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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter I. Making of the modern state in a multi-national context

What is Turkism?

Ziya Gökalp
Traduction de Robert Devereux

Texte intégral

1Title: Turkculuk nedir? (What is Turkism?)

2Originally Published: Ankara, Matbuatve istihbarat Matbaasi, 1923.

3Language: Ottoman Turkish
The excerpts used are from Ziya Gökalp, The principles of Turkism, translated and annotated by Robert Devereux (Leiden: Brill, 1968), pp. 12–16.

About the author

4Ziya Gökalp [1876, Diyarbakir – 1924, Ankara]: sociologist and national activist. Born in the city of Diyarbakir, the administrative and cultural center of eastern Anato-lia, Gökalp (born Mehmed Ziya) started his primary education at a local military school. Later, while attending a secular high school in the same city, he also found the chance to improve his knowledge of Arabic and Persian as well as Islamic philosophy through the tutelage of family members. Like many late Ottoman thinkers, Gökalp’s ambition was to digest the intellectual heritage of both the European and Ottoman worlds. But while advancing his knowledge of contemporary European philosophy and social theory and rubbing elbows with the progressive minds of the late Ottoman mi-lieu, Gökalp experienced a profound spiritual crisis and attempted suicide in 1894. In 1896 he moved to Istanbul to study veterinary medicine, but dropped out in his final year after being arrested for conspiring against Sultan Abdülhamid II. Upon his release, and after serving briefly in the civil bureaucracy, he then embarked upon an intense publishing career. He took part in Young Turk activities in Anatolia, rising rapidly among the ranks of their organization, the Committee of Union and Progress (hereafter the CUP), which was then organizing itself into a party in Salonica. After the Young Turk revolution (1908) and the reinstatement of the constitution after thirty years of absolutist rule, he moved to Salonica and became a member of the central ruling body of the CUP. There, while being exposed to the ideas of Gabriel Tarde, Henri Bergson and, above all, Emile Durkheim, Gökalp’s views on nationalism were nourished by a circle of ardent Turkists grouped around the eminent literary figure Ömer Seyfeddin. Using ‘pure Turkish’ pen-names such as ‘Demirtas’ and ‘Gökalp’ (and later adopting the latter as his second name), he published many fervid articles on national revival in the group’s journal, the Genç kalemler (Young Pens), then a major site for advocating the agenda of linguistic Turkism. With the onset of the Balkan War, Gökalp moved to Istanbul and founded the department of sociology at Istanbul University, while at the same time becoming involved in the activities of the Türk Ocaklan (Turkish Hearths) an organization that propagated a pan-Turkist agenda. Between 1912 and 1914 he au-thored several articles in Türk yurdu (Turkish Homeland), a journal published by one of the leading Turkists of the period, Yusuf Akçura. Gökalp pursued a corporatist vision of Ottoman society and strove eagerly to define a consensus of national values and goals. It would not be an exaggeration to label Gökalp as the primary ideologue of the CUP, whose rule led to the demise of the Empire. In 1919, following the defeat of the Empire and the occupation of its capital by the Allied forces, Gökalp became a victim of the anti-Unionist ‘witch-hunt,’ being convicted in a war tribunal for partici-pating in Unionist activities (the charges included his sanctioning of the Armenian massacres) and exiled to Malta. Returning in 1921, he first went to Ankara, where, he was received with a cold shoulder by the cadres of the national resistance and then moved to Diyarbakir. Gradually re-establishing his connections with the Kemalist leadership, he took part in the preparation of the program of Mustafa Kemal’s Republi-can People’s Party (hereafter, the RPP) and became a member of the Parliament in 1923, although he died shortly afterwards. Appropriating many tenets of his nationalist agenda, the Republican establishment acknowledged Gökalp as the intellectual founder of Turkish nationalism.

5Main works: Kizil elma [Crimson apple] (1914); Yeni hayat [New life] (1918); Turkleşmek, islamlaşmak, muasirlaşmak [Turkification, Islamization, modernization] (1918); Türkcülüğün esaslan [The principles of Turkism], (1923); Türk töre si [The Turkish custom] (1923); Turk medeniyeti tarihi [The history of Turkish civilization] (1925).


