History of the Bolshevik Party: Bolshevism - The Road to Revolution


Preface to the second English edition

No matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution is one of the greatest events in human history, and the rule of the Bolsheviki a phenomenon of worldwide importance. (J. Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, p. 13.)

Nearly two decades have passed since the first English edition of Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution was published in 1999. The book had a very enthusiastic reception, even from people who are not necessarily in agreement with the political standpoint of its author. It has been translated into Spanish and Urdu. Now the second edition has made its appearance, and a number of new translations are being prepared in other languages, including Greek, Arabic and Bahasa-Indonesian.

It is highly appropriate that the book should be republished to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution. From a Marxist point of view, the Bolshevik Revolution was the greatest single event in world history. Why? Because here, for the first time, if we exclude the heroic but tragic episode of the Paris Commune, the masses overthrew the old regime and began the great task of the socialist transformation of society.

Karl Marx said that philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it. Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky the Bolshevik Party changed the history of the entire world in such a way that its repercussions are still being felt today. Therefore, no matter what one thinks about the Russian Revolution and the role of the Bolshevik Party, it is incumbent upon every thinking person to study what was, from any point of view, a most important historical phenomenon.

Over a period of thirty years I collected the material for a comprehensive history of Bolshevism, for the simple reason that I had found no work that really did justice to this important subject. The bourgeois historians are quite incapable of writing a serious work about the Bolshevik Party or the October Revolution. They are motivated by feelings of hatred and spite, which they do not even attempt to conceal under the guise of a false and hypocritical academic ‘objectivity’. Needless to say, behind this hatred lies another emotion: fear of revolution, which under the present worldwide crisis of capitalism is threatening to reappear in one country after another.

The debate with Orlando Figes

The apologists of capitalism, and their faithful echoes in the labour movement, try to comfort themselves with the thought that the collapse of the USSR signified the demise of socialism. But what failed in Russia was not socialism but a caricature of socialism. Contrary to the oft-repeated slanders, the Stalinist regime was the antithesis of the democratic regime established by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

Not so long ago I had occasion to witness this kind of ‘objectivity’ when I debated with Orlando Figes, Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London on the topic of ‘The Russian Revolution: Triumph or Tragedy?’ I must confess I had forgotten just how bad these bourgeois academics are. The high point of Figes’ contribution was when he informed me that I was brainwashed and suggested that my defence of the October Revolution was the product of ignorance as opposed to his own academic prowess. About the low point, the less said the better.

The argument that the October Revolution was nothing more than a coup organised by a tiny and unrepresentative group of conspirators led by Lenin and Trotsky is so childish that I find it quite astonishing any intelligent person could repeat it. But repeat it Orlando did. I asked my opponent to provide me with the recipe for such an extraordinary feat, so that I could take power in Britain the following morning. Sadly, to this day I am still waiting for his reply.

I explained in very simple language that the October Revolution was a mass popular movement of millions of workers and peasants coming onto the stage of history, to take their destinies into their own hands. Citing eyewitness accounts, and even Figes’ own book, I showed how the Bolsheviks, by October 1917, were the only party who worked among and were trusted by the masses, and how their struggle for ‘Peace, Bread and Land’ and ‘All Power to the Soviets’ were the slogans that won people to their banner.

Nor is it true, as Orlando Figes and many other detractors of Bolshevism maintain, that Lenin and Trotsky were sanguinary monsters who waded to power through a sea of blood. In fact, the Bolshevik Revolution, at least in Petrograd, was a virtually bloodless affair. Figes himself in his book compares it to a “police operation”. The reason for this is very simple: the regime simply had no one left to defend it. The Bolsheviks won such overwhelming support to their banner that the mass of people swept them to power in a near-peaceful insurrection.

Where there was a sea of blood was in the civil war that followed the insurrection, when 21 foreign armies of intervention invaded Russia to attempt an overthrow of the Bolsheviks. The most reactionary elements of society – the landlords and the old ruling class were mobilised to overthrow the Soviet government. The Bolsheviks had no choice but to fight to defend themselves against the counter-revolution, or allowing themselves and the gains of the revolution to be drowned in blood. The Revolution fought back and won. That is what its enemies cannot forgive or forget.

