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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.1

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 not have much of the masses.

Thus 1903 has gone down in Russian history as the beginning of the historic split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. During the next few years, the Bolsheviks were not monolithic, and neither were the Mensheviks. The lines between them were so fluid that some Mensheviks became Bolsheviks and some Bolsheviks became Mensheviks. Until 1917, it was taken for granted that the two factions could coexist in the same party. The real, irrevocable split did not come until 1917.

In retrospect, the difference between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks turned on the difference between the revolutionary theory of the Western Marxists and that of some Russian Marxists. In the international movement, it was taken for granted that a “bourgeois-democratic” revolution had to come before a socialist revolution. (The words “bourgeois-democratic,” which were current in the socialist movement of the time, roughly described the regimes in Western Europe and the US.) Since Russia was then considered to be a feudal state, it was supposed to go through a bourgeois-democratic phase before aiming at a socialist transformation. This scheme conformed to the Marxist conception of “stages,” which could not be skipped without impairing the integrity of the socialist revolution.

But a special Russian variant had arisen in 1905 through the collaboration of Trotsky and a Russian-born German socialist, A.L. Helphand, whose nom de guerre was Parvus. It was called the theory of “permanent revolution,” a phrase which had appeared in Marx’s writings in 1850 and never again.2 In effect, it meant that, since the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak to make a bourgeois revolution, the proletariat had to make it for them; but, instead of letting the bourgeois revolution run its course over a lengthy period, it was necessary to elide it as soon as it was made and turn it into a proletarian revolution.

Thus the Russian socialists could hypothetically have a bourgeois revolution and a proletarian revolution without any interruption. It was a peculiar theory, because the proletariat was supposed to make the bourgeois revolution but only for the immediate purpose of getting rid of it and turning it into a proletarian revolution. Given the weakness of the Russian proletariat as well as the Russian bourgeoisie, it really amounted to calling on the Russian revolutionary party to substitute for the bourgeoisie and proletariat, and, by taking advantage of a political and social crisis, to put itself in power in the name of a class. It was an invitation for a coup d’Ì©tat rather than a revolution.

Lenin at first objected to the Trotsky-Parvus theory but he soon adopted it. The Bolshevik takeover of 1917 was a demonstration of the theory in practice. For a short time, even Martov was caught up in it, but other Mensheviks never accepted the idea.3 For the Mensheviks, the basic task was still to carry out a bourgeois-democratic revolution.


Russia had two revolutions, one in 1905 and another in 1917. The first one was frustrating for both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks because they were not prepared for it. It flared up from defeat in the war against Japan and was fed by industrial and peasant unrest. The outstanding social democratic figure was Trotsky, then only twenty-six years old, who had recently left the Menshevik faction and now presided over the Petersburg Soviet. But the uprising was put down bloodily by troops, and Trotsky spent twelve months in prison before he was able to escape on the way to Siberia. Neither Martov nor Lenin took leading parts in these events. After the failed revolution, rank-and-file members of both factions wanted them to unite and forget their differences.

From the Menshevik point of view,” Liebich writes, “the single dominant lesson of 1905 seemed to be that excessive radicalism, abandonment of the doctrine of bourgeois revolution, and isolated action of the proletariat spelled disaster.” But he adds, “The Mensheviks of 1905 had learned the wrong lines for 1917.”

It is not clear to Liebich when the two factions became two parties. He merely says that it took place between 1903 and 1917. In any case, they remained different but not so different that they did not cooperate from time to time. In addition, each faction had right, centrist, and left wings. As the war of 1914 approached, the Bolsheviks seemed to be benefiting the most from increased labor militancy.

The long pause after 1905 was broken in 1917. Although the title of Liebich’s book suggests it begins in 1921, it might have been better to have changed the year to 1917, which he has also covered briefly, as the starting point. For it was in 1917 that the Menshevik fortunes rose and fell, and never recovered.

When the revolutionary events of 1917 began,” Liebich notes, “the Mensheviks were perhaps the strongest political party in Russia.” With the Socialists-Revolutionaries, a revolutionary party based largely on the peasantry, the Mensheviks “could have seized power.”4 Why they did not seize power—and the Bolsheviks did—touches the essence of their misfortune.

Liebich astutely links the fate of Marxism with the fate of Menshevism:

The Mensheviks stand at the very heart of the crisis of Marxism. They were the first Marxists to lose in a socialist revolution. Contrary to widespread impressions, they were neither doctrinal revisionists nor dogmatists…. By the very nature of their predicament, they were forced to pose, earlier and more acutely than other Marxists, a number of questions about Soviet Russia, socialism, and Marxism. What was the nature of the Bolshevik Revolution? Could the order that emerged from the Revolution be considered progressive, and did revolutionaries owe allegiance to it? Could one have a workers’ state without a workers’ democracy? Or, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, could barbarism lead to socialism? Finally, to put the question polemically, is there a logic to Marxism which leads toward the Gulag?

