A.S. Headingley 1913

The Balkan War.


Source: The British Socialist, Vol. 2., No. 5. May 15, 1913, pp. 193-202, published just after the conclusion of the peace in the 1st Balkan War;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


Though the need of a Socialist newspaper is always keenly felt, never, to my mind, has this been so evident as during the present crisis in the Near East. Of course, one difficulty is that, even if we did possess the 200,000 to half-a-million sterling required to start a paper that would compete with the “Times,” or the “Telegraph,” we should be boycotted. The trade would refuse to give us advertisements, and the whole of the capitalist press would refuse to quote or give a Socialist newspaper any credit for the good work it might do. Nevertheless, in dealing with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire we could have forced the note and compelled recognition. It would have cost us – I mean a real Socialist newspaper – perhaps 10,000; for men who know Turkish or Arabic thoroughly, who are able to write graphic descriptions in English and are willing to risk their lives, are not numerous; and if I were editor, I would not think of offering less than 100 a month and all expenses, which might well amount to several hundreds more. It is obvious that only on rare occasions can we expect to get as good service as the capitalist Press unless we pay as good a price. Papers built on blacklegging the journalistic profession will not exercise a very widespread influence. But if we only had possessed a real newspaper at the present moment, how we could have shaken up dry bones and revolutionised antique and reactionary opinions. While news would have been flowing in from the front, not so much about the movements of generals and statesmen, but about the feelings and opinions of the peoples themselves, there would have been students, historians at home all industriously occupied collecting materials and evidence to explain how it came about that the Ottoman Empire was created.

In ordinary history, we read of the Oghuz Turks driven out of Central Asia in the earlier part of the thirteenth century and establishing themselves in Armenia, where, after varying fortunes, they found a great leader in the person of Othman or Osman, He invaded Byzantine territory, and after him is named the Ottoman Empire which he founded. But what we want to know is the why and wherefore. How came this Empire to spread so far over Europe, subjugating Christian countries, and why did so many Christians gladly abjure their creed to embrace the faith of Islam? Already other Mohammedans had swept Christianity clean out of Egypt and all the northern coasts of Africa. In Spain, in Italy, in the south of France, and from the East right up to the walls of Vienna, in the centre of Europe, the victorious tide of Islam rose irresistibly. Why? Historians say but little about this. They talk of the generalship, of the warlike qualities of the Mohammedans. As if half Europe could be conquered by generalship and the discipline and training of troops. Neither Julius Caesar nor Napoleon could have invaded the greater part of Europe if they had not brought with them something the invaded countries desired. With Julius Caesar came all the advantages of a much higher civilisation, with Napoleon the aureole of the Revolution, the advent of democracy, the destruction of inherited privileges. When, however, it became evident that Napoleon was betraying the cause he had represented, Europe, instead of submitting, rose against him and he was defeated.

To-day, then, of all time, is the chosen moment for explaining why Islam triumphed in Europe, and why at present it is no longer able to hold its own. We are not going to bring about the Socialist millennium by standing in the gutter and crying out to busy men and women that they should pause and pity the sorrows of the poor working man. The workers who will forward the cause of Socialism are the historians and the scientists who can grip hold of every current event that does attract the attention of the great mass of the people and point out its economic and moral cause, its economic and ethical remedy. All great events lend themselves to such interpretations, and certainly this is the case with the Eastern question. Why did Christian countries offer so feeble a resistance to the conquering sword of Islam, why was Christianity so easily replaced by the newer religion? Because the tiller of the soil had a better opportunity of earning his living under the laws that were based on the Koran than under the laws established by the feudal lords in Christian countries. Because Islam was comparatively and in practice far more democratic than the Christian forms of government. Under Islam all who embrace the faith are really equals, and both in Egypt and India even slaves have become Sultans. The European serfs were more cruelly downtrodden than the poorest children of Islam.

Further, and what is too readily forgotten, Christians fled from Christian countries, sought refuge under the Crescent, so as to enjoy religious freedom. Thus the Nestorians were saved from total extinction by seeking asylum in Mohammedan countries. Even to this day, thousands and thousands of pilgrims and tourists go every year to the Holy Land where they unwittingly pay homage to the tolerance showed by the Mohammedans. When the Saracens conquered Jerusalem they respected the holy places of a religion in which they did not believe. When did a victorious Crusader show any respect for a Mohammedan mosque? When did a Christian sect refrain from persecuting another Christian sect if it was strong enough to satisfy its resentment? To-day, at Easter, at Jerusalem, it is the Turkish troops who, with fixed bayonets, prevent the rival Christian sects from tearing each other to pieces. Let those who cannot afford to travel so far and see for themselves get some photographs of the Easter festivities. Thus, from the first, Christians fled from fellow Christians to find freedom and safety among the children of Islam. Thus we get our first lesson. It should be fully elaborated with much historical evidence in support; then we would realise that the Moors, the Saracens and the Turks triumphed in Europe because they were more tolerant, because they granted more freedom, because their social institutions permitted greater social equality, and because their economic laws rendered it easier for the willing worker to earn his living.

