Socialist History: 100th anniversary of division between Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks

100 years ago, on July 30 1903, the second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party began in Brussels. This congress saw the historic division between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

Capitalist commentators and Stalinists alike are lying when they present Lenin and the Bolsheviks of 1903 as the origins of the regime of Stalin. But what actually took place at the Congress? How did the events at the Congress shape the Bolsheviks up to the revolution in 1917?

The fact that Lenin was ever a social democrat is something neither social democrats nor Stalinists want to publicise. But the whole labour movement, united in the Second International, had the label Social Democratic up to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, when it split. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were almost alone among the leading Social Democrats internationally to oppose the war. In 1919, as a direct result of the successful socialist revolution in Russia, the Communist International was founded, with most of its activists coming from the left wing of the social democratic parties.

The Congress of the RSDLP in 1903 was precisely about forming a workers’ party in Russia. During the whole period after its founding Congress, in Minsk, in 1898, the party existed as loose study groups and circles, often isolated, harassed by the secret police and therefore lacking cohesion and continuity.


In order to keep the party together and develop it, the newspaper, Iskra (the Spark), was launched in 1903, when Lenin came back from Siberia. The paper, produced in exile, involved the most advanced social democratic leaders, including Plekhanov, Martov and Trotsky. It was distributed to groups of workers in Russia. The idea was to build the party organisation around the paper, which offered political education, both for writers and readers, as well as news of workers’ struggles.

Iskra published several key articles on new steps to develop the RSDLP. Written by Lenin, but discussed and agreed within the Editorial Board, articles like, ‘The urgent tasks of our movement’ (Editorial in Issue No 1), ‘Where to begin?’ and ‘Letter to a comrade’, were distributed and discussed. An important debate in those years was the polemic against the ideas of ‘Economism’. The ‘Economists’ got their name from their emphasis on the economic struggle of the workers at the expense of the political. For them, a kopek in raised wages was more important than the political struggle against the Tsarist regime.

Economism appeared when the party circles, which earlier mainly discussed socialist propaganda, started to turn outwards to broader layers of workers. A number of participants were carried away by the increasing number of strikes and did not dare to raise the socialist programme. In defence of this, they created a political tendency, saying that workers themselves would understand the need for politics, and that “the struggle is everything”. Lenin showed how the social democrats had to manage both to “support every protest and every revolt”, and to argue how strikes were linked to the struggle to overthrow the Tsarist autocracy and the fight for socialism. To go from clandestine activities to open party work made it possible to see which members were capable of not just talking and were prepared to adapt.

The debates around Iskra undermined much of the support for the Economists. The aim of the Congress in 1903 was that, as Lenin wrote, “The programme of Iskra must become the programme and course of the party, the organisational plans of Iskra must be founded in the organisational statutes of the party”. It was about going from a circle mentality to a party, with common political principles. Iskra was the strongest tendency within the RSDLP and was, up to the Congress, seen as a homogeneous current.

Before the Congress there was a resistance against the ideas of Iskra within the RSDLP from other tendencies such as the Bund and Rabotchie Delo, which both wanted to keep their autonomy. The Bund was a Jewish Social Democratic organisation to the right in the party and Rabotchie Delo defended the Economists. What happened at the Congress, to the surprise of the participants, was that a minority of the Iskra supporters ended up in an alliance with the strongest opponents of Iskra.

The statutes

Contrary to what is claimed by both Stalinists and conservatives, the split did not take place on the political programme. The party programme was decided on unanimously, with just one abstention. The split did not follow until the 22nd session. The issues were the party statutes and the election of the Editorial Board. Draft statutes were formulated by Lenin and had been circulated before the Congress. But at the Congress, Julius Martov, also from Iskra, put forward a counter proposal for paragraph one. On the surface the difference was not so big.

Lenin’s proposal was worded, “A member of the Party is one who accepts its programme and who supports the Party both financially and by personal participation in one of the Party organisations.”

Martov’s proposal was that, “A member of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party is someone who, accepting its programme, works actively to accomplish its aims under the control and direction of the organs of the Party.”

