The Emergence of Muslim/Turkish Socialism and the Muslim Working-Class in the late Ottoman Empire and Early Turkish Republic 1908-1925 (1/2)

The Emergence of Muslim/Turkish Socialism and the Muslim Working-Class in the late Ottoman Empire and Early Turkish Republic 1908-1925 (1/2)

Summary: The working-class movement in the Ottoman Empire gained an unprecedented impetus after the 1908 Revolution. Although it has peaks and valleys, mobilization of the workers persisted until the construction of single party era in Turkish Republic. The mobilization of the workers and their actions coincided with the emergence of Muslim/Turkish socialism and socialist organizations. In contrast to the Turkish historiography, my research will scrutinize the link between the emergences of these phenomena in the first quarter of the 20th century. Traditionally these two cases are examined separately as if they were unconnected. My research will not only consider socialism as a component of intellectual history but uncover the effects of the workers’ movement on its ideology and political organizations.

Research Proposal

In this research project I explore the nexus between ideology and social mobilization by studying the relationship between Muslim/Turkish socialism and working class movement in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. Two aspects of Global Labour History Programme provide the guiding principles of my research: first working class formation is part and parcel of a global process and needs to be studied as such; second, the definition of the working class cannot be narrowed down to industrial work force. The aim of the project is thus to engage with theoretical approaches to labour history as well as Turkish historiography.

The Working-Class

I focus on different groups of workers among the Muslim/Turkish working class who lost their ownership of and control over the means of production: artisans, underemployed, women, part-time workers and factory workers in the formal as well as the informal sectors. As Marcel van der Linden argued, a significant number of interpretations on working class are based on “free” wage earners. He has claimed that the working class is comprised of different types of commodified labour and that “this commodification may take on many different forms.” Similarly, E.P. Thompson criticized the definition of the working class as industrial workers and emphasized the role of the declining artisans in early modern working class formation. Scholars such as William H. Sewell, Christopher H. Johnson, Raphael Samuel has argued class-conscious workers’ movement was not an outcome of factories and industry. A great bulk of working class movement in Europe in the course of 19th century were to a great extent a movement of artisans because there were no longer any “traditional” urban crafts since capitalism and new exploitive practises had already transformed crafts long before the invention machinery. Contrary to this line of thought, Turkish historiography retained a sharp distinction between industrial labourers and artisans or guild workers and equated capitalism with the Industrial Revolution. The narrow definition of the working class in Turkish historiography converges with the neglect of socialism as a significant political movement. In contrast to other modern ideologies such as nationalism, constitutionalism, Islamism or liberalism, socialism remains an understudied subject in Ottoman historiography. The underlying assumption of this neglect remains the operative even for handful historians of Ottoman socialism such as Mete Tunçay: no industry, ergo no working class, ergo no socialism. Studying class formation, however, requires more than establishing a mechanical connection between economic development and political thought. It involves the investigation of class formation, class experience and social agency.

The history of the working class in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic is still understudied and neglected field in contemporary Turkish historiography despite significant contributions to Turkish labour history in the last decade. Since historians are primarily preoccupied with the state and political elite, modern research on working-class history has been left to amateur historians, journalists and union activists. These studies proliferated in the 1960’s and 1970’s when social and leftist political movements gained power in Turkey. For them the working class movement was an outcome of historical progress: the industrialization process in Turkey gave birth to a working-class who pioneered the socialist movement. Soviet Turkologists also contributed to these early studies. However, theirs were a Turkish variation of Soviet historiography which was devoid of detailed information and in-depth research. Amidst these publications there appeared also the first academic studies on the topic though they were quite marginal within academic circles.

Historians to a great extent make use of a specific definition of working class. The narratives of the Turkish historiography assume the working class as a population of men working in a modern industrial plant: the blue-collar worker. Workers who operate in service sector are not even counted among the members of this social class. This approach is not peculiar to the historiography on Turkey. Most of the studies on working class history in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey have concentrated on the activities of the trade unions, organizational initiatives, political struggles and strikes. However, this tendency to limit working-class history to such fields resulted in a very limited picture of the workers’ experience. Until mid-20th century this scholar trend was not peculiar to Turkish historiography. Labour historiography had similar features in different countries. However, subjects like daily life, gender, ethnicity, race, culture, religion, identities etc. have entered into Western labour historiography after the 1960’s. Turkish historiography on Labour history is still lacking these new areas of investigation.

In my research I will focus not on the level of industrialization but the development of capitalist relationships in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, in order to evaluate and analyze the social classes.

Doğan Çetinkaya
Istanbul University

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