Was Bolshevism a Product of Traditional Russian Messianism?

With the one hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, Russia is still very largely the product of that legacy. But what of Bolshevism itself? Bolshevism unleashed conflicting forces. This paper contends that the successful faction was not that of doctrinaire Marxism, but was shaped by “eternal Russia,” and metamorphosed into something far removed from Marxism, as Trotsky and many other Marxists have lamented. In this paper Bolshevism is re-examined as the product of a long-time tradition, focusing on the views of the Russian dissident Mikhail Agursky. 
Russia stood at a cross-roads from the late 19th century, as she was beginning to industrialize and to “modernize.” The political system was not keeping pace with these demands. Depictions of Czarism as a tyranny that brutalised its people is a myth, emanating from well-funded propaganda from the USA, courtesy of New York banker Jacob Schiff and his paid journalist George Kennan. [1] Much was achieved under Czarism in terms of workers’ and peasants’ welfare, but outside industrial and financial interests and inner unrest would not allow a peaceful and gradual transition. Agents of the German High Command, British military intelligence, and Wall Street finance scrambled over Russia in its time of chaos, each wanting to impose its will over the vast land, people and resources. [2]  The revolutions that occurred in February and October 1917 had within them several contending currents that at times converged. With the elimination of the old regime there ensued a decade of struggle within Bolshevism between what was later called ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ and Russian messianism: the first under Trotsky, the second under Stalin. The Russian faction won, and the significance of that remains the primary factor in world politics. What is often overlooked or deliberately hidden, however, is that while Stalin is accused of “betraying the revolution” with his “socialism in one country,” that course was initiated by Lenin. 

Bolshevism contra Communism

From the start there was a wide perception among the Russian people that differentiated between Communism as foreign import, and Bolshevism as a Russian manifestation. Trotsky and Zinoviev were identified with the former, Lenin with the latter. [3]  It was a dichotomy that was to culminate in the expulsion of Trotskyites, and under Stalin to reaffirm the Leninist national and imperial path. During the sailors’ uprising at Kronstadt in 1921 against the Soviet government, the sentiments were against Trotsky and Zinoviev, not against Lenin. [4]  Trotsky is remembered as the “butcher of Kronstadt.” 
The rivalry between German-Jewish and Russian socialism goes back to the days of Karl Marx and the First International. This factionalism, despite the vaunted ‘internationalism’ of the socialists, played along national lines. Marx and Engels maintained the traditional German animosity towards Slavs, while the Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and other Russian socialists were pan-Slavic. This pan-Slavism and antagonism between Russian and German socialism had a primary impact on Bolshevism and the development of the USSR, where Bolshevism came to be seen even by proponents of the old regime as the only choice for liberation from foreign capital, German political influence, and Western liberalism. 
Germany contended with Russia to be the world centre of socialism. For the faction of Bolshevism that triumphed in Russia this was a continuation of Russia’s messianic outlook no less than the mysticism of Russian Christian Orthodoxy that sees Russia as having a mission to remake humanity. What was early called National Bolshevism developed as an intrinsic part of Russian socialism. Agursky contended that Marxist theory was “historical camouflage” for “deeper historical and geopolitical processes.” [5]

