The Bolsheviks, the ruling party of the Soviet Union, was lead by the Lenin. When Lenin died in January of 1924, he left behind no clear successor, and vague indications of his intended plans for the Bolshevik party. A power struggle for control of the party ensued, one in which many historical figures arose. Within this plethora of names, two of the most important names in Soviet history arose, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin.
As the power struggle continued, the mutual antagonism grew, resulting in a life or death struggle. Eventually, Stalin was able to seize power and exile Trotsky. The reason for Stalin’s success over Trotsky can be seen in their respective methodologies. Initially, the two were both long-time Marxists, in great positions of power, and both had worked closely alongside Lenin. However, where Stalin was willing to abuse his powers within the state, Trotsky refused to abuse his power.Secondly, Trotsky arose on the scene of the power struggle much earlier than Stalin, and allowed Stalin to bide his time and attack at his convenience.
Finally, Stalin chose his allies wisely, and when they no longer suited his needs, was able to drop them and ruin their reputations in so doing. Trotsky however, formed uneasy alliances with other party members, ones that questioned his reputation. In the end, Stalin was in a position of great authority and command, leaving Trotsky in a position of futility.
Stalin and Trotsky both had close ties to their former ruler, Lenin. Stalin, who was born in Georgia, had entered into Marxism while still a student at his seminary. Stalin quickly became one of the most prominent figures on the Georgian communist scene, rising to the top of the Bolshevik party when the Marxists split in 1903. In 1905, he first met Lenin, and although he did not make a large impression at first, he later won a close position within Lenin’s Bolshevik regime.
Trotsky, however, was not so quick to side with Lenin. Although he worked closely with him at first, he left Lenin and his Bolsheviks to briefly side with the Menshevik party, only to soon after form his own doctrine, one which differed from both the Bolshevik and Menshevik parties. However, as opposed to attempting to form his own faction, he tried to re-unite the two differing ones, but to no avail. It was not until the summer 1917 in which Trotsky was reunited with Lenin and joined the Bolshevik party, claiming he chose to do so not based on his ideology changing, but that the Bolshevik party had changed its position, one that coincided with Trotsky’s beliefs.
When the Imperial regime had been toppled, Stalin was appointed general secretary by Lenin, and Trotsky, who was initially given the role of foreign commissar , was soon after given the role of war commissar. These positions allowed both Stalin and Trotsky to form strong ties within the nation, for as general secretary Stalin was in charge of new recruits within the party, and as war commissar, Trotsky formed the Red Army, an elite fighting force bent upon protecting Bolshevik interests.
Stalin was comfortable abusing his power to recruit members who shared his specific interests, but Trotsky would not abuse his command over the Red Army against his adversaries, for Trotsky’s loyalty to the party was paramount. When Lenin died in 1924, a new game of favourites had to be played by the party members. For no loner was it a game of being favoured by the leader, but a game in which one had to rise to be the successor, and be favoured by all the party and want all the party to want to be favoured by him. Stalin and Trotsky both had strong enough positions, but still had to gain the support of the party. How they would deal with the confrontations over leadership would shape their future in the party.
Stalin and Trotsky both found themselves quarrelling over leadership, most often with each other. Trotsky was quick to make himself known on the scene of being successor, for Lenin himself at one point said that Trotsky would prove to be a good successor . However, many prominent members in the party refused to allow Trotsky to ascend without a battle, and Zinoviev and Kamenev, both of who were great theorists and had international prestige.
Trotsky entered into many heated debates against Zinoviev and Kamenev, which brought into question both of their positions within the party. By May of 1924, the economic situation within the USSR was stable enough that Zinoviev felt he was able to openly attack Trotsky in the Party Congress meetings. Zinoviev demanded that Trotsky apologise for his errors that he had made in the past about the economic situation, and asked him to formally retract his comments he had made.
Trotsky, however, could only respond by saying that “I, however, comrades, cannot say that, because I do not think it.”This forced Trotsky into an even more difficult position for it had wore down much of his support within the congress. Furthermore, it prompted many members of the party to make moves towards disciplining Russian Trotskyites, as well as other dissident party members, for agreeing with Trotsky now not only meant going against the party, but also the proletariat worker which it stood for.
Stalin did not openly participate in any of these quarrels. Stalin even acted pleasantly towards Trotsky, and when others would snub him as he entered the Party Congress, Stalin welcomed him warmly . Stalin watched all of this happen from the sidelines, and was not only able to slowly build support for himself, but gain a plan of attack, one in which he could chose his most optimal allies, and eliminate Trotsky from the possibility of succession once and for all.
Stalin had allied himself with Zinoviev and Kamenev early after Lenin’s death, forming what was known as the Triumvirate. Stalin did not choose to openly question Trotsky at first though, for it gave him a large tactical advantage, one in which his allies could fight his battles while his reputation remained unquestioned. After Trotsky’s loyalty towards the part had been questioned at the 13th Party Congress, Trotsky found himself in a defensive position. By autumn, however, Trotsky published The Lessons of October, in which he detailed the necessity of a concept he called “Permanent Revolution,” a theory of Trotsky’s that Lenin adopted for the armed uprising of 1917.
