Georgian Social Democracy by Leopold H. Haimson

PREFACE of Leopold HAIMSON (Columbia University) to « MY LIFE » by Noé JORDANIA – Edition translated from Georgian to Russian by Ina JORDANIA. (Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 1968)

Noah Zhordania (Jordania) embarked upon his political career in the mid‑1890’s and almost immediately became the most prominent and influential figure in Georgian Social Democracy. He was president of the independent Georgian republic from May 1918 until the republic’s conquest by Soviet troops in, 1921. With the publication of the present volume, the Menshevik Project, in cooperation with the Hoover Institution, makes available to the Russian reading public an edited and annotated version of Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) memoirs as translated into Russian by his widow, Ina Zhordania (Jordania)  . Although the manuscript was completed inFrance in 1939, it did not appear in print until after the author’s death, when it was published in the original Georgian under the title Chemo tsarslit, Mogonebani (Paris, 1953).

The inclusion in the Project’s Russian‑language series of these reminiscences, and of a companion volume by Gregory Uratadze, hardly requires justification in view of the importance of the role of the Georgian Social Democrats in the councils of the RSDRP, and especially in the development of Menshevism, from the beginning of the century through the two revolutions of 1917. Most prospective readers of this volume will already be well aware of the influence the Georgians wielded in the Social Democratic factions in all four Dumas and at the various conferences and congresses of the RSDRP. Many will also be familiar with the part played by such figures as Tsereteli and Chkheidze in steering the course followed by the moderate socialist parties in 1917 during the precarious experiments of the dvoevlastie and of the Coalition ministries.

The historical prominence of the Georgian Social Democrats in the councils of the RSDRP was partly a tribute to their individual political talents and oratorical skills. But it was also a reflection of a broader political and social phenomenon which still invites systematic scholarly investigation: of all regions of the Russian Empire, it was in Georgia that Menshevism sank the deep roots that nurtured the growth of a truly national party.

The emergence of a Menshevik government in Georgia in 1918 was no historical accident. Beginning in the spring of 1905, with the mass meetings in city and countryside at which Zhordania (Jordania) (and his followers debated with he Bolsheviks the differences that had arisen between the two factions at the Second Congress of the RSDRP, the Georgian variant of Menshevism gained a hold on the allegiance of vast strata of the Georgian working class, peasantry, and intelligentsia. This hold never really loosened until the Georgian Mensheviks officially assumed the reins of power in 1917. No true analogue can be found in the annals of the RSDRP for the success of the Georgian Social Democrats in mobilizing so broad and steady a national following. Not even the role of the Bund in the organization of Jewish workers in Poland and the Pale, nor the influence the Bolsheviks gained on the eve of the War over the workers of Petersburg province and the Central Industrial region, can be compared to the infrastructure of political and social organization and effective authority built by the Georgian Social Democrats and maintained by them through even the most difficult years of the Stolypin era.

It may be useful to mention here some of the clues Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) memoirs provide for an understanding of this extraordinary strength, and at the same time to comment more generally on the contribution these writings make to our knowledge of the history of Georgian Social Democracy. In weighing this contribution, two preliminary observations appear equally in order. One is that these reminiscences should be approached with the scholarly caution appropriate to the reading of all memoirs, particularly those recorded at an advanced age by an author whose political values crystallized fully only after the events he sought to recall. Conversely, it is equally important to emphasize that this volume provides some important corrections ‑ overcorrections, on occasion ‑ of the picture drawn of the development of Georgian Social Democracy in much of the literature, especially in Russian, published on the subject both before and after the Revolution of 1917.

One important correction appears at the beginning of Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) account. Most existing treatments of the early years of Georgian Social Democracy have laid their main emphasis on the spread of industrial unrest and the organization of Social Democratic circles among the Georgian working class, especially inTiflisand Batum, and on the catalytic role played in this process by Russian Social Democrats who influenced the Georgian workers. This thread in the early development of Georgian Social Democracy ‑ as reflected, for example, in the growth of revolutionary unrest during the late 1890′s among the workers at the Tiflis railroad yard and railroad shops can hardly be ignored. But neither can the quite distinctive line of development emphasized in Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) account – the crucial role played during the same period by Mesamedasi in the conversion to Marxism of significant elements of the younger generation of the Georgian intelligentsia. To be sure, a few of the Georgian intellectuals who were drawn into the ranks of Social Democracy during this period had been directly exposed to the influence of Russian and European socialist thought during their student years at various universities of the Empire (Moscow, Petersburg, Warsaw, and especially Derpt). But most of them, including many of the students at the Georgian theological seminaries which proved such fertile recruiting grounds for the Social Democrats, were drawn into camp by the propaganda activities of Mesamedas, and especially through its spread of the Marxist word in Georgian legal journals such as Moambeal and Kvali.

