Archive for the ‘Georgia’ Category

A Tale of Two Revolutions

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

The following is the text of my talk at Tbilisi State University on 30 November 2018.


I’d like us all to imagine that it is 100 years ago today, the 30th of November 1918.

The Russians have begun their second year under Bolshevik rule. They have held celebrations to mark the occasion a few weeks ago.

In Georgia, the country has been independent now for a little more than six months. Less than three weeks ago, the First World War ended – and with it, the German presence in the country. The British have arrived in Tbilisi.

The very first they do is insult the Georgian president, Noe Zhordania. They later apologise. It is not a good start to the Georgian-British relationship, but this will eventually be fixed.

In my presentation to you today, I want to compare four areas which highlight the differences between the two societies that have been created in the two countries, Bolshevik Russia and Menshevik Georgia.

And I want to do this by looking at both of those societies as they stood exactly one hundred years ago today.

Those four areas are:

• democracy,
• land reform,
• trade unions
• and foreign and defence policy.

Democracy

In Russia, all opposition parties have been crushed, even the socialist ones – and free press has been suppressed.

This began a year earlier; the first Menshevik newspapers were closed down by the state in 1917, only weeks after the Bolshevik coup.

This was followed by the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. That Assembly was the only truly democratically elected parliament Russia had ever had, or ever would have.

The alliance between the Bolsheviks and a section of the Social Revolutionary Party (the Left SRs), the only legal non-Bolshevik party, came to an end in July 1918 when the Left SRs revolted against Lenin’s regime. As a result, by November, 1918, just one year after seizing power, the Bolshevik Party is effectively the only legal party in Russia.

Lenin has expressed contempt for “bourgeois democracy”. He claims that Soviet democracy, based on workers’ councils (soviets), is on a higher level. But already the Soviet themselves are being stripped of all power.

And the Cheka, the forerunner of the GPU, the NKVD, the KGB and today’s FSB, has been in existence for a full year. Not a few months, not following on the beginning of the civil war, but an entire year. The Cheka is one of the first new institutions of the Soviet state. And one of the most ruthless.

The GULAG has also begun to take shape. The first forced labour camps have been created. Opponents of the Bolshevik regime have been arrested, held hostage, tortured and executed in their thousands.

And the regime is only one year old.

Meanwhile in Georgia, a multi-party democracy has been created, with free elections coming up. The main Georgian political parties competing with the Social Democrats were the National Democrats, a bourgeois liberal party; the Social Federalists; and the Social Revolutionary Party. There are also the Georgian Bolsheviks, but I will come to them in a moment.

In elections to be held in a few weeks’ time for the Constituent Assembly, which had the task of writing the new constitution for the Georgian Democratic Republic, the Social Democrats will win 81% of the votes, and 109 of the 130 seats.

The Georgian Bolsheviks are the exception; committed to a violent overthrow of the democratically elected government of Georgia, they exclude themselves from the political process – and operate largely from the underground for the first two years of the republic’s existence – and then they emerge as a legal party, though they are never very strong.

It is important to emphasise how different the Bolsheviks are from all other parties. They are indeed a “party of a new type” – a phrase attributed to Lenin – because they have no interest in competing with other political parties in free and fair elections. Their interest is the overthrow of the hated Menshevik regime. They make a couple of pathetic attempts to do so, which are easily crushed.

Once above ground after May 1920, as a result of the Soviet Russian peace treaty with Georgia, they are part of the Soviet operation to eventually conquer Georgia. In other words, they fit the classic definition of a “fifth column”.

Meanwhile, the Georgian Constituent Assembly is working steadily to draft what will be the most progressive constitution the world has ever known.

The Georgian Social Democrats are carrying out in practice what Karl Kautsky would write: There is no socialism without democracy.

Agrarian reform

In Russia this was the period of “war communism”, marked by war between the cities and the countryside, with mass starvation as peasants are forced at gunpoint to turn over food for the cities.

Bolshevik hostility to the peasants is growing year on year, with a brief retreat during the period of Lenin’s New Economic Policy. By the end of the 1920s the Bolsheviks will unleash forced collectivisation which leads to genocide, particularly in Ukraine. Millions will die as the government tries to ram collectivised agriculture down the throats of the peasants.

Forced collectivisation was always part of the Bolshevik plan, and Trotsky was an advocate of it before Stalin was.

In Georgia, on the other hand, there has been the implementation of an ambitious, and largely successful, program to break up the large estates and distribute land to the landless peasants – with almost no resistance from the landowners, no war between city and countryside, and no famine.

The result is the emergence for the first time of a middle class in the countryside.

This was the intention of the Georgian Social Democrats all along because they learned from the experience of the western Georgian region of Guria around the time of there 1905 revolution, where revolutionary peasants overthrew tsarist rule and changed the relationship between rural workers and the Social Democratic Party.

The Georgian Social Democrats were from then on allied with, and served as a voice for, the landless peasants, unlike the Bolsheviks who had little or no support in the countryside.

The Georgian Social Democrats also had a theoretical basis for opposing state ownership of the farms. In their Marxist interpretation of Russia as an “Asiatic” society, they were convinced that state ownership of farmland provided the material basis not for socialism, but for despotism.

Their greatest fear was that a socialist revolution in the Russian empire would fail, and be replaced not by liberal capitalism. Instead, they feared a revived, and far more powerful, autocratic regime – a renewed form of what they called “Oriental despotism”.

Allowing peasants to own their own land removed that social basis for a despotic regime.

Trade unions

In Russia, Trotsky will soon be making the case for the suppression of independent unions, not needed in a “workers state” – and calls for the militarisation of labour. He feels that what workers need, now that they achieved state power, is the strict military discipline that is leading the Red Army to victory in the Civil War.

Even Stalin considers this proposal for the militarisation of labour to be a step too far, though once he is in power, he implements it.

Trade unions in Russia have grown since the fall of the tsarist regime, but they are rapidly falling under the control of the Communist Party.

Strikes are no longer tolerated, and union leaders are imposed by the ruling party, not elected by the workers.

Soon those unions will be transformed into “transmission belts” to pass on instructions from the Communist Party leadership to the workers, and to encourage workers to work harder and be more productive.

They are nothing like unions in the West, which were then – and now – the most effective means of self-defence for the working class.

In Georgia, powerful, independent unions which had barely existed under the tsarist regime, now thrive, and they forced the constituent assembly to enact a constitutionally-guaranteed right to strike

But then they join with the government and employers to create a Wages Board, an innovative tool to regulate wages and working conditions, and to ensure a minimum standard of living for the urban working class. They hardly ever strike after that – because they don’t need to.

That Wages Board is decades ahead of its time, and it anticipates the rise in Western Europe after the second world war of a “social market economy” and social partnership.

The local Bolsheviks make determined efforts to win influence in the small urban working class in Georgia, but they completely fail as the workers remain loyal to their social democratic leadership.

Foreign relations and defence

In Russia, civil war rages from the summer of 1918, Germany occupies vast swathes of Russian territory, including all of Ukraine, follow the disastrous Brest-Litovsk peace agreement.

Eventually Russia finds itself at war with nearly all the western powers, including France, Britain, the USA, as well as Japan.

By 30 November 1918, the Whites are winning the civil war. Earlier this month, Admiral Kolchak seizes control of the White forces in Siberia, becoming a military dictator, and begins his march on Moscow. As a result, the Bolshevik regime is tottering.

