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Russian Social Democratic Labour Party

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Russian Social Democratic Labour Party
Российская социал-демократическая рабочая партия
Central CommitteeVariable
Founded1 March 1898; 126 years ago (1898-03-01)
Merger ofSBORK
Emancipation of Labour
Jewish Labour Bund
and smaller Marxist organizations
Succeeded by
Political positionLeft-wing
Centre-left to far-left
International affiliationSecond International
Colours  Red
Most MPs (Jan, 1907)
65 / 518
Party flag

The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP; Russian: Российская социал-демократическая рабочая партия (РСДРП), Rossiyskaya sotsial-demokraticheskaya rabochaya partiya (RSDRP)), also known as the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party or the Russian Social Democratic Party, was a socialist political party founded in 1898 in Minsk (then in Northwestern Krai of the Russian Empire, present-day Belarus).

Formed to unite the various revolutionary organizations of the Russian Empire into one party, the RSDLP split in 1903 into Bolsheviks ("majority") and Mensheviks ("minority") factions, with the Bolshevik faction eventually becoming the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.


Origins and early activities[edit]

The RSDLP was not the first Russian Marxist group; the Emancipation of Labour group had been formed in 1883. The RSDLP was created to oppose the revolutionary populism of the Narodniks, which was later represented by the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs). The RSDLP was formed at an underground conference in Minsk in March 1898. There were nine delegates: from the Jewish Labour Bund, and from the Robochaya Gazeta ("Workers' Newspaper") in Kiev, both formed a year earlier in 1897; and the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class in Saint Petersburg. Some additional social democrats from Moscow and Yekaterinburg also attended. The RSDLP program was based strictly on the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Specifically, that despite Russia's agrarian nature at the time, the true revolutionary potential lay with the industrial working class. At this time, there were three million Russian industrial workers, just 3% of the population. The RSDLP was illegal for most of its existence. Within a month after the Congress, five of the nine delegates were arrested by the Okhrana (imperial secret police).[2]

Before the 2nd Party Congress in 1903, a young intellectual named Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (better known by his pseudonym, Vladimir Lenin) joined the party. In 1902, he had published What Is To Be Done?, outlining his view of the party's proper task and methodology: to form "the vanguard of the proletariat". He advocated a disciplined, centralized party of committed activists who would fuse the underground struggle for political freedom with the class struggle of the proletariat.[3]

Internal divisions[edit]

In 1903, the 2nd Party Congress met in exile in Brussels to attempt to create a united force. However, after unprecedented attention from the Belgian authorities the Congress moved to London, meeting on 11 August in Charlotte Street.[4] At the Congress, the party split into two irreconcilable factions on 17 November: the Bolsheviks (derived from bolshinstvo—Russian for "majority"), headed by Lenin; and the Mensheviks (from menshinstvo—Russian for "minority"), headed by Julius Martov. Confusingly, the Mensheviks were actually the larger faction, but the names Menshevik and Bolshevik were taken from a vote held at the 1903 Party Congress for the editorial board of the party newspaper, Iskra (Spark), with the Bolsheviks being the majority and the Mensheviks being the minority.[5] These were the names used by the factions for the rest of the party Congress and these are the names retained after the split at the 1903 Congress.[5][6][7] Lenin's faction later ended up in the minority and remained smaller than the Mensheviks until the Russian Revolution.[5]

A central issue at the Congress was the question of the definition of party membership. Martov proposed the following formulation: "A member of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party is one who accepts the Party's programme, supports the Party financially, and renders it regular personal assistance under the direction of one of its organizations".[8] On the other hand, Lenin proposed a more strict definition: "A member of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party is one who accepts its programme and who supports the Party both financially and by personal participation in one of the Party organizations".[8] Martov's big tent definition of party membership initially won the vote 28–23. However, his majority was short-lived, given the exit from the party, for separate reasons, of its Bundist and Economist members who had supported his definition. That left in the majority those in favour of Lenin's definition of party members as, in effect, professional revolutionaries- centrally directed, tightly disciplined, and therefore capable of operating effectively in the tsarist police state. From this was derived the faction names: "Majority" ("Bolshevik") and "Minority" ("Menshevik").

