The revolt of 1908

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The Abdulhamid regime had been tottering since 1902. On July 3rd 1908 an eccentric military officer, Niyazi of Resen, who belonged to the Society of Union and Progress, ‘went rogue’ with the two hundred soldiers under his command and took to the mountains. In three weeks the mutiny in the Ottoman military had grown like an avalanche and the monarchy began to collapse. The spark turned into a fire that spread to almost all the Ottoman armed forces in Macedonia and to a significant section in the rest of the Empire. When he started the mutiny, Niyazi of Resen, the “partisan of the Ottoman fatherland” despite his Albanian ethnic background, had no idea that he had given birth to the tradition which was to take the Ottoman Empire to war, only to see it come to power under the name of Kemalism around the person of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the shadow of which still casts upon contemporary Turkey. Nor could he have, for during the 1908 mutiny Mustafa Kemal, whose name was to become so well known internationally in the following decades, was nothing more than a shadow behind another member of the Union and Progress in the Ottoman Army, who was busy watching events calmly from the balcony of his hotel in Thessaloníki; when news reached Ismail Enver of what Niyazi of Resen and his troops had done, judging the moment to be a fantastic opportunity for the overthrow of the Sultan - and of course for his own personal interests and ambitions - he started to spread the mutiny in the Ottoman armed forces. It is said that after the mutiny spread to Thessaloníki, the population stayed out in the streets all night. The following morning, 24th July, the news reached Thessaloníki that Sultan Abdulhamit II, unable to suppress the mutiny, had declared a return to the constitutional regime.1 The Young Turks had won. The slogan echoing in the streets of Ottoman cities was “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. In a few months Constantinople was to become “the most free city of the world”.2

Or so thought the best-intentioned of the Young Turks, Dashnaks and others who actually believed in the regime known to history as the 2nd Constitutional Era. The eruption of massive struggles of the working class only a few weeks after July 24th proved that this was not to be the case. Undoubtedly, what had just happened was an event of great significance. But what exactly was it that had just taken place? Who had gained a victory between July 3rd and July 24th? What was the meaning of this event? It certainly had a tremendous importance for Ottoman socialism, and the left wing of Ottoman and Balkan socialism were among those who took the clearest position on the events. The most important leaders of the international socialist movement also felt the need to take a position on the Young Turk mutiny. The first to pose the question of the nature of the mutiny was Christian Rakvosky, in an article published a week after:

“[A]re 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. (…)

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 maneuver of the Sultan, calling to power the greatest possible number of Young Turks, can disorganize 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?”3

The questions Rakovsky posed were to be answered by events soon enough. It turned out that the Young Turks were not a movement which could easily be dispersed by a clever maneuver of the Sultan and that they were quite comfortable about working with the Christian bourgeoisie as long as they felt the need to, although not with the working class. The general attitude of Rakovsky was more or less upheld by the Narrow Socialist current he supported. Without the slightest doubt or illusion, from the outset the Narrow Socialists described the 1908 uprising as a military revolt.4 In a pamphlet published in August Blagoev, leader of the Narrow Socialists, clearly argued for the importance of protecting the proletariat against bourgeois and petty bourgeois influences and condemned those socialists who were running to Macedonia to support the Young Turks when this was more necessary than ever before. Blagoev was not just against the Young Turks but also strongly critical of their supporters who were “masquerading as socialists”. Far from preaching passivity or non-involvement he urged his comrades within the Ottoman borders to involve themselves in the strikes.5 The 15th General Congress of the (Narrow) BSDWP from 2nd to 5th August evaluated the situation with the same clarity:

The Congress of the (Narrow) BSDWP (…) wishes the proletariat of Turkey to continue its fight to abolish the monarchist regime completely and for the full emancipation of the proletariat of Turkey and to obtain a total victory in this fight. The proletariat of Turkey can reach total freedom only with its own class organ, under the banner of socialism and fighting shoulder to shoulder together with the forces of the international social democracy”.6

The leaders of the left wing of the international socialist movement also made important analyses of the 1908 mutiny and later developments. In an article written in October 1908, Lenin described what had happened in the Ottoman Empire as a democratic bourgeois revolution. However, it couldn't be said that he was supportive of the Young Turk movement or had illusions about it:

