Quick Reference

Political theory and practice of the Bolshevik Party which, under Lenin, came to power during the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The Bolshevik (meaning ‘majority’) radical communist faction within the Russian Social Democratic Labour party emerged during the 1903 Party Congress following the split with the more moderate Mensheviks (meaning ‘minority’). After a period of intermittent collaboration and schism with the latter, the Bolshevik Party was formally constituted in 1912.

The 1905 Revolution took the Bolsheviks by surprise and there was little formal activity. The ensuing repression forced the party into clandestinity, and contact with the exiles, led by Lenin, was difficult. After the outbreak of the First World War, whilst Lenin proclaimed ‘revolutionary defeatism’, the Bolshevik organization inside Russia was practically moribund. The February Revolution of 1917 found the Bolsheviks unprepared. The majority of the Central Committee and the editorial board of Pravda (headed by Stalin) gave conditional support to the Provisional Government and entered unity discussions with the Mensheviks. Party membership soared, exiles returned, but there were problems of loss of direction. On his return to Russia, Lenin's April Theses (no support for the Provisional Government; the Revolution was passing from the democratic to the socialist stage; under a Bolshevik majority the Soviets must assume state power) were poorly received. He found the Party divided between a group which advocated an immediate uprising and a Central Committee which desired a peaceful accretion of power. Lenin appealed to the rank‐and‐file, arguing that ‘the masses are a hundred times to the left of us’. However, he resisted calls for insurrection in both June and July, declaring that ‘one wrong move on our part can wreck everything’. The Party remained divided right up to the October insurrection; Zinoviev and Kamenev opposed it, and Lenin was forced to threaten resignation unless the uprising took place.

The immediate post‐revolutionary situation—the period of war communism—saw the beginning of the transformation of the Communist Party into a bureaucratically organized, top–down apparatus, the eclipse of the soviets and the trade unions, and the suppression of opposition (although socialist and anarchist critics experienced alternate persecution and semi‐legality). The Party also continued to be racked by internal divisions. Many objected to the Brest Litovsk treaty in March 1918, which ceded vast tracts of Russia to Germany, and the Left Communists criticized the use of bourgeois ‘experts’ in government and army. The Workers' Opposition (1920–1) declared that the leadership had violated ‘the spirit of the Revolution’ and championed workers' control in industry. Meanwhile right‐wing dissidents called for a prolonged period of state capitalism as Russia was not ready for socialism.

The end of the civil war marked the transition from a temporary dictatorship to a peacetime institutionalization of repression. The tenth Party Congress (1921) was a decisive event. The introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) coincided with the ban on factions and the bloody suppression of the Kronstadt rebels. Before his death in 1924, Lenin criticized the existence of ‘a workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions' and appealed unsuccessfully to Trotsky to work with him to oust Stalin whose role as head of the central Party apparatus gave him enormous power.


Subjects: Politics — History.

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »