The Origins of Bolshevism

Marx: wrote that “Men who boasted that they’d made a revolution have always seen the next day that the revolution made did not in the least resemble the one they would have liked to make.

From 1917 onwards, the world was force-fed a “Big Lie” – the lie that the Russian revolution had established ‘Socialism’, ‘Communism’, a ‘workers’ state’, a ‘Soviet Republic’, and so on. We were supposed to believe that, under Lenin’s inspired leadership, a tiny group of brilliant Bolsheviks had overthrown the Tsarist regime and established Socialism, and that workers in advanced countries must ape this minority coup.

Historians of the Left, even decades later, still proclaimed Lenin “a genius” (e.g. E H Carr THE BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION 1917-1923, Penguin, 1950). The new doctrine of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ was widely embraced, and Lenin’s ideas on political organisation were copied, especially in ‘less developed’ countries. The one-party state, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and the ‘cult of the individual’ are still official dogma in so-called ‘socialist states’ like China and North Korea.

Hitler asserted that “the broad mass of a nation will more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one” (MEIN KAMPF). Throughout the 20th century this Big Lie of ‘Soviet communism’ was echoed and broadcast, and used by generations of rightwing politicians as a scare tactic to drum up support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, to endorse McCarthyite witch-hunts in the US, and earlier to give support to Hitler and Fascism. Just as nowadays, any radicals are likely to be labelled terrorists, for most of the 20th century such people and organisations were shunned as “fellow-travellers”, “Reds under the bed” or “the enemy within” (in Thatcher’s words).

Unasked questions

Why was it that Lenin who had studied Marx, who knew Marx’s arguments about the class struggle, and who had argued in January 1917 that the Russian workers were nowhere near ready for a revolution, yet within weeks of the February revolution was calling for an immediate uprising?

Why did he insist on organising a ‘vanguard party’, to spearhead the masses, led by an elite group of ‘professional revolutionaries’, with a centralised leadership? What was it about the Russian revolutionary tradition that made Lenin and many others so susceptible to opportunist adventurism? Just where did his theory of Bolshevism come from?

As the SPGB argued from 1918 onwards, such an organisation, if it succeeded in seizing power as a minority, could then only hold power as a dictatorship. This helps explain the one-party state, the centralised control of the media, the purges, the Tcheka and the Gulags, and the dictatorship of Lenin and Trotsky, and later, Stalin.

Yet this dictatorship, this minority coup, had nothing to do with Marx and Engels. From the start they had called for a class struggle, for class-conscious workers to organise themselves in a political party – not for a ‘top-down’ but a ‘bottom-up’ revolution. Marx and Engels were very doubtful of the ideas of those Russian radicals, the Narodniks, who argued that, with the Russian form of peasant commune (the mir or obshchestvo), the Russian peasants would be able to bypass capitalism, and leapfrog forward to a socialist or communist way of life.

As Marx wrote in 1877 in a letter to a Narodnik :

If Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation after the example of the Western European countries, and during the last years she has been taking a lot of trouble in this direction - she will not succeed without having first transformed a good part of the peasants into proletarians; and after that, once taken to the bosom of the capitalist regime, she will experience its pitiless laws like other profane peoples.

Even so, in the next paragraph he pointed out that, whatever the general pattern to be seen in past developments, one should not assume the same path of development as a general law in countries with differing conditions.

Earlier, in a note to Engels about Flerovsky’s book THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN RUSSIA (1869), Marx commented:

... [that] the present conditions in Russia can no longer be maintained, that the emancipation of the serfs [has] only, of course, hastened the process of disintegration and that a fearful social revolution is approaching. Here too one sees the real basis of the schoolboy nihilism which is at present the fashion among Russian students, etc.

Russia’s would-be radicals

The origins of Bolshevism can be found in the Jacobin-inspired conspiratorial circles of late 19th C Russia, isolated from each other by fear of the Tsarist secret police with its vast network of spies, double agents and informers. Generations of idealistic young people had gone from college to prison, exile and early death. The Narodniks’ naïve hopes that their ‘going to the people’ campaigns would inspire the peasants to rise up had proved a disappointment - the peasants at best ignored them, at worst reported them to the police.

