Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 15
Semi-Unity with the Mensheviks

DURING THE stormy months of the 1905 Revolution, the Menshevik Party was disorganised and in a state of flux. It was composed mainly of centrist elements, and intoxicated by the events, moved on the whole very much to the left, abandoning its allegiance to the liberals and making common cause with the Bolsheviks:

Many Mensheviks began to lose faith in the bourgeois revolution. They dismissed the bourgeois either as treacherous and counterrevolutionary or as virtually nonexistent, and like the Bolsheviks they prepared for a seizure of power and the establishment of a revolutionary provisional government. As Dan wrote to Kautsky: “Man lebt hier wie im Taumel, die revolutionäre Luft wirkt wie Wein” (One lives here as if in delirium, revolutionary air has an effect like wine). [1]

The editors of the Menshevik paper Nachalo were Trotsky and Parvus. Relations between the paper and the Bolshevik Novaya Zhizn, according to Trotsky, were

most friendly. They engaged in no polemics against each other. “The first number of the Nachalo has come out,” wrote the Bolshevik Novaya Zhizn. “We welcome a comrade in the struggle. The first issue is notable for the brilliant description of the October strike written by Comrade Trotsky.” People don’t write in this way when they are fighting with each other. But there was no fighting. On the contrary, the papers defended each other against bourgeois criticism. The Novaya Zhizn, even after the arrival of Lenin, came out with a defense of my articles on the permanent revolution. Both newspapers, as well as the two factions, followed the line of the restoration of party unity. The Central Committee of the Bolsheviks, with Lenin participating, passed a unanimous resolution to the effect that the split was merely the result of the conditions of foreign exile, and the events of the revolution had deprived the factional struggle of any reasonable grounds. I defended the same line in the Nachalo, with only a passive resistance from Martov. [2]

Years later, Lenin could still write, “Remember Nachalo ... Remember articles in the spirit of Witte Is the Agent of the Bourse, Struve Is the Agent of Witte. Those were excellent articles! And those were excellent times – we did not then disagree with the Mensheviks in our assessment of the Cadets.” [3] The right-wing Menshevik Chervanin ruefully remembered 1905–06: “The Mensheviks had fallen under the influence of the revolutionary intoxication of the Bolsheviks, by taking part in the November strike in St. Petersburg, the forcible introduction of the eight-hour day and the boycott of the first Duma.” [4]



The contemporary situation and the possible future

In Moscow, the Mensheviks were very much to the fore in the revolutionary workers’ struggle. At a meeting of the Moscow Soviet on December 6, they enthusiastically supported a resolution for a general strike and armed uprising. [5] A few days later, they issued leaflets in support of the armed uprising. [6] This is how one Menshevik leader, Martynov, summed up their behaviour in 1905: “We said to ourselves then: Le vin est tiré, il faut le boire – Since the wine is poured, it will have to be drunk. At decisive moments one is forced to act firmly, with no time to analyze.” But the Mensheviks were influenced by events, rather than trying to direct them. “The difference, however,” continued this Menshevik leader, “was that we considered our situation as one forced upon us, while the Bolsheviks strove for it and regarded it as natural.” [7] A few months later, Martynov was already recanting the “madness” of 1905! Martov’s reaction was characteristic. In February 1906, he complained in a letter to Axelrod, “For two months now ... I have not been able to finish any of the writing I have started. It is either neurasthenia or mental fatigue – but I cannot gather my thoughts together.” “Martov did not know what to call his illness in 1906,” Trotsky wrote after 1917, when this letter became public, “but it has a quite definite name: Menshevism”, and he adds, “In an epoch of revolution, opportunism means, first of all, vacillation and inability ‘to gather one’s thoughts’.” [8]

Lenin hoped that the pressure of revolutionary events would continue to move the Mensheviks leftwards. From February 1905 onwards he called for unity between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. In November, he said:

It is no secret to anyone that the vast majority of Social Democratic workers are exceedingly dissatisfied with the split in the Party and are demanding unity. It is no secret to anyone that the split has caused a certain cooling-off among Social Democratic workers (or workers ready to become Social Democrats) towards the Social Democratic Party.

The workers have lost almost all hope that the party “chiefs” will unite of themselves. The need for unity was formally recognised both by the third Congress of the RSDLP and by the Menshevik conference held last May. Six months have passed since then, but the cause of unity has made hardly any progress. No wonder the workers are beginning to show signs of impatience. [9]

In fact, quite independently of central policy, and on their own initiative, Bolshevik and Menshevik branches had been combining together all over Russia. In the summer of 1905, there was a spate of mergers between Bolshevik and Menshevik committees. Thus Piatnitsky recalls how unity between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks was brought about in Odessa in November 1905, some six months before the official unification of the two parties on a national scale.

