The Bolshevik Party Transformed: Stalin’s Rise to Power (1917–1927)

James Harris


In 1917, the Bolsheviks promised the liberation of the working masses from exploitation. And yet, within twenty years, they had delivered a regime that was substantially more exploitative and repressive than that of the Tsarist regime they had overthrown. This article argues that more than a quarter of a century after the opening of the archives, we still misapprehend how it happened. Historians tend to see the process as programmatic, or planned and intentional: that the Bolsheviks were authoritarian by nature, or that Stalin hijacked the Revolution and satisfied his lust for power by building a personal dictatorship. The article
argues that we have failed to grasp the extent to which the positive programme of liberation continued to motivate the Bolshevik leadership throughout the interwar period. But they had underestimated the obstacles to creating a consensual, participatory political order. Considerable progress was made overcoming basic illiteracy, but it was another matter altogether to establish a functioning administrative apparatus, to fight and win the civil war, and to rebuild a shattered
economy. The breakdown of liberal (“bourgeois”) democracies in Europe encouraged complacency about the superiority of the “transitional” proletarian dictatorship. The struggle for power after Lenin’s death turned local organisations against inner party democracy. It did not seem appropriate to revive it either in the midst of collectivisation and rapid industrialisation. The survival of the Revolution and catching up to the advanced capitalist countries took precedence. But if we treat extreme political violence and dictatorship as ends in themselves, we will fail adequately to grasp the fate of the Revolution.


Stalin; democracy; dictatorship; bolshevism


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