What Was So Distinctive About the Russian Bolshevik Party?

IN order to address this question as fully as possible, it is first necessary to examine the political, social and economic situation in Russia prior to the actual emergence of the Bolshevik Party itself. I will then look at the failure of monarchy and liberalism before going on to study Bolshevism’s most distinctive features.

It has been said that throughout the age of Western Capitalism, Russia was little more than ‘an economic backwater’.[1] However, after the turbulent upheavals of the 1905 Revolution and the determination of rich landowners to ‘reject peasant demands, crush rural disorder, and drastically reduce popular representation in the Duma’,[2] tsarist Russia began to progress towards a bourgeois capitalist state similar to that of her Western neighbours. Indeed, in April 1906 a mainly-French banking syndicate granted Nicholas II’s government a loan of 2,250 million francs,[3] although even this huge sum was unable to prevent Russia’s imminent slide into all-out war and, ultimately, further debt.

As usual it was the working classes and the peasantry which suffered most under the old regime, and poverty and hardship were commonplace. Only severe repression on the part of the police, the Cossacks and the army could keep the lid on the simmering pot of human misery and widespread dissatisfaction. The reactionary nature of Russia’s monarchist autocracy and its political and economic mismanagement of the Russian State, was to culminate in the 1917 Revolution and the rise of the dictatorial Bolshevik regime. Quite simply, the Tsar – raised and sustained upon a bed of comparative luxury – was out of touch with the basic needs of the common people. First and foremost the Revolution was a fierce protest against social injustice, regardless of the seemingly innocent beast that was poised to evolve into a far worse nightmare for the Russian people. According to Dietrich Geyer, when

 

“the old regime finally collapsed, few people in Russia could have remembered a time when there had been a feeling of security, of unbroken confidence and faith.[4]

 

Ever since the 1789 French Revolution, or so it would seem, any truly successful deployment of revolutionary activity has served as an epitaph to the failure of liberalism. The fact that Russia did not manage to climb aboard the liberal bandwagon driven by her progressive European neighbours, is mostly due to the vast unrest which I have described above. Edward Acton wrote that, in light of such devastating conditions

 

“there was little chance of evolving liberal institutions and a legal order through which social conflict could be peacefully resolved.” [5]

 

Although liberalism found support among the Russian middle-classes at the turn of the century, its adherents were deeply divided along ethnic and cultural lines, being unable to win support for their reforms ‘either from the economically powerful upper classes or from the numerically powerful masses’.[6] Another reason for this, is that penitent aristocrats were ‘right out of touch with and rather afraid of the real peasants.’[7] Such weaknesses proved invaluable to the opportunistic designs of the incoming Bolshevik Party and the notorious thugs of the NKVD and CHEKA which characterised its ruthless, one-party dictatorship.

In 1903, the Marxist Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party (formed in 1898) split into two distinct factions: the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. At first it seemed as though the dispute was due to conflicting opinions on the definition of party membership. Lenin believed that Party members should be activists, whilst his opponents wished to assume an essentially passive role. Eventually, Lenin managed to persuade most Social-Democrats to join him in the forming of a new party – the Bolsheviks (Majoritarians) – whilst those remaining were to become known as the Mensheviks (Minoritarians). In 1912, the Bolsheviks established a separate Central Committee at the Prague Congress. However, despite the official view, the resulting factionalism was due to a series of far deeper and significantly more ideological reasons. Whilst the Mensheviks represented the more moderate wing of the Communist movement and believed in a transitory process of ‘scientific evolutionary Marxism, according to which society would evolve through certain stages, the penultimate one being advanced capitalism, before the emergence first of socialism, then of Communism’,[8] Lenin and his Bolsheviks propagated the view that revolutionary change could only spring from a move away from the mass movement. In other words, the Bolsheviks had a different approach in that they were advocating the supremacy of quality over quantity, calling ‘for a small group of hard men, dedicated revolutionaries, who would lead the masses’.[9] The ideological and strategic awareness of Bolshevism that its adherents possessed bore a totally different perception of the timescale needed to implement Communist revolution to that of their Menshevist rivals. It was Trotsky who came to develop the theory of permanent or uninterrupted revolution. By complete contrast, the Mensheviks found such an idea wholly repugnant, comparing Lenin to the murderers of the French Revolution. Lenin himself, however, with his ‘ruthless maximalism and his dismissal of the wishy-washy and the sentimental’,[10] saw the Mensheviks as nothing more than a coterie of weak intellectuals. Indeed, such anti-intellectualism was to become the very basis for a whole catalogue of state-sanctioned murders which took place during the course of a subsequent chapter of Bolshevik misrule, now known as the Red Terror.

The beginnings of Bolshevism date from around 1903, soon after the publication of Lenin’s inflammatory pamphlet, What Is To Be Done? In it, Lenin established the concept that ‘the idea of class consciousness’ [11] came from outside the working class. Lenin believed in the formation of a new type of political party, one which incorporated his view that ‘the bourgeoisie has ideology whereas the working class has consciousness’.[12] In other words, by taking into account the European liberals of the Nineteenth century, Lenin perceived that

“the liberal intelligentsia could never be more than half-hearted revolutionaries, that they would sell out to tsarism as soon as they had attained their minimum objectives.” [13]

 

Furthermore, Lenin believed that socialism was something which had to be introduced into the proletariat’s class struggle by ideologists.[14] Indeed, given that many Leftist commentators see the French Revolution as a bourgeois phenomenon, it is not difficult to see why the Bolshevik Party was so distinctive when compared to the administrative shortcomings of its liberal predecessors. However, by its very definition the Bolshevik Party was a multifarious entity.

One of Bolshevism’s key features was the marked ethnicity of its chief protagonists. In 1918, the Bolshevik Party was controlled almost entirely by revolutionary cadres of Jewish extraction. According to Robert Wilton, the Russian correspondent for the Times newspaper:

 

“out of 556 important functionaries of the Bolshevik State, there were in 1918-1919, 17 Russians, 2 Ukrainians, 11 Armenians, 35 Letts, 15 Germans, 1 Hungarian, 10 Georgians, 3 Poles, 3 Finns, 1 Czech, 1 Karaim, 457 Jews. If the reader is astonished to find the Jewish hand everywhere in the affair of the assassination of the Russian Imperial Family, he must bear in mind the formidable numerical preponderance of Jews in the Soviet administration.” [15]

 

Wilton’s remarks are validated by Hilaire Belloc, who, in 1937, wrote that:

“As for anyone that does not know that the present revolutionary Bolshevist movement is Jewish in Russia, I can only say that he must be a man who is taken in by the suppressions of our deplorable press.” [16]

 

Winston Churchill also noted the decidedly Jewish character of Bolshevism in the Illustrated Sunday Herald of February 8th, 1920, when he said:

 

“There is no need to exaggerate the part played in the creation of Bolshevism and in the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution by these international and for the most part atheistical Jews. It is certainly a very great one; it probably outweighs all others.” [17]

 

Another distinguishing aspect of the Bolshevik Party was its tendency towards violence and the elimination of political opponents. Even without the 19,000,000 labour camp deaths between 1921 and 1960[18], the 1,500,000 Stalinist purges,[19] the 7,000,000 deaths caused by the disaster of the first Five Year Plan[20] or the 3,000,000 murders of ‘class enemies’ and minorities[21], there were still around 1,500,000 fatalities as a result of the 1917 Revolution and the ensuing Civil War.[22] Without doubt, the price that was paid by the Russian people in pursuit of Communist ‘liberation’ was absolutely devastating. In Communist terminology, the end justifies the means and Lenin himself wrote frequently of the need for violent struggle. In 1908 he praised ‘real nation-wide terror, which reinvigorates the country and through which the great French Revolution achieved glory.’[23] On the eve of the October 1917 seizure of power, Lenin demanded the extermination of his enemies: ‘Not a single revolutionary government can dispense with the death penalty for the exploiters.’[24] And again, on January 27th, 1918: ‘Speculators will be shot: we can achieve nothing unless we use terror.’[25] Furthermore, Lenin urged his followers to ‘apply mass terror immediately, to execute and exterminate hundreds of prostitutes, drunken soldiers, former officers, etc.’[26]

In the wake of the Bolshevik victory, Mayakovsky had likened the defeat of tsarism to a ‘chewed stump of a fag; we spat their dynasty out’.[27] But the violence did not end with the Bolshevik Party’s control of the State. Indeed, its new powers were to become a springboard from which even greater atrocities were to be orchestrated in the years to come.

The Bolsheviks were also distinctive in that it claimed to have developed a unique economic response to the social catastrophe which had been the hallmark of the outgoing tsarist regime. According to Lionel Kochan, both during and after the Bolshevik victory of 1917 the Russian countryside began to experience ‘a genuine and immense agrarian revolution’.[28] Peasants had started to expropriate the large rural estates and, by March 1919

 

“virtually all the usable land was in peasant hands. The peasants were not socialists, of course; but it was this elemental movement that was indispensable to the victory of Bolshevism.” [29]

 

At the 10th Party Congress in 1921, the prospects for international revolution looked very bleak indeed and Lenin turned instead to a modification of the domestic sphere, unveiling his New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP represented ‘an attempt to dismantle the economic structures and policies that had brought Soviet citizens to the brink of despair’,[30] and was Lenin’s way of making peace with the Russian peasantry. On the other hand, by asking peasants

to pay a tax in kind (in this case with grain) the NEP represented a complete volte-face and was quite detached from the former Bolshevik policy of grain requisition. Lenin’s NEP now allowed

peasants to sell their surplus on the open market, something completely alien to the Bolshevik Party’s alleged commitment to anti-capitalist ‘egalitarianism’. In the words of one historian, the NEP soon

 

“provoked fresh political disagreements and social tensions, paving the way for Stalinist collectivisation and terror.” [31]

 

The Communists of the early Bolshevik Party, who, like their Capitalist counterparts had their roots in ideological materialism, were also noted for initiating a sustained and vigorous assault upon religion and spirituality. At the turn of the century, Lunacharskii had founded a movement known as ‘God-building’. This new concept ‘sought to replace traditional religion with human solidarity, with mankind itself as the object of worship’.[32]

