STALINISM is a term which has been applied not only to the regime inaugurated by its namesake, but also to the distinctive elements which actually led up to Stalin’s gradual seizure of power. Stalinism is also a phrase which has proved to be more than adequate as one seeks to come to terms with a period in which one man stamped his ultimate authority upon the Russian people. Here, I intend to examine Stalin’s rise to power and look at the policies which followed in his wake.

Joseph Vissarionovitch Stalin [1879-1953], the son of a Georgian cobbler, had been closely involved in the early development of the Bolshevik Party; appearing in Paris during the years 1902-3, at the Stockholm Conference of Russian Social-Democratic exiles in 1906 and at the London Conference of 1907. When the Bolshevik Central Committee was established in 1912 he was recognised as its expert on racial minorities and, in 1913, completed – in Vienna – his work Marxism and the Nationalities Problem. By 1917, he became editor of Pravda and was associated with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin [1870-1924] during the October Revolution. However, Stalin did not play a prominent role in the Revolution itself and, despite the fact that he later falsified the Biographical Chronicle by inserting the words “V. I. Lenin and J. V. Stalin direct the October Armed Uprising”[1], there is “no official record of Stalin directing anything”[2].

After being appointed by the new Communist government as the Commissar for Nationalities, prior to becoming Party Secretary in 1922, Stalin successfully defended Tsaritsyn (renamed Stalingrad in his honour) in the Russian Civil War and earned himself the reputation of being a very strong and highly capable individual. However, Stalin’s inherent ruthlessness had yet to blossom into its full potential. At the end of 1923 it became clear that Lenin was dying. The Russian Communist Party was about to experience a new era of brutal factionalism. Lenin had become a living legend and the personality cult which surrounded him meant it was now necessary to replace him with someone equally charismatic. But before Stalin could rise to the challenge of leadership, he was forced to struggle for his own survival.

By the early 1920s, Stalin had already begun to impress many of those around him and, in 1922, even the politically naive representatives of the American Relief Administration described him as being “closer to Lenin than anyone else”[3], or, at the very least, as “second only to Trotsky”[4]. In fact Leon Trotsky [1879-1940] was soon to figure quite prominently in the tumultuous battles which Stalin was forced to endure in his attempt to seize the reins of Soviet power. On December 16th, 1922 Lenin’s failing health had resulted in the formation of a triumvirate to replace him, consisting of Gregori Zinoviev [1883-1936], Lev Kamenev [1883-1936] and Stalin himself. These three men were united in their hatred of Trotsky’s “arrogance and mass appeal”[5], and set about reducing his power. By the end of 1923 his most loyal supporters had been deliberately steered away from influential government positions and Stalin attempted to suppress the warnings that were continually emanating from Lenin’s death-bed. Stalin had referred to Lenin’s wife as a “syphilitic whore”[6] and Lenin’s own last will and testament reveals how “Comrade Stalin having become the General Secretary has accumulated enormous powers in his hands and I am not sure whether he will be able to use this power with due care.”[7] Indeed, if Lenin had recovered from his illness it seems fairly likely that both he and Trotsky would have purged Stalin and his new bureaucratic elite, thus sparing Russia the budding dictator in her midst.

Stalin was a man of minute detail and renowned for his capable management of Party recruitment. After Lenin’s death, the Communist Party more than trebled its membership and Stalin was able to gain absolute power through the secretariats. More women and youth were incorporated within the Party and Lenin’s old companions were swamped with a barrage of new recruits, a matter which soon transformed Bolshevism into “a new Party, whose heroes, ideals and moral rules were no longer those of the Leninist Party.”[8] At the very top, however, the Old Guard still remained and – in addition – the Central Committee was filled with those loyal to Stalin and expanded from 27 to 40 members. This enabled Stalin to strengthen his own control over the Party, being able to “organise the harassment, or shouting down, of opponents.”[9] Stalin also used Lenin’s death as a means of conveniently associating himself with the outgoing Russian leader and creating a sense of political continuity. In one photograph from the period, Stalin can be seen posing beside Lenin’s corpse, “his expression that of barely concealed satisfaction”[10]. He was also careful to ensure that he was a pall-bearer at Lenin’s funeral and began to make comparisons between himself and the late demagogue of the 1917 October Revolution. Other photographs were doctored in order to give the impression that both he and Lenin had been good friends[11].