Bolshevik foreign policy consists of increasing isolation of the regime, constant warfare with foreign enemies, and overt attempts to bring Bolshevik regimes to power in neighbouring countries including Hungary, Finland, and Germany – with no success.

In Georgia, there is no civil war. Georgia is forced to repel a brief attack from Armenia at the end of 1918, but the Turkish threat is now gone thanks to the German intervention.

There is some unrest in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, mostly provoked by the Russians (nothing new here). The Russians themselves, White and Red alike, make aggressive moves toward Georgia, neither side accepting the right of the Georgians to self-determination. It is the one thing the Whites and the Reds agree on: they do not recognise the independence of Georgia or any other outlying province of the former empire.

But Georgia is largely at peace until 1921 when the Russians invade.

Georgia’s foreign policy is based on strict neutrality, especially with regards to the Russian Civil War – which makes no friends for Georgia among either the Whites or the Reds. And the Georgians seek international recognition, using both traditional diplomacy (at the Paris peace conference) and the sympathy of the international socialist movement, whose leaders will visit the country in a high-level delegation in September 1920.

Conclusion

Despite the fact that leaders of both Russia and Georgia are men and women who had been members of the same political party only a couple of years earlier, and both sides professed to be Marxists, the societies they were creating were radically different from each other.

Even though the Bolshevik state was just a year old, the contours of the future Soviet totalitarian regime could already be seen: the labour camps, the secret police, the one-party state, the red terror.

And though the Georgian republic would not last more than another 27 months, one can extrapolate its future character from what was being done in 1918. It would almost certainly have continued as a democratic society, respecting human rights and aspiring to social justice and greater equality for its citizens.

Sadly, of the two experiments, it was the Bolshevik one that was allowed to continue, and the Communist dictatorship remained in power for another seven decades, causing untold human suffering and the deaths of millions of innocent – and I emphasize innocent – victims.

All that remained of the Georgian Social Democrats and their very brief experiment is a memory – and proof that another kind of revolution is possible.

100 years later: Lessons of the three South Caucasian republics

Saturday, July 28th, 2018

This is the text of my presentation to the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Regional Lab held in Kvareli, Georgia. The event was attended by young leaders and activists from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

I have been asked to speak with you today about the first Georgian republic, which lasted for three brief years until the Red Army invasion of 1921. I have been given the job of making this sound relevant to you, as your countries make a second attempt, one hundred years later, to create independent, democratic societies.

I should start by saying that I’m not a political scientist and I’m not really qualified to speak about what is happening in Georgia today, let alone what is happening in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

My expertise is really with what happened one hundred years ago, and I’ve written many articles and a book on the subject. The book is available in English, Georgian and even Esperanto, and we’re hoping soon to have editions in Russian, Polish and German too.

Which raises an interesting question: why would people who don’t live in this region be interested in the Georgian Democratic Republic of 1918 – 1921?

Why would an author who is not from here, who does speak any of the South Caucasian languages, write a book like this?

I need to be brief so I do recommend that you read the book and that you check out the book’s website as this presentation will be, by definition, superficial.

I think the first thing to point out is that the leaders of the Georgian Democratic Republic, who were Social Democrats, were far ahead of their time. Some of the things that they did were only realised decades later in western Europe, if ever.

For example, they pioneered the idea of social partnerships in which powerful and independent trade unions voluntarily worked together with businesses and government to ensure that workers were treated fairly, paid a decent wage, and their families’ basic needs were met.

The Wages Board established by the Social Democratic government here in Georgia was a very early version of a kind of social partnership which later became popular in Germany and elsewhere.

The idea that trade unions should be fully independent of the state, and that their right to strike should be constitutionally-protected, was part of the Georgian Social Democratic experiment. In this, as in so many other things, they differed sharply from the Bolsheviks, who swiftly crushed the independent trade unions, turning them into “transmission belts”, encouraging workers to work harder.

The Georgian republic was also characterised by a very powerful cooperative movement that seemed to be gradually displacing the free market in some sectors of the economy.

But probably the thing about the Georgian republic that made it so different from Bolshevik Russia was its vigorous defence of human rights, including a multi-party system with free and fair elections. Women voted in those elections, and were elected to the Constituent Assembly – and this happened here before it happened in the UK or the USA.

If you’d asked the Georgian Social Democrats back in 1921 what their greatest achievement was, they’d probably point to their successful agrarian reform. This broke up large estates, doled out land to peasant families, and began the creation of a middle class in the countryside. This too stands in sharp contrast to the Bolsheviks’ war on the peasants, which resulted in mass starvation and eventually the full horror of Stalinist collectivisation with its millions of innocent victims.

The Georgian Social Democrats did not create a perfect society and we can discuss things they got wrong. But they never intended to create a perfect society, just a better one, and I believe that they succeeded in this. We have much to learn, even today, from how they did this.

I’ve been asked to address three current issues – the level of democracy here, the question of independence, and finally what future we’d like to see.

In Georgia, the road to democracy has been a difficult one. From the time that Georgia restored its independence, it took some twenty years until one party could replace another in power in a peaceful and orderly fashion. After a bloody civil war and a “rose revolution,” it was only six years ago that one party replaced another following an election, which is how things are done in democracies.

There is other evidence that this young democracy has a way to go. Democracies are not just countries where people can vote; they must also be places where minorities have rights and which are tolerant of difference, and are inclusive. In many ways, and there are recent examples of this, Georgians have not yet stood up to the test.

And from the little I know about current affairs in Armenia and Azerbaijan, I think those countries as well have a way to go before they are robust modern democracies, inclusive, open, and tolerant of differences.

As for the independence of these countries, as we learned 100 years ago, if they do not work together, they are more vulnerable to aggression. The Bolsheviks understood this very well, and picked off the South Caucasian countries one by one. After 1921, the exiled leaders of the three countries vowed that this would never happen again.

But also the Georgians understood back then the importance of international support. They sought relations with major powers, first Germany, then Britain, then others. They were eager to be admitted into the League of Nations.

But more than that, they sought to win friends for their country based on its achievements, first and foremost its democratic character. That’s why they invited leaders of Europe’s social democratic and labour parties to visit in 1920. Those leaders – and among them the great German socialist writer Karl Kautsky and the future British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald – were very impressed with what they saw.

No country can be truly independent in today’s globalised world, and that’s why it’s so important for Georgia to join both NATO and the European Union as soon as possible. I hope that the other South Caucasian countries will follow a similar route.

Looking ahead, what I’d like to see in all these countries is a much more powerful civil society, in particular trade unions. In some senses, workers were better represented, and better defended, back in 1921 than they are today. Most workers here are not members of trade unions, and unions struggle to recruit new members. This is not a good thing, as trade unions are the best way to ensure workers are treated fairly and paid a decent wage.

But it’s not enough to have strong trade unions independent of the state, important though that is. As workers in many European countries learned, they also need political parties which represent them. Historically, those have been parties like the British Labour Party or the German SPD. Those parties have not always done a great job of representing workers and sometimes there are strains between them and the trade unions. But without social democratic parties, there can be little hope of creating fairer and better democratic societies.

No one would suggest that those republics 100 years ago were perfect, or were models which we should return to.

However, they were inspiring, they did amazing things, and though they have been largely forgotten – and actually erased during the Soviet period – there is evidence today of growing interest in them, especially among young people.

