The purpose of this study is to spread awareness and education about one of the critical turning points in world history. The Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union represent a major milestone to left-wing movements everywhere, as the Soviet Union was not only the first true socialist state but also the first attempt at forging a new socialist society. Compared to other revolutions, which merely saw one ruling class replaced with another, the Bolshevik Revolution offered a chance at total social upheaval, a clean break with the hierarchical and exploitative systems of feudalism and capitalism. In addition to revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks were pioneers exploring new territory, constructing a world to that point only imagined by academics, politicians, trade union activists and working class agitators. Marx and Engels provided thorough and scientific critiques of capitalism and called upon the workers of the world to unite, but they had not supplied any systematic blueprint as to how to create a worker’s paradise. Like many revolutionaries before them, the Bolsheviks experienced success and failure, triumphs and mistakes. They engaged in careful planning as well as foolish impulses. They relished good luck and suffered ill fortune. They also understood they were making history, but remembered Marx’s statement that, while men make history, they do not make it as they please.
Most of the Western history concerning the Bolshevik Revolution and the early Soviet Union demonstrates a strong anti-communist bias as well as an obsession with the “great men” of the era. Despite popular conceptions about academics all being left-wing radicals, most Western historians have towed the conventional position on the Bolsheviks: they were, at best, naïve idealists undone by “inherently” selfish and power-hungry human nature, or, at worst, brutal tyrants hiding their thirst for autocracy behind their populist appeals. Additionally, scholars have focused most of their attention on Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin (each having their own “-ism”), as if these individuals exercised complete monolithic top-down control among their peers or even in the sprawling, complex Soviet state. While this approach is patently ridiculous at the early stages of the revolution, when inter- and intra-party conflicts were rampant and often in flux, it also ignores the fact that even at the height of his power Stalin never enjoyed the sort of absolute power commonly assigned to him. He may have been an autocrat at the center of a cult of personality, but placing him on a pedestal, even in a hall of infamy, neglects the acts and accompanying responsibility of other prominent personalities in his era. Stalin may have eventually become the most important person in the USSR, but he was never the only important one.
My aim is not to be completely comprehensive, as scholars have written entire books on some of the topics I will cover here, such as the Russian Civil War, Trotsky’s fall and exile, the purges of the 1930s, and so on. My intention is to draw on academic sources about each of these subjects to form a concise but still informative overview of events, their causes and their outcomes, and in so doing, do away with commonly held myths and stimulate further research on the part of the reader. As such, this is a labor of love rather than a true academic enterprise, although it will meet basic academic standards of citing sources and only asserting definitively what sources can prove.
Finally, a disclaimer: I am a Marxist and a socialist. I am not a Leninist, Trotskyite, Stalinist or a “Soviet Union apologist.” I am not seeking to create a work of Soviet propaganda. The Soviet Union and the individuals involved in establishing it and later administering it were flawed, as I am and this work will no doubt be. History is not about making men into heroes or events into drama. It is about drawing lessons from the past to understand the present. Please keep in mind I have written this work in that spirit.
Marxism – Karl Marx never articulated a clear and complete ideology; the majority of his work was dedicated to analyzing the political economy of capitalism and the role of productive forces in history. Unlike the idealist followers of Hegel, Marx offered a materialist understanding of the world, where actual existing conditions give rise to the state and society. Under capitalism, there is an underlying tension between the productive class, the workers (the proletariat), and those who own the means of production and strive for profit, the capitalists (the bourgeoisie). Marx argued that as the workers realized the exploitative nature of capitalism, there would be a social revolution. Socialism would replace capitalism with a transitional stage marked by proletarian control of the state and cooperative ownership of the means of production. Eventually, socialism would lead to communism, a stateless and classless system. In Volume III of Capital, Marx states the revolution occurs when productive forces can no longer continue to develop. His longtime friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, however, suggested revolution was possible once the character of production reached the point where “the abolition of class distinctions” could occur. It is important to stress that most of the work of Marx and Engels was a diagnosis, not a prescription for the cure.
