The rise of the Young Turks and the attitude of the Socialists

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On 21st May 1889 five students at the Military Medicine University of Constantinople met in complete secrecy in order to do something about a matter they deemed extremely important. Their names were Ishak Sukuti, Ibrahim Temo, Abdullah Cevdet, Mehmed Resid and Hikmet Emin. They were not to be as successful at writing their names into the pages of history as they may have hoped when they met that day. Nevertheless, the tradition they started was to live on for a long time. For that day they laid the foundations of the Society of Union and Progress. In fact the name of the secret organization they founded to topple Sultan Abdulhamit II was the Society for Ottoman Unity but six years later this was to merge with the anti-Abdulhamit organization led by the one-time national education manager in the city of Bursa, Ahmet Riza, and took the name which has gone down in history.

The Society of Union and Progress, which regarded itself as the bearer of the Ottomanist ideology of the past and as a liberal and Ottoman nationalist organization, was, at the time it appeared, only one among many similar organizations which were appearing in the Ottoman military and state bureaucracy and were in general called the Young Turks. Also influenced and impressed by the struggle of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, the Young Turk movement began to grow rapidly after 1895. Finally, a congress was held to bring together all elements within Young Turks movement. Known by different names such as the 1st Young Turk Congress, the Ottoman Freedom Congress, the Ottoman Liberal Congress and so on, this brought together different Young Turk organizations with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the Vergazmiya Hunchak Party, and certain Greek and Bulgarian nationalist groups. It resulted in a division within the Young Turk movement over the question of minorities, and especially about the Armenian question. The liberal Young Turk faction lead by the sultan’s nephew, Prince Sabahattin, together with the Greek and Albanian delegates, declared themselves in support of an end to the suffering of the Armenians and emphasized that they were correct to call for European aid to ensure their peace and security. At this point the supporters of Prince Sabahattin’s views had a large majority among the Young Turks. However, there was a minority opposed to this approach led by Ahmet Riza, chairman of the Paris section of the Society of Union and Progress.1

Following the 1902 Congress, the majority group under the leadership of Prince Sabahattin began to plot a coup d’état supported by the West. But the failure of this attempt in 1903 led to the collapse of the majority group and the rise to prominence of the Society of Union and Progress led by Hasan Riza. The Society was a creature with a body inside the Ottoman Empire but its head was in Europe. It too was divided internally: Ahmet Riza held that change in the Ottoman Empire had to come peacefully whereas the group led by Bahattin Sakir, private doctor to crown prince Yusuf Izzetin, thought that change was only be possible if Sultan Abdulhamit was overthrown. The Society accelerated its work with a publication founded in Egypt by Bahattin Sakir called Shura-yi Ummet (The Council of the Community). However in 1905 this publication was shut down and Bahattin Sakir went to Paris in order to try to make the section there more radical and centralized.2 In 1906 a postal manager in Thessaloníki (at this time still a part of the Ottoman Empire) called Mehmet Talat, who was to become better known as Talat Pasha, formed the Ottoman Freedom Society and made contact with the Young Turk movement. The Ottoman Freedom Society managed to gain considerable support among the state bureaucracy in the region, and also in the army, thanks to the influence of a military officer by the name of Ahmet Cemal, better known as Cemal Pasha. Meanwhile Prince Sabahattin was back in the game, forming an organization called the Decentralization and Private Enterprise Society in 1906. In Egypt, an organization called the Ottoman Constitution Society was formed. All these organizations came together on December 22nd 1907 in Paris, at a meeting known as the 2nd Young Turk Congress. The Society of Union and Progress imposed criteria for participation that included conditions such as respecting the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire and rejecting the external aid, as discussed in the previous congress. The 2nd Congress resulted in the unification of the movement under the banner of Union and Progress.3 However, the main force behind the gathering was not the organizations within the Young Turk movement but the Western Bureau of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the Dashnaks, and the Congress consequently produced a solid alliance between the Young Turk movement and the Dashnaks.4

Beyond doubt the Society of Union and Progress and the overwhelming majority of the Young Turk movement constituted a serious and substantial nationalist movement. It is possible to say that this movement represented the interests and the politics of weak Muslim private capital in the Ottoman Empire around the views of Prince Sabahattin and his followers. But despite the fact that their perspective had majority support at one point it did not remain influential within the Young Turk movement for long. So what was the class basis of the Young Turk movement? The most lucid analysis was made by Christian Rakovsky, then one of the leading revolutionaries in the Balkans, who was close to the Bulgarian Narrow Socialists:

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.”5

The Young Turks were a movement of the radical nationalist Turkish bourgeoisie in the upper and middle layers of the Ottoman state and army, and following the 2nd Young Turk Congress the Society of Union and Progress became the class party of the Turkish bourgeoisie. The ideology of the Young Turks also expressed this class characteristic. After all, it was a typical liberal nationalist movement; Sultan Abdulhamid was 'ruining the country', he was 'unable to protect the territorial integrity of the empire', and it was thus necessary to 'liberate the fatherland from his yoke'. The Turkish bourgeoisie, mainly born and raised within the state and the army, were increasingly uneasy about the political repression and limitations imposed by the Sultan. At the end of the day, it couldn't be said that this situation was really extraordinary.

