Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 27 June 2019

Lenin and Bolshevism

Abstract and Keywords

The strategy of European Social Democracy, as embodied in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and set forth in the canonical writings of Karl Kautsky, was based on the aggressive use of political freedom to carry out large-scale propaganda campaigns. Lenin aimed at implanting this strategy into the uncongenial soil of Russian absolutism, which gave rise to his organizational ideas for the Social Democratic underground. After the 1905 revolution, Bolshevism was defined by a scenario for overthrowing the tsar in which the socialist proletariat would provide class leadership to the putatively democratic peasantry. Lenin responded to the crisis of European Social Democracy in 1914 by putting forward a vision of a new era of global revolutions, taken in large part from Kautsky’s writings. There is more continuity between pre-war Bolshevism and the revolution in 1917 than is commonly realized, but one crucial shift was the marginalization of political freedom.

Keywords: Lenin, Bolshevism, Kautsky, Social Democracy, SPD, Russian revolution, peasantry, underground, political freedom.

In 1938 the Soviet government issued what became one of the most influential textbooks of all time: History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) (Short Course). Joseph Stalin played a direct role in the creation of the Short Course not only by assuming overall editorial control but also by drafting crucial sections. The interpretive framework of the Short Course was built around the claim that Lenin had created a ‘party of a new type, the party of Lenin, the Bolshevik party’. This party of a new type stood in vivid contrast to the older Social Democratic parties in Western Europe, which ‘tolerated foes of Marxism, avowed opportunists, in their ranks and allowed them to corrupt and ruin the Second International’. The Short Course stressed that the party of a new type grows and becomes strong by relentlessly purging itself of ‘the filth of opportunism’. Accordingly, the history of the Bolshevik Party is portrayed as a series of challenges, ruptures, splits, and purges. The ‘fundamental and decisive part’ in the creation of a party of a new type was played by Lenin. The interpretation found in the Short Course was informed by the Lenin cult and portrays the Bolshevik Party as largely a top-down, conscious creation of the great man. Exclusive attention is given to Lenin’s polemics with various socialist foes and none at all to the immense positive inspiration he received from Western Social Democracy. Rupture and innovation is everything, continuity is hardly anything.1

The Short Course is no longer read today, but its ‘party of a new type’ framework remains the most influential approach to Bolshevik history, even in mainstream academic scholarship in the West. Of course, Western scholarship describes the contrast between old and new types of party in very different terms. Western Social Democracy is presented as a mass, democratic movement based on optimistic confidence in the workers, whereas Lenin’s Bolshevism is presented as an elite conspiratorial party based on anxiety or even despair about the revolutionary inclinations of the workers. Western historians often trace the source of Lenin’s outlook to Russian revolutionary populism, especially to such violent and amoral figures as Sergei Nechaev. Thus Lenin’s roots in the Russian revolutionary tradition are used to strengthen the contrast with European (p. 54) Social Democratic Marxism, often by invoking stereotypes about Europe’s civilized modernity versus Russia’s backward barbarity.

The various versions of the ‘party of a new type’ interpretation have many solid insights, but when we turn to Lenin’s own writings we find a strange disconnect. Lenin never publically used the term or the concept in describing his goals or his accomplishments. Instead of focusing exclusively on party structure and institutions, he talked about Bolshevism as a movement based on a particular vision of Russia’s revolution present and future. When he talked about the fundamental features of Bolshevism, he stressed not rupture and contrast, but rather continuity and loyalty to a European-wide ‘revolutionary Social Democracy’. Even his hostility to ‘opportunism’ was taken from this source. When he turned against the established leaders of European Social Democracy after 1914, he motivated his attack by claiming that they, not he, had proved disloyal to a pre-war consensus.

These facts suggest a different approach that places Lenin and Bolshevism more accurately in the context of ‘revolutionary Social Democracy’, particularly as embodied in the writings of Karl Kautsky, a figure of immense influence in Russia. Lenin had strong roots in the Russian revolutionary tradition, but these roots can only be understood in terms of this tradition’s own evolution towards Social Democracy. Bolshevism was not the brainchild of Lenin, despite his role as its chief ideologue and spokesman. In terms both of its organizational concept and its overall strategic orientation, Bolshevism was a Russian movement that tried to implant the perspectives of European ‘revolutionary Social Democracy’ into the inhospitable soil of absolutism. Lenin became its leader because he expressed the aspirations of this movement better than any other. As often, the creative attempt to import a foreign model led to unexpected originality.

Karl Kautsky and the SPD Model

The relationship between Bolshevism and Western Social Democracy is embodied in the figure of Karl Kautsky, the pre-eminent spokesman of ‘revolutionary Social Democracy’ during the two decades prior to World War I. During all this time, Russian Social Democrats and the Bolsheviks in particular, looked upon Kautsky as teacher and mentor. He undoubtedly played a greater role in the socialist education of ordinary Bolsheviks than any single Russian writer, including Lenin. In 1917 Lenin set out Kautsky’s relation to Russian Bolshevism generously and accurately:

Undoubtedly, an immeasurably larger number of Kautsky’s works have been translated into Russian than into any other language…The Russian workers, by making in 1905 an unusually great and unprecedented demand for the best works of the best Social Democratic literature and editions of these works in quantities unheard of in other countries, rapidly transplanted, so to speak, the enormous experience of a neighbouring, more advanced country to the young soil of our proletarian movement.2

(p. 55) When people are inspired by a foreign political institution, direct contact is usually less significant than written expositions of an idealized model of the actual institution. So it was in the case of young Russian socialists in the 1890s who were inspired by the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD). Their understanding of the inner logic of the German party came primarily from Kautsky’s Erfurt Program, written as a commentary on the party program adopted by the SPD at a party congress in Erfurt in 1891. German Social Democracy had just forced the German government to back down and rescind anti-socialist legislation that had essentially outlawed the party, so that the party’s international prestige among socialists was particularly high. Kautsky’s Erfurt Program remained the basic textbook for Russian Social Democrats until the 1920s.

