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.