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On the 21st January 1924, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of Russia’s socialist revolution, which resulted in the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as well as the first head of the Soviet state, died aged 54. The people of the newly established Soviet Union had been expecting with trepidation the demise of their great leader, aware that it would be difficult to replace a leader of the stature of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Lenin’s, fellow leaders of the Bolshevik party and other significant revolutionary figures engaged in intense discussion as to who would best succeed the Bolshevik head.
Lenin had been very much the father figure of the formation of the Soviet Union, being an absolute leader in the extreme circumstances of winning the civil war which consolidated the revolutionary state. Through this success of securing the revolutions continued existence beyond its birth, Lenin was respected and highly popular. Therefore, as of 1924, there was a huge power struggle amongst those wanting to replace Lenin as leader of the nation that had been wracked by a post revolutionary civil war for so many years.
As for who would replace Lenin, there were many different potential candidates. In this situation, it was not necessarily an advantage to be an obvious candidate. The majority of the people of the USSR did not want an autocracy. It was commonly believed that collective leadership would be an easier way to manage the country. There were two main candidates. One, very obvious candidate was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky had been close to Lenin on a personal level. He was an influential and well developed Marxist theorist, having been outstanding at school and university.
He had been a very influential politician in the early days of the Soviet Union, and later became the founder and commander of the Red Army. However, many within the Bolshevik party feared Trotsky, especially those believing in collective leadership. Some disliked his arrogance and self confidence, being from a privileged and wealthy background. Also being ethnically Jewish, he was also possibly treated with some suspicion by some, due to the prevalence of anti-Semitism. Furthermore he had not always been a member of the Bolshevik faction in the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP).
The other main candidate was Joseph V Stalin, a less obvious candidate than Trotsky, a long standing loyal and dedicated Bolshevik, with a reputation as an enforcer within the Bolshevik Party in its pre-revolutionary clandestine era. He was by no means from an upper class back round which stood him in good stead. He had merely worked his way from the lowest ranks of the Party through hard work and diligence, taking on jobs which were dangerous and risky, not least being a primary fund raiser through bank robberies.
Stalin was always well known for doing the organisational and party building tasks which created an important power base for him within the rank and file of the Bolshevik activists, allowing him to become a powerful figure within the Party. Despite being a possible candidate for leadership, Stalin had been viewed with suspicion by Lenin, who thought he was rather dull in many ways, describing him as the “grey man of the party.” This was a crucial underestimation of his capacities, Stalin was not in fact dull at all, but extraordinarily ruthless and determined.
The Politburo was the central committee on which members of the Bolshevik party held positions. Stalin became the Party secretary, meaning he would receive information on all the activities of the party, recording and interpreting its decisions and implementing them. Stalin therefore had control of the party’s information network. Stalin was able to decide whom to let into the party and what roles they would take on. Between 1923 and 1925 was the Lenin Enrolment, a major growth in the membership of the Party, which Stalin was in charge of. Stalin was the main figure at the helm for the members joining via the Lenin enrolment, so it was not surprising that a solid bastion of support for him was found within this intake of enthusiastic new Bolsheviks.
At this point, one of Russia’s greatest concerns was her economy, it was essential that the newly established socialist state would develop economically rapidly. But how would she industrialize? There were two different possible ideas for the economic growth of Russia. The concept of rapid industrialization, thus forcing the Soviet Union to modernise quickly. This was popular with left-wing members of the party. This was Stalin’s ambition.
As he said, Russia was 50 years behind other countries, and rapid industrialisation could make up for this gap in ten years. This approach would be in stark contrast to the path embarked upon by the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was to the liking of private businesses and right wing members. The NEP, which had been started by Lenin, was a concession to market economics in the emergencies of the difficult civil war against the ‘white’ counter revolutionaries. The NEP was dubbed by Stalin as an ‘impediment’ to establishing a socialist planned economy, and it needed therefore in Stalin’s opinion to be replaced by a more centralist planned economy approach of forced industrialisation.
The direction of Soviet Communism at that time was one of ‘Permanent Revolution’, it being basically the idea that Russia being a single socialist country, needed to ensure its safety by spreading revolution throughout the rest of the developed world. Trotsky backed this idea, explaining that it was this that would solve Russia’s current situation.
Trotsky argued that a communist revolution in the USSR alone could not succeed because the working class in the USSR was far too small, and the economy was underdeveloped. It was therefore essential that the USSR be joined by other revolutionary states, there was great hopes that Germany would have a socialist revolution, and for a short time after the end of World War I it seemed possible that Germany would embark upon a revolutionary path, but this was repressed by the forces of the right wing in Germany, a major setback for the ‘permanent revolution’ outlook within the Bolsheviks, similarly the defeat of the revolution in the brief Hungarian socialist revolution of Bela Kun made many within the Bolsheviks see that perhaps a more realistic strategy would have to be developed to defend the USSR.
