A complete account of Bolshevism would require many shelves-worth of books. But the term “Bolshevism” and its variants are thrown about with such a mix of enthusiastic and antagonistic abandon that some form of straightforward understanding is very important.
One widely-held version of “Bolshevism” claims that the Russian Marxist movement split into two factions (the other being the “Mensheviks”) over the question of “what sort of party” at the 1903 congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party (RDSLP). The split is posed as between the Bolsheviks who advocated building a revolutionary democratic-centralist party and the Mensheviks who wanted something looser and broader. In fact, both factions were committed to the same revolutionary programme and all wings of the revolutionary movement advocated more or less “tight” democratic structures.
So, why the falling out? The initial division between the two camps grew out of Lenin’s refusal to act against the decisions of the congress. What was the burning issue? The answer looks petty today: leading Mensheviks wanted a bigger “Editorial Board” for the publication Iskra; congress set the number at three people. Lenin refused to budge. He saw it as an issue of “party spirit” as against “circle spirit”.
The split was not intended to be permanent. Events subsumed that particular division, though in hindsight it shows something of the “cultural” difference between Lenin’s insistence on sharp political decisions and the Menshevik’s bias towards muddling through.
From the 1890s onwards, Russia was a bubbling cauldron: a society which witnessed sizeable advances in capitalist production amidst a pauperised peasant population and under the continuing rule of an absolute monarch (Tsar).
When the situation tipped toward revolution in 1905, all wings of the RDSLP combined, working together on the basis of a working class revolutionary programme. There were differences between Lenin and the Mensheviks even in 1905, and in the aftermath of 1905 sharp conflicts emerged, over conflicting interpretations of the revolution itself.
In his account of the revolution (1905) Leon Trotsky described the Menshevik interpreters as “bookkeepers of revolution”. He slammed them as opportunists for their revolutionary zeal of the moment and subsequent slump into determiners of the “possible” in the aftermath. The Mensheviks abandoned hope of worker-led revolution in the short term and advocated alliances with liberals and other bourgeois forces toward a bourgeois-dominated democratic revolution. The working class could come into its own at a later stage.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks drew different conclusions from 1905. For them, as for Trotsky, the role of the working class in 1905 (when “soviets” were first formed), and the behaviour of the bourgeois forces to whom the Mensheviks now looked for salvation, demonstrated that whatever the exact details of the revolution to come it could only be completed with the working class at the head. The split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks became definitive in 1912.
There were still important debates within the ranks of those rejecting the Menshevik course. Lenin still believed that, because of the numerical dominance of the peasantry, the revolution, though worker-led, could only be a radical form of bourgeois revolution.
But the key element common to Trotsky and the Bolsheviks was the idea that the workers could lead the coming revolution. Events between 1905 and 1917, including the Menshevik attitude to the First World War and their tactics during the subsequent revolution, demonstrated the validity of Bolshevik politics.
In describing the opportunistic mindset, Trotsky writes: “It is gripped by a special disease... driven berserk by its sickness, it attacks and wounds its own party”. This is true of much of the left today... including some self-proclaimed Bolsheviks.
1905, Leon Trotsky
The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky
Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, V I Lenin