Kautsky’s understanding of the inner logic of Marx-based Social Democracy was summarized in the pithy formula ‘Social Democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement.’ This formula had very wide currency in international Social Democracy. The young Lenin described it as ‘K. Kautsky’s expression that reproduces the basic ideas of the Communist Manifesto’.3 According to Marx and Engels, the proletariat had been given a mighty mission to take over state power and use it to institute socialism. This meant that only the workers themselves could carry out their own emancipation. But this huge task required a vast amount of preparation, since the workers had to understand and accept their mission and then had to organize themselves to be able to carry it out. As Marx put it, the workers need to be ‘united by combination and led by knowledge’.4 In turn, these twin tasks—organization and enlightenment—required political freedom if they were to be carried out at the mass level of society-wide classes.

The man who turned Marx’s grand vision into practical politics was Ferdinand Lassalle. German Social Democracy revered Lassalle as the founder of their party, and he deserved the title primarily for one crucial political innovation: the permanent campaign. The mass political campaign was a relatively recent political tool, used only sporadically and in an ad hoc fashion, for example in order to repeal the British Corn Laws (a direct inspiration for Lassalle). Lassalle’s idea was to use and expand campaign techniques of propaganda and agitation to spread the socialist message day in and day out:

Organize yourselves as a Universal Union of German Workers for the purpose of a legal and peaceful but unwearying, unceasing agitation for the introduction of universal direct suffrage in every German state. Found and publish newspapers, to make this demand daily and to prove the reasons for it from the state of society. With the same funds circulate pamphlets for the same purpose. Pay agents out of the Union’s funds to carry this insight into every corner of the country, to thrill the heart of every worker, every house-servant, every farm-labourer, with this cry. Indemnify out of the Union’s funds all workers who have been injured or prosecuted for their activity. Repeat daily, unwearingly, the same thing, again the same thing, always the same thing.5

The permanent campaign became the most distinctive feature of the SPD, an institution fully deserving the label ‘party of a new type’. In the two decades after the Erfurt congress, the German Social Democrats became the largest party in Germany and even in the world, with a prestige unmatched in international socialism. Its brilliant (p. 56) political spokesmen (party leader August Bebel was considered one of the best orators in Europe), its impressive party congresses, its dazzling array of central and local newspapers, its inspiring rallies, and its wide range of cultural societies were all aimed at creating (in Vernon Lidtke’s phrase) an ‘alternative culture’ based on proletarian class solidarity and hostility to the German establishment.6

The achievements of German Social Democracy were only possible because of the relative political freedom of the German empire. For this reason, Kautsky’s Erfurt Program insisted on the primary importance of political freedoms for the proletariat:

These freedoms [freedom of association, of assembly, of the press] have the greatest significance for the working class: they are among the conditions that make its life possible and to which it unconditionally owes its development. They are light and air for the proletariat; he who lets them wither or withholds them—he who keeps the proletariat from the struggle to win these freedoms and to extend them—that person is one of the proletariat’s worst enemies.7

The idea that political freedoms were light and air for the proletariat became the underlying premise of Russian Social Democracy’s basic political strategy. But what practical relevance could this idea have to scattered and isolated Russian activists such as Lenin who lived under the repressive absolutism of the tsar?

Through Suffering to Marx: Russian Populism and Social Democracy

Looking back in 1920, Lenin used a striking expression to describe the origin of Russian Social Democracy: Russia had suffered its way (vystradat’) to Marxism.8 Lenin’s phrase points to the overlooked process by which Russian Populists moved towards Social Democracy as a result of an internal evolution in the search for a viable revolutionary strategy in tsarist Russia. In the 1860s and 1870s the first wave of Russian socialist revolutionaries saw little that was attractive about political freedom. Such things as freedom of the press were an irrelevant luxury for the largely illiterate peasantry. It followed that the coming Russian revolution could not be merely a political one that would install liberal checks and guarantees, thereby handing power to an unpleasant new elite. By the end of the 1870s frustrating failures in making contact with the narod had persuaded many of the revolutionaries that the uncongenial task of a political revolution really was part of their job description. Paradoxically, the new interim goal of political freedom was the reason that these revolutionaries turned to terror as a method. Since the current lack of political freedom meant that a mass movement was not yet possible, the only way forward was for a ‘handful of daring people’ (the self-description of the terrorists) to force the autocratic government to make the necessary concessions. The new terrorist orientation had one spectacular success when Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by the (p. 57) terrorist organization People’s Will (Narodnaia volia) on 1 March 1881. Far from introducing political freedom, however, the government grew even more repressive.

The dilemma faced by the Russian regime was well explained in a manifesto written in 1887 by Alexander Ulyanov, Lenin’s older brother, in order to justify another attempt on the life of the tsar. Ulyanov insisted that ‘without freedom of speech, propaganda that is in any way effective is impossible’. In essence, Ulyanov had adopted the SPD strategy for achieving socialism. But this strategy could only be adopted after political freedom had been won. For the present, terror still seemed the only possible method of obtaining political freedom in the absence of political freedom. Ulyanov failed in his attempt to assassinate the tsar and was hanged on 8 May 1887. Much has been written about the psychological impact of his brother’s execution on Lenin, but the political impact was equally important. Alexander’s execution laid bare the impasse at which the Russian revolutionary tradition had arrived. The Social Democratic strategy of educating workers by mass campaigns was perceived as the only realistic way to get to socialism, but this strategy could not be applied without political freedom—and there seemed to be no way to obtain the requisite political freedom.

Just when the full extent of this dilemma began to sink in, Kautsky wrote the Erfurt Program, his textbook of the fundamentals of the Social Democratic outlook. Brooding over Kautsky’s exposition, young Russian revolutionary socialists—among them Lenin—began to wonder whether perhaps some version of the SPD strategy could be used immediately in tsarist Russia as a way of achieving political freedom. A daring political goal began to seize people’s minds, one that can be formulated as follows: ‘Let us build an underground version of the SPD in order to overthrow the tsar and institute the political freedom needed for the application of the undiluted SPD model!’ This became the battle-cry of Russian ‘revolutionary Social Democracy’.

