Christian Rakovsky

The Eastern Question and
the International Socialist Party

Part 1

(July 1897)

Written: July 1897.
Source: K. Rakowsky, La Question d’Orient et le Parti Socialiste Internationale, La Petite Republique, No 7670, 7671, 7672; 14, 15, 16 April 1897.
The following article, together with others involving Bernstein, Kautsky, Wilhelm Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg appears courtesy of the Editorial Board of Revolutionary History from The Balkan Socialist Tradition, Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 no. 3, 2003.
For a full discussion of these articles in their context see the relevant volume of Revolutionary History.
Translated: Andreja Zivkovic.
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Ted Crawford and David Walters, September 2006.
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2005. You can freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & proofreaders above.

I. The Historical Conditions For The Progress
Of The Socialist Idea In The East

The Eastern question can be examined from two points of view: 1st in relation to the immediate interests of the populations of the Balkans; 2nd from the point of view of the general interests of democratic Europe.

We will analyse one by one these two sides of the question and outline the conclusions which flow from them.

After the repeated massacres in Armenia we do not think a single person can be found anywhere who can cast doubt on the barbarity and cruelty of the Turkish government. Similarly, after the official reports of the European ambassadors and the consuls – and especially the English reports that have been made public, published in the Blue Books – we do not believe that it is possible to find a single journalist who would declare the mass slaughter in Armenia to be a myth, an invention of biased papers – of the Russia press yesterday, when it was a question of Bulgaria and Bosnia, of the English press today, where Armenia and Crete are concerned.


No one deceives themselves any longer about the political and social situation of Turkey, nor about its incapacity to adapt to the demands and necessities of modern civilisation.

For here we find ourselves before a state whose decomposition has reached a terminal stage. Everywhere anarchy and the most arbitrary state of affairs reign. The law, the administration, finances, everything is totally disorganised, without ever having been organised. Nowhere do the state officials practice theft and corruption on such a grand scale as in Turkey. The magistrates arrest the innocent simply in order to compel them to pay to be freed. Trials are not judged according to the law, which the Turkish judges do not know or ever consult, but according to the amount of money that the litigants can give; the person that pays the most is sure to have matters settled in his favour.

The police and the tribunals for a fee protect the biggest usurers, thieves and highwaymen, who fleece and exterminate the population. For this reason banditry is flourishing more in Turkey than during the most troubled eras in Spain and Sicily.

To show the extent of this brigandage, and the protection afforded it by the government, we will mention the following fact: the central government ordered, following several requests by the English ambassador, the arrest of Ahmed Aga, whose exploits, assassinations and robbery had long spread terror throughout the whole neighbourhood of Diarbekir. This order was never executed since Ahmed Aga assiduously cultivated the company of the vali (prefect) who was his greatest protector. There is more: the same Ahmed Aga was then named chief of the Kurdish knights, during the massacres, and was decorated by the Sultan.

Justice in Turkey is put up for auction; for a certain price, “bakschich”, as it is called, one can buy any Turkish official; the latter only very rarely receiving his salary seeks to make good this loss by other means. The officials of the post, telegraph and customs, before putting the receipts into the central deposit, put to one side the amount due to them as their salary. Such accounting is far from perfect, but the government is powerless since stealing is the rule as much on high as on the ground.

What can be said for the officials is also true of the soldiers. The only rosy prospect before them is the booty taken in the course of massacres.

The Kurds

Here is the place to say one or two words about the Kurds, who have acquired a wretched fame in the course of the massacres in Asia Minor.

These were very peaceful small tribes, living from agriculture. However the Turkish government came and tore them from their normal work transforming them into the sentries of Russo-Turkish frontier.

As far as any payment and compensation was concerned, the authorities left them free to pillage the neighbouring Armenian villages.

