The CUP and civil komitacılık after 1908: creating a “state of exception” from below

Paper presented at: The Age of the Komitadji, International Conference organized by the Middle Eastern Studies Program – Social Sciences Department, University of Basel & the Department of Political Science, University of Utah, Basel, 22-24 January 2015

In this paper, I want to set some first terms and prerequisites for a discussion which I think is essential in understanding the last period of Ottoman history, as well as subsequent developments in the post-Ottoman space, especially in the Turkish Republic. I will present some trends which I think are clearly observable during the Second Constitutional Period, and try to put them in context.

I will discuss the practices of the main Young Turk organization, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), after the 1908 revolution. Before 1908, the CUP is clearly a committee that can only operate secretly in the Ottoman Empire; but after the revolution, when the constitution is restored, the CUP also – although not exclusively – engages in open political activity, later forming a parliamentary party (although, as already suggested by Tarık Zafer Tunaya, the Unionists’ “dilemma” between being a more or less secret committee and becoming a party that would only operate openly was never really resolved). I will not look at the post-1913 period, when the CUP rules more or less dictatorially. What I am interested in, are the practices – and ethos – that the CUP brings into Ottoman politics; and the Second Constitutional Period, inaugurated by the 1908 revolution, is the first time when it becomes actually possible to talk of politics in the Ottoman Empire. The CUP is a very important, very powerful political player, and to a large extent shapes Ottoman politics and Ottoman political culture – with consequences that extend well into the republican era.

First, I will posit the main changes that this era brings from its very beginning. The Young Turk era is a period of profound political change in the Ottoman Empire. As the name by which it is best known in Turkish, Second Constitutional Period, suggests, this is a change of regime; and it can be claimed that it marks the beginning of mass politics in the Ottoman Empire. But in what terms exactly? Is there a real change in the Ottoman political order? Is there a change in the relationship between power and subjects? What exactly do we mean, when we talk of mass politics in the Ottoman Empire during this era? Do political players, and especially the CUP (which is the best organized and best placed political organization from the beginning of this era) promote or inhibit the active participation of Ottomans in politics? This will be my second part: I will give some examples of the CUP’s practices within the new, constitutional regime. I will not talk about the CUP’s underground, illegal and clearly violent activities, such as political assassinations. I will focus on methods used by the CUP which are, in some cases, unorthodox, but not outright illegal. I argue that these methods constitute what I term “civil komitacılık”, and that they are very aptly used within the new conditions offered by the constitutional regime. In turn, the CUP’s civil komitacılık is a great asset in the Committee’s effort to gain ideological and actual hegemony. More importantly, civil komitacılık shapes politics and political culture in a very specific way.

The Second Constitutional Period: emergence of an Ottoman nation?

I’m not stating anything novel here, if I say that the Young Turks are very much state-centered in their origins, their ideas, and their aims. The Young Turk movement is born out of 19th century reforms and Hamidian official nationalism. The Young Turks bring official nationalism to its logical conclusion, taking up its rhetoric on their own account. Official nationalism under Abdülhamid strove to instill a sense of common belonging to all Ottomans, to inspire to subjects active loyalty to state and monarch. The Young Turks, feeling indeed that their interests were identified with the continued existence of the Ottoman state, asked to have a say in state affairs.

1908 marks indeed a turning point for the Ottoman political system. Power had been contested before in the Ottoman Empire. What makes of 1908 a turning point is the fact that the Young Turks, and the Parliament elected in 1908, do not simply claim power; they claim – and achieve – a change in the legitimation of power. During the first months of constitutional regime we witness a transfer of sovereignty: the Parliament succeeds in assuming sovereignty in the name of the nation.

This transfer of sovereignty has important implications for the Ottoman political order. On the one hand, all political decisions and actions have now to be legitimized as justified by the common good, as serving the common / general interests of the nation. On the other hand, “national interests”, and, generally, references to the nation, become a very powerful weapon both on the internal political scene, and on the international arena.

Unionists see themselves as spokesmen of the Ottoman nation, and are aware of the symbolic power of the nation already before the revolution. This is evident in Young Turk publications and proclamations. Shortly before the revolution, in May 1908, the CUP sends foreign consulates a proclamation according to which “this nation, united under the name ‘Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress’ has decided to push back all foreign interferences in its sacred national rights”. During the revolutionary days of July 1908, Unionists try to corroborate this claim in practice: this is the meaning of public ceremonies and demonstrations as the constitution is proclaimed in town after town in Macedonia. And they seem to be successful. Right after the revolution, a French report recognizes that there is a new reality in the Ottoman Empire, a reality that European powers shall have to take into account, and concludes that foreign powers will no longer be able to impose decisions on the sultan, but will have to take into account the “Turkish nation, […] a legal entity [entité morale] which, to this day, did not constitute a body, and actually did not exist.”

