Difference Between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were the two main factions within the Russian Socialist movement at the beginning of the 20th century. In Russian, the term “Bolshevik” literally means “majority” whereas “Menshevik” means “minority” – even though, in reality, Mensheviks were often the majority. Despite the common origins and the similar political orientation, the two groups officially divided on November 16, 1903 because of their divergent opinions and the discrepancies between their leaders.
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had a number of common features and beliefs:
- They both strived for the elimination of the capitalist system;
- They both wanted to overthrow the Tsarist regime; and
- They were both part of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).
However, the irreconcilable disagreements between the two led to the definitive division, which was preceded by several turbulent conferences and confrontations. In order to properly understand the reasons behind the split, we need to analyze the individual features of each group.
- Led by Lenin;
- Insisted on the necessity of a highly centralized political party constituted by professional revolutionaries;
- Members of the radical majority of the Russian Socialist party;
- Employed questionable methods to obtain revenues, including robbery;
- Advocated for an immediate seizure of power of the proletariat; and
- Believed that Russia could transition directly from a monarchy to a communist society.
Indeed, Lenin was the mastermind and the undiscussed leader of the Bolsheviks. In 1902, in fact, he wrote “What has to be done”: book in which he expressed his view of history and his revolutionary ideals. According to Lenin, polemics and debate were useless, and strong actions were needed to overthrow the Tsarist system; his critical words were particularly directed against the members of the then political environment, who believed that there was no other choice but to wait for history to take its “predetermined course”.
In “What has to be done”, Lenin:
- Rejected terrorism;
- Promoted the revolution;
- Suggested the creation of a supreme organizing body abroad and of a subordinated committee based in Russia;
- As members of the supreme body, he proposed Martov, Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich – all members of his newspaper Iskra’s editorial board – and himself; and
- Insisted on the necessity of creating a strictly organized party.
The radical ideas laid out by Lenin resulted extremely appealing to many and succeeded in obtaining the support of Russian soldiers and urban workers. However, Lenin’s stance and ideas were the main reasons behind the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.
The more moderate faction of the Russian Socialist party had slightly different ideals than its Bolshevik counterpart. According to Mensheviks, and to their leader Martov, social changes had to be achieved through a cooperation with the bourgeoisie and an inclusive, gradual process.
Furthermore, they believed that:
- The new party should be inclusive and open to all;
- The new party should work within the existing system;
- Change had to be gradual and lead to the establishment of a parliamentary democracy;
- The proletariat should not dominate the bourgeois revolution; and
- A socialist society should be preceded by a liberal capitalist system; therefore, there could be no direct transition from Tsarism to Communism.
Moreover, the Mensheviks did not agree with Lenin’s dictatorial tendencies nor with the questionable methods employed by the Bolsheviks to obtain revenues. Even if both factions had the common ultimate goal of overthrowing the Tsarist system, they did not agree over the means and actions needed to achieve it.
Therefore, the main differences between the two can be summarized as follows:
- Bolsheviks (and Lenin) believed in the necessity of a revolution led and controlled by the proletariat only, whereas Mensheviks (and Martov) believed that a collaboration with the bourgeoisie was necessary;
- Bolsheviks strived for the creation of a strictly organized party controlled by few revolutionaries (the editing board of the Lenin’s newspaper Iskra, whereas Mensheviks wanted to establish an inclusive party, open to proletariat and bourgeois;
- Bolsheviks wanted a direct change from Tsarism to Communism while Mensheviks felt that a transitionary period was necessary; and
- Bolsheviks were radical revolutionaries while Mensheviks were more moderate.
The growing tensions between the two leaders and the increasing discrepancies in views and ideals between the two parties inevitably led to a division.
The tensions further escalated during the Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party in August 1903. During the meeting, Lenin and Martov could not agree on two main issues:
- Who should be included in the editorial board of Iskra – the party’s newspaper; and
- The definition of “party members”.
Lenin pushed for a more selective and strict approach while Martov insisted on the importance of creating a broad party where dissent and disagreements were allowed.
Yet, after Martov directed a personal verbal attack against Lenin and accused him of being an elitist and a tyrant, on November 16, 1903, Lenin resigned from the board of Iskra and the division became official. Few years later, attempts of reunifying the two factions were made, but in 1912 Lenin officially split the RSDLP and implemented his plan to change the status quo.
Despite his tyrannical attitude, Lenin was supported by the masses and, after the February revolution of 1917, formally took control of the government. Finally, after the October revolution, Bolsheviks eliminated all political opponents and changed their name into Russian Communist Party (of Bolsheviks).
Within the context of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were the two main factions existing at the beginning of the 20th century. Despite the common origins and few similar goals, the two groups diverged on several core issues:
- Inclusiveness of the party;
- Nature of the revolution;
- Members of the party;
- Role of the bourgeoisie and of the proletariat; and
- Way of transitioning from a Tsarist system to a Socialist society.
Therefore, following the constant confrontations that took place in the first decade of the century, the two groups finally split and the Bolsheviks became the dominant party.
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 Bolshevik, Encyclopaedia Britannica, available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bolshevik
 The Bolsheviks, The History Learning Site, available at http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/modern-world-history-1918-to-1980/russia-1900-to-1939/the-bolsheviks/
 Menshevik, Encyclopaedia Britannica, available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/Menshevik
 The Bolshevik-Menshevik Split, HistoryToday, available at http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/bolshevik-menshevik-split