Liebich does not answer all these questions fully, but he traces how the Mensheviks began to face them in 1917. The Mensheviks did not try to seize power because they were good Marxists, and Marxism told them that Russia had to have a bourgeois-democratic revolution before it could have a socialist revolution. The Mensheviks refused even to try to take power because they believed that feudal Russia had to go through the stage of a bourgeois-democratic revolution.

Liebich thus regards the Mensheviks as “strictly orthodox” Marxists. As such, they felt obliged to bestow “governmental power on a progressive bourgeois cabinet.” In May 1917, “hesitantly and reluctantly, two Mensheviks entered a first coalition cabinet in the realization that without such participation, no government could muster credibility.” In September, four Mensheviks went into a revised cabinet. When Lenin had arrived in Petrograd from abroad in April 1917, he found the resident Bolshevik leaders, Stalin and Kamenev, meeting with their Menshevik counterparts to establish terms of unification. At this time, the Bolsheviks in Russia were also convinced that a bourgeois-democratic government was necessary.

Lenin abruptly changed this policy. He opposed unification with the Mensheviks and support for the Provisional Government, and clearly looked forward to a seizure of power. He gradually won over the body of Bolsheviks to the necessity of an insurrection, though two of the main leaders, Kamenev and Zinoviev, still dissented, something which they were never permitted to forget. Trotsky decided to throw in his lot with Lenin and joined the Bolsheviks. The revolution of November 1917 sealed the fate of the other two socialist parties, the Mensheviks and Socialists-Revolutionaries, as well as that of the Provisional Government. During the next two years, revolutionary terror and civil war enabled the Bolsheviks to harden their rule, and to impose what later was called “war communism.” This involved, as one historian has summarized it, “the nationalization of the means of production and most other economic assets, the abolition of private trade, the elimination of money, the subjection of the national economy to a comprehensive plan, and the introduction of forced labor.”5

  1. 1

    There have been other works on Mensheviks but not another continuous account. Two Menshevik leaders have had biographies, Israel Getzler’s of Julius Martov (Cambridge University Press, 1967) and Abraham Ascher’s of Pavel Axelrod (Harvard University Press, 1972). One work, The Mensheviks, edited by Leopold H. Haimson (University of Chicago Press, 1974), is made up of five sections by Menshevik survivors in the United States, mainly dealing with the 1920s. Haimson has recently organized with Russian historians a post-Soviet Menshevik Project which has put out two volumes on the Mensheviks in 1917—in Russian. A Russian postdoctoral thesis has compared the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks into the postrevolutionary period. Many works on the Russian Revolution have, of course, mentioned or dealt with the Mensheviks in various contexts.

  2. 2

    The term, “revolution in permanence” appeared in a document of 1850 in Article I of the statutes of a little-known “International Society of Revolutionary Communists,” signed by Marx and Engels and four others. This document, in French, was found in seven copies not in the handwriting of either Marx or Engels. The alleged organization was largely fictitious and soon expired. The best explanation may be found in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 1986), Vol. 3, pp. 184-213. Marx also used the phrase in an address to the Communist League in 1850 that “it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been displaced from domination, until the proletariat has conquered state power, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians of these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians.” (Karl Marx: Selected Works [Moscow: Cooperative Publishing Society, 1936], Vol. 2, p. 161) In 1850, Marx expected a revolutionary upsurge which never came. He was then thinking of Germany, not Russia. In its later development, the socialist movement largely ignored this early phase of Marx, and “scientific socialism” insisted on the succession of “stages.”

  3. 3

    At a party conference at the end of 1918, Martov “outlined a far-reaching policy based on the expectation of a socialist revolution in the West, with Germany the chief ally of revolutionary Russia.” But at a conference in April 1920, “some of Martov’s ideas about the international revolution, especially about the progress toward socialism of backward Russia (the ‘transition period’), evoked bafflement and protests” (The Mensheviks, pp. 193, 215).

  4. 4

    This is also the view of other historians: Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (Knopf, 1990), pp. 387, 407; Leonard Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Knopf, 1960), p. 159; Abraham Ascher, Pavel Axelrod and the Development of Menshevism (Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 326.

  5. 5

    See Richard Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime (Knopf, 1993), p. 371.

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