Social Democratic Workers Party

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Social democracy was a product of capitalism in Imperial Russia around 1900. Until the 1890s, Russian socialism meant agrarian Populism, an illegal, conspiratorial, and terrorist movement of the educated intelligentsia that placed its faith in the peasant village commune. After state-funded railroad building inspired rapid industrial growth in Russia, many intellectuals became Marxist Social Democrats.

Social Democrats believed that they could combine socialism with democracy, without any centralized state nationalization of property. Karl Marx had criticized capitalism as both inefficient and unjust, a cause of violent class struggle that would lead inevitably to a proletarian class seizure of power from the property-owning bourgeoisie, or capitalist class. Industrial capitalism would cause its own demise.

The Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDWP) originated in 1898 in Minsk. The party's central organizer and later source of internal division was Vladimir Ilich Lenin (V. I. Ulyanov). The RSDWP modeled itself after the Socialist Party of Germany (SPD), whose Marxist orthodoxy was then challenged by revisionism. Revisionists argued that reform, not revolution, would best serve worker interests, and favored elections over strikes.

The RSDWP split into Menshevik (minority) and Bolshevik (majority) factions in 1903. The Mensheviks believed that workers should lead the party and constitute its membership. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, believed that well-organized professional revolutionaries could better organize the party against the imperial police. Such revolutionaries would force revolutionary consciousness upon workers, who might otherwise turn to revisionism and reform.

The RSDWP played a minimal role in the 1905 Russian Revolution. Tsar Nicholas II legalized labor unions and allowed a new freely elected parliament, or Duma. But as police cracked down on radical peasants, workers, and non-Russian nationalities seeking independence, party members went underground. Many emigrated to Europe. The Mensheviks broadened their base among factory workers inside Russia. The Bolsheviks robbed banks, fled to Europe, and disagreed over whether or not to participate in elections to the bourgeois Duma. The police succeeded in penetrating the party, arresting many members (including Josef Stalin) and recruiting police agents. By 1914 the RSDWP was divided and weak, competing for support with rival liberal (Constitutional Democrat), agrarian socialist (Social Revolutionaries), and national (Jewish Bund) parties.

In February 1917, Imperial Russia collapsed under the pressures of World War I. A Provisional Government tried to continue the war and carry out democratic and agrarian reforms. But the army began to disintegrate, and the urban and rural masses, organized in soviets (councils), moved increasingly leftward, seizing factories and land. The Bolsheviks slowly developed into a mass party.

In April 1917, Lenin returned to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) from Swiss exile. He immediately declared war on the bourgeois Provisional Government. In November, the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd, Moscow, and other towns. Lenin headed a new socialist government advocating workers control of factories, peasant land reform, and peace with the Central Powers.

Russia then became the world's first socialist state, led by a single party, the Bolsheviks, renamed the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), or (RKP (b)) in 1918, then the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1924. Lenin quickly created his own police state and arrested, tried, and exiled old political enemies, especially Mensheviks, Kadets, and Social Revolutionaries. Many ordinary citizens died in war, civil war, famine, and terror as a new party ruled in their name.

After the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, the RSDWP became essentially two parties. The Bolsheviks led Russia down a separate path to civil war, industrial growth, collectivization of agriculture, and totalitarianism. The Mensheviks became exile critics of a revolution they helped create and barely survived. In 1991, the RSDWP's greatest achievement, the Soviet Union, collapsed.

See also: bolshevism; february revolution; lenin, vladimir ilich; mensheviks; october revolution


Ascher, Abraham. (1972). Pavel Axelrod and the Development of Menshevism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Liebich, Andre. (1997). From the Other Shore: Russian Social Democracy after 1921. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Service, Robert. (2000). Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, Robert C. (1986). The Other Bolsheviks: Lenin and His Critics, 19041914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Robert C. Williams

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Social Democratic Workers Party

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