The birth of socialism in the Ottoman Empire

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The first socialist party in the Ottoman Empire was the Revolutionary Hunchak Party, formed in 1890. This was on the basis of the circle around the publication Hunchak (‘The Bell’) launched three years previously by seven Armenians from the Caucasus studying in Geneva and strongly influenced by marxism:1 Avetis Nazarbekian, Mariam Vardanian, Gevorg Gharadjian, Ruben Khan-Azad, Christopher Ohanian, Gabriel Kafian and Manuel Manuelian 2. Moving from Geneva to Constantinople in 1889, Khan-Azad immediately started to set up the first Hunchak political organizations in the Empire.3 While it had its initial roots in Europe, the main focus of the Hunchak Party was in the Ottoman Empire, although it was more of an Armenian organization than an Ottoman one, which led it to conduct activities in the Caucasus, Iran and Europe. Caucasian issues in particular were to have a real effect on the evolution of the party.

The Hunchaks published their maximum and minimum programs in 1888. The maximum program stated:

The current social order is based on injustice, oppression and slavery. This organization based on economical slavery can only develop among the powerful ones who believe only in the reality of fists, who pillage the working class and who thus create inequality and injustice in human relationships. This inequality manifests itself in all the spheres of life, whether economical, political, social or physical. A small minority of humanity, using the sweat and blood of the power of labor have taken power and consolidated it, gaining social and political privileges.

Private property depends on the slavery of humanity in various forms. The basic principle and the primary characteristic of the minority ruling the world today is this.

Socialist organization alone, by creating and securing the direct power of the people, by giving everyone the possibility to directly participate in the organization of social affairs can find a solution to this sad and unjust situation. The socialist system truly defends the natural and irrefutable rights of human beings; is for every individual realizing all their strengths, all their talents and potentials to the fullest extent; organizes all sorts of social and economical relations peacefully, becomes a real expression of the will of the people.

Based on these basic beliefs, the Hunchak group is socialist.” 4

The minimum program showed that the Hunchaks saw the Ottoman Empire and specifically Turkish Armenia as the focus of their activities:

The Armenian people in Turkish Armenia today live as a society under all the fetters of political and economical slavery. It is being crushed under all sorts of direct or indirect taxes which rise two-fold or three-fold every time the economically bankrupt government has a new economical crisis. Its lands are constantly being attacked by the government and the product of its labor is being pillaged both by the state and by private individuals. People stuck in this situation are working and producing only to feed the government and the ever-hungry classes. (…)

For liberating the people from poverty, leading it to the correct course and realizing socialist organization which is the final goal, the formation of a democracy of the masses and the obtainment of political freedom and national independence are necessary short term goals.”5

This program especially shows the marks of the stage-ist understanding of the Second International;. the first goal of the group was the national liberation of Turkish Armenia, and in a manner leaving no place for doubt it was stated that socialism could only be possible following this. The Hunchak program in general did not go beyond the limits of social democracy at this time. Hunchaks were the first to publish the Communist Manifesto in Armenian, but despite being very critical of the idea of appealing to Western powers on behalf of Armenia, which was very popular among the Armenian nationalists of the time, and despite making efforts to win the support of the Muslim population and publishing in Turkish, Armenian nationalism was an influence on the group. The Hunchaks also defended the necessity of individual armed actions,6 which showed that the influence of the Russian Narodnik (Populist) tradition was strong on their leaders, as was that of Plekhanov who they knew personally. The name of group itself was an Armenian translation of Kolokol, the magazine of Alexander Herzen, who had strongly influenced the Narodnik tradition.7

In the summer of 1890, as a delegate of the Revolutionary Hunchak Party, Khan-Azad participated in a meeting of Armenian nationalists, some coming from the tradition of the Russian socialist-revolutionary party, others anti-socialists. This was held with the intention of forming a new organization, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation or Dashnaktsutyun. As a result of the almost superhuman efforts of Dashnak leaders coming from the socialist-revolutionary party like Christopher Mikaelian and Simon Zavarian, the meeting adoped a manifesto which defended socialism without mentioning it, and the Revolutionary Hunchak Party agreed to join the new organization..8 Unity was short-lived, however, lasting only six months. In the Caucasus, Hunchak militants were excluded from the local organization. More importantly it quickly became obvious that it was the anti-socialist faction and not socialists like Mikaelian and Zavarian who were in the driving seat. In May 1891 the Hunchak Party made a statement declaring it had nothing to do with the Dashnaks.9

Between its formation in 1890 and 1896 the Revolutionary Hunchak Party had a period of intense activity. However this was not of the kind a social democratic party with a marxist orientation would take – it was mostly on a national basis and was rather Narodnik in style. Until 1896 the Hunchaks organized mass demonstrations in places like Kum Kapu and Bab Ali in Constantinople, and engaged in armed resistance in towns in the East such as Sason, Zeitun and Van against state-organized anti-Armenian pogroms. But despite being active in the Association of Revolutionary Armenian Workers formed in 1892 in Tbilisi and organized in Caucasian towns such as Gyumri, Kars, Ganja and Baku, the Hunchaks did not fulfil the goals stated in their 1888 program regarding actively participating in and contributing to the struggles of the workers and the peasants.10 The conflict between national liberation movements and the struggles of the working class was far from being obvious in this period. The founders and leaders of the Hunchak Party were, although not very clear, convinced socialists; the party’s minimum program, however, caused a different practice to dominate the party, and this in turn shaped the party’s membership. This situation could not last.

