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How the Mensheviks Lost the Russian Revolution


Sometimes a political party may enjoy a massive lead over its rivals at the start of a contest, only to throw its advantage away through its own ineptitude. But this piece is not about the farce of Britain’s Conservatives in 2017, but the tragedy of Russia’s Mensheviks a century before that.

When Nicholas II of Russia fell from power at the end of February 1917 and soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies mushroomed across Russia, most of these new bodies were established and dominated by Menshevik-aligned labour activists. By the end of October 1917, most of the Mensheviks’ supporters, and many of their erstwhile members, had deserted them. Workers and soldiers switched their allegiance to the more radical Bolsheviks, who were able to seize power in Russia in the name of those same soviets.

Since 1903, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks had been the two main factions in Russian Marxism, nominally both part of the social-democratic party (RSDRP) but often operating entirely separately. When it first emerged in the 1880s and 1890s, Russian Marxism had a developmental schema: Russia was not ‘different’, it was merely backward. It could not avoid following Western Europe into industrial capitalism. Economic progress required political progress – the pre-capitalist autocracy, with its archaic social structure which concentrated power in a small landowning nobility, would have to be swept away. The coming revolution would bring political freedom, the right to assemble and organise, equality before the law, an equal franchise – but it would be a ‘bourgeois’, not a socialist, revolution. The working class would gain freedom and rights, but not power. After all, despite its rapid industrial development, Russia still consisted almost 80% of peasants.

In 1905, a wave of workers’ and peasants’ risings swept across Russia. The generally more radical Bolsheviks saw an opportunity: the workers’ party could conceivably take power if it allied with the revolutionary peasants. The Mensheviks tended to mistrust peasants and stuck with the old schema, in which power would pass to urban liberals, while working class parties remained outside of government. The autocracy’s reassertion of control after the end of 1905 rendered these points moot. The RSDRP was again driven underground, and many Mensheviks in particular preferred instead to concentrate on the (new but limited) opportunities for legal organisation among workers in unions, co-operatives and friendly societies. While the party’s factional leaders schemed and squabbled in exile abroad, activists within Russia were embedding themselves and their ideas in working-class life.

When World War I broke out in 1914, most European governments co-opted their labour movements to assist the war effort. In Russia, in contrast, all leading RSDRP members at large were rounded up and sent to Siberia. But the rank-and-file labour activists continued organising and agitating among the workers, not least in the greatly expanded munitions sector. Consequently, when the Tsarist regime collapsed, Menshevik-aligned labour activists were already in place both to create revolutionary organisations and set the tone for them. The first executive of the Petrograd Soviet, the most important one in Russia, was overwhelmingly Menshevik, from the more moderate, practical elements in that faction – people like Nikolai Chkheidze, Boris Bogdanov and Matvey Skobelev.

At first, the course of the revolution seemed to fit the Menshevik schema like a glove. Liberal politicians from the State Duma (parliament) formed a new Provisional Government by agreement with the Petrograd Soviet, and liberal elements took over local authorities across Russia. Political prisoners were released, civil liberties were proclaimed, and Russia became the freest of all the belligerent states. Work started on preparing for a Constituent Assembly, to be elected via universal, equal suffrage of both sexes. Russia looked destined to become a modern, democratic, parliamentary republic. Meanwhile, the role of the soviets was to ensure the revolution stayed on track, to support the new authorities from without ‘to the extent that’ they carried out the ‘tasks’ of the revolution.

This restraint did not stem solely from theoretical considerations. There were several compelling practical reasons why the Petrograd Soviet did not try to take power itself in early March 1917. Firstly, Petrograd was not all of Russia. It was not initially clear how, or even whether, the revolution was going to spread across the empire. Secondly, there was no reason to expect the civil service or the army would recognise and obey the Petrograd Soviet, whereas they would recognise a Provisional Government formed from elected Duma politicians. Thirdly, the soviet leaders understood that the Tsar had fallen not because workers had demonstrated in Petrograd but because the autocracy had been deserted by the military and political elite. There remained powerful forces – in the army, the state apparatus, the Orthodox Church, and among landowners and capitalists – who might attempt to restore the dynasty. The soviet leaders could not risk the best ever chance of freedom for a political adventure. Finally, they did not believe that conditions were ripe for Russia’s small working class to become the ruling class.

The ‘honeymoon period’ of the revolution, when there was general consensus between liberals and socialists about what needed to be done, lasted a few weeks. But Russia was slipping into an ever-deeper crisis, which was exacerbated from early April 1917 by the return from Swiss exile of the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, who took a very different, radical and uncompromising line. The political differences concerned not only questions of policy and tactics, but the interpretation of the revolution itself. Lenin’s Bolsheviks competed energetically for the support of workers, sailors and soldiers in factories, soviets, committees and military units across Russia. They denounced their Menshevik rivals as conciliators, opportunists and worse, and argued that the workers, peasants and soldiers should take power themselves through their soviets.

Underlying all of Russia’s acute problems in 1917 was the question of the war. Russia could no longer sustain the war effort. Its economy was disintegrating and the front was crumbling. Desertion, fraternisation with the enemy and indiscipline were growing problems, and the supply of men and materiel for the front was increasingly difficult. Russia needed peace, but nobody would advocate a separate peace with Wilhelm’s Germany. Most Russian social democrats had not rallied to the flag of Imperial Russia in 1914, and supported the internationalist demand for ‘peace without annexations or reparations’.