It is not difficult to guess what economic misery is hidden behind such a political regime. The usurers, the speculators, the great Christian or Muslim landowners, by way of protection money paid to the police and the magistrates, exploit and press down on the worker and peasant population, without distinction between Christian and Muslim. After the massacres, it is famine that has now come to devastate the population of Asia Minor. Constantinople is at present full of thousands and thousands of workers without employment. And are people aware of how much this profound destitution has contributed and will continue to contribute to massacres? The Turkish government in fact resorts to massacres to create a diversion for the Muslim population. The Russian government uses the Jews to create scapegoats for the poverty of the Russian peasants and petite bourgeoisie, and condemns them to the revenge and stupid fanaticism of the masses: the Turkish government is using the Armenians and Cretans today in the same way, as it used the Macedonians yesterday, the Bulgarians twenty years ago, by denouncing them to the Muslim population as the principal cause of their misfortunes.

The Economic Situation

And what makes this state of misery even more terrible is that the proletarianisation of the population does not correspond to any development of capitalism, in the widest sense of the word: the development of trade and industry. Capital wants to be protected and defended by laws and an administration that are more or less modern: but in the politico-social conditions of Turkey it can take no other form than that of usury and plunder. Industry is here only represented by several conquistadores, several knights of industry, come from the four corners of Europe for a slice of the action, to obtain the right to exploit some chrome or copper mine, or set up some railway engineering firm. By throwing money around they manage to secure for themselves the most outrageous privileges and to plunder the population, the more so since they profit from the impunity that the regime of Capitulations guarantees them – this freedom charter decreed not for Europeans but for speculators.

Let us imagine that, in place of Turkey, several new states have just been formed organised along modern bourgeois principles: the picture would be decidedly different. Of course, it is not up to socialists to sing the praise of the small bourgeois states of the East, but nor should we close our eyes to the great relative advantage that they represent in comparison with Turkey.

In the end, what policy should we socialists be pursuing in the East? Quite apart from the feeling of justice and humanity which impels us to defend the cause of the oppressed over there, are we to be so blind that we cannot see that we are at the same time defending the cause of socialism, by contributing to the emergence of the historical conditions of its development.

Socialism in the East

The political autonomy of the Balkan peoples has enabled their economic development and the birth of the socialist party. The fall of Turkish rule in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia has taken with it that wall of barbarism that stopped the socialist tide at the foot of the Carpathians, the Danube and the Balkans. Today the international socialist party can be proud. It has thousands and thousands of supporters in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Greece. In Bulgaria and Romania we have representatives in parliament, a well organised press, socialist circles, unions, in short, our party for a long time has been on that serious and productive path from which it can only emerge victorious. We can say the same for Serbia, except with a few small qualifications. Only Greece does not yet seem to be very hospitable terrain for socialism. The reason is chauvinism, which not only ravages some Western countries, but also still more certain Eastern countries and especially in Greece. It is the sad past of this country that is the fundamental cause and Greek unification is the best antidote.

Yes, it is in the interest of the socialist cause in the East to support the national tendencies of the peoples subjected to the Sultan.

Of course, we admit that the question is not very simple and if it is the subject of so many controversies this is because of the serious and complex character that it takes on as a result of the intervention of the involved states, and especially Russia. It is very true that the manoeuvres of the Russian empire must keep the international socialist party in a state of constant alertness. At present, “more than ever, the long arms of Russian diplomacy – as the first Manifesto of the International (1864) says – manage to rummage around in all the European cabinets” and thus to act powerfully on the internal affairs of all the countries. Every Russian success will have deplorable repercussions in the internal relations of the majority of European states. Hence the Eastern question, which occupies almost the whole of Russian foreign policy, becomes for the international socialist party not only a foreign policy question, but even and especially a question of internal policy.

II–III Russian Influence In The East,
Its Causes And The Means of Combating It

The concern is often expressed that granting autonomy to the different Christian provinces will mean that Turkey will be weakened and will serve the designs of Russian diplomacy.

This policy, which tends, despite everything, to the conservation of the integrity of the Ottoman empire, is the policy that Europe has followed for more than a century. But, what has it achieved? Is the existence of Turkey more certain than it was a hundred years ago? Has the power of Russian diplomacy been destroyed forever? Neither one, nor the other has happened. This policy, by its absurdities, has come to display its complete impotence. Not only is it not an effective means of fighting Russia, it even, as we will show, does its work.

