How Georgia’s forgotten revolution pointed the way to a co-operative economy

'A Marxist party carrying out a democratic socialist revolution in an entire country? I know of only one example: Georgia'

The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921, Eric Lee, Zed Books

Everyone knows the story of the Russian Revolution of 1917. But fewer people will know of the remarkable story of a revolution in Georgia that took place alongside this, which was an exploration of democratic socialism and a co-operative economy. This is a gap that Eric Lee, writer and distinguished trade union activist, fills in his book The Experiment.

Georgia sits between Europe and Asia. To its north is the Caucasus mountain range; to its west is the Black Sea. In 1918, after a century of direct Russian rule, Georgia declared its independence. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the spur, encouraging local leaders to found the new Georgian Democratic Republic.

The area had revolutionary credentials. Guria, in western Georgia, was the site of revolt and self-government in the early years of the new century. A dispute over grazing rights in the village of Nigoiti in May 1902 flared up into a peasant revolution. Over the next four years, before its suppression, villages took up a form of direct democracy, with village meetings and popular tribunals for justice.

Lee writes in his introduction that “there were plenty of interesting experiments in workers’ rule during the twentieth century.

“Among these were those carried out by anarchists, syndicalists and independent socialists in Spain during the civil war, or Austria’s great experiment in socialist urban living known as ‘Red Vienna’. But a Marxist party carrying out a democratic socialist revolution in an entire country? I know of only one example: Georgia.”

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In 1917, events in Georgia followed those of Russia but were led by social democrats (Mensheviks, in the tradition of Julius Martov) rather than Bolsheviks (followers of Lenin). In Georgia, these were men with a track record of activism such as Noe Zhordania and Vladimir Jugeli.

The news of the Tsar’s fall came via a cryptic telegram from Petrograd: “Mr Governmentson has died; inform relatives.”

The Grand Duke departed the capital and the social democrats set about forming Soviets – elected councils of workers, peasants and soldiers. In the subsequent election, social democrats emerged as the largest party in the Transcaucasia region. In May 1918, despite war continuing on the border with Turkey, the Democratic Georgian Republic was formed.

What followed was an uneasy period that ended with an invasion by Russia in 1921, to end what Leon Trotsky called “democratic charlatanry”. But what did emerge in those three years was, instead, an inclusive vision of socialism, with multi-party elections, freedom of speech and assembly, a free press and a rich civil society grounded in trade unions and co-operatives.

By the end of 1920, there were 113 trade unions in the country, with 64,000 members – out of an estimated paid workforce of 100,000 men and women.

Co-operatives had longer roots, going back to the pamphlets of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier and the first co-operatives in practice from 1867.

“Of the three great pillars of the labour movement,” writes Lee, “the co-operatives came first, with the trade unions and Social Democratic Party following much later.”

In 1916, on the eve of revolution, there were 199 consumer co-ops in Georgia. By 1919, that number had grown to 989. By 2020, one in three of these co-ops owned its own building, a sign of growing economic success. Producer co-ops were also on the rise, from a silk factory, sausage factory and soap factory through to an engineering works, brickworks and tile works.

Financial co-operatives also spread, with a membership of 150,000 by the end of 1917, accelerated with the founding of a Co-operative Bank the following year. In rural villages, private traders declined, on one survey from 2,071 to 1,479, as co-operatives moved “to take the places vacated by private capital”.

The Co-operative Union, Tsekavschiri, created an education department in 1920, to spread the ideas of co-operation. In his 1922 book on the co-operative movement in Georgia, J. Tsagareli wrote that “the people have been taught by their own experience and practice what co-operation is capable of achieving, and what it was able to accomplish under the most trying conditions.”

According to one 1919 report, the co-operative sector “hopes to become a powerful regulator, and in time the only regulator, of all market prices.”

Alongside this was a context of political tension and military conflict, not always handled well or to the credit of the new Georgian state. But the primary tension was with the Bolshevik leaders in Russia, including a young Joseph Stalin, himself from Georgia.

In February 1921, Russia invaded and by the following month, the young country had fallen, with the former government heading for exile on an Italian steamer leaving the port of Batumi.

It took time to settle the country, with a popular uprising in 1924 and continued resistance. The co-operatives were forcibly “Bolshevised”.

The Georgian leader, Noe Zhordania, died in exile in France on 11 January 1953. His compatriot and former ally, Joseph Stalin, died just a few weeks later on 5 March.

What might have happened if the roles had been reversed?

Lee suggests that the importance of the Georgian experiment of 1918-1921 was that it suggested another kind of revolution was indeed possible – “a patient building up of society in preparation for an eventual transition” rather than the Bolsheviks’ “hasty race to create a utopia [that] created a hell on earth for millions, not only in Russia, but in China, North Korea, Cambodia and elsewhere”.

The ideals of democratic socialism, of a fairer, more equal society in which people remain free, are still potent ideas. But commentators still ask if such a society is possible.

In the closing words of his work, published perhaps appropriately by the co-operative Zed Books, the author asks such people to “look at the Georgian experiment. That was democratic socialism”.

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