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

Liebich does not go into the way the Bolsheviks managed to finesse the problem of Marxist stages. They plunged ahead to take power with the proviso that a West European revolution was also imminent and would set the Russian Revolution on the right course. A European or at least a German revolution—not a fantasy in view of Germany’s defeat and humiliation—was another version of the “permanent revolution,” because the bourgeois revolution had already taken place in the West and could give Russia its benefits at second hand. This latter illusion was not given up until 1923, with the final failure of a German revolution; its passing prepared the way for Stalin’s “socialism in one country.”

In any case, the Mensheviks foundered because they had taken a strictly Marxist course. They had collaborated with nonsocialist elements because they had believed that Russia had to make a bourgeois revolution first. Still, in their post-mortems after their defeat, many Mensheviks regretted that they had not sought to take power. Some, as Liebich explains, criticized their collaborationist policy on the ground that it was not the way to defend the interests of the Russian working class. Others simply accused the party of lacking a “will to power.” Still others saw Menshevik virtue overcome by Bolshevik evil. Without doubt, the Mensheviks had lost their popularity in 1917 because they—and the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky—had failed to put an end to the war. One way or the other, Marxism, as it had been understood, had not given the Mensheviks a successful guide to action. In fact, Marxism had led them into a cul-de-sac from which they were never able to escape.


In part, the Mensheviks continued to suffer because they were right, not wrong. By 1918, the Bolsheviks were treating them as enemies. The last legal Menshevik paper was closed down in 1919. The Mensheviks, as Liebich puts it, for a while existed in “a twilight zone of repression and concessions.” Formally, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, as the Mensheviks still called themselves, enjoyed legal status until 1922. But they were hounded by the Cheka, the first Bolshevik instrument of repression. Increasingly, the Mensheviks, though few in numbers, were the only ones able to challenge the government. Their days in Russia were numbered, but they persisted as critics of Bolshevik policy in every way open to them.

Above all, they urged an end to terrorist dictatorship, abandonment of utopian economic plans, and cooperation with other socialist parties. These criticisms stung the Bolsheviks, all the more so by the time they themselves were ready to give up the extreme economic policies of “war communism.” This change was performed at a Party congress in March 1921; the Bolsheviks made economic concessions, leading to what became the New Economic Policy, or NEP; but at the same time, all opposition groups, even within the Party, were outlawed. Lenin denounced the Mensheviks as well as the Left Socialists-Revolutionaries, who had been allies of the Bolsheviks, as pure and simple counterrevolutionaries, mainly because they had criticized war communism when he was enforcing it and were likely to benefit from his late conversion.

His reaction was both confessional and bloodthirsty. He accused the Mensheviks and Left Socialists-Revolutionaries of saying, “The revolution has gone too far. What you [Bolsheviks] are saying now we have been saying all the time: permit us to say it again,” to which Lenin replied: “Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that.”6 By now, the Menshevik leaders could no longer stay in Russia. Hundreds of Mensheviks, including their entire Central Committee, were arrested. Martov had already left the country in 1920—a temporary beneficiary of the Bolsheviks’ desire to gain sympathy abroad. Most of the others left in 1922. By that year, what remained of Menshevik organization in Russia went underground. The Cheka had a special Second Section to hunt down Mensheviks, many of whom were exiled to remote corners of Russia.

It is Liebich’s great merit that he views the Mensheviks as a “family” rather than as a collection of individuals. He shows how the various members of the family responded to events as they unfolded. The Mensheviks quarreled with one another almost as much as they quarreled with the Bolsheviks. The Menshevik right wing wanted no more than a bourgeois revolution and the left wing accepted Bolshevik rule on the ground that it would gradually become socialist.

In the end, the differences within their family finally tore the Mensheviks apart. They were caught between two worlds—the Soviet world which to some still represented a deformed version of socialism, and the “bourgeois-democratic” world of Western Europe and the United States. The Mensheviks had sought to position themselves between these two worlds and increasingly found the intermediate ground untenable.

In this family were, among others, Julius Martov, the undisputed head; Fedor Dan, who was married to Martov’s sister, and succeeded Martov in the leadership after the latter’s death in 1923; Pavel Axelrod, an older social democrat who died in 1928; Rafael Rein Abramovitch, who was the chief spokesman to the outside world; Boris Ivanovich Nicolaevsky, who achieved fame as an archivist and historian; David Dallin, a younger adherent who later gained influence in the US. Of all the leading Mensheviks, only Nicolaevsky was not Jewish, though there were also many Jews among the Bolsheviks, and all of them had broken with the Jewish religion and tradition. Many old Mensheviks had gone over to the victorious Bolsheviks, such as G.V. Chicherin, the Bolshevik commissar for foreign affairs; Andrei Vyshinski, the later Soviet prosecutor; Ivan Maisky, later the Soviet ambassador to Great Britain; and Alexander Troyanovsky, ambassador to the US.

