1873: Revolutionary Who Lost Out to Lenin Is Born

When Julius Martov attempted to push for a democratic government after the 1917 Russian revolution, Vladimir Lenin told him to go into 'the dustbin of history.'

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Leaders of the Menshevik Party, Pavel Axelrod, Julius Martov and Alexander Martinov, at Norra Bantorget in Stockholm, Sweden, May 1917.
Leaders of the Menshevik Party, Pavel Axelrod, Julius Martov and Alexander Martinov, at Norra Bantorget in Stockholm, Sweden, May 1917. Credit: WikiCommons
David Green
David B. Green

November 24, 1873 is the birthdate of Julius Martov, whose Menshevik party was vanquished by its former ally, the Bolsheviks, after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Martov, who was respected for his principles and intellect even by his political foes – “What an amazing comrade he is, what a pure man!’ Vladimir Lenin said of Martov, long after he dumped him – found that his belief in social democracy and non-violence was no equal for the aggressive tactics of Lenin’s Bolsheviks. He died in exile in Germany.

Yuli Osipovich Tsederbaum started life in Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire, where his father, Osip Alexandrovich Tsederbaum, represented the Russian Steamship Company and also served as a correspondent for several Russian newspapers. His mother, Revekka Iulievna, was a Sephardi Jew who had been born in Vienna and grown up in Constantinople, where she attended a convent school.

Although Yuli’s paternal grandfather, Alexander Tsederbaum, was an early Zionist and observant Jew who founded and edited some of the earliest Hebrew- and Yiddish-language journals – Hamelitz, Hamevasser and the Yiddisher Folksblat, to name a few – the family in which Yuli grew up was firmly secular and devoted to radical politics.

In 1878, when Yuli was four, the family moved to Odessa. Four years later, after a pogrom targeted Odessa’s Jews, they relocated to St. Petersburg. There, as a student at the First Gymnasium, Yuli was subjected to constant anti-Semitism.

The Menshevik Julius Martov, in a photograph taken in Petrograd in 1917.Credit: WikiCommons

He subsequently entered St. Petersburg’s Imperial University as a science student, but found himself distracted almost immediately by politics. His first arrest came in early 1892, and resulted in his being exiled to Vilna. There he was active in the Jewish labor movement, the Bund, though several years later, he would become a strong opponent of the Jewish separatism of the organization.

In October 1895, Tsederbaum returned to Petersburg, where he first met Lenin. The two were among the co-founders of the Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, which led almost immediately to another arrest: The second time, the czarist government sentenced Tsederbaum to three years in the Siberian Arctic.

Upon his release, Tsederbaum was one of a number of socialist revolutionaries, including Lenin, who moved to Zurich. There the two men joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, the umbrella organization for revolutionary groups, and, in 1900, together with Alexander Potresov and Leon Trotsky, they founded the journal Iskra.

By the time of the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903, Martov had broken with Lenin over the question of eligibility for membership in the movement. Although Martov, who argued for a big tent policy, had the support of a majority of members, he was outmaneuvered in the vote by Lenin. From then on, his followers were dubbed the Mensheviks, meaning “minority.” Lenin, who wanted to create a class of professional revolutionaries, now became the dominant figure in the party, and his faction was called the Bolsheviks, the “majority.”

Following the 1905 revolution in Russia, Martov advocated steady resistance to the new reformist government, believing that pressure would eventually lead to a socialist victory. During World War I, he argued for Russian non-participation, while Lenin aspired to have the “imperialist” war transformed into a revolutionary one.

Photograph of Vladimir Lenin taken in Switzerland in 1916, during his exile in the country.Credit: WikiCommons

By the time of the October 1917 revolution, the ideological and personal split between the two factions was out in the open. Martov nonetheless pushed for a united, democratic government, so as to avoid a civil war. His plea was rejected by the Bolsheviks. As Trotsky told him, “your role is played out. Go to where you belong from now on – the dustbin of history!”

Although Martov supported the Red Army in the civil war that he had hoped to prevent, it didn’t save him from being marginalized. In 1920, he received permission to travel to Germany, and he ended up remaining there after the Mensheviks were declared illegal in Russia in 1921, attempting to keep the party alive from abroad. He died of throat cancer in a sanatorium in Schoemberg, in the Black Forest, on April 4, 1923.

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