Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party Is Formed

The Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party was formed by a small group of Russian Marxist revolutionaries. The center of Marxist thought and action in Russia, its radical wing—headed by Vladimir Ilich Lenin—would seize control of the country in the October Revolution less than twenty years later.

Summary of Event

The formation of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party in 1898 brought at least a semblance of unity to the previously disorganized Marxist movement in Russia. The first Russian Marxist party, the Liberation of Labor, had been founded in Geneva in 1883 by Georgy Plekhanov, who had migrated there from Russia three years earlier. Plekhanov had been a member of the Populist (Narodnik) movement of the 1870’s but had abandoned Populism in disillusionment over the failure of Russia’s peasants to rise up in revolt against the czarist order. Plekhanov now believed that, as industrialization spread in Russia, the industrial working class would fulfill the revolutionary expectations that the Populists had mistakenly assigned to the peasants. Russia;Social-Democratic Labor Party[Social Democratic Labor Party]
Marxism;and Social-Democratic Labor Party[Social Democratic Labor Party]
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich
Martov, Julius
Plekhanov, Georgy
[kw]Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party Is Formed (Mar., 1898)
[kw]Social-Democratic Labor Party Is Formed, Russian (Mar., 1898)
[kw]Democratic Labor Party Is Formed, Russian Social- (Mar., 1898)
[kw]Party Is Formed, Russian Social-Democratic Labor (Mar., 1898)
[kw]Labor Party Is Formed, Russian Social-Democratic (Mar., 1898)
[kw]Formed, Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party Is (Mar., 1898)
Russia;Social-Democratic Labor Party[Social Democratic Labor Party]
Marxism;and Social-Democratic Labor Party[Social Democratic Labor Party]
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich
Martov, Julius
Plekhanov, Georgy
[g]Russia;Mar., 1898: Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party Is Formed[6300]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Mar., 1898: Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party Is Formed[6300]
[c]Government and politics;Mar., 1898: Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party Is Formed[6300]
[c]Social issues and reform;Mar., 1898: Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party Is Formed[6300]
Kremer, Alexander

Plekhanov, with the aid of other members of his group, translated the major works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels into Russian; the Liberation of Labor then managed to smuggle this material back into Russia. Here it was favorably received by intellectuals and university students who by 1884 had established numerous, though small and ineffective, Marxist groups throughout the country. Generally, until the mid-1890’s, these groups were divided by internal polemics rather than united as a militant revolutionary front.

Russian Marxism finally began the process of unification in 1895. Vladimir Ilich Lenin, whose real name was Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, and his assistant Julius Martov, whose real name was Yuly Osipovich Tsederbaum, organized the scattered groups of the St. Petersburg region into the Fighting Union for the Liberation of the Working Class. Similar unions were established in Moscow and other Russian cities, especially those which were developing into major industrial centers. Social democratic parties were also founded in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, which at that time were all part of the Russian Empire.

Vladimir Ilich Lenin around 1920.

(Library of Congress)

In 1897, a Jewish Russia;Jewish population
Jews;in Russia[Russia] social democratic organization, the General Jewish Workers’ League, commonly referred to as the Bund, came into existence. One of its key members, Alexander Kremer Kremer, Alexander , was instrumental in persuading members of his group to hold a joint meeting with several other Marxist parties. As a result, in the city of Minsk in March, 1898, there met the First Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party. It was hardly a congress, because only nine delegates appeared. Lenin, exiled at that time in Siberia, Siberia;exiles in was not among them. Indeed, it is doubtful whether a unified party emerged from the Minsk congress. The movement had neither a charter nor a program, only a manifesto written by Peter Struve that proved to be unsatisfactory to most party members. No one in attendance at the First Party Congress could imagine that in the coming century a wing of this party would seize power in Russia and subsequently extend its influence throughout the world.

The shallow unity of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party lasted only until the meeting of the Second Party Congress in 1903, originally scheduled in Brussels. The intervention of the Belgian police necessitated its transfer to London. Unlike the First Party Congress, the second was dominated by the leading personages of the Russian Social Democratic movement, Lenin, Martov, and Plekhanov. In the course of this congress, a split developed within the party over administrative and ideological questions.

Lenin maintained that membership in the party should be limited to professional revolutionaries who would be bound by iron discipline to obey orders issued by the party’s leadership. Opening membership in the party to anyone who wished to join, argued Lenin, would make it too easy for the czarist police to use undercover agents to infiltrate the party’s ranks and undermine its effectiveness as an agent of revolution. Lenin’s views struck most of the delegates, led by Martov, as inimical to the spirit of democracy. Taking advantage of a walkout staged by the delegates representing the Bund, Lenin got himself and Plekhanov elected to key leadership positions by a majority of the remaining delegates. Even though Lenin probably would have lost if the Bund delegates had not left, he claimed that his followers were the majority, or Bolshevik Bolsheviks , faction, and that Martov’s supporters were the minority, or Mensheviks.

Ideologically, Lenin was inclined to believe that the czarist government, following its overthrow, must be succeeded immediately by the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Mensheviks insisted, on the other hand, that the czars must be followed by a bourgeois democratic republic as a necessary prologue to a socialist state. Neither side, it must be stressed, adhered rigidly to its position. Nevertheless, Lenin’s insistence on his authoritarian rule over the party and the infallibility of his ideas contributed much to the split that occurred in 1903.


For all practical purposes, the split in the party between Bolsheviks Bolsheviks and Mensheviks remained permanent. A superficial reconciliation took place at the Fourth Party Congress held in Stockholm, Sweden, in April of 1906. However, in January of 1912, a Bolshevik conference in Prague expelled the Mensheviks from the Russian Social-Democratic Party. By that time, even Plekhanov had broken with Lenin and allied himself with the Mensheviks. In March, 1918, a few months after seizing power in Russia, the Bolsheviks adopted the name Communist Party. Under this name, twentieth century Marxism, despite its great conquests, continued to be threatened by splits between those who considered themselves “orthodox” and those whom they regarded as “revisionist.” Thus, like all other great movements of history, communism has been unable to overcome the basic problem of diversity.

Further Reading

  • Baron, Samuel H. Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1963. A scholarly study of the life and thought of the first important member of the Russian revolutionary movement to embrace Marxism.
  • Brovkin, Vladimir N., ed. The Bolsheviks in Russian Society: The Revolution and the Civil Wars. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Anthology of essays charting the history of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.
  • Getzler, Israel. Martov: A Political Biography of a Russian Social Democrat. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1967. Examines the life and thought of a revolutionary Marxist who at one time was Lenin’s closest friend but became a leading Menshevik critic of Bolshevik authoritarianism.
  • Keep, J. L. H. The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1963. Analyzes the background to the Bolshevik-Menshevik schism, the critical Second Party Congress, and Bolshevik-Menshevik rivalry during the 1905 revolution.
  • Pomper, Philip. The Russian Revolutionary Intelligentsia. 2d ed. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1993. This short history of revolutionary movements in nineteenth century Russia is a good introduction to the early development of Russian Marxism.
  • Service, Robert. Lenin: A Political Life. 3 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985-1995. The first volume of this three-part biography focuses on Lenin’s early development as a Marxist and his decisive role in fomenting the Bolshevik-Menshevik split.
  • Tobias, Henry J. The Jewish Bund in Russia: From Its Origins to 1905. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1972. A history of the Jewish branch of the Social Democratic movement in Russia and its struggle for the loyalty of Jewish workers.
  • Wildman, Alan. The Making of a Workers’ Revolution: Russian Social Democracy, 1891-1903. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. This scholarly study, which contains a section on the first congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, focuses primarily on the Mensheviks.

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