In fact, Russia has exploited the weakness of the Ottoman empire, but this weakness is not of her making. Turkish power used to be based the warrior customs of the tribes of Central Asia, when the patriarchal mode of existence was at its height; and the Sultans of that period were the foremost soldiers who were the most courageous in battle. The Turks came to Europe with their own civilisation, with their familial and property relations that were absolutely different to ours. But as soon as the Turks abandoned the sword for the plough, and the nomadic and warrior life for a sedentary and agricultural life, their power began to advance fatally towards its own decline.

Russia profited from this state of decomposition to increase her power and territory at the expense of Turkey. And what was western Europe to do? Instead of sustaining the life of that man whose sickness was organic and incurable – that of historical degeneration – who was incapable of adopting European civilisation, except for its vices and faults, it should have found him heirs that could replace him before he was stripped by Russia.

These legitimate heirs to the Turkish empire were just beginning to show themselves.

The rebirth of the national idea after the Napoleonic wars did not remain without influence also in the East. The Greek, Serb, Albanian, Romanian, Bulgarian peoples, one after another, awoke to demand their political and national independence. It only remained for the western countries to profit from this movement, to encourage it and thus prepare the advance posts of western civilisation in the East.

But it was Russia who profited from these movements. She channelled them in the direction of her interests. Soon she began, in effect, to play a role which sat very ill with her, but which she carried out so well, that of protector of the oppressed. Under this pretext, she declared war after war on Turkey and sent emissaries to preach freedom. She supported Romanian and Serbian independence. Through Greek traders in Odessa she sent material aid to the Greeks, while one of the Princes Orloff went to Greece to take charge of the insurrection. And when, after several uprisings in Bulgaria – otherwise brutally repressed and followed by such terrible reprisals that they roused the indignation of the whole of Europe – the Bulgarians found themselves in a state of complete despair, Russia sent its emissary Jonin – one of the future diplomatic agents of Bulgaria – who in Bucharest (Romania) reformed the Bulgarian Central Revolutionary Committee to prepare a new insurrection (1876).

Thus, by way of a most comprehensible contradiction, Russia, which defended ‘Legitimism’ in the West and restored kings who had been chased from their thrones, acted the rabble-rouser and played at revolution in the East. It is also true that, each time after she engaged in a war on behalf of the Christian “brothers” she managed to incorporate a new province into her immense territory. It is further true that the peoples liberated by her were bound sooner or later to fall under her yoke, and if this has not yet completely happened in all cases it is certainly not her fault! In the Balkans she employed a tactic that she had previously used to great success elsewhere. Thus, in Crimea she incited the Tartars to rise up against Turkish domination, at the same time promising them that if they united with her she would grant them a certain autonomy. Their autonomy has now departed to join the constitution promised to Poland!

In the same way, Russia exploited the nationalist sentiments of the Finns against the Swedes. The Finns have indeed obtained a certain autonomy of a mainly administrative character, but the Russian government more and more limits their rights. The last action of this type, which took place only a few weeks ago, was the suppression of the Finnish flag. “From this day henceforth, says the Imperial edict, nowhere in Finland is the use of any other flag apart from the Russian flag permitted.”

By the same means Russia managed to get her hands on the two million Armenians that now groan under the yoke of the Tsars. The Armenians were Turkish or Persian subjects. And they managed even under Persian domination to maintain some degree of independence. Thus, there were four Armenian vassal principalities of Persia located in the Caucusus mountains, known by the name of the principality of “Carabag” with a total population of 120–150,000 inhabitants. Their princes made war on Persia and submitted to the suzerainty of the Tsars to then disappear forever. Evidently, the lesson handed out by Catherine to the Armenians was not instructive enough, since we were to see the Armenians once more allying themselves with Russia in all its wars against Persia and Turkey. Otherwise, the efficacy of their assistance is recognised even by Russia historians like Glinca.

