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The Quest for a New Paradigm or the Insight from Historical Sociology

Ömer Turan
Translated by Naomi Cohen


This article responds to İlker Aytürk’s quest for a post-post-Kemalist paradigm in Turkish studies, originally published in 2015. It starts by discussing some potential merits of Aytürk’s initiative, as it might open the way for a critical attitude to the automatisms of certain epistemic communities. Then it offers a series of criticisms of the paradigmatic shift proposal. The first criticism is that the paradigmatic shift proposal interprets the literature by constructing a post-Kemalist ideal type placing a diverse group of academics in the same pre-determined category despite stark differences in their methods, levels of analysis, their ways of generalizations. The second criticism underlines that the paradigmatic shift proposal is unfair to the literature when it portrays the existing scholarship as inattentive to the factors that gave birth to the Unionism and Kemalism, respectively. Moreover, it argues that the paradigmatic shift proposal privileges an unusual way of doing longue durée analysis, establishing an unwarranted causal link between the modern tutelage problem and Seljuks, Göktürks, and other historical political entities, in order to downplay the role of Kemalist elites on tutelage. Against this approach, this article suggests adapting insights from historical sociology, and more specifically Charles Tilly’s perspective, and it highlights the role of war in state-building, namely the impact of the war decade of 1912-1922. Third, the claim that post-Kemalism paved the way for regime change after 2007 is interpreted here as an overestimation of the power of an academic perspective. Additionally, it is emphasized that the tone of the language with respect to past episodes of collective violence should comply with academic rigor. All in all, this article suggests reflecting on the possibilities of new research agendas to understand how the macro projects of the state intersect with social reality and thinking about the gradual transformation of studies on Turkey, by taking seriously the space that existing critical literature has opened up against official / Kemalist / mainstream studies.

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  • 1 This article was first published at Birikim 366, October 2019.
  • 2 There were also others who paid attention to the debate opened by Aytürk; for instance: Bora 2017a.

1İlker Aytürk's article titled “Post-Post-Kemalism: In search of a New Paradigm” was published in Birikim in 2015 (Aytürk 2015). It may seem unusual to discuss that article four years later1. On the other hand, it is clear that Turkey has during this period been in a situation that has not left much time for academic or intellectual discussion. Therefore, I hope this delay will be excused. In addition, Aytürk continues to reflect and write on the argument he voiced in 2015 (Aytürk 2019).2 In other words, since he is also still preoccupied with the issue, possibly it is not too late to reflect on Aytürk's writings.

2Aytürk begins his article by claiming that almost all the scholars working on Turkey in the past 30 years have been influenced by the post-Kemalist paradigm. This is as much the case for foreign scholars working on Turkey as it is for academics from Turkey, he writes. Aytürk occasionally acknowledges that criticisms of Kemalism are academic in nature and also states that post-Kemalism was born out of justified objections and a notion of a just struggle. As Aytürk puts it, a deepening emphasis on Atatürk following the September 12, 1980 coup and a general affinity of Atatürk became synonymous with affirming the dominant role of the military in Turkish politics. This caused a significant reaction. Such a reaction plays a part in making the post-Kemalist framework dominant in the social sciences in Turkey. Aytürk argues that macro processes like globalization and neo-liberalism have eroded the Kemalist nation-state in Turkey, given impetus to centrifugal forces and strengthened the post-Kemalist paradigm. He writes that post-Kemalism has been supported by several intellectual currents, including postmodernism, Edward Said's critique of Orientalism, the school of Subaltern Studies, and the academic credit that the North American-based discipline of Middle East studies gives to Islamic opposition. According to Aytürk, as the post-Kemalist framework strengthened, all people and movements that Kemalist historiography had ignored or antagonized became “favorite subjects of the post-Kemalist academy.” Non-Muslim minorities, the Kurdish people, conservatives and Islamists were respectively at the center of the most prominent and successful books, articles and doctoral dissertations of the new era. Aytürk's most important remark is that post-Kemalism's sphere of influence is not limited to academic debates. Post-Kemalism has evolved into a broad coalition that includes liberals, a segment of the left, the conservative / Islamic right, and the Kurdish political movement. In Aytürk's words, post-Kemalism is an academic paradigm that paved the way for regime transformation after 2007 and created an environment in which the current political transition was possible. Aytürk's main claim is that this paradigm has come to an end.

3In this article, I aim to present a series of criticisms of Aytürk's proposal and thus participate in the debate Aytürk wishes to initiate. Before I start exposing my criticism, I must mention two benefits of Aytürk's article. First, I see the following as beneficial: the article entitled “Post-Post Kemalism: In search of a New Paradigm” is an attempt to evaluate and criticize the main orientation of the social sciences in Turkey. This effort should of course be heeded. If we agree that the social sciences cannot have the objectivity of the natural sciences, we must keep in mind the role of the following fact on this: each era brings to the fore a series of research questions and basic problematic. It is necessary to take a break from time to time from the agenda given by the period, and to comment on the general trends. Like nearly every academic pursuit, the social sciences are carried out by the formation of epistemic communities. An epistemic community signifies a communality of pre-assumptions, methodological perspectives, research agendas, and research questions. In some cases, universities, publishing houses, journals or conferences contribute to the formation and reproduction of epistemic communities. Every epistemic community has its opinion leaders and its classics. It will be stimulating for all of us to direct our critical attitude to the automatisms of our own epistemic community. The article “Post-post Kemalism” offers such an opportunity.

