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International Socialism, Spring 1962



The Turks


From International Socialism (1st series), No.8, Spring 1962, pp.30-31.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Emergence of Modern Turkey
Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press for RIIA. 48s.

This is by far the best book on the modern history of any Middle Eastern country published in recent years. We find in it a rare combination of original research with analytical summaries of the main trends from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to modern times, including full documentation and references, with a lucid and brilliant style.

This short review cannot go into details. Here are some of the author’s main conclusions.

The first reforms, in the late 18th and the 19th centuries, were the work of autocratic rulers, who sought only to train and equip better armies. They involved the abrogation or enfeeblement of the traditional checks on the sovereign power, which was further reinforced by modern instruments of control, thus resulting in the growth of despotism. Against this despotism there arose successive constitutional and popular movements (1876, 1908, and 1920), led by young officers and officials influenced by European liberal and revolutionary ideas. However, the factors that preceded and shaped the Turkish revolution were radically different from those of the European revolutions. In the Ottoman Empire there had been no Renaissance, no Reformation, no Enlightenment, no emergence of the communes, no new middle class. The impact of the West destroyed the old handicrafts, the old communal agrarian order and the traditional system of social, economic and political functions and responsibilities, leaving a void that was hard to fill. But in contrast with other Oriental countries Turkey remained independent, and the commercial and diplomatic pressures of Western power was an imperialism of interference without responsibility which would neither create nor permit stable government, and the Imperial reformers too destroyed better than they built.

As a result of the differences between Turkish and the European developments the Turkish Revolution, unlike the European ones, cannot be explained, according to the author, as a struggle between economically defined classes for control of the state, or as an upsurge of a popular movement seeking freedom from tyranny. In his view it was rather the outcome of the formation, rivalries, and struggles of several different administrative, religious, and military élite groups, defined not primarily by economic class, but by training, function, and method of recruitment. The Kemalist Republic was the culmination of a long process, whereby the Turkish governing élite transformed itself, the state, and finally the country. The élite itself was broadened and diversified and drew for its recruitment on ever wider circles of the population, thus helping to prepare its eventual supersession by a more democratic form of government resting on a new social and economic order.

This is certainly true, since in Turkey, as in many Oriental countries with a system of bureaucratic state capitalism, the transformation analogous to the bourgeois revolution in Europe took place before or without the emergence of a bourgeoisie. But nevertheless, the book leaves a number of serious gaps in the treatment of the socio-economic history of Turkey, especially with regard to agrarian relations and the urban social and economic structure.

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