Julius Martov was born in Constanipole in 1873. The son of Jewish middle class parents, Martov became a close friend of Vladimir Lenin and in October, 1895, formed the Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Classes.
Forced to leave Russia and with others living in exile, Martov joined the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP). Over the next few years he worked closely with George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky in publishing the party journal Iskra.
At the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1903, there was a dispute between Martov and his long time friend, Vladimir Lenin. Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters. Martov disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists. Alexander Shotman witnessed these debates: "Martov resembled a poor Russian intellectual. His face was pale, he had sunken cheeks; his scant beard was untidy. His glasses barely remained on his nose. His suit hung on him as on a clothes hanger. Manuscripts and pamphlets protruded from all his pockets. He was stooped; one of his shoulders was higher than the other. He had a stutter. His outward appearance was far from attractive. But as soon as he began a fervent speech all these outer faults seemed to vanish, and what remained was his colossal knowledge, his sharp mind, and his fanatical devotion to the cause of the working class."
Nikolai Sukhanov compared Martov with Leon Trotsky: "Although I was not convinced by his arguments at that time, I remember very well the enormous impression made on me by his erudition and his intellectual and dialectical power. I was, to be sure, an absolute fledgeling, but I felt Martov's speeches filled my head with new ideas. Trotsky, in spite of his showiness, did not produce a tenth of the effect and seemed no more than his echo."
Martov based his ideas on the socialist parties that existed in other European countries such as the British Labour Party. Lenin argued that the situation was different in Russia as it was illegal to form socialist political parties under the Tsar's autocratic government. At the end of the debate Martov won the vote 28-23 . Vladimir Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks.
Gregory Zinoviev, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Lashevich, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Mikhail Frunze, Alexei Rykov, Yakov Sverdlov, Lev Kamenev, Maxim Litvinov, Vladimir Antonov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Gregory Ordzhonikidze and Alexander Bogdanov joined the Bolsheviks. Whereas Martov gained the support of George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Vera Zasulich, Leon Trotsky, Lev Deich, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Irakli Tsereteli, Moisei Uritsky, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan.
Seen as the leader of the Mensheviks, Martov edited the journal Iskra from November, 1903 to its closure in October, 1905. Along with George Plekhanov and Leon Trotsky, he used the journal to attack Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The novelist, Maxim Gorky, met Martov during this period: "This amazingly attractive man spoke with the ardour of youth and was evidently most deeply affected by the tragic drama of dissension and the split in the Party."
After the reforms brought about by the 1905 Revolution, Martov argued that it was the role of revolutionaries to provide a militant opposition to the new bourgeois government. He advocated the joining a network of organizations such as trade unions, cooperatives, village councils and soviets to harass the bourgeois government until the economic and social conditions made it possible for a socialist revolution to take place.
An opponent of the First World War, Martov worked with Vladimir Antonov and Leon Trotsky, to produce the internationalist newspaper, Our World. The journalist, Morgan Philips Price, later recalled: "Martov did not hold the doctrinaire view that the alliance with the middle classes was never to be disturbed as the official Mensheviks did. He thought the time was coming when the state of Russia was so serious that it would be necessary for the Soviet to take over the Government and that an increasing number of Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries would agree to this. Therefore, he disagreed with the action of the Bolsheviks in leaving the Pre-Parliament and going off to carry out what was their obvious intention of organizing armed rebellion against Kerensky. He thought that this would only postpone the time when a sufficiently large body of opinion in the Soviet and the country would agree to all power going to the Soviets, at which point the second stage of the revolution would have been reached."
After the February Revolution Martov returned to Russia but was too late to stop some Mensheviks joining the Provisional Government. He strongly criticized those Mensheviks such as Irakli Tsereteli and Fedor Dan who now supported the war effort. However at a conference held on 18th June, 1917, he failed to gain the support of the delegates for a policy of immediate peace negotiations with the Central Powers.
Martov was not invited by the Bolsheviks to join the government after the October Revolution. For a while he led the small Menshevik opposition group in the Constituent Assembly but in 1918 it was banned along with other political parties by the Soviet government. Martov supported the Red Army against the White Army during the Russian Civil War, however, he continued to denounce the persecution of liberal newspapers, the nobility, the Cadets and the Socialist Revolutionaries.
Victor Serge met Martov in 1919: "I would visit another dissident, this time a Marxist, whose honesty and brilliance were of the first order: Martov, co-founder with Plekhanov and Lenin, of Russian Social Democracy, and the leader of Menshevism. He was campaigning for working-class democracy, denouncing the excesses of the Cheka and the Lenin-Trotsky mania for authority.... Lenin, who was fond of him, protected him against the Cheka, though he quailed before Martov's sharp criticism. When I saw Martov he was living on the brink of utter destitution in a little room. He struck me at the very first glance as being aware of his absolute incompatibility with the Bolsheviks, although like them he was a Marxist, highly cultured, uncompromising and exceedingly brave. Here was a man of scruple and scholarship, lacking the tough and robust revolutionary will that sweeps obstacles aside. His criticisms were apposite, but his general solutions verged on the Utopian."
In 1920 Martov was forced into exile. He continued to criticize Vladimir Lenin and the Soviet government but refused to join other anti-communists exiles in calling for allied intervention in Russia. Julius Martov died in Schomberg, Germany, in 1920. On his death, Anatoli Lunacharsky, a minister in the Soviet government, described Martov as the Bolsheviks "most sincere and selfless opponent."