Bolshevism vs Menshevism?

Karl Carlile joseph at
Thu Jun 6 02:49:40 MDT 1996

> Date:          Wed, 5 Jun 1996 20:11:10 -0400 (EDT)
> From:          Louis N Proyect <lnp3 at>
> To:            marxism at jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU
> Subject:       Bolshevism vs Menshevism?
> Reply-to:      marxism at jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU

> On Wed, 5 Jun 1996, Karl Carlile wrote:
> > To you:
> >
> > Louis Proyect is not a serious reply to my message. I enclose my message again
> > in the hope that he may be able to respond seriously to it in the future.
> >
> Louis:
> One of the problems I have in trying to satisfy Karl's challenge is that I
> proceed along an entirely different axis. My interest above all is in
> understanding Lenin and Bolshevism in their historical context. He,
> I'm afraid, has very little knowledge of the actual events surrounding
> the Bolshevik-Menshevik split and prefers to project back into history
> conceptions of "Bolshevism" that he has learned from modern-day
> distorters of Lenin.
> He makes the typical error of many contemporary "Leninists" in
> attaching some kind of apocalyptic meaning to the split at the second
> congress of the Russian Social Democracy in 1903 as if two radically
> different and irreconciliable sets of principles were counterposed to
> each other--Bolshevism and Menshevism. This split is seen as the
> fountainhead of all 20th century revolutionary politics, the dividing
> line between communism and opportunism or some such thing.
> Those who think that the rival motions between Martov and Lenin
> constitute some kind of fault-line of revolutionary politics must then
> explain why Lenin told participants at this congress that, referring to
> Martov's motion, "we shall certainly not perish because of an
> unfortunate clause in the Rules."
> Let's let this sink in. Lenin, arch-enemy of opportunism, said that the
> motion which caused the Bolshevik-Menshevik split was simply
> "unfortunate".
> The differences between orthodox Marxists who were educated by
> Plekhanov and, on the other hand, the Economists who gravitated to
> the newspaper "Rabochaya Mysl" were principled and clear. The
> differences within the orthodox camp, which included the Bolshevik
> Lenin and the Menshevik Martov, were not so clearly defined. The
> Bolsheviks were anxious to rid the party of all elements who resisted
> the creation of a centralized Russian Social Democracy, while the
> Mensheviks tended to be more conciliatory to the Economists and the
> Bundists. The Bundists shared with the Economists a resistance to a
> centralized and unified Russian party that could coordinate struggles
> on a national level. Their particular interest was in preserving some
> kind of automony for their exclusively Jewish membership, a goal that
> was in conflict, needless to say, with creating one party for the entire
> working-class.
> So when Lenin and Plekhanov triumphed, they maneuvered to isolate
> the Bundists and Economists as much as possible. This meant
> overruling the original Menshevik proposal that would have preserved
> some representation on the editorial board of Iskra for Bundists and
> Economists. The proposal passed by the new Bolshevik majority at the
> congress consisted of only three seats on Iskra, none to be allocated for
> the decentralizers.
> It was this issue more than the original fight over Lenin and Martov's
> rival motions which precipitated the split. The narrowing of the Iskra
> staff meant that such long-time party leaders as Zasulich, Akselrod
> and Potresov would lose their posts. Why was Lenin so anxious to
> dump these old-timers? Was it because they were smuggling capitalist
> ideology into the pages of Iskra? The real concern of Lenin was much
> more practical, as befits a revolutionary politician who strived for
> professionalism above all else. In his "Account of the Second Congress
> of the R.S.D.L.P.", Lenin describes the motivation for getting rid of
> them:
> "The old board of six was so ineffectual that never once in all its three
> years did it meet in full force. That may seem incredible, but it is a
> fact. Not one of the forty-five issues of Iskra was made up (in the
> editorial and technical sense) by anyone but Martov or Lenin. And
> never once was any major theoretical issue raised by anyone but
> Plekhanov. Akselrod did no work at all (he contributed literally
> nothing to Zarya and only three of four articles to all the forty-five
> issues of Iskra). Zasulich and Strarover only contributed and advised;
> they never did any actual editorial work."
> Lenin was simply interested in getting rid of dead wood, people who
> were not carrying their load. Those who simply "advised" were not
> needed. Lenin sought to place genuine contributors at the helm of the
> major newspaper of Russian Social Democracy. I empathize deeply
> with his lack of respect toward people who are simply "advisers". The
