Another world was possible – for workers: The Georgian Experiment, 1918-1921

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The following is the text of a speech I delivered at the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia in Tbilisi on Wednesday, 2 November 2016.

Thank you to Irakli Petriashvili and the Georgian Trade Union Confederation for the invitation to speak here today. It is a great honour to be giving this talk here in the Georgian capital, which less than one hundred years ago was the capital of the world’s first democratic socialist republic.

Some of the Georgian trade unionists will know me as a fellow trade union activist, and the founding editor of LabourStart. LabourStart is the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. My work there reflects my life-long commitment to the labour movement.

I am here today because these are the final weeks of a decades-long research project of mine. I am now completing the writing of a book which will be published next year in Britain on the subject of the Georgian Democratic Republic of 1918-1921.

I have been fascinated by Georgia’s experiment in democratic socialism for many years. In my opinion, the experience of the Georgian people in those three years of independence is significant and should be studied throughout the world.

And this is because the Georgians were able to do what the Russian Bolsheviks could not: they created a humane, egalitarian society rooted in socialist values while maintaining a multi-party political democracy. They showed the world that the choices made by Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not the only ones possible, that another path could have been taken. Another world was possible, an alternative to totalitarian Communism, and Georgia was the proof of this.

The Second International sends a mission to Georgia

At the time, both during the three short years of Georgian independence and for several years thereafter, their experience was widely known. In 1920, the leaders of the Second International, an international confederation of social democratic parties, organised a delegation to come visit this country.

The members of that delegation represented the most important socialist and social democratic parties in Europe. Among them were leaders of the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party, the Belgian Socialists, and so on. They were household names at the time.

The delegation included men who went on to become prime ministers of their countries, James Ramsay MacDonald of the British Labour Party and Camille Huysmans, the Belgian Socialist.

Other British Labour leaders in the group were Tom Shaw and Ethel Snowden. Both were prominent figures in their party and in the Second International. Mrs Snowden had participated in a delegation to Soviet Russia the previous year and wrote a highly critical account of the Bolshevik regime.

The French socialists were represented by Pierre Renaudel, Adrien Marquet and Alfred Inghels. The other Belgians were Louis de Brouckère and Emile Vandervelde.

Perhaps the best known member of the delegation was Karl Kautsky, the great theoretician of social democracy, and the author of numerous books which popularized and explained Marxism to working people.

Kautsky was known as the “pope of Marxism” and it was precisely for this reason that he was hated by Lenin and Trotsky for his criticisms of their regime in Russia. Lenin referred to him as a “renegade” for his refusal to support the Bolshevik coup d’etat and the dictatorial regime which it produced.

Kautsky was part of this delegation but when they returned to western Europe, he chose to remain for several months in Georgia, and as a result, he got an in-depth view of what was taking place here. He was deeply impressed, though critical of some of the government’s policies.

Once the Red Army invaded in February 1921, crushing Georgia and causing the exile of the social democratic government, Kautsky and other socialist leaders wrote books, pamphlets and articles denouncing the Russian Communist aggression.

Kautsky’s short book was called Georgia: A Social Democratic Peasant Republic. Trotsky wrote a rebuttal, published in English as Between Red and White.

The exiled Georgian socialist leaders, with Noe Jordania at their head, were welcome guests at conferences and congresses of socialist parties across Europe. The Second International vigorously condemned the invasion.

But over time, the voices of protest died down. And gradually, over many years, people began to forget about the Georgian Democratic Republic.

As a result, when a presidential candidate in America like Bernie Sanders says that he is a democratic socialist, and is asked by the media to give an example of what a democratic socialist society might look like, he offers them Denmark, or mentions the kibbutz movement in Israel. A generation or two earlier, he might have said – the Georgian Democratic Republic.

Two different visions of socialism

Today I want to discuss some of the ways in which the Georgian vision of socialism differed radically from the Russian Bolshevik one.