Another key feature which affected Stalin’s rise to ultimate power, was the fierce debate concerning the nature of the Revolution. At the Second Congress of the Comintern, Lenin had pursued his objective of “the creation in every foreign country of Communist parties”[12]. In other words, he believed in exporting the Revolution throughout the entire world. But his death had provoked fresh controversy and whilst on the one hand there were those who believed that constructing ‘socialism in one country’ was impossible (namely Trotsky and Stalin’s one-time ally, Zinoviev), on the other the likes of Stalin and Nikolai Ivanovitch Bukharin vigorously defended the New Economic Policy (NEP). The centrist and decidedly right-wing theory of ‘socialism in one country’ proposed that a classless society could be built “in one single country alone, the Soviet Union, even if the proletariat in the more advanced countries does not succeed in sizing power.”[13] Put simply, Stalin wished to consolidate the political, social and economic base in Russia before attempting to transplant the Revolution further afield.

Meanwhile, Trotsky’s Left Opposition believed that such a view demonstrated that Stalin’s own belief in World Revolution had been “shattered”[14], but whilst Trotsky attempted to justify his support for ‘permanent revolution’ by referring to the ideological objectives of Lenin, Stalin defied anyone to oppose his designs. People may have followed Lenin because of his ideas, but they followed Stalin through fear and coercion; thus he had no need to justify himself theoretically. By total contrast, Trotsky was powerless and seemed absolutely incompetent in the face of Stalin’s skilful political manoeuvring. By 1926 the likes of Trotsky, Zinoviev and the Left Opposition had been completely isolated within the Party and, by 1928, Trotsky had been exiled to Turkey. By consolidating his position at the Fifteenth Congress in December 1927, Stalin had been able to impose his will upon the Party and the Opposition soon capitulated and was easily routed. According to Stalin, “these squabbles have also their positive side, because they lead to the monolithicism of leadership.”[15]

The sheer ruthlessness which Stalin displayed throughout those years of frenzied political factionalism, was also an important feature during the implementation of Stalinist policies. Although the steady industrialisation of Russia had been taking place since before the First World War, by 1927 Stalin had so greatly accelerated the rate of industrial production that by the end of the 1930s Russia had become a great power.

In 1929 Stalin launched the so-called ‘socialist offensive’, which combined rapid industrialisation with the forced collectivisation of the peasantry. In the early 1930s, millions of peasants were “cajoled and bullied”[16] into collective farms and compulsory deliveries of their products to the state replaced the voluntary sales on the market which had characterised Lenin’s NEP. In fact bullying seems to be the operative word when dealing with Stalinism, and the vast suffering caused by Stalin’s dictatorial inhumanity is something many historians and political analysts are still trying to come to terms with today. The first Five-Year Plan of 1928-32 saw a massive decline in agricultural production and, by 1933, millions had died of starvation. Stalin’s determination to eliminate the Kulak class had resulted in the slow extermination of people throughout Russia. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, food production per head of population was lower than in 1913[17]; so much for Communist Revolution. R. W. Davies believes that Stalin’s economic policy,

“while modified by his personal idiosyncrasies, was impersonal in the sense that it was a result of the impact of economic circumstances on the fundamental goals imposed by the Revolution of 1917.” [18]

