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Bolshevism and Menshevism

Bolshevism and Menshevism (bōlˈshəvĭzəm, bŏlˈ–, mĕnˈshəvĭzəm), the two main branches of Russian socialism from 1903 until the consolidation of the Bolshevik dictatorship under Lenin in the civil war of 1918–20. The Russian Social Democratic Labor party, secretly formed at a congress at Minsk in 1898, was based on the doctrines of Marxism. At the second party congress, held at Brussels and then London in 1903, Lenin's faction gained a majority. His group was thereafter known as the Bolsheviki [members of the majority], and his opponents as the Mensheviki [members of the minority], although the Bolsheviks promptly lost their numerical superiority.

Lenin favored a small, disciplined party of professional revolutionaries; the Mensheviks wanted a loosely organized mass party. In a pamphlet published in 1905, Lenin outlined his concept of revolution in Russia: since the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak to lead its own revolution, the proletarians and peasants must unite to overthrow the czarist regime and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. The Mensheviks, led by Plekhanov, believed that Russia could not pass directly from its backward state to a rule by the proletariat and that first an intermediary bourgeois regime must be developed. These differences were not always clear-cut, and many Socialist leaders, such as Trotsky, passed from one group to the other and back again.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a common effort of all revolutionary and reformist movements. In the first Duma of 1906, which was boycotted by the Social Democrats, the liberal Constitutional Democrats were the strongest party, but in 1907 the Social Democrats took part in the elections. In 1912 the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks formally became separate parties. In World War I, the Bolsheviks hoped for the defeat of czarist Russia and sought to transform the conflict into an international civil war that would bring the proletariat to power. The right wing of the Mensheviks supported Russia's war effort; the left wing called for pacifism.

In the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Mensheviks participated in the Kerensky provisional government. Lenin, returning from exile in April, declared that Russia was ripe for an immediate socialist revolution. The Bolsheviks gained majorities in the important soviets and overthrew the government in the October Revolution. The Mensheviks opposed this coup and participated in the short-lived Constituent Assembly (Jan., 1918), but they generally refused to side with the anti-Bolshevik forces during the civil war. The Mensheviks were suppressed by 1921. Meanwhile, in 1918, the Bolsheviks became the Russian Communist party.


See A. B. Ulam, The Bolsheviks (1965, repr. 1968); L. Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (2d ed., rev. 1970); A. Gleason et al., ed., Bolshevik Culture (1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the chief opportunist trend in the Social Democracy of Russia; a kind of international opportunism; part of the opportunist majority in the Second International. Menshevism emerged at the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903, when the opponents of Lenin’s plan to build a new type of Marxist party joined forces. In the elections for the central party bodies they constituted the minority; hence, they were called mensheviki (“members of the minority”) . Ideologically, Menshevism was connected with Bernsteinism,“legal Marxism,”and “economism,”its predecessors in the Russian and international Social Democratic movements. The Menshevik leaders were L. Martov, A. S. Martynov, A. N. Potresov, P. B. Aksel’rod, and F. I. Dan. After the Second Congress of the RSDLP, G. V. Plekhanov took a conciliatory stand toward the opportunists. Later, he joined them.

Menshevism was a petit bourgeois party that lacked a mass base in the proletariat. “The Mensheviks,”Lenin wrote,“are a nonproletarian group. In this group there is only an insignificant proletarian upper layer, while the group itself consists of petty intellectuals” (Poln. sobr. soch. , 5th ed., vol. 38, pp. 168-69). Within the working class the Mensheviks won supporters primarily among artisans and the thin stratum of more prosperous industrial workers.

As a political current, Menshevism was not homogeneous but included a number of variations and shadings. One variety of Menshevism at the time of its origin was Trotskyism. Failing to understand Marxist dialectics, the Mensheviks had a dogmatic understanding of Marxism. Although they accepted Marxist tenets on the importance of the objective conditions for making a revolution, they drew false conclusions, assigning an insignificant role to the subjective factor—the degree of consciousness and organization of the revolutionary vanguard in preparing for and carrying out the revolution. Hence, they were completely unable to understand the importance of the party as the ideological leader and organizer of the working class. They considered the coming revolution in Russia a bourgeois democratic revolution and recognized the proletariat as one of the basic forces in it. However, they concluded incorrectly that the bourgeoisie should be given hegemony, as in the Western European bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. This engendered a petit bourgeois fear of sharp class confrontations and a desire to dampen the class contradictions between the bourgeoisie and the working class, in order to avoid frightening the bourgeoisie away from the revolution. Menshevism thus proved to be a vehicle for bourgeois influence on the proletariat.

