To what extent was the rise of Stalinism due to his opportunism?

September 3, 2017 September 1st, 2019 Free Essays Online for College Students

In 1922, Lenin was incapacitated by a stroke, and everyone thought his likely successor to be Leon Trotsky. Yet, within 5 years, Trotsky had been expelled from the Communist party and it was evident that Stalin had taken power. Indeed, the reason for the rise of Stalin to a position of total and supreme power is a hugely controversial subject that has been hotly debated by historians. However, I agree with the statement that “the rise of Stalinism due to his opportunism” to a large extent.

First and foremost, Stalin’s opportunism – his tendency to advance in situations where he thought he could do so without provoking too strong a response – is pivotal in explaining his rise. As late as 1924, many Communist party members still saw Stalin as “Comrade Card-Index” – a lowly administrator with a dull personality. Yet, as Steve Philips writes, “Stalin was skilful in using the circumstances that presented themselves… and the opportunities that arose to overcome his opponents within the party.” An excellent example would be that of Lenin’s funeral. At this funeral, Stalin made use of the fact that he was to deliver an oration to present himself as the chief mourner, emphasis the need to apply the ideas of Lenin and highlight his intention of continuing the works of Lenin. In other words, Stalin was able to read the circumstances and atmosphere beautifully and take advantage of them. In the atmosphere of “Lenin worship” which was present at the funeral, Stalin was able to manipulate the event and sentiments of the people to his advantage, thereby presenting himself as the rightful heir to Lenin. Another example would be Trotsky’s attack on party bureaucracy not long after Lenin’s death.

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He criticized the growing bureaucracy of the Communist party and accused it of losing its revolutionary spirit. Seeing the still-prevalent mood of “Lenin worship” as well as increasing unpopularity of these remarks, Stalin took advantage of it and aligned himself with Zinoviev and Kamenev to attack Trotsky’s criticisms and thereby gain the support and favour of numerous party members. Indeed, as Philips wrote, “it was Stalin’s… manner in which he aligned himself with the attitudes of party members that sealed his victory.” Thus, Stalin’s opportunism allowed him to exploit circumstances, popular attitudes and sentiments, his positions and the weaknesses of his opponents to his advantage. It allowed him to exploit existing factors to gain support, popularity and ultimately, power.

Secondly, Stalin’s appeal – that of his policies, ideologies, theories and even his character – is also important when looking at Stalin’s rise. As substantiated by Steve Philips, “[Stalin provided] a more practical and proletarian image than that of the intellectuals who made up the majority of the party’s leadership.” For example, Stalin put forward “Socialism in one country” , arguing that USSR should come first before other countries and as such, the party should concentrate on building up the Russian economy rather than waste money on helping revolutionary groups abroad. With a strong Russian economy, Stalin argued, the capitalist countries would not dare to attack USSR. Stalin’s theory was more appealing to most Russians. Simply put, many had a strong sense of pride in their motherland and believed that they should concentrate on solving economic problems and strengthen themselves before worrying about spreading communism in other countries. Thus, Stalin was able to gain more support for this policy as compared to Trotsky’s idea of “Permanent Revolution.” Furthermore, Stalin was born into a family of Georgian peasants and this humble background appealed to many Russians and party members. Instead of putting an aloof and arrogant front, Stalin chose to put forward an image of a leader who cared for his people, and one who identified the needs and demands of party members under him. As he had the power to provide party members with better living conditions and other benefits, Stalin was again able to use this to build support from the Communist body. Thus, many of Stalin’s beliefs and ideologies struck a chord with many Russians, and his humble character and background gained the respect of party members. This was pivotal in helping Stalin build a strong support base that would aid his rise to power.

