The Bolsheviks

At the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1903, there was a dispute between Lenin and Julius Martov, two of SDLP's leaders. Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters. Martov disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists. Martov based his ideas on the socialist parties that existed in other European countries such as the British Labour Party. Lenin argued that the situation was different in Russia as it was illegal to form socialist political parties under the Tsar's autocratic government. At the end of the debate Martov won the vote 28-23. Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks.

Gregory Zinoviev, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Lashevich, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Mikhail Frunze, Alexei Rykov, Yakov Sverdlov, Lev Kamenev, Maxim Litvinov, Vladimir Antonov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, Kliment Voroshilov, Vatslav Vorovsky, Yan Berzin, Gregory Ordzhonikidze and Alexander Bogdanov joined the Bolsheviks. Whereas George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Leon Trotsky, Lev Deich, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Vera Zasulich, Irakli Tsereteli, Moisei Uritsky, Natalia Sedova, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan supported the Mensheviks.

Alexander Shotman later explained why he joined the Bolsheviks: "Martov resembled a poor Russian intellectual. His face was pale, he had sunken cheeks; his scant beard was untidy. His glasses barely remained on his nose. His suit hung on him as on a clothes hanger. Manuscripts and pamphlets protruded from all his pockets. He was stooped; one of his shoulders was higher than the other. He had a stutter. His outward appearance was far from attractive. But as soon as he began a fervent speech all these outer faults seemed to vanish, and what remained was his colossal knowledge, his sharp mind, and his fanatical devotion to the cause of the working class. When Plekhanov spoke, I enjoyed the beauty of his speech, the remarkable incisiveness of his words. But when Lenin arose in opposition, I was always on Lenin's side. Why? I cannot explain it to myself. But so it was, and not only with me, but with my comrades and workers."

The SDLP journal, Iskra remained under the control of the Mensheviks so Lenin, with the help of Anatoli Lunacharsky, Alexander Bogdanov, Lev Kamenev, Vatslav Vorovsky and Gregory Zinoviev, established a Bolshevik newspaper, Vperyod (Forward).

The Bolsheviks played little part in the 1905 Revolution because most of their leaders were living in exile. The Mensheviks, did make gains in the soviets and the trade union movement.

In 1907 Lenin abandoned hope for an imminent armed uprising and called on Bolsheviks in Russia to participate in the elections for the Third Duma. Lenin also spent a great deal of time finding ways of raising money for the party. He secured large donations from Maxim Gorky and Sava Morozov, the Moscow millionaire.

This was not the party's main source of income. The armed hold-ups of Bolshevik gangs provided much more. One raid on the Tiflis Post Office raised 250,000 roubles. The gang used bombs during the robbery and several people were killed. When George Plekhanov, one of the leaders of the Mensheviks, heard that the Bolsheviks were behind the robbery he declared: "The whole affair is so outrageous that it is really high time for us to break off all relations with the Bolsheviks."

Lenin, and his two loyal assistants, Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, used this money to print revolutionary literature and newspapers such as Zvezda. Some money was used to gain control some of the unions that were emerging in Russia's main industrial cities. One of Lenin's agents, Roman Malinovsky, was elected as general secretary of the St Petersburg Metalworkers' Union.

In 1911 the Bolseviks made plans to capture control of the Social Democratic Labour Party at the conference to be held in Prague in January, 1912. This move was unsuccessful and the party split and after that date the Bolsheviks maintained a completely separate existence from the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks now took the name the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party.

At the conference Lenin suggested that Roman Malinovsky should join the Bolshevik Central Committee. Some party members opposed this move, claiming that there were rumours that Malinovsky was an Okhrana agent. Lenin pointed out that these stories had come from Julius Martov and Fedor Dan, two Menshevik leaders. He refused to believe the charges and advocated that Malinovsky should also be a Bolshevik candidate for the Duma. After being elected in October, 1912, Malinovsky became the leader of the group of six Bolshevik deputies.

