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“It is clear that by the end of the 1920s, Stalin had been able to establish himself as the

leading person in the party leadership…not because he had a highly disciplined organised
political machine to do his bidding but because he was able to play the rules of the political
game and to generate political support far more ably than his opponents.”

This quote shows an interpretation on why Stalin succeeded in taking power of the Soviet Union,
and considers some aspects of the struggle as having more of an impact than others, primarily
Stalin himself and his personal ability. This is just one of many interpretations of the issues
surrounding the years of struggle, and is both a biographical and intentionalist analysis.

Many historians consider Stalin’s rise to power to be because of his personal qualities, and those
of the other contenders in the ‘struggle for power’, rather than the circumstances and context in
which the struggle took place. This is a fairly persistent opinion and is expressed in more than
one of the given sources. Two of the sources focus on the inability of his opponents (namely
Trotsky) in generating power and support, and for underestimating Stalin’s capability. Source D,
E. Carr, notes that ‘Trotsky…had no talent for leadership among equals’’. During the five years
after Lenin’s death in 1924, up to Stalin emerging as leader in 1929 there was a policy of
‘collective leadership’ within the Politburo – consisting of Rykov, Tomsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev,
Bukharin, Trotsky and Stalin. It could be said that Trotsky’s incapacity for generating political
support within such a system meant that Stalin had a large advantage over the other main

Another action that could support this argument is Stalin’s portrayal of himself as ‘Lenin’s
disciple’. Stalin depicted himself as Lenin's disciple in Soviet propaganda in an effort to justify
his efforts to take power - Lenin was widely revered by the Russian working class and class-
conscious workers world wide, particularly those in the communist parties of Europe. This was
usually done through using obscure out-of-context quotations or through imagery. His theory of
Socialism in One Country rather than Permanent Revolution was in stark contrast to the
principled socialist stand of Lenin and his internationalist outlook. Yet in order to justify his
actions against the working class tendencies of the Soviet Union, and his turn towards
opportunism - including switching sides to dissolve both wings of the Party - Stalin was forced
into the contradiction of abandoning Lenin's ideas while increasingly portraying himself as his
rightful successor. He knew that his actions would need to have the cover of legitimate Bolshevik
theory, Lenin’s ‘endorsement’ was the most effective way of achieving this.

A lot of how this developed support within the Party however was the ‘Lenin enrolment’. In
Source C it is said that ‘by 1927 less than 8% of the Party’s members had been to secondary
school…They were malleable recruits.’ With Stalin presented as a strong figurehead and rightful
heir to Lenin’s position, the fact the Party was largely made up of these ‘malleable recruits’
meant that Stalin had a large base of people who were easily led. Without this layer of new
recruits, the older, more experienced and knowledgeable members of the Party may not have
supported Stalin in large enough quantities for him to come to power.

Stalin’s actions as an individual also show someone adept at ‘play[ing] the rules of the political
game’. Even before the power struggle, Stalin used his role as Head of Peasants’ Inspectorate in
1919 as a way to familiarise himself with the government. Opportunism is a trait that seems very
useful for gaining control in the Party, and this position gave him the right to intervene in every
area of government. The ideological struggle and defeat of the Left in the Party, in 1925,
followed by the abandoning of the New Economic Policy in 1928 and the defeat of the Right
show a man with clear political cunning. In Source B, Conquest writes ‘In six years Stalin
outmanoeuvred a series of opponents…’ The word ‘outmanoeuvred’ suggests astute planning and
manipulation by one person, rather than an attempt made successful by the support of a large
power base. It seems a calculated attempt to rid the Politburo of his opponents – first Trotsky,
then Kamenev and Zinoviev, followed by the Right. However they were expelled after Stalin
used his control of the Party organisation to defeat their resolutions in a Party Congress. Tomsky,
Bukharin and Rykov were removed from their positions by Stalin.

In opposition to the opinion of the writer of the above quote, it is undeniable that Stalin had
obtained a massive (and massively useful) power base by 1924. He had positions ranging from
People’s Commissar for Nationalities from 1917, to General Secretary of the Party by 1922. This
administrative post gave Stalin responsibility for the membership of the Party, and also provided
the agenda for meetings. Rather than Stalin’s success being entirely based on his political skill,
his intention and the incompetence of his rivals, another interpretation could be that without
these and other circumstantial aspects Stalin could not have gained complete control of the Party.
The question remains however, if it was Stalin’s political aptitude that got him these positions, or
whether the Party’s need for an administrative character at this time of centralisation and
increased bureaucracy meant that the posts were inevitably assumed by Stalin – the ‘wilful and
sly, but shabby and inarticulate man in the background’ (Source A) with all of his enthusiasm for
bureaucratic systems and outwardly moderate stance.