Marx Russophobic

Agursky refers to Lenin’s 1912 eulogy to Alexander Herzen as the founder of Russian socialism. Herzen had been in conflict with Marx and Engels. [6] Lenin’s eulogy to Herzen was therefore ideologically significant. Lenin concluded by emphasising the Russian character of Herzen’s thinking: ‘Herzen was the first to raise the great banner of struggle by addressing his free Russian word to the masses’. [7] This is far removed from Marx’s attitude, when he wrote to Engels that he did not want to appear with Herzen, “not being of the view that Old Europe should be rejuvenated with Russian blood.” [8] Lenin focused on repudiating liberalism which, as Agursky shows, was an antipathy that later provided common ground between the Bolsheviks and those who had at first reacted against Bolshevism, including former Czarist officers and emigres. It is this common antipathy to liberalism and a desire by the Bolsheviks to make Russia the centre of a new humanity, as does Orthodox Christianity, that enabled reconciliation with the new regime. Many returned to Russia to become prominent in Soviet culture in particular. Conversely Marxist internationalists, who were later called ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ by Stalin, those such as Trotsky and Zinoviev (head of the ill-fated Comintern) were purged in a process of what Agursky calls ‘nationalisation’, started by Lenin.
Trotskyite theorist Cyril Smith [9]  contends that Russian socialism had nothing to do with Marx, who possessed the anti-Slavism of a German chauvinist. This rivalry between German and Russian socialism for supremacy was important in the development of Bolshevism.
Smith writes:
Russia has, inevitably, loomed large in this account of the development of Marxism, so it is important to clarify the relationship of Marx himself to the origins of “Marxism” in that country. As is well known, the hostility of Marx and Engels to Russia in their earlier political work was so deep that it sometimes approached anti-Slav racism. … Marx detested those, like A. I. Herzen (1812-1870) and M. A. Bakunin (1814-1876), who argued that there was a specific Russian national road to socialism, arising from some special qualities of the “Russian spirit”. When socialist ideas developed in Russia, they had nothing to do with Marx … [10]
Agursky stated that Russia had by 1917 become heavily influenced by a German-filled bureaucracy and foreign capital investment. Bolshevism was a revolt against foreign influences. The revolution was one of national liberation, not of international revolution inspired by a German-Jewish Slavophobe. Marx and Engels, as much as any German xenophobe, regarded a Russian invasion of Europe with dread, as the end of civilisation. “Backward Russia,” Marx stated, must be civilised by the West, that is, it must go through the phase of capitalism, before achieving socialism. [11] The necessity of a capitalist phase in a nation’s development is an essential part of Marxist historical dialectics, and therefore slavery and colonialism were historically justified by Marxism, although it is no longer expedient for the Left to say so. During the Crimean War the Russophobia of Marx and Engels became particularly vehement. [12] 

Russia’s Mission

Conversely, Russians considered they had a mission to overcome and revivify the decrepit and decadent West with Russian vigour. The Bolsheviks were heirs to this messianic mission that had been proclaimed by Dostoyevsky and others. Dostoyevsky saw the Russian socialists becoming the “most fervent …. champions … of the Russian spirit.”[13] That they undertook this mission in the name of Bolshevism rather than Christian Orthodoxy was a matter of labelling rather than substance. This Russo-Slavic messianism had been advocated by Herzen, contending that Russians were still a race of youth and health. [14] 
Such messianism, inherited by Russian socialism, and brought to fruition by Bolshevism, enabled a convergence even with widespread mysticism and gnosticism. The dualistic dichotomy of gnosticism translated readily into the dualistic dichotomy of Bolshevism. Gnostic and sectarian apocalyptic beliefs that the world was corrupt were translated into revolution. Agursky states that ‘Russian mystical sects played an extremely important part in the Bolshevik revolution’. [15]
The USSR always referred to the “decadent West” as did conservative historian Oswald Spengler. It is notable that Spengler’s seminal Decline of The West was a best-seller in Soviet Russia as early as 1923, when it was translated. [16]
Herzen as the father of Russian socialism saw Russia having a mission to lead the universal revolution to renew humanity. German Marxism remained committed to the supremacy of the Fatherland. Hence, the German Social Democrats were among the most zealous supporters of militarism during World War I. Lenin’s primary concern in dealing with Germany was to ensure that a socialist revolution did not occur there. German Communists for their part harboured the Russophobia of Marx and Engels. Liebknecht, leader of the German Social Democratic party, wrote in ‘Must Europe become Cossack?’ of Russia as semi-barbaric and a threat to European and especially German freedom. This Russophobia was continued by his successor, Bebel. During the 1880s Bebel affirmed the party’s Russophobia, encouraged by Engels, who demanded a strong German military. [17]


