The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921

This speech was given on 22 February 2017 at the Georgian Embassy in London.

I want to thank the British Georgian Society for inviting me to give this talk, and to the Georgian Embassy for hosting it. And thanks to all of you for coming.

I want to begin by saying a few words about the book I’ve written and why I wrote it.

As some of you may know, I have spent most of my life as an activist in the labour movement and on the democratic Left. I grew up in America, during the Cold War, a time when “socialist” was a dirty word, and was closely identified with the regime established by Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union.

I was never enthusiastic about that regime and at a young age was happy to discover that there was a socialist movement which did not accept that the Soviet model was a positive one. We called ourselves “democratic socialists” and we challenged the claim that the Soviet Union was in any way a socialist society.

But people would ask: so where is this democratic socialism of yours? It was a difficult question to answer, then and now.

Of course we could point to the Nordic countries, and certainly a few decades ago, countries like Sweden and Denmark did seem to be far more liveable, humane and decent societies than the ones on either side of the Iron Curtain. They were, and are, democracies. They had, and have, very powerful labour movements. They achieved a degree of social justice and equality that was unimaginable in places like the United States. But they remained capitalist countries, and the Social Democratic parties which led them for so many decades had little ambition to transform them into anything other than a decent and humane form of capitalism.

If we were looking for a more advanced model of democratic socialism, there was always the example of the kibbutz movement in Israel. The kibbutzim took socialist ideals and realised them to a degree not seen anywhere else. Communal dining rooms and laundries, collective child rearing, direct democracy through weekly meetings of the entire community – these were revolutionary ideas rooted in classical socialist writings. But the kibbutzim for all their strengths never amounted to more than three or four percent of the population of the small Jewish state. They punched above their weight, providing the country with many of its leading politicians, generals and cultural figures. But the country as a whole was no more socialist than Denmark.

If one looked around for examples of countries where socialist parties came to power and carried out far reaching reforms aiming to create socialism while defending democracy – and that means multi-party elections, freedom of speech and the press, free and independent trade unions and so on – there were hardly any to be found.

There were plenty of interesting experiments in workers’ rule during the twentieth century. Among these were those carried out by anarchists, syndicalists and independent socialists in Spain during the civil war, or Austria’s great experiment in socialist urban living known as “Red Vienna”. But a socialist party carrying out a democratic socialist revolution in an entire country? I know of only one example: Georgia.

I began reading up on Georgia back in the 1980s. At the time, I thought I could quickly pull together a book telling the long-forgotten story of the independent Georgian republic of 1918-1921. A leading figure in the international trade union movement promised that if I completed the book, we could arrange to smuggle copies into Soviet Georgia. It turned out that Soviet Georgia was not long for the world, collapsing by 1991 and any book I might write would no longer play the subversive role I imagined for it then.

Nevertheless, such a book could still be quite useful for a new generation of democratic socialists, people who like me so many years ago wondered if there aren’t any examples of societies that aimed to create socialism while preserving democracy and human rights. I think in particular of the millions of people who supported Senator Bernie Sanders in the US presidential election last year. Sanders described himself as a democratic socialist, spoke about his experience in the 1960s living on a kibbutz in Israel, and pointed to Denmark as an example of the kind of society he aspired to create in the US. I think Sanders’ supporters may be interested in learning about an even more radical alternative than Denmark. I imagine that very few of them will have heard of the first Georgian republic.

Last year I decided to dive back into the subject of the first Georgian republic and was able to persuade Zed Books, an independent radical publisher here in London, to publish the book. We’ve agreed on a title – The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution – and we have a publication date, September of this year.

Let me recap what actually happened in Georgia between 1918 and 1921.

Next month we mark the hundredth anniversary of the collapse of the Romanov monarchy. In March 1917, under pressure from rebellious soldiers and workers in the imperial capital of Petrograd, the Tsar abdicated. A provisional government was formed which held power for about eight months.

Among the leaders of that provisional government were Georgians – because Georgians played a disproportionately important role in the Russian Social Democratic Party. One of them was elected the president of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldier’s Deputies. Another was chosen for a post in Kerensky’s cabinet. These Georgians were Mensheviks, supporters of that wing of the Social Democratic Party which rejected Lenin and his undemocratic ideas.

