Stalinism has come to stand for the whole of the repressive Soviet political system under Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) from at least 1928 until his death, although many commentators extend the term to include the period before perestroika. He has been held personally responsible, as a total and arbitrary autocrat, for millions of deaths and for the ‘deviations of socialism’ that went on under his rule. In recent years, however, a new historiography has appeared which seeks to distinguish Stalin and Stalinism from a range of competing ideological positions in Soviet politics. Many of the tenets of ideological Stalinism are considered by these historians to have lost ground in the 1930s, though adherents of this position continued to exercise influence and power throughout the Soviet period.
Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili adopted the name Stalin (man of steel) as a pseudonym while in the Bolshevik underground before the revolution. He was a Georgian by birth and his education came first from an orthodox school and then a seminary where he learned Russian. He joined the Social Democratic Movement after his expulsion from the seminary in 1899. Stalin was not considered a significant theoretician among the intellectual Bolsheviks, though he had published works on the nationalities question among others, and Trotsky in particular is famously said to have laughed at his writings. However, he possessed considerable organizational skills and acted as editor of Pravda.
He did not play a significant role in the October 1917 Revolution, despite latter‐day efforts to paint him in at Lenin's right hand. However, until 1922 he occupied the positions of People's Commissar for Nationality Affairs and People's Commissar for State Control, and was a member of both the Communist Party's organizational bureau (Orgburo) and the Politburo. After his move from the government in 1922, he became General Secretary of the Communist Party. Though this position was regarded at the time as mainly administrative, Stalin was able to use the patronage available in the post and the network of connections he established to advance his power in the leadership struggles which followed Lenin's death.
Between 1924 and 1928, Stalin steered a middle course. He first opposed the Left Opposition to the line of the New Economic Policy (NEP), headed by Trotsky and later supported by Kamenev and Zinoviev. Following the defeat of these potential rivals, Stalin then adopted many of their positions in 1928 in his battle against Bukharin. Many commentators have treated Stalin's shifting position in this period as a sign of his relentless and wholly personal drive for power. However, other scholars have seen a greater consistency in his position from 1929–38 when, though less extreme than some of his allies such as Zhdanov, he advocated strong central party control over both the regions and the various sectors of the growing economic bureaucracy.
The political difficulty for the Communist Party during NEP was that it had nothing significant to do: the regime depended on a deal with the peasantry, among whom the party had little support, and industry was run by (frequently bourgeois or Menshevik) experts in central bodies such as Gosplan and in the factories by the manager or technical director. Stalin was able to tap and mobilize growing disaffection with this position among party officials and cited dissatisfaction among workers with the pace of industrial development and supply of produce in support. The Stalinist revolution launched against NEP in 1929 was all encompassing: collectivization in agriculture, including the mobilization of 25,000 workers to the countryside; rapid industrialization with extraordinary targets set for output; and a cultural revolution, in which bourgeois experts would be quickly replaced by ‘red directors’.