1917 - the fate of the Mensheviks

Rafail Grigor'ev


Novaya zhizn', 28 September/11 October 1917

[Novaya zhizn' (New Life) was an independent daily newspaper founded in Petrograd in April/May 1917 by the writer Maksim Gorky. Its political position was Marxist and social-democratic. Although it was never aligned with any one faction or party, in the autumn of 1917 it was closest to Martov's Menshevik-Internationalist faction. In this article, its staff writer Rafail Grigor'ev analyses the precipitate disintegration of both the left and right wings of Menshevism in the weeks and days before the Bolsheviks took power. - Dr Francis King, translator.]

It is now too late to talk merely of a 'crisis' of Menshevism. However much one may try to avoid 'terrifying words', one must recognise the indisputable fact of the complete collapse of the Menshevik wing of social-democracy, its passing into political oblivion.

Anybody who is acquainted with the situation in the main Petrograd Menshevik organisation, which until recently numbered some 10,000 people will know that it has effectively ceased to exist. Local meetings have very poor attendences - 20 or 25 people, membership dues are not collected, and the print-run of Rabochaya Gazeta ["Workers' Newspaper" - the official Menshevik paper - FK] is falling catastrophically. The last town conference could not take place because of the lack of a quorum. We do not even need to mention how the last elections to the City Duma went. At a meeting of the Petrograd Soviet the Menshevik (Skobelev) resolution gets 19 votes. At the elections to the Moscow regional Dumas the Mensheviks get 25 seats out of 560... Individual and group resignations from the party have become a normal event. In the provinces this process of disintegration is taking place less acutely and painfully, but there too in the recent period splits from those united social-democratic organisations of defencist Mensheviks left over from the start of the revolution have been becoming more frequent, whils the Bolsheviks and Menshevik-Internationalists have been continuing to exist together.

To place the blame on 'Bolshevik demagogy', or 'the poisonous flowers of adventurism' and so forth, as the writers of Rabochaya Gazeta like to do, is to be unwilling to take stock of what is happening. It is quite true that the broad, largely uncultured masses will fervently follow the parties which make the greatest promises, and will therefore easily change their political sympathies. The downturn in the fortunes of the SRs is eloquent testimony to that. The same fate awaits the Bolsheviks, who are currently on the way up with astonishing speed, if they do not realise the necessity of taking into account those semi-proletarian elements of the democracy, who, disillusioned with their leaders of yesterday, have now placed their faith in the party of the majority of the proletariat.

But, we repeat, if the representatives of official Menshevism want to make the political fickleness of the masses out to be the 'sole cause' of their collapse, they will not convince anybody except themselves. Because before Menshevism fell in the political struggle, it disintegrated from within. From the very beginning of the revolution it lost its face, that individuality which must be a feature of any political party.

One wing of it attached itself to the SRs, and with them became the party of that amorphous mass known as 'revolutionary democracy', the party of the urban and rural petty-bourgeoisie. The other wing, the internationalists, became contiguous with the Bolsheviks. We can ignore the shades of opinion on both sides, the certain distance that separates Potresov from Dan, or Martov from Larin.

Whatever these differences, there has never been a united Menshevik front throughout the entire period of the revolution, irrespective of the mass mood: neither in the period when the Menshevik - SR bloc was in all its strength and glory, nor now, when the wheel of fortune has turned to the Bolsheviks. There was not one official announcement or step taken by the Mensheviks which was not publicly repudiated by Mensheviks themselves. It is no secret that the heaviest blows against Menshevism, morally far more damaging than anything done by its external enemies, were dealt by its internal enemies: Martov and his co-thinkers.

It was precisely that group which exposed the whole petty-bourgeois nature of revolutionary-defencist Menshevism, its dangerous anti-democratic tendencies and its social-patriotic essence.

The Menshevik-Internationalists won for themselves an almost independent political existence, openly refused to subordinate themselves to all-party decisions, operated as an independent faction, and published their own papers. The defencists were quite right to characterise this as disorganising and 'anarchistic' work. There emerged a picture quite incomprehensible to the European mind: whilst everywhere else the split in the workers' movement caused by the war separated social-patriotism from internationalism, and the different tendencies within them were found on their respective sides of the 'barricade', here the internationalists have found themselves in different organisational camps. A significant and well-defined internationalist group, with a strong leadership, remains within a social-patriotic organisation, and is waging an open and merciless struggle against it from within.

In the eyes of the Menshevik-Internationalist leaders that paradox is justified by the necessity of winning the greatest possible number of party members for their ideas.

From an educational point of view that would seem expedient, but the trouble is that political education has political consequences: the Menshevik-Internationalists have won many people over - but not for themselves - for the Bolsheviks. The ideological struggle with Menshevik defencism necessitated a political struggle in the most literal sense: one cannot day in and day out show the masses the disastrousness of Tsereteli and Dan's politics, and then call on those same masses to vote for them at the elections.

Mensheviks steeped in internationalism looked at their leaders with confusion and incomprehension as they left them half way, continuing with their educational work and asking them to 'be patient'....

Rather than waiting, they either went over to the Bolsheviks or dropped out of active party work.

Instead of becoming an independent political centre, which could serve as a pole of attraction for both internationalist Mensheviks and for that healthy current within Bolshevism, which only goes along with its party because 'where else is there to go?' - the Menshevik-Internationalists preferred to operate 'to the finish' as a 'non-responsible opposition'... The dismal results of that policy are plain to see....

Rafail Grigor'ev