If we Socialists are one day to rule the world we must study what were the causes that facilitated the great changes wrought in history, We cannot, of course, blindly imitate those who were successful in the past, but many of the elements that contributed to such success would still constitute a force in a modern movement. Now, above all, Islam represented the cause of Education. Christianity had obliterated the science, the philosophy, the literature, the arts of the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations, and had plunged Europe into what the Christians themselves described as the Dark Ages. The Saracens had the great works of the ancient Greeks, notably Aristotle, translated into Syriac and Arabic, they encouraged learning by every means possible. “Go,” says Mohammed, “and ask everywhere for instruction, even, if necessary, as far as China.” A verse in the “Hadice,” or “Words of the Prophet,” says, “He who seeks after instruction is more loved by God than he who fights in a holy war.” While the Christians forbade all the sciences and burnt the scientists at the stake, Mohammed proclaimed, with a voice of thunder, that: -

It is a sacrilege to prohibit science. To ask for science is to worship God, to teach is to do an act of charity. Science is the life of Islam and the pillar of our faith.”

And finally we have this sublime sentence;-

“He who instructs the ignorant is like the living among the dead.”

There, then, we have our moral: just as the Saracens and the Turks routed the Christians so shall the Socialists rout the Capitalists when the Socialists prove that they have attained a higher standard of living in the sciences, in the practical application of democratic principles and in the realisation of economic progress.

It may be objected, however, that I am writing as if the Turks had been victorious instead of defeated in the recent war. That shows I suffer from the usual frailty of preferring the agreeable to the disagreeable, and it is more pleasing to describe how obscurantism was humiliated than to relate why those to whom we owe so much are now well-nigh driven out of Europe. Here, again, we have an illustration of a need of a Socialist Press, instead of only a capitalist Press and a Press devoted to the religions of capitalism. This Press, nevertheless, must think we are very blind and very ignorant. It gives various reasons why the non-Moslem populations of the Balkans are now dissatisfied with Ottoman rule, but why were they not dissatisfied before? During centuries no complaints were heard. It is only within the last eighty, or at most a hundred years, that the various peoples under Ottoman rule began to agitate and to rebel. For centuries they seem to have been fairly satisfied, and the Socialist will at once note that the development of dissatisfaction coincides with the development of modern industrialism. It may also be observed that in England the anti-Turk feeling is strongest among the Party and section of the people who are most intimately associated with industrialism and commercialism. Thus, just as the Socialist was a pro-Boer, so is he likely to be a pro-Turk. And, just as the Boer and the Turk were not in the swim of modern cosmopolitan high finance, so are they both likely to go under – at least till the Revolution comes.

There are, of course, many factors affecting the alteration of the position; but steam power and modern machinery may be considered as the most potential, As such facilities of international communication as railway lines and steamships increased, the Ottoman Empire was placed at a disadvantage in its relations with the rest of the world. So long as the Empire’s business could be carried on by the small handicraftsmen and by small tradesmen, the Ottoman Empire held its own. With its guilds to maintain a living wage for all the workers there was no widespread dissatisfaction. But railways brought in cheap machine-made articles that sapped the trade and labour of the handicraftsman. They and the steamships also rendered an invasion much easier; and we know that, from the time of Catherine the Great, it has been the traditional policy of Russia to endeavour to seize Constantinople. On the other hand, Austria, defeated by Prussia, has been forced to relinquish its former position as a Germanic Power, and therefore directs its ambition in the opposite direction – namely, towards what used to be the Ottoman Empire. Salonica, in the hands of Austria, would probably replace Brindisi as the nearest port to the Suez Canal for the overland route to India. Already Austria has annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, and has frequently threatened the military occupation of the Sanjak of Novi Bazar. Neither Austria nor Russia, therefore, had any desire to see the Ottoman Empire consolidate itself. The more disorder the greater the opportunities for interference and for annexations. Thus it is that agents were sent to foment discord between the rival races and creeds.

Disturbances were all the more easy to produce as the economic situation was becoming more and more unfavourable to the inhabitants. The Mohammedan religion forbids usury, therefore most of the banking is done by Armenians, Greeks and Jews. This did not matter so much in the handicraft days; but now that most enterprises need large capital the Turk is placed at the terrible disadvantage of having to seek the aid of those who do not belong to his race, or creed, when it is necessary to obtain a loan. It is the Armenians and other non-Moslems who have been chiefly instrumental in creating the Ottoman Debt. Now the Turk demands that the Armenian should respect his life as a citizen and not break down his guild and his living wage. When a business is sold it is the Armenian who outbids the Turk; then he undercuts the other Turks who are in the same business. The usurious Armenian contrives to inveigle the Turk into borrowing money, and makes him sign papers the meaning of which he barely understands. Patiently he waits till the Turk is away, serving his time in the army. The usurious Armenian then swoops down on the estate and takes more than his due when there are only relatives present to defend the rights of the absentee. Also it is quite probable the soldier will die while in the army, and never return to put matter to rights. Thus the impoverished widow and orphan children grow up to hate the Armenian. Usury, so widely practised by Christians, is an abominable crime in the eyes of the simple-minded, unenlightened Mohammedan It is the cause of many murders, particularly if the usurer is an Armenian and the borrower is a Kurd. Yet in England we have been led to believe that the massacre of Armenians was due to religious fanaticism.

