Bolshevik Party Meeting. Lenin is seen at right.

The Bolsheviks (Russian: Большеви́к IPA: [bəlʲʂɨˈvʲik], derived from bolshinstvo, "majority") were a faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) which split apart from the Menshevik faction[1] at the Second Party Congress in 1903 and ultimately became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[2] The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia during the October Revolution phase of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and founded the Soviet Union.


Boris Kustodiev's 1920 painting "Bolshevik"

Bolsheviks (or "the Majority") were an organization of professional revolutionaries under a strict internal hierarchy governed by the principle of democratic centralism and quasi-military discipline, who considered themselves as a vanguard of the revolutionary proletariat. Their beliefs and practices were often referred to as Bolshevism.[3] Over time, the principle of "democratic centralism" became less democratic and more centralized. The party was founded by Vladimir Lenin, who also led it in the October Revolution.

History of the split

The 1903 split

In the Second Congress of the RSDLP, held in Brussels and London during August 1903, Lenin advocated limiting party membership to a small core of professional revolutionaries, leaving sympathizers outside the party, and instituting a system of centralized control known as the democratic centralist model. Julius Martov, until then a close friend and colleague of Lenin's, agreed with him that the core of the party should consist of professional revolutionaries, but argued that party membership should be open to sympathizers, revolutionary workers and other fellow travellers (спутники or sputniks). The two had disagreed on the issue as early as March-May 1903, but it wasn't until the Congress that their differences became irreconcilable and split the party (Israel Getzler).[4] Although at first the disagreement appeared to be minor and inspired by personal conflicts (e.g. Lenin's insistence on dropping less active editorial board members from Iskra or Martov's support for the Organizing Committee of the Congress which Lenin opposed, the differences quickly grew and the split became irreparable).

Origins of the name

The two factions were originally known as "hard" (Lenin's supporters) and "soft" (Martov's supporters). Soon, however, the terminology changed to "Bolsheviks" and "Mensheviks", from the Russian "bolshinstvo" (majority) and "menshinstvo" (minority), based on the fact that Lenin's supporters narrowly defeated Martov's supporters on the question of party membership. Neither Lenin nor Martov had a firm majority throughout the Congress as delegates left or switched sides. At the end, the Congress was evenly split between the two factions.

From 1907 on, English language articles sometimes used the term "Maximalist" for "Bolshevik" and "Minimalist" for "Menshevik", which proved confusing since there was also a "Maximalist" faction within the Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party in 1904–1906 (which after 1906 formed a separate Union of Socialists-Revolutionaries Maximalists‎) and then again after 1917 ("the term 'Maximalist' rather widely used as a translation for Bolshevik' is historically false").[5]

Beginning of the 1905 Revolution (1903–1905)

The two factions were in a state of flux in 1903–1904 with many members changing sides. The founder of Russian Marxism, Georgy Plekhanov, who was at first allied with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, parted ways with them by 1904. Leon Trotsky at first supported the Mensheviks, but left them in September 1904 over their insistence on an alliance with Russian liberals and their opposition to a reconciliation with Lenin and the Bolsheviks. He remained a self-described "non-factional social democrat" until August 1917 when he joined Lenin and the Bolsheviks as their positions converged and he came to believe that Lenin was right on the issue of the party.

The lines between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks hardened in April 1905 when the Bolsheviks held a Bolsheviks-only meeting in London, which they call the Third Party Congress. The Mensheviks organized a rival conference and the split was thus formalized.

The Bolsheviks played a relatively minor role in the 1905 revolution, and were a minority in the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers' Deputies led by Trotsky. The less significant Moscow Soviet, however, was dominated by the Bolsheviks. These soviets became the model for the Soviets that were formed in 1917.

Attempts to re-unite with the Mensheviks ("The minority") (1906–1907)

As the Russian Revolution of 1905 progressed, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and smaller non-Russian social democratic parties operating with the Russian Empire attempted to reunify at the Fourth (Unification) Congress of the RSDLP held at Folkets hus, Norra Bantorget in Stockholm, April 1906. With the Mensheviks ("The minority") striking an alliance with the Jewish Bund, the Bolsheviks (ironically) found themselves in a minority. However, all factions retained their respective factional structure and the Bolsheviks formed the Bolshevik Center, the de-facto governing body of the Bolshevik faction with the RSDLP. At the next, Fifth Congress held in London in May 1907, the Bolsheviks were in the majority, but the two factions continued functioning mostly independently of each other.

Split between Lenin and Bogdanov (1908–1909)

With the defeat of the revolution in mid-1907 and the adoption of a new, highly restrictive election law, the Bolsheviks began debating whether to boycott the new parliament known as the Third Duma. Lenin and his supporters Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev argued for participating in the Duma while Lenin's deputy philosopher Alexander Bogdanov, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Mikhail Pokrovsky and other argued that the social democratic faction in the Duma should be recalled. The latter became known as recallists ("otzovists" in Russian). A smaller group within the Bolshevik faction demanded that the RSDLP central committee should give its sometimes unruly Duma faction an ultimatum, demanding complete subordination to all party decisions. This group became known as "ultimatists" and was generally allied with the recallists.

