By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Vladimir Lenin is one of the most well-known figures in the history of Russia and, more so, in the world of communism. What were his radical ideas that gave birth to the Bolshevik faction within the The Russian Social Democratic Party?
A Brief Sketch of Lenin
Lenin became a Marxist following two tragic events early in his life—the death of his father and the execution of his elder brother. He grew up to be a lawyer while secretly pursuing revolutionary politics. He was an extremely disciplined person who made communism not just a movement, but his religion.
By 1889, Lenin was an avowed Marxist, and by 1895, he had set up his clandestine, underground revolutionary activism hand in hand with the Socialist Party, even while under constant police surveillance.
In 1895, Lenin traveled to Switzerland to meet the leader of the Russian Marxists and then went to Paris to pay his respects at the site of the Paris Commune. However, he was unable to evade the police forever and was arrested and exiled to Siberia in the same year.
There, in 1898, he married a teacher and fellow revolutionary, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya. Their marriage lasted for the next 26 years, albeit seemingly remaining a political partnership rather than a romantic involvement, and not preventing Lenin from having the French Communist Inessa Armand as his mistress.
Learn more about Lenin’s early life.
Lenin’s Exiles: From Siberia to Switzerland
Given the man’s quest for discipline and organization, it is no surprise to know that Lenin used his Siberian exile very productively. It was during this exile that he produced his first major work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia. In 1900, when his Siberian exile ended, Lenin went abroad in exile, where he was later joined by his wife. The next few years for the couple were spent moving around, living in Munich, followed by London, and eventually, in Switzerland.
Of course, the rest of the exile, similar to the Siberian exile, was rife with productivity for the man, who, along with his wife, worked on the Social Democratic newspaper, Iskra, which was then smuggled back into the Russian Empire.
In 1901, the pseudonym ‘Lenin’ was firmly adopted, along with some others out of his 140 known pseudonyms. During his trips to London, Lenin frequently went to the reading room in the British Library, a place he almost considered holy. Not only had this been Marx’s workplace for years, but Lenin also revered their collection, considering it second to none.
Such was his adulation for the place that while still on the run from the Russian state police, Lenin used the pseudonym Jacob Richter to apply for a visitor’s ID card, which he was eventually granted.
The Swiss Exile
After several years of being on the run from the Russian police, Lenin eventually settled for his exile in Switzerland. Switzerland, of course, is not a place that is naturally associated with revolutionaries, bearing the brunt of many jokes on its seemingly docile and neutral position. In reality, though, Switzerland offered refuge to many exiles, including Lenin and other Russian revolutionaries. The Swiss orderliness and efficiency was admired deeply by Lenin and was also crucial for his activities, which relied heavily on the mail.
This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
What Is To Be Done?
1902 saw Lenin writing a manifesto, entitled What Is to Be Done?, a name that was chosen as a tribute to Chernyshevsky’s novel by the same name which Lenin claimed changed his life and opened his mind to new ideas.
Using this manifesto, Lenin answered the titular question, asking for the creation of a new party, one that was different from the cumbersome, bureaucratic, and inefficient structure of the Social Democratic Party. He proposed a smaller, secret society of professional revolutionaries, committed to Marxist Socialism. This elite society was to be the vanguard for the working class, leading it into the future.
Lenin’s text antagonized the trust put in the spontaneous revolutionary spirit of the working class instead of organization and design. It also attacked those who Lenin labeled ‘economists’, and also those who tried to change the system gradually instead of having a complete upheaval. He felt that the working class revolutionary must become a professional revolutionary. He called for a “militant centralized organization which declares a determined war upon tsarism”.
The urgency of Lenin’s plan was clear—it meant action now. He adapted Marx’s scheme to Russian conditions, and in the process, added ideas of a secret organization and activity from Russia’s pre-Marxist traditions, such as Chernyshevsky, the populists, and the nihilists.
Learn more about Marx.
Lenin’s Vanguard Party
The vanguard party was one of the fundamental elements of Lenin’s brand of Marxism. He considered this to be of paramount importance in directing the working class to revolution. He thought that, otherwise, they would lapse into ‘trade union consciousness’ and while away their lives in their quest for immediate, short-term gains, rather than political upheaval and the overthrowing of the public system, which would benefit them, and their generations to come.
This party would not be an open attempt to create a democratic debate; it would conspire through its distinctive underground cells. Internally ruled by strict discipline and ‘democratic centralism’, it would harbor free debate before finalizing a course of action, and henceforth, would require total obedience to the party line.
Creating Factions: The Birth of the Bolshevik Revolution
Lenin was adamant about his vision for the movement, even when it came at the cost of a split in the Social Democratic Party. The members of the party met in Brussels in 1903. The Belgian police compelled the members to disband the party, so they moved to London, where Lenin forced a split between his own adherents and their other, moderate comrades.
In a remarkable display of astute factional fighting, Lenin created the Bolshevik faction, creating an enemy called the Mensheviks, which literally meant the minoritarian group. Ironically, it was the Bolshevik group which was smaller.
This name also hinted at Lenin’s tactical prowess, making a minority appear to be a majority. During the congress, Lenin chose a moment when his followers were in the majority to pass the resolution on the party structure, thereby winning the label of the majority, an artifact for success.
The ironical conditions in which these factions operated become more tangled when put in perspective with the larger political landscape of Russia. Both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were outnumbered in public support by the populist Socialist Revolutionaries, who won over the peasant masses with their messages of rural liberation, which were far more popular than theoretical debates.
The party now started pointing fingers at Lenin, blaming him for creating the factions and being authoritarian. This did not bother Lenin, who continued with his plan as best as he could, and the rift between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks continued to widen.
Learn more about the Bolsheviks.
Common Questions About Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution
The Bolsheviks, a name which literally means the majority group, were the faction of the Socialist Democratic Party of the Soviet Union. This faction supported Lenin and his revolutionary ideology .
Lenin’s manifesto was called What Is To Be Done?. Lenin had deliberately chosen the name of Chernyshevsky’s novel because it played a vital role in forming his revolutionary ideology.
Lenin’s manifesto, What Is To Be Done, answered the titular question, suggesting ways to reform the Russian Empire. It critiqued many aspects of thought and philosophy of the time and called for a vanguard party to direct the working class to revolution.
The vanguard party was one of the fundamental elements of Lenin’s brand of Marxism and was spoken about in his manifesto. He considered it to be imperative for the working class to join the movement actively, who would otherwise lapse into ‘trade union consciousness’, and aim for short-term happiness rather than a complete overhaul of the political machinery.