Leon Trotsky

The Young Turks

(January 1909)

Written: 3 January, 1909
First Published: Kievskaya Mysl, No.3, 3 January 1909. Trotsky was then a foreign correspondent for this paper.
Source: Oeuvres
Translated: The following text has been translated by Ted Crawford in Feb. 2003 from the French, NOT the original Russian, and readers should be warned that errors can creep into such a process. The French has been taken from the MIA French website which is from the Oeuvres. Another translation, but by Brian Pearce from the Russian, is available in The War Correspondence of Leon Trotsky, The Balkan Wars 1912-13, by Monad Press, 1980.
HTML Markup: David Walters
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2003. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

The “Young Turks” have reached the zenith of their influence. They have a majority in Parliament in which one of them is the Speaker. The Sultan does not stop giving accolades to former mutineers whom the European diplomacy would like to choke with kisses...

Many years have gone by since the day when Ahmed Riza, an emigré living in Paris, editor of a clandestine paper, appealed for the defence the Turkish people against the tyranny unleashed by Constantinople at the first international conference at The Hague. The Turkish emigré was thrown out without hesitation. Not one diplomatic ear was ready to listen. The Dutch government threatened to expel the “foreigner troublemaker”. He tried in vain to address influential members of Parliament but they refused to see him. The Socialist Van Kol was the only one to give him any support, organizing a meeting under his chairmanship where Ahmed Riza called for support. Today, on the contrary the semi-official representatives of the European governments hasten to assure the new president of Turkey that he will gain legitimately from the goodwill of all the governments of Europe.

Bulow does not hesitate to declare to the Reichstag that he holds the Turkish officer heroes of the revolutionary coup d’etat in high regard (“We will remember what you said, Mr. Chancellor of the Reich”, Parvus was to write, commenting on this speech.)

Victory is strongest of arguments and success constitutes the most effective of the recommendations. But what is the secret of victory and what is the explanation of this astonishing success? On this subject, the Rech newspaper has written, criticising the left in Turkey, that the different classes of the country had jointly fought to preserve the existing economic hierarchy, the economically dominant classes thus preserving their hegemony over the masses in the revolution – from whose efforts victory had come.

And Novoye Vremya for its part, in a hypocritical moralising tone, addressed to the Cadet Party stressed that the “Young Turks”, contrary to the doctrinaire liberals of Russia, firmly upheld the flag of patriotic nationalism and did not separate themselves for an instant from the monarchist and religious beliefs of the people – and because of that they gained power.

In the political field as in private life, there is nothing easier than moralism, nothing is easier but more useless. A lot of people, nevertheless, find a certain attraction in this because they do not have to examine the reality of events.

What explains the resounding triumph of the “Young Turks” and their victory gained almost without either sacrifice or effort?

In its real significance, a revolution is a fight for control of the State. That rests directly on the Army. This is why all revolutions in history sharply raised the question: on whose side is the army? And one way or another, in every case, this question had to be answered. In the case of the revolution in Turkey – and that gives it its specific features – it is the army itself which put forward these liberating ideas. Consequently, a new social class did not have to overcome the armed resistance of the Ancien Régime but, on the contrary it could be satisfied with the role of supporting chorus for the revolutionary officers who led their men against the government of the Sultan.

In its historical origins and its traditions, Turkey is a military state. Currently, it is the first among the European Nations as regards the relative size of its army. A large army requires a considerable number officers some of whom had risen from the ranks because of long service. But the Yildiz (the Palace of the Sultan), in spite of its barbaric resistance to the needs of historical development, was forced to Europeanise its army to a certain extent and to open it to educated people. The latter did not wait to benefit from this. The unimportance of Turkish industry and low level of urban culture left the Turkish intelligentsia with hardly any other choice than a military or civil service career. So the State organized at its centre the militant vanguard of the bourgeois nation in process of formation: the critical and dissatisfied intelligentsia. The last few years has seen an uninterrupted series of disorders in the Turkish army due to non-payment of salaries or delays in promotions. The troops seized a telegraphic station and started direct negotiations with the Palace. The Sultan’s camarilla had no other choice but to yield and, in this way, regiment after regiment, the army was taught in the school of rebellion.

After the success of the revolt, numerous European politicians and journalists spoke of a mysterious ambience of brilliant organisation created by the “Young Turks” who they said had extended their tentacles everywhere. This naive idea did nothing but reflect the obsessive superstitions which are caused by success.

