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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter IV. Federalism and the decline of the empires

A second account On individual initiative and decentralization

Prince Sabahaddin
Traduction de Ahmet Ersoy

Texte intégral

1Title: Teşebbüs-i şahsi ve adem-i merkeziyyet hakkmda ikinci bir izah (A second account on individual initiative and decentralization)

2Originally published: As a political pamphlet (edited by Satvet Lütfi of Herzegovina), Istanbul, Mahmud Bey Matbaasi, 1908.

3Language: Ottoman Turkish
The excerpts used are from a collection of Prince Sabahaddin’s reprinted works published with the title Türkiye nasil kurtanlabilir? Ve izah’lar, abridged by Fahri Unan (Ankara: Ayraç, 1999), pp. 97–103.

About the author

4Prince Sabahaddin (Mehmed Sabahaddin) [1878, Istanbul – 1948, Neuchâtel (Switzerland)]: Ottoman intellectual, politician and member of the royal family. His mother, Seniha Sultan, was the sister of Sultan Abdulhamid II, while his father, Mahmud Celaleddin Pasa, was an Ottoman bureaucrat who was dismissed from a cabinet ministry in 1878 due to his alleged involvement in a conspiracy against the sultan. Victimized by the Hamidian regime, Celaleddin Paşa and his two young sons fled to Paris in 1899 and joined the nebulous Young Turk opposition in exile, thereby increasing the group’s prestige. In 1902, the two brothers organized a congress, with representatives from all ethno-religious communities of the Empire, in order to unite all forces of opposition against the Hamidian regime. Yet the congress (labeled ‘the Congress of Ottoman Liberals’ in European sources) revealed that the opposition had neither a common political outlook nor similar objectives. In the end, two main factions emerged as they confronted each other over the inflammatory issue of intervention. Sabahaddin was among the supporters of the idea of foreign intervention (albeit a limited and controlled one) along with many non-Muslim Ottoman (mainly Greek and Armenian) representatives in the congress, whose interests he would often be accused of serving. Following the split in the congress, Sabahaddin founded the ‘Society of Private Initiative and Decentralization’(1906), with a monthly journal of its own called Terakki (Progress), while his opponents, with more centralist leanings, were organized under a society that was later to become the Committee of Union and Progress (hereafter CUP), which effectively brought about the 1908 revolution. Following the revolution, Sabahaddin returned to Istanbul, while his followers founded the Ahrar Firkasi (Party of Liberties), a political party with liberal, decentralist leanings which constituted the most serious political opposition to the CUP. Avoiding an active political career, Sabahaddin propagated his sociologically inspired views on private initiative and the decentralization of government, which were largely informed by the conservative French sociological school of science sociale. In return, he was increasingly harassed by the CUP as a federalist and a traitor who collaborated with separatist national movements and religious fanatics. Accused of being involved in a counter-revolutionary uprising of religious conservatives, Sabahaddin had to leave Istanbul again in April 1909. He returned in 1918, after the collapse of the CUP regime, and publicly supported the national resistance movement in Ankara. These years witnessed the reprinting of his major work, Turkiye nasil kurtanlabilir? (How can Turkey be saved?), in which he proposed the use of the science sociale method as a political tool that would radically transform the country’s social structure as well as its inhabitants’ ‘backward Eastern mentality.’ Sabahaddin had to leave the country again in 1924, this time due to a law that enforced the exile of all members of the Ottoman dynasty. Between 1924 and 1948, he lived in different countries in Europe, in dire circumstances, and occasionally publishing articles on a variety of topics. Along with Ziya Gökalp, Sabahaddin was among the founders of sociology in the late Ottoman context. His Ottomanist and decentralist views informed the liberal-minded opposition movements that confronted the increasingly nationalizing agenda of the CUP. His decentralist position was perceived as a significant threat during the Young Turk era, since the administrative and military elite that he severely criticized constituted the heart and core of the centralized state apparatus of the CUP (as well as the Republican) regime. Prince Sabahaddin was rediscovered in the 1950s as a ‘founding father of Turkish liberalism,’ as the rising liberal movement in Turkish politics endeavored to invent a rooted and continuous tradition underlying its own transformative agenda.

5Main works: Teşebbüs-i şahsi ve adem-i merkeziyyet hakkinda bir izah [An account on individual initiative and decentralization] (1908); Teşebbus-i şahsi ve adem-i merkeziyyet hakkinda ikinci bir izah [A second account on individual initiative and decentralization] (1908); ittihadve Terakki Cemiyetine açik mektuplar. Mesleğimiz hakkinda ügüncü ve son bir izah [Open letters to the Committee of Union and Progress. A third and final account on our school of thought] (1911); Turkiye nasil kurtanlabilir? Meslek-i içtimai ve programi [How can Turkey be saved? The social science school and its program] (1919).