However, defining the nation is a tricky issue – and not only in the Ottoman case. For the sake of this discussion I’ll leave aside one very important aspect of the definition of the nation in the Ottoman context, namely the issue of defining a nation in a multi-ethnic empire. Even if that were not an issue, it is quite difficult to define who is part of the nation, who and how participates in the definition of the nation and of its general interests through his or her political participation – it is obvious here that I take nation as a strictly political category, in the meaning of political community. In well-documented cases of nations born in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, such as those of France and Greece, we see the body politic of the nation slowly and laboriously formed out of revolution, wars, and civil war. Different segments of society are included or excluded, demand participation, and fight over the definition of the nation, until a more or less generally accepted mix is formed and peace reigns – at least for some years.

The CUP and civil komitacılık

In the very short Second Constitutional Period, what is the CUP’s idea of the Ottoman nation? Leaving aside the question of whether the Unionists, at the beginning of this period, are sincere Ottomanists or closeted Turkists (I say that they’re neither), my question here has to do mainly with the issue of whether they opened up the political community under construction to popular participation, or, on the contrary, limited participation in the nation: for the CUP, is the Ottoman nation something that only concerns an educated elite, or does the CUP see all Ottomans as part of the political community? In other words, does the CUP want and promote a new relationship between power and people, an inclusion of the people in the political system? Does the CUP promote or inhibit actual, effective, political participation of the great mass of the Ottoman people i.e. a culture of active citizenship?

Here, the CUP – and other political players of this period, for that matter – is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, the CUP is fully aware of the advantages of popular participation: it is thanks to popular participation that references to the nation acquire a palpable content. On the other hand, the CUP is highly elitist. Having worked on the Minutes of the Ottoman Parliament, my general observation from parliamentary discussions is that deputies – including leading Unionist deputies – see the notions of “nation” and “people” as totally distinct; in fact, they believe that the people are ignorant, susceptible to be “manipulated” by all kinds of reactionary forces, and have thus to be kept away from politics; the Parliament should make decisions in the name of the nation, on behalf of the nation – we could even say that deputies see it as their duty to safeguard the nation against the ignorant and manipulable people (so, in other words, “nation” and “people” are not just distinct categories, but there is an antithesis between the two: it’s nation against people). This tendency is clearly observable in a series of laws prepared in the summer of 1909 in the aim of regulating rights and freedoms, such as the Press law and the law on public gatherings. In discussions on these laws, and on their final results, it is obvious that deputies – once again including leading Unionist deputies – want to keep the great mass of the people away from politics, i.e. they want to limit active political participation. Rights and freedoms are limited, with arguments such as “public gatherings should not be able to put pressure on Parliament”, and “our people do not understand what they read in newspapers”.

Where does that leave the CUP? How does it answer the dilemma I referred to? In reality, what the CUP would desire the most would be for the people to be active in politics in the way /direction preferred /set by the CUP. This is a situation best described in Bertolt Brecht’s famous lines: “would it not be simpler, if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?” Short of electing a new people, the CUP tries to control, provoke, and channel popular action; while it accuses “reactionaries” and “traitors” of manipulating the people, it itself seeks to manipulate the people and public opinion. The methods that it uses in order to do so constitute what I term CUP’s civil komitacılık.

Indeed, if 1908 sees the beginning of mass politics and popular mobilization in the Ottoman Empire, spontaneous mobilization of different segments of society, according to aims set by the groups in question, is soon superseded by controlled mass action in the service of “national” goals set by the CUP. Approximately two weeks after the change of regime, Unionists, for whom public order is essential, ask for an end to demonstrations of joy. The strike wave that follows the restoration of the constitution also ends thanks to a provisional law on strikes adopted upon the request of the CUP – and this, after several strikes had ended thanks to the intervention of Unionists, who often tried to accommodate workers’ demands, but were interested, above all, in preventing any infringement on order or disruption of economic activity. On the other hand, the boycott against Austrian goods, launched in the autumn of 1908, flourishes thanks to Unionist support. While the CUP dislikes uncontrolled popular action, it promotes controlled grass-roots action.

