Who Were the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks?

Lenin by Isaak Brodsky
Lenin by Isaak Brodsky. Wikimedia Commons

The Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were factions within the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They aimed to bring revolution to Russia by following the ideas of socialist theoretician Karl Marx (1818–1883). One group, the Bolsheviks, successfully seized power in the Russian Revolution of 1917, aided by a combination of Lenin's cold-hearted drive and the Mensheviks' utter stupidity.

Origins of the Split

In 1898, Russian Marxists had organized the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party; this was illegal in tsarist Russia itself, as were all political parties. A congress was organized but had only nine socialist attendees at most, and these were quickly arrested. In 1903, the Party held a second congress to debate events and actions with just over fifty people. Here, Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) argued for a party composed only of professional revolutionaries, to give the movement a core of experts rather than a mass of amateurs; he was opposed by a faction led by Julius or L. Martov (two pseudonyms of Yuly Osipovich Tsederbaum 1873–1923) who wanted a model of mass membership like other, western European social-democratic parties.

The result was a division between the two camps. Lenin and his supporters gained a majority on the central committee and, even though it was only a temporary majority and his faction was firmly in the minority, they took for themselves the name Bolshevik, meaning ‘Those of the Majority.' Their opponents, the faction led by Martov, thus became known as Mensheviks, ‘Those of the Minority,’ despite being the overall larger faction. This split was not initially seen as either a problem or a permanent division, although it puzzled grassroots socialists in Russia. Almost from the start, the split was over being for or against Lenin, and the politics formed around this.

Divisions Expand

The Mensheviks argued against Lenin’s centralized, dictatorial party model. Lenin and the Bolsheviks argued for socialism by revolution, while the Mensheviks argued for the pursuit of democratic goals. Lenin wanted socialism to be put in immediate place with only one revolution, but the Mensheviks were willing—indeed, they believed it necessary—to work with middle class/bourgeois groups to create a liberal and capitalist regime in Russia as an early step to a later socialist revolution. Both were involved in the 1905 revolution and the workers council known as the St. Petersburg Soviet, and the Mensheviks tried to work in the resulting Russian Duma. The Bolsheviks only joined later Dumas when Lenin had a change of heart; they also raised funds through overtly criminal acts.

The split in the party was made permanent in 1912 by Lenin, who formed his own Bolshevik party. This was particularly small and alienated many former Bolsheviks, but regrew in popularity among ever more radicalized workers who saw the Mensheviks as too safe. The worker’s movements experienced a renaissance in 1912 after the massacre of five hundred miners at a protest on the Lena River, and thousands of strikes involving millions of workers followed. However, when the Bolsheviks opposed World War I and Russian efforts in it, they were made pariahs in the socialist movement, which mostly decided to actually support the war at first!

The Revolution of 1917

Both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were active in Russia in the lead up to and events of the February Revolution of 1917. At first, the Bolsheviks supported the Provisional Government and considered merging with the Mensheviks, but then Lenin arrived back from exile and stamped his views firmly on the party. Indeed, while the Bolsheviks were riven by factions, it was Lenin who always won and gave direction. The Mensheviks divided over what to do, and the Bolsheviks—with one clear leader in Lenin—found themselves growing in popularity, aided by Lenin’s positions on peace, bread, and land. They also gained supporters because they remained radical, anti-war, and separate from the ruling coalition which was seen to fail.

Bolshevik membership grew from a couple of tens of thousands at the time of the first revolution to over a quarter of a million by October. They gained majorities on key Soviets and were in a position to seize power in October. And yet... there came a crucial moment when a Soviet Congress called for a socialist democracy, and Mensheviks angry at Bolshevik actions got up and walked out, allowing the Bolsheviks to dominate and use the Soviet as a cloak. It was these Bolsheviks who would form the new Russian government and transform into the party which ruled until the end of the Cold War, although it went through several name changes and shed most of the original key revolutionaries. The Mensheviks tried to organize an opposition party, but they were crushed in the early 1920s. Their walkouts doomed them to destruction.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Brovkin, Vladimir N. "The Mensheviks after October: Socialist Opposition and the Rise of the Bolshevik Dictatorship." Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.
  • Broido, Vera. "Lenin And The Mensheviks: The Persecution Of Socialists Under Bolshevism." 
  • Hallett Carr, Edward. "The Bolshevik Revolution," 3 vols. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985. London: Routledge, 2019. 
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Wilde, Robert. "Who Were the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/who-were-the-mensheviks-and-bolsheviks-1221813. Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Who Were the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-were-the-mensheviks-and-bolsheviks-1221813 Wilde, Robert. "Who Were the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-were-the-mensheviks-and-bolsheviks-1221813 (accessed June 7, 2023).