The 1908 Young Turk revolution: an unfinished revolution?

* Paper presented at: From Rebellion to Revolution: Dynamics of Political Change, 16th Berlin Roundtables organized by the Irmgard Coninx Stiftung, the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung and Humboldt University, Berlin, 17-20 October 2012

A lot of controversy surrounds the revolution that broke out in the Ottoman Empire in July 1908, known as the Young Turk revolution. Even though it is accepted today that Ottoman history does not constitute an “exception” (as it was once thought), the Young Turk revolution is still generally viewed as a sui generis event, not fitting in any of the models developed by social scientists. It is indeed difficult to assess to which extent the Young Turk revolution actually mobilized large segments of Ottoman society and whether or not it brought about radical change; for this reason, there is even controversy on whether it is a “real” revolution or simply a coup d’état.1

In this essay, I intend to place the Young Turk revolution in the general discussion on revolutions. In doing so, I will try on the one hand not to lose from sight its peculiarities, and, on the other, to overcome the historian’s reluctance towards models and theories. I will be using material on the Young Turk revolution, and works on revolution in general or on other revolutions. First, I will critically present the events that prepare the 1908 revolution, and the revolution itself (its main actors, goals and methods). Then, taking also into account its outcomes, I will propose different possible appraisals of the Young Turk revolution. My main argument is that the answer to the question whether it is a “real” revolution depends on the perspective from which one is looking at it. Indeed, we could consider it in two different ways: as having brought about radical change on some levels but having failed to do so on other levels, or as having initiated an ongoing process of formation of new revolutionary forces.

As the name by which it came to be known clearly suggests, the main actors of the 1908 revolution in the Ottoman Empire are the Young Turks. This is an opposition movement that aims to restore the 1876 Constitution (suspended in 1878) and reverse Abdülhamid’s autocratic rule. If we are to describe the Young Turks in one phrase, they are “mostly either employed by the state or else connected or oriented to its activities.”2 Their ideology is not coherent in all its aspects, but they are unanimous on their desire to save the Ottoman state by implementing reforms that will bring it to pace with modern European states.3 In certain ways, the Young Turks’ fears and goals do not differ from those of the “old guard” of high-ranking officials close to Abdülhamid.4 Nevertheless, the Young Turks stress the need for a bureaucracy freed from favoritism and a political system in which educated men will have a say in state matters; hence their demand for the restoration of Constitution.

By 1908, there are various indications that the Hamidian régime is faltering. Economic problems are worsening5; soldiers are not paid on time and the occurrence of mutinies increases6; revolts break out in a number of Anatolian localities in 1905-07.7 However, these revolts do not provoke the 1908 revolution, as they do not challenge the Ottoman political system. More importantly, they have ceased by 1908, when the revolution breaks out in Macedonia, according to a plan devised by the main Young Turk organization, the reorganized Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).8 In June 1908, some Unionist officers organize bands that take to the mountains. On July 9 and 10, the Unionists proclaim the Constitution in various Macedonian localities, notifying the Palace by telegraph that, if the Constitution is not restored, they shall march to Istanbul. The next day, their demands are met: the sultan proclaims the Constitution and announces the convening of Parliament.9

This brief description seems to corroborate the thesis that the so-called revolution is in reality a coup d’état. Action is temporally and spatially localized: it only lasts a few days and takes place exclusively in Macedonia; at the same time, action is led by a limited group of people, the CUP (mainly by its military members). There is, however, some popular participation. First, as Unionist bands take to the mountains, they meet with probably thousands of armed Albanians that are leading a spontaneous movement in Firzovik; they convince the Albanians to join their movement.10 Second, in the localities where the Constitution is proclaimed by the Unionists, people immediately rejoice, taking part in public celebrations. Subsequently, celebrations spread to all parts of the Empire and last several days: Ottomans, regardless of ethno-religious affiliations, celebrate the new régime, which they see as the beginning of a new era for the Ottoman Empire.11

The extent and scope of popular participation should not be exaggerated. It comes after the proclamation of the Constitution and it certainly does not provoke it. More importantly, popular action is closely guided and controlled by the CUP: slogans used during celebrations are those launched by the CUP; the Unionists, very concerned with the preservation of calm, formally warn Ottomans not to violate public order; fifteen days after the proclamation of the Constitution, judging that this much effervescence is enough, the CUP asks that an end be put to public celebrations.12 Still, the Young Turk revolution is a defining moment for the appearance of the masses on the public scene. In the months following July 1908, there is popular participation in a number of actions.13 The increased occurrence of strikes14, and the widespread popular support for a boycott against Austrian goods that begins in October 190815, are probably the most telling examples for this.