4There an additional benefit of the article by Aytürk. The literature on the early Republican period is saturated. Less studied topics are more likely to be found outside of (before or after) the early Republican period. On the other hand, the country has turned into such a mess that current issues are the urgent priority. To put it briefly, the current government has moved from competitive authoritarianism to totalitarian practices, with the July 15 coup attempt affecting many arenas, and the Syrian conundrum had been affecting so many things. In this context, the social sciences are trying to strike a balance between keeping track of what has happened and theorizing the recent events. It is also possible to read Aytürk's article as a comment on this saturation of the literature.

Can the critique of the literature be based on ideal types?

5After mentioning these two useful points in Aytürk's article, my aim is to widen the discussion with a series of criticisms. My first criticism is that Aytürk criticized the literature by constructing a post-Kemalist ideal type, drawing on Weber. Aytürk says that the post-Kemalism ideal type, like all ideal types, does not correspond to real-life post-Kemalists and ideas, but he still sees such a general definition as necessary in order to discuss the concept. Aytürk says: “It was in precisely this atmosphere that academics such as Mete Tunçay, Erik Jan Zürcher, Şerif Mardin, Nilüfer Göle, Büşra Ersanlı-Behar, Taha Parla, and Levent Köker believed that the only remedy for saving and emancipating Turkish society and politics from the crushing, suffocating state brought about by the military’s tyranny was to question and criticize our recent history in a holistic manner, deconstructing accepted assumptions.” When literature criticism is made with such thick brushstrokes, a picture emerges in which the level of detail is entirely lost. The proposed criticism does not concretely target any of the authors singularly and does not develop a reasonable dialogue with any of them (both in terms of observing the whole of their writings and proceeding with concrete references). One might easily reach the conclusion that all of these names “nurture and enhance identity politics” (p. 45). Saying at the outset that he will evaluate scholars in the social sciences and humanities on the same scale, Aytürk puts methodologically very different studies in the same category and labels them as “obsolete.” Is it possible for a sociologist and a historian to be considered in the same category when their methods, levels of analysis, the relationship they establish with social reality, and the way they generalize cases are so different? Let's take a look at Nilüfer Göle's The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling and Erik Jan Zürcher's The Unionist Factor: The Role of the Committee of Union and Progress in the Turkish National Movement 1905-1926. Can criticism of one be applied to the other by cut and paste? I do not think that Aytürk advocated a return to old-style Kemalist historiography with Mustafa Kemal’s The Speech at its center. But, for example, if we look at the book The Unionist Factor, Zürcher suggests that the Unionist underground network is the main actor that organized the armed resistance in Anatolia. It seems problematic to criticize Zürcher without first studying the memoires, correspondences and documents of the Unionists and national struggle commanders and concluding with an objection such as, “The Unionist underground network has not been as influential in the resistance movement as Zürcher argues.” It would be a more productive discussion to clarify which specific argument of Zürcher and which opinion in which book is being criticized.

  • 3 This criticism has been brought up in several works; for example, Kahraman 2008: 183.

6Putting different academic outputs on the same scale leads to ignore which arguments from which author are being already criticized in the existing literature. However, when proposing to announce the end of a paradigm, it is necessary to take into account which studies are being criticized to which extent. Let us take Şerif Mardin's center-periphery model. Is it possible to talk about the center-periphery model without mentioning all of the criticisms that have been made about it? It is beyond the scope of this article to summarize all of the criticisms of the center-periphery model. But the main idea of these criticisms should be mentioned. Perhaps the most important point of the criticisms of the center-periphery model is on its reductionism. Accordingly, the model accepts a clear and fixed boundary between the center and the periphery.3 Because of this, the model overlooks intertwined situations. To the extent that this model accepts the distinction as absolute, political and cultural channels described as the center can also, to a certain extent, be elements attributed to the periphery; likewise, the model ignores the fact that elements in the center can also exist in the periphery. Another criticism is that the model does not include class conflict and its dynamics to the analysis (Dinler 2003). We can think that Mardin’s principal aim in his academic journey was to respond to Orientalism. Some of his contributions do indeed provide an opportunity to go beyond Orientalist prejudices. However, to the extent that the center-periphery model reduced Ottoman society to the tension between the center and the periphery, it also suffered from the risk of falling into a kind of Orientalism. In addition, Mardin's writings on the center-periphery have been criticized for being silent on the topic of ethnic identities. Another criticism of the model states that institutions and political opinion, whose positions are accepted in the center or in the periphery, do not remain constant over time as the model predicts. For example, Alevis located in the periphery in most cases supported the CHP, which is seen as being in the center (Bakıner 2018).

7While reviewing the criticisms of Mardin, one should also look to the special issue “Which Center, Which Periphery?” published in Toplum ve Bilim. In their articles in this special issue, Suavi Aydın, Menderes Çınar, Fethi Açıkel and other authors make a comprehensive critique of the center-periphery model (Çınar 2006, Aydın 2006, Açıkel 2006). In his article, Açıkel criticizes Mardin's analysis by saying that it neglects the fact that the Islamic-conservative periphery is often derived from “near-center coordinates.” Açıkel also argues that Mardin's model has turned into a kind of revanchist tool in conservative circles, and that following Mardin’s culture-based readings, Islamic circles tend to reduce Ottoman-Republican history into a power struggle between secular and religious ideas. In other words, reductionism in Mardin's model could easily be used in political war of positions. Açıkel also states that the center-periphery model assumes that the institutions and political processes that characterize the 1930s and 1950s have an almost transcendent continuity. By assuming this continuity, the model popularizes the idea that the “analytical tools” that shed light on that period are still valid.

  • 4 At this point, a parenthetical remark is needed: Yes, the literature has focused heavily on the fou (...)