In fact, the revolutionary links between the officers, especially in the garrisons of Constantinople and Adrianople were manifestly inadequate. As Niazy Bey and Enver Bey themselves admitted, the revolt broke out when the “Young Turks” were “largely unprepared” for it. What helped them, was the automatic organization of an army. The spontaneous dissatisfaction of the ragged and starving soldiers led them naturally to support the officers who opposed the government politically. Thus, the mechanical discipline of the army was transformed naturally into the internal discipline of the revolution. A collapse of the bureaucratic machine combined with the revolt of the army. In a little book written by the former Serb minister Vladan Georgievic, we find the information that at the beginning of the revolt, Kaimakams and Moutessarifs (administrators and assistant administrators of the districts of Turkey) of three Macedonian districts invited the inhabitants to send to the Sultan’s palace telegrams calling for a return to the Constitution of 1876. Under these conditions, Abdul Hamid would have nothing else to do but propose himself as honorary president of Shura I Umet committees (the Committees Union and Progress).

By the tasks which it must achieve (economic independence, the unity of nation and state, and political freedoms), the Turkish revolution corresponds to the self determination of the bourgeois nation and in this sense points to its links with the traditions of the 1789 and 1848 revolutions. But the army, led by its officers, functioned like the executive body of the nation, and that gave events from the start the planned character of military manoeuvres. It would nevertheless be pure stupidity (and many people were guilty of this error) to see in the events in Turkey of last July a simple pronunciamiento and to treat them as similar to some other militaro-dynastic coup d’etat in Serbia. The power of the Turkish officers and the secret of their success does not lie in a brilliantly organized plan or conspiratorial talents of diabolical skill, but the active sympathy shown to them by the most advanced classes in society: merchants, craftsmen, workmen, sections of the administration and of the clergy and finally masses in the countryside exemplified by the peasantry.

But all these classes bring with them, not simply their “sympathy” but also their interests, their claims and their hopes. Their social aspirations, stifled for a long time, are now openly expressed while a Parliament provides them an arena to put them forward. Bitter disillusions await those who think that the Turkish revolution is already over. Among those who will be disappointed, will be not only Abdul Hamid but also it would seem the “Young Turk” Party.

In the first place and before anything else there is the national question. The mixed composition of the Turkish population as far as nationalities and religion are concerned will lead to the emergence of powerful centrifugal tendencies. The Ancien Régime hoped to overcome them by the mechanical weight of the army, recruited exclusively from Moslems. In fact, it is that which led to the disintegration of the State. During the reign of Abdul Hamid, Turkey lost Bulgaria, Eastern Roumelia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Egypt, Tunisia and the Dodbruja. Asia Minor became the impotent prey of an economic and political dictatorship by Germany. At the start of the revolution, Austria was about to build a railway line crossing the Sanjak (district) of Novibazar to provide a strategic route towards Macedonia.

In addition, Britain, in opposition to Austria, openly supported the idea of Macedonian autonomy ... There was no visible end to the dismemberment of Turkey. However, an economically unified demarcated territory is an essential condition for economic development. That applies not only to Turkey but to the entire Balkan Peninsula. It is not its national diversity but the fact that it is split up into many States which weighs on it like a curse. The customs borders artificially divide it into separate fragments. The machinations of the capitalist powers are linked with the bloody intrigues of the Balkan dynasties. If these conditions continue, the peninsula of Balkans will remain a Pandora’s box. Only a single state of all the Balkan nationalities, on a democratic and federal basis similar to the Swiss or United States model, can bring internal peace to the Balkans and ensure the conditions for a broad development of its productive forces.

The “Young Turks” for their part definitively rejected this approach. Representing the dominant nationality and having their own national army, they hold to and remain national centralisers. The right wing consistently opposes self-government, even at the provincial level. The struggle against powerful centrifugal tendencies makes the “Young Turks” favour a solid central authority and pushes them towards an agreement with the Sultan “quand même” (in French in the original Russian text). That means that as soon as this knot of national contradictions begins to break out in Parliament, the right wing of the “Young Turks” will openly move to the side of counter-revolution.