6Gökalp is known both as a sociologist and as the leading ideologue of Turkish nationalism. Gökalp’s central concern was the establishment of Turkish nationalism as a coherent and systematic doctrine that would tran-scend the intensely conflicting ideological attitudes engendered by the varie-gated late Ottoman political milieu. Although not an original thinker by any means, Gökalp was quite creative and adept in eclectically appropriating for his own local purposes conceptual tools and methods from the rich repository of Western philosophy and social sciences. Undergoing a profound intellec-tual transformation in his Salonica years (then considered to be the center of the Turkist movement), Gökalp moved away from the supra-national Otto-manist views of his younger years (when he had envisioned the Ottoman Empire to be the new “United States of the East”) and joined the bandwagon of writers who called for an out and out process of social and cultural revival for the Turkish nation. Impassioned by the promises of the Young Turk revo-lution in 1908, Gökalp propagated his much celebrated Modernist utopia of Yeni Hayat (New Life), prescribing a novel and unique evolutionary path for the nation, at the end of which the Turks, free and economically advanced, would succeed in cultivating a superior civilizational synthesis, thereby emerging as the privileged ‘new people of the new century’ (hence consum-mating the Nietzschean ideal of the Übermensch).

7Gökalp’s nationalist views crystallized in the final decade of the Ottoman Empire, during his Istanbul and Malta years. Amidst the turmoil and uncer-tainties of these troubled times, he sternly rejected the cosmopolitanist tenets of Ottomanism, which were sustained by the official mouthpieces of the CUP till the dissolution of the Empire. Instead, Gökalp modeled his political and social theory by drawing upon and even reconciling the three rivaling cur-rents of thought in the Ottoman political and intellectual arena: Turkish na-tionalism, Islamism and modernization (see Yusuf Akçura, Three types of policy). Between 1912 and 1914, he published several popularly acclaimed articles in the Turkist journal Türk yurdu (later to be compiled in book form with the title ‘Turkification, Islamization, Modernization’) in which, address-ing issues related to culture, religion, ethnicity and civilization, he aimed to delineate a common and definitive agenda for Turkish nationalism. In his view, nationalism, modernism and Islam did not necessarily involve conflict-ing interests, but were to be merged in complementary fashion to define the ideal Ottoman (later Turkish) citizen, who declared himself Turkish in iden-tity, Muslim in creed, and was still firmly and comfortably embedded within ‘contemporary’ (read Western) civilization.

8Largely inspired by Durkheimian sociology, Gökalp believed that he had found a solution to the riddle of nourishing national culture while succumbing to the necessary and inexorable impact of Western civilization. Domesticating the process of modernization, Gökalp argued, would only be possible by main-taining a clear distinction between culture (hars) and civilization (medeniyet). Culture, in his view, was the domain of relative and subjective judgements, comprising the totality of beliefs, mores and ethical and aesthetic values upheld by a community, which, in turn, informed the common norms and the ‘collec-tive conscience’ of their shared existence. Gökalp’s vision of modern civiliza-tion, on the other hand, involved what he held to be objective, absolute and internationally valid truths and certainties of the human mind, such as those dictated by logic, reason, science and technology. It was culture that provided the ideals and objectives most appropriate to each society, while civilization offered the most effective means and the transformative thrust to realize and cherish the ideals. The cultural norms and the collective conscience of a soci-ety were understood to work as a vital control mechanism that regulated the inflow and appropriation of demands forced by international civilization (hence the crucial role of a ‘national’ law or economy, for instance, in reformu-lating and naturalizing the dictates of international law and the global economy). The process of social and cultural change and innovation prescribed by Gökalp was, therefore, slow, gradual, selective and laced in every step with evolutionary precautions mandated by the collective will.

9Gökalp harbored a highly solidarist vision of the nation as a closely knit society indivisibly united by culture. The essential elements of the ‘authentic’ Turkish national genera were to be found among the common Anatolian folk, unsullied, Gökalp believed, by the corrupting influences of Ottoman elite culture. Sunni Islam, with the daily practices, rituals and moral standards it prescribed, was an essential and indispensable constituent of national iden-tity. But, in contrast to what the Islamists envisioned, Islam was not to be understood as an overriding political force, but only as a deep substratum of national culture, and valued particularly in its unorthodox, Sufi-oriented (hence ‘Turkified’) renditions as practiced by the Anatolian masses. Al-though a pan-Islamic union was out of the question for Ziya Gökalp due to wide national divergences in the cultural application of Islam, continuing solidarity among the Islamic nations was still deemed to remain a priority for the Turkish nation state (such a prospect, of course, was never endorsed by the Republican elite).

