Stalin is undoubtedly a cunning and ruthless person, which we can see from how he presented himself as “Mr. Average”, how he made use of the character and mistake of Trotsky, his main rival, to marginalize him in the Party, how he made use of the division over policy in the Politburo to manipulate the members and how he used his job to achieve a support base and at the same time weaken Trotsky’s, but whether he succeeded because of his character rather than other factors needs some exploration. Firstly, after Lenin’s death, he was the one to organize the funeral.
This was nothing surprising as he was the General Secretary and it was his responsibility to organize it. But he did it in a way the he could benefit from it, which showed his cunning and the fact that he was an opportunist. Not only did he make the funeral as lavish as possible in merely three days to show that he cared and respected Lenin very much and hence raise his profile, he also lied to Trotsky about the date of the funeral, and so Trotsky could not get to Petrograd in time and missed the funeral, making him appear that he didn’t care about Lenin.
By this, Stalin could strike a contrast between him and Trotsky and therefore present himself as the true friend and heir of Lenin. Yet Stalin only succeeded in this event because of the power and the responsibility his job had given him and Trotsky’s character, for Trotsky had always been over-confident in himself and assumed that everyone would just accept him as the leader and so never regarded Stalin as his rival. If he had regarded Stalin as a rival, he wouldn’t have trusted him totally on the date of Lenin’s funeral, therefore he had to bear some responsibility for himself too.
If only Trotsky was more aware of Stalin’s cunning and ambition, he would have confirmed that date of the funeral with other Party members and go back to Petrograd a few days before Lenin’s funeral even though he was sick. In that case, no matter how cunning Stalin was, the trick wouldn’t have worked. As aforementioned, Trotsky’s character, weaknesses and mistakes made him trip over himself and gave Stalin the chance to marginalize him despite the fact that he was a marvelous speaker and he had many major contributions to the Party, for example organizing and planning the November Revolution and leading the army during the Civil War.
Trotsky had always been very arrogant, never listened to other people and showed no respect to them, making him very unpopular in the Politburo, and other Party members also feared that he would become a military dictator because of his authoritative ruling style and the fact that he controlled the army, especially when he did not join the Bolsheviks until the return of Lenin, making them worried that Trotsky was loyal only to Lenin but not the Party. Trotsky could have turned the situation round if he was less dogmatic and show the Party members that he would not become a dictator.
But instead of doing so, he confirmed their fear by being extremely stubborn on things that he believed was right. Trotsky, same as Lenin, believed in Permanent Revolution, which aim was to spread Communism all over the world, but after several failures in the western countries and the fact that political statuses in the western countries were quite stable as the war was over made many Party members believe that Permanent Revolution was not a sensible policy, especially when Russia was still recovering from the effects brought by the war.
The fact that Trotsky was so dogmatic about it and would not compromise even though most Party members were against it confirmed the Party members’ fear of him being a military dictator. At this time, Stalin, although not a political philosopher, saw a popular policy which opposed Permanent Revolution and grabbed the chance and put forward his theory of Socialism in One Country, which gained him much popularity. His cunning here was not about the fact that he thought of the theory of Socialism in One Country as it only required common sense. It was how he made use of Trotsky’s character to benefit himself that revealed his cunning.
He knew that Trotsky would never compromise, so he grabbed the chance of putting forward the theory of Socialism in One Country before anyone else from the Politburo could do it. He knew that whoever put forth that theory would gain huge popularity. This also showed that he was an opportunist. Trotsky probably could see that his theory was unpopular in the Party himself too, but his character was so dogmatic that he would not compromise on anything he that he believed was right, no matter what other people thought and what the situation was like.
It was his character that got him marginalized, as a sensible politician should compromise at times to secure popularity, even Lenin compromised on the economy policy. Stalin’s cunning wouldn’t have worked in this situation if Trotsky was willing to step back. Yet, it was Stalin’s job and position in the Party that made him marginalize Trotsky so easily and able to build his support base. Since he was the General Secretary and Head of the Control Commission, he controlled the Nomenkiatura list of authorized communists; therefore he could recommend people for jobs, promotions and expel members from the Party.
