Eric Lee Launches Book on the Georgian Revolution in London

What do a British conservative MP, an international trade unionist and an ambassador have in common? The answer, it may not surprise you to learn considering the title of the paper you are holding, is Georgia.

The setting was the IPU Room, Westminster Hall, and we were there to listen to Eric Lee launch his book The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918 – 1921 (Zed Books) with a talk hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Georgia and the Embassy of Georgia to the UK. The Georgian Embassy have barely paused for breath after their series of events last year celebrating 25 years of diplomatic ties between the ever-intriguing Caucasian republic and the UK, before embarking on a similarly ambitious undertaking celebrating the centenary of the first short-lived Georgian Republic. This, we were told, was the first event of many under that banner.

We had quite a limp start. The chair of the APPG Jonathan Djanogly managed to confuse the relationship between Marjory and Oliver Wardrop referring to them as man and wife (they were siblings) in his introduction, before excusing himself to attend another meeting. Georgian ambassador Tamar Beruchashvili was thankfully on-hand to perform a proper introduction before the engaging and disarmingly self-deprecating Eric Lee took the podium to tell us about that obscure (in the UK at least) but highly significant period in Georgia’s history.

His argument was a strong one. He started with comparisons between the rather muted reaction in Russia to the 100-year anniversary of their revolution last year and the more ostentatiously proud remembrance in Georgia of their less immediately successful, but ultimately more enduring, version of democracy which became the prototype for the current Constitution of Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He was not obsequious in his praise and began with a slight criticism: “Let’s start by saying that the Georgian social democrats were not perfect. They were human beings and did not create a perfect society, but they never intended to create a perfect society. Just a better one.”

In other words, they were not utopians like their Bolshevik counterparts, and although power fell into the hands of the Georgian Social Democratic Party rather than being achieved through a popular vote, the reforms they undertook were remarkably enlightened considering the geopolitical climate of the time. It is always dangerous to rely too heavily on evidence from the International Socialists, but Karl Kautsky was no friend of Bolshevism and wrote admiringly of Georgia’s universal suffrage and its genuinely multiparty political system. Their agrarian reforms gave land to the peasants and allowed for grain to be sold via the market, resulting in a feeling of loyalty to the government in stark contrast to the disaster of Russia’s War Communism policy which merely resulted in starvation and death.

The other crucial aspect cited by Lee was Georgia’s thriving and independent trade unions, with the right to strike enshrined in the constitution resulting in tripartite negotiations during labor disputes, which ultimately lead to the creation of a welfare state.

It didn’t last of course. Part of the problem was a lack of an organized military force leading to an over-reliance on unreliable allies, and perhaps a slightly naïve agreement with the Bolsheviks who agreed to recognize an independent Georgia when they had no intention of doing so, although one could reasonably ask what choice the Georgians had at this point.

The legacy of this brief flourishing of democracy is significant considering the effect it has on today’s Georgia. Despite a comment from an audience member that Georgia lost many of its democratic thinkers between 1921 and 1991 and has had to fight hard to reestablish its sense of identity, the ideas of the first Georgian Republic were kept constantly alive through little acts of subversion. Lee told us of a colleague who was born during the Soviet period on 1 May. His parents didn’t register the birth until 26 May: the anniversary of the declaration of independence.

The Georgian translation of Eric Lee’s book will appear soon and is supported by the Georgian National Book Center.

Robert Edgar, London

08 March 2018 15:49