These include political democracy, the nature of the socialist party, agrarian reform, the trade unions, the cooperative movement, the national question, and foreign policy.

Let’s start with political democracy, because it is here that the differences between Soviet Russia and the Georgian Democratic Republic are most stark.

From the moment the Bolsheviks seized power, overthrowing the Provisional Revolutionary Government, they had no intention of sharing power with any other political party. They were briefly compelled to share power with the Left Social Revolutionaries, but that didn’t last.

Lenin and his comrades preferred for the Bolsheviks to rule alone, and established a one party state that lasted for more than seven decades. They were quick to suppress not only the right-wing and centrist political parties, but their socialist opponents as well. The first Menshevik newspapers were closed soon after the Bolshevik coup, and before the end of 1917, the Cheka was established.

In Georgia, on the other hand, the Social Democrats under the leadership of Noe Jordania were committed to political democracy from day one. The multi-party system they established had room for a wide range of views from right to left. Several political parties competed in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, which the Social Democrats won by a landslide, with over 400,000 votes. Among the other parties competing for votes were the National Democrats, the Social Federalists and the Social Revolutionaries.

The only political party in Georgia to not enjoy complete freedom of action was the local branch of the Russian Bolshevik party. And the restrictions on their freedom were entirely due to their constant attempts to violently seize control of the Georgian state.

The Georgian Bolsheviks, who did even consider themselves to be a Georgian political party, but simply a branch of a Russian party, were in effect the agents of a foreign power. They were not simply the proponents of a different political point of view.

But even they were given complete freedom of action from 1920, once the Moscow regime had agreed to recognize Georgian independence and promised to stop undermining it. And this was in spite of the fact that on the very eve of that short-lived peace deal between Tbilisi and Moscow, the Georgian Bolsheviks had yet again made an attempt to seize power violently and arrest the existing government.

The nature of the socialist party

Which brings me to the question of the party. Because long before the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia or the Mensheviks in Georgia, they were already very different political parties.

One reason why the Bolsheviks had no problem with the single party state was because of how they interpreted the idea of a political party. To Lenin, parties represented the interests of social classes. The Bolsheviks, and the Bolsheviks alone, represented the vanguard of the industrial proletariat. They saw themselves very much as the elite party of a single class, even if the party did include intellectuals and some peasants.

The Georgian Social Democrats, however, had become a mass party of the entire Georgian people. Their party was forged in the great peasant struggles that culminated in the famous “Gurian Republic” of 1902-1906. At that time, the Social Democrats began to accept that not only industrial workers – of which there were not that many in Georgia – but also peasants, intellectuals and others could also be Social Democrats.

They were not unique in taking that view. David Ben Gurion, the labour Zionist leader who became the first Prime Minister of Israel, used the phrase “from class to nation” and argued that in national liberation movements like Zionism, the role of Social Democrats is to fight for the interests of the whole people, and their agenda was not limited to that of a single social class.

The agrarian question

The Georgian Social Democrats and the Russian Bolsheviks took very different approaches to the agrarian question.

During the period of “war Communism” in Russia, the Bolsheviks treated the peasants both as suppliers of essential goods and in particular food for the vanguard class, but also as enemies. For several years, the relationship between the peasants and the urban working class in Russia was poisoned by the hostility shown by the Bolshevik leadership to peasants. This only began to change with the adoption of the New Economic Policy in 1921. And even that only lasted a few years before Stalin unleashed the genocidal war against the peasants known as “forced collectivization”.

Meanwhile, in Georgia under Social Democratic rule, there was nothing like that hostility between workers and peasants. The Minister of Agriculture in the Georgian government, Noe Khomeriki, was himself a veteran of the Gurian rebellion. He and his comrades understood the peasant hunger for land. Even before Georgia declared its independence in May 1918, they pushed an agrarian reform law through the Transcaucasian parliament. But it was not until Georgia was fully independent that their ideas became reality.