The brilliant American socialist writer Irving Howe once asked, do great historical movements – he meant Social Democracy – ever get a second chance?

Let us hope they do.

The Socialist Delegation to Georgia

Monday, July 2nd, 2018

Presentation to the International Scientific Forum: “Remembering the Georgian Democratic Republic 100 Years On: A Model for Europe” – Tbilisi – June 2018

There was a time when I would not have had to explain what the Second International was. Today it is largely forgotten. But from its foundation in 1889 until its collapse in 1914, it was a global political force to be reckoned with.

The Second International united socialist, social democratic and labour parties from around the world.

Its rise to power seemed inexorable. By 1914, its member party in Germany, the SPD, was the largest party in the Reichstag. The socialist parties had grown increasingly important across Europe and beyond.

Even in the United States, where “American exceptionalism” was later used to explain the absence of a mass socialist party, by 1912 the Socialists were a serious force, winning over a million votes in presidential elections, taking seats in Congress, and winning control of several major cities.

At their regular congresses, the socialists from various countries would discuss the burning issues of the day, none more important than the danger of a world war.

In 1907 at their congress in Stuttgart, they debated what to do in the event a world war would break out.

A resolution was adopted which had been written by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, and it said this:

If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved … to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective … In case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.

No one saw this as a crazy idea at the time. It seemed to the socialists, and not only to them, that they could do this – either stop the world war, or if they failed at that, to overthrow capitalism.

In other words, they saw themselves as a Great Power, or a “superpower” as we’d say today.

On the very eve of the outbreak of the war in the summer of 1914, the leaders of the socialist parties met in Brussels to attempt to prevent the war from breaking out.

They failed. War broke out.

Over the course of the next several weeks, leading individuals and parties in the International took the side of their own countries.

There was no general strike to stop the war.

There was no revolution to overthrow capitalism.

The turning point for most was the decision made by the German Social Democrats in August 1914 to vote for war credits.

The German party did eventually split, with most of its most famous leaders supporting a breakaway anti-war party.

But the memory of their betrayal at the decisive moment was the end of the Second International.

As the war came to an end, a number of developments took place which led eventually to the creation of two Internationals.

The Third International, also known as the Communist International, or Comintern, was Lenin’s creation.

At the same time as it got on its feet, the social democratic leaders in other countries who had doubts about the Bolsheviks re-formed their own International, which is today known as the Socialist International.

Georgian social democrats were always part of the Second International.

Until 1917, they took part in the delegation of the Russian Social Democratic Party, in particular its Menshevik wing.

After Georgia declared its independence in May 1918, its government embarked on a foreign policy aimed at winning recognition from the great powers.

These included Britain, France, Italy, the United States – and the Second International.

Despite the failure of the socialists to stop the first world war from breaking out, or to overthrow capitalism as they had planned, they were still seen a global force.

Some of the Georgian Social Democrats who were best known in the International, such as Tseretelli, found themselves in Western Europe trying to win Georgia a seat at the table during the Paris Peace Conference.

They used the opportunity to invite the leaders of the Second International to come visit Georgia in 1920.

The men and women who eventually travelled to Georgia as guests of the government are largely forgotten today. But at the time, they were super-stars. The most famous member of the delegation was Karl Kautsky, from Germany, the author of many authoritative works on Marxism, and a man often described as the “Pope of Marxism”.

The delegation took two weeks to travel by train from Paris to southern Italy, then boat to Istanbul, and then another boat to Batumi, and from there by train to Tbilisi, and then to various parts of the country.

They were welcomed by wildly enthusiastic crowds everywhere they went.

Ramsay MacDonald from the British Labour Party was astonished by what he saw in the Georgian capital. He wrote:

“It seemed very odd. There we were, having left for some days all that seemed to be of the West, having gone through the Bazaar and the mosques of Constantinople and proceeded far beyond towards the rising sun, and, at our journey’s end at last, we were being received by a President of the Republic of Georgia in a waiting room at the Tiflis railway station, covered with the most glorious Oriental rugs, but hung with the portraits of Karl Marx and his best known disciples.”

He was even more surprised at the reception they received when they left the capital. He described visiting “the heart of the Caucasian mountains, surrounded by the wildest and the gayest rout of untamed mountaineers armed with sword, shield, and rifle” and then standing reverently “whilst an old priest by the light of altar candles guttering in the wind read to us an address of welcome which ended with ‘Long live the International.’”

When they returned home, they gave newspaper interviews and wrote articles in which they praised the achievements of the Georgian Social Democrats.

Ethel Snowden, a leading figure in the British Labour Party, told journalists that “They have set up what is the most perfect Socialism in Europe.”

Kautsky, who arrived somewhat later than the others, stayed for several weeks. He wrote a short book about Georgia, which was published in an English edition as well as the original German.
“In comparison with the hell which Soviet Russia represents,” he wrote “Georgia appeared as a paradise.”

The Socialist delegation of 1920 was of course subjected to ferocious criticism by the Soviets.

But even some of the Georgians were skeptical. One of the critics was Zourab Avalishvili, a Georgian diplomat who was highly critical of the Social Democrats. He considered the delegation to be a waste of time. He wrote contemptuously of the socialist visitors, referring to “prominent European Socialists — including the three ‘ladies-in-waiting’ of the 2nd International (Mrs. Kautsky, Mrs. Vandervelde and Mrs. Snowden), gazing with curiosity at ‘that charming picturesque Georgia’.”

He expressed disgust at how they were welcomed by the Georgian government. They were greeted “with official honours, to which they were not so accustomed at home” which was true at the time. But Avalishvili could not have known that two of the delegates (MacDonald and Huysmans) would go on to become prime ministers of their countries. He considered the delegation to “be of no importance at all: it even created or stimulated more untimely illusions with regard to the support of the ‘Western democracies’” Avalishvili argued that the Georgian people had no idea of the “the comparative importance for Georgia’s independence in 1920 of the ‘Supreme Council of Allied Powers’ and the ‘Amsterdam International’,” referring to the Socialists.

What explains the enthusiasm of the Georgian political leadership for the delegation? It should be noted that this enthusiasm continued long after the delegates left Georgia, and even after the country had been occupied by the Russians. For many years, Zhordania and other exiled Georgian leaders were regular visitors to socialist congresses, which continued to pass – with decreasing regularity as the years wore on – resolutions demanding a withdrawal of Russian forces from the country.

The explanation lies on the world view of classical Marxism, which was embraced by Zhordania and his comrades from the 1890s onwards. In their view, there were of course national governments and a need for traditional diplomacy, but social class was even more important. The Second International and its successor organisations represented, in the view of the Georgian Social Democrats, a world power of at least equal importance.

To the diplomat Avalishvili, and to modern-day historians, this may seem absurd. But it did not seem absurd at the time. Remember the resolution adopted at the 1907 congress of the Second International in Stuttgart – the one that proposed that the social democrats stop the world war or overthrow capitalism.

This was how the socialists saw themselves, representing the great majority of humankind, and therefore as a kind of superpower.

That belief survived the war, and was shared by both the victorious Bolsheviks in Russia and their Social Democratic rivals.

In the eyes of the Bolsheviks, those European Social Democratic politicians who Avalishvili labelled as having “no importance at all” were actually extremely important.