Despite a number of attempts at reunification, the split proved permanent. As time passed, ideological differences emerged in addition to the original organizational differences. The main difference that emerged in the years after 1903 was that the Bolsheviks believed that only the workers, backed up by the peasantry, could carry out the bourgeois-democratic revolutionary tasks in Russia, which would then provide incentive to socialist revolution in Germany, France and Britain, while the Mensheviks believed that the workers and peasants must seek out enlightened people from the liberal bourgeoisie to carry out the bourgeois-democratic revolutionary tasks in Russia. The two warring factions both agreed that the coming revolution would be "bourgeois-democratic" within Russia, but while the Mensheviks viewed the liberals as the main ally in this task, the Bolsheviks opted for an alliance with the peasantry as the only way to carry out the bourgeois-democratic revolutionary tasks while defending the interests of the working class. Essentially, the difference was that the Bolsheviks considered that in Russia the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution would have to be carried out without the participation of the bourgeoisie. The 3rd Party Congress was held separately by the Bolsheviks.

The 4th Party Congress was held in Stockholm, Sweden and saw a formal reunification of the two factions (with the Mensheviks in the majority), but the discrepancies between Bolshevik and Menshevik views became particularly clear during the proceedings.

The 5th Party Congress was held in London, England, in 1907. It consolidated the supremacy of the Bolshevik faction and debated strategy for communist revolution in Russia. Joseph Stalin never later referred to his stay in London.[9]

1912 split[edit]

The Social Democrats (SDs) boycotted elections to the First Duma (April–July 1906), but they were represented in the Second Duma (February–June 1907). With the SRs, they held 83 seats. The Second Duma was dissolved on the pretext of the discovery of an SD conspiracy to subvert the army. Under new electoral laws, the SD presence in the Third Duma (1907–1912) was reduced to 19. From the Fourth Duma (1912–1917), the SDs were finally and fully split. The Mensheviks had seven members in the Duma and the Bolsheviks had six, including Roman Malinovsky, who was later uncovered as an Okhrana agent.[10]

In the years of Tsarist repression that followed the defeat of the 1905 Russian Revolution, both the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions faced splits, causing further splits in the RSDLP, which manifested themselves from late 1908 and the years immediately following. The Mensheviks split into the "Pro-Party Mensheviks" led by Georgi Plekhanov, who wished to maintain illegal underground work as well as legal work; and the "Liquidators", whose most prominent advocates were Pavel Axelrod, Fyodor Dan, Nikolai Aleksandrovich Rozhkov and Nikolay Chkheidze, who wished to pursue purely legal activities and who now repudiated illegal and underground work.[11]

The Bolsheviks split threeways into the Proletary group led by Lenin, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, who waged a fierce struggle against the liquidators, ultimatists and recallists; the Ultimatist group led by Grigory Aleksinsky, who wished to issue ultimatums to the RSDLP Duma deputies to follow the party line or to resign immediately; and the Recallist group led by Alexander Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky and supported by Maxim Gorky, who called for the immediate recall of all RSDLP Duma deputies and a boycott of all legal work by the RSDLP, in favour of increased radical underground and illegal work.[11]

There was also a non-faction group led by Leon Trotsky, who denounced all the "factionalism" in the RSDLP, pushed for "unity" in the party and focused more strongly on the problems of Russian workers and peasants on the ground. The Menshevik Julius Martov was formally considered a liquidator partly because most of his closest political friends were liquidators.[11]

In January 1912, Lenin's Proletary Bolshevik group called a conference in Prague and expelled the liquidators, ultimatists and recallists from the RSDLP, which officially led to the creation of a separate party, known as the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks), while the Mensheviks continued their activities establishing the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Mensheviks). In August 1912, Trotsky's group tried to reunite all the RSDLP factions into the same party at a conference in Vienna, but he was largely rebuffed by the Bolsheviks.[11] The Bolsheviks seized power during the October Revolution in 1917 when all political power was transferred to the soviets and in 1918 changed their name to the All-Russian Communist Party. They banned the Mensheviks after the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921.