8We kept these criticisms in mind while preparing the special issue, “the 1970s: An Unclosed Paranthesis” for Toplum ve Bilim, in 2013. On the one hand, there was an abundance of literature on the single-party period, and as a result, other periods were not sufficiently studied. On the other hand, scholars in the literature adopted a schema in which a kind of transcendency is attributed to the one-party period. According to this schema, for example, if the subject is the CHP, commentators made their evaluation as if there is a single unchanging CHP from the single-party period until the 2000s. In other words, the leftist politics and grassroots mobilization adopted by the party in the 1970s are not taken into account in comments on the CHP (Turan 2013). Therefore, Aytürk is right in saying that the literature focuses heavily on the period 1908-1945 but that there are few studies examining the period 1945-1980.4 Yet, this criticism is not quite so new.

9The discussion we have here is necessarily a discussion about the relationship of the academic field to the field of politics. Precisely as Aytürk said, academic paradigms are not just academic paradigms. Is it possible and desirable for an academic to have an entirely autonomous intellectual agenda and products of research? Whether we answer no or yes to this question, it is not possible to argue that an academic, author or commentator will hide or manipulate his or her observations of social reality on the ground that they will function as the supportive argument of different political groups. Moreover, Şerif Mardin had pointed in 2007 the neighborhood pressure, and mentioned the possibility that AKP is doing some secret plans, which are incompatible with democracy, also said that it was not unlikely that Turkey is turning into Malaysia. While discussing the reflections of Mardin's model into the political field in the 2000s, another point should be taken into account: although Mardin did not attribute democratic or tolerant qualities to the “periphery”, those who spoke about the center-periphery analysis in the political field made this addendum to the model according to their own political inclinations (Bakıner 2018).

10The reason why I include so extensively criticisms of Mardin's center-periphery model into my discussion is the following: it is not possible to determine the trends in a literature without considering the criticisms about a certain study or model. The drawback of criticizing the literature over ideal types emerges here. When a debate is presented without taking into account the criticism, the debate does not mark the difference between arguments that been subjected to extensive criticism and those that have not met such criticism after they were published. This difference is important when making a call about which direction the literature should develop. When Mardin published his center-periphery model in the 1970s, some social scientists in Turkey were still seeing the May 27 coup favorably. Mardin's work, which was published in this context, has significant value. The tension between the center and the periphery provided a basis to understand Turkey’s democratic deficit for many years. But to include Mardin’s work in a discussion today without taking into account criticisms already made about it will not produce a productive debate.

11One of Aytürk's main claims is therefore far from being convincing, since he criticizes the literature on ideal types, ignoring the details. According to Aytürk, post-Kemalism’s diagnosis of Turkey’s unending tutelage problem is incorrect. He claims that post-Kemalists’ treatment for this diagnosis, which will bring about the end of Kemalist tutelage, is to use the democratic rights of two large masses that had been pushed out of the system by the Kemalist elite — namely, conservative Muslims and Kurds — to rally to the center and establish a democratic Turkey. To Aytürk, just like the diagnosis, the prescribed treatment is also wrong. Here, we must recall that Mardin does not attribute a democratic perspective to the “periphery” and does not mention about Kurds. We must then say that in order to better discuss this argument, we should focus on what certain authors noted on certain dates. Among the names mentioned by Aytürk, there are certainly those who have considered that the AKP’s electoral victory as moment of democratization or who have declared support for the AKP’s policies at different times. But is it possible to generalize without recalling which names supported or disagreed with which specific AKP policy? Or to put it like this: Does it discredit what an author says about Kemalism if that author favored a solution in Cyprus within the framework of the Annan Plan, declared support for the peace process that started in 2013, or made a statement against the closure trial of AKP in 2008?

  • 5 Among the works that sit outside of this consensus, one of the most striking ones is Metin Heper's (...)

12As Aytürk continues his discussion, he states that Büşra Ersanlı's book İktidar ve Tarih: Türkiye'de "Resmî Tarih" Tezinin Oluşumu (1929-1937) (Power and History: The Formation of "Official History” Thesis in Turkey) paved the way to question the thesis that, “Turkish nationalism is actually an inclusive, civic nationalism.” Aytürk’s implication here is rather vague. Despite this ambiguity, we can infer that Aytürk finds Ersanlı's argument problematic. The thesis that, “Turkish nationalism is a civic nationalism” is itself a thesis of Turkish nationalism, a way of defining itself. While Turkish nationalism defines itself as civic and inclusive as a general rote, it accuses other nationalisms (e.g. Kurdish nationalism) of ethnic nationalism. In fact, what we encounter here is something similar to ideologies accuse each other of being ideological, as underscored by Althusser. Social sciences literature in Turkey, both mainstream and critical, have for quite a long time been able to survive without problematizing the nationalist discourse. However, later literature developed an awareness of the drawbacks of methodological nationalism and went beyond it, even turn it into an object of analysis. Ersanlı's book might be seen as an important milestone in overcoming methodological nationalism. There is currently a consensus that Turkish nationalism is an ethnic nationalism, although it was built on a series of paradoxical syntheses (Yıldız 2001).5 One should not cluster the studies that have often been criticized together with those that have not on the same level, without mentioning this consensus.

The insight from historical sociology

  • 6 Summarizing the literature on this subject is well beyond the limits of a footnote. But a very part (...)