This led to a new more extreme trend. In the 1862 manifesto, YOUNG RUSSIA, Zaichnevsky wrote:

We will not be the pitiful revolutionaries of 1848, but rather the great terrorists of 1792... we will see that for the overthrowing of the contemporary social order it will prove necessary to expend twice as much blood as was expended by the Jacobins in the 1790s. (The revolutionary party) must take the dictatorship into its own hands and not stop at any thing. Elections... must take place under the surveillance of the (revolutionary) government which will at once make sure that no partisans of the old order – that is, if they are still alive – make up the components of this new assembly.

A similar line was taken by Speshnev, influenced by the 1840s French radicals, he promoted as a blueprint for a Russian revolution:

* centralised leadership with a central committee;
* conspiratorial organisation;
* Macchiavellian tactics;
* establishment of a post-revolutionary dictatorship;
* collectivisation of Russian agriculture.

Nechayev’s chilling ‘nihilist’ manifesto THE REVOLUTIONARY CATECHISM (1868-69) outlined what was required of a real revolutionary:

He is mercilessly hostile to society; he continues to live in society only so that he may eventually destroy it... He despises public opinion, all the pretensions of contemporary morality. Everything that glorifies revolution is moral to him; everything that interferes with it is immoral and unjust.... He who feels pity for anything in this society is not a revolutionary.
Quoted in Albert L Weeks THE FIRST BOLSHEVIK, 1968, p48

Nechayev was however a very dubious, untrustworthy character, given to wildly exaggerating his revolutionary credentials, and unscrupulously deceiving and taking advantage of Bakunin and others.

A more important influence for Lenin was Tkachev (1844-1886) with his journal NABAT (the Alarm) launched in 1875. Nabat was available among the many pamphlets and manifestos, collected by an exiled radical, Bonch-Bruyevich, and made available to Lenin. In Switzerland Lenin urged his supporters to study the “magnificent” Tkachev.

As the Russian historian Mitskevich wrote in 1923 in a Soviet journal:

It is an irrefutable fact that the Russian Revolution proceeded to a significant degree according to the ideas of Tkachev, with the seizure of power made at a time determined in advance by a revolutionary party which was organised on the principle of strict centralisation and discipline.
PROLETARIAN REVOLUTION, see Weeks, p xviii-n

A Western historian, Leonard Schapiro, also noted Tkachev’s pioneering “ideology for revolutionary activity”:

P N Tkachev was the first Russian to teach that the revolution should be made by a small conspiratorial body of professionals, acting in the name of the people. According to Tkachev the revolutionary minority, or party, must first seize political power, and then transform society... The resemblance to bolshevism, such as it was eventually to become, is in some respects very striking, and it is with justice that Tkachev has often been described as the originator of many of Lenin’s ideas. Lenin himself would later closely study Tkachev, and insist on Tkachev’s articles as required reading for his own followers. In contrast, Engels was very critical of his views, and [in 1875] engaged in open polemics with him.

The Bolshevik / Tkachev formula

The central idea was to organise for a top-down vanguardist political revolution leading to a dictatorship. With the failure of the Narodniks’ efforts to rouse the peasants and workers, Tkachev took a new line:

If you leave the people to themselves, they will build nothing new. They will only spread the old way of life to which they have become accustomed... A revolutionary minority is no longer willing to wait but must take upon itself the forcing of consciousness upon the people... The [intellectual] minority will impart a considered and rational form tm the struggle... directing this coarse material [the masses] towards ideal principles...

Like Lenin later, Tkachev emphasised the need for an organised revolutionary movement:

The success of revolution depends on the formation and organised unity of scattered revolutionary elements into a living organism which is able to act according to a single, common plan, and be subordinated to a single, common leadership...

Tkachev’s ideas were echoed almost word for word, in Lenin’s WHAT IS TO BE DONE? (1901). Even now, in the West, you can still find latter-day Leninists in the universities spouting this arrogant elitism, declaring themselves the self-appointed intellectual elite.

Was Lenin really a “genius”?

The consensus among historians of the Russian revolution and others on the ‘Left’ was that Lenin was a great man and a genius. But surely a genius should show some originality in his thinking. Yet even in the titles of his works, Lenin borrowed from others.

