Socialist Worker

Who were the Mensheviks?

The Mensheviks were revolutionaries, but ended up siding with forces opposed to the Russian Revolution. How did this happen?

Issue No. 2540

Menshevik leaders Martov, Plekhanov and Dan

Menshevik leaders Martov, Plekhanov and Dan


Every week in 2017 Socialist Worker will be running an article about an aspect of the Russian Revolution

Every week in 2017 Socialist Worker is running an article about an aspect of the Russian Revolution. Click here for the introductory article, and for the full list go to tinyurl.com/sw1917

The Socialist Workers Party will also be holding events throughout the year including a major conference on 4 November.

The dates of the Russian Revolution can be confusing. Russia used the Julian or Old Style calendar until 24 January 1918, when this was replaced by the Gregorian or New Style calendar. To convert Old Style dates to New Style dates, add 13 days. So 26 October 1917 Old Style becomes 8 November New Style. Importantly, the labour movement in Russia celebrated International Women’s Day and May Day on the same New Style date as workers elsewhere.


1917 timeline

10 February (23 February in modern ‘New Style’ calendar)

  • The Councillor of State Mikhail Rodzianko warns Tsar Nicholas II of massive upheaval

  • Bolsheviks call a strike in Petrograd to protest the 1915 arrest of their MPs for opposing the war


The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were divided since the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’s (RSDLP) conference in 1903.

All of those who attended, both the Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority), were revolutionaries of one sort or another. But the RSDLP’s two factions disagreed over two central issues.

The first was who would lead the revolution against the Tsar.

The Bolsheviks argued that the revolution must be led by the working class, drawing in the mass of peasants behind it. While the Russian working class was small, it had social power disproportionate to its size.

The Mensheviks believed that a revolution first had to usher in a modern, capitalist Russia before a socialist revolution could happen.

This meant the working class had to form alliances with the bosses—and hand leadership over to them.

But while many capitalists hated the Tsar, they were more frightened of the power of the rising working class.

Looser

In addition, the Mensheviks were for a looser form of party organisation.

Such differences—which might have seemed small—were to grow into vital questions of how to take the struggle forward.

But it’s not true that the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks formed wholly distinct groups in 1903. There were repeated efforts at unification and joint working, but the differences grew.

A substantial section of Mensheviks called for a much broader party, drawing in people who were not revolutionaries.

The clamour for such a loose grouping grew as revolutionaries faced repression and retreat after the defeat of the 1905 revolution.

This search for a broad party meant abandoning principles. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin wrote in 1911 that the whole future of revolutionary organisation was threatened by those who wanted “a liberal labour party”.

Not all the Mensheviks were “liquidators”, but those who weren’t wouldn’t separate from those who were.

By 1912 a formal split took place with the Bolsheviks wholly taking over leadership of the RSDLP.

Do all these splits and struggles matter?

Yes, because in 1914 one section of the Mensheviks, following the capitalists, supported the Russian state in the First World War.

Death

Yes, because in 1917 the life and death of the revolution was at stake.

Would the working class take power or simply urge on the liberal capitalists?

In practice, the Menshevik position meant a coalition with those who were seeking to repress radical forces and flirt with counter revolutionary generals.

During 1917, the Mensheviks urged the capitalists to act in a revolutionary manner—just as they were heading off in the completely opposite direction.

As working class dissatisfaction grew with the Provisional Government, Bolshevik support soared and Menshevik support collapsed.

Some of the left section of the Mensheviks, known as the Internationalists, moved towards the Bolsheviks. One section came out openly against the October Revolution when workers took power.

Unfortunately, although the Mensheviks were defeated in Russia, their political allies in much of the rest of Europe dominated the left.

This meant revolutionary opportunities were missed—with disastrous consequences.


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