B is for Bolshevism

Marxism A-Z

Reformists and Anarchists alike believe that Bolshevism led logically to Stalinism and bureaucratic tyranny. They are wrong.

Bolshevik means majority. It was the name adopted by the revolutionary majority in the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) after the party’s Second Congress in 1903. The losing faction became known as the Mensheviks (minority). The split took place because the old editorial board of the RSDLP newspaper Iskra refused to be bound by the democratic decisions of the congress.

The Bolsheviks argued for a regime of democratic centralism which combined two things: the maximum possible democratic debate inside the party, and total unity in action once a decision had been made.

The Bolshevik leadership was elected and the programme and practice of the party was decided by democratic conferences, but once those decisions were made they were put into practice by all party members.

Democracy ensured that errors could be corrected. Centralism ensured that the party would be a combat organisation in more than name alone, that it would strike as a clenched fist. This form of organisation scandalises anarchists and Labour MPs alike. But their objection to “party discipline” in the name of democracy serves only to disguise the fundamental absence of democracy within their own organisations.

The absence of democratic centralism in the Labour Party means that the MPs, ultimately, can do what they want. The anarchists’ and populists’ devotion to “networks” and spontaneous, non-disciplined organisations covers up the influence of unelected cliques and the ineffectiveness of their organisations.

But back in 1917, without both party democracy and centralism there would have been no October revolution. Following the February Revolution of that year, the Bolshevik Party won the support of the Russian workers through their struggle for “Peace, Bread and Land”. In particular, they rallied the workers to the slogan “All Power to the Soviets”, for the rule of democratic councils of workers’ and soldiers’ delegates.

But at first the party leaders Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin opposed this and wanted to support the new capitalist Provisional Government. It was party democracy that enabled Lenin, after his return to Russia in April 1917, to campaign for and win a majority of the party and its leadership for a revolutionary approach.

Centralism meant that across Russia the Bolshevik workers were now campaigning for the workers’ councils to take power, eventually winning a majority in the Soviets for this course and for an armed uprising in October.

Soviet power was the highest form of democracy history has yet seen. The tiny handful of exploiters were excluded, but the mass of workers and poor peasants could recall their delegates to the soviets at any time to ensure they reflected their views.

Far from promoting bureaucracy, the Bolsheviks sought to prevent it by rotating official posts and restricting the earnings of officials. Even when the Soviet Union was surrounded by imperialist armies in 1918, the Bolsheviks continued to debate the way forward.

But the legacy of seven years of war took its toll on the Russian workers. Many of the finest working class fighters died in the civil war to defend the revolution. The soviets, which had been the centre of debate, collapsed as effective organisations. 

In these dire circumstances only the Bolshevik Party stood between the revolution and the right wing “White” armies and their imperialist backers.

Inevitably, power became concentrated in the hands of the party, which acted as the guardian of the revolution. The Mensheviks openly called for the overthrow of the Bolsheviks and collaborated with the Whites. Socialist Revolutionaries tried to assassinate Lenin. To safeguard working class power the Bolsheviks banned these collaborators and terrorists from the Soviets. Lenin and Trotsky realised that, with only one party in existence, the interests of the richer peasants, the middle class and even pro-capitalist elements could now find a voice in the Bolshevik Party itself. So they argued for a temporary ban on factions within the Party in 1921. This was the first voluntary limitation on internal party democracy the Bolsheviks ever undertook.

This proved to be a grave mistake. The ban on factions – like the banning of other workers’ and peasant parties – was intended as a temporary measure. But it became the permanent foundation on which Stalinism was able to impose bureaucratic rule.

A bureaucracy developed within the party and remaining Soviet organisations. The initial job of the bureaucrats was to oversee the distribution of what resources were available. This bureaucracy had no interest in democracy, or world revolution. Quite the opposite. It was opposed to anything that could have threatened the status quo and its own relatively privileged position.

Lenin recognised the danger of the bureaucracy, and called Russia a “workers’ state with severe bureaucratic deformations”. He called for the party to launch a struggle against bureaucratism. Trotsky launched the Opposition in 1923 to fight for Soviet and party democracy. But Stalin used his organisational power at the centre of the party machine to help the bureaucratic caste take over the whole party and state.

It is in this sense only that Stalinism grew out of Bolshevism. It did so not as Bolshevism’s continuation, but as its counter-revolutionary negation. Bolsheviks who opposed Stalinism were first isolated, then sacked, deported, framed and finally murdered.

Those who say Bolshevism led inevitably to Stalinism have to portray all the necessary measures of working class power – the building of the Red Army, the re-introduction of management into the ruined Russian factories, the banning of parties who had declared war on the revolution – as similar to Stalin’s dictatorship against the working class. They judge the harsh methods of both Bolshevism and Stalinism from the same standpoint, without taking account of who they were fighting and why.

As Trotsky said: “. . . the Bolshevik revolution, with all its repressions, meant an upheaval of social relations in the interest of the masses, whereas the Stalinist Thermidorean upheaval accompanies the transformation of Soviet society in the interests of a privileged minority. It is clear that in the identification of Stalinism with Bolshevism there is not a trace of socialist criteria.”


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