On the outbreak of the First World War Lenin was living in Galicia in Austria. He was arrested in August, 1914 as a Russian spy, but after a brief imprisonment he was allowed to move to Switzerland. At a meeting of Bolsheviks at Berne he outlined his views on the war. He branded the conflict as imperialist and those socialists who supported the war were betraying the proletariat.

Lenin was appalled by the decision of most socialists in Europe to support the war effort. He now devoted his energies to campaign to turn the "imperialist war into a civil war". This included the publication of his book, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Along with his close collaborators, Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, Lenin arranged for the distribution of propaganda that urged Allied troops to turn their rifles against their officers and start a socialist revolution.

On 26th February, 1917, Nicholas II ordered the Duma to close down. Members refused and they continued to meet and discuss what they should do. Michael Rodzianko, President of the Duma, sent a telegram to the Tsar suggesting that he appoint a new government led by someone who had the confidence of the people. When the Tsar did not reply, the Duma nominated a Provisional Government headed by Prince George Lvov.

The High Command of the Russian Army now feared a violent revolution and on 28th February suggested that Nicholas II should abdicate in favour of a more popular member of the royal family. Attempts were now made to persuade Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich to accept the throne. He refused and on the 1st March, 1917, the Tsar abdicated leaving the Provisional Government in control of the country.

Lenin and other Bolsheviks living in exile were now desperate to return to Russia to help shape the future of the country. The German Foreign Ministry, who hoped that Lenin's presence in Russia would help bring the war on the Eastern Front to an end, provided a special train for Lenin and 27 other Bolsheviks to travel to Petrograd. When Lenin returned to Russia on 3rd April, 1917, he announced what became known as the April Theses. Lenin attacked those Bolsheviks who had supported the Provisional Government. Instead, he argued, revolutionaries should be telling the people of Russia that they should take over the control of the country. In his speech, Lenin urged the peasants to take the land from the rich landlords and the industrial workers to seize the factories. Some Mensheviks such as Leon Trotsky and Alexandra Kollontai, agreed with this view and now joined the Bolsheviks.

Lenin accused those Bolsheviks who were still supporting the Provisional Government of betraying socialism and suggested that they should leave the party. Some took Lenin's advice, arguing that any attempt at revolution at this stage was bound to fail and would lead to another repressive, authoritarian Russian government.

Joseph Stalin was in a difficult position. As one of the editors of Pravda, he was aware that he was being held partly responsible for what Lenin had described as "betraying socialism". Stalin had two main options open to him: he could oppose Lenin and challenge him for the leadership of the party, or he could change his mind about supporting the Provisional Government and remain loyal to Lenin. After ten days of silence, Stalin made his move. In the newspaper he wrote an article dismissing the idea of working with the Provisional Government. He condemned Alexander Kerensky and Victor Chernov as counter-revolutionaries, and urged the peasants to takeover the land for themselves.

On 8th July, 1917, Alexander Kerensky became the new leader of the Provisional Government. In the Duma he had been leader of the moderate socialists and had been seen as the champion of the working-class. However, Kerensky, like his predecessor, George Lvov, was unwilling to end the war. In fact, soon after taking office, he announced a new summer offensive.

Lenin welcomed these developments and it became clear to Alexander Kerensky that the Bolshevik posed a real threat to his government. On 19th July, Kerensky gave orders for the arrest of Lenin as well as Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Anatoli Lunacharsky, and Alexandra Kollontai. The Bolshevik headquarters at the Kshesinsky Palace, was also occupied by government troops.

A Bolshevik spy in the Ministry of Justice discovered what was going to happen and Lenin was able to escape to nearby Finland where he was hidden by a secret socialist, the Helsinki chief of police. While in Finland he completed State and Revolution. In the book Lenin explained his ideas of the kind socialist government he would like to see in Russia.

After the failure of the July Offensive on the Eastern Front, the prime minister, Alexander Kerensky, replaced General Alexei Brusilov with General Lavr Kornilov, as Supreme Commander of the Russian Army. The two men soon clashed about military policy. Kornilov wanted Kerensky to restore the death-penalty for soldiers and to militarize the factories.

