Menshevism: The Girondins of 1917

By Doug Enaa Greene April 25, 2018
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Left Voice with the author's permission — Whatever their differences, Lenin, Plekhanov, Martov, and Trotsky all saw the Russian Revolution as following in the experience of the French Revolution of 1789. The Russian revolutionaries also modeled themselves on the different parties of the French Revolution, whether consciously or unconsciously, as guides for action. Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed they were modern-day Jacobins – stalwart revolutionaries who would organize the working class and take power. By contrast, the Mensheviks were moderate Girondins. Menshevism was committed to gradualism and opposed to the “historical impatience” of a socialist revolution. Like the Girondins, the Mensheviks were honorable, but like their predecessors, they lacked faith in the revolutionary abilities of the people. That was the root of their failure in 1917.

I. Split

Marxism had existed in Tsarist Russia since the 1880s, but it was confined to the margins of emigres and to scattered circles of students and workers. By the 1890s, there was an upsurge of strikes in the industrial centers to which the nascent Marxist movement provided leadership and organization. While the police arrested the organizers, both the labor movement and Russian Marxism continued to grow.After its failed 1898 First Congress, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) held its Second Congress – its true founding convention – in 1903 in both Brussels and London. The main organizers were Julius Martov, Georgi Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Vera Zasulich, Alexander Potresov, and Vladimir Lenin who were editors of Iskra, the party paper. The goal of the Iskra Group was to create a centralized all-Russian socialist party that would assume political leadership of the working class struggle against Tsarism.

During the initial proceedings at the Congress, the Iskra Group possessed a clear majority of 33 votes (out of a total of 51) and were able to swiftly pass their agenda. During the 22nd session of the Congress, which was devoted to the definition of membership, the Iskra Group split after Lenin and Martov put forward separate drafts. In somewhat simple terms, Lenin wanted a tightly-organized party of professional revolutionaries, while Martov was in favor of a broader and looser party. Martov’s draft won in the final vote.

Later the Congress approved Lenin’s motion that Iskra should be the sole representative of the party abroad and serve as the main vehicle of ideological leadership. Instead of keeping the current editorial board, Lenin proposed creating a smaller editorial board of three people (Martov, Plekhanov and himself), who had written most of the paper’s articles. After a contentious debate, Lenin’s proposal passed. Martov, however, refused to participate, splitting Iskra. The vote on the editorial group was the initial split of the RSDLP into factions of Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority).[1]

Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, initially supported Lenin on the Iskra question. However, Plekhanov later lamented his choice, since he was now arrayed against longtime friends and comrades: “I cannot fire against my own comrades. Better a bullet in the brain than a split… There are times when even the autocracy has to give in.”[2] Plekhanov had changed his mind and invited the removed editors to rejoin Iskra. Lenin resigned in anger.

To many RSDLP members active in Russia, the split was a shocking blow. One worker wrote: “Now, what I cannot understand at all is the fight that’s going on now between the majority and the minority, and to a great many of us it seems wrong.”[3] In fact, many party branches within the Empire refused to split and they continued to operate as a unified organization.

Neither Bolshevism nor Menshevism emerged fully formed at the Second Congress. The two factions still clung to the same revolutionary program and hoped to heal the split. For many, the lines of demarcation were still confused. For instance, Trotsky found himself in the Menshevik camp until 1904. Part of the reason for the political confusion is that even moderate socialists in Tsarist Russia could not appear as open reformists since there did not exist even the illusion of a parliamentary democracy. This helped to obscure the true nature of the split.[4]

II. 1905

In 1905, Russia was humiliated after a short war with the Japanese, leading to greater calls for reform from liberals and workers. On January 22, 1905, a peaceful demonstration of workers petitioned the Tsar to improve their conditions. Soldiers fired on them, killing hundreds. The event sparked general strikes and peasant land seizures across the Empire. The whole autocracy appeared unstable and on the verge of collapse. The question for Marxists was: What would take its place?

As faithful Marxists, both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks believed that Russia was on the verge of its own 1789. According to this orthodox outlook, Western Europe was ripe for socialism, but Russia still had to accomplish a bourgeois revolution by overthrowing Tsarism and clearing away its feudal backwardness to create a modern capitalist society. After a protracted period, the expansion of both capitalist productive forces and the working class would make Russia ripe for socialism.