13My second criticism is this: in his article, Aytürk claims that the greatest mistake of the post-Kemalist approach is “to downplay the importance of the factors that gave birth to Kemalism and, before it, Unionism (İttihatçılık), failing to investigate the origins, impetus, and manner in which the societal groups that held these ideas emerged and also failing to problematize this very important starting point.” This claim is also quite problematical because it does not take into account the main trends of the literature. First of all, it is necessary to mention that, as Aytürk emphasized, there has long been a consensus on how Unionism and Kemalism took shape in the same context. This consensus means leaving behind a historiography centered on Mustafa Kemal’s The Speech and shows that it is not possible to analyze how the nation-state we live in was established without taking into account the continuity in the transition from Unionism to the Republic. Considering the accumulation of literature on this issue, the criticism that the conditions that gave rise to Kemalism and Unionism have been downgraded cannot be regarded as fair. Let us say that these conditions include the expansionist rivalry of the European Great Powers and the separatist revolts of the nations within the Ottoman Empire (and the loss of land caused by the interaction between the two). The forces that shaped these conditions have already been thoroughly examined, primarily in studies inspired by the world-system perspective of the late Wallerstein (it would suffice to recall the books of Şevket Pamuk and Çağlar Keyder). Şükrü Hanioğlu, who follows a different historiographical school from the world-systems perspective, examines in detail how the Committee of Union and Progress was born out of a reaction to European imperialism. More specifically, the current literature also details how the context of the Balkan Wars (along with the preceding period) impacted the emergence of Turkish nationalism.6

  • 7 While putting this bit aside, it seems essential to note that the introduction of structural violen (...)

14Aytürk continues his claim: “For the most part I agree with the Post-Kemalists’ criticism of the early Republican Era. However, I break from the Post-Kemalists on the following point: I find almost every problematic issue criticized in the period between 1908 and 1945 both before 1908 and after 1945. For this reason, it is difficult for me to understand why we have only focused on this period. I believe that, in the same way the Kemalists exaggerate the extent and impact of the Kemalist revolution in order to be able to praise this period to their heart’s’ content, the post-Kemalists similarly exaggerated it to whet their own appetites.” What does it mean that every problematic act existed before and after the aforementioned period? Let us leave the “before” aside7; which event could we choose from after 1945 for a social engineering on the scale of the collective violence of the Armenian genocide or the compulsory population exchange? Let us ask the same question for the 1937-1938 military operation in Dersim: How many thousands of civilians were killed by state forces within the scope of that operation, and was there a similar massacre after 1945? I think that the statement, “I find almost every problematic issue criticized in the period between 1908 and 1945 both before 1908 and after 1945” lacks intellectual and academic rigor. Especially expressions like “to criticize to their own appetite” are highly inappropriate; this statement gives the impression that the Armenian genocide, the civilian massacre in Dersim, or other “problematic acts” are deliberately distorted, being deliberately viewed as bigger than they are. It is certainly not possible to agree with this take.

15Aytürk later makes one of his main arguments: “post-Kemalist literature’s emphasis on ‘the early republic as original sin’ has acquitted the other periods of our recent (and distant) history, leaving all of the non-Kemalist tutelary actors with a spotless record.” He also raises the following question: “were the ruling classes of the Ottomans, Seljuks, Karakhanids, Ghaznavids, Uyghurs, Göktürks and Huns not incomparably more elitist than the Kemalists?”” Aytürk finds it wrong to place all the blame for democratization issues in our recent history on Kemalism. According to Aytürk, “The Kemalists may be perceived as a part, a link in the chain, of the problem of tutelage in a political tradition already spanning a few thousand years, but not as its only source.” This is a question about how to establish a causality relationship. The period under consideration must not be too short (a longue durée analysis, as it is called in Western languages) so that we can incorporate causal relationships that were at first overlooked. Certainly, it cannot be argued that the longer the period under consideration, the longer we go back into the past, the stronger we will find the causal relationship. When we go back thousands of years in order to better understand types of politics or elitism in the contemporary period, we are left with no traceable continuity in institutions or ideas, but only an analysis based on culture (in this sense a culturalist analysis). Let us leave aside the Ghaznavids in Transoxiana of the 11th century, it is possible to comment on the impact of the Ottoman Empire in the classical period on today's state and society relations and on political culture — but only if we are cautious.

16Right at this point, I think we need the insight from historical sociology. What it tells us is that, as modern society was established, the state increased its capacity to control. The state-citizen relationship in this new era recreates a series of social facts considered within the framework of cultural continuity (e.g. language, gender codes, army, property relations, etc.). In other words, most elements of the social system we live in took shape during the long 19th century, even though invented traditions have circulated different narratives on continuity. Therefore, when analyzing a recent situation, such as tutelary politics, thousands of years of analysis does not help us see the picture more clearly.

  • 8 In a joint work with Güven Gürkan Öztan, we discussed how the liquidated abandoned properties were (...)