Furthermore, Trotsky was also able to indicate Zinoviev and Kamenev’s opposition towards the uprising, and how Zinoviev was to blame for the failure of the German Communist revolt of 1923. The party was impressed, but Zinoviev and Kamenev were not without counter-action. They quickly reminded the party that before 1917, Lenin and Trotsky disagreed on nearly every issue, and often shared many harsh words. This is when Stalin’s caution proved to be most invaluable. Being one of the most respected members within the party, Stalin was able to not only forgive Kamenev and Zinoviev for their mistakes, but also forcefully pointed out how Trotsky was a newcomer within the party and that his experiences were negligible.
Stalin also unleashed a new weapon, his theory of “socialism in one country,” stating that a proletarian dictatorship could establish socialism before the victory of the world revolution . It was here that Stalin began to emerge as the most powerful force within the Triumvirate. Stalin’s theory of “socialism in one country” was a logical branching from Lenin’s practises from 1917 onwards. However, whereas Trotsky agreed that socialism could begin in Russia alone, he did not agree with Stalin’s thinking that it could be completed with success in the one nation, without having the support of a socialist world behind it . However, the more Trotsky questioned the Triumvirs, the less credible he became.
In January of 1925, Trotsky was removed from his position as war commissar, although he still retained his uneasy seat within the Politburo. Although Trotsky did command the Red Army, he refused to abuse his power and to attempt a coup, for his loyalty towards the party was supreme, and he accepted his deposition without trying to resist. Although Zinoviev and Kamenev did not agree with Stalin’s theory of “socialism in one country,” they found themselves occupied with ousting Trotsky.
When they had discovered that the party had adopted Stalin’s theory, however, they realised the true threat that Stalin posed, for they adamantly disagreed with Stalin’s theory. However, Stalin was successful at quietly breaking ties with his old allies, and formed new ones who accepted his theory, and formed a collective leadership over the party. Kamenev, who spoke most sharply against Stalin, was soon demoted to merely a candidate member of the Politburo, while Stalin appointed Sergei Kirov to replace Zinoviev as the party leader within Leningrad.
In the spring of 1926, Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev formed an uneasy alliance against Stalin. Stalin laughed at the thought , for a few short months earlier, they had been bitterly attacking each other. Stalin now became less concerned with his new policy then with eliminating his enemies in the Left Opposition. Stalin quickly accused one of Zinoviev’s followers of attempting to organise an uprising within the Red Army, and used this as an excuse to eliminate him from the Politburo.
Soon after, Stalin gained enough power to remove Trotsky from the Politburo as well. However, in the beginning of 1927, Trotsky found he had one last chance to rival against Stalin and gain support. Trotsky was able to bring forth a proposal stating that the majority party was to blame for the rupture of diplomatic relations with Britain, the assassination of the Soviet ambassador in Warsaw, and the crushing of the Chinese Communist revolution .
Trotsky’s greatest error, however, was that he had advocated a change of government by going against the majority, and in so doing going against the proletariat. Stalin promptly engineered the expulsion of Trotsky and Zinoviev from the Central Committee, and soon after they, alongside with Kamenev, were expelled from the Party. Although Zinoviev and Kamenev were permitted to crawl back into the party, Trotsky refused to, and was thusly exiled into Siberia, and eventually fled the country, only to be eventually assassinated in 1941 by Stalinist agents .
The Communists of the world had little chance to view the antagonism and differences between Stalin and Trotsky on a first hand basis, and could only side with one or the other on their theoretical position. The theoretical differences between the two could be briefly summarised as so; Trotsky declared that it was impossible to build socialism in Russia because the peasants did not want it. It would only be possible to do so if the workers of the West revolted. Stalin felt it was impossible to wait for the West to revolt, so they had to build socialism in Russia only by using the peasantry. Both were right, but both were blinded by their idealistic intentions.
The workers in the West were not ready nor willing to be Communists, and the Russian peasants were not communist either, although Stalin tried to compel them to be. However, Stalin was able to claim victory over Trotsky by using a decisive strategy involving key positioning from his role of general secretary, and his ability to select those people who shared his views for membership. Trotsky was equally powerful, but refused to manipulate the party at such a level that would undermine the integrity of the party, and thusly refused to abuse his power over the Red Army against his enemies. This gave Stalin his first key advantage.
Trotsky was quick to enter into confrontations with other members, and slowly wore down his reputation and credibility within the party. Stalin waited until he had gained an unquestionable reputation, and then used it to further damage Trotsky. Stalin also chose his allies wisely, using Zinoviev and Kamenev to first wear down Trotsky, and then when Stalin was in a position to take control, cut off ties with his allies. When Trotsky then allied himself with Zinoviev and Kamenev, it further damaged his credibility, and resulted in the eventual expulsion of Trotsky. It is for these reasons that Stalin was able to so decisively win the power struggle for leadership with Trotsky.
- Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. Phoenix Publishing Ltd.: London, 1998.
- Deutscher, Isaac. Stalin: A Political Biography. Oxford Press: London, 1949
- Lawrence, John. A History of Russia. Penguin Books, New York, 1978
- Rigby, T.H. Great Lives Observed: Stalin. Prentice Hall Ltd.: New York, 1966.
- Service, Robert. A History of Twentieth Century Russia. Harvard Press, New York, 1997.
- Stalin, Joseph. My Works. Moscow Press: Moscow, 1952-1955.
- Trotsky, Leon. Stalin, An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence. Wolfe Publications Ltd.: London, 1970