Thursday, January 25, 2018

Review of 'The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921" by Eric Lee

I thought I knew most of what there was to know about the revolution and the Russian Civil War (especially after all the commemorative exhibitions this year), but much of what was covered in this book was new to me. Eric Lee has produced a compelling account of this little-known episode, setting it in the overall context of the divisions within the Socialist movement as a result of the first world war. He provides a lot of insight into the very different path that the Georgian Mensheviks took as a socialist party ruling over a country not at all ready for socialism. Much of it - especially the section on cooperatives - has a very contemporary feel, and I rather think that John McDonnell would benefit from reading some of the chapters.

It's hard to take seriously the suggestion that the kind of revolution brought by the Bolsheviks could be a model for socialists in a developed country, and apart from a few nutters I don't think anyone does any more. Even the brighter sorts within the mainstream Communist Parties (Gramsci comes to mind) had worked this out by the 1930s; that some of the very clever people in the Trotskyist groups don't acknowledge this is and think about how to move on is an interesting cultural and psychological phenomenon, but not very helpful in formulating an actual strategy to move beyond Capitalism. 

But while Eric Lee does explicate well the route chosen by the Georgian Mensheviks in a backward and isolated country,  I think he underplays the extent to which their side of the argument, and in particular the parties of the Second International, had been discredited by their support for their own governments' side in the war. The Mensheviks (the Martov Group excepted) wanted Russia to carry on fighting for the Allied cause, with all of the slaughter and personal tragedy that would have entailed. That alone made the Bolshevik victory more or less inevitable.

I can't agree, either, with the suggestion that because the Bolsheviks thought they could somehow skip a stage in the inevitable historical development from Feudalism through Capitalism to Socialism, that the 'patient' Menshevik approach made sense. The problem in Russia, and even more in Georgia, was that there was no capitalist class to speak of, and that the task of 'developing the productive forces' was going to have to be carried out under the direction of socialists. Quite how the Georgians were going to allow capitalism to develop naturally is beyond me.

But this is exactly the kind of interesting and intelligent debate that this book makes possible. A must for anyone interested in the history of socialism, or of the Caucasus. A book about the Dashnaks next, please?

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