How did Stalin consolidate his power between 1922 and 1929?

Who were the candidates to succeed Lenin as the Leader of the Soviet Union?

In May 1922, Lenin suffered his first stroke, affecting his ability as a political leader. He became particularly concerned with what would happen after his death, expressing his thoughts in his 1922 Political Testament, in which he outlined the strengths and weaknesses of the leading communists. 

The leading communists were the other members of the Politburo, the main policy-making body of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. These included Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Rykov, Stalin and Tomsky. 

Why was Trotsky a candidate for leadership?

As Commissar for War and the main organiser of the November Revolution who had built up the Red Army which defeated the Whites, Trotsky seemed to be the most likely candidate to succeed Lenin as Leader of the Soviet Union, whilst Stalin was less well-known. Stalin did have the advantage that, as General Secretary of the Communist Party, since April 1922, he had the power to appoint and dismiss Communist Officials. 

Lenin himself appeared to favour Trotsky, offering Trotsky the position of deputy chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, which Trotsky refused twice. Many leading communists disliked this apparent favouritism and the rapid rise to power of Trotsky, who had only joined the Bolsheviks in August 1917 after siding with the Mensheviks in 1903 during the split of the Russian Soviet Democratic Labour Party and then forming an independent grouping, until joining the Bolshevik Party.

Stalin's Rise to Power

Leading communists Zinoviev and Kamenev decided to form an alliance with Stalin by January 1923, known as the Triumvirs, with Stalin attacking Trotsky’s decision to refuse the position of deputy chairman in order to take Lenin’s place instead.

Becoming increasingly concerned by Stalin’s power, in January 1923, Lenin added to his 1922 Political Testament, writing ‘Stalin is too rude, and this fault, entirely supportable in relations amongst us Communists, becomes insupportable in the office of General Secretary. Therefore I propose to comrades to find a way of removing Stalin from that position and to appoint another man who in all aspects differs from Stalin only in superiority; namely more patient, more loyal, more polite, less capricious and more attentive to comrades.’ Despite this, Stalin’s power only continued to grow. 

The death of Lenin

Trotsky was away recovering from illness when he received the telegram from Stalin notifying him of Lenin’s death. Stalin deliberately provided him with the wrong date of the funeral and told him he would be unable to make it back in time. This allowed the Triumvirs to present themselves as Lenin’s successors in the absence of Trotsky. 

Stalin gave a speech at Lenin’s funeral, personally swearing to continue the work of Lenin. On January 28, 1924, Stalin addressed this speech, saying ‘We vow to thee Comrade Lenin, that we shall honourably fulfil this commandment.’ This contributed to the rise of Stalin as he presented himself as the ‘chosen one’ who would succeed Lenin and continue to uphold his work. This created a sense of prestige and respect for Stalin. He was an opportunist and used Lenin’s death as a method of advancing his position as he gained immense public support due to his speech which gave him loyalty associated with Lenin.

The Lenin Enrolment

At this time, they also announced a tribute to Lenin from Stalin through the Lenin Enrolment which aimed to expand the Bolshevik Party. The Enrolment was announced in 1924 and increased the size of the party from 500,000 to over 1 million members in two years. The majority of these new members were young and unqualified (as only 8% had received higher education and less than 1% had completed any form of higher education), thus making them incredibly easy for Stalin to manipulate. 

The picture shows (from left to right):Anna Ulyanova (Lenin's sister, painted from the back), unknown (in half profile), Zinoviev, Kamenev, Krupskaya (Lenin's wife, at the head), Dzerzhinsky, Stalin, Kalinin, unknown, Rykov, Rudztak (in profile), Yenukidze (foreground in profile), Bukharin (in the background) and Kamenev (in the foreground).*Image from Wikimedia Commons, from which the description was translated from Russian to English.

Stalin's Consolidation of Power

Stalin was the middleman between the Politburo and the government, with access to party files and recordings, and conveying information, and the ability to dismiss and demote those who opposed him from posts of responsibility. 

His consolidation of power can be separated into three stages.

Stage One:

Stalin was able to secure his position as the leader of Soviet Russia through his defeat of the Left Opposition. This can be seen as the first stage of his consolidation of power. Before the 13th Party Congress in May 1924, Lenin’s wife had revealed Lenin’s Testament, which revealed a clear recommendation for Stalin to be dismissed, to the Central Committee. This would almost surely guarantee that he would not be able to succeed Lenin as the leader, but Zinoviev and Kamenev came to his rescue, arguing that the Testament was no longer important as Stalin had changed his policies, and the political climate meant it was important for the party to maintain a united front. The Central Committee voted to keep Stalin in the role of General Secretary and not publish Lenin’s Testament, and in June 1924, the Fifth Congress of Comintern elected Stalin in the place of Trotsky as a full executive member. 