17In addition to taking general insight from this historical sociology literature, we could take Charles Tilly's perspective into account in order to analyze the society in Turkey and its state structure. Tilly's work, published in the 1980s (Tilly 1985), highlights the role of war in the state-building process. According to Tilly, the process of war also enables the process of building a new state. The activities of war making, state making, protection and extraction of resources reinforce each other, allowing for the emergence of the organized violence of the war environment. The medium of war often invalidates previous political and legal frameworks and allows for radical decisions on in which group to protect and which resources will be controlled by whom and how. Following Tilly, we may consider that every major war meant a restructuring of the state. The impact of the Crimean War in the middle of the 19th century on the Ottoman Empire was on this scale, and the reform package dictated by Britain in the context of this war directly reshaped the structure of the state. The nation-state structure we currently live in was shaped during the 10-year war period between 1912-1922. This period, which started with the First Balkan War and ended with the Turkish Army's entry into Izmir in September 1922, marked a time of crisis in state capacity and sovereignty. The strategy followed during these 10 years to exit from the crisis reveals various differentiations. For example, Ottoman politics were not the same before and after the Bab-ı Ali coup 1913. Similarly, the space reserved for different voices in the first Grand National Assembly that gathered in Ankara and in the following Assemblies is not the same. However, the strategy created to overcome the crisis of sovereignty is essentially a nation-state building project. Within the scope of this project, nationalism was popularized as a way of thinking and perceiving the world; and with reference to this viewpoint friends and foes were defined. Going back to Tilly, the way in which groups were protected and resources were reallocated during the 10-year war helped preparing the inside of the imagined borders to become a nation-state. For example, the ancient Christian communities of Anatolia were deprived of protection. A series of formal and informal policies were implemented to purge territories of Christian communities. The abandoned properties that they left were handed over to both the state and the Muslims who were seen as “acceptable citizens.”8

  • 9 When it comes to re-establishment, one must not consider the break presumed by the Kemalist histori (...)

18The diplomatic guarantee in Lausanne Peace Treaty to the military success of 1922 gave significant legitimacy to the rulers of the state during the single-party period. The Kemalist government saw the solution to the sovereignty crisis, which reached its peak in the 1912-1922 period, in three intertwined integration projects that were political, ethnic and cultural. These integration projects helped realize the transition from empire to nation-state and re-establish the state.9 Political integration was achieved through the establishment of the single-party system (and the accompanying unification of the party and state), the enactment of the Law on the Maintenance of Order and the promotion of corporatism at the level of ideas. Within the framework of ethnic integration goal, policies such as the Eastern Reform Plan, the Thrace Pogrom, the Dersim Military Operation of 1937-1938, the Wealth Tax, and restrictions on languages other than Turkish were carried out. Within the scope of cultural integration, policies such as alphabet reform, the Turkish History Thesis, and the Turkish Music Revolution were made. Top-downism can be observed in all three integration projects. All three projects also narrowed the political field. Just as the radical moves made in 1912-1922 regarding which groups will be protected and how resources will be distributed had lasting effects on society and the state, all three integration projects also had long-lasting effects. In this context, we must not banalize the single-party period as “one of the periods of the past,” but rather to acknowledge it as the foundational moment, whose impact would last through various periods.

Exaggerating the power of academic criticism

19Aytürk states that the post-Kemalism framework has reached the end of the road. According to Aytürk, this perspective has been dominant since the first year of AKP rule, meaning that since 2002 it has departed from its oppositional stance and assumed power. Furthermore, he argues that this paradigm paved the way for change in the regime after 2007 and contributed to an environment that allowed for political transition in 2015. The gist of Aytürk’s proposal underestimates the impact of Kemalism on Turkey while exaggerating the effect of the criticisms of Kemalism. The claim that post-Kemalism paved the way for regime change after 2007 can be interpreted as overestimating the power of an academic or intellectual perspective.

20Here, we go back to the question of the autonomy of the academic or intellectual agenda from the everyday tensions of politics. Various examples remind us that it is useful to keep distance from everyday political tension. Let us look at one of the founding books in the literature that we have discussed here, Mete Tunçay’s Türkiye Cumhuriyeti’nde Tek-Parti Yönetimi’nin Kurulması: 1923-1931 (The Establishment of Single-Party Rule in the Turkish Republic). This book was published as the first book of Yurt Publishing in 1981, on precisely the darkest days of September 12 military junta. In other words, it has been read during different political environments over almost 40 years. In 1991, exactly 10 years after Tunçay's book appeared, Fikret Başkaya’s book Paradigmanın İflası: Resmi İdeolojinin Eleştirisine Giriş (The Bankruptcy of a Paradigm: Introduction to a Criticism of Official Ideology) was published. The political situation had changed significantly compared to 1981, but Başkaya was sentenced to 20 months in prison for his book and he went to prison. Coming to the AKP era, let me point out two important archives published by the Tarih Vakfı (History Foundation). The first is the archive of Fahri Çoker, who served as a judge in the military court established in 1955 regarding the September 6-7 Pogrom. Çoker donated his archive to the Tarih Vakfı to be published after his death and passed away in 2001. The photos in the archive are published in 2005 (the 50th anniversary of September 6-7 Pogrom), and the idea is put forward to simultaneously organize an exhibition. The proposal also arises for the government to support the exhibition by taking a symbolic step to come to terms with the past. The prime minister of the time Tayyip Erdoğan does not see the proposal favorably (Gümüş 2011). A group chanting “Death to the traitors” raids the opening of the exhibition, jointly organized by Karşı Sanat and Tarih Vakfı, and tears up the photographs.

21In 2010, Tarih Vakfı begins to publish the archive of Necmettin Sahir Sılan. The published volumes, which will reach five in the coming years, significantly expand what is known about the official view on Kurds in the early Republican period and the Dersim Military Operation. Then, in November 2011, Prime Minister Erdoğan announced that 13,806 people were killed in Dersim between 1936-1939. He shared four archival documents on the topic with the public and quite hesitantly said, “If it is need to apologize on behalf of the state, if there is this kind of literature, then I would apologize, I do apologize.” What can we say about the cause of this apology? It is likely not possible to explain it with the archive that the Tarih Vakfı had started to publish. Where we must look, instead, is at the AKP's efforts to corner the main opposition party, the CHP. While a general meeting was held in parliament for a democratic initiative announced by the government in 2009, the CHP Deputy General Chairperson Onur Öymen, making a speech on behalf of his party, said, “Did mothers not cry in the Dersim uprising?” His statement was met with a reaction from people from Dersim. In May 2011, the new CHP chairman became Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is from Dersim. These two events were seen in the AKP camp as opportunities to be exploited.