Trotsky, then commanding the Red Army and having just led it to victory in the Russian Civil War, took the international socialist delegation to Georgia so seriously that he wrote an entire book, published in English as Between Red and White, to answer the book Kautsky wrote after he left Georgia. And for years later, leading Bolshevik figures from the Communist International were dispatched to meetings in Europe to debate what had happened in Georgia with representatives of the Social Democratic parties.

If Zhordania and his comrades suffered from the illusion that the Second International mattered, they were not alone, as the Soviet leadership shared in the same illusion.

And in the end, the alternative strategy proposed by more conventional diplomats like Avalishvili, aiming to win recognition from “real” powers including France and Italy, was no more successful than the attempts to leverage the power of the international socialist movement.

La forgesita revolucio de Kartvelujo

Saturday, June 9th, 2018

Mia prelego je la Londona Esperanto-Klubo – 8 junio 2018.  

Bonan vesperon.

Unue, dankon pro la invito.

Mi ĝojas paroli ĉi tie, je via klubo.

Mi volas danki Renato Corsetti, mian instruiston, por organizi la tradukadon de mia libro, La Eksperimento: La Forgesita Revolucio de Kartvelujo, en Esperanton.

Dankon ankaŭ al mia eldonisto, Vilhelmo Lutermano, pro la tre bela eldono de mia libro.

La Eksperimento rakontas la nekonatan historion de la unua kartvela respubliko, kiu daŭris de 1918 ĝis 1921.

Mi skribis la libron, ĉar, kiel demokrata socialisto, mi volis scii, ĉu ekzistis ekzemploj – en la reala mondo – de demokrataj socialismaj socioj.

Ni havas multajn ekzemplojn de landoj, kiuj nomas sin socialismaj, sed kiuj ne estas.

Ekzemple, Sovetunio. Aŭ Ĉinujo. Aŭ Nord-Koreujo. Aŭ Kubo.

Eĉ Hitler nomis sian ideologion “nacia socialismo”.

Laŭ mia opinio, tiuj landoj estas, aŭ estis, totalismaj diktatoraĵoj.

Se estas demokrataj alternativoj al ili, ni devas trovi ekzemplojn en la historio.

Kiam mi unue komencis labori pri mia libro, antaû tridek jaroj, mi loĝis en Israela kibuco.

La kibuco estis demokrata socialisma eksperimento, sed tre malgranda.

Nur tri procentoj de la loĝantaro de Israelo loĝis en kibucoj.

Mi volis trovi landon kie demokrataj socialistoj regis – kaj kie ili provis krei socialisman socion.

Mi trovis la ekzemplon de Kartvelujo.

Kartvelujo produktis – dum tre mallonga tempo – alternativon al la bolŝevistoj en la formo de demokrata socialisma socio.

La socio, kiun ili kreis, estas la temo de mia libro, kiu nun aperas en Esperanto-eldono.

Mi tre ĝojas, ke la unuaj du tradukoj de ĉi tiu libro el la angla originalo estas en la kartvela kaj en Esperanto.

La historio de la Kartvela Demokrata Respubliko estas kompreneble kartvela rakonto, kaj la apero de eldono en tiu lingvo igos ĝin alirebla por nova generacio en Kartvelujo hodiaû, por kiu ĝi estas tute nekonata rakonto.

Jardekoj da stalinisma regado certigis, ke tia estu la situacio.

Eĉ kvaronjarcento da sendependeco, post la disfalo de Soveta Unio, ne sukcesis revivigi la memoron de la demokrataj socialistoj, kiuj regis Kartvelujon antaŭ ol la Ruĝa Armeo – pro ordono de Stalin – invadis la landon.

Sed temas pri pli ol kartvela rakonto, kaj kiel mia libro klarigas (mi esperas), la socio starigita en Kartvelujo havis universalan signifon.

En mia libro, mi parolas pri ĉi tiuj aspektoj:

* liberaj elektoj – inkluzive de la rajto de virinoj voĉdoni – eĉ antaŭ ol ili povis voĉdoni ĉi tie en Britujo
* mult-partia sistemo, inkluzive de la Komunisma Partio
* libera gazetaro
* sendependaj tribunaloj
* sendependaj sindikatoj – kiuj estas esencaj por libera socio
* potencaj kooperativoj – kiu komencis regi la ekonomion, anstataŭ la libera merkato
* kaj hom-respekta kampara reformo – ne devigita kolektivigo

Ilia konstitucio eble estis la plej progresema iam ajn skribita.

La kartvela respubliko ne estis perfekta socio.

Sed ĝi ne aspiris esti perfekta socio.

La kartvelaj sociaj demokratoj volis krei pli bonan socion – ne perfektan socion.

Kaj ili sukcesis.

Ĝi prezentis, laŭ mi, la alternativon al la leninisma-stalinisma sistemo, kiu estis kreata en Rusujo en la sama periodo.

Anstataŭ unu-partio, ili havis realan demokration.

Anstataŭ kontrolitaj sindikatoj, ili havis verajn kaj sendependajn sindikatojn.

Anstataŭ cenzuro, ili havis liberan paroladon.

Ĉi tio estis, laŭ mia opinio, kion Karl Marx intencis, kiam li skribis pri socialismo.

En 1920, delegacio de socialismaj gvidantoj de la tuta Eŭropo venis viziti Kartvelujon.

Ili inkludis plurajn de la brita laborista partio.

Inter ili estis Ramsay MacDonald, kiu poste iĝis la unua ĉefministro de la Laborista Partio.

Karl Kautsky, kiu estis konata kiel la “Papo de Marksismo”, venis de Germanujo.

Aliaj venis de Francujo kaj Belgujo.

Ili volis montri sian solidarecon kun la kartveloj.

Sed ili ankaŭ venis vidi kiel demokrata socialismo aspektis en la reala mondo.

Ili estis tre impresitaj pri tio, kion ili vidis.

Ethel Snowden, unu el la britaj delegitoj, antaŭe vizitis Rusujon.

Ŝi povis kompari la du sociojn.

Kaj ŝi preferis la kartvelan modelon al la rusa.

Karl Kautsky restis en Kartvelujo dum pluraj monatoj.

Li tiam skribis libron rakontante la historion de la kartvela eksperimento.

Sed tio ĉi okazis tro malfrue.

La Ruĝa Armeo invadis kaj sendependa Kartvelujo jam ne ekzistis.

Tamen, la eksperimento okazis, kaj ĝi estis grava.

Pro tiu universala signifo mi ĝojas, ke mia libro nun aperas en universala lingvo.

Mi esperas, ke tio havos la sekvon, ke multaj pliaj homoj scios pri tio, kion mi nomas “La forgesita revolucio de Kartvelujo.”

Dankon!

Por aĉeti la libron, kliku ĉi tie

 

Georgia and the West: Myths and Reality

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

The following is the text of a talk I gave yesterday (19.5.18) at an event at the home of Sir Oliver Wardrop, the first British high commissioner for the Transcaucasus, to mark the 100th anniversary of Georgian independence. In the picture: the recently-erected statue of Sir Oliver and his sister Marjory in Tbilisi.


I’d like to focus my talk on the myths and the reality of Georgia’s relationship to the West during the period of the first republic, from 1918 to 1921, and conclude with some observations about where we stand today, and what I think we must be doing.

