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Russian History: XX century

Russian History: XIX сentury

The Mensheviks' Critique of Bolshevism and the Bolshevik State
Analysis from the February Revolution to the 1922 Crackdown 
The Revolution of February 1917 immediately changed the focus of
Russian Marxists from the European war to the internal situation in
their native country.  This revolution led to a string of events that
altered the very nature of their fratricidal quarrels. Before, these
quarrels were theoretical disputes about the fine points of Marxist
ideology. Now they had a practical aspect as well. The Bolsheviks, as
it turned out, were able to seize and hold center stage for themselves.
The Mensheviks mainly reacted to what the Bolsheviks did. Yet the
urgency and the need for swift action did not prevent the two factions
from engaging in a wealth of philosophical dialogues. These
controversies proceeded "dialectically"; that is, abstract "theses" about
the proper paths were advanced, and when these paths led to
practical difficulties, the theses were challenged with "antitheses,"
different policies designed to cope with the problems of the original
theses. With the Bolsheviks, the final "synthesis" was full-fledged
totalitarianism that embraced slavery, execution for contrary political
beliefs, government ownership of virtually all productive organizations,
and one-party rule. With the Mensheviks, the final synthesis (with
honorable exceptions) was appeasement, half-hearted criticism, and
an amazing double-standard that led them to believe that, in some
sense, Lenin's dictatorship was better than old-style authoritarianism.
For example, at first the Mensheviks supported the provisional
government and denounced the Bolsheviks for a host of reasons. 
When the Bolsheviks ousted the Kerensky government with violence,
the majority of Mensheviks shortly quieted down and tried to offer
constructive criticism to those in power. When the civil war began,
most Mensheviks backed the Bolsheviks, deeming a counter-
revolution even worse. They did so when the government's reign of
terror was in full swing and while Trotsky wrote official defenses for
mass murder and slavery. Surely the Mensheviks, who shared with
the Bolsheviks a genuine desire to see their philosophic ideals made
real, could understand that the Bolsheviks meant every word.
The issue of civil liberties is another instructive instance of the
Mensheviks' dialectical critique of Bolshevism. At first, the Bolsheviks
mainly suppressed non-socialist expression. The Mensheviks were, in
principle, opposed to this, but  failed to come forth and defend the
rights of their "class enemies." Then, the Bolsheviks turned on their
fellow socialists; to this, the Mensheviks responsed with anger. Within
a year, however, majority Menshevik opinion accepted the
suppression of non-socialists and asked merely that sedition charges
be handled by the judiciary instead of the Cheka. At no point did the
Mensheviks denounce censorship unequivocally.
Landauer is especially perceptive when he analyzes the dilemma of
the activist who translates Marxist theories into reality: "If it was
permissible and even necessary to throw one's country for so long a
period into the horrors of civil war and dictatorship, was it then not
illogical to balk at the use of deceit, torture, provocation - in fact of any
means that would speed up the revolution?. As long as the
dictatorship of the proletariat was a matter of theoretical speculation, it
was unnecessary to draw this conclusion. But when Marxists had
acquired the power to be ruthless, they had to answer the question of
the extent to which this power ought to be used. For a real dialectician,
only one answer was possible: Everything must be done that is in the
interests of the revolution. If Lenin did things that would have horrified
Marx or even Sorel, it was not because of any deviation from Marxism;
rather, it was, first, because he had made his choice between two
conflicting tendencies in Marxism, and, second, because men of
action have to make decisions from which philosophers can
escape."45 Lenin's choice was totalitarianism. The Mensheviks did not
go this far, but were willing to make a series of concessions to Lenin
that they would not have considered if he had not been a fellow
Marxist. Their attacks upon him, though sometimes angry and sincere,
were half-hearted. After all, they considered him better than a counter-
revolution, and could not paint him as a heartless monster since he
was the lesser of evils.
