The Bolsheviks

Delegates to the 8th Bolshevik party congress in 1919.

The Bolsheviks were a revolutionary party that began as a radical faction of the Social Democrats or SDs, a Russian Marxist party. The Bolsheviks formed in 1903 after a split from the Menshevik faction over issues of party membership and organisation. Led by Vladimir Lenin and employing his theories of revolution, the Bolsheviks carried out the overthrow of the Provisional Government in October 1917 and went on to govern the new Soviet republic.


At the turn of the 20th century, the Social Democratic Labour Party was Russia’s largest Marxist party.

In its first few years, the party’s platform held firm to Marxist theory. The SDs viewed the proletariat, or industrial working class, as Russia’s natural source of revolutionary energy. Because Russia’s industrial workforce was still small, however, a socialist revolution there was decades, generations or perhaps even a century away.

The party’s Marxist orthodoxy was challenged by the writings and theories of a young lawyer turned political activist named Vladimir Ulyanov. He would later become known by his codename, Lenin.

What is to be Done?

In 1902, Lenin released a pamphlet entitled What is to be Done? that outlined his vision of a successful revolutionary group. He criticised the broad membership of the Social Democrats, arguing it left the party open to police infiltration, agent provocateurs and paid informers.

Lenin also railed against the party’s democratic decision-making processes. Revolutionary parties, Lenin wrote, should be organised and directed by ideology, theorists and professionals. They should not be steered by the masses, who usually vote to accept concessions or improved conditions.

Lenin called for the creation of a party that was small, dedicated and secretive. Its membership would be restricted, its decisions would be made by an intellectual elite and its work would be carried out by ‘professional revolutionaries’. This party would become the vanguard of the revolution and lead the way towards socialism.

The factional split

lenin bolsheviks 1903
An artistic representation of Lenin at the Second Congress in 1903

Lenin’s theories on party membership and organisation attracted support from some Social Democrats while others held firm. These ideological divisions would reach a climax at the party’s Second Congress in August 1903.

At this Congress, Lenin called for a vote on some of the issues raised in his book the previous year. Lenin’s chief rival, Julius Martov, argued that the SDs should remain decentralised, with membership open to all workers.

Most of Lenin’s points were defeated but he narrowly won the vote on party membership, after seven members stormed out over an unconnected motion. 

Most of those who voted with Lenin were young (the vast majority were under 30) and politically radical. Collectively, Lenin’s supporters became known as the Bolsheviki, derived from the Russian word bolshinstvo (‘majority’). They embraced this In some circles, they were also known as ‘Maximalists’ or ‘Leninists’. Those who voted against Lenin were later dubbed Mensheviki (from menshinstvo, or ‘minority’).

These debates over membership, organisation and strategy would persist for the next decade. By no means was their separation absolute. The SD party framework remained in place so the two factions were still in communication.

The 1905 Revolution and the tsarist counter-revolution that followed produced a degree of cooperation between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions – but the old ideological divisions still remained. At the Fourth Social Democrat Congress in Stockholm in April 1906, often dubbed the ‘Unity Congress’, Bolshevik and Menshevik delegates shared the same table, though they disagreed on almost every point.

Early Bolshevik tactics

The Bolsheviks refused to acknowledge or participate in the First State Duma when it was convened in 1906. Lenin argued that revolutionary agitation was best done outside the Duma, which would either be rendered powerless by the Tsar or evolve into a bourgeois-dominated “talking shop”. 

Organising and funding this party of ‘professional revolutionaries’ required money. This came from a series of bank robberies, euphemistically referred to as “expropriations”. Lenin played an active role in selecting the targets of these robberies, while a young Bolshevik named Dzhugashvili (Joseph Stalin) participated in the robberies themselves.

Bolshevik agents carried out dozens of robberies between 1906 and 1914. In June 1907, a Bolshevik gang armed with guns and bombs attacked a cash shipment in the town square of Tiflis, a city in Stalin’s native Georgia. The group escaped with 341,000 rubles, the equivalent of several million dollars today. Some 40 people, including police and civilian bystanders, were killed in this robbery.

The difficult years

These robberies brought the Bolsheviks unfavourable press attention and lost them considerable support. Now a wanted man, Lenin was forced to remain in exile, placing him at arm’s length from the party in Russia.

In addition, Lenin’s absence from Russia effectively surrendered control of Social Democratic newspapers like Iskra to the Mensheviks. As a result, the Mensheviks came to dominate reporting and discussion of Marxist politics within Russia, while Lenin remained a fringe voice.

There was also dissension in the ranks of the Bolsheviks themselves. Many saw the progress being made by Mensheviks and liberals and wondered if Lenin’s non-compliance was the best approach. In 1907, party leaders overruled Lenin and stood candidates for election in the Second Duma. A total of 11 Bolsheviks were elected to this Duma, alongside 12 Mensheviks and other reformists.

The final split

The period 1907 to 1912 saw improved communication and cooperation between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, in part due to the latter’s weakness. Many hoped that the two factions might be reconciled and there were repeated attempts to make this happen. All failed, with Lenin’s refusal to change tactics or compromise often the stumbling block.

The split became irrevocable in 1912. In January, Lenin convened a party congress in Prague but invited only Bolshevik delegates. At Lenin’s urging, the delegates voted to break away from the Social Democrats and to form a separate socialist party. From that point, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks existed as separate political entities.

A third SD faction, a small group of intellectuals calling themselves the Mezhraiontsy, formed in 1913 and attempted to reunify the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks into a single Marxist party, however the advent of World War I made this task almost impossible. The Mezhraiontsy, who included Leon Trotsky in their number, eventually merged with the Bolsheviks in 1917.

1. The Bolsheviks were a radical revolutionary party, led by Vladimir Lenin. They were formed after a factional split in the Social Democratic party in 1903.

2. The split was driven by Lenin’s belief that the party should be small with restricted membership, tightly disciplined and its decisions made by an intellectual elite.

3. After the 1905 Revolution, Lenin and his party boycotted the First Duma and set about raising funds by conducting a series of organised bank robberies dubbed ‘expropriations’.

4. These tactics, along with Lenin’s forced exile and absence from Russia, saw the Bolsheviks lose considerable ground to the Mensheviks and other reformist groups.

5. Despite some cooperation and several attempts to reconcile them, the two SD factions widened and their separation was finalised at a conference in Prague in January 1912.

Citation information
Title: “The Bolsheviks”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: June 1, 2019
Date accessed: May 14, 2023
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