6By the first decade of the twentieth century, the issue of protecting the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, both from the encroachments of great powers and from the increasingly secessionist demands of its own nationalizing communities, had become a pressing problem for the Ottoman intelligentsia. Among the proposals to save the Empire, Prince Sabahaddin’s is distinguished foremost by its radical call for extensive decentralization. Largely influenced by the French sociological school of science sociale (and above all by the works of its leading figure and his close friend Edmond Demolins), Sabahaddin proposed a model of social analysis (tinged heavily with the Social Darwinist and Orientalist predilections of the group) based on a wholesale distinction between two types of society: the collectivist (cemaatçi) and the individualist (infiratgi). He categorized Ottoman society as a classic example of the former communitarian type, in which individual initiative is firmly circumscribed by the forces of the family, community or the centralized state. In diagnosing the causes of “backwardness” of Ottoman society, Sabahaddin argued that it was the constraining “eastern” social structure, rather than the presence of a monarch on the throne, that fostered despotism and blocked the channels of progress in the country. In an effort to turn a sociological method into a political program, he, therefore, proposed a radical social restructuring (comprising decentralizing administrative reforms and the implementation of an educational system to instill individualism) that would unite, westernize and emancipate the society, as well as constituting the necessary grounds for a full-fledged political revolution (envisioned both by the CUP, and later by the Republic).

7During the opposition congresses in exile, Prince Sabahaddin’s decentralist position won the support of the revolutionary organizations representing the non-Muslim communities, as well as appealing to many provincial notables, who preferred a state that infringed less on their local power. But while he deplored bureaucratic hegemony, and was highly critical of the centralizing policies of the Tanzimat, Sabahaddin, nevertheless embraced the Tanzi-mat’s ‘Ottomanist’ model of cosmopolitan citizenship, which demanded the full equality of all imperial subjects without compromising in any form the political unity of the Ottoman state. Therefore, while promoting the virtues of cultural pluralism and democratic representation, he explicitly denounced the option of granting autonomy (muhtariyet) to the non-Muslim elements. As a solution to the secessionist threat, he called for the implementation of full administrative decentralization in the form of local assemblies that enabled the residents of different localities to participate directly in the administrative process. This, he believed, would remedy the backwardness of Ottoman economy and promote the rise of individualism in society, while also creating a far stronger commitment among the citizens towards the political integrity of the Empire. As such, Prince Sabahaddin’s program emerged as a clear alternative to that of the CUP, whose call for the equality of all Ottoman citizens entailed a far stronger central state that overrode the traditional privileges of ethno-religious minorities. Hence, considering the strong statist tradition in Turkey continuing into the Republican era (with the same bureaucrat-officer elite in power), Prince Sabahaddin can be considered as one of the earliest critics of the centralized monopoly of power, although his reasons to do so hardly stemmed out of any true liberal convictions.

8The excerpts provided here are from a political essay which constitutes one among a series of three ‘accounts’ published as individual pamphlets between 1908 and 1911, in which Prince Sabahaddin responded to brutal accusations by CUP sympathizers (usually of conniving with separatist groups) and criticized CUP agendas and policies, while delineating his own reform agenda based on the ‘social science’ method. The particular essay in question (usually referred to as the ‘Second Account’) emerged out of a polemic with a CUP member who, on the eve of the first elections after the reinstatement of the Constitution in 1908, published an article on the “election intrigues” involving the Greek Patriarchate’s alleged manipulation of Sabahaddin and his followers (thus casting a slur on the liberal Ahrar Party), and their supposed espousal of secessionist movements. After organizing a ‘conference’ in the Fevziye coffeehouse on the day of the elections, Sabahaddin drafted his ‘Second Account,’ which was then published (along with an introduction and a reprint of the “election intrigues” essay) by Sarvet Lütfi and in which he responded to the latest accusations concerning his political allegiances. The text itself is interlaced with quotations from the author’s earlier essays and declarations, highlighting his clear and unwavering commitment to the issue of political unity. Quoting passages from an “invitation” he had published in 1899 to involve minority groups in the constitutional struggle, Sabahaddin underscores his disapproval of separatist nationalisms, and reiterates his argument that the ethno-religious communities under Ottoman rule would only benefit from a revised form of ‘Ottomanness,’ reconfigured by a new set of collective values (individualism, private initiative) and a decentralized administrative system that promoted individual and local freedoms and diversity. Here, Sabahaddin calls attention to the crucial role of provincial assemblies (where all communities would be represented according to their population ratios) in enabling pubic participation in government and control over administration. The assemblies, he maintains, would nurture a strong sense of allegiance to the Ottoman state, help develop national trade, and hence contribute to the consolidation of a united front against ethnic rivalries and external threats.