And so he gained support from the people who wanted him to help them with their future prospects and the people who owed him favors. Moreover, he could put many of his men in the Central Committee and expel Trotsky’s supporters out of the Party since most of Trotsky’s supporters were young members of the Party, who were more likely to break Party rules. As his supporters in the Central Committee increased while Trotsky’s decreased, Trotsky found it much more difficult to influence over it.
Not only did he find difficulties in persuading the Central Committee, but Stalin also made his supporters boo Trotsky, making him lost confidence. But it was actually Trotsky’s overconfidence that gave Stalin the chance to win support from the members of the Politburo and build a support base in the Central Committee. Because Trotsky was so confident and assume that everyone would just accept him as the leader, he couldn’t be bothered to build his support base in the Central Committee.
If he tried to build his support base, he would have succeeded as he was such a marvellous, intellectual speaker and had made so many contributions to the Party. This would make Stalin harder to kick his supporters out. But Stalin was cunning enough to think of this strategy instead of confronting Trotsky directly, as he was able to realize that Trotsky was an overconfident and proud person and would find the fact that he was unable to influence the Central Committee and getting booed when he was delivering speeches very frustrating as he had always been an outstanding and influential orator.
Yet again, it was Trotsky’s arrogance that led him to make the worst decision he could ever made, which was to resign from the post of Commissar of War. This made him vulnerable as he lost the army, his most fervent supporters and his government post. No sensible politician would resign from his most important post in a situation like that, because it was apparently exactly what his opponent wanted him to do. Although Stalin was incredibly cunning to think of this strategy, but Trotsky should have realised that it was his trick and therefore should not have resigned.
This also proved that Lenin’s comment about Stalin was correct. In his Testament, he said that Stalin was likely to misuse his power and should be gotten rid of immediately. In the end, Stalin did abuse his power from his job for his own benefits. Yet, even though Lenin was like a God to the Party members, Stalin managed to survive his Testament because of the support of Kamenev and Zinoviev. They persuaded the Party members that Lenin’s comment about Stalin was groundless, that they worked with him in perfect harmony during the period when Lenin was very ill.
They only supported Stalin because, firstly, it was the only chance for them to continue ruling the party, as they did in the triumvirate. They also knew that if Trotsky got power, he would be even more dogmatic than Lenin, and they wouldn’t even have a chance to speak, as Trotsky never listened or showed respect to anyone but Lenin in the meetings. When other members talked, he would either read a book or sleep, showing absolutely no respect for them. Moreover, they thought that even if Stalin got power, he was more likely to be a leader that would listen to other people and work together.
Therefore not only did they save Stalin out of the mud, they also stopped the Testament from being published, so as not to further embarrass Stalin, so the majority of Russian people did not know what Lenin really think of Stalin. But Trotsky had to bear some responsibility for the fact that Stalin survived Lenin’s Testament successfully, for even as Stalin’s ambitious character was more and more obvious, Trotsky still didn’t regard him as a threat, which we can see from the fact that Trotsky did nothing when Stalin was trying to befriend Kamenev and Zinoviev.
Had Trotsky been less arrogant, he should have tried to get them on his side as the three of them shared the same political view, so that he would not be isolated. If he did so, then Stalin would not have been able to survive through Lenin’s Testament. On the other hand, Trotsky could as well have leaked the Testament to the public so more people would know what Lenin really thought of Stalin and made him more difficult to gain support as Lenin was very influential to the Russian people.
On the other hand, Lenin also had to bear some responsibility for the fact that Stalin took control of the USSR despite his testament. Had he named a successor, there would be much less arguments about the issue. In fact he already said in his testament that Trotsky was the “most capable man in the Party. ” So it was pretty obvious that he would want Trotsky to lead the Party after his death. If it was the case, he should have made in absolutely clear in his testament rather than leaving such an ambiguous comment, thus giving an opportunist like Stalin a chance to escape.
Yet it was Trotsky’s own mistake for not making good use of Lenin’s comment of ‘the most capable man in the Party’ to convince the Party members that he should be the leader of the USSR instead of Stalin. The fact that Kamenev and Zinoviev saved Stalin out of the mud was also partly because they were deceived by Stalin’s disguise. Stalin’s cunning was subtle here. He was cunning on how to present himself. Before Lenin’s death, he had always focused on administrative work and he didn’t speak much, therefore not many people had a clear impression of him and he was described as a “grey blur”.