Lavr Kornilov responded by sending troops under the leadership of General Krymov to take control of Petrograd. Alexander Kerensky was now in danger and was forced to ask the Soviets and the Red Guards to protect Petrograd. The Bolsheviks, who controlled these organizations, agreed to this request, but Lenin made clear they would be fighting against Kornilov rather than for Kerensky.

Within a few days Bolsheviks had enlisted 25,000 armed recruits to defend Petrograd. While they dug trenches and fortified the city, delegations of soldiers were sent out to talk to the advancing troops. Meetings were held and Kornilov's troops decided not to attack Petrograd. General Krymov committed suicide and Kornilov was arrested and taken into custody.

According to Robert V. Daniels, the author of Red October: The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (1967) has pointed out: "Up to the February Revolution the party had been scarcely more than a sect, with no more than twenty or thirty thousand members in the whole country. When a count was taken by the party congress held in August the claimed membership came to nearly 250,000. Twenty per cent of the members were strategically concentrated in Petrograd, and another 20 per cent in Moscow. The party's appeal in all the new forms of electoral democracy - the soviets, the factory committees, the soldiers' councils - rose even faster."

Lenin now returned to Petrograd but remained in hiding. On 25th September, Kerensky attempted to recover his left-wing support by forming a new coalition that included more Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. However, with the Bolsheviks controlling the Soviets and now able to call on 25,000 armed militia, Kerensky's authority had been fatally undermined.

According to Isaac Deutscher, the main Bolsheviks meeting iduring the summer of 1917 iincluded Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Yakov Sverdlov, Alexei Rykov, Nickolai Bukharin, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Victor Nogin, Moisei Uritsky, Alexandra Kollontai, Yan Berzin, Nikolai Krestinsky, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Adolf Joffe, Grigori Sokolnikov, Ivar Smilga, Andrey Bubnov, Stepan Shaumyan, Vladimir Milyutin, Fyodor Sergeyev and Nikolay Muralov.

The Bolsheviks set up their headquarters in the Smolny Institute. The former girls' convent school also housed the Petrograd Soviet. Under pressure from the nobility and industrialists, Alexander Kerensky was persuaded to take decisive action. On 22nd October he ordered the arrest of the Military Revolutionary Committee. The next day he closed down the Bolshevik newspapers and cut off the telephones to the Smolny Institute.

Leon Trotsky now urged the overthrow of the Provisional Government. Lenin agreed and on the evening of 24th October, 1917, orders were given for the Bolsheviks began to occupy the railway stations, the telephone exchange and the State Bank. The following day the Red Guards surrounded the Winter Palace. Inside was most of the country's Cabinet, although Kerensky had managed to escape from the city.

The Winter Palace was defended by Cossacks, some junior army officers and the Woman's Battalion. At 9 p.m. the Aurora and the Peter and Paul Fortress began to open fire on the palace. Little damage was done but the action persuaded most of those defending the building to surrender. The Red Guards, led by Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, now entered the Winter Palace and arrested the Cabinet ministers.

On 26th October, 1917, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets met and handed over power to the Soviet Council of People's Commissars. Lenin was elected chairman and other appointments included Leon Trotsky (Foreign Affairs) Alexei Rykov (Internal Affairs), Anatoli Lunacharsky (Education), Alexandra Kollontai (Social Welfare), Felix Dzerzhinsky (Internal Affairs), Joseph Stalin (Nationalities), Peter Stuchka (Justice) and Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko (War).

At the Seventh Party Congress held in March, 1918, Lenin proposed that the party should change its name from the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party to the Communist Party. He argued that the new name would indicate the am of the Bolsheviks would be to achieve Communism as outlined by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in their book, The Communist Manifesto.

Primary Sources

(1) Lenin, What Is To Be Done? (1902)

An organization of workers must be first a trade organization; secondly, it must be as broad as possible; thirdly, it must be as little secret as possible. An organization of revolutionaries, on the contrary, must embrace primarily and chiefly people whose profession consists of revolutionary activity.

