The Georgian Democratic Republic, which lasted for three short years (1918-1921), was a footnote to history. And not just a footnote, but a forgotten one. To the extent to which Georgia in the twenty-first century is remembered at all, it is as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. To those with a slightly deeper knowledge of the country, it’s also the birthplace of Stalin’s one-time secret police chief, the monstrous Lavrenty Beria. These are hardly things to be proud of.
And yet a century ago, everyone on the Left – in Britain and elsewhere – knew about Georgia. In fact, Georgia was so well known that when its Social Democrat leaders invited the heads of the various socialist and labour parties across Europe to come over for a visit, the list of those who came is a virtual who’s who of the European democratic left of 1920.
The question of how Georgia went from being a magnet for politicians like future Labour Party prime minister James Ramsay MacDonald and Germany’s ‘Pope of Marxism’ Karl Kautsky to becoming that footnote is relatively easy to explain. In February 1921, the Red Army invaded the country and, in the course of three weeks or so of bitter fighting, put an end to the Social Democratic government. And with it Georgian independence. Over the course of the next several years, as Soviet rule seemed to be increasingly permanent, European politicians lost interest in the country.
This was a pity, because Georgia – at least until 1921 – offered a model of something for which there really are no other examples. It was entire country ruled by a Marxist party which managed to carry out a successful agrarian reform and lay the groundwork for an economy dominated by the cooperatives, while at the same time preserving a multi-party system, free elections, freedom of speech, press and assembly. Because of this, Georgia was seen at the time by many as the alternative to Bolshevik Russia.
Instead of bitter warfare between peasants and workers, as happened in Russia, the Georgian peasants were the bedrock of support for the Social Democrats – and this had been the case for more than a decade before the revolution.
Instead of the crushing of independent trade unions and their subordination to the needs of the state, as began to take place in Soviet Russia, Georgia’s independent unions grew increasingly powerful, and even compelled the government to incorporate the right to strike into the Constitution.
Karl Kautsky was so impressed with what he saw in Georgia during his 1920 visit that he wrote a short book about it. His conclusion was that Georgia offered an alternative vision of what a socialist society could look like. His colleagues in the international delegation agreed.
Does any of this matter today? I think it does.
I wrote The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 because I think that today’s Left needs to be thinking about what we are talking about when we talk about Socialism.
Do we mean regimes like that founded by Lenin and Stalin, with their history of unimaginable horrors, including the deaths of millions of innocent people? I think most people today would reject that model. But the alternative seems to be Social Democracy, which in its western European variety is a spent force. The historic decline of the French, Spanish and German Social Democratic parties can no longer be denied.
The Georgian Social Democrats offered a different approach, one appealing both for its revolutionary vision and its rock-solid commitment to democracy. Facing enormous challenges, including Russian neighbours who never gave up on the idea of conquering the country, the Georgians gave us a glimpse of an alternative society, one that was both socialist and democratic.
Fortunately, they did not succeed, and when Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it adopted the 1921 constitution of the Georgian Democratic Republic as the basis for its own, and made 26th May – the day the Social Democrats had declared independence in 1918 – as the national holiday. The blood-red flag of the Georgian Mensheviks flew again in the nation’s capital, Tbilisi.
Now, there is talk of a new Left emerging in Georgia. Militant students have occupied buildings at their universities. Many of them have sought to build alliances with Georgia’s militant trade unions. Some are looking for inspiration to their country’s brief period of democratic socialist rule.
A footnote to history no longer: the Georgian experiment may be ready to resume.