By 1922, a Menshevik center had been set up in Berlin. It consisted of a Foreign Delegation of the main leaders, and its chief activity was the publication of a new central organ, Sotsialisticheskii vestnik (Socialist Courier). This journal was virtually the Mensheviks’ raison d’Ì»tre and carried both theoretical articles and reports from Russia from remaining Menshevik informants.

The Mensheviks also prevented themselves from enlarging their family in exile. They refused to accept as a member anyone who had not belonged to the Party in Russia either in the prerevolutionary period or in the Soviet underground. As members died, they were not replaced. By the time the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, the Menshevik colony in Berlin numbered only seventy-three.

The chief question for the Mensheviks was what attitude to adopt toward the Bolshevik regime. While the ruling Bolsheviks imprisoned, exiled, and hunted down Mensheviks, the latter did not respond with total denunciation of the Bolsheviks. In April 1920, they rejected “abstract” democracy, said they recognized the inevitability of a temporary dictatorship, and claimed that the preconditions for a worldwide social revolution had been created. This early Menshevik program hardly endangered the Bolsheviks.

Their later policy was also two-edged. In the short time left to him, Martov set forth a program, known as the “Martov Line,” which lasted until 1940. It amounted to seeing the Mensheviks as a kind of “loyal opposition” which considered, as Liebich writes, that “the vast and costly contradictions into which the Bolsheviks had driven the Russian Revolution were surmountable, and the Mensheviks’ mission was precisely to point a way out of the impasse and to prod the Bolsheviks in that direction.” There is some question whether Martov himself did not become totally disillusioned with the Bolsheviks by the time of his death, but Liebich is not fully convinced that he was.

In this respect, the treatment of the Mensheviks was the best test of whether there were any limits to the Bolshevik autocracy. They had been colleagues of the Bolsheviks in the old Party, had had close personal ties with them, did not call for the overthrow of the Bolshevik regime in the years soon after the Bolshevik takeover, and in fact stood for a conditional tolerance of the Bolshevik regime. If they could not be permitted to survive in the new order, no one could. When they were increasingly persecuted, they revealed the true nature of Leninist absolutism.


Cut off from their native roots, the Mensheviks found it harder and harder to keep up with the Soviet reality. Stalin’s rise to power in the 1920s, Liebich writes, “perplexed” them, and he “remained a mystery to them.” They were unable to foresee where the factional struggle in the Communist Party was heading and fell into “miscalculations, ambivalences and contradictions.” Stalin’s “Great Turn” to the left, which began in December 1927, was misinterpreted by the Mensheviks who had thought he was going to turn to the right. They had been accustomed to thinking of Stalin as a “centrist,” and now he was turning left and stealing the thunder of Trotsky’s “left opposition.” The peasants were mercilessly driven into collective and state farms and industrialization was speeded up. An ambitious Five-Year Plan was introduced. “Like meteorologists,” Liebich comments, “the Mensheviks predicted an imminent change for the worse in the climate. Instead of the expected snowstorm, however, they were confronted by a tropical hurricane.”

In 1931, Vera Alexandrova, a Menshevik Party member, blurted out what was most troublesome about the Menshevik condition: “We know this new Russia only a little, this [Russia] where some sort of new path of development has been laid out with which we cannot catch up.” She was a left-wing Menshevik but admitted that neither the left nor the right could fathom where Stalin was taking the Soviet Union. The new Stalinist Russia seemed to make the old Marxist categories irrelevant. A new theory of totalitarianism—the term had first appeared in Italy in the 1920s—appeared to overleap the old landmarks of capitalism and socialism. The Stalinist state—like the Nazi state in Germany—was neither; it demanded new methods of analysis that could not be fitted into the traditional Marxist thinking of the Mensheviks, left and right.

Also in 1931 came the Menshevik trial in Russia. As Liebich notes, the accused were not real Mensheviks; they were minor figures who had left the Mensheviks years before but were old Marxist revolutionaries who had worked in Soviet institutions. All the defendants pleaded guilty despite inconsistencies and falsehoods in the evidence. According to Liebich, the purpose of the trial was “a funeral service for NEP.” Again the Mensheviks were being implicitly punished for having been right in making criticisms of policies that the Bolsheviks themselves later changed. “As in 1921, when the Mensheviks were repressed for having criticized war communism and for having proposed alternatives later adopted by the Soviets, so in 1931 they were judged for having warned of the consequences of abandoning NEP and for pointing out the errors of the General Line.”