In theory the Mensheviks recognized the Marxist thesis that the workers must take power, but in practice they used every means to oppose any action of the working class that might lead to a decisive encounter with the ruling classes. As it evolved, Menshevism openly repudiated the central Marxist thesis of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It differed from the other petit bourgeois opportunist trends in Russia in that it existed within the working-class movement and disguised itself as Marxism, although in fact it distorted and revised Marxism, emasculating its revolutionary essence.

At the Second Congress of the RSDLP the opportunism of Menshevism in organizational questions became evident in the Mensheviks’ denial of the need to build a centralized Marxist party and to maintain strict party discipline, as well as in their orientation toward the Social Democratic parties of Western Europe. The “open door”policies of these parties were the source of the Mensheviks’ advocacy of unlimited admission to the party of all who wanted to join, without any obligation to work in the party organization or to submit to party discipline. After the congress Menshevism became a separate faction within the RSDLP and pursued a policy of splitting and disorganizing the party. The Menshevik political and tactical platform was formulated at a Menshevik conference held in Geneva in 1905, during the early stages of the bourgeois democratic revolution of 1905-07 in Russia. Without taking the new historical conditions into account, the Mensheviks oriented the working class toward an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie. Failing to understand that the agrarian question was the fundamental component of the democratic revolution in Russia, they denied the revolutionary character of the peasantry and the need for an alliance between the working class and the peasantry, with the proletariat retaining hegemony, for they did not view such an alliance as the chief condition for the victory of the revolution. They opposed the slogan of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, as well as any participation by Social Democrats in a provisional revolutionary government, proposing that the party limit its role to that of “the extreme opposition.” They were against preparing for an armed uprising, regarding it as a spontaneous process. Failing to see any connection between the activity of the Soviets and the outbreak of an armed uprising, they considered the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies merely organs of local self-government. After the defeat of the December Armed Uprising of 1905 the Menshevik leaders termed it “a historic error”and concluded that “it was wrong to take up arms” (Plekhanov).

The Mensheviks saw the State Duma as the focus of the nationwide movement against the autocracy. They favored a bloc with the Cadets (Constitutional Democrats) and helped the bourgeoisie sow constitutionalist illusions regarding the possibility of winning political liberty without overthrowing the autocracy. On the agrarian question they opposed the confiscation of the large landlord estates and proposed a reformist program to “municipalize”the land, a policy that did not meet the interests of the peasantry. At the Fourth (Unity) Congress of the RSDLP (1906), a merely formal unification of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks took place. “Between 1903 and 1912,”Lenin later observed,“there were periods of several years in which we were formally united with the Mensheviks in a single Social Democratic Party, but we never stopped our ideological and political struggle against them” (ibid. , vol. 41, p. 56). The opportunist tactics of the Menshevik Central Committee, which was elected at the Fourth Congress, were condemned by a majority of local party organizations. At the Fifth (London) Congress of the RSDLP (1907)—the last in which the Mensheviks participated as a party faction—the Bolsheviks triumphed.

During the period of reaction (1908-10), the Mensheviks endeavored to liquidate the illegal Marxist workers’ party, put an end to illegal revolutionary work, and create a reformist, legal “Stolypinist worker’s party.”Only a small group of proparty Mensheviks headed by Plekhanov opposed the attempt to liquidate the illegal party organization. The Sixth (Prague) All-Russian Conference of the RSDLP (1912) expelled the Menshevik Liquidators from the party, as well as those proparty Mensheviks who refused to recognize the decisions of the conference. From that time, the Mensheviks constituted a separate party which, like the Bolshevik Party, called itself the RSDLP.

On the eve of World War I the majority of the class-conscious proletariat of Russia followed the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks were driven out of positions of leadership by the workers in almost all the legal workers’ organizations, such as the trade unions, strike insurance funds, and workers’ clubs. There was an attempt to consolidate the forces of opportunism as a counter-weight to Bolshevism in the August antiparty bloc, which was formed at a conference of the Liquidators in Vienna in 1912. The Organizing Committee, which acted as the guiding center for the Mensheviks, was elected at this conference.