But the Georgian Social Democrat who went on to become the most famous Georgian of all time was Stalin, who unlike nearly everyone else in Georgia supported Lenin when the party split between Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. Stalin too made his way to Petrograd when the Tsar abdicated.

The collapse of Tsarist rule in Petrograd meant that it collapsed across the empire, even in places where no revolution had taken place. In Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, the Tsar’s representative stepped aside to allow the country’s political leaders to take power. And in Georgia, all those political leaders were Mensheviks. The most prominent of them was Noe Zhordania.

Zhordania and his comrades headed up what was probably the only mass political party of any kind in the Russian empire. The Georgian Mensheviks had been so successful in organising peasants that for several years earlier in the century, they had actually controlled a significant part of the country. This became known as the “Gurian republic” and was a very rare example of direct democracy and self-government in what was otherwise an authoritarian system. The Gurian republic was eventually crushed by the Tsar’s army, but the Mensheviks retained the support of the vast majority of Georgian workers and peasants right up until 1917.

The Georgian Mensheviks never intended to take state power. In their view, no part of the Russian empire was ripe for socialism. They believed that Russia and its constituent parts, including Georgia, needed to pass through what they called a bourgeois democratic phase. This is why they supported the provisional government in Petrograd, and opposed Lenin’s calls to overthrow it. In addition to having no plans to take power, they also opposed Georgian separatism. They were perfectly happy for Georgia to be a part of the democratic federation that they assumed would replace the Russian empire.

So how did men like Zhordania who could not imagine taking state power and who rejected the idea of independence find themselves leaders of the first Georgian republic little more than year after the fall of the Tsarist regime?

The short answer is: Lenin.

Lenin’s faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party, the Bolsheviks, were intent on seizing power from the provisional government and using the power of the state to skip over several historical stages, moving Russia from feudalism to capitalism and finally to socialism. No matter that no one seriously considered Russia remotely ripe for socialism, which Marxists had always presumed to be a precondition for a socialist revolution. Lenin was of the view that Russia’s capitalist class would not play its historic role, so the Bolsheviks would play that role for them. This meant the creation of a ruthless, one-party dictatorship that by an act of will would move Russia forward by centuries at an enormous cost in human lives.

The Georgian Mensheviks were horrified by the news that a small band of Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky’s command had seized power in Petrograd. The Bolshevik decision a few weeks later to physically disperse the Constituent Assembly, which had been chosen in the only free elections Russia had ever held, meant that the country was in the grip of an iron dictatorship. In Georgia, Zhordania and his comrades joined with the moderate left governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan and declared independence. They created a Transcaucasian Federation. Unfortunately, it lasted for barely a month.

The world war was still raging, and Turkey exploited Russia’s weakness to grab some territory from Georgia and Armenia. Azerbaijan, which had a Muslim majority, was not unsympathetic to the Turks, and as a result the federation collapsed. On May 26th, 1918, hours after the Transcaucasian Federation ceased to exist, Georgia proclaimed its independence.

The Mensheviks found themselves ruling a country whose separation from Russia they had always opposed. But under pressure from the Bolsheviks to their north and the Turks to their south, they had no choice. The result was that for the next three years, they were able to make an attempt to create a democratic socialist society, the first of its kind in the world.

The first thing they did was make a commitment to political freedom and human rights. From the outset, the Georgian Democratic Republic was a democracy. A whole range of political parties competed for power, unlike in Russia where Lenin and the Bolsheviks were outlawing the opposition parties one by one, including the dissident socialists. The regime the Mensheviks established in Georgia was characterized by freedom of the press, freedom of association, and universal suffrage (including the right of women to vote).

The first priority of the new government was the agrarian reform. Georgian peasants, like peasants all over the former Russian empire, were land-poor. While the Russian Bolsheviks engaged in open warfare with the peasants, sending heavily armed troops to the countryside to seize food, the Georgian Mensheviks – who had considerable support in the countryside – seized land from the wealthy land-owners, the tsarist state and the church – and gave it to the peasants. As a result the Georgian state was never plagued, as Russia was, by endless warfare between country and city. And peasant support for the Social Democrats never waivered.