10‘The principles of Turkism,’ possibly first drafted during the author’s exile years in Malta, contains Gökalp’s nationalist program in its most distilled and systematized form, as it was more attuned to the realities of the emerging Turkish nation state. In ‘What is Turkism,’ among the most notable essays in the collection, Gökalp distinguishes between various definitions of the na-tion, weighing them against his own cultural and linguistic formulation of national unity. He adamantly rejects the pervasive religious definition of the nation as a pan-Islamic ümmet (Ar. ummah), which embraces the entire Mus-lim community across the world. He is also critical of the patriotism of the land, where all inhabitants of the nation state, regardless of language or creed, are considered to be compatriots (this, he finds alarmingly close to supranational Ottomanist inclusivism). Equally inadmissible are the more individualistic renditions of national identity, which solely privilege personal choice and commitment. According to Gökalp, it is not possible to choose to belong to a national community; one is only born into it, and from the initial moment, one’s identity is irrevocably imprinted by the endemic elements (particularly linguistic and religious) of his own specific cultural milieu.

11‘What is Turkism’ is also significant in underscoring the growing distance between Ziya Gökalp and the rising pan-Turkist movement. In his earlier writings, and especially his poetry, dating back to the Balkan Wars and the First World War, Gökalp embellished a visionary image of the land of Turan, which stood for the cultural and spiritual unification of all the Turkic peoples of the world (a vision that comfortably overlapped with many tenets of Hun-garian Turanism). In his later works, the author was more eager to emphasize the distinct national characteristics of the western Oghuz Turks, and only a faint echo of pan-Turkism remains in his writings, invoked as a distant pros-pect for a loose cultural commonwealth. In the selected essay, Gökalp overtly denounces the expansionist, ethno-racist brand of Turkism as a crude and unsophisticated ideological endeavor. For him, the essential binding element of the nation, above and beyond anything else, is language. It is through the use of a national language in the family and in primary education that com-mon ideals, cultural values and collective religious, moral and aesthetic sen-sibilities are instilled in the young minds of the nation. In Gökalp’s model, nationhood is not inherited through blood ties, but is understood to be ac-tively learned and constructed. It follows, then, that the nation, which Gökalp takes to be the most advanced form of social organization, needs to be vigor-ously shaped and nourished by adopting institutions which had already de-veloped in the West, such as ethnographic museums or research centers and archives on folk culture, literature and music.

12The profound impact of Gökalp’s ideas on Republican institutions, aspira-tions and constructs of identity is unquestionable. His final call in the essay “to recognize as a Turk every individual who says, ‘I am a Turk’” is patently echoed in the oft-cited dictum of Atatürk that adorns the walls of many Re-publican buildings: “Fortunate is the one who says, ‘I am a Turk’.” The invit-ing and celebratory tone of the Republican motto is paradoxically inflected by exclusive and repressive undertones that hark back to Gökalp’s insistence on religious (Sunni Muslim) and linguistic unity in the formulation of na-tional identity. Still, although the name of Ziya Gökalp is recurrently invoked as the chief progenitor of Kemalist ideology, the eclectic, complex and nu-anced character of his ideas demanded an astute and selective process of ap-propriation, observed both by the Republican elite and by various nationalist factions claiming descent from his ideology. The discrepancies between Gökalp the conscientious sociologist and his cult persona crafted by the Re-publican revolutionaries must account for the fact that none of the author’s works were reprinted in the Latin alphabet of the new Republic until 1939, when ‘The Principles of Turkism’ was republished for the first time by an ultra-nationalist group. The book, ironically, was banned in 1944, as local fascists were tried by the Turkish government on the eve of the final victory of the Allied forces.


What is Turkism?

14Turkism means to exalt the Turkish nation. An understanding of the nature of Turkism, therefore, requires, first of all, a definition of the group that we call a nation. Let us examine the various existing concepts.

151. According to racist Turkists, nation is synonymous with race. However, race is a term properly used only in zoology. All animal species are classified into different types, i.e., races, on the basis of their anatomical characteris-tics. […] Anthropology, on the other hand, has divided the inhabitants of Europe into three races on the basis of shape of head and color of hair and eyes: dolicocephalic fair, dolicocephalic brunette, and brachycephalic. No nation in Europe includes only individuals of a single type. Within every na-tion are to be found persons of all three types, albeit in varying proportions. […] Although some anthropologists once claimed that there was a relation-ship between these anatomical types and social traits, scientific criticisms […] have proved that no such relationship exists. And since race has no rela-tionship to social traits, neither can it have any with nationality, which is the sum total of social characteristics. Therefore, we must seek the meaning of nationality elsewhere.

