the potential to misuse his power, 19 Lenin’s codicil unquestionably proved his concern over Stalin which reached it paramount point just previous to his death, by requesting that Stalin to be removed from his post and to be replaced by “appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from comrade Stalin…more tolerant, loyal, polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious etc…” 20 This was a definite deterrent to achieving supremacy for Stalin. Yet Lenin was not able to convey publicly his final thoughts before his death due to his illness that restricted him from taking active part in Bolshevik politics.
The ‘too-damning’ nature of the harsh criticisms of major Party personalities contained in Lenin’s Testament consequently kept his wishes held in reserve until the following Congress in the following year. Furthermore, Lenin’s Testament was also neutralized by Kamanev and Zinoviev; cleared of elements that would uplift Trotsky’s name in order to prevent Trotsky, personally Lenin’s “most capable man in the Party,” 21 from rising to power. Another error that Lenin made before his death is that he did not officially hand down his position to anyone of his comrades, thus a game of tug of war for supremacy was quickly commenced right after his death in 1924. With these elements combined, emphasizing the shelving of Lenin’s Testament until after his death, not publicizing it and its neutralization positively played a noteworthy role in the failure of conducting the supposed act of removing Stalin of his post as had been firmly requested by Lenin in his addendum.
IV.G Luck: The Attitude Towards Trotsky and his Errors
The negative attitude towards Trotsky, the most likely successor of Lenin again proved as one of the facets of luck on Stalin’s side. Trotsky was known as the most significant and likely successor of Lenin. Nevertheless his comrades thought of him otherwise; Trotsky was considered as a Bonapartist threat largely due to his behavior in which he had built the successful Red Army during the period of the Russian Civil War of 1918 and 1921. Trotsky was also a Jew in a society of deeply engrained anti-Semitism, essentially undermining Trotsky’s image.
Trotsky was also known as a man of complex personality, famous for his excessive self-assurance, as mentioned by Lenin himself in his Testament. At times he also suffered diffidence and lack of judgment, especially in the error of turning down Lenin’s offer of putting Stalin as deputy chairman of the Sovnarkom thus gaining for himself the most senior and second-in-command after Lenin in 1922. 22 Had he accepted the position, he could have undermined Stalin’s rise to power through his authority. Another serious error that Trotsky made was that he handed over Lenin’s notes to the Politburo at the beginning of the struggle, thus leaving himself left with no documentary proof of Lenin’s growing opposition to Stalin’s actions. To the advantage of Stalin, Trotsky’s errors, miscalculations and origins further weakened his already suppressed position in the Party and society, therefore increasing Stalin’s chances of rising.
V.A Introduction to Stalin and his Skills
As it is too simplistic to ponder upon luck alone as the driving force of Stalin’s rise, one must acknowledge Stalin’s skills as a brilliant politician and his own nature that provided him with the means of assuming power. Stalin was originally a pedestrian, the ’eminent mediocrity’ as referred by Trotsky.
A significant quality that Stalin possessed was that he had “dogged perseverance and willingness to undertake and endure the laborious work demanded by his posts.” 23 By managing to stay patiently in the background, Stalin used his timing skills waited for when the time was opportune after Lenin’s death to strike out his opponents, as of when he outmaneuvered the Party’s Left and with his skill to form alliances, such as the Triumvirate which marginalized Trotsky, then afterwards the Duumvirate with the Right to oust the Left.
V.B Skill: Stalin as General Secretary of the Bolshevik Party (1922-1929)
As a part of Stalin’s own adroit nature, he took advantage of his position as General Secretary which controlled the passage of business in the Politburo and the appointment of people to positions in the Party. Stalin could even manipulate the membership of the Party itself. 24 Stalin’s supporters were given the incentive of filling vacancies of those moved above them, usually his rivals. 25 Furthermore Stalin’s position enabled him to appoint supporters to the Orgburo and the Secretariat, which had power over local bodies. Hence Stalin’s appointees developed a sense of gratitude and obligation to Stalin, and through this he gained strong influence over the regional party apparatus that led to control over delegate selection for the annual Party Congress. Therefore one of the skill aspects of Stalin’s eventual victory also lay in the influence he had over the Party’s personnel.