A Turk explains the situation in his way:-

“I and my son are bakers and barbers. You and your sons are lapidaries and gardeners. But if you bid one of your sons to be a barber, a second to be a baker, a third a lapidary and a fourth a gardener, all is confusion, and how can good come of it?

“Furthermore, he is no barber nor baker who does not belong to the Guild of Barbers and the Guild of Bakers. If your son go not to the Peshkadin and rank himself among the apprentices; next to the Tchavosh, to bid him inscribe his name on the rolls; then to the Kihaya, to pay him toll, how would he be a member of the Guild? Ask the Sheik if I have not spoken well.”

Thus the occasional massacre of Christians by Turks is no more due to religious fanaticism than the Luddites’ riots in England, or the Trade Union outrages Broadhead organised many years ago against the blacklegs in Sheffield. But it suited the politicians, who were in search of a pretext for attacking the Turk and robbing him of his possessions, to ascribe this regrettable violence to his religion. There again we need a Socialist Press to expose the economic basis of current events. The British Nonconformists have been especially eloquent in the misrepresentation of what has happened in Turkey. Pozo de Borgo, former Russian Ambassador, was far more frank, for he openly confessed that as the Russians were nearly beaten by the unreformed Turks, they were not going to allow them to reform. Ali Pasha and Fuad Pasha nobly strove to make the paper reforms, drawn up after the Crimean War, real and effective reforms. We know that it was the intrigues and pressure of Russia that caused the exile of Midhat Pasha and thwarted his constitutional schemes. Disorder has been systematically maintained in Turkey, and good administration rendered impossible, by foreign, especially Russian, provocating agents. Is it conceivable that Russia would allow orderly constitutional government to be established on its frontiers, either in Turkey or in Persia, while keeping the Russians themselves under the tyrannical and cruel rule of the Czar?

All this underhand, murderous, and criminal intriguing has now come to a head. The Turkish Empire has been dismembered and exists no longer as an important European Power. The natural consequence is that the thieves are quarrelling over the spoils. Already there has been a good deal of unofficial fighting between the Bulgarians, the Servians, and the Greeks as to their respective shares of the newly-acquired territories. But they are mere pawns in the game. The real contest that imperils the peace of Europe is between Austria and Russia. Bulgarians, Servians, and Montenegrins being, broadly speaking, of the same Slav race and the same religion, have throughout been backed by Russia, and are, in practice, mere outposts of the Russian Empire. Through them Russia hopes ultimately to become a Mediterranean Power.

On her side, Austria seeks to check this Russian expansion and prepare the way for her own growth. Therefore she has conceived the idea of creating a new Principality by giving the Albanian race a national existence of their own. For the moment, therefore, the struggle is between Russia, which endeavours to make this new Principality as small and as weak as possible, and Austria, which, on the contrary, would have Albania stand forth as a powerful buffer State. Where our interest as Socialists comes in should now be clearly defined; and here, once more, we need a wealthy Socialist Press, able to employ learned specialists, with local experience, to elucidate the problem. Is Russia to advance and advance till, as Napoleon said, Europe becomes Cossack and the Holy Orthodox Church dominates the world from Constantinople? Or is Austria to expand till she reinstals the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church at St. Sophia’s, so that from Constantinople Europe may come under the heel of the Jesuit? This is a prospect that places us between the Devil and the deep sea. But these are the practical politics of to-day, and our future depends to a large extent on the solution of these problems. As the knowledge of these dangers extends, there will be a better appreciation of the service rendered to the cause of peace by the Ottoman Empire, and greater regret that by its disappearance the dogs of war have been let loose. It is true that, for the moment, the more acute causes of quarrel have been removed, but the situation is inherently dangerous, and is likely to remain so for a long time to come. The Socialist Party has, I sincerely believe, largely helped to preserve the peace so far. It is the knowledge that there is a revolutionary party at home keenly watching for its opportunity that has so alarmed the various Governments concerned as to make them fear to embark on foreign wars. But we cannot rely on this for all time, and therefore greatly need information and guidance as to the economic bearing of all these complications, and how the difficulties the capitalist Governments have brought about should be handled by Socialists. We have to prove our superior statesmanship before we can expect communities to entrust us with the reins of government.