The word means ‘members of the minority’; Mensheviks were another revolutionary party in Russia, similar in their aims, but not as radical as the Bolsheviks. The Russian Social Democratic Party broke up in 1903, and a minority group involved in the split failed in its attempt to control the party’s newspaper Iskra (meaning ‘the spark’). Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries sarcastically called them members of the minority as a result.
Mensheviks differed from Bolsheviks at least four ways: (a) how the party should behave, (b) the role it should take in the coming revolution, (c) how the peasants should be employed to provide manpower for the revolution, and (d) how a middle class revolution could be changed into a socialist one.
Bolshevik ironic attitudes towards them apart, the Mensheviks did their best and achieved much during the unsuccessful Russian Revolution of 1905, mainly in St. Petersburg. They were able to reform themselves as a separate party in 1912 and by 1914 they were condemning the war against Germany, though some supported the idea of national defence.
Following the semi-successful February Revolution in 1917 they founded and managed the Petrograd Soviet in conjunction with other socialist revolutionaries, but there was dissent and discord within the party. The Mensheviks had always claimed that no true socialist should join a bourgeois government, but this is what they did, in May, 1917, forming a coalition government with Kadets and the Socialist Revolutionaries. It was the right-wing section of the party that encouraged this move, but the left-wing opposed it. The Mensheviks ordered the arrest of Lenin, and put Trotsky in prison after what was called The July Days. Furhter confusion erupted when Mensheviks would not attend to working class pleas for land and peace; this made them unpopular for the first time.
Bolsheviks now took control of the Soviets (revolutionary-controlled cities and regions) while the Mensheviks shrank away from their methods. In the elections for the Constituent Assembly in November 1917 they won only 3% of the votes, while the Bolsheviks won 24%.
vThe wholly successful October Revolution was opposed by the Mensheviks, but just to confuse things further, many members of the party supported the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, though they always condemned the use of terror. A few right-wing Mensheviks took part in anti-Bolshevik provincial governments. They continued to oppose Bolshevism at every point until the rising at Kronstadt, after which all non-Bolshevik parties were summarily banned. The watching world, apprehensive as usual, learned that no Menshevik leaders were executed; this was indeed a surprise, as the Bolsheviks were by now indulging in mass murder, including regicide. Menshevik leaders and their followers were instead encouraged to leave Soviet Russia, which they did, moving to metropolitan centres such as Paris, Brussels and London. The French, Belgians and the British hoped the Mensheviks had left their revolutionary tendencies behind them.