Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
Vera Broido, Lenin and the Mensheviks, Gower, Aldershot 1987, pp.216, £17.50
The Mensheviks, Russia’s moderate Marxists, were completely marginalised in the summer of 1917, when the course of history found itself at odds with their strategy of building a parliamentary Socialist opposition within a capitalist society. Faced with the choice of a military coup or the transfer of power to the workers’ councils, the Bolsheviks led a successful bid for state power.
What could have been a useful study of reformism in a revolutionary period is spoiled by Broido’s preoccupation with the trials and tribulations suffered by the Mensheviks during the first few years of the Soviet republic. Half the book is a depressing catalogue of arrests, jailings and exiles. Things aren't helped by Broido blaming the stern features of the young Soviet republic, not on the prevailing objective conditions, but on the original sin of Bolshevik authoritarianism.
The Russian masses rallied to the Bolsheviks during a period of dramatic upsurge. In the retreat that followed with the deprivation and destruction of the civil war of 1918-20, the old parties, the Mensheviks and the populist Social Revolutionaries, regained some support. This strained the relationship between the Bolsheviks and the workers and peasantry. Knowing that they were the only alternative to capitalist restoration and imperialist intervention, the Bolsheviks held on, awaiting the European revolutions upon which all depended, and refused to countenance any challenge to their rule.
The treatment meted out to the Mensheviks was often gratuitously harsh, but the Bolsheviks’ mistrust of them was understandable. Hadn’t they supported the bourgeois Provisional Government in 1917, hadn’t some leading Mensheviks colluded in the vile slandering of Lenin as an agent of the Kaiser? Had not the Menshevik government in Georgia persecuted the revolutionaries and openly stated that they preferred the imperialists of the west to the ‘fanatics’ of the east? None of this could have endeared the Mensheviks to those who had led the revolution and were intent on defending it.
The Mensheviks were finally suppressed in the early 1920s as the Soviet government reintroduced limited capitalist measures under the New Economic Policy. Despite, or rather because of, the similarities between the NEP and the Mensheviks’ economic programme, the Bolsheviks could no longer chance any political opposition. Yet this final clampdown had a cruelly ironic sequel. The European revolutions failed, the gulf between the masses and the Bolsheviks continued to deepen, arid conservative and bureaucratic trends emerged within the ruling party. Within a few years the degeneration was such that the party’s revolutionary wing, the Left Opposition, was itself marginalised, harassed, jailed and exiled like the Mensheviks, only on a far worse scale.
The Mensheviks were not consigned to the dustbin of history (to use Trotsky’s apt term) because of Bolshevik mendacity. Slaves to a dogmatic Marxism which held that the revolution of February 1917 heralded a long period of capitalist development with all the trappings of bourgeois democracy, they foundered in the storms of that year. They had been rendered obsolete. As we know, Bolshevism, beleaguered and isolated, succumbed soon after. But Bolshevism remains of great significance to this day whereas Menshevism is but of historical interest. However, Broido’s book is of little value for those who wish to learn about the Mensheviks and their place in history.
Updated by ETOL: 5.7.2003