162. Ethnic Turkists identify the nation with the ethnic group, which may be defined as a group of cognates descended from a common ancestor and free from any admixture of foreign blood. Ancient societies generally claimed to be such pure ethnic groups. However even in prehistoric times, societies were not ethnically pure. […]

17Moreover, sociology holds that individuals enter the world as non-social creatures, that is, they do not bring with them any social consciousness. They are not born with any linguistic, religious, ethical, aesthetic, political, legal or economic values. All of these they acquire later from society through educa-tion. In other words, social traits are not transmitted through biologic inheri-tance but only through education, which means that ethnic origin plays no role whatsoever as regards national character. […]

  • 1 Historic region in Central Asia along the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus) river, in Modern Uzbekistan and (...)

183. For the geographic Turkists, a nation is the sum total of persons who in-habit a given geographic area. Thus, for them, there is an Iranian, a Swiss, a Belgian, a British nation. In actuality, however, there are three nations—Persian, Kurdish, Turkish—in Iran and three also—German, French, Ital-ian—in Switzerland, while in Belgium there are the Walloons, who are origi-nally French, and the Flemish, who are originally Germanic. […] Not only are there sometimes several nations within a given geographic area, but sometimes a single nation is distributed over several areas. The Oghuz Turks, for example, are today to be found in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Khwarezm1. Since these groups have a common language and culture, is it correct to consider them separate nations?

194. According to the Ottomanists, the nation included all subjects of the Ot-toman Empire. This was a grave error, for within that amalgam were several nations possessing independent cultures.

205. According to Pan-Islamists, the nation is the totality of Muslims. We use the word community (ümmet) for the totality of persons who profess the same religion. Since that is so, the totality of Muslims is a community, whereas a nation, which is a group with a common language and culture only, is something quite different.

216. Individualists define a nation as any society of which a man considers himself a member. But although an individual may consider himself free to join this or that society, he does not really have such a freedom and inde-pendence, for the human spirit consists of sentiments and feelings. […] Every individual belongs to a particular nation by virtue of his feelings. This nation is the society in which the individual lives or has obtained his educa-tion, for the individual has absorbed through education all the sentiments of the society in which he lives and he is a reflection of that society. […] Be-cause of this, it is not within the power of an individual to change his nation-ality whenever he wishes. For nationality, also, is an external reality. Al-though a man, because of ignorance, may not know his nationality, he may discover it later by inquiry and study. But he cannot enter this or that nation solely by his own volition as he would join a political party.

22What, then, is a nation? What sort of tie do we have that can be superior to, and take precedence over, racial, ethnic, geographic, political and voli-tional forces? Sociology asserts that this tie is a sharing of education and cul-ture, that is, of sentiments. Man receives his most genuine and most inner sentiments during his primary education. While still in the cradle, he is influ-enced by his mother tongue through the lullabies he hears […]. It is through this language that he has absorbed all the religious, ethical and aesthetic sen-timents that give existence to his soul. […]

23The great obstacle which prevents us from leaving our own society and joining another is the impossibility of erasing from our soul the education we have received from that society. As a result of this fact, we are forced to re-main within our native society.

24The above sentiments make it clear that a nation is not a racial or ethnic or geographic or political or volitional group but one composed of individuals who share a common language, religion, morality and aesthetics, that is to say, who have received the same education […]. In truth, a man desires more to live with those who share his language and religion than with those who share his blood, for the human personality does not dwell in the physical body but in the soul. Our material virtues may come from our race but our spiritual virtues come from the society in which we have been educated […]. Therefore, one’s pedigree is not to be sought in nationality but only in na-tional education and ideals. […]

25There is a practical conclusion to be drawn from these considerations. There are fellow citizens in our country whose ancestors come from Albania or Arabia sometime in the past. If they have been educated as Turks and have become used to working for the Turkish ideal, we must not set them apart from other citizens. How can we consider as aliens those who have shared not only our blessings but also our misfortunes? Especially, how can we say, “You are not Turks,” to those among them who have made great sacrifices and have performed great services for the Turkish nation?

26In short, a pedigree should be sought for in horses; race has great impor-tance for animals since their excellences are based on instinct and are heredi-tary. It is a mistake, however, to ask the pedigree of humans, because race has no influence whatever on social traits. Acceptance of the contrary view would require us to sacrifice a majority of the intellectuals and fighters now living in our country. Since this is inconceivable, the only solution is to rec-ognize as a Turk every individual who says, “I am a Turk,” and to punish those, if there be any, who betray the Turkish nation.

27Robert Devereux in Ziya Gökalp, The Principles of Turkism (Leiden: Brill, 1968), pp. 12–16.


1 Historic region in Central Asia along the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus) river, in Modern Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.


Robert Devereux (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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