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At the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1903, there was a dispute between Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov, two of SDLP's leaders. 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.
Julius 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 George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Leon Trotsky, Lev Deich, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Irakli Tsereteli, Vera Zasulich, Moisei Uritsky, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan supported Julius Martov.
The SDLP journal, Iskra remained under the control of the Mensheviks so Vladimir Lenin, with the help of Anatoli Lunacharsky, Alexander Bogdanov, Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev, established a Bolshevik newspaper, Vperyod. The Mensheviks played a leading role in the 1905 Revolution and were particularly active in the soviets and the emerging trade union movement.
In 1911 the Bolsheviks made plans to capture control of the Social Democratic Labour Party at the conference to be held in Prague in January, 1912. This move was unsuccessful and the party split and after that date the Mensheviks split completely from the Bolsheviks. Most Mensheviks condemned Russia's involvement in the First World War but a small minority supported Nicholas II and his government.
When Lenin returned to Russia on 3rd April, 1917, he announced what became known as the April Theses. Lenin attacked those Bolsheviks who had supported the Provisional Government. Instead, he argued, revolutionaries should be telling the people of Russia that they should take over the control of the country. In his speech, Lenin urged the peasants to take the land from the rich landlords and the industrial workers to seize the factories. Some Mensheviks such as Leon Trotsky and Alexandra Kollontai, agreed with this view and now joined the Bolsheviks.
Against the wishes of their leader, Julius Martov, two Mensheviks, Irakli Tsereteli and Fedor Dan joined the Provisional Government in May 1917. Tsereteli, who was the government's Minister of the Interior, gave the order to arrest Lenin, Leon Trotsky and other revolutionaries in July, 1917.
The Mensheviks dramatically lost the support of the Russian people during the events of 1917. In the elections for the Constituent Assembly in November, 1917, they obtained 1,700,000 votes compared to the Bolsheviks (9,000,000) and the Socialist Revolutionaries (16,500,000).
Julius Martov and the Mensheviks were united in their opposition to the October Revolution. Most of them supported the Red Army against the White Army during the Russian Civil War, however, they continued to denounce the persecution of liberal newspapers, the nobility, the Cadets and the Socialist Revolutionaries. The Mensheviks, along with other opposition parties, were banned after the Kronstadt Rising.
(1) Vladimir Lenin, What Is To Be Done? (1902)
An organization of workers must be first a trade organization; secondly, it must be as broad as possible; thirdly, it must be as little secret as possible. An organization of revolutionaries, on the contrary, must embrace primarily and chiefly people whose profession consists of revolutionary activity.
In an autocratic country, the more we narrow the membership of such an organization, restricting it only to those who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activities and have received a professional training in the art of struggle against the political police, the more difficult will it be to catch such an organization.
(2) After the 2nd Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party Leon Trotsky wrote about why the split took place.
One can say of Lenin and Martov that, even before the split, even before the Congress, Lenin was 'hard' and Martov 'soft'. And they both knew it. Lenin would glance at Martov, whom he estimated highly, with a critical and somewhat suspicious look, and Martov, feeling his glance, would look down and move his thin shoulders nervously.
How did I come to be with the 'softs' at the congress? Of the Iskra editors, my closest connections were with Martov, Zasulitch and Axelrod. Their influence over me was unquestionable.
The split came unexpectedly for all the members of the congress. Lenin, the most active figure in the struggle, did not foresee it, nor had he ever desired it. Both sides were greatly upset by the course of events. After the Congress Lenin was sick for several weeks with a nervous illness.
(3) Alexander Shotman attended the 2nd Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party and after the debate joined the Bolsheviks. He explained his decision in his book, Reminiscences of an Old Bolshevik, published in 1932.
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.
When Plekhanov spoke, I enjoyed the beauty of his speech, the remarkable incisiveness of his words. But when Lenin arose in opposition, I was always on Lenin's side. Why? I cannot explain it to myself. But so it was, and not only with me, but with my comrades and workers.
(4) Robert Bruce Lockhart, report sent to the British government (13th March, 1917)
So far the people of Moscow have behaved with exemplary restraint. For the moment, only enthusiasm prevails, and the struggle which is almost bound to ensure between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat has not yet made its bitterness felt.
The Socialist Party is at present divided into two groups: the Social Democrats and Soviet Revolutionaries. The activities of the first named are employed almost entirely among the work people, while the Social Revolutionaries work mainly among the peasantry.
The Social Democrats, who are the largest party, are, however, divided into two groups known as the Bolsheviki and the Mensheviki. The Bolsheviki are the more extreme party. They are at heart anti-war. In Moscow at any rate the Mensheviki represent today the majority and are more favourable to the war.
(5) George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories (1922).
As regarded the war, both Mensheviks and SRs advocated the speedy conclusion of peace without annexations or contributions. There was, however, a small Menshevik group, led by Plekhanov, that called on the working classes to cooperate for the purpose of securing the victory over Germany, which would alone guarantee Russia's new freedom. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were out and out 'Defeatists'. The war had to be brought to an end by any means and at any cost. The soldiers had to be induced by organized propaganda to turn their arms, not against their brothers in the enemy ranks, but against the reactionary bourgeois governments of their own and other countries. For a Bolshevik there was no such thing as country or patriotism.
(6) Victor Serge wrote about the Mensheviks in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)
I met the Menshevik leaders, and certain anarchists. Both sets denounced Bolshevik intolerance, the stubbon refusal to revolutionary dissenters of any right to exist, and the excesses of the Terror. The Mensheviks seemed to me to be admirably intelligent, honest and devoted to Socialism, but completely overtaken by events. They stood for a sound principle, that of working-class democracy, but in a situation fraught with such mortal danger that the stage of siege did not permit any functioning of democratic institutions.
© John Simkin, March 2013