The Bolshevik party—the party that led the 1917 Russian Revolution—was formed a century ago this month. It did not emerge from nowhere. The Bolsheviks split with the Mensheviks, ending a period in which the two groups had been factions inside the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).
The Mensheviks stuck to the “common-sense” idea that a socialist party meant one party for all workers, even if they had different politics.
But Vladimir Lenin, a prominent leader of the Bolsheviks, had another idea of what a party should be. His model starts with the fact that there is a spectrum of ideas within the working class—from revolutionary to reactionary, with most people falling somewhere in between.
So while some workers accept racist ideas, for example, others are staunchly anti-racist. Lenin said a revolutionary party should group together those with the most advanced ideas so they can try to win over other people.
He called a special conference to resolve the question in Prague in January 1912. The Mensheviks were excluded and the conference elected a new central committee. It launched a daily newspaper, Pravda, as a tool to agitate among workers.
The split reflected a decade of deepening political differences (see box). Importantly, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks took very different lessons from the failed revolution of 1905.
After the failure of 1905 there was a period of brutal repression. Workers’ confidence took a battering and the capitalist Cadet party rose to dominance.
The Bolsheviks argued that 1905 showed the need for revolutionary organisation—a party that would intervene to turn the tide and enable workers to navigate to victory.
The Mensheviks, meanwhile, opportunistically flipped from galloping with the revolutionary mood to downplaying revolutionary work. Instead, they started emphasising the importance of the limited political activity that was then legal in Russia, and getting elected to the Duma (parliament).
The Bolsheviks did see legal political activity as necessary—but they argued it was secondary to the main task of illegal, underground revolutionary activity. And they recognised the huge potential of the soviets (workers’ councils) thrown up in 1905.
The dramatic resurgence of workers’ resistance a few years later exposed and sharpened these tensions.
The massacre of 500 striking Lena gold miners in April 1912 was a huge flashpoint for workers’ class rage. Soon demonstrations, public meetings and protest strikes of hundreds of thousands were taking place everywhere.
Their demands were highly political, including an end to the death sentence and torture of political prisoners.
The weakness of the Mensheviks’ strategy was exposed when their complaints in the Duma about the Lena massacre were met only with the cruel reply from the minister, “So it was, and so it will be!”
The Bolsheviks’ decisive break from the Mensheviks allowed them to start developing an organisation that would be capable of shaping class struggle, not just reflecting it.
While workers were thrust spontaneously into fighting against poverty, exploitation and oppression, the October 1917 revolution succeeded because it was consciously organised.
The Bolsheviks were able to develop the kind of party that could recruit the most active fighters in every workplace—those who would become the leaders of the revolution in their factory and locality.
Crucial to this was that the Bolsheviks built a “democratic centralist” party. This means that every member took part in open and honest political debates about the party’s perspectives. Then, once voted on, the majority decision would be fought for by every single member.
Democratic centralism allowed Bolshevik party members in every workplace to feed their experiences into the debate, and the party as a whole could create a picture of what was happening on the ground to guide its strategy.
Holding everyone accountable to the democratic decision meant that the party could cohesively test its strategy in practice, intervening effectively to shift the fightback—or learning from its mistakes.
Members elected a central leadership to direct the whole party. But everyone was expected to be a leader in their workplace. And all were bound by the policy of the party.
The Bolsheviks understood that the party learns from the working class and is forged in the thick of class struggle.
Its role is not to bring “great ideas” ready-made to workers too ignorant to have them. It is to take the best ideas thrown up by workers themselves, such as the soviets, and attempt to
Of course the Bolsheviks did make mistakes—even at the height of the Russian Revolution in 1917.
When the revolution began in February of that year, Leon Trotsky described the party as lagging behind the working class. It was disorientated by the sudden dramatic change in the political environment.
There was a massive argument in the party over what to do in a “dual power” situation, where the capitalist government continued but the workers had started to form their own alternative organs of democracy.
These debates allowed them to constantly assess the situation, and the party’s perspective and activity, in rapidly changing circumstances.
They strived continually to nurture the revolutionary potential of 1917—and they were crucial in driving it to victory. Without such a revolutionary party, we leave the fate of history’s crucial battles to chance.
Further reading: Lenin: Building the Party 1893-1914, A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin and A Rebel’s Guide to Trotsky are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to