What was Bolshevism?

More than twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, a new generation of scholars are beginning to reassess the conflict between the West and communism by going beyond the simple dichotomy that portrayed the conflict as good versus evil.  One of the key terms and concepts of this conflict was Bolshevism.  While even Stalin questioned the relevance of the term by 1952, one glance at primary or secondary sources from across the globe during the twentieth century should remind historians and the public that, while the term may seem obsolete now, understanding what Bolshevism meant, how it was used, and why people had such strong reactions to it is crucial in understanding twentieth century history.  Defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “the doctrine or program of the Bolsheviks advocating the violent overthrow of capitalism,” this website hopes to examine how a term that takes one sentence to define played a crucial role in world history and was anything but monolithic.[1]  However, the purpose of this debate is not to complicate the concept of Bolshevism to the point that it is completely abstract, but rather to acknowledge that different people around the world viewed the term in different ways for different reasons.

Translated from Russian, Bolshevism simply means “majority.”  The term originated after a split in the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) at the party’s second congress in 1903.  On the other side of the split were the Mensheviks (the minority), whose proposal for an alliance with Russian liberals was rejected by radicals such as Vladimir Lenin.  Curiously, Leon Trotsky was actually a Menshevik until just before the Bolshevik Revolution. Under the disciplined guidance of Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks grew into a small but well organized revolutionary party active in both Russia and among exiles across Europe.  They believed that the best way to topple the Russian Tsar and ignite a worldwide communist revolution was by using the Bolshevik Party to create a dedicated core of “professional revolutionaries” who would direct a workers’ revolution.  Many, including Joseph Stalin, promoted the revolution by robbing banks, writing Marxist commentaries, and participating in worker agitation.

Ironically, the February Russian Revolution that overthrew Tsar Nicholas II actually occurred as Lenin was in Switzerland.  Quickly making his way to St. Petersburg with the help of Germans, Lenin became the mastermind behind the Bolshevik Revolution in October.  After overthrowing the Provisional Government, Lenin attempted to consolidate power, end Russian participation in World War I, and defeat a growing counter-revolutionary movement.  When Lenin died on January 21 1924, his Bolshevik party had won the Civil War against the White Armies and now project Bolshevik power across Eurasia, from the Pacific to the Polish border.  What had been a relatively minor and radical Marxist party was now in control of a massive empire and soon began attempting to project their power and incite revolution through the Communist International (Comintern).  There should be little surprise that a revolutionary party with a vast empire, radical ideas, and an international branch quickly became an inspiration to some and menace to others across the globe.

Bolshevism as International History

While this site does cover the internal debates over Bolshevism in Soviet historiography, the goal of the site is to allow non-Soviet historians a chance to better understand why the term Bolshevism and its other incarnations had such serious negative and positive connotations across the globe during the Twentieth Century.  One caveat to this project is the fact that terms such as Leninism and Stalinism are equally important to understanding the Soviet Union and the twentieth century.  Nonetheless, this website focuses on the usage of Bolshevism precisely because it became part of the international dialogue and can be found in primary and secondary source across the globe.  For example, the fact that Hitler was challenging Stalinist Russia did not stop him from finding the best word to describe the Soviet threat: Bolshevism.  The idea for this site came after reading Ezra Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment and pondering his convincing examination of how an idea such as Wilsonianism quickly disseminated across the globe and became a part domestic and international politics.  If Wilsonianism was an idea of gradual self-determination that heavily influenced visions of a post-World War One world, then the competing idea of self-determination through a radical Bolshevist revolution deserves equal exploration.  Accordingly, this website examines Bolshevism through the lens of international history proposed by Chris Bayly that contends the modern world is defined by systems and ideas that are increasingly similar, but are adjusted to local conditions.

As part of international history, the fact that the Soviet Union was the only Bolshevik state in no way confined the idea of Bolshevism to the USSR.  In fact, while the parameters of Bolshevism were largely defined in the Soviet Union, its origins came from a transnational dissident group made up of men such as Lenin in European exile.  After the Bolshevik Revolution, Bolshevism was part of an international debate- an alternative to many goals and principles of the West that had a large appeal for many while inspiring fear in others.  Debating Bolshevism hopes to demonstrate that the international community from all points of the political spectrum took it seriously.  Detractors maligned its violent excesses, while supporters exalted its unhinging of imperial powers and rapid change.  Other international thinkers and statesmen did not take an essentialist view, but recognized the positive and negative aspects and its similarities with other international movements and trends.  These ideas included Wilsonianism, anti-colonialism, nationalism, women’s’ rights movements, and Fordist industrialization and all had reciprocal, although tense, relationships with Bolshevik ideas and leaders.  Many of these relationships were rather ironic.  For example, the international appeal of Bolshevism to peasants is fascinating when considering Stalin’s abhorrence of “backwards” Russian peasants.

Readers should note that this website is designed to create a debate about Bolshevism as an international idea, and is not meant to be a defense of Bolshevism.  Not only is this debate not an apology for Bolshevism, it is an acknowledgement that Bolshevism can be traced to atrocities that occurred during the twentieth century on an unprecedented scale.  However, Bolshevism was not the only driving force- nationalism and notions of modernization perhaps played greater roles as they appealed to rightists and leftists alike.  Capitalism and fascism were also driving forces and local leaders would pick and choose from all the above ideologies, creating nation-states and non-state actors that were hybrids of different international ideas.  Bolshevism was one of these ideas, and it needs to be understood in the context of international history.

How to Use Debating Bolshevism

Specific topics of discussion are organized by region, usually by country.  The newest posts appear at the top of the page and older posts can be accessed by using the regions sidebar.  Each post contains either a small commentary, a review of a relevant book, or a link to other primary and secondary sources.  Each page and post includes a comments section and welcomes responses, suggestions, and critiques.  Also, at the bottom of the each page and post are short bibliographies of further reading. My sincere hope is that this website can become a tool and source for scholars and the general public alike.

About the Blogger

My name is Andrew Straw and I am a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin.  I study the Soviet Union with a focus on Central Asia, Islam, and Russian nationalism.  This website began as a project for a seminar on international history with Dr. Jeremi Suri. If  you have any general questions please contact me at andydstraw@yahoo.com. All materials on this website were written by myself unless otherwise noted and their reproduction requires my expressed written consent.

Further Reading on International History:

Bayly, Chris A. The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Manela, Erez.  The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

The Bolshevik Revolution:

Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924.  New York: Penguin, 1996.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution: New York, Oxford University Press. 2001.

Pipes, Richard. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Read, Anthony. The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism. W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.

Trotsky, Leon. The Russian Revolution: The Overthrow of Tzarism and the Triumph of the Soviets.  Edited by F. W. Dupree, from The History of the Russian Revolution. New York: Anchor Books, 1959.

Ulam, Adam B. The Bolsheviks: The Intellectual and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia: Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998.

A Great Overview from a British Communist who was suspicious of the Bolsheviks:

Bertrand, Russell.  The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism.  London: George Allen & Unwin LTD., 1920.  Online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17350


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