About this time the Bolshevik Leva (Vladimirov), an agent of the Central Committee, came from St. Petersburg with the proposal of uniting with the Mensheviks at all costs, without waiting for the union of the two centres above. He was supported by the Bolshevik Baron (Edward Essen), who had arrived at Odessa before the pogrom. Their proposal met with a warm response from among the party members, the Mensheviks as well as the Bolsheviks. That was easy to understand: That our few available forces were weak and scattered had become apparent to every party member during the pogrom. At the general meeting of the members of the Odessa organisation, where Comrade Gusev read a report on the form our organisation should take after the Manifesto of October 17, Comrades Leva and Baron spoke for immediate union with the Mensheviks. The committee did not object to union, but was definitely against the method of union from below. The Odessa Committee was part of the Bolshevik Party, at the head of which stood the Central Committee and the Central Organ elected at the third Party Congress. How, in that case, could Odessa unite with the Mensheviks without the knowledge and consent of the Central Committee of our party? Baron and Leva, on the other hand, stood for union without the consent of the Central Committee, in order to bring pressure to bear from below. It was obvious to the committee that the proposal of union would be passed by a great majority at the party meetings of both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, for wherever the advocates of immediate unity spoke they were supported almost unanimously. Therefore the Bolshevik committee was forced to work out the terms of the union which they themselves were against. [10]

Between April 23 and May 8, 1906, a “Unification” Congress was held in Stockholm. The “united” party that resulted included not only the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (altogether some 70,000 members), but also the Jewish Bund (33,000 members), the Polish Social Democrats, under Rosa Luxemburg’s leadership (28,000 members), and the Lettish Social Democrats (13,000 members).

In April 1906, Lenin argued that the differences between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks were becoming smaller in practice and that unity between them was more necessary than ever.

Indeed, if we examine the question in the light of the deviations that the Social Democratic movement has made from its ordinary, “normal” course, we shall see that even in this respect there was more not less solidarity and ideological integrity among the Social Democrats in the period of “revolutionary whirlwind” than there was before it. The tactics adopted in the period of “whirlwind” did not further estrange the two wings of the Social Democratic Party, but brought them closer together. Former disagreements gave way to unity of opinion on the question of armed uprising. Social Democrats of both factions were active in the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, these peculiar instruments of embryonic revolutionary authority; they drew soldiers and peasants into these Soviets, they issued revolutionary manifestos jointly with the petty-bourgeois revolutionary parties. Old controversies of the pre-revolutionary period gave way to unanimity on practical questions. The upsurge of the revolutionary tide pushed aside disagreements, compelling Social Democrats to adopt militant tactics; it swept the question of the Duma into the background and put the question of insurrection on the order of the day; and it brought closer together the Social Democrats and revolutionary bourgeois democrats in carrying out immediate tasks. In Severny Golos, the Mensheviks, jointly with the Bolsheviks, called for a general strike and insurrection; and they called upon the workers to continue this struggle until they had captured power. The revolutionary situation itself suggested practical slogans. There were arguments only over matters of detail in the appraisal of events; for example, Nachalo regarded the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies as organs of revolutionary local self-government, while Novaya Zhizn regarded them as embryonic organs of state power that united the proletariat with the revolutionary democrats.

Nachalo inclined towards the dictatorship of the proletariat. Novaya Zhizn advocated the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. But have not disagreements of this kind been observed at every stage of development of every socialist party in Europe? [11]

Lenin, however, was not deceived into thinking that the Mensheviks could be relied on completely, and did not wish to dissolve his faction in the united party. On the eve of the “Unification” Congress, he explained to Lunacharsky, “If we have a majority in the Central Committee we will demand the strictest discipline. We will insist that the Mensheviks submit to party unity. So much the worse for them if their petty-bourgeois nature will not allow them to go along with us. Let them assume responsibility for splitting the party.”

“But what if we remain in the minority?” asked Lunacharsky. “Shall we be forced to submit to them?”

Lenin smiled and replied: “We won’t permit the idea of unity to tie a noose round our necks and we shall under no circumstances permit the Mensheviks to lead us by the rope.” [12]

Lenin did believe that the pressure of events would ensure that the Mensheviks were pushed leftwards. He persisted in this belief even when, at the end of 1906, they entered into an election alliance with the Cadets, a move that he strongly condemned. Thus he wrote in November 1906,

Does the sanction by Social Democrats of blocs with the Cadets necessitate a complete severance of organisational relations, i.e., a split? We think not, and all Bolsheviks think the same way. In the first place the Mensheviks are only just setting their feet, unsteadily and uncertainly, on the path of practical opportunism en grand ... Secondly – and this is far more important – the objective conditions of the proletarian struggle in Russia today irresistibly provoke definite and decisive steps. Whether the tide of revolution rises very high (as we expected) or completely subsides (as some Social Democrats think it will, though they are afraid to say so), in either case the tactics of blocs with the Cadets will inevitably be scattered to the winds, and that in the not very distant future. Therefore, our duty at the present time is to avoid intellectualist hysteria and preserve party unity, trusting to the staunchness and sound class instinct of the revolutionary proletariat. [13]

