100 Years On, What’s Left Of Georgian Social Democracy?

Earlier this year, Georgia celebrated the 100th anniversary of its independence. [1] The celebrations in Georgia stood in sharp contrast to the muted commemoration in Russia, just a few months earlier, of the Bolshevik Revolution.

While the Russians, including President Putin, have mixed feelings about the Bolshevik seizure of power and the seven decades of Communist Party rule that followed, the Georgians have a rather more positive take on their country’s history. To them, the three years of Georgian independence which preceded the Red Army invasion of 1921 are something to be proud of. This is because their republic was hailed at the time as a model social democratic society, despite the difficult conditions of war and economic crisis.[2]Though its Menshevik leaders claimed to be Marxists, like Lenin and the Bolsheviks, their state could not have been more different than Soviet Russia.

For one thing, it was democratic. Though Lenin wrote about how the Soviets had achieved a higher form of democracy by getting rid of such annoyances as free elections, the Georgians created a genuinely multi-party society, with free and fair elections based on universal suffrage. In addition to the Social Democrats, Georgia had National Democrats, Socialist Federalists and Social Revolutionaries, all of whom won seats in the Constituent Assembly. Not only could women vote – and this happened before it happened in Britain or the US – but they could be elected to the Constituent Assembly, and were. In fact, the first Muslim woman elected to a parliament was elected in Georgia in 1919.

Human rights were largely respected, and there was a free press, an independent judiciary, freedom of assembly and religion. It may be argued – and it was argued by Trotsky, among others – that the Georgian Social Democrats, who won 80% of the votes in the elections, were no less dictatorial than the Bolsheviks. The local Bolshevik party, they asserted, was illegal. [3]

But this neglects the fact that the Bolsheviks in Georgia, as elsewhere, operated in the underground by choice. They believed in the violent overthrow of Georgia’s democratically-elected government, and worked diligently – though fruitlessly – toward that end. Their attempts to stage a coup d’etat in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, were laughable failures. Following a peace treaty in 1920, in which the Russians recognised Georgian independence, the Georgian Bolsheviks emerged from the shadows – and worked tirelessly again to subvert the state.

The Georgian Democratic Republic during its three short years of independence was characterised by a thriving civil society. There were powerful, independent trade unions which demanded, and won, a constitutionally-guaranteed right to strike. They were instrumental in setting up something called the Wages Board – a forerunner of the post-World War II social partnerships that social democratic politicians would embrace. This body, which included representatives of trade unions, employers and government, regulated wages and working conditions, and ensured that the basic food staples were available at low cost to working people. As a result, there were fewer and fewer strikes. Urban working class support for the government remained strong.

The Georgians were most proud of their agrarian reform which aimed at the creation of a middle class in the countryside, and the avoidance of a war between town and country such as happened in Soviet Russia, and which resulted in mass starvation and famine. This was accomplished by distributing land to the peasants which had belonged to the nobles, the tsarist state or the church. There was no forced collectivisation in Georgia as there would be in the USSR.

And independent Georgia also witnessed the rise of a powerful, independent cooperative movement which increasingly played a central role in the gradual transformation of Georgia from a purely capitalist society to a social mixed economy. Those cooperatives retained their autonomy, unlike in Russia where they quickly fell under state control.

That first Georgian republic was not perfect.  The treatment of national minorities, for example, left much to be desired. The South Ossetians were particularly badly treated, after they rebelled – with Russian support – against the central government. Georgian had its problems. But unlike the Bolsheviks, the Georgian Social Democrats never aspired to create a perfect society, just a better one. They were not Utopians.