Iskra and the Konspiratsiia Underground

The SPD strategy required three things that were difficult to imagine in backward, repressive Russia. First, the goal of ‘merging socialism with the worker movement’ required a working class strong enough to fight back against capitalist owners and the government. Second, it required an illegal underground capable of emulating to some degree the techniques of agitation and propaganda pioneered by the SPD in order to bring the socialist message to the workers. Third, the dream of contributing to the revolutionary overthrow of the tsar required some sort of national political structure for Russian Social Democracy. For the next decade, efforts to fulfil these requirements were undertaken by a generation of mostly anonymous activists scattered throughout Russia. Lenin himself was a prominent member of this generation, but in no way did he direct this collective, trial-and-error search for solutions—indeed, he was inspired by it.

During the 1890s militant and organized worker protest began to have an impact even in absolutist Russia. A turning point were the strikes in Petersburg in 1896–7 that led the (p. 58) tsarist government to promulgate factory protection legislation. The surprising discipline of the workers electrified the Russian public and greatly encouraged the young Social Democrats who had wagered on a home-grown Russian worker movement. In the words of the Bolshevik activist, M. Liadov, was it possible both ‘to expand as much as possible the framework of a secret organization and, while preserving intact the konspiratsiia character of the [party] staff, connect it with a whole series of threads to the mass’?9 Konspiratsiia, the term used by Liadov, is key to understanding the logic of the new underground. It does not mean ‘conspiracy’ (in Russian, zagovor). The old populist underground aimed at a successful conspiracy to overthrow tsarism because it assumed the police repression made any mass organization impossible. In contrast, konspiratsiia included mass organization. Although derived from the French word conspiration, konspiratsiia acquired the strongly contrasted meaning of all the practical rules of conduct needed to elude the police, while preserving the threads connecting the organization to a wider community. The Social Democratic undergrounders knew that their activities were only a pale imitation of the mighty SPD, but they were immensely proud that any sort of imitation was possible in tsarist Russia. The collective creation of the young activists was truly an underground of a new type, one that did not seek to carry out a coup d’état by means of a conspiracy, but rather to build a mass movement protected by the rules of konspiratsiia.

By the end of the 1890s, Social Democratic underground organizations existed in most major Russian cities. Russian Social Democracy then faced an existential choice. Should it continue to devote itself to providing staff support for local worker protest and to spreading the socialist message until such time as Russia obtained enough political freedom, de jure or de facto, for Social Democracy to operate openly? Or should it itself take on the responsibility of playing a major, perhaps even a leadership role in the revolutionary overthrow of the tsar? The current that rejected the possibility of an underground socialist party leading an anti-tsarist revolution was scornfully called ‘economism’ by its opponents. It was defeated not only by the polemical barrage unleashed by its opponents, but more importantly by a new wave of politicized worker unrest in 1901. These events gave a fresh impetus towards creating a nationwide political structure that could channel and magnify the impact of worker protest and widespread social discontent.

In late 1900 a group of émigrés committed to this ambitious goal came together to launch a Social Democratic newspaper entitled Iskra or The Spark. Half of Iskra’s editorial board came from the older generation (Georgii Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, Pavel Akselrod) and half from the younger generation of activists with extensive experience inside Russia (Lenin, Iulii Martov, Aleksandr Potresov). The goal of the Iskra group was not only to make this newspaper a nationwide political voice for the Social Democratic underground, but also to use the newspaper as an organizing tool for a party congress that would create ongoing central institutions. Lenin wrote his famous What Is To Be Done? (1902) in his role as spokesman for this Iskra campaign. Basing themselves on a few abstract polemical formulae in What Is To Be Done?, Western scholars have made an alleged ‘worry about workers’ the heart of Lenin’s outlook. All his views on the mission of the party, its structure, its political strategy, are said to derive from a disillusioned (p. 59) pessimism about the innate reformism of the workers. According to this line of thought, Lenin’s worry about workers is the source of the contrast between Bolshevism and European Social Democracy, the reason for the newness of the party of a new type. This interpretation is a profound distortion of Lenin’s outlook and a barrier to any real understanding of the roots of world communism. Lenin certainly believed in the party’s mission to bring the socialist message to the workers, but this was a belief he took over directly from European Social Democracy. In the context of the debates of the 1890s, the assertion that the Russian workers were capable of receiving and assimilating the Social Democratic message was itself a daringly optimist one. A brief review of the many Iskra articles Lenin wrote before, during, and after the writing of What Is To Be Done? reveals many passages such as the following:

The main source that nourishes revolutionary Social Democracy is precisely this spirit of revolt in the worker masses that, despite the oppression and violence that surround the worker, breaks through from time to time in desperate outbursts. These outbursts awaken to purposive life the widest strata of workers crushed by need and darkness. They disseminate in them the spirit of a noble hatred of the oppressors and the enemies of freedom.10

When What Is To Be Done? is read as a whole, sentiments such as these clearly set the tone. Lenin’s description of the perfect underground organization in What Is To Be Done? is an idealized version of the konspiratsiia underground that had been created by empirical trial and error. Lenin summarized this achievement and broadcast it back to the activists on the ground in heroic, inspirational form.11

In 1902 the three developments of the past decade—growth of the worker movement, creation of a viable konspiratsiia underground, preparations for a nationwide Social Democratic party—were moving together in a climactic development that would shake the foundations of tsarist Russia, or so it seemed to the enthusiastic members of the Iskra editorial board. In August 1903 the long-awaited Second Congress adopted a program that reflected Iskra orthodoxy, and set up a central committee and an official editorial board with membership that reflected the triumph of the Iskra standpoint. Unfortunately, things began to fall apart even during the Second Congress when a deep split developed within the Iskra group itself. Bitter polemics and organizational infighting followed for the next year. Although the labels ‘Bolshevik’ and ‘Menshevik’ were given to the contending groups during these squabbles, deep differences in outlook and political strategy only became evident during and after the 1905 revolution.