However, the surface agreement between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks on the tasks of the forthcoming bourgeois revolution concealed deeper disagreements over which class would lead it. Lenin argued that the working class allied with the peasantry would lead the revolution since the bourgeoisie was too weak and non-radical:

Only the proletariat can be a consistent fighter for democracy. It can become a victorious fighter for democracy only if the peasant masses join its revolutionary struggle. If the proletariat is not strong enough for this the bourgeoisie will be at the head of the democratic revolution and will impart an inconsistent and self-seeking nature to it. Nothing but a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry can prevent this.[5]

The Mensheviks believed the Russian bourgeoisie, like the French, had to be the revolution’s leading force. In 1905, Martov wrote: “We have the right to expect that sober political calculation will prompt our bourgeois democracy to act in the same way in which, in the past century, bourgeois democracy acted in Western Europe, under the inspiration of revolutionary romanticism.”[6] In line with this conception, the Mensheviks said that the RSDLP should not fight for power but remain in opposition. Since the workers were not the leading class in this revolution, they needed to moderate their demands lest they frighten the bourgeois and overstep what was historically possible. Menshevik A.S. Martynov said:

That being the case, the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, by simply frightening the majority of the bourgeois elements, can have but one result—the restoration of absolutism in its original form. . . .The struggle to influence the course and outcome of the bourgeois revolution can find expression only in the exertion of revolutionary pressure by the proletariat on the will of the liberal and radical bourgeoisie, and in the compulsion on the part of the more democratic ‘lower strata’ of society to bring the ‘upper strata’ into agreement to carry through the bourgeois revolution to its logical conclusion.[7]

Furthermore, the Mensheviks viewed the struggle of the peasantry with indifference. For the Mensheviks, the liberal bourgeoisie was the natural ally and leader of the working class in Russia while the peasantry remained mired in backwardness, prone to violent excesses and “irrationalism” that needed to be overcome through the “civilizing school of capitalism.” Plekhanov stated: “The main bulwark of absolutism is precisely the political indifference and intellectual backwardness of the peasantry.”[8]

Still, the bourgeoisie was not willing to play the role allotted to it by Menshevism. Instead, the workers were leading the revolutionary struggle against Tsarism alongside both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. In May, the Mensheviks contemplated and accepted the opportunity of the RSDLP taking power: "If we should finally be swept into power against our will by the inner dialectics of the revolution at a time when the national conditions for the establishment of socialism are not yet mature, we would not hold back."[9]

Trotsky, an independent socialist, was on the left edge of Menshevism and called for a similar line to Bolshevism. Trotsky said the workers must “assume the role of a leading class – if Russia is to be truly re-born as a democratic state...It goes without saving that the proletariat must fulfill its mission, just as the bourgeoisie did in its own time, with the help of the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie.”[10] Many Menshevik workers began to be infected with “Trotskyism” and lost faith in the bourgeois revolution, and, like the Bolsheviks, prepared for an armed insurrection. The leading lights of Menshevism — Martov, Axelrod and Plekhanov — were aghast at this turn and preached moderation.[11]

The Mensheviks took the initiative to create the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Delegates in October 1905. Trotsky himself served as its president. The Soviet was formed to coordinate strike action by the workers, but it also served as a democratic organ representing the interests of the working class. The St. Petersburg Bolsheviks were hostile to the Soviet, believing it should be under party control. Lenin objected to Bolshevik sectarianism towards the Soviet and believed the party should participate in it. For Lenin and Trotsky, the Soviet should be the embryo of a future revolutionary state.

After the October strike of 1905, the Tsar granted a series of limited reforms including a representative body known as the Duma, and the revolution began to run out of energy. The Soviet was disbanded in December, and the Bolsheviks launched a failed uprising in Moscow. While there would be sporadic outbreaks of struggle until 1907, the high tide of the revolution had passed.

III. Retrenchment

During the revolution, the Mensheviks recruited a layer of dedicated activists. Their membership jumped to 18,000 in April 1906 and to 43,000 in October 1906. Even in 1907, of all 150,000 members of a Russian political party, the Mensheviks numbered 38,000 compared to the 46,000 Bolsheviks.[12] The revolution had drawn both factions together. At the 1906 party congress in Stockholm, a unified social democratic party was — seemingly — created.