Considering the role members of the intelligentsia played in the development of Social Democracy in other regions of the Russian Empire, their prominence in the early, as indeed in the later, history of Georgian Social Democracy hardly appears a singular phenomenon. What is noteworthy, however, is the remarkable ability the Georgian Social Democratic intelligentsia demonstrated ‑ especially from 1905 onward ‑ to divest itself of the halter of ideological dogmas and keep in tune with the mood and aspirations of the masses of Georgian workers and peasants.This ideological adaptability seems all the more striking if we consider that many of the most prominent figures in Mesamedas, and in the councilsof Georgian Social Democracy throughout its history, were nominally of gentry origin. This quasi‑legal definition of their status tends, however, to obscure the fact that the generally impoverished gentry families that gave them birth ‑ and with which most of them remained in close contact throughout their lives ‑ were all but indistinguishable in their economic position, their mores, their economic, social, and political aspirations from the peasant population of their native villages.

Such intimate ties to the village were even more conspicuously characteristic of the Georgian workers who, from the late 1890′s onward, were drawn in increasing numbers to Social Democracy. Especially at the beginning of the century, these were still, in the main, first‑generation workers who had been recruited into industry from the countryside and periodically returned to it. The political significance of their presence on the scene may be assessed from the fact that the impetus for organization of the peasant movement that emerged in Georgia in 1903‑1905 originated largely with industrial workers who had been deported back to their native villages by the czarist authorities for participation in revolutionary disorders. Moreover, the close psychological and social bonds that united the Georgian intelligentsia, working class, and peasantry unquestionably assisted the growth of Georgian Social Democracy into a truly national party. It enabled its leaders to recognize that one great potential appeal for the Georgian peasantry of Marxism, as against other radical doctrines, lay in the Marxian justification of the legitimacy (if only for a limited historical period, to be sure) of the principle of private ownership of the land. Above all, as Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) memoirs suggest, their closeness to the “grass roots” impelled Georgian Social Democratic leaders to perceive that another powerful point favoring acceptance of their program would be its stress on internationalism. For they knew that to a people steeped in a historical tradition of isolation and insecurity ‑ oppressed by the Russian autocracy, yet looking toRussiain for protection against hostile neighbors ‑ a vision of union with the Russian masses and a powerful European proletariat, in one common titanic struggle for freedom and social justice, would be alluring indeed.

It was at least in part because of their awareness of the strength of these sentiments among their constituents that the leaders of Georgian Social Democracy resisted so vigorously the nationalist appeals which proved so irresistible, after the turn of the century, to radical parties of other minorities of the Empire, and to certain groups in the Georgian intelligentsia as well. Until 1918, the “national” program of the Georgian Social Democrats went no farther than to advocate cultural autonomy for the Georgian people and the establishment of a degree of local self‑goverment for the Transcaucasus as a whole. In the councils of the RSDRP, the Georgians remained to the last firm opponents of the organization of national parties, especially in the Caucasus. All this is not to suggest that the history of Georgian Social Democracy was quite as unmarred by social stresses and conflicts as some official Georgian accounts of it suggest. One of the most notable developments in the early years, which the official accounts record with understandable pride, was the emergence in Georgian cities as far back as the 1890′s of independent workers’ organizations, financed by the workers’ own membership dues and run by democratically elected worker leadership. But this pattern of organization, and the spirit of self‑reliance and independence among the Georgian workers it reflected, did not become accepted in Georgian Social Democracy without travail.

