The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were both revolutionary political parties of Marxist origins. Russian Marxism dates back to 1898 and the creation of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, or SDs, which itself was formed from several smaller groups. By the turn of the 20th century the SDs were Russia’s largest Marxist party. In its first few years the party platform of the SDs remained true to Marxist theory. The SDs considered the proletariat (industrial working class) to be the natural source of revolutionary energy. Since Russia’s industrial workforce was still small, socialist revolution in Russia was a distant prospect – decades, generations, perhaps even a century away.
The Marxist orthodoxy in the SDs was soon challenged by a young political activist named Vladimir Ulyanov, better known by his codename Lenin. In 1902 Lenin released a pamphlet entitled What is to be Done? that outlined his own vision of how a successful revolutionary group should be composed and organised. He criticised the broad membership of the SDs, arguing that this left the party open to infiltration and agent provocateurs. Lenin also railed against the party’s democratic decision-making processes. Revolutionary parties should be organised and directed by ideology, theorists and professionals, he wrote – they should not be steered by the masses, who almost always vote to accept concessions or improved conditions. Lenin argued for a party that was small, dedicated and secretive. Its membership would be restricted to ‘professional revolutionaries’; its decisions made by an intellectual elite. This party would be the vanguard of the revolution, leading the way.
Lenin’s theories on party membership and organisation attracted some support from members of the SDs, while others adhered to the status quo. This led to divisions within the party which manifested at its Second Congress in August 1903. Lenin called for a vote on some of the issues he had raised in his book the previous year. Lenin’s chief rival, Julius Martov, argued that the SDs should remain decentralised, with membership open to all workers. While most of Lenin’s points were defeated, he narrowly won the vote on party membership, 24 votes to 20. Most of those who voted with Lenin were young (the vast majority were under 30) and politically radical. Collectively, Lenin’s supporters became known as the Bolsheviki, derived from the Russian word bolshinstvo (‘majority’). In some circles they were also known as ‘Maximalists’ or ‘Leninists’. Those who voted against Lenin were later dubbed Mensheviki (from menshinstvo, or ‘minority’).
The same debates continued for the next decade, causing the rift between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks to consolidate and widen. By no means was it a permanent separation, however: the SD party framework was still in place, so the two factions were still affiliated and in communication. The 1905 Revolution and the tsarist counter-revolution that followed it stimulated more cooperation between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, however the old ideological divisions still remained. At the fourth SD party congress in Stockholm, often dubbed the ‘Unity Congress’ (April 1906), Bolshevik and Menshevik delegates shared the same table – but they disagreed on almost every point. Between 1906 and 1912 there were repeated attempts to reunite the party, but all failed. Lenin and his refusal to compromise were often the stumbling block.
Vladimir Brovkin, historian
The split became irrevocable in 1912. In January, Lenin convened a party congress in Prague but invited only Bolshevik delegates. At Lenin’s urging, the delegates voted to break away from the Social Democrats and to form a separate socialist party. From that point the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks existed as separate political entities. A third SD faction, a small group of intellectuals calling themselves the Mezhraiontsy, formed in 1913 and attempted to reunify the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks into a single Marxist party, however the advent of World War I made this task almost impossible. The Mezhraiontsy, who included Trotsky in their number, eventually merged with the Bolsheviks in 1917.
Gifted with talented people like Martov, Plekhanov and Trotsky, the Mensheviks enjoyed high levels of support amongst urban workers and were a viable political force between 1905 and 1917. Throughout this period Menshevik figures were more visible and influential than the Bolshevik leadership, most of whom were in hiding, under arrest or in exile. The Mensheviks stood candidates for the Duma; worked with the Provisional Government; and strived for improvements for Russian workers. The Mensheviks also retained control of the SD newspaper Iskra (‘spark’), forcing the Bolsheviks to begin their own publication. While the Bolsheviks were slow to respond when revolution erupted in 1905, in part because Lenin was still in exile, the Mensheviks took a lead role in the trade unions, workers’ groups and, importantly, in the formation of the St Petersburg Soviet, where they enjoyed a sizeable majority.
But the Mensheviks were not without their problems, some of which were predicted by Lenin back in 1902. Menshevik party membership was broader and contained a greater diversity of viewpoints and ideas – however this made the party more susceptible to factionalism and less decisive about key issues. The outbreak of World War I created fractures: most Mensheviks were opposed the war but some in the party’s right-wing supported it. These conflicting views about the war, along with a lack of strong leadership and the defection of Trotsky (one of the party’s most notable figures) fatally weakened the Menshevik movement. By September the party was hopelessly divided and politically ineffective, allowing the Bolsheviks to gain a majority in the Soviets and, a month later, attempt to overthrow the Provisional Government.
1. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were socialist parties that began as factions of the Social Democratic party.
2. The Social Democrats were divided over issues raised by Lenin at its 1903 party congress.
3. Lenin’s faction, the Bolsheviks, wanted a party of professional revolutionaries and limited membership.
4. The Mensheviks remained truer to Marxist principles, preferring a broad-based party with open membership.
5. The split became permanent in 1912 and the two parties took radically different paths towards revolution.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/bolsheviks-and-mensheviks/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].