Rosa Luxemburg

Social Democracy and the National Struggles in Turkey

(October 1896)

First Published: October 8, 9, 10, 1896 in the Sächsische Arbeiter-Zeitung, the German Social Democratic paper in Dresden.
Source: The Balkan Socialist Tradition in Revolutionary History, Vol.8 no.3, 2003.
Translated: (from the German) by Ian Birchall.
Transcription/Markup: Edward Crawford/Brian Baggins.
Proofed: by Matthew Grant.
Copyleft: Luxemburg Internet Archive ( 2004. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

I: The Turkish Situation

IN the party press, we all too often encounter the attempt to represent the events in Turkey as a pure product of the play of diplomatic intrigue, especially on the Russian side.[A] For a time, you could even come across voices in the press which argued that the Turkish outrages were mainly an invention, that the Bashi-Bazouks were true Christian paragons, and that the revolts of the Armenians were the work of agents paid with Russian roubles.

What is above all striking about this position is that it is in no way fundamentally different from the bourgeois standpoint. In both cases, we have the reduction of great social phenomena to various ‘agents’, that is, to the deliberate actions of the diplomatic offices. On the part of bourgeois politicians, such points of view are, of course, not surprising: these people actually make history in this sphere, and hence the thinnest thread of a diplomatic intrigue has great practical importance for the position they take with regard to short-term interests. But for Social Democracy, which at the present time merely elucidates events in the international sphere, and which is above all concerned to trace back the phenomena of public life to deeper-lying material causes, the same policy appears to be completely futile. On the contrary, in foreign policy as in domestic politics, Social Democracy can adopt its own position, which in both spheres must be determined by the same standpoints, namely by the internal social conditions of the phenomenon in question, and by our general principles.

So how do these conditions stand with regard to the national struggles in Turkey which concern us here? Until recently in part of the press, Turkey was still being portrayed as a paradise where the ‘different nationalities have coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years’, ‘possessed the most complete autonomy’, and where only the interference of European diplomacy had artificially created dissatisfaction, by persuading the happy peoples of Turkey that they are oppressed, and at the same time obstructing the innocent lamb of a Sultan from carrying out his ‘repeatedly granted reforms’.(1)

These assertions are based on extensive ignorance of the conditions.

Until the beginning of the present century, Turkey was a country with a barter economy, in which every nationality, every province and every community lived its own separate existence, patiently bore the suffering to which it was accustomed, and formed the true basis for an oriental despotism. These conditions, however oppressive they might be, were nonetheless distinguished by great stability, and could therefore survive for a long time without provoking rebellion on the part of the subjugated peoples. Since the beginning of the present century, all this has changed considerably. Shaken by conflict with the strong, centralised states of Europe, but especially threatened by Russia, Turkey found itself compelled to introduce domestic reforms, and this necessity found its first representative in the person of Mahmud II [Ottoman Sultan (1808-1839)]. The reforms abolished the feudal government, and in its place introduced a centralised bureaucracy, a standing army and a new financial system. The modern reforms, as always, involved enormous costs, and translated into the language of the material interests of the population, they amounted to a colossal increase in public taxation. High indirect duties, collected on every head of cattle and every piece of straw, customs duties, stamp duties and taxes on spirits, a government tithe with a periodical additional charge every quarter, and then a direct income tax, which came to 30 per cent in the towns and 40 per cent in the countryside, and with it a tax in lieu of military service for Christians, and finally more compulsory services — henceforth this was how the people had to pay for the expenses of the reformed state. But it is only the peculiar system of government that exists in Turkey that gives a true idea of the burdens that are borne. In a strange mixture of modern and medieval principles, it consists of an immense number of administrative authorities, courts and assemblies, which are bound to the capital city in an extremely centralised manner in their conduct; but at the same time all public positions are de facto venal, and are not paid by the central government, but are mostly financed by revenue from the local population — a kind of bureaucratic benefice. Thus the pasha can fleece the province to his heart’s content, so long as he sends as large as possible a sum of money to Istanbul; thus the cadi (judge) is by virtue of his office financed by exactions, since he must himself pay an annual tribute to Constantinople for his office. The most important, however, is the system of taxation, which, lying in the hands of a mülterim, a tax farmer, in comparison to whom the intendant-general of the French ancien réime looks like the Good Samaritan, ends up with a total lack of system and rules, and unlimited arbitrariness. And finally, in the hands of the bureaucracy, the compulsory services were turned into a means of unbridled extortion and exploitation of the people.

