Bolshevism is the term used to describe the beliefs and practices of the Bolsheviks, the members of a political movement in Russia during the early 20th century. This movement, which was founded by Vladimir Lenin, led the Bolsheviks to seize power in October 1917 as part of the Russian Revolution. That event was the culmination of a strategy that had been in development since 1903. Originally, the terms "Bolshevism" and "Bolshevik" were used in reference to one faction of the Socialist Democratic Labor Party, which favored a hard line and the acceptance of only full-fledged revolutionaries into the party. Bolshevism has since come to be synonymous with Soviet-style communism.
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks
The term "Bolshevism" comes from the Russian word bolshe, which means "larger" or "more." In reality, the Bolsheviks did not constitute a clear majority compared with their opposition, the Mensheviks, but they did narrowly defeat the Mensheviks in deciding the question that had divided them, which concerned party membership. Both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks shared a general political philosophy, but they tended to operate more or less independently of each other.
The philosophy that they shared was Marxism, more generally known as communism. It favored a revolution in which the working class would rise up and overthrow the capitalist class. The result of such an overthrow would be wide popular control of the factors of production, rather than having them remain in the hands of the capitalists. Workers, instead, would run government and industry in something called the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Dichotomy within Bolshevism
Although the party to which the Bolsheviks belonged did focus on the Russian working class in its efforts, Lenin and the Bolsheviks ultimately won control because they recognized the political value of appealing to the peasantry as well. Most Bolsheviks were either highly educated intellectuals or factory workers. This dichotomy would lead to considerable division later.
Bolshevism in Practice
For most of their history before 1917, the Bolsheviks were not successful in achieving widespread public support. This was in part because they had their own internal divisions to deal with, even after a formal split from the Mensheviks. For instance, factory workers understandably favored the aspects of Bolshevism that would help their families, but not those that would put the intellectuals into power. Also, although Lenin believed in strict adherence to the principles of Marxism, there were other party intellectuals who considered Marxism as not so much a set of truths but a collection of untruths or myths that were nevertheless useful if workers believed them.
The Bolshevist movement eventually evolved into a one-party dictatorship. To achieve its means, the government engaged in radical and often violent pursuits, such as collectivizing agriculture and conducting purges of perceived enemies. Many of its practices made it the subject of at least as much resentment and distrust as the ruthless imperialist system that preceded Bolshevism.