Lenin’s Succession

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The struggle to succeed Lenin which commenced even before his death in January 1924 rocked the Communist Party to its foundations and had immense consequences to its — and the Soviet Union’s — future. In retrospect, it seems obvious that Stalin, appointed General Secretary two months before Lenin suffered the first of three strokes (May 1922), would assume his mantle. But at the time the Secretariat was not a particularly exalted institution, and for all his capacity for hard work, Stalin seemed to lack the intellectual brilliance and rhetorical skills that were associated with the party’s leader. Moreover, in a series of notes that Lenin dictated to his secretary in December 1922, he excoriated Stalin for his “hastiness and administrative impulsiveness” in handling the conflict over the absorption of Georgia into the Soviet Union, indicating that he held him (and Feliks Dzerzhinskii) “politically responsible for this genuine Great Russian nationalistic campaign.” In a postscript dictated in early January, he added that “Stalin is too rude, and this fault … becomes unbearable in the office of General Secretary.” He thus advocated his removal from this position.

Then again, in what is generally referred to as his “Testament,” Lenin was also critical of other leading Politbiuro members, including Trotsky who exhibited “excessive self-assurance” and “excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of affairs.” In any case, by the time Lenin’s notes were read to the Central Committee in May 1924, Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev had formed a triumvirate, essentially an alliance against Trotsky, and managed to sidetrack the issue at the Thirteenth Party Congress later that month. Following the congress, the party’s top leaders polemicized in speeches and articles in the press over who was the most loyal Leninist. Trotsky, who had clashed repeatedly with Lenin before the revolution and had not joined the Bolsheviks until mid-1917, was at a distinct disadvantage in these exchanges. But in November 1924 he hit back, reminding the party faithful in an essay titled “The Lessons of October,” of Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s opposition to Lenin’s decision to launch the October 1917 insurrection.

Party leaders at the time of Lenin’s death had already been conditioned by the struggle with the Workers’ Opposition to use ideological debates as instruments of political ambition. Stalin’s advocacy of “socialism in one country” proved a politically effective weapon against Trotsky who seemed by contrast to lack faith in the self-sufficiency of the Soviet Union. All the while, Stalin was bringing trusted supporters of “the party line” into the central apparatus and consolidating his control over provincial party appointments. Although Trotsky was to remain in the Politbiuro for nearly another three years, he was removed in January 1925 from one of his most powerful posts, president of the Revolutionary Military Council. With Trotsky’s star on the wane, the triumvirate collapsed, and by the end of 1925, Zinoviev and Kamenev were voicing criticism of Stalin’s pretensions to leadership. Stalin’s reckoning with them would come in 1926 followed by his attack in 1928 against the “rightist deviation” of his former ally, Nikolai Bukharin.

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