Georgia: echoes of 21?
IN recent weeks, tensions between Russia and Georgia have escalated enormously – a fact largely ignored by the British left. Most of us would be hard-pressed to remember the most basic details about this tiny independent republic now under possible threat of Russian aggression.
Ironically, Georgia used to command an inordinate amount of attention from the British Left. This was due to the circumstances of its separation from the Russian empire in 1917 and the Red Army invasion of 1921 which brought that brief period of independence to an end.
Trotskyists in particular used to know a great deal about Georgia in part because probably the best known book justifying that invasion was written by Trotsky himself. Translated into English as Between Red and White, Trotsky's book was a rebuttal to Karl Kautsky's work which declared Georgia to be a democratic socialist workers and peasants republic. Kautsky's book reflected the widespread view in Social Democratic parties that the Soviet regime had crossed a red line in crushing the Georgian Menshevik experiment.
Georgia and Russia have had a long and unpleasant history together, and by the late 19th century, a strong nationalist movement had emerged in Georgia seeking independence from the tsarist empire. But an even stronger working class movement emerged which had little interest in separatism. That movement's main political force was the Social Democratic Party which not only dominated Georgian politics, but whose leaders also played a key role in Russian politics as well.
A not insignificant number of those “Russian” leaders of the 1917 revolution which overthrew tsarist rule were in fact Georgians, who went on to play leading roles both in the provisional government and in the soviets.
Following the Bolshevik seizure of power, the Georgian Social Democrats (together with their nationalist allies in Armenia and Azerbaijan) broke the entire trans-Caucasian region off from Russia, bringing it under the protection of first the Germans and later the British.
The Mensheviks quickly established what they saw as a democratic socialist alternative to the Bolshevik model. They carried out land reform, nationalized key industries, reinvigorated education and culture, and did it all within a democratic framework, a multi-party system. Even the Bolsheviks were allowed to compete in elections – and this in spite of their occasional forays into putschism.
The Mensheviks in Georgia had no Cheka and no Gulag — two institutions set up by the Bolsheviks in the revolution's earliest days.
But all was not peaceful in the Menshevik republic, as Trotsky points out in his book, with one of the perennial problems being secessionist movements by national minorities within Georgia.
While Lenin and Trotsky were not particularly happy to have a Menshevik-controlled Georgia, occupied by foreign troops, on Russia's southern border, they eventually accepted the reality of Georgian independence. A peace treaty was signed between the Russian Soviet and Georgian republics. But Stalin, himself a Georgian, found the situation intolerable.
In Georgia itself, Stalin had often found himself as the only Bolshevik in the village. While this made his work in the country largely ineffective (he was repeatedly driven out of the party, partly due to allegations of his links to the Okhrana), it made him much more valuable to Lenin. He became Lenin's “expert” on national minorities, and was given this portfolio in the council of people's commissars.
The details of how the decision was taken in early 1921 to invade Georgia remain murky. The Soviet government and the Georgian Mensheviks had signed a peace treaty, ending years of turmoil. The Georgian Bolsheviks were operating legally again, their coup attempts forgiven. But following the withdrawal of British forces from Georgia and the fall of the other trans-Caucasian republics to Soviet rule in 1920, the Georgian republic grew increasingly vulnerable to an attack.
It is clear that Trotsky, then commanding the Red Army, did not order the attack. All indications point to a manipulative Stalin taking advantage of the situation, looking forward to entering his native land at the head of a conquering, albeit foreign, army.
Georgian resistance to the Red Army invasion was fierce, and continued long after Soviet rule was proclaimed in 1921. In 1924, for example, a bloody uprising organized by the underground Social Democrats nearly toppled Soviet rule in the country. Other bloodshed followed, and even as late as the 1970s and 1980s, Georgia remained one of the most volatile parts of the Soviet Union, with repeated episodes of terrorism and occasional mass protest
With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Georgia was among the first to declare independence. But the last fifteen years have been stormy ones, with a series of inadequate leaders coping poorly with a series of crises. Meanwhile, the Russians have continued to support secessionist movements along the country's northern border in a bid to destabilize Georgia and the region.
The news coming out of Georgia today cannot help but remind us of the long and bloody history of Russian-Georgian relations and especially of the invasion of 1921.
Back in the 1920s, condemnation of the Russian aggression against Georgia was widespread. The only defenders of that invasion were Communists, who followed the Soviet line that what had actually taken place in Georgia was a workers' revolution which had put out a call for help.
Communists took the view then that whatever the Soviets did had to be right, no matter how it looked. Looking back, one could argue that Trotsky's Between Red and White was not his finest work.
But today, with a reactionary, anti-democratic government in power in Moscow, certainly no one on the Left can feel any sympathy for a Russian move against Georgia.
The parallels between then and now, between 1921 and 2006, are everywhere. Putin is convinced that Georgia is being turned into a US military ally, a member of Nato, a potential staging area for attacks against Russia. Some of the Bolshevik leaders saw Menshevik Georgia in the same way, a base camp for Western imperialism.
Today, however, there is one critical difference: the democratic left should have no excuse now for backing the Russians in their centuries-old drive to expand the empire.
Our position today should be as it was for most socialists in 1921 – the Communists being the exception: support for an independent, democratic Georgia, and opposition to Russian aggression.
