As background, we return to the Soviet Union, where Lenin died in 1924. He was succeeded after a series of complex internal political struggles by Joseph Stalin. The “Man of Steel” ended up as General Secretary of the Communist Party, after expelling Leon Trotsky from the Party; it was a position he held until his death in 1953.
Stalin was an unusual in that he had been an Orthodox seminarian and a bank robber, albeit justified as raising funds for revolution. Under the Soviet Union’s power structure, in which government carried out decisions made by the Party in its members-only meetings, he didn’t become formally head of state — premier of the USSR — until 1941.
Stalinism is the kind of rule that became standard in the USSR and its satellites. Overtly it advocated rapid industrialization; the theory of “socialism in one country,” displacing the goal of international revolution with that of expanding the Soviet system; a centralized state control of every imaginable social activity; collectivization of agriculture.
Less overtly Stalinism generated a system of control that was as old as Tsarism and under Leninism had originally been devised during the Civil War, in which Stalin played an important role. This went from neighborhood committees to defend the revolution, to the various incarnations of the Soviet secret police — the Cheka, in 1937 NKVD and after Stalin the KGB — which were small bureaucracies to “purge” the Party of “deviationists,” until peasants refused in the 1929 to play along with collectivized farms, causing food shortages and eventually famine.
Then came a series of “Great Purges,” or broad based attacks first against peasants, then technical and professional workers when the economy failed, ultimately to allegedly Tsarist military officers. To house those who were not dispatched with the classic bullet to the back of the head — estimates of the slaughter go as high as 60 million — Stain established the Chief Administration of Corrective Labor whose acronym in Russian is GULAG.
Marx warned against revolutions in backward countries such as Russia, stating that they would degenerate into what he called “the Asiatic mode of production.” Not even Lenin, who recast a lot of Marx, ever envisioned Stalinism, argued Trotsky, who eventually fled to exile in Mexico, where an assassin killed him with an ice pick.
In opposition outside the USSR, Trotkyists formed the Fourth International — to rival the Communist Third, which had been set up against the socialist Second — and have argued that Stalinist USSR was neither socialist nor Leninist but a bureaucratized state controlled by a ruling caste, the Party’s Nomenklatura (or list of notables). The second was Maoism, in uneasy alliance with Stalinism, yet critical of putting Soviet interests above world revolution; Castro’s Cuba and North Korea are somewhere between Stalinism and Maoism.