In the cities, the Georgian government worked closely with the country’s young trade union movement to ensure that workers and their families were fed and cared for, even during times of economic crisis. The unions thrived, and retained their independence from the state, in sharp contrast to Bolshevik Russia where unions were made into an arm of the dictatorial state.

As one might expect, in a society governed by democratic socialists, the cooperative movement also thrived. Both consumer and producer cooperatives grew rapidly, and there was growing evidence that in some sectors of the economy, the cooperatives were overtaking traditional private businesses. Many saw them as the building blocks of a new society.

But at the same time as the Georgians were busy creating a better, more equal and just society, they were not left alone by the outside world. At first they were threatened by Turkey, and were only able to avert a Turkish takeover by using diplomacy to woo Germany – then a Turkish ally – on board. For a few months in 1918, a German army was present in Georgia, keeping the Turks at bay and allowing the young state to begin to take root.

As the world war ended in November 1918, Georgia faced a new security threat from an unexpected source: Armenia. The former ally expected that with the Allied victory in the war, little Armenia would grow rapidly, getting back large swathes of territory from Turkey and also some border provinces in Georgia with ethnic Armenian majorities. Armenian forces launched an invasion of Georgia in late 1918 which was eventually repulsed by the Georgians, including the newly-formed People’s Guard – a militia that was fanatically loyal to the Menshevik party.

With the Germans forced to withdraw, it was the turn of the British to occupy Georgia. While most historians agree that the German occupation was benign, the relationship between the British occupiers and the Georgian government was not ideal. The civil war in Russia was a big part of the problem. The British supported counter-revolutionary armies, most notably the forces under the command of General Denikin, who were supposed to be marching on Moscow and Petrograd to overthrow the hated Bolsheviks. Instead, Denikin picked a softer target, periodically attacking Georgia from the north. The Georgians protested, but the British were firmly on Denikin’s side. At one point the British threatened to use their ships in the Black Sea to carry out a naval bombardment of the Georgians. Denikin was an ally; the Georgians, who had earlier welcomed the Germans, were people who could not be trusted.

What saved British-Georgian relations and prevented a complete rift was the brilliant decision to send Oliver Wardrop as an emissary of His Majesty’s Governmen to Tbilisi. Wardrop was no ordinary British diplomat. He was an expert on Georgia, had visited the country and written about it. His sister had translated the great masterpiece of Georgian literature, Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. It was the best possible choice, and Wardrop’s importance in bridging the gap between the Georgians and the British is hard to over-state.

Meanwhile, the Georgians had to deal with ethnic minorities within their borders. If I mention Abkhazia and South Ossetia as problem areas, that will sound familiar as many of the issues faced by the Georgian government then persist even today. And while some of the ethnic minorities in Georgia had genuine grievances, and while the Georgian military sometimes behaved improperly, the fact remains that the Russians were behind much of the unrest – then and now.

One ethnic minority in Georgia that gave unwavering support to the new republic and that benefitted from it enormously were the Georgian Jews. Jews had lived in Georgia for many generations and Georgia had long been one of the few countries in the world with no history of antisemitism. Jewish leaders played prominent roles in the Georgian government and society.

While that government commanded massive support, as shown by the results of free elections held in 1919, one group never did accept the legitimacy of the Georgian Menshevik leaders. I’m speaking about the Georgian Bolsheviks, members of Lenin’s Russian Communist Party, who worked day and night over three years to violently overthrow the elected government in Tbilisi.

There were two attempts at a coup, both thwarted by the Georgian security forces. The second of these was followed almost immediately by the signing of a peace agreement between the Russian Soviet government and Georgia, recognising Georgian independence. The Georgians agreed to legalise the previously-underground Communist party and to free any jailed Bolsheviks. The Communists agreed to behave themselves.