V.C Skill: Stalin as the Orator at Lenin’s Funeral in 1924 and Active Support of Leninism
As the orator at Lenin’s funeral, Stalin used his manipulating skills to assure the public that he was the right successor of Lenin by presenting himself as Lenin’s disciple, not equal. Although many others sought to define Leninism, Stalin made the first move by delivering a remarkable speech at Lenin’s funeral, for whoever was perceived to be the best Leninist would be the one best placed to inherit Lenin’s authority. 26
Stalin even set out to define Leninism through six lectures about the foundations of Leninism. Historian Martin McCauley, author of “Stalin and Stalinism,” states that Stalin’s uninterested attitude to ideology was utilitarian, whereupon Stalin’s “incursion into ideology…served two purposes: to provide a simple, accessible exegesis of Marxism-Leninism, and to outmaneuver his opponents.” McCauley’s book proves to be a reliable source as it has hardly any presence of bias, as the given arguments are based on facts. The high credibility and value of this book can be judged when evaluating its abundance of critical assessments, new brought up issues, and detailed information. Yet a limitation is found in this book on the basis that the information given of Stalin’s rise to power was not adequately provided, as the bulk of the book itself mainly focuses on the Stalin years and not his journey to the top.
Hence by skillfully presenting himself as the continuer of Lenin, Stalin gained unimpeachable authority by implying to the public that he was the right successor.
V.D Skill: Stalin Takes Advantage of the Attitude Towards Trotsky: ‘Permanent Revolution’ versus ‘Socialism in One Country’
Furthermore in respect to Stalin’s skills, Stalin cleverly took advantage of the attitude towards Trotsky as well by constantly reminding the Party of Trotsky’s Menshevik past and pointing out the flaws in his so-called ‘anti Lenin’ ideas, especially that of the Permanent Revolution. Under this banner, Stalin placed Trotsky as an enemy of the Soviet Union as Stalin’s Socialism in One Country was of a more Leninist, nationalist approach. This proves that Stalin had the ability to “rally support and silence opponents at critical moments by taking on the role of the Great Russian patriot intent on saving the nation from its internal and external enemies.” 27
V.E Skill: Stalin’s Economic and Political Pragmatism
Another variable that contributed to Stalin’s rise in respect to his skills was Stalin’s economic and political pragmatism that enabled him to outmaneuver the Left and Right while always staying with the majority in the Politburo. After having Trotsky removed from his position, Stalin drastically changed his ‘Socialism in One Country’ policy to a ‘Trotskyist’ repressive collectivization and industrialization program to solve local-level problems. Alan Todd, author of ‘The European Dictatorships: Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini,’ argues that “It can be said that Stalin’s policies were consistent and also in tune with the majority of the party membership, who desired stability most of all.”
Alan Todd’s book proves to be a credible and valuable source of historical information for there is hardly any presence of bias in his writing as many arguments are based on facts that are evaluated by gathering assessments from various historians. The lack of bias definitely proves the source reliable. It is hard to find any limitations to this useful historical source for Alan Todd balanced opinion and fact in chronological order showing how Leninism eroded into Stalinism, then evaluating it based on historians’ arguments.
As Stalin’s last deterrent to supremacy laid in the figure of the Rightists after he had outmaneuvered the Left with the Duumvirate, Stalin began attacking his fellow Duumvirate Rightists by abandoning Bukharin’s economic policy that agreed the continuum of the NEP using the argument that the policy had failed and industrialization must take precedence over agriculture. 28 Fearful of creating factionalism, the rightists hoped to win the Party without creating deep divisions. Yet Stalin portrayed the Rights as a dangerous clique by manipulating the Rights’ supporters who were largely responsible for drafting and distributing Party information. 29 Stalin progressively and politically crushed the Rights, pragmatically securing his position as leader by sending two Politburo members to undertake purges in the trade unions, the Rights’ only remaining power base, and to purge local Party members. 30
It seems that it was to a large extent that Bukharin was right about Stalin being the “New Genghis Khan.” Stalin’s ‘school of falsification’ 31 ensued after and even before his succeeding Lenin through dynamics that played into his hands and that were controlled by him.
