Archive for July, 2018

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.

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Saturday, July 28th, 2018

This is one of those books that I started to read, put aside, and then picked up much later and decided to give it a second chance. And it’s a good thing that I did.

This book tells the most improbable of stories. A tsarist aristocrat who is placed under house arrest in an elegant Moscow hotel in 1922 and stays there, for decades, forbidden to leave. While I normally love books set in Russia in the twentieth century, that was not actually the real appeal of this one. And I think I was actually put off by the first few pages, which purport to be the protocol of the court decision to allow Count Alexander Rostov to avoid jail. I thought they sounded wrong, and was unable to suspend disbelief.

But on second reading, that didn’t matter. Nothing about the book is meant to be real. The bloody twentieth century in Russia gets barely a mention. There is no violence to speak of. No one is dragged off by secret police in the middle of the night. Instead, the focus is the noble character of the Count and the friendships he forms while confined to the luxurious Metropol. And what wonderful friendships they are.

One cannot read the book and not be moved. I smiled (a lot), I sometimes felt sad, and I worried about what will happen to this character or that. I was engaged with this imaginary Moscow, which has little in common with the one that actually existed. A Gentleman in Moscow is above all a human story, gentle and warm and full of love. I highly recommend it.

Review: The Race to Save the Romanovs, by Helen Rappaport

Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the murder of the Russian imperial family by the Bolsheviks. Among those killed were not only the hated Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, but also their five children and the servants. It is now generally accepted that the murder was a barbaric act, and these days it is marked by pilgrimages of many thousands of Russians to the site of the crime.

Helen Rappaport’s book, completed just in time to mark the anniversary, is the latest attempt by a historian to discover the truth about the fate of the Romanovs. We now know with certainty that they all died; the discovery of their graves and DNA evidence is quite convincing on these points. All those men and women who claimed to be Anastasia or Alexei were frauds. What we do not know is if they could have been saved, and if so, by whom.

Rappaport has done an extraordinary job of research in archives, including some of the most unlikely places, to try to discover the truth behind stories of attempts by the British royal family, or the German Kaiser, or local Russian monarchists, to whisk the imperial family away from their captors. She concludes that there really never was much of a chance, once the Tsar had abdicated, of this happening, not least because he and his wife had no desire to go into exile.

She also makes it abundantly clear that the British royal family made no effort to intervene in part for fear that hosting the hated former Tsar on British soil could trigger a republican revolution that would have brought down the House of Windsor.

The book is punctuated with italicised paragraphs going into great deal about things like the mis-filing of documents in the National Archives in Kew — which interested me tremendously though I doubt a general audience would enjoy these as much.

The only failings in the book which I could see — and this is something every historian deals with — is when she leaves the familiar ground of the imperial family and comments on something else. For example, she describes historian N. Sukhanov as a Bolshevik when he was not; in fact, he was tried as a Menshevik and eventually executed on Stalin’s orders. Or her reference to “the new official newspaper, the Bolshevik-run Pravda” in early 1917 — a time when Pravda was the party organ of Lenin’s Bolsheviks. It would not have any “official” status until the Bolshevik coup in November of that year. She may even have gotten it wrong in referring to “railway lines largely controlled by hostile Bolshevik revolutionaries” in April 1917 — a time when the Bolsheviks were a fairly small party, one among many, and without Lenin yet on the scene, not much more militant than any of the others.

That having been said, the book is not about the Bolsheviks — it’s about the fate of the Romanovs, and it’s excellently researched and well-written and may, perhaps, turn out to be the final word on the subject.

Review: The Killing Habit, by Mark Billingham

Friday, July 6th, 2018

It’s not a total mystery why I rate Mark Billingham as the best crime writer in Britain today. He’s created a wonderful lead character, Tom Thorne, with a great supporting cast who you actually grow to care about. His stories, set mostly in north London, are close to home, vivid, real. But it hit me as I read his newest book, what I really love about his work. A book like this one falls into the category of police procedurals, focussing on the nitty gritty of police work but also featuring the home lives of the protagonists. The police procedural is a genre invented by my favourite crime writer of all time, the late Ed McBain. I heard some years ago Ian Rankin described as Scotland’s Ed McBain; surely, Mark Billingham deserves the English title.  He is indeed the English Ed McBain.

P.S.  Some years ago,when I once had the chance for a chat with McBain himself, I mentioned that Rankin had been called the Scottish Ed McBain. He smiled, and putting on a strong Scottish brogue said, “I thought I was the Scottish Ed McBain.”

Review: The Kremlin’s Candidate, by Jason Matthews

Monday, July 2nd, 2018

No, not that candidate.  In spite of making every effort to keep up with today’s headlines (references to the Russian seizure of Crimea, North Korea’s nuclear programme and so on), author Jason Matthews never imagines for a moment that Vladimir Putin could have a hand in choosing an American president.  That would be absurd.  A CIA director, maybe.  But not not even the most vivid imagination among thriller writers would have imagined what we have now.

Matthews’ Red Sparrow trilogy ends with this volume, and has its centre the inexorable rise to power of a CIA agent inside the ranks of the Russian intelligence services.  Lest anyone thinks that idea implausible, remember that in its day, the feared Okhrana — the Tsar’s secret intelligence service — managed to plant agents that rose to the very tops of the underground organisation against which it fought.  Among those were super-agents like Ievno Azef among the Socialist Revolutionaries, and in the Bolshevik ranks — Roman Malinovsky and Josef Stalin.  Matthews’ world is one in which the CIA are all decent chaps (though some are bunglers), and the Russians mostly monsters.  There’s even the occasional, casual racism (in particularly, a scene set in Sudan), which does not help.  But overall, the trilogy is a good read and maybe, with luck, there’s even another volume in the works.

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.