Christian Rakovsky

Revolution and Counter Revolution
in Turkey

(May 1909)

Written: 1909.
Source: From Le Socialisme, No. 76, 15 May 1909, p. 4–5.
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: Harry Ratner.
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Ted Crawford and David Walters, September 2006.
Proofread: Alvaro Miranda (April 2021).
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2006. 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.

The explosion of the Turkish counter-revolution, happily defeated (for the moment anyway) has not been a great surprise to those who closely followed events in the East. Already, on the morrow of the Turkish Revolution, we expressed in this paper our fears about a reactionary counter-offensive. Our apprehensions, alas! have been only too justified by what followed but we will take the liberty of reproducing the conclusion of our nine month old article which these last events have once more made topical.

That is why, we repeat, the working class must greet the Turkish revolution with enthusiasm.

But are we seeing a revolution or a military coup without major consequences? The immediate future will tell. However, it seems that from its start the Turkish Revolution shows a very dangerous tendency to go off the rails.

It is incontrovertible that the only way of pacifying Turkey, torn by so many passions, is the greatest possible liberty. It is that which, by satisfying the just claims of the different peoples of the empire, can unite them in a spirit of common solidarity. Unfortunately the power of the Young Turks is, from this point of view, totally inadequate. The 1876 constitution which they have demanded and got leaves a lot to be desired. It leaves the autocratic power of the Sultan almost intact.

On the other hand the Young Turks, doubtless struck by the state of decay in which they find the Empire, have only one thing in mind: to strengthen the central power as much as possible. Instead of an autocratic Sultan there would be a no less autocratic oligarchy. And yet there is no country which less lends itself to such a regime than Turkey with its diversity of languages, customs and economic and social conditions in its different provinces. And it is precisely this pitfall that the Young Turks do not wish to see. They do not wish to understand this historical truth that it is only in a federation of all the peoples of the Empire that they can find their salvation and that the old slogan of “autonomy or anatomy” – that is to say federation or partition – is today truer than ever.

In fact at present, after so many bloody struggles, the peoples of Turkey will submit even less than they did thirty-two years ago to the tyranny of a half absolutist central government which was promised in the Constitution of 1876. We do not ignore the difficulties which stand in the way of the progress of the Turkish Revolution but the Young Turks make things worse themselves by being eager to negotiate with Abdul-Hamid. This is a pact with the devil which, we believe, will be fatal to the movement. There is only one way that the Turkish revolution will succeed which is to unite all the common peoples of Turkey, without distinction of race or creed, around a truly revolutionary and democratic programme.

But is the Young Turk Party capable of accomplishing this union?

Indeed what is the social character of the Young Turk movement? The Turkish workers and the country people are still under the influence of the clergy. The Muslim bourgeoisie, among which the Young Turks have some sympathy, does not have much importance. A long historical evolution has transformed the Turkish bourgeoisie into a military and civil service caste while the Christian bourgeoisie deals with industry and commerce.

Thus the only milieu in which the Young Turks are popular is that of the army and bureaucracy. These two elements can guarantee to a revolution a success as swift as it is short-lived. But a clever manoeuvre of the Sultan, calling to power the greatest possible number of Young Turks, can disorganise and compromise the whole movement.

The Young Turks could find solid support in the Christian bourgeoisie and proletariat but will they have the foresight and moral courage to do so?

At the same time they could carry the Muslim masses with them by a promise of serious reforms. The future will show us if they are capable of this. On their attitude will depend whether the Turkish revolution will be a papering over of the cracks or a movement filled with political and social consequences for the whole of humanity.

The experience of the nine months which the Young Turks have had, shows that they were not sufficiently prepared for the great undertaking on which they had embarked.

It is fair to say that they were faced with an immensely difficult task and that the particular conditions which prevailed in Turkey made this even more complicated.

It is not the case as in other bourgeois revolutions of only struggling against an ancien regime which was already compromised in the eyes of the people but of struggling against the prejudices of the Turkish masses which derive from a particular type of family organisation founded on slavery of the woman and the military and theocratic organisation of the Ottoman Empire.

The Turkish military, bureaucratic and clerical oligarchy drawing its strength from the antagonism between Muslims and Christians, continually stirred the former against the latter, skilfully deepening and preserving the differences which separated them. The exclusive right of the Muslims to carry arms was, as well as the privileges which strengthened their feeling of being the dominant race, at the origin of the appalling massacres of Christians which only last week bloodied the towns of Asia Minor.

The constitutional regime, based on respect for human personality and therefore for women, as well as on tolerance, clashed with the prejudices of the dominant Muslim race.

