BOLSHEVIKSearly development of marxism in russia
revolution of 1905 and its aftermath
lead up to 1917
The Bolsheviks represented one wing of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labor Party that had emerged in tsarist Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. Closely identified with its leader and founder, Vladimir Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov; 1870–1924), the Bolsheviks sought to take political and intellectual leadership of a revolutionary movement that would use the mass organization of workers to overthrow the autocratic government of the Romanov dynasty.
Marxism first attracted radical Russian intellectuals in the 1880s, when a few disillusioned populists saw in the emerging urban proletariat the key to transforming Russia's repressive political and social system. The movement gathered momentum in the 1890s with the acceleration of Russian industrialization. Inspired by the analysis of the early converts to Marxism, Georgy Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, and Vera Zasulich, and by the rise of labor unrest in Russian cities, a new generation of radical intellectuals took the lead to organize workers' circles and to channel their energy into a revolutionary political movement. From the start, Marxist activists disagreed on whether to concentrate on the political task of overthrowing the autocracy or on more immediate goals of organizing workers around economic grievances. In the late 1890s, an activist of the younger generation, Lenin, joined with Plekhanov and Axelrod in opposing the approach of working only for economic gains. Meanwhile, an independent Marxist movement representing impoverished Jewish workers in Russia's western Pale of Settlement, the Bund, also began to recruit members and to advocate revolutionary change. In 1898, nine representatives of these scattered Marxist groups and circles came together in Minsk to found the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. This founding congress sought to emphasize unified organization over theory, but as labor unrest continued to mount, groups of Social Democrats began to disagree on theory and tactics, using political newspapers published outside Russia to articulate their points of view and to rally supporters.
Lenin argued that such a newspaper should serve as the organizing center for underground committees inside Russia. Together with Yuli Martov, who had once favored the tactics of economic agitation, Lenin founded the newspaper Iskra (The spark) in late 1900 to articulate their position: for the priority of the political struggle to overthrow tsarism. Inside Russia, followers of the Iskra line began to agitate within the underground committees to win activists over to the goal of revolution. Lenin further elaborated his ideas on revolutionary tactics in his pamphlet What Is to Be Done? (1902), which emphasized the need for a centralized and conspiratorial revolutionary party.
To consolidate its leadership over the Social Democratic movement, the Iskra group of Lenin, Martov, Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, and Alexander Potresov called for a party congress to ratify their position. The second congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party met first in Brussels in July 1903 and later reconvened in London after being harassed by the Belgian police. By this time, however, serious divisions had emerged within the party and even within the Iskra group over the structure and tactics of the party. The Bund wanted the exclusive right to organize all Jewish workers; others in the party objected. Lenin insisted on the primacy of the central newspaper, published abroad, as the organizing center of the movement; a central committee inside Russia would merely supervise local activities. Most contentiously, Lenin advocated a very narrow definition of party membership: he insisted that Russia's repressive political conditions demanded that only committed professional revolutionaries should be considered as members. His opponents argued that this would exclude many workers and that anyone who embraced the principles of social democracy should be allowed to join the party. In a carefully arranged series of votes, Lenin first defeated the Bund's position, provoking that group to leave the congress. Next he won a vote making Iskra the central party organ, spurring another walkout. Finally, with a majority of one, he pushed through his remaining organizational points, with his supporters taking the majority of positions on the central committee and Iskra editorial board. Lenin triumphantly named his group the Bolsheviks (majorityites), and his opponents, which now included his former ally Martov, the Mensheviks (minorityites).
The Mensheviks fought back, and after winning Plekhanov over to their side, regained Iskra for their faction: Lenin's majority had been short-lived. Efforts to reunite the factions would continue into 1917, but the Bolshevik–Menshevik split would never fully heal. The two factions remained close on many points, but the Bolsheviks continued to place primacy on the political revolution, and a centralized and secretive party, whereas the Mensheviks emphasized that the revolution must come from workers, not just professional revolutionaries, and they directed their efforts toward organizing the labor movement.
"We demand that the tactics that have prevailed in recent years be changed; we declare that 'before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all firmly and definitely draw the lines of demarcation between the various groups.' " (Vladimir Lenin, What Is to Be Done, 1902)
The Russian Revolution of 1905, which began with worker unrest in January 1905, revealed the isolation of the Social Democratic movement. Neither faction played much of a leadership role. Independently, workers' groups mounted strikes and organized trade unions: local Social Democratic organizations arose in the excitement of the revolutionary moment and increasingly called for the central leaders to forget their differences and come together as one Social Democratic party. The creation of an elected parliament, the Duma, in the aftermath of 1905 gave the Social Democratic parties new incentives for unity, and the Menshevik–Bolshevik split ended officially at the fourth (Unification) congress in Stockholm in the spring of
1906. Many Mensheviks had moved closer to the Bolsheviks on the necessity of centralized party leadership, and they held sway in the new central committee, which consisted of seven Mensheviks and three Bolsheviks, later augmented by five more members from the Polish and Latvian Social Democratic parties and from the Bund, which had rejoined the movement.
