B is for Bolshevik

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When I was a young man way back in the days when Blair was a much loved performer and Brown was noted for his twin ambitions to be leader of the Labour Party and to drink Westminster dry (I speak of course of Lionel and George), the term "Bolshy" was a common one.

Bolshy tended to mean anyone who might stir up trouble, stand up for themselves or rebel against the rules. Its use went way beyond the obviously political, and yet its roots were entirely political. It had become a British abbreviation of the word Bolshevik, the name of the party that had led the workers to revolution in Russia in 1917.

The word itself sounded romantic and inspiring, or dark and dangerous, but was in fact simply the Russian word for majority.

This was ironic really because in the dispute between the various Russian exiles living in London the people who ended up calling themselves Bolshevik were in fact frequently in the minority. Bizarrely, their opponents allowed the name to stand and took on the name Menshevik, which didn't sound nearly as romantic and inspiring, or dark and dangerous, probably because it meant minority!

So who were this "majority" and "minority" and what was it that they were the majority and minority of?

The organisation was the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, a Marxist party that would include all the major players in the Russian Revolution. The split in the party happened in 1903 at a congress that started in Belgium, but due to police disruption ended up in London, where again the police took much interest in it.

Had any police spy made it into the room they would probably have fallen about laughing as they watched Russia's Marxist party split in two over a dispute that seemed about as relevant as discussing how many angels you could get on the head of a pin.

The dispute was over what constituted a party member. One side, led by Vladimir Lenin, defined a member as one who personally participates in the party. The other, led by a man named Martov, defined a member as someone who personally associates with the party.

All very obscure and apparently ridiculous given that both wings of the organisation had adopted exactly the same programme. Even Leon Trotsky, who was later to be a key Bolshevik leader and hero of the revolution, thought Lenin had lost the plot.

However, things are not always as they appear. This was no semantic argument; rather it went to the very heart of what sort of party to build - one which is active, in which members participate, and have real democratic control, or one which formally looks very democratic, but in reality is led from the top, and benefits from the passivity at the bottom.

If you want to make a revolution you need the first; if you want to keep control of your "more extreme elements", and work within the existing framework, you build the second.

This became much clearer two years later when the first Russian Revolution broke out: both sides supported the revolution but drew very different conclusions from its defeat. For the Mensheviks the lesson was "We went too far"; for the Bolsheviks "We didn't go far enough". Furthermore for the Bolsheviks the emergence of soviets (workers' councils) showed the way in which workers could take revolutionary power, and then democratically control society.

For the next 12 years Lenin's Bolsheviks built towards that goal. In doing so they sought to recruit, not the majority of workers, but the revolutionary minority, so that this minority could wage a struggle for the hearts, minds and commitment of their fellow workers.

The party was democratically controlled by its members, but once issues had been debated and decisions taken, they acted as one. They elected a leadership to carry out these decisions and lead on a day to day basis. The term that described this process was "democratic centralism".

The next major test for the party was the outbreak of the First World War. From day one, as the Mensheviks dithered and compromised, the Bolsheviks fought against the bloody and pointless carnage of the war, arguing that the main enemy of Russian workers and peasants was the Russian ruling class.

Initially - unlike Blair's Iraq debacle - the war was popular. But the best part of three years of carnage in the trenches and starvation at home completely changed all that.

Bolshevik slogans of "Bread, Land and Peace" and "All power to the Soviets" struck a chord, and a revolution that had overthrown the Tsar in February, was now moving way beyond the control of moderates, compromisers and Mensheviks. In October workers led by the Bolsheviks took power for the first time in the history of the world.

The Bolsheviks were able to lead because they had built among workers, because their members were seen as fellow workmates, because they were trusted.

One of the guiding beliefs of Bolshevism was that in fighting to change the world workers would themselves change. One example of this casting off of the "muck of ages" was clearly evident in the revolution. A society that had been riven with the worst forms of anti-Semitism was now electing a number of Jewish revolutionaries to represent them in leading positions without giving it a second thought.

Following the revolution, unimaginable changes were introduced connected with issues of women's liberation, national independence for oppressed peoples, programmes of literacy and numeracy, land redistribution and democratic workers' control of industry.

Sadly, the fantastic social experiment of the next few years was slowly strangled by the surrounding capitalist world, and eventually the soviets became empty shells, the state all powerful, and the party a debased and undemocratic instrument of Stalin's butchery. Stalin, far from being the logical conclusion of Bolshevism, represented the negation of everything it stood for.

For a brief time, though, the Bolsheviks gave us a glimpse of a world without oppression and exploitation, patriotism and profit. That's why I am still proud to be thought of as Bolshy!

Pat Stack


Further reading:

  • History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky
  • In Defence of October by John Rees and others
  • Left Wing Communism by Lenin
  • A Rebel's Guide to Lenin by Ian Birchall

Next month C is for Capital