Socialist Worker

Kemal Ataturk and the birth of modern Turkey

Jamie Allison concludes our series by looking at the end of the Ottoman Empire

Issue No. 2098

Kemal Ataturk

Kemal Ataturk


The roots of the Turkish revolution from above lie in the crisis of the Ottoman Empire that occured before the First World War.

The Ottoman Empire was the last great Islamic empire. Its heartland was Anatolia, which is modern Turkey, but it also included the Balkans and most of the Arab world.

The Ottoman rulers were Turkish speaking Sunni Muslims but the empire included many religious and linguistic groups.

Different communities had different laws, enforced by religious courts.

Ottoman society was overwhelmingly rural. Peasants worked the land but not under the control of landlords.

All agricultural land technically belonged to the state. Officers were allowed to collect taxes from the peasants and agreed in return to do military service.

Over time this system turned into “tax farming”, where the right to exploit the peasants was traded among wealthy families.

Tax farming produced powerful local rulers and military revolts but no general crisis. In the 16th century the Ottoman Empire produced far more revenue than any European state.

The rise of European capitalism, however, combined with the internal dynamic of Ottoman society to create a crisis.

European imperialist powers seized Ottoman lands in the 19th century.

Imposed treaties reduced the empire to a supplier of agricultural products to Europe.

Nationalist movements created independent states in the Balkans.

The Ottomans responded by trying to reform the land tax system, and create a modern military and bureaucracy.

Each of these attempts failed in the face of opposition by local tax farmers and religious officials. The crisis provoked the “Young Turk Revolution” of 1908 and a coup by nationalist reformers in 1913.

The Ottoman Empire joined the First World War on the side of Germany, suffering a catastrophic defeat.

Britain and France carved up the Middle East, while Greece, with British and French support, invaded the Turkish rump of the empire.

Kemal Ataturk was an army officer who fought a successful campaign against Greece and the Allies. Having won Turkey’s independence, he sought to transform society to compete with the West.

A new republic was founded. All citizens were made legally equal, land tax was abolished and the state broke the power of religious institutions and confiscated their lands.

Ataturk sought to develop Turkey by following the example of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.

The first Turkish five year plan, beginning in 1931, created banks to control all industry.

Mines and factories were built in the country’s underdeveloped east.

The enterprises built by the state were later given to private capitalists.

Ataturk died in 1938 but the system of military controlled industrialisation long outlived him. It was a cruel dictatorship. Ataturk ruled without effective opposition. People were forced to be non-religious.

When workers in the new industries established the Communist Party Ataturk set up a fake Turkish Communist Party.

Turkey has more recently been a loyal US ally and the site of vicious repression against workers and national minorities, such as the Kurds and Armenians.

Ataturk’s revolution from above has one crucial difference to the ones in Japan and Germany that I analysed in previous columns.

It happened after the Russian Revolution of 1917 – a socialist revolution from below.

The Stalinist counter-revolution that followed created a state capitalist society in Russia. This was Ataturk’s model and ally. Turkey’s example was followed by regimes in the Middle East and beyond.

These states, such as Cuba and China, having freed themselves from colonial powers, often called themselves socialist. But these regimes were attempts at capitalist revolution from above.

One of the leaders of Ataturk’s fake communist party summed this up well, saying, “Only Turks can produce Bolshevism [revolutionary socialism], and Bolshevism can only be introduced from above.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This series has looked at how revolutions from above established independent capitalist states.

The world created by this process can only be transformed when working people take control of the economic decisions that shape their lives – that is, by socialism from below.


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