22It should be emphasized that Erdoğan has long regarded criticism of the single-party era in connection to his old ideological stance (embodied in the days of the Refah Party) and as a way to prove the AKP's conservative claim to democracy. This effort still continues. This view mostly targets the period in which İnönü was the president. For critics of Atatürk, the period of the National Chief İnönü is an easier target. However, just like the Dersim massacre or the Lausanne Treaty, the Atatürk period is also on the radar of critics. An important influence in forming Erdoğan and his team's view of history is the writings of Necip Fazıl Kısakürek (Bora 2017b: 363, Dağlıoğlu 2019). Just as Necip Fazıl has inspired an attitude that glorifies the Abdülhamid period, he had a similar effect in criticism of the Dersim massacre. While Erdoğan made his hesitant apology for Dersim, he was holding in his hand Necip Fazıl’s book Son Devrin Din Mazlumları (Oppressed Ulema of the Last Period).

  • 10 I have already discussed elsewhere how the AKP's view of history was reflected over the struggle on (...)

23Nevertheless, it cannot be said that the AKP’s criticism for the single party period is only instrumental. This criticism has an important place in the political imagination of the party cadres and leaders. This political imagination partially simplifies Şerif Mardin’s “cultural alienation” thesis and sees the secular social reality observed at the societal level as the result of the interventions of the elitist / tutelary governments of the past. To the extent that the AKP puts Islamic identity at the center of its political imagination, it sees secular reality as a result of the state's top-down modernization project. According to this approach, the secular socialities observed today are the result of the repressive practices of the state at some point in history.10 This view does not accept that society has sought a genuine secular life through its own evolution. In fact, while it attaches importance to responding to Western Orientalist prejudices, this point of view reduces Turkey to an Islamic identity, repeating precisely the same prejudicial errors.

24We observe contextual changes and even drift in the AKP's discourse regarding the single-party period due to the synthesis of these ideological roots and the logic of instrumentalization. In some cases, no significant moves are made despite criticisms are expressed. The hesitant apology about Dersim is an example for this. It is also possible to recall what Erdoğan says about the Lausanne Treaty as an example of inconsistency. In some of his speeches, Erdoğan said, “some people also have tried to deceive us by referring to Lausanne as a victory” (for example, in September 29, 2016), and other times he refers to Lausanne as the “independence epic” (istiklâl destanı) (for example, in July 24, 2017). Within the framework of instrumental logic, AKP leaders hardly ever refer to September 6-7 pogrom of the Menderes period.

  • 11 Özgür Kaya also notes that the AKP's position vis-à-vis the Atatürk figure has evolved from being c (...)

25After July 15, 2016 a change is observed in Erdoğan's references to Atatürk. He does not entirely shelve criticism, but he often speaks of Mustafa Kemal with praise. After the start of the post-July 15 period, Erdoğan ended a rally in the “spirit of Yenikapı” emphasizing his title of commander-in-chief. He said that what has been seen on July 15 in all cities of Turkey resembled the faith that helped veteran Mustafa Kemal start and win the War of Independence. While explaining that the nation would not accept captivity, he added, “Look, Ghazi Mustafa Kemal, the founder of our Republic, used to say this during those dark days when most of the country, especially Istanbul and Izmir, were under occupation in 1920…”11 In the following days, the emphases in the celebration of national holidays were modified to some extent.

26To sum up, the decision on whether to abandon academic criticism of Kemalism, which are also supported by Aytürk, should not be evaluated on the basis of daily political polemics and disputes; because the equilibrium of everyday politics is changing quite rapidly. When we think about it, even after Aytürk's article appeared in Birikim in 2015, the balances have in some ways changed. Moreover, we see that the relationship the AKP has established with criticisms of Kemalism is complex, and it cannot be consistent in every case.

  • 12 It is necessary to consider this point with Erdoğan’s statements in particular speeches, saying tha (...)

27To underline once again, it always seems necessary to assert the autonomy of the academic agenda from the political situation. Autonomy means maintaining a distance that makes academic activities more than about commenting on everyday polemics. When we come to 2019, do we have too many reasons to be pessimistic and to think that this autonomy, this distance, has disappeared? I have mentioned the studies on the September 6-7 Pogrom. Does the rise on the agenda of this stain in the Menderes period fit with the AKP's instrumental expectations? And yet, academia and civil society are making modest efforts to bring this episode to the agenda. We should also mention that our knowledge on the subject has increased. We can observe a similar situation with regard to studies on the Armenian Genocide. There are many reasons why, during period of the AKP government (some of them stemming from Turkey, others from the international context), studies on 1915 have increased in number and visibility. Despite this increase, the government is apparently far away from influencing the perspective of new studies, since its approach to 1915 is based on a call for just memory and placing the deportation next to the Dardanelles War. It is possible to make a similar observation in Kurdology studies. In other words, the topics studied by the critical social sciences are expanding.12

In Lieu of Conclusion

28The question that Aytürk raised and addressed is important; because we know that questions posed in the social sciences, and sources and methods adopted are related to the period in which the study was conducted. Each period brings up its own questions and priority issues. In this sense, it should be remembered that every generation pursues its own questions. Aytürk’s writings permit those of us who write and expound on Turkey to identify our “great questions.” Aytürk's call to further investigate non-Kemalist tutelage actors must also be noted.