After the national question, comes the social question. First, there is the peasantry. It carries the heavy burden of militarism and is subjected to a kind of semi-serfdom. A fifth of the peasants are landless, the peasants have a large payment to demand of the new regime. And yet, only one organization in Macedonia and Adrianople (the Bulgarian group of Sandanski) and the Armenian revolutionary organizations (Dashnaks and Henchaks) presented a more or less radical agrarian program. With regard to the party leading the “Young Turks”, in which Beys and landowners dominate, its national-liberal blindness leads it to deny that there ever existed an agrarian question. Obviously, the “Young Turks” hope that handing-over to a new administration, using the forms and procedures of parliamentarism, will be enough to satisfy the peasants. They are so wrong. Dissatisfaction in the countryside with regard to the new order of things will moreover ineluctably find a greater reflection within the army which consists of peasants. The consciousness of the soldiers has grown considerably in the last few months. And if a party which is based on officers, after having given nothing to the peasants, tries to tighten discipline in the army, it could easily happen that the soldiers rise once again but this time against their officers as previously these same officers had opposed Abdul Hamid.

Alongside the agrarian question, there is the labour question. Turkish industry is, we said it, very weak. Not only has the sultan’s regime undermined the economic foundations of the country, but it deliberately created obstacle to the construction of factories, motivated by a healthy fear of the proletariat. Nevertheless, it proved to be impossible to completely preserve the regime against this danger. The first weeks of the Turkish revolution were marked by strikes in the public bakeries, printing works, textiles, transport, the tobacco factories, the workers in the ports and the railwaymen. The boycott of the Austrian goods should have mobilized and inspired the young proletariat of Turkey even more – especially the dockers – who played a decisive role in this campaign. But how did the new regime respond to the political birth of the working class? By a law imposing forced labour for a strike. The program of the “Young Turks” does not have a word concerning any precise measure to help the workers. And yet, to treat the Turkish proletariat as a “quantité négligeable” (in French in the original Russian text) means to run the risk of serious unexpected events. The importance of a class should never be evaluated simply by its numbers. The power of the contemporary proletariat, even when is number is small, rests on the fact that it holds in its hands the concentrated productive capacity of the country and the control of the most significant means of communication. The “Young Turk” party will run up against this elementary fact of capitalist political economy and hard reality.

Such are major social contradictions, even if they are hidden, in the context of which the Turkish Parliament has to function. Of these 240 deputies, the “Young Turks” have support from approximately 140. About 80 deputies, primarily Arabs and Greeks, form the block of the “decentralizers”. Prince Saba-ed-Din seeks influence and a political base by an alliance with them – it is difficult to say today if he is just a dilettante dreamer lacking any clear direction or an intriguer who has not yet shown his hand. On the extreme left, are the Armenian and Bulgarian revolutionists who include in their rows some social democrats.

Such is the external aspect of the representative assembly of Turkey. But the “Young Turks” and the “decentralisers” still present unclear policies whose contours will take shape in response to social problems. Still more significant however for the fate of Turkish parliamentarism, are the forces which operate outside Parliament, namely the foreigners, the peasants, the workers, the mass of the soldiers. Each one of these groups wants to obtain the broadest possible place for itself under the roof of the new Turkey. Each one has its own interests and follows its own course in the revolution. To estimate in advance the result of all these forces in the Turkish Parliament is a pure gamble, i.e. by calculations carried out in an office or a library is an enterprise which has meaning only for the doctrinaire utopians of liberalism. History never happens like this.

There will be a hard clash between the living forces of the country and they will be forced to get a “result” as a consequence of the struggle. This is why I maintain that the military revolt in Macedonia of last July, which led to the calling of Parliament, was only the prologue to the revolution: the drama is still before us.

What will it happen to Turkey in the immediate future? It would be futile to try to guess. One thing is clear, which is that victory for the revolution will mean the victory of democracy in Turkey, democratic Turkey would be the foundation of a Balkan federation and this Balkan federation would clean out once and for all the “hornets’ nest” of the Near East, with its capitalist and dynastic intrigues which stormily threaten, not only this unhappy peninsula but the whole of Europe.

The restoration of the Sultan and his despotism would mean the end of Turkey, leaving the Turkish State to the mercy of those who want to carve it up. The victory of Turkish democracy, on the contrary, would mean peace. Nothing has been decided! And while behind the warm smiles of the European diplomats at the Turkish Parliament the jaws of predatory capitalists are outlined, ready to benefit at the first opportunity from its internal difficulties to tear Turkey to pieces, European democracy supports with all its strength by its sympathy and its support the “New” Turkey – a Turkey which does not yet exist which is only about to be born.

return return return return return

Last updated on: 17.12.2006