The Mensheviks were a Russian revolutionary party that followed the theories of Karl Marx. Like the Bolsheviks, they began as part of the Social Democratic Labour Party or SDs. The Mensheviks formed after the party split in 1903 over issues of membership and organisation. While the more radical Bolsheviks agitated for socialist revolution, the Mensheviks followed a more patient and moderate course.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Social Democrats or SDs were Russia’s largest Marxist party. It was formed in March 1898 during a secret meeting of three social-democratic groups in Minsk.
In its first few years, the party’s platform closely followed Marx’s theories. Russia, its leaders believed, was not yet ready for a socialist revolution because it had only just entered the bourgeois-capitalist phase of development.
Russia’s industrial working class, the group Marxists believed would instigate socialist revolutions, was still small. A socialist revolution in Russia was thought to be decades or even generations away.
The 1903 split
This Marxist orthodoxy was challenged by the writings and theories of a young lawyer named Vladimir Ulyanov, later known as Lenin. Writing in his 1902 essay What is to be Done?, Lenin gave his own vision of a successful revolutionary party. He believed the party should be small, tightly controlled, highly disciplined and led by an intellectual elite.
While Lenin’s ideas attracted some support, others in the party disagreed. Julius Martov wanted a Marxist party not dissimilar to Western political parties. Its membership should be open to the masses, its leadership should be elected and its policies and decisions should be formed by a consensus of its members.
Questions over membership and organisation came to a head at the party’s Second Congress in 1903. Lenin and his supporters narrowly won a vote on membership, following a walkout by seven members on an unrelated matter. The two voting blocs took the names Bolsheviki (from bolshinstvo or ‘majority’) and Mensheviki (from menshinstvo or ‘minority’).
These names are somewhat misleading because Martov’s voting bloc actually held a majority on other issues. Whatever their nomenclature, the two factions set out on a path of separate development, though they both remained part of the larger Social Democratic movement.
The gulf widens
Like the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks drew much of their support from the industrial workers and the urban working classes. Following the position advanced in 1903, they allowed membership for individuals who were not full-time revolutionaries. As a consequence, the Mensheviks became a much larger party than the Bolsheviks, despite their name.
Contrary to popular opinion, Bolshevik and Menshevik leaders and organisations often communicated and collaborated. In the years 1906-1912, the two factions held regular conferences and exchanges of views while both had deputies in the State Duma. Bolshevik and Menshevik delegates also shared the same table at the Fourth Social Democrat Congress (Stockholm, 1906), often referred to as the ‘Unity Congress’, though they reached little agreement on the matters at hand.
There were repeated attempts to reconcile or reunite the Menshevik and Bolshevik factions but these failed. The split became irrevocable in 1912. In January, Lenin convened a party congress in Prague but invited only Bolshevik delegates. The delegates voted to break away from the Social Democrats and to form a separate socialist party. From that point, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks became separate political entities.
What did Mensheviks believe?
The Menshevik platform was based on the theories of Karl Marx and the writings of Georgi Plekhanov, a founding member and ideological figurehead of the SDs.
In their view, a Marxist party should help sow the seedbed for socialist revolution – but not actively instigate a socialist revolution. Any socialist revolution had to come from the workers themselves, not the party.
In Russia, Plekhanov concluded, this could best be done by allowing the capitalist phase to develop and run its course. Marxists could lay the groundwork for socialist revolution by participating as agitators in bourgeois politics, encouraging trade unionism and raising class consciousness among industrial workers.
A political force
The Mensheviks became a significant political force in Russia between 1905 and 1917. They enjoyed strong support from urban workers and the lower middle-classes. They were also gifted with talented leaders like Martov, Plekhanov and Leon Trotsky.
The Bolsheviks were slow to respond when a revolution erupted in 1905, in part because Lenin was still in exile. The Mensheviks, however, took a lead role in the trade unions, workers’ groups and the St Petersburg Soviet, where they enjoyed a sizeable majority.
In the wake of the 1905 Revolution, the Mensheviks remained more visible and influential than the Bolsheviks, many of whom were in hiding, under arrest or in exile.
While the Bolsheviks produced radical propaganda and robbed banks to fund their activities, the Mensheviks operated in the open like a conventional political party. They stood candidates for the Duma and pushed for improvements for Russian workers. Mensheviks also retained control of the SD newspaper Iskra (‘spark’), forcing the Bolsheviks to begin their own publication.
Split over the war
The Menshevik movement was not without its problems, some of which were predicted by Lenin in What is to be done? back in 1902.
Because Menshevik party membership remained open and broad, it contained a greater diversity of viewpoints and ideas. This made the party more susceptible to factionalism and less decisive about key issues.
The outbreak of World War I created significant policy divisions in the Menshevik movement, just as it did in the Socialist-Revolutionaries.
While the Bolsheviks were united in condemning the war, the Mensheviks were split on the matter. The party’s internationalist left-wing, led by Martov, opposed the war, believing it would hamper the cause of socialism. The right-wing of the Mensheviks, led by Plekhanov, believed the party should support the war effort and the defence of Russia.
After the February Revolution, these opposite positions drew closer together. The Mensheviks promoted what they called “revolutionary defensism” (the continuation of military operations purely to defend Russian territory) and a fair peace treaty without annexations (loss of Russian territory).
The party also gave cautious support to the Provisional Government, several Mensheviks serving as ministers in its cabinet during 1917.
A historian’s view:
“The Mensheviks perceived themselves as orthodox Marxists. They firmly believed in Marx’s stages of economic development. Socialist revolution could not succeed in a country where capitalism was still rudimentary; a premature revolution was bound to fail. This view was fortified by the Mensheviks’ interpretations of the revolutions in recent European history… The lesson drawn was that in a future revolution, the socialists should strive only for what was achievable at the given historical stage of development.”
Vladimir N. Brovkin
1. Like the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks began as a faction of the Russian Social Democratic party or SDs, the nation’s largest Marxist party, formed in 1898.
2. The Mensheviks formed following debates and voting over the issue of party membership in 1903. The Menshevik position was that membership should be broad-based.
3. Between 1905 and 1917, the Mensheviks were the largest and most visible of the factions, openly participating in unionism and politics and controlling the SD newspaper.
4. The Menshevik view was that Marxist parties should work within the capitalist system to lay the groundwork for socialist revolution – but not instigate a revolution themselves.
5. The outbreak of World War I created further divisions within the Menshevik movement, with the party’s left-wing opposed to Russia’s involvement. They eventually settled on a policy of negotiated peace and “revolutionary defensism”.
Title: “The Mensheviks”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: June 5, 2019
Date accessed: February 16, 2023