If more were needed, further testimony of Stalin’s incredible stubbornness and brutality was displayed during his various purges. In December 1934, so-called ‘White Guard Terrorists’ were executed for the assassination of Kirov and fourteen others involved in the Nikolayev-Rumyantsev case were also executed. In January 1935, nineteen people were imprisoned for alleged ‘counter-revolutionary activity’ and scores of others were also brought to trial; among them Kamenov. The following two years led to further State-sanctioned killings and mass deportations to Siberia until, in 1938, the great Party ideologue Nikolai Bukharin was also brought to trial. Bukharin was falsely accused of being the criminal mastermind behind “a vast anti-Soviet conspiracy of treason, sabotage and assassination”[19], and in Stalinist terminology he became synonymous with the ideas and aspirations of a secret anti-Stalinist alternative. Needless to say, the man Lenin had once described as the “favourite of the whole Party”[20] was executed forthwith. These show-trials were designed to convey Stalin’s message that the Old Guard Bolsheviks had confessed to past errors and crimes, as well as to insinuate that many of his opponents were conspiring with the Capitalist West. The trials resulted in those Communist parties outside Russia uniting firmly behind him and, on the domestic front, caused widespread fear and panic to the extent that people were prepared to spy upon one another in order to avoid facing some form of persecution themselves. Stalin, always the grand master of manipulation, used such methods to control those around him and when one thinks of the 20,000 Polish officers who were massacred in the Katyn Forest during the Second World War, the full extent to which people were prepared to go in order to avoid incurring the wrath and fury of Stalin becomes all too apparent.

Another major factor in the development of Stalinism was the creation of pageantry and the mass spectacle. With Western Europe playing host to the dictatorships of Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain, Stalin was keen to enhance his image in terms of formulating a new personality cult of his own. After all, if Russia was now a great industrial power then she required a strong man and a powerful vision to go with it. In recent years Stalin has been compared to Hitler for the way he attempted to transform himself into a national hero and become a living legend. According to Alan Bullock, the creation of such a cult

“increasingly projected him as being of more than human statue; but it was part of the fiction necessary, if he was to continue to lay claim to Marxist-Leninist as well as the tsarist succession” [21].

Indeed, to accentuate Stalin’s image a 1928 Party Conference decided to utilise the power of cinema in order to help things along and the adoption of the Five-Year Plan and the cultural revolution which accompanied it “made the film industry a more urgent priority for the Party.”[22] In April 1918 the new Soviet regime had abolished the Academy of Arts to break “the hold on art of traditional institutions”[23], but now Stalin was putting both art and literature to good use in his efforts to raise himself to a godlike leader of the Communist Revolution. Textbooks were rewritten and Stalin was accredited with almost everything. Architecture had to be “dynamic, its buildings as mobile as the modern metropolis.”[24] Elsewhere, according to one Communist historian,

“nine-tenths of the material published in Soviet pedagogical journals of the time consisted of abstract and irrelevant speculations.” [25]

With the advent of the Second World War, Stalin received another opportunity to bolster his own image. By borrowing certain nationalistic elements from his Fascist contemporaries abroad, Stalin was able to portray Russia’s involvement in the war as a ‘patriotic struggle’. Stalin was also able to marginalise the Party, and allegiance to Bolshevism was soon converted into loyalty towards ‘Mother Russia’. When Hitler invaded the East in 1941, the posters on the streets and in the towns of Russia were depicting the proletariat as a marching column of committed disciplinarians, complete with impressive Red flags and a freshly imbued spirit of national pride. It is ironic that, by seeking to imitate Fascism, Stalin was fulfilling the famous Marxian comment that history is destined to repeat itself ‘first as tragedy, and secondly as farce’.