On the other hand, why was the Armenian Revolutionary Federation – which claimed to be socialist at this time and in fact was a member of the Second International when it participated in the 2nd Young Turk Congress – cooperating with the Young Turks? Was this simply the opportunism of a typical party of the Second International or was there something beyond that? If we take into consideration their foundation process, the Dashnaks’ decision to adopt socialism was based on pragmatism. In reality Dashnaks rejected class struggle even in the Caucasus, where it was very intense. Pointing to the Armenian nation’s dispersal and its numerical weakness confronted with the number of forces against it, they argued that all classes of the Armenian society had to act together in the period they termed the first stage of the national liberation struggle.6 But when their hopes of the big European powers coming to the Armenians’ aid fell to the ground, gaining the support of the European social-democratic movement, which was increasingly becoming a significant force, could seem like a reasonable strategy. So although they emphasized over and over again that socialism was out of the question in Armenia, after 1894 the Dashnaks started translating certain socialist publications and in 1896 made contact with the Second International.7 Although there were certain militants among the Dashnaks who defended socialist ideas, and even though a pretty much intransigent socialist faction called the Young Dashnaks emerged, the Dashnaks did not adopt a program which had anything to do with socialism for Armenia until 1907 when they applied for the membership of the IInd International. In the program adopted in 1907, the Dashnaks described how complicated class struggle was in countries with minorities, arguing that the workers of oppressed nations should be concerned with their own national cultures and emphasizing that nations would exist in a socialist society of the future.8 The concept of socialism defended by the Dashnaks after this point was based on a wide theoretical spectrum somewhere to the right of the center of social democracy, ranging from the influence of Italian left nationalists like Mazzini and Garibaldi to the Russian Narodnik tradition, and from Bernstein and Jaurès to Kautsky. In the end, the most significant influence was to be the socialism of Jaurès, committed to nations, fatherlands and democracy.9 The national program of the Dashnaks was also changing, now defending political democracy for Turkish Armenia based on local autonomy and federative ties with the Ottoman Empire rather than national liberation.10

All internationalist Armenian socialists agreed that the Dashnaks were nothing more than a bourgeois nationalist organization using socialist slogans for their national purposes. Without a doubt, however, some Dashnak militants had started to be influenced by socialist ideas and some in fact had been convinced of socialism from the beginning. However, the attitude of this party towards class struggle had turned it into a structure within which, both in the Caucasus and in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian petty-bourgeoisie was very prominent, and the more dissident and radical sections of the Armenian bourgeoisie was present. Were the Dashnaks acting in the interests of the Armenian working class or the Armenian bourgeoisie when they made their alliance with the Young Turks in 1907? The genocide that Union and Progress was to perpetrate shortly after taking power was to prove that the Armenian working class had nothing to gain from any alliance with the Young Turks and the Turkish bourgeoisie. What lay behind the Dashnak-Young Turk alliance were the interests of the Armenian bourgeoisie. Indeed, there were many serious historic parallels between the section of the Armenian bourgeoisie within the Dashnaks and the Turkish bourgeoisie expressed by the Young Turks. Just like the Turkish bourgeoisie, the prominent radical Armenian bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie among the Armenian community had no official or political privileges. The monarchy held political power throughout the country, and official and political power remained in the hands of the clergy, who were unaffected by the Sultan's power. Essentially, the political interests of the radical Turkish bourgeoisie and the radical Armenian bourgeoisie – and more generally of the Ottoman state and military bourgeoisie and of the Ottoman industrial and mercantile bourgeoisie – demanded their cooperation. If we analyse the leadership of the Dashnaks we have to say that if a single atom could be called socialist prior to December 1907, that atom died when the leaders of the organization sat together to cooperate with Union and Progress. Their alliance with Union and Progress was to irreversibly transform the Dashnaks into a movement playing big games in the interests of the Armenian bourgeoisie.