THE MYTHS

The two main myths to address are these:

1 The Georgians were tools of imperialism, specifically of German imperialism at first, and then following the German defeat in the first world war, they were tools of British imperialism.

2 The Georgian Mensheviks, because of their supposed hatred for Bolshevism, actively supported the Whites in the Russian Civil War.

Had those myths been true, the Soviets would have been entirely right to invade Georgia and put an end to their anti-Soviet and pro-imperialist behaviour.

But they were not true. They were made up. They were myths.

Where did those myths come from?

There were pro-Soviet publications at the time, and later, which spread both myths, including publications which were translated into English.

For example, a book by one J. Shaphir entitled Secrets of Menshevik Georgia: The plot against Soviet Russia unmasked, which was published by the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1922. You can read it in the British Library, as I did.

Shaphir’s books purports to prove these myths this using captured documents and statements of the Menshevik leaders themselves.

It is not a convincing book now, and it was not convincing in 1922 either.

But ironically, the main source of these myths, and the reason why they persist today, at least in the West, was Leon Trotsky.

Why is this ironic?

Because though he was the head of the Workers’ and Peasant’s Red Army, he knew nothing about the Soviet invasion of Georgia until after it had begun.

Trotsky wrote a short message to his deputy, Skylansky, on 21 February 1921, ten days after the Red Army had begun the invasion of Georgia saying “Please compile for me a short note on the military operations against Georgia, when those operations began, by whose order, and so forth. I need the note for the Plenum.”

“By whose order”? Trotsky admitted that it was not his order, that he knew nothing about the invasion, which was a major military operation involving several Soviet armies.

Not only did he not know about this, but the invasion appears to have been ordered by his arch-enemy and eventual executioner, Stalin, working in secret with his cronies.

Trotsky wrote an entire book, Between Red and White, in which he “exposed” the Mensheviks for their various crimes, the main ones being the collusion with Western imperialism and the White armies.

It was a far better book than Shaphir’s, and reached a much larger audience, and incredibly, was still in print a few years ago.

When writing his book, Trotsky complained that the information he had about Georgia was incomplete, noting that “the most valuable material is inaccessible to us. This material consists of the most compromising documents, as well as the archives of the respective British and French institutions taken out of the country by the late Menshevik government.”

If only we had access to those British archives, he seemed to be saying, we could know the true story of Menshevik Georgia.

But today, nearly a century later, we actually do have access to those archives and can begin to reconstruct the real relationship between the Georgians and the foreign powers.

It is one that bears little resemblance to the one Trotsky described, in which the Georgian Social Democrats were tools of the imperialists and actively engaged in the Russian Civil War on the side of the Whites.

Why did Trotsky spread these myths?

I believe this was because of his loyalty to Lenin and the Bolshevik party, and the strange discipline of “democratic centralism” according to which every Party member must publicly defend decisions taken by the party, even if they disagree with them.

These myths about the relationship between Georgia and the West lasted through nearly seven decades of Soviet rule.

Entire generations in Georgia were told these stories. Whether they believed these stories is another matter, but officially there was no other story to be told.

Even now, even here in the UK, many people on the far left know only this story, and believe these myths to be true.

For example, last year I debated a British Leftist group on the subject of the 1917 revolutions. I made a casual reference to the Georgian experiment, which was not at all central to our debate. My opponent, who knew that I’d just completed writing my book, came prepared to challenge me on this issue.

He had dug up a copy of Trotsky’s Betweeen Red and White, and quoted the assertions of Georgian complicity with imperialism and its support for Denikin.

It was the only book on Georgia he ever read.

THE REALITY

I’d like to speak now about the reality of the Georgian relationship with the West in the years of the first republic.

Let’s start with the German occupation in 1918. Trotsky and other Communists portrayed this as the Mensheviks grovelling before foreign imperialism. But that completely ignored what actually happened.

The central fact in the spring of 1918, the main challenge facing the Georgian leadership, was the imminent Ottoman Turkish invasion of their country.

With the collapse of the Russian army on all fronts, and the first world war still raging, it was inevitable that Turkis forces would surge into the Caucasus, just as German forces moved into Ukraine and other parts of the collapsing Russian empire.

To thwart that imminent Turkish invasion, the Georgians came up with a master-stroke: they went behind the backs of the Turks.

They secretly went to Turkey’s senior partner in the Central Powers, their ally and benefactor in the world war — Germany.

Georgia did not have the capacity to stop the Turkish army. But the Germans could give the order to the Turks to back off.

And that is what happened. The Georgians made a deal with Germany that prevented a Turkish invasion, kept their sovereignty, and allowed the young republic to survive.

By all accounts, the Germans played the role that had been agreed for them.

Under German protection, Georgia remained a sovereign state. The Germans were not enthusiastic about the Social Democratic programme, but did nothing to stop the historic land reform and other changes which Noe Zhordania and his comrades brought about.

When Karl Kautsky visited Georgia in 1920, he learned from the Georgians more details about the German occupation.

Kautsky was no friend of German militarism and the Kaiser’s regime.

He was an outspoken opponent of the first world war, and even broke from the Social Democratic Party over its refusal to fight against the war.

But he wrote in his short book about Georgia that the German occupation was actually something to be proud of, that the Germans had helped a small, young nation get on its feet again.

This was not about the treasonous, cowardly, pro-imperialist Menshevik leaders pandering to their imperialist lords.

It was a master-class in diplomacy, turning one ally (Germany) against another (Turkey) and thereby ensuring the survival of the Georgian republic.

The British occupation of Georgia later in 1918 was an entirely different story.

While the Georgian leaders had invited the Germans in to their country, the British invited themselves in.

They had won the war, the German forces needed to be sent home, and it was only natural that British troops arrive in Georgia to assert their authority.

Unlike the Germans, the British soldiers who arrived did not fully grasp that Georgia was a sovereign republic.

The first meeting between the Georgian leader, Noe Zhordania, and a British officer was not a good one.

Zhordania essentially told the British officer to show some respect and get out.

The officer, to his credit, came back later that day and apologised.

The occupation had gotten off on the wrong foot.

The main cause of tensions between the British and the Georgians was British support for the armies fighting to overthrow the Bolshevik regime in Russia.

This was the main priority of British foreign policy in the region at that time. Georgia was a sideshow.

Despite what Trotsky wrote, the Georgians had declared their neutrality and were serious about it. They had no interest in backing any side in the Russian Civil War.

Both sides — the Whites and the Reds — appealed for Georgia to come on board, and to support their war effort.

But the Georgians refused and instead they did what they could to defend their borders, initially from the threat of a White invasion from the north.

Clashes between General Denikin’s White forces and Georgian troops took place.

And British officers on the scene were appalled at the Georgian behaviour.

They expected the Georgians to take the British side, that is to say, the White side, in the Russian Civil War.

At one point, British officers in the region sent a wire to London asking for permission for the Royal Navy to bombard Georgian forces if they continued to clash with Denikin’s forces.

That’s the kind of document you find today in the National Archives in Kew, where I did the research for my book.

Trotsky expected that once those secret documents became available, you’d find evidence of collusion between the Georgians, the British and Denikin.

Instead, what you find is a far more complicated picture, one in which the Georgians are remaining neutral, doing all they can to preserve their independence and to stay out of the Russian conflict.

Which brings us to Oliver Wardrop.

