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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 revolutionary socialist political party founded in Minsk, Belarus.

Formed to unite the various revolutionary organizations of the Russian Empire into one party in 1898, the RSDLP later split into Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority) factions, with the Bolshevik faction eventually becoming the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Interdistrictites, known as the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (Internationalists), were also formed from this party.


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 Narodniks revolutionary populism, which was later represented by the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs). Formed at an underground conference in Minsk in 1898 by 15 delegates representing the Jewish Labour Bund, Robochaya Gazeta (both formed a year earlier in 1897) and the St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, the RSDLP program was based on the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, namely that despite Russia's agrarian nature at the time, the true revolutionary potential lay with the industrial working class. The RSDLP was illegal for most of its existence as at the end of the 1st Party Congress in March 1898 all nine delegates were arrested by the Imperial Russian Police. At this time, there were 3 million Russian industrial workers, just 3% of the population.[7]

Before the 2nd Party Congress, a young intellectual named Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov joined the party, better known by his pseudonym—Vladimir Lenin. In 1902, he had published What Is To Be Done?, outlining his view of the party's task and methodology—to form "the vanguard of the proletariat". He advocated a disciplined, centralized party of committed activists who sought to fuse the underground struggle for political freedom with the class struggle of the proletariat.[8]

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 a chapel in Tottenham Court Road.[9] 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] Lenin's faction later ended up in the minority and remained smaller than the Mensheviks until the Russian Revolution.[citation needed]

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".[10] 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".[10] Martov won the vote and the Bolsheviks accepted it as part of the adopted organizational rules.

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 thebourgeoisie. 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.[11]


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 five members in the Duma and the Bolsheviks had seven, including Roman Malinovsky, who was later uncovered as an Okhrana agent.

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.[12]

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.[12]

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.[12]

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 (Bolshevik). 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.[12] 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.

Foreign affiliations[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.[13]


Electoral history[edit]

Legislative elections[edit]

See also[edit]

  • Bibliography of the Russian Revolution and Civil War § Non-Bolshevik political parties
  • Factions of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party
  • Socialist Revolutionary Party
  • Zreniye


  1. ^ Cavendish, Richard (11 November 2003). "The Bolshevik-Menshevik Split". History Today. Retrieved 13 September 2017.
  2. ^ Blunden, Andy. "1903: Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party Second Congress Part 1". Retrieved 27 October 2017.
  3. ^ "Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party". Encyclopædia Britannica. 20 July 1998. Retrieved 13 September 2017.
  4. ^ Simkin, John (September 1997). "Social Democratic Labour Party". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 13 September 2017. Martov based his ideas on the socialist parties that existed in other European countries such as the British Labour Party.
  5. ^ "Russian Social Democratic Labour Party". Encyclopedia of Marxism. Retrieved 13 September 2017. [...] with some arguing that reformism is necessary before revolution, and by the same logic, that capitalism is necessary before socialism.
  6. ^ Thatcher, Ian D. (October 2007). "The First Histories of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, 1904-06". The Slavonic and East European Review. pp. 724, 752. JSTOR25479136. 
  7. ^ Ascher, Abraham. The Revolution of 1905. p. 4.
  8. ^ Lih, Lars (2005). Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context. Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 978-90-04-13120-0.
  9. ^ Scholey, Keith. "The Communist Club". Archived from the original on 1 November 2018.
  10. ^ a b "1903: Organisational Rules of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party". Retrieved 27 October 2017.
  11. ^ Gould, Mark; Revill, Jo (24 October 2004). "Luxury beckons for East End's house of history". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 October 2017.
  12. ^ a b c d Woods, Alan (1999). Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution. Wellred Books. pp. 321–355. ISBN 9780091932862.
  13. ^ Lenin, Vladimir. "Lenin: The Second Conference of the R.S.D.L.P. (First All-Russia Conference)". Retrieved 27 October 2017.