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Lenin’s uncompromising stand on party organization, discipline and leadership initially outlined in What Is to Be Done? was the chief cause of the split in the newly created Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party at its founding Congress in 1903. (Technically, this was the Party’s second Congress, as the first had met in 1898, only to be dispersed by the police).  

Lenin and Martov in 1895 

The Congress was held abroad in secret with sittings first held in Brussels and then transferred to London. One of the most important items on the its agenda turned out to be the question of the criteria for party membership. Lenin’s hitherto close comrade, Julius Martov, proposed that a party member must, first, accept the party program; second, support the party financially; and, third, be prepared to work under the direction of one of the party organizations.  Lenin agreed with the first two principles but objected to the third.  In his formulation, a party member must work ‘in one of the party organizations’.   

The seemingly insignificant variation in wording exposed two widely differing views as to what type of party there should be. Martov’s formulation envisaged a broad party of sympathetic supporters prepared to render ‘personal co-operation’ with party organizations. Lenin, true to the organizational principles of the party elaborated by him only a few months before in What Is to Be Done?, wanted the party to be a narrow, secret band of fully dedicated activists. In contrast to Martov’s wording, his formulation required of party members a higher degree of discipline, professionalism and commitment to the cause.

At the congress Lenin lost the vote on the question of party membership to Martov. On a later item, however, which also concerned the question of party leadership and organization, he won a slender majority. Armed with this tenuous numerical advantage, Lenin promptly dubbed his supporters the ‘majority-ites’. The Russian word for ‘majority’ is bolshinstvo - hence Lenin’s followers became known as Bolsheviks.  His opponents, led by Martov, were called the ‘minority-ites’ or Mensheviks.

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