When relations between the Georgians and British were at an all-time low, when the possibility of armed clashes between British and Georgian forces were a real possibility, the British government decided to send Wardrop to Tbilisi.

Wardrop was the right man — indeed, the only man — for the job. His arrival not only averted catastrophe, but completely changed the relationship between the two countries.

It is entirely due to him that Britain and Georgia became friends and have remained friends for a century.

THE LESSONS FOR TODAY

I want to conclude by looking at some lessons of all this, and we can do about this today.

First of all, it’s vitally important that we win the battle for historical memory.

The real story of the first Georgian republic needs to be told.

It needs to be told in Georgia itself, so that a new generation of Georgians learns about a time when their country was seen by many European social democrats as a great experiment.

But it also needs to be told outside of Georgia, because the Georgian Social Democrats proved that another revolution was possible.

They proved that the Bolshevik road to socialism, which led to the totalitarian nightmare of Stalinism, was not the only road.

There were other choices Social Democrats could make, and the Georgian Social Democrats chose democracy and human rights.

The Georgian experiment also has lessons to teach us today on the defence and diplomatic front.

The first Georgian republic worked round the clock to win recognition from the Great Powers, and to a certain extent they succeeded.

The current Georgian republic has had that recognition for some time now. But it needs, as the first republic did, more than just diplomatic recognition.

Georgia alone cannot defend itself against aggression by its neighbours, in particular aggression by Russia, as we saw a decade ago.

Georgia needs to be a full member of NATO as soon as possible to ensure its security.

But I would also argue that NATO needs Georgia, and not only because of the contribution Georgia already makes to global security with its mission in Afghanistan and more.

Georgia sits on the borders of an increasingly aggressive Russia, one that needs to be restrained and contained.

That is what NATO has done so well since it was founded in April 1949.

No NATO country has ever been invaded by Russia, though Russia has sent troops into many countries in those nearly 70 years, including Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan and most recently, Georgia and Ukraine.

Those countries were all vulnerable because they were not part of the Atlantic alliance.

NATO has proven to be a great success in the sense that the Russians do recognise that NATO membership means something, and they are reluctant to test NATO’s resolve.

That’s why NATO needs to embrace democratic countries like Georgia which sit on the Russian borders, in order to draw a line — and say to the Putin regime: no more.

We who live in countries which are NATO members must do all we can to remove the obstacles to full Georgian membership of the alliance.

I want to end by suggesting that in this centenary year, when Georgia celebrates the achievements of its first republic, that we do all we can to raise awareness of those achievements around the world.

Georgia was not a perfect society from 1918-1921, but it was a great attempt to create a better, more just society.

A society that was democratic, respected human rights, gave the vote to women and tolerated difference.

Georgia will, I hope, continue on the path set out by Zhordania towards becoming a more just, more equal, more democratic, more tolerant and more prosperous society — the kind of society that social democratic leaders like Karl Kautsky were keen to visit a century ago.

Perhaps by 2020, the centenary of the historic visit of social democratic leaders including the future British Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, Georgia will be ready to welcome yet another delegation from the democratic Left.

That would be something to look forward to.

Thank you.

Menshevik Georgia: Online debate with Workers Liberty

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

Last week, the British left newspaper Solidarity published this review of my book. Today, they published my rebuttal:

Paul Vernadsky in his review of my book, The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-21, is right to highlight the importance of this period for today. And he comes to the heart of our disagreement at the very end of his essay when he refers to the idea that “an impoverished, backward society cannot skip historical stages.” He calls this “Menshevik dogma”. No, Paul, that’s not “Menshevik dogma”. That’s Marxism.

But leaving aside whether that’s more Martov or Marx, that phrase has proven to be absolutely true. The last century showed us many examples of attempts by revolutionaries – sometimes, but not always, well-meaning ones – to skip historical stages. (Think of China, all of Eastern Europe, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea and Cuba.) In every single case, without exception, the result of skipping historical stages – mainly, skipping democracy – was the nightmare of totalitarianism.

Paul’s main charge against the Georgian Mensheviks is that they “could have remained part of Soviet Russia,” but chose not to. He makes this point several times in his short piece, chiding the Georgians for ignoring “the alternative of remaining with Bolshevik Russia.” This is a very basic historic error: Georgia was never part of Soviet Russia. Georgia had been part of the Russian empire, and remained very loosely connected to Russia during the months of the Provisional Government, but when the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917, the Georgians – like many other parts of the empire – rejected their rule.

Had they taken Paul’s advice anyway, and voluntarily joined what later became known as the “happy family of Soviet peoples” three years before they were forced to by the Red Army, how would that have benefited anyone in Georgia? For three short years the Georgians benefited from a largely free political system, had powerful trade unions independent of the state, and enjoyed the benefits of an agrarian reform that managed to avert the famines that were destroying Russia. Does anyone seriously believe that the earlier arrival of the Cheka, led in Georgia by the sadistic Lavrenty Beria, would have been a good thing?

(Paul describes that invasion in 1921 as a ‘mistake’, but it was not. It was a crime, a premeditated one, and Stalin and cronies were the culprits.)

Paul’s over-reliance on Trotsky’s worst book – the one he wrote to justify the invasion of Georgia – means that he neglects to mention what we can now learn from the archives, things that Trotsky would not have known in 1921. For example, the fact that the Georgians came extremely close to a shooting war with the British Royal Navy, which wanted to shell Georgian soldiers who resisted the armed provocations by Denikin’s White armies. The main British interest was in toppling Lenin, not in propping up small border states like Georgia, and relations between London and Tiflis were never warm.

Trotsky makes much of the killings of Georgian Bolsheviks, and Paul quotes this uncritically, though the source of the story (a Russophile British journalist) is not entirely credible, and later publications (including Zhordania’s) contest the truth of the story.

Paul makes only the briefest mention of Georgia’s free and independent unions, who get a full chapter in my book, and I understand why. For it is here that Trotsky appears in the worst light, in his campaign to bring unions in Soviet Russia under full state control. Trotsky’s proposals to militarise labour were so outlandish that other Bolshevik leaders, no fans of trade unions themselves, rejected them.

Paul also dismisses the success of Georgia’s independent cooperatives, neglecting the evidence that they were, in fact, gradually coming to dominate whole sections of the economy. This slow transition to a social democratic welfare state may not be as exciting as “war communism” but it also had far fewer innocent victims.

“This was no socialist paradise,” he writes, and he’s right. But the Georgians never claimed to be building a socialist paradise on earth. That was something Trotsky and the Bolsheviks claimed for Russia. The Georgians were much more modest in their aims, more realistic and more humane.

One of the biggest problem with Paul’s argument is that he writes as if it is 1921. The Bolsheviks are on their way to creating a wonderful new society. The Mensheviks have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

But a century has passed, and we now know things we did not know then. We know how the Bolshevik experiment turned out.

And we know that being consigned to the dustbin of history – a fate that Trotsky himself, who coined that unfortunate phrase, would later share with the Mensheviks – was not the worst thing that could happen to a political movement.

Remembering the first Georgian republic

Monday, September 18th, 2017

This is the talk I gave on Thursday, 14 September 2017 at Prospero’s Bookshop in Tbilisi.

I want to start by thanking Peter Nasmyth and Prospero’s Books for hosting us this evening.

I also want to welcome all of you – thank you for coming. Thank you in particular to friends and family who have come from California and New York, from the UK, France, Switzerland, Israel and elsewhere, for being here with us to celebrate the publication of this book.

