The fight for supremacy in the Communist Party was based not upon popular support or hereditary claims for power, but rather a war of ideologies. While all members of the Politburo were, to differing extents, Marxists, the breadth of Marxist theory meant that there were a number of differing interpretations of his work. However, it is important to remember that Marxism is first and foremost an economic theory, and so the future of the USSR would be determined on just what kind of Marxist the new leader of the nation would be.
It must be noted that when we look at the beginnings of the new socialist state, the actual economic model followed was not Marxism, but a strange hybrid known as Marxist-Leninism. While Marx has the comfort of speculation, V.I. Lenin (leader of the Communist party, 1917-24, although his multiple strokes in 1922 seriously reduced his capacity as leader) became swiftly aware that the utopia he and his comrades dreamed of was simply not an immediate possibility. So, Marxist Leninism really is an umbrella term for Lenin’s desperate search for a workable Russian economy. During his time as the Soviet leader, Lenin initiates three distinct economic policies. The first of these was State Capitalism, a system which was replaced by War Communism with the onset of the civil war. This was a system under which nationalization, state intervention and grain requisition were prevalent, as Lenin saw this necessary to keep the revolution alive in Russia. However, by the end of the war, the economy was even worse than before, and in 1921 Lenin attempted to stimulate it with the NEP (New Economic Policy). Its main tenants were the abolition of grain requisition, the removal of trade bans and the capacity for small scale private enterprise. While Lenin instituted the NEP grudgingly, it did indeed begin to revitalize the Russian economy. Clearly, however, it was not Marxism, and so Lenin stated that it would be only a “limited and temporary concession to capitalism”. In order to quell the party infighting that this caused, Lenin instituted the “Ban On Factions”, a piece of legislation that removes dissident and minority groups from the party.
Upon his death, the struggle for power has already begun. Due to his incapacity during the last two years of his leadership, many in the Politburo already had their campaigns well under way before Lenin’s premature demise. In one now infamous incident, Stalin misinformed his main rival, Trotsky, of the date of Lenin’s funeral, meanwhile acquiring a front row seat for himself, which of course shamed Trotsky and showed himself in a very positive light. Such political manipulation would serve Stalin very well later on, as we will see. However, despite this trickery, there were two main issues that would determine the next Chairman. Firstly, their stance on foreign policy, in which they were divided into “internationalists” (probably those truest to Marxism, “workers of the world unite!”), and believers of “socialism in one country”. However, the most crucial factor was that of, unsurprisingly, economics. Lenin’s premature death meant that there was no consensus in the Communist Party as to what the official party line on the economy should be. There was those on the left of the party who has always opposed the NEP, seeing it as a direct contradiction of socialism. On the other hand, while they may not have agreed with it in full, there were those in the party who saw the NEP as Lenin’s political legacy to the party, and so it should be followed through. It was this issue that Stalin used in order rise to power.
Stalin’s first and probably primary opponent was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was, theoretically, the ideal man to lead the USSR. He had led the Red Army to victory in the civil war, been a brilliant theorist and orator, and had most likely been the second most powerful man in Russia, second to Lenin. However, Stalin was also aware of his flaws. He was deeply ideological, and utterly committed to socialism (a fundamentalist Marxist, if you will), and as such was absolutely unswayable in his beliefs. So, to a canny politician such as Stalin, he was easy prey. Instead of taking on Trotsky head to head, he instead challenged him on the issue of the NEP. When Trotsky, precisely has Stalin has predicted, displayed his defiance of what he saw as “capitalist corruption”, Stalin used his great political powers in the Politburo (over the years, he had achieved positions of authority in almost every element of Soviet bureaucracy) to ensure that the NEP had majority support. He also formed a triumvirate with two other leading left-wingers, Zinoviev and Kamonev. Then, he could simply invoke Lenin’s Ban On Factions, and have Trotsky ejected from the party. Then, when he no longer needed their support, Stalin began promoting his policy of “Socialism in One Country”. When Zinoviev and Kamonev opposed this, and formed the “United Opposition” with Trotsky, they two were open to accusations of factionalism, and in 1927 were expelled from the party.
With the party’s left-wing figure head gone, Stalin could then switch his attention to those in the right wing. Ironically, he used largely similar methods to depose of the his Pro-NEP adversaries, although clearly this time his approach was entirely reversed. He now manipulated the left wing into turning against right-wing leaders such as Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky. Stalin now advocated rapid industrialization and state control, and so used his majority to remove those three from the party.
By this point, Josef Stalin had removed any real opposition from the Politburo, and he was ready to ascend to the role of Chairman. However, the truth was soon to become apparent that Stalin really considered the NEP an irrelevance. While he used the economic vagaries that Lenin left in his wake to facilitate his political manoeuvring, it was swiftly discarded once he gained the power he thirsted for.