Bolsheviks – The Bolsheviks were the majority faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). They were distinguished from the minority faction, or Mensheviks under Julius Martov by their belief in a dynamic revolutionary party wholly devoted to actively overthrowing the state, rather than pursuing gradual reform with the aid of sympathizers (such as trade unions) who were not fully committed to the overall objective of socialist revolution. The RSDLP split occurred in the summer of 1903 at the party’s second congress when one of its members, Vladimir Lenin, argued that the party program should reflect the thesis of his 1902 work What Is To Be Done?, which called for a revolutionary vanguard party to induce Marxist class consciousness in the working class rather than wait for it to form naturally. The Bolsheviks triumphed thanks to a narrow majority, and hence earned their name (“bolshevik” roughly means “member of the majority”) as did the Mensheviks (“member of the minority”).
Leninism – Leninism refers simply to Marxism supplemented with the theoretical works of Vladimir Lenin, specifically his writings on the development of a revolutionary party to seize power for the workers and construct a socialist society. Lenin advocated a revolutionary vanguard because trade unions tended to be concerned just with improving economic conditions and the spontaneous activity of the working class was insufficient for revolutionary struggle. Lenin also addressed imperialism, something Marx did not write about, stating that the search for profits drove industrialized countries to export capital and divide the world between competing empires, leading to enormous and destructive conflicts (such as World War I). In the metropolitan countries, the bourgeoisie is able to placate the working class, but in those underdeveloped countries lagging behind the advanced nations (such as Imperial Russia), the nascent bourgeoisie is weak but the proletariat class-conscious enough for revolution.
Trotskyism – Leon Trotsky built on the works of Marx and Lenin by adding the concept of permanent revolution, which argued that the imperialist nature of late capitalism would lead to socialism beyond national boundaries. Communism would be a global stateless society. Like Lenin, he advocated revolutionary parties seizing power and establishing dictatorships of the proletariat, although how centralized such parties should be depends on whether you are reading pre-1917 Trotsky, when he opposed Lenin’s centralism, or his writings of 1917-1923, his period of greatest agreement with Lenin. In general, many regard Trotskyism as diverging from Marxist-Leninism by being more internationalist and pluralist, although specifics are difficult to nail down as Trotsky’s followers are famous for their tendency to split and recriminate one another.
Stalinism – Stalin himself never used the term “Stalinism” and it is typically used in a pejorative sense, to refer to the arbitrary use of authority or an extreme centralization of power. There are those, however, who do use it to note the dogmatic points where Stalin broke with his predecessors. Stalin dismissed the prescriptions of Lenin and Trotsky that the Soviet Union could only thrive with the spread of socialism around the world. Stalin promoted the establishment of “socialism in one country” and criticized foreign adventures. This had strong nationalist overtones, something Lenin had rejected as “Great Russian chauvinism.” Stalin also argued for the strengthening of the state, as evidenced by his policies of forced collectivization of agriculture and the rapid heavy industrialization of the USSR in the 1920s. Defenders of Stalin argue that Stalinism did not abandon the principles of socialism as he continued the public ownership of economic activity, while his critics (such as Trotsky) claim the subordination of society to the state represented “state capitalism” or “bureaucratic collectivism.”
Democratic Centralism – Adopted by the entire Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1905, democratic centralism referred to a system of party organization where members could democratically determine policy but, once that policy was settled, the party membership would move uniformly to see it carried out. Lenin described democratic centralism as “freedom of discussion, unity of action.” The Bolsheviks permitted factions within their organization up until the Tenth Congress of 1921, when the party leadership banned factions due to the need for unity during the civil war. In the years that followed, debate within the party effectively ceased to exist.