Obviously a system of government constituted in this way is fundamentally different from the European model. While with us the central government fleeces the people and thereby maintains its officialdom, over there on the other hand the officialdom fleeces the people off its own bat, and thereby finances the central government. Consequently, in Turkey, officialdom appears as a special, numerous class of the population, which in its own person directly represents an economic factor, and whose existence is financed by the professional pillage of the people.

At the same time, and in connection with the reforms, there resulted a shift in the conditions of land ownership of the Christian peasants, again strongly to their disadvantage in relation to the Turkish landowner. The latter, generally a former feudal lord, was able to make his office hereditary, quite on the Christian model. When Spahiluk (feudal tenure) was abolished by the reform, and the tithes hitherto paid by them to the Spahis were redirected to the public exchequer, he sought to assert himself in the character of the owner of landed property; as a result a new tax for the peasants - ground rent - grew up alongside the old tithes, a tax which regularly amounted to a third of the net proceeds after deduction of the tithe. For the Christian peasant, there often remained no salvation amid all these wondrous things other than to transfer a small piece of land per oblationem (as a conditional gift) to the Muslim Church, and then to receive it back as a leasehold on which rent was due, but which was at least free of tithes. So by the end of the 1870s, mortmain property in Turkey amounted to more than half of all cultivable landed property.

Thus the reforms were accompanied by a terrible deterioration in the material conditions of the people. But what made them particularly unbearable was a quite modern feature which had become involved in the situation — namely, insecurity: the irregular tax system, the fluctuating relations of land ownership, but above all the money economy as a result of the transformation of tax in kind into tax in money and the development of foreign trade.

The old conditions had deteriorated, and their stability was gone forever.

II. The Disintegration

The moment in the history of Turkey dealt with in our previous article is, in a certain respect, reminiscent of Russia. But while there the reforms after the Crimean War[B] created at one and the same time the rapid development of capitalism and a material foundation for administrative and financial innovations and for the further development of militarism, in Turkey an economic transformation corresponding to the modern reforms was completely lacking. All attempts to create a native industry in Turkey miscarried. The few factories founded by the government produced goods that were of poor quality and expensive. The absence of the most elementary preconditions of bourgeois order — security of persons and property, at least formal equality before the law, a civil law separate from religious law, modern means of communication, etc. – make the appearance of capitalist forms of production an absolute impossibility. The trading policy of the European states towards Turkey operates in the same direction, exploiting its political impotence to ensure an unprotected market for its own industries. Until now, alongside trade, usury has been the only manifestation of domestic capital. Economically, therefore, Turkey remained with the most primitive peasant agriculture, in which in many cases the property relations had not even got rid of their semi-feudal character.

It is clear that a material base for the money economy constituted like this had not grown in parallel with the forms of government and financial taxes associated with it, that it was flattened by it, and, as it could not develop, it was moving into a process of disintegration.

The disintegration of Turkey became glaringly obvious in two extremes at the same time. On the one hand, a permanent deficit arose in the peasant economy. This acquired a tangible expression in the usurer, who had become an organic element of the village community, and indicated the internal festering of conditions like an abscess. Three per cent monthly interest rates were a permanent phenomenon in the Turkish villages, and the regular epilogue to the silent drama of the village was the proletarianisation of the peasant, without forms of production being available in the country which would have enabled him to be absorbed into a modern working class, with the result that he all too often sank down into the lumpen-proletariat. These phenomena are further linked to the decline of agriculture, devastating famines and foot-and-mouth disease.

On the other hand, there was the deficit in the state treasury. Since 1854, Turkey had taken the road of endless foreign loans. The usurers of London and Paris operated in the capital just as the Armenian and Greek usurers operated in the villages. Ruling became ever more difficult, and those ruled became ever more dissatisfied. Bankruptcy in the capital and bankruptcy in the villages; palace revolutions in Constantinople and popular risings in the provinces – these were the ultimate results of internal decline. It was impossible to find a way out of this situation. The remedy could only have been achieved through a total transformation of economic and social life, through a transition to capitalist forms of production. But there did not exist and do not exist either the basis for such a transformation or a social class which could come forward as its representative. The ‘repeatedly granted reforms’ of the Sultan could obviously not obviate the difficulties, since they were necessarily no more than further juridical innovations, which left social and economic life undisturbed, and often simply remained on paper, since they were opposed to the dominating interests of officialdom.