The difference was between working “in one of the Party organisations” or “under the control and direction” of party organs.

Lenin summarised his position: The conditions for becoming a member were a) a certain level of involvement in the organisation and b) ratification by the party committee.

Martov, on the other hand, argued that, “every striker” should be able to count himself as a member. Contrary to the mythology that the Congress in 1903, under Lenin’s leadership, created some kind of “elitist party”, it was Martov’s proposal that won the vote – 28 to 23. Of the anti-Iskra delegates, Martov was supported by seven out of eight (Ironically, the decision was reversed in Lenin’s favour at the unity congress of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1906).

The Editorial Board of Iskra

At the 1903 Congress, Iskra was supposed to become the central organ of the party. As with the statutes, there had long been a proposal that the Editorial Board should be made up of three people. With the benefit of three years’ experience working with others, Lenin proposed that he, Grigory Plekhanov and Martov made up the Board. It was these three who, in practice, carried out the main tasks and wrote the key articles. This meant that three from the old Editorial Board would have to leave it – the veterans Pavel Axelrod, Vera

Zasulich and Alexander Potresov.

However, this proposal met with resistance. Political opposition to the ideas of Iskra were mixed with personal considerations towards the three by some Iskra people. How would the ’sacked’ three see the decision? Did the Congress really have the right to change the Editorial Board?

The old circle spirit had returned and opposed the striving to establish a real party built upon majority decisions. Seven anti-Iskra delegates had left the Congress by the time it came to voting, which gave Lenin the advantage with 19 votes against 17. So it was this vote that gave rise to the name Bolsheviks (those in the majority) and the Mensheviks (the minority).

Iskra’s new minority, the Mensheviks, had, before the Congress, been among those who had agreed to the proposals and stressed the authority of the Congress decisions. This no longer was the case. Martov refused to join the Editorial Board, which therefore consisted of only Lenin and Plekhanov.

“Not life or death”

After the Congress (which had been moved to London for security reasons), Lenin made the point that the debates were not about, “life or death”. They were not on political principles but on methods in party building. Leon Trotsky was among those delegates who argued against Lenin at the Congress. Twenty years later the Stalinists called him a “Menshevik”. But, already in 1903, and in the revolution of 1905, Trotsky was politically close to the Bolsheviks. When he joined the Bolshevik Party in 1917 and, together with Lenin, lead the October revolution, he admitted that he had underestimated the importance of Lenin’s emphasis on party building.

In the spring of 1904, Lenin summarised the Congress debate in his book, ‘One step forward; two steps back’. The divisions took place over whether the Congress was the highest deciding body of the party, and a pragmatic, opportunist position. Martov and his supporters had said that “every striker” could be a member but, in practice, the looser qualification for membership was applied predominantly to their academic friends, i.e. every professor and every student! These should be allowed to count themselves as members without participating in the inner life of the party – without responsibility or duties.

The Mensheviks argued for a “broad workers’ party” against what they portrayed as Lenin’s smaller “conspiratorial” group. But counting more people, as members and thereby increasing the membership figures, would not necessarily make the party stronger. More middle class individualists could make ‘guest appearances’ as social democrats. But what was needed to challenge Tsarism and capitalism was a workers’ party with collective organisation and decision-making.

Iskra stood for two fundamental methods regarding party building – centralism and a special role for the paper in knitting together the party in its mostly clandestine work. The idea of centralism was already then and, to an even greater extent, decades later distorted to mean a totally ‘top-down’ running of the party. Rosa Luxemburg, who had experienced the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) being run ‘top-down’, turning to the right and offering comfortable positions for its leaders, criticised Lenin for his emphasis on centralism and on having professional revolutionaries.

Lenin, however, replied that he did not defend “any particular organisation against another”, but the very idea of an organisation at all. If the party’s decisions and policies were not centralised, it would not be one party, but several. Different views could be debated and opposition views allowed inside a centralised party, Lenin maintained.

