Navigate to News section

The Dark Centennial of the Russian Revolution

What would have happened if the Mensheviks had come to power in Russia, instead of the Bolsheviks, 100 years ago? America gives us a clue.

Paul Berman
March 17, 2017
Wikipedia/public domain
Soviets attacking the Czar's police in the early days of the March RevolutionWikipedia/public domain
Wikipedia/public domain
Soviets attacking the Czar's police in the early days of the March RevolutionWikipedia/public domain

What would have happened if the Mensheviks had come to power in Russia, instead of the Bolsheviks, 100 years ago? It is reasonable to ask. And there is a reasonable way to come up with an answer—a partial answer, perhaps, but genuinely an answer.

The question is reasonable because in March 1917, when the czar was overthrown, the Mensheviks were probably the strongest political party in Russia, and the Bolsheviks were a tiny movement. You will recall that both of those parties began as factions within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which was Russia’s counterpart to the German Social Democratic Party. The Mensheviks were led by Julius Martov and other people whose temperaments conformed to what the German Social Democrats considered to be a properly orthodox Marxism, which required political democracy. The Bolsheviks were led by Lenin, whose political temperament was dictatorial and conspiratorial. The differences between them led to a split, but this did not mean a 50-50 division of party forces. By 1917 the Bolsheviks enjoyed a small following among the Petrograd workers and in a few other places, and they enjoyed a substantial financial support from murky sources perhaps in touch with the German government. But the Bolsheviks did not command a large party apparatus, nor were any of their leaders especially popular.

The Mensheviks, by contrast, were powerful in the labor movement. Local councils, or “soviets,” sprung up spontaneously and held elections, and the Mensheviks fared well in those elections. The Mensheviks were the dominant party in Georgia and the Caucasus. The Mensheviks enjoyed a lot of support among the Jews—among two classes of Jews, that is. Martov and a large number of the Menshevik leaders—most of them—were classic representatives of the intelligentsia of Old Russia in its Jewish version, who perhaps knew Yiddish and did not renounce their Jewish identity, but thought of themselves as internationalists. And Menshevism drew strength from the Yiddish-speaking masses of the General Jewish Workers Union, aka the Bund, a main pillar of the party (along with some other Jewish factions). The Mensheviks struck up alliances, too, with the peasants’ party, the Socialist Revolutionaries, and with the people who regarded themselves as liberals—all of which makes it easy to imagine that, if only Russia’s political landscape had been allowed to develop naturally—if only!—the Mensheviks and their federated groups and their coalition would have ended up dominating the state.

Lenin, though, was a genius at maneuvering. His party grew and, even so, none of its leaders, apart from Lenin himself, believed that Bolshevism was in a position to stage a coup d’état. Lenin did believe it, and he talked his comrades into trying their luck. They staged their coup in November (or October, by the old Russian calendar), which they pictured as a decisive expression of capital-H History. Lenin was a genius in that respect, too. He knew how to drown out other people with his theoretical thundering. In reality, though, Bolshevism’s triumph depended entirely on chance. Without Lenin himself, the coup in Petrograd would never have occurred. Nor would the coup have taken place if Martov and the other revolutionary leaders had recognized a little more clearly what Lenin was about.


So, then, what if the Mensheviks had done the right thing and fended off the Bolsheviks—what then? What sort of people would the Mensheviks have turned out to be, basking in the sun of Russian success? There is a way to answer this question because, although Petrograd was the largest of the Russian cities, and Moscow the second largest, from another standpoint the largest Russian city of all was New York. By the time of the Russian Revolution, well more than one-and-a-half-million Russian immigrants made their homes in New York—most of them Jews, but also ethnic Russians and members of other national groups. The working-class districts in Petrograd and other Russian cities tilted sharply to the left, and so did certain of the immigrant neighborhoods of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

That was because in those districts the labor and political leaders tended to be veterans of the Russian revolutionary cause from czarist times—typically veterans of the Menshevik agitations and underground work, not generally from Menshevism’s upper-intelligentsia zones, but, in a striking number of cases, from the Bund. The people who built the needle trades unions in New York (and Chicago and elsewhere), and who built the New York Socialist Party (and its descendants, the Social Democratic Federation and the American Labor Party of the 1930s) and the many solid institutions of New York social democracy, the Workmen’s Circle and other welfare agencies, the housing cooperatives, the summer colonies, together with the Jewish Daily Forward—those people were, in effect, Menshevism’s New York branch. In New York, the Mensheviks did put up a fight against the Bolsheviks, and they won, and they flourished. By 1938 the president of the New York City Council, B. Charney Vladeck, of the Forward and the American Labor Party, was a legendary hero of the Bundist underground from czarist times, a man who had known the insides of a czarist prison and the travails of Siberian exile—a man who had resisted the personal entreaties of Lenin himself to alter his revolutionary principles. Naturally, Menshevism in its New York version took on a local color. Everyone was happy to fly the American flag. But Menshevism in New York retained the old Russian social-democratic idea—until, having done whatever could be done, the immigrant left brought its energies into the currents of American liberalism: a notable and admirable achievement of American politics in the age of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

I do not mean to suggest that, if the Petrograd Mensheviks had succeeded in fending off the Bolsheviks, the history of Russia over the next years would have begun to resemble the liberalism of New York. Still, if the Mensheviks had managed to survive in Russia, if their party had not been liquidated, if they had been allowed to develop and prosper, if the Bund had been allowed to grow, if the Menshevik leaders had been able to exercise an influence, if Martov instead of Lenin had ended up the head of state—if all of that had happened, Russia in the 20th century would certainly—could only—have followed a path dramatically different from the path it did follow.

’Twas not to be. The centennial is dark. My only regret is that, in our own century, the lost possibilities may be lost to memory, too. The Menshevik memory disappeared entirely from Russia, along with the party itself (which, institutionally speaking, continued to exist only in New York, where the surviving leaders kept its journal alive until the 1960s). And in New York, too, a memory of those old traditions—the Russian social-democratic idea that so thoroughly and usefully shaped the city and shaped American Jewish life in times gone by—may likewise have disappeared, or nearly so—relegated, as the notorious turncoat to the Menshevik cause, Leon Trotsky, said in 1917 in Petrograd to Martov, to “the dustbin of history.”


Read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural analyses for Tablet magazine here. This article is joins a week-long Tablet series analyzing the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.