The Social Democrats remained ambivalent about whether they should participate in the elections to the Duma or to boycott them. Formally united, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks still disagreed on major points of doctrine: the Mensheviks believed that the Duma represented the necessary bourgeois stage of Russian development and that they should cooperate with Duma liberals in opposing tsarist policy. Organizing a mass movement of workers remained a key goal. The Bolsheviks preferred to work to undermine the Duma as well as the autocracy, and while professing unity, adopted more violent tactics of armed robbery in order to support their faction's activities. As the government rebounded from the shock of the 1905 revolution, however, it became less tolerant of the Duma and of revolutionary political parties, driving the Bolsheviks further underground and making labor organization very difficult for Mensheviks. A radical wing of the Bolshevik fraction, based inside Russia, responded to the deteriorating political climate by demanding that the Social Democrats withdraw altogether from the Duma. Left Bolshevik intellectuals, including
Alexander Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, also challenged Lenin on theoretical grounds. Lenin's hold on the Bolshevik movement had become very tenuous by 1910, as even his former supporters Plekhanov and Leon Trotsky now attacked him for his excessive sectarianism. Meanwhile, rank-and-file Social Democrats still agitated for a resolution of these sectarian differences, while party leaders abroad continued to disagree.
Inside Russia, and once again largely independent of Social Democratic leadership, a growing labor force became increasingly militant as Russia's economy began to revive after 1910. When government troops fired upon striking miners in the Lena goldfields in Siberia in April 1912, new waves of unrest spread across the empire. The slow and steady trade union organizing of the Mensheviks now seemed too tame for increasingly militant skilled workers. The Bolsheviks had earlier disdained trade union agitation, but at the party's conference in Prague in January 1912, they now called on the trade unions to become the mass instrument of insurrection. This Prague conference also sealed a new break with the Mensheviks, because Lenin had called it unilaterally to the exclusion of the Menshevik faction.
The Bolsheviks' more militant approach to the trade union movement gained significant support during the years from 1912 to 1914. Emphasizing how the repressive autocratic regime impeded workers' efforts to organize and improve their working conditions, the Bolsheviks appealed to the labor movement to become the instrument of the overthrow of tsarism as well as of capitalism. Increasingly, proletarian Bolsheviks emerged as the radical leaders of the network of trade unions and strike committees, winning additional converts through the proletarian physiognomy of the party and by the appeal of its task-oriented tactics. The Mensheviks, by contrast, stuck to their belief that trade unions must work to raise the long-term cultural, political, and economic levels of Russia's workers. Only a mass movement, fully mobilized and conscious of its goals, could make a legitimate socialist revolution. For the Mensheviks, that revolution required Social Democratic unity. The Bolsheviks, however, following Lenin's lead, were willing to split the socialist movement and go the revolutionary path alone.
Bonnell, Victoria E. Roots of Rebellion: Workers' Politics and Organizations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, 1900–1914. Berkeley, Calif., 1983. Thorough sociological study of the self-organization of Russian urban workers and their interactions with the Bolshevik and Menshevik parties.
Haimson, Leopold H. The Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism. Cambridge, Mass., 1955. Classic study of the intellectual origins of the Menshevik–Bolshevik split, taking the story up to 1905.
Lane, David. The Roots of Russian Communism: A Social and Historical Study of Russian Social-Democracy, 1898–1907. Assen, Netherlands, 1969. Analysis of the structure, social composition, and activities of Social-Democratic Party organizations nationally and in seven regions, including St. Petersburg, Moscow, the Caucasus, and Siberia.
Service, Robert. Lenin: A Political Life. 3 vols. Bloomington, Ind., 1985–1995. Thorough biography focusing on Lenin's political writings and party organization.
Ulam, Adam B. The Bolsheviks. New York, 1965.
Wildman, Allan K. The Making of a Workers' Revolution: Russian Social Democracy, 1891–1903. Chicago, 1967. Pioneering study of the relationship between Marxist intellectuals and activist workers in the Russian revolutionary movement.
