Turkey occupies a highly distinctive position within the third world. Never colonized, the country inherited a rich political tradition from its imperial predecessor. Before ‘liberation struggle’ became the order of the day, its leaders were proclaiming a secular republic within a nation state constructed much along the lines suggested by the theorists of 1789. Yet this political precocity did little to alter the under-developed, peripheral character of the economy. Turkey followed a pattern common to Latin American and Asian countries alike: it was open to the world economic currents in the 1920s; followed a state-interventionist policy in the 1930s; raw material exports characterized the War period; recovery and import-substituting industrialization occurred under post-war American hegemony; and crisis ensued during the second half of the 1970s. Despite this similarity of the economic pattern, however, Turkey continued to be unique in its political history. Alone in the third world, its political régime has been a genuine multi-party democracy since 1946 with the exception of two ‘extraordinary’ periods together lasting about four years. Again, exceptionally, the party which now forms the government, and which expects to win a plurality in the next election, has become a member of the Socialist International. In addition to the unusual presence of bourgeois democracy, without governmental political repression and a ‘left-wing’ party in power, Turkey boasts another distinction: the existence of a fascist movement and party powerful enough to challenge government authority on the streets and to poll a significant number of votes in parliamentary elections.

Turkey’s path to this puzzling configuration commenced with the beginnings of ‘modernization’ in the nineteenth century. The Ottoman Empire in its classical period was characterized by a powerfully centralized state structure with a bureaucratic élite receiving the agricultural surplus in the form of tax revenues. The effective absence of a hereditary aristocracy, and continuity in the imperial dynasty allowed for the existence of a ruling élite whose privileged positions derived solely from the bureaucratic posts held in precarious tenure. Until the Tanzimat reforms of the mid-nineteenth century the state bureaucracy was recruited from the lower orders of Ottoman society. Selected children from this social layer were educated in special Palace schools; after this education they became functionaries and, technically, slaves of the Sultan. Their status derived entirely from their occupation as state functionaries. If they acquired wealth and were not expropriated, they could pass it on to their offspring; but they could not pass on their functions or official status to their children.footnote1 The dissolution of this classical patrimonial system coincided with the rise of local potentates who were strengthened in their political competition with the central authority through their—usually illicit—liaison with the growing capitalist economy of Europe.footnote2 It was both the central authority’s response to locally based political challenge, and the pressure by Western powers to legitimize and expand an already significant economic connection, which prompted the political transformation of the Ottoman state. The half century which elapsed between the Tanzimat reforms and the Young Turk period witnessed the strengthening of central authority in those areas which remained within the empire, while at the same time, the Porte gradually fell under the political control of imperialist powers.footnote3

It was during this period of non-colonial peripheralization that Ottoman intellectuals began to contemplate and theorize the fate of the Empire. Exclusively belonging to the bureaucratic élite,footnote4 and thoroughly nurtured in the state-centred ideology of the Ottoman system, their prognoses consisted principally of renovating the administrative apparatus, and of borrowing the political forms of Western republicanism. According to these views a constitutional reform would provide a check against the absolute rule of the monarch and would also strengthen the state mechanism; a structural transformation was neither theorized nor envisioned.footnote5

It should be emphasized that the reforming intellectuals did not confront any opposing social forces except for the more traditional fraction of the bureaucracy, and at times—especially during Abdulhamid’s reign (1876–1909)—the Sultan. The landlords engaged in commercial agriculture were weak—the few large landlords who had attained political influence during the eighteenth century had been successfully eliminated by the central authority in the first half of the nineteenth century. The only other social class in formation, a comprador merchant bourgeoisie consisting in large part of Greek and Armenian minorities, would naturally support legal and political reform serving to lay the foundations of a society based on market-exchange. It was, therefore, the intervention of rival Western powers in the politics of Constantinople which conjuncturally determined the success or failure of the reformers. Until the arrival of the Committee of Union and Progress (cup) in 1908, the successive waves of modernization could not achieve a permanent balance in favour of a modern state mechanism conducive for the sustained development of capitalism. We can date the beginning of continuous ‘revolution from above’ from 1908 when a constitutional assembly was convened to signal the end of the absolute rule of the monarch, and an appointed bureaucracy was irrevocably denied its traditional monopoly over the political life of the empire. This, however, did not change the class background of the rulers. If anything the leaders of the cup were of more modest social origin; mainly the sons of petty officials and urban small traders. Talat, the cup Prime minister, had worked in a telegraph office. The military wing of the party were graduates of a state-financed boarding school. During this period, and later in the Republican era, a military career was the most important channel of social mobility, especially for the sons of the urban poor.footnote6

In effect, the régime established in 1908, in addition to initiating the political dimensions of a revolution from above, also attempted a more direct intervention in the economic life of the Empire. Armed with a Positivist ideology which led readily to élitist social engineering, the Young Turks embarked upon the task of establishing a ‘national economy’.footnote7 Lacking confidence in the nascent bourgeoisie of Greeks and Armenians, because it was overly committed to foreign interests, they began to promote a less comprador bourgeoisie of Jewish and Moslem denomination.footnote8 To this effect, they attempted to mobilize a greatly strengthened military-bureaucratic apparatus in the direction of capitalist accumulation. The success of such an endeavour, however, was prevented on at least two counts: one, the foreign indebtedness of the Empire had created a situation of effective imperialist control over much of the potentially mobilizable economic resources: the foreign debt administration directly administered over one-fourth of the state-revenue, and exerted undue power because the state budget had become chronically deficitary with the deficit covered through annual additions to foreign indebtedness. Secondly, the fraction of the would-be bourgeoisie selected for promotion had also been nurtured in the peripheral structure of commerce, and was far from controlling an independent base of economic power. Thus, rather than an alliance, the situation was closer to a tutelage with the bureaucratic élite in control of the sources of surplus which it allocated through a selective utilization of the traditional prerogatives of the state.

The Young Turk period lasted for only a decade, including four years of war during which the military leaders of the cup enjoyed a dubious respite from great power meddling in Ottoman affairs. It may be argued (as some German historians have done) that one of the more immediate causes of the Great War was the strengthening of the Ottoman state and the growing influence of Wilhelmine Germany on cup policy. The older colonialists, England and France, were disconcerted by the outcome of republican lessons learned with much fervour in London and Paris, now applied to Baghdad and Damascus by a growingly Germanophile bureaucracy. Traditional privileges had to be defended, especially since ‘the sick man’ showed signs of recuperation, and therefore no longer served the purpose of maintaining a sufficiently weak order within the lands of the Empire.

The war period was significant in its economic ramifications in two respects: British and French capital was largely eliminated together with Greek and Armenian merchants who had provided the indigenous and of the dependency relation. Secondly, war-time inflation and rationing, and the closer economic control by the state created the conditions for profiteering and rapid accumulation of capital. According to one estimate the share of Turkish capital in corporations had increased from only 3 per cent in 1908 to 38 per cent in 1918, due to a large number of commercial and industrial companies established during the war.footnote9 The largely commercial bourgeoisie which developed in this period was the main beneficiaries of the new Turkish state founded in 1923.