The need for Party unity led to some vital factors that aided Stalin in his pursuit of power. This in
itself came about because of the situation at the time – threats to Bolshevik power had only
recently been abolished, there was still a massive food shortage and many other national
problems, which could lead to splits within the Party and a deterioration of the Bolsheviks’
power. The first preventative measure instigated by Lenin was the Ban on factions in 1921. This
effectively led to the end to debates and argument in the Party – not Lenin’s intention but used by
Stalin effectively. As the person in charge of what could officially be discussed at meetings Stalin
could promote his agenda, and no one would have much power to disagree. The second was
collective leadership, an idea left by Lenin to prevent one person taking control as a dictator, but
clearly recognising that the party was not unified enough to function as a true communist state
government. If the effects of the Revolution had been consolidated more thoroughly before
Lenin’s death - partly prevented by the situation in Russia at the time, such as the famine and
international threat earlier in the Party’s governing – then maybe the party would have been
closer to a true communist set-up. Another was the gradual centralisation of power within the
Party, more than likely this was the result of encouraging unity, but instead lent itself to a more
bureaucratic way of running the state. As all the power was effectively in one place, the seizing
of power would have been made easier for any of the contenders, and so Stalin’s personal
qualities would seem less important than the situation of the time.

In a similar vein, the writings of Trotsky on Stalin’s rise to power give us a picture of the
interpretation favoured by socialist historians. The Soviet Union was battered by war, famine and
economic ruin. Trotsky claimed: ‘A revolution is a mighty devourer of human energy, both
individual and collective… Events unfold too swiftly for the flow of fresh forces to replace the
loss.’ That is to say the very nature of how the Party got to power was too fast for the power to be
consolidated amongst the proletariat. Therefore, Stalin was just the face of the bureaucracy that
developed to fill the power gap that the workers and peasants didn’t have the capacity to claim.
He was the expression of the degradation of the Russian revolution and the victory of the
bureaucracy, and not important as an individual but as the face of the counter-revolution. ‘It is
sufficiently well known that every revolution up to this time has been followed by a reaction, or
even a counterrevolution.’ Stalin was not a ‘necessary’ development on the path to Communism
but his rise to power was not unexpected.

Trotsky and other socialist historians place more emphasis than others on Stalin’s policy of
Socialism in One Country as being a main reason why he achieved power. After Trotsky
launched an attack on the lack of Party democracy in 1924 and the centralisation that had its
routes in the Civil War, his idea of Permanent Revolution became discredited among Party
members, as his attack appeared to be on something Lenin had sanctioned. Conversely, Stalin’s
persistent deviation from internationalism in his policy had a widespread effect. Russia became
an isolated upholder of workers’ power in a capitalist world, which did little to inspire the
proletariat to attempt to retain power. Not only this, the actual working class of this time was not
particularly large, since the industrialization of Russia had been fairly recent – with only 10
million workers, 4 million in heavy industry such as factories.

Another important factor was the string of failing revolutions around the globe around the time
of the struggle for power. In 1923, the Russian workers were all very aware of the failure of
German Communist Party’s attempt at revolution. It was at this point that Trotsky’s theory of
Permanent Revolution started to lose its power, and the Left Opposition started losing credibility
– aiding Stalin and the bureaucracy in their take over of the Party. The international situation
only declined: “The crushing of the Bulgarian insurrection in 1924, the… liquidation of the
General Strike in England and the unworthy conduct of the Polish workers’ party…in 1926,
the… massacre of the Chinese revolution in 1927”These also discouraged the Soviet workers
who were becoming disillusioned with world revolution, and left the bureaucracy as the ‘light of

Stalin’s success would seem to be a complex combination of political and socio-economic

factors, not entirely down to his political prowess but also to the state for Russia at the time of
his take over. Also it is important to remember that Stalin was just one man, and that although a
lot of historians focus on the biographical reasons for his victory he represented more a change in
Party dynamics and the counter-revolutionary upsurge that came from the weakening of
proletariat power and certainty, ‘plebian pride’ in Trotsky’s words, by the bureaucracy. The
Bolshevik Party and Russia’s situation in that period - newly industrialised, shaken by war and
made weak by famine as well as the death of Lenin – had more of an effect than this first quote
gives credit for. The centralisation of power also made a large difference to how easy obtaining
control of the whole state was, regardless of who actually succeeded. Notice also has to be taken
of the international situation during the years 1923 to 1929, and the effect it had on the
psychology of the working class in Russia as well undermining the Left Opposition’s policy of
Permanent Revolution.