Their state was, inevitably, militarily weak. Georgia was surrounded by hostile neighbours, and was attacked by Turkey, Russia and even little Armenia. The Georgians relied upon the Germans, and then the British, to guarantee their sovereignty. Their best efforts to woo the European powers – and international social democracy – eventually came to nothing, when the Red Army invaded in February 1921. For the next seventy years, Georgia was part of the USSR.[4]

In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia regained its independence.  It adopted many of the trappings of the first republic: its crimson flag, its national holiday on May 26th, and even the constitution which was finally adopted by the Social Democrats in 1921, as the Russian troops closed in on the port city of Batumi, to which the government had fled. [5]

But these were only trappings: the actual content of the new Georgian state quickly became neo-liberal (once the civil wars that marred the 1990s had ended), and no worthy successor of the Social Democratic Party emerged. Today, Georgia is a liberal capitalist society with a multi-party system and free elections. It aims to eventually become a full member of both the European Union and NATO, and has carried out a series of reforms to show that is suited to join those elite clubs of nations.

Its political system includes a small Social Democratic Party and a Labour Party, with the former having joined the coalition government led by the Georgian Dream, the ruling party. But these parties are not genuine successors to the Georgian Social Democratic Party which led the first republic, and do not claim to be so.

So why did no successor organisation emerge once Georgia was finally free of Soviet rule?  During the very early years of Soviet Georgia, the Social Democrats remained hugely popular, leading an armed rebellion in 1924 and maintaining a high level of support even under the totalitarian regime. But over the years, their influence weakened and eventually disappeared entirely. And more important, thanks in part to the efforts of the Soviet Communist regime, all memory of the first Georgian republic was deliberately erased.

Fantastic lies were told about the Social Democrats. One that comes to mind was the allegation that the government leaders fled in the face of the Red Army invasion, taking all the country’s gold with them.  Considering the poverty in which the exiled Georgian Social Democrats would later live, this was patently absurd. And it was said repeatedly that they were not real Georgian patriots and that they allowed their country to be occupied by foreign troops (the Germans and later the British).

This same historical amnesia explains why throughout the post-Communist world, political parties which existed prior to the Communist takeovers did not simply re-emerge from the shadows to take their rightful places after 1989. This is particularly true in Russia, where nothing like the pre-1918 Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries and Kadets emerged in 1991 when the Communist regime fell, though some of their ideas were found in new parties created after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Part of the reason that this happened is that the political ecosystem in which the Georgian Social Democrats grew up no longer existed. Their ideas were imported by young Georgian social democrats who spent time abroad.  Foremost among them was Noe Zhordania, who went on to become the country’s first president.  Zhordania, like so many others, travelled to Germany, France and Britain, learning from the existing mass social democratic parties. Those parties with their democratic Marxist worldview barely exist these days, and long ago abandoned their Marxism. In the absence of a global democratic Marxist current, one cannot expect the Georgians to revive ideas that were popular a century ago.

By the time the 100th anniversary of the first Georgian republic was commemorated, there appeared the first books – mostly academic ones – which aimed to overcome that amnesia and to restore the memory of the Social Democrats and their republic. At an international scholarly conference in Tbilisi in June 2018, young Georgian historians presented their work alongside men (and they were all men) from all over the world who had been the leading writers about Georgia and the South Caucasus for many decades.  The first republic was finally, tentatively, being discussed. [6]

But that discussion was taking place only in small groups. To the vast majority of Georgians, the ideas of social democracy remain long forgotten. As elsewhere in the post-Communist world, everything which was considered wrong and evil under Stalinism became popular. For that reason, the Georgian Church has become an enormously powerful and popular institution. The role is has played in Georgian politics has not always been a good one.

For example, attempts by Tbilisi’s vibrant LGBTI community to publicly commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia have been broken up in recent years by church-led conservative groups, sometimes involving physical violence. In 2018, on the very eve of the commemoration of the centenary of Georgia’s social democratic republic, fears of violence led the LGBTI leaders to cancel planned actions.[7]

Does anything remain of social democracy in Georgia? Probably not much in the country’s political parties, but one could argue that the spirit of the Mensheviks is kept alive most notably in the country’s trade unions. Those unions are organised into the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC), which in 2005 was taken over by younger leaders keen to replace a fossilised, corrupt post-Soviet leadership. They have stubbornly fought to preserve the union’s independence.