On the question of professional revolutionaries, Lenin later admitted that he had over-emphasised the issue, before it had become natural that leading party members should work for the party. And in contradistinction to the SPD, the Bolshevik full timers had no privileges.

Democratic centralism

Lenin advocated that the party should be founded on the basis of democratic centralism. The Mensheviks and the SPD also used the expression. The SPD was, without contest, the biggest party within the Second International and was generally seen as a Marxist and revolutionary party. Rosa Luxemburg was among the few leaders who had seen the process of degeneration that was going on beneath the surface.

The Bolsheviks used democratic centralism – meaning the fullest freedom in the many and extensive debates. This was completely reversed by the bureaucratic and dictatorial centralism of Stalinism. Stalin took power in the 1920s and 1930s through what was, in practice, a one-sided civil war. Massive purges and executions were directed against the leaders and members of the Bolshevik party. A privileged bureaucracy took power in the Soviet Union. Under Stalinism, different views were outlawed, in the Russian party and in “communist” parties globally.

Two steps back

If the Congress was one step forward, then the following months were two steps backwards. In the struggle at the Congress, Martov and the Mensheviks had allied with the party right wing, which, in turn, was reinvigorated. This increased the contradictions after the Congress and developed further into political issues. Lenin’s position was that the Congress debates did not justify a split of the party. Both he and Plekhanov therefore made a peace offer that allowed the four others to come back to the Editorial Board of Iskra. But the four refused. Plekhanov, who up until then had delivered sharp criticism of Martov’s organisational opportunism, then capitulated. He aimed for unity at any cost and started to see Lenin’s criticism of the Mensheviks as the gravest problem. Plekhanov’s change of sides made Lenin leave the Editorial Board and the four others returned.

“New Iskra”, after Lenin’s departure, took a new political line. For example, the Congress’s debates and decisions were ridiculed by Plekhanov in an article entitled, ‘What should not be done?’ The paper stressed that “politics” was more important than the organisational issues. That is an axiom that all Marxists would agree with, but for New Iskra, it meant avoiding all questions on party building. Their position was that the Bolsheviks made all “individual initiatives” impossible. If that meant that “leaders” of different kinds could no longer do as they pleased, they were right.

Lenin responded by demanding “more light” on the party leaders; broad accounting of their activities and actions, the possibility to protest through resolutions and, “in the worst case, to overthrow totally incapable people in power”, were all methods for upholding democracy in the party. This would distinguish the party from the circles, where “threats to walk away” were the usual way of debating. That was also Martov’s method after the Congress, when he refused to participate in the Editorial Board despite being elected.

The debates within the RSDLP in those years used a very sharp tone. Lenin himself wrote in 1907, “The two pamphlets, ’What is to be done’ and ’One step forward; two steps back’, present for the reader a heated, sometimes bitter and destructive controversy within the circles abroad. Undoubtedly this struggle had many unsympathetic features. Only a broadening of the party through the recruitment of proletarian elements can, combined with open mass activities, terminate the remaining circle spirit”.

In the following years, the Bolsheviks definitely became the workers’ part of the RSDLP. In the first Russian revolution of 1905, the Mensheviks were totally taken up with the idea that the capitalist class should be involved, because the next phase of Russia’s development would be a democratic capitalist society. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, stressed the independence of the working class – not to trust or subordinate itself to the capitalist class, even if the Bolsheviks also emphasised the capitalist-democratic tasks of the revolution: the overthrow of the Tsar, solving the land question, national liberation. The revolution of 1905 was lost and several years of reaction followed.

Not until the next upswing of the workers’ struggle started in 1912 did the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks finally become different parties. This split was confirmed even more at the outbreak of World War I. Plekhanov gave support to imperialist Russia in the war.

During the year of revolution, in 917, the Bolsheviks gained the support of the majority of workers and soldiers. The political grouping, which somewhat stumblingly began its existence in 1903, gained in stature during the subsequent struggles and proved capable of carrying through the seizure of power by the working class – a major historical event that shook the whole world to its foundations.

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