Bolshevism in Havana – and Caracas

I first met Hugo Chávez in April 2004. At our first face-to-face meeting in the Presidential palace of Miraflores, I presented him with a copy of Bolshevism in Spanish, which he accepted with great enthusiasm. He began to turn the pages and stopped.

“I see you write about Plekhanov.”

“That’s right.”

“I read a book by Plekhanov a long time ago, and it made a big impression on me. It was called The Role of the Individual in History. Do you know it?”

“Of course.”

“The role of the individual in history”, he mused. “Well, I know none of us is really indispensable,” he said.

“That is not quite correct,” I replied. “There are times in history when an individual can make a fundamental difference.”

“Yes, I was pleased to see that in Reason in Revolt you say that Marxism cannot be reduced to economic factors.”

“That is right. That is a vulgar caricature of Marxism.”

“Do you know when I read Plekhanov’s book The Role of the Individual in History?” he asked.

“I have no idea.”

“I read it when I was a serving officer in an anti-guerrilla unit in the mountains. You know they gave us material to read so that we could understand subversion. I read that the subversives work among the people, defend their interests and win their hearts and minds. That seemed quite a good idea!”

“Then I began to read Plekhanov’s book and it made a deep impression on me. I remember it was a beautiful starlit night in the mountains and I was in my tent reading with the light of a torch. The things I read made me think and I began to question what I was doing in the army. I became very unhappy.”

He later told me that the Bolshevism book and Reason in Revolt helped him to draw the conclusion that socialism was the only solution to the problems of humanity.

One of the most memorable experiences I can recall was the presentation of Bolshevism at the Havana Book Fair where I had the opportunity of putting the record straight on what really happened in the Russian Revolution, in particular stressing the role of Leon Trotsky. The audience included many youth, veteran Communist militants, university lecturers, a former Cuban ambassador, Aurelio Alonso (member of the board of Pensamiento Crítico in the 1960s), veteran Cuban Trotskyists and foreign students from a number of Latin American countries. For many of them this was the first time they had heard an explanation of the real role played by Trotsky in the Russian Revolution, particularly, a detailed account of the different positions that existed within the Russian Social Democracy in relation to the idea of Permanent Revolution (i.e. the tasks and leading forces of the Russian Revolution), and how Lenin and Trotsky had fundamental agreement on this after Lenin published his April Theses.

In my introductory remarks I said: “We must recover the real traditions of Bolshevism from under a heap of lies and distortions created by the bourgeoisie, but also by the Stalinists”. One of the ideas I stressed was the democratic nature of the Bolshevik Party, which was always characterised by vibrant debates that prepared it for revolutionary action. This sort of internal democracy was absolutely necessary so that the party would learn from its own mistakes. The idea that the Bolshevik party developed through an always onward march without mistakes, until the taking of power, is a Stalinist myth from which nobody can learn anything.

The fact that Trotsky’s books were on sale once again, was a clear indication that on the island there is a thirst for the genuine ideas of Marxism. These traditions have to be recovered for the new generation of revolutionary fighters that is emerging, particularly in Latin America. In this sense, Bolshevism is not so much a book about history but a tool for the building of the revolutionary party today. As I pointed out: “the revolutionary party is first of all ideas, methods and traditions, the historical memory of the working class, and only later an apparatus to carry these into practice”.

There were plans to publish Bolshevism in Cuba, but I do not know whether they actually came to fruition.

Trotsky’s Stalin

The Bolshevik Party was the most revolutionary party in history. But even the most revolutionary party has its conservative side. This conservatism develops as a consequence of years of routine work, which is absolutely necessary, but can lead to certain habits and traditions that, in a revolutionary situation, can act like a brake, if they are not overcome by the leadership. At the decisive moment, when the situation demands a sharp change in the orientation of the party, from routine work to the seizing of power, the old habits can come into conflict with the needs of the new situation. It is precisely in such a context that the role of the leadership is vital.

The recent publication of the completed version of Trotsky’s monumental biography of Stalin is perhaps the best source for a study of the history of the Bolshevik Party, apart from the Collected Works of Lenin. Unfortunately that work was left unfinished by the assassination of Trotsky in August 1940. For the last 75 years it was only available in the heavily abridged and mutilated version of Charles Malamuth.

For ten years a small dedicated team worked to reassemble the missing material with a view to making as much of Trotsky’s work as possible available to the reading public. I had the honour and privilege of editing this work, which was finally published (in English) in 2016, and is now being translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, French, German, Urdu and other languages.

