The Mensheviks formed the minority of the Socialist Democrat Party when they split in 1903. Lenin had called for a small tightly knit elite who would lead the revolution on behalf of the people. The majority of Socialist Democrats went with Lenin and were called the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks wanted to make their movement less elitist than the Bolsheviks in the belief that it would attract the support of the uneducated workers and peasants. How could a movement appeal to the workers and peasants if it was elitist, they argued? One of the Socialist Democrats most associated with the party’s early days, Plekhanov, joined the Mensheviks. Its first leader was Julius Martov.
Social Democrats before the split
The organisation of the Mensheviks also accounted for their failure in Russian history. Lenin believed that he and his followers were better equipped to take on the fight for equality in Russia – they were educated, focused and diligent; an elite. The Mensheviks had a far less disciplined approach to the revolution that Lenin envisaged was coming to Russia – but it was this more open approach that initially got the Mensheviks far more support than the Bolsheviks, along with such slogans as “eight hours work, eight hours play, 8 hours sleep and eight bob pay.”
In 1917, out of a total of 822 delegates in the Constituent Assembly, the Mensheviks had 248 delegates – far more than the Bolsheviks. However, people sitting around discussing the way ahead, did not equate to getting things done – and getting things done was Lenin’s main quality. He got things done as a result of meticulous organisation. The Mensheviks were skilled philosophers but failed to carry things out at a grass roots level.
The Mensheviks also had a major internal weakness. Their openness allowed Mensheviks to hold differing views to other Mensheviks within the party. Therefore there was open disagreement in the party that was not only tolerated but, in the spirit of democracy, encouraged. If the Mensheviks had one belief, it was the support of pure Marxism as laid down by Karl Marx in his publications.
The Mensheviks also made a number of practical errors. While Lenin wanted to pull Russia out of World War One, the Mensheviks wanted Russia to continue fighting in this highly unpopular war.
As the Bolsheviks became more popular with the working class in the major cities of Russia, so the Mensheviks became less popular. As one rose, the other had to decline. The Mensheviks also suffered from people in the party joining the Bolsheviks when it became obvious that they were winning over the people.
During the days of Kerensky’s Provisional Government, the Mensheviks made the mistake of associating themselves with Kerensky – as they deemed that the Bolsheviks were more of an enemy to Russia than the leader of the Provisional Government. Kerensky was from a comfortable middle class family, did not want the redistribution of land and wanted Russia to continue in the war. To be associated with such beliefs was bound to lose the Mensheviks even more support among the workers.