I want to especially acknowledge the presence of Dan Gallin, former general secretary of the International Union of Foodworkers. Dan encouraged me to write this book back in the 1980s. He who reviewed a very early version of it and then more recent ones. His whose ideas and values have been an inspiration to me and many others. Thank you, Dan, for being here with us tonight.

We live in an age of “fake news” – but we also live in an age of “fake history” too.

The history of the first Georgian republic, for example, is a history that was deliberately covered-up, hidden, concealed first of all from the Georgian people themselves, but also from the world.

The villain in this story is of course the Communist Party, which ruled Georgia with an iron fist for nearly seven decades.

If you are too young to remember that regime, consider yourself lucky. But you can have a taste of it by visiting the Stalin museum in Gori, a disgraceful site that is – incredibly – controlled by the Georgian state today. That museum celebrates the life and work of the twentieth century’s greatest mass murderer. It is an example of “fake history.”

The Soviet era was a time when no dissent was permitted, only one opinion was tolerated and lies were told day and night by state-controlled media, by the schools, by political leaders.

Lies were told for seven decades about the first Georgian republic.

That it was a tool of British or German imperialism.

That it was a ruthless dictatorship which suppressed the heroic efforts of the workers and peasants, led by the local Bolsheviks.

That instead of distributing land to the peasants, the regime propped up the nobility.

That when faced with a popular uprising, its leaders fled to western Europe without putting up a fight.

All of these were and are lies. They were told by the Communist Party in order to make certain that people would forget what really took place in Georgia in the years 1918-21.

And it was not only the Stalinist regime in the USSR and in Georgia which lied, and which tried to bury the memory of the first Georgian republic.

It was also Trotsky, the great dissident, the conscience of Bolshevism, who wrote a thoroughly dishonest account of Georgia following the Red Army invasion. Trotsky, though he commanded the Red Army, did not order that invasion. He didn’t even know about it. But due to a twisted sense of loyalty to the Communist Party, Trotsky felt obligated to defend the crushing of independent Georgia.

His book is still in print and still being read. In a recent debate I had with some British Trotskyists, they still quoted from his book. They still accepted his analysis as being valid. And yet Trotsky’s book, like the official Communist publications from the Soviet era, is “fake history.”

What actually, happened in Georgia then, in those three short years of independence, was nothing short of remarkable.

The most important socialist thinker of the time was Karl Kautsky, a leading figure in the German Social Democratic Party, who was known as the “Pope of Marxism.” He visited Georgia in 1920 together with a delegation of European socialist politicians. He stayed for several weeks, and wrote a short book the following year. Kautsky was convinced that the Georgian Democratic Republic was the antithesis of the regime created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia.

He wrote: “In comparison with the hell which Soviet Russia represents, Georgia appeared as a paradise.”

The Georgian republic was not a paradise, of course not. But it was a functioning democracy, it had free elections and a multi-party system. Trade unions grew rapidly and were independent of the state. They were so strong that they compelled the Constituent Assembly to include the right to strike in the draft constitution. The cooperative movement thrived and there were signs that in some sectors of the economy cooperatives had already replaced privately-owned businesses.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Georgian Social Democrats was the land reform. Georgia, like Russia, was a country where the emancipation of the serfs in the 1860s led not to their freedom, but to their impoverishment. In Russia, under the leadership of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the city and the countryside were in a constant state of war. Armed detachments of urban workers were sent out of Petersburg and other cities to grab as much food as they could from peasants who refused to sell it. Millions of people died unnecessarily in man-made famines.

But not in Georgia. Here, the Social Democrats were not the enemies of the peasants. Here the peasants were a key constituency of that party. Peasant support for the Social Democrats preceded the 1917 revolution by more than a decade. When the Social Democrats came to power, the land reform they enacted was welcomed by the peasants.

There was no war between city and countryside, no famine, no starvation. The later horrors of forced collectivisation under Stalin had no parallel in independent Georgia. The Georgian Social Democrats applied a rigorous Marxist analysis to the question of land and concluded that giving the land to the peasants was the best way to begin building a new society – and they were proven correct.

Kautsky tells the whole story about political democracy in Georgia, about the land reform and about the powerful and independent trade unions and cooperatives that dominated Georgian society.

Unfortunately, his book was soon forgotten as the Soviet presence in Georgia became permanent. The Social Democrats across Europe who condemned the Russian invasion in 1921 eventually lost interest in Georgia. The exiled Georgian leaders like the former president Noe Zhordania, eventually were isolated, ignored and forgotten.

And now a century has passed, and next year we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Georgian declaration of independence on May 26th, 1918.

There can be no better time to put an end to “fake history” and to tell the true story of the Georgian experiment.

This is important both for Georgians and for the world.

For the Georgians, telling the truth about the first Georgian republic is essential. Without knowing where you come from, you cannot know where you are going.

For Georgia as a country to become all it can be, to be a more just and equal society, it needs to re-learn, or learn for the first time, the incredible story of the first Georgian republic.

For everyone else, the story of the Georgian Social Democrats and the republic they led for three years is important for this reason: it helps teach us what we are talking about, when we talk about democratic socialism.

I became a democratic socialist many years ago, and I remain one today. And my democratic socialism is the socialism of Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and Julius Martov.

But it is also the socialism of the Georgians – Zhordania, Tsereteli, Ramishvili, Khomeriki, and all the long-forgotten leaders of the Georgian Social Democratic Party.

Zhordania and his comrades took the ideas of Marx, Kautsky, Luxemburg and Martov, and tested them in practice, here in Georgia.

The society they created, while not perfect, was indeed a paradise compared to the hell on earth that the Bolsheviks created in Russia. Kautsky was right about that.

In rediscovering the real history of the first Georgian republic, we honour their memory – and we learn that another revolution was possible, a humane and democratic one.

Thank you.

Trade union independence and the Georgian republic

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Presentation to the Georgian Trade Union Confederation’s congress, Tbilisi – 15 September 2017

I want to begin by thanking the Georgian Trade Union Confederation and your president, Irakli Petriashvili, for inviting me to speak at this historic congress.

As you may know, I have just written a book about the first Georgian republic, the one that lasted just three years – from 1918 to 1921. I want to speak for a few minutes about that book and that period, and then we can have a conversation about it.

The book is called The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution and I’m very pleased to tell you that a Georgian language edition will be coming out in time for the 100th anniversary of Georgian independence next May.

There could not be a better time to look back at the history of the first Georgian republic than now. The story I tell in this book could not be more relevant than now.

And the people who have the most to learn from this history are sitting right here in this room: the leaders of the trade union movement in this country.

I say this because one of the things that stands out when you look at the history of that first Georgian republic and when you compare it to Soviet Russian experience – one of the great differences between the two societies – concerns the role of the trade unions.

In both countries, in Russia and in Georgia, trade unions arrived on the scene relatively late. Though there were early attempts to organise workers in Georgia, particularly railway workers, the first real unions emerged only during the course of the 1905 revolution.

Those unions were not welcomed by the tsarist regime and suffered severe repression. And the repression of trade unions in Georgia was even greater than that in Russia.

Only the revolution of 1917 granted workers the right to join and form trade unions of their choosing, and to strike. The first unions to emerge were the printers and then the commercial employees. By the very end of that year, the first trade union congress was held here in Tbilisi, with 41 unions represented, with a combined membership of 29,000.

