Socialist Equality Party (United States)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (United States)

The Origins of Bolshevism

The Bolshevik tendency emerged out of the struggle led politically by Lenin (and, in the sphere of philosophy, by Plekhanov) against revisionist and opportunist tendencies within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Lenin (basing himself on the position developed earlier by Kautsky, the principal theoretician of the SPD) insisted that socialist consciousness did not develop spontaneously within the working class, but had to be brought into the workers’ movement. In his seminal work, What Is To Be Done? Lenin cited the following critical passage from the program of the Austrian Social-Democratic Party:

...Modern socialist consciousness can only arise on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow this to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without, and not something that arose within it spontaneously.[1]

The central task of the revolutionary party was to saturate the workers’ movement with Marxist theory. “Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement,” Lenin wrote, “the only choice is—either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a ‘third’ ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology). Hence, to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology.”[2] Lenin opposed all tendencies that adapted their work to the spontaneous forms of working class activity and detached the daily practical struggles from the historical goal of social revolution. Lenin recognized more clearly than any other socialist of his time that the development of Marxism within the working class required a persistent struggle against the political and ideological pressure exerted by bourgeois and middle class tendencies. Herein lay the significance of the fight—conducted over issues of theory, political strategy and party organization—against diverse forms of revisionism and opportunism.

The 1903 Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party ended in a split between the Bolshevik and Menshevik tendencies. It marked a turning point in the history of the revolutionary socialist movement. Though the split occurred unexpectedly, over what at first seemed to be secondary issues relating to party rules and organization, it gradually became clear that the conflict was tied to the larger problem of political opportunism in the RSDLP and, beyond that, to issues of political perspective and program. In relation to the organizational question, as Lenin explained in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, “Opportunism in program is naturally connected with opportunism in tactics and opportunism in organization.”[3] He noted further, “The opportunist wing of any party always defends and justifies all backwardness, whether in program, tactics or organization.”[4] Lenin concluded his analysis with a memorable declaration:

In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but organization. Disunited by the rule of anarchic competition in the bourgeois world, ground down by forced labor for capital, constantly thrust back to the “lower depths” of utter destitution, savagery, and degeneration, the proletariat can, and inevitably will, become an invincible force only through its ideological unification on the principles of Marxism being reinforced by the material unity of organization, which welds millions of toilers into an army of the working class.[5]

Following the Second Congress, Lenin’s uncompromising stance came under bitter criticism within many sections of the RSDLP that held him responsible for the split. His approach to the inner-party struggle was harshly criticized by the young Trotsky (who was only 23 at the time of the Congress) and Rosa Luxemburg. These outstanding revolutionists did not yet understand Lenin’s insight into the material relationship between theoretical, political and organizational disputes within the party and the objective social process of class realignments and class conflict developing on a mass scale outside the party. While most socialists of the day tended to interpret the conflict within and between factions of the RSDLP as a conflict of tendencies competing, in a subjective sense, for influence over a politically uncommitted working class, Lenin interpreted the conflict as an objective manifestation of real shifts in class relations—both between the working class and the bourgeoisie and also between different strata within the working class itself. Lenin studied the struggle of tendencies within the party as a “key indicator” of the development of the revolutionary epoch. In relation to the conflict that erupted at the Second Congress, the issue concealed within the constitutional question was the relationship of the Russian working class and the RSDLP to the liberal bourgeoisie and its political parties. Underlying the opportunist attitude of the Mensheviks toward organizational issues, such as the definition of the responsibilities of party membership, was a conciliatory orientation toward Russian liberalism.

Over time, as the political situation in Russia matured, the immense implications of the organizational issues became more apparent. As Trotsky later acknowledged, his understanding of Lenin’s political methods deepened as, against the backdrop of cataclysmic events, he “worked out a more and more correct, i.e., Bolshevik, conception of the relations between class and party, between theory and politics, and between politics and organization...What had seemed to me to be ‘splitterism,’ ‘disruption,’ etc., now appeared as a salutary and incomparably farsighted struggle for the revolutionary independence of the proletarian party.”[6]


“What Is To Be Done?” in:V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 5, (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), pp. 383-84.


Ibid., p. 384.


“One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” in: V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 7 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), p. 398.


Ibid., p. 395.


Ibid., p. 415.


“Our Differences,” in The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25) [New York: Pathfinder Press, 2002), p. 299.