Social Democratic Labour Party

In 1883 several Marxists in the Land and Liberty organization left to form the Emancipation of Labour. This group, led by George Plekhanov, argued that it would be impossible to overthrow Russia's authoritarian government and replace it with peasant communes. They believed that a successful Marxist revolution could only take place after the development of capitalism. According to Plekhanov, it would be the industrial proletariat who would bring about a socialist revolution.

In March, 1898, the various Marxist groups in Russia met in Minsk and decided to form the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP). The party was banned in Russia so most of its leaders were forced to live in exile. In 1900 the group began publishing a journal called Iskra. It was printed in several European cities and then smuggled into Russia by a network of SDLP agents.

At the Second Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1903, there was a dispute between Lenin and Julius Martov, two of SDLP's leaders. Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters. Martov disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists. Martov based his ideas on the socialist parties that existed in other European countries such as the British Labour Party. Lenin argued that the situation was different in Russia as it was illegal to form socialist political parties under the Tsar's autocratic government. At the end of the debate Martov won the vote 28-23. Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks.

Gregory Zinoviev, Anatoli Lunacharsky, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Lashevich, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Mikhail Frunze, Alexei Rykov, Yakov Sverdlov, Lev Kamenev, Maxim Litvinov, Vladimir Antonov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, Kliment Voroshilov, Vatslav Vorovsky, Yan Berzin, Gregory Ordzhonikidze and Alexander Bogdanov joined the Bolsheviks. Whereas George Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Leon Trotsky, Lev Deich, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Boris Nicolaevsky, David Dallin, Vera Zasulich, Irakli Tsereteli, Moisei Uritsky, Noi Zhordania and Fedor Dan supported the Mensheviks.

The SDLP journal, Iska remained under the control of the Mensheviks so Vladimir Lenin, with the help of Anatoli Lunacharsky, Alexander Bogdanov, Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev, established a Bolshevik newspaper, Vpered.

Primary Sources

(1) Isaac Deutscher, Stalin (1949)

In March, 1898, a few Socialists, less than a dozen, gathered in the town of Minsk in a secret conference to proclaim the foundation of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party. Throughout the century the bolder spirits among the Russian intelligentsia were in revolt against the oppressive autocracy of the Tsars; but it was only towards the end of the century that Marxian socialism became the dominant trend in the revolutionary opposition.

(2) Alexander Kerensky was a young man when the Social Democratic Labour Party was formed. He wrote about his impressions of the party in Russia and History's Turning Point (1965)

The Marxists (Social Democrats) propagated their economic doctrine, which demanded alienation from the bourgeois and petty bourgeois student body and called for the marshaling of all efforts to achieve the victory of the industrial proletariat. Very few of the students sympathies with this idea. To most of us in Russia the exclusive regard for the industrial proletariat and the contemptuous disregard for the peasantry was utterly absurd.

(3) Vladimir Lenin, What Is To Be Done? (1902)

An organization of workers must be first a trade organization; secondly, it must be as broad as possible; thirdly, it must be as little secret as possible. An organization of revolutionaries, on the contrary, must embrace primarily and chiefly people whose profession consists of revolutionary activity.

In an autocratic country, the more we narrow the membership of such an organization, restricting it only to those who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activities and have received a professional training in the art of struggle against the political police, the more difficult will it be to catch such an organization.

(4) After the 2nd Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party Leon Trotsky wrote about why the split took place.

One can say of Lenin and Martov that, even before the split, even before the Congress, Lenin was 'hard' and Martov 'soft'. And they both knew it. Lenin would glance at Martov, whom he estimated highly, with a critical and somewhat suspicious look, and Martov, feeling his glance, would look down and move his thin shoulders nervously.

How did I come to be with the 'softs' at the congress? Of the Iskra editors, my closest connections were with Martov, Zasulitch and Axelrod. Their influence over me was unquestionable.

The split came unexpectedly for all the members of the congress. Lenin, the most active figure in the struggle, did not foresee it, nor had he ever desired it. Both sides were greatly upset by the course of events. After the Congress Lenin was sick for several weeks with a nervous illness.

(5) Alexander Shotman attended the 2nd Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party and after the debate joined the Bolsheviks. He explained his decision in his book, Reminiscences of an Old Bolshevik, published in 1932.

Martov resembled a poor Russian intellectual. His face was pale, he had sunken cheeks; his scant beard was untidy. His glasses barely remained on his nose. His suit hung on him as on a clothes hanger. Manuscripts and pamphlets protruded from all his pockets. He was stooped; one of his shoulders was higher than the other. He had a stutter. His outward appearance was far from attractive. But as soon as he began a fervent speech all these outer faults seemed to vanish, and what remained was his colossal knowledge, his sharp mind, and his fanatical devotion to the cause of the working class.

When Plekhanov spoke, I enjoyed the beauty of his speech, the remarkable incisiveness of his words. But when Lenin arose in opposition, I was always on Lenin's side. Why? I cannot explain it to myself. But so it was, and not only with me, but with my comrades and workers.