One may argue that there should not be any questions about whether Stalin’s rise to power was based on luck or skill. Yet it is comprehensible that Stalin’s mixture of luck and skill along with both planning and opportunity produced inevitable results: power that was left for him to take over. Luck and skill inform each other to such a degree, that, on the basis of its contributions to Stalin’s rise to power, they cannot be separated. But when examining the relative importance of luck and skill, it can be concluded that luck was most significant as it provided Stalin with the grounds and basis for him to rise.
Another may argue that Stalin’s rise to supreme authority was purely on the basis of his skills, maintaining that without the skills Stalin exercised, he would not have been promoted to his posts through which he manipulated central organs of the Party that eventually crowned him with triumph. However, considering many crucial factors that were based purely on luck, such as those of the death of Lenin that saved Stalin from a certain demotion and Yakov Sverdlov’s death in 1919 which placed Stalin in the chair of General Secretary, an essential position which we can refer to as the ultimate catalyst to Stalin’s triumph, we may argue that without these essential luck factors, Stalin would not have had the chance to use his adroit aptitudes to manipulate his way to the top. Hence in reality Stalin did prove to be the consummate player in the game of politics, along the way verified himself to be the cleverer politician by outmaneuvering his rivals through the use of many unintentional readily available resources provided by the Party and by exploitation of his rivals’ miscalculations which made him look positive and constructive while making his opponents look negative and destructive.
Despite the findings, a new issue could be raised regarding Stalin’s head on clash with Lenin that led to the request of Stalin to be removed of his post, why did the ‘grey blur’ clash with his leader? “Couldn’t he have acted as the obedient cohort and wait for the wounded lion to die before challenging some of his views?” 32 Does this prove that Stalin had tendencies of rebellion, fighting to justify his beliefs despite considerable political risks?
Nonetheless, Josef Stalin was a ‘lucky inheritor,’ ascribing luck as the basis of his rise. So many ‘if only’s’ could have saved Russia from the so-called ‘grey blur,’ whom, with the aid of time, would be referred paradoxically as the ‘Red Tsar’ of Russia.
1. Thomas, David and Mcandrew, Mark. Russia Soviet Union 1917-1945. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
2. Marcombe, Margot and Fielding, Mark. Spirit of Change: Russia in Revolution. Australia: McGraw Hill, 1998.
3. Todd, Allan. The European Dictatorships: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
4. Lynch Michael. Stalin and Khrushchev: The USSR 1924-1964. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2001.
5. McCauley, Martin. Stalin and Stalinism. Essex, England: Longman, 1995.
6. “Yakov Sverdlov.” http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RUSsverdlov.htm Accessed: 10-02-04.
1 Lee, Stephen .J. Stalin and the Soviet Union. London: Routledge, 1999. p. 3.
2 Lynch, Michael. Stalin and Khrushchev: The USSR 1924-1964. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2001., p.8-9.
3 Lee, p. 1.
4 Lee, p. 13.
5 Pauley, Bruce. F. Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini: Totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century. Wheeling, Illinois, U.S.A: Harlan Davidson, 1997. p. 20.
6 Marcombe, Margot and Fielding, Mark. Spirit of Change: Russia in Revolution. Australia: McGraw Hill, 1998. p. 178.
7 Lynch, p. 2.
8 Lee, p.1-2..
9 Lych, p. 11.
10 “Yakov Sverdlov.” http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RUSsverdlov.htm. Accessed: 10/02/04.
11 Todd, Allan. The European Dictatorships: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 2002. p. 21.
12 Todd, Allan, p. 36.
13 Lych, p. 13.
14 Lych, p. 13.
15 Thomas & McAndrew, p. 126.
16 Lych, p. 13
17 McCauley, p.14.
18 McCauley, p.14.
19 Marcombe & Fielding, p. 177.
20 Marcombe & Fielding, p. 177.
21 Thomas & McAndrew, p. 123.
22 Lych, p. 15.
23 Lych, p. 11.
24 Thomas & McAndrew, p. 123.
25 Lee, p. 4.
26 Thomas & McAndrew, p. 126.
27 Lych, p. 22.
28 Thomas & McAndrew, p. 124.
29 Stalin’s Rise to Power, p. 26.
30 Stalin’s Rise to Power, p. 26.
31 Todd, p. 58.
32 McCauley, p. 14.