stalin v trotsky v bukharin -- 10/18/22

Today's selection -- from The Shortest History of the Soviet Union by Sheila Fitzpatrick. As the competition began to see who would replace Vladimir Lenin as the head of Russia’s Communist Party, Joseph Stalin was viewed at first as the least likely to emerge as the victor:
"As the dance of the factions became ever more complicated, it became harder to see which policies the various factions were identi­fied with. Trotsky was generally a maximalist ('leftist'), push­ing for the most ambitious and quickest plan of economic development. Bukharin, a radical on social questions in the early '20s, had swung around and become a 'rightist'. Stalin sometimes looked like a rightist and sometimes a leftist, recalling the contemporary joke that 'the party line never deviates', accompanied by hand gestures showing it veering first to the left, then the right.

"Along with the cult of Lenin, a new pernicious cult was taking hold -- that of the party and the correctness of its 'line'. 'The party is always right' had become the mantra, and before too long, respected Old Bolsheviks were being forced to make abject apologies for their Oppositionist views in front of jeer­ing and whistling delegates at the annual party congresses. Krupskaya, who had joined the Zinoviev Opposition in 1925, was the rare exception who stood up to the heckling and declined to apologise, even mocking -- as only Lenin's widow could have dared to do -- the idea that the party could not err.

"It was perhaps surprising that Stalin, part of the 1 per cent of party members who were Georgian as against the 72 per cent who were Russians, should have landed the leadership prize at the end of the 1920s. Although he spoke Russian with an accent, he increasingly identified as Russian. A great advantage, undoubtedly, was that his two main competitors -- Trotsky and Zinoviev -- were Jewish, and, as Trotsky himself acknowledged, a Jewish leader was a bridge too far for the general population of the country, and perhaps for the party's rank and file as well. If Bukharin, a genuine Russian, had been a better politician, he might have had a chance against Stalin, but by the time he made his move it was too late. The Jewish issue was not openly exploited by Stalin, but it almost cer­tainly coloured the party debate on Stalin's 'Socialism in one country', in which Trotsky was painted into a corner as the internationalist. Of course internationalism was a core Lenin­ist party policy. But the word was also taking on connotations as a marker for Jewishness.

Photograph of Trotsky from the cover of the magazine Prozhektor in January 1924

"The Bolsheviks were not averse to using terror against class enemies, and had done so freely during the civil war before pulling back somewhat during NEP. But they always expressed strong disapproval of allowing 'the revolution to eat its own children' (that is, using terror as a weapon against party opponents), as in the French Revolution. Under Lenin, those defeated in policy conflicts were not forced out of the party, and by common consent, the Cheka and its successor, the GPU, left the party leaders alone. That changed late in 1927, when leading Oppositionists were expelled from the party and those who refused to break with the Opposition were sent off into internal exile by the GPU. Trotsky's destination was Alma-Ata, on the Chinese border in Kazakhstan, although by a strange oversight he was allowed to take all his books and papers (which subsequently ended up in Harvard's Widener Library), and keep up an extensive correspondence with his followers exiled to different parts of the country. Two years later (February 1929), in an extraordinary break with party tradition, he was deported from the Soviet Union -- his home country -- as a traitor to the revolution. Eleven years after that, he would be murdered in Mexico by Stalin's assassin.

"Trotsky, an arrogant man, always despised Stalin and was slow to see him as a real political threat. Stalin was nei­ther an orator nor a theorist (two areas, highly valued in the party, in which Trotsky excelled), and having been educated in an Orthodox seminary in Georgia before dropping out to become a professional revolutionary, he was not even an intel­lectual in Trotsky's eyes. He was no cosmopolitan: instead of spending years in emigration, his revolutionary apprentice­ship had been served in prison and internal exile. There were no towering achievements in his biography, such as heading the Petersburg Soviet in 1905 or creating the Red Army from nothing in the civil war. Lenin's snub in the 'Testament' had been a substantial political setback. He was a 'grey blur' (to quote the memoirist Nikolai Sukhanov); a mere 'creature of the bureaucracy', as Trotsky would later claim; a 'crude man', as he admitted himself when apologising for his rudeness to Krupskaya during Lenin's illness. Trotsky scarcely even both­ered to be polite to him, still less to those who supported him, a group that from the mid-1920s included several Politburo members, notably Molotov, ex-Red Cavalry man Klim Voro­shilov and Kaganovich, a candidate member of the Politburo who was first secretary of the party in Ukraine.

"Trotsky's contempt -- generally echoed, until the Soviet archives opened in the 1990s, by historians -- was woefully off the mark. Stalin was not a mediocrity, he was not stupid and he was nobody's creature. If others played a more stellar part in the policy debates of the 1920s, it was Stalin who came to a simple conclusion about the way forward. Lenin had led the party to victory in the political revolution of October, but the economic revolution -- crucial in Marxist terms -- was still to come. Stalin would be the man to lead it."



Sheila Fitzpatrick


The Shortest History of the Soviet Union


Columbia University Press


Copyright 2022 Sheila Fitzpatrick


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