Menshevism refers to the beliefs of the Mensheviks, a Marxist faction that emerged in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in 1903. Menesheviks are often portrayed as more moderate than the rival Bolshevik faction, but they were unable to play an important role in the politics of revolutionary Russia.
Menshevism dates to the second congress of the RSDLP in 1903. One prominent member of the party, Vladimir Lenin, argued for a more centralized and disciplined party, whereas others, including Lenin’s former colleagues Julius Martov and Pavel Axelrod, favored a more decentralized, inclusive approach. Lenin’s faction, through a series of political maneuvers, gained a majority in elections to the party’s leading bodies, thus becoming the Bolsheviks (from bol’shinstvo, the Russian word for majority), whereas Martov and his allies become the Mensheviks (from men’shenstvo, the Russian word for minority).
Further differences between the two factions developed over time. In 1905, during revolutionary upheaval in Russia, the Mensheviks supported the idea that the working class could and should make alliances with the bourgeoisie to help produce revolutionary change in Russia. The Bolsheviks, in contrast, argued that the workers and peasants should be the leaders of the revolution and that they should establish a revolutionary dictatorship of the peasantry and proletariat. While Lenin’s arguments appealed to many because they foresaw an immediate communist revolution, adherents of Menshevism argued that the working class in Russia was too small to lead any revolution and that, following Marx, communism could only be established after Russia experienced bourgeoisie democracy. In judging the disputes between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, many believe the Mensheviks represent the more orthodox interpretation of Marx. Prominent figures such as Grigorii Plekhanov and Leon Trotsky joined the Mensheviks.
Many Mensheviks left the RSDLP altogether after the failures of 1905 and joined legal opposition organizations. Lenin accused them of destroying the party, and in 1912 he formed the Bolsheviks as a separate party. The Mensheviks did the same, but in 1914 the Mensheviks split over whether to support Russia’s involvement in World War I (1914–1918).Trotsky assumed leadership of the antiwar, internationalist faction of the Mensheviks in the Russian exile community.
After the overthrow of the tsar in February 1917, the Mensheviks, led by Irakli Tsereteli, demanded that the government pursue a “fair peace without annexations” but in the meantime supported the war effort under the slogan of “defense of the revolution.” Along with the other major Russian socialist party, the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks led, throughout most of 1917, the emerging network of soviets (worker councils), notably the Petrograd Soviet in the capital. Whereas some argued for a reunification of the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, Lenin scrapped this idea upon his return to Russia in April 1917, when he took a more radical, antiwar position and refused to cooperate with the Russian provisional government. After the collapse of the first provisional government in May 1917, Tsereteli convinced the Mensheviks—over the objections of Martov who had returned from exile—to strengthen the government for the sake of a socialist-liberal coalition with Socialist Revolutionaries and liberal Constitutional Democrats. One of many socialist groups in Russia at that time, the Mensheviks had at least one representative in the provisional government until it was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in November 1917. However, the party, subject to a variety of internal struggles, was weak, winning only 3 percent of the vote to a constituent assembly in the November 1917 elections.
The Mensheviks condemned the Bolshevik seizure of power as an illegal coup d’etat, and the Bolsheviks refused to share power with the Mensheviks, dismissing the elected constituent assembly in 1918. Martov, however, did offer support for the Bolsheviks in 1918 as the Russian Civil War (1917 – 1923) began. The Mensheviks remained a small faction in Russia, gaining prominence in the region of Georgia, where they won over 80 percent of the vote in the 1919 elections. After the Bolsheviks occupied Georgia in 1921, many Menshevik leaders fled the country, setting up a government in exile in France. In 1930, Noe Ramishvili, one of the leaders of Georgian Mensheviks, was assassinated by a Soviet spy in Paris.
Menshevism was finally made illegal after the Kronstadt Uprising of 1921, although the Mensheviks themselves took no part in it. Many prominent Russian Mensheviks emigrated, eventually setting up a Menshevik newspaper, the Socialist Messenger, in New York, which published until 1965.
- Ascher, Abraham, ed. The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution. Documents translated by Paul Stevenson. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976.
- Basil, John D. The Mensheviks in the Revolution of 1917. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1984.
- Broido,Vera. Lenin and the Mensheviks: The Persecution of Socialists under Bolshevism. Boulder, Colo.:Westview, 1986.
- Brovkin,Vladimir. The Mensheviks after October: Socialist Opposition and the Rise of the Bolshevik Dictatorskip. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987.
- Haimson, Leopold, and David Dallin. The Mensheviks: From the Revolution of 1917 to the Second World War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.