Most important, after the turn of the century the spread of Iskra’s influence, and its efforts to establish a centralized, all‑nation underground organization to direct the fight against absolutism, gave rise to a series of disputes over the emphases to be laid in the “political” as against the “economic” struggle. In Georgia, as in other regions of the Empire, the disputes came into focus largely through a conflict over party organization: were the leaders of the lower party organization to be democratically elected, or were they to be “coopted” by higher party organs to insure both the concentration on the political struggle and the degree of secrecy and centralization in its direction that were considered necessary by the advocates of Iskra’s line? Due to the democratic traditions that had become established in some of the Georgian working‑class organizations, notably in Tiflis, the conflict over Iskra’s program turned inevitably into a struggle between intelligentsia and workers. Even so, the lines were not as clearly drawn in Georgia as in some other regions of the Empire: some of the Georgian workers, especially in the oil fields, rallied to the militant tactics, if not the organizational prin­ciples, favored by the Iskra camp, while many of the Social Democratic intelligentsia who had been associated with the propaganda activities of Mesamedas recoiled, more or less vocally, from these same tactics. The conflict, marked by some early victories for advocates of “cooptation,” was not finally resolved until the sweeping victory that carried the Georgian Mensheviks into control of Georgian party organizations in 1905. It is notable that the Mensheviks won this victory largely by stressing ‑ with appropriate references to Lenin’s What Is To Be Done ‑ that the underlying issue in their conflict with the Bolsheviks was the latter’s insistence on upholding in the Party organization the indefinite tutelage of a “conscious” intelligentsia elite over the supposedly “unconscious” masses of the working class. The Menshevik argument may have incorporated oversimplifications, but, as the Bolsheviks soon discovered to their chagrin, it proved enormously effective.

In contrast to these early conflicts between intelligentsia and workers, the difficulties which the Georgian Social Democrats had to surmount in their dealings with the peasantry were rooted in some of the tenets originally absorbed from Marxist doctrine. For example, in Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) own writings of the late 1890′s, with their emphasis on the superiority of city over countryside and on the leading role of the bourgeoisie and proletariat in the modernization of contemporary Georgian life, we can find a reflection of the jaundiced view, characteristic of orthodox Marxism, of the political and social “backwardness” of the peasantry and of the “idiocy” of rural life ( For a particularly striking example of these early views, see Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) article “Economic Prosperity and Nationality,” published in the journal Moambe in 1894. The article is reprinted in the selection of Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) articles published in Georgian in 1911.)  Zhordania (Jordania) himself soon outgrew these early prejudices, and indeed he discerned the revolutionary potential of the peasant movement that had emerged in Georgia by 1905 immediately upon his return from Western Europe. Yet, despite their great personal prestige, he and Sylvester Dzhibladze ran into considerable resistance in winning other Georgian Menshevik leaders over to the view that the peasants should be treated as legitimate partners of the workers in the organization and political councils of Georgian Social Democracy ( For further details on this point, see the memoirs of Gregory Uratadze published in this series). What matters, however, is that, despite its roots in Marxist orthodoxy, this opposition was eventually overcome, and as a result the Georgian Mensheviks won, from 1905 onward, the active support of the Georgian peasantry.

I have already referred to the pragmatic spirit that marked, from this point, the Georgian Social Democrats’ handling of the agrarian question. Fully aware of the importance the Georgian peasants attached to the ownership of their land in full title, they generally omitted in their agrarian appeals any qualifications to the principle of peasant ownership, ignoring without a qualm the plank calling for “municipalization” of the land that had been adopted at the Stockholm Congress as official Menshevik doctrine. Such pragmatism distinguished the approach of the Georgian Mensheviks to the various tactical and organizational issues that so gravely beset, and divided, other groups in the RSDRP during the prewar years. One of the striking features of Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) memoirs, which may come as a surprise to many readers, is the severity of his indictment of the political judgment and stature of the Menshevik leadership in Russia and in the emigration. It is obviously difficult to assess to what extent the tone of these criticisms reflects attitudes that Zhordania (Jordania’s) had already come to entertain during the prewar period as against the antagonisms that emerged between Georgian and Russian Mensheviks only after the Revolution, as the result of the Georgian declaration of independence. What may be safely stated, however, is that even in the prewar years certain differences in political style, in approach to political problems, indeed in the very conception of the responsibilities of political leadership, had already developed between the Georgian and Russian Menshevik leaders. Surely these differences go far to explain the character, if not the sharpness of tone, of Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) criticisms.

Most of the Russian Menshevik leaders during these years – including many of those who became involved in the effort to organize an open labor movement ‑ were first and foremost ideologues, men whose approach to political problems was dictated largely by broad, abstracted, and relatively rigid conceptions of Russia’s development. The long periods of exile many of these men had to endure, and their ideological disputes with Bolshevik opponents after 1905, tended to accentuate these natural proclivities. By contrast, the Georgian Mensheviks, as the leaders of a national party in close contact with the mood of its constituents, developed during precisely these view political issues and choices largely in terms of their practical consequences, their eyes focusing on the advantages or circumstances of any particular course of action.