Their agrarian programme included some state ownership of land, and the confiscation of lands owned by the tsar and church, but on the whole, their focus was on giving land to the peasants. And in this they were largely successful. There were some outbreaks of peasant unrest, usually tied to ethnic conflict. But on the whole the peasants who supported the Social Democrats when they first came to power continued to support them right up until the end.

And even beyond the end. When the Social Democrats made their final attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks in 1924, their greatest support came from the peasants in Guria – the same villages which had overthrown tsarist rule in 1902-1906.

Why Marxists opposed state ownership of the land

I should add that the agrarian policy of the Georgian Social Democrats, like that of their Menshevik comrades in Russia, was rooted in their Marxist interpretation of the nature of Russian society. They strongly believed that Russia was not a capitalist society, and not even a feudal one, but something that Marx characterised as “semi-Asiatic”.

In societies which Marx called “Oriental despotisms”, the land was owned by the state. Social classes and civil society were weak. The state was more powerful than society.

If one wanted to transform those societies into liberal democracies or later, socialist societies, one had to begin by taking control of the land away from the state.

As the great Russian Marxist theoretician Georgi Plekhanov warned, if socialists were to come to power in a country like Russia and put all the land in the hands of the state, they would be creating the basis for a modern and far more powerful version of a despotic regime. This turned out to be prophetic.

Under the Social Democrats in Georgia, the starvation of the cities by embittered peasants which characterized the period of war Communism in Russia never took place.

A decade later, it took the full power of the Russian Soviet state to subdue Georgian peasants when the horrors of collectivization were imposed on this country.

The urban proletariat

Let’s turn now from the peasants to the urban working class.

Today it is widely accepted that without free and independent trade unions, a society cannot truly be free. The right of workers to join and form trade unions is part of international law thanks to the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation.

In Soviet Russia, where the industrial proletariat was, in theory, the masters of their own state, free and independent trade unions were gradually crushed. Trotsky, who had successfully led the Red Army to victory in the civil war, strongly believed in the militarization of labour. He wanted to form highly disciplined “labour armies” which would work much as the Red Army did. And in his vision there was no place for trade unions other than as a transmission belt for instructions from the state and party leadership down to the workers.

This idea was quite an extreme one even for the Bolsheviks and was the subject of an extensive and prolonged debate within their party. In the end, Trotsky’s vision of a country free of self-organized workers, in which things like strikes could never take place, prevailed. It was not until the very late 1980s that workers in Russia were able to once again go on strike, or form independent trade unions.

In Social Democratic Georgia, it was a completely different situation. Unions which had only emerged in the country a decade or so earlier, began to thrive under the Social Democrats. They wielded considerable influence, including successfully pushing to for the recognition of their right to strike, and this became Article 38 of the Georgian Constitution.

They did have strikes, many of them, which were a constant source of tension with foreign occupiers such as the British, who could not fully understand how striking workers, red flags and even soviets – workers councils – were compatible with democracy.

But they were compatible, and the Georgian trade unions working together with their government were able to protect workers against cost of living increases, to ensure that basic foods were available to them at low cost, and so on. Because of their cooperation, the number of strikes began to diminish – not because, as in Soviet Russia they were illegal, but because they became unnecessary.

The cooperatives

Side by side with powerful and independent trade unions, Georgia under the Social Democratic government saw a real flourishing of the cooperative movement.

Cooperatives had come into existence in Georgia by 1867, fifty years before the revolution which toppled tsarism. Georgians read the works of the Frenchman Charles Fourier and Robert Owen, the pioneering British industrialist who is often seen as an founding father of the cooperative movement, and consumer cooperatives sprang up across the country. The Georgian cooperatives suffered severely during the first world war, but grew rapidly once Georgia became an independent state. There were both consumer and producer cooperatives, there were cooperative bookshops and restaurants and sausage factories, glass works, soap making plants, and much more. According to Kautsky, they were nearly all quite successful businesses. In the end a national cooperative bank was founded.