So is this a revolution, or a coup d’état? Here is where the importance of the revolution’s outcomes intervenes.16 The consequences of the Young Turk revolution for the political structure of the Ottoman Empire are extremely important. The 1876 Constitution had been granted by the sultan (it had not been prepared by a constituent assembly) and gave very limited powers to Parliament. The Parliament elected after the 1908 revolution takes a number of initiatives that change this. Labeling itself “National Assembly”, it claims – and in practice acquires – the right to control the government in the name of the “sovereignty of the nation”; thus, the régime is turned into a parliamentary régime where the government is answerable to the nation’s representatives.17 Subsequently, the Parliament also proceeds to revise the Constitution (in the summer of 1909): changes in the régime are formally sanctioned, and the Constitution is now transformed into a contract between the sultan and the nation.18 Thus, thanks to the 1908 revolution, state power is henceforth legitimized in the name of the nation. Clearly, the Young Turk revolution has all the characteristics of a political revolution.19

But we should also consider the compromises that the Young Turks make. It is significant that, very quickly, the sultan and the officials of the “old guard”, on the one hand, and the Young Turk revolutionaries, on the other, come to terms with each other. The CUP does not oust Abdülhamid20 and it certainly does not turn against the sultanate in general.21 The sultan not only grants the Constitution, but speaks in a language very close to that of the revolutionaries.22 Overall, there is a very smooth transition of power23; it would seem that the sultan passes over part of his legitimacy to the CUP in exchange for the new means that the CUP can provide for controlling the great mass of the Ottoman population and for strengthening the Empire’s legitimacy on the international scene.

Indeed, the CUP brings new methods for rallying the Ottoman subjects’ active loyalty, which was one of the Hamidian régime’s goals.24 It does so by placating and channeling popular action. In strikes, the Unionists intervene and act as mediators: they convince companies to make certain concessions; most importantly, they make sure that popular action does not exceed certain boundaries.25 As for the boycott, it is part of the Unionists’ strategy: the CUP organizes the boycott and uses it in order to advance the state’s goals; it is a means for the Ottomans to put pressure on a foreign power, and make it look like they do not control this pressure, so that the Ottoman state, in turn, is not pressured by foreign powers.26 What the CUP accomplishes by using these tactics in various moments, is to convince everyone concerned that there is henceforth an Ottoman nation that should be taken into account.27 Popular celebrations for the change of régime are designed to show to the sultan that the whole nation demanded the Constitution. The boycott shows to European states that an Ottoman nation exists and is ready to fight for its rights; the Europeans can no longer coerce the sultan into conceding land or privileges on the Ottoman territory.

In short, the Young Turks invent a nation in the most real sense of the word invent, as popular action is controlled, organized and channeled. Indeed, it is still only the voice of the élites that is being heard in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans do not become a “people” in the political sense of the word; they do not have an independent, political role. The Parliament claims to be speaking in the name of the nation, but that does not mean much: even though almost all male Ottomans can vote, in practice elections are carried out as a negotiation between the CUP, local notables and the leaderships of the Empire’s ethno-religious communities.28 Thus, we certainly cannot talk of a social revolution in the case of the Young Turk revolution.29 Or, in that case, we should talk of a failed revolution: even though there is a certain revolutionary impetus in Ottoman society, in the end there is no social transformation.

In the final analysis, when all of the above is taken into consideration, it might be more accurate to talk of the Young Turk revolution as an unfinished revolution. Furet argues that the French revolution should be seen as a very long process that is only completed at the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century, when the Republic finally brings the results of the Revolution to the most profound corners of French territory.30 Similarly, even though more than a century has elapsed, we might consider that the Young Turk revolution is not yet finished. The Young Turk revolution is carried out by an élite in the name of the nation: this reference to a “nation” bears the seed of profound social transformation, since it promises all Ottomans equal participation in the political community of the nation. However, this seed does not flower during or immediately after the Young Turk revolution, because the Young Turks do not wish a social transformation31, and there is no independent, political movement among the lower strata that would force their hand towards such a transformation (there are no sans-culottes, or a commune later on).