Shortly after this happened, leaders of democratic socialist parties from across Europe converged on Georgia as guests of the Menshevik government. These included leading figures in the British Labour Party, among them the future Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. The most prominent member of the delegation was Karl Kautsky, from Germany, who was the most famous Marxist of the time and was known as the “Pope of Marxism”. As the other delegates returned to France, Belgium, and Britain, Kautsky lingered for a few more weeks in Georgia and wrote a short book on what he learned there. All the participants agreed that the Georgians were carrying out an enormously significant experiment in democratic socialism.

But it was not to last.

The Communists won the civil war in Russia, and then easily seized control of Georgia’s neighbours, Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Georgia, they brought in large numbers of “diplomats” and huge amounts of cash to fund subversion against the regime.

In February 1921, the Russian Army invaded Georgia. Trotsky, who was the commander of that army, knew nothing about it. Nor did Lenin. The invasion was ordered by Stalin and his cronies, ostensibly to come to the aid of local rebels. After the fact, both Lenin and Trotsky endorsed Stalin’s actions, and Trotsky wrote a particularly dishonest book rebutting Kautsky and trying to paint Georgia in the most negative light.

Georgia did not fall easily, as Armenia and Azerbaijan had done. It took weeks of bloody fighting before Tbilisi fell, and the Georgian Government retreated to the port city of Batumi. There, on the shores of the Black Sea, the Georgian Constituent Assembly met for the last time and finalised the drafting of the country’s constitution. It was a remarkable document, but unfortunately it described a state that would never come into being.

Even with the evacuation of Zhordania and the others onto Allied ships, heading off to western Europe for a life in exile, the Georgian struggle was not over. Just three years later, the Georgians rose up in a massive rebellion, under the leadership of the Mensheviks, in a desperate attempt to throw off Soviet Russian rule. It nearly worked. Some of the top leaders of the Georgian government, including the founder of the People’s Guard and the architect of the agrarian reform, came back to the country to lead the rebellion. But they were captured and executed and the rebellion drowned in blood.

Leading the local Bolsheviks in their ruthless suppression of the Georgians was the young Lavrenty Beria, who went on to become the head of Stalin’s secret police across the Soviet Union.

Looking back after nearly a century, what was the significance of the Georgian experiment?

Let’s start with Karl Kautsky’s evaluation after his 1920 visit to the country. He wrote: “In comparison with the hell which Soviet Russia represents, Georgia appeared as a paradise.” He went on to call the Georgian Democratic Republic an “important social experiment” that constituted “the antithesis to Bolshevism”. The other members of the international socialist mission to Georgia in 1920 made similar comments.

Historian Stephen F. Jones sums up the achievements of the Georgian Republic in these words: “For all Georgian democracy’s flaws in these years, the First Republic was an outstanding achievement. Civil rights and dissent were recognized and, on the whole, legally protected. Society gained autonomy from the state. It preserved the two cardinal institutional guarantees of democracy – the right to participate and the right of public contestation – which includes freedom of expression, freedom to form and join organizations, the right to vote, and the existence of free and fair elections. This was truly remarkable, given the conditions and the times.”

What makes the Georgian experiment significant is that it was run by orthodox Marxists, it covered an entire country and it lasted for several years. Obviously a longer period and a larger country would have been better for purposes of testing democratic socialist ideals, but Georgia will have to do.

Why did it end?

The Georgian experiment did not end peacefully but it did not end in failure. So long as the Social Democrats held power, the country was largely at peace, a free society with an accountable government and a powerful civil society with independent trade unions and a strong cooperative movement. All this came to end not due to an internal collapse, but due to the invasion of a foreign army.

From a purely military perspective, the Georgians failed to defend themselves against the Russian aggressors. Some other former Russian provinces did better, most notably Poland and Finland, when faced with similar attacks. But Georgia had nothing like the resources of those countries. Still it can be argued that the Georgians invested too little in national defence when they had a chance, their army was far smaller than it needed to be, and they were therefore unnecessarily vulnerable when the Red Army crossed their borders in 1921.

They had also allowed the Bolshevik Party to thrive in the months following the peace treaty signed with Soviet Russia the previous year. That Party, now well funded and directed from the newly-opened Soviet embassy in Tiflis, played a key role in supporting the invading Russians. The Georgian Social Democrats remained committed to a multi-party democracy even when one of those parties was actually an arm of an aggressive foreign power. In their defence, it should be pointed out that the phenomenon of Communist Parties funded by Moscow and acting as their agents was a relatively new one.