The character of Russia as an intrinsic superpower shapes the way that the head of Russia will develop his regime, unless one is like Yeltsin, for example, atypically interested in integrating Russia into a so-called “world community,” politically, economically, and culturally, the short duration indicating the depth of Russian tradition. Lenin’s Bolshevism became nationalist and geopolitical, and notions of world revolution expressed by foreign Communist parties[18] were pressed into the service of Russian foreign policy. Those who could not serve as such were scuttled, and this includes in particular the German Communists, and the Comintern. Since the conflict between Marx and Herzen, Agursky states that the ‘national heritage of Russian socialism was absorbed by Lenin in its entirety, though transformed and synthesized’. [19]
Bolshevism despised liberalism, epitomised by the Constitutional Democrats or Kadets party. After the triumph of Bolshevism many even among Czarist officers and emigres were reconciled with Bolshevism because of its creation of a strong, centralised Russian state. Agursky shows that this Right-wing and ex-Czarist support for Bolshevism was sincere and principled, rather than opportunistic. 
The Okhrana, Russian secret police, had cultivated contacts with the Bolsheviks, regarding them as preferable to Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, and Kadets. The editor of the Bolshevik organ, Pravda, was an Okhrana agent. The common ground between Bolsheviks and Okhrana was opposition to liberalism, with which the Mensheviks were aligned. The Bolsheviks with their opposition to German and other Western Marxists, were regarded by the Okhrana as fellow Russian patriots. [20] In comparison to these factions, Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders when prosecuted were favourably treated. [21]
In what Agursky calls “God-building” among the Bolsheviks, Maxim Gorky, a Russian socialist in the manner of Herzen, and a primary influence on Soviet culture and ideology, refers to “God [being] resurrected by the collective Russian soul expressed as a single popular will.”[22] He even regarded the “Black Hundreds,” a mass anti-Semitic movement of the ultra-Right among peasants and workers, as a nucleus for revolution. Many of them went over to Bolshevism, again opposition to liberalism and capitalism being the common factor. [23] Lenin and Stalin both stated that liberalism and the Kadet party were the enemy, not the “Black Hundreds.” [24] Lenin, Stalin, Kamenev and Rykov, at the time of the February Revolution, spoke of a national revolution, and Stalin referred pointedly to the Russian people as the “only true ally” of a “Russian revolution army.” [25] Agursky stated that the greatest allies of the Bolsheviks were “the radical right,” “which made the Bolshevik revolution feasible.” [26] The “Black Hundreds” were always anti-capitalist. Bolshevism for many Russians seemed preferable to the heavily Jewish Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, and a “dictatorship of the proletariat” was preferable to the liberalism of the Kadets.[27] 
Lunatcharsky, first Soviet commissar for education, and a man of culture who ensured that the Russian heritage would not be ravaged by zealous Marxists and nihilists, was another prominent “God-builder.”[28] Lunatcharsky as early as 1907 regarded Bolshevism as the restraining influence on revolutionary destruction.[29] In 1928 he cited the Bible at the 100th anniversary celebration of Tolstoy, stating that the Bible championed the right of the peasantry against capitalism. [30]

Lenin – Russian patriot

Lenin himself was unequivocal in explaining that the Bolshevik revolution was required to redeem Russia nationally from degeneration, writing during World War I that “Great Russian proletarians” love their language and their country. The ‘Great Russian masses’ would lead the world to a new humanity. The revolutionary workers wanted a “free, independent and proud Great Russia.” [31] He saw Russia as a world power, not as the centre of a world Marxist revolution. Lenin wrote of Russia ceasing to be “wretched and impotent,” to become “mighty and abundant.” The revolution had unleashed the latent “creative powers of the people … to build a truly mighty and abundant Russia.”[32] Patriotism, so far from being a bourgeois sentiment to divide the working class was, Lenin wrote in Pravda in 1918, a ‘deeply ingrained’ sentiment, and “fatherlands” were the product of millennia of development. The seeming betrayal of patriotism by the Armistice with Germany, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, was unfortunate but necessary, and did not indicate a departure of Bolshevism from patriotism. Lenin unequivocally stated that socialist revolution should be seen as a tactic to maintain Russian’s ‘independence and freedom’.[33]
In 1919 Stalin repeated the Leninist principle, which was to become the Stalinist premise, that the Soviet Government is a truly “national government,” liberating Russia from “world imperialism;” [34] the globalisation of the day. Stalin, like Spengler, Jung, Fichte, or the Russian Berdyaev, wrote of folk-souls and of the American as an “industrial-commercial soul,” while expressing the messianic tradition of the self-sacrificing, martyred Russian as the world saviour. [35]

