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


The existing literature on the emergence of socialism in Turkey to a great extent concentrates on intellectual history, prominent personalities and political organizations. Intellectual history is one of the most developed areas in the historiography on Turkey, compared to social and cultural studies. The translations from French and other Western languages constitutes also a significant part of the literature in the Ottoman Empire. That is why, one should also compare these translations with the original European texts. Yet, Ideologies are taken into account as if they were only intellectual products. Historians and social scientists do not see any link in between the emergence of leftist ideas and organization and the movement of labouring classes. However, ideologies and political organizations are also social phenomena. The literature on intellectual and political history argue that the Ottoman Empire lacked an industrial revolution which was a base for a full-fledge working class movement and socialist thought. Historians claim that Socialism in the Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic was a foreign import. It is a general assertion in Turkish historiography that Turkish socialists did not really know the philosophical and ideological content of socialism. Therefore, for them, Turkish socialism should be considered to be a part of other branches of ideologies such as liberalism and nationalism. My research will first contribute to the existing literature by revealing the ideological content of the Muslim/Turkish socialism and uncovering the link between them and the workers’ movement.

I argue that the emergence of socialist thought in the Ottoman Empire was indicative of a vibrant working class. Surely, socialism was not the only influential ideology on working class discourse and identity during this particular period. Like any other socialist movement in history, Ottoman socialism was also influenced by social and historical context. Thus, Muslim/Turkish socialists made use of national, ethnic, religious, communal elements in their political discourse. Turkish historiography considers socialist movement as a part of Turkish nationalist movement, particularly in the Armistice Period. In contrast to mainstream Turkish historiography which denounces of the socialist identity of Muslim/Turkish socialists due to their ethno-religious discourse, I explore the articulation of these discourses as an indispensible aspect of class formations and class experience within the context of a multi-ethnic empire.

Social and Political Context

The demographic composition of the Ottoman Empire was comprised of different ethnic and religious communities. Both the working class and the socialist were squeezed in between their own religious/ethnic communal identities and the notion of a common Ottoman citizenship. Drawing on communal compartmentalization of the empire, national historiographies subsume working class movements and socialists under ethnic and religious movements. Yet a non-national perspective regards ethno-religious bonds as building blocks of socialist discourse in the Ottoman Empire. The international connections of Ottoman socialists attest to their political autonomy from ethno-religious movements. The integration of the Ottoman Empire into the world economy within the course of 19th century stimulated an influx of foreign investment and trade, international corporations, and European workers and professionals. These global transactions transformed Ottoman economy and society. In this context, the working class movement and the socialists established ties to international organizations. As a significant number of socialists migrated in and out of the country, Ottoman socialists learned a great deal from their French, German and Russian comrades. They communicated with socialist organizations such as the International and the Bolshevik Party. The Ottoman public followed news regarding the movements of workers, strikes and socialists in different countries as evident in the press coverage in this particular period.

Why this study?

I decided on this research topic following my earlier studies on social movement in the Ottoman Empire. I published several articles and a book on the boycott movements during the Second Constitutional Period. In my PhD studies I concentrated on the mobilization of Muslim merchants and working classes in the anti-non-Muslim nationalist movement. I defended my dissertation in May 2010 at Leiden University and published by IB Tauris in 2014. As a historian of social movements I came across with the vibrant socialist publications and convivial working class movements during my PhD researches.

This research will pave the way for a comparative analysis of working-class movements and socialism and try to build up a critique of the essentialist and exceptionalist tendencies in Turkish historiography. Therefore my research will not only try to contribute to the existing knowledge on working class movement and Muslim/Turkish socialism in early 20th century but also will try to trace a theoretical path out of traditional Turkish historiography. The latest contribution to the Ottoman and Republican Turkish Labour History in this vein has come from the IISH by the publication of the 17th Supplement of the International Review of Social History. Besides these theoretical approaches and interest on Turkey, I am also looking forward to find relevant archival material within the collection of IISH such as Ottoman and Turkish socialist periodicals and personal and institutional donations about the early Ottoman/Turkish labour movements.

One of the significant organizations that came out during this particular era is the Ottoman Socialist Party (Socialist Party of Turkey after 1918). Party and its leader Socialist Hilmi also tried to construct a relationship with their counterparts in Europe such as Jean Jaurès and the Second International. Therefore, I will work on the Second International Archives to find traces of Ottoman and Turkish socialists. The activities of Turkish socialists in Caucasia after 1918 have also a crucial place in the history Socialism Turkey. Turkish Communist Party (TKP) had its roots in Caucasia. The intellectuals coming from Russia played significant roles in the socialist movement. I will study on the Turkey-Transcaucasus Relations Collection 1908-1920 to find relevant information about my subject. The collections such as the Ottoman Socialist Party Collection, Komintern-TKP Collection, and Iran and Turkey Communist Parties of Azerbaijan Archives are directly related to my investigation. I am also looking forward to find some issues of socialist journals in Turkish such as İştirak and Beşeriyet in the library of IISH which are not available in Turkish libraries.

Doğan Çetinkaya
Istanbul University

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