The General Jewish Labor Bund (Union) in Russia and Poland, the Yiddish-speaking social-democratic labor movement founded in the 1890s in the Russian Jewish Pale of Settlement, played a key role in the founding of Russian socialism and in the split between its Bolshevik and Menshevik wings.
The Bund was the first socialist organization in the Russian Empire to develop a mass membership base among blue-collar workers as well as students and intellectuals, thanks in large part to the high literacy rate among Jewish workers. However, its demand to be recognized as the sole representative of the Jewish working class throughout the regions of Russia was fiercely opposed by Vladimir Lenin, who insisted on a unified party with sections divided solely by geographic region, not language, culture or ethnicity. Lenin’s position was supported by numerous other leading figures, many of whom, such as Leon Trotsky, were assimilated Jews who did not speak Yiddish and feared that if the Bund were recognized as the party’s Jewish division, they would be forced to join the Bund and lose their leadership positions.
The showdown came in August 1903 in London at the Second Party Congress of what was now called the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party. The primary issue on the agenda was the growing split between a minority faction, led by Lenin, that favored a small, conspiratorial and tightly controlled organizing structure, and a larger faction led by Julius Martov and Leon Trotsky that favored a more open structure. On the opening day, Lenin insisted that the Bund’s relationship to the party be dealt with early on the first day. He delivered a historic speech accusing the Bund of divisiveness and sectarianism, which carried the day. The Bund delegates immediately walked out, leaving Lenin’s faction with a voting majority in a series of procedural and organizational votes that followed. As a result, Lenin’s faction took the name Bolsheviki (“members of the majority”) and Martov’s faction was given the name Mensheviki (“members of the minority”). Bund delegates and their sympathizers returned during the course of the convention, putting Lenin’s Bolsheviks back in the minority, but the names adopted that first afternoon became permanent.
The Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, forerunner of the Soviet Communist Party, was born in March 1898 in the back room of a house on the outskirts of Minsk in White Russia, today’s Belarus. The house, belonging to a railway worker named Rumyantsev, was hosting the First Party Congress. In attendance were nine delegates representing three major social-democratic groups from various areas of the Russian Empire including the St. Petersburg-based League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, founded in 1895 (whose members included Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov); the Kiev-based Rabochaya Gazeta (‘Workers’ Newspaper’), founded in 1897; and Jewish Labor Bund, founded in 1897, with branches across the Pale of Jewish Settlement going back to the early 1890s. Individual social-democrats were also present from Moscow and Yekaterinoslav.
Of the three founding groups, the St. Petersburg and Kiev groups had several dozen members each, mainly young intellectuals. The Bund had between several hundred and several thousand, including large numbers of blue-collar workers. The Bund hosted and sponsored the Congress, which lasted three days.
The cover story was that the delegates were celebrating the nameday of Rumyantsev’s wife. A stove was kept burning in the next room in case secret papers had to be burnt. Lenin smuggled a draft program for the party written in milk between the lines of a book.
There were six sessions. No minutes were taken because of the need for secrecy; only resolutions were recorded. The major issues discussed by the delegates were merging all social democratic groups into one party and selecting the party’s name. The Congress also elected a Central Committee of three: Stepan Radchenko, one of the oldest Russian social democrats and a leader of the St. Petersburg League, Boris Eidelman of Rabochaya Gazeta and Arkadi Kremer of the Bund. The Manifesto of the new party was written by Peter Struve at Radchenko’s request.
The Central Committee elected by Congress printed the Manifesto and the resolutions of the Congress, but five of the nine delegates were arrested within a month by the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police. Three others had been identified but were not arrested because the Okhrana hoped they would lead to other members. Most of the St. Petersburg group had been arrested even before the Congress.
The first Congress failed to unite the Russian Social Democracy, neither through the proposed the Statutes nor the Programme. A wave of police repression followed, which prevented the party from functioning as a cohesive body for several years and ushered in a period of internal schisms and dissension. It was not until 1903 that the Second Party Congress was held abroad and adopted the party’s Charter and Programme.
The 1903 Split
At the Second Congress of the RSDLP, held in Brussels and London in August 1903, Lenin advocated limiting party membership to a small core of professional revolutionaries, leaving sympathizers outside the party, and instituting a system of centralized control known as the democratic centralist model. Julius Martov, until then a close friend and colleague of Lenin’s, agreed with him that the core of the party should consist of professional revolutionaries, but argued that party membership should be open to sympathizers, revolutionary workers and other fellow travelers. The two had disagreed on the issue as early as March-May 1903, but it wasn’t until the Congress that their differences became irreconcilable and split the party.
At first the disagreement appeared to be minor and inspired by personal conflicts, such as Lenin’s insistence on dropping less active editorial board members from the party newspaper Iskra or different definitions of a “party member” in the future party statute. The difference in the definitions was very small, with Lenin’s being slightly more exclusive (Lenin’s formulation required the party member to be a member of one of the party’s organizations, whereas Martov’s only stated that he should work under the guidance of a party organization), but it was indicative of what became an essential difference between the philosophies of the two emerging factions: Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters, whereas Martov believed it was better to have a large party of activists with broad representation. The differences between the two quickly grew and the split became irreparable.
Martov’s proposal was accepted by the majority of the delegates. However, several delegates, including representatives of the Jewish Bund, stormed out of the Congress in protest for unrelated reasons. The conditions for the Bund’s joining the Party were also established, but the congress firmly rejected any idea of organising the working class on national lines.
As a result, Lenin’s supporters won a slight majority, which was reflected in the composition of the Central Committee and the other central Party organs elected at the Congress. That was also the reason behind the naming of the factions. The two factions were originally known as “hard” (Lenin’s supporters) and “soft” (Martov’s supporters). Soon, however, the terminology changed to “Bolsheviks” and “Mensheviks”, from the Russian “bolshinstvo” (majority) and “menshinstvo” (minority), based on the fact that Lenin’s supporters narrowly defeated Martov’s supporters on the question of party membership.
Despite the outcome of the congress, the following years saw the Mensheviks gathering considerable support among regular Social Democrats and effectively building up a parallel party organization.
Later in the year the Bund voted to join the RSDLP. Lenin commented that “the RSDLP has become, at last, really all-Russian and united. The number of members of our party is now more than 100,000. 31,000 were represented at the Unity Congress, then in addition about 26,000 Polish Social Democrats, about 14,000 Lettish and 33,000 Jewish.” Lenin’s figures were confirmed by the left Cadet (Constitutional Democrat) newspaper Tovarishch which estimated the total number of members enrolled in the RSDLP at about 70,000 in October 1906. This figure includes both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, but did not include a further 33,000 for the Bund, plus 28,000 for the Polish Social Democrats and 13,000 for the Letts.