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split with bolsheviks
policy and personal differences

The Mensheviks constitute a faction and a current within the prerevolutionary Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). The term menshevik may be translated as minoritarian and, as such, it is naturally opposed to its counterpart bolshevik, or majoritarian. After 1917, the Bolsheviks were to abandon the Social Democratic label, making the Mensheviks the sole bearer of the original party name. Before this, however, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks competed for leadership within what was widely considered to be still a single Social Democratic party.

split with bolsheviks

The original division between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks is commonly situated at the Second Congress of the RSDLP held in 1903. The disagreement is traced to divergence over conceptions of party membership, the future Mensheviks supporting L. Martov's broader definition (someone who renders the party assistance) and the future Bolsheviks defending Vladimir Lenin's narrower definition (someone who personally participates in a party organization). In fact, on this issue, which corresponded to article one of the party statutes, it was the Mensheviks who obtained a majority. The Party therefore adopted the Menshevik variant of article one, until 1907 when the Mensheviks themselves voted against it.

The majority/minority split actually took place over the question of culling the editorial board of the party journal, Iskra (The spark). Although Lenin was not proposing to eliminate Martov, the latter opposed Lenin ferociously. Lenin won because a number of delegates from the Jewish Bund had walked out in protest earlier. The bitter split between Lenin and Martov caused bewilderment in the party, as the two leaders had enjoyed the closest of personal and political relations. Indeed, the Second Congress had been called to confirm their joint victory over "economist" currents in the party, which, according to both Lenin and Martov, wrongly played down the importance of politics, party leadership, and party organization.

By October 1903 the Mensheviks had reversed the outcome of the Second Congress and were in control of the party and the party journal. The prestigious father of Russian Marxism, Georgy Plekhanov, allied to Lenin at the Second Congress, had switched sides to become a Menshevik, permanently and unconditionally. In the course of the Revolution of 1905 neither faction behaved consistently. Some Mensheviks, such as Fyodor Dan, were occasionally more radical than Bolsheviks, with respect to the burning issues of that year, such as the question of an armed uprising, the role of the newly created soviets, and the hopes of transcending the boundaries of a purely bourgeois revolution. In 1905, both factions were subjected to strong pressure from the party grassroots to bridge their differences. After creation of a unified central committee a "reunification" party congress, dominated by the Mensheviks, took place in Stockholm in 1906. Its efforts soon unraveled. A formal reunification agreement in 1910 also proved stillborn. In the same year in Vienna, Leon Trotsky sought, also unsuccessfully, to transcend the Menshevik/Bolshevik split by gathering party forces around his journal Pravda. In 1912 the Bolsheviks called a party conference in Prague, which the Mensheviks refused to attend. Some historians date the division into two separate parties from that moment. On the eve of World War I, the Socialist International was showing impatience with the bickering of the Russians and was threatening to impose unity. Even in 1917 hopes for a united party remained strong.

policy and personal differences

Both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks were orthodox revolutionary Marxists. They quarreled, in 1905 as in 1917, about the role of the bourgeoisie and of the peasantry in the coming revolution. Generally speaking, the Mensheviks were less harsh toward the bourgeoisie and more suspicious of the peasantry than the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks proposed municipalization of land, whereas the Bolsheviks called for nationalization. Fundamentally, however, both factions were working within the same Marxist framework. Until 1917 the party program was common to both factions. In terms of the number and class origins of rank-and-file members, the factions were roughly comparable. In 1907, for instance, there were 46,000 Bolsheviks and 38,000 Mensheviks. The Mensheviks counted more members of national minorities, Jews, and, in particular, Georgians.

Policy differences between 1905 and 1917 both fueled and reflected divergences between the factions. From the outset the Mensheviks looked favorably upon RSDLP participation in elections to the newly created Duma, whereas Lenin came around to endorsing participation only belatedly. When discouragement among revolutionaries set in after 1907, the Mensheviks supported workers' activity in social and professional organizations outside the party. Lenin denounced them as "liquidators," that is, guilty of liquidating the underground party. The Mensheviks were shocked, as were many foreign socialists, by Bolshevik tactics of "expropriation," such as bank robberies. Menshevik strategies appeared to be rewarded with the emergence of a new stratum of Menshevik-inspired "workers' intelligentsia" or trade-union "practicals" during the period of reaction after 1905. In the years immediately preceding World War I, however, it was the Bolsheviks who appeared to reap advantage from the upsurge of worker discontent.

From the very beginning, there was a significant personal dimension to the Menshevik/Bolshevik division. The Bolsheviks were always identified with Lenin, though he did not always control his own faction. No single individual represented Menshevism in this way, although Martov, Pavel Axelrod, and Plekhanov shared intellectual leadership of the Mensheviks. This personal difference was construed, first by Axelrod but then by many others, as a fundamental theoretical opposition. The Bolsheviks were the faction of one-man leadership; they were authoritarian, conspiratorial, and hierarchical. The Mensheviks were the faction of democratic and autonomous workers' spontaneity. Over time and in retrospect, both factions and, in particular, postrevolutionary historiography transformed Bolshevism and Menshevism into ahistorical qualities. Hard, narrow, closed Bolshevism confronted soft, broad, open Menshevism. To Menshevik charges of reckless adventurism, the Bolsheviks retorted with accusations of reformist pusillanimity. Stereotypically, Menshevik moderation stood opposed to Bolshevik maximalism.

Both factions eventually became defined as reverse images of each other. In the Soviet Union, such definition served Bolshevik myths. In the West, it responded to the need for self-justification among surviving Mensheviks and historians seeking an alternative to the outcomes of 1917. There is debate about the extent to which the differences between the factions were so fundamental as to effectively engender two separate parties already before 1917. Clearly, the differences become sharper as one looks at them from a distance than they appeared in their own day.

See alsoBolsheviks; Martov, L.; Plekhanov, Georgy.


Ascher, Abraham, ed. The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y., 1976.

Dan, Theodore (Fyodor). The Origins of Bolshevism. Edited and translated by Joel Carmichael. London, 1964.

Haimson, Leopold H. The Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism. Cambridge, Mass., 1955.

Schwarz, Solomon M. The Russian Revolution of 1905: The Workers' Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism. Translated by Gertrude Vakar. Chicago, 1967.

Swain, Geoffrey. Russian Social Democracy and the Legal Labour Movement, 1906–1914. London, 1983.

Andre Liebich