In any case, 1931 marked “the end of recognizable Menshevik life in Russia.” The repression caught up with the last vestiges of Menshevik organization in Russia and further isolated the exiles in Berlin.

The Nazi takeover in Germany in 1933 forced the Mensheviks to move their activities to Paris. It became extremely difficult for them to obtain adequate funds, and keeping body and soul together sorely tried many of them. The left-right split within the party became so embittered that one of the main figures, David Dallin, resigned. In 1937, the right wing won a majority of the Foreign Delegation but Fedor Dan, a leftist, held on to the nominal leadership owing to differences within the majority. Two years later, the Nazi-Soviet pact again stunned the Mensheviks: the old split widened to the breaking point. Lidia Dan remarked: “All would be all right in our little world if not for the perfectly animal relations that, little by little, [have] come to dominate among us.” Fedor Dan was finally forced out of the leadership just before the fall of Paris in the spring of 1940. Even the fa̤ade of Menshevik unity could no longer be maintained; they were only “a tiny circle of emigrÌ©s” embattled against each other.

By the end of 1940, most of the remaining Mensheviks had fled to the United States. Their material conditions improved, but they were no nearer political agreement. The definitive split was publicly demonstrated by the appearance of a new journal, Novyi put (New Road), edited by Dan. As Liebich comments, “The small world of the Mensheviks thus turned into two even smaller ones.” Instead of being brought together by the German attack on Russia in June, the two factions were further estranged by it. The rightists still regarded the Stalinist regime as an enemy of democracy but urged defense of the USSR; the leftists claimed to be justified in their residual confidence in the revolutionary potential of Soviet Russia.

After the war, both groups disintegrated. Fedor Dan died in 1947 and his few followers gave up. The larger group around the surviving Vestnik lasted longer but fell apart over disputes about the Russian prisoners of war in the West, especially those who had belonged to General Andrei Vlasov’s forces created by the Germans in World War II.

With the onset of the cold war, some Menshevik writers found that they were welcome in American publications. But they were not representative of the old movement: they came from the right-wing faction of the party and their views were sought because they were hard-line enemies of the Soviet Union. The most effective were Rafael Abramovitch, David Dallin, and Boris Nicolaevsky. The latter became the mentor of a new generation of American Kremlinologists who sat at his feet and learned the rudiments of deciphering Soviet documents and pronouncements. The FBI did not know what to make of these Mensheviks, and Liebich has several amusing pages on its clumsy efforts to get them straight. In any case, the surviving Mensheviks continued to quarrel among themselves, now mainly about their own past. As an organized movement, they no longer existed; the last surviving member, Boris Sapir, died in 1989.

In conclusion, Liebich writes:

I would submit that the Mensheviks’ record deserves our attention for a number of reasons. The analysis of Russian society in terms of social forces, at which they excelled, will continue to yield insight into the new Russia as well. The relation between economic liberalization and political democracy which so preoccupied the Mensheviks, especially during NEP, is again at issue, as is the problem of the mechanisms, agents, and costs of economic progress. The scope of freedom in a fragile society, the compromises to be made with unpalatable realities of a postrevolutionary order—these are today’s issues, but they echo those that concerned the Mensheviks. The underlying impetus of their ideology, the attempt to define a space “on the left of the right and on the right of the left,” the conviction that multiple possibilities lie between the destructive solutions of the Right and of the Left, was and will be shared by others.

The Russian present thus lurks behind Liebich’s pages on the Menshevik past. A question which he does not raise may be uppermost: Does the Russian transformation since 1992 represent a return to the bourgeois-democratic order which the Bolsheviks aborted in 1917? In that case, the Bolshevik regime may be seen as an aberration, lasting three quarters of a century, a departure from the Mensheviks’ formula for social change, which they refused to tamper with in 1917.

The present Russian reality is so unstable that it is futile to speculate about what may come after it. We do not yet know whether the existing system will be stabilized and what form it will eventually take. The Marxist faith that socialism must follow capitalism has never been realized, and there is no reason to believe that it may be realized in the future. Yet the return of Russia to an equivocal version of a bourgeois-democratic society raises the question of what might have happened if it had not been short-circuited in 1917. Will Russia permit itself this time to go through a real bourgeois-democratic development? The Menshevik experience of 1917 is a specter that haunts the Russia of today.

This Issue

May 28, 1998