It is true that for the core of the Muslim masses this superiority was shown by the freedom that they had from time to time to massacre and pillage the Christians with impunity, and that in their daily life they were no better off. But putting ourselves mentally in the position of the Turkish masses, we must ask what the new regime brought them to replace their apparent privileges under the old one?

What powerful interest could they have to support this regime and not let themselves be led by the fanatical preachings of softas and hodjahs?

This precisely underlines the importance of the application of a vast programme of serious reforms, both social and economic which in the eyes of the Muslim masses themselves would indicate the superiority of the new regime compared to the old one.

There are three sorts of reforms that the economic and social development of Turkey call for. We will only be able to mention them as the limitations of our article does not allow us to go into details. These reforms are: land reforms, administrative reforms and workers’ reforms without speaking of the purely political reforms.

What was the attitude of the Young Turks in face of these huge problems?

To say it was inadequate would be a euphemism: it was lamentable. For them it was if these problems did not exist or, if they did anything it made the old situation worse.

They did not touch land reform. The administrative reforms ended in a complete fiasco. The two European advisers, Laurent and Crawford, the first called on to reform the finances and the second the customs, after working several months declared themselves unable to achieve anything in view of the inertia of the Young Turk government and the rejection of their proposals. The Young Turks did not wish to send packing the thousands of parasites who lived at the expense of the Christian and Muslim population for fear increasing the number of the disaffected

To give the reader some idea of the extent of the bureaucratic parasitism in Turkey here are some figures collected by Mr Laurent.

In Turkey for 210,000 soldiers there are 46,000 officers. In the Navy in particular there are more than 1,000 officers for 6,000 sailors!

It is not surprising that in these conditions, the Turkish budget, without anticipating the smallest sum for a useful reform, shows enormous deficits. During the year 1909–10, in spite of all the savings made, it amounted to 3,540,000 Turkish pounds, that is to say about 80 million. Of the total expenditure of 28,815,000 Turkish pounds, 8 millions, that is to say a third, was swallowed by the Ministry of War. The Ministries of Public Education, Commerce, Agriculture etc accounted for derisory sums. And on top of all this the new government has come up with a project needing 25 million Turkish pounds, that is 375 million francs to restore the Turkish navy.

Thus the new Turkey appears in the eyes of the masses as an expensive government threatening the country with new taxes and new levies. This is not likely to inspire popularity. Particularly as far as the working class is concerned the government has shown the blackest ingratitude. Although it was uniquely thanks to the support of workers, those of the corporation of the porters [A] in particular that it was able to impose on Austria the payment of an indemnity of 60 million francs, it refused to compensate them even for that part of their lost wages. Even more, the first labour law of the new government was a law directed against the working class by taking away from a large category of workers the right to combine. This is the text of the law publicly announced by the Ministry of Commerce and Public Works in a circular during the month of October.

‘It is laid down in principle that the employees of official departments and those administering the Public Debt (and Excise which are part of them) cannot go on strike. By analogy employees and workers in public services such as: railways, ports, docks, tramways, water, gas and electric lighting, similar to employees of the Imperial government are also unable tp go on a strike which is prejudicial to the public interest.’

Thus the Young Turks wished to make Turkey a terrestrial paradise for cosmopolitan capitalism.

A second problem with which the Young Turks had to struggle but which they were also incapable of resolving was that of the nationalities.

Instead of seeking within the democratic Christian element support against the reactionary Turkish Party they systematically excluded them from government. They have not even had the moral courage to enrol Christians in the army even though it is a measure which they could introduce without special Parliamentary authorisation as this enrolment is already provided for in the 1876 Constitution.

The foreign policy of the Young Turks was no more successful than their internal one. It was permeated with ultra nationalist sentiment so playing into the hands of the Balkan country chauvinists, Bulgaria for example, who only sought a pretext to encourage the difficulties of the new Turkish regime.

I do not speak here of a whole series of vexatious measures directed against the press, public meetings and political groupings which provoked even among the Young Turks a split into two committees: “The Union and Progress” and the “The Liberal Union”, which has been so well exploited by the party of reaction.

The Young Turks today are but a minority which seeks to impose a new regime on Turkey by a dictatorship. But for such an enterprise physical courage is not enough, there must be a moral courage which only great popular movements give. In as much as the Young Turks will not be able to find a way of attaching to themselves the Muslim and Christian masses, their attempt will be condemned to a certain defeat.


Note from Translator

A. I am not sure what corporation des portefaix means. I think it could mean employees in the finance ministry. – H.R.

Last updated on 26 May 2021