Dictatorship of the Proletariat – In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx described the “period of revolutionary transformation” from capitalist to communist society, during which “the state can only take the form of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” In the Civil War in France, Marx notes the significance of the Paris Commune in its efforts to eliminate state power and empower the working class with the actual job of governing. In his State and Revolution, Lenin built on this and described the dictatorship of the proletariat as more than just the replacement of one class with another, with the actual task of governing left to bureaucrats. Under socialism the proletariat actually taking up the duties performed by the state. The distinction between dictatorship of the proletariat and dictatorship of the party acting for the proletariat is ambiguous. In practice, the latter became reality as the Bolsheviks centralized power during the Civil War to combat their opponents. In the end, the USSR did not achieve a transition to working class government, as political power remained firmly with the party.
Soviets – Derived from the Russian word for “council,” the Soviets associated to the Soviet Union were workers’ councils formed during the revolutionary era that organized protests, directed strikes and supplied the proletariat with weapons and leadership. They consisted of deputies chosen by the masses. The first Soviet took form in St. Petersburg in 1905, led in part by Trotsky, until the Imperial government disbanded it. A good number of them arose in 1917, the largest being the Petrograd Soviet, with 4,000 members and control over the garrison. Lenin considered the soviets to be the conveyors of state power, acting as an “armed force” wielded by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and nobility, who the proletariat would exclude from participation.
Vladimir Lenin – Born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov on April 22, 1870, Lenin came from a well-off family. His father died while he was young and, soon after, the Imperial government executed his older brother Alexander for his involvement in a plot to assassinate the tsar. He attended Kazan University in 1887 but the school expelled him soon after for his radicalism. In 1893, he moved to St. Petersburg and became a leading member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). The government arrested him 1895 and subsequently exiled him to Siberia. In 1900, he moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and helped to found Iskra (The Spark), a national newspaper intended to be a platform for likeminded revolutionaries. He emerged at the forefront of the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP in 1903, urging direct insurrection on behalf of the working class by dedicated revolutionaries. During the 1905 revolution, he advocated for economic reforms, such as land nationalization. The outbreak of World War I prompted him to develop his theory of imperialism and the concentration of production into trusts and cartels. In 1917, he has just published State and Revolution, a rather libertarian work calling for the popular seizure of state power and the economic monopolies.
Leon Trotsky – Born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein on November 7, 1879, Trotsky came from a family of affluent farmers. He grew up in Odessa, a relatively cosmopolitan (by Russian standards) port city. The state arrested him in 1898 for revolutionary activity, and he took the name “Trotsky” from one of his jailers. He joined the RSDLP later that same year. He began writing regularly for Lenin’s national newspaper, which prompted Lenin to try and recruit Trotsky to the Bolshevik faction. Trotsky followed his own path, however, often attempting to unify the RSDLP and reconcile the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. This often put him at odds with Lenin, who wanted to expel the Mensheviks for the sake of creating his vanguard party. In 1905, during the short-lived revolution, he helped manage the St. Petersburg Soviet, the first workers’ council of its kind, before the state arrested and exiled him. During his exile, he developed his theory of permanent revolution and engaged in anti-war activism during World War I. Living in New York when the revolution breaks out in Russia in 1917, he returns in May, now sympathetic to the Bolshevik calls for an armed uprising.
Joseph Stalin – Born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili in modern day Georgia, Stalin was one of the few Bolsheviks to come from an actual working class family. His father was an alcoholic cobbler who abandoned his wife and children after assaulting the town police chief. Young Stalin attended a theological seminary in Tbilisi that expelled him in 1899 due to his taste for proscribed books (including the work of Victor Hugo) and his inability to pay his tuition. He became a follower of Lenin after reading his writings and joined the RSDLP, siding with the Bolshevik faction as early as 1904. After 1902, he became a professional revolutionary, stuck in a cycle of arrest, imprisonment, exile, and escape. In 1913 the Imperial government exiled him to a remote part of Siberia, where he lived until the start of the 1917 revolution. He returns in March and takes over as one of the editors of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, initially endorsing cooperation with the liberal Provisional Government. Only when Lenin’s position in April prevails does he come to support violent revolution.
