A Dysfunctional Family

The Russian Mensheviks have suffered a peculiar fate. While the Bolsheviks have long had books—even libraries—devoted to them, the Mensheviks have had to wait until now for a first-rate account of their work and fate. AndrÌ© Liebich, a professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, has finally done justice to a group which history had dealt with unjustly.

In origin, both the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks came out of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), a Marxist party formed in 1898 by no more than nine delegates. The split—a curious one—came at the truly formative Second Congress in 1903. It came in part over the composition of the editorial board of Iskra (Spark), the party’s organ. It had been founded in 1901 to wage ideological warfare against a tendency among Russian socialists known as Economism, which emphasized the workers’ economic struggles rather than their revolutionary political aims. Two years later, Lenin demanded a reorganization of the Iskra board, eliminating three elderly but highly respected editors and giving virtual control to himself and Julius Martov, with whom he had formerly worked closely. But Martov, who resented Lenin’s tactics, resisted. When Martov refused to take his place on the board, the split was publicly acknowledged.

Liebich maintains that the real split was not, as frequently alleged, over another seemingly minor organizational question about the definition of a party member. Lenin wanted to define a party member in terms of “personal participation”; Martov preferred “personal cooperation.” Lenin’s formula implied much stricter discipline and centralized control. At first Martov won a narrow majority but at a later session the Bund, the Jewish socialist party, broke away, which gave Lenin a majority of 24 to 20, not a wide margin.

Lenin had his way, and thus was born the political term Bolshevik, which, in Russian, merely means “majority,” as Menshevik means “minority.” At the time, the difference seemed to be so trifling that few could understand why it had created such a storm of rancor and enmity. According to Liebich, party members chose sides based on considerations which had nothing to do with the events of the congress; they were swayed by their pre-Second Congress sympathies or personal reasons. The dominant sides later fluctuated, but the factional names of 1903 continued to cling to the two camps in the party.

In the end, the nature of the party turned out to be the critical difference between them. For Lenin, an ultra-centralized party, rigidly controlled from the top, was necessary. Because the working class by itself was incapable of developing a socialist consciousness, the party had to take the place of the class. For Martov, the organization of the masses of workers, with a more open and inclusive party, was foremost, because a tight organizational system would hold back the spontaneous development of the “class struggle.” At the time, Lenin did not have much of a party and Martov did …

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