In an autocratic country, the more we narrow the membership of such an organization, restricting it only to those who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activities and have received a professional training in the art of struggle against the political police, the more difficult will it be to catch such an organization.


(2) David Shub, Lenin (1948)

To build that 'strongly organized party' was Lenin's main objective. Although sufficiently concerned with every comma that appeared in Iskra to do the proof-reading himself, he allowed Martov, Potresov and Zasulich to do much of the editing, while he followed closely the workings of the Iskra machinery inside Russia. There the fight against the Economists and other revisionist groups was carried by Iskra supporters into the underground Social Democratic committees and workers' organizations. Iskra also conducted a strong campaign against the use of individual terrorism as a political weapon. Discussions on this subject raged for weeks on end. It was not easy to convince men bred in the tradition of the People's Will to abandon political assassination in the fight against Tsarism.

To combat all forms of heresy Iskra agents in Russia started an intensive campaign of propaganda and agitation among workers and students. Lenin drew this distinction between propaganda and agitation... To carry their message home, Iskra agents distributed leaflets and newspapers at every opportunity. They addressed special leaflets to the intellectuals, to workers in various industries, dealing with their specific problems. Often the Social Democratic committees took the lead in organizing strikes. (There were no legal trade unions at the time.) More intensive propaganda was conducted in small clandestine groups called 'circles'.

But systematic work was impossible. It was difficult to find safe quarters, arrests were frequent, propagandizing was a dangerous business. Moreover, educated propagandists were hard to find; when one was arrested his circle usually disintegrated because there was no one to take his place. Although the curriculum of the propaganda circles called for between six and ten lectures, the course was seldom completed. In many cases the lecture consisted of reading lskra to the members. Each issue gave the propagandists material for discussion, for winning new adherents. Workers to whom the propagandist read several copies often became sufficiently interested to read the paper to their comrades. Thus Iskra passed from hand to hand, until the newsprint was so worn it could barely be read.

Most of the early Iskra propagandists were university and high-school students. These young men and girls were full of enthusiasm and revolutionary romanticism, but they were short on practical experience. Satisfying the curiosity of mature, albeit poorly schooled workers was a difficult assignment for the young zealots.

Often they had little actual knowledge of the conditions under which the workers who made up their audience lived, and frequently their answers to questions of economics rang false. Later, in the large cities, propagandists drawn from the ranks of self-educated workers began to appear and to exert a larger influence among their comrades.

Agitation was carried on by various means. In some cases one trained man read the latest issue of a legal newspaper to his fellow workers, injecting his comments. At the same time he tried to pick out those among his listeners who showed promise. These he took in hand, and furnished with 'legal' books on current problems. If the worker showed interest, he was given clandestine literature. After a probationary period he became a member of the Party.

(3) After the 2nd Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party Leon Trotsky wrote about why the split took place.

One can say of Lenin and Martov that, even before the split, even before the Congress, Lenin was "hard" and Martov "soft". And they both knew it. Lenin would glance at Martov, whom he estimated highly, with a critical and somewhat suspicious look, and Martov, feeling his glance, would look down and move his thin shoulders nervously.

How did I come to be with the "softs" at the congress? Of the Iskra editors, my closest connections were with Martov, Zasulitch and Axelrod. Their influence over me was unquestionable.

The split came unexpectedly for all the members of the congress. Lenin, the most active figure in the struggle, did not foresee it, nor had he ever desired it. Both sides were greatly upset by the course of events. After the Congress Lenin was sick for several weeks with a nervous illness.

(4) Alexander Shotman attended the 2nd Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party and after the debate joined the Bolsheviks. He explained his decision in his book, Reminiscences of an Old Bolshevik, published in 1932.

Martov resembled a poor Russian intellectual. His face was pale, he had sunken cheeks; his scant beard was untidy. His glasses barely remained on his nose. His suit hung on him as on a clothes hanger. Manuscripts and pamphlets protruded from all his pockets. He was stooped; one of his shoulders was higher than the other. He had a stutter. His outward appearance was far from attractive. But as soon as he began a fervent speech all these outer faults seemed to vanish, and what remained was his colossal knowledge, his sharp mind, and his fanatical devotion to the cause of the working class.