With a majority of Bolshevik leaders either supporting Bogdanov or undecided by mid-1908 when the differences became irreconcilable, Lenin concentrated on undermining Bogdanov's reputation as a philosopher. In 1909 he published a scathing book of criticism entitled Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1909),[6] assaulting Bogdanov's position and accusing him of philosophical idealism.[7] In June 1909, Bogdanov was defeated at a Bolshevik mini-conference in Paris organized by the editorial board of the Bolshevik magazine "Proletary" and expelled from the Bolshevik faction.[8]

Final attempt at party unity (1910)

With both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks weakened by splits within their ranks and by Tsarist repression, they were tempted to try to re-unite the party. In January 1910, Leninists, recallists and various Menshevik factions held a meeting of the party's Central Committee in Paris. Kamenev and Zinoviev were dubious about the idea, but were willing to give it a try under pressure from "conciliator" Bolsheviks like Victor Nogin. Lenin was adamantly opposed to any re-unification, but was outvoted within the Bolshevik leadership. The meeting reached a tentative agreement and one of its provisions made Trotsky's Vienna-based Pravda a party-financed "central organ." Kamenev, Trotsky's brother-in-law, was added to the editorial board from the Bolsheviks, but the unification attempts failed in August 1910 when Kamenev resigned from the board amid mutual recriminations.

Forming a separate party (1912)

The factions permanently broke off relations in January 1912 after the Bolsheviks organized a Bolsheviks-only Prague Party Conference and formally expelled Mensheviks and recallists from the party. As a result, they ceased to be a faction in the RSDLP and instead declared themselves an independent party, which they called RSDLP (Bolshevik).

Although the Bolshevik leadership decided to form a separate party, convincing pro-Bolshevik workers within Russia to follow suit proved difficult. When the first meeting of the Fourth Duma was convened in late 1912, only one out of six Bolshevik deputies, Matvei Muranov, (the other one, Roman Malinovsky, was later exposed as a secret police agent) voted to break away from the Menshevik faction within the Duma on December 15, 1912.[9] The Bolshevik leadership eventually prevailed and the Bolsheviks formed their own Duma faction in September 1913.

Bolsheviks with Lenin in the middle.

Political philosophy

The Bolsheviks believed in organizing the party in a strongly centralized hierarchy that sought to overthrow the Tsar and achieve power. Although the Bolsheviks were not completely monolithic, they were characterized by a rigid adherence to the leadership of the central committee, based on the notion of democratic centralism. The Mensheviks favored open party membership and espoused cooperation with the other socialist and some non-socialist groups in Russia. Bolsheviks generally refused to co-operate with liberal or radical parties (which they labeled "bourgeois") or even eventually other socialist organizations, although Lenin sometimes made tactical alliances.

Left to right: Trotsky, Lenin, and Kamenev

During the First World War, the Bolsheviks took an internationalist stance that emphasized solidarity between the workers of Russia, Germany, and the rest of the world, and broke with the Second International when its leading parties ended up supporting their own nations in the conflict.

Derogatory Usage of "Bolshevik"

  • During the days of the Cold War in the United Kingdom, labor union leaders and other leftists were sometimes derisively described as "Bolshie." The usage is roughly equivalent to the term "Red" or "Pinko" in the United States during the same period. However these days it is often used to describe a difficult or rebellious person (e.g:"Timothy, don't be so bolshie!" An alternate spelling is "bolshy"). (Collins Mini Dictionary 1998)
See also Jewish Bolshevism

Non-Russian/Soviet groups having used the name 'Bolshevik'

  • Argentina: Bolshevik Tendency
  • Bangladesh: Maoist Bolshevik Reorganisation Movement of the Purba Banglar Sarbahara Party
  • India: Bolshevik Party of India
  • India/Sri Lanka: Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma
  • India: Revolutionary Socialist Party (Bolshevik)
  • Mexico: Bolshevik Communist Party
  • Senegal: Bolshevik Nuclei
  • Sri Lanka: Bolshevik Samasamaja Party
  • United States: International Bolshevik Tendency

See also

  • Group of Democratic Centralism
  • Marxism
  • List of socialists - Bolsheviks
  • Russian Revolution of 1917, also known as the Bolshevik Revolution.
  • Communist Party of the Soviet Union
  • Old Bolshevik
  • National Bolshevik
  • Neo-Bolshevism


  1. Derived from men'shinstvo ("minority"). The split occurred at the Second Party Congress in 1903.
  2. After the split, the Bolshevik party was designated as RSDLP(b) (Russian: РСДРП(б)), where "b" stands for "Bolsheviks". Shortly after seizing power in November 1917 the party changed its name to the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) (РКП(б)) and was generally known as the Communist Party after that point, however, it was not until 1952 that the party formally dropped the word "Bolshevik" from its name. (See Congress of the CPSU article for the timeline of name changes.)
  3. Leon Trotsky frequently used the terms "Bolshevism" and "Bolshevist" after his exile from the Soviet Union to differentiate between what he saw as true Leninism and the regime within the state and the party which arose under Stalin. However, "Bolshevism" today is commonly associated with the Stalinist regime which existed in the Soviet Union.
  4. Israel Getzler, Martov: A Political Biography of a Russian Social Democrat, (Cambridge University Press, 2003). ISBN 0521526027
  5. Étienne Antonelli, Bolshevik Russia, trans. Charles A. Carroll, (A.A. Knopf, 1920.)
  6. First published in Moscow in May 1909 by Zveno Publishers, available online
  7. Alan Woods, Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution, (Wellred Publications, 1999), ISBN 1900007053
  8. A Documentary History of Communism in Russia, ed. Robert V. Daniels, (UPNE, 1993) ISBN 0874516161
  9. Robert B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions: workers and revolutionaries, June 1907-February 1917, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990.)


  • Étienne, Antonelli. Bolshevik Russia. translated by Charles A. Carroll. A.A. Knopf, 1920.
  • Daniels, Robert V. (ed.). A Documentary History of Communism in Russia. UPNE, 1993. ISBN 0874516161
  • Getzler, Israel. Martov: A Political Biography of a Russian Social Democrat. Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0521526027
  • McKean, Robert B. St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions: workers and revolutionaries, June 1907-February 1917. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990. ISBN 1700846359
  • Woods, Alan. Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution. Wellred Publications, 1999. ISBN 1900007053

External links

All links retrieved June 15, 2016.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.