29At the end of his article, Aytürk states that he does not have a clear answer to the question of “What will we put in its place?” and offers suggestions in a more cautious tone. However, the emphasis on the “new paradigm” that the reader encounters starting with the title of the article is very clear and powerful. This basic question must be discussed when considering his suggestions for a new paradigm: Is a new paradigm necessary, as Aytürk suggests, for literature of studies on Turkey? Or is it necessary, instead, to think about how the gradual transformation of critical social science will progress? Needless to say, taking a stand on the new paradigm means supporting the proposal for rupture. Gradual transformation means taking seriously the space that existing critical literature has opened up against official / Kemalist / mainstream studies.

  • 13 We must not be unfair to the interview with İnsel in 1991. At that time, İnsel said, “Let us not be (...)

30Regarding this fundamental question, two points must be taken into account. First, we must look at what kind of criticism has been made of pioneering works in the current literature. That is why, in the above discussion, I touched upon the main points of criticism of Şerif Mardin's center-periphery approach. Secondly, it is necessary to take into account traces of gradual transformation in the literature and the commentary and proposals made about them. For example, Mesut Yeğen, commenting on the ideological hegemony of Kemalism in 2001, said that the ghosts of Kemalism had reached all sides of Turkey's politics. This is why he suggested that it was more tempting to give up “continuing to talk about Kemalism as if it corresponded to an objectivity that can be limited and pointed out.” For example, let us compare what Ahmet İnsel said about Kemalism in the early 1990s with what he said in 2005. In his article for Radikal 2 on November 10, İnsel emphasized that Mustafa Kemal should be assessed without slipping into a reaction against the worship around his name (İnsel 2005). İnsel's proposal is as political as it is academic. According to İnsel, it is essential to make an even-minded assessment of left-leaning thought on Atatürk in Turkey. In order to criticize the figure of Atatürk, which is in the position of an official cult, İnsel says that it is necessary to avoid treating this historical personality as a poem of negativity.13 By presenting the literature in thick brushstrokes, Aytürk excludes both the accumulated criticism and any sign of gradual change from the discussion. As such, it must be said that his proposal for a new paradigm is not convincing.

31Eventually, our macro concern is about the long-lasting democratic deficit in Turkey, it is about the democracy which fails to consolidate itself, it is about the pluralism which is not accepted as the norm. While considering this question, we will of course not leave aside the current dire situation; however, when evaluating the criticisms of Kemalism, we should not only focus on recent authoritarian tendencies. If Turkey was unable to reach democratic stability in the period from the founding of the republic to the 2000s, then we must trace a decisive share of it to Kemalism’s top-downism that allowed for the restriction of rights and freedoms. This decisiveness is not just the fact that Kemalism justified coups. More importantly, as tutelage institutions like the National Security Council held constitutional status, a basis was also created for an interventionist understanding of secularism (this understanding is at the same time against the headscarf at the university and is suspicious of the demands of Alevis). Thus, Kemalism provided continuity for the raison d’état — which sees the growing visibility of Armenian, Kurdish or Alevi identities as a threat to unity and solidarity — making Kemalism one of the main causes leading to an incomplete democracy in Turkey. Its long-term effects were also seen in all three integration projects (in the political, ethnic and cultural fields) that marked the establishment period. The net effect was a narrowing of the sphere of politics, rights and freedoms.

  • 14 On the front to push Kemalist NGOs to change, see: Borovalı, Boyraz 2015: 435-444.
  • 15 “Ardahan'da ‘Atatürk Silueti’ görülmeye başlandı”,, 29 May 2019.

32Since the 1990s, there have been efforts to reformulate Kemalism in a way that does not contradict democracy (Turan 2001). The Gezi Park resistance also brought a different political horizon to a new generation Kemalists; in this sense, differentiations and new pursuits in Kemalism should be taken into account. As Tanıl Bora said on this particular question, it is beneficial to differentiate (Bora 2017a). However, when we look at four snapshots from 2019, we see that the old rote in Kemalism is still strong. In the first snapshot: After the 2019 local elections, when the Dersim sign is hung in the Tunceli Municipality, the president of the Atatürkist Thought Association (ADD), Hüseyin Emre Altınışık, objects to the removal of the name Tunceli, given by Atatürk, and sues in the administrative court requesting its annulment.14 (Let us also note that the head of the ADD’s Kütahya branch, Ruhsen Kumdalı, told the headquarters, “So what if it’s Tunceli or Dersim?”) Second snapshot: on August 18, Fazıl Say shows his support to the Water and Conscience Watch by giving a concert in the Kaz Mountains. When the concert ends with the İzmir Anthem, some listeners are heard shouting the slogan, “We are Mustafa Kemal's soldiers.” Third snapshot: The Cumhuriyet newspaper publishes the news that Atatürk’s silhouette — which emerges in the hilly area of Damal, a district of Ardahan, between June 15 and July 15 — is observed early this year.15 In the article, it is noted that the “Damal Festivities in the Footsteps and Shadow of Atatürk” have been held in July every year since 1995 and that readers are invited to Ardahan to see this immortal moment. Fourth snapshot: Levent Üzümcü, who has more than four million followers, shares the message, “Any person who does not love Atatürk, who does not advance and share his ideas and ideals, is the greatest traitor of this country” on his social media account. We can think of these four snapshots within the framework of Esra Özyürek's concept of “voluntary Kemalism against forced Kemalism.” (Özyürek 2008). Despite the fact that official support is not at its previous level, the way of contemplating and perceiving the world popularized by Kemalism, its accompanying definition of friends and enemies and its cult of personality still have an important sphere of influence. While considering criticisms of Kemalism at the academic level, it is necessary to take into account the continuity of this sphere of influence. The voluntary Kemalism is still a milieu where uneasiness against difference, whether in identity or thought, is still expressed.