The Right Mensheviks, it should be mentioned, were an important
exception to these generalizations. They were militant in their criticism
and refused to compromise with a government that sanctioned terror
as an official policy. Even as early as June of 1918, the Right
Menshevik Mirov wrote prophetically: "the workers are many times
more helpless and powerless...than in the era of capitalism. Having
proclaimed the dictatorship of the proletariat and the poorest
peasantry, the Bolshevik regime has in fact turned into a dictatorship
over the proletariat."46 Some of these Mensheviks, such as Potresov,
even opposed Lenin's "state capitalism" on the grounds that it was
insufficiently capitalist. To these thinkers, a period of free-market
capitalism, as opposed to state capitalism, was an essential
precondition for the creation of a socialist society.  The main
weakness in their analysis was that, as Marxists, Mensheviks had to
concede that many of Lenin's current policies would eventually be
necessary, perhaps in a modified form. But if these policies led to
dictatorship and economic collapse under Lenin, how could they
possibly avoid identical results if they were tried later? Like Marx, the
Right Mensheviks never held the reins of the state and were therefore
able to avoid answering this difficult question.
Recapitulation and Reply to Criticism 
From its origins to its final elimination, Menshevism remained a
species of orthodox Marxism, with all that it implies. The differences
between the Mensheviks and their Bolshevik cousins existed, but
have been overrated. Their similarities dominate any comparative
study of the two movements. In 1903, both factions accepted
Plekhanov's statement of principles, and split only over two
moderately different conceptions of the revolutionary socialist party.
This split, moreover, was not primarily motivated by the Mensheviks
abhorrence of autocracy, but by their conviction that it would alienate
large segments of potential allies in the quest for socialism. The
Bolsheviks were obviously authoritarian from the start; the Mensheviks
occasionally criticized them for this, but were still willing to cooperate
with them in a single party. If civil liberties were a main concern of the
Mensheviks, why didn't they choose allies who shared this concern?
The most compelling answer is that they did not care enough to spurn
alliances with those who disagreed.
The second and final split was very similar to the first; indeed, it
showed little evidence for the view that the Mensheviks had evolved to
a less authoritarian point of view. The break came because the
Mensheviks tried to start better relations with other socialist parties,
and the Bolsheviks opposed broadening of this kind. During the war,
the debates amongst the Mensheviks were at least as virulent as their
debates with the Bolsheviks. When the February Revolution created
the provisional government, most Mensheviks and Bolsheviks initially
supported it. Only after Lenin revealed that he wanted to smash this
new government did a tactical chasm erupt among the Russian
Marxists. Their difference was not based upon a principled opposition
to socialist coups.  Instead, the argument that the Mensheviks
repeated without end was that a bourgeois capitalist phase was
historically necessary for socialism to appear.  Ultimately, they were
accusing the Bolsheviks more of poor timing than anything else.
Once the Bolsheviks were in power, the Mensheviks split into two
distinct camps.  The majority did not like what the Bolsheviks were
doing, but feared counter-revolution even more. They hoped to
become a loyal opposition party. The minority, the Right Mensheviks,
was more radical, and eventually endorsed a violent overthrow of
Bolshevism. They saw that the dictatorship of Lenin was more
oppressive than the czarist autocracy had ever been. It is safe to say
that both sorts of Mensheviks did not approve of the unflinching
brutality of the Bolsheviks and would have done things differently. It is
also safe to say that most of them were willing to tolerate it and that all
of them would have endorsed some sort of dictatorship once it
became "historically necessary." There are many possible objections
to this thesis. In an attempt to answer them, I shall emphasize first of
all what this thesis does not argue. It does not claim that there was no
difference between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, or that the
Mensheviks' leanings towards what moderns would call "social
democracy" did not exist. It does not claim that the Mensheviks would
have been totalitarians if they ever held the reins of power. It does not
claim that the Mensheviks were not sincerely opposed to the
Bolsheviks' more extreme policies.