Even in its earlier incomplete and mutilated version this was an invaluable source for anybody interested in the history of Bolshevism, and I drew heavily on it for my own history. But in the new, greatly expanded edition it is a veritable treasure trove of the history and ideas of the Russian revolutionary movement in the first half of the twentieth century.

In that book Trotsky wrote the following:

The struggle between classes reaches a point where intolerable tensions arise. That is the economic premise of revolution. On the basis of this objective reality a definite regroupment must arise, expressed in definite political relations and definite states of consciousness in the relationship between classes. These processes have a psychological character. In the final analysis, they are, of course, governed by the objective social crisis. But they have their own internal logic and dynamic: will-power, the willingness to fight and, conversely, perplexity, decadence and cowardice – it is precisely this dynamic of consciousness that directly determines the direction and outcome of the revolution.

What characterises the epoch of the revolutionary flood tide is on the one hand growing contradictions, antagonisms and perplexity among the old ruling classes, while on the other there is the growing solidarity of the main revolutionary class, around which all the oppressed classes gather in the hope of bettering themselves. Finally, the intermediate classes and strata that either remain neutral or are sucked into the maelstrom of events on the side of one or other of the main classes.

The revolution can be victorious when the revolutionary class manages to win over the majority of the intermediate layers, and so becomes the spokesperson of the majority of the nation. In a revolutionary epoch, one can distinguish the slogans under which the struggle takes place: the revolutionary class that strives for power. Revolution becomes possible when the vanguard of the proletariat, organised in the Party, draws the vast majority of the class behind it, isolating the crushed and demoralised elements and reducing them to insignificance.

The highest attainment of solidarity of the revolutionary class corresponds in equal measure to the dissolution and internal divisions within the old classes. However, classes are not homogeneous, either socially or ideologically. Within the proletariat it is always possible to distinguish its vanguard, the intermediate and middle layers, and finally the backward and even reactionary rearguard. Once the proletariat in its majority is united around the revolutionary vanguard, it sweeps along a significant portion of the intermediate, discontented and oppressed classes and the lower classes of the petty bourgeoisie, neutralising the other layers, and the thrust of its onslaught throws into crisis the ruling class that has outlived itself. It breaks the resistance of the army, winning over a significant part of it to its side and neutralising the rest, isolating the most reactionary elements. This, in general outline, is the formula of the proletarian revolution. (Trotsky, Stalin, The Thermidorian reaction, pp. 651-2, the new English edition)

In these few concise paragraphs, Trotsky brilliantly summarises the real role of the revolutionary party.

Decisive role of the party

The decisive factor in the success of the October Revolution was undoubtedly the presence of a Marxist Party – the Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. Such a party did not drop from heaven. Neither could it be improvised on the spur of the moment. It was built with great difficulty over a period of twenty years, mostly in the harsh conditions of underground work.

In the entire history of political parties it is impossible to find a similar example of a party that in the short space of twenty years grew from a tiny handful to a powerful mass party capable of leading millions of workers and peasants to the conquest of power. In writing this book my first aim was to provide an accurate account of the history of Bolshevism with all its successes and failures, its victories and defeats.

That was a necessary antidote to the old Stalinist histories, which present the rise of the Bolshevik Party as a kind of triumphal march, a kind of automatic process that inevitably ended in victory. More than history, these lifeless, mechanical accounts resemble fairy stories, complete with spotless heroes and the blackest of villains. Nowadays nobody takes these books seriously. They are justly regarded with ridicule, if they are regarded at all.

However, I did not intend this book to be just another history – something of merely academic interest to be read for the sake of curiosity or amusement. My aim was to provide the new generation of class fighters with the necessary information as to how a genuine revolutionary party is built. In other words, this book is intended, not as a memorial to the past but as a manual and a guide for the revolutionaries of today and of the future.

Did I succeed in this aim? I will quote just one paragraph from a very favourable review in the highly respected magazine Revolutionary History:

Whatever the reader thinks about the author’s defence of the classic model of a Leninist party, it would be unfair not to recognise the authority of this book. The history of the Bolshevik party contains valuable lessons for today’s struggle for socialism, and Alan Woods has performed a service by making this history accessible to a new generation of militants.

To sum up: Bolshevism is not past history. It is the future of humanity. It is the road to revolution.