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Russian History: XX century

Russian History: XIX сentury

The Mensheviks' Critique of Bolshevism and the Bolshevik State
The Mensheviks' Critique of Bolshevism and the Bolshevik State 
"I often remember a funny conversation which was, however,
significant for me...when I was taking [university] courses, I talked with
a classmate who condemned the members of the People's Will for
murdering people. I didn't know her very well, so I had to be cautious,
and I said, 'Of course, killing is bad, but it ultimately depends on your
point of view.' And she said so sadly, 'That's the whole problem, how
to get that point of view.'" 
Lydia Dan, quoted in The Making of Three Russian Revolutionaries   
Bryan Caplan 
Econ 199 


There are two primary questions with which study of the Mensheviks'
struggle against the Bolsheviks must begin. First: Which of the
Bolsheviks' policies did the Mensheviks' oppose? Second: On what
ideological grounds did this opposition depend? The second question
is particularly crucial if one wishes to demonstrate that the Mensheviks
offered their contemporaries a viable alternative to both the czarist
monarchy and the Bolshevik dictatorship. It is also important to
examine this question if one wishes to show that the Mensheviks have
valuable lessons for modern Russia. Answering the first question tells
us about historical fact, about what did happen; answering the second
question allows us to extrapolate our knowledge of the Mensheviks to
counterfactual and hypothetical cases, to what could have happened
in the past or what might happen in the future.
From a different perspective: a universal claim such as: "The
Mensheviks would have established a democratic society and
respected civil liberties," cannot rest upon a particular claim such as:
"In 1918, the Mensheviks opposed the suppression of dissident
newspapers." The particular claim is consistent with a wide body of
principles in conflict with the universal claim. For example: "Dissidents
should not be suppressed in 1918, but in some years it is quite
admirable to do so." Instead, it is necessary to study the ideological
foundation of the Mensheviks' opposition to the Bolsheviks' policies,
and see how they deduced their practices from their theories. Only
with this full context in mind will it be possible to judge the possibilities
that the Menshevik movement had and the lessons that it offers to the
With these standards in mind, it will be argued that the disputes
between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, both in theory and in practice,
were dwarfed by their shared devotion to orthodox Marxism. Their
disagreements can be best explained as differences in attitude and
emphasis rather than basic principles.  Both factions accepted the
establishment of Marxian socialism as an ideal goal, and both rejected
individualist political theories that demanded toleration of dissent and
pluralist democracy as a matter of principle. Instead, the Mensheviks
rested their opposition to repressive Bolshevik policies on secondary
theorems in the Marxian system, and would have supported dictatorial
policies under different circumstances. Many Mensheviks
demonstrated a surprising tolerance of Bolshevik policies. In fact,
some were so in sympathy with the Bolsheviks that they voted with
their feet and joined the Bolsheviks just as Lenin's authoritarianism
was becoming most obvious.
The major theme of this essay, then, is that the differences between
the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks have been overrated. Their
differences may be better explained as variations upon shared Marxist
themes than major differences. The magnitude of their philosophic
disagreement, not the emotional intensity of their internecine disputes,
is the proper yardstick for comparing and contrasting each
movements' likely effects upon a society under its sway. In the context
of the full range of political ideologies, this magnitude is a small one,
and the effects of both movements if one came to dominate a society
would have been similar.
Brief Review of Relevant Marxist Concepts 
Both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks described themselves as "orthodox
Marxists," so it seems important to have a basic understanding of their
shared Marxist theories. Then it will be possible to understand how the
two factions could disagree with each other yet share a common
reverence for Marx. Four themes that recur throughout the debates of
the Russian Marxists are: the economic interpretation of history, the
stage theory of social development, the class struggle, and their
"positive" as opposed to "negative" or "bourgeois" view of human
freedom. Let us briefly elaborate upon each.
The economic interpretation of history argues that economic or
technological changes, changes in the means of production, are the
"ultimate" determinants of a society's condition. Ideas, philosophy,
religion, and sociology are not independent variables, but must be
traced back to changes in the methods of production. Quoting Marx:
"The social relations are intimately attached to the productive forces.
In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of
production, and in changing their mode of production, their manner of
gaining a living, they change all their social relations. The windmill
gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the
industrial capitalist."1 
In Marx's view, therefore, social change must ultimately be explained
by changes in the means of production, not by individual action or
ideas. And, because technological progress follows a predictable
course, history should also be predictable, governed by scientific laws.