However, like it or not, with their influence and authority among soldiers and sailors, after February the soviet leaders acquired a joint responsibility for the war effort. The Petrograd Soviet issued an appeal on 14 March to the peoples of the whole world calling on them to work to end the war, but in the meantime it accepted the need to defend  revolutionary Russia against the reactionary and predatory Central Powers, pending a general democratic peace. In effect, it was calling on Russia to continue to fight, but not in order to win.

The war was the main issue over which Menshevism itself split. The mainstream Menshevik leader Fedor Dan appealed in June 1917 for soldiers to support War Minister Alexander Kerensky’s plan for an offensive against Germany and Austria. Dan imagined revolutionary Russia’s international prestige would be enhanced if it showed it could still fight. A left-wing, semi-detached ‘Menshevik-Internationalist’ faction, led by Dan’s brother-in-law (and lodger) Yuliy Martov, denounced this as a betrayal of international socialist principles. The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, were finding a ready audience among the soldiers, encouraging fraternisation at the front, and claiming that if Russia had a soviet government which proclaimed a general peace, any government of another belligerent state which resisted would be immediately overthrown by its own working class.

The Mensheviks’ taboo against joining a ‘bourgeois’ government had to be abandoned by early May 1917, when a government crisis over war aims could only be resolved by soviet representatives, including the leading Menshevik Iraklii Tsereteli, taking portfolios. They thereby tied themselves directly to the fate of the Provisional Government. But they continued to insist that only a cross-class coalition of ‘all the living forces in the country’ could cope with Russia’s deepening political, social and economic crisis and lead the country up to the Constituent Assembly.

At the First All-Russia Congress of Soviets in June-July 1917, the Mensheviks, in alliance with the peasant-oriented Party of Socialist Revolutionaries, still enjoyed a comfortable majority over the Bolsheviks and far left. But they had committed themselves to a disastrous policy which would lead to their complete eclipse by the end of the year. In government, they insisted on coalition with non-socialists. On the war, they insisted on maintaining the front, supporting offensives and working with the Allies until an international peace conference could agree an ideal democratic peace. They had sound reasons for their policies – a fear of civil war if the socialists attempted to go it alone, and a belief that a separate peace would lead to a carve-up by German imperialism. But they could not withstand the relentless criticism from the Bolsheviks and even from the internationalist left  within their own party. By the late summer and autumn of 1917, the Menshevik party was melting away, haemorrhaging its support among the workers and soldiers to the Bolsheviks.

Why did Martov’s Menshevik-Internationalists not join the Bolsheviks? Many of their criticisms were identical. There were several reasons. Firstly, Martov’s group did not believe that ‘soviet power’ was either possible or desirable. Although by autumn 1917 Martov was calling for an exclusively socialist coalition government answerable to the soviets to lead Russia up to the Constituent Assembly, the soviets themselves, with their indirect, class-based representation and fluid structure, were no substitute for a state machine. Secondly, they did not believe that the basis for a socialist revolution existed in Russia or that a world socialist revolution was imminent. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly, socialism for all Mensheviks was a constructive doctrine. The class-war agitation of the Bolsheviks, with calls to loot the looters, seize the goods of the rich and so forth had no constructive content. It was merely a redistribution of the general impoverishment. This was their dilemma: they could not go along with the Bolsheviks, but nor could they offer an attractive alternative.

By October, the Bolsheviks had won over the bulk of politically active workers and soldiers. At the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets on 25/26 October they had a majority of delegates to support their action of deposing the Provisional Government and proclaiming soviet power. The mainstream Mensheviks walked out of the congress at the start, followed later by Martov, who, having failed to secure a compromise, was dismissed by Leon Trotsky to join his comrades in the ‘dustbin of history’.

At a loss on how to respond, the Mensheviks regrouped. Fedor Dan and the centre ground in the party abandoned the right and allied itself with Martov and the left. The right minority regarded Bolshevik rule as the counterrevolution itself, to be resisted by any means available. The centre and left feared that a right-wing reaction to the Bolsheviks which would sweep away all the gains of the revolution, and therefore opposed any attempt to resist the Bolsheviks by force. The party overall fragmented and crumbled.

The period immediately after October represented its lowest point in 1917 – in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, which went ahead in November despite the Bolshevik seizure of power, the Mensheviks won only 3%, and half of their total vote was in their stronghold of Georgia. The Socialist Revolutionaries, who had been content to follow the Menshevik lead in the soviets in 1917, fared much better in retaining their peasant support across Russia, and won around 40% as against the Bolsheviks’ 24%. This meant that a majority of the assembly deputies favoured a parliamentary republic rather than soviet power.

However, when the deputies convened on 5 January 1918, after ten weeks of Bolshevik rule, the assembly was an empty shell with no state apparatus at its disposal, and was easily dispersed by a detachment of pro-Bolshevik sailors. There would be no parliamentary republic. The actual course of the revolution had completely falsified the Mensheviks’ preconceived schema.

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