Stalin’s various positions in the Communist Party were also pivotal in leading to his rise to power. For example, his position as editor of “Pravda”, the party’s newspaper, allowed Stalin to manipulate what was released and what wasn’t. Being the only source of national news in Russia, this was a huge source of power for Stalin to exploit as many Russians naturally believed everything that they read. Of all the positions Stalin held within the party, however, possibly the most vital was General Secretary of the party which he gained in 1922. This position gave him access to information on party members and allowed him to monitor party personnel and policy. This gave him the ability to find out where the loyalties of party members lay and allowed him to either exploit it or attack it in the future. More importantly was that as General Secretary, Stalin had the power of patronage – he had the ability to appoint people to positions, even key posts, within the party. In other words, Stalin was able to replace those who opposed him with his supporters. For example, in the 1920s, he slowly removed opposition in the Politburo with his men like Molotov, Kalinin and Voroshilov. Because of this, not only did Stalin now have a strong support base in the party and weaken that of his opposition, he could now outvote and outmanoeuvre his opponents. As Philips wrote, “The levels of power were in Stalin’s hands.”

Another factor not to be ignored is the weaknesses of possibly Stalin’s greatest rival – Trotsky. Trotsky was a brilliant intellectual, and it was he who played a pivotal role in guaranteeing the success of the October Revolution. As aforementioned, up till 1922, it looked as if he would be the successor to Lenin. However, this was not to be. By 1924, there was a atmosphere of fear in the party that a “Bonaparte figure” (Philips) would emerge to establish dictatorial rule over the party. Trotsky’s connections to the army, as well as his high position in the party exemplified the fears. As Philips mentioned, “Many Bolsheviks wondered whether Trotsky was a man of the party or of his own agenda.” To make matters worse, Trotsky did nothing to dispel the fears, but chose instead to criticise the party. This is evident from his criticisms on party bureaucracy as aforementioned as well as his attacks on Lenin’s New Economic Policy in his essays Lessons on October published in 1924 after Lenin’s death. Many saw this as an insult to Lenin and with the intense atmosphere of “Lenin worship”, Trotsky soon lost many supporters, of whom many turned instead to Stalin who had exploited popular sentiments to his advantage. Philips further substantiates this, “[Stalin’s] arrogance and aloofness, while making him unpopular with the party, also led to a lack of judgement on occasions.” Trotsky’s gross misjudgement of the mood after Lenin’s death as mentioned above is an excellent example.

Furthermore, as mentioned by Lowe, Trotsky’s intellectual brilliance worked against him by arousing the envy and resentment of the Politburo leaders who united in effort to prevent Trotsky to become leader. Trotsky’s arrogance led him to become alienated from a large number of party members and he did little to garner support or organise his supporters. A good evidence of his growing unpopularity is that of the outcomes of the Thirteenth Party Conference, in which few of Trotsky’s members were elected. Historian E.H. Carr probably sums it up best: “[Trotsky] failed to the last to understand that the issue of the struggle was determined not by the availability of arguments but by the control and manipulation of the levers of power.” Thus, Trotsky’s various weaknesses not only provided the fertile ground for Stalin to exploit in his arguments and attacks to gain power, but also allowed Stalin to spread discontent and unhappiness amongst the party and to Trotsky’s supporters. More often than not, those who lost faith in Trotsky soon turned to support Stalin and this paved the way for Stalin’s rise to power.

Next, the various attitudes, fears and overall atmosphere of feelings of the Politburo and Communist Party are crucial in accounting for Lenin’s rise to power. First, Stalin aptly exploited the attitudes and sentiments of party members in relation to ideological differences to defeat the opposition and rise to power. A good example would be Trotsky’s call for “Permanent Revolution.” Whilst Trotsky argued that in order to secure the safety of the Bolshevik party in Russia there was a need to spread a worldwide Communist Revolution, Stalin promoted, in 1925, the idea of “Socialism in One Country” By then, it was clear, with the failure of Socialist uprisings in Italy and Germany for example, that the idea of a worldwide Socialists Revolution was unrealistic and unfeasible. This was apparent to Stalin and he exploited this general consensus of the party to his advantage. Not only did his policy focus on modernisation and the greater development of Russia, its patriotic tone appeal towards the more nationalistic party members and its feasibility portray Stalin as a practical and realistic leader, Stalin was able to turn tables on Trotsky, question Trotsky’s loyalty, pragmatism and responsibility and therefore undermine Trotsky’s support while building up his own.

