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Bolshevism and Menshevism

Bolshevism and Menshevism (bōlˈshəvĭzəm, bŏlˈ–, mĕnˈshəvĭzəm) [key], the two main branches of Russian socialism from 1903 until the consolidation of the Bolshevik dictatorship under Lenin in the civil war of 1918–20. The Russian Social Democratic Labor party, secretly formed at a congress at Minsk in 1898, was based on the doctrines of Marxism. At the second party congress, held at Brussels and then London in 1903, Lenin's faction gained a majority. His group was thereafter known as the Bolsheviki [members of the majority], and his opponents as the Mensheviki [members of the minority], although the Bolsheviks promptly lost their numerical superiority.

Lenin favored a small, disciplined party of professional revolutionaries; the Mensheviks wanted a loosely organized mass party. In a pamphlet published in 1905, Lenin outlined his concept of revolution in Russia: since the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak to lead its own revolution, the proletarians and peasants must unite to overthrow the czarist regime and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. The Mensheviks, led by Plekhanov, believed that Russia could not pass directly from its backward state to a rule by the proletariat and that first an intermediary bourgeois regime must be developed. These differences were not always clear-cut, and many Socialist leaders, such as Trotsky, passed from one group to the other and back again.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a common effort of all revolutionary and reformist movements. In the first Duma of 1906, which was boycotted by the Social Democrats, the liberal Constitutional Democrats were the strongest party, but in 1907 the Social Democrats took part in the elections. In 1912 the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks formally became separate parties. In World War I, the Bolsheviks hoped for the defeat of czarist Russia and sought to transform the conflict into an international civil war that would bring the proletariat to power. The right wing of the Mensheviks supported Russia's war effort; the left wing called for pacifism.

In the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Mensheviks participated in the Kerensky provisional government. Lenin, returning from exile in April, declared that Russia was ripe for an immediate socialist revolution. The Bolsheviks gained majorities in the important soviets and overthrew the government in the October Revolution. The Mensheviks opposed this coup and participated in the short-lived Constituent Assembly (Jan., 1918), but they generally refused to side with the anti-Bolshevik forces during the civil war. The Mensheviks were suppressed by 1921. Meanwhile, in 1918, the Bolsheviks became the Russian Communist party.

See A. B. Ulam, The Bolsheviks (1965, repr. 1968); L. Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (2d ed., rev. 1970); A. Gleason et al., ed., Bolshevik Culture (1989).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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