Yet, his mediocrity was something he used to disguise himself, that he used it to make other people think that he was not a threat and gave him more trust, especially when his main rival was Trotsky, an authoritative, dogmatic person that made other people feel threatened. They also believed that even if he ruled, he would work in a more collaborative style as he had always portrayed himself as a ‘middle-of-the-road’ communist.
He ruled in the way which people wanted and estimated him to rule in the triumvirate with Kamenev and Zinoviev, and thus winning the support of them. Other members saw it and could compare the difference between him and Trotsky clearly and came to the conclusion that he would be much easier to work with. This allowed him to win more support from the members of the Politburo. Therefore they did not suspect him when he quietly built his support base in the Central Committee.
As a “grey blur”, his view on the NEP was indistinct, yet it allowed him to play around the leftist and rightist. One of the key processes that made Stalin win power was the way he played around the Politburo members, manipulating and making use of their opinions towards the NEP and pushed them all out of the Politburo without directly confronting anyone. In this process, Stalin was incredibly cunning. He first sided with the rightists and kicked the leftists out of the Politburo by accusing them of faction, Lenin’s worst fear, as we can see in his “On Party Unity”.
Out of the three leftists, Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled from the party as Stalin thought they would pose a threat to him. Later Trotsky was even exiled from the country. After kicking the leftists out, Stalin put three of his old friends in the Politburo and monopolised the Politburo, marginalising the rightists. He then, with his old friends, announced that it was the right time for the NEP to stop. Bukharin tried to stop him but since the number was four to three, they were ignored.
Knowing that they wouldn’t ever get a say again in the Politburo and as Stalin’s cunning and ruthlessness was more and more obvious, which they could see how the leftists were kicked out and expelled, the rightists, including Tomsky, Rykov and Bukharin knew that the safest and wisest thing for them to do was to leave immediately and so they resigned from their posts in the Politburo. From then on, Stalin had all his main rivals gotten rid of and he was the supreme leader of the USSR without any competition. But Stalin’s ruthlessness was particularly significant on how he treated Trotsky after he was exiled.
It showed that Stalin would do anything to secure his power. Even when Trotsky was in exile, he still considered him as a threat as he was once quite popular with the Russian people. Not only did he wipe out every traces of Trotsky in Russia, including removing all the photos with Trotsky in and deleted his name in all the Party documents, but he also sent secret agents to chase after Trotsky all over the world and in the end got him assassinated. In conclusion, I think Stalin’s cunning and ruthlessness were undoubtedly very important for him to take total control of the USSR, but they were not the only reasons or the most important reasons.
Other factors like the power that his job gave him and the fact that everyone underestimated him and thought he was not a threat all played a part. In my opinion, the most important reason was the mistakes made by Trotsky himself because of his character. It was Trotsky losing it rather than Stalin winning it. It is because firstly, in terms of personal charm and intellectuality, Stalin was nowhere as outstanding as Trotsky. He was a poor speaker, he did not have clear views or directions and he did not have any major contributions to the Party.
On the other hand, Trotsky was totally opposite of him. He was a charming leader, intellectual and an excellent orator. No matter how cunning Stalin was, if Trotsky was less arrogant, respected other people and was less dogmatic on issues that he believed were right, he would still be far more popular than Stalin as he was so intellectual and had made so many contributions to the Party, as people usually follow classic leaders unless their strong character twisted into threat, then people would turn to mediocre leaders who provide more sense of safety and are believed to be easier to work with.
Secondly, although Stalin was very cunning and tricked Trotsky several times, an intelligent man like Trotsky should not have fallen into the traps if he was more alert and did not assume that everyone would just accept him as the leader. Had he regarded Stalin as his rival, he would at least be more careful on everything he does and act less rashly, for example thinking twice before resigning from the post of Commissar of War.
He would also probably have done something to secure his popularity, for example building his support base in the Central Committee and trying to side with Kamenev and Zinoviev, who he shared the same political view to prevent himself being marginalised. In that case, Stalin’s cunning and ruthlessness would not have worked.