by Eric Lee, based on a Presentation to the International Scientific Forum: “Remembering the Georgian Democratic Republic 100 Years On: A Model for Europe”, Tbilisi, June 2018
After Georgia declared its independence in May 1918, its Social Democratic government embarked on a foreign policy aimed at winning recognition from the great powers.
Germany’s de-facto recognition was secured early on. But it was important to also seek recognition from Britain, France, Italy, and the United States. The Social Democrats also reached out to the Second International.
The Second International united socialist, social democratic and labour parties from around the world. Today, it is largely forgotten. But from its foundation in 1889 until its collapse in 1916, it was a global political force to be reckoned with.
Its rise to power seemed inexorable. By 1914, its member party in Germany, the SPD, was the largest party in the Reichstag. The socialist parties had grown increasingly important across Europe and beyond. Even in the United States, where “American exceptionalism” was later used to explain the absence of a mass socialist party,
by 1912 the Socialists were a serious force, winning over a million votes in presidential elections, taking seats in Congress, and winning control of several major cities.
At their regular congresses, the socialists from various countries would discuss the burning issues of the day, none more important than the danger of a world war.
Despite the failure of the socialists to stop the World War I from breaking out, as they tried, or to overthrow capitalism as they had planned, they were still seen a global force. Georgian social democrats were always part of the Second International. Until 1917, they took part in the delegation of the Russian Social Democratic Party.
Some of the Georgian Social Democrats who were best known in the International, such as Irakli Tseretelli, found themselves in Western Europe trying to win Georgia a seat at the table during the Paris Peace Conference.
They used the opportunity to invite the leaders of the Second International to come visit Georgia in 1920.
Voyage full of surprises
The men and women who eventually traveled to Georgia as guests of the government are largely forgotten today. But at the time, they were political super-stars. The most famous member of the delegation was Karl Kautsky, from Germany, the author of many authoritative works on Marxism, and a man often described as the “Pope of Marxism”.
The delegation took two weeks to travel by train from Paris to southern Italy, then boat to Istanbul, and then another boat to Batumi, and from there by train to Tbilisi, and then to various parts of the country. They were welcomed by wildly enthusiastic crowds everywhere they went.
Ramsay MacDonald from the British Labour Party was astonished by what he saw in the Georgian capital. He wrote:
“It seemed very odd. There we were, having left for some days all that seemed to be of the West, having gone through the Bazaar and the mosques of Constantinople and proceeded far beyond towards the rising sun, and, at our journey’s end at last, we were being received by a President of the Republic of Georgia in a waiting room at the Tiflis railway station, covered with the most glorious Oriental rugs, but hung with the portraits of Karl Marx and his best known disciples.”
He was even more surprised at the reception they received when they left the capital. He described visiting “the heart of the Caucasian mountains, surrounded by the wildest and the gayest rout of untamed mountaineers armed with sword, shield, and rifle” and then standing reverently “whilst an old priest by the light of altar candles guttering in the wind read to us an address of welcome which ended with ‘Long live the International.’”
When they returned home, they gave newspaper interviews and wrote articles in which they praised the achievements of the Georgian Social Democrats.
Ethel Snowden, a leading figure in the British Labour Party, told journalists that
“they have set up what is the most perfect Socialism in Europe.”
Kautsky, who arrived somewhat later than the others, stayed for several weeks. He wrote a short book about Georgia, which was published in an English edition as well as the original German.
“In comparison with the hell which Soviet Russia represents,” he wrote “Georgia appeared as a paradise.”
The Socialist delegation of 1920 was of course subjected to ferocious criticism by the Bolsheviks, which also put a mark on the Soviet historiography.
But even some of the Georgians were skeptical. One of the critics was Zurab Avalishvili, a Georgian diplomat who was highly critical of the Social Democrats. He considered the delegation to be a waste of time. He wrote contemptuously of the socialist visitors, referring to “prominent European Socialists — including the three ‘ladies-in-waiting’ of the 2nd International (Mrs. Kautsky, Mrs. Vandervelde and Mrs. Snowden), gazing with curiosity at ‘that charming picturesque Georgia’.”
He expressed disgust at how lavishly they were welcomed by the Georgian government. He said they were greeted “with official honors, to which they were not so accustomed at home” – which was true at the time.
But Avalishvili could not have known that two of the delegates (MacDonald and Huysmans) would go on to become prime ministers of their countries. He considered the delegation to “be of no importance at all: it even created or stimulated more untimely illusions with regard to the support of the ‘Western democracies’.”
Avalishvili argued that the Georgian people had no idea of the “the comparative importance for Georgia’s independence in 1920 of the ‘Supreme Council of Allied Powers’ and the ‘Amsterdam International’,” referring to the Socialists.
What explains the enthusiasm of the Georgian political leadership for the delegation? It should be noted that this enthusiasm continued long after the delegates left Georgia, and even after the country had been occupied by the Russians.
For many years, Zhordania and other exiled Georgian leaders were regular visitors to socialist congresses, which continued to pass – with decreasing regularity as the years wore on – resolutions demanding a withdrawal of Russian forces from the country.
Zhordania and his comrades embraced the world view of classical Marxism from the 1890s onwards, which stipulated that while the national governments were relevant and traditional diplomacy vital, ultimately, social class was even more important.
The Second International and its successor organisations represented, in the view of the Georgian Social Democrats, a world power of at least equal importance as the states. To the diplomat Avalishvili, and to modern-day historians, this view may seem absurd.
But it did not seem absurd at the time. The resolution adopted at the 1907 Congress of the Second International in Stuttgart proposed that the social democrats stop the world war and overthrow capitalism. The socialists saw themselves, representing the great majority of humankind, and therefore as a kind of moral superpower.
That belief survived World War I, and was shared by both the victorious Bolsheviks in Russia and their Social Democratic rivals.
In the eyes of the Bolsheviks, those European Social Democratic politicians who Avalishvili labelled as having “no importance at all” were actually extremely important.
They were important because they still commanded the loyalty of the great majority of workers in the West. In countries like Germany, and even more so Britain, the Communist Parties which were loyal to the young Soviet state were very small relative to the traditional Social Democratic Parties.
The Soviets wavered in their relationship to the Second International, sometimes reaching and trying to create a “united front”, but other times (most notoriously under Stalin’s leadership) they denounced the Social Democrats as being no better than fascists. The latter policy had catastrophic results in Germany.
Leon Trotsky, then Commissar of the Red Army, who had just led it to victory in the Russian Civil War, took the socialist delegation to Georgia so seriously that he wrote an entire book, published in English under the title “Between Red and White”, to answer the book Kautsky wrote after he left Georgia.
And for years later, leading Bolshevik figures from the Communist International (Comintern) – formed under Lenin’s leadership in 1919 – were dispatched to meetings in Europe to debate what had happened in Georgia with representatives of the Social Democratic parties.
If Zhordania and his comrades suffered from the illusion that the Second International mattered, they were not alone, as the Soviet leadership shared in the same illusion.
As for Georgia’s fate, in the end, the strategy proposed by more conventional diplomats like Avalishvili, aiming to win the favor of the “real” powers including France and Italy, was no more successful than the attempts to leverage the power of the international socialist movement.
If the Socialist leaders who visited Georgia in 1920 did not represent the global super-power that both the Georgian Mensheviks and Russian Bolsheviks imagined, they were nevertheless significant political leaders. Their experience in Georgia, the books and articles they wrote about it, influenced public opinion in the West for many years. And the legacy they left – most notably Karl Kautsky’s book, which is now finally being published in a multilingual edition – will make a contribution to the renewal of Social Democracy, and not only in Georgia.
This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)