This was the situation of the political representatives of the Ottoman bourgeoisie before the overthrow of Sultan Abdulhamit II. However, the Ottoman bourgeoisie was not the sole force behind the 1908 mutiny. Since the turn of the century, workers’ struggles were becoming more and more important in the Empire and were to have a significant influence on the process leading up to 1908. Despite the repression of the Abdulhamit era the working class launched a series of strikes from 1902, which increased especially between 1904 and 1906 under the influence of the international class struggle. Strikes by thousands of workers took place in Ottoman cities such as Kavala, Bitola, Edessa, Skopje and Adrianople. It was no surprise that this strike wave should take place in the European lands of the Ottoman Empire, since these were in many ways the most developed part of the whole Empire, and both the Union and Progress movement of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie and non-Muslim capital and its organizations were quite strong in this relatively industrialized region. Rather than being a sudden explosion, this strike wave was the result of an accumulation of discontent due to thirty years of the repressive Abdulhamit regime, hard and miserable economic conditions, and the problems of agricultural production, as well as numerous desperate appeals to the authorities which had had no effect.11 The most basic reason for the strikes was the inability of the state and private enterprises to pay workers their wages due to economic difficulties. The interesting yet nevertheless unsurprising aspect of these strikes was the fact that they were as significant in the public sector as the private sector; workers in the public sector going on strike was a very clear demonstration of the class nature of the Ottoman state.12

While we cannot consider the strikes that took place between 1902 and 1908 as the main reason for the 1908 mutiny, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Ottoman bourgeoisie would not have had the courage to act against the regime of Abdulhamit II had this strike-wave not taken place. Every single one of these strikes in the six year period following 1902 was a strong blow against the Abdulhamit regime, weakening its image. Most significantly, these strikes demonstrated that the Abdulhamit regime, which had managed to suppress class struggle for sixteen years and keep the workers in a pacified state, was no longer able to control the proletariat. Despite all his threats, means of oppression and ruthlessness, Abdulhamit was unable to prevent the working class from struggling. These strikes constitute the most important factor in understanding how the 1908 mutiny was possible. The working class did not overthrow Abdulhamit, but it was with the reappearance of the class struggles in 1902 that his regime began to crack. Thus the first blow against the regime was struck by the working class itself.

Before 1908 Ottoman socialism generally had a different attitude towards the Young Turks than the Dashnaks. The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization13 in the Western territories of the Empire or the Hunchak Social Democrat Party, the main Armenian socialist party active in the Empire, were not close enough to the Young Turks to start cooperating or negotiating with them, although they were coming closer. But the left wing of the Ottoman socialist movement in both the west and the east kept a greater distance. The Union of Revolutionary Social Democrats of Macedonia led by Glavinov had put a considerable distance between themselves and the Young Turks following the Cretan crisis in 1897. In 1898 Glavinov had published an article in Politiçeska Svoboda about the attitude of the Young Turks towards the question of Crete. Glavinov vigorously criticized the Young Turks’ defense of Turkish nationalism, pointing out that they were in fact in favor of national oppression and Ottoman domination of minorities.14 For the Narrow Socialist tradition, which had resolved not to work with any bourgeois or petty-bourgeois tendency, including nationalists of oppressed nations such as the IMRO in Macedonia, it was unthinkable to develop any relations with the Young Turks. The Social Democratic Workers’ Organization of Macedonia and Adrianople, founded in 1905 on the same lines as the (Narrow) BSDWP, maintained the same attitude towards the Young Turks, although they were to be target of heavy repression in the process leading up to the overthrow of the Sultan.15

The left wing of the Armenian socialist movement focused on the Ottoman Empire had regrouped around the paper Yerkri Tzayn (‘The Voice of the Country’), which was started in Tbilisi in 1906. This brought together elements from all the socialist Armenian organizations, from the Marxist Armenian Workers’ Group to the Hunchak Social Democrat Party, and the Social Democratic Armenian Workers’ Organization to the Young Dashnaks. The founder of the paper, Tigran Zaven, had good relations both with the more radical members of the Dashnaks and the Hunchak Social Democrat Party. One of leading theoreticians of the Social Democratic Armenian Workers’ Organization, Bakhshi Ishkanian, was among the contributers to Yerkri Tzayn. Karekin Kozikian, one of the founders of the Marxist Armenian Workers’ Group, also worked on the new publication after bringing out a publication called Banvor (Worker) in Switzerland which criticized both the Dashnak and the Hunchak parties. While it had not elaborated its position on the Ottoman Empire very clearly, despite its nationalistic-sounding name, Yerkri Tzayn, defended a clearly internationalist approach:

What divides the two peoples? We are all crushed under the feet of the same tyrant. We feel sorrow for the same misfortunes. Look around you. With its strict prejudices, deep ignorance and endless poverty and misery, the Turkish people in Turkey, Iran and Russia is in the claws of the exploiters; these poor creatures covered in blood are suffering as much as the Armenian people. The Armenians of Turkey should not separate their own cause of liberation from that of others living under the same rule (…) There is only one possibility in Turkey: A Great Revolution (…) This regime enslaving the Armenians and the Turks, the Kurds and the Assyrians, the Yazidi and the Druze, the Greeks and the Jews, the Arabs and the Albanians and the Macedonians should be overthrown by the united force of all these peoples”.16

