From International Revolution to a National State – The Case of Georgian Social Democracy (1917-1921)

In the twilight years of the 19th century, the Georgian people were faced with a number of challenges. Although the abolition of feudalism had liberated the peasantry, they had not been given land and their afflicted state remained the same. A number of freed peasants headed for the cities and filled the ranks of the proletariat, encountering “brute capitalism” in a place where basic labour rights were not regulated.

In the twilight years of the 19th century, the Georgian people were faced with a number of challenges. Although the abolition of feudalism had liberated the peasantry, they had not been given land and their afflicted state remained the same. A number of freed peasants headed for the cities and filled the ranks of the proletariat, encountering “brute capitalism” in a place where basic labour rights were not regulated. Added to this were the general limitations of Tsarist bureaucracy, as the Russian administration in the Caucasus – in the form of the Exarch and Viceroy – did battle against religious and national identity. Traders and manufacturers were also discontent with life in this semi-feudal state.

Georgian Social Democracy

At this time, the Marxist ideology of “Literate Socialism” arrived in Georgia, promising the people full emancipation and liberation from all the above forms of oppression. On this fertule ground the ‘Mesame Dasi’ (or Second Group) sprouted, uniting Georgian social democrats. This “party” was unlike the Russian Social Democrat Menshevik grouping, the nucleus of which was formed around workers. Among the Georgian social democrats there were to be found workers, peasants, noblemen and princes, small scale manufacturers, intellectuals and those without an education. This was not only a movement of the elite or the peasantry, but rather it is was “Our Party” – as the Georgian Social Democrats referred to themselves – created for universal emancipation. It was precisely this social base, in fact, which made the Social Democrats an unrivalled political force in Georgia.

Before the First World War, in a world of empires, there was no guarantee, even formal, for the security of small nations. Consequently, autonomy was considered the best way to defend independence and national identity. In the view of the Social Democrats, even political autonomy in the Caucasus was seen as problematic, since no single guberniya or other administrative unit was demographically homogenous. Not to speak of the border regions, Tiflis, Baku, Elizavetpol (Ganja), Kars etc, were more or less evenly divided between various nationalities. Where should the political boundaries be set? Would this not bring about conflict between the nations of the Caucasus? In the years 1918-1921, it was proven to the social democrats that this fear was real. In other words, demands for political independence were complicated not only by international, but also by internal, demographic factors. The social democrats countered this dilemma with the idea of cultural self-rule. Everyone should have the right to receive an education and interact with the administration in one’s mother tongue and to protect and preserve one’s national identity.

All of this was supposed to happen under the umbrella of a democratic Russia, which would itself be the guarantor of the region’s security and local freedom. For precisely this reason, the Georgian Social Democrats joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP). However, the policy of the centre was never imposed in imperial fashion in the Caucasus. Quite the opposite: Georgian Social Democrats managed to push issues specifically of interest to them and bring them to the general, Russian level.

The majority of Georgian Social Democrat intellectuals never tried to start political careers in Russia. Noe Jordania, Evgeni Gegechkori, Noe Ramishvili, Akaki Chkhenkeli and others always remained active Georgian figures. Yet those who chose the path of Russian politics in the ‘centre’ also achieved success (Karlo Chkheidze, Irakli Tsereteli).

Georgian social democracy, as Stephen Jones notes, was a unique admixture of socialism, liberalism, democracy, nationalism and internationalism. It was with this platform of ideas that Georgian social democracy met the 1917 February Revolution.

From Opposition to Government

The defeat of democracy in Russia, followed by the Bolshevik coup, left the Caucasus without a so-called “Russian hat”. The subjects of the Caucasus had to search for guarantees of international security and decide territorial, demographic and other problems by themselves. Social democracy was no longer in opposition, but rather took on the burden of governance, due to force majeure.

In these conditions, pragmatism and the national interest frequently prevailed over ideology. Finding a guarantor of international security in the form of Germany, the Georgians were the first to declare independent in the South Caucasus and began fighting for maximalist borders.

In order to protect the country from chaos, a law on the death penalty was adopted in June 1918, and was rigorously imposed, generally against anti-state Bolshevik agents. The fact that this was a mere deviation from ideology and was dictated by pragmatism was affirmed in the 1921 constitution, which banned the death penalty. By that time the institutional order inside the country was considered stable.

The same social democrats, who for decades had led the workers on demonstrations, in the Democratic Republic called on them to refrain from striking in order to protect national interests. However, this wasn’t due to a lack of ideology: workers living in independent Georgia earned almost the same as a university professor.

During the war with Armenia, on 24 December 1918, the Georgian parliament adopted a law on the total expropriation of property for the crime of assisting the enemy, which led to the seizure of much Armenian property. However, this was a drastic measure adopted in a situation of force majeure. The constitution, adopted later on endowed ethnic minorities with full rights.

The Georgian social democrats turned out not to be radical socialists. For example, they believed that large industries should be in the possession of the state, but they believed it inadvisable to seize property from its owners and instead preferred to negotiate a sale. This is what the radical leftist socialist-revolutionary Leo Shengelaia, noted when he compared Georgia to Soviet Russia. In his view, Russia had socialism, but not democracy, while Georgia was a democracy, but was not socialist.

During the period of the Democratic Republic, peasants living in Georgia received land of their own for the first time in history. This step was both ideological and pragmatic. In Georgia they were conscious of the Russian provisional government’s mistake in delaying land redistribution to the peasantry, and in order to prevent the spread of Bolshevism, agrarian reform was promptly undertaken.

State institutions were also formed and strengthened at the expense of pragmatism. The social democrats wanted a strong state in order to build democracy and implement their own ideas. In a country where the majority of the population didn’t know how to read or write, universal parliamentary elections were held, women were given the right to vote and stand for parliament; a reform of local self-government was carried out, local elections were held and tangible de-centralization of powers occurred. A progressive constitution was adopted and Georgia received de jure recognition on the international stage.

The first Georgian Republic is often mistakenly referred to as a “socialist experiment”. Despite the fact that this was the first country where socialists came to power through democratic elections, a socialist order was not rooted in Georgia, and it’s possible that at subsequent elections (hand they taken place), a right-wing government could have replaced them. The legal framework which the social democratic parliamentary majority created was, overall, national, liberal and democratic. This framework, due to the force majeure  reality of the years 1918-1921, did not always work out in practice. However, it was an idea which was made fully clear in the Constitution of 1921