As aforementioned, Stalin also took advantage of circumstances, notably Lenin’s funeral, to exploit the prevalent atmosphere of “Lenin worship” shortly after Lenin’s death, to gain support from the people. Lastly, Stalin took advantage of the atmosphere of fear in the party towards the emergence of a “Bonaparte figure” in 1924. On one hand, Stalin continually ensured that he built his support and power softly and gradually, and thus never posed a threat to the sovereignty of the Party. On the other, he constantly attacked Trotsky’s connections to the army, as well as his high position in the party, as a sign that Trotsky was aiming for total dominance of the entire party, thus amplifying the fears of many party members. This was crucial in leading to Trotsky’s downfall and Stalin’s rise. Indeed, Steve Phillips rounds it up perfectly when he writes in relation to the importance of ideological differences in the party that it, (gave Stalin the chance to) manoeuvre himself into a dominant position while outmanoeuvring and isolating his opponents.”

Finally, the actions, weaknesses and lack of foresight of the other Politburo members, particularly Zinoviev and Kamenev are also factors that contributed hugely to the rise of Lenin. First and foremost, Kamenev and particularly Zinoviev played an important role in the turn of reaction after Lenin’s death. Having worked closely with Lenin for many years, Zinoviev considered himself worthy of inheriting Lenin’s mantle. He was ambitious and jealous of Trotsky and as a result, organised a parallel leadership composed of all the members of the Politburo except Trotsky. He resorted to manoeuvres and intrigues to discredit Trotsky, and drive a wedge between him and Leninism. In other words, by inventing the myth of Trotskyism after Lenin’s death, Zinoviev and Kamenev were vital in seriously weakening Trotsky’s position. They played an important role in setting the mood of discontentment towards Trotsky that Stalin could build on to further undermine Trotsky and gain power. Next, as mentioned by Norman Lowe, “The Politburo members underestimated Stalin, seeing him as nothing more than a competent administrator.” Indeed, neither Zinoviev nor Kamenev showed any understanding of the real processes at work.

They thought that they were using Stalin as a tool, when in fact it was they who were being used. In this way, Kamenev and Zinoviev unwillingly laid the basis for Stalin’s victory over the Party, and over themselves. They felt themselves superior to Stalin, yet failed to realise that Stalin’s strength lay not in his intellect, but in the fact that he reflected the pressure and the interests of millions of officials who were thirsting for power. He eagerly based himself upon the bureaucracy, first in the Party, then in the apparat which he dominated. Zinoviev and Kamenev, already worried about Stalin’s growing power, rudeness and disloyalty, were profoundly shocked by this development. Within a year by 1926 they had broken with Stalin and went over to the Left Opposition. Yet, by then, it was already too late. Stalin was song enough to remove them from the Politburo and in 1927 during the 15th Party Congress Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled from the party, and shot in 1936 after being vilified in show trials. Thus, unwittingly, Zinoviev and Kamenev played important roles in the rise of Stalin. Through their actions, they aided Stalin in the removal of Trotsky, and allowed his growing power to grow unchecked until it was too late.

In conclusion, I believe that Stalin’s opportunism was the most important factor in contributing to his rise. To put it very simply, all other factors hold no water because if it was not for Stalin’s opportunism, they would have had been useless. First and foremost, Stalin’s appeal came primarily from the ability to exploit circumstances, attitudes and situations to his advantage. He based his main strength and focus on reflecting what the people and party members wanted, and thus raising his appeal and gaining their support. Next, Stalin’s various positions as well as the prevalent attitudes, fears and overall atmosphere of feelings of the Politburo and Communist Party were again, useful only because he had the opportunism to exploit them. While no one else wanted the role of General Secretary, Stalin took it as he foresaw the useful information and powers he would acquire which others had overlooked. As aforementioned, the attitudes, fears and atmospheres he exploited to gain power on one hand and undermine the opposition’s support on the other. Finally, the weaknesses of his opponents meant nothing had Stalin been unable to take advantage of them, point them out to the party and use other methods to weaken his opponents’ stand in the party. Thus, all in all, it is evident that Stalin’s opportunism played the most pivotal role in his rise to power.

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