From the beginning of 1907 this circle started to put forward clearer views. The internationalism of Yerkri Tzayn was based on the working class and no matter how hard the movements of other classes tried to portray themselves as revolutionaries, the paper saw it as its duty to oppose any cooperation with them. Its attitude towards the Young Turk movement was shaped by this approach:

We do not want so speak for 'the Armenian Nation', because in our opinion what divides peoples is not races or languages but classes; social, economical and political categories. There are no Armenians and there are no Turks. There are only the oppressors and the oppressed; the exploiters and the exploited (...) What should our attitude towards the Young Turks be? Putting themselves forward as a liberal class, we can have no relations whatsoever with them (…) A true bond can only be formed with the Turkish people (…) If they form a political party not just of the 'Muslim Nation' but of all the oppressed (…) Only then can the Armenians and the Turks create a class party together”.17

While Yerkri Tzayn was centered in Tbilisi, its content was directed towards the Ottoman Empire. It published biographies and harsh criticisms of the leading Young Turks of the time such as Prince Sabahattin, Ahmet Riza, Abdullah Cevdet et al.18 The paper was distributed in cities of the Empire with high Armenian populations, most significantly in Van, and articles were printed and distributed as thousands of leaflets in Armenian, Turkish and Kurdish in the region. The ideas defended by Yerkri Tzayn strongly influenced Dashnak militants in the months before their leaders began their negotiations with Union and Progress in Paris,19 as shown by the following leaflet published by militants of the Dashnak party in the region which even reveals a similarity in language:

We believe it is time for all to understand who we are and who our opponents and enemies are. By saying 'We', we are not talking about the 'Dashnaks' or other Armenian revolutionary parties, but all in the Ottoman Empire living under the destruction, pillaging and oppression of the tyrannical government, we are talking about all the Ottomans, that is the Turks, the Armenians, the Albanians, the Arabs, the Greeks, the Assyrians and so forth. (…)

Those who walk under our banners, regardless of nationality or religion, are those who want freedom and equality, who hate the tyrannical government, those who want to liberate all the peoples from slavery, pillaging and oppression. We are freedom, wisdom, equality and justice. Our enemies are tyranny, ignorance, slavery, pillaging, injustice. We are the workers, we are the accursed of our country, we are those who raise the flames”.20


1Karasandık, Özlem. “Osmanlı Arşiv Belgelerine Göre Ermeni Hınçak Cemiyeti’nin Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’ndaki Siyasi Faaliyetleri (1887–1908)”. Mersin Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü. 2005. Mersin. p. 93

2Uzun, Cem. “Osmanlı Muhalefet Partileri”.

3“Tanzimat ve Batılılaşma.” Sosyalizm ve Toplumsal Mücadeleler Ansiklopedisi, Vol 6. Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1988. p. 1820

4Ter-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. 212–213

5Rakovsky, Christian. “The Turkish Revolution”. Le Socialisme, Paris No.37, 1 August 1908.

6Ter-Minasian, Anahide. “Ermeni Devrimci Hareketinde Milliyetçilik ve Sosyalizm (1887-1912)”. İletişim. 1992. Istanbul. p. 53

7Ibid, p. 28-29

8Ibid, p. 72

9Ibid, p. 74

10Ibid, p. 72

11“Tanzimat ve Batılılaşma.” Sosyalizm ve Toplumsal Mücadeleler Ansiklopedisi, Vol 6. Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1988. p. 1813

12“Tanzimat ve Batılılaşma.” Sosyalizm ve Toplumsal Mücadeleler Ansiklopedisi, Vol 6. Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1988. p. 1814

13This group, made up of IMRO's own left wing and the supporters of the (Broad) BSDWP, was joined by supporters of the faction called the “Anarcho-Liberals” who split from the (Narrow) BSDWP in 1905.

14Adanır, 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. 57

15Yalımov, İbrahim. “1876–1923 Döneminde Türkiye’de Bulgar Azınlığı ve Sosyalist Hareketin Gelişmesi”. “Osmanlı İmparatorluğunda Sosyalizm ve Milliyetçilik” Editor: Mete Tunçay and Erik Jan Zürcher. İletişim. 2004. Istanbul. p. 143

16Ter-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. 209

17 Ibid, p. 209-210

18Ibid, p. 208

19 Ibid, p. 210

20“Osmanlı İmparatorluğunda Sosyalizm ve Milliyetçilik” Editor: Mete Tunçay and Erik Jan Zürcher. İletişim. 2004. Istanbul. p. 19–20