Rivalry among the capitalist powers, anxious to “bite off” as big a piece as they can and extend their possessions and colonies, coupled with fear of an independent democratic movement among the nations dependent on or “protected” by Europe - these are two mainsprings of all European policy. The Young Turks are praised for their moderation and restraint, i.e., the Turkish revolution is being praised because it is weak, because it is not rousing the popular masses to really independent action, because it is hostile to the proletarian struggle beginning in the Ottoman Empire”7

Another who commented on these events was Trotsky. While his position did not really differ from Lenin's, one important point he made was the similarity between 1908 in Turkey and 1905 in Russia, and especially after the eruption of the mass strike, seeing a continuity between the two. Among the leaders of the international socialist movement, Trotsky was the one who put the most emphasis on the working class movement in the Ottoman Empire. In an article written in December 1908, he argued as follows:

The Russian revolution has been echoed far from Russia’s borders. In Western Europe it has provoked a turbulent proletarian movement. But it has also drawn the countries of Asia into political activity. In Persia, on the Caucasian frontier and under the direct influence of events in Russia, a revolutionary struggle has begun, and has continued in various forms for more than two years. In China and the Indies, everywhere the masses are rising against their own tyrants and their European despoilers (capitalists and missionaries). The most recent aftershock of the Russian revolution is the revolution which has taken place this summer in Turkey (…)

In Russia, the proletariat has been the main fighting force of the revolution. In Turkey, as I pointed out above, industry only existed in embryonic form, as a result the proletariat is weak and small in numbers (…) When the revolution broke out in July this year [1908], the Sultan immediately found himself without an army. Military units went over to the revolution one after the other. Doubtless, the ignorant soldiers did not understand the movement’s goals, but their discontent over living conditions led them to follow their officers. The latter peremptorily demanded a Constitution, threatening to overthrow the Sultan if one were not granted. Abdulhamit could only give in. He granted a Constitution (the Sultans always make this kind of gesture when they feel the point of a knife at their throats), formed a government made up of liberal personalities, and opened the way to parliamentary elections. The whole country was gripped by feverish activity. Meeting followed on meeting. New newspapers appeared in great numbers. As if awoken by a thunderclap, the young proletariat entered into movement. Strikes broke out and workers’ organizations were created. In Salonika, the first socialist paper was published.

As these lines are being written, the Turkish parliament has already met – with a majority of ‘Young Turk’ reformers. The future will soon show us what is to be the fate of this Turkish ‘Duma’.”8

In 1909, Trotsky analyzed the 1908 events in the Ottoman Empire along the lines of his theory of permanent revolution:

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 maneuvers. 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’état 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. (…)

Turkish industry is, as we have said, 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 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 labor 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’ 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. (...) 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.”.9

Significantly Trotsky's views on this question were the closest to the positions of the left wing of the Ottoman socialist movement. Like the Ottoman Narrow Socialists, although he used the term ‘revolution’ to describe the events, Trotsky too described the 1908 uprising as a military revolt. Although not as confidently and in fact rather shyly compared to the clarity of the Ottoman socialists, by pointing out the role and importance of the Ottoman Empire, and by describing July 1908 only as the 'prelude' of the revolution, Trotsky did express the possibility of a proletarian revolution in the Ottoman Empire. As for Rosa Luxemburg, while not describing the class nature of the Young Turk mutiny, writing the Junius Pamphlet in prison in 1915 she clearly identified the nature of the Young Turk movement, as well as its trajectory and its relationship with German imperialism:

In the first stage, while ideal considerations still predominated in the Young Turkish movement, when it was still fired with ambitious plans and illusions of a real springtime of life and of a rejuvenation for Turkey, its political sympathies were decidedly in favor of England. This country seemed to them to represent the ideal state of modern liberal rule, while Germany, which has so long played the role of protector of the holy regime of the old Sultan was felt to be its natural opponent. For a while it seemed as if the revolution of 1908 would mean the bankruptcy of German oriental policies. It seemed certain that the overthrow of Abdul Hamid would go hand in hand with the downfall of German influence. As the Young Turks assumed power, however, and showed their complete inability to carry out any modern industrial, social or national reform on a large scale, as the counterrevolutionary hoof became more and more apparent, they turned of necessity to the tried and proven methods of Abdul Hamid, which meant periodic bloody massacres of oppressed peoples, goaded on until they flew at each other’s throats, boundless, truly oriental exploitation of the farming population became the foundation of the nation. The artificial restoration of rule by force again became the most important consideration for ‘Young Turkey’ and the traditional alliance of Abdul Hamid with Germany was re-established as the deciding factor in the foreign policy of Turkey.”10