The Kemalists, who succeed to the Young Turks, have similar goals and use similar tactics. In the modern Turkey that they build, the élite talks and acts in the name of the nation, while the masses do not actively participate in politics.32 The history of Turkey in the 20th century, from one-party rule all through recurring military interventions (always in the name of the nation), illustrates this.33 Whoever gets control of the state machinery is also thought to be representing the nation as a whole; no differentiation and no opposition is tolerated – opposition is immediately termed as anti-national and deprived of any legitimacy. This, one might argue, is still the case today, even though the accession to power of a moderate Islamic party (the Justice and Development Party – AKP) with mass support seemed to signify the active participation in politics of the great mass of the Turkish people34: when AKP talks in the name of the “national will”, it immediately dismisses opposition against the government as opposition to the nation, as though the nation were uniform and only represented by the government that controls the state machinery.35

In other words, the Young Turk revolution did bring about radical change – the legitimation of state power in the name of the nation – and released important dynamics that might lead to even more radical change. That these dynamics are still to be fully realized does not necessarily mean that it failed. Adopting a different perspective, we could see it as only the beginning of an ongoing revolutionary process. This could contribute to our understanding of Ottoman/Turkish history by providing us a framework within which to conceptualize élite-generated interventions (such as military coups), but also opposition movements (ethnic, communist or Islamic). It could also contribute to our understanding of social change and revolution in general, especially in societies that feel the need to find a “shortcut” in order to cope with the challenge posed by Western nation-states. It could be the case that in these societies an initial revolutionary change brought about by an élite is accompanied by the same élite’s effort to control the revolutionary dynamics it has itself helped to release; however, the initial revolutionary change never ceases to generate new dynamics. The original revolutionary moment could thus be seen as only the birth date of social forces that will much later become the driving force of further revolutionary change.

Bibliography and abbreviations

Primary sources:

-AMAE: Archives du Ministère des Affaires Étrangères

-CPC-NS: Correspondance politique et commerciale – Nouvelle Série:

-Turquie: Dossier Général: 1; 4; 5; 179

-Turquie: Macédoine: 58

-Constantinople-Série E: 85; 125; 397

-MMZC: Meclisi Mebusan Zabıt Cerideleri [Minutes of the Assembly of Deputies], Period 1, Assembly Year 1, Volumes 1-6, TBMM, Ankara 1982-

Secondary Sources:

-Ahmad, Feroz, “Unionist relations with the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1914”, in Braude, Benjamin and Bernard Lewis (eds.), Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. The Functioning of a Plural Society, Vol. I: The Central Lands, Holmes & Meier, New York-London 1982, pp. 401-434

-Aktar, O.Cengiz, L’Occidentalisation de la Turquie, L’Harmattan, Paris 1985

-“Milli İrade ile Milli Birlik” [National will and national unity]: http://bianet.org/bianet/siyaset/105891-milli-irade-ile-milli-birlik (retrieved: 28 June 2012)

Birikim, No. 163-164, November-December 2002

-Bozarslan, Hamit, Histoire de la Turquie Contemportaine, LaDécouverte, Paris 2004

Çetinkaya, Y. Doğan, 1908 Osmanlı Boykotu. Bir Toplumsal Hareketin Analizi [The 1908 Ottoman boycott. Analysis of a social movement], İletişim Yayınları, Istanbul 2004

1908 Devrimi’nde Kamusal Alan ve Kitle Siyasetinde Dönüşüm” [The public sphere and the transformation of mass politics in the 1908 revolution], İstanbul Üniversitesi Siyasal Bilgiler Fakültesi Dergisi [Journal of the Department of Political Science of the University Istanbul], No 38, March 2008, pp. 125-140