However, the defeat of the 1905 caused most Mensheviks to return to their earlier positions. They believed that ultra-leftism and adventurism during the revolution had gone too far. Plekhanov condemned the Moscow Uprising: “they should not have taken to arms." For the Mensheviks, these radicals acted contrary to the laws of history and terrified the bourgeoisie. The new Menshevik leadership of Theodor Dan, Martov, and Postresov turned away from militancy and focused on legal work and electing representatives to the Duma. To Lenin’s rage, the Mensheviks also tolerated those who wanted to liquidate the underground party apparatus. Despite sharing the common name of “social democrat,” the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks had different and irreconcilable ideas on its meaning in both theory and practice. In 1912, the RSDLP formally split into the separate Bolshevik and Menshevik parties, representing the Jacobin and Girodon wings of social democracy.

When World War I broke out in 1914, in contrast to most socialist parties, both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks remained antiwar. Plekhanov supported the war effort, but he alienated himself from most other socialists. The Mensheviks objected when the Bolsheviks broadened their antiwar platform to demand splits with pro-war socialists, the creation of a new revolutionary international, and turning the World War into a civil war. Martov’s group believed it was necessary to work for peace but would not split the international or advocate civil war.

IV. 1917

After three years of war and misery, Russian workers had enough. In February 1917, a simple demonstration for bread in Petrograd took on a life of its own and toppled the Tsar. A new bourgeois-led Provisional Government was established to determine Russia’s future. On February 27, Mensheviks organized a new workers’ soviet in the capital. An untenable situation of dual power soon emerged across Russia. The Menshevik Soviet leaders, true to their Marxist orthodoxy, said that workers should support the bourgeois-led provisional government, believing that Russia was going through the same type of revolution as France in 1789: “We destroy the bastions of political authority, but the bases of capitalism remain in place. A battle on two fronts—against the Tsar and against capital is beyond the forces of the proletariat.”[13]

However, Russia in 1917 was not France in 1789. France was a society emerging from feudalism where the modern bourgeois society had matured; the revolution was needed to cast aside the dead weight of the ancien régime and facilitate the growth of capitalism. By contrast, Russia was not only feudal, but also capitalist with a combative working class that would not stop at a bourgeois revolution. Furthermore, the two revolutions showed the need for resolute parties and leadership to carry out their goals: the Jacobins and Bolsheviks. The Jacobins were the party of the radical bourgeoisie supported by the urban masses, who were determined and willing to defend the gains of the French Revolution with all the means at their disposal. The Bolsheviks showed similar determination to their revolutionary forebearers, but were the party of the working class and peasantry fighting for an international socialist revolution.The socialist revolution was now on the historical agenda.

Menshevik thinking remained confused and divided with no clear program to address the vast social and political crisis that gripped Russia. They believed a socialist revolution was destined to fail and be drowned in blood. The peasantry should wait for a Constituent Assembly and not take the land. While the Mensheviks called for peace, many members believed that with the Tsar gone they should support the war effort. The logic of the Menshevik position caused them to enter into a series of coalition governments with the liberals and take responsibility for the war. As in 1905, the bourgeoisie had no intention of playing a revolutionary role. Despite numbering 200,000 members by August 1917, the Mensheviks remained a loose collection of groups with no real structure, discipline or unity.[14] They ranged from defenders of the Provisional Government, such as Irakli Tsereteli and Nikolay Chkheidze, to anti-war internationalists opponents such as Martov. Martov passionately agitated for the Mensheviks to break with the liberals, but his efforts came to naught.

The Menshevik historian Nikolai Sukhanov explained the failure of the most principled of his comrades during the revolutionary moment of 1917 as follows:

We did not fuse with [the revolutionary masses] because a number of features of the positive creative strength of Bolshevism, as well as its methods of agitation, revealed to us its future hateful countenance. It was based on an unbridled, anarchistic, petty-bourgeois elemental explosion, which was only smothered by Bolshevism when once again it was not followed by the masses. We were afraid of this elemental explosion.[15]

In the honeymoon phase of the revolution, the differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism were blurred once again. In some parts of Russia, there was no split in the RSDLP until after the October Revolution. Bolshevism contained its own Girondins too. In March, the Bolshevik leaders of the Petrograd party, Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, called for supporting the Provisional Government and were open to reuniting with the Mensheviks.

