Were the Mensheviks a real alternative?

November 15, 2017 at 12:07 pm (democracy, Eric Lee, history, imperialism, Marxism, national liberation, posted by JD, revolution, Russia, trotskyism, USSR, war)

Eric Lee is a journalist and historian who has spent over thirty years researching independent Georgia, and has himself been active in trade union and political struggles in both the US and UK. His previous works include Saigon to Jerusalem: Conversations with Israel’s Vietnam Veterans (1993) and Operation Basalt: The British Raid on Sark and Hitler’s Commando Order (2016).

Paul Vernadsky reviews The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-21 by Eric Lee; followed by a response from Eric (the review first appeared in the AWL’s paper Solidarity, which will also carry Eric’s reply)

Eric Lee’s mischievous new book, argues that the Georgian Menshevik republic was an alternative to the Bolshevik-led workers’ government, which came to power in October 1917.

This is absolute fantasy, which confuses discussion of working-class politics at the time and the importance of the Russian revolution for today’s class struggles.

Russia annexed Georgia in 1798 and the Transcaucasia region remained a largely underdeveloped part of the tsarist empire until the discovery of oil in the late nineteenth century. In 1892, Noe Zhordania founded the first Georgian Marxist circle, the “third group”. It played a key supporting role in the Gurian peasant uprising between 1902 and 1906. Lee’s book explains the origins of the revolt over grazing rights, as well as its limits (its courts dwelt heavily on punishing adultery). Zhordania’s social democrats won a wide base of support during the struggle.

In 1903, Zhordania took part in the second congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, joining the Menshevik faction against the Bolsheviks. Georgian social democrats backed the central tenet of Menshevism: that the Russian revolution would be bourgeois and the socialists’ primary task was to promote a bourgeois republic. In Georgia, the Mensheviks won landslide victories in elections to the tsarist Duma. Most of the prominent Menshevik leaders became Duma members, including Zhordania, Irakli Tsereteli and Noe Ramishvili. Zhordania led the social democratic faction in the short-lived First Duma, while Tsereteli headed the much larger united social democratic faction in the Second Duma.

Lee’s book is strangely reticent about the First World War.

He says that a number of Georgian Mensheviks including Zhordania were sympathetic to the Allied cause. However the picture was worse than that. Tsereteli and other Mensheviks took a more internationalist position — at least until the tsar was overthrown. Zhordania fought for a “defencist” position and even wanted the Menshevik Duma fraction to vote for war credits.

Lee’s book also brushes over the importance of Georgian involvement in the events of 1917. Tsereteli was freed by the February revolution and went to Petrograd, where he was the architect of Menshevik participation in the provisional government (he became a minister) and support for the war, known as “revolutionary defencism”. Carlo Chkheidze promoted the same politics as chair of the Petrograd Soviet until September. As such they were responsible for the disastrous Menshevik orientation during the revolution.

Lee reports that in Tiflis after the February revolution, the local tsarist official Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich announced that he would be leaving, but expressed confidence that Zhordania and other social democrats could be trusted with power. As he put it, they were “on the side of order”. On 16 March 1917, the Tiflis Soviet was established. Zhordania was elected chair and promoted class collaboration.

The Georgian Mensheviks were united in their opposition to the Bolshevik-led seizure of power in October 1917. It was their visceral hostility to the Russian socialist revolution that dictated their course in the years afterwards. Lee admits that Georgia’s separation from Russia was not part of socialist agitation before 1917. The rejection of separatism was so strong that Georgian social democrat speeches would end with “Down with Georgia! Long live the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party!” Nevertheless, Zhordania and the Mensheviks embraced separatism.

On 22 April 1918, Georgian, Armenia and Azerbaijan proclaimed their independence, forming the Democratic Federative Republic of Transcaucasia. It dissolved five weeks later and the National Council of Georgia, chaired by Zhordania, made its declaration of independence on 26 May 1918. Immediately faced with attacks by Turkey, the new Georgian government turned to Imperial Germany for support. Lee argues that Georgia had no choice, because “small nations can only defend themselves if they have strong allies”. But Georgia could have remained part of Soviet Russia, rather than run into the arms of the imperialist powers.