Misleading on the Labour Party
The editorial on the Labour Party in Solidarity 3/99 was factually incorrect, contradictory and misleading.
a. It is wrong to say “Most of the critics of Blair-Brown have voted with their feet, leaving only a Blairite rump”. This is presumably a comment on either activists or members of the Labour Party. On either count it is not true. There has never been a majority of Blairites amongst activists or members of Labour right from when Blair got elected as leader until his recent unpopularity in the party. All the polls of members show that they support policies well to the left of the Blair government. The most recent poll at the end of 2005 which was a sociological analysis of the nature of the party’s membership also showed that its class character (overwhelmingly working class) had not changed despite nearly 10 years of Blair. The majority of local parties are not in the hands of Blairites, though they have been more efficient (aided by the Party machine) at using their influence in those parties where they have control. Many left wing activists have left, but the residue is not “a Blairite rump”.
b. It is wrong to say “In the existing system, the party leader is raised, by the one-person-one-vote system, and by Prime Ministerial power, far above the party.” The implication is that structural changes, Prime Minsterial power and one person one vote, mean that Blair has ascendancy. But Blair’s hold over the party is because of politics, the organisational weakness of the hard left and the ideological compliance of the centre left in the party, most crucially in the trade unions. Blair has done things that others have not — enlarged his own office and claimed authority on important policy issues over the cabinet. But he has done this because he has political power.
Just as General Secretaries of trade unions can control appointments to their bureaucracy etc if they are politically dominant within their own structures, either by-passing rules or acting where the rules are silent, Blair has, with the acquiesence of the party, done what he has wanted.
OPOV, brought in by John Smith and facilitated by John Prescott, and with many unions voting for, is a system that has meant that union influence in parliamentary selections has been reduced. However in other areas where OPOV is used — for example when members vote for their representatives on the party NEC —we have seen that the Grassroots Alliance slate has consistently equalled or beaten the Blairite slate. At present it is four to two to the Grassroots Alliance.
c. It is wrong to say “the hand picked delegates in Manchester”. All delegates to Labour Party conference are elected, either by their union or at their CLP meeting.
The main contradiction in this editorial is in the (absurd) statement “the hard fact is that the Labour Party as a political party now has little function” followed by other statements such as “the unions retain great potential power in the Labour Party” and the final sentence “the working class cannot afford to be without its own party. Neither can the trade unions!”
What on earth is meant by “little function”? How you argue that there needs to be a party of the working class and at the same time make defeatist comments about the assertion of class interests in the political system?
On the first point. Is the writer of the editorial seriously suggesting that Blair could have been elected if he were not the leader of a political party that functioned? I think they must have been watching too much TV and believes in Mrs Pritchard. Of course Blair needed the Labour Party — that is the tragedy of New Labour for the working class. He needed to use up the currency of a century of labour movement tradition, to play on the disillusion brought on by the defeats of the 80s and 90s and the consequent lack of assertion by the trade unions of their policies and demands to be prime minister and control his party.
On the second point, the writer of the editorial is on dangerous ground. How can we argue for the political representation of the working class and not at the same time argue strongly, organise effectively and give increasing priority to working class representatives within the Labour Party who are fighting Blair. If the trade unions or other representatives of the class, community leaders, issue campaigners etc cannot organise to fight back within a party that is nominally “theirs”, how are they going to create a workers party!
This kind of defeatism condemns us to give up on the idea of a workers party, except as a fantasy one. The creation of a new workers party with any significance in the UK cannot be done without a break by the trade unions from the existing Labour Party. The “reclaiming” of the Labour Party cannot be done without the unions asserting themselves within the party. Either step forward for working class political representation requires the unions to fight within the currently existing party.
Ask the wrong question and you get the wrong answer. Asking “Can the Labour Party be reclaimed?” — the title of the editorial — is the wrong question. The Labour Party has never been “ours” to reclaim. We relate to it because of its importance for working class people. To pose the question about “reclaiming” the party at the centre of your analysis will not get you very far.
The idea of “reclaiming” the Labour Party (or rather the idea that you can’t) is the refuge of the fake left leaders of the labour movement, Serwotka, Crow and other syndicalists. They answer no to this question and (apparently) seek a better political party. You fail to relate to the actually existing situation and do any politics at all. This may be convenient if you are a trade union leader, you’ve got enough to do running the show and doing deals, much better to pose as a popular leftie and not have to confront difficult and different political views within your union and the wider movement, however I do not see this as justifiable as an approach for socialists.
There is no alternative to relating to the Labour Party if socialists wish to build up working class political representation. All the other projects have failed over the past 13 years. This has surely been, with Blairism being an extreme right wing version of labour, the most fertile ground for a possible break. We should take account of this reality and adopt the appropriate strategy. Putting a toe in the water in Constituency Labour Party politics would I suggest yield equal or better effects for the same political effort than for instance, current socialist independent electoral efforts. It makes more sense as an overall strategy for socialists. And it is in this context that we should see the McDonnell campaign.
Solidarity has always, rightly, called for the maintainence of the trade union link with the Labour Party so it is consistent to campaign at local level to take trade union policies into the Labour Party. This is what socialists can do by getting behind the McDonnell campaign. But we also need to campaign to put pressure within trade unions to support McDonnell. The trade union leaders should recommend to their members the candidate who will advance their unions’ policies.
Maria Exall, Southwark