The Old Bolshevik Scenario

Although ‘Old Bolshevism’ was a term originally coined by Lenin for polemical purposes, it is a useful label for the pre-1917 phase of Bolshevism, when it was still primarily (p. 60) a Russian solution to a Russian problem—albeit a problem whose terms were set by international ‘revolutionary Social Democracy’. This problem was the role of the socialist proletariat in the hoped-for overthrow of tsarism and the achievement of political freedom in Russia. Bolshevism’s solution came in the form of a heroic scenario that was both an idealized version of the revolution of 1905 and a template for the bigger and better 1905 that (so the Bolsheviks hoped) would finish off tsarism. Lenin coined a number of formulae to bring out various aspects of Bolshevik tactics: ‘armed insurrection’, ‘provisional revolutionary government’, ‘proletarian hegemony’, and ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletarian and peasantry’. All these slogans point to the same underlying scenario: the socialist proletariat creates a narodnaia vlast’ that is capable of carrying out the narodnaia revoliutsiia ‘to the end’.

Narodnaia vlast’ can be directly translated as ‘power of the people’, but the connotations of the English equivalent are far from the Russian original. Narod means ‘the people’ as opposed to educated society (the dividing line between the two was exceptionally strong in Russian society at this time). A vlast’ is the source of sovereign authority, the directive energy that drives the state and its institutions. The word is most familiar to us in the phrase sovetskaia vlast’ or ‘Soviet power’. For the Bolsheviks, sovetskaia vlast’ was synonymous in practical terms with a narodnaia vlast’, that is, a vlast’ whose class basis was the workers and peasants. The revolution envisioned by the Old Bolshevik scenario was expected to be narodnaia, that is, carried out by and in the interests of the narod. Since the narod included peasantry as well as workers, the upcoming revolution could not be a socialist one, according to Marxist theory. The revolution could therefore be described either as ‘bourgeois’ (emphasizing its limitations) or as ‘democratic’ (emphasizing its positive content). Bolshevism overwhelmingly stressed not the limitations but the positive content of the upcoming revolution whose task was envisioned as a vast democratic transformation of Russian society. The Bolsheviks wanted to ensure that the next revolution was carried out ‘to the end’ (do kontsa), a key phrase in Bolshevik rhetoric.

The actual engine of Russia’s transformation would be a ‘provisional revolutionary government’, whose vast tasks were set out in an article by the young Stalin in August 1905:

[The provisional revolutionary government] must disarm the dark forces, curb the enemies of the revolution so that they shall not be able to restore the tsarist autocracy. It must arm the people and help to carry the revolution through to the end. It must introduce freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, and so forth. It must abolish indirect taxes and introduce a progressive profits tax and progressive death duties. It must organize peasant committees which will settle the land question in the countryside. It must also disestablish the church and secularize education….

In addition to these general demands, the provisional government must also satisfy the class demands of the workers: freedom to strike and freedom of association, the eight-hour day, state insurance for workers, hygienic conditions of labour, establishment of ‘labor exchanges’, and so forth.

(p. 61) In short, the provisional government must fully carry out our minimum program and immediately proceed to convene a popular Constituent Assembly which will give ‘perpetual’ legal force to the changes that will have taken place in social life.12

In the Old Bolshevik scenario, the Constituent Assembly comes after the provisional revolutionary government has carried out democratic revolutionary changes ‘to the end’. The Constituent Assembly therefore represented the end point of the revolutionary period and the beginning of bourgeois class rule. The ‘socialist proletariat’ could no longer participate in a non-revolutionary capitalist government, although the ‘democratic peasantry’ would very probably dominate the government of the newly formed democratic republic.

The Old Bolshevik scenario contained a detailed picture of the internal dynamics of the narodnaia vlast’ created by the revolution. To the proletariat was assigned the role of leader: ‘we proletarians should not only take part in the present revolution, but also be at the head of it, guide it, and carry it out to the end’.13 This role was incumbent on the proletariat, because, paradoxically, ‘only the proletariat has shown itself capable—in the name of socialism—to provide an army of genuine fighters to resolve the task of the bourgeois emancipation of Russia’.14 ‘The peasantry cannot carry out an agrarian revolution without abolishing the old regime, the standing army and the bureaucracy, because all these are the most reliable mainstays of the landed property of the pomeshchiki [gentry estate-owners], bound to this system by thousands of ties.’15

According to Bolshevik logic, if the peasants could be relied on to push the revolution to the end, then the anti-tsarist liberals could be relied upon to do their best to halt the revolution long before it reached this point. For a variety of reasons—economic and social ties with the gentry landowners, fear of worker activism under conditions of full political freedom—the liberals wanted at most a constitutional monarchy and limited reforms. The fate of the revolution therefore depended on the question: who would play the role of leader, the proletariat or the liberals? And the answer to this question depended on another: who would the peasantry follow? The pressing political task of the Russian Social Democrats was therefore to fight the liberals to obtain the political loyalty of the peasants.

Critics of the Old Bolshevik scenario asked: could Marxism possibly sanction the idea of the socialist proletariat as leader of a bourgeois revolution? The Bolsheviks’ affirmative answer is much less unorthodox than commonly thought. Even in Germany, the inability of the bourgeoisie to carry out the ‘bourgeois revolution’ to the end had been a long-accepted commonplace, with the result that the task of fighting for ‘bourgeois’ democratic reforms fell to the socialist proletariat. The orthodox credentials of the Old Bolshevik scenario for the Russian revolution were confirmed by a seminal 1906 article by Karl Kautsky entitled ‘The Driving Forces of the Russian Revolution and its Prospects’. In this article Kautsky essentially endorsed the Bolshevik strategy of a peasant-proletarian revolutionary coalition led by the proletariat.16

The Bolsheviks also preserved their orthodoxy by assuming, along with Kautsky, that the upcoming Russian revolution could not be a socialist one, since the non-socialist (p. 62) peasantry made up the vast majority of the country. Nevertheless, since the Russian revolution was taking place in an era of world socialist revolution, and since it would very likely inspire socialist revolution in Western Europe, neither Kautsky nor the Bolsheviks foresaw a tremendously long era of peaceful bourgeois development in Russia. Indeed, their hope was to make post-revolutionary Russia as unpeaceful as possible.