According to Marx, these laws state that history is divided into different
periods or "stages," feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and communism
being the four final stages. And, since capitalism comes between
feudalism and socialism, it is quite  impossible to jump from one to the
other. Instead, a society must pass through each in due time.2 Until
humanity reaches the communist stage, Marx believed, each historical
period would be characterized by what he termed "class struggle."
Different social groups have incompatible interests, while members of
the same social groups have similar interests, so the natural tendency
is for classes with conflicting interests to strive to thwart and exploit
one another. Each stage of history ends when a previously
subordinate class attains power and becomes the new exploiting
class. And, because it is an historical law that ruling classes do not
give up their power voluntarily, one should expect changes in power
relations to be accompanied by violence, by some sort of class war.
Thus, when socialism replaces capitalism: "The proletariat will use its
political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the
bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of
the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class"3 A final
element in Marx's system that tends to derail analysis of the
Mensheviks and Bolsheviks is Marx's theory of freedom. He clearly
does not accept the individualist, "bourgeois," theory of freedom that a
person is "free" if he is left alone, if he is not aggressed against. As
Marx states: "And the abolition of this state of things is called by the
bourgeoisie, abolition of individuality and freedom! And rightly so. The
abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and
bourgeois freedom is undoubtably aimed at. "By freedom is meant,
under present bourgeois conditions of production, free trade, free
selling and buying.
"But if selling and buying disappears, free selling and buying
disappears also.
This talk about free selling and buying, and all the other 'brave words'
of our bourgeoisie about freedom in general, have a meaning, if any,
only in contrast with restricted selling and buying, with the fettered
traders of the Middle Ages, but have no meaning when opposed to the
communistic abolition of buying and selling, of the bourgeois
conditions of production, and of the bourgeoisie itself."4 The
implications of this viewpoint are quite interesting. First, buying and
selling - free exchange among consenting adults  - is not an aspect of
freedom, but an obstacle to it. True freedom exists when such
exchanges are "abolished," presumably with violence. Second,
"freedom" does not include the "freedom to be a member of the
bourgeoisie." Instead, Marx's freedom appears when the bourgeoisie
is "abolished." Once again, this appears to imply violence, since the
bourgeoisie could hardly be expected to abolish itself voluntarily. In
short, the Marxist view of freedom, rather than assuring protection for
those who do not fit into the Marxist pattern, sanctions their
The Early Menshevik-Bolshevik Debates and the 1903 Schism 
Given this admittedly oversimplified background, we may now jump to
the early stages of the Russian Marxist movement. The first major
attempt to unite Russian Marxists occurred in 1898, when a congress
of Russian socialists met in Minsk and announced the formation of the
Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). This fell apart when
the czarist police captured the members of the party's Central
Committee a few weeks later.5 The next important step came in 1900
and 1901 when Lenin, Martov, Plekhanov, Axelrod, and other
revolutionary socialists began publishing two Marxist periodicals:
Iskra, a popular weekly, and Zaria, a more theoretical journal.6 This
phase is interesting because the future Bolsheviks and Mensheviks
were acting jointly. Lenin and Martov, among others, vigorously
attacked various "deviationist" factions, such as Economists and
Revisionists, and revealed a shared tendency to equate ideological
disagreement with intellectual dishonesty. Thus, Martov wrote, "The
struggle between the 'critics' and 'orthodox' Marxists is really the first
chapter of a struggle for political hegemony between the proletariat
and bourgeois democracy. In the uprising of the bourgeois
intelligentsia against proletarian hegemony, we see, hidden under an
ideological mask, the class struggle of the advanced section of
bourgeois society against the revolutionary proletariat." Compare this
to Lenin: "Hence, to belittle socialist ideology in any way, to deviate
from it in the slightest degree, means the strengthening of bourgeois
ideology."7 Martov and Lenin also voiced similar views about the
"spontaneously" emerging labor movement, stating that it would shift
the workers' attention from changing the social system to changing
their relative position within the existing system. Some form of
authoritarian paternalism would, under such circumstances, be
justified. As Haimson describes Martov's view: "In the face of the
'treachery and violence of the reactionaries,' it was their [Social
Democrats'] duty to temporarily 'organize the movement from the top
down so as to insure the careful selection and training of its
members.'"8 The first obvious break in the ranks of the avowedly
"orthodox" Marxists occurred during the second congress of the
RSDLP in July 1903, when a debate betweeen Lenin and Martov
precipitated a full-fledged schism. Interestingly, the debate was not
even over the proper aims of the party. Plekhanov wrote the following
program of ultimate demands, which, according to Landauer, was
approved without controversy: "By replacing the private ownership of
the means of production with public ownership and by introducing a
planned organization of the processes of production in order to
safeguard the welfare and the many-sided development of all the
members of society, the social revolution of the proletariat will put an
end to the division of society into classes and thus will liberate all the
oppressed humanity as well as end all forms of exploitation of one part
of society by another.