Convergence with the Right

Agursky describes Bolshevism as a triumph of the popular will, in the tradition of Russian populism. Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were carried along with it. Bolshevism became a populist revolt against foreign influences, economically, politically and culturally. The poet Riurik Ivnev lauded the Revolution as a messianic outcome: “I was taught by Dostoyevsky/ to understand my Russia.”[36] Russia’s literati went over the Bolshevism, seeing it in messianic, mystical and even Christian terms. This trend produced two collections of poetry in 1917, and 1918; Skify (“Scythians”). The editor was Ivanov-Razumnik, who regarded the revolution as genuinely “Russian,” not “alien” or Marxist. These pro-Bolshevik Slavophiles believed Russia was the new Scythia that would purge the world of decadence. Alexander Blok saw Russia in this way, declaring that the ‘old world’ would perish before the new Scythians. Andre Bely, a major and enduring influence on Soviet culture, an anthroposophist and friend of Rudolf Steiner, saw Bolshevism in mystical, Christian terms, writing of ‘Russia the Godbearer, who defeats the serpent’, crucified and resurrected. [37] Lunatcharsky saw Russian in Dostoyevskyan terms as the messianic world liberator. [38]
Among the first from the Right to praise Bolshevism was Vasily Sulgin who was, prior to the revolution, deputy chairman of the conservative All-Russian National Union. He saw the Red Army as invigorating the Russian military. He foresaw the emergence of a leader who would be energised by Bolshevism and motivated by nationalism. [39] 
The novelist and poet, Ieronim Yaskinsky, a nationalist, regarded the Bolsheviks as deeply rooted in Russia, making strong Russian heroes. He became a Soviet literary figure. 
The Right-nationalist, Professor Nicholai Ustrialov, formerly of Moscow University, having supported the anti-Bolshevik redoubt of Admiral Kolchak in the Russian Far East, after 1920 started advocating National Bolshevism. He foresaw Bolshevism as moving towards nationalism.[40] He was a Hegelian who saw history unfolding dialectically. [41] Like other Right-nationalists who moved to Bolshevism, Ustrialov saw the Soviet state as having eliminated the rot of liberalism. The destruction wrought by Bolshevism was a historically necessary purgatory which resurrected Russia. The slogans about internationalism served Russian national and imperial interests.[42] Harbin, China, where he and other Russian emigres settled, became a centre of a National Bolshevik intelligentsia. Among the self-declared adherents of National Bolshevism was Vladimir L’vov, who had been procurator of the Russian Holy Synod. [43] Many returned to Russia and played an influential part especially in the culture of the USSR. [44] 