And while Marxists were often quite skeptical of the cooperative movement, even Kautsky was forced to admit that he was impressed.

In Soviet Russia, cooperatives also grew during the first years of Bolshevik rule, but as with trade unions, they could not be independent of the party and state. In Georgia, the cooperatives, like the trade unions and the political parties, were pillars of civil society. In Russia, they were just another arm of an increasingly powerful and centralised state.

The national question

If I am painting a picture of Georgia as a paradise, let me stop here, for that would not be accurate. Georgia under the Social Democrats suffered from many problems, including constant economic crises, and I want to focus on two of the more problematic areas of the history of independent Georgia.

The first of these is what Marxists always referred to as the “national question”.

The Georgian Social Democrats believed in the rights of ethnic minorities. Article 14 of the Georgian Constitution made this very clear:

“It is forbidden to bring any obstacle to the free social development, economic and cultural, of the ethnical minorities of Georgia, especially to the teaching in their mother language and the interior management of their own culture.”

Over the course of eight more articles, the Social Democrats laid out their vision of ethnic and linguistic minorities with full rights. In this they were not only acting in accordance with socialist principles, but with the zeitgeist of the post-war era, particularly US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Everyone, including Lenin and the Bolsheviks, now supported the rights of peoples to self-determination, and the rights of national minorities within multinational states.

But the multicultural paradise proposed by the Georgian Constitution was not to be as it clashed with a very different reality on the ground.

Within only a few months of declaring independence, Georgia found itself at war with Armenia. And the south western corner of the country declared independence, calling itself the “South Western Caucasian Republic”. The South Ossetian region became the focus of considerable unrest, due both to ethnic and class conflicts. And Abkhazia found itself both calling on Georgia to help it resist Russian aggression, but also at one point welcoming the very same Russians.

These disputes have led some historians to refer to a kind of “Georgian imperialism” but the reality is more complicated than that.

Take for example, the “South Western Caucasian Republic”. A close look at this revealed a government that was committed to full equality for all ethnic groups within its territory – which sounds very liberal – except for the Armenians. That gives a clue to what was really behind this separatist group, who turned out to be representatives of Turkey in the region. This eventually became quite clear and the British occupying forces eventually accepted that the Georgian government, and not the pro-Turkish, Armenian-hating separatists, deserved to control Batumi.

Or the example of Georgia’s territorial dispute with Armenia in 1918. On the surface, it can look like Georgia was behaving badly, but again a closer look reveals that the Armenians suffered from serious illusions about the nature of the post-war world. Having supported the Allies and suffered at the hands of the Turks, they imagined a much larger independent Armenia, and expected Britain and America to support them fully. This turned out not to be the case. The Georgian Social Democrats actually had a good track record as they sought ways to avert conflict with the Armenians.

The case of South Ossetia in particular is a troubling one. Of course the Russians took advantage, then as now, of problems in this region to provoke separatism, but the Georgian Social Democrats were not blameless and in their successful crushing of rebellions in this province engaged in activities that today (and also then) could be considered war crimes.

There was a certain ruthlessness to the way the commanders of the People’s Guard, a proletarian militia closely linked to the leadership of the Social Democratic Party, waged war in this region. And this was used against Georgia in Russian propaganda in the years after 1921.

A democratic foreign policy

In fact the main accusation made by the Soviet Russians, and expressed clearly in Trotsky’s most dishonest book, Between Red and White, concerned the foreign policy of the Georgian government.

The Georgian Democratic Republic was conceived during the First World War. The country was surrounded by hostile powers, primarily a resurgent Turkey and Russia. And it did not matter who ruled Russia, for both the Bolsheviks and the White Russians led by Denikin, rejected Georgia’s claim to independence.