"An essential condition for this social revolution is the dictatorship of
the proletariat, i.e., the conquest by the proletariat of such political
power as will enable it to quell all opposition by the exploiters."9
Instead of arguing about these propositions, quite authoritarian in their
concrete implications (Who will "plan" the processes of production?
How can the proletariat simultaneously "quell all opposition by
exploiters" and "end all forms of exploitation by one part of society by
another"?), the debate broke out over the proper method of achieving
these goals. Even the differences over the proper means were not
particularly great. As Getzler explains, "both [Lenin and Martov]
wanted a centralized party. But as soon as they turned to consider
how completely the party should be centralized, how its centralism
should be organized, and above all who should man and control its
centre, they turned by degrees from partners to opponents."10 What
were these two different conceptions of the party? Lenin expressed his
views in his famous essay "What is to be Done?" In his opinion, the
party should consist exclusively of full-time revolutionaries. These
professional activists would necessarily be under strict control of the
central committee of the party, which would make every effort to
maintain the orthodoxy and ideological purity of Social Democracy.
Important decisions would be made by the central committee.  On the
other hand, Martov believed that the party should include politically
interested workers, peasants, and intellectuals as well as full-time
revolutionaries. And, given this broader definition of a "party member,"
discipline and orthodoxy would be less strict than under Lenin's
The actual schism came about when Lenin exploited the voting
system at the congress to achieve a formal approval for his plans.
Following debate and disagreement between Martov and Lenin on the
party membership question, minority factions of the RSDLP walked
out of the congress. This walk-out left a disproportionately large group
of "hards," i.e., adherents of the Leninist conception of the party.
There were twenty Leninist delegates with a total of twenty-four votes.
This gave his faction a majority. Lenin's forces then barred Martov and
Potresov from addreessing the congress, expelled Axelrod, Zasulich,
and Potresov from the editorial board, and elected a Central
Committee of Leninists. Martov refused to serve on the new editorial
board.11 The second congress adjourned on August 23, 1903, with all
the important aspects of Lenin's program in place. Since Lenin's
faction held a majority of the votes for a brief moment, they quickly
dubbed themselves "Bolsheviks," or "Majorityites." Their opponents
were called Mensheviks, or "Minorityites." The question that now faced
the the Mensheviks was: How do we differ from the Bolsheviks? To
split solely on organizational grounds would seem trivial indeed.
Haimson aptly summarizes this curious dilemma: "Already, the
Martovites were searching for some doctrinal grounds upon which to
base their opposition, and at first this search was difficult, not so much
because such differences were absent, but because they were still so
subtle and had been buried and evaded for so long."12 Eventually
Menshevik writers came to justify their break on the grounds that
Lenin's conception would make the party a "mechanistic centralist"
one. It would exclude revolutionary elements of the  proletariat who
unfortunately were not fully enlightened. It would also stifle political
initiative. Hence, the Mensheviks spurned Lenin's belated peace
Next, Plekhanov, who originally sided with Lenin, tried to reunite the
divided factions of the party. He had not changed his mind, but
believed that the issue was not worth splitting over. Lenin, now firmly
dedicated to wiping out the Menshevik deviation, proceeded to break
with Plekhanov, stating, "I am now fighting for the CC [Central
Committee] which the Martovites also want to seize, brazened by
Plekhanov's cowardly betrayal."13 Over time, the Mensheviks came to
re-define their doctrinal differences in a more sophisticated and
technical way. Martov and Akselrod discovered a full-fledged
contradiction in Lenin's system. As Martov and Akelrod explained it,
the subjective goal of Social Democracy was to advance the political
maturity and independence of the proletariat. Lenin's objective
method, however, was to create a class of revolutionary intelligentsia
to dominate the proletariat. Lenin's means, then, was incompatible
with his end, because his method of advancing the proletariat actually
wound up by ruling it. Naturally, Lenin counterattacked.  He repeated
his earlier arguments, then denounced the "anarchistic, individualistic"
character of the Mensheviks' opposition to ultra-centrism. The
spontaneous flailing of the masses, unguided by a sound and sturdy
Marxist vanguard could never represent the march of history. In short,
without the Leninist party, the workers would, at best, develop mere
"trade-union consciousness" and would never work to attain true

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