In 2017, the leadership of Irakli Petriashvili was challenged from within the GTUC, and he charged the government with interference.  His call was backed up the International Trade Union Confederation, to which the GTUC has long been affiliated. Petriashvili prevailed, and the GTUC remains in the forefront of workers’ struggles for better wages and working conditions. [8]

Last year an attempt to close down a Stalin-era sugar factory in the town of Agara and replace it with a crypto-currency mining operation was met by fierce resistance by workers, who marched the 90 kilometres from their town to Tbilisi. They were joined by left-wing students for part of the march, and eventually they prevailed: the government intervened to keep the factory open. [9]

Later in the year, workers on the Tbilisi metro went on strike, again with some support from students, and this time were told that while they had the right to strike, they could only do so at times when they were not working (e.g. late at night). [10]This prompted more protests and eventually the local government relented.

There doesn’t seem to be much talk in the unions of the creation of a Labour Party though in 2016 Petriashvili himself made a run for a parliamentary seat in Tbilisi, campaigning as an independent. The campaign was not successful.

The emergence of a student movement that has repeatedly intervened in support of striking railway workers, sugar workers and so on, reminds one of the early days, more than a century ago, in the history of the Georgian labour movement. The Social Democratic Party which ruled Georgia from 1918-1921 came out of the revolutionary student movement of that time. Today there is much talk of a radicalised student movement and the rise of a Georgian “new left”. [11]Maybe Georgian social democracy is going to get a second chance?

About the author

Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement.  He is the author of several books, the most recent of which is The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 published by Zed books (see: https://www.zedbooks.net/shop/book/the-experiment/)

[1] The full text of the Georgian Declaration of Independence from 26 May 1918 is available in English here: http://www.ericlee.info/theexperiment/declaration.php

[2] For a sympathetic eyewitness account of the Georgian Democratic Republic, see Karl Kautsky’s short 1921 book, Georgia: A Social-Democratic Peasant Republic – Impressions And Observations.  https://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1921/georgia/

[3] For a Bolshevik view of the Georgian republic, see Leon Trotsky, Between Red and White: A Study of Some Fundamental Questions of Revolution, With Particular Reference to Georgia – https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1922/red-white/index.htm

[4] For a comprehensive recent look at the first Georgian republic, see Eric Lee, The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 (London: Zed Books, 2017).

[5] The full text of that constitution is available in English here: https://matiane.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/constitution-of-georgia-1921/

[6] Régis Genté, Georgia’s new generation of historians: seeking democracy’s past, Civil.ge, August 2018 https://civil.ge/archives/250000

[7] Peter Tatchell and Eric Lee, In The Streets Of Tbilisi, Georgians Need To Make A Choice, Huffington Post, May 2018 https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/georgia-lgbt-rights_uk_5b080f32e4b0802d69ca88d9

[8] Georgia: Government Interference in Trade Union Affairs – International Trade Union Confederation. https://www.ituc-csi.org/georgia-government-interference-in

[9] Bradley Jardine, As Stalin-era factory turns to crypto mining, Georgian workers protest: Workers are concerned that energy-hungry cryptocurrency mining is killing jobs, Eurasianet, April 2018, https://eurasianet.org/as-stalin-era-factory-turns-to-crypto-mining-georgian-workers-protest

[10] OC Media,  Tbilisi court indefinitely bans metro strike ‘during working hours’, May 2018, http://oc-media.org/tbilisi-court-indefinitely-bans-metro-strike-during-working-hours/

[11] Luka Pertaia, Are Georgia’s disparate left-wing protesters consolidating into a coherent political force? February 201, OC Media,  http://oc-media.org/are-georgias-disparate-left-wing-protesters-consolidating-into-a-coherent-political-force/