When Plekhanov spoke, I enjoyed the beauty of his speech, the remarkable incisiveness of his words. But when Lenin arose in opposition, I was always on Lenin's side. Why? I cannot explain it to myself. But so it was, and not only with me, but with my comrades and workers.

(5) Robert Bruce Lockhart, report sent to the British government (13th March, 1917)

So far the people of Moscow have behaved with exemplary restraint. For the moment, only enthusiasm prevails, and the struggle which is almost bound to ensure between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat has not yet made its bitterness felt.

The Socialist Party is at present divided into two groups: the Social Democrats and Soviet Revolutionaries. The activities of the first named are employed almost entirely among the work people, while the Social Revolutionaries work mainly among the peasantry.

The Social Democrats, who are the largest party, are, however, divided into two groups known as the Bolsheviki and the Mensheviki. The Bolsheviki are the more extreme party. They are at heart anti-war. In Moscow at any rate the Mensheviki represent today the majority and are more favourable to the war.

(6) David Shub, Lenin (1948)

Lenin understood quite clearly that the success of his blueprint for tight party organization depended on the degree of discipline he could enforce from the start. He began, therefore, by pushing through a motion which set up a presidium consisting entirely of Iskra men, with Plekhanov as chairman and himself and Pavlovich-Krasikov as vice-chairmen.

He won on this motion, despite the protests of Martov that the procedure was undemocratic. This was the opening skirmish in the Lenin-Martov battle which was soon to have far more serious repercussions.

Later, Lenin admitted quite frankly that the purpose of his move had been to wield the 'iron fist' against all Social Democratic groups that resisted Iskra's control over the Party.

Lenin lost to Martov, however, by a vote of twenty-three to twenty-eight on the wording of the rules defining Party membership. Lenin wanted to limit membership to those who not only subscribed to the party programme but participated actively in one of its organizations. Martov, on the other hand, was willing to admit all who accepted the programme and gave the Party 'regular personal cooperation under the guidance of one of its organizations'.

To many delegates this difference seemed merely verbal. Actually the minor variation in language contained the fissionable element that was to smash the Social Democratic Party into its ultimately irreconcilable Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.

Although Martov carried the Congress by a small margin on the paragraph defining Party membership, Lenin won on almost every other important issue. And he owed his victories largely to Plekhanov's support.

The members of Lenin's 1903 majority became known as 'Bolsheviks' (after bolshinstvo, the Russian word for majority), Martov's group were dubbed 'Mensheviks' (after menshirestvo, meaning minority).

The Congress voted for the dissolution of all independent Party organizations and their fusion into a single Party apparatus. After this vote the Bund and a number of other groups walked out. This left the Iskra group in complete command. But the elimination of the dissident factions brought no harmony. The fight between Martov and Lenin continued, with Plekhanov lining up on Lenin's side.

Lenin won on his motion for cutting the Iskra editorial board to three - himself, Plekhanov and Martov. This meant the elimination of Axelrod, Potresov and Zasulich - all of whom were Martov supporters in the growing ideological war between Lenin and Martov. Lenin was confident that in this three-man board he could wield control. Plekhanov would not take an active part in the day-to-day politics of the paper and on the broad issues Lenin felt certain Plekhanov would support him against Martov.

His confidence was reinforced by Plekhanov's fateful speech at the Congress on the subject of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. On Lenin's insistence Plekhanov had already written in the programme draft that the concept of proletarian dictatorship includes 'the suppression of all social movements which directly or indirectly threaten the interests of the proletariat'.

A delegate named Akimov-Makhnovetz spoke against the dictatorship clause, pointing out that no such provision was to be found in the programme of a single European Socialist Party.

Plekhanov replied by telling the delegates that `every democratic principle must be appraised not separately and abstractly, but in its relation to what may be regarded as the basic principle of democracy; namely, that salus populi lax suprenra est. Translated into a revolutionist's language, it means that the success of the revolution is the supreme law.