They went still further. Under the reign of Nicolas I, they joined with Paskewitch – the Russian commander – to wage war against Persia, providing 10,000 volunteers armed at the expense of the rich Echmiadzin monastery, the residence of the Catholicos, the head of the Armenian church in Paskewitch’s time being under the authority of Persia. The Catholicos, Neros V, known as the Great, probably because of his incredible naivety, placed himself at the head of these 10,000 men. But the Armenians had not come just out of the goodness of their hearts: they had been promised an autonomous principality under Russian protection. This principality was to bear the name of Ararat.

Emerging victorious from this war, Russia conquered the province of Erivan: Paskewitch himself received the marshal’s baton and title of Erivansky; as for the Armenians, they too won something – the closure of their schools, which had been tolerated by Turkey and Persia. “Some ten years ago, declares an Armenian proclamation published in 1884–5, the Russian despots promised us, with the guarantee of their signature, the independence of the country of Ararat; they promised us that they would restore the ancient constitution of Ami and Vagarachpad, their glory and their government; however they have reneged in vile fashion on their own words and, instead of these brilliant promises, they add to the ruins of Ani’s monuments the ruins of our schools.”

Let us add to all this, that if she had been given the chance, Russia would have acted in the same way towards the Balkan peoples. Unfortunately, the peoples are unable to divine the ulterior motives of the governments: they are simplistic in their reasoning and since Russia helped them and defended they against Turkish barbarism they extended all of their sympathy to the executioners of Poland who had become for them “protectors” and “liberators”.

Moreover, Russia was able to play with the fire of revolution in the East with all the more ease since the great mass of the Russian people were frozen in a state of servitude and ignorance. There were no repercussions to be feared.

Why did the West not take this formidable weapon from the hands of Russia and turn it against her, by defending the cause of freedom in the East? Was this as a result of simple lack of foresight and diplomatic error. Obviously not. In all this there are other causes which more naturally explain the inaction and conservative spirit of Europe in the East.

Already eight months ago in our report to the London Congress [of the International], we others, the Bulgarian socialists, spent some time emphasising the preponderant role played by bondholders in the East, that is, the bondholders of the Ottoman debt. In fact it is clear that none of the states that have freed themselves from Turkey (Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Romania) and of those who will liberate themselves tomorrow (Armenia, Crete, Macedonia) will accept the burdensome legacy of the Sultan’s debt. This is why for a certain class of very influential people the conservation of the Turkish empire appears as a supreme interest.

On the other hand, Turkey at present, with the regime of Capitulations that make a veritable Pasha of every swindler, constitutes the best imaginable colony for exploitation.

As for Russia, where industry is not developed, where there is no money capital that can be lent, she has does not have any financial or industrial interest in Turkey. Her hands were not tied and she set her sights solely on her political goal.

Here are, all in all, the totality of causes which, on the one hand, have led to the passivity of Europe and, on the other hand, have given complete freedom of action to Russia and determined her success. While Europe did not wish to hear any talk of the autonomy of these peoples and said through Lord Chatham: “I have nothing to talk about with a man who does not see the interests of England (and Europe) in the conservation of the Ottoman empire”, Russia worked to establish this autonomy and to consolidate its own power.

Thus, the western bourgeoisie, through its commercial egoism, its divisions and internal struggles for the trade markets [of Turkey], has failed in its historic role in the East. Believing that it was combating Russia by supporting Turkey, it merely played her game by rendering her the indispensable protector of the Christians abandoned by the West, by making her a false instrument of progress. Full responsibility for Russian predominance in the East belongs to capitalist and bourgeois Europe.

It is up to the international socialist party to do what the bourgeoisie has not done. This role to be undertaken in the very interest of civilisation and of the socialist cause in the East is becoming at present all the easier now that Russia, as we see, through its new positioning on the question of Constantinople is running up against its own flanks and offering them up to our attack.

Last updated on 26 May 2021