Faced with an existential threat, the Georgian Social Democrats took a pragmatic view of how to defend the country by building alliances first with the Germans and then later with the British. They were attacked by the Bolsheviks for allowing German and British forces to occupy the country. But looking back a century later one has to concede that they probably had little choice.

Interestingly, of the two occupying armies, the Germans appeared to have been the better-behaved ones and they were missed when they left. The British did not cover themselves in glory when they occupied Georgia, were seen as arrogant, though their honour was saved the presence of Oliver Wardrop, a true friend of Georgia, who represented the British state.

The accusation that the Georgian Social Democrats were not neutral in the Russian Civil War, that they supported the Whites, was central to Trotsky’s argument. But it was almost certainly not true. The Social Democratic government was terrified of a Russian invasion and it didn’t matter whether that came from the Red Army of Denikin’s Volunteers. Their hostility to the Whites in the civil war was actually a source of tension with the British.

In 1919 when Denikin’s forces were moving on Georgia, the People’s Guard issued a proclamation that said:

“A new danger is felt today: the dark shadow of General Denikin’s forces overclouds Georgia . . . We will defend ourselves from the terrible power of reaction from the old ‘gendarmerie’ and from slavery . . . The sacred blood spilt by our comrades on the field of battle, in defence of freedom and democracy, compels us comrades, to unite ourselves and closely surrounding the red banner with arms in hand to join battle to the death with the forces of reaction advancing against revolutionary Georgia . . . Away with black reaction. Long live revolutionary democracy! Long live Socialism!”

That’s hardly the kind of proclamation you would expect if the Georgian Mensheviks were allied with Denikin against the Bolsheviks.

The Georgian Social Democrats took the pragmatic view that a tiny country with very limited resources cannot preserve its independence when surrounded by hostile states – unless it has friends. Georgia’s decision then to ally itself to Britain and to seek recognition from the Allied powers and the League of Nations prefigured Georgia’s current efforts to become a full member country of NATO and the European Union.

Those efforts in the end were not enough, and once the Russian civil war had ended, Stalin was able to throw the full might of the Red Army against the independent Georgian republic.

The end of the Georgian Democratic Republic

You know how the story ended. In only a few weeks, the Soviet Russian forces captured Tbilisi, forced the withdrawal of the Georgian government to Batumi and then its evacuation on Allied ships.

The Georgian Social Democrats were defeated, but they did not give up. They maintained a semi-legal existence for the first couple of years under Soviet rule, and eventually in August 1924 launched a rebellion which was swiftly crushed by the Red Army and the Cheka.

Though there was nothing left of the Social Democratic party, a young Chekist, Lavrenty Beria, made his name by the bloody suppression of their remnants in the years that followed. Thousands were killed.

In December 1930, the first prime minister of independent Georgia, Noe Ramishvili, was murdered by a Soviet agent in Paris. Nearly a decade had passed since the defeat of the Georgian Republic by the Russian Red Army, but Stalin still feared the possibility of a Social Democratic return to power.

In the many decades that followed, when Georgia was a province of a massive Soviet empire, the true history of this period could not be told or taught in this country. But it was also forgotten outside of Georgia, as Social Democratic parties moved on, and people gradually accepted the permanence of Soviet rule in this country.

Today, as we approach the 100th anniversary of Georgian independence, it is worth remembering that for three short years, there was a country here in the borderlands between Russia and Turkey, where a Social Democratic Party tried to create a new kind of society based on social justice and freedom.

It was an experiment in democratic socialism, and in many ways it was an impressive success.

When Ethel Snowden returned from her visit to Georgia in 1920 she was asked by English journalists to comment on what she had seen. The Georgians, she told them, “have set up what is the most perfect socialism in Europe.”

The Georgian Experiment was crushed and then forgotten. But it deserves to be remembered and studied and learned from – both here in Georgia and around the world.

Another world was possible, as the Georgian Social Democrats proved.

And another world is possible today too.