During World War I the majority of the Mensheviks adopted a position of social chauvinism, supporting the bourgeois slogan of “Defense of the homeland”and proclaiming the idea of “civil peace”for the duration of the war. The rise of antiwar sentiment in Russia led to the formation of a left wing within Menshevism —the Menshevik Internationalists, whose leaders included Martov, Aksel’rod, and Martynov. But the internationalism of these Mensheviks was inconsistent; it was limited to opposition to the war. The Menshevik internationalists did not try to break with social chauvinism but advanced the slogan of an early peace, without calling for revolutionary mass action. During the Bourgeois Democratic Revolution of February 1917 the Mensheviks and the SR’s (Socialist Revolutionaries) seized leading positions in the Soviets and handed power over to the bourgeois Provisional Government, with which they blatantly made a deal. In May 1917, Menshevik representantives began to serve in the coalition government, supporting the bourgeoisie on the question of the war and postponing action on the agrarian, labor, and national questions. After the July Days the Mensheviks passed once and for all into the counterrevolutionary camp, exposing themselves in the eyes of the toiling masses as accomplices of the bourgeoisie. The Menshevik Party began to disintegrate: its local organizations fell apart, and its press circulation declined. In August 1917 the Menshevik organ Rabochaia gazeta admitted that the party had become “a kind of formless and diffuse mass.”By October 1917, Menshevism, had, in fact, ceased to exist as a current in the working-class movement. In the elections to the Constituent Assembly the Mensheviks in Petrograd and Moscow received only 3 percent of the vote. (The Bolsheviks won 45 percent in Petrograd and 56 percent in Moscow.) Thus, after 15 years of ideological and political struggle Menshevism was totally defeated by Bolshevism.

The Mensheviks opposed the October Revolution of 1917. The last congress in the history of Menshevism (November 1917) was held under the banner of anti-Bolshevism and mobilization for a struggle against Soviet power. The Mensheviks demanded the transfer of power to the Constituent Assembly; opposed the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty of 1918, workers’ control of production, the nationalization of industry, and the creation of the Red Army; called on the workers to strike; and took part in underground counterrevolutionary organizations. In areas where Soviet power fell temporarily in 1918 the Mensheviks entered White Guard governments, thus definitively revealing Menshevism’s essentially antidemocratic character. Left-wing elements in the Menshevik Party’s central and local bodies, including Martynov, N. N. Popov, and L. M. Khinchuk, abandoned Menshevism.

After the Civil War of 1918-20 the remnants of the Menshevik Party went underground and continued to conduct anti-Soviet activity. The so-called RSDLP Platform of 1921, a Menshevik document, demanded the denationalization of industry, changes in the political structure, economic and political rights for the bourgeoisie, and the legalization of bourgeois parties. The Mensheviks supported all antiparty groupings, hoping for a split in the Bolshevik Party. Sotsialisticheskii vestnik, a newspaper founded abroad by Martov in 1921, published vicious anti-Soviet propaganda. In 1931 a counterrevolutionary Menshevik group was exposed—the Union Bureau of the RSDLP Central Committee, whose activities were aimed at wrecking Soviet economic agencies. The final bankruptcy of Menshevism was the logical result of the Mensheviks’ betrayal of the cause of democracy and socialism.


Lenin, V. I. Poln. sobr. soch. , 5th ed. (Index, part 1, pp. 376-83.)
KPSS v rezoliutsiiakh i resheniiakh s “ezdov, konferentsiiiplenumov TsK, 8th ed., vol. 1. Moscow, 1970.
Istoriia KPSS, vols. 1-3. Moscow, 1964-67.
Ruban, N. V. Oktiabr’skaia revoliutsiia i krakh men’shevizma (mart 1917-1918). Moscow, 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Her denunciation was titled "The Case of So and So, Associate Professor [dotsent] of the Pedagogical Institute, for Propagandizing Militant Menshevism"--those were the very words!
Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905: The Workers" Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), chaps.
(17) Ascher, Pavel Axelrod and the Development of Menshevism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972).
(1) In 1955, his influential The Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism appeared, and he subsequently published a stream of important articles and edited volumes on Russian political culture generally and on the history of Menshevism in particular, from its origins to its vital life in emigration.
The prehistory of the topics addressed in these pieces is actually to be traced back to the period when I directed the Project on the History of Menshevism. In the course of my reading of the articles published in the Menshevik press on the character and sources of labor unrest, especially in St.
"we have taken some measures in the oblast against Menshevism," added Sarkis, but "[o]f course, we must state that this work was not carried out energetically on the lower levels." Now, he disclosed, "our political struggle is being accompanied ...
(24) Fedor Dan, a prominent Menshevik, later wrote that "Bolshevism took shape as the bearer of predominantly general-democratic and political tendencies of the movement, and Menshevism as the bearer predominantly of its class and socialist tendencies." See Theodore Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism (London: Secker and Warburg, 1964 [1945]), 259.