> revolutionary movement needs people who can get things done. If this
> Marxism list ever went through a split between "advisers" and people
> who know how to get things done, I'm sure that most of us know who
> these two respective groups would include.
> Who did Lenin propose as the three people best qualified to lead the
> new Iskra editorial board? They were Lenin himself, the great Marxist
> educator Plekhanov and Martov. Martov, we should remind ourselves,
> was the individual who put forward a motion rival to Lenin's on the
> requirements of party membership. This motion has become
> synonymous with Menshevism itself. It is like the apple in the Garden
> of Eden for dogmatic interpreters of the historic split. The trouble is
> that these dogmatic interpreters can't account for the fact that Lenin
> then proposed to put Martov--the Serpent himself--in a leading
> position at Iskra.
> Also, to be perfectly blunt, the reduction of representation on the Iskra
> leading bodies generated bitter personal rivalries. Personal rivalries!
> Can you believe that? Aren't you glad that we've evolved beyond those
> sorts of problems. As it developed, Zasulich and Akselrod were deeply
> insulted by their firing from Iskra. Martov, an old friend of theirs,
> rallied to their defense and then decided to step down himself from the
> newly re-constituted editorial board. Even Plekhanov, one of the most hard-
> line Bolsheviks, eventually drifted into the Menshevik camp. (Does
> this sound like typical movement wrangling over "petty" issues? Well,
> yes it does. Because, believe it or not, it is.)
> The Menshevik Akselrod, who had every reason to be bitter at Lenin,
> saw no great principles involved in the split either. Years later he
> confided to Kautsky that personality was what caused the great divide
> between Bolshevik and Menshevik. Kautsky said:
> "As late as May 1904 Akselrod wrote that there were 'still no clear,
> defined differences concerning either principles or tactics', that the
> organizational question itself 'is or at least was' not one of principle
> such as 'centralism or democracy, autonomy, etc.', but rather one of
> differing opinions as to the 'application or execution of organizational
> principles...we have all accepted'. Lenin had used the debate on this
> question 'in a demagogic manner' to 'fasten' Plekhanov to his side and
> thus win a majority 'against us'."
> Would genuine political differences between the two factions
> eventually emerge? Certainly they would and sooner rather than later.
> In 1905 and 1906 major struggles between the Bolsheviks and
> Mensheviks developed over how to overthrow Tsarism and to create a
> democratic republic. In 1903, however, at the famous "split"
> conference, there were none. Furthermore, attempts to derive some
> kind of new organizational approach to revolutionary party-building
> from the split are just as ill-advised.
> The one conclusion that can be drawn without qualification is that the
> internal life of the Russian Social Democracy--including the Bolshevik
> and Menshevk factions--has little in common with the rigid, dogmatic
> and sect-like norms of modern-day "Leninism". The internal life of
> Russian Social Democracy was fractious but vital. Differences were
> argued out and then argued out again. And then argued out again.
> This was all done in public, not in some ridiculous convention of a
> tiny grouping of cadre.
> This is the reality of Russian Social Democracy. This is the reality that
> must inspire us today. The crude versions of "Leninism" that dotted
> the landscape of the 1960s and 1970s are history. There are a tiny
> group of people on this list who are still seduced by this mistakes of
> this period. This, no doubt, has something to with the fact that they
> did not live through these bitter and demoralizing experiences as I and
> others did.
> We need to create "Leninist" parties, but at the outset we have to
> revisit what Russian socialists were actually doing rather than what we
> would like to think what they were doing. This has great lessons for
> us. As a start, I recommend reading and understanding Lenin in
> context.
> (One final thing, Karl. I regret that you consider me to be an
> "opportunist". I regard you as a principled revolutionary.)
>      --- from list marxism at ---
Dear Louis:

Thank you for the reply. If you stopped sending out conflicting messages
it would generate less confusion. I am thinking of your hot and cold apporach in which you can be very
sarcastic in a destructive way. After all, words do matter. It can affect
peopl'es attitude towards that person and her/his response if unnecessary sarcasm is used. I am
saying this to you in a spirit of friendliness.

Respect for you on the list would be enhanced if you succeeded in
eliminating the more vitriolic sarcasm. It sometimes smacks of someone
that holds a lot of bitternesss inside.

Anyway thanks for your last reply.


     --- from list marxism at ---

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