The Bolsheviks were born out of Russia’s Social Democrat Party. When the party split in 1903, the Bolsheviks only had one obvious leader – Lenin.

In the last years of the C19th, the Social Democrats had competed with numerous other ideologies in Russia. Included in these ideologies were the Socialist Revolutionaries and Populists. As with many movements based on pure ideologies, the Social Democrats frequently spent their time arguing about their beliefs and where they should go to further them. The intellectuals in the movement, men such as Plekhanov and Julius Martov, spent their time in debate as opposed to actually getting their beliefs out to the workers and peasants. It was as a result of this that Lenin wrote “What is to be done” in 1902. The work was smuggled into Russia and clearly expressed his views regarding what the Social Democrats should be doing as a party. Lenin attacked party members who “were content to wait while history took its predetermined course.” Rather than wait, Lenin wanted to kick-start the issue he believed in to get things done rather than wait on polemics.

“What is to be done” was an attack on Revisionism – the great opponent to Marxism. It was the start of what is referred to as Marxist-Leninism. Lenin rejected terrorism and he saw the way ahead as the Social Democrats creating a supreme organising body abroad (where it would be more safe from the Russian police) with a subordinate central committee being based in Russia itself. The primary purpose of the central committee would be to carry out the instructions of what was called the ‘Iskra Board’ as the heart of the supreme body was made up of Lenin, Martov, Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich – all members of Iskra’s editorial board.

When the leaders of the Social Democrats met in London in 1903, it seemed that the ideas of Lenin as laid out in “What is to be done” would be accepted. However, disagreements soon occurred as to how the party should proceed – with a revolutionary elite as favoured by Lenin or with a less organised base that would not be elitist. The delegates from the Jewish Socialist Union (the Bund) walked out of the congress. They believed that anything that had been said at the congress would do nothing to alleviate the suffering of the Jews in Russia. The next cause of friction was when Lenin argued that to make the editorial board of ‘Iskra’ more effective, it should be reduced from six people to three. His view got the support needed to be passed, but not from Martov who was on board of the paper and who was to split the Social Democrats and initially lead the Mensheviks.

While Martov and Lenin may have been in the same party and shared similar beliefs before the split, they both disliked each other. In particular, Martov distrusted Lenin – especially his methods and his uncompromising demands that things be done his way. As a result of the split, Lenin resigned from ‘Iskra’ and resisted all the attempts that were made to mend the Bolshevik-Menshevik split.

The Bolsheviks financed their work by party supported robberies – what Lenin referred to as “regrettable necessities”. Only individuals or institutions carrying state funds were targeted.

The Bolsheviks played a minimal part in the 1905 Revolution. Their impact and influence on the workers in that year was weak. In St Petersburg in March 1905, the Bolsheviks admitted that they could only muster 200 supporters in the whole of the city whereas the Socialist Revolutionaries claimed that they could call on the support of 10,000 – almost certainly an exaggeration – but an indication that the Socialist Revolutionaries had much more support in a city that the Bolsheviks had to have on their side if the revolution was to succeed.

Why was there this lack of support for a party that wanted to improve the lifestyle of the poor? There are several reasons. First, the activities of the police meant that the Bolsheviks had to operate very discreetly as any slip would have been pounced on by the authorities; secondly, why would the workers in the city support a party when they had the seemingly more popular Socialist Revolutionaries to support? Finally, there is little doubt that Lenin himself was not fully trusted when compared to the leadership of the Socialist Revolutionaries.

By April 1905, the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks had become permanent. The Bolshevik hierarchy held a meeting in London to decide what to do next, whereas the Mensheviks, as if to emphasise the split, held a meeting at the same time – but in Geneva, Switzerland. No Menshevik went to London and no Bolshevik went to Geneva. Curiously, despite the obvious signs, the Bolsheviks in London voted their support for a reunification of the Social Democrats but then proceeded to elect a central committee that was dominated by the one man who assumed that no such reunification would take place unless it was on his terms – Lenin.

Lenin also knew that if the Bolsheviks were to have credibility, they had to appeal to the working class in Russia. That meant not making promises that could not be kept.

“If we were now (in 1905) to promise to the Russian proletariat that we can seize full power, we would be repeating the error of the Socialist Revolutionaries.” (Lenin)

Why did the Bolsheviks succeed?

Probably the most important factor was Lenin himself. He was a driven man who believed that those who would lead the workers had to be an educated elite capable of doing things that an uneducated majority could not. He also developed a set of beliefs that would appeal to the working class.

The Bolsheviks did not have an ideology that stressed high ideals. They had an immediate programme for the time when they would attain power but had made few plans for what to do after they had gained power. In the immediate aftermath of getting power, the Bolsheviks promised that they would take Russia out of World War One and sue for peace with the Germans, they would redistribute land to the peasants and give them power within their rural communities and they would set up workers soviets in factories which would work to improve the working conditions and general lifestyles of those who worked in the industrial cities. Such a mixture of beliefs was genuinely popular in both urban and rural areas and it also ensured that the Bolsheviks appealed to the two largest social groups in Russia.

Whereas the Mensheviks were unwilling to force through events, the Bolsheviks were the opposite. Lenin believed that not even the masses could be relied on to move in the way he wished – therefore, the Bolsheviks had to be the party that initiated action.

“We cannot be guided by the mood of the masses; that is changeable and unaccountable. The masses have given their confidence to the Bolsheviks and ask from them not words but deeds.” (Lenin)  

To Lenin, practical issues were more important than the development of ideological theories. Whereas the masses could assist in practical issues, they almost certainly would not understand theoretical debate nor understand why time was being wasted on theory. Lenin always had one goal – to achieve his aim. To do this, Lenin did not have a set way of working and effectively, he believed that any method was acceptable as long as the aim was achieved.

Lenin’s great strength was an ability to organise the party – and much of this had to be done in secret before November 1917. Though he was a ruthless man, he was also someone who recognised another’s talent. Leon Trotsky had joined the Mensheviks in the 1903 split but was later welcomed into the Bolsheviks and became a vital member of the party. Trotsky’s skills as a military leader, his rousing oratory and devotion to the revolution, combined with Lenin’s skill as an organiser who could understand the most minute detail, led to a very potent combination. Their skill infected the rest of the party with enthusiasm and vigour which was vital in November 1917 and the months that immediately followed the Bolsheviks rise to power in Russia.

The November 1917 Revolution is a classic example of how Lenin and Trotsky worked together. The planning for the revolution was done by Lenin, the actual execution of what Lenin had planned was all but carried out by Trotsky. However, none of this would have been meaningful, if what the Bolsheviks offered the people had no appeal to them. Thousands of soldiers were deserting the army and returning home – they certainly supported any party that called for an end to the war. The war had also caused much hunger in the cities and discontent in the countryside. The Socialist Revolutionaries had traditionally been strong in the countryside, but they had failed to achieve anything concrete by 1917. Now Lenin promised land to those people. The message was unequivocal and was quickly absorbed. Lenin’s message of “Peace, bread and land” found widespread acceptance.

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