Lenin’s Legacy

Agurksy states that Stalin’s “socialism in one country” was not an innovation; it had even before 1917 been a major influence in Bolshevism. For ‘the majority of Bolsheviks’ the aim was not world revolution, but revolution dominated by Russia; the messianic yearning of Moscow as the “Third Rome” reshaping humanity in the Russian’s image. [45] The question was settled with the Great Purges of the 1930s. The Comintern was closed, foreign Communists, especially the German Communists, were scuttled, and most of the German party central committee who fled Hitler, were executed in the USSR. [46] 
Perhaps the most symbolic move was the restoration of the Orthodox Church under Stalin, whose own commitment to ‘Godless atheism’ is doubtful, to the extent that today he is depicted as a saint on Orthodox icons, and in publications of the Church. The legacy remains. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, led by Zyuganov, having maintained a major role in politics, with a National Bolshevik orientation, called on the Church to canonise Stalin in 2008. [47] In 2014, the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius Monastery in Moscow, a centre of Orthodoxy, published a calendar commemorating the life of Stalin, starting from his days as a seminary student. Mikhail Babkin, a noted Russian historian specializing in Russian Orthodox Church studies, commented that ‘The link between the Moscow Patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church and Stalin remains close to sacred’. [48]
Even many former supporters of the Czar came to regard the apocalypse of revolution that descended on Russia as dialectically an historical necessity, and the harbinger of a new beginning. Russia had become stagnant and was becoming a colony of outsiders, economically, politically and culturally. She needed drastic surgery. Reform was insufficient, much less Western liberalism. There remains a strong current of opinion among Zyuganov Communists, Eurasianists and others of both the Russian Right and Left, who believe that without Bolshevism Russia would have sunk into a quagmire of decay; that from the horrendous birth-pangs of revolution and civil war Russia was reborn, and restored to the possibilities of the destiny foretold by Dostoyevsky and other mystically and messianically inclined religious and literary figures over the centuries. It is a current that continues to exist in influential circles, and has persisted in Russia whether under Czarism, Bolshevism, or Putinism.
[1] K. R. Bolton, Revolution from Above (London: Arktos Media Ltd., 2011), 57-65. 
[2] Bolton, ibid. Also see Dr. Richard Spence’s Wall Street and the Russian Revolution 1905-1925 (Walterville, Oregon: Trine Day, 2017). 
[3] Mikhail Agursky, The Third Rome: National Bolshevism in the USSR (London: Westview Press, 1987), 233. Dr. Agursky was an adviser to the Soviet military industry, becoming a dissident who migrated to Israel and pursued a career in academia. His father, Solomon, had been leader of the Jewish section of the Bolshevik Party, and the party’s official historian. Agursky’s book is essential reading for understanding developments in the USSR. 
[4] Agursky, ibid., 234. 
[5] Ibid., xiii. 
[6] Ibid., xiii. 
[7] V. I. Lenin, “In Memory of Herzen,” Sotsial-Demokrat No. 26, 8 May 1912; https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1912/may/08c.htm
[8] Agursky, 21. 
[9] John Plant, “Marking the Death of Cyril Smith,” https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-cyril/obituary.htm
[10] Cryil Smith, “Marx at the Millennium” (1998) https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-cyril/works/millenni/smith2a.htm
[11] Agursky, 17. 
[12] Ibid., 18-19. See: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Russian Menace to Europe, edited by Paul Blackstock and Bert Hoselitz (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1953). 
[13] Dostoyevsky, Diary of a Writer, quoted by Agursky, 55. 
[14] Agursky, 11. 
[15] Ibid., 61. 
[16] Ibid., 229. 
[17] Ibid., 62-63, 65.  
[18] Ibid., 72. 
[19] Ibid., 73. 
[20] Ibid., 105. 
[21] Ibid., 102. 
[22] M. Gorky, Ispoved (“Confession,” 1907), cited by Agursky, 88. 
[23] Agursky, 116-117. 
[24] Ibid., 118. 
[25] J. Stalin, Works, cited by Agursky, 150. 
[26] Ibid., 151. 
[27] Ibid., 152. 
 [28] Ibid., 88. 
[29] Ibid., 92. 
[30] “Lunatcharsky Takes Bible as Tolstoy Celebration Text,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 13 September 1928. 
[31] V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, quoted by Agursky, 144.
[32] Ibid., quoted by Agurksy, 193. 
[33] Ibid., quoted by Agursky, 204. 
[34] Agursky, 205. 
[35] Ibid., 207. 
[36] R. Ivnev, “Rossia,” 1922. 
[37] A. Bely, Kristos voskrese, 1923. 
[38] Lunatcharsky, cited by Agursky 206. 
[39] Ibid., 238-239. 
[40] Ibid., 240. 
[41] Ibid., 243. 
[42] Ibid., 245. 
[43] Ibid., 247-251.  
[44] Ibid., 257. 
[45] Ibid., 306. 
[46] K. R. Bolton, Stalin: The Enduring Legacy (London: Black House Publishing, 2012), 6-9. 
[47] Adrian Blomfield, “Could Joseph Stalin Be Made a Saint?,” The Telegraph, 22 July 2008; www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/2445683/Could-Josef-Stalin-be-made-a-saint.html
[48] “Russian Orthodox Church Slammed for Stalin Calendar,” Radio Free Europe, 8 January, 2014; www.rferl.org/a/russia-stalin-calendar/25224022.html