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Joseph Stalin

The Struggle for Power

Civil War and Consolidation

Stalin Triumphant

Throughout the summer of 1923, Lenin lay close to death, and a lull settled over the political struggle. But the battle lines were forming in the Politburo and Central Committee. Trotsky seemed to hold the most powerful position, thanks to his close friendship with Lenin before the Soviet leader's strokes, but an opposition had already begun to emerge. Although Stalin would later be Trotsky's primary antagonist, for the moment the opposition included not only Stalin but also two other politicians: Lev Kamenev and G.E. Zinoviev, a leading Bolshevik who had been Lenin's closest aide during the Revolution. Together the three formed what was referred to as the "troika," or "triumvirate"; as Lenin inched closer to death, they launched a series of attacks on Trotsky in party meetings, drawing on his writings and speeches from his years as a Menshevik to attack him for disloyalty to his own movement.

On January 21, 1924, Lenin died. He was only fifty-three. Trotsky was away in the Caucasus that month, and Stalin telegraphed him and said that the funeral would be held immediately, so there was no point in undertaking the long trip back to Moscow. Thus Stalin forced Trotsky to be absent for the funeral--he knew how to create and use symbols to his advantage. Meanwhile, the cult of Lenin instantly sprang up among the Bolsheviks, who ordered their leader's body embalmed and turned into a shrine in Moscow's Red Square. Stalin took a prominent and very public role in the mourning of the leader, but in fact Lenin's death put him in a jubilant mood. However, the death did bring Stalin his share of difficulties: Lenin's Testament, with its warning against Stalin and suggestion that he be removed from leadership, was read at the next Central Committee meeting. This was a critical moment: if his rivals had demanded compliance with the testament at this point, Stalin would not have survived their attacks--his support base was not yet large enough. However, Trotsky kept silent and Stalin's allies, Kamenev and Zinoviev, came to his defense; Stalin retained his post as General Secretary.

The following year, 1924, marks the beginning of Stalin's rise to power. At that point he was one of seven members of the Politburo--the others were Zinoviev and Kamenev, Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, and Mikhail Tomsky. By 1930, Stalin would overshadow them, and by 1940 outlive them. His amazing success can be attributed to a combination of his own political genius and the mistakes that his rivals persisted in making. Gifted ideologues though they were, his opponents were primarily men of theory--Marxists to the core-- rather than men of action. Stalin, meanwhile, never enjoyed a deep understanding of Marxist theory, and was always willing to twist it to his advantage, a habit that proved useful in the years ahead, as he repeatedly out- intrigued his supposed "comrades" within the party.

In December 1924, Stalin first articulated his own twist on Marxist orthodoxy, which he termed "Socialism in One Country." He argued that the success of Marxism in Russia was not contingent upon a worldwide Communist Revolution-- which his fellow leaders expected to begin sweeping through the rest of the world at any moment. The global fall of capitalism would come eventually, he said, but in the meantime it was necessary to build a successful Soviet Union. Trotsky and his supporters vigorously attacked this viewpoint, but by this time, Trotsky's star was in eclipse. Always considered an outsider by the older Bolsheviks, he had been a brilliant military organizer, but was proving less adept at the cutthroat world of party politics. By January 1925, Zinoviev and Kamenev were urging that he be expelled from the Politburo (though Stalin actually acted as a voice of moderation and prevented the measure from passing). By this point, Stalin was gravitating away from the "troika" and toward the other three members of the Politburo--Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky. These three formed a so-called "Rightist" bloc, differing on economic policy from Zinoviev and Kamenev (who drew their support from old-line Bolsheviks, including Lenin's wife). The "Rightists" wanted to continue with Lenin's New Economic Policy, which allowed considerable economic freedom for the peasantry, while the Zinoviev-Kamenev "Leftists" wanted to push the country more strongly toward state control of economic life.

In 1924, the "Leftists" appeared to hold control over the Central Committee. But by the following year, Zinoviev and Kamenev realized that Stalin, whom they had saved from political ruin after Lenin's death, was betraying them and moving toward an alliance with Bukharin's faction. In addition, Stalin had begun to gather a strong faction around himself, including figures like Mikhail Kalinin, Kliment Vorishilov, and Vyacheslav Molotov. While Trotsky, the weakest member of the Politburo, remained aloof, the Rightists and Leftists clashed at the 1925 Party Congress, and the Rightists carried the day, despite vituperative attacks on Stalin and his "Socialism in One Country" by Kamenev. Kalinin and Vorishilov joined the Politburo, and the suddenly weakened Kamenev and Zinoviev turned to Trotsky for support, forming a "United Opposition" in the summer of 1926. But they were no match for the Bukharin-Stalin alliance. By the time of the next Party Congress, in October of 1926, Zinoviev and Kamenev had been removed from the Politburo, and Stalin felt secure enough in his power to urge the Party's official repudiation of their views as "anti-Leninist." Trotsky resisted, and in 1927 he was expelled from the party and exiled to Central Asia; Zinoviev and Kamenev, defeated, begged for clemency, which the Politburo granted. Stalin was triumphant--now, even his ally in this struggle, Bukharin, grew nervous, as he realized that Stalin's power in the Party now overshadowed even his own influence.

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