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ladimir Lenin died on the 21st of January 1924. A leadership contest then followed, and there were five central competitors: Nikolai Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, and Grigory Zinoviev. Joseph Stalin, of course, was the winner. But this wasn’t down to luck. For all his faults, Stalin was a skilled politician who knew how to outmaneuver his opponents and gather the support he needed from the Bolshevik Party.

Adapting to the times

Before the leadership struggle kicked off, Stalin was against the policy of socialism in one country. Like those on the far-left of the Bolshevik Party, he had previously supported the idea of a global communist revolution.

However, he changed his mind in the mid-1920s. He recognized, unlike some of his opponents, that waiting for a global communist revolution wasn’t very appealing. There was no excitement for such a policy, as the West seemed unlikely to follow suit. The idea of socialism in one country, on the other hand, was empowering because it gave the Bolshevik Party a sense of agency. What’s more, this tactical change of heart allowed Stalin to side with Bukharin (who was on the right side of the party) against Trotsky and Zinoviev (who was on the left side of the party).

But he still had to find a way to take down Bukharin, and once again, he achieved this through smart adaptation. When the New Economic Policy (the NEP) started to decline at the end of 1927, Stalin switched to a policy of rapid industrialization and called for an offensive against the kulaks (wealthier peasants).

A photograph of Stalin reading a paper by an unknown photographer, 1920 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A powerful speaker

Like many successful politicians, Stalin had a way with words. He was a skilled orator who could get his ideas across succinctly. The following lines from “Industrialisation and the Grain Problem” (a speech from 1928) demonstrate this:

“Does NEP abolish the dictatorship of the proletariat? Of course not! On the contrary, NEP is a specific form of expression and an instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And is not the dictatorship of the proletariat a continuation of the class struggle?”

The above segment also exemplifies his knack for hypophora, a literary device where the speaker raises a question and then immediately answers it.

Furthermore, he always made a conscious effort to link his ideas back to Lenin whenever he could. By doing this, he was reinforcing the idea that he was Lenin’s natural successor.

Foolish opponents

Lenin’s final testament wasn’t favorable towards Stalin. The document described him as “rude”, “intolerable”, and “capricious”. Stalin’s opponents should have capitalized on Lenin’s words, but instead, they wasted too much time making their own blunders.

Trotsky made an immediate misstep when he missed Lenin’s funeral on the 27th of January 1924. He also underestimated Stalin. In the autumn of 1924, he openly denounced Zinoviev and Kamenev but left Stalin alone.

Bukharin wasn’t much better. He went against the core values of Marxism with the slogan, “enrich yourselves”, and when Stalin proposed the removal of the NEP, he did little to defend this right-leaning policy. Instead, he spent most of his time criticizing Stalin’s policy of rapid industrialization whilst failing to come up with an alternative himself.

A photograph of Leon Trotsky (second from the left) and Lev Kamenev (far light) by an unknown photographer, c. 1917 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Party Control

Trotsky’s disregard for Stalin’s potential is ironic given the multiple offices he held within the Bolshevik Party. As Commissar of Nationalities (a position he acquired in 1917), Stalin widened his contacts with the Bolshevik leaders of the borderlands, many of whom were part of his entourage at the Kremlin later on.

Furthermore, from the beginning of 1919, he was the only permanent liaison officer between the Politburo and the Orgbureau. In contrast to his opposition, therefore, he understood the day-to-day workings of the Bolshevik Party.

But his most significant position was that of General Secretary, a role he secured in 1922. Stalin was able to appoint the secretaries of local committees, who would then elect the delegates to Party congresses. The number of people working under the General Secretary increased as time went on, rendering the position even more influential.


By the end of the 1920s, the leadership struggle was over. The combination of Stalin’s influence over the Bolshevik Party, his skill as an orator, and his ability to adapt to different contexts meant his ascension was inevitable. Plus, his foolhardy opposition made his task considerably easier.

Had Bukharin, Kamenev, Trotsky, or Zinoviev replaced Lenin, the practices of the Soviet Union might have been different. Whilst the utopian ideal of communism was always destined to fail, a different leader might have been less murderous than the infamous Joseph Stalin.

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