Lenin vs. Bogdanov: How Bolshevism Was Born In Geneva

Discover the clash that sparked the born of Bolshevism in Geneva during 1904. Read more about Lenin vs. Bogdanov and how Marxism met Modern Physics.

It all started in the small city of Geneva.

In the summer of 1904, a turbulent group of Russian Marxist émigrés gathered in Geneva, divided into two factions: the Bolsheviks (the “majority”) and the Mensheviks (the “minority”). They convened in modest cafés, such as Café Landolt, and small houses throughout the city. Vladimir Lenin was at the centre of this movement, driven by an unshakeable dedication to Marxist orthodoxy and a vision of a well-organized revolutionary party.

Lenin had just lost control of the Iskra newspaper to the Mensheviks, leaving him in a precarious position. He desperately needed allies and resources to rebuild his movement. It was in the corridors of Geneva’s Russian émigré circles that Lenin found an unlikely ally, Alexander Bogdanov, a rising star in Marxist philosophy with a very different vision of collectivism.

Bogdanov in 1904.
Bogdanov in 1904.

Bogdanov arrived in Geneva with a circle of intellectuals from Moscow, including the charismatic writer Anatoly Lunacharsky. They brought with them a philosophy heavily influenced by the views of Ernst Mach, an Austrian scientist who challenged the foundations of Newtonian physics and advocated for a fundamental rejection of individualism.

For Bogdanov and his comrades, Mach’s ideas offered a path to modernise Marxism, infusing it with a collectivist ethos and an admiration for science and technology. They envisaged the future not just as a political revolution, but also as a full transformation of human consciousness, a “collectivising of man” that would go beyond the bourgeois concept of the individual self. Bogdanov argued that socialism should discard philosophical individualism in favor of a “collective organization of experience” derived from the proletariat’s shared viewpoint. He believed the creation of this new monistic mythos would instill a collectivist ideology, galvanizing revolutionary consciousness.

At first, Lenin, based in his modest flat on Rue des Délices, was horrified by Bogdanov’s “Machist” leanings, dismissing Mach’s ideas as “nonsense” and a threat to Marxist materialism, as documented in his famous book “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism“. But he quickly realised that these scientific concepts, as well as Bogdanov’s reputation and ties within Russia, might provide fertile ground for reinterpreting Marxism and creating contacts within Russia, both of which would be crucial assets in his war against the Mensheviks.

And so, in the summer of 1904, an unlikely alliance was forged in Geneva between Lenin’s Jacobin vision of a tightly controlled revolutionary party and Bogdanov’s collectivist dreams of a new, science-inspired human consciousness. Thus the Bolshevism idealogy was born.

The famous Bolshevik slogan of “transforming matter (proletarian spontaneity) into energy (revolutionary consciousness)” paraphrased from Einstein’s theories, is a testament to this strong synergy. In many ways, Bolshevism’s hybrid vigour stemmed from this contradiction and allowed Bolshevism to rapidly expand its support base beyond Lenin’s isolated Geneva corner.

The Bolsheviks divided their ranks, with Lenin’s “editing board” operating from a humble apartment near the Arve River, tasked with creating a new émigré newspaper called Vpered (that follows the lost Iskra). Meanwhile, Bogdanov’s “practical centre” worked to build a network inside Russia from its base in the heart of Geneva’s Russian émigré community.

Vpered
Vpered

Funding was scarce, and the group relied on the generosity of unlikely benefactors, including a wealthy Old Believer community in Moscow. They also found a publishing partner in the form of Adolf Braun, a German socialist publisher who provided technical advice on setting up a printing press, not in Geneva as initially planned, but in the Munich apartment of Alexander Parvus, another Russian émigré.

Throughout the years, Lenin and his growing Bolshevik legion continued elaborating this philosophical double game. Machist metaphysics like “collective experience”, “proletarian energy” and “organizational science” were widely propagated in the party’s literature and education programs.

However, as the nascent Bolshevik movement took shape, the tension between Lenin’s authoritarian streak and Bogdanov’s collectivist leanings became increasingly apparent. Lenin favoured a hierarchical, top-down structure, with the party’s leadership making decisions that individual members were expected to follow without question. Bogdanov, on the other hand, envisioned a more organic, bottom-up model, where the collective experience of workers would shape the revolutionary consciousness, guided by the intellectual vanguard but not dictated to from above.

This philosophical split manifested itself in practical debates over everything from the role of trade unions to the nature of art and literature in a socialist society. Bogdanov, for example, saw art as a way to reflect the collective’s “Promethean ideals,” but Lenin considered it essentially a tool for agitation and propaganda.

Lenin vs. Bogdanov: How Bolshevism Was Born In Geneva
Vladimir Lenin left playing chess with Alexander Bogdanov right at Maxim Gorky s residence in Capri 

Ultimately, it was Lenin’s iron will and organisational prowess that prevailed, relegating Bogdanov and his philosophical heresies to the margins of the Bolshevik movement.

However, the collectivist seed, with its emphasis on science, technology, and the transcendence of the individual self, had a lasting impact on the Bolshevik mindset. It infused the movement with a utopian vision of a future in which mankind would be “collectivised,” with the barriers between self and others blurring into a harmonious totality.

In many ways, the birth of Bolshevism in Geneva presaged the complicated, often contradictory nature of the movement that would ultimately seize power in Russia. It was a strong combination of Jacobin authoritarianism and collectivist utopianism, of strict discipline and limitless fantasies, of revolution and science. Of course, when Lenin was in power, the tensions between his authoritarian interpretation and the early Machists’ more libertarian interpretation resulted in schisms and purges. But that is a separate story of how dictatorial self-preservation suppressed the original pluralistic impulses.

Lenin is back

As I reflect on those tumultuous events of 1904, I am struck by the enduring power of ideas and how a handful of émigrés, trapped in a small Swiss city, could give birth to a philosophical and political force that would shape the course of the 20th century. It is a testament to the human capacity for both greatness and folly, for vision and blindness, for creation and destruction.

And so, the story of Bolshevism’s genesis in Geneva serves as a reminder that revolutions are not born in a vacuum, but rather emerge from the crucible of clashing ideologies, personalities, and circumstances.

Stefano Meroli
Stefano Meroli

CERN scientist, history lover.
PhD in Nuclear Physics and counting.

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