The Revolutionary Hunchak Party had became socialist under the influence of Russian marxism, and the first Ottoman socialists had been Armenians. However Russian marxism was not to be the only influence on the development of socialism in the Ottoman Empire, nor were socialist ideas to develop only among the Armenians. The tradition of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, formed in 1891 and which took the name of Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in 1894, was to have a much more direct influence on the development of Ottoman socialism. In 1894, a young militant of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers’ Party sowed the seeds of the first socialist organization in Ottoman Macedonia. Vasil Glavinov was born there, in the city of Veles, in 1872 and had been introduced to the opinions of Dimitar Blagoev, the leading marxist in Bulgaria, in 1892, becoming a militant of Blagoev's party. In 1896, after working on a series of publications, Glavinov and his comrades formed the Union of Revolutionary Social Democrats of Macedonia which operated throughout the Ottoman Macedonian province.11

Glavinov's socialism was the socialism of Blagoev. And Blagoev had always been in the left wing of the Second International. So from its inception socialism in Ottoman Macedonia was organized directly by one of the significant tendencies of the left wing of the international socialist movement, and this was to form a strong base for the future left wing of the Ottoman socialist movement. As for Macedonia itself, the socialist movement formed on the basis of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers’ Party evolved in parallel with the phases of Bulgarian socialism. Glavinov and his comrades reflected the general opinions of the Bulgarian Party. However, the question of Macedonia and the position Macedonian socialists should adopt, was to play a very significant role in the Bulgarian Party, and influences changed over time. The 1890s were historically a very eventful period where differences within the socialist movement were far from being clear, and the weaknesses of the first Macedonian socialists reflected those of Bulgarian socialism. This was most clearly expressed in the initial weaknesses of Bulgarian socialism on the national question within the socialist movement in Macedonia. Just as there was the Armenian question for the Ottoman Empire in general, there was also a national question in Ottoman Macedonia. In 1893 an armed national liberation movement appeared which was to take many names but is perhaps best known today as the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. This had two aims, one secret and the other public: publicly its aim was to secure the autonomy of Macedonia and Adrianople12; secretly it plotted to create liberated territories in Macedonia and to merge with Bulgaria.13

Since he returned from Russia in 1885 and started to defend marxist ideas in Bulgaria, Blagoev put forward the idea of a Balkan Federation on the basis of proletarian independence, arguing that the liberation of Macedonia could only be achieved on this basis. Furthermore, at its second congress in 1892 the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party formed by Blagoev resolved not to work jointly with any bourgeois or petty-bourgeois structures;, a position strongly defended by Blagoev himself.14 However, when confronted with nationalist ideas emerging within the minorities they were organizing among, the Bulgarian and Macedonian socialists, just like the Armenian socialists, did not initially see any contradiction between participating in nationalist movements and their socialist convictions. Blagoev himself was for a while a member of the High Macedonia Committee in Sofia as well as his own party15 and Macedonian socialists also participated in the activities of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization in its first years. Both Blagoev and the weekly paper Revolyutsiya, the first socialist publication in Macedonia,, also unconditionally and enthusiastically supported the nationalist uprising of 1885 in Macedonia.16

Yet the publication Politiçeska Svoboda (Political Freedom), of Glavinov’s Union of Revolutionary Social Democrats of Macedonia, launched in 1898, was to develop a very different attitude to the Macedonian question than that of Revolyutsiya. The line put forward by Glavinov, as well as being far more sober than the one he had enthusiastically defended three years previously, was also clearly based on proletarian internationalism. Glavinov accused the Bulgarian state of pursuing expansionist goals in Macedonia and strongly condemned it. He defended the view that Macedonia should be a founding part of a socialist Balkan Federation, in which there would be no oppression of any ethnic group; all would be able to speak their native languages, and official languages would be determined based on the majorities in specific provinces. Politiçeska Svoboda emphasized clearly that workers of Macedonia should realize their ideological class duties and denounced chauvinism, patriotism and especially Bulgarian nationalism whenever it could.17 Nevertheless, the idea of Macedonian independence was still defended:

The revolutionary socialists of Macedonia aim for the peoples of Macedonia and Adrianople to obtain a total political and economical freedom, guided by the most humane and progressive ideas.”18

On the other hand, similar to the stage-ist perspective of the Revolutionary Hunchak Party, it also said that after such freedom was obtained, a struggle for social revolution in the country would then have to be waged. Politiçeska Svoboda also defended the necessity of working with anyone convinced of the same final goal of liberation; that is socialism, regardless of nationality19. Such positions of the Macedonian socialists were important because they showed that although they still hadn't managed to develop a clear position on the national question, they had effectively drawn the lessons of the uprising of 1895 and represented an attempt to develop an internationalist solution to the Macedonian question. Nevertheless the analysis put forward, while pointing in a certain direction, did not last. In the meantime, the question of the position taken by the Macedonian socialists on this question was becoming quite serious.