Finally, the system upon which one man stamped his indomitable impression and which will always bear his name was, as a consequence, always likely to become one of the greatest tragedies in to history of the long-suffering Russian people. Stalin’s unyielding nature was enough to secure the extermination of many of his former friends and comrades, so it is hardly surprising, therefore, that those on the distant periphery – namely the Russian and Ukrainian peasants – ended up on the receiving end of a bitter campaign of “excesses, [the] arbitrary punishment of millions of honest people, and one-man rule, which violated the principles of collective leadership.”[26] In the words of Yuri Afanasyev, Stalin’s regime was

“unnatural, illegal, and contradicted the ideas, traditions and history of socialism. It was imposed by force, using mass criminal reprisals. To make it appear legitimate, there had to be a fake history. People had to think uniformly – to understand and believe in the same, distorted way.” [27]

If Stalin had wished to be included within the annals of world history then he certainly succeeded. However, it is within the annals of infamy to which Stalin and his system have been consigned.


1. Jonothon Lewis & Phillip Whitehead; Stalin: A Time for Judgement (Thames Methuen, 1990), p. 38.

2. Ibid.

3. Robert Conquest; Stalin: Breaker of Nations (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1991), p. 96.

4. Ibid.

5. Alec Nove; Stalinism and After (George Allen & Unwin, 1975), p. 27.

6. Robert Conquest, op. cit., p. 100.

7. Alec Nove, op. cit., p. 28.

8. Helene Carrere d’Encausse; Stalin: Order Through Terror (Longman, 1983), p. 3.

9. Robert Conquest, op. cit., p. 106.

10. Roderick Gordon; ‘Stalin vs. Trotsky: Leadership 1923-27’ in Modern History Review #4, Vol. 5 (1994), p. 11.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Max Shachtman; 1923-1933 – The First Ten Years: History and Principles of the Left Opposition (New Park Publications, 1974), p. 21.

14. Ibid.

15. Leon Trotsky; Stalin (Hollis & Carter, 1947), p. 18.

16. R. W. Davies; ‘Stalin and Soviet Industrialisation’ in History Sixth #9 (1991), p. 44.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., p. 45.

19. Stephen F. Cohen; Rethinking the Soviet Experience (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 72.

20. Ibid.

21. Alan Bullock; ‘Personality in History: Hitler and Stalin’ in Modern History Review #2, Vol. 5 (1993), p. 3.

22. Richard Taylor; ‘Soviet Cinema: The Path to Stalin’ in History Today, #July, Vol. 40 (1990), p. 45.

23. Richard Pipes; Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime 1919-1924 (Harvill, 1994), p. 310.

24, Ibid., p. 312.

25. Ibid., p. 318.

26. Nikita Khrushchev; Khrushchev Remembers (Little, Brown & Co., 1974), p. 250.

27. Yuri Afanasyev; ‘Filling in the Blank Spots in Soviet History’ in History Today, #February, Vol. 39 (1989), p. 13.


Robert Conquest; Soviet Nationalities Policy in Practice (The Bodley Head, 1967).

Robert Conquest; The Politics of Ideas in the USSR (The Bodley Head, 1967).

Robert V. Daniels; The Stalin Revolution (D. C. Heath & Co., 1965).

Isaac Deutscher; Stalin (Pelican, 1966).

Isaac Deutscher; The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (Oxford University Press, 1970).

Isaac Deutscher; The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (Oxford University Press, 1970).

Isaac Deutscher; The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1879-1921 (Oxford University Press, 1970).

Lionel Kochan; The Making of Modern Russia (Pelican, 1962).

Joel Carmichael; Trotsky (Hodder & Staunton, 1965).

Martin McCauley; Stalin and Stalinism (Longman, 1983).

Rosamond Richardson; The Long Shadow: Inside Stalin’s Family (Little, Brown & Company, 1993).

Richard Sakwa; Russian Politics and Society (Routledge, 1993).

David R. Shearer; Industry, State and Society in Stalin’s Russia: 1926-1934 (Cornell University, 1996).

Theodore H. von Laue; Why Lenin? Why Stalin? (J. B. Lippincott Co., 1964).

Leon Trotsky; My Life: An Attempt at An Autobiography (Penguin, 1975).

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