Williams, Robert C. The Other Bolsheviks: Lenin and His Critics, 1904–1914. Bloomington, Ind., 1986.
Diane P. Koenker
The Bolsheviks were the party that V. I. Lenin created in exile in 1903 and then used to conduct the successful Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917. Bolshevism is a western intellectual construct that helped to focus a debate on whether the Stalinist system was the logical consequence of Lenin’s principles, or whether Bolshevism was a more subtle and complex phenomenon with which Stalinism had only a tangential relationship.
Lenin firmly rejected the growing movement that promoted a peaceful evolution of socialism. In 1902 he split with his closest revolutionary allies over control of their newspaper, Iskra, and over who could join their party: Lenin insisted that the party membership be limited to those who accepted strict party discipline and the duty to work actively for the revolution. The opposition had a more western view of a decentralized party that accepted anyone who would support the party program and pay dues. When it was put to a vote, Lenin had a (narrow) majority, so he called his supporters the Bolsheviks (from bolshinstvo, “majority”) and his opponents the Mensheviks (from menshinstvo, “minority”).
The tsar responded to the Revolution of 1905 by creating a limited parliament, the Duma, and expanding political rights. Lenin was willing to use these institutions only tactically, to promote revolution, but the Mensheviks gradually became a western, social-democratic party that saw capitalism as the next long-term stage in Russian history. Other issues became politically crucial. Lenin’s centralized party implied a strong Russian empire, whereas the Mensheviks’ position implied a looser one. Lenin’s rigid orthodoxy implied that modern western culture was the tool of bourgeois rule, and his rejection of cooperation with liberals appealed to those who rejected westernization.
When Russia’s failure in World War I led to the overthrow of the tsar in March 1917, plunging Russia into chaos, Lenin rallied a large coalition—his traditional worker-peasant support, intellectual radicals, and antiwar forces, including some in the military. In these conditions, the party was opened to all applicants, and this continued during the civil war. There is still debate about whether the broader membership of the party, together with Lenin’s toleration of private agriculture and trade in the New Economic Policy, would have produced a more tolerant one-party system in the Soviet Union had Lenin or an appropriate successor been chosen. Some historians contend that Lenin’s massive purge of party members from 1921 to 1923 and his decision to rule through the party apparatus under Stalin’s control suggest that the openness in 1917 and during the civil war was an aberration. The answer is unknowable.
During the late Soviet period, reformers painted a softer picture of Lenin in order to claim they were true Leninists: The modern generation is less concerned about “what if” questions about Lenin and more likely to focus on Bolshevism’s appeals. The successes of both Lenin and Stalin rested on the peasants and first-generation workers who flowed into the cities in massive numbers. Around the world, Communism was most successful at that stage of history, and it collapsed in Russia when the nation reached a new stage of development. In other countries, however, frightened peasants moving to the cities continued to be attracted to leaders who appealed to their grievances with a rigid doctrine, a centralized control of disorder, and antiwesternism. Other doctrines that appealed to the same social forces took hold, and religious fundamentalism was the first of them.
SEE ALSO Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch; Leninism; Peasantry; Revolution; Russian Revolution; Stalin, Joseph; Stalinism
Cohen, Stephen F. 1973. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution. New York: A.A. Knopf.
Haimson, Leopold H. 2005. Russian Revolutionary Experience, 1905–1917. New York: Columbia University Press.
Bolshevism was a dissenting movement within Russian Marxism before World War I that became the founding political party of the Soviet Union. The Russian word bolshevik means literally a person in the majority, as opposed to menshevik, a person in the minority. These words originated at the second party congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP) that convened in 1903 in Brussels, then London. The dominant figure in the Bolshevik faction of the RSDWP was Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (1872–1924), more commonly known by his revolutionary name, Lenin.
Marxism was a radical ideology that predicted a revolution by the working classes that would seize power from the capitalist class, or bourgeoisie. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 indeed precipitated a revolution, but the Romanov autocracy of Tsar Nicholas II survived by a combination of reform and repression. The RSDWP originally focused its efforts on the urban working classes in Russia, but Lenin and the Bolsheviks ultimately triumphed because they recognized the need to appeal to the poor peasantry as well.
Bolsheviks were divided between educated intellectuals and factory workers. Some became professional revolutionaries. Others became leaders of the labor movement and strikers in industrial workplaces. The professional revolutionaries favored an illegal conspiracy to seize power, tracing their roots to the Jacobins of the French Revolution and the Populist terrorists of the 1870s in Russia. The working-class Social Democrats favored a revolution that would benefit workers and their families, not intellectuals seeking power.