With this in mind let us consider two major counter-claims. The first is
that the Mensheviks, in time, would have become full-fledged social
democrats who opposed violent revolution and would have tolerated
opposition. It is never impossible for anyone to change his or her
mind, but there is not much evidence for this view in the Mensheviks'
history. They never had passionate and lengthy debates with anyone
over the virtues of civil liberties and parliamentary democracy. Instead,
their debates were over technical issues in Marxist ideology, such as
the proper party structure and the correct time for revolution.  They
never showed great enthusiasm for tolerating non-socialist parties.
The real acid test of a group's commitment to liberal values is when
they extend tolerance to their enemies as well as their friends. The
Mensheviks did not, and it is difficult to see how tolerance of this kind
could be derived from Marxist philosophy.
Scholars of the history of socialist thought have noted that, at least in
modernized countries, there is a tendency for orthodox Marxist
socialists to gradually mellow: from Bernsteinism and "revisionism" to
Marxist democratic socialism to middle-of-the-road non- Marxist social
democracy.47 Perhaps the Mensheviks would eventually have
developed in the same manner if they had not been largely destroyed
or co-opted by the Bolsheviks. Some facts support the claim that such
a trend exists. Still, it is far from a perfect induction: witness the cases
of the French and Italian Communist parties which have remained
"orthodox" at least until recently. Even if this trend in the history of
socialism correlated perfectly with the facts, it would remain a mere
historical truth (such as the "law" that American presidents elected in
years ending in a "0" invariably die in office - incidentally refuted by the
case of Ronald Reagan) until justified by a cogent theory. This takes
us outside the scope of this paper, so we will leave it an open
The second major counter-claim is: the Mensheviks would not have
used terror and would have only pursued policies that the bulk of the
population endorsed.  This seems more reasonable than the first
claim. If by "terror" one means mass shootings and general arrest of
people for their opinions, one might be correct.  Even this is arguable:
when the time was right, they surely would have favored repression
against the bourgeoisie. Or suppose that the population was unwilling
to go along with the pattern that Marx said was historically necessary? 
Wouldn't the Mensheviks have to admit that the revolution is above
mere bourgeois morality and gone ahead whether the masses wanted
to or not? In any case, this objection is not inconsistent with the
argument of this paper. The Mensheviks certainly showed
apprehension at the use of terror and wanted the masses to
participate in the political process. They also embraced values that
could conflict with these scruples. Who can say what they would have
done if they held power? We must answer, with Landauer, that
philosophers can escape the responsibility to decide between
conflicting ends while men of power cannot.  Still, how complimentary
is it to say of a political party that, "They probably wouldn't have
resorted to mass murder and totalitarianism"? The implication is that
they possibly would have.
Menshevisms' Critique of Bolshevism: Its Current Relevance 
Most historians who have studied Menshevism, including Getzler,
Brovkin, and perhaps Haimson, think that the Mensheviks had positive
lessons for their country and the world. In his concluding tribute to
Martov, Getzler states: "He was a fervent revolutionary pledged to the
overthrow of the tsarist regime which he profounded hated. He was a
democrat. He was a real socialist. He was an internationalist."48
Brovkin ends his study of post-October Revolution Menshevism with
an equally laudatory passage: "The Bolsheviks appeared to be heirs
to European traditions of socialism, Marxism, and proletarian
But in turning Marxism into Marxism-Leninism, they created a party
apparatus that Marx would not recognize. Menshevik opposition and
Menshevik testimony represent the initial attempts to dispel these
claims and to reveal the antidemocratic nature of Bolshevism.
Although the Mensheviks were defeated in their own day, the historical
argument between Communists and Social Democrats over
democracy, socialism, and the role of workers' parties continues. From
this perspective, the Mensheviks' critique of Bolshevism in 1918 and
their struggle for democratic socialism have not lost their timeliness
Given the thesis of this paper, it should come as no surprise that I
disagree completely. Neither the Soviet Union nor anyone else needs
a less bad form of Marxism. The political principles of Marx, especially
his theory of class war and his attack on "bourgeois freedom," are the
foundation upon which the Soviet state stands, with all its
unspeakable cruelty and violence. Democratic apologists for Marx
could certainly refuse to follow their ideology to its logical implication.