The actual revolution of 1905 had been a mighty upheaval and the revolution envisaged in the Old Bolshevik scenario was supposed to be even mightier. The reality of Russia in the years 1907–14 was in dire contrast to both the actual and projected revolution. On the one hand, renewed repression came close to killing the konspiratsiia underground. Underground organizations were devastated not only by arrests but also by spies and provocateurs, the ‘flight of the intellectuals’ from revolutionary activity, and the apathy of the workers. On the other hand, the post-revolutionary order seemed relatively stable and at least potentially open to legal worker organizations, thus raising the question of whether anti-tsarist revolution was still on the agenda.

Under these circumstances, Russian ‘revolutionary Social Democracy’ was faced with whether or not to ‘liquidate’ its earlier commitment to the konspiratsiia underground and to an anti-tsarist narodnaia revoliutsiia. Lenin insisted that the revolutionary goals of the party—summed up in slogans such as the democratic republic, confiscation of landowner estates, and the eight-hour working day—were still on the agenda, since post-revolutionary tsarist statesmen such as Pëtr Stolypin had only delayed, not defused, Russia’s underlying crisis. The konspiratsiia underground must therefore be preserved as the only institution that kept alive the socialist message in Russia. Despite its present debilitude, it was sowing the seeds that would blossom in the upcoming revolutionary crisis.

Compared to the pre-1905 situation, the post-1905 underground suffered from a severe shortage of revolutionary intelligenty (educated people) who fulfilled all sorts of necessary functions. In response, the Bolsheviks made it a point of pride to recruit more workers to underground party committees as replacements. This response creates problems for the Western academic version of the ‘party of a new type’ interpretation, which asserts that a central feature of Bolshevism was an exaltation of the revolutionary intellectual over the unreliability of the workers. Looking at the full history of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, we see that the Mensheviks had much greater intellectual credentials and prestige than the Bolsheviks and they charged the Bolsheviks with relying on demagogic appeals to the more untutored and backward workers. Probably the Bolshevik underground was indeed more authoritarian in its workings and ethos than the Mensheviks, but this seems to be more the result of a paucity than a plethora of intellectuals. Instead of the squabbling of ‘petty-bourgeois intellectuals’, Bolshevik activists preferred to accept the direction of their leaders (or so memoir evidence suggests).

(p. 63) Towards World Bolshevism

On 4 August 1914 the parliamentary delegation of the German SPD joined the bourgeois parties to vote funds in support of the German war effort. This vote was seen by many on the left, including Lenin, as a terrible betrayal of basic socialist principles. The sense of betrayal was compounded when the Social Democratic parties in other belligerent countries also supported their government rather than their class brothers and sisters in other countries. Lenin’s party considered this shameful outcome to represent a victory of socialist opportunism over revolutionary Social Democracy on an international scale. Lenin, who had been happy to be a leader on a purely Russian scale and rarely spoke on wider issues, now saw himself as a guardian of the continuity of revolutionary Social Democracy, renamed ‘communism’. Nevertheless, his post-1914 global vision had strong pre-war roots in the ‘revolutionary Social Democracy’ of the Second International. Indeed, he adopted a rhetorical stance of aggressive unoriginality and passionately insisted that he was only repeating the pre-war consensus of revolutionary Marxists. Yet from 1914 he insisted on a complete split within international socialism, on casting out the opportunists and creating a new International based on unadulterated ‘revolutionary Social Democracy’.

A central reason for Lenin’s insistence on a split with world socialism was his conviction that the outbreak of war had inaugurated a revolutionary era on a global scale. He made no secret about where he got his understanding of global revolutionary dynamics:

It was none other than Kautsky himself, in a whole series of articles and in his book Road to Power (1909), who described with the fullest possible definiteness the basic traits of the approaching third epoch and who pointed out its radical distinctiveness from the second (yesterday’s) epoch.17

Already in 1902 Kautsky had written that ‘we must reckon on the possibility of a war within a perceptible time and therewith also the possibility of political convulsions that will end directly in proletarian uprisings or at least in opening the way toward them’. In 1909 he eloquently invoked the contours of the coming age of global revolution: ‘Today, the battles in the liberation struggle of labouring and exploited humanity are being fought not only at the Spree River and the Seine, but also at the Hudson and Mississippi, at the Neva and the Dardanelles, at the Ganges and the Hoangho.’18

Particularly revealing are Kautsky’s comments on colonial and national struggles, since they set forth the basic logic of the later policy of the Communist International. In 1909 he wrote that the anti-colonial rebels were often supporters of capitalism. ‘This does not in any way alter the fact that they are weakening European capitalism and its governments and introducing an element of political unrest into the whole world.’19

While openly admitting his debt to Kautsky, Lenin coined the term kautskianstvo as a blanket label for the entire despised ‘centre’ tendency, which in his mind refused to match revolutionary words with deeds. His attacks against Kautsky personally became (p. 64) almost obsessional, even as he peppered his writings with expressions of admiration for ‘Kautsky when he was a Marxist’ (that is, prior to 1914). Most of his longer works after 1914—including Imperialism (1916), State and Revolution (1917), Renegade Kautsky and the Proletarian Revolution (1918), and Left-Wing Communism (1920)—are structured to a large extent around the opposition of kautskianstvo versus ‘Kautsky when he was a Marxist’.