The boycott is designed to show to European powers that Ottoman interests are now national interests to be defended by the nation itself, by the people. But controlled popular mobilization, or a semblance of popular mobilization, is aptly used by the CUP not only vis-à-vis foreign powers, but also in the home front, against those who do not share the CUP’s perception of Ottomanism, i.e. do not share CUP’s view on how the Ottoman nation should be defined. In a very characteristic incident, in March 1909, the well-known Unionist newspaper Tanin, which is published by prominent Unionist Hüseyin Cahit, who is also deputy for Istanbul, launches a campaign against three Istanbul newspapers: Greek-language Neologos and Proodos, and French-language Levant Herald. All three newspapers are very critical of the CUP, which, they say, is trying to impose its agenda in parliamentary discussions, and voice their concern for the place reserved to ethno-religious groups, especially Ottoman Greeks, in the new regime. A small, very well planned and very orderly demonstration is provoked by Tanin‘s polemic against these newspapers. The demonstration, small but well-planned and orderly, hands a written petition to the president of the Parliament and the government. The next day, the president of the Parliament, Unionist Ahmet Rıza, starts an extraordinary discussion based on this document, despite protests by a number of deputies – including the well-known liberal Lütfi Fikri – that this constitutes a violation of parliamentary procedure and an effort, on the part of the government, to limit the freedom of the press, at a time when the government is trying to push through a new press law. In this instance, the CUP uses a grass-roots action in order to push through its agenda, bypassing normal parliamentary procedures. The relevant discussion helps formulate and promote a discourse on the need to defend the Ottoman nation and its unity, by all means – including, obviously, by measures that bypass the principles and institutions of the constitutional regime.

Tanin is actually at the forefront of the CUP’s civil komitacılık. It does not limit itself to putting forth the Committee’s views and ideas; Tanin‘s articles are designed to incite public opinion and provoke political developments. In this spirit, Tanin leads defamation campaigns against public figures that the CUP wants to neutralize: in perfect timing for the Unionists’ actions, for example when they want to have one of their own replace a minister, Tanin writes of past actions of the minister in question, usually accusing him of having been one of Abdülhamid’s “jurnalcı”s, i.e. those who used to send the ill-famous reports to the Palace, with the aim of obtaining the sultan’s favors. In this way, Tanin reserves to itself the privilege of defining who is a patriot and who is a traitor and/or reactionary.

A “state of exception” from below

By employing these methods of civil komitacılık, the CUP manages several things: it manages to create the semblance of a mobilized nation in issues that have to do with Ottoman national interests; it manages to present itself as the true interpreter of national / popular feelings, and, maybe most importantly, it manages to set the limits of public dialogue, and, indeed, the limits of the nation.

Proodos, one of the newspapers affected by Tanin‘s campaign, accuses Tanin‘s publisher and Unionist deputy Hüseyin Cahit of trying to “monopolize patriotism”, and observes that the CUP is creating an “absolutism from below”, not very different from Abdülhamid’s absolutism. It is certain that civil komitacılık does not promote pluralism, or the actual, active political participation of the people. Not only does the CUP orchestrate popular action; it sets the limits and the aims of mass action and of politics in general. Public dialogue is taken up, seized by Tanin‘s campaigns, to a point where the political adversaries of the CUP cannot express their opinions without being accused by Tanin of not being patriotic.

The expression used by Proodos, “absolutism from below”, has an interesting echo in a term proposed by Tanıl Bora – Bora follows here on a German study on the Nazi era – in his book on incidents of lynching in republican Turkey; this term is “state of exception from below”. In the incidents mentioned by Tanıl Bora, as well as in incidents of Unionist civil komitacılık, we see power tolerating, channeling, and even inciting grass-roots mobilization in accordance with aims set by power as state or national aims. In turn, this creates a pressure on society and on the political system, pushing towards the positions desired by power.

I think that the state is crucial here. The CUP’s ideology and practice are state-centered; and they try to organize society in conformity with state interests – as they themselves define them – instead of letting society, different groups in society, to get organized and mobilized according to aims set by themselves. Maybe we could even say that this is a kind of totalitarianism avant la lettre; especially if we think how, later on, the CUP founded a number of satellite / nationalist organizations with the aim or organizing and mobilizing society along very specific lines. It would also be interesting to follow closely the relationship between the CUP and port workers who have a crucial role in the implementation of the boycott; it would seem that they become something of a striking force for the CUP?

We could also look for continuities with Turkish republican history. For example, Hüseyin Cahit is the person who, again with a campaign in Tanin, incites the attack on left-wing newspaper Tan in 1945. And I think that we can find similarities between the CUP’s civil komitacılık and psychological warfare methods used by the Turkish “deep state” in the second half of the 20th century. (I even think that mobilizing society in the way civil komitacılık does it, prepares the ground for tolerance towards paramilitary activities – and for the success of these activities.)

In any case, I certainly believe that, when talking about komites in the late Ottoman Empire, we should look at their relationship with the state – or, in fact, with stateS: Bulgaria and Greece both support komitacılık in Macedonia, Greek komites are actually led by officers of the Greek army. In the case of the CUP, this relationship with the state is even more interesting, because we are talking here about a komite organized within state institutions by subjects of the same state – not about, say, Greek officers organizing komites in a neighboring country.


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