After Lenin returned to Russia in April, these attempts at unity ended. He called for a socialist revolution and the transfer of power to the soviets. Sukhanov described the reaction of the orthodox Mensheviks to Lenin’s ideas:

Of how . . . his whole conception was to be reconciled with the elementary conceptions of Marxism (the only thing Lenin did not dissociate himself from in his speech)—not a syllable was said. Everything touching on what had hitherto been called scientific socialism Lenin ignored just as completely as he destroyed the foundations of the current Social-Democratic programme and tactics.[16]

The Mensheviks saw Lenin’s April Theses not as Marxism, but Blanquism or anarchism. They expected him to fall into irrelevance with these “lunatic ideas.” Lenin managed to convince the Bolsheviks of his position and put them back on the revolutionary road. Within a short time, the people identified the Bolsheviks as champions for soviet power, “peace, land, and bread.” Sukhanov describes the result: "Yes, the Bolsheviks were working stubbornly and without let-up. They were among the masses, at the factory benches, every day without pause. Tens of speakers, big and little, were speaking in Petersburg, at the factories and in the barracks, every blessed day. For the masses they had become their own people, because they were always there, taking the lead in details as well as in the most important affairs of the factory or barracks...The mass lived and breathed together with the Bolsheviks. It was in the hands of the party of Lenin and Trotsky."[17] In contrast, the Mensheviks struggled to save the unpopular Provisional Government while their support melted away.

In October, after the Bolsheviks seized power, Martov condemned the revolution as a coup d’etat and against the will of the people. Trotsky, now a leading Bolshevik, answered Martov’s charge:

A rising of the masses of the people needs no justification...The masses of the people followed our banner and our insurrection was victorious. And now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with whom ought we to compromise? With those wretched groups who have left us or who are making this proposal?...No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out: go where you ought to be: into the dustbin of history![18]

Martov’s group walked away from the revolution. As they did so, a young Bolshevik said: “And we had thought that Martov at least would remain with us.”[19] Martov believed that it was better for the Mensheviks to “wash their hands” of the whole revolution and oppose both the Bolsheviks and the bourgeoisie. It was a choice that confirmed that Martov had truly earned his nickname as “the Hamlet of democratic socialism.”

V. Defeat

After 1917, the Mensheviks remained out of step with the mood of the people, fairing poorly in elections for the Constituent Assembly in 1918. However, when the Civil War began, the Mensheviks were forced to pick sides. The right-wing Mensheviks opposed the Bolsheviks, mostly through bureaucratic maneuvering, but some joined the White Armies led by Kaledin or other anti-Bolshevik movements such as the Provisional Government of Autonomous Siberia. Martov’s Internationalists offered critical support to the Red Army during the Civil War, but denounced the persecution of opponents of the Soviet government. In July 1918, the Mensheviks were excluded from the Soviets, but reinstated again, only to be banned after the end of the Civil War. The one place where Menshevism faired well was in Georgia where they administered a capitalist state with support from imperialism from 1918-1921 when they were overthrown by the Red Army. The surviving Mensheviks passed their days in exile, most of them decrying the revolution they had abandoned. Their intransigent fidelity to orthodoxy meant they had betrayed the revolutionary spirit of Marxism and were, in the end, fit only for the role of second-rate Girondins in 1917.


[1] Bertram Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1964), 240-8.

[2] Samuel H. Baron, Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1963), 246.

[3] Lenin Collected Works, vol. 7, “Postscript: Letter to a Comrade,” (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 138. (henceforth LCW)

[4] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (New York: Verso, 2003), 82.

[5] LCW, vol. 9, “The Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution,” 60.

[6] Deutscher 2003, 119.

[7] Quoted in LCW, vol. 8, “Social Democracy and the Provisional Revolutionary Government,” 283-4.

[8] Georgi Plekhanov, “Second Draft Programme of the Russian Social-Democrats,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[9] Quoted in Esther Kingston-Mann, Lenin and the Problem of Russian Peasant Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 83.

[10] Leon Trotsky, “1905,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[11] Israel Getzler, Martov: A Political Biography of a Russian Social Democrat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 110.

[12] Tony Cliff, “Lenin: Building the Party (1893-1914),” Marxists Internet Archive.

[13] Quoted in David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 86.

[14] Leopold Haimson, ed., The Mensheviks: From the Revolution of 1917 to the Second World War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 389.

[15] N. N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: A Personal Record (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 530.

[16] Ibid. 284-5.

[17] Quoted in ibid. 529.

[18] Quoted in ibid. 639-640.

[19] Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 491.