As for the Second International and those sections of Ottoman socialism not on the left wing, they supported the 1908 revolt enthusiastically, and without any noticeable criticisms. Thessalonian socialist Avram Benaroya, who had previously been a member of the (Narrow) BSDWP, now sided with the anarcho-liberal tendency and described the revolt in a very romanticized way:

For days and for weeks, the Sabri Pasha Avenue and the White Tower Gardens saw and heard nothing but flags, celebrations and songs of the liberation of Turkey. There was a common rhythm, a common motif in all everyone said: 30 million people suffered under the oppression of a despotic sultan and his 300 servants and agents for 33 years. 30 heroes raised the flag of the revolution and the sultan was overthrown; freedom had come. Turks and Christians; freedom for all. Now we are all brothers. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Turks, Albanians, Arabs, Greeks and Bulgarians, we are free citizens of the Ottoman motherland”.11

1908 divided the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization as well. The attitude of the right wing of the movement - basically an appendage of Bulgarian state interests within the Ottoman Empire - was determined by relations between the 'New' Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. Since these were not really close, the right wing of the IMRO was to remain for the most part distanced from the Young Turks. The attitude of the left wing on the other hand, by this point shaped by the Broad Socialists and the anarcho-liberal tendency, was more sympathetic, and the Broad Socialists’ leading representative in Macedonia, Dimo Hadjimov, declared himself in favour of the Young Turks. Yane Sandinski, the most prominent IMRO armed leader who was aligned with the left, led his partisans down from the mountains where they were to get their pictures taken with leading Young Turks, with Turkish flags behind them.12

Even the Hunchak Social Democrat Party, which was more distanced from the Young Turks than the IMRO left wing, changed the nature of its actions after 1908, deciding to abandon illegal work. The armed Hunchak partisan Hampartsum Boyacian, nicknamed Mourad the Great, leader of the Sason resistance of 1890, surrendered his arms and came to Constantinople in order to participate in the upcoming elections.13 Even Sapah-Gulian, who was soon to conclude that this legalization was a huge mistake, made a speech in August 1908 in the Surp Yerrortutyun Armenian Church in Pera, Constantinople saying:

We the Hunchaks will cease all revolutionary activities from now on and work for the progress of the fatherland with all our presence”.14

As mentioned above, the Dashnaks were openly allies of the Young Turks, and consequently their support for the new regime was much stronger than that of the Hunchak Social Democrat Party which still had its doubts. The Dashnaks had more armed partisans than the Hunchaks and so the numbers of partisans laying down their arms and leaving the mountains for the cities, and Dashnak partisan leaders going directly from the mountains into the parliament were not negligible.15 Arméne Aktoni, one of the leaders of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, explained the Dashnak attitude towards Union and Progress as follows:

Among the most prominent duties of the Dashnaktsutyun will be defending the Ottoman constitution, assuring the most successful mix of the Ottoman nations and cooperating with the Society of Union and Progress”.16

And leading figures of the Society of Union and Progress were not at all cold in their attitude towards the Federation. Ahmet Riza, chairman of the first Meclis-i Mebusan (Assembly of Deputies; the Ottoman Parliament), upon hearing that there were partisans among the new Armenian deputies, expressed his joy:

So wonderful! Our trusted friends are coming down from the mountains into the parliament in order to defend the establishments of the constitutional regime!”.17

The trust of the right wing of Ottoman socialism in Union and Progress was to prove empty very shortly, and the left wing would be shown to be right. But before coming to that, we need to answer the following question: with the inevitable benefit of hindsight, what can we say happened in July 1908 in the Ottoman Empire? In a marxist sense, was the 1908 revolt a revolution or a coup d’état? We are of the opinion that the answer to this question goes beyond this dilemma. In the marxist sense, 1908 can neither be described and understood just as a revolution nor just as a coup d’état. Without a doubt, it is a fact that the revolt that took place in July 1908 was a mutiny, a military revolt led by officers. The officers who took power in 1908 were the same people, from the same Ottoman military tradition, as the rulers of the future Turkish state. Yet to conclude that 1908 was a coup d’état means ignoring all the struggles in the five years between 1908 and 1913 during which the Enver-Talat-Cemal Pashas’ troika came to power. This also neglects the fact that during the revolt officers and bureaucrats affiliated to Union and Progress acted as a part of the common struggle of other social forces. What is more, it simply forgets that the monarchy was deprived of supreme state power by a united front of the political representatives of the industrial and mercantile bourgeoisie, and the military and bureaucratic bourgeoisie, which belonged to another class. And what made it possible for the bourgeoisie to act in 1908 was the fact that the class struggles of the previous period had weakened the old regime and created a suitable background for massive class struggles to erupt - even though these struggles were almost immediately confronted by all the sections and layers of the bourgeoisie.