Leon Trotsky, the leader of the Left Opposition, who was originally seen to be Lenin's successor.

Stage Two:

The second stage that took place was sparked as the Left Opposition called Stalin a "rightist" for his support of the New Economic Policy— which in 1922, Lenin described as an economic system including "a free market and capitalism, both subject to state control,”. With the support of Bukharin, Stalin consolidated his power through the removal of the Left Opposition from influential positions and the expansion of his supporters in the Central Committee. Bukharin agreed with Stalin that the proposals of the Left Opposition’ would plunge the Soviet Union into a state of instability.

In late 1924, Stalin took actions to reduce the influences of Kamenev and Zinoviev, removing their supporters from posts of influence. In 1925, they were openly opposed to Stalin and Bukharin and launched an unsuccessful attack against Stalin’s faction at the 14th Party Congress in December, causing Stalin to accuse them of reintroducing factionalism and instability into the party. Kamenev was demoted to a candidate member, with three of Stalin’s supporters becoming full members, and Zinoviev was forced t hand over his position as leader of the Leningrad party to another of Stalin’s supporters— Kirov.

With Trotsky’s power and influence greatly reduced, he decided to form a United Opposition with Zinoviev and Kamenev. Formally declaring its existence in July 1926, it campaigned for greater party democracy, increased industrial planning and collectivised agriculture and the rejection of socialism in one country. Stalin reduced the threat of their opposition by banning meetings and dismissing oppositionists and then accusing them of breaking the 1921 Ban on Factions. The Central Committee voted to remove Zinoviev from the Politburo, meaning Trotsky was the only one left who opposed Stalin. 

As Zinoviev and Kamenev began to fear expulsion from the Communist Party, they were hesitant to continue supporting Trotsky. In an effort to maintain the United Opposition, Trotsky offered the Politburo a truce, which was accepted. However, one of Trotsky’s supporter’s published Lenin’s Testament in the New York Times, leading to the end of that truce, and the expulsion of the three leaders from the Politburo. 

In December 1927, the United Opposition asked congress to annul the expulsion of the leading members and other oppositionists from the party. When this was rejected, Trotsky began formulating the idea of a second party, which alarmed Zinoviev and Kamenev, resulting in them surrendering and promoting to make no more criticisms of Stalin and the party. 

Following this, Zinoviev and Kamenev, and thousands of oppositionists were forced to announce that their views and criticisms of Stalin and the party had been wrong, while approximately 1,500 were expelled altogether. Trotsky was then expelled to Kazakhstan and then deported to Turkey. His works were banned from being published and removed from libraries and bookstores.

Stage Three:

During the final stage of Stalin’s consolidation of power, he defeated the right in the power struggle. A crisis had arisen in rural areas as the Soviet Union lagged behind the industrial development of the West and had seen a 30% reduction in grain production from 1926 to 1927. Many Communists, including the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, state security, intelligence and secret police, and the Red Army, were concerned about the affluent peasants known as "kulaks" and small business owners known as "Nepmen" who profited greatly from the New Economic Plan. Stalin, who also began to oppose the plan, alleged that kulaks were hoarding grain, ordering for them to be arrested and their grain confiscated. This led to a conflict arising, with supporters of Bukharin favouring making concessions to the Kulaks, and supporters of Stalin believing in the use of force. It was the Left Opposition of Trotsky’s supporters, the Centre of Stalin’s supporters and the Right of Bukharin’s supporters all against each other.

Despite challenges from Bukharin and the right, who eventually surrendered, and the Left Opposition, who remained divided, Stalin was able to consolidate his power and maintain control. February 1929 was when Trotsky was completely expelled from the soviet union, in order to prevent any alliance with Trotsky’s Left Opposition. Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky were charged with attempting to create factions within the party, whilst Bukharin was also removed as editor of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and his position as political secretary of the Comintern, and Tomsk dismissed from the Central Council of Trade Unions. Later, in November, Bukharin was removed from the Politburo for leading the ‘right deviation’, leaving Stalin’s only opposition being Tomsky, who maintained his seat on the Politburo, and Rykov, who remained a member of the Central Committee.