When Lunacharskii became the Bolshevik regime’s so-called Commissar of Enlightenment a decade later, he set about raising Science above Religion and developing ‘a Communist surrogate cult with its own divinities, saints and rituals’.[33] Lenin, however, saw religion as a pillar of class society and preferred to undermine it through the promotion of atheism rather than by crude imitation. The Bolsheviks particularly abhorred organised religion and the Russian Orthodox Church came in for special attention, with Communists believing that it was ‘the last fragment of the political organisation of the defeated classes still surviving’.[34] Eventually, the powers of the Church were curtailed by the abolition of State subsidies and the confiscation of its property. Monasteries were also destroyed or converted into purely secular administrative centres, and atheistic propaganda replaced traditional Christian teaching in Russian schools. However, these deliberate attacks were counter-productive and totally unable to prevent Russian Christianity and its Nationalist and Monarchic followers from organising themselves into an effective anti-Communist underground. In fact the Bolsheviks were never able to deter the faith of the peasantry and those in rural areas remained devoted to Christianity, a fact which – coupled with the brutal agenda of the Party – seemingly justified their eventual slaughter. Similarly, by 1926 one observer concluded that the Church had emerged victorious from her conflict with the Communists: ‘The only thing the Bolsheviks had achieved was to loosen the hierarchy and split the Church.’[35]

To conclude, it has been found that the Bolshevik Party was distinctive for its belief in vanguardism, a matter which inevitably split the Social-Democratic movement in two. Lenin and his followers were unwilling to engage in transitory political reform and chose to take up arms and attempt to change Russian society with force and determination, rather than with patience or diplomacy. Bolshevism was also opposed to intellectualism, or at least to the separation of political thought and political action. The cadres of the Bolshevik Party were mostly Ashkenazi Jewish, although its leadership purported to defend the interests of the Russian proletariat. The Party itself was noted for its violence and expressed a great deal of atheistic hostility towards organised Christianity. In addition, the Bolshevik Party has been lauded for the implementation of Lenin’s NEP, despite the programme’s subsequent failure and gradual dismemberment as Bolshevism evolved into Stalinism. But despite the agitation and brutality which followed closely on the heels of the Russian Revolution, the true insurrectionary nature of the Bolshevik Party remains debatable. Whilst Lenin certainly espoused a great deal of

Inflammatory rhetoric, one academic has written that far from actually seizing power in Russia, the Bolsheviks

 

“had found it lying in the street and picked it up. The greater task, that of establishing a new order in the country, still lay ahead of them.” [36]

 

The Bolshevik Party, therefore, had its own plans for those who were unfortunate enough to find themselves in its midst and the contemporary modification of this destructive state-capitalist ideology is something beneath which the Russian people and their neighbours are still labouring today.

 

Notes:

 

  1. Christopher Hill; Lenin and the Russian Revolution (English Universities Press, 1967), p. 4.
  2. Edward Acton; ‘From Tsarism to Communism’ in History Review #17 (December, 1993), p. 35.
  3. Christopher Hill, op. cit., p.13.
  4. Dietrich Geyer; The Russian Revolution (Berg, 1987), p. 15.
  5. Edward Acton, op. cit., p. 35.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Christopher Hill, op. cit., p. 6.
  8. Alex de Jonge; Stalin and the Shaping of the Soviet Union (Collins, 1986), p. 53.
  9. Ibid., p. 54.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Richard Sakwa; Soviet Communists in Power (Macmillan, 1988), p. 8.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Christopher Hill, op. cit., p. 55.
  14. Robert Conquest; The Politics of Ideas in the USSR (The Bodley Head, 1967), p. 15.
  15. Robert Wilton; Les Derniers Jours des Romanof (Thornton Butterworth, 1920), p. 29.
  16. Hilaire Belloc; G. K. ‘s Weekly (February 4th, 1937).
  17. Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill; Illustrated Sunday Herald (February 8th, 1920).
  18. Figures given at the Inter-Denominational Service to Commemorate the Victims of

Communism at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on October 31st, 1967; quoted in The

Committee for Truth in History’s The Six Million Reconsidered (Historical Review Press, 1979), p. 98.

  1. Ibid.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin; Collected Works, 4th Russian Edition, v. 13, p. 435; quoted in Robert Conquest’s The Cost of Soviet Communism (U. S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 1970), p. 7.
  6. Ibid., v. 25, p. 316.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., p. 286.
  9. Christopher Hill, op. cit., p. 29.
  10. Lionel Kochan; The Making of Modern Russia (Penguin, 1973), p. 246.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Peter Gatrell; ‘Lenin’s New Economic Policy’ in Modern History Review (September, 1993), Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 12.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Richard Pipes; Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime 1919-1924 (Harvill, 1994), p. 338.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., p. 339.
  17. Ibid., p. 368.
  18. Christopher Read; ‘Interpreting the Russian Revolution’ in History Sixth #5 (October, 1989), p. 48.

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