Against this was the desire for Socialism in One Country, the policy put forward by Stalin at the end of 1924. This would mean concentrating on the development and defence of socialism within Russia alone. Stalin was keen on setting an example for other countries to follow and admire. Stalin argued against the idea that ‘revolution could be exported’ and suggested that revolutions in other countries do not occur when needed by the Bolsheviks, but happened, if at all, only when conditions were right within those states. That meant that it would be unlikely that the USSR would be strengthened immediately by other revolutionary states coming into being. So it would have to be the task of the successor to Lenin to defend the revolutionary gains in the Soviet Union, as the immediate priority.
The series of events that followed made sure that Stalin was able to seize power. Firstly, Stalin made a significant gain in the opinion of the Party when he highlighted Trotsky not going to Lenin’s funeral, whilst he went along himself. These made Trotsky appear disloyal to his former leader, and also gave Stalin a chance to make a speech, and make himself appear to be stepping into the place of Lenin, in order to show the public that it was him who would carry on his work. There was also, one direct threat posed to Stalin. Lenin’s widow, Krupskaya, had possession of the so called ‘Lenin’s Testament’, which was to be published for the public shortly after the death of Lenin.
Having always viewed Stalin with suspicion Lenin would be bound to be critical of him in this document, as well as Kamenev and Zinoviev, two other Bolshevik members. If this was published it would reduce Stalin’s chances of becoming the dominant figure within the party. Luckily, due to some persuasion of Kamenev and Zinoviev, the Testament was eventually suppressed from being published. Having been given to the Central Committee by Krupskaya in May 1924, Kamenev and Zinoviev urged that it should not be read out at the Thirteenth party congress. Trotsky could have revealed the contents of the testament, but decided to stay quiet. Unwilling to become involved in this aspect of the dispute. This was a major mistake on his part and would cost him dearly later.
Now Stalin was nearing a firm grip on leadership, he went on to remove all other possible candidates to ensure he would become the leading figure in the leadership. In 1924, he allied with Kamenev and Zinoviev who were left wing members of the Bolshevik leadership, who thought Stalin presented no real threat, and were against Trotsky. At the Thirteenth party congress, Stalin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev presented party policy, now effectively leading the party as a triumvirate. Despite making powerful speeches, Trotsky was heavily defeated in the Congress votes, having criticized the party for becoming more bureaucratic, and less democratic. The congress was dominated with supporters of Stalin’s, as well as Kamenev and Zinoviev, (the Left) who together easily outvoted Trotsky’s support. Now there was a campaign mounted against Trotsky, by Kamenev and Zinoviev. Stalin was able to watch the left-wing crumble, as Trotsky retaliated and argued against the leftist grouping. Now frightened of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev allowed Stalin to continue bringing more of his supporters into key positions in the party.
In 1925, Stalin was successful with his policy of “Socialism in One Country.” Now an alliance emerged between Stalin and Bukharin, the popular intellectual on the right of the party. In so doing, Stalin temporarily supported the NEP and coalition with the peasants. Now Kamenev and Zinoviev attacked Stalin for going against them, but they gave him little trouble, Stalin having complete control of the party.
In 1926, Kamenev and Zinoviev joined with Trotsky, an old enemy, forming a “United Opposition,” trying to make appeals to the party masses and workers to organise demonstrations in Moscow. This was a huge mistake, since this made them guilty of “factionalism.”, i.e. trying to undermine the agreed positions of the Party by organising secretly within it to overthrow its decisions. Therefore, the three lost all position of influence within the Communist Party, and were expelled from the party in 1927. Thus gradually by skilfully making alliances with his enemies opponents, Stalin was gradually able to weaken all his opponents and become the most powerful figure within the Party.
Having succeeded, in consolidation his position by 1928, Stalin now felt strong enough on his own now to defeat Bukharin, as well as the rest of the right wing of the Bolsheviks. Stalin now changed his policies in order to challenge for complete power. He turned with a vengeance upon the right wing of the Bolsheviks, which he had just supported, now criticizing the NEP. He instead advocated rapid industrialisation as well as the use of force to make the peasants co-operate.
Having advanced a strong defence of the NEP, Bukharin was easily outvoted in the congress of 1929, it having a majority of delegates who supported Stalin’s position. Now the main figures of the right wing of the party, Bukharin, Tomsky, and Rykov were removed from the Politburo, giving Stalin and the group around him absolute sole command and power.
Stalin had succeeded overall, mainly due to his key position as Secretary of the Party, being able to control the party’s structures and procedures, and having control of all information. Stalin was able to be flexible with his policy positions, to be flexible in order to make alliances which would in turn defeat his rivals one by one. Within his own personality, he was easy to underestimate, with the appearance of being dull and unimaginative; he was in fact hard working, determined, and ruthless. Stalin was always underestimated by his opponents, and was able to surprise those standing in his way, with the ability to change his policies entirely in order to eliminate his opponents. Joseph Stalin was now in position to govern Russia, and would so from an era of 24 years, 1929 to his death in 1953.