1908 is a revolution, if we are define a revolution as one class taking state power from another class. Nevertheless it is not possible to say that 1908 was a revolution in the marxist sense, in other words a social revolution: the social revolution had in effect already taken place. Contrary to Trotsky's argument, it is well known today that industry, the working class and class struggle had started developing in the era of Abdulhamit II and even before. Far from opposing economic development on the Western model, the Sultan’s regime had enthusiastically supported such development due to the backwardness of the Ottoman Empire and its failure to compete with its rivals. Indeed, it was precisely the practice and dominance of such economic policies that had created such a powerful military and bureaucratic bourgeoisie within the Ottoman state, and out of necessity these policies had also created a sector of the working class that was employed by the Ottoman state. The idea that a political regime could prevent the development of the proletariat due to fear for its interests by means of willpower is absurd. Besides, by strictly opposing workers’ strikes which were obviously not in the interests of the non-muslim bourgeoisie, the Abdulhamid regime, thus protected the interests of industry against the working class. So 1908 did not happen because of the contradiction between the economic interests of the bourgeoisie and the monarchy, with the bourgeoisie wanting to overcome the obstacle posed by the monarchy in order to shape the economic structure of the country and thus necessarily reshape the state - as was the case with the bourgeois revolutions of 1789-1848 in Europe. Although it was ruled by a monarchy at the top, the Ottoman state, in its structure and functioning, was already a capitalist state by 1908. Consequently what was in question was the determination of who was to sit in its top layer in a way consistent with the existing general structure. The bourgeoisie’s steps against the Abulhamit regime developed in reaction to its repression in the political and cultural spheres. The ideology of the Abdulhamit regime went against the interests of all sections and layers of the Ottoman bourgeoisie, which needed to rule the capitalist state from head to toe, in order to impose a new ideology on the ‘sick man of Europe’. Far from realizing aims mentioned by Trotsky such as “economic independence, the unity of nation and state, and political freedoms”, the 1908 mutiny was followed not by a leap forward for Ottoman capitalism but by a period of oppression, crisis, war, genocide and the dissolution of the Empire; as for the tradition which came to power, it resulted in a militarist and statist regime similar to the ones created by decadent capitalism in the West.

How then are we to answer Rakovsky’s question? Was this a mere coup d’état, or was it something more, even a revolution?

Perhaps it would make most sense to call it a freak of history. On the one hand, the 1908 movement resembled a putsch: 1908 didn't change the mode of production of the Ottoman Empire, it didn't transform an archaic society into a capitalist one.

On the other hand, the attempt to create a constitutional monarchy at the head of what the Young Turks intended should be a modern European state clearly represented an attempt to overthrow the outdated Ottoman imperial regime and replace it with a regime in accord with the political interests of a rising industrial bourgeoisie, and in this sense it could be seen as a truly revolutionary movement where a rising, progressive social class threw off the shackles of a political regime which defended the interests of a reactionary, outmoded social class. In short, the regime established in 1908 was riddled with contradictions.

2 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. 213

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

4 Yalımov, 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. 135

5 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. 59

6 Yalımov, 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. 137-138

7 Lenin, Vladimir Ilich. “Events in the Balkans and in Persia”. Proletary No. 37, October 16 (29), 1908.

8 Trotsky, Leon. “La révolution en Turquie et les tâches du prolétariat”. Pravda n° 2, 17 December 1908

9 Trotsy, Leon. “Young Turks”. Kievskaya Mysl, issue 3, 3 January 1909.

10 Luxemburg, Rosa. “The Junius Pamphlet”. Part 4. 1915

12 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. 65

14 “Ermeni Komitelerinin Emelleri ve İhtilal Hareketleri”. Editor: Mehmet Kaynar. Der Yayınevi. Istanbul. 2001. p. 57

16 “Ermeni Komitelerinin Emelleri ve İhtilal Hareketleri”. Editor: Mehmet Kaynar. Der Yayınevi. Istanbul. 2001. p. 57


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