Turkey cannot regenerate itself as a whole. From the outset, it consisted of several different lands. The stability of the way of life, the self-contained nature of provinces and nationalities had disappeared. But no material interest, no common development had been created which could give them internal unity. On the contrary, the pressure and misery of jointly belonging to the Turkish state became ever greater. And so there was a natural tendency for the various nationalities to escape from the whole, and instinctively to seek the way to higher social development in autonomous existence. And thus the historic sentence was pronounced on Turkey: it was facing ruin.

Even if all the subjects of the Ottoman government came to experience the misery of a decaying state organism, and the various Muslim peoples – Druzes, Nazarenes, Kurds and Arabs – also rebelled against the Turkish yoke, the separatist tendency above all spread to the Christian lands. Here the conflict of material interests often coincided with national frontiers. The Christian is denied his right, his oath is valueless against a Muslim, he cannot bear arms, and as a rule he cannot hold any public office. But what is even more important, as a peasant he often occupies the land of a Muslim landowner, and is sucked dry by Muslim officials. At grassroots level, therefore, there is frequently a class struggle – a struggle of the small peasants and tenants with the class of landowners and officials, as for example in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the conditions are strongly reminiscent of Ireland. Thus the opposition produced by economic and legal pressure found here a ready-made ideology in the national and religious conflicts. The admixture of religious elements was bound to give them a particularly crude and savage character. And thus all the elements were present to create a struggle to the death of the Christian nations with Turkey, the struggle of Greeks, Bosnian-Herzegovinians, Serbs and Bulgarians. And now the sequence has reached the Armenians.

In the face of the social conditions which we have briefly sketched out here, the claims that the risings and national struggles in Turkey have been artificially produced by agents of the Russian government seem no more serious than the claims of the bourgeoisie that the whole modern labour movement is the work of a few social democratic agitators. Admittedly, the dissolution of Turkey is not advancing purely by its own momentum. Admittedly, the tender hands of Russian Cossacks rendered midwife’s services at the birth of Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, and the Russian rouble is the permanent stage-manager of the historic drama of the Black Sea. But here diplomacy is doing no more than throwing a burning stick into inflammable material, of which mountains have accumulated during centuries of injustice and exploitation.

What we have to deal with here is an historical process developing with the inevitability of a law of nature. The impossibility of the continuation of archaic economic forms in Turkey in the face of the fiscal system and the money economy, and the impossibility of the money economy developing into capitalism, that is the key to understanding events on the Balkan Peninsula. The basis of the existence of Turkish despotism is being undermined. But the basis for its development into a modern state is not being created. So it must perish, not as a form of government, but as a state; not through the class struggle, but through the struggle of nationalities. And what is being created here is not a regenerated Turkey, but a series of new states, carved out of the carcass of Turkey.

This is the situation. Now we have to discuss what position Social Democracy has to take in relation to the Turkish events.

III: The Point of View of Social Democracy

Now what can be the position of Social Democracy towards the events in Turkey? In principle, Social Democracy always stands on the side of aspirations for freedom. The Christian nations, in this case the Armenians, want to liberate themselves from the yoke of Turkish rule, and Social Democracy must declare itself unreservedly in support of their cause.

Of course, in foreign politics – just as in domestic questions – we should not see things too schematically. The national struggle is not always the appropriate form for the struggle for freedom. For example, the national question takes a different form in Poland, Alsace-Lorraine or Bohemia. In all these cases, we are faced with a directly opposing process of capitalist assimilation of the annexed lands to the dominant ones, which condemns the separatist efforts to impotence, and it is in the interests of the working-class movement to advocate the unity of forces, and not their fragmentation in national struggles. But in the question of the revolts in Turkey, the situation is different: the Christian lands are bound to Turkey only by force, they have no working-class movement, they are declining by virtue of a natural social development, or rather dissolution, and hence the aspirations to freedom can here make themselves felt only in a national struggle; therefore our partisanship cannot and must not admit of any doubt. It is not our job to draw up practical demands for the Armenians, or to determine the political form which should be aspired to here; for this, Armenia’s own aspirations would have to be taken into consideration, as well as its internal conditions and the international context. For us, the question in this situation is above all the general standpoint, and this requires us to stand for the insurgents and not against them.