From the very outset, the Georgians manifested none of the reluctance that characterized the early response of the Russian Bolsheviks and even Mensheviks to the opportunity of participating in the new representative institutions. (Indeed, they were the only group in the RSDRP to endorse, in the summer of 1905, participation in the so‑called Bulygin Duma despite the severe restrictions within which this institution was to operate under terms of the Imperial Rescript that announced this abortive project.) Broad visions of the “perspectives” ofRussia’s revolutionary development, not to speak of analogies with the history of Western Europe, carried little weight with the Georgian Social Democrats in reaching decisions on issues of this kind. They considered it obvious that they should participate in representative or even pseudo representative institutions, not only because of the platform such institutions would provide for political agitation, but also because they saw it as their duty to promote, to represent wherever they could, the interests of their constituents, and by same token the interests of their party.

The examples I have offered of the practical spirit with which the Georgian Social Democrats approached political problems are not meant to suggest that they refrained from looking for guidance toward broad diag­noses of the political situation. They, too, sought periodically to peer into the future, but they did so with a psychological readiness to revise their judgments, and alter their course, when the winds they detected in the political atmosphere appeared to gather momentum or change direction.

Some examples from Zhordania’s ((Jordania’s) own political career may serve to illustrate this point. In 1908, at the height of the Stolypin “reaction” and the disintegration of the revolutionary movement, we find him calling on the Social Democrats to repudiate without qualification their earlier conception of “proletarian hegemony in the bourgeois revolution” now that the Russian bourgeoisie had clearly emerged as an independent political actor. This new political fact, Zhordania (Jordania) concluded, suggested not only that the Social Democrats should concentrate their efforts on the economic and political organization of the working class, but also that they should their political strategy and tactics to the proposition that the bourgeoisie would be the chief political actor in the making of its own revolution (3).

At this point, Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) tactical and organizational views seemed closely in accord with those of the Menshevik “Liquidators” in Russia. By 1914, however, with the apparently accelerating spread of revolutionary unrest among the masses of the Russian working class ‑ against the back­ground of a growing political crisis within and outside the Duma ‑ we see Zhordania (Jordania) joining with Trotsky in criticizing the Menshevik “Liquidators” for the excessive moderation of their tactics, and for their failure to appre­ciate the revolutionary potential of the workers’ movement (4).

Even more strikingly, in the spring of 1917, Zhordania (Jordania) and the Menshevik leaders in Georgia would be among the first in the councils of the Menshevik party to oppose the experiment at coalition with the representatives of “bourgeois” parties and to demand the establishment of an “odnoradnoe sotsialisticheskoe pravitel’stvo” ‑ a government in which the socialist parties would assume all the prerogatives and responsibilities of power. Only such a government, Zhordania (Jordania) would then insist, could carry out, in time, the decisive social and economic reforms ‑ particularly on the land question ‑ without which “Revolutionary Democracy” would inevitably lose the support of the masses of the working class and peasantry, and run into political catastrophe. These precepts, which Zhordania (Jordania) sought to apply in Georgia with the support of local Social Democratic organizations, brought him into conflict with the leaders of the Menshevik party in Russia, including his own compatriot, Irakli Tsereteli. It may be argued that the criticisms of Tsereteli offered in these memoirs, like Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) indictment of the Russian Mensheviks, reflect in part antagonisms that fully emerged only after the October Revolution. The undeniable element of truth in this observation should not be allowed to obscure the significance of the differences that had already arisen between the two men during the decisive months of the spring and summer of 1917.

While these sketchy introductory remarks are no substitute for the close examination of other available sources that any serious student of the history of Georgian Social Democracy will have to make in checking the impressions he may draw from this volume, I hope they may suggest to the more casual reader some of the points of special interest that Zhordania’s (Jordania’s) reminiscences present, as well as the care that should be observed in interpreting them.  (…)

3. See writings of that year entitled “Urgent Questions of the Day” in the collection of his articles published in 1911.

4. Cf. the articles published by Zhordania in Borba in 1914, under the pseudonym An.

(Note: In brackets, added by us, the usual European spelling of Jordania)


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