Russian Social Democrats were inspired by the spontaneous unrest that occurred in Russia in 1905—strikes, peasant violence, and demands for a constitution and a parliament. Neither Bolsheviks nor Mensheviks played a leading role that year. The October Manifesto issued by the tsar promised a constitutional system with an elected parliament, or Duma. After these concessions, the government combined peasant land reform with bloody police repression to quiet the countryside.
After 1905, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks faced new choices. Should they participate in a bourgeois parliament such as the Duma? Or should they boycott its elections and recall their deputies? Should they focus on legal means of achieving power through the system? Or should they engage in illegal actions such as terror, bank robberies, and strikes? Should they limit themselves to the working classes in the towns? Or should they look for support in the peasantry as well?
The Bolsheviks were particularly attentive to the orthodox Marxism of Karl Kautsky in Germany and the radical syndicalism of Georges Sorel and others in France and Italy. Orthodox Marxists feared any revision of Karl Marx's ideas in favor of reform rather than revolution. The syndicalists believed in forming trade unions and convincing workers to believe in a future general strike. After 1905, the Bolsheviks were deeply divided between those who, like Lenin, claimed to be following Marxist scientific orthodoxy, and those who, like Alexander Bogdanov, believed Marxism was not a set of truths, but a set of useful myths that workers might be convinced to believe. Lenin, in his book Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1909), attacked Bogdanov's relativism.
The Bolsheviks fought over who should control the party faction's money and RSDWP schools for workers and revolutionaries in Paris, Bologna, and Capri. Lenin's followers in European exile argued with Bogdanov's followers inside Russia. Although the Bolshevik journal was called Pravda (Truth), the Bolsheviks by 1914 were a shrinking group of alienated intellectuals who could agree on little except for their old feud with the Mensheviks, who maintained better ties with factory workers.
When World War I broke out in 1914, there was no great general strike. Russian socialists were divided among defensists who patriotically supported their government at war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, and pacifists who wanted to end the war. Lenin wanted the war transformed into a revolution and civil war, then a workers' revolution. But most Russian socialists, exiled either in Europe or Siberia, hardly affected the war effort.
In 1917 the February Revolution surprised both the government and the revolutionaries. Nicholas II abdicated. A liberal Provisional Government shared power with radical workers' councils, known as soviets, that sprang up in the factories, farms, and army units. Returning from exile, Lenin and the Bolsheviks proclaimed war against the Provisional Government. As the unpopular great war dragged on, the Bolshevik program of workers' revolution and land reform gained them majorities in the soviets. By October, the Bolshevik-dominated soviets easily took power in the major cities from the weakened Provisional Government.
The Bolshevik Revolution did not end the dispute between Lenin and the other Bolsheviks. Bogdanov led a proletarian culture movement popular among the masses for a few years. Leon Trotsky became a popular and independent leader of the new Red Army. And Josef Stalin quietly worked to create a single-party dictatorship that exiled or killed its enemies. By 1924 the Bolsheviks had become a party in their own right, first the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in 1918, and then the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1924. Ultimately the Bolsheviks led a massive and violent program of industrialization, collectivization of agriculture, and purges that made the Soviet Union as autocratic and unpopular as its imperial predecessor.
See also: february revolution; communism; mensheviks; october revolution; social democratic workers party
Service, Robert. (2000). Lenin. A Biography. London: Macmillan.
Sochor, Zenovia. (1988). Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Ulam, Adam. (1965). The Bolsheviks: The Intellectual and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia. New York: Macmillan.
Williams, Robert C. (1986). The Other Bolsheviks: Lenin and his Critics, 1904–1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Robert C. Williams
In ideological terms, bolshevism, or Soviet communism, was instituted in Russia after the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, took power in October 1917, an event that came to be known inside Soviet Russia as the Great October Socialist Revolution. It was shaped by a number of factors: belief in the unalterable laws of Marxist economic and social development; antipathy toward the reformist and syndicalist socialism prevalent in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the seeming paradox of instituting a Marxist, proletarian revolution in a country without a sizable proletariat of long standing; the vicious context of Russia's civil war between 1918 and 1920; and the perception among leading Bolsheviks that Soviet Russia was encircled by hostile powers bent on their destruction. Bolshevism aspired ultimately to the creation of a "new Soviet man," someone whose life was defined not by the selfish pursuit of personal gain but by collectivist sentiments and aspirations within a modern, mechanistically run and technologically advanced society. It was a militant and iconoclastic ideology that argued for a sharp, violent, and irrevocable break with the past. Its millenarian and internationalist aspirations brought it the admiration and support of many outside of Soviet Russia. In its implacable and violent aspects, and in the avowed irrevocability of its revolutionary transformation, many others saw the seeds of the terroristic policies of Joseph Stalin during and after the 1930s. Still others regarded it less as a coherent ideology per se than as a cynical justification for naked political maneuvering by a small clique of revolutionaries with few real ties to the masses.