One implication of Kautsky’s scenario of global revolutionary interaction that became central to Lenin’s outlook in the period 1914–17 was the dynamics of revolutionary contagion. In August 1915 he envisioned what might happen after a socialist revolution had occurred in a single country: ‘the victorious proletariat [of one country] will rise up against the rest of the world—the capitalist world—attracting to its cause the oppressed classes of other countries, stirring uprisings in those countries against the capitalists, and in case of need using even armed force against the exploiting classes and their states’.20 Later in the same year, Lenin argued that a democratic revolution would have a similar inspirational effect. For example, a democratic revolution would ‘raise up the socialist proletariat of Europe for an insurrection against their governments…There is no doubt that a victory of the proletariat in Russia would create extraordinarily favourable conditions for the development of the revolution in both Asia and Europe. Even 1905 proved that.’ The implication for Russian Bolshevism was clear: ‘The task confronting the proletariat of Russia is to carry out the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the end in order to kindle the socialist revolution in Europe’ (Lenin’s emphasis).21 This expectation of revolutionary contagion was one of the justifications for the October revolution of 1917 as well as the founding of the Third or Communist International (Comintern) in March 1919.

Lenin and Bolshevism in 1917

The revolutionary year 1917 provides us with a dramatic case study of the relations between Bolshevism and its leader Lenin. The prevailing interpretation stresses discontinuity with Old Bolshevism and argues that Lenin’s personal innovations were pushed through in the teeth of determined resistance from other Bolshevik leaders. In April 1917 (so the story goes), when Lenin returned from European emigration, he promptly announced a radically new orientation in his famous April Theses that shocked the rest of the party leadership who protested their loyalty to Old Bolshevism. In October, Lenin insisted on a hard-line policy in opposition to Bolshevik leaders such as Lev Kamenev, and thus is personally responsible for the timing of the October revolution and for such basic features of the new regime as the dissolution of the democratically elected Constituent Assembly and one-party dictatorship.

Against this picture of conflict and top-down innovation, we will sketch out another one that argues that Lenin was an effective leader because he worked with the Bolshevik consensus to a much greater extent than usually realized. Furthermore, major outcomes (p. 65) were more the result of the objective dynamics of the situation than the conscious aim of any one leader, including Lenin.

In 1926 Vladimir Nevsky published the first substantial source-based history of Bolshevism. Nevsky’s book appeared in the brief interval after primary sources had been collected but before the new Stalinist ‘party of a new type’ orthodoxy ended genuine historical debate. Nevsky wrote about the April Theses:

We must stress that even in the ranks of our party were people who at first understood these theses incorrectly, taking them as a call to an immediate implementation of socialism, despite categorical explanations [to the contrary].

In fact, Lenin’s position [in the April Theses] was the natural development of the doctrine that he had worked out long ago in the previous periods of the history of our party, since one of the basic propositions of Bolshevism…was the one put forward already during the first Russian revolution [in 1905]: the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. This same idea also implied all the conclusions and all the measures inevitably arrived at, as soon as the party was convinced of the necessity and the inevitability of a proletarian-peasant dictatorship.22

Nevsky’s explanation correctly stresses continuity between the Old Bolshevik scenario and revolutionary strategy in 1917. After the fall of tsarism in February, a Provisional Government was created that was dominated by liberal reformers. At the same time, workers and peasant soldiers formed a Soviet that had power in the streets but was neither organizationally nor psychologically prepared to declare itself the sole sovereign authority or vlast’. Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd during the first month after the revolution had to come up with a coherent response to these developments in the absence of Lenin, who was still stuck in Switzerland. They did so by applying the Old Bolshevik scenario to the situation that confronted them, insisting that ‘the bourgeois-democratic revolution has not yet been completed’.

Many observers have misunderstood this assertion to imply that since the bourgeois revolution was not over, a bourgeois government such as the Provisional Government had to be accorded at least ‘critical support’. With a greater knowledge of the Old Bolshevik scenario, we will see that the Old Bolshevik train of thought was rather the opposite: since the democratic revolution had not yet been carried out to the end, the bourgeois Provisional Government had to be replaced as quickly as possible with a narodnaia vlast’ that would carry out a massive transformation of Russian society. Bolshevik leaders such as Kamenev and Stalin declared the Provisional Government was counter-revolutionary and as such would violently clash with the workers and peasants, that the government would be replaced by a narodnaia vlast’ based on the Soviets, and therefore that socialist support of the Provisional Government, not to mention high-level participation in it, was impermissible. Thus even without Lenin’s intervention in April, the Bolsheviks were set on the course that led to October.23

In early April, Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland and presented his April Theses. In order to grasp the contours of his new and refurbished version of Bolshevism, we need to look beyond the Theses to his pronouncements throughout (p. 66) the year. Lenin himself later referred to his new vision as ‘the idea of Soviet power [sovetskaia vlast’]’. Perhaps the best sources for understanding his vision are two works from autumn 1917 that present the idea of Soviet power in the potent form that actually influenced events in 1917: The Impending Catastrophe and How to Deal with It and Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? The core of the idea of Soviet power was the claim that a government based on the Soviets—that is, councils originally formed for purposes of direct class struggle, elected exclusively by workers and peasants—was the ideal form for the long-awaited dictatorship of the proletariat. Surrounding this central claim were a number of themes:

  1. 1. The Soviets were a higher form of democracy than an ordinary parliamentary system. Direct and continuous control from below would eliminate coercive bureaucracies that were independent of the population, thus allowing mass participation in state affairs.

  2. 2. The Soviets were the ideal vehicle of a narodnaia vlast’, that is, a government that based itself on the workers and peasants and excluded elite classes seen as ‘counter-revolutionary’.

  3. 3. The Soviets were deemed to be the ideal vehicle for class leadership of the peasants by the workers.

  4. 4. Due to its class basis, the Soviet system could respond to the growing national crisis in Russia and elsewhere by adopting energetic policies that a government based on the elite classes could never implement, even though everybody acknowledged such measures were necessary.

  5. 5. Under these circumstances, pragmatically necessary measures of state regulation would also represent ‘steps toward socialism’.

