Neil Faulkner looks at how the revolution that began in Turkey in 1908 initiated a process that would transform the middle east over the following two decades.
Revolutions are infectious. The revolutions of 1848, 1917, 1989, and 2011 all went global. Russia’s 1905 Revolution was no exception. It set off a wave of revolutions, notably in Persia (1906), Turkey (1908), Mexico (1910), and China (1911).
That in Turkey in 1908 began a process which would transform the Middle East over the next two decades.
In 1908, the region was still dominated by the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and western Arabia.
Founded in Anatolia (ancient Turkey) by a Turkish-speaking warlord in the 14th century, the Ottoman Empire had been forged in two centuries of imperial conquest culminating in the first half of the 16th century.
The old Byzantine capital of Constantinople had been captured in 1453. Thereafter, Ottoman armies had surged across the Balkans and into Central Europe as far as the gates of Vienna; across the East to the Caspian and the Persian Gulf; down both sides of the Red Sea, which became an Ottoman lake; and along almost the whole extent of North Africa, with Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria all becoming Ottoman provinces.
The empire was ruled by an absolutist sultan and a military-bureaucratic apparatus of soldiers and officials. Its army, equipped with modern cannon and muskets, was a mixture of mercenary-professional and state-feudal elements.
Ottoman civil society – landlords and peasants in the countryside, merchants and artisans in the towns – was divided for administrative purposes into separate ethno-religious ‘millets’ controlled by conservative community leaders.
The main domestic preoccupations of the Ottoman state were maintaining internal order and collecting taxes. Civil society existed for the benefit of the military-bureaucratic state. Economics served politics.
The free development of economic and social forces was blocked by military-bureaucratic and feudal elites determined to defend traditional power and privilege. Because of this, during the 18th century, geopolitical power shifted from a stagnant Ottoman Empire to more dynamic European rivals.
As the central power waned, the inherent weaknesses of the empire – its lack of either geographical or national coherence – were exposed. In the early 19th century, Egypt became effectively independent under local satraps, and Greece won its freedom through armed insurrection.
The Ottoman Empire became ‘the Sick Man of Europe’. Despite the mounting threat of fragmentation due to internal revolt and foreign predation, the Ottoman ruling class resisted reform and modernisation. Successive attempts to engineer a ‘bourgeois revolution from above’ hit the buffers.
What saved the Ottomans during the 19th century was the rivalry of the great powers and a flow of foreign loans and investments.
Britain and France supported the Turks in the Crimean War (1853-1856) as a bulwark against Russian expansion southwards. And British and French bankers thereafter made loans to fund railways and armaments.
Late 19th century modernisation therefore turned the Ottoman Empire into a semi-colonial dependency. The regime of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) spent 60% of state revenue on the army and administration, and 30% on interest payments to foreign bankers.
In 1905-1907, inspired by the Russian example, the Armenian subject-people of eastern Turkey rose in revolt against new taxes and military conscription. The Ottoman regime was unable to suppress the revolt. The taxes were cancelled and an amnesty granted. Before this happened, the revolt spread to other parts of the empire.
An underground opposition network – the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) – had formed among junior army officers serving in the Balkans. The heart of this ‘Young Turk’ movement was Ottoman-ruled Salonika (now Thessaloniki).
The CUP was a party of middle-class nationalists angered by the weakness and corruption of the Abdulhamid regime. It was committed to a liberal constitution and the reform and modernisation necessary to achieve great-power status.
On 3 July 1908, a maverick army major took unilateral action by issuing a revolutionary manifesto. Bounced into action, on 23 July, the CUP leader Enver Pasha proclaimed the (suspended) Ottoman constitution restored.
The revolt immediately became general across the Ottoman armies in the Balkans. The day after Enver’s proclamation, Sultan Abdulhamid announced parliamentary elections. With its army in revolt, the dictatorship had capitulated.
Was this a military coup or a popular revolution? It was both. The revolution was led by army officers. The military discipline of the regime’s army had operated in reverse: the rank-and-file soldiers did not mutiny; they simply obeyed their officers’ orders to act against the government.
But the rank and file were deeply discontented because of unpaid wages and endemic corruption. And the revolution sparked a strike wave, with 111 recorded strikes from August to December 1908, resulting in average wage increases of 15%.
The revolution also continued in the countryside, where it had begun as a peasant revolt against taxation and conscription. The Armenians had started it, but the Turks and the Arabs soon joined it.
So this was a popular revolution led by middle-class army officers. Why did the Young Turk Revolution take this distinctive form?
Industry was underdeveloped and dependent on foreign capital. Therefore, both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were exceptionally weak. Beyond the large towns, Ottoman society was geographically dispersed, socially fragmented, and culturally diverse.
The state-service middle class – centred on army officers – was the only social group with the cohesion, organisation, and vision to lead a revolution. The Ottoman Empire was a military state: so the Ottoman Revolution acquired military leadership.
A traditional empire in decline, threatened by the forces of modernity, thus conjured a distinctive form of bourgeois revolution: a hybrid of the French (‘from below’) and the Prussian (‘from above’).
The dictatorship had collapsed, but the dictator remained in office. The CUP stood at the head of a revolution, but was excluded from state power. Between July 1908 and April 1909, the Ottoman Empire was governed by an unstable dual power.
In mid-April 1909, the crisis broke. Islamist conservatives mounted mass demonstrations against the new reform government in Istanbul, and paramilitaries loyal to the regime massacred 17,000 Armenians in the Adana district.
The CUP moved to crush the attempted counter-revolution. On 22 April, troops from the Balkans entered Istanbul and restored the constitution. A week later, they occupied the Yildiz Palace and forced Abdulhamid to resign.
This second revolution put effective state power in the hands of the CUP leadership. But the accumulated contradictions of the Ottoman Empire proved insoluble for the CUP regime. The years 1909-1914 were years of continuing political crisis.
The revolution had unleashed powerful forces. The proletarian and peasant upsurge in Turkey itself had to be contained if the CUP was to construct a modern capitalist nation-state. And the national aspirations of the subject-peoples of the wider empire – Serbs, Greeks, Bulgars, Armenians, Arabs – had to be suppressed.
The revolution was to be transformed by war. Turkey was embroiled in a rapid succession of wars between 1911 and 1923 whose effect was to destroy the old Ottoman Empire and create a new Turkish Republic.
The process of destruction was rapid and extreme. The Ottomans lost control of Libya in 1912 and Macedonia in 1913. The embattled CUP leaders became increasingly authoritarian and heavily dependent on foreign loans and expertise to build railways and modernise the armed forces.
In January 1913, the constitutional government was overthrown in a military coup and replaced by dictatorship of three top CUP leaders. Growing dependence on German capital and German military advisors led, in early August 1914, to a secret military alliance with Berlin.
The CUP leaders were now proclaiming pan-Turkish nationalism. This was a threat both to subject-peoples inside the empire and to Tsarist Russia’s interests in Central Asia. Intensified oppression of national minorities became linked with warmongering in the Caucasus and the transformation of the Ottoman Empire into a bastion of German imperialism.
The Young Turk Revolution of 1908-1909 was ‘deflected’ by a middle-class leadership with bourgeois-nationalist aims. The popular revolution of workers, peasants, soldiers, and national minorities was suppressed.
For this, the people of the former Ottoman Empire would pay a terrible price, as their leaders led them into the inferno of a modern industrialised world war.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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