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Georgia's experiment with democratic socialism

By 10/7/2018
People the presidential palace in Tbilisi on November 23, 2003. File photo: AFP
People the presidential palace in Tbilisi on November 23, 2003. File photo: AFP
by Eric Lee

Georgia is a small country wedged in between Russia, Turkey and Iran, a country whose whole history is a struggle for national survival.  Following centuries of conquests and wars, the Georgians asked for Russian protection at the end of the 18th century, but the Russians wanted more – and took what they wanted.  Little Georgia became a part of the vast Russian tsarist empire and remained so until 1917.

In that year, the Georgians broke free but unlike other parts of that empire, did not immediately declare independence.  The largest political party in Georgia – by far – was the Social Democrats, and they looked forward to Georgia being part of a democratic, federalist Russian republic.  But following the Bolshevik coup d'etat in November 1917, they realised that this was not to be.  They still, however, did not seek independence.  Instead, they teamed up with their neighbours, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and proclaimed a Transcaucasian federation.  This too was not to last as the stresses of the First World War – and especially Turkish expansionism – took their toll.

By May 26, 1918, the Georgian Social Democrats, estranged from Russia (where their Menshevik comrades were already facing persecution by the victorious Bolsheviks), and unable to sustain a regional federation, faced the threat of an imminent Turkish invasion.  They chose the only course available to them and proclaimed independence – and promptly invited the Germans to come in to protect them from the Turks, who were allied to Germany in the war.  

From then until February 1921, the Georgian Democratic Republic existed, becoming a model of an alternative kind of socialist society, one which was democratic and respected human rights. Their leader was Noe Zhordania, who became the president.

Like the western European Social Democrats, the Georgians were committed to political democracy.  No one spoke about a “dictatorship of the proletariat”.  Instead, they created a multi-party system, with free and fair elections to their Constituent Assembly.  Women were allowed to vote, and several were elected to the assembly (all of those were Social Democrats and one was the first elected female Muslim parliamentarian in the world.)

Their greatest domestic achievement was ambitious agrarian reform.  Instead of following the Bolshevik model of “class struggle” in the countryside – which resulted in widespread starvation – they gave land to peasants, aiming to create a class of prosperous farmers.  By all accounts, the reform was a great success, and Georgia never faced the horrors that characterised the early years of the revolution in Russia (and later, under forced collectivisation).

Unlike the Bolsheviks, they believed strongly in the value of independent trade unions.  The unions demanded, and won, the inclusion of the right to strike in the country's new constitution.  They also compelled the government to create a tripartite “Wages Board” that was decades ahead of its time.  They were modelling a social welfare state that would not come into existence anywhere else in Europe for decades.

There were, of course, problems.  Then, as now, Russia exploited ethnic minorities and their grievances.  The Georgians were able to maintain control over their provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but not without cost.  Though they were committed to full national self-determination, they often handled the national minorities badly, playing into Russian hands.

At the time, Russia was experiencing a civil war, but the one thing that the Reds and Whites could agree on was that little countries like Georgia had no right to an independent existence.   Georgia adopted a policy of strict neutrality in that war, pitting them not only against the Bolsheviks (who accused them of backing the counter-revolutionary armies) but also against Britain, which came to occupy Georgia when the world war ended.

This meant that Georgia was desperately looking for friends in the world.  Their diplomats could be found in the major European capitals, and in particular at the Paris peace conference.  They scored some major successes, eventually winning recognition from Britain and others.

They also sought recognition and support for what they perceived to be another of the great powers: the international socialist movement.  A delegation of socialist leaders, headed by Karl Kautsky (who was sometimes called “the pope of Marxism”) visited in 1920, and they were very impressed with what the Georgians had achieved.  One leader of the British Labour Party in the group said that the Georgians had created “the most perfect socialism in Europe.”

But it was not to last.  In early 1921, with the Red Army now victorious in the civil war, Stalin (himself a Georgian) and his cronies launched an invasion of the country.  Trotsky, the commander of the Red Army, knew nothing about it – but once he learned about it, felt compelled to defend the decision.

The Georgians fought fiercely, but never had a chance.  Their leaders retreated westward from the capital Tbilisi until they reached the Black Sea coast.  There, in the port city of Batumi, they finally adopted the constitution they had been working on for nearly three years. It was the most progressive constitution the world had ever seen.

The Soviets remained in control of Georgia for seven decades.  But when the country was able to free itself after the collapse of the USSR, its new leaders declared that the constitution adopted in 1921 was again in legal force, and that 26 May – the date of the 1918 declaration of independence, would be the national holiday.  They adopted the blood-red banner of the Georgian Social Democrats as the national flag.

This year, Georgia marks the 100th anniversary of its independence with scores of events.  In this they once again differ from Russia, where under the orders of President Putin, there was no celebration of the 1917 revolution.  

Are there any lessons to be learned from little Georgia's experiment with democratic socialism?  If nothing else, it proves that another revolution was possible.


guest2002 | 10/7/2018
Georgia is between Turkey, Russia and Armenia, not Iran.
Guest2003 | 12/7/2018
@guest2002 I think what Mr. Lee meant was that historically Georgia has been contested and divvied up between the Ottoman Empire, Russia and Iran, not that they are literally in close proximity to modern Iran.
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