-Dağlar, Oya, “II. Meşrutiyet’in İlanının İstanbul Basını’ndaki Yansımaları (1908)” [Reflexions of the proclamation of the Second Constitutional Period in the Istanbul Press], İstanbul Üniversitesi Siyasal Bilgiler Fakültesi Dergisi, op.cit., pp. 141-159

-Deringil, Selim, The Well-Protected Domains, I.B.Tauris, London-New York 1999

Foran, John and Jeff Goodwin, “Revolutionary Outcomes in Iran and Nicaragua: Coalition Fragmentation, War, and the Limits of Social Transformation”, Theory and Society, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Apr., 1993), pp. 209-247

-Furet, François, Penser la Révolution Française, Gallimard, Paris 1985

Gözübüyük, Şeref and Suna Kili, Türk Anayasa Metinleri 1839 – 1980 [Ottoman constitutional texts], AÜSBF Yayınları, Ankara 1982

Hanioğlu, Şükrü, Preparation for a Revolution. The Young Turks, 1902-1908, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York 2001

İstanbul Üniversitesi Siyasal Bilgiler Fakültesi Dergisi [Journal of the Department of Political Science of the University Istanbul], No 38, March 2008

Karakışla, Yavuz Selim, “The 1908 Strike Wave in the Ottoman Empire”, The Turkish Studies Association Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 2, September 1992, pp. 153-177

Kayalı, Hasan, Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire 1908-1918, University of California Press, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London 1997

Mardin, Şerif, Jön Türklerin Siyasî Fikirleri 1895-1908 [The political ideas of the Young Turks], İletişim Yayınları, Istanbul 2003

-Quataert, Donald, Social Disintegration and Popular Resistance in the Ottoman Empire, 1881 – 1908. Reactions to European Economic Penetration, New York University Press, New York-London 1983

-“The Economic Climate of the ‘Young Turk Revolution’ in 1908”, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 51, No. 3, On Demand Supplement (Sep., 1979), D1147-D1161

-Skocpol, Theda, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1979

-“France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Apr., 1976), pp. 175-210

Tanör, Bülent, Osmanlı-Türk Anayasal Gelişmeleri (1789-1980) [Ottoman-Turkish constitutional developments], Yapı Kredi Yayınları, Istanbul 2006

-Tunaya, Tarık Zafer, Türkiye’de Siyasal Partiler [Political parties in Turkey], Vol. 1, İletişim Yayınları, Istanbul 1998

1 For examples of Ottomanist historians’ ambiguity on the issue, see the interviews gathered in: İstanbul Üniversitesi Siyasal Bilgiler Fakültesi Dergisi, No 38, March 2008

2 Theda Skocpol, “France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Apr., 1976), pp. 175-210, p. 204. Skocpol uses this phrase in order to describe the “radical leadership” in social revolutions: “radical leadership in social revolutions came specifically from the ranks of skilled and/or university-educated marginal elites oriented to state employments and activities.”; ibid., p. 204.

3 On the Young Turks, see: Şükrü Hanioğlu, Preparation for a Revolution. The Young Turks, 1902-1908, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York 2001; Şerif Mardin, Jön Türklerin Siyasî Fikirleri 1895-1908, İletişim Yayınları, Istanbul 2003

4 AMAE: CPC-NS: Turquie: Dossier Général 1: 14-18

5 Donald Quataert, “The Economic Climate of the ‘Young Turk Revolution’ in 1908”, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 51, No. 3, On Demand Supplement (Sep., 1979), D1147-D1161

6 AMAE: CPC-NS: Turquie: Dossier Général: 4: 190-191; 5: 3-4

7 Hanioğlu, op.cit., pp. 91-124

8 Ibid., pp. 130-209

9 For a description of the revolution, see: Hanioğlu, op.cit., pp. 210-278; AMAE: Constantinople-Série E: 85: “Notes – Le Comité Union et Progrès”

10 Hanioğlu, Preparation for a Revolution, pp. 271-273

11 Oya Dağlar, II. Meşrutiyet’in İlanının İstanbul Basını’ndaki Yansımaları (1908)”, İstanbul Üniversitesi Siyasal Bilgiler Fakültesi Dergisi, op.cit., pp. 141-159