The first workers’ organization to arise from the Muslim population was formed by arsenal workers in Tophane, Constantinople, in 1894 or 1895. The clandestine Ottoman Workers’ Society aimed to organize the workers and incite them to rise against Abdulhamid II. Following a year of activity, the leadership of this organization, now seen by the authorities as a serious threat, was arrested and the group dispersed. The founders returned to Constantinople in 1901-2 and made an attempt to regroup. These efforts were met with great interest and there were many discussion meetings with the aim of re-founding the organization, but the leading militants were again arrested and state repression destroyed these attempts.20 According to various sources, the Ottoman Workers’ Society was very much influenced by the Paris Commune, and hoped to spread the ideas defended in Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto.21

Rosa Luxemburg, a revolutionary militant known for her stance against national liberation movements, could write about the Ottoman Empire of 1890:

“[T]he 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.22

Luxemburg's comments on the situation of the Ottoman Empire and the working class movement were soon to be proven wrong. On the other hand such a statement made by an internationalist militant not in any way anxious to support national struggles showed how low the level of class struggle was in the Ottoman Empire in the first years after the emergence of socialist ideas. Under such conditions, it had been impossible for this socialist movement to make a clear and practical statement on the national question. What was to clarify this question for the movement was the re-emergence of class struggles in the Ottoman Empire and neighboring countries after the turn of the century.


 

1Turabian, Hagop. “The Armenian Social-Democratic Hentchakist Party Part 1”. Ararat No. 34. April 1916. London. http://www.hunchak.org.au/aboutus/historical_turabian.html

2http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Democrat_Hunchakian_Party

3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruben_Khan-Azat

4 Ter-Minasian, Anahide. “1876-1923 Döneminde Osmanlı Toplumunda Sosyalist Hareketin Doğuşunda ve Gelişmesinde Ermeni Topluluğun Rolü”. “Osmanlı İmparatorluğunda Sosyalizm ve Milliyetçilik” Editor Mete Tunçay and Erik Jan Zürcher. İletişim. 2004. p. 185

5 Ter-Minasian, Anahide. “1876-1923 Döneminde Osmanlı Toplumunda Sosyalist Hareketin Doğuşunda ve Gelişmesinde Ermeni Topluluğun Rolü”. “Osmanlı İmparatorluğunda Sosyalizm ve Milliyetçilik” Editor: Mete Tunçay and Erik Jan Zürcher. İletişim. 2004. Istanbul. p. 186

6 Nalbandian, Louise. "The Hunchakian Revolutionary Party 1887-1896" http://www.hunchak.org.au/aboutus/historical_nalbandian.html

7 Ter-Minasian, Anahide. “Ermeni Devrimci Hareketinde Milliyetçilik ve Sosyalizm (1887-1912)”. İletişim. 1992. Istanbul. p. 22

8 Nalbandian, Louise. “The Armenian Revolutionary Movement 1890-1896”. University of California Press. 1975. Los Angeles. p.153-154

9 Ibid, p. 163-164

10 Nalbandian, Louise. "The Hunchakian Revolutionary Party 1887-1896" http://www.hunchak.org.au/aboutus/historical_nalbandian.html

11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasil_Glavinov

12 The modern Turkish city of Edirne.

13 Adanır, Fikret. “Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nda Ulusal Sorun ve Sosyalizmin Oluşması ve Gelişmesi: Makedonya Örneği”. “Osmanlı İmparatorluğunda Sosyalizm ve Milliyetçilik” Editor: Mete Tunçay and Erik Jan Zürcher. İletişim. 2004. Istanbul. p. 42

14 Ibid, p. 43

15 Ibid, p. 44

16 Ibid.

17 Mishkova, Diana. “We, the people: politics of national peculiarity in Southeastern Europe”. Central European University Press, 2009. p. 122

18 Adanır, Fikret. “Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nda Ulusal Sorun ve Sosyalizmin Oluşması ve Gelişmesi: Makedonya Örneği”. “Osmanlı İmparatorluğunda Sosyalizm ve Milliyetçilik” Editor: Mete Tunçay and Erik Jan Zürcher. İletişim. 2004. Istanbul. p. 46

19 Adanır, Fikret. “Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nda Ulusal Sorun ve Sosyalizmin Oluşması ve Gelişmesi: Makedonya Örneği”. “Osmanlı İmparatorluğunda Sosyalizm ve Milliyetçilik” Editor: Mete Tunçay and Erik Jan Zürcher. İletişim. 2004. Istanbul. p. 47

20 “Tanzimat ve Batılılaşma.” Sosyalizm ve Toplumsal Mücadeleler Ansiklopedisi, Vol 6. Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1988. p. 1816

21 “Tanzimat ve Batılılaşma.” Sosyalizm ve Toplumsal Mücadeleler Ansiklopedisi, Vol 6. Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1988. p. 1816

22 Luxemburg, Rosa. “Social Democracy and the National Struggles in Turkey”. 1896. http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1896/10/10.htm