33Our great issue is that Turkey has a democratic deficit, that pluralism exists in Turkish society yet cannot become a norm in politics, and that militarism still considered a problem-solving method. Within the scope of this great issue, our basic research questions are still on Turkey's modernization journey, state-citizen relations within this journey, and the effects of different forms of struggle on politics and distribution mechanisms. At the beginning of the 1990s, Korkut Boratav encouraged the use of all kinds of empirical material about “the internal history of classes and of social groupings, particularly on the day-to-day struggles of various groups.” According to Boratav, it would be incomplete to limit factual materials to statistics and surveys; sociological and anthropological field studies, oral history, and journalistic and even literary contributions must also be used (Boratav 1990). It is evident that the literature has progressed in this direction in the past 30 years. However, it is not possible to say that all of the possibilities offered by these materials have been exploited. Still, in time, we must try to make an effort to bring together fact and fiction, as Joel Migdal recommended for studies on Turkey’s modernization (Migdal 1998). In other words, new studies are needed in order to understand how the macro projects of the state (such as city planning or elite institutions), which Migdal summarizes as fiction, intersect with social reality, which Migdal summarizes as fact. It is still necessary to challenge the strong state assumption of the literature and to back this objection empirically. We observe that studies have tried for a while to go beyond the state-centered analysis. However, to the extent that the recent process of democratic distancing and authoritarian turn reshapes competition in the state arena, it also raises new paradoxes that must be analyzed. As far as I can see, these are the issues on which our generation as social scientists should offer a perspective.

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1 This article was first published at Birikim 366, October 2019.

2 There were also others who paid attention to the debate opened by Aytürk; for instance: Bora 2017a.

3 This criticism has been brought up in several works; for example, Kahraman 2008: 183.

4 At this point, a parenthetical remark is needed: Yes, the literature has focused heavily on the foundational period and the single-party period and other periods have been overshadowed by this interest. However, it would be wrong to think that all issues related to the single-party period have been exhausted. A number of historical events from this period await in-depth academic writing. For example, how many monographs do we have about the 1930 Mount Ağrı Rebellion? When will we read details on the process of the renunciation of rights offered to Jewish, Armenian, and Greek communities in Article 42 of the Peace Treaty of Lausanne? Or, once the Archive of Ministry of Foreign Affairs is opened to the public — as has long been announced — how will studies on this period gain momentum? All things aside, when will an editorial critique of Mustafa Kemal’s The Speech be published? It is possible to pose many more of such questions.

5 Among the works that sit outside of this consensus, one of the most striking ones is Metin Heper's book; see: Heper 2008 and 2007. Heper's book is astonishing in that it is written as if there were no extensive literature on this subject (we must consider a long list, from Martin Van Bruinessen and İsmail Beşikçi to Mesut Yeğen and Hamit Bozarslan).

6 Summarizing the literature on this subject is well beyond the limits of a footnote. But a very partial list can give an idea of how large an inclusive list would be: Bora 1997b, Üstel 1997, Millas 2000, Dündar 2001, Zürcher 2003 and 2008, Georgeon 2002, Köroğlu 2004, Öztan 2013, Kılıç 2015.

7 While putting this bit aside, it seems essential to note that the introduction of structural violence on the scale of genocide, or social engineering on the scale of population exchange, became possible only after the tools of the modern state apparatus were invented. Thereby, the state developed new capacities to intervene in society.

8 In a joint work with Güven Gürkan Öztan, we discussed how the liquidated abandoned properties were used to increase the state capacity; see: Turan, Öztan 2018.

9 When it comes to re-establishment, one must not consider the break presumed by the Kemalist historiography. Re-establishment took place with a distinct continuity in the bureaucratic apparatus.

10 I have already discussed elsewhere how the AKP's view of history was reflected over the struggle on urban space with a focus on the Artillery Barracks and Gezi Park; see: Turan 2013. The transfer of some of the remaining buildings from the Bomonti Brewery to the Directorate of Religious Affairs in September 2019 is an example of the same space-based revanchism.

11 Özgür Kaya also notes that the AKP's position vis-à-vis the Atatürk figure has evolved from being challenged and defense to compromise and balance. According to Kaya, the AKP has always aimed to corner the CHP with an emphasis on Kemalism based on activism; see Kaya 2019. This change has also caused controversy within the Islamic and conservative community; see for example “Post-Kemalizm’den Neo-Kemalizm’e” 2017. When we look at Umran’s dossier, we see that even circles that are uneasy about this change express views articulating this transformation.

12 It is necessary to consider this point with Erdoğan’s statements in particular speeches, saying that they have not achieved enough progress in the context of “culture”. For a breakdown of these explanations, see Gürsel 2019.

13 We must not be unfair to the interview with İnsel in 1991. At that time, İnsel said, “Let us not become obsessed with Kemalism and seek Kemalism behind every evil.” In İnsel's words, when Kemalism becomes an obsession, there can be a risk of missing other tendencies in society that should be criticized; see: Cinemre, Çakır 1991.

14 On the front to push Kemalist NGOs to change, see: Borovalı, Boyraz 2015: 435-444.

15 “Ardahan'da ‘Atatürk Silueti’ görülmeye başlandı”,, 29 May 2019.

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Electronic reference

Ömer Turan, The Quest for a New Paradigm or the Insight from Historical SociologyEuropean Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 35 | 2022, Online since 15 January 2023, connection on 16 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Ömer Turan

İstanbul Bilgi University, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Department of International Relations

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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