Over the course of their three years of independence, the Georgians did not manage to settle the inter-ethnic conflicts that were exploited by Russia, Turkey and others. Due in part to blunders made by the Georgians in their suppression of local revolts, South Ossetians provided some forces to aid the Russian conquerors, and many, including the Abkhazians, welcomed the Russians when they arrived.

The Georgian state also failed because of its fundamental economic weakness. The Georgian Social Democrats and the Russian Bolsheviks both came to power in poor and backward countries. Both faced enormous tasks of reconstruction just to bring the economies back up to pre-war levels. The Russians did so with the aim of skipping several stages of history and creating socialism. The Georgians understood that their role was the creation first of all of a liberal democracy — socialism would wait. In neither country had the economic crisis ended by 1921. Georgia’s economic weakness was certainly a factor in its vulnerability first to Bolshevik subversion and later to military aggression.

By February 1921 the Georgians had also demonstrated an over-reliance on diplomacy, and in particular on the Great Powers, as part of their survival strategy. Lacking armed forces that might be able to repel a Russian invasion, the Georgian diplomats worked at a feverish pace to secure recognition from individual countries and the newly-formed League of Nations. They achieved some notable successes, but the fact remains that when the Russian armies crossed their borders, no one came to Georgia’s aid.

I think there are three principle lessons we can learn from the Georgian experiment of 1918-1921.

First, the Menshevik argument that an impoverished, backward society cannot skip historical stages and proceed to create socialism was right. The Bolsheviks in their hasty race to create a Utopia instead created a hell on earth for millions, not only in Russia, but in China, North Korea, Cambodia and elsewhere. The Georgian Social Democrats during their short period in power, showed that an orthodox Marxist approach — no skipping of stages, but a patient building up of society in preparation for an eventual transition to socialism — worked. Above all, the Georgian agrarian reform showed that a humane alternative to the Russian experience of forced collectivisation was always possible.

Second, another kind of revolution was possible. E.H. Carr, the great British historian who in his younger years was a diplomat who supported Georgian independence, wrote that “History is, by and large, a record of what people did, not of what they failed to do: to this extent it is inevitably a success story.” The Bolsheviks were the success story; but their revolution led to the nightmare of totalitarianism. The Georgians proved that this was not the only possible outcome of the 1917 revolution in the Russian empire. Their imperfect experiment showed that a Socialist government could also mean a multi-party democracy, free elections and a free press, a thriving civil society including powerful independent trade unions and cooperatives, and more. Socialism did not inevitably mean the creation of the GULAG system of slave labour camps, the Cheka secret police, the show trials, the purges, or the terror-famines and forced collectivisation that followed.

And the third lesson is that democracy is not one aspect of a socialist society; it is the very soul of that society. Karl Kautsky wrote a short book entitled The Dictatorship of the Proletariat in August 1918, just nine months after the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia. This was not yet the totalitarian regime of Stalin, and yet Kautsky’s criticism of the Bolsheviks was sharp and unforgiving. He wrote: “Socialism without democracy is unthinkable.”

The society the Georgian Social Democrats created was an inspiration to socialists at the time. But as the years passed, and as Soviet rule seemed to become permanent, fewer and fewer people took an interest in what the Georgian Social Democrats had achieved.

And yet the dream of a more equal society, a fairer one, in which people could also be free, persisted. That dream found its advocates in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and again in the Prague Spring of 1968. It took the leadership of ordinary working men and women in the shipyards of Gdansk to turn it into a reality in Poland in the 1980s. It is a dream that continues today as people look for alternatives to capitalism while rejecting the legacy of Stalinism.

The ideals of democratic socialism, of a fairer, more equal society, in which people remain free and in which human rights are respected, are still quite potent ones. But people still ask if such a society is possible. To them we can say, paraphrasing what Engels once said about the Paris Commune, do you want to know what democratic socialism looks like?

Look at the Georgian experiment. That was democratic socialism.