In organizational terms bolshevism was synonymous with both the Bolshevik Party, which developed from a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), and with the figure of Lenin. In a treatise entitled What Is to Be Done? Lenin had argued in 1902 that the RSDLP should be led by an elite group of conspiratorial, professional revolutionaries who would be able to organize and educate the broader masses and thereby foment revolution in Russia. At the Second Congress of the RSDLP in Brussels and London in 1903, he triggered a split in the party over this issue with those socialists, led by Yuli Martov, who argued for a more inclusive policy of open membership on the model of the mass Social Democratic parties of western Europe. Lenin's faction became known as the Bolsheviks (Majority Group), while his opponents became known as the Mensheviks (Minority Group). Despite persistent and serious efforts by many prominent Russian socialists, including Martov, Fyodor Dan, Georgy Plekhanov, Leon Trotsky, and Pavel Axelrod, to bring the factions together and reunite the RSDLP, Lenin consolidated his faction at a conference of his supporters in Prague in January 1912. Much has been made of Lenin's personal role in forging this faction and, later, in persuading and cajoling his fellow Bolsheviks to take power in October 1917, despite the belief among many of them that Russia was not yet politically mature enough for a socialist revolution.
In cultural terms bolshevism signified the longer-term process of revolutionary transformation that followed the party's takeover in October 1917. The goal of this process was that all citizens of Soviet Russia would ultimately articulate their interests and aspirations, indeed their very identities, within a communist worldview. Guided by the Bolshevik Party, renamed the All-Russian Communist Party (bolsheviks) [VKP(b)] in early 1918, this transformation involved mass campaigns to bring electricity to Russia's rural interior and literacy to its largely uneducated masses. It included campaigns against the relics of the old order, notably religion, using methods ranging from propaganda campaigns to outright persecution of the clergy. It also attempted to create its own secular sacred, including efforts through such organizations as the Proletarian Culture movement (Proletkult) and the constructivist movement in the 1920s to create a new proletarian art and literature accessible to all and beneficial to the new socioeconomic revolution. These efforts eventually gave way in the 1930s to more extreme efforts to break the prerevolutionary modes of production and social relationships through forced collectivization of agriculture, dekulakization, and rapid industrialization.
Variations of bolshevism included millenarian bolshevism and national bolshevism. Millenarian bolshevism aspired to make a new religion of communism with man in the place of God. It was championed by Alexander Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, who became known as the God builders (bogostroiteli), and elicited a sharp critique from Lenin in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, published in 1909. National bolshevism applied to Soviet Russia's efforts during the 1930s—in preparation for the coming Second World War—to resurrect aspects of Russia's prerevolutionary national past at the expense of the prevailing emphasis on class consciousness and proletarian internationalism.
Kara-Murza, A. A., and L. V. Poliakov, eds. Russkie o bol'shevizme. St. Petersburg, 1999.
Brandenberger, David. National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931–1956. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.
Burbank, Jane. Intelligentsia and Revolution: Russian Views of Bolshevism, 1917–1922. Oxford, U.K., 1986.
Fueloep-Miller, René. The Mind and Face of Bolshevism: An Examination of Cultural Life in Soviet Russia. New York, 1965.
Gleason, Abbott, Peter Kenez, and Richard Stites, eds. Bolshevik Culture. Experiment and Order in the Russian Revolution. Bloomington, Ind., 1985.
Haimson, Leopold H. The Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism. Cambridge, Mass., 1967.
Rowley, David G. Millenarian Bolshevism, 1900 to 1920. New York and London, 1987.
Frederick C. Corney
Bol·she·vik / ˈbōlshəˌvik/ • n. hist. a member of the majority faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party, which was renamed the Communist Party after seizing power in the October Revolution of 1917. ∎ chiefly derog. (in general use) a person with politically subversive or radical views; a revolutionary. • adj. of, relating to, or characteristic of Bolsheviks or their views or policies. DERIVATIVES: Bol·she·vism / -ˌvizəm/ n. Bol·she·vist / -vist/ n.
The informal term bolshie meaning deliberately combative or uncooperative derives from this.