Lenin regarded his new argument about steps towards socialism as severely practical and realistic. His logic can be paraphrased as follows:

There exists today a number of specific concrete policies that ‘could and should’ be adopted, particularly in response to the national economic crisis. These measures are not socialist in and of themselves—in fact, many of them have already been adopted by imperialist governments, and they are now being advocated across the entire Russian political spectrum. But these same measures, when adopted and implemented with vigour by the proletariat, take on a different meaning. They point towards socialism, they prepare the way for genuine socialist transformation. The idea of steps towards socialism is not a blanket endorsement of Russia’s readiness for socialism. There are many policies for which the time has not yet matured, but this does not diminish the fact that there are a number of available regulatory policies that are not only possible but necessary.

If we compare Lenin’s ‘idea of Soviet power’ to the Old Bolshevik scenario, we will see much more continuity than discontinuity. Of the five themes listed above, numbers 2, 3, and 4 are direct expressions of the Old Bolshevik scenario, lightly adjusted to fit the circumstances of 1917: a narodnaia vlast’, in and through which the proletariat exercises class leadership of the peasantry, carrying out radical policies for the benefit of the (p. 67) people. The other themes had not been included in the Old Bolshevik scenario, but this does not necessarily mean they were shocking or unacceptable to Bolshevik activists. These activists had always seen the Soviets as a vehicle for a narodnaia vlast’. What was new was the claim that the Soviets as a political form constituted an essentially different type of democracy in contrast to a parliamentary system, no matter how democratized. Similarly, Lenin’s ‘steps toward socialism’ almost amounted to no more than this: we will advocate the policies we would have supported in any case, but we will call them ‘steps toward socialism’.

The idea of Soviet power is most familiar today from Lenin’s State and Revolution, which highlights the first of this complex of themes, namely, the claim to an unprecedentedly high level of democratism. Although State and Revolution was written in 1917, it was not published until 1918 and thus played no role in the events of 1917. This fact is symbolic of the relative unimportance of this particular theme in the further fate of the idea of Soviet power. Even in 1917 the heart of the Bolshevik message was based on the themes in the idea of Soviet power that had a direct connection to Old Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks in 1917 called for a narodnaia vlast’ that would exclude the elite from power and for this very reason be able to respond effectively to the growing danger of complete economic and social collapse. Whether or not these policies were socialist or even ‘steps toward socialism’ was a relatively minor theme in actual Bolshevik propaganda during 1917.

Lenin shared a common strategic outlook with his Old Bolshevik critics: replace the liberal Provisional Government with a narodnaia vlast’ based on the Soviets and dedicated to vast revolutionary change. Within this common strategic outlook, however, there was room for strong disagreement on a wide variety of tactical issues. How best to combat and discredit the Provisional Government? What appeals should be made to what group? What demonstrations and manifestations should be made at what time with what aims? Tactical issues of this kind created intense intra-Bolshevik debate throughout 1917. Disagreement among the Bolsheviks about the timing and execution of the October insurrection that established Soviet power was just such a debate. These dramatic debates are worthy of the attention accorded them by historians. Looking at 1917 as a whole, however, the emphasis should be not on Bolshevik tactical divisions but on the party’s relative strategic unity. The debates and fissures within the party pale in comparison to the internal struggles of the other socialist parties. The Menshevik and the Socialist Revolutionary parties both split down the middle over the fundamental strategic orientation of whether or not to replace the Provisional Government and the class coalition behind it with some sort of narodnaia vlast’. Only the Bolshevik Party was united from the start on this fundamental question, giving it an enormous advantage in the political dynamics of 1917.

As Martov later put it, the end result of the October revolution was not a genuine vlast’ sovetov (power of the Soviets) but rather a sovetskaia vlast’ (Soviet power), that is, ‘the open or hidden replacement of the “vlast’ of the Soviets” by a vlast’ of a specific party that gradually turned into a state institution and the crucial pivot of the Soviet republic’.24 The origins of this form of state in democratic Soviets became only a historical curiosity. (p. 68) Many historians trace this outcome directly to Lenin’s insistence on one-party rule and to personal decisions such as the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. Those who see these non-democratic outcomes as the more or less inevitable result of much larger social forces—particularly the collapse of basic social coordinating institutions and brutal social polarization—will be less inclined to give Lenin’s individual decisions such causal weight.

Close examination of the political dynamics of 1917 impels us to put Bolshevism back into the Bolshevik revolution. The historical emphasis should be on leader and movement working in productive interaction rather than on conflict and disunity. Of course, Lenin’s return in April 1917 was a turning point in Russia’s political evolution. He was the first leader of national stature to attack the prevailing socialist strategy of soglashenie, or cooperation with the ‘bourgeois’ Provisional Government. Thereafter he became a strong leader of a unified party. But the party did not have unity because Lenin was a strong leader—Lenin was a strong leader because he led a unified party. And the party was not unified around a radical new vision that was introduced and assimilated in a matter of weeks—it was unified around a decade-old strategic scenario that made excellent political sense in the circumstances of 1917.

The Marginalization of Political Freedom

One of the most important political facts about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that the most orthodox and militant advocates of revolutionary Marxism were staunch fighters for political freedom. One of the most important political facts about the rest of the twentieth century was that the most orthodox and militant advocates of revolutionary Marxism were devoted to regimes that crushed political freedom to an unprecedented degree. Part of the root of this marginalization of political freedom lay in the component parts of Old Bolshevism.

The konspiratsiia underground was an attempt to import into absolutist Russia the techniques of the permanent campaign created by German Social Democracy. The pre-war SPD model had required political freedom for its operations since the party had to defend its ‘alternative culture’ against the pressure of a dominant elite. After taking power, the Bolsheviks discovered that what might be called state monopoly campaignism was an even more effective tool for inculcating socialist values and creating an alternative culture. The propaganda state so closely associated with Communist regimes is in fact the SPD model applied without restraint or limitations, by means of denying political freedom to all potential rivals. There is a historical link of the most direct kind (p. 69) between Lassalle’s call for permanent agitation in the 1860s and thousands of Chinese teenagers waving little red books in the 1960s.