But what is the situation with the practical interests of Social Democracy? Do we not fall into a contradiction with these by taking the aforementioned principled stance? We think we can prove the exact opposite in three points.

Firstly, the liberation of the Christian lands from Turkey means progress in international political life. The existence of an artificial position like that of today’s Turkey, where so many interests of the capitalist world converge, has a constricting and retarding effect on general political development. The Eastern Question, together with that of Alsace-Lorraine, forces the European powers to prefer to pursue a policy of stratagems and deception, to conceal their real interests under deceptive names, and to seek to achieve them by subterfuge. With the liberation of the Christian nations from Turkey, bourgeois politics will be stripped of one of its last idealistic tatters — ‘protection of the Christians’ — and will be reduced to its true content, naked interest in plunder. This is just as beneficial to our cause as the reduction of all sorts of ‘liberal’ and ‘enlightened’ programmes of the bourgeois parties to being purely and simply questions of money.

Secondly, it follows from the earlier articles that the separation of the Christian lands from Turkey is a progressive phenomenon, an act of social development, for this separation is the only way in which the Turkish lands can achieve higher forms of social life. As long as a land remains under Turkish rule, there can be no question of modern capitalist development. Separated from Turkey, it acquires a European form of state and bourgeois institutions, and is gradually drawn into the general stream of capitalist development. Thus Greece and Romania have made striking progress since their separation from Turkey. It is true that all the newly-emerging states are minor states, but nevertheless it would be wrong to perceive their establishment as a process of political fragmentation. For Turkey itself is not a great power in the modern sense of the term. But in countries with bourgeois development the ground is gradually also being prepared for the modern working-class movement – for Social Democracy – as, for example, is already the case in Romania, and to some extent also in Bulgaria.(2) Thereby our highest international interest is satisfied, namely that as far as possible the socialist movement should get a foothold in all countries.

Thirdly and lastly, the process of the dissolution of Turkey is closely linked to the question of Russian rule in Europe, and this is the heart of the matter. When even our press from time to time took the side of Turkey, this clearly did not happen out of innate cruelty, or some special preference for the partisans of polygamy. Obviously, the basis was an essential opposition to the appetites of Russian absolutism, which seeks the road to world dominion over the corpse of Turkey, and wants to use its Christian nations as a means for its advance on Constantinople. But in our opinion, the good will was applied in quite the wrong way, and the measures against Russia were sought in quite the opposite direction from where they really lie.

Previous experience has already shown that in its policy towards the Balkan Peninsula, Russia usually achieved the exact opposite to what it was striving for. The peoples freed from Turkish rule have regularly repaid Russia’s benevolence with ‘base ingratitude’, that is, they have bluntly rejected an exchange of the Russian yoke for the Turkish. However unexpected this was for the Russian diplomats, this conduct of the Balkan states was very far from surprising. Between them and Russia, there is a natural conflict of interests, the same conflict as exists between the lamb and the wolf, the hunter and his prey. Dependence on Turkey is the veil which conceals this conflict of interest, and even allows it to appear superficially and temporarily as a community of interest. The masses do not engage in complex and remote reflections. Since the national risings in Turkey are certainly mass movements, they accept the first and best method that corresponds to their immediate interests, even if this method is the vile diplomacy of Russia. But as soon as the chains between the Christian lands and Turkey have been broken, Russian diplomacy also shows its true face, as pure vileness, and the liberated land immediately turns instinctively against Russia. If the nations subjugated by Turkey are Russia’s allies, the nations liberated from Turkey become so many natural enemies of Russia. Bulgaria’s present policy towards Russia is to a great extent a result of its semi-freedom, a result of the chain which still links it to Turkey.

