For many, the Russian revolution of 1917 was a symbol of hope and offered proof that another way of envisioning the world was indeed possible. But Soviet authoritarianism and the horrors of the gulags have since led to the revolution becoming synonymous with oppression, forever tainting socialism in the eyes of its critics. However, the often over-looked experience of Georgia, which declared its independence from Russia in 1918, shows there was another way. In The Experiment, historian Eric Lee brings this little-known story of Georgia’s experiment in democratic socialism to light, detailing the turbulent events of this chapter in revolutionary history. Along the way, Lee introduces us to a remarkable set of ideas and policies, among them the men and women who strove for a vision of socialism that featured universal suffrage, a people’s militia in place of a standing army, and a civil society grounded in trade unions and cooperatives. Though the Georgian Democratic Republic lasted for just three years before it was brutally crushed on the orders of Stalin, in that short time it was able to offer a glimpse of a more humane alternative to the Communist nightmare that was to come.The Experiment is the first authoritative English-language history of this forgotten episode, and it will appeal to those interested in Soviet history as well as those seeking inspiration for a democratic socialist alternative today.
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About the Author
Eric Lee is a journalist and historian who has spent over thirty years researching independent Georgia. His previous books include Saigon to Jerusalem: Conversations with Israel’s Vietnam Veterans and Operation Basalt: The British Raid on Sark and Hitler’s Commando Order.
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Georgia is an ancient land situated on the crossroads between Europe and Asia. To its north is the Caucasus mountain range; to its west is the Black Sea. Its neighbours today include Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey. For centuries, powerful empires fought over it, including the Ottomans and Persians, and it was not until 1783 that Georgians could finally feel a degree of safety. In that year King Erekle II signed a treaty with the Russian empress Catherine the Great which turned this proud country into a Russian protectorate. Eighteen years later, the Russians decided to extend that protection without asking anyone's permission, and annexed Georgia. From then onwards it was a province of their vast and growing empire.
Though deprived of their statehood, for more than a century Georgians could feel relatively secure knowing that a Russian army stood between them and their neighbours. But the country also suffered because it was a remote outpost of the empire, and the vast majority of its inhabitants lived in poor rural communities. Nevertheless, as Russia itself began to slowly modernise during the nineteenth century, so did Georgia ? fuelled in part by the discovery of oil in neighbouring Azerbaijan. The oil pipeline from Baku to the Georgian port of Batumi and the railways that spanned the Transcaucasian region began to transform the country.
In 1868, in the small village of Lanchkhuti in the province of Guria in western Georgia, a baby son was born to the Zhordania family. His name was Noe and he would go on to become the leader of the Georgian socialists and later the president of his country. But at the time of his birth, Zhordania's family lived in a modest one-storey wooden house with a covered porch, built on a stone platform. In 1990, after the collapse of communism, Zhordania's son Redjeb returned from France, where his family had gone into exile in 1921. He paid a visit to Lanshkhuti. All that remained of the house was the stone base and a magnolia, which according to local legend Noe Zhordania himself had planted.
Noe Zhordania described the backwardness of the province in which he was born. "All the villagers in Lanshkhuti, and probably all the Gurians, had a fantasmatic view of the world," he wrote. "They were convinced that the universe was populated by invisible beings that were constantly fighting against the humans and confusing them as to their destiny. And who were these beings? They were demons, devils, monsters, ghouls, incubus, succubus, witches, warlocks and many others."
Like so many other Georgian revolutionaries, including a young Stalin several years later, Zhordania escaped village life by enrolling in the Tiflis Seminary, where he trained to be a priest. But the young Noe was already starting to have his doubts about religion and the monarchy. He read illegal publications and like many other young students across the Russian empire, he fell under the influence of the Narodniks, the populist rebels who were the forerunners of Russia's modern socialist movement. The Narodniks were already being challenged by the likes of Georgi Plekhanov, who introduced Russians to the writings of Karl Marx. In Georgia, intellectuals got hold of and began to read Marx's Das Kapital. In 1886, a favourable review of Volume II of the book appeared in a Georgian journal called Teatri. Plekhanov's writings too began to be circulated in Tiflis.
It became clear that the young Zhordania was never going to become a priest and instead he travelled to Poland to study veterinary science in Warsaw. There he was introduced to the writings of Karl Kautsky. Zhordania was hooked, his faith in the Narodnik world view now completely shattered. He no longer believed that Russia's salvation would come from the peasants, and he welcomed the growth of capitalism in the country. He rejected the Narodnik insistence that the leaders of the revolution would come from an intelligentsia that would "go to the people," and he dismissed their conviction that a new socialist society could easily grow out of the village communes, without passing through a modern capitalist phase. "I now realized for the first time," he wrote, "that Russian socialism was a thoroughly utopian and reactionary movement, and that if it should ever be put into operation anywhere, we should be plunged back into barbarism."