The defining feature of the specifically Bolshevik wing of Russian Social Democracy was the Old Bolshevik scenario: the socialist proletariat creates a narodnaia vlast’ that is capable of carrying out the narodnaia revoliutsiia ‘to the end’. A central goal embodied in the slogan ‘to the end’ was obtaining the maximum amount of political freedom under the circumstances. But the process of unleashing a vast popular upheaval and protecting it against ‘counter-revolutionary’ enemies constitutes the least hospitable environment possible for the flourishing of political freedom and its attendant attitudes of mutual tolerance. As Nikolai Bukharin remarked in early 1918, ‘In a revolutionary epoch…the press, meetings, meetings are the weapons of civil war, together with munition stores, machine guns, powder and bombs’.25

After 1914, Lenin shifted his sights from Russia to the wide perspectives of a Europe that he believed to be on the eve of a socialist revolution. Perhaps paradoxically, this ‘European’ perspective decreased the salience of political freedom in his rhetoric, as can be seen in State and Revolution, where it is barely mentioned. Political freedom was never a directly socialist value, even if individual European socialists were personally shocked by its suppression in Soviet Russia.

If a Bolshevik activist in 1912 could have seen a decade into the future, three things in particular would strike him as surprising and unexpected. The provisional revolutionary government of the Old Bolshevik scenario was now embodied in a permanent socialist government, with the party playing an unexpected role in running the state. The Bolshevik Party no longer looked up to the German SPD as a model party, but instead presented itself as the model party for revolutionary socialists worldwide. The goal of political freedom, almost the raison d’être of Old Bolshevism, was forgotten if not actively scorned. Thus had the hopeful nineteenth century turned into the grim twentieth century.

Select Bibliography

Bukharin, Nikolai, Programme of the World Revolution, <>.

Day, Richard B. and Gaido, Daniel, eds., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Leiden: Brill, 2009).Find this resource:

    Donald, Moira, Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists (London: Yale University Press, 1993).Find this resource:

      Kautsky, Karl, Road to Power, trans. Raymond Meyer (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996 [1909]).Find this resource:

        Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich, The Lenin Anthology, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1974).Find this resource:

          Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings, ed. Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008). (p. 71) Find this resource:

            Lidtke, Vernon, The Alternative Culture: Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).Find this resource:

              Lih, Lars T., Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be Done?’ in Context (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2006).Find this resource:

                Lih, Lars T., Lenin (London: Reaktion Press, 2011).Find this resource:

                  Miliukov, Paul, Russia and its Crisis (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1962 [1905]).Find this resource:

                    Nation, R. Craig, War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left, and the Origins of Communist Internationalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989).Find this resource:

                      Pomper, Philip, Lenin’s Older Brother: The Origins of the October Revolution (New York: Norton, 2010).Find this resource:

                        Rabinowitch, Alexander, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2004).Find this resource:

                          Riddell, John, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International: Documents 1907–1916, The Preparatory Years (New York: Monad, 1984).Find this resource:

                            Steenson, Gary, ‘Not One Man! Not One Penny!’ German Social Democracy, 1863–1914 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981).Find this resource:

                              Wade, Rex A., The Russian Revolution, 1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).Find this resource:


                                (1) . Istoriia Vsesoiuznoi kommunisticheskoi partii (bol’shevikov): kratkii kurs (Moscow: Gos. Izd-vo polit. lit-ry, 1938).

                                (2) . Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochineniia (PSS), 5th ed. (Moscow: Gos. Izd-vo polit. lit-ry, 1958–1964), vol. 33, 104 (State and Revolution).

                                (3) . Lenin, PSS, 4:189 (1899).

                                (4) . Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), 518 (Inaugural Address of the First International).

                                (5) . Ferdinand Lassalle, Lassalle’s Open Letter to the National Labor Association of Germany (New York: International Publishing Co., 1898 [1862]).

                                (6) . Vernon Lidtke, The Alternative Culture: Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

                                (7) . Karl Kautsky, Das Erfurter Programm (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1965 [1892]), 219.

                                (8) . Lenin, PSS, 41:8 (Left-Wing Communism).

                                (9) . M. Liadov, Istoriia Rossiiskoi Sotsialdemokraticheskoi rabochei partii (Izd. Zerno: St. Petersburg, 1906), vol. 2, 64.

                                (10) . Lenin, PSS, 5:14–15 (June 1901).

                                (11) . Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is To Be Done?’ in Context (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Press, 2006) (contains a new translation of the entire text of What Is To Be Done?).

                                (12) . J. V. Stalin, Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1952), vol. 1, 140–1 (August 1905).

                                (13) . Stalin, Works, 1:144 (August 1905).

                                (14) . Lev Kamenev, Mezhdu dvumia revoliutsiiami (Moscow: Tsentrpoligraf, 2003 [1922]), 587–96 (this passage written in 1910).

                                (15) . Lenin, PSS 16:329 (1908).

                                (16) . Kautsky’s article can be found in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, eds., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Leiden: Brill, 2009), along with commentaries by Lenin and Trotsky. Stalin also wrote a commentary.

                                (17) . Lenin, PSS 26:143–4 (January 1915).

                                (18) . Karl Kautsky, The Social Revolution (Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr, 1902), 96–7; Karl Kautsky, Road to Power (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996 [1909]), 88–91.

                                (20) . Lenin, PSS, 26:351–5.

                                (21) . This and the preceding quotation come from an important programmatic document written by Lenin and Zinoviev in October 1915; see Lenin, PSS 27:48–51.

                                (22) . Vladimir Nevskii, Istoriia RKP(b): kratkii ocherk (St. Petersburg: Novyi Promotei: 2009 [1926], 502.

                                (23) . For documentation of the Bolshevik stand prior to Lenin’s return, see Lars T. Lih, ‘The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context’, in Russian History, 38 (2011), 199–242.

                                (24) . Martov, ‘Mirovoi bol’shevizm’, in Izbrannoe (Moscow: Vneshtorgizdat, 2000). Translated chapters from Martov’s 1919 book can be found online at: <>.

                                (25) . Bukharin’s Program of the Communists (Bolsheviks) (1918) is available online under the title Programme of the World Revolution: <>.