But even more important is another result produced in this process. The liberation of the Christian lands from Turkey is basically taken as being likewise a ‘liberation’ of Turkey from its Christian subjects. It is precisely these which serve as a motive for European diplomacy to operate in Turkey, and who consign it unconditionally to the Russian side. Moreover, it is they who in the event of war make Turkey unable to resist. The Christians do not serve in the Turkish armed forces, but are always ready to rise up against them. Therefore a foreign war for Turkey always means a second war at home, and therefore a dispersal of its military forces and a paralysis of its movements. Freed from this Christian torment, Turkey would undoubtedly adopt a freer position in international politics, and its state territory would be more commensurable with its defensive forces; but above all it would be rid of the enemy within, the natural ally of every external aggressor. In short, renunciation of rule over the Christians makes the Ottoman government more capable of resistance, above all in relation to Russia. This explains why Russia today is in favour of the integrity of Turkey. It is now in its interest for Turkey to remain in possession of the bacillus which will cause its disorganisation – the Christian nations – and for these therefore to remain under the yoke of Turkey and dependent on Russia, until a favourable moment arrives for it to carry out its plans with regard to Constantinople. This also explains why we must be in favour of the liberation of the Christians from Turkey, and not of the integrity of that country.

In our opinion, we should seek the remedy against the advance of Russian reaction in the aforementioned results of the process of Turkish disintegration, and not in observations about ‘whether Salisbury[C] is the man for the job’, or whether he is the man to show the door to the Russians ‘back in Turkey’. And this aspect of the question is exceptionally important. Russian reaction is much too dangerous and much too serious an enemy for us to allow ourselves the luxury of warding off its leaden weight with paper darts, while at the same time ignoring a serious weapon which circumstances offer us to combat it with. Today advocating the integrity of Turkey actually means playing into the hands of Russian diplomacy.

To imagine distant political conjectures in detail is a fantasy. But it is far from impossible that the resistance of liberated Turkey and the liberated Balkan lands could frustrate the Russian advance for so long that Russian absolutism would not live to see the final solution of the Constantinople question and would have to die, to the benefit of the peoples, without being able to participate in the settlement of this question of universal concern.

Thus our practical interests completely coincide with the principled standpoint, and hence we recommend that the following propositions be adopted for the present stance of Social Democracy on the Eastern Question.

We must accept the process of the disintegration of Turkey as a permanent fact, and not get it into our heads that it could or should be stopped.

We should give our fullest sympathy to the aspirations of the Christian nations for autonomy.

We should welcome these aspirations above all as a means of fighting against Tsarist Russia, and emphatically advocate their independence from Russia, as well as from Turkey.

It is no accident that in the questions dealt with here, practical considerations have led to the same conclusions as our general principles. For the aims and principles of Social Democracy derive from real social development, and are based on it; therefore in historical processes it must to a great extent appear that events are finally bringing grist to the social democratic mill, and that we can look after our immediate interests in the best way by maintaining a position of principle. A deeper look at events, therefore, always makes it superfluous for us to make some diplomats into the causes of great popular movements and to seek the means of combating these diplomats in other diplomats. That is just coffee-house politics.

(1) At present, on the other hand, it is being said that the Sultan is to blame for everything. Thus the ‘victim’ becomes the scapegoat. From the following arguments, readers will be convinced that this has nothing to do with the person, but with the conditions. [Editorial note in Sächsische Arbeiter-Zeitung]

(2) The Armenian socialists are therefore in our opinion on the wrong track when they – as in Die Neue Zeit, Volume 14, no.42 – think they have to justify their separatist aspirations with an ostensible capitalist development in Armenia. On the contrary, separation from Turkey is here only the precondition for the germination of capitalism. And of course capitalism itself is a precondition of the socialist movement. In our opinion, therefore, the Armenian comrades must – to paraphrase Lassalle – for the time being concern themselves with a precondition for the precondition of socialism – a kind of precondition squared. [Luxemburg’s note]

[A] In the 1890s, especially in Armenia, Crete and Macedonia, revolts constantly flared up against foreign rule by Turkey; these were brutally crushed.

[B] The defeat of Russia in the Crimean War (1853-56) had so exacerbated the domestic political situation that the ruling class between 1861 and 1870 had to introduce a series of political reforms, which certainly were incomplete and contaminated with feudal hangovers, but which nonetheless encouraged capitalist development in Russia. The most important reforms concerned the abolition of serfdom in 1861, the formation of rural and urban organs of self-government in 1864, changes in the administration of popular education in 1863 and changes in justice in 1864, as well as in the censorship in 1865.

[C] Robert Cecil, Third Marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903), was three times British Prime Minister and four times Foreign Secretary between 1878 and 1902.

Last updated on: 27.11.2008