30 Jan 2014
The Roots of the Great Turn
The death of Lenin on 21 January 1924 heralded the beginning of a new era in the history of the Soviet Union. The changes did not come immediately, but the power struggle initiated by Lenin's death, accompanied by the recurring economic and international crises of the fledgling state, would soon lead the country into what essentially amounted to another revolution. By the end of the decade the Soviet Union had an entirely new political and economic system and was embarking on one of the most ambitious industrialization drives the world has ever seen. Collective leadership of the party, in place from the moment of Lenin's death, was replaced by authoritarian and dictatorial rule. The economic policies of NEP, that had taken a softer line on the peasantry and abolished forced grain requisitions, had successfully brought the Soviet Union from the brink of collapse in the aftermath of the Civil War, but were abandoned in favor of the complete destruction of the private market and a path to development dictated by “plans” from above. Josef Stalin, after years of presenting himself as a voice of moderation in the party, presided over these enormous changes from his position as General Secretary of the Communist party.
In hindsight, Stalin's rise to power seems almost preordained. Lenin, as early as 1922 in his famous “Last Testament,” warned that “Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be
capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.”1 In another letter a few days later, Lenin expressed in no uncertain terms that Stalin should be immediately removed from his post as General Secretary, yet the plea fell on deaf ears at the Congress in which it was read. One would figure the party would follow a directive from the leader of the revolution itself, but the matter was quickly brushed under the table. Lenin had accurately assessed the problem Stalin posed, yet, given Stalin's moderate conduct, in both meetings and policy, over the next few years, Lenin's warning was virtually ignored until the decisive conflicts of 1927-28. Even as late as 1928, Trotsky, Stalin's primary rival, could be found saying “With Stalin against Bukharin? Yes. With Bukharin against Stalin? - Never!”2 The failure of the party, Trotsky in particular, to realize the true danger Stalin posed can only be understood in the context of the debates that raged among the party leadership throughout the 1920s. In a broad sense, the debates and controversies of the '20s were waged over nothing less than the future direction of the Soviet Union. Often viewed as the struggle for power between Stalin and Trotsky, such a view arises primarily from its final outcome and not so much the reality of the struggle. Bukharin was just as involved in this struggle as Trotsky and Stalin. The two belligerents of the struggle, the Left Oppositionists and the party majority, did indeed differ in their policies, but the assumptions they acted upon, and in large part their future plans, shared a remarkable amount of commonalities. The chasm between the two sides resulted not so much from actual policy differences as it did from political ones, even if that fact was not realized or acknowledged by either faction. Trotsky viewed Bukharin as the bigger threat than Stalin in 1928 not because he feared Bukharin the dictator, but because Bukharin was the chief
1 Lenin, “Letter to the Congress,” http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/dec/testamnt/congress.htm (December 1922). - Not sure why this is showing up on this page but can't seem to fix it 2 Lev Trotsky qtd. In Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky: The Prophet Unarmed (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 315.
ideologue of the party majority and took much more conclusive stands on policy than Stalin ever did. Stalin would exploit this fatal...
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