He believed that “Menshevik comrades will ... go through the purgatory of blocs with the bourgeois opportunists and return to revolutionary Social Democracy.” [14]

Meanwhile, the Tammerfors conference of the party (November 3–7, 1906) decided, under Menshevik influence, to enter an electoral bloc with the Cadets. Lenin’s reaction was that local party organisations should be free to oppose this in their own areas. “In the present election campaign, the decision of the Mensheviks and the Central Committee in favor of blocs is not binding in practice on the local organisations, and does not commit the party as a whole to these shameful tactics of blocs with the Cadets.” [15]

All the delegates at the conference agreed that its decisions were not binding and committed nobody in any way, for a conference is an advisory, not a deciding body. Its delegates were not democratically elected, but were chosen by the Central Committee from local organisations selected by it, and in a number which it specified. [16]

Of the decisions, he said, “Within what limits are they binding in regard to this particular question? Obviously, within the limits of the decisions of the Congress and within the limits of the autonomy of the local party organisations that is recognised by the Congress.” [17]

What had happened to the democratic centralism so dear to Lenin? For years he had argued for the subordination of the lower organs of the party to the higher, and against the federal concept of the party. In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, written February-May 1904, he had said that “the undoubted tendency to defend autonomism against centralism ... is a fundamental characteristic of opportunism in matters of organisation.” [18]

For Lenin, however, organisational methods were totally subordinate to political ends, and he was prepared to propose rules of organisation for the united party in 1906 quite different from those he had hitherto put forward. Quite unashamedly he explained shortly afterwards:

The rules of our party very definitely establish the democratic organisation of the party. The whole organisation is built from below upwards, on an elective basis. The party rules declare that the local organisations are independent (autonomous) in their local activities. According to the rules, the Central Committee co-ordinates and directs all the work of the party. Hence it is clear that it has no right to interfere in determining the composition of local organisations. Since the organisation is built from below upwards, interference in its composition from above would be a flagrant breach of democracy and of the party rules. [19]

He gave a new twist to the concept of party discipline.

After the competent bodies have decided, all of us, as members of the party, must act as one man. A Bolshevik in Odessa must cast into the ballot box a ballot paper bearing a Cadet’s name even if it sickens him. And a Menshevik in Moscow must cast into the ballot box a ballot paper bearing only the names of Social Democrats, even if his soul is yearning for the Cadets. [20]

A couple of months later, in January 1907, Lenin went so far as to argue for the institution of a referendum of all party members on the issues facing the party – certainly a suggestion that ran counter to the whole idea of democratic centralism.

In order that the settlement of a question may be really democratic, it is not enough to call together the elected representatives of the organisation. It is necessary that all the members of the organisation, in electing their representatives, should at the same time independently and each for himself, express their opinion on the point at issue before the whole organisation. [21]

Although he agreed that it would be impossible to decide all political questions by referendum, “the most important questions, and especially those which are directly connected with some definite action by the masses themselves, must, for the sake of democracy, be settled not only by sending representatives, but also by canvassing the opinion of all members of the party.” [22]

To sum up, during the year of the revolution, the Mensheviks were largely borne along on the wave of events, while different trends in Menshevism became differentiated from each other. On the right were people like Plekhanov, Axelrod, and Martov, who were inclined toward the Cadets and wedded to the concept of a bourgeois revolution led by the liberals. On the left stood people like Trotsky and Parvus, and Lenin hoped that processes would take place amongst the Mensheviks similar to those that many years later enabled the Communist International to be formed – the movement of large numbers of centrist elements to the left. He drew a distinction between the centrism of the Menshevik workers and the incurable professional centrism of many leaders. While standing firm against the Menshevik right, and against the convinced centrists, he still believed that the tightly knit group of hard-line Bolsheviks would be more effective in pulling over the centrist elements if they made up a faction in a united party than if they existed as a completely separate group.




1. Getzler, Martov, op. cit., p.110.

2. Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., p.182.

3. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.2, p.352.

4. ibid., vol.16, p.104.

5. M.I. Vasilev-Iuzhin, Moskovskii sovet rabochikh deputatov v 1905 g., Moscow 1925, p.85.

6. M.N. Pokrovsky, ed., 1905, Moscow-Leningrad 1926, pp.443-45.

7. B.D. Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution, Boston 1948, p.340.

8. Trotsky, My Life, ibid., pp.182-83.

9. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.10, p.37.

10. Piatnitsky, Memoirs, op. cit., pp.90-91.

11. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.10, pp.251-52.

12. A. Lunacharsky, Vospominaniia o Lenine, Moscow 1933, p.21.

13. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.11, p.321.

14. ibid., p.325.

15. ibid., p.321.

16. ibid., p.322.

17. ibid.

18. ibid., vol.7, p.306.

19. ibid., vol.11, pp.441-42.

20. ibid., p.323.

21. ibid., p.434.

22. ibid., p.435.


Last updated on 10.12.2003