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.