(7) George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories (1922).

As regarded the war, both Mensheviks and SRs advocated the speedy conclusion of peace without annexations or contributions. There was, however, a small Menshevik group, led by Plekhanov, that called on the working classes to cooperate for the purpose of securing the victory over Germany, which would alone guarantee Russia's new freedom. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were out and out 'Defeatists'. The war had to be brought to an end by any means and at any cost. The soldiers had to be induced by organized propaganda to turn their arms, not against their brothers in the enemy ranks, but against the reactionary bourgeois governments of their own and other countries. For a Bolshevik there was no such thing as country or patriotism.

(8) Ernest Poole, The Village: Russian Impressions (1918)

"These Bolsheviks," growled a man with a square head and a short heavy beard already half grey. "Bolsheviks, Bolsheviks - how they shout about being free men. What do they know about being free? They know nothing but books, they sit indoors and scribble and read and talk like clerks - and they are so busy making us free that they have no time to be free themselves! Let them come and find what freedom is! We'll show them!"

(9) Morgan Philips Price, wrote a memorandum about the Bolsheviks on 28th October, 1917.

The soldiers in the garrison towns in the rear follow the Bolsheviks to a man; and small wonder; for what interest have they to leave the towns and go to sit in trenches to fight about something that is of no interest to them, especially when they know that at the front they will get neither food to eat nor proper clothes against the winter cold? The workers in the factories are also strongly inclined to go with the Bolsheviks, because they know that only the end of the war will give them the food, for the lack of which they are half-starving.

(10) George Buchanan, report to the Foreign Office sent during the summer of 1917.

The Bolsheviks, who form a compact minority, have alone a definite political programme. They are more active and better organized than any other group, and until they and the ideas which they represent are finally squashed, the country will remain a prey to anarchy and disorder.

If the Government are not strong enough to put down the Bolsheviks by force, at the risk of breaking altogether with the soviet, the only alternative will be a Bolshevik Government.

(11) Harold Williams, Daily Chronicle (26th November, 1917)

Of constructive power the Bolsheviks have none, but they have enormous power for destruction. They can make a wilderness and call it peace. They can finally demoralize the army and reduce it to a rabble of hungry, looting bands, who will stream across the country, block the railways, reduce the civil population to starvation and the extreme of terror, and will fight like wolves over their prey. That they can do in the name of peace.

(12) Alfred Salter, The Labour Leader (7th March, 1918)

I see no vital difference in principle or motive between them (the Bolsheviks) and the I.L.P. We can cordially hold out the hand of fellowship to our comrades who have made in Russia not merely a political but a social revolution. We can be grateful for their unflinching courage, their uncompromising devotion to the ideal (called fanaticism by the worldly-wise), their openness and frankness, their clear and direct statement of policy. The world can never be the same again because of them, and we should be eternally thankful for it...

When Trotsky and Unin stood up at Brest before the German diplomatists, admitted their military inferiority and confronted the massed might of the Central Empires with nothing but principles, the whole world stood amazed. Ideas and ideals were suddenly seen to be the most powerful of all high explosives... It is agreed on all hands that more was achieved for the world at Brest in three weeks by the enunciation of principles and ideals by Trotsky and his colleagues, than had been accomplished by the Allies in three years of war. At one bound the Bolsheviks stepped on to the front of the stage of history, gripped the attention and received the admiration of the world. That position was won by them taking their stand, not on force or material power, but on the elementary principles of justice and human right...

We must definitely dissociate ourselves from their violence, suppression of opposing criticism and disregard of democracy... There is a calculated and unrestrained employment of force to, beat down opposition at home and abroad, as well as a deliberate incitement to other peoples to go and do likewise...

Suppressing and silencing opponents may succeed for the moment, as it did in the Czar's time, but Nemesis is always at hand. Socialism imposed by a minority-Socialism apart from true democracy, is not only meaningless, but valueless.