* WHAT IS TO BE DONE? – this title was taken from the novel by Chernyshevsky;
* ISKRA (the Spark) – this was the title of an earlier journal, referring back to Herzen’s quote, in The Russian People and Socialism, from a French poet;
* THE STATE AND REVOLUTION - this title was similar to Tkachev’s Revolution and the State.

Lenin in short took his organisational ideas and his vanguard theory from Tkachev, his Macchiavellian tactics and ‘nihilism’ from Speshnev and Nechayev, and his titles from anyone.

Class struggle, the masses and the February revolution

Lenin is above all credited with being the originator of the vanguard theory of revolution, along with his insistence on a centralised leadership. However Marx’s views on revolution were very different. Marx always argued for the class struggle as the driver of revolution. This meant a class-conscious working class, conscious of its interests as a class “in and for itself”, and so able to organise itself, economically and politically. He argued for a political class struggle, first in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, and much later urged workers to organise themselves as a political party (Address to the International Workers’ Association).

Lenin however argued: that “the workers by themselves could not get beyond a mere trade union consciousness” (WHAT IS TO BE DONE?). In saying this he was disregarding many instances of workers having organised themselves for political change – the Chartists, the Paris Commune, etc. Even in Russia, there had emerged small movements of workers with declared socialist aims.

The facts about the February 1917 revolution are enough to make one question Lenin’s vanguard theory. In a very few days, food riots and mass protests at the meagre war-time rations resulted in the Tsar’s abdication. In his book, THE HISTORY OF THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION (1930), Trotsky asked pointedly “Who led the February Insurrection?” (vol. 1, chap 8).

As most of the Bolshevik leadership was either abroad or in jail, or miles away in Siberian exile, this movement was clearly not organised by them, and not led by professional revolutionaries or party members. Trotsky was in New York and did not get to Russia till May. Just a few weeks before the February rising, Lenin made a speech to Swiss workers in which he declared emphatically it was most unlikely there would be a revolution in Russia in his lifetime.

As Trotsky saw it the February rising was not ‘spontaneous’ – just leaderless, with a politicised working class, resentful of meagre rations, hardships, and crass inequality. During war-time, the landowners lacked military garrisons to protect them from peasants. Faced with the February rising, the Tsar’s usual reaction was to call out the Guards. The Guards refused to fire on the people.

The success of the rising – in getting rid of the Tsarist autocracy – was obvious. The war and a series of military defeats had weakened the Tsarist regime. It was unable to rely on its armies to crush the demonstrators or in the summer to protect landowners’ houses from being destroyed by mobs of angry peasants. When push came to shove, the Russian revolutions of 1917 were as easy as “kicking in a rotten door”.

The fact is these revolutions did not depend on the inspired leadership of a small group of out-of–touch elitist theorists of revolution. That Lenin was out of touch is clear.

On arriving in Petersburg, his speech (the April Theses) so shocked his party that some discussed expelling him. Later he badgered them into an attempted coup in July. This failed and he was forced into exile, in Finland. Through the summer and autumn, he shilly-shallyed on tactics – whether to be a pacifist or back the war, whether to form an alliance with the peasants’ party, the SRs, whether to back the Constituent Assembly or break it up, etc.

But it was one thing for Lenin’s autumn coup to succeed in conditions of months of political instability, with the soldiers “voting with their feet” as they walked away from the battlefields, with the peasants seizing land, and the city workers in angry protests. His expectation was that workers in other states – Germany, France, Britain etc - were also on the brink of revolution, in which case the Russian revolt would light a spark, triggering other revolutions. In this too he was again mistaken.

Like Nechayev he was single-minded in his urging of revolution at all costs, whatever the odds. Like Tkachev he insisted on his party following his orders. The ‘party line’ had to be followed or expulsion followed.

By seizing political power without the active support of the majority of the working class, the Bolshevik minority was inevitably only going to be able to hold power as a dictatatorship. And this was the planned and foreseeable outcome of the Bolshevik and Tkachevian recipe for a minority revolution, a coup d’etat, not a social revolution.

But this dictatorship has nothing to do with a Socialist revolution, based on the class struggle and a working-class organising itself as a class-conscious political party, for its self-emancipation. For this no leadership is needed, no self-appointed elitist vanguard. Just a clear-headed understanding of how workers are exploited under capitalism, and a level-headed democratic political organisation to bring about a real change, and an end to the class system.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.