This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Georgia in February 1921.
This is significant today, and not only for Georgians and Russians. Back in 1921, Georgia was ruled by the Social Democratic Party, a mass party with enormous support not only from the small urban working class and intelligentsia, but also among the peasants. Allied with the Mensheviks in Russia, the Georgian Social Democrats had during their three years in power created a society based upon the rule of law, with a multi-party democracy, free and fair elections, a thriving civil society, independent trade unions, religious freedom and respect for human rights. Georgia was among the first countries in the world where women had the right to vote.
It was everything that the Bolsheviks detested. Instead of treating the peasants as the mortal enemies of the proletarian dictatorship, as was the case in Russia, the Georgian Social Democrats carried out an extensive, and extremely popular, agrarian reform. While Lenin was promoting a policy of “war communism”, the Georgians were creating a mixed economy. And while the Bolsheviks tried to nationalise everything, culminating in the horrific forced collectivisation under Stalin, in Georgia a cooperative movement thrived.
These differences did not go unnoticed at the time. Many of the top leaders of the European Social Democratic and labour parties, including Karl Kautsky (then known as the “Pope of Marxism”) and Ramsay MacDonald, the future Labour prime minister, came to visit Georgia in September 1920. One member of the delegation who had previously visited Soviet Russia, called Georgia “the most perfect socialism in Europe.” Kautsky lingered in Georgia for several months, writing a short book praising the Social Democratic experiment taking place there and contrasting it to Lenin’s dictatorship in Russia.
This infuriated the Bolshevik leaders in Moscow. The Georgians were showing that another kind of revolution was possible, one that did not involve a single-party totalitarian state with secret police and labour camps. What they were attempting to create in their small country on the other side of the Caucasus mountains was a democratic socialist society.
Despite the fierce resistance of the Georgian army and People’s Guard, the Russians eventually overran the country, and Georgia was incorporated into the USSR. And there it remained for some 70 years.
During those many decades, the ideals of the Georgian Social Democrats, their aspiration not to a perfect society but a decent and fair one, continued to have support in countries the Soviets controlled.
The East German workers who rioted in 1953, the Hungarians who toppled the Stalinist regime for a time in 1956, the ‘Prague spring’ of 1968 were all expressions of a desire for a kind of ‘socialism with a human face’ — the same democratic socialism that the Red Army tried to bury in Georgia in 1921.
That ideal was expressed by the ordinary workers of Poland whose rebellions in 1970, 1976 and 1980 were the precursors to the rise of Solidarnosc, and the eventual collapse of the entire Soviet empire.
As the Soviet Union began to implode, the Georgians proclaimed their reborn state in 1991. They initially adopted the constitution which had been hastily proclaimed by the Social Democratic government in the port city of Batumi in 1921, as they fled the advancing Russian armies.
Their flag, the flag of the newly independent post-Soviet Georgia, was the blood-red banner of the Social Democrats.
One hundred years after the enforced end of Georgia’s experiment with democratic socialism, their vision of a new society, based on democracy, equality and respect for human rights, has lost none of its power or relevance.