But a true regeneration of a society requires not that they renounce all
"ideals" as impossible or dangerous, but they adopt new ideals which
are practical as well. I would suggest that the citizens of the USSR
have a direct interest in rejecting the ideals of Marxism and embracing
those of classical liberalism: individual freedom, private property, free
markets, civil liberties for everyone, and the rule of law.
Of the Mensheviks themselves, my overall evaluation is very negative.
They were better than the Bolsheviks, but shared their fundamental
errors. They never bothered to consider philosophic, economic, or
political criticism from outside the confines of Marxism, and despite
occasional protests to the contrary, they usually accepted Marx's
writings as a direct revelation of absolute truth beyond testing or
refutation. How could anything but disaster follow from this method of
thinking about the world? 
One of Trotsky's critics found in him a fault that could just as easily
describe any of the Russian Marxists: "He was an intellectual who
never asked himself such a simple question as: 'What reason do I
have to believe that the economic condition of workers under
socialism will be better than under capitalism?'"50 This, I think, is the
most damning fact of all.
1: Landauer, Carl. European Socialism (University of California Press:
Los Angeles, 1959), p.144.
2: ibid, pp.154-173.
3: Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto (Washington Square Press:
New York, 1964), p.93.
4: ibid, pp.84-85.
5: Haimson, Leopold. The Russian Marxists and the Origins of
Bolshevism (Oxford University Press: London, 1955), pp.80-81.
6: ibid, pp.117-118; Landauer, op. cit., p.422.
7: Haimson, op. cit., pp.131-134.
8: ibid, p.131.
9: Landauer, op. cit., pp.423-424.
10: Getzler, Israel. Martov (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge,
1967), p.77.
11: ibid, pp.79-83.
12: Haimson, op. cit., p.183.
13: ibid, pp.186-187.
14: ibid, pp.190-193.
15: Getzler, op. cit., pp.86-89.
16. ibid, p.79.
17: ibid, p.97.
18: Haimson, op. cit., p.200.
19: ibid, pp.201-203.
20: Getzler, op. cit., p.101.
21: ibid, p.114.
22: Landauer, op. cit., p.433.
23: ibid, pp.433-436.
24: Getzler, op. cit., pp.139-140.
25: ibid, pp.138-141.
26: ibid, p.147.
27: Landauer, op. cit., p.429.
28: Getzler, op. cit., pp.150-151.
29: Landauer, op. cit., pp.577-578.
30: Getzler, op. cit., pp.164-167.
31: ibid, pp.171-172.
32: Brovkin, Vladimir. The Mensheviks After October (Cornell
University Press: Ithaca, 1987), p.15-19.
33: ibid, pp.44-45.
34: ibid, pp.80-86.
35: ibid, p.103.
36: ibid, pp.105-125.
37: Getzler, op. cit., p.198.
38: ibid, pp.184-187.
39: Brovkin, op. cit., p.207.
40: Getzler, op. cit., p.184.
41: Landauer, op. cit., pp.716-718.
42: Getzler, op. cit., pp.189-191.
43: Brovkin, op. cit., p.255.
44: ibid, p.98-299.
45: Landauer, op. cit., pp.723-724.
46: Brovkin, op. cit., p.268.
47: Personal conversation with Prof. Gregory Grossman, UC Berkeley
Economics Dep't.
48: Getzler, op. cit., p.220-221.
49: Brovkin, op. cit., p.299.
50: Raico, Ralph, "Trotsky: the ignorance and the evil; Review of
Irving Howe's Leon Trotsky," The Libertarian Forum, March 1979,

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