In Warsaw, Zhordania found himself in a Western setting for the very first time, and encountered an industrial working class he would not have found in his impoverished homeland. He also discovered Polish nationalism and anti-Russian sentiment on a scale he had not experienced in Georgia. He began thinking about revolution, the working class and the national question. "In subjugated countries there must first of all take place a political revolution," he wrote. "Democracy must be established first, and only afterwards, by the furtherance of economic progress and by extensive organizational work, can we proceed towards social revolution."
In just a few words, Zhordania had summed up the essence of what would later become known as "Menshevism" ? the view that in a backward country like Russia or Georgia, first of all democracy needed to be established, and only later would a social revolution come. As historian David Lang wrote, "the achievement of democratic socialism through the agency of a mass of benighted muzhiks [peasants] seemed to the young Zhordania a highly dubious undertaking."
Zhordania also rejected Georgian separatism, believing that Russians, Poles and Georgians needed to work together to overthrow tsarism. This was a view he shared with Rosa Luxemburg, whose opposition to Polish nationalism put her in a small minority in her home country. The rejection of separatism among the Georgian Social Democrats grew so strong that eventually their speeches to peasant audiences would end with "'Down with Georgia! Long live the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party!'"
While in Warsaw, Zhordania set up a socialist group for the Georgian students living there, among them his friend Pilipe Makharadze. Makharadze, like Zhordania, was born in 1868 in the province of Guria, had studied at the Tiflis Seminary and had been radicalised. Zhordania and Makharadze worked together for years, but their paths would part later when the latter joined the Bolsheviks. While in Warsaw, Zhordania also corresponded with comrades back home, including Sylvester Jibladze and the writer Egnate Ninoshvili, to whom he sent subversive literature.
In August 1892, the twenty-four-year-old Zhordania returned to Georgia. There, he and a couple of close friends founded the organisation that would become the country's first Marxist group, known as mesame dasi (Third Group). The group had its first meeting in December of that year, organised by Ninoshvili and held in Zestafoni, in western Georgia.
Zhordania's attempts to persuade the group – which was still under the influence of the Narodniks – to embrace Marxism failed at first. He decided to write a comprehensive analysis of Georgia from a Marxist perspective entitled "Economic Progress and the National Question." He presented this to the group in February 1893 at their meeting in Tiflis. This time, Zhordania's view won unanimous support. But Zhordania couldn't stick around to lead the organisation whose loyalty he now commanded.
After just nine months in the country, the young radical was warned that he faced imminent arrest by the tsarist authorities, leading him to flee to Europe in May 1893. In retrospect, his flight was fortuitous, and during his four-year stay in Europe he managed to meet many key figures in the European socialist movement.
Zhordania's travels took the young Georgian Marxist to Switzerland, where he met emigre Russians including Georgi Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich. A couple of years later he travelled to Paris, where he met the French socialist firebrand Jules Guesde and Karl Marx's son-in-law, Paul Lafargue. He also travelled to Stuttgart, where he visited Karl Kautsky, who became a great supporter of the young Georgian socialist movement.
"Kautsky," Zhordania recalled, "made a deep impression on me by his modesty, simplicity, clarity of thought and great knowledge." One of the more colourful characters Zhordania met in Germany was Alexander Helphand, known as Parvus, who would later play a key role in efforts by the German High Command to take Russia out of the First World War using Lenin and the Bolsheviks. By 1897, Zhordania was in London where, like Marx several decades earlier, he was a regular visitor to the British Museum. His reports for newspapers in Tiflis were quite favourable, and in them he contrasted the London "bobbies" with their Russian counterparts.
Upon his return to Georgia in 1897, Zhordania assumed a leading position in the Social Democratic Party which had grown out of mesame dasi. Based on what Zhordania and others had learned in their travels, the focus of the group was now primarily on organising the growing urban working class in Tiflis, Batumi and other cities. The Marxist position was triumphant. No longer focussed on the peasants, the Social Democrats were busy organising study circles and strikes among Georgia's small urban working class.
Zhordania's experience of village life in Lanshkhuti seemed to be part of a distant past. Little did he or anyone else expect that within a few short years, the Social Democrats would be leading an extraordinary revolutionary battle not of industrial workers, but of that "mass of benighted muzhiks" in Zhordania's birthplace, Guria.
During the nearly seven decades that separated the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848 and the Russian Revolution in 1917, there were only two examples of socialists seizing political power and attempting to realise their vision of a new society. One was the Paris Commune of 1871, which Marx and later Lenin described as a kind of prototype for a future socialist society. The other was the "Gurian Republic" of 1902?6, widely known at the time but utterly forgotten today.
This is understandable. Paris was perhaps the most important city on the European continent in 1871, and the events that took place there were naturally the focus of international attention. Guria, on the other hand, was a desperately poor district in western Georgia, then a poor province on the borders of the Russian empire. But the Gurian Republic is worthy of some attention not only because it offered an example of popular revolutionary self-government like the Paris Commune, but also because it foreshadowed the later triumph of democratic socialists throughout Georgia.
Though the Paris Commune may not be as well remembered today, back in 1871 and for decades thereafter it was seen as a historical watershed. The "Second Empire" of Napoleon III had been defeated by Prussia in a short war, the emperor had fallen into the hands of the victorious Germans, and a republic was proclaimed in Versailles. But in Paris, a restive population had taken power into its own hands, creating an experiment in participatory democracy the likes of which the world had never seen.