12 AMAE: CPC-NS: Turquie: Macédoine: 58: 66, 6817, 701; AMAE: Constantinople-Série E: 125: Salonique, 2-8-908: “Révolution du 23 Juillet. Proclamation de la Constitution. Manifestations et fêtes. Le comité ‘union et progrès’”; Hanioğlu, op.cit., p. 242; Dağlar, op.cit., p. 157

13 Y.Doğan Çetinkaya, 1908 Devrimi’nde Kamusal Alan ve Kitle Siyasetinde Dönüşüm”, İstanbul Üniversitesi Siyasal Bilgiler Fakültesi Dergisi, op.cit., pp. 125-140

14 Yavuz Selim Karakışla, “The 1908 Strike Wave in the Ottoman Empire”, The Turkish Studies Association Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 2, September 1992, pp. 153-177

15 Y.Doğan Çetinkaya, 1908 Osmanlı Boykotu. Bir Toplumsal Hareketin Analizi, İletişim Yayınları, Istanbul 2004; Donald Quataert, Social Disintegration and Popular Resistance in the Ottoman Empire, 1881 – 1908. Reactions to European Economic Penetration, New York University Press, New York-London 1983, pp. 121-145

16 For an article stressing the importance of examining outcomes when studying revolutions, see: John Foran and Jeff Goodwin, “Revolutionary Outcomes in Iran and Nicaragua: Coalition Fragmentation, War, and the Limits of Social Transformation”, Theory and Society, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Apr., 1993), pp. 209-247

17 MMZC, Vol. 1-2. I examine these developments in detail in my PhD thesis, which is under preparation.

18 MMZC, Vol. 3-6; Bülent Tanör, Osmanlı-Türk Anayasal Gelişmeleri (1789-1980), Yapı Kredi Yayınları, Istanbul 2006, pp. 192-197

19 Here, I rely on how Skocpol defines political revolutions in reference to the English revolution: Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1979, pp. 4, 140-144

20 Abdülhamid will be ousted in April 1909, following a “counterrevolution”.

21 The Unionists refer to the sultan as “the nation’s symbol”. See a text published by the CUP during the revolution: Tarık Zafer Tunaya, Türkiye’de Siyasal Partiler, Vol. 1, İletişim Yayınları, Istanbul 1998, pp. 91-93

22 See two proclamations by the sultan: Şeref Gözübüyük and Suna Kili, Türk Anayasa Metinleri 1839 – 1980, AÜSBF Yayınları, Ankara 1982, pp. 65-70

23 Hanioğlu, op.cit., p. 281; AMAE: Constantinople-Série E: 397: “Extrait du journal Turquie du 25 Août”

24 Selim Deringil, The Well-Protected Domains, I.B.Tauris, London-New York 1999

25 Karakışla, op.cit., pp. 171-174

26 Quataert, Social Disintegration, pp. 141-145

27 AMAE: CPC-NS: Turquie: Dossier Général: 179: 1301-1302

28 Feroz Ahmad, “Unionist relations with the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire, 1908 – 1914”, in Braude, Benjamin and Bernard Lewis (eds.), Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. The Functioning of a Plural Society, Vol. I: The Central Lands, Holmes & Meier, New York-London 1982, pp. 401-434; Hasan Kayalı, Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire 1908-1918, University of California Press, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London 1997, pp. 60-66

29 Again, I follow Skocpol’s definition: Skocpol, op.cit., p. 4

30 François Furet, Penser la Révolution Française, Gallimard, Paris 1985. The first part of this book is very tellingly entitled “The French revolution is over”.

31 Hanioğlu, op.cit., pp. 308-311

32 On the continuity between the Young Turks and the Kemalists, see: O.Cengiz Aktar, L’Occidentalisation de la Turquie, L’Harmattan, Paris 1985

33 Hamit Bozarslan, Histoire de la Turquie Contemportaine, LaDécouverte, Paris 2004

34 For an appraisal of the AKP soon after its accession to power, see the special issue of Birikim, No. 163-164, November-December 2002

35 This can be traced in the Turkish press; for just one appraisal, see: Cengiz Aktar, “Milli İrade ile Milli Birlik”: http://bianet.org/bianet/siyaset/105891-milli-irade-ile-milli-birlik (retrieved: 28 June 2012)

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