Martov, L.

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MARTOV, L. (1873–1923), Russian Marxist and leader of the Mensheviks.

A prominent Russian Marxist, an early leader of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), and an important theoretician of its Menshevik faction, L. Martov occupies a special personal position in the historiography of Russian socialism. Contemporaries and historians have remarked on his uncompromising moral stances, his attractive personality, and his fate as one of the first socialist victims of the Russian Revolution.

Born Yuli Osipovich Tsederbaum into a Russified middle-class Jewish family, Martov grew up in Odessa and St. Petersburg. He adopted the pseudonym Martov in 1901 because, as he put it, he considered March to be a particularly revolutionary month. He chose the initial "L." out of affection for his sister Lidia, a revolutionary activist married to Fyodor Dan, another prominent Russian Social Democrat and Martov's successor as leader of the Mensheviks in exile after Martov's death in 1923. Several other Tsederbaum siblings were also deeply involved in the revolutionary movement and later suffered under the Soviet regime.

Like many of his generation, Martov turned to politics under the impact of the famine of 1891. He was first arrested in 1892 and first sent into internal exile in 1897. He was to spend much of his life in exile abroad. Martov's earliest significant political experience was among Jewish workers in Vilna in 1893. In the tract "On Agitation" (1894), cowritten with Arkady Kremer, Martov argued for a strategy that contrasted grassroots "agitation" among the working masses with "propaganda" among a workers' elite. He temporarily adhered to Vladimir Lenin's elitist conception of party organization, as presented in Lenin's "What Is to Be Done?" (1902), but a belief in workers' autonomous activity returned to the center of Martov's thinking.

Martov and Lenin were the closest of collaborators, first in the St. Petersburg Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class and then on the journal Iskra (The spark), published abroad from 1900 to 1903. It was during the latter period that the RSDLP defined itself both organizationally and ideologically. Collaboration came to an abrupt close at the Party's Second Congress in 1903 with the break between Lenin and Martov, one that was to give rise in time to "Menshevik" and "Bolshevik" currents or factions within the RSDLP. The reasons for the break were both personal and ideological. Some historians have emphasized the moral revulsion that Martov experienced in reaction to Lenin's tactics. Others have pointed out that Martov had gone along with such tactics, up to and during the Second Congress itself. In years to come Martov was probably more implacably hostile to Lenin than Lenin was to him.

Although all Party theoreticians considered themselves faithful to Marxist doctrine, Martov had more reason than many others to claim that title. Even in the heady days of the Revolution of 1905, he adhered closely to the classical view that the situation called for a bourgeois revolution, with the participation of the Russian bourgeoisie, rather than a proletarian revolution that would rely on an alliance with the peasantry, as others were arguing. In 1905 many revolutionaries, both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, entertained unconventional non-Marxist scenarios, founded, for example, on hopes of proletarian revolution abroad. Martov resisted such temptations better than most of his comrades. Martov's confidence in the proletariat's capacity for spontaneous and autonomous activity in the circumstances of 1905, as witnessed by the rise of the soviets or workers' councils, was exaggerated but it was consistent with Martov's earlier views and it was not incompatible with the belief that a bourgeois revolution was the order of the day.

In the period from 1905 to 1914, during most of which time he lived in the West, Martov addressed the two important issues confronting Russian Social Democrats—the overcoming of the Menshevik/Bolshevik division and the proper form of Party organization in Russia's new political circumstances. Martov appears to have given up hopes of real Party reunification early on, although preeminence within the Party seesawed back and forth between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks for several years. One could argue that a final split did not take place before the October Revolution in 1917. In these years of revolutionary disenchantment among the intelligentsia and the growth of a non-revolutionary-minded Russian working class, Martov was prepared to adapt party structures, thus incurring the accusation of seeking to "liquidate" the Party. He also consistently urged Party participation in Duma or parliamentary elections. Martov's distrust of Leninist principles of strong, even dictatorial, leadership within an elitist underground Party provided the impulse and the element of continuity in the positions he took.

When war broke out in 1914, Martov was traveling abroad to a socialist congress. In contrast to most Western socialists but like Lenin and many other Russian Social Democrats, Martov came out firmly against the war and worked to create an international socialist opposition to it. He returned to Russia during the period of the Provisional Government in 1917.

As the leader of the Menshevik Internationalists, Martov found himself in a minority within his own party. Only after the Bolshevik coup in November 1917 did Martov establish his personal hegemony within the Menshevik Party. In the following years he practiced what amounted to an increasingly desperate policy of loyal opposition, criticizing the regime fiercely, but participating, to the extent possible, in the Bolshevik-controlled soviets. In August 1920 Martov went abroad to attend a German socialist congress. He left legally and, in principle, temporarily. In fact, he never returned to Russia, dying in Berlin on 4 April 1923 after a prolonged illness. In his last years in Germany Martov founded and contributed to Sotsialistichesky vestnik (Socialist herald), which was to be the flagship publication of the exiled Mensheviks for over forty years.

See alsoLenin, Vladimir; Mensheviks; Revolution of 1905 (Russia).


Getzler, Israel. Martov: A Political Biography of a Russian Social Democrat. Cambridge, U.K., 1967.

Martov, Yuli. Zapiski sotsial-demokrata. Berlin, 1922. Reprint, with a new introduction by I. Getzler, Cambridge, Mass., 1975.

Urilov, I. Kh. Iu. O. Martov: Politik i istorik. Moscow, 1997.

Andre Liebich

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