The commune was run by a council whose delegates could be immediately recalled by electors, and who combined legislative with executive functions. In the few weeks of its existence, the commune passed a number of reforms, including banning night work in bakeries, separating church and state, and allowing workers to take direct control of businesses abandoned by their owners. It is estimated that around 10,000 Communards lost their lives defending their experiment in social democracy, in a week of fighting against troops of the French Republic known as "la semaine sanglante."
The Paris Commune lasted barely ten weeks, and though its leaders and martyrs were publicly defended by Marx, they were by and large not Marxists themselves. In the months and years following the violent suppression of the commune, much was made in the right-wing press of the role of Marx and the First International which he founded and led. But as Marx was the first to acknowledge, he had little influence over, let alone control of, the Communards in Paris.
This did not prevent Marx from hailing their heroism and highlighting the world-historic importance of their bold attempt to create a new society. Marx's close friend and partner Friedrich Engels once used the example of the Paris Commune to answer critics of the concept of the "dictatorship of the proletariat," a phrase which appears only a few times in Marx's writings. Engels wanted to make it clear that Marx never called for anything like the dictatorships of his time ? or the even more horrific ones which followed in the twentieth century. The "dictatorship of the proletariat" that Engels imagined would include free elections, an accountable government, freedom of speech and association.
Twenty years after the fall of the Paris Commune, he wrote: "do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat."
Barely a decade after Engels wrote those words, and 3,000 kilometres away from Paris, the Gurian Republic was born, led by an orthodox Marxist party. Instead of a few weeks, it lasted for several years. As a test of Marxism in theory and practice, it can be argued that it was even more important than the Paris Commune. And unlike the Paris Commune, the Gurian experiment had a second act.
The brutal suppression of the Communards ensured that right-wing parties would continue to rule France for many decades afterwards. The Gurian Republic, on the other hand, prefigured Georgia's experiment with democratic socialism little more than a decade after its violent suppression by the tsarist government.
By the time the French Left finally came to power under the Popular Front in the 1930s, the Paris Commune was a distant, if revered, memory. But the socialists who led the Georgian Democratic Republic in 1918, among them the head of government Noe Zhordania, the interior minister Noe Ramishvili, and the minister of agriculture Noe Khomeriki, were natives of Guria and applied lessons learned there.
The Gurian Republic had its origins, as revolutions often do, in a minor affair, beginning in May 1902 in the village of Nigoiti with a dispute over grazing rights. How it began and who led it ensured that this would be no ordinary peasant rebellion, of which there had been plenty in the tsarist empire.
The Gurian peasants suffered from an acute land hunger. As a popular saying went, "If I tie up a cow on my bit of land, her tail will be in someone else's!" As a result, many Gurian peasants were compelled to take occasional jobs in cities, including Russian towns like Odessa and Rostov. Some of them had been working in the nearby Georgian seaside town of Batumi and had participated in strikes there, organised and led by the Social Democrats. The tsarist authorities crushed those strikes and expelled some of the strikers from the city. They returned to their villages in Guria and back at home they incited the peasants to action. It is possible that they were also inspired by peasant rebellions in other parts of the empire, including in Ukraine, Tambov and Saratov. In any event, their political education in Batumi was certainly a factor in their rebellious frame of mind.
The result was a mass meeting in Nigoiti of some 700 peasants who drew up a list of demands that included free grazing rights, a reduction in rent, and no more payments – known as drami – to local priests. They then agreed on an oath of secrecy, which was a common feature of these kinds of meetings. Other meetings followed, and the movement started to spread across the province. Even though the Gurian peasants were keen to stop paying their priests, they were not anti-clerical or anti-tsarist at this stage. They remained wedded to a mystical way of thinking and tended to treat the emerging revolutionary committees, which were led by the Social Democrats, as holy bodies. One Georgian social democrat described a meeting he attended of some 700 peasants as "semi-religious." The meeting ended as propagandists held an icon of sorts in their hands. Another meeting was led by a priest, and the participants stood before a cross and bible.
When news of the first peasant meetings reached the Social Democrats in the nearest towns, Batumi and Kutaisi, most of the party leaders were indifferent. Some were even hostile. Karlo Chkheidze, the future leader of the early Soviets and chairman of the Georgian parliament, dismissed the rebellion by saying "we cannot have a peasant movement under our banners."
Excerpted from "The Experiment"
Copyright © 2017 Eric Lee.
Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Timeline Preface Prologue 1 Founding father 2 Dress rehearsal 3 The experiment begins 4 The turn towards Germany 5 At war with Armenia 6 The British take charge 7 Georgia’s agrarian revolution 8 The independence of the trade unions 9 The rise and rise of the cooperatives 10 Achilles heel: Georgia’s national minorities 11 Fifth column 12 Europe’s socialist leaders come for a visit 13 The state that never was 14 The experiment ends 15 The final battle 16 Another revolution was possible Acknowledgements Notes Index