9Again with reference to a previous article, Sabahaddin argues that despite the rigid centralist and interventionist policies of the modernizing Ottoman state, the non-Muslim communities were already able to enjoy some form of decentralized autonomy in fields such as education, law and taxation, thanks to a continuation of their traditional rights and privileges. Thus, he maintains that the non-Muslim communities, with their private schools, churches and alternative social institutions, were able to thrive and establish economical and intellectual dominance over the Turks, who suffered under the iron hand of a centralized bureaucracy. Sabahaddin demands the extension of these administrative liberties to the entire Ottoman community. Yet, clearly, his model of decentralization does not entail a secularized system of administration and education, but one that maintains the traditional and religious values and hierarchies particular to the diverse communities of the Empire. In this sense, his social vision is quite redolent of the modern conservatism of the science sociale group, who promoted decentralism as a policy to facilitate the return of the controlling power of local elites and aristocracy.

10Prince Sabahaddin’s ‘Accounts’ were the cause of fervent discussions among Ottoman intellectuals from all communities in the years that followed the Second Constitution. The question of decentralization (and the communal liberties and privileges it entailed) remained the most controversial issue of debate in a parliamentary regime that was increasingly constrained by the authoritarian tendencies of the CUP. It cannot be claimed, however, that the impact of Sabahaddin’s views reached beyond the final conflicts of a disintegrating Ottoman political system. His works were rediscovered only in the 1950s, as the first democratically elected government of the Republic sought to provide a historical depth of field for its new agenda on political liberalism.


A second account on individual initiative and decentralization

12We are constantly accused, with the repetition of senseless and tiresome refrains, of supporting our Christian citizens, and of accepting their support. But we declare, with our whole intellectual presence, that we are not, and cannot be, supporters of anyone and any power but justice and truth. Hence, nine years ago, in order to maintain our political unity by means of establishing a just constitutional government, we invited diverse Ottoman communities to attend a congress. The printed invitation letter included these lines: “One prevalent idea among the different Ottoman communities is the aspiration to gain independence, in the manner of the small Balkan governments. Yet these small governments are only able to survive due to the international stability provided by the Ottoman presence in the East […]. Even if, for instance, each Ottoman community was to be governed by an independent administration, it is obvious that in order to accumulate an internal force that would resist the external forces looming in their four sides, they would have to channel the majority of their resources to military needs! Surely, living equally and injustice under Ottoman nationality is the safest way that would spare us from military, economic and other kinds of external aggression. Moreover, our neighbors, in all fairness, should submit that the revival of Ottomanness would constitute a service to the entire civilized world. Our state’s history was made by great military conquests, but its future will be made by exalted achievements in the realm of civilization! A nation’s fulfillment of achievements in the field of civilization is beneficial not only to its own people, but to entire humanity. We are sure that once they realize that a firm community, made up of various liberal parties, is established to achieve this grand aim, all Ottomans will be supportive in every possible way!” […]

  • 1 Following a discussion of community regulations on taxation and law, Sabahaddin focuses on the are (...)

13And now, let us quote some significant passages from the article entitled How are the Muslims oppressed by centralization in our country, while the Christians benefit from decentralization?, published in Terakki seven years after the declaration quoted above: “Individuals who have no background knowledge on decentralization consider our approach to be an act of favor towards the Christians and Europeans. Little do they know that the majority of the rights provided by this form of organization are already, and sometimes excessively, granted to Ottoman Christians. There is nothing easier than providing evidence to this fact; Greek, Armenian, Bulgarian and other churches supervise, with complete freedom, all matters related to the religious and public affairs of their communities through the agency of publicly elected civic and clerical councils. Let us briefly consider the most crucial examples: […]1

14The Christians, untouched by the incessant and harmful interventions of the government, are active in the realms of agriculture, industry and trade, and have reached a level of wealth that is beyond comparison to that of the Muslims. Hence, only through private initiative, they are able to collect the money necessary for the education and upbringing of their children, and with this money, they vastly surpass all Muslims in public instruction. While they are free to establish schools of their own choice, this privilege is denied to others. […]

15If the Aegean islands are preparing to throw themselves into the arms of Greece, then the means to prevent this is not a process of centralization but military force. Military force, on the other hand, is enhanced by national wealth; and what would improve national wealth?… Private initiative!… The form of administration that would facilitate private initiative?… Decentralization!… With recurring proofs, the history of mankind declares and confirms this fact! Are we still oblivious to see and understand that centralization is a form of government where freedoms are monopolized, where majorities are suppressed by a minority and where the idea of enterprise is devastated!… On the other hand, decentralization would unreservedly connect the Ottomans to the Ottoman state, as it would establish [a system of] national inspection not only in Istanbul via Parliament, but also throughout the provinces through the agency of local assemblies. This would steadily expand the level of our national trade and necessitate unified action against foreign powers, which would constitute a most potent instrument for suppressing nationalistic rivalries. Hence administrative decentralization would eventually culminate in political centralization, and intensify the power of Ottoman unity with the passage of each day! […]

16Granted that we are all motivated by a desire to defend the most sacred of rights, that of [dwelling in] the motherland; then let us try to defend this land with the kind of magnanimity she deserves […]. A fair-minded nation’s basis of sentiment hinges not upon animosity, but upon brotherhood […] and global friendship!


1 Following a discussion of community regulations on taxation and law, Sabahaddin focuses on the area of education.


Ahmet Ersoy (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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