The Interdistrictites, known as the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (Internationalists), emerged in 1913 as another faction originating from the RSDLP.

Party branches[edit]


In 1902, the Tallinn organization of the RSDLP was founded, which in 1904 was converted into the Tallinn Committee of the party. In November, a parallel (that is, also directly under the CC of RSDLP) Narva Committee was created. Amongst other radicals, the Estonian RSDLP cadres were active in the 1905 Revolution. At the conference of the Estonian RSDLP organizations in Terijoki, Finland in March 1907, the Bolshevik supporters came into serious conflict with the Mensheviks.


At the 4th (Unity) Congress of the RSDLP in 1906, the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party entered the RSDLP as a territorial organisation. After the Congress, its name was changed Social-Democracy of the Latvian Territory.[12]


Visualization of the strength of party factions present at the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party – 105 Bolsheviks, 97 Mensheviks, 59 Bundists, 44 SDKPiL, 29 Latvian Social Democracy, 4 'non-faction' delegates
List of congresses of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party from 1898 – 1907.
Congress Location Delegates[b] Elected to Central Committee Majority Faction
1st 13 March

15 March 1898

Minsk, Russian Empire
2nd 30 July

23 August 1903
51 Mensheviks
3rd 25 April

10 May 1905

London, United Kingdom
51 Bolsheviks
4th 10 April

25 April 1906

Stockholm, Sweden
  • Boris Bakhmeteff
  • Leon Goldman
  • Vasily Denitsky
  • Pavel Kolokolnikov
  • Leonid Krasin
  • Viktor Krokhmal
  • Natalya Baranskaya
  • Vladimir Rozanov
  • Alexei Rykov
  • Lev Khinchuk
5th 13 May

1 June 1907

London, United Kingdom
338 Bolsheviks

Electoral history[edit]

Legislative elections[edit]

State Duma
Year Votes % Seat(s) +/– Leader
1906 Unknown (3rd) 3.8
18 / 478
New Julius Martov
Jan, 1907 Unknown (3rd) 12.5
65 / 518
Increase 47
Oct, 1907 Unknown (4th) 3.7
19 / 509
Decrease 46
1912 Unknown (4th) 3.3
14 / 434
Decrease 5

See also[edit]


  1. ^ There is no definitive date on which the RSDLP dissolved. The party split into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions in 1903, with the two factions forming separate parties in 1912. However, joint party organisations continued to exist until 1917.[citation needed]
  2. ^ Also known as representatives.
  3. ^ Thirteen sessions of the second congress took place in Brussels before it was moved to London.


  1. ^ Cavendish, Richard (11 November 2003). "The Bolshevik-Menshevik Split". History Today. Retrieved 13 September 2017.
  2. ^ Ascher, Abraham. The Revolution of 1905. p. 4.
  3. ^ Lih, Lars (2005). Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context. Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 978-90-04-13120-0.
  4. ^ Scholey, Keith. "The Communist Club". Archived from the original on 1 November 2018.
  5. ^ a b c "Vladimir Lenin | Biography, Facts, & Ideology | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 20 November 2022.
  6. ^ Jones, Stephen F. (2014). The Making of Modern Georgia, 1918–2012: the First Georgian Republic and its Successors. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis. ISBN 978-1-317-81593-8. OCLC 881415856.
  7. ^ Getzler, Israel (2003). Martov: a political biography of a Russian social democrat. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 60. ISBN 0-521-05073-1. OCLC 224176363.
  8. ^ a b "1903: Organisational Rules of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party". marxists.org. Retrieved 27 October 2017.
  9. ^ Gould, Mark; Revill, Jo (24 October 2004). "Luxury beckons for East End's house of history". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 October 2017.
  10. ^ Badayev, Aleksey. "Badayev: The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma". marxists.org. Retrieved 24 June 2021.
  11. ^ a b c d Woods, Alan (1999). Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution. Wellred Books. pp. 321–355. ISBN 9780091932862.
  12. ^ Lenin, Vladimir. "Lenin: The Second Conference of the R.S.D.L.P. (First All-Russia Conference)". marxists.org. Retrieved 27 October 2017.