That number was soon to soar, doubling by 1919. And by the end of 1920, there were 113 unions in Georgia with a membership of 64,000 – out of an estimated 100,000 wage workers. In other words, two-thirds of the working class was organised into unions after just three years.

Though the unions were officially politically neutral, it has been estimated that 95% of their members supported the Social Democratic Party. The Party actually had a larger membership than the unions, because in addition to workers, it included peasants, intellectuals and others.

The unions and the Social Democratic Party had an extensive network of newspapers, including dailies, weeklies and monthlies. Their publications appeared in both Georgian and Russian. They owned their own buildings, including a meeting house named after the founder of the Russian Marxist movement, Plekhanov.

The railway workers played a key role in the early Georgian labour movement. Their union had a building of its own in Tbilisi and it owned two newspapers.

Until October 1917, when Georgia and Russia were still united under one government, the situation for unions was similar in both countries.

But once Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, everything changed.

The Bolshevik leadership was convinced that as a “dictatorship of the proletariat” had now been established, the proletariat no longer needs any means of self-defence, such as trade unions.

The Bolshevik leader who spoke most forcefully against the trade unions was Trotsky, whose success as leader of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army convinced him that what was needed to give the Russian economy a boost was the militarisation of labour.

Trade unions, if they were to exist at all, were to serve as transmission belts, passing on orders from the Communist Party leadership down to the shop floor.

Once this idea took hold in Russia, it remained largely unchanged for nearly 70 years.

It was only after the fall of the Communist regime that free and independent trade unions emerged in the Soviet Union, including in formerly Soviet Georgia.

But during the years 1918-1921, when the Social Democrats ruled the independent Georgian republic, they didn’t share Trotsky’s view.

Trade unions were part of a broad family that included the Social Democratic Party and the cooperative movement, and together they tried to create a society in which human rights were respected, and which aspired to social justice and greater equality.

The Georgian unions 100 years ago were very clear about what they wanted: they demanded to be treated as equal partners, and they insisted on a constitutionally-recognised right to strike — which they won.

In the early days of the revolution, they went on strike a lot. This infuriated the visiting German and later British military forces, who were convinced that Georgian workers were both over-paid and excessively militant.

In June 1918, for example, port workers in Poti regularly walked out on strike, infuriating the German military which was keen to export manganese and other badly needed raw materials for the German war effort.

The Batumi port workers were no different. In the British government archives I came across a telegram sent by a British diplomat in June 1919 denouncing those workers, saying they were demanding an enormous increase to an already high rate of pay.

But that same year, strikes became rarer. Across the country, Georgian workers increasingly stopped going on strike. Why?

The Social Democratic government created a Board of Wages under the authority of the Ministry of Labour.

This Board, which included equal numbers of representatives of employers and unions, helped keep workers’ incomes rising with the rate of inflation, and ensured that staple goods, such as bread and salt, were available at low prices. It also acted as a mediator in industrial disputes.

Because of that, and because of the Social Democrats’ land reform, which distributed land to the peasants rather than trying to nationalise or collectivise it, there was no mass starvation in Georgia, snf no famine like there was in Russia at the same time.

With their wages keeping pace with prices, and with food available to purchase, labour unrest declined during the years of Social Democratic rule. The number of days lost to strikes fell steadily.

This was the result not of unions weakening, but of union power. Because unions were strong, and because their concerns were listened to, they were willing to help keep up production under difficult circumstances.

An example of that union power appeared in a Georgian government publication in 1919. It declared that any employer who prevented a union member or the union itself from exercising their rights was liable to imprisonment. Employers could actually be send to jail for union-busting.

In addition to making it easier for unions to flourish, the government passed many pro-worker laws.

An eight-hour workday was enacted. Overtime work was permitted only in special cases. Child labour was banned. Insurance schemes were created to give workers and income when unemployed or ill. Strict rules were adopted regarding the hiring and firing of workers. And night work was forbidden for women and adolescents.

The right of workers to join and form unions of their choosing, free from government interference, was enshrined in the constitution that the Social Democrats were then drafting.

The establishing of strong, independent trade unions at a time when in Bolshevik Russia they were being crushed, was a great achievement. But there is much more to say about the Georgian Democratic Republic.

The most important socialist thinker of the time was Karl Kautsky, a leading figure in the German Social Democratic Party, who was known as the “Pope of Marxism.” He visited Georgia in 1920 together with a delegation of European socialist politicians. He stayed for several weeks, and wrote a short book the following year. Kautsky was convinced that the Georgian Democratic Republic was the antithesis of the regime created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia.

He wrote: “In comparison with the hell which Soviet Russia represents, Georgia appeared as a paradise.”

The Georgian republic was not a paradise, of course not. But it was a functioning democracy, it had free elections and a multi-party system. The cooperative movement thrived and there were signs that in some sectors of the economy cooperatives had already replaced privately-owned businesses.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Georgian Social Democrats was the land reform. Georgia, like Russia, was a country where the emancipation of the serfs in the 1860s led not to their freedom, but to their impoverishment. In Russia, under the leadership of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the city and the countryside were in a constant state of war. Armed detachments of urban workers were sent out of Petersburg and other cities to grab as much food as they could from peasants who refused to sell it. Millions of people died unnecessarily in man-made famines.

But not in Georgia. Here, the Social Democrats were not the enemies of the peasants. Here the peasants were a key constituency of that party. Peasant support for the Social Democrats preceded the 1917 revolution by more than a decade. When the Social Democrats came to power, the land reform they enacted was welcomed by the peasants.

There was no war between city and countryside, no famine, no starvation. The later horrors of forced collectivisation under Stalin had no parallel in independent Georgia. The Georgian Social Democrats applied a rigorous Marxist analysis to the question of land and concluded that giving the land to the peasants was the best way to begin building a new society – and they were proven correct.

Kautsky told the whole story about political democracy in Georgia, about the land reform and about the powerful and independent trade unions and cooperatives that dominated Georgian society.

All this came to an end in February 1921 when the Red Army invaded Georgia.

One of the first things the Bolsheviks did was to smash the independent trade unions and replace them with Soviet-style labour fronts, which served as transmission belts passing on instructions to the workers.

From then until the early 1990s, the Georgian working class had no experience of actual trade unions. What were called trade unions bore no resemblance to what had existed prior to 1921, or what exists today.

After the collapse of Soviet rule, the Georgian working class had to rebuild a labour movement from scratch, and to overcome decades of lies and deceit.

At the same time as Georgia was declaring its independence from the Soviet Union, the Georgian working class by creating new and independent trade unions was declaring its independence as well.

That independence – both Georgia’s as a country, as yours as a trade union movement – did not come cheap, or easily. And just as Georgia needs to defend its borders against foreign aggression, so the Georgian trade unions need to keep up their guard to ensure their independence from attempts by others to restrain them.

That is one of the lessons we can learn from Georgia’s great experiment in democratic socialism.

Thank you.

Book cover for THE EXPERIMENT singled out for praise

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

The Bookseller, the British weekly magazine for bookshops and the publishing industry, has named THE EXPERIMENT as one of the best book cover designs for September. Very proud – Zed books and its designers have done a terrific job.  Publication date: 15 September.

The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-21 – website now live

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

Check it out.