Grigory Zinoviev – Born Ovsei-Gershon Aronovich Radomyslovsky Apfelbaum on September 11, 1883, Zinoviev – like Trotsky – came from a well-to-do family of Jewish farmers. Home-schooled, he initially sought to become a teacher but soon joined the RSDLP as a professional revolutionary. As such, he supported Lenin and the Bolsheviks when they sought to turn the RSDLP into a party wholly dedicated to insurgency. In 1908, the Imperial government had him arrested for organizing metalworkers in St. Petersburg, but the state released him due to his poor health. He ended up joining Lenin in Geneva, working closely with him, co-authoring several articles concerning World War I and attacking the use of nationalism to suppress worker solidarity. He returns to Russia with Lenin in 1917, but unlike Lenin, he prefers cooperation, reform and reconciliation to Lenin’s tactic of seizing power.
Lev Kamenev – Born Lev Borisovich Rozenfeld, Kamenev attended Moscow University, having received a good education thanks to his father, a railway worker. In 1901, he joined the RSDLP and, like so many of his contemporaries, lived either detained by the authorities or in exile. He married Leon Trotsky’s sister, Olga, around the same time. In 1905, he went to St. Petersburg to join the revolution but was arrested and forced to join Lenin in exile, only to return to Russia in 1914 where the state again incarcerated him. This time the government exiled him to Siberia, where he stayed until the revolution of 1917. Back in St. Petersburg, he joins Stalin as one of the editors of Pravda, and like Stalin, prefers supporting the Provisional Government to open revolt. He becomes one of the most vocal advocates within the Bolsheviks for taking a democratic approach, preferring power-sharing with other socialist parties.
Nikolai Bukharin – Born on October 9, 1888, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, the son of schoolteachers, became involved in politics while at Moscow University. In 1906, he joined the RSDLP and sided with the Bolshevik faction. The government arrested him for instigating revolution and in 1911 shipped him to a remote section of Arkhangelsk. He escaped to Germany, met Lenin and began writing Marxist works. His theorizing on the development of capitalism and its influence on imperialism and colonialism heavily influenced Lenin’s own work on the subject, although Bukharin focused more on the economic elements of the issue than its political ramifications. Like Trotsky, his made theoretical contributions to Marxism and engaged with other prominent European Marxists of the day, such as Rosa Luxemburg. For a time he edited a newspaper in New York City with Leon Trotsky, and followed Trotsky back to Russia following the first 1917 revolution. He becomes active in Moscow politics, where the Bolsheviks enjoyed a majority position, unlike in Petrograd/St. Petersburg. A hardliner among the Bolsheviks, he believes very strongly in spreading revolution outside of Russia, but his advocacy of “market socialism” will make him synonymous with the Bolshevik right-wing.
Alexei Rykov – Born on February 25, 1881, Rykov hailed from peasant stock. His father died in 1889, forcing Rykov’s older sister to adopt him. At 18, he joined the RSDLP and in 1903 sided with the Bolsheviks In 1910, he started his own moderate faction, which like Trotsky, sought to take a middle path between the hardline Bolsheviks and the “broad tent” Mensheviks. His exile to Siberia, however, scuttled these efforts, and he did not return to the major Russian cities until 1917. He dedicates himself to urging reconciliation and coalition between the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and other non-RSDLP socialists. Like Kamenev and Zinoviev, he pushes hard for building a coalition of socialist parties and, later with Bukharin, supports small-scale capitalists enterprises as long as the government controls the major industries.
Other notable Old Bolsheviks: Alexander Bogdanov, Mikhail Frunze, Adolph Joffe, Viktor Nogin, Sergey Kirov, Mikhail Kalinin, Anastas Mikoyan, Mikhail Tomsky, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Maxim Litvinov, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Jānis Bērziņš
Part One, covering the 1917 revolutions, coming soon…