In October 1918, Zhordania wrote to the Imperial German Mission, “I have never considered the international position of Georgia as that of an absolutely neutral state, as the contrary is being proved by evident facts”. Zhordania described Georgia’s policy as being one of “limited neutrality”. In fact the guiding line was to support whatever imperial power the Mensheviks felt would guarantee Georgia’s independence.

The ostensible reason for independence was the Brest-Litovsk treaty, where Germany forced the Bolsheviks to cede large chunks of Georgian territory to the Turks. Yet the first document signed by the Georgians and Germans acknowledged the Brest-Litovsk agreement. Germany forced the Turks to formally recognise the Georgian state, but only by allowing Turkey to determine the size of Georgia’s army and to deploy Turkish troops inside Georgia. Lee rightly describes it as a “victor’s peace”.

When the First World War ended, British imperial forces arrived in Baku as early as 17 November 1918. Again Lee excuses the Georgian government’s accommodation with the British as merely realpolitik, what he calls their “working assumption” that the world was one in which “the ‘great powers’ could make decisions about the very existence of nation-states”. But this ignores the alternative of remaining with Bolshevik Russia.

Almost immediately the British government suggested it would “favour” the Georgian Republic – undoubtedly as part of its strategy to defeat the Bolsheviks. The Georgian Mensheviks represented their state at the Versailles peace conference. In December 1920 the Menshevik leaders unsuccessfully sought Georgia’s admission to the League of Nations. Lee presents the Georgian government as resentful of the British, yet they looked upon the imperial power as their guarantor.

One of the most disappointing aspects of Lee’s book is its treatment of the Georgian Menshevik government’s relations with the counter-revolutionary White armies.

He emphasises the fundamental antagonism between them: the Georgian government espoused socialism and declared independence (under German protection), while Denikin’s Volunteer Army stood for an indivisible Russia, abhorred socialism and remained faithful to the Allies.

Yet it is well known that the Georgian Menshevik government sought to establish relations with Denikin’s forces and were prepared to support them against the Bolsheviks’ Red Army. In late August 1918 Georgian and White generals met. The Georgian government gave Denikin its only armoured train. In September 1918, a Georgian government delegation headed by foreign minister Evgeni Gegechkori met with Denikin and his generals at Yekaterinodar to establish an agreement. None of this is discussed adequately in Lee’s book.

Lee does admit that during 1919 the Georgians supplied Denikin’s army with oil and other supplies, while denying these to the Bolsheviks. However Lee attributes this to the British, ignoring the importance of the Georgian government’s agency in agreeing to these conditions. Lee also ignores the supplies of soldiers and materials to Wrangel’s White army in 1920. Far from neutral, the Georgian Mensheviks actively supported both the imperial powers and the White armies that tried to overthrow the Bolshevik workers’ government during the civil war.

Perhaps the most repugnant aspect of the Georgian Menshevik government was its treatment of national minorities. Lee does represent these failings clearly in the book. On 18 October 1918, Armenian state troops entered Georgian territory and occupied some villages. In response Armenians in Georgia were subjected to a series of repressive measures such as the suspension of their newspapers and the arrest of Dashnak deputies to the Tiflis Duma. Armenians residing in Georgia were treated as prisoners of war and in one case paraded through the streets.

In 1919 the Georgian Menshevik government decided to suspend Abkhazia’s autonomous status and jail separatist leaders. Similarly, the Menshevik government responded to South Ossetian agitation by killing hundreds of civilians in what Lee calls a kind of “ethnic cleansing”. He quotes the Georgian militia leader Valiko Jugeli: “The Oset nationalists are our worst and most relentless enemies… These traitors… should be cruelly punished. There is no other way.”

The Georgian Menshevik government also repressed local communists, who Lee refers to as “fifth columnist” – a term originating with the fascist general Franco. On 10 February 1918, a Bolshevik protest meeting at the opening of the Transcaucasian parliament was dispersed by gunfire. Bolshevik newspapers were suppressed in Georgia, many Bolsheviks arrested and the party driven underground for two years.

Local Bolsheviks did try to overthrow the Georgian government in November 1918 and again in May 1920. Journalists and the Russian government both reported that communists were executed by the Georgian government. Lee is dismisses criticism of the Georgian Mensheviks’ behaviour. He states that “as a group with utter contempt for democratic norms, the Bolsheviks could not be treated the way the Georgian Social Democrats treated all other opposition parties”. He justifies the repression, stating that “the Bolsheviks represented a security threat of considerable magnitude from the very beginning”.

Lee waxes lyrically about the achievements of the Georgian Menshevik government. He claims that “Georgia’s economy was slowly transitioning from one based on production for profit to one resembling Robert Owen’s vision of a cooperative commonwealth”. This is fantasy. After the international social democratic delegation visit in 1920, future Labour Party leader Ramsey McDonald wrote that in Georgia, “the largest coal mine is run by the state, but the important manganese mines are still in private hands… Most of the few factories are still in private hands”. The much-vaunted agrarian reforms, while redistributing some land to the peasants, nevertheless left many holdings in the hands of the nobles. The trade union movement was smaller than the ruling Menshevik party membership. The Mensheviks also intervened against strikes, got the unions to help increase production and introduced piece work. This was no socialist paradise.

On 12 February 1921, local communists led by Sergei Ordzhonikidze instigated the overthrow of the Georgian Menshevik government. Lee admits that neither Lenin nor Trotsky (then head of the Red Army) ordered the attack and seemed unaware of the facts on the ground at the beginning. The Politburo told the Red Army not to intervene on 14 February, only sanction its involvement the following day. By 25 February the Georgian Menshevik government had been overthrown.
This was a mistake by the Bolsheviks: they violated their own principle of national self-determination; the civil war was over, the Georgians did not represent a threat and a modus vivendi could have been found. The takeover was an early sign of bureaucratic degeneration, which Lenin and Trotsky recognised at the time.

Georgian Menshevism was not a viable alternative to the Bolsheviks in 1917-21.

The Georgian Mensheviks presided over a bourgeois state that did not overthrow capitalist relations of production. There was no Georgian workers’ revolution, but some agrarian reform on a private property basis. The Georgian Mensheviks were not even consistent democrats, as their record towards national minorities and communists shows. The Georgian experiment was not democratic socialism; it was barely even bourgeois democracy.

The Georgian Mensheviks had political choices in the circumstances, but made the wrong ones. On 14 January 1920, Zhordania declared in the Constituent Assembly: “You know that Soviet Russia has proposed a military alliance with us. We have point blank declined… I know that our enemies will say that we are on the side of the imperialists. Therefore I must say here most emphatically: that I prefer the imperialists of the West to the fanatics of the East.” This was their fundamental error: the alternative to becoming satraps of the imperialist powers and the White armies was to have allied with Soviet Russia.

Lee does not consider that alternative, which ultimately diminishes his book. Instead he propounds the Menshevik dogma that “an impoverished, backward society cannot skip historical stages”. He believes that the Georgians’ role was first to create “a liberal democracy – socialism would wait”. At the time millions of workers across Europe did not simply want capitalism – they fought for socialism and were right to do so.

Menshevism was the programme of self-limiting defeat. Trotsky was right to consign it to the dustbin of history.

Reply to Solidarity from Eric Lee:

Paul Vernadsky in his review of my book, The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-21 (Solidarity 453), is right to highlight the importance of this period for today. And he comes to the heart of our disagreement at the very end of his essay when he refers to the idea that “an impoverished, backward society cannot skip historical stages”. He calls this “Menshevik dogma”. No, Paul, that’s not “Menshevik dogma”. That’s Marxism.

But leaving aside whether that’s more Martov or Marx, that phrase has proven to be absolutely true. The last century showed us many examples of attempts by revolutionaries — sometimes, but not always, well-meaning ones – to skip historical stages. (Think of China, all of Eastern Europe, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea and Cuba.) In every single case, without exception, the result of skipping historical stages – mainly, skipping democracy – was the nightmare of totalitarianism. Paul’s main charge against the Georgian Mensheviks is that they “could have remained part of Soviet Russia,” but chose not to. He makes this point several times in his short piece, chiding the Georgians for ignoring “the alternative of remaining with Bolshevik Russia.”

This is a very basic historic error: Georgia was never part of Soviet Russia. Georgia had been part of the Russian empire, and remained very loosely connected to Russia during the months of the Provisional Government, but when the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917, the Georgians — like many other parts of the empire — rejected their rule. Had they taken Paul’s advice anyway, and voluntarily joined what later became known as the “happy family of Soviet peoples” three years before they were forced to by the Red Army, how would that have benefited anyone in Georgia?

For three short years the Georgians benefited from a largely free political system, had powerful trade unions independent of the state, and enjoyed the benefits of an agrarian reform that managed to avert the famines that were destroying Russia. Does anyone seriously believe that the earlier arrival of the Cheka, led in Georgia by the sadistic Lavrenty Beria, would have been a good thing? (Paul describes that invasion in 1921 as a “mistake”, but it was not. It was a crime, a premeditated one, and Stalin and cronies were the culprits.)

Paul’s over-reliance on Trotsky’s worst book — the one he wrote to justify the invasion of Georgia — means that he neglects to mention what we can now learn from the archives, things that Trotsky would not have known in 1921. For example, the fact that the Georgians came extremely close to a shooting war with the British Royal Navy, which wanted to shell Georgian soldiers who resisted the armed provocations by Denikin’s White armies.

The main British interest was in toppling Lenin, not in propping up small border states like Georgia, and relations between London and Tiflis were never warm. Trotsky makes much of the killings of Georgian Bolsheviks, and Paul quotes this uncritically, though the source of the story (a Russophile British journalist) is not entirely credible, and later publications (including Zhordania’s) contest the truth of the story. Paul makes only the briefest mention of Georgia’s free and independent unions, who get a full chapter in my book, and I understand why. For it is here that Trotsky appears in the worst light, in his campaign to bring unions in Soviet Russia under full state control.

Trotsky’s proposals to militarise labour were so outlandish that other Bolshevik leaders, no fans of trade unions themselves, rejected them. Paul also dismisses the success of Georgia’s independent cooperatives, neglecting the evidence that they were, in fact, gradually coming to dominate whole sections of the economy. This slow transition to a social democratic welfare state may not be as exciting as “war communism” but it also had far fewer innocent victims.

“This was no socialist paradise,” he writes, and he’s right. But the Georgians never claimed to be building a socialist paradise on earth. That was something Trotsky and the Bolsheviks claimed for Russia. The Georgians were much more modest in their aims, more realistic and more humane.

One of the biggest problems with Paul’s argument is that he writes as if it is 1921. The Bolsheviks are on their way to creating a wonderful new society. The Mensheviks have been consigned to the dustbin of history. But a century has passed, and we now know things we did not know then. We know how the Bolshevik experiment turned out. And we know that being consigned to the dustbin of history — a fate that Trotsky himself, who coined that unfortunate phrase, would later share with the Mensheviks — was not the worst thing that could happen to a political movement.

Eric Lee


  1. Ben said,

    “…I prefer the imperialists of the West to the fanatics of the East….”

    Knowing what we know today of the monstrous crimes committed by the USSR, the German national socialists and the Republic of China on the one hand, and by the imperialists and colonialists on the other hand, what decent man or woman can peremptorily dismiss that judgement? We are fortunate to live in an age where both imperialism and communism have been consigned to the dustbin of history, and while domination and coercion are still features of international politics, and tyrannous regimes still exist, the mass killings of the imperialists, the national socialists and the communists alike are mostly in the past.

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      Without vigilance and massive firepower including the nuclear deterrent those regimes could easily take power again. They have all the time to wait.

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