Why did Stalin win the power struggle in the Soviet Union in the
period up to 1929?
Stalin used the ideological and political debates of the 1920s to attack Trotsky and
establish his primacy within the Party. He was aided by the fact that Trotsky could not
match his ruthless determination and his skill as a politician. In particular, Trotsky
suffered from a failure of judgment as to the nature and extent of the threat he faced.
Joseph Stalin was no genius, but he was willing to do the tedious work of appointing
officials to key positions in the bureaucracy. This allowed him to gain support during
the debates of the mid 1920s. He also showed a willingness to listen to all opinions,
cultivating an image of moderation – something which made him popular in the Party.
Trotsky, on the other hand, was something of an outsider, having joined the Party
late. This meant he was never fully trusted by many members. This mistrust was
fuelled by Trotsky’s rude and arrogant behaviour.
Trotsky also lacked Lenin’s prestige, and hence had less influence over the Party.
The Party officials disliked him because he opposed any increase in their power.
Others feared him, because of his control of the Red Army. Even so, his brilliance did
give him an intellectual advantage over Stalin. To counter this, Stalin produced a
layman’s guide to Lenin’s theories, thereby establishing himself as a credible
interpreter of Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Stalin now set about isolating Trotsky within the Politburo. During the so-called
‘scissors crisis’ of 1923, he supported Lenin’s policy of NEP. Trotsky, by contrast,
advocated taxing the peasants more heavily, to finance rapid industrial development.
Stalin won the debate, thereby harming Trotsky politically.
Despite this, Trotsky still failed to take Stalin seriously as a rival. Most notably, he
failed to make Lenin’s ‘testament’ public following the latter’s death in 1924. This
decision, more than anything, contributed to his downfall.
Stalin had no such reservations about attacking Trotsky. He used the ideological
debates of the time to establish himself as Lenin’s logical successor. This allowed him
to brand Trotsky as a heretic, deviating from doctrinal orthodoxy.
The two issues which dominated discussion in 1925 were the bureaucratisation of
the Party and the future direction of socialism. Trotsky believed the Party was
becoming undemocratic, but Stalin used Lenin’s ban on factions to accuse him of
being divisive. Stalin also attacked Trotsky’s policy of permanent revolution, arguing
that it was fanciful. By contrast, he proposed a policy of ‘socialism in one country’.
Stalin won out, and Trotsky was forced to resign as Commissar for War in 1925.
By 1926, Trotsky recognised the true threat that Stalin posed, and took steps to
attack him. But Stalin had already stacked the Politburo with his own supporters, and
had Trotsky expelled from the Party. In 1928, he had him deported. Now, Stalin only
had to defeat his right wing allies to establish his primacy.
Stalin emerged as victor in the power struggle because he was able to build a
bureaucratic and ideological base from which to attack Trotsky. He also succeeded
because Trotsky and the other leading Bolsheviks failed to recognise the threat they
faced, and therefore did not unite to destroy him. In many ways, this failure can be
attributed to Trotsky’s weaknesses as a leader. His brilliance and arrogance made
people more afraid of him than of Stalin, and his loyalty to the Party made him
unwilling to destroy one of its trusted functionaries. By the time he realised the
danger he was in, it was too late to save his political career.