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Stalin's Successes

Modern History (Year 12) - Stalin and Trotsky's Struggle

Ben Whitten


Lenin’s death in 1924 created a power vacuum. Between 1923 and 1928, Russian politics was ultimately dominated by factions and alliances; alliances that saw a majority of support in the Politburo formed the government, while minority alliances formed the opposition.


Government: Triumvirate (Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin)

Opposition: Left Opposition (Trotsky)

The Triumvirate was formed to prevent Trotsky from seizing power. Trotsky was the most known of the contenders for power, and his ambitions and aspirations to become the next ruler of Russia was largely known. In 1924, at the 13th Party Congress, the Triumvirate successfully defended the NEP against Trotsky’s alternative, left-wing solution. Trotsky’s failure to win votes at the Party Congress saw the end of his ambitions to be Russia’s next leader.


Government: Duumvirate (Bukharin, Stalin)

Opposition: United Opposition (Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev)

As Trotsky was defeated, the Triumvirate had lost its common enemy and the alliance fell apart. Zinoviev and Kamenev moved to the left-wing of the Communist Party, advocating for rapid industrialisation when it was clear that the NEP was failing. Stalin allied with Bukharin to form the Duumvirate, in order to defend the NEP and advocate for Socialism in one country. In 1927, at the 15th Party Congress, the Party voted against the United Opposition in favour of the Duumvirate’s policies.


Government: Stalin

Opposition: Right Opposition (Bukharin)

Following their defeat, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev were expelled from the Party. When Stalin saw the NEP failing, he adopted left-wing economic policies and won the support of the left-wing of the parties. Bukharin remained committed to the NEP and his credibility fell massively as it was clearly failing.

Stalin’s Victory

In 1928, Stalin introduced certain emergency economic measures which ended the NEP. Bukharin challenged this, however, senior communists voted in Stalin’s favour at a meeting of the Central Committee. Stalin’s victory before the Central Committe was confirmation that he was now the sole ruler of Soviet Russia.

Impact of the Alliances

The alliances played a huge role in the leadership struggle. Alliances effectively allowed Stalin to stay in the background while other contenders fought each other in the public eye (sneaky!). In 1924, Zinoviev and Kamenev publicly battled Trotsky. In 1927, Bukharin spoke out against the United Opposition. Stalin was able to distance himself from the quarrels and gained the respect of the Communist Party. The alliances allowed Stalin to maintain majority of the support in the Politburo; he was always a part of the government and never associated with an opposition faction.

Stalin’s Tactics for Victory

Stalin had a few tricks up his sleeve in order to effectively secure victory.

Lenin’s Funeral

Lenin’s funeral provided government contenders with a platform to show their loyalty to Stalin; Stalin used this to his advantage, to discredit Trotsky. Stalin told Trotsky the wrong date for the funeral, leading to Trotsky missing the funeral and being regarded as disloyal to Lenin.

Lenin’s Testament

Lenin’s testament had instructions to remove Stalin from power. Stalin convinced Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were similarly criticsed in the testament, to argue that Stalin should stay and that the testament should not be published. Zinoviev and Kamenev’s arguments convinced the Central Committee and subsequently the vast majority of the Communist Party never saw Lenin’s testament.

Factionalism Accusations

In 1921, Lenin had banned factions; in 1928, Stalin began circulating rumours that he was going to form an alliance with Zinoviev and Kamenev. Bukharin called secret meetings with Zinoviev and Kamenev as a preventative measure. Stalin had Bukharin placed under close surveillance, and revealed the secret meeting to the Central Committee who accused Bukharin of factionalism.

Ideological Moves

Stalin’s move from a right-wing perspective to a left-wing perspective was extremely significant; through adopting rapid industrialisation in his economic policy and maintaining his Socialism in one country solution for foreign policy, Stalin took advantage of the most popular policies in the Party. Rapid industrialisation was viewed as intelligent and heroic, and grew massively popular as the NEP was failing; Socialism in one country remained popular, as it appealed to Russian nationalism. By taking left and right-wing aspects of policies, Stalin was able to win support from both sides of the Party.

Stalin’s tricks provided him with a key advantage in moments of leadership struggle, and allowed him to discredit his predominant rivals for power. Stalin’s shift in ideology in 1928 allowed him to present the most appealing policies to the Communist Party, to maintain right-wing support and attract newfound support from the left-wing.

Why did Stalin win the power struggle?

When Lenin died, he left no clear successor to lead the Communist Part. Lenin’s testament criticised all the leading candidates, e.g., he described Stalin as ‘not being able to use power with sufficient caution’ and Trotsky for ‘excessive self-assurance’. A group of leaders emerged; a ‘collective leadership’. By 1929 one of these leaders, Stalin had become a dominant force. His success was the result of a power struggle.

By 1933 there were 3 and a half million members of the Communist Party and many members were young, inexperienced, and uneducated. These were “malleable recruits”, and they were much more likely to obey instructions than some older party members. There was no one clear leader following the death of Lenin – the key figures of the party included Stalin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin. Leon Trotsky was unpopular amongst many as Stalin was ruthless.

The centralised nature of the party made it relatively easy to control – this had begun under Lenin. The opposition to factionalism established by Lenin led other leading members to their political death as they were seen to not be towing the party line. Poorly educated